I’m on a train between Berlin and Prague, when I fall into conversation with a huge bloke called Jan, who climbs into my compartment as though he were a ferocious giant in search of babies’ toes for his supper. He wears knee-length shorts that reveal a part of a tattoo artwork seeping down his leg from his thigh, and a short-sleeve shirt given the sorry task of trying to drape the suspension bridge-like proportions of his upper half. After settling himself into the furthest corner, which still disgorge his enormous limbs like the lower foothills of the Himalayas he pulls out a teensy laptop and begins pecking away like an ape removing a walnut from its shell (ever seen that?). He gives off little simian grunts and groans and sighs of pleasure as he surfs through his e-mails. At one stage I thought he displayed anger, and wondered whether I was about to witness the last moment of the walnut, or perhaps of the Japanese girl whose jaw hadn’t returned to its starting block since he entered our cabin. Anyway, after a while he leaves off the walnut, and begins to speak to me in broken Czenglish.
Turns out that Jan is a stuntman, returning from a shoot in Berlin to his lovely wife and one-year old in Prague. Photos prove their existence, a smiling toddler (aren’t they all?), and a gorgeous Czech wife (aren’t they all?). I feel a twinge of relief, a certain relaxing of my own puny frame, for I had guessed that he is a docker/part-time-Russian-gangster; or a rigger/part-time-Russian-gangster; or perhaps just a fulltime-Russian-gangster. Nothing so namby-pamby as a film stuntman and former professional boxer.
Jan has many complaints, which make him ‘angry’. He hates Czech politicians, who are corrupt and stealing from people in the Czech Republic. He hates the current economic system, which makes old pensioners scramble for bread crusts, and hardly able to afford to pay the rent on their tiny state apartments. So far so good, because Jan is clearly a man of compassion, and Australians don’t seem to be on his target list. Then his attention turns to one of the abiding Czech passions, which is hatred for Gypsies. Jan hates Gypsies because they don’t work; the state pays them too many benefits; they steal from and physically harass the Czechs; and they live in squalor. Berlin, he tells, me, was nice because it was clean: Clean streets, clean air and yes, clean of Gypsies. And Europa wept.
When Jan gets off the train in Prague, he taps on the compartment window from the platform, and holds up his baby boy to the window while his wife looks happily on. Domestic bliss, nice big guy, happy wife, beautiful child. Life could be so perfect in the Czech Republic.
I’m writing this blogette from Cesky Raj, or Czech Paradise. It’s an area of hundreds of square kilometers of jagged sandstone ridges surrounded by forests and villages, and dotted with castles. In the Middle Ages it was the main route for gold and salt from northern Europe, and the Bohemian princes built plenty of castles to guard their loot routes. In the middle of one of these forests at the top of a low mountain is a place called Suche Skaly, a fairy-tale labyrinthine glade of fir trees and huge mossy boulders several stories high, the type of place that Jan might have been set to guard, had he been the troll I thought he was when boarding the train.
Part of the fun of creating nation states has been the manufacture of myths giving land title in perpetuity to the current inhabitants. These stories are usually a hotch-potch of historical facts, artifacts, documents, and pure invention. The Czech Republic was one place where nationalists had the most fun, because this is a rich and ancient land, filled with fabulous treasures, and the Czechs are a talented and inventive lot. So when it came time to invent stories about how this was intrinsically Czech territory, had always been Czech and, by implication, will always be Czech, Czech Paradise seemed an ideal place to start.
It’s so beautiful here that it’s almost dotty. One feels as though one is passing through a film set, and that at any moment gaffer boys and boom operators will emerge from behind 300-ton mossy boulders which are really just set flats. Here in Czech Paradise, and right here in Suche Skaly, one has one of the best examples of myth-making for the nation [and here I must mention the marvelous cultural anthropologist and unapologist Lenka M., of Mala Skala]. Trumped up ‘ancient’ archival documents described the valiant Czechs defending their land against the marauding Teutons (always smashing up other people’s countries, those Teutons), archeologists rediscovering ancient settlements of beer-swilling and dumpling gorging Czechs who liked to trek in sandals and white socks on their off days, and then 19th and 20th century nationalist painters filling in the colours on huge canvases (such as the monumental one in the Turnov Museum). Then songs, films, radio plays, stamps, romantic novels, clubs, names for children… and thus are our lives given meaning, the “I am” of existence.
Unfortunately, the by-product of this is often that others aren’t, such as the Gypsies (yes, more properly the Roma).