Monday, October 31, 2005

The Good

First, I must salute Sandra and her mother out in Toronto: when I asked what I should do about getting cheaper internet here, and mentioned the Český Telecom offer, they boldly called the company and asked about it. Next thing I knew, they had signed me up for it and all I have to do is get the ADSL modem. This is even though Sandra doesn’t think she will want to keep the service once I leave. I have never rented an apartment from anyone so efficient in my life. I can see why her employer here let her take a leave of absence; they are anxious not to lose her.
Second, I see that Kristen has felt the need to point out that her comments about Moscow should not be taken as an extended complaint about the city or about Russia in general, but merely as a description of what she encounters and how life there is different from life in Pittsburgh. She does, after all, like Moscow and Russia.
Let me state that while I, too, enjoy complaining (and have been assured that it is a suitably Czech thing to do), I am actually quite happy here. The irritations of daily life are not worse than those I experience at home, merely different. Prague is one of my favorite places to live. It is, just as all the guidebooks say, an extraordinarily beautiful place (at least, now that not all the buildings are obscured by soot). It has stunning buildings and gorgeous trees. The food is excellent (if you like Czech and Italian cuisine, which I do). The transit system is extremely efficient, if sometimes overcrowded. Violent crime is nearly nonexistent, and people roam the streets freely until somewhat after the night trams start, at which point it is safe but not much fun to try to get home. The populace is generally good-tempered in public, and someone or other on the tram will always get up for the less-mobile, assist in pulling a baby carriage on-board, or make an effort to help out a confused tourist. (Of course, those of us who speak some Czech do find that not everyone really knows how to speak slowly when asked, but people will usually repeat themselves, even if at the same rapid pace.)
While some Americans do complain of the restaurant service, thinking it is a relic of communism, it is nothing of the kind. In my experience, under communism waiters did not really see any reason to take orders or bring food, whereas now, they are highly efficient and usually good-natured. They always know when you have finished a drink or a plate of food, and carry off the evidence instantly (if one plans to spear food off a neighbor’s plate, it is best to hang onto the fork); unlike American waitstaff, they do not perpetually inquire (breaking up intimate conversation or causing one to spit up a mouthful of food) whether everything is okay. Generally they total up the bill with great speed, and as a rule they are happy to add up separate checks as this (I am told) means they will probably get more in tips.
It is true that people usually assume that I am Czech until I open my mouth, but this is fine with me. It means that people are always asking if I have any headache pills, if they can borrow my pen for a moment, if the arriving tram is the sedmička, if the bottle of Becherovka on the grocery shelf is the 750ml or the 1-liter, if the train for the Českomoravská stop comes on the left or the right side of the platform, or even (bizarrely) if I would be interested in buying some perfume on the street. This fits with my observation that, internationally, I seem to be a person whom others automatically assume can guide them. Usually this takes the form of asking for directions; when I was apartment-hunting in Washington, I had the opportunity to tell others how to find various streets, and when I went to Munich for spring break, I was able to advise (albeit in broken German) how to locate the music school. When my friend Cesar visited me in Washington, it became manifestly clear that people regarded me as the one to ask for directions and him as the one to ask to take their picture. Not one person asked him for directions, nor did anyone ask me to take their picture in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I’m not sure what this means, other than that I don’t seem dangerous, but so long as my students don’t all want headache pills or to have me read labels for them, it should be useful in my teaching career.

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