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Culture is complicated…

August 9, 2015

We were Skyping with Ariel’s dad about a week into our trip to Prague, and at one point we mentioned how many people still smoked there (70% more or less – you can still smoke in all public spaces, including restaurants). He, a one-time smoker, thought it was sad that the Czechs hadn’t caught on to the hazards of smoking.

But we know that smoking is much more complicated that just doing, or not doing, based on one’s knowledge of the carcinogenic harms involved. Everyone knows that long-term smoking causes cancer 97 times out of 100. But life is more complicated than the dominance of the life-force over the death wish.

In Canada we know that smoking is related to poverty, abuse, PTSD, self-esteem. So imagine a place that has been occupied – by brute force – by the Austro-Hungarian Empire for hundreds of years, then nearly obliterated by the Germans (repeatedly – not just in this last century), and until 20 years ago occupied by the Russians, and the people were forced to live behind the Iron Curtain? (Even now Putin gesticulates towards past Russian glories of Soviet expansion. Some neighboring countries, worried about the resurrection of the Russian bear, have re-instituted conscription.)

Times weighs heavy in such places. What’s it matter if one smokes? Or drinks perhaps too much?

Life is short, brutish – people live lives of quiet despair. The rug could be pulled out tomorrow.

So, for now, about 70% of the people smoke; without any of the angst or the guilt that follows the smoker in Canada. (In a cafe I overheard a woman tell her friends regarding her recent trip to the US: “people are hysterical about not smoking over there!”)

II

While I have had lots to rave about as a tourist in Prague – the stunning architecture, the crazy baroque churches and Moorish synagogues, cheap better-than-average food (cheesecake to die for!), immaculately clean streets and bathrooms, their love of green space (so much green space!), the easy pace of living – despite all of this (which is really all you care about when you are a tourist) – of course Prague also has a dark side and a mean side. Any city does.

The park just off Wenceslaus Square (the centre of all Czech politics and history – of which Milan Kundera will have more to say about in a later post) is as tough as it gets – if toughness is what you come to find. You keep your belongings close and like the locals you go straight to the subway, or straight from it.

In less than the 1/2 hour we sat there on a bench eating a couple of spinach pastries, we saw two, then four, then six homeless young men get into a big fist-fight pile up – as one young man had tried to tell another to stop hassling two young German tourists.

Soon after that I watched a drug deal go wrong and 4 youths took off at a run for the square.

A drug addict threw his drug addict girlfriend to the ground and stood over her with fists clenched threatening to punch her for who knows what. From her knees she pleaded for mercy.

Ironically, there is a police station on the corner of the park – but it doesn’t seem to faze anyone.

We have seen only a handful of homeless men in the main tourist districts or more middle class neighbourhoods of the city. They are not allowed to ask for money – all they can do is stick out their hand. And the police monitor the cash-cow tourist districts like hawks (Prague is the 5th largest tourist destination in Europe).

I read in a Czech newspaper that there are somewhere between 2000 and 4000 homeless people in Prague. Some conservative city councilors recently had called for a homeless camp to be built outside of the city and for the homeless to be forcibly removed to the camp – but when this was announced, it sent shivers down everyone’s spine given the recent Czech history with “camps” and the “forcible” removal of people to them.

But like in the homeless world I work in back in Halifax, rarely do the worlds of the homeless and the not-homeless ever connect.

I watched as these three mini-dramas played themselves out – not once did the two worlds collide. The locals kept going to-and-fro the subway, and the myriad of waiting-for-Godot dramas of the homeless played out for no one but me.

III

The main farmer’s market in the Holesevice District of Prague – like Halifax’s – is housed inside an enormous warehouse-type space. When we stopped to buy eggs from a vendor my partner pointed out to me the naked July calendar girl pinned to the wall behind his counter. Full frontal landing strip included.

At the travel agency around the corner from our apartment there is a huge poster in the window of a naked Polynesian young woman, wearing only a lei, a crown of flowers, and a smile. “Come to Tahiti” it says – come for the colonial sex trade it implies.

The pharmacy a little further down on the main street has a huge poster in its window as well. The poster is selling some sort of breast cream – you guessed it – the woman is naked from the waist up and she is holding 2 little cans of the product exactly where her nipples should be – and nothing else but a smile.

To say that a significant portion of the Czech male population is misogynist would be a tremendous understatement. Women here do all of the housework, are still expected to pop out 2-3 kids, plus work a full-time job in the new post cold war capitalist utopia.

So, don’t be completely fooled by my earlier musings about how everyone here is more relaxed than Canadians when it comes to breastfeeding.

Cultures are more complicated than that.

Mothers may be revered – (no, “mothering” may be revered here) – but every woman still starts out as a sex object, and the public posters of naked smiling women blatantly reminds everyone of that fact.

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