Posted Saturday, April 29, 2017 at 2:24pm by Darren Baker
Jaro, the Czech spring
The coming of spring in the Czech Republic is a time of sports. The gyms and indoor pools are full of people trying to work off winter flab, which pretty much applies everywhere. But here sports takes on an almost fanatical edge. First and foremost is the bike, and the sunnier days and drier roads mean’s it’s time to haul it up out of the basement, pump up the tires, oil the chain, and check the brakes. It’s not just gone after that because you still have to put on an outfit that suggests more than a passing reference to the Tour de France, and map out what’s going to be an all-day adventure. This is a mountainous region, so all the ups and downs have to be taken into account when you’re planning to do fifty kilometers or more. That’s just the inaugural ride of the season. After that, it gets to around a hundred or better in some cases. What motivates people to undertake these grueling trials are the benefits:
excellent physical conditioning, drop-dead views, and stops at all the beer gardens on the way.
You can bet a lot of these beer gardens are going to be packed full come April and the start of the world hockey championships. That is the singular big sporting event in this country, and with good reason. This may not be a landscape that evokes the image of snow, ice and blizzards, but somehow hockey took off here many years ago until now the Czech Republic can boast of as many good players in the NHL as any other hockey nation. After winning the gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics, followed by a string of world championships, there were great hopes when those very championships were hosted here for the first time in 2004. Unfortunately, the Czech team got knocked out before the medal round in a shootout with an otherwise unspectacular American team. Although I come from the States, I was for the Czech team because I want the people to be happy wherever I live. As it was, I was on my way to the train station in Prague just after the defeat when a homeless fellow approached me. With no time to spare, I tried to ward him off by saying, “Sorry, I don’t speak Czech,” but he just smiled and said, “English no problem.” He no sooner got that out, however, when he realized there was indeed a problem.He glowered at me and asked, “American?”, and without waiting for any confirmation, shouted after me, “Kurva!” which basically translates into “Fuyu!” This fellow had few teeth, so for all I know he was a former hockey player who had fallen on hard times but still thrived off the passion of the sport.
The only thing that is bigger than hockey or the bike in springtime is Easter, but for reasons that have little to do with the original religious significance. The Czech holiday is a very gender-specific affair that sees the women and children decorating eggs while the men folk head outside to cut a couple of switches off a willow shrub to weave into a formidable rod. The custom here, presumably a holdover from pagan times, calls for them to take these willow rods and give what should be a tender pat to the arms, legs, lips, and behinds of their female relatives and friends, all with the intention of making them as fresh and willowy as the wood itself.
It doesn’t end there, because after that they’re supposed to douse the ladies in water for cleanliness, then spray them with some fragrance, which more or less speaks for itself. The females, of course, are terribly grateful for the attention and repay the favor with a shot of alcohol for the men, eggs, and candy for the boys. They even tie a colored ribbon onto the tip of the willow rod, proud to help the lad keep score. Theoretically, the ladies get to pay them back the same way the next day, but it’s back to work and school by then and most of the fun has gone out of it if there ever was any in it, to begin with.
Love and tenderness return to the sexes with the coming of May, where the first of the month is a holiday in honor of the working people of the world. On that day couples traditionally seek out a cherry tree to stand underneath so that they might exchange a kiss, maybe even recite a few lines from May if the mood takes them and the weather is at least gorgeous. This is a famous romantic poem by Karel Hynek Mácha that combines the beauty of nature with a tragic tale of humanity. They say every school kid can recite the opening lines of it, a sort of “Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary” as one might hope American school kids can recite the opening of Poe’s The Raven. Here, in Edith Pargeter’s translation:
Late evening, on the first of May,
Twilit May, the time of love,
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay.
Whispered of love the mosses frail,
The flowering tree as sweetly lied,
The rose’s fragrant sigh replied,
To the love-songs of the nightingale.
— this is a delightful experience that includes sight-seeing, all road transport, beer tasting, Czech delicacies, and overnight stay in luxury!
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