Czech people may seem lazy on their workplaces, but they are not. They are just recovering from their weekends. They need about a week for that: five days, to be precise.
In Czech Republic, plans about the weekends are usually made 6 to 8 months in advance. Ask any Czech: “Jaký máte plán na víkend?” (“do you have plans for the weekend?“) and you are never going to be disappointed. So for 3 years now I have been collecting plenty of observations about the excessive enthusiasm Czechs have for their favorite free time activities.
I left out on purpose things like “visiting the family” or “going to IKEA”, because – it seems to me – they happen more or less everywhere. I will focus on things that I have seen here in Czechia and they strike me as peculiar. They are also the reasons why it’s so easy to find a parking spot in Prague during the weekend.
It’s some sort of a glorious comeback one year and a half after the very successful 10 Things I wish someone told me before I moved to Prague.
And hey, once again, the tone of this post is supposed to be ironic. It’s humor. If you don’t get humor, know that there is a thing called “the internet”, and it contains humor. If you get offended by it, go and find an appropriate place to express your frustration (for example, here), but leave me alone.
Ready for the list? Let’s go!
1 – Visiting a castle.
This only makes sense, since Czechia boasts an insane amount of wonderful castles and châteaux located in its territory (the exact number is disputed, but they are hundreds). So of course it seems normal for the typical Czech family to pack their car and go on a Sunday trip to visit one of them. It is also like taking part in national pride. And so if you also plan a visit to one of such locations, expect to meet scores of children running around, lovely couples walking hand in hand, groups of seniors enjoying the fresh air. Such a perfect, picturesque scene!
Except, it’s not what it seems: my sources tell a different story. Nobody really likes these trips. Children are bored from the moment they step in the car, grown-ups complain about the local prices of food and refreshments that “are so much cheaper at home”, and absolutely nobody is interested in listening to the local guide talking about XV century paintings and sculptures.
Suddenly, the interest grows again when it’s lunch time, and the families gather at the on-site restaurant to taste some regional specialties. The interest for the local beer brands and micro-breweries is usually much higher than that for the artwork displayed in the chapel or in the Kastelán‘s apartment. But that figures.
The trip usually ends in a similarly graceful manner, with everybody queuing for hours in the traffic jams on the D1, leading to Brno or Prague. In the end, the day will have been exhausting for everybody.
2 – Mushroom picking.
Every single Czech person I have met is a mushroom expert. In Italy (where I come from) to collect mushrooms you need a special license issued by the local authority. It’s yet another clever way to extort money from the citizens, yes, but you also get basic information about health hazards and the local varieties. In Czech Republic, I guess, this wisdom is handed over directly by the grandparents.
For Czechs, this is taken so seriously that it’s almost a competitive sport.
People prepare their baskets and knives the night before, meet in secret when it’s still dark before sunrise, and as they head to the favorite spots, the hunt is on. Czechs are granted free access to every forest in the country (the only exceptions are military areas and some national parks), so there is really plenty of choice.
There are two ways to do this: 1) be aggressive, and go as fast as you can to the places where you are most likely to find the best mushrooms – this is unlikely to lead to open fights, Czechs being more passive-aggressive than just aggressive, but it is the reason of a good amount of low-key mumbling, and people being grumpy for the whole rest of the week.
2) the second strategy is the casual approach. Just appear as if you were going for a leisurely stroll in the woods with your friends, and then suddenly go off the most beaten route and head towards the best mushroom spots.
The knowledge of the richest locations is a well-protected secret that is handed jealously from one generation to another, and is only shared with the closest friends. Allegedly, the average Czech family collects more than 8 kilos of mushrooms per year, for a total worth 3.5 billion czk (about 140 million euros) – so know that the competition will be fierce.
And of course, XXI century is also changing the way people do this. A digital app is now available, of course called Aplikaci na houby (Application for Mushrooms), and includes “a selection of 210 major species of mushrooms, including detailed descriptions and quality photographs, as a digital atlas of local fungi”.
The perfect mushroom picking day will end at the pub, where people will share their hunter-gatherers stories while drinking
one five of the best local beers.
3 – Cleaning home.
Although I should probably say “totally rebuilding one’s home“. Czech households are, in general, immaculate. With the obvious exception of flats rented out to students and all-boys dorms, homes and flats are kept in spectacular presentation conditions. And all this maintenance work takes place, of course, during weekend days.
Everybody in the family takes part to the operations, each according to their possibilities. Grandparents and children take over some tasks as the whole family engages in a form of spring cleaning that happens weekly. Or more than weekly. Curtains are taken down and washed, pillows and beddings are changed and mattresses are turned, windows are washed. Floors are vacuumed, again (the last time was yesterday). Every surface is accurately dusted.
The comparison between an expat’s home (picture above) and that of a native Czech leaves very little space for doubt. Czechs may not stay at home much, but sure they love to keep their places spotless and inviting.
For whom? That’s my question. I suspect that this
obsession passion is born from the fear of receiving unexpected guests, and being judged badly as house keepers. What will the neighbors think? is a fear rooted deep into the Czech collective mind. Or maybe, it just comes from a deep love for their “place”. In fact, the same tendency to cleanliness and order can be seen in every village and town in Czechia.
4 – Going to the summer house.
Or cottage, chata or chalupa in Czech. It seems that every Czech person has one (or more) of this tiny, rustic properties somewhere in a more rural area of the country. They are sometimes located conveniently near the big city, sometimes it takes up to 2 hours to get there. Which is a lot, considering that the country is not that big. But distance doesn’t matter.
The summer house is a permanent
hobby duty for Czechs. Since it’s usually an older house, it requires constant maintenance as there is always something broken or that needs to be checked, fixed, assembled, painted, re-planted or changed.
So, on weekends Czechs head out of the big cities, and reach their personal corner of paradise. That is, if paradise were a place where people have to work all the time, you eat your meals with cutlery from 7 different styles and ages, hot water is not working because the boiler got frozen, bees made a nest in the toilet seat, and there is absolutely no coverage for cell phones in a 1 kilometer radius.
Now, to be sure there is a big cultural interest in visiting such a place. I have been able to find utensils made in the Soviet Union, next to it a Czechoslovak radio, and I was sitting on an IKEA armchair. It’s like the crossroads of 3 historical periods, all wrapped in one. And Czechs will probably have a lot of fond memories to share, from their childhood summer holidays, long walks with the grandparents, and so on.
The only problem is that to keep those memories alive, one needs to work hard. A typical visit to the country house includes: cutting the grass, working in the garden – depending on the definition of “garden” and the intensity needed, this could include wood chopping or chainsaw detail; fixing fences and / or furniture; plumbing work; repairing the roof; and then of course there is the good old “cleaning inside”, which has to be thorough, or isn’t done at all (see point #3 above).
In winter, it’s all made more complicated by the prohibitive weather conditions, which brings in the extra pleasure of having to shovel 2 meters of snow just to access the gate, frosty water pipes, and so on.
All the above means that on an average 2 days-visit, the first 24 hours are spent on general maintenance. The following day can then be dedicated to walks, sightseeing, mushroom picking (see #2), or outdoor activities (see #5). Just to be sure they will never run out of options, some people keep a personal “pet project” in the basement. Reconstructing an old car, assembling a motorcycle from scratch, building a cupboard, things like that.
Beer (all the day) and barbecue (in the evening) are the obvious complements for all this hard work, of course. With a possible twist: to digest the meal, how about a taste of the 35-years-old homemade slivovice? It’s a strong spirit that Czechs love to drink (along with everybody else in Slavic and Balkan Europe), allegedly for medicinal purposes.
Some say it comes from fermented plums, but I think “jet fuel byproduct” is a closer bet. Always taste if, if you have a chance. And if it is offered, it’s an offer you can’t refuse. Consider it like a initiation ritual, and a great sign of hospitality: in the sense that it can get you right to the hospital. Or if you are especially lucky, it will just kill you on the spot.
Anyway, for all the survivors, comes the inevitable conclusion: another long queue on the motorway to go back to the city on Sunday night. Absolutely exhausted, of course.
5 – Outdoor sports.
I kept this as the last point, but it’s the most intense. I already wrote about it in “10 things”, but I recently had a traumatic experience, so I have to get it out of my system.
Czechs – in general – love any outdoor physical activity. And I know there is a minority who doesn’t. Some of you wrote me personal messages on the blog, just to say “I am here too!”. I hear you, dear brothers and sisters. But that’s the meaning of the expression “in general”. You (and I) are just a minority, and the role of minorities in society is to get neglected. Deal with it.
Anyway, I digress. One of the favorite – if not THE MOST favorite – weekend activity for Czechs is to get outdoors and engage in some form or another of sports. Canoeing, rafting or kayaking if the temperatures allow it; rock climbing; cycling; and of course the king of winter sports: skiing. Of which Czechs are real enthusiasts, so much so that they have two different words for it: lyžování (downhill) and běžkování (cross-country, that “is like walking, really”. Except that instead of using your feet, you “walk” on two long, thin, clumsy things that most of the time go out of control, and have no brakes).
Now, the thing about these sports is that they are very dangerous.
Czechs learn the totality of them in a sort of accelerated Spartan training at the tender age of 2 or 3 years, when – trusting and naïve as kids are – they can’t understand how risky that shit really is. For a country that has “Sparta Praha” as one of the favorite football teams, it makes sense.
But any mature person with a reasonable survival instinct understands that attaching wheels, wings, sticks and all sorts of other appendixes to the otherwise perfect human anatomy, and then go out in the wilderness, cannot be a wise thing.
Maybe this is because of the “soft” nature of the Czech landscape. After all, there is no dangerous mountain or cliff here. No rough waters, no oceans, no deserts. Summers are warm, but not too hot. Winters are cold, but not really freezing.
So they have this general “nature is your friend” attitude (I don’t). And they carry this lovely, childish innocence when they travel around the world. I have heard or seen with my own eyes Czechs walking for hours under the summer sun in Italy, unprotected. And getting horribly sun-burned. Or walking on the beach under the tropical high noon. And getting horribly sun-burned. Or climbing too quickly the Kilimanjaro. And getting in some real trouble.
No matter what the intolerants will say, Czechs need immigration, just to keep balance with the mortality rate from all the outdoor sports they love so much.
As a consequence, going for a weekend of outdoor sports takes preparation. The equipment needed for said hobbies is usually A LOT OF STUFF. More or less one metric cube per person, and that’s in summer. In winter, count three times more. Backpacks, jackets, raincoats, various assorted gear, water bottles (many of them), food and supplements, boots, extra socks, hats, ropes, gloves, pants, underpants, skis, and all the necessary accessories to keep all of the above in order and functioning.
The first challenge is then to collect all the equipment. It can usually be found in several places: 1) in the basement, where it has been laying around since last year’s trip and you have to dig it out; 2) at the summer house (see #4); 3) at some friend’s or relative’s place. This means doing several rounds, spending hours and hours driving or digging in basements and cellars.
This preparatory phase has to start a couple of days before the planned activity. So, if it’s a Wednesday and your Czech colleague seems particularly tired at work, now you know why: he is probably preparing for a family canoe trip planned for next Saturday.
And then, it’s time for The Trip. First thing to know is that walking is not even considered an “activity”, it’s just the thing you do to get where the real thing happens. So, if you consider yourself a sporty person because you do a little bit of hiking on a free day, think again. In Czechia, this will impress nobody.
Second thing to remember: over here, there is no such a thing as a “beginner’s version“. The Czech approach to learning is a healthy and encouraging “do or die”. Most, manage to do; and you just never hear the other stories.
This is because Czechs learn all the possible versions of putting one’s life at risk at a very early age (remember?).
So for the majority of them it’s unthinkable that an adult doesn’t possess at least the basic skills necessary for standing on skis, wheels, whatever. And it’s considered a humiliation, even to ask.
So if you dare to learn as an adult – or as in my case, you absolutely have to learn as part of a general strategy of domestic peace-keeping – be prepared to be physically and morally destroyed as you go from one challenge to another, when all the while 4-years old kids and 70+ pensioners will whiz past you with a cheerful (and not at all out of breath):”Ahoj!“.
The most basic version of a ski trip, is one full day. Canoeing or kayaking cannot be enjoyed if it’s less than 48 hours. Less, and why should you even bother? Considering all the effort that goes into the preparation, that makes sense. Adopting a new culture is all about understanding these little details.
Anyway, if you survive the first half, you can also get to experience the most rewarding part of the day, which is the lunch outside. Czech cuisine can be really tasty, and it is especially so after an intense physical experience. The downside? Alcohol. People will not refrain from having
one two drinks with their meal and then get back on the boats, skis, bicycles, whatever. It’s just considered part of the fun, and nobody has ever heard of police check points on a river or ski slope, right? So, beware: especially after the lunch time, things can get rowdy.
ordeal trip is finally over when it’s time to get home. And guess what? It’s another long car queue on the D1, while Czechs return to their homes in an orderly fashion. Absolutely exhausted, but happy. They.
They will need about a week to recover from the weekend labors, but that doesn’t matter, because they will be motivated thinking about the next one, which has already been planned for long, long time.
And while they plan ahead for the next 12 months, you – involved against your will in the operations because “you are part of the family, now” – will be left thinking about all the free parking spaces, the never-so-fluid city ring, your favorite (and half empty) theaters, cinemas and restaurants, and all the weekend events for expats that you could have enjoyed in the city, and that nobody will be able to ever bring back.
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