Friday, 29 February 2008

My first winter in the house 3

On the first day in the house I was delivered by my friend together with a few bags of basic belongings. Most of these were her hand-me-downs - an old duvet, sheets, and cooking pots - and some of those in turn had been given to her by her mother when she returned to Czecho. And I was extremely grateful for them. There had been more snow over night and I had to clear my way through the snow in the yard. The door was frozen shut and I had to use all my weight to open it.

My first job was, as it was to be on every day of my stay, to set the fire going in the stove. I then put the kettle on for a proper English mug of tea. Whilst it brewed I used some of my friend's old tea-towels to block the drafts in the faulty double-glazed windows. Having drunk up I went into the bathroom to discover a large hole where the bath had once been. The local carpenter had set about preparing for the fitting of a stopcock. This was a bit of a shock as I hadn't agreed to it, but he had adopted me and there was no arguing about it, even if I could speak Czech it would have been rude and the Czechs take such things very personally. Upstairs he had even been whitewashing one of the bedrooms!

I went outside to the stable to bring in some more wood for the stove. It was glorious - in the orchard the top layer of snow had melted yesterday, only to be frozen again overnight into bright diamond crystals which flashed in the sunshine. Across the snow I could see the trails of the wild and domestic animals who shared the garden with me - deer, the local cats and others I did not recognise.

And so I pottered about for the rest of the day setting up home in the one room that was warm. I was happy, despite the cold, despite the absence of water in the bathroom, I was at last at home in my Czech house.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

My first winter in the house 2

My plans for staying in the house were delayed by the exploding pipe in the bathroom. It was obvious that the house was only just beginning to thaw out and so I spent a week driving up to the house from Cesky Krumlov. There I lit the stove in the downstairs front room, and met a succession of plumbers and electricians who came to measure up the house for new electrics, plumbing and the central heating which was now so obviously necessary. The other task I set myself was to measure the footprint of the house and stables so that I could fill in the horrendous multi-page form to register for landtax. This was harder than one might think - the snow was piled up to my waist and even higher at the back and sides of the barn and so I had to dig a path through with an old shovel. This took me several days.

When the daylight began to fail each day, I drove home to my friend's house in Cesky Krumlov. Finally I was confident enough that I could get one room (the large front one downstairs) warm enough to be bearable. That last evening before my first full day in my Czech house as I drove home I came upon an adult male deer in the centre of the village. He was standing stock still in front of the village crucifix. It looked almost as if the cross was between his antlers. I was reminded of the legend of St Hubertus, patron saint of hunters and therefore so appropriate for the Czechs. Of course the Christian legend of the saintly hunter coming upon the divine stag has its antecedents in the Celtic legends of the horned god of the underworld. In the halflight on that magical evening the lord of the forest turned slowly and departed into the darkness and I carried on.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

My first winter in the house 1

As I said in my last post Czech winters have a special place in my heart. One reason for this is the fact that the first time I ever stayed in our newly purchased Czech home was in the terrible winter of a couple of years ago. All over central Europe roofs were collapsing under the weight of impacted snow. We had bought the house a few weeks before the winter had begun, when we had sat in shirt sleeves in the warm late autumn sunshine. By early February the landscape had changed utterly - the snow was several feet deep in the yard and the house was completely frozen.

We hadn't had time to do anything to the house to make it winterproof and certainly not for one of the worst winters in living memory. The family who sold it to us had assured us that they hadn't had any problems with frozen pipes, and we poor suckers believed them. When asked where the stopcock was, they had taken us out of the yard and up the hill for several hundred metres to the farm above our house. There was the stopcock - but unfortunately for us it was also the stopcock for the water supply to the farm and half the village, so there was no question of cutting off the water to the house.

Now in February with the temperature about minus 15 I arrived for my first stay in our new home. We had arranged that a lady from the nearby town go to the house each day for the week before, light the woodstoves and start the process of warming the place up in time for my arrival. I arrived at my puppeteer friend's house in Cesky Krumlov in the evening. As we sat down to a mug of tea, I noticed something was up. "How are things?" I asked.

"Well since you ask, the toilet exploded this morning!" My friend went on to explain that the poor woman had arrived at the house and stoked up the stove, when the pipe leading to the toilet exploded spraying a fountain of ice cold water into the bathroom. She had run into the village and the neighbours had run to her aid - one, a retired plumber, had spent an hour fighting the torrent and getting soaked. My friend had been dreading my reaction. I just started to laugh.

"Why are you laughing? It's not funny, the poor man will probably get pneumonia." I explained that I was very sorry for the man (I would get him a bottle of rum by way of thanks) and for the poor woman. I felt sorry too for my friend who had clearly been worrying about my reaction all day. But I deserved what had happened, for believing the family in the first place - wishful thinking in the face of what was obvious. The old house was getting her own back on us. Although the Czechs don't think of their houses as female, to my mind ours obviously was - an cantankerous elderly aunt who you ignored at your peril: "You think you can disappear off to England and leave me here unloved and uncared for, I'll show you," she was saying.

My friend, relieved, pointed out that there was now no water in the bathroom and so no toilet. That combined with the problems of heating - the house had barely got above freezing meant surely that I would not be staying in the house this time. No, I still wanted to, it was important to me. It would be "an awfully big adventure" I told her. She laughed, "How very British of you. Your neighbours will think you are mad."

Saturday, 16 February 2008


The other night I was walking down the street and was struck by the scent of woodsmoke on the frosted air. It doesn’t matter where in the world I am, I just have to smell woodsmoke and I am in the Czech Republic and in particular in Cesky Krumlov’s narrow renaissance streets on a Winter night. Somehow scent is the most powerful of the senses for triggering memories. I only have to smell new-mown grass to be taken back to the playing field of my secondary school, and the smell of earl grey tea transports me to my college rooms at Oxford. Woodsmoke on a winter night takes me to my second visit to Krumlov.

It was January and a very hard winter. I stayed with my friend in Prague, where the Vlatava river was part covered with ice so thick we walked on it. She suggested we take the train down to Cesky Krumlov, where she had a small house, and stay a few nights. I had already visited the town in the previous summer and loved it and so accepted the invitation eagerly. My previous visit had not prepared me for the impact of Cesky Krumlov in winter. Gone were the tourists, I was virtually the only non-Czech there. The town lay blanketed in snow. In the wind-less streets the smoke from the wood-fired stoves hung and diffused the light from the street lamps. It was totally magical and I was hooked.

Friday, 8 February 2008

The Plague Column

The many tourists that throng the Town Square in Cesky Krumlov often ignore the large column set to one side and surrounded by statues. They may sit on its steps and take photos of each other, some may even photograph the column, but most have no idea what it is and what it commemorates.

It is a plague column set up to remember a plague epidemic that hit the town in the early 1680's. At the top of the column stands the Virgin Mary and around it there are saints who traditionally offer protection against the plague. This was not the first time the town had devastated by the plague, the town had also experienced the terrible impact of the bubonic plague in 1585.

It reminds me of an early introduction to Czech culture I had back in 1982 before I met my Czech puppeteer friend. I picked up a book of poetry in a second-hand shop and started to read. It was Ewald Osers' translation of Jaroslav Seifert's book The Plague Column. I was enchanted and bought the book. At the time it was not officially published in communist Czechoslovakia and was only available in covert samizdat versions. The poem is a personal journey by an old man through Prague. What I love about it is the way it moves from the present to the past, from the general to the personal. The plague of the title is not simply the bubonic kind, but a comment on the political plague that Seifert's beloved country was enduring at the time. But this is far from a political commentary, but a personal love poem to that most beautiful of cities.

Seifert received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985, he died a year later. He did not live to see the crowds filling Wenceslas Square first call for and then celebrate the end of the pestilence that was communism.

Seifert was a brave man and a true poet. The last lines of The Plague Column read:

But I make no excuse
I believe that seeking beautiful words
is better
than killing and murdering.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Bringing Masopust to Oxford

In my British life I am a founding member of the Cowley Road Carnival, which has grown into Oxfordshire's largest community event, and am still very much involved. The Cowley Road Carnival is a multi-cultural event, celebrating the diverse communities that call East Oxford home. A year ago I successfully put together a grant application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to fund an exploration of the different Carnival traditions to be found among the communities in Oxford. So it could only made sense given the rising numbers of Czechs in Oxford for me to try and get a project going that introduced the Czech version of Carnival into the Cowley Road event.

Of course I am biased, Czecho is my other home. But it is more than that - I am fascinated by both the differences and similarities of my two countries and masopust/carnival is such a good example of it. As you can see from the video - there is so much that is familiar about masopust - the rag costumes are similar to those of some morris sides and mummers' troupes, the straw man who is sacrificed to ensure the arrival of spring, the hobby horse character (horses are always a potent symbol of fertility and wealth among the Celts - the ancestors we Brits share with the Czechs) and others. Of course the tradition of processing around the local houses asking for alcohol donations in return for a song/dance and good luck is common all over the world. But there are touches which are not common - such as the large hats covered with roses symbolising the days of the year and Christ's wounds.

There is an opinion prevalent in Britain that negates our ancient traditions as the laughable indulgence of beer-sodden bearded saddos. But people who make snide comments about morris dancers waving hankies and wearing bells wouldn't dream of mocking traditional Indian dance with its bells etc. With carnival there is an opinion in Britain that believes that only the Caribbean tradition is the true one, never mind that Carnival traditions are so deep rooted here that they predate Christianity. Perhaps by looking at another related country's carnival tradition we can come to see our own with better understanding and maybe even value them.

I will blog again to tell you how I get on with the project. Oh and if anyone out there is interested in providing some sponsorship (the Lottery money only covers 60% of our costs) to help bring some Masopust from the Czech Republic to Oxford, do get in touch with

Friday, 1 February 2008

Phew - how to tell a Brit in Czecho

I still have not got used to the level of heating in Czech homes and shops. You would have thought the Czechs would be less aware of the cold than us Brits with our mild winter climate, but not a bit of it. You walk into a shop from the cold outside wrapped up in a coat and are hit by a wall of heat. I soon find myself going red and sweating. Even in flats and homes, where you can shed your outer garments, the heating can still be unbearable. This is not a problem where you can turn down the heat, but a friend of mine has a Prague flat in a block with centralised heating controls and as a result even when there is deep snow outside she has windows open. Conversely I have noticed my Czech friends often keep their coats on when visiting our house.

This is not confined to homes. Try a journey in a train compartment shared with a bunch of Czechs - the window will stay firmly closed, the heating on full blast. Or look about you when you walk around a Czech town. A few days ago I went for a short walk. The weather was cold but not overly so, so I wore a fleece but no hat or gloves and was if anything too warm. All the Czechs I passed were mufflered, coated and hatted. As my granny would say, "These Czechs are nesh!"

So how do you tell Brits in Czecho? Inside they are the ones opening the windows, turning down the heating and if they can't do that politely going red and sweaty in the corner. Outside they are the ones not wearing thick coats and hats.


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