Bohemia and Slovakia

Bohemia and Slovakia

The first meal anywhere is often the simplest and most functional. Burgers and chips (hranolky is the Czech and Slovak word for chips or fries). The first Bratislava pub was Čierny Pes (‘Black Dog’), a proper, cavernous Slovak bar where the teenage waiter was thrilled with the big tip. The bill for half a dozen drinks was no more than thirteen euro. It was down the narrow cobbles of Na Vŕšku then to the Irish Uisce Beatha, which has a reassuring “No Stags” sign on the door. The barmaid (L.) was a pretty and polite Slovak brunette with an Irish ex. Pretty and polite and honest.

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After breakfast at “Re-Fresh” at the far end of the street below Michael’s Gate, the bright morning after the night before meant a sweaty climb to the Castle. At least the castle shop had a couch, to cool off on. I bought some postcards to justify the seat. I usually feel tired in galleries and museums. Like Alan Bennett, I’m always looking for a seat or glad to find one. Why is that? Is it a mixture of slow walking and poor ventilation? August 1998 involved a morning visit to the Munch museum in Oslo. There I was tempted to lie down on Munch’s bed in the basement. In the gloom it proved impossible not to laugh at the morbid captions e.gDead Mother with Child. There I bought a poster and two cards. The poster was of a cheerful painting called Weeping Nude.

Upon descending from the Castle we stopped at a place (J. J. Darvoben) beside the cathedral. The woman smilingly corrected my chléb (Czech) to chlieb (Slovak) when P. wanted some regular bread to go with the toast on the platter my two companions shared.

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Three times in recent years I’ve had to cancel trips to Bohemia, thanks to a funeral, a snowstorm and a virus. I’d bought the Pocket Rough Guide to Prague and continued to learn some Czech off the web, such as:

Velké pivo, prosím (‘A large beer, please’);

Zaplatím prosím (‘The bill, please’);

Už jsem zaplatil (‘I’ve already paid’);

Podvod … podvodnik (‘scam … scammer’);

Došlo k nedorozumění (‘There was a misunderstanding’);

Jídlo (food);

Voda (water);

Díky (‘Thanks’);

Žádný problém = (‘No problem’);

Přišel jsem sem kvůli Švejkovi (‘I came here because of Švejk’).

All these phrases are immediately intelligible in Slovak, with the odd spelling change. The main thing to look out for is the fact that some key verbs are different or are used differently but the upside is that Slovak doesn’t have that funny ř that’s everywhere in Czech.

The last phrase on the list alludes to The Good Soldier Švejk, a book that starts in Prague, moves through Bohemia, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, and ends up in a part of Galicia that is now in Poland.

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Complications set in, in Prague, after Švejk is told to obtain for Lt. Lukáš a particular type of dog. How exactly he is to do this is unspecified but anyway, it should be noted that both Gogol and Hašek write of dogs in a similar way. They make them members of society, with their own perspectives, fears and weaknesses.

It is only in a school reader or natural history primer that a dog is a faithful animal… allow even the most faithful of dogs to smell a fried horse meat sausage and it is lost.

An old associate delivers a stolen dog to Švejk, who has already slyly elicited its favourite food from the maid who walks the animal. He and his accomplice then tie the dog to the kitchen table so they can discuss forging a pedigree and what new name to give it. This is how Fox becomes Max.

When it was untied, it made its way to the door, where it barked three times at the handle, obviously relying on the generosity of these evil men… [then] it made a little pool by the door, convinced that they would throw it out… Instead Švejk observed: ‘It’s a cunning one, to be sure, a bit of a Jesuit.’ He gave it a blow with his belt and dipped its muzzle in the puddle

Unfortunately a colonel soon encounters Lukáš walking the dog (his dog) on the street. Lukáš and Švejk are transferred to a regiment at České Budějovice in southern Bohemia, as a prelude to being sent to the East. The second part of the book opens with the pair on a train, from which Švejk is removed after a mishap involving the emergency brake handle.

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This incident recalls a story told to me by a Jewish Englishman in a Belfast pub on a snowy day in 1987, the year I first read The Good Soldier Švejk. In 1969, G. was on a train somewhere in Czechoslovakia, enjoying the luxury of a Cuban cigar, when a representative of state security slid back the door to tell him to put it out. The railways minister was in the next compartment and didn’t like the smell. After attempting to engage the minister in a fraternal socialist debate about the cigar, G. got thrown off the train at the next station.

Švejk wanders around the Bohemian countryside, encountering tramps and deserters and getting arrested as a suspected Russian spy before finally being put on another train to rejoin a horrified Lukáš, who’d hoped he’d seen the back of him. Then the battalion moves out, heading east by rail.

There were several of the pretty and historic locations I particularly wanted to see in Bohemia. These included the Prague buildings in which the Thirty Years War was hatched, both in the planning and attempted execution of the Catholic imperial messengers who were shot out a palace window, and also the balcony where, on a snowy morning in 1948, Klement Gottwald emerged to emcee the communist take-over for a massive crowd below. The latter moment provides the anecdote of the un-purged hat that opens one of Milan Kundera’s philosophico-sexual entertainments, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Gottwald was later voted the worst-ever Czech in a TV poll, which was part of a light entertainment format imported and licensed from the BBC.

I wasn’t too pushed about taking in the Kafka museum. The insect fancier Vladimir Nabokov once spent an entire essay wondering exactly what kind of beetle Gregor Samsa had turned into in Metamorphosis but the real answer lies in the equivalent of the birds-of-a-feather proverb in the Irish language. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile (‘A beetle recognizes another beetle’).

Bratislava lacks the snotty self-regard of most capital cities, probably because it’s a relatively new one. Meandering, photo-taking, was an essay in afternoon relaxation that September. This was exemplified by the boy and girl in a courtyard playing chess with pieces that were almost as big as traffic cones.

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Three years earlier (2016) I was in a café off Hlavné námestie, the main square in the old town, with a pot of tea. The Earl Grey (“Early Grey” on the menu) was nice but the kitchen was closed and there was a terrific downpour outside.

When Smooth Criminal came on the Michael Jackson CD, I could move on, through the rain which had eased a bit at best. That song always puts pep in the step. I got some novädzi gúlaš nearby, at a place where a young-ish American with long hair slicked back behind his ears was wearing sunglasses. On a rainy night. At an unlit table. He ignored both waiters who thanked him as he departed. On the walk back to the hotel I passed an English stag party near Michael’s Gate. A couple of them were the regulation shirtless, on the rainy night, outside a pub. The trams made an eerie, whistling sound in the wet. The wheels were whining.

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I got truly soaked in the morning, trying to get some more Staré mesto (‘old town’) photos. It had started so well, when I was idly peering through tall railings at the presidents of Switzerland and Slovakia inspecting a guard of honour at the palace. I’d headed off with a short blue plastic mac but it was no use in the next deluge. I had no time to take shelter.

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By the time I got on the plane my pants had dried, at least. The row in front was all fat Roma but the row in front of them was a young family of Dubs who quizzed an unenthusiastic steward about chicken nuggets (“No”) and food allergies (“Just cheese then?”).

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The late September afternoon in Bratislava meant a siesta. Later we ate in the book-lined cellar bar of Pod kamenným stromom (‘Under the Stone Tree’) on Sedlárska. We drank again in the same two pubs as the night before. A Chekhovian young (English) lady with a dog was sweet to me before she left Uisce Beatha. She had already told JP that having the dog was useful for getting chatted up.

It’s hard to spend money in Slovakia. It’s only a tenner for the hour on the train northeast to Trenčín. The seat numbering on the train was tricky but at least all the Slovaks seemed confused too. I got there around one so I had something to eat at a place called Speranza. It was the only place in the quiet old town that had half a crowd outside. A cheesy beef and potato dish on a menu entirely in Slovak ensued but at least I make sure to know words like that.

On the way out of the Hotel Elizabeth, to do the Castle, I saw the Roman inscription on the rock of the castle hill outside the windows. There’s a back landing used as a viewing gallery. Carved by men of the second Auxiliary legion in 179 AD, the message was only rediscovered by a local clergyman in 1852.

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The Castle was a steeper hike than the one in Bratislava but this was also after two nights on the beer. When paying in, I found the pretty woman of the pair in the ticket office seemed to take a shine to me, complimenting the effort in Slovak and then emerging quickly to help scan the ticket at the barriers outside, which had me completely baffled. I was already ready to melt but then saw the climb went on. And on. Still, after a cooling-off period, while sitting watching a wedding party get their photos, I did the top tower and all. Mátušova veža. The top of the castle.

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The narrow stairways and doorways up there proved no obstacle to the young and ignorant. Twice, when I stepped back to let someone in or out, the twenty- and thirty-something tourists would pass my shoulder and drive on regardless. On the way back down, I again passed a restaurant (Pod Hradom – ‘Under the Castle’) with what seemed another wedding party. I’d paused within earshot, out on the steep, damp lane, while climbing those steps and cobbles, just to listen to a Slovak folk song (kind of Jewish, I thought), which was accompanied by an accordion. There’s a big synagogue in the old town.

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It’s hard to spend money in Slovakia, even at Petržalka. From there a taxi took me to the airport for €34 in December 2019. No complaints. Petržalka station is south of the Danube and the trip took more than the unrealistic twelve minutes indicated online and he did go over the right bridge for the airport. All the drivers at the rank looked like gypsies, I was in a hurry, and my guy did say tridsat’ (‘thirty’) when I asked him, before getting in. I’d paid that before, from the airport to the old town, north of the Danube, in a group of three, of whom one remarked it was for nothing for the actual journey.

When I sat in for the airport he mentioned the meter, which turned out to be secluded between the front seats. At the airport, when he praised the effort in Slovak and added he had a brother in Kilkenny, I added a fiver for Ireland. Afterwards I thought he probably just knew of the beer of that name but I was just glad to get where I had to be, in time. So a poor man made a little extra? More power to him.

Why tolerate a little chiselling? It can mean an easier life. At Keleti station in Budapest, in the August heat wave of 2015, the machines wouldn’t give international tickets and the ticket office was slow chaos, with backpackers getting the most awkward tickets possible and people farther back in the queue having to hold open the heavy door that led into the tight space with the hatches. With the low chairs at those hatches, it was like a small dole office. A fair-haired North American chap with dreadlocks eventually came away from one of those hatches to relay the news to his two female dreadlocked companions – also white – that they would have to make five changes, wherever the f*ck they were going in the Balkans. Anyway, we got on the train with just a few minutes to spare. Within two weeks Keleti made international news, thronged with refugees, a few of whom were already there when we got out.

The Snows of Prague

The Snows of Prague

2018

Having had to cancel a visit to southern Bohemia in January due to the death of a relative, I soon booked a replacement trip to Prague for a couple of nights in early March, thinking it would be simpler just to go there. Three friends of mine then decided to come along and I found us a hotel in the Malá Strana district below the Castle. This was the Hotel Čertovka, named after a finger of the Voltava river (‘Devil’s Stream’).

I also bought the Pocket Rough Guide to Prague and continued to learn some Czech off the web, such as:

Velké pivo, prosím (‘A large beer, please’);

Už jsem zaplatil (‘I’ve already paid’);

podvod (‘scam’);

Došlo k nedorozumění (‘There was a misunderstanding’);

and

Přišel jsem sem kvůli Švejkovi (‘I came here because of Švejk’).

Unlike in Budapest, the Czechs haven’t followed the Hungarian example of making their money-changing kiosks a state monopoly but instead they allow a free-for-all that is open to blatant fiddling. Some of the taxis remain dodgy in both places. Anyway, I’d carry a card and, apart from the beer, there were several of the pretty and historic locations I particularly wanted to see.

These included the buildings in which the Thirty Years War was hatched, both in the planning and attempted execution of the Catholic imperial messengers who were shot out a palace window, and also the balcony where, on a snowy morning in 1948, Klement Gottwald emerged to emcee the communist take-over for a massive crowd below.

The latter moment provides the anecdote of the un-purged hat that opens one of Milan Kundera’s philosophico-sexual entertainments, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Gottwald was later voted the worst-ever Czech in a TV poll, part of a light entertainment format imported and licensed from the BBC.

I wasn’t too pushed about taking in the Kafka museum, as it happens. The insect fancier Vladimir Nabokov once spent an entire essay wondering exactly what kind of beetle Gregor Samsa had turned into in Metamorphosis but the real answer lies in the equivalent of the birds-of-a-feather proverb in the Irish language. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile (‘A beetle recognises another beetle’).

23rd February, Friday

All day it felt a bit like snow. There seems to be Siberian weather on the way. I picked up my order of Czech crowns at the bank (2,500 of them for €104). The lady asked me was I was going to Prague. Two of my travelling companions were in a nearby café. P. mentioned a story about an inebriated NGO type crashing his new NGO jeep into a Bosnian brothel in a snowstorm.

25th February, Sunday

An east wind has been blowing for days and there’s no frost tonight but they seem to be promising us some kind of repeat of White ’47 for the coming week. At the moment Thursday looks like the worst of it but we’ll see. A lot of snow may be under the bridge by then.

26th February, Monday

The worst of it is forecast for Thursday evening to Friday morning and I’m hoping we can get up and away before that. So far, it’s cold out but nothing drastic. Plenty of people in town this afternoon went bare-headed.

27th February, Tuesday

A flake or two swirled as I arrived to pick up my father from the day centre at half past three but it was an hour later before the first sprinkling of snow. Around six there was a real shower of it that left the roofs and plants white for a starry night.

28th February, Wednesday

Still starry at half past five this morning but by half nine a thin blanket had fallen. The sun was shining then, as it did on and off, between snow showers, or during them. Sights of the day and night:

(1) empty wine shelves in Frank’s supermarket (N. told me one woman went off with a crate of it);

(2) a snowboarder down the quay, towed by a car (a fall didn’t deter him).

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I knew our hopes of travelling were snookered. I went into town tonight so I could take photos, including one I have of the old bridge, even though it’s not Charles (Karlův Most).

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1st March, Thursday

Half past six, it was snowing in the dark. Up at half eight, I knew we’d be going nowhere but looking online was still a formality. On the south coast, we just couldn’t risk a 400 km round trip in this weather for a likely flight cancellation.

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I emailed the hotel again to confirm we would not be needing the taxi at the airport in Prague. In reply, regret was expressed that we would not be travelling on this occasion. The greedy owner is still determined to charge all four of us for both nights, thus ensuring that we won’t ever be back to give that hotel another chance.

A large green tractor noisily swerved in at Frank’s but a bank girl emerged from the shop (“They have no bread or milk in there!”), whereupon the tractor roared off down the road again. There was no milk in the local Spar either.

Our scheduled 13.40 Ryanair flight got away from Dublin after all, at 16.27, thirteen minutes inside the three hours needed for a delay refund. It may have been the last of the few planes to get off the ground today. Before dark I walked to town and took more photos.

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2nd March, Friday

An awful lot of snow has fallen. I don’t remember anything like it before. Some of us may never see it again.

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Those cheeky Czech chappies are not only charging us for both nights plus an extra little cut of three euros – city tax, I guess – but now they have also told Booking.com that we were a no-show after I’d flagged a weather problem a day in advance and then emailed early yesterday to let them cancel the airport taxi pick-up in good time. Kipling has an answer for countries that claim they are not in Eastern Europe. East is east… Anyway, I was out photographing more of the best of our snowy settlement. This place here really should market its old town, its Altstadt (or Staré Město), snow or no snow.

 

Then I slipped into Downey’s for an hour or so. The young chap who was the sole customer there before me said he had left one of the pubs on the town square when the messing got too much (“lads dancing… fellas firing snowballs in the door…”). Then it turned out that he too should have been away in Prague this weekend, with a stag party.

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