Have you ever heard a Czech say, in frustration, “It just doesn’t work here like it does elsewhere,” then sigh in resignation and go on grumbling. Complaining about the way things work in the Czech Republic seems second-nature. Yet being proactive about finding a solution or looking at the problem from a different perspective seems less common. There are of course many Czechs with positive outlooks and out-of-the-box thinking, but the greater Czech population seems more attached to its pessimism than other European cultures I’ve encountered.
Talking with Czechs, I often get the impression that while they may personally live a happy life; they still, on the whole, believe their country is something of a “second-class” nation as compared to other Western European countries. I’ve listened as Czech friends expressed their dissatisfaction on fronts as varied as government, health care, education, food, products and services. I’ve even heard the Czech Republic referred to by one acquaintance as the “armpit of Europe,” because he was upset to find that Coca-Cola tastes different to him in Austria, and in his opinion, better. Coca-Cola does regionalize their flavor to attract more customers in different locations, but I don’t think they have tried to create a flavor for the Czech Republic that is inferior. Still, my friend’s heartfelt complaint expresses a perception that I’ve heard many times from Czechs: that cast-offs and leftover products from elsewhere wind up on the Czech market.
Instead of trying to do something about this problem or other issues they are dissatisfied with, Czechs are often complacent, believing that there’s no use wasting energy trying to change something that’s a well-established, standard procedure. I’ve had numerous conversations with my in-laws in which they’ve brought up problems. But instead of brainstorming for an answer, they instead conclude, “Well, that’s just the way it always is here.” They’re quick to buy inexpensive toys and clothes for the children and then complain when these toys break on first usage or holes are found in the clothes before they’re worn. I’m not expecting my in-laws to purchase expensive toys, but I keep waiting for them to realize the correlation between the toy’s cost and its likely durability. Radek and I would prefer that they didn’t buy the toys at all since the children already have plenty, but there’s no successful arguing with a strong-minded babička.
While I expect to hear dissatisfaction from the older generation of Czechs who lived through Communism and experienced a much more closed governmental and social structure, when my contemporaries voice similar negative thoughts, I’m surprised. Sure, it’s normal to complain about systems that don’t work properly, and from my years living here, I’ve encountered systems that could stand some improvement. Still, so many of my Czech friends believe that life elsewhere, either in the US or in other Western European countries must be better. When I meet people here for the first time, I often have to explain why Radek and I have chosen to raise our family here, since Czechs often assume that what they’ve seen about American life from television is better than the life they imagine we have here. It’s often precisely the people who haven’t been to the US, who seem so perplexed by our decision to live here. Perhaps the Czechs who’ve visited the States already know that life there isn’t much different than here, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter.
When President Klaus’ recent “pen stealing” episode in Chile was caught on a YouTube video that has had millions of views and became top headlines for a day, the Czechs I spoke with seemed to believe that their president’s actions perfectly epitomized their country. It’s useless to “play by the rules” here, one Czech friend asserted, because only those who take advantage of the “loopholes” will come out ahead. I don’t think Klaus was really trying to “steal” a pen that was clearly intended as a gift for him, but his secretive hand movements combined with his clear, steely gaze didn’t do anything to improve the Czech Republic’s corruption image. Corruption and politics are publicly acknowledged as going hand in hand in this country, and according to Czechs, it’s unlikely that major changes are going to happen anytime soon.
Last week, I tried to question an ENT specialist about the standard medical procedure of piercing a child’s eardrum to relieve pressure from an earache because I didn’t feel comfortable with it. He replied arrogantly that piercing the eardrum is a time-tested procedure, and that it’s the only remedy that any Czech doctor would offer in this situation. While he was likely correct in his assertions, I also know that this “standard procedure” is considered antiquated in the US and hasn’t been performed for 30 years. The Czech doctor was offended that I would even think to question his medical authority and refused my request to consider an antibiotic for the infection. He performed the piercing procedure quickly. Anna, reacting to the pain, unexpectedly vomited in his operatory. The doctor was furious and insinuated that I’d have to clean the mess because he surely wasn’t going to do it. When I retold the story to our regular doctor, my blood still boiling, her nurse replied, “Oh, if he’d had a nurse, it would have been all right. Just don’t go back and see him next time.” I was as shocked by her blasé reaction as I was by his arrogance and machismo. Radek himself suggested that we complain about the doctor’s unprofessional attitude because if we didn’t voice our dissatisfaction, he explained, nothing would change.
A while back, a Czech friend showed me on Google maps a piece of land where he used to go to summer camp. The camp was near the Czech/Austrian border, and while the Austrian side was neatly divided into symmetric plots, the Czech property remained wilder and haphazardly divided. My friend emphatically pointed to the Czech side, and declared, “You see, it’s a mess!” Although I looked carefully, I couldn’t really see the “mess” he was noting. Instead, I saw countryside that just hadn’t been as developed as it had on the Austrian side. Although I would be happy to see the Czech Republic as a country become more progressive and economically prosperous, still I’m protective of my adopted homeland. I do recognize that some things don’t work as well here as they do in other places, but I believe it’d be more helpful to concentrate on why and how to promote positive changes, instead of only highlighting the problem.
Although I don’t agree with all the Czech procedures and sometimes I’d pay top dollar just to have my smile returned with a smile instead of a frown, I realize full well the choice Radek and I made to live here, and I believe that the Czech Republic offers a wonderful environment to raise a young family. In this rather small nation, it is sometimes hard to find an alternative to the conformist attitudes that can reign. However, exposing our children to the idea that that every culture doesn’t have all the answers seems to be the best learning experience that we can offer. On their own, they’ll figure out the rest.
Half-n-half will be on summer holiday through July and August. Thanks for your continued readership and support and I look forward to sharing more “half-n-half” experiences in the fall.