I catch the tram to work every day. It's an efficient form of transport. Cheap, on time, high capacity, environmentally friendly. The one thing that drags it down are the people who use it. As my friend Kris puts it, Czechs have a tendency to adopt the "public transport face" as soon as they board a tram. A frown or scowl is commonplace. I've even started doing it without realising it. In New Zealand, we say "thanks driver!" when we get off the bus. Not here. The driver would sooner tell you to "go to the ass" than accept any kind of compliment.
People may think I'm being overly harsh. But it's generally accepted, even by Czechs themselves, that they aren't the most welcoming and friendly people in the world. Strangers are strangers, and they owe them nothing. A smile is reserved for someone you know and like, not for some guy on a tram. I can understand the collective psychology of the Czechs, having lived through forty years of communism. But it's about time they stopped using communism as an excuse to treat people like shit. The customer service is a case in point. The ladies in the supermarket bark at you and throw your food across the scanners. I've had money snatched out of my hand because I was taking too long. Waiters tell you to hurry up. Beer is slammed on the table in some pubs. I'm painting a horrible picture, and I'm neglecting to mention the exceptions. But it's not all bad. Like their cities, they're rough on the outside but have hearts of gold. Once you get to know a Czech person, the "public transport face" melts, and you're left with the most hospitable and kind person you could meet. Look after one's own is the motto here.
This morning I was on the tram and a group of kids, aged around six or seven, got on with their teachers. It was quite full so adults were standing and the kids were milling around trying to find something to hold on to. The adults all had the face going on, though the kids were smiling and laughing with one another. It struck me that the difference between these two age groups is phenomenal. At what point do these kids get the spark beaten out of them? When do they realise that it's not OK to smile and laugh in public?
The issue is a complex one that I don't fully understand yet. I've tried to buck the system and have cracked out a spontaneous smile on a tram before. People just looked at me like I was crazy. So no use in trying to change the world. I'll just keep on with my scowl and fit right in. I like it that way.
PHOTO CREDIT: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sludgeulper/ / CC BY-SA 2.0