“Padesat sest!” “PADESAT SEST!”
If there is one thing we learned in our Czech class, it was numbers. Our teacher would hold up flashcard after flashcard until we were lightning-quick at rattling off Czech numbers. So when I woke up at 6:30 am on a train after less than an hour of sleep to a Czech woman urgently saying these words to me, I knew exactly what she was saying: 56. The number of the seat in which I was curled up. The same seat in which she was apparently supposed to be curled up (or some more dignified, Czech version of sleeping on a train). Wake up Dorothy, you are not in Kansas City anymore.
At the time of this incident, I was on a train to Budapest for a weekend, but the experience seems to best encapsulate the slightly jarring moment when I wake up every morning and realize that I am in Prague. This fact has mostly been unreal to me, but I am starting to notice patterns that remind me that no, I am not home, and no, I am not in Disney World, despite the presence of an enchanted castle. I’d like to share a few of my observations about Czech culture, each little reminder that I am no longer in my comfort zone, but instead on a bit of an adventure:
- Even the dogs are polite. This is a running joke between my friends and I to sum up how quiet and polite Czech people are (dogs don’t have to wear leashes here, yet are perfectly well-behaved). People talk quietly or not at all on public transportation, the most common word you will hear is prosim (please), and the crime rate besides pick-pocketing is actually very low. Today I watched a man jump out of his seat on the tram to help an elderly woman up the steps, and then usher her into his seat. I love this about Czech people, and I hope my fellow Americans and I will learn a thing or two about politeness while we are here.
- Nix the pudding, get some garlic. As a notoriously picky eater, I was worried about what the food would be like here. My roommates and I made an attempt to collect a pantry full of American-ish food from the grocery store, with little success. The quintessential example of this was the packet of cheap “instant pudding” that I found. After spending a solid 15 minutes translating directions from Czech (not so instant), I tasted my final product and only to discover that it was definitely not chocolate pudding. But I am branching out a little. I had garlic soup, cesnecka, and found that it was absolutely delicious. Other favorites include fried cheese, potato soup, and any kind of chicken. How they manage to stay fit in Prague is really a mystery to me.
- Řeally? I was told that Czech has a sound designated by‘ř’ that only exists in two languages in the world: Czech and the language of an obscure African tribe with only about 2,000 members. Figures. The sound is some cross between an ‘r’ and a ‘j’ that I will never be able to correctly replicate. It is a difficult language, but there is something satisfying about learning how to speak a little of it. My goal by the end of the semester is to complete some sort of interaction with a Czech person without them guessing that I don’t speak Czech.
- Take a look around. What really strikes me over and over again is the beauty and history of this city. It is everywhere. Headed to class? Wave hello to St. Wenceslas at the top of the square as you descend to the metro. Out for the evening? You can check the time at the giant astronomical clock as you pass it. I will spend 3 and a half months tirelessly exploring this city and still not see everything it has to offer.
While I suspect there will be days when I will click my heels and wish for home, I don’t think I could have been blown into a better city. I look forward to some peaceful tram rides, trying new foods, and slowly learning more about this culture.