Of England on a Czech Topic

In the enormous competition of stunning libraries in London, the SSEES Library of Slavic and Eastern European languages is not of the most beautiful. Nevertheless, I like to go there often. As I descend the stairs to the basement where Czech books are, I pause at the bust of Masaryk - at least with a glance. It is already over a year since I have sent my Personal Statement off to UCL, beginning with an allusion to the Czechoslovak president-philosopher. I wrote it unaware of the fact that not only is Masaryk well-known here; he is to this day revered as the founder of what is today one of the largest institutes for the study of Slavic and Eastern European languages in the UK and the world.

Exactly five floors above the shelves with Czech and Slovak books, there is the Masaryk Common Room. I peek in out of curiosity and am not surprised at seeing that the wall map of the world has the Czech Republic at many places already pierced by colourful pins. I turn around, alarmed, at hearing a few students doing their homework in the corner of the room: ‘what does ‘hustý?’ mean? Is it ‚delicious‘?‘ I am not sure I had heard right.


I remember stuffing Čapek’s Letters from England into my already crammed backpack, as I had feared missing reading in Czech language. On arriving to London, I felt like – a voluntary, but still – an exile. Instead, in London I have found a numerous Czech community, and countless connections like bits and pieces of a mosaic that constantly reminds me that I am not far from home. There are Czech children flying a kite with their mummy in a park, the plays of Havel that I discover in a second-hand bookshop, occasional, but all the more pleasant events of the university Czech & Slovak Society or even of the Czech Embassy itself. There is even a subject in my timetable called Writings from the Other Europe where we discuss among others Kundera’s essay The Tragedy of Central Europe, with classmates of whom several of us had studied Kundera’s books for our Maturita exam.

I could feel disappointed to be deprived of experiencing the feeling of independence, self-reliance and a bittersweet touch of isolation far away from home. But instead, I am glad not to feel uprooted in that Babylon of cultures that London is. And when there is simply too much rush, noise and clamour and too many tongues spoken at once, I can just get on a coach like I did last week and head off to North England where you only hear Yorkshire accent and where I had had the blessing of spending twelve beautiful and enriching months of my life a few years ago.

A few hours’ drive away from London seems to suffice to transform England into a completely different country and myself into a foreigner. Without intending to do so, I switch to a more British accent than I have used in months – for I am talking to my friend and former classmate from Barnsley and not to international friends in London.

I wonder if the tens of thousands of international students who have just like me been absorbed into the rush of London this year, have some sense of how different to the rest of England the capital is. Is Britain for them just a country of high-ranking universities, or also the country of kind neighbours, brick-coloured streets, wet walks and lovely traditions? I hope both. And I am grateful to have been able to spend a part of my life in each of those ‘two Englands’. I can observe how they misunderstand each other and intersect at the same time. I can perceive them both through my Czech eyes. What is it that I mean? That I am happy to tread my way to school under ancient English trees, enter a brick building, smile at Masaryk, and then and only then can my Monday lesson in a language class of two people begin.

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