My Life in Prague

After completing my university education, and with the fun of university life behind me, my prospects for the future did not excite me. Prague 1I thought of opening a photo studio in Montreal, a city where I had never lived but which I had visited and appealed to me. Or, I thought, perhaps I should move to New Orleans. I spent my last summer treeplanting, where I discussed with others what I should do next. Most urged me to travel a bit before embarking on my "career", so I decided to make a swing through Europe. 

The third day I was in London it occurred to me that I could move to Europe. London seemed so colourful compared to what I was used to, and I am always up for change and adventure, so my future prospects suddenly seemed more interesting to me.
But since I was born in the Czech Republic and, through my mom, had many contacts and relatives there, it seemed logical for me to make my final decision once I had visited Prague.

The first day I arrived here I went for a long walk through the centre. I didn’t follow a map but rather wandered aimlessly, which I would recommend. When Hitler attacked during the Second World War, the country’s president at that time, Benes, decided not to defend, because he knew we were outnumbered and it would only result in unnecessary death. However, many Czechs wanted to fight and we had quite a respectable fortress defence system against the German border at the time. Czechs generally agree that it is in their nature to back down from a battle. Historically, the country has been on the crossroads of many wars and empires across Europe, and any resistance could have easily resulted in our eventual extinction. There is one resistance that does come to my mind though, and that is the one by Jan Hus (his statue is on Prague’s Old Town Square).

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Jan Hus was inspired by an English writer, John Wycliffe who preached that we are saved by faith and not by works or submission to the rituals of the Catholic church. This of course posed a threat to the power of the Catholic church which, at that time, was responsible for "blessing" (approving) Europe’s emperor and whose power was closely tied to him. So they came in and crushed this "rebellion", and to make sure nothing of the sort would ever happen again, built all sorts of beautiful churches throughout the city. Needless to say, the rebellion arose later elsewhere, to be led by Martin Luther.

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When Germany finally left Czechoslovakia at the end of the war, perhaps also because of the lack of resistance, Hitler had not demolished the city as he had other beautiful cities throughout Europe, such as Paris, but rather, left Prague virtually unscathed. Most say it is because he realised that Prague was the home of more German baroque architecture than could be found in any German city. Prague 4Ironically though, when the Americans retaliated against the Germans at the end of the war by choosing the city of Dresden, which was considered to be just as or more beautiful than Prague at the time, to bomb to smithereens in response to Hitler’s gross negligence of historical monuments in other countries, they caused the most damage ever to Prague. American pilots thought they were over Dresden (they were quickly notified of their error via hotline and the damage was subsequently limited). Spires and beautiful monuments, I suppose, look the same from high above the earth.

These reasons, in my mind, make Prague the most beautiful city in the world. I would rank Vancouver as the second most beautiful, but nature and architecture cannot be compared, like apples and oranges.
I must say I was quite inspired my first day here while randomly walking the streets of this city.
Halfway through the day, I ended up at the castle (top left of picture to right) and finally had to sit down for a rest. Because I am a firm believer in God and want to live my life according to His will, I asked him what he thought of me moving to this city. Immediately I felt as if he came over me and filled me with his spirit, as strong a feeling as I had ever felt. I was shaking, and I shed a tear. I looked up at a tram pulling away and noticed how an old woman was staring at me with her mouth gaping wide open, as if I was shining like a lightbulb or something. Nevertheless, I understood this experience as a clear YES!

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Black and white photos on this page by
Craig Robinson - Prague Photographer

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So I went back to Canada, put in a gruelling 8 months of treeplanting, put together 15,000 dollars in loans from four credit cards, and came back to this country with an entrepreneurial vengeance.
I spent day after day walking the streets, taking notes of what was lacking or what could be improved, searching for that Midas idea into which I could invest my newly acquired capital and begin building my empire.
On the fourth evening I was tossing and turning on a terrible Czech mattress. I couldn’t think of an idea, I couldn’t sleep, I looked up at the ceiling and thought to myself, "Man I wish I had a waterbed!". Bang, the light fired up in my head and I finally got my idea.

So I imported twenty mattresses - using a credit card – and I found myself a carpenter who produced bed frames. I was just waiting for the Czechs to just rip these babies out of my hand. Unfortunately, as I later learned, queen sized mattresses are simply too small for Czechs and they are not used to wood furniture (under communism, most of the wood was sent eastwards to Russia and Czechs were left with this, what I consider, extremely tacky upholstered plywood-type furniture). So I learned a hard lesson about the necessity to research the LOCAL market. Prague 7
I kept going. I tried importing and exporting various items, and after a year of tinkering with different ideas, I was out of cash and ready, albeit unwillingly, to pound the pavement and look for a REAL job!

The first job found was selling ad space for a local English business newspaper set up by a Welsh journalist. Through that I got a job compiling information from Czech newspapers describing the investment environment in the country.

Perhaps the main reason I got that job was because the person who hired me found out that my dad was a major investor in this country (he was chosen by the US government to invest 20 million dollars in aid to the country and he was director of several major investment companies). I eventually hooked them up for a business meeting (the main part of my "job" with them?) and, once they determined they weren’t going to get any money out of him (they even threatened his life), they let me go.

So now, after a year of hard work, I felt disillusioned. I could not see any fruits from all my labour, and now I was fired, the reason being that I "lacked initiative". This depressed me and it turned into anger against God. I remember shaking my fists up at Him, promising never to heed His word again.

SPrague 8o now, after a year of hard work, I felt disillusioned. I could not see any fruits from all my labour, and now I was fired, the reason being that I "lacked initiative". This depressed me and it turned into anger against God. I remember shaking my fists up at Him, promising never to heed His word again.

During my last few days at that job someone there suggested I try translating. I thought about this and researched the matter a bit, determining that I need a computer, a fax, and preferably a downtown location so that I could pick up and deliver the various documents.
Well, it was an interesting idea, but where was I going to get all that? After all, my credit cards and reserves had been entirely "sunk" into waterbeds.

Two days later I went to pick up my last cheque from this investment company. I sat down in their conference room and was talking to their marketing director, a much nicer person than the one who had hired me. Perhaps he was interested in English lessons, since he eventually hired my girlfriend, but he said to me, "Karel, I don’t want to lose contact with you. Here is your cash for your last month’s work and, because I do not want to lose contact with you, I am prepared to offer you office space which we are not using and which is located near the centre of town. By the way, there is a computer and a fax there at your disposal."

I guess that’s the last time I’ll lose faith in God. I have kept that faith ever since.

I took over the leasing payments on the computer and they eventually needed their office back. But by this time, I had some money saved up, and I finally went back to what I do best: work at home, which is what I prefer to do and do still.
I still worked on my import/export experiments, but after a year of translating, it occurred to me that I might as well start building up a database of translators with which I could start developing a business – at least some business. And that is where I am today. You can check out my Translation Agency. I also help others find work translating at home, or carve out other sources of online income as by web design or programming, also self-taught.

It has been a magic ride over the past ten years. Between around 1989 and 1994, there were allegedly something like 50,000 Americans living in this city. MPrague 9ost of them were drawn by its dazzle – and the notion that Prague was the Paris of the 90s. It was great fun and party indeed. Many would be traveling through Europe with just three days to spend in Prague. Instead, that became three weeks, then three months, then three years. There was an air of optimism and everything seemed like a new frontier. The city is spectacular in its architecture, and one never tires of looking up while walking along its streets. There were also many westerners who were sent by multinational corporations to train local employees for their new branches, as part of their rapid endeavour to carve out a piece of the new capitalistic frontier.

To draw such highly trained, western employees, they would often pay them more than they were paid back home, to cover the "risk" element (many must have perceived the living conditions as dangerous in this recently opened "wild east"). Rents skyrocketed in the centre as westerners would swallow up the best accommodation, and the new inhabitants would be shocked to find beer in the pub (half a litre on tap) costing 25 cents. Such a very beautiful, lively city. Such beautiful Czech girls. Such unbounded optimism. There was a boom in the real estate market and many Czechs hustled to grab as much of the fallout profits as possible.

However, over time, the multinationals trained enough local employees, saved costs in the process and started sending these expats back home. Others were disgruntled with the endless red tape and Czech attitude, and also left for home, or followed the wave eastward for more adventure.
The Czech Republic, and all of central and eastern Europe, is renowned for its bureaucracy. It was the norm under the Austro-Hungarian empire (in power until World War I) and is firmly entrenched in the Czech mentality. In fact, one might say they use it as a form of protectionism, to help their native comrades while stifling the efforts of foreigners. If you don’t know who or how to bribe, you will very easily find yourself standing for hours in endless lines, just to get a stamp for some piece of paper, so you can go stand in another line for another stamp.

Prague 10Often you finally get to the counter, only to confront a very uninterested and impatient Czech who rambles on in their own language at a hundred miles per hour explaining to you that you are in the wrong line, or there the wrong day. At which point you are sent somewhere else. In fact, one local paper did research on this, and after confirming many times exactly what papers were needed to accomplish a certain task, it finally showed up with all the necessary documents only to be informed that something was still lacking. Under communism, it was common for lines to snake their way around several blocks, formed when, alas, the blessed mother Russia managed to send the next ration of toilet paper. Standing in line was a common practice, and the rewards were few, complaints many. Even after communism, I once went to a grocery store and pointed out to a woman standing in a long line waiting for the next available pushcart that there was no line at the other end of the store, some 50 feet away. She just rolled her eyes, like "Yeah whatever, you foreigner". It seemed that standing in line was some pleasant and accepted pastime. Besides, it was a good way to avoid having to go to work, which Czechs are, or were, masters at (avoiding).

It may not be so rampant anymore, but a simple sneeze and a bottle of rum would immediately get you a slip from the doctor entitling you to several weeks of paid vacation. That may not have changed, but many other things have – almost all for the better.

So many foreigners simply left in rage and exasperation from having to deal with all this, not to mention the fact that every second cashier would try to rip you off, no matter what you were buying (groceries, beer in the pub – I won’t even MENTION Prague taxi drivers, considered by many to be the worst in the world.)

So only the hearty and persistent have remained. A sturdy lot, although quite possibly not as adventurous and enthusiastic as the crowd which packed the pubs of Prague during those magic years following the fall of the Wall. Prague 11But even though it is much more subdued here now than during those years, there is still the beautiful city of Prague, its lively culture and history. As Europe expands eastward, most agree that the Czech Republic really is the heart of Europe, as it was during its glory days under King Charles IV. In any case, a three hour drive will get you either to Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, or almost Slovakia.

It's been a blast living here for some 15 years - possibly the longest straight run of any expat who came after the Revolution. In the beginning it was fun because people kept coming and going, so there was a high turnover and constant change. Inevitably though, the cold skeleton fingers of suburbia creep in and the place lost a lot of its magic for me, as I explain in my reflections of the Czech Republic and its people. This constant change originally served me well, perhaps because I must have Gypsy blood in me, or because I've been constantly on the move my entire life (before Prague the longest I ever stayed in one place was at Queen's University, where I did a four year stretch). Things started to get too stale and gossipy for me in Prague and I was itchin' for another move. So I set up a virtual office, moved myself and my translation business into a caravan truck, and headed out to discover the world. Which one might find odd considering the lovely Prague flat I had, but comfort equals stagnation and I was certainly feeling an oversaturation of both. Nothing like turning your world upside down and starting all over again. Just like when I made up my mind to move here in the first place. A fresh new start, and one feels like a baby entering a new and captivating life. Sure, there are certain inconveniences associated with living crammed in a sardine can, but the pleasure of the beach and warm weather, and the constant adventure, make it worthwhile - at least for me!

 




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