What it's like to be a Slovak in Prague

The Prague Castle

"A Slovak woman would like to talk to you." I have heard this kind of sentence many times - when I've tried to set up an interview on the phone, and have spoken in my native Slovak, which is similar enough to Czech to be fully understandable. To be a Slovak in Prague is to be labeled as different. There are occasions when Czechs mind their "Slovak brothers", on the other hand they still love and miss the Slovak language and think of Slovaks as their "closest foreigners".

The Prague Castle
There are several thousand Slovaks living in Prague: from professionals and students to construction workers. What are their experiences of the Czech capital? I spoke to some of them:

"Some of my colleagues have told me it would be better if I spoke Czech instead of Slovak but I never make any distinction and speak Slovak. It is a question of being a Slovak woman and being a Slovak man. Maybe if I was a man it would be better if I spoke Czech"

Jana is 27-years old and after five years in Prague has bought a little house together with her boyfriend. Dreams have come true, she works as a representative for a successful company and although she originally wanted to stay only for a few months she doesn't regret giving up a teaching job back in Slovakia.

"It is true that my boss is a foreigner himself and that helped me to get a job. My friend wanted to find a job. She really looked hard but she had problems because she was a Slovak."

If Jana has children one day, they will be born Czech citizens. Prague is now home.

Tono, Jana´s boyfriend is one of many people with both Czech and Slovak citizenship. Tono´s father is Czech and mother Slovak and he is fluent in both languages. Tono has owned a building company for eleven years and now works in the Czech Republic because there are more work opportunities.

"Czechs employ Slovaks because they work for less money. They would rather employ Slovaks than Ukrainians. To be a Slovak might be a disadvantage or an advantage, it depends what kind of work a person is looking for. The Slovak language might be a disadvantage if a position requires Czech language. Slovaks are perceived as foreigners although they have more rights than other foreigners. They don't need a work permit; a contract is enough while Ukrainians have to have a work permit. I don't think that Czechs mind Slovaks taking their jobs. They usually are not willing to do these jobs and if they do they go and work in Germany for better money."

Rado, 28, who comes from the second biggest city in Slovakia, Kosice, made me feel at home after just a few minutes. He has spent three years in Prague and he has created his own little group of Slovak friends. There is always a friend he can ask for help when another Slovak is in trouble.

"In my first job I worked for a multinational environment. I was forced to speak French because we used to work for French clients so I had to use French language, also English because we had some English speaking suppliers. For Czech suppliers it is not a problem because they like Slovak."

Peter, Laco, Martin and two Mareks work in Tono´s construction company as builders. Their goal is clear - to earn some money to support their families. Their working days are long and their only entertainment is the pub.

Marek, 32 is the oldest from the group. He spent three months looking for a job back at home and after failing he came to Prague. He has a daughter to support.

"It would be better for my daughter to live in the Czech Republic. There are more opportunities, schools as well as jobs. But my daughter is attending an elementary school so it is too early to think about it. We will see when she grows older. It will be up to her to decide."

Pavol, Tomas, Jana, Jozef and Ivana are all students of the Mathematical - Physical Faculty of the Charles University which they have chosen because of the quality education. Although they study in the Czech language there is no problem with writing Slovak in exams and the teachers make no distinctions. However they do sometimes become the butt of jokes. Jozef talks about his experience:

"One professor said that we should only write in English or Czech because he hadn't heard the Slovak language for some time now, and couldn't understand it any more. But he was only joking, and when I used Slovak there was no problem at all."

On the contrary some Czech students tend to glower.

"It depends on the individual. If a Czech student comes from as far away as 100 kilometers from Prague and isn't given a place in a dormitory, he is cross with the Slovaks. On one hand he is right because if Slovaks were not here he would get it. On the other hand on a personal level, if the person is OK, they treat him nicely,"

...says Pavol whose sister is working in Prague as well and makes up for his old friends who stayed in Slovakia. Ivana had studied at a University in Slovakia for a year, before coming to Prague and rejects the complaints sometimes made by Czech students.

"I know that Czech students complain that we take their places but I think we are cleverer. It is clear from the results of the entrance exams. For example, in medicine the first ten people were Slovaks. The differences are not so big after some time. I guess that we study more because we really want to get here. I think if a Czech had prepared more for an entrance exam he would have passed and a Slovak wouldn't have taken his place. It is not that we push our way we do got here fairly."

Lucia, like all the others, finds it difficult to make friends with Czechs.

"I don't get on with Czechs as well as with Slovaks. Czechs think differently. On the outside, they are more confident, more decisive, but also less sensitive and not as hearty. It might be the environment, they live in - Prague is a big city. People have learnt to ignore each other. On the other hand my friends from Moravia are completely different. They are much closer."

And what are the students' plans for the future? Pavol would love to have Prague salaries in East Slovakia:

"I would love to go back to Slovakia but there is not enough work. Unemployment in the east is about 20 percent. It is difficult to find a job there and even if you find one the salary is very low. It is almost not worth studying for it. If a person went to work straight after secondary school in a shop or as a cleaner, he would earn more or the same amount as someone who has graduated. I will go where I can find a good job."

To be a Slovak in Prague is a label. Trashed on Monday and cherished on Tuesday. I am Slovak but to be honest I love Mondays anyway. They would be more blue in Slovakia, so far away from Magical Prague.