Saturday, 20 December 2014

Introducing British Christmas to Czech Children

My neighbour teaches English at our local primary school. She is not a qualified English teacher, but her English is good and a lot better than anyone else around and she has the greatest qualification, i.e she knows how to enthuse her pupils. So it was perhaps inevitable that I would be asked to talk to the children. She had been teaching the pupils various words to do with Christmas, but she needed a real Brit to talk about the differences between Czech and British Christmases.

I wasn't sure that I would have much to say, but of course as she and I chatted over her kitchen table the differences became clearer and clearer. It is strange to see your national customs through another country's eyes. So much that seems to you completely normal is at best novel to them and at times downright strange. And so I found myself walking into the school that I had walked past so many times on my way to the local minimart.

 The first thing I told the children was that we don't celebrate St Nicholas' Day (see my previous post), instead British children wait for the arrival of Father Christmas on Christmas Eve. The children were delighted to hear about Father Christmas (Jitka had taught them his name) and the need to leave a glass of sherry and a carrot for the reindeer, but didn't understand how he could come down the chimney. Czech houses have chimneys but they are fed by wood stoves not open fireplaces, so I showed them a picture of a fireplace in a British house. Then some bright spark asked if all English houses had fireplaces and I had to confess that they did not, but somehow Father Christmas still managed to get in!

I had brought my kindle tablet into the classroom and played the children a track of church bells which I had downloaded from Amazon and which, as it happens, was recorded at a small town near my English home. They were amazed by this. It is hard for someone so used to the peel of church bells as I am (my family home was 200 yards from the church ) to understand that this normal sound is something extraordinary once you step outside the UK. In the Czech Republic you seem to have either a carillon playing a tune or a simple tolling.

I talked about Christmas dinner which of course led into a discussion about what a pudding is. There is a Czech word - pudink - but it is for a blancmange type dessert.  And as for setting fire to it, well that caused some comment. Another area open to misunderstanding is Christmas crackers. In the Czech Republic if a child sees a cracker they think it is a cardboard container for sweets. There is no crack to be had, even if you pulled it. 

The final and, I presumed, weirdest British custom that I told them about was pantomime. I expected them to be surprised by men dressing up as women and the leading boy being played by a girl, but they took it all in their stride. Maybe it's because they are used to grown men dressing up as angels. I soon introduced them to audience participation and had them shouting "she's behind you" and "Oh yes she is!"  And so with a principal boy's slap to my thigh I congratulated them on their English and wished them a merry Christmas.

And so I will leave you with the same wish and this - a Czech advert about another difference between the English-speaking world's Christmas and the Czech one. They eat carp as their main meal not turkey and they buy the carp live, which means the man of the household has the duty of dispatching the carp on Chritstmas Eve:

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Christmas Celebrations in the Czech Republic

I am in Britain and it feels very strange. Normally I am able to have two Christmases - the Czech and the British. That is because the Czech Christmas starts with St Nicholas Day on the 6th December, when the squares and streets fill up with people dressed as angels, devils and St Nick himself. Excited children are asked by the three whether they have been good or bad over the year and are given their rewards (usually) or punishments. The shops are stocked with chocolate or marzipan versions of the three interrogators. In the Czech Republic Christmas lasts for weeks ending on 12th Night or Three Kings Day (more of the latter in a future post).

Last year I was in Prague for St Nicholas Day and found myself travelling on a tram filled with children and their parents heading for the city's squares. Also on the tram and travelling with the same purpose were a number of the seasonal characters. Actually there were more devils than angels and more angels than saints, but then the devil always has the best (and warmest) costumes and it was bitterly cold. A group of students sat at the end of the carriage half-heartedly sporting plastic red horns and facepaint, which could have been picked up in any supermarket. But some people take the business seriously. For part of the journey I sat opposite a man in the most impressive devil costume. His horns had formerly adorned the head of a ram. His clothes were made of leather, fur and sheepskin and his boots (in which he was presumably hiding his cloven hooves) were traditional leather Czech ones. The age of the boots hinted that this costume had been decades in the creation, an inheritance perhaps. The contrast with the students couldn't have been greater. 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Scottish Referendum Seen From the Czech Republic.

I have frequently observed that being a Brit in the Czech Republic makes me understand my own nationality better. It is a combination of distance and being around people who see things differently, who find remarkable what I have taken for granted, that makes me look again at my country. And thus it is with the Scottish Referendum.

Yesterday I was sitting with a Czech outside a cafe in Brno when she asked me what I thought about what was happening. My answer was that it was up to the Scots to decide their future and as an English person it was not my place to interfere. She leaned forward with a disbelieving smile and said "But what do you feel?"

My response was one I have until now not expressed anywhere publicly and that is that I hope with all my heart that they say no. "My grandmother," I added, "would be turning in her grave, as we say in English."

"We have the same saying," she replied.

This grandmother was Betsy, who proudly displayed the family tartan on the mantlepiece. She was proud of being half Scot and half English and 100% British, I explained. I added that what I found so difficult is that like her I consider myself to be British first and foremost and that being English came a poor third after being European and possibly fourth after being a Gloucestershire girl.

What being British means for me is being part of a union of different races, countries and cultures. We retain our differences and respect (indeed love) those of the others in the union. But the sum of the union is greater than the parts and as a result we have been able to achieve so much more as a country than we should have. It is the principle of diversity writ large and enshrined in my country's identity. It is part of my identity. It is a principle and an approach to community that has constantly informed my work of community regeneration. And it hurts like hell to see it under threat.

I can't quite understand why it hurts so much. As a believer in community democracy I should be supporting self determination, shouldn't I? But for the Union to lose one of its founding members is to tear out a key thread from the diverse tapestry. The Scots have done so much, given so much, that to lose them would I fear make everything else come apart. As I said to my Czech interrogator I am afraid of what will follow.

In response she shook her head in sorrow. Like so many Czechs I know, she grieves for the reborn Czechoslovakia which was strangled in the cradle. "It was bad," she said, " for both of us, but worse for the Slovaks. I feel sorry for the Slovaks. You know Slovakia?" I have not been there. "It is beautiful, more wild than here, mountainous, further away. They had more problems." The two nations both paid economically for the split, but the Slovaks more than the Czechs. "They lied to us, the politicians. We still do not know the true cost of the separation. So many things had to be paid for - new money, new offices."

But it is not really the economic loss that counts, it is the loss of what might have been. A relatively small European country became two even smaller ones, dictated to by German and other foreign investors and in the case of  Slovakia by the powers of the Eurozone. For the Czechs there was another less easily defined loss - one of identity. Even now they do not know what to call their country - they dislike "The Czech Republic," sometimes using Czechia or just Czech instead. In this I can see my problem as an English woman: I don't actually know what my country will be. I would like to think it will be the Albion of William Blake, but I fear that is more likely to be the England of Nigel Farrage.

"They lied to us, the politicians..." Indeed they did and indeed they do. The Velvet Divorce was agreed by the Czech and Slovak leaders without any form of referendum. The divorce was amicable, despite some arguments over gold reserves and the division of the military. A divorce is a good analogy and in the British case one partner is leaving the other, with all the anger, pain and insult-throwing that tends to come from a one-sided divorce. I would like to think that if the Scots vote yes, our respective leaders will sit down and negotiate a deal which works for both sides. But I don't believe it will happen. Already we see the peevish posturing and lies of politicians on the question of the £.

When the Czechs and Slovaks divorced both economies were hit and that was not when the world was recovering from a major recession. Fortunately because of how the politicians stitched up the divorce, the people of both countries were able to blame their politicians for their economic problems and not each other. The Czechs, when polled about which other country they would choose to live in, opt for Slovakia over any other.  But in the British case - one country will have voted on the subject and one will not. If England goes into decline as the consequence of a yes result, would the love many English bear for Scotland survive the divorce?

Monday, 28 July 2014

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Czech Signs

Here's another in my occasional series of Czech signs. The sign warns that there are breeding rams in the flock! 

The photo was taken near Trosky Castle in Czech Paradise. 

Friday, 16 May 2014

Czech Signs

This Czech television production company has an unfortunate name!

Photographed near Zlata Koruna

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Raising the Maypole

The 31st April is an important day in the Czech calendar. It is the day when they raise the maypole and "burn" witches. This year I was in Cesky Krumlov for the celebrations. Here is a video of the difficult and skillful erection of the maypole.

The event is very much a community one. There are stalls all around the Eggenberg gardens featuring local community groups.

The stage is host to performances by local youngsters, from preschool dancers to a vibrant teenage samba group. The girls of the traditional dance group decorate the maypole (before its erection) with garlands and paper birds.

Paper birds also decorate the trees.

Of course there is the usual beer tent and stalls selling parek (hotdogs). Mothers and children are cooking octopus sausages on hazel sticks over an open fire.

In addition there is a unlit bonfire waiting the witchburning which will take place in the evening. Meanwhile the older witches are happily painting youngsters faces at a stall nearby.

And younger witches wander the grounds looking for their friends or should we say familiars.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Visit to Brno

For some reason the bishop always came last in the annual Brno hide-and-seek competition.

I have just come back from a trip to the Czech Republic's second city, Brno. I was busy researching and organizing a tour of the area by the Textile Society. As part of the research I visited the treasury in the cathedral to look at the ecclesiastical garments. As I walked round the building waiting for the treasury to open I passed a series of identical bishop's tombs, which made me chuckle.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Magic Realism: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

My review of this masterpiece by one of Prague's favourite sons is over on my Magic Realism blog. Click on the link below to read the review in its entirety.

Magic Realism: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka:  A masterful mix of horror and absurdity which tells the story of travelling salesman Samsa who wakes up one day to find out h...

Wednesday, 22 January 2014


I always have a wry smile to myself when I walk past Hotel Metamorphosis on my way through Prague's Old Town. 

Why? I have this image of guests waking up to discover that, like Kafka's hero Gregor Samsa, they have "turned into a monstrous bug".  I can see the breakfast room with large bugs sitting at dining tables in front of plates piled high with refuse and glasses filled with curdling milk, waving their antennae at each other, and making hissing noises. 

If you don't have any idea what I am talking about, then I suggest you read Kafka's magic realist masterpiece. 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Golem

Everywhere I look in Prague I see cutesy golems – on mugs, tea-towels, cards. It's as if the golem has been adopted as the mascot for a Prague Olympic bid. Do you remember those horrid blobs we trolled out for London 2012, meant to be something every six year old girl wanted to cuddle? Think more cultured and you have the Prague 2013 golem.

Now don't get me wrong, the Czechs have a lovely line in taking something threatening (like devils) and producing something less threatening for children. One of the things I have always loved about them is their strength in graphic design. But somehow, for me at least, it doesn't quite work for the Golem. You will note the shift from lower case to upper there.

The Golem is something deeply rooted in Prague, born of the mud of the Vltava River in fact. What is it/he? And what does he mean? Golems (with a lower case), and there were more than one in Jewish folklore and legend, are beings which are brought life to by magical incantation from inanimate matter, often from mud , as is the case of the Prague Golem. Only the most holy of men can create a golem, the means can be found in the close study of the holy scripts.

A golem has no mind of his own; he exists to obey his creator and master. One might say he is a pre-Industrial Revolution robot (and “robot” of course is a creation of a Czech writer). Most importantly he is dumb. He does not have that most human of attributes the skill to use language. He is in some ways a puppet, another quintessentially Czech creation. You see where I'm going here?

This is turning into a long post, so I will explore the Golem further (including telling the tale of the Golem in Prague) in another post. But let me just leave you with one last thought. The first golem, the first creation from mud, was Adam. We are therefore all golems.


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