Sunday, 30 November 2008

An Addition to the Blog

The more regular visitors to this blog will notice an addition to the list of links etc on the right.

The Amnesty International Irrepressible Content initiative is a campaign to counter censorship across the world. The web is a great tool for sharing ideas and freedom of expression. However, efforts to try and control the Internet are growing. Internet repression is reported in countries like China, Vietnam, Tunisia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. People are persecuted and imprisoned simply for criticising their government, calling for democracy and greater press freedom, or exposing human rights abuses, online. Amnesty International is calling on anyone who has a website or blog, to help them spread the word and undermine unwarranted censorship by publishing censored material from the Amnesty database directly onto their site. As a blogger who has talked about the struggle of the Czech people for freedom under communism of course I had to get involved.

The feed from Amnesty changes every time the blog loads. If you have a blog, do join me - click on the feed and load the html on to your site. The more people take part the more we show that freedom of expression cannot be repressed.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

What Every Tourist Needs!

I was walking down a street in Ceske Budejovice, when I passed this notice. A few yards on I stopped and looked back, unable to believe what I had read in passing. I then walked back to the notice and took this photo to share with you. I even went into the shop to check and yes you can buy books, maps, cards and.... altar wine. What every tourist needs indeed!

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Edith Pargeter - Czechophile

Many people will know the English writer Edith Pargeter by her pseudonym Ellis Peters, under which she wrote the very successful Brother Cadfael books. What then is she doing in a blog about the Czechs? Well, she was a great Czechophile, who almost single-handedly was responsible for bringing Czech literature to the attention of people in the UK.

Pargeter had first got to meet and enjoy the company of Czechs during the Second World War, afterwards she took advantage of an International Summer School in Czechoslovakia to visit the country she had come to love through meeting its people. The visit took place in that brief time before the Communist takeover of the country and inspired Edith into increased admiration for Czech culture. She taught herself Czech and began to translate Czech literature into English. This activity allowed her the opportunity to continue visiting Czechoslovakia on an almost annual basis, she worked with the state-owned publishing house Artia and even kept her earnings in the Communist country to fund her trips. It is apparent from her writings that she had to walk a very fine line – she was very much against the oppression that she saw, but needed for her Czech friends' sake and for the sake of her work not to upset the communist authorities - “I was continually walking a tightrope in order to avoid harming people I wanted only to serve.

A bibliography of her Czech translations shows huge breadth, including modern classics (as yet unheard of in the “West”), more established writers and even Czech legends. Indeed it reads like a who's who of Czech literature – Neruda, Toman, Styblova, Nemcova, Bor, Seifert, Klima, In total she translated sixteen books. It is a tribute to her skill, that some of her translations are still in print. In 1968 Edith Pargeter was awarded the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations Gold Medal for her services to Czech Literature.

The more I have read of Edith Pargeter's relationship with this lovely country and its people, the more I find myself at one with her. Much of what she loves and recognises here, I love and recognise too. I will therefore leave the last word to her, here is her description of Neruda's Tales of the Little Quarter, she could have been talking about the wider nation: “He made a book the image of himself, high-spirited, amusing, compassionate, occasionally startling us by a flavour of astonishing bitterness, but having at its heart and ground an uncompromising affirmation that life, bitter and sweet together, is to be accepted with ardour, and humanity, in all its folly and imperfection, to be loved without reserve.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Czech Cafe Culture

The Czechs have a strong cafe culture, a legacy of their time under the rule of Vienna. In summer you sit outside under awnings watching the world go by, in winter you sit inside supping warming drinks before braving the snow and ice. This picture shows one of my favourite cafes "Two Widows" in Cesky Krumlov - an ideal place for both winter and summer cafe culture.

I have spent many a pleasant hour sitting in Czech cafes, drinking coffee and watching others doing the same. Life comes and goes there. Old friends greet each other, women arrive with bags of shopping and chatter. The Czechs have a particular line in elegant women over a certain age, who sit upright at their table and hold their cups with little finger extended. At other tables business is being done over the coffee cups, men produce laptops from briefcases and discuss spreadsheets, shake hands and go their way. Backpackers compare notes on hostels and restaurants, talk of the next stop on their tour of Europe or discuss the news from home loudly.

A middle-aged man pulls up in a vintage sportscar of which he is clearly very proud, he combs his hair in the rear-view mirror and then takes his seat at a prominent table. He is waiting for someone. Sure enough he is joined by a rather beautiful young man. At one table sits a small boy, his father is talking to a friend at another table. The boy's father has given him a gameboy to play with and a milkshake. The boy rests his head on the table and bends over the game – pointedly displaying both concentration and boredom at the same time. Then my husband and son join me and I must stop my game of people-gazing.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Czech Maps

I have always been fascinated by maps and so I recently enjoyed an exhibition of historic maps of the Sumava (which included my own village) at the South Bohemia Museum in Ceske Budejovice. The website offers a wonderful service – allowing you not only to see maps of locations in the Czech Republic, and to pick out waymarked trails, cycle routes, tourist sites, but also to see the locations as satellite images and on a historic map (1836 -1852). These historic maps are fascinating – for starters the place names round here are in German as this was a German-speaking area up to the end of the Second World War. Moreover even the most cursory examination of the area around our home reveals a whole series of small hamlets which have completely disappeared – I do not know why this is, perhaps it was a consequence of the forced removal of the German population after the War, perhaps it was a result of changes in the economy.

But somehow there is nothing like spreading out a paper map and gazing at it. I have a pile of local maps. The Czech maps don't seem to have the equivalent authority of the British Ordnance Survey maps. The maps I tend to have are maps for walkers and cyclists, with the tourist paths and cycle routes marked as colour-coded lines. It is interesting to contrast what different maps choose to highlight. For example I have one map which has marked on it mystical sites – so appropriate for all those Czechs who believe in leylines, crystals and standing stones.

I have spent many a happy hour looking at my Czech maps. One of the things I love about them is the fact that Czechs mark important trees – so you will see dub (oak) marked on them and other trees. You don't see that on British Ordnance Survey maps. This map-gazing has also helped me increase my Czech vocabulary. I know of two words for hill – vrch and kopec, whilst hora means mountain, dvur means courtyard but also seems to mean a large courtyard farm, then there are words for castle and chateau – hrad and zamek, forest – les, prales, stone and rock – kamen and skala. I have yet to really get to grips with the differences between say a vrch and a kopec, but at least I know what they mean generally. And then of course all over the Czech maps you will find the word potok.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


I have blogged about the Czech chata or hutkins in the past. Many are set in the countryside, in woodland clearings and beside lakes and streams. But others are to be found like English allotments in the most unpromising of places, besides railway lines or on city wastelands. One of the joys of a trip on both an English and a Czech train is these flashes of human creativity and love of nature amid the ruin and bleakness of our cities, they give one hope for mankind these little Edens set in a sea of grey.

In Cesky Krumlov the other day I was walking by the river. On one side was the back of the Eggenberg Brewery, which away from the tourists' eyes was looking run-down, with blind and broken windows and trees growing from its gutters, on the other side cliffs of granite rose from the river up to the orbital road along which could be heard the growl of traffic making its way south. But here too was an Eden - a hutkin perched on a cliff, and a woman tending a garden carved into the granite. A few yards away was the road's tarmac and beyond that a factory tower, but she was with nature on her cliff.

I was reminded of a favourite track by the queen of English folk music June Tabor – A Place Called England. You can see it performed by June herself on Youtube . It strikes me that the English and the Czechs share a love of and a relationship with the soil and gardening, which is quite profound.

Friday, 7 November 2008

More Czech Birds

I love this time of year in the Czech Republic. It is the time before the Winter snows bring their own bright light to the land, when the land is full of contrasts – the silver ethereal shapes of the birches against the dark green of the forest firs, the crimson dogwood, and the light grey of the dead willow leaves. In the forest the ferns are a skeletal white against the moss and the huge red and white domes of fly agaric shine in the gloom. On these November days the sky sometimes has a deep blueness so vast that a whole navy could make their trousers from it and have cloth to spare.

One of the pleasures of this time of year is that all those birds, one has heard for months chattering and calling in the branches and never seen, are made visible – long-tailed tits, blue and coal tits, bramblings, treecreepers and nuthatches, hoards of chaffinches, jackdaws, and jays. The other day I walked down to the train station to such a commotion of birdsong, I just had to smile. A woodpecker was making light work of the bark on an ash tree, indeed so much so that I was hit by a piece of bark it had ripped from a branch. On the swimming pond a pair of mute swans had taken up their serene residence. From the train platform I looked up, above the wood on the hill opposite rooks were surfing the invisible breakers of the wind expertly riding the waves, then cutting back to ride the crest again with great shouts of enjoyment. The Czech birds have a long and hard winter to look forward to and they are enjoying the warmth and fecundity of this November weather while they may.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

St Hubert's Hunt

Readers of the Krumlov Expats blog will have already read a post about the hunt posted by Salamander. Unlike Salamander who was one of the “huntsmen”. I attended only as a spectator, which I hope justifies my writing a post on the subject on the grounds that my take will be somewhat different.

The “hunt” took place in the wonderful parkland surrounding the Cerveny Dvur Asylum. Cerveny Dvur was formerly a chateau and is now a hospital treating alcoholism and drug addiction, nevertheless the extensive parkland in which it sits is open to the public and moreover offers information boards (in English as well as Czech) on the creation of chateau, landscape and park features. This alone would justify a visit to Cerveny Dvur, with the result that in addition to the “hunt” spectators there were also people who had come simply to enjoy a walk in the grounds and who could blame them.

Well that is the setting – now for the topic of the blog. You may have noticed that I keep talking about the hunt in quotation marks. With all due respect to Salamander and the other members of the hunt, I really didn't get the impression it was a hunt at all, not that that is a bad thing particularly. Like Philip Wilkinson who commented on the Expats blog I am familiar with the Cotswold Hunt, which may not now hunt foxes nevertheless still does charge across farmland (presumably as a drag hunt) jumping any barrier between them and their “prey”. I have seen them jumping large gates and Cotswold stone walls and I have seen the damage this sometimes causes. The Cotswold hunt horses are massive – real hunters – and they need to be. Not so the St Hubert's hunt – where none of the horses were particularly large and some were mere ponies. This was possible because this “hunt” was perhaps more similar to a gymkhana or horse show, with relatively low fences constructed specially for the occasion. There were various equestrian games, including the main event chasing someone in a plastic fox mask. It had therefore an altogether different atmosphere. There was a delightful amateurishness about it all – the man commenting on the tannoy and trying to fill in the gaps, the small brass band, the grins on the riders faces, it was along way from the thrill and seriousness of the British hunt. I was reminded of village fetes, my companion commented that all they needed was a stall selling jam and cakes. All of which seemed rather strange given the Czechs' love of hunting, shooting and fishing, on which I have commented in the past; but then I suppose real Czech hunting is probably more of a solitary affair.

The crowd was, one suspects, mostly made up of friends and family of those involved and cheered the winners, clapped the losers and took lots of photos and videos. A stall provided goulash, coffee, the ubiquitous sausage and bread, as well as sweets for the young members of the audience. Unusually for the Czechs (and it would have been unusual too for a British hunt) there was no beer or alcohol of any sort on sale – a consequence of being in the asylum's parkland – and yet people did not object and got on with the business of enjoying themselves. The audience was very egalitarian, unlike the “county” set that one associates with British hunts and the event even included a session of singing round a campfire

But then I rather suspect I am bringing my own prejudices to this. When I was young my parents scrimped and saved for me to go to a local private junior school. There I found myself among girls who seemed to live and breathe ponies and riding. There was never any question that my family could afford (or for that matter would prioritise) riding lessons or the costs of having a pony. I found myself on the outside of that set, it was my first experience of British class system. I in turn made it very clear that I did not want a pony and rejected all things horsey, I had other more important things to do, like writing poetry. Nor for that matter did I want to go on the skiing trip, another activity the Czechs enjoy, I don't think I even bothered to take the letter about the trip home to my parents. So when I was asked at the Czech hunt if I fancied learning to ride, I automatically said no. Even now I cannot bring myself to do it.

Some Strange Wading Birds

My friend and I were driving along the road that skirts the edge of Lake Olsina the other day, when we noticed these birds in the water some way off. We stopped the car and looked again. The birds were too far off to be clear even to the zoom lens on my camera. They were, as you can see, elegant white wading birds; large but not large enough to be storks – for that matter it was the wrong time of year and on closer inspection of the photos they do not have the storks black wingmarkings. If anything the closest bird in size, shape and behaviour would be a heron.

My friend who has a house near the lake had never seen them there before. A week ago the lake had been drained in the two-yearly carp harvest and has yet to fill fully. There would seem to be no doubt then that these temporary conditions, with the lake still shallow enough to wade in and the fish thus exposed to the birds' gaze and beak, had attracted the birds. On getting home I took my AA Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe and searched its pages. There it was “largest white heron-like bird of the region, size of a grey heron.” - it was an egret. I should have known, why I had been taking close-ups of the bird at the Zoo Ohrada.


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