Dear Czech Republic,
As we depart your lovely country, I am left wondering, where are the kolaches?
We enjoyed our time in Prague and much like our swing through the rest of central Europe, I’m certain that we missed a lot. What we observed, we liked, probably more than some of the other places we have recently visited. If someone asked prior to our time with you, which European Union country is doing the best right now, it would be difficult to render a guess. Who knew that the Czech Republic has one of the E.U.’s fastest-growing economies (4.5 percent GDP) and lowest unemployment (2.5 percent) with only 10 million residents and 30 million (!!!) tourists each year. For years, Prague had a reputation as an affordable European destination a little off the beaten path. No more, the Czechs are full-fledged in the tourism business and the volume of visitors here reminded me of Florence and Rome. They were everywhere and from everywhere. Like the whole of Egypt, Rome and Athens, it is remarkable how many Chinese citizens are traveling for tourism. In talking with guides and locals, I’d estimate at 40 percent of total visitors.
Now that I’ve spent the past 100-plus days principally in Europe, I’m starting to better understand the commonalities and differences between Europe and America. In some ways we are so alike; we share the same commitment to fight against terrorism and we agree on the importance of freedom and democracy. We break with Europe on super-majority unity on the topics of global warming, economic and social government policies and the role of faith in society.
Although I’m still observing, I’ve drawn a few preliminary conclusions on these three areas of separation. First, summers in Europe are hot and most people say it is getting hotter, especially in the past decade. Everyone goes through hot streaks, but most people here say it is different than before. And most people do not have air conditioning at home or at work. You only have to be here for a few weeks to see rich and poor alike sweating. It occurs to me that unity around global warming in Europe may be a logical reaction to people being hot all the time when previously they were not. I’m talking about Europeans as a whole, not the educated minority who read scientific journals and can make the empirical judgment. My short take is this; take air conditioning away from Americans for a summer and you might convert more into climate change believers. I am not trying to give my left-leaning friends any ideas. I cannot wait to return to consistent air conditioning even on a warm day. As I’ve previously mentioned, the Europeans – Czechs included – are all in on renewable, “all-of-the-above” energy resources and you can’t help but be impressed at the diversity of resources in the grid.
Second, the social and economic policies of Europe are different than our American ideals, which I knew when I arrived but I didn’t know why. Europe is growing. We witnessed lots of construction and public projects. Low birth rates seemed to be more of a long-term risk than access to capital. Holiday (or vacation) is serious business and we’ve witnessed manufacturers shut down for a couple weeks for their “summer break”. I’m not sure how to describe it, but for all of Europe’s regulation, personal safety doesn’t seem as high on the list. There is more trust in the community to help the man in the wheelchair up the stairs, a directive for personal caution before riding that dangerous looking Ferris wheel and a call-a-friend mentality if you need help. Further, people just live in closer quarters. In Budapest, we visited the incredible Szechenyi baths and it was perfectly acceptable to sit elbow to elbow with strangers for hours in the hot baths (yes, we did it anyway). Finally, there is just more importance placed on community and less on the self-determination of the individual. You can see the underpinnings of socialism everywhere and in some places, it works for them (especially here in the eastern European countries). For me, I’ll stick with red-blooded American Democracy, but for the first time, I better understand how this form of society can work. Of course “work” is a double entendre because any time “work” is discouraged by a system or government, it results in a loss of economic productivity and longer-term consequences. The arrival of so many immigrants to Europe is likely how these economies are going to grow in the years to come if the locals keep their 30 hour work weeks, though this is another issue altogether. A paragraph isn’t sufficient to conclude anything on this, but I do see it differently than before.
Finally, I think I’m starting to understand atheism in Europe. In the Czech Republic, you have some of the best-preserved cathedrals (the Prague Castle cathedral is breathtaking), but your country is 70 percent atheist. We’ve seen similar stats in other European countries as well as in Israel. The continental destruction achieved in two global wars and the continual regional and not-too-far-away conflicts of the past thirty years make faith hard, I think. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob cannot be the same God that watches so much injustice, pain and death happen for generation after generation, right?
My faith, as I think about it, originated with my parents. It was a loving mother and father who taught the importance of prayer, the community of attending a church and a broad belief in “something bigger” than me. If my parents had eschewed these teachings and if the community where I lived discarded these traditions, I’m not sure what kind of faith I’d have. Certainly not the faith I have today. We are into the third post-world-war generation in Europe where faith is slowly fading away, a percent or two at a time. As a person of faith, however, I am not discouraged by the long-term trend. Faith will reemerge in Europe, I’m equally certain of that though I’m not sure how. That’s an element of faith, too.
In Oklahoma, our small Czech community makes incredible kolaches. A sausage of some sort is enveloped in a warm, buttery pastry to form a savory and sweet breakfast treat. Here in Prague, you don’t have kolaches, nor could I find anyone who knew what they were. That’s the beauty of travel, you learn something new all the time. Preconceived notions (like “there must be incredible kolaches in Prague” or “all Europeans are atheists or socialists or both) are shattered or reconstructed when information is taken in. That’s when new understandings come to light.
Dekuji (“thank you” in Czech),