Sunday, 10 May 2020
I am sometimes asked how I found our Czech house. The answer is Hannah's carpenter - Frantisek. She told him I was looking and he took it upon himself to find the right house for me. When I said how it called to my soul, he did one of his mysterious smiles and said "Vim" (I know). That comment pretty much summed him up. He was a man of very few words, seldom more than two left his lips at any one time. But he had a spirituality that was beyond words. The first time I met Frantisek was when he was playing Jesus in the Horice na Sumava Passion play - a part he was made for. Hannah and I joked that he was so into method acting that he never came out of character. To my husband and me Frantisek is always known as "Frantisek Jesus."
Frantisek was an artist rather than a carpenter. I remember how he stroked the curve of a desk he made for Hannah out of one plank of wood. Nothing Frantisek made was ever quite straight, which was a problem if you wanted him to make a door, but not if you wanted something beautiful. How I wanted him to make me some furniture. But first the house needed repairing, and after a disaster in which he removed my windows to repair without numbering them, I was disinclined to offer him precision work.
One day he arrived excited that he could source some wood cheaply for Hannah and me. We both ordered a load of rough hewn planks - Hannah chose oak and I elm. Mine were piled in the barn to wait the time when they could be transformed into furniture. Very soon I discovered that mine had woodworm, something elm is prone too. Woodworm didn't seem to worry Frantisek over much. On a visit to his house and workshop in Horice, I found my feet sinking into the floorboards they were so wormy. When I finally left my Czech home, the elm planks remained unused and were only fit for firewood. I never did get the chance to own one of Frantisek's quirky bookcases.
Over the years Frantisek would occasionally turn up for a wordless visit. But then his visits stopped. When I asked my neighbour, a mutual friend, she told me that Frantisek had been working in Germany (something many local craftsmen do) and that one day coming home over the Sumava mountains and probably tired after a long week of work, he mistook a tight bend and drove into a tree. His son who was with him was thrown clear, but Frantisek was killed.
I shall always be grateful for that silent, strange and wonderful man. When I left my Czech home I left a carving, the only thing Frantisek made for me, a self portrait of Jesus. It was too heavy to take on the plane and besides I very much felt that it should stay there.
Tuesday, 24 March 2020
One thing being in the Czech Republic gives me is a tendency to observe more closely those little things, that usually I pass by. There I was walking around the square in Telc, a place bustling with tourists, when I observed these little eruptions between the cobblestones. They were everywhere.
Czech cobbles are bedded in sand and the gap between them had made a perfect place for solitary miner bees to excavate their nests. In burrows, under the tourists' feet, the bees had built egg chanbers, furnished them with a sack of pollen, and laid their eggs. Now the new bees were hatching unobserved by all but me and launching into the air to feast on the flowers that decorated the square.
Thursday, 12 March 2020
When the purchasers of my house first visited, they asked about the land around the house. On hearing that it had always been rented to the house owners by the council, they got very excited about being able to grow vegetables and fruit. The dream of having a small holding is one that Czechs hold dear. A few may want flower gardens, but many want to have sheep or goats in the orchard, chickens and rabbits in lean-to shelters, and potatoes, squash, cabbage and beans in ground. Go into a country dweller's home in winter and you will find jars of tomatoes, soft fruit, sauerkraut, and potatoes in sacks, stored apples, onions and garlic. As a builder once told me "All a Czech needs for the winter is potatoes and cabbage." He should have added beer, but that goes without saying.
I tried to join in this dream of self sufficiency by planting fruit bushes, but was not in the country enough to fight off the deer and birds that raided my garden. I was soon disillusioned of my rosy ideas of the rural idyll - growing food was a battle, but rearing animals for food was more demanding.
This was made very clear to me one day. I was standing at the bathroom window cleaning my teeth, when I saw my neighbour take one of the rabbits from the hutch. I watched as he killed it, hung it from the apple tree to strip it of its fur and gutted it. He had spent all summer carefully picking dandelion leaves specially to feed it and yet he was brusk even brutal when it came to killing the animal. I was shocked, this was so unlike my gentle giant of a neighbour. It made me think about my attitude to meat. I had never seen an animal killed for food before, although I eat meat. Mine is the first generation in my family that have had the luxury of ignorance. My mother remembered the killing of of the family pig and no doubt other animals. My grandmother talked in great detail of the flurry of activity that followed the pig's death, including the making of those famous Lincolnshire sausages. Wasn't the Czech approach more honest than mine?
Monday, 27 January 2020
On this the Holocaust Memorial Day this post is about the concentration camp at Lety close to Pisek.
Lety was built as a labour camp for criminals by the Czechoslovak authorities, but in 1942 it was designated by the Nazis as a camp for "gypsies and gypsy half-breeds" of which there were 6500 registered in the country. The camp's capacity was increased to 600 inmates, but that was soon exceeded: by August 1100 men, women and children were crammed into thin-walled wooden huts. In December 1942 typhus broke out in the unsanitary conditions and lasted until the camp was closed in summer 1943. 326 people died at the camp, including all the 30 babies born there. The rest were transported to Auschwitz/Birkenau and the final solution of the "gypsy and gypsy half-breed question". Only 600 Czech Roma survived the Holocaust or the Devouring as the Roma call it.
Lety camp 1942 (photo: Museum of Roma Culture.)
Lety has been a sore in the history of Czechoslovakia. There were many who argued that it was simply a labour camp for criminals and sadly there still are people who believe this. The camp guards were employees of the police force of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, not German SS officers. The brutal treatment of the prisoners went unpunished after . Over the decades since the war the Roma have had to fight for the removal of a pig farm built on the site and for a memorial to be erected to the dead. The Roma and Sinti remain the forgotten victims of the Holocaust.
This poem of mine was published in the second Poetry Birmingham Literature Journal at the end of last year:
RAINBOW OVER LETY
I view from a passing coach
the broken wheel of light –
one end stuck in rutted clay,
one in forest loam.
Under the trees the leaves are flayed skin,
the roots whitened bones.
We move too fast to watch the light fade,
the dissolution of the arch into grey.
We, who are blessed with movement,
hurry past the stillness of the dead.
The restless ones rustle but cannot leave,
they for whom movement was everything
Monday, 13 January 2020
Before Christmas I spent four weeks waiting to sign the contract for the sale of the house. In the end the signing took place on the morning of my departure date. So I am again in the Czech Republic to hand back my temporary residency paper to the authorities, to partially empty the house and sort various other matters.
So here I am sitting in a room that no longer feels like mine - there are no books, no cds, no pictures on the wall and very limited choice of food. I will be handing over my keys on Thursday, this is the end of my life in my Czech home. I have removed the brass fox doorknocker from the front door and for the first time I haven't seen my friend and mentor the local fox during my stay, although I am hoping he will come and say goodbye before I leave.
My lovely husband is with me for this last visit, for which I am very grateful as this is all proving very hard. Today was his birthday, so we took the early evening bus into Krumlov and had a meal at Nonna Gina's, the pizza restaurant we used to regularly visit with Hannah. Afterwards we took a walk through a nearly deserted town. It was just like it used to be, when first we visited the Krumlov. Without hordes of visitors and with wood smoke hanging in the crisp air, we could enjoy the atmosphere and beauty of the historic town, imagining that around the corner might appear someone from a time gone by. I haven't felt like that for a long time.
Thursday, 2 January 2020
On the walk down to the train station I pass the swimming pond. The pond is now frozen over and soon the ice will be thick enough to skate on. But on hot summer days it is full of locals enjoying the cool waters. This is not a swimming pool as we Brits know it. It is fed by water from the local brook and is a place for nature as well as humans. In the spring and autumn the water is sometimes disturbed by carp rising to the surface and returning to the depths or by flies breaking the surface as they take their first flights. Occasionally a heron patrols the shallows and for a while an enterprising fisherman had a boat moored at its side.
I remember how there used to swimming ponds in England like this one. There was a ruined one a few minutes walk from my Cotswold town, where the more adventurous kids used to swim even though it was silting up. The rest of us would cycle to Stanway, where there was still an open-air swimming pond, with wooden changing cubicles and mown grass on the water. These attractions have all gone, no doubt considered unsafe and unhealthy.
A year or so ago I was walking past the pond when I was amazed to see a black stork wading in the water. Whilst white storks are a common sight in villages and fields throughout the country, the black stork is an altogether rarer sight. The black stork is a shy bird, avoiding humans and restricted primarily to the forests and lakes. I suppose I should not have been as surprised as I was, after all my village borders the Boletice forest, which for many years was a restricted area. But still I had never seen a black stork at the pond or indeed anywhere else before, and I have not seen one since.
Saturday, 21 December 2019
This little fellow came with the house. He was here when we took possession of the place on that bright sunny November morning in 2005. He has stood watch over the approach to the front door ever since. In winter he wears a hat of snow, in summer his paint fades and blisters still more. At times he has guarded more than that. Keys were left under his feet and the person who was to retrieve the key was told that “our little friend has the keys.” When I leave this house for the last time, I will leave it under his watchful eye. Like those ancient household Slavic gods (the Domovoy), you can't easily part a gnome from his house.