Not all our readers have met us face to face yet, so we are going on with the interviews introducing our Brno Expat Centre crew. This part presents a Brnopolis & BEC co-founder and the BEC lead consultant.
You’re Canadian, but you’ve been living here for over forty years. Some may wonder what made you stay here in the 70s.
One of the main things that brought me here in early 1969 was curiosity as to whether the country would be able to salvage something of the Prague Spring in the wake of the Warsaw Pact invasion (I’d visited Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968, and been caught up in the excitement of the time). What kept me here was the country itself – the beauty of its cities and towns and countryside – the richness of its cultural life and traditions (including its folklore), the Czechs themselves (so many interesting friends), my job at the university, and of course my family – my Czech wife and kids.
What was the most difficult for you in adapting to the local life at that time?
This may seem strange, but in fact I don’t recall any difficulties in adapting. Yes, in many ways it was a bit like being in a time warp, but even that was fascinating: for example, I could renew my love affair with steam trains, which by that time had vanished from Canada. But my life style was simple – I was used to life as a student (I’d just finished my studies), and I’ve never been one to surround myself with a lot of things.
And though at times there were shortages of material goods, they were never serious or long-term – especially in comparison with other countries in the Soviet bloc. I suppose what I missed most was access to English books and magazines and newspapers – lack of contact with the “outside” world. But even here I was in a very different situation than Czechs, since I could travel abroad, take my wife and kids to Canada, and so on. So I didn’t have the psychological problem of feeling I was trapped in a kind of prison.
If you look back at our Brnopolis vision of BEC in 2008-9 what has changed since then?
First, we’ve expanded our scope of activities immensely. In the beginning, what was foremost in our minds was the need to help foreigners by providing practical information that would enable them to make their way through the bureaucratic labyrinth or find the services they were looking for. But we discovered that, in addition to this, foreigners in Brno sadly lacked opportunities to meet other foreigners as well as Czechs, and were having difficulties in coming to feel more at home in the city. That led us to take an active role in organizing events of all kinds, events that both provide information and serve as occasions for creating broader communities.
The second major change has to do with professionalization – it’s almost embarrassing to look back at our early beginnings, how basic the information was that we supplied and how often we were unable to provide immediate answers. In theory we could have waited several months before starting up, spending the time in searching out information, setting up databases and so on, but in fact it was only by starting up operations that we were able to learn want foreigners here actually needed. Our boldness in going ahead as we did is a clear validation of the proverb that says “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
The third area in which we’ve seen major change is in the support we’re now receiving from many of the major local firms that employ large numbers of foreigners. Of course this is something we hoped would happen, but in the beginning, with no track record, it was very hard to convince them that the services we could offer would be of real benefit to them.
What can the Municipality do about helping the most qualified and talented foreigners to stay in Brno? And what is still missing in Brno to make it attractive to foreign nationals?
Make every effort, in cooperation with the South Moravian Region, to ensure that there are schools in Brno offering education in English at both the primary and the secondary level according to a recognized international curriculum. Without this, it will be impossible to attract, let alone keep, the most highly qualified and talented foreigners. Rather embarrassingly, at the moment Ostrava has two such schools!
In addition, the city should systematically employ English – in promotional materials, on its website, in its buildings, through its various firms, and so on. In fact it’s doing a good job in this respect (I love the trilingual information displays in the city’s trams – Prague’s are unilingually Czech!), but it could do more. By setting the example in this, the city will encourage other institutions to follow. English is the oil that makes the machinery of intercultural contact run smoothly.
Brno’s a very decentralized city. All the different bits in the mosaic that is Brno still live their independent lives to a certain extent, and it’s very hard to find out about everything that’s going on in the city. This is bad enough for Czechs, but much worse for foreigners living here. So there should be some central source where people can find, with the minimum of trouble, up-to-date and comprehensive information about what’s happening all around the city.
What can we (Czechs) learn from the Canadian multicultural environment?
Canada’s been a country of immigrants for over 400 years, so obviously there’s a basic difference between it and the Czech Republic. But the concept of multiculturalism as official policy is relatively recent, dating only from the 1970s. I think the key to the success of multiculturalism in Canada is the realization that, if you’re going to broaden the ethnic and religious mix of your society, you have to acknowledge that this is a two-way street. That is, the immigrants must accept the basic values of your society, but you, on the other hand, must be open to change, must accept at least the possibility that these new citizens can bring something that will enrich your society.
Your passion is literature. What Czech books would you recommend to read for those who don’t know much about Czech history and culture?
So much to choose from. Many Czechs would say Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk, but I detest the book, so I won’t go down that road. I’m a deep admirer of Milan Kundera’s The Joke: it gives a vivid sense of what it was like here in the Communist period, and for foreigners in Brno it has the added benefit of depicting the folk scene in southern Moravia. Bohumil Hrabal is a wonderful writer: perhaps his Closely Observed Trains (also the Oscar-winning film based on the novel) or I Served the King of England.
Most of Josef Škvorecký’s works are available in English; probably The Engineer of Human Souls would be most rewarding for a foreigner, though be warned: it’s a big book. Just recently there appeared in English Jiří Hájíček’s award-winning Rustic Baroque; the translation is by Gale Kirking, an American living and working in Brno. It’s another great read. I could go on and on, but the list would be endless: I’ll leave it at that.
Don studied English Language and Literature at the University of Toronto and the University of Oxford. He has visited most countries in Europe as well as the USA and Australia and a few places in Africa and Asia, first as a student hitchhiker and later in the course of his work as a translator, teacher and Director of the Office for International Studies at Masaryk University. He is slightly obsessed with Canada, Czechoslovakia, Brno, Moravian folklore, multiculturalism, architecture and the English language, and is open to good food and drink of all kinds.