Last Friday, in response to a flurry of social media activity mistakenly identifying the Boston bombing suspects as having a Czech, rather than Chechen, background, the Czech ambassador to the US issued a statement clarifying that "the Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities—the Czech Republic is a Central European country; Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation."
Nice try, Ambassador Gandalovic, but there are some place names that just sound so similar to us, we will persist in mixing them up no matter how little they have to do with each other and no matter how many times the mistake makes the news. Here are five other pairs of places that people confuse so often their ambassadors don't even shrug at the mistakes anymore.
1. Australia and Austria
In 2007 President Bush thanked the Australian premier for visiting Austrian troops in Iraq. But that wasn't just an isolated Bush gaffe. The countries are so often confused that at tourist shops all over Austria you can buy T-shirts that say "No kangaroos in Austria." To be fair, their names are only separated by two little letters, and it's not only Americans that have trouble with this one. At the G20 summit in South Korea in 2010, the world leaders were presented with dolls crafted in their likenesses. Australian PM Julia Gillard's doll was decked out in a traditional Austrian costume.
2. Sweden and Switzerland
Jessica Alba caught some heat back in 2009 after she told a reporter to "be neutral…like Sweden." Though she defended herself by pointing out that Sweden was neutral during WWII, it brought the issue of Sweden/Switzerland confusion to the fore. The Swedes and Swiss had been complaining for years about the questions they get asked when they reveal where they're from, and they stepped in to helpfully point out the differences: Sweden = Ikea, ABBA, and meatballs; Switzerland = banks, watches, and chocolate.
3. Slovakia and Slovenia
They both start with "slov" and end with "ia." They both became independent nations in the '90s. They have similar flags. They're easy to confuse. But Slovakia, once part of Czechoslovakia, is up there under Poland, and Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia, is down there next to Italy. Americans aren't the only ones who get these mixed up. They've been confused by world leaders, Olympic officials, and the UN. And according to this Slovak tourism site, the "staff of Slovak and Slovenian embassies meet once a month to exchange wrongly-addressed mail!"
4. Uruguay and Paraguay
Uruguay has Atlantic beaches, Paraguay is landlocked. Uruguay voted to allow same-sex marriage, Paraguay's leading presidential candidate said he would shoot off his own testicles if his son wanted to marry another man. When John Gimlette wrote a book about his travel adventures in Paraguay, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, he probably didn't expect that the publishers' design would put the flag of Uruguay on the spine, but that's how it worked out.
5. Oakland and Auckland
In this case, it's the cities that are confusing. In 1985, a California college student was trying to get back to Oakland from a vacation in Germany, but ended up on a plane to Auckland, New Zealand. He bought his ticket correctly, but he ended up at a boarding gate for a flight to New Zealand. He heard all the announcements as "Oakland" and responded "yes" every time airline personnel asked if he was going to Auckland. He realized the mistake after the plane took off, and got a free flight back after spending the day in Auckland, which he described as, "really nice."