Olga Prokop was born in Kyjov, Moravia, in 1949. Her father was an officer in the military and her mother stayed at home and raised Olga. Later, her mother would become the director of a nursery school and her father worked for Škoda. Olga’s family moved to České Budějovice when she was two and, a few years after that, to Prague where she started school. Olga says that when she was growing up, her head was ‘full of the West.’ She loved movie stars, music, and fashion, and especially enjoyed borrowing Seventeen magazines from friends. While at gymnázium, Olga says that she wanted to study medicine, but that she was offered a spot in the school of dentistry instead. By the time she was to enroll, however, Olga had decided to move to Britain to marry her high school sweetheart. She arrived in London in the summer of 1968, with her wedding planned for August 28. Her mother arrived on August 19 and, on August 21, they received word of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Olga says that the two did not receive word of her father for several days.
Olga first visited the United States in the early 1980s, after she and her husband split up. A friend from New York City encouraged her to experience the city for herself and, after a three month visit, Olga realized she wanted to live there. Back in London, she went about obtaining a green card and a sponsor and returned to New York in 1988. She worked at several places before becoming a receptionist at a holding company; she held that job for eight years. Olga also studied English literature at Hunter College and earned her bachelor’s degree. In 1998, Olga moved back to Prague. She says that she considered returning to London, but felt that it would be hard to re-establish herself there. Indeed, she says that returning to Prague was a difficult adjustment as well, as she had trouble getting an apartment and reconnecting with her fellow Czechs. However, Olga says that amid the growing pains of the country with its relatively newfound freedom, she is happy to be back home.
“I was very lucky. My mother used to make dresses for me and everything so I used to have really nice things. Also, some people had friends or family abroad and the family sent them some dollars or marks or whatever, and they would buy so-called bony and they could buy things in Tuzex. We didn’t have this chance, but we would sometimes borrow a magazine and it was called Seventeen. I have a funny feeling it was an American magazine for teenagers. We would borrow it from these people and we would, with my mother, say ‘Oh look, this is a nice dress. Make me a dress like that.’ So it was nice. In this Tuzex – maybe this will be interesting to say – when I was a teenager, the coolest thing was to have blue jeans and you couldn’t get blue jeans here. You could get them in Tuzex or otherwise you didn’t, so it was a good that was very much in demand.”
“This gymnázium was a very good one, but I remember I went through it like in a dream because I had a head full of the West. I was aware that we can’t travel, we can’t have things that we want. It was the ‘60s, the Beatles. You couldn’t get records and my head was full of it. And then of course when I fell in love, I was just looking out the window, and I don’t know how I managed to have good marks, quite honestly, but I did.”
“I was very much into fashion and all this, so I was very much aware that you couldn’t get cosmetics. There was Twiggy, there was Brigitte Bardot. I had some pocket money and I would either use it to buy one good thing – I’ve always preferred to buy one good quality thing that just anything – or I would spend this money on buying pictures of film stars. I had this scrapbook of Brigitte Bardot – I still have it somewhere – and I would look at her and think ‘I wish I could buy these things. I wish I could wear them. She looks fabulous.’ Then, of course, there was Twiggy, and because I was so skinny I could identify with her because it wasn’t fashionable to be skinny. Then the Beatles, the music. The ‘60s here in Prague I think was a pretty open time. Jazz. My father liked jazz. So there were these cultural things which were seeping through and I was always upset that I couldn’t be part of it and that it was so closed.
“We couldn’t travel and we couldn’t say what you wanted to say. It was just terrible. I remember, actually, when I first visited Greece, I was sitting at the Acropolis and just looking at the sea and I remember I thought ‘This is just so beautiful. If I die now, I don’t mind.’ Because for me, it meant so much to be there and actually experience that beauty because I never thought this would happen.”
New York City
“At first I was frightened; I was overwhelmed because it was just too much. The skyscrapers, the people, the noise. At the same time, it was wonderful, but I was scared. I remember I was staying at some Czech’s apartment in the Upper West Side and I decided I had to go to the Metropolitan Museum [of Art]. I went to through the park [Central Park] and I got to the museum and I thought ‘I wasn’t killed, thank God.’ Because you heard all those stories about Central Park, I thought ‘My God, it’s so dangerous,’ but of course then you realize it’s not. I found the people, people who didn’t even know me, they were so helpful. It was just so different. It took me, I would say, after I returned there with a green card – because I picked up the green card in London – it took me about six months when I got used to New York and I realized that it’s a city where you feel anything can happen. Any minute, anything. Anything good, anything bad. And it was an excitement that kept you on your feet, in a sense.”
“When I first came to New York and I lived there, I felt the ocean. I felt the distance between America and Europe; I really did. When I was in London, I didn’t seek the Czech community, but I did at first when I was in New York. There was this Czech girl who took care of me. I met her in the church somewhere in Astoria, so I was friendly with her and sometimes there used to be some veselka [social gathering], this sort of thing, so I used to meet other Czechs. But to be honest, very often I used to come back quite depressed. After a while I decided that I prefer to be with Americans. I mean, I’m sure there are lots of interesting Czechs there, but you don’t necessarily get to see them. Initially, it was an impulse because you feel so far away from home and really, at least I felt, that Europe was far. I felt a great distance.”