Of foreigners and perception of reality

14-02-2004

So many times in the Letter from Prague, my foreign colleagues have expressed their views of differences, big and small, between what they had been used to before moving to Prague and the Czech reality. Different aspects of life in the Czech Republic seem to never cease taking foreigners by surprise - from the cuisine to city transport to mail delivery. But there is a huge difference in the perception of the gravity of different issues in this country, even in foreigners who have been here for a substantial period of time. Something a Czech may take for a trifle, a foreigner would say: "Hey, that's such an interesting aspect." It isn't my dear, believe me.

Prague city transportPrague city transport But talking about foreigners and perception, the perception of foreigners by Czechs has also evolved. Long gone are the euphoric years after the fall of communism when anyone coming from the West was taken for more skilled and experienced, better qualified, and was automatically be given a better position and better pay than Czechs. Some of the foreigners coming in sincerely wanted to help the poor country revive from the plight of forty years of communism, modern-day apostles of democracy, civil liberties and free market. Others were adventurers hoping to make a quick fortune. But there were also failures, flops and losers escaping misfortune at home, some of them leftist idealists who could never understand the reality of "real socialism", the sort of people that this country needed the least. Unfortunately, they, too, sometimes made it to high posts.

We can trace a similar pattern in the economy. When the first post-communist governments were seeking foreign partners for Czech industries, they hoped for the introduction of new technologies, access to new markets and improvement in corporate culture. But let me mention three names: Skoda, Tatra and Aero. There are more, but these three are or used to be familiar to a large part of the world. Skoda was sold to German Volkswagen, a step many viewed nearly as a heresy - passing our national pride to the hands of an expansionist neighbour. Skoda is now the country's biggest exporter and a sought-after employer paying wages way above the national average.

The other two - now former - prides of Czech industry were less fortunate, having been entrusted to the hands of American companies. Lay-offs, indebtedness, loss of markets, government intervention - their fate has been quite similar.

One can only guess how much of it was caused by incompetence, bad luck, or different perception of the Czech reality.

14-02-2004