Saturday, 28 February 2009


I was enjoying a cup of tea with my friend Salamander on Tuesday when there was a thump as a large lump of snow slid off her roof and fell past the window of her study and on to the street below. The thaw appears to be arriving and Czechs should either avoid walking under the house eaves or keep an eye skywards. Some Czech buildings have spikes set in the tiles presumably to break up the snow and prevent these avalanches. But mine and hers do not.

Here in our village we are higher than Cesky Krumlov where she lives and so the thaw has been slower in coming. But on Thursday night it did, the first sign of it was a loud metal crack which woke me with a start. This was followed by more, heralded by a rumble as a slab of snow (a foot deep) slid down the roof. The metal gutter would take the strain for a while until the weight of snow overwhelmed it and with a crack similar to that of a rifle it deposited the snow onto the ground below. I was sleeping in the backroom where the gutter is very close to the window, so you can imagine the sound. This happened intermittently through the night, usually when I had just got back to sleep.

In the morning I went in to the yard, on the yard-side of the house half a roof's worth of snow had come down (see above). After much work the yard steps had been clear of snow the previous evening, alas no longer they were piled high. This year has been particularly bad, as it has not stopped snowing for days on end and the snow is very thick. Not as thick however as my first winter here when it was at least twice as deep and caused real problems, in particular breaking my old roof timbers. I remember a huge slab coming off the roof of the house opposite and my neighbours having to dig themselves out of their front door. Well, it was my turn this Winter. Shortly after taking the photo above, the rest came down with a terrible crump and the roof now looked like the photo below. If I had thought the snow in the yard deep before, it was literally doubly so now . Now that I no longer needed to worry about more avalanches I set about clearing the steps of at least two to three feet of snow plus a path to the gate. I had been thinking of going into Cesky Krumlov that morning, as I was leaving for England early the following morning but the snow put paid to that, instead I was up to my knees in snow.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Masopust in Horice Na Sumave

Masopust (the Czech version of Carnival) is celebrated at this time of year in certain parts of Moravia and Southern Bohemia. Fortunately for me it is still going strong here in Horice Na Sumave. It happened on Saturday. Unfortunately it was the worst possible weather for it. Instead of the usual Czech winter of one day of snow followed by bright sunshine, we have had almost continuous snow for days. The roads leading to our village have become slicker and slicker and were particularly bad on Saturday – in fact I watched as the wheels on the tractor pulling the snow plough spun on the ice outside our house. What was I saying in my post of a week or so ago about how the Czechs are not as good at dealing with snow as we Brits are led to believe?

For Masopust a group of Masopusters wander from house to house and village to village. Outside each house a group of tancmeisitri (dance masters) in black suits wearing tall hats covered with tissue flowers (to symbolise Christ's wounds apparently) and carrying fake guns or pikes (often with a piece of bacon and bread on it) dance in a circle. In addition there is the Masopust character – a young man elected for the post – who wears a coat of brightly coloured rag strips and carries a flail for thrashing wheat. Then there are a number of other comic characters – one looked as though he might have been a bear. Having danced and thus blessed the house with prosperity the householder gives them shots of slivovice or some other fiercely alcoholic beverage. I gather that the occasion is also used as a means to raise money, for say the local volunteer fire brigade, and that the householder may be “arrested” until a fine is paid.

On Saturday I looked for their arrival from my window, thinking I would see the procession come along one of the two roads into the village. But I missed them, perhaps because in the terrible weather they came by car. Instead I simply heard some music and there they were dancing outside my neighbours' house (a very short dance it was too). I grabbed my camera, put on my coat and boots and went outside. They were nowhere to be seen. I walked the short distance to the cross and still there was nothing to be seen. However in the few minutes it took me to walk there, I realised why the dance had been so short – the ice was lethal and I nearly lost my footing several times and I hadn't had several shots of slivovice! I abandoned my idea of walking to Horice na Sumave to see the end of Masopust. So I am sorry, but as I do not have any photos, you will have to make do with this one from last year's photos on the town's website.

Carnival is of course linked with the Catholic Church traditions in Southern and Central Europe, but I couldn't help thinking that Masopust comes from a much older tradition, which it betrays in several ways. Firstly the festival is clearly one which brings good fortune and fertility – hence the flail, the bacon and bread and the blessing on the house. Secondly there is the role of Masopust himself. In Horice the final act of Masopust happens in the local hall of culture in the evening. Here everyone gets well and truly ratted and dance into the early hours, but not before Masopust is ceremonially executed and a mock funeral takes place. Here if ever there was one is an example of a legacy of the pagan Celtic sacrifice of a god-king to secure the fertility of the land for the next season.

Which all brings me to my final observation. One thing that strikes me strongly about Masopust is its similarities to British Morris dancing and mumming. The coat of rags is identical to those of the border morris sides as is the habit of blacking up. Of course there is also the fertility ritual element in both. I gather from a recent exhibition at The Museum of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice that an element of Masopust, which took place in the then German-speaking towns of this part of South Bohemia, was a form of sword dancing. The book of the exhibition suggests that this was a peasant imitation of lordly sword dances, but that may be wrong. Sword-dancing (or rather dancing with long pieces of metal) is part of the Morris tradition. These are usually eventually woven into a star or sun configuration and the dance ends with this being held aloft. However I remember very clearly in my childhood seeing another version of this in which the configuration was around one dancer's neck, the swords were then withdrawn and the dancer fell down.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Tracks in the Snow

I have often talked in this blog about my encounters with Czech wildlife, but it is only when one sees the many tracks in the snow that one realises just how much there is and how close one is to it. When I was a little girl there was a children's tv programme called (I think) Town Boy, Country Boy and featured the incomparable and much-missed Jack Hargreaves (the old guy on How!) In it a town boy is taught about the countryside by Jack. Like that boy I was fascinated by nature and wildlife and longed to be able to track animals. Now here is my chance.

From my hazy memories I think this scene above is where a deer ascended the railway embankment to cross the track to the fields beyond.

And this is from a rabbit.

And the one below shows where a buzzard swooped down on its prey, it hopped around a few times before taking off. You can see the marks of its wing feathers in the snow.

I have bought myself a book of animal tracks so that I can read the signs better – it is in England and I will bring it back when next I visit.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Krtek the Mole

Tuesday is my son's 21st birthday. As well as a present of much-needed money (he is at university, need I say more) we are giving him a dvd of cartoons featuring the Mole (Krtek) – a character created by Czech animator Zdeněk Miler. The little mole first appeared in 1957 in a film called How the Mole Got His Trousers and Miler went on to create some fifty more short cartoons about his little black hero. Krtek remains an important part of Czech childhood, as is demonstrated by the fact that Moles in all shapes and sizes can be bought in toyshops the length and breadth of the Czech Republic. One suspects the toys are bought by and for adults as well - my son discovered him when he was no longer a child, but then anyone can appreciate the character and the animation.

I don't think the Mole ever made it to British television - I don't understand why the BBC didn't snap him up. It is a shame because he is old enough to have been part of my childhood as well as my son's. There are lots of Krtek cartoons on Youtube, here's one of my favourites.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Czech work/life balance

In my last post I talked about how a number of my Czech friends are unwilling to consider jobs which require a commute. Indeed when I suggest looking for a better paid job in Ceske Budejovice, less than 30 minutes away from Cesky Krumlov, they look at me askance. What a waste of time they are thinking. The British have the longest average commute in Europe, Londoners spend approximately one month (225 hours) a year commuting. Put like that I am increasingly with the Czechs on this issue.

This attitude is I think part of a wider more relaxed Czech attitude to work and a healthier approach to the work/life balance. Whilst I have met a few Czechs who are driven and devote to their work, I just get the impression that for most Czechs work is not as central to their lives as it is for the Brits. Instead the focus is on the family and the country cottage. They may not be willing to commute for half an hour to get to work, but they will happily pile into their car and drive for hours to and from the cottage every weekend. Whilst there they busy themselves - chopping wood, doing DIY and digging the garden -so that they are exhausted come Monday and so they return to work for a rest.

This can be very frustrating when you are trying to get something done. As a general rule I do not contact Czech offices on Mondays (the workers will be talking about what they did over the weekend) nor on Fridays as they will be getting ready to go. And Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays aren't much better! Not for the Czechs that Anglo Saxon Protestant work ethic they are altogether more Mediterranean in their outlook. Whilst it does make me frustrated at times, I also envy them it and hope that a bit of it rubs off on me over time.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Some thoughts on snow

At the moment the British media are full of stories about the disruption caused by the exceptional snowfalls that have beset the UK over the last week. Commentators ask why the British transport system can grind to a virtual halt when other countries cope happily with much more snow. It is, they argue, the fault of government (central and local) to be adequately prepared, a decline in standards among the Brits - slackers who use the excuse of a few inches of snow to bunk off work, health and safety phobia gone mad, what ever happened to the bulldog spirit, blah, blah, blah.

My other country, the Czech Republic, copes with winter snows that last for several months most years. This gives me something of an insight into the situation. It is not true that all the roads here are kept clear of snow, as this photo near my villages shows, far from it - many of the rural roads are neither cleared, gritted nor salted. Such snow clearance as does take place is done by our local farmer, for good commercial reasons. And my observation is that is true of many minor roads in the Czech Republic, you can spot the road used by forestry logging lorries or leading to a factory as they are clear.

Czech cars are obliged by law to have winter tyres fitted every year, which help with driving on snow, but not so much on ice. Whether such a measure would be appropriate in a country such as the UK, which has heavy snow once every 28 years, is questionable. My old creative writing teacher always had snow chains on her tyres in the Winter, but then she lived down a narrow Cotswold lane on a 1-in-4 hill.

On driving in the snow in the UK after driving in the Czech Republic it is pretty obvious to me what the main problem is - namely that British drivers just do not know how to drive in these conditions. They drive too fast or too slow, the latter being as dangerous as the first when attempting to get up a winding steep hill in the Cotswolds. But is it surprising that this is the case? How can they gain such knowledge/experience unless they are sent to the Czech Republic for a few months? That said, a few weeks ago I was standing at the Spicak bus station in Cesky Krumlov when I saw Czech boyracer do a spectacular but unplanned 180-degree spin on the main road - I and the rest of the bus queue gave him a jeering round of applause.

One other thought about why the British have had so many problems this last week - a major cause is I think the British attitude to commuting. When I was a little girl we had the winter of 1963 - a far worse winter than this one. I can still remember it, although I was only four. For weeks my home town was cut off - it is surrounded on three sides by hills. The snow was so deep I have heard tales of people walking to the local papermill on the tops of the hedges. The school stayed open - even though the children's toilets were outside loos, which required the snow being cleared every morning and the ice broken in the toilet bowls (ah yes I remember them well!). But the difference was the teachers would have lived in the town, now they could not afford it. The majority of the population worked in the papermill and other local businesses, now people commute to Cheltenham, Oxford and Birmingham. I believe it is this reliance on being able to travel long distances that has made this year's "snow event" as the Met Office calls it so catastrophic.

I have observed Czechs do not share this willingness to travel for hours just to get to work. Friends in Cesky Krumlov will not consider a job in Ceske Budejovice only 20 minutes away. Is this because of the Czech Winter? I think not, but rather an attitude to work and the work/life balance which thinks an hour's commute even for a better job too much of a sacrifice.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Rococo Treasures at Kvitkuv Dvur

Recently my husband and I were honoured with an invitation to look round the large courtyard farm of Kvitkuv Dvur on the hill behind Cesky Krumlov Castle. This is no ordinary courtyard farm - it was owned by the Schwarzenbergs, the Lords of the castle and provided produce for the Castle's heaving dining tables. At one point in the fashion of the time the chatelaine Marie Theresa Schwarzenberg decided to turn the farm into a place where she, like Marie Antoinette could play at farming. As a result Kvitkuv Dvur has hidden treasures.

We entered one of the main rooms and the owner opened the shutters one by one. With each shutter we gasped at what we saw revealed: a room with walls and ceiling covered with the finest rococo frescos. The frescos showed a series of scenes of the rural idyll – milking, the farmyard, a shepherdess, goat-herding, a man whittling, another gathering eggs (or doves) from a dovecote, and others.

On the ceiling the painting continues seamlessly with faux-balustrades from which people look down and a sky full of clouds and birds. This isn't the only visual joke the painter Jakub Prokys plays with us: at one point a card player is shown at full height (see photo). There is a lovely lightness of touch and humour in the paintings as well as a huge level of detail.

The tragedy of this wonderful place is that it is in desperate need of restoration. The owner is a doctor, who despite huge dedication and having putting every penny he had (and some he hadn't) into doing up the building, is struggling to meet the demands of his inheritance. As he put it “When the communists came they took it away from my family, then it was in good condition, now the state has given it back ruined, and I must meet the costs”. Such grants as are available are never given in their totality, but instead as a percentage for which he has to find the rest. Furthermore the grants are not given for the building in its entirety - so you can get a grant for the ceiling, but have to get a separate one for the roof, even though the latter directly impacts on the second.

I am sure this is a circumstance that is being repeated all over the Czech Republic. Our host is now under huge pressure to pay back the loans he took to start the restoration. He could sell up to a commercial operation which wants to turn the farm and surrounding land into an up-market golf course, but to do so feels like a betrayal of his forebears. He has a vision of area in front of the farm being the new site of the rotating theatre, which UNESCO is demanding is removed from the Castle Gardens, and the farm buildings forming the supporting buildings. But time is running out for him.


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