Rachael Weiss: Me, Myself and Prague

04-08-2008

My guest for this edition of One in One is Rachael Weiss, an Australian writer who has recently published a book called ‘Me, Myself and Prague’. As the title suggests, it sums up in a very amusing way, what it is like for a foreigner to come and live in the Czech Republic without knowing the people or the language. When I met with Rachael, I first asked her what made her come to Prague.

“I was looking for a writing project to pitch to my publishers and I sold them the idea of writing a book about a year living somewhere. And then I was thinking about where and I was thinking about France, to be honest. But then I realized that everybody has written a book about their year in France. And I actually don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me at first that my father is Czech and that I should go and live in Prague. But when it did the publishers were very enthusiastic. No one had written a book like that about Prague before so a though: Why not? Let’s go and do it.”

What kind of genre is it?

“It is a travel memoir. It really started out as a book in which I would chart the course of a year, so I would come and live here for a year and talk about the different cultures and what it was like here and so on. The fact that was half Czech and I had relatives here and that I had history here turned out to be very important. But I didn’t even realize that during the year. It was only the following year when I was writing the story that it became clear to me that this had actually been a very important year in my life.”

You must have known quite a lot about Prague, having a Czech father. Is that right?

Actually, that is not right. I didn’t know much about Prague at all. I had a Czech father but there was a great chunk of my life when I didn’t see my father because my parents had divorced very bitterly. So I didn’t actually see him again until I was 28. And then when we saw each other we would spend a lot of time getting to know each other and not really talking about Prague. So there was not time in my life with my father when he talked too much about what it was like living in Prague. Partly because he was a war survivor and he just doesn’t like to talk about those things.”

What made him go to Australia?

“He came to Australia in 1946. He was Jewish and almost all of his family had been wiped out during the war. And why did he go to Australia? I think partly my father wanted to learn English. Secondly, there was only him and his mother left of the whole family. And although communism had come in at that time and everyone was really excited about it and thought that a whole new world was opening up, I think my father really wanted to start again in a new country, be free and have adventures.”

When you came here to Prague to write a book, was it because you wanted to rediscover your Czech roots?

“Strangely no, it really wasn’t. I didn’t really even think about it. I had felt partly Czech but because of the long absence of my father never in a way that needed unravelling as far as I knew. But then when I came here it did start to unravel. I remember I went to visit my relatives who lived in a village in Southern Bohemia and I remember one of them saying to me: She looks like a girl from the village. It was a really moving moment.”

What was your first impression when you came to Prague? What were the first weeks like?

“The first weeks were very exciting and it was all amazing. I am from this very new city – Sydney and from a new country - Australia. So for me everything was incredibly old: the buildings, the cobblestones, the culture. I just felt the history was soaked in the ground. So that was really amazing. And then it was incredible to be surrounded by all these 19th century Austro-Hungarian empire buildings. We have nothing like this in Australia. And the incredible beauty of the building really killed me.

“So the first few weeks were really exciting. And then about a month into it I felt incredibly lonely and I was suddenly thinking: What have I done? I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me in the shops or in the supermarkets and in the streets. The culture was completely different. So the first few months were like a roller-coaster ride.”

You devote quite a lot of space to supermarkets in your book and you also talk about how Czechs are unfriendly and withdrawn and it is difficult to make friend among Czechs. So what about the every day life here in the Czech Republic?

“I didn’t really want to say that but now that you brought it up, it was very different for me. I come from a country where we go down the streets with a smile on our face and we smile at everyone we meet and say hello. So I started doing that when I moved to the Czech Republic and of course I was met by stony stares and people looking away. I couldn’t understand it at first. When it first happened I thought: is smiling and nodding something rude? Because people were glaring at me. And it was the same in the supermarket. I am not accustomed to how sourly and rude people are. If you ask a question you get no answer. For a while I really though that I was doing something wrong and than I realised that it was the Czechs.

“And then later on as I made more friends with Czechs, I realised how friendly they are (not to strangers, obviously). Once you have a Czech friend that person would do anything for you. It’s just astonishing. It took me a while but I figured after a while that maybe it was like a hangover from communism. You don’t trust strangers so no one greets each other on the surface level. But once you are on a deeper level than you are very much connected.”

You said you haven’t seen your father for a long time. Living in Prague and writing a book about Prague did it change your relationship with your father?

“Not really to be honest. By that time I had known dad again for fourteen or fifteen years. So we are back where we started from. He was delighted of course. He was absolutely thrilled that I wrote a book about Prague. I dedicated it to him and his parents.”

What about your Australian friends? How did they react when they read the book? Did it attract them to come here?

“I have actually two friends visiting me right now so it has had some effect. I get mails from people who read the book and say how much they now want to come here or actually anywhere in Europe and to have the adventure.”

You initially come for one year. The book has been published and you are still here…

“I went home to Australia after a year and I thought: ‘Oh, I am not done. I need to go back. I need to learn more. One year is not enough.’ So I am back here now and I am here for at least ten years – I have set myself that plan. I have sold the publishers an idea on another book about Prague, a follow up to the first one. It will be about coming here and living here. ¨

“I really like it here, I am learning the language, I am really bad at it but I am hoping that in three or four years I can hold a conversation. It was really a matter of having come over for an adventure and then realising that I didn’t know the place nearly well enough. I really felt the urge to come here and really know it.”

04-08-2008