Sunday, 23 January 2011

Photographic lane

Back in November I visited Jindrichuv Hradec to arrange a visit by a group from Australia to the town. As part of the visit we will be attending a demonstration at the world-famous tapestry studios established by the Czech cubist Marie Teinitzerova. That studio is to be found along a lane which runs between the walls of the town and a river channel, it also runs at the foot of the beautiful Jindrichuv Hradec castle, hence its name Pod Hradem.

I don't know whether it was because the tour I was organising was for artists, who want a tour which will allow them to see examples of Czech arts and crafts and to create their own art, but I found myself making a photographic study of the lane. I was helped in this by buildings in the lane being both old and mostly unrestored.

Many have retained their original doors and windows with their lovely decoration and patina.

And ancient windows. It was just like parts of Cesky Krumlov and indeed Prague used to be when first I started to visit this country. Perhaps that was another reason why I found myself so drawn to capturing it photographically, I knew it would not and could not last like this for long.

Even the street lights take you back in time.

And then there was this sign outside a small building on the riverside. It's a sign for a beer sanitorium and spa! Maybe I should take the Australians there as well - after all the Czechs have turned brewing and consuming beer into an artform. If I do take them, I will tell you all about it.  

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Greatest Czech

In 2005, following the success of the BBC's 100 Greatest Britons, Czech Television launched a competition to find the greatest Czech. Who won? Not Vaclav Havel, Charles IV, Jan Hus, Jan Zizka, or the country's first president Tomas Mararyk. No, the greatest Czech as voted for by the Czech public was Jara Cimrman.

Never heard of him? He's very well known in the Czech Republic. I was recently reminded of that by the large number of posters on the Prague underground for a Jara Cimrman book. He has his own museum in Prague.

Cimrman was born in Vienna in either 1857, 1864, 1867 or 1894 - the exact date is uncertain, since the doctor recording the birth was drunk. He grew up to be a hugely influential inventor - his inventions include the CD (Cimrman's disc) and yoghurt. Unfortunately he was always a few minutes late at the Patent Office, so someone else got the credit. He was also influential in the theatre, he advised Chekhov that Two Sisters were too few and also corresponded with George Bernard Shaw (who never replied). For a fuller list of his achievements check out his Wikipedia entry.

And yet despite this, Czech TV refused to accept the public's decision.Why not? Well there was the minor problem that he did not exist, has never done so in fact, apart from as a fictional comic creation. The wonderful Czech public had refused to play ball.

But in many ways Cimrman would have been so right for the title. He works not just as a comic character but as a summary of Czechness. The Czechs know that they would have invented everything if they hadn't been distracted, that they would have been great explorers if they had chosen to (Cimrman nearly was the first man to the North Pole - he missed it by seven metres), and that they have wrongly have been overlooked. The trouble is they can't quite take things seriously - things like tv competitions for example.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


We Brits are told that we are reserved and private in our behaviour, compared to other nations that is. Looking at the Czechs superficially that may appear to be true, but look closer and in certain crucial ways things are not so simple.  

We are told that an English man's home is his castle. Then what is a Czech's? I have seen inside very few Czech homes. I've sat in their gardens drinking coffee and/or beer but as for going inside, that is another matter. If we want to get to know people, we middle-class Brits will invite them to dinner (usually a dinner party to be precise). The dinner party will often include a tour of the house. Again that has hardly never happened here in Czecho. Well one reason is, I suppose, the fact that the main meal of the day in this country is lunch, but still I think it is deeper than that. Only one Czech friend has cooked for me - lunch or dinner.

I am not sure why this is. Perhaps it goes back to the communist days, when the only people you could trust were family and close friends and the only place you felt (relatively) secure was in your own home.  You didn't let strangers into the sanctuary - a Czech's home was indeed a castle, whereas the Englishman's was actually his family seat.

If you do get invited to someone's home or garden - then take a gift. And if you invite someone to yours expect at least one jar of jam, or some home-made slivovice, or a whole tin of cakes, or vegetables and fruit from the garden or a mixture of these. In my experience the gifts will be home-made rather than shop-bought, especially if your guest is female. No matter that you only invited them round for a cup of tea - it is simply not done for them to arrive empty-handed.

I was talking about this to a friend, who although Czech by birth and upbringing spent twenty years in Britain, and we came to the conclusion that it was something about the Czechs wanting to show that they can afford to give food in return, again a harking back to a time when indeed there was very little to go around.


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