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on September 20, 2014 on 9/20/14 from ,

Week 2: Diving into Czech Culture: the Deep End

There is an interesting kind of international football-centered body language that you speak when playing with people with whom you can’t communicate.

Learnings. Feelings. Ideas.

Read the sentences in italics for the speedy version of my past week; otherwise, take a seat and welcome to my inner thought place.

Week 2 Adventures: What I Did and What I Learned

I got separated from a Prague city tour party with my friend Georgia, got off a random bus stop, and ended up stumbling onto some beautiful forest trails. We hiked deeper through it for a bit in search of photo opportunities. After a while, we finally stumbled upon an old, collapsed building surrounded by broken glass and trash, relics of someone’s personal history—just what we were looking for. However, while shooting around for a few minutes, a tall lumberjack-looking Czech man stepped out of a nearby rundown building which we figured was abandoned (definitely some kind of squatter) and he started to loudly ask us questions which we didn’t understand. Knowing that most Czechs (particularly the older generation) are wary of foreigners and not wanting to stick around any longer (we had the photos we wanted) we did our best to show we were harmless and high-tailed it out of there. A little freaky, but well worth the pictures!

I think I’m starting to *get* Czech culture. From watching documentaries about Czech history/figures, from seeing its culture in Milan Kundera’s novel, The Joke, from hearing Czechs talk about themselves, and from simply walking Prague, I’m beginning to see how this city has come to be what it is today. And it’s amazing to witness the product of its history playing out before my eyes: from the wary eyes of older people in the metro to the sarcastic humor of younger generations who make jokes of everything. Although these are sweeping generalizations simply formed on the based of my limited experience/education thus far, they are nonetheless distinctly different cultural experiences compared to the ones I’ve have had up to this point. That’s been kind of a big deal for me.

I played my first football match in Europe. Earlier this afternoon, I met up with a Bosnian friend I made in the dorm pub last night. We played 5-on-5 football for a couple hours—I swear I heard at least four different languages being spoken on the pitch. There is an interesting kind of international football-centered body language that you speak when playing with people with whom you can’t communicate. They are phrases that you speak with your body and your tone of voice: pass the ball, cover that guy, great shot, awful shot, try again next time.

I may have found my giveback opportunity. Ivana, the volunteer coordinator with ECES (essentially, the international students’ department at Charles University) has been really awesome in reaching out to local environmental groups to see if they have any semester-long volunteer spaces for me to contribute. I would be putting in hard work helping to plant new forests outside of Prague. It’s different from the video and administrative (read: desk work) jobs I’ve had so far, but I’m really looking forward to digging in and getting to know the Czech countryside from the inside out. 

I saw a church decorated with the bones and skulls of 40,000 human beings. Due to the Hussite Wars and the black plague, there wasn’t enough space to bury EVERYBODY in local cemeteries (in this one in particular, when you dig a hole to bury someone recently deceased, you’ll probably dig up three old skulls in the process). Even after walking around the exhibit and reflecting, I still don’t think it ever actually sunk in that these were all REAL human skulls. In this city of Kutná Hora, we ventured through this church ossuary, St. Barbara’s Cathedral (Oh. My. Gosh.), and a massive ex-Jesuit college, which has now been turned into modern art museum. My favorite moments today were when I was completely enraptured by the massive, ornate architecture of these incredible buildings sitting atop these rolling hills like royalty. I can’t really put this experience into words, so I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves (and they will fail too).

The Most Interesting People I’ve met:

I met a Bosnian and a Slovakian guy in the dorm pub. I learned *so* much from them, in both explicit and implicit ways. Sure, the Slovak guy may have been the first openly anti-Semitic person I’ve ever met, but my thought process during the conversation took more than a few eye-opening turns. After the initial feeling of disgust that came over me, I tried to follow it up with the intention of understanding why he was that way, rather than commending him immediately. At some points, his Bosnian friend seemed a little embarrassed, challenging some of the Slovak’s comments; I connected with him more. They were interesting. They had a lot to say about Czech culture (having both worked there for 6+ years), which I really appreciated listening to. The biggest takeaway I had from my conversation with them was this one character trait they shared: their incredible capacity for sarcastic joke-making. Maybe it was just them. Maybe it was just because they were young. Maybe it was my young American naivete. But there was something about their playfulness that really resonated with some things I’ve read about people from post-Communist cultures using humor to disguise their unhappiness under Soviet rule (even though these two were a generation removed, although just barely). It’s a total projection and I am probably wrong about them, but I wanted to use this blog post to point out this interesting connection that I made—true or not. I also learned from them that the administrators of the Masarykova Coleji (the hostel/hotel/dorm where I am staying) don’t put Eastern Europeans in rooms together with foreigners, particularly Americans. Why do they do this? I have no clue. I’m sure there is a reason, but my Bosnian friend didn’t seem to have one to give me. Sometimes I just can’t tell when either of those two guys are joking or being serious…

I also met my Buddy from the Charles University exchange program. I couldn’t be happier. He was INCREDIBLY smart (triple-majoring in business, law, and international studies—if I understood him correctly). He was was one of the best floor-hockey players in the nation at some point and also promised to show me how to play (SO pumped for that). And finally, he responded to my question “How many languages do you know?” with the answer: “a lot” and simply dropped it, moving on to the next topic. He was a pretty impressive fellow, not to mention amicable. He showed me to a lovely vegetarian restaurant, a local pub, and took me up to the top of a park where “all of the cool Czech kids hang out”. I liked him immediately and hope to see him again soon.

So many small interactions with locals, that it would be ridiculous to write them all down. But they were meaningful, memorable and all add together to form the net impressions that make up my understandings of so many of these different European cultures.

People are so interesting.

Prague is so interesting.

YOU’RE so interesting.

Dobrou noc for now.

-Nick

PS: The Mezipatra (Prague’s queer film festival) is right around the corner! November 8-14th!