Czech Life Love Across Cultures: Relationships between Czechs and Foreigners
In the past 20 years, Prague has attracted a number of foreign professionals, and many of them settle here permanently. With the Czech capital growing more international, relationships between locals and foreigners have also become more common. In this edition of Czech Life, we speak to some of those intercultural couples about their experiences and their everyday relationship life.
Bethany Adams and Tomáš Dočkal have been living together in Prague for nearly four years. Bethany is originally from Idaho, America, and Tomáš has grown up here in the Czech capital. The two are one of the city’s many intercultural couples, which seem to have become much more common here in the past decade. I asked Tomáš and Bethany how they first met.
“We met because I was working for his sister, I found a job teaching drama and English and his sister owned the school where I was working. And then she had a weekend trip for her school and he came and was kind of stranded there, and I was kind of stranded there, too, because my students weren’t there, so we ended up spending the weekend with each other.”
At that point, Bethany had only lived in the Czech Republic for eight months, and she moved in with Tomáš fairly quickly, a few months after they got to know each other. For both of them, it was the first relationship with someone of a different nationality, even though Tomáš says that he had met foreigners in Prague before and found it interesting to interact with them.
“I was around foreigners a lot in Prague, when I was a teenager. IT was a really cool and interesting thing for us to talk to people from around the world. There is a hostel in Žižkov close to my high school, and we went there all the time. It was this really cool hostel, full of hipsters and travelers, and we went there after school and then sometimes even instead of school and it felt really good to be taken in by these cool travelers.”
Michala Škrábová has a degree in psychology and is writing her dissertation on the topic of intercultural communication. I asked her if she agrees that factors like an increase in migration to the Czech Republic over the past 20 years have also lead to a growth in relationships between locals and foreigners.
“I was looking at some data from the Czech Statistical Office, and since 1995 to 2000, there were only one percent of intercultural marriages. But more recent figures of intercultural marriages are at around 3 to 4 percent. I think that is a very general number, because we don’t know how many such couples live together without getting married, or how many of them maybe get married in another country. But with the borders being open and more and more international companies moving into Prague, there are also more foreign professionals living here, so I think this is definitely a phenomenon that will stay with us in the future.”
Of course, a growing number of Czechs also spend time studying or working abroad. Rozálie Kohoutková, a young director who is in the process of finishing her thesis film for Prague’s famous FAMU film academy, met her French boyfriend Antonie when she was in Paris for an internship. Now, he is moving to Prague to live with her. I asked Rozálie if she is worried about him feeling at home here and if there are any points in which she feels their two cultures really differ.
“Already, we had to face some little problems, for example that Czech people don’t drink, and this is a big difference between Czechs and the French, we don’t really drink these small coffees in the morning, which in France is really common. On your way to work, you stop at a café and you have a small coffee. And that doesn’t really exist in Prague and he needs his coffee, he is dependent on it. So now I am trying to find a place that would be open that early in the morning and have good coffee, so that he can go there.“
Michala Škrábová, aside from focusing her research on intercultural psychology and communication, has also been in a romantic relationship with an Italian for the past nine months. I asked her if the Czech and Italian culture differ a lot.
“Czech people are not really a culture of dining or eating together. I think it also has to do with communism, we are used to just eat something that will fill our stomach but we are not used to communicating and enjoying the process, and the Spanish and the Southerners miss that.
So do you enjoy a lot of homemade Italian food now that you live with an Italian?
“Yes, I do. I am a very bad cook, honestly, and I now get to enjoy all of the advantages of having an Italian cook at home.”
Aside from such everyday aspects as different eating and drinking habits, intercultural couples also face more difficult challenges, says Michala Škrábová, especially when the relationship becomes a long-term one.
“I think at the beginning, it’s usually more positive, especially for people who like new things, getting to know something new to them. But when we go deeper into the relationship, communication becomes really important and can become more problematic. Because you never understand the small nuances, the humor and the way your partner behaves fully.”
Another factor, for some couples, can be the language barrier. I asked Bethany and Tomáš if they have ever felt that being from different cultures made it harder for them to get along, communicate or resolve problems.
“The language was an issue and kind of still is, but now, in terms of speaking English, the issues are minimal. Sometimes we get impatient with each other, when we have to repeat a sentence like ‘Did you do the laundry?’ That is not important at all, and if we have to repeat it three times, we get frustrated, but I think any relationship would have some problem like that.”
The couple speaks English most of the time, but Bethany enjoys practicing her Czech with Tomáš ’s family, who she says are very patient with her. For Bethany, the language barrier is less of an issue than their different attitudes towards what is romantic.
“It all seems really silly when I say it, but for some reason it matters when you are living it. I guess Americans and Czech people have a completely different idea of what is romantic, or how to be romantic, or how romantic you should be how often, so I think that is a difference.
Tomáš : “Yes, I agree. You only have to watch the movies with the translation. In American movies, people say ‘I love you’ all the time, and the Czech translation is: ‘Mám tě rád,’ I like you. So even from this, you can see that we are less straightforward, we keep our feelings more to ourselves.”
Being exposed to a different culture can also have a sort of learning effect on people, says Rozálie Kohoutková. After spending a lot of time in Paris, she has incorporated some of the Parisian habits she enjoyed into her everyday life here in Prague.
“For example, what I try to do in Prague, my hometown, is to be nice to be the people who work in the shops I go to, the Chinese girl who sells me vegetables, and so on. That is so normal in Paris, you wake up and you go to buy your bread and talk to the shop owners. And it is really just about asking some small insignificant question, but that kind of conversation makes interacting with each other much nicer.”
Despite factors that can be difficult, such as the language barrier or different lifestyle habits, the couples I spoke to seemed to appreciate the cultural differences. And sometimes, being aware of differences in culture also helps in accepting character traits of one’s partner that are quite opposite to one’s own, says Tomáš.
“One thing that is great about being with Bethany, or about being in a intercultural relationship, is that we are aware of the differences. Bethany knows that she talks more than I am used to. And I was talking with a friend about how that is, when our girlfriends talk too much and we are not that interested. And I told him that sometimes I just say to Bethany ‘Sorry, I wasn’t listening to you’ and she usually says ‘That’s probably for the better.’ And doesn’t get offended. And my friend was completely perplexed about that, because he would never dare to say anything like that.”
Bethany says that one thing she has learned from her relationship with Tomáš is that accepting the differences is much easier than trying to diminish them.
“I am not Czech, I am never going to be Czech; I am American. And just accepting and saying: I will not become Czech. That will never happen. I might change, my whole life has changed, but I am still an American, and I am never going to be like a Czech woman, even if I wanted to.”