Friday, 30 January 2009

Dobry Den

One thing you will notice as soon as you arrive in small town Czech Republic is the fact that everyone says hello to you when you meet them. You are walking down the road and meet someone coming in the opposite direction - “Dobry den” you both say with a nod and a smile, even though you have never met before. As you walk into a shop the shop assistant will greet you and you should reply in kind. As you leave she will say “Na shledanou” and again you reply in kind.

This is not just a custom for the older members of the population. It always surprises me when I pass a group of hooded youths, to hear the largest of them greet me with a Dobry Den. This includes our local gypsies, who, whilst having bought into the fashion and air of the Bronx wholesale, have not bought into the “You looking at me?” demeanour, no - “Dobry den” they go.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Skating on the Swimming Pond

I have blogged about the wonders of the Czech swimming ponds in the past – these man-made ponds where the villagers spend the hot summer days swimming or rafting. In winter they have another function. Last winter they drained the pond in order to clean it out and so I had been under the impression that this might be an annual occurrence. Not so.

As my husband and I walked past the pond on the other day, we watched a family putting on their skates and taking to the ice. They sat on the small jetty from, which in the summer people had jumped into the water, and did up their laces. The smallest child was first on the ice, ice-hockey stick in hand. The Czechs are internationally renowned for their ice hockey teams, but this young one has a lot to learn. The first thing he needs to learn is how to stay upright for more than a minute and once having fallen over how to get up again. Here is a photo of him, looking rather good, although the more perceptive amongst you will have noticed that he has missed the puck. He fell over when he tried to turn round to get it. Shortly afterwards he was joined by his big brother, who gathered up the puck and leaving the little one standing sped across the ice.

These long Czech winters in which the temperature seldom gets above zero combined with the many frozen ponds mean that children like our young friend are soon expert skaters and dreaming of joining the Czech ice-hockey team. I of course being English will never get past the stage of spending most of my time sprawled on the ice.

Friday, 23 January 2009

No Hot Water

My water heater isn't working and nor (properly) is my central heating. With the winter temperatures consistently well below zero, this is a disaster. The radiators are just about lukewarm, which at least means that the chill is taken off all the rooms and the water in the pipes does not freeze, but it is far from satisfactory. Fortunately we do have our wonderful wood-burning stove (see previous post), with which we are able to heat our main living room.

When we bought the house we took a load of professional advice on the best heating system for it – given there would be times when we would not be there and when we would want to temper the house to just above freezing. This seemed to preclude the exclusive use of the woodburning stoves, as these require topping up. The heating system we got was meant to be the best – with four large tanks installed in the back basement room in which water, that had been heated at times when the electricity rate was lowest, could be stored before being pumped to the radiators. The control system was again meant to be brilliant, with thermostatic controls, a digital timer with a multitude of programmes to choose from, and even the facility to be controlled remotely by phone – the idea being we can ring from England and it would come on in advance of our arrival. The remote control option didn't work from the beginning – the receiver was set in a wall with poor telephone reception. Within a year of use the digital timer had broken and had to be replaced, and now the bit that tells the boiler to come on and by how much seems not to be working. Added to that bills far in excess of what we had been led to expect – we are now told that a switch has been installed wrongly and so not only have been heating the water when the electric is at its most expensive but the surges in the current are what have been breaking the equipment – and you can see why I am close to suggesting we get rid of the lot.

Then when we got back from England just before the New Year the water heater failed to heat. Aaarghh!!! Of course all the Czechs were taking extended Christmas and New Year holidays and so it was not until the 12th that I was able to arrange for the electrician to turn up. I waited for him in vain, he had decided to go down the pub instead. I hate to say it, but I have come to recognise this as being par for the course here in the Czech Republic. The only consolation was I was so angry I managed to chop all the logs in the barn. Previously I had struggled in vain to split them, now imagining them to be someone's head I did the lot!

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Czech Train Journey

In previous posts I have talked about my pleasure at taking train journeys in the Czech Republic. But here is a post about another such journey and a fellow passenger.

Czech trains (well certainly the ones that run from Ceske Budejovice to Prague) tend to be somewhat old compared to British ones. This is no bad thing, as I rather feel that the Pendolino's aren't as good as the old trains - not enough luggage space and smelly loos. The Czech ones still have compartments, which caused my delighted two nieces to say it was a Harry Potter train, even if their journey began on a very unmagical platform in Budejovice. It is the nature of compartments is that you have a different relationship with your fellow passengers. This can be good and bad. If you are unlucky you will have difficulty escaping them without obviously moving away and so offending. For example recently I spent a three-hour journey in the confines of an overheated compartment with a woman with a bad cold, who didn't appear to know how to use a handkerchief. My fellow passengers and I looked on in horror, but said nothing - the Brits aren't the only ones to have a problem with challenging anti-social behaviour. In some cases your fellow travellers can be a joy, such as an elderly American doctor I met who, when her husband died, had set up a medical centre in Odessa much to the dismay of her children. If your fellow travellers are Czech, then the language barrier need not prevent your enjoyment - you can study Czech behaviour close up, you may find yourself answering questions about the UK or even sharing one of the picnics the Czechs usually bring on a journey (there are no buffet cars on our train).

But to my recent journey: I had settled into a compartment when an elderly man looked through the door at me and the empty compartment and asked if it was okay to join me. I waved at the empty seats and said "Ano, prosim". As a point of note, this is normal practice on Czech trains. To ask, without knowing Czech, it is sufficient to look in, catch the eyes of the other passengers, look round the compartment and say "Prosim?" The old man shuffled unsteadily to his seat, took off his coat, put it and his walking stick on a hook and loaded his luggage on to the rack. He sat down next to the window and opposite me, closed his eyes and went to sleep. This allowed me to study my travelling companion, he was a tall man, with grey hair receding at the temples, his hands were large and covered with liver spots, his grey jumper was hand-knitted but clean, his coat a good quality one. My first impressions of the usual poor Czech pensioner had been perhaps mistaken. I was now struck by what a remarkable bone structure he had, his face did not look Czech to my eyes, in fact he reminded me of a British aristocrat. He had been incredibly handsome when young and still looked pretty impressive.

After a nap he woke up and started to look out of the window. His gaze was an intense one and he was clearly thinking, my presence was not just ignored but didn't seem to register with him. After a while he opened his leather briefcase and took out three tattered notebooks held together by a rubberband and removed one which still had blank pages. He started to write and despite a shaking hand his writing was firm and clear. Ever so often he would stop, look out of the window with his steel-grey eyes, think about what to write next and then return to his notebook. He filled two pages and altered only one word. He was writing poetry!

At Prague he put away the book, put on his coat and shakily started to leave. As is customary he wished me "Na shledanou" and I returned it. I very much regretted not being able to speak to him properly, but then I wonder whether he would have written so openly in front of me if he hadn't noticed the English language novel I had been reading.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Czech House Pixies

The other day I was carrying some rubbish out to the bin, when I slipped on an icy step and fell badly. Fortunately I had my walking boots on which protected my ankle against serious damage, but I am limping and yesterday spent the day resting my leg. This is the third time I have hurt my leg here as regular readers of my blog will know. My friend commented that the house must have a malicious spirit which is tripping me up, not a particularly powerful one, a pixie perhaps. This response may seem strange to my British readers but to a Czech it is a perfectly natural one. The Czechs may be according to surveys the most atheist nation in Europe, but when it comes to pixies, water sprites and fairies they are believers. Let me give you some examples:

A fellow Krumlov Brit was restoring a ruined small cottage as a holiday home when a series of unexplained accidents took place, nothing serious things falling over and the like. The builder looked at him and suggested that they put a saucer of milk for the fairies under the threshold to appease them. My friend Salamander had a cleaner who was constantly talking about the house gnomes, who were playing tricks on her. You know the ones – they are the ones that magic up balls of old hair and fluff and leave them under your bed, that hide your nail scissors in the last place you would look, and turn the milk sour when the shop has just closed. We Brits have forgotten them, but we once had them too. What can I say? Other than Puck is alive and well and living somewhere near Cesky Krumlov.

It strikes me that my house pixie has a clear purpose in what he is doing. He is not trying to force me from the house, not at all. My injuries are just enough to ensure that I cannot walk very from it. Tomorrow I will be leaving my lovely Czech home and taking the early train to Prague, I don't think he wants me to go.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Diamonds in the Snow

Yesterday I went for a walk with my friend Salamander. We took the path up to the woods above my house, the weather was perfect – sun, snow, a clear blue sky, a deep blue I have never seen in England. We are having extremely low temperatures at present -20 degrees last night. It is as they say too cold to snow, the water vapour stays in the air and forms snow-like crystals over everything. On Saturday morning you could even see the ice hanging in the air where the sunlight shafted down, minute crystals would flash in shimmering clouds, a glimpse of the spirits of the Czech winter working their magic. Now we reaped the benefit of their work, we walked through ankle-deep virgin snow, broken only by occasional animal tracks. On the snow's surface flowers of ice crystal bloomed and shone in the sunlight. The branches of the dark firs at the forest edge were picked out by white.

We walked through woods, now bereft of the birdsong which had accompanied my mushrooming forays in the summer and autumn, the only sound being the crunch of the snow and occasional branch crack. Ducking under an electric fence we followed the edge of the forest down a steep slope – in the distance the Klet was bathed in sun, but with a scarf of low cloud around its shoulders. Crossing a frozen stream we regained the path and returned to the house and warm mugs of tea.

As dusk fell Salamander departed and I settled down with a book whilst the woodstove chugged in the corner. Then the phone rang – it was Salamander. “If you can, take a look at the moon.” I walked into the yard at the end of the orchard the moon full hung just above the old apple trees – large and orange. The light was so bright, the orchard was lit up as if in daylight. This morning I left the house at 8am to walk to Horice na Sumave to catch the bus into town. The sun was rising and the sky was coloured. As I walked I watched the sun turn the white snow yellow and the ice on the trees a peach colour. My house stood glowing in the light on the other side of the village. And just to finish off the enchantment across the fields as bold as brass ran my fox. I had not seen him since my return from England at New Year. He looked across the field at me, sniffed the morning air and darted into the cover of the woods. The dawn sun had turned his coat a dark auburn. By the time I got to Horice the world was white again.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Czech winter

Over the last week the area around our home has been transformed. We have had snow followed by a cold several degrees below freezing. As a consequence we have a wonderful winter landscape of bright white together with beautiful blue skies. It has been so cold and still that the water vapour has been unable to form into snow. Instead it crystallises on the branches and the plants and is nothing so like those magnetised iron filings one played with as a child, only white of course. On the ground through a process of slight thaw and then severe freeze the surface of the snow is covered by white feathers of ice, which catch the sunlight and dazzle like diamonds. There is such a magic in these Czech winter days, that it makes your heart leap with joy.

PS I don't usually put up large images on this blog, but have made an exception this time - click the photo to see enlarged version, a view towards Horice na Sumave from the hill above our Czech home.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Following the Star

Today is Twelfth Night or Three Kings Eve in the Czech Republic. There will be a ceremony in Cesky Krumlov Town Square to mark the end of the Christmas celebrations, when children will dress up as the kings, sing and collect money for the Catholic Charity. On Friday afternoon we caught a taster of the ceremony when we came across three (rather young) kings standing on the wooden bridge at Latran holding a cardboard star on a stick and a collection box. The star reminded me of the shooting star which is the emblem of the Cowley Road Carnival back in Oxford, which I was involved in setting up.

Later that evening we were walking up the hill from Horice Na Sumave towards our home. The sky above our heads formed a huge starlit dome. The moon was in its crescent form and a planet shone brightly a little way from its tip. Suddenly across the sky, almost parallel with the horizon but arcing slightly down came a meteor. I have spoken before of the displays of falling stars we get sometimes on our night walks to our Czech home, but this was different. This must have been extremely close, as it was a large ball of light rather than a faint speck, and instead of falling straight, it sped like a jet fighter from north to south. The other amazing thing about it was the long tail of light that trailed behind it. I saw Halley's comet when it came close a few years ago and which it has been suggested was the star of Bethlehem, but this was more spectacular. Had I been a magi, I would have followed it, but I would have needed something faster than a camel to do so. It certainly unnerved me, I have never seen anything like it and its size and low downward projection meant that for a while I listened for an explosion when the thing hit earth, but none came. My Czech esoteric friends would see it as a portent of some forthcoming event. They are all saying that 2012 will be see end of the world, for a few minutes I thought they might have got it wrong by a couple of years.

Update: I am now offering holidays built about traditional Czech customs such as this one, check out for more

Friday, 2 January 2009

New Year 2009

In my blogs for previous years I told you about the New Year celebrations in Cesky Krumlov, this year we saw the new year in in our little village. The Krumlov New Year is a big event with the sky above the town erupting with fireworks, drunken celebrations in the Town Square and a concert. Our expectations of this year were omuch lower, a simple quiet affair. Not a bit of it.

Our village sits at the end of a valley circling the middle tier of a natural amphitheatre. Our Czech home is near the end of the semicircle of village buildings and sited above most. Thus from the windows of our main rooms we get a view across most of the village to another farm perched on the slopes opposite, plus a view down the valley to the hills above Horice na Sumave. The house faces south east, which means we get some spectacular sunrises and then full morning sun, in the evening the view is no less lovely with the opposite farm glowing in the pink light of sunset. I remember clearly my first morning in the house, when the snow may have been four foot deep in the yard but the low winter sun fairly blasted into the room in the morning.

At midnight the villagers set off fireworks and whilst not as abundant as the Cesky Krumlov ones, they were many and loud. For over half an hour rockets ascended into a night sky unpolluted by Krumlov's many lights. The villagers seemed to be taking it in turns to light the touchpaper. Standing at the window of our darkened room I watched the glow as a householder in the centre of the village lit rocket after rocket. It must have cost him a fortune to put on such a show. At about 12.30 I saw an unfamilar light appear, first one and then two glowing spheres. They were small paper hot air balloons, which set free drifted up into the freezing night air. I watched their ascent to many feet about the village until the flames were extinguished and unseen they fell. Of all the displays these balloons were the most magical.


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