Monthly Archives: September 2009

From xenophobia to freezophobia: will I survive the Czech winter?

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panalak snow

After tackling the serious topic of the Czechs and racism, I thought I’d move onto more neutral territory: the weather.

Today it is gloriously sunny in Prague. There has been a distinct lack of cold or rain despite the fact that we’re nearing the end of September; my recent visitors from England first words when I went to pick them up from the metro were, ‘You didn’t warn us it would be this warm!’

Of course, I should be grateful for this late burst of sunshine but instead I can’t stop thinking about the cold days to come. It’s been six months since I made the move to Czechland and so far, things are going well. I haven’t felt particularly homesick and I think I’m managing to settle in reasonably well. However, I’ve never experienced Prague in winter, not even as a visitor. In fact, I’ve never been anywhere in my life where the temperature gets lower than minus two or three and I’m worried that the Czech winter could be the thing that sends me back on the next Easyjet flight home for good.

Winters in England are grey and miserable. There’s rain and mist and cold and ice and sometimes even snow. When the snow does appear, as I was explaining to the amusement of my students recently, everything stops: schools close, trains are cancelled and most people stay at home. Last year, the three or four centimetres of snow stopped London’s buses from running, a feat even Adolf Hitler couldn’t manage during the Blitz.

It never gets to minus 10C though. I’m so anxious about the approaching winter that I’ve already begun buying huge thick wool cardigans even though it’s so warm now that I’m sweating when I try them on. I don’t care. I must be prepared. When I imagine what winter will be like in Prague, I keep thinking about a film about Napoleon where he’s sitting in the Winter Palace in a deserted Moscow covered in a thick carpet of snow with his army in ruins defeated by a freezing winter. Now I am aware that Prague and Moscow have different climates but this is the nightmare scenario I have in my head that makes me shop for sweaters in the blazing sunshine.

I’ve also realised I need a new pair of winter boots. Czechman disagrees, even though the pair I currently own are two years old and have a hole in the front. When I complain that a replacement pair will set me back 3000Kc (I take my mother’s advice and only wear footwear made from leather) Czechman makes the following suggestion.

‘Can’t you just paint over it?’

Am I alone in thinking that this is taking thriftiness just a little bit too far?

Back to the winter. I’ll knit socks. I’ll buy thermal vests and longjohns and for the first time in my life, have a decent excuse to wear them. I’ll sit very close to the radiator when indoors, drink numerous cups of tea and pray this winter, unlike the last, is a mild one.

prague snow

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“I’m not normal, I’m a nigger”: Are the Czechs More Racist?

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***

I didn’t want to write about this. Really. I would have much preferred to break my rather long silence with a whimisical piece about trams or clocks or a funny picture of a man eating an unfeasibly large sausage. The problem is, people keep coming out with things that as a self-confessed Guardian-reading lefty liberal, I find, well, shocking. Let me give you a couple of examples and then we’ll see what you think.

Last week I as teaching ‘if clauses’ to one of my groups of business students. They range in age from early thirties to mid-fifties. I gave them halves of sentences which they were supposed to come up with their own creative endings too. Fellow TEFL teachers will be well-acquainted with the kind of thing I mean: ‘If I won the lottery…’, ‘If cars ran on milk…’ ‘If everyone had eyes in the backs of their heads…’. One of the sentences my students had to complete was the seemingly innocuous, ‘If everyone had to learn Chinese instead of English..’

“I’m afraid of the Chinese,’ announced Jitka.

“Why?’ I find myself obliged to inquire.

“They are like ‘mravenci’.”

Oh God. I know this Czech word. “You think the Chinese are like ants?”

“Yes. There are just so many of them. It makes me afraid.”

***

I had a one-to-one student at a multinational company. She was in her late fifties. Let’s call her Ludmilla. Like many students, Ludmilla liked to use her English class as a kind of pseudo-therapy session so I know all about her difficult elderly mother-in-law who is too infirm to live by herself but refuses to go into a home, her concerns about restructuring in the department which means she will probably be made redundant and her sadness that the revolution happened too late for her to really do something with her life. Every time the class ends I feel faintly depressed and resolve not to police my boundaries better in future, which I of course then fail to do.

Anyway, one day we wander off onto the topic of previous teachers Ludmilla has had.

“I had someone from South Africa once but she was not a nigger.”

I burst out laughing; I don’t think I’ve heard a real person – i.e not a rapper or someone in a Spike Lee film – say this word out loud for years.

“No, you can’t say that in English”.

She pauses, reformulating the sentence in her mind. “She was not a nigger. She was normal.”

“No, you can’t say that either,” I told her. “In fact, what you just said is even worse.”

It is perhaps worth mentioning at this point that Ludmilla greatly admires Brigitte Bardot for the work she did later in life to promote animal rights.

***

I taught a new group somewhere in the bowels of a huge glass corporate headquarters somewhere on the edge of Prague. We are doing icebreakers. One of the icebreakers involves the students finding out something the others in the group really object to. All of them are in their late twenties to early thirties.

“What does it mean, ‘object to’?”

“It’s when you really, really don’t like something. When you are against it.”

“Can I say, ‘I object to the rain?'”

“No, it must be stronger. For example, ‘I object to racism.”

Lenka looks at me, genuinely puzzled. “Why?”

***

I didn’t want to write about this topic as I really don’t want my Czech readers to think that I’m coming over here claiming that everyone in Britain lives in multiracial harmony and that no-one would ever utter a non-politicially correct word. I don’t. In case you doubt me, I refer you to my entry where I talk about my own father’s racist comments.

What I do find surprising is that there is more casual racism here in than in Britain: for example, when I mentioned I was going on holiday to Berlin to a group of students, one of them quipped that it was the second biggest Turkish city in the world, knowing he would get a laugh. In Britain, that kind of comment would be rewarded with an embarrased silence. It’s probably just a symptom of the fact that the country was closed off from the outside world for so long but I’m still irked by the fact that youngish people who have probably travelled and had that contact with outside can still make these kinds of comments. Anyway. Enough attempts at serious analysis. Next time expect photos of mushrooms and statues and mannequins.

I look forward to your comments. I have a feeling they’ll be plenty.

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