Updated: Oct 18, 2019

Malá Čermna Saffy the dog

Saffy taking the air at our home from home in Malá Čermna

It’s shocking how bad sheep are at making good sheep noises. The ones waking me up at 5am on the morning after our arrival in Czechia were the animal equivalent of someone adopting a bad Irish accent for telling a racist joke.

But there could be no doubt – in this isolated wilderness whose silence is broken only by bird song and a large herd of Cameroon sheep, the producers of the rubbish animal noises were indeed sheep.

This was the first morning of that perennial dramatic cliché – the calm after the storm. We were lodging at the isolated cottage of Magda’s uncle George and aunt Sue, in the Czech-Polish border village of Malá Čermná. We ended up staying there for three weeks, and it felt a lot more like home than the frozen, whitewashed giant’s burial mound we were supposed to be calling home.

We’d visited the new house the day after we arrived. It was snowing, and no warmer inside as we burst in on teetering piles of boxes and dismembered furniture, all looking lost in their surroundings. Snug and crowded in their Oxford home, our entire belongings now looked as if they would fill half of one of the smaller rooms and leave us to work out how to fill the remaining labyrinth. But as dilemmas go, it was a good one. Certainly better than the more traditional, grim dilemmas we had recently fought our way through to get here.

Well, I say “our”, but it was not an even distribution of grim dilemmas. Magda got most of them, while me and the kids got a holiday in London. I ought to explain…

For various reasons, the exchange rate of British pound to Czech koruna was plummeting in the wrong direction. The koruna had been pegged to a minimum exchange rate for umpteen years, but the peg was about to be removed (sending all the financial coats in a heap on the floor, I mused). The pound, meanwhile, had fallen as inexorably as Wile E. Coyote plummeting down a canyon in a Road Runner cartoon. That little puff of smoke as he hit the bottom was our would-be house money landing in the dried up channel of Shit Creek.

The financial sages we consulted assured us that things would not get any better, and might get a lot worse as the month progressed. So, in brief, we hastily brought forward the house completion date, in the hope of heading off the moment when the cartoon coyote of our finances bit the dust.

And we failed. The koruna peg was removed, the coats – and the coyote – hit the floor. The pound sank in the dried up bed of Shit Creek, the exchange rate sinking so low that we couldn’t even afford a good night out in a Prague den of ill repute. But there was no turning back now.

Fortunately, the pound bobbed up and down like a drowning man/coyote, and we managed to transfer what we had at the moment when it rose relatively high. It drowned a day later, never (at the time of writing) to return. More luck than financial acumen, but it did mean that we could actually afford the house that, in the original calculation, we could have bought three times over.

Confident that all the things that could have gone wrong had already gone wrong – I haven’t bothered you with them here, so don’t bother flicking back to check – we decided not to change the various plans we had made. Ages ago I’d booked a trip to my parents’ house via London. This mini holiday now fell in the week in which we were moving. Originally the plan was for me to return the week after, to finish off the packing over three days. But as we’d done almost all the packing already, Magda, working the last few days of her contract at Oxford University, was happy for this plan to stay in place, which meant I would not be around for the removal itself.

We said sad farewells to our friends in Oxfordshire, and off we went to London – via an emergency trip to the dentist – staying in a very nice hotel and then travelling to Grimsby the following day in First Class, for a treat. It was my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary, which had also become a farewell party on the eve of our emigration.

It was while the table staff were bothering us with yet more complementary drinks and cakes that Magda phoned.

The removal van, due at 11am, had arrived at 7am. But it wasn’t a proper removal van, just a flimsy plastic-sided ‘man and his van’ affair. And the Polish driver was alone, with no sign/knowledge of the burly box-heaving helpers we had been promised. What’s more, he refused to lift or pack anything himself. He also refused to understand Magda’s Polish.

Maximally disgruntled, Magda phoned the removal people, who promised extra hands by 12.30. Then 2.30. By 4.30, still extra-handless, Magda had packed everything herself, apart from the unliftable washing machine and freezer. The driver, nine and a half hours into his day, told Magda, with no trace of irony “I can’t let a woman lift these heavy things alone”. Another guy turned up at 5.30, when everything was packed away. By this stage Magda was wrecked, and mightily pissed off.

The kids and I accepted more drinks and cakes, feeling terribly guilty but exonerated by circumstance, as we listened to her sad story.

And, of course, at the unpacking end of the removal process the Polish driver – divested of his assistant once again – watched as George and Sue rallied able bodied neighbours to lump all our stuff into the new house.

dog in car

Saffy vows never to be strapped into the back seat of a car again, after 20 hours whining and hyperventilating

The bad karma seemed to have peaked, though. Our journey from Grimsby to Czechia went without a hitch, in spite of an over-stuffed car, a terribly stressed dog, Saffy, and the semi-buried Mango the Budgie in his tiny travel cage. After one night in Ghent – with a massive breakfast that spilled over into our lunchboxes too, thanks to some light-fingered work at 5am – we spent all of the next day travelling, arriving in Malá Čermná via Germany and Poland at about 10pm. Saffy was overjoyed at abandoning the prison van, (although she didn’t regain her appetite for another week, and now runs whenever she sees the car). She became so happy in this landscape with these people that you’d swear she was coming home, not leaving it.

The main downside was the snow. Winter 2016/17 in Oxfordshire saw a few dozen snowflakes. By the time we left the temperature was in the low 20s. Here on the Czech-Polish border it was -2C and snowing. At that point I still hadn’t seen our new house on a dry day.

April 2017 Jan in the garden of our new house in Bely

The Snows They Melt The Soonest… but not in Bĕlý

To celebrate our emigration, the Czech family threw a party in the house at Malá Čermná. It had been the subject of long discussion on social media (to which we were excluded), and painstaking planning, cooking and decorating. When finally chivvied into the party room, we found ourselves surrounded with images of Brexit – the sour-faced politicians at the heart of it (with a demonic Tony Blair for good measure), unflattering pictures of the Queen, printouts of rabid tabloid headlines, strings of Union Jacks, and a cornucopia of British food.

This included homemade raised-crust pies, white bread sandwiches, tins of baked beans, sausage rolls, marmite, HP sauce, Twiglets, milky tea, warm beer, and a magnificent slap-up of roast lamb, mint sauce and all the trimmings. Scottish and Irish music played on the hi-fi, and by the time the real beer – the Czech stuff – was broached, we were already half-pissed. Of the 18 party-goers, a good half dozen joined me in the stagger towards the bitter end. The last of the barrel spluttered into the last glass in the small hours, and the next day’s headache was worth waiting for.

It was our own personal Brexit, and struck with the perfect balance of ire to irony.


Brexit tea party

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