Mariel Tavakoli: Cultural Observer

This weekend was jam packed with Czech culture and I truly felt immersed in life here. Starting with Friday, I helped out with my school’s “Open House” by teaching an optional English lesson for students. A surprising number showed up and I tried to make it fun by teaching about Thanksgiving.  We learned some history, competed for who could make the most words out of the letters of Thanksgiving themed words, and made handprint turkeys on which we wrote what we were thankful for.  As teachers and prospective students cycled in and out I was proud to be representing the school and making English fun for the students (It might have helped that I gave them candy throughout the lesson).  At one point, one student asked me, “Don’t you mind being a spectacle on display all the time?”  Sometimes it feels strange to be such a novelty in this small town and hold a mild celebrity status, but overall I am appreciative of the friendliness and eagerness of the people here to accept me into their lives.

Teacher in Action

On Friday night, I went to Brno, the next biggest city to Znojmo, for the 24th birthday party of a Czech friend I met back in Brno during our first Fulbright orientation.  While the party was a casual gathering of friends at a pub, it showed some slight differences between Czech and American birthday celebrations:
  • In Czech, “Happy birthday” is Všechno nejlepší, or “all the best.”
  • It is typical of the birthday boy/girl to buy at least one round of shots for everyone at the party.
  • Midway through the evening, all the friends get in a line and congratulate the birthday boy/girl one by one.  Sometimes this also involves presenting a small present.
  • If one of the presents is some form of alcohol, it is not wrong to open the bottle and pass it around to all the attendees at the bar.

On Saturday, I returned to Znojmo for lunch with Hana and her family.  We had a traditional Czech lunch of soup, pork with potato dumplings and cabbage, followed by coffee and a whipped cream pastry pie.  After, Hana and I went on a hike in Podyjí National Park to a lookout point called Sealsfield Kamen. It was nice to go for a long walk after a big meal and to shake off the gloomy weather. Even though Czech people continue to be shocked by my interest in jogging and exercise, I am impressed by their dedication to appreciating nature, despite gross weather.  In the winter, Czechs continue to hike and love to cross-country ski.

Saturday night I took part in the grand finale of my cultural weekend: Hody in the village of Hodonice.  Hody is a celebration of the different patron saint of each specific village in my particular region in the Czech Republic.  According to the Czech calendar, each saint is celebrated on a different day, and so each village celebrates on a different day and in a slightly different way.  In addition, each village has its own particular sound or “call” that they make throughout the celebration.  The first time I heard it, it sounded like a dying animal.  After hours and hours of hearing it being made by people of all ages, it soon just became part of the party soundtrack. Point of the story: I was able to see and take part in a really unique Czech celebration.

One of my students, Blanca, invited me to the Hody celebration of St. Martin in her village of Hodonice about 30 minutes outside of Znojmo.  St. Martin is technically celebrated on November 11th and legend holds that he rides on a white horse into this region bringing the snow with him. It is also typical on St. Martin’s day for Czech people to eat goose.  My Hody experience began with arriving at Blanca’s house to find out they were slaughtering a pig.  I then watched Blanca put on the traditional Hodonice costume, or kroj. This costume is very expensive and is only worn once a year for this particular occasion.  We then walked with three other students from that class to the Hodonice community center for the celebration.

Hodonice Hody 2013

The party began with a traditional polka dance by all of the young people (from small children to teenagers) wearing the kroj.  I was amazed with how many teenagers were proudly wearing the costume and how people of all ages were cheering them on.  When transferring this celebration to the United States I saw a lot of grumpy teenagers feeling “lame” in their costumes and rolling their eyes at their parents for showing up and embarrassing them.  The closest comparison I could draw was to the town spirit surrounding a high school football game.  Maybe the reason Czech towns are not united around athletics is because they have deeper history and traditions to bond them.  I like this idea.  The performance ended with the singing of a Czech song, which I could only imagine was some form of village anthem.

All in Kroj
Midnight Passing of the Leader Torch

The party continued for hours and hours with a raffle and continuous drinking, talking, music and dancing.  There were two bands that alternated playing: one with traditional polka music and the second, a more contemporary trio. The contemporary band alternated between playing Czech or Slovak dance songs and American ones like “Mamma Mia” and Katy Perry. I had so much fun dancing with my students and learning how to dance polka with several different dance partners.  The dancing was interrupted with a midnight performance by the kroj wearers where the lead couple passed the title to the couple for the next year. Even though my little group left around 2 am, the party apparently continued until around 4:30 am! When I left, small children and older people were still there.  It would not surprise me if they were there until the end as well.

Sunday morning I was able to try out some more village Czech culture.  I was dressed like a Barbie doll in the kroj, which features 3 skirts, and is actually quite heavy.

Dress-up Time: Skirt #1
How do I look?

I also was offered to try some traditional Czech food.  I did this without questions, which might have been a mistake.  Breakfast consisted of homemade bread with butter and tomatoes—I couldn’t bring myself to do this combination, but everyone else did.  Shortly after, I was offered to sample some lunch options.  The first item was a fat gray sausage with the consistency of flan.  I could see vegetables and some meat in it, so I gave it a try.  It tasted alright, but it turned out to be made of pig’s skin, which still makes me want to die every time I think about it.  Some pork schnitzel, or řízek, and homemade pickles were much better.  Although, I can only imagine all of these pig items came from the slaughtering the night before…

Overall, it was an incredibly unique experience and I felt so lucky to be invited to take part.  Even many Czech people have told me they have never experienced a Hody celebration.  It was hard to me to express to Blanca how special her invitation was to me.  I look forward to many more rich cultural experiences this year!

This article is taken from the blog of Mariel Tavakoli, 2013-2014 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the Czech Republic.