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Wednesday, 24th August, 2005
Life here in the Czech Republic sure is funny.
It's a very pretty country, hilly and green with lots of scenic and cultural icons, all preserved by fifty years of communist under-development. The best of them, monasteries and castles, are poised atop vast hills and punctuate the scenery with delightful regularity. Forest is fairly common and we even caught sight of a deer in the woods the other day.
The people are friendly... kind of. They are warm and open once you get to know them, but no one, and I mean no one, smiles at you in the street when you pass them. No one really says hello either but you get the mandatory an insincere 'dobry den' (good day) in every shop you visit.
People in customer service jobs seem to be particularly afflicted by ill humour and a request for a menu or a bill is usually accompanied by a snarl and a grimace. Just trying to pay for a coffee can be a trial of patience. Posting something can be a Sisyphean task. Conditions for checkout cashiers must also be particularly oppressive since they barely acknowledge your presence and seem to resent your intrusion into their daily routine.
One thing you might have to get used to is the practice of not handing over money directly to the cashier. Instead you place it on a small plate by the till. The cashier will scoop it up and deposit your change, thus avoiding any unecessary physical contact. Thrusting it out directly to the cashier is rude and most locals find it intrusive.
In restaurants (restaurace) and pubs (hospoda) waitresses carry a purse around their waist and will total up your bill at the table and give change on the spot. You won't get an itemised bill but they're hardly ever wrong.
If you want to use a public toilet, be prepared to pay for the privilege. You'l have to cough up about 10 crowns, about AUS$0.50, but it usually means the facilities will be clean and tidy.
If you're lucky enough to be invited into someone's home (normally reserved for family or close friends) be prepared to remove your shoes at the door. Czechs trade their outdoor shoes for slippers or socks inside. And once inside you should probably be ready to repeat 'no thank you' in a loud and confident voice. Otherwise you might not make it out alive. Czechs take it as a point of pride to stuff visitors with booze and food until they burst. Anything but a firm and consistent 'no thank you' will result in a continuous parade of food and constant pressure to consume.
Pace yourself. Take small helpings. There will probably be twelve courses and a parade of gastronomic delights. More than once I've made the mistake of accepting a large bowl of soup only to find I would be expected to consume a whole pig as the main course and down half a dozen pastries laced ice cream for desert.
The food is quite good but it might differ a little from what you're used to. The menu will usually consists of something like cabbage soup with bread (and lard instead of butter), deep fried cheese with chips and creamy tartar sauce, sausages with saurkraut and potato dumplings or beef or pork and a meat-based sauce called svickova. For desert, more dumplings with cream and plum jam or something baked in the oven, stuffed with sweet cheese and covered in poppy seeds.
Czech cuisine is largely untouched by the no-fat, no-sugar, no-salt, no-fun diet that is popular in mainstream western countries. Ice cream, pastries, doughnuts, cheese, dumplings, pork, hot dogs, sausages and ice cream are all pretty much staples of the Czech diet. Sugar, alcohol, fat and salt all have a special place in the Czech heart, or possibly the further south in their anatomy. My arteries harden at every meal and I can feel my cholesterol count surge every time I pick up a menu.
Food from outside is slowly starting to infiltrate the shops, with European food easy to find and other varieties coming in slowly. Asian food is uncommon, with most people preferring bland sauces to spicy food. However you can find Thai curry paste and coconut milk in local supermarkets but fresh herbs and vegetables are limited. You can get as much garlic (cesnek) and paprika as you can handle. There's also a large Vietnamese presence in the country but it doesn't seem to have affected the cuisine at all. The Vietnamese seemt o occupy the status of second class citizens and racism is still endemic in many areas so their influence has been limited.
When it comes to drinking, the beer is good and white wine is too, the red I would avoid. Beer comes in several flavours or 'degrees'. The basic stuff is about 10 (which I think refers to the quantity of hops) with the better/stronger stuff getting up to 11 or even 12 for beers like Pilsner Urquell from Plzen, the home of Pilsner beer.
Wine production has always been on a small scale in the Czech Republic. We went to a tasting in a winery set up in the long abandoned dungeon of a castle built sometime around the turn of the millennium. The castle itself was long gone by about 1779 when the dungeon was turned into a cellar and its now turning out some very nice whites and some dubious reds.The cellar was about twenty metres long and two wide and turned out exactly one cask for each vintage of the six or seven grape varieties they grew.
In southern Moravia it also pays to be wary of their speciality liqueurs like slivovice (plum brandy) and Becherovka which is made from a secret recipe of twenty herbs and kicks like a mule. Slivovice is common, home made and tastes like ethanol.
Driving around the country can be an interesting experience. The Czechs are incautious drivers and tend to go 'pedal-to-the-metal' and overtake in situations I would consider marginal. In my first week I saw four minor accidents with, thankfully, no injuries. The rules changed recently and driving improved for all of three weeks. Then everyone was back to their old habits.
Crosswalks are a particularly hair-raising experience here. Although people are supposed to give way to pedestrians, most do not. If you want to get across the road you face the prospect of dodging some old bugger in a clapped out Skoda with no brakes, no windscreen and no reason to stop. The roads themselves range from fairly good quality highways to abysmal cobbled village streets with more potholes than stones.
Public transport is very good, most towns are linked by a network of buses and trains which run at frequent intervals. They are also punctual. A bus that's five minutes late will have everyone staring at their watches and muttering under their breaths. At least the Communists, they say, made the buses run on time!
Note that normally you board a bus from the back doors not the front and often you have to push a button to make them open for you. This rule changes after dark when you board by the front door, presumably allowing the driver to screen out undesirable elements. On most public transport there will be no gates but you'll be expected to validate your ticket onboard when you start your journey.
Ticket inspectors are frequent, efficient and merciless. If you're caught without a valid ticket you could be fined one hundred times the value of a ticket. Customer service from public transport officials is on par with that from other shops. At bigger train and bus stations you can usually find English speaking people who will help you although they will do it with ill humour and a bad temper. We had one woman who refused to check availability of seating for us on a train until we agreed to buy a ticket. It wasn't worth her time she said if we weren't going to buy one!
It might seem like the Czechs are a pretty dour lot and, okay, they are. But they have a reason to be that way. They've been the political football in Central Europe longer than anyone can remember. At the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 the Protestant Czech army was hammered into the ground by a multi-national Catholic force and things didn't get much better till 1989.
In the days of the Austro-Hungrian Empire they were treated as second class citizens and their language banned. There was a brief heyday after the first World War when the First Republic of Czechoslavkia was formed but in 1938 they were shafted by the English and the French who gave their country away to appease Hitler. After WWII they fell under the Soviet sphere of influence and a puppet state was quickly installed. In 1968 however there was a revival of national spirit and a move to more open governmment which resulted in an invasion of Warsaw pact forces which repressed the movement.
Following Gorbachov's Perestroika conditions relaxed and in 1989 came the Velvet Revolution where peaceful protests ended the stranglehold of Communism and lead to the separation of Czech and Slovak states in 1993.
But I shouldn't paint too dim a picture of people here though, the Czechs have always had a fatalistic sense of humour and centuries of occupation can't have improved it.
A Czech friend of mine told me this joke to try and explain the Czech mindset :
There were two Czech farmers living happily side-by-side in a little town. They were both very happy with their little farms, each one keeping some crops, some chickens and a pig. Things went like this for a long time and everyone was happy.
Then one of the farmers went out and bought another pig.
The next morning his neighbour went out to work in his fields and when his wife came out to find him he was glaring balefully at his neighbour's pigs over the fence. Looking over the fence she said to her husband, 'Do you think we should get an extra pig as well ?'
The man didn't take his eyes off the pig but said, 'No! But I hope his pig dies!'
If you want a more detailed insight into the Czech sense of humour try reading the famous 'Good Soldier Svejk' by Jaroslav Hasek. It deals with the bumbling soldier Svejk as he navigates his way through an equally bumbling campaign by the Austro-Hungarian empire to conquer Europe. It paints an amusing tale of Svejk's exploits in the vein of something like Cervantes' Don Quixote and Svejk's continuous anecdotes will have you in stitches (although I was assured by my girlfriend's father that I didn't understand Czech humour and was obviously laughing at all the wrong points).
The mood here feels buoyant in a funny Czech kind of way. The locals are finally getting to enjoy the 'fruits' of democracy and joining the EU community in their own right. But they're still griping. There's a lot of development and standards of living seem to be rising although wages don't seem to be keeping pace with booming real estate prices. Generations are heavily split. Some still remember the communists fondly and some remember them with bitterness, even tears.
The CR feels like a good place to be at the moment, it feels lively and exciting and there's a new young generation exploring the possibilities of freedom of expression and a market economy. But I don't think they'll be singing in the streets just yet.