Monthly Archives: August 2009

English Politeness vs Czech Honesty or hi-how-are-you-i’m-fine-thanks-how-are-you

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jak se mas


How are you?

I know I’m asking but don’t go assuming that means I’m actually the least bit interested in the response. Apparently that’s because I’m English and for us, asking that innocuous question is just a way of clearing our throats. Often we don’t even bother to provide an answer before blurting out the same question parrot fashion. The French make things more convenient from this point of view; when you are asked ‘ça va?’ a simple ‘ça va’ will suffice in reply.

The Czechs do things differently. If someone bothers to go to the trouble of asking how you are, it is okay to assume they are interested in the response. You are allowed to say, “I’m feeling pretty shit actually” or go off on one about your bad boss, hair day or divorce. “Not great” is an acceptable answer here. In England, only “I’m fine” will do.

The linguists have a term for what we English do. It’s called phatic communication: language acts which have very little meaning or purpose other than to avoid silence. Perhaps the reason the Czechs I’ve spoken to about the ‘how are you?’ issue are confused about English ‘how-are-you-ing’ is that they misunderstand the true meaning of the standard response ‘I’m fine’. In fact, saying you’re fine doesn’t signify all that much, just that nothing terrible happened to you or your nearest and dearest that particular day, that you are alive, in reasonable health and not anticipating any imminent catastrophe. That’s all. You’re ok.

If you are feeling shitty and you’re speaking to someone English, my advice would be to keep a lid on it. Whatever you’re heard about the infiltration of U.S therapy culture, we still consider emotional incontinence bad manners. I only asked how you were, so don’t go spilling your guts everywhere: I don’t want to be subjected to a fifteen minute monologue.

I’m being deliberately provocative of course and I anticipate that you will agree or disagree with me as usual in the space provided.

I’m fine by the way. Really. Apart from having my mobile stolen on the 22 tram. No camera phone means no nice new pictures of bridges and mannequins and men eating sausages to put on my blog. But of course, I shouldn’t be telling you that as I’m sure you’re just asking out of politeness.


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Getting the Best Out of Prague: Don’t bother with Starbucks, Just Look Up

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pics may 2009 digital camera 023

I’ve been living in Prague for around four months now.  I like it here.  My life is falling into a routine which is good because it helps me to feel more comfortable and settled but bad because I am in danger of losing the magic of being in a new place.

In ‘Talking it Over’, a novel by Julian Barnes, Stuart knows that he is in love because his walk to work is mysteriously transformed.  He starts noticing things, little details – decorations on buildings, a plaque commemorating a Zepplin raid – that he had somehow previously managed to overlook for years.  Things are looking up for him: that makes him look up, literally.

I try to do the same as much as possible here in Prague.  The results are rewarding.  Every building seems to have its own little appealing quirk whether its a pretty mosaic mural in an Art-Nouveau style, a muscle-bound Greek god hoisting up a windowledge on his huge shoulders or a frieze of the great proletariat engaging in some industrious activity.

I was standing outside Starbucks on Wencelsas Square waiting for someone. Just in case you think I’m being all spoilt and western again, I’d just like to make it clear that we were just using it as a rendez-vous point –  even I think 90Kc is steep for a vanilla moccafrotthacappolatte.

A little bored, I craned my head back and had a good look up at the building on the corner.

Aug 2009 phone pics 026

Look at these queer jade faces: they look as though they could have been stolen from an Aztec temple or mystical totem pole.  Wander around the corner into Stepanska and look even further up (the zoom on my camera wouldn’t reach that far) and you’ll be rewarded by seeing a row of lions’ heads with golden teeth jutting out from the wall.  Seeing them gets me thinking.  Who put them there?  Why lions?  Thinking in this way is good: it means I’m engaging with my surroundings not just sleepwalking along in a routine-induced daze.

If you’re scared of getting lost, walking out in front of a car or bumping into people, then you can engage in active noticing more safely from the window of a tram.  Try jumping on the 9 at Jindrisska.  Fight your way to a seat – not the ones for invalids by the doors as you’ll soon have to leap up again for a senior citizen or someone on crutches.  However much you love people-watching,  ignore the people inside the tram, tilt your head back and look out of the window.  Don’t move until you get to Andel.

Now experiment.  Try other tram routes.  Stare up to examine the buildings around you while you’re waiting for the bus or tram in the first place.  You could even try taking things a step further.  Disappear down side streets just to see what’s there.  I know you know this already but sometimes it’s easy to forget.   You might find something worth seeing or you might end up nowhere.  Don’t worry.  We know the world isn’t flat: there’s no risk of falling off the edge into a void.  Except here of course.

island and roztyly pics 032


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In praise of Czech thrift: five ways to save during the credit crunch

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Canteen food, Czech style, complete with meat, dumplings and a thick sauce.

Canteen food, Czech style, complete with meat, dumplings and a thick sauce.

Thanks a lot for all your comments to my last post on the issue of spoilt and Western behaviour.  Rather than trying to reply to them all, I thought it would be easier to write a new post.

Just in case I didn’t make myself clear, I don’t think Czech thriftiness is a bad thing.   Far from it.  As one of you already said, what’s so impressive about the way Czechs save money is that they manage to do it so instinctively.  It is rare that Czechman would forget to prepare an adequate amount of sandwiches and other provisions to take along with us on the train or plane and why not: they’re cheaper, tasier and being wrapped up in tissue paper, better for the environment too.  However, what I do find funny (in both senses of the word) is that now I’m in Czechland the way I handle money marks me out as prolifigate while in British terms I’m considered to be what is euphemistically termed ‘careful’ (i.e a bit of a skinflint) .  

You should have my sister’s reaction when I made her have lunch in St Barts Hospital canteen (cost £2.50) rather than splashing out on poncey-nouveau-fusion-grub at a restaurant  (potential cost £10+). 

‘I come here sometimes with Czechman,’ I explained by way of justification.   

‘You deserve each other,’ she replied, looking up from her burger and chips with a contemptuous look.

Anyway, in the interest of balance and for the benefit of my sister, here are some valuable tips in the art of financial management I have learned from the Czechs.  None of them are going to make you rich overnight but hey, there’s a credit crunch on so every penny (or crown) counts… 

1) Grow your own.  Not a practical option for city-dwellers but this is something the Czechs excel at.  A weekend with Czechman’s family always means returning back to Prague with a sack of potatoes big enough to see us through a nuclear winter. I guess since they knocked down the Berlin Wall there’s less chance of that actually being necessary.

2) It is possible to make two perfectly good mugs of tea with just one teabag.  I was shocked when Czechman first attempted this but provided you avoid the horrible Lipton rubbish and stick to the Tesco Red Label builders kind, the results are perfectly drinkable.

3) When buying for any Czechs in your life, remember that inexpensive but thoughtful gifts will be probably be more appreciated than they would in the West.  For example, one Christmas when I was particularly short of money I managed to buy a copy of the Independent newspaper from 1989 featuring the Velvet Revolution on the front page.  It only cost me £3 including postage but he loved it.  Job done.

4) It is also possible to knit a bathmat out of old rags.  There’s nothing Czech about this but I think it’s the strangest thing I’ve ever done to save money. Czechman was very impressed by my ingenuity though.

5) The main lesson to be learnt from the Czechsters is this: you don’t need to spend a fortune to have a good time.  During my long weekend at Czechman’s brother-in-law’s family cottage thanks to some clever budgeting we spent the grand total of 180Kc (£6) on food each.  This covered all our meals for three days.  Yes, we did eat some rather suspect pink luncheon meat but we didn’t resort to boiling any rabbits’ skulls or consuming any offal. 

My next post will steer cleer of matters financial and will not include a list.  Instead I’ll be writing about another Czech cultural institution: the summer film festival…



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