Wednesday, 15 August 2007

In the orchard

This morning I was knee-deep in grass and nettles picking red currants from the bushes at the end of the orchard. My Czech friends suggest I get a pair of goats or a few sheep to keep the grass down, but that all seems a little too much responsibility to me – for starters I would need to ensure a supply of water and then I would need to check that the fence is without holes. All too much work.

The orchard doesn't entirely belong to us, part of it we rent and part - well I am not sure what to make of it - the land registry map bears so little resemblance to what is on the ground and the fence is there and has been for years with everyone respecting it.

The orchard is a joy. It is old and full of hidden treasures, a large cherry tree of great height, apple trees of summer and winter varieties, plum trees with lovely sweet small fruit and now red currants. We share the fruit with the wildlife of the area – wasps of course, but other larger beasts as well. Today I found a defined deer track through the grass leading from the plum tree to where windfall apples were on the ground, their droppings clearly showed they had first feasted on plums. They are welcome to them, we have more than enough.

Eating fish at Lake Lipno

On a couple of occasions recently we have gone to Lake Lipno to eat at the restaurants along the shore and look out across the lake as the sun sets. One of the things that really strikes you is how in contrast to Cesky Krumlov and even Ceske Budejovice this part of Czecho, only a few miles away, is not geared to the English-speaking tourist.

This is Dutch or German territory. The Dutch have arrived here in their droves – camping in tents and campervans at the various local campsites, or even buying up local properties. The reason I am told for the latter is that they are investing in a part of the world that is sufficiently high above sea level not to be threatened by global warming. Last night we were sitting around a fire in the garden of some Czech neighbours drinking pear schnapps and the subject got on to the Dutch. It would appear that they are not all together popular around here – the comment was made that you would never see Dutch people sitting by a fire with the Czechs. This is probably a problem more with the fact that the Dutch “colony” here is sufficiently large that it can keep to itself (as happens with the Brits elsewhere) than with the Dutch themselves.

Anyway back to the Lipno restaurants the menus were in Czech, German and sometimes Dutch and fortunately I speak enough German to get by and if that fails have a Czech phrasebook with a convenient menu section. The second restaurant we went to was a fish restaurant. Unlike fish restaurants at home Czech fish restaurants of course specialise in freshwater fish – especially the ubiquitous carp (which the Czechs eat for Christmas lunch by the way and which you buy from large tanks set up in town squares from November onwards). Our conversation with our waiter was not good, and he arrived with two portions of butter fried pike which we had not ordered and which was of course more expensive than the trout that we had. We could not work out if he was pulling a fast one, or if he was particularly thick – we had accompanied our order (made in both German and Czech) with much pointing at the relevant menu item. Either way he didn't get a tip at the end of the meal and we will not be going back there again.

As we came out of the restaurant the sun was setting. All along the shore line there were solitary fishermen with rod and line catching a free meal. The lake was like glass in the twilight and the Sumava mountains rose out of mist on the other side. Our tempers calmed, we took some photos and came home.

The thrill of mushrooms

My husband was still asleep when I awoke early yesterday. The sun was already beginning to pour round the curtain into our room and it was obvious that it was going to be hot. The last few days we have had rain as the tail-end of the weather system that brought floods to England crossed over Central Europe. The parched earth here was desperate for rain and drank it in. The Czechs were getting worried. No snow melt this year, due to virtually no snow, and now no spring or summer rain - there would be no mushrooms and the Czechs are lost without mushrooms. Czech coins feature a heraldic lion with two tails – it would be more appropriate if it was a fungus rampant.

I too have caught the mushroom bug – so leaving husband and son sleeping I snuck out of the house and climbed the path to the woods above the village. Even before I got there I was picking small puffballs in the grass and then on entering the woods I discovered that the rain had indeed worked its magic. My basket was soon half full.

There is a certain joy in mushrooming that I find hard to explain – firstly there is always a pleasure in getting something for free and of course wild mushrooms are delicious – but it is more than that. I have always loved finding wild food – my mum used to take me collecting blackberries as a child, although in those days more went in my mouth than the bowl. But mushrooming is special. One of the joys is that mushrooms can almost appear overnight and so unlike blackberries you do not observe them ripening – a place that was barren a couple of days ago can be full of mushrooms now. This gives a wonderful element of surprise to the whole business. Of course one learns the best spots to look, but they cannot always be relied upon. So there is an element of the hunt in mushrooming that there isn't in other wild food gathering.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Making our Czech house a home

We have been decorating the house. The major work has now all been finished – the ceilings replastered, the floors half-stripped, new bathrooms installed and now we get to the stage of making the house a home. My husband has been painting the doors – downstairs a bright blue and upstairs grey. It is amazing how a lick of paint can transform the most cruddy of doors (and boy are they cruddy – the cheapest doors the previous owners could find). We would love at some point to replace them with good wood ones, but this being an old house there is not a doorway of the same size anywhere and none that are anything like regular in their proportions and so to replace them as we would wish would mean commissioning a carpenter to make each door individually and first we must pay for the new roof. And so for now a lick of gloss paint will have to do.

A few weeks ago we came over from England with two suitcases full of little things to decorate the place with. It is fascinating to see what one chooses in these circumstances. We now have a large bookcase full of mostly fiction (English classic and contemporary novels, US detective stories and a selection of European titles including several Czech masters), poetry (English and European) and some books on myths, jungian psychology and of course fairytales, including a favourite from our son's childhood an old Hamlyn book translated from the Czech and illustrated with typically Czech graphics. Our son commented that it wouldn't be our home without books in every room – we are working on it.

On the window sills of the main room there are three low white ceramic dishes. One contains pebbles of various hues and another of shells, both pebbles and shells collected on a beach in Kent. They are shown off to their best by lying in water – hold your face close to either and inhale and you will smell the sea, here in this landlocked country. The other bowl contains a collection of fossils – ammonites and a devil's toenail from the muddy beaches of the River Severn, bivalves from the Cotswold heights and some sharks teeth that I found in the shingle of that Kent beach. On the dining table is a small wine carafe holding a bunch of wildflowers collected from a meadow near the train station. Our son has given the house a large marionette, which he carried all the way back from Thailand in his knapsack. It looks strangely at home here. Upstairs a large Mexican embroidery the size of a small sheet and covered with hand-sewn brightly coloured animals adorns the landing wall.

The most Czech thing in the house is the hand-carved head of Jesus crucified that hangs at the top of the stairs. This was the first thing I bought for the house – a piece of work from our carpenter who had first introduced me to the house and aptly was playing Jesus in the local passionplay and clearly was getting heavily into the part.

Birds in the Czech Republic

I was sitting on the terrace the other day drinking a mug of tea, when there was a loud clattering on the stable veranda. I looked up expecting to see one of the local dogs looking down at me or at least the farm cat, but no – a small bird was peering over the edge. The bird was dark brown-black with a chestnut-covered tail and rump. He is a regular visitor to the yard searching for insects in the crannies of the barn walls. I am no ornithologist but by dint of buying a book of European birds I know him to be a black redstart. Other regular visitors to the yard include a nuthatch, with its black eyestripe like some designer sunglasses and lovely blue-grey wings and head, and house martins who nest under the eaves and do aerobatics against the sky. NB the house martin is not to be confused with the pine martin. The latter is also common here and a pest – such a confusion led to my husband talking at cross purposes with our Czech friend, who told us that martins chew their way through cables and so many Czechs put martin traps in the lofts!

Living where we do in a small village near to the Czech Sumava forests the common birds are less those of a English suburban garden but more those of woodlands and open fields. I regularly see a treecreeper working the bark of one of the trees that line the road to Horice. As for buzzards they are almost so common around here for it to be remarkable when you do not see one. Once my husband saw a buzzard flying over with a large grass snake in its talons. Another bird I have seen on my walks to the woods is the grey-headed woodpecker – something we do not get in England. Some of the villages on the wetlands around Ceske Budejovice have wheels erected on poles to attract visiting storks, which once they have nested you will see in groups in the fields. The last bird that I think I will mention is the butcher bird – the shrike – which was sat half way up a silver birch the other day with its cruel long hooked beak and harsh cry.


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