Life in the Czech Republic: Challenges and Charms

The Promise of Prague

By Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter

 Prague. Photo: Chip RitterI first stepped into Prague’s Wenceslas Square in the summer of 1991. Then -- fresh out of high school and surrounded by at least 20 fellow members of a choir touring Europe, with film footage of the ’89 Velvet Revolution emblazoned in my memory -- I made my way up to the statue of Wenceslas on his horse in my own world. I was already hooked.

Later during that same stay, I got terribly lost in the massive antiquity of the Prague Castle after our group’s tour and shortly before we were supposed to sing a concert.

I chalked it up to the confusingly narrow medieval streets and the multiple staircases leading down from the Castle’s perch on the hill. I think now that I was already trying to find a way to stay in Prague.

In the next four years, I found ways to make it back to the city as often as I could -- and generally managed to ensure that I was forced to stay longer than I planned. On New Year’s Eve 1993, I lost my passport at the main Prague train station on the way to Vienna. No embassy will replace your passport on New Year’s Eve -- or New Year’s Day, or even for two days after that if an accident of the calendar has the 31st landing on a Thursday.

While I definitely do not recommend losing your passport -- it’s a frightening experience that will put a crimp in your travel plans and make your life needlessly difficult -- I wasn’t exactly crushed to have to spend four unscheduled days in Prague.

After 1995, my visits dropped off. I was in graduate school, studying the region and learning the language, and once I graduated, the two weeks of vacation allotted in the "real world" just weren’t sufficient for trips to see parents and in-laws and to indulge my need to lose myself in the Czech Republic.


Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to get back, and this time, I didn’t want to stay just an extra four days. So in the summer of 1999, my husband and I decided that the next summer, we would quit our jobs in Amherst, Massachusetts and move to Prague -- and in July of 2000, we did just that.

That’s when I finally discovered Prague in all its splendor -- and frustration.

When we left the United States, we had four giant suitcases, English teaching job offers, places in an intensive Czech course, a friend to meet us at Prague’s Ruzyne airport, and a commitment to ourselves to live there for at least a year.

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We stayed with our friend in one of the parts of Prague that few tourists ever see -- the vast sea of panelak, Soviet-style concrete panel apartment blocks that ring the city on almost all sides. There’s a reason few visitors head out this way: Rows and rows of identically architecturally uninspired buildings don’t exactly send you scrambling for your camera.

However, it is what most Czechs -- and English teachers -- can afford, and soon we found ourselves ensconced in a similar building similarly far from the beautiful center of town and the Castle that had so entranced me years before. We felt lucky to have found it, however, because our boss at the language school owned it, and we hadn’t had to search around for a place.

Luckily, in our intensive Czech class, we studied on Celetna, a beautiful and historic street just blocks from Old Town Square. In our free time, we met with our classmates and teachers -- a ready-made new circle of multinational acquaintances -- for delicious, cheap beer at Letna Park overlooking the Vltava River and most of the rest of the city, for dinner at a restaurant, or for picnics along the riverbank.

We practiced our Czech with each other -- though the language of choice was more often English or German -- and with the servers at the restaurants we frequented and the clerks at tiny grocery stores we tried to do our shopping in.

And just as soon as we had formed a community and were feeling comfortable in our new environment, the course was over and most of the students went back home, while we stayed.

We started working, and soon we had settled into a routine of English lessons for clients around Prague during the day and evenings at home. We watched a lot of Czech TV -- and we only got the four Czech stations -- and we found a lot of excuses to isolate ourselves in the little one-bedroom apartment. Going out was too expensive now that we were working for Czech crowns, we told ourselves. The tourist spots were too crowded. Traveling outside the city was a hassle. We were in the midst of culture shock and didn’t even realize it.

Finally, one Saturday afternoon in September, we took the famed 22 tram up the hill to Prague Castle. Neither of us had been there since we arrived nearly two months before. The tourists were indeed there in force, but so was the magic. A group of string-playing buskers were playing Smetana’s "My Homeland;" the immaculately uniformed castle guards (Czech President Vaclav Havel hired the costume designer from "Amadeus" to design the castle military uniforms) stood sentry at the gates, and the sun was glinting off the spires of the city below.

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As we stood at the castle wall and looked out over Mala Strana'sred roofs and labyrinthine streets, our move made sense. "We live here!" we whispered to each other conspiratorially.

Since then, we’ve made a point of breaking out of our routine and seeing the things that made us love the city in the first place while we search for authentic new experiences off the beaten path. And we moved. This time, we took the time to look around and choose our apartment based on the neighborhood we liked. It costs us more each month, but we’re a lot happier. I also no longer work as an English teacher, having found an editorial position at a weekly newsmagazine, but my husband continues to teach.

We take Czech courses in the evening, but have found that we learn just as much if not more useful vocabulary during the weekly rehearsals of the Czech choir to which we belong -- and at the pub afterwards. Our neighbor also pitches in, coming over regularly to share her homemade kolac and blow our minds with her no-holds-barred, rapid-fire, Prague-accented Czech.

Tourist season is now officially underway, and literally millions of people from around the world will come to the city I call home in the next few months. Most will be as enthralled as I was that first time. Prague still has the power to do the same to me -- ten years after my first visit, and nine months into our residency here.


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