Monday, June 19, 2006

Why the Czechs, Anyway?

I'm often asked (seriously - complete strangers stop me in the street) the roots of my fascination with Eastern Europe, the Czechs in particular. It's not, as would be understandable, an ethnic issue -- while my last name resembles a typographical error, it's a French-based typo, not Slavic. My heritage, as far as I know, is the standard Western European blend of Irish/Scottish/English/French/German/Swiss -- nothing further east.

But yet, there it is. I root for the Czechs in international tournaments. I read Czech literature, watch Czech films, drink Czech beer, and live in hope that eventually there'll be some decent Czech rock music.

Part of the fascination lies in personal history. I lived in (then-West) Germany as a child, and was then (as now) a map addict. As we were traveling all over western Europe, I always wondered about those lands to the east that were verboten to us.

But that may all be after-the-fact rationalization on my part -- I hardly remember the time clearly. I barely remember last week.

I suspect much of it is mood. I like rainy days, dim alleyways, taciturn loners in pubs. I'm not goth, but I play one on TV. I relate better to the more reserved Slavic mood than to more ebullient people.

Most of all, though -- and here I focus largely on the Czechs, but it applies to the rest of the region as well -- a tendency toward excellence. The Czech Republic is about the size of New York State, but the nation produces talent on a level all out of proportion to its size. Compare the Czechs' hockey and soccer talent to that of much-larger neighbor Poland; hell, compare the Czechs' hockey and soccer talent to that of the U.S. On a higher intellectual level, few nations can compete. There's few trios outside of the U.S., UK and Russia that can match the Czech Literary Three of Milan Kundera, Ivan Klíma, and Josef Škvorecký, and that's just the tip of the reader's iceberg -- in the old days, lump in Bohumil Hrabal and Jaroslav Hašek, modern times Jáchym Topol, Iva Pekárková, Michal Viewegh, many more (check the great modern Czech anthology, "Daylight in Nightclub Inferno," for a glimpse). A few years back, someone-or-other -- I'm not so good with taking down citations -- compared the amount of contemporary Czech literature in prominent international translation to that of contemporary French. The result was wildly in the Czechs' favor. Add in some noted filmmakers -- Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Jaromil Jireš -- and a playwright-turned-president, and it's obvious you've got a special little area.

Too highbrow? Allow me to indulge my drunken yob side. The Czechs are among the world's best beermakers -- I'd say really only the Belgians and U.S. microbrews can put up a fight. And, oh holy Jesus, they do produce some stunning women.

Hockey, literature, beer, and women. The four cornerstones of my life. The only question is, why don't I live there?

(for your pleasure: a Budvar beer commercial featuring a silly pun on Milan Hejduk's name)

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