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Czech Samaritans

Atheists or Angels?

Czech Republic landscape from the author's study. Pond with trees in the fall.
Changing seasons — the view from my study — falling Autumn leaves, symbolic of the transitions in my life.

According to statistics updated in 2013, the Czech Republic has one of the "least religious" populations in the world. Czechs have been labeled as "tolerant and even indifferent towards religion." In a 2010 poll, only 16% of Czech citizens "believe there is a God" (the lowest rate among all the countries of the European Union).

In the 2011 census, 34.2% of the population stated they had "no religion", 10.3% was Roman Catholic, 0.8% Protestant, 0.5% Czech Brethren, and 0.4% Hussite. 9.4% professed "other forms of religion," while 45.2% totally refrained from answering the question.

The St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.
St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague.

At the time of the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, a large majority of the Czech nation was Roman Catholic, with a minority being Protestants. However, before its demise in 1989, the communist era took its toll on religion along with all other facets of life. Atheism being the official policy of the communists, during the 40 years of totalitarian rule, many not-so-subtle tactics were aimed at actively discouraging religious observance. Church property was taken over by the State. All monasteries and most convents were closed. Clergymen were murdered, imprisoned, or sent to labor camps. Known adherence to a religious sect meant limited opportunity for advancement in the workplace. Parents had the right to religious instruction for their primary school children, but such a request seriously hampered a child's chances for admission to secondary school and university.

Although religious freedom was restored in 1989, the scars still run deep. Almost one-third of the Czech population today claims no religious affiliation. Although these statistics may appear shocking to most, they are a staggering contradiction to my recent, very personal experience of a country brimful of Good Samaritans.

A former church, now grocery store, in the Czech Republic.
Many former village churches today serve other purposes, such as this grocery store in the village of Strážkovice.

Expat Life

Having emigrated from South Africa in 2002 with my husband, we settled happily in the South Bohemian countryside in a tiny village near the Austrian border. Ian and I faced the early challenging and often-difficult years together as a team. The usual problems and reams of red tape encountered by foreigners in a country with a language very different from our own were overcome by always having each other as support. With humor, tears, and gritted teeth, we gradually began to put down our roots and to feel at home and finally content in our new and very different environment.

Teaching English to Czechs of all ages, desperately keen to learn the language, made us many new contacts, acquaintances, and gradually friends too. The Czechs are inhibited and shy with foreigners at first, but by showing a genuine interest in their lives, work, and families, we came to know and appreciate their sterling qualities. Adults old enough to have lived through the communist era never refer to those times, unless specifically questioned. They do not harp on it as an excuse for any shortcomings in the country. The attitude instead is one of looking to the future and starting anew, and of wanting the very best for their children. In my opinion, this is one reason that the Czech Republic today is one of the finest countries in the world .

A Czech angel made of Christmas lights in a park in Prague.
A Czech angel — Christmas lights in Prague.

Christmas in Prague, with a big decororated with lights in front of a Cathedral.
Christmas in Prague.

Alone as an Expat

Eleven years after first arriving in our new home, I sadly had to say goodbye to Ian after his long battle with Diabetes, just two days after our 28th wedding anniversary. Anyone who is a new widow or widower will know this feeling of desolation cannot be described unless you have personally experienced it. After a happy marriage, it is as if half of oneself is abruptly missing. Together we had traveled to many countries, enjoying different cultures and adventures and always patting ourselves on the back for finally settling in the Czech Republic. 

Despite many hurdles — in particular bureaucratic — we managed to find a niche and were perfectly content in our adopted country. We did not see the lack of Czech language knowledge as a disadvantage, as all our students were very keen to speak English. At home, we had our library of English books, Sky News and CNN TV — and each other — so needed nothing more in our little world.

Suddenly, in one awful instant on a February morning two years ago, my whole world was shattered and I knew nothing would ever be the same again. Friends and family wondered how I would be able to survive by myself, left alone as a widow in a foreign country, without any family even living on the same continent. I was often asked the question: "So, are you going to leave now?"

At the time of Ian's death, our only daughter was living in Canada. She was in the midst of her university exams, which I did not wish her to interrupt. My only sister lives in South Africa. Both my sister and daughter wanted to fly over to me immediately on hearing the sad news. I told them I would rather see them later in the year, as they could not ease my pain at the time apart from their daily Skype and email support.

Good Samaritans

This is when I, in the midst of my shock and bereavement, began to experience at first hand the true extent of the goodness of this "atheist" nation. 

The ambulance doctor and sister who attended to Ian when he went into a diabetic coma, did what they could for him in our home before rushing him off to the hospital on that dreadful morning in February. He died on the way to the hospital. Both the doctor and nursing sister encountered me a few days later in the main street of the nearby market town. They had tears in their eyes as they told me how sorry they were for my loss and that they had done their best to save my husband. The doctor spoke no English, so the sister spoke to me in German, which I am much more conversant in than Czech. She, in fact, had been the one to break the news to me on the telephone in German that dark and cold winter's morning.

Immediately after receiving the worst phone call one could ever receive, I had to go to the hospital mortuary to make the funeral arrangements. There I met the Chief Pathologist, who had been taught English by Ian when we first arrived in the country. They had maintained their friendship through the years. Dr. Petr Novák ushered me into his office, offered me coffee, calmly took over and arranged everything for me with extreme kindness and efficiency. 

I was obviously in deep shock and, sitting in his leather armchair, could only imagine how Ian had sat in that very chair, chatting to Petr during his private English lessons. Petr arranged for a driver to collect me from his office and take me to the funeral directors' office, where a  young woman, addressing me in English, most considerately and quickly made all the funeral arrangements for me. As no close family would be present, I opted not to have a funeral ceremony. I was later to collect the ashes and bury some of them in our garden in Buková, taking the rest to our daughter in Vancouver to be scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

The next evening, on my doorstep stood Marie, a former English student of mine, accompanied by Jana, our Czech neighbor who has a heart of gold, and only speaks Czech and Russian. They came, bearing food, sympathy, and offers of practical assistance. For the next three weeks, every single day, Jana would bring me a piping hot homemade meal for lunch. As she knows I am a vegetarian, this must have caused a minor headache for her, with meatless meals being almost unknown in this country.

A few days later, the Navrátil family arrived — father, mother and teenage daughter — the latter who had been my English student for many years. They all three gave me warm hugs at the door — this meant a great deal to me, coming from Czechs who are generally shy and inhibited with foreigners. Ana brought me a pot of tomato soup — guessing rightly that I had not been eating, nor had I felt like eating anything for days. This was in fact the first sustenance after Ian's death, which I took, later that evening, feeling the strength and goodness flowing into my system from her nourishing homemade broth. She also brought me some special herbal "calming drops" which I was told to take daily. 

Goulash and dumplings on a plate is a typical Czech meal.
Goulash and dumplings are a typical Czech meal. Vegetarian meals are less common.

While Ana and her daughter sat speaking to me, Milan busied himself outdoors, shoveling the 60 centimeters of snow from the driveway and footpath. This had been a particularly severe winter and there was no way I could have got the car out of the garage had he not performed this thoughtful deed. I was certainly not up to shoveling any snow myself at that stage. Milan then proceeded to give me advice about my car insurance and other important practical matters. Lucie, a law student, briefly explained to me the Czech legalities regarding inheritance. They left, with offers of further assistance and promises to visit again soon. 

The author's home in Buková, Czech Republic.
My home in the village of Buková.

Their regular visits thereafter were a great comfort to me, always bearing some tasty homemade Czech delicacy to tempt my palate. They have been a constant source of support in the past two years, regularly inviting me to their home for meals and always ready at the drop of a hat to contact an electrician, handyman, or plumber or to provide any other practical assistance when I need it.

Friends & Neighbors

After a few weeks, when the snow had melted, my neighbor obviously thought I needed to get out of the house and into the sunshine. Jana asked if she could come and "trim the shrubs" in my yard. Well, the garden had been uncared for probably for a year or more, while Ian had been ill. Jana tackled the džungle as she called it, with vigor and determination. In fact, I did not recognize the almost denuded garden when she had finished. However, it had forced me to go outdoors to cart away the countless wheelbarrow loads of garden refuse her clearing campaign had generated, something I had no inclination for, nor would ever have got around to doing, had Jana not forced the issue. 

A retaining wall in the yard had collapsed after the heavy snowfall. Nothing daunted, there was Jana the next day, despite suffering from a bad bout of 'flu. She carried the heavy concrete blocks out of the way with her bare hands and repaired the wall with earth. She next offered to clear the rest of the large and unkempt yard, including some trees which she regarded as being in the way—an offer I firmly had to refuse. I actually like my overgrown garden and "African-style" jungle and did not fancy her removing the lot! 

She reluctantly compromised by coming regularly every week thereafter to mow the very long grass with her electric lawnmower — a task she has continued to this day. There is no way ever to thank her. If I give her a gift of wine or chocolates as a token of gratitude, she will arrive the next day bearing gifts for me in return.

Dealing with the sudden loss of a husband is indescribably difficult. It is all the red tape that follows that is a totally unexpected and additional nightmare. The mountain of paperwork to be dealt with and documents to be produced — all this is something that one in shock cannot easily cope with alone. Dealing with bureaucracy in one's homeland and mother tongue can be frustrating enough for the best of us. This could therefore undoubtedly prove to be even more of an ordeal in a foreign country and language. Instead, it was actually made relatively easy for me, merely through the bounty, selfless time and care of virtual strangers.

In this respect, Marie was another guardian angel to me. According to Czech law, the "estate" has to be dealt with by a state-appointed Notary. She knew that I was not going to be able to cope with this alone, as the Notary in question speaks only Czech. She therefore arranged for her lawyer friend to be the go-between to communicate with the Notary on my behalf. I had one friendly meeting with the lawyer, together with an interpreter arranged for by Marie, and that was it. The whole matter was competently taken out of my hands. Neni problem! 

After heavy rains, my gutters on the top of the double-story house were clogged with debris — with even long grass growing in them. My feeble attempts at clearing them had only succeeded in breaking a roof tile! Having related this to Marie, the next day she arrived with her willing husband in tow, who proceeded to climb to the dizzy height on a very long, ancient, and rickety ladder. He cleaned all the gutters and even replaced the broken tile.

This type of compassionate and selfless act continues daily. Benevolence, empathy, generosity, goodness — these are scarcely adequate words to describe them. To the question: "So, are you going to leave now?" I can only reply that it would be very difficult to find  another state which looks after its citizens as well in the form of virtually free, exceptional health care —  or  to find another home surrounded by so many genuinely Good Samaritans.

My thoughts continually return to the parable of the Good Samaritan. I know that, had Jesus walked the Earth today, he would agree that people like my Czech friends and acquaintances, despite their label of "atheists," are the very epitome of what he was preaching about and, in his wisdom, trying to impart to mankind. 

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31) and  "so in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you"  (Matthew 7:12)  may be unknown edicts to most Czechs, but speak volumes about their actions.

Stained glass window inside the famous St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.
Stained glass inside St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague.

The transitions I undertook to a new country, language, culture and profession — and then the far more difficult transition to widowhood — have taught me some invaluable truths: If one approaches life in a foreign country with an open mind, does not expect anything ever to be the same as "back home," treats locals with courtesy and respect, never looks back, but instead only forwards to each new day as an exciting adventure and challenge, one discovers that we are all indeed mere citizens of the world and that kindness and compassion know no linguistic, geographic, or cultural barriers.

For More Information is an extremely useful website for expatriates in the Czech Republic.

Useful literature on life in the Czech Republic, its people and customs:
The Czechs in a Nutshell — a user's manual for foreigners, by Terje B. Englund, published by Baset.
Xenophobe's guide to the Czechs — by Petr Berka, published by Oval Books.

Pearl Harris was born in South Africa where she spent most of her life before emigrating to the Czech Republic with her husband, Ian, in 2002. Besides travel, her passions are writing, photography, reading, and animals. She has a B.A. in English & Linguistics, post-graduate Diploma in Translation and TEFL qualification. Formerly an EFL teacher, Pearl now freelances and you can find more information on her website about her work proofreading & editing.

Pearl has been widely published in magazines and on the web. Her travel memoirs, From Africa to Buková, and the sequel Where is my Home? are available on

Related Articles by Pearl Harris
Moving, Living, and Working in the Czech Republic
Teaching English in the Czech Republic
Cycling in South Bohemia, Czech Republic
Wine Tasting in Moravia, Czech Republic
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Living in the Czech Republic: Articles and Resources

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