Monthly Archives: June 2009

Low-cost flights through Czech cinema, Part I

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I arrived back in Prague to be greeted by thunderstorms. The English couple next to me were dismayed. ‘We’ve never been anywhere on holiday where it was raining when we landed,’ the woman told me. Hopefully the gin and tonic she’d treated herself too during the flight took the edge off the disappointment.

Anyway, since I got back there has been a distinct lack of sunshine. Everyone knows that one of the nicest ways to while away a rainy afternoon is to curl up on the sofa in front of a film. Now for those expats amongst you who are curious to find out more about this strange Czechland in which we find ourselves, I have compiled a short list of DVDs which will not only entertain but which will help you discover a little more about Czech culture without really trying too hard. Having watched a couple of old Czech movies will give you more to talk about during those sometimes awkward encounters with the indigenous population.

As I am conscious of the fact that we live in cash-strapped times – every time you open an English-speaking newspaper it’s all blah, blah, doom, credit crunch, blah, blah, doom – all the DVDs I’ve chosen can be purchased for the bargain price of 50 crowns from the newsagents outside Roztyly metro (line C, the red one). Here’s a picture, just in case you get lost:

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So here, in no particular order, are my three ‘Beat the Credit Crunch’ Czech cinema picks:

1) Head waiter, run! (Vrchní, prchni) 

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Now I realise that the English translation of the title may lack a certain punch but bear with me here, please. You want humour. You want to see lovely shots of Prague, especially Zizkov (one of the best words in the Czech language in my opinion), before the Revolution. You want to be introduced to that Czech campfire classic, ‘Severni vitr’. You also want to see hot Czech babes performing in their own wet T-shirt competition in the shower.   God only knows what kind of traffic that last sentence is going to attract…

This film follows the adventures (or should I say misadventures) of a twice-divorced bookseller who is addicted to womanising and struggling to find the resources to support the army of children he has fathered.   A case of mistaken identity leads him to hit upon a cunning plan to boost his income: posing as a waiter in the bars and cafes of Prague, taking the customers’ cash and then making a sharp exit.  As you would expect, these leads to all kinds of comic hi-jinx.  And of course, it also has Zdenek Sverak (Godfather of Czech cinema who wrote and starred in Oscar winning ‘Kolya’, directed by his son, Jan) putting in a star turn as a rather irritating nosey neighbour.  He also gets to wear a great bobble hat.

2) How to drown Dr Mracka or The End of Water Sprites in Bohemia (Jak utopit dr. Mracka aneb Konec vodniku v Cechach)

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Ok, so this one doesn’t sound so catchy either in English, but please, just trust me.  Again, it’s a comedy, this time of the grown-up fairytale variety.  You could even call it a reworking of Romeo and Juliet but with a watery twist:  boy meets girl only the star-crossed lovers cannot be together as the girl is really a water sprite and he is the lawyer responsible for kicking the last clan of Bohemian water-sprites out of their damp, unsanitary home for health reasons.   Again, it has some great shots of Prague before we spoilt Westerners were all able to come on holiday here and the two romantic leads are fine examples of how good-looking you can end up being with the right Czech genes.  And I don’t think I’m spoiling it for you by letting you know there’s a happy ending…

3) The Fireman’s Ball (Hoři, má panenko)   kinoeye5_horimapan

This one doesn’t have much of a plot: some small-town fireman decide to try to organise a beauty contest at their annual dance and then fail to deal with the theft of their raffle prizes and the fire at a nearby house.  However, this film deserves an A* for how to do black comedy and you’ll be able to impress Czechs by casually dropping phrases like ‘What a shame that the brief burst of creativity that was Czech New Wave cinema was cut short by the Soviet invasion’ and ‘Ah, Forman, what a genius!’  into hospoda conversation.   I’m not sure if this will make you popular or just appear pretentious, but give it a whirl and let me know.

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Girl Not In Czechland and My Racist Dad

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I’m homesick for Prague.  Strange really, when I’ve only lived there for a grand total of 10 weeks, but I’m itching to get back.

Perhaps it’s not Prague so much that I miss of course, but Czechman.  I was a bit disappointed by his lack of excitment when I told him last night that I’d booked my flight home for Thursday. That’s the thing about having a relationship with someone from another country: it’s difficult to know what to put down to cultural differences and what is just them.  I do miss his directness though.  It’s something we’re not very good at here sometimes in England – telling it like it is. Without getting too philosophical, it’s important in life to have someone close to you who can be relied on to tell you the truth.

I spoke to my Dad last night as it was Fathers’ Day here in England.  Just to explain to my Czech readers, Fathers’ Day is a concept dreamt up by greetings cards companies to maximise their profits rather than a day of any real importance.  Clever eh?  Anyway, I was dreading this particular phonecall because I knew we would end up discussing the recent European elections.  Again, for those of you outside the UK, the BNP, an extreme right wing party, who had a candidate elected in the area where my parents live.  My Dad voted for them.

‘Of course, we didn’t want the BNP to get in, it’s just a protest vote.’  I didn’t bother to question the illogic of this. ‘Anyway, we just can’t keep letting people into our country.’

‘Well I can’t really agree with that.  If we hadn’t let any foreigners in then I wouldn’t have met Czechman.’

‘Yes love,’ Dad says with a weary sigh as though he’s talking to a particularly backward child, ‘but he’s wasn’t working in a chicken factory was he?’

Should I be annoyed by this remark because it implies that all Eastern Europeans come to the UK to do low-status, low-paid work, even though Czechman himself is living proof that this is not the case? Or because it implies that evil Eastern Europeans are stealing jobs from the millions of Britains who are queuing up to work in factories, clean people’s houses or wipe old people’s backsides for a living?

Don’t go believing that everyone here in Britain has embraced Project Multiculturalism: sadly my Dad is living proof that there are still plenty of good old-fashioned racists about.

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P.S This photo is of a shoe shop in Leeds. I was almost tempted to pop in and ask them what they thought the link between Prague and shoes was…

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Why Prague is the new (old) Paris

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I used to live in Paris. Czechman tells me that I should be careful about starting conversations with a sentence like this.  It’s true that the Czechs as a rule are a modest bunch.  According to Czechman though, this means that even so much as mentioning the fact that I once lived in France risks making me look like a big head.   The same goes for bringing up where I went to university.  I can’t disclose that information here, because again, I risk looking like a big head but suffice to say, it’s old and famous and full of tourists taking pictures of it.  Again, according to Czechman the only excuse for giving up this sensitive information is if someone asks me directly where I did my studies. 

Anyway, I used to live in Paris. I’ve heard it said that Prague is ‘the Paris of the East’ so I decided it was time for a whimsical investigation into this claim.  

Five reasons why Prague may be the new (old) Paris

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1) Literary haunts

Prague has plenty of great places to sip a coffee, smoke a cigarette (you can still do that indoors here!) and scribble down ideas in your Moleskine for your next novel.  Like Paris, many of these cafes can boast literary creditials:  apparently Max Brod and Kafka used to hang out in Cafe Louvre and of course the now somewhat touristy Cafe Slavia was frequented by Havel and Co during their dissident days.   And there’s the absinthe of course…

 

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2) The Eiffel Tower

 Prague has its own, Petrin, which is a 1:5 scale replica of the original, trivia fans. Of course you can climb up it and admire Prague from either of the viewing galleries on the first floor or right at the top. the top.  There’s also a lift too if you don’t fancy traipsing up all those stairs.  When you go don’t forget to check out the Jára Cimrman museum in the basement.  Jara Cimrman is the great Czech hero who never actually existed; I thought the museum could have been cooked up by the Monty Pythons as a side project. I’m not going into detail here as Cimrman really deserves a post of his own…

3) Romance

 When I told people back home that I was moving to Prague, one of the most common reactions was not in fact ‘Wow, isn’t the beer less than one pound a pint?’ but ”Oh, it’s such a romantic city!’  Perhaps that says something about who I hang around with.  Anyway, no-one can deny Prague is an extremely beautiful city.  Admittedly, the most famous landmarks are packed with the Easyjet brigade but if you’re determined to experience walking through a deserted Old Town one way of doing it is to get up at 6am, take your pictures in peace and then find a nice place to have breakfast.  The Obecni Dum has a great selection and a lovely Art Nouveau interior.

On a personal level though, I find it hard to associate Prague with ‘Romance’ as Czechman just isn’t very good at it.  Poor Czechman.  Let’s put his hatred of Valentines Day and his reluctance to celebrate our anniversary down to the Czech dislike of pretense I talked about in my tram-spotting post, shall we?

Haussmann-style apartment buildings 

Not sure if this is the right term exactly but you know the kind I mean: those 19th century buildings that are usually five or six storeys high and decorated with swirls and cherubs. Like the one you can see behind the ‘Girl in Czechland’ title. They scream France to me but I’m prepared to stand corrected.  Anyway, go and take a walk around Vinohrady with its tree-lined avenues and old-style apartment buildings and you’ll see it owes more than a little something to fin-de-siecle Paris. The graffitti that you sometimes see on them (maybe I’m thinking more of Zizkov when I say this) gives the place a grungy, down-at-heel flavour that I find appealing. Go on, laugh at me but I used to live in a very grotty part of East London so that kind of thing makes me feel at home.

5 Le Centre vs La Banlieue

Paris may not have built any panelacs (the concrete tower blocks dating from the Communist era) but there is a real divide between the historic centre of the city and the outskirts or suburbs (‘la banlieue’), must of which has effectively become a dumping ground for the socially undesirable.  Remember the riots in Paris a couple of years back?  Not a very lighthearted or whimsical observation to end on I’m afraid.  Sorry.

I haven’t had much first hand experience of panelacs yet – apart from being unable to urinate at Czechman’s parents’ place because I realised every little sound from the toilet travelled through the paper thin wall to their kitchen – but that could all soon change. Czechman wants to use his savings to get on the property ladder and it’s doubtful he’ll be able to afford anything in the old apartment buildings in Vinohrady (cue spoilt and Western sigh…).

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