Tuesday, August 28, 2007

28th August 07

Hey Mark,

I've just spent three days in the Krkonoshe mountains on the Czech border with Poland. Sour, fresh blueberries, Krkonoshe beer and, for some reason, ultra-expensive mohitos. Every town the coach drove through en route was more beautiful than Mlada Boleslav, the factory town in which I am stationed.

I had an hour in Jicin, for example. While waiting for my bus, I sat in the square enjoying the sun and a beer, ate a cheeseburger in a bun as big as a baseball glove, visited a church, watched some boys flirt with some vietnamese girls, saw a guy in electric blue suit, bearded in shades, who was either mad or a genius. In short, it was alive. The only time most of my students get animated is to proclaim melodramatically 'This town is dead!'

I did approach IH Bratislava and was offered a job, but it was very low salaried. After investigation I had to turn them down. Poland is a new start, new culture.

This country seems ever-more beautiful now I'm leaving. Daily lunch-time menus with three options - goulash and knedlicky a mainstay on each of them - for 69 crowns, including starter of soup.

In Vrklabi I sat in a 'bistro'. It was the equivalent of a Polish milk bar: dirt-cheap food, beer at half eleven, view onto the street. Other people joining your table. I had a walk around the cemetery (Franz Schubert was buried there. I need to check if it was the Franz Schubert.) A really beautiful, unspoilt town. All the 19th century graves seemed to be crumbling, perhaps because of the cold air of the mountain. The temperatures fluctuate wildly: cold in the morning, baking by the afternoon. A fine-needled machine in the high street records air temperature and humidity.

Do you remember Steve, the Fall fan from my housewarming? He's arriving in Poland the day I start teaching. That should muddy the waters nicely with my new flatmate, a friend of the principal.

I'm trying to cram in everything I can before I leave on 14th Sept. A Slovakian double wedding on Friday. Then I hope to visit a Czech student - my first ever student - at the weekend. Next week another trip into the countryside. The last weekend a music / puppetry festival in Jicin.

I'm dreaming of my annual family curry (with my sister, parents and Carrie) in London on 18th Dec. Then we're off to Illinois for a family christmas.

So, I hope you're doing well.

Is Sara back? Everyone okay in my 'real' family?

Take care,


31 12 7

I was suddenly bareheaded.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

15 Aug

Hi Camilla,

Glad to hear it, that's great :)

I'm up and down: lots of good experiences, lots of bad experiences, I feel a bit like a sock in the tumble dryer sometimes.

Which is why I am planning to head to Slovakia - there's an IH there and if I can just wrangle my way out of my contract here, then I'll be starting in early September. Maybe I'll get the regular classes that Mark always denied me in the belief that it would make me 'grow' (his words). Danube, close to Vienna, blah blah blah blah

Winter arrives in my dreams representing Carrie and Chicago and family cooking and a brief glimpse of English streets. I am very homesick at this stage. Carrie came to visit last month and it coincided with a heatwave. I took her up Petrin Hill to overlook the whole of Prague. We were delirious and had to decend to find water when we stumbled on a zoo I never knew existed. We stroked the ponies (a pony is a small horse) and looked at the turtles in the turtle pond. We couldn't see the lizards. It was built around a school - classrooms and drawing activities for all the local kids. Then we heard a scraping from one of the greenhouses. We went to investigate as we weren't sure if we were trespassing. A woman was watering all the plants. Did she work there we asked? Does she feed the animals herself? Are the schoolkids on holiday? We should see the croc, she said. It's back there but far too hot for viewing the animals now really. As she talked she kept casting an eye down at the box in my hands (my new trainers). I couldn't understand until she finally asked 'Do you have something for me?' She was used to people bringing her unwanted pets, injured bats and so on.

I didn't give her my rabbit or turtle or anything, but we headed back down. I thought it was magical that fate should come up with that misunderstanding.

I've been really into Germany since my visit to Berlin - I want to hear Zoo Station by U2 and Lou Reed's drama about an addicted mother who kills herself - 'Berlin' ('And this ... the most vile album of all' - The New York Times :) ) I've been reading Christopher Isherwood's "Return to Berlin', which Cabaret was based on, and Stephen Spender's autobiography in which he visits Hamburg and Berlin pre-WW2. Fantastic. I've just begun The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass.
I went on a tour of the Jewish synagogues and cemetary last week which was really harrowing. The Pinkas synagogue is the biggest epitaph in the world - the white walls are covered with the names - in simple calligraphy - of each of the 77,477 Jews from the Czech Republic who never returned from the concentration camps or ghettoes in Poland and Germany. It is done chromatically - the town in orange, surname in red, first names in black (often there were many members of a family who were killed) and then the dates in red too. All of them, regardless of whether they were born in 1898 or 1940 ended in the date 42 or 43. there was a section on 'Mlada Boleslav' the town where I am living.

And still people had to be asked not to take photos.

I'm not teaching till 5, so I'm off to get a potato cake.

Hope you're doing well Camilla,

Hi to everyone,

Take care,

Matt x

Saturday, April 21, 2007

19 April

Hey Amanda,

The Czech Republic rocks. The customs official found a metal fork folded into the fabric of my rucksack: 'I cannot explain it,' I told him.

My pad is great - very spacious, about the size of a small tent of wind. Food is really cheap but all I've been eating is steak - bifsteak - as I don't recognise any other word. I went into a restaurace yesterday and said 'jidlo?' ie 'food?' I can't say thanks yet. I greeted the diners at the table next to me - 'Ahoj' - and as they left they said goodbye to me - 'Bon nuit!' It's weird not being understood. I tried to buy an adaptor for a plug today. The assistant was perplexed. I have never been in this situation before. I left the shop frustrated and baffled.

My Czech lessons start next week.

It's really quiet here, very very hot, I'm on the fifth floor - a view of some apartments and mountains/ wooded hills behind them. Things are great. There's a pool nearby. A theatre is peforming a play by Garcia Lorca tonight. I might check it out.

What else to add? Prague:

Sat on the Petrin hills overlooking the four quarters - New, Old, Little and Jewish - the weirs, the Charles Bridge, the other ten or so bridges, sun coming in a nd out of cloud, drinking a bottle of pilsner with Frank Sinatra playing on the radio behind you - now that makes you feel that you've got the world in the palm of your hand :)

All the radios play the classics - Little Wing by Hendrix, Sam Cooke, oh and constant Eurythmics: When Tomorrow Comes and The Miracle of Love. It reminds me of our short stop off in Japan listening to Revenge on our walkmans. I'm going to keep heading east, back in time, to stay perpetually young. Until I recross the dateline and, when tomorrow comes, all my years pile back on.

I found a great tearoom on Wenceslas Square, and the Hotel Evropa has a talented pianist -a great place to sit in and admire the art nouveau setting - from the classic age of hotels, all gold and large mirrors.

If you write to me write


above my name - it's the guy who owns the apartment.

Cheers Mand,

I love you,


25 April

It's a brave man walks into Chlum. Like your foot had tripped an invisible wire, the first small dog scuttles towards you, its thin bleating alerting the dogs in the other gardens. As you scan the fifty metres ahead of you, gardens to either side, you accept your predicament. The dog to your left is actually higher than the frail fence set in the sloping soil. A bound and he'd be on you. You reach a crossroads. To your right a post-office / town hall, dusty like in a ghost town in a Western. Chlum is a high town - the other side of Karlvu Vrch forest as I look at it now. These villagers aren't so much alpine men as they are independent. Efficiently stacked timber is piled neatly in each garden - for building huts, extensions, furniture. A child lifts a chopped circle of wood and drops it to the ground. 'Ahoj!' I say to a man who is following me. 'Pivo?' I mime, taking a sip of beer. Nope, he directs me to Dobrovice or Svedske Sanca. I turn right, past more of these new, proud homes and walk along a path of chipped white stone. It ends in a small field of white blossomy trees, and a tree with a red square painted on it, I can see Svedske Sanca. Pivo. A steep, almost vertical path begins at my feet. If I start it, I might not get back up. I don't want to be barked at anymore.

27 April

Hey Agnese,

Thanks, it's delightful to hear from you :)

Everything is good here, apart from a very negative flatmate. The people here are really friendly, I am going swimming at 12 and then a hike in Cesky Raj or 'Czech Paradise' tomorrow. I have begun my Czech lessons :)

I just went into an old church and a woman showed me round. We talked about the paintings - me with my broken czech and her helping me - maminka - mother - tatinka father, praterni (?) friends. We had a good 30 minuites walking around the church and the upstairs gallery. It was very well-lit and the acoustics were perfect - they were playing nice music. Friendly people like this really make my day :)

And a boy on the stairs said 'Ahoj!' and 'Dobry'den' to me a few days ago. I'm trying to get into the habit of saying 'Dejku' - thanks - and 'Na Schledanou' - goodbye - to people instinctively, without forgeting that 'ahoj!' - hello - is informal and rude if you are addressing strangers.

I've just been invited to a Celtic music festival on Monday night - it starts at 8pm and runs through the night till noon the next day. I think if I stick with these good positive people I will be alright :)

I have also been on wonderful walks into forests. I walked for five hours - there are blue and red marks on the trees every fifty metres or so to keep you on the right path. I didn't see a soul for five hours - it's really freeing. On my way back I heard a massive crashing and two big deer ran across the path ten metres in front of me, and disappeared up the hill to my left. And I have seen lots of pheasants! And I have ordered food not knowing what it was! And I sat on a hillside overlooking the Vltava river and Prague's districts and bridges drinking lemonade with Frank Sinatra playing from a radio behind me :)

And you are more than welcome to visit me :) I have a lovely apartment :)

Take care Agnese,

Lots of love to you.


19 May

Hey Thommie,

Glad you got the exotic package :) Well, there's one thing I am missing - apart from Dime bars, Starbars, Topics, Jawbreakers and limited edition bars of Fry's Irish Cream - and that's my brand of gum (I'm not a smoker, I have to have a brand of something) : Cool Breeze flavour Extra. I know I'm fussy, but it's literally the only gum I like (apart from Colgate gum, which they promptly stopped making once I started chewing it - in fact, if you could get hold of that it would be even better.)

That and nail clippers - people in this country must use penknives or something. I feel like I'm working with animals, sometimes. I can still see the customs officer throwing away my silver pedicure set, along with the silver fork inexplicably concealed in the lower folds of my bag.

Impressions of CR - really good. I'm burning myself out then recuperating then burning myself out here. On Monday I followed smoke to a lightning strike in the wooded hills I can see from my window. There was a terrible storm, black skies and thunder and a clanging bell that reminded of a harbour somehow, a clanging before everything went wrong. If I opened the window a fraction for a second the carpet was drenched.

The best thing was my walk through a post-storm woodland. There were rills and all the pine needles had been washed into patterns like a coral reef - planetary, regular but alien (still can't quite put my finger on this yet). It was tropically humid. At the top of the wood I heard voices - kind of hysterical, I was a bit freaked out, wondering what people would be doing out here so close to a massive storm. I looked down into a field and saw a dog training centre - it was brilliant. First the dog sat, then he was led (he always followed a dog biscuit in the trainer's hand) over a little jump, up and down two pieces of wood propped together steeply with branches nailed across it for paw-hold, then down and around and over several more jumps and then - the piece de resistance - he ran through a windsock and was given a biscuit. I could have sat there forever. The dogs didn't like the windsock :) The trainer had to repeat the last few tasks until the dogs went through the windsock and were awarded a biscuit.

It reminded me a little of the car-testing track at the Skoda factory.

So, I'm keeping an up, exhausting myself with viewing things like dog-training centres.

How are things with you three?

Matt xx

20 May

Hi Mark,

Yes, I read this. I really want to buy this book now. That, Revolution in the Head, the new Wilco album and the rereleased Don't Look Back DVD.

I began writing an article once about Dylan and Prince, the beginning of a planned book-length study - especially the religious side to their work, but it foundered on the rocks of me having no clear idea of my readership. And my having gone off Prince a bit at the time.

I'm having a great Beatles renaissance here - it started with Abbey Road on my ipod, and Rubber Soul is perfect Sunday music.

Good climate here, am heading to the Andel cafe at two for chess and outdoor pivo. A weekend without a trip to Prague or Ceske Raj or any walking. Friday was museum day though, with all the museums open til 2am and free. There was Celtic (or 'Keltik") music. I stood listening to a Czech bagpiper in a kilt play Auld Lang Syne with a tear in my eye. I also ascertained that I had been to Chlum. Halfway up the castle staircase was a framed photograph of a raised mound of earth covered in grass on which I lay under the sun for a while at the top of the forest. The caption was something like '... ... .. Sloveny, Chlum.' Maybe it was some kind of Slovakian burial mound? I jotted down the words and will run to my dictionary to find out what sacrilege I have committed against the dead.

And there was an exhibition of Czech art - pines, and forests and trees. I saw maybe the definitive Czech painting: three pieces of wood, on a wooden surface. Ochres, umbers and browns. A masterpiece!

Take care,


23 May

Hey Camilla,

How are you? I trust your plans are going well for June? Invitation paper found and unsmudged?

Things are great here. I'm still getting used to the heat, and the light. I walked down to a field by the riverside yesterday to read. I was able to strip down to my boxer shorts and tan without any worries whatsoever. There are no hangups here. I've been swimming in the unheated local pool and when you walk into the changing rooms you have to doubletake at first because it is a space about as big as a lift without any cubicles and - inexplicably - a sign in English commanding 'Shower without bathing costumes!'

I like the pace of life: I sat in a restaurace courtyard a few nights ago, reading with the moon in the sky. A mouse crept along the wall to me but I wasn't eating anything so couldn't aid it in any way. I spent a good three hours there, reading a Czech novel by Milan Kundera, imagining events happening just thirty miles away. I drank three pints and it came to 60 crowns. That's about one pound fifty! I'm getting used to eating and living very cheaply.

There are almost weekly cultural events here - burning of the witches to celebrate the end of winter - fires lit up all the hillsides, koblasa sausages were toasted over fires, beer was on tap - museum night when the museums are free and there is live celtic music everywhere. I am also trying to get to Prague at least once a week. My friend Matthew has a flat I can kip at which saves me lots of hotel money, and there are plenty of galleries to investigate.

In June everybody is leaving after having taught here a year. The benefit - apart from the peace - is that I will be able to have one to one Czech lessons instead of the usual class lessons, since everyone will have gone. Great! It's fun to be a student again, and my teacher is beautiful :)

So, make sure you send me some wedding photos. Best of luck with everything.

I am not turning Eastern European yet, I don't know what you meant by that ...

If you look closely at the photo I am sure you will be able to make out an ink stain in the groin area :)

In case you come to this country, horseriding is 'jizda na koni'.

Matt x

3 June

Hi Mark,

Pivo's beer. Deset - 10 percent, a lighter beer - or dvacet - 12 percent, darker - or rejani, a mixture of the two. Maly (small) or velka (larger). Breaking Away? I need to see Spirit of the Beehive too. Prima (Czech tv channel) have been showing subtitled English films - Cabaret, Dancer in the Dark (each have a Czech link, each is harrowing). That scene in Cabaret when the Hitler Youth member begins a nationalistic song about 'The linden it clings to the tree' and our protagonist turns and says 'You still think you can control them, Max?' is possibly my all-time favourite cinematic moment.

Also saw a pretty great film at the kino kveny svet - a cultural centre - last week. It was like a gentleman's club. We sat at tables drinking beer from cans; a gong sounded and the film - Little Children - began, sans trailers.

Next day we saw a performance by a mezzo soprano in a local church. It has superb acoustics. One man played three-tier organ, one pressed sounds from a cello, sighing at each lull, and a woman - the real star - sang Dvorak, Bach and Handel.

At the close of the performance, after a superb improvisation by our man on organ - he played with real #muscle# - they took their bows and were awarded bouquets by a woman in yellow dress - flowers pinned to an intricately detailed frame of wood.

Hope you're well,


10 July

Hi Mark,

How are you keeping in flooded Bath? I can imagine travelling to Bradford viewing the desolation of the burst banks out the train-window.

I visited Berlin and Hamburg this last week, where I enjoyed my first glass of good wine in three months! Bliss. Sat in the TV tower, at 255 metres, watching Berlin light up with a bottle of Chardonnay is a good feeling.

We also found a theatre showing 'Inland Empire' the new David Lynch film, which was fantastic. This was my call - I was adamant. Afterwards, a band strummed the opening chords to Like A Rolling Stone as we waited at the station. I had a tub of popcorn in my hand and a small amount of lukewarm water left in a pocketed bottle and everything was perfect with the world.

I paid for it later though - I was outvoted and couldn't visit the street with naked prostitutes in the windows in Hamburg. I still think I made the right choice :)

But I did make it to a christening. It was on the sly - his father is Afghan and didn't know about it. The fact that the kid is called 'Christian' must have slipped past him in the haze of early fatherhood. The mother asked me for a quote from the (ever-serviceable) 'Der Kleine Prinz' to read at the service. I thought I might be able to come up with something:

Once you tame someone you are responsible for them for the rest of your life.

It was a real privilege to be a part of this. Afterwards, the mother and two godmothers and I sat around a table eating slices of cake in individual cellophane wrappers. You could lift up individual chunks from the table, a bit like pulling a man from a hole using the blanket beneath him. I was soon forgotten in the principally (100%) German conversation and got to observe this TS Eliot-like scene, women talking of Michelangelo and cribs, licking cream off big silver spoons.

Carrie arrives next week, and after her visit I am off to Poland for the beach and the Mazurin Lakes for two weeks with colleagues.

Here's a photo of me in Liberec, up Jested (Yest-yed) Mountain, northern Czech Republic, mountains all around.

Love (or like) to everyone (most of them). I've been staring people in the eye on meeting them after being accused of rudeness by my (very)ex-flatmate - a Polish girl called Alicia - after I rashly hazarded that her eyes were green instead of blue (actually a kind of wan soullessness, like those of a feral cat from the side). Perhaps this practice is best not followed with bearded men in car parks on car-shares in the middle of nowhere.

Take care,