Thursday, May 24, 2007



National anthems tend not to do modesty very well. Germany is simply above all, the French have their foreign cohorts, hordes of slaves, impure blood, and ferocious soldiers, and the British one is all about scattering enemies, knavish tricks, and rebellious Scots getting crushed. The Czech one is pretty pastoral by comparison, being full of murmuring streams in meadows, trees whispering among the rocks, and so on, but towards the end it does tell us that the country is an earthly paradise for the eyes.


And, it should add, for the mouth, especially if that mouth belongs to a beer lover. Czech beer is renowned the world over and the citizens regularly occupy top place in the global consumption table. You could always get some of the beers outside the country - my decision to come here in 1989 was partly induced by a bottle of Budvar beer (the real stuff, not the coloured mineral water they produce in the Benighted States) - and now there's a lot more that gets exported. I was in a pub in London not long ago where you could get Zubr and Litovel, two of our local beers, albeit at outrageous prices; you can pretty much have a bath in the stuff here for the price of a pint there.


But it's not all good news. Veteran drinkers love to moan that it's not as good as it used to be, and although there's a Czech saying that any government that raises the price of beer is doomed, prices have been sneaking up, to the extent that beer is now almost as expensive as it was in Britain thirty years ago. And although the family silver has been very explicitly not put up for sale, not all the smaller breweries have survived. The one in Olomouc, opened in 1897, didn't quite manage to hang round long enough to reach its centenary, for example. Its flagship beer bore the same name as the patron saint of the country and the man to whom our cathedral is dedicated - Václav.


Last year, however, a beery phoenix rose from the ashes, as the Svatováclavský pivovar, the first home brew pub in Olomouc, opened its doors in the city centre, a mere hop, skip, and jump from the square. They do a range of beers, including the traditional 'desítka' and 'dvanáctka' (ten and twelve degrees Balling respectively) but also a wheat beer and one with cherries, which isn't nearly as disgusting as it might sound. And the food is good too. And it's approaching lunchtime. And it's time to bring this post to an end...

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Football again. I wrote here a little over two months ago that Sigma Olomouc would not go down to the Czech Second Division because there are “enough teams below them that are even worse”. I was right, but God, it was close. Sigma’s less-than-glorious record in the twelve games played this spring:

HOME: Played 7, Won 1, Drawn 2, Lost 4

AWAY: Played 5, Won 0, Drawn 2, Lost 3

However, two teams go down, two of them, believe it or not, managed to be even worse than Sigma over the course of the season, and it’s those two that go down. So, farewell, at least for one season, to FC Slovácko and Marila Příbram.

FC Slovácko are no strangers to trouble and controversy, having got into deep trouble during a corruption investigation a few seasons ago – there are many who claim that Czech football is rotten to the core in this respect. They survived but emerged with a changed name, something that happens all the time in this league.

Marila Příbram, too, have got form in both these departments. They were deeply involved in an affair that resulted in then high-riding Drnovice ending up being relegated to the Third Division not so long ago, and nobody is going to miss them much either, and not just because of the dull and negative style of football they play (15 goals scored in 29 games in the 2006-7 season, for example).

In better times, as Dukla Prague, they won the old Czechoslovak League eleven times and competed regularly in European football, but they were never popular – Half Man Half Biscuit may have immortalized them in music, but they were much too closely associated with the Communist regime for the tastes of most people in this country. Once that regime went, the writing was on the wall. I saw them play at home against Baník Ostrava in 1990. In the stadium there were a few hundred old codgers nodding off and dreaming of the good old days, a thousand or so orcs from Ostrava rampaging round the stadium at will, and me and my mate Mark cowering somewhere between the two.

Later they shipped out to Příbram, a town to the south-west of Prague, and gradually metamorphosed via being Dukla Příbram into the unloved bunch they now are in rather the same way as the Crazy Gang of Wimbledon wound up among the concrete cows as the MK Dons. Marila, I believe, manufacture paint. Watching their products dry is infinitely more stimulating than watching the team play; I’m glad they’ve gone.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


As you might expect from the inhabitants of a country which has lengthy borders with Germany and Austria, Czechs are very fond of eating all sorts of pork products. Go to any supermarket or butcher's shop and you will find not just lots of pieces of dead pig au naturel but also a splendid variety of ham, salami, smoked meat, cold cuts, and much much more.

There's even something called a 'zabijačka', roughly translated as a pig slaughter, which is a big social event. People buy a piglet and fatten it up and then, when it's good and big, someone comes and kills it for them and they make a big party out of the whole thing, with family and friends all joining in and cooking and smoking and salting everything but the squeak. There is, of course, plenty of eating and drinking involved on the day. Being a hypocritical English city boy who likes his meat in anonymous chunks rather than carrying reminders of where it comes from, I've never been to one of these, but a mate from Wales did, in 1990. He's been a vegetarian ever since.

One aspect of this orgy of porkiness that does rather disappoint me, though, is in the realm of sausages, which may strike you as pretty weird when you consider that in Britain, where I come from, what passes for a sausage is often more like a condom filled with brown bread. True enough, but it is really hard to find decent sausages for grilling here; what they go for instead is ones that you heat up in water, which are all well and good but somehow don't quite hit the spot.

However, one area which doesn't disappoint is how they advertise them. The jolly couple at the top were on the side of a delivery van I spotted in South Bohemia, and, while very cute, they pale into insignificance in comparison to this guy:

He is the human face of a pork products company from Kostelec, a town in the south of the country,and you can see his face on delivery vans and billboards all over the place. While Czechs see him just as a symbol of a culinary tradition, I, and many others, are startled by his obvious homoeroticism; a gay friend I showed a tin of the sausages to almost fainted on the spot. "Oh my God!" was his comment when he recovered. Just look at that facial expression...

I've always been quite a fan of the guy - there's something in me that just loves blatancy - and so you can imagine my joy when a Czech newspaper, Lidové Noviny, used him as the illustration for an article they ran last weekend about the nation's diet being less than perfect in health terms. Here he is in their version:

Enjoy your meal...

Friday, April 13, 2007


Some of the people who were kind enough to post comments said they wanted to see pictures of where I lived. Here we go, though not without a digression – I am, after all, a wannabe writer, or is that a writer manqué?

Anais Nin is remembered, and quite rightly too, as a writer of erotica, which she apparently got into on a fixed-rate-per-page basis on a commission from Henry Miller, who’d been offered the gig by a wealthy perver…sorry, connoisseur. But she did have other sides to her, including a lovely little story about how she helped a bewildered fellow-traveller lost at a major airport, which concludes, as far as I can remember, with the reflection that ‘everybody should have a Turkish grandmother’.

That’s rather the way I feel about Czech villages. I’m fortunate enough to live in one and often think the world would be a better place if everybody could. Of course, this is the opinion of a man of fifty. When I was twenty and knew very little about anything I would doubtless have found the idea of nothing much happening from one year’s end to the next stupefyingly boring, but bitter experience has taught me to cling to it like a limpet to a rock. And here are some of the reasons why…

Here is 'downtown' at the height of its rush hour frenzy - the throngs, the traffic, the urban vibe - eat your heart out, Manhattan.

This is our church, captured as a storm threatened.

A water feature - the kids play ice hockey here in winter but otherwise it just slumbers away.

One of our two pubs - sadly, Colonio-Cola has reached even this far, but please note the Gambrinus sign (an excellent Czech beer) flying above it - very symbolic.

Monday, March 12, 2007


Apologies to The Smiths and Tim Jones for the title; take it as flattery, boys.

Spring is here! There are seagulls wheeling in the air of our landlocked country, the first dandelions are flowering, and this weekend we saw the first mosquito of the season. Another surefire sign is that the Czech football season has started again after its long winter break, so off we went in the sunshine with 11,000 other optimists to watch our local team, Sigma Olomouc, play Moravian arch-rivals Baník Ostrava in the top flight of the Czech Gambrinus Liga.

Following Sigma is like being a fan of most teams, I suppose; the odd moment of joy but for the most part it’s like being trapped in a bad marriage with no possibility of a divorce. They used to qualify for the UEFA Cup now and again a few years ago, but this season they are fighting relegation. Like with many provincial clubs, all their best players sooner or later move on to bigger or richer teams. Some of them are in the Bundesliga, others in Russia, and at least three current Czech internationals playing abroad, the forward Marek Heinz and the central defenders David Rozehnal and Tomáš Ujfalusi, started their careers there. How Sigma could have used them yesterday.

Baník (means ‘miner’, but funnily enough not in Czech but in Slovak) are a big-city side with a big-city following. Their followers have a strong hooligan reputation; their only serious rivals for the title of the most incorrigibly wild fans in the land are the ones who support Sparta Prague. Yesterday they turned up in strength and easily outsang and outchanted the home supporters, who are a pretty hopeless bunch when it comes to that kind of thing. The situation repeated itself on the pitch, where, especially in defence, Sigma played like bears who hadn’t really fully woken up from their long hibernation and lost 3-1. I doubt if they’ll go down – there are enough teams below them who are even worse – but it’s easy to see there are going to be more than a few hairy moments before the end of the season. Maybe I should concentrate more on getting the garden in order instead…


When I lived in Britain I had a great weakness for the kind of crappy old films that used to be shown on daytime TV. One genre I was particularly fond of was the American sci-fi movies of the 1950s, not so much B-movies as Z-movies; they looked as if they had been made in a few days for less money than the average cinemagoer would spend on drinks and popcorn on a single visit, and frequently featured creatures that had mutated into giants, usually as the result of some scientific experiment that had gone horribly wrong. My memory might be playing me false here, but I seem to remember spiders, ants, and a giant pussycat, among others, and there was definitely a film with the fabulous title of ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ which, I think, was once voted the worst film ever made; my mate Pete, an even greater connoisseur of kitsch than I was, knew the title song by heart and used to sing it ad nauseam.

In the Czech Republic, despite the relentlessly downmarket style purveyed by the likes of TV Nova, the pleasure of titillating myself with the antics of enormous animals has, alas, been off the menu so far. But that may be about to change. Our village lies on the edge of a peat bog where, among other things, a Soviet tank from the Second World War is said to lie buried; the crew, no doubt high on a heady cocktail of victory and vodka, drove into it by mistake and had to bail out and watch it slowly sink.

Said bog is also very popular with moles, as, to my chagrin, is my lawn. Recently I’ve noticed the biggest molehills I’ve ever seen; just look at the size of the damn things. Some of them are about a meter in diameter! Is there some weird and wonderful strain of übermole developing down there in the dark? What are their teeth like? Will we wake up one morning and find that, weary of a diet of worms, they have broken in during the night and murdered us all in our sleep and devoured us? Or am I, like them, making a mountain out of a molehill?

Friday, March 9, 2007


Hi hi hi there!

The last couple of years have been a bad time for cinema-goers in Olomouc. We used to have four cinemas, each with a distinct character of its own. One of them closed in the early 1990s and is now a shop; it lay on a busy junction and you could measure the length of the film by the number of trams that went rattling past.

The Central used to do a slightly less commercial mix, while the Lipa was a real art-house gaff if ever there was; on occasions the punters seemed to be outnumbered by the staff, but they did a great line in left-field world cinema. Both of them were near the middle of town, so you could easily and conveniently meet your friends for a drink before the film and then walk to a pub afterwards and discuss it over a beer or a glass of wine. It was wonderful. It was a truly sad day and a heavy blow to the cultural life of the city when the Central, which first opened in 1920, closed its doors for ever in January 2005, followed six months later by the Lipa.

The only one that still survives now is the flagship one, the Metropol. It was easily the biggest of the three and always did good business, mostly playing a mix of mainstream Hollywood stuff and high-profile new Czech films, which always draw big here on their native soil, as well as hosting the cinema club on Tuesdays. It has good seats, Dolby sound, and a very central location.

The culprit is, as so often, a multiplex which has opened up in a new shopping mall on the edge of town. It’s a long way from the centre and very much aimed at those with cars, a group I do not belong to and never will. The prices are steep, the popcorn, so I am informed, knee-deep, and the menu depressingly predictable; I’m not exactly boycotting the place, but there’s been nothing so must-see that I have yet darkened its doors with my presence.

Which makes it all the more delightful that we are now in the middle of one of our annual filmfests, the excellent Projekt 100, which shows every spring throughout the country. So far we have been to a Hungarian film by the name of Taxidermia, one of the most grotesque slices (and I use the word advisedly) of cinema I have ever witnessed - my friend Jana walked out after fifteen minutes - the ever-fabulous Clockwork Orange, and the Oscar-winning Tsotsi.

Still awaiting us are the delights of Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, Ken Loach's Wind That Shakes The Barley, charmingly rendered on the posters as 'The Wind That Snakes The Barely', and to round things off in style, the film that was voted the best British film of the last century, Carol Reed's fabulous The Third Man. Now that's what I call a decent week at the cinema, my little droogies.

Thursday, March 8, 2007


Today is March 8. For many years (it was first celebrated about 100 years ago, the radio informed me this morning) this day was celebrated as International Women's Day, at least in the socialist bloc. I don't remember it being part of my life when I lived in the decadent capitalist running dog imperialist hyena West; I guess we were just too busy exploiting and being exploited by each other to bother with stuff like that.

These days, like so much associated with the pre-1989 period, it has fallen into desuetude. Most of the Czech women I know don't exactly mourn its passing. One woman I know had this to say: "Ah yes, I remember how it used to be. Our husbands would spend the day at work getting drunk and toasting their wives, and then they would shag their secretaries." Before, no doubt, coming home to said wives and then either throwing up or falling asleep. If that's how it was, it's easy to understand why not too many women here are upset about its no longer being observed.

Me, I feel differently. But chiefly because, in addition to being International Women's Day, March 8 is also - my birthday! Today was my 51st; not exactly something to get excited about, is it? I have neither a wife nor a secretary, which limits my options a bit, perhaps, but I will still do my humble best to enjoy it with a glass or two of good Czech beer.


Friday, March 2, 2007


Nobody could accuse the Czech language of lacking in synonyms. Even a simple word like 'here' has at least three equivalents - zde, tady, and tu, and there are more if you want equvalents for its use in phrases like 'Come here'.

Little surprise, then, in a land so generously strewn with impressive old buildings, that the Czech language should boast not just one equivalent for 'castle' but two - zámek and hrad. The difference, Czechs say, is easy; a hrad is built for defence, so it's all arrowslits, men-at-arms, narrow spiral staircases designed for defensive swordplay, grisly dungeons, and so on. A zámek, on the other hand, is more of a luxury home; think silk wall hangings, peacocks on the English lawn, ladies with arresting decolletages tinkling away at the harpsichord, that kind of stuff.

Another way of telling the difference, my patient Czech friends tell me, is that a hrad is a castle, a zámek is a chateau. That would be just fine and dandy if only I didn't already have it fixed in my head that chateau is just the French word for castle; I may not have learned that much French at school, but some of it did stick... As it is, it has to cover not only the Chateaux of the Loire, which are quintessential zámeks, but also the Chateau d'If of Count of Monte Cristo fame, and that's a hrad if ever I saw one.

Sifting the available evidence on the ground here, we find some anomalies. Prague Castle, for instance, would appear to be a shoo-in for
zámek status; after all, that's where the President hangs out, and he is surely one person who you would expect not to stint either himself or his visitors in the comfort department. However, it turns out to be not just a hrad but the hrad. And over in Slovakia, one of the most wonderful castles I have ever seen is Oravský Hrad; go into the village below, though, and it's called not Oravský Podhradie, as a logician or pedant might expect, but Oravský Podzámok. Oh dear.

But does it really matter? In the final analysis, probably not. In most cases the difference is relatively clear, and, whether it's a zámek or a hrad, they are all excellent places to go for a trip.

Above and below are two to keep you going - the zámek in Mikulov, down in the wine country, a grape pip's throw from the Austrian border, and the nearby Dívčí hrad (or Girl's Castle, so called because of either a beautiful Tartar princess who died there under dodgy circumstances or a child who was used as filler for the walls - you know what legends are like). Which is which? No prizes for correct guesses. And there will be more hrads and
zámeks in future posts. I promise.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


In ‘The Trial’, the last words uttered by Kafka’s protagonist K. as he is judicially murdered, a knife buried in his heart by two men in frock-coats and top-hats for reasons neither he nor the reader understand, are “Like a dog”.

Of course, it’s been pointed out so often that it’s gone way beyond a cliché that Kafka anticipated the totalitarianism that descended on so many European countries during the twentieth century, but it’s worth remembering that what he was chiefly exploring in his novels was the gulf between the ordinary person and the authorities in his own country in his own time, in other words, the Habsburg Empire.

I wonder what his reaction would be were he to come back to his native Prague today. The Empire itself is long gone, as are nearly all the Germans whose passion for detailed rules both created its bureaucracy in the first place and then made it work (well, more or less), but the institution itself is still intact, its natural tendency towards absurd complexity and horror of anything approaching clarity boosted by the almost solid fifty years of dictatorship that stifled public life in Czechoslovakia between the Nazis arriving in 1939 and the final collapse of Communism in 1989. He’d certainly have plenty of material for a few more books.

I grew up in Britain, a country where information is quite freely available and most things are allowed unless they’re expressly forbidden, and so for me living to a country where the opposite sometimes seems to be true, and it all happens in a language I still don’t feel exactly the master of, is, to put it mildly, a bit tricky at times.

Although proposals to introduce identity cards in the UK have been met with horror from many people there, this is something most Europeans feel perfectly comfortable with; I don’t have a problem with that. Nor do I mind motorists having to have a driving license with them; I don’t drive and have no intention of ever doing so, but it makes sense to me that they need to be able to show the cops something if they get stopped, as many of them should be on a regular basis, judging from the acts of homicidal lunacy I witness daily on the roads.

But I do find it curious that every citizen has to have a special number, a ‘birth number’, in addition to their ID card number, passport number, driving license number and all the other numbers they have. Or that it is a legal obligation to have a permanent address registered with the authorities. Or that there is something called an ‘extract from the criminal register’, a document that states you are have not committed any crimes and which you get, for money, of course, from the police. Without a recent one you can’t marry, get a residence permit, start a business, or all sorts of other things; whatever happened to the notion of being innocent till proven guilty? Or that getting information from officialdom all too often resembles a nightmare version of the game ‘20 Questions’, where you only get the information you need if you ask exactly the right sequence of questions to which the only answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Or that it’s essential for my employers to know my father’s domicile and job (he died in 1976, so I gave ‘heaven’ and ‘angel’). And so on.

To be fair, things on the human front are much better nowadays than they used to be. The staff at Czech Railways have obviously been sent on training courses to show them how to treat the public more kindly, and the woman at the social security office melted a lot once she found that we both had dogs. Even the people at the post office, who when I first got here gave the impression that the reason were they were there and not in the secret police was because their interpersonal skills weren’t up to snuff, are pretty human nowadays. But there’s still plenty of room for improvement in the realm of public service. My heart continues to sink whenever I get a letter from any of the public bodies I have to deal with, and as for the annual ritual of the income tax procedure, which is just coming up now, I’d rather undergo a full course of root canal work without anaesthetic.

For several years now one of the arguments used by the pro-euthanasia lobby has been the absurdity of the fat that when domestic animals, such as dogs or cats, reach a stage when it seems we would be doing them a favour by bringing their lives to a close, it is perfectly OK but that when the same is true for humans we have to soldier on till the bitter end. Maybe that’s what K. was thinking of when he uttered those final words of his. Peace at last. No more queues in front of doors that remain forever locked, no more meaningless questions, no more endless forms to fill in in triplicate.

But what if Hell is run on the lines of the Habsburg Empire? Now there’s a thought…

Monday, February 19, 2007


As in "V V shoe a pleasant journey", which is what the conductor on the train to Olomouc wished us as we left the main station in Prague on Sunday, after first having wished it in flawless Czech.

Wait, though, gentle reader. This is not going to be a pop at the linguistic gaucheries of the Czechs as they struggle in English; that might be the subject of a posting some time in the future, but as a non-native learner of what the locals here proudly claim to be one of the trickiest languages in the world (and I'm not arguing), I am painfully aware of the pitfalls faced by the wannabe speaker of foreign tongues. People. Glass houses. Stones.

No, my topic of the day is the much-maligned Czech railway system, which people I know have regularly described as antiquated, dangerous, slow, dirty, and many other less-than-flattering things. And, what's more, I am here to speak up in its favour.

For starters, it's still a complete system, unlike, say, Britain, where the road lobby's stranglehold on every governmnent of every political stripe for something like sixty years, coupled with Margaret Thatcher's deranged obession with privatising everything in sight, has reduced the network to whatever the word is for a skeleton that has had half the bones removed, with even quite big places no longer served by trains at all, the public no longer being referred to as 'passengers' but as 'customers', and an insane ticketing system that means it's quite feasible to have to spend more on a ticket from London to Manchester than from London to New York City.

Here in the Czech Republic, on the other hand, it may take a while to get there - the Rough Guide uses the term 'superhumanly slow' to describe some of the trains - and some of the trains themselves are pretty long in the gear tooth - but a remarkable number of places of all sizes are still reachable; my little village, for example, is served by a branch line with twenty trains a day in either direction.

It's not perfect, of course, but then what is? The trains can get very crowded at times, particularly when the country's students, a passionately home-loving bunch, are heading home for one of their four-day weekends or back to their place of study after one. And some of the toilets are not for those of a faint-hearted disposition. Last year, too, the date on which the railway company started, with a great fanfare, running a bunch of swish new Italian-made Pendolino trains (yes, the same ones as Virgin use in the UK - the first time I ever used one of those it broke down within half an hour of leaving Euston, leaving us marooned in Milton Keynes) unhappily coincided with the coldest cold snap in a long long time, which made their delicate Southern European systems pack up altogether and brought all of them to a grinding halt.

But they're running again now, and there are lots of other pluses to the railways here; the tickets are affordable - the 250 km from Prague to Olomouc cost me the equivalent of about 10 euro - the trains themselves are perfectly OK in the comfort department, and the dining cars on the long-distance trains are a traveller's dream. What better way can there be to travel round the country than sitting in one of those with a book, an iPod, a glass of good Czech beer, and all that wonderful scenery unrolling before your eyes?

Just make sure you enjoy it soon, before they privatise the system and wreck it forever.


The Guardian is generally a very fine newspaper, both in its dead tree and online versions, and they do a cool range of podcasts. But they do produce the odd glitch from time to time, and they sure managed one last Thursday in their daily news podacst. They had a woman banging on about a recent UNICEF report, which, shock horror, shows that kids in Britain live on a level of poverty virtually unmatched in the industrialised world, and she was making the point that everything was relative and that what would be considered poverty in the UK was rather different from what would be considered poverty in Czechoslovakia.

My strong suspicion that life for kids here is actually far more pleasant in most ways than it is in the UK is not why my ears pricked up at this or why I'm writing about it now; rather, it's the fact that it's now over 14 years since Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and yet there are still people who should know better but are happily displaying their ignorance of the world by perpetuating Neville Chamberlain's words at the time of the Munich betrayal of 1938 about "a far-away country...people of whom we know nothing".

I have mixed feelings about this. I loved Czechoslovakia - at the time of the 'Velvet Divorce' I was living in Slovakia and I have lived in both parts of the country - and still believe that the split was engineered in a shamefully undemocratic way by two men who both wanted to carve out careers for themselves in the two halves of the country and recognised that they could do so far more easily without having to keep compromising with the other. Step forward, gentlemen.

In the red corner we have Vladimir Meciar, the Slovak leader at the time of the split, an ex-boxer and throwback to the Socialist strongman school of leadership. He and his party, HZDS, governed Slovakia for much of the 1990s in a distinctly retro, thuggish, and autocratic style. A joke of the time is illustrative:

Q: Whose photograph does Meciar have in his wallet?

A: Slobodan Milosevic...

These days, a combination of ill health, old age, his own political bankruptcy, and changing times have pretty much sidelined him, thank the Lord.

His Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus, on the other hand, is still very much on the scene. He's the president of the Czech Republic these days, which makes licking a postage stamp symbolically a far from pleasant thing to do. He is an ardent disciple of Margaret Thatcher, with the same kind of petty provincial you-can't-tell-me-anything-I-don't-already-know arrogance and disdain for others as her. Like her, he is particularly contemptuous of anything connected to Europe. The joke that says it all about him:

Q: What's the difference between Vaclav Klaus and God?

A: God doesn't think he's Vaclav Klaus.

But let's get back to the subject. There are special cases like the Czechoslovak National House in London where the past lives on, but otherwise there really is no excuse for referring to Czechoslovakia as a living entity these days. A few years ago I was in Tallinn, Estonia, doing some work. The guy who introduced me to the group of Estonians I was going to be working with introduced me as "Simon, who has come from Czechoslovakia to be with us". For a brief moment I wondered whether I should begin my own spiel by telling them all what a pleasure it was for me to be in the Soviet Union. On reflection, I thought better of it. Which was probably wise. So follow my example, people, and buy an up-to-date map...

Thursday, February 8, 2007


I’ve always been a sucker for a good sunset. I suppose pretty much everybody is. It’s one of the stock images of human contentment, even though there are some miserabilists who consider it a bit hackneyed or kitschy. Probably my own enthusiasm has a lot to do with the fact that I grew up in the 1960s and am thus a hopeless romantic idealist. Plus I spent my formative years in a small village in the middle of nowhere in the days when TV, if it existed at all, was in black’n’white, and we depended on things like fires and sunsets for colour in our little rustic lives.

I’ve also had the good fortune to spend various stages of my life in places which are in the west and near water, which is a big boost to us sunset fans. Liverpool, where I spent not only a good few but more than a few good years, is a great place for them; it’s that combination of a coastal setting, a westward vista, and the Gulf Stream, or so people tell me. Izmir, on the west coast of Turkey, is another big port where I hung my hat for a while, and I have many happy memories of sitting outside my favourite watering-hole on the seafront there, a nice cool Efes beer and a plate of meze (toothsome snacks that are just fine and dandy when consumed together with said cool Efes beer) to hand, gazing dreamily out across the bay as the evening breeze brought merciful relief after a baking hot day.

But surely the most spectacular sunsets of my life were when I lived in El Geteina, a town on the east bank of the White Nile in Sudan; I used to go down to the river, which is very wide there, and watch this enormous red African sun falling into the water so fast you could actually see it moving. Because it’s equatorial, the difference between the times it set in the summer and winter wasn’t that great, which was weird and wonderful for a European who was used to the huge differences we get here.

Not that I’m complaining. Here in Central Europe (not Eastern – calling this country Eastern Europe is up there with dissing their beer as a really effective way of upsetting Czechs in record time) we are blessed with some splendid examples, too. They can be a bit watery in winter, but in summer they can be pretty spectacular, and on a nice evening there is nothing that my plague of mosquitoes and I like quite so much as sitting in my garden and watching the sun go down over the forest.

Monday, February 5, 2007


Yesterday we (me, my partner Lenka, and Sigmund, the Irish terrier who is our constant companion) decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and go for a walk ‘in the nature’, as many Czechs are in the habit of referring to the great outdoors. This is one of the many great delights of life in the Czech Republic, and neighbouring Slovakia too; of course, they were both one big happy country till not so very long ago. Both republics are crisscrossed, especially in mountainous or otherwise picturesque areas, with footpaths for hikers, which vary from veritable pedestrian superhighways to trails that are absolutely impassable some of the time for various reasons.

These are shown on maps, from which you can easily plan your trip, and on the ground they take the form of blazes painted on trees, rocks, corners of buildings, and other permanent or semipermanent features of the landscape. All you have to do is follow these to get to your destination. At railway stations, bus stops, and other important points either where trails start or along them, you get signs indicating how far it is to various places. These are normally in kilometers but in mountainous parts of Slovakia they are actually shown in hours. Once you’ve done a couple of trips you can figure out how your own pace compares to what’s posted on the signs and calculate accordingly.

Yesterday’s trip was what a friend of mine once referred to as a ‘geriatric walk’; a mere twelve kilometers or so and the worst we had to face in the way of climatic conditions was a bit of mud on some of the paths. Almost enough to make me think I didn’t really deserve the splendid Czech pub lunch I had to fortify myself along the way. Almost, but not quite…

Monday, January 29, 2007


I’m sure you’ve seen the kind of advertisements that national tourist boards produce in which they extol what a wonderful country they have and why you absolutely should go there forthwith. They tend to get shown on TV channels such as CNN. Ones I’ve seen recently include a sun-drenched paean to the ‘Egyptian Riviera’, which certainly looks attractive when viewed from the depths of the Central European winter, and another for Croatia, with the slogan ‘the Mediterranean as it used to be’. So if you decide to go there the options on offer will presumably include getting shanghaied as a deckhand aboard an Ottoman galley, being bombed by any of a number of air forces, and having mountains of well-broiled wobbling Euroflesh thrust in your face on the nudist beach.

Not so long ago the tourist people from the Czech Republic, where I live, came up with one of these. To see it in its full majesty go here. As you might expect from the country which gave the world Franz Kafka and chucking people out of windows as a means of resolving political disputes and whose first post-Communist president was am absurdist playwright who was on first-name terms with the likes of Lou Reed and Frank Zappa, it starts out with an image of…yes, of course, a snail. Then we see images of what a lovely country it is – churches, castles, Prague, golf courses (golf courses?) – and hear the repeated mantra “Somewhere else it’s…” (rush hour, people are working hard, it’s a stressful day, etc) and then the slogan: “The Czech Republic: come to slow down!” Places like Ibiza need fear no loss of clientele from that campaign.

In the eastern part of the country, Moravia, lies the Hana region. It’s pronounced ‘Han-aaaah’. In the wonderful novel ‘I Served the King of England’, now adapted as a film, Bohumil Hrabal’s narrator got all misty-eyed about the blonde peasant girls from here. Most other Czechs (and remember, these are people whose country you are warmly invited to in order to take things easy) associate Hana with, well, slowness. I hope you’re starting to get the picture. It’s a big flat plain, supposedly famous for its agricultural bounty, though you’d never guess that if you went to the outdoor market in Olomouc, where the pickings are slimmer than the supermodels who make up another of the country’s net export commodities. Field after huge field of sugar beet and hops punctuated by the odd stream or village or stand of trees. And, since 1996, my home.