From Czechoslovakia With Love

Steve Fisher 15. června 2012 • 06:00

One of the questions that Czech people often ask me is what most surprised me about this country when I first came here 20 years ago.

I'm always hesitant to answer that question, because I'm afraid that the answer is going to make me look like a typical American idiot. Americans are notorious for their lack of knowledge about the rest of the world. For example, in one recent study when they were asked to find Japan on a map, 50 percent of Americans responded, "What is a map?"


That's why, in 1991, when someone suggested to me that I could travel to Prague and teach English, the first thing that surprised me was when I looked on a map and discovered that Prague was located in a country called "Czechoslovakia."


Czechoslovakia! What a name! 14 letters long! It was, in fact, the longest one-word name of any country in the world, beating out Liechtenstein (13 letters) and Turkmenistan (12).


What did I know about Czechoslovakia? Not much. I seemed to remember that the evil chess player in the first James Bond movie, From Russia With Love,  was from Czechoslovakia. I think his name was Kronsteen. He was part of SPECTRE, the international criminal syndicate that was always trying to kill James Bond. He was actually SPECTRE's Head of Planning, which was quite a high position for someone from such a small country, so that's pretty impressive.


In all the years I've lived here, though, I've never met a Czech person named Kronsteen, nor have I ever met any evil Czech chess masters. I once played checkers with a Czech guy who was really good at it and was kind of a jerk, but that's about it.


The second thing that surprised me about this country – and this is going to sound totally crazy, but it's true – was when I finally arrived in Prague and found that everything here was in color.


Really. All my life, in American newspapers and school textbooks, the only pictures I had seen of Eastern Europe were black-and-white photos of people wearing long dark grey overcoats in what looked like freezing cold weather, standing in line to buy bread.


So, when I first saw Prague with my own eyes, I was immediately amazed. The trees were green! The sky was…well, actually it was mostly grey on that cold late-September day. The buildings, the streets, the metro, the people…okay, yes, they were all sort of grey and colorless, too, but the trees! Definitely colored. I remember staring at those trees in amazement later that day as I stood outside a shop in the freezing cold with a bunch of people wearing long dark grey overcoats waiting in line to buy bread .


The third thing that surprised me on my first day here was when I tried to make a call from a pay telephone at the train station. I tried depositing a one-crown coin in the phone's coin slot, but it wouldn't go in. The slot was blocked by a piece of metal.  I tried the other telephones nearby, but their coin slots were all similarly blocked.


Then, a kind Czech passerby noticed my confusion and showed me the way the phone worked – placing my coin in a little tray in front of the slot, then dialing my number for me. When the party I called answered, the coin slot opened and my coin fell in.


Wow, I thought. Your coin isn't deposited until the call goes through.  So you can't lose your money if the phone is broken.  How ingenious!


Of course, when I asked the person I had called if I could speak with the director of the school I was supposed to be teaching for, the person abruptly said, "To je omyl!" and hung up. The kind Czech fellow who had helped me make the call asked me what had happened, and I told him that I seemed to have accidentally reached someone named Omyl. He assured me that such a misconnection was totally normal in the Czech telephone system, and he helped me try again until we finally managed to reach my school on the third or fourth try.


As it turned out, the Czech telephone system became one of my most constant sources of surprises – from calling a number only to suddenly hear two or three other voices on the line speaking at the same time, to a miraculous pay phone in the Moravian town of Vranov where I once deposited a one-crown coin and was somehow able to talk to my family in America for more than an hour. If you're too young to remember the way phones used to work here, be sure to ask your parents. They probably have some funny stories, too.


There were plenty of other surprises in store for me during my days and weeks and months ahead in Czechoslovakia, which was soon to lose its standing as the world's longest one-word named country.


Finding love and the greatest happiness I've ever known in one of the world's most beautiful places was the best of those surprises…but, hey, this is supposed to be a humor column, so I won't write about that here.


Instead, let me just add that I'd be very happy to hear from anyone named Kronsteen. Please write to me in care of this magazine.

Klíčová slova: rxrx, stevefisher

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