From the Weeklies

More than two years ago, a Roma man died under still unclear circumstances. Did the Czech police have a hand in his death? President Havel's former aides remember the first years in his office. And, Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive! These are some of the stories taken up by Czech weeklies.

Let's piece the facts together, TYDEN news weekly suggests in its report on a criminal case which has dragged on inconclusively for more than two years, only to be adjourned again, this time until December 18.

Late in the night of May 16, 1998, Milan Lacko, a Roma resident of the North Moravian town of Orlova in the country's mining and industrial heartland, was on his way home from a visit to his in-laws. With him were his daughter and her boyfriend. The three were spotted by a gang of skinheads hanging around outside a pub. A beer glass was thrown at Lacko and his companions. Lacko, a man of frail build, tried to distract the attackers so the young couple could escape. He paid dearly for his bravery: he was repeatedly punched and kicked by the skinheads wearing heavy army boots. They left him lying unconscious on the road.

And there the officially-documented record of events begins to unravel. Versions of what happened differ dramatically and further developments are shrouded in mystery. Police from Orlova and the regional hub of Karvina testified that Lacko got up, walked a few dozen metres and was knocked down by an unidentified lorry. According to the police version, Lacko died instantly, his lungs torn apart by bone fragments and other injuries caused by his body being rolled underneath the truck for several dozen metres. However, TYDEN notes, quoting experts, the truck driver would have to perform miracles to drag Lacko's body back exactly to the place he was left lying unconscious.

At this point, a crucial witness, police officer Marian Telega, steps in. Originally, it was believed he ran over the already-dead man accidentally. Last year, a court in Karvina acquitted Telega of manslaughter charges. However, a recent forensic test has proved that the police version of the incident doesn't hold much water. Jakub Polak, a Czech anarchist representing the Lacko family, says he has sufficient evidence that the badly beaten Mr Lacko was in fact killed by the car driven by policeman Telega, and that the police are trying to cover up the incident.

Ironically, Lacko's daughter now stands accused of not administering first aid to her father. How could she, complains Mr Lacko's widow Anna? The skinheads would have kicked her to death!!!

Moving on now to something more pleasant. Specifically, to Vaclav Havel as you've never seen him before. PATEK magazine carries testimonies by the Czech president's former aides and employees of his office. Europe's longest-serving, democratically-elected head of state was obviously a difficult man to cope with in the early stages of his presidency, which began nearly 11 years ago.

"Come on, Vasek, you're the Prez!" his first personal secretary Bara Stepanova, now a popular TV entertainer, used to insist every time Havel frowned at the prospect of having to change out of his favourite, well-worn blue jeans and into a formal three-piece suit. In the early months of his presidency, Stepanova told PATEK, Vaclav Havel would rather lose an arm than stay trapped in his official attire a minute longer than was absolutely necessary.

When Ms Stepanova arrived at Prague Castle, Havel was widely perceived as a new sex symbol. He would receive hundreds of love letters every day and it was her duty to sift through them and sort them out. Typically, his admirers were mature women over 40, she said. She herself was not exactly impressed by Vaclav Havel's not-exactly-stunning looks. He was, to me, a kind of peculiar teddy bear who had his whims, Stepanova told PATEK.

And Jaroslav Sapik, today the proud owner and chef of a country hotel, served as Havel's personal cook till very recently. Prior to that, he had been the Prague Castle cook since 1970, and had prepared meals for Havel's non-democratic predecessor Gustav Husak.

The Castle eats more rationally today than in the Husak years, he says. For the Communist Party congresses, he and his kitchen team would serve hundreds of plates of roast duck with stewed cabbage and dumplings. Maybe that would be the preferred fare even in these democratic times - but no one would dare to ask for so much cholesterol. Today, the hypocritical aides order lighter meals for the president and his entourage, more vegetables, fish and poultry. Havel doesn't actually like them, says Sapik, but healthy eating's in vogue, he says.

Does Havel even have time to eat properly? Surely, he must, given his medical history. Lunch is always outlined as part of his working schedule. And if we're to believe his former chef, Havel doesn't particularly like culinary excesses and prefers typical Czech meals: a juicy steak or a spicy goulash. All meals that are served to the president must be thoroughly tested by the Castle Hygiene Squad, so the food he gets is often cold. Samples of anything that makes it to the presidential table are kept for reference for 24 hours. But Havel is an unruly eater, who hardly ever takes time to eat at the table, and in peace, his former chef complains to PATEK magazine.

Staying with good food and wine, rejoice, rejoice greatly, for "Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!" For the past few years, this French intimation to the initiated has again graced the windows of select Czech wine shops and restaurants. I said 'again' because I know from my father that his father, my granddad, had new Beaujolais ready for customers in his provincial hotel in Sadska, east of Prague, every year until the Nazis came in 1939.

DNES magazine relates a story often told way back in the 1980s in Plzen. A Comrade Frantisek Molnar, chairman of a Street Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, suffered frequent fits of class-based indignation over the perfidy of émigrés from Socialist Czechoslovakia, saying -- and here's an authentic quote -- "They're so dumb. They don't know what's awaiting them out there. Unemployment, drugs, Beaujolais, social inequality, and poverty!" He never tried to elucidate his listeners on why he included his "bozholay" among the five mortal sins of capitalism.

Beaujolais Nouveau, DNES magazine notes, is not exactly cheap in the Czech Lands, but it's definitely cheaper than the choicest brands of Czech liquor. Only, it doesn't last long. it certainly won't last longer than Key Rum. Now, you must know that when you say 'rum' in the Czech environment, feeble hearts faint, ladies promptly excuse themselves, and connoisseurs start making faces. Typical Czech rum is cheap alcohol flavoured and colored with cheap chemicals. The EU says we're no longer allowed to call this concoction "rum".

Not so with Key Rum, though. Phased out of the market about 30 years ago for lack of convertible currency under Communism, Key Rum is coming back with a vengeance. It's a real cane rum whose tradition runs back to the 1920s, when it was marketed by the Prague-based Lobosicky Brothers as "genuine Jamaica rum". The label sported a stylised key, which gave the liquor its name.

The new Key Rum, DNES points out, is a hundred-percent sugar cane distillate, enticingly flavoured with vanilla. Only the original Key Rum, as we knew it in the Sixties, had more alcohol in it, 60 percent as against today's 40 percent, the maximum alcohol content recommended by the EU.

And finally, out there in India, eight-year-old Kumar gets up at five in the morning so he can catch up with his homework, reports PRAVO magazine. There isn't much light available in the clay hut he shares with six other people. After a frugal breakfast, Kumar makes off to a distant school. He comes home at five p.m. His mother, a widow, is proud of her son. He's the only one in the family who will get an education -- and a flicker of hope to his kindred.

Here in the Czech Republic, Marie Pelouchova began learning English at the age of 75. She adopted -- or rather sponsored -- the eight-year-old Kumar. Now, Kumar will start learning his English in the fourth grade, and by then, they may well find a common language.

No, Mrs Pelouchova will never fly to India to meet her adopted son. And Kumar, in all likelihood, will never fly to Europe in his life. "We didn't have children," explains Pelouchova, "but when my late husband and I heard that children can be sponsored, we didn't think twice," she says. Rather than an adoption, this was a moral obligation to help feed, clothe and educate a child who would otherwise fall victim to poverty and illiteracy. Five thousand crowns a year, is it a little, is it a lot? How many packs of cigarettes, pints of beer, cups of coffee would this money buy?

"My girl, Divija Ramahandra, is eight years old and she's crazy about dancing," the Czech pop singer Petra Cernocka states proudly. "I wanted to send her toys, but she's never had toys and doesn't know what to do with them. Also, I wanted to send shoes to her family, but none of them have ever worn shoes..." PRAVO magazine explains that so far, over 2,000 Czechs have sponsored children from India since Sister Goretti of Calcutta started up the scheme a few years ago. Five thousand Czech crowns, that's a about 120 U.S. dollars, is enough to help feed, buy school uniforms, textbooks and school fees for one child for one whole school year. The project is coordinated in the Czech Republic by the Archdiocese Charity, Prague.