Czech expats from around the world come to Dobruška to connect with their heritage

Sommersprachkurs in Dobruska

Every summer the north-east Bohemian town of Dobruška turns truly cosmopolitan, opening its doors to Czech language students from around the world. The Czech language summer school organized by Charles University lasts for a month and is specially tailored for Czech expats and people who have developed an interest in the Czech language and culture.

The students' meeting at Czech Radio,  photo: Kristýna Maková
In addition to a four week language crash course the organizers aim to familiarize students with Czech culture and traditions, literature, the Czech way of life and not least –show them round. This year –in its 21st year – the summer school attracted 64 students from countries such as Argentina, Brazil, the US, Mexico, Chile, the Netherlands, Canada and Israel, to name just a few. As the four-week course came close to wrapping up the group visited Radio Prague to share their experiences and show off their newly acquired Czech-language skills.

Jacob Jaks from the US made a very good job of introducing himself in Czech. He, like so many others in the course, came to Dobruška to find his roots and connect with his heritage.

“You know a person is the sum-total of what their parents have taught them, their own life experiences, but also what the history of their family is and this is one segment of me that I was not really aware of. I mean, my father would always say “ you are Czech – be proud of it “ but I don’t think that even he knew much about Czech culture and society because it was his grandparents that came over –so it has been kind of an exploration on my part and a re-discovery. And I think that is where most of my interest comes from– because it is part of what I am that I was not aware of before.”

Jane Slama from the US is here on her fourth stay. Her connection to the Czech Republic is her father – a man whose name most Czechs instantly recognize. A member of the Czechoslovak national hockey team, Miroslav Sláma helped win the country's first World Championship title in 1947. A year later, when the communists took power, Sláma and his teammate Oldřich Zábrodský defected to Switzerland during a tournament in Davos. Sláma stayed there as a coach and player, before moving on to the United States in 1953, where he worked as a library administrator. Jane Sláma says that while her father embraced his new life, he never forgot his homeland – something that made her come in search of her own heritage.

“I think there was always the sense of the superiority of the Czech culture(laughs). I have two sisters and we always grew up with the idea that the Czech culture, the Czech educational system, the Czech way of doing things was superior -that we should be proud that we were Czech. My mother was American, but there was a large community of compatriot Czechs in Los Angeles who we visited quite frequently and there was a unified sense that this was a wonderful country – the best place to be – if only it had a different political system (at that time, I mean).”

Shay Ofer is from Israel. He also has roots in the Czech Republic and a heritage he is very proud of.

“My name is Shay and I’m from Israel. I came here to learn Czech because my grandmother was born in the Czech Republic and we are very proud of our Czech ancestry. You know the drink slivovice? The bottle has a name on it – R. Jelínek –and that is my great-great-grandfather. So I have quite a famous heritage in the Czech Republic and that is pretty much the reason I came here to study Czech.”

Apart from slivovice –we should say it is plum brandy – what else did you discover?

“Of course, beer is very big here. We drank a lot of beer during the course – at night. Other than that, I think one of the main differences between the Czech Republic and most of Europe is that the Czech Republic is very well preserved. You can tell that most of the buildings here are very old and they have been here for a while, you can actually see the history and it is also very green.”

You could just have come over and seen what things are like –but still you chose to come here and learn Czech – why was that?

“Well, this way it is kind of different. Most people who visit the Czech Republic either go to Prague or Brno and visit the usual tourist sites. They see the same places, the same locations that most people see. But when you go to a small town like Dobruška and your guides are people who were raised here and who know all these small beautiful places and locations you get to see a lot of stuff you would never see otherwise.”

What did you know about the Czech Republic before coming here? Was it beer –hockey-supermodels, the usual things?

“I think the usual things. You still use the crown, so that makes beer pretty cheap. And that the girls here are very pretty. I was told the Czech Republic has a large concentration of beautiful women. So, yes, everything that the country is known for.”

Among this year’s students are a few who have no roots in this country. Their motive to learn more about the country stems from the fact that they married a Czech. Paul from Canada is one of them.

The students' meeting at Czech Radio,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“I am Paul Moquin from Canada. I came here as a student to learn Czech because I married a Czech lady and we now have a sweet little daughter and my wife wants her to speak Czech, so i thought I would learn the language to make things a little easier for all of us to understand each other.”

As Paul says the recipe to a happy mixed marriage is making concessions – understanding where the other person comes from and meeting them half way. Learning Czech in Dobruška helped him figure out many things about his dear wife -such as why she always seemed to be shouting at him.

“One thing that I didn’t understand and have now come to realize is that in the Czech language you always put the accent on the first syllable. The first syllable is the most important. You say NA-zdravi! Well my wife talks the same way in English and I always thought she was angry at me. Because it seems so aggressive, you know – but it is just the way Czech is spoken. Still it sounds foreign to the ears of an English speaker – and you think – wait a minute, I am not attacking you. But it is just the way people express themselves here. So that is something I got to realize here – that I was basically misjudging her. She was just trying to explain things and I thought she was angry at me.”

After 4 weeks of Czech grammar the 64 participants of the Dobruška summer school are ready to head home – taking a few souvenirs and many happy memories with them. I asked Shay from Israel what his best experience had been.

“My best experience? It’s hard to tell, there were really many, many good experiences. We got a little bit of everything – we went to the Skoda factory and it was really nice, we saw beautiful castles, visited a brewery, we’ve been to a festival – the Opočno festival – and really got a bit of everything. It is hard to say which was the best.”

Photo: Libor Kukal
Can you say something in Czech?

“Yeah, (laughs) I think the first sentence anyone should learn in Czech is “já tě miluju” ( I love you) which kind of solves all the problems here.”

Do you have plans involving the Czech Republic –or things Czech?

“There is a very good chance I will be coming back here next summer. Because you know – I ‘ve got to go back to work now. Summer’s over and I can’t stay here forever but I will definitely come here again –probably many times.”

So you don’t regret the four weeks spent learning Czech grammar? It can’t have been easy…

“Regret?! Why should I regret? It was the best time ever. “