Letter from Prague

The chief purpose of my letter today is to shatter a few myths. In order to better organise my thoughts, I have selected cases that relate to my holiday over the festive season. Yes, after a quarter of century spent preaching glad tidings on the air, while almost all the rest of the gang here at Radio Prague enjoyed their hard-earned winter holidays, I finally decided to use up my accrued annual leave to spend with my family, in a cottage just west of Prague, that we proudly call our holiday resort. All my myth-shattering is therefore done from the vantage point of my secluded winter break.

The myths are as follows:

Myth number one: Spaniels don't panic when firecrackers explode, they're hunting dogs, bred to be immune to loud bangs. Untrue. Rikki, my Black Spaniel, now into the fourth year of his canine life, was absolutely dismayed by the New Year's Eve rancour that our neighbours generated in order to amuse their offspring. "Gee, Dad, that one's a real monster," and so forth. Rikki couldn't be persuaded to venture out with us for that peaceful midnight expedition, in the course of which we had planned to silently count the stars, a myriad of which were shining bright on the clear, freezing skies. Rikki just wouldn't leave his bed near the fireplace. Of course, it must be said that he isn't a pedigree spaniel, because his dear mother, Peggy, flunked her tests. Rikki stayed indoors and when we came back, he licked us something awful, evidently happy that we hadn't deserted him when he really wanted all of us to be with him, in his hour of depression, and perhaps also to kiss him back.

Myth number two: Country life is healthy, there's no pollution around. Wrong. Most of us Czechs own weekend retreats of some sort, and most of us attempt to translate our urban lifestyle into the countryside context. Penny-pinchers as we generally are, we Czechs hate to invest in environment-saving ventures. Such as smokeless electric heating. Our holiday lair is safe in this case, we are smokeless, apart from the fireplace which we stoke with choicest pine and fir logs. Otherwise, we're trying to be as environmental as possible. Not so our neighbours. Most of them live in the coal mining district of Kladno, where deliveries of cheap, low-quality brown coal, full of sulphur, are the only vestige of their former totalitarian bliss. They stoke the primitive stoves of their weekend huts with something they would never use in their homes. It smells and the snow in the area is black. It's dirtier than in the city. They want communism back, obviously, with all its environmentally-unfriendly aspects. It will take ages, or until these people die out anyway, to restore the local environment. We ain't millionaires, they said on a cool December night, pointing at the three cars parked outside our house. As though we were millionaires. Well, three cars, one of them was our old family Skoda, the other was my father-in-law's Skoda, and the third belonged to friends who wanted to share the arrival of the new millennium with us. It was a Skoda as well. Skoda is not only the name of an enlightened industrialist, but also the Czech word for "pity". Most Czechs, I hate to say, are unfriendly to the environment.

But let's compare our mythologies even further. One maxim says that watching TV at Christmas is sacrilegious, for nothing happens, and it's only good for kids, who can have their fill of stale fairytales. Again, this is untrue!!! Watching the public-service station, Czech Television, this past Christmas was absolutely thrilling. Never in my life have I seen so many blackened screens conveying a stark message. I hope you have heard all the relevant information from Radio Prague in my absence. To sum up, a dispute is raging for control of Czech Television, with numerous allegations of undue political influence. Czech TV journalists, amazingly wonderful people, whom I cherish for their deep commitment to freedom, went on strike, with extensive coverage given to the fact these journalists, who had occupied the newsroom at Czech Television, could not leave the room to go to the toilet. My wife is on radiotherapy, but she drove to Prague every day to give them her support. She had befriended those people through her job, which is to send creative journalists to the West, to obtain experience and act accordingly. These beautiful people, with dry toilets they have had passed through the newsroom window, made me rethink my attitude to life. Good for them, bad for the myths. Democracy was at stake— and the blackened television screen kept me glued to the box for hours, lest I should miss the light at the end of the long black tunnel. Who said Czech TV was boring and better avoided at Christmas?

As an interesting footnote -- another myth has been shattered, and I swear we at the cottage had nothing to do with this. We were merely amused by some sudden twists. Most people in this country think that belonging to a reputed organisation for some time automatically promotes a person to the position of paragon of righteousness. Well, the guy whom politicians allegedly appointed general director of Czech Television, spent some time as the head of the Czech Section of the BBC World Service. The 'Beeb' means efficiency and democracy to most Czechs, or at least those who listened to that station's excellent programmes before communism fell in this country. Yet the newly-appointed boss of Czech TV, and a small entourage of his sympathisers, got hold of the station's management, and proved disastrously incompetent in dealing with the voice of the people. I spoke to people in the BBC who know the new TV boss well, and it turns out that even the BBC has rejects. Another myth shattered.

Conventional wisdom also is that when in Rome, do like the Romans do. There's a pub in the village near our place where locals and cottage-owners love to congregate every evening to chew the fat and enjoy a pint. Or two. Or three. The pub, the better of the two available in the locality, stayed open long past midnight on New Year's Eve. We were well stocked with all the necessities, food and bubbly that we brought from Prague. Alas, we found out that there wasn't enough dry red wine in the cellar for the visiting party that we were expecting. Seven hours before midnight struck, I was dispatched to fetch some from the pub. Now, when you ask for dry wine in a Czech country pub, you either get the blanks, which is what you should hope for, or you're stuck with it. Neighbours will accost you, one by one and in groups, urging you to have a glass with them, for the sake of good old times. You obviously don't want to displease these good old souls, so you drink their health. You down tumblers upon tumblers of unimaginable stuff, anything but dry red wine. It's mostly green, it's sweet and it reeks of peppermint. My advice is, don't do like they do. Unless you want to stumble back to base wearing that silly smile on your face, and carrying with you none of the dry red wine you had been sent for. What a shame!

Author: Libor Kubík
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