How foreigners see Czechs

In recent years the Czech Republic has experienced a steady increase in the number of foreigners who come here to work and study. We asked a few of them to share their thoughts with us on their experience with Czech mentality and culture.

Charlotte Baranska, Ukrainian shop assistant; married to a Czech. Has lived in Prague for three years.
“When I wanted to get married, the first thing I was confronted with was the crazy bureaucracy – tons of paperwork. The documents from the Ukraine that I needed concerning my marital status weren’t enough. I needed special clearance papers from the Ukrainian embassy. There were long lines everywhere; I waited four and a half hours at the embassy. Reporting on my change of status and address at the foreign police took two days. They sent me from one building to another. To apply for permission for permanent stay you need about eight forms. I looked into the law in advance to know what papers I needed to bring, but they asked for documents that weren’t even mentioned in the law. During verification of translations by the notary I felt that I paid three times more than a Czech would. On the other hand, I must say that everyone I dealt with they treated me well. 

My first impression of Czechs was that they are more friendly and pleasant than people in the Ukraine. Ukrainian men treat women differently; they are used to giving them orders. The Czech are gentler with women. Of course there are good and bad people everywhere, but here people try to do more for their families and even for the state. But I do feel the unpleasant nationalism of this country. For example, I went with my friend to a restaurant and spoke to the waitress in Czech, but because of my Ukrainian accent I didn’t receive the same service. Young people in particular seem to have the impression that if I speak with a Russian accent then I’m responsible for what happened in 1968. I know a case where a Czech woman struck her Ukrainian neighbor, and who do you think the police believed? I have the impression that people here would like to get rid of all foreigners from the former USSR, and they behave toward them accordingly. 

William Faix, American priest in the Malá Strana church of Saint Thomas. Five year Prague resident.
When I arrived in March 1995, I had mixed emotions. Czechs appeared very reserved and inhospitable compared to people in Poland where I worked before. Though I didn’t expect to be greeted with open arms, it seemed impossible that any Czech would invite me into their home. Over the last five years I’ve visited three or four families; in Poland I had that many visists in a month. Czechs seem closed and unwilling to make closer contact with foreigners.
I was also very surprised here by the relationship between the church and state. In the US, the church and state are clearly separated; on the contrary in Poland, religion is a natural part of their culture. However, I’ve never met such disgust and malice in the behavior of state representatives toward the church and religious questions as I have here. The bitter statements of Václav Klaus, in which he censured the memory of Czechoslovakia’s first president T.G. Masaryk, and Prime Minister Miloš Zeman’s suggestion that Saint Wencelas was a collaborator, serve as an example. Elsewhere, such comments would be unimaginable. Where is this Czech wrath coming from? I should add though, that I do see more people coming to church than in the past, and I’m not only speaking about my own parish.
Natasha V., Russian emigrant; lived in former Czechoslovakia from 1965 to 1986, later emigrated to the west and returned to the Czech Republic in 1996. 

I started a family here in 1965; my children were born here. In 1968 I wrote an article openly criticizing the occupation. In September of that year I took my identity card to the Russian embassy and announced that I didn’t want to be a citizen of the USSR. During “Normalization” I had political problems, I emigrated in 1968. When I returned in 1996, I was disappointed, mainly with the people – they’d changed for the worst. They are interested in their careers and how to get rich as quickly as possible. Sometimes, I think they don’t even know where they’re headed: toward material richness at the expense of spiritual richness. I’m close to Czech culture because this is already my home; when I came here there were a lot of new and interesting things. Either there is culture in a person or there isn’t; when someone doesn’t have it inside it doesn’t matter where he lives.
Oleg M., Ukrainian; has lived in the Czech Republic for three years as a construction worker. 

So far I’ve only had one bad experience here. The police apprehended and interrogated me for something that I didn’t steal. They finally released me when they found the true thief. Otherwise it’s good here; I want to stay and have a family. But I’m always reminded of the differences in cultures, the different mentality and to be honest, I don’t understand Czechs or their culture very much. 

Maria L, Ukrainian housekeeper; has lived in the Czech Republic four years.
It took about half a year for the people in the house where I first lived to get used to me. First they blamed my boyfriend and me for all the problems that appeared in the house. Later they stopped, but I moved out anyway. Today it’s different – thanks to the fact that I’ve already worked here, I’m not judged by where I’m from, but for what I can do. During this time I’ve come to realize that Czechs are completely different, I never know what they’re thinking. 

Dominique Chauville, French student studying in Prague.
We came here as tourists with ideas we received from Franz Kafka, Max Brod and Milan Kundera, and we were disappointed. It doesn’t look like what they wrote about at all. Prague appears more like a fair for tourists, lined with ugly shops offering tasteless glass and glass and glass. You don’t have a chance to admire the historical sites with all the kitchy attractions and sweaty foreigners. 

Questions asked by Lenka Trpkošová, Martin Jan Stránský and Libuše Koubská 


The New Presenceautumn 2002

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