Like the would-be expat who dreams of running off to the Czech Republic to find herself, I’d been in Europe so long that I dreamt of running off to America. To find exactly what I couldn’t say. Better deals on goods and services? Smilier waiters? As a new mom with no real support network in Prague, free babysitting seemed to be the most logical answer.
But I was looking for something else, too. I had recently reached the seven-year mark, that tell-tale moment in one’s expatriation when your affinity for the host country and its people is supposed to make you feel, no matter what the bureaucrats have to say about it, like a long-term resident, one for whom returning home might pose a challenge. Would this prove true for me?
This past autumn, our Czech-American family began a 90-day stay in my Michigan hometown, reconnecting with family and friends, introducing our daughter to the U.S., and discovering that the answer to this question is a resounding, ano. Seven years later, and here are some of the ways I have begun to feel more Czech than American:
10. My English is nic moc.
Years spent over-enunciating for the benefit of non-native English speakers, making intentional spoken grammatical errors (much easier than giving an impromptu lesson), and struggling to recall little-used English vocabulary—all of these things have left me with a peculiar expat brogue. But speaking Czechlish has its merits: I now add Czech diminutives to my nieces’ and nephews’ American names as English somehow falls short for expressing my love. Aww.
9. I frequently fret that my daughter will catch cold.
Long before I became a mom, I worked at a Czech nursery school. The parents continually nagged the staff, no matter what the season, to tuck the kids’ shirts into their pants and pull the pants high, as if a thin scrap of denim could shield vital organs. Cut to a well-heated living room in the U.S. last fall as my baby niece braves the elements barefoot with a slice of back exposed, while my own child plays alongside her in punčochy, the thickest Czech tights money can buy…hiked beyond her navel, naturally!
8. Long lines don’t really bother me.
I have developed this Zen-like, or rather Czech-like, patience when it comes to standing in intolerable lines. No more getting antsy or threatening mutiny or wondering “What the hell the hold up is” like a good American would. Perhaps all those harrowing hours spent waiting at the foreign police have actually served a purpose beyond the obvious ones of exposing me to influenza and preventing deportation. The State of Michigan DMV? A cake walk.
7. My sweet tooth has gone upmarket.
While I’d looked forward to a Halloween binge on Orange Hostess Cupcakes, Brach’s Candy Corn, and marshmallowy confections like Peeps and Rice Krispie Treats, the chemically-bolstered sweets of my youth tasted, upon recent sampling, entirely too sweet. Czech baked goods—notable for their restrained sweetness—and Euro-chocolate seem to have given me a choosier palate. (P.S. America, your bread pales in comparison to the lovely loaves of the Czech lands. Yogurt, too).
6. I hoard shopping bags.
Though once mortified by my husband’s mass swiping of rohlík baggies from the supermarket for later home use, I must confess that the cavalier American attitude toward perfectly good shopping bags upset me while we were Stateside. Why recycle plastic bags immediately or, worse, throw them away in pristine condition, when they can be used again (and again) for diaper disposal, food storage and, in the case of the really nice ones, luggage?
5. God is great, his fridge is even better.
Most Czech households, including ours, come equipped with a refrigerator roughly the size of my high-school locker. This often necessitates storing food in alternative spaces including—but not limited—to the balcony, a window ledge, or back stoop, a practice that raises a few eyebrows in suburban America not to mention attracts a few raccoons. (Just ask my husband about the bramborový salát mishap of Christmas 2012.)
4. I’m a cooler—i.e. more cowardly—customer.
I’ve grown so accepting of the abuse doled out by foul-tempered Albert cashiers, who often return change with a scorn that borders on Biblical, that whenever I’m on the receiving end of politeness in retail or restaurant settings I feel grateful (or suspicious) rather than entitled as most Americans do. Also: I cannot enter or exit a public space without the urge to shout “Dobrý den!” or “Na shledanou!” to anybody within earshot.
3. But not so cool that I want to befriend the waiter.
Americans have no problem first-naming complete strangers like waiters, while Czechs keep it formal—using “Mr.” or “Ms.” and a last name, unless the person is actually a friend. The trademark breezy American informality felt a bit jarring, not to mention superficial, to me this time around, especially after my husband pointed out that tomorrow we’ll probably forget that Jeff the waiter exists.
2. I’ve given up the grind.
When I told my American friends that I planned to stop working full-time after I had the baby, they were taken aback. When I told my Czech friends that I planned to work part-time after I had the baby, they were taken aback. Herein lies a telling cultural difference, I think, one that says we Americans often feel defined by our career successes and failures. And while I’d never suggest that Czechs don’t have a strong work ethic, living here has made some of that pressure dissipate.
1. I mythologize America.
Whether it’s the fondness for the fictional “Apache” hero Winnetou, or the envisioning of an America that includes roadside motels, diners, and Route 66, the Czech tendency to picture a dreamy, iconic U.S. is similar to the way Americans revere Europe as glamorous cradle of high culture. Though the America of Kerouac novels no longer exists, if indeed it ever did, sharing that same romantic vision of my home country makes it easier to love it—and leave it.