Monthly Archives: May 2010

I’m not a Prague poet (and I know it)

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Do you ever get the feeling that you’ve arrived but the party’s over? All the best music – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dylan – the decent stuff, the genuine article – has already been produced. The best writers have already written the best books, the best painters have already painted the best frescos. All that’s left is just a derivative, watered-down version of what’s gone before. History has already been made and you weren’t there.

I feel like that about Prague sometimes: that by not making it here in the Wild West nineties when there was no Starbucks or Marks and Spencer I’ve somehow missed a Significant Period in Western Civilisation. Living in twenty-first century Europe, despite the Babel of languages, everything is much of a muchness. There’s a Marks and Spencer on Wenceslaus Square, a Costa coffee on Narodni Trida. The only thing I can’t get hold of goods-wise is decent humous.

To the poets then. Apparently, post-Velvet Revolution, Prague became an artistic and cultural melting pot with creative types from all over the world (especially the US of A) taking advantage of the great exchange rate and descending upon the Golden City to indulge their dreams of producing a literary magnum opus. For these folks, nineties Prague was the Paris of the twenties. At least they thought it was. Whether the quality of their output matched that of Stein or Hemingway is open to question. However, thanks to a new anthology of writing in English (mostly) produced by Prague-based authors, you can judge for yourselves.

I attended one of the two launch parties: hey, it’s a fat book. There were readings. Some were good, some weren’t. This isn’t all that surprising: even the some of the greats (T.S Eliot, W.H Auden) weren’t particularly good at reading their work. Someone read a funny short story about working for a language school that had its own unique method for getting their students to speak English – teaching on stilts. There were not so young men making notes in those Moleskine notebooks presumably to prove that when you’re imbued with poetic genius, inspiration can strike at any time. Ah, I promised myself that I wouldn’t mock the poets too much in this post but they make it so easy.

It’s the pretentious posturing that I can’t stand. It seems so unnecessary.

Writing is a lonely business. It’s about you, bum on seat, pen in hand, struggling to come up with some decent ideas. If you want to be Lady Gaga (or the contemporary literary equivalent thereof), go on Ceskoslovensko Superstar instead. You could show off some of the circus skills you acquired while grafting at Shitty School of Languages in order to fund your “real” work – an 800 page homage to Rilke written entirely in a post-Derridean stream of consciousness, self published copies of which are currently arranged in piles in your living room, themselves an ironic testament to the tragic short-sightedness of the publishing industry. That’s what you’d like to believe anyway.

P.S All bloggers (not-so) secretly want to be Proper Published Authors.

An American native speaker gives conversation classes


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A weekend with the (Bohemian) Village People

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I have just spent a weekend with the Village People.

Not the 70’s pop group responsible for wave-your-hands-in-the-air disco classics like YMCA you understand. The Village People is my nickname for Czechman’s family.

It’s one of those jokes that’s only really funny when you tell it to other native speakers. Like when I christened my previous employer ‘Bell-End School of Languages’ and received only a mystified look from Czechman when I couldn’t stop giggling at my own comic brilliance.

It’s sad when you have to resort to laughing at your own jokes. And don’t ask me to explain ‘bell-end’ – one of my subscribers is a man of the cloth. He might be offended.

Going to the village means being spoilt. Just in case you don’t believe me, here’s a list of items we brought home with us:

two jars of homemade marmelade
one large jar of cooked pumpkin chunks
organic goat’s cheese from the nearby goat farm
two giant homemade kolaches
two portions of chicken in red pepper sauce complete with homemade dumplings
two portions of potato and mushroom soup (homemade obviously)
a brand new cake tin (I mentioned that I wanted to make a cake for Czechman’s birthday)
twenty eggs laid by Babička Jedná’s hens – and therefore organic of course
four rohliky (white bread rolls) “because we already have bread and otherwise what will you eat this evening?”

What would we eat indeed.

The Village People ask for little in return for all this five star treatment except our presence. They are patient with my rubbish (but improving) Czech. When I bring a little ringbinder with copies of the articles I’ve recently had published, they ask lots of questions and try to understand the headlines and say I am ‘šikovna’.

This is becoming one of my favourite Czech words. It roughly translates as ‘skilful’ or perhaps ‘talented’ but you don’t have to do a great deal to gain this accolade. Czechman’s infant niece is described as ‘šikovná’ because she can roll onto her belly despite the fact she can’t manage to get back up again and starts bawling. Czechman has failed to bake the pernik (a sort of gingerbread) his Mum showed him how to make but according to her he is still ‘šikovný’ because he managed to buy some from the shop instead. I am also ‘šikovná’ because I can speak Czech (badly), French (well, I could at least) ‘and you also speak English!’

Czechman claims I am an arsekisser. He even taught me the word in Czech for this but now I’ve forgotten it.

It’s true of course. I bring a scarf I am knitting for his Lord Czechness – it’s very long – and receive crochet lessons. Czechman’s mum and I discuss the merits of knitting baby clothes versus adult garments (quicker to finish, more economical) and she is amused (or bemused) that I used to knit on the Tube in London, much to Czechman’s chagrin and dismay. I say how pleased I was that Czechman’s little niece wore the cardigan I made her to her citizenship ceremony. Apparently, they didn’t have anything else equally ‘nobl’. In contrast, I think the things I knit for my English nephew get shoved in a drawer somewhere.

It was a lovely weekend. Ordinary but lovely. My favourite memory is sitting on a bench next to Babička Jedná in her garden in the sunshine while Czechman was sprawled out on the lawn having fed the chickens freshly cut grass. I made Babička laugh by saying what a pale Angličanka I was. I don’t think that’s likely to change soon, given the fact it’s done nothing but rain ever since we got back to Prague. At least if the floods make their way here from Moravia and we’re trapped at home, we’ll have plenty to eat.

The village zámek (castle or stately home)

Feeding goats at the goat farm. 'Kozí' (goat) has a cheeky double meaning in Czech...


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