Brno Expat Fair highlights appeal of Czechia's second city

The Brno Expat Fair took place this Saturday. Our reporter Anna Fodor went along to see for herself what it was all about.

The Brno Expat Fair is no small provincial event with a few stands and a cheap refreshment cart – it’s a huge affair taking place over four floors, including food from all over the world, a bar, and free beer.

Workshops with intriguing titles such as ‘5 easy steps to pass the A2 Czech test’, ‘Prepare to give birth in Brno’, and ‘Chat-up lines to impress your Czech love interest’ take place on the first floor of the spacious cultural centre Tržnice Brno, on the city’s main square, Zelný Trh. Climb the escalators to the second floor, and you are overwhelmed with a feast for the senses – tastes and smells from the multiple stands selling food from five continents, and sounds and sights from the numerous stalls representing organisations for family, leisure and community.

On the third floor you can find a range of services catering to expats in Brno, such as financial and legal services, assistance with housing and jobs, and institutions offering Czech language courses.

Ascend the final flight of stairs and you find yourself in a considerably quieter space, with an audience listening in rapt attention to seminars such as ‘Inflation! Keep calm, don’t panic’, ‘Recycling in Brno: Uncover the Myths’, ‘What help is there for victims of crime?’, ‘The end of the Expat era – how to connect to communities in the new age of uncertainty’, and ’50 ways to leave your lover (but stay in the Czech Republic)’.

Slide open the glass door at the back and you’re finally on the rooftop, where you can sit on the wooden decking and enjoy the view of Zelný Trh with a glass of wine or beer, lapping up the occasional snatches of April sun.

Here I manage to get a few minutes with Don Sparling, one of the founders of the Brno Expat Centre, which organized the fair. Sparling, a native of Ottawa, moved to Czechoslovakia - somewhat remarkably - in 1969, shortly after the Russian invasion, despite being a Westerner. He says that he moved to the country mostly out of curiosity.

“It was very interesting because of the massive passive resistance after the invasion – it wasn’t really clear whether the Czechs and Slovaks might be able to retain some of the changes that had been made in the Prague Spring, and so I was just basically curious to see how things were going to pan out.”

Photo: Brno Expat Centre

Sparling says that during the Communist era there were almost no foreigners in the country, so he was in a tiny minority.

“In Brno in the 1970s and 80s there were a total of five native speakers of English, two of whom were older women who had married Czech airmen in the Second World War and then moved here after, one Czech-American woman who had come back visiting relatives and married and stayed here, and then another British guy roughly my age who also had the same story – he met a Czech woman and stayed here.”

I ask him if being a Westerner living in an Eastern Bloc country during the Cold War ever caused problems for him.

“Towards the end of the 80s the secret police called me in and I did have a long series of interviews and they tried to get me to sign a paper and all the rest of it. I’ve got my files, which are 384 pages, and it’s a very curious thing because it’s almost like seeing a double, my Doppelganger - it’s not me that’s there in the secret police file, because these secret policemen were writing a story for their superiors. So it’s very interesting to learn how they interpreted certain things I said or some of the weird ideas they had. I’m not a paranoid person by nature, so I didn’t feel afraid. They did try to make me sign a piece of paper and the threat was that if I didn’t they could get me out of the country in 24 hours and it would be a long time before I saw my family, if ever. That was a nasty moment.”

Sparling says that foreigners started moving to Brno almost immediately after the Velvet Revolution, but they were relatively few. It wasn’t until the beginning of the millennium that people started to come in larger numbers.

Don Sparling - a Canadian in Brno | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio

“It was only about 2003-2005 that the first major projects started in Brno – business centres with state-of-the-art infrastructure and so on - and once that began, then things really began to take off.”

But there was a problem, which prompted him to set up the Brno Expat Centre in the late 2000s:

“We realized that there were, by that point, increasing numbers of foreigners coming to Brno, and we had this feeling that they were having trouble integrating. It’s not like Prague where there were huge numbers of foreigners and there were all sorts of services being offered in English and so on. This wasn’t the case here.”

Brno has come a long way since then, thanks in no small part to Sparling’s efforts and the Brno Expat Centre’s work over the past twelve years. The Expat Fair is a real showcase of the fact that Brno is now a truly international and modern city that can attract foreign talent to live – and stay.