|Shrouds of Mist
On Saturday, Marketa, Andy and I were going to a nearby village to watch a Hody (hoddy), which translated means “the Feast”, an old Czech tradition which takes place in nearly every Moravian village between May and November. It’s a weekend celebration in honor of the patron saint of each village so the date of the Hody depends on the Saint’s day. The Hody involves the whole village and has what I kept calling a king and a queen because I could never get the pronunciation of starek and starka, which is what they are actually called. They are chosen in advance and lead the parade and events for the entire weekend. The king “rules” over the young people in the village that choose to participate, and they are his starci, like his court, dressing in the very elaborate costumes specific to that village, singing traditional songs and dancing traditional dances. The whole village marches up to the door of the king, the participants sing songs in front of the home until eventually at some pre-appointed signal, the king appears on his doorstep, makes a big speech, then the parents come out and all the starci dance in the street. They do this all over again in front of the queen’s house. While they’re dancing, trays of tiny glasses of wine or Slivovitz, plum brandy, are offered to all the bystanders, as well as sweet baked goods. The family of the king and queen have to pay for the food and drink and in this particular Hody, there were probably close to 500 people watching. There are also two bands, the string band which is called the dulcimer band, and the brass band. The bands must be paid and dinner must be provided for all of the starci in the parade, which in this case looked like about 50 people. Many families decline the offer of king or queen because they can’t afford the demands that go along with it.
I drank about five tiny glasses of white wine and five or ten more of the Slivovitz, which was like the Czech version of grappa, but slightly tastier. I needed the liquid to wash down the half a dozen little pastries I ate. We watched for hours and followed along as the beautiful couples performed the rituals required, so much singing, so much dancing, and they were doing another whole day of celebrating the next day. I could understand why Marketa said this tradition was dying out in some of the villages.
By the time we left, it was fairly dark but Marketa wanted to walk back to UH (that’s what the locals call Uherske Hradiste) along a path by the canal. It was well marked and with a full moon, it wasn’t too difficult, she knew the route well. The land was flat here and once we left the village, we were immediately surrounded by fields, fallow for winter, with mist rising off of them and off the water of the canal next to us, a ghostly, thin line of trees along the edge of the path. As we got further from the village, I started thinking about werewolves, as I always do when there’s a full moon, I’m walking in the dark through the mists, in perfect werewolf attack country. I asked Marketa if the Czech Republic was anywhere near Transylvania, just so I would know how scared to get. “Well, it’s not too far, why?” she asks me.
“Well, you know, it’s a full moon and I think this part of Europe is where werewolves were first born, and I wasn’t sure if we were closer to werewolf country or vampire country. I just wanted to know what to look out for.”
She just shook her head and told me I watched too many movies. Then Andy and I started talking about the movie “American Werewolf in London” until I had to make him stop because I really was freaking myself out. I made sure I walked in the middle between them, although Marketa kept loping out in front, she’s a fast walker.
“That’s OK,” I told myself, “whatever’s out there will get her first, then Andy and I can haul ass while it’s distracted.” I’m not a very caring person when my life is in danger, I’m not proud of it.
We safely made it back to town, and left Andy in town center while Marketa and I walked up the hill and the 10,000 steps to her apartment. When I first arrived to the apartment on the day before, I was given a pair of slippers to use, it’s a Czech tradition to take off your shoes when you enter a home, and the host gives you slippers to wear while you are there. The apartment was actually a two bedroom, owned by a divorced man who lived in a town about an hour or two away. He only used it one or two weekends a month, to come back to UH to visit family and friends. Marketa rented one bedroom from him, so she basically lived in her bedroom, and used the kitchen and bathroom. The living room and the second bedroom was used by the landlord only. She lives like a monk, very simply and cleanly, and I felt like I had more crap in my backpack than she did in her whole room. Something to aspire to when I return home.
The next morning, the three of us met up again to take a hike in the hills, about a thirty minute bus ride away. The bus dropped us off outside of a tiny village at the edge of a national park. Our objective was a tall tower, the highest point on the highest hill around, so we could have a panoramic view of this part of Moravia. Did I mention that Marketa likes to walk up hills? When we left UH, the fog was low and dense but Andy and Marketa swore that we would be above all that by the time we were done. I was getting tired before we even started.
It was actually an invigorating walk uphill through the woods, with the leaves covering the ground, the air moist and cool but not rainy. As usual, Marketa loped up ahead, while I labored behind, Andy and I chatting. Actually, Andy did most of the talking, I was sucking air like a big dog. I had to stop a few times, to let my hammering heart have a break, but I appreciated the challenge. We finally broke into the sunshine above the fog, then made it to the tower and hallelujah, there was a tiny kiosk that sold water and coffee. I had one of each, plus a little Slivovitz chaser, just to keep with tradition, as Andy said. The locals always keep a small bottle in their backpack, and when they reach the top or whatever the goal is for the day, they toast with a shot of Slivovitz. After we (meaning me) were thoroughly rested, we tackled the tower and were rewarded with panoramic views of hilltops poking up above the dense fog below. I was told we could see Slovakia from the tower, we were only about 50 km from the border. We could see nothing of any surrounding towns or villages, just a white blanket and the yellows and browns of the woods that were high enough to peek through. It was lovely just the same.
We returned to the bustop in the middle of nowhere, and decided after much debate, to go back to Velehrad to have lunch and look at the monastery there, then walk or catch another bus home. I have seen hundreds of churches in Europe over the years, but this was one of the most gilded confections I have ever seen. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but the inside was incredible. From ceiling to floor, every square inch was either painted or covered in gold. Amazing. Then we walked up a nearby hill to a small chapel that could have fit into one of the side naves of the monastery. It had no decoration whatsoever, just stone inside and out, and I found this equally as beautiful and more in keeping with the God I know.
It was Sunday November 17th, a national holiday in the Czech Republic. In America, if a holiday falls on a weekend day, we get a workday off, no matter what. But in the CR, it’s considered bad luck to take a day off that is not the actual holiday, so instead of getting Monday off, as we would have, Marketa had to go back to work the next day. They lose something like six holidays a year with this superstition. I think I’d take my chances with the bad luck. I was fascinated with the holiday, but also with the history of this country, and why it felt so different than other places I’d been in Europe, so I did a little research.
Czechoslovakia was first inhabited by Celts in the 4th century, according to historical evidence, then were pushed out by the Germans who were pushed out by the Slavs. It has been a country of changing hands, changing rulers but one with a definite identity in spite of all of that change. There have been rises and falls in strength, independence, prosperity and power over the centuries. In 1918, Czechoslovakia became one of the ten most developed countries of the world, but Hitler’s invasion in 1939 brought an end to that. After WWII, it came under Soviet rule and communism reigned until 1989, ending in what is called the Velvet Revolution, which began on November 17th, now a holiday, Freedom and Democracy Day. This was a relatively peaceful six weeks of demonstrations, protests and strikes, led by Vaclav Havel, ultimately ending with the overthrow of the communist government. But during the previous forty years of communist rule, dissent was not tolerated and the Czech government dealt harshly with dissidents and their families, with imprisonment, sentences of hard labor, and “purges.” This type of thing was happening all over Eastern Europe, in those countries we used to call “the former Soviet Union” in America.
I had traveled through some of these countries, and on my way to Croatia on Monday, traveled through even more. As I rode through the countryside, I could see the beauty of the landscape, but with every town we passed through, I could feel the oppression that was the communist Soviet legacy. It seems to an outsider that these countries struggle to catch up to the rest of Europe, and the overall feeling can only be expressed as grey. Buildings and streets, trains, everything is run down, they are years behind. The people don’t look you in the eye as you walk by, they are guarded and careful with strangers. I had mentioned this to Marketa the day before, as we hiked up to the tower. There weren’t many people and when we did pass other hikers, I would say “Hi” and they’d look at me startled and uncomfortable. She and Andy didn’t even acknowledge the others and they wouldn’t have looked at us if it hadn’t been for me and my big mouth.
“People here don’t greet each other unless they know each other, even in small villages,” she explained.
I was lucky, I knew Marketa and in truth, I wouldn’t have gone to anywhere but Prague if it hadn’t been for her. If you are blessed enough to befriend a Czech, you will have a loyal and true friend for life, and I’m grateful to have met such an extraordinary woman in my travels. But if I’d passed her on a trail, or sat next to her in a train in her own country, I don’t think we would have even looked each other in the eye.