48 Hours of Prague Thoughts
I have found myself in the city of Prague in the country of Czech Republic for only forty-eight hours. Well, a little less than forty-eight, but let’s not quibble.
In forty-eight hours I have learned that the current leadership of the country wants their country to be referred to as Czechia, for reasons I don’t fully understand.
“The Terminological Committee of the Czech Office for Surveying, Mapping and Cadaster officially codified Czechia in 1993 in its publication “Names of States and their Territorial Parts”. Therefore, Czechia is the grammatically correct short name of the Czech Republic…” – from Go-Czechia.com
I have learned that occasionally I can understand a word or two in Czech, but then the diacritic marks give me doubt.
And I have interacted with Czech citizens, mostly the driver of my airport shuttle, hotel staff, and employees of the mall next door to the hotel. The clerks at the grocery store in the mall are probably the most Czech of the Czechs I have encountered. They have little to no English and can’t care that I have no Czech. I admire this.
One habit I have cultivated in my bit of international traveling is that I like to go to grocery stores when I visit other countries. I like to see what everyday people buy and how everyday people procure their comestibles. Also because grocery store clerks are the most representative of the people of the country because they have no enthusiasm for making it easy on tourists. They are just being genuine.
In less than forty-eight hours I have come to appreciate and even feel a deep fondness for the people of Prague. Come with me on this tangent: Over the course of my life I have been fortunate enough to be friends with many Russian people. People from Russia have a very distinct cultural identity. Most Russian people I know can find a way to be unhappy even in the most incredibly happy of times. Not a sadness, but a deep disappointment tinged with world weariness. There is almost an enjoyment in unhappiness.
Obviously, owing to the long history of Czechia (see, I can learn), Russian culture has had a deep impact on the people who live here. I find some of that same slight sadness, irritation and fatigue with life in the people of Prague. At least the people older than say…thirty-five. It’s almost kind of endearing.
Here’s my best example. I went to the grocery to get some water, some chips and some cookies to stock in my hotel room for snack time. I had just a few items and I approached the register, feeling nervous.
I had learned two days ago that if I want a bag, I have to take one (paper or plastic) from the front of the register, and I have to let the clerk know I am buying the bag, and then I have to bag my own groceries. It’s very common in Europe to bag your own groceries. I was proud to have learned the whole bag situation (a nice Czech lady helped me) and was ready to check out. (Czech out? Okay, bad pun.)
My sweet little American self stepped forward when it was my turn, and I held up the bag and pointed and nodded. The clerk sighed and began mumbling in Czech. Then the mumbling took on a ferocity. She riffled through some papers on her table and spoke more loudly, but not to me.
She shouted across the aisle to the clerk at the next checkout station. A conversation ensued. As near as I can decipher, she needed the code for the paper bag I had chosen. The other woman offered a suggestion that didn’t work. My checker kept trying until after several attempts, she sorted it out.
She then began to scan the rest of my items, mumbling and gesturing in Czech. Not speaking to me, but clearly unhappy. Occasionally she’d shove at the papers that had let her down.
In my mind, I translated from a language I do not understand, but I think I understood the moment.
“This person wants a paper bag and they tell me I have to charge for it and if I’m supposed to charge you’d think they would at least give me the code on these damn papers,” shoves papers, “but no, I have to guess and this goofy looking American is standing here, don’t think I don’t know you are an American. Just because you haven’t said a word doesn’t mean I can’t smell it on you from a mile away. And of course the American wants a paper bag. Plastic bag, I know the code for that, but no she wants a paper bag and I don’t know the code and I don’t have the code here,” shoves papers, “I have to scan all her stuff and I don’t even care, I just am trying to make a living here and I have to charge for paper bags and what is the meaning of life anyway, but to be miserable, forced to charge for a paper bag and never really knowing the correct code.”
Or, you know, I could be reading into things…just a teeny bit.
We concluded our transaction and I smiled and said “thank you.” She looked at me like I was a developmentally latent child, and I walked away, a few Czech Crowns lighter, a bag of chips water and cookies in hand, and a story that felt like it needed to be told.
Tomorrow brings the most intense day of meetings, the whole reason my employer sent me to Prague. Once that is concluded, I can hardly wait to finally explore more of this beautiful city and learn more about the people and places of Czechia. I can’t wait!
The Google translate app (using the camera, a very cool feature) tells me that this grocery bag says (roughly) “With 25 years, from us you take away freshness and quality.” You can see how the last word really could be the word “quality.” But beware of thinking you know something now, because you certainly do not. Your Czech is of no kvalitu.
Photo ©2016 Karen Fayeth, taken with an iPhone, the Camera+ app, amusement and jet lag. Subject to the Creative Commons license in the right column of this page.