Each summer the small eastern Bohemian town of Dobruška becomes a home to dozens of people from around the world who come to reconnect with the language and customs of their Czech ancestors. The summer programme, organized by Prague’s Charles University and supported by the Czech government, offers intensive language courses as well as an insight into Czech culture and way of life.
A local fire brigade in Běstviny, a small village not far from Dobruška threw a party for the participants of the summer language programme last Saturday. After brief remarks by the mayor of Dobruška and the local fire chief, things quickly turned into a typical Czech village get- together. A pig was put on the roast, sausages were broiled above the fire, beer flowed freely and all was alive with music and chatter. It was clear the locals were proud to be hosting the event and were mixing well with the students, even insisting the guests get on their old fire engine for a ride around the village.
Some 65 students came to Dobruška this summer from dozens of countries around the world. At the party on Saturday I caught up with some of them as they were looking to board one of the trucks:
Gabriele: “My name is Gabriele”
Serge: “Also known as Babička.”
How did you get that nickname?
Gabriele: “Apparently I go to sleep a lot earlier than other people. So I got called grandma. Here! Come here! This is Harmony. She is also from Canada. And Christa is from America.”
And you guys…also your parents are Czech?
Harmony: “My father is Czech. “
Christa: “My husband is Czech and I am not at all. And I want to speak to my mother in law so I came here to learn the language.”
What is the main thing you guys will remember about this course?
Christa: “For me I will remember the whole course the friends, of course. The experience. Now I’m looking at my life at home and I have so much stuff that I don’t need.
“You know they live so much more simply here and do things in such a basic way that is totally real and makes more sense. While me at home I have too many things going on to really enjoy life and I think they really just enjoy life here.”
Gabriel: “Yeah, I definitely agree with that. As far as this whole course is concerned the different cultural aspects that we have been able to experience going out to different cities and seeing different architecture, castles, and all that stuff, because in Canada we don’t have all of these…”
Gabriele: “Yeah the castles and the ruins and all that that you are able to experience here because there is so much more history in this part of the world than in North America. So that has been an awesome experience for sure.”
What is your favourite Czech dish?
Serge: “Oh. That is a tricky question because we have been eating so much Knedlík.”
Christa: “I just had some sort of honey cake that I have been hearing about.”
Christa: “Yeah that’s it. That was amazing.”
Serge: “The koláč was amazing. The cake with the blueberries that attacked you?”
Christa:”Oh! Yeah the blueberry cake attacked me!”
How did it attack you?
Christa: “It had blueberries on the inside and I bit into it and the blueberries went, Zit! And it went like this.”
Serge: “And it was hot.”
But it wasn’t just exploding cakes that made a mark on this year’s summer school, which also saw the first ever participant from sub-Saharan Africa. Lydie Yabeková a young journalist from Cameroon told me about how her mum ended up in Africa.
“My mum is from the Czech Republic and I am the only one in my family that doesn’t speak Czech. Well actually I understand a little you know. But I am the kind of person who likes to know the language well before they start to speak it. So that’s why.”
What is the story behind your mum ending up in Cameroon?
“That is a very interesting story. My mum is a paediatrician. She was studying here and met my dad, a Cameroonian, who was studying in Russia and was speaking Russian. My mum was very open-minded at the time because it was the 60s and she was a rebel. They married and she’s lived in Africa for 45 years already. And she is the general consul of the Czech Republic in Cameroon.”
The skills you’ve now got in Czech, do you intend to use them in your career as well or do you just want to learn the language?
“For many things. First I think as a Czech. Because I am Czech. And you know when they say at this school: “Ty jsi cizinka” [Czech for: You are a foreigner] I say: “Ne, ja jsem ceska” [I am Czech]. I am a mixed girl you know. My dad is African. So obviously I’m both Cameroonian and Czech and I am proud of it. I visit the Czech Republic every two years, so I know the country pretty well.
“I’m going to use it [Czech] primarily to talk with my family of course, because it’s stupid that when I come to visit my cousins we have to speak English, but also because my mum as the Czech Consul often gets people coming to Africa and it would be good to have other people capable of talking to them in their native tongue and being able to give her a helping hand. Also, I am a journalist, travelling a lot around the world and you never know.”
While festivities are a popular addition to the programme, many students told me they took the summer school very seriously and were also frequent travellers to the Czech Republic. Proud of their heritage, they were hoping to improve their Czech and meet fellow compatriots. However, not all of them had a Czech connection. Margaret Supik from Baltimore in the US was simply really enthusiastic about the language, she is married to a Czech and wanted to get to know his family better.
”It’s thanks to this course, which I joined for the first time 14 years ago, I can now carry on a conversation in Czech and for me that was my goal. I wouldn’t say it was quick, that I was quick to pick it up. I was just determined to do it.”
For several years, Charles University’s Vlaďka Koreňová has been in charge of the programme. I asked her if she thought the picturesque and historic town of Dobruška was the right place for such a course.
“Dobruška is actually very suitable for the students because they are not disturbed very much, so they can concentrate on the education and the lessons. It is very easy for them to orientate themselves and this place was also chosen for its beautiful countryside. Usually, Prague is well known and many of them have been there so being here is more relaxed both for the organisers and for the students.”
Do you think that because of the fact that this place is so far away from the capital and its many distractions, that it may be better for teaching or more intense in the sense that people here, the locals, often don’t speak English. Do people really have to try harder and get more into the Czech culture?
“I think it is better, because here, Dobruška actually lives with the course as well. Which means the locals know about the students, they are welcoming them on the square they have special activities for them and every time they [the students] enter the shop the locals already know: oh this is a student from the university and they are trying to help.
"They are not using English which is better for the students who can practice their Czech more. And the students are happy because what they are taught in the morning lessons they can then practice later in the afternoon which is good.”
Could you tell us how many people take part in the course every year?
“Well, every year it is slightly different, but we always have 60 people who are chosen by the government and Charles University. So there are 60 participants with scholarships. And then we have those who are paying for the course themselves and this varies every summer. This year we had five people who paid for the course. So we have 65 people altogether.”
So it’s quite a large course considering you do so many activities. I understand you travel a lot around the Czech Republic?
“Yeah that’s true. Usually in the morning we have the Czech language lessons as well as some additional lessons, like art, drama, music or history. And some other seminars and then we try to show some areas of this beautiful country. So we visit the castles, festivals and towns, etc.”
How long does the course go on for?
“It takes 4 weeks.”
Four weeks that must be quite packed. How many hours of lessons do you have per day?
“Well we usually have seven lessons per day. Five are before lunch. The least we have on some days is five.”
When the summer school in Dobruška was founded in 1990, Alena Obsková was put in charge of the project and has remained there ever since, now working as one of the teachers. She told me why the government had established the course back then.
“It started back then because a lot of Czech expats lived around the area of the Chernobyl disaster in Czech villages in Ukraine. And they asked the then president Vaclav Havel if they could go back to the land of their forefathers and the government and president agreed.
“But it was necessary for them to brush up on their knowledge of Czech because, although still good, it was very outdated. So the first large group of Ukrainian Czechs arrived with most of them later staying on in the Czech Republic, with a few returning to Ukraine where they have been keeping up the Czech community there.”
Aside from the language skills and possible lasting friendships that the participants would bring back from the course some are also planning to take back a more material souvenir. Carla is a young Australian from Canberra.
“I want to take some hořčice back, the Czech mustard. That’s particularly good. But I also want to get some Bohemia crystal. You know the beautiful crystal from the Czech Republic and just little mementos and souvenirs. I sort of travel to the Czech Republic every two to three years so there are lots of opportunities to buy stuff.”
The course is drawing to a close this week, but many of the students plan to return next year.