I’m a pretty big believer in smiling…I think it’s the easiest way to brighten someone’s day besides giving out free cookies, it takes very little effort, and you can do it to complete strangers. It’s something I notice right away when I meet a new person, and I’ve always believed that on the whole, people really underutilize their smiles. Consequently, I became aware immediately after arriving in the Czech Republic of the lack of smiling and outward signs of happiness.
Whether I’m wandering the streets around my apartment, sitting on the tram to go to class in the mornings, or standing in line at the market, everyone is very reserved with their emotions and therefore have seemed pretty cold. I’m big on warmth and openness to strangers, so it actually makes me a little uncomfortable- I’ll smile at the cashier at the store and try my best Czech greetings, and usually I just get a blank look back. Then I just feel awkward. Because I don’t speak the language, I’m unable to bridge the gap and form much of a connection with the people I come in contact with, and unfortunately here smiling hasn’t always worked. Maybe it has something to do with the country’s fairly recent communist past.
When someone in my Czech class asked our teacher why everyone seemed so unfriendly here, she gave an interesting answer. She told us that much of the younger generation has somewhat of a disdain for the older generation because of the past communist rule; they feel that the older generation “let” the communists take over, and that there is quite a strain between the age groups. I’ve also observed, and my teacher confirmed, that middle-aged and older Czechs tend to not take care of their outward appearance much; the men wear grungy clothing and tend to not be well-groomed, and many women do not wear makeup, do not wear any sort of feminine clothing, and therefore seem somewhat drab and seem to age more quickly. Although they may be perfectly happy, to us westerners, their outward appearance exudes unhappiness and no sense of well being.
On the opposite end of this, I’ve had a lot of fun encounters with younger Czechs. They learn English from a young age in school, so this of course helps. On a Wednesday night a couple weeks ago, a few friends and I found a small, trendy bowling alley/pub right up the street from our apartment in Zizkov (I don’t think you’ll find places like this anywhere else in Prague!). There was a group of about eight Czechs that looked around our age, and after noticing them intently watch us bowl gutter ball after gutter ball for about 15 minutes, I went to talk to them. As soon as I approached, one of the girls literally jumped up to meet me and told me that all of her friends wanted to talk to us but were wary of their English. I assured them that I was sure communication would be absolutely no problem. I brought them over to my group, where the language barrier proved to be a non-issue; part of the fun in these situations is deciphering and translating words and phrases that are unsure. I spoke to the first girl I met for quite some time; she was 22 and wanted to be an English teacher. She was incredibly sweet and outgoing, interested in America, and insisted that we go out together in the following few weeks.
She added me on Facebook the very next day, and just a few days ago asked me if I’d be interested in meeting once a week to help with her English once a week. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to with my school schedule and travel plans, especially because I know I tend to overextend myself when I get excited about things like this, but either way I think it’s pretty cool, and I plan to get to know her over the next few months.
I’m currently on the tail end of an eight-hour bus ride back to Prague from Krakow, Poland, where my program sponsored a weekend trip. I don’t think my tailbone has ever hurt so badly…I haven’t shifted positions in about three hours. We went to Auschwich-Birkenau yesterday, about an hour from Krakow, which was a difficult experience to describe, and even after being there it’s a tough place to fathom. Krakow was absolutely fantastic, and especially being part Polish, I really enjoyed my time there. The center of the city is surprisingly cozy and lively, and the people were extremely friendly. I ate at least 15 pierogies, which are dumplings often filled with meat, sauerkraut, cheese, potatoes, or fruit. One of my favorite places was a market in the main square that had all sorts of jewelry, toys, clothes, and memorabilia. When I was younger, my grandpa, whose parents were both Polish, brought home dolls from Poland for all of us grandkids, and I found a stand that sold dolls identical to these. He passed away a few years ago, and seeing them and thinking about him was pretty emotional.
This past week was pretty warm in Prague, a few days even reaching the 50s, and I was able to do a lot of exploring, (the pictures below are from Petrin Hill, which after a bit of a hike showcases amazing views of the city) which was fantastic. It’s supposed to be back in the 30s this week though, so the winter coat and boots are unfortunately coming out once again.