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Czech Life

The Golden Piglet on the Wall, and other stories

The other day my cat knocked over my mirror in the early hours of the morning. The mirror smashed in a dramatic style all over my bedroom floor, sending the cat (unhurt) dashing out of my room, only to run round and round the apartment until it got dizzy.  After I had got up (at 5 in the morning) and cleared the shards of glass from my bed I had a little ponder:  if the cat breaks the mirror, will it lose one of its nine lives? Or will it just get seven years bad luck?
 
Obviously, this is all a load of rubbish.  I don’t really believe in fate (which is just as well, as saying you don’t believe in Fate is probably enough to really screw you over on the off chance that Fate actually does exist) but it made me think about idioms, old wives tales and things like that.
 
Czechs (generally) are a fairly non-religious bunch. They are however, rather attached to pagan-like superstitions.  I wrote a piece a while ago about Easter traditions in the Czech Republic, which revealed all manner of witch burning and chasing away of bad spirits. 
 

Phew, we will make it through the next year. Unless Monopoly gets out of hand...

Whilst I recently browsed the internet for a Czech teacher who could teach me the language without requiring any effort on my part, I got distracted on a Czech language and culture website and discovered a whole new bunch of Czech old wives tales and superstitions.  In particular, the random voodoo-esque practice known as the “Cutting of the Apple” caught my eye. Apparently, after Christmas dinner, everyone cuts an apple in half.  If the core is shaped like a star, it means that everyone will be together the following year in happiness and health. A core shaped like a cross with four points is a bad omen and means that someone at the table will fall ill or die within the next twelve months.  Why on earth would you play this on Christmas Day?  I thought family games of Monopoly and Charades had enough potential for disagreement. 

 
These superstitions led me on to thinking about idioms.  Whilst my Czech language abilities are less than ideal, I have managed to pick up a few phrases and sayings of varying helpfulness.  Apparently, the ridiculous phrases that English speakers regularly use are not specific to the English language:
 
I am all ear(s)
 
When English people want someone to know that they have their full attention, they say “I am all ears“.   I have recently heard the phrase “Jsem jedno ucho“, whose direct translation is “I am one ear“.  Why the difference? Are Czech’s more able to multi task and use their other ear for listening to the radio? Or are they only willing to grant you half of their attention?
 
Get 40 (or 20) winks
 
Even in English I find this one a bit random – a literal explanation makes me think of someone that you’d probably avoid sitting next to on a bus – quietly winking away to themselves. Anyway, ‘having 40 winks’ is a common English way of saying you will have a little nap. The Czech equivalent is “dát si dvacet“, or, “give yourself 20“.  I’m not quite sure why Czechs need half the recovery time English speakers do. Perhaps because they’re only listening half as hard?
 
Another Czech (Christmassy) saying is that “he who fasts all day [on Christmas Eve] until dinner will see the golden piglet on the wall”. Now, I get can get a little bit light-headed when I’m hungry, but this really is “Dělat z komára velblouda” (making a camel out of a mosquito).
 
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About CzechingIn

A blog about an English lady living in Prague.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “The Golden Piglet on the Wall, and other stories

  1. The funny thing about “national cultures” is that they don’t exist. They’re just creations of discourse, just constructions made by the media or outsiders.

    While we know that there we don’t actually do all the stuff that is supposed to be OUR national customs, and that there are regional differences within our countries, and that if we meet another person of our nationality, it’s more important what part of our country they come from, or what city/town/village they come from, when we meet a foreigner, we look through “national stereotype” glasses.

    More on http://www.janaslav.cz/2011/09/about-that-superstitions-and-customs.html

    Posted by Czech for Foreigners (@czechinprague) | September 21, 2011, 1:02 am
    • Traditions and customs generally have incredibly old routes, and have been put to different uses at different times. Across Europe many have their routes in pagan beliefs and have since been ‘adapted’ to suit early religion, and then nationalism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

      Interesting what you say about national cultures – I think the theorist Anderson (in The Imagined Community) wrote that there was no real community outside the immediate neighbourhood that people can see. The ‘nation’ (and its history) is imagined as even members of a very small nation will never know most of their fellow-members, although they may all imagine being within the same nation.

      Perhaps national cultures are most obvious to those outside a country, looking in. As you say, regional differences are sometimes more apparent when you are from a particular country or know it very well.

      Posted by CzechingIn | September 21, 2011, 9:39 am

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