Thursday, July 23, 2015

Notes from the Czech Republic ii

Report 2 – Czech Republic 7.23.15

To set the proper tone for this blog, listen with “Ma Vlast” by Bedrich Smetana in the background ... 

Prague is magnificent –It has prospered for over a 1000 years, serving as a center for political power, commerce, and cultural arts.  It was a center of power and glory before Columbus came to America!  Given its great wealth and long history, the architecture is a treasure of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles. Today the inner city is a recognized “world heritage center”.  The old town of Staré Město is located at the base of the great castle and cathedral.  So much human history has occurred here!  Across the Vltava River is the Nové Město district with its classy neo-renaissance buildings, museums, squares, and theaters.  We stayed with our exchange student and his wife in his large apartment overlooking Castle hill and the Vltava River in Nové Město … Beautiful location!

Prague offers amazing sights.  The city was not bombed in the Second WW.; so buildings and streets, cathedrals and classic houses are still intact. To maximize your enjoyment of Prague, “avoid areas overrun with tourists”. Venerable old Charles Bridge is a joy in the early morning – but forget it later when the crowds, street hawkers and guitar players fill the bridge.   There are many wonderful classic historic locations to choose between . We love to get lost in the old narrow streets of Staré Město.  These narrow stone streets with fascinating shops and homes date back hundreds of years.  They say that all Czechs are musicians – at least music of many types is much loved by all – especially in Pargue    Judy and I attended a ballet with music by Prokofiev, the  Laterna Magina show, and a summertime popular music festival in a park by the riverside. These days there are many small concerts in churches – some are OK, but in many cases they are held to raise money.

Many city people (Prague and other Czech cities) have city homes but also have a country cottage – In some cases these may be the family country farmhouse once owned by grandparents.  Often they are a specially made “chata” (what the Russians called a “Dacha”)… they can be simple cabins – but are often nice homes… We were told that many live in the city apartment during the workweek and then enjoy the country life on weekends and holidays. It wasn't unusual to find that the ‘chata’ was nicer and better furnished than the city home. In California, ‘cabins’ are often hours of travel away from home – in Bohemia is it common to travel little more than ½ hour to the tranquility of the countryside home.

We spent 3 weeks of our travel visiting in the homes and ‘chata’s’ of my newfound cousins.   My new relatives were all so very kind; showing us points of local interest; castles, natural sites, family churches and homes, evening events, and historic sites… We often walked good long distances in our outings.  In addition they prepared for us the most delicious traditional meals and baked goods.  The Bohemian cuisine is amazing!  Also the Czech beer and plum brandy - So good!    (The common toast is "Na zdravi!"- and you must make eye contact when you say it. ) Communication was sometimes a challenge – but   was usually someone to translate and if nothing else we drew pictures, used German, or Google Translate.  I felt such a kinship with all my new cousins and am very fond of them all!

This month, I learned so much!  ...about culinary and healing herbs, and Linden flowers ( a valueable herb for respiratory problems)... about picking big red Bohemian cherries,  I learned about “Unter Wasser Man” “the man proported to live  under water in rivers, ponds and canal who likes to snare unaware children – when they drown he takes their souls in little boxes or teacups.”  There are statues of this guy frequently in ponds or canals. Certain other figures are used to warn children about staying out too late after dark and not going to sleep in naptime… Kind of like our concept of the ‘Bogie man”.  I learned how to make several varieties of kolach, how to grow “mak” poppy seed, how to make Czech style pizza in an outdoor oven, and how to speak about 60 words of Czech., and I learned so much about Europen history and how it has intersected with my family.

Czech cuisine is quite different from American fare…Each meal begins with everyone saying “Dobrou chut'!” – “Enjoy your meal!”
The breakfast that we were often served was fresh white Bread rolls, slices of rye bread served with slices of processed ham, a variety cheeses, ‘quark’ or yogurt, jam (djam) and coffee.  Sometimes cold hard-boiled eggs were also served.  It wasn't unusual to have fresh baked breakfast kolache (there are many forms)  for breakfast too.
The midday meal (served from 12 – 2 PM) was usually the big meal of the day – almost always starting with a bowl of homemade soup, the main dish was frequently pork or beef meat served with vegetables or large dumplings sliced into convenient pieces, gravy.  But the ‘dinner’ menu could vary tremendously to include schnitzel, stews, a wide variety of sauces and vegetables, meat fried, roasted, stewed… One of my favorites was a grated fresh potato and onion pancake served with sour cream. – Ah! So good!!  A wide variety of garnishes might be included: Sauerkraut (cooked as zeli), mild dill pickles, potato/tomato/onion salad, olives, cheese… Beer or wine was often served with the food.  These meals were an art form – magnificent!

The evening meal was usually served between 7-8 PM and was generally a light meal.  It might be a smaller dish, soup, stew, schnitzel made with cauliflower, etc.  One of my favorites was the endless variety of small open-faced sandwiches. “Obložené Chlebí” I liked the ones with a dollop of potato salad, a bit of ham, a thin slice of tomato, and topped with a small bit of cheese…Generally they came to the table with several types arrayed on a tray. Here is the recipe to get you started:

The cuisine of ‘supper’ was most always light and took many forms.
Incredible homemade cakes and pastries were a frequent addition to the meal along with beer or wine…Sometimes we ended with small glasses of plum brandy (slivovitz).  It was explained to us that some foods were winter foods – like Potato dumplings with Pork and gravy.  Summer foods would be lighter making use of summer vegetables and salads.

Czech history has affected all families.  Prior to the First World War, “Czechoslovakia” was part of the vast Austro-Hungarian empire centered in Vienna.  After the first World War, Czechoslovakoia emerging as a free country included rediscovery of the Slavic identity distinct from Austria and Germany influence.     This was a golden time of high ideals, good government, a blooming of the arts and industry.  The Second World War, with occupation by Germany was a harsh time.  The Zlatnik and Sadek families lived in the region of north Bohemia called Sudatenland.  The Nazis insisted that all Czechs must leave the area and move into the heart of Czechoslovakia.  After the war, the Czechs could reclaim their homes - and all Germans were required to move to Germany.  After freedom returned it was short lived before Communist domination.  These were times when even passive resistance was dangerous… times when open resistance could be fatal and often was futile. With the Prague Spring and  the lifting of Communism there came a time of energy and creativity…  Many people today work long hours in order to accomplish what was not possible a few years ago…

Modern Czech Republic has a number of very enlightened social policies - all qualified students can attend the Prestegious Charles Univeristy in Prague at no cost (The future of the Czech Republic  depends on enabling of all qualified students to get the education they need to benefit the country.)

Female employees are entitled to 28 weeks paid maternity leave beginning six to eight weeks prior to birth, during which time they can collect assistance. Fathers may take over the leave, by written agreement, seven weeks after childbirth.

Healthcare (including dental treatment) is free to all citizens in the Czech Republic. It is provided through compulsory contributions to a state approved insurance fund. Healthcare costs here are well below the European average, yet standards are in line with some of the best health centres in Western Europe.

Taxes in the Czech Republic are levied by both the state and local governments. The most important sources of revenue include the income tax, social security contributions, value-added tax and the corporate tax.  Income taxes in Czech Republic are levied at a flat rate of 15% on gross income. The total tax burden can largely be described as flat to regressive as no progressive taxed are levied.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Notes from the Czech Republic

Judy and I have just returned after a month in the Czech Republic – I made contact last year with a new found second cousin…and this blog describes our encounter experience.

Photos are  still not processed - coming soon...

Can you imagine living in a location where you knew that untold generations of your ancestors had lived on the same land – knew the same hills and streams – all the back into the dim mists of the mythical past?  This is the relationship between Czech people and Czech lands… I thought of this as we pulled up to the house in Stepanice where the ancestral Zlatnik family had lived for past generations… Here I saw steep hills, small fields, meadows, and pine forests… everything appeared green and lush and productive…but it is hard to work the land because of the steepness – in the past it required a great deal of hand work.  It was best worked in early years with a one-horse plow and a large hand scythe.   The current family living there purchased the farm from the Zlatniks in about 1880.  Over the years they  found ways to mechanize the farming.  

During the communist period the fields were rejected for adding to the collective farms because of the hillside slope and the family was allowed to work the land as normal.

We were invited into the large central room of the previous Zlatnik house… relatives and neighbors continued to arrive until we had a grand party – trays of kolach and others of delicious small open faced sandwiches, served with small glasses of plum brandy. There were questions and stories to be told, there was a lot of laughter and hugs .  Wonderful old photos came out.  It was absolutely amazing that these people knew all the same ancestor we know. 

One old uncle took me out to see the land and the tractors. We couldn't speak one word of the others language – and was all OK – we got along just great.  He showed me a tractor that he had built –Later with a translator I learned that the chassis was from an old Russian truck body, the engine was from an old American car, tires were whatever he had - there was no real casing over the engine – but he swore that it was strong enough to be effective.  Most of the time Milos, the son of my cousin Helena, was the major translator for the group…but several spoke a bit of English.  After some time we were invited to the home of another cousin who lived near by… More friendly people, more good food, more stories… I really liked the people I was meeting –  They are a diverse group – but all appear to hard workers who knew the  challenges of the past and have made a better life now that it is possible. 

At times they talked about living during the Nazi period and during the Communist period…  Not only have these people suffered hard times – but they are survivors who came through. Now, they take advantage of education and hard work. All of these relatives lived in the “Sudetenland”.  During the Nazi period all Czechs were required to move away and go to central Czechoslovakia.  Those that swore loyalty to the Nazis could stay – none of my relatives stayed.  The Nazi also required in depth identity checks to ‘seek out’ those with Jewish identity… Evangelic church records provided evidence for the family. After the war the Germans were forced out and the Czechs could return.  But the time of Russian control followed immediately.

 I learned of one relative that defied the Communists. Here is one of the stories told… The Communists  said – “these trees on your land now belong to the State” –(The family today likes to compare him to a fictional national hero – Schweik… ) Uncle “Schweik” said ‘No these trees belong to me.  The communists came with a saw to cut down the trees… Uncle “Schweik” took their saw – they sent a telegram telling him that he must come to a court hearing – he answered that he didn't have time – they sent a police car to take him – and they put him in a mental hospital for a few days – a common punishment for such offenses. When they released him, he thought – "well here I am in Prague – I might as well go visit my cousin ", The communists didn't know where he had gone and went looking for him – in the mean time he returned to his family and farm and maintained an uneasy peace with the communists until the end of their influence.  When I was told of the eras of privation, it makes me so aware of the advantages that we American Zlatniks have had…I am filled with admiration for their perseverance and resilience.

That day we visited 3 different cousins + the Zlatnik home…such kind hospitable people! All of them expressed a hope that we can reestablish contact between the Czech family and the American family.

Another day we visited Liebstat – the home village of the Sadek family.  Both my grandmother Julie and her sister Anna grew up here.  Anna is the grandmother of our new found second cousins.  We found the old family farm – Large farmhouse, also large barn with hay and grain, and a third large barn for equipment, horses, and cows.  Today the house is not used and it is surrounded by weeds – but it still has a solid roof and solid walls.  I love to hear the bird songs and the sound of the nearby stream – and imagine how familiar these sounds were to my ancestors.

We also visited both the Evangelical churches near the Zlatnik home and the Sadeks… The Zlatnik church is small and well maintained – a beautiful setting surrounded by a few dozen grave markers –  well tended with flowers and herbs.  It is an active church community to this day… The Sadek church was opened for us – and it reminded me so much of the Delia church – it is used now only occasionally for special events – Today the Evangelicals use the “Zlatnik” church… I learned that there were 3 branches of the Evangelical church – our families belonged to the Reformed branch – which followed the ways of John Calvin…not the Lutheran path.  The graveyards of neither church had any Zlatnik markers – although there were other familiar family name and Delia family names.

The mystery of the Zlatnik family continues – Helena using Evangelical church records established that Antonine Agust Adolph had several brothers and sisters… We know about the family home In Stepanice…We know the Antonine married Julie in Boratin… We know that the Zlatniks had a long history with many generations in the Evangelic church… But what happened to them between 1880 and today… there is no firm evidence – I am told that the name is not common but definitely Bohemian.  I told everyone I spoke to to be on the look out for Zlatniks – and we certainly have good support here now to help us in our search.  The best guess that I can find is that in those years many Czechs to immigrating to various parts of the world – Argentina, Australia, Canada and the US… their older brother did it – they could have followed his example.  Best guess – somewhere on this green earth – there have lived generations of Zlatnik that we know nothing about…  Our challenge is to find them.

I thought at times about American Czech groups that today have Czech celebrations where everyone comes dressed in the clothing of 1880 and listen to polkas… that is as ludicrous as someone thinking that all Americans go around looking like Theodore Roosevelt era America, listening to rag time piano.  The Czechs of today are modern, innovators,  and full members of the world community.  They are proud of their land and their accomplishments… but they also know how to enjoy life.

Friday, June 5, 2015

"Summer time when the livin' is easy"...

Note: This will be my last posting for the summer – except when I get occasional contact with a computer.  Off soon on a summer adventure…(Plans for House sitter in place - dogs looked after, garden carried for... bags not packed yet - but soon...)

My grade school - two classrooms:  one  grades 1-4, and 5-8
When I was a kid I remember the last day of school – turn in books – get report card – tell the teacher and friends good-bye – and then feel that intense liberation of ‘freedom’. I grew up in an era where there were no organized summer sports or summer camps for kids… For me it was a time to feed my imagination – The days were warm and filled with birdcalls… I loved exploring the ever changing wonders to be found in the “woods” – a piece of land on our land that sometimes flooded – that and the terrain was not suitable for machine farming. So it remained native woodlands.    It also led down to a small creek with all kinds of amazing  ‘critters’.  Some days I had friends come out from town or I walked into town to play with  them.

'Little'  creek ran through our farm - we also had a bigger "Cross creek"

There was no library near our farm – and my mother was concerned that my sister and I should be reading in the summer months.  With a good deal of searching she found that outlying farm people like us could borrow books from the Kansas state library situated in the Topeka capital building.

State Capital library - Topeka
At the time it was a big trip to drive into Topeka – over 30 miles away – a two lane road passing through two small towns, and across the old rickety steel bridge on the Kansas river…

Kansas  River
...but we drove in every two weeks to turn in our books and exchange them for new ones…I can still remember the sweet smell of all those books stacked in rows in  levels to the ceiling…  We became friends with the librarians and even invited them to visit our farm – which they did… pretty exciting!   I loved to read – especially adventure books about Indian life, the South Seas, Alaska gold miners, science books, sailing ships, fantasies… whatever delicious good books I came across.  As I got older my level of reading steadily grew to reach an ever-wider range of books… We had one of those hanging wooden bench swings hung from two chains extending to the ceiling… it was my favorite place to go off into my reading adventures. 

Kansas countryside 
Capital Building Topeka
The capital building itself was a marvel – with larger than life murals on Kansas life and history, the opportunity to climb up to the very top of the dome and long out over the entire city (for a flat land boy like me this was incredible)… there was the legislative chamber… but as a small boy what I remember most was the resonant sound of walking in the great huge building and hearing my voice echo in the halls.  We would walk past all these offices that were doing the business of the State of Kansas... pretty impressive to a farm kid like me...

Mural - capitsl bldg
Mural - capitsl bldg
Mural - capitsl bldg
Farm activities intensified in the summer – Combines harvested the fields of grain… As a small boy I loved to ride in the truck that was receiving the separated kernels from the combine – it smelled of wheat and was warm from the sun – as it came flowing over me from the combine chute. My Uncle Joe used a horse and pulley to lift great piles of cut hay taken from his fields and they were lifted with two overlapping hay hooks – then hoisted high into the barn –
Internet photo - but this is how its done - note the 'pull rope' attached to a horse ( not shown )
The barn was designed so that after that, each day during the year, a quantity of hay could be dropped, from the loft, down chutes into the manger of each cow waiting to be milked… I had my chores, which grew a more each year, as I grew older…  
Combines - they store the grain - then empty it into a truck through the chute
There were strawberries and other fruits or vegetables to pick, eggs to collect daily, kitchen fuel to be brought in, water to be pumped into the cow trough, drinking water to be carried from the household pump just outside the gate, and often I would walk into town to buy something from “Weiners “ market that my mother needed in her cooking.  I remember the warm evenings with cicadas singing in the trees - and the cottonwood leaves murmuring in the breeze.

Delia Kansas - where we "went to town"
Another part of my summer ‘education’ was 'guesting'  regular visitors from far off Nebraska, Idaho, and even California – this was an age when story telling was an art form– remembering things that happened in the past  – and in the telling I learned about where I came from and what ‘my people’ believed. Most summers my family also made a big road trip – usually to visit far distant relatives but also we saw a lot of  the American west.  Perhaps this is where I developed my love of travel.

Evening in Kansas - Imagine the smells and sounds...
The death of my father when I was 11 changed many things – The death of a parent is traumatic – and I was very close to mine… Being required to leave the familiar and move to California was like moving to another planet.  In the long run I adjusted, and like an uprooted willow tree I took root in this place and I have long come to feel that it is my home.  I will always carry with me my roots and the memories of childhood.  It is said that challenges can make us stronger…. Sometimes we never feel quite ready for the situations we are thrust into – but if we are fortunate we learn survival skills from the experiences that make future encounters with  ‘the new and different’  more manageable.

Friday, May 29, 2015

"Long ago, in the time of our ancestors..."

I am amazed, and a little humbled, when I find primitive rock art that allows me to be in contact  with people of a vastly different time and culture. This last week we visited the "Valley of Fire" in southern Nevada - Here I could catch a glimpse into the life and mind of people who lived long ago in the harsh landscape of southern Nevada.   
Sage brush - Creosote brush...

Some rock art was created at least 10’s of thousands of years ago, some more recently.   Rock art is often found in only certain rock formations ( those places where the spirits dwelled, or the magic was strong...?).     Rock art is an opportunity to project into the thinking of those that created the art.  And this is tricky because our mindset and world views today and their's then  are so different.  What makes the places where rock art is found different from those that do not have it?  Were pieces in one location all produced in the same time period or over many years and generations?  

What was in the mind of the creator of this Rock art? Is it a mystical symbol?

Were the pieces idle ‘graffiti’ or were they religious statements, attempt to make magic and control their world?  Was rock art an attempt to say – “I was here – I existed and I mattered.”?  Many rock art sites display evidence of repeated use over long periods but punctuated by episodes of disuse…were ‘styles’ ‘classic’ or did they evolve over time? 
Some are easy: I see mountain goats, a snake, a row of humans, ...but many symbols are cryptic to me...
Scientific dating of petroglyphs is difficult because these is no organic material to ‘age date’.  A site's period of use can be estimated from the age of associated activities in the landscape – such as charcoal fragments if they can be located.

Perhaps this was a totem to 'control' good hunting of large deer
Petroglyphs are made by removing the outer dark surface of rocks, called rock varnish or ‘patina’, to reveal the lighter rock underneath.  But patina takes a long time to form.  It is created by bacteria living on the rock and attaching clay particles to the rock.  
Mythological figures - "lizard people?", snakes?

In the process they incorporate the element manganese, which gives a dark color.  As soon as patina is removed, bacteria start to create patina again on the new surface.  Roughly, we can say that darker petroglyphs are older, because they have been exposed longer to formation of patina. 

( This photo I copied from the internet - but it is similar in period and style to the Valley of Fire )
Visions? Drugs? My mind wants to make these humanoid.  What did the artist intend? Are those footprints?


 The people living in this harsh desert were mostly hunter gathers – but they had communal life and traditions.   If I attempt to project myself into that life – I had the natural human mysteries brought on by the human condition – life, death, sickness and healing, puberty, marriage, desire to find food (good hunting), war… rites of passage, desire to control the weather... 
The "Patina" dark  coating that can be scraped or hammered off to draw the figures

There were undoubtedly many unexplained mysteries in their world – the seasons, rain, the daily, monthly and annual cycles to be seen.   There were probably attempts to control the unexplained and unpredictable by means of shamanistic practices and magic – rock art was likely to be a part of all this.

Cryptic,  Cryptic,  Cryptic!

Puberty ceremonies; Vision quests; Prayers for rain; Hunting magic (hoping to ensure a good hunt); astronomical indicators of the seasons; elements of rituals and ceremonies; voices of nature to be 'heard' within the rocks); visions  “seen” from consuming psychoactive plants; copying  phenomena of the natural world.  The list goes on and on....
Deeply significant or idle drawing?

It is tricky to interpret the meaning  of symbols from another culture... our assumptions and knowledge are not the same as theirs.  Also the “interpretation” of rock art symbols, alone or in combination, remains very difficult.  Simply because a symbol looks like something to us, it may not have looked at all like that for the people who created the rock art using it.  Two symbols which we judge the “same” may have been very different symbols for some culture.  Anthropologists must constantly be alert to not imposing their interpretations onto the original 'Mind of the people'. We want to avoid over simplification or missing complex ideas carried by the symbols .

Paiutes in summer homes

The most recent native people in the region of "Valley of Fire"  are of the Paiute nation...they are not necessarily the people who created the images - migrations over the eons have  made this home to many different peoples.  Still a study of the Paiutes give a good image of life in this harsh desert environment.  Paiutes were hunter-gatherers, hunting rabbits, deer, snakes and lizards, insects, and mountain sheep, and gathering seeds, roots, berries, and nuts. They also practiced some flood plain gardening, historically. They raised corn, squash, melons, gourds, sunflowers, and, later, winter wheat. The lived close to the earth, moved with the seasons, and lived according to their own cultural mores to form a society that provided continuity from one generation to the next.
With people living in a primitive life style it is important to remember that they were as fully human as us, as capable of abstract thought and reasoning... they simply valued a different body of knowledge and skills than we "modern humans".

Designed for a dry climate - shelter from wind but open to the sky... cooking was done outside