38 years and out, in the words of Joe Krytinar
Joe Krytinar, Arc’s building services manager, talks to Nick Jordan about his escape from communist Czechoslovakia, how the Uni has changed, and what he plans to do next.
Last month Joe woke up for the first time in 38 years with no alarm. He had a late breakfast, and spent most of the day watching the Winter Olympics. It sounds like a great day, but it was a weird day for Joe, one that was hard to enjoy. For the last 38 years Joe has been working in the same workplace, and the week he spent watching pro ice skating and skiing was his first week not part of that community. Working at Arc and the Student Union before it was the first formal job Joe ever had, and in December he decided it would also be the last. Today we farewell Joe. This is his story.
Was it weird not going into UNSW that first week after you retired?
It was a strange feeling. Definitely for two weeks I was missing it, I'm still missing it. Hopefully that fades away and I will carry on. My friends are the university staff and my colleagues. It was a big part of my life and I haven't replaced that yet.
What is the best, worst and most unexpected things of your time at UNSW?
The best was the people at the Union and Arc. We were all friends. Back when it was the Union, we had so many Christmas parties. They were huge, close to 1000 people. I also really enjoyed Oktoberfest. It was a huge party, we had around 10,000 people. I like the social sports too. Our group, store and kitchen we were called the JJs. We came 2nd to the bar staff in softball. We prepared for a few months on the cricket game. They were very young and fit.
The bad stuff was in 2005, when the compulsory student union was finished. We lost all the food shops over two years, and every time one closed we lost a friend. We're talking 200 - 300 people in total, all friends. Some of them past 50-years-old and they never got another job. There was pressure on us too, we didn't know how safe we were. Luckily, we made it to Arc, the new company. I do think that was a good move for students, Arc is much more focused on student life after studies.
The unexpected was COVID, what a big pressure on the company, social life, and finances. It affected me a lot. Coming here and seeing no students, unbelievable. And retiring, I never thought I would retire. I'm still alright, I'm still fit enough to work but age is coming. The decision was unexpected but it had to be done.
When and why did you make the decision to retire?
It was in December. My girlfriend and I bought a property in the Central Coast 6 years ago for our retirement. [Wendy moved there] and would say to me ‘when are you joining me’, and I would say 'I'm not ready, I love my work, I'm not ready'. She wanted me to retire, but it never seemed like a near future, it was far in the sky. But she kept asking here and there, and I kept sweeping it under the carpet. But then I couldn't anymore, age is coming for the both of us. We love camping, we love bushwalking, but she can't do it because I'm here. So, in December I decided when the students return to uni, I will do it then, and I gave my letter to Nathan.
What was it like resigning to Nathan? How did you feel?
He was surprised but he made me feel good. He said ‘congratulations, you can do things now’. It was really helpful because before then I was really stressed. It was a big barrier for me to cross. I wasn't going to look for another job, that's it. And I love to work, I can't stay still. What is happening next Monday? I always knew the answer to this question but not anymore.
How do you feel now?
I knew when I handed in the letter, there is no way back. I had to look forward. It was a very stressful period but now I feel relieved. I have a lot of things to do. My time is filled up. It came easier than I thought. I have a lot of hobbies, growing things, bushwalking, camping.
Tell me about how you got this job. I know it's a long story, maybe we can start with your journey to Australia?
I was studying at uni [in Czechoslovakia] in 1981. I had just finished my exams, and I was drinking with my friend. We were talking about what's next. We both said at once ‘let's get out of this country’. It was a similar situation with Crimea – there was no freedom, the government was run by Russia, the election you could only choose the day you vote not what party, and you are watched the whole time. It was also impossible to travel. If you try to leave the country, you lose your passport forever and probably end up in jail. Next minute it was States, Canada or Australia. Canada too cold, the States too rough for a newcomer, you can easily go up but as easily go down. The books said it was fun in Australia, people take it easy, and that was similar to Czech. We make fun out of everything – best jokes are on politicians, police and government. Perfect. We decided Australia and from there we planned a trip.
We organised some friends to come to Czech from Hungary to get our things and bury them in Hungary so when we left Czechoslovakia to go to Yugoslavia on 'holiday' we wouldn't be caught with anything in the car. We didn't know exactly where it was but we knew it was exactly halfway between two points (a lake and a town) and under a tree. Everything we needed was buried there and we knew we'd find it at some point.
So we went to Hungary, dug up the stuff, and went to Yugoslavia. We tried to ask for an Australia visa in Belgrade but they said we could get good jobs in Czech so go back and enjoy your lives. So, we went to Italy.
Well, what happened next?
We didn't have a visa for Italy. Our passports were only made to go to Hungary and Yugoslavia. So, we got these old maps, 20 or 30 years old, that show these small roads with small border crossings. We picked one called Bloody Creek, from the war. We got there at four in the morning, it was just a wooden boom gate, a garden toilet and a guard box. We thought a good Italian would have a drink on Sunday and sleep. So, we went at the time they would be sleeping, left the car at the border, running, and walked around the gate through the forest and into Italy.
In Italy we approached the Australian embassy. We were heavily prepared for our visa interview, we had practised a lot of English, and when we went to Hungary we bought a big book on Australia, in English, to help us prepare. It was a huge book, cigarette-paper thin pages. It was all about Australia: weather, politics, populations, like Wikipedia. It cost us half of our budget for that trip to Hungary. It was very helpful. After months and months, we were successful [in getting a visa] and we made it to Australia. We planned everything to a dot, and it worked.
What happened when you arrive in Australia?
Almost straight away I started my English class. It lasted around 5 months and when the classes finished, we looked for jobs on the Monday after. On Tuesday I got an interview the UNSW Union. I got a phone call on the Wednesday saying I had the job, and I started on Thursday.
My degree was in Agricultural science, so when I was working, I would tell my boss, don't worry I won't get in your way, I'm going to go to do agriculture. I started applying for jobs but after a few years I stopped, I loved Sydney, I loved my job, all my friends were at the uni.
You made two big life decisions, deciding to leave Czechoslovakia, and decided to give up agriculture. How do you reflect on those decisions?
I never regret the way I choose. I never regret leaving Czechoslovakia. I got freedom, friendship and a great country. I never look back or think about moving anywhere else. I also never looked for another job. It was a perfect decision. How I lived my life, it was really good.
How quickly after arriving in Australia did you realise it was a good decision to leave your home?
Straight away. I was happy as Larry.
What was a great help for me, is that I didn't look for Czech society. The best Czech society is in Czech. I'm not going to sit on two chairs, I choose one and it's Australia. I never had any help, it was tough, but I settled in.
How has the culture at UNSW changed in the last 30 years?
It has changed a bit. In the 80s it was more laid back; long lunches, smoking, alcohol - celebrating everything. That was good for me, I was drinking quite well and smoking. At Roundhouse I used to join parties with students till mornings, staggering home at 5am not knowing where I left the car. I enjoyed it a lot. It was also common having a few drinks at lunch. There was also a lot of damage, you could see it the next morning. You should see the pictures from the college balls – tuxedo when they walk in, then on Monday you see them just with a tie on, maybe trousers, staggering around looking for their college. That's not acceptable anymore. There were also not many overseas students, it was young, teenage Aussie lad culture.
In the company one change is middle management and higher management used to be very distant from students. You'd see them in ties and coats, besides them students with shorts and no shoes. That changed in the 1st or 2nd year at Arc. It's much better, and friendlier. That was a big and great change. The barrier between students and staff was broken, the managers who didn't like it left and were replaced by younger staff. Now the age is much closer to student age, that's great. Before the staff were parents, which is nice but it was only for a handful of people who got help, now with the barrier down it's better for everyone. We are friendly and open to all students.
You told me earlier, you and your girlfriend have plans now that you've retired, what are they?
We want to organise camping trips, bushwalking with our meetup groups. We want to travel but I also want a dog. We'd like to go to Europe, Africa. Maybe once a year do a big trip and, in the meantime, explore NSW and the rest of Australia. I want to do whale shark watching, I want to explore the Kimberley. Maybe I should go to the US and see how rough it really is, or Canada, is it really too cold? . . . Yeh, I know it is.
Would you go back to the Czech Republic?
I would go but I don't have much connection there. I have a brother who I speak to twice a year. I built my life in Australia. I don't care about Czech politics. I don't understand my Czech family's problems and I don't load them with our problems. I would just go through in a very fast train.
Last question, what message do you want to leave for everyone else at Arc?
Shortly after I started working here, I realised I am here for students. Students are not here for me. Whatever I do has to be focused on the wellbeing of students. If I disagree with students, I am in the wrong place. They do silly things, but that is their life. It is our job to help them and direct them to adulthood. That helped me to like the job. If you like your job, it's easy to go to it. If you don't like it, don't upset your colleagues, just move on.
Ok, what about a message to students
Enjoy every day. Have fun, you have support around you, it makes it easy. Do your silly things now because one day you'll finish your education and come to reality, then the fun will be finished.
In all his years at the Student Union and at Arc, Joe never got injured or had a near miss. The last thing he told me during this chat was ‘really, the greatest times of my life was linked to the Union and Arc.’
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.