“Prague never lets you go,” Franz Kafka once famously said. “This dear little mother has sharp claws.” And he’s right. There’s something about the city of Prague that just sticks with you, whether you’re a first time traveler or a seasoned expatriate.
For some, it may be the classical beauty, art nouveau architecture, rich history, or the seamless manner in which the city remains wonderfully preserved. For others, this city, like the protagonist Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, morphs and takes on a new larger-than life form; A form that resonates with and claims a certain breed of expatriates.
Skip Potts is a versatile, eclectic Jack-of-All-Trades. He’s a former Mathematics student who walked across America: a well-respected Teacher Trainer in Prague; an innovative entrepreneur with an eye for expat niche markets. He’s felt at home from the moment he first set foot in Prague and now lives here with his wife and dog.
“The first time I got off the train here I felt like I was home. I had never felt particularly at home in the USA, but for whatever reason I felt like this was just where I was supposed to be. I went home for a few years after visiting here, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that I thought about Prague everyday,” Potts said.
Brian Policoff is a musician, student, and property management entrepreneur who felt an immediate connection to Prague, and feeds off of the energy of the constantly rotating but always-diverse expatriate crowd.
The expatriate crowd is so internationally, diverse, and as Brian put it, “self selecting.” The ones that stay are not the ones who mope around seeking a way out. It’s the ones who feel a profound connection with the city. “With an expatriate crowd like this, I am never at a loss for inspiration” Brian says.
“This city,” as Brian notes, “is filled with passionate people who are living their lives now, not necessarily desperately trying to make ends meet or biting down and making it through another miserable day of a job they hate.”
Brian’s words resonate with me.
While working as a Job Guidance and Admissions Coordinator (and part time tour guide) for a TEFL school in Prague, I had the pleasure of meeting 15-25 excited new TEFL trainees each month, and they all had their own unique stories. They were charismatic, adventurous, and excited to start their new adventure here in Prague. Each month, I felt rejuvenated and energized when I met them; their stories, their travels, and their unique reasons for embarking on this adventure. This job fought off monotony and allowed me to see Prague through fresh eyes each month.
On my “Welcome Walk” tour, I start off their Prague experience by taking them on a walking tour of the city, which starts in the castle quarter and ends in Old Town. After I meet them, show them around, tell them about the city, and enjoy a late lunch of Svickova and Cerny Kozel with them, I head back to my Prague 7 neighborhood as the evening starts to fall.
On the way, while I’m feeling energized and invigorated by their questions and enthusiasm, I purposely take the long way and soak in a few more famous Prague views. Wenceslas Square, the Charles Bridge, the bottom of the Museum steps where Jan Palach famously lit himself on fire in protest of Communism in 1969. This is my city. I live here.
Soaking in the views from hotspots such as Letna Park or the hill at Riegrovy Sady allows you to put things into perspective. As you gaze upon the castle towering in the distance, you can’t help but feel a sense of awe-inspired pride. Expatriate life in Prague certainly has its ups and downs, but sights like this make you really feel thankful. As I enjoyed this view, I shared this moment with my friend, Stephanie Lachman, who noted “its moments like this that make me appreciate that this is my city.”
Stephanie came here as a love-struck, ambitious 19 year-old, intent on pursuing her undergraduate education. She’s from Rice Lake, Wisconsin, which serves as a “sister city” to the small town of Zamberk, Czech Republic. Through this connection, she was able to meet, host, and bond with exchange students throughout high school.
Her distinctive Mid-western accent makes it seems as though she’s never left the comforts of the Great Lakes region, but almost a decade later, she still proudly calls Prague home.
I met her early on in my experience living and working in Prague as a Copywriter for a website, and through her, I developed quite a soft spot for this city.
She introduced me to interesting, successful people who not only love Prague, but also conquer and influence it on a daily basis. She showed me all the fun hotspots; she introduced me to fun-loving Czechs, music festivals, and many more things that typical expats don’t have the connections to enjoy. Through Stephanie, I saw Prague through the eyes of a fun loving, charismatic, interesting person with a vast network of Czechs, enjoying her 20s, and honing and developing her enduring affinity for this great city.
It’s all in the Values: For most expats who decide to call Prague their home, like Skip, Brian and Stephanie, its not their disdain for American politics or celebrity obsessed media that keeps them here (although they’re not too fond of that). It’s the fact that the priority system is basically flipped when compared to the US priority system.
For these expats, it’s about much more then just breathtaking views. It’s the mentality. Although Prague is becoming fairly touristy and westernized, the value system here still remains unmistakably Czech.
If you can get past the lack of friendliness, the scowls that await you if you try to pay for your 400 CZK grocery bill with a 2000 CZK bill, and the at times noticeable aura of complacency, you can really see and appreciate the difference in mentality here.
Like the buildings of Prague, this value system remains relatively untouched in spite of the barrage of external elements and influences.
The typical Czech mentality is that work is something you do for a portion of your week, but isn’t the defining characteristic or your life.
In relation to this, Potts conducted an interesting activity with both his American classes and his Czech classes in which he asked people to share three important life goals. In American classes, the students’ answers almost always revolved around the topics of money, cars, material possessions and upward job mobility.
With the Czech classes, the most common answers included responses such as being happy and having a nice family.
Perhaps it’s the materialistic nature of the US media and our recent trend of new narcissism. Perhaps it’s the typical Czech complacence. Regardless, it serves as an example of the value system in the Czech Republic: Family and happiness over upward mobility and material possessions.
There are other differences aside from the fact that Czechs aren’t constantly consumed with the typical American “rate race.” For some it’s as simple as their overall mentality and outlook on not only work and life, but also youth.
Lachman mentions, “I look at many of my former high school classmates in the States and realize that their lives are extremely similar; they finish college, get a high paying, lucrative position to help pay off the debt they racked up, get married, have kids, etc.”
The people she surrounds herself with in Prague would much rather postpone middle age to actual middle age. And in the Czech Republic, it seems as though societal norms aren’t pulling them in another direction. This is their post-communistic value system. This is what’s expected.
Personally, I notice the difference in mentality when it comes to something as simple yet all-encompassing as the value of self-assurance.
I don’t necessarily think that this culture is raised to have a constant awareness as to whether or not they’re self-assured. It’s more that many Americans are raised with an increased emphasis on being confident and sure of themselves.
Because of the constant immersion of these principles and concepts, it’s something that’s ingrained in our minds. Not to be sure of ourselves, but to always be conscious as to whether or not we’re feeling sure of ourselves. To always examine the possibility that this person or that person may or may not be judging or scrutinizing us.
With Czechs, this seems to slip through the cracks. Self-assurance and self-awareness play second fiddle to family, friends, traditions, and social interactions.
It’s quite an interesting revelation and I think it ties in quite nicely to the idea of the new narcissism.
We’re raised not to value certain principles, but instead to value our own self-awareness and potential. TV shows these days are highly entertaining, but they’re very image based, as is our society, and this is one of the reasons why expats such as Skip, Brian, and Stephanie aren’t as sold on life in the States.
I asked Stephanie if she had any advice in regards to falling in love with Prague and her advice was threefold. Firstly, it’s important to get to know Czech people.
Stephanie advises, “If you plan on staying long-term, getting to know Czech people will not only help you learn the language. It will also give you contacts that typical expatriates don’t have. These connections will serve you well in typical ways (pub recommendations, weekend trips ideas, etc), but may also help you out in situations where you least expect it.”
Also, it’s important to take advantage of every single opportunity that comes to you. As an expatriate, a proactive demeanor is key to achieving success here. As a tennis coach, I always tell my students that they should play the ball, not let the ball play them. The same is true for improving your situation here.
As Stephanie told me, “It IS possible to be successful and happy here, but not if you sit back and wait for the success to come to you. Take advantage of every single opportunity, keep pushing, keep making connections, and use your skills.”
The Prague Effect: Some travelers may develop a lasting impression of Prague: an unshakable fondness. When they arrive home and talks of their backpacking trip or living abroad experience comes up, their eyes light up at the mere mention of Prague.
For others, the bond becomes a bit stronger. It’s as if when they moved to Prague, they found “the one;” Their 496-kilometer soul mate.
It’s as if they put oxytocin in their world famous “pivo.” It’s as if Kafka’s words hover in the air above the majestic skyline of the Prague Castle district at night; a district he once called home.
Whatever it is, this city and its slightly westernized yet distinctly Czech aura, has allowed certain Americans to make the permanent move. Sure, they miss the States, but when asked where their home is, the answer remains consistent: It’s Prague.