American illustrator, animator, musician and most recently, author Ken Nash has called Prague home for the last eleven years. “This has been more home to me than any other place,” he said. Karen Feldman, founder and creative director of a Prague-based luxury crystal glassware company, who has been based in the city for close to twenty years expresses a similar sentiment: “I really view this as home.” And while no longer based here, Hilary St. Jonn, who lived in Prague from 2002-2010 and continues to have strong ties to the city, says “Prague is like my home.”
Although uniquely different, the stories of these Prague expats (or former expats) – along with those of three others Expats.cz spoke with – share a variety of parallels. Many have stayed longer than expected, unexpectedly falling in love with the city, or in one case, someone in it. Two left because of love, or the lack thereof. An appreciation for Prague’s aesthetic value was expressed more than once, as was a healthy view of what could be called Prague’s dual sides.
I think it’s safe to say that among expats, the first question posed to one another (after “where are you from?”) is “how did you get here; how did you come to live in Prague?” We’re curious to hear other’s stories, compare notes and perhaps find we have something in common. With this in mind, Expats.cz thought it would be interesting to talk to some long-timers to hear their stories and why they’ve chosen to stick around all these years. To add another perspective, we also decided to talk to some former Prague expats to find out about their experience and ask them why they chose to leave.
Feldman, who is from New York, first arrived in Prague in 1994 to take up a position in a start-up cosmetic company run by another American. After less than a year, she was sent back to the U.S. to continue her position in Arizona, but then returned to Prague independently eight months later. Starting her business in 1998, she hasn’t looked back since. “The business is here, so that’s part of the reason [I’ve stayed all these years]. I like to be close to production versus working remotely, “ she said. “Additionally, I simply like Prague. It’s a very pohoda city to live in. It’s very inspiring. It’s beautiful and it’s also a city that doesn’t make you crazy.” She explained, “I might be crazy, driving myself mad, but the city doesn’t. I’m a New Yorker. It’s a quality of life issue.” Although now at home here, Feldman certainly never expected to be here for so long at the start. “I thought I was coming for six months.”
Like Feldman, Nash – who grew up in Michigan – came to Prague and left before returning for the long term. He spent a year and a half in the city starting in 1992. Before his arrival, he was living in Chicago, working as a copywriter and looking for a change. A dream inspired his decision to move to Prague. “I had been thinking about Barcelona, but then I had a dream about Prague. I couldn’t make a decision on my own, so I said ‘let’s go with that.’” Unexpectedly, he fell hard for the city. “I didn’t expect to stay. I didn’t expect to love Prague as much as I did.” However, he returned to the U.S to garner some more skills and experience as an illustrator, which he’d started through work for local English-language publications. He spent 7 years in San Francisco, along with 6 months in Guatemala, and frequently traveled. “I kept it in the back of mind to return to Prague, but only if I could establish myself as a professional illustrator.” So he built up his skills, including those in computer graphics, and did freelance illustration work along with temp jobs. He returned to Prague ten days after September 11, 2001. Today, living the dream, with a recent book under his belt, he says of his reasons for staying in Prague: “I love the city a lot. It’s good for developing work. I have a good, supportive community of people here.” He also appreciates the walkability of the city and its beauty. “There is a lot to be said for living in a beautiful place. It’s effect on you.” When asked about any challenges he experiences living here, he makes a poignant comment. “Prague is the easiest and most difficult city to live in.” He laughs. “The language barrier is huge. The bureaucracy is getting more difficult. It’s not a high-pressure business environment here, but on the flip side is it’s sometimes not as professional. The customer service is getting better, but it is still old school in some places.”
As with Nash, St. Jonn also fell in love with Prague. She first came to the city to visit her father, who had moved here when she was 16. So taken by it, she decided to pursue her undergraduate studies at UNYP and moved here in 2002, when she was just 20. She ended up staying a total of eight years. After starting a motorcycle rental company and finding success in marketing, she decided to follow her heart again. “I left Prague because I knew I wasn’t going to find love there, and it’s a party city and I was ready to settle down,” she wrote in an email. “I met someone in Sweden and moved there.” Currently, St. Jonn resides in the U.S. in Bozeman, Montana, where she moved in 2012. However, she’s talking of plans to move back to Sweden, with Prague as her ‘backup plan’. “I spent eight years [in Prague] and learned Czech. I still speak Czech and my business partner [St. Jonn runs a marketing company in Montana] is in Prague.”
Author Clare Wigfall, who was born in London but spent her early childhood in Berkley, California, was inspired to take up residence in Prague in late 1998. “I read a number of Milan Kundera’s books as a teenager, which inspired in me a deep interest in Prague and Czech history,” she wrote in an email. “Having spent my gap year between school and university at art school in London, I always felt that I’d missed out on the opportunity to experience living elsewhere, so when I was finishing my undergraduate degree, and already having a book contract but no other plans, I made the decision to move to Prague for six months. I ended up staying for almost nine years.” While here, along with working on her book, Wigfall worked for an art gallery, started a face painting company, and ran creative writing workshops for both adults and children. Her decision to leave back in 2008 stemmed from a variety of reasons. “I had itchy feet, and for a long time had been wanting to move someplace new, someplace where the cultural life was a bit more vibrant. I was also tired of being the one left behind each time close friends left the city. In 2008, when her first book was published, the timing felt right. “It felt like a good point for a new start, so we decided to move to Berlin.” Berlin is where Wigfall resides today. She says she returns to Prague from time to time, and is always reminded of her good memories. “I have so many good memories of Prague; it’s the city where I spent the best part of my twenties. In the early days, the Czech people I met had a real innocence and energy, they took me on so many adventures: mushrooming in the forests, late nights in smoky bars, weekend trips out to their cottages…”
American Scott MacMillan also spent the majority of his twenties in Prague. As well, he ended up staying longer than originally expected. “I moved there fresh out of college to practice journalism, assumed I would stay for a year or two, and ended up staying nine years.” Arriving in 1996, his experience was further enhanced by the ‘innocence and energy’ Wigfall referred to. “Prague was a great place to spend your 20s, especially during that time. I felt like my Czech friends had very much the same relationship to the world as my foreign friends. We were all exploring new things: their country was rapidly changing, opening up to the world with new restaurants, cultural options, and opportunities to travel, and here we were basically doing the same thing, exploring this strange and captivating place. We were all, in a sense, foreigners in Prague.” His decision to leave in 2005, like St. Joon’s, had something to do with love: “I left in part because unlike most of my foreign friends, I never really fell in love – as in truly, madly, deeply – either with the place, nor (and this probably makes the difference) with a native person, as so many of my friends did.” MacMillan resided in the Middle East for several years after leaving Prague and today is back in the U.S. in New York City.
Viktoria Kish, who is originally from London and is the founder and CEO of International Study Programs (ISP), began living in Prague in 1998 shortly after a business trip to the city the previous year. Although her job at the time included regular trips to the region, which she was already familiar with, having spent childhood holidays in Hungary, she’d never been to Prague. “Little did I know that within 6 months I’d become a Prague resident”. Kish was offered a position in the International Programs Department at the Czech Management Centre in Čelákovice. After spending some time in a middle management position, which she was promoted to not long after her start at the company, Kish took the valuable lessons she’d learn and combined them with her own ideas to start ISP in 1999. Along with her business, which eventually expanded into Western Europe, Latin America, and China, where she opened a second office last year in Hong Kong, Kish’s incentive for calling Prague home for so many years also included her Czech-Canadian husband, whose start-up company she shared office space with back when she was beginning her own business. “It was an incredible time for both companies, and being in the heart of Prague was very inspiring.” Of Prague in general, Kish appreciates the city from a variety of perspectives. “I have long described Prague as a ‘supermodel city’ – stunningly beautiful, but with its fair share of neuroses,” she wrote in an email. After fourteen years, Kish has recently left Prague on a full time basis to take up residence in Hong Kong: “Now I live in Hong Kong and return to Prague every two months or so,” she said. “Having that objectivity helps me appreciate the good things about Prague while also understanding its limitations.”
As for Feldman and Nash – the remaining Prague expats among the six – both have no current plans to return to the U.S. or move elsewhere. “Not on a full time basis”, said Feldman. Nash says if the right opportunity came up he wouldn’t be opposed to moving back to the U.S. “But I think I’d always return to Prague.”