Marek Eisler, born 1980
Marek Eisler was born in Prague in 1980. His father, John, was an architect who worked at SIAL studios while his mother, Eva, was a designer who came to be known for her jewelry in particular. Marek was raised alongside his older brother in the city’s Podolí district. In 1983, his father was offered a job at Richard Meier & Partners Architects, and so the Eislers moved to New York City. They settled in Jamaica, Queens – which, according to Marek, was a very diverse neighborhood and full of first-generation immigrants. Marek says that although his mother was determined to keep Czech traditions and customs in their home, he was not very connected with his Czech heritage and even made a concerted effort to forget the Czech language. In 1993, the Eislers moved to Manhattan, and Marek’s parents often hosted brunches, dinner parties, and gallery installments that drew artists, architects, and designers to their home; Marek says these events and people had a lasting influence on him. As a teenager, he became interested in the hip-hop and electronic music scenes.
After graduating from high school in 1998, Marek knew that he did not want to attend college; instead, he had a desire to travel and explore his different philosophical and spiritual interests. He volunteered at a holistic community for several months in Devon, England, before moving to Prague in the spring of 1999. Marek lived with his grandmother and uncle in the city’s Prosek district, where he devoted one month to relearning the Czech language. In addition to producing multimedia events focused on ‘sound art,’ Marek began tutoring students in English. Six years ago, two people approached him almost simultaneously about joining the teaching staff of The Waldorf School in Jinonice. Marek says the alternative educational philosophy and his ‘inclination towards taking care of children’ convinced him to become an English teacher at the school. Marek has been back to the United States twice since he left and says he has no intention of resettling in America, as Prague now ‘feels like home.’
Marek’s parents were part of the art scene in Prague
“Supposedly it was a very wild time. I have photographs of myself being a year and half sitting my dad’s lap and his hair is a big curly afro and drinking beer in pubs. I understand that at that time pub life was very much the center of social life where people were able to vent their opinions and be in maybe safer company. We were in company of all kinds of artists in Prague, and that’s also what I’ve come to understand, that then, even more so that now, there was one group of underground art people, and I’m proud to be in the lineage of that.”
When the Eislers arrived in New York in 1983, they settled in Jamaica, Queens
“I went to a wonderful elementary school, and I like to say that our class photos were just a rainbow. All my classmates were mostly first generation immigrants from China, from Israel, from India. A very good cultural education, learning how to say all those different names, and just as six, seven year olds getting together and realizing that there’s no difference between us. So that was a brilliant way to start.”
Marek’s parents insisting on retaining their Czech culture, for several reasons
“My mom very consciously maintained Czech culture, in terms of kitchen, even the style of furniture. She was very alternative when she was here, but if we look at photographs we can see that there was definitely no Americanization. There was no sofa, there was no microwave. I remember especially the dinners, they looked just like what you get now [in Prague]. Of course, me and my brother were kind of against it. We wanted the McDonald’s and the hamburgers and stuff, but my parents were very consciously and very open about ‘No, we’re not giving into that and we are proud of our culture and we are going to maintain it.’ What is funny is all my classmates did the same in their houses. If you went to their house, it would be like little China and they would have real Chinese food for dinner, and then the Indians, so each home was like a little oasis of that culture.”
Why did they keep it so Czech in the middle of New York?
“I guess we could see it from a few different perspectives. One is that that would just be the honest thing to do, to be true to one’s culture. I think that one of the fundamental values in our household was to be aware, to be educated, and to be broad-minded and multicultural, and I think that Prague, I see it more and more over the years that it’s the heart of Europe, and I’ve thought very often why that is, and if you look on the map you see it basically as the crossroads of all these different routes. I think that the Czech history and nationality is very educated, very world-conscious, and I think that the fear was that the Americans, how they’re isolated by the seas, there was this fear that we would become small-minded, and therefore we should actively maintain our broad awareness.”
Marek recounts some of his earlier experiences with the English and Czech languages
“When we were singing the national anthem and things like that at school, I remember for years and years and years, I didn’t know what I was saying. The words didn’t stand out to me as individual words, it was just kind of a mishmash of syllables. I really, not until I was about 12 or 13 did I actually hear it and say ‘Oh right, that means something.’ That was kind of the first experience of me encountering English, just seeing it as a curtain of sound.
“I remember that when I was eight and he [his brother] was ten, there was a point where I decided that I’m no longer going to speak Czech and that I’m going to even make an effort not to understand it. Now with my work with children, I’ve learned that there’s a special age around that time where the kids discover the tendency to rebel and be naughty, as opposed to before doing everything that their parents say, and now they discover, wow they can really go against the rules, and I think that’s what that was. My dad explains it to me that if I would say to my mom ‘I don’t understand,’ that’s kind of giving me the go-ahead to do things she’s telling me not to do. It’s pretty smart. Pretty useful. In monolingual households, you can’t use that excuse, so it was a good excuse. From that time, it really went downhill. By the time we were 12, I actually didn’t understand.”
Marek visited Prague in 1992 and 1996
“My first visit was 1992. [It was] me and my brother doing all the classic tourist stuff, going to the castle and going to other castles outside of Prague. But, being young teenagers, very often bored and complaining and stuff. But visiting my extended family, my cousins, my uncles. So that was probably my introduction to ‘Aha, we have actually family here.’ I remember coming to visit the flat that I live in now and we approached the building, probably by taxi and parked in basically rubble, cement. It looked like pictures that we see now from Afghanistan. I remember thinking ‘Wow, this is serious.’ It was totally fresh. There was none of this renovation boom having started yet. It really felt as if it was just after a war. I liked the hominess of the public venues, like restaurants and things. That resonated, and obviously, maybe I had still unconscious memories of smells and things, that when we came into, not necessarily a city pub, but a country pub, I would feel like ‘Oh, that’s good.’ And I recognized all the food, obviously. I think there’s another important thing is that I knew people were looking at us as Americans. The way that we dressed, our hairstyles and things like that. The fact that we didn’t speak Czech. That was a big one.
“When I was 16, it was with a girlfriend I had at the time. We decided to come to Prague in the summer. You could say that my trip here when I was 12 definitely didn’t inspire me to acknowledge my roots, my Bohemian roots, but the trip in ’96 I think did. It reminded me that there is this very rich cultural place that I come from, and that trip to Prague, I was really impressed.”
In 1999, Marek returned to Prague to live; he explains his reasons for doing so
“Coming back here, I definitely felt I had made a step in the right direction to a simplified life, to a life more connected with its lineage. Especially the fact that this culture had just overcome the foreign element and now had the opportunity to really be itself and really finally embrace its roots. I think that I felt here a very fresh impulse to discovering the identity of the nation. Having had this political-economic force rid of, now the people were free to determine their own fate, which I felt New York and America didn’t have. I felt there was, if anything, a force growing in power which determined the fate of the culture.”
Marek discusses people’s reaction to his decision to leave the United States for the Czech Republic
“I come here, and almost everyone who I meet, when they find out about my story, they say ‘Why? You can live in America and you’ve chosen to come back here? Why?’ And so some people get the long, some people get the short answer, or they say ‘Is it better here? Is it better here or better there?’ And I always say that it’s totally subjective. It’s subjective. When I’m here, I feel – because I like physics – so I imagine it as if you have a bowl and you take a marble and you drop it at any point, it’s going to roll around a bit, but it’s always going to end up at the bottom. So that’s how I feel when I’m here, when I’m in Prague, and especially because of Prague, the way it’s a valley so it’s got all these different ridges around the edge, but then when you’re in the center, at the National Theatre, you’re actually at the bottom. So when I stand there on the corner, I feel like this is home.”
Category: New York City, Oral History