Friday, 20 October 2017

The "handy" Czech

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
29 January 2010

Many Czechs that I know would hesitate to ask a stranger for help, preferring to use their sharply honed senses of logic and practicality to solve their problem, without inconveniencing someone that they don't know or paying for something that they could do themselves for free.

Raised in a society where self-sufficiency is ingrained as early as preschool years, the Czechs I know tend to resist reaching out for help when presented with a situation they don't know the solution to. Czech reasoning goes: If there is a problem, I should solve it. If I don't know the solution, the problem must be insolvable. Although I don't think of Czechs as being egoistic in general, where problem solving is concerned, sometimes practical thinking actually limits the realm of possibilities.

An American friend of mine once recounted a story from her work about just such a thing. Her colleague had brought in a laptop and when he didn't spot the available Internet cable, which was on the table, just under a newspaper, he unplugged a cable from a desktop computer. A second colleague then arrived and sat down at the desktop computer. After working all morning she reported to my friend, her supervisor, that she had been unable to complete part of her assignment because the Internet connection for the computer was down. She had tried various methods to repair the Internet connection, including rebooting the computer and following the Internet dialogue box, but being unsuccessful she assumed that the Internet was broken and that her supervisor, my friend, must have already known this.

When my friend asked the culprit why he'd never mentioned that he'd unplugged the Internet from the computer, he declared that he assumed his colleague would ask if she needed the Internet. Needless to say, my friend couldn't believe that neither had reported the situation to her as soon as the problem was discovered. Since there had been the extra Internet connection wire sitting not-in-use on the table the whole time, she was doubly distressed.

I've encountered similar situations in supermarkets, when I've asked for an uncommon product that the store clerk on duty isn't familiar with. Instead of asking another worker or telling me she's sorry but she's not familiar with the product, the response is a straightforward, "No, we don't have that." Once I watched a clerk ring up my avocado as a mango. When I questioned her, she responded, "I don't know what it is, so it's as good as a mango to me." When another customer in line concurred that the fruit was truly an avocado, the salesclerk grumbled, and called her manager to fix the mistake. When she discovered that I owed an extra 5Kc, she asked me for it pointedly. I was ready to pay when the manager said, "It's okay. It was our mistake."

Growing up, I was raised to believe that just because a problem seems insurmountable, doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to find a solution, even if it means suggesting several implausible ideas before finally producing a feasible solution. Asking questions was encouraged during my formative years in school and at home, as well as thinking "outside-the-box." Even if I didn't know how to complete my task it was likely that by asking for help, someone in my work or social circle would provide the solution. Quite often, this line of thinking only serves to make my Czech husband wonder if he's married an American lunatic.

Whenever Radek and I encounter a problem in the household (i.e. the coffee maker breaks, a pipe leaks or the heater goes out), I immediately begin to speculate on the cause of the problem and try to reason a potential solution. Usually, before I can utter further than one or two suggestions (the first of which is typically: Let's call a repairman,) Radek stops me with a glance saying, "Please, be practical." Thinking logically before speaking is something as ingrained to my husband as is the tendency to brainstorm without filtering my thoughts is to me.

Of course, in my mind calling a repairman would be the first logical step to any functional household problem. However, for my husband, calling a professional for a service means parting, perhaps unnecessarily, with money. Radek usually does manage to fix most of our household problems without calling in a professional. Of course, making friends with a neighbor who built his own house and is knowledgeable about plumbing, electrical and structural repairs has helped infinitely.

In the beginning, Radek was reluctant to ask our neighbor for advice. However, when a pipe burst last winter and created a fountain of icy water streaming from our porch faucet, our neighbor noticed. He and Radek began an ongoing discussion about home repairs that's made him the first person Radek calls for help related to any technical household issue. He's taught Radek how to wire lights, repair leaks and fix the furnace. To date, we've never paid him for his services – he won't let us – but he's willing to share a beer or a shot with Radek after the repair work is completed.

At times, I feel chagrined that we're imposing on our friendly neighbor. This year he and Radek spent two hours trying to fix our heat on the day after Christmas, and he's come over several times to help me restart our furnace when Radek's been away. But whenever I suggest that Radek call a repairman instead, he acts as if I've lost my mind. Our friend doesn't seem to mind, although I wonder if his wife doesn't resent the time he spends working on our house when he might have been continuing to finish their own instead.

From talking with other friends married to Czechs, they've recounted similar stories of the depth of Czech hospitality and friendliness. Although Czechs are reluctant to ask advice from strangers, once you've become a friend, the ties of loyalty reach beyond what I'm accustomed to from American politeness protocol. At times Radek accuses me of being unwilling to do a favor for a Czech friend, while I think that his common sense should kick in and realize that what he's asking to do is beyond my comfort zone (i.e. costly, inconvenient or something that imposes on others). However, his common sense tells him –a friend has asked for a favor, unless it's impossible, I need to show my loyalty. Usually, we agree to do favors on our own terms. I stick within my comfort zone and so does Radek.

However, I must admit that over the years of living in the Czech Republic, I'm certain that I've solved a few problems for our family by thinking "outside-the-box." Last spring when we received odvolaní (rejection notices) from all six of the village preschools we registered for, I suggested to Radek that we appeal the rejection to a higher school authority. When I asked other Czech friends, no one had ever filed a protest, although it was an option that was given on the rejection form. Czech friends reasoned that if a school didn't have space, there was no room for argument, filing a form would just be another waste of time.

Initially, Radek also dismissed my suggestion. However, when my subsequent suggestions included setting up a meeting with the mayor or starting a protest petition in the neighborhood for parents to sign, Radek agreed that he'd just as soon write the letter. Having spent many days in March visiting preschools, talking with teachers and filling out the necessary application forms, it seemed only reasonable to me that we follow the process through till the end. In fact, a few days after we mailed our letters, we received a call from one preschool with an open spot.

In the future, I plan to continue to expose our kids to as much "impractical" thinking as I can. I know that Czech culture and their father will do the balancing.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.