Living abroad defines a new normal. Instincts, automated processes, the things you do just because that’s how they’re done, have suddenly changed. The new normal is defined by others, by your new surroundings. As an outsider, an expat, learning these new habits can be fun, painful, and can serve as an interesting insight into where you come from and why you value what you do. Or think you do. Here are some big takeaways from my life as an American expat living in Prague.
1. Go to the nature
The nature can be anywhere beyond buildings. Be in the grass, be in the mountains, walk through the park, swim in the water. Just be in the nature. There are over 38,500 km of well marked hiking trails that connect the baltic sea to the black sea and all routes in between. I’ve been told the Czech obsession with “the” nature stems from their communist past where physical and mental escapes were limited and dangerous to achieve. In a world shrouded in functionalism it was an act of selfish pleasure to do something so pointless, so useless, as to sit below a willow tree and appreciate life.
2. Thank Ježíšek for those presents, not the person who actually gifted you
Hold it right there! Don’t write your name on that Christmas present. Why, you ask? You bought it for them and you want them to know it’s from you, you say? Wrong. It’s from Jesisek (little Jesus). All the gifts, including the decorated Christmas tree are from Ježíšek. “Děkuju Ježíšku!” … then look awkwardly at the person you think bought it for you.
3. Accept Czechnology. It does the trick. Deal.
A car bumper held to the hood via 6 short bungie cables. Garbage bags in place of waterproof gear. Internet cables hanging from the roof of your 6 story building squishing through your windows. Vast amounts of duck tape. Vast. This is Czech technology, or Czechnology, at it’s best. It’s prevalent. It’s ghetto. It works.
4. Write everything in a day planner. Everything.
More powerful than the will of god, the almighty day planner will lead your life. If it is written, it shall be done. Czechs mean business when they commit to a date. And they commit early, which leads me to my next point.
5. Plan meetings with friends … 3 or 4 weeks in advance
I once had a friend refer to a meeting that was planned one week in advance as “last minute”. It was to bake pumpkin bread together. A meeting can mean anything. It can be used to express hanging out, meeting up, exchanging goods, getting a drink together, lending sugar. Almost anything that puts you face to face with another person is referred to as a meeting. Maybe in Czech there is an expression for “hang out” but I haven’t made it that far in my Czech lessons.
6. Drink coffee sitting down
Cafe hopping is a common pass time of mine. I rarely order coffee togo, though it’s possible. It’s better to sit down, be served and enjoy your drink. My favorite cafes in Prague are Prague Coffee House, Můj šálek kávy, Cafe Jen, Le Caveau, and Mama Coffee.
7. Drink alcohol, it’s good for you
You’re hungover, ill, tired, perfectly healthy, coughing, sneezing, nauseous, have a headache, a sore back, a sore ego. Some form of alcohol is in order to make you healthy. After all, nazdravi! (cheers!, ¡salud!, kanpai!) means ‘to health.’ There’s only one reason to stay sober …
8. Keep one person sober on Christmas, someone will choke on a carp bone
Not really, even babi is slamming back the shots. But those tiny bones from that nasty bottom feeding fish (sorry Czechs, I miss my roast) are prone to lodging in your throat and someone will need to drive the victim to the hospital. Honestly, I’ve never heard of this actually happening to anyone on Christmas, but the threat seems to be cautiously vocalized every year.
9. Be politically incorrect
Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if a massive middle finger sculpture was planted on the white house lawn days before a presidential election? Known for his crawling babies, and now, long purple fingers – or finger rather, David Černý sums up how Czechs artistically and skillfully show political dissent.
10. Recycle everything
I love the Czech habit of recycling. On every street corner there are plastic, paper, glass, garbage and tetra-pack bins. Most neighborhoods also have a recycling bin for textiles and electronics. Recycle old light bulbs at many grocery stores (Tesco Express up from my place) and receive money back for beer bottles at your local potraviny. About 70% of Czechs recycle, and though not as prevalent, many compost too.
11. High school reunions don’t happen
That’s because monthly high school reunions happen. It’s more formal than meeting with a bunch of friends you happened to go to high school with, but less formal than any high school reunion in America. There are different levels of high school in Czech and some can be for up to 8 years. That’s like high school times two. That’s a lot of bonding time.
12. Take the tram everywhere
The 22 tram line feels like my personal shuttle services. 24 hour connections, 3-5 minute wait during peak hours, 15 minute wait at 4am. Prague feels like a city that you can know and understand. I personally have a terrible sense of direction, but Prague is so accessible and identifiable that even a lost bird like me can find its way.
13. Travel with bread, salami, and gingerbread
This is a hard truth of traveling with a Czech. I’ve argued my way out of shopping at Tesco before going to Japan and Brazil, but every other destination was plagued by a loaf of Czech bread, a role of salami, and an assortment of Czech snacks. Czech gingerbread can serve a purpose. Like that one time in Edinburgh when a Czech guy exchanged our gingerbread for £2.40, the exact amount we needed to take the night bus to the airport. Other than serving as currency to homesick Czechs abroad, the gingerbreads have no purpose. I won’t, however, turn down a Corny.
14. Take your shoes off, keep your socks on, add slippers
Always take your shoes off when going into a Czech home, slippers will often be provided. Get used to this routine. I constantly get in trouble because I like to walk around bare foot. The family worries that I will either catch a cold or tread dirt around the house. I guess the latter happens.
15. Watch fairy tales
It’s agreed. Czechs love fairy tales. No matter your age you watch fairytales, especially on Christmas day. Or basically anytime a new fairytale comes out. Which is often. They even have a fairytale museum in Prague that just didn’t do it for me. My boyfriend, on the other hand, had to be dragged out as he finished his passionate rendition of The Very Sad Princess.
16. Listen to Czech proverbs, they have one for everything
Whether you burn yourself on the stove, get into an argument, misplace your watch, eat a carrot, walk, sit, breath, there is a Czech proverb for that. Some of them are true, some don’t translate well, and most of them involve wordplay.
17. Play with words. You’re clever not cheesy
Along with the proverbs will come the word jokes. English isn’t such a fun language to play with. We can be interesting and playful and colorful and bright, but can’t really play. Czech words are built like puzzles. Each little bit of the word, from root to tip, means something. Compare “odpoposedavat si” in Czech to “to sit a little bit aside several times” in English. 8 English words exchanged for 2 Czech words. Play with that!
18. Wear Czech pants
The fashion here really is something. Beyond the nonsense English t-shirts, socks with sandals, layering of animal print, acceptance of mullets, prevalence of badly died red hair, my favorite Czech fashion statement is the pants. They are, as you assumed, checkered with multi color patches on the knees and butt. These pants are like a Czech calling-card abroad and an everyday sitting in a Czech town near you. I own a red pair.
19. Fall in love with Czech bread
When I first moved here I missed my San Francisco sough dough bread. I still do. But I’ve also come to love the thick, dark, Czech bread you can find at every grocery store and every potroviny. In fact, now I bring Czech bread home when I visit the states to make topinki.
20. Love the seasons
As a girl from California I used to dread the thought of a long Czech winter. I nearly didn’t move to San Francisco because of the cold weather (it’s 77°f/25°c in SF today and it’s snowing here). The seasons here have allowed me to experience the passing of time in a new way. Each season has a distinct smell, light, color and sound which lead to different attire, thoughts, activities and conversations. So many aspects of your life, big and small, change with the seasons.
21. Round up the tip, just the tip
Tipping in the Czech Republic is fairly straightforward. You round up to the most reasonable amount. If your bill is 141kc you might leave 150kc. If it’s 1,870kc you might leave 2,000kc. The only rule is to round up. You get to decide if you really loved the service or not. It’s most common to tip on the spot when you pay by asking them to round up to the stated amount and then give you the remaining (even) change.
22. Eat the lard babička gives you for Christmas, more is always on the way
I’ve never been able to comply with this one. In fact, there are two massive tubs of lard in the refrigerator which somehow doubled at Christmas. How does grandma get so much lard? And where the hell does she keep getting that honey?
23. Go on a date with a voucher you romantic dog, you!
You’re not cheap if you go for dinner or a date and pay using a voucher or food coupons. You’re just clever! Show off your money saving skills and bust out that voucher on your first date. Show her/him you’re a savvy consumer. The Czechs sure know how to woo you.
24. Pronounce Nike according to grammar rules, not the sports brand
This is an argument I can’t seem to win. Czechs call Nike, the sports brand, Nike (rhymes with bike,) instead of Nike (rhymes with spiky). Yes, the Czechs will always win in a grammar or phonetics battle, but you can’t argue with years of “Just Do It” branding engraved in your head.
25. Seat yourself
This isn’t standard everywhere but many waiters will look at you funny if you just stand at the entrance of their empty restaurant and ask if you can sit down. Of course you can! What do you think we are all here for? Also remember that most places, even pubs, have table service. That means it’s rude to walk up to the bar and order individually, as if you can’t wait for someone to come take your order.
26. Go to awesome, weird, and awesomely weird festivals … all year round
Music, film, arts, food, drinks, lights, dance, poetry. This place is off the charts when it comes to festivals! United Islands (music), Vinobrani (wine), One World (film), Signal (light), Night of the Museums, Theaters and Churches to name a few. No matter what the season, something cool is happening in Prague and you’re invited.
27. Eat garlic
Garlic soup, fried garlic bread (topinki), garlic spreads. You will seriously get in touch with your garlic side here. Czechs are very proud of their garlic which has a high measurable potency and beautiful purple color. Eat garlic now … it’s being threatened by extinction!
28. Take a beating on Easter
It’s a fertility ritual, they say. It’s fun, they say. It’s just a little tap on the legs and a riddle, they say. If your father in-law and his admiring sons demonstrate their birth given right to beat the bare legs of women with a woven birch stick with such pizazz as mine do, then you may consider hiding out in Italy for Easter. They’re good Christian folk. No pagan beating rituals.
29. Burn witches on April 30th
Czechs don’t coat the truth. They serve it to you straight and don’t seem to struggle with taboos. Nothing is off limits. A little tradition that I’ve grown fond of is the burning of the witches on April 30th. Gather round for some good family fun. Children throw wretched little female witch dolls to the sweltering fire pit while hungry onlookers wait anxiously, sausage in hand, for the right moment to begin roasting.
30. Don’t pay as you go
Don’t pay for things at the bar as you order them. In fact, don’t order at the bar (with some exceptions). The insanely large bar tab, penciled in at your table, shared among you and upwards of 30 friends is somehow shockingly accurate at the end of the night. The bartender Honza at na Šumavě in Vinohrady does magic with a massive tab. Never under or over. He gives you a piece of candy after you pay as some sort of mental face/drink check. After sorting the bill for a large birthday party he knew exactly who the one none payer was. “I didn’t give her candy,” he explains.
31. Claim a name’s day and stick to it
Name’s day is celebrated as a bonus birthday, but for many foreigners our names aren’t in the original name’s day calendar. Yes, there is a names day calendar, and yes, most Czechs know it by heart. If you’re not on the calendar just pick a name similar to yours and claim that day too. That, or claim multiple days like I do. Carly = Karolína (July 14th) and Christine = Kristýna (July 24th). “Oh! Today is Jana’s name’s name. I had better text all 7 of them!”