In 1949, just after the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia, Oldrich Cerny went into exile. His family's problems had begun during the Nazi occupation, as his father was a well known Czech patriot, and the communists looked on the family with similar suspicion. From exile Oldrich Cerny remained loyal to his home country and was one of the founders of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences, a network of university teachers and scientists in exile. To this day he is still working to build bridges between Czechs abroad and back home. Living in Switzerland, he always dreamed of seeing his native Prague again and here he describes the strange mixture of familiarity and foreignness that he encountered on his first visit after the Velvet Revolution, in January 1990.
"In one sense the city didn't change, because under the communists not much was done. The city was shabby but you could recognize it, you could go everywhere and you knew where you were. For me, obviously, it was a great satisfaction, coming back after such a long time. It wasn't that we would spend the whole 41 years thinking of Prague every day. No, it was something you accepted. Of course we were very much convinced that communism would be defeated, but nobody knew when. So in that sense it was even more a great satisfaction.
You know, my Czech is pretty good, so nobody really realized that I lived more than 40 years outside the country. But then there were new expressions I didn't know at all. Like for example "obloha". I went to a restaurant and the waiter asked me what kind of "obloha" [side dish] I want to have with my meat. The only meaning I knew for "obloha" was "sky", but of course he was talking about what you get with your meat, which to me was "prikrm" or something like that. So that was different. And there were new names of the streets which I didn't know about at all. But otherwise, as I said, not much changed in Prague."
(Last month Oldrich Cerny was granted the Order of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the highest honour awarded by the Czech state to people who have served the country from abroad.)
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