I’ve written a few things for Matador Network recently but I’m being published almost as fast as I send over the draft, so it’s been tough to keep up! This is my latest endeavor though. Nearly overnight the piece when viral and I have no idea why. But it’s awesome! Probably my most popular piece yet!
It’s been a crazy experience. I have people who love the post and email me to say how awesome it is that someone has taken an interest in the Czech culture. I have people who absolutely hate me and think I am stereotyping Czechs. I have people who have lambasted my identity, saying that I am not “Czech” even though I have lived in the Czech Republic, have Czech family, and speak the language (oh well…). And then I have Czechs who think it’s hilarious and can’t stop spreading it around.
Compare us to Russians.
We are not, and never have been, Russian. Look on a bloody map — blocked by Poland, the Ukraine, and Belarus, the Czech Republic isn’t anywhere close. We make marionettes, not Matryoshka dolls. We don’t wear babushkas, we have babičkas (Czech grannies). Our country is landlocked so we don’t eat herring, and we drink beer, not vodka.
We don’t know how to read Cyrillic writing, and we don’t care either. The Russian Orthodox church means nothing to us because only about 21% of the country is religious. If you need further convincing, we dislike Russians because the Soviets invaded our country with tanks in 1968, and fucked everything up. So just stop.
I’m proud of this piece, despite whatever negative comments I might receive. Most of them are from expats who think they somehow know the Czech Republic better than I do. I’m not saying I’m all encompassing, but I will say that I proofed the piece with actual Czechs before sending it off, so…You win some you lose some. But I’m happy to have contributed this piece of Czech culture to the world and it makes me love Czechs all the more for it.
Read it here:
There’s a rumor floating about the world, that nowadays, everyone speaks at least a little English.
That’s simply not true.
So I reasoned that those working in the central tourist districts must speak English. After all, their main clientele was garish, English-speaking tourists. Surely they could understand the fact that I needed a blow dryer for my unruly American hair.
I started at Tesco because it was a known, international brand. A huge department store located in the middle of a central tourist district in Prague, they catered to the needs of foreigners. I was able to find peanut butter there before; surely they would have other Westernized items.
I’m always polite when asking locals for directions or help. Never do I just come out and say “Hey where’s the chocolate milk in this place?” That is rude. No, I start of slow and cautiously, always asking, in the native tongue, “Do you speak English?”
‘Twas the blunt reply provided to me by the majority of the workers at Národní Třída’s megolith of a Tesco. Even the young workers, who must have had English-training in school, could not help me out. I saw a youngish-looking woman stocking shampoo on a shelf.
“Mluvite anglicky?” I asked.
She looked nervous. “Ne…a little,” she struggled.
An attempt to ask where blow dryers could be found was made.
“Nerozumim,” she replied. “I don’t understand…”
I resorted to desperate, flailing hand gestures. “Uh, blow dryer,” I pretended to hold the hilt of the blow dryer in one hand, the other hand whirling around my head to signify wind.
“Oh, baby?” she asked, showing me some baby products.
“Ne, dekuji,” I sullenly respond as I trudged into another department.
I was so angry, so frustrated at the fact that these Czechs, in this “supposedly” cosmopolitan city, out of a whole department store, none could help me find what I “so desperately” needed. Eventually I stumbled upon the electrics department, when a sparkly young lad who spoke near-perfect English was able to help me purchase a hot iron hair straightener.
That’s when I sighed and regretted my previous feelings towards the Czechs. It wasn’t their fault they couldn’t speak English, it was my fault that I couldn’t speak Czech.
You’ll find these all over the Moravian countryside.
For almost forty years, the Czech Republic has been a predominantly atheist country. The Soviets discouraged idolatry (with an iron fist, of course) and I suppose Czechs, once free of Communism, had other things to deal with than re-instituting religious doctrine. There are churches in the Czech Republic, temples and other houses of worship, but despite that, only about 19% of citizens believe there is a God.
I know the symbol is reminiscent of the Eastern Orthodox double cross of the Byzantine era, but it was puzzling as to why such a cross would be found in the Czech Republic. They spoke a Slavic language but their ancestors were predominantly Catholic, or Jewish. Was this cross here before Communism’s quash of religions? Was it placed there during the time, as a symbol of Russian solidarity? Or something that came after?
Our hosts in Slavonice were taking us on a tour of the Czech countryside, showing us remnants of projects under communism that were never finished.
“They came in to our town, destroyed buildings and homes that had been here for hundreds of years, to replace them with new Soviet constructions,” Zdenek tells us. “But they would run of money, or get bored. So they just stopped.”
He has no knowledge of the double crosses dotted along the Czech countryside. “I think, maybe, they were markers of where towns began, and ended,” he says. “I don’t think they are religious really.
So yeah, I’m obsessed with the Czech Republic, but with good reason. This hidden gem of Europe (right alongside its cousin, Slovakia) has one of the most fascinating cultures I’ve ever encountered. Between Communism, Vaclav Havel, joining the EU but not adopting the Euro…Czechs have a very diverse albeit tumultuous history that is worthy of more study. Every time I see something like this I sink my teeth wholeheartedly into it.
I sit at their kitchen table, listening to Rodney talk and taking in my surroundings. Jana’s house is a mix of traditional Czech mountain hut and musher’s house. Familiar Czech household items fill the kitchen: the shelves hold blue and white porcelain jars with their contents — Oil, Sugar, Marjoram — inscribed in painted script, and there are decorative ceramic plates on the wall, as well as an old clock that chimes every quarter hour.
Tereza Jarnikova is a super talented writer. I like how she delves into Czech culture in a way that is not only understandable for those not familiar with the subject, but she presents views that go beyond “Which beers to try” or “Czech foods that are fun.” I believe she is a native-born Czech or at least second generation, which is even cooler.
He asks me how I hold my knife and fork — the Czech way, or the American way? — which brings back memories of being scolded for improper fork technique by a particularly strict teacher in Czech grade school, Mrs. Frigid. At one point I say fuck, which Rodney enjoys — “It’s so nice to hear someone swear in English! Jana told me Czechs don’t have swearwords. I’ve found out she was lying, though.” This much is true — Czechs actually have far more swearwords and are much more diverse in their profanity than English speakers.
Czechs are constantly dealing with this idea of “national identity” – an examination of Czech history shows how screwed up people have made them. When Communism ended, the city of Prague was inundated with Westerners looking to revive the country. McDonalds, Nike, Starbucks and other conglomerates have set up shops and the glory of the 1990s is still alive and well. Younger generations are speaking English fluently while older generations struggle to preserve their native tongue. Mapping culture divides in a Czech village is an excellent portrayal of these scenarios and worthy of reading if only to learn more about Czech culture in the 21st century.
My host mother in Prague spoke very little English. She had few English-language possessions, things that were written in English that I could understand without the aid of a dictionary. One of them was a poster depicting both poisonous, and psychotropic fungi.
It was tacked onto the back of the bathroom door.
Like most Czech homes, the toilet in our flat is separate from the bathing area. It is tucked away in a room the size of a broom closet, and it housed diapers, Czech women’s magazines, and toilet paper. And also, that poster. Every time I use the toilet, I sit and study it. My Czech isn’t good enough to read the magazines, and it’s not really like I could avoid looking at it.
I can’t tell you today which mushrooms are poisonous and which ones give you a good trip. The poster was just something to look at, but the names were too complicated to remember off-hand.
The funny thing was, I never knew why she had it, or where she got it from. She isn’t a hippie – she rarely drank and she most definitely did not do drugs. Perhaps she got it as a gift, although her house isn’t some cluttered, hoarder’s haven, and she isn’t the type of person who kept purposeless things.
It may have even been the only source of English in the house, apart from her Czech-to-English dictionary.