My experience of the Czechs and Prague after five years as an expat.
(First published in Feb 2019)
I arrived in Prague in late 2013 to pursue a life as an ESL teacher and to escape a humdrum existence in the UK, and I’m sure glad I did. The city was so darn great I stayed for over five years.
Here, I reflect upon what I made of Prague society and its foibles I had to negotiate in order to survive then thrive.
The Czech Republic
First of all, it is not ‘Czechia’, let’s clear that up straight away.
A name concocted by the Western hemisphere, and used by Google Map last time I checked, yet rejected by most Czechs themselves.
The idea was to give brand Czech Republic a new name that rolls off the tongue, and, indeed, it does. If you have ‘Slovakia’ why not ‘Czechia’? It might also be nice to have a noun on the front of the Czech Football strips instead of ‘Czeska’ — the equivalent to having ‘English’ written on the front instead of ‘England’.
But, I believe, there was some controversy in giving the state a new name that, in Czech language terms, only actually refers to Bohemia (the equivalent of England) which the people of Moravia (Scotland) objected to.
Besides, ‘Czechia’ sounds dangerously close to ‘Chechnya’ and you can only imagine the damage to Czech pride and prestige if foreign dignitaries, English stag parties, et al left ‘Prague’ believing some piss like liquid to be Czech beer and that they still spoke Russian there (No offense, Chechens!).
Prague. I arrived there on October the 14th, I think, in 2013 to complete a short, very intense teaching course before being let free on the city to preach from ‘the book’ (English File, 3rd Edition, usually) and keep the wolves at bay in the process.
Prague’s reputation as one of the World’s top city breaks is well established. A city of over a million souls, it sits in the heart of Bohemia with the grand Vltava coursing through its heart in turn.
The city is packed with Renaissance, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau-I-don’t-know-quite-what architecture. Much of it crumbling, though no less charming because of it. Particularly gorgeous examples of Austro Hungarian architecture are found in Mala Strana which sits at the foot of Prague Castle, the largest castle complex in the world.
I won’t add to the volumes of tourist literature that already exist except to say that places I always liked was Vinohrady, off the tourist center and Prague’s hipster central along with all the usual accoutrements one has come to expect from these parts of any popular city (nice park, cafes bars and farmers markets with good food and pretentious prices, etc).
Letna park and its Metronome from where one can get the best views of the city.
Zizkov Ridge with its giant statue of Jan Žižka on a steed (more great views) and Riegrovy Sady Hill where you can watch the sunset (although do put down your smartphone for all of 10 minutes and just take it in).
Further afield, travel is cheap and Kutna Hora with its human bone church, complete with a chandelier made out of bones, is worth a visit.
Cesky Krumlov is a jewel of the Czech tourist board’s, though glutted with throngs of camera wielding tourists who click away like sheep. (presumably prepping their friends and loved ones for mammoth 72 hour, 15,246 picture holiday photo presentations once they get home, those poor people!)
For me though, my favourite place out of Prague was Swiss Bohemia, a national park straddling the Czech/German border.
From Hřensko you really must follow the ‘red’ circular route that basically passes through Pravčická Brána, Europe’s largest sandstone archway, with an old pub built alongside from where you can enjoy a great panoramic view with a beer (and with possibly one of the greatest pub views in Europe?). It then comes back down to a halfway restaurant for a fine lunch and then the route takes you down into a steep gorge where you can catch a Viennese style boat along a section of its rocky rushing river, and then back to Hřensko.
The route is actually 9.5 miles but it doesn’t feel it, it’s such a comfortable route (I quoted my Dad 4 miles). You’re guaranteed not to regret it!
What about Czechs themselves? a much more interesting topic for me. A culturally homogeneous society of over 10 million. Their gene pool is basically 2/3rds Slavic and 1/3rd Germanic and its largest ‘immigrant’ peoples are Vietnamese, (sole proprietors of the country’s potravinys (cornershops)) Ukrainians as well as some Roma.
They are tall people. Their women particularly so, rising to 5 centimeters taller on average than British women. They are also big girls; not fat, just big framed… and gorgeous. I thought French women were pretty, being the stylish people they are but Czech girls are another level up altogether, being Slavic, they are often regarded as the most beautiful in the world. What is more, they’re modest about it too whereas all too often in the UK, where beauty has been sexualised by its consumer culture, with too much make-up, etc.
Before I arrived, the stereotypes of Czechs I knew of were that, firstly, their Slavic name tells you they are Eastern European, though they are actually Central European and they appreciate the distinction.
I also imagined what I had seen in Poles I had met, with their seeming lack of manners, and serious, Slavic mannerisms and expected the same from Pragians (or Pragites?) I think I also remember hearing that the service was pretty unfriendly and that they never smiled, oh, and that they would do stuff like offer you complimentary bread to your food order then add it to your bill, the sneaks.
The service was actually pretty friendly in my experience (I think it had improved quickly in the internet age) Yes, it could be pretty apathetic, and sometimes you felt they thought they were doing you a favour by letting you eat in their restaurants and this is a legacy from their communist era (ended in 1991 in the Velvet Revolution) where restaurants were state-owned and customers needed proprietors more than the other way around. But the stereotype is redundant; out of all the times I used various services, I can only remember 2 or 3 bad experiences in 5 years.
Some guy did try that trick with the complimentary bread, and got nowhere and I remember the time a waitress who brought me my food in a quiet pub, and when I asked for a little tartar sauce, she tutted and scorned like I had had a change of mind and now wanted a completely different dish altogether. She still got a tip for some reason.
And then there was that memorable day with the Unicredit Bank account manager…
Her name was Valeria. I had dealt with her a couple times before, her manner was a little unprofessional but I’d had no complaints. Then one day, long story short, I needed to get my online password changed at the bank. I didn’t have a smartphone but I was based just 10 minutes around the corner. So I went in and got her to type in the new number on their records, then returned to my computer to try logging in… no luck. I went back to her a second time to try again, came back… still not working.
I’d been perfectly polite up till now and, upon seeing her again, before I’d even opened my mouth… “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE???!” she shouted, palms turned up in exasperation. “I AM ON MY LUNCHBREAK!” This, coming from a bank employee. Taken aback, explained I still couldn’t login. ‘You forgot to do something-or-other!’ She was right on that point, so, with the wind taken out of my sails, I stormed off.
10 minutes later, she had realised she had overstepped the mark and called me to do some damage control, but it was too late and, for the first time ever, I made a formal complaint.
I mean, coming from a bank clerk, for goodness sake! But overall, perfectly good service. It is true they don’t smile much however and I remember often seeing company fun day out photos in my students’ places of work where half the people in them looked like they’d been blackmailed into attending.
But this only reveals one of their most salient qualities — Sincerity. I mean, are they unsmiling or is it us Westerners oversmiling? Of course, there are plenty of times when we’re genuinely happy and we smile but there’s also a whole lot of other more banal interactions we’re indifferent about yet we also smile.
Why? because our consumerist culture has fed in customer service mannerisms into everyday life — I do it myself by greeting my students, or even distant relatives, like a salesman. But Czechs don’t have this legacy, so for them, if they feel regular about something, you know about it.
It is the same with when I used to greet them at the start of a lesson, ‘Hi, you alright?’ I expect the response ‘Yeah, fine’ — it’s effectively saying hello twice; yet for Czechs, it is a sincere question: ‘You, alright?’ ‘No, not really, I’m having some problems with bank right now and maybe wife will leave soon.’
This could also mean some innocuously sounding questions, that were part of an ESL lesson plan, could quickly cause an awkward moment: (manager in the same class as team members)
Q: ‘What are the qualities of a good boss?’
Of course, who wants fakeness? I personally liked knowing where I stood with them.
What else? For anyone who feels the Western, consumer-driven pop culture is a bit sickly these days, Czech lifestyles feel refreshingly wholesome by comparison. Whereas for us Brits and Yanks, shopping generally takes up a big part of our leisure time.
It might surprise you to know that on the weekends, according to one of my more qualified students (a senior spokesman for the Ministry of Transport), over 30 percent of Pragians get into their cars and head to the quaint countryside or nearby mountains and spend their weekends in their own cottages; gardening, cycling around or even mushroom picking!
For me, this is strange; in Britain, people who live in the city generally stay in the city and weekend cottages are the preserve of our professional classes. But for Czechs, cottages are much more available for people of much more modest incomes and this is a legacy of the Communist era when foreign travel was much restricted and the landowning class had had their lands confiscated.
The positive side of this was that cottages became widely available for them and Czechs really do enjoy the simple pleasures of their weekend cottages, leaving city neighbourhoods quite deserted in places. I honestly loved the idea, I mean, It wouldn’t be my cup of tea but I thought it was very endearing.
On the other hand, they’re very liberal about drugs and turn a blind eye to smoking weed in public. I remember seeing a pot plant in plain view on someone’s window ledge one summer, bars were you could buy weed with a discreet request, and a pub I used to frequent where, before the smoking ban started, you’d go there in the evenings, sit down in a back room and latch onto a merry-go-round of joint toking. It was great at times for a while though it got too much. How many people on their death beds lament how they didn’t take enough drugs in their lives? Not many, I suspect.
And then there is the beer. They easily drink the most beer per head in the world. For them, it’s only half-jokingly called a soft drink or ‘liquid bread’ (and they love bread rolls). Now in Britain, if you saw a guy at 7 in the morning at a tram stop on a regular workday sipping a beer, you might guess he was an alcoholic; maybe his child had died that week, or something, and he was going off the rails, but not in Prague. This sight isn’t a rare one and it took me a while to get used to it.
You can get a half litre bottle for very cheap and plenty of people have a beer every night. You can see little old ladies having a chinwag over a beer or city workers having one for lunch, it is very casual for them. It was nice at times, especially in Summer but, again, got too much after five years. Plus you go to a bar and the waitresses are offering you another before you’ve even finished your current one. It’s like I don’t know, give me a chance to finish this then I’ll decide!
They have a lot of bureaucracy, but show a lot of disregard for it at the same time.
There was the time I was on the underground and I’d left my metro pass in another pair of trousers and was caught empty-handed by a ticket inspector. Ouch, I thought, this is going to hurt. It was Ok, they were just going to write me a ticket where I’d have to show my monthly pass at an office and pay a 50czk (£1.50) fine, but they needed to see my ID. I didn’t have one. (in Britain we don’t need them, and I’d never got into the habit of carrying one) So they said I had to go to a police station with them. This was getting serious now, I was breaking the law with no I.D. and no metro ticket on me. We got to the station and I was beginning to worry. I told them my details; they checked their database. Maybe they’ll put me in the cells for a while until they find out who I am? But after a few minutes of checking their files, it seems they couldn’t find anything so they just let me go.
Weird, but I wasn’t exactly up in arms about it. It happened other times as well where schools could’ve fined me for missing deadlines for stuff but just didn’t.
And yet, their country seems well run; they currently have the lowest unemployment levels in the EU, and although they actually rank pretty highly in the corruption index, it isn’t so bad that it affects its well-run infrastructure, with a good healthcare system and, in Prague, a public transport system regarded as one of the best in Europe. In my home town in Britain, if the bus is only 10 minutes late, it’s a good start to the day, yet in Prague the trams, trains, etc were never that late. In Britain I remember once, I caught a bus home to my village. The company had hired a Polish driver who barely spoke English. We were on the 309 bus but he took the 310 route, stopping 10 miles short of my village and I had to hitchhike the rest of the way. This is the standard First Bus company had set themselves.
But in Prague, I was on a tram where there was a malfunction on the tracks or something. We had only been waiting a couple of minutes but the driver was out of his chair, pacing around the tram trying to solve the problem; he cared about being late. Five minutes later a transport manager pulled up in a car and they quickly fixed it and we were away again.
Being culturally homogeneous, they are not very cosmopolitan and can sound downright racist at times, but this is merely due to an overall freedom from political correctness in their culture and also shows itself in their somewhat backward attitudes to gender roles where many still believe a woman’s place is in the kitchen.
On the other hand, this means they’ve retained the sort of social cohesion that many in the UK pine for. Citizenship levels are high there. You see it in their metro system where the station platforms don’t have electronic gates — people are trusted to be honest. Or you might get some chavy thug looking teenagers on a tram, but they’ll give up their seats for an old person without hesitating. I’m not saying British society is totally different but I was certainly impressed.
I used to live around the corner from Bohemians 1905, a Czech ‘Premier League’ football club with a humble stadium but one of the most raucous fan bases in the league.
One night me and my Liverpool fan flatmate thought we’d go and watch them host the mighty Sparta Prague (Czech Rep’s Man U) and the Bohemians’ biggest game of the season, always a sell out. We didn’t have tickets but I thought we could still get in, however. We went to the front gate; no tickets. So we went round to a side gate, showed a security guard we had the money (£4.50 per ticket), he pointed to a guy waiting on the inside of the gate for just such a moment with two valid tickets and did not add a single crown to the price. Great! We got in, sat down and watched a pretty good 2–2 draw.
It’s little things like this I loved there; just not being so fixated with technocracy like we Brits are.
They seem to be at this optimum point where they are enjoying Capitalism and ‘Democracy’ and the freedoms which come with it yet they haven’t been saturated by the toxic amoral culture and values that we in Britain and, probably, America are used to.
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I moved to Prague to escape the soulless housing estate where my mum lived and job in either telesales or admin. Prague was good in so many ways; you take its beauty for granted and forget how lucky you are to live comfortably there.
The thing about being an expat who can’t or (mostly) won’t learn the local lingo, is that you easily get stuck in this social bubble where, yes, there are lots of English speakers but they come and go and unless you are an extrovert, it’s hard to enjoy deep friendships and relationships.
As the years went by, I felt ever lonelier and more bored. I increasingly turned to escapism in drink and weed until I realised that the highlight of my week was nothing more than watching football with my Spurs fan and good buddy, Drew.
I’ll remember fondly Bar 7 and Tommy, its connoisseur in hospitality, (Drop in and you won’t be a stranger.) together with the bar’s worldly, lovable rogue and a man so legendary, he has his own FB page of memorable quotes, ‘Aussie Chris’. (My favourite one, in reference to an ex of his: “…she had a Baywatch body and a Crimewatch face”) Plus a few other characters.
My time there was good and the memories I have are mostly good so, so long Ahoj Praha!