Changing old Czech stereotypes
On a trip to the supermarket, my eight-year-old son decided to bring along his own money to buy something for himself. He selected radishes, a package of sushi and breath mints. At the cashier’s, I paid for my groceries while Oliver lined up his purchases. All of a sudden, his face went white. He said he’d lost 100 CZK. I started to look for the money on the ground around us. Almost in tears, Oliver told me it didn’t matter; he didn’t want to look for the money. He’d pay with what he had left.
I figured the missing money was close by, so I asked the cashier if I could walk back through the line. She nodded. As I walked through the line, the customers behind us, a mother with a son about Oliver’s age, motioned with their hands in a “don’t look at us” manner. A moment later I found the crumpled bill in the bottom of our shopping basket. Another basket had been placed on top, so it hadn’t been noticed. Exuberant, I grinned at Oliver, the cashier smiled at me and the woman and her son stared ahead as if the incident had not happened.
Oliver began to cry on our way to the car. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me that he didn’t want to live in the Czech Republic anymore. He wanted to live in America. The people are nicer in America, he said. I asked Oliver to explain. Oliver said that the boy and his mother had given Oliver a mean stare. It made him feel nervous. That was why he hadn’t wanted to take the time to look for his money. He told me that that had never happened to him in America.
He listed other reasons why America was better for him: 1) His Grana and Opa lived there and so did his cousins. 2) It looked nicer in America than in the Czech Republic. 3) He didn’t see drunk people in America like he did here.
It’s not the first time I’ve had the conversation with my children about why we live in the Czech Republic and not in America. For the boys this is the only home they’ve ever known. Although they seem happy and settled here, they are often asking why we don’t live in the same town as my parents and my brother. When I try to explain, I give them the practical and financial reasons that prevent us from making such a move. I don’t tell them that there’s another less tangible side to the story.
Running across apathy or what I perceived as grumpiness used to unnerve me. After years living here, however, the gruff exterior of many Czechs has become familiar to me. Like Oliver, I’m sensitive when I think everyone’s staring at me for saying or doing something a bit out of the range of what’s expected, but I’ve gotten used to it. Maybe I’ve grown a second skin, or maybe it’s because over the years I’ve spoken to enough Czechs, my husband included, who share my feelings or feel even stronger than I do.
While the stereotype of the grumpy Czech does exist, there is evidence to suggest that times are changing. When I speak Czech in a social situation, it’s less likely that people won’t understand me, and more likely that they’ll offer to speak English back to me, especially the younger generation. Czechs are louder on the street and on public transportation than when I arrived nearly 15 years ago. Communication in general seems more open and less guarded than when I arrived in the early 2000s, but again, it could be because I’ve lived here long enough to look past the exterior stereotype.
My life is overshadowed by the examples of honesty, kindness and generosity I’ve encountered while living here. I know that when a Czech friend pays me a compliment, she genuinely means it. I also know that if I need help, there are friends and strangers who will lend a hand, as long as I am willing to ask them. I could write pages of examples breaking the stereotype, but if you’ve lived here, you must have your own.
I tried to explain to Oliver that the boy in the check-out line was probably curious about Oliver buying things on his own (especially such odd ones), and that my non-native spoken Czech added to the strangeness of the situation. I told Oliver that I also wished we lived closer to my parents and my nephews, but that the nervousness he’d felt in the situation could have happened to him anywhere.
I have spent some time thinking about how we feel in a place affects our overall life happiness. I came to the Czech Republic years ago because I was enchanted by what this country offered visually and culturally that I couldn’t find in America – a land of historic castles, family life that revolved around outdoor activities, the ritual of eating Sunday lunch at babička’s. Prague drew me in with her mixture of old and new, her harshness and her mystique. I stayed because I fell in love. I returned because my Czech husband and I believed that we had more advantages for work and a chance for a better family life here than in the US.
Life in the Czech Republic isn’t for everyone. I’ve got a friend who thought she’d moved to Prague for the rest of her life, only to realize after a few years of living here, that she didn’t like the grey weather and what she described as the difficulty adapting to life as a non-Czech speaker. She decided to move to a small Italian city. Recent Facebook posts and pictures highlight her satisfaction at finding a place that has invited her with open arms.
My husband reminds me that I don’t have a right to complain, unless I’m willing to do something to change the situation. My mother’s recommendation, “kill apathy with kindness,” is along the same line.
Face to face interactions are a part of the minutiae of each day. How we enter and exit the metro or tram, how we check out in the supermarket, how our voice sounds when we answer the telephone, and a slew of other verbal and non-verbal body language are all factors that signal to the world what we expect from it and how we’d like to be treated.
Like Oliver, I would prefer to be greeted by a smile than a frown or a grumpy stare. If so, I realize that it’s up to me to take the initiative and to teach my children to do the same. I told Oliver to forget about the boy and remember how the cashier had smiled back at us, pleased that we’d found the money.
I think it doesn’t matter as much where we live, but how we live. The situation may look brighter elsewhere, but it’s important to remember that someone else is likely wishing he were wearing your shoes.
As I’ve learned, it’s a lot easier to receive a smile, if you smile first.