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Talking the talk

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I felt a bit like a celebrity the other day when I received an email from a US freelance writer doing a story on American expat life in Prague. Jeanne peppered me with questions on the expat “scene” and how it’s changed since the 1990s. The 1990s are known as the heyday of the expat explosion, when the borders opened and American entrepreneurs, teachers, and other free-spirits moved in droves to live out their bohemian dreams. By the time I arrived in 2002, old-timers were already saying Prague was a different city.

Still, the city of Prague I came to know in the winter of 2002 seemed romantic and wild. Arriving at the airport, we were met by the language school’s guide, a sexy, young cigarette-smoking Czech who spoke in heavily-accented English. He took us by bus and metro through the seeming labyrinthine grey city to Hotel Dům, a high-rise panel hotel, in the suburbs of the Modřany district, where we lived for a month. The shared rooms were small and smelled of stale smoke, but they had radiators warm enough to dry snow-soaked coats and hand-washed laundry until we discovered the public laundry mat down town. We met nightly in the common sitting room and plotted our attack on the city: which bars we’d check out; which grocery stores in town might carry familiar food products; where we’d find English-language bookstores and cafes with internet access. Bohemia Bagel and The Globe fast became our haunts. Apart from the hours we spent in class or student-teaching, the days were ours. I never lost sleep wondering if the city I was learning to love had been more picturesque or the experience more bohemian ten years before. Daily challenges seemed plentiful.

We were a motley crew of prospective English teachers: American college graduates taking a year break before heading on to “real” jobs or grad school; career TEFL teachers who’d come from experiences in Japan or Korea and wanted European employment; an Irish evangelist looking for a way to pay the rent while she and her husband did missionary work in Prague; a pregnant Scott who wanted a hobby while on maternity leave. There were others whose lives became intertwined with mine for the four weeks we learned to teach non-native speakers how to speak our native language. For many of us, teaching English was a way to get a foot in the door in a place where we otherwise wouldn’t have had an in.

Slowly, we learned to assimilate, or at least to adapt to our new rhythm of life. There were many who’d come before us. Our school offered its four-week TEFL training course year-round. But the average teacher stayed less than a year before moving on to another adventure or life change. I stayed longer.

Czechs often ask me how I like living in their country. They’re skeptical when I answer affirmatively that living here suits me, and I’m quite happy. But it’s true. My husband may disagree, but only because he’s the one who has to listen when a mishap arises. Stepping back, I know that life has its ups and downs regardless of where I’m physically living. Certainly, having three half-Czech children and a Czech husband does make feel more rooted in the country. However, I think that having learned to speak Czech has been the key factor that’s made my life here seem more permanent.

In order to assimilate in Czech society, a recent survey suggests that foreigners need to learn to speak Czech (95% of respondents site this as the key factor for assimilation) and to get a job (83% rate working in the country as key). I can’t say that I blame Czechs for wanting foreigners like myself to speak their language, although I know I a good number of contented non-Czech residents who get by just fine only speaking English. I don’t blame them either, but it wouldn’t have worked for me. Our family dynamic couldn’t have handled the stress of having one monolingual parent while the other was required to do double duty linguistically. Nor would I have been able to attend to the business of daily life: visiting the doctor, helping the kids with homework, grocery shopping, or chatting with the neighbors with the same ease.

Czechs are not particularly known for being tolerant of differences, especially Czechs of the older generation. The country’s population is largely homogenous, and looking physically different or not speaking Czech is a clear sign that separates a foreigner from the native population. I may be more accepted as an American than my Russian, Ukrainian or Vietnamese friends, though I believe attitudes are slowly changing. With mixed marriages becoming increasingly common, it may be hard to sort the “true-blooded” Czech from the rest in a few years.

Although I’m not trying to fool anyone by speaking Czech, it is nice to be able to communicate like a native, atrocious grammar mistakes aside. The other day in the middle of a complicated doctor’s visit I repeated in Czech the instructions for care the doctor had given me. He smiled benignly at my efforts; “you have a very nice česko-americkou accent,” he told me. Rather than being offended, as I might have been in the past, I took it as a compliment. I figured there were worse things than sounding like what I was, an American speaking Czech.

Recently, I’ve caught myself getting lazy, throwing a Czech word in here or there when in a hurry, and I know the children don’t know the English equivalent. I don’t promote language muddling as such, but I have to say it helps in a pinch. I’m counting on a long summer holiday in Virginia to rejuvenate my English vocabulary and polish up my now-rusty Southern accent. There’s no reason to sacrifice good English now just because I’ve learned to speak Czech.

I didn’t know how to answer the journalist who wanted the insider scoop on the American expat scene. I hope she found some of those elusive Prague old-timers to give her the perspective on Prague’s earlier years. But more likely, they’re as blended into the woodwork as I hope I might be in another 10 or 15 years time.

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