Thursday, October 2, 2008


After completing my first full month here in Czech Republic, I feel that it is now safe for me to address the topic of cultural differences without fear of over-stepping my still-limited knowledge of the country. As I expected long before my departure at the end of August (it seems so long ago), I have come across a number of obstacles due to the dissimilarity between the States and my new host country. Some of these differences are easy to see, – clothing, food, hairstyles, etc. – but others take more than a first impression to notice. Please note that it is the second kind of variation which takes the longest time to adjust to.

Upon first contact with Czech Republic, I noticed the obvious differences in style. It seems to me that Czech women just naturally grow into tall, impossibly thin beauties. Naturally, the clothing has been adapted to make this fact more pronounced. Most (if not all) of the girls my age, as well as many women who surpass me in years, wear “skinny jeans”, which, true to their name, cling very tightly to the wearer’s legs. Said jeans also tend to sit extremely low on the hips (to allow the perfect, flat Czech bellies to be exposed, I’m sure). I have yet to purchase a pair for myself, but I’m sure that I will eventually break down and spend a little money in order to fit in among my peers a little better. Now the perfect flat belly… I’m not sure that I can blend in that well.

The shirts have also been adjusted to “accommodate” the perfection known as the female Czech physic. Most casual shirts (as one would wear to school or on weekends) here are much shorter than one would find in stores in the States. As a result of these fashions (or possibly the fashions are the result), dress codes seem to
be all but nonexistent in schools here. That lack of discipline also applies to teachers; they can wear whatever they want any day of the week, unlike at home, where teachers have only “casual Fridays”.

It also interested me when I first arrived to find that the “punk” style is thriving among this country’s youth. The style that people in my hometown might describe as “druggie” or “bad-a**” is common-place here, which, I admit, startled me at first. The presence of black clothing, dark (slightly ridiculous) eye makeup, and completely bizarre hairstyles is a bit overwhelming at times.

The hairstyles are a culture difference all on their own. Hairstyles that seem completely irrational and strange to me can be found everywhere I look. Never before have I seen so many people with dreadlocks, and that includes the time that I spent in Bahamas. I have also noticed women walking down the street with hair cut at God-only-knows how many different lengths, looking as if they have just rolled out of bed and taken no time to look in a mirror before leaving house. And, oh the colors! Women of all ages dye their all of or sections of their hair completely random colors, including, but not limited to: bright red, pink, purple, blue and green. I have no idea why.

Among men, it seems as though haircuts are entirely optional. I see men with hair longer than mine! At the same time, I can point out a few guys with Mohawks or something similar, mullets (unfortunately), or completely shaven heads. It looks like nearly anything is possible in the world of Czech hairstyles.

As a point of clarification, these are not the “popular” hairstyles of Czech Republic. The oddities mentioned above stand out in a crowd. The average Czech wears his or her hair in a fashion comparable to hairstyles in the US, though long hair among boys is much more common here. L-O-N-G hair.

Another easily identified change that most people expect to come across is a difference in food; the culture effects what is prepared, as well as when, how, and how much. Czech people enjoy a hardy diet, similar to that of Germ
any, or so I’ve heard, involving lots potatoes and pork. I feared having to eat sauerkraut, having heard from a “reliable source” (Gordy) that it was commonplace in Czech Republic. I have yet to have sauerkraut placed in front of me (ha ha, Mom and Dad, ha ha), though I have eaten cabbage. Ivana prepares cabbage in a way that makes it less… overpowering.

Anyway, here in Czech Republic, breakfast is usually larger than what was normal for me at home. A regular weekday breakfast consists of a few small pieces of bread with some kind of topping, usually butter and jam or honey, or cheese and salami or ham, followed by a small bowl of yogurt with cereal. I also usually prepare a small pot of tea for myself in the morning to drink with breakfast. In the home I’m staying now, breakfast is larger on Sunday than any other day of the week, usually involving some fresh fruit and vegetables in addition to the previously mentioned array of food.

Although breakfast is huge compared to what I consumed at home in the States, lunch is the main meal of the day. It is tradition for a soup to be served first. Soups vary from vegetable and meat soups to bean soups to cold tomato “summer” soup (all of which are very yummy). After the soup has been consumed, one starts on the main dish, which is always some sort of very hardy food. Pork and potatoes are a common combination, as are dumplings with sauce, usually accompanied by pork or some other meat. At school, I find it a bit difficult at times to find something to eat that isn’t covered in some sort of sauce or gravy. I have this thing about soggy foods… Pork schnitzel and potatoes is probably my favorite dish from the school cafeteria. Dessert is also sometimes eaten after lunch.

Something that surprised me about both my first home and the cafeteria where I get my lunch during the school week is the constant presence of fresh fruit. There is always fresh fruit at my house, and the appearance of fruit in the school menu is not uncommon. I definitely like this change.

Dinner varies in size, sometimes proving to be just as large as lunch, but often it is smaller. When appetites are bigger, dinner is something much like lunch, consisting of many of the same kinds of foods. When we feel like eating less, or Ivana doesn’t feel like spending too much time preparing dinner, we eat something small, such as toast with scrambled eggs or bread with butter and cheese and meat – like breakfast. I think
that Ivana has a bit of a sweet tooth (which I can certainly sympathize with), so we often enjoy a small desert after dinner. When she can get away with it (which is only when Pavel isn’t home), Ivana makes something sweet for dinner as well, such as plum dumplings. Yes, they are as delicious as they sound. My host mother bakes some kind of desert nearly every week. There are at least three apple trees in my backyard, so many of the tasty treats that Ivana prepares are made with apples. All of them are delicious.

I have found that there is one sweet that Czech people enjoy that I simply cannot, however. Mák is a kind of paste made from poppy seeds and sugar. It is used in all kinds of pastries, as well as on plain pasta. The consistency of Mák is that of a… gritty paste, which makes it impossible for me to choke down. It’s the texture, not the taste. It feels a bit like eating mud (yes, I have chewed on mud before, thanks to the Lazy F mud sports a few years ago).

Speaking of inedible foods, I also found out just last night that I cannot consume hazelnuts, either. This discovery came about yesterday evening after dessert when Ivana cracked open one of the many hazelnuts that we have in the house (in addition to the apple trees, Pavel and Ivana have a hazelnut tree and a walnut tree, so we have been busy all autumn collecting the nuts as they fall). She offered me the nut, and I popped it into my mouth without a further thought, having never suffered from any food allergies. Less than five minutes later, my throat began to swell at the back of my mouth. I immediately took some Benadryl which I had thought to bring with me from home, and the swelling stopped. When I had convinced Pavel and Ivana (and myself) that I was alright and that the swelling wasn’t going to make it impossible for me to breathe or swallow, I went to bed. The swelling went away completely and all is well now, but I’ll be steering away from hazelnuts from now on, which is a shame because I rather liked the taste!

The cultural differences between the US and Czech Republic go so far beyond the obvious dissimilarities in fashion and food, though. The very way that people interact here is unlike my home. For example, hugging is nearly n
onexistent here. As someone who has always been the hugging type, this lack of physical affection is quite difficult for me to handle. You may take it for granted at home; people who know you and love you give you hugs.

Not here.
No such luck.

The interaction among family members is also very different here. Like many places, the wife and mother of a family usually takes charge of the housework. However, unlike at home, no one else is really expected to do anything to help around the house. In fact, I practically have to fight for chores, just so that I feel like I’m partially earning my keep in the house. I ask every night when Ivana is preparing dinner if there is anything that I can do to help. She always says no. I do my best to set and clear the table regularly, since there is little else that my host mom will let me do. When I catch her hanging laundry, I hurry to help, but she’s so efficient that there’s hardly ever anything for me to do. It’s difficult to know how to react.

Pavel does most of the work outside in the garden, but does little to help with the housekeeping. And by little, I mean very little, as in, he usually clears his own plate from the table after dinner, and that’s about it. I know that would definitely not fly in my home in the States, so it is difficult to cope with here.

The family dynamic is also different in the way that parents treat their children. I have seen only two extremes:
1) Parents who dote on their children, sometimes excessively. Showing love is one thing, but a few mothers here seem to try to cater to their children’s every whim.
2) Parents who… aren’t particularly… good-natured, shall we say. Czech people always seem to be in a hurry, and sometimes it seems as though parents think of their children as a hindrance, particularly when they don’t move fast enough.

However you view the parenting methods, bonds between family members are very strong here. For example, it is not uncommon for a newly wedded couple to stay with one set of parents until the couple is financially stable enough to live on their own. Parents care for their children even into adulthood, sometimes helping to buy houses for them. Families also often take trips to visit grandparents and other relatives who live elsewhere, whether in another part of town or in another city altogether.

Outside of family relations, interaction between friends is generally more formal here than in the States. As I noted before, hugs are not usual at all. Adults, upon meeting a friend, shake hands. People my age don’t even do that. Čao or Ahoj (informal ‘hello’) and a smile are usually the only greeting. It’s more frustrating than you might think – not being able to hug people… I’m not sure how I’m going to get used to it.

That’s just one difference to add to the (constantly growing) list of things I will need to get used to during my stay here. It’s an intimidating list, but it will grow shorter after a while. I know that the time will eventually come when I feel like I belong here; when I fit in with the customs and culture of the people surrounding me. I’m preparing myself for a long wait, but as long as I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I know that it’s all worth it.


Linda MacTravel said...

Hallo Karm! I have been anxiously awaiting your next post and it's a dandy! How perceptive of you to compare cultures in this manner, while the differences are still so fresh in your eyes...I'm sure as time goes by, they will seem less drastic. I just love the pictures you have included in this post - the color on those leaves is stunning and the light in the passageway just leads a person right around the definitely have "the eye" as some have told me I have! I guess it runs in the family ;-)It is so comforting to know that you are in such a caring home atmosphere and that you are feeling more and more a part of their culture. I hope you are keeping a journal, too...or, this Blog could be that for you. I still have my journal from my European trip way back in 1970, and from every trip taken since! You are looking happy and I am convinced God has placed you right where He wants you to be for the time being! We love you! Auntie Linda

Joan said...

Hi Karmin:

Wonderful to read what you are experiencing and to see the people through your eyes. Whaht a bummer about hazelnuts - they are used in a lot of European Chocolate candies. Best to know, though.

Ryan has been with us since mid-September and helping out in the winery. I sent him the link for your blog so I imagine he will
be reading your updates, too. Regardless, I am sending hugs from all of us - because you are a wonderful person and deserve to be hugged regularly!



Quirckyduck said...

You should really post a new blog...

oh. and i started one. Still working on post one...mainly cause I'm not sure what to put on here!

Tyler G. said...

I'm sorry that you have to do without hugs but just think how weard you will feel when you get back to the States. enjoy your time there and the food. God bless.