Friday, 19 April 2013

Five for Friday: The things about the Czech Republic that I missed in the USA

I’m stealing this feature from the Dreamstress to make sense of my own musings... Some things I remembered yesterday trigged this, and I thought it could be a good way of introducing you to some tiny details about the Czech Republic (and me, admittedly).

I may, sometimes, somewhere, mention that I’ve been to the USA. That was in 2007, thanks to a Presbyterian congregation that decided to play host to someone from my church in connection to the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, something they call “youth conference” which quite scared me at first before I realised it was almost the same sort of youth meeting I was used to, only much bigger and with more paperwork. The Triennium was a huge, and kind of eye-opening and life-changing event, if in small ways. There’s nothing quite like meeting fellow young Christians from all over the country and all over the world... And, well, let’s say that after having spoken in prayer in front of some 7000 people, delivering a school presentation to some 30 people is not much of a problem anymore...

I spent a bit less than a week on the Triennium, and about three weeks with people from the congregation, thanks to whose hospitality I had a chance to visit various places along the East Coast. (My least favourite, and my favourite, was Baltimore, which I’ll get to.

Aside from the following five things I missed, there’s also the matter of “the feeling of safety” that surfaced during the long security lines in the Spy Museum in Washington and at the Statue of Liberty. At the Statue of Liberty, I realised with quite a shock that I was in a country where a Swiss Army knife was a weapon, while I’d lived all my life in a country where it is a tool. Not that I discount the possibility of it being used as a weapon, or the fact that terrible things did happen in New York and elsewhere. It’s just that I live in a country that has a very different mindset, and had a different mindset even before that, which is a bit of an explanation why those things happened in the USA and not in the Czech Republic, whether that's a bad thing or not.

Enough of that.

#1: Soups. As a child, I used to hate soups with a passion, the notable exception being the sauerkraut soup and some three or four others. I gradually came to accept soups and like more of them. Then I went to the USA.
During my month in the USA, I had a soup two times: in a Viet-Thai restaurant the day after I arrived, and in an Irish restaurant the day before I left. In the interim, I missed soups terribly. In the Czech Republic, you would very often get both soup and a main course for dinner (lunch, because the main meal of the day is the midday meal). You would, also, very often only get soup for your dinner. Living on sandwiches and salads (I ate much more salads in the USA than I normally do, in an attempt to escape the less healthy options) and the occasional chicken, I realised that I actually loved soups. And begged mother to cook a soup for me when I come home.

#2: Bread. There’s Czech bread. And then there’s the bread in my hometown. About a thousand light-years removed from both, there’s the white bread I encountered in the USA.

Czech bread isn’t just any bread. It’s bread you actually, hypothetically, could live on. There are days when I pretty much do. Father sometimes says, quoting something (I wish I knew what): “It seemed to me that nobody loved me, so I bought a loaf of bread and wolfed the whole thing.” ("Zdálo se mi, že mě nikdo nemá rád, tak jsem si koupil bochník chleba a celej jsem ho sežral.")
The loaf of bread we’re talking about here is usually 0,9-1,2 kg. And when it’s fresh, it is quite possible to eat the whole thing, as it is, just because it’s so good as it is. Czech bread, when done properly, has a crunchy crust and a wholesome inside, and it smells of grain and caraway seeds. My uncle, (in)famously, was once instructed by my aunt to buy a whole loaf of bread, but the bread was so enticing that he kept nibbling at it on his way home, and at home he sliced off the eaten part cleanly, pretending to have only bought a half of a loaf... (Yep, that's a pound of bread nibbled at.)
Moreover, I live in a town where the local bakery is apparently one of the last mass-produce bakeries in the Czech Republic to make genuine sourdough bread. And a bakery in a town not so far away makes the best breadrolls, the kind of breadrolls that’s spoken about far away as something you have to taste to truly have lived...

Compare this to the white, tasteless sponge that the Western world calls "bread", and you’ll understand why I missed bread so much.

#3: Trains. And walking. I did get my share of walking on the Triennium, and here and there, but the fact that we travelled everywhere by car, while at home I travel everywhere by train, was quite a culture shock.
It’s the little things that throw you. The little thing that threw me was the absence of an under-the-window heater to rest my leg on. It’s an automatic thing for me. I have somewhat short legs, and the comfortable way to sit while travelling is to sit at the window and rest my leg on the heater. It is, also, something I cannot do in a car, making car rides all the more tiresome.

But there was also the general absence of trains from the country and from people’s lives. No timetables to observe when travelling. Almost no railroads to cross. Czech Republic is criss-crossed by railways, one of the countries with the highest density of railways in the world (guessing by a map I found online, surpassed only by Germany and Switzerland). The USA, while it has the longest railways in the world apparently, has none of the railway culture the Czech Republic has. My father is a railway enthusiast, and I practically grew up with trains. (I still find an article on prototype locomotives in Czech history a far more interesting thing to read in a magazine for railway passengers than, say, an interview with a famous person...)

This brings me to Baltimore. Baltimore is a terrible city for someone used to walking everywhere. But, as I learned after my first visit there, it houses a railway museum. (Railroad. Whatever.) The day before I left, then, I visited Baltimore again, and spent a very enjoyable day at the museum, including a very short, not at all picture-perfect train ride. I put my leg on the heater and I was a very happy marmot.

#4: The landscape and the countryside. The thing about Czech landscape is that it is very rarely flat. And it is quite green. When flying home, I knew we had crossed the border by the bunches of little forests scattered all over the country. A village, a field, a forest. A village, a field, a forest. And so on.

Czech Republic has almost no truly high mountains (our highest mountain is 1602 m high). But it also has almost no plains. Czech Republic is one of the watersheds of Europe, and everybody knows that rivers flow downwards. And Czech Republic is full of hills. It’s a rumpled country, and I missed that rumpledness terribly in the flat, flat, flat regions of the USA I visited. Czech Republic’s rumpledness makes it a very cosy country.

#5: The music. This is the one I would not have expected at all. I expected to miss the food, and the language, and the cultural customs – maybe even the landscape. I do not listen to Czech music all that much and modern music seems to be so American anyway, right?
Well, that’s modern music, perhaps. But I missed Czech Christian music. I missed the music of my church. On the Triennium, on one of the meetings with the other international participants, we sang a song (Jesus Loves Me, or some such) that they chose because they thought everyone would know it. Everyone did, except me. Because, while I come from a church with a Presbyterian organisation, my church has a very different history, very different background, very different tradition. I only knew two of the songs sung on the Triennium: Bless the Lord, My Soul – which, to the best of my knowledge, originates with the Taizé community in France – and Amazing Grace which is... well... Amazing Grace.

Here comes a rant. It could have been an excellent opportunity to learn new songs, if only the majority of songs sung at the Triennium had not been “worship songs”. In retrospect, on the Triennium I came to realise that while I definitely believe in worship by song, I do not believe in “worship songs”. They were all so tepid, without any taste of their own (just like the white bread...). The tunes were interchangeable, and the words were interchangeable, too. Had I known nothing else, I might have found these songs, sung by the mass of people, moving – I did find it moving at times. The thing is, before I attended the PYT, I had attended numerous youth meetings in my own church, and experienced a very different kind of song. The sad fact is, even compared to the many medieval, renaissance and baroque songs I know, those modern worship songs were very much dead.

Spirituals and gospel songs and songs based on 1960s folk are very much popular with the youth in my church which was why I was quite surprised by the blandness present at the Triennium. (It wasn’t just me, though – I had a very animated discussion on the subject with a black member of the Presbytery I was there with, who treated me and some passers-by to a much more soulful rendition of Amazing Grace than the one at worship). But a number of very old songs enjoy the same level of popularity, maybe even greater (one of the perennial favourites is a song recorded in a 1567 hymn-book.)


This, for your info, is a 1630s song.

It helps that my church’s current cantor really has a knack for bringing those old songs to life.

Unfortunately, this is not one of those old songs. Neither is, technically, this, because that's his own creation. But it gives you an idea of what he is capable of. This is originally from 1490.
Sorry about the bad quality; while Ladislav Moravetz is a celebrity in my own church, he's not much of one elsewhere.

I missed variety. “Worship” is all fine, but not even all Psalms are “worship songs”, are they? There is a lot of anxiety, a lot of despair, a lot of almost prideful assuredness, a lot of joy that makes you burst and want to dance. You do not get any of that from the sort of tune that usually accompanies “worship songs”.

I do not want to mislead you: the “music culture” (for lack of a better term) at my own congregation is quite atrocious. But I can’t help myself; I now have a lot of almost prideful assuredness in my church’s variety in Christian songs. It's not just in comparison with the Triennium: many other churches I encountered also tend to have songs from only one period, songs of only one style.
My church's very checkered history prevented that from happening. We have some (few but some) songs from before the hussite period. We have hussite songs. We have songs from the Unity of Brethren. We have renaissance songs like those written by Martin Luther, baroque songs like those written by Jan Ámos Komenský AKA Comenius, classicist songs, 19th century songs, 20th century songs. There’s something for every situation. There are songs that tell a story. And there are songs that are very much a credo; those are usually the best...

EDIT: I just ran into this on YouTube, and had to share...


  1. Very cool post! You should post some of those yummy soup recipes sometime.

    1. I will try - they are usually quite simple... the problem is in taking photos of the finished result. I like recipes with a picture, but have trouble doing the same. :D

    2. P.S. One of the easiest - one I love a lot - is garlic soup, which is basically cubes of potatoes, boiled, with garlic added... salt, marjoram, maybe some meat to your liking if you want it more wholesome, or fried cubes of bread (although you need the good kind of bread. :D)
      Not exactly a recipe, but that's what I like about soups - it's no exact science and almost anyone can do it.

  2. Hana I didn't listen to the music links because I haven't time right now but I just HAD to send you a hug! Believe me that America is not representative of all of 'Western culture' - it's just the flagship store ;-) Here in NZ we have real bread-sourdough and other types available everywhere, we love soup, we use commuter railways, we walk places, and, well it's funny how much we are alike even though we are so different! :)
    I also have a real bugbear about worship songs. Worship, praise, seems so...human. What does God care if we big him up in a song? He has no ego. It just seems to me to set a strange context for the nature of God. And the music is generally terrible! I too prefer songs that have more going for them, that make one think as well as feel. I remember a few years ago going to a church service at the holiday park we were staying at, run by one of those big Baptist type churches with a rock band. Not one of the songs did we know, the ones they led were terrible, repetitive dirgy things obviously meant to be performed by a full band but led by one acoustic guitar, plugged into an amplifier, which was ridiculous as this is a tiny wooden colonial church that seats 80 people! It made me really mad because it was so about them and their culture and so not about being welcomed, understanding God in context. I looked around at these families with their hands up, swaying, blank faced, and it scared me, frankly.
    NZ is crumply and green, too. We have bigger mountains, and some flatter bits, but all my pictures when I was a child had a line of hills in the background, because I grew up in a valley and that was what we saw! :)

    1. *hugs back*
      Sorry if it came out sounding arrogant towards the Western world - it probably is, a bit, but it's really just a comparison of personal experiences, and there were of course many things I loved in the USA as well.
      The more I learn of NZ from you NZ bloggers, the more I like it - it feels a lot like my kind of place.

      I don't mind praising songs at all. Some of my most favourite songs are praises. I just like praising songs that are bit personal and show, perhaps, a bit of a conflict. Not the sort of song that just keeps listing some characteristics (the only one I sort of remember was like that). I think my biggest problem with these songs is that they very often do not use biblical imagery/poetics, and somehow their imagery and poetics are much weaker than the original...

  3. I don't blame you about the bread--I'm not a huge fan of American bread either, and I've lived here my whole life! But I was spoiled growing up on homemade bread, because my mom has an allergy to all corn products, and they put cornstarch/meal/syrup/etc. in EVERYTHING here. So she would make all of the bread for us when I was growing up. And I'm determined to learn how to bake my own bread once I'm on my own, too, because store-bought bread (unless you specifically buy the artisan bread from the bakery, which does not make good sandwiches and that is a problem when your workday staple is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches), is so tasteless and bland here. Your bread sounds DELICIOUS.

    You've also summed up my feelings on why I find it so hard to find Christian music that I like very well. Especially since I've graduated college, I've drifted more and more away from listening to Christian music in favor of the more indie bands that interest me far more, both musically and lyrically. I will say though that my church does a pretty good job of mixing in hymns, albeit often with updated musical arrangements, with the more "pop" worship songs, and does strive to make sure that there are worship songs that make you think as well!

    And if you were around the Baltimore area, no wonder you think everything's flat! Once you get further west into Maryland, it starts getting hillier. It also starts getting hillier the minute you cross the Delaware border and get into Pennsylvania. And you do run into the Applachian foothills before too terribly long. But I tend to have the opposite reaction when I go to places with hills, because I live in Delaware and we have maybe one minor slope of a hill in the entire state. :)

    1. I saw some hills in Pennysylvania on the way from the Triennium. We travelled there overnight and on the way back I was very tired, so I must have slept through most of the hills, unfortunately...
      I'm in no way claiming that all of the USA is like that - as I said, this is rather personal, and also a way of telling you about the Czech Republic rather than the other way round. :D
      I live in one of the flatter regions; some 15 or so km to the north, it's really flat, but there already are hills here.

      For a long time I did not listen to much Christian music, though I grew up with Spirituál kvintet and an LP with 15th century Christmas songs; now I'm starting to again. But a lot of it really tends to be bland, or just, as you said, not my cup of tea musically or lyrically. Which is probably why I had not listened to it for so long.

  4. I know nothing about the Czech Republic, so it was fun to find out some facts about your country. Made me want to visit there someday. :) I have to say that if that picture and your description is anything to go by, your bread sounds AWESOME!

    As for the music? I know what you're saying. I go to a pretty conservative church and we sing a lot of hymns acappella. I do enjoy some of the worship songs (which we never sing at church), but I find that they are extremely repetitive and as you said, don't say a whole lot. They don't get very deep-they stay more on the surface of Who God is, which is fine, except I like songs that speak to me about what I'm going through and the spiritual truths of the Bible. Does that make sense? Maybe not, but anyway, I enjoyed that first song your posted. No idea what they're saying but it was a beautiful song! :)

    1. You have to steer clear of cheap supermarket bread, but if you can get a more "local" kind, it's usually really good bread. :-)
      And if you ever come visit, I'll be happy to play tour guide!

      A cappella singing in my congregation happens, and we always end up gradually lowering the notes to a point of breaking... one of the reasons why I wrote it's atrocious. But when done well, it's great.

      And you make perfect sense to me. The youth songbook of my church has all the songs supplied with references to relevant biblical passages, so I kind of grew up with the idea that every Christian song surely has to be tied to the Bible. Not a bad thing to believe, I think. :D

      That first song is Spirituál kvintet's version of Sinner Man, but the lyrics are somewhat different. It's presented as a (very vivid) dream and there's less of that searching for a hiding place and more of the Judgment. I loved this song as a child, and then the recording was lost because it was on that huge old kind of tape recorder... until my sister taped this version from a VHS tape onto an audio tape, and we got that into the computer. :D Three hoorrays for YouTube!
      Spirituál kvintet's existed since the early 1960s, and people came and went and it's actually rarely been a quintet... This "cast" I think was the very best vocally.
      I could talk on this subject much more, ahem.

  5. That soup looks mighty good.

    I'm not sure what you folks are meaning when you say "worship songs", but I know what I like to hear at church. To me, at Mass, the singing - I mean the words - should be vertically oriented, or praising God. These days, there's too much of the "I'm happy to be a Christian" sort of thing. That, in my opinion, is fine, but play it on your cd player or ipod or whatever. Because that type of song is more horizontal and feel-goody.

    As for the bread, we are rye bread lovers at this house, but I suppose too many Americans are still buying the other stuff. I read many blogs and magazines which talk about a better kind of bread, but I'm not sure it's representative of what the populace is doing as a whole. Still, I think things are improving! :D Yours sounds right up my alley!

    1. Well, I think that "I'm happy to be a Christian" sort of thing is precisely what we meant, though I cannot be 100% sure we are talking about the same thing.
      Horizontal/vertical is an excellent way to put it!

      Luckily, I was staying with rye bread lovers for most of my time with the congregation; when I arrived, they had something else, but that day I had rye sandwich at a restaurant, mentioned to them how much I liked it, they agreed they liked it, too, and it was rye from then on with them. But I wasn't always with them. (Also, they had been to the Czech Republic several times, which might have played a role. :D)

  6. I love the comparison you have done here between our country and yours! That soup looks delicious. And I completely agree with you, the white spongy substance we call bread is awful. I think since I'm an American I can say that this country has some of the worst food on the planet. Don't get me wrong, we've got some pretty good food here, too. But so much of it is packaged and processed to the point where it doesn't taste like real food anymore. Which is one of the reasons last year I began to eat cleaner and simpler, going on mostly meat, vegetables and fruit, and dairy. It's so much healthier.

    The landscape here is actually pretty varied, depending on where you are in the country. Of course you would not have seen all of it in just one visit! :) We have everything from hot deserts, to foothills and mountains, to prairies, forests, and plains. I live in Ohio which is pretty darn flat though. :/

    Great post!

    1. Ah, I should have made it more clear that I know the USA are varied - I've taken a course on American Geographies, after all! :D I think it did not make it to the final post because I got carried away with the music and did not want to to make it much longer...

      But I'm glad you're all enjoying this post.

      We've got our share of awful food, too - but healthy and natural seems to be on the rise as well.

  7. dear hana!
    grown up in the south-eastern corner of east germany (ddr), near to the czech border (cssr in this time) a agree with you in all the points - soups, bread, trains (love trains and traveling this way) and the countryside. i was travelling the usa, australia, africa and asia, but coming home to the forests and hills and villages of erzgebirge and sächsische schweiz really warmt my heart.
    bohemia is not far away here.......
    with the music it is an other thing, i´m not a christian.

    1. Bayern was really the closest I've ever been to, I think - not just geographically. I have not been to Germany further north, but it must be similar.
      After all, there used to be a strong German presence here (my host family's mother's grandma came from Bohemia), and we live in the same climate and so on.

  8. I have lived in Europe and I have lived in the US. You find good bread everywhere just as you find bad bread (yes, the supermarket bread). There are bakeries in New York, and we bought suberb sourdough bread all the time. The we lived in Finland and the bread was no comparison, soggy and machine-made.
    So where am I going with this? A short visit to a country may give you a wrong impression. I hope you have a better experience next time!

    1. Well, sure. And it all depends on what kind of people and shops you run into; New York must be different from a smaller city.
      But with the Czech bread, the point is, it's kind of unique even in Europe. We do have the cheap supermarket kind, but many people are aware that it's not what bread is supposed to be like. And that's saying quite a lot, because Czechs tend to go for the cheap things. :D

  9. I'm Hana's sister and I liked the post. I'd just like to add that maybe what she meant by variety of landscape was that when you go by train, it changes before your eyes all the time. Small hills, bigger hills, steep hills, a large flat field, an old cemetery, a spruce forest here, a birch-beech forest there, a village with a Baroque church, a town with a Gothic church, a stony stream, a large river... whereas in some other countries the changes are more large-scale - you have to go bigger distance for the landscape to change.

    1. Right! That's what I had in mind and failed at expressing.

  10. And as to the safety of the country - I remembered this article when I heard today that a house exploded in the centre of Prague, destroying the windows in the Czech National Theatre (yeah, the one Hana wrote about in one of her previous articles). And I realized nobody mentions terrorists - everyone just talks about gas pipes.

  11. The thing that got me interested in bread-making was an old Martha Stewart episode where she went to a Czech bakery in NYC - fascinating.

    1. Bread making is still a mystery to me. I guess I should start early, though... and if I do, I may eventually arrive at the same sort of mastery. :D

  12. How nice to have a native Czech person expressing her appreciation of the delights of her own country :-) In my experience, those Czechs like yourself Hana, who have spent time outside of the country in the USA or the UK, are usually far more appreciative of the many positive attributes of the Czech Republic, than those who have never really left the country for any reasonable period of time. I particularly concur with you regarding Czech bread, the dense rail network & the wonderful rumpled countryside.

    I also sympathise with you regarding the absurd and unbalanced attitude towards security in the USA. If you have a Swiss Army knife, you must be a terrorist. But please don't introduce any restrictions on who can buy & own a gun. How many people have been killed by terrorist wielding a Swiss Army knife compared with the number of Americans who die each in shooting incidents because of the free availability of guns????

    Likewise, I also sympathise with your comments about bland worship songs ;-)

    1. Sorry for the very late reply...

      I have a similar experience - you have to leave your home to appreciate it. Except for my sister, who's lived in Latvia on and off for a considerable time and then missed it terribly and complained about the Czech Republic... ;-) But I can understand that - it's not that different, and those different aspects are usually quite nice.

      Theoretically, I understand the historical reason for the ownership of guns, except that as a Czech, I don't really understand. The cultures are way too different in this respect. It does not make much sense in current times, either - and they say you Britons stick to your traditions! :D

  13. Hi Hana,
    I'm a middle aged Irishman who has travelled to your native land a few times and I have to say how much I love Czechia and its wonderful people. I've just read your 'five things' post and you've made me 'Czechsick' (I can't say homesick because I'm at home in Ireland right now. what a wonderful country you come from, everything you've listed has struck a chord with me (except perhaps the church music part - I'm not particularily religious)- but especially the food and trains parts. Regards, Bernard McCann.

    1. I'm glad you liked my country! There are many things I think I could similarly enjoy ebout Ireland - as I mentioned in my post, one of those two soups I had was in an Irish restaurant ;-) and generally, I liked the Irish food I've run into so far (though it was not that much yet). My mom's been to Ireland and really liked it.

  14. The quote is from a joke by Vladimir Jiranek. The whole thing goes like this: "Bylo mi líto, že mě nikdo nemá rád, tak jsem si koupil celej chleba." "Ale takhle nesmis mluvit. Především jsem tady já. Děti tě mají rády. Všichni tě máme rádi. A kde je ten chleba?" "Sežral jsem ho." "Nenažranče nenažraná. Nikdo tě nebude mít rád."

  15. Wow, it was so eye-opening to hear how much you did not like your experience in the US. My sister went to England and found the food intolerable and the people unfriendly. She did not like the culture in general and was bored with the museums. I went the next year and had the time of my life. Yes, there were things that were not so convenient as they are at home. Some food was odd-tasting and then there was the weather (of course). I guess my point is that if you look for the things that do not please you, you will always be able to find plenty. If you come back, please try to find some good here. I'll just bet if you take that attitude to any country in the world you will be able to have a miserable time. So sad.

    1. Oh dear, that's not at all what this post was about! *sigh* I originally also intended to write one about things in the Czech Republic that I did not miss in the USA...
      You might understand more if you knew just how much Czechs are deprecative of their own country. This was not a post about the things I did not like in a foreign country. This was a post about the things I love about my own country that I came to realise I really loved when I was in a foreign country. It says in the first paragraph that this is about the Czech Republic! The USA are there because the comparison should make the points more clear and that's what my experience is.
      There were many things I did like in the USA that in the end did not make it into the post because it would be overlong and all over the place. There are still hints of that in the post as is. I hope that, if you re-read it, you will find that in spite of the music, I really enjoyed the Triennium; that I loved the Baltimore Railroad Museum, among other things; and that I am grateful to the people's hospitality and the chance to visit all those places...