New Czech Fables – From the culture of tramping, to children’s toys, to compulsory military service

Le tramping

Last week the Czech National Museum launched a new exhibition called New Czech Fables (or New Czech Myths) at the Kinský summer palace, located at the edge of Prague’s Petřín Hill. The show examines urban legends, sayings, social rituals and counter-culture movements in the former Czechoslovakia as well as present-day Czech Republic. In this week’s Arts, Radio Prague takes a closer look.

The idea of mapping folklore in the atomic age, as the exhibition is billed, is not something entirely new but nevertheless is fairly unusual in a Czech context, where more often than not folklore - traditional beliefs, legends, and customs – is something associated with the 19th century, if not the even more distant past. Nové pověsti České - New Czech Fables (or Myths) steps away from that, looking at customs important today in the Czech Republic or topics that were key in former Czechoslovakia.

Among areas of life examined are children’s toys and games, home-made or naive art, subcultures like the Czech punk and heavy metal movements, the culture of tramping (the famous Czech emulation of America’s Wild West) and secret behaviour by conscripts in Czechoslovakia’s Communist army. Much of contemporary folklore from this time was a reaction to the Communist period, and could be described not only as creative outlet but in some cases as rebellious. We look first at compulsory military service; the National Museum’s Petr Janeček:

“People really disliked having to do their service for the regime, which was oppressive, and they had to be there for two years. They really hated it.”

To count the days, it became widespread for new conscripts to manufacture an item similar to a tailor’s metre, with links that were torn off for each day spent in service. A number of the items can be seen behind the glass at New Czech Fables, although, most – by their very nature – ended up lost or destroyed. Petr Janeček again:

“Every evening they would strip off a single day and they did tremendous things with these metres, painting them and hiding them in their uniforms. It was of course forbidden and the officers really hated this folklore and this symbolic use of the metre. Anyone who was in the army in the last 50 years can tell endless stories about these items and it’s very important. Usually only parts of the metres survived, the last ten or seven stubs. Soldiers painted them with symbols of freedom like the US flag or the Statue of Liberty and even this was a kind of resistance.”

Within the army, too, was a kind of secret hierarchy among conscripts: newly-enlisted were often referred to by nicknames, were often hazed and had to be subservient to the second-years, who enforced all manner of unpleasant rituals upon them. Those were widespread in compulsory service, although officially denied.

“Guys who were new to service had to give food or drinks for free, and it was widely accepted. And they also had some privileges. Those who had been longer in the army also protected the younger conscripts against the officers. So there was even a kind of solidarity in the counter-culture.”

That’ very interesting: I always assumed it was only a hate relationship, a one-way relationship...

“No, it was very complex: when you joined the army you were faced with a decision – whether to have a tough two years by obeying ‘only’ the officers – or whether you were going to follow the unofficial rules. If you chose the second one, there were definitely tough times, especially if you bad luck with certain second-years, but usually it was better. It was an alternative, like the gray economy, an alternative way to run an institution.”

Alternatives, as a whole were often limited under the Communist regime which – with its planned economy – was often incapable of meeting consumer needs, even something as simple as children’s toys or games. The need for something different was further fuelled with a fascination with material goods from the West, very difficult if not impossible to get. For that reason, creativity flourished in some homes: some attempted to do their own home decorating producing naive art or decorative items, while children drew their own versions of popular board games, something we see a little less of today. Petr Janeček again:

“For example, you have the board game Monopoly: this game was very popular in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s up to the ‘80s, but it was impossible to buy anywhere. The only way to get it, was if you had relatives in the US or in West Germany. Because it was unavailable children made their own handmade copies, often with variations because they couldn’t remember exactly what the real game looked like. They started from scratch and we have a few examples of these home-produced games in our exhibition.”

Do you think that this is something that has ceased to exist here today, obviously with the free market and availability and so on?

“Not absolutely. We show that kids today are influenced by computer games, so their homemade versions are now influenced by those: Doom and other first-person shooters, or Dune. There are versions of those that kids have come up with, adopting the mythology and stories of such games as well as RPGs or fantasy games.”

The show at the Kinský Palace is fairly modest given the richness of the theme but another aspect highlighted, worth mentioning here, is the Czech tradition of “tramping” which emulates the American Wild West.

“Czech tramping doesn’t mean to have as hobos, it is more akin to hiking, to spending time in nature, in the outdoors. The movement caught on in the First Republic, people who disliked the rules of the Scouting movement and wanted to blaze their own path, often literally. They were influenced by a combination of E.T. Seton and woodcraft, early US Westerns and novels about the Wild West, as well to a degree by the scouts. There were more levels connected to it.”

Given that many Czechs were only rarely able to travel abroad, tramping was fairly popular, as was another sort of subculture chalupaření (‘cottaging’) at the weekends, a small form of escape or small respite from life under the totalitarian regime.

Children’s toys, military service, as well as urban myths and other aspects featured could all be the basis for large individual shows in and of themselves and in fact tramping will be the focus of a bigger independant show planned by the National Museum in the future. For now, visitors can see New Czech Fables, especially worthy if combined with the permanent installation and a pleasant walk across the Kinský garden. On its own Czech Fables is not a large exhibition, but the ideas it explores are undeniably provocative and rich.