Jana Ciglerová: Americans say their lives are fantastic, Czechs say everything is terrible – neither is true

Jana Ciglerová, photo: archive of Jana Ciglerová

Czech journalist Jana Ciglerová recently published the book Americký Deník (American Diary), compiling a series of columns she wrote during a stay in Florida between late 2016 and last summer. When she came to our studios, the conversation took in US and Czech attitudes to parenting, education and friendship, as well as Ciglerová’s experience of reporting from Trump’s America. But I first asked her what had been the hardest single thing to get used to in the US.

Jana Ciglerová in one of the counting rooms in Miami during the congressional elections,  photo: archive of Jana Ciglerová
“The food. Because I have three small kids and they all went to school there.

“And here in the Czech Republic – I’ve really started to appreciate this way more – we know that what we give to children at school is what we should give them.

“They get the healthy stuff at school, so you can actually not be as healthy, or you can have a pizza here or there, because you know they’re getting their warm meal and healthy stuff.

“It’s the total opposite at their school cafeterias [in the US].

“Everything is processed. Everything’s got a huge amount of sugar.

“The kids’ lunches, the kids' breakfasts – you get free breakfasts at some US public schools – are packed with sugar.

“My oldest son did a project on sugar and he found out that you should have only 25 grammes of added sugar a day if you are a nine-year-old, which he was back then.

“And just the breakfast, the government-approved breakfast, at school cafeterias has 75 grammes of added sugar.

“So that’s why the kids are obese, the kids are hyper, because you get all of the sugar energy.

“I didn’t like that at all.”

You mentioned being there with your three kids, three boys – how did you find the US approach to parenting differed from the Czech approach?

“It was shocking to me, I have to say.

“They don’t let their children experience anything remotely exuding any kind of danger.

“My boys weren’t very used to being praised, because that’s not the Czech culture – that’s not what they get at school.”

“The best comparison I found was to do with my oldest son.

“School there ends by the end of May, but school in the Czech Republic ends by the end of June, so my son, the oldest one, would always go back Prague as soon as the US school ended and would finish his grade here.

“They had school trips. The US school trip from his class was they got on an air-conditioned bus, they went for five hours on a highway, they drove to Saint Augustine, which is a town in Florida that is proud of having one of the oldest buildings in the US: 100 years old.

“Then they stayed at a four-star hotel overnight and then they went back the next day. And it all cost 370 dollars.

“The school trip in the Czech school was they took tents, they went hiking in the woods, they would climb up rocks, they would even have a dip in a lake or in a river, in their underwear – unheard of in the US.

“They would let them explore, they would let them be adventurous, and maybe get even a little hurt too, from time to time, because that’s what happens when you take risks.

“And kids in the US don’t have that experience.

“So they’re much slower in some development, though they’re faster in other development.”

What about teaching in the States in comparison to here in the Czech Republic? I have the impression that Czech education is more based on kind of “tough love” – the kids have to work hard, everything is about getting jedničky [A grades].

“Yes, the marks, right? So the Americans have a much better way of treating kids, maybe even too much, but they encourage them so much, they praise them so much.

Jana Ciglerová's sons enjoy sweets from Halloween carolling,  photo: archive of Jana Ciglerová
“My boys weren’t very used to being praised, because that’s not the Czech culture – that’s not what they get at school.

“And there they just blossomed, because they were so appreciated for everything they did.

“So they wanted to do more. They also work hard, because they’re used to working hard from the Czech Republic.

“Czech kids work much harder, so if we could just praise them a little more self-confident.”

But isn’t there a danger in the American approach, where if you praise very average performance you’re giving the kids the false impression that they’re doing well?

“Absolutely. I saw it there so many times.

“Like at sports classes, some of the kids would just go and run and try hard and other kids would just be lazy and everybody gets praised the same.

“And that’s not fair. You’re right, totally.”

Sadly one fact of life in the US of course is shooting incidents, including at schools. Was that a danger that concerned you?

“Absolutely. Every day you think about it.

“Not only because it happens in the news and you see it all the time, but also where we lived it was 20 minutes from the Parkland school Stoneman Douglas [at which 17 people were shot dead].

“All three of my boys know how to hide when there’s an active shooter in school.”

“I reported on it, so I was there, I was on the scene.

“And it’s very, very present.

“Not only that, but after the shooting in Parkland, Florida public schools introduced a law under which you have to organise school drills every month for the kids.

“And you know, the kids don’t know that it’s a drill.

“My boys would come back from school and tell me, We practiced, we practiced – but in the first moment you don’t really know that that’s the point.

“So all three of my boys know how to hide when there’s an active shooter in school.

“They know where they have to hide. They know they have to crawl so that they pretend they’re dead.

“They know how to run away from the school – they have to have arms up.

“They know they have to hold the shoulders of the person in front of them, that there’s always a school desk that they turn upside down so it’s like a protective shield.

“It was heart-breaking to watch them telling me that.”

In the acknowledgements in the book you mention a couple of American friends of yours. I wanted to ask about the very concept of friendship – are their differences between the Czech and US approaches to being a friend?

“Oh my goodness, so many. And I failed so many times.

“So Czechs are not very open. We are more reserved. We take time.

Jana Ciglerová with her sons,  photo: archive of Jana Ciglerová
“Americans are not like that.

“It would be confusing sometimes for me – I would mistake some interpersonal reactions for like a real suggestion of friendship.

“Like, We have do a barbecue, we have to do this, we have to do that.

“For me, if I offered this to someone, I mean it. But there it’s not as much meant.”

A lot of Europeans I think kind of laugh at Americans because of their fake friendliness. But I think it has a certain value – that it’s much nicer, and simply better, than some grumpy person “doing you a favour” by serving you in a shop.

“Absolutely agree. So they ask you, How are you? The simplest question.

“Czech people say, Oh, I’m terrible, oh my goodness it’s so bad, my back hurts, my family… everything’s terrible.

“It could be better is the most optimistic reply you get.

“And then the Americans say, Oh, I’m fantastic, I couldn’t be better, everything’s great, I’m really enjoying my life.

“None of it is true. The Czech side is not true, the American side is not true.

“It’s not true that they’re having a fantastic life, and it’s not true that we only have a bad life.

“But it’s an approach and it’s the way you see it.

“The glass is always either half-full or half-empty and Czechs rather see it as half-empty and Americans see it as half-full.”

You were working as a journalist of course in the US. What were the stories or the issues that you covered that you found got the biggest response here in the Czech Republic, either from editors or from readers?

“I’m a journalist, right. I started in news, so news will always be in my heart.

“The type of work that a foreign correspondent does is always the political news – you have to follow the media – and then the local news, things you can do in the terrain, like reportage.

“For instance, Martina Navrátilová the tennis player lives nearby, so I would go there. So these types of things where you actually do the work yourself.

“Czech people say, Oh, I’m terrible, everything’s terrible. Then the Americans say, Oh, I’m fantastic, I couldn’t be better. None of it is true.”

“And then I would have a Saturday column about the simplest things, like how a mother of three boys puts up with living in a predominantly Hispanic community in the US.

“I was hoping that my political analysis would be the number one thing that the readers would go for, or maybe the reportages.

“But no. It was the Saturday column that the readers found most compelling and liked so much.

“That’s why my publisher eventually suggested that we should make them into a book, because people like it.

“I was pleasantly surprised.”

How was Martina Navrátilová?

“She’s great. She’s very Czech. Even though she’s American, she’s still very Czech, so she keeps her distance.

“We had spent some time together before, but interviewing her in her own environment – she was the most open in an interview of all the times I’ve ever experienced her.

“You know what I was really surprised at? There were the congressional elections, the mid-terms, in November 2018 and Martina was actually in the streets.

“She was driving people to the voting places, helping people to register for voting and then at the voting offices she would help them to read the materials – because it’s way more complicated than in the Czech Republic.

“So she was actually a hands-on helper and very active.”

She’s a big Democrat supporter?

“She’s hates Donald Trump. Yeah.”

Was the election of Trump a kind of godsend for you? You had a big story to cover, because every day he says something and he’s always making news.

“We originally went there for a vacation.

Donald Trump,  photo: ČTK/AP/Evan Vucci
“It was December 2016 and we went there for three months and I wasn’t expecting to work there much, if at all.

“But in January the next thing you know the inauguration happened, Donald Trump was inaugurated, and it was already obvious that the Trump administration would be very dramatic, no matter what side of the political spectrum you look at it from.

“So when we got back from the vacation I actually suggested to my editors back then, at Mladá fronta Dnes, that I would like to work there as a correspondent and asked if they’d support me in that.

“And they said, If it doesn’t cost us anything more, yeah [laughs].”

We’ve all seen images of journalists being intimidated at Trump’s rallies, with the press being booed and so on. Is that something that you experienced? And did you feel a sense of threat?

“Absolutely. I went to Orlando, where Donald Trump announced officially that he was running for a second term, and I never experienced anything like that.

“You’re a journalist on the scene, so I interviewed people, I talked to people, before it started.

“Then when the official part started Eric Trump came on the stage and Don Jr. came on the stage and they started to be very negative about the media, about journalists.

“They would point their fingers at us.

“Then all of a sudden the Trump supporters started booing at us.

“And the same people I had interviewed just a few minutes before came to me and were mad at me.

“They were like, Who are you? Who do you write for? What are you going to write about me, now?

“They had let me photograph them, they told me their stories, and all of a sudden I was their enemy because Trump told them so.

“All of a sudden the Trump supporters started booing at us. The same people I had interviewed just a few minutes before came to me and were mad at me.”

“I never felt such hostility before, as a journalist. It was sad.”

Now of course you’re living back here in the Czech Republic. What have been the hardest aspects to readjusting to life here?

“One of them was the weather of course, because it’s just harder to me, and I think everybody else, to feel optimistic and full of energy under this kind of weather.

“Another thing is the general negativity among Czechs.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with us, but – I think it’s something from the communist times – we assume others to be our enemy.

“We’re suspicious of other people and the first reaction is negative.

“The Americans are the other way around and when you live there, when you’ve experienced this, you don’t understand why people are negative to you for no reason.

“The third thing is everyday sexism.

“The level of respect that women have in general in the US – when I don’t count the president’s actions – is so very different from here.

“Women get everyday insults here. They’re dismissed. They’re disrespected.

“We came back in the summer so I got so many stares. And you know I’m not like a pop icon walking around – I’m a middle-aged woman.

“Nevertheless, men stare and catcall – and it’s so present.

“Again, when you get unused to it, you’re shocked at the level that you experience here.”

Did your boys find it hard to get used to living here again.

“OK, so I have three boys and there’s a big difference.

“The eldest one loves it here. He’s very Czech. He loves svíčková, he loves everything Czech, he loves koledy, the Christmas carols.

Jana Ciglerová,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“If he could stay here and live here forever he’d be the happiest person. His best friend is Czech Tonda.

“He’s got very strong ties to the Czech Republic, so he couldn’t wait to be back.

“But it’s interesting with the youngest one. He’s five and we got there when he was two, so his whole mental life is there, his emotional life, friends – everybody is there.

“He speaks both English and Spanish, because that’s what you learn when you’re a kid there.

“So he basically cannot wait for us to go back, which we are going to do, actually. Hopefully [laughs].”