Monday, January 30, 2006

Digging a Little Deeper

I went to a meeting of European Broadcasters in Prague last week, hosted by the good folks at Radio Prague. I always look forward to going to Prague and always look forward to leaving. I go for the visual feast as this city is a magnificent blend of Habsburg and Jugenstil delights. I leave, gratefully, as Prague continues to have the lowest standard of customer service of anywhere I’ve ever been, and I travel all over Europe.

Example - checking into my hotel, I had the following conversation, if you can it that, with the receptionist known only as “Miss Katka”:

Me: Hi, have other members of my party arrived?
Miss K: Yes, Mr. W. is in Room 205.
Me: But Mr. W lives in Prague. So who checked into Room 205?
Miss K: Yes, Mr. W.
Me: No. Mr. W. only made the reservation. He lives here.
Miss K: Yes, in Room 205.


The weather was frigid and the normally taciturn Pragueites were as antisocial as ever. I even managed to have a pretty unpleasant exchange in the airport with a lady bartender who silently scowled at my pretentious request for a double macchiato (a double espresso with a drop of milk foam on top, you really should try it). She glowered as I quickly gulped it down. I was glad to go.

All week I walked around all too glad to badmouth the Czechs. “The Slovaks were right to want to get away from them” I would say to anyone who would listen. And then something happened.

Yesterday, my 4 year old son and I went to a screening in Amsterdam of some cartoons. The best of them was a character called Krtek, or “Little Mole”. These are innocent, delicate, magnificently colored and drawn little vignettes made in the early 1970s. Armed with an unhealthy sense of curiosity, Krtek was constantly digging his way into trouble. Somehow, he would keep his wits and get out of it again. It must have been the same for Czechs in the 1970s where curiosity could get you into deep trouble and only a fast mouth could get you out of it. Life must have been Krtekesque.

My son cried when the cartoons ended. And every time the closing credits said “Made in Prague,” I felt a stab of guilt.

Click here to find out more about ‘Krtek’ the little mole!


At 3:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

My wife has a friend who would come back home, make money for 3 or 4 months, and then return to Prague. She did this for years, and she never seemed to have any problems with the people of Prague.....Well, at least she didnt tell us of any problems, but her Grandmother lived there too, so it might have been different for her than for you.

Nice blog BTW! Was just listening to your show on SW (Tuesday night, 01:50 UTC, 6161.7 KHz in the 49 meter band)when I heard you had a blog .Good deal!I try to listen to you regularly!

At 3:01 AM, Blogger Steve said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:23 AM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Hi Steve, thanks for your comments. I can see from your profile you live in Western NC. EuroQuest is actually broadcast by a station in Asheville. Look out for it. I've been to the Blue Mountains btw. Extraordinarily beautiful place. And the people were very polite.

At 2:09 PM, Anonymous Asia said...

Dear Jonathan, a bit of tolerance pls. Life is not a fairy tale, you can't always meet pleasant people but what depends on you? It is you who can be always pleasant and understanding. What do you think about it? You expect from other people ideal behaviour - it'll be possible in heaven dear. Take care! And best regards for a Niels from Amsterdam.

At 2:43 PM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Umm, may I hazard a guess that you are Czech?

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Also, I'm not the only one to have noticed this. Google "Prague Rudeness" and see what I mean.

At 3:40 PM, Anonymous Asia said...

No, I'm not. I live in Poland. :-)

At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Asia said...

Maybe you're right. Haven't you met anyone to be friedly there?

At 3:44 PM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Of course I did; I'm generalizing. Interesting you're from Poland. That was the one place I was acutally expecting people to be rude and they were very nice. I'm going to Poznan to work on a documentary in about two weeks. My family comes from Konin. We'll see what surprises that comes up with.

At 3:53 PM, Anonymous Asia said...

What's use from generalizing? Nice to hear you managed to know only nice people in my country. They're usually friendly for foreigners. I've always been as well - it's like a custom. I wish you had good stay there.
What about Dutch men? I didn't like them at all until I met a young guy last year on plane.

At 4:02 PM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Well, it's all relative, but the Dutch are famously polite to tourists, but not to each other. It is fair to say they are brusque. There are worse places (like Prague), but they will never win the beauty prize for warmth.

At 4:12 PM, Anonymous Asia said...

Well, I've just asked my colleagues - they never heard about "Czech rudeness". Despite your experience Prague is still on my list of destinations. Rudeness can be troublesome, but if you don't practice the same and are still polite is more important, believe me. You'll be the winner then.

At 6:31 PM, Blogger Hana said...

Jonathan, I am very sorry to hear you had such a bad experience with people from Prague.

I've been living here for the past 5 years and know that the service can get really bad and actually, I am not surprised.

I have long tried to figure out why it is like this, but I guess it's because the service doesn't have that much of an importance in CR in general. The people just got used to the service being this way - and I don't mean just at the hotels or restaurants or shops. It's with the government offices as well.

So do you really say that the service in Prague is the worst from all the capitals in Europe you've been to so far? Wow, that's really amazing.. I guess it's high time we started to think about it more..

At 6:34 PM, Blogger Hana said...

And with regards to Krtek - I remember this cartoon very well from my childhood. We used to love Krtek's stories and when one of my really close friends went to the US couple months ago, what she brought with her for the children of the family she stayed with was a DVD with these stories.

I must say how the children liked it.. did your son cry at the end of these really?

At 7:26 PM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

I thought you'd chime in eventually, Hana. Lucas cried because it was over and he wanted some more. They only showed 4 cartoons and we were really diappointed that it ended so fast.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger Adam Daniel Mezei said...

Funny...I've just woken up after a much-needed rest after my long-haul across the Atlantic (sorry, but I don't sleep well on planes, even when the trip's 30 hours or more -- too much info?) -- and Hanka told me about this link as one of the first things as I woke up. :-)

How 'bout them apples?

In any event, as someone's who's spent a long time in Prague, and also as someone who hails from the same region as you do, J, I'd have to say it's unacceptable for Prague-ers to be EU citizens and continue to be (I'll just say it) pricks to guests (who effectively pay their salaries...because if you go to places like Pribram, Brno, or other small cities in the Cz. Rep. it's not at all the same. I have experience in this).

I don't know how to advise on how to deal with it, really. "Find your niche and stick to it," might be one of the commoner refrains. I write for a living, so I don't really have to 'interact' with people as much, per se. In terms of inspiring architecture and the like, it's certainly the place to be (helps me out heaps, especially where we live). They're quite the artisitic bunch as well.

Boggles my mind as to why post-Communist nations like Poland have 'nicer' people then the Czechs do. In terms of cuddling with Uncle Sam, and the 'ways of the West,' Prague (and concomitantly, the Czech Republic) ranks right up there...have you seen the Radio Liberty/Free Europe building at the top of Wenceslas Square? In that respect, Poland and the C.R. are kissing cousins.

The young people are changing, however. I see it all the time. They don't share the xenophobia of their parents. They're cool and hip and they like stuff from the outside. What's more, they travel, and that's bound to change people. They didn't suckle from the same Communist (and I won't say the word, much as I like the metaphor).

Sure there are issues of language and culture.

If you're looking for a gab-fest in this town, people, the Czechs aren't at all like that. In terms of their humour, it's more akin to the British sense of it --> dour, understated, sarcastic.

I've had my own share of moments where you just want to lay back and belt the friggin' guy for being such an unsympathetic 'I don't know nothing, didn't hear nothing, didn't see nothing kind of approach,' but that's soon changing. The ways of the west have come home to roost in a big way in town.

The market doesn't allow for this sort of laziness. People will have to change their ways, and soon.

At 12:40 AM, Anonymous harried barrister said...

I was in Prague in May of 2004 for a vacation. I did not find the Czechs rude per se (unlike say Parisians) but their service is atrocious.

communism is gone, but not the mentality. At a restaurant in Mala Strana the sorry duck and dumplings arrived late and it was tough...

Needless to say, I started going to the supermarket delis to avoid this crap. cheaper and faster..........

they are overzealous when it comes at trying to bust you over a 12 CZK subway fare...

I was stopped twice by the inspectors and to their chagrin were pissed that I had bought a 2 week pass!!!

At 4:25 AM, Blogger Adam Daniel Mezei said...

Kind madams and sirs -- my word, get over it already! Please!

The Czechs don't have to respond to service norms the way the rest of Europe does! What differentiation would there be between here and the rest of the Continent then? What incentive would there be for the rest of Europe to come out here and see it for themselves?

I think we need to give the Czechs a break. For a nation that was in the top 10 of European economies before getting ensnared in the web of Communism, and now bouncing back so strongly...that's a grand achievement, isn't it?

What's more -- 'Harried Barrister' -- for every honest commuter like yourself, there are about a dozen dishonest non-Czechs trying to screw the Metro system out of a cheap 12 CZK fare because they've heard how simple it is to bilk the system in Prague and get 'wasted man, party-time, excellent!'

I'm more upset at, say, the British tourists who come here and make a mockery of the city by waltzing into a tony bar decked out in their ski gear and goggles, thinking that "it's only Prague, so what the hell..."

On the one hand people want Western-style service. On the other, they want it while continuing to treat the city and Czechs like a coterie of high-class whores.

Please. A little balance, people.


An observation: there are a host of fantastic issues to be discovered at EQ -- and this is the one which garners 18 comments?!

My word...where's the proportionality?

At 4:36 AM, Blogger Hana said...

Praha certainly has it's unique features about it - and the people are standing out in their special ways.

It's really, just a matter of comparison to what one is used to and how much one places importance to certain things.

There are features the Czechs/Polish/French/German/American lack and there are ones which they have more of then the other nations.

This is where I agree with Adam. With travelling, one gets a better perspective on what the other cultures are like.

And this makes the world such a great place to live in - the variety.

And btw. HB - agreed - happened to me as well over the 12 crowns, so I know how they can get - forget about negotiating anything if you don't have a ticket. But good thing is - you can always go and have a cold glass of Pilsener to calm you down :)

At 8:45 PM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Oh I don't know, Adam. I'm rather pleased my little essay has created some debate. In fact, this is kind of what the blog is all about. Well, to me anyway.

At 1:59 AM, Blogger Adam Daniel Mezei said...

JG, so true, so true.

Please allow me to add one small wrinkle. (ADM -- Nowhere else but this blog, tee hee).

I don't mind the banter. I think it's fresh 'n funky.

Only problem is that -- and this is a quasi-sychophantic comment on my part -- you've got a wealth of other shagalicious content on your shows, for which reason we all have to coalesce around such a vapid one as this is beyond my mortal understanding.

I mean, one comment on your latest show about female issues?

Doesn't that say something?

I 'spose it doesn't have to be answered. I mean, I don't want to be the wet blanket here...all I'm saying is that I'd love to see some of these erudite souls add their 0.02 Euro cents to your other very meaningful and cutting-edge affairs.

All good. All good. I remain your stalwart paladin.

Tally ho!

At 12:17 AM, Blogger Jon said...

I felt I had to chime in on this myself because of what harriet barrister said. We were travelling in Prague about a dozen years ago, and the inspectors were picking out and hassling tourists over their rail passes way back then as well.

My friend had misplaced hers and we were all sweating it out for a very long 5 minutes while she looked in every pocket two or three times trying to find it. They were also not pleased when she did.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger Jen said...

My partner and I just came back from Prague and we were shocked at how rude some people were. I agree that the service was very bad generally - slow to say the least - but I can cope with that if it's at least a friendly exchange.

We wanted to watch a football match and chose a bar/restaurant by chance (it started to rain, the had the match on, we went in). This was about 6pm and I was getting hungry but not hungry enough for dinner so I tried to order some chips/french fries (which were on the menu). It appears you could only order a full meal - fine but there was no need to tell me 'this is not america, this is not mcdonalds' loudly and repeatedly in front of the other patrons. I'm not american by the way.

We then went onto Budapest where the waiters in the bars and restaurants were some of the friendliest people I've ever encountered.

At 4:38 PM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Wow. Amazing you even saw this piece considering how long ago I wrote it.
Thanks for your comment!

At 4:13 PM, Blogger roadmaster said...

My wife and I came to Prague 3 months ago to get to know the country and its people, and possibly retire here.

We immediately noticed the bad service and general rudeness of service staff, but we were so impressed with the visual beauty of the city that we convinced ourselves that as soon as we get to know the REAL Czechs things would change completely.

As time went by, however, we had more and more similar experiences. People slamming doors in your face when you arrive 30 seconds after closing time; waiters literally smashing trays onto the table and then disappearing; being treated like a dog when you try to ask directions to somewhere, or simply ignored as if you never asked.

The other day at Chodov Shopping Mall my wife ordered a slice of cake - the lady behind the counter slammed the tray onto the counter so hard that the cake dropped off the plate into the tray. She then simply shoved the tray out of her way and proceeded with the next customer as if my wife didn't exist at all.

We have travelled a lot over the years, but we have never encountered such an intolerable amount of rudeness anywhere else. In countries like India, Thailand and Argentina we met so many wonderful, warm people that will stay in our memories forever. We are leaving this country with a sigh of relief.


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