sestdiena, 2015. gada 28. februāris

Understanding Czechs

Improvisation, hobbies and clubs

Several expats have asked me, how come Czech economy is quite stable and we generally do well, when we're not the most hard-working of nations, almost everything is closed on weekends, and due to the bureaucracy it takes forever to arrange something?

Unfortunately, I'm not sure.

One of the reasons could be the advantage of the position in the centre of Europe.

Or the fact that we're quite good at telling what is most important at the moment, and when we realize something is an emergency we're willing to sacrifice our favourite "pohoda" (relaxed atmosphere) and start acting very quickly and effectively.

And actually, some administrative stuff has become quite simple and effective these last years. Thank God for that.

Also, we're very good at improvisation. The Socialist regime has taught us not to rely on authorities and find alternate ways to arrange or produce something that needs to be arranged or produced. If the only available car repair service is overworked and your turn will come in 3 months, it's better to fix the car yourselves. Perhaps you'll need to call two of your friends and travel to two different towns to get the spare parts. It's going to be hard, but also exciting and you'll learn to rely on yourself as well as on your friends.
It's not 100% like that anymore because we have excellent services now, but until recently, when a woman was getting married she automatically expected her husband to know how to decorate walls, how to fix the toilet, the cooker, everything. And if he didn't know how, he was expected to call his friends and discuss it with them.

You can see the remains of this system in the laws on individual entrepeneurs that are actually quite loose (if you don't reach certain sum per year, it's very easy to be e.g. a translator, a potter, to make extra money knitting sweaters etc.) And there are various part-time jobs you can do while studying, jobs you can do from your home, etc. If you're lucky and want this sort of lifestyle, you can have two 1/3-time jobs and also work from home as an entrepeneur. We're actually a really weeeeiiird combination of strictness and freedom :-)

And because the number of possibilities what to do with your life was extremely limited in 1948-1990 (I remember the world being much, much simpler and smaller then, and also much less colourful). Life was pretty much predictable, and so many people found refuge in hobbies.

Here, the possibilities were much greater. Bird-watching, hiking, biking (and tinkering with bikes), train-spotting, sewing, gardening, amateur acting, football, local history... There were excellent books published on various styles of weaving, historical gingerbread baking, on how to recognize specific kinds of birds in nature, how to repair your bike etc. etc. They were written by scholars and specialists, and still perfectly understandable to "common folk". This way, many people became specialists in fields they didn't study, and passed it on to their children.

This blog actually exists thanks in part to my father, who earns his living as a railway car technology specialist, but because he needed something to do in his free time and he couldn't travel, he started studying the excellent books on languages and linguistics published in those times. He was also asked to enrol in a course of Tibetan language, because a tibetology professor was sacked from university for his not-enough-Communist opinions, and needed a job. So my father visited a course on Tibetan language for 13 years, and thus helped the professor survive. After the revolution, the professor became a famous and respected authority on Tibet, deservedly.
That's why my father knew so much about languages and passed it on to us, and all three of us are now translators, translating books and films for the Czech Television.

We Czechs still make less distinction between jobs and free-time activities than some other nations. I don't mean we work from home during weekends (although of course some people's jobs require that), but with many people, it's like: "I'm interested in the subject, so I simply spend a lot of time with it, and I'm lucky I got a job in that field. My friends at work are the same way, too, and we spend a lot of time chatting about the subject."

Also, it sometimes happens that people have a job with an IT company or so but they're crazy about their hobby, and they spend so much time with it and form a club together with their friends, then start organizing regular events, then create a webpage... and then find out they can actually get a job in that particular field, or found a company of their own.

There's a great many official and unofficial clubs related to various hobbies and activities, and they're doing a world of good for local communities. I admire them for going public with their achievements - local history clubs publish articles and organize guided tours, film enthusiasts organize public film evenings, railway enthusiasts collect money for 10 years to re-open a local historical railway etc. etc. I think it's clubs like this that keep the Czech society alive and well.

If you're an expat and need to make Czech friends, I recommend you try finding a club of people with the same hobby you have. Be it archery, hot-air balloons, battle re-enactment, entomology or Monty Python silly walks - I guarantee there's a club that will accept you and invite you to their events.


I don't think we even realize it ourselves, but our culture is based on the concept of GIVING AND RECEIVING INFORMATION.

It's like an iceberg - most of the time, you only see the tip and don't realize that it's everywhere beneath your ship, but if you're foreign and meeting some Czechs for the first time, you'll probably feel like a Titanic.
You'll get showered by questions asking not about your feelings, impressions or thoughts, but about facts. Where are you from? Why have you come to the CzR? What's the capital of your country? Does it have any mountains? Where do you work? What did you study? What music do you listen to?

And then you'll get showered by information. These and these cafés are the best to go to; these and these places are the most interesting to visit; these and these Czech products are worth taking home with you.

This is where many non-Czechs decide whether they like Czechs or not. Some will interpret this as interest in themselves and conclude that Czechs are friendly. Some will find it too nosy. Some will find it emotionless, overwhelming or lacking in purpose. But for us, it's neither of these. It's simply the way we function.

Unlike most other education systems, ours is based on memorizing immense amounts of data. Since the age of 6, we're taught to receive, memorize and exchange information, information and more information. Until recently, "intelligent" had been widely understood as "having excellent memory". This way, information has become the keystone of our society.

No wonder we excel in areas that require processing heaps of terms, dates and names, like medicine, law, history, biology and chemistry (we gave the world genetics and soft contact lenses). And no wonder Czech Wikipedia is so large for such a small country. We love hiking and biking in foreign countries because it gives us the opportunity of first-hand experience with the places whose exotic names were forced down our throats at school.

When you ask a Czech about Africa, he'll probably have a tendency to get nervous and then start shooting: the Nile, Victoria Falls, Rwanda, Burundi, Antananarivo, Cameroun, Ghana, Timbouktou, Chad, Addis Abeba, Kenya, Kilimanjaro, Oranje, Johannesburg, Niger, Mali, Senegal... and then apologize he doesn't know more. Placing lots of names on a blind map, that's how we were taught geography.
We had to know every country's capital by heart at the age of 13. I still have the reflex: Chile... Santiago de Chile! Nepal... Kathmandu! Indonesia... Jakarta! Thailand... Bangkok! Mongolia... Ulanbatar!

Of course when we chat with friends, we tell stories, make jokes, express support and give advice like anyone else. But underneath that... there's the one to rule them all and in the darkness bind them: INFORMATION EXCHANGE. We were sort of taught it's even more important than people, and it takes some growing up to realize this isn't true.

The only things that are above information exchange is expressing interest in your well-being, jokes and film quotes. That's the one where we're being friendly.

Coming to terms with this concept pretty much determines how you'll feel speaking to Czechs.

So next time Czechs will shower you with questions or facts, remember... we're not being friendly or nosy, we're just being ourselves...

Being interested in the well-being of others + joking + quoting = Being friendly

We're not the ones to say "Love you" at the end of every conversation. If you don't want to make your Czech friends feel awkward, don't tell them that - say this only to your immediate family.

We're not very good at expressing respect, either - but you're welcome to try :-)

But definitely try expressing interest in the well-being of others. That's what most of our polite phrases say:

Měj se! = Take care! By this, we mean something like "May your next few days be without unpleasant events!"
Hezký večer / den / víkend! = Have a nice day / evening / weekend!
Ať se daří! = May your next few days be successful and without unplesant events or failures!
Se srdečným pozdravem... = With a nice, sincere greeting... (i.e. Regards... Yours...)

You can see that the words "nice" and "pleasant" are the all-time favourites :-)

It's not uncommon for passengers on a train to try and be nice to the conductor by saying "Have you had a long, hard day?" "The passengers are so unpleasant today, aren't they?" Allowing someone to complain or show they're stressed out is considered to be very polite and nice.

When you come back to work after an illness, be it only a couple of days' cold, expect everyone to ask you "How are you feeling?" or "Are you feeling better?" 

Want to make everyone laugh in an awkward situation? Want to cheer up your friend? Tell a joke or quote a Czech film.

Anecdotes are very popular here, funny things that happened to someone you know are even better, and film quotes are the best. That's because our culture is very words-oriented. We aim to nail it by finding the perfect funny line to describe the situation. People who can express themselves well are deeply respected. If you can't express yourself well, use someone else's words = quote a film :-)

I don't know what is this type of humour called. Perhaps "absurd". It's allusions to reeaaallly weird and funny scenes in films.

Here's an example:

Someone mentions your alcohol problems, and someone else tries to defend you but manages to mention your broken marriage in the process.
You say, a bit sarcastically: "Thank you, chief, for standing up for me." (For Czech speakers: "Děkuju ti, náčelníku, že ses mě zastal.")

This is an allusion to a theatre play called "Conquest of the North Pole", where the Czechs trying to reach the North Pole suffer from depression and one of them tries to cheer them up by dressing up as a penguin.
But they're so exhausted and confused that one of them shoots the "penguin" in the "wing" with a rifle. The guy inside the penguin suit gets mad, obviously, and starts yelling "it's me, you moron, penguins live in the Antarctica, not here!" And the leader of the expedition argues "when you're so exhausted, do you think about zoology? I didn't realize it was you, myself, let alone such a simpleton as this guy!" And "this guy" proves that he IS a simpleton by saying sincerely "Thanks, chief, for standing up for me."

Makes no sense?
That's the whole point...

We call these wry, funny sentences and film quotes hlášky. The translation would probably be "lines".

If you speak some Czech and like the idea of film quotes, I recommend a book called Neber úplatky, nebo se z toho zblázníš - aneb Hlášky z českých filmů. If you want to make your home in the CzR, becoming familiar with the lines mentioned in this book is the ultimate tool to achieve that :-) Here are the films that are most popular sources of quotes - and also very good, so I can also recommend them for mere entertainment purposes :-)

Cesta do hlubin študákovy duše (1939)
Limonádový Joe (1964)
Jáchyme, hoď ho do stroje (1974)
Na samotě u lesa (1976)
Marečku, podejte mi pero (1976)
Kulový blesk (1978)
Postřižiny (1980)
Vrchní, prchni (1980)
S tebou mě baví svět (1982)
Slavnosti sněženek (1983)
Vesničko má, středisková (1985)
Dobytí severního pólu (filmed theatre play)
Dědictví aneb Kurvahošigutntag (1992)
Lotrando a Zubejda (fairy-tale, 1996)
Pelíšky (1999)
Samotáři (2000)

If you want a "crash course" in quotes, just watch Limonádový Joe, Jáchyme, hoď ho do stroje, Marečku, podejte mi pero, Vesničko má, středisková, Dobytí severního pólu and Pelíšky.

It's not a coincidence that most of these films were written by Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak (two of the people behind the Oscar-winning Kolya, by the way) - IMHO these two are the key to the Czech soul.