Prague, Czech Republic – Robin and Kamila met in Prague in 2010. He was a French Erasmus student, discovering for the first time the wonders of Bohemia. She was a native from Moravia, who moved to the Czech capital for her work and studies. Eight years, a wedding ceremony and one little boy later, they reflect on their decision to choose Prague to raise a family and build their careers.
Prague: a choice of heart and reason
After multiples trips back and forth, countless Skype calls and carefully weighing the pro’s and con’s, Robin and Kamila chose to stay in Prague rather than moving to Paris. The reasons, although diverse, can be summarized in one simple observation. “The quality of life in Prague is incredible and hard to find elsewhere”, Robin told me when I met with them in their newly refurbished flat of the Holešovice neighbourhood.
The City of lights simply cannot match what Prague has to offer. “Even with a lower income, all aspects of daily life are much easier, affordable and enjoyable: housing, transport, eating, nightlife…” – quite coincidentally, a few days after our meeting, a new study of Europe’s richest regions in terms of purchasing power per capita was released: Prague was ranked 7th, while the Paris region came in 9th.
“Even with a lower income, all aspects of daily life are much easier, affordable and enjoyable: housing, transport, eating, nightlife…”
For instance, Prague has one of the most reliable public transport systems in the EU – music to the ears of regular RER or RATP commuters – with dozens of metro, tram, and bus lines accessible around the clock for around 15 euros per month (for long-term residents). And this applies to any other number of aspects of daily life in a city which combines a vibrant arts scene, historical and cultural gems as well as numerous green and relaxing spaces – “Stromovka! You absolutely need to visit Stromovka!” they told me, referring to a former medieval hunting ground turned into a vast park located in Prague’s 6th district.
“But do you ever get tired of Prague?” I asked, even though I myself could not really picture how this could be possible. “Well, if we do, we have plenty of options of one or two-day trips in the Central Bohemian region. You only need to take your car, drive a few miles, and you find yourself in the middle of breath-taking landscapes”, Robin told me. Even for people – like me – who don’t own a car, they were right: either by bus, train or bike, natural wonders and postcard sceneries are only a few kilometers away. “And we also visit often my family in Moravia”, Kamila added. “People there are much nicer, more welcoming than in Prague. Moravia is our favourite get-away destination for weekends and holidays.”
“You only need to take your car, drive a few miles, and you find yourself in the middle of breath-taking landscapes”
One of Europe’s most dynamic and promising economies
But that’s not all. The general sense of well-being is also due to the overall social, political and economic situation of the Czech Republic: the low level of insecurity, the promising economic outlook and astounding growth rate (+4,5%), as well as the healthy labour market – an unemployment rate of 3,7%, one of the lowest in Europe, compared to France’s staggering 9,7%. It all adds up.
Some companies and entire industries even have trouble finding people to fill in their positions. “This is why international candidates are an increasingly attractive bunch”, Kamila told me. When I raised the question of the language barrier, they promptly brushed off my worries: “Not speaking Czech is not necessarily an obstacle. Many foreign companies operate both in traditional sectors of the industry and in advanced technological fields here”. No wonder the number of foreigners living in the country is quickly rising, reaching almost 500.000 last year (out of a population of less than 11 million).
Practical tips for a smooth integration
Despite active expat communities, I remember feeling slightly lost when I first moved here. “Don’t give too much credit to the first contact with Czechs”, Kamila reassured me. “They often appear cold and distant, and it might take longer to create a rapport and build personal relationships with them. But it’s worth it”, she added with a smile. Reflecting on my own experience, I had to admit that she was right.
“Anyone who intends to stay in the Czech Republic for some time, should it be three months or five years, should learn the language”, advised Robin, who can now speak (almost) like a native speaker. I started to summon in my mind the phrases I had recently learned, but was too slow. “Don’t expect to speak fluently in a few months” he added, as if seeing through my vain intention to show off, “Czech is incredibly difficult.
But even knowing a few words, phrases or common expressions will go a long way and will be highly appreciated, both in everyday situations and for professional contacts”. As Kamila explained more in detail, Czechs know how difficult their language is, and are also well aware, for the most part, how offsetting their cold attitude might seem to foreigners. So there’s no better way to break the ice than to clumsily stutter a few words.
Or so I thought. “Robin is being very politically correct”, Kamila interjected as I was about to move on to the next topic. “Apart from learning the language, the best way to adapt to local life here is to drink beer, and like it!”. A little-known fact is that Czechs are the biggest beer drinkers in the world (143 liters per year per capita), far outranking Germans or Austrians.
“Pivo” is inscribed and embedded in their culture. It’s also – a better-known fact – incredibly cheap, with a pint costing between one and two euros. Robin then went on to carefully explain the numerous rules and social etiquettes attached to beer-drinking in the country: “don’t make the rookie mistake of complaining about the amount of foam”, “try to put the coaster down before the waiter serves you”, “don’t be mistaken by the number of degrees indicated”, among many others.
“The best way to adapt to local life here is to drink beer, and like it!”
I was relieved: the world’s most enthusiastic beer drinkers could peacefully cohabitate with its most devoted wine lovers. Although there were, of course, a few cultural differences to overcome at the beginning. As could be expected, it all boiled down to food. “Living with Robin made me discover the famed French cuisine, its great diversity, finesse, and traditions. But the French… obsession with meals and cooking was at first very new and surprising to me”, admitted Kamila. While she was trying to expand on that in a gentler way, Robin kicked in. “That’s true. In France, eating is a moment of sharing, of exchange and conviviality; it can last for several hours, especially on weekends. But in the Czech Republic, people don’t spend much time on it. They also usually eat much sooner than French, around 7 pm”.
Apart from the timetable, one could easily guess that the camembert and saucisson addicts would probably gasp in horror at the sight of hermelin or utopenec. Although, as I listened to Robin starting to talk about his favourite hospodas (the Czech brasseries) with bright shining eyes, it looked like Bordeaux reds and goulash or Moravian whites and blanquette de veau might not be such a bad mix after all.
From Erasmus love to parenting life
Last year, they became parents. I asked them if this made them reconsider their decision to stay in Prague. “The way French and Czechs relate to maternity is very different. Here, the mother/child bond is extremely valued. Parental leaves are much longer than in France. A mother could stay on leave for three or four years if she wanted to. Plus, a new paternity leave took effect last February. It might have been more difficult if we had been in France”, Kamila explained. After further research, I discovered that Czech parental leave was indeed one of the longest in Europe and was, among other things, part of the government’s plan to combat the demographic decline of an aging population.
Robin and Kamila also know a lot of other bi-national couples who, for the most part, have met like them, in their early 20’s. “In most of the mixed couples we know, the woman is Czech and the man is an expat”, Robin told me. Data corroborates this: within the 5.000 bi-national weddings in the Czech Republic (around 10% of all marriages), the vast majority of them are between a Czech woman and a foreign man (mainly from Slovakia, Germany, England or the United States). Not only do Czech men marry fewer foreigners, they also look more to the East (Ukraine, Poland, Russia), while women tend to look to the West.
The story of Robin and Kamila is one of many. Every year, new Erasmus students flock to Prague for a semester or two abroad. For a few of them, this will be a life-changing experience. Five, ten or even twenty years later, you’ll still see some of them wandering the streets of Prague or Brno, Plzen or Olomouc, blissfully realizing that, in the end, overstaying a few more years might not be such a bad idea after all…