Living abroad means experiencing a new culture. That’s a given. Adjusting to the large and obvious differences such as language, cuisine and social customs are often easy because they’re obvious and somewhat necessary to ease into life. But the small differences, while not necessarily a barrier, can make a person, me at least, wonder why it got that way and made me ask, “What in the Czech?”
This is one of the more ‘typical’ Czech customs expats encounter. Personally I don’t mind it and know plenty of expats who also ask people to take off their shoes. But why? The reasons seem to come down to practicality. People don’t want much from the outside traipsed in or the soles of shoes damaging the floors, which makes sense. Another likely reason was that when panelaks were built, they were located on the city limits in areas that had once been fields or forest. People did not want to bring in the mud and other filth and so removed their shoes.
Y is Z
The fact that different languages have different keyboard layouts make sense. The English QWERTY system is based on the frequency letters appears and was designed to stop the more frequent keys jamming each other. The Czech QWERTZ board, which rose to prominence in German speaking countries, is used for the same reason: z is a little more common in the Czech language than y. Which is all fine until I forget my keyboard is set to Czech and I’m writing in English.
Besides the point
This is another question which arises from having a Czech keyboard. Even when in English mode, when I hit the decimal point key on the number pad, I get a comma when I was taught it should be a full-stop. But the Czechs are not alone in the use of the comma to separate the whole numbers from the decimals. Most of Europe (except the UK) and much of South America and Africa use it too. The history appears to go back to adoption of Hindu-Arabic numerals and early printing. French mathematicians used the comma to mark the decimal place. France’s influence on Central Europe, especially on the upper echelons of society, probably saw the comma adopted as the decimal marker.
You’re running to the train and just before you can board, the doors shut and the train takes off, so how long do you have to wait? The timer on the platform is no help because it’s counting up the time until the next train arrives. Why? Simply, the original purpose was for the train drivers. Now, as you probably know, the Prague Transit Company is planning to install new displays which will show the time until the next service. It probably won’t stop me being late for my train though.
Back to front
If you’ve ever opened a book published in Czech, you’ll have noticed that the table of contents is at the back. Why is this the case? History and tradition may well be the explanation. Though the conventions are changing, especially where technical books are concerned, the custom for the better part of the modern era until now has been to have the table of contents at the back. And it is very much a custom. I’ve also noticed that the titles on the spine of Czech books are printed bottom-to-top. This reflects the spine-titling practice of most Continental countries; when books are placed vertically on shelves they can be read by tilting the head to the left.
Honk if you’re married
I’ve noticed this more in small towns. I’ll be walking along when I’ll hear the blare of car horns. As the cars pass I’ll see the decorations – flowers, streamers, maybe a doll on the car hood. It’s a wedding party, loudly announcing its journey from the church to the reception. The cacophonous choir of car horns isn’t only celebrating the newlyweds. I’ve been told it has a practical purpose. Other drivers know the wedding party is approaching and so give way, allowing the cars to stay together.
It seems a little odd that a landlocked country would have a greeting ‘Ahoj’ which sounds like that of an English pirate ‘Ahoy’. The accepted story is that it became popular among rafting enthusiasts at the beginning of the century. Members of the tramping movement picked it up and the greeting stuck.
I have mentioned before that in formal settings using titles is important, but where does the importance come from? Is it just an overemphasis on formality which is part of the culture? It could be, though there maybe another explanation. Under communism, titles were mostly not used. Following the fall of communism, many academic titles were reinstated and some people with degrees could use titles for the first time. Perhaps, having not had the recognition, people are not willing to let go of the status, which the letters after their name afford, just yet.
Here is another habit which may have to do with communism and as such is more noticeable among older people. When I first moved into a panelák flat I noticed the people cleaning the floor of foyer with a rag, sometimes at the end of a broom. I noticed it again in the building of my in-laws and later in the building I live in now. You can get mops here. We have one. But under communism they were not available, so people got used to using old rags. Nowadays, mops are more popular. However, some people say the rag is better for a thorough clean and so stick with it.
Not slicing a bread roll and buttering the outside and laying cold cuts or slices of cheese on it is one of the habits I have readily adopted, simply because I see it done around me. But why? Rolls are made for holding food, aren’t they – or is that my own cultural prejudice? Anyway, when trying to find a reason for this the best I could uncover was a discussion about which side people preferred buttering their roll. I guess this is one of those habits that can be filed under “simply, because”, although if you want to take the discussion a bit farther, check out this heated debate on the sandwich subject on our message boards.
Any small cultural differences you’ve noticed? Do you have an explanation why or an alternate explanation to the ones given here?