Yuko Fridrišek and I are sitting in Cafe Mitte, having our first iced coffee of the season. It is a sunny Sunday morning and close to 2000 people are just running through the city centre where a 10-kilometre race and a half marathon are taking place. Yuko’s Czech husband is running, too. Sipping on a coffee is our way of rooting for him.
Yuko comes from Tokyo, Japan, but don’t be fooled, this interview is happening in Czech. For the past 7 years, her home has been the Czech Republic – mostly Brno. When I suggest we speak English, she politely declines. “It is easier for me to think in Czech,” she explains.
The level of her Czech is extraordinary. She uses expressions I rarely hear from native speakers. She never runs out of vocabulary and doesn’t need to help herself out with an occasional English word.
Why did she start learning Czech in the first place? For her studies. Why would she need Czech for her studies? Because she fell in love with Gypsies. That’s right.
“In Japan universities have 3-month long summer breaks. At my university in Tokyo, we had an even longer summer vacation. One summer I decided to go volunteering to Europe. I was working in a children’s home in Bulgaria where I first met with Romani children,” recalls Yuko.
She became intrigued by the Romani culture and chose it for her research. She knew it would take her to the Czech Republic so she found a Czech exchange student in Japan and started learning the language.
And she soaked up Czech culture so much that her email address now includes the word topinka (toasted bread) and her favourite pub snack is nakládaný hermelín (pickled camembert).
“I even tried to pickle camembert for my parents back in Tokyo but they weren’t too keen,” she says laughing. Do Mr and Mrs Karasawa support her decision to live in Europe? “They let me make my own decisions. Maybe they would prefer if I lived in Japan but they never comment on it. So I take it they support me.”
Yuko’s parents have been to the Czech Republic twice, she goes back to Tokyo every winter for the New Year’s celebration. What does she like to bring back to Brno? “Rice, sauces, spices, seaweed, saké for cooking, green tea, and sweets.”
And also clothes. “For example, I would buy a plain white t-shirt or a sweater there because you get a better price for better quality.”
She feels at home in the Czech Republic. She also lived in Prague but prefers Brno for its size and pace of life. “In Tokyo, there are 13 million people. Every morning you get on an overcrowded train to go to school or work and every evening it is the same back home,” she compares.
In Brno, she also enjoys the culture – art cinemas, small cafés, music clubs… And Gypsy bands. One even played at her wedding. She now focuses on modern Romani music in her PhD studies at the Masaryk University. Her field of interest is Gypsy pop, hip hop and such.
Besides that, she teaches Japanese and calligraphy. Japanese children learn the visual art of writing as part of the Japanese language at school. Here the courses are meant for adults. “Calligraphy is relaxing and meditative,” Yuko believes.
And Czechs could use a little bit of meditating. Sometimes they can be difficult to deal with, especially when it comes to local authorities or customer service. “It surprises me when people are not able to own a mistake and apologize and they argue with you instead.”
Still, Yuko doesn’t see much difference when it comes to comparing Czechs and Japanese. Rather than judging a nation, she judges each individual based on their personality.
By the way, even without training much this year Yuko’s husband finished the 10k run in just over an hour.
And next year Yuko will run, too.