When I rushed down the stairs into our dining area for the first time in October to meet some of my fellow residents, I knew that this time I was the only Czech in the house. I happened to stand behind a very British-looking student with a Yorkshire accent. ‘What, on Czechoslovakia?’ I repeated in surprise when he told me of his dissertation topic. He was immersed into French newspapers from 1925-1926, investigating the history of a country that he never envisaged studying, yet which won his heart by its complexity.
‘Elizabeth … Janečková,’ the British journalist Misha Glenny called on me, proudly stressing the Czech surname. Along with his wife, he teaches UCL students how to write articles from op-eds to profiles. He didn’t have to mention that he studied in Prague – the impeccable way in which he pronounced my surname was enough. How did it happen that out of the five professors teaching me this term, three have learnt Czech? In fact, they all have a different profession – a historian, journalist, and linguist. It might be just the London bubble, I tell myself, but friends studying in York, Durham or Glasgow convince me of the contrary. ‘Czechoslovakia is a hit,’ a fried from Glasgow observes, so I inquire why.
The first type of Czechophiles are so-called heritage learners, people who decided to take up Czech because it was spoken by their parents or grandparents. As the Language Officer of UCL Czech and Slovak Society, I teach an American whose grandfather emigrated from Czechoslovakia. In a multicultural world the rediscovered family identity becomes an asset, and the knowledge of a niche language can help such student’s application for an internship at the American Embassy in pleasant and peaceful Prague. Even the former US Ambassador to Prague Norman Eisen returns to the story of his mother who left Czechoslovakia in his bestseller The Last Palace.
The second kind of Czechophiles is a generation of mostly journalists who had been dispatched by Western media – or otherwise happened to be in Czechoslovakia – when Communism was collapsing. They were in their twenties or early thirties, and so for the rest of their lives they have connected this central European country with a double feeling of freedom – both political and personal, as they roamed the streets of Prague as young reporters and where they often found themselves a partner too. This generation would include the mentioned Misha Glenny, but also David Vaughan, an author, journalist and for former editor-in-chief of the international Radio Prague.
The last category consists of affectionate lovers of Czechoslovakia – like my coursemate who intended to study European Studies with a focus on French and ended up writing a dissertation on Czechoslovakia, the tiny state whose history seems to encompass all that Europe has gone through in the past century. I meet him most often at the library door or making his tea. ‘I’ve been reading the whole day about Czechoslovak-Vatican diplomatic wars,’ he mentions, whereupon I rush to my room to google it, embarrassed he knows our history better.
I could go on and on – the outlined typology is far from exhaustive, and the given groups intersect and mutually encourage each other. What is more important is to ask: Is the phenomenon of Czechophiles invariable, following simply from the curious complexity of Czech language and un-black-and-whiteness of Czechoslovak history, or is it a lone wave, a matter of one enthusiast generation that has descended from emigrees or experienced the Velvet Revolution?
One thing is certain: there are dozens of keen and intellectually capable characters dispersed across the United Kingdom, who have reserved a special place in their hearts and minds for Czechia. This is a challenge and opportunity for Czech cultural and economic diplomacy, which in London especially has succeeded in running truly valuable events, connecting people, places and times. But it is also a challenge for us – Czechs living abroad - to support the interest of our classmates and colleagues, teach them a few words in Czech, show a Czech film, engage in debates on the controversial moments of Czechoslovak history, bring a little something from home. And do all of this to find out that through their external perspective, they can often teach us more about our country than we would expect.
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