Welcome to our new “Czexpat” series which takes a look at expat life from a different perspective: Czechs who have left their homeland behind to live abroad. Our first subject, Brno-born Ondřej Pivec (30) is an accomplished jazz musician living in Brooklyn, New York with plenty to say about life in America.
When did you first move abroad?
It was a little over five years ago, in January 2009.
What kinds of things did you do to prepare before you left?
I had visited New York City before and stayed for a few months. As far as preparation, I did finish the TOEFL test, but that was mainly because I originally thought I was going to attend The New School. When I received the requirements (immunization, guarantors, large sums of money in the account, etc.), I decided to just move here and see what happened.
Was it difficult to get a visa or permit to live abroad?
Yes, it was not the easiest thing to obtain my artist visa and later, the Green Card. First, I had to get the money together, it costs quite a lot. Then I had to collect all the press coverage about me from the Czech Republic and translate it into English. Lastly, I needed 20 recommendations that needed to be mostly from here and have a certain level of credibility, so the Immigration Office would have a reason to believe I was good enough to receive the visa.
What was the biggest surprise when you arrived in New York?
I thought I spoke English well and I thought I knew how to play music. Both were very wrong, haha. Many hours of watching US TV shows (pausing and Googling the unknown expressions) and hundreds of hours of practice later, I still have an accent and feel like I need to get on top of my game musically. It’s way better than five years back, though.
What do people abroad say when you tell them you’re from the Czech Republic?
They usually know Jaromír Jágr, Václav Havel, Miloš Forman sometimes Kundera and Švankmajer. As far as placement, the majority of people think it’s in Russia, which I guess makes sense, because Russia to many still equals to the Soviet Union.
What are some of the things you miss most about living in the Czech Republic?
Well, at times I miss the food. Simple things like bread or mustard. There are ways to find it, but it’s just not as common. You need to go somewhere where there is a strong Polish community to get those things.
Has your diet changed since living abroad?
It has, but mainly because I started watching my heath way more than I used to. First, I don’t drink nearly as much alcohol as I used to. Second, I’ve eliminated a lot of starch from my diet. The fact I don’t like American bread that much makes it a lot easier.
Which customs of American culture are the hardest to get used to?
The only thing I’m not too crazy about is how “corporately” all the holidays are celebrated. Even if I don’t care about a particular custom or holiday, I’m kind of forced to be a part of it, even if I just stay home. Thankfully there are not too many of them.
Do you find dating abroad easier or harder?
I’ve been celibate the past 5 years! Joking, of course, I do have experience dating in New York. At first I thought it was extremely difficult, but then I realized it’s actually easier, it’s just way different than back home. There are so many people around you at all times; you have way more choices. It caused me to really figure out what it is I actually want. I live with an African woman, it’s an interesting mix of food we serve when we have a house party. Svíčková with dumplings next to a spicy crab and okra sauce.
Have you tried to find a Czech community in your new home?
I have not really been actively looking for the Czech community here. There is the Czech cultural center, where I’ve performed occasionally and I have two close Czech friends, who have both been here for many, many years. Most of my friends are Americans or immigrants that play music.
When was the last time you visited the Czech Republic?
I went back home twice last year, both times to perform. It’s always very nice to see my family and the people I love. Also, since I’m there very rarely, people usually treat me super nice and that never hurts.
Which place feels more like home to you?
New York definitely feels like home now, but that’s because I chose to make it so. It took five years to get there, I’m not sure I’d want to start over somewhere else ever again. But you never know.
Why did you choose NYC?
Well, for the music and the challenge. If you’re going to go through the hassle of starting over, why not do it in the most intense place in the world? They say if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. That was pretty much the idea.
Have you met any celebrities?
In June I was hanging out in the studio with Gregory Porter and the band while they were recording their Grammy-winning album. In February I was the musical director for a birthday party Oprah Winfrey was throwing and last month I jammed with Lady Gaga’s band when they came to our weekly gig at The Groove.
Has living abroad affected your music? Do your Czech roots have any influence on your sound?
Yes, it has affected me tremendously. I feel like I’ve improved so much, and there is so much more to learn and achieve. And yes, I finally realized I have something to bring to the sound and people tend to recognize it and enjoy it. I would say it’s a different sense of melody that I have.
What do you think of the folk music trend associated with Brooklyn in the last few years?
I’m very well aware of that, it plays in every cafe I go to. I don’t like it very much. To me it’s just very bland.
Is New York anything like you imagined before you arrived?
Well, I realize I actually had no idea what to expect. I knew that if I were actually able to stay, it would change my life and in that sense, it has fulfilled my expectations. I also know I’m still at the beginning.
Do you have an interesting “Czexpat” story to share?