Friday, 26 February 2010

Czech Body Language

My husband has always been embarrassed by the way I watch strangers. I can't help myself, I love people watching. "Stop eavesdropping," he will say. "Stop staring!" Here in the Czech Republic I can't eavesdrop, other than to the tone of voice, but I can still watch. And one of the advantages of not speaking Czech is that I find myself watching body language more closely. And very revealing it is too.

I was doing just that recently on our local train to Cesky Krumlov from Volary. The train wends its way through the Sumava National Park on its way to our local station at Horice na Sumave. As it was the weekend and late afternoon, the train was full of people who were on their way back from a daytrip to the Sumava. The luggage racks were filled with skis and skipoles, thick jackets hung steaming from hooks and the passengers were dosing themselves on slivovice (home-brewed plum spirit) and vodka. In true Czech hospitality even I was offered the opportunity to partake of the clear but potent liquid, but I declined, wanting all my wits and balance to walk on the icy road home.

I soon came to the conclusion that our carriage was filled by one large party of skiers, such was the camaraderie in the carriage. In one corner a group was singing popular Czech songs. In the seats alongside mine an animated discussion was taking place, punctuated with bouts of silence as the bottle was passed round. Further down the carriage a man was holding forth to a woman and another man sat opposite him. I focussed on him, his face was hugely expressive - now solemn, now urgent, now breaking into a laugh. And, as if that was not enough, there were his hand gestures or should I say arm gestures as neither stayed still for a minute all through the journey.

In the UK I am very aware that I use hand gestures more than most other Brits, so much so that it was commented on when I did media training for my work. But here I would be considered undemonstrative. The Czechs are so much more expressive than the Brits. They are more emotional too. They wear their emotions on the faces and in their gestures. It makes for great people watching. But it can be deceiving - when we got to Cesky Krumlov the "great friends" all went their separate ways, some getting off, some staying on the train. I daresay that if I had partaken of the slivovice I too would have been a "great friend."

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Jindrichuv Hradec

One of the highlights of the tour of historic South Bohemia that I am organising for this June will undoubtedly a visit to Jindrichuv Hradec. The town is east of Ceske Budejovice on an important ancient trade route. As a result of the wealth that came from the trade it has a splendid castle and a fascinating old town full of important churches and other buildings.

The castle has both gothic and renaissance buildings. We will be taking the Gothic tour. The tour climaxes (for me anyway) in the St George room. On its four walls in nearly fifty individual scenes the story of St George is told in some of the finest Gothic wallpainting you will see anywhere in Europe. Unlike many wallpaintings one sees in churches the series is complete and at eye level. You can get right up as close as the medieval artist did. The painting was painted in 1338 for the Oldrich III of Hradec and has a cartoon-like quality.

And as if that was not enough the tour ends with a visit to a complete black kitchen from circa 1500.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Farming and the landscape

Our Czech home is an old farmhouse in a hamlet near Horice Na Sumave in South Bohemia. The village is made up of a number of similar farmhouses and a number of newer houses and cottages. The traditional layout of a village in South Bohemia is of gated courtyard farms fronting on to a green on which there is often a pond and a chapel. Ours is slightly different as it is spread out around a valley.

Each farm was allotted several small parcels or strips of land spread around the village on which the farmer would grow crops or graze animals. I understand that these land parcels were rotated between the farmers. But nevertheless farmers would often end up with small patches of land several miles apart. The land was and is rich, as can be seen by the substantial nature of the farmbuildings.

When the Communists came the land was collectivised and in many villages large ugly concrete collective farm buildings were built. By the end of communism many of the old farm buildings had fallen into such disrepair that they were torn down, converted to another use or left to rot. The restoration of the farmland to private ownership has seen the growth of the commercial, EU-subsidised farms.

Our local farmer has bought in to the new brave new world wholesale, he has filled the fields around the village with cows. Gone is the mixed-use farmland. Gone too are the wildflower-filled haymeadows, the orchards stand unharvested. The old paths are blocked with electric fences. Czech farmers have recently seen the a large drop in milk and grain prices, so great (25%) that they claim they are unable to break even. I wonder whether he now regrets his choice.

Elsewhere in the area there are some welcome developments in farming practice. The number of organic farms is growing, although still quite low, in the Sumava there are now 95 such farms an increase of 12 in 2009 alone.

Thursday, 11 February 2010


One of the advantages of the snow and the Czech winter is that you can actually see all those small birds you could only hear during the other seasons. Flocks of birds swoop into the bushes outside our house where they chatter and fight. The need to feed on whatever berries and seeds remain overrides any fear they have of humans. Instead of flying off as I draw near they ignore me. The other day I opened the bedroom window to watch as two blue tits raided the eaves for insects. They were so close I could have reached out and touched them.

The bare trees and hedges reveal their secrets such as this nest. Nests are so well hidden in the summer that you can pass within a few feet and not see them. But now the little hat of snow highlight their existence, so much so that it is now one of my pastimes on the train journey to Cesky Krumlov to count bird nests in the trees that line the track.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Cafe Alpenrose

My husband and I had been walking around Vyssi Brod and needed a coffee. We walked past the many Vietnamese shops on the town square with their usual assortment of cheap goods and their owners calling to us in German to walk in. And then we came across the Cafe Alpenrose (Alpska Ruze).

We wandered in and were immediately struck by the weird 'bohemian' decoration and architecture. It felt like one of those arty hippish cafes of my 1970s youth. Much of the furniture was homemade, with bits of old furniture combining with mdf, and was individualistic (to say the least). As well as excellent coffees and cakes, the shop sold wicker baskets, wild honey, koh-i-noor art products, Czech porcelain and crystal. They also had some booklets for sale on places to visit. They were quite frankly cheap to look at but dear to buy. However the booklet suited my research needs for the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society visit, so I bought it. "You want this!" said the owner, chuckling as I handed over the money.

I went back the other day and took this photo for the blog. I was on my own and sat and watched the punters. "Gruss Gott," said a painfully thin Austrian lady as she came in.

"Gruss Gott!" came the reply. Her small son and husband followed. The little boy was into everything in the cafe, asking his frazzled mother to buy first a book, then a rubber, then a pack of pencils. As more punters walked in it became clear that this was very much a German or Austrian haunt, not a word of Czech to be heard. But then I suppose Vyssi Brod historically has always been a German-speaking town.

At the end of my visit I wandered into the toilets: wonderful. They looked like they were built into a thick stone wall or a cliff wall. I left the cafe, as I had on my previous visit, with a smile on my face.


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