Monday, July 16, 2012

Prague: Europe Vs America

Yesterday at this time, the Chicago Passport Control stamped my passport, and I walked back into the United States. Last time I returned to the United States, I pronounced English words according to Czech pronunciation rules and was baffled by the light switches (the Czech light switches are little boxes, not actual switches). Here's what I've noticed this time. The first and the last are things I like about returning to America; the middle ones are things that frustrate me about America.

Air conditioning is wonderful.
In Europe, A/C is a rare find. In the mountains, summers are rainy and cold, so a warm blanket is more important than A/C (I spent the last week in the mountains, two blankets on my bed at night.) In the cities, summers are hot but short, and so Europeans open their windows and wear a lot of dresses. 

I, however, am a wimpy American. As Czech people turned out the lights and comfortably went to bed under huge blankets even in 80 and 90 degree weather, I stripped off the sheet, piled the comforter at the foot of the bed so it didn't even touch my toes, and sprawled out in an attempt to be cool. It didn't work that well. I moved lower in the house where I stayed, from the top floor to the first floor and finally to the basement. 

Then yesterday, I arrived home in the middle of a 90-degree heatwave. My home was warm and directly in the sun, not shaded by any trees. And I turned on the A/C and slept off some jet lag in perfect cool, underneath a sheet. Yes, I am thankful for my air conditioning. 

Americans are big.
And I'm not talking about weight. 

My last day in the Czech Republic, I traveled from a tiny skiing village in the northeastern tip all the way to Prague, crossing more than 2/3 of the country, in approximately 3 hours. During that time, I passed through one large town (Pardubice) and at least three smaller towns (at least 10,000 inhabitants). I also crossed two rivers and went through a small mountain range. 

The next day, I landed in the States. Like my trip to Prague, my trip home from the airport also took three hours. But instead of passing through several towns, across two rivers, and through a mountain range, I passed through cornfields. And more cornfields. And more cornfields. And an occasional podunk town of 500 people. Woot.

The same holds true with the cities. My town in the US has perhaps 50,000 inhabitants; by car, it takes 20-30 minutes to cross, depending on traffic. In Europe, it takes 20-30 minutes to cross a city of 100,000 people. With all the space we have in this country, we build out not up: Few buildings (especially houses) are more than two stories high, every business and store has a lawn and a huge parking lot, and a large house holds a family of two or three. In Europe, they put their cities on a diet. American space just looks large to me, now that I'm back.

Americans love their little comforts.
Last night, I walked into my apartment and immediately noticed how soft and squishy the carpet was, a welcome relief after twenty hours and more of travel. The thing is, I'd never thought of my carpet as particularly nice before. If anything, my carpet is not particularly nice: Though serviceable enough, its light blue colour is bleached in a few spots, and it's short and a tad rough, not soft and downy. 

Floors in Europe, though, are considerably less luxurious. Many homes use tile or wood throughout the house. Even when there is carpet, there is rarely thick carpet or even a carpet pad: European carpets are thin and brown and quite plain: Imagine the kind of carpet you'd find in a city county office or a library from the early 70s, take away the pad underneath the carpet, and voila! You have just imagined a European carpet.

Amazingly (or not; sarcasm alert), Europeans live happy and fulfilled lives without thick, soft carpet. Even I didn't notice the difference in carpet until I returned last night. I think the carpet is just part of a larger feature of American culture: We Americans go out of our way whenever we can to make ourselves more excessively comfortable. Europeans like to be comfortable too, but the "comfort bar" is set a little lower there, perhaps because they, unlike us, have people still living from the wars and from the Communist era who know what it means to be truly uncomfortable and unhappy. Hint: It's not thin carpet.

Americans are loud.
What I wanted most when I left the airport yesterday was a big dish of ice cream: I'd been suffering from a sore throat the entire ride home, with water and juice hard to come by unless the stewardess showed up, and ice cream is so delicious on a sore throat. 

So, we stopped at the first oasis on the toll road and toodled inside to the local Baskin Robbins. I stood up at the glass case and contemplated the 31 flavours (peanut butter ice cream? chocolate? vanilla?). Then out of the blue, a man beside me bawled something to his girlfriend. He was standing close enough that I and his girlfriend could have heard a loud whisper, but his near-yell startled me and probably half the oasis as well. Today, I walked into the mall with two guys fifty feet behind me. In tones that carried across half the parking lot, they assured each other how hungry they were and how they had skipped breakfast this morning. 

Europeans are more likely, though not always, to adjust their voice for whoever is around them. (There are exceptions: Sports and music are two of them.) In the Metro, for instance, it would be impossible to make out someone's conversation from opposite sides of the same car, let alone from fifty feet away. Europeans believe that Americans are "loud"; it's one of the first stereotypes that they list. It's true. We are. 

Don't take English for granted.
About a week before I left the Czech Republic, I had to travel by train to a town two hours from Prague. My train was delayed, and then at the very first stop, every traveler got booted off the train for what was (to me) an incomprehensible reason: The conductor came on and spoke some Czech, and the only two words I recognized were "bus" and "stop". Everyone got off, and so I followed them off and then . . . stood in the middle of a train station with an overstuffed backpack at my feet, like a lost puppy. 

I tried to ask about a new train, but the ticket lady spoke no English and no German, and I spoke no Czech. We spoke our native language s l o w l y. We gestured at each other. We wrote stuff down. We cupped our hands behind our ears. We tried one-word sentences. I finally got a new ticket and information on when the next train left, but I have a feeling I didn't need the  new ticket. And I still don't know why the train stopped in the first place. 

When I arrived in America yesterday, I changed out my Czech crowns: The woman behind the counter spoke perfect English; there was no guessing. I stopped and picked up water at McDonalds. Again, perfect English. Great communication. It was wonderful. 

The fact that the people around you speak the same language is a beautiful thing: Enjoy it! 

1 comment:

  1. I dunno about Europeans being so much quieter. I found the French to be quite loud. Perhaps just the Czech are quiet? Germans as well?