An Idiot’s Guide To Czech Christmas

Have you agreed to spend Christmas in the Czech Republic next year? Worried about what to wear, or whether it’s in fact a Christian country? Here are answers to frequently asked questions about how the holidays are celebrated by these strange and mysterious people…

When Is Czech Christmas?
December 24th.

And that doesn’t mean that they really celebrate it on the 25th and just open presents on Christmas Eve, like some weirdo families in the U.S. It really means that the 25th is just another ordinary day, the night of the 23rd has special ‘Xmas eve’ status, etc.

Do Czechs believe in Santa Claus?
No. At least, not as the bringer of gifts. In the Czech Republic, presents are delivered by ‘Baby Jesus’ (Ježišek).

Santa is reserved for a lesser holiday called Mikulaš, when adults (read: drunk friends of one’s father) dress up as either Santa or the devil and caper about for the benefit of children.

So how does Baby Jesus make and deliver presents? Does he have a North Pole workshop and team of reindeer?
No. It remains unexplained how exactly the presents get into the house— somehow, they just materialize.

Does Baby Jesus even have a agreed-upon physical form that can be leveraged for Christmas marketing?
Visualizations of Ježišek have begun to pop up in order to combat the increasing infiltration of Santa into Czech culture (this is actually a phenomenon that Czechs perceive and mildly resent). Yet the cartoon representations that I find on the internet are so kitschy, I can’t bring myself to post them.

Is traffic bad during Czech Christmas?
Only if Vaclav freaking Havel decides to die right before the big day and clot up the entire city for his public funeral. Nice timing, hippie.

What about food? What do Czechs like to eat on Christmas?
Carp. Which is weird, given that the fish are generally marginalized in the country’s culinary habits during the rest of the year. This leads to the second-coolest phenomenon associated with the Czech holidays: carpmongers! In the weeks leading up to Christmas, there are guys standing on street corners with bathtubs filled with squirming carp.

What’s the first-coolest phenomenon associated with the Czech holidays?
Readily-available hot wine purchased from street vendors.

Do Czechs hate Christmas?
No, not at all!

What activities can I expect to encounter on Czech Christmas?
Basically, tons of eating and brain-deadening dosages of pohádky (searingly cheesy TV fairytales about princesses and horses and goblins and whatnot).

I’m in the Czech Republic and have friends coming to visit from abroad over the holidays. Are there any ready-made practical jokes I can play on them?
Wait until your friends have bought their tickets and then inform them that the entirety of December is spent celebrating something called ‘The Feast of St. Wenceslas’, during which there is no alcohol sold or consumed whatsoever. Then, pretend to ‘lighten their spirits’ by claiming that, despite this prohibition, the city is tons of fun during this month thanks to all the inspired Christmas pageantry.

Adventures In German Language

JohnnyO once discussed his ‘Wheels On The Bus’ iphone app that allows the user (his daughter, in his case) to play back the song in a number of different languages. All is good until you get to the German version, where the singer is breathlessly rushing to keep up with the music— such is the syllabic elephantiasis of the language that ‘Wheels On The Bus’ doesn’t fit into the allotted space.

I think of this story every time I toggle between the English and German versions of Craigslist Berlin. Seriously, the German version has the exact same content and is a third wider:

Just imagine if they started a section for the services of Eisenbahnknotenpunkthinundherschieber (railroad switchmen). That could push the total page width beyond 1200 pixels.

I have yet to actually do any significant design work in German language. But Czech language never failed to foil me with its diacritics (the little hats and angles worn by various letters). First of all, many fonts don’t include the characters; also, you can’t tightly pack lines of text vertically, because the stupid special characters bump into the letters above them. And, to my dismay, I quickly learned that you can’t just kinda sorta maybe get away with leaving out the accent— it would be like substituting in an entirely different letter. I’m sure that German will present its own share of bedeviling lines-that-don’t-wrap-because-one-word-is-too-long and dual English/German language layouts where the two text blocks aren’t remotely the same length. Until my proposal for a glorious Simplified International English language takes hold and renders other languages obsolete, that is. Details to follow…

See also: Mysteries of Czech Language

Something About The Simpsons

The recent post about Microserfs and the early days of the internet got me thinking about another back-in-the-day cultural turning-point: the dawning of the Simpsons. The Simpsons era, of course, predates the internet. The show has been going on for so long that the original Christmas pilot episode aired when Ronald Reagan (!) was still in office. It’s been going on for so long that an episode from the show’s second season revolved around the premise that Homer is the only person in Springfield who has cable TV (at the time, yes, this required some suspension of disbelief… but still). The show has been going on for so long that I watched the early episodes on a black-and-white TV in the basement of our technologically-challenged home (perhaps this requires an even bigger suspension of disbelief).

Today, there are 486 episodes of the show, spanning 22 seasons… and probably three quarters of these I have yet to see. But, for the first few seasons, it was difficult to overstate the significance of Sunday night, 8 o’clock— you could actually feel the cultural ground shifting under your feet. The thing is that TV and pop culture had landed in an all-time rut by the late 80s: there was just nothing subversive at all in mainstream entertainment that echoed the kind of cynical humor deployed by my circle of teenage friends. Even Letterman and Moonlighting (which were not all that incendiary to begin with) had become (respectively) routine and defunct by that point. And so C&C Music Factory had come to rule the planet. It had gotten so bad that, as a 15 year-old, I had actually stopped watching TV entirely, an unexpected reduction from the approximate six hours per day I had been taking in just a few years earlier.

Coming from this position of total disinterest, I can still remember the peculiar thrill of watching an early Simpsons and noticing that, among a lynchmob of townspeople assembled to attack Bart, there was inexplicably a debauched clown in the group (Krusty, of course). This was exactly the sort of random, irreverent non sequitur that had been so conspicuously absent in the existing paradigm where every joke on every show presented itself with a deadening whiff of familiarity: “have no fear, this joke derives an established tradition of humor and thereby resembles a joke you’ve seen on some other show before.” In this sense, the Simpsons really did feel like a weird harbinger of the internet and its democratizing effect: it was the first instance I could remember of the type of disaffected, Gen-X humor used by people around me bubbling up into mass entertainment and suddenly appearing onscreen. Nowadays, this phenomenon is routine: the ‘humor landscape’ is dominated by memes that start with one or two people, go viral, and eventually become ubiquitous. But, at the time, it felt like some cosmic fissure had must have appeared in order to allow something other than Archie Bunker-style joke sensibility to appear on TV.

I remember reading something about National Lampoon a while aback that claimed that the Lampoon ushered in a new era of American humor. Previously (the article postulated), humor had been based on the Jewish tradition of oy, what a fool am I!. The Lampoon, it went on to argue, moved American humor to a more acerbic, cutting kind of humor descended from English and especially Irish tradition: what a fool are you. I guess that, by the late 80s, this vein failed to reflect the emerging theme of Gen-X humor: what a fool everything is. Maybe the Simpsons signaled a shift to this new mode. Or maybe it just signaled a shift towards humor becoming more responsive to the sensibilities of the society at large.

Children and Alcohol: Together At Last

[Note: this post was originally written for another Mission-oriented blog, hence the direct references to San Francisco audience]

Raising a child is a breeze in Berlin thanks to the wide availability of kid-friendly beer gardens. (Note: a ‘child’ is a small human who has not yet achieved adult stature— I was a little unclear on this concept myself until I left the Mission.) Take, for example, Prater Garten on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauerberg: the space looks like about eight Zeitgeists stitched together, only without the whole ‘mistaking rudeness for authenticity’ issue that’s been haunting Zeitgeist for years.

Then, in the back, is a fully-equipped playground where you can semi-neglect your daughter or son while you enjoy sophisticated adult beverages nearby. Kids, in my observation, seem to eat this place up: first, they get to enjoy running around in the kid-sanctioned area… but then there’s also the illicit thrill of venturing out into the ‘dark side’, where grownups are presented in various states of alcohol-amplified enthusiasm.

Finally… you know you’re in a land of lessened litigation-culture when there’s a disused diving tower in the back of your local beer garden:

My friend tells the story of being at a kid birthday party at Prater when one of the children suddenly materialized on top of the diving stand. That’ll sober you up in a hurry.

The Fake-Friendly Thing

I’m going to keep this short, because surely it’s boring to read anything where some expat guy is complaining about US culture… but I really have to comment on how mind-bending the standards of customer service are in this country if you’re not accustomed to a steady diet of fake friendliness.

Did it used to seem normal to me when a store clerk would thank me simply for entering his or her store without actually buying anything? More pressingly, what did I say when someone would chirp “How’s everything working out for you?” whenever I emerged from a dressing room with rejected pair of pants in hand? This seems like an unresolvable double-bind now: if you say, “Good,” then it seems to create a false expectation that you’re going buy the pants (which I almost never do). But if you say, “Well… badly,” then that seems weird. And surely the clerk doesn’t want a blow-by-blow of your expectations heading into the dressing room versus the shattering reality of how the pants didn’t fit well or weren’t what you wanted or whatever.

In the case in question, I wound up saying, “Oh, well, they didn’t really fit”.

Thanks for trying!”

I give up.

Culinary Update

Last night, I had my first-ever sip of Diesel. Diesel is the widely-reviled popular German drink that involves an equal mixture of beer and coke. Actually, it tasted just like root beer and didn’t offend at all. This taste experience posed two unsettling questions: (1) What exactly is root beer, anyway? and (2) What if it’s not as distinctive as we imagine it to be?

Mysteries of Czech Language: Diminutive Fever

Though I’ve left the Czech Republic for Germany, I feel obliged to keep up America’s favorite ongoing blog series, The Mysteries of Czech Language.

Czech language has a built-in structure where you can form diminutives from just about anything. A waitress at our favorite Prague restaurant seemed to have a nervous disorder that compelled her to use them constantly and ask me things like if I want ‘another little beer-y-poo.’ But the system of forming diminutives is applied most exhaustingly to children’s names: Zuzanna becomes Zuzka becomes Zuzinka and so on.

One couple we know had a daughter and named her Justina (like Justine, but the Ju sounds like ‘You’). Via the diminutive system, she’s most frequently called Justinka, like ‘you-STINK-a’. It’s almost impossible for me not to laugh every time I hear this. I try to keep a broad mind and remember that it sounds perfectly acceptable (a touch exotic, even) in Czech. But it just sounds like a corny set-up for one of those old ethnic humor shows, like Life With Luigi:

Hey-a. I come to America and everyone says, ‘Hey… you stink-a! And I say, ‘No, it’s-a not me. It’s my baby.’ And everyone says, ‘Oh, what a poor baby. She’s such a pretty girl. What’s her name-a?’ And I says-a-to-them ‘Justinka’. And they get angry and a-punch me in the cucalabanga! Hey-a!

While we’re here: my friend recently posted photos from his vacation to a small town in the Czech Republic, Lazy. He reports that there is also Horni Lazy nearby (Horni = high).

And: there is a phrase in Czech that sounds exactly like this: ‘FUCK YO?!’ It means, ‘Oh, really?’ and Czechs say it all the time. Just so you’re forewarned.

Let The Facile Comparisons Begin!

So far, during our first week in Berlin, my wife and I have agreed to a system whereby I’m allowed one comment per day along the lines of ‘Berlin awesome! / Prague sucks!’ so that I don’t drive her crazy by continually beating the same conversational drum throughout the day (plus, you know, denigrating her native culture and that stuff).

I find that I get the most mileage out of my one daily comment if I present it as a pseudo-amnesiac episode. Example: on Saturday afternoon, we went to a bike store to get help fixing our kiddo bike seat onto my wife’s bike. On the way back, I decided to use my allotted comment this way:

Me: ‘Boy, that sucks that we didn’t get to the bike store before noon and so it was already closed when we arrived.’

Wife: (confused)

Me: ‘Oh, wait– we’re in Berlin, I forgot… the store was open! That’s Prague where every bike store in the city is closed by noon.’

I have to admit that this construction gets pretty contrived after a while, but I don’t think I’ve totally worn it out. Yet.

Other comments-of-the-day have revolved around fairly banal (yet strangely evocative) differences in day-to-day life. The fact that people will stop for ice cream and sit down with it on the curb and idle away a few minutes enjoying themselves there instead of sullenly bustling away as fast as possible. The fact that the bank machines actually dispense notes that you can break without getting the Czech Iron Curtain Face (Czech ATMs for some reason dispense the equivalent of $120 bills, which you’re subjected to eight kinds of contempt simultaneously if you try to use anywhere). You get the picture– lots of small things of the Pulp Fiction ‘Burger Royale’ caliber. Then there’s also the UNBELIEVABLE RELIEF at being able to bike everywhere again. (You can bicycle in Prague, but will quickly drop it if you value life and living to any degree). I almost feel it breaks the entire social contract if you’re living in a city and can’t bike…

But most of all, there’s a startling sensation of dilation for me coming from a place as culturally-compressed as Prague. Everything in Prague is still done in a way that is just Czech, Czech, Czech… often, nobody seems to know why it’s done this way… maybe the thinking behind it hasn’t been revisited in three centuries… but it just is a certain way and there’s no negotiating with it. Berlin has the kind of elasticity preferred by rootless cosmopolitan Jewish homosexuals like myself– the city seems to mutate and adjust to meet the shifting demands of its inhabitants, be it a demand for ethnic food or stores that stay open past fucking noon on a Saturday.

(Photo: on same Saturday, we all biked together to Mauer Park, as I hoped that something interesting would happen that would justify my constant ‘Blah blah, Berlin is so cool’ claims. We arrived at the place where I’ve heard about the karaoke being done and came upon this impromptu mime act. Whew!)

Homemade Doorbell

Once Peak Oil hits and we’re all walking to the supermarket to sift around in the rubble and search for bits of scrap metal, I’m definitely tagging along after my stepfather. Like most Czech guys of his generation, he’s a capable mechanic, electrician, carpenter. Being a handyman was basically the Czech male national pasttime during the Communist decade; meanwhile, for my part, I’m not able to do anything other than communicate with varying degrees of sarcasm via text and image. Don’t think there’ll be much of a market for that after that in the post-industrial environment.

So, I definitely don’t mean to diminish his talents. But even the handyman extraordinare has his occasional misfire. Behold the doorbell that he installed into the flat where my wife grew up:

Hell’s Bell

Egads. This sounds like it should be the chime that warns you when the Dutch Concert players come a-calling.

Existential Confusion In The Czech Marketplace

These local establishments seem to express a certain amount of uncertainty vis-a-vis the existence of an objective and extrinsic reality:

1. Kuchnyě Dada (‘Dada Kitchenware’)

Fun shopping environment. But why did the refrigerator we buy there arrive with an old boot and a bird nest inside? And this iron is totally damaging my clothes:

This stupid bowl and spoon need to be dry-cleaned after every meal:

2. Probably The Best Czech Art Glass

If I had to design a promotional brochure for this place, here’s how it might look: