Welcome back to American Expats, a series that shows you what expat life is like in cities around the world.
Today we're speaking to Cynthia, an English teacher living in the Czech Republic. Ahead, she talks about quirky Czech fashion, the live-and-let-live Bohemian lifestyle, and the food she craves when she's missing home.
In 2012, my husband (then-boyfriend) and I moved from Seattle to the Czech Republic to teach English. We originally landed in Prague, but we now live in České Budějovice, a small city in Bohemia two hours south of the capital. We're still here six years later with our sweet little Czech dachshund in tow.
On first impressions: When I arrived, I didn't know a lick of Czech or much about the culture or history. Regardless, the locals were so welcoming to us. Many offered to show us around, gave us maps with the best things to see, and lent us their bikes.
On the weather: The weather in southwestern Czech Republic is sunny and it rarely rains. The winters are harsher (comparable to the American Midwest) with temperatures dipping as low as about 10°F.
On making friends: It was pretty easy to make friends here, both expat and local. As I live in a small city (pop. 100,000), everyone seems to know everyone else, and people are eager to introduce you to their friends. It's a really open and welcoming community. Funnily enough, it was a little harder to meet expats than locals. That's life outside the big city for you.
On beer: České Budějovice is one of the beer capitals of Europe. Budweiser (Czech: budvar) originated here, but it bears few similarities to the watered-down version you find in the USA. Other popular brews are Pilsner Urquell, Kozel, and Staropramen.
On Czech food: Czech food is very hearty. I love the traditional Czech dish of pečená kachna (roast duck with sauerkraut and dumplings), but it's so rich I only have it once a year or so. You're more likely to find me with a big bowl of česnečka, which is a cheesy, garlicky soup served with croutons.
On learning Czech: Czech is an incredibly difficult language. I grew up studying Spanish and German, and Czech is totally different. My advice: if you want to learn Czech, take classes before you arrive in the country. Don’t be like me and wait a year or two to begin!
On healthcare: As far as I know, we have the same health insurance as the locals, which costs about $100 per month per person. It covers basically everything, but American in me still avoids going to the doctor whenever possible. But it's nice to know that when I do go, I can rest easy knowing there are no secret charges that will hit me later.
On the obsession with hockey: This is a hockey country, no doubt about it! Czechs still sing the praises about their gold medal in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. There is even a restaurant in Prague called “Nagano 98″.
On quirky Czech customs: Czechs always remove their shoes when they enter the house. They also say “dobrou chut’” (bon apétit) to everyone at the table (even strangers!) before eating.
Birthdays are also a big deal here — you should always come prepared with a gift.
On holidays: Easter is definitely an important holiday, with lots of local quirks. On Easter Monday, the men and children in the villages carry a braided “Easter stick” made from willow branches door to door and “smack” the women who answer! This is only to bestow good health and fertility upon them, crazy as it may sound.
There is also green beer and lamb-shaped cakes. Decoration-wise, there are lovely painted eggs you can buy at craft markets.
On the cost of living: The cost of living in the Czech Republic is very reasonable. In Prague, you can rent a room in a shared flat for $350-400/month. Obviously, it's even cheaper outside of Prague. Outside the capital, you can rent an entire flat for about $550/month, including utilities.
The only thing that drives me nuts is how much food costs here. For example, food costs about the same here as it would in Germany, even though Czech wages are comparatively lower.
On Czech fashion: Czech fashion doesn’t follow the current trends that you’ll see in France, Germany, and other Western European nations. People dress to the beat of their own drums. You’ll see lots of colorful hair, the shortest shorts ever, and super short haircuts, especially on women over forty.
What I like is that there are no limits. People are free to dress how they want – no skirt is too short, no heel is too high!
On the Czech work-life balance: People here work to live, they don't live to work. Nobody really talks about their jobs in social situations, to the point where I sometimes forgot people's professions.
On travel: Living in the Czech Republic, I love the proximity to other European countries. I once said that I’ll leave Europe once I’ve gotten my fill, but you can imagine how that’s going….
On vacation in southern France
On the best places to visit in the Czech Republic: My favorite destinations are Prague, Karlovy Vary (a spa town with thermal baths), and the wine country of Southern Moravia.
On missing home: I miss driving — having your own four wheels imparts some kind of special freedom. Sometimes I ache because I miss the ocean so much: the smell, the waves, island and boat culture. I keep a special stash of Alaskan smoked salmon that I bust open on holidays like Christmas or Easter. And I definitely hoard boxes of Annie's Macaroni and Cheese for days when I need my American convenience food.
On living in the Czech Republic long-term: I actually could see myself living here for a bit longer, as life is good for us on so many levels. There is such a tolerance and “live and let live” vibe that I’ve come to love and accept.
Thanks so much, Cynthia!