Well, when isn’t it tourist season, really? At least in Prague, there always seem to be tourists. But there are more now that it’s spring.
It’s more noticeable when they’re in big tour groups. Most of March and the first week or so of April, there were a ton of big tour groups with people from Asia. These past few weeks, I’ve noticed a ton of groups of younger people, high school and college aged kids who look like they’re on this tour during their spring break. Recently I’ve noticed a lot of families on trips, too.
I don’t really consider myself a tourist, but I suppose that I am in some respects.
I’m here for 5 months, but that doesn’t count for permanent residence. And I don’t know if I’ll ever come back for nearly that long, though I’d love to if I can make it work somehow. I want to see everything like a typical tourist does, but I often find myself thinking “I’ll get there eventually,” like I do when I’m a born-and-raised local at home. I try not to do that too often, though, because I won’t be here forever and there are so many things that I never got around to doing at home because of this very attitude.
I try my hardest not to be elitist. I was just as wide eyed and bushy tailed when I first got here – except I could physically do less than they’re doing at the moment because it was below freezing for almost 2 months and a lot of things were closed. I am just like them, except I have the privilege of staying here for 5 months instead of 5 days.
Since I’m here for so much longer, I do try to do things that tourists wouldn’t do. That usually shows up in where I eat and how I spend my weekends. But during the week, during late nights after class and early weekend mornings (if I can get myself up early enough, which doesn’t typically work out how I plan), I definitely do the same touristy things that everyone else is. Walk across the Charles Bridge, climb up to the castle, paddleboat on the Vltava, wander around Old Town Square. My favorite time to do all these things, by the way, is (in order): late at night, just before sunset, a random warm weekday afternoon, and early in the morning. I like eating at some places tourists typically like too – on most weekend afternoons, the line for my favorite ice cream shop goes around the corner and takes over 30 minutes to get through. I, not a tourist, have the privilege of skipping ice cream at that moment and going back whenever the line is shorter.
I do try not to be judgmental about what the tourists are doing and how they’re acting, but sometimes they make it very difficult.
Czech culture is such that it is incredibly easy to stick out like a sore thumb. Contrary to what a lot of people said before I got here, it has nothing to do with how you choose to dress or what colors you wear. (Well, if you dress like a stereotypical tourist, people are going to know you’re a tourist right off the bat, but that’s not the only way they’ll know. We’re getting to that). Especially in spring, not everyone wears black or dark colors. On the contrary, there are a lot of fun, bright colors and vibrant patterns all around since spring started. People seem to dress to match the weather outside. Whether that’s the fashion industry talking or a desire to dress according to mood or something else, who’s to say. Whatever the reason is, I really appreciate it.
No, pointing out a tourist in a crowd always has to do with how they’re acting.
Typically, these cultural differences manifest themselves in manners, how people conduct themselves in public places and interact with people around them.
Czech people rarely make eye contact, unless they know the person, and even more rarely smile at someone. Looking at a stranger and smiling at them as you pass them on the sidewalk is wrong on so many levels. All the tourists don’t know this, though, so it makes it easy to pick them out. If someone doesn’t automatically avert their eyes when you make eye contact, they’re probably not from Prague. When you stay here for long periods of time, you get really good at quick glances, and finding places to look on a crowded tram where you aren’t looking directly at anyone. (I just made eye contact with someone climbing the stairs at the cafe I’m sitting in. He smiled at me, and I immediately looked away without my facial expression changing at all. Everyone at home is going to think I’m constantly in a bad mood, that’s going to be a fun transition.)
Comfort public transport is also very telling. The trams, metro, and buses operate on an honors system. Tourists have to buy individual tickets for every time (or a certain amount of time) they are on public transport; locals have cards that they put credits of time on. Tourists often get confused about where to buy tickets, because there aren’t kiosks at every tram or bus stop, and whether or not they have to tell someone that they’re on the tram (hint: no. Just validate your ticket and you can be on any public transport for however long you bought the ticket for.)
I have one of these cards: I have 5 months of student use, which means as long as I have proof of enrollment and that card with me, I can use public transport as much or as little as I want for 5 months. Every once in a while when you’re walking around a metro station or on a bus, there may be an officer who shoves a badge in your face – that means they work for the public transportation commission and they want to see your card or validated ticket. Show them the card, they see that you’re riding legally, and they wave you on your way.
More telling than comfort with the public transportation system is conduct while on public transport. The same general courtesy rules apply, of course: offer your seat to elderly, injured, disabled, and pregnant people; move out of the way when people need to get around you to get off, even if that means getting off and getting back on after everyone who is leaving has gotten off the tram/metro/bus. But there are more unwritten rules than that. And they’re all about courtesy.
Locals do not talk on public transportation. Occasionally, you’ll have people traveling together who talk in low voices together, but even then they’re too quiet to overhear their conversation and they do their best to not bother anyone else. Often people stand without holding onto a railing, staring out the window or at a corner without looking at any other passenger. People usually read on public transport.
In fact, it’s not unusual to see people reading or carrying a book pretty much anywhere. I eat by myself a lot, and I always have either a book or my computer with me. Wherever I go, I can almost guarantee that I won’t be the only one in the restaurant/cafe alone, reading a book or working on something on a laptop.
The other day, I saw a tourist eating on the tram. That’s just not done, for a number of reasons. First, he was wearing your typical tourist clothes: cheap Hawaiian shirt (though I’m sure we’re further from Hawaii here than he is when he’s at home), tucked into ill-fitting khakis, sport sunglasses perched on his bald head. I couldn’t see what shoes he was wearing, because the tram was too full, but I would bet he was wearing athletic shoes and socks pulled up as high as they would go. Second, he was eating McDonald’s chicken nuggets, right from the to go bag.
I want to paint a picture for you, because I swear this was probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen on a tram here to date. He was holding on to the rail that goes along the roof of the tram with his left hand. In his left hand, he was also (somehow) holding this open bag of McDonalds chicken nuggets. I think it was a 20 piece – another dead giveaway of a tourist. That’s way too many chicken nuggets. Locals would never order that in the first place. He was leaning too close to someone who he didn’t seem to know, sweaty stomach and back hitting the people around him every time the tram so much as change speed (which it does a lot). His right hand held onto the seat in front of him when the tram turned. When we weren’t turning, he used his right hand to fish a nugget out of the bag (loud and crinkly, already something you don’t do on the tram – make a lot of noise). He then shoved the whole thing into his mouth and chewed open-mouthed and loudly. In people’s faces!
It was honestly the most disgusting thing I’ve seen on public transport here.
That should speak both for people’s manners and the cleanliness of the public transportation system and stations here – it’s pretty darn nice.
Tourists also seem to not be aware of the night quiet laws. City wide, buildings and streets should be quiet from 10pm to 8am. These laws are posted on signs, both in Czech and English, around the city – they’re not a secret. Most hotels, AirBnBs, and other room rental services tell guests when they arrive. Yet people constantly seem to forget. You don’t have parties at your place, don’t pregame, don’t have people over late to party at home. Locals meet people somewhere, bounce from pub to bar together, or at least meet in a square before choosing to go somewhere together. Point being, people rarely ever go to each others’ homes, and definitely not to party and make noise there.
Yet every night, our neighbors (the rented out room, through AirBnB and other sources) can be heard making a ton of noise, playing loud music and yelling, until the wee hours of the morning. We live next to a tram stop, and if we open the windows in the middle of the night, we always hear too-loud voices and drunk laughter floating up from the street. I hope they’re having fun, yeah, but that’s not enough to make me feel better about losing sleep because they’re too loud (even though it was definitely louder in my college dorm and the hotel rooms I stayed in in New York City).
In general, Czechs don’t talk loudly. People walk around the streets at all hours of the day talking to each other, but you can’t hear them at all if you’re more than 10 feet away from them. It took a while for me to get used to this – Cal and I practiced talking quietly to each other while walking around at night. Now I talk so quietly that my parents probably won’t be able to hear me at dinner, even in their own home where nothing else is making any sound (this was a problem before I left too, because I don’t like being loud or disruptive at all to the people around me and they’re losing their hearing).
(The more I think about it, the more Prague was the perfect place for me to end up, even though I knew next to nothing about the place and absolutely none of these unwritten rules before I got here.)
I want to be clear, I’m not mad at the tourists for not knowing this. How could they? It’s not something that’s really advertised. They’re the “unwritten rules” for a reason.
It just seems to me that they have a different goal here than I do when visiting a place. When I’m a tourist somewhere, I try my best to follow the social cues set for me. When I was in London, I walked and stood on the escalator on what felt like the wrong side. When I’m in a big city like New York, I’m always conscious of the people around me who are frustrated with other slow walkers or tourists stopping to take pictures, and make a conscious effort to stay to the very side of the sidewalk and only to stop where I won’t be in anyone’s way. I try to blend in, but a lot of people I know don’t mind sticking out. I couldn’t tell you why I try so hard to blend in, not without a lot of self-psychoanalysis that I don’t have the patience to do at the moment, but I like traveling and living that way.
Long story short, tour how you want to. But if you’re doing gross stuff, even if it’s not gross or impolite to you, people are going to give you second glances and judge because “that’s not how it’s done.”