Monthly Archives: January 2012
You’ve probably heard all the jokes there is about watching Czechoslovakian films. Three hour depressing epics in black and white, the action taking place in a windswept house on a hill, the characters all sitting in tortured silence with a few subtitles thrown in.
Since moving here I have been introduced to Czechoslovakian films that I (and the rest of the world) never knew existed.
Czechoslovakia had a rich film industry during the communist years. State censorship saw many great artists silenced, but many flourished, in particular those making comedies. So here is part one of my personal top eight, as of now. There may be more in the future but these wonderful films have already had a huge impact on me.
1. Slunce, Seno, Jahody. (Sun, Hay & Strawberries)
A rich vein of comedy in Czechoslovakia, and still is, is the concept of the villager and the village.
Slunce, Seno, Jahody is set in Hoštice, a village where the main source of income is its farm. A young man from Prague arrives with a revolutionary idea; put earphones on the cows playing pop music to increase the milk yield. He manages to convince the skeptical villagers of his mad idea – and it works. Whilst in Hoštice, he stays with a slobbish family headed by matriarch Mrs. Škopkova, (played by the wonderful comic actress Helena Ružickova) her lazy fat husband, slutty daughter, naughty son and mad grandmother, who spends her days bedridden outside in a bed on wheels.
Ongoing village gags include a woman who sings a weather forecast from her window every morning, a camp Priest who is idolised and manipulated by the gossipy old women and a local train staffed by a bored young girl, where the service is always running late. The passengers are told they have to jump off as it goes through Hoštice, including a wedding party with all their fragile gifts and an old woman who needs to see the doctor for a broken leg.
The stunning countryside of Czechoslovakia is captured beautifully on film, a place where the balmy summers seem endless and worries few and far between.
2. Vrchí, Prchni! (Waiter! Run!)
Josef works in a book shop in Prague. He is happily married with a young son, but has financial troubles and dissatisfied with life. He spends his days at the book shop daydreaming and seducing attractive female customers into the store cupboard. In the evenings he plays the Violin in restaurants. One night after playing in a restaurant, dressed in his black suit, he is mistaken for a Waiter and a customer asks for the bill. (During communism before credit cards everyone paid cash and a Waiter would carry a wallet and give change.)
On a whim Josef pretends he is the Waiter, takes the money and leaves. Shocked at how easy this was, Josef begins to travel around restaurants dressed as a waiter, with his Violin as a cover, asking diners to pay their bills. Soon he is making a fortune. His wife, none the wiser seems to think he is making an amazing living just playing the Violin.
Within weeks its hits the newspapers that a Phantom Waiter is striking in Prague, Josef continued to evade the authorities and begins to use various disguises.
The climax of the film is an amazing scene where Josef is finally discovered and pursued through the streets of Prague by hundreds of identically dressed Waiters.
3. Ucho (The Ear)
Ludvik a Senior Ministry Official for the communist party in Prague attends a party function with his alcoholic wife Anna. The night passes like any other. When they arrive home to their house in a quiet neighbourhood they find the power has been cut along with the phone lines.
Ludvik becomes paranoid and begins to analyse the conversations had in the evening (seen through a series of eerie flashbacks) Ann,a now drunk, mocks him for his paranoia which escalates to Ludvik burning paperwork and flushing it down the toilet.
At two in the morning a group of senior party comrades show up out of the blue. Ludvik struggles to overcome his paranoia and entertains them for a tense few hours where they become incredibly drunk. They finally leave in the early hours as if their bizarre visit were normal. The power comes back on and Anna discovers a listening device in the bathroom – The Ear. Paranoia makes way for fear as Anna and Ludvik wait for the sun to rise almost certain they are to be arrested. A messenger arrives in the morning and unexpectedly tells Ludvik he is to be promoted.
4. S tebou mě bavi svet ( With you I enjoy life, honey.)
Every winter a group of male friends go off to a cabin in the woods to escape their wives and ski. One year the wives decide to revolt and insist that the dads take the small children with them so they get some time off.
The dads struggle with a group of tiny children, losing them in the snow and generally being clueless. A wonderful warm comedy. Both sides realise they miss each other and the mothers pay a surprise visit to the cabin.
The film was a huge hit and is still shown every Christmas, and was voted by audiences as the best comedy film of the twentieth century. In the film one of the mothers is a singer, and she performs a song called Sladke Mameni. The actress didn’t sing the song herself, it was recorded by Helena Vondráčková, a huge singer still to this day in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In the years since the film was released Sladke Mameni has become a cult hit and spawned a dance craze.
Below is a clip of the movie with the song Sladke Mameni. Even now if the song is played at a club or wedding everyone with no exceptions will get up and do the dance.
Last September we returned from Los Angeles. We’d spent an exciting year living and working in Hollywood, but decided to look for our next adventure, of which my blog; A British Guy In Slovakia is just beginning to document.
Ján being the more impatient of the two of us started thinking about the next adventure during our long flight back to London.
“What if we write a book about our year in Hollywood?” he said, over the mediocre in-flight Coq Au Vin. “And what if we do it by Christmas?” We’d met so many interesting and crazy people, we had enough material for several books.
Throughout September, in between visits to London and enjoying the Indian summer in Nitra we worked out our story. In October we began to write furiously often for 14 hours a day. We were very fortunate to be living with Ján’s mum who looked after us throughout the long days. She cooked beautiful food, shopped, did our washing so we could get on and work.
Writing my first book was a great, if not lonely experience, so having my best friend to work with was so much fun. We’d work out the plot lines and what we wanted from each chapter, then write a rough version in English which I would then refine and Ján would translate to Slovak. It worked very well. We spent three months across the room from each other, warmed by wonderful food and positive feedback from Jan’s mum, sister and brother-in-law who eagerly awaited and encouraged each chapter. The dog, being an affectionate furball also warmed our feet when we forgot to wear slippers, curling up in their place.
We finished the book on target in the first week of December, sent it out to publishers and then Christmas was upon us – a welcome distraction.
Last week as I was making cheese toasties, Jan came through clutching the laptop and said the magic words;
“We’re going to be published.”
It’s all moved at such a pace. Our publisher is just as excited as we are (always a good sign) and Mrcha Hollywood is being published in Slovakia during the last week of February. The English translation of the title is Bitch Hollywood (!) Although the word ‘Mrcha’ in Slovak has a softer more playful meaning.
We’ve had some cover proofs through, and seeing ‘By Robert Bryndza & Ján Bryndza’ is already a thrill.
I’ll keep you posted.
After thirteen years I don’t have to commute. I spent ten years living in Brockley, South London where a return train journey was a big part of getting anywhere. Work, play even a trip to the supermarket were undertaken with the help of a slightly stinking South West Trains carriage.
Then last year was spent in Los Angeles (without a car!) where the city sprawls for miles in every direction in a series of endless boulevards.
My new home Nitra is a city-town. I say city-town because it has all the benefits of a city without having to deal with the commute of a city. Nitra is connected beautifully to Bratislava with a brand spanking new motorway but for some quirk it doesn’t have a direct train line. This has made Nitra curiously self-sufficient.
It’s true that as a writer my daily commute is only to my laptop via the coffee machine, but even if I wasn’t doing what I do now I could do other well paid work and live close to said work without a terrible commute.
Nitra sits below Zobor, a long extinct volcano turned exclusive area to live. The new town has cinemas, shopping centres – a Marks and Spencer (although I’m no longer able to buy Percy Pigs, the food hall didn’t seem to take off here) The old town has a castle, quaint chocolate shops a theatre and a bustling cafe culture with some truly amazing bars and restaurants.
Last friday, after work, we met for drinks with a friend at one of these fantastic bars, Paladium, and after an hour or two I caught myself going into London mode – should we dash now for a train just before the rush, or should we wait three hours until its died down…
I realised that home was just a short walk . This was such a revelation to me. London is such a great city but sadly for most of us it is defined by the stress of a hideous daily commute.
I have just returned from a four-day stay at a health Spa in Bojnice where I lost all of my Christmas indulgence, a kilo and a half (just over 3lbs). I put it down to the amazing properties of the nine naturally occurring thermal springs. I can’t think how else I could have done it? Unlike the raw carrot and herbal tea style spas in Britain, the food was plentiful and delicious, and there were several well stocked bars.
Bojnice is a medievil Spa town in the Upper Nitra region of Central Slovakia. A cluster of buildings tucked amongst the adjacent forest make up the Spa. Health Spa’s are a big part of life in Slovakia and its thermal springs (of which there are over 1300) are known for their healing restorative properties. During communism in Czechoslovakia Spa’s were part of the state healthcare system and your GP would often prescribe you a two-week stay for skin allergies, muscle problems and a host of other ailments – eat your heart out Capitalists! Many of the Spa towns continue to operate Spa’s in private- state partnerships, retaining the affordability of the communist era, with elements of a capitalist five-star hotel thrown in for good measure.
Our first port of call after checking in was a compulsory medical.The doctor was very kind but still had a whiff of the Communist era about her. I was ordered to strip down and when I was a little slow on the uptake with my understanding of Slovak, she virtually pantsed me. I bent over whilst she counted my vertebrae, she then pressed a freezing stethoscope onto my chest and a blood pressure cuff on my arm with a python like grip.
She managed all this in about sixty seconds whilst barking out treatments to a little Nurse who frantically scribbled them down; five treatments a day for each of our four days. Our charts were printed off and given to us, an exciting mystery with phrases like; Parrafango, Oxygen Therapy, Seragem, Sauna World, Perlićka (which in Slovak means ‘fizzy water’).
We were booked into the brand new Lysec building which had everything you’d expect from a five-star hotel. Our luxurious room had a balcony with a hauntingly beautiful view of the silent forest stretching away.
The Lysec is designed so you need never go outside. A maze of immaculate glass corridors and a continuous axminster carpet connects the thermal pools, treatment rooms and restaurants.
The spectre of communism came back when dealing with meal times.
Lunch 11.30am – 12.15pm, Dinner 5.30- 6.15pm. Breakfast a little looser, anytime between 6.30 and 8.45am until myself and Jan realised our first daily procedure had been prescribed at 7.45am…
“Could we eat a little later? Have a lie-in?” we asked. “No,” came the answer! “It’s part of your medical treatment.”
The next few days were strictly timed but wonderful. Although the early mornings initially took us out of our holiday mood. The first treatment put us back in it. Perlicka was a whirlpool bath where music and jets of water lulled you and a series of underwater lights tuned the water dramatic violet, reds and greens.
Then it was Parrafango. Which despite sounding like a bad lunchtime TV detective show, was rather good. A giant hot slab of mud and paraffin was heaved on our backs and left to soothe detox the kidneys. All we had to do was lie there and drift off to sleep.
Oxygen therapy was an hour of pure oxygen, taken through a little tube up the nose in a comfy sofa with a book or magazine leaving us with bright flawless skin and a feeling of being both deeply relaxed and incredibly alert.
After lunch it was a vigorous twenty-minute massage then ‘Sauna World’ built like a miniature Roman Temple with pillars a Mosaic floor and rows of loungers which followed the curve of the floor to ceiling windows where outside the snow slowly fell. Dotted about the temple were glass doors.
A salt steam room had inky black tiles of polished marble and an LED light show, A herbal steam room was a little like finding the treasure in the final moments of an Indiana Jones film. In the center of the room a plinth contained a huge rock of crystal, clasped in a metal claw and lit from underneath where steam rose around it. A tropical and a traditional sauna were strictly no clothes, but for those who didn’t want to burn their bottoms on the super heated seats, a roman-style toga could be worn. The German guests seemed to be the only ones who weren’t bothered with toga-ing up.
After sauna world it was an early dinner then we got to sample the delights of the outdoor thermal pool. There is nothing so wonderful as being outdoors at night in a hot pool as the snow gently falls on your shower cap. In fact having to wear a shower cap in the pool is my only complaint.
The four days went all too quickly and we realised we had become deliciously institutionalised. Just before heading home we took a walk around the grounds and tasted the delights of the mineral fountain (a bit eggy and warm) and discovered a series of outdoor thermal ponds and fountains, steaming mysteriously in the snow.
We’ve pledged to try to visit at least once a year, and next time we want to do the doctor recommended stay – for three weeks! I didn’t think I could feel any more incredible after four days, but according to the doctor we only touched the tip of the iceberg!
I am sure most people would give their right arm to not be able to understand what their mother in law says. I’m lucky enough to like mine immensely, so the time has come to learn to speak Slovak.
I hoping the fact that I’m desperate to understand all things Slovakian will making learning easier.
In the course of visits over the past four years I have picked up some basic words; I can summon help and ask for a cup of tea – both essential for a British guy abroad, but I want to be able to join in with the fun with my in-laws and new friends and explain how I like my tea (just a spot of milk and don’t let it stew).
I have set a target of doing a half an hour lesson every day. Back in 2008 I bought Colloquial Slovak By James Naughton a language course from a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. Today, three years later, I opened it.
I’m lucky to be a part of a very traditional Slovak family with traditional Slovak names. My partner is Ján, brother-in-law Jozef and both my mother and sister in-law share the name Vierka. My first lesson was like a family gathering, they were all there during the dialogue exercise at Airport Arrivals.
After this morning I am pleased to report I can now ask my mother-in-law to order me a taxi, tell her that my suitcase is heavy and inform her that the water in the Danube is very clean.
The latter will be a real talking point – she hasn’t been to the Danube in years…