I’ve been in Prague for a little bit over a month now, and starting to adjust and get used to life here. Traveling to a new country means encountering new cultural customs and traditions, and being here in Prague is no different. There are a slew of cultural differences, a few of which I’m going to outline below. You’ll also find out what I think about them, how I’m adjusting to them so far, and how they make me think of America differently. Hopefully this can give you a little taste of how being in Prague works!
The first major difference is something that I definitely take for granted in America: free water. Out of all of the cultural differences, this is absolutely my least favorite. I never realized how great it is that I can have upwards of 4 glasses of water at a restaurant free of charge until I could no longer do so here. And if you do order water, it is often tap water from a glass bottle – and just as, or more, expensive as a Coke or a beer. Thus, if you’re like me and enjoy being hydrated, it takes a lot more effort or money.
Continuing the discussion of beverages, I must talk about beer. It is everywhere, it is cheap, it is the water of life. The Czech Republic is the beer consumption capital of the world, the home to Pilsner, Budweiser, and several other brews. It is usually the cheapest item on the menu in a restaurant or pub (yes, even cheaper than water) though it’s hard to tell if the low prices make it culturally important or if the cultural significance drives the prices down. Regardless, this is a pretty spectacular part of Czech tradition. Going to get a beer would be the American equivalent of going to get a coffee – it serves as the backdrop for any type of social interaction. (And it costs way less than Starbucks too – if you paid more than $3 for a beer you paid way too much.) Each pub has only one or two beers on tap, the most common being Pilsner, Gambrinus, Staropramen, and Kozel. However, there are some pubs that have several different types – the perfect atmosphere for trying many different brews. And if you’re ever in Prague, make sure you go to the Beer Museum in Old Town – they have around 30 different beers on tap! Plus, staying at the pub for hours on end is also really common, and easy to let happen. For example, sometimes my host parents or Czech buddies will take me to a pub. And then to another. And then another! I love it though because it is not like bar hopping in America, but it is inextricably tied to socializing and not to getting drunk. It is even rude not to say cheers, lock eyes, and clink glasses with every single person at the table individually before drinking! I could go on for a while about the beer culture (probably too long haha), but it’s really something you have to experience to understand. I think it is a way healthier mindset and is definitely making me look critically at how Americans treat alcohol.
In the domestic realm, one thing that is different is that Czechs always remove their shoes at home. Then, instead of shoes, you wear slippers around the house. Now when I heard slippers I thought of those kind you often see at hotels: really flat and fluffy and super comfy. However, here “slippers” is more like Crocs. So I have my own little pair of white Crocs that I am supposed to wear around the house. It is actually more difficult to adjust to than I thought. I often forget to wear my slippers until my family asks me why I’m not wearing them! But I think it is a great custom that shows respect to the home…and keeps your feet warm!
Another difference about European living is that everything is smaller. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s just what we are accustomed to. For example, I was showing my host family pictures of my house in Atlanta. It’s not a particularly large house, nor is it particularly small – just a typical suburban house. However, as I was going through pictures saying “this is the living room – we never use it” and “this is the dining room, which we also never use because we have another dining area in the kitchen” and “here’s the spare bedroom, spare bathroom, spare car, spare whatever” it hit me that our American lifestyles are BIG. Not that this is bad either; it just made me think of how much our outlook on life and standards of living are based on the system we live in.
About a week ago, my home stay family got a new washing machine. It fits about half the amount of clothes as an American washer – and they don’t have dryers. Luckily this washer can also function as a dryer – it takes 3 hours to dry one load – but we got into a discussion about all the differences between Czech and American washing machines and dryers. Finally Lenka (my host mom) said, “You’d think that since Communism is over that we would have the same level of [washing machine], but we still don’t.” This made me think that the way we live is a product of the system in which we were raised. Thus capitalism conditions us to want more and bigger things, whereas the more tumultuous economic and political history of Central and Eastern Europe has produced a much different perspective on what makes a proper standard of living. And I have to say I am beginning to enjoy this smaller way of life!
Off of the same theme as the last point, adjusting to not using a dryer has been an experience. At home in America I typically do a lot of laundry at once, and then not again for a couple of weeks. However, if I did that here I wouldn’t have any clothes to wear because it takes at least a day to dry my clothes! In my room I have a rack where I hang my clothes to dry. Even though it takes longer, I actually like it. Then I never have to iron anything and it just feels good to live a little simpler.
When I first came to Prague, I was not so happy with the idea of having to take public transportation every day to get everywhere. In Atlanta and at school in Indiana I am so used to driving everywhere, usually taking the fastest route possible in order to not waste time. Thus I was not looking forward to having to commute at least 30 minutes to get to school every morning. However, after a few weeks of acclimating to Prague public transport, it is making me a lot more appreciative. And not more appreciative of the fact that I have a car back in the States, but more appreciative of time and of public transport itself. I am slowly learning to be patient, to not get mad when the bus is 2 minutes late or what not. I am learning that time devoted to commuting is not time necessarily time wasted, but visible evidence of a slower, simpler way of life. And I think this is an important lesson in independence – or dependence. When I drive my own car places, I am (for the most part) in control: I can decide when I leave, which way I go, and how fast I get there. However, here I am completely dependent on a system that I cannot change and have no control over. I can’t make the tram go faster, or tell the tram to take a different route because of traffic. Rather than being my own independent, impatient, driving maniac, I have to relax and become more dependent upon the society in which I am living. I’m not very good at being patient, however – the bus is ALWAYS late – but I am working on it!
One of the harder things to adjust to is the difference in the restaurant industry. I work a restaurant at home, so I know that there is a strict time schedule to getting customers in and out as fast as possible, all while keeping them in a good mood. The same does not apply here in Prague. There are no time expectations when dining, especially if you’re eating at a pub. Sometimes, it takes 10 minutes before someone even comes to greet us! Now this has been a bit hard to adjust to, but I’m beginning to like the slower pace. Instead of an eat-and-go mentality, I now see mealtime as a time to socialize and actually enjoy the food and atmosphere. I have never felt bad for staying at a restaurant for a couple of hours just hanging out and talking with my friends, and that is something I would never do at home. It seems to me that mealtime is appreciated a lot more: it is not merely a time to eat, but a time to rest, relax, and enjoy each other’s company, and of course the food!
Another difference is that waiters and waitresses are not necessarily very nice and hospitable. The general perspective in public service is that the customer is always wrong, as opposed to the American sentiment that the customer is always right. This doesn’t mean that they are angry or don’t care, the customer just isn’t necessarily entitled to spectacular food service. Furthermore, the waiters aren’t working for tips. They are paid a normal salary and don’t rely on tip money to make a living. Thus, with no incentive to be the kindest, most helpful server, most of them are just indifferent. They simply do their job and nothing more. At first I found it cold and impersonal, but now I’m starting to see the good in not having a waiter come by every 5 minutes to see if everything is all right. However, it is difficult sometimes to get the waiter’s attention, and that can get annoying if you are in a hurry. There is also just a general aversion to smiling at people in public. Throughout the Communist era, smiling at someone was seen as skeptical: that person must be smiling because they know something that I don’t. This then translates into the public service atmosphere. So while it may be nice to see a smile every once in a while, I am generally enjoying the slowed down, peaceful dining pace.
There are so many more cultural differences, but these are just a few that I have had to try to adjust to in the last month. I hope they give you a bit of an inside look into Prague life. More importantly I hope that they make you think about your own culture, because I think that you must remove yourself from your own bubble in order to truly evaluate it. I’m really starting to see how a nation’s history—both in the Czech Republic and American – influences the everyday life, customs, and perspective of the people who live there.