Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Travelogue: The Czech Republic

Kutna Hora, more commonly known as "the bone church."

One of my oldest St. Louis friends is married to a guy who has a Ph.D in folklore, has written an award-winning play, and has spent a lot of time in the Czech Republic over the past 17 years. Naturally, he also has a blog about art and theatre and culture, which you should go visit. He’s also a founding member of Bad Soviet Habits, an arts collective that “seeks to reach new audiences by finding and promoting new work, new artists, and unconventional spaces and projects.”

He is an interesting, funny and gracious dude, and kindly answered my questions about his experiences in the Czech Republic while he was in the middle of an 8,000-hour work week.

When did you first go to the Czech Republic and why?

I flew in in January ’92, just after I graduated from college mid-year. Not the best time, either weather-wise or color-wise, to first arrive there. Gray gray gray, Although my friend Richard treated me to a crêpe (palacinka) on the street that was amazing. They're hard to find now.

I’d studied in Spain my sophomore year of college, and when I graduated I knew I wanted to travel again, learn another language (one different from the Romance family), to live outside of the U.S. I’d been very lonely in Spain, where I’d known no one to begin with, and in this case I knew at least one person. So it was very arbitrary in terms of destination, but it happened to fit many of my criteria. I think I was the only American in ’92, and probably one of the few English speakers who had difficulty landing a job teaching English.

How many times have you been back? Is it different every time you go? If so, how?

I lived there for 18 months the first time, traveled back twice to visit friends in the late ’90s, then started studying Czech formally at Charles University in Prague in advance of applying for grants. I lived there again while doing dissertation research in 2001, and have been back 2-3 times since then, most recently to perform in the Prague Fringe Festival this past May.

Czechs used to say that it would take one year out of communism for every year under communism for them to become a “normal” nation (their word) again. The country is changing quite slowly, but the city of Prague is very different. It has become a European capital – in the same way that New York City couldn’t be anywhere but in the U.S. but is hardly representative of the U.S., or Paris is completely French but not representative of French life.

Prague is European with a strong Czech accent. The clothing is much more European – it’s harder to tell what someone’s nationality is based on their dress. That’s a recent phenomenon, the turnover’s just been in the past two years, an ex-pat friend tells me.

Meanwhile Brno, the capital of Moravia (the second “state” that is the CR) is [undergoing] a much slower change. More Czech (or Moravian) with a hint of Italian investments. If you go to the little towns, things don’t look different at all. I expect the residents find it changed, but as a visitor, it doesn’t seem like much has happened.

From a trip with the in-laws last year, in a pub in the Prague neighborhood of Vinohrady near the Flora metro station. "Tasty."

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