Vol 1, No 7, 9 August 1999
A WESTERNER'S (SURVIVAL) GUIDE TO|
THE CZECH REPUBLIC, PART V
On Doormats, Men and the Quality of Thieves
There are about a dozen apartments in the downtown Prague apartment building in which I live, each with its own door and - not surprisingly - accompanying doormat. What is unusual is the strong chain which connects each doormat to its respective threshold. My own chain, complete with a rusty padlock, has been in place from time immemorial, and the doormat is so dirty and trodden upon now that I have often thought about replacing it - if it were not for the heavy chain that is, which makes the doormat a fixture, something inheritable.
Several months ago, a most curious piece of inter-tenant communication appeared posted in the entrance way:
From this it was clear that although the occupants of the house are clerks, salesmen, technicians, doctors or architects during their daily lives, when night falls, they transform into amateur thieves, prowling through the dark corridors looking for anything left by accident in front of a neighbor's door. The next morning, they will turn into good neighbors again, greeting each other heartily when they meet in the doorway.
What is the merit of stealing a worthless item such as a doormat? The dose of adrenaline necessarily involved in the exploit? The attraction of being caught and then fighting a brave battle against the previous owner, making the doormat into a weapon capable of fending off the attacks of a furious neighbor's broomstick?
I don't think so. While the stolen doormat has no practical value (it would be recognized and immediately repossessed if the thief laid it down in front of his own door), Czechs seem to be measuring their living standards not by what they have but rather by what others don't have. Czechs can only feel happy by comparison.
Confusing, isn't it? Most confusing, but true. For example, more than six years after their separation, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are still connected by an umbilical cord of envy. A strong Slovak crown is almost as bad a piece of news in Prague as a weak Czech crown and vice versa.
Similar problems accompany the psychological aspects of EU accession. How will Czechs cope with the situation of being the poorest member state? Fortunately, no invitation from the Union is coming, and none is likely to be on its way in the foreseeable future. If one does appear, it will arrive in Budapest or Warsaw, the capitals of the countries which have clearly outperformed both the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the dynamism and results of their transformation.
Back to the domestic doormat war. What has always amazed me is the ease with which a Czech thief finds his act excusable, even meritorious.
I like to call the most common excuse one hears in this regard the "worse guy theory." Let's take a practical example. In the early 1990s, a group of employees appropriated the Mlada Fronta daily, stripping its rightful owner, the Fund for Children and Youth, of the paper's revenues. It was an inexcusable and ignominious act, which in any civilized country would have earned the perpetrators several years in prison (and which still may have such consequences should the country have a government interested in prosecuting privatization crimes). Ondrej Neff, the current owner of the popular Internet daily Neviditelny pes and one of the thieves involved in the above incident, excused the theft in the following manner: "You know how things were back then. We did not steal the paper, we saved it from the SSM (the former Communist youth organization) guys who planned to privatize it for themselves."
Dear Westerner, you are living in a country of chains and padlocks. Use them whenever you can, but if something is taken from you, don't be frustrated: it was not stolen, just saved from another thief - one that would have been much, much worse...
Tomas Pecina, 28 July 1999
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