Reflections on Prague, While in It

Posted 25 Dec 2010 to travel, europe, rambling and has Comments

If blogs are to be considered accurate sources of cultural information, it seems the Czech people are generally considered to be rude. The reality is that you would probably be rude too if your country was ruled by outsiders for almost half of a millennium and had only known independence for slightly over twenty years. They’ve been ruled by the Austrians/Hungarians, then by just the Austrians, then by the Nazis, and finally by the Russians. Five hundred years of perennial obeisance must have an effect on the collective psyche of a nation. If President Klaus provides any indication of the general Czech feeling, even now they are slightly uneased by the increasing control exherted by the European Union. I don’t blame Mr. Professor, and I don’t blame his people.

As far as I can tell, the gross domestic product of the Czech Republic consists of money from casinos, liquor, and outrageous fees on currency exchange (I admit that my assertion may be slightly colored by the fact that I seem to be staying in the casino and liquor store district). They love their cheap cigarettes, expensive espresso (really, a double costs more than half a liter of beer), and odd flavors of pizza (ham, cucumber, and creme?). So what if my hotel shower is actually just a half bathtub with a hose; they have really cheap beer here. The one thing they seem to really hate is internet access. Locations specifically advertise in large letters on big signs when they do have it. It’s like discovering a hidden gem when you find it. The only places I seem to be able to use it is in rare cafe/bars (incidentally, every bar is advertised as a “Cafe and Bar”, whether or not they have an espresso machine or can even serve instant coffee). I have no idea why it only occurs to bar owners to set up wifi, and I have even less of a clue as to why they offer it when it seems I’m the only person in the history of Prague bar/cafe wifi to have used it. The girl at the front desk of my hotel looked at me with explicit derision when I asked if the hotel provided internet access, as though I was a slow-minded foreigner who thought the hotel was actually a cafe/bar. Why would anyone want to access the world wide tubes in a hotel? A hotel is not a cafe/bar. Preposterous!

I will give Czechs quite a bit of credit, though, for their mastery of the English language (at least here in capitol city). When I visited farther south, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, people rarely spoke English. Here, it’s like a second language. Or third. Probably a fourth, because everyone learned German after the Nazis invaded, and then everyone learned Russian after the Warsaw Pact (a.k.a., the “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance”). So people here have had to adjust over the years, though I couldn’t help but notice what seems to be a slight grimace every time they hear Russian. People across the pond in the US complain about learning Spanish, and that’s just a second language. Americans are spoiled; our Wernicke’s areas are atrophied. Perhaps it’s from all of the expensive beer and cheap coffee we drink. Imagine if Mexico invaded the US, called us “friends” and said we were “cooperating” and providing “mutual assistance”, and then pulled out after 36 years and a peaceful revolution. After that, imagine that in order to get a job anywhere, you had to learn Mexican Spanish. Now imagine that the people you were speaking this Mexican Spanish to are the sons and daughters of your former occupiers/enforcers and that you’re expected to speak to them with a giant smile on your face (while you sell them touristy crap and extol the attraction of Soviet brutalist architecture). Now, imagine that happened with French Canada as well and you had to additionally learn French. If I were Czech, I’d probably be unemployed for refusing to learn former occupiers’ languages.

I’ve been quite content in the fact that I’ve been mistaken for a local on a number of occasions. The people here, as in Slovenia, have a defeated look about them on the street. It’s not that they’re unfriendly, it’s just that they will never look at another person in the eyes when they walk by them. My secret to feigning Czech normalcy is dark clothes and looking dejected. My success is already apparent in the sheer number of times Czechs have attempted to start up conversations with me (all at random points, the key still remains that you mustn’t look another in the eye). A Jehovah’s Witness even attempted to convert me, with her entire argument given while we stood right next to the giant, hideous “TV” tower that blocked the BBC and Radio Free Europe in the Czechoslovakia in the ’80s. I politely told her in English that I was familiar with The Watchtower, to which she asked with apparent surprise if there were any Jehovah’s Witnesses in America (the denomination was founded in Pennsylvania and New York). Her knowledge of English, like her knowledge of the genesis of her own faith, was lacking, and we had to go our separate ways.

The worst thing, by far, is the insanely high number of Americans here. While I admit that I am an active part of the problem, my fellow countrymen and women are among the most annoying of travelers (a close second is perhaps the British from Newcastle, aka, Jordies). It’s not the clothing or the overuse of taxi’s (when there’s perfectly good, cheap public transportation available) that betrays the national origin of my countrymen. It’s the volume, the sheer loudness, of American English consistently peppering the air. Is it necessary that you so obviously give yourselves away and momentarily destroy my illusion of complete separation from everything I know? At what, exactly, are you yelling? While I appreciate the fact that someone close to you attended Michigan State University, and that your close friend/relative thought that fuchsia hats were the “in” thing this year, I cannot abide your incessantly loud chatter. You do not, by virtue of saving the entire world from the specter of Nazism, have the right to lay claim to the whole of the European continent as your shouting domain. Is anyone else yelling at someone named Bobby to come take a look at some “awwwwesome” trinket? No? Then you shouldn’t either.

I’m now almost two liters into this afternoon’s familiarization with Czech beer, and now I have to relinquish my seat at this bar/cafe to an eating patron and take my proper place at the bar.