Culture Shock. We all experience it when we go to a new country to some degree. Hell, I experience culture shock when I visit a new city within my country. When I went to Prague for a semester abroad at the end of last summer, I thought I didn’t really experience unanticipated culture shock. I did my research. I went not knowing the language and that it would be hard. I knew what the city looked like and behaved like from talking to someone who had gone and from intense Googling. I wasn’t overly cocky but I was less shocked than people who didn’t do their research (I love research). By the end of my trip, I asked myself if there wasn’t anything I found weird and confusing that I had no idea about. Some of the following things I did know about but was still shocked by. Some things were delightful, some offputting, and other just weird. Below are my 10 things I found to be weird in Prague while living there.
#1- Drinking beer with lunch
I grew up drinking water (sometimes milk) with every meal. As an adult, sometimes I’ll treat myself to a glass of wine or beer at dinner. In Prague drinking beer with your lunch was the regular thing to do and then again at dinner. Of course, once I went out that night (see #9) I would have a few more beers. It’s still a miracle that I didn’t gain weight on that trip. I highly recommend a cerny beer with svíčková for lunch in the colder months and a pilsner with chlebíčky for a summer picnic at Vyšehrad.
#2- Smoking is legal in bars
If smoke really irritates you, your options for Prague nightlife are limiting. Smoking is still legal in bars and clubs and certain ones are rife with it. It didn’t bother me after the first few weekends but it took a while to adjust. If you’re traveling there and want to avoid the smoke, bars are often less smokey (some smoke-free!) than clubs.
#3- Cars parked on the sidewalk
I wish I had a photo of this. As far as I know, it’s legal and sometimes encouraged for cars to park on what we would call the sidewalk on a regular basis. You find yourself walking down a cobblestone street, turn the corner, and suddenly, there it is: a car in your path and your brain struggles to comprehend the madness. Like everything on this list, you get used to it and if you stay long enough, these irritations become quaint and the things you miss.
#4- Quiet Metro stations
Let me start by saying I have not been in many metro stations but I discussed this with many friends who have while I was in Prague and we all agreed: the stations are strangely quiet. With the exception of school groups or loud, drunk tourists, each busy station was a place where you talk at a normal volume or keep to yourself. Also, they are really clean and efficient.
#5- Scented toilet paper
You’ve looked up the Czech word for toilet paper (toaletní papír) and you know you don’t have to spend much because of the great exchange rate for crowns. You manage to find the right aisle all on your own without asking a store assistant (not that you’d know how or that they’d offer). You are staring down the toilet paper and realize you don’t know the words for soft or strong so you go with the best photo: this one has daisies on it. Cool. You buy it and get home to find out that those aren’t daisies, they’re chamomile and although (you later discover) most toilet paper pictures match their scent, this toilet paper smells nothing like chamomile. You eventually run out and return to the store hoping to fix your simple mistake. Just buy unscented! Joke’s on you! Unscented toilet paper is really hard to find and I do not know why but this was one of the strangest pet peeves of mine (and culture shocks) while in Prague.
#6- Public urination
Drunk people like to pee where they shouldn’t. No, it’s not legal. In fact, one of my friends got a ticket for it. Luckily it’s not everywhere and you learn to avoid the places where it never seems to go away (rain and street cleaners help). Oh, Piss Alley! How I don’t miss you! To avoid making this life mistake, go into a nearby bar or restaurant and use their facilities. Unlike in Portland and Seattle, it is really easy to use a public toilet and you don’t need a key or code. Just say “Toilet?” or “Toaleta?” and look desperate.
#7- Separate rooms for the toilet and shower
I’m not sure if this is the case in the hotels, but in Prague apartments toilets and showers can be separate. They also put the washer in the shower room (no dryer but I knew that before I left). The shower room had a sink. The toilet room had a sink too. They weren’t even next to each other! The architect put a bedroom between them. It actually turned out to be really convenient when you live with four other women (until someone needs the washer and you’re in the shower).
#8- Monthly alarm tests
I watch a lot of period-piece films and TV shows, especially ones that are set in the U.K. or European countries. So I’ve been trained to be afraid of air-raid sirens even though I’ve never lived in a time or place that has used them. Until Prague. Prague has a lovely air siren testing that they do once a month. I don’t know how I didn’t learn this until after a test (or two). I guess I just didn’t ask and assumed because there wasn’t chaos in the streets that everything was ok. I think I even told myself the first time that it might be for a film but nothing can replace that fear I felt the first time I heard it and the confusion that came with it.
#9- 19th century buildings as a standard
I grew up, and currently, live, on the West coast of the United States. The oldest building here are wooden churches that have miraculously held themselves together since the late 18th century. They are a marvel because they are still standing but architectural beauties they are not. I had been to Europe before my trip to Prague so I had seen beautiful old buildings but living in an old city was something else.
Prague’s ‘New Town’ was built in the 14th century, nothing got wiped out in any wars, and the historic preservation is top notch. If you like history, if you like pretty buildings, if you like old buildings as well as modern ones, Prague is great. I never got used to walking next to these places. My childhood home was built in the 1980s but my apartment in Prague was built in the 1880s.
#10- Every night nightlife
If you couldn’t already tell, I am a woman in my early 20s and I like alcohol. Moreso, I like dancing. Sometimes, I like them at the same time. I didn’t realize just how much I loved this combination until I went to Prague. A friend of mine who has traveled a great deal moved to Prague after living for a time in Budapest. He said he thought Budapest’s nightlife was crazy until he went to Prague. By ‘crazy’ he meant the phenomenon of partying every night in a tourist city. Every night. Monday through Sunday any place in Old Town, New Town, those crazy places across the river farther away from the tourist center will have something going on. I personally have a theory that Wednesday’s and Sunday’s are the hardest nights to go out because fewer people are visiting and more places are empty. Locals who like to party go out on weird nights too, day jobs be damned.