July, 1992Two years would pass before my next journal entry. In the meantime, Jaromir moved in together, and eventually bought a house together on rue St-Germain in Cartierville, on the west end of the island.
In July, 1992, we spent a month in the Czech Republic. It was Jaromir's first trip home since he fled the country in 1987.
At the Prague International Airport, we spent a long time analyzing the geometry of our two suitcases and duffel bags in order to pack them and four adults in a 15-year-old Lada. Finally, we were rolling down the paved cow path which is the main drag between Prague and Kadaň. No shoulders and not a blade of mown grass in site. The highway signs were rusting, pock-marked disks with a faded circle or stripe or a jumble of consonants, which probably means something in Czech, a language wth no vwls.
We were skirting the industrial wasteland that stretches from Usti nad Labe to Chomutov, one of the most heavily polluted areas in the world. During its 45-year hegemony, the Communist regime did its best to turn the mountains of Western Bohemia into electricity for Eastern Europe. Naturally the coal was brown (lignite), and the plants used the best 1930s technology. Near Chomutov, coal mines the size of the Grand Canyon have swallowed entire villages. All buildings are gray and the sky is always overcast. The air made my eyes water.
On the far side Chomutov, the air was better, the land was rolling and luxuriously green, and in every valley, there was a tiny village with red tile rooves and stuccoed walls in shades of maize and ochre and apricot. Next stop Kadaň, Jaromir's home town. We roll down a hill and over a tall iron bridge on the Ohře River. On the other side, there's a walled city tucked between two small mountains. A royal town, Kadaň was already a major commercial center in the 13th century. There's a lovely town square with cobblestone streets, ringed by pastel-colored baroque buildings with Roman ruins in the basement.
However, most of Kadaň's 20,000 residents live beyond the square, in one of hundreds of dreary gray high-rises. The Czechs call them "baraky" (barracks). Construction is steel and concrete, inside and out. Wealthier people have a nice wall unit in the living room and newer furniture and carpeting, but otherwise all apartments are identical. Living room on the left, kitchen/dining on the right. All beds are twin beds, hard as rock, which double as sofas during the day.
Window screens are unknown. The windows are large, and every ledge is covered with flowers, a most welcome feminine touch on these otherwise relentlessly masculine buildings. Fabulous roses poke up through knee-high grass in front of every barak.
There are some private homes in older part of town, simple bungalows with stucco exteriors ringed by red or green metal fences. Inside the fence, every inch of land is planted in fruit or nut trees, vegetables and flowers. Most people also have a cage for rabbits and chickens, and a big dog whose job is protecting these treasures.
The Czechs are passionate gardeners. On the outskirts of Kadaň, there is a whole other town at the community gardens, where apartment dwellers have their chickens, rabbits and fruit trees, as well as a small a cabin to store tools and entertain visitors to the garden.
Everyone has "the basics": a television, a radio (always the same brand), a tiny washing machine that takes 45 minutes per cycle and a pint-size Russian refrigerator. Hot water heaters are the "on demand" type, suspended over the bathtub. You can lie in tub and watch the flames.
Telephones are a novelty. The phone book was a half-inch thick. That made sense to me until I learned that it covers the Chomutov region, which has a population of about 200,000 (10 times the population of central Vermont).
In Kadaň, communication is on foot. The sidewalks are full of people — young bucks and beauty queens, babies in strollers, couples holding hands, children with puppies on leashes, old people with canes. Here "sidewalk" does not mean "beside the highway." There are wide paved walkways everywhere, which cut through shady parks on the way to the tennis courts, the train, the town square, the community gardens. No destination is more than 10 minutes away on foot. If nothing else, the dreadful "baraky" make for a very compact city.
Our first night in Kadaň, we visit Miloš, Jaromir's best friend and the only one who has stayed in contact after all these years. Our "Czech experience" begins in earnest when we go for a beer at the local hospoda. We can hear the guys singing two blocks away. Inside, big wooden picnic tables, a cloud of smoke and beer flowing like Niagara Falls. We sit on the "terrace" (picnic tables in the mud behind the building), between a patch of potatoes and the outhouse.
At midnight — 6:00 pm. Montreal time — we go to bed, mostly to lie awake between a sandwich of soft cotton-covered duvets, watching the geraniums bob in the moonlight. There are no streetlights and no traffic, only the occasional drunk singing his way home from the hospoda. At dawn, this song is replaced by the familiar melody of the robin. But the singer is the kos, all black with yellow eyes and a bright yellow beak, and he is king here.
First morning in Kadaň. I try to decipher what is written in the crumbling stucco walls and in peoples' expressions. For the last 400 years, Czechoslovakia has been ruled by other countries. This region, the Sudetenland, has been passed back and forth between Germany and Czechoslovakia. After World War II, it was awarded to Czechoslovakia, and the Germans were driven out. I ask Francišek, a neighbor, if he thinks Germany will try to reclaim the Sudetenland. "They don't need to," he replies. "They can buy it."
The difference in the value of Czech versus German or any other Western currency is almost unbelievable. An average salary in this part of the country is 4500 crowns (about $200 Canadian). Jaromir has the equivalent of his parents "life savings" in his wallet. Prices have been rising quickly toward Western levels since the 1989 "Velvet Revolution," and salaries are expected to follow, but the transition is uneven and painful.
During our stay in Czechoslovakia, we meet two kinds of people: those who work for state-owned companies on fixed salaries, and those who have started their own small businesses. Without exception, the former are pessimistic about Czechoslovakia's future and foresee an improvement in their standard of living as "something for our children," whereas the latter are positive, hopeful and reasonably satisfied with their lives.
The small, new, young private businesses are few in number, but very visible. A good example is the miniature cafe with a terrace wedged between two houses in the old part of town. They were the first in Kadaň to sell ice cream, and the townspeople say the owners are "millionaires." The young co-owner admits that business is "not bad." "That means it's going like hell!" Jaromir translates.
The stores have no advertising, inside or out. Just the name of the goods they sell. If they offer several products, the names may be hand-written on a chalkboard in front of the store. Inside, one counter with a day, buying only what they will consume. The choice of fresh fruits and vegetables is limited: green peppers, golf-ball size tomatoes, cucumbers, and for a few days of glory, cherries and apricots. But they are home-grown, fresh and very tasty. The potatoes are small and yellow and by comparison North American potatoes taste like sawdust. Beer is unpasteurized and only keeps for two days, so all beer is fresh from local breweries. If you want to taste the beer of Kadaň, you must come to Kadaň; the beer will not come to you. Beer bottles cost two crowns (almost as much as the beer), so there are no broken bottles on the streets. There is no paper/cardboard packaging in the ditch (nor any ditches, either, for that matter). You want a bag for your groceries? That will be another three crowns, please. Only a crazy foreigner would go shopping without a battery of cloth shopping bags.
One morning we see a man is his mid-seventies flying across the cobblestones on an ancient one-speed bicycle, loaded shopping bags swinging from the handlebars. It is Jaromir's father on his morning rounds. He's up every morning at 6:30, pacing impatiently back and forth until there is some sign of life from our room. His first words are always the same. Not "Good morning" or "How did you sleep?" but "What do you want for dinner?" We always answer, "Nothing! We won't be here! We'll eat leftovers! We'll go to the restaurant!" But by 8:30 am., he's been to the newsstand, the butcher, the bakery and the farmers' market on the town square. And we are cooked, our plans for the day now part of the eternal cycle of pursuit, preparation and consumption of pork, potatoes, dumplings, cabbage and beer.
The heart of Kadaň is not the town square, but the tennis club. Made with available materials (crushed brick), beautifully landscaped and maintained to perfection, this complex of nine courts is as good as any in Montreal. For Jaromir, it's a shrine, and it's not long before we make our first pilgrimage. The Czech equivalent of the American Dream is of a career on the international tennis circuit. During our brief stay we met at least four Kadaň residents who play tennis professionally in West Germany, France and even Canada. Their salaries are in Western currency; their expenses are in Czech crowns. Not a bad life. Those who cannot compete, train. Bohous is there every day, training his son Marek. Marek, age six, trains three hours a day, and will begin playing competition next year with much older boys.
"He's already learning German and English," says his father proudly. "Show them how you can count in English." "15, 30, 40, game" chirps Marek.
I thought tennis was the Czech national pastime. But there's another that's far more important. Our third morning in Kadaň, Miloš invites us to go mushroom-picking. We are on the road by 8:00 am, but Miloš grumbles that the best mushrooms will be picked already.
This is our first "road trip" with a 1981 Škoda that we rented for about $5.00 a day. The line at the gas station is six cars long. I'm told it will be much longer later in the day. The Škoda's 1.05-liter engine overheats repeatedly on the 800-meter climb into the mountain above Kadaň .
From the top of the ridge we get our first good look at Western Bohemia, in all its beauty and all its contradictions. We are above the smoke from the power plants, which we can now see is as thick as pea soup even in Kadaň. We can also see the huge lakes of coal tailings, blessedly invisible at lower elevations. The road meanders through golden fields of wheat at elevations which yield only stunted fir trees and lichens in Vermont. What's wrong with this picture? There are no farm houses. Not one. All victims of agricultural collectivization.
A clutch of Škodas marks the forest road where our adventure begins. Jaromir's father gathers wild cherries near the car while the rest of us set off up the mountain. We move easily through a forest which is virtually free of underbrush. Long, silky emerald-green grass covers the earth. Jaromir and Miloš stalk lovely ovals of mottled pink and green and brown and ivory. "We must not talk about them," Miloš cautions, "or they will hide themselves." I daydream from one wildflower to another. Czech moths are lovelier than butterflies and come in a spectrum of colors, from pure white to furry orange and black. There is a damselfly with an iridescent blue-green body, a blue beetle with red spots. I follow a creek to a small waterfall, which looks milky from a distance. But at close range, the water is crystal clear, and the white light is the sun's reflection off flecks of silver in the fine white silt. The forest is enchanted.
My first lunch in a typical Czech hospoda, on top of the mountain in Měděnec, a copper mining town. The mine must be closed, I conclude after a quick once-over of the deserted main street with its peeling plaster, faded paint and empty doors and windows. No, it's in full operation, three shifts a day. We open the door of the "Hotel Praha" and find a gleaming stainless steel tap, an electronic slot machine and half-a-dozen guys eating dinner at long wooden tables.
My lunch of breaded sausage, home fries and sliced cucumbers washed down with the usual pint of local beer costs about $1.00. Despite Jaromir's warning, I order coffee. It's Turkish coffee, served in a glass with a paper napkin around its neck. I say "Kavu a trochu mléka, prosim" (coffee with a little milk, please). But in Czechoslovakia, if you ask for coffee with milk, you'll get ... a cup of coffee and a glass of milk! So add lots of sugar, stir, wait five minutes and drink. But watch out for that half-inch of sludge in the bottom!
Near Klinovec, we walk atop barren ridges where Jaromir and Miloš remember cross-country skiing between rows of tall trees. Spruce budworm and acid rain have shaved the Krusné Hory clean in less than 20 years. From the top of Klinovec, you can see East Germany, and the ski lodge where we stop for a beer is crawling with German tourists. In Hamry, you could skip a stone over the stream that separates the two countries. Yet they are miles apart. On the German side, the buildings are gray or brown, well maintained, neat and orderly. The Czech side is overgrown and dilapidated, but the buildings are faded coral, apricot, peach and custard, with more doodads than a cuckoo clock.
Kadaň's most colorful character is Berta Kiscz, a local artist of Iceland, His work is a scorching condemnation of the destruction of the environment by the coal plants: "Swan Lake," a pair of swans vainly trying to nest on a lake of coal tailings. "The Power Plant of Czech-Polish Friendship" framed by the ruins of Hasištejn Castle. "Good for nothing Spring Night," an apple orchard in the shadow of the soot-belching coal plants. An arkload of fir trees sailing away from the summits of the Krusné Hory.
Berta is also a skilled builder, and has restored several historic building including his studio and his gallery. The gallery on the town square includes a wine tavern where he entertains friends and customers, who are generally one and the same (or become so very quickly). There is also a small store in the front of the building, where tourists can buy only the pretty pictures of Kadaň, for two or three times what he charges those who dare penetrate the upper floors of his gallery.
For a few weeks in July, inviting "Jarda and his Američanka" to dinner is the thing to do in Kadaň. We are asked out almost every night. Jaromir translates patiently, and I pick up enough Czech vocabulary combined with a good ear for body language that I don't feel left out of the conversation. My only regret is that while I meet dozens of people in Kadaň, I only get to know two or three women. The men talk, and the women listen, and serve. You couldn't draw them out with a team of horses. Coincidentally (or not) the exception are all women with good jobs — a doctor, a teacher, a businesswoman.
It's the 13th of July, and for six days I've been watching the trains roll in and out of Kadaň station. I haven't seen so many trains since I was kid in North Dakota. So Miloš, Jaromir and I set off on a small excursion to Krásný Dvůr ("Beautiful Place"), a tiny castle about 20 kilometers from Kadaň. The castle is the usual smattering of Baroque paintings, Oriental jars and Louis XV furnishings, detailed by a teenage tour guide who is only slightly better than a tape recording. But the train is delightful, a yellow and red diesel, one car long, with a whistle that could split wood. The pace is leisurely — nearly two hours to cover 20 kilometers including a 45-minute "layover" in the tiny village of Vilémov. We roll calmly through fields of wheat, scaring up dozens of hawks, herons, partridge and jackrabbits.
Closer to home and far more interesting is Hasištejn, a 13th-century fortress which half carved into, half piled on top of a conical mountain overlooking the Ohře Valley. In ruins now, it has as many levels as a wedding cake (a bunker, a marketplace, a chapel and a maze of wells and corridors and caverns. Above all this, the main tower rises at least another 50 feet. The view from the top is a faithful reproduction of Berta Kiscz' "Power Plants of Czech-Polish Friendship" framed by the ruins of Hasištejn Castle.
I have learned a new word: "nakupovat" (shopping). I make my first foray alone to buy pastries and some gorgeous home-grown merunky (apricots). Though I use my best Czech, the clerks immediately answer me in German. I guess any foreigner is German by definition. Jaromir's father spends long hours patiently speaking German to me, convinced that German and English are so similar that I am bound to understand. At Berta's wine tavern, I meet a language teacher who cannot complete a single sentence in English, but who tells me that next year she will teach German and English simultaneously since the languages are "virtually identical."
The highlight of our trip was supposed to be a three-day canoe trip on the Ohre River. We made a practice run to Klasterec, and I was surprised by the murky, slow-moving water. Surely the water would be cleaner upstream. The trip was organized by Miloš, and it was awesome to behold for someone who is used to planning expeditions based on the assumption that everyone has his own car and camping equipment. It took two full days to collect borrowed canoes, tents and sleeping bags. We'd stow our gear in plastic barrels rented from a local factory. Our fellow travelers had been assembling for days, like birds preparing to go south for the winter, and the topic of discussion was always "flašky" (barrels): how to get them, how to fill them and how to move them once they were filled.
Finally Miloš drives away in an old army truck with the canoes and the flašky, and the rest of us — eight 20-somethings, Jaromir and me — take the fast train to Karlovy Vary. Our destination was Loket, a royal town on a bend in the river crowned by a tall stone castle. We stay behind to wait for Olda, the 12th member of our group, who arrived two hours late and three sheets to the wind. In his shoulder bag, he had everything he needed for a three-day canoe trip: two magnums of Moravian wine and six TV dinners.
We stopped for a few more beers at the local hospoda. Smoke and Czech folk songs billowed out the open windows. The air was warm and sweet, and there was nary a black fly or mosquito to disturb our reverie. We strolled back to the campground, which looked lovely in the moonlight. Every cluster of tents had a campfire, a guitar and a circle of campers singing folksongs. royal toe and the singing folksongs. At 10:30 p.m., I was enthralled; at midnight, I still found it quaint and charming; at 3:00 a.m., I realized that God created black flies to keep drunk campers from singing "House of the Rising Sun" until they are hoarse.
In the early hours of the morning, arrives very early, I staggered out of the tent and realized the full horror of our situation. There were at least 100 tents one foot apart in a field of mud on the banks of the Ohře. The water is the color of weak coffee, and the banks of the river were lined with burning nettle. The only sink was awash in vomit and the remains of the previous night's spaghetti dinner, and the stench from the washrooms took my breath away. Jaromir and I hustled off to Loket for Turkish coffee and rohlíky in a tiny cafe on a side street near a 13th-century castle.
We didn't put in until 11:00 that morning. In Quebec, we would have been paddling for four hours already! Soon it is obvious that I was not only the oldest, but also the most experienced member of our group. I was also the only woman who paddled. The others sat motionless as mastheads in the prow of their boats. Luckily it is mostly quickwater and Class I-II.
Olda and Jarda were hungover, and their dialog was priceless. They were pretending they were on a wilderness river in Canada. In their eyes, every scrapyard was a camp of hostile Indians, every junkyard dog was a bloodthirsty wolf, and every one-foot drop a waterfall.
Near Karlovy Vary we spotted two guys fishing on the riverbank, seated between two giant swans. Apparently the swans liked to raid their garden, and the fishermen got in the habit of feeding then rohliky, and the swans had grown fat and friendly.
"This is just like canoeing in Canada, isn't it?" cood one of the mastheads. When we stopped for lunch in Karlovy Vary, Jaromir asked me how I felt, and I blurted out the truth: that I wanted to be anywhere but on this river. Miloš immediately made all the arrangements for our orderly departure, but I felt terrible for bailing out of a trip that he had organized for our benefit.
A few days later, we were on a bus for Prague. We caught the 6:00 am bus, which wanders along a narrow, winding country, with stops in the villages of Pětipsy ("Five Dogs"), Velka Dobra ("Big Good") and Hořesedly (I called it "Horsefly"). At a level crossing, the lights were flashing and all the drivers turned off their engines, got out of their cars, stretched, lit a cigarette. "This must be some train!" I marveled. Five minutes pass, then ten, and finally the one-car local train from Krásný Dvůr scampered across the tracks.
There was no toilet on the bus, and of course no air conditioning. But in "Horsefly" the driver announced a "10-minute stop", and everyone piled out of the bus for Turkish coffee, homemade pastries, goulash soup — and a trip to the WC.
A seasoned traveler once said that you could judge a culture by the quality of its public toilets. If this is true, I'm afraid Czechoslovakia would come off rather badly. From one end of Bohemia to another, across the lines of social class and sex, in fancy hotels and in train stations alike, Czech washrooms are easy to locate by an unmistakable smell. Most public toilets are guarded by member of a strange Czech subculture, the haizlbaba. For a price ranging from one to three crowns, she will hand you a six-inch strip of raspy toilet paper. On the mens' side, you may also be asked to state your business (there are different rates, you see). This fee was certainly no guarantee of cleanliness. We often asked ourselves if the haizlbabas actually worked for someone, or if they were simply crafty entrepreneurs whose business was selling toilet paper at highly inflated prices.
By the time we hit the outskirts of Prague, the temperature had risen to at least 35°C. The air is as brown as in Chomutov. Big tank trunks spray the streets — not to clean them, but to lay the dust. We spotted our first trolleys, yellow and red, clanking and screeching along the rusty rails. They looked like antique metal spiders, doing leg-lifts on their backs against the tangle of overhead cables. They shared the narrow cobblestone streets with two-way car and truck traffic. Who has the right-of-way? And how do they avoid smashing into each other?
The metro was another story: frequent, fast, quiet and ruthlessly efficient. The wagons were gray and square and the Russian script and painted-over red stars. Czechs on the metro speak in whispers and rarely smile. At every stop, a loudspeaker droned out the same announcement: "Ukončete výstup a nástup, dveře se zavírají" (loosely translated, "move your buns or we'll shut the doors on them"). The escalators run at least twice the speed of North American escalators, at a dizzying 45-degree angle.
We stopped to visit Milka, Jaromir's aunt, at her apartment in the suburb of Lhotka. They had business in another part of town, so I set off alone for Staré Námestí, the old town square. Here every building was the most beautiful I had ever seen, perfectly restored, all painted in pastel colors and dripping with details that looked to me lace and ribbons. An entirely feminine cityscape. For more than three hours, I turned in circles, not knowing where to point my camera, my eye always drawn to some other sight even more beautiful, just around the corner.
Prague is overwhelming. Just as there is too little of anything in Kadaň, there is too much of everything in Prague. Too many shops selling "Authentic Bohemian Crystal." Too many signs in English only. Too many American tourists. At least in that part of town, English with a New York accent was the first language, followed closely by German. In the rest of Czechoslovakia, the only coffee is Turkish coffee, but in Prague, there were so many espresso bars that the streets exhale the aroma of fresh-ground coffee.
Later that afternoon, when the crowds and the heat had subsided, I rejoined Jaromir on the other side of the Vltava in Malá Strana (Small Square). This river inspired Smetana's "Moldau" and I can't get the tune out of my hand as we stroll along its banks, escorted by dozens of swans.
The following morning, we set out early to climb the 280 steps of the tower at Cathedral Saint Guy for an unforgettable view of Prague, a maze of narrow cobblestone streets, pastel stucco and red tile rooves, from here to the horizon. But already an ocean of tourists was washing up on the steps of the cathedral. Hell cannot compete with hoards of overheated East German and New York tourists in the china closet that is Prague. We made a mad dash for the bus depot in Florenc, hoping to reserve seats or e afternoon bus. But there was no information desk, and only three ticket windows to serve a city of 1,500,000 people. The line-up was at least one- hour long. There are schedules posted at each of the bus stands, but you must know the exact number of the stand (there were more than 70). Even then, the information is only approximate and subject to last-minute changes. The only person who really knows the schedule is the driver himself.
We were lucky. There was an unadvertised express bus to Kadaň at 1:00 pm. It was a long, hot ride all the same. Back in God's Country, we rushed off to the corner cafe for homemade ice cream, then took a dip in the municipal pool. The water was bright green, and there were no showers — only footbaths.
On the evening news, we learn that Vaclav Havel had abdicated as President of Czechoslovakia. The same afternoon, Slovakia declared its independence. It was Friday, July 17, 1992.
We visited friends of Jaromir's parents at a cabin in the mountains above Kadaň. There at 2000 feet, the air was light and cool. The Podoláks were both teachers, and like Jaromir's mother, they came here during the resettlement of the Sudetenland after World War II. We show them our photo album and they flip to the photos of our house without comment. "Do you have space for a garden?" was all they want to know. We showed them the backyard. Their brows furrowed. All that land? And no rabbits? No chickens? Not one apricot or chestnut tree? Not so much as a patch of potatoes or cabbage? Not a single tomato plant? They looked at us if we just sprouted antennae and green skin.
After stuffing ourselves on some incredible sweet cake made with fresh cherries (including the pits), we take a stroll along a road which used to connect this mountain community to Kadaň. Now the road ends on the shores of a lake of coal tailings, but the sign for the bus stop is still there. We turn off onto a logging road which leads to the top of the mountain and Jaromir is heartened to discover that the stand of virgin fir trees is still there, sighing in the breeze, a carpet of emerald-green grass underfoot. He fills my backpack with yellow-green, brown and white mushrooms. We meet the Podoláks and Jaromir's parents at the head of the trail, sitting on a log overlooking the valley where they know every spring, every carp pond, every spot to pick "rybíz or blueberries or their favorite mushrooms. Despite their age, they had walked quite a ways uphill to sit in this spot and enjoy the view, smokestacks and all.
"Veselé Vanoce" means "Merry Christmas" in Czech. So "Vesely" means something like "happy" or "merry," and it seems to fit. South Bohemia and North Bohemia are quite different. There are more small towns in the south less heavy industry, more small one-family homes, fewer baraky, and generaIly a higher standard of living. The reason may be as simple as geography; South Bohemia shares a border with Austria instead of East Germany. It's hotter than ever — at least 35°C every day now. But the nights are cool and there's no humidity.
It took us more than five hours to cover the 250 kilometers between Kadaň and Veselí. At least four times, the route was closed for construction, with no detour indicated. In Jesenice, we turned in circles for more than an hour before we discovered that the only way out of town was the wrong way down a one-way side street.
We had lunch for $3.00 for four people" at local hospoda, where there pigs grazed wallowed in the yard, but the service was friendly and simple. There were three choices on the menu. The waiter listened carefully while Jaromir translated, then repeated the names in English when he brought me my meal!
The purpose of our trip is to take Jaromir's mother to see her sister, Jirina. Too old and too ill to tackle the trip by bus, it's been two years since they've seen each other. For five days, they will sing, play cards and tell stories, obviously delighted in each others' company.
Jižka has a one-room apartment tacked onto to a large, airy house that she and her husband built. The house is occupied by her son Pavel and his wife Majka, an unregenerate Communist who greets us with a list of chores. At least while we're raking the grass, we learn that Czechs do mow their lawns — but not way we do, and not for the same reason. When the grass is about knee-high, they cut with a hand-scythe, let it dry, then bag it to feed to the rabbits in Winter. Pavel has 45 brown bunnies which are so soft and fuzzy that they would surely die of old age if they were mine. Under the fruit trees in the backyard is a "Czech lawnmower" — a portable rabbit cage with no floor!
We planned all our activities around the heat. Most days we fell asleep after lunch, and in the late afternoon, we'd set out on balloon-tired bicycles to one of the swimming holes on the Nežarka or the Lužnice. The water was dark green — visibility six inches — and the smell was somewhere between herbal tea and paper mill. The water was a bit cleaner in the famous "ponds" of Southern Bohemia. The tourist brochures never mentioned that these "man-made lakes" were actually abandoned sand pits. The wheat fields near Veselí are full of these shallow blue craters, and on a hot July day, thousands of bathers would spread their towels on the shores. At suppertime, we were part of a regular caravan of overloaded škodas and bicycles with children hanging off every horizontal surface, and pedestrians trailing inner tubes, picnic baskets and baby strollers.
Jara and l set off alone on a two-day trip to the Šumava, a mountainous region in the southwestern Bohemia. It was hard to believe we were still in Czechoslovakia! The mountains were covered with a thick coat of mature fir trees. The houses were large, Bavarian-style and perfectly groomed. Concerned about finding a hotel room for the night, we started at noon, and visited every "zimmer frei" in Prachatice, Mont Libun and Volary. Incredibly, all the rooms are taken. Midweek, not a car in the driveway, and they were full up. I finally pieced it together, and at the next stop, Jaromir explained to the innkeeper that I was American and that we'd pay them in dollars." Bingo. After verifying my accent, a German aubergist gave us a small cabin in an "auto camp" in Mylnarovice for $15 US.
By then it was too late to hike, but there was a small stream near the camp where we got some relief from the heat. The camp consisted of a dozen cabins and an equal number of tent sites, but the focal point was a Bavarian-style lodge, which served home-cooked meals day and night. There were two different menus — one in Czech and one in German. One night we ended up with one of each, and sure enough, the prices in German were at least double the prices in Czech! We fell asleep listening to the "šumi" — the sound of the wind in the fir trees.
We had a cool, cloudy day for our hike up Mont Boubin (1362 meters), the highest summit in southern Bohemia. We reached the trailhead in Zaton about 9:30, and after one false start, headed up a wide trail that mounts steadily through a forest of virgin "smrk" (fir trees). The smrk are 200 to 400 years old, up to 50 meters tall, closely spaced, with no lower branches and a carpet of silky grass underfoot. The bark is rose brown, with a dusting of gray-green moss on the north side, and the pine cones are burgundy and green and smell of cinnamon. The forest is criss-crossed by dozens of trails, and every few kilometers, a major intersection displays distances to various villages. In North America, hiking is mostly the preserve of middle-class 20-year-old athletes, hikers here come in all ages, sizes and physical conditions. There are young families with children (including babies in strollers), middle-aged overweight couples with canes and herds of boy scouts and girl scouts with their teachers.
They carry no baggage. Most have only a cloth shopping bag or wicker basket for mushrooms with rohlíky, salami and a bottle of beer. They hike in street clothes, wearing sneakers or sandals with socks, without so much as an extra sweater or windbreaker for protection against the elements. But they hike all day, 30 kilometers, from Zaton to the train depot in Kubova Hut.
That evening, the few Czechs in the camp collected at one long wooden table. There was a young doctor from Plzen and his wife, and two older fellows who'd been drinking beer all night, but who proved to be eloquent Šumava patriots. When the Communists were in power, says one of them, they sealed off the Šumava because it was the only part of the country which had a border with non-Communist countries (Austria and West Germany). As a result, Šumava was spared the helter-skelter industrial development which destroyed much of the rest of the country. "And that," he concludes, "was the only good thing the Communists ever did."
We missed our cozy hospoda in Mylnarovice the following day, when we ate lunch at a fancy hotel in Kubova Hut. In Czechoslovakia, the quality of the food and the service is inversely proportional to the prices on the menus. It took 45 minutes to be served, and when we asked for details, the water blamed the problem on "the kitchen computer." Later he short-changed us 100 crowns, and when Jaromir protested, he coughed up the missing bill without a word.
We'd been in southern Bohemia for five days — far too long for Jaromir's father, who was a fish out of water away from his routine of errands and cooking and visits to the hospodas and tennis courts of Kadaň. Tearful good-byes for the two sisters and for those of us who could only look on and wonder when — or if — they would see each other again.
Back in Kadaň, a young neighbor was rebuilding the engine on a 20-year-old Fiat, with no lift and basically no tools. It was the third Fiat he'd built from parts salvaged parts. Jarda and his girlfriend wanted to immigrate to Canada (or any other country), and had already tried to immigrate to Germany, but it took both their salaries just to pay the rent.
We were ready for a "vacation from our vacation," so we spent a quiet day washing clothes and repairing Jaromir's father's bicycle. We started by changing the tires, but ended up taking it all apart to clean and oil all the parts and repack the bearings. Jaromir's father complains that it was "too clean," and someone would probably steal it. He was only half joking. The bicycle had already stolen once, by a neighbor who offered to repair it and simply kept it.
By then Jaromir was suffering from a sinus infection, and with every passing day, he seemed more discouraged by this country where it seemed like nothing worked the way it should. One day I caught him staring out the window at the maize-colored school with its brick red foundation, the gray baráky and the rusty orange and mustard-colored Škodas in the parking lot. "You know," he said, "the colors you see here are all the possible variations on the color of shit!"
For a change of scenery, we took a short drive to Karlovy Vary, a "must see," according to all the tourist guides. The promenade along the river was indeed charming. The buildings were all the same style, and a bit taller and more geometric than any others we'd seen. We dutifully sampled the water from all 13 hot springs, which was uniformly awful and best-suited for foot baths, as far as I was concerned.
As usual, the streets were crawling with German tourists. Most restaurants and hotels don't even bother with Czech translations on the signs in front of their buildings. In the parking lot, the attendant warned Jaromir that we might be asked to park elsewhere. "It's mostly for Germans here," he said. What I liked most about Karlovy Vary was the black-and- white kitten who came slinking out of the back of a fancy restaurant with a chicken carcass in his mouth. Another enterprising Czech.
Late that night on the way back from Karlovy Vary, our Škoda coughed, lost power and keeled over on the side of the road. We were three km from Kadaň, with no extra clothing and no cars in sight. There were many possibilities — none of them good. At best, a long walk home and the risk of vandalism of a rented vehicle. But suddenly, there was a pair of headlights on the horizon, slowing down stopping! The driver popped open the hood, whipped out some tools and flashlight, and quickly traced the problem to the rotor or wiring harness. In the blink of an eye we were careening down the mountain at the end of a six-foot tow rope. In the light from the buildings, we finally got a good look at our savior and his vehicle, a vintage 1979s green Volga, with a wide square hood and enormous grill . He wouldn't take penny for his trouble, and sped away before we could learn who he was or where he came from, or even offer him a beer.
Our Škoda sidelined for repairs, we me up empty-handed after two days of searching for another rental car. Most rentals were actually long-term leases and insurance was not an option. Several times we were promised cars, but the location, condition and price changed with each passing hour. So it was back down the road to Prague, through Pětipsy and Velka Dobra and Horsefly. An experienced traveler now, I soaked my clothes in cold water before I got on the bus.
We were first in line for the bus for Turnov, which was a half-an-hour late. The driver lets three friends with big backpacks hop on first, then pulled up to the stand. Crewcut, blond and stone-faced, he looked like a KGB agent, though I'm sure he would have been equally at home under any other totalitarian regime. We handed him our money, but he looked right through us. "Seating will be in strict accordance with company policy," he announced. "Passengers travelling the farthest will be seated first "Harrachov ... Korenov ... Tannwald From first place we just dropped to last, and it was standing room only on the bus for Turnov.
We chose Turnov for its location in the heart of Česky Raj (Czech Paradise), but it looked more like Českyesky Peklo (Czech Hell), a pastiche of everything we liked the least about Czechoslovakia. Downtown Turnov with its soot-clad baraky, grubby streets and rancid air, was as picturesque as the inside of a tailpipe. We walked the town from one end to the other, searching for some sign of the tender Renaissance we saw in western and southern Bohemia — the scaffolding, the fresh plaster and paint, the new small businesses. But the only bright spot was a tiny bistro near the jewelry-making school, with hand- carved wooden tables and chairs and a proprietor who looked like Dolly Parton and dressed like Mary Poppins.
"It's true," she conceded, "no one feels good when he comes to this place." She moved to Turnov to open her bistro several years ago and is still doing battle with the local restaurant mafia, with its alliances and territories and hell-bent resistance to change. Before I visited Czechoslovakia, I always thought Communism was a political ideology. In fact, it had nothing to do with ideology, and everything to do with influence, alliances, territory, cronyism, payoffs and self-perpetuation. During the Velvet Revolution, top Communist Party officials were deposed, but an army of career bureaucrats was still at their posts. This "Old Structure" was in the best position to profit from the new Capitalist System. They alone had the money to invest in real estate or start a new business, and the influence to cut through the red tape that tied up every transaction. Young entrepreneurs must compete with powerful state corporations which were exempt from bankruptcy laws, in an economy without mortgages and without self-policing professional associations. A witches' brew of laissez-faire capitalism and a top-heavy Socialist bureaucracy.
We finally found a room at the Hotel Beneš near the train station — just how near, we were soon to learn. In the dining room, there were 20 guys drinking beer with one well-worn prostitute, and flypaper dangling from the chandeliers. Around midnight, we discovered that our room overlooked the switching yard. There was a train every five minutes, accompanied by a barking loudspeaker and the screech of metal on metal. I wrapped a pillow around my head and managed to fall asleep between trains about 1:00 a.m.
The proprietor offered us pepper steak and potatoes for breakfast, but we just wanted to catch the first bus out of there. What a difference a few kilometers would make! The road to Malá Skála (small rock) was mountain pass, and the higher we climbed, the lighter and fresher the air. Olive drab in Turnov, the Jizera River was now bright and bubbly. Malá Skalá is a hamlet with a train station, a few dozen houses, a campground, a swimming hole, two castles and two good restaurants. We loaded our packs with rohliky, cheese and lemonade and set off immediately for Suché Skály (dry rocks), one of the "rock towns" which are the trademarks of Česky Raj.
A rock town is a sandstone cliff, carved by erosion into chimneys, towers, arches balconies and stairways. The sand underfoot was as fine and white as Daytona Beach. By mid-afternoon, we were tired and overheated, so went for a beer at the Kavka, where the waiter was quickly overwhelmed by five tables of hikers. We made a quick calculation and decided to order dinner immediately, aiming to eat around 5:00. lt worked perfectly, and we enjoyed a nice meal of flounder, potatoes and cucumber salad.
By six, the cool air had returned, and we set off again in the direction of Vranov and Frydestejn Castles. The two were at opposite ends of a rock town, and the ridge between them seemed inhabited by druids, unicorns, dragons and warriors. Stone steps and carved archways led to mysterious obelisks, tablets set in stone, bottomless pits and monuments to forgotten gods.
We returned by a serpentine road to Malá Skalá, with more than 30 kilometers behind us, grateful for a hot shower and a quiet room at the youth hostel.
After a short hop on the morning train, we landed in Jesenny, "the little town that time forgot." There was a train station, a hospoda, a sawmill, a Roman bridge in ruins and about six houses. We followed an old logging road to the caves at Boskov, but were taken aback by the busloads of German tourists swarming the entrance.
"Oh, you speak Czech!" said the ticket agent, who explained that the tours were in German only. We waited patiently in line for 45 minutes, but every time the doors opened, we were elbowed, shoved and kicked out of the way by German grandmothers and parents with children in tow.
Another short hop on a Czech choo-choo, and we're in Železny Brod, where's we visit a glass-making school and discover that there's more to Bohemian glass than the pretty but identical, candy dishes, vases and champagne glasses that were hawked in every parking lot, exchange office and newsstand from one end of Bohemia to the other.
The sun was waning, and we were ripe for adventure. A small sign across the bridge on the Jizera pointed to "Malá Skalá — 6 km. Return on foot? Why not! The distance was off by at least 100%, but the trail followed the far side of the Jizera, then climbed slowly through a pine forest to a ridge near Mount Kozakov. We emerged from the woods to find ourselves in a wheat field high above Malá Skalá. The trail ended at a swimming hole on the Jizera, so the only sensible thing to do was jump in and sit in the bubbles until sunset. On the other side of the river, there were hundreds of tents. Whole families travel together by foot and by train, with no money, no equipment and no plans. None were needed. There are hiking trails everywhere, public transportation is cheap and abundant, and there's a hospoda every few kilometers.
We had a late, lazy dinner at the Kavka. About 3:00 a.m., I got up to take a last look at the night sky of Malá Skalá. The big dipper was low on the horizon and perfectly horizontal. The mountains were stenciled on the heavens, including the spooky silhouette of the ruins of Frydestejn. There were no streetlights and no blinding mercury vapor lamps. Only the twinkly lights of the houses on the other side of the river reflected in the mist rising from the Jizera.
We caught the 7:00 a.m. train for Harrachov, climbing quickly into the Rockies-style Krkonoše Mountains. In Tannwald, we switched trains and were suddenly looking out the front of a rickety wagon, while a big, beefy, red-white-and-blue engine backed into position behind us. There were cogs on the third rail! The grade was impressive. Big valleys, tall trestles and dozens of tunnels, 29 including one that was at least one kilometer long. In Korenov, a banner announced the 90th anniversary of the Tannwald-Korenov "tooth" railway. The train makes a long loop near the Polish border, then doubles back to Harrachov, only a few kilometers away as the crow flies.
We walked the four kilometers from the train station down the mountain to Harrachov, the Stowe of Czechoslovakia. All the hotels are Swiss chalets, all the private homes have "zimmer frei", and the line-up at the only gas station is 22 cars long. Even the pedestrian traffic is bumper-to-bumper. We ate breakfast at the Hotel Carolina. Real coffee, American toilet paper and something that sounds like cereal on the menu. We asked the waiter for details. "It's a muesli plate," he says, reading directly from the menu, "mostly for people on a diet. I wouldn't eat it." I try to look glum, like I'd really rather have a big plate of salami and cheese, as I wolf down my first bowl of granola in nearly a month.
We took the great circle route home from Harrachov, via Liberec, Dečin, Usti nad labe and Chomutov. There was grimy dirt packed under my fingernails, the straps of my backpack, the hems of my T-shirt and shorts. In Usti, parents are advised to keep their children indoors six days out of 10 because of toxic chemicals in the air. Our fellow travelers looked so fragile with their bare arms and legs.
On our last day in Kadaň, we watched a Czech comedy from the 1930s, very funny and very well done in every way. It suddenly hit me that until the 1940s, tiny Czechoslovakia was absolutely on a par with other European countries. But then time stopped, the Russians took over and the "Czechs have been running in place ever since, struggling with inadequate tools and materials to squeeze a few more years of service out of roads, bridges, buildings and railroads which date back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
At the Prague International Airport, flights were delayed because of two-hour lines at the check-in counter. When we finally cleared customs, we were crammed into a stifling hot waiting room,
"I feel like I am immigrating to Canada for a second time," sighed Jaromir, fanning himself with his boarding pass.
After the eternal flight home, blissfully interrupted by a glimpse of the jagged white coast of Greenland, we were whisked from the plane to Mirabel Airport by a shuttle straight off the set of Star Wars. The Montreal air was clean, so impossibly clean. There were no crowds and the airport floors fairly gleamed in the sunset.
Our homecoming lost a bit of its glow the morning after, when Jaromir discovered that while he was away, he'd been laid off. So it really was like the first time he immigrated, without a job and starting all over again.Next