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Culture shock

Posted by timboudreau on January 9, 2005 at 2:05 AM PST

A lot of folks know me as Mr. NetBeans - in 1999, I'd been working as a contractor for a bunch of years, had backpacked through Prague and liked it, and found a job ad on monster.com from a tiny little company in the Czech Republic called NetBeans. I'd done some tools work before, had been doing a ton of GUI component development in Delphi, and was looking to do something different. I thought to myself, "I'm never going to hear from these guys," but I sent a resume for the heck of it. Life being stranger than fiction, they hired me. And I found myself working with a fantastic bunch of people with a great product, in a beautiful city. I'd studied Russian in Monterey in college (which I thought would help, and it did, but speaking Russian to people in Prague does not make you popular, as I quickly found out), which helped in learning Czech.

So in November I moved to California - back in the U.S. after years away. And I'm working in marketing now (no, I haven't given up programming! But NetBeans has desparately needed a real marketing team for years and now we actually have one!).

When you live away from your native land, you get used to things where you are - but it happens so slowly you don't notice it. So coming back is interesting - first, things have changed while you away, and second, you have changed while you were away - your definition of normal has subtlely shifted. Sometimes it's amusing, sometimes it's disturbing. Here's what's weird:

  • I talk on elevators - Americans have a sort of taboo about talking to strangers on elevators - it's like we're all trapped in this small space, and slightly afraid of each other or something. NetBeans original office in Prague was in an airplane parts factory. Every morning I'd ride the elevator with a bunch of guys going to other offices. And I would get off the elevator on our floor, and there would be a chorus of "Na schledanou" (good bye) from the folks still on the elevator. I didn't know what to make of it, and I asked my ex-girlfriend about it. She said "Well, Tim, they're pointing out that you were rude and didn't say 'Dobrý den' [good day] when you got on!" Light dawns on marble head... Now breaking the habit is the challenge, so I don't weird out people on american elevators!
  • So, how is everything? - The inevitable question when you've just taken a particularly large mouthful of food in a restaurant (is the timing part of the training?). My idea of service in a restaurant is if it takes less than half an hour to get the check, and if I actually get what I ordered (waitress brings soda water. Tim: "But I ordered a cola!" Waitress: "But I brought you soda water" [walks away]). The "So how is everything?" question just induces panic, and grunting affirmitively while chewing apparently isn't an effective response. Seriously, though: I went to the same pub on my corner for lunch 3 times a week for two years, when I was working on NetBeans book. One day, after about a year and a half, the old woman who ran the place asked me "Jak se mas?" (How are you?). That was an incredibly touching moment - I was accepted as a local - and in Czech culture, if you are asking that, you actually want to know the answer.
  • The explosion of cards in my wallet - In Prague, I needed my drivers license, my metro pass my health card and bank card with me. My wallet is already exploding with Costco, Albertsons, Safeway, Hollywood Video, dental, medical, optical etc. cards. I need a new wallet to fit it all.
  • Health care is not simple - I lived in a country with a system of socialized medicine, and excellent health care for five years. Choose your own doctor? Sure - there's only one plan, and every doctor's on it. Go to the doctor? Show them the card, done. Need medication? Show them the card, done. High taxes? Yeah. And you get what you pay for. Best public transportation in the world - believe me, I saved in not needing a car everything I paid in taxes and then some. I spent 2.5 hours in an "orientation" at Sun U.S. where 50 of us discussed all our myriad health care options, all of which, well, suck in one way or another. Let's just contemplate the cost to the economy of Sun (and every other company in this country) having to pay 50 people for two and a half hours to sit in a room and do Q&A or which way we want to get screwed. It doesn't have to be like this - I've lived the alternative, and while it's not perfect there either, it's a serious improvement. This mess is just silly.
  • We have a primitive banking system - if I never see another paper cheque in my life it won't be too soon
  • September 11 changed a lot of things - I'd flown back to Prague the day before. My coworker Mike came by my office and said "The U.S. is under terrorist attack." I asked him what he'd been smoking. Some other people ran down the hall. We made a coat-hanger antenna in the conference room TV and saw the second tower fall. It was late afternoon. You really wouldn't believe the outpouring of sympathy - I met up with some fellow Americans in Prague later. The Czech bartender was crying. Nobody could believe it. Everybody took it personally, not just Americans. The hardest thing was that you simply couldn't get through on the phone, not that day. Coming home, I find people have a different attitude to the rest of the world than when I left in 1999. More aware, which is good, but more scared, which I wish weren't the case.

Now, it's not all complaints - there are things which I've really missed:

  • Good ethnic food - I was on a five year quest for a good burrito in Prague; typically there's an attitude that you pretty much wrap some random stuff in a tortilla and your done. Probably the most stunning example was the brussel sprout burrito.
  • Dishwashers - oh, the luxury, oh the arguments that don't have to happen. I'm lovin' it!
  • Clothes dryers - for the first time in five years, I do not have laundry hung to dry on a line suspended above my kitchen table! It's decadent!

So, it's good to be back, and it's weird to be back, and it'll be nice to be in one place long enough to feel like I live there (that won't happen until at least next month - in the next blog I'll talk about my upcoming NetBeans road-show - driving the long route from Massachusetts to California and demoing NetBeans everywhere I can between here and there!).

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