This is a post I wrote THREE YEARS AGO! I found it hiding in my drafts section. A lot of these things I’ve now gotten used to completely (and have written about in other places – for example, language, food, drinking, slippers, and living in a small town, plus Czech-merican cultural differences 1 and 2) – but it’s definitely a good picture of first impressions from a first-timer in CZ.
I added the first two pictures, but otherwise I didn’t edit anything, including spelling – so you can reexperience with me some of my first thoughts about living in this country. (The horrible spelling misconceptions will be funny only for Czechs.)
I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve been experiencing culture “shock” since I’ve been here; maybe cultural surprise.
You could actually say there’s some reverse culture shock. Czech/Europeans in general, I have been made to believe, don’t like peanut butter very much. Even more so, they fundamentally don’t understand the mixing of salty and sweet in, say, a PBJ sandwich. Or in “ants on a log,” a quintessential American kids’ snack.
When I was in Olomouc, I tried tvaružky (a Czech “stinky” cheese) that was served with plum jam- a thicker-than-normal, also often homemade, jam. When I told other people about it, they thought this combination of salty and sweet was SUPER WEIRD. (Dunno man. It’s the pub’s fault.)
So, my goal: spread the gospel. I’ve already gotten my mentor hooked on apples with peanut butter, so, peanut butter: 1. Not peanut butter… 0.
Back to the CZ. When I first got to Israel and my beginner knowledge of Hebrew became a daily reality, I had to get over the language-learning “hump” that basically none of the words resembled (structurally and phonetically; it is a different alphabet of course) English words, or had Latin or Greek roots. Nothing to relate to. It’s rather similar with Czech, a hard language with some extra sounds, like its characteristic “erjj” (think Dvořak), that make vocab memorization and pronunciation difficult. (Unlike English though, as long as you know how to make the sounds, you can read anything accurately.)
Here’s my early list of some Czech customs that make this country a bit different from where I come from.
The standard “Dobrý den” means “good day.” This is formal and can be used with strangers or familiar people alike. Less formal are “Ahoj” (ahoy) and “Ciao.” It feels funny to me to say “ahoy” to someone and mean hello, and not “I’m driving a ship.” Alas, that’s how it is. Also weirdly, both “ahoj” and “ciao” are used to mean hello and goodbye. I thought “ciao” only meant goodbye.
No one knows why “ahoy” means hello, but Today I Found Out offers some interesting insight and history with regard to the invention of the telephone.
“Tak” and “yo”
Also when I was in Israel, I noticed “yo” was used differently, more of a “wow” or, held out, a way of getting someone’s attention rather than as a greeting. In Czech, “yo” is short for “ano” (yes), and means “yeah.”
“Tak” is a word similar to “so,” which is used all the time, to start or continue a conversation, or to mark where conversation has fallen off and things are about to get, or have gotten, awkward.
I grew up in a household where shoes came off at the door. In Czech households, you must take off your shoes but put on slippers to walk around inside. These could be straight-up slippers, or Croc-like shoes. They just have to stay clean. In Czech gymnáziums (high school-ish schools), they require the students and sometimes teachers to change their shoes to slippers once they reach school, especially in winter. There’s been resistance of late though, because of faaashion.
Peeing in Public
Apparently because of lack of public restrooms here, it’s very acceptable for young boys and girls to pee in public. I knew about this before coming, but I still couldn’t help giggling when I saw a little 3-year old boy standing and aiming at a sapling in a public place with his dad right behind. Of course, it’s acceptable for men to do too. When I asked if I could pee in public, I was asked whether I can do that back home… Discrimination!
Land and Food
As I mentioned in my post about mushrooming, as a New Yorker, I’ve been pretty surprised at how much food comes from the surrounding environment.
When I think dumplings, I think Chinese dumplings or Jewish kreplach. Thin outer skin, meat on the inside.
Czechs eat dumplings with most meals, especially heavy lunches. But dumplings look like this:
We know that the Czech Republic drinks the most beer per capita, with over 400 beers per year per person at an average of $.71 each. Beer here is, I think, purposely less alcoholic (let’s say average 5% per beer) so that you can drink more. And, as many a guidebook has told me, the food- meat and cream and dumplings- is made for nights full of drinking. But when I saw my mentor’s 12-year old son opening beers for us at lunch the other day, I had to remind myself that it’s simply not as taboo in Europe, or specifically Czech, as in the U.S. This also became very clear when I drank burčak on the street in Brno in plain sight.