Letter from Prague

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Around one hundred kilometres to the north-west of Prague, there's a little town called Dubi. Dubi's known for two things - it's home to the Czech Republic's famous blue and white onion-pattern porcelain, known as "cibulak", and it's also famous, or rather infamous, for the E55, the "Highway of Love" - a stretch of road leading up to the German border that boasts one of the highest concentrations of prostitutes in Europe. But a few weeks ago, Dubi made the news for a completely different reason.

Around one hundred kilometres to the north-west of Prague, there's a little town called Dubi. Dubi's known for two things - it's home to the Czech Republic's famous blue and white onion-pattern porcelain, known as "cibulak", and it's also famous, or rather infamous, for the E55, the "Highway of Love" - a stretch of road leading up to the German border that boasts one of the highest concentrations of prostitutes in Europe. But a few weeks ago, Dubi made the news for a completely different reason.

The town's only private secondary school - Jan Amos Komensky school - has just held a referendum, to decide what time the kids should start lessons. The school decided to hold the vote because of a bizarre Education Ministry regulation which bans schools - even private schools - from teaching non-compulsory languages during regular school hours. Komensky Secondary School specialises in languages, and the headmistress had been forced to schedule French and Italian classes at seven in the morning. The kids and the teachers were falling asleep at their desks. So she hit upon a novel solution - move the regular school hours forward to allow the extra language classes to start later. Eighty percent of pupils, teachers and parents voted in favour. From next September, Komensky Secondary School will start regular lessons not at 8, but at 8.30, the only school in the Teplice region to do so. This might not sound like much, but the Dubi referendum could be signs of a quiet revolution taking hold of Czech society.

Czechs get up early. Really early. Really bloody early. According to the statistics, they get up on average an hour earlier than people in Western Europe. More than a third of them are already at their desks by 6am, two thirds are in the office by seven, and just five percent start after 8. There are obviously exceptions - especially in the cities - but most people like to be home around three or four to get on with the important stuff, like gardening and doing up the house.

And believe it or not, this passion for early rising is all down to one man, Franz Josef I, who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1848 to 1916. Franz Josef got up at around 3.30 a.m. in the summer and five a.m. in the winter, and was always at his desk by six. And because Franz got up early, his ministers had to get up with him, to carry out his orders and draft his letters. The secretaries who typed those letters also had to get up early, and the butlers who lit their fires, and the maids who made their breakfast, and the telegraph operators who sent their telegraphs. You get the picture. This ripple effect soon had the whole empire springing out of bed at 5 in the morning, all because of the insomnia of one man.

For some reason, the Czechs seem to be the only former imperial subjects who still observe the habit with such religious fervour. But things do seem to be changing. Factories, offices and - as we've heard - some schools are slowly beginning to start later. For one thing it saves on electricity, which is more expensive early in the morning. It's also more practical as the Czech Republic becomes a part of the global economy - there's no point ringing your partner in Brussels at 7am - he's probably still asleep. Franz Josef I might be turning in his grave to hear it, but the Czechs finally seem to be doing away with the habit of a lifetime.