Friday, 2 March 2018

Bottle stoppers and puppets.

As a former arts manager I have always got a buzz with helping my creative friends, especially if I can do so by introducing them to each other. So when my friend Kristina, who runs my favourite hotel in Prague, was asking me about identifying Czech crafts to sell to her customers, I immediately suggested the work of my neighbour.

I have talked before about  Jitka, and the easter eggs she paints and the puppets she carves.  Both the eggs and the smaller puppets would make excellent gifts for Kristina to sell. Having organised tours to the Czech Republic I am very much aware of how little space there is in some guests' luggage, especially the luggage  of those of us who travel on budget airlines. Stuffing a bulging bag full of treasures into an overhead locker can be alarming. Small non-breakable souvenirs are what is needed. Jitka has come up with  solution - hand-carved bottle stoppers. They are just wonderful - you will find more examples here on Jitka's website. I gave a load to my family and friends one last Christmas and they went down a storm.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Horice Na Sumave - Masopust 2018

Yesterday we celebrated Masopust (Czech Carnival). It was the first time my husband had been at our Czech home for the festival. I am not sure why but he normally has returned to England and left me to celebrate alone. 

The Masopusters arrive here on their procession around the villages in the mid-afternoon, after a several hours of dancing and singing. Our neighbours Jitka and Eliska had joined with us to offer the Masopusters food and drink. The table had Czech delicacies of stuffed hard-boiled eggs, pastries, small open sandwiches and strudel, to which we added Scottish shortbread. We could hear the Masopusters approach through the village, stopping at various houses to sing and dance, thus blessing the homes with prosperity for the coming year. 

At last they arrived in our little cul de sac. We slotted our donations into the Masopust charity box and were swept into a dance. After the dance and the songs we offered our food and the Masopusters already replete after their travels very nobly ate some of the food and drank some of the cherry brandy. They left inviting us to attend the traditional Masopust ball that evening.

When my husband and I turned up at Horice Na Sumava Cultural Hall things were in full swing. The beer was flowing and everyone was feeling very mellow. We arrived just in time for the highlight of the night. The Masopusters processed into the hall together with an old man dressed up as a priest and two women comperes. The traditional dance resumed, with the Masopusters ending up encircling a man in a costume of multi-coloured rags who personified Masopust. Masopust made some lewd gestures at the dancers and was shot by the others.

He was lifted on to a stretcher and blessed by the priest. A fake funeral ensued - the priest's words causing hilarity in the audience. How we wished we could understand Czech! The stretcher was lifted onto the men's shoulders and led by the priest they processed twice around the hall. All the time the priest was sprinkling "holy" water from a chamber pot using a lavatory brush, making sure we all got a dose of water. The funeral done, the band struck up a Czech song which we recognized as Roll Out the Barrel and the Masopusters took partners from the audience and started to dance.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Cats, MOT and the missing extra cars.

Yesterday I took my car for its two-yearly MOT and emissions test. It took a good hour of my time, with the waiting to go in and then the waiting while the tests took place. The Czech Government has really tightened up, photos are taken now during both both tests of the car from back and front, of the dashboard (showing the mileage), and of the car numbers on the chassis and maybe some I missed. All this takes time.

The reason for all this monitoring is to ensure the country's cars conform with EU standards. And in order to do this the Government had to do something about the cars on Czech roads which weren't really there. It was conservatively estimated that a tenth of all cars here that had "passed" the tests hadn't actually done so. To stop the scams and to remove these unsafe and polluting cars from the roads the only option was to make it impossible for unscrupulous testers to get money for nothing. The new system is all computerized with the photos and reports being uploaded to the Government's database.

I am pleased to say my car passed with flying colours, although I was worried when the tester called me over. I couldn't understand what he was saying, until he pointed at the engine and said "kočka". Sure enough there were little cat paw prints all over. Our neighbourhood feral cat(s) has been bedding down on top of my nice warm engine. Then he said "kuna". I paused. Kuna* is the Czech word for a marten and they have a reputation for chewing their way through your cables. You can buy anti-kuna sprays and hanging air fresheners. The paw prints looked like cat ones to me (they didn't have the marten's claws).  As I drove away, certificates on the seat beside me, I made the mental note to always check under the bonnet before starting the car.

*Kuna is not to be confused with kun (as I did at first). Kůň is the Czech word for horse. Now that really would be worrying!

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

"Prague Cafe"

So the Czech Republic has a new president who happens to be the same one as the old one. President Zeman won 51.4% of votes, seeing off his lacklustre opponent Jiri Drahos. The electorate is almost evenly split. But not geographically or socially.

"Not my president" wrote one of my friends in a Facebook post. I am not surprised by his preference. My friend is young, well-educated and well-travelled (I first met him when he was living in Oxford), which puts him in a constituency which voted solidly for Drahos - 90.3% of all Czechs living abroad voted for Drahos or perhaps should I say against Zeman. My friend is one of those people that President Zeman dismisses as "Prague cafe", even though my friend does not live in Prague.

I don't want, as a foreigner, to get drawn into making political comments on my host homeland and it is very easy to see this election through the eyes of Western European and a Brit at that. But I thought it might be useful to look at this phrase and what it means and why it chimes with just over half the electorate. In order to do so it helps to look at the two words separately.

Prague voted strongly for Drahos (68.8%) as did other similar cities. Like London and many of other capitals Prague is seen by inhabitants of other regions as getting too much of the cake (its wages are much higher than the national average) and as elitist and out of touch. Local and national politicians play on these grievances.

Cafe is an equally damning word. It contrasts with the pub, which is so much part of many people's lives here. The pub is for hard-working salt-of-the earth types who drink that symbol of Czech identity - beer. What is more there seems to be a historic memory bound up in this. One hundred years ago this year the Czechoslovak First State achieved its independence from Austria and what culture is Austria, especially Vienna, renowned for but cafe culture?

There is also an unspoken swipe at the Czech Republic's first president, Vaclav Havel, who in the early days of his presidency was to be seen in Cafe Slavia (shown above) holding meetings with his ministers and visiting foreign politicians. If Havel was a man of the Prague Cafe, Zeman portrays himself as the man in the pub.

"Prague Cafe" is a clever political phrase, playing on all sorts of conscious and subconscious associations. In English we might say the "chattering classes" but it is bigger and deeper than that.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Jan Palach Day

Today is the anniversary of the death of Jan Palach. I have written about the young student in the past in this post   In protest at the Soviet invasion in 1968 Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square and died three days later. 

I wasn't going to post about him this year. But as I was going through the boxes of photos hiding under our bed, I came across a set of photos of my first visit to Prague and the Czech Republic and among them was this photograph. It was the Easter following the Velvet Revolution and the grief that had been suppressed during the Communist Era was at last allowed expression. The site of Palach's tragic protest had become a makeshift shrine, the most prominent of many scattered across the city. I was incredibly moved by it and still am.

Monday, 15 January 2018


Yet another year goes by and I have again missed the re-enactment of the Battle of Austerlitz, which takes place in early December every year. I keep meaning to travel to the rolling hills south of Brno where the battle took place, but because of the timing (the 2nd December) I do not make it.

The battle, which took place in 1805, will be known to fans of the recent BBC War and Peace serialization as the battle in which Prince Andrei is wounded. To military historians it is often seen as Napoleon's greatest victory when a French force of only 72,000 was pitted against a combined Austrian/Russian force of 85,000. Napoleon's victory was based on psychology and tactics, taking advantage of the foggy weather to lure his enemies from their position of strength into attacking. To reenactment fans - it is one the biggest annual reenactments anywhere with over 900 participants from all over Europe.

This film of the 2017 reenactment shows why I really should risk the cold and make it to Slavkov (the Czech name for the battle is Bitva u Slavkov) some year soon.


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