For half a century, the border between Austria and then-Czechoslovakia marked the dividing line between the world`s competing ideologies: communist and capitalism. Czechs barely knew anything about what happened on the other side of the border, and the same was true for the Austrians. The gradual disappearance of the Iron Curtain has allowed Austrians to freely travel into Czech Republic, but how much of that opportunity are they actually using? And how much do they know about their northern neighbour from whom they were separated for so long?
Before 1989, crossing the Czech-Austrian border was a complicated and time-consuming operation. Czechoslovakia was very restrictive in letting its subordinates travel to the West, while Austrian citizens barely felt like they had any reason to travel to a country where the living standard was so much lower and where they believed freedom did not exist. The disintegration of the Warsaw Pact helped opening up borders. Czechia`s EU membership in 2004 brought Austria and Czech Republic another step closer to each other. A final improvement was made in January 2008, when all customs checkpoints between Czech Republic and Austria were closed down.
..one of the few Austrians who speak a bit of Czech
Andrea (23) lives near the Czech border. She has seen the effects of the opened borders with her own eyes: `I remember how we feared that our car would be turned inside out by the border guards, and that was only a few years ago. Between May 2004 and now, we could get away with just showing passports and in January of this year, the border guards disappeared. It was so strange, the first time I passed the border without having to show a passport. I though I`d better still take my passport with me just to be sure, but there was nobody to check it. I could just walk freely into the Czech Republic, as if I walked from Austria into Germany. It`s such a big contrast from what one of my teachers once told me. She was Czech and fled her home country during the communist times. For 15 years, she could not travel back to Czech Republic without risking to be forced to stay there. She too can now walk across the border as if nothing has ever happened. That must be the weirdest feeling ever.`
Andrea tells me that many people living near the border occasionally travel to the Czech Republic to buy clothes or to go to a hairdresser. `Some things used to be a lot cheaper there, but the difference are getting smaller and smaller. The same applies to the standard of living. I remember Austria being way ahead of the Czech Republic, but the Czechs are quick at catching up`, Andrea says.
`Austrians who have not been to Czech Republic, or not in recent years, are likely to think of it as a poor and underdeveloped country, and grayish, especially in winter time`, Andrea tells me. It furthermore seems like Austrians have a hard time deciding on whether Czech Republic should fall under Western Europe or Eastern Europe. Vienna lies further East than Prague, but the fact that the Czech Republic spent so many years under communism still makes some people qualify it as Eastern Europe. The Slavic-based language is another reason to think of Czech Republic as Eastern European.
Many people at the Czech side of the border also speak German. The opposite, Austrians speaking Czech, is a lot less likely. Sarah (23, photo) serves as an exception. `I happened to study two years of Czech language when she was studying tourism and free time management. I also worked for a radio station that has close ties with Linz`s Czech twin city Budweis. We often had shared workshops with our Czech colleagues, and we were often restricted to Czech because some of our Czech colleagues would not speak German or understand English.`
Austria and the Czech Republic do not have any territorial quarrels like Russia and Estonia, or Slovenia and Croatia. Bianca (23) tells me that there have been quite some arguments between the two countries about a nuclear reactor that was built just across the border. `It would be based on a mixture of Western and Eastern technologies. The Austrian authorities initially did not put a lot of trust in the project, but the `Temelin` plant has now been running for a few years without causing any trouble.`, Bianca says.
Christian (26) knows Czech Republic mainly because of the many sports in which the Czechs are much better than the Austrians. `Football, ice hockey.. they are better at pretty much everything except fist ball and downhill skiing.` Philip (17) also mentions football as one of the first things he associates with the Czech Republic. `Pavel Nedved, Jan Koller, Petr Czech; those are the Czech people I know.`
Philip regularly finds his way into the Czech Republic, where most of his attention is drawn to the differences between the cities and the countryside. `Some tourist locations look perfect. So so do some of the main cities. The countryside nonetheless, still has a long way to go. Anyway, it`s not a problem when I go there, because I will simply go there for fishing, which is not dependent on the economic situation`, he says. Oliver (23) also thinks of aquatic sports when he thinks of the area across the border. `The Moldau and the river lakes are both perfect for swimming and canoeing. It`s quite suitable for day trips.` Sonja (19) who likes to go to the Czech casinos in the border area, thinks that very few Austrians will think of spending their summer holidays in the Czech Republic: `If they stay in Europe, they much rather go to Italy, Turkey or Spain. Or somewhere within Austria.`
Karin (26) still thinks of the Iron Curtain when she sees the name Czech Republic. Prague, Kafka and Havel also feature on her list of associations with the Czech Republic. Karin has clear opinions on the current relations between Austria and the Czech Republic. `I think Austria could be a bit more liberal when it comes to allowing Czech people to work in Austria. First of all, it`s not fair to keep them out like we do. Secondly, I didn`t see any proof of the much feared criminality that the opening of the borders would bring to our area. People who badly want to pass borders always find ways, whether they officially need to show passports of not. Thirdly, there are several sectors that simply need workers. We could use additional personnel for factories and in elderly homes. I think the Austrian government is working on integrating some exceptions in their current overall ban of workers from new EU-member states. We already have some exchange projects in place in the EUregio M?hlviertel, aiming to promote between the two countries. I like how the borders in European are slowly fading away. Borders make no sense. They only divide people.`
The current collaboration projects make quite change from what I remember from the days when Czech Republic was still considered `dead` terrain. We never learnt a lot about the Czech Republic in school. It almost didn`t seem to exist. Now, in 2008, it has transformed into just another European neighbour. Not entirely Western European yet, but no longer unknown and Eastern European either.`
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