The articles entitled ‘From the point of view of …’, tell the story of an expatriate who is living in the Netherlands. This month the focus is on Stepan Rektorik, who moved here with his parents at age nine and has since become an architect.
It was in 1969, after the Prague Spring, that Stepan Rektorik’s parents – as did many other Czechs – left the country, initially with the aim of going to Canada. They took their two sons and two suitcases.
‘Nobody was allowed to know we were leaving, so there were no goodbyes and we had to leave almost everything behind,’ Stepan tells. Stepan’s parents were convicted in absentia to three years in prison for illegal immigration; ‘I never saw my grandparents again,’ Stepan says matter-of-factly, though it is clear that it is something he still regrets deeply.
The family had friends in the Dutch province of Friesland with whom they stayed for three months. ‘For two weeks, I had a really high fever,’ Stepan says. ‘I call it ‘repression fever’; I was repressing my grief at having lost my home.
‘I don’t remember anything about these two weeks but apparently I kept repeating that I was going to walk back to my grandfather in Prague. I was very fond of him.’
Upon accepting a job as clinical psychiatrist, Stepan’s father and the family moved to Hoogvliet, near Rotterdam, and later to The Hague.
Only after the fall of Communism, and the Velvet Revolution – the non-violent revolution that took place between November and December 1989 – was Stepan able to return to his country.
‘I flew back to Prague in May 1990 from London, where I was living. It was very emotional; the people were exuberant in their embrace of the newfound freedom, and it was wonderful to see my family again. I took them all out to dinner in the fanciest restaurant in the city – and believe it or not, at that time a dinner for nine cost me as much as it would have for me to eat alone, in London.’
Since he had been a teenager, Stepan had been trying to imagine what it would be like to walk the streets of Prague again. Did this first trip live up to his imagination? ‘The city was and is beautiful. I saw it through the eyes of myself as a boy – this is where I played, this is where we lived, this is where I went to school – as well as through the eyes of an architect.
‘Prague’s architecture is so diverse; from baroque, to classical to jugendstil, to modern. A feast for the eyes. It is a pity that I was not able to witness the liberalization of my country, but I am deeply grateful to my parents for their brave decision. It gave me opportunities I would otherwise never have had.’
Since then, Stepan has been back almost every year. He considers himself very fortunate to have been allowed to work for the well-known Czech architect Borek Sipek, who had and has a studio in Amsterdam as well as in Prague, during the early ‘90s.
“This allowed me to witness the development of Prague in the early years after the fall of Communism. It became very popular among tourists – especially, I remember, American college graduates who wanted a taste of European culture; it was cheap, authentic and as yet untainted by mass tourism.’
Has Stepan ever considered moving back to the Czech Republic? ‘I thought about it for a while, but decided not to. This’ – he points to the Dutch soil beneath our feet – ‘is where I grew up, this is where I went to school, this is home.
‘Among the Czechs who left the country I see two types of emigrants; those who built up a new life abroad, who adapted, and looked towards the future, and those who always kept looking back, who still had a foot in Czechoslovakia and who never stopped comparing.
‘After the fall of the Iron Curtain, many of the latter went back.’ He stops and grins; ‘Except for those who went to Italy. They stayed. They are the most content.’
Still, he says, he would always recommend the Netherlands to anyone looking for a new country to live in; it is well-organized, free, politically moderate, and people are willing to compromise.
‘Of course, in the ‘60s, the Netherlands was more open and more tolerant. My father got a job here as a clinical psychiatrist before he even spoke Dutch. That would be impossible now, yet this is still a country where there are opportunities for those who are willing to work hard. The only criticism I have, is of the climate,’ he rolls his eyes.
A glance outside reveals overcast skies, choppy waters and, in the houses across the waterway, artificial lighting on in almost every room, even though it is just past noon.
The characterization of people from Eastern Europe is often quite contradictory; how would Stepan describe the people of the Czech Republic? ‘The Czechs are not immune to the proverbial Slavic melancholy and sentimentality; they are not the happiest, most up-beat people I know. Which is understandable.
‘Over the centuries, we have been invaded many times and also World War II played an important role in our collective psyche. My father was eight years old when the Germans started rounding up prominent people in the villages and cities – and they executed his father. Also my maternal great-grandmother met a similar fate. These events clearly left their mark on my family and on every family in Czechoslovakia.
And what characterizes the Dutch national psyche? Are there any contradictions there? To answer this question, Stepan makes use of two very typical proverbs to describe the directness and outspokenness of the Dutch people: they are recht voor zijn raap (literally: in front of your face) and ze nemen geen blad voor de mond (literally: they don’t put a leaf in front of their mouths).
The latter expression stems from the days before actors could use masks; they would put a fig leaf in front of their face, allowing to express themselves in relative anonymity. Combined, the expressions mean that you are not ashamed to express criticism to a person’s face, without covering your own.
‘Yet,’ he observes, ‘they are also very flexible, welcoming and willing to compromise.’
Are there any Dutch books or movies that, according to Stepan, help provide insight into the Dutch culture? ‘I loved De Avonden, by Gerard (van het) Reve. The atmosphere in the book is very telling of life just after the World War II, which still shapes the Dutch psyche, to this day. Also the use of the Dutch language is so graceful. Which is not easy, as it is not the most elegant of languages.’ [Note; De Avonden, or The Evenings, has yet to be translated into English].
‘Another book that I greatly enjoyed was The Darkroom of Damocles, by Frederik Hermans, which goes into the moral issues of war. Though it takes place in the Netherlands, the issues are universal. As for movies, I recommend Abel, by Alex van Warmerdam. It shows the Dutch social clumsiness – and, conversely, its charm.’
Speaking of contradictions and counterforces, Stepan further observes; ‘I wish the Dutch were a little more romantic and a little more irrational. It would be nice if they did something crazy every now and then. It would be a great antidote to my Slavic melancholy,’ he adds with a knowing smile.
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