Letter from České Velenice-Gmünd

České Velenice, photo: Fojsinek, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
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České Velenice is one of those places that you look at on a map and wonder how such an oddity can even exist. A small town, tucked away in a south-eastern corner of Bohemia, České Velenice is boxed-in on three sides by the Austrian border. Not only that, but it is also situated right next to the far larger Austrian town of Gmünd.

České Velenice, photo: Fojsinek, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
As I arrived by train, I didn’t know what to expect – perhaps a kind of Czech-Austrian joint community, with each side influencing the others’ cultures. In retrospect, that was a little naive. Despite their proximity, the towns are separated by a heavily wooded river, meaning that the two sides can’t actually see each other.

Velenice is built as a series of long grid-like roads. A thick line of train tracks block off one side of the border. On the other side are number of apartment blocks. The centre of this former industrial town is basically a long road that runs along the river border. In the middle of this road lies a shiny new footbridge that can be crossed to get from one town – and country – to the other. The centre of Gmünd is a good fifteen minutes walk away. I found the contrast between the two sides to be rather disquieting for the year 2015. České Velenice serves as a potent reminder that a border town in this part of the country carries with it considerable emotional baggage. For one, there is the Sudeten past – the Czech residents were expelled following the 1938 Munich Agreement. Then the German-speaking ones were expelled following the end of the Second World War. For 40 years, České Velenice was sealed off from its neighbour by the Iron Curtain.

A local lady told me how border guards were stationed in the forests all around, meaning locals couldn’t even take their dogs for a walk. Of course, sometimes, she added, once they got to know you, exceptions could be made. Czechs from the rest of the country would require a permit to even come here. And so, far from serving as a cultural interchange, this part of the country (as with much of the Czech western border areas) atrophied economically, culturally – as a backwater on the edge of nowhere.

Gmünd, photo: archive of Radio Prague
Walking into Gmünd was like being transported into a completely different reality. A clean, tastefully decorated square full of whites, greens, blues – a stark contrast to that grim, crumbling communist-era beige colour still so prevalent in Czech towns. Shops galore, prosperity, and that word Czechs often use when they bemoan how they have yet to catch up with the west – “pořádek”, meaning “order”. It’s easy to see why Czechs might enjoy a visit to Gmünd. Coffee shops, bakeries, antique stores; at a number of supermarkets on the edge of town, I hear the Czech language spoken in even greater numbers. The currency rate actually makes shopping in euros advantageous to Czechs these days. The sad part is, alas, when I tired to consider what Austrians might come for to České Velenice. Although I did find a small bookstore and an EU-backed centre celebrating both these communities, and even a joint Gmünd- České Velenice map given away for free, the disparity was nonetheless clear: the Czech side features countless market stalls selling not cultural trinkets, or local cakes, or porcelain, or anything else remotely indicative of Czech potential, but rather cheap mass-produced global junk like towels emblazoned with Baywatch or Spiderman logos. Then there is a casino, and other slot machine facilities with those number digit signs on the outside claiming a growing potential jackpot. For some reason, a number of them read “ERROR”. And of course there are the “night clubs” which don’t mean what an English person might think they mean.

Just for fun, I crossed back into what suddenly felt like the “wild east” Czech Republic not over the footbridge but across a field on the edges of both towns. I tried to find some trace of where the barbed wire might have been, but that was long gone. As I walked back to the České Velenice train station, I tried my hardest to shake off any sense of infectious fatalism about the Czech Republic: “It’s getting better,” I told myself over and over again, “It just takes time, but gradually it is getting better.” Later on, I looked at the České Velenice website, which featured countless local activities, and even boasted of a Czech-Austrian business park – and yes, even little porcelain bells and fridge magnets on offer at the town’s information centre emblazoned with an image of České Velenice! The Czech-Austrian Fenix Community Centre also has its own website. It features a rich schedule of concerts, film clubs, children’s craft centres; one regular event it highlights is called “Tvoření s Ivkou” – a course for adults run by a Czech lady on how to make decorations from recycled items. Fatalism is too easy. It really is getting better...

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