Czech Culture & Adaptation Multicultural Family

Terms of endearment, Czech style

February 11, 2011
branch with a roped heart knotted around it

When do Czechs say “I love you”?

From the Charles Bridge, Prague’s narrow cobblestone streets and the views of the castle can lend a perfect backdrop for a budding romance. The city is one of the top honeymoon spots in Europe, and I know from experience how easy it is to fall in love in Prague. Yet falling in love and maintaining a multicultural marriage are indeed different.

Once our initial head-over-heels affair settled into an enduring (but slightly less passionate) love, my husband and I were left to sort out the influence of our native cultures and our individual approaches to “love.” I remember spending our first Valentine’s Day watching a ticking clock in our apartment while Radek and a bunch of Czech friends played a day-long scavenger-hunt. I hadn’t been invited. Missing the game didn’t bother me, since Radek had made reservations for us to try a new restaurant that evening. However, when evening drew on and Radek kept sending me text messages that the game was running late and he couldn’t get away, I began to wonder if he wasn’t trying to send me not-too-subtle messages about the future of our relationship. Luckily, he arrived, with apologies, and in time to make it to the restaurant. My night was salvaged.

Although I had felt slighted at the time, as our relationship deepened I realized two things. One of Radek’s best qualities is his loyalty; he wasn’t about to ruin his team’s chances of winning by cutting out of the game early. Furthermore, Valentine’s Day didn’t hold any sentimental attachment for him. He regretted keeping me waiting as he hates being late, but the significance of the tradition was lost on him. Although Valentine’s Day can be quite commercial, I still appreciate the sentiment. These days we celebrate it with flowers and exchanging homemade cards with our children.

While it’s common for English speakers (and perhaps particularly Americans) to use the expression “I love you” regularly in conversation with a loved one, it’s quite rare to hear the Czech equivalent, miluji tě thrown around. Nor are the Czechs as obsessed with labeling clothing, toys and paraphernalia with the Czech version of the gimmicky “I heart you” phrase that has long been popular in English-speaking countries. Yet, I have seen a spattering of Valentine’s Day commercial products, like heart-shaped baking tins, heart sprinkles and greeting cards, displayed in shopping centers in recent years.

Although young Czechs flaunt the physicality of their romance with frequent PDA (public displays of affection) on park benches, in café booths and at shopping centers, one of the most outward demonstrations of endearment that I know from my own culture, the spoken phrase, “I love you,” takes a dim second place to the more physical side of Czech affection. Noting the instances in which Czechs say, “I love you,” as well as the times when they don’t, became an obsession of mine shortly after arriving in Prague. When a fellow English teacher claimed that Czechs don’t use the phrase at all, I began to wonder. Of course, he was wrong. However, together we noted some differences in usage that seemed to be express the cultural customs.

While the phrase miluji tě or more colloquially, miluju tě is used between two people in a romantic relationship, it isn’t the same expression a Czech would use to describe parental love or a platonic love. Instead, Czech parents use the expression, Mám tě rád/a, which word-for-word translates to “I have pleasure from you,” but in context carries the same weight as the English, “I love you,” when spoken from a parent to a child. The Czechs use a version of this expression to convey enjoyment/love of other activities, such as “Mám ráda plavání” (I like swimming). Depending on intonation and the addition of adverbs such as “moc” (very much/a lot), the phrase can express a range of feeling.

In addition having the different expressions for “I love you” in Czech, I also noticed the infrequency with which Czechs seem to utter either phrase. Talking with Czech friends confirmed my observations. Although they knew that their parents loved them, they never remembered being told it on a regular basis as a child. They also seemed to think it would have been weird if their parents were always saying, “I love you,” as they left the house for school or football practice. I didn’t ask how often they told their partners, but I never noticed it being called out the way I overhear, “I love you,” or “Love you,” being shouted casually as families and partners say their goodbyes in the US. When I confessed that my parents and I say it every time we end a phone conversation and that my parents said it to me before I went to sleep every night as a child and now I say it to my own children, they agreed it was a cultural difference. Of course, there are probably Czech families that are effusive with their verbal expressions of love, but on the average, Czechs seem to rate showing your love through actions higher than words alone.

I read a few online discussions on the subject of Czech expressions of “I love you,” and one commentator brought up the point that Czechs feel words such as milovat (to love) are so weighted that they tend to reserve them for very special occasions. He argued that if you hear miluju tě every day, it wouldn’t keep the magic that it would have if you only heard it once in your life. I understood his point, but I knew I’d never change my own habits of exchanging “I love you” regularly with my family. Later I went to find Radek and to ask him why I never hear him say, miluju tě. He quipped that while he used to say miluju tě quite often in his single days, he then fell in love with an American. Now he says, “I love you.”

It is true that while Radek and I speak Czech in a Czech group setting, when we are alone and having any kind of intimate conversation we almost always speak in English, with a few Czech expressions thrown in for good measure. It’s easier for me to express my feelings in English and Radek doesn’t seem to mind.

Over the years, my picturesque Prague romance has blossomed into a multicultural relationship that has room for the idiosyncrasies of both our cultures. The upside of not hearing “I love you” at every turn in the day means that when I do hear it, I know it’s heartfelt. On the other hand, our children don’t seem to mind expressing their love in either language. While they regularly say, “I love you,” to both of us, I’ve also heard Anna Lee cry out with pleasure Tati, já tě fakt miluju (Daddy, I really love you) whenever he’s done something that pleases her. I think we’re both holding our breath for the day she comes home and says she’s got a boyfriend.

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