Sunday, 20 February 2011

A Brit abroad in the Czech Republic


This month's guest post comes from Zoe Brooks, who divides her time between the UK and South Bohemia in the Czech Republic.

As an expat I feel a bit of a fraud. Why? Because I never exactly moved to the Czech Republic. It sort of grew on me. It is possible as a Brit, thanks to cheap flights, to have one foot in the UK and another in my (new) homeland. In fact it is cheaper to travel from the Cotswolds (where I was born) in England to my house in South Bohemia, than it is to travel by train from the Cotswolds to London. Weird eh? 

So how did it happen that I am sitting in a farmhouse in a South Bohemian village? I started coming here shortly after the Velvet Revolution and immediately I felt an affinity with Czech culture – I have a great love of puppets and fairytales, which the Czechs take very seriously. A dear friend  moved back to her home town of Prague and invited me over. I started to visit regularly. I think if she had stayed in Prague, however, I would never have bought a property over here. But she moved  to the fairytale town of Cesky Krumlov.

Cesky Krumlov

 Of course I came to visit and was simply blown away by the place. The town is a perfectly preserved Medieval and Renaissance jewel, with a Gormenghast castle set on a cliff overlooking two ox-bows in the River Vltava. In the summer it understandably is busy with tourists, but out of season, especially on one of those magical misty winter nights, when the light from the streetlamps is suffused by woodsmoke and ice particles hanging in the air, the past is present.

But it was the countryside of South Bohemia, the walks in the forests, the mountain streams, the lakes that led me to persuade my husband that we should buy a Czech hut in the woods. Instead of a hut I fell in love with a five-bedroomed farmhouse in need of some serious tender loving care and my husband, being faced with a fait accomplis, put his hands in the air and said 'Okay, but you're managing the project'. And what a project! It meant dealing with Czech builders, electricians and plumbers - I have learned never believe a Czech when they say 'yes, no problem' and negotiating my way through the Czech bureaucracy – where they seem to enjoy saying 'no'.

The builders

I was full of ideas at the beginning about what I might do with the property: we could retire there perhaps, I could rent it out as a holiday property. But always I saw it as somewhere I hoped I would write. The house has fulfilled that last promise. In 2007 I started my blog 'Adventures in the Czech Republic.' At the time I wasn't sure whether I would have sufficient material to sustain it, but here I am in 2011 and the house, the countryside and the Czech people continue to supply me with enough material to blog at least once a week.

About two years ago, a personal crisis had me questioning why I was working so hard in England at great cost to myself, when really what I wanted to do was be in my Czech farmhouse writing. My stays here lengthened until last year I was spending as much time here as I was in the UK. But I couldn't sustain myself with my writing. Almost by accident another door opened to me. I am a member of a local archaeological society in the UK, which every year goes on a foreign trip. The usual organisers had to pull out, I stepped in and the society came to South Bohemia and loved it. And I loved organising their trip and sharing my passion for this part of the world. I have a background in heritage and cultural management and a degree in History from Oxford University. I bit the bullet and set up Czech Tours Ltd. offering holidays and guided tours to South Bohemia. My time is still split between the UK and the Czech Republic, but inevitably as the business grows the percentage of my time spent in the Czech Republic also grows and grows. 

Of course there are challenges, not the least being I still have family and elderly parents in the UK. I have chosen to make my company a British one – not for tax purposes, but because of Czech red tape. Setting up a company here is a complex affair, there are issues over my not being a Czech citizen. Even for Czechs it is not easy – my friends here could not believe that a) I registered my British company online, b) it took half an hour, c) I can trade in whatever business I like. The converse side of this is how the Czechs deal with bureaucracy, which I still haven't got used to, which is very simply to find a way round it or even ignore it. Every Czech seems have a little book, in which they have the contact details of friends, and friends of friends, whom they call if they have a problem. I, of course, don't have such a thing. And I can't – my language skills are not up to the task – and I probably never will have, because I'm not Czech.

Being an expat feels strange – I am not Czech, I am the weird English woman who bought the farmhouse no one wanted; I am alien. The funny thing is when I'm in England I am homesick for Bohemia. In fact being an expat with a foot in each country I am homesick wherever I am. But I love both countries and I can't give up on either of them.  

The nearby countryside

 Zoe Brooks runs Czech Tours Ltd and blogs at Adventures in the Czech Republic.

2 comments:

  1. Czech Republic is Amazing! I'm going to Prague next month for a 6 night stag do. I expect the majority of this will be spent in a pub but hopefully we'll have a couple of days doing some sight seeing.

    Would you have any recommendations for me?

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  2. Wow. I flew back from Prague and was talking to a Brit who lived there and we were talking about the complexity of the bureaucracy. I complain about the Germans, but really the system does function; just slowly.

    Cesky Krumlov is cool. I only spent one day and one night there, but it was well worth it.

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