It took awhile for my cautious, rule-abiding American self to get used to the Czech disregard for rules. When I first arrived in Prague, my Czech students and friends seemed to approach rules as obstacles to challenge, rather than respect. Rarely, it seemed, did anyone assume that rules were intended to be followed to the letter.
From the beginning, Radek’s disregard for rules, albeit nonsensical rules, created friction in our relationship. Despite all of his charm, I didn’t understand why Radek ignored speed limits, parked illegally or refused to wait in lines. I found it particularly annoying when he asked me to try to explain all the holes in the logic behind these laws. I was brought up to view laws as regulations of social order not meant to be questioned. If the sign said: No Camping, that’s what it meant.
In our first summer of dating we went camping in Croatia. We arrived at night and we didn’t see the no-beachfront camping sign until the following day. Although sleeping on the rocky beachfront had been romantic, I remember being too distracted by the knowledge that we’d broken the rules to enjoy the beautiful sunrise and the early morning peace. Later that day when we set up our tent in the proper camping area, I pestered Radek to go seek out the ranger collecting money. He argued however that we could just sit back and wait for someone to come by and ask us to pay.
Initially, I believed the variances in our rule-following were personal, but as time went on, I realized that more Czechs (females as well as males) shared Radek’s aversion to rules.
I got a glimpse of the Czech culture on circumventing rules in the film Pupendo, from Jan Hřebejk set in the 1980s. I was particularly captivated by the extremes the characters in the film would go to get the better of the bureaucracy. Having been (perhaps naively) raised in a place where rules were created to help people, I was struck by the gumption and audacity, if not blatant disregard for authority, depicted in the movie.
In one of the movie’s opening scenes, a once-famous artist turned ceramic pig painter claimed that a storm damaged his studio. The investigators, two equally lack-luster insurance agents, come to the studio and although the farce is blatantly clear, the agents assess the artist’s ludicrous claim favorably and then spend the rest of the afternoon drinking beer and playing foosball. Throughout the movie, the artist and the agents repeat the storm scam several times.
With each favorable outcome, the artist’s wife grows more and more disapproving until, finally, in one of the movie’s closing scenes, a new legitimate investigator replaces the two cronies. Just when it seems inevitable that the artist’s cover will be blown, his up-to-now firmly disapproving wife steps in and argues passionately enough to convince the new agent, despite evidence to the contrary, to approve the claim.
Although life in Prague in the 21st century seems far-removed from life in the last decade of Communism, the actors’ wry sense of humor and the propensity to buck the rules in defiance of the establishment struck me as traits that have been likely passed down from Czech to Czech for generations. Although Radek professes not to have been affected by his Communist adolescence, it was clear to me from watching the movie that many of his behavioral tendencies, particularly his aversion for nonsensical rules, are to some extent likely throw-backs to the cultural attitudes pervasive during his childhood.
Beyond the disbelief I felt at watching the way the rules were repeatedly circumvented in the movie, I burned with indignity for the artist’s wife and the seemingly unfair stress her husband brought on their family. Despite declaring his behavior unacceptable and repeatedly chastising him, she surprised me by then going on to tell the biggest whooper.
Years after my initial arrival in the Czech Republic, I can look back and see some of what I’d describe as “Czech-rule-avoidance” behavioral traits taking root in me. Although I still place the “letter of the law” far above my husband, who prefers to examine each rule for its legitimacy before deciding which weight to grant it, I’m learning that sometimes rules, particularly in a heavily bureaucratic, post-Communist society are overrated.
Take parking for instance – on the occasions that I drive my car into town, I always try to find a legitimate paid-parking spot to park in and deposit enough change to cover my stay. However, when I take a look at the cars around me, there’s usually three cars parking illegally for each one car parked in accordance to the law. For many Prague drivers, the chances of actually getting caught are worth the risk of parking illegally. Additionally, since the parking machines don’t accept paper money, make change or take credit cards, they attract even inadvertent rule-avoiders by virtue of their limited capabilities.
Often I chastise Radek for his loose interpretation of the rules, even though we both know the rules in question don’t make much sense. Recently, we had to visit the Czech vehicle registration office to change our car’s paperwork after we moved to our new house. After visiting two different offices and waiting with our impatient children all morning, we realized that we had forgotten to bring our vehicle tags. The clerk explained that we had to produce them before she could complete our paperwork. I expected Radek to turn around and tell me had to go home, but the clerk added, almost as an afterthought, “Unless the tags are lost.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Radek nodded in agreement. He signed the paperwork and paid the fee for lost tags without missing a beat. Meanwhile, I tried to catch his eye to question his decision, but he purposefully ignored my hushed inquiries. By the time we’d visited yet another office to get confirmation of our insurance policy I was secretly relieved that Radek’s common sense had outweighed my inclination to follow rules.
A friend told me a similar story about trying to change car insurance companies. When he went to the new insurance company to purchase the new policy, they requested proof that the original policy had been cancelled. Since my friend couldn’t cancel the old policy without having a new policy, the agent suggested that the best solution would be to fill out a sales document, selling his car to a fictionalized buyer. The agent provided the form and even filled in the name of a fictionalized buyer. My friend took his fictionalized paper to his original insurance company and was able to cancel his policy and successfully change companies. Although the rule did seem ridiculous, I was surprised that the insurance agent had actually helped our friend find the fastest, cheapest way to solve his problem. But then, helping friends circumvent rules does seem to be something that Czechs excel at.
Doing someone a favor is duty not taken lightly by most Czechs. I know Czech friends who’ve run themselves ragged searching for a particular item as mundane as a new brand of dental floss they’d promised to bring back for a friend from their travels abroad. Here, my common sense sensibilities usually take over and grant me permission to stop my search and beg my friend’s apologies. Radek however is the opposite.
If Radek promises to help a friend out, he will go to any lengths to keep his word. I’ve traipsed through stores looking for an exact I-Pod model to buy for one of Radek’s friends and bought and shipped packages to our Czech friends upon Radek’s request so that they could have a hard-to-find product or get the benefit of a lower price. If I ever suggest that we say no, or suggest we decline doing a favor that seems unreasonably time-consuming, Radek argues that I’m being unhelpful.
For the Czechs that I know, helping others is an integral part of their cultural make-up, particularly when it concerns saving money or avoiding an unnecessary bureaucratic requirement. For as many favors as Radek has done for his friends, we’ve had at least as many favors extended to our family. Radek and I are law-abiding citizens, but when a particular rule seems blatantly ridiculous, I’m learning that it’s okay to question it.
Every Friday Half-n-half highlights personal stories of bilingual families living in the Czech Republic. The main contributor is Emily Prucha, an American living in Prague with her Czech husband and two children. The Prague Daily Monitor and Emily welcome your feedback on Half-n-half; please comment below or write to [email protected].