Harvest Of Hostility (or Potatoes Of Wrath, aka Malignant Tubers)

This is the only photo I was able to take before all hell broke loose. Sadly, it doesn't do the scene justice.

It's been a few days now, and we're still shaking our heads about it. They threw what at us? They yelled what at us?

It's unbelievable, and disappointing, but sadly, in the Czech Republic, not all that surprising.

Stewart and I were out for a ride on a cool, crisp, breezy, but sunny Saturday. A perfect day for a bike ride. The smell of fall in the air -- wood smoke and rotting apples.

We met at The Smallest Pub In The World in Úholičky, kinda halfway between my home in Černý Vůl and his house in Roztoky. (It was closed, but I did notice that they sell half-liters of Gambrinus for 18 CZK (about $1.06), one of the lowest I've seen this season.)

From there, we headed up the hill to Tursko, and then followed some familiar country roads in the direction of Holubice.

Some of the beautiful trails and landscape near the villages of Hole and Okor (above and below).

We're always keeping an eye out for a trail we haven't taken before, and on the way to Holubice we passed a dirt road or tractor tracks heading into some farmer's fields. We took it.

And after a kilometer or so we came across a pastoral scene -- a group of five or six men and women all bent over in a field, harvesting potatoes. They were digging in the earth, and we could hear the dirty potatoes falling into the buckets with dull thuds. At least one of the women -- a woman of some years -- was wearing a country dress and had a colorful kerchief tied evocatively around her head.

It was a painting come to life. Indeed, many famous artists have chosen to immortalize the acts of picking or harvesting or gathering -- olive pickers, cotton pickers, potato pickers, apple pickers, hop pickers, berry pickers.

"Potato Pickers," by the French artist Maurice de Vlaminck (oil on canvas, 1905-7).

We stopped our bikes and admired the scene and remarked at how it truly was a painting come to life. We took a few photographs.

That's when one of the men who was harvesting the potatoes started yelling at us. We couldn't quite make out what he said, though. Just that he was mad. And get this. He whipped a couple of potatoes at us as he yelled, trying to hit us.

What the *$#@&???!!!

Then the old woman in the kerchief starting yelling at us, too. Our Czech isn't great, but we could make out the words "work" and "potatoes" and "foreigners."

For reasons that still baffle me, these folks were really pissed off. Was it because we had stopped to admire their work and take a few pictures? Did they resent us because we weren't helping? Because we were speaking a foreign language? Because we didn't ask permission before we took a few photos?

I'm sorry, but I simply can't comprehend such an incident happening in any other country.

Imagine: You're touring the wine country of Tuscany and you stop to take a few photos of the grape harvest, when all of a sudden the Italians start chucking bunches of grapes at you and yelling for you to get the hell out.

Imagine: You're touring the wild west coast of Ireland and you stop to watch men slicing peat from the black earth. You take a few photographs, only to discover the men lobbing wet hunks of peat in your direction and yelling at you to get lost.

I saw a post on a forum on expats.cz the other day that was titled: Do Czechs Hate Foreigners?
It saddens me to say it, but I easily understand where such questions come from. All of us who've lived here have our stories. And yes, I know many, many wonderful Czechs (and I even met one later on in this same ride).

But it seems to me that the true test of the personality of a people is not how they treat friends, but how they treat strangers. In this regard, the Czechs fail miserably most, but not all, of the time.

How did Stewart and I react?

Firstly, we were pretty stunned to have someone throwing stuff at us.

Our second reaction was to basically say to them, "What's your problem? What did we do?"

When then didn't work, we just started smiling broadly and waving at them and wishing them a "hesky den," or a good day, and saying "nashledanou" (goodbye) in bright, cheerful voices.

What else could we do?

We rode off, not sure whether to be pissed off or amused. I guess we were a little of both.

From there, we headed toward the village of Hole, and from there through some lovely fields and forests, until we ended up somewhere behind the village of Okoř.

We sat outside in the sun and downed a couple of cold beers at the Family Hotel Okoř, our usual watering hole.

Then it was back home for both of us.

On the way home, I passed a woman selling apples at a roadside stand. More importantly, she was also selling apple cider. At first, I thought it was burcak, the young, sweet, partially fermented wine that's also in season at the moment.

I love apple cider, having grown up in the northeast United States, and I have never really seen it in the Czech Republic. I really miss it and was very excited to see it for sale.

The woman was extremely friendly (wiping out the bad thoughts in my brain from The Potato Incident) and sold me two 1.5-liter bottles for 30 CZK each.

It was absolutely delicious. I gotta go back for more.

Length of ride: 31 kilometers
Average speed: 13.8 kph
Maximum speed: 42.4 kph
Pivo Index: 2
Time on the bike: 2.10.30
Distance ridden so far in 2008: 1,208 kilometers

This woman selling apples and cider by the road almost wiped out my memories of the Potato People.

I almost ran over this gigantic caterpillar on the road, like an orange speed bump. I picked it up and put him in the grass. Anyone know what kind of a caterpillar this is?

I think this window was in the vowel-deficient village of Svrkyne.

I liked the geometry in this scene in Úholičky.

This dog was barking at us from on high.


James Gogarty said…
Grant, thanks for the posts.

Sorry for the aggressive Czechs. Perhaps it was private property. Still, that is no excuse to behave belligerently. Honestly, if I was there I would have started throwing the potatoes back at them just add some excitement to the day. I am sure I am a better shot than babi.

I can't say this is a Czech only phenomenon. When I was around 12, my mother and I visited with my grandfather for the summer, who was living in Cyprus. While taking a tour of the coastline we noticed a beautiful little Greek Orthodox Church next to the side of the road. We stopped to take a few pictures. Next thing I knew I was being slapped on the back by a broom. I turned around to see a tiny old lady in full peasant garb yelling and swinging a broom chaotically. From the other side of our car came a man, I assume her husband, yelling aggressively in Greek. My grandfather tried to ask them what the problem was in his broken Greek and from what he could ascertain, was that they simply didn't like foreigners taking pictures of "their" church.

Now, there is no law in Cyprus stating you can not take pictures of the many churches around the island, only that you respect the building and all. We did respect the building, and were doing nothing wrong. During the previous days we had taken plenty snaps of other country churches without problem. We just happened to come across two ornery individuals. Perhaps, something happened in the recent past, some tourist entering the church unwanted, and they were just being extra precautions. I don't know, we will never know. I would like to believe they had a more legitimate reason than simply hating foreigners, but maybe that was it.

I must also say a similar incident happened to my friend and I when, at 16, we took a bike trip from our family cabin in the Adirondacks, upstate New York. After riding a couple hours along a country road we turned off down a dirt one, or so we thought. The “road” zigzagged through the forest ending up in front some isolated cabin from which came a running a crazy ol’ coot, shotgun in hand, threatening to shoot us if we didn’t get off his land. Well, as you can imagine, we didn’t wait around to discuss matters.

I know the Czechs can be cold at times, even frigid, but I truly believe your incident was due more to a country bumpkin mentality than a Czech one. Oh, and at least Czech’s don’t typically brandish shotguns…

Anyway, Grant / Stewart I am back from my holiday in the Pacific Northwest and need to get back on the bike for both peace of mind and to burn the weight I put on.

-James z Roztok
Anonymous said…
Wow, really unbelievable! Keep up the riding and writing anyway. -Dale
Anonymous said…
That was great! My husband and I occaisionally read your blog and can relate to most. We're bikers from Texas living in Prague (but are unemployed and without bikes at the moment!) You write very well and it's enjoyable to read. You nailed it when you said Czechs are wonderful friends, but they do fail miserably when it comes to strangers. We continually feel like outcasts and have grown a fondness and sympathy for all of the non-English speaking hispancs in Texas... however, we do possess visas. We have yet to have potatoes thrown at us, but have had a plethora of nasty Czech verbage thrown our way to which we usually just smile, wave, and walk away - or beat 'em back with English and watch them cower and tuck their tails between their legs - all in good fun. Ciao! -K&P
radiodog said…
I think you'll find many cultures the world over (including the USA) that find it insulting to have their pictures taken by insensitive tourists whilst they toil at work.
Anonymous said…
While maybe their reaction was over the top, imagine you're in your office at work, tapping away at your keyboard, when some strangers start staring through the window watching you, making comments about what you are doing in a language you don't understand, and then start taking pictures.
Would you maybe feel a little uncomfortable? Ask them to go away?
Just because it's outside doesn't make it any more acceptable or less intrusive than if it's in an office somewhere...
Anonymous said…
Imagine - you're with your family in your back yard in the States. Not in the middle of the city, but at a weekend getaway, or some place where you live because you like peace and quiet. You're working, maybe hot, maybe tired, maybe hung-over, maybe just had an argument, mowing the lawn or raking leaves, painting furniture, cleaning the garage, and so on. Suddenly (let's use the stereo-typical Japanese) two obvious foreigners appear and start taking your pictures.

Guess you'd offer them some lemonade, huh?

Does this make you xenophobic? No! In MANY countries, it's expected (not to mention respectful) to ask permission before taking pictures. Who likes being photographed by a total stranger, anyway?

The American hospitality towards strangers, especially visible minorities, is well-known, and not only in the South.

Let's look into our own backyards as we try to clean them in peace.

(thanks for the tip on the cheap beer!)
Nathan said…
I too have encountered what felt like pretty aggressive anti-foreigner sentiment in the Czech Republic and as a foreigner I have a very real interest in doing something about it. However, I fail to see the justification or utility in attributing those individual events in your post to some national characteristic about how Czech’s treat strangers. Despite the esteem many seem to have for notions of nationalism and the existence of 'a national character' the fact remains that individuals always make their own decisions about how they act.

I agree that as a foreigner it may feel as if one is having an encounter with 'Czech culture'. However, it is really quite important to understand that unless one is dealing some representative of the state, any interaction is simply between individual people and not the culture as a whole. People are people despite their nationality and some will behave like assholes and morons.

Please understand that I'm not saying foreigners have no right to complain about Czech culture. It may be an important coping strategy in some situations. However, when it comes to actually combating anti-foreigner sentiment I hope that you understand it is not in your own best interests to contribute to an 'us' -vs- 'them' mentality. The only real way to deal with what appears to be a national characteristic is to deal with people and their actions 'in the potato fields'.

Now, I can't say that returning fire would have been the best course of action but at least it would have been dealing with the problem. I honestly think a confrontation there would have been better then riding away smiling broadly and waving at them and wishing them a "hesky den," only to let the feelings you experienced feed into the 'us' vs 'them' paradigm by publishing prejudiced statements on a blog largely read by foreigners. It also would have made for an even more interesting post.

How does one effect positive change during conflicts in the potato fields of our lives? Honestly, I have no idea if it is even possible but I'm guessing improving one's communication skills would probably help. Believe me, I know how impossible that can be but it really is the only logical choice.

Thanks for the post Grant. It brought up some important issues and I hope you keep my comments in mind on future rides and posts. Keep up the good work.
Grant Podelco said…
First of all, I just want to say thank you to everyone who has written a comment here, and to those who may still do so. I knew my post might elicit some reaction, but I didn't figure on so many thoughtful responses.

I agree that it probably would have been a good idea to ask permission before we started taking photographs. (Of course, I predict that they would have responded rudely if we had even done that, but I guess that's beside the point.) However, I don't think our lack of asking was justification for throwing things at us. Perhaps a little talking to, sure, but not such aggression. (Reminds me of Czechs when they get behind the wheel of a car.)

I can honestly say if I was toiling in a field and a friendly tourist stopped to take my picture, my first reaction wouldn't be to throw something at them. (It's ironic that I work in an office where people do stop to take pictures of me while I work.)

I am a guest in this country, and as Samuel Johnson said, guests are like fish -- both start to stink after three days. Maybe I'm starting to smell.

As for whether my unfortunate experiences with potato-throwing farmers or rude waiters or disinterested customer service reps or idiotic, aggressive drivers is somehow representative of the Czech nation, I have to disagree with Nathan. I'm not alone in believing that the Czechs are generally a sour lot, with many wonderful exceptions, fortunately.

Next time, I will ask permission before I take a photo. I've learned my lesson. And I hope I can develop a bit more insight into what makes the Czechs tick. I think I know them pretty well, but that may just be my own arrogance talking.
Yesterday I was struggling (really struggling) with my bike up the side of Jested, and at one point there were a couple of guys who were laughing and obviously talking about me and how much trouble I was having. I didn't haave enough energy to react, but if they’d pulled out a camera to photograph me and I’d had a sack of potatoes handy, I may well have let a couple fly...

Without excusing any unprovoked attack involving flying potatoes, it's easy easy understand it happening. There’s a part of Czech society that has felt (rightly or wrongly) inferior to the West for decades, and it’s not helped by the condescending attitude of some foreigners, who think that as soon as they cross the border from the west their car will be stolen and they’ll be somehow plunged back into the 1950’s.

It’s not hard to understand how people working in the field could have incorrectly assumed you were thinking of them as primitive peasants and taken offence.

Still, if it ever happens again, I'd be keen to read about you and Stewart entrenching yourselves behind a hedgerow and returning fire from a bag of apples you’ve prepared for the occasion...;-)
Grant Podelco said…
Hello, Captain,

Those are good points all. I will concede that they probably misconstrued our intentions and assumed we were thinking of them as primitive peasants.

So that may at least partially excuse this particular behavior. But how to explain rude and sour waiters and bus drivers and sales clerks and ticket sellers and taxi drivers, etc., as well as the country's idiotic drivers (the worst I've ever seen)?

There are rude waiters, etc., everywhere in the world, of course, but I think they must all come here for training.
You may well have hit the nail on the head there. The cafe I go to most often hires uni-students and they're great.

Career waiters who've been to hotel school, on the other hand, would have to be the haughtiest bunch of dipsticks in the country...
wissy said…
Hi Grant.

Are you certain they were Czech? They may have been illegals or just working for cash.It might explain their reaction. Maybe they thought you were snooping. Just a thought.
Grant Podelco said…
No, I'm pretty certain they were Czech. I guess we should have just asked permission. Not that that would have prevented them from yelling at us anyway, but maybe they wouldn't have thrown things. Still can't get over the Czech drivers, though. Idiots. Many of them, anyway.
Anonymous said…
hi, looking at the pictures you took makes me want to go biking again. thank you for sharing the countryside with us :) my friend took some pictures of an old woman here in singapore and the woman got a big rock and was about to throw it at us. hehehehe i guess some people just like to be left alone.
Anonymous said…
and how many years have you been there, and you couldn't even ask them why nor converse? You are truly an expats.cz member...aka clueless.
Grant Podelco said…
Dear Anonymous,

I was just waiting for a critique like this. You're absolutely right. My Czech should be better after all these years, it's true. But we did ask why, which is when we heard the cracks about "foreigners this" and foreigners that." But the Czech was too fast for my skill level. However, they started throwing shit at us *before* they knew whether we spoke Czech or not and then didn't want to speak with us, only yell. Call me clueless, but I'm not stupid.
Anonymous said…
Stupid is as stupid does...

Put the beer down, it does not mix with health, biking. Acclimate or go home, stop looking at the stupid site expats. It gets everyone that does, no where fast.
Anonymous said…
wissy has a point: the potato people were most likely illegal workers.
and yes, it is rude to photograph people without asking their permission.
best regards, keep biking, and check out hajek pub and monastery!
peter from budapest
E said…
Coming at this pretty late I guess, but:

"Put the beer down, it does not mix with health, biking. Acclimate or go home"

Quite a contradiction. Everywhere I've been riding, the trail ends with a small pub and lots of Czech riders enjoying a beer. I've quite happily acclimated to this, looks like Grant has as well.

I've been here a year and a half, and have had no shocking experiences. The service is on a different level compared to North America, but that's just how it is, there's less fake friendliness when people aren't working for tips. If you feel insulted by a server who doesn't greet you with a smile, you'll have a rough time.

Airborne potatoes is another matter, but I think you've already worked that one out. If I had to work in the service industry in Prague I'd be pretty sick of tourists and foreigners too. I usually don't enjoy spending much time in downtown core, it's a mess.

I feel like I understand this attitude to some degree, so its never surprising and it doesn't bother me much. And poor service is quite different from rude service.
Grant Podelco said…
Good points all, E. Thanks for writing, and reading the blog!

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