How to Live in Prague as an Expat
The Times They Are a-Changin’
The freezing air whips through me — finding every tiny gap in my multiple layers to make my skin tingle and head spin. The 18 tram is running late, and I worry that I'll collapse before it arrives, as this extreme cold is just too much for a body that is used to tropical climates and sunlight. This is an ongoing discussion for expats living in Prague: those who grew up in sub-zero temperatures don't mind this cold, and those of us who grew up in the tropics shiver and share commiserating looks. We know it's not just the bitter, icy air; it's also the depression that comes with it, our bodies morphing to accommodate some measure of the weather here, our minds struggling to cope with endless months of gray and dark days.
I am approaching my fourth year in this magical place, and this weather is the only thing keeping me from calling Prague home.
I moved to Prague with my husband, who had lived here before and loved it. I'd never visited Prague before relocating—and visiting any land before moving there is something I recommend. These days, there are some decent deals from the U.S. to Prague, and several budget airlines that can bring you here from almost any major city in Europe for a pittance.
I've moved 13 times in the last 10 years and lived in nine cities in six countries. This doesn't include the six countries I lived in growing up, my American mother being a UNICEF worker who was posted all over Asia and Africa. I'm not just an adult Third Culture Kid, but a long-term expat who has ended up in the Czech Republic working for an international school Charles University, and freelance writing in my spare time.
I've found many projects through the fantastic www.expats.cz website, which is the first stop for anyone considering moving to Prague. The forums have answers to almost every possible question one could have about living and working here.
Since the end of the Communist rule in 1989, Prague has been an ever-changing city, bringing new and wonderful aspects to Czech and expat life each year. When I arrived, the Czech Republic had yet to become a part of Schengen, the border-free agreement between 26 European nations. Until December 21, 2007, many American expats didn't have visas mainly because all you had to do was hop a train to Germany to get a new stamp on your passport. They could legally live in the Czech Republic for another three months. Now that the Schengen agreement includes the Czech Republic, getting legalized quickly is vital and more complicated than it has been. The visa process will take three months, so you must come here with some job possibilities already in mind. Because of this, Prague isn't the best place to do a TEFL certificate anymore since you won't be offered a job until a month into your tourist visa, and then you won't have enough time to finish the visa process.
If living in Prague interests you, it's often best to complete your TEFL elsewhere and then come here afterward to look for work. However, organizations like TEFL WORLDWIDE PRAGUE will train you and set up job guidance should you wish to work in Prague or the countryside. The visa process is a trial that every expat must now go through. Ensure that your future employer provides services to assist you; investigate this before you get here to avoid any nasty surprises or expenses. You want to avoid ending up like the few dozen Americans and Canadians who were deported recently, meaning they can't return to any Schengen country for five years.
Another fantastic change, as far as I'm concerned, during recent years is the availability of a wide variety of international foods in restaurants and grocery stores. Now, you can find all kinds of ethnic foods such as curry paste, wasabi, sushi kits, barbeque sauce, baked beans, Tabasco sauce, and even fresh fish — something we never saw when I first arrived in the country. As someone who doesn't eat much meat, this has changed my life here for the better. I can now readily find tofu, goat cheese, salmon, avocados, and other previously considered luxury items at most supermarkets. There are also many excellent restaurants that all have extensive vegetarian menus.
Yes, it's cold here, the temperatures dropping to -20C at the height of the day. Be prepared. Clothes are more expensive here than in other European countries, so if you know you'll be here through winter, bring a warm coat. Sadly, clothes prices are one of the few things that have stayed the same these last few years, but several second-hand shops around town can ease the pressure on your wallet.
One of my favorite things about living in Prague is the magnificent public transportation system. Trams, Metros, and buses can take you anywhere you want to go and have frequent schedules. I don't drive, so it's great to live in a place where having a car is more of a hindrance than a help. Walking around offers many opportunities to appreciate the beautiful city and its varied architecture and soak in the Gothic atmosphere. The Prague transit system operates on the honor system, sometimes enforcing random checks. If you'll be here for a week or a year, getting a multi-day or multi-month tram pass is always a good idea to ensure you're covered. The fine is hefty, which can really hurt if you're on a teacher's salary, not to mention all the dirty looks you'll get from locals — which by itself is an embarrassment that is worth avoiding.
Prague has also seen a considerable rise in expat bars organizing open mic nights, live music, speed dating, art exhibits, poker nights, and trivia nights in the last year. The Czech Inn, a gorgeous art deco hostel, organizes events for almost every single night of the week. Even iconic Prague bars like Chapeau Rouge have changed in the past few years: Now, instead of a feeling like complete dives, they've revamped their main bar as well as added two new levels underground, one functioning as a dance club and the other as the deep underground venue for live music. Thankfully, the prices at these places have remained the same as they've gained in popularity, and delicious Czech beer can still be had for reasonable costs.
A friend of mine called Prague a Milan Kundera pop-up book, with its gorgeous architecture and the sense of enchantment that hangs over the city. Many writers have found an unending source of inspiration here, and I am certainly one of them. Kafka wrote that Prague is like a little old lady with claws who grabs you and never lets you go, and I feel very much in her grasp. Whenever I've fancied the thought of leaving here, something extraordinary forces me to reconsider. Like anywhere foreign, it can be very trying — even alienating — but Prague has so much beauty and wonder. Certainly enough to keep a person fascinated for the rest of their life.
Expats.cz is a very popular and information-packed site for expats.
Prague Daily Monitor is a very informative and helpful online publication in English, and was originally printed.