Sunday, May 18, 2008

Having been born and brought up on an island I still find land borders a rather difficult concept to get my head round. Before anyone protests, Scotland and Wales don’t really count, we’re all part of the same state and with only very few exceptions, speak the same language. Here though, in a small, landlocked country, there are borders all over the place. Now that CZ has been accepted into the Schengen zone the situation seems even stranger. Borders are invisible and whiz by unannounced. Not so long ago they were nigh on impossible to cross, now they’re nigh on impossible to notice. No more surly, officious border guards armed with guns and Alsatians, no more suspicious glances (and back in the days a Western passport really did almost guarantee extra scrutiny), no more cute stamps on our passports. Suddenly you’re in a different country, with a different government, language, culture and standard of living (and currency, though not for long).

You might think that the locals would have jumped at every opportunity to make use of their relatively new-found geographical mobility, but that hasn’t entirely come to fruition. Of course, people here do cross borders, but often in a very limited manner. The older generation of Czechs in particular are accustomed to a peculiarly unadventurous form of travel – the bus excursion. I’ve experienced a couple of these myself and have to acknowledge their one great advantage, i.e. they’re very, very cheap. There are disadvantages however. One is considerable discomfort, since if it’s over any longer distance it will involve an overnight bus journey both there and back in order to save money on accommodation. Nobody’s complaining here, though I felt a mixture of admiration, slight shame and trepidation on seeing the age of some of those preparing for this physical ordeal. Another drawback is the acute lack of freedom on these occasions. The atmosphere is like that of a school trip, ruled over with a rod of iron by a bossy schoolmarm tour guide* with an extreme case of verbal diarrhoea and a neat line in in-bus sleep deprivation tactics, marching her bleary-eyed lemmings through the streets at breakneck pace, bombarding them with copious volumes of sublimely uninteresting minutiae and chastising any miscreants foolhardy enough to be guilty of tardiness. The only conclusion I could draw from it was that Czech pensioners actually enjoy being treated like seven year old children.

Naturally this is not the only travel option taken by the Czechs, but the locals (and again, age plays a large role) here seem equally herd-like when it comes to their choice of destination. So although I’ve met very few Czechs who’ve never been to Croatia, I’m always surprised, given that it’s less than 100 miles from here, at how few of the people I’ve met have ever been to Poland, and the situation seemed very similar on the other side of the border. Krakow is a superb town, not so much further from here than Prague and nowadays competing with the Czech capital as a tourist destination, but probably less than a quarter of the Czechs I know have been there. (To add a note of balance, some Czechs are also surprised that I’ve never been to Stonehenge, but my answer to that is always that I’m not a fucking hippy). Why this lack of curiosity concerning their neighbours? It almost seems as if the two nations are barely aware of the other’s existence. A quite surreal example of this is the town of Český Těšín / Cieszyn, about one third of which is in the Czech Republic and the remainder in Poland. I remember the first time I was there, many years ago, when in a fumbling mixture of Czech and Polish, which are in any case fairly similar languages, I asked for directions to the station. Because in my haste and ignorance I used the Czech word for station, however, I met with blank looks. Now I don’t believe for a minute that people living in a town which is partially in the Czech Republic don’t know the Czech word for railway station, so why the attitude? It’s not as if I’d spoken to them in Russian. I quickly realised that despite the similarities of the two Slavic languages, I’d be much better off in Poland speaking English.

These days, in Krakow at least, I feel I’m between a rock and a hard place linguistically, since being the “new Prague” it’s chock-full of Brit louts and many pubs display “no stag parties” signs (in English, and no other language). Although to be frank, if I was organising a stag party, Krakow would definitely be way lower down my list than Prague. This is for the reason, mentioned earlier, that Polish beer is over twice the price of Czech beer and a fraction of the quality. I know I’m spoilt living here, Czech beer is truly fantastic, but even taking this into account Polish beer is really dreadful piss, by absolute, not relative standards. There was even one pub we went to on our recent Krakow trip where we literally could not drink it. Again this is something I do not understand. We’re all in the EU, right? We have free trade within the EU, don’t we? If the Poles can’t brew beer, and clearly they can’t, can’t they at least import Czech beer and sell it at a reasonable price? Evidently not. The reverse applies regarding vodka. Czech vodka is somewhere between bad and positively dangerous, whereas Polish vodka is of extraordinarily high quality. But can you get Zubrowka round here? Can you fuck. Absolut, Finlandia, Smirnoff? No problem. And no shortage of shops selling Zubrowka in London. Here though, you’d be more likely to find moon rocks.

Slavic brothers and sisters! Free yourselves! The greatest borders are the ones in your minds!

*On a trip to Venice several years ago now our guide, for example, gave us practical advice on clothing to wear, reminding us that “it’s better to be dry than to be wet”, as well as which she informed and entertained us by reading out Karel Čapek’s musings on Venice amongst other things. During a rare break from fulminating into the microphone she kept us awake in the bus by playing us a video of populist Czech media personality Halina Pawlowská’s guide to Vienna (see the relevance anyone?). Congratulations are due to Mr Matthew Sweney on this occasion. At breakfast in our cheap hotel we were lucky enough to be joined by a young, attractive Czech lady who had had the sense or good fortune to travel down on the other bus. Not one to miss such a golden opportunity, Mr Sweney struck up a conversation. “You’re lucky you’re not on our bus. We’ve got this right old bag of a tour guide who will just not shut up…” and went on to detail her numerous faults. “She’s my mother”, replied our tablemate.


Anonymous jitka said...

Very true....makes us sound really plebby (which we are). But then is it a particularly Czech thing? There must be a segment of the British population who prefer the security of travelling to places overrun by their compatriots, and you are not all exactly hopping over to Ireland for a holiday...Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this post, it's funny and very accurate.

12:02 PM  
Blogger ASHDAV said...

If I compare the Czechs abroad to the British abroad, the Czechs overall come out of it looking pretty saintly, even if a little quirky. It used to be just the Costa del Sol that was full of beer-gutted Britscum gorging on burnt-to-a-crisp steak and chips with HP sauce and showing no interest in or respect for the local culture. Now it's Prague, Krakow and - I have to disagree with you here - Ireland. Erm, wasn't I on a stag weekend in Cork last year? Ahem.

1:22 PM  
Anonymous Martina Plíhalová said...

Hi Ashley! Thanks for reminding me those bus trips, that i also had the "pleasure" to undergo... i had a lot of laugh while reading your post, cause your experiences are more or less the same as mine. The bus guides simply don't give you any free choice how to spend the time in the bus. You must listen or watch the stuff they give you - unless you have your own mp3 or whatever... it's also true with their very "useful" information. But i was surprized about what you said about the Polish in Cieszyn - when i was younger, it was very "in" to go shopping there and i have only good experiences... was it only because i was speaking mainly with shopkeepers? i don't know, i think we once asked for direction too and the people responded to us.
Anyway - thanx for that CD, i'm listening to it right now and it's greeeat :)!

11:10 AM  
Anonymous jitka said...

I think the above comment hits the nail on the head as of the relative unpopularity of Poland as a travel destination in Cesko....Lots of people associate it with bus trips to Polish markets in search of cheap (and often shoddy) goods, and somehow this 'unglamorous' image sticks in people's minds when it comes to the rest of the country regardless of what there might be to see if they ventured further afield....

1:13 PM  
Anonymous Martina said...

yes, you're right Jitka, it's really a pity, that people travelled (or still travel) to Poland only for shopping, and i'm sure i'm going to visit Poland for other reasons some day, when i'll finally have time for travelling and discovering places :)

4:48 PM  

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