Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Things you never knew about the Czech Republic (and wish you still didn't!)

Contributed by missionary friend in Prague, Ted Turnau:

In the Czech Republic, there is a loosely organized group that wields tremendous power. No, it's not the mafia (I think the mafia is scared of these people). It's grandmothers. They are usually around 4 foot nothing, move kind of slow (though they can really book when they need to catch a tram), and look like, well, old ladies. But don't let their benign appearance fool you. They rule, and everyone knows it.

Once, years ago, when I knew no Czech and was unfamiliar with their cultural ways, I made the mistake of putting my foot on the seat of a tram so that I could copy down some information about an art exhibit from an ad posted in the tram. A nearby grandma transformed from a quiet old lady to a snarling wolverine (grandma as were-badger). I had no idea what she was saying, and I'm kind of glad I didn't -- because she was probably using language that would make a sailor blush. But I got the idea (after a few moments of gaping at her like a stunned carp), and got my foot down. It wasn't until later that I realized that I had violated a major Czech taboo -- the ground is forbidden, and you mustn't get ground-microbes on seats. Bad! Bad! Another time, a grandmother who didn't feel that we were dressing our child properly slipped us a couple of bucks to buy our kid socks. They are everywhere . . . watching. (Part of the reason they're everywhere is that in this culture, they don't ship them off to nursing homes.)

Anyway, the cultural repercussion of the ubiquitous Big Brother (make that: Big Grandma) is, I believe, a stream of thinly veiled aggression against grandmas everywhere in the Czech Republic, especially among children. Don't believe me? Consider the following:

Exhibit A: One way to insult someone is to call them a "baba" (a grandma). It means that you are old, ugly, and mean.

Exhibit B: A cute children's rhyme, used as a greeting: "Dobry den, baba leze kominem." Translation: "Good day, grandma's climbing the chimney," rather like a gigantic spider, I suppose.

Exhibit C: In the Czech version of tag, "It" (the horrible monster that everyone runs away from) is known by another name. Can you guess? It's "Baba," or Grandma.

Exhibit D (and perhaps the best one): There is a Czech children's game very similar to "Mother, may I?" called "Honziku stavej!" or "Johnny, wake up!" The main difference in these games is that in "Mother may I?" the players ask the leader (the "mother") whether they can take 5 giant steps, and so on. In "Johnny, wake up!" each player asks the leader "What time is it?" and the leader tells them what they are to do (elephant steps, mouse steps, and so on). If he or she tells you anything having to do with Grandma, you're sunk. One grandma move is "Grandma's knitting" in which case you move your hands as if you were rolling a ball of yarn and you walk backward, away from the finish line. But my favorite is, "Grandma fell in the toilet," in which case the players have to squat down for a full turn, until the leader yells, "Grandma got out." So, in effect, being a Grandma wastes two full turns.

When all is said and done, there is an intricate and deeply woven pattern of grandma abuse here, a sort of subversion of their grandmatronly authority, the Czech way of "Stickin' it to the Man," or rather, "Stickin' it to the Grandma." Fight the power. Word up, yo.

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