Letter from Prague


Spain's Costa del Sol is perhaps the most common place for the English to go on holiday. Often the best aspects of British life are not on show, and we are easily recognisable by the colour of our legs.

The sea-less Czechs flock to the Adriatic just as the sunless Brits do to the Spanish beaches. Unlike the English they don't tend towards rowdiness when on mass, but their sheer volume on the beaches is certainly overwhelming and they go the same unnatural pink-orange-brown colour from lying on the beach as all other Northern Europeans. It was strange to see practically as many CZ number plates as Croatian ones and to hear Czech spoken in a foreign country more than any other language.

After a while I moved inland from the Croatian Adriatic and the multitudes of tourists were replaced with a disturbingly large number of houses torn to pieces by the recent war. I made my way into Bosnia-Herzegovina and saw the famous destroyed bridge at Mostar and then went on to Sarajevo. The Czech cars I saw here, I assume, are those of refugees who had made new lives in the Czech lands.

On my homeward journey I was hitchhiking in the flat planes of Slavonia in eastern Croatia when the driver told me that we were passing by a 'Czech village'. I felt a duty to go and see it, only to discover that it was in fact a Slovak village. (I was surprised that someone from ex-Yugoslavia would make this mistake.) It was called Josipovac after Bishop Josip Strossmayer, who founded it in 1881 because he was organising the construction of a new cathedral at nearby Dakovo. As there was nothing but thick oak forest in the region guest labourers had to be brought in to build it from impoverished Slovakia.

I became acquainted with the proud president of the village's Matica slovenská a Slovak national cultural organisation dating to back to the country's national revival last century. He gave me a tour of the new local school which had been built jointly by the Slovak and Croat governments.

He then told me that as well as ten thousand Slovaks there were also thirteen thousand Czechs living in Croatia and sent me to the town of Daruvar, a hundred or so kilometres to the west. The town itself is half Czech-speaking, while the surrounding villages are almost entirely Czech. The town is famous for its beer which is called Starocesko, and was first introduced by Czech migrants in 1840, and has now become one of Croatia's major breweries.

After speaking to the very educated president of the Czech Union and head-teacher of the local Czech secondary school I decided to venture into one of these villages. She spoke to me in clear standard Czech, but I was fascinated to hear the spoken dialect.

The villagers were a wary bunch, seemingly afraid to communicate with people they didn't know. When they spoke to each other I couldn't really understand them. Obviously, after living in Croatia for a hundred and fifty years the influence of the local language will be strong. They mixed a lot of Croatian words into their language; they tended to put the stress on the second syllable rather than on the first as is proper; and I could hear rising and falling vowel sounds taken over from Croatian. Instead of greeting each other with the nautical 'ahoj' as is standard here, they used the Croatian 'bogu'.

When I did talk to them they told that thirty to forty Czechs had died in the war with Yugoslavia in ninety one and ninety two. I wondered how many people back home knew that so many of their kinsmen had died, or he even that they existed.

So there are two very different types of Czechs in Croatia.

Author: Paddington Tucker
run audio