Americans’ survival guide to Prague

Prague has been a popular destination for Americans ever since the fall of communism in 1989. The early ’90s saw a huge influx of young Americans that caused quite a stir at the time and spawned dozens of articles about Prague being the new “Paris of the ’90s” (a conscious invocation of Hemingway’s days in Paris in the 1920s).

That ‘Paris’ never really materialized but those early Yankee pioneers introduced many cultural innovations, such as bookstore/coffeehouses, hamburgers, maple syrup, peanut butter, coffee to go, that remain popular to this day. The influx even spawned a bunch of “Young Americans in Prague” jokes that poked fun at Americans’ good-naturedness and general cluelessness when it comes to learning languages that are still funny today. My favorite one goes like this:

Q: How many “Young Americans in Prague” does it take to change a light bulb?
A: What’s the word for “light bulb”?

EurotripToday, Americans are still coming to Prague in large numbers, but the type of traveler has widened to include not just college kids but people of all ages and walks of life. “Danube River” cruises, in particular, have become immensely popular, bringing many older Americans to the city, despite the fact the Danube River does not actually flow through Prague, but I digress.

That early love affair, if that’s the right word, between Americans and Czechs is still intact. Americans tend to ‘ooh and aah’ over the architecture, the beer and the chance to buy ‘local’ goods like wooden puppets, crystal and jewelry, particularly and curiously amber, since the Czech Republic does not actually produce amber.

Casual interactions between visiting Americans and Czechs are usually pretty smooth, but there are many cultural differences between the two that hide below the surface. It’s nothing too extreme, but here are a few pieces of advice I usually share with visitors from my homeland to avoid any potential friction:

  • Don’t expect overly friendly service in shops and restaurants. Americans tend to like animated store clerks and waiters, the kind who greet you at the door with a cheerful “Hi, can I help you?”. Not so in Prague. Czechs are far less interactive with strangers. In general, expect formal, correct service that borders on the impolite. One way to break the ice in a store is to greet the shop assistant on entering with a hearty “dobrý den” (hello).
  • Give Czech food a chance. Sure, it’s loaded with calories and fat, but it can also be delicious (much in the way a home-cooked meal can be). Roast pork, in particular, is a specialty and goes great with dumplings and sauerkraut, and beer of course. Rest assured, there’s tons of Italian and other kinds of restaurants if you’re in the mood for something lighter. And there’s also plenty of fast food outlets (like KFC or “Mickey D’s”) if the kids are crying or if you’re in need of a temporary comfort zone.
  • But (and this is a big but), be sure to choose the right side dish in a restaurant. This is a potential minefield. In the U.S., restaurant meals usually come as a package, including a salad as well as a main and side dish. In Czech restaurants, you normally order everything à la carte, meaning you’re on your own to pair mains with suitable sides (and the rules here are strict). In general, if the main dish comes with gravy, like goulash or roast pork, choose “knedliky” (dumplings). If there’s no gravy, like with “řízek” (fried pork or chicken schnitzel), go with potatoes. If in doubt, ask the waiter.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid of Czech language. All those z’s and y’s and j’s make Czech a Scrabble player’s paradise (and, by the way, where are the vowels and what’s up with those accents?). Czech is not English (nor is it the French or Spanish we all learned in high school). The good news, however, is that no one expects you to know much Czech if you’re a short-term visitor. Our advice: learn “dobrý den” (hello) and “děkuji” (thank you), you won’t get too far in conversations with these two but they’ll earn you some instant, if short-lived street cred.
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