Updated: Oct 19, 2019
With no internet in our damp, crumbling ruin-cum-home, I had to look for an office. The end result was a large room in Jan and Theo’s school at Machov, offered to me gratis, on condition that I accept two Czech lessons a week from a retired language teacher.
The teacher normally taught German rather than English, which she knows very little of, and had never taught Czech before. But this seemed a small price to pay for use of the big room. It was a kitchenette, with sadly empty fridge and freezer, and dusty old cupboards waiting for a time when the school population would once again match its late 19th century peak and fill the shelves.
In addition to the kitchen cupboards there were two expansive sofas, several bits of dead 1990s hardware of the photocopier/printer variety, and a screened off section containing shelf after shelf of unloved children’s games and class props. There were five giraffe-headed hobby horses in a bucket, and a lone horse-headed member of the tribe. Cardboard boxes and cake boxes full of nothing in particular, and a supply of Ceylon tea with a homeopathic trace of flavour. I drank the latter shamelessly, wondering, half way through the big box, where I could find a replacement for something last sold 20 years ago.
My desk overlooked part of the town green (Machov would be called a village if there was anything else resembling a town anywhere nearby), with a lovely view up the hillside to what appeared, to my Humberside and Thames Valley adjusted gaze, a mountain. Black redstarts and Buzzards, copious Song thrushes, Fieldfares and Blackbirds, and a few Bullfinches and Penduline tits to brighten it all up.
Machov school dominates the sleepy town square
The room continued to smell damp and abandoned, even after a month working there every weekday morning. And the Czech lessons came and went too. My teacher crouched like a portly praying mantis, ready to pounce on my mispronunciation of vowels that all sounded, in the early days, pretty much the same. Coming from a background of friends with accents stretching broadly from South Yorkshire and the Derbyshire Dales to Wales, Edinburgh and the stretched vowels of the south east, this obsession with exact iteration of vowel sounds initially struck me as pedantic, almost aggressive.
“Pani Urbanova”, she would say. “Pani Urbanova”, I would reply, “No no, listen – Pani Urbanova” she objected. “Pani Urbanova” I repeated again. “Dobry! Very good!” she would exclaim, leaving me none the wiser as to why my second Pani Urbanova trumped the first.
“But won’t people understand, even if my vowels are a bit foreign?” I asked.
“No”, she affirmed. “And slow down. You speak too fast”.
Got to make the morning last…
Working in the school was an odd experience, and I felt like a stowaway, albeit one who couldn’t be arsed to hide. All four of us commuted in together just before 7am, Magda to spend time with Czech-shy Theo, Jan to build on his image as the coolest thing ever to hit town (and he refuses to walk with us from the car, hurrying off under his teen lone-wolf cloud while the disgracefully unprepossessing family lag behind), and me to resume my position in front of the window-with-a-view in my semi-abandoned second floor garret.
I attempted, over the weeks, to bring a house plant back from the dead. This became my chief focus. The organism had clearly been well established before the drought of room abandonment set in, wrapping tendrils and leaves up and down the wires of the hanging strip light. The dry soil hissed when the water first hit. Subsequent waterings were silent, which I took to be a good sign. After two weeks the thing looked neither alive nor dead – green, but wizened.
The school children here all greet you with “Dobry den” (good day), offered without the grudging, averted-eyes of an English child forced to say hello to old people. No grandad-baiting, obscene haranguing or cocky “Hiya / all right mate” nonsense here. At least, not within earshot of the wrinklies. Indeed, one of our many uphill battles with Theo’s assimilation into Czechness is getting him to ‘dobry den’ as automatically as his peers.
Although the kids would far rather be swimming, cycling or playing computer games, we sometimes like to ruin their mornings by announcing that we are doing something cultural.
On this particular morning we decided to visit the Austro-Hungarian garrison town of Josefov, a vast folly built in the 1880s to withstand an imminent Prussian siege. The country’s entire annual budget had been ploughed into the scheme, the history books informed us. But none of the town’s defences were ever used. Austro-Hungary signed a treaty with Prussia rather than going to war, leaving the armed-to-the-teeth Josefov with nothing to do.
In fact, the town doesn’t appear to have found anything to do between now and then. We were visiting on a weekend in the school holidays, and yet the town had the atmosphere of some of the more off-the-beaten-tracks sections of Pompeii. Lethargic restaurants with wisely unambitious menus, ice-cream sellers with no energy to swat away their resident wasps, and a car park awaiting coachloads that never came.
Perhaps the coaches do arrive, at some point in the year. But it wasn’t today. We had the buildings and back streets to ourselves, and walked around the echoing, chaotic war museum, eyeing its two other visitors suspiciously, in a way you never do when in a crowd.
There was only the vaguest of themes in the museum’s layout. Cases of first world war memorabilia morphed into cabinets of plastic toys, then we were back with Austro-Hungarian weapons, before being surprised by a cabinet containing a sword simply labelled ‘Excalibur’. It looked too shiny to be Arthur’s original.
There were extensive displays of military uniforms and insignia, including Nazi flags and uniforms. It made me realise that you simply don’t see Nazi relics in Britain – no museum would have a recreation of a WW2 German war office, as we had here, with flags and Führer portraits. It made my discoveries of Hitler stamps in the attic at home seem small fry in comparison.
In the labyrinth of Josefov castle
The Josefov castle – the bit where the soldiers were supposed to be installed, defending against the invaders who never came – warranted a guided tour. The guide had a half-hearted 19th century serving maid’s costume on, and maintained the antique atmosphere by handing out candle lanterns – our only light in the bowels of the building. The main barracks had a strong odour of smoke and kippers, as if the troops had only just moved out to sample the unambitious menu in the restaurant over the road.
Jan and Theo refused to join us on the tour, arguing that an hour underground with a monotonous commentary of days gone by was an appalling prospect. When we returned to them an hour and 15 minutes later they complained, of course, that it had taken so long. So we taunted them with descriptions of the creepy tunnels, candlelight, the bat we had seen suspended in one of the gun windows, and the small cage in which the Russians had imprisoned miscreants in the 1990s (what were the Russians doing here then? I had already forgotten). We didn’t have quite enough ammunition to make them that regretful, though, and after gathering ice creams we walked back to the lonely car in its weed-choked car park. The interior was hot enough to melt a Prussian hussar’s helmet.
It reminded me somehow of my poor, abandoned-once-more pet plant in the Machov school. I suggested to Magda and the kids that they should continue to water it. But I’m no longer confident that the plant will survive – if, indeed, it was ever brought back from the dead in the first place. The fact that I empathise so much with this plant is more than a little worrying.