Thursday, November 8, 2012

Look Ma: I can read!!

Box for returning library books in central Ostrava.

Yesterday, I learnt a sentence in Czech language class that I really should have learnt during my first week here: “Prominte, nerozumím. Nemluvím moc česky”, i.e. “Sorry. I don’t understand. I don’t speak much Czech”.
Until now, I’ve just been telling people in English that I don’t speak Czech, which is of course kind of rude, but I simply didn’t know how to say it in Czech. I did learn the expression "nerozumím" earlier, but whenever I was in the actual situation where I would’ve needed it, my mind just went blank and I couldn’t remember how to say it. Now – after just over 7 months of living in this country – I’m finally able to say…..well, that I don’t understand...
This could be depressing, but Czech is not really an easy language, so I haven’t set any mental deadlines for myself for when I’m supposed to be able to speak it. Here one can get “permanent resident” status only after 5 years of living in this country, so I figure that if I speak Czech in five years, I’ll be pretty happy.

When I came to this country, I did not just immigrate: I also started a new job, which has been pretty challenging. I’ve had tons of new things to learn at work, so I haven’t had much energy left over for actually studying Czech. So what I learnt during the first 6 months or so I just kind of picked up by osmosis – so I’ve been learning in the same way a child learns his or her mother tongue. I just keep hearing a word and I start to wonder what it means and then I ask or look it up. This is how I learnt the word “prominte” – sorry. I kept hearing it and it started to bother me that I didn’t know what it meant.
I always say that I study languages simply because I am really curious and it annoys me if I don’t understand what people are saying! I started studying Greek only because of one word: "paragalo" (παρακαλώ)*. I was on vacation in Greece and I kept hearing that word and did not know what it meant - and it simply drove me I started to study Greek. Strange logic, I know.  
Now that I’m officially studying Czech, it’s amazing how I am able to understand more every day. For example I have many times passed a big sign on a garage door that says “neparkovat”. Well, I guessed earlier that it probably meant something along the lines of “parking in front of the door not allowed”. However, only today did I look at it and suddenly realize that I know that verb: parkovat (infinitive) and I know how to conjugate it (parkuju, parkuješ, parkuje, parkujeme, parkujete, parkujou). I also know that all loan words that are verbs (loan verbs?) are formed in this same way, e.g. chatovat (to chat) or skypovat (to Skype). So studying Czech grammar is really starting to pay off. Our teacher is very big on grammar and in some ways I understand her because Czech grammar is pretty much a nightmare. But more on the gory details in some later post.
Not understanding a language reminds me of not being able to read as a child: you look at text and it means nothing to you; it’s just bla-bla-bla. I’ll give one example: I drink a lot of Coke Zero and on the Czech Coke Zero bottle, there’s the text: “PRAVA CHUŤ NULA CUKRU”. I had seen that text every single day for 3 months and it said nothing to me. Then one day I was looking at it and suddenly - in a flash - I understood! This was my logic: “prava” sounds similar to the Russian word “pravda” (truth, the name of a Russian newspaper). By then I had also leant the expression for “bon appetit”: dobrou chuť. So I suddenly realized that “prava chut” means “genuine taste”, or something along those lines. And then I also immediately figured out that “nula cukru” must mean “zero sugar” ("nula" as in null, "cukru" as in sucrose). Suddenly figuring this out after having been in the country for 3 months was an amazing feeling – I guess similar to how happy a child is when he or she learns something new. Oh, the simple pleasures of life abroad….  

*Paragalo, in fact, has an identical meaning to the Finnish expression "ole hyvä", i.e. it means both "you're welcome" and "here you are" (when giving somebody something).



Friday, November 2, 2012

Pink Lady Czechs out the TP

I am reading a book called "Me, Myself & Prague" (An Unreliable Guide to Bohemia) by Rachael Weiss. It was first published in 2008, and in some ways, I don't really recognize the country she is describing. It seems different from the Czech Republic I am experiencing.

Ms. Weiss is an Australian writer (with a Czech father), who moved to Prague to write. The book is a sort of humorous memoir about her experiences in adapting to a new culture. I am only on page 102, but so far I am somewhat dissapointed: it reads a bit like a personal diary. However, since I am currently in a similar situation, i.e. trying to adapt to life in the Czech Republic, it is of course interesting to compare her experiences to my own.

As I wrote above, the book was published in 2008, but of course I don't know what year it was when she actually arrived in Prague - it could have been earlier. But it seems that the Czech Republic is changing and developing really quickly in any case. Here is just one example: toilet paper (TP). Here is what Ms. Weiss writes on the subject:

"The last bastion of communism in the supermarket, though, was the toilet paper. Called 'Big and Soft' it was neither big, nor soft. It was small, one-ply, harsh, and a grim, dark-grey colour - the colour, and texture, of a cardboard box that's been left out in the rain then dried in a furnace. It was communist toilet paper if ever I saw it."

I was at Tesco's in Ostrava today and checked out the varieties of TP. I wanted to see if I could find this "communist" TP that Ms. Weiss writes about. And, sure enough, it was there. And it was possible to buy just one roll of it at a time. It may be true that in communist times this was indeed the only TP available - perhaps it was - but I have seen this kind of horrible, low-quality TP on sale in other places too: in Paris, for example. So I would not say that it is communist TP, it's just the low quality stuff. And what I've noticed in Central Europe is that there is more variety in the prices than in Finland; in Finland you pretty much only get the good quality stuff, the really cheap products or services are not available. So it's very difficult to be poor in Finland!

But back to my trip to Tesco's: not only does Tesco's sell the low-quality TP, regular TP and every kind of scented, thick, fluffy, luxury TP on the planet, it even sells the TP in the photo: Hello Kitty TP! In fact, there is a much greater variety of TP in Ostrava supermarkets than there is in Helsinki supermarkets. Ms. Weiss also commented that no matter how hard she looked in her local supermarket, she could not find olive oil; well, at Tesco's there must be about 100 different varieties of it. So whatever year it was when Ms. Weiss found only the "communist" TP in her local supermarket - that state of affairs seems to be a thing of the past: capitalism has hit the Czech Republic big time. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is, of course, debatable. Personally, I would dare say it's a bit of both.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Czech Man's (and Woman's) Best Friend

One of the first things that one notices when one spends some time in the Czech Republic is how much Czech people really love dogs. They’re everywhere!
According to “more people have dogs as pets in Prague than anywhere else in the world.” (read the full article here).

Here dogs are also allowed in pubs, coffee shops and restaurants, so it really seems like wherever you go, there are dogs.
The second thing besides the sheer quantity of dogs one notices is how amazingly well-behaved they are: the majority are not on a leash at all, but just walking happily beside their owners. Some even wait outside grocery stores for their owners without a leash. This is something I never see in Finland. In Finland dogs are off their leash only in parks. So somehow it seems that Czech people train their dogs better than people of many other nations do. Why or how, I know not.

I read on-line that the law here does require dogs to be kept on a leash (except in some parks), but at least in Ostrava, this is not enforced at all; the dogs run free and it does not seem to be a problem because they are so well-behaved.
The next thing that one notices about dogs is that some of them are wearing muzzles. This is also something I never see in Finland. When I first saw this, I wondered why many dogs, especially big ones, wear muzzles:  is it a legal requirement? Or do these dogs have a history of biting? After some googling, I found out that animals can be taken on public transport, but they must be either in a cage or bag or, in the case of bigger dogs, must wear a muzzle. So my theory about dogs being well-behaved is not shattered by this muzzle-thing after all.

In the Czech Republic, it seems that both people and dogs are well-behaved. But more about the manners of the two-legged Czech population later on…

Monday, September 3, 2012



After Prague, what’s the next thing that comes to mind about the Czech Republic? This one is obvious: beer!! Or pivo, as the locals call it. And no wonder:

·         Lager was invented in the Czech Republic (in the town of Plzen)

·         The Czechs drink more beer per capita than any other nation on Earth

·         In the Czech Republic, there seems to be a Hospoda (pub) - or two or three - on every street corner

·         Czech pubs have play areas for the little ones…and people also bring their dogs

·         In the Czech Republic, women also drink big pints of beer

·         The word pilsner comes from the Czech town of Plzen (via the German version of the town’s name Pilsen). However, the concensus seems to be that the best Czech beer is Radegast.

·         The Czechs often also drink non-alcoholic beer, for example at work events or if they’re driving. So they don’t just drink it to get drunk, they drink it for the taste (I have literally never seen a Finnish person order or drink non-alcoholic beer. The only person in Finland whom I’ve seen drink it is a Spanish friend).  

·         In the Czech Republic, the typical price of a half liter of beer is 25 Czech Crowns (CZK), which is pretty much exactly one euro (in some places it’s even less). I’ve heard a story that at one point there was talk of raising beer prices but they did not dare to try it: they were so concerned about potential riots breaking out all over the country.

·         Many people all over the world consider Czech beer to be the best in the world. Czech people of course know this to be true.

What I don’t understand is how the Czechs manage to drink so much beer when it takes forever to pour one pint! It literally takes something like 5 minutes, because the foam has to be perfect: like an ice-cream sundae on top of your pint of beer. This is the complete opposite of Finland, where the guys want their beer as fast as possible and the bartender is supposed to know how to pour it so that there is as little foam as possible (you hold the glass at an angle so as to reduce the amount of foam). If there’s foam, it slows down your drinking! You have to wait before you can drink! When I told my Czech colleagues this, they were almost horrified: what, no foam? How barbaric! The foam on the beer is the stamp of quality. If there’s no foam, the beer could have been sitting there on the counter for half an hour…disgusting.

Not being a beer drinker (I know, sacrilege…) I only understood what they meant when I compared it to how I think of that other sacred drink: cappuccino. The foam does not really and truly serve any purpose, but it just has to be there; otherwise one cannot call it a cappuccino (then it’s just a café au lait). The Czechs think about beer in the same way: if it ain’t got foam, it ain’t beer. My husband is still not convinced, but let’s see in a couple of years...

I said that I’m not a beer drinker but it’s not from a lack of trying: I’ve seriously tried to like beer because in certain situations it seems rather barbaric to not drink it: at Oktoberfest for example (where my husband and I got engaged). Or at a pub in Dublin. And yes: anywhere in the Czech Republic. So I’ve tried beer many times, but I’ve simply not managed to acquire a taste for it. The best Czech beer I’ve tasted had orange in it, it was called Fenix. It was, well…tolerable. It pains me to say it, but the best beer I’ve had in the Czech Republic was: Corona (if my Czech friends read this, I’ll probably be burnt at the stake tomorrow). And speaking of sacrilege, in the Czech Republic, where nearly 60% of the people call themselves agnostic, I would venture to say – without much exaggeration – that beer is in fact more important than religion.

Do also check out this video about why the Czech Republic is the center of the known universe: Beer Nation

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Opava, Moravia, Czech Republic
When you say “Czech Republic” to someone in Western Europe or North America, they will immediately think of Prague. Everybody knows Prague and many know that it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
But if you ask them to name another city in the Czech Republic, most people will come up empty-handed (then again, how many people can name a Finnish city other than Helsinki…if even that). Some who are very cultured may be able to name Brno (I had heard the name, but knew absolutely nothing about it). But that’s about it. Unless people have some special interest in the Czech Republic, they will certainly never have heard of the third biggest city: Ostrava, which is where I now live.

And even those who visit the Czech Republic (CR) as tourists, only visit Prague. I did the same: I had dreamt of visiting Prague for a long time because everybody raved about its beauty. And, being an architecture buff, I simply had to see it for myself. But it did not even occur to me to visit any other city in the CR (I visited Vienna on the same trip).

But all those tourists who only visit Prague are missing out on a lot: what they don’t realize is that the CR is simply chock-full of “Mini-Pragues”: cities and towns every bit as beautiful as Prague, just a bit smaller. We have so far visited the following cities in the Czech Republic: Prague, Brno, Ostrava, Olomouc, Frydek-Mistek and Opava, and every single one of them was filled with absolutely gorgeous old buildings.

The cities are clean and friendly, we feel safe everywhere and we have never had problems of any kind…well, apart from not understanding the language. However, it has been interesting to note that English seems to be more widely spoken in smaller towns such as Opava (Troppau in German) and Frydek-Mistek than it is in Ostrava. Perhaps there are simply more tourists there.

At least on our visit to Opava last Sunday we saw at least three groups of German-speaking tourists, one of which was a big tour group with a guide. And during the four and a half months that we have spent in Ostrava, we have not yet seen any tourists. People look at us funny when we take photos and some (the rare few who speak English) come to ask us what we are doing here! Well, Ostrava has been an industrial town for a long time so there are remnants of that era around and Ostrava previously had challenges with air quality. So perhaps the reputation is not so good that it would attract tourists. But we find it to be a great place to live. The one place where there are a lot of foreigners in Ostrava is the university campus: lots of Erasmus students.

Then there is of course the beautiful Czech countryside and the mountains to be explored, but since we don’t yet have a car we haven’t been able to see very much of that part so far (just glimpses from the train). So more on that later.

I am these days nuts about photography so the CR is simply a dream to visit: every little town seems to have tons of things to attract the photographer’s eye. The CR is smack in the middle of Europe and perhaps for that reason it has been conquered and dominated by one super-power after another, but at least this history has given the Czech Republic a lot of gorgeous buildings and stately homes; every cloud does have that proverbial silver lining.  

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Colour Blocking

Frydek-Mistek, Moravia, Czech Republic

Well Gentle Reader,

It seems that you have found your way to my latest blog – I most heartily welcome you!

A wee introduction is perhaps in order? I am a Finn who has recently relocated to the Czech Republic for work and, on these pages, I shall ruminate on all things Czech and, as the name of the blog implies, report also on my travels in this lovely part of Europe.

My Czech friends complain that Finns consider the Czech Republic to be a part of “Eastern Europe” even though the Czech Republic is on CET (Central European Time) and Finland on EET (Eastern European Time). I believe that what my fellow Finns mean is that the Czech Republic belongs to that group of countries that those from outside those countries refer to (a bit rudely in my opinion) as “former Soviet Block”.

Well yes, the Russians were here and few here liked it (to put it mildly). But nowadays, the Czechs are all about moving forward with economical development and those days are not on their radar at all. The Western eye does see signs of those times here and there of course, in things such as Soviet style apartment blocks. But even those buildings look completely different these days because they are painted in lovely pastel colours instead of all being the same sombre shade of grey.

It also seems that half the people I know are currently renovating their apartment or house (including yours truly). It’s as if there’s a huge backlog (pardon my foul IT language – occupational hazard) of un-renovated apartments and now everybody finally has the means to fix them up. To be honest, our own apartment is in a condition that would be unacceptable in Finland, but then again our standards are unusually high. Compared to most other countries in the world, Finns (and Scandinavians in general) are perfectionists when it comes to housing. But, lucky for me, my hubby is quite good with his hands and so our apartment will be all spic ‘n span in no time….must say I'm really looking forward to it.

I welcomed you to this blog heartily and that choice of wording was quite intentional. If I had to describe the Czech people and lifestyle in one word, that would be it: hearty. They have hearty appetites and enjoy hearty meals consisting of copious quantities of meat, potatoes and dumplings, they drink hearty pints of beer (obviously!), take hearty hikes in the fresh country or mountain air, and have hearty humour, hearty handshakes, smiles, you name it.

There is a positive openness to the Czechs; they have a vigorous energy, a brisk walk. They wake up early, get to the office or factory early and leave early so as to enjoy hearty sporting activity with their friends or to cook hearty meals with their family. They are family-oriented and attached to their places of birth. Their values and hearts are in the right place.

I must confess that I have been living here in Ostrava less than 5 months, so these musings must be taken as first-impressions-only. Yes, I am the new kid on the block (pun most heartily intended). But there is more to come as the months and the years roll by. I mentioned that I came here for work, but I did not come here as an expat with a ridiculously lofty salary and benefit package: I am here on a local contract, so yes, we are here to stay…perhaps not forever (for that’s a mighty long time), but long enough to have plans of buying a house here. Czech language lessons too will soon begin…

Stay tuned.