Prague Primer – Slightly Sarcastic Edition

Wading through the crowds in the intact historical old town of Prague or visiting the many medieval castles crowding the countryside you could easily be mistaken in your assumption that Czechs have lived here since forever. But no, the now 10 million strong hard (beer) drinking, pork roast and dumplings eating folks, the most western of all Slavic tribes, have moved into this area only some 1,500 years ago.

How, is the story that every Czech school kid from kindergarten on can recite by heart. Never mind that it is totally fictitious.

A small band of brothers was led on a long walk about by a leader whose name and “title” was….no kidding, our Great, great….grand-father Forefather Czech. On their long march from the eastern steppes of Europe they arrived on the flatlands encircled by protective mountains. Here, rising from the fertile lowland crisscrossed by two mighty rivers, they stopped bellow a breast shaped hill, not too high and easy to ‘climb’. The leader decided to have a look from this convenient vantage point and what he saw pleased him so greatly, he right there and then decided to put down their roots. The great beauty stroke a cord in his heart and poetry flew from his tongue. When upon his descent his long suffering comrades looked upon him expectantly, he spoke with a dramatic voice, “I saw a land overflowing with milk and honey. Here we stay!” At first everyone was happy to chill and rest their weary feet and fix their worn out sandals. Later on some, finding out there was a lovely blue Adriatic sea just a little further, felt a bit cheated. In spite of his major reconnaissance worthy of senior position on Google Maps team, some of his descendants still hold a grudge and complain that Father Czech did not necessarily have to stop at that bloody hill and was probably too lazy to press on towards the shining sea. Yes, they still blame him for the fact that this nation is landlocked for good with no access to the salt water! Thus Czechs have to undertake an annual pilgrimage called summer vacation to the sea and very unfairly also have to pay highway tolls to the stinking neighboring countries.

Nevertheless they have been more or less happily living here ever since, and they certainly do not like others to descend on them and their beloved homeland, especially the hordes of bloody tourists and even less any immigrants or, god forbid, refugees.

The fact that we do not know the exact words or actions of our forefathers is due to a little problem of – no alphabet. No beer yet either. Their alphabet came with Christianity. And da beer? God knows which thirsty Czech brewed it first. While beer brewing is a relatively simple procedure, creating an alphabet isn’t, especially for a strange language with unusual sounds that can easily break your tongue and your willingness to learn it. The relief here is that at least it is in Latin, even if it has 42 letters and not Cyrillic as some other Slavic languages.

The good news is that some English (with a very sexy accent, says my wife) is spoken, so don’t hesitate to come. Still, I feel compelled to inform you of certain peculiarities of living with the locals.

Point number one: Czechs are very proud of their beer. Period. They can talk about it ad nausea and they prove their love by drinking it ad nausea. At the Golden Tiger, a typical Czech pub, simple and full of beer swilling men.

You should not be surprised that they dream about having beer drinking as one of the disciplines in the future Olympic Games. They would most certainly be the favorites for Gold medal! Hands down, as they are currently certified as the greatest beer drunkards of the world. How much beer do they drink per capita (including women, children, even newborns, and senior citizens) in a year? Are you ready? There are quite a few statistics to google and those statistics are stunning! The Czechs are the biggest beer drunkards of them all by a significant margin with 142.7 liters (that is almost 430 regularly sized American servings) of beer drunk a year. I can hardly visualize my three year old grandson having a can of Budweiser a day and sometimes 2 cans, but it looks like a solid statistical truth! Moreover the statistics leave the next runners up in the dust by about one hundred beers a year! Well, if the Czechs have been missing the real ocean on their shores for more than fifteen centuries, they have certainly been more than compensating for their Forefather’s great misdeed by drinking an ocean of beer year after year after year! When in Rome…Cheers!

Point number two: Contrary to their champion beer drinking qualities, Czechs are NOT Masters of the Universe in championing quality services to their visitors. Generally, when you want to buy something or eat something or be involved in any other basic life activity, you would expect a seller to be interested in accomplishing his fiscal or other, maybe social goals! But not here, you are dead wrong! Because whenever you attempt to get/buy/learn something a strange game ensues. For example: entering a place of business you would expect to be immediately ambushed by an attentive employee keen on satisfying your needs (getting goods, food, drinks, information) in exchange for monetary compensation or at least a pleasant smile. Instead you are mostly ignored as sales people, waiting staff or officials disregard your presence. Unperturbed, they carelessly continue in casual conversation with colleagues about yesterday’s World Cup match, or intense observation of seasonal movements of migratory birds to their nesting grounds in South Africa through the shop windows. They might also try to disappear en-mass in the shop’s storage area, kitchen, toilets, smoking dens unless they actually stay seated and focus on finishing their coffee or lunch with their legs criss-crossed in front of them as an impenetrable medieval city defense rampart. Either way, they are real masters in avoiding any eye contact which, God forbid, would inevitably uncover to their customers the real purpose of their presence. That game of cat and mouse can last long and if you leave the place empty handed, then they have won!

If you press your case and somehow manage to make them notice you, then there comes the second line of defense. No matter how friendly and smiling YOU may look while presenting your intent to enter into a financial transaction, their rule of business is: Never ever crack a smile! Instead clearly indicate with your facial expression your high level of annoyance, and put no great effort in hiding your deep desire for the customer to disappear ASAP.

If you dare express your wish such as:

“I noticed in the store window a wonderful red model of high heels I cannot live without. My size is about 6 in the US which I presume is an irrelevant piece of information for you. So would you mind giving me one or two pairs to see which size can fit me best?”

Manolo Blahnik shoes at a local exhibition – did you know he is half Czech?

In the follow up to this innocent opening salvo from your side you can detect a slight change of expression on his/her face now bordering on disgust, as you hear the answer:

“Can’t you let me first finish my lunch/observation of important movement of the birds or…….(see the list above)?”

If you insist, he/she makes a point as his/her head moves towards the location where the desired shoe model of broad range of sizes might be gathering dust,

“Don’t you see that pile of boxes in the corner? Check for yourself!” And then he/she turns his/her back on you, possibly catching the sympathetic eye of the other shop assistant.

It goes like this for a while and if by any chance you leave the store with the shoes of your dreams you can be congratulated. You passed the test and can now attempt to apply for permanent residency. The restaurant staff love to entertain another strategy. On entering that beautiful restaurant that beckons so invitingly from the outside, you have a choice of a long wait for your table or moving boldly and sitting down at the first empty one. Never mind if it is not clean. Either way your wait is going to be long because the waiting staff has more important things to do such as…see the list above…plus cleaning all the OTHER tables of the dirty dishes. When your choice of table is approved by a grouchy waiter, you might be offered a drink, while you wait for someone else to clean your table. You are probably lucky if by the time you finish your second drink and feel starving and slightly drunk you get blessed by getting a glance at the Czech menu. If you need an English version order another drink first. Famous Savoy, snotty waiters.

After you had a chance to learn all the items by heart the waiter will return not to take your order or explain the ingredients, but to point out which dishes are not available any more. Then, have another drink, as it takes a little bit shorter than forever, before your dish arrives. Unless, your waiter comes back from the kitchen sooner, explaining with a smirk on his sour face that the last dish you selected has just been served to a guest at the neighboring table. Ha-ha. Pretty decent rabbit with dumplings at St. Norbert brewery. Pretty decent service, too.

“You better order something else and meanwhile have another drink!”

All in all I believe this is a winning marketing strategy of the Czech beer industry that is now being taught in MBA courses to the exchange students at the good old Charles University (founded 1348). Exception to the rule: The nicest, friendliest restaurant staff to be found at Roesel’s close to Charles Bridge on Mostecka.

At this point you might not be so keen on visiting let alone trying to live here. And you can stop reading.

FOR POSSIBLE EXPATS ONLY

In case you still want to press on let me give you some pointers on how to deal with the local bureaucracy.

A visit to the local authorities’ office offers an excellent insight into the historic workings of the bureaucracy of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Certainly you are not there to be served, but to satisfy a commanding official, sitting behind the desk in his office. If you think that after waiting for a few hours, clutching a little paper with your number in your sweaty hand being called to hopefully correct door, the process will start, you are only dreaming. First, you will be grilled what do you want and why, providing the official with an excellent first opportunity to get rid of you by sending you somewhere else. If you pass the first hurdle then the official would encourage you to present him with all possible supporting documents you should have known to bring. If any of them is missing you are on your way out. If you do have them, then their authenticity is in question. They should be notarized, verified, properly copied, digitized!

Interesting discussion developed over the so called “birth number” (a sort of social security number) document issued by local authorities to my spouse of 35 years, when we tried to inform them of the change of our home address. She received this number fancily laminated from the very same office after a three-year trench war filled with frequent mistakes and delays by authorities. To our surprise the officer requested 3-weeks to verify the validity of this document. Wow!

“What could you possibly have to verify on the document you issued yourselves?” I dared to peep.

“Well, it does not make any sense to me either,” the official whispered. “Let me ask my supervisor, if she is not lunching right now!” And he disappeared for 15-20 minutes. I thought she must have invited him to join her for lunch, but when he finally returned, he informed us,

“Well, she does not know either. Let us reduce the verification time to ten days, but not a day less!”

If this experience did not invoke pleasant memories of your own local Motor Vehicle Department or Passport Office, I can assure you that the political climate will make you feel quite at home. American visitors in particular would be flabbergasted to find that Czech presidential election brought surprisingly familiar results. And it did not happen just once in a very short time, but twice. The 50-50 split citizenry of Chechia are either disgusted or entranced by the Czech President and his staff who frequently disparage journalists for fake news and their limited IQ (not always on Twitter, though). The political swamp here is getting swampier by the day, too.

In conclusion, let me remind you that there are more great countries of the world aspiring to become Great Country again. If you want to see on your own please do not be afraid of coming. It is not just milk and honey you find here. There is much more: beer, pork roast, sauerkraut, apple strudel, art, music, and beautiful women (for bachelors only). And of course a couple of old travelers happy to welcome you!

See you then!

8 thoughts on “Prague Primer – Slightly Sarcastic Edition

  1. Reading this makes me want to read me some Havel and Kundera! You still have a lot of Czech in you by the mere fact of such a text! Maybe there is no milk and honey there, but your words do pour out as such! And to all those Czechs migranting to the Southern Slavic parts of Europe over the summer, I always wonder why they don’t just stop at one of the big Austrian (or, hey, Slovenian!) lakes- less sticky, less crowded, and maybe landlocked, but airier!

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  2. Oh, and as for bureaucracy- Austria was like that 20-30 years ago, now the government services are surprisingly customer friendly and efficient. Is there hope for Czechia? I wonder, if they can’t even get into selling hot shoes….

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  3. To paraphrase the Bible,”In the beginning there was salt and salt was Czech”. Along with beer I’m sure that this nation consumes the highest amount of salt in the world. Every thing is salty. In their past Czechs sold great amounts of salt to other nations and still seem eat a lot of it to show they can. Even the Chinese restaurants there seem to cater to this local need for more salt. I guess this would explain the need for much beer to wash it out of one’s system.
    However, the interesting street art and beautiful well dressed ladies make up for it. After being in Eastern Germany who wants to eat another dumpling anyway?

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