Beneath the surface of most, though, there's a devious, dark and not a little anarchic sense of humour, which sometimes suggests the former apparent traits are all a front. They're usually up to something.
Regardless of further analysis of the stereotypical make-up of their populous, I can't think of a better country for the upcoming 6 month EU presidency slot. (Which is fortunate, because nobody asked me and it's already been decided.)
As a result, The Czech Republic is making headlines in the news today, but not the good kind like you'd want. Having given artist David Černý a bunch of dosh to come up with some suitably unifying artwork, (along with artists from all the other (26?) EU states*), he's come back with an hilarious comment on European national stereotypes that he has now admitted to having knocked up with a couple of mates in his garage. He invented the names of the other 26 artists.
The art piece, 'Entropa', is on display in Burssels till June. It takes the form of a giant plastic modelling kit with each nation depicted as a snap-out model bedecked with its own cultural hang-ups. Those mentioned and visible in the articles and pictures available thus far include: Italy as a football pitch scattered with men holding footballs very close to their groins; The Netherlands as a plethora of mosques, all engulfed beneath the water; France as a hollow country permanently on strike; Poland (pictured) as a bunch of monks erecting a gay flag, Bulgaria as a complex network of toilets; Germany as a suspicious arrangement of autobahns; Romania as a vampire theme park; Luxembourg as a lump of gold for sale. The UK, fittingly, is nowhere to be seen, though there does appear to be a vacant area in the top left corner.
When I lived in Prague I took little note of the names of artists, but often noticed this kind of playful yet intelligent streak running through Czech art. During the height of Anti-Americanism in the Bush era (remember that?) there was a wonderful model of Superman in Wenceslas Square: about 18 feet high, soaring as fast as a bullet straight into the earth, his face buried beneath the concrete.
I didn't learn the name of that artist but David Černý is as close to a household name over there as artists ever are: his huge brass babies are crawling up and down the Žižkov Television Tower, one of the city's most prominent landmarks.
For what it's worth I think the piece ('Entropa') is wonderful, and all the better for the fact he didn't even bother to amass the collection of artists from around the continent, as (allegedly) promised to the Czech government. As I mentioned above, the Czechs are a good choice for EU presidency: they are central, they are secular, they are neutral (on the whole) and they are the closest thing we really have to a proper meeting point between Eastern Europe and Western Europe, if we need to continually use such terms for such a tiny place. (Honestly, it's like having and East Side and West Side rivalry in Bath.)
One of my favourite exercises as an EFL teacher was always to encourage students to pour forth their stereotypical perspectives on the nations that surrounded them. They were very vocal, on the whole, and often offered perspectives more informed than my own, as an island monkey, could possibly be.
On a personal/national note, it's worth mentioning that the motto of the Czech tenure of presidency is 'Europe Without Barriers', and it's worth considering how that relates to us as a nation.
I don't recognise the physical barrier of The English(!) Channel. Not since the invention of The Boat, at any rate. There is, however, a mental barrier between the nation of 'The UK' and the notion of 'Europe'. To be fair, each nation has a barrier between its own identity and our collective identity in that union. Some more than others. I think 'Entropa' encourages us to disregard this as silly and to discard it into the dustbin of history for good, along with the other amusing but potentially aggravating stereotypes exhibited in Černý's piece.
* Amusingly, the Czech government was boasting of the multi-national contributions right up until the curtain was unveiled**. ** And yes, a curtain can be unveiled, but what lies behind the curtain behind the veil, eh, eh? Read on...