The Czech community in Stockholm


In this fortnight's Spotlight we meet members of the Czech community in Stockholm, including people who emigrated from Czechoslovakia after the Soviet Invasion, and members of the younger generation. How did they find adjusting to life in Sweden? What about the language? Do their children speak Czech? And what are the best and worst things about life in the Swedish capital?

This edition of Spotlight comes from the Swedish capital, Stockholm, which has a sizable Czech community. It's hard to know exactly how many Czechs there are in Sweden, but one estimate I heard was 20,000.

I attended a screening of the award-winning Czech film Nuda v Brne, or Boredom in Brno, at Stockholm's cosy Czech Centre. There were around 50 people there, including Ivan Jonas, the head of the Czech-Slovak-Swedish Society.

"We have a lot of activities, like in the '90s we had big balls, which is a kind of forgotten tradition, or was, in Stockholm. We do a lot with poetry, we watch films and we have many active meetings."

I was curious how the 1993 split of Czechoslovakia affected the association. Hardly at all, says Ivan Jonas.

"The thing is we were first friends here. Why would we split a club? Of course our main interest is culture and society in general, it doesn't really have much to do with the political arrangement of the countries. So we didn't see much reason to change anything. We just changed the name from Czechoslovak to Czech hyphen Slovak Swedish Society, so that was it."

Ivan Jonas
Mr Jonas is, like most of the Czechs in the country, from the generation which left Czechoslovakia after the Soviet Invasion of 1968. Sweden welcomed them, but few of the '68 generation could speak Swedish when they arrived. Jan Polasek, from Prague's Mala Strana, says he and his wife struggled with the language for some time.

"Many times my wife and I came home and asked each other 'what do you think they were saying to us?' We understood very different things! So it was really hard."

Mr Polasek is a successful exhibition and theatre set designer, while his wife is an archaeologist. Like a lot of the 1968 generation, and not just in Sweden of course, they were faced with a choice after the fall of the Communist regime: whether to return home to a country they hadn't lived in for two decades.

"It was not so easy, because I didn't have a flat. My daughter has a job here, my wife has a job here. We discussed this question all the time, what will we do. You know, if I left my family, my daughter would haven't contact with the grandmother, grandfather, so if I went back now I would destroy this family again."

By the way, most of the Czechs I spoke to said they did not like the fact that the days are so short in Sweden in winter. But Jan Polasek has professional reasons to like the dark winter days.

"I like it, because I work with exhibitions and theatre, and we like the dark because it's the best for the theatre and exhibitions too!"

Jan Polasek
Mr Polasek mentioned his daughter. Naturally a lot of Czechs of his generation have children. Many speak Czech, though by no means all. Jaroslav Kanturek of Stockholm's Czech Centre says those with Czech parents are just the people he wants to reach out to.

"I personally see a very important role of the Czech Centre to be in contact with these young people because some of them speak Czech only somehow, they don't have real language knowledge. And we are very happy that these people are coming here for study materials, for Czech books, for films.

And even if they don't speak the Czech language, many young Swedes with at least one Czech parent are really interested in the country's culture.

"A lot of them are choosing some topics for their work at university from Czech history, from Czech art, even when they are trying to do this topic in Swedish. But some passive knowledge of the Czech language, or some improvement of their Czech, is a very important role in which the Czech Centre definitely help."

Of course not all the Czechs in Sweden are '68ers. Katerina Hellstrom is a young woman from the Czech Republic who teaches economics in Stockholm. When we met at a city centre café, I asked her if there were many Czechs of her generation there.

"Yeah, I know quite a lot of them, but I do not think that we meet so often. I know a lot of people from '68 and new people. I think there are quite a lot of them."

What kind of the things are the younger generation doing here, the people who didn't come here because they had to, if you know what I mean?

"There are a number of girls and boys who got married - I know even boys - and I know people who came here for a job, or for study and they stayed here and got a job. So for these reasons - it's either a job or love!"

How do the two languages, Czech and Swedish, compare? Does Swedish have for instance formal and informal forms of address?

"No, Swedish is much more informal. You call people by their first names, and you do not have the difference like in Czech between the formal and the informal. It's coming back a little bit. It used to be like that but then in the '70s they changed it to all informal. But it's coming back a little bit, so for example when you speak to very old people you may use the formal way, or when you go to the authorities. That's one thing you have to get used to. It's quite interesting - when you speak to someone in Swedish you always use the informal, but then you switch to Czech and you start to use the formal, immediately."

Do they have the Czech fascination with titles? You know in Czech Republic you have to always call people 'mister doctor' and so on - have they got that here?

Katerina Hellstrom
"Perhaps if you are a professor, but not otherwise. I had an argument with my old professor in Prague the other day. He asked me what title I have on my business card and I said I didn't have any. He said I had to have one but I said we didn't use it unless you are really on a very high level. But usually if you are a doctor you do not have doctor there, you do not have 'inzenyr' and stuff like that, no."

As a Czech what does Katerina Hellstrom find the best and worst things about living in Sweden?

"The best thing is there are not so many people, there is more space and it's more calm, there's not so much stress. And the worst thing is that they keep strictly to their rules, not thinking about whether they are good or bad."

More than the Czechs?

"Do the Czechs keep to the rules?!"

With that question we have to say goodbye to the Swedish capital Stockholm, but before I go I'd just like to thank Radio Prague listener Solveig Lindbolm, who was extremely helpful.