Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Svejk or Kafka - two sides of the Czech nation
My Czech friend believes that the Czechs are either like the Good Soldier Svejk of the novel of the same name, bumbling through life indifferent to the impositions of authority, or like the heroes of Kafka's novels stuck helpless in an impossible maze of bureaucracy. The more time I spend in this country, the more I come to realise that her analysis is correct. These two great Czech writers had indeed captured something of the Czech soul.
I am regularly struck by the Czechs' laissez faire attitude to life. An example of this is the lack of timekeeping as exemplified in my last post by the failure of the local town hall to keep to office hours (which played to my advantage) and the irregular collection dates for rubbish (which doesn't). Had this been in England the local householders would have been ringing up the town hall to complain and muttering darkly to one another about how we pay our money and should get proper service. The Czechs on the other hand are positively Mediterranean in their attitude. They shrug their shoulders, as if to say, "That is how it is. What do you expect?"
Our house is full of nearly finished and annoying items of work that the builder, the plumber and electrician all need some day to get round to sorting. Every time I sit on the loo and it rocks because the plumber has yet to fix it to the floor, I am reminded of this. Every time I end up turning on my very expensive central heating by hand, when I should be able to do it by mobile phone from England, I am reminded. I do not take offence at this or feel that I am hard done by. I have observed that nearly all the Czech homes I have been in are in a similar state.
Then on the other hand there is Czech bureaucracy. Things that are simple in England can take up an inordinate amount of time here, waiting in one office to get the right form, waiting in another office to get the form stamped and then in another and another, and then finally being told you've got the wrong form and need to go back to the first office for another one. Even the simple job of paying a bill requires a trip to the bank or post office and filling in a form, as the Czechs have yet to discover cheques. It gets more complicated when trying to understand Czech laws, which can be overly complicated and indeed contradictory. As a Czech friend explained, when a new law comes in, they don't necessarily change the old ones which it should replace. So what do you do, faced with this impasse? Well you can do nothing, be paralysed by the Gordian knot of bureaucracy or you can proceed although in some way or another you will be breaking one law while obeying another. Kafka or Svejk, take your choice.
This is actually damaging for the Czech economy and society. For starters a lot of transactions happen on the wrong side of the law (brown envelopes and the like) not just to avoid paying tax (an old Czech saying is "He who does not steal from the state, steals from his family") but also to get something done sometime this side of doomsday. But there are other serious consequences for this country. The whole culture appears to biased against things happening, against people taking ownership of their own lives and fates. As a Brit and one who has been involved in helping communities help themselves, I am shocked by how difficult it is to mobilise people to improve things. Firstly people do not believe that anything will change if they do something and secondly they believe (often rightly) that bureaucracy will stop them.
A few months ago I was working with a collection of local residents about issues relating to their home town. It was clear from meeting with them that they really did want to change things. It was agreed that they would individually write to the authorities involved, which they have done. I also got them to agree (or so I thought) to set up a group not only to fight for changes, but also to access the large amounts of EU money that are available for programmes of positive change. I now discover that they have decided not to proceed with forming the group. Why? Because of the bureaucracy involved in registering it - whereas in England unincorporated community groups are able to start up easily. As a Brit I would still have gone ahead with it, but then I was brought up in a deep-seated can-do culture that believes in climbing mountains because they are there. My Czech friends, seeing the high hurdle in front of them, believing perhaps that they could do very little and what they could do was only influence others, talked themselves out of taking the next step. Who am I to judge? I cannot understand. They are right in the context of their own history and culture. But meanwhile there are piles of EU money waiting for the Czechs to claim, or waiting at least until 2012 when it will go elsewhere.