Wednesday, December 22
I officially started work in then Czechoslovakia on 12. December 1992. It doesn't seem so long ago, and sometimes when people ask me how the country has changed, I struggle to give a coherent reply. But when I arrived, it was a struggle to find things that were better here than in the country I had just left. The beer (especially at the price), and the beauty of the female population would generally be the extent of the list for most of us male expats, simple creatures that we are. I thought about it on the occasion of my 18th anniversary, and was startled to find what a long list I could now compile. So here it is.
Coping with snow; has to be top of my list now, as I sit waiting to finally get back to London for Christmas. In particular the pride many Czechs take in clearing the path in front of their houses is something missing in Britain.
Political Graffiti; in Britain it consists of crude abuse. Czechs are world-beaters at sophisticated commentary. Favourites include the lovingly prepared car exhaust clouds attached to Vaclav Klaus's ear on the billboards advertising his "Blue Planet" book; the simple but effective conversion of a road sign near the Tunel Blanka site, changed from "podtunelovano" to "vytunelovano", and of course, "Mafianske namesti".
Radio 1; there remains no other radio station quite like it. Little has changed since its early days, including the jingles, and yet it remains fresh, intelligent, and independent. In the UK you might compare BBC6 or London's XFM. But Radio 1 is part of the community. The DJ may be the unassuming bloke on the tram with you. Or he may be David Brada :-)
Car service; maybe I'm lucky with Autocentrum Duba, but I was equally happy with Bychl when they were at Pankrac. Czechs take pride in fixing cars. British car mechanics take pride in getting to the pub as quickly as possible.
Drunk but not aggressive; in the UK, even in smart areas, you must always be ready for some trouble to start. Czech drunks mind their own business. As a result, women can go home alone on the night tram in safety. Do not underestimate how important that is for the quality of life in a big city.
Healthcare; well, let me explain. The UK NHS is better than most people believe, and the attitude of those working there is definitely better at a human level than in the Czech system. However, the Czech system is technically very good, and particularly in screening. It seems better understood here that if you check people, even if they have no symptoms, you may save money and life later on. The Czech system has thoroughly inspected virtually all my vital organs, and declared itself satisfied with the findings. For this I am very grateful.
Sport; more Czechs than Britons do sport regularly. My reintroduction here to cycling, which had been lost to me since I was a teenager, and my introduction to cross country skiing, has probably added five years to my life.
Polite Czech children; they greet you with "dobry den". British children don't greet you at all. They are too busy playing their iPods at deafening levels.
City transport; when I first arrived I was amazed to find that trams actually arrived at the exact time stated on the timetable. And despite the reputation of Prague taxis, the radio taxi companies, and now the "Drink SOS" companies, provide a reliable service that Londoners can only dream about.
The chata; in the UK only the very rich have a second home in the country. And by the time they have struggled to get after four stressful hours on the roads out of London, they will be too tired to enjoy it. It's definitely a good thing to be able to leave Prague every summer weekend to a completely different environment where the birds are singing and life moves slowly.
And what is still better in the UK? The justice system, the police, journalism, the BBC, local community activity, local politics, the civil service (not "bureaucrats"), the lack of corruption, the creative industries, the easy smile and readiness to greet and help strangers.
And with that, I wish all our friends of all nationalities a Happy Christmas and all the best for 2011.