Tuesday, 27 July 2010

the sad story of the Island's strange resurrection

Despite petitions and protests (for details search label 'protest'), the Town council last year gave a go-ahead to brutal river-works under the label 'flood prevention'. Thus this beautiful historic town's meandering river is being given a straitjacket. And this morning, I woke up to the strangest sight -
-but before I tell you about this morning, if you haven't followed the saga of this beauty-spot's demise last year, or if you don't feel like searching the blog, perhaps I should give a short summary:
For centuries, the river Vltava with its three meanders hugged Cesky Krumlov's houses, reflected the glory of the castle above, brought wealth to the town and took away its dirt. The banks served as landing and unloading spaces, gathering places for washerwomen, as water-source for craftsmens' workshops, and as a drinking fount for animals. Though some of the banks were reinforced with stones, most shifted their shape from season to season, held only by ancient willows and alders whose roots became safe breeding spaces for fish and other river life. Every century or so a biggish flood would sweep through the town, but everyone knew this would pass and the riverside houses, built to withstand such floods, dried out and stood on.But now we have engineers, computers, and - glory of glories - European grants! What's more, now we like to think we can control Nature. So we can design nice, straight, computer-graphics and Powerpoint driven designs, and ruin what Nature shaped for centuries in one fell swoop. Just look at those straight, concrete-reinforced banks now! And so, for a year now, men in hard hats with massive earth-moving machinery have been at work like big boys in a sandpit. And one of the most gloriously romantic spots in town, its narrow island with trees and much local wildlife, was bulldozed to oblivion. When people protested, the Town Hall promised they would build a new island - a 'hydrodynamic' one, 'akin to an aircraft wing'. We thought they must have been making a very bad joke. But no.
So here we come to these last few days. Truly, a horrendous artificial island, reinforced and sterile, grew under the main bridge. And truly, it has the dimensions of a flat aircraft-wing. On it, a proud stone tablet, like some sad grave-stone, lists sponsors who supported this 'gift to the town's citizens'. Amusingly, the main sponsor is the company that owns the quarries that supplied all the stones for the straitjacket now gracing the riverbanks. Nice to know they had some cash to spare :-)And so we get to this morning: I was aghast as I saw something that looked like Christo the artist has come to town. Blokes with sheets of geo-fabric wrapping the new island, using 6 inch nails to fix it to the stony ground. 6 inch nails! - imagine what will happen when the water rises just a bit :-) - and then I watched them scratch their chins deciding how to plant a few tiny trees so they are in properly ordered straight line. Well, we'll watch this space, maybe I am biased and it'll all look wonderful in a year's time... if the willows are tough enough to root in soilless heap of stones.
As some of you know, we bought our riverside house last year, when it stood in the most romantic spot of the whole Cesky Krumlov. The romance is somewhat lessened now, as you can see, but I feel sad not for our sake only - I feel sad for the town that used to have its ancient architecture softened by the greenery of its riverside trees, by the organic way the river and the buildings fitted together. Of course I still love being here and I enjoy the river and its gifts despite the straitjacket - we all do (see my two blogs just below). But it's a pity that at a time when the rest of the civilised world is tearing down such brutal 'flood prevention' structures and reverting to organic river management, here no-one in authority - EU or UNESCO - lifted a finger to point out such new directives, no conservationist body or Green or ECO parties intervened: seems that money really does make the world go round.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Better than dreaming.

Just moments ago, I had the weirdest, most wonderful experience:
in the blog below, I waxed lyrical about the gifts of the riverside living in the midst of this busy town. And now those gifts have all combined - I went for an evening swim just here on the bank in front of the house. The night was falling, the water was fresh but pleasant, and as I drifted in the current, I floated some 100 yards downstream which happens to be by the Brewery gardens, where Jose Cura's recital was in full swing. The orchestra and the voice boomed over the silent water, one great Puccini aria after another. And in the other direction, up river, there glowed the castle, lit up in its fairytale evening garb. The combination of the three senses - the sounds, the water, and the magical light were undescribably special. I stayed in the water, still, for ages, not wishing to break the spell.
And again I thanked the gods for the gifts that one can get. You see, it has been a hot hot day, and the town was full of VIPs and limos as today is the first day of the International music festival. All these bigwigs came to crowd around and be important inside the Brewery gardens. Yet there I was, alone, experiencing the beautiful music heightened by my watery solitude.... And when I got home, I just managed, from the balcony, to take this picture of the festival opening fireworks, as the concert came to its end.Life can be truly magical sometimes.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The pleasures of Krumlov riverside

Despite of the continuing river works, life at the riverside is back to Krumlov Summer normal. And for the first Summer season we are enjoying the privileged position of being right by where it all happens - so sitting in the garden is like being in a front row of a theatre, watching the life go by as it has done for years, when Krumlov becomes both a sophisticated tourist town and a simple beach.
Hundreds of canoes pass by, their crews shouting Ahoy - canoeing and rafting being such a popular sport in this land-locked country that I know no-one who hasn't 'done the river' at least once in their lives. The canoeists usually take a week or two going from up the river as far as they can get (theoretically you could go all the way to Prague if you'd negotiate the few dams along the way), sleeping in camps or rough anywhere along the banks.
And our little street that backs onto the river also becomes a sort of beach - I meet my neighbours, young and old, in the morning and in the evenings going for a swim, or just say hello to them sunbathing by their gardens. And I watch from the window the fun everyone is having. This is the most wonderful part of living in this little town - I can be sitting outside working at my computer but I still feel I am on holiday, surrounded as I am by the relaxed, happy people who actually are.
And then after my swim, like this evening, I can dress into a formal gear and attend a concert - Krumlov is always having some festivals, from classical to jazz etc. And these are not just any old concerts, the quality is high. Next week for example Jose Cura is giving a performance here.

Going home, as evening darkens, Krumlov comes alive with many drifting sounds competing gently as they ooze from little riverside bars and restaurants - a guitar here, a piano there, gypsy music on the opposite bank...
So the daytime beach becomes a sophisticated venue by the evening, only to relax back into a kind of homely place to eat and stay up late. As I go to bed I tend to hear distant laughter from below my windows, along with the lapping of the Vltava river. Life feels so pleasant - how could I ever have thought that the only place to live is London?

Thursday, 1 July 2010

POHODA (roughly translated as 'laid-back bliss')

I was moaning to another British ex-pat the other day (as I do at least to myself every day) about the desperate chasm between the Czech and British working morale and culture. And my British ex-pat friend said 'don't worry, with the crisis they'll soon learn to appreciate their jobs and their professional reputation. They'll realize they can't get away with not turning up, not delivering, never finishing, with their general lack of quality and enthusiasm, and still expect the client to pay on time, hire them again, and even recommend them to others'.

I thought about this hard – having another long morning on my hands when I didn't dare to go about my own business as I was waiting for a workman to turn up. Needless to say, when a Czech working man says 'I'll be there in the morning' it could mean several things: he'll turn up at 6 expecting you to be up and ready with a cup of coffee and a radiant smile, or he'll turn up at a quarter to eleven only to leave for lunch again at eleven sharp, or he won't turn up at all, without letting you have at least a courtesy phone call, let alone an apology. And no, it makes no difference if a precise time had been arranged beforehand.

I know that one finds the odd laid-back workmen in Britain too. But here it is endemic. With some (see my entry on 'Jesus the carpenter' below) you just put up with it because in the end they might have something special to offer that no-one else could produce for you. But when this attitude stretches to a majority of the workforce it becomes truly hard for a Brit-trained mind to plan anything in advance, or not to end up permanently stressed.

So I think my answer to my British ex-pat friend would be 'the crisis won't make any difference. They'll just moan more, get into debt, blame everything and everybody else, but not mind it really at all. As long as they can retreat to the nearest pub'.

Certainly there is, in a large proportion of the Czech working-male population, no trace of the British protestant morale here, or pride in work, or of an ambition to make a success of oneself – at least not in an honest way. The Czech ambition is to achieve POHODA, the state where nothing matters, and life is a laid back kind of bliss. So their prevalent modus vivendi is 'work the least you must in order to get by', and therefore life's priorities are beer, leisurely chats (mostly generally agreeing about the politicians being bastards punctuated by football news maybe), their hut or allotment, and their family. In that order. Success, reputation or long-term financial security simply don't figure: why should they?

Looking at it from a kindly angle, perhaps it's a kind of Zen. Perhaps they have it right. Perhaps the British working morale doesn't leave enough room for things that truly matter, like 3-day weekends at huts in the woods, or flexible work hours that are endured with the least effort possible, leaving plenty of time for beer and political philosophy. Certainly the Czechs generally accept that this should be so, including the wives of working men who also seem to only live for the long weekends ahead, and whose main ambition in life is a clean house and well behaved, untroubling children. That includes their well-behaved, i.e. untroubling man: a wife is happy when he is off at the pub because at least he doesn't mess up the kitchen floor. And when he comes back sozzled, she thinks his state is rather endearing, as he is kind of helpless. She happily gives him his soup or goulash, but no way would she want him to share the housework, he's only allowed to mend the car and tinker with the hut or garden shed. By the way these men - even the young, as yet childless men, often call their spouses 'mum'.

So here I come to my mini-conclusion: the Czech men, on the whole, seem to basically be just big fluffy boys with all that it implies, including their time-keeping and general unreliability. I can perhaps stretch this up a social class or two all the way to the politicians -if they squabble, these are mostly startlingly infantile squabbles. And I think that this comes from the way that Czech little boys are coddled by their mums who wait on them, while their sisters are brought up to serve and patronise the boys, knowing from tender age that this is the way to keep them docile while the real family power will always stay with the females.

And the 'family power' is the true ambition of these wives and future wives – for if you as a Brit might think that you might get better service from a Czech female worker or official, you'd be mistaken. Their working hours are mainly there to sort out the various little life's necessary tasks like paying family bills, shopping ('back in 5 minutes'), long telephone calls with female friends, and preparing for the long weekend ahead.

So where does this leave me? Should I continue being frustrated by expecting efficiency and reliability, or should I try to adjust myself to the slow, unpredictable pace of life, re-arrange my priorities and go with the flow?After all, no-one here seems stressed about workmen not turning up or unduly worried about anything, life just happens with plans and schedules being infinitely flexible. So should I become a disciple of Pohoda Zen? Am I capable of that??? Maybe worth trying as going against the flow doesn't produce any results anyway – living in a never ending building site is a true test of that. Only I am not sure if I could ever become a Master.