The first time I visited Czech Republic was on my way back from Lapland, taking a small detour through Eastern Europe before rushing into my exams back home. I remember being quite impressed with Prague, it left a deeply positive impression. I’m pretty sure I couchsurfed but sadly, I don’t remember who with or how well we got along.
The second time was with my girlfriend. I remember us alternating between romantic hand holding and epic fights about ridiculous things. Our visit left a bittersweet aftertaste.
And now recently, with days, weeks to spare in the republic without a single impression like the first, I have grown a little frustrated with it. The castles are still equally beautiful but I’ve seen them inside and out, the “metronome” kinetic statue is still fascinating but it never works, the language is still nice to hear but I’m not learning one iota past ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘enjoy your meal’.
Spending time with Czechs of many walks of life, I got to experience how angry the nation still is over many things that happened in the past century. Understandably so: The Czech Republic got much of the very worst the fascist and Stalinist regimes had to offer. They speak of betrayal of the west and suppression from the east, and feel singlehandedly responsible for the velvet revolution, where they finally gave communism the boot and united with Slovakia. Especially the Slovakians were unhappy with this last bit so they too got kicked out and so, only Czech Republic was left, very sour about everything. If they know your country, they probably dislike it.
I feel like they made a grave mistake reinventing themselves as a republic. It means they appoint a president every few years to rule their country, on track with France, Italy, the US, and South Africa. If you will notice, none of these countries (in fact, no republic that I can think of) have a particularly satisfactory political situation right now. And surprise surprise, neither does this one.
Their current president is widely regarded as, and I quote, “a bitch” and I have it from some IT worker at the office (well, a friend of his) that Lukoil needs to send in their directions early in the morning because by the afternoon, he’s too drunk to do anything. I hear there is video footage of this, it was on the news. A drunk president, barely able to stand.
The thing with a republic is that he gets away with it. It might cost him popularity but who cares when you have all the money and power at your disposal? There’s no one who will fire you, and if you’re corrupt enough, very few who will even speak up against you. Is this really the best we can come up with? I’ll take a government any day, with people who have to answer for their actions.
Then there’s the language. For reference, English and Dutch are analytical languages, with words that barely change when the context does. There’s no gender-specific variation of ‘to be’ and no change to ‘giving’ stuff to someone, depending on who they are. Rules are apparent and easy to learn.
Czech is known as a synthetic language, where every word, spoken or not, influences those around it. No two expressions are the same.
To be honest, I tried learning it the easy way but I already snapped like a twig after trying to apply ‘…is big’ to different subjects as an example in my notebook. Not only does the word ‘big’ change along with the subject but, and I quote again, “the verb changes when you point at the object”.
The word ‘yes’ in Czech is ‘ano’. So when people say yes in conversation, it sounds like they’re either saying ‘I know’, ‘Uh, no’, or they abbreviate it to ‘no’. Yes. No.
To add to the confusion, the English ‘no’ is spelled ‘nej’. I have listened to animated discussions in the metro and only figured out that they’re actually agreeing on the matter, after getting off.
All this makes learning Czech by ear, as opposed to Norwegian or French, impossible. In fact, learning it from a Czech speaking individual without a masters degree in education, will still take a lifetime.
And so, people around me yap and argue, and all the time, I have -no- idea what about. They translate a word for me and instantly, I forget again because I don’t see the logic behind it.
Did I mention about 80% of the locals don’t speak any form of English? Yeah. Good luck with that one.
With an enormous cultural background and jaw dropping history, Czech Republic is a wonderful place to visit. But there are many barriers to overcome if you want to be more than a visitor, so I guess that’s what I’ll be doing the next couple of years. I’ll need to find a proper teacher, so that I’ll at least be able to introduce myself in a somewhat intelligible manner.
I’ve been staying in a concrete village called Lustenice for a few weeks, along with the mother of my son (Let’s call her Marie because that’s her name) and the grandmother. Besides a landscape that appears stolen from Day-Z, there is exactly nothing here. Some water towers, a train station, tiny towns, so yeah, nothing.
Among the few interesting bits I have found is the grandmother’s cooking. She has family who recently slaughtered a pig, so I’ve been treated to some traditional Czech cuisine. And let me tell you, you haven’t eaten sausage until you have eaten it prepared the traditional way- inside the pig’s own intestines. It takes some effort to get over that.
Other than that, there are a lot of dishes based on potato dumplings and meat. In fact, if a meal does not contain a good portion of meat, it is jokingly called “healthy”, which basically means it’s rabbit food. I would hate to be a vegetarian here.
So far I have been able to escape the macho moonshine culture. Here it’s named Slivovice and originally distilled from plums, though they’ll use whatever is available, like apples (but then the name changes, as you would expect). Back in the old days, pretty much every rural house had an illegal distillery, but lately it is limited to 1 per family or street. People will come with whatever sweet fruits their orchard brought up, and turn it into hard liquor. Shenanigans ensue.
So yeah, I fully expect to be pulled into that “tradition” at the first family celebration I attend. And if you know me, you know that I can’t hold my liquor very well. That’s okay though, I am used to being the laughing stock at a party *bitter laugh*
Every once in a while I get treated to a relic from the communist era. The whole town is rigged with a PA system, in fact every little establishment nearby is. I assume it was once used for propaganda purposes, but now they shamelessly blare a Czech adaption of Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’ (I kid you not) before making a few local announcements. Or when someone died, they toll the bells- Not the real bells, mind. It’s a tape. With bells on it.
Hearing the announcer’s voice echo over the lands is kind of scary. They might be going on about a local fruit store opening -in fact, they probably are- but this eerie nasal sound combined with the Slavic language, just has a very strong connotation to it.
On one side it’s alienating to be so far from home, in a place where I understand nothing. There is little of interest, no friends around. On the other hand though, it’s fascinating to slowly learn about the culture and the history. Being born in plain old Belgium where stagnation is the norm, I can’t imagine how scared the people must have been when everything changed so drastically. How they were subjected to essentially failed political experiments, and how it shaped their understanding of the world.
I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface, but it’s a hard surface indeed. Good thing I’ll have plenty of time to scratch.