Friday, 31 October 2008

Whether to Get a Czech Lawnmower

There is a German phrase “Like a Czech village”, meaning ramshackle and untidy. Whilst it certainly is true that Czech village buildings are usually in a less than pristine condition, often with peeling paint, channels cut in the walls to take cables left open and with old floortiles (because someone will use them one day) stacked outside under corrugated iron sheets, generally the garden lawns as well as the grass in the orchards will be cut. Capek in his book on gardening talks about the Czechs aspiring to English lawns, but they are not graced with English weather (summer rain) to permit this perceived perfection. It must therefore be a cultural shock for my Czech neighbours to see the overgrown grass in our yard and orchard.

I have singularly failed to get on top of it. The orchard is full of tall weeds and requires scything – something the Czechs are good at and I have no experience of at all. The garden slopes up away from the house and still is littered with builders rubble, ready to blunt anything that tries to cut it. My friend keeps on at me about it. First she suggests I get a powered lawnmower, it was seeing hers when I was helping her move some compost that reminded me to blog about it. And there are loads in the local shops in all sizes and types.

Then she comes back to her favourite suggestion – get some sheep or a goat. The Czechs regularly have sheep or goats on their smallholdings and, not being squeamish about such things, eat their Czech lawnmowers at the beginning of winter. We have space enough, that much is certain. But I have my objections, firstly I can't believe it is that simple. My mother's family were farmworkers by trade and many of my childhood days were spent with my Uncle John at the farm where he was cowman and shepherd and I certainly did not get the impression that keeping animals was that easy. Another objection is that I spend too much time in England away from the place and so have a vision of returning home to discover my sheep has died through lack of water or garotted itself on the wire fence, or perhaps worse still has made a bolt for it and eaten its way through my neighbours' vegetable patch. As for killing it at the end of the year, at the moment I think I might manage to bear it but it seems a palaver and we would be eating mutton for months. Ah well, it is too late to do anything about it this year, the grass will die back without help from me.

On one point of note, there is one house in the village which is impeccable, freshly painted, with not a weed to be seen and the lawn manicured to the last inch. It is of course owned by some Austrians.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Tourist watching

I have been meaning to blog about the tourists in Cesky Krumlov for months, but somehow never got round to it, until now. Cesky Krumlov is great place to partake in the sport of tourist watching, even though we are now at the very end of the season. Like most UNESCO world heritage sites Krumlov is a honeypot for visitors from all five continents. And when not being annoyed by them, as they dawdle and block my way or take up all the seats in the restaurants, I sometimes amuse myself trying to work out the nationalities before I hear the language. It may sound strange but the nationality that regularly floors me is my own – the British, but before I get on to that, let us take a seat on a bench on the Town Square and watch the comings and goings for a while.

First into the square are the Japanese – they are usually the first. They normally appear in groups following some woman holding an umbrella above her head, she may even have a microphone around her neck. The Japs are dressed conformly in leasurewear – slacks and light raincoat, trainers for walking, sun visor or cap. some may even wear a surgical mask over their mouths. I am not clear whether this is because they have a cold and wish in their famous politeness not to pass it on, or whether they fear those nasty Czech germs. They will eat together in their group too, one minute you will be alone in a restaurant wondering why the waiter put you in the worst seat in the house, when suddenly they arrive and take up all the tables. The food will be the same for each of them (no doubt some deal has taken place between the restaurateur and their guide) – a set meal which does not require them to order from the menu.

An Asian couple arrive – Japanese or Korean I wonder – they are not part of the group. He sits down and waits as his wife disappears. From time to time she will reappear with something in a bag, which she will deposit with him. This goes on for over an hour, before they gather together the shopping and leave. During this time the square has seen a loud guided tour of Italians, the guide for which needs her microphone as they are chatting to each other as she talks. Next came three young hispanics, from their tshirts we see that they are Brazilians, who walked across the centre of the square several times before they too disappear. Suddenly my interest is taken by a middle-aged couple who march in briskly holding those sprung hikers sticks, as if climbing the north face of Cesky Krumlov Town Square. Germans or Austrians I think.

Opposite me on another bench a lone young woman is reading in the warm Autumn sunshine. An American backpacker on a solo trip around Europe, taking in the culture – next stop Vienna perhaps. There are plenty of backpackers in Cesky Krumlov, and you will even find a few in the Winter, mostly they come from the US or the Antipodes. They cluster in hostel cafes and bars and exchange horror stories of their experiences – of being ripped off by London taxi-drivers, of expensive (for them) crappy hotels, of getting lost in foreign cities, of bugs that bite in the night. This jaunt is part of their modern initiation ceremony into adulthood, before they settle down to university or a job.

A couple walk past, they are tall and expensively dressed in leather jackets. There is something about them that says new Russian elite to me. And finally another party enters the Square. They are not dressed in any sort of uniform, nor are they clearly of one physical type. They listen to the guide whilst looking around the Square. They could be Dutch or a mixed party who have come on a daytrip from Prague. On the other hand they could quite possibly be Brits.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

A New Stove

Having survived for three years using the old stoves we inherited from the previous owners of our Czech house, we have finally succumbed to the allure of a new one. Actually as the lock mechanism had fallen off the old one in our upstairs living room, we had very little option but to replace it. On the advice of our friend and a builder we know who has a certificate (recognised in Germany, we were informed) in stoves and their installation we have bought what is called a Canadian-type stove. Well with two people, whose opinion we trust, both coming up with the same recommendation, it was pretty obvious this was the stove for us.

Thus it was that yesterday our builder took us in his car to a store in Ceske Budejovice in a supermarket arcade. There was our stove to be. We were delighted to see that unlike some in the range our stove has a window through which we can gaze into the flames, thus appealing to some primeval urge in us. We were very grateful when our builder carried the stove, which is made of cast iron and fire bricks and so horribly heavy, through the yard, up the yard steps and then straight up the stairs to the living room. He passed off our admiration saying it's what he does for a living, but even he had to take some time out to recover afterwards. We then lit the stove and stood back to admire both the flames and the heat as it poured into the room. The stove has a ring of upright tubes set around it - these gather the heat from the burning wood and pump it into the air, so efficiently that within minutes of lighting you begin to feel the effect.

Last night everything was toasty, the fire roared, the logs crackled and we watched imagined dragons in the flames.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

The bohemian (with a lower case b)

This approach to the house as outlined in my previous post is I suspect a coming together of a number of influences and aspirations. As ever in talking about such things in this blog I find myself looking back at childhood influences. I confess that I have always loved those homes which displayed the artistic and individualistic, that were comfortable in themselves and what they said about their owners. In fact I loved the bohemian before I ever was drawn to Bohemia.

A major influence was the home of my creative writing teacher. Her house was down a steep lane near Painswick in Gloucestershire – a Cotswold stone house in a runaway garden. The house was decorated with angels in all sorts of forms – indeed “you turned a stone and found them there”. The main sitting room was full of books, in bookcases, in piles on the floor and on tables. Also in piles were pieces of paper filled with some form of creation – musical or poetic, by her or by some protégée, often myself. On the walls were all sorts of pictures. The furniture was old, some of it probably valuable, all of it comfortable and lived in. On the surfaces not occupied by books or papers was an eclectic collection of decorations. Antiques, stones of unusual shape or colour, little presents from children, reminders of trips to her beloved Greece - all jostled for space.

The kitchen had a bare Cotswold stone wall on one side and whitewashed walls on the others and a large kitchen table around which we sat. On the shelves were tins and jars and books. Work was needed on it, I don't recall it happening, but I do remember the smell of her cooking and herbs (she had a fine line in stews). Outside the kitchen window she had decorated the wall of an outbuilding with a Greek scene. Upstairs at the very top of the house was an attic full of costumes (for the plays which she directed us in) racks and piles of them. When you went up there you would feel your way through, with memories of Shakespeare, Christopher Fry, Euripides, Dylan Thomas and the annual pantomime hitting you in the face and nostrils. I felt very at home in her house. Several years later I was reminded of her home, when first I stepped into the Blackheath flat of my Czech puppeteer friend.

It seems to me looking back that my teacher's openness to the collection of objects which occupied every cranny of her house was symbolic of her openness to everything, to the potential which she saw in us and to the beauty of the world. And I loved it and have tried to live my life with my eyes open, with a willingness to turn stones and seek angels in the unordered order of God's good world.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Decorating a Bohemian Farmhouse

Our Czech home is in no way like our UK one - it is a bohemian farmhouse, the other a Cotswold town cottage. My approach to furnishing and decorating the Czech house is totally different. When first we came the house was furnished in a combination of Czech kitsch and bizarre. The stairwell shown above was decorated with several stuffed birds and animal skulls. I think the most bizarre was a set of coat hooks made from real deer feet! The rural Czechs seem to like to shoot their decorations first!

It will not surprise you that we decided not to go for Bohemian farmhouse décor if that was an example. Instead I have chosen to pursue a more eclectic rustic almost naïve style, with embroideries from Mexico and Nepal on the whitewashed walls. Hand-crafted stoneware pottery is more in keeping with the place than porcelain and is similar to the German-style stoneware we found here.

The large dining table and benches in the main room are made from solid pieces of local wood. And there is also a collection of found objects – fossils, shells, pine cones and a small nest found in the wood whilst mushrooming. Many decisions have been born of necessity – all the money was going on the fabric of the house so there was little available for furniture. The simple beds we inherited from the previous owners and from some British friends who were replacing theirs. The wardrobes were bought secondhand in a local town and are functional and not out of keeping. My sister designed the lampshades which were based on those in the Laibon Restaurant in Cesky Krumlov- they are quite simply made out of crumpled baking paper and card.

Over time we will replace many of these with better versions, but I do not believe that the house will ever be decorated luxuriously. It would be like taking an old farmer's wife and decking her out as a princess. But then I sometimes think that the British royal family never look so at home as when they are dressed as farmers, but that says more about the British royal family than it does about my simile. No, let the old house feel comfortable with her garb. Large velvet curtains will only hide the lovely arches of the windows. Smooth plaster will hide the wonderful lack of symmetry of the walls and ceilings.

Friday, 10 October 2008

How to Hunt Mushrooms

I must be due another post about picking mushrooms – why it is the height of the season! Recently I have been pondering what skills/abilities are needed to pick mushrooms. This has been caused by two English friends asking me to show them how to do it, which in turn has got me asking that very question how do I do it. I feel hugely unqualified to teach anyone, but in England I suppose I might pass as experienced.

I know for a fact that I would never have started mushrooming if I simply had learnt from a book or books, no matter how good they were. I needed, and I think most people need, a teacher/mentor who took me through those first few steps in which one gains confidence. That is how it began for me – being shown by my Czech friend – and now it is my turn to pass it on. Of course there are so many mushrooms and there are very different views on what is good eating and what is not (just look at the reference books which often are odds with other). This will mean that your mentor will pass on to you their preferences. This will reflect differences in national attitudes to mushrooms. A list of the top 20 edible mushrooms in Russia included several at the top, which are not only considered inedible in this country but even poisonous. I have noticed that the Czechs prize boletuses above all, and they don't seem to pick tree-growing fungi such as two favourites of mine - chicken in the woods and hen in the woods.

One of the first things my friend taught me was that some of the safest mushrooms to pick are those that look least like the sort of mushroom we buy in Tescos – boletuses and chanterelles for example. In fact some of the most deadly mushrooms look like ordinary mushrooms. Why, only a few days ago I picked some smoky mushrooms which are poisonous and which I had mistaken for ordinary mushrooms (I always check mushrooms against the books when I get them home) . So start with those that you can't mistake for anything else, until your confidence grows. The second rule is learn what the poisonous ones look like. Fortunately there aren't that many that will kill you or even make you seriously ill, there are quite a few which will taste revolting but that is another matter. You'll need to get some books to help you learn what things look like and to check what you have picked – one book is not enough (I have six in England and four in the Czech Republic). My books are regular reading, they are great toilet library material. Using these books I have increased my repertoire slowly and tried each new type carefully, eating only a little at first (they may not be poisonous but they might not work for you).

So there are a few thoughts on the subject. If you decide to take up mushrooming, I hope you enjoy it. I am eternally grateful to my Czech friend for introducing me to one of my great pleasures.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The Little Stationmaster

Whilst the hero of Closely Observed Trains wanted to work at the station to avoid having to work, here is one little Czech who clearly really wants to be a stationmaster. None of this modern stuff - wanting to be a computer games designer or popstar, he has the old fashioned aspiration of working on the railways.

I was sat on the train on my way to Ceske Budejovice when I saw him. He was very serious as he stood at Cesky Krumlov station holding his gran's hand. occasionally he would peer along the platform to see what was going on. All around him tourists, backpackers and the locals milled and fussed, he was calm and in control. Why, he had the hat and green circle on stick at the ready and he knew what to do with them. As the whistle went and our train started to pull out he looked straight ahead and raised the circle.

Please, forgive the grainy nature of the photo, it was taken through a not very clean train window.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Closely Observed Trains

Last night I watched the wonderful Czech film Closely Observed Trains - a film adaptation of the Hrabal novel . I have quite a collection of those free DVDs that they give away with newspapers. As these come in simple cardboard covers they are easy to transport over to the Czech Republic in hand luggage. In the case of Closely Observed Trains you might say I was taking coals to Newcastle when I brought that film over, however as a freebie from The Independent this version has the advantage of having English subtitles.

The film is directed by Jiri Menzel and follows the story of Milos Hrma as he struggles to lose his virginity, apparently oblivious to the Nazi occupation of his country and the wider struggle going on around him. Most of the film is set in the sleepy backwater train station where Milos works or rather does very little – the reason why he wanted the job in the first place was in order to avoid working. The film is populated with wonderful comic characters, who are also sympathetically portrayed. In addition to being great comedy, the film is also healthily sexy – one of the best scenes is when Milos' mentor (in more ways than one) at the station seduces a female co-worker with the use of the station's rubber stamps. At the end Milos turns out to be an unexpected war hero, but even this ending is handled with a lightness of touch which is so refreshingly Czech.

The video clip above is the American trailer for the film (in the US it was called Closely Watched Trains). May I suggest you turn the sound off when you watch it, the voiceover is annoying and unnecessary.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008


When I last went mushrooming with one of my Czech friends, she was much taken by my home-made thumbstick.

To any of reader that does not know what a thumbstick is, let me explain. A thumbstick is a walking stick, which has a forked end where one places one's thumb. I first learnt to make thumbsticks when I was a member of the Cotswold Wardens. It was a useful by-product of the Wardens work on laying hedges. Hedge-laying requires the cutting back of trees and shrubs and this generated the raw material for the thumbsticks. The best tree for a thumbstick is hazel, which produces suitably long, strong and straight tree stems which then fork. You simply cut the stick to the length required - the owner should be able to stand comfortably with their thumb in the fork and arm bent ie the fork is about an inch higher than the shoulder.

I do not know if the thumbstick is particularly Cotswold or English but my Czech friend was much taken with it and said she couldn't get one here. I therefore decided to make one for her – there are plenty of hazel trees around the village, so off I went with pruning saw in hand. A length of wood was cut and I set about smoothing it down for her. An hour later and the stick was ready. I met her in a gallery where she works and handed over my handiwork. My stick was hardly a work of art, the stick was not entirely straight, but then as I said to her if she lost it (as I am forever doing when I am mushrooming) I can easily make another. At this point we were joined by a friend of hers. We explained the advantages of the stick to him – with your thumb in the fork your hand can not slip, the fork is useful for holding up electric fence wires and low hanging branches, the stick could beat off an attacker and most importantly for a Czech the fork allows you to turn over and sometimes pick mushrooms without bending down. Her friend listened and came up with another use – the fork could be used to tackle snakes.


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