When Edward Meegan visited the Czech Republic as a tourist in 1993, he had no intention of staying. I talked to him twenty-five years later about his Czech-American family, his career and his life as an American in the Czech Republic. I started off by asking him about his initial decision to remain in Prague.
“It kind of just happened. I found myself in the Czech Republic as a tourist at the end of 1993. I saw that beer cost something along the lines of twenty-five cents, and there was this great atmosphere, in Prague especially. I think that at the time in comparison to Western Europe it felt gritty, and for me it was a little bit more like home in New York. This combination of the post-revolution energy and cheap beer and partying kept me here – at least for six months. Originally I thought I would stay just for those six months, but I kept extending it”
What was the Czech Republic like in 1993 in comparison to now?
“That’s a good question. When I first got here what really attracted me was the difference between Western and Eastern Europe. As I said, the Eastern European felt honest and more like home for me compared to the clean Western European cities. The other thing that really kept me here and that was fascinating about the Czech Republic was its insularity. As a small country it has a very strong sense of identity. For me, it was very interesting to get to know Czechs, the pub culture and also the intellectual culture, film, music, etc.”
“I also liked getting to know the Czech identity. There is a sort of identification with the country and small town life – even for big city people. Looking at it now, that is one thing that has changed the most. Between the first five years that I was here and the last fifteen years it has become very visible that the Czechs have really connected with the rest of Europe.”
Do you feel like they have lost that Czech heritage or feeling?
“I wouldn’t say that, necessarily. I don’t actually live in Prague. I live in Beroun, in a small village. I go to the local pub and I’m part of the volunteer fire department, and there you can see a very strong village identity. So I don’t think that Czechs have lost this feeling, but rather that it has been enhanced by this outward look.”
Are the villagers surprised that there is an American on their fire brigade?
“I think it’s kind of funny, and they think it’s funny, so yeah. You asked me earlier today about whether I think of myself expat or as an immigrant. As an American living here, you are certainly in a privileged position of being able to choose to be called an expat or an immigrant.”
“So for them it’s entertaining. My speaking the language also makes it less weird for them, so I think we can communicate quite easily and I’m not seen as some sort of strange alien in the village.”
Was it very difficult to learn the language?
“Yes, and I am always surprised that I speak it. In high school I studied German and Latin and I don’t speak either one very well right now. I started out here as an English teacher, so I had some motivation and time on my hands to learn the language. Being able to immerse myself in the language helped a lot and I think that something just kind of clicked when I met an Italian guy who told me that the only secret to learning a language is speaking. So you can’t learn it in a classroom or from books, you just have to not be scared of being embarrassed and to just speak as much as you can.”
Did you find it difficult to break into the Czech job market?
“I think I got quite lucky there, and I would say that for the first ten years I was in the ‘expat job market’ – teaching English for the first year and a half, and then working for an international NGO called the EastWest Institute. It was an international organization that was hiring people from all over Eastern and Western Europe as well as expats. I wasn’t actually in the Czech job market until around the year 2000, when I could speak Czech fairly confidently and could work for a company called Oskar at the time.”
Later you started working at Creative Dock, could you describe that to us?
“At Creative Dock we call ourselves a company builder. We are an organization that midwifes start-ups into the world. Up until now we have been working with corporations that see a disruption coming on the horizon in the next five to ten years and feel the need to innovate without necessarily having the resources or the attention internally to dedicate to that. At Creative Dock we help them define their ideas about what the future will look like, which is consultancy style work, but then we also help them create ideas for new start-ups and actually execute those start-ups.”
“At any one time we are running roughly ten start-ups which are in different stages of development, from just being launched to actually executing them for anywhere from one to three or five years. Right now I am the CEO of a start-up called HoppyGo, which is a peer to peer car sharing service. It’s basically like Airbnb for your car. I have been doing it for a year and we are currently in the process of handing it over to Škoda Auto, or Škoda Auto DigiLab, which is the corporate client who we built it for. So that is essentially what we do.”
Would you say that it’s been very successful?
“It was certainly the right time for a concept like Creative Dock. The company essentially started in 2012, and it was around the time that companies were starting to emerge from the financial crisis and were looking to find where the next source of growth was.”
Airbnb has recently been subject to criticism. Did you receive the same sort of feedback about HoppyGo?
“We are in a different situation. We are nowhere near as big as Airbnb, and in sharing your car, we are not impacting the price of cars in the way that Airbnb is impacting the price of real estate. People are not buying cars speculatively to make money on HoppyGo, it’s a bit of a different market structure.”
Do you plan on staying in the Czech Republic?
“Yes. In the first ten years that I was hear I always thought that I would leave within two years, but those two years kept moving further out. Now I can see myself here forever.”
You and a family here, and children, is that correct?
Was it difficult for the children to learn English?
“Not necessarily. I also think that there was some luck involved there. When they were very young I had the opportunity to work in Qatar, so we actually left the Czech Republic for two years when they were between the ages of two and four. There the languages were pretty much English and Arabic, and although they didn’t learn much Arabic, they did get a pretty solid base in English.”
Do they feel more Czech or more American?
“I think they do feel more Czech. They go to standard Czech school in Beroun, and all day they surrounded by Czech, even myself I speak Czech most of the day. At home I usually speak Czech to my wife, so we are usually mixing Czech and English words when speaking to the kids.”
And what was the biggest shock to you when you came to the Czech Republic, was it the food…?
“Hmm, the biggest shock was actually how friendly the Czechs were. I think they get a bad rap, and they even try to support this themselves, and it’s mainly because they are not that friendly to each other. But as a foreigner, and maybe as a Westerner at that time which was pretty rare here, people were very interested in talking to me. I found the stereotype, that there is a lot of frowning on the street, to not be the case. Maybe that is because when you meet people with a smile then they can’t help but smile back. Maybe that was forcing the Czechs out of their comfort zone, but it seemed that they were responding.”
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