Tim Burton showed us this month just how well the story of a girl who falls head first into a tupsy-turvy world sells, so I’ll have my own stab at the theme. And mark my words, I’ve been keeping tabs on national quirks as they present themselves one after the other here in Prague, and have done well to report them home. I’ve taken snaps of the vending machines with flower bouquets and the local delicacy that consists entirely of boiled bread and a fatty, greasy sauce. I’ve complained time after time about the manic, minature dogs that seem to mutiply in their millions every time I step out of my front door, like a plague of shivering, bearded rats playing dress up in burberry coats. I’ve asked the locals why the green man only appears for a fleeting 5 seconds; and why drivers just ignore him anyway and are perfectly happy to bulldoze their way through a busy road. The response is always that native “what can you do” shrug, along with the advice to just run like hell.
Its a topsy-turvy world here indeed, and its inhabitants all appear to indulge my fantasy that I’m Alice in a Czech-speaking wonderland. Why is it that the appropriate accessory for a tram ride is a scowl, and yet the minute you smile weakly at them they will break into a grin so broad you’d half think they’d gone mad? Or when you try to order in grammatically incorrect but relatively confident Czech they become surly and impatient. Yet, when you blush and stutter in response; their mood switches instantly and they start cheerfully jabbering away about the various beers you have to try – and force their strongest, black brew on you, even if all you really wanted to drink at lunch was a cola light. And when you return home to the flat of a thousand cuckoo clocks, slump into the tiny armchair – where for once in your entire vertically challenged life you feel like you’ve outgrown the furniture – you turn on the TV and it seems like each Czech channel is competing for the “who’s presenter looks the most like Rod Steward” award.
Yes, back home, we’ve had to endure a dull and visually offensive 80s revival, where anyone with an eye for the ugliest vintage garments imaginable can pretend they’re heart belongs to a decade that has everything to do with neon and new wave and nothing to do with shoulder pads, miners strikes, and Margaret Thatcher. Over here; there’s no need for that same revival because everyone was already sporting a mullet and watching Full House. If you‘re still pining for the decade you can’t remember then come over here and wax lyrical about American fast food chains that have only recently arrived on Czech soil and are the height of cool. The Czech Republic seems to be a confusing blend of its own native, reserved yet eccentric character and the belated American influence. My rabbit wears a waistcoat with the Kentucky colonel printed on the front and the Czech flag on its back, and carries pocketwatch that points somewhere in between Baywatch and boiled bread o’clock.
Now that I’ve drawn out the Alice in Wonderland pastiche just past the point of cringe and into the realm of self disgust, I’ll let you in on a secret. This place, despite all the aforementioned oddities, doesn’t actually feel that strange to me. Maybe its because I’m fairly used to the absurd; because I have foreign relatives who go to war with their neighbours using chunks of meat as weapons, or else, drag five year old children on week-long mountain hikes and eat jellied fish. Or maybe, just maybe, its because I’ve spent two years at a university that, forget the 80s, hasn’t move on since the Middle Ages: where its students can get fined for wearing a hat that I didn’t even think existed outside cartoons of academics, where Greer’s The Female Eunuch no longer seems out-dated but is completely relevant, where a political group of students can meet to drink and discuss current affairs whilst referring to Zimbabwe as Rhodesia, where so many people come out of the woodwork, spouting ideas you wouldn’t let your dotty old gran get away with. It is a place where the class system feels more like that feudal pyramid we learnt about at school, only turned on its head (population wise), pretending to foster progressive thought. If that isn’t a topsy-turvy world, then I don’t know what is.