Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Hospitality

We Brits are told that we are reserved and private in our behaviour, compared to other nations that is. Looking at the Czechs superficially that may appear to be true, but look closer and in certain crucial ways things are not so simple.  

We are told that an English man's home is his castle. Then what is a Czech's? I have seen inside very few Czech homes. I've sat in their gardens drinking coffee and/or beer but as for going inside, that is another matter. If we want to get to know people, we middle-class Brits will invite them to dinner (usually a dinner party to be precise). The dinner party will often include a tour of the house. Again that has hardly never happened here in Czecho. Well one reason is, I suppose, the fact that the main meal of the day in this country is lunch, but still I think it is deeper than that. Only one Czech friend has cooked for me - lunch or dinner.

I am not sure why this is. Perhaps it goes back to the communist days, when the only people you could trust were family and close friends and the only place you felt (relatively) secure was in your own home.  You didn't let strangers into the sanctuary - a Czech's home was indeed a castle, whereas the Englishman's was actually his family seat.

If you do get invited to someone's home or garden - then take a gift. And if you invite someone to yours expect at least one jar of jam, or some home-made slivovice, or a whole tin of cakes, or vegetables and fruit from the garden or a mixture of these. In my experience the gifts will be home-made rather than shop-bought, especially if your guest is female. No matter that you only invited them round for a cup of tea - it is simply not done for them to arrive empty-handed.

I was talking about this to a friend, who although Czech by birth and upbringing spent twenty years in Britain, and we came to the conclusion that it was something about the Czechs wanting to show that they can afford to give food in return, again a harking back to a time when indeed there was very little to go around.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Please don't explain everything different in the CR compared to the UK by influence of the Communist regime.
As a Czech I can tell you what I feel when I am invited to someone's home.

If it is a close friend I wouldn't bring anything unless it's a birthday party or if it is supposed to be around Christmas time or the flat or house is new-so then I would bring something useful for the new household.

Because I can "give" in return my invitation to my home... so presents are not needed.

If I am invited by a foreigner... that's a special occasion, something which doesn't happen very often and I can see that I represent my country and a nation... so I would probably try to do my best and don't just buy something, that's too easy. Bake or cook something would show much more how I appreciate the invitation and probably halfconsiously be influenced by a general opinion that women here in the "Eastern Europe" cook more often.

When I'm visiting friends or family members I don't cook or bake... Hm, this is done only by my grandma, when she comes for a short stay from time to time... She's 80, she's probably not so much influenced by the Communist regime.

As for the frequency of inviting people to our Czech homes, yes our homes are sanctuary. Home is a place when you can hang around in your loose-fitting tracksuit, eat strange combination of food in front of the tv ... and feel safe, not judged. A tour of the house or a flat would be appropriate if it was a new house or flat, otherwise it will look like showing off.

We open our homes to close friends (who wouldn't mind seeing our family members arguing, playing loud satanic rock music, seeing unwashed dishes in a sink... :-) ), to people who wouldn't disturb the relaxed atmosphere of a home. Czechs are quite tolerant, you can do almost whatever you want, but it's always more safe to do it in your home... and don't let people just walk in, that's probably a symptom of our natural standoffishness, not connected with 40 years of communism. I think that this home=sacred place thing was usual also in Austria-Hungary times...

sarka

potok said...

Thanks Sarka. This is fascinating. It is something that I don't feel I can ask my Czech friends about - too close to home (quite literally). Although I have been told that the giving of cakes etc was the custom and not just for foreigners.

In Britain traditionally the average family had a room - the front room usually, which was used for special occasions and visitors were received in that room. This room "the best room" was kept tidy and often was well decorated - as a child I wasn't allowed to play in the front room. Visitors who were familiar friends might get to see the other less formal areas of the house, but the others wouldn't.

This tradition is dying out - modern open-plan living doesn't allow it for starters. But if I have a dinner party, I always spend the day tidying and cleaning - indeed I have even been known to have a dinner party just to force myself to do a spring clean ;-)

Anonymous said...

I am also Czech, and I agree with Sarka.
Having a "front room" like you described is old fashioned, my long dead relative had one in her flat, but today are practically nonexistent.Your neigbours and friends can be just insecure about state of their homes (what she would think about our thirty year old sofa?).
Some people don't like visits, some don't like cooking, and Czech social life has only few points, where formal home visit is necessary (seeing in-laws to be is one of them).
Giving your host some present has much to do with local or family traditions, there is less present bringing in big cities. But in case of surprise visit, bringing some present is the polite thing to do.

I like you blog.

Lenka

potok said...

Thanks Lenka.

As you say city life is different and the old customs are less adhered to (whether in the UK or CZ). I live in a village. I am also over 50 and most of my friends are too. Both of which may account for my experiences.

Ana said...

Well, I have been raised by a Czech Mom - she was 91 years old this month!- and though she has been living in Buenos Aires for more than 70 years, I can recognize many of her ideas in Sarka's explanation. I think that the Czech conception of one's home as a sanctuary has nothing to do with the Communist era, not in my mother's case at least.
Now she is quite old to receive visitors, except family membersm but wheh she was socially active
Mom had a very deep sense of hospitality (it is said all Moravians have) and she would made every effort that anyone visiting us could feel at ease, though touring around the house (except there had been and important remodeling of an area and the visitors were interested in the results) was out of question. And when she was the visitor she would never failed to bring some home made cake or pastries, but it was mainly because she knew her friends loved those (for them) exotic flavours without which the weekly card game
would not have been the same. As Sarka wisely expressed, she felt a kind of ambassador of her country.

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