Grant Podelco -- Expat Interview

It's been more than a decade since American expat Grant moved to Prague in the Czech Republic and as you might expect, he has more than a few interesting observations to share about living there as a foreigner. Read on to learn why he moved to Prague in the first place, his description of some of the local customs, and some of his favorite activities there. Expat life in the Czech Republic isn't a bed of roses for Grant, but there's more than enough to keep him there.
 
Grant Podelco
Grant Podelco

-Where were you born?

Morgantown, West Virginia, USA

-In which country and city are you living now?

Prague, Czech Republic

 View of Prague and Vltava River (all photos by Grant Podelco)

 -Are you living alone or with your family?

I live in a village on the outskirts of Prague with my girlfriend, Daisy Sindelar, and her 8-year-old daughter Emma.

-How long have you been living in the Czech Republic?

I've lived in Prague since May 1, 1995, except for a year and a half from 2000-2001, when I returned to the United States to work as the Features Editor for The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon.

-What is your age?

47

-When did you come up with the idea of living in the Czech Republic?

I'd always wanted to live and work in Europe ever since I studied in London for a semester in 1983 in a program through the State University of New York at Oswego. Funnily enough, the focus of that semester in London was "International Broadcasting," and I now work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. It was my first time traveling in Europe, and I fell in love with the culture and the lifestyle.

Novy Svet, an ancient lane in old Prague

After graduating college in December 1984, I obtained a British work permit through a program called BUNAC, which allowed me to work legally in the U.K. for six months. I went to London with my then girlfriend (and later, wife) and, amazingly, we found jobs -- she with Harrod's in their credit department, me as an editorial assistant and eventual newswriter in the newsroom of BBC Radio in Broadcasting House.

Unfortunately, after six months, we couldn't get our work permits extended and we reluctantly returned to the United States. I tried for many years after that to find jobs in the U.K. or Ireland, with no success, since the work permit situation is so unforgiving. You can't get a work permit without a job; no one will give you a job if you don't already have a work permit.

From 1986 to 1995, I worked in Syracuse, New York, in various editing jobs with the "Herald-Journal" newspaper.
Finally, in early 1995, I saw an ad in "The New York Times" advertising for correspondent and editing jobs with RFE/RL, which at that time was moving its headquarters from Munich to Prague. I applied, and was hired shortly after as a senior editor and correspondent. I arrived in Prague on May 1, 1995.

The 14th-century Charles Bridge in Central Prague

-Was it hard to get a visa or a work permit?

Fortunately, RFE/RL takes care of all of the paperwork associated with my Czech residence permit, so it's very easy. Other Americans working in Prague but without the support of a large company or corporation have a much more difficult time negotiating the Czech bureaucracy. The Czech language is very difficult to master; few people in the bureaucracy speak any English; and the Czechs are not known for being kind and understanding in such situations.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

I purchase my medical insurance through RFE/RL. If you work for a Czech firm, you're covered through the national health insurance, I believe. The medical care here is generally quite good.

-How do you make your living in the Czech Republic? Do you have any type of income generated?

See above.

-Do you speak Czech and do you think it's important to speak the local language? Please add your thoughts on local customs and whether it's important for expats to respect/observe local customs.

Even after all of these years, I only speak a little Czech -- enough to get by in taxis, grocery stores, etc. I recognize quite a few words in Czech, which also helps when shopping, etc. I don't really have a good excuse for not learning the language, other than it's quite difficult, and I have no facility for languages. It's also very easy to get by here with English, as English is spoken in most of the restaurants and shops in the city center (although almost not at all in the village where we live). Or a mix of English and broken Czech.

As for local customs, the one that immediately comes to mind is removing your shoes before entering someone's house (or your own house, for that matter), and that's a custom I can see following for the rest of my life, no matter where I'm living. Also, beer is basically considered a health drink here, and you can observe it being drunk by workers at all hours of the day, including for breakfast. That's another tradition that's not difficult to tolerate! Also, there's a funny but not unpleasant custom of saying goodbye to people when they leave, or you leave, an elevator (even if you've totally ignored them the rest of the time).

  Vltava River, Prague, near the Prague Zoo

-Do you miss home and family sometimes? Describe your favorite recreational activities there or those that are available.

Of course, I miss the United States sometimes, and my family. But our lifestyle here is quite comfortable, and there's nothing that we are really wanting for. We are able to fly back to the U.S. every year or every other year, and living abroad makes everything in the United States seem quite novel and surprising. The problem is that no matter how long I've lived here, I've never felt like this is truly "home." Part of that is the language problem, and my own fault. Part of it is the culture, which I have found is not the warmest or the most welcoming (although we know many, many wonderful and warm Czechs). Part of it is that it is hard, if not impossible, to feel at home in a country that is not your real home. But the positives of living and working here far outweigh the negatives, which is why I've stayed so long, and decided to return.

Okor Castle, outside Prague

As for recreation, I go mountain biking and play squash and golf. There's lots of hiking. And travel anywhere in Europe is very easy, as Prague is so centrally located. I also ride my motorcyle, a recent purchase.

-Do you have other plans for the future?

Just to soak up all that Prague has to offer, and to travel throughout Western and Eastern Europe as much as possible. We want to be a bit more adventurous in our travel this year, with trips perhaps to Georgia or Bulgaria, for example.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?

I get a generous housing allowance from my company each month. We'd like to buy eventually, but we haven't made the plunge yet.

Karlstejn Castle outside Prague

-What is the cost of living in the Czech Republic?

It's getting very expensive to live in Prague, with prices for food, drink, petrol, etc., often rivaling those found in much larger cities elsewhere in Europe. But it's still fairly easy to find restaurants and shops out of the city center with much lower prices. A half-liter of the best beer in the world will still only run you around 30 Czech crowns (about $1.50 at the moment), though, so all is not lost.

Beer!

Here's a link to a helpful chart on Prague prices, although the exchange rate is around 20 Czech crowns to the U.S. dollar at the moment, quite a bit better than it was in August, when this was written: http://www.expats.cz/prague/article/prague-relocation/cost-of-living

-What do you think about the Czechs?

I think the Czechs are quite difficult to get to know, but once you become friends with them, they are quite warm.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in the Czech Republic?

Positives: Beautiful architecture, lovely women, gorgeous countryside, amazing beer, and history at every turn.

A field of rapeseed in the Czech countryside

Negatives: Service culture is still stuck in the Dark Ages in many respects, but moving forward, slowly. And perhaps the worst drivers in all of Europe -- aggressive, dangerous and disrespectful, especially of cyclists.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in that country?

Don't move here for the weather! The winters especially are gray, dingy, and cold. The sun rarely shines. Watch out for pickpockets and dishonest taxi drivers.

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about the Czech Republic?

  • www.expats.cz (good bulletin-board site about events/problems/advice)
  • www.rferl.org (the website of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where I work)