Preface by Terje B. Englund
re-published with permission
I had been living in Prague for half a year when a colleague invited me to visit him and his family. Eager to make the impression that I was perfectly used to visiting Czech homes, I turned up with flowers for my friend´s wife and presents for each of his four children. So, when I saw the impressive collection of boots that were neatly lined up outside the doorstep, I immediately started to untie my muddy sneakers.
“Oh no, please don´t take your shoes off!” the entire family yelled in unison.
Not knowing that many Czechs on some specific occasions say one thing while they actually mean something totally different (see: Communication), I marched my boots across the wall-to-wall-carpet with a blissful grin. Notwithstanding the flowers and the presents I brought, the visit turned out to be a disaster, and my colleague got a clear order from his wife never to invite another Ψ▼ξΔ! foreigner to their home.
Some months later, I was sitting in a hospoda with a pimpled dentist from Sweden and an astonishingly beautiful and succulent brunette (I know, you might think it sounds chauvinistic to praise a woman´s looks so ostentatiously, but if you intend to stay for a while among Czechs without suffering too many nervous breakdowns, just get used to this sexism. And besides that – it´s all true!). Since she was studying literature, I decided to try to charm her with my “thorough” knowledge of the writer Milan Kundera.
“His novels certainly represent a highlight in modern European literature,” I babbled shamelessly. It was the most stupid thing I could have said. Not because I actually hadn´t read more than one of Kundera´s novels, but because I didn´t have the faintest idea that 99.5 percent of Czech intellectuals regard it as a matter of honour to despise the now-French-writing novelist. When I finally learned my lesson, the beauty was already married to the red-faced Swede.
Amazingly enough, there are foreigners who have committed even bigger blunders than I have. Such as the East-Asian businessman who had just taken up the position of managing director at a Czech company. The first day in the new job, he was offered some knedlíks – the dumplings that represent the zenith of Czech cuisine – at a welcome dinner arranged by his new colleagues. Convinced that it was a small refreshing towel, the poor fellow started rubbing his face with a dumpling. Needless to say, he had a hard time regaining his employees´ respect after that performance
Human consideration prevents me from mentioning even more juicy examples of foreigners making complete fools of themselves simply because they don´t understand the Czechs and their culture or don´t know the historic background and the main political events that have shaped their prevailing world-view.
This manual is a modest attempt to meet such a demand, and also to warn non-Czechs about numerous pitfalls that threaten them. Some of you will probably object that it is too negativistic and critical, but believe me, this is peanuts compared to the flagellation most Czechs every day practice both on themselves, and to others. Their historical fate as a small nation in the middle of Europe, which for more than a millennium has been subjected to enormous political pressure from its surroundings, has rendered most Czechs rather cynical and often also disillusioned. Instead of asking how this or that catastrophe could ever happen, a Czech will ask instead why it hasn´t happened far more often.
My immediate motive is to help fellow foreigners, be they tourists or longer-term residents, to avoid some of the numerous blunders I have committed. In addition, I hope to share my affinity for a culture and a nation that spans the amusing and the ludicrous, the ingenious and the infantile, the modest and the megalomaniac, the open-minded and the completely xenophobic, with a reach that appears to be broader than in most other European countries.
Terje B. Englund,
Prague, August 2004