Brno from B to Ž: A Tough-Love Guide to the City’s 48 Neighborhoods

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Work of art: Joe Lennon.

An introduction, aneb Jak jsem se naučil dělat si starosti a mít rád Brno.

I have been half in love with Brno for a long time. And when I say half in love, I mean fully, wholly, deeply in love. If that sounds strange, it’s because it is. And it isn’t. Because to love a city like Brno, you need the right kind of love. By which I mean the wrong kind. A contradictory, brutal, and goofy sort of love. A precarious love that has to work hard to prove itself. If you admit you love Brno, you have to defend that love immediately, to justify your passion, your perversion – because no one wants to believe it, even you. No one wants to believe Brno is lovable, even – especially – those who love it most. If you say you love Brno, you have to face the skeptical looks of the people who were born here, who grew up with Svratka foam in their beer and Svitava smog in their lungs. Nurtured and nauseated by that brew, they find it impossible to understand why anyone else would ever want it or need it.

Or at least that’s the impression they try to give. They screw up their faces and smile defensively when you say you love their city. And yet in those same faces you can see the love too – the love that loves to make them deny their love, and test yours. A disgruntled love. A tough love for the off-centered and ignored, the peripheral and maligned. The cracked Bauhaus. The hot pink baroque. The flat, warehouse-like castle. And the fairy-tale-castle-like walls of the karst abyss. To love Brno, especially as a foreigner, is sometimes to be clinging like a flimsy pine tree over that abyss, desperately trying to get your roots into the rock as it crumbles beneath you. But okay – also – just as often – it’s to be lying happily in a sun-buzzed field, drinking wine that tastes like dissolving earth.

Photo credit: JL / Brno Daily.

If you’re a foreigner, you are used to the endless questions, “Why did you come to Brno?” and “Why have you stayed here?” and if you’re like me, you get really tired of answering. In the 13 years since I first came here, I’ve tried various strategies. Sometimes I really want to answer with something like what I’ve written above – but when I’m sitting at a noisy pub table, or behind a teacher’s desk, such an elaborate speech just seems out of place – very un-Brno, really. And sometimes I just want to say, “It was fate,” or “It was completely random how I ended up here” – but I know that those are non-answers, not really the truth. Because the truth is that there is something about Brno that has made me love it, made me return, made me want to stay.

Which brings up another question people are always asking me: “How long have you lived here?” This one is difficult too, because my Brno timeline is a bit complicated. But at least, for this answer, I can offer a few solid dates and facts. I first came here in the autumn of 2006, after finishing a Master’s degree in St. Louis, Missouri. I lived here and worked as (of course) an English teacher, for three years. Then I left in 2009 – not really because I wanted to leave, since by then I had already come to love the city. But I was about to enter my 30s, and I guess I was feeling some major quarter-life twinges of ambition.

I wanted to have a more challenging career, and, honestly, I wanted to make more money (I paid for my one-way flight home to Atlanta in cash, using every last Czech crown I had saved up over three years). After seven years of pursuing those ambitions, and occasionally, sort of, realizing them (I taught for two years in China, then returned to the US and got a PhD), I was back in roughly the same life position I had been in when I first came to Brno – without a job, or a partner, or any other convincing reason to stay where I was. The difference, this time, was that I had memories and a beautiful vision of a city I had always told myself I would return to. And so I found a way to return. In 2016, I came back to Brno, and I’ve lived here since then, teaching again, but this time for the Masaryk University Language Centre.  

In this monthly column for Brno Daily, I’d like to try to explain to you – or more truthfully, to discover better for myself – what it is that makes me love Brno, and why this city means so much to me. Since a personal, spiritual quest like that needs some grounding in reality (after all, we’re talking about Brno here), I’ll pursue it in a more practical way, by offering you each month an entertaining (I hope), off-beat guide to one of Brno’s neighborhoods. I’ll show you some good reasons to veer off your typical daily path and explore those blank “here be Brno dragons” areas of your personal city map.

Photo credit: JL / Brno Daily.

What I mean by “neighborhoods” needs a quick explanation. Officially, the city of Brno is divided into 48 katastrální území (which can be translated literally as “cadastral territories,” or maybe more naturally as “land districts”). These are not to be confused with the 29 městské části (which are something more like “city boroughs”). The části are more important – they are political divisions represented by mayors and city council members, and they have their own budgets and ordinances and town halls. But it would be a stretch to think of them as “neighborhoods” – they are too big, and each of them incorporates too many areas with wildly different histories and atmospheres.

For example, the city’s central městská část, Brno-střed, includes both the bourgie, student-filled area around Veveří street, and the lower-class but quickly gentrifying area around Cejl street (often thoughtlessly called the “ghetto”). Because I want to focus more on what makes each neighborhood unique, I’m going to go through the city by katastrální území rather than by část (although in a few cases, the two entities coincide). You might be more familiar with the name of your katastrální území than you realize – it is shown on that mysterious “second” address plaque above (or sometimes below, or sometimes to the side of) the street address of your building.

Photo credit: JL / Brno Daily.

I’m going to write about each of Brno’s 48 neighborhoods in (Czech) alphabetical order – starting with Bohunice and ending with Židenice. If I actually finish this, it will take 4 years! But, after all, maybe it will take (at least) that long to explain why someone born on the other side of the world might feel at home in this unlikely place – and to see how each of the city’s neighborhoods guards its own secret clues to the Brno mystique.

Actually, with this project, I’ll just be continuing a way of life, and a way of exploring the city, which I started back in 2006, when I was a Brno newbie. In those early days of my life here, whenever I had some free time, I would take a tram or bus to some strange new part of the city and enjoy getting lost. At the beginning, every street, every shop window, and every sign in Czech was new to me, and everything seemed foreign and exotic. But by the end of my first three years here, I had seen a lot of the city, and taken a lot of photos of funny graffiti and of Starobrno bottles shattered in aesthetically pleasing patterns.

As I was getting ready to leave and return to the US, I was feeling very pre-nostalgic for my time here. I wanted to share my thoughts and emotions with everyone I knew, so I created a Facebook photo album (yeah, that was a thing cool people did in 2009). I called it “My 55 Favorite Places in Brno.” The photo album is still online (unlike, I hope, my MySpace page from around the year 2000), and even though it’s a bit embarrassing to share something I created 10 years ago with complete strangers, I’m going to do it, because, why not. If you want, you can look through it here.

Photo credit: JL / Brno Daily.

In a caption to one of those photos, I tried to explain why, in every city I had ever visited, I was drawn to the backstreets – the neglected, out-of-the-way areas never mentioned in the guidebooks. Reading it again now, I see I was also describing the alienation a foreigner feels, the perpetual out-of-placement that propels a stranger through strange streets. I wrote: “In the backstreets everything is yours because you don’t know who it belongs to, you can’t see the claims people have made. You came late to this world; most of the nice things have been taken. But in the backstreets there are still goodies up for grabs. Someone has left one boot sitting on the curb. It might even have some rain in it. So claim it, now, before someone else living on this street takes it, makes it too much a part of their life for you to ever claim it back…

In the backstreets you are truly yourself because no one can see the claims people have made on you. You are free to not have to reinvent yourself…

In a book I once read, an alien world had been built curved in on itself, so if you looked up into the “sky,” or the central space, you could see the other side of the world hanging over your head, the buildings and sidewalks. If our Earth was built like that, because it’s so big, it probably wouldn’t matter, one side would be so far from the other side, if you looked up, you’d see only blackness, or maybe the twinkling lights of cities as if from a satellite. If you were traveling far from home, on the other side of the world, you could look up towards your hometown, but it would be only stars.

In the backstreets of another country you are just as lost as on the backstreets of your own. The signs are in another language, but that’s a cosmetic difference. A maze by any other name is still a maze. Which corner to turn on, the basic mechanics of left and right, are no easier in an unknown part of your own city than in an unknown city. There’s no map or mirror in the sky. Look down and feel your way along the surface…”

Ten years after I wrote those words, I’m still walking this way, still feeling my way along. It’s in this spirit that I’d like to continue this column. If you want to join me on any of my journeys, especially as I explore your favorite Brno hood, let me know! I’ll be happy for the company. With someone else, you always discover things you never would have on your own.

Stay tuned for Part 1 of the journey, in which I explore the split personality of Bohunice. I’ll take you out of the Campus into the beautiful concrete labyrinth below…

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