By Nika Göthová
Why do Americans come and study in the Czech Republic? How do they get here and what happens once they are here? How long does it take to get a visa and how do they feel about the people of central Europe? What reactions do inhabitants of Brno have about the Americans? What do the relations of these two groups look like in everyday life and everyday perceptions outside of the scope of embassies, politics and media?
I asked three American students who are currently studying in the Czech Republic about their lives and experience. This article is not going to describe anything more than general experiences of these three Americans. It is not an extensive study of mutual relations and perceptions, but a synthesis of what Kalyn, Adam and Cal told me.
Each of the interviewees comes from a different state within the US and had different reasons for choosing the Czech Republic as their destination. Cal had been here before, not in Brno but on a short trip to Prague. This experience brought the Czech Republic into his scope of options for his postgraduate studies. Kalyn and Adam had no such experience, yet both of them liked the idea of doing an exchange program somewhere in Europe. The Czech Republic was a bit, as they put it, “off the beaten path” (compared to Spain or Italy). They did not have much information about the country before they made the decision to come here. Their decision had been based mainly on the fact that it is located in the centre of Europe, it is safe, and in Kalyn’s opinion, it gives her an opportunity to do things on her own, living outside of the rather large groups of Americans that she expected would be in Spain or Italy.
Once they announced their decision to study in the Czech Republic, the reactions of their social surroundings were quite optimistic. All three interviewees said that everyone was excited and curious about their destination. People asked a bit more than they do when someone is planning their semester in Southern European countries or major cities. The one thing people around Kalyn, Adam, and Cal knew about the Czech Republic was that Prague is the capital. And thus, many of them, focused on this information, keep asking about Prague, not realising the interviewees are in Brno.
But it seems there were no negative or fearful reactions. Some joked about communism and some talked about the “good old Czechoslovakia”. But even when asked directly, the three interviewees said that no one’s scepticism, even though there are people of three different states in question (Chicago (IL), Orlando (FL) and Jonesboro (AR)), exceeded natural concerns expressed by their parents.
This might be surprising for the Czech readers, as “Why are you here?” is one of the first and most common questions the interviewees were asked by Czechs. It seems like the natives of these parts of the world are still more convinced of the unattractiveness and drabness of their own country than people from beyond its borders, or in this case, people from beyond the ocean. The interviewees said that besides this big question, people they met here were also excited to meet Americans, even though Adam encountered some that were “stand-offish”.
Although probably not judged as negatively as some might expect, the Czech Republic, its culture and people are still quite unknown to the overseas population. Kalyn, Adam and Cal had to google most of the information before they came here. They were more or less acquainted with the location of the country, they knew a bit about its role in WWII and had some vague notions about it as a part of the Eastern Bloc. But two of them read a bit of Wikipedia anyway and Kalyn was also trying to read some of the Czech literature that’s been translated to English. Cal was less attentive to the future. He did not bother searching the internet for more than the data concerning the study programmes at the Masaryk University. Having been to Prague, he thought the information about the country gathered there to be sufficient. It was a surprise for him to find Brno to be much smaller and different from Prague, but “cosy” anyway.
The interviewees said that compared to Prague, Brno is cheaper, smaller, calmer, easier to get around and Adam is convinced that it “feels totally Czech”. To continue with the positive impressions, Cal said people in Brno are friendly and people in supermarkets are helpful (even more so, once they discover he does not speak the local language). Adam disagrees. He thinks customer services here lacks the politeness that is customary in the US. In his view, the people in the Czech Republic are “not rude, but not pleasant either”. Such observations are not too scarce, since Adam and Kalyn said that some of the other American students find the people in Brno to be “less smiling, more heads down”. We are, apparently, not a people of small talk. Kalyn and Adam themselves, however, do not find this kind of behaviour to be abnormal in any way. Kalyn comes from the big city in the North (Chicago), where the weather is cold so “you just put your head down, and go where you are supposed to get and you don’t talk to people along the way”.
Czechs, in Cal’s view, also seem to go out more and they do not pre-drink before hitting clubs as much, as alcohol in pubs and clubs is much cheaper here than in the US. Because of this, we Czechs are not hurried by the need to get drunk before going out, so we seem to have the tendency to pass out less (to be fair, there is no serious collection of data to support this statement).
In Kalyn’s view, people in the Czech Republic have a tendency towards “public display of affections”. To her, such behaviour seems to be more common here than in the USA. In Adam’s opinion such behaviour is quite characteristic for the whole Europe, but the Czech Republic in particular.
The burden of adult responsibilities seems to be cast over the Czech university students earlier in life than over the American students. Besides the regular requirements, which are no different from those in the US (printing, canteen systems and such), Adam mentioned having his own kitchen and cooking for himself, which he does not do in the US. And Kalyn told me a story of a shuttered lightbulb and power blackout. She and her roommate went to the front desk to report the incident. They expected a maintenance guy to come and fix it, instead they got a new lightbulb and oral instructions on how to flip the switch.
Such experiences shape the way the Czechs are perceived by the three interviewees, other foreigners and their friends at home, and thus, in part, the relations of people of the Czech Republic and the US. But in what way do the administration and other corporate parts of the system influence the paths of migration and immediate contact of these two nations?
As far as the visa was concerned, neither Cal nor Kalyn had had any major problems getting them. Yet Kalyn mentioned that “for Czech visa you have to do a lot more than for visas for Spain, Italy or France”. Cal also mentioned that one needs a proof of admission to the university, a proof of health insurance, enough money on their account and a proof of residence. Adam, on the other hand, felt a bit uneasy about the Czech administration as the date of departure was approaching. The visa had not been approved yet and no one was picking up the phone. So Adam called them again, and even though they answered this time, he did not feel they wanted to “help as much”. He compared the Czech administration to the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) in the US (for those who watch The Simpsons, this is where Patty and Selma work – an awful, annoying place).
No matter the differences, all three interviewees agreed on one thing: Czech bureaucracy is “slow-moving” and complicated, partly because the set of instructions and deadlines is not explicit and detailed enough. Based on what Cal said it seems that even though the system in the US is more complicated “in a sense they have you apply for things” the paperwork “is done somewhat quicker”. Plus they give you exact instructions on the dates and details of the procedure and your obligations.
There was not much administration concerning the exchange program on the US side. Cal had to have his degree recognised. Although it was done in a day (fast compared to the Czech standards), he had to travel five hours to Tallahassee to get the recognition (too far compared to the Czech standards).
It turned out that Adam and Kalyn only had to pay for the program (money that was intended for the Masaryk University in the end) to their university or an agency and they did all the work for them. Thus it seems, at least to me, that what the Czech bureaucracy puts on the shoulders of an individual, the US administration deals with between individual offices without further extensive contact with the citizen. On the other hand, the Czech Republic attracts the US students by much lower university fees.
One of the last questions I asked the three interviewees intended to find out how easy or how difficult it is to get from the US to Brno. It seems that usually most of the travelling happens in the US. One has to get to the nearest airport, which provides a flight to one of the US international airports. The flights from these airports can then get people to Europe. Cal flew first to Lisbon, then to Vienna, and finally took a train to Brno. Adam chose a route through London and Prague. Kalyn had the easiest route – from her home city to Edinburg, where she spent some time and came to Brno via Prague. After such a long journey, many visitors might prefer to stay in Prague, because that is the city they know is worth travelling to. Yet once the three interviews for this article were finished, I realised that once the Americans from overseas (at least these three) came to Brno, they do not seem to regret it. They enjoy the time spent here and thus work on the positive mutual perception and relation of the citizens of the Czech Republic and the US.
Nika Göthová is an MA student of the Faculty of Arts. She studies predominantly English and History, yet she also enjoys attending random subjects at other departments. Considering the main focus of her studies, she is supposed to enjoy reading which she doesn’t as much as she should. Nika is, however, obsessed with book ownership, since she highly appreciates the immediate availability of various kinds of literature. She also loves discussing various topics – even if she does not know anything at all about them – provided someone offers a fresh or an enlightening view on the topic in question.