Grumpy Old People

April, 2001

Why is is that so many old people here are so, well, grumpy? The younger people aren’t like that. Maybe they aren’t exactly overflowing with personal warmth, but at least they don’t scowl all the time. Well, most of them don’t, anyway.

Today I parked my car on a very busy and dangerous street. Actually I didn’t park on the street-I pulled as far up on the sidewalk as I could, so that it would be safe for my son to get out. (Parking on the sidewalk is legal here, by the way.)

An old man-maybe 50-was walking down the sidewalk toward me. My car was a good 18 inches from the wall surrounding the nearby house and he wasn’t fat. But he felt the need to stand by the front of the car for a minute while I quite obviously helped my son out of the car, then walked through the gap while lambasting me. I don’t understand Czech that well, but I know that “vaši auto” means “your car! It’s probably better that I didn’t understand the rest.

Oh well, maybe he was just too drunk to negotiate the passage. Or maybe he was just pissed off that I actually had a car and he didn’t. One never knows in Prague.

It wasn’t an isolated incident, by any means. Just last weekend we went to a museum exhibit in Prague Castle. My five year old went behind one of the racks of cards in the gift shop to watch the changing of the guard. There was nothing blocking the way to the window, and he wasn’t doing anything destructive (for once). In fact, he was very much enjoying the changing of the guard as any five year boy would, and it was rather cute.

But the old woman in charge of telling people to shut the door after they came in-yes that is an actual profession here-caught sight of him and said something to the other, slightly younger, woman who is charge of looking annoyed whenever anyone asked how much the books cost. That, evidently higher-status, person went around the back of the bookshelf and started yelling-yes, yelling-at my son and husband to get away from the window. After she had routed the miscreants she grabbed a trash can and plunked it noisily down on the marble floor to block anyone else from committing such a grievous crime.

As we left, my husband was pretty irritated. But I wasn’t. I told him that I had just gotten used to old people being That Way here. We talked about how different that scene would have been in Central America.

First of all, there would have been a uniformed guard equipped with an Uzi standing at the door. Not that it would have been necessary to close it, since it was never cold enough to bother. And the Uzi wouldn’t have been to intimidate the museum visitors, it would be to ensure that the armed robbers knew who to shoot first when they ransacked the place. But would the guard have told my son to move? I doubt it. If, in fact, if there were some reason not to be standing at the window, he probably would have said something relatively polite in the way of “please move on,” but if we asked to stay according to the accepted deferential formula: “un momento, por favor, senor, mire mi hijo, ” and pouted in the prescribed way, he would have given the accepted grudging yes, and then possibly offered the kid a lollipop. Children open many doors in Central America.

So what is it about these old people anyway? What is their deal? I’ve narrowed it down to:

1.) Communism, but I’m not sure why. I mean, I knew they weren’t supposed to trust anyone in those days, but how does that extend to downright hostility? And aren’t they supposed to be happy that the Russkies are gone now?

2.) Envy. These folks are trained to build machines that no one wants any more so they are reduced to working as coat checkers, door-closers, and babičkas, the old ladies who make sure no one ever comes within two feet of anything at a museum. Perhaps they don’t like the fact that other people get to do other stuff and get to drive better cars.

3.) Bad teeth. I’ve heard that dental care here basically didn’t exist until about five years ago. A Czech friend told me that she had never had a cleaning until she came to the United States as an adult. Maybe the old fogies’ false teeth hurt.

4.) The weather. It’s enough to make any one dour, but shoot, you’d think they’d be used to it by now. The weather, I mean, not being dour.

Here’s where I have to say that there are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Sometimes little old ladies smile at me when I give them my shopping cart at the grocery store. Sometimes nice old men say something to my children and pat their heads. Sometimes coat checkers are downright gregarious.

I waited until now to write this up because I wanted to reserve judgement until I had observed a lot of old people in action. But I’ve been here several months, and by now I have to say-in general, old Czech people are really grumpy!

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