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Czech women usually evoke a va-va-voom response in Western males, who glorify their ethereal beauty and perceived submissiveness. Traditional, unspoiled by feminism, and always striving to look her best, the stereotypical view of the Czech woman is problematic––though admittedly affects how women from the West relate to their Eastern counterparts. Aren’t they, too, accepting of traditional roles? Not modern enough in their approach to career, motherhood, the domestic sphere? Overdressed?
Czech women counter that we’re the ones who are clueless. Employed full-time under legal obligation and responsible for a family, this was their grandmothers’ and mothers’ task under socialism while feminism was a lark for bored, middle-class American housewives. Marianne A. Ferber, professor of women’s studies at the University of Illinois writes in her essay “Women in the Czech Republic: Feminism Czech Style” that today’s Czech woman has inherited a “striking mixture of strong family values with a firm attachment to the labor market, a sense of personal efficiency, and considerable independence.” She’s homemaker, breadwinner, and proud of it.
All “isms” aside, Czech women still have something I don’t and, frankly, it can be intimidating. Many would attribute the leggy Slavic goddess to good genes, lack of processed food, and the communist preoccupation with fitness. But there’s something else there, a kind of grace and posture that’s visible in everything they do. Czech women command attention––and not just because they can be more primped, painted, and plucked than we. Their best accessory is a quiet dignity that I’m envious of.
Other lessons I’ve learned from Czech women:
10. It’s okay to date a younger mate.
The number of high-profile Czech women with younger partners is impressive. Among them is songwriter and Česko Slovenská Superstar judge Gabriela Osvaldová, 58, whose boyfriend is 32. In America, we’d label Osvaldová a “cougar,” or mature, (i.e. 30-plus) predatory woman possessed of a desperate hunger that only a tender boy-snack can satiate. No such derogatory word exists in the Czech language which speaks to the level of acceptance enjoyed by Czech women in May-December relationships––in fact the only slang that gets slung here is for the object of the vintage dame’s affection: the zajíček, or little animal, in question.
9. Quit being afraid of your body.
If you’ve never uttered a catty word at the butt cleavage and bare bellies exposed around town then you’re a better woman than I. One steamy afternoon while waiting for the bus with a Czech co-worker who was sporting a halter top that might’ve been specifically engineered to ventilate, I blurted out: “I wish I could wear something like that.” She stared at me for a pause then said, “Why can’t you?” Because I’ve always been taught––exactly by whom I don’t remember––that sexy dress is demeaning. Yet as my experiment in expatriation rolls on, I’ve begun to question rules, like this one, that have made me leery of flashing a little leg or taking off my top at the beach.
8. Easy does it on the drinks.
In Britain, where binge drinking among young women has recently been called the worst in the Western world, and the States, where reckless drinking is common among women as a well, it seems like we girls are trying to keep up with the boys. But Czech women drink two times less than their male counterparts, says the World Health Organization. Forgetting for a moment the social double standard this implies (e.g. It’s all backslapping fun when men tie one on, but drunk women are unladylike and shameful), I’ve always admired how most Czech women choose to sip slowly and, above all, remain in the moment. I find it sensible––and brave.
7. Play hard to get.
The very fact that the book Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat to Dreamgirl––A Woman’s Guide to Holding Her Own in a Relationship (2002) ever needed to get written, suggests the essential difference between the majority of American women and our Czech sestry. A quick scan of this U.S. bestseller’s table of contents actually reveals a decent bit of wisdom: Don’t give yourself away. If the American and British men who decry Czech women as ice queens––and yet still adore and pursue them!––are any indication, it would seem that Czech women follow this advice to the letter.
6. Take fashion risks.
I’m always amazed by compatriots who apply their clearly homogenized standards of what’s fashionable to a culture to which they do not belong. One cannot single-handedly blame Czech women for the cast-off garments foisted upon the East by unscrupulous manufacturers, nor for the decades of political turmoil that have kept them sartorially disconnected from the rest of the world. Jaunty, mismatched, and daring, Czech women dress like the Dancing Building looks. The next time you get dressed, ask yourself: What does this twin set need? Nylon pants with assorted pockets, that’s what.
5. Go that extra step.
Keeping house isn’t exclusively women’s work and Czech men, at least the ones I know, shoulder their fair share of the chores. But a few years back when a friend casually mentioned that she planned to spend the weekend ironing pillowcases and curtains, I was confronted with this hard truth: compared to almost every Czech woman I know, I’m a lousy housekeeper. Living alongside people like this has made me rethink the shortcuts I take not just when cooking and cleaning but in all areas of life. Spending extra time making things nice, not just for the ones I love but for myself, is worth it.
4. Eat a better lunch.
Mireille Guiliano’s 2004 book French Women Don’t Get Fat prompted a heap of studies that highlighted the differences between the way European and American women eat. Many of them concluded that European women pack most of their daily calories into large, leisurely lunches, followed later in the evening by a light dinner, and thereby avoid nighttime binges and battles with weight. I rarely see my slender Czech officemates lunch at their desks, but when they do the ladies always seem to enjoy a fragrant hot meal (one that puts my salad to shame) with their backs to the computer.
3. Stop smiling til it hurts.
A new book, Nice Girls Just Don’t Get It, by Lois Frankel suggests that American women are far too nice in the workplace––and it’s holding us back. Czech women may be notorious for their frosty bearing, but many outsiders who come to work in the Czech Republic find them better at conflict management, not to mention less superficial, than their Western counterparts. With their no-nonsense approach to matters both personal and business-related, Czech women may just be onto something.
2. Pipe down.
A few months after starting a new job in Prague, one of my Slovak co-workers, who would eventually become a good friend, confessed that when we were first introduced she was a bit put off by my animated presence and booming voice. I laughed about it with her, but her revelation secretly hurt my feelings. In time, I’ve come to realize that we Western women occasionally tend to chatter, bluster, and blather to our own detriment––doesn’t talking less and riding out awkward silences allow us to better hear ourselves?
1. “Czech” your inner strength.
Women of all nations, by virtue of the fact that we are women, face adversity, however minor, on a regular basis. And yet most of the Czech women I know seem to have inherited a certain fortitude wrought of historical struggle—a National Revival, two worlds wars, 40 years of communism––that while mistaken for haughtiness, truly sets them apart. Perhaps it’s the trait I hope will rub off on me most.
Lead image: Anna Geislerová and Tatiana Vilhelmová in Návrat idiota (1999)
Images: ©Negativ s.r.o. www.negativ.cz