I remember the first time my host mother served me ovocné knedlíky — fluffy dumplings filled with fruit (usually berries, or plums), topped with melted butter, powdered sugar, and a side of sour cream. And then there is palačinky, their version of pancakes/crepes, which can be served savory but still taste sweet to me. These dishes are perfectly acceptable dinner options, and helped me not feel so ashamed at having a slice of cake for dinner occasionally.
Not barefoot, and not even socked feet — every member of my host family had their own set of slippers or a separate pair of “house shoes” that they changed into once they came indoors. It was a comfortable way for them to work around the house, but I was so used to wearing my shoes for hours at a time that this took a lot of getting used to. Czechs won’t have a problem asking you to remove your shoes, and might even have slippers for guests, but it’s something to keep in mind (keep a pair of socks with you if the idea of ‘community slippers’ freaks you out).
I had to steel myself sometimes when visiting the homes of friends, knowing that one or more of their family members might be scantily clad. Not in a sexy way, mind you, but there were fathers who had no issues sitting about the house in nothing but a tank top and underpants, and mothers who cooked breakfast in their slips, and little children running around naked, or just wearing t-shirts but no trousers. While I felt uncomfortable at first, I had to think about my own lifestyle — how often did I walk around in my underwear when no one was home? Like, all of the time. Czechs aren’t as obsessed with body image like Americans are.
Ordering a beer at a restaurant is a much cheaper option than ordering bottled water (some places won’t serve tap), which was both exciting and shocking for me, since I was used to buying beer only on special occasions back home. I became a beer drinker by default, and am happier because of it.
New legislation allows for restaurants and bars to allow for smoking indoors if they so choose. Despite the more touristy places cracking down, you’ll still find a majority of pubs are smokey and some even let you buy cigarettes from behind the counter. At first I was put off by these places, but smoking actually helped me become more social in Prague, especially when there was a tough language barrier. I don’t smoke anymore, but being able to do so in public places really helped me make new friends in a new city.
Pot laws are pretty relaxed in the Czech Republic. A cop might pretend to bust your balls about carrying weed, then prove how cool he is and ask you for a light. And you’re more likely to get fined for selling weed than smoking it, but again, it’s up to the discretion of the officer. Seeing a cop on the streets of Prague is a rare occurrence anyway, so I never really had an issue smoking weed in public.
It’s so easy for Americans to greet other Americans with, “Hi, how are you?” knowing we won’t actually receive a response other than, “Good, thanks.” But this same question in Prague provided me with more information than I wanted to know:
Tesco cashier: “Oh, you know, my cat died last night.”
Barista: “I am upset. My favorite sweater shrank in the wash, and I had to stand on the longest queue at the market this morning. Not only that, but they raised the price of milk without telling anyone, so now we have to change our prices as well, and…”
Best friend: “I’m not so good, I have diarrhea.”
I thought I was going to blend in European-style with my dark denim jeans, black sweaters and structured boots/jackets. Little did I know that lots of Czechs prefer the fashions of the 1990s, so I still stuck out as a tourist in many places. It was strange at first to see so many mullets, light-denim jeans, and flannel (this was before 90s fashion began to make a comeback). All of the bars and clubs played hits from the 90s, and some of my friends still had dial-up or cable modems. But the 90s were awesome, so if I was going to live in a time warp, at least the Czechs picked a good one.
Even though it’s considered “rude” to talk about religion in the USA, everyone does it anyway. And I hate that some of our most important political decisions are sometimes based on Christianity as well (you never hear a law passed based on a Jewish, Buddhist, or Muslim doctrine). But with over 60% Czech citizens considering themselves to be irreligious, I didn’t have to worry about explaining my own beliefs to my friends and family members. What I thought was also interesting was how people still went to church, or celebrated Hanukah, because they felt more spiritual or nostalgic, than obligated. It’s a really progressive way of thinking about modern religion.
Photo: Jirka Matousek