Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Good and the Bad

Now that my parents have safely departed (and reached the Western Hemisphere), and I have had a few days to recover from so much intensive visiting, a variety of observations come to mind.
First of all, it is clear to me that while some people actually regard me as extroverted, they are sadly mistaken. I have always been well aware that I fall somewhere in the middle of the chart, since on those personality questionnaires my answer to the question about whether I relax by going to a party or hiding in my bedroom is invariably "it depends." I am a sociable enough person under the right circumstances, but I can only take so much human contact before the zombification process begins to take over. Fortunately this mainly occurred while I was driving and needed only to worry about whether my headlights were set properly (I have now received the obligatory ticket for putting them at the wrong setting).
Second, I am glad to say that car rental is no harder in the Czech Republic than at home, but that no one in their right mind would want to drive in Prague. Being accustomed to city traffic in San Francisco and other places (Manhattan proved not nearly as troublesome as advertised), I was not so much alarmed by the traffic as inclined to fret that if only I were on the tram, life would be so much better. Fortunately, the need to drive in Prague was minimal, as we only used the car to go to places like Uterý, Rakovník, Merklín, Přeštice, Kutná Hora, and Ostrov. I was also greatly startled at how well I could find my way around the city in the car despite never having driven there in my life. This was even in neighborhoods where I had never really previously wandered. Czech signage, however, takes getting used to and is sometimes just not there.
Before I got the rental car, and had all the visits arranged, we actually had some free time and took trams around Prague. I've always been impressed with the Czech custom of giving seats to the elderly, the disabled, and people with small children, but it seemed that absolutely every tram we got onto lacked free seats and required someone to get up for my parents. They did so very reliably and pleasantly.
Nearly everyone we visited was someone I've known for many years and feel quite fond of. This is, naturally, on the whole a good thing. On the other hand, it's just like having relatives. If someone thinks you don't visit enough, or something like that, you can be in for trouble. So long as you live in a distant foreign land and only show up every few years, all is well. One the other hand, if you live in the same general area, well, then why don't you call or visit more often? Where on earth have you been? The fact that you work all day and spend most of your evenings contentedly at home alone recovering from reading all that Czech all day long just doesn't excuse you. On the other hand, everyone claimed my Czech was great. I wouldn't go so far as to agree with that, but I did feel pretty fluent the whole time. The only time I really missed something important was when in the midst of a discussion of something else, our hostess inquired whether I thought it was time for lunch. I thought she sounded like she was asking about lunch, but this seemed so improbable that I didn't believe my ears. After all, we had just eaten a platter of sandwiches and several kinds of dessert. I had forgotten that she likes to change topic with baffling speed while you're still on Topic A.
Understanding most of what people say is not always so great, however. When we stayed with some people my parents had gotten to know without me, the elderly materfamilias took a liking to me and favored me with a long, long, diatribe about the difference between the nice, concert-going American liberators and the nasty, brutish Russians who tore paintings out of their frames. That part was nothing new to me, but after awhile I tired of hearing how the majority of Russians are an Asiatic horde of animals, especially when she got going on the Yellow Peril. I hadn't even known that the Czechs used this term (Žlutý nebezpečnost). I thought it went out of style in the US around 1925, or at least by 1950. Well, sometime before my time.
Other people also had their say about the Russians, and while dislike of Soviet control is one thing, I had never before gotten such a sense that the generally sane, educated people of my acquaintance had anything particular against the Russian people (and I daresay most of them don't). And then, admittedly not from anyone I had previously been acquainted with, all sorts of garbage about how the Arabs are just waiting to cut other people's throats in the night. What century are we in? Why should it be so unbelievable that some Arabs are terrorists and others aren't? Even the average terrorist is not going to waste time going to your house and individually slitting throats. Did Timothy McVeigh bother slitting throats? Certainly not, he blew up a federal building. The same applies to the minority of Arabs who go in for terrorist activity. If you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, too bad. Otherwise, chances of death by terrorism are not all that high, especially in your average Czech village.
It appears, however, that Czech TV has been feeding people here the same kind of ill-digested scare material as American TV feeds its viewers. I do not take well to having to argue with people I've always regarded as intelligent and reasonable, over the alleged need to build a wall between the US and Mexico. Sure, illegal immigration is sometimes a problem. I would not deny that having more poor people puts a strain on local resources. But a wall? Since when are the Mexicans enemies? Didn't the Mexican-American war end more than 150 years ago? If Mexican workers are willing to do jobs that American workers don't want, let them have the work (and don't kill them with unsafe working conditions). ...Well, but they'll have more children and outnumber the white Americans! (I confess this nearly stupefied me coming from someone who's not even American and shouldn't be subject to this sort of notion.) WHO CARES if they outnumber the white Americans someday? Over a hundred years ago Americans were obsessing over the danger of the Irish and Italians. I've got close relatives descended from Africans, Asians, Mexicans, and who knows what else, and this does not bother me in the slightest. However, if we're going to build a wall against Mexico I guess we need one against Canada and had better build a bubble around the US so that no one can come in or go out.
As if this sort of thing were not enough, I suspect we know only one Czech who shows any sign of grasping why anyone would live with a rabbit, and that it's about the same as living with a cat or dog. I grant that there is a cultural gap here, in that Czechs are deeply invested in rabbits as food and are averse to the idea that any animal they view as dinner could possibly be good company. However, my family has had house rabbits on and off for something close to fifty years, so it should be no news to any of our friends by this time. I am very tired of explaining that rabbits are clean animals (when healthy) who use a litter box, that they are friendly, intelligent, and playful, and that they enjoy being talked to and petted. None of this is classified information. I don't know why three people discoursing on the merits of house rabbits and how nice they are to have around cannot persuade an audience that it isn't a law of nature that rabbits are best stuck in a shed somewhere out of sight. I mean, really, my family is tired of hearing how great rabbit meat is and that rabbits are dirty, smelly animals. If we were dealing with the average dog-obsessed Czech, I would have pointed out that dog meat is very popular around the world, but I let it suffice to have my parents explain that rabbits are much cleaner than dogs. Dirtiness has never stopped humans from making any animal into a pet, probably because humans are also dirty.
Well, there are my rants in response to other people's peculiar and annoying notions. I made my opinions known in a somewhat more abbreviated form at the time. But apart from such things, and getting thoroughly exhausted, I mostly enjoyed our visits.

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Blogger Kristen said...

I know exactly what you've been through. It used to just throw me sideways when a Russian of my acquaintence who seemed perfectly nice, well educated and rational would suddenly go all anti-Semitic on me. I suggest a nice, (rabbit-free!) meal, alone in your favorite cafe as a recovery strategy.

May 14, 2007 5:30 AM  
Blogger Dr. Zaius said...

Karla: "And then, admittedly not from anyone I had previously been acquainted with, all sorts of garbage about how the Arabs are just waiting to cut other people's throats in the night. What century are we in? Why should it be so unbelievable that some Arabs are terrorists and others aren't?"

I think that you are making light of a very serious subject. Things could not be more serious. Terrorists are everywhere! Just read this story of a European terrorist:

Ferocious hare attacks...

VIENNA – A possibly rabid hare attacked a 74-year-old woman and her 78-year-old husband in the Austrian city of Linz, police said in a statement on Monday.

The crazed animal launched itself at the woman while she was hanging her laundry in the garden, biting her foot and causing her to fall.

The victim fled into the house while her husband called the police and tried to scare off the attacking hare. Police officers saw the man "battling the hare" when they arrived at the scene, according to the statement said.

The animal was shot dead when it tried to attack one of the policemen.

May 14, 2007 1:00 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

Are you suggesting the hare was of Arab origin? or merely that terrorism is everywhere we look? Did the hare leave any kind of message about its political and/or religious agenda?

Of course, it may have been speaking out on behalf of its fellow lagomorphs, the domestic rabbits. Hares are solitary animals and rabbits are social, but this does not mean there could not be solidarity between the two species.

May 14, 2007 2:29 PM  
Blogger Dr. Zaius said...

You factinistas are always letting the issues at hand cloud your judgement! Clearly this incident is indicative of a vast long-eared lagomorph conspiracy. It's as plain as the whiskers on your face!

May 14, 2007 2:55 PM  

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