Before heading off to foreign shores, I make fevered attempts to learn two phrases in the language of the host nation “Good Day” and “Thank you”.
So it was, before my most recent work mission to the Czech Republic. Dobrý den and Děkuji would, I was certain, charm my way into the Czech heart.
I swiftly discovered though, that my thinking was flawed. Eastern Bohemia is grim, very grim. No day was a good day, and I would have very little to be grateful for.
Now, lest I offend my hosts, and blow my day job cover, I am reserving the right to be a little oblique here. So I won`t name names and out the offending locations. In any case, from what I gathered on my travels, this grimness covered a vast tract of Eastern Bohemia. That`s the trouble with grimness though, it shows no flicker of hope anywhere, just rolling miles of endless sameness in an endlessly dull day.
I should be no stranger to gloom. I grew up in the boglands of 1970s Ireland. Back in the day, it was a fair match for 21st century Eastern Bohemia.
That sensitized me, somewhat, to the plight of the Czech Bohemians.Everywhere I looked I saw sad pasty pudgy people. The older ones seemed even worse. Shuffling along in their tired old winter coats, they look like they had borne several lifetimes of pain. As, indeed, they had.
This must account for some of the misery, though. Called goulash, it bears little resemblance to its Hungarian counter part. The soggy disks heaped to one side are dumplings. The little cream embellishment in the corner, is cream with a slice of lemon and a teaspoon of jam. Oh, don`t ask. And no, I didn`t eat it.
But Czechs do and, from what I saw, with great relish. In fact, from my trawl through the supermarket, alcohol, meat and crisps are pretty much standard fare, with fresh fruit and vegetables barely making it into the shopping basket.
Whatever about vitamin deprivation, I am sure the weather added to my gloomy perceptions. The Czech republic beats Ireland hands down in the grey November weather stakes. It either rained,or froze for the duration of my stay.
The whole look of the place added to the air of gloom. Communism left its mark in it`s homage to functionality over the aesthetic. Modern buildings here are blocky affairs totally devoid of embellishment. They work. I am sure they work well. They are spotlessly clean and very warm inside. But they lack soul.
Even the fields roll on forever in vast swathes of endless, boring green. There are no hedges to break the monotony. Just that same dull Skoda-like functionality rolling on to infinity.
The Czech people have been through a lot. Two world wars, years of Communism and splitting away from the Slovak part of its identity. Judging, from their shopping baskets, demeanour, and dress, they seem impoverished by Irish standards. Yes, even austerity soaked Irish standards.
I was aching to get out of there.
Mission accomplished, I sank into the carriage seat on the train to Prague and considered my brief immersion into the rural Czech world. My thoughts were interrupted by a fellow passenger. She wanted to practise her English and hoped I wouldn`t mind talking to her. Of course not. I suspected I`d learn more from her than she would from me.
She asked why I had come here. A native of the place, she couldn`t understand why anyone would want to travel there. I made vague references to my mysterious work which seemed to satisfy her. And she began to launch into a tirade.
I was beginning to feel a bit concerned then. The carriage was small, the train packed. the journey to Prague another hour or more. I had no hope of escape. Clearly this woman had enough of Czech life, clearly she didn`t like it and clearly anything I would say would only fan the flames.
And I lost the gist of her message. The mad glint in her eye told of a woman long past hope and escaping into the grip of insanity.
“You must tell the world” she urged
“Nobody speaks here. They are all afraid. There is nothing but cover up and secrets”
But tell the world what? And what are the secrets? A country where you don`t know the language is impenetrable anyway. I only know what I saw. The surface. A thin and gloomy veneer over what? I have no idea.
I cast an eye around my fellow passengers. All Czech, they sat impassively, seemingly oblivious to the woman and her tirade.
Suddenly she got up and, mercifully, disembarked at the next station, still muttering to herself, head down now, and plainly angry.
The train pulled away, away from the gloom, away from the madness and on to that gem of a city, Prague.
I knew I would get a decent dinner there, stay in a nice hotel, wrap myself in the elegance of that city. I only had the briefest glimpse into the gloom and I had no idea what generations of pain and suffering along with their current way of life, had meted out to my fellow passengers.
I badly need to be grateful. Grateful for all I have and for where I live and for always having hope of better days ahead.
The train rolled into Prague, I gathered my things and bade farewell to my fellow passengers
“Dobrý den, děkuji, děkuji! “