Thursday, 28 June 2007

Beer - Czech Breakfast - Yes?

The Czechs have a saying - "Beer makes men beautiful bodies." And if that is true Czech men are the most beautiful in the world - because the Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption per head in the world - one bottle every day for every man, woman and child.

The reason for this high consumption rate is possibly the low price of beer here - a bottle of Budvar will cost about 25p (10 kcs) in a local supermarket and maybe 50p (20 kcs) in a pub. The Czechs regard cheap beer as a birthright. No Czech government wishing to stay in power would dare increase the prices, so when the EU tried to raise duty on beer last year the Czech Government blocked the rise. The other reason is of course the quality. There are breweries all across the Czech Republic - the most famous of these are Pilsner Urquel (Plzensky Prazdroj), Gambrinus, Bernard, Kozel, Staropramen and of course our local Budvar.

Budvar for me means that I am getting near home. Ceske Budejovice, the nearest large town to our home, is the home of Budweiser Budvar - the real Budweiser and infinitely superior to the American stuff. You pass the brewery on the train from Prague, it is a sign to get your bags from the luggage rack and get ready. There is a large bottle, several floors high attached to the side of the brewery, so you shouldn't miss it.

That Czechs drink beer at any point of the day was brought home to us when we moved into our house. A gang of blokes turned up to move out the furniture of the family we were buying the house from about 7.00am. After an hour or so's hard work humping chunky furniture around they stopped and started looking for something. One came up to us and made a shape of a box in the air, we shook our heads blankly. Suddenly there was a shout and someone appeared carrying a crate of beer. Bottles were cracked open and they began to drink. The leader came up to my husband and offered a bottle - in broken English he said "Beer - Czech breakfast. English breakfast - whisky and soda, yes?"

Our favourite Czech beers are Gambrinus and Bernard. I am particularly fond of the Czech dark beer, which English drinkers will be less familiar with. Dark beer according to another Czech saying is meant to increase the size of a woman's breasts. I don't know if that is true, but it is certainly worth trying before you resort to surgery!

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Svejk or Kafka - two sides of the Czech nation

My Czech friend believes that the Czechs are either like the Good Soldier Svejk of the novel of the same name, bumbling through life indifferent to the impositions of authority, or like the heroes of Kafka's novels stuck helpless in an impossible maze of bureaucracy. The more time I spend in this country, the more I come to realise that her analysis is correct. These two great Czech writers had indeed captured something of the Czech soul.

I am regularly struck by the Czechs' laissez faire attitude to life. An example of this is the lack of timekeeping as exemplified in my last post by the failure of the local town hall to keep to office hours (which played to my advantage) and the irregular collection dates for rubbish (which doesn't). Had this been in England the local householders would have been ringing up the town hall to complain and muttering darkly to one another about how we pay our money and should get proper service. The Czechs on the other hand are positively Mediterranean in their attitude. They shrug their shoulders, as if to say, "That is how it is. What do you expect?"

Our house is full of nearly finished and annoying items of work that the builder, the plumber and electrician all need some day to get round to sorting. Every time I sit on the loo and it rocks because the plumber has yet to fix it to the floor, I am reminded of this. Every time I end up turning on my very expensive central heating by hand, when I should be able to do it by mobile phone from England, I am reminded. I do not take offence at this or feel that I am hard done by. I have observed that nearly all the Czech homes I have been in are in a similar state.

Then on the other hand there is Czech bureaucracy. Things that are simple in England can take up an inordinate amount of time here, waiting in one office to get the right form, waiting in another office to get the form stamped and then in another and another, and then finally being told you've got the wrong form and need to go back to the first office for another one. Even the simple job of paying a bill requires a trip to the bank or post office and filling in a form, as the Czechs have yet to discover cheques. It gets more complicated when trying to understand Czech laws, which can be overly complicated and indeed contradictory. As a Czech friend explained, when a new law comes in, they don't necessarily change the old ones which it should replace. So what do you do, faced with this impasse? Well you can do nothing, be paralysed by the Gordian knot of bureaucracy or you can proceed although in some way or another you will be breaking one law while obeying another. Kafka or Svejk, take your choice.

This is actually damaging for the Czech economy and society. For starters a lot of transactions happen on the wrong side of the law (brown envelopes and the like) not just to avoid paying tax (an old Czech saying is "He who does not steal from the state, steals from his family") but also to get something done sometime this side of doomsday. But there are other serious consequences for this country. The whole culture appears to biased against things happening, against people taking ownership of their own lives and fates. As a Brit and one who has been involved in helping communities help themselves, I am shocked by how difficult it is to mobilise people to improve things. Firstly people do not believe that anything will change if they do something and secondly they believe (often rightly) that bureaucracy will stop them.

A few months ago I was working with a collection of local residents about issues relating to their home town. It was clear from meeting with them that they really did want to change things. It was agreed that they would individually write to the authorities involved, which they have done. I also got them to agree (or so I thought) to set up a group not only to fight for changes, but also to access the large amounts of EU money that are available for programmes of positive change. I now discover that they have decided not to proceed with forming the group. Why? Because of the bureaucracy involved in registering it - whereas in England unincorporated community groups are able to start up easily. As a Brit I would still have gone ahead with it, but then I was brought up in a deep-seated can-do culture that believes in climbing mountains because they are there. My Czech friends, seeing the high hurdle in front of them, believing perhaps that they could do very little and what they could do was only influence others, talked themselves out of taking the next step. Who am I to judge? I cannot understand. They are right in the context of their own history and culture. But meanwhile there are piles of EU money waiting for the Czechs to claim, or waiting at least until 2012 when it will go elsewhere.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Czech rubbish collection

In front of our house gate is the dustbin. It is old and rusty with holes in the bottom and was inherited from the previous owners. This vital piece of kit is the source of much amusement and bemusement.

In order to get your bin emptied, you have to go to the Horice Na Sumava Town Hall and register, so I recently went with a Czech friend to sort out the bin. We arrived at the Town Hall down an alley off the main square to be greeted with a sign that the offices were not open on that day. I was ready to turn away, when my Czech friend said "Let's see if they are open." and went in. The place looked empty but in one room to the right we found two women in an office. They knew me at once - the news of the British woman from the village had proceeded me. They looked at me with interest and smiles.

There was no problem with sorting the bin for me. I paid an embarrassingly small sum, which probably costs more to collect than I actually paid, and they gave me a sticker, like a car tax disc, which you stick on the bin to show the dustbin men that you have paid. It would be emptied once a week, the women explained, on Monday. I went home, stuck the sticker on the bin and put in a load of rubbish ready for collection. Of course the dustmen did not come on Monday, but several days later they appeared with a lorry, that was more like a skiptruck than a British dustbin lorry. As far as I can observe there is no regular day for rubbish collection at all. And when the lorry does turn up I have to run out the house and point at the bin to get it emptied. I have seen my neighbour do the same. But hey, the rubbish goes and that is the main thing.

In towns, lots of people don't bother with this bin-registering lark (probably because it is more expensive), but pop out quietly in the dead of night and deposit carefully wrapped rubbish in the public litter bins, which are emptied regularly. As my punster of a husband put it recently "It's bin a real learning curve, I can tell you."

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Two rules for visitors to Prague

I spent a few pleasant hours in Prague a few weeks ago. It is a city which is very special for me - it was here that I first fell in love with Czecho. I try to spend some time wandering aimlessly every time I visit - it's by far the best way to discover the city's hidden treasures. I have two rules:

No. 1 When you see a crowd of tourists, especially a gang of shirtless British stagnighters, dive down the nearest alley. It is amazing how just going a few yards to the left or right of the tourist routes, which stretch from Charles Bridge to the Town Square, or from the Bridge up to the Castle, you will find yourself alone.

No.2 Look up. It is easy to have your eyes captivated by the glitter of shop fronts and the allure of mammon and not to see Prague's architectural and decorative treasures above. Look up and you will see frescos, sgraffito, carvings, and sculpture. Look up and you will see architecture from all that great city's long history.

And as a result of following either or both of these rules you will have the added bonus of getting lost and so find a part of the city that you weren't looking for, but should have been.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

When yes means no

A month ago I tried to organise the removal of several piles of rusty metal, including old bedsteads, guttering, weird pressed metal kitchen units from the communist times (probably the 1960s), broken cast iron stoves and so forth. They were taking up a lot of space in the yard and making it look awful. The Horice Na Sumave Town Council has a waste metal collection, but by the time the lorry gets to our part of the district it is already full and frankly our delightful assortment of Czech iron would make up at least half a load.

Eventually my friend found a friend who had a friend who would take it. This being the way things tend to work in the Czech Republic. The man arrived and we went round the yard and into the old barn and as I pointed out the rusting piles, he nodded and smiled. Friday, he would come on Friday morning, he said; we shook hands on it and off he went in his car. Friday came, nothing happened. No lorry turned up and I wasted a day waiting for him. On Saturday my friend telephoned me - a major international incident had been triggered by my iron.

Somewhere in the Chinese whispers that had led to the process, the any-old-iron man had been led to believe that there were five tonnes of metal in my yard. He was insulted to be asked to take my paltry piles away, it would cost him more money to hire a lorry than he would make. There had been a major bust up with his friend who had told him about the iron in the first place and now twenty years of friendship between the two was under threat. His friend had then rung mine in distress about what has happened and after she had spent half an hour calming him down, she had had to ring the iron man and done the same to him. After that she rang me.

We both expressed our frustration at the process. Why, oh why, had the man said yes he would take it when he inspected the iron in the yard, when he should have said no? The answer is that they do it all the time. The Czechs have a problem saying no. They will tell you what they think you want to hear, and that means saying yes when they have no intention of doing anything. As a Brit, I hate it, and find it incredibly hard to get used to. I do not mind being told bad news - in fact it is almost a national characteristic to quite like it - but I hate being lied to and regard it as downright rude. I suspect the Czechs see it totally differently. But at least the ironman didn't get halfway and then leave everything partially done - unlike some Czech carpenters I have known!

Friday, 1 June 2007

Gardens and gardening

Just like the British the Czechs are never so happy as when they are gardening. The desire to grow things and to have some small part of this earth that they can shape and tend is very deep in them.

One way the communists kept the Czechs under control was to allow them all their allotments and their little huts. It doesn't matter that these might be along the side of a railway line on the wrong side of town, each rectangle of land is carefully tended with apple trees and lines of vegetables and flowers. The little shed may be made of a rickety affair made from odd scraps of wood but it exudes a certain pride. This is where the family comes at weekends to help, to sit around fires and cook sausages and drink beer or homemade plum brandy (made from the plums of the tree they are sitting under). And from your passing train you see briefly into their little kingdom and then they are gone again, but as you pass through each village, town and city this scene is revisited time and time again

It is not an accident that possibly the best book on gardening was written by a Czech - The Gardener's Year by Karel Capek (illustrated by his brother Josef see above). No writer I know so brilliantly describes the joys and trials of gardening or with such poetry. For example he writes of buds "You must stand still; and then you will see open lips and furtive glances, tender fingers, and raised arms, the fragility of a baby, and the rebellious outburst of the will to live, and then you will hear the infinite march of the buds faintly roaring." And all the time he talks of the soil "I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil. . . . He lives buried in the ground."

But the Czechs are not blessed with England's glorious temperate weather and as a result cannot have the infinite variety of plant options that the English have, garden centres here seem meagre affairs after the cornucopia of the English ones. I find it incredibly hard to find plants that will survive here - that will survive both the harsh winter and the hotter dryer summers. Lavender? No. Bluebells? No. I must learn to garden like the Czechs and to know and love the sharp differential of seasons, as Capek did, and the limitations they bring.


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