Michael George moved to Czechoslovakia in September 1992, just a few scarce months before the country split into two. Originally a rancher from Wyoming, he now teaches American and Cultural Studies at Masaryk University.
“I get homesick when I see a Marlboro commercial,” he says, “and I also miss that open friendly naivety of Americans – I recognize it in myself and that is why my Czech friends sometimes call me naive. That is the American part of me.”
What brought you to Czechoslovakia?
Curiosity. I was a child of the cold war. I grew up in the fifties, had nightmares about Stalin, was one of those who practised getting under their desk in a one-room school in a cornfield; practising ducking and covering for a nuclear attack.
I studied history and I was always curious about how revolutions worked, about how the individual reconciled his or herself to totalitarianism and what happens in that period of no gravity during a revolution or after.
Czechoslovakia was the only post-totalitarian country that would take me. I went to the library and researched any organizations that were doing anything in former Eastern Europe. I wrote letters and sent CV’s to farms. I sent out seventy letters or so, received three replies and they all said no. Then, just about the time I was rethinking my future, I got a letter from an organization called “Education for Democracy” located in Slovakia and looking for teachers. At the time it was the only job offer I had, so I became an English teacher.
Do you still remember what surprised you the most in that first couple of months?
We hadn’t gotten a lot of news about Czechoslovakia since 1968 but there was a lot of news about the Soviet Union. I assumed that the situation in Czechoslovakia – a political and economical satellite of the Soviet Union – would be even worse. But I was surprised that it wasn’t actually like that: that most of the shops and most of the shelves were not bare.
I was also struck by the use of titles. Any excuse to have any letter in front or behind a name would be used to pile them on. I was always asked for my title anytime I went anywhere or did anything. But it is a cultural thing and I have gotten so used to it that I don’t even realize it anymore.
You arrived in Brno in 1995. Do you think the city has changed in the past twenty-three years?
Oh yes, Brno has changed a lot.
I moved to Austin Texas in the early 1980’s and it was just taking off as one of the new age culture centres of America. I see the same thing happening here in Brno, as far as the life, the public, the welcoming of non-native people, or even the emphasis on the user-friendly infrastructure. Every time I go into the downtown part of Brno there are new shops that have just opened up, new advertisements, new construction. These are the signs of a city on the move. I have never seen anything like this except decades ago in Austin, Texas. All of the signs are there and I don’t see anything that Brno is doing wrong, I think that it is doing great.
What made you want to stay?
By the late 90’s, things seemed as if they were getting so routine and mundane here that I was actually seriously considering moving to Ukraine – so that I could see a younger revolution that was going on there at the time.
But then, I got caught up in this job – at Masaryk University. In the 90’s, culture studies were kind of an afterthought for language learning. Of course: if you can’t travel – if you can’t expect to leave your homeland for more than a month or two in your lifetime to study a foreign language – you don’t really worry about learning another culture.
I never thought of myself as a teacher, although I had taught a couple of years in the States. Then I was hired at Masaryk University to create a progressive curriculum, a curriculum that would actually accumulate the cross-cultural knowledge. So, that is what kept me here, I just got interested in my work.
How is your Czech?
One of the reasons why I came to Brno was to learn better Czech. Before Brno, I lived in a small town in Jeseníky mountains for two years and I couldn’t get my mind around Czech. There were no books written for learners or speakers as a second language. Then, I learned that there was a study program in Brno for foreigners.
I’m married and my wife is Czech. Before we had our son, we would speak Czech quite a bit. Now, I don’t want to ruin his Czech or his pronunciation. So, I mostly speak English with him. And my work is in English. I do have friends with whom I speak Czech exclusively but I would say that my life is predominately 70%-80% English, and that i still can’t get through a sentence in Czech without my quota of grammar mistakes.
Can you imagine moving back to the US?
One of the reasons why I can’t imagine going back is because my wife is a lawyer and American Common Law is completely different from European Continental Law.
We travel back to the United States every three or four years to visit my family. We recently visited this past summer but my family was pretty fractured by the political events at the time. It has become pretty bifurcated back home, I haven’t seen something like this since the 60’s.
Is there anything you still miss?
I get homesick when I see a Marlboro commercial. And I miss the seafood.
I like the openness of Americans. Almost every time I fly back into the States, one of the first things that strike me is that Americans will say almost anything to almost anyone. They just tell you their life story on the street corner waiting for the light to change.
That open friendly naivety – I like that, it’s me, and I recognize it in myself. That is why my Czech friends sometimes call me naive. That is the American part of me.