Written by Terje B. Englund
Republished with permission
If you see a photo from the most recent EU summit and wonder which of the politicians is the Czech representative, here´s a clue: go for the guy who has paired his business suit with sandals and white socks.
This is, of course, a slight exaggeration (and maybe also a bad joke), but the fact is that the Czechs, partly because of the 41 years of communist isolation (see: Ocean, Absence of), and partly because they have made such a fetish out of pohodlí (comfort) have developed a dress code with a few rather extravagant components.
Probably the most widespread and frequent of these extravagances is Czech men´s long-lasting love affair with the aforementioned sandals. As soon as you can sniff the vapour of spring in the air and the thermometer climbs to a few degrees above zero, practically any Czech male is capable of putting on sandals. And even more intriguing – the sandals are almost always combined with socks, preferably white.
A foreigner might argue that the weather is either so hot that you wear sandals on bare feet, or it´s so cold that you wear socks and normal shoes. But that´s not the Czech way of reasoning. The most die-hard sandal freaks will keep both sandals and socks on their feet nearly until Christmas, and for hordes of puzzled foreigners, the sandals have been elevated to a place alongside beer as the very icon of Czech culture.
It´s hard to give a satisfactory explanation of Czech sandal frenzy. Perhaps it has political reasons – just as the Iranian Ayatollahs urge men not to wear Western neckties, the Bolsheviks discreetly filled stores with sandals because they represented the proletarian antipode of capitalist patent-leather shoes. Or maybe it´s just an uncompromising war against foot sweat, although Czech men usually don´t seem to mind sweat from other parts of the body. In any case, a foreigner should be prepared for the fact that the average Czech man regards sandals as completely ordinary shoes and may wear them on practically any occasion.
A special division within the Czech sandal army is formed by the otužilci (literally “hardy fellows”). These are often young and always very tough men who have hardened themselves (or at least pretend they have) against cold weather, and therefore wear nothing more than sandals, shorts and a t-shirt all year round.
The roots of the otužilec tradition go back to the nineteenth century Sokol movement, which promoted the ancient ideals of a sound (and patriotic Czech) soul in a sound body, and it was wholeheartedly endorsed by the Bolsheviks, who regarded the otužilci as Czech followers of the crazy Russian tradition of ice bathing. In the 1970s and 1980s the movement found a very visible “face” in Frantisěk Venclovský, the first Czech swimmer to cross the English Channel. Notwithstanding all his toughening up, Venclovský unfortunately didn´t get to be very old, but his fellow otužilci are still walking around in the middle of winter dressed in bermudas without attracting the slightest attention.
As one might expect, Czech women are far more clothes-conscious than men, and many of them miraculously managed to be fashionable even during the super-dull communist era (see: Golden Hands). Yet local streets and squares still offer a view now rare in Western Europe: hordes of women mincing along dressed in miniskirts so short and ultra-tight that they might be confused with bikinis. And just as white socks are the obligatory accessories to men´s sandals, the mini-skirts are usually complemented with a half-transparent blouse, bleached hair, and black pumps.
“Aha! The Czech edition of Hustler has just held an audition nearby,” a confused foreigner might think. But that reaction is strongly determined by the Western perception of feminism. In a Czech context, it´s not only fully accepted that women show off their physical qualities, they are almost expected to do so! To be considered an object of men´s (or women´s, for that sake) sexual interest is not, as Western political correctness dictates, humiliating or discriminating, but downright desirable.
Thus, the super-sexy, mini-skirted ladies are ordinary women (well, at least most of them) on their way to ordinary jobs. True, not all of them are exceedingly tasteful, but there are certainly far worse elements of the communist era´s pop culture (see: Gott, Karel) that still are alive and kicking.
Some Czech peculiarities apply to both genders. One of them is the importance of wearing nightclothes. If you are to spend a night at somebody´s house or cottage (see: Fridays) and don´t want to give the impression that you are either an uncivilized primitive or a sexual deviant, be sure to bring pyjamas or a nightgown. During the weekend, when people are relaxing at home, both men and women often wear tracksuits. This is not because they are working out, but because the tracksuits make it more comfortable to drink beer and eat chips in front of the telly. They are also obligatory for inmates in Czech prisons.
Footwear represents the ultimate super-dangerous pitfall for a foreigner. If you visit a block of flats, you will often see several pairs of shoes lined up outside each flat. Contrary to Moslems, who are driven by religious considerations, the Czechs only take practical precautions not to smear their Balkan-inspired wall-to-wall carpets with all the niceties that flood local streets (see: Dogs). According to the sex researcher Radim Uzel, some men also take advantage of the fact that there is an alleged correspondence between shoe size and the length of the penis, and therefore place shoes twice their actual size outside, just to impress their female neighbours.
No matter what you think about the shoe/sexual organ link, if you are invited to a Czech home and your hosts urge you not to take off your sneakers, they are almost certainly expressing courtesy to their guest (see: Communication) and expecting you to say something like “Oh, that´s alright”, and then leave your shoes by the doorstep. If you don´t, and march into their flat with your shoes on, you´ll risk eternal damnation. Most Czech households have extra pairs of slippers, which guests are supposed to put on their feet during the visit.
And finally, when you travel by public transportation, go shopping, or just visit a restaurant, you may get a very palpable sniff of human bodies. Or, to put it plainly: many people, regardless of their gender, are proud to smell of sweat. Lots of those who don´t smell are happy to put up with the odour, and deodorants are still widely perceived as the privilege of homosexuals or social climbers. However, if you complain about the smell, you´ll only make a fool of yourself. This leaves you with two options: either pretend not to notice the stench, or start smelling yourself!