Monday, 17 December 2007

A cold climate

I thought Paris waiters held the record for being rude and surly. That is why the city's tourist gurus spend millions trying to persuade them to be nicer to visitors without, let us be honest, much noticeable result. Then we went to Prague for a few days - my birthday gift to the Frenchman - and discovered restaurant, bar and hotel staff who make their Paris comrades look like they have a first class degree from Charm School.

Prague has to be one of the most magical cities in the world. I have photos from our visit that could come have from a fairytale picture book: Gothic cathedrals with terrifying flying butresses, sparkling Christmas trees, a massive white-walled castle bearing down on the city, Wenceslas Square, cobbled streets, pretty houses and stone bridges. Stopping on the the mediaeval 'Charles Bridge' to gaze along the banks of the River Vltava I venture the view, the essence of it, has changed little in a century or two. The Winter Market in the Old Square was a period piece; an enormous, tactfully decorated pine tree towered over rows of red roofed huts selling mulled wine, gingerbread Christmas trees and snowmen decorated with icing and buttons, wooden toys, and Heidi-style woollen hats. Huge hams and legs of pork were spit roasting over wood fires and wrapped-up humans strolled around eating orange sausages that smelled better than they looked. I could have stepped out in a flouncy crinoline and bonnet and not looked out of place.

Sadly all this magic and beauty does not appear to rub off on those whose forefathers created it, or at least not those in fleeting contact with visitors. I say sadly because while it did not ruin our visit, it did tarnish it. Apart from the couple who helped us get off the tram when La Fille fell asleep in her pushchair and the hotel doorman (he did not smile but nevertheless opened the door with a certain good grace), I am pushed to think of anyone over the three days who radiated much warmth or friendship, or even simple politeness. Outside the cold was varying degrees of bitter; the sort of to-the-bone chill that makes you want to retract your limbs into your clothes, but the physical temperature was more than matched by the glacial attitude of almost everyone we encountered. In that I include the tram driver who leapt out of his seat after we boarded by a middle door to grumpily order us to get off and on again using the back door: I promise you there was no difference in either the height or size of the steps or inconvenience to other passengers and we were utterly baffled why he had bothered. We had been forewarned that shop and restaurant staff could be indifferent. Indifference is neutral; unrelenting sullenness is negative. We were also advised there were two possible responses: to attempt to crack the ice, as it were, with a few words of Czech; or be indifferent back. I tried a few words of Czech, not an easy language to master even basics like 'Thank You'. Still, I tried. "Stop smiling," said the Frenchman, "It's not working." Being indifferent was harder. I like to be liked and besides it reminded me of my mother's oft-repeated admonishment that "two wrongs don't make a right". I kept on smiling and mangling the Czech language. It did not make any difference but it made me feel righteous.

Everyone I have mentioned this to has different theories why the Czechs are so surly. The Frenchman wondered if it was a second-generation legacy of Communism; an American woman I know suggested attitudes had changed since the cheap flights from the UK brought an invasion of stag and hen nighters intent getting drunk and annoyingly rowdly on cheap Pilsner; a dear Ukrainian friend living in Prague said it was a legacy of World War Two. I could not say who is right but it was very noticeable how, just one week from Christmas, there were remarkably few visitors carrying shopping bags, suggesting they had bought little if anything during their stay. What a pity for magical Prague. Perhaps someone should tell the sniffy locals about spite and severed noses.

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