I was really saddened to hear this morning of the death of Vaclav Havel, a great man who led his country through the collapse of communism with humour and integrity. Tributes to his stature as a politician, humanitarian and playwright are already being made across the world. I am sure he will be remembered for all of these contributions to society and within the Czech Republic he will move into well respected history. I never had the privilege of meeting Vaclav Havel, all I know of him is from a distance, however, he touched my life in a very personal way. If it were not for his actions in the 1980’s I would not have the pleasure of my Czech family and would have missed out on some of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.
Following the end of communism my brother travelled to what was then still Czechoslovakia to teach English and initiated our connection with Eastern Europe which endures to this day. Back in those days there were no cheap flights – in fact my brothers first journey from London to Brno was on the bus! The airport had one terminal, Prague was not the Stag Capital of Europe – hotel rooms were almost non-existent and cripplingly expensive. When we visited we stayed in rooms rented to us by residents who had moved out for the night to stay with friends and family. Even then there were signs of capitalist culture creeping in – one time having paid the fee to an accommodation agency we arrived at our overnight accommodation to be met by the landlady who proudly displayed the room mini bar… stocked to the gills with beer and in her only few words of English telling us – this was her bit of business and we should pay her direct for anything consumed.
I remember the buzz and excitement of the first Macdonald’s opening in Wenceslas Square and the fact that it sold beer as well! Wenceslas Square today has morphed into the main street of any Globalised Capital City with well known brand names but I still love Prague and there are many places that have retained their identity not to mention their tradition of rude and surly waiters.
We have travelled to some great places in Czech – well off the beaten track of the normal tourist trail and had wonderful experiences – staying in a fabulous picture perfect lakeside lodge – with the shower cubicle in the kitchen, visiting Cesky Krumlov in depths of winter drinking hot grog in a warm restaurant, watching my brother get married in a Czech Castle. Holidaying in sundrenched vineyards and skiing in the Krkonose Mountains. We have spent wonderful summer evenings sitting in family gardens enjoying sausages grilled over open fires, trudging through the endless winter snow to local eateries and an unforgettable night cheering the local Ice Hockey team to defeat in a concrete silo of a stadium with the temperature approaching that of liquid nitrogen as we sat on pile inducing metal seats.
Our cultural exchanges have taken many forms, just this month we have swapped gingerbread recipes and though these baked by my sister in-laws are far more accomplished than mine, I will be baking and decorating a batch and they will be sitting on our table in the terrace over the christmas period. Equally in a small village in Moravia turkey with all the trimmings will be enjoyed. We will build many more memories over the coming years, but I would like to just put on record my personal thanks to Mr Havel for making all of the above possible. A great man who touched the lives of many people he knew and some he didn’t.