The Sound and the Surly
With apologies to Williams Shakespeare and Faulkner (and Omar, for that matter).
One of the things I really like – a lot – about being in other countries is the sounds of the languages. I stumble through Czech in the States, but surrounded by its speakers, it’s a lot easier to come up with the sounds that I’m supposed to be creating to speak it myself. This trip in particular, including as it did a visit from Lale from Málaga, had more Spanish in it than I’ve spoken in nigh on twenty years. And vocabulary aside, I mostly did pretty well. My comprehension is okay, at least.
Prague has changed a great, great deal since Richard Allen Greene picked me up at the airport in January of 1992, where I had to deplane and walk across the tarmac under leaden skies. It was about as stereotypically “Eastern European” as you can imagine, but Richard alleviated the oppression with a chocolate palačinka on Wenceslas Square. You can’t buy them there any more. For a while, later in the 90s, Wenceslas Square had its share of Peruvian bands (with accompanying rumors that they were laundering money for the Shining Path) and a sword swallower. Now it’s just a red-light district where you can buy good shoes by day.
It’s still a Czech city, make no mistake, but it doesn’t really compare to any other Czech cities – Olomouc, Brno, Ceské Buděojovice (home to the original Budweiser). It’s a European metropolis now, the same way Paris couldn’t be anywhere but France, but is itself probably less indicative of “French-ness” than, say, Avignon, or Lyons.
Part of being a European capital means there are more sounds than just Czech. Even at the beginning of the tourist season, I heard Spanish (Castellano in particular), Italian, French, German, and a lot lot lot of Russian. Jarda and Brbla asserted that the contested spa-town of Karlovy Vary (contested historically between the Czechs and the Germans, incidentally, who call it Carlsbad), is now practically owned by Russians. And as much as the Czechs have always considered themselves Europeans, the folks we encountered in Prague in the service sector really don’t seem to care for the tourist trade. It feels a bit like “don’t stare at me, you’re no better than I am,” but maybe I’m just projecting.
Andy and Kelly worked on picking up a couple of the classically critical words: pivo (beer), děkuju (thank you), prosím (please), dobrý den (good day). I’d told them in advance that it would probably help to try and speak a little Czech, but they were surprised to the extent that it could sometimes buy goodwill.
Of course, other times it did nothing at all.
I’ve always assumed that this general crankiness (and it’s a stereotype – often but not always true) was a result of Communism, the Nazi takeover, the Hapsburgs, and so on and so forth. But in my limited experience in Poland, everyone was super-friendly, and less English-oriented at the same time. And they were wiped off the map at one point!
Why so grumbly, Prague?