Prague overrun by friendly people... when will it all end?

Illustrative photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague

Some people say that Czechs are unfriendly. Obviously, such people are simply not in the right place at the right time. Try any central Prague metro exit or the top of Wenceslaus Square for example, where I have been stopped by the friendliest Czechs imaginable every day for the last two months now, sometimes even several times a day, sometimes several times within five minutes. They want to talk to me about all kinds of things.

The first one today was a young fellow in a cheap suit, nearly half my age, who thought we might have a chat about life insurance. We didn’t. Among other things, I can’t help but feeling that someone selling me life insurance should at least look like he is closer to death than I am. But the next rendezvous looked more promising anyway. Just a few paces off from the insurance enthusiast, my eyes met the shy and smiling eyes of a beautiful young woman, dressed in green, exuding green in fact, and hugging a clipboard. We watched each other near each other for many a long second, until at last she stepped forward into that last bit of emptiness between us and asked me: ‘Do you like nature’?

‘Nope, hate nature‚’ I said, and walked into the dingy metro vestibule.

Leaving the metro two stops away, yet another friendly Czech stopped me to enquire about my telephone calling habits, before another, almost silently, a few minutes later, pressed a small can of Coca-Cola into my hand – that being the most pleasant of the day’s encounters, as true friendliness is after all about giving.

This friendliness has only been around for a few months now though, and I’m not particularly enjoying it to be honest. I’m sure that if I lived in a country where people were this friendly all the time, I would emigrate. I’m sure because I did live in a country where they were this friendly and I did emigrate. I want the typically unobtrusive Czechs back. And at the same time my heart goes out to the armies of affable street promotion people, because I’ve walked around in their shoes a bit. Being a reporter for a respectable news service gets you no more respect when asking people on the streets of Prague their views on the Lisbon treaty or the hot weather than selling life insurance does. The ones who offer a polite excuse are few and far between; more often than not they see the microphone from down the street and avoid you like a leper offering a handkerchief.

To set the record straight, it isn’t true that Czechs, or Praguers, are unfriendly, of course. I cannot believe there is a large community of people anywhere that could be definitively unfriendly; since people are by nature social beings, labelling a group as endemically unkind can only be the result of misunderstanding. In the case of Czechs, what does seem to be true is that they are deeply suspicious of public displays of unfounded glee and camaraderie. I for one disagree that this stance has much to do with the short period of communism that scarred this culture’s thousand-year history, propounded by many a foreign commentator. I propound that, if anything, it comes from the exasperation of being stuck between dozens of endlessly warring and conniving European tribes who are bigger than you. Once the initial stage of suspicion is past, Czechs are as naturally friendly and affable as the most gregarious American waiter. Well, almost.

And so why on earth would anyone even attempt to send promoters out into the streets to engage the naturally leery public? I can’t imagine that any promotional or financial good really comes of it in this country of all countries. It seems to be more a sporadic experiment carried out every few years by naive expatriate marketing managers who I think inevitably must go home in failure saying to themselves, ‘Why aren’t those Czechs more friendly?’