It’s becoming increasingly encumbering to not be able to read Czech.
I’m faced with a choice, but even within that choice knowing Czech is advantageous.
That choice, if we want to call it that, is either to fly to Czechia and go visit Doubravice and Brno and thereabouts, or to learn Czech and be able to read enough historical and current documents, blogs, photo albums, etc., to have a better understanding of what the area looks like. I’m not even sure that the modern village of Doubravice would give me exactly what I’m looking for anyway, and it seems unlikely that I’d get very far in a small farming village in Moravia without knowing any Czech anyway. So while I am definitely going to visit this place at some point, for the very practical reason of my living nowhere near Europe and having no more knowledge of Czech than a mediocre understanding of its phonetics, I will not be visiting it right away. And since I’m not in a period of my life where I’m looking for any excuse to procrastinate — I’m honestly shocked by this — I can’t use not flying to Europe as an excuse to put things on hold. So we shall beat on, boats against the current of the sea that is over 1000 km away from where I sit and 650 km in either direction from Doubravice, though given the choice between the Baltic and Adriatic seas I’m quite certain I’d head south.
But back to Doubravice, or Doubravice nad Svitavou, as it’s called on the map. While I’ve never been there, I do feel a certain familiarity with it. The town itself sits to the east of the Svitava river, bisected from nearby Klemov (where Toný the elder was born) both by the river and railway that runs north-south. You could follow either the river or the railway south to Brno, with the river taking a slightly eastward bent before heading down and the railway a westward one. Whichever way you go, you’ll find rolling hills and a mix of plotted farmland and mainly deciduous forest (though surely I’ll professionalize this part enough to get the exact type of tree). The realty map of the village proper weirdly resembles Lake Huron, with the backpacked figure, legs and all, being on the east side of the river, and his outstretched arms on the left side. The town itself seems relatively flat compared to the hilly country that surrounds it, and an aerial view finds a small number of curvilinear, quite long, arterial roads that either run parallel to the river or perpendicular to it. On either side of these roads are rows of buildings with the ubiquitous red clay roofs that one finds in Europe. A quick run through of Google’s street view will tell you that most of the buildings are various shades of earth tone, but there’s the occasional lime green facade as well. If I move the weird little yellow stick man figure to the road listed only as 374 and move him southward, like some sort of first-person video game, I can descend upon the town, reaching an intersection where a number of signs, not quite legible (even if one could, you know, read Czech) that surely point you in the direction of the town’s highlights (probably a market, the city hall, possibly the town square or a fire station).
Continuing down 374, I see buildings that run as a continuous rectangle all along either side of the street, seemingly only one storey high. Buildings of this type simply don’t exist in Western Canada, where the problem is never that there’s not enough space and there was never a need to fortify anything. It is my guess, my supposition, that some version of this road and these buildings were there when my great grandparents were, but I’m not sure how I can know with any certainty. I’m assuming the buildings weren’t in the strange pink and yellow pastels that they’re in now, but that is perhaps only because I expect early 20th century Czechoslovakia to be drab out of some prejudicial notice of the drab and poverty-stricken life we equate to those who lived before us in a place we don’t know.
Anyway, somewhere along 374 we come to a slightly taller, much squarer building with the name of “Penzion Retro” printed on it, along with a drawing of a bed. The Penzion Retro is three stories high with a row of five, tall rectangular windows on each of the second and third floors. It looks like an Old West saloon, the kind one might have found in Dubuque, Iowa in the 19th century. I mention it here mainly because it’s the only thing that really seems to stick out. There are even a few Google reviews (people seem to like it) and a photo from Dawid Mattik out of the window shows the rolling hills that surround the town. It’s a wonder of the internet age that you can find anything out about this place at all — almost all the photos on the booking website are of austere, dare we say drab, dining chairs and tables and a bar that’s too homely (and clean) to be charming. It might be the only hotel in Doubravice, so perhaps if I do visit the town it’s where I’ll be staying, but I’m not sure if I have that commitment to the craft.
Leaving the hotel behind, if we continue south to where 374 sort of forks we bump into what appears to be a grocery store — amusingly it’s called “Coop,” which is a version of the store you’d find in small-town Alberta — and turning left onto a side street we find a small park opposite the Coop. In one of the street images there’s an inadvertent snapshot of what appears to be an older woman pulling a wheeled grocery bag. The bag is red and half her size and she looks intent on getting wherever she’s going (her stride is long). If we move past her to the left, now on a street named Havlíčkova (Google is no help here; it only tells me that this is a restaurant in Prague) it seems we’re in a slightly higher rent area. There appears to be a house with a wall and shrubbery, and in the centre of the wall is a little ornamental portico, and at the intersection of Havlíčkova and, um, unnamed alley, there appears to be a more modern house, a sort of cube set on stilts, though I can’t tell from the photo if it’s newer or older than first glance would suggest.
I could go on, but I’m boring myself. The truth is there isn’t much to talk about in this town. In many ways it’s just another shitty little town in my familial history of shitty little towns. The main difference is it’s my shitty little town. I don’t know, exactly, if something started there, but something ended there. My great grandparents lived there (I think) and then they left it behind, never to return — sort of; they went back in the 1960s and Toný even brought a car back from the trip with him, because of course he did. The family tree I have doesn’t say how long sister Fonda and brother Tonda lived, but presumably they were still alive at that point and I don’t think they moved far. I know that Great Grandmother’s nephew, Tonik?, came to Canada a couple of times and would send cards. I think he went by Tonda, so that was probably also his father’s name, as we’re quite familiar by now with the family habit of of virtuously patronizing the same names over and over again. So there is a direct connection to this town, and probably this town as it exists now, with its one grocery store, with 374 running down the middle of it and with hills ascending into forests all around. I just don’t care about this town.
The town I’m interested in is the one from 1911, in the last days of the Hapsburg Empire, the one filled with markets and butchers, and chickens and little plots of land. There’s room to romanticize this town, though surely Grandma didn’t live in the town itself. Her story says that her farm was “sedlak” or 60 acres. If, unlike me, you didn’t grow up on a farm, an acre is 43, 560 square feet, or, say, somewhere around one and a half football fields. So, they had something like 90 football fields to cultivate, which both seems like a lot if you’re thinking on the scale of a small town, and seems like a little bit if you’re thinking on the scale of a Canadian farm. My family farm, which was somewhat large for our area but below average for a commercial farm, was around 2000 acres, or over 30 times larger than Grandma’s farm. In looking at the landscape around Doubravice it’s hard for me to picture where this farm would go, as there are so many hills and so much forest, but the scale is small. But I want to give Grandma’s description of things and come back after.
Our people were farmers for as far back as I know, growing all kinds of crops and livestock: wheat, barley, sugar beats, clover, lots of good pigs, and lots of big red and white cattle of the Bersko Hancke breed. They were big! We had to pull every calf! Almost every farm had a team of horses; some farmers had even three. Father’s family had horses, but Mother’s worked cows instead. And, of course, they all milked cows and weaned calves and were raising steers for meat.
In winter time everybody butchered; even people who worked in factories in the city raised a pig or two to butcher. When the butcher came, we children were ready; if pig was big he used hand-gun, and we were hiding around the corner till it went down. Then that butcher knew exactly how to stick that pig with knife, and we were waiting there, my sister and me, to catch the blood in a couple of bowls or pots, and we had to be quick not to miss, because it spurted. From that blood we made blood sausage. Oh, it was good! I liked it better than these other things [hot dogs].
Through pure serendipity, just today I happened to be listening to a radio interview with Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, who died earlier this week. Bertolucci was from Parma and in the interview he was talking about one of his earliest works, a silent, black and white short centred around the butchering of hogs in the village. He describes it as a ritual, almost barbaric, but of great meaning to the community itself. I can’t help but see echoes with the pig here. I want to talk about the ritualistic aspect for a moment, so forgive me while I pretend to be an anthropologist.
When I first read this I thought it amusing that Grandma remembered this incident with “that pig” so clearly. She would have been 85 when she was recalling all this, so it’s something that likely stuck with her for 75 years or more. My initial reaction, one I even mentioned before, was that it shows her interests. As you can see from her story, she says “our people were farmers for as far back as I know.” It’s who she was and who she continued to be right up until she left the orchard and moved to Calgary to live in the apartment in the Woodlands that she inhabited for the last 15 years of her life. She was a farmer, so of course she would remember something related to farming most clearly. But there’s more to it and that Bertolucci interview pinpointed it for me.
One thing that I’ve been trying to get at it, perhaps without even entirely realizing it, with this whole tracing my roots back to Europe thing, is a sense of history that’s missing from my Canadian existence. I’ve always found Canadian stories — and I should say, white Canadian stories, for that’s a key difference — to be rather boring. It’s honestly an ignorant thing to say, and it probably means I wasn’t looking hard enough, but I do think there’s something about being deracinated that blunts intrigue. It’s the past that haunts the present, and when you don’t know what the past is you can’t have the intrigue of the haunting. We’re missing something of the ancient, something of the legend, and we’re missing, often, a direct and present connection to that legend. Enter rituals.
It’s worth remembering that a fundamental difference between Europeans in Europe and Europeans in Canada is that the former have direct ties to pre-Christian tradition and the latter do not. And there’s absolutely something ritualistic about a bloodletting, so that’s what we’ll come back to.
One thing about modernity is that our rituals are largely without symbolic meaning. They aren’t really, then, ritualistic. This isn’t some trite complaint about materialism or children not having values, but an observation on our moment in history. If I look to my own family rituals we celebrate, if you will, birthdays, Christmas, Easter!?, and Thanksgiving. The birthdays are generally for the kids, Easter is somewhat like spring Thanksgiving with chocolate, Thanksgiving is stress around what kids will and will not eat and Christmas is presents (and winter, a whole lot of winter). The ones that are especially for children are always focused on receiving presents. Again, I’m not trying to say that all children are learning is materialism or to be selfish, but this is for them what is considered “special.” I can even understand the argument for modern religion in that it’s giving a greater sense of one’s smallness in the world. I’m not so much into the part about being small in front of a great and all powerful being, but the focus on something greater than oneself is appealing.
Let’s go back to the stuck pig. My great grandmother is not Bernardo Bertolucci. She is not the daughter of a poet, and she spent her life ploughing fields and tending orchards, not making art films, so she’s going to see the slaughtering of a pig in a different way. But her great grandson, no poet either, does spend his time looking past the immediate. Having children catching the spurting blood of a butchered pig, letting that blood collect in bowls, is visceral and ritualistic in a way that pre-dates at least modern Christianity. It’s literal blood, rather than the metaphorical kind. And lest you think I’m reading too much into this, I’m not the 85 year-old with this as a singular recollection from her childhood. Rituals are tradition, they are about creating an importance that is greater than oneself, and they are something of the ancient. When Grandma says her family had been farmers going back ages they had probably been butchering pigs going back ages. It’s this Doubravice that I want to find, but I’m not sure I can use a Google map to do it.