Coming a long way from Costa Rica to Cyprus, later to Kenya, and finally to the Czech Republic, Adri Mendéz is a 21-year-old graphic design student, currently studying in her final year at Prague College. Having lived in Prague for 3 years now, she recalls her beginnings in Prague, learning the Czech language and getting closer to the Czech community via social media.
Why did you choose to move to the Czech Republic? What brought you here?
I chose to move here because of Prague College. The story in itself was that I came to Prague when I was 8 years old for Easter holidays, and I remember saying to myself ‘Oh, this is such a pretty city! I would love to live here.’ And then when I was looking for universities, I was about to apply for architecture at the Architectural Institute in Prague. Then a Facebook ad popped up for Prague College. Last minute I changed my mind and decided to do graphic design. I applied to Prague College, started the process and came here. It’s literally like a dream come true for me. A childhood dream to live in the middle of Europe. Coming from a Latin-American country, we always dream of living in Europe because we see it as the best thing ever! (laughs) It is inaccessible to many people and when you live in Europe, it’s like “Oh, wow!”. So I kinda grew up with that desire.
What were the beginnings here like when it comes to getting used to the country and its culture?
When I got here, I lived in the dorms, so at first I wasn’t really involved in Czech culture. I was surrounded by expats and the English-speaking community, so it was very difficult for me to connect with the Czechs. I didn’t at all. In terms of living here, I found it very easy because the tram system was so nice. In terms of food, the hardest thing was that I didn’t know how to cook. Thankfully there were restaurants around that were very cheap. It was very easy for me to adapt to the school because the teachers were really nice, the projects were very interesting and I was in love with graphic design as I am now. I remember spending all nights with my classmates in the dorm study hall working on projects. Because in the first semester, you want to prove to yourself that you can do it. Prague for me really represented a sense of freedom from my parents and from who I used to be. It was a lot of fun to explore that. Going out, making friends and just seeing the student scene of Prague was interesting for me. So the beginnings were fun and very freeing. Then little by little I started adapting more, seeing more of the Czech culture and making Czech friends.
Have you ever taken Czech classes to learn the language? If yes, how did it go?
Yes, I took the Czech classes at school. The issue was that every week there would be a different person coming into the classes, so we’d have to start all over again. So every time they would teach us ‘jedna, dva, tři’ and I was like “Okay, I know how to count to three, can you teach me how to count to ten?” Right now, three years in I can only count to eight because nine and ten are mixed up in my brain. I can count to three which helps me in the gym. The Czech book was also very difficult, it didn’t work for me. I am very bad at languages. I’ve lived in Cyprus, didn’t learn Greek. Lived in Kenya, didn’t learn Swahili. I live in the Czech Republic and don’t speak Czech. It’s a whole cycle, it’s my problem. But one of the things that I know is that for 3 years I’ve survived without Czech. It’s definitely not the best way of surviving, but it is a way. I wish I did learn Czech to communicate more freely.
When shopping or having to deal with communicating with Czech people, do you attempt to speak Czech?
Let me just say, the post office brings me so much anxiety because you never know if they speak English or not. Sometimes at the bank they don’t speak English, so they have to bring someone from the inside to translate. It’s very difficult. It’s a very big limitant and I really wish I learned Czech just so I could live here a bit more freely. But I’ve survived without it till this point and that’s because Prague is more modern (than the rest of the country). I have a lot of friends, mostly latinos, who lived in different Czech cities, and they learned the language quickly because they are obligated to since nobody in a Czech town is going to speak to you in English. Only a few (laughs). That’s why I always tell people they have to go to a Czech town to learn Czech and not to Prague. In Prague you can survive with English. It just brings anxiety and that difficulty. When communicating with Czech people, I attempt to speak as much Czech as I can, but it’s super limited to little phrases. I usually don’t understand anything that they tell me, so I’m like “Pardon, mluvíte anglicky?” [Excuse me, do you speak English?] and they start speaking to me in English. I worked in a restaurant for 9 months in the Old Town, and I still don’t know how to order food in Czech.
Do you have any funny experiences while attempting to speak Czech that you can share with us?
Funny moments are always when people try to flirt with me and they end up not speaking English. One day I was sitting in the park and a guy came up to me. I don’t know what he was saying, he said something in Czech, but I could see that he was trying to flirt with me. So I said: ‘Pardon, nemluvím česky.’ and he didn’t know what to do, he got scared off and left. It’s happened a couple of times and it’s weird.
Have you noticed any difference in native Czech people's behavior when you're speaking Czech or English?
Well, I don’t speak that much Czech (laughs). But when I’m with my friend’s parents, they are a Czech-Brasilian family, the grandma speaks English and the grandpa speaks Czech. When I talk to him and ask “Jak se máte?”, he lights up. But that’s it for the conversation I can have. I feel like when he sees I’m trying to make an effort, he really enjoys it, but then it’s just very awkward because we can’t speak to each other. The grandma speaks English so it’s very nice to speak to her and getting to see her point of view because she’s lived through communism in Czechoslovakia. I heard Czechs are nicer when you speak Czech but I don’t speak Czech, so I don’t know. My experience with Czechs has been nice so far. Usually when I tell them that I don’t speak Czech, they are quite nice to me. I often have my groceries delivered and they are very nice even though they don’t speak English.
Have you noticed any differences in the way Czech people communicate or behave compared to your culture?
Absolutely! I come from a very crazy, loud, expressive culture. Then I moved from Costa Rica to Kenya where they are equally, or even more expressive. They’re always happy, always trying to get up in your business. And then I come to the Czech Republic and nobody cares about you, nobody bats an eye when you walk into a store. It takes a while to get into a Czech’s good side. At the beginning I thought “Oh my god, everybody absolutely hates me. What have I done wrong to the Czech people?” Then I realized it just takes some time for them to warm up to us and to get comfortable with us. I actually really appreciate that because in a sense in Latin America, everyone will be nice to your face, but they will speak really badly behind your back. I can see that it takes a while for Czech people to warm up to someone and when they do, it’s so real and so nice. That’s why I really enjoy having Czech friends, mostly friends from the gym, because I know they’re being nice to me because they like me. Not just because they have to be. That for me is very important. But on the other hand, in Costa Rica we hug so much compared to Czechs. I think Latin Americans and Central Europeans are a huge contrast. It was very, very difficult for me to adapt at the beginning, but now I am very used to it. I am even able to switch from the Latino to the European style because I do have a lot of Latino friends here, so I have that culture still around. I am very appreciative of both.
Is there anything you still haven't gotten used to or can't figure out?
This is going to sound very weird, but I haven’t gotten used to people not eating on the trams (laughs). And I understand why Czech people don’t eat in trams, but sometimes because you commute from one place to another, you want to eat on the tram (pre-covid). I want to take out my snack, have an apple, but if you take something out, people will look at you very badly because you’re not allowed to. It’s only the old people and children that eat on the trams. And I’m like: “I want to have a snack on the tram, why is it prohibited? Why?” It’s not like I haven’t gotten used to it because I’d never lived in a city with a tram before. Back in Kenya or Costa Rica, we usually use just cars, so I would be able to eat on my commute. But now I can’t because it’s trams.
Another thing I absolutely don’t understand is how people just let their kids walk outside without supervision. I see little kids running around with keys hanging around their necks, going from their house to school on their own! My mom would not even let me leave the compound where we lived when I was younger. That’s just insane to me. Talking to my Czech friends, to them it’s normal because it’s such a safe city and it’s so easy to transport. Seeing little kids on the trams on their own freaks me out. I want to ask them things like: “Are you okay? Are you lost? Can I help you?” It’s so insane. But the freedom and liberty of just walking out and living your life is something that is very in the culture. For me being able to live like this is a dream.
Living in Kenya is a completely different situation. You have to have a driver, pass security, you have only 2 malls to go to. Here you can go wherever the hell you want.
A lot of people know you from TikTok where you have done many challenges related to the Czech language and its culture. How do Czech people react to this type of videos?
The thing is, I started doing Tik Tok just for fun. Funny, comedy skits and they weren’t picking up. I’m a dancer, so I thought that maybe dancing videos would pick up - they didn’t. The moment I did a video about me mispronouncing Czech labels, Tik Tok blew up. They loved it, that video got like 200 000 views and I was confused. I realized that Tik Tok is very regional, so it shows your videos to Czechs. It's about them, so they like it more. Till this day almost a year later since I got that video up, I’ve seen such support from the Czech community, which is so crazy. There’s obviously been haters too, telling me that if I don’t like it here, I should leave (laughs). It’s because sometimes I make videos about how different our cultures are or things that I don’t understand about the Czech Republic, but it’s not like I’m saying I want to leave. I remember I did a video about why every Czech city has a castle. I understand, I know the history of the Czech Republic. The video was just for fun and everybody was like: “If you don’t know our history, then get out of here.” There has been a lot of hate, but on the other hand there’s been so much amazing feedback. I get about five messages from people every day, saying they know me from Tik Tok and offering me help with Czech. I am so grateful for every person that sends me these messages. I just don’t have the time to go and talk to everyone. I’ve met some of my closest friends on TikTok that are Czech. I have a friend who is an Instagram influencer / TikToker from Slovakia and I asked her if she is getting messages this often too and she was like: “No, I don’t get any messages like that Adri.” That had me wondering why I keep getting them and I think it’s because people see that I’m a foreigner and want to help me. But definitely, I’ve seen great reactions from Czech people. Everytime I try to make a TikTok about anything else, it gets about 2000 views. The moment I mention Prague or Czech or something like that, it gets like 20 000 views. I ask why. Why don’t they let me post and enjoy other types of content (laughs). But no, I am in the Czech Republic and it’s all Czech and I am very grateful for the reception of people. My mom tells me that she wants me to marry a Czech. I don’t. I love the country, but to live here forever, you have to learn the language and that is not going to happen with me.
Do you plan on staying in the country or is your heart leading you somewhere else?
I want to stay here for a couple more years. To work here, get some experience, and then I want to move somewhere else. It’s nothing against the Czech Republic. It’s because I’ve been living abroad and moving so much since I was 5 years old. My mind does not let me stay in one place for too long. Right now in terms of economy and the pandemic, we are in a very bad place, but I think Prague is the safest place for me to stay in terms of getting adapted. I don’t want to go through that process right now, it’s too much. So yes, I am planning on staying in the Czech Republic for a couple more years, but not for the rest of my life, not for a very long time.
Is there anything that you've learned from the experience of living in the Czech Republic?
I’ve learned so much, you have no idea. I cannot express how much I’ve learned. Mostly because this was the first ever experience of me living by myself. That has had such a huge impact on my life in a sense of independence and growth - mentally, spiritually, everything. I have become a completely different person. Looking 3 years back, I just matured and grew. It’s also the situation of getting my bachelor’s degree. I was a child when I came here. Well, now I’m still a child but with a couple more years (laughs). In terms of being specific, I’ve learned independence and expressing myself in the best way possible. There is so much that you can do in the city, you can explore a lot of areas of your life.
Lastly, what is the most useful advice you would give to people who moved to the Czech Republic but don't speak Czech?
My advice for someone who is about to move to the Czech Republic would be to learn how to say ‘Nemluvím česky. Mluvím anglicky.’ [I don’t speak Czech. I speak English.] Have Google Translate on Siri Commands and be very mindful and understanding. Don’t feel that people have to speak English to you. As an expat coming to this country, you are not entitled to be spoken in English to. You got to understand the history, the culture and the fact that the older generation will not speak English to you because of the history that they went through and because they never needed it. These people went through communism, come on. In my home country, in Costa Rica, nobody is going to speak to you in English either, they’ll speak to you in Spanish. I understand that and it makes me mad that some people think that just because they don’t speak Czech, they should be spoken to in English. You should obviously be making the effort to learn Czech. Well, I stopped making the effort a long time ago (laughs). But I don’t expect people to speak to me in English. I am okay when someone tells me that they don’t speak English. I will try my best, come another day, turn on Google Translate or anything. Just make sure to always have an open mind.
Connect with Adri: