I am an anthropologist whose research is primarily with Polynesians in the southwestern Pacific. Thanks to a circuitous path and a dose of serendipity, I spent spring semester of 2019 as Fulbright Distinguished Chair of Anthropology at Palacký University, Olomouc, in the Czech Republic.
Over two decades ago, my son, Joe, was a freshman at Grinnell College in Iowa. He met an exchange student from Slovakia, and they soon became a couple. After grad school in Chicago, they were married in Tereza’s hometown of Košice. A few years later, both obtained positions with the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague.
Soon after their move to Prague, I received an email from Martin Soukup, a Czech anthropologist who works in Papua New Guinea. Since Joe had been with me in PNG, I thought he and Martin ought to meet each other so I arranged a virtual introduction. Martin and I continued to exchange emails and, at length, he urged me to submit a Fulbright application.
Other than spending more time with my family (including my then-eight-year-old grandson, who is equally fluent in English, Czech, and Slovak), the high point of my Fulbright experience was the friendships forged with colleagues, students, and fellow Fulbrighters. Shortly after my arrival, Pavlína Flajšarová, Vice-Dean for International Relations, introduced me to David Livingston, an American expatriate who has long been a member of Palacký’s English faculty. David shares my appreciation of American roots music. Like me, he plays the banjo, and he was teaching a course on American folk music. He invited me to help teach his class, and that led to performing opportunities at picnics, parties, and a local pub.
Since completing my term as a Fulbrighter, I have continued my involvement with Czech scholarship. I have written articles for two Czech journals: Český lid, published by the Ethnology Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and the Czech and Slovak Journal of Humanities, published by Palacký University. I have been involved with “Sinofon Borderlands,” an EU-funded project that studies Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific Region, thereby combining my interests in Central Europe and the southwestern Pacific. In fall of 2019, I returned to Olomouc for a Sinofon-sponsored workshop on sustainability in Oceania and Island Southeast Asia, and we hope to reconvene after the present pandemic.
At the same time, I have stayed in regular communication with several graduate students whom I now think of primarily as friends. Prominent among them are Ester Topolářová, my incredibly knowledgeable, thoughtful, and well-organized student assistant, and Lucie Sehnálková, a leading student in both of my Palacký classes. Last October, Lucie joined me for a virtual presentation on my Czech experience.
The Fulbright Program’s goal is to promote good will and understanding across cultural and national borders. It’s hard to imagine anything that better serves that purpose than my six months in the Czech Republic.
Rick Feinberg – Fulbright to Czech Republic 2019