svētdiena, 2015. gada 6. decembris

Good TV show and music videos

Hi everyone,

thanks for visiting my blog! :-)

I wrote this article in the autumn of 2015 but since then, I've discovered that it isn't 100% true. We DO produce good music, books and films :-) only I didn't know about them. And we stage theatre comedies well :-)

But otherwise, the article is good. So I decided not to delete it. Here goes:

I just wanted to share my joy because we (well, Czechs) have finally created something worth presenting abroad!
The last couple of years, it had looked like our taste and creativity is almost gone, and I was unhappy that I'm not a composer or a film director.
But this autumn, there was a brand new series on TV that I think is quite good - it's called Labyrint (no need to translate, I think :-)
It's directed by the brilliant Jiří Strach. His name translates as "George Fear" but he's said to be very kind-hearted, actors love working with him. The series is a mystery / thriller and takes place in the city I now live in - Brno!
I've watched quite a lot of mysteries and whodunnits - Czech, British, French, Austrian, German, American and Canadian - and still can say this one is interesting and unusual. And yesterday I found out that several other countries are buying the show. I was so proud!
If anyone who speaks Czech was interested, it's accessible online:

And today, the band called Divokej Bill ("Wild Bill", from the town of Úvaly, not far from Prague) posted their new music video on Facebook. It's called Koně ("Horses").
I used to know two of the members personally - one of them sang in the same children's choir as me and another had the same violin teacher as me. So I'm always happy to see them alive and well and producing good music.
I'm guessing some scenes were filmed in Romania. I like their lyrics because their vocabulary is rich. They play with old sayings and proverbs and know how to combine them with expressions common people use today.

Unfortunately, YouTube doesn't allow me to insert the video, so here's just the link:

Lyrics translation:

The horses shied
They're galloping like mad
We're only fall asleep at the dawn
I told you so
The horses shied
They're galloping like mad
So don't act like it's beneath you
Start getting used to it

In the motor of my machine
Goblins are dancing
In short, they shied
I told you so
As they're ranting
They're whispering in my ear
"Hold on to us, don't fall
Or you'll soon find out..."

There's mist crawling towards the village like a snake
Your eyes are slowly closing
They want to go to sleep

My black horses
Never get exhausted
When we ride together
Everyone wakes up and starts to have fun
Up and down
Go pistons in the rhythm of rock-n-roll
I grab the handlebars
And you, horses, giddy-up!

There's mist crawling towards the village like a snake
Your eyes are slowly closing
They want to go to sleep
The eleventh of January
Or November
We're not stopping, we're going on
Mr. Psychopath!

But nowhere it's written
That we're written off
If the road is full of potholes
We'll just use another trick
And get lost in the labyrinth
Don't give up!
(literally, "don't throw your rifle in the rye field" - that's one of the sayings I mentioned)

Note: January 11th and November 11th are no special dates in the Czech Republic. I'd say they chose them because they consist of numerals 1.

Speaking of Divokej Bill, I can't forget to mention their most famous song Znamení ("Signal", "Sign"). It's a symbolistic song meant to remind us of Jan Palach, the student that set himself on fire and died, as a protest against the arrival of Soviet tanks in 1968.
We never belonged to the Soviet Union, but in the 1960's, the Communist party in Czechoslovakia got quite free-spirited and introduced some reforms that made life much more bearable. The leadership of the USSR didn't like that so it sent tanks and soldiers as a "friendly" reminder from the USSR not to get too carried away with the reforms. They didn't shoot anyone, but were here "just in case".
The regime got much more oppressive after that. Also for the people in the USSR itself. The 1970's were a pretty depressing period of time. Everything was grey or dark brown. I wasn't born yet but you could still feel the remnants of that atmosphere in the 1980's.

Palach's protest took place in 1969 on Václavské náměstí, a huge square in the centre of Prague, that's now usually packed with tourists, as you can see in the video. Towards the end, if you look closely, you'll see that the young man has a can of petrol / gasoline.

The lyrics consist almost entirely of old sayings and phrases.
They play on the fact that there's a children's game where one child searches for something and the others direct him by saying samá voda ("all water", meaning "you're nowhere near the hiding place"), přihořívá ("starting to burn", meaning "you're getting close") and hoří! ("burning!")

Dávám ti znamení, ať zase víš, kam jít - I'm giving you a signal so that you know again where to go

A ty dáváš mi znamení, ať vím, kam jít - And you are giving me a signal so that I know where to go


Piju to tvoje zlý víno - Drinking that evil wine of yours
Samá voda, je to samá voda! - It's all water!
(trošku přihořívá) - (starting to burn a bit)

Ale kosa na kámen narazí - But the scythe will hit the stone (something will get stopped suddenly)
Kosa na kámen, to tě zamrazí - Scythe to the stone, that sends shivers down your spine
Kosa na kámen je tvý svědomí černý - Like scythe to the stone is your black conscience

Jako kosa na kámen je znamení - Like scythe to the stone is the signal
Ať víš, kam jít, že křídla máš poraněný - So that you know where to go, and that your wings are injured


Piju to tvoje zlý víno - Drinking that evil wine of yours

Samá voda, je to samá voda! - It's all water!

A to se může stát - And it can happen

To víš, že se to může stát - Of course it can happen

Že i ty se začneš kácet - That even you will start falling

Máš tisíc důvodů skočit - You have a thousand reasons to jump

A to se může stát - And it can happen

To víš, že se to může stát - Of course it can happen

Že i ty se začneš kácet - That even you will start falling

Dál piju to tvoje zlý víno - I keep drinking that evil wine of yours

Samá voda, je to samá voda! - It's all water!

A tu nezapálíš - And you can't set fire in water

A to se může stát - And it can happen

Že i ty se začneš kácet - That even you will start falling down

A protože máš tisíc důvodů skočit - And because you have a thousand reasons to jump

A to se může stát - And it can happen


A protože máš tisíc důvodů skočit - And because you have a thousand reasons to jump

A to se může stát - And it can happen

Ty vole, to se může stát - Dude, it can happen

Že i ty se začneš kácet - That even you will start falling down

A máš tisíc důvodů skočit - And you have a thousand reasons to jump

A všechno votočit - And turn everything around

Napořád - Forever

If you want an all-time favourite, both for many Czechs and also music enthusiasts abroad, I recommend this spine-chilling folkrock ballad by band Čechomor.
It's in a dialect similar to Slovak, because it comes from the eastern parts of the CzR. The music there has been influenced by Hungary. That means, it's emotional, wild and the plot ends tragically:

(Some of the mountains in the video aren't Czech)

Mezi horami   -   Among mountains
Lipka zelená   -   There's a little green linden-tree growing
Zabili Janka, Janíčka, Janka   -   John, our Johnny's been killed
Miesto jeleňa   -   By mistake, instead of a deer

Keď ho zabili   -   When they killed him
Zamordovali   -   When they murdered him
Na jeho hrobě, na jeho hrobě kříž postavili   -   They built a cross on his grave

Ej, křížu, křížu ukřižovaný   -   Oy, you cross, you crucified
Zde leží Janík, Janíček, Janík   -   Here's where John, Johnny's lying
Zamordovaný   -   Murdered

Tu šla Anička   -   Here's where Annie went
Plakat Janíčka   -   To weep for her Johnny
Hneď na hrob padla   -   She fell on his grave
A viac nevstala   -   And never got up
Dobrá Anička   -   Good girl

Optimistic, isn't it? :-)

If you were wondering what mountains have to do with Johnny and Annie - well, nothing. That's how Czech folk songs often begin: first, nature; then, people.

On another note: recently, a friend recommended a great soundtrack by Czech composer Jan Jirásek. If you like Yann Tiersen, you might enjoy it:

Me and my family, we are fans of the Hungarian band Misztrál. (pronounced as "Miss - trah - l")

The language is different but the music sounds like it might also be Czech. Partly, because it's composed for a language with the stress on the first syllable, just like Czech; partly, as I said, because Czech music has been influenced by Hungarian.

There's a Czech saying "Every Czech is a musician." That's no longer true but we still love music. People define themselves by what kind of music they listen to. I've heard Hungarians are very proud of their music, too. If you listen to Misztrál, you'll understand why :-)

These are some of Misztrál's songs. Don't be misled by the calm beginnings - the endings are pretty hot-blooded :-)

trešdiena, 2015. gada 17. jūnijs

Some issues I came across; some answers to questions I was asked

Migrants - I'm not pro- or anti-immigration, my view is basically... well, let's put it this way: that everyone has the right to have their needs understood. Everyone's a human being. Even those of us who think they're a beetle. (Franz Kafka lived in Prague :-D )

But I'd like to offer an explanation, sort of an insight as to what it's like for us Czechs, to be suddenly facing a wave of immigrants.

As the HBO video with John Oliver says, "millions of migrants seeking asylum in Europe are facing racism and red tape". That's totally true.
I'd just like to add that they're also facing compassion. It's not like all 10,5 millions Czechs are racists.

Can you see it? "Millions of migrants... 10,5 millions of Czechs". There is a real possibility that the total number of refugees in Europe will become higher than the number of Czechs. They will be dispersed all over Europe, of course, but the knowledge still is a bit scary. Plus, the Czech Republic is quite heavily populated (134 inhabitants per square km), plus some regions are uninhabitable (too steep mountain slopes), and it's been like this for centuries. Since early childhood, we learn to embrace the subconscious notion that we can't afford to waste space. (See the About Central and Eastern Europe article.)

I think physically, there IS space and possibly even jobs for tens of thousands of immigrants, but because this notion has been with us for ages, it's difficult to get rid of it.

Before you judge us, please realize that Central Europe has no experience with massive immigration whatsoever.

Bureaucracy is the way we deal with everything, and it's worked for Czech and most European problems. (I'm not defending bureaucracy, I hate it myself, this is just the way it is.) But the problem is, it's slow. We have a love-hate relationship with slow, and I suspect we enjoy it, in a way, because slow means solid. We need time to get used to something. We rarely have crises; even the financial crisis in 2009 didn't hit us very hard. We don't have natural catastrophes; only the occassional flood, and we are used to them, like you get used to a family member.

Some Native American nations had two chiefs: a Times of Peace chief and a Wartime Chief. And the problem is, Europe's had lots of great Times of Peace chiefs, but no War Chiefs, for the last 60 years. The last true Wartime Chief was probably Winston Churchill. And he didn't do well in times of peace. It's the same, only the other way round, with Times of Peace chiefs: they are excellent administrators, but lousy troubleshooters. They take time to decide, and they don't like sudden crises. Those who did have left for the U.S. or Canada or Australia.

If you are American or Canadian or Australian, please realize that in a way, Europe's given its troubleshooters to you.

The solid administrative Times of Peace attitude doesn't work for problems that come from far away. We don't know what to think, what to do. We still don't understand why people would want to live in the Czech Republic. I mean just 30 years ago, nobody did. And most of the migrants really don't want to stay here; they'd never heard of the Czech Republic and want to go to Germany. (This information comes from a guy who talked to a lot of them.) I think anyone would feel a bit offended if they were forced to provide shelter for a person who doesn't even want to know their name.

Would the U.S. give the Green Card to someone who says "I've never heard of a country called the United States of America, I'm just on my way to Japan."?

My point is: before you judge us, try to understand us. I mean, you wouldn't judge a Saharan country for not knowing how to deal with snowstorms.

We're a peaceful nation. But if other nations keep presenting us as radical, we will become that. It's like with children: if you keep telling a child how bright it is, it will grow up to be a self-confident and intelligent person. And if you keep telling it how stupid it is, it really will grow more and more stupid.

I hope we can learn how to treat the refugees. In a calm, unbiased, practical yet friendly way. With time. Or better, fast.

Poverty - I heard that some people in Malta thought that the CzR is a poor country. I couldn't believe my ears. The society I live in definitely seems more like a consumer society than a poverty-stricken society.

Want an example? The title of the film "Slumdog Millionaire" had to be translated as something like "Millionaire from a Hut" because until recently, we'd had no word for "slum". Now we have, and guess what it is? Yep, you're right - "slum". There's no Czech word because there are no slums here.

Another example? University education is free here.

Also, we don't have the thinking of poor people. We have sense of cleanliness and order, and we always make the effort to repair our houses, wash the stairs, plant beautiful flowers.

Relationship with Slovakia - Some people in Latvia asked me about a supposed border dispute with Slovakia. That was Slovakia with Hungary, not us. I don't know what Slovaks would say, but I'd say our relationship with Slovakia is good.

The last time we had aggressive foreign policy was 700 years ago. Since then, it's been more like "live and let live", and our position is mostly "please leave us alone". We're not very pro-European because we hate the idea of people who've never been to the CzR telling us what to do, and we love our currency called "koruna" ("crown"), but we're not anti-European either.

A popular question with non-Czechs is "Are Czech and Slovak mutually intelligible?" You might get conflicting answers to this. The most truthful answer would probably be "Yep, totally. But it takes a bit of effort to get used to the other language, therefore if you have no experience with it, you might not understand the other language spoken." The inhabitants of eastern parts of the CzR understand Slovak without problems because local dialects are similar to Slovak, and there are many Slovaks living or studying in Brno.

When we were one country, there was a lot of Slovak spoken on the Czech TV and vice versa, so everybody understood the other language almost without realizing it's the other language. Slovak books were translated to Czech and vice versa, but sometimes they were also available in the original language and people would buy them, too. If a Slovak actor was hired to act in a Czech-language film, they might or might not be asked to speak Czech.

Here's a nice example of a 1978 Czech-language film where one of the actresses speaks Slovak. I read the script - the character was supposed to be Czech but because they found a perfect Slovak actress for the part, they let her speak Slovak and nobody seems to notice, let alone mind that she speaks a different langauge. (see 1:20)

svētdiena, 2015. gada 14. jūnijs

Ploskovice - a white jewel full of contrasts

Description: Beautiful, fairy-tale-like chateau with unusual history and interiors.
Themes: Chateau, chateau garden, colonnade, Baroque, artificial caves "grottas", films, fairy-tales, peacocks.
Distance from a city: 100 km to the North from Prague.

It's close to Děčín, Liberec and Ústí nad Labem, and a manageable distance from Plzeň. But if you live in Ostrava, Brno or České Budějovice, it's virtually inaccessible unless you're prepared to spend a night in Prague or 6-8 hours travelling there and back.
Transport, level of difficulty, orientation: There is a parking lot right next to the entrance gate to the chateau area. You can find a train or a coach at, the journey from Prague takes about 1,5 hours. If you go by coach, it's very easy - it stops right in front of the entrance gate.

If you go by train, you'll need to change trains in Lovosice. Fortunately, that is very easy - the local train waits for the express from Prague. It's usually painted yellow-orange-green and leaves from the 3rd platform. Follow the time when on the train, and about a minute before getting off in Ploskovice, have a look at the displays and if a sign saying "zastavíme" doesn't appear, find a red button "zastávka na znamení" (="request stop"), which is usually situated at all the inner doors, and press it. After getting off, stand facing the railway station in Ploskovice and take the road to the left. Be careful and keep really close to the left side of it, one after another, don't form groups. The road is quite busy. After some 400 metres, you'll reach a right turn, with an alley.

 Take it and it will lead you straight to the village. Follow the signs saying "zámek" (unfortunately, they look totally different every time and sometimes they're a bit hidden behind bushes)

until you see a pub. The entrance gate is further on, across the street from the pub.
Unfortunately, it looks like the regional administration is thinking about cancelling the Ploskovice train stop. There are protests against it, but who knows how it will end. Be sure to consult before you set out.

If you use a coach or go by car, the trip is extremely easy. If you go by train, be prepared for some 4 or 5 km of walking (including the chateau and its park).

Time required: If you go from Prague, about 7 hours.
The guided tour of the chateau takes about 70 minutes, if you buy a ticket to the grottas - artificial caves below the chateau. Which I recommend you do. Then about 3 hours of walking, taking pictures, having a lunch...
The journey by coach or train takes 1,5 hour there + 1,5 hour back. You can leave at about 9 a.m. and return at 5-6 p.m.

Price: Journey from Prague + entrance fee + souvenirs = 300-400 CZK
Suitability for handicapped people: Very low. Except for those on wheelchairs, if they don't mind missing the second floor, because there's still a lot to see in the chateau garden, the artificial caves and the first floor that are accessible.
Suitability for children: Except the fact that there isn't much walking, low. Unless your kids are interested in history or art. But if they've seen the chateau in a film, they might enjoy it - plus, the guided tours try to make the hour as interesting for kids as possible - for example, they ask them to play a clock-counting game (the emperor who lived here collected clocks). And there are various special events for kids regularly - see the chateau's website.

Facilities: Toilets for free are in a detached building, close to the entrance gate to the area. For such a famous chateau, they aren't exactly fancy, but they're clean. And it looks like they're being renovated, so who knows, perhaps they'll be extremely fancy when you get there :-)
There is no café or restaurant in the chateau and the ticket office only opens twice an hour for 5 minutes.  Be sure to take something to eat and drink with you. There is a restaurant across the street from the entrance gate, with good Czech meals for reasonable prices. The menu's just in Czech, though.
The ticket office staff are nice and helpful and you can buy various souvenirs.
Languages: You'll always get by with simple English. If you don't want to spend too much money, go on a Czech-language tour and borrow the same text printed in a foreign language for 10 CZK. They also offer foreign language tours for twice the price.
Pronunciation, meaning: "Ploskovitseh", and the name comes from the word "ploský"="flat".

My Latvian friend and me went to the chateau of Ploskovice yesterday. She'd wanted to go there for 5 years! So I was really scared that it won't be as perfect as she'd expected. But it was!

Ploskovice isn't an easy topic because sooo much about this chateau is beautiful, unusual or interesting. So it's hard to choose what to focus on.
Well... what about telling you about the ONE thing that ISN'T unusual about it :-) It's the chateau garden. It's nice, but - yeah, that's it.

Now for the unusual stuff:

Let's take the peacocks first.Why peacocks, you ask? Because many Czech chateaus keep peacocks in their gardens - as a reminder that local aristocrats kept them - and Ploskovice is no exception. But it IS an exception as to the high number of the peacocks. And that day, also as to the way they behaved.
There was a wedding taking place, and the wedding guests were asked to shout out several times. I don't know why - perhaps for some photos. And every time they shouted, the peacocks started to screech, too!

Also, they had obviously decided to show themselves to us in all various positions and situations:

And that isn't where the unusual stuff ends. If you notice the layout of the area, you realize it's a Christian cross. I don't think that was the intention, but it somehow came out that the chateau is the short horizontal line, and crossing it is a long vertical line that is a water-pipe system. You can't see all of it, as it's under the ground, and some of the fountains or ponds have been converted into something else. Like this one - into a flower-bed:
But there really is a water-pipe system, starting with this fountain:
then going below the chateau through the artificial caves in the cellar, making for its damp air. The Italian countess that had the chateau built wanted such caves, because she intended to use Ploskovice as a summer residence. She liked the "grottas" she knew from her home coutry. They seem a bit out of place here, though, because the CzR isn't as warm as Italy. But the day we visited Ploskovice was extremely hot, so we were grateful to the countess :-)

The iron gate below the chateau is the entrance to the grottas.

Then there is another fountain:

and the whole system ends with a pond.

Remember the contrasts I mentioned in the name of this article? Oh, there's lots of them. Here we go:

First, the countryside Ploskovice is situated in. It's a geographic region called "České středohoří" (which means "Bohemian Central-Mountainous-Area"). It takes up a big part of the region north of Prague. It looks like lowlands with fields, with the occassional mountain sticking out of them. They used to be volcanoes (inactive now) and some of them still have the "caps" on top reminding us that these mountains came to be when something decided to come out from the middle of the Earth.
You can see one of these mountains with "caps" in the background here:

I'm used to lowlands, highlands and mountains, so this countryside still seems very unusual to me. But imagine - to live in a lowland where you can climb a mountain and have a wonderful view of the country below, whenever you feel like it - isn't that grand?

Also, the fact that an Austrian emperor lived there and a Hollywood film was filmed there - but when you arrive by train, it looks like you arrived in the Land of Nobody. The railway station looks exactly what I remember railway stations looked like in the 1980's, and there's almost nothing to be seen far and wide.

Then, the chateau itself and its architecture. But perhaps it's better if I just show you the pictures. Suffice it to say that no other chateau in the CzR looks similar to Ploskovice. And that it was built in 1680's. The Baroque style. The shape of the chateau is a simple cube,

but the details are full of curves and emotions.

Another contrast is the interior. Judging by the exterior - with its statues with dramatic expressions - you'd guess that the interior would be dramatic, too. Well, it's not. Much of the furniture is the exact opposite - simple, white, cozy, geometric Classicism.

But there still are some very unusual objects inside. I made notes of them:

- a chandelier that weighs 30 kg
- a 1810 wastebasket
- portraits of the 18th century Europe's ugliest married couple
- a fake aquarium
- a fine china teapot that's made to look like it's made of wood, and a wooden chandelier that's made to look like it's made of fine china
- perfume bottles that held perfume made of cinnamon. I can't imagine smelling like cinnamon - I'd be afraid somebody would eat me!
- a toilet made to look like two large books
- a picture of the coronation ceremony of an Austrian emperor, where they ate huge cakes made into shapes of various specific castles
- a clock on the ceiling that goes anti-clock-wise. You can see it in a mirror on the floor (where it apparently goes clock-wise)

But I personally think the most extreme and unusual thing about Ploskovice is its history. Listen:

In 12th centrury, there was a fortress that belonged to an order of knights in Prague. It being 100 kilometres from Prague (which was a 3-day journey then), the order took no interest in it. They would mortgage it every time they needed money - and then they lost it when they couldn't pay the mortgage, so the place changed hands frequently.

One of its infamous owners was Adam Ploskovský, who was notorious for his cruelty towards the village folk. There was an uprising against him in 1496 and the villagers nearly killed him. They chose another aristocrat to work for. His name was Dalibor of Kozojedy ("village where they eat goats"), but he was executed for stealing from his brother. Funny thing is, the stuff he was supposed to have stolen was cattle... a cattle eater indeed! If you're familiar with Prague, there's a tower where he was imprisoned before execution, and it's named after him. It's right behind the Prague Castle and it's called "Daliborka". By the way, he became famous and was idealized the 19th century, and Bedřich Smetana, a Czech composer, wrote an opera about him.

In the 17th century, Ploskovice got lucky and started its journey to fame. An Italian countess and her German husband bought it. He lived in Germany mostly, while she thought Ploskovice might be a nice place for a summer residence. So she built it in a style that would remind her of Italy - and then burned all the invoices and bills and documents and everything, so that her husband wouldn't know exactly what it cost her! There were no bank accounts then for him to know how much exactly she took from it.
Unfortunately, this means that we don't know who built the chateau, or where the materials came from, etc. etc. Historians can only guess. They like that sort of work.

Then Ploskovice changed hands frequently again, and the owners were more and more high-up in the society. Finally, the emperor himself used it... to die.

His name was Ferdinand, it was in the 1848 and he abdicated due to poor health and retired to Ploskovice. He gave his throne to Franz Joseph I. (uncle of Franz Ferdinand d'Este who I told you about in Konopiště), saying: "The most important thing is: be nice!"

You can see many details in Ploskovice that will remind you that it was sort of an emperor's hospital. It has no thresholds, for example, so that the bed with the emperor (which has cylinders attached to it) could be rolled through any door to the top of the arcades, where the emperor would enjoy the fresh air and view of the countryside.

Guess what the chateau was when Czechoslovakia became an independent republic in 1918?
A summer residence for diplomats.

And guess what it was during the Second World War?
A school for young Nazis and a shooting range. They painted all walls white (their favourite colour, obviously).

Later, it became popular in the film industry, because... let's face it, it's extremely photogenic. Some people wait 20 years to be discovered as actors, Mrs. Ploskovice waited 300... but she made it!
She acted in the Oscar-winning Amadeus, the Three Musketeers series by BBC, and numerous video clips and Czech fairy-tales.
Princ a Večernice (1978), starring Libuše Šafránková, Juraj Ďurdiak and Ploskovice

So you see: Prague knights, angry villagers, Italian countess, a dying emperor, diplomats, young Nazis, a Czech opera, a BBC series and a Hollywood film... Ploskovice certainly is a lady with a colourful past!

But now she's simply a history lesson and a wedding host. I think that's for the best. Lots of children and young people visit her, and she can have some fun, as well as peace and quiet. No extremes and contrasts anymore.

But for us, the contrasts didn't end with this... The weather was nice and windless all the time. But when I got home, my father who follows a special railway website told me that about 30 minutes after we left, a storm came there and a tree fell on the tracks! Thank God we left in time!

trešdiena, 2015. gada 4. marts

What's close to the Czech heart?

We probably won't strike you as the most emotional of nations, and yet there are some things we ARE very fond of and emotional about. Only we don't express it very easily. And we only realize ourselves when someone says something negative about them and we find ourselves not agreeing with that.

Here goes:

Beer (and wine, and Kofola) This is the stereotypical one that's actually true. We love our beer. It's cheap and good and almost every town has its brewery. 120 years ago, my town had 7,000 inhabitants, 80 pubs and inns and all of them had their own breweries. Imagine?

I myself am not exactly an alcoholic drink lover, and yet have a beer or a glass of wine from time to time. For the taste, not for the alcohol. Did you know that the word "Budweiser" is Czech? It's the German name for the town of České Budějovice.

But few non-Czechs know that it's not just beer with us. We have several wine-making regions, too, where you can insult beer till your throat gets sore and nobody will mind, but say one word against their wine and you'll get punched in the face. Even when visiting the Trója Chateau in Prague, you'll see some vineyards. We don't make enough wine to export, but still are proud of it. Ask your Czech friends to recommend a Moravian wine.

And even fewer non-Czechs know that we have our own version of Coca Cola, called Kofola, that contains licorice and less sugar than Coke. It isn't a general thing like with beer and wine, but many Czechs drink it and love it.

Film fairy-tales. Have you watched Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella (Tři oříšky pro Popelku, 1973)? If not, I recommend you do. It's one of the rare cases where Czechs were able to communicate to the world what they feel strongly about.
Together with this, there goes a certain fondness for the leading actress, Libuše Šafránková. She's in her 60's now but still kind, beautiful, playful and graceful. And a decent person. Some people say they like her sister, Miroslava Šafránková, more - she's kind, beautiful, graceful and decent, too :-) Watching film fairy-tales and liking the Šafránková sisters is very much a Czech thing.

But there are heaps and heaps of other film fairy-tales to choose from. I'm not sure about the numbers but I'd hazard a guess that there've been at least 5 film fairy-tales made every year since 1968. And almost everyone watches them at Christmas.

The plots are very specific - in fact, a Czech film fairy-tale is a specific genre that's difficult to describe. They don't have many supernatural elements, they're more like romantic-poetic-adventurous comedies. Some of them lean more towards romantic, some towards adventurous, some towards comedy.

If you understand some Czech or have someone to translate for you, here are the most famous ones:

Pyšná princezna (a beautiful romantic film, which holds the record of being the film that the biggest number of Czechs saw in cinemas)
Byl jednou jeden král (sort of a serious, deep comedy)
Hrátky s čertem (comedy)
Princezna se zlatou hvězdou (romantic, comedy)
Šíleně smutná princezna (romantic, comedy)
Princ Bajaja (romantic and adventurous - by the same author as Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella)
Zlatovláska (romantic and adventurous)
Jak se budí princezny (romantic and adventurous)
Princ a večernice (romantic and adventurous)
Třetí princ (adventurous, dark)
S čerty nejsou žerty (adventurous, comedy)
Lotrando a Zubejda (comedy)

Charity. I've read somewhere that Czechs give more money to charity organizations every year than Poles, and I mean more - not just in relation to the number of inhabitants. When you realize that there are 10,5 millions of Czechs and 38,5 millions of Poles, this is actually quite impressive.

My personal theory is that fairy-tales and charity donations are what makes up for the lack of religion in the CzR. Poles are Catholic, so they don't need any fairy-tales or charity donations to fulfil their need of order and hope.

Saturnin. There was a popular poll "Book of my Heart" a couple of years ago. And this book won. It's a humourous novel, written during WWII by Zdeněk Jirotka, who isn't very well-known as a writer but will live forever in this brilliant book. It's been translated to English but unfortunately, most of its charm is in the Czech language. (As I wrote in "Understanding Czechs" - "Being friendly", it's all about words with us.)

But I think you could very well enjoy the miniseries that was made in 1994 and is pretty close to the book. It was also shortened to a film, but when you don't know the book, the film is hard to understand because there are some things left out. So I recommend the minisieries.

What is the book about?

A 30-year-old guy in the 1930's who works in an office and isn't exactly what you'd call imaginative or adventurous. But one day, on a whim, he hires a servant who is the exact opposite of him. This servant's name is Saturnin and his hobby is persuading everyone that his master is a lion- and crocodile-hunter who lives on a houseboat. Then he actually makes him move to a houseboat.

Most of the book takes place during a summer holiday where the young guy, his grandpa, his extremely annoying aunt who only speaks in proverbs (and is actually a prototype of an annoying woman now), her son, Saturnin, and a beautiful girl get stuck in a house in mountains that's been cut off from the rest of the world by a flood. But rest assured that Saturnin will make sure nobody is bored...

Some 1930's personalities. Our first President T.G. Masaryk and writer Karel Čapek - not everyone likes them, but most Czechs admit they were brilliant.

Whatever famous Czech you may have learned about abroad - Božena Němcová, Václav Havel, Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, Jaroslav Hašek and his Švejk - please realize that those are perceived as famous Czechs by non-Czechs. They have a huge place in our history, but Masaryk and Čapek (whose brother coined the word "robot", by the way) - these are the ones at the core of Czech identity itself.
The 1930's are perceived as a sort of a Golden Age of Czechs - perhaps subconsciously now, but probably more and more expressed as such in future.

Alfons Mucha's Art Nouveau posters. It's not like we love them to pieces, but they're everywhere and we get offended when it turns out someone doesn't know Alfons Mucha was Czech.
History: Middle Ages, castles and chateaus. Most Czechs have a weird love-hate relationship with history. They're convinced that learning about it is boring, and yet are willing to listen to 80-minute guided tours of castles and chateaus. And when a foreigner visits their town, they suddenly turn into experts on its history. I'm not exactly a historian, and still know that the town I grew up in was given the official town status in 1134.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that 860 -1620 were the years of our glory - we had Reformation before Martin Luther, we were the first country in the world to have a Protestant king, the whole of Bible was translated to Czech before it was to English, Prague was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire for some time, Charles University (1348) was the first university east of Germany to be founded, etc. etc.

Now, after 350 years of having other countries telling us what to do, this is obviously something to remember. We love our battle re-enactments, "mediaeval" markets and workshops, castles, archery, fencing, historical costumes, mediaeval music...

Some Germans say that CzR nowadays isn't big on modern art, architecture or science, but it's good for learning about history from. I'm afraid they're right.

Hiking & canoeing (& swimming), mountains & forests. At an English lesson that was to be the last one for the teacher before going back to the U.S., we asked her what she's looking forward to seeing again. She said: diversity. People are much more similar to each other in the CzR than in the U.S., and she likes it, but she's a bit tired of it.

"You Czechs are all white and if I ask you to go hiking with me in a forest next Saturday, you will all react in the same way." And she was right! At the moment when she was saying "hiking with me in a forest", I realized we ALL had exactly the SAME expression on our faces! "Yeah, OK, let's go!" I felt like we were brainwashed!

Nobody forced us to like hiking and canoeing, but we still do. I only have a vague idea why this is so. I don't know whether you've heard about the Canadian author Ernest Thompson Seton, but he was the one to influence our Boy Scout movement by his books about Canadian nature and First Nations people.

And because Boy Scouts were pretty big here in the 1930's and even more so during the Communist era (though secretly and under different names), this was something that influenced us.

Why especially during the Communist era? Because learning how to hike in forests and generally how to survive and live in harmony with nature (how to cooperate, help others, now the names of all kinds of plants and animals, save someone from drowning etc.) was one of the few apolitical things you could do and feel free in.

Also, Czech forests are safe. There are only lynxes and wolves in two mountain ranges and they're afraid of people. The forests are usually small - in several hours' walk, you always reach a village. And there are no swamps in them. Hence the subconscious feeling that forests are friendly, and we don't understand why forests are portrayed as mysterious and dangerous in British whodunnits like Midsomer Murders or New Tricks.
Take the Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella - such a big part of it takes place in a forest!

And also, hiking in a forest is the best thing you can do for your health. Walking is the most natural movement for the human body, breathing in oxygen is good for cancer prevention, and the aerosol trees produce contains anti-oxidants. And if you live in a busy city, the silence is great. I can guarantee that if you venture a 5 km walk in a forest, you'll feel like ten times happier and healthier the next day.

And last but not least... Jára Cimrman. This Czech genius won the BBC poll that took place in many EU countries: "Who was the greatest Czech / German / French / Italian / whatever?" The French voted for Napoleon, Brits for Winston Churchill, etc. etc.

We voted for the guy who advised Eiffel on the shape of his tower, discovered a Yetti in the Arctic, invented absolute rhyme, bikini and dynamite ten minutes after Alfred Nobel, found out you can't make gold by making tobacco smoke react with water, wrote a seven-hour operetta and the "Conquest of North Pole" play I mentioned here in "Understanding Czechs". And has streets named after him all over the CzR.

But the same BBC that organized the poll cancelled its result in the CzR because guess what... Jára Cimrman never lived! BBC had this weird notion that a fictitious character can't be considered a greatest person in a nation's history. Our response is: Who the bloody hell cares! Jára Cimrman was the greatest Czech in history, and that's it!

Czech humour. Not able to describe it, come and see for yourselves :-)
It's best illustrated by Jára Cimrman and the fact that there is the event "Total eclipse of the Sun in the Czech Republic in the year 2081" created on Facebook, and 55,000 people are planning to attend!
And those who declined the invitation are commenting "Sorry, but that's the day the Czech astronauts are returning from Mars, I'm probably going to welcome them instead" or "Unfortunately it's on Sunday and I'll just be returning from my night shift".

sestdiena, 2015. gada 28. februāris

Understanding Czechs

Improvisation, hobbies and clubs

Several expats have asked me, how come Czech economy is quite stable and we generally do well, when we're not the most hard-working of nations, almost everything is closed on weekends, and due to the bureaucracy it takes forever to arrange something?

Unfortunately, I'm not sure.

One of the reasons could be the advantage of the position in the centre of Europe.

Or the fact that we're quite good at telling what is most important at the moment, and when we realize something is an emergency we're willing to sacrifice our favourite "pohoda" (relaxed atmosphere) and start acting very quickly and effectively.

And actually, some administrative stuff has become quite simple and effective these last years. Thank God for that.

Also, we're very good at improvisation. The Socialist regime has taught us not to rely on authorities and find alternate ways to arrange or produce something that needs to be arranged or produced. If the only available car repair service is overworked and your turn will come in 3 months, it's better to fix the car yourselves. Perhaps you'll need to call two of your friends and travel to two different towns to get the spare parts. It's going to be hard, but also exciting and you'll learn to rely on yourself as well as on your friends.
It's not 100% like that anymore because we have excellent services now, but until recently, when a woman was getting married she automatically expected her husband to know how to decorate walls, how to fix the toilet, the cooker, everything. And if he didn't know how, he was expected to call his friends and discuss it with them.

You can see the remains of this system in the laws on individual entrepeneurs that are actually quite loose (if you don't reach certain sum per year, it's very easy to be e.g. a translator, a potter, to make extra money knitting sweaters etc.) And there are various part-time jobs you can do while studying, jobs you can do from your home, etc. If you're lucky and want this sort of lifestyle, you can have two 1/3-time jobs and also work from home as an entrepeneur. We're actually a really weeeeiiird combination of strictness and freedom :-)

And because the number of possibilities what to do with your life was extremely limited in 1948-1990 (I remember the world being much, much simpler and smaller then, and also much less colourful). Life was pretty much predictable, and so many people found refuge in hobbies.

Here, the possibilities were much greater. Bird-watching, hiking, biking (and tinkering with bikes), train-spotting, sewing, gardening, amateur acting, football, local history... There were excellent books published on various styles of weaving, historical gingerbread baking, on how to recognize specific kinds of birds in nature, how to repair your bike etc. etc. They were written by scholars and specialists, and still perfectly understandable to "common folk". This way, many people became specialists in fields they didn't study, and passed it on to their children.

This blog actually exists thanks in part to my father, who earns his living as a railway car technology specialist, but because he needed something to do in his free time and he couldn't travel, he started studying the excellent books on languages and linguistics published in those times. He was also asked to enrol in a course of Tibetan language, because a tibetology professor was sacked from university for his not-enough-Communist opinions, and needed a job. So my father visited a course on Tibetan language for 13 years, and thus helped the professor survive. After the revolution, the professor became a famous and respected authority on Tibet, deservedly.
That's why my father knew so much about languages and passed it on to us, and all three of us are now translators, translating books and films for the Czech Television.

We Czechs still make less distinction between jobs and free-time activities than some other nations. I don't mean we work from home during weekends (although of course some people's jobs require that), but with many people, it's like: "I'm interested in the subject, so I simply spend a lot of time with it, and I'm lucky I got a job in that field. My friends at work are the same way, too, and we spend a lot of time chatting about the subject."

Also, it sometimes happens that people have a job with an IT company or so but they're crazy about their hobby, and they spend so much time with it and form a club together with their friends, then start organizing regular events, then create a webpage... and then find out they can actually get a job in that particular field, or found a company of their own.

There's a great many official and unofficial clubs related to various hobbies and activities, and they're doing a world of good for local communities. I admire them for going public with their achievements - local history clubs publish articles and organize guided tours, film enthusiasts organize public film evenings, railway enthusiasts collect money for 10 years to re-open a local historical railway etc. etc. I think it's clubs like this that keep the Czech society alive and well.

If you're an expat and need to make Czech friends, I recommend you try finding a club of people with the same hobby you have. Be it archery, hot-air balloons, battle re-enactment, entomology or Monty Python silly walks - I guarantee there's a club that will accept you and invite you to their events.


I don't think we even realize it ourselves, but our culture is based on the concept of GIVING AND RECEIVING INFORMATION.

It's like an iceberg - most of the time, you only see the tip and don't realize that it's everywhere beneath your ship, but if you're foreign and meeting some Czechs for the first time, you'll probably feel like a Titanic.
You'll get showered by questions asking not about your feelings, impressions or thoughts, but about facts. Where are you from? Why have you come to the CzR? What's the capital of your country? Does it have any mountains? Where do you work? What did you study? What music do you listen to?

And then you'll get showered by information. These and these cafés are the best to go to; these and these places are the most interesting to visit; these and these Czech products are worth taking home with you.

This is where many non-Czechs decide whether they like Czechs or not. Some will interpret this as interest in themselves and conclude that Czechs are friendly. Some will find it too nosy. Some will find it emotionless, overwhelming or lacking in purpose. But for us, it's neither of these. It's simply the way we function.

Unlike most other education systems, ours is based on memorizing immense amounts of data. Since the age of 6, we're taught to receive, memorize and exchange information, information and more information. Until recently, "intelligent" had been widely understood as "having excellent memory". This way, information has become the keystone of our society.

No wonder we excel in areas that require processing heaps of terms, dates and names, like medicine, law, history, biology and chemistry (we gave the world genetics and soft contact lenses). And no wonder Czech Wikipedia is so large for such a small country. We love hiking and biking in foreign countries because it gives us the opportunity of first-hand experience with the places whose exotic names were forced down our throats at school.

When you ask a Czech about Africa, he'll probably have a tendency to get nervous and then start shooting: the Nile, Victoria Falls, Rwanda, Burundi, Antananarivo, Cameroun, Ghana, Timbouktou, Chad, Addis Abeba, Kenya, Kilimanjaro, Oranje, Johannesburg, Niger, Mali, Senegal... and then apologize he doesn't know more. Placing lots of names on a blind map, that's how we were taught geography.
We had to know every country's capital by heart at the age of 13. I still have the reflex: Chile... Santiago de Chile! Nepal... Kathmandu! Indonesia... Jakarta! Thailand... Bangkok! Mongolia... Ulanbatar!

Of course when we chat with friends, we tell stories, make jokes, express support and give advice like anyone else. But underneath that... there's the one to rule them all and in the darkness bind them: INFORMATION EXCHANGE. We were sort of taught it's even more important than people, and it takes some growing up to realize this isn't true.

The only things that are above information exchange is expressing interest in your well-being, jokes and film quotes. That's the one where we're being friendly.

Coming to terms with this concept pretty much determines how you'll feel speaking to Czechs.

So next time Czechs will shower you with questions or facts, remember... we're not being friendly or nosy, we're just being ourselves...

Being interested in the well-being of others + joking + quoting = Being friendly

We're not the ones to say "Love you" at the end of every conversation. If you don't want to make your Czech friends feel awkward, don't tell them that - say this only to your immediate family.

We're not very good at expressing respect, either - but you're welcome to try :-)

But definitely try expressing interest in the well-being of others. That's what most of our polite phrases say:

Měj se! = Take care! By this, we mean something like "May your next few days be without unpleasant events!"
Hezký večer / den / víkend! = Have a nice day / evening / weekend!
Ať se daří! = May your next few days be successful and without unplesant events or failures!
Se srdečným pozdravem... = With a nice, sincere greeting... (i.e. Regards... Yours...)

You can see that the words "nice" and "pleasant" are the all-time favourites :-)

It's not uncommon for passengers on a train to try and be nice to the conductor by saying "Have you had a long, hard day?" "The passengers are so unpleasant today, aren't they?" Allowing someone to complain or show they're stressed out is considered to be very polite and nice.

When you come back to work after an illness, be it only a couple of days' cold, expect everyone to ask you "How are you feeling?" or "Are you feeling better?" 

Want to make everyone laugh in an awkward situation? Want to cheer up your friend? Tell a joke or quote a Czech film.

Anecdotes are very popular here, funny things that happened to someone you know are even better, and film quotes are the best. That's because our culture is very words-oriented. We aim to nail it by finding the perfect funny line to describe the situation. People who can express themselves well are deeply respected. If you can't express yourself well, use someone else's words = quote a film :-)

I don't know what is this type of humour called. Perhaps "absurd". It's allusions to reeaaallly weird and funny scenes in films.

Here's an example:

Someone mentions your alcohol problems, and someone else tries to defend you but manages to mention your broken marriage in the process.
You say, a bit sarcastically: "Thank you, chief, for standing up for me." (For Czech speakers: "Děkuju ti, náčelníku, že ses mě zastal.")

This is an allusion to a theatre play called "Conquest of the North Pole", where the Czechs trying to reach the North Pole suffer from depression and one of them tries to cheer them up by dressing up as a penguin.
But they're so exhausted and confused that one of them shoots the "penguin" in the "wing" with a rifle. The guy inside the penguin suit gets mad, obviously, and starts yelling "it's me, you moron, penguins live in the Antarctica, not here!" And the leader of the expedition argues "when you're so exhausted, do you think about zoology? I didn't realize it was you, myself, let alone such a simpleton as this guy!" And "this guy" proves that he IS a simpleton by saying sincerely "Thanks, chief, for standing up for me."

Makes no sense?
That's the whole point...

We call these wry, funny sentences and film quotes hlášky. The translation would probably be "lines".

If you speak some Czech and like the idea of film quotes, I recommend a book called Neber úplatky, nebo se z toho zblázníš - aneb Hlášky z českých filmů. If you want to make your home in the CzR, becoming familiar with the lines mentioned in this book is the ultimate tool to achieve that :-) Here are the films that are most popular sources of quotes - and also very good, so I can also recommend them for mere entertainment purposes :-)

Cesta do hlubin študákovy duše (1939)
Limonádový Joe (1964)
Jáchyme, hoď ho do stroje (1974)
Na samotě u lesa (1976)
Marečku, podejte mi pero (1976)
Kulový blesk (1978)
Postřižiny (1980)
Vrchní, prchni (1980)
S tebou mě baví svět (1982)
Slavnosti sněženek (1983)
Vesničko má, středisková (1985)
Dobytí severního pólu (filmed theatre play)
Dědictví aneb Kurvahošigutntag (1992)
Lotrando a Zubejda (fairy-tale, 1996)
Pelíšky (1999)
Samotáři (2000)

If you want a "crash course" in quotes, just watch Limonádový Joe, Jáchyme, hoď ho do stroje, Marečku, podejte mi pero, Vesničko má, středisková, Dobytí severního pólu and Pelíšky.

It's not a coincidence that most of these films were written by Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak (two of the people behind the Oscar-winning Kolya, by the way) - IMHO these two are the key to the Czech soul.