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Elizabeth Zahradníček-Haas, Expats.cz: Czechs are True Innovators

photo courtesy of Elizabeth Zahradníček-Haas
photo courtesy of Elizabeth Zahradníček-Haas

 Elizabeth Zahradníček-Haas is the editor in chief of the tremendously useful (and also fun!) site Expats.cz. Let’s talk about her life in Prague.

How did you get involved with expats.cz, and what do you like about the site?

I started out in 2006 as a freelancer. I had moved to Prague from NYC where I was an assistant and then a junior editor at several different women’s magazines.

I landed in Prague and knew I wanted to stay on that career path but my experience was limited to beauty, fashion, nutrition, recipes, health  – womens’ magazine subjects (still my guilty-pleasure reading and it’s always been my dream to start a Prague-focused women’s magazine in English!).

I started writing about these things for Expats – my first article was about beauty salons I think – but because the staff was small and there was such a wide coverage area I was able to branch out. I learned a lot about reporting and digital media over the years, especially coming, as I did, from a print background. I eventually ended up getting a job at a publishing house in Prague as an editor of cookbooks and travel titles but during my maternity leave I came onto Expats in a part-time editorial capacity and eventually full-time as editor. But there is a lot of role sharing, I have done social media, I write, pitch in with sales and marketing. It’s very much a team effort.

How many people work on that, and are they a mixed bunch of Czechs and actual expats – in what ratio?

We are a small staff that typically operates with around 10 people. Our content team is made up of all Americans and we have a small stable of contributors from English speaking countries. But overall our staff is quite international. Our founder is part of a British-Danish-American family. Our sales manager has an Indian husband. Our technical director is Czech but lived in Japan with his family growing up. We have colleagues from Kazakhstan and Russia. Over the years one of the amazing things about working there has been our co-workers who come from all over the world (South Africa, Afghanistan, Australia) but have roots in the Czech Republic.

What are your sources of news, do you use press agencies?

We primarily use the Czech Press Agency (CTK) for news. But we also work with a veteran Prague journalist who is out there going to all the press conferences and events and photographing things as they happen in Prague. We also have a lot of original content that is created in-house. And then we have columns that we’ve been doing for years; one of our most successful is our annual ranking of burgers in Prague which is written by the anonymous Czech food blogger Czech Please. It’s always a lot of fun to edit and creates a buzz before and after we release it. When I find time, I write personal essays that emerge from my experiences living here. I have written about sending my daughter to Školka v přírodě [https://news.expats.cz/weekly-czech-news/this-czech-tradition-is-a-big-win-for-parents-and-good-for-kids-too/] or how difficult it was naming our first child [https://news.expats.cz/for-moms/whats-in-a-name/. Or fighting with my Czech colleagues about air conditioning! [https://news.expats.cz/praguejobs/a-c-office-battle-what-have-czechs-got-against-air-conditioning-anyway/]

How is the business side working, and what is your marketing strategy?

As I’m writing this we are in the midst of the coronavirus restrictions so right now we’re challenged with a great surge of visitors and trying to keep informing people through all of these new changes and amendments. Business isn’t entirely on our minds as much as just helping people get through this with the most accurate and timely information. During normal times, I think our marketing strategy is pretty simple: casting a wide content net over our diverse and growing demographic, bombarding them with interesting articles that reflect what’s happening in Prague and celebrates Czech culture and makes it accessible to English speakers. I come from a strong background of ‘service’ journalism which is writing tips and giving the reader practical advice. I imagine going forward that is not going to change and we’ll really have to scale up our coverage to help people and businesses get back on their feet and contonue publishing relevant content about how Prague will adapt.

What are some of the unique problems expats in the Czech Republic face?

I think it’s useful here to say that I don’t consider myself an “expat.” It’s a term that is baked into our brand and we can’t avoid using it. I use it in articles but in my mind it’s always synonymous with “immigrant”. As an aside, iI’m not such a fan of “Czechia” but when you write the “Czech Republic” a hundred times a week as a writer you’re tempted to use something else for variety’s sake. I think the word “expats” evokes Americans and Brits living in enclaves around Prague and not speaking the language or integrating into society. Our readers are hugely diverse and international and for many of them English is their second language. Many, like myself, are married to Czechs and very enmeshed in Czech society.

Whatever you call yourself as a foreigner living here there are definitely common challenges. Obviously residency and employment permissions are a big thing and now there are all the travel restrictions. So there are some obvious challenges. And, yes, language is a big one because if you don’t learn it or have a Czech partner daily life can be tricky. But for many people it’s just the small things. We run a Facebook group called Crowdsauce that’s set up for people to ask questions about where to find things or how to do things in Prague and the Czech Republic. And that’s how Expats.cz really got started, as a message board for English speakers who needed advice about living here.

That group reflects the pain points of a lot of foreigners living in Prague. I always thought it’d make an interesting article for the Czech media to pick up on: while you think we’re all over here struggling with Czech xenophobia and rude customer service we’re actually just looking for a place to get our hair done! Or where to buy ingredients for baking cookies. People also struggle with doctors, both finding them and then adjusting to their bedside manner and advice. Many foreigners, just like Czechs, are struggling to find the right school.

And what do they love about this place, probably especially about Prague?

Our readership deeply cares – and have very strong opinions about – what is happening in Prague with the overtourism situation, new building projects, etc. Historical stories, features about “hidden Prague” continue to fascinate people as well.

We are big film geeks so we do a lot of stories about Czech film and movies shooting in Prague. Our contributors and some of our colleague’s family members are extras on shows and movies filmed here, and my colleague Jason has a side project called the Prague Reporter which covers Prague as a major filming destination. There is this great pride of place that exists among our community. Prague is truly the perfect subject to write about because there’s such a hunger for stories about it and so much to say.

What is it like for you to live in Prague, and what would you like to become better?

For me Prague is more than home it has become a part of who I am. I’ve been writing about it and living here for 15 years. I remain fascinated by this city, its Cubist architecture and medieval history, the grand cafes and majestic scenery, how easy it is to get around, the dynamic international vibe that’s out on the streets, even just the trams clanging by. Every time I take the 22 over the bridge up to the castle and see that panorama I still get goosebumps.

I also lived in panelaky for many years. So I’ve seen another side of Prague and to be honest I didn’t hate it (shout out here to the Opatov library, Hostivar forest, Chodovska Tvrz). I don’t know if there’s anything I’d do to make it better — except the obvious answer right now which would be to eradicate this horrible virus. Beer bikes and those kinds of tourist traps are a drag but honestly it’s more about what I miss from the early days of living here. I was talking to a fellow writer who has been here for many years and he commented how great it is to be able to go to these hyper-modern coffee shops that were unheard of back then but that when you go to those place you could really be in any city, Copenhagen or New York. So there’s definitely a certain kind of Prague experience that I miss.

photo courtesy od Elizabeth Zahradníček-Haas

 

And in which ways could the world learn from the Czechs?

Czechs are true innovators on so many fronts, design, technology, IT. They have done so much for the world. I am reading a book now that profiles Czechs who emigrated to the US and what a huge impact they had on American society in music, architecture, film. It’s incredible.

As a parent there is a lot that I like about the Czech school experience. And right now they are showing the world how to use a face mask. I see my kids being taught to get out into nature, to go to the theater regularly. It’s very well rounded. And the little ones just play, there is no pressure to learn to read by 5. I asked my daughter’s teacher if she was ready for 1st grade even though she’s young enough to stay in kindy another year and she looked at me like I was criminally insane and said “What, and steal a year of her childhood?” She totally had a point.

Anything else we should know?

Maybe just a message of support to all the businesses and people and venues that make Prague this incredible city we are privileged enough to call home and cover: we will do the best we can to continue to share your stories.

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