Nationalistic Schadenfreude


I was on the metro once when a German tourist realized he’d had his wallet lifted at the airport and shouted “Sheize!” before storming off the car. Every single person on that car cracked a smile. To this day it is the only time I have ever seen a group of Czechs smile on public transport.

The Czechs love a bit of Schadenfreude – deriving pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. And while I have certainly undertaken aspects of my adoptive country’s cultural habits, like enjoying apocalyptic silence on trams or embracing socks and sandals, this one came as a shock.

I have always prided myself on two things: First, I don’t wish bad things on people, and second, my unusually soft thumb hair. As for the former, I usually wish the best for people and genuinely want them to be happy and healthy. But I have come to understand that I sometimes enjoy seeing people sweat, and my motivations are nationalistic.

For example, there are few things more satisfying than seeing British people become socially uncomfortable. The British are very open about their social awkwardness, but witnessing the push of this particular envelope induces a mildly orgasmic reaction.

A couple of years ago, a British colleague walked into the office only to be confronted with the horror of a surprise birthday party. The agony of discomfort that overtook him as it dawned on him that the party was something like a horrible beauty. I thought he might throw himself out of the window. When they handed him a cake and a handsomely-wrapped present, he almost cried. I wished I’d had a beach chair and a tub of popcorn.

Nearly as satisfying is watching an American food order go wrong. Americans love nothing more than ordering a meal and modifying it until it no longer resembles the meal from which it originated. Anyone who has ever taken any part in a meal near any American knows exactly what I am talking about. Can I get the burger but with chicken instead of beef, with half sweet potato fries and half russets, with kosher sea salt on the russets only? Instead of barbecue sauce, can you do a frog demi-glace with sautéed mushrooms in eggplant oil, and instead of lettuce can I get onions fried in baby-tofu seal fat? Thaaaaanks!

This kind of nonsense is not tolerated in a Czech restaurant and the most I might do is ask that the mushrooms are omitted from a pizza or that spinach can replace sauerkraut. When they do it, there is a clear understanding that should they need a kidney in the future, I will be called upon.

American visitors, altering the When in Rome… rule to When in Rome, act as if Rome was a city in Ohio…, order as they do in America. One such case involved an American who wanted svíčková, sirloin with a cream sauce, with no sauce. In utter confusion, the waiter turned to our table for assistance in explaining to the man that he was ordering a meal known for its sauce to be served with no sauce. This is the equivalent of ordering a hamburger with no meat. We explained, but he wouldn’t relent. Ten minutes later he was served a few dry squares of sirloin and four bread dumplings. Thus the man experienced the American Nightmare – he had gotten exactly what he wanted, but it was awful; moreover, he didn’t have the language skills to complain. Every waiter on Earth who’d ever had to deal with an annoying American modification enjoyed a simultaneous, yet inexplicable, rush of endorphins.

Coming in at a close third is witnessing Czech service people have to deal with large bills (as in notes). Czech waiters, cab drivers, and convenience store employees have an inherent horror of large bills. As though to part with one’s change is to face the devil in a banjo contest. Sometimes when purchasing a pack of gum or a bottle of water, I’ll go out of my way to give the worker a 2000Kc note. And then I watch the stress envelop them as they look through their wallet and view the cold void of silent emptiness.

On the list as honorable mentions are the reactions of Australian people when they realize they aren’t the most well-traveled person in the room, the look a German person gives when he makes a math mistake, the reaction of a Canadian when he is mistaken for an American, the reaction of a Slovak when he is mistaken for a Czech, the suffering of a French person when someone who isn’t French speaks flawless French, or when an Italian is scolded for being late.

I know I’m a bastard. But if this post has made you angry, don’t tell me – your pain will make me smile.

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