I have travelled the London–Prague route so often that sometimes in mid-flight I can’t quite recall in which direction I am flying. Cocooned in thoughts of elsewhere sipping courtesy sparkling wine, gently dozing off, it is easy to get caught up in the thought … “If it wasn’t for the language and the architecture, how would I know where I had landed?”
Some airports are bigger than others but the decor, the ubiquitous plastic chairs, the prices are mostly interchangeable. There are “Wi-Fi” Hotspots and “No Signal” dead spots. Airport taxis are all similar big name brands and in London or Prague it seems their steering wheels are all confusingly misplaced.
The truth is that it is more difficult to feel like a foreigner than it used to be. British or Czech by nationality, basically you are European. Another brand or another bicycle, it is getting harder to tell us apart. The social environments are not so different now, aside, of course from the architecture.
But there are some important differences. In Prague I can still relax with a glass of wine in the corner of a quiet restaurant and have everyone ignore me completely. Some would find that annoying but personally I find it a relief. When I am in London and I forget an English phrase or idiom people usually assume I am French and simply don’t want to speak English, which is annoying. In Prague people assume I am German and can’t speak Czech, which is frustrating.
As I travel more I notice how sounds are important. In London I notice that people talk loudly in restaurants to drown out the sound of other people talking loudly. They seem to carry this habit out into the street proclaiming their political, religious and sexual preferences at the tops of their voices and generally they are not as interesting as they would like to believe. In London the sound of a bicycle bell ringing aggressively somewhere behind me makes me feel annoyed and I want to stand firmly in its way. In Prague this would have tragic results. I often wonder why Prague trams use what sound like bicycle bells instead of something more efficient, like cattle prods. Is that the Slavic sense of humour?
There is another tiny cultural detail I find bewildering. ČSA play gentle music to sooth passengers after landing. On arriving at Ruzyne it is always Smetana’s “Vltava”, which makes me think of tranquil forests, lakes and rivers.
On the other hand, after arriving at Heathrow, they play the theme music from the film of “Watership Down”, an epic odyssey of bitterly persecuted rabbits in search of a new homeland. If anyone from ČSA can explain I would love to know why.
author: The Penguin Bridge