EVERY CULTURE has special elements which the rest of the world might learn from. Here’s what The Czech Republic can teach us.
1. Magical beer
In the more traditional Czech “Hostinec” (guest-place), you don’t ask for beer, you receive a beer. Walk in, sit down, and almost without saying a word — a “thank you” is appreciated but not essential — a beer is magically set down in front of you. Drink the beer and your glass will be refilled until you call a halt. The bartender also puts down a piece of paper, which he or she marks tally-style. You have no choice of beers, it’s Pilsner or nothing, but everyone is drinking the same beer, from the same shaped glass, usually at the same speed. Note: In Prague, customers drink different beer from different shaped glasses.
2. Baby-talk for everyone
Like all Slavic languages, because there are diminutives for most words, the Czech language has many opportunities for sounding cute. In English, we settle for just a few diminutives, such as doggy, kitty, cutie. In Czech, the scope is much wider. For example, you can figure out exactly how much someone likes you by which version of your name they use. Katerina becomes — in increasing order of friendless — Katka, Káča, Kačenka. This linguistic practice also works with surnames — Senlac becomes Sedláček, Novák becomes Nováček.
It may not be obvious to a foreigner how having a cute word for apple (Jablíčko, rather than Jablko) is culturally important, but it becomes clear when you’ve lived in the country long enough. In practice, “cute” is a source of humor, warmth, and creativity, which gives grown Czech’s the chance to be children again — if only for a few seconds.
3. No shoes inside. Ever.
Czechs believe shoes are for outside. The outside is dirty, the inside is clean. As you stand outside a door, you’ll see a few (or many) shoes on the stoop. It is also rude to go barefoot, but your host will rescue you with a pair of sandals. It’s so sensible that I really wonder why anyone ever walked into a house with their shoes on —
what could possibly be gained by a dirty interior? And you can easily locate the biggest party in town — look for the house with the biggest pile of shoes outside the door.
4. Uvidíme and można
These words, literally “We will see,” and “Maybe,” both mean no. If asked to go somewhere you don’t want to go, by switching to the first-person plural (and in the future, no less) relieves you of responsibility for showing up. If you really don’t want to do something, put together a string of the terms: “no, uvidime, uvidime, no, mozna, mozna.” (“No” here means yes). This amps up the possibility that you aren’t going to come — but you can’t be blamed.
5. Do-it-yourself (because no one else will)
While it may not still be true in 20 years, with the current generation of Czech growing up, as seems to be everyone, on a diet of pure memes, for now, you can count on Czech people knowing how to do it. If you need something fixed, find a Czech man over 35 and he will do it for you, fast. If you ask him how he knows how to fix things, he will vaguely refer vaguely to his childhood, as though the process of just growing up was enough to supply him with necessary know-how.
Under Soviet rule, it was practically impossible to get anything new, so old things were treated with serious respect. When practice, doing it yourself saves money. Many people build houses themselves with a couple of mates. One family I stayed with had a photo album which showed the construction of their house in detail — the whole family, as well as the older folks, had helped.
When the Czech’s held a TV competition to determine who was ‘The Greatest Czech,’ the first round was won by a Czech who didn’t exist — Jára Cimrman. Jára Cimrman, the fictional creation of a group of Czech actors in the 1960s, was himself famous for non-achievement. “He” came up with a multitude of minor corrections to famous inventions, as in advising Mendeleev, the creator of the periodic table, to rotate it 45 degrees.
The ‘Czech Grand Canyon’ is the official name of a disused lime quarry a short bus ride from Prague, and the national park is known as ‘Czech Switzerland.’ This ironic modesty and subtle questioning of the real nature of human achievement is a much-needed injection of humility into our era of ego.
7. Home-made yoghurt
One of the inventions Jára Cimrman is credited with — he wasn’t just a helping hand — is the invention of yoghurt. Czechs, especially outside of Prague, all know how to make yoghurt. Staying with a family in the countryside, and hearing that they were about to ‘make yoghurt,’ I expected some arcane formula, but it turns out that making yoghurt is so simple, it’s ridiculous people ever buy it. You don’t make yoghurt at all — yoghurt makes itself out of milk. All you need is a big iron pot — this creates the right temperate for milk to turn itself into yogurt. And you can thank Jára Cimrmam for your tasty, low-budget, satisfyingly ecological yoghurt.
8. Chatař and chlalupář
The ‘ř’ in both these words signifies something not possible to pronounce (described as like saying ‘r’, and ‘zh’ — simultaneously), but the prospect of being a chatař or chlalupář isn’t so threatening. A chatař is a person who has a chata; a chlalupář has a chlalupa. A chata is a small wooden cottage; a chlapu is a little bigger, usually made of a stone-wood combo. Multitudes of both exist, since under communism, ‘staycations’ — unlike travel abroad — didn’t come with a prison sentence attached.
The best thing is, you don’t need to buy either dwelling — you probably already have one. They’re typically passed down the generations and shared among siblings and relations. Your chata/chlalupa is where you go to escape from the city, not just for summer, but every weekend. It’s where your store your mushrooms and make your yoghurt. You might even be able to escape from your friends — many chata are beyond the reaches of Wi-Fi.
9. Bee therapy
For a couple of weeks last summer, I stayed on a Czech bee farm. I’ve always believed that bees are fundamentally terrifying, but after a while I was used to their friendly buzz, and was able to understand, more or less, the vaunted power of apitherapy (‘bee therapy’). Once you get used to being surrounded by bees, you start to feel a great calm. Bee therapy involves sleeping in a wooden shed next to the hives, having honey with everything, and using bee balms and other bee products. Cheap, meditative, and effective — where else do these three words ever come together? — you can get in touch with the Česká apiterapeutická společnost (Czech Apitherapy Society) or, more easily, just work on a Czech farm for a couple of weeks via WorkAway — they all have bees, and most likely you’ll be sleeping pretty close to them.
10. Na houby (mushroom-picking)
Only in The Czech Republic is mushroom-picking considered a national sport. Czech wisdom has it that, while all mushrooms are edible, some are only edible once. I believe that you have to succeed at mushroom-picking. I walked through a forest for five hours and I found one mushroom. A Czech expert is able to find enough mushrooms on a single day’s jaunt to be dried to last the year. You know that you’re in a Czech house when there are big glass jars, one for each mushroom type, dominating the kitchen shelves.
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