Sensing change

15-01-2006

I first came to the Czech Republic in 1990 when I was seven years old. It was my mother's first return to her native country since 1968, and my first visit to a foreign country of which I knew nothing.

The memories are vague, but even at that young age, I remember being affected by my naïve, childish understanding that the people in the Czech Republic were not as well off as in Canada.

I could see it in the crumbling building facades. I distinctly remember one structure in Brno that was still pockmarked with bullets from resistance fighting during World War II. Then there were the decaying Communist apartment blocks, or "panelaky", protruding from the cityscapes, identical even in their state of disrepair.

Eating in a restaurant, I could taste the difference between the countries in the bitter Czech imitation of Coca-Cola. I could smell it in the grimy public pay-toilets that would have been condemned as a hygienic outrage in North America.

I could feel the difference when I rode with my relatives in their Lada car which seemed to be made entirely out of plastic and did little to cushion the bumps of potholes and cobblestones.

But maybe I really understood it when I saw one of my cousins from a small village place the chewing gum I had given him on the edge of his dinner plate, so that he could enjoy it again after his meal. I, on the other hand, simply spit out my piece of gum and took a new one after I was done eating. At first I thought his behavior was ill-mannered until my mother explained to me that chewing gum was something out of the ordinary for him.

Looking back now, with some knowledge of Czech history and culture, I can put my childish understanding into context. But even today, as a foreigner with a limited Czech vocabulary, it is through these basic tactile experiences that I can really understand the country. And what a different set of experiences it has been.

When I visit my grandfather, in the midst of his flat's 20-year time warp complete with shelves of Russian textbooks, I can comfortably sit down in a vibrating leather recliner.

And, when there are no rohliky for breakfast and I'm in a pinch for food, I can eat a horrible muffin and cappuccino from one of the McDonalds's on Wenceslas Square, though I'm not sure I would see this as any kind of progress.

Or when I am a lost foreigner in need of assistance, I no longer have to resort to crazy hand gestures. In my last instance of wandering Prague confused, my pitiful attempt at Czech was answered with, "I'm sorry, I'm new here" in English. In these days of mass tourism, you are as likely to meet a foreigner in the centre as a Czech. Fortunately, I then found a Prague resident who was able to answer my questions in German.

Most notable, though, is the fact that I am no longer particularly noticeable. At seven, I remember feeling like a foreign oddity, though it may have been my fluorescent pink spandex tights as much as my nationality. But if my clothing is noticed now, it is only because my winter-proof, Canadian practicality looks rather shabby next to the highly-fashionable Czech women.

These experiences of everyday living have shown me, in a very real way, how this country has changed.

15-01-2006