I have finally decided that my Czech adventure must come to an end and that I will be selling my Czech home. It is a heart-breaking decision to have to make. I love this house, this country and its people and they have all enriched my life tremendously, but all good things must come to an end they say.
Over the last two years it has become difficult to sustain my home here. There was/is of course Brexit which has thrown all expat lives into question. But in the end it is not Brexit that is the reason for my decision. It is something far more important than that: family. My father died in 2017 and my elderly mother is finding it increasingly difficult to manage by herself. She has heart failure and Alzheimers and over the last few months I have seen a decline in her. She needs my in England all the time.
But what tipped the scales against keeping the house going are two financial changes. The largest cost re the house is electricity, which is very expensive here. I have electric central heating for when I am away (when I am in the house I used the much cheaper wood stoves), obviously being in the UK all the time would necessitate having the central heating on more plus an email arrived the other day from EON warning of a price increase. Quite simply I cannot afford it, especially as my husband is about to retire and can no longer support my Czech adventure as he has in the past. Of course selling the house will liberate some money which will allow me to come back here regularly and see my Czech friends.
Will this be the end of this blog? Well of course there are going to be posts to come about my travails selling up and moving. And then there is the backlog of subjects that I never got around to blogging about, which I still want to cover. So no, not for some time.
Yesterday I went for a walk in the Sumava Forest. It was a delightful day - pleasantly warm and the forest had that lovely smell of resin and mushrooms. My walk began with a visit to the ruins of Hus Castle. The castle like so many in the Czech Republic was built on a promontory above a river thereby maximising its defences. The path dropped steeply to the river, and I found myself watching my feet as I clambered down. In front of me was a family of four. The father was carrying a wheelchair. His wife held the hand of their teenage son, who appeared to have something like cerebral palsy - he clearly was unable to straighten his legs. At one point the father abandoned the wheelchair in the bracken and went to help his wife support their son in his perilous descent. I passed the family as they recovered on the river bank. The next trial was a very high metal bridge over the river. Whilst the steps up were steep, it was the ones down that made me hold my breath - in two places steps were missing and in another the step rocked alarmingly. "I can't believe they will make it over that," I thought.
The climb up to the castle ruins on the other side was another steep one. When I got to the top I turned to see the family had made it across the bridge. I pushed on along the path to discover that the way was not now flat, as I had expected, but rather a series of descents and climbs where parts of the castle had fallen down and where there may have been an inner defensive ditch. All the time on either side the ground dropped away to the river. I made it out of the castle walls and looking back I saw the father and his daughter (but no son or wife) working their way along.
There in front of me sat an old woman in her wheelchair looking out across the scene. I said hello and we had a chat. She told me her daughter was in the forest collecting mushrooms. The old lady beamed "It is so lovely here," she said and I agreed.
How did she get there? Ah, there was broad path. As I walked along it, I realised that even negotiating that route would not have been easy for someone pushing a wheelchair (and its occupant) - they were plenty of holes, bumps,and tree roots to make life difficult. And the path was about 2 kms before we came to a tarmacked road.
Afterwards when I chatted to my husband on Facebook, we came to the conclusion that Czechs are made of tough stuff and that they must have a special specification for wheelchairs: able to negotiate forest paths and coming with dedicated mushrooming basket.
At the bottom of my garden an oak tree trunk is being transformed into a Bohemian saint and princess. The stillness of the evening is normally disturbed only by the call of my redstarts and the farmer's cows, but now there is the chip, chip, chip of a hammer on chisel.
My talented neighbour, Jitka, has been commissioned to carve a statue of St Agnes of Bohemia. Her house is built on a slope and there was no accessible level site where she could work. So she approached me and I of course said yes she could use my garden.
St Agnes was the daughter of King Ottakar I of Bohemia. As a medieval princess Agnes was a political pawn and at various times was betrothed to the son of the Holy Roman Emperor and King Henry III of England, but in the end as a nun Agnes was married to the King of Heaven, when she became a member of the Poor Clares. Her life there was, as the order's name indicates, in total variance to her life as a princess.
Agnes built a religious complex in Prague, which included a monastery and a hospital, where she lived and died. The Convent of St Agnes is now part of the National Gallery and is home to a wonderful collection of medieval art from Bohemia and Central Europe, including some beautiful carvings of saints. Jitka is part of a long tradition.
I spent the afternoon strimming the jungle that has grown in the yard. As I did so, I was watched by the redstart that lives in a hole in the back wall of my neighbours' house. When I sat down exhausted to peruse my work, the redstart moved in to pick up insects the nice human had revealed for him. We don't seem to get robins here the way we do in England, but the black redstarts have taken their place. Like robins they are fearless, feisty little birds who happily live alongside humans. They even have a flash of reddish orange. The blackberry bush was covered with bees and butterflies enjoying the nectar. Overhead there came a small murmuration of starlings, the rush of their wings sounding like a wave on the shore.
(Not my photo - I wish...)
At dusk I walked down the garden to pick some berries for tea. The bees and redstarts had gone. The mown grass was covered with large slugs. As I picked the berries, the corrugated iron that covers some planks of wood creaked and I turned to see the lithe shape of a beech marten spring up on to the barn wall and away. Now it is dark and I stand at my window watching the the lights of fireflies blink and float over the garden. No matter how much I love my English garden, and I do very much love it, I never feel as close to nature as I do here.
On the side of the road between Volary and Lenora is a simple memorial. You can drive past easily without noticing the large rock with the granite plaque. As the Czechs commemorate the end of World War II in Europe and the liberation of their country from the Nazi tyranny on this day 73 years ago, it seems a fitting point to blog about Charles Havlat's death.
As the memorial states Havlat was a soldier with Patton's 3rd Army. He had fought a long hard war across Normandy, the Rhineland, and finally found himself in the land of his ancestors - his parents had emigrated to the US at the beginning of the 20th century. On the 7th May 1945 he was on reconnaissance, when his platoon was caught in a German ambush. In a hail of bullets Havlat was shot in the head and died.
He has the dubious distinction of being the last American to die in action in Europe. Indeed the ambush should not have happened at all, as a ceasefire had just come into place. Only six hours later the Nazis unconditionally surrendered. The German officer who led the ambush was to later apologize, but neither he nor his American counterpart knew about the ceasefire.
Private Charles Havlat was just one soldier who fell in a war that claimed millions of lives, but due to the cruel timing of his death he has this memorial.
I am embarrassed to say that until this year I had never visited Galerie Hollar in Prague and yet it is so up my street. As regular readers will know I am a fan of Czech graphics and Galerie Hollar is the gallery of the Association of Czech Graphic Artists. The Association celebrated its centenary last year.
The gallery is to be found just along the embankment from Cafe Slavia and the National Theatre. It is not particularly well signposted so it is possible to walk straight past the entrance of what looks like a large town house. Inside there is a small gallery with changing exhibitions and a shop. The size of gallery is just perfect for me. I don't like feeling overwhelmed by displays and visitors jostling to look at the artworks.
The exhibition we visited was by the Czech artist, Vladimir Suchanek, whose work includes exlibris and larger prints. I have only one of his works in my collection (below) and would love some more. The ones for sale in the Hollar eshop are too expensive for me, no matter how much I covert them. Suchanek has a fascinating style. His preferred technique is coloured lithography, which he explores constantly.
Suchanek is partly responsible for the existence of the gallery and the Association of Czech Graphic Artists. In the 1970's the Association was repressed by the hardline Communist authorities, but in the 1990's Suchanek helped resurrect the Association, becoming president in 1995.
Suchanek's other love is music. With fellow members of the Association, Jiri Anderle and Jiri Sliva, he founded a band called Grafieanka!
The gallery is usually open Tuesday - Sunday 10-12 am and 1-6 pm.
Tomorrow an exhibition of Czech exibris (bookplates) until 1945 opens at the National Monument at Vitkov in Prague and I will definitely be going. The exhibition celebrates the 100th anniversary of the SSPE (the Association of Collectors and Friends of Exlibris). On display will be 365 exlibris created in the first half of the 20th century by ninety artists, as well as the equipment used to create them: printing blocks, presses and other tools. The final part of the exhibition is about the origin and development of the art of exlibris in the Czech Republic.
I have very much caught the exlibris collecting bug. I tend to collect exlibris since 1945, but some of my favourite artists will be featured. For Christmas my husband gave me some exlibris by Anna Mackova, whilst the among the first exlibris I ever bought was one by her life partner Josef Vachal. Both were amazing artists and exlibris is the only way I could afford their art.
The exhibition is open Wednesday - Sun 10.00 - 16.00, from 25th March to 9th September, at the National Memorial on Vítkov Hill
U Památníku 1900, Prague 3 (metro Florenc).
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. I am very much aware of how little space there is in 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.