Prague & I Are Officially Acquainted
I can get myself to the Institute, I vaguely understand the public transportation system, I’ve mastered my cobblestone-induced trip recovery method and I can order a beer in Czech. Life is good.
The past week has been a crash-course in Czech city life. I am slowly starting to realize what mannerisms make me look like a tourist and what I can be doing to blend in with the locals.
One touristy thing I haven’t quite been able to shake is walking and gawking. Each morning on the way to class we pass countless towers, gothic cathedrals that are 400 years older than the United States, Art Nouveau architectural wonders, and crested buildings of all shapes, sizes and colors.
It’s hard not to stare… or smile.
Back home it is pretty normal to walk around and exchange a friendly face with a passing stranger, but here it’s a good way to label yourself as a foreigner. Most Czechs seem to conform to the realist’s ideology and they are also very straightforward with their feelings. My Czech Language and Culture professor, Lenka Davidsonová, explained that most Czech’s believe that optimism translates to a lack of information, and if they aren’t happy their faces will show it.
But, this isn’t to say that Prague is full of dull emotion. Warm smiles and informal greetings are shared amongst friends and family members, and a friendly “dobrý den” (good day) is sure to welcome you into a store or restaurant.
We are all slowly starting to pick up the basics of the Czech language. Most of us can order beers or some coffee, ask for the bathroom (or water closet, as it is known here), and say hello, thank you, and goodbye. Today I officially learned how to say “mluvíte anglicky?” or “do you speak English” when a vendor sternly corrected after I apparently asked him “nothing that could ever make sense in Czech.”
There has been a lot of doe-eyed pointing and getting to know the language of gesturing, but in all, most people know how to speak English. As you walk through some of the bigger department stores, it is easy to see that most names and labels are in English while the ingredients and finer print remain in Czech.
When you sit down to eat at a restaurant, you’ll notice that the menus often follow the same pattern. You’ll also realize that beer is actually cheaper than water. Tap water isn’t offered in most places, so you have to order a glass bottle of water “with or without gas.”
An 8oz bottle of water typically costs around 29–65Kč ($1–2.50), whereas a half-liter of beer costs roughly the same. While the cheapness of beer probably doesn’t bother too many people, the parliament here has actually started talking about making it a requirement for all restaurants to offer at least one non-alcoholic drink that is cheaper than beer.
Names are also of great significance here as there is a specific list of saint names to choose from. Lenka explained that if a parent wants to name their child something that isn’t present on the list they must ask for permission and pay a fine of 400–500Kč ($16–20). Czech’s celebrate name days, or the the feast day of a saint after whom a person is named, so parents often choose names that are celebrated further away from their child’s birthday. Additionally, women’s last names end in the suffix -ová. This suffix is also added to foreigner’s names.
Another interesting thing about the Czech language is that there are formal and informal sets of words and phrases. Friends and family members talk in the informal, whereas strangers and acquaintances strictly follow the formal. Before two people can start using the informal, one person has to ask the other for permission. Women ask men, and older individuals ask the younger; it’s similar to asking to become friends. At first this seems like an awkward concept, but I think that Americans follow the same guidelines, just nonverbally.
A few more things I find very interesting about this eclectic city is that there is a KFC around every corner, toilet paper comes in more colors than one, non-smoking sections are the equivalent of having the waiter remove the ashtry from your table, fitted bedsheets don’t seems to be a thing here and sour-tasting buttermilk is very easy to confuse with 1% milk.
I have had the opportunity to explore a new part of the city every day this week, and yesterday me and a small group from the Institute went on an alternative tour of Prague. Our graffiti artist tour guide, Thomáš, took us to a bunch of street-art hotspots on the outskirts of the city, away from all the tourists, and told as a lot about how communism has affected artists of the area.
We even visited a contemporary artist collective called Paralelní Polis that operates their business completely through the use of bitcoin as a means of stating their distaste for government-run institutions. Thomáš also explained that members of the collective climbed to the top of the Prague Castle earlier this month and hoisted a pair of vibrant red underpants on the tallest flag pole. The red underpants represent the group’s concern for the current president’s “dirty laundry” and communist attitude.
A lot of contemporary art here also expresses the Czech’s aversion to religion, which is pretty ironic considering Prague is home to some of the most impressive churches in Europe. Thomáš said that about 80 percent of the people that live in Prague identify as atheist or indifferent to practicing religion. This too has a lot to do with the lasting effects of communism and the Czech’s dislike for people telling them what to do.
Classes are going great, too. The Institute is less than a three minute walk to the Old Town Square which is proving to be a little distracting, but makes for a very tolerable commute. I’m really enjoying my kiln glass studio. We have started experimenting with different fusing methods and next week we get to start playing with color and slumping our work.
It’s easy to be inspired by this place.