Czechs and Polish

Neighbors
Neighbors.

Last week wasn’t really a good one for Czech-Polish relations.

The controversy began from one of the most unlikely places possible: a cell phone commercial. T-Mobile, the German telecommunications giant, has a strong foothold in the Czech market, whose commercials here are quite humorous, bringing in a slew of recognizable Czech actors and comedians. Even without a television or radio, T-Mobile retains a strong presence on YouTube, meaning that just before you watch something, viewers will often see one of the company’s brief ads. It’s an inescapable market presence for many consumers.

Last week, the company aired a commercial depicting a Czech teacher leading students on a cross-country skiing outing, somewhere in the mountainous forest near the Czech-Polish border. Stopping to get a call with his phone that doesn’t seem to work, a spruce tree next to him turns around, revealing a camouflaged moustached Pole with a million dollar smile, who opens his jacket to reveal a hodgepodge of items Americans would normally find at a dollar store, including what seems to be discounted smartphones. Grinning, the Czech teacher points to the new phones, which the merchant, speaking in over-the-top Polish, proudly declares that they are new American models, and offers an exchange. Struggling to understand, the naive Czech nods, handing over his old phone for a new one. Yet once he presses the phone’s screen to turn it on, the phone immediately breaks. Turning to complain, the Czech notices that the Polish merchant is nowhere to be seen. Later in the commercial, the Czech starts attacking innocent spruce trees, demanding his phone back while his bemused students look on. 

When the commercial aired, it got quite a few chuckles from its Czech audience, and at first went by without incident. Even I watched it over YouTube and had a bit of a laugh. Yet when word spread to neighboring Poland, a shitstorm immediately erupted. Soon enough, the Polish ambassador was crying foul, complaining that the ad depicted Poles as untrustworthy and greedy tricksters. Overnight, the commercial became a major news headline in both nations for all the wrong reasons. YouTube copies proliferated, becoming a source of bane for Polish and Czech comment trolls alike. Within a few hours, an embarrassed T-Mobile yanked the ad and apologized for any offense it had caused.

Such is the relationship between Poland and the Czech Republic. Two countries, so different yet so much like, who can step on each other’s toes over the slightest of things.

How similar are the two?

Is the border still in the mind?

Is the border still in the mind?

Both Czechs and Polish are Slavs, descendants from a common background of culture, linguistics, and genetics. One of the earliest legends in both nations–written down in the early Middle Ages–depicts the brothers Lech and Čech (and sometimes Rus, depending on the version you read) leading their peoples to their respective lands. Čech went south and ended up on Říp Mountain. From there, he became the forefather of the Czech Lands. Meanwhile Lech went north to go hunting on the plains. After finding a nesting white eagle backdropped against a setting sun, Lech thought it was a good sign and settled his people there, where the land became Poland. Although both men are a myth without any merit, it shows that even in the earliest recorded history of both peoples, both acknowledged a common beginning without the use of language or scientific DNA.

Besides their languages being similar (yet not completely intelligible to the other), both have a shared history. Both Bohemia and Poland were once powerful medieval states. Both were subjected to long occupations from neighboring empires. Both faced the onslaught of fascism at roughly the same time. Both were subjected to extremely harsh and unsympathetic communist regimes. Both entered the European Union at the same time.

Yet there are differences too. While the Polish have embraced Catholicism to become some of its strongest European adherents, Czechs have always been suspicious of organized religion, whether it be the Hussites or today’s contemporary mainstream atheism. When Czechoslovakia was swallowed into the Third Reich, Czechs resisted passive-aggressively, becoming only overwhelmingly hostile when the end of the Reich was obvious. In Poland, the Poles resisted both Germany and the Soviet Union tooth and nail at nearly every available moment. The Czech resistance movement to communism was led by playwrights, bohemians and intellectuals, the kinds of people that communist regimes traditionally found support from, yet in Czechoslovakia they were its most boisterous critics. In Poland, the resistance was led on by working class shipyard workers who found allies in the spiritual support of the Catholic church. Czechs largely shun and distrust nationalism, only seeming to display it during important hockey tournaments. Poles are among one of Europe’s most patriotic peoples, with the national white and red flag flown often throughout the country.

9096216There are other obvious differences too. Poland is three times as large as the Czech Republic, and has nearly three times its population. For years, the Czechs were among the most developed and strongest of the former Eastern Bloc states. Today, Poland is arguably the strongest and most robust economically. Infrastructure projects are found in full swing all across Poland, while the general feeling in the Czech Republic is that perpetual graft and unstable governments have slowed investments and has brought unbearable delays.

Bear in mind that I have lived in three countries in my life: the US, Germany, and the Czech Republic. In all three, I feel very much at home in. I also feel quite at home in Canada too, thanks to my numerous travels to British Columbia in the past. Last but not least, I feel very comfortable and at home in Poland also. Wrocław and Kraków are easily some of my favorite European places, with Wrocław being a city I can easily imagine living in.

Czech and Polish signs for Český Těšín.

Czech and Polish signs for Český Těšín.

For me, it’s hard and at times surprising when listening to the bickering and stereotypes between Czechs and Poles. As an American, I’m neutral to the things I hear. I have very strong personal connections between both countries, so it’s better to remain an observer.

Sometimes, I’ll hear the Polish complain about the Czechs “baby-like” language, their aloofness to practical concerns, their lack of faith, their arrogance, their German wannabe-ism, their passive-aggressiveness, their alcohol poisonings. After all, anything that you don’t understand is a “Czech film.” Yet overall, the general feeling is that Czechs are quite a likable people who have a similar history, good beer, and are easy to get along with.

Sometimes, I’ll hear the Czechs complain about Polish directness, their blunt statements, the quality of their food, the cz-sz-rz-wrz sounds of their language, their stealing, their driving habits, their slowness. The Polish are similar, but are too different to be very close with, some Czechs will say.

How much of this is Little Country vs. Big Country Syndrome, I don’t have an answer.

All of this made me think of Mariusz Surosz, a Polish writer who operates largely out of Prague. He asked probably one of the best questions and blunt truths about the Czech-Polish relationship: after living next to each other for over a thousand years, do Czechs and Polish really know each other? 

I guess the answer with the T-Mobile commercial was that they’re still learning. I guess more Ewa Farna concerts are in order.

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Mikuláš, the “Other” Christmas

confused santa

Huh?

Today is St. Nicholas Day.

If you’re from a mainly Protestant nation (think Scandinavia) or from a predominantly Anglophone country (the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and to an extent South Africa), your average response might be: what?

In the Czech Republic, however, one cannot escape Mikuláš. 

Just who exactly is Mikuláš? For starters, Svatý Mikuláš z Myry (in Czech) is Saint Nicholas of Myra. That’s right. It’s the same inspiration for jolly ol’ St. Nick that most American and Canadian kids know as Santa Claus, or Father Christmas for British children. Whereas the Anglo-Saxon St. Nick has evolved into a humorous fat man arriving in the wee hours of Christmas morning, Mikuláš dresses not unlike an elderly Roman Catholic bishop, tall, thin, and stern. Unlike our Santa Claus, who arrives on December 25, Mikuláš arrives on the evening of December 5. For Czechs, Baby Jesus (Ježíšek) does all the work that our obese Santa would do, though on December 24, giving St. Nick other things to do in the meantime.

The Devil, St. Nicholas and the Angel.

The Devil, St. Nicholas and the Angel.

This is the tradition for most Central European nations with Catholic histories, and the Czech Republic–even with its strong atheist mindset–is no exception. Unlike our Santa Claus, who pays visits to shopping malls or public places before Christmas, with overly-excited or terrified children lining up to sit on his lap to nervously tell him all they want under the Christmas tree, Mikuláš tours Czech neighborhoods how a Catholic priest from the Middle Ages would, checking on the souls of his parishioners. As support, Mikuláš is usually joined by a placid-faced female angel (anděl) and a black-faced, poofy-haired devil (čert). Around neighborhoods the trio go, knocking on doors of apartments and houses to speak with children.

While Santa Claus might briefly ask if the child has been good or not during an encounter at the mall, a meeting with the Mikuláš trio can feel like a mini-interrogation for small Czech children. Upon encountering them on a street or after being invited into a home, the angel will ask children if they’ve been good this year; the devil will turn to ask if they’ve been bad, perhaps with some outlandish threats of being dragged to hell if they weren’t. Always, children will respond that they’ve been good, may recite a small song to the trio, followed by Mikuláš and company giving away gifts or sweets. If they’ve been bad, children may be given a potato or a lump of coal for their naughtiness, or even a bit of chastising from Mikuláš. 

For those of us originating from the Anglo-Saxon world (and North America in particular), having the devil show up at your door during the most exciting month of the year for a child might be a little hard to swallow. The thought of Santa Claus or any other holiday figure threatening their kids with hellish eternal damnation would likely make many American and Canadian parents cringe. Instead, our tradition seems to opt for the more cheery yet passive-aggressive St. Nick who’s omnipresent, no matter where you are or what you’re doing:

He’s making a list
And checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

However, as my Czech friends have told me, having an angel as part of the Mikuláš trio makes a good balance, smoothing what could be a potentially terrifying situation into something strangely surreal, becoming more comforting and nostalgic as children advance into adulthood.

This is what it’s like to be a kid in the Czech Republic. As a child, you are either in awe or terror of meeting Mikuláš and his pals during your young years, and as the great David Sedaris once wrote about the same day in The Netherlands, you turn around and repeat it as an adult. The cycle continues and the tradition survives for another generation.

If one thing’s for certain, Czech parents and children alike can console themselves that they don’t live in Austria, where St. Nicholas is accompanied not by any angel or a cartoonish devil, but instead by the demonic Krampus.

And yes. Krampus is downright frightening.

Hallo Kinder...

Hallo Kinder…