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Exile stories IX: Reburn into a new world

Ondrej from Czech Republic interviewed his uncle to get a story.

Ondrej, Czech Republic

In my first memories from the early nineties, I remember my uncle with a beard, long curly hair, a permanent cigarette in his mouth and in a leather jacket. In the following two decades, Jan has become a somewhat more settled gentleman, but his manager-like phone on the table still rings with a solo of Hendrix’ Stratocaster during our interview.

We start with discussing the differences between exile and legal or illegal emigration. There were few people in the former Czechoslovakia who were forced to leave their country (exiled) and many who left it voluntarily (yet illegally) because of the regime. Strictly speaking, Jan was not an exile, but neither did he leave just because of the bigger comfort offered by the other side of the Curtain. “The reasons for my leaving were purely political. I was very well off here but I just couldn’t live in this. I had known that from the end of primary school” he says.

Jan made his first attempt to emigrate during his studies in 1977. After his allowed holiday in the UK, he stayed there by a friend. After a few weeks he was persuaded to return by phone calls with his family. Being related to an emigrant meant prosecution by the communist state, most particularly, his sister wouldn’t be allowed to study at the university. Thanks to some, partly fake, medical problems Jan was able to return to Czechoslovakia without losing his passport or having any further problems which would typically occur after such a trip.

In the early eighties, Jan was finishing his studies of psychology and working as a receptionist in a Prague hotel. This was one of the most profitable jobs because one could get highly valuable foreign currencies from tourists as tips. In the first years after graduating, he was earning significantly more than the average population. He bought a car and enjoyed his money but still he wanted to escape from the communist world.

In 1982 my uncle met a Canadian girl, Darlene, in the hotel where he worked. They fell in love and started organizing their living together. It took two years to obtain all the necessary documents. Darlene came to Prague a few times in these two years and during one of the visits they got married. In 1984, Jan legally left the Socialistic Republic of Czechoslovakia to live with his wife in Toronto.

Although he spoke fluent English and had travelled to the West before, Jan describes the first months as a huge shock. “It was like being born again, with your memory and previous experience, to a completely different world. I had to learn again the most basic matters, I had to ask somebody about every little thing I did” he describes. When he speaks about this socio-cultural shock and all the communities of – mostly European – immigrants which stuck together in the new and strange environment, it reminds me of Kafka’s Amerika.

It soon turned out that he couldn’t work as a psychologist before doing a course to validate his education for Canada. This is when he started regretting not finishing his studies of the Faculty of Civil Engineering because this diploma would be valid in Canada. So he started attending school and looking for a job. After a few months it became obvious that there was no chance he would be able to do anything better than a basic worker. In his first years he worked as a plumber, construction site worker or water filters seller. Also his relationship with Darlene fell apart soon because of her problems with drinking and drugs (it is a question to what extent these problems were obvious already in the time of the wedding).

Jan finally finished his studies but couldn’t find any job without a Canadian experience (which was impossible to get without a job). Thus, he had to do voluntary psychology-related work for minimum wage. He rented a flat just for himself, worked for plumber company where he had reached a better position as a blue prints drawer and at nights and weekends helped in a boarding house to obtain some experience. “I didn’t have any life at all – only work. But this is maybe the best you can do when you are alone in a foreign country.”

Facing and overcoming many more complications, Jan was at last able to do the job of a psychologist and make a good living in Canada years after his coming. The classical idea of American dream applied with an even increased intensity because he had to start from the very beginning in his thirties. In 1990 he moved to New York for a short period but soon after the Velvet Revolution he returned to Prague to his family and old friends.