Rachael Weiss is an Australian author with Czech roots, who has just published her second book about Prague, based on her own experience of living in the Czech capital. The memoir, called The Thing about Prague, is chock-full of entertaining stories about how she went about looking for a job, finding an apartment and trying to blend in with Czechs. On the occasion of the book launch, I asked Rachael Weiss what made her write yet another book dedicated to Prague:
“I think the fact is that I love Prague and that’s why I found myself writing about it again. When I left Prague I wasn’t writing very well. I went and got an ordinary job and then I spent some years not writing at all and wondering whether I would ever write again.
“But somehow the story of Prague kept on writing itself in my head and I had loads and loads of notes. So in the end I have put them all together and I wrote more and more and then I sent it off to the publisher.”
You first came to the Czech Republic just for a year and then you wrote about that experience in your first book, called Me, Myself and Prague. Then you decided to come again, and that’s the point where your second book starts. You say in the book that you decided to come because you didn’t have anything better to do. Would you say that this is why most expats come to the Czech Republic?
“I honestly couldn’t speak for other expats, expect to say that generally expats are people who have a curiosity, for whom staying in the one place is not enough. And that was certainly true with me.
“So definitely when I came to Prague for the first time, I was thinking: I want to at least have lived in another city I don’t want to die before I have done that. And then I got a taste for it and I could not, even less than before, stay in one place.”
“It also was that I was getting older. I was forty and midlife was hitting. And I had done nothing. I hadn’t got married, I didn’t have children and I had a career which was just OK. So there was that sense: What have I got to lose? What am I actually doing? Nothing. So I may at least try something.”
You also say that one of your resolves while coming here was to blend in with the Czechs and not hang out with the expats: Did you succeed? And how hard is it to become part of the Czech society?
Well I think that depends on which bit of Czech society you are talking about. I succeeded with the English speaking Czechs, so I became a part of the Spanish synagogue. And I succeeded very well there in integrating in real Czech life with real Czechs.
“So the ones I became genuinely good friends with spoke English, because my Czech was not good enough. I also had Czech friends who didn’t speak very much English but we managed to communicate in some way.
“So I don’t think it’s true to say that Czechs are not welcoming. I think the opposite, as a matter of fact. I find Czech warm and lovely and wonderful, really. Obviously, not Czech bureaucracy, that was appalling.”
As you have already mentioned, you have actually ended up leading services in the Spanish synagogue. How did that happen?
“That was absolutely hilarious. In Sydney I belonged to a big synagogue and I would go there every Friday, so I knew the service fairly well. I was really involved in the life of the synagogue there.
“So when I came here and I was wondering how to get involved in Czech life, the obvious thing for me to do was to go along to the synagogue. So I went along and told them: How can I get involved? And it turned out there were only about six people turning up every Friday, keeping it going on a shoestring.
“So I ended up doing different things there: helping them with their grant writing and helping with things where they needed an English speaker. But then one thing they did need was someone to lead the services.
“I don’t know it that well and a couple of times it went really badly and forgot the key things and failed in the middle of things. But no one really notices in the end. All you need is someone standing up there, kind of leading. And so I did it. It was kind of terrifying but it was fun.”
Another experience was your search for job, because you couldn’t find a job for a long time.
“I think that was a real difficulty for me. Perhaps if I had come here and I had a job with a big company, my life might have been quite different. But I didn’t, so I had to find work. And I didn’t want to teach English because I didn’t want to be in the expat crowd. I wanted a real job with real Czechs.
“So I found a job in a hotel writing their website. And I think the trouble with being an immigrant was that you are vulnerable. And my boss was supposed to be helping me get a visa and of course he bailed on that. He was kind of insane, and lots of people used to work for him but none of them lasted for more than a year.
“And I think that was symptomatic of lots of positions that I imagine immigrants all over find themselves in. You are vulnerable to however crazy your employer choses to be. You have no recourse to the law. If it all falls apart you just leave and in the end I did leave.”
So the trouble with the visa made you leave earlier than you expected? Because at the beginning you actually came with the idea to stay for ten years.
“Yes, it’s true that at one point I do say I was going to stay for ten years and I had this plan of writing a book a year and in the end I would be a world famous author. It didn’t quite work out that way.
“So I did leave. In fact the visa sorted itself because I got a živnostenský list (Czech trade license). But then in the middle of one year I went to an accountant who said I was on the wrong visa. So when I went to renew it, I had two different bits of official papers which said I did two different things and the authorities were simply irreconcilable. And there was no help to be had. The system just ground to a halt and spat me out in the end.”
Still you stayed for quite a long time, so what did this stay in the Czech Republic teach you? What qualities do you think a person should have to stay abroad among people who speak different language?
“I think the people who are the most successful at it are people who really enjoy being somewhere different and don’t mind not feeling or looking like other people, so possibly they are always people who never felt or looked the same and now, because it is legitimate, it feels ok.
“I don’t quite know how I have changed by that experience. That I have changed, there is no question about it. Particularly for an Australian there is a big difference being right in the centre of Europe, where everything is happening right at the doorstep. It’s been very interesting being steeped in the all this European history which so formed the place where I grew up.
“Because you meet so many people from so many different walks of life, you take on a much more malleable and flexible way of thinking about people and things. To what extent that has occurred with me, I honestly don’t know. I just now it happened.”
What did you learn about Czechs?
“I love the Czechs. They are hilarious and funny. I think, strangely with the Irish, they share the characteristics of people who were constantly conquered and ran over: a certain humility, a certain sharpness of sense of humour and a certain ability to withstand things that happen to them and not lose the sense of their Czechness, and also a keenness to travel abroad.
“I really enjoy the way the Czechs love things like tea houses and the way they grab hold of things like world music and then mix it all up together. I think that at the absolute core it is what happens to people when they are constantly conquered – it actually turns them into really lovely people.”
Before coming to Prague, you worked as mid-level administrator in Sydney and the book leaves you as mid-level administrator working in England, You also say: “I wonder if it was worth of it all, to realize how lucky I am to live this peaceful, well-ordered life.” Do you still have the same job and do you enjoy?
“Yes, I am still a mid-level administrator and I don’t think I’ll ever be anything else. And do I enjoy it? I absolutely do. I have a lovely job right now in Ireland. It is an absolute pleasure to walk into my office, which is perfectly ordered and everything works and I get a pay check at the end of the month. I live a lovely ordered life.
“No question about it, one of the most interesting things about my experience was the experience of being a migrant who was having no power. So I am acutely aware now of how lucky I am that I am white and that I have money and that I am educated and that I have access to a calm, orderly life. I never lose gratitude for that. You asked me before how it had changed me and I think that’s probably the most profound experience."
“It’s wonderful. I have been back here three or four times. I have got really close friends, I really love them and it feels fantastic. Honestly, it feels like home. That’s what surprised me the first time I came back. That sense of: Oh, I didn’t even realize it - this is now my second home.
“And so my latest thing is, there is apparently a hiatus in the law and this year only I can apply for Czech citizenship. So I am applying for Czech citizenship.”
“The Thing about Prague was the name suggested to me by my poet friend. And she also suggested the Franz Kafka quote at the beginning: “Prague, the dear little mother, has sharp claws”.
“And I think that that is the thing about Prague. The thing about Prague is that it never lets you go. Quite what it is and why it never lets you go, I don’t know. But I am with Kafka on this one. It never lets you go.”