Are Czechs “couch potatoes”?
Czechs are not very mobile or quick to act. At least that is the generally accepted truth. But are Czechs as a nation really lacking in enterprising spirit, curiosity, and mobility?
There is a well-known Czech fairy tale character called “Hloupý Honza” or Silly Jack in English. He is a simple guy of humble origin unwilling to leave his cozy home. Driven into the big wide world by his parents, he wins riches and a wife by luck or miracle rather than personal initiative and returns home to live happily ever after.
So, is this what being a Czech is really about? Enjoy your beer and song in a pub, let the world go past, don’t worry, be happy!
Statistically speaking, this stereotype of a Czech who prefers the relative comfort of home to risking an uncertain if perhaps more interesting and profitable work and future somewhere abroad seems more or less right. Authorities estimate that compared to their Polish or Slovak neighbors, a significantly smaller percentage of young Czechs are willing to go abroad to work or gain experience. However, statistics can be misleading. Let me tell you two stories:
Czech plastic surgeon Bohdan Pomahač works in America. He led the team of doctors that performed the first full face transplant in the United States. He has earned admiration and numerous awards for his work in the United States and at home in the Czech Republic. But when I spoke to this graduate of the Faculty of Medicine of the Palacký University in Olomouc some time ago in Boston, I wasn't that interested in the details of his work, but rather what prompted a native of Ostrava, a graduate of Palacky University, to leave the safety of home? Why did he set off in search of uncertain happiness and success across the Ocean?
“I had an opportunity to visit the United States already as a student in the summer of 1992 and then in 1993, thanks to a student exchange program. I had first-hand experience with how medicine is practiced and organized here in the United States. I realized that the training and possibilities for postgraduate studies are the best that I had had the opportunity to see until then. So naturally I thought about coming back to the States and researched the possibilities of how to get postgraduate qualifications here. “
It took some time, but Bohdan did come back to Boston in 1996:
“I graduated from the School of Medicine in 1996 and went to the United States shortly afterward without having any invitation or work. I just knew that I wanted to take part in medical research to get the right experience. I already knew that it was a necessary prerequisite for any academic work. I decided to go to Boston because it was the only place I knew. I wrote to several laboratories and was told that there were no vacancies. Nevertheless, I knew had money to survive for about 3 or 4 months, so I offered to work for free. Luckily for my future, I ended up at the laboratory of Plastic Surgery here at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. My supervisor happened to be my future boss Professor Eriksson who went through exactly the same process when he came from Sweden to the United States.
“I think what impressed him most was my willingness to work for free. Frankly, he did not expect someone from the Czech Republic would be qualified enough to do such work and at the same time so eager and motivated that he would be willing to spend his savings just to prove he could do it. I think that was the decisive moment. Later, after I worked hard and with good results, I was able to get the support necessary to get a position when the team for surgical training was being considered.”
Bohdan Pomahač, a plastic surgeon who really “made it”, as they say, is certainly not alone. The Ministry of Interior estimates that now in 2022 there are between 200 and 250 thousand holders of a Czech passport, who live and work abroad. That number is significantly lower compared to pre-Covid figures. Also, this figure does not include the over two million other Czechs who were born abroad or have Czech ancestors and have retained ties with the old country. Of course, not many of them are as prominent and successful as Bohdan Pomahač but they continue a long tradition of Czechs who were by no means “Silly Jacks”:
But do you need to leave home to look for new opportunities and improve your life? Here is my second story about a Czech woman who exchanged a safe and comfortable academic job for a slightly risky new start and has never looked back.
Jitka Hloušková is now a published author: her first book, partially autobiographical, is about a middle-aged woman looking for change and finding it with the help of a good friend in London. She is also a successful professional coach, and she decided to become a freelancer after a successful academic career. She headed the Language Center at Pardubice University for several years. Here is a little disclaimer: I have known Jitka ever since we were both students of English back in the 1980s. I cooperated with her on some English teaching projects for academics at the University of Pardubice. I knew she had been writing a book, nevertheless, I was genuinely surprised when she told me over lunch some time ago, that she was leaving that safe and relatively well-paid position to become a full-time writer and coach. She admits it took some guts:
“It wasn’t an easy decision and it took some time to take it. I was considering all the pros and cons and, of course, it is easier to take such a decision when you are twenty or thirty than when you are our age. But I was getting various signals, including insomnia and not feeling physically very well.
“What is important, it would have been much harder to take that decision if I were alone. I had the support of my family and friends. I even decided to contact a psychotherapist but it became quickly clear that I needed a change. I am coaching myself, now, but I asked for the support of another coach to help me manage the transition from the academic world where I was an employee with quite a few benefits, into the completely different world of freelancing. I needed to manage all that.”
How about doubts? Are you waking up in the middle of the night wondering, whether you did the right thing?
“Of course, there are doubts as well as waking up in the middle of the night! The good thing is I do not have doubts about whether the decision was right. I call them my internal critics. One says: you won’t make it, you are not cut out for that. Another says: you are too old for this! And yet another says I do not have enough experience. These voices or “sabboteurs” as I like to think about them, come and go.
“Like every freelancer, I have my “ups and downs”. Sometimes everything seems to be going fine and looking great, then inexplicably there is something like a block, nobody calls, writing is difficult and I have doubts again if I can survive. Luckily for me, such periods have always passed. I think that overall you just have to get used to the fact that your life will become a constant process of never-ending learning. But that is something I always enjoyed and was good at. I still have that yearning to learn something new and pass it on. “
I think Jitka is a great example that you can be adventurous and look for new exciting things to do no matter whether you are twenty or well over fifty and you do not need to go across the ocean to find fulfillment and success. I suppose there are statistically plenty of those proverbial “Couch Potatoes”, “Silly Jacks” among us Czechs. Nevertheless, there have always been and still are plenty of others who are definitely not.