For those of you who aren’t huge dorks at heart, you probably think that calling someone a Hobbit is an insult. It’s not. Though were it, I would have neither the intention nor the skill to find six ways of calling someone short. For the sake of discussion, I’ll assume that every literate westerner has seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo, who was serious and weird, serves a poor example of his people and one would be better served thinking of Merry and Pippin in understanding the character of Hobbits. They may not be themost glamorous mythical race, but they did save Middle Earth.
The Hobbits are simple, country people who live long, happy lives in their small villages. The Czechs are a fully developed society that has created one of the world’s most beautiful cities, produced several of it’s most acclaimed writers and cherish a long history of academic excellence. How similar can they be to this diminutive, fictional people? It all starts in the village.
In Prague I teach English to an educated, worldly Czech community. The Czechs of international firms, operas and fine art. At a glance, these people and this city might lead one astray in understanding the national character. This would be a tremendous mistake. The heart of the Czech Republic, like the heart the Hobbits Shire, is in the village. The Shire is a nation of villages and the Hobbits are a breed of village people. Yet, in the heart of even the most cosmopolitan of Prague’s population lays the simple hearted soul of a villager. One might think I’m exaggerating except to know that most Prague’s million inhabitants maintain direct ties by owning in a village outside the city. Many citizens live a double life: urban elite by week, working a white collar job; country dilettante by weekend, planting herbs and distilling slivovice. In this way, they maintain their Hobbitish roots while still occupying the modern world (a rather sophisticated system).
Village life encourages a certain world view. Hobbits are fond of a simple life devoted to farming, food and friends. They scorn travel, adventure and surprises, opting for the comfort of home. While the younger generation of Czech’s, who’ve grown up in the blinding light of western style capitalism, have a stronger desire to see the world, most of the nation is still fond of a more simple, unadventurous life. While Czechs, unlike Hobbits, don’t ostrecize those who do live a more interesting life, most prefer to keep their vacations within the comforting reach of Czech food and people.
As well all know, Hobbits enjoy eating. While Tolkien was never to specific about what exactly they ate, one has the impression that they enjoyed the simple, rich cuisine that we eat here in the Republic. The savoury stews, heavy dumplings, fresh breads, creamy cheeses and delicous cured meats. In essence, the comfort food that makes Czech cuisine such a delight. As all Czechs are villagers at heart, so are they with food. While the most snobbish of New Yorks elite will turn their nose up at a burger from Five Guys (Brett, I miss 5 Guys), no Czech would ever snub Svíčková, a hearty dish of slow cooked rib-eye in a cream sauce. It’s served at every pub and is the most common dish at weddings.
There is one food, however, that is unique as both a favorite cuisine and distinct lifestyle of both people. Mushrooms! Both people cherish mushrooms as food – prizing various species for recipes from sauce to soup to schnitzel. While it’s not suprising that Hobbits, a simple farming people, would spend time foraging for fungi, it’s a shock to see how seriously an advanced society – with universal access to supermarkets – takes their mushroom hunting. One of my students described America as a paradise because our forests were open to him alone whereas the forests surrounding Prague become so crowded with urbanites during mushroom season that the chance of a good find is slim.
Pivo! It is a well known (and recently blogged) notion that the Czechs love beer and the pubs where it’s served. Unlike major American cities where the liquor is king and restaurants stand by favorite brands and signature cocktails; the Czechs have retained, even in their greatest city, a touch of the quaint village life. This preference for beer (and local wines) puts Czechs squarely in line with Hobbits. The distinction between a Hobbit love for ale and a Czechs predilection towards Pilsner seem hardly worth mentioning. Both prize the local pub as an important social institution, using it for occasions ranging from lunch with friends to wedding after parties. I imagine also, if a group of Hobbits wanted to learn English – they would lead the way to the nearest pub.
To be honest, accepting the Czech lifestyle (or my interpretation of it) has been bad for my health. Among the things they love best are simple, rich foods; beer, and tobacco. Yes, the Czech Republic ranks number one for beer consumption and number five for tobacco consumption in the world. Much like their Czech counterparts, the Hobbits have a weakness for “pipe weed” and are often fond of indulging in a smoke after (their many) meals. While many European nations have instituted comprehensive anti-smoking policies, the Czech Republic has been notoriously slow in prohibiting this right. Smoking is a ubiquitious aspect of life here that it is still allowed most bars, restaraunts and public spaces.
Now for the insulting bit. If the Czech lifestyle is hard on me, after six months, you can only imagine the toll it takes on the Czech after a lifetime. Much like the Hobbits, the sterotypical Czech man grows out as he grows older. Bare in mind, the worst obesity I’ve ever seen is in the states, but a lifetime of beer and Czech food will give one a jovial belly to match their jovial smile.