Katrin Taussig was born in Slovakia but spent nearly half of her life in Prague, where she lives with her Czech husband and two daughters. What are her memories of the split of Czechoslovakia 25 years ago? Does she want her kids to be able to speak Slovak? And where does she feel at home today?
“Actually, it was originally not the idea. I was thinking about several countries. One of the options was Vienna, because I speak German as well, but at that time there were quite many unemployed doctors there, so I didn’t really have much chance to get a job.
“I was also thinking about Great Britain, but at that time we had visas as Slovak citizens and I didn’t get it.
“At that time, my sister was actually living in Prague. Prague is a beautiful city, so I thought it might be an idea. I tried to get a job and the only interview that I went to turned out to be successful.
“It was at the Military Hospital, where I started to work. I thought it would be just for a few months, maybe one or two years, but I have been here already for some 16 years.”
I imagine at that time, many of your colleagues were trying to leave Slovakia, looking for better jobs abroad.
“Yes. In the hospital, for example, I didn’t really have much possibility to speak Czech, except with the patients. Most of the employees at the time came from Slovakia, including the doctors and nurses. So I spoke just Slovak with the staff.
“For example out of the ten people in our circle from the University, about four of us ended up in the Czech Republic.”
Are Slovak doctors still leaving the country as much as they used to or has the situation improved?
“I don’t know much about the Slovak conditions, since I live here, but I think the financial situation in Slovakia has definitely improved over the past years. But I think the level of care and the possibilities are still better here.”
Together with your Czech husband, you are bringing up two daughters, aged eight and ten. What language do you speak at home?
“I like to travel to Bratislava as well, but my home is in Prague.”
“I speak Slovak and my husband speaks Czechs and both of them speak both languages. Actually, my older daughter started in English-speaking kindergarten, so she really didn’t speak any Czech until the age of four or four and a half.
“My younger daughter didn’t spend so much time in the English-speaking kindergarten, so she didn’t speak any Slovak. She spoke just Czech and I thought that that maybe she wouldn’t even start with Slovak. But she started, only a bit later, at around the age of five.”
“I think that my older daughter’s Slovak is still much more fluent. For the little one, Czech is still the dominant language.”
The Czech and Slovak languages are actually so close to each other that many kids growing up in bilingual families tend to choose just one of the languages.
“It’s true. Actually, many of my Slovak friends who live here, even though they are mixed couples, stick with Czech only. Maybe it’s because because some of them tend to speak Czech even to their kids and partners. So the kids don’t hear the language so frequently.
“It is of course their choice and I wouldn’t have any problem if my children decide not to speak Slovak in the future. It is their own decision.”
And is it important for you that they maintain the language?
“My mother tongue is Slovak, so I decided to speak Slovak with them. I think it was a good decision, because I can give them much more emotionally.
“Sometimes, people don’t even recognize that the children are from the Czech Republic, until they start talking to each other in Czech. I don’t realize it anymore, but they talk to me in Slovak and they use Czech when talking to each other.
“Of course it is nice that they speak two languages. I think it gives them more options how to express themselves.”
And do you read Slovak books to them?
Yes, I have quite many of them from my childhood and I don’t really think about whether it’s in Czech or in Slovak. I see a nice book and I take it.
“Just recently one of my daughters brought one of the books to school, because they were supposed to bring some book. And the next day I received an e-mail sent to all of the parents, which said: It’s fine when the children bring their books but it would be better if they bring it in Czech.
“At that moment I realized that I have to think whether I pick up a boom in Czech or in Slovak. So both of my daughters are able to read in Slovak.”
As a doctor, when you speak to your patients, do they always understand you or do they sometimes require that you speak Czech to them?
“Honestly, I don’t have any problem with both Slovak or Czech, but I usually speak Czech. The atmosphere in this country is very friendly to the Slovaks.
“I think it’s very positive that the relationship between Czechs and Slovaks stayed so nice.”
“Usually, I start to speak in Czech, but often, when people here that I make a mistake, they say: Oh, you come from Slovakia, why don’t you speak Slovak!
“So when I feel that the patients are OK with it, I switch to Slovak, because I more comfortable with it. But I never had any bad experience with one or the other. No one ever complained about my Slovak or my Czech, which is definitely not perfect.”
Did anyone ever treat you disrespectfully because of your nationality?
“The only situation happened maybe one year after I came here. I went to a performance in a theatre and there was some other doctor, who probably wasn’t very happy with her job position.
“She asked me about my job and of course I was happy about my post in the military hospital. And she started to be verbally aggressive, saying that it was strange that us as Slovaks get a better job than the Czechs.
“But that was the only bad experience I remember, which is not bad considering that I have lived here for sixteen years.”
In January we mark 25 years since the split of Czechoslovakia. What are your memories of that event?
“That was quite a difficult time for us, because our family was definitely against the separation. Especially my father was very unhappy about it and he was really very seriously thinking ofmoving to the Czech Republic.
“Honestly, I was 15 at the time and I didn’t really care about politics. Finally, we decided to stay in Slovakia, especially because of my grandmother who would stay alone there. So my mother didn’t want to leave. And I think that even my father is now happy that he stayed.”
And what about you? Do you keep in touch with your relatives and friends in Slovakia and do you visit the country regularly?
“Yes. We go there maybe once in two months. We visit mainly my father. My mother passed away some nine years ago, so he is alone there. I have some friends there, although not as many than in the past.
“These are the reasons why I still travel there with the kids. I also want the children to keep the memories of going to Bratislava and so on.”
Would you say that the relationship between Czechs and Slovak has changed over the years?
“I think it improved. At the time of the separation, people who preferred the separation tended to see the Slovak State in a positive way. I was very sensitive to that, because I think it was a Fascist country at the time. And today I think it is very different.
“I think it’s very positive that the relationship between Czechs and Slovaks stayed so nice. I think it is a good example for other countries in the world. And I think especially intellectuals both from the Czech Republic and Slovakia have no problems with each other.”
And do you regard Prague as your new home?
“Definitely. I feel at home here. It took some while, it didn’t happen immediately. For the first three years I was always going ‘home’, when I travelled to Bratislava. I would say to my friends and colleagues: ‘I am travelling home for the weekend’.
“Later on I felt like having two homes. And I think it took me about ten years before I said: OK, here is my home now. I like to travel to Bratislava as well, but here is my home, here is my family, my children and my husband. I have all my professional background here.
“So I definitely feel at home here and would like to stay here. I hope it’s going to be possible for the future and I am very happy here. Yes.”