Sunday, 28 August 2016

Walking in Cesky Raj

I apologize for not posting for a few weeks. My elderly father has been in hospital. He came out today, just three days before I fly back to the Czech Republic from England. I have some clients coming into the country on walking holidays, including a group of walkers from Yorkshire.

I have devised a pack of walks for them in the beautiful and spectacular landscape of Czech Paradise or Cesky Raj. They will be based in my favourite town in the region - Jicin. Close to the town are two major rock towns. These "towns" are complexes of huge pillars of sandstone carved by the weather over thousands of years.

The nearest rock town to Jicin is the Prachovske Skaly (above), indeed it is so close that the Yorkshire walkers will be walking through the rock town and back to Jicin. In addition to the trail that goes through the rocks, there are also two circular routes which climb up and down through the pillars. 

But walking in Czech Paradise isn't all about rock towns. There are less dramatic walks through verdant countryside past traditional wooden cottages like this one above. 

Of course I have to check out the walks, which is one reason I will be driving to Jicin in a fortnight's time. It's hard work, but somebody's got to do it!

Friday, 29 July 2016

The Magic Realism of the Czech Republic

This blog is taking part in the Magic Realism Bloghop again this year. Last year I blogged about Franz Kafka's Prague. This year I want to talk about my experience as a British writer in the Czech Republic.

On the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group a few months ago someone asked how many of the members had connections with another country than that of their birth and many magic realism writers and readers replied that they had at least a foot in another country and culture. It seems I am not alone in being an expat writer - I do all my writing when I am in my Czech home and none when I am in England.

I suppose it should not come as a surprise that so many magic realists have a dual national or cross-cultural experience. One of the key characteristics of magic realism is that it often deals with a cultural duality, usually (but not exclusively) where an indigenous culture exists alongside a more dominant Western one.

How does that work in the context of Czech magic realism? It is obviously the case with Franz Kafka, who was Jewish in a then German-speaking Prague. But it is also the case with Czech culture too.

For three centuries after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620's Czech culture was marginalized and oppressed. The ruling Hapsburgs operated a policy of Germanization in the country. Books in the Czech language were burned, and the language banished from schools and public administration. After a while only peasants spoke Czech, as anyone who wanted to get on had to speak German. When the Czech national revival began in the 19th century, nationalist writers looked not to the German-dominated towns and cities, but to the villages and farms of the countryside. Here they found the Czech language, storytelling and folklore still alive. One of the most famous of the folktale collectors was the woman whose portrait appears on the 500 czk note: Bozena Nemcova.

Nemcova's novel Grandmother (published in 1855) is set in one such small Bohemian village and the grandmother in the story is the fount of a lot of country lore and traditional wisdom. The book is considered a classic of Czech literature and was hugely influential on the burgeoning Czech national identity. Of course it has elements of magic realism. And it follows that so too does the Czech identity.

The Czechs are well known as being the most atheist people in Europe. But as I have discussed in previous posts they also have a liking for folktales and magic. The two aspects are not mutually exclusive. The Czech rejection of the Catholic Church is partly a rejection of the Church in its role as a tool of Austrian cultural repression; for example Jesuit Antonin Konias is said to have burnt 30,000 Czech language books. Czech enthusiasm for the Slavic and Celtic water, tree and house spirits is part of national identity.

No wonder as a writer of magic realism I love it here.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

EU Referendum

I have been pondering whether to post about the British EU Referendum for several weeks. And now I have finally put fingers to keyboard. We bought our Czech house in 2004, so we are approaching the twelfth year of our Czech adventure. During those years I have continued to live in both countries, moving freely between the two. In 2007 I started this blog with the stated aim to help the British understand the Czechs and vice versa. So I would be failing if I did not post about the possible Brexit

What has triggered this post was a load of comments on a YouGov survey. One commentator said that the Remainers had to decide whether they were British or European, a view supported by other Brexiteers. My answer is I do not have to decide any such thing. One of the things I have learned over the last twelve years is that you can be both. Indeed you can have many identities. I am British and European, I even consider myself to be a little Czech. I am also English and British. When I spend time with my Australian friend, as I did last week, I am conscious we share a common heritage and Commonwealth identity. Even if we do leave the EU, I will still be European and proud of it. Because Europe is also about shared culture, history and view of the world, something my time with Czechs has made very aware of. In truth we have far more alike than different.

Here in the Czech Republic I am the outsider, the foreigner who might be accused of taking away an affordable home from young Czechs. I even have failed miserably to master the Czech language. And yet the Czechs have welcomed me and made me feel at home. The leaders of Brexit say that EU citizens don't have to worry about being forced out. But I have no doubt that if the roles were reversed and I encountered from Czechs the levels of xenophobia and hostility expressed in those comments and in the press and media, I would seriously be thinking of selling up and leaving. I am sure the same is true of Czechs in the UK now. Even if the UK opts to Remain, I fear we have already done a lot of damage to the trust between our peoples.

One of the tragedies of this is the loss of benefits the Czech and other EU migrants bring to our country. I am not just talking about the lovely carer who comes every morning to help my frail elderly mother or my excellent Polish NHS dentist, but about the fact that mutual understanding is the best driver of trade and commerce. My business promotes the Czech Republic and I know of plenty of Czechs who have returned to their homeland and continue to do business which is favourable to the UK.

As a historian I was struck by the total nonsense some of the commentators came out with. Over and over they kept talking about how we needed to make Britain great again, how we were better going it on our own, with (I could hardly believe it) lots of references to Dunkirk and our finest hour. This is all based on historical myth. There is no historic precedent for what is proposed. We have been in some sort of supra-national alliance – be it Empire, Commonwealth, or European Union for over three centuries. We were not alone after Dunkirk. Indeed Churchill's finest hour belongs not to the British but to the citizens of the British Empire and Commonwealth, and moreover he talks about the Czech, Polish, French and other nationals, who had come to Britain to fight. This myth of Britain standing alone does a disservice for all those who fought by our side in those dark hours and especially those that died. I have been researching the Czech RAF pilots for my next book and my admiration and gratitude to them is enormous.

When I first read those comments, I was angry – angry on behalf of the Czechs and on behalf of my son and the young people of his generation, who would be denied the chance to enjoy as I have done the freedom to live, travel and work anywhere in Europe. Now in retrospect I am sorry for the commentator and his narrow, backward-looking world views. I am sorry too to all those young Czechs living in the UK who find themselves subjected to those views.

A note about bias
I am sure if those commentators were to see this post, they would sneeringly dismiss me as being biased, of having a self interest in the result of the Referendum. And it is true that I am worried about my business and therefore my income being damaged by a Leave Vote. My currency broker tells me the £ will collapse in the event of a Leave vote and I believe him (after all he will make money either way). I am so worried that I am considering closing down my business in October. I am also worried that the cost of living in the Czech Republic will rise to an extent that I will not be able afford to be here and really will have to choose between the UK and the Czech Republic. But that said, I was thinking about retiring anyway, I have lots of friends here who would invite me to stay, and the change in the exchange rate would mean I would get more £s for the sale of my Czech house. So my self interest works both ways.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Ride of the Kings, Vlcnov

I have been meaning to make the journey to South Moravia to see the Ride of the Kings for several years. Until this year it clashed with work obligations elsewhere in the Czech Republic. This year I was determined to go and had even structured a tour to include the Ride. When that tour was cancelled, I decided I would go anyway and took my friend Maggie Porter of Wanderweg Holidays.

I really didn't have much idea what to expect. I knew the Ride of the Kings was a traditional celebration which had received UNESCO listing. A number of villages in the area have a Ride of the Kings, but the most famous and the only one that happens every year is Vlcnov. I presumed the village would be packed with visitors, much as Cesky Krumlov is for the Festival of the 5-Petalled Rose.

What I found was a genuinely local celebration with few tourists. In fact the locals seemed delighted that a Brit and an Australian had come to see their festival. The King is a 10-year old boy, dressed in women's clothing with a paper rose between his teeth, who rides through the village accompanied on either side by two aides in similar attire. In addition there are the riders - young men who recite verses in praise of their King and encouraging by flattery and insult the watchers into donating money. Their horses are decorated with ribbons and over 1000 crepe paper roses.

After the ride there is another procession featuring the women and men of the local villages in traditional folk costumes. Each village has its own costume. In the open-air amphitheatre in the centre of the village we watched local groups perform traditional dances and songs, whilst in one of the houses we met with two ladies who showed us how to make crepe-paper roses and fed us the local cake.

It was a quite extraordinary day and we loved every bit of it. Sadly my camera battery died half way through the day, but that gives me the excuse to go back another year.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

A Wedding at Hluboka

Hluboka Castle is one of the Czech Republic's most popular tourist attractions. It is a 19th Century white wedding cake of a castle, the sort of castle Walt Disney would dream up. Inside the then chatelaine, Eleanor Schwarzenberg, spared no expense in decorating the interiors, as she too lived out her dream.

You have to join one of the frequent tours of the castle if you want to look inside and even then the sheer number of visitors may mean that you will not be able to see it as well as you would like. Or you could live out your childhood fantasy and get married in a castle. I came across this oriental couple having their photos taken in the garden, when I visited the other day.

My contact at Castle Stekl, which is part of the complex of castle buildings, tells me that weddings are very popular with their Japanese visitors and other nationalities. It seems strange to me that you would want a Czech civic wedding when you are from the other side of the world and a totally different culture. But the idea of a wedding in a castle is not so strange. My husband and I got married in the chapel of our local castle in England and I can vouch for the experience.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016


You may have noticed on the news that the Czech Republic (urged on by President Zeman) is trying to rebrand itself as Czechia. This is meant to be the new official short English version of the country's name. The longer version still remains the "Czech Republic". On the other hand you may well not have noticed, which shows just what a task the Czechs have set themselves.

There isn't even universal support for the name change in the Czech Republic. I was listening to a Czech radio station the day the change was announced and the general hilarity of the commentators required no translation. One Czech friend said to me, "They are changing it because Czechia is easier to print on ice-hockey shirts." Another said it was to keep the president from meddling in more important matters.

You will find the arguments for the new name here: And ironically you will also find there some of the counter arguments, as the 16 myths the site tries to debunk on its main page are actually arguments against the new name.

As someone who promotes the country, I can't say I will be rushing to use the new name. I am perfectly happy with the "Czech Republic". I seldom feel the need to shorten it and only then in casual conversation. Frankly if I don't see the need for the new name, I very much doubt many other English speakers will do so.

Czechia may take hold in some official English language usage, although I suspect for the most part the BBC and other such organisations will avoid "Czechia" and continue to use "Czech Republic". I feel sorry for the poor staff of the Czech Tourism, who are already having to deal with a large proportion of the British population who still haven't stopped calling the country Czechoslovakia, and who now have an added complication.

The main argument against the name change is that it doesn't take account of how the English language and its speakers work. English is not a language of rules, it is a language of evolving usage. Registering the name doesn't mean we will use it. We will only use it if it has a function and I don't know what that function is right now

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Guess who's exhibition was on at Spilberk Castle

I have to admit that, despite having visited Brno both on my own and with customers, I hadn't made it to the city's Spilberk Castle. I don't know why; it was always on my to-visit list and it is in the city centre. This month I at last made up the short hill to the formidable building.

Spilberk Castle is home to the city's museum and an art gallery, which features local artists in a permanent exhibition and international artists in a temporary gallery. As I walked into a castle courtyard I encountered a huge blown-up soup can. Yes, Andy Warhol's amazing graphics are on display in the temporary gallery.

The gallery was busy, but as I have observed elsewhere in the Czech Republic not so much that I could not enjoy the artworks fully. I doubt that it would be the same if the exhibition had been on in Britain. I had a rather limited view of Warhol's work based on his most famous works, but this exhibition showed Warhol to be more than just a showman, to be a brilliant artist.

If you want to see a larger permanent exhibition of Warhol's work you can either go to New York or you can go to to the Warhol Museum in Medzilaborce in Eastern Slovakia. When Warhol was asked where he came from, he replied "Nowhere", suggesting that he created himself. He, of course, reinvented himself. He changed his name from Andrej Warhola to the anglicised Andrew Warhol. His parents were Czechoslovakian immigrants from a little village close to Medzilaborce. They were ethnically Ruthenian, an ethnic group related to the Ukrainians from that part of the Carpathians.

Warhol practiced his parents' Orthodox Catholic religion and towards the end of his life started to paint icons. The first artworks he would have seen as a child would have been the icons on the walls of his mother's room. Knowing that suddenly we see Warhol's prints in a different light - in some ways he was always creating icons - of Marilyn Monroe and soup cans. It turns out that Warhol didn't come from nowhere after all.


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