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Maria & Brett's HUGE Trip 06-07-08-09-? ok, so the Socceroos lost in 'that' penalty against Italy; Adriatic summers aren't long enough (bliss!); and we found that you should never use the term "Eastern Bloc" when talking to a Czech (Central Europe, please).

Oddities and curiosities of life in the Czech Republic - Part I

CZECH REPUBLIC | Thursday, 14 December 2006 | Views [4496] | Comments [1]

Svickova: Homemade knedliky (bread dumplings with bacon bits) w/ a cut of prime beef sirloin, thick creamy sauce enhanced w/ fresh cream and cranberry sauce. I think we've put on 5 kilos just by looking at it again! But absolutely delicious!

Svickova: Homemade knedliky (bread dumplings with bacon bits) w/ a cut of prime beef sirloin, thick creamy sauce enhanced w/ fresh cream and cranberry sauce. I think we've put on 5 kilos just by looking at it again! But absolutely delicious!

“Have you got any Kangaroos in your car?”

What do you say to a German border guard who’s holding your passport in one hand, an entry stamp with the other, smiling like a half-cut madman waiting for your response?

Sometimes you just have to take your chances and confess that you’re a professional ‘roo breeder – and we had a whole herd of them in the boot of the Smart car we’d hired for the weekend.

Luckily he was itching for a laugh that afternoon, and he stamped us through, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to tell you all about the quirky things we’ve experienced since arriving in the Czech Republic 3 months ago.

Dive with us into a world of army fashion, fragrant body odour, landlords who let themselves in, air-raid sirens and the ever friendly nature of Czech people. We bet you’ll never want to leave.

Planes, Trains and …. Metros and Trams

The public transport (PT) here is second to none: you can get on and off a bus, tram or metro everywhere; it runs often – even in the middle of night; and it’s on-time. Actually, we don’t even know if the latter part is true because we’ve rarely needed to look at a timetable. It is not uncommon that if you miss a metro or tram, the next one will arrive about 1 to 3 minutes later. All this for about $AU27 per month – bargain! (Unless you’re on the Czech Korun, that is. After the first month it was no longer a bargain for us!) You will NEVER see an article or letter in the newspaper complaining about the public transport. Strange, isn’t it?

Peeking into the buses, trams and metros there’s a hive of activity going on in there…

The buses are usually equipped with about 4 or 5 doors that can load about 100 people simultaneously in about 60 seconds – the bus barely stops at all. It comes on time, picks the passengers up and then goes.  There is no need to wave the bus down either as the buses stop at every stop.  So if you are glued to the latest New Idea, rest assured that you will never miss your bus.  However, this does not apply to the metro. See below.

Boarding a full bus with arms full of groceries (yes in the frenzied sub-minute it takes!), it’s quite common for an older sitting passenger to insist that you put your groceries on their lap, distributing the comfort of riding a bus amongst other passengers who don’t have a seat. This has happened to both of us on separate occasions so we know it’s not just a case of an old man trying to win the heart of a younger woman (Maria: This does not apply to good looking older men!). Actually, when it happened to me I do recall the sparkle in the old man’s eyes…

The life of a pedestrian on a street in Prague is a short-lived one – you’re bound to suffer a near-death experience nearly every time you step off the footpath to cross the street.

This is in stark contrast to what we experienced in Zurich, where drivers with hawk-eye vision will jump on their brakes from 500m away if they even suspect you’re standing next to a pedestrian crossing, burning a set of tyres in the process. Sometimes in Zurich we half expected drivers to stop their cars, pull out a rolled up red carpet from their boots and roll it out in front of you to walk over – that was the level of courtesy, or punitive nature of the penalties for not stopping. This concept has yet to catch on in Prague, or the rest of Central and Eastern Europe for that matter.

Ride the PT and you’ll likely be sitting next to a well-behaved dog. Apparently 1 in 3 Praguers own a dog, and when you consider that most live in apartment complexes this is a strange phenomenon. Some sections of trains are dedicated solely to dogs and their two-legged friends. Actually, it isn’t uncommon to find yourself sitting next to cats, rabbits, rats, ferrets or guinea pigs or a cross-breed of both (we’re still not sure!) and even…. bats. No exaggeration either!

We’re constantly astounded by the helpfulness of people here – if only we could bottle the spirit and bring it home with us: people literally fall over each other to assist the elderly, mothers with prams, people with impaired vision and other physical disabilities.

Maria: When I saw a couple of guys carry a woman with a physical disability down the escalators, I automatically assumed that they were her friends.  When I passed them two steps at a time (I was in a rush! I had no time to help the needy at this time) I noticed that they were just helping her get down the escalator and that they weren’t friends at all. They left her at the bottom of the escalators and they went on their merry way. As I was waiting for the train the woman came in my direction.  Even though I couldn’t understand her I heard the word ‘Pomoc’ which means ‘help’.  The train approached and I pretended to be deaf (in a Chris Mac-inspired performance). Just kidding, I helped the young lass onto the train and felt a wonderful sense of tax deductible charity sweep over me.  

Chivalry is well and truly alive here, with men vacating their seats for women of all ages. This gets a bit ridiculous sometimes when you try to squeeze onto a full tram or bus only to notice that men have clogged up the aisles next to empty seats. Come on!

Maria: Another moment of Czechness was when I was coming home on Thomas and a car had broken down on the tram line (Thomas is our friendly #23 tram. We’ve named the other local tram (#22) ‘enry in honour of Thomas & Friends).  Instead of a moment of tram rage, the driver simply hopped out of his cabin and asked a couple of passengers to help.  They did this without any hesitation, and within 2 minutes the car was moved, the driver and passengers were sitting back in their seats quietly without expecting any praise or medals of commendation and Thomas was rolling again.

One of the classic PT moments was when we were watching a woman with a small toddler who was fixated on an elderly man who boarded the bus with two huge baskets of red wine grapes, and had a distinctly sweet muscaty smell on his breath as he sat down next to me. While the bus bobbed along the road he held out his finger to amuse the little girl, who grabbed onto it and wouldn’t let go. She sat there, holding his finger as contentedly as another toddler might suck on their thumb. When the man held out both arms as if to say “give her to me, I’ll hold her for a while”, we thought he was mad but the woman promptly passed her daughter over as if she gives her girl to strangers all day long. The old man played and cooed with the girl for the rest of the trip and the mother’s face told us she hadn’t a care in the world. Clearly I was the mad one taking a photo of the scene. Perhaps this is a remnant of communist/socialist culture with the effect that everyone looks after each other.

One of the bizarrest moments was hearing someone’s ringtone play “Waltzing Matilda” on a bus, only to hear the guy answer with “Ano” (‘yes’) and have the whole conversation in Czech. Strange. Never got to the bottom of that one.

Something we’ll never get over is the stench that comes from some of the homeless that ride the PT – whether at 2am or early in the morning. You know it as soon as you step into a carriage that there is a homeless person inside.

The added bonus for morning commuters is the smell of alcohol that seeps through the pores and stale urine that comes from… somewhere. We’re slowly finding out that the smell is worse in winter because not only are the carriages heated, but the windows are also shut tight AND…. people think they can get away with not showering every day! We still can’t work out how someone can have a B.O. rating of 8 out of 10 at 7 in the morning.  We’re on the verge of breaking the world record for holding our breath.

One of the nicest things you’ll experience on PT is people holding a metro door open for you if they see you running towards the train – and those doors are heavy! – without expecting a thankyou or even acknowledgment in return, and others pushing the ‘open’ button for you if they see you trying to get off through the crowded carriage. People actually care about each other.

Maria:  A personal favourite, catching the public transport provides a great opportunity for not only people but fashion watching.  It can be an absolute delight at 7 in the morning! See “Fashion Crimes” in Part Two (to come).

Friendly nature of Czechs

Czech people aren’t only friendly commuters, but they’re genuinely one of the nicest bunches of people in the world. Within the first week of teaching we’d been invited away to students’ chalupas, asked to play tennis (after the first lesson), invited skiing (which we’ll definitely take up!) and asked over to students’ houses to have dinner with them and their partners or families. Put simply, we feel fully embraced by the Czechs in our lives.

Recently our friend, Michaela invited us to have a traditional meal called Svickova with her grandmother and family. We learned that Svickova is the name of a very special sauce served with meat and homemade bread dumplings that must be homemade to be fully enjoyed – and it’s unlikely that two Svickovas would taste the same. One theory suggests that it’s so called because it’s traditionally eaten by candlelight (Svicka) and another theory is that it’s named after the cut of meat – sirloin. Either way – it’s delicious!  After an afternoon full of homemade soup, svickova, dumplings and cakes we literally rolled all the way home!

One of the nicest aspects of Czech culture is the way that everyone greets each other, friends and strangers alike. Get in any lift and the other person will greet you with “dobry den” (good day), without exception. Even if you ride in silence, you’ll leave each other with “Na shledanou” (goodbye and see you again). Similarly, office workers leaving the building for the day will always say “na shledanou” to security guards that have now assumed their positions at the reception desk – often too lowly an effort to consider in other western countries. It’s nice to see that courtesy extends to all people here.  Maria: Might I add that the men will ALWAYS hold the door for a woman and let the woman out first from a lift or room.  Something I rarely experienced back home.

 “No” means “yes”

When does no mean yes? Yes in Czech is ‘ano’, which is usually shortened to ‘no’ and causes confusion in more circumstances that we’d expected. For example, if you are asked whether you’d like cream with your hot chocolate, answering ‘No no no no!!’ enthusiastically several times (eg “give me cream and you’ll die”) translates to “yes, yes, yes!” and will usually ensure that you’ll get a double dose of the stuff.

It becomes more interesting on the phone where you can’t see the person on the other end. You ask, “Dobry den, mluviste anglicky?” (Good day, do you speak English?). What do you do when the response is a simple “no”?  Is the person actually saying “yes, my friend, I do speak English. Now what can I do for you today?”, or are they saying “No. Now can I hang up now”? A couple of minutes of consulting our small phrasebook accompanied with enough hand gestures to give someone an epileptic fit usually gets us there – in most cases.

When a Czech wants to wholeheartedly tell you that they fully understand what you’re telling them during a conversation you’ll often be surprised to hear them say something that sounds like “Fuk yu” (translates to “oh really?”). It takes a while to get used to, especially when it sounds like they’re telling you where to go and smiling at you at the same time.

We knew that the word “jazy” has something to do with languages because language schools are often self-called jazykova skolas. But while shopping in the meat aisle we found out it also literally means tongue – this was the word on the label of the massive pig tongue, next to the fresh pigs hooves complete with nails, hair and the dirt from the Moravian countryside.

It’s Maria here: When I was quizzing a student about prepositions (do I sound like an English teacher yet?) I pointed to a poster showing a girl with a pierced tongue and asked “Where is the piercing?” He answered with “On…” and then pointed to his tongue. I encouraged him to go on, and he continued with “ahhhh…language”. I love these little teaching moments.

Food – a world of goulashes, dumplings and…. you’ll see!

What’s the first thing that comes to mind with the phrase “Russian Roulette”?

Probably nothing to do with food, however I unwittingly seem to play this game in restaurants all the time. Maria insists she has nothing to do with this game. Maria: Correct, and you will see why.

Ordering food at authentic Czech restaurants is always fun when the menu is only in Czech and the words have absolutely no resemblance to their English equivalents – oh, and of course when you’re the only person who speaks English.

During one of our first excursions I picked something called Baštỳřská roštĕná v trjobalu – vejce nakonec and it turned out to be a good old fashioned schnitty with rice for about $4.50. And boy was it delicious. Incidentally Maria ordered some kind of Chinese stir fry and ended up with … chopped schnitzel pieces cooked in stir fry sauces. Talk about production efficiency.

It was such a relief especially after doing the same thing in Italy and ending up with raw horsemeat on my plate – yes, horsemeat – yes, raw – presented like a huge slab of mincemeat you’d expect to see in a butcher’s display window. With even parsley as the garnish! Can you believe that somewhere in the world it’s actually ok to eat horsemeat?

It reminded me of a beef curry I’d ordered years earlier in a restaurant in Vietnam that really didn’t have the taste, complexion or texture of real beef. After later confiding in a local that I suspected I’d been ‘given’ dogmeat passed off as beef, I was told matter-of-factly that it is impossible to unknowingly eat dogmeat in Vietnam as it is considered such a delicacy there that you need to specifically order it.

More recently I’ve encountered a plateful of chopped kidneys in a thick urea-smelling Hungarian sauce (Mmmmm!) and different variations of a traditional soup called “Drust’kova” with spiced chopped gut the main ingredient. You can buy the – errr – meat in any supermarket, usually next to the pigs’ hooves.  Maria: All the while I was happily eating my caesar salad or veal schnitzel.

Although we’ve had some authentic culinary surprises we have to say that the food here is world class, delicious, plentiful and well priced. That is, you can enjoy a three course meal including drinks for between AU$12 - $25, all served with Czech hospitality and the odd boiled potato on the side.

In our next update...

Look out for our road test of Czech pubs; observations of a land rapidly developing after years of communism; inside details of fashion crimes (how long have you got?); interesting teaching moments; and the subtle things that make up Czech life and love - through our eyes of course!

If we don't catch you before then, have a wonderful Christmas and New Year and may the ice-cream on your hot apple pie melt even quicker in the Aussie summer. Pray for snow for us!

Brett and Maria

Tags: Culture

Comments

1

Hello from sunny Sydney!

Just wanted to wish you both a wonderful New Year - can't wait to hear more of your adventures.

Love
Bruce X

  Bruce Dec 28, 2006 11:17 AM

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