Monday, January 21, 2019

New posts at my website

As is probably apparent, I haven't been updating this blog in a long time. I have compiled all of the posts on this blog plus lots of other information in some files on my website. You can find everything at this page:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

What is the card game I see old men playing in pubs? I didn't even recognize the cards they were using.

Most likely it is mariáš. It is similar to (but far less complicated than) bridge as the three players win points by collecting tricks. One player makes a bid to win a certain number of tricks and the other two try to prevent him. The game uses a German set of 32 cards: ace, king, overknave (svršek), underknave (spodek), and ten through seven in the four suits of acorns, heart, leaves, and bells. The name comes from the French for marriage which refers to the marriage between the king and the overknave which is worth extra points. More complex than the game are the betting permutations which used to be measured in haléře (the now defunct pennies).

I’ve noticed people driving around in a three-wheeled car. What is it?

This car is known as a Velorex. It was developed in the 1940s by the brothers František and Mojmír Stranský and originally called an Oskar. Besides the three wheels, the distinctive features are a canvas tarpaulin or metal shell around the outside and a Jawa motorcycle engine inside. Though production was definitively ended in 1973, the Velorex has become popular with collectors and can be seen at car fairs. The film Vrchní, prchni (Run, Waiter) accurately captures the hit in social standing you took for driving a Velorex when your friends had Škodas or Trabants.

Some friends who recently had a baby invited me to what they called a welcoming ceremony for their baby. What is this?

Known as the vitání občanků (welcoming of the little citizens), this ceremony was introduced by the communists as a sort of secular alternative to christenings. The ceremony usually takes place at the town hall and is presided over by a government official who makes a speech welcoming the infants to the community and gives them small gifts (like a scrapbook). Despite the fall of communism, the mostly innocuous ceremony remains relatively popular.

I got caught by an inspector for not having a ticket on a tram. What powers do they have? Can they arrest you?

No, these inspectors (revizoři) are not allowed to use force to hold or detain you. They may, however, call the police if you refuse to cooperate. Of course, at the same time, you are legally required to show them your ticket or proof of your identity even though they have no legal means to compel you to do so.

Who are the guys dressed in fatigues getting on the trains on Saturday mornings?

They are known as tramps and belong to organized groups (often with English names like Red River) who meet at a specified place in the woods (their osada or settlement) to camp, hike, and sing. The phenomenon emerged between the wars as young people looked for an alternative to their modern city lives. The tradition grew under communism as a sort of quasi-protest against the official mass-organized recreation of the communists. It was popular enough in the seventies and eighties that there is now a whole genre of tramp music (often borrowed from American country and folk music). Tramping is less popular today as young people have turned to more consumerist pastimes, but some remain faithful to their clan in middle age.

The sports news broadcast that the Czechs had won the world championship in some strange sport that looked like cyclists playing soccer. What is it?

This sport is called kolová (cycle ball or radball) and was invented by a German in the late 19th century. It is played like soccer but by teams of two riding specially designed bikes with fixed gears and no brakes. The players pass and shoot the ball with the bike’s front wheel. Matches are usually accompanied by displays of artistic cycling (krasojizda) Like nohejbal and a special Czech form of handball (národni hazená), it is another sport that achieved popularity so that Czechs could proclaim themselves among the world’s best. Most memorably the Pospišil brothers won twenty world championships between 1965 and 1988.

What are the short columns with crosses that I see by the sides of roads and throughout the woods?

These are known as boží muka (literally, “divine suffering, but better translated as wayside crosses). They consist of a short column with a shrine containing a small statue, a picture of a saint, or an inscription. They point the way to pilgrimmage sites or memorialize the scene of an accident.

I raised my finger to order a beer, but the waitress brought me two beers? Why?

You probably used your index finger to indicate that you wanted one beer, but Czechs start counting with their thumb so a raised index finger means “two” – the thumb plus the index finger. Next time, use the thumbs-up sign for ordering one beer. Speaking of hand gestures, you might have also noticed Czechs holding their thumb (držet palce) which is their equivalent of crossing your fingers for luck.

I’ve noticed that some Czechs have titles both before and after their name – like Dr. Jan Novak, Ph.D.. Why?

Like their German neighbors, Czechs are obsessed with titles and so rather than follow the American habit of just indicating the highest degree they’ve achieved, they often like to show multiple achievements. You can find some of the more common titles and their placements at the following websites:

I received a postcard from my friend that just had the letters PF on it. What does that mean?

This is the Czech version of Christmas cards, but transferred to the New Year. P.F. stands for the French phrase pour felicitér and means that they are wishing you all the best in the coming year. You can find high art versions of these greetings on sale in second-hand book shops.

I was at a camp site and saw Czechs playing a strange game that looked like a cross between soccer, volleyball, and tennis. What is it?

This sport is called nohejbal which literally means football (noha = foot), but is translated as football tennis. It was developed in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 30s and is played on a volleyball-sized court with the net set at tennis height. The rules are similar to volleyball, except that the hands and arms are the only parts of the body which cannot touch the ball. Teams consist of two or three players and points are usually concluded with the equivalent of a smash – the leg raised high and brought down over the ball. The game is quite popular among Czechs and they like to claim that they are the world’s best (partially a consequence of being one of the few countries who play it)..

During the credits of old films, I’ve noticed that some names are accompanied by the phrase nár. umĕlec or zasl. umĕlec. What do they mean?

These were communist-era titles bestowed on outstanding figures in the arts (in fact they were inaugurated by Masaryk). The higher honor is National Artist (Národní umĕlec) while the lesser one is Distinguished Artist (Zasloužilý umĕlec). Naturally, it wasn’t just artistic achievement but political criteria that were used in choosing recipients. Few artists had the courage to refuse the award which was accompanied by a higher salary and other perks. Among the holders of the titles were the poet Jaroslav Seifert, the actors Jan Werich and Vladimír Menšík, and the opera singer Peter Dvorský. The awarding of such titles is an indication of the high regard in which cutural figures are held.

What are the tall, windowless buildings I’ve seen in several villages (see photos)? Do people live in them?

These towers are used by the fire department for drying out their hoses. The hoses need to be thoroughly dried after they’ve been used to prevent deteroriation of the material and their length requires a tower-like structure.

I was visiting a friend in a village and all of the sudden music started playing throughout the village. Was it some sort of concert?

No, that was the village’s PA system (místní rozhlas) which is used mostly for broadcasting public service messages – recycling days, town meetings, school closures, etc. – but also sometimes plays the national news and even music mostly for the benefit of the town’s seniors.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Why do Czechs write their dates with the day first rather than the month – i.e., 19.11.1970 for November 19, 1970?

It is the U.S. which is the outlier here. We are one of the rare countries which uses the Month/Day/Year format (a couple of Pacific Island states are the others). The Czechs along with most of the rest of the world use Day/Month/Year which at least to me seems more logical, moving from the more specific to the more general. It is derived from the older habit of writing “the Nineteenth Day of November in the Year of Our Lord 1970.” Probably even better is the system in use in some Asian countries which is Year/Month/Day which allows easy sorting in spreadsheets. You may also notice that Czechs sometimes use a Roman numeral for the month – thus, 19.XI.1970 – which makes things a little more clear. Beware then that for Czechs 9/11 is actually 11/9 (devateho jedenacte – the ninth day of the eleventh month).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Why do the inscriptions on some statues and columns have certain letters in caps and others in lower case?

This is what is known as a chronogram. Notice that the letters in caps are C, D, I, L, M, V, and X – all Roman numerals. If you add up the number value of all of these letters, you get the date when the statue was erected. For example, AMore MatVrItas is deciphered as MMVI or 2006. There are also more complicated types – in a pure chronogram each word has a number and in a natural chronogram the numbers are in the correct order – but most Czech cases take the more basic form which is hard enough to write (try it yourself).

Monday, July 09, 2007

What does the phrase “smluvní ceny” at the bottom of my restaurant menu mean?

Translated literally, it means “agreed” or “contracted” price. Does that imply that you can bargain or haggle over the price of your meal? Not really. In fact, it simply refers to the fact that the prices indicated in the menu are not regulated by the state. Since almost no prices are regulated by the state, why do businesses use the phrase? It is probably in remembrance of the long years of communism when virtually all prices – from those of beer and bread on up to cars and refrigerators – were regulated and usually at very low levels.

The same goes for the phrase “cenová skupina” (or price category). The reference here is to a law passed in 1956 that designated restaurants, hotels, and bars into one of four categories of quality – first was the highest and fourth the lowest or dustbin category. The idea here was to provide a sort of good housekeeping seal of approval. Establishments in each of the categories (except for the lowest) were expected to meet certain minimal norms on such matters as tablecloths, variety of meal selections, sanitary facilities, and room service. The law establishing these categories was actually rescinded in 1982, but even today many restaurants and hotels still carry designations like 1. cenová skupina even though they are no longer legally meaningful. Many in the country’s artistic and bohemian crowd still, however, seek out the fourth category for its louché charm.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Why do we spell Czech in English with a "cz" while Czechs themselves use a "c" with an upside-down caret - i.e., Cech?

Before the 14th c. the Czechs also used the English spelling where the digraph (meaning a pair of letters that represents a single sound) "cz" stands for the "ch" sound. It was Jan Hus who modernized Czech spelling by replacing these digraphs - which occurred wherever a distinctive Czech sound did not have a corresponding letter in the Latin alphabet - with diacritics, the little upside down carets which adorn c's, r's, s's, and z's in Czech to produce the ch, rzh, sh, and zh sounds. English appears to have adopted the old Czech spelling - likely because the word entered English before the 14th c. - and couldn't be bothered with Czech spelling reforms. Interestingly, the Poles have maintained many of these old digraphs and thus they also write Czech with a "cz". Languages other than English have more sensibly decided to spell Czech using their native phonetic system so that people can pronounce the word correctly without tripping over an ancient and foreign spelling system.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Why have pictures of what look like high-school students recently appeared in every store window?

These pictures are known as tablo (from the French tableau) and feature the members of graduating high school classes. The tradition of posting these pictures goes back more than a century and was intended to draw attention to the achievements of graduates in the absence of American-style graduation ceremonies. Styles have of course changed - while older tablos featured entire classes lined up in their Sunday-best, today’s posters are far more creative as a few samples posted here attest.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Why do Czechs call Venice Benátky?

Like the names of many foreign cities, Venice’s name has been Czechified – that is, put in a form that more easily rolls off Czech tongues. In the case of Venice, this happened at least as early as the 13th century because that is when a Czech town on the Jizera River was christened Benátky nad Jizerou (Venice on the Jizera), likely because it shared its namesake’s proximity to water. Indeed, the word benátky – which appears to have entered Czech through Slovene – came to mean any swampy place. The allure of Italy must have been high at the time for two other Czech towns bear the Czechified names of Italian cities. Verona inspired Beroun and Brindisi gave its name to Brandýs nad Labem. Other Czech names that presumably went through a similar process include Janov for Genoa and Soluň for Thessaloniki; conversely the Czech Postupim gave birth to Potsdam, and Vratislav to Wrocław.

More interesting are the cases where Czechs actually translate the meaning of the place name so that Munchen becomes Mnichov using the Czech word for monk, Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg) becomes Královec a translation of könig or king into Czech, Pětikostelí (Five Churches) is Hungarian Pécs, and Sedmihradsko is Transylvania (known as Seven Cities in German)

Many will also have noted that two of the Czechs closest neighbors bear unusual names. Germany is called Německo and Austria Rakousko. The origins of the first are easy to pin down. All Slavic languages use some version of the word “němý” (mute) to refer to Germans. In the old days, it was a way of saying that Germans were a people who spoke an incomprehensible language (as opposed to other Slavs who were presumably more comprehensible). The word Rakousko is harder to track. My internet search reveals speculation that it derives from the castle Raabs (formerly Racouz or Ratgoz) which was the first large fortress that Czechs would encounter in traveling to their southern neighbor.

For longer lists of Czech versions of foreign place names, see the following websites:

Thursday, March 02, 2006

After giving my girlfriend a bunch of flowers, I was told never to give her an even number of flowers again. Why?

It is a Czech tradition that even numbers of flowers are given only at funerals for the deceased. All other bouquets should have an odd number of flowers. Where this tradition comes from is anyone's guess, but since the same rule applies in many European countries, it is likely to have arisen long in the past when numerology still held sway.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Why do all government offices have such strange opening hours?

You have encountered the phenomenon that Czechs call úřední hodiny (hours open to the public). Government offices like the foreigners’ police, the unemployment office, the tax office, and many others are open to citizens only on Monday, Wednesday, and if you are lucky half a day on Friday, minus of course an hour long lunch break. What bureaucrats do during the remainder of the week is anybody’s guess. The roots of this system are in the mighty Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy which held all in its grip. The communist system was no slouch when it came to bureaucracy either and maintained a large bureaucracy who felt that citizens were there to serve their whims rather than the other way around. Many thought the situation would change with the coming of democracy, but úřední hodiny have remained exactly as they were before 1989. The unwillingness of Czech bureaucrats to deal honestly and efficiently with even simple requests means that tempers often flare in government offices. The government thus recently passed a law establishing large fines for harassing bureaucrats, though in reality the penalties should have been reversed.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The students in my English class often draw a diamond-shaped figure on the board with a short vertical line in the middle. What is this supposed to mean?

Much beloved by students and a staple of Czech graffiti, this is the kosočtverec (rhombus) and is supposed to symbolize the female genitalia. It is sometimes dressed up with lines emanating out in all directions, standing for you know what. Students are also fond of drawing stick-figured pigs preceded by the name of a teacher or schoolmate.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why are the tables of contents in Czech books at the end of the book rather than the beginning?

Though I'm not sure on this one, I would guess that Czechs are simply following the tradition of other continental European countries like France where tables of contents are at the end of the book. Some new titles have taken up the English language tradition of putting the TOC at the front, but the mode still seems to be in the back. The logic of this, however, continues to elude me. Comments from readers are welcome.

Friday, December 23, 2005

As I was walking down the street, I came upon a bunch of high school students in costumes begging for money. What gives?

In the week before their school-leaving exams – the so-called holy week (svatý týden) – high school seniors dress up in the craziest costumes they can find and go out begging for contributions to fund their graduation party in a ritual known as poslední zvonění (the last ringing). Until recently, one could also see young men who had just completed their mandatory military service parading down the streets. Typically drunk, they wore clothes that had been signed or decorated by their fellow soldiers and every few minutes chanted, “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, CIVIL!”

On the ground floor of my apartment building there is a red box with a large capital letter H. What is it?

The H stands for hasičské přístroje, in other words, fire extinguishing equipment.

Bus and train schedules are covered with a bunch of strange symbols. What are they?

The crossed hammers indicate that the bus or train runs only on working days, while a cross indicates that it runs on Sundays and national holidays. Days of the week are sometimes designated by numbers – 1 = Monday, 2 = Tuesday, etc. Czechs also use the terms “day of labor freedom” (den pracovního volna) for Saturdays – because under communism Saturdays often turned into work days – and “day of labor rest” (den pracovního klidu) for Sundays and holidays.

Why is the first floor of most Czech buildings actually the second floor?

For most Brits and Europeans, the Czech floor numbering system is standard – the first floor above the ground is known as the ground floor (přízemi) while the next floor up is the first floor (known alternatively as the první patro or první poschodí – poschodí means by the stairs). Americans (as well as Japanese and Russians), however, may be confused because they tend to use the term first floor to refer the first floor above the ground. To confuse matters, the Czech word podlaží can be used in the American sense of numbering so that 1. patro = 2. podlaží.

Do the letters and numbers on Czech license plates have any meaning?

Until recently the first two or three letters of one’s license plate number depended on the county (okres) where the car was registered. Usually these letters corresponded with the first letters of the local county seat (okresní město); thus residents of the area around Tábor had license plates starting with TA and those around Ústí nad Labem with UL or US. The one exception was Prague whose license plates traditionally began with the letter A. Envy or dislike of Prague means that cars with Prague plates may be honked at or even defaced in the provinces. When counties were eliminated in the year 2000 and replaced with 14 new regions (kraj), this system was changed. Now license plates began with a number and the second place is filled by a letter indicating the region where the car is registered (A=Prague, B=South Moravia, C=South Bohemia, E=Pardubice, etc.). The old way of numbering was known as SPZ or státní poznávací značky (state identification signs) and shows up frequently in crossword puzzle clues.

Who are the people who come on between programs on Czech Television?

They are known as programoví hlasatelé (program announcers). They have been around since the dawn of broadcasting in the fifties and deliver brief introductions to the following program or to the entire evening’s programming. Their introductions typically consist of the sort of short blurbs that one reads in TV Guide and were presumably originally a substitute for such non-existent guides (they may still serve that purpose among some older citizens). Under communism, program announcers like Saskia Burešová, Alexandr Hemala, and especially Miloš Frýba achieved a sort of cult status – they were known for their flawless pronunciation as well as their elegant wardrobes. None of the new private TV stations uses hlasatelé and Czech Television has recently decided to eliminate them as unnecessary, though a few nostalgics believe that without them the station will lose a degree of cultivation.

When trams come to a divided track, how come sometimes the driver gets out to switch the tracks with a crowbar and sometimes doesn’t.

The driver is supposed to be able to switch the tracks by remote control, but sometimes his signal doesn’t catch and so he has to get out and switch the tracks manually. One can often hear the drivers curse when they have to do this.

Why does Sparta Praha always finish first in the football league?

The short answer is money. Sparta spends more money than any other team. Their annual budget is 300 million crowns. This compares to 100 million for their traditional rival Slavia and far less for some of the smaller teams. Sparta uses this money to buy up players from weaker clubs and from abroad as well as to fund lower-division teams (there is a Sparta B team playing in the second division) and youth organizations from which they recruit players. Whether they also use it to pay off referees continues to be an object of much speculation.

Where does all this money come from? Most of it comes from sponsoring deals. Right now Sparta has a contract with the mobile phone operator Eurotel whose insignia can be seen on the uniforms of Sparta players. Other teams have similar deals – they usually have a general partner whose logo figures most prominently in addition to other minor sponsors – but since Sparta is the most successful and most followed team in the country, Sparta’s sponsoring deal is much sweeter than those of other teams.

As mentioned above, Sparta buys up rising stars from other Czech clubs, but then they also sell them on to clubs in richer European leagues, which constitutes another source of revenue. Of the top ten most expensive transfers in Czech history, Sparta was the beneficiary of seven. For selling superstar midfielder Tomáš Rosický to Dortmund Borussia in Germany, for example, Sparta earned a record 504 million crowns.

Another source of money is the team’s fan base. Sparta has a large number of devoted fans (known as Sparťané) who support the team by attending its matches and buying its merchandise. This large fan base is a consequence of the team’s success and the size and influence of Prague. Finally, because of its success in the domestic league, Sparta frequently gets to play in European cups. Thus, by winning the domestic league last year, Sparta automatically qualified for the European Champions League and will receive hefty bonuses for simply participating and even larger ones if they manage to advance. In all it is a case of success breeding success.

And does Sparta’s inevitable success make soccer less entertaining for Czechs? Perhaps, but it also has its pleasures. One can at one and the same time nourish a passionate hatred for Sparta and root for all of its rivals in the domestic league and also take solace in the fact that by gathering many of the country’s best players in one place, a relatively small country has a better chance of competing with clubs from far better and richer leagues in Europe. Unfortunately, the same thing happens in other national leagues with superclubs like Bayern Munich or Real Madrid dominating their own domestic leagues.

What are metal pipes attached to the front of buildings between the first and second floors?

They are used for holding flags or banners. Though not much in use today, except in public buildings where they sport Czech flags on national holidays like October 28, under communism, it was mandatory for all apartment buildings to be decorated with Soviet flags and red banners on designated holidays. For example, on May 1 or Great October Socialist Revolution Day (November 7) not only did all buildings have to fly Soviet and Czech flags – notice that in most cases there are holders for two flags – but that every window in the building had to sport a banner, flag, or slogan. Prizes were awarded to apartment buildings with the highest participation rates and punishments meted out to buildings and individuals who neglected their civic duty.

Why do most buildings and homes have two numbers on their facades? One is obviously the street number, but what is the other?

This is known as the číslo popisné, the descriptive or land-registry number. It is intended to be a more permanent indicator of a piece of land than the street address (known as the číslo orientační) which may change over time. The descriptive number is assigned by the town quarter and so is typically accompanied by the name (or number) of the quarter. In buying cottages, Czechs often look for places that have been assigned descriptive and orientation numbers, because this indicates that they are of a more permanent character than those issued only an evidence number (evidenční číslo).

Thursday, December 22, 2005

When I asked a friend how big his apartment was, he said that it was 2 plus 1. What does this mean?

Czech apartments are typically designated according to the number of rooms and the presence of a kitchen. Thus, 3+1 means three rooms plus a kitchen. The rooms though are not just bedrooms, but all inhabited areas – perhaps because the small size of apartments forces Czechs to put individual rooms to multiple uses. A 3+0 would be three rooms without a kitchen. Sometimes the abbreviation kk (kuchyňský kout or kitchen section) is used for a mini-kitchen that is part of another room. Thus, a studio apartment – called a garsonka – would be 1+kk or even 1+0. Smaller rooms – for example in older buildings the former maid’s quarters – might be designated as one-half (e.g., 3.5+1).

I’ve seen crossword puzzles in Czech newspapers and magazines, but they look different than English ones. How do they work?

The most popular types of crosswords - known as Swedish crosswords - are essentially the same as the traditional American style with a few minor differences.

- The clues are not numbered, but instead written inside what would be the black squares. Some of these squares contain two clues: the upper one indicates across and the lower one down. The result is that the puzzle has very few black squares.

- Most puzzles contain a number of so-called hints (nápovědy). They are in fact simply a list of answers to some of the more difficult clues – usually ones drawn from foreign languages. The hints are usually in a small box in the lower right corner or along the left edge of the puzzle.

- The goal of the puzzles is not just filling in all of the blanks, but deciphering the hidden message (tajenka) which is typically a quotation strung across several entries. There are no specific clues for the spaces where the hidden message lies – only the words “first/second/third part of the hidden message” – and so one needs to fill in the crossing entries to figure it out. The author of the quotation and perhaps its first words are usually given at the top of the crossword. In many newspapers and magazines, the hidden message can be submitted and entered in a drawing for small prizes.

- Clues are almost always straightforward – i.e., no anagrams, puns, or other clever word games. For two-letter entries – another specificity of Czech puzzles – the clue is typically the initials of a famous person (e.g., “The initials of the tennis player Agassi”). One common standby is the clue SPZ followed by a city name – this refers to the license plate abbreviations (státní poznávací značka) that used to be connected with major cities and usually coincides with the first three letters of the city’s name. As in other countries, there are a number of clues that will leave ordinary Czechs befuddled but are familiar to diehard solvers – for example, “Latvian liquor” – XX.

- While many countries ignore diacritics (e.g., accent marks) in their crossword puzzles, Czechs, following their passion for spelling and grammar, require that the diacritics match when across and down entries intersect.

Where do bus and tram drivers go to the bathroom?

At the end of every bus and tram line, there is a small wooden covered area for waiting passengers to which is attached a bathroom. Unfortunately, only the drivers have keys to these bathrooms so they are not open to the public.

Why do Czechs always talk about the air pressure (tlak)?

It is a widespread belief that changes in the air pressure have predictable health consequences – causing headaches, tiredness, and other pains. Thus, it is common to attribute one’s feeling under the weather to the strange air pressure. The interest in pressure may have something to do with the communist way of reporting the weather. A typical report on the radio would go something like this:

Occluded front: 356-42 359-44 360-30
Warm front: 350-38 345-34 341-33

Height, pressure, temperature, dew point:
570 – 954 – 76 – 3.6
2,760 – 725 – 9.9 - 14

It’s worth adding that even Czechs were mystified by these numbers. Even today, though, the tlaková tendence (pressure tendency) features in weather reports.

As for cures for health ailments, Czechs are firm believers in the health benefits of many specialized teas. All pharmacies stock various teas that are prescribed for respiratory, urinary, and a host of other problems.