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Life in the Czech Republic

on November 10, 2012

I recently saw a post called “33 things I’ve learnt from Prague” on a blog called The Prague Thing. I thought some of the points were hilarious Here’s my take on it – I’ve combined some of the points from the original blog to avoid repetition:

The beer Beer is good. There are many, many different kinds of beer. I used to believe that beer was limited just to “piss” but I’ve since learned that it comes in many varieties – not just light, dark, wheat, semidark, strawberry, honey etc but in many subtly different flavours. It’s perfectly acceptable to drink beer at 11am. All true. But also true is the fact that there are a lot of non-alcoholic beers and that people are often drinking these – Czechs don’t seem to have any more of an alcohol problem than many other countries. And they get a bit tired of foreigners going on about the beer (and I’m as guilty of that as anyone else) – a bit like Irish people roll their eyes when foreigners start going on about Guinness.

How are you? When someone asks “How are you?”, the polite response is not “I’m fine thank you”, but “Ah, I feel like sh*t” or whatever is actually on your mind. Being super happy can be seen as bragging or being false. True – Czechs seem a lot like Croatians in that they don’t seem to be very upbeat when you first meet them. Although they do have a very dry sense of humour and appreciate sarcasm, which makes me like them. Also, you should never smile at people when you pass them in the street – they’ll just think you’re weird. And they tend to think anyone who can’t speak fluent Czech is a bit slow, to say the least. They don’t have the same experience of people speaking their language badly that people from English-speaking countries have. But they do try to be helpful, most of the time.

The “Communistic Era” Seems that the Communist/Capitalist thing is far, far from black and white. In local elections, the Communist Party just won quite a lot of votes. I’ve heard some Czech people lamenting the days where housing and jobs were secure and for life. The recent election results do seem to have younger people rolling their eyes and lamenting the swing back to communism, and older people just seem to think it’s weird. But someone must have voted for the communists.

Being gay. Gay Pride is big here, and a lot of fun, but adults (aka my students) will still giggle like school children at “gay” jokes and seem shocked to learn that somebody is gay. Some people here seem uncomfortable with the idea of people being gay, but very few of them seem to know any gay people. Interestingly, there is a well-known band called Support Lesbiens (mis-spelling seems to be intentional). Not sure if they are gay or just went for what they saw as a controversial name…

“The Nature” A large percentage of Prague residents will escape to a “cottage” (theirs or a friend’s) in the countryside every weekend (to “the nature”). Same in Brno – at least for the people I’m teaching. There are numerous references to “the nature” in almost every class I teach. And they’re crazy about picking mushrooms – it seems to be one of the main preoccupations of people here during the months of September and October. The most popular thing to do with the mushrooms when collected is to fry them and then add a couple of eggs to the mix and scramble them. If you like eggs, that is. I like the mushrooms on their own.

Exercise Czech people seem to be into camping, hiking, walking, mountain climbing and skiing a lot more than any other nation I’ve encountered. Same here, but I would include swimming as well. The roads are full of cyclists at weekends and there are a number of bike shops in Blansko which seem to be thriving. It is very common to find a range of cycling accessories and clothing on sale in supermarkets too – especially Lidl.

Being vegetarian/vegan If you look hard enough and carry a dictionary/translator, you can find soy milk, gluten-free bread, vegan restaurants, organic vegetables and all that. Typical Czech food, on the other hand, is all meat, cheese and stodgy dumplings – good luck finding vegetables other than cabbage or green beans (and, of course, potatoes). Fried cheese seems to be the main vegetarian food here – although I’m mostly vegan, I’ve tried it a couple of times when out for lunch (because there was nothing else on the menu and I was really hungry). It’s ok, but I wouldn’t want to eat it too often. I have found a good vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Brno, but otherwise prefer to eat at home.

Restaurants If you’re around any typical restaurant on a weekday (11am-3pm) you can get soup and a main meal for the equivalent of £3 or so. True here too, but vegetarians/vegans beware! Dishes described as being without meat on the menu may well be cooked with animal fat or meat stock.

Restaurant/coffee shop etiquette
When you enter a restaurant, you sit yourself down. Try asking a waiter for a table and they’ll look at you as if you’re a weirdo (unless it’s a very busy or touristy place). And don’t even think of going into a coffee shop and ordering at the counter like you would in most places. Go and sit down and the waiter will bring you a menu in their own good time. Then you can order what you want.

Public transport etiquette The meanest looking teenagers will give up their seats on the tram/bus/metro for nice old people, and those old people will usually insist that they’re fine standing. This often results in a short exchange of “No, please, I insist” “No, it’s fine, you sit down,” etc. You also offer your seat to children. And the person who sits next to you will usually say “hello” when they sit down and “goodbye” when they get up to leave. They’re not looking to have a conversation, it’s just considered to be polite.

Hair Mullets are still OK here – on children, on old guys, even on people running for elections. And a lot of hairdressers only know how to cut hair in one style, which is why so many people seem to have variations of the same cut. There are some interesting hair colours around though – there’s one elderly lady in Blansko rocking a great purple hair colour.

Dogs Dogs are allowed everywhere – on the metro, in restaurants, in your office while you work. Czech people love dogs (and babies, also everywhere). They also seem to be especially fond of small dogs, particularly Yorkshire terriers. But you see some random crosses – there’s a dog I see on my way to work which has the body of a German Shepherd but a head which looks like a Shar Pei.

Festivals Almost every day, somewhere in Prague, there’s a random festival going on with small food and drink stalls, or a nice farmer’s market where you can buy fresh produce. Seems to be the same in the rest of the country – people living in villages get particularly excited about the village’s patron saint’s name day.

Tourists Big groups of tourists are really annoying (think I knew this one already!). Don’t see many tourists in Blansko and haven’t noticed many in Brno so far. But there are English teachers everywhere. Just the other weekend I was having lunch in Brno when I realised the people sitting next to me were speaking English. After listening to them for a few minutes it became clear that they were English teachers – and that they detested their students!

Christmas At Christmas, you keep a live carp in the bath until you’re ready to cook it, and eat it with potato salad on Christmas Eve. Also, at Christmas, Baby Jesus brings the presents. Earlier in December, “St Mikulaš” comes over with his buddies, the angel and devil. If a child has been naughty, the devil takes them to hell in his sack (unless the child sings a song). I’ve heard the carp in the bath story a couple of times now, although they are people who deny that this is done. Apparently the tradition is not to eat at all on Christmas Eve until the evening, when you eat the carp. Appparently if you don’t wait until the carp is served, you don’t see the golden pig. So far no-one has explained what the golden pig is about – I can only imagine it’s a hallucination brought on by not having eaten all day. Baby Jesus sure is busy on Christmas Eve, especially considering he hasn’t even been born yet. But I’m looking forward to scaring kids and making them sing a song so I don’t get the devil to take them away in his sack. Roll on December!

Easter At Easter, men hit women with sticks, and women give the men an egg. A revealing “fertility ritual”. Hadn’t heard this one before, but somehow it doesn’t surprise me.

English speakers If you ride the tram out of the centre for 10 minutes, most people will struggle to understand English. It’s kind of nice… True, also it’s funny how there are so many English language schools and that classes are full, yet no-one seems to speak English when you need to get something done.

Medical advice “A beer a day keeps the doctor away”, eating massive chunks of meat make you a stronger drinker, and a shot of Becherovka calms the stomach. Allegedly. Hadn’t heard these before but again, nothing surprising about them.

Families Czech people still cling to gender roles much more strongly than we do in the U.K. Women get three years of maternity leave for every baby they pop out, though, so it makes more sense for them to stay at home while the man’s out chopping wood and slaughtering bears, or whatever it is they do. Apparently its four years maternity leave, but the amount of money you get while on maternity leave decreases dramatically the longer you’re off, so I’m not sure that all mothers take their full entitlement. Two years seems to be common for the people I’ve spoken to, and this is partly related to the difficulty in finding a nursery place for the child, as these are in short supply.

TV Czech T.V. is hilarious – whether it’s old English films dubbed over in Czech, badly acted dramas or “Czech & Slovakia’s Got Talent” (I don’t think it does, from what I saw…)! There seems to be a tendency to recycle old shows during the afternoon and very early morning – hence the 1970s style tv variety show seen on daytime tv featuring acts like parrots riding bicycles.

Meanness Czech people enjoy their reputation as being stingy (taking bootloads of bread, cheese and ham on holiday to other countries for example) and yet none of my students had swiped a towel from a hotel room when I asked them. I hadn’t come across this one yet, but I have only been here for a couple of months. I get the impression that people have to be careful with money – some things, like food and drink – are cheap here, but other things are expensive – like furniture and household appliances. And plumbers – I recently got my washing machine connected and it cost me the equivalent of £60, which is a lot by Czech standards. Also, Czechs spend a lot of money doing up their homes, renovating and making them weatherproof, so this takes up a lot of their income. Second-hand clothes shops are very popular, and there are several in Blansko. I went to one recommended by a friend yesterday (thanks Jana!) and came away with 7 pieces of clothing for me and a blanket for my cat, for less than the equivalent of £20. Which is a bargain by anyone’s standards. However there is a lack of second hand shops selling things other than clothing – I miss being able to browse charity shops for retro bargains.

Gypsies Don’t bring up Roma (“gypsies”) unless you want to hear a barrage of thinly disguised ugly, racist sentiments (in 80% of cases). There does seem to be a widespread dislike of gypsies, and in a minority of cases this dislike does appear to be racist. And some of the people making the worst comments are the least likely to have encountered any gypsies – but they “just know” they are thieves, drunks, welfare scroungers etc. However in a lot of cases I think people are more uneasy about the presence of gypsies because they believe that they don’t integrate into the community, they don’t send their kids to school (this seems to cause a lot of concern), and (not sure if this is right or not) they think that the gypsies exaggerate the way other Czechs treat them to get preferential treatment in other countries. However everyone does seem to like gypsy music… I don’t know much about Roma culture or the history of gypsies in the Czech Republic, but would like to find out more. I’ve also noticed some resentment of the Vietnamese, who seem to be the largest ethnic group in Blansko – again this relates to a perceived reluctance to integrate rather than any direct negative experience with Vietnamese people.

Tattoos and public office A man whose body is 100% tattooed can get enough votes to run for President. Yes, his name is Vladimir Franz – he originally trained as a lawyer but is now known as a composer. Some people think he’s cool because of the tattoos, but I’ve not heard anything about his policies. If he is elected this could cause problems for the printers at the Post Office, because the new president will appear on stamps, and the tattoos would be a nightmare to get right!

National pride Czech people don’t seem to have much national pride (well, not compared to other places). I could be wrong. Not sure if I agree with this, most of the people I’ve met seem to be proud of their country, they just don’t go on about it the way people in some other countries (like America) do. I think they’re afraid that if they draw attention to how great the country is they’ll be overrun with foreigners moving here and driving up property prices, etc. Plus a lot of Czech people don’t have much experience of other countries, as they like to stay close to home, so maybe they don’t have anything to compare it to.

Halloween Halloween isn’t celebrated here, although on April 30th they burn effigies of witches to celebrate the spring. Pumpkins are carved and displayed though, and there is the tradition of remembering the dead and decorating graves (see previous blog post) which happens around the same time.

Public transport
Public transportation was never as good as it is in Prague. Having endured years of commuter hell while living in the UK I can heartily agree with this one. Buses and trains are clean, warm and cheap. And usually on time. Some of the bus drivers could be a bit less surly but this is a minor complaint.

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3 responses to “Life in the Czech Republic

  1. I actually like these posts a lot. Having the opportunity to see opinions on Czech republic from foreigners is a very valuable to me.
    If you wish to know more about history of gypsies in Czech republic, I think the Roma museum in Brno should help with this. Just be carefull as it is in the part of the city where it’s not always safe. But my friend once told me an experience how she was attacked on the street by some young gypsies and when she run to help to another group of gypsies they saved her. And laughed at those attackers. Though I’m not sure how well do local gypsies speak English.
    I don’t know much on their history, but original Czech gypsies lived here for centuries and they travelled around the country (it was not common for them to live in houses). They were associated with witchcraft and thievery(favorite was a story how they’d steal a horse and eat it – probably based on reality) and enterteinment. In WWII 90% of original Czech gypsies were slaughetered in concentration camps (though most Czechs don’t know this). So majority of current gypsy community came from Hungary and area around it after the war. Some people complain that the real reason we can’t get along with their everyday culture now is the fact that Hungarian gypsies are different and more temperament but I found it irrelevant. During communistic era they were forced to live in houses and to go to school, possibly so called “special schools” and it dammaged their original culture and helped to create the problem we know today. Although people usualy see them as dirty parasites and criminals, their culture is not usually that much of a problem. Aside from the music (already mentioned), people like for example gypsy dance (though gypsies love to remined us that we are not as good as they are because only a gypsy can dance it correctly with enough of a passion). What’s not appreciated is the temperament nature and how they can be noisy and speak aggressively even when they don’t mean it. And the part with schools… well, I don’t know but from what I know gypsy culture asi itself is against school education – and school education is obligatory here since the times of Austrian-Hungarian empire so it’s unthinkable for Czech people to have it otherwise.
    Gypsies have probably never integrated enough because of their nomad nature in combination with their strong sense for their community while local people feared them (my opinion I don’t know). For example between 14 and 17 century we had Rusyn-Romanians coming through the path in Carphatian mountains and they assimilated and their culture was accepted as well – now you have a whole part of the country named after them: Moravian Vallachia, in Czech Valašsko. But the mentality of people in Moravia and Silesia is to this day quite different from Bohemia and especially around Carphatian Mountains (in Czech republic Beskydy, in Slovakia Orava and Tatry and so on) the culture is linked with people living in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine or Romania through mountains it’s even more different.
    Also, quite a number of people in Moravia prefer wine over beer.
    Sorry, it was rather long however I’m quite talkative 😀 and there was only one comment anyway 😀

    Like

  2. NoxArt says:

    Agree, I also enjoy a different PoV.

    As for for learning Czech: I was actually shocked how fast can foreigners from eastern Europe pick up Czech. I’d be glad to train my English with them, but they’re even more comfortable speaking Czech, after only 6 months. Given how long it took me to get on a decent level with English it’s amazing.
    Yes, we are not too upbeat, neither am I, often. Too bad.

    As for homosexuality: I believe the most people simply don’t give it a second thought.

    PT etiquette: this is something I’m proud of. On the other hand I’ve never seen anyone greet a stranger (not necessarily foreigner) maybe more than a couple of times. An elderly gentleman was explaining to me a reason why a street is called as it is, but that almost sums up my lifetime experience.
    This etiquette deadlock often happens with car vs pedestrian too. I’d decided to pretend not to want to cross a street when I’m not in hurry and want to give them precedence.

    I do find Easter tradition stupid, for me it’s rather an excuse to visit my female friends.

    As for English, it saddens me and I’d hope the reality would be very different. Well, no English speaking person ever asks me for help, so I can’t shift the statistics…

    As for national pride … this is a tricky question. Some are, some not so much. Again we are rather cold about this and also don’t want to show it off too much. There’s also a fact that we are able to criticise ourselves and consider Americans overly (almost blindly) proud (a generalisation of course). Seeing ourselves in this realistic way and seeing our negative side prevents us from being outright pride.

    That’s not a happy ending, so at least: have a nice day

    Like

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