Reasons to be cheerful – with Petr Sís, Janek Rubeš and many more

Photo: Ian Willoughby

2020 has been a long, tough and stressful year for many around the world. So we thought it’d be a nice idea to ask some notable people what they’ve been doing to keep their spirits up during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Petr Sís: Discovering our town

Petr Sís,  photo: Ian Willoughby

Highly acclaimed children’s author and illustrator Petr Sís is just about to publish a new book, Nicky & Vera, inspired by the story of Sir Nicholas Winton and the children he saved. Sís has been living in Irvington on the River Hudson in New York State for the last two decades.

“I always was happy to see the trees, see the river, see the sky, but I would go to Manhattan, or I would be travelling to Prague, or I would be travelling around the world.

“I didn’t pay much attention to the place where I lived, so now in these past eight or 10 months we’ve been taking a walk every day in different areas and I’m sort of discovering where I’m living – a place I didn’t know for all these years.

“This is an exceptional area. It was a Dutch area: New Amsterdam before it became New York.

“There were these Dutch settlers and we’re living in a house that’s an old Dutch barn. And there are lots of parks and walks.

“We are living next to the house of the writer Washington Irving. Actually we live in Irvington and the place is called after Washington Irving.

“He was a most influential writer in America in the beginning of the 19th century and influenced Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe.

Petr Sís,  photo: T. Bitnar

“I knew it but now I’m discovering all these things about him and it’s quite sort of like American Gothic.

“They found out that he travelled through all of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars and went from Salzburg through Bohemia to Dresden and he describes his sojourn in Prague.

“He also came to Irvington as a child because of the Yellow Fever in Manhattan, so it’s like I’m finding all these connections.

“So I’m amusing myself with that and finishing a book about Nicholas Winton, which I wanted to do for a long time.

“I did lots of research on that, including books about the Holocaust and all of that.

“And all of sudden if you see what happened to these children and what Nicholas Winton did and then you look at the terrible news about Covid, you say, Well, there are things happening all the time – it depends how we sort of think about it.

“I’m also trying to work on some other projects but it’s really hard to focus, to stay focused. I wasn’t used to working from home.

“I have a little room in the front of the barn and a little room in the back, so sometimes I walk from one place to another, pretending like I’m in a different place and I’m doing a different project.

“I realised we all, in life, in the previous life, sort of moved with a certain energy because we know we’re going somewhere, we’re doing something.

“And here it’s almost like time stands still. Which in a way started to remind me of when I was 16, 17 under the Communists in Prague.

“There was nowhere to go, nothing to do. We’d be sitting in the pub for the whole day because nothing was happening.

“But here you can’t go to the pub, because obviously it’s closed.

“So you sit at the kitchen table and talk to people who don’t exist.

“Or I have a rabbit and sort of play with the rabbit.

"So that’s how I’m trying to deal with it.”

Martin Dušek: Vintage car project

Martin Dušek at Vltava,  photo: Ian Willoughby

Back in February, the feature debut of Martin Dušek and Ondřej Provazník, Old-Timers, was named film of the year at the Czech Critics’ Awards. After the virus hit, Dušek spent quite a bit of time at his family place in Modlany, north Bohemia – exploring the local landscape and fixing up an unusual heirloom.

“I had free time to work on my vintage car project, because I’ve got this old vintage Skoda Rapid from the 1980s, which we inherited from my grandfather.

“So I was able to try to make it work again with a local mechanic in Modlany and I enjoyed it very much.

“My wife and I took a nice trip to Bechyně because of a wedding. It was the wedding of a famous Czech designer in fact, Maxim Velčovský, so there were lots of special guests, even a guy with a brand new Porsche convertible.

“But I was happy that my old Skoda sports car from the ‘80s was in the centre of interest.”

Miřenka Čechová: Meaning of family

Miřenka Čechová,  photo: Vojtěch Havlík / Czech Radio

Miřenka Čechová is an internationally acclaimed performer, director and choreographer known for combining dance and physical theatre. More recently she has won plaudits for her powerful book Baletky (Ballet Dancers).

“What made me really happy was the fact that as a dancer who is using her body in daily life and in communication – and it’s my work to be on the stage – I was actually switching into a writer who is using her writing in a kind of similar way as my body.

“I’m pretty happy for this change and for this possibility to continue my creative work.

“Secondly what really brought happiness to my life, at a very personal level, is that this isolation allowed me to get together with my grandparents and to bring my son too and to spend really good quality time with family and to realise what it means to have a big family around me and to live in a certain community.

“That was really helpful for my son – and also a big realisation for myself.

“I also wanted to speak more about the fact that perhaps we as humans have been able to see how nature and our civilisation need to be in harmony.

“Without that we can’t exist.”

Karel Och: Return to routine

Karel Och | Photo: Eva Turečková,  Radio Prague International

Karel Och is artistic director of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It was cancelled this year, though the festival did take a selection of films to nearly 100 screening halls around the country with the project Vary at Your Cinema.

"I have to say that before the planes stopped flying I spent a lot of time up in the air – about a third of my time I spend travelling.

“So I’m in this awkward situation where I want to talk about the pandemic in rather positive terms.

“Because it allowed me to come back to a routine. I spent much more time with my kids than before.

“So my spirits were quite up during the pandemic, I have to say [laughs]

“It was more about physical shape, which I thought was necessary to keep.

“So I did a lot of mountain biking in the forests, which is something that I’ve always loved: a lot of exercising.

“I spent a lot in the nature, if it was allowed, and of course with my boys.

“I had time to come back to books. Before, when you travel a lot, you’re distracted, so you don’t focus that much on reading. That’s a positive as well.

“So I’m afraid it was not that painful, I have to say.”

Mila Fürstová: Focus on creativity

Míla Fürstová in her studio in Cheltenham,  2020,  photo: Quintin Lake

The well-known artist Mila Fürstová, who does incredibly intricate drawings and etchings, lives in the English town of Cheltenham. During the pandemic she illustrated a new edition of a classic of Czech literature.

“Myself and my family have really given ourselves over to creativity in all possible ways.

“I’ve got two young children – six and eight years old.

“When their schools were shut, we suddenly thought, How are we going to occupy them and make them happy?

“My husband had an idea almost straight away.

“He went into the kitchen and took two cereal boxes and in a couple of minutes he emerged from his office and made holes in both of the boxes and put a sign on them, Busy – Do not enter!

“He said, One is for you, one is for me and we’re going to put them on the doors of our studios and that will keep the kids out [laughs].

“He was going to manage the constant presence of the children in our home, in our studios.

“But we soon realised that wasn’t going to work and really threw ourselves into being with them and playing with them – and we really enjoyed that.

“We took a lot of walks as a family and did a lot of messy, creative projects at home.

“So that was one part. Also for me personally, because I’m somebody who is very happy to be a mother – I feel really lucky to be a mother – but I knew that I’m also an artist and that I’ll have to spend some time working on my own work, just to be a nicer person to the whole family [laughs].

“So I said I’d need to find a couple of hours a day to make my own art.

“But because of the fear in the air here in Britain, the unknown of the virus, I really not feeling very inspired at all.

“And at the time came this commission offer to illustrate an English version of the iconic Czech book Kytice.

“Although I initially hesitated – because it’s a very, very big project – because of Covid and the lockdown I accepted it.

“So in a strange way from the kind of horror of Covid that was happening outside on the streets I ran to my own Czech and very familiar horror of Kytice.

“That kind of kept me going.”

Michal Kubal: Reasons for optimism

Michal Kubal,  photo: Adam Kebrt / Czech Radio

Michal Kubal presents the main evening news on Czech Television and heads the station’s foreign news department. This year he co-authored a book, Pandemic, about the impact of Covid-19 in the Czech Republic.

“It was pretty easy during spring to remain optimistic.

“There was a huge wave of national solidarity. Everybody was making masks and the nation seemed to be united.

“We seemed to be ‘best in Covid’, if I should quote our prime minister, despite all the unknowns around us.

“So we can say that spring was a successful story – but it changed after a few weeks.

“But even now there are still heroes of everyday life: the stories coming from ICU’s across the country.

“Health care workers from hospitals in the hardest hit areas are talking to me and I’m speaking with them; they are telling stories about coming to work, staying over time and taking this as their duty, maybe, even their mission.

“But this of course could be upsetting – seeing the sacrifice of these people in hospitals and then being confronted by the reckless behaviour of some people around you.

“So maybe it’s more gloomy than the spring was.

“So I wouldn’t speak about being cheerful exactly – maybe reasons to be optimistic.

“But, well, I know history [laughs] and it shows that after a dark period better days usually come.

“And this year, despite all its horrors, has not been the worst in this country’s history.

“On the personal side, I myself have been through worse.

“My experience from the Middle East and other quite wild and volatile areas is to be as well prepared as possible – and to be disturbed as little as possible by things beyond my control.

“Not to get too nervous and anxious about stuff I cannot influence – and then maybe everything will be OK.”

Marie Tomanová: Cross-town walks

Marie Tomanová,  photo: Ian Willoughby

Photographer Marie Tomanová had a great year on the professional front, taking her work to places like Berlin and Japan and getting some high profile commissions. But she and her husband live in Manhattan and were there when New York was hit hard by Covid-19.

“At the beginning of the pandemic there was a lot of anxiety and not knowing what’s happening.

“What kind of kept me feeling grounded and sane was that we started to do every day walks.

“We would leave in the morning and walk from the East Village all the way to the west side and back.

“That became a really nice routine and a kind of calming experience.

“Also it was amazing watching the city changing throughout the pandemic, because all of a sudden it was totally empty, for days.

“There were no people, no cars, no cabs – because there were no people to get in the cabs, right?

“Then you slowly through the months saw it waking up, and then there was the Black Lives Matter movement.

“But we kind of kept our walks, which was something that definitely helped to get through the days.”

Adam Gebrian: Observing Prague details

Adam Gebrian,  photo: Barbora Linková / Czech Radio

Another person that walks a lot is the well-known architecture critic Adam Gebrian, whose fabulous photos of Prague have won him tens of thousands of on-line followers. He says his life hasn’t been changed that much in practical terms by Covid, so I asked if he welcomed the fact that the city centre has sometimes been virtually deserted this year.

“I would say 90 percent against. I’m not happy seeing empty Prague, basically, if I simplify.

“I don’t like it at all. I live in the city centre and I live in the city centre because I like people.

“And I don’t care if they are locals or tourists.

“So I’m the last one who would say, Prague is unbearable because there are so many tourists. I mean in normal terms.

“So right now I think that’s an issue for me.

“I don’t have any shop or something like that, so I’m not missing customers in that sense, from a pure economic point of view.

“But I don’t like seeing empty streets.

“But, sure, there are benefits. Because right now when I go home in the evening I can stop in the middle of the street and I can observe things that I’ve never normally seen before.

“Now I have time. No car is passing by and nobody’s around.

“So it gives you a chance to see things that normally you would not see.”

Adéla Horáková: People, movement, nature

Adéla Horáková | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

Adéla Horáková is one of the leading members of Jsme fér (We Are Fair), a group advocating for equal marriage for LGBT people in the Czech Republic.

“For me it’s always around three things, and that’s people, movement and nature.

“These are the three things that keep me, not sane but focused; I think focused is the important word here.

“It doesn’t mean I’m always super focused and always disciplined and always doing some sport, but these are my ‘go tos’ if I want go there.

“I’ve dived into yoga, and that’s nice.

“I get up and I make myself a glass of green tea and I go and yoga, during which I drink my green tea and look out the window into the yard.

“And I love that – it’s a great way to start the day.

“I don’t say every day I start like this – there are days when I just skip and I don’t feel like it.

“But that’s my little ritual.

“I’m not a ritual kind of a person. I don’t like repetition. But this one I kind of enjoy.”

Jiří Přibáň: Escape into fiction

Jiří Přibáň,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Professor Jiří Přibáň teaches at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University in South Wales.

“I started re-reading Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

“Because I thought there would be plenty of time for fiction and if the real world is so depressing you have to find a fictitious reality into which you can jump and enjoy.

“And apart from reading fiction a lot more than I used to, I started watching particularly birds and squirrels in our garden.

“Because our social life is so limited and the experience with living nature is limited, I feel very fortunate that I have this opportunity.

“We’re living close to the woods, so birds are my great company.”

Ayesha Rekhi: Connecting through food

Ayesha Rekhi,  photo: archive of Embassy of Canada

Ayesha Rekhi has been Canada’s ambassador to the Czech Republic since the summer of 2019. We spoke on the eve of the festive season.

“Food is a big part of our lives as a family, not least because my husband [Cameron Stauch] is a professional chef and food writer.

“So we spend a lot of time thinking about food, talking about food and certainly eating it.

“And actually in the early days of the pandemic he was cooking food for the men’s shelter up the street from the embassy.

“That not only gave him purpose but for us as a family it made us feel connected to our new community in Prague, to our new home.

“It felt like in some small way we were helping.

“I think over those first three months he cooked something like 700 litres of soup, and that’s a lot of soup.

“We’ve been in the Czech Republic for the whole pandemic, but as a foreign service family we have connections and experiences from all over the world.

“So when we’ve eaten Vietnamese food or Thai food these meals have made us feel connected to people and places that we may be missing.

“And certainly when we’ve been eating Indian food it’s a reminder of my parents – my family’s originally from India. So again, a real comfort for me.

“We of course feel lucky to be in the Czech Republic and to be in this beautiful country, but we miss family and this sort of extended separation from loved ones has been tough.

“And even more so, I think, at this time of year.

“But again we’re connecting through food, so actually quite recently my son was on Zoom with his grandparents – so kitchens separated by thousands of miles – and they were making gnocchi together, which was actually a lovely Covid memory that I'm sure I will keep with me for a long time.

“And now as we are approaching Christmas we are certainly cooking again.

“My daughter has been making Christmas cookies this week, and while we’re speaking my husband is actually starting to make traditional Canadian tourtiere, which are meat pies from Quebec.

“He’s making those for the families of our Embassy staff.

“Usually we get together for a Christmas party but we can’t this year, so as a family we wanted to give them something from our family to theirs – small taste of Canada and a small bit of comfort food from us to them.”

Janek Rubeš: Discovering new spots

Janek Rubeš | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

Janek Rubeš has a huge number of followers around the world for the Honest Guide video series. He says he’s had plenty to keep him going on both the professional and personal fronts in 2020.

“We were being occupied with creating the Honest Guide – and trying to find a reason to put a smile not only on our faces but also the viewers’ faces.

“And looking back I think it actually wasn’t such a bad year.

“It may sound silly or funny, but I just love to walk.

“I love to walk around, which is also a way to avoid social contacts, because you can pick your way.

“I love to walk and discover new places and even thanks to people being told to avoid social contacts I would find a place where there was nobody there and discover a new place in Prague.”

Rob Cameron: Sense of community

Rob Cameron by the Botič,  photo: Ian Willoughby

My friend Rob Cameron – who worked at Radio Prague International many moons ago – is the BBC’s correspondent in the Czech Republic. In March he started a Facebook group called #Helpyourhood that has become a very useful source of Covid-related information for its 4,000 members.

“For a start I suppose I should say that I’ve been working at home anyway for a really long time – for about 15 years.

“It wasn’t such an upheaval and such a change for me, so it wasn’t really a big shock for a start.

“It’s obviously been a really difficult time, a negative time, but at the same time there have been positives and there have been opportunities for people to show compassion and a sense of community.

“And I guess I found that from this Facebook group that I created – and rather hate talking about really, because it’s just taken over my life to such a degree.

“But that did show me that there is a sense of community that does crop up when these things happen.

“And you can draw positives from that, even though sometimes you have to actually try.”

Steve Gove: Hugs from nature

Steve Gove,  photo: David Vaughan

Steve Gove is the founder and director of the Prague Fringe Festival. It was unable to take place in its usual form but did produce an online event in May and more recently brought Czech alternative theatre to the world with Prague Fringe Reimagined.

“What I do to keep my spirits up is to immerse myself as much as possible in nature.

“Unlike in Scotland, luckily here it doesn’t rain that much, so even when it’s colder weather, or it’s not particularly sunny, I always go into a park – I live quite near to Stromovka.

“I think for our mental well-being it’s really important to engage with nature.

“This year was really interesting – for the first time visiting outdoor places very, very frequently we all saw spring unfold almost like in slow motion.

“If you don’t go the park every day, one day there are no leaves and the next time you’re outside suddenly everything’s green.

“Whereas this year we did it so often we all saw it almost like in slow motion. I can’t describe it better.

“And I always feel when I walk into Stromovka or a forest or a wood – wherever I am – that it’s almost like a huge hug.

“We’ve been bereft of hugs this whole year, so I think to get that hug from nature when you enter a park or a green space is a fantastic substitute.

“I think it’s something that we should all do much, much more of going forward, even when the real hugs are allowed again!”