Despite my harried and stressful arrival in Nove Mesto, I settled in immediately and loved it there. The next morning I woke up and walked two blocks to find a grocery store – and was amazed that I could buy breakfast and snacks all for the price of, like, three dollars! It certainly was a pleasant shock after being in Norway and Sweden to be able to actually buy things.
One interesting part of this experience, though, was the fact that this was one of the first places I had been in a while where people didn’t speak English. I’d go so far as to say that I felt the most unconnected that I ever have – even when I was living in Morocco, at least I spoke French. It was somewhat disconcerting to walk around knowing that I couldn’t really talk to people: what if I needed something? What if I accidentally did something wrong? What if I got sick? I wouldn’t be able to explain myself.
But more than that, I felt like a typical tourist jerk. It seems so disrespectful to go to a foreign place without even trying to learn the language, and that’s exactly what I had done. I didn’t even take the time to look up how to say “hello” before I flew to Prague. I’m not sure why this was all so far from my mind, but I ended up feeling a bit embarrassed for myself. My instincts kicked in and my brain thought, “foreign language!” and I would sputter out little bits of Swedish, which of course did not help at all. In fact, even fewer people speak Swedish than speak Czech.
That first day held the mixed relays, so I grabbed my credentials and headed up to the venue before lunch so that I could get a feel for where things were and prepare myself for the races. I had only wandered a few blocks from my house, but it was enough to be teased by the little town’s cuteness: the main streets were nice, much nicer than my neighborhood. I wasn’t in the low-rent district, but the buildings were more modern. They lacked the romantic charm of “downtown” Nove Mesto.
I could feel it, though. From my bedroom I could see the steeple of a nearby church – which turned out to be right next to the grocery store. I checked it out.
The next day there were no races, so I spent the morning walking around town (and found a bigger grocery store, where I tried to buy hot chocolate mix and ended up purchasing cocoa powder – d’oh! no congnates here!). Next to dingy-looking stores were some beautiful buildings, many painted pretty colors. There were also all sorts of unusual decorations, from carving (expected) to painting. A few buildings I passed had unusual decorations or writing painted right onto the outside, a tradition I haven’t seen many other places.
And then there was the art. For being a small town, Nove Mesto was obviously proud; one building had a bust of what I can only assume was an illustrious former resident mounted over the doorway. There were metal sculptures and stone sculptures, both originals and copies. An art museum. A photography exhibit by an artist who had traveled all the way to the Himalayas to take photos, and then mounted them on a huge outdoor installation. A series of placards celebrating different dance and music events.
Perhaps all of this is not a coincidence; Nove Mesto is the was where Jan Stursa resided, one of the fathers of modern Czech sculpture. And one of the most prominent pieces, besides the religious-themed ones, was a copy of his sculpture commemorating the sacrifices of soldiers. Based on a photograph of a battle in the Carpathian mountains, it was made into a memorial after World War I.
And standing in front of the sculpture, I thought a little bit about why the Czech Republic felt so foreign even though so many things were familiar. I later looked up some things about Czech history: they haven’t had it easy.
Take the mid-1700’s: the area was taken by Prussia, and then a famine starved off a tenth of the population.
The area then became part of the Austrian empire; people were serfs until the mid 1800’s, under absolute monarchy.
Czechs fought in World War I, and many died.
They then established their own country, Czechoslovakia, one of the few democracies of the time – excellent! But then the Nazis invaded. Democracy no more. Massacres, concentration camps, and genocide: estimates vary but I read one number that said as many as 2/3 of Czechs may have been killed. That seems impossible; I hope it is.
(Czechs returned the favor by murdering Germans after the war.)
Soon after that, Czechoslovakia became an Eastern bloc country. Communism, censorship, economy lagging, poverty.
Today, things are going well in the Czech Republic. But it’s amazing to stop and think for a moment about all that.
Despite all that history, I was surrounded by beauty. The most well-known sight in Nove Mesto is the central church, which is indeed amazing. The painting on the hotels and residences paled in comparison with how this cathedral was decorated.
Scene after scene – all biblical, but interpreted locally. One thing I find fascinating is how religious imagery, which all comes from the same source, can really vary from culture to culture.
Even the details were painstakingly intricate and thoughtful.
But, of course, I couldn’t loiter all day every day in the cute little town center. It was hi ho, hi ho, off to work we go up to the venue in the late morning, where I’d grab a delicious lunch in the media restaurant. The shuttle buses were mysterious – although I passed sign after sign advertising pickup and dropoff locations, I never seemed to find one when I wanted it. Perhaps that was because I arrived early and left late, much unlike the many thousands of fans, but in any case it was a 25 minute walk and since the weather wasn’t too cold, it was a nice way for me to relax. I brought my skis but hadn’t been able to find any trails near town, so that was my exercise for the day: walking with views of the Bohemian countryside.
I wish I could have stayed longer – and I wish I could have skied. Circumstances intervened. But I remember my aunt Liz saying that the Czech Republic was one of her favorite places to visit, because things were unspoiled and you could ski out along the hilltops or ridgelines and just look out. It would have been nice to have that experience – but I guess I’ll just have to go back.