svētdiena, 2014. gada 21. septembris

About Central and Eastern Europe

Central Europe - Has a Czech person hurt you and you want a revenge? Call them Eastern European and watch them get furious.

The thing with Central vs. Eastern Europe is:
We're taught at school that the Czech Republic is in Central Europe. And then we grow up and find ourselves being called Eastern Europeans by foreigners, much to our unpleasant surprise.
I confess to getting furious at being called Eastern European, too. Not just because it places us in the same box with Russians and Belorussians who we have very little in common with - but also simply because of geography. Look at the map of Europe - the Czech Republic is right in the centre.
And I simply relate more to Bavaria, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary than to Belarus. Austria and Hungary felt like "related" countries, while all the Belorussians and Ukrainians I've met seemed like strangers. Some of them very nice, but - different.

Not mentioning that many foreigners think Eastern Europe to include countries like Romania which we have nothing in common with at all - except the fact that some Czechs emmigrated there in the 19th century and it also had Communist regime. Really, anything you can think of - countryside, religion, language, architecture, folklore, history -  everything's different there. If you based the term "Eastern Europe" on the shared Communist history (which is just 40 years out of 2000), then you might as well claim that Cuba is in East Asia because it's Communist just like North Korea, or that USA is in Australia because it's a democratic continent.

The time period when we "shared something" with Romania and Russia was simply too short and forceful to create a cultural region.

Btw, some people seem to think we were part of the Soviet Union. We were not.

I was thinking about this a lot, and came to the conclusion that this "CzR-not-being-in-Eastern-Europe" thing isn't just my impression.

I mean, what DO we have in common with Russia, Ukraine or Belarus? 
1) The fact that the Cyrillic alphabet was invented on our territory (but we've been using the Latin alphabet instead for 1000 years now).
2) The 20 years a small part of Ukraine was part of Czechoslovakia.
3) The 40 years we had to learn Russian at school (mostly doing very poorly, I'm afraid) and the 23 years Soviet tanks were here (which wouldn't exactly be "having something in common" anyway, not mentioning that some of the soldiers were actually Uzbek, Georgian and whatnot).
4) The 80 years in the 19th century when some Czech and Slovak national revivalists were interested in Russian culture.
5) Some traits like impatience or fondness for swear words. (But Italians and Brits are known for swearing a lot, too.)
6) The shared origin of languages.
Can't think of anything more.

And even the languages aren't mutually intelligible. We're only able to understand Slovak after some practice (it's like for a British person learning to understand the English spoken in Louisiana), also Polish and Croatian to some small extent, but not Eastern Slavic languages. That's because there's been a long and heavy German influence on Czech. If you know Russian, don't expect Czech to sound anything like it - to me, the sound of Czech is more like a cross between Scottish English and Italian, rather than Russian. There are also heaps of words that look similar in Russian and Polish and Czech but mean something different, even opposite. Perhaps I'll make them into a separate article here. Just one example: I remember when I got my credit card PIN code by post in Latvia, and beneath it, it was written "Please remember this PIN code" in several languages. I thought the Russian version was telling me to forget the PIN!

And as to the Slavic heritage... I read somewhere that Czech genes are in average about 30% Celtic, 30% Slavic, 30% Germanic, and then some Jewish, Hungarian, Caucasian etc. My father's cousin had his DNA tests done, and it turned out that the person with the most similar DNA is Irish.
And as to our popular legend about Father Czech who was Southern Slavic by origin and came to this territory in search for a new home... turns out there is a mediaeval chronicle telling a story about a Father Czech - who was Celtic and came from France.

And what is it we share with eastern parts of Germany, Austria, Slovakia or Hungary?
1) Beer.
2) The whole history, basically. Many Czech noblemen took Bavarian or Saxon wives, part of Austria belonged to us in Middle Ages, we in turn belonged to Austria for 400 years, and Slovakia and Hungary were part of the same state (Austro-Hungarian Empire).
3) Catholic influence.
4) Music. The folk music in the western parts of CzR is similar to German, while in the eastern parts it's basically Hungarian.
5) Stress on the first syllable.
6) Looks. People in these countries simply don't look like foreigners to me.
7) Architecture.
8) Climate.
9) The kind of bureaucracy that came from Austro-Hungarian Empire (and which I very happily didn't miss while living in Latvia, where most things are arranged simply and effectively). The feeling that offices must open early in the morning, that official language must be less intelligible than the "common" language, that there must be a language board deciding what is correct and what is not. We sometimes call these things "courtesy of Mr. Emperor".
10) History of small industry. Numerous factories, but mostly small ones.
11) No sense of... largeness. "Why make something big when it can be small." Food is packed in small packages. You'll find very few skyscrapers in Prague, Vienna, Bratislava or Budapest. The motorways are only as broad as really necessary. Old houses and farms are smaller than in Northern Germany or Poland. Basically, anything that seems on too large a scale - be it long military parades, loud speech, long limousines, city parts consisting of high-rise buildings - looks unimportant to us, like "created by a megalomaniac just showing off". I think it's because the density of inhabitation has been high for quite some time now, so we're used to the fact that we can't afford to waste space or disturb other people. We tend to be loud, but not very loud.

Are you asking yourself "Why is she telling us all this?"

I actually have two points - one is that the Czech country is in the centre of Europe and therefore it's had many influences. Various tribes came and stayed, merchants and soldiers from various countries (even France or Sweden) kept crossing it, staying and/or making babies. So IMO it can't be described simply as "Slavic" or "Celtic". Nor as "Eastern European". The only term I feel describes us is "Central European" because it's based on geography, history and culture - things that constitute our identity - rather than on genetics or language or 20th century events.

The second point is that European history is long and complex and it's created many cultural regions. There are regions many non-Europeans don't know about.

Just like U.S. isn't just the East Coast, the South, the West and California, but there are regions like the Appalachians or New England; just like Canada consists of the Pacific Coast, the Maritimes, Quebec, Nunavut etc.; just like Africa is so diverse that there are countries with more than 100 languages spoken; just like there isn't one Chinese language; there isn't just Southern, Western, Northern and Eastern Europe.
If you, say, create four affiliates of your company based on this simplified four-fold division of Europe, there will always be inconsistencies and difficulties. For example, the region that I consider to be Eastern Europe (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) isn't homogenous at all - it's divided into many smaller cultural regions, too, as Ukraine has been very proudly trying to prove these past months.

Lysice - a small / big surprise

Description: Chateau with unusual objects of daily use, unique chateau garden, in a beautiful countryside.

Themes: Chateau, chateau garden, colonnade, Renaissance, Baroque, weapons collection, chateau chapel, Chinese art, Japanese armour.

Distance from a city: About 50 km to the North-West from Brno, about 200 km to the South-East from Prague.

Transport, level of difficulty, orientation: This trip is best for situations when you want to visit a beautiful old place but aren't able to walk far, or don’t feel well, or the weather isn't very good. It doesn’t involve much walking and the orientation is simple.

You can get here by train and coach. Use to find out which train and coach to take (see the article Travelling by train here). Trains run every hour, coaches every hour or every two hours. Go by train to Skalice nad Svitavou, then use the bridge over the platforms to get outside the railway station. (If it happened that you needed to stay in this railway station for some time, the ticket office and the waiting room with vending machines are behind an inconspicuous-looking door with a "Vestibul" sign.)
The bus stop is on the opposite side of the road from the railway station, and your line number is 257. Don't be misled if the coach is very small. The transport company has started to use small vehicles for less frequented lines. Say "Lysice" to the driver (pronounced "Lissitseh") and the ticket machine will show you the price. It was 20 CZK when we went there. See what the driver does - some drivers are very particular about handing the tickets to the passengers themselves, some, on the other hand, are very particular about the passenger taking the tickets from the machines themselves. So just wait a second or two and if he doesn't give you the ticket, take it yourselves.
Your best bet is to sit on the right-hand side of the coach because then you can see the white signs saying which village you're entering. Wait for the sign "Lysice" but if the coach stops immediately after that, don't get off - there're several stops in the town and the first one (called "Lysice, škola") is too far from the chateau. The coach stops there sometimes, sometimes not. Wait for it to go downhill to what obviously is the town's centre. The name of the stop is "Lysice, pohostinství".
You can see the chateau steeple from the bus stop. Just follow the stream that runs across the town.

Beware, the entrance to the chateau can be easily missed - the front building probably used to be a stable and looks quite ordinary. Look for a broad gate with a small, but important-looking sign. If you peek through the gate and can see the chateau - well, here you are.
There are several tours possible in the chateau - the first one, as usual, is in the representation part, with all sorts of salons, a dining room, the armoury and the chapel. The second one is in the gentry's bedrooms.

Don’t go here on a Saturday! – the website says the chateau is usually booked for weddings on Saturdays.

Time required: If you go from Brno, it's an easy afternoon trip - it requires about 5-7 hours, depending on how long you want to walk in the garden. If you go from Prague, it's a one-day trip.

Suitability for handicapped people: Good. The mentally handicapped needn't go to the chateau interiors tour and still enjoy the interesting gardens; those on wheelchairs can go to the chateau interiors tour because there's a lift for wheelchairs - quite a rarity when it comes to Czech chateaus. I've heard some chateaus organize tours for the visually impaired, too, but I forgot to ask whether this is the case with Lysice.

Suitability for children: say, 40% :-) The chateau tour is shorter than in other chateaus, only 45-50 min., and the rooms are small so there's something new to look at all the time. Plus, there are some interesting objects of daily use, as I mentioned, so the tour isn't very boring. But - still, it's a chateau tour where they're supposed to be quiet and walk slowly. The garden is suitable for children, though, with its many levels and mysterious corners to explore.

Facilities: Prepare a 5 CZK coin for the toilet. (If you don't have one with you, the slot-machine that lets you in also accepts 1 and 2 CZK coins :-) ). The ticket office is spacious. If there're more people you're supposed to form a queue that goes from the right to the left (along the counter). There're benches everywhere.
There isn't a restaurant in the chateau, only a nice café where you can sip coffee and eat a cake in the chateau courtyard. There are some restaurants in the town but I can't promise they'll be open Sunday evening.
You can buy postcards and booklets in the ticket office, plus there is a souvenir shop in the entrance to the garden.

Languages: The chateau is too off-the-beaten-track to offer interiors tours in foreign languages. But it has a recorded "Audio guide" in English in every room. Arrange in the ticket office for such tour.


I’d known about the existence of Lysice for a long time from pictures in various chateaus lists, and also from a TV series (if anyone was interested, it’s the series Četnické humoresky, episode 4-Beáta). It looked like a small manor house with a long and narrow garden. I’d wanted to visit it for a long time, thinking it’d be a small, cute place. Well... I was proved wrong.

First of all, it isn’t in a village as I thought - Lysice is a town. Or rather, Lysice are a town because the word is perceived as plural form in Czech. Furthermore, the chateau is quite impressive with its tall white walls, two courtyards and four gardens. And the aristocratic families that occupied it were apparently far from being narrow-minded regional gentry. One of them founded the first children’s hospital in the eastern part of the country, another one– countess von Eschenbach – gained fame as a poet in Austria, another one was a naval officer who travelled around the world.

We were, of course, shown the chateau interiors by a guide, as is the usual practice in the CzR. My sister had the great idea that I could make notes of the most interesting things the guide told and showed us. Here’s what I scribbled down:

-          colourful, but not too striking, tasteful interiors
-          Doric, Ionic and Corinthian pillars
-          gold and silver ceiling
-          Eschenbach: Ode to a Cigarette (a poem written in praise of cigarettes... by a non-smoker :-) )
-          chateau theatre, burned down, the biggest collection of costumes in the area, used also by theatres in Vienna
-          Classicist salon
-          beginning of the 19th century – local landlord founded a factory for making wires, nails and screws. Went bankrupt later, turned into a lace factory, still working
-          „husband whistle“ (This requires an explanation. The lady of the manor didn’t share a bedroom with her husband – he had his own bedroom upstairs, connected with her bedroom by a staircase. This staircase was so narrow that the lady, in her broad 18th century skirts, wouldn’t fit in. So, whenever she felt like meeting her husband, she blew into a special pipe in the wall that worked similarly to an organ pipe. Her husband heard the whistle and came down the stairs. (She also had a similar pipe-whistle-whatever for calling her servant girl.) Imagine the quarrells back then? „What's the matter with you, darling? I whistled for you yesterday, but you didn’t come!“
-          Captain’s bridge in library
-          Japanese armour and sword, Chinese aquarium
-          13th century sword, Prussian helmets, sword with the blade of saw-fish

I must confess Lysice instantly captured my heart and made it to my TOP FIVE chateaus list. Not just because of the unusual objects listed above but also because of (in no particular order) the very nice and helpful staff, not-crowdedness, Renaissance elements (yep, Renaissance is my favourite style!) and white colour (yep again, white is my favourite colour when it comes to chateaus! :-) ). And being amazingly photogenic, and having several terrace gardens, a colonnade – the only chateau colonnade in the CzR on the top of which you can walk! I understood the garden area is unique in several ways – the colonnade, the preservation of Renaissance terrace gardens system, and the way the moat is made into a pond and incorporated into it.