Posted Sunday, July 3, 2016 at 6:30pm by Darren Baker
Czech the Children -Chapter 4-The cunning little vixen
The cunning little vixen
There are two gems in North Moravia just miles apart, the villages of Štramberk and Hukvaldy. Let’s talk about the latter for now because I was there over the weekend. It’s famous for the ruins of a castle perched high on a hill, shrouded by tree cover until you get to the top. The compound still evokes a medieval atmosphere, especially as night begins to fall. Many of the walls remain, moreover, intact and could possibly withstand a siege from hordes of tourists if word about it got out to the wider worldwide public. The village itself is the birthplace of Leoš Janáček, Czech composer currently enjoying a revival in America. His walks through the beautiful wilderness here are evoked by a statue of a fox commemorating his opera The Cunning Little Vixen. It stands at a crossroads where you can continue through the nature reserve or go on up to see the castle. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
He was burned at the stake
We decided to get married as spring rolled around and had to go about organizing all the necessary paperwork. This included a trip to the American embassy, where I had to swear in front of an official that I never was, nor still am, legally married in the United States. This anti-bigamy form turned out to be the easiest one to get through. The rest created a logjam because of a problem akin to dotting the i and j.
You see, my real name is Vojtěch. Vojta is merely the familiar way of saying it. Sort of like William and Bill. The problem is that little flutter of a diacritical mark above the e. Czech is full of these marks, all thanks to this fellow named Jan Hus, a 14th century reformer determined to put a Czech stamp on the Latin alphabet. He added fifteen such marks, mostly accents or chevrons, to highlight the pronunciation of the letter. So there’s e, but there’s also ě, which is pronounced “ye.”
My mother added the flutter above the e on the application for my birth certificate, but the county registrar probably thought it was just an errant stroke of the pen and left it out. Of course, the Czech registrar knows it should be there, but because it wasn’t, everything had to stop until somebody in Prague gave her permission to add the accursed flutter and therefore make my name more palatable to the local authorities. When Vet asked the lady to phone there for this permission, she said she already did, but nobody answered.
The only way around it was to try one office after another in a bureaucracy that strives to out-German the Germans. I informed one of the clerks that it was fitting such a bureaucratic nightmare should happen in the land of Kafka, but she merely sniffed, “I don’t read Kafka.” Making matters worse, all this running around could only take place on Mondays or Wednesdays, because public offices in this country are closed to the public for the rest of the week. When I asked why that was, the clerk only grinned as if to brag, “Ha ha, ain’t I got a good job?”
And just one final bit of information here: This Jan Hus, the dude who started it all? He ended up getting burned at the stake.
The wedding itself was a secret civil ceremony. We were worried that if word about it got out, hundreds of my students might converge on the scene and do something they would regret come report card time. Also there was Boleslav, who might insist on supplying the wedding cake. Actually, there really isn’t a wedding cake in this country. Tradition dictates that the bride and groom and their families bake hundreds of these little round pastries filled with cottage cheese, nuts or poppy seed and bring them to all the invited guests the night before. And so a secret wedding saves you that work, expense, and pressure.
I have to admit I was worried I was going to sweat through the ceremony, literally, because there was a heat wave that summer but nowhere could you hear the beautiful hum of air conditioners at work. And like that, without prayer one, a thunderstorm rolled in the night before and cooled everything off. So there we stood before the justice of the peace, with two friends behind us as witnesses while Vet’s family sat in the small seating chamber. I knew enough Czech by that point to understand that he was saying what every prospective married couple hears on the big day. Only when it came time for him to address me personally, the door to my left suddenly opened and this elderly gentleman appeared. He was the court-appointed interpreter, who was required to be there to make sure I really, really understood what I was doing. That was reasonable, but his English was peppered with quirks that almost had me rolling. For example, he translated the Czech “joyous pair” as “a couple of refreshments.” I was sufficiently composed by the time I was asked to say, “I do,” but not wanting to take any chances, I simply said what the Czechs do: “Yes.” The interpreter showed little appreciation for my consideration, however. After the ceremony, he stuck out a cadaverous-looking hand and demanded one-third of my monthly rent for those five minutes of his time. It was a rip-off, but then again, he contributed to me not having to pay rent anymore, so how could I complain.