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.

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…

The Curious Case of Miloš Zeman

As many Czechs and Slovaks remembered the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution yesterday, a different sort of public outcry transpired here in the capital, this time directed not at the government as a whole, but particularly on one single man, Czech President Miloš Zeman.

Speaking in the heart of Prague along with the presidents of Slovakia, Germany, Poland, and Hungary, Zeman received one of the most unpleasant welcomes any politician could have:

The very mention of Zeman’s name brought the crowd of thousands to hiss, boo and throw eggs at the head of state. To Zeman’s right at 0:29, German President Joachim Gauck and Polish President Bronisław Komorowski looked at each other as the crowd turned hostile and began an egg barrage of their Czech counterpart, with looks that could have said, God, I’m glad I’m not this guy.

Gauck and Komorowski are both quite popular in their homelands. They’re relatively uncontroversial, act mostly as figureheads, are widely respected, and most importantly, aren’t magnets to controversy. Both president’s speeches, particularly Komorowski’s, were warmly received by the Prague crowd. So why wasn’t Zeman’s?

JZL4ab427_59_M8_10_2If you’re an expatriate in the Czech Republic and aren’t living under a rock, you’re bound to hear the cacophony of public opinion about the Czech head of state at some point during your stay. Virtually every Czech has some opinion of him, and almost no one is neutral. If you live outside of the country, you may have stumbled upon Zeman’s name on YouTube or even in a newspaper, usually for not the most flattering of things.

For starters unfamiliar with the president, Zeman’s political career goes back to the end of the communist regime. A member of the Communist Party, Zeman was kicked out of the party in the early 1970s for disagreeing with the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, exiling Zeman out of the apparatus and into a sports organization. In the 1980s, Zeman’s continued struggle with the party (especially over economic criticism) earned him a place with leading dissidents just in time for the Velvet Revolution. After the regime’s  collapse in 1989, Zeman was elected to parliament, where he joined the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), and rapidly became one of its leading members. By the Velvet Divorce, Zeman was at the helm of the ČSSD, making the party one of the most powerful in the new Czech Republic. Serving as prime minister between 1998 to 2002, Zeman stayed a member of the ČSSD until 2007, when personality rifts within his own party forced his own exit. Shortly afterwards,  Zeman retired from politics to his home in the countryside. However, by 2012, laws on the country’s selection of the presidency had been changed, removing parliament’s prerogative over solely electing the president and letting it be decided by popular vote. Zeman staged a political comeback, and after defeating a slew of other candidates, won the presidency in 2013.

Zeman’s election between 2012-2013 was particularly nasty. His main rival, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, suggested during the campaign that the forced removal of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II would constitute as a war crime today. In return, Zeman played the nationalist card, calling Schwarzenberg a sudeťák, a derisive Czech name for Sudeten Germans, during a live television debate. Zeman taunted the foreign minister for his clearly recognizable Austrian heritage, as well as berating Schwarzenberg’s wife for speaking German instead of Czech.

Such is the gift of Zeman’s silver tongue, developed after years of confronting communists, parliamentarians, cabinet members, the opposition, and fellow socialists alike. Zeman’s straight gruff talk and his legendary intake of cigarettes and hard alcohol also enabled him to reach a sense of endearment with many working class Czechs outside of the cities.

The 2013 Presidential Election

The 2013 Presidential Election

The nationalist card played well. Zeman’s sea of red dominated much of the rural landscape, while Schwarzenberg appealed to the more educated and cosmopolitan centers of the country, like Prague and its suburbs, Plzeň, Brno, České Budějovice, and Liberec.

Once becoming president, however, Zeman immediately began to face a massive image problem.

During the opening of the Bohemian crown jewels in 2013, an uncontroversial event typically occurring every five years, Zeman stood with the stiff-lipped prime minister, Petr Nečas, wobbling his head, grasping for walls, and leaning dangerously over the medieval jewels as if he was ready to puke. While the president’s office later claimed that Zeman had “a virus,” the universal consensus from all my Czech colleagues, students, and people I met on the street, from Prague to Náchod, was singular: that man was shit-faced drunk.

Thanks to YouTube, Zeman became a source of amusement nearly overnight.

And it didn’t stop.

Later that year, Zeman’s relatively attractive young daughter, Kateřina, appeared in a club orgy porn movie. Although she wasn’t in any of the action (and Kateřina vigorously denied she was present), the young woman dancing suggestively and bursting with cleavage is undoubtedly her. Either that or she has doppelganger on the loose in Prague.

The downfall of Petr Nečas and his government from a massive corruption and spy scandal unrelated to Zeman in 2013 would also come to hurt his reputation. Replacing Nečas as premier, the president chose Jiří Rusnok, a close confidant of Zeman to become prime minister. The only problem was that Rusnok lacked basic support in parliament to even carry on a government, with many parliamentarians believing Rusnok to be only a Zeman puppet, and that the president was overstepping his constitutional authority. Humiliatingly, parliament forced Rusnok out within a few months during a vote of confidence, marking fresh elections. In return, Czech voters ushered in Zeman’s old party, the ČSSD, back into the government, while Zeman’s own upstart party, SPOZ, managed only a meager 1.5% of the vote. In the weeks to follow, Zeman consistently dragged his feet in appointing a new prime minister and cabinet, citing bad security clearances, a lack of education, or government experience. Instead of letting the prime minister and cabinet begin their work, the president created a constitutional crisis of his own making before finally backing down.

2014 hasn’t been particularly kind to Zeman either. A speech to the European Parliament was met with laughs due to Zeman’s lack of proper English pronunciation, making “bubble gum” sound like “bubble bum.” Nothing controversial or career ending, but embarrassing nonetheless.

By the end of 2014, Zeman’s goofs were beginning to pile up. During a visit to China in October, the president suggested that Taiwan be returned to the People’s Republic, a statement that no other European leader had dared to make. His return from China aboard a Czech corporate jet rather than a state airplane further ruffled feathers. Then came Zeman’s highly unusual expletive-filled tirade on live Czech radio against his detractors and Russian punk band Pussy Riot a few weeks ago, where the head of state went into excruciating vivid detail on what the word pussy meant in English. More bizarrely, Zeman launched into a series of fucks and cunts over the live broadcast, something unthinkable for any elected leader in the industrialized world to say so publicly. Effectively siding with the Russian government’s stance of prosecuting the “pornographic” Pussy Riot, Zeman ruffled the Czech dissident community and government alike, a particularly sensitive topic considering the crushing of bohemian artistic dissent in 1970s communist Czechoslovakia, as well as the present state of frosty relations with Russia. When asked to explain his highly abusive words, Zeman responded that this was how his foes, the intellectual types, or the “Prague cafes,” as he labels  many of his critics, speak about issues.

Public intoxication, family decadence, a disregard to Asian foreign policy, overstepping constitutional authority, swear words, and a closeness to Putin during awkward times in Ukraine, have made much of Prague’s citizenry decidedly cold to the head of state. Thus, the hurling of eggs and flashing red cards at Zeman on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, as crude as it may have been, is not really shocking. 224-03f-Zeman_destnik_CTK3He was never particularly loved in the capital, and has isolated himself even more from the country’s other urban centers by his antics and policy positions. It comes to no surprise that many in Prague are counting the days to the next election. Of course, Prague isn’t the Czech Republic, so it still remains to be seen if those in the countryside, the salt and earth of Zeman’s base, will follow the urban rejection of Zeman’s rocky, topsy turvy presidency.

 

Image

The Little Mother

DSCN1519

Winter in the city.

Prague.

Let that word sink into your mind for a moment.

What did you think of?

When I was younger, growing up in the Santa Cruz mountains in Northern California, I knew nothing of this city until November 1989. Sitting in my TV room, still cracked and disorganized from our earthquake a month before in October, I watched the Velvet Revolution unfold through ABC News. I was eight years old at the time and didn’t understand a thing about communism, 1968, the Cold War, or anything geopolitical. Without any of that background, I knew from the scenes I watched that somewhere in a faraway land that I could hardly pronounce, a lot of people were angry. From those images, the word Prague conjured somewhere dark. Forbidden. Maybe a little gothic. Cold. Somewhere in Europe’s east. So went my first introduction.

A few months later, one of my neighbors, a friendly older university librarian with a bohemian family, had one of his sons return from backpacking in Czechoslovakia. One of the outfits the son always wore was a black t-shirt from one of his favorite pubs in Prague, with the shirt loudly proclaiming towards its bottom the pub’s history going back to 1295. Decades later, I realized that my neighbor’s son was part of that first wave of American visitors to Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s, capitalizing on newly-opened borders, cheap beer and food, new frontiers, easy jobs, and maybe even finding the new Paris resembling what the Lost Generation flocked to in the 1920s. Still to this day, I wonder what pub in Prague my neighbor’s son had liked so much, wondering even if it even still exists today. If it had survived everything since 1295, I guess it still does.

Two decades later, I find myself living and working here in the Little Mother, as Kafka once called it. Having studied for my master’s degree in Germany for two and a half years, and then living in the eastern Czech city of Hradec Králové for a year, I was transferred to Prague for my work as an English teacher in the summer of 2013.

There’s so much to say about this place. There’s so much to tell about this country.

So, I’ve decided to start this blog to tell you what it’s like here, as well as to also describe other places that come past. This isn’t trying to be some vanity project, but rather work as an open diary about the place I now call home, along with the experiences that come with it.