An elderly man speaks to me as I focus my camera on yet another beautiful building in the Czech Republic city of České Budějovice. After trying a language or two, he figures out that I am an American. He is excited about that. He tells me in pretty good English that he studied English for a long time but rarely has a chance to put it into practice. “Can I tell you my story?” Sounded like a great opportunity to me and Leah (a Workaway colleague and friend who I’m giving a ride to Český Krumlov) and we agree to hear that story if John will show us a good place for lunch (we actually were interested to hear the story no matter what).
České Budějovice with a population of about 100,000, is the major city in southern Bohemia. It was established in the 1200’s at the confluence of the Vltava and Malše rivers. Like most cities in the Czech Republic, it is a place of beautiful architecture and eye catching buildings, street art, and streetscapes. One of the first things that John showed us was the pillory stone in the city square – a place where executions were carried out. It is one small, irregular ancient looking stone within a sea of patterned cobblestone and it has a couple of different legends associated with it. One is that if you step on it, you will lose everything. The other is that if you step on it, you will definitely return to České Budějovice. I like the second scenario better.
John has lived in České Budějovice all of his 75+ years. He saw the coming of World War II as a child, the end of the war and the liberation by U.S. forces, the deal-making and partitioning that formed Czechoslovakia, the long years of communist control, the discovery that friends were informers, and the fall of the iron curtain that resulted in a re-established Czech Republic and neighboring Slovakia. John plays trumpet in a big band and swing band. “I learned to play trumpet by listening to Harry James on Voice of America Broadcasts. I love the big bands … Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommie Dorsey, Duke Ellington …” All of his bandmates are his age or older. His band did a tour in the midwest of the USA many years ago and he has fond memories of his short time in the US.
John takes us to Masné krámy, a place that is hundreds of years old that he tells us is the beer hall for the Budweiser Brewery … NOT that Budweiser. You may know it, but there was a Budweiser brewery in České Budějovice hundreds of years before the one in the USA got started — but that’s a whole ‘nother story (Read the story as I understand it here). The old beer hall is elegant and reeks with history. We are shown to a table hidden in one of the many archways that make up the floorplan. It was nice to get John’s help to order a traditional Czech dish (menus are pretty challenging for non-Czech readers) and, of course, a Czech Budweiser.
John told us about his perspective on the history of the Czech Republic before he was born, growing up during WWII, the long, bleak years under communism, and the years since the fall of the iron curtain and the reformation of the Czech Republic.
For him, the Czech history is one of flexibility enabling survival. The Czech Republic is a crossroads of sorts so it seems that there was always someone or another who was coveting control of the place. The Romans, the Austrians, the Germans, the Russians … The Czechs are a pretty small population compared to the forces that It seemed were always doing the coveting. Flexibility could mean the difference between survival and annihilation.
He spoke of Edvard Beneš as a key figure in the history of the idea of a Czech Republic and its movement for independence. Beneš was president and president-in-exile a couple of times in the ’30’s and ’40’s. John was a kid during WWII and that was a dark, tough time for Czechs. Following WWII there was great hope as large parts of Bohemia were liberated by Americans, but this hope turned out to be short-lived once the political leaders of the US, England, and Russia sat down to divvy up zones of influence after the war. I think John still harbors disappointment with America for how that turned out. Imagine decades of your life being crap because of a political discussion that you have no input into or control over. I guess that happens alot, but luckily not to me.
He told us a bit about life in the East block. Confiscation of his family’s farm, Russians soldiers with machine guns in the square of his town during the time of Prague Spring, and learning that nearly every other member of the band he was in at the time were police informants. He described the fall of the iron curtain and the velvet revolution times, and pointed out that somehow Czechoslovakia managed to turn into two countries — the Czech Republic and Slovakia with no war or shots fired. That is amazing if you think about it.
John’s father was a farmer. His family’s farm land was taken by the socialist (communist?) government that came into control after WWII. The family’s land was returned to him after communism ended, but never having been a farmer John had no use for it for himself so he rents it out and tries to break even on it.
Through it all, I would describe John as an optimist, and someone who has kept a sense of humor. He starts to tell us some jokes he said that he tried on American audiences during his band tour but that he said he couldn’t get many laughs from. “What’s the difference between a terrorist and a wife?” Uhhhhh…..
Following are some more images from České Budějovice — captions when provided appear above the images:
Masné Krámy beer hall — unfiltered, unpasteurized, pure delight
Light lunch at Masné Krámy
We’ll be back