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.