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Czech firemen sing a Christmas carol while wreaking revenge on a variety of fire-causing domestic appliances. Happy Christmas!
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A blog entry by [ profile] bikerbar 's wife prompted me to start reading a collection of translated essays by Karel Čapek. My Kindle tells me I'm not even 12% in but already it is a delight. Such a generous spirited, optimistic man. Incredible that the Nazis considered him a threat. After the takeover of Czechoslovakia the Gestapo arrived at his house to arrest him, only to discover that he had already died of natural causes.

I loved his thoughts on education. As you may know, I often resent my formal education. Much of it did nothing to prepare me for paid employment, or even unemployment. I'd be hesitant to encourage my daughter to pay for university study in anything not strictly vocational. Yet, I love learning stuff. Not necessarily in an organised manner; informally learning from newspapers, the radio, talking to people and reading other people's blogs. Knowledge which is of no use to me whatsoever, except perhaps in TV quiz shows. Indefensible time wasting? Well, Čapek has an answer to that:

"Education cannot be defended by anything, except perhaps when the one on whom it descends as an ecstasy and a tongue of fire finds that it is, in some mysterious way, worth it - indeed, that it is worth more than any successful, profitable and generally respectable activity."
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I was fascinated by this 1917 annual I discovered at my mother-in-law's house. It is a mixture of Catholic religious instruction, idealised 'factual' articles about the war and fervently pro-empire patriotic short stories, some of them with an anti-semitic element. There must have been a whole industry churning out this sort of stuff. I wonder how many Czechs at that time were loyalists who really bought into it. This picture shows cowardly Russians being beaten in Poland.

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Witches' Night falls on 30th April and is still enthusiastically celebrated by the inhabitants of my wife's native village. It's a sort of combination of the British bonfire night and May Day festivals; driving out the winter with a big fire and raising the May pole ready for the next day. Pole raising is an all-male macho and plainly phallic affair, as is pole guarding, which they then have to do for three nights. Men from neighbouring villages will mount 'raids' and try and cut down each other's poles before the three days are up.
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I have returned from the Czech Republic, leaving wife and baby behind for a further two weeks. I felt deliciously guilty listening to some Czech parents on the plane wrestling with their disaffected toddler while I lounged and watched some unnamed German city slide by beneath. Toddlers just don't understand seatbelts. I'm pleased to be back in our little English flat with all its modern conveniences; telephone, drinkable water, internet, TV with more than one channel. The isolation was driving me mad. It was a bit tense there too. The in-laws are always nice to me but seem unable to discuss anything with my wife without put-downs and self-pity bubbling to the surface. Loud jeering seems to be their normal mode of communication. It's grim, though the children do provide comic relief. I should have taken more books. I wish I'd had a laptop. I did have the camera however, and used it a lot.

I spent a great deal of time pushing the baby around my mother-in-law's village. The blossom was somewhat spectacular. I took most of these pictures within the same half hour one day.

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Off to the Czech Republic tomorrow. I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I wish I could wriggle out of it somehow. I am not excited by the prospect of being surrounded by the in-laws for days and days, in a beautiful but tiny village, without our own car, internet or land phone, reduced to being the semi-mute idiot in the corner, struggling to understand their complex language as they shout it at each other. I'm not relaxed, either, by the thought of spending two weeks fighting the weeds, mice, fleas and filth at my father-in-law's house, which has likely stood untouched since he went into the nursing home last year.

Bah! Oh well. I married a penniless au pair. I knew what I was getting into. She is worth it :)
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(the cover shows Bezděz castle)

I was so pleased to find this in an antiquarian bookshop yesterday. A little expensive for me (£30) but I couldn’t resist. This copy appears to date from 1908 but the British author explains that he first visited Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) in 1873. It was published by the Religious Tract Society and has a strong protestant bias; lingering much on the history and relics of Hussite Protestantism, which was and still is a small minority religion in the country and, arguably, not particularly representative of Czech culture. This aside, however, there are many fascinating details. The author is an enthusiast of medieval castles and romantic landscapes, and describes these in detail in the manner of a travel diary. More relevant to the country’s post-war history of ethnic cleansing, he describes the changing mix of Czechs and Germans as he travels deeper into the regions; coming across some areas in which the villages are alternately wholly Czech or wholly German. He also furnishes us with more prosaic details, which I find most interesting, of the cost of hiring horses and drivers, the interior décor of inns, differing styles of folk dress and, of course, the food (which is exactly as my mother-in-law still cooks it: fried pork and potatoes).

The front of the book has a map of Bohemia with the German or Germanised place names which were then commonly used. You can see Votice (the nearest town to my wife's village) there as ‘Wotitz’. This makes the book somewhat challenging as all these place names were changed to their Czech versions after 1918. I’m going to have to translate them before I can be sure exactly which towns and castles the author is describing.

Here is the map and a few extracts. My wife found the first paragraph quite entertaining.


20/11/07 13:26
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Attention Czech-speaking friends (and English-speaking Czech residents)! I need some advice on Czech translations. My wife is trying to get quotes for building work on her father's roof. The problem is she doesn't know any Czech architectural terminology. I know some in English, but we have no idea how to translate them, and even my big Fronek's Czech-English dictionary is not much help. So, can anybody tell me how you'd translate the following roof terms?:

  • tiles
  • ridge tiles
  • ridge
  • hips
  • eaves
  • battens
  • roof felt
  • guttering
According to Fronek, eaves and guttering both translate as 'okap', which is a little confusing
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[profile] [profile] malkhos  drew my attention to the fact that the Czech car producer, Škoda, diversified into building great big guns for the Austro-Hungarian army during the first world war. This one fired 12 inch shells. Appropriately, the name 'Škoda' translates roughly into English as "what a pity" or "damage" or "wasted". They shelled Belgrade with these. Looks a bit Jules Verne, no?

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One of the 19th century buildings at the Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie hospital in Benešov u Prahy, Czech Republic; last year before it was restored and last week after they had just finished it. I've spent a lot of time visiting my sick in-laws at this place. It is interesting to see what hospitals are like in other countries and compare them with the British one I work in. I'll put a few more photos under a cut after these ones......

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I blame
this brewery:
Founded by Archduke Ferdinand himself about 15 years before he was assassinated. Really wonderful beer. They even do a 'polotmavé' (half-dark) one called 'sedm kulí' (seven bullets), which you can see here, because that's how many times Ferdinand and his wife were shot in Sarajevo. Nice.
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In the Czech Republic even the manhole covers are patriotic.......


3/8/07 10:33
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Hohoho, I seem to have created a lot of work for myself with all these vintage Czech photos I want to scan and all the little Czech stories I want to illustrate. Bear with me a while and I will update my earlier entries with some pictures. I've just added some pics of my mother-in-law's house to the 'In the Sticks' entry I posted on 21st July.

The college failed my essay again, for reasons I am completely unable to fathom, so more work to do on that front too. Damn. Blogging is so much more fun, and feels more productive too.
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These are my sister-in-law's two dogs Izík and Hafík at home in the Czech Republic. I'm not too sure how to translate Izík's name, but I believe Hafík roughly means 'woofer'. When I first met them they were two little puppies who would spend all day wrestling and trying to eat each others heads and knocking each other into the swimming pool by accident. When I came back a year later they looked like this. The same colour as previously, but grown into otherwise unrecognisable monster guard-dogs.

Now there was also this fat cat. I never saw this cat but I heard it. At night it would climb onto the corrugated iron roof of the single storey house and I could hear its footsteps as it walked slowly overhead. In the summer it would sunbathe up there and in the winter it would go up there and watch for mice. This perturbed the dogs no end. They could see the cat but they couldn't get to it. The cat knew this. The dogs would bark at it a lot, and it would just stare back, calm as you please. It drove them wild with rage.

Anyway, last winter it snowed a great deal. This didn't bother the dogs, who sleep out on the ice without discomfort. It didn't bother the cat either, who continued to visit the roof. The snow drifted and piled up higher and higher.

Eventually the dogs realised that the snow drifts were high and solid enough to provide access to the roof. They hatched their plan and went up there one night, quietly.

And they ate the cat.

P.S. Would it be acceptable to re-title this entry as 'eating pussy'?
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My sister-in-law's garden in the Czech Republic today.

P.S. Happy 33rd birthday to my sister!
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Just watched "Borat" with Eva and Mother-in-law (and the baby, though she didn't watch much). It was slightly tough going because Eva had to explain, in Czech, what was going on, but we all enjoyed it immensely in the end. Eva and Mother-in-Law were able to get their heads around the central joke of the film: that British Jewish comic actor, Sacha Baron Cohen,  travels across the USA pretending to be a nominally Kazakh,  embarrassing, anti-semitic, sexist, TV presenter. However, I think Mother-in-Law found the Kazakh part a bit unconvincing, as she can read and speak Russian and took holidays in communist Kazakhstan. Also confusing was that Baron-Cohen's invented 'Kazakh' language, as well as containing Hebrew, borrows from Czech, and so he greets his audience with the typical familiar Czech "Jak se máš" (how are you?) but in a strange accent.

Eva's English was good enough to get the jokes in 'Borat' but she ran into a bit of difficulty distinguishing between the fake foreigner antics of Borat and his sidekick and the entirely real ones of the foreigner Americans. At the point where Borat visits an evangelical fundamentalist Christian church service she got confused because she couldn't quite believe that the congregation leaping about possessed by the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues weren't a comic invention of the film makers. "Are they real?" she asked me.
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My mother-in-law has been having great difficulties with small things. She's highly skilled at comforting the baby and sending her off to sleep; no problem there. No, it's the two gerbils she has to share a room with that cause her aggravation. Their furious digging and chewing was driving her wild last night. Periodically we would hear her calling out in Czech "I'm going to kill you!" This morning she complained that grown men like me shouldn't keep little animals as pets. I pointed out that many grown adults (including her) keep silly little dogs and cats as pets and I see no great difference between these and my pocket sized friends. She doesn't like their names either. I call them 'number one' and 'number two'. She's renamed them Amanda and Betsy.

Mother-in-Law was looking through some pictures on our computer just now and I noticed something amusing. She can't use a mouse. I mean she understands the principle, but cannot actually move it accurately enough to make the cursor go where she wants. She tries to move it using her whole arm, like the gear stick of a car. Haha.
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Signs are that the baby is bored with its limited world and will be coming out to see us at some point in the next 48 hours.

Watch this space.

Now we're beginning to get loads of texts and phone calls with frantic, and completely wrong, 'advice' from my mother-in-law in the Czech Republic. Grrr! Compare these two extracts from telephone conversations Eva has just had:

Mother-in-Law: "It is absolutely necessary that you admit yourself to the maternity ward immediately!"
Midwife: "Well, there's no panic. Relax. Have a bath. Come and see us for a check-up this afternoon"
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Look what we found outside our back door this morning! No, not the polystyrene box....all the SNOW! We don't get much of it in the south of England so it does tend to bring out the child in me. The wife was thrilled too. Snow reminds her of home and, no doubt, all those long months she spent helping Father Christmas build wooden toys in his workshop. As an extra treat we got to see the Great British Motorist trying to deal with an inch of snow all day. Most of the larger vans couldn't manage the 3 degree incline outside our flat. Many serious faces were glimpsed through windscreens as they grappled with the hazardous task of driving slowly. The wife observed that "English people can't drive in snow".

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