Reflections on a People and Their Culture
For me to give you reasons to visit the Czech Republic but not to give you some idea about the people you’ll encounter and the culture you’ll find yourself in would be very unfair of me to both you and the Czechs.
I am not a Czech by birth and I was not born into an immigrant home where stories of “The Old Country” swirled about in the air. I’m a born and bred Canadian who, in 2004, bought a one way ticket to the Czech Republic and has called the country his second home ever since.
What I have written in this section is the result of personal observations I have made in the time I have lived here mixed with insights given to me by many Czech friends and acquaintances who have taken the time to explain why certain things are the way they are here.
The Czechs Themselves
Most tourist information sources will give you some idea of the local people and cultures. What I have seen said of the Czechs in some of those publications is not always accurate; some of it is biased, overstated stereotypes. Sometimes, I see complete misrepresentation of the people.
Many of the idiosyncrasies that form the Czech character and national psyche are steeped in history. I’ll simply touch on some of the more observable aspects of Czechs in everyday life which could create culture shock situations for visitors. If you wish to take a deeper look at the historical reasons for why the Czechs are as they are, I invite you to visit “The Bookshelf” section in the main menu at the top of the blog´s home page and examine some of the titles I´ve reviewed there.
True Xenophobics or Just Standoffish?
More than once I have seen and heard the word “Xenophobic” used to describe the Czechs attitude to outsiders, often Czechs use it to describe themselves. It’s a very strong word which I feel is an increasingly unfair descriptive for the people.
The Czechs can be a bit slow to warm up to foreigners compared to the people of some of the neighboring nations. To construe this as a dislike for outsiders is certainly premature, but it is a form of honesty from the Czechs. On the whole, the average Czech doesn’t mind foreign visitors; just don’t expect them to fall all over themselves for you while you’re here.
The Czech Republic has a strong tourism industry, many multinational companies have branches here and with several universities in the country, foreign students and workers are part of the fabric of everyday life in the larger centres of the country. To me, such things are certainly not the marks of a “xenophobic” nation or people.
Compared to the strongly religious nature of it’s neighbors, the Czechs do tend to come off looking a great deal less than devout. I’ve often heard the Czech Republic described as an island of atheism surrounded on all sides by a sea of Catholicism. To say such a thing, by my observations, is gross overstatement.
While I have met plenty of Czechs who are openly atheist, I’ve also met many who are quite deeply religious. Whenever I have entered a larger church, I have always seen at least a few people in the pews partaking in worship.
Religion, like so many other things in their lives, is simply something that the Czechs don’t tend to wear on their sleeves.
If you come from a country where “The customer is always right” or “The customer is king”, then the service you receive from the staff of the average Czech restaurant or shop may strike you as a bit lacking.
Generally, when you enter a shop or restaurant you will get the standard “Dobrý den” (Good day) greeting. From there, you will have your order taken or be asked if you’re looking for something particular; beyond that, you’re usually left to your dining or browsing in peace until you’re ready to settle your bill or make your purchase.
It may seem a spartan or otherwise minimalist approach to customer service by some standards, but at least it’s a largely honest and unpretentious approach.
After visiting my native Canada and being reminded of how superficially nice and artificially friendly the average customer service worker has to be to keep their jobs, I find this much of the Czech approach to be refreshing.
Czechs, Pubs and Alcohol
Alcohol is EVERYWHERE in the Czech Republic. Available widely from pubs and restaurants to the supermarket, corner shops and newsagents. To the outsider, this could lead to the rather mistaken impression that you’ve landed in a land of happy drinkers ready to raise a glass to anything.
In spite of the country’s long and storied history of beer, wine and spirit production; not every Czech sees it as a point of pride. In fact, I’ve met many Czechs who consciously choose to minimize their alcohol intake or avoid alcohol completely.
Some Czechs will tell you that the pub (hospoda) is the heart of Czech culture and the best place to go if you want to know the Czechs. While pubs are plenty and represent a variety of qualities in both products and clientele, I have met many Czechs who much prefer to take their alcohol at a cafe (kavárna) or restaurant than a smoky pub.
Of Gypsies and Roma
Most tourist guides will at least touch on this group of people. While they are not unique to the Czech Republic, they are often characterized as troublemakers, nuisances or lazy.
I personally have never had a negative experience with this group of people. I have seen those who fit the gypsy stereotype to perfection; however, I have also seen just as many who were respectable, courteous and genuinely out to create a better image of their people.
While there is, in many quarters of Czech society, an open dislike of these people; they are, by my observations, a group with a rift inside itself. That rift is mainly one of attitude and is best summed up by the words of a young Roma woman I once had a conversation with:
“I’m not a gypsy, I’m a Roma. I have a job that I found for myself, I pay my taxes and I’m interested in self improvement. Gypsies don’t do that.”
Though she is simply one voice, her words have stayed with me as the most concrete and succinct thing I’ve yet heard said or seen written about her people.
At the time I arrived in the Czech Republic, in 2004; the first generation of Czechs who had been born after the fall of Socialism, or were young children at the time, and had only known that regime as details in history books and memories of older generations were still in school.
This generation has since entered the workforce and the difference is showing, particularly in aspects of customer service. I feel this particular generation of Czech to be a very important one as the opportunities they’ve had to interact with a broader range of foreign influences both at home and abroad has given many of them a noticeably different attitude when associating with customers. They tend to be a good bit more helpful and approachable than the stereotypical, brusque middle aged shop clerks that many references about the Czech Republic may mention.
When I go into a shop or restaurant, I always start in Czech. If I’m dealing with a younger person, I know there’s a fairly good chance that the answer will come back at me in English whether I like it or not. Such situations don’t help my Czech, but as one who remembers the older generation of stereotypical shop clerks, it’s refreshing to experience the changing attitude and I take it as a sign of progress in a society that is increasingly mislabeled as “conservative”.
A good all round webpage for a range of aspects of Czech life including: trip planning, language, culture, history among others is My Czech Republic: