Back in Malaysia, Marie told me that “Everything is different” in Europe. How can everything be different? But after coming to Europe, I understood what she meant.
The weather is different
I am a tropical guy.The lowest temperature in my city was around 20C and it is usually 30C with 80% humidity during the day. It could only be too hot. What we called cold was a region where the temperatures ranged between 10C and 25C.
When I come to CZ in March, the temperatures were around 15C. I was freezing. Walking at night to my room on the first day, I couldn’t believe how cold it was. I was shivering and I couldn’t bear it. So I put on layers. I turned up to the office with a winter jacket, long sleeved shirt, thermal underwear and jeans only to see a colleague with a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. I'm more used to it now but I still wear a jacket indoors to be “more warm”. The most common question I get asked from my warm coworkers is “Bash, are you cold?”. The tables are turned during summer when I ask everyone else “Is it hot?”.
I had never through winter or seen snow before coming to CZ. I was curious about whether I could even survive it. One day at work in April, a hail storm started. My colleague Juli pointed to the window and said “Bash, look outside!” I was glued to that window until the storm ended as I saw snow for the first time.
Going skiing in the Austrian alps in December and to the north of Sweden in March, the temperatures were around -20C. It was the lowest temperatures I have ever faced and I lost my fear of winter. I am now looking forward to it instead. Snow is still exciting for me and not annoying like it is for most locals. If there is any snowfall, you will see me staring out of the window like an excited 5-year-old.
The food is different
All stereotypes have some truth to them and in SL, we love rice. For us lunch can only be rice and this condition remained true for every single lunch I have there. What keeps this interesting is the wide range of curries that we have. We also have several dishes that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I loved spicy food so I kept telling my mom to add more chilli and gobbled up the chilli paste wherever I found it.
For my first few weeks in CZ, I had no idea what any of the dishes were. The cuisine was completely different and the translations could only give me a vague idea. I eventually discovered that Czech cuisine tended to be very heavy and usually featured large portions of meat. This was served alongside potatoes that were either mashed or fried, “dumplings” made of wheat or potatoes or good old rice. I liked it but if the menu said something was spicy, it was lying. This is what drew me to the numerous chinese and vietnamese restaurants. There my colleagues would stare wide eyed as I poured spicy Sriracha sauce and consumed red peppers by the boxful. They then took on the challenge of testing my limits and kept bringing spicier and spicier food to me. Apart from the Korean noodles, I have vanquished them all.
The utensils are different
In SL we eat everything by hand, even rice. I think Sri Lankan food taste best when eaten by hand. But I was an exception. My dad fed me with a spoon and I started eating with a spoon too. My friends and family made fun of me for this. I eventually taught myself to eat by hand in public to avoid the comments. I still ate by spoon at home. The only time where it was normal to use utensils was at formal occasions and even then it was always the fork and the spoon.
Cut to the restaurant on my first day in CZ when they give me a fork and a knife. What am I supposed to do with this? Partly stabbing, partly slicing, I somehow consumed the steak. I have become much better since then through practice. I still have an eating pattern similar to the fork and spoon and keep the utensils in the opposite hands. I am waiting to see who will call me out on this.
The toilets are different
I grew up using a hand shower to clean my behind. It was the same in the countries I had visited in Asia. When visiting rural places, I had the mini nightmare of squatting at a latrine with a bucket. I was not used to that at all.
On my first day in CZ, I looked around the cubicle for a hand shower. There wasn’t any. There wasn’t even a tap in the cubicle. Instead there was a roll of toilet paper lying on the commode. I wasn’t prepared for this. I had never used this before.
The rule of the road is different
As a kid I always sat on the right side of the car behind my dad who was driving in the seat in front of me. I felt safe there and I kept this habit until I started driving myself.
When Patrick picked me up from the bus station, I was startled to see the steering wheel on the other side of the car. That short drive to the university was bewildering. My senses kept telling me that I should be on the other of the road. This felt wrong. Since then I have been given many rides across CZ. It is still weird to see a steering wheel on the side where I am used to seeing the dashboard or riding shotgun on the right without a steering wheel.
This might seem like a small change but it has a huge effect. When crossing a road, I kept looking at the wrong side of the road. When walking along a path, people kept to the right and escalators thare are going up are also on the right. I adapted to this so if I go back to SL, I am going to run into everything and everyone now.
The traffic is different
Driving in SL was an adventure. You had motorbikes, tuk-tuks and buses with no space for any of them. Traffic was a way of life, not the exception. You can never give an accurate estimate of your arrival time. If it was rush hour, you are going to be standing still for a while. Guaranteed.
When I was learning to drive, I decided that I wanted to follow the rules. I was nearly eaten alive by the honking afterwards. So I embraced the chaos and found bliss. That changed after my dad bought a large Land cruiser. It had huge blind spots all around and I couldn’t see the front either since I wasn’t tall. Every move was a calculated gamble. Driving in traffic, I was leaning against the steering wheel to see if a motorcyclist had snuck into the gap in the front. Driving on small roads was a continuous math problem of figuring out whether we could fit alongside the vehicle coming the other way. Sometimes I had to charge forward before the other driver came closer.
If you wanted to cross the road, you had to cross the road. If you stood at crossing, you will be waiting for a long time. You had to calculate the stopping distance of the closest vehicle and then make your move. A zebra crossing was purely optional. My dad had the ability to cross the road anywhere. I adopted a more careful but still aggressive approach.
I found none of this in CZ. Most roads were completely empty which made me wonder how they were funded in the first place. Traffic jams still happened but it was slowdowns instead of the complete gridlock that I was used to. As a rule they have their headlights on all the time, even during daytime which sounds completely wasteful to me. But the biggest difference was how calm most drivers were. They kept a large gap between the cars and a steady speed, sometimes not overtaking for hours to follow the lane markings. Moreover, if you were at the edge of a crossing, most drivers would come to a complete stop to let you cross.
The public transport is different
To catch a bus, I would go to the nearest bus stop and wait. There was no timetable so I wouldn’t know when the next bus will arrive. I had to ask the route number from my dad and that’s the only way I knew which bus to take. Traveling late at night was mostly impossible. When the bus finally arrived, I would get on and ride for 2.5 hours to travel the 25KM to my university. Most bus drivers played loud music on the bus and even if they didn’t, the sound of the bus is loud enough to keep you awake. The buses would sometimes even stop for random passengers at the side of the road even if they weren’t at a stop.
What irritated me the most were the long stops that the buses took at major bus stops to collect passengers. These stops could take up to half an hour. I like to think that the conductors were delusional since they saw an empty bus instead of the three rows of people standing with some of them hanging outside too. A lot of these problems arose from the fact that most buses were privately owned. They were competing against each other to collect passengers and make a profit.
Overall the experience was neither comfortable or convenient so many opted to use their own vehicles. We had a train system from the victorian ages and it struggled to cope with the large amounts of passengers. It was extremely slow, especially when going to the mountainous central regions. It took around 9 hours to travel 200KM. I started joking that we have long transport times to make us feel like we have a large country.
Coming to the small city of České Budějovice, I was amazed by how well the public transport system worked. Each stop was clearly marked with the name and the numbers of all the buses that stopped there. There were timetables that showed exactly when a bus would arrive and to what other stops it would go to. You could buy a transport pass which allowed you to travel an unlimited amount within a given period. No more hunting for bus conductors with spare change. The system’s punctuality was a wonder to me. The buses would arrive at the exact minute they are supposed to. Busses being late were an exception not the norm.
In Prague the system was vast. With metros, trams and buses, you can get within walking distance to any point in the city. Using Google maps or the Prague transport app, you can find the exact route you need to take. That meant you knew which connections you had to take and how long it would take. Now I am late because I am careless not because I had no choice. Travelling longer distances was much better too due to the power and Wi-Fi onboard the trains and buses. That combined with the silence and increased comfort meant that you can actually do something productive instead of vainly tossing your head back and forth to get some rest against the heat and noise.
The technology is different
In SL my home internet connection was 16Mbps down and 2Mbps up with a 50GB monthly limit. This was split 35 for peak hours and 15 for off peak hours (0:00 - 6:00). You had to always keep an eye on the limit or else your speed would slow down to an unusable crawl.
Here I have 100Mbps down and 10Mbps up with unlimited capacity. My friends back home were shocked when I mentioned this. People here are surprised when I tell them that home connections have limits in SL. With no restrictions, some people use youtube autoplay as their only music player which is something you cannot afford to do in SL. Moreover with free WiFi everywhere, I just leave my phone in airplane mode. Many online streaming services that are unavailable in SL (e.g.: Spotify) are available here.
I am constantly surprised by the spread of technology. There is a digital system everywhere. Most railways stations have digital displays showing the schedule. All buses and trams have displays and announcements about the next stop and the whole route. Even a small restaurant in the middle of a forest has free WiFi. This doesn’t mean that everyone is tech savvy though. One of my favourite past times has been watching people trying all sorts of ways to scan their receipt to get out of the automated barrier of the restaurant (Delmart, Národní třída)
In SL, most people use English in their phones and computers. We didn’t have support for Sinhala or Tamil in our devices until only a few years ago due to the different alphabets. Most of us still continue to use English out of habit. Here people use Czech on all their devices. They had language support from the very beginning so they are used to it. For the first time, I understood what using a computer must be like for my parents. I am familiar with Windows to the point of remember the exact wording of the options but now I’m completely clueless.