This piece (and the accompanying photos) was a runner-up winner for the yearly Transitions Abroad Expatriate Writing Competition, 2010.
The air, freezing, whips through me—finding every tiny gap in my multiple layers to make my skin tingle and head spin. The 18 tram is running late and I worry that I’ll collapse before it arrives, as this extreme cold is just too much for a body that is used to tropical climates and sunlight. This is an ongoing discussion for expats living in Prague: those who grew up in sub-zero temperatures don’t mind this cold, those of us who grew up in the tropics shiver and share commiserating looks. We know it’s not just the bitter, icy air; it’s also the depression that comes with it, our bodies morphing to accommodate some measure of the weather here, our minds struggling to cope with endless months of gray and dark days. Approaching my fourth year in this magical place and this weather is the only thing keeping me from calling Prague home.
I moved to Prague with my husband, who had lived here before and loved it. I’d never visited Prague before relocating, and that isn’t something I recommend. These days there are great deals from the U.S. to Prague and a number of budget airlines that can bring you from most any major city in Europe for a pittance. Many of the budget airlines have special deals for subscribers, so it’s worth it to sign up on their mailing lists.
In the last ten years I’ve moved 13 times, lived in nine different cities in six countries. This doesn’t include the six countries I lived in growing up, my American mother being a UNICEF worker who was posted all over Asia and Africa. Now I’m not just an adult Third Culture Kid, but a long-term expat who has ended up in the Czech Republic working for an international school, Charles University, and freelance writing in my spare time.
I’ve found a number of projects through the fantastic www.expats.cz website, and that is the first stop for anyone thinking of moving to Prague. The forums have answers to every possible question one could have about living and working here. However a quick word of warning: Always make sure to check the forums before posting anything, since some of the longer-term expats will get snippy if the answer to your question has already been answered elsewhere. Their site is well organized and the search function is excellent. Another great site is www.Prague.tv, which also offers job listings, classifieds, and forums for both those who are recent and long-term Prague expats.
Since the end of the Communist rule in 1989, Prague is an ever-changing city with each year bringing new and wonderful aspects to Czech and expat life. When I arrived the Czech Republic was not yet a part of Schengen, a border-free agreement between many European nations. Until December 21, 2007, many American expats didn’t have visas mainly because all you had to do was hop a train to Germany, get a new stamp in your passport and they would be able to legally live in the Czech Republic for another three months. Now that the Schengen agreement includes the Czech Republic, getting legalized quickly is not only vital, but more complicated than it has been. The visa process itself will take a full three months, so you need to come here with some job possibilities already in mind. Because of this, Prague isn’t the best place to do a TEFL certificate anymore, since you won’t be offered a job until a month into your tourist visa and then you won’t have enough time to finish up the visa process.
If living in Prague is something that interests you it’s best to do your TEFL elsewhere and then come here afterwards. This will make your life far less stressful and nerve-wracking. The visa process is a trial that every expat must now go through. Do make sure that your future employer provides services to assist you; make sure you investigate this before you get here in order to avoid any nasty surprises or expenses. You don’t want to end up like the few dozen Americans and Canadians who were deported last year, meaning they can’t return to any Schengen country for five years. While Schengen makes some of our lives more difficult, it’s done a great deal in legitimizing the Czech Republic as a part of the European Union.
Another fantastic change in the last couple years is the availability of various different kinds of foods, not just in restaurants but also in the grocery stores. Now you can find all kinds of ethnic foods such as curry paste, wasabi, sushi kits, barbeque sauce, baked beans, Tabasco sauce, and even fresh fish–something we never saw even two years ago. As someone who doesn’t eat much meat, this has changed my life here for the better. I can now readily find tofu, goat cheese, salmon, avocados and other previously-considered luxury items at most any supermarket. There are also a number of great restaurants that all have extensive vegetarian menus, like Lehkha Hlava (continental vegetarian and vegan), Himalaya (Indian), Modry Zub (Thai), and many more. Himalaya even gives you the option to order food online and have it delivered right to your door. On the bitterly cold days this is an absolute godsend, not to mention that the food is delicious.
Yes, it’s cold here, the temperatures dropping to -20C at the height of the day. Be prepared. Clothes are more expensive here than in other European countries, so if you know you’ll be here through winter make sure you bring a warm coat with you. Sadly clothes prices are one of the few things that have not changed in these last few years, but there are a number of second-hand shops around town that can ease the pressure on your wallet.
One of my favorite things about living in Prague is the magnificent public transportation system. Trams, Metros, and buses can take you absolutely anywhere you want to go and have very frequent schedules. I don’t drive so it’s great to live in a place where having a car is more of a hindrance than a help. Walking around offers so many opportunities to appreciate the beautiful city, its varied architecture, and to soak in the Gothic atmosphere. The Prague transit system operates on the honor system and random checks are enforced at any time. If you’ll be here for a week or a year, it’s always a good idea to get a multi-day or multi-month tram pass just to make sure you’re covered. The fine is hefty, amounting to roughly $60, which can really hurt if you’re on a teachers’ salary, not to mention all the dirty looks you’ll get from locals—which by itself is an embarrassment that is worth avoiding.
In the last year Prague has also seen a huge rise in expat bars organizing open mic nights, live music, speed dating, art exhibits, poker nights, and trivia nights. The Czech Inn, a gorgeous art deco hostel, organizes events for almost every single night of the week. The Blind Eye is another popular expat hangout that features Karaoke nights and now even offers DVD rental services. The Red Room bar and cafe also organizes live music and open mic nights. Even iconic Prague bars like Chapeau Rouge have changed in the past few years: Now instead of a feeling like complete dives, they’ve revamped their main bar as well as added two new levels underground, one functioning as a dance club and the other as deep underground venue for live music. Thankfully the prices at all of these places have not risen as they’ve gained in popularity, and delicious Czech beer can still be had for reasonable costs.
We even have The Prague Daily Monitor, which rounds up and translates Czech news into English, and is available for free. This has been a fabulous development for us expats who don’t speak or read Czech and want to keep up with politics, culture, and goings on around town. The best thing about the Daily Monitor is being able to have a daily reminder of all the cultural activities in Prague and finding ways to get involved in whatever may interest you, be it theater, or sports, or special events.
A friend of mine called Prague a Milan Kundera pop-up book, with its gorgeous architecture, and the sense of enchantment that hangs over the city. Many a writer has found an unending source of inspiration here, and I am certainly one of them. Kafka wrote that Prague is like a little old lady with claws who grabs you and never lets you go, and I feel very much in her grasp. Every time I’ve fancied the thought of leaving here something extraordinary happens that forces me to reconsider. Like anywhere foreign, it can be very trying—even alienating—but there is so much beauty and wonder in Prague. Certainly enough to keep a person fascinated for the rest of their life.
©2010 Sezin Koehler, Photos by Zuzu Arbus