It’s 6 a.m. and I am on a train from Prague to Budapest, in a deep REM sleep, when suddenly an old woman starts frantically punching me, speaking loudly in Czech. I look at her perplexedly through half-open eyes and ask: “What?” Then I realize she does not speak any English, of course. After some random pointing and aggressive tapping on the empty seat next to me, my tired brain processes the fact that she wants to sit there. She then takes my friend Margaret’s feet, which had been resting on the seat, and slaps them to the ground with a roar of laughter. Margaret wakes up and we exchange confused glances. Suddenly another woman appears, even older than the professional boxer I have already met, and sits in the seat next to me. They both start laughing, as if to try to make light of the situation and to say: “No hard feelings.” I was glad that they were actually not as mad as they had seemed to be, but still half-asleep and unbelievably confused about the situation that had just occurred.
Imagine crash landing on an island with no food or water, no way to communicate with the locals, and no knowledge of the culture. Ok, that’s not what it’s really like, but that is how I feel sometimes being an American in Prague. Everything is so different here compared to my hometown of Boston and college life in Delaware, and I feel like I am constantly doing something wrong.
Interacting with the local Czech people has been… interesting, to say the least. As a character in the classic American Christmas comedy “Elf” says, “It’s like Santa’s workshop! Except everyone looks like they want to hurt me.” I get a similar vibe walking the streets of Prague. The city is so beautiful and magical, but it is clear to me that the locals have little patience for dealing with my innocent, yet extremely apparent cultural unawareness. They are not afraid to let me know when that cultural ignorance is showing.
After an eventful weekend in Budapest, we board our train heading back to Prague. About three hours into the journey, I am yet again awoken to an older woman yelling at me in Czech. My friends and I apologize for not understanding what she is saying and ask if she could repeat in English. She continues to yell at us in Czech for about two minutes until finally saying, “YOU are in OUR SEATS” in perfect English. This woman and her crew makes it extremely difficult for us to move because they stand directly in front of the seats, holding up the rest of the people trying to board the train. Mortified, I begin my trek to the standing room car feeling like Cersei Lannister making her walk of atonement in “Game of Thrones”. I can almost hear people yelling, “Shame! Shame!” as the entire train watches the whole situation unfold. The automatic door even closes on my friend Michele on our way out, just for good measure. Eventually two of my friends and I find three open seats at a table with one man occupying the fourth seat. Having seen the interaction between us and the Czechs, he very kindly explains how the tags above the seats mark which ones are reserved. Duh. For the remainder of the ride, we end up talking to our helpful friend who turns out to be Samuel Hošek, a well-known Slovak Jazz singer. Maybe we should sit in other people’s seats more often, just so we can meet some more famous people.
Needless to say, I learned quite a bit on that train. The first and most puzzling thing is that Czech people apparently have no problem waking me up. Secondly, they won’t hesitate to tell you when you are doing something wrong. And lastly, I learned never to eat food from the train again, because guess who ended up with food poisoning?
Prague is an amazing city, but it is definitely a lot harder to blend in than I thought it would be. I try my best to speak a little Czech, but when I thank people by saying “děkuji!” they simply respond in English with “you’re welcome,” and that, I think, is the epitome of my experience in Prague so far.
Photos courtesy of Lexi Guenard