Brno Expat Fair highlights the appeal of Czechia’s second city

The Brno Expat Fair is not a small provincial event with a few stalls and a trolley of cheap refreshments – it’s a huge affair taking place over four floors, including food from around the world, a bar and beer free.

Workshops with intriguing titles such as “5 easy steps to pass the Czech A2 test”, “Prepare to give birth in Brno” and “Chat-up lines to impress your Czech love interest” take place on the first floor of the spacious cultural center center Tržnice Brno, on the city’s main square, Zelný Trh. Climb the escalators to the second floor and you’ll be overwhelmed with a feast for the senses – the tastes and smells of the multiple stalls selling food from five continents, and the sounds and sights of the many stalls representing organizations for the family. , recreation and community.

On the third floor, you will find a range of services for expatriates in Brno, such as financial and legal services, housing and employment assistance, and institutions offering Czech language courses.

Climb the last flight of stairs and you find yourself in a considerably quieter space, with an audience listening with special attention to seminars such as “Inflation!” Keep calm, don’t panic’, ‘Recycling in Brno: discover the myths’, ‘What help is there for victims of crime?’, ‘The end of the era of expats – how to connect to communities in the new era of uncertainty’, and ’50 ways to leave your lover (but stay in the Czech Republic)’.

Slide the glass door at the back and you’re finally on the roof, where you can sit on the wooden deck and enjoy the view over Zelný Trh with a glass of wine or beer, enjoying the few bits of April sun.

Here I manage to get a few minutes with Don Sparling, one of the founders of the Brno Expat Centre, which organized the fair. Sparling, originally from Ottawa, moved to Czechoslovakia – somewhat remarkably – in 1969, shortly after the Russian invasion, despite being a Westerner. He says he moved to the countryside mainly out of curiosity.

“It was very interesting because of the massive passive resistance after the invasion – it wasn’t really clear if the Czechs and Slovaks could keep some of the changes that had been made in the Prague Spring, and so I was just basically curious to see how things would pan out.

Photo: Brno Expat Center

Sparling says that during the Communist era there were almost no foreigners in the country, so he was a tiny minority.

“In Brno in the 1970s and 1980s there were a total of five native speakers of English, including two older women who had married Czech airmen during World War II and then moved here, a woman Czech American who had returned to visit relatives and got married and stayed here, then another Brit around my age who also had the same story – he met a Czech woman and stayed here .”

I ask him if being a Westerner living in an Eastern Bloc country during the Cold War ever got him in trouble.

“In the late 80s the secret police called me and I had a long series of interviews and they tried to get me to sign a paper and everything. I have my files, which are 384 pages, and it’s a very curious thing because it’s almost as if I saw a doppelganger, my Doppelganger – it’s not me who’s there in the secret police file, because these secret policemen were writing a story for their superiors. So it’s very interesting to hear how they interpreted some of the things I said or some of the weird ideas they had. I’m not a paranoid person by nature, so I don’t have They tried to get me to sign a piece of paper and the threat was that if I didn’t they could get me out of the country in 24 hours and it would be a long time before I saw my family. , if ever. It was a bad time.

Sparling says that foreigners started settling in Brno almost immediately after the Velvet Revolution, but they were relatively few. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that people started coming in greater numbers.

Don Sparling - a Canadian in Brno |  Photo: Vít Pohanka, Czech Radio

“It was only around 2003-2005 that the first big projects started in Brno – business centers with state-of-the-art infrastructure, etc. – and once that started things really started to take off. .”

But there is a problem that pushes him to create the Brno Expat Center at the end of the 2000s:

“We realized that at that time there were more and more foreigners coming to Brno, and we had the feeling that they had trouble integrating. It’s not like Prague where there were a lot of foreigners and all kinds of services were offered in English and so on. This was not the case here. »

Brno has come a long way since then, largely thanks to the efforts of Sparling and the work of the Brno Expat Center over the past twelve years. The Expat Fair is a real showcase that Brno is now a truly international and modern city that can attract foreign talent to live – and stay – there.

Berta D. Wells