Panenka Scarves XIX: Moravia

Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.

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“Wine rejoices the heart of man” – Goethe

If you’ve ever been to the Czech Republic, chances are you left with the impression that this place is strictly a beer nation. And that’s partially true. Hell, the stats even back that up, as Czechs are the leading per capita beer drinkers in the world. It’s such a commonplace beverage, a part of the day-to-day life, that the expression, “Beer isn’t alcohol” can be heard once in a while to describe how drinking beer doesn’t really count as drinking (otherwise we’d have to admit to ourselves that we all do a hell of a lot of drinking).

But, always the strange cousin to the Bohemian region of Czech Republic, Moravia’s fertile soil and favourable climate has turned the south-eastern region of the country into a very popular wine region. And for good reason – do they ever treat wine like water in those parts.

Moravians are known to be a little different when compared to Bohemians (those living in the Western half of the country) or anyone else in the Czech Republic for that matter. The Canadian in me likens it to the Maritimes – where the pace is a little slower, the people are calmer and kinder, and they speak with a bit of a funny accent. This is a nice change from Prague, or any capital city for that matter, where the pace is often a lot faster and people would just as soon run you over before stopping.

I’d been to southern Moravia before, last year for a wine-soaked weekend in Mikluv and was eager to return again this summer. The pleasantness of the people and the beauty of the landscapes make it perfect place to blow off some steam. With that, I went headfirst into Moravia with a local tour guide and a bottomless glass of wine.

This year Valtice was our destination. Valtice is a small town of about 3500 inhabitants a stone’s throw away from the Austrian border. It’s small, pleasant, quieter, and all-together different than the rest of the country. Our group of five took a small train in from Brno and immediately the friendliness of the people was on display. While nerdily explaining the makeup of the Justice League to my girlfriend (she asked, honest) my accent was overheard and one of the men on the train was keen to turn around and talk to me about his time in Canada, Jaromir Jagr, and ask what I thought about the Czech Republic.

We got off at the small train station and walked about ten minutes into the city centre, with groups and groups of cyclists zooming by. It was something we’d see throughout the day. Biking through these Moravian towns and stopping in the cellars is a common weekend activity in the Czech Republic. And why not? There are “wine bike routes” assigned to give cyclists the perfect mix of biking in the sun and afternoon buzzes. It’s illegal as all hell, but the rule of thumb here is something akin to, “Eff that.”

Biking in Moravia, Czech Republic, Moravia, wine cellars, Czech wine, Valtice

Found on the sides of many cellars …

 The town is quaint and well groomed. The city-centre, which is only about a block or two, is lined with wine shops, signs to the various cellars around town, and highlighted by the gorgeous Chateau Valtice, a Baroque residence constructed in the thirteenth century. It really is something to see.

Chateau Valtice, Biking in Moravia, Czech Republic, Moravia, wine cellars, Czech wine, Valtice

Chateau Valtice

Like most visitors, our day was spent cellar-hopping. When we first arrived I tried to take the temperature of our group and see if anyone was interested in lunch. We had, after all, train-hopped all morning to get to our destination. My suggestion was met with disappointed looks that told me I was being naïve: You’ve just had a long trip. It’s time for wine, rookie.

But what wine it was. Fantastic bottles of white and rosé (Czech isn’t exactly known for its red), and different tastes for whatever you like. Oh, and because it’s all made locally, it is dirt cheap. We sat in the sun, sharing a bottle and watching helmeted cyclists and locals alike wander in to have a quick glass and a cigarette before wherever it was they had to get to (usually the next cellar). It’s an atmosphere both incredibly serine and hard to beat.

Biking in Moravia, Czech Republic, Moravia, wine cellars, Czech wine, Valtice

The typical Moravian afternoon

After sampling a couple of the different options available (Pálava being the most uniquely Czech, I’m told), we broke for lunch. And just to remind you that, while you’re in Moravia it’s still the Czech Republic, our options were limited to pork and duck. Again, packs of younger to middle-aged folks rode in on bikes, popped off their helmets and sat down for lunch.

Biking in Moravia, Czech Republic, Moravia, wine cellars, Czech wine, Valtice

“Lunch”

Of all the cellars, the most stunning was definitely the Valtice underground cellars. A veritable labyrinth that runs underneath the city. An entrance fee gives you free range to explore these catacombs of wine with a glass in hand. The slepiéři – Moravian sommeliers, though I prefer the term cellarmen – are there to fill your cup with whatever you wish while you wander the web of wine cellars. They’re chilly and dark and, after a few glasses, things certainly get a lot looser and sillier. It’s basically a playground for adults.

Valtice underground cellar, Moravia, Czech wine, bike tour, Valtice

Valtice underground cellar

By four o’clock clear thoughts became harder and conversations between our group got more grunty and guttural. At least I remember as much. By eight we were wiped, sun-soaked and satiated, stumbling back to the train station, each one of us with sizeable smiles upon our faces.

So my final thought on the Moravian experience is this: It’s brilliant. You drink wine, you enjoy life, and there’s really no need to worry about anything else while you’re down in the cellar. Or outside the cellar for that matter. It’s such a pleasant way of living it’s criminal.

The lovely Czech tourguide

Our lovely Czech tour guide

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Panenka Scarves XVIII: Jára Cimrman

Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.

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The world’s greatest writer, inventor, painter, physicist, skier, and philosopher of the last 100 years was the great Czech Jára Cimrman. We may dispute the fact, we may even disagree, but there is nothing else that can be done about it.  
Jára Cimrman ležící, spící

The greatest Czech of all time does not exist.

That is not to say there isn’t a Czech worthy of the title. In fact, there have been many great men and women throughout history that could certainly be bestowed that honour. However, ask any Czech and the near-unanimous choice for G.O.A.T status – that’s Greatest Of All Time – is a man named Jára Cimrman. This was reinforced during a 2005 competition in which Czech Television held a vote for the Greatest Czech and Cimrman came out on top during the preliminary round of voting.

There’s only one catch. Jára Cimrman isn’t real. He’s a fictional character.

Of all the cultural oddities I have encountered in the Czech Republic, this one is certainly at the top of the list. But it’s exactly the kind of thing that makes me love this twisted place. The goofiness and splendor of his story is something to behold.

Who was Jára Cimrman?

Cimrman is the most accomplished Czech in history. A genuine Jack of all trades, he is a playwright, a composer, an engineer, an artist, explorer and inventor. Among his many achievements, he is credited with proposing the construction of the Panama Canal, inventing the lightbulb (the legend states that Edison beat him to the patent office by a mere five minutes) and giving notes to Anton Chekhov, convincing the Russian writer that two sisters was “too few”, resulting in the play Three Sisters. Finally, the CD is arguably Cimrman’s most contemporary invention. If this is news to you, perhaps it might help to remember that CD actually stands for Cimrman Disc.

Jára Cimrman advised Gustave Eiffel on the construction of the Eiffel Tower’s base and, if he hadn’t been chased away by hostile natives, he would have become the first man to reach the North Pole. Instead, he missed the mark by a mere twenty feet. When speaking with some locals, I once compared Jára Cimrman to a “Czech Forrest Gump.” I was promptly reminded that Cimrman came first, and therefore Forrest Gump was more of an “American Jára Cimrman.”

What’s amazing is that all of the works and accomplishments of Cimrman were nearly forgotten in time. By happenstance, his life’s-work, hidden away in a small Czech summer cottage, was posthumously discovered in 1969. This fortunate find has allowed Czech historians to piece together the events of Jára Cimrman’s life and catalogue his inventions and contributions to civilization. Cimrman’s treasure trove of plays was so abundant that new works are still being preformed in the Czech Republic.

Jara Cimrman, greatest Czech, picture of Cimrman, Czech Republic

A bust of Jára Cimrman – his true appearence remains a mystery as no photos of his person exist.

The Non-Alcoholic Wine Cellar by the Spider

Jára Cimrman was introduced to the Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia, on December 23, 1966. The legend goes that Zdeněk Svěrák[1], Jiří Šebánek, along with two Czech radio editors, created Cimrman over a bottle of vodka one evening and debuted him during a satirical radio program Nealkoholická vinárna U Pavouka, or the Non-Alcoholic Wine Cellar by the Spider.

The monthly program gave the illusion of a live radio broadcast from a local wine bar, while the men commented on real news stories. In fact, Svěrák, Šebánek, and friends like Ladislav Smoljak simply filled the airwaves with fictional news tales and silly commentary.

It was on this program that a character named Dr. Evžen Hedvábný – played by Karel Velebný, who could deadpan ridiculous facts so believably it would fool journalists – revealed that he had discovered a trunk with the previously unseen works of a brilliant man. With that, the legend of Jára Cimrman was born. Over time his star grew, to the point that he became a national hero.

A year after his radio reveal, the work of Cimrman debuted on the stage for the first time. Akt, a long-lost play allegedly written by Cimrman, was performed at the Jára Cimrman Theater. The theatre has since moved locations, now residing in the Prague district of Žižkov, but its popularity is unrivaled. Tickets to any performance at the Cimrman Theatre are consistently sold out and, conveniently enough, more works of the playwright are unearthed every couple of years.

The plays are unique in themselves. The first part of the performance sees Cimrman-ologists, academics devoted to the study of Jára Cimrman’s life and accomplishments, come to the stage to present a lecture on something Cimrman has done. The second half is a one-act fictionalized event, oftentimes relating to the previous lecture.

The mythos of the man finally culminated in 2005 during a television competition to select “The Greatest Czech”. During the first round of voting, Cimrman was victorious. Sadly, the producers of the program promptly disqualified the Czech genius on the technicality that he “wasn’t a real person.”[2]

Cimrman, Jara Cimrman, Czech Republic, Akt, Greatest Czech

A still from ‘Akt’

Still, it says something awfully fantastic about a nation that, when given the chance to vote for their greatest countryman of all time, they chose the fictional Jára Cimrman.

It’s no surprise, then, that the enduring legacy of Cimrman’s popularity has a lot to do with the mentality of the Czech people.

Zdeněk Svěrák, who is Cimrman’s co-creator and the face most recognized as Jára’s (owing to the 1983 film Jára Cimrman ležící spící in which he plays the titular character) believes that the popularity of Cimrman’s legend has a lot to do with the Czech psyche. He has stated that “[Cimrman] probably embodies the desire of a small nation to be great. He knew everyone in the world and was on familiar terms with every genius in Europe. He advised them and he advised them well. But he himself never achieved success. And that probably encapsulates a complex that we [Czechs] have.”[3]

Cimrman, Jara Cimrman, Czech Republic, Akt, Greatest Czech

Zdeněk Svěrák portraying Jára Cimrman in Jára Cimrman ležící, spící

Through history, the Czech people have lived next to several European superpowers, yet the small nation often gets lost in the shuffle. After being under the rule of the Hapsburg monarchy and the Austrian Empire for centuries (and having to fight in the First World War in defence of an Empire they didn’t care too strongly about), the Czech and Slovak people finally attained their own Republic in 1918. It didn’t last long though, as it was promptly occupied and annexed the Nazis following the Munich Agreement. After the Second World War, the Communists took control for decades and life in Czechoslovakia was repressed to say the least. For many Czech people humour, often dark humour, was one of the best recourses to forget about the troubles of a history of being conquered, occupied, and oppressed. As Svěrák has said, “People chose humor, because humor saved our nation several times.”[4]

Some of the plays performed at the Cimrman Theatre criticized the Austro-Hungarian rule of Cimrman’s time, but did so in such a way that those bright enough could see that they were thinly-veiled jabs at the Communist system of Czechoslovakia. Criticizing the government in those days was simply unheard of, as it often led to a life of ruin for you and your family. However, the playwrights and performers were careful enough to word their commentary cleverly and avoid severe punishment. And in that sense, Jára Cimrman has been one of the greatest fuck yous in Czech history. I guess it’s easy to see why he’s so popular.

If it hadn’t been for Cimrman, no one would know about us, but on the other hand, without us, no one would know Cimrman.  – Zdeněk Svěrák

I hope I have done my due diligence at explaining the idea of Jára Cimrman to any non-Czechs that are curious. It certainly is an odd concept in itself, but one that endears this place to me. The satirical and anti-establishment humour that courses through the veins of a lot of Czechs goes hand-in-hand with the creation, growth, and current popularity of the great Jára Cimrman. He is a man of mystery and a man of many accomplishments and surely his most legendary feats are yet to be discovered.

Cimrman, Jara Cimrman, Czech Republic, Akt, Greatest Czech, Cimrman memorial

“If Prague will consider my memorial, let it, please, be from white marble, so I will withstand the pigeons the best.”

Footnotes

Back to post 1. Zdeněk Svěrák has since become one of the Czech Republic’s greatest actors and even gained international attention, when Kolya – a film he wrote and starred in – won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film for 1996.

Back to post 2. The competition was eventually won by Charles IV, a Holy Roman Emperor from the 14th century, considered one of the builders of Prague. His name is on nearly everything of note in the city!

Back to post 3. From: Jara Cimrman – the “greatest ever” Czech?

Back to post 4. From: Czech’s hero? The people’s choice is a joke

Posted in June | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Because ‘Northern Justice’ was taken

Detective Bo Johnson was a tough DC cop who stepped on too many toes in his old precinct and was promptly given the McNulty Season 2 treatment by his superiors – transferred as far away as humanly possible and forgotten about immediately. Using some seldom-used and unbelievable “cultural exchange” program, his fed-up chief sent him all the way to Helsinki, Finland for an indeterminate amount of time.

It was there that he was paired up with a young Finnish sleuth named Eero Peltonen. Eero was as green as they come and stubbornly obeyed every rule imaginable, not because it was right, but because he’s Finnish and that’s just the way they do things in the North.

The conflicting styles of these two men clashed more than once, but over the course of their after-hours investigation into the mysterious disappearance of Eero’s sister, they eventually begin to trust one another.

Small leads take them on a manhunt throughout Europe and the United States, as they’re thrown head first into an adventure which clashes cultures and stifles stereotypes.

Because this is no ordinary pairing. This is the work of Finland’s newest detective team. This is the work of Bo & Eero

Bo and Eero, Finnish buddy cop, black cop white cop

Finnish Emmy please!

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The Green Bench

The Church of the Green Bench … Our Lady of Urquell … Here we follow the Gospel according to Gambrinus.

Moving to a new city can be difficult. It’s a blank slate and with that comes a lack of familiarly with the new environment, new people, and all without a support network to help in times of trouble. In North America, many people see their local church as a catalyst towards a better sense of community spirit. But in the Czech Republic, a land of limited religion, where do the lost souls turn?

When I moved to this fair city two years ago, I would wander the streets in an attempt to better make sense of this strange new place that I had decided to call home. It was devilishly daunting; incredibly intimidating. I found myself on a lonely walk one evening, circling the blocks of my new neighbourhood and trying to find a sense of the community. Mere metres from my front door I saw a glowing green specter that compelled me to come forward. It was a sign. Literally – a display for Pilsner beer.

I leaned in close to read the bulletin hung by the door. It was full of meals and prices and all sorts of options. As I leaned back an old woman appeared out of nowhere and prophesized in my direction: “It’s the best in the city!” The doors were locked, but I knew I would have to return as soon as possible. The next Sunday, nervous as I was, I crossed the threshold and entered into the Green Bench Pub for the first time.

Until then I hadn’t been to church in years, but here in Prague – a city of nearly no religion – the pub is a place of solemn worship. It is not to be taken lightly, nor is your participation to be passive. Our local, the Green Bench, was as close an experience to the neighbourhood parish as one could imagine, only without the whole Christ-on-a-cross thing to get you down.

Before I go any further, it should be mentioned that the pub itself is not actually called the Green Bench Pub, as we so frequently and fondly refer to it. Rather, the name is Na Rychtě, which doesn’t really translate into anything that memorable or important (the term is sometimes used to indicate that a former Magistrate’s estate was in and around the area … I told you it was nothing memorable). The name isn’t all that easy to pronounce either; a perfect Czech letter combination that makes it awful for me to even attempt to say correctly. In an effort to maximize understanding, we have simply been calling it the Green Bench Pub for the better part of two years, choosing to name it after the large wooden pews which sit outside the front door during the summertime, green and inviting and the perfect place to find salvation in the sun with a cooling pint your palm.

Green Bench Pub, Czech Republic, Prague, best pub in Prague, Na rychte

It has been around since 1895, a long time to establish character, and there is no shortage of that within the walls of the Green Bench. Like a church, the older worshipers sit towards the front, near the alter – the taps – and these are the štamgast, or habitual regulars. They are the ones who have been paying service to the parish for decades and are therefore entitled to the best seats in the building, closer to the action. They make the institution what it is and have carried on the tradition for more than a hundred years.

The interior is old, with large drawings of the city of Prague from the 15th century. The walls, the chairs, and the floors are all wooden, which makes the inner-heart of the pub look a lot more Lutheran than Catholic. The bar is smoky, not of incense but of tobacco, wrought iron chandeliers hang overhead and the windows are covered in cotton Czech curtains rather than stained glass.

We don’t get to sit near the alter. As new arrivals, our seats are off to the side a little, but I do not mind this. We attend Mass regularly enough that we’re recognized as parishioners when we enter and we can order a drink – and even a refill – without so much as a word; a mere nod will suffice. It’s a very hospitable environment.

Na Rychte, Prague, Czech Republic, best pub in Prague,

The chaplains are welcoming, often offering us safe haven even after regular hours. They have given sanctuary to all forms of sinners, but do so without any judgment. True men of the bar cloth.

A small TV has recently been installed, which is perfect to take in the nightly sermons – usually World Championship hockey or Steven Seagal movie marathons. St. Steven is often a popular choice in the Green Bench.

In the land of no religion, the pub is your chapel. I don’t know if there’s a heaven, but I know that accidentally wandering upon a place like Green Bench is pretty damned close.

Posted in May | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Watching Hockey in Europe (on TV!)

Watching hockey in Europe – one of my favourite pastimes in one of my favourite places. But doing so is not necessarily one size fits all. Not only is it a lot more difficult than I had first anticipated, but the spotlight shines on a completely different batch of games during the springtime. It takes some getting used to and only after five years am I starting to find my footing.

Slavic Roots and Streaming Snafus

I was first introduced to the new challenges that can occur from trying to watch hockey on European TV during an exchange year in Slovenia. Obviously, I was no longer guaranteed the ludicrously-solid broadcast that is Hockey Night in Canada. No CBC on a Saturday can be a tough thing for any Canadian to adjust to at first. As a result, I had to make friends with illegal streaming sites, which I’ve habitually been using for hockey, basketball, football, golf, Texas squirrel racing, water-boxing, and dressage ever since.

Not only can “the game” be tricky to track down, but finding a Canadian broadcast is often time-consuming to boot. Because, let’s be honest, Jack Edwards should never be the only option. Ever. [1]

While I’m aware that the CBC offers free streaming on their website, it is unavailable to those outside the country, owing I’m sure to a whole assortment of copyright laws and legal licensing snafus. I’m also aware that, for a price I cannot afford, the NHL will allow online streaming. But there are some problems here as well. First, the game will cut out during commercials. Half the reason crazy assholes like myself are putting in the time to find these matches is to offset the homesickness abroad. And there’s no better remedy than a comforting cup of Bob Cole-isms and three hours of Home Hardware commercials.

The second problem is that these games come on really late. I spent years in Vancouver, where Hockey Night began at 4pm. 4 pm! You could watch a game, be done by seven, and head out for the evening, already with a couple beers in the belly and a pinch of pucks on the palate. But in Europe, these games are on a nine-hour swing (ten if you’re stupid enough to move to Finland) and begin at 1 am.[2] Late as it is, when that NHL Live feed cuts out to a black screen and silence during every commercial break and intermission, you’re as good as asleep.

Still, I dream of the day when the Canadians abroad are able to watch the CBC for free – even if most of us no longer chip in to keep it afloat. It may happen eventually (and due to the abundance of online streaming, it essentially is, with the network collecting 0% of the ad revenue) so why not sooner rather than later. In order to weed out the riff-raff, perhaps they could just offer some sort of Canadian CAPTCHA for anyone trying to connect. Maybe a couple of questions that only a Canuck could answer: How many donuts did Lester Pearson consume during his inaugural ball? What’s the square root of Sasketchewan? Finish this sentence: A place to stand, a place to grow: ___________ [3]

As I said, these games are on late out here. It’s no easy feat to willingly torpedo your Sunday morning, on the off chance you might see the Leafs beat Ottawa. Still, over time you learn to master the art of afternoon naps, well-timed pots of coffee, late late dinners, and the craft of Googling your way to a TSN or CBC feed.

By now I’m an old hand at such strategies and have my routine down more than comfortably. If necessary I’m confident I could calculate the travel time from any pub in the city to my front door, ensuring I make it home for puck drop (All that high school math finally paying off). I’d even factor in the three extra minutes it takes to pick up a couple of game beers from the convenience store across the street (God I love this country sometimes). But by no means is it a perfect alternative. It’s simply the best I’ve got.

The ‘ice’ is superfluous –or- Did you see the game last night?

A funny thing starts happening in Canada during April and May. A lot of people start talking about the hockey and following it religiously.

A funny thing starts happening in the hockey-mad European countries during April and May. People start talking about “ice hockey” and following it religiously.

It’s kind of fun and it reminds me of home. Though I have to keep reminding people that there’s no need to call it ice hockey. That’s just redundant.

Friends, colleagues, students and well-wishers who know I’m Canadian make a point to come up to me and ask me if I “watched the game last night.”  Well of course I watched the game, I wouldn’t have missed it.

So we start talking, and I get into how I can’t believe Toronto’s making it a series and that Chicago looks good this year, and they start babbling on about Switzerland for some reason. It takes a couple of beats before I realize that no one’s ever talking about the NHL playoffs. They’re always talking about the World Championships.

Yes, the IIHF World Championships. The tournament designed to showcase the best second best third-string available players from the world’s greatest hockey nations. Its popularity is something I still, after nearly five years in Europe, can’t put my finger on. Yet, in a sure sign that I might actually be developing Stockholm syndrome, I’m starting to get less annoyed by the presence of the Worlds.[4] Perhaps it’s the timing of the games that gives me easy access to hockey. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m a Canadian, living with a Finn, in the Czech Republic – so there’s no shortage of national matchups between us and our friends. Maybe it’s simply an excuse to head to the pub. And surely part if it comes from the fact that Canada has a pretty decent record through the round-robin most years, essentially running through every team for the first week or so.

Whatever the case may be, I’ll use last week to give you a good idea of what watching hockey in Europe is like at this time of year.

Friday – The best of both worlds

My girlfriend sent me a text that afternoon and asked if I was interested in “watching the game” before we went out. I was surprised at her suggestion, since Canada was set to play Belarus and she must’ve known that the match wouldn’t be that interesting. But, never one to say no to a lady who wants to watch hockey, I agreed.

When I came home, I could hear the sounds of the game as I opened the front door. I turned the corner expecting to see the red and white of Team Canada upon the screen. How naïve of me. Finland was playing Russia that same night – “a superior game”, she said – and we watched Suomi spank their Russian rivals with a bottle of wine.

After the game, we went into town to celebrate a friend’s birthday party. We left the party with enough time to make it back to the flat for the Game 5 of the Leafs versus Boston. We stayed up late, watched the game, and celebrated the victory. I noticed the adrenaline coursing through my body on every Toronto goal and it was an exciting feeling; an emotional investment that hasn’t happened in a long time and one of the best things about being a fan. Toronto held onto a 2-1 lead during a torturous third period and I was once more reminded of how stressful playoff hockey can be.

It was pure exhilaration when the final buzzer sounded, and the images pouring in from Maple Leaf Square matched the excitement in our little Prague flat. Surely there is no way the Leafs could make themselves look bad after stealing two games in the series.

The clock struck five and we split for bed.

Saturday – Too much of a good thing

Owing the celebratory Leafs whisky, Saturday started off slow. These victories haven’t happened very often this last decade, so you’ve gotta make them count. That was our idiotic logic anyways.

Days prior I had promised to go and watch a Finland match with my girlfriend and her colleagues, but wasn’t listening when she was explaining the details. This was a mistake.

The game was going to take to place just outside of Prague, in a small village where one of her Finnish co-workers lived with his Czech wife. He had convinced his local barman to open up the tiny village pub, promising that a group of ten Finns, drinking for three hours, would likely provide the best business in ages.

I was tired from lack of sleep and even tried unsuccessfully to talk my way out of going. I reluctantly ended up on a bumpy bus ride for what seemed like a day-and-a-half, grumpy and hungover the entire way.

We arrived at the small village around 3 o’clock and sauntered over the pub. We had entered just before the anthems were played and someone brightly suggested that we have a shot of Finnish vodka to wish the team good luck. Then someone else suggested a shot to celebrate each Finnish goal. Uh Oh, I thought. I’ve been down this path before and I know it doesn’t end well. I’ve had the opportunity to drink with Finns in the past. It’s a different stratosphere, where logic, reserve and self control sound as silly as Finnish words to English ears.

I was sitting at a wooden bench, surrounded by Finns, and I knew, well in advance, that it was going to be trouble. Finland won the game 7-2. That, my friends, is a lot of vodka. The party went well into the evening and for a few hours the World Championships seemed like a really good idea. The night ended hazily: One Finn lost his wallet. One Finn went missing for a few hours. Four of us didn’t actually make it out of that little village until the following afternoon.

Drunk Finnish fans

Not that far off from the aforementioned night …

Sunday – Everything is good

On Sunday afternoon Canada played the Czech Republic in the World Championships. This is the first time these two squads have faced off since I moved to Prague so you better believe I was eager to watch it with some Czechs. We decided to meet at Hockeyka, the towns premier hockey pub and take in the game. I proudly dawned my Molson’s T-shirt and threw myself deep into a third-straight day of drinking … I mean hockey.

The bar itself is something special. A shrine devoted to the Czech contributions to the game. Photo colleagues of Czech players throughout the 20th century line the walls, with signed jerseys and Dominik Hašek clocks hanging from the ceiling. The unavoidable centerpiece is a life-size statue of Jaromír Jágr in a Czech national team jersey, complete with realistic horse-hair mullet.

Jagr statue

The game began and I found myself cheering with my hands raised whenever Canada scored a goal (they won 2-1), though I wasn’t conscious of the fact until I caught my concerned girlfriend’s eyes and felt the heavy stares of an entire pub, silently scowling in my direction. It was quite a trip – the first time in a long time that I’ve been so outnumbered while watching a Canadian hockey game.

After the match, we returned home. My tank was on empty, so I opted to actually go to sleep for once and forego Game 6 of the Leafs and Bruins. I said a prayer to the hockey gods, asking that they help Toronto not to embarrass themselves.

Monday – 24 hours of the best feeling in the world, followed by the absolute worst

I woke up to the news that, against all odds, Toronto had actually forced a Game 7. I felt the hockey gods were just. It was a moment of monumental pride and a feeling that, even if they were blown out in the final game of their series, there was no way the Leafs could sour this first-round series in the eyes of their fans. Like many others, I spent that day with an elated spring in my step, going so far as to toy with the fantasy that maybe they could actually pull it off. Stranger things have happened.

Since I had to work the next day, I couldn’t stay up to see the game. But, like a kid on Christmas morning who could sleep no longer, I found myself shot awake at 3:30 am. Naturally, I went and checked the scores. It was 2-1 Toronto at the second intermission. Work be damned, I’m watching this game. When the Leafs went up 4-1 and I grabbed a blanket from my room, waking my girlfriend up in the process. She asked me the score and sprang out of bed when I told her. We sat in the silence of the morning and anticipated that we were about to watch something special.

And, you know the rest

I felt as though the hockey gods weren’t so much just, as they were sadistic.

There was something so sobering about watching Boston’s third period comeback at that time of morning. There were no cars on the street, no noise whatsoever, just our stunned silence at what was happening. We weren’t really tired, we weren’t really angry, we were just sort of confused. Since it was so early, I even tried to pinch myself on the off chance that it might happen to be a very realistic dream.

I did make it to work on Tuesday morning, but spent most of the day in a haze thinking, “How the fuck…” I’d walk around the city and try to keep my mind occupied, but it always sort of wandered back to the game and every time it did, it felt like this:

Which brings me back to the Worlds.

Following a game like that, living in Europe has some advantages. First, there is no chirping. That is to say, you can go about the next day without fear of your idiot co-workers or cruel relatives twisting the knife. Your friends may know what happened, but they don’t really care. They may have caught the boxscore, but few were up watching. The national team was still being given front-page treatment. I had more people congratulate me for Canada’s win over the Czech Republic than taunt me for the Leaf meltdown. It was a welcome distraction while I sorted myself out and tried to compartmentalize one of the worst third-period collapses I’d ever seen on ice.

At the very least, the Worlds offered a welcome distraction. And it helped.[5]

These are some of the benefits of being a hockey fan in Europe during the spring. There are games on all around you – so much so that you might need to take a few days to relax and gather yourself from the highs and the lows. Better still, there is a lot less partisan bickering when it comes to who won and who lost. As soon as the game’s over, it tends to matter less and everyone’s just sort of mates again. There isn’t that constant stream of hating on each other and rubbing salt into fresh wounds. As a Leafs fan, it should be easy to see why I can get behind that.

I don’t know how many more springs I’ll remain on this continent. But what I do know is that the longer I’m here, the greater my anticipation is for this time of year.

Footnotes:

Back to post.1. I know it’s a bit tired to pick on old Simple Jack, but he still remains the only man on this planet that’s ever made me feel sympathy for the Vancouver Canucks.

Back to post.2. Helsinki is so far away that Hockey Night In Canada starts at 2 in the morning and the west coast games begin on Monday afternoon.

Back to post. 3. The correct answers are, in order: trick question – that ball was Timbits only, Moosejaw, and Ontari-ari-ari-o.

Back to post. 4. For example, I can tell you that the last two tournaments have featured games in Stockholm.

Back to post. 5. So too did both these wonderful essays.

Posted in May | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Panenka scarves XVII: Football – part dos

Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.

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In the past, I’ve usually spent my birthday watching hockey. Not for the whole day, but at some point I’ll find myself in front of a screen showing a game. After all, that week often coincides with the start of the NHL playoffs, and when you grow up in Canada you can be in a restaurant, department store, post office, or prison and chances are the game, any game, is being shown.

This year things were a bit different. Although the NHL post-season is set to begin in April the fall lockout has pushed the drop of the playoff puck to April 30th.

In order to satiate my thirst for sports, I had to find an alternative. Thankfully, Prague was set to host a clash between its two most popular clubs – AC Sparta Prague and SK Slavia Prague – in a longstanding tradition known as the Prague derby, which produces one of the best football atmospheres in the country. I’m not the biggest football fan there is, since a Canadian upbringing doesn’t exactly warm you to the sport and its strategies, but in lieu of hockey it was an acceptable substitute.

I’d been to the two previous spring derbies and while the game on the pitch isn’t exactly world-class, the real beauty of the experience comes from the crowd. I’ve mentioned a few things about Czech football in the past and I hope not to repeat myself here; I just feel that there is more to say.

These two clubs do not like each other, and history has shown that the fanbases of each side are certainly not friendly with one another either, so security is a serious concern. As you come closer to the stadium, the sound of a hovering helicopter overhead becomes louder, while the sight of police lined up in riot gear is more frequent. These are just two of the things that let you know you’re headed towards football.

I have only one burning desire…

The crowd is what makes this experience worthwhile. Sit anywhere near the fan sections behind the nets and you’re guaranteed to witness something much more entertaining than the game itself.

There are a couple of things that can happen in a football match that would never be allowed in a hockey rink, or most other public places for that matter. The most noticeable of which is the presence of fire! Pyrotechnics – flares, fireworks, and torches – are snuck into the stadium and set off throughout the game. Sometimes this is done to celebrate a goal, and sometimes it’s just to show the visiting fans (who have lit a fire of their own) that you can make a bigger one.

Sparta Prague fans, fire, pyrotechnics, pyro, Generali Arena, derby, Prague, Czech football, Czech Republic, Mark Kranjc

Sparta fans and their fire! – April 2013

The best part of this, apart from seeing multiple fires in the stands at a professional sports match (won’t get that at Wimbledon) is the obligatory announcement that comes from the PA immediately after flames appear. For liability’s sake, the fans are reminded of the team policy on pyrotechnics – that it is not, in fact, encouraged and it would be appreciated if they stopped it. The announcement is made very politely (they say please and thank you) and occurs like clockwork every ten seconds after a fire is lit. Funnier still, sometimes the announcement simply incites the crowd to light more fires, because, let’s face it, that’s funny.

The choreography of the ‘kotel’

The crowd does more than light fires though. They are the engine that keeps the energy in the building at a high through their cheering, chanting, drumming, and jeering. Ninety minutes of so-so football won’t exactly ignite the crowd, but the kotel, fan sections of a Czech club which are situated behind the goals, do their best to make noise and even involve the other sections of the stadium.

Sparta Prague fans, fire, pyrotechnics, pyro, Generali Arena, derby, Prague, Czech football, Czech Republic,

The Sparta kotel – April 2013

That’s something I’ve grown fond of, especially since my seats are often near the kotel. They’ll start some chants with “Fandi cela Letná!” (all the fans in Letná – the neighbourhood where the stadium sits) repeated three times, imploring the fans on their right to join in on the next one. The cheers are all pretty basic and repetitive (to the point that, even with my limited Czech, I can already understand about 80% of them) and it really works to get other sections of the stadium into the game.

My favourite cheer, an old classic and likely the only English you’ll encounter during the whole experience, is the simple: Let’s go Sparta, Let’s go! (clap, clap). It’s one which nearly all sports fans know. The reason I like it so much, is that it’s been a Sparta cheer for decades, even used during the seventies and eighties as a bit of a Fuck you! to the communist regime, since English was not encouraged at the time.

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However, there is an ugly side to this. As is too often the case in football, the unfortunate element of racism is present in a few of the cheers. The most notable of which is an unsettling Sparta taunt towards Slavia – “Jude Slavie!” – which translates into “Slavia Jews!”, and it’s used to provoke the Slavia faithful. The origins of the taunt harken back to the beginnings of both teams in the late 1890s. Sparta was a blue collar club, while Slavia was supported by wealthier businessmen and members of Prague’s Jewish community.

Still, if there is any good news to be taken from this, it’s the fact that the Jude Slavie! chant is becoming less frequently used, instead replaced by an Anti-Slavia! chant, which uses the same cadence and rhythm. In that sense, I suppose there is some hope for progress (though the Jude Slavia chant can still be heard every once in a while), as the club and their fans appear to be making an effort to remove this from the game. At the very least, they’re actually making more of an attempt than they have in the past.

Birell

The one downside to such intense fandom (apart from the aforementioned moments of blind racism) is the fact that it would be irresponsible on the part of the club to actually fuel the fire by selling alcohol at the matches. Instead, the Czech Republic’s sober uncle and non-alcoholic alternative, Birell, is the only thing available. While it looks like beer, and smells like beer, it just doesn’t make you want to throw a wrench at the referee and, therefore, it’s not quite beer.

Brawls and banners ablaze

At first, I couldn’t quite comprehend why there were so many police officers and firemen walking around the arena during the game. I thought it was a bit of a waste of time and money. But by halftime, you realize that it’s probably a good idea.

As I mentioned, beer is not sold at the match. To combat this, a healthy number of fans will get rip-roaring drunk beforehand. Always industrious, these fans will certainly account for the fact that they will not be able to continue drinking inside, and ensure that they are loaded enough to carry on well into the second half. What results is the occasional brawl in the seats. A 1-on-1 fight would be a fantasy, football tends to favour the “all of my friends versus yours” school of thought, and Prague is no exception. When the stadium is packed out, as it often is on derby night, all those cops are more than necessary.

But what of the firemen? Surely with all that fire in the stands there’s not going to be any chaos. And that’s mostly true until a few of the banners catch fire and in march the firemen to put out the blazes with extinguishers, tear the charred banners off the wall and head back, shaking their heads because they know that in about fifteen minutes they’ll have to do it all again. Then that same announcement will return for fifth time, asking the fans to cool it with the fire.

Sparta Prague fans, fire, pyrotechnics, pyro, Generali Arena, derby, Prague, Czech football, Czech Republic, Mark Kranjc

The Elements

Once more, something that I perhaps take for granted during a hockey game, since I’ve never been to a Winter Classic (though give it a couple of years and I’m sure the NHL will start playing them in Europe as well), but when the skies open up during the 78th minute, there’s really not much you can do but sit there and get rained on. Sure it’s annoying, but it’s also kind of cool. You don’t get the opportunity to take on the elements as a spectator in a lot of my favourite sports.

Letná Love

To date, Sparta’s home pitch is the only place where I’ve gotten to witness a live football match. The Generali Arena – formally the Toyota Arena, before that the AXA Arena, and originally Letná Stadium – is where Sparta calls home. And in spite of changing its name more times than P.Diddy, it’s actually a wonderful place to watch a game.

In a gorgeous part of town that borders Letná Park, a beautiful green space that sits atop Prague and gives a ridiculous view of the city’s Old Town, the walk to the stadium allows you to chance to see Prague Castle eye-to-eye and from the backside, something which doesn’t happen very often. Normally, the Castle stands mightily atop its hill, ignoring everyone below, and wouldn’t dare to give you a glance from her back end.

The stadium itself is nothing special, built in the late sixties and given a facelift in 1994, but it doesn’t really need to be. It’s easy to find, easy to navigate, and easy to enjoy. In fact, a stunning modern stadium would just seem like an anachronism in Prague. I may yet watch this sport in a couple of different countries before it’s all said and done, but Letná will always be my first love.

Czech Republic, Czech football, Prague, Sparta, Sparta Praha, Sparta Prague, Generali Arena, Letná Stadium

Generali Arena during derby day – April 2013

Did not see that coming

In an odd twist of fate, and a certain sign that I’ve been away from home for much too long, I’m starting to enjoy the spectacle of live football more than I could have ever imagined. Which I suppose is a good thing, since I’m due to relocate to the Netherlands in four months – a place that is certainly football mad.

I like to think I’ve done my part for the home team. Sparta is now 4-0 with me in attendance. Then again, that’s like sporadically going to a Vancouver Canucks game over the last few seasons and attributing their success to your presence. Statistically speaking, Sparta is going to win most of the time, regardless of who shows up. Still, I like to think I’m helping. Canadian magic and such.

Sparta Prague fans, fire, pyrotechnics, pyro, Generali Arena, derby, Prague, Czech football, Czech Republic, Mark Kranjc

Posted in April | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Finally!

The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs played in an NHL playoff game I was in the eleventh grade. It was Game 6 against the Flyers and I was working an evening shift at a craft store in Ancaster, Ontario. I had pleaded with my manager to forgo the usual light muzak radio station he usually played (I called it dentist chair music) and switch over to the game. He obliged and I finished my shift while listening to the Leafs and biting my nails.

Toronto staved off elimination by erasing a two goal deficit in the third period, but all for not. I made it home in time to see Jeremy Roenick score an overtime winner and end Toronto’s season. That was 2004 and it was the last time playoff hockey has been played in the Air Canada Centre.

After years of near misses, futile spring pushes, and waffle-tossing atrociousness on ice, the Leafs are returning to the playoffs for the first time since that night I was hanging on Joe Bowen’s every word while putting away loose yarn. By no means does it seem like yesterday, and the more I got to thinking about it, the more I realized just how much the world has changed since that last match. It put into perspective how long it has actually been and the more I thought about it, the scarier it was.

Here is what life was like the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs appeared in the NHL playoffs:

  • John Paul II was the Pope – there have been two Popes since then.
  • YouTube hadn’t been invented
  • Same goes for Twitter and the iPhone
  • Pluto was still a planet
  • Lindsay Lohan looked like this:Lindsay Lohan, young, 2004, mean girls
  • Zdeno Chara was wearing the colours of the Ottawa Senators and Chris Pronger was still a member of the St. Louis Blues
  • Dick Cheney hadn’t shot anyone in the face … at least as far as we know
  • Rihanna was not famous. No one had heard of Twilight. Lost and Mad Men had yet to appear on a television screen.
  • Sidney Crosby hadn’t been drafted by Pittsburgh and Michael Phelps had zero Olympic medals
  • Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Johnny Carson were all still alive
  • Barack Obama was still a relative unknown – he wouldn’t garner national attention for another couple months during his DNC Convention keynote speech
  • Brad Pitt was still married to Jennifer Aniston
  • Cell phones looked like this:Nokia 1110
  • Gmail had been around for a month, Facebook for three
  • Christopher Nolan hadn’t saved Batman yet – the most recent big screen Bruce Wayne was George Clooney, Bat-nipples and all
  • The Boston Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series since 1918 – sharing a bond with the Leafs as sports franchises with rabid fanbases and comically long championship droughts. The Red Sox have since won two World Series titles. And Toronto’s making their first post-season appearance since 2004. Ouch.

That said, I still love me some Leafs playoff hockey. There is nothing like the atmosphere in Southern Ontario when the blue and white are in the post-season and if you listen closely you can hear a legion of people exhaling excitedly and saying: It’s about damn time.

Leafs Flyers 2004

While there were some traditionally Toronto faces on the team that spring – Domi, Tucker, Roberts, and Sundin – there was also an odd number of players donning the blue and white that you wouldn’t normally consider Leafs, including Joe Nieuwendyk, Ron Francis, Alexander Mogilny, Brian Leetch, and Ed Belfour.

Posted in April | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Things I like about Poland and you should too!

Every place on Earth seems to have a less sophisticated neighbour nearby that ends up the butt end of a lot of jokes about how uncivilized, uneducated, or ridiculous they seem. For every Toronto there’s a Hamilton, for every Eagleton there’s a Pawnee, and for the Czech Republic that punch line appears to be Poland.

Perhaps due to a neighbourly rivalry, as the northeastern part of the Czech Republic borders Poland, the land of Chopin and Marie Curie doesn’t get a lot of love around here, perceived as an unsophisticated and cruder version of Czechia. For example, every time I told a friend or colleague that I’d be taking a weekend trip to Poland, I was met with a stare as they tried to read my face and see if I was joking. When they realized I was sincere, the response was often a confused, “Why?”

The reason is simple: Poland’s a great place. Although a lot of the language, culture, and landscape is similar to the Czech Republic, it’s certainly different enough make a trip outside of Prague interesting. That said, here are some small and superficial things I really dig about Poland.

Cakes and Coffees

I’m not a big fan of sweets, more of a salty snack man myself, but Poland is one place where you’re almost obliged to indulge in cakes. Due the to the amount of time spent in cafes while visiting the country, as well as the sheer availability and high quality of a variety of cakes, I find myself unable to say no.

The cafés are something special too. There is no shortage of unique places to sit down and calmly take in the atmosphere. You’ll see folks from all walks of life shooting the shit over a cup of coffee in a place that’s been around for ages. Some cafés are dark and mysterious with old wooden tables that make you ponder who’s sat there scribbling with a glass of wine, while others are bright and traditional with a lot of goldleaf on red background. Either way, the country is filled with innumerable places to stop and have a decent cup of coffee and a damn fine piece of cake. Ideal for breaking up an afternoon of sightseeing.

Although not a unique experience, since there’s nearly twenty locations in Poland, the Wedel Chocolate Lounges are one of my favourite places to go nuts. Like I said, I’m not a sweets guy, but when I go for it, this is where I want to be. If you’ve ever fantasized about dipping a cup into Willy Wonka’s chocolate river and then drinking from it, that can be arranged at Wedel. Add along a piece of cake or a slice of apple pie and it’s hard not to return every time you’re nearby.

E. Wedel, Poland, Krakow, Wroclaw, chocolate, apple pie, hot chocolate, Willy Wonka

TV Dubbing

A problem that a lot of countries face is how to import foreign-language television into their countries. Do they hire actors to overdub all of the dialogue like France or Germany? And if that’s too expensive do they go the cheaper route and use subtitles like the Scandinavians? Poland has found a third solution and it is as annoying as it is head-scratching.

Instead of getting actors to dub over the dialogue, Polish television utilizes a process which sees one man, known as a lektor, translate over the English. For every man, woman, and child on screen, one solitary guy plays every single part. What’s more, is that he does it with as little emotion as humanly possible, basically just reading the script in front of him without any emphasis whatsoever. His vocal range is on par with Kristen Stewart facial expressions.

Someone could be screaming bloody murder and all you’d hear is the first half of the scream in English, followed by a Polish man monotonously saying “Ah.”

It is no doubt distracting for anyone wishing to escape into the fantasy of television, but it must be cheap as hell. All you really need is someone to translate, and someone to read (halve your overhead if you can use the same guy). If you’re fortunate enough to get hired as a lektor, I believe that right there is certainly a contender for the world’s easiest job.

Drinking beer with a straw

One thing that’s hard not to notice when you go to a pub in Poland is that a lot of the girls are drinking their beer through a straw.

I asked some Polish friends why this occurs and no one really knows. Some hypothesized that it wont ruin your makeup when you’re out for the night, while others evoked a rumor that using a straw helps the drink go to your head quicker. Another theory was that a lot of girls in Poland actually order what’s called piwo z sokiem (beer with juice), which mixes a syrupy shot of juice into the pint.

Whatever the reason, it’s kind of funky, and will elicit a double-take if you’re not used to seeing straws bob along in beer.

All photo credit to these girls (via Google Images) who have a pretty cool blog you can check out too.

All photo credit to these girls (via Google Images) who have a pretty cool blog you can check out too.

Alkoholes and bison grass vodka

The first part of this is really only funny if you’re an English speaker. The Polish word for alcohols is alkohole, so a lot of local liquor stores simply have signs out front reading: Alkohole.

The reason I can’t help but chuckle is that it’s such a perfect word for your friend who’s had a little bit too much to drink and starts acting like an ass. As in: Oh yeah, Johnny showed up, but he kept doing Jagerbombs and quickly turned into a gigantic alkohole – it was embarrassing.

Polski, Poland, Krakow, liquor store, alkohole

Scandinavians love coming to Poland to act like alkoholes.

Johnny’s behavior aside, there are some great gifts one can find down the alkohole. You probably don’t need me to tell you that vodka is extremely popular in Poland and one of my favourite brands is Zubrowka or Bison Grass Vodka.

Zubrowka, a vodka that’s flavoured and coloured from a buffalo grass extract, has been around since the 16th century. It has a pleasant flavour and even contains the all important danger factor. This is because the FDA has banned the import of Zubrowka to United States as a result of a potentially toxic chemical, coumarin, that occurs naturally in bison grass.

The drink is immensely popular and commonly mixed with apple juice to make a szarlotka (which translates as apple pie), a drink which, true to its name, tastes eerily similar to a slice of apple pie.

Yup – living dangerously with an apple pie flavoured beverage.

Zubrowka vodka, Poland, polski wodka, drinking in Poland, bison grass vodka

Chuck Norris shilling for banks

Chuck Norris: Old school martial artist, action star and a contemporary Internet meme that become so popular it could not be ignored. His popularity reemerged a few years ago as a result of the online rise of Chuck Norris facts and then, for the most part, the Texas Ranger drifted back into obscurity. Or so we thought. Instead, it seems that he parlayed that newfound fame into a sweet gig as the pitch man for a Polish bank! Hard to ignore, a print and television campaign for Bank Zachodni WBK in Poland has featured Chuck Norris for the better part of a year now.

Chuck Norris Polish Bank, WBK Bank Poland

The choice of using Chuck Norris to endorse your bank is not only an odd coupling, but the timing a little past its best before date. It would be like seeing Psy do a commercial for home insurance … in three years.

And while I’d like to say it certainly fits into the stereotype many Westerners have of Eastern Europe – that any and all trends arrive way too late – I wouldn’t put it past an American bank to try this exact same thing.

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They have to be paying my man Chuck mad zlotys to do this though.

 Gnomes!

This last one is relevant to the city of Wroclaw only, but definitely one of the cooler things I’ve seen in a long time. In Wroclaw there is an army of gnomes scattered throughout town.

Wroclaw gnomes,

In the past, whenever anti-establishment art or graffiti was covered up by the communist regime, a protest group calling themselves the Orange Alternative returned to the painted-over, and therefore censored, works of art to draw little gnomes atop the fresh government paint. It was the Orange Alternative’s means of absurdest protest against the state.

The gnomes became a symbol of the city as well as a symbol of underground protest. After the fall of communism, the gnomes continued to be linked with the city of Wroclaw and, in 2001, a small statue was installed near the city centre to commemorate the legacy of the Orange Alternative’s shenanigans. Beginning in 2005, the gnomes began to multiply and disperse throughout the city. Currently, there is an estimated 180 gnomes throughout Wroclaw.

It really is a trip to walk around and stumble upon these little buggers. Some will be in obvious locations, others hidden in corners and windowsills. There are times that you’ll walk down the same street five times, oblivious a gnomes presence, and finally notice it standing there on your sixth pass. Occasionally, a gnome will be thematically linked to the location it calls home: letter carrying gnomes in front of a post office, paper distributing gnomes in front of a newsstand, gambling gnomes in front of a casino … you get the point.

It really is something to see and a lot of fun to “gnome spot” while you’re walking around town.

Poland, gnomes, Wroclaw, Orange AlternativePoland, gnomes, Wroclaw, Orange Alternative

Poland, gnomes, Wroclaw, Orange Alternative 

Posted in April | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Panenka scarves XVI: Big meat

Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.

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How’s a Czech businessman supposed to become an Abe Froman in these dire conditions?

At the end of last summer, when I first set out to write about some Czech things while I was here, I fired off a quick list of potential topics. One of the first things on that list was the Wenceslas Square sausage stands. These legendary landmarks of the city are small huts in the middle of the street, impossible to overlook, and serve a variety of different sausages, klobasas, and Czech specialties like gooey fried cheese sandwiches. They are renowned for being open very late, and a perfect place to pick up a greasy post-pub meal.

Smažený sýr, Czech cheese

A fried cheese sandwich or “smažený sýr” – a deep fried block of cheese with mayo on a kaiser … Mmm

Most of these chapels of meat distribution sit in the shadow of the city’s National Museum, down a boulevard referred to as Václavské Náměstí (or Wenceslas Square), and rival the legendary landmark for tourist attention. Selling meat in Wenceslas Square has been around since the time of the First Republic, the brief era of Czech independence between the two World Wars, though originally the klobasas were sold from wooden carts instead of proper kiosks. These sausage huts have even been featured on an episode of traveling chef Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations, cementing their status as one of Prague’s most popular food experiences.

Wenceslas Square, Prague

Wenceslas Square, Prague: Home to the aforementioned meat

Last October I was quite close to getting started on a piece about the sausage stands. I can recall one night after work when I had my camera, my notebook, and I was ready to walk over to Wenceslas to have a snack. For whatever reason, we ended up walking in a different direction that night and I never made it. I got distracted by writing about a whole host of other topics and put the sausages on the back burner.

About a week ago I decided that it was time to finally take a crack at the kiosks. I picked up my camera, packed up my notebook, and walked over to my favourite one at the end of Vodičkova Street. Was I ever met with a surprise.

Closed sausage stand Prague

The local sausage stand had been shuttered! There was a notice plastered to the front of the stand explaining that may favourite meat shack had been shut down.

Prague sausage shutdown notice

I later found out that it was all a part of the city of Prague’s plan for a revitalization of the Wenceslas Square area. The city has been attempting to shut down these sausage stands for years – owing to the amount of homeless that gather around these non-stop kiosks, prompting city hall officials to actually refer to the shops as a nuisance – and it looks like they have finally gotten their wish. The city will attempt to convert these former houses of meat into flower shops, news agencies, tiny bakeries and other friendly establishments which are less appealing to congregate around while drinking wine.

Although my favourite one had been shut down, there was still a plan B. Down the road there was another meat shack that had yet to be closed and we were able to eat a healthy lunch of greasy sausages and delicious fried cheese sandwiches.

Prague sausage stand, klobasa, open, closed, city order

The meat kiosk had notices all around promoting a petition campaign for residents of Prague and traveling well-wishers to save these iconic street meat institutions. Being a fan of street meat, entrepreneurial spirit and the right to run your business freely without meddling government interference, I was happy to sign the petition and order a Pražská klobása. My protest sausage.

Pražská klobása, Prague klobasa, Prague street meat

The Wenceslas Square sausage stands may not be around for much longer, and at the very least their numbers are in jeopardy, limiting the opportunities for any Czech citizen who one day dreams of becoming the sausage king or queen of this great city.

Take a stand for street meat. Take a stand for independent restauranteurs. Eat a sausage.

Posted in March | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Some final thoughts on hockey in Prague

I’ve watched a lot of hockey in the Czech Republic this year. Part that of that due to the lockout, which sent a healthy share of NHLers to the KHL and Czech league teams in town, and part of it was the fact that it’s just in my nature to seek out hockey wherever I am. Lockout or not, I would’ve gone to watch a couple of games, because that’s sort of my default setting.

Sparta Prague

Třinec goaltender Peter Hamerlik stops a shot from the Sparta Prague point – March 13, 2013

Last week I went to what will likely be my final match of the season and perhaps even my last match ever in the Czech Republic (I’m due to move in the summer). The first round of the playoffs have begun in the Czech league and Sparta Prague, the most popular team in town, was hosting HC Oceláři Třinec in the fourth game of their best of seven series. A friend of mine from Třinec invited me to go and I figured it a good opportunity to get one final taste of that uniquely Czech brand of hockey.

After spending countless hours in the arenas out here, I want to touch upon a couple of final thoughts from watching hockey in the Czech Republic and focus on a few of the differences, both wonderful and head scratching, that the experience provides.

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Some things are good

1) First of all, the amount of drinking that occurs in the parking lots and concession stands before the game is downright heroic. Much like the ACC in Toronto, a lot of seats are empty when the puck drops, but it’s not due to a passiveness towards the game. Instead, many spectators are off getting a buzz on and will saunter in midway through the period. This isn’t the NHL. This isn’t even the KHL. There will be no sushi delivered to your seats, there will be no razzle-dazzle whatsoever. This is the Czech Extraliga: sloppy on the ice, sloppy in the stands.

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2) A good 10,000 strong make the trip to the arena on a Wednesday night, a pretty impressive showing by any standards, and certainly illustrates how popular the game is. Fans from Třinec filled up the fan sections behind their net, and the Sparta faithful matched the intensity from the other end of the rink.

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3) Tiny cute Zambonis!

tiny zamboni, cute zamboni, mini zamboni, prague, czech republic, hockey

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4) Far and away my favourite thing about a Czech hockey game occurs during the goal announcements for the home team. The goal will first be announced over PA, following the standard template (Prague goal scored by number 87). Moments later the team’s hype man – yes, there is a lively hype man that shows up before the game and during intermissions – will rile the fans up by re-announcing the goal, but only give the player’s first name. Fans are expected to shout out the rest. This happens three times.

We don’t have this tradition in Canada, but if we did, it would sound like this:

Announcer: Pittsburgh goal scored by number 87, Sidney –
Crowd: CROS-BY!
Announcer: Sidney!
Crowd: CROS-BY!

Announcer: SIDNEY!
Crowd: CROSBY!!!

From what I’ve gathered, this is something that has carried over from football and it certainly has a welcome home with hockey fans, myself included. There is nothing more fun than shouting out the name of the heroic goalscorer a couple of times with the rest of the building, especially in the third period when you’ve all had a couple of pops.

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4) Another great thing about watching the Czech leagues is the odd occurrence of seeing old obscure NHLers, whose names you remember, though you could never quite place where they’d played. Well, you’ll be happy to know that the Radek Bonks and Vaclav Varadas of the world are alive and well … and playing for Třinec apparently.

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5) And finally, I learned something fantastic from the penalty announcements: the Czech word for crosscheck is krosček. See, we’re not so different after all.

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6) The game-long cheerleader riser certainly doesn’t hurt either:

czech cheerleaders, sparta prague, czech republic,

And how!

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Some things are bad

It’s not all drunken Czechs, old nostalgia and dancing girls. There are a couple of factors that simply don’t sit right at times.

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1) First of all, while these playoff games are a lot faster than their regular season counterparts, it is the Czech leagues. Neutral zone turnovers, sloppy passes, and bad penalties are all commonplace. There are very few hits thrown after the first shift and an uncomfortable amount of spearing that takes place from the second period onward. In a league continent where fighting is not accepted, players are free to mindlessly hack at one another and dive as if shot without any repercussions. It’s depressing at times.

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2) However, I take solace in the fact that I can simply look to the Sparta Prague bench to cheer myself up. This is because head coach Josef Jandač, who used to look like this when he coached the KHL’s Prague Lions …

Josef Jandač, KHL, LEV Praha, Prague Lions, coach, Sparta Prague

… now dresses like this:

Josef Jandač, coach, Sparta Prague, KHL, Prague Lions, Lev Praha

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For a guy that used to clean up nicely, he certainly seems like he doesn’t give a damn anymore. It looks like he’s just gone through a horrible breakup that’s left him heartbroken. Then again, he was fired from the KHL last October

C’mon Josef – you’re a head coach of a professional hockey team, so dress like one! Maybe a suit, tie … shower, even. Instead of this two-bit loan shark look you’ve got going on these days.

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3) If you’ve ever been to a sporting event where the home team is winning as the clock is winding down, you’re sure to have heard the song “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”. Used to taunt the visiting team when victory is at hand, the song is sometimes pumped in through the speaker systems, sometimes spontaneously sung by the crowd a cappela, but it’s always designed to rub salt int0 the wounds of a defeated team. Prague has a tendency to do something a little different.

I should preface this by saying that I’ve seen it happen previously, both on TV and in person, so the experience is not isolated to this game alone. However, with two minutes left on the clock and the home team trailing by a goal, the in-house sound system started playing the tune. Crazier still, the crowd starting singing along (albeit replacing the good-bye! with Spar-ta!).

Of course, the Czech league is free to use the song however they wish. But it’s hard to separate that late-60s classic from it’s contemporary application, especially in sporting circles. It is quite literally the most infamous ‘We’re ending your season and now we’re going to rub it in’ track ever recorded. You’d half expect them to start up We Are the Champions after a loss.

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4) While the miscue on the song thing is more a silly piece of trivia than an ingrained part of the sport out here, there is one thing I still haven’t come around on yet and that’s whistling instead of booing. Now I know this is the European way to express anger or disagreement with a player or a call, but it’s just so damned silly.

For illustration, here’s the crowd jeering Mikhail Grabovski during a penalty shot against the Prague Lions last October:

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I fully understand that this is a cultural thing – again, inherited from football – but it’s something that struck me as funny from the start and still does. Which is rare too, because the longer I’m here the more open-minded I get in my hockey traditions. Scarves? No problem now. Some schmuck behind the net banging on a snare drum all night? Okay, sets the mood a bit and conjures up the image of going into battle. But the whistling to show that you’re upset is just weak. It completely lacks the guttural power of a strong and unified BOO!

Cultural bias at it’s best. It gets worse.

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Some things are just sacrilege

After a long back-and-forth battle, Sparta Prague still found themselves down a goal. But, with thirty-three seconds left on the clock and the Sparta net empty, Jaroslav Svoboda connected with Petr Ton to tie the game at 4 apiece. It doesn’t matter what country you’re in, any game that concludes in such an exciting manner is a beauty.

Not sure what to expect, but (incorrectly) assuming that since this was the playoffs there would surely be an endless overtime, I was surprised to see the teams play for only ten more minutes before going to a shootout.

Hrm … A shootout. To decide a …a playoff game. A Shootout!? I … I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I still can’t … shootout …

Now the shootout is all well and cute during the regular season when everything is made up and the points don’t matter, but when it comes time to a game with real implications, you can’t decide the thing on a skills competition! This is the playoffs. No shootouts!

Then again, I can only assume that since the Nagano Olympics all hockey-related decisions in the Czech Republic are legally mandated to go to a shootout, if only to remind me of 1998 and drive all Canadians absolutely bonkers. This is the Czech Republic – the shootout isn’t a dirty word out here, but rather a sacred cow.

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Positives and negatives aside, I really do love watching and talking hockey in the Czech Republic. Sometimes there are no differences at all, sometimes there are too many differences, and that’s the best part of the whole experience. Hockey fans in this part of the world have a deep-rooted and knowledgeable passion for the game and that’s all it really takes to earn my respect.

Jaromir Jagr, art, pub art, Lokal, Prague, Czech Republic

Plus you get great pub art like this…

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