Marek Skolil was born in Slaný, central Bohemia, in March 1962. His mother, Jaroslava, was a nurse who later worked for the national chain of record stores Supraphon, while his father, Pavel (whom he did not see very often following his parents’ divorce), served in the Czechoslovak Army. Marek started primary school in Slaný before being sent to nearby Kládno to attend a special language school where he learned German, Russian and French. After attending the local secondary school in Slaný, he decided to spend his last year of schooling as a boarder at a school in Žd’ar nad Sazavou, which prepared students to go to university in Moscow. Marek says he had no intention of studying in the USSR, but that this year away from his family did subsequently help him live abroad. In 1980, after being rejected and then accepted in a series of events he refers to as ‘surreal’, Marek began a degree in psychology at Charles University in Prague. He left the country before finishing his studies in June 1983.
Marek settled in Paris, where he began by working as an au pair. He resumed his psychology studies at Paris X – Nanterre and, in 1986, started working at the legendary Czech exile publication Svědectví [Testimony], run by Pavel Tigrid. He worked at the quarterly as the deputy editor until after the Velvet Revolution. After a couple of years working as a journalist and lecturer in Paris, Marek was invited to join the new Czech Foreign Ministry (following the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1992). He did and started his diplomatic career on the French desk in Prague. He was subsequently sent to Paris as the deputy chief of mission, and then to Vietnam and Lebanon as ambassador. It was on a posting to the latter that he met his Slovak wife, Lydia, with whom he has two children. Marek was the first ever consul general of the Czech Republic in Chicago between 2005 and 2010.
“They wanted to give me more chances in life. People were really… on the one hand, people living in a communist country – or at least in communist Czechoslovakia – were on one hand isolated, they didn’t have access to information and they were definitely not making a lot of money, that’s why they couldn’t travel etc. etc. But on the other hand, education and languages were important, even if they were not very important practically, because you couldn’t travel. It was something that was actually quite wise of my parents to open this gate for me – that was good.”
“I tried to get to Charles University and that was a typical communist-era anecdote. You know, the whole thing was that I was not accepted, although I had all the best scores with the exception of Russian, where I had a slightly… I had a dvojka z ruštiny [a B for Russian]. But still, you couldn’t get into these quotas. And so, funnily enough, I didn’t even… send an appeal – as far as I remember, I didn’t even do this. And that’s actually when I realized that I want to leave the country; if I cannot study, I will leave. But strangely, my stepfather, he met as it happens – there was this school maybe gymnázium, (secondary school), gathering of people. You know, from time to time, they have this anniversary gathering – and there was this guy who must have been a big-shot whatever in the Ministry of the Interior or wherever – something like this – and he said ‘If you want some help just call me.’ So my dad did, and suddenly I received an answer to an appeal that I never posted, that yes, I am accepted to university, which was rather surrealistic; people had already started university, I came a week later. And that’s how I started psychology, but in my head, in a way, this was the breaking experience, I felt like ‘No, I don’t need this, I want to see the other side.’”
“Maybe a year before leaving the country – so when I was 20, 21 – I got baptized at home, at my friend’s home, where we were meeting regularly, reading evangelical, but, you know, very modern guys, like Bonhoeffer and these freedom evangelists – you know, people who were rather avant-garde in terms of their theological thinking.”
Why did you decide to get baptized at that age?
“That was something that, at the time, was very meaningful to me. It was a very rich (and enlightening to me) alternative to the philosophy that was being served to us politically – Marxism, and those things. And as all religion, it was also obviously because there was a community of people who were very interesting and very strong. You know, people with whom I am friends until today.”
“It was tolerated, now of course, when you were… you know, the fact that I got baptized in an apartment – that would be already a big problem for the friend of mine who made the ceremony, and who actually later on became a professor of theology at the Prague faculty etc. That was really forbidden, but for the rest, it was tolerated. Obviously, a lot of people in these circles were people who were also politically active in their position, but it was not necessarily the same thing. Some people were very far… were clearly opponents to the regime, other people, like my father, were actually, you know, in the Party, as many people were, and still going to church, and somehow he could manage…
“You know, small towns were always worse, in Prague you could hide somehow, there was so much going on. In a small town like this of 20,000 people, it was actually a little bit more dangerous or you needed more courage, because everybody knew you and you were going to church. But people were going to church, some people were going to Catholic church, it was not exactly like in Poland, where church was really strong and the regime… These churches – the communists did not like them, but it was okay, at least they knew who they were – these people. And as long as you didn’t cross a certain limit, a certain red line, which was basically to be publishing and spreading information of not just religious, but even religious, it was not encouraged… but that was the line.”
“People were queuing in a queue, as I did, for three days, you know, making shifts – there was this self-organization of the people. You know, you came for two hours, and then you left, and then the day after, you came for another two hours and people were helping themselves in the line like this, because – they knew why – because on the day, D-Day, when the sale was open, even though I was eleventh in the line, after these three days, five minutes before the opening of the store, some people from the store came, opened the door and suddenly, even when you were eleventh in the line, there was not enough seats for me on the trip to, what was it? France or Western Europe, which was supposed to have a number of 14 or something. So clearly, things were going on. So I ended up in the trip to Greece – a wonderful country – and I spent my two weeks there. And what happened was that I sold my record collections, my parents gave me some money; it cost 20,000 crowns, which was a lot of money at the time! A lot of money! So, there were not many 20 year olds, young people, taking this trip. And this didn’t escape the people traveling. You know, on this day I came to the meeting point and they would say ‘Oh yes, there were young people like you last year – they didn’t return!’ And I was like ‘Oh no! That’s not my case!’ And you know, I have my sleeping bag with me – a sleeping bag for a trip in a hotel! You know, there were things…
“And then I was selling these albums, so obviously I had to tell these people, because otherwise they wouldn’t understand why I was selling these albums. So I think I was very lucky, there must have been at least maybe 40-50 people who knew I was emigrating. Nothing ever happened to me; nobody ever denounced me, because there were cases when this happened. People were all ready with their luggage, and two hours – that’s the way they were doing it – they were coming to the house two hours before you were leaving, and they just took your passport and you go nowhere.”
“It just happened that at the time, this was the time that computers were becoming more important, especially, among other things, in the printing business and the publishing business, and they just needed someone in the rédaction to take care, not of IT (I would not be the right person), but someone who could use it – that was the breakthrough, to be able to use it. And it happened to be me – so I started like this: I was actually basically just typing one of Mr Tigrid’s books on the computer – you had people for this at the time – and then from this it moved on and suddenly I was among the inner circle of Svědectví, which was a very small, family owned kind of operation. And this was quite exciting, I was a little bit afraid that it might really affect negatively my family back in Czechoslovakia, but suddenly it happened. And so, after a few years where I was working at the Centre Pompidou, you know, to make my living during my studies, I was offered a job at Svědectví and I took it, and I think I was what you call the deputy editor, or in France they call it secrétaire de rédaction – you know, the guy who is taking care of collecting the manuscripts, keeping to the deadlines and getting the issue together. And I stayed there from 1986, I think, until 1990.”
“Every emigrant, with the time you are [away]… your idea and your image of your homeland – where you are coming from – gets frozen in what you left. Just this very idea that life and changes could continue after you… that there even could be changes, is an abstract thing for you. In your deeper way of thinking, you believe it’s like it was. I mean this was a rather short time, I only left in 1983, we were in 1989, so it was six years, but still, I was not exactly following and realizing that things that were not possible before were [now] possible. But on the other hand, I was actually following Gorbachev and I think I was the only one in the whole editorial committee who probably naively believed that Gorbachev is maybe bringing something… I was not wrong on this, that it was actually opening new opportunities, so it is not that I was totally pessimistic or disconnected, but I was very skeptical specifically about Czechoslovakia.”
“I thought that I would never, ever return to the country unless things changed, and I didn’t believe that they were going to change. It was really like a tabula rasa, which was important, I think. Again, it is something I would recommend to everybody if you jump like this – if you want to really emigrate – I think that’s the mentality. I always believed this; I was not looking specifically to… well, I did have Czech friends, and I worked, actually, with Czechs, which was something, but I was really not looking for it. It was an accident. And this whole time, basically these eight years that I spent in Paris, I was doing my best to become French. I mean, as ridiculous as it might sound or look, that was the philosophy. The philosophy is: you cannot do this halfway. And there is a wisdom in this, the challenge of living a new life wherever in the world is quite huge, and if you stay halfway, I… I always pitied these people who were living in Paris, and actually I had friends like this, and they are friends until today, some of them returned, and I understand them, it’s their point, but in a way I pitied them…
“I don’t like this ambiguity, you know, I think at some point in life you can overcome this and you, you have [your] identity built enough, and it can be a double identity, and then no problem. But, when you struggle for life, and you start a new life, I think it is definitely more conducive to success and to even some kind of logic, to focus on the world where you live and that was my philosophy – I mean, you can do it both ways, all kinds of ways, there is not one way.”