Saturday, 29 March 2008

Klet - The Magic Mountain

I am convinced the Klet moves, that it floats silently over the landscape of the South Bohemia while no one is looking. It doesn't seem to matter where you go round here, whether you walk into the woods above our house, or drive home from Ceske Budejovice suddenly it is there, usually in a direction you didn't expect. The Klet sits watching over us all. Is it surprising therefore that the Czechs have long regarded it as a magical place?

And there is something else about – it is never the same. No matter how often you look at it, it shows another face. Today its peak was completely hidden in fine cloud with only the mast at appearing above the white. On summer days after a storm the trees breathe wisps of mist from its slopes, it is as if the ghosts of the forest are floating just above the trees. The autumn sun catches the different colours of its many trees, picking out a group and then moving on.

One winter before we bought the house, I came to visit with my friend here. It was my first Czech winter and a hard one. On our last day before we returned to Prague, we took a taxi up to the observatory at the top of the mountain. From there we walked down in the snow. I did not have proper boots and so we improvised with a couple of plastic bags - I must have looked an idiot to the man on his walking skis who passed us. The air was clear and bright, and caught in your throat. It was beginning to thaw and occasionally a pine tree would deposit a load of snow down the back of your neck. We laughed and shook it off. At the edge of the forest we ate a sandwich and drank tea from a flask, and made our way past the ex-army base into town. From there we took a taxi to the station and from thence we rode off to the city. At the beginning of our journey the little train crawled around the mountain's dark green flanks, past pine trees bent double with snow. And thus ended my first meeting with the magic mountain.

Thursday, 27 March 2008


We are currently enduring an invasion of mice. Not grey housemice like the ones I am familiar with in England, but their larger brown country cousins. Our house sits next to a orchard with long grass in the summer, which backs on to countryside. Now the rich pickings have disappeared and the field mice have moved home. These wee beasties are brazen little beggars, with the ability to scale vertical obstacles and get everywhere. The pantry of course has been the scene of their forays – almost every packet has been gnawed, not enough to empty the contents but just enough to necessitate their disposal. The box of cleaning stuff has been raided for nesting materials – they are particularly fond of washing up sponges which they tear to shreds. The decorative candles on the windowsills have been stripped of their wicks. I found a hoard of pasta tubes inside one of my old shoes. To cap it all I came to bed the other night to find that there were droppings on my nice white duvet and the mice had even been under the covers.

My friend says “Get a cat, or allow the neighbours' one in”. But whilst the local cats are good mousers, they are not housetrained and I have had problems before. And so in desperation I went to the ironmongers and bought some mousetraps. Not knowing the Czech for mousetrap, this was achieved with some high-quality miming on my part - I must have looked a sight squeaking whilst making a simultaneous chopping movement, but it worked. The traps set, we caught two in a night. Looking at the beautiful little things with their large ears and warm brown fur, I feel like a murdering cur. But then I remind myself that it is one thing to share a little of my food with these lovely creatures, quite another to share my bed and my heart hardens.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Sun and snow

Yesterday we walked to Horice Na Sumave to catch the bus into Cesky Krumlov. Although there was snow on the ground the sun was bright and warm, throwing long shadows over the fields and picking diamonds of ice in the snow. Passing over the hill we descended into Horice, the fields to our left were virtually clear of snow. Then rising from the grass a lark flew upwards towards the blue in starts of song. We listened enchanted , our hearts rising with the small bird.

When we arrived at the bus stop the sun had disappeared, across the fields towards us sped a snow cloud. Suddenly all was white and grey. Driving snow forced us to drop our heads and then to give up the fight. We turned our heads away and crouched to avoid the stinging whiteness. The bus came and for a while outran the snow. Arriving in Cesky Krumlov the ground was bare of snow and it looked as though we had escaped, but then the relentless blizzard caught up with us and all was white again.

Last night reflecting on it, it seemed to me that this was how things were in the world. One minute we are ascending into endless blue, the next everything is a stinging white fog, in which all landmarks, both familiar and on the horizon, are lost to us. All we can do when the snow descends is to hunker down, like some small animal, until the sky clears again.

Tomorrow the weather forecast is that the Spring will return again.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Dressing up as Angels

As I told you in my blog on the anti-radar exhibition (below) there was a short comic sketch for which a local man dressed up as an angel. In my blog on the St Nicolas' Day celebrations I told how all over the Czech Republic people dress up as angels and devils. This desire by Czech men to dress up as angels is an interesting national trait. British men like to dress up as women, as the Czechs have discovered from the numerous British stag nights that hit Prague. I have even queued behind a British man in a miniskirt on a cold January day at Prague airport. In both the Czech and British case there is clearly something about putting on frilly frocks that appeals, but the point is not to be feminine (for the British male) or asexual (for the Czech) but to remain masculine within the assumed guise. The best ones are those where the voice stays low, the chin remains unshaved. My friend and I were speculating what the difference between the preferred mode of male fancy dress meant about the psyche of our different countries, but in the end we decided it was better if we did not look too deeply.

Against the Radar

On Good Friday my husband and I attended the launch of an exhibition by local artists (both amateur and professional) against the plans to create American radar bases on Czech soil. The works were very varied in their approach, even if their message of no radar was consistent. The small exhibition space was full of supporters who clapped the anti-radar speeches, a short musical performance and a comedy sketch. This latter consisted of an “angel” in conversation with a Czech Everyman and proffering all sorts of American goodies – coke instead of Czech beer, hamburgers drenched in tomato sauce, a photo of a smiling President Bush and the radar. At the end of the event the caimpaigners queued up symbolically smash a clay model of the proposed radar, including some of the children who had watched, stomped and danced to the entertainment.

I was much reminded of those CND demonstrations of my twenties - the humour, the camaraderie, the belief that one had to do something. We believed then we could stop the arrival of the cruise missiles on British soil, and even if we couldn't that at least we should try. Of course we failed, but I wish the Czechs well. The Americans argue that the radar will protect the Czechs and the rest of us, but from what? The recent noises coming from the Kremlin leave no doubt how provocative Moscow finds the proposals. And anyone standing back and looking at the situation objectively can see why. Thank God, we have lain aside the politics and rhetoric of the Cold War, so why would the Czechs wish to poke the wounded Russian bear, having been so long prone under his paw?

These protestors have been dismissed and ridiculed by the Czech government and the Americans. But one thing strikes me - regardless of where one stands on the issue, surely this protest movement is a sign that this country is a democracy in which speech and thought is free. Such things should be cherished, they are what we all should fight for.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Czech weather

It is nearly Easter and it is snowing. Over the last few days the snow has fallen at night only to melt during the day, but yesterday the snow stayed in our village in the foothills of the Sumava Mountains. In Cesky Krumlov the snow melted, but here a couple of hundred metres higher there has been no such relief - the snow is six inches deep and rising. The other thing that is to be noted is the wind, which drives the snow nearly horizontally at times. A wind is a rare thing in this landlocked country and is frankly one thing I miss from the UK. In Britain there is nearly always a wind blowing off the Atlantic, bringing a succession of weathers and affording the British the one thing they can comfortably talk about to strangers.

Czech weather used to be reliable – cold in winter with snow and warm in summer. Now that seems to have changed somewhat. Less snow, more rain (even in summer) and on occasion as today a wind. In the old days the Czech winter came from Siberia, now it comes from the west, indeed from the UK and the Atlantic. Is this a sign of global warming or a meteorological reflection of the new political situation? Time will tell. At least by the time the weather gets here from the UK the gaps between the isobars have widened and the intensity of the wind has lifted somewhat.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Debating Builders

I recently invited some Brits, who have just bought a typical Czech farmhouse in a village a few miles away, to tea. It seemed only right that we Brits should support each other in our excursions into Czech property purchase. Anyway, they were full of tales about Czech builders and their plans for their new enormous home. I sat and listened to their excitement and enthusiasm and remembered what I had felt two years ago when I had started.

One thing they commented on was an incident at the house of another friend, where a crack had appeared in a wall following a ditch being excavated to protect the house walls from penetrating damp. They were taken aback by the Czech builders' response, which was to stand around in heated conversation, with much waving of arms and scratching of heads. "It was obvious what was wrong and needed to be done," my fellow Brit commented. "Instead there was this argument."

I smiled to myself. I have seen these Czech "arguments" many times and like my British friend had at first misread them. Czechs are far more expressive and animated than us and they love to argue. It doesn't matter that the answer is obvious. It doesn't matter that they probably actually agree with each other. The crack in the wall, the twisting beam or the water in the cellar, all are opportunities for a good old Czech debate

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

My first winter in the house 5

Towards the end of my first stay in our Czech home the weather changed dramatically. The temperatures rose and the packed snow, which had held the house in a grip of icy iron, began suddenly to melt. As I sat in the house I would hear the occasional thump as a sheet of snow, like a chunk of a small glacier, slid off the roof and crashed down. But it was not thawing evenly, where the low winter sunlight did not reach it (as was the case at the back of the house) the snow remained as thick as ever.

I decided to check what was happening to the roof. In the barn the forces of the uneven thaw was causing real problems - the front slope of the roof was now free of snow, the back was weighed down and under the uneven pressure some roof timbers were gaping. It looked as though the situation had been made worse by the previous owners, who clearly had raided the barn for timbers and so some key uprights were missing. Worried I returned to the house and went up in to the loft. Here there was another problem, cack-handed guttering meant that the melting snow was flowing into the brickwork of the side wall. At this point my friendly local carpenter turned up and I in faltering German explained the problems. For the gutter he constructed a Heath-Robinson solution of old corrugated iron, which though hardly an architectural feature did the job. He also pointed out that the water had rotted a major supporting roof beam. In the stable he just said "Kaput!"

I had been planning to spend a couple of years camping in the house, saving up the money and getting to know the place, before I did any major work. The hard winter of 2005-2006 put paid to such well-laid plans. The old house needed work doing and she needed it doing as soon as possible. Like the old lady I imagined her to be, she was banging her stick on the floor and demanding my attention. But at the same time she was a charmer - despite everything that was wrong, in the five days I stayed there my love had deepened for the old place.

But my time in the house was up. I packed everything in to bags and put them in the attic. Then I sat drinking my last mug of tea, watching the dying sunlight reflected on the farmhouse across the valley and waiting my lift back to Cesky Krumlov and somewhere which had hot water and a toilet.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

My first winter in the house 4

On my first morning in the house I put my nose out from under the two duvets on my bed. The woodstove had long since gone out and I discovered my blanket had even frozen to the wall. I reminded myself that the next time I stayed in the house we would have central heating. I got up quickly, lit the stove and climbed back into bed for thirty minutes until things warmed up a bit. Then I put the kettle on and made some porridge (very British and very good for cold Czech mornings).

My next five days revolved around the needs of the stove and not allowing it to go out. This meant that I could only leave the house for a maximum of a couple of hours - enough to walk through the snow to the nearby town of Horice Na Sumave but not a lot further. It also meant regular trips to the stable to chop wood and bring it in. I now realised why Czech houses in the winter are surrounded by walls of chopped logs. I also realised how rubbish I was at chopping it and I hoped none of my neighbours saw me. My day was determined by the length of daylight, for although I had electricity the night sent the temperatures plummeting and after a while it made more sense to go to bed. In other words I no longer had control of my time - the pace of my day slowed and I found it, despite everything, relaxing. This is how it would have been in some previous age.

Occasionally my day would be disturbed by visitors. The local carpenter came over regularly to chop wood for me, to plane the door down so it fitted more snugly and to measure up the windows, which he was to repaint and repair for me (although not necessarily in that order). He would ski over from Horice, carrying his tools.

I also had visits from a Czech lady, whom my puppeteer friend had introduced me to, who was helping me with translation and negotiating with Czech lawyers and civil servants. She was shocked by the conditions I was living in: "I admire you - you are brave." She could have added "mad", and I could see it in her face as she looked around the room.

On one day she drove me into Cesky Krumlov to sort some house insurance and to return the landtax form. This latter was a good example of Czech disorder in matters bureaucratic. In all sorting the landtax must have taken several hours of speaking to different officers, only for us to go back to having to do what we were told to do in the first place. Ironically after all that, the landtax (the Czech equivalent of the community charge) amounted to less than £10 a year and probably cost more than that to collect. One Czech I know commented when asked what killed communism - "It strangled itself". Here was why. Afterwards the lady took me to a restaurant near the castle carpark, where she made sure I had a large hot meal. Then she drove me back to then house and my routine.


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