This is yet another thing on a long list of things that I would never have even heard of without good local friends. It also proved to be a rather intensive weekend Czech course….
Having had an invite for the last 20 years, I was finally in the country and not living in Prague on the first weekend in December. Through my mate Honza in the Old Skool Tie Network, I had the phone number of a bloke called Radovan, who I’d never met before and had arranged to meet in the Mirror Pub in Ostrava on Friday night. This was in order to hook up with another bloke who I’d never met before who was going to drive us there. Radovan said I would recognise him because he would be sitting at the first table on the left as I walked in the door at 5 o’clock. Simple, right?
The young couple sat at the first table on the left certainly didn’t look like the sort of people I would expect to find at any gathering of the Old Skool Tie Network. In fact they embodied the sort of clean-cut youth who believed everything their parents had told them about people like, well, people like me, really. As I ordered a beer and wondered whether to text Radovan, he walked in. I mean, it had to be him. Sporting a battered leather jacket, long grey ponytail, carrying an equally battered rucksack and a ukulele case, he eyed the couple at the first table on the left with the expression of a man being offered dodgy goods by a shifty street-vendor. As I stood up to ask if it was indeed he, he grinned and said, ‘You must be Honza’s mate, right?’. Like the Freemasons, we of the Old Skool Tie Network recognise each other on sight.
The Mirror Pub is a great place which I would spend more time in if I didn’t have a family, a dog and live at the other end of the public transport network. It’s in a basement, furnished cosily with dark wooden stuff like a lot of British pubs and has the sort of welcoming pub smell that says they don’t bother too much with mopping up spilled beer. I would happily have spent the rest of the evening there but we had a rendezvous to keep and greater things ahead of us this cold night, so we set off in search of our chauffeur, who I learned was called Roman, who was apparently waiting for us and keen to get a move on.
Roman, when we found him, had an Opel Zafira, easily big enough to take him, Radovan and me in stylish comfort. As we arrived, several people were piling out so it looked like there would be ample room for us. Sadly the plan was that the people who were piling out were doing so only so that they could stretch their legs and retrieve a guitar while we got into the tiny rear seats. Then everyone piled back in again, squashing us like the extra baggage we were. Being valuable, the guitar went on top of us.
Crammed in with us were 3 girls who were bound for Nový Jíčin so at least we would get a little space later. However, as the information slowly filtered through my overworked translation faculties, I was given to understand that we were going to Frýdek Místek first to pick up more people. This was clearly insanity but insanity seems to be par for the course over here so is it really fair to call it insanity?
At a petrol station in Frýdek Místek, we picked up Pavel and Marek plus another guitar. This now made a total of 9 people, 9 rucksacks, 2 guitars and 1 ukulele in a space designed for a family of 4 and their dog, bouncing with joyous illegality along the motorway trying to make introductions. Squashed in next to me, Radovan announced with triumph that he had a bottle of beer in his rucksack and after 5 minutes of contortionism he produced it with a flourish. ‘I haven’t got a bottle opener though,’ he said.
‘No problem,’ said Marek, who was sitting on Pavel’s lap and folded into the available space like a living Mayan hieroglyph. ‘I’ve got one in my back pocket.’
However, Marek’s back pocket was dangerously close to Pavel’s groin, and getting a bottle opener out of it without starting some kind of intimate relationship proved both difficult and hilarious. Eventually, though, we had the beer open and the bottle did a circuit of the front and middle passengers. When it got back to Radovan, he twisted painfully in his seat to face the rear and said, ‘Would you ladies care for a drink as well?’
At this the compressed Marek nearly exploded. ‘There’s girls in the back? Jesus Christ, why aren’t I sitting on their laps?’
I could see that this trip would be no less memorable than all the others I’ve spent with the Old Skool Tie Network.
The overloaded Zafira, with it’s increasingly loaded passengers, sped through the night. Radovan tried to get his ukulele out but abandoned the attempt when he realised he would have to hold it up out of the sunroof to turn it the right way round for playing. At 130kph this seemed likely to end in disaster for the ukulele, although slightly more room for us. In Nový Jíčin we dropped off the 3 girls who had been spared the indignity of Marek in the back and almost immediately picked up 2 more. This time though, due to the fact that I’m slightly larger than average, I got put in the front seat with the guitars rucksacks and ukulele on top of me, which at least gave me some leg room. I tried to manoeuvre the load so that Roman could see the nearside mirror but he told me not to bother. ‘I never use the bloody thing,’ he said.
Off once again into the night. After a while I couldn’t help but notice the fact that we were driving around Valašské Mezeříči, some distance from Velké Karlovíce. ‘We’re looking for a pub,’ came the answer to my question. ‘We’ve run out of beer!’
We stopped at a Motorest, a motel/roadhouse kind of affair and pulled our tortured limbs from the car, which rose back to it’s unloaded height with visible relief. Inside, our waiter asked us what we would like.
‘What do you recommend?’ we asked back.
‘Well, as you’re in Wallachia you should have slivovice.’ He suggested. We had slivovice. Then we had a beer to wash it down with while our genial driver Roman grinned at us over his alcohol-free beer.
The final leg of the journey turned into what I was afraid of. The roads in the mountains twist and turn and are perfect for careful drivers. Unfortunately, the World’s most careful driver can be wiped out in an instant by a nutter trying to overtake another careful driver on a hairpin bend in the dark. I’ve had a few hairy moments in thick fog on these roads when headlights have exploded out of the dark, clearly on my side of the carriageway, with visibility of 30 metres or less.
As Roman overtook a careful driver in the dark, seconds before a hairpin bend, Radovan behind me asked if I had any kids. I replied that I had a son and before I could work out how to add that I’d like to see him grow up, one of the ladies in the back shouted, ‘Hey, Roman, 11 children have their parents in this car!
The hairpin bend loomed, Roman was in the process of telling us not to worry when the view of the road ahead turned into that of the forest ahead, Roman’s brain took a few very long milliseconds to work out whether the road had turned left or right, the car lurched, unbalanced, into the turn, we crossed the centreline, I became extremely aware of the musical instruments and rucksacks compressed between my vital organs and the airbag and vaguely wondered if a guitar constitutes a crumple zone. We approached the steel crash barriers, the car steadied, I saw the first hint of oncoming headlights reflected on the steel of the crash barrier, Roman got the car under control, the reflection got brighter, we recrossed the centerline, the air turned blue with the opinions of 11 childrens’ parents about Roman’s driving, Roman finished telling us not to worry about his driving and the reflection in the crash barrier turned into a bloody great Jeep or Land Cruiser or something. Not something you’d want to hit head-on, anyway.
The strong language and repeated references to 11 children’s parents seemed to have the general desired effect and my translation faculties finally came up with the Czech for ‘It’s better to be late in this life than early in the next!’
Roman’s reply was to point out the parked cars, banners in the trees and village pub. ‘No problem, we’re here!’
|Nobody can win against slivovice, only Moravians can hold it to a draw.|
As we unloaded ourselves, a man approached with a bottle of the ever-present slivovice. ‘Home-made’, he grinned, passing it around. I’d never met the man before but we exchanged pleasantries for a couple of minutes while the bottle made the rounds. Suddenly he caught my accent and asked where I was from.
‘England,’ I told him.
‘Shit, I don’t speak English!’ He cried, looking worried. Roman pointed out that as we had been speaking Czech before he knew I was English, communication probably wouldn’t be a problem. The man looked relieved and we all had some more slivovice to celebrate this new understanding. Roman, who was beginning to shiver, suggested that we all go inside, a suggestion which was met by another celebratory swig of slivovice each. We hadn’t even been inside yet and we were pissed.
Inside, I went looking for Honza. I found him playing his guitar next to a plate full of dead pig products and there was much slapping of backs, dancing with joy and similar mad capering. We hadn’t seen each other for 2 years but that time slipped away and we were back as we were 20 years ago, surrounded by beer, dead pig and music. Another familiar face loomed up… Pavel Štula! Good God, someone else I had last seen 2 years ago. More back-slapping, hand shaking and capering. By this time a foaming mug of beer had appeared in my hand from I know not where so we toasted each others’ health until our mugs were empty.
As I turned towards the bar, yet another familiar face swam into view but it took a few seconds to register. Could it be Daniel? It was! Here was a man I’d known for 20 years, hadn’t seen for 15 and with whom I’d never had a one-to-one conversation because 15 years ago he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Czech. This called for more beer, so we called for more beer and started catching up on the last 15 years. Fortunately, now we could actually speak without an interpreter, it turned out that we were still good friends and called for more beer to celebrate this happy fact.
Eventually I got to know a few new friends as well, including Mad Marek from the car journey. Marek was something of an Anglophile and spoke English. He tried to explain how he admired us for not giving in to Hitler during the war. I pointed out that living on an island was somewhat helpful but he was having none of it. “You’ve got balls!’ He maintained. ‘Not like the French!’
Oh, well. It’s nice to be associated with something other than football hooligans and drunken, abusive tourists for a change!
|Mad Marek. Mincing aggressively.|
|The fruit of his labours.|
After a few hours of catching up with old friends and discussing the relative merits of living on an island with new friends, I had drifted towards the kitchen in search of food. I scrounged a sandwich but in the process got drafted into helping with the deceased pig products production. Marek and I were assigned to the mincer, producing the raw materials for black puddings, white puddings, hog-burgers and various other ingenious traditional titbits.
Finally, I could take it no more. A final beer was called for, then bed. As it turned out, I couldn’t even face one more beer so I had a Becherovka instead. This went down well, so I had another and drifted back into the party. It was only 4 a.m., after all. The music was going strong, mostly featuring Honza surrounded by a circle of other musicians belting out something they were making up as they went along, so I had one or two more final Becherovkas and realised I was wrong about not being able to drink any more beer.
Some dead pig products had appeared on the tables, notably pork scratchings and some parts which have names known only to biologists and had been turned into sausages. Yum! Another slivovice, perhaps? Why not, the night is young and… oh, no it’s not. It is in fact rather old. Old enough to be tomorrow morning, in fact. Marek went to turn in, warning me that unless I was quick, I wouldn’t find a bed to kip in. I had another beer while I thought about it and decided he was probably right. There were no more scratchings or un-named body-part sausages to be had and while it was still technically another day, tomorrow had clearly arrived.
|Home sweet home.|
Up in my room, all the beds were taken but my cunning plan had worked… I’d put my kit on the only top bunk and covered it with the duvet so that it looked like a sleeping drunk and kept my fingers crossed that even if another drunk could be bothered to climb up to a top bunk, they’d think a drunk had already beaten them to it. Well, if a drunk came looking now, they’d be right. This drunk was soon in the Land of Nod and probably competing well with the other snorers in the room.
The following morning, Saturday, after a wholly inadequate 4 hours’ sleep, I woke up starving. Around me lay various casualties of the Friday night warm-up, dead to the world and still snoring in raucous disharmony. Downstairs, some die-hards were still drinking and Bohumir, our heroic barman, was still pulling the pints with little sign of fatigue. The thought of a beer briefly crossed my mind, beer is known here as ‘liquid bread’, after all. However, delicious smells were coming from the kitchen so I went to investigate the possibility of something a little more solid and a little less alcoholic with which to break my fast.
|The smoky, disfunctional, back-alley ambience of the bar.|
By contrast with the smoky, disfunctional, back-alley ambience of the bar, the kitchen was a hive of military efficiency. Pots boiled, pans simmered, ovens baked, steam steamed and women bustled. Before I could say anything, someone asked me what I was looking for. What was I looking for? A dirty, hungover wreck like me, standing in the doorway of such an inviting kitchen, reeking of last night’s booze and looking like an advert for teetotalism?
‘Breakfast?’ I asked weakly.
The lady looked at me as if she had never considered this possibility and wasn’t sure if there was anything suitable on offer. Finally she offered me a choice of ‘Dark Soup’ or ‘Light Soup’ and indicated 2 pots, one full of a thick, dark liquid and the other full of a thick, light liquid simmering invitingly on the stove. Sensing my indecision she suggested I take a bowl of the dark one first and then come back for some of the light one; the perfect solution to my dilemma!
Thus fortified and seeing as no-one I knew was awake, I decided I felt strong enough to go back to bed for a while, so I did.
Around 1300, I roused myself with thoughts of lunch. I ran into Radovan who said a few of them were going for a walk in the beautiful Beskydy countryside. That sounded like a good cure for last night and a good appetiser for the night to come so I got my boots on and went to the bar to wait for them. When I arrived I was offered slivovice ‘to keep the cold out’ followed by whisky. I’m not sure what the reason for the whisky was, I think it was something about putting hairs on my chest. Pulling up my collar to hide my hairy chest, I accepted it gratefully.
As our merry band headed for the door, more and more people asked where we were going with the inevitable result that we waited another 20 minutes while they all went back to their rooms to retrieve jumpers and coats, have a final slivovice ‘for the road’ and generally get their acts together. Pavel Štula had come to the front steps to serenade us on our way but was soon tempted back inside by a bottle of something a lot more interesting than serenading a bunch of hungover ramblers.
As we set off, the low clouds obscured the tops of the mountains; steep-sided and thickly forested, which rose up invitingly each side of our valley. They stayed there. Our route seemingly lay along the road and was frequently interrupted by the need to drain some of the weight out of the various bottles being carried with us. I still haven’t got my head around the Czech language and evidently misunderstood the purpose of the trip. I thought we were going for a walk in the hills so I had a small rucksack with some waterproofs and warm clothes inside. In actual fact we were going for a walk between the hills to the next village, drinking steadily along the way and the spare space in my pack was soon filled with bottles of booze.
|A majestic fox.|
I chatted with some of my new friends but mostly spent the time reminiscing with Daniel about some of the outrageous acts of lunacy we had indulged in half a lifetime ago, some of it in this region, although nothing around me looked familiar. Once we stopped to admire a fox. It was hanging from a barn roof by its hind legs and was either dead or very relaxed.
Our destination was Polansky. I don’t know whether this was the name of the village, the bus stop or the pub but as the village consisted of little more than the pub and the bus stop I suppose it could have been all three. I was asking Daniel if he remembered the time when he skied down the mountain with 1 ski and no poles in a bet over a crate of beer. He did and to my surprise pointed to the hill opposite the pub and said ‘It was up there.’
|The old cottage, centre at back.|
I hadn’t recognised it at all. He pointed out the cottage where we had all stayed that weekend which I didn’t recognise either but the last time I’d been here it had all been under a couple of metres of snow. An advance party had come out and dug a trench from the road to the door and lit the fires. When I arrived I was welcomed by a pissed medical student sitting on the kitchen table in long underwear holding a quarter loaf of bread, an onion and a lump of cheese in one hand and a beer in the other. He took a bite out of the cheese, the onion and the bread, chewed it all up together and washed it down with beer and then offered all of them to me. I don’t know why that image has stuck with me all these years but I found it funny at the time. I suppose it saved on the washing up.
|The Mighty Radovan on Ukulele. Roman in the foreground either singing or belching but doing it with gusto, whatever it is.|
Everyone else had gone in the pub, leaving Daniel and me to relive past glory like the pair of old farts were were rapidly becoming. We decided to look to the future and go get pissed inside like normal people. Radovan was already playing something on his ukulele, someone else was adding percussion with a wine glass and a spoon and the rest were singing.
I don’t know what happened over the years but when I first met up with the Old Skool, every evening in the pub was like this. Then, as now, I had no idea what the songs were about but it was the spirit which was important. It seemed like everyone could play the guitar to some extent or another. Everyone knew at least enough basic chords to bang out the favourites and the guitar would get passed around as each player’s repertoire was exhausted. Gradually, as the pubs began to install TVs, jukeboxes and fruit machines, the guitars couldn’t be heard over the electronic noise of this new way of life and the music died.
|A damned fine beer!|
Tonight though, the music had been resurrected. We sat at a row of tables pulled up along the wall. A group of locals sat round the bar in the next room. All was warm and snug within as the thick village night crowded round the walls outside. It’s been too warm for snow this year, but in a good, traditional -20C winter, with a couple of metres of snow on the ground, travel options reduced to skis or snowshoes off the beaten track and early, dark, primeval nights, there is nothing so welcome as to be in a mountain village pub. The local style calls for lots of dark wood, white stucco stained slightly yellow by years of smoke, low lighting and usually a few hunting trophies adorning the walls. They share a dim cosiness with small British pubs but in a totally different style. When you’ve just come in from a Beskydy winter night, you can thank Radegast for 2 things; the hospitality in the pub and the fact that you haven’t just come in from a Jeseniky or Tatry winter night!
Here, a stranger can walk in out of the cold and find a welcome. Unless he’s some kind of axe-wielding maniac, of course. And it’s true that speaking at least basic Czech helps, although in my experience all you really need is a good phrasebook and a sense of adventure. Even then, the odds are that you’ll find someone who speaks at least a smattering of English. In Czech state schools, children have to learn at least 2 foreign languages and one of them is almost always English. When Our Lass and I last had a holiday, we stayed on a campsite in Normandy. I overheard the children of our German, Dutch and French neighbours playing happily together in the dirt, as children like to do. They were all speaking English together.
I was jerked out of my reverie by the need to make a serious decision…. apparently a bus was going back towards our pub in 10 minutes, did I want to get it? One look at the faces of the rest of the group told me I’d be in a minority but the thought of walking all that way back (at least 4km!) in the dark and the cold filled me with foreboding. Not least because I was wearing dark clothing and would have to dive into the ditch to avoid the inevitable village boy-racers, pissed and playing Hogs-of-the-road. I was saved in the end by our waitress who informed us that the bus went every hour until plenty late enough, so with good cheer we ordered another round and resumed the ukulele/wineglass orchestra.
|Beer and pig. The perfect cure for not having bad breath and flatulence.|
Eventually though, because we had all come here for the Folk Braw Show, not to get pissed in Polansky, we did catch a bus. In actual fact it was more like a mobile bar once I’d reminded various people what they had stored in my rucksack and there was just enough time to distribute the bottles and have a wee dram before the bus stopped again and, with visible relief, the driver informed us that we had reached our stop. The kilometre or so from the stop to U Vojvodíků was perfectly timed to sober us up, give us an appetite for some more dead pig products and launch us into a highly unstable orbit around Saturday night.
Several small jams were already underway and Honza had emerged from his pit to take some kind of leading role in a stage production that was being set up. I availed myself of dead pig, beer and a seat. I wanted time to line my stomach with something other than slivovice before this next diabolic chapter unfolded!
The theatrical production turned out to be a series of sketches which were thoroughly appreciated by all who understood what the Hell was going on; i.e. not me. I mean, it looked jolly entertaining, especially the sketch which appeared to be a late-night-intellectual-talk-show but which featured Radovan in skin-tight purple Lycra fondling an enormous erection whilst nodding sagely to the comments of the woman who appeared ready to give birth. I offer no opinion on the rest of the evening, merely the photographs.
|Intellectual late-night chat-show.|
|Pavel and his Amusing Novelty Breasts|
|Ancient and quite frankly disturbing traditions of mountain-folk.|
The Sunday dawned bright and cheerful, somewhere. In Tisnavy it dawned on us that it was nearly time to go back to reality. I had my final breakfast of ex-pig and wandered into the bar where the filthy few were steadfastly refusing to give in to reality. Here I ran into the owner of U Vojvodíků; one Mr. Vojvodík. He was a world-class weightlifter in his day, the owner of all the medals decorating the bar. He showed me the room which contained the last unprocessed remnants of dead pig; it was clearly a well-used gym.
|Mr. Vojvodík and some of his gongs.|
‘I’m 73,’ he announced, casually leaning against a bench-press barbell which weighed the same as me. The bar was a little rusty but I noticed 2 shiny patches where the hands would go, so somebody used this on a regular basis and the grinning pensioner before me was the most likely candidate. We returned to the bar, I took some pictures of him and his medals and he gave me several more shots of slivovice than perhaps I should have taken but then he was drinking them faster than me so I figured it must help a chap reach 73 in the peak of health.
|Radegast, our patron.|
|The Filthy Few.|
I drifted among my new friends. Lurking somewhere in the back of my head was the knowledge that I would have to find a way out of here and fairly soon. I was saved by a woman who had been sent my way by Honza. We both lived in Ostrava and she had one of those fancy internet phones which allowed her to find bus connections between here and reality. Another new friend who owned a Jeep and was far more sober than me offered a lift to the bus stop in Velke Karlovice so at the appointed hour, I bid farewell to old friends and new (who largely didn’t notice because the musicians had clearly come into their own) and took the lift to the bus station.
On my way home, through village after small village, semi-concious on the back seat of the bus and developing a bad case of the shakes as my body realised that its supply of alcohol had been cut off, I felt as though I was waking from some bizarre dream. This grey world of drizzle and fog was obviously real. The other people taking this bus back to the world of damp concrete and smog alerts were clear testament to the fact that I was waking up. The more I woke, the further the dream receded until it finally slipped from my grasp and span off into memory. Just one more weekend of craziness lost in the background noise of the insanity which makes up our daily lives.
‘Mistah Kurtz, he dead.’
What is ‘Braw’? A ‘Folk’ I understand and a ‘Show’ I understand, but a ‘Braw’? After much research (I asked my mates) it seems that Braw is derived from Brav, which is short for Bravek and is the word for pig in a certain dialect. Nobody could agree which dialect though so at the moment I’ve narrowed it down to North Moravian or Prejsko, which I think is that part of what was Prussia which is now inside the Czech Republic. I could be wrong and would welcome further information!