Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Olomouc, 1.7.03: Czech T.V., Nuns, and Custody of the Eyes

T.v. in the room gets Czech, German, French, Italian, and English stations. Fascinating to watch. We saw “Friends” and “Will and Grace” in German last night. Jack’s a screaming nellie, saying things like “dahlink,” which must mean this word’s now used in German. Flip to another German channel, and it’s a soap—very derivative of American soaps—with a gay man trying to help another (who runs a fruit stand! They polish the fruit lovingly) to come out. One gay patiently explains to stolid but sympathetic straights that there’s a ritual called “coming out” (again, the phrase is in English) for schwule Männer. He asks the other if he wants to go to cruisen.



Today, early morning, German commercials for earnestly healthy products—orange juice, vanilla pudding—all sex-saturated. The juxtaposition is ludicrous to American eyes. Candy bars are marketed for their health value for children—pictures of milk, and in one case, puffed wheat. We’re shown the ears of wheat in a field full of sunlight. No mention of the fact that, by putting puffed wheat inside the chocolate, we essentially sell air, not chocolate or health.

In the German and English programs and commercials, fawning adulation of things American—the form, the style, the content—but they don’t get it quite right. The English broadcasters want to retain that edge of superiority, even as they adopt the brash one-two punch of American announcers, mousse their hair, and flash vapid, toothy smiles.
And the Germans are typically earnest and plodding. They’ve got the reality t.v. thing down to a t, with hunky men competing for sexy gals, and they go over the top with quiz shows: questions to which there are seven answers from among which one must choose the right one! The Germans never do anything by halves . . . .

Thinking of all this, and of two very apelike German young men we keep seeing hulk around the hotel, I wonder why we Americans have long felt (or been made to feel) the step-children of Europe (I’m speaking for those of us with roots in Europe, of course). Does merely being born and bred in Europe assure a vested interest in its cultural heritage?

In my experience, no. Europeans are quite capable of being insensitive boors all on their own, with no assistance from Americans. And we—Twain got it right, Henry James didn’t—have as much reason to claim this heritage as those growing up amidst the ruins. Simply growing up in physical proximity to ruins does not a cultivated person make.

One senses this very much in Oloumouc. The grand heyday of Empire is gone and will never return. The shell is there, but inhabited by people brutalized by years of war and totalitarianism. So much has also been lost culturally by the annihilation and forced removal of the Jews, the expulsion of the Germans.

The culture’s now monochromatic and, after the communist era, working-class. God knows the aristocracy and bourgeoisie had their terribly dark sides, but here—in a region formerly known for its fine bakers—it’s almost impossible to buy bread that’s not full of synthetic dough-stretchers, and the kolaches are ludicrous, dry Teig filled with tiny hard bits of chopped apricot.

Other t.v. idiosyncrasies: one French station shows French movies (en francais, bien entendu), but the subtitles, also in French (and why have them?) don’t always match what the actors are saying. Why not?

The other French station plays endless scenes of Iraqi women mourning their dead, with anti-American commentary. Have to give it to the French: they don’t adulate Americans as the Germans and English seem to do, despite the protests of both groups to the contrary. And the Italians simply act (t.v.-wise) as if no one else exists.

Whereas the Germans: not one but two of their channels in mid-afternoon had one of those t.v. courtroom shows with judges in black robes. But, of course, the Germans do it thoroughly: in one bit I watched, where a teen-aged son had assaulted his father, they had a child psychologist wrap up, followed by a legal expert who analyzed the case in typical German dialectic (thorough!) fashion.

And how guilty the boy managed to look with his hang-dog expression. What is it in the human psyche that makes us willing to go on t.v. and submit to legal “authorities” who aren’t even bona fide authorities? The Germans are sitting ducks for such t.v. How they love to be guilty (and, in maddening dialectic fashion, righteous at the same time).

Rain now, welcome rain with a drop in temperatures after several very hot days. We were caught in it as we walked to the Dolmi Namesti in the late afternoon, peeked into the Capuchin church, where people were praying the Rosary. People included Franciscan nuns in habits, the youngest of whom saw us and promptly averted their eyes, as did a nun all in white, also young, who passed us in the street. Nice to think I’m such an irresistible object of desire.

We ended up in an Internet café, way back in a building and up medieval stone stairs, close and hot as the storm broke, with people who hadn’t bathed in days and had eaten garlicky lunches. Then the storm ended our connection precipitously . . . .

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