Some foreign journalist in the Czech Republic

After 15 years I don’t have any delusions that I will ‘fit in’ in the Czech Republic, and maybe I don’t want to. There is, after all, some freedom to being an outsider.

Photho: Jiří Zralý/Creative Commons


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I came to live in the Czech Republic just before the turn of the millennium, I can’t remember quite when. I suppose I was looking to turn over a new leaf, open a new chapter so to speak.

I had been reporting for around 10 years in Brussels, mostly on the EU institutions, and was bored seeing some of the same directive and proposals coming up for renewal with the same optimistic gloss put on almost everything proposed, compromised, and then decided. What was proposed at the start often did not often look like what came out at the end – it was a bit like an animal designed by committee. That did not really matter, the final spin could cover almost every result.

I’d been several times to the Czech Republic on holidays and it looked raw, but exciting. There seemed to be a lot of potential and optimism but, with only a smattering of Czech based on evening courses in Brussels, I could not connect up most of the dots.

How was it that political parties had been created relatively quickly from almost nothing? How were they financed? Why had Czechoslovakia split so suddenly? Why were the banks in such a mess and what were these strange investment funds?

The pieces, along with my Czech, began to fit together slowly, helped along by my personal experiences. The fundamental personal experience, and probably the biggest reason I am still here, has been the purchase of a former water mill near Mariánské Lázně and the trials and tribulations of trying to restore it. Whatever problems Peter Mayle, 1 may think he had in Provence are nothing to the trail of Pat and Mat 2 workmen who have tramped through the mill with big promises and disappointing, almost disastrous, results.

There was the drainage man for instance. He was good at wells, but probably got too ambitious and eventually turned into a self proclaimed fixer for every problem in the building sector. The botched electric works resulted in massive electricity bills for several months as a boiler bubbled continuously before we got it sorted out. We had at first thought there was a mistake with the electric bills and we would be refunded but that was not the case. I was later told the police investigated some of the dubious electric work at other sites. I am surprised in retrospect the police didn’t descend at the mill thinking that there was some serious illegal cannabis growing going on.

Elsewhere, the wrong sort of grit was used for some other work and had to be replaced. I could go on. I usually think of a saying I heard on my travels in Vietnam in this context: the foreigner is a big cash tree; he must be shaken for the money to fall.

Professionally, I have worked for a series of media companies, some Czech some foreign. The bosses for one Czech billionaire who decided he wanted some media toys made promises about independence that were never kept and I walked after a few months. Another billionaire’s publication seemed primarily aimed at tarnishing his soon to be political opponents and creating a supply of talent for the Czech mainstream media he would eventually buy. He decided to close the English language service and I walked as well.

In the Czech public broadcasting sector, where I now work, the rhetoric still ticks the usual public service and independence boxes, but I suspect the reality is somewhat less. Public broadcasters often appear cowed by the politicians, who are sometimes the indirect paymasters as well.

Overall, Czech workers appear to have an unquestioning attitude to authority and, on the other side, bosses don’t appear to believe they should consult too much or be answerable for their actions or performances. Orders are orders and if that’s how they want it that’s how they will, probably grudgingly, get is, seems to be the order of the day.

As a whole I get the impression that collective action, whether for narrow demands about wages or conditions, or broader ideals about society and the environment have largely been tarnished by the Communist past and are rejected by a largely selfish society. I usually have to explain to most visitors from the West that Czech average wages are around a third of their own and if you don’t get a smile from someone working the same hours as you but getting paid a lot less, that’s probably one of the reasons.

I’m afraid this all sounds pretty negative. Maybe, I was fooled by the Václav Havel dream of something different evolving than Wild West capitalism where a rich state was pillaged by the few at the cost of the many. Well, there’s not so much left to be pillaged any more apart from through the run of the mill public contracts and tenders.

After 15 years I don’t have any delusions that I will ‘fit in’ in the Czech Republic, and maybe I don’t want to. There is, after all, some freedom to being an outsider. I had to go to the government offices this week, spoke Czech and presented my Czech Radio pass at the reception. “There’s some foreign journalist for you” was the announcement over the phone. It might perhaps be better if I sought a new pass simply announcing ‘Some foreign journalist’ instead of my name.

Notes:

  1. „Peter Mayle is a British author famous for his series of books detailing life in Provence, France. He relocated from Devon to France which resulted in his 1989 book A Year in Provence.“ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Mayle.
  2. „Pat & Mat (Czech: A je to!, ) is a Czech stop-motion animated series featuring two handymen. It was created by Lubomír Beneš and Vladimír Jiránek.“ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_%26_Mat.
Chris Johnstone

Chris Johnstone

began in journalism in Britain and then covered the European Commission and European institutions for almost 10 years. In 1999, he quit Brussels for Prague and then was offered a job on a local English-language paper. He joined Radio Prague in 2009.