svētdiena, 2014. gada 21. septembris

About Central and Eastern Europe

Central Europe - Has a Czech person hurt you and you want a revenge? Call them Eastern European and watch them get furious.

The thing with Central vs. Eastern Europe is:
We're taught at school that the Czech Republic is in Central Europe. And then we grow up and find ourselves being called Eastern Europeans by foreigners, much to our unpleasant surprise.
I confess to getting furious at being called Eastern European, too. Not just because it places us in the same box with Russians and Belorussians who we have very little in common with - but also simply because of geography. Look at the map of Europe - the Czech Republic is right in the centre.
And I simply relate more to Bavaria, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary than to Belarus. Austria and Hungary felt like "related" countries, while all the Belorussians and Ukrainians I've met seemed like strangers. Some of them very nice, but - different.

Not mentioning that many foreigners think Eastern Europe to include countries like Romania which we have nothing in common with at all - except the fact that some Czechs emmigrated there in the 19th century and it also had Communist regime. Really, anything you can think of - countryside, religion, language, architecture, folklore, history -  everything's different there. If you based the term "Eastern Europe" on the shared Communist history (which is just 40 years out of 2000), then you might as well claim that Cuba is in East Asia because it's Communist just like North Korea, or that USA is in Australia because it's a democratic continent.

The time period when we "shared something" with Romania and Russia was simply too short and forceful to create a cultural region.

Btw, some people seem to think we were part of the Soviet Union. We were not.

I was thinking about this a lot, and came to the conclusion that this "CzR-not-being-in-Eastern-Europe" thing isn't just my impression.

I mean, what DO we have in common with Russia, Ukraine or Belarus? 
1) The fact that the Cyrillic alphabet was invented on our territory (but we've been using the Latin alphabet instead for 1000 years now).
2) The 20 years a small part of Ukraine was part of Czechoslovakia.
3) The 40 years we had to learn Russian at school (mostly doing very poorly, I'm afraid) and the 23 years Soviet tanks were here (which wouldn't exactly be "having something in common" anyway, not mentioning that some of the soldiers were actually Uzbek, Georgian and whatnot).
4) The 80 years in the 19th century when some Czech and Slovak national revivalists were interested in Russian culture.
5) Some traits like impatience or fondness for swear words. (But Italians and Brits are known for swearing a lot, too.)
6) The shared origin of languages.
Can't think of anything more.

And even the languages aren't mutually intelligible. We're only able to understand Slovak after some practice (it's like for a British person learning to understand the English spoken in Louisiana), also Polish and Croatian to some small extent, but not Eastern Slavic languages. That's because there's been a long and heavy German influence on Czech. If you know Russian, don't expect Czech to sound anything like it - to me, the sound of Czech is more like a cross between Scottish English and Italian, rather than Russian. There are also heaps of words that look similar in Russian and Polish and Czech but mean something different, even opposite. Perhaps I'll make them into a separate article here. Just one example: I remember when I got my credit card PIN code by post in Latvia, and beneath it, it was written "Please remember this PIN code" in several languages. I thought the Russian version was telling me to forget the PIN!

And as to the Slavic heritage... I read somewhere that Czech genes are in average about 30% Celtic, 30% Slavic, 30% Germanic, and then some Jewish, Hungarian, Caucasian etc. My father's cousin had his DNA tests done, and it turned out that the person with the most similar DNA is Irish.
And as to our popular legend about Father Czech who was Southern Slavic by origin and came to this territory in search for a new home... turns out there is a mediaeval chronicle telling a story about a Father Czech - who was Celtic and came from France.

And what is it we share with eastern parts of Germany, Austria, Slovakia or Hungary?
1) Beer.
2) The whole history, basically. Many Czech noblemen took Bavarian or Saxon wives, part of Austria belonged to us in Middle Ages, we in turn belonged to Austria for 400 years, and Slovakia and Hungary were part of the same state (Austro-Hungarian Empire).
3) Catholic influence.
4) Music. The folk music in the western parts of CzR is similar to German, while in the eastern parts it's basically Hungarian.
5) Stress on the first syllable.
6) Looks. People in these countries simply don't look like foreigners to me.
7) Architecture.
8) Climate.
9) The kind of bureaucracy that came from Austro-Hungarian Empire (and which I very happily didn't miss while living in Latvia, where most things are arranged simply and effectively). The feeling that offices must open early in the morning, that official language must be less intelligible than the "common" language, that there must be a language board deciding what is correct and what is not. We sometimes call these things "courtesy of Mr. Emperor".
10) History of small industry. Numerous factories, but mostly small ones.
11) No sense of... largeness. "Why make something big when it can be small." Food is packed in small packages. You'll find very few skyscrapers in Prague, Vienna, Bratislava or Budapest. The motorways are only as broad as really necessary. Old houses and farms are smaller than in Northern Germany or Poland. Basically, anything that seems on too large a scale - be it long military parades, loud speech, long limousines, city parts consisting of high-rise buildings - looks unimportant to us, like "created by a megalomaniac just showing off". I think it's because the density of inhabitation has been high for quite some time now, so we're used to the fact that we can't afford to waste space or disturb other people. We tend to be loud, but not very loud.

Are you asking yourself "Why is she telling us all this?"

I actually have two points - one is that the Czech country is in the centre of Europe and therefore it's had many influences. Various tribes came and stayed, merchants and soldiers from various countries (even France or Sweden) kept crossing it, staying and/or making babies. So IMO it can't be described simply as "Slavic" or "Celtic". Nor as "Eastern European". The only term I feel describes us is "Central European" because it's based on geography, history and culture - things that constitute our identity - rather than on genetics or language or 20th century events.

The second point is that European history is long and complex and it's created many cultural regions. There are regions many non-Europeans don't know about.

Just like U.S. isn't just the East Coast, the South, the West and California, but there are regions like the Appalachians or New England; just like Canada consists of the Pacific Coast, the Maritimes, Quebec, Nunavut etc.; just like Africa is so diverse that there are countries with more than 100 languages spoken; just like there isn't one Chinese language; there isn't just Southern, Western, Northern and Eastern Europe.
If you, say, create four affiliates of your company based on this simplified four-fold division of Europe, there will always be inconsistencies and difficulties. For example, the region that I consider to be Eastern Europe (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) isn't homogenous at all - it's divided into many smaller cultural regions, too, as Ukraine has been very proudly trying to prove these past months.

2 komentāri:

  1. Thanks so much for your clarification! Here in the US, we don't have as much exposure to European culture, topography, and people unless we're taught a simpler, less-detailed history of Europe within the 20th century. Sometimes, we've just called everyone (I think as we did during the 50's-80's) "Russians," which is technically and ethnically incorrect.

  2. Thank You for the lovely comment! I'm happy I could be of help. Wow, I didn't know that Central and East Europeans were sometimes simply referred to as Russians in the 50's-80's. But rest assured, many Europeans have a simplified view of North America, too. Based mostly on Hollywood :-) Here in the CzR, we're taught history and geography of the whole world in great detail, but we forget a lot of it when we grow up :-) and then sometimes have a simplified view of some parts of the world. Which is a shame because for example Mongolia, some parts of Siberia (and lots of other places) are so beautiful! But fortunately, we're also a nation that admires travellers, so we're always willing to listen to stories about foreign countries. I personally dream of going to Canada and Sitka, Alaska in summer, and I love books by Barry Lopez :-) Wish You all the best!