Tuesday, 23 December 2008
Happy Christmas! I photographed this rather chirpy looking sheep decoration in Ceske Budejovice last Christmas.
I am now in England until just after Christmas and was looking in our local large town Cheltenham for some Czech alcohol yesterday. There are at least four shops in Cheltenham selling Eastern European food and all feature in their windows a prominent notice announcing the arrival of carp for Christmas. The British may not consider the carp a great fish for eating, dismissing it as muddy in flavour, but in Central Europe it is prized. Indeed carp is a central feature of the Christmas celebrations.
Around our Czech home in South Bohemia there are to be found large man-made fishponds, where carp has been farmed for centuries. Back in late autumn we visited the nearest of these - Lake Olsina - to watch the bi-annual carp harvest. The Lake had slowly been drained of water over the preceding days, forcing the fish into a pool at one end. A large net further restrained them and by the time we arrived they were confined to a small area, where they thrashed and gasped for air.
Above on the embankment a crowd of Czechs had gathered, some brought in coaches on trips to see the fish haul, others in the distinctive green outfits of the local fisherman's guild. Sausages were available for purchase, together with beer to wash it down with. The atmosphere was one of great festivity. Down below the fish were caught and thrown large plastic tubs, which were then loaded onto a conveyor and hoisted up to huge fish tanks on one of a fleet of lorries.
The destination of these fish will be the many barrels which appear in the market places of Czech towns at this time of year. When I first saw them I was quite amazed to see live fish for sale in the centre of town. I was amazed to see too the Czechs taking the still live fish home with them. There the poor fish are often kept in the bath until the time comes for the preparation for the Christmas feast and their demise.
Carp has a very important place in Czech affections, so much so that exiles in the UK feel the need to import them specially at this time of year. I have eaten carp once in the Czech Republic and not been able to see the great attraction of the fish. But then Christmas traditions are like that aren't they - turkey isn't the most flavourful meat I've ever eaten, and yet where would a British Christmas be without it?
Saturday, 20 December 2008
In my last post I told you that I was planning to cook a typical Czech meal for my family. I did and I am pleased to say it was a great success. At the meal were my parents, my sister Anneliese, my sister Jane (pictured above eating another memorable Czech meal) and her husband and teenage daughters and of course my husband and son. Of those around the table only my parents had been unable to visit our Czech home and taste Czech food. Czech food tends to be much maligned - thought of as rich and stodgy, with lots of dumplings and sauerkraut. And whilst it is true that both dumplings and sauerkraut feature prominently in Czech cuisine, they are infinitely superior to those we get in the UK.
But I digress, back to the famous family meal: the menu consisted of a choice of two soups - wild mushroom and potato, a main course of Czech roasted shoulder of pork with red cabbage and potatoes and finished with a choice of tvaroh or apple strudel. With the exception of one niece who is a fussy eater, my guests ate everything put in front of them and then came back for more.
My mother was particularly taken with the Czech approach to cooking the pork and wanted to know how I had achieved meat which almost melted in the mouth. The answer is that having cut the pork into chunks, rubbed them with crushed garlic and caraway seeds, and placed them in a baking tray with roughly chopped onions, you add water to about an inch depth and cover with foil. You are effectively braising the pork, then you remove the foil cover and roast the meat until the water evaporates leaving a caramelised residue, to which further water is added to create the gravy.
I cannot comment on timings or amounts as the Czech cookery book I used gave neither, something you wouldn't get away with in an English book, you can't imagine Nigella or Delia doing that. But then that is exactly how my mum taught to me to cook and indeed it is how I cook now.
Tuesday, 16 December 2008
It used to be the case, when first we started going to the Czech Republic and indeed even when we bought our Czech home, that you could not get Czech ingredients in the UK. With the influx of Czech and Polish workers into England, following their countries' entry into the EU, came foodstuffs and foodstores geared up to the new arrivals. Suddenly on the Cowley Road in Oxford where I worked, you could buy chleb (Czech bread), klobasa (spicy sausages) and the ubiquitous pickled vegetables. Most of it came from Poland, but the other day I came across the Czechland Food Shop in Gloucester, which offers more Czech groceries than usual, including importantly the different grades of flour. I have even found that crucial ingredient tvaroh - a cream cheese used in strudels and buchty (Czech doughnuts) - in our local Morrisons.
I will have to tell you in my next post how I fared in my attempt at cooking a Czech meal for my parents. Meanwhile I shall just help myself to a Pribinacek (a vanilla cream desert and comfort food) which I bought in Gloucester.
Friday, 12 December 2008
The other day my husband and I decided to play the tourist and go on a trip to the Castle at Hluboka, well not the castle as such but the Gallery which is to be found attached to it. So we joined the hoards of German schoolchildren as they wound their way up from the town below. The zigzag way offered good views across the Vltava and the fish ponds towards the blue hills and mountains of the south. The castle is built in the English Gothic style of Windsor and other Victorian palaces, a white confection of crenellations and faux gargoyles standing in beautiful gardens again of the English style. Unlike the Germans our way took us to the left into a conservatory of flamboyant cast iron and glass, then left again and into the Collection of Medieval Art of the Ales South Bohemian Gallery.
The collection was a revelation and one, which had it been say at the Tate in Liverpool, we would have made an overnight visit to see and thought it worth the money. There were two large galleries filled with medieval statuary (calvaries, saints, Madonnas with and without child, and pietas) and religious paintings from altar screens. The pieces had been gathered from all over South Bohemia, and featured the work of both local craftsmen and others working in nearby Bavaria. What was particularly striking to us was the familiarity of the places from which the art works had been taken, not only were they from large wealthy towns and abbeys such as Ceske Budejovice and Kajov, but from small local villages and churches such as Boletice and Novosedly, a sign of the wealth perhaps of this fertile region at the time. The oldest exhibit is a statue of St Bartholomew from Horni Drkolna from before 1300 – the saint is simply but effectively carved from a lump of limewood with a head out of proportion to the body. The Gallery allows one to move through the development of Czech Gothic art from that simple piece. As time goes by the artistic style evolves, developing more natural proportions, and even movement. The facial features change and vary, some show the influence of Byzantine art, others the become individualised.
Throughout our visit we were alone in the Gallery apart from the two gallery attendants that followed us round. The tourist hoards clearly preferred the excesses of 19th Century English Gothic to the sublime purity of the original medieval Gothic of Central Europe. It is a shame that this is so, this is a collection of international importance.
Tuesday, 9 December 2008
Sunday, 7 December 2008
On the square where my friend lives there is a block of flats. An old lady lives in one of them and I often see her looking out of her first floor window as I come and go. She can be there for hours, the passing world offers such fascination. I have got into the habit of smiling at her and nodding as I go past and she smiles back. Her face is lined and broad and when she smiles her eyes disappear.
Wednesday, 3 December 2008
In all I counted three wayside memorials to lives lost on the four kilometre stretch I walked and numerous trees where the scarred bark told of other (hopefully less fatal) accidents. The memorials were marked with plaques and flowers. All spoke, as in this one shown here, of young lives cut short. And yet as I walked the cars still went too fast, several times I had to jump on to the verge. I do not doubt that there will be more memorials added to the road's deadly tally over the years. There are some calls for the trees to be cleared from the sides of these roads, but they are not fault, the drivers are. The trees have been there long before the speeding cars. And would removing them actually stop the accidents or might it even encourage more speeding?
Sunday, 30 November 2008
The Amnesty International Irrepressible Content initiative is a campaign to counter censorship across the world. The web is a great tool for sharing ideas and freedom of expression. However, efforts to try and control the Internet are growing. Internet repression is reported in countries like China, Vietnam, Tunisia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. People are persecuted and imprisoned simply for criticising their government, calling for democracy and greater press freedom, or exposing human rights abuses, online. Amnesty International is calling on anyone who has a website or blog, to help them spread the word and undermine unwarranted censorship by publishing censored material from the Amnesty database directly onto their site. As a blogger who has talked about the struggle of the Czech people for freedom under communism of course I had to get involved.
The feed from Amnesty changes every time the blog loads. If you have a blog, do join me - click on the feed and load the html on to your site. The more people take part the more we show that freedom of expression cannot be repressed.
Thursday, 27 November 2008
Saturday, 22 November 2008
Pargeter had first got to meet and enjoy the company of Czechs during the Second World War, afterwards she took advantage of an International Summer School in Czechoslovakia to visit the country she had come to love through meeting its people. The visit took place in that brief time before the Communist takeover of the country and inspired Edith into increased admiration for Czech culture. She taught herself Czech and began to translate Czech literature into English. This activity allowed her the opportunity to continue visiting Czechoslovakia on an almost annual basis, she worked with the state-owned publishing house Artia and even kept her earnings in the Communist country to fund her trips. It is apparent from her writings that she had to walk a very fine line – she was very much against the oppression that she saw, but needed for her Czech friends' sake and for the sake of her work not to upset the communist authorities - “I was continually walking a tightrope in order to avoid harming people I wanted only to serve.”
A bibliography of her Czech translations shows huge breadth, including modern classics (as yet unheard of in the “West”), more established writers and even Czech legends. Indeed it reads like a who's who of Czech literature – Neruda, Toman, Styblova, Nemcova, Bor, Seifert, Klima, In total she translated sixteen books. It is a tribute to her skill, that some of her translations are still in print. In 1968 Edith Pargeter was awarded the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations Gold Medal for her services to Czech Literature.
The more I have read of Edith Pargeter's relationship with this lovely country and its people, the more I find myself at one with her. Much of what she loves and recognises here, I love and recognise too. I will therefore leave the last word to her, here is her description of Neruda's Tales of the Little Quarter, she could have been talking about the wider nation: “He made a book the image of himself, high-spirited, amusing, compassionate, occasionally startling us by a flavour of astonishing bitterness, but having at its heart and ground an uncompromising affirmation that life, bitter and sweet together, is to be accepted with ardour, and humanity, in all its folly and imperfection, to be loved without reserve.”
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
I have spent many a pleasant hour sitting in Czech cafes, drinking coffee and watching others doing the same. Life comes and goes there. Old friends greet each other, women arrive with bags of shopping and chatter. The Czechs have a particular line in elegant women over a certain age, who sit upright at their table and hold their cups with little finger extended. At other tables business is being done over the coffee cups, men produce laptops from briefcases and discuss spreadsheets, shake hands and go their way. Backpackers compare notes on hostels and restaurants, talk of the next stop on their tour of Europe or discuss the news from home loudly.
A middle-aged man pulls up in a vintage sportscar of which he is clearly very proud, he combs his hair in the rear-view mirror and then takes his seat at a prominent table. He is waiting for someone. Sure enough he is joined by a rather beautiful young man. At one table sits a small boy, his father is talking to a friend at another table. The boy's father has given him a gameboy to play with and a milkshake. The boy rests his head on the table and bends over the game – pointedly displaying both concentration and boredom at the same time. Then my husband and son join me and I must stop my game of people-gazing.
Saturday, 15 November 2008
But somehow there is nothing like spreading out a paper map and gazing at it. I have a pile of local maps. The Czech maps don't seem to have the equivalent authority of the British Ordnance Survey maps. The maps I tend to have are maps for walkers and cyclists, with the tourist paths and cycle routes marked as colour-coded lines. It is interesting to contrast what different maps choose to highlight. For example I have one map which has marked on it mystical sites – so appropriate for all those Czechs who believe in leylines, crystals and standing stones.
I have spent many a happy hour looking at my Czech maps. One of the things I love about them is the fact that Czechs mark important trees – so you will see dub (oak) marked on them and other trees. You don't see that on British Ordnance Survey maps. This map-gazing has also helped me increase my Czech vocabulary. I know of two words for hill – vrch and kopec, whilst hora means mountain, dvur means courtyard but also seems to mean a large courtyard farm, then there are words for castle and chateau – hrad and zamek, forest – les, prales, stone and rock – kamen and skala. I have yet to really get to grips with the differences between say a vrch and a kopec, but at least I know what they mean generally. And then of course all over the Czech maps you will find the word potok.
Tuesday, 11 November 2008
I have blogged about the Czech chata or hutkins in the past. Many are set in the countryside, in woodland clearings and beside lakes and streams. But others are to be found like English allotments in the most unpromising of places, besides railway lines or on city wastelands. One of the joys of a trip on both an English and a Czech train is these flashes of human creativity and love of nature amid the ruin and bleakness of our cities, they give one hope for mankind these little Edens set in a sea of grey.
In Cesky Krumlov the other day I was walking by the river. On one side was the back of the Eggenberg Brewery, which away from the tourists' eyes was looking run-down, with blind and broken windows and trees growing from its gutters, on the other side cliffs of granite rose from the river up to the orbital road along which could be heard the growl of traffic making its way south. But here too was an Eden - a hutkin perched on a cliff, and a woman tending a garden carved into the granite. A few yards away was the road's tarmac and beyond that a factory tower, but she was with nature on her cliff.
I was reminded of a favourite track by the queen of English folk music June Tabor – A Place Called England. You can see it performed by June herself on Youtube . It strikes me that the English and the Czechs share a love of and a relationship with the soil and gardening, which is quite profound.
Friday, 7 November 2008
One of the pleasures of this time of year is that all those birds, one has heard for months chattering and calling in the branches and never seen, are made visible – long-tailed tits, blue and coal tits, bramblings, treecreepers and nuthatches, hoards of chaffinches, jackdaws, and jays. The other day I walked down to the train station to such a commotion of birdsong, I just had to smile. A woodpecker was making light work of the bark on an ash tree, indeed so much so that I was hit by a piece of bark it had ripped from a branch. On the swimming pond a pair of mute swans had taken up their serene residence. From the train platform I looked up, above the wood on the hill opposite rooks were surfing the invisible breakers of the wind expertly riding the waves, then cutting back to ride the crest again with great shouts of enjoyment. The Czech birds have a long and hard winter to look forward to and they are enjoying the warmth and fecundity of this November weather while they may.
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
Readers of the Krumlov Expats blog will have already read a post about the hunt posted by Salamander. Unlike Salamander who was one of the “huntsmen”. I attended only as a spectator, which I hope justifies my writing a post on the subject on the grounds that my take will be somewhat different.
The “hunt” took place in the wonderful parkland surrounding the Cerveny Dvur Asylum. Cerveny Dvur was formerly a chateau and is now a hospital treating alcoholism and drug addiction, nevertheless the extensive parkland in which it sits is open to the public and moreover offers information boards (in English as well as Czech) on the creation of chateau, landscape and park features. This alone would justify a visit to Cerveny Dvur, with the result that in addition to the “hunt” spectators there were also people who had come simply to enjoy a walk in the grounds and who could blame them.
Well that is the setting – now for the topic of the blog. You may have noticed that I keep talking about the hunt in quotation marks. With all due respect to Salamander and the other members of the hunt, I really didn't get the impression it was a hunt at all, not that that is a bad thing particularly. Like Philip Wilkinson who commented on the Expats blog I am familiar with the Cotswold Hunt, which may not now hunt foxes nevertheless still does charge across farmland (presumably as a drag hunt) jumping any barrier between them and their “prey”. I have seen them jumping large gates and Cotswold stone walls and I have seen the damage this sometimes causes. The Cotswold hunt horses are massive – real hunters – and they need to be. Not so the St Hubert's hunt – where none of the horses were particularly large and some were mere ponies. This was possible because this “hunt” was perhaps more similar to a gymkhana or horse show, with relatively low fences constructed specially for the occasion. There were various equestrian games, including the main event chasing someone in a plastic fox mask. It had therefore an altogether different atmosphere. There was a delightful amateurishness about it all – the man commenting on the tannoy and trying to fill in the gaps, the small brass band, the grins on the riders faces, it was along way from the thrill and seriousness of the British hunt. I was reminded of village fetes, my companion commented that all they needed was a stall selling jam and cakes. All of which seemed rather strange given the Czechs' love of hunting, shooting and fishing, on which I have commented in the past; but then I suppose real Czech hunting is probably more of a solitary affair.
The crowd was, one suspects, mostly made up of friends and family of those involved and cheered the winners, clapped the losers and took lots of photos and videos. A stall provided goulash, coffee, the ubiquitous sausage and bread, as well as sweets for the young members of the audience. Unusually for the Czechs (and it would have been unusual too for a British hunt) there was no beer or alcohol of any sort on sale – a consequence of being in the asylum's parkland – and yet people did not object and got on with the business of enjoying themselves. The audience was very egalitarian, unlike the “county” set that one associates with British hunts and the event even included a session of singing round a campfire
But then I rather suspect I am bringing my own prejudices to this. When I was young my parents scrimped and saved for me to go to a local private junior school. There I found myself among girls who seemed to live and breathe ponies and riding. There was never any question that my family could afford (or for that matter would prioritise) riding lessons or the costs of having a pony. I found myself on the outside of that set, it was my first experience of British class system. I in turn made it very clear that I did not want a pony and rejected all things horsey, I had other more important things to do, like writing poetry. Nor for that matter did I want to go on the skiing trip, another activity the Czechs enjoy, I don't think I even bothered to take the letter about the trip home to my parents. So when I was asked at the Czech hunt if I fancied learning to ride, I automatically said no. Even now I cannot bring myself to do it.
My friend and I were driving along the road that skirts the edge of Lake Olsina the other day, when we noticed these birds in the water some way off. We stopped the car and looked again. The birds were too far off to be clear even to the zoom lens on my camera. They were, as you can see, elegant white wading birds; large but not large enough to be storks – for that matter it was the wrong time of year and on closer inspection of the photos they do not have the storks black wingmarkings. If anything the closest bird in size, shape and behaviour would be a heron.
My friend who has a house near the lake had never seen them there before. A week ago the lake had been drained in the two-yearly carp harvest and has yet to fill fully. There would seem to be no doubt then that these temporary conditions, with the lake still shallow enough to wade in and the fish thus exposed to the birds' gaze and beak, had attracted the birds. On getting home I took my AA Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe and searched its pages. There it was “largest white heron-like bird of the region, size of a grey heron.” - it was an egret. I should have known, why I had been taking close-ups of the bird at the Zoo Ohrada.
Friday, 31 October 2008
There is a German phrase “Like a Czech village”, meaning ramshackle and untidy. Whilst it certainly is true that Czech village buildings are usually in a less than pristine condition, often with peeling paint, channels cut in the walls to take cables left open and with old floortiles (because someone will use them one day) stacked outside under corrugated iron sheets, generally the garden lawns as well as the grass in the orchards will be cut. Capek in his book on gardening talks about the Czechs aspiring to English lawns, but they are not graced with English weather (summer rain) to permit this perceived perfection. It must therefore be a cultural shock for my Czech neighbours to see the overgrown grass in our yard and orchard.
I have singularly failed to get on top of it. The orchard is full of tall weeds and requires scything – something the Czechs are good at and I have no experience of at all. The garden slopes up away from the house and still is littered with builders rubble, ready to blunt anything that tries to cut it. My friend keeps on at me about it. First she suggests I get a powered lawnmower, it was seeing hers when I was helping her move some compost that reminded me to blog about it. And there are loads in the local shops in all sizes and types.
Then she comes back to her favourite suggestion – get some sheep or a goat. The Czechs regularly have sheep or goats on their smallholdings and, not being squeamish about such things, eat their Czech lawnmowers at the beginning of winter. We have space enough, that much is certain. But I have my objections, firstly I can't believe it is that simple. My mother's family were farmworkers by trade and many of my childhood days were spent with my Uncle John at the farm where he was cowman and shepherd and I certainly did not get the impression that keeping animals was that easy. Another objection is that I spend too much time in England away from the place and so have a vision of returning home to discover my sheep has died through lack of water or garotted itself on the wire fence, or perhaps worse still has made a bolt for it and eaten its way through my neighbours' vegetable patch. As for killing it at the end of the year, at the moment I think I might manage to bear it but it seems a palaver and we would be eating mutton for months. Ah well, it is too late to do anything about it this year, the grass will die back without help from me.
On one point of note, there is one house in the village which is impeccable, freshly painted, with not a weed to be seen and the lawn manicured to the last inch. It is of course owned by some Austrians.
Saturday, 25 October 2008
I have been meaning to blog about the tourists in Cesky Krumlov for months, but somehow never got round to it, until now. Cesky Krumlov is great place to partake in the sport of tourist watching, even though we are now at the very end of the season. Like most UNESCO world heritage sites Krumlov is a honeypot for visitors from all five continents. And when not being annoyed by them, as they dawdle and block my way or take up all the seats in the restaurants, I sometimes amuse myself trying to work out the nationalities before I hear the language. It may sound strange but the nationality that regularly floors me is my own – the British, but before I get on to that, let us take a seat on a bench on the Town Square and watch the comings and goings for a while.
First into the square are the Japanese – they are usually the first. They normally appear in groups following some woman holding an umbrella above her head, she may even have a microphone around her neck. The Japs are dressed conformly in leasurewear – slacks and light raincoat, trainers for walking, sun visor or cap. some may even wear a surgical mask over their mouths. I am not clear whether this is because they have a cold and wish in their famous politeness not to pass it on, or whether they fear those nasty Czech germs. They will eat together in their group too, one minute you will be alone in a restaurant wondering why the waiter put you in the worst seat in the house, when suddenly they arrive and take up all the tables. The food will be the same for each of them (no doubt some deal has taken place between the restaurateur and their guide) – a set meal which does not require them to order from the menu.
An Asian couple arrive – Japanese or Korean I wonder – they are not part of the group. He sits down and waits as his wife disappears. From time to time she will reappear with something in a bag, which she will deposit with him. This goes on for over an hour, before they gather together the shopping and leave. During this time the square has seen a loud guided tour of Italians, the guide for which needs her microphone as they are chatting to each other as she talks. Next came three young hispanics, from their tshirts we see that they are Brazilians, who walked across the centre of the square several times before they too disappear. Suddenly my interest is taken by a middle-aged couple who march in briskly holding those sprung hikers sticks, as if climbing the north face of Cesky Krumlov Town Square. Germans or Austrians I think.
Opposite me on another bench a lone young woman is reading in the warm Autumn sunshine. An American backpacker on a solo trip around Europe, taking in the culture – next stop Vienna perhaps. There are plenty of backpackers in Cesky Krumlov, and you will even find a few in the Winter, mostly they come from the US or the Antipodes. They cluster in hostel cafes and bars and exchange horror stories of their experiences – of being ripped off by London taxi-drivers, of expensive (for them) crappy hotels, of getting lost in foreign cities, of bugs that bite in the night. This jaunt is part of their modern initiation ceremony into adulthood, before they settle down to university or a job.
A couple walk past, they are tall and expensively dressed in leather jackets. There is something about them that says new Russian elite to me. And finally another party enters the Square. They are not dressed in any sort of uniform, nor are they clearly of one physical type. They listen to the guide whilst looking around the Square. They could be Dutch or a mixed party who have come on a daytrip from Prague. On the other hand they could quite possibly be Brits.
Wednesday, 22 October 2008
Thus it was that yesterday our builder took us in his car to a store in Ceske Budejovice in a supermarket arcade. There was our stove to be. We were delighted to see that unlike some in the range our stove has a window through which we can gaze into the flames, thus appealing to some primeval urge in us. We were very grateful when our builder carried the stove, which is made of cast iron and fire bricks and so horribly heavy, through the yard, up the yard steps and then straight up the stairs to the living room. He passed off our admiration saying it's what he does for a living, but even he had to take some time out to recover afterwards. We then lit the stove and stood back to admire both the flames and the heat as it poured into the room. The stove has a ring of upright tubes set around it - these gather the heat from the burning wood and pump it into the air, so efficiently that within minutes of lighting you begin to feel the effect.
Saturday, 18 October 2008
A major influence was the home of my creative writing teacher. Her house was down a steep lane near Painswick in Gloucestershire – a Cotswold stone house in a runaway garden. The house was decorated with angels in all sorts of forms – indeed “you turned a stone and found them there”. The main sitting room was full of books, in bookcases, in piles on the floor and on tables. Also in piles were pieces of paper filled with some form of creation – musical or poetic, by her or by some protégée, often myself. On the walls were all sorts of pictures. The furniture was old, some of it probably valuable, all of it comfortable and lived in. On the surfaces not occupied by books or papers was an eclectic collection of decorations. Antiques, stones of unusual shape or colour, little presents from children, reminders of trips to her beloved Greece - all jostled for space.
The kitchen had a bare Cotswold stone wall on one side and whitewashed walls on the others and a large kitchen table around which we sat. On the shelves were tins and jars and books. Work was needed on it, I don't recall it happening, but I do remember the smell of her cooking and herbs (she had a fine line in stews). Outside the kitchen window she had decorated the wall of an outbuilding with a Greek scene. Upstairs at the very top of the house was an attic full of costumes (for the plays which she directed us in) racks and piles of them. When you went up there you would feel your way through, with memories of Shakespeare, Christopher Fry, Euripides, Dylan Thomas and the annual pantomime hitting you in the face and nostrils. I felt very at home in her house. Several years later I was reminded of her home, when first I stepped into the Blackheath flat of my Czech puppeteer friend.
It seems to me looking back that my teacher's openness to the collection of objects which occupied every cranny of her house was symbolic of her openness to everything, to the potential which she saw in us and to the beauty of the world. And I loved it and have tried to live my life with my eyes open, with a willingness to turn stones and seek angels in the unordered order of God's good world.
Tuesday, 14 October 2008
It will not surprise you that we decided not to go for Bohemian farmhouse décor if that was an example. Instead I have chosen to pursue a more eclectic rustic almost naïve style, with embroideries from Mexico and Nepal on the whitewashed walls. Hand-crafted stoneware pottery is more in keeping with the place than porcelain and is similar to the German-style stoneware we found here.
The large dining table and benches in the main room are made from solid pieces of local wood. And there is also a collection of found objects – fossils, shells, pine cones and a small nest found in the wood whilst mushrooming. Many decisions have been born of necessity – all the money was going on the fabric of the house so there was little available for furniture. The simple beds we inherited from the previous owners and from some British friends who were replacing theirs. The wardrobes were bought secondhand in a local town and are functional and not out of keeping. My sister designed the lampshades which were based on those in the Laibon Restaurant in Cesky Krumlov- they are quite simply made out of crumpled baking paper and card.
Over time we will replace many of these with better versions, but I do not believe that the house will ever be decorated luxuriously. It would be like taking an old farmer's wife and decking her out as a princess. But then I sometimes think that the British royal family never look so at home as when they are dressed as farmers, but that says more about the British royal family than it does about my simile. No, let the old house feel comfortable with her garb. Large velvet curtains will only hide the lovely arches of the windows. Smooth plaster will hide the wonderful lack of symmetry of the walls and ceilings.
Friday, 10 October 2008
I must be due another post about picking mushrooms – why it is the height of the season! Recently I have been pondering what skills/abilities are needed to pick mushrooms. This has been caused by two English friends asking me to show them how to do it, which in turn has got me asking that very question how do I do it. I feel hugely unqualified to teach anyone, but in England I suppose I might pass as experienced.
I know for a fact that I would never have started mushrooming if I simply had learnt from a book or books, no matter how good they were. I needed, and I think most people need, a teacher/mentor who took me through those first few steps in which one gains confidence. That is how it began for me – being shown by my Czech friend – and now it is my turn to pass it on. Of course there are so many mushrooms and there are very different views on what is good eating and what is not (just look at the reference books which often are odds with other). This will mean that your mentor will pass on to you their preferences. This will reflect differences in national attitudes to mushrooms. A list of the top 20 edible mushrooms in Russia included several at the top, which are not only considered inedible in this country but even poisonous. I have noticed that the Czechs prize boletuses above all, and they don't seem to pick tree-growing fungi such as two favourites of mine - chicken in the woods and hen in the woods.
One of the first things my friend taught me was that some of the safest mushrooms to pick are those that look least like the sort of mushroom we buy in Tescos – boletuses and chanterelles for example. In fact some of the most deadly mushrooms look like ordinary mushrooms. Why, only a few days ago I picked some smoky mushrooms which are poisonous and which I had mistaken for ordinary mushrooms (I always check mushrooms against the books when I get them home) . So start with those that you can't mistake for anything else, until your confidence grows. The second rule is learn what the poisonous ones look like. Fortunately there aren't that many that will kill you or even make you seriously ill, there are quite a few which will taste revolting but that is another matter. You'll need to get some books to help you learn what things look like and to check what you have picked – one book is not enough (I have six in England and four in the Czech Republic). My books are regular reading, they are great toilet library material. Using these books I have increased my repertoire slowly and tried each new type carefully, eating only a little at first (they may not be poisonous but they might not work for you).
So there are a few thoughts on the subject. If you decide to take up mushrooming, I hope you enjoy it. I am eternally grateful to my Czech friend for introducing me to one of my great pleasures.
Tuesday, 7 October 2008
Whilst the hero of Closely Observed Trains wanted to work at the station to avoid having to work, here is one little Czech who clearly really wants to be a stationmaster. None of this modern stuff - wanting to be a computer games designer or popstar, he has the old fashioned aspiration of working on the railways.
I was sat on the train on my way to Ceske Budejovice when I saw him. He was very serious as he stood at Cesky Krumlov station holding his gran's hand. occasionally he would peer along the platform to see what was going on. All around him tourists, backpackers and the locals milled and fussed, he was calm and in control. Why, he had the hat and green circle on stick at the ready and he knew what to do with them. As the whistle went and our train started to pull out he looked straight ahead and raised the circle.
Please, forgive the grainy nature of the photo, it was taken through a not very clean train window.
Saturday, 4 October 2008
Last night I watched the wonderful Czech film Closely Observed Trains - a film adaptation of the Hrabal novel . I have quite a collection of those free DVDs that they give away with newspapers. As these come in simple cardboard covers they are easy to transport over to the Czech Republic in hand luggage. In the case of Closely Observed Trains you might say I was taking coals to Newcastle when I brought that film over, however as a freebie from The Independent this version has the advantage of having English subtitles.
The film is directed by Jiri Menzel and follows the story of Milos Hrma as he struggles to lose his virginity, apparently oblivious to the Nazi occupation of his country and the wider struggle going on around him. Most of the film is set in the sleepy backwater train station where Milos works or rather does very little – the reason why he wanted the job in the first place was in order to avoid working. The film is populated with wonderful comic characters, who are also sympathetically portrayed. In addition to being great comedy, the film is also healthily sexy – one of the best scenes is when Milos' mentor (in more ways than one) at the station seduces a female co-worker with the use of the station's rubber stamps. At the end Milos turns out to be an unexpected war hero, but even this ending is handled with a lightness of touch which is so refreshingly Czech.
The video clip above is the American trailer for the film (in the US it was called Closely Watched Trains). May I suggest you turn the sound off when you watch it, the voiceover is annoying and unnecessary.
Wednesday, 1 October 2008
When I last went mushrooming with one of my Czech friends, she was much taken by my home-made thumbstick.
To any of reader that does not know what a thumbstick is, let me explain. A thumbstick is a walking stick, which has a forked end where one places one's thumb. I first learnt to make thumbsticks when I was a member of the Cotswold Wardens. It was a useful by-product of the Wardens work on laying hedges. Hedge-laying requires the cutting back of trees and shrubs and this generated the raw material for the thumbsticks. The best tree for a thumbstick is hazel, which produces suitably long, strong and straight tree stems which then fork. You simply cut the stick to the length required - the owner should be able to stand comfortably with their thumb in the fork and arm bent ie the fork is about an inch higher than the shoulder.
I do not know if the thumbstick is particularly Cotswold or English but my Czech friend was much taken with it and said she couldn't get one here. I therefore decided to make one for her – there are plenty of hazel trees around the village, so off I went with pruning saw in hand. A length of wood was cut and I set about smoothing it down for her. An hour later and the stick was ready. I met her in a gallery where she works and handed over my handiwork. My stick was hardly a work of art, the stick was not entirely straight, but then as I said to her if she lost it (as I am forever doing when I am mushrooming) I can easily make another. At this point we were joined by a friend of hers. We explained the advantages of the stick to him – with your thumb in the fork your hand can not slip, the fork is useful for holding up electric fence wires and low hanging branches, the stick could beat off an attacker and most importantly for a Czech the fork allows you to turn over and sometimes pick mushrooms without bending down. Her friend listened and came up with another use – the fork could be used to tackle snakes.
Saturday, 27 September 2008
The Czechs, like their neighbours the Germans, are great ones for sausages of all sorts, shapes and sizes. But sausages cooked over burning wood are special and there is a special process to follow in cooking them. First you cut some long thin branches of hazel and sharpen the ends. These are what you will cook the sausages on. Then you take the sausage and cut each end twice to form a cross of cuts. Each visitor places their sausage on the stick and sits by the fire with the sausage in the heat. As the sausage cooks the cut ends curl back to form four arms (eight in all) like an octopus on a stick. This process ensures that the sausages are heated all the way through, although English visitors, much to Czech amusement, still manage to blacken the sausages.
The very act of cooking the sausages forms a bond with your fellow diners. There is an immediate topic of conversation – an experience shared if you like. When my sisters came to stay, they had a great time preparing and cooking their sausages – the process is as much part of the fun as the finished product. Finally to eat add Czech mustard (so lovely my son eats it alone on bread and I have to take several pots over when I fly back to England) or horseradish sauce, and a chunk of Czech bread. An additional treat is some dough wound round a stick and cooked over the fire to create a sort of bread. I remember this from my Girl Guide Handbook or something similar but until I arrived here had never tried it. I must say it's okay but not spectacular, but then I think I am missing the point, the process is the thing, not the eating. Finally wash it down with a load of Czech beer and a few songs sung by the fire under the star-laden heavens and you will have had the time of your life.
Tuesday, 23 September 2008
As I mentioned in my fox post a few weeks ago I recently enjoyed a visit to the Zoo Ohrada at Hluboka Nad Vltavou. The Zoo is one of the oldest in the Czech Republic, it is also the smallest. The Zoo can be found next to a hunting chateau of the Schwarzenberg family and was created to complement the hunting activities of its owner. Thus it has always had a focus on European wild animals, something that continues to this day – two thirds of all the animals there are European.
You approach the zoo down a double avenue of oak trees leading up to the chateau, on your right is a vast lake, with the town and castle of Hluboka on the far shore. The castle, which will get its own blog post some day, was created in the 19th century architectural style of Tudor Gothic – think Windsor Castle in white and you get the idea and sits on a headland overlooking the town and the river Vltava. I can think of no more beautiful setting for a zoo than this one, however the size of the zoo (limited by the island on which the zoo sits) does have its limitations. The smallness makes it less tiring for families with small children, who certainly love it there, but it limits the size of the animal enclosures too.
I have very mixed feelings about zoos, I am not a ban-all-zoos purist but I do think that animals should be kept in conditions that at least approximate to their natural conditions. It seems to me that some animals seem more able to handle captivity and it is not always the obvious ones either. The other Czech zoo I have visited is the one in Prague and which I think works well, using the hilly landscape of the zoo to full effect, giving space and variety of terrain to the animals. At Hlubloka there are signs that they are trying to improve things, including creating new enclosures , but the Zoo is restricted by its size and flat landscape.
As I said above, the Zoo Ohrada specialises in European wild animals and this was one reason why I wanted to go. The display panels for Czech animals were labelled with a CZ, the background colour of which indicating the rarity/endangeredness of the animal in question – white common, red in gravest danger. There was a wide range of water birds and birds of prey, especially owls. One of the best sections was one entitled Czech Woodland, this walk-through enclosure was a miniature wood with all those birds I normally hear but never see. Even then I didn't see all of them, but I did see quite a few.
The place was heaving with children who were clearly loving it. My party was made up of a group of water colourists, who went off painting the animals, so I resorted to taking photographs, which is as far as my visual art talents go. Here are a few to give you the feel of the place.
Thursday, 18 September 2008
This year the Czechs remembered that day forty years ago when the tanks of the USSR and their Warsaw Pact allies rolled into Prague to reverse the liberalisation of the Prague Spring. Of course the timing of the anniversary has led to comparisons with the recent invasion of Georgia by Russia. The Prague Post has had a number of interesting pieces on the subject. Another comparison also comes to my mind - that with the events of the Velvet Revolution, when the Russian tanks did not roll in, but this does not seem to be much remembered in the current climate.
As a Brit I have pondered for some time what, if anything, I can say of value on the subject. I was only 10 at the time of the invasion and have a hazy memory of the BBC news coverage at the time - of people pleading with stony-faced Russian troops and my parents' reaction of sorrow. But more importantly I am aware (as I am always aware) of the very different pasts of the country of my birth and of my adopted home.
As a Brit I am supportive of any nation' s aspiration to democracy and the shaking off of tyranny. A child in the 60s we played Nazis and Brits in the playground and I remember still being taught how to draw spitfires by the big boy in the hospital bed across from mine, when I was having my appendix out. Only 2o years after the end of the war I watched with pride as the veterans marched down our street and then I stood with head bowed in the two-minute silence at the war memorial in the town square. "They died that the world could be free", I was told. Only in 1968 the people of Czechoslovakia were not free, and we could do nothing about it.
The invasion of Georgia coming at the time of the 40th anniversary has led to the Czechs expressing their fear that their current freedom will be shortlived. This fear expresses itself in support for the siting of US radar stations in the Czech Republic and it expresses itself in opposition to them. For many Russia remains the enemy, the threat of its aggression hangs over the former members of the "evil" empire.
It will perhaps come as a surprise to my Czech readers that I understand something of the Russians' position. It seems to me that they are suffering from a trauma arising from the rapid loss of empire. The Russian Empire goes back centuries to the great Russian rulers of Peter and Catherine the Great - it was the second largest empire in modern times. And who better to understand what the Russians are going through with its loss than a scion of the largest empire. In my primary school the map on the wall still had much of the world coloured pink- the Empire (and later the Commonwealth) on which the sun never set; besotted by history I devoured the tales of Empire - of David Livingstone, Clive of India, General Wolfe, and Captain Cook. And so I learnt not just about Britain defending freedom but also taking it, and as a child I was proud of both and saw no contradiction in my position.
No, I am sorry, my Czech friends, I am a child of Empire. I cannot know what it is to have been subjected by an imperial power. But I do know what happens to a people who have lost a great empire, one that had defined their identity for centuries. We are at a loss, we hurt. We tell ourselves stories - that the Empire was the price we paid for the defeat of Hitler or that the collapse of the empire was amicable - and we are angry and hurt by those former subject states that challenge the stories. Of course none of this excuses imperialism nor the actions of post-imperialist powers, it merely goes some way to explaining it.
Monday, 15 September 2008
I was eventually left with the larger pieces – many of them the old tree trunks that had been the source of the problem in the first place. I therefore got the builders to help me and they created a huge bonfire – much larger than anything I would dare. Now all that is left are a number of smaller pieces in the barn plus the soil, which contains the debris of wood which has been consumed. These I will dispose of, probably by burning. One of the great advantages of this enforced clearance is that I am able to see more of the barn and its features. The walls dividing the cattle stalls are made of single pieces of granite with a carved knob at one end to which to tie the beast presumably. The combination of red brick vaults rising from granite walls is remarkably elegant. I was reminded again by how taken I had been with the barn when first I saw it. I even look forward to seeing what lies under the layer of decay – there may be nothing but an earth floor or there maybe more granite cobbles.
The builder explained that the early German houses were built with the animals living downstairs and the family up. In the harsh Czech winters the heat of the animals would help heat the living quarters above. This is why they were often built into hillsides. In our barn the layout seems to be different – there are chutes in the barn ceiling which appear to allow hay and feedstuffs to be thrown down from their store above to the animals below. Meanwhile in the house we have gone back to a similar arrangement to that of the old days, but without the animals. We have abandoned downstairs to allow the dryrot treatment to work and are living quite happily upstairs. The arrangement of the rooms seems to suit this - various friends have commented positively on the change. I certainly have noticed that the neighbours (with one exception) all seem to have their main living room upstairs – it feels warmer up here and I suspect we might end up adopting this approach in winter, even when we get our main room back.
Friday, 12 September 2008
The butterflies that grace the Czech Republic are more varied and more frequent than those we get in England. Our garden is full of them dancing in the late summer sun, as I sit in my plastic chair watching. Some are quite plain – butterflies from the woods in a range of browns and subtle dappledness. Other are lighter - large and small brimstones, frittilaries, swallowtails, others are familiar like the many peacocks and tortoiseshells. I pursue them with camera in hand, but rarely get the photo I want.
Of all them, this beauty is my favourite and not just because it posed so obligingly. It is large (much larger than butterflies I see in my Cotswold garden) its wings are dark brown, edged with cream, and decorated with a line of turquoise flecks so intense they glow in the sunshine. Its beauty is subtle not flashy, an classy gem of a butterfly. The book says it's a Camberwell Beauty – well, I lived and worked in South East London and I never saw this butterfly anywhere there and certainly not in Camberwell.
Monday, 8 September 2008
On Saturday I took a taxi home, as driving having drunk alcohol of any quantity is forbidden in the Czech Republic. On the road we came across a fox – the taxi slowed to a crawl and the fox disappeared from the headlights' fierce glare into the verge. “Liska,” said the taxi driver smiling. Strangely this was my first encounter with a wild fox (liska) in the Czech Republic, although I see them regularly in England on the hills around my home. The only previous meeting had been with a sad fox at a nearby zoo, which paced up and down in its concrete cell.
My Czech home is built into the slope of a small hill, the downstairs rooms at the back being literally scraped out of the rock and earth. The hill is called Lisci Dira - Fox Hole in Czech. The following day I set off for the woods to walk and collect mushrooms. After the intense heat of the day before, the sky was cloudy and threatened rain. We had not had rain for several weeks and even then it had not been enough - the wood's floor was tinder-dry. I was just about to turn for home, when I spotted a clump of chanterelle mushrooms. I had looked in all my usual spots for chanterelles without success and had come to the conclusion that the drought had put paid to them. But there they were hiding in the moss. The Czech name for the chanterelle is Liska Obecna – common fox.
I had just picked the last of them, when a drop of rain fell on my arm. By the time I was out of the woods, across the field and into the narrow track that runs down to the village, I was soaked. As I came to the end of the trees that lined the track, I was stopped short by an extraordinary sight. There in broad daylight – it was 3pm and so mid afternoon – was a fox standing in the middle of the lane. It contemplated the scene for a while and then trotted off into the fields. Now I have seen foxes in daylight in London, indeed we had a whole family of them living in our back garden, but they were urban foxes used to people and had no cause to fear us, so unlike their country cousins. I walked on musing on this strange meeting. It is apparent to me that the fox allowed me to get that close. In my haste to get home and out of the rain I had made no attempt to walk softly and a fox's big red ears can hear a mouse squeak at 100 metres, I had stood watching him for a good minute or two before he chose to move off. Now he had chosen to stand in my path.
I am told that to the Czechs this was a lucky occurrence, that the fox is an animal spirit associated with witches and his appearance to me (not once but twice) was a sign of good fortune. I certainly felt lucky to have met with "bold Renardine".
Friday, 5 September 2008
In a previous blog I wrote about the plague column to be found in the town square in Cesky Krumlov. I walked past it today and as ever it was surrounded by tourists oblivious to its presence. I however was not. In fact I find I am always aware of it and what it signifies. I find history is constantly impinging on my consciousness in this place – a bane of being a historian by training perhaps. But then. Cesky Krumlov is like that anyway – history is ever present.
A few days ago as I crossed the square I saw that the fountain at its base and the statues surrounding it were covered with scaffolding as restoration takes place. I saw too that the statues had been wrapped in protective polythene and tarpaulin. Somehow this arrangement made the statues all the more disturbing, especially the one trussed up in a tarpaulin like a man on the gallows. .I took these photos and quickly moved on.
Thursday, 4 September 2008
A little further on an old lady was grubbing about in the grass and leaves under the trees. She looked a regular babushka, with beige cardigan, headscarf and matching tights, the lines on her face suggested she was probably about eighty. Behind her back one hand held a clear plastic bag. I nodded to her, as she looked up at me briefly before returning to her search. And then I realised the bag which I had thought contained old bread actually held a mass of caterpillars. I presume she was collecting them as tasty goodies for her chickens or maybe she was the owner of the ramshackle multi-storey pigeonloft, which sat behind one of the nearby homes. It is the nature of these things that most caterpillars will not make it - some will be squashed by a car tyre, some will not make it to the grass or are be taken birds, some will fall prey to a hawk-eyed babushka, but a few will turn into a chrysalis and eventually into Goat Moth. I rather hope mine is one of the lucky ones.
Monday, 1 September 2008
The Schwarzenberg Timber Canal is a source of some pride to the Czechs. They talk about the engineering prowess of its creator Josef Rosenauer in designing the canal to descend from the Sumava to the River Vlatava in the Czech Republic and the Muhl River (a tributary of the Danube) in Austria. This he achieved using the contours of the land, gravity and water from Plesny Lake and local streams to bring the timber gradually to their destinations, so gradually that at times when you are walking along it you hardly notice you are going downhill.. However Manchester Ship Canal it ain't, in fact it is not a canal for boats at all. Rather it is only about 4 metres wide and about 1 metre deep. I walked over it the first time I visited, before realising that this was the "great" Schwarzenberg Canal. And yet it certainly is quite a feat, with its granite lined walls, its shutes and the functionality of its design – it did its job very efficiently for over 100 years. As the Czechs would point out big isn't always best.
The Canal makes a popular walk for Czech families (the gradual slope makes pushchair handling easy) and cyclists. Yesterday I took advantage of the last day of the summer bus timetable to take a bus from Nova Pec (which I had gone to on the little train) to Jeleny Vrchy. The little village of Jeleny is the starting point for a number of excellent waymarked trails, of which the Canal one is the easiest. Grabbing a bottle of the superior Czech version of Coke – Kofola – I proceeded to walk down the blue-waymarked path back to Nova Pec via the canal bank. I recommend this walk as an easy-on-the-legs introduction to the Sumava forests. The slopes are covered primarily with fir, interspersed with silver birch, under which are mossy banks on many colours and the occasional large granite slab. Throughout the seasons you will see a range of flowers – the rare (and protected) Alpine snowbell, the more common violet, lupin (sometimes in huge swathes), bellflower, ragged robin and fireweed.
The canal whispered beside me as I walked, dyed brown by peat, whilst from time to time came the sound and glint of forest streams. Sometimes a vista would open up to show the wooded slopes of the Sumava or a lonely farmhouse. To enlighten the walk there were information boards every mile or two, in Czech with a German translation. These fortunately also had graphics which helped my rusty German and even worse Czech. They showed how the logs were transported, the canal built, about the animals of the forest, Plesny Lake, etc. Having had my fill of the canal and its environs I took another track, waymarked yellow, and descended through the forest a little more quickly. Now instead of the canal I had a stream to accompany me, that gushed among the moss-covered rocks, forming little pools and torrents, catching the light or descending into gloom.
I was reminded that I had read that it was here in the Sumava that the Czech otter population had survived in streams like this one. And in the forest the linx once more prowled after a successful reintroduction, though no such effort had yet been made for the lost animals of the Sumava - the wolf and the brown bear, both of which were hunted to extinction in the 19th century. After a while the track flattened out and I found myself in the peaty stream valley that I had passed on the bus coming up . The trees opened up to reveal tall grasses and flowers, reeds and the occasional fir or birch.
The track crossed over the brook, which was brown and freckled in the sunshine. And I rejoined the road to Nova Pec. Even here I found much to delight me. Little lizards left their basking places on the tarmac and scuttled into the grass at the approaching thunder of my footfall. Dragonflies darted and the air was full of the sweet scent of pine resin. At last the huts and houses of Nova Pec lined the road, and I walked to the station and home.