Tuesday, 27 September 2016

What are the Roots of the Golem Legend?

The Golem legend, although it refers to the real historical figure Rabbi Loew, didn’t really appear until the 19th century. It seems to draw on or at least play to two separate traditions - the Jewish golem tradition and the Slavic folk story of the clay child. In the latter a childless couple make a child out of clay which, like the gingerbread man, outgrows its creators and becomes a destructive force. This last story is of course a universal myth - human beings losing control of the being they have created. It appears in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and can be read as a warning against hubris.

But the story is more than that: as Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, the golem myth “is based on a faith almost as old as the human species namely, that dead matter is not really dead but can be brought to life. I am not exaggerating when I say that the golem story appears less obsolete today than it seemed one hundred years ago. What are the computers and robots of our time if not golems?”

The Golem is born of mud and to mud he is returned - earth to earth, ashes to ashes. But the Golem can rise again.

The most famous book about the Prague Golem is that by Gustav Meyrink. Meyrink deserves an entire post on this blog dedicated to his extraordinary life and works and he will get it some day. Here let us just look at Meyrink's portrayal of the Golem. Although his book is titled The Golem, the Golem is not the central character. He is an elusive figure appearing every thirty-three years in the Jewish ghetto, terrifying those who meet him. He is in some ways the embodiment of the Jewish community’s collective suffering, coming to life in a room without a door. But he is also the reflection of the individual he meets. When the central character meets the Golem, he finds with horror that the creature has his own face. 

If Meyrink wrote the definitive novel, then in 1920 Paul Wegener created the definitive movie: The Golem, how he came into the world.  It is an amazing production and still powerful after all these decades. See image above. 

It seems to me that one of the most important reasons for our ongoing fascination with the Prague Golem is that he does indeed reflect deep aspects in our psyche. As I said in my earlier posts, we are all golems. When we look in the Golem's face we see our own, stripped of intellect and language, containing a natural and unnatural power, driven by the need to protect but at the same time capable of extreme acts of destruction. He is in Jungian terms a Shadow. In the story of the Prague Golem, he is presumably Rabbi Loew’s Shadow. 

When a woman looks at the Golem, she sees more. He is male to her female, the elemental man made of mud combined with the elements of fire, water and air, supremely strong and, let us remember, sexual (in the legend it is his love for a woman that proves his downfall). Or is that just me fantasizing?

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Burcak - dangerously gluggable.

Burcak (2) 

For a brief period in early Autumn stalls appear at the side of roads and outside supermarkets. Plastic barrels and bottles stand on market tables and beside them in a foldable chair sits a young woman (usually) studying at her mobile phone. A sign states Burčák, the alcoholic beverage created by Moravian winemakers by adding sugar to freshly crushed grapes and allowing the concoction to ferment  a bit.

If you are driving past such a stall, do stop, sample the burčák and buy a bottle. But be careful. Firstly the liquid is still fermenting and so if you drive too quickly over those Czech bumpy roads you may have a burcak explosion on your hands and the car will smell of fermenting wine for weeks. And secondly burcak tastes like grape lemonade and you will be tempted to glug it down, but it is definitely alcoholic. Normally burcak is 4% alcohol, but it can be twice as strong. And as it comes in unmarked bottles you don't know what the strength is. I have seen claims on the web that Burcak continues to ferment in your stomach, but I have my doubts.

Burcak is around only for a few weeks and I love it. So do the Czechs. In Moravia it is at the centre of festivities, where the alcoholic power of the stuff can be observed! It makes a visit to Czech Republic in September worth while.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Dutch hospitality in Czech Paradise

Sometimes you meet people with whom you just click. Of course that is an experience that I have had in the UK, but somehow I find it happens more frequently here. I don't know why it is like that. It is in part I suspect because being the outsider makes me less likely to give in to British reserve. Maybe I just find it easier to get on with the Czechs.

Two people I clicked with were my hosts at the pension I stayed at over last weekend in Czech Paradise. Jan and Jeanette are, like me, non-Czechs who fell in love with this country and who bought a home here. Obviously we have a lot in common to talk about: horror stories about buying and restoring ruined Czech farmhouses, the trail of serendipity that brought us here in the first place. Also staying were Harold and Will, who came first as paying visitors and have been coming back as friends ever since.

Pension Kidafo sits in a hectare of land studded with fruit trees. I commiserated with them about the endless mowing required. After I arrived we sat drinking a beer, chatting and watching butterflies sipping the juices leaking from fallen plums. I was introduced to the cats that my hosts had adopted and which were watching the butterflies with hunters' eyes.

When I went upstairs to change before we went to a local restaurant, and I found a bottle of Czech bubbly by my door! Jan and Jeanette give a bottle to the first visitor from a nationality and I was the first Brit. Of course I shared the bottle with my hosts. The warmth of their welcome reminded me of my friend Hannah, who always made visitors staying in her pension feel like old friends. It is a rare gift to be able to put people at ease like that.

Jan and Jeanette's pension is in a small town called Libun. The town isn't that impressive, but its location is brilliant. Libun sits on the plain below the Prachovske Rocks, one of the area's most spectacular rock towns. It also stands on the junction of two railway lines. One runs east/west from Turnov, via Jicin and on to Hradec Kralove. The other runs from the Skoda city of Mlada Boleslav, via Sobotka to Stary Paka. What this means that you can explore a large part of Czech Paradise without having to change trains and indeed having to hire a car. Perfect for walkers and those of us who support environmentally sound tourism.

You can book your room at Pension Kidafo on Booking.com and AirBnB.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

SS Cyril and Methodius - a memorial to the resistance and operation Anthropoid

As you walk up Resslova from Karlovo Namesti in Prague you pass on your left the Orthodox church of St Cyril and Methodius. Over a sealed opening into the crypt is a memorial to the paratroopers who assassinated the brutal Nazi Reinhard Heydrich and to the priest who hid seven of them in the church's crypt. The bullet holes beneath the memorial are silent witness to the ultimate sacrifice the men made for their bravery. 

The story of Operation Anthropoid as the assassination was codenamed is now the subject of a feature film (trailer below). The church now houses a museum about the operation. The first room is lined with information panels about the operation and also the terrible retribution that the Nazis inflicted on the Czech resistance and the wider Czech people. It is chilling to realise that not only were the resistance members risking their own lives but also those of their families. 

To get to the second room in the museum you pass through a door shaped like a cross-section of a spitfire's wing. You press on the door and it swings open to reveal the crypt itself. The air in the crypt is chill and damp. There are busts of the men, candles and bouquets of flowers. It is hard to comprehend what they must have felt confined in the crypt, waiting whilst outside the Nazis tortured their accomplices in order to find the hiding place. These were men of action and yet they had to wait and do nothing, reliant on others and one suspects increasingly afraid that there was no way out. Only a few hours before they were due to be transferred to another hiding place, the crypt was stormed by 750 Gestapo and SS. Despite the odds the battle lasted two hours until the Germans flooded the crypt and the parachutists ran out of ammunition. The four parachutists still alive committed suicide rather than be taken alive. 

As you turn to leave the crypt you are confronted once more by the door. This time it does not swing easily open at a mere touch. For a few seconds the sense of being trapped induces a sense of panic, until you regain your composure and realise that the opening is counter intuitive.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

How to grow giant blackberries

I have been gathering a bumper crop of enormous backberries in my garden over the last week. My British readers may be saying "So what!" In the UK blackberries are something of a problem, springing up in any patch of untended ground (and indeed in tended ground such as garden borders and hedges), but here in the Czech Republic I have observed that you are more likely to see wild raspberries than blackberries in the hedgerow.

I have an affection for blackberries that goes beyond my liking for backberry crumble. My affection for them is rooted in happy childhood memories of late summer afternoons harvesting blackberries with my mother. As I grew older, my mother stopped coming with me and instead handed me a plastic container and sent me off into the fields. Even now, with my mother in her late eighties I make a point every year of bringing her a tupperware box full of gleaming black fruit.

I learnt as a child that the best place to get bumper blackberries is where they are in the open but have their roots in a ditch, as they need both sunshine and water to thrive. Maybe this need for water is one reason why they are less frequent here in Czecho, as here the summers tend to be dryer.

The blackberry with its rich sweet smell and sweeter taste is so important to me in marking the seasons that I missed them when I came to this country. I therefore decided to plant some in my garden. My garden has the sun, but is even dryer and stony than most Czech gardens. How could I avoid growing hard seedy fruit? Answer: I took advice from an old Czech gardener and planted the blackberry bush downhill from the septic tank! 


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