This week I’d like to focus on Czech culture!
Here are some things I’ve learned:
People from Prague always seen to have somewhere important to be. Like New York and other urban environments, there is so much going on in this city and very little time to strike up new relationships while in transit. Mix that with the Czech Republic’s rough history of constantly swapping harsh ruler to harsh ruler, and you have a citizenry that likes to keep to itself. Under Communist rule, there were hidden police officers who could be found anywhere along the street who followed dissidents around to see who they associated with. So if you smiled at or struck up conversation with the wrong person on the street, you might be considered in cahoots with a subversive movement. Needless to say, it is typically the older generation who is less smiley and friendly towards foreigners.
Not to say this is everyone, as I’ve met some very friendly people in public.
I spoke with a Czech friend Arnie who has this theory that you can map the Czech Republic by the kind of alcohol they drink. In Moravia, he says, where they drink predominantly wine, people are much more welcoming and cheery. In Prague and other cities farther West, where people drink more beer (which he says makes people sleepy), individuals are more indifferent or standoffish. Just his theory.
Puppetry is pretty important in Czech culture. Jan Svankmeyer, the icon of the Czech Surrealist movement features the motif of dolls or puppets in many of his films. Puppetry can also be found scattered throughout Czech New Wave cinema. One reason I heard (from a puppet scholar guest lecturer from U of Chicago) is that because puppets are not human actors, there is a greater separation between the potentially political dialogue the puppet says and the person saying them. So if someone came under pressure for a provocative puppetry performance during occupation or communist rule, it was easier to say “the puppet said it, it’s not a real thing!” than for an actor to say “I said it, but I didn’t believe what I said!”
There’s the little Czech mole called KrteÄek which is a popular cartoon figure in Czech culture. He was originally featured in a cartoon show, but he also has a bit of a symbolic role as well. This “little mole” represents the concept of the “Little Czech”, the idea that the average Czech just tries to stay under the radar and has little influence in the bigger decisions in life. As I’m sure you’re starting to see, a lot of elements of Czech culture seem to be tied to oppression under Communist rule and the corrupt government in place today.
The pub and cafe culture is also really important here in Prague. When people have birthday parties or celebrations or meet up with friends to chat, they are likely to meet out at a pub (or cafe) instead of at each other’s houses. Pubs generally sell cheap food, have decent coffee and tea, and of course, their small, yet cheap selection of beer and wine.
Na shledanou z Prahy!