The University of Iowa

Learning Czech Norms: The Hard Way

October 17th, 2016

By Halle Seydel*

A view of the area around my apartment from my favorite jogging trail.

“800. Pay now,” were the last words I ever thought I would hear from a police officer.

It was my third week in Prague. Although our advisors had warned us 30 times not to forget our student transportation passes, I had. In Prague, public transportation runs on an honor system, with random police checks. As I walked to the train station I thought the type of thought that usually precedes a bad decision; “what’re the odds a police officer checks the train the day I don’t have my pass”. But, last minute I reluctantly bought a one-way ticket.

Then, I forgot to validate it.

And that was the day a grumpy Czech police officer, in his communist-era beret and uniform, decided to stop a group of loud American girls and ask for their tickets.

As all my friends flashed their University issued transportation passes, I pulled out my one-way. He glanced at it, said, “you are riding illegally”, and then pulled out his notepad.

I’d heard stories of people going to foreign countries and being arrested for what seemed to them like a simple misunderstanding. As the officer sternly scribbled on his notepad with more intensity than a toddler with a new set of crayons, the worst of those stories ran through my head. Who would bail me out of jail? How do you say “attorney” in Czech?

On a hike through the Bohemian Paradise National Park, with Hrubá Skála Chateau in the background.

Of course, these thoughts were just a product of my over caffeinated imagination; I had just bought a ticket. Trying my best to remain calm, I told the officer exactly that. “You did not validate it. 800 korunas”, he responded.

With that, my fear dissolved into a feeling of complete stupidity and embarrassment. How had I been living in this country for weeks and not known that tickets needed to be validated?

“May I have a warning this time sir? I didn’t know,” worked a lot better when I used it on the highway patrol in the States. As the officer looked at me and the nine other American girls pleadingly nodding their heads, not a sliver of sympathy showed in his eyes.

From his terse “No”, I knew there was no way I would be able to wiggle my way out of this one. And why should I? In my rush, I had failed to appropriately acknowledge Czech rules. Although coughing up 800 korunas stung, (that’s worth about 40 scoops of gelato in Prague), I deserved it.

So I accepted my ticket, quickly mourned the lost gelato, and asked the officer if I could pay the fine at a station or if I had to mail it in. He responded with those three little words every girl wants to hear, “800. Pay now.”

With that, my emotional roller coaster ride came to a stop at anger and confusion. In order to walk away, I had to pay a peace officer, on the spot, in cash? According to the officer, yes, unless I wanted to go to jail.

Although my story ends, thankfully, without much serious offense to Czech culture, it raises an important question: when we think of respecting another country’s culture, we learn basic words in their language, try their traditional cuisine, and maybe even learn which hand gestures to avoid, but should we do more?

Do we have a duty, as guests in a foreign country, to abide by the simple customs of everyday life? Should we learn the street etiquette, the local pleasantries, the dos and don’ts of public transportation?

After my incident on the metro, I thought about how I was living in the Czech Republic, but acting like an American, (without the Hot Cheetos). Studying abroad in Prague, and living here for a long period of time, allows me the unique responsibility of living as a Czech, not as a tourist.

While I think I’ll try to avoid any further interaction with local law enforcement, from here on out, I’m going to treat the visa in my passport as a promise to live as Czech as possible.

*Halle Seydel is a Political Science and English major at the University of Iowa, and is originally from San Diego, CA. She's spending her semester in the Czech Republic on the USAC Prague Program to trace her own Czech roots.

Student blog entries posted to this International Accents page may not reflect the opinions and recommendations of UI Study Abroad and International Programs.  The blog is intended to give students a forum for free expression of thoughts and experiences abroad in a respectful space.