Forging a Local Czech Life Outside of Prague
Prague should be on everyone’s travel bucket list. The city has an amazing energy and its architectural beauty is unrivaled. That said, when someone expresses interest in working there as an English teacher and enlists my advice, I feel conflicted. This reaction stems from recognition of the ever-increasing cost of living, the intense competition for both housing and teaching jobs coupled with ruminations about the transformative experiences I had while living outside of Prague.
Located just an hour east of the capital city, but a million miles away in term of everything else, is Pardubice, the medium size town I called home for two years. From the train station it doesn’t look particularly alluring with its smokestacks and distinctive smell–a result of local industry–but dig deeper and you’ll discover a proud, cozy community with historic intrigue, artisan gingerbread boutiques, a rich equestrian tradition, and an eerie reliability for churning out legendary ice hockey players. I considered myself lucky to live there, yet my Prague-dwelling friends regularly questioned how I could live “way out there” all alone.
It didn’t take long before I developed distaste for tourist hubs like Old Town and intentionally began walking 20 minutes out of my way to avoid having to cross the Charles Bridge.
I admit, in the beginning, I really didn’t know what to do with myself in Pardubice, so I spent most of my weekends in Prague by default. The ubiquity of English speakers and the nightlife was the draw. However, after a couple months of spending all of my free time in nightclubs with expats, the appeal waned. Visiting Prague as a tourist is a very different experience than spending time there as a resident earning a local salary. Thus, it didn’t take long before I developed distaste for tourist hubs like Old Town and intentionally began walking 20 minutes out of my way to avoid having to cross the Charles Bridge. I suppose I just yearned for a more authentic experience. Therefore, I decided that in order to make living in the Czech Republic enriching, I needed to do something more significant with my free time.
I resolved to spend more time in Pardubice and start living like the locals. This was because the activities that previously composed my daily routines were not feasible there, so my lifestyle evolved out of necessity. One such skill I learned was baking from scratch, as local grocery stores were void of many ingredients that I considered staples. Additionally, being forced to decipher Czech recipes turned out to be a great language learning tool. Whether it was at the café, the hair salon, the rail station, or the hospital, English was rarely an option, so I learned to get by without the English crutch.
A wonderful, but sometimes daunting thing I experienced while living in a small homogeneous community, especially as a foreigner, was that introductions were rarely necessary; everyone knew who I was, where I lived and about every embarrassing thing I had ever done. The positive effect was, while my colleagues in Prague were always hustling to get enough work, students were courting me for lessons. This was due to the unsurprising fact that native English speaking teachers in town were in short supply, and we all knew each other and partook in informal price fixing, ensuring a steady flow of income and referrals for all.
As I got to know more locals, my calendar filled up pretty quickly. Pardubice turned out to be a pretty happening place on Friday nights, but remained sort of sleepy on weekends as everyone took to the countryside to stay at their cottages. It wasn’t long before I was invited along on one such pilgrimage to the countryside. This turned out to be both fun and an interesting means to understanding the Czech mentality, as this is a sacred activity deeply rooted in the Czech national identity. I also began attending cultural events and festivals, as well as venturing out on my own via the vast network of bicycle trails throughout East Bohemia and boarding random local trains in search of wacky Czech adventures. These types of experiences are the ones that have stayed with me over the years and I don’t believe they would have been possible if I had isolated myself within the Prague expat bubble.
Although I treasured my time in Pardubice, I always assumed I would be ready to move back to Prague or another big city after two years. However, when my contract started winding down, I surprised myself because the thought of leaving became rather vexing, and when months turned into weeks, I began questioning my decision to leave. I had already accepted a new big city job months in advance, so my fate was sealed, but I was filled with doubt. After much soul-searching, I concluded that staying would be too easy. Pardubice had become my security blanket much to my chagrin; life was pleasant and uncomplicated there. I knew it was highly likely that my next step wouldn’t be as soft a landing, but staying would stunt my career and deny another teacher a wonderful opportunity, as well as denying my students access to a new teacher with presumably different expertise. Perhaps these justifications were only to soothe woes, but it did help me to feel more content about my decision, which made leaving a bit easier.
Looking back five years later, I realize that it was really the perfect window leave and I look back at those memories fondly.