On warm days, Hana opened the windows of our classroom, letting in the damp stone smell of the courtyard, where below I could see women taking a break from their work at the dry cleaner’s on the ground floor.
Hana told us a story of her own experience of culture shock in the US.
One night in New York, Hana Ullmanova dressed up to go to the Opera.
First, it was hard to picture her dressed up:
At the same time, it had the quality of an animal flip book with frog feet and a chicken head, so I liked the incongruous aspect. Dressed to the nines, she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera house on a rainy night. She checked her raincoat at the coat check and slipped into the audience in anticipation.
To either side of her were two people still clad in dripping raincoats. This would never be allowed at the Czech National Opera, where formal dress is expected and all coats are left outside. Hana sat miserably sandwiched between the soaking spectators, and endured her way through the first act.
During intermission, she went in search of champagne. When the bartender handed her a plastic cup of champagne as if passing out Dixie cups of juice at recess, Hana almost refused. Plastic cups for champagne? This would never happen in Prague. In the US, wingnuts using wine glasses as weapons ruined it for the rest of us. Now, for security reasons, there is no longer glass. Yet no one blinks an eye because of the informal atmosphere overall.
We export our relaxed attitude overseas, too. Tourists sometimes turn up at the Czech National Opera in jeans and baseball caps.
At the Met, Hana found herself in the reverse situation. With dripping raincoats, jeans, and plastic cups around her, she stuck out in her formal dress. As someone who was used to standing out—an “elephant” in her hometown—she must have handled the scene with grace. Still, she was not prepared for these strange customs of the US Opera.
Again, Hana was an elephant, even miles away from her hometown.