There are obvious changes in life when you move from the United States to Europe, like different languages, measurements, and voltage. It’s really something to step on a scale and see it not even climb to 80! (What the hell is a Kilogram, anyway?)
But, just as Vinny says in “Pulp Fiction”, it’s the little differences that surprise you. Individual people notice different things. Myself, being an animal lover and one-time student of science, I noticed the changes in wildlife…or non-wild life, I should say. I got a kick out of all the little dogs, “apartment breeds”. Various breeds have been crossed to produce the most compact canine companions for people with cramped living quarters (at least by U.S. standards).
Everywhere you go, people have their dogs in Prague. And the few places they aren’t permitted, people tie up their pets out front like horses before a saloon in the Old West. It’s perfectly normal to have to step around several mutts on the way into the grocery store. They’re the ones with lenient leashes—or no leashes at all, for the very well-behaved ones—and they’ve taken up positions at the door, patiently and alertly awaiting their owner’s return from the mass of humanity and produce.
But I didn’t just notice the size of the dogs. Sure, I still smile when I see one of the little Dachshund-Schnauzer cross-breeds, whose pipe-cleaner muzzle brushes the ground when its tiny legs trot along the sidewalk. But I also noticed testicles. Lots of them. Testicles of all sizes. Some of the large dogs—because Praguers don’t all have shrinky-dink dogs—have bouncing, dangling testicles that are downright vulgar to a prudish brain raised in the states, where all dogs are eunuchs. Sure, I’ve been watching rapes and murders on television since I could sit up, but basic anatomical parts…? Good God, woman, put some pants on that Great Dane! Mesmerized and repulsed, I try to look away, but my eyes are drawn to the jostling jock like they are to a grizzly accident scene, or to the amorphous and bulging butt of a fat person crammed into spandex.
That’s another difference here: fat people are scarce. Sure, the old ladies round out as their bodies stop producing this hormone or start producing that one. Some of them resemble short linebackers in American football, and they’re not afraid to plow through a line of bodies to get on or off a tram, either—though they lack the speed and agility of the younger atheletes. Some older men have packed on a beer-and-sausage gut, too. But these are the natural rotundities of the human form as it ages.
What you don’t see (except in tourists…usually American) are the massive, elefantine, gravity-defying obese people, the ones whose thighs rub together when they walk like two Sumo wrestlers sparring. If you’ve been to America, you know who I’m talking about: those poster-children for Double Whoppers, Big Macs, all-you-can-eat-buffets, and quadrouple-bypass surgery. It just doesn’t happen in Europe. Although, give them ten years, and with the MacDonald’s and KFC infestation the fall of Communism allowed in, Praguers might fill out and catch up. But I doubt it.
Back to the old people, though. There seems to be a lot more of them in Europe. Some of them struggle to get on and off the buses as if climbing onto their death beds. I’ve watched women shuffle along on edema-swollen legs so bowed that I was sure their hips would snap with the next step. It’s shocking and disturbing to be confronted with mortality so brazenly, right there in broad daylight. Elderly people aren’t supposed to walk around among us, don’t they know that? They belong in “homes”, tucked away from the rest of us so we aren’t reminded of what time has in store for each of us.
But the old ladies of Prague don’t know anything about such rules. Their homes are where they’ve always been…real homes. The Nazis came when they were young, little girls some of them, others already young women. They perseveared and survived in their homes. They came of age as their nation enjoyed a brief respite of independence before it was entombed behind the Iron Curtain. The children they raised in their homes ventured out and tried to lift that curtain in 1968, and they paid a heavy price. These women pressed on. Their determination and power passed to their grandchildren, who finally cast off the yoke of Communism in 1989.
After Nazis and war, revolution, rebellion, suppression, occupation, and revolution once more, small obstacles like age and infirmity can’t stop these matrons of Prague. They hobble and shuffle and mutter along with the aid of various forms of crutches and canes. They’re often encountered in small packs, like herds of meandering cattle, or post-menopausal street gangs. If you forget to give them your seat on a crowded bus or tram, they’ll remind you with a look, gesture, or gruff request. If you give it up voluntarily before they think to scold or prod, then you may be rewarded with a thank you or a smile. Or the weathered old veteran of life may simply take the offered seat without even seeming to notice. Don’t take it personally…walked past Soviet tanks on her way to the store with similar matter-of-factness 30 years before.
So, be prepared to share the sidewalks and subways when you come to Prauge. There are dogs of all sizes—their testicles swinging in defiance of any virgin sensabilities. And there are the old women, and—less frequently for some reason—old men, who plod along in defiance of age and brittle bones. These are the little things I notice, anyway. Maybe you’ll be struck by something else. I know some people, for example, are captivated by the beauty of Czech women, or the taste and price of Czech beer. Whatever your fancy, don’t forget to defer to the elderly. And watch where you step; the dogs leave calling cards on every corner and sidewalk.