Tomas Hadl was born in Prague in 1985. His mother is a doctor who has a private practice in Prague while his father is an economist who works for the Czech bank ČSOB; prior to the Velvet Revolution, he worked at the Ministry of Finance. Tomas grew up in Jižní Město, a 1970s housing estate in Prague consisting of dozens of paneláky (high-rise apartment buildings). Tomas describes his building as ‘gray’ and ‘grim,’ but he says that there was a distinct change in his neighborhood following the Velvet Revolution and that it became ‘crazy.’ He attended gymnázium in Jižní Město and began working as a production assistant at Česká televise [Czech public television] while still at school. Tomas continued this job after his graduation and worked his way up to become a script supervisor. In 2005, Tomas decided he wanted to travel and signed up with an agency to work as a lifeguard in Washington, D.C. for four months. Although he says his experience with the agency was not what he expected, a weekend trip to New York inspired him to extend his visa and remain in the country.
Tomas lived with some Czech friends in Staten Island, but says that he was not actively involved in the Czech community for his first few years in New York. He knew little English and learned the language through conversation with friends. After working several jobs, he met the president of the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association (BBLA), the organization in charge of Bohemian National Hall in Manhattan which acts as an umbrella organization for a number of Czech and Slovak heritage groups. In 2008, Tomas began volunteering at the BBLA; today he works as a manager for the organization and is responsible for coordinating events, managing business affairs, and maintaining a relationship with both the Czech Foreign Ministry and the Consulate General of the Czech Republic. He also works for a consulting and project management firm. Tomas lives in Staten Island with his wife and their three-year old son.
“I remember the Revolution itself. I remember it sort of as a feeling. I know our parents, mostly because we were little, we watched it on TV. They did not go, because they had two little kids at home, they did not go zvonit klíči[jingling keys], as they call it, in the square, but we stayed at home and I just know that we felt that something essential was changing in our life. I remember when I started to go in elementary school, it had already changed, it was already past the Revolution, but the manners and the way the teachers taught was still very much in the communist way. I remember in the very first grade, I’m a left-hander and they tried to make me a right-hander, which was a common practice during communism, and I said no. I was like ‘No way. I’m a left-hander and I’m going to be that way.’ I think either my mother or my father went to school and said ‘No, this is not going to happen, this is not communism anymore.’ So this is one of my memories. Mostly the Revolution was just a feeling, but one of my memories from growing up is that after the Revolution, it was sort of a chaos that happened, and I know that growing up in Jižní Město, sometimes the neighborhood was very crazy at those times. During communism, I think everything was more uniform, everybody was the same; you did not have drunks on the streets. It was just sort of, all very gray, but very uniform, very same, and then everything sort of changed, and all of the sudden there were immigrants allowed in the Czech Republic. Everything changed and it was a bit of a chaos.”
Impressions of America
“I think most people have no idea – if they were never here – what the United States are about. I think at some point, when I was a teenager, I imagined it as from [the TV show] Friends. Young people living together in a cool apartment in Manhattan, just hanging out all the time. That’s a bit how I imagined it, but that’s when I was a teenager. I think before I came here, I knew a number of people who lived here, I heard stories; I knew it from television and music. I think it was still a shock. Also, for a part, because I did not come directly to New York, but the first four months I used to live in Washington, D.C. which I imagined very, very differently because it’s a capital and I imagined just as a strip with the White House and the Capitol, but that wasn’t the case. So I lived in several different parts in Washington, D.C. and that was a bit of shock; I did not expect that was what it was going to be like.”
Change in the Community
“I would say it changed completely. I would say it changed rapidly. Before, the Czech community was living together. Most Czechs were concentrated in one neighborhood, there were Czech stores, restaurants, you name it. It was really a Czech neighborhood. Just from the stories I’ve heard, Czechs, at those times, were really helping each other. They were capable of doing things such as working a 12- hour shift in one restaurant and then going next door to the competition of the restaurant and volunteer for another four to five hours to help fix the restaurant or build the restaurant. So it was really a community thing; the community was very, very tight together and working closely.
“Right now, I would say it’s more spread out. At some point a lot of Czechs moved out to the rest of the United States and then in New York the ones in New York moved to Long Island and Staten Island and all over the city. I would say the older community, which is now much smaller, they still hold together. They’re still very active in their community and they organize events together. As far as the younger Czechs, not as much. Younger Czechs have the tendency – I would say it’s almost the Czech mentality now – to be as far as possible from the Czech community. They want to live their own life, they don’t want to be part of the community, they don’t want to have Czech friends. They just want to stay on their own. And I would say me, in the beginning, before I got involved in the BBLA, I was very much the same. I was not trying to get as far as possible from the Czech community, but I would say I had two actual friends and that was it. The rest of my friends were either American or from anywhere else. The young Czechs just don’t want to be part of the community as much.”
“I don’t know. I can’t speak for them, I can speak for myself, but I did not leave Czech Republic to go to Czech concerts and eat in Czech restaurants. No, I wanted to experience New York for what New York really is. So that was my experience. Hard to say for everybody else.”
“There is a divide, definitely. The young community is very divided from the older community. I’m probably a bit of a bridge between them. The reasons are hard to say; there could probably be studies about it. For me, I think the main reason is it’s the actual reason why they people left the country. The older Czechs left for political reasons and they all sort of have this common reason why they left. They left because of Communism. To sort of seek freedom. Today’s Czechs, they all have their own reasons. A big part is the financial thing, they wanted to make money which is not going to bring people together from my experience. They want to make their money on their own somewhere and not be heard from and then go back with the money or do something with the money. There’s a million other reasons, but it’s not one common reason, and that’s the biggest reason why they don’t stick together much and they don’t stick with the older community.”
“My son, I speak to him Czech; however, at home, we do speak in English. I do speak to him in Czech; it’s hard to teach him actually Czech. I do want him to speak Czech definitely, but I think I probably don’t speak enough to him. He speaks mostly in English. He has some Czech words that he follows and he always says that in Czech, but he speaks mostly English. He understands some more Czech, but I think it’s going to take a lot of effort for him to speak Czech, and I will have to put him in a Czech school here and I will have to be sending him for vacations in Czech a lot. But I do want him to speak Czech definitely.”
“I love it here in New York of course. I think it’s such a great city that it’s hard after New York to start anywhere else because it’s never going to match up.”
What do you think makes it so great?
“I’ve thought about it a lot and I think for a part, it’s all this mix of all the nations and races. That’s probably one reason, but I don’t think that’s the sole reason of it. The city just has its soul. I think every city has its own atmosphere and feeling. So as Prague does, so I think New York does as well.”