Don’t break a leg!

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Living on the outskirts of Prague in an area that’s about 150 meters higher than the city centre I cannot complain about the dearth of snow. If there is any snow to be had – we have it. While the snow in town usually melts as soon as it hits the ground, where I live it just piles up.

And there’s no mistaking the first snowfall every winter. I am woken up at 5 am by the sound of a snow shovel going at full speed and even without getting out of bed I know everything will be covered in a white blanket. The caretaker is working away to clear the sidewalk, before people start going to work.

For years – in fact as long as I can remember – snow has kept house-owners on their toes and in good shape. For some reason, although sidewalks are public property, Czech lawmakers decided way back that house-owners were responsible for the stretch of sidewalk outside their houses. If someone slipped on the ice –and broke a leg - they could take you to court. The law said sidewalks should be passable and clear of snow or ice at all times and Czech house-owners complied. In Prague people would often moan about having to get up at the crack of dawn to clear the sidewalk, but in my home town in south Bohemia it seemed to be a matter of pride to be out first and have one’s sidewalk spick and span before anyone else. Many a time I would hear a neighbour call out to another “Bit late today, eh” when the poor bloke was up and out at five am – having jumped out of a warm bed, bundled up and emerged into the freezing cold even before having a decent breakfast. If the snow had turned into an icy crust overnight and was impossible to move there were tricks to prevent people breaking their legs outside your house. One could scatter about ashes from the stove, gravel or salt which eventually melted the ice.

Thus far I have been spared – the task went from my grand-father, to my grand-mother and eventually to my father. It was clear that one day I would be out there, shoveling away and getting ribbed by the neighbours. But this year Parliament came to my rescue. It passed a law saying that since sidewalks were public property the respective town hall should be responsible for maintenance. While house-owners are cheering, town halls are berating our deputies. They claim to have no money to maintain sidewalks. They barely have money to maintain the roads. So instead of clearing the snow they have put up warning notices and have taken out insurance against possible accidents. When snow falls Czechs now step very gingerly indeed –and there’s no saying how this will end. Maybe Parliament will pass the buck back to house-owners, who are now fast getting out of shape for lack of early morning exercise.