Thursday 18 February 2021
Wednesday 20 January 2021
I am going start the series with a post about a subject dear to my heart - owls. When I was nearly three, my family moved house. My father took me exploring the garden, an event that has stayed with me to this day. The previous owner had kept owls in the old stables that sat at the bottom of the garden of our rather normal terraced house and Dad showed me the pellets. The experience is the subject of the poem that gave my newly published poetry collection its title. The poem appears at the bottom of this post.
Ever since then I have had a love of owls and it seems that the Czechs have too, as owls feature in quite a few prints in the collection. Here are a few of my favourites:
First we found the snake
a ball of coiled skin and muscle
in a pickling jar at the base of the hedge.
I followed my father up
the outside stair to the stable loft,
on one side the railway signal
without a track,
on the other a brick wall,
pocked as the moon,
that would crumble
like cheese in the rain
under the thud of my ball
and send it flying sideways
The tread creaked as my father entered
and I followed into the dim.
I looked around, but saw
only an empty perching post.
The owl had gone with its master.
At my father’s instruction
I held out my hands
as if ready to receive bread and wine,
but into my bowl of fingers
he dropped a pellet,
a galaxy of small bones and feathers
cocooned in fur.
That night I woke.
The moon shredded by clouds
hung over the stable roof
and an owl called unbound
from the cypress tree.
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
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 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.