A conversation with author Jessica Kendall Hankiewicz about her new book & why she’s never taken a formal Czech language lesson (but still managed to become fluent)
On the twentieth anniversary of her arrival in Prague, Jessica Kendall Hankiewicz published a book titled Czech Lessons: Reflections on a Post-Communist Society (October 2022). In ten essays and three sets of conversations with Czechs, Jessica explores the Czech nation, its culture, its traditions, and its people during a pivotal moment in the new republic’s history.
From mushrooming and cottage weekends to President Vaclav Havel’s legacy and the benefits of living in a social democracy, Jessica covers a range of topics close to Czechs’ hearts and seeks to explain why, at least, for her, the nation’s forward progress means taking a step back into its not-so-distant Communist past.
A few weeks ago, I received an unexpected email from Jessica, introducing herself as a fellow Virginian. We’d never met, but she thought I might be interested in Czech Lessons. My curiosity was piqued. In the years I’d spent writing Half ‘n Half columns about my life in the Czech Republic, I loved hearing from other readers. Now, I had a chance to be a reader myself.
What could I learn about my adopted homeland from reading a book written by another emigrant, particularly one whose arrival in the early 2000s closely matched my own? We were both Americans, writers, and had taught ESL. As we discovered via email, we even frequented the same Prague neighborhood. We had a lot in common, yet our paths had never crossed.
If I were perfectly honest, I was also thinking – writing a book about life in the Czech Republic – that was my dream, too. I was deeply impressed that Jessica had turned her reflections into a real tangible book. I hoped she might share some wisdom that could reinvigorate my own book writing process.
Jessica and I set a date to meet, and I headed to Prague to buy a copy of her book.
On November 17th, the eve of the Velvet Revolution, I popped into Shakespeare & Sons, a bookstore tucked under Charles Bridge, and bought my own copy of Czech Lessons. It seemed like particularly fortuitous timing since this was the night, in 1989, when student-led protests against the Communist regime first began. These protests turned into a revolution that paved the way for a free, democratic Czech Republic and opened the country’s doors for foreigners, like Jessica and me, to eventually settle in Prague.
As I strolled through Prague’s lamp lit nights, like I’d done so many times in the past, I wondered what I’d find inside the pages of Jessica’s book. How much had its Communist past affected the Czech Republic’s current present? What had my own eyes missed?
Q & A with Jessica at Dejvické Divadlo Café
Emily: If I start at the beginning, how did you come to Prague?
Jessica: I’ve always loved speaking foreign languages, and I’ve always felt at home in Europe. I spent a year abroad in Germany after high school and attended university in England. After university I knew I wanted to stay in Europe, but as an American, it was impossible to get a work permit for Western Europe. I found a teacher training course in Prague and decided it looked like a great place to try out.
Emily: I did the same thing.
Jessica: I thought I’d only stay one year.
Emily: Me too.
Emily: How did you decide to write a book, now, twenty years after your initial arrival in the Czech Republic?
Jessica: Actually, the idea came to me one day, in 2006, when I was riding the metro. I looked around me, I saw young men rushing by in smart suits and shiny shoes carrying to-go coffees. Next to them were older passengers reading books wrapped in newspaper to protect their covers. There was such a contrast between the old and the new, and the transitions happening from day to day were almost palpable. I knew that someday I wanted to write about both this period and the general personality of the Czech Republic.
Just as Covid hit, I switched job tracks and started working from home. Suddenly, I had very few social events and plenty of time on my hands. I decided it was the perfect opportunity to write the book I’d been thinking about for years.
Emily: Did you keep journals of your early years?
Jessica: I really only keep factual journals about events that have happened and trips I’ve taken. I didn’t keep journals about that specific period of transition, but the concepts I wanted to write about were always there in my mind. I had the book swimming around in my head for so long before it actually got published.
I knew I didn’t want this to be a book that you could write after visiting the Czech Republic for a weekend or even after living here for a year. I wasn’t interested in writing about anything the casual visitor could pick up on. I saw this book as a way to convey what everyday life truly feels like in this country, and in my opinion, building up this knowledge takes years.
Emily: Who are the ideal readers for Czech Lessons?
Jessica: I initially wrote the book for family and friends, and for people who will likely never have the chance to visit the Czech Republic. But the more I wrote, and the more Czechs I interviewed, the more I realized how interesting it would also be for Czechs themselves to see how their country appears in the eyes of an emigrant. I think it could also be appealing for Czechs living abroad to read about how their country has changed in the past twenty years.
In Czech Lessons, I write about the Czech Republic as if it’s an old friend whom I’d like others to get to know. I think this type of book was missing out there on the market.
Emily: Was it hard to keep your motivation? I think I know the answer already, from my own attempts the past five years, but I need some inspiration.
Jessica: My parents were turning 70 about the time of my 20th anniversary in the Czech Republic. Once I decided to write the book, I told them I would dedicate it to them. Then I was committed; I had to do it. I set the goal for myself to write one chapter a month. Each month, I would email my parents a new chapter, which both kept me on track and gave them something to look forward to. Breaking it up like that helped me get the book finished.
Emily: I guess it also helped those long Covid days to pass for you and for your parents. The idea of sending monthly chapters is awesome. I’m going to remember this.
Emily: There are three sections where you pose Czechs a specific question. For example, “Do you think the Czech Republic is a happy country?” I love how varied some of the responses are. How did you choose which Czechs to interview?
Jessica: I wanted to get a wide range of respondents. I asked friends, friends of friends, my hairdresser, work colleagues. I also asked the parents of a few friends in order to get perspectives from an older generation. During Covid, some of my interviews were via email. However, it so happened that toward the end of my writing process, my husband and I were invited to a big wedding. There, I was able to casually interview a lot of people who were strangers, which really helped me get perspectives from Czechs who lived in villages and in towns, rather than just Czechs from Prague.
Emily: How did you learn Czech?
Jessica: I talk about this in Czech Lessons. I have never liked formal lessons for anything, and I’ve always taught myself the foreign languages I want to speak. When I came here, I knew I needed to learn Czech to be able to truly assimilate, so I absorbed as much of the language as I could as quickly as I could. I constantly asked questions, looked up words, and of course repeated everything I heard, like a child does. The technique worked, and I’m fluent now.
Emily: Do you have a favorite spot in Prague?
Jessica: Funny you should ask. I do. It’s the spot where my Czech husband, Jakub, proposed. It was a total surprise because I thought he was in Peru, and then he jumped out of some bushes and asked me to marry him. That spot has the most beautiful view in Prague. It’s right up from the castle, and from there you can see the whole city spread out beneath you. We take all our friends and guests there, and I tell them the engagement story.
I have other, secret, hidden spots in Prague, but…
Emily: I understand.
Emily: Toward the end of Czech Lessons, you take time to reflect on the America you left more than twenty years ago and the America you see when you return for visits.
What do you miss about your home country?
Jessica: Family. And Grape Nuts, the cereal. That’s my go-to joke answer. Really, living long-term away from my family is the hardest. But there’s no easy solution. If my husband and I moved to America, then we’d be away from his family.
Emily: I understand. For me, living apart from my family is also the hardest part. The pull is always there. Both ways.
If you’re curious what a panelák is, why Czech high schoolers know how to waltz, and how spending a weekend in a Czech cottage can make time stand still, then, join Jessica for a Czech lesson or two. Using examples taken from history, politics, and her own lived experience, Jessica shows readers how the adolescent Czech nation has come into its own in the past twenty years. She also makes a strong argument for why people all over the world should learn more about this often overlooked, and, in her words, modest culture. Czech Lessons is informative, humorous, and at times, deeply personal. I feel more Czech for having read it.
It’s no secret to my Half ‘n Half readers that I’ve spent years writing about my family’s experiences in the Czech Republic with the hopes that someday, I would hone my knowledge and my writerly abilities enough to write and publish a memoir. I’m not quite there yet, but speaking with Jessica and reading Czech Lessons has given me renewed inspiration for my own book project.
Jessica’s best advice about writing a book was, “If you really want to do it, I’m sure you’ll make it happen.” I’m working on it.
Where to Find Czech Lessons
If you’re a Praguer, pick up a copy of Czech Lessons at the Globe Bookstore in downtown Prague. Otherwise, Czech Lessons is available at the following links. For those in the U.S. and in other European countries, Shakespeare & Sons (the first link) ships internationally.