Saturday, October 17, 2009

What is the card game I see old men playing in pubs? I didn't even recognize the cards they were using.

Most likely it is mariáš. It is similar to (but far less complicated than) bridge as the three players win points by collecting tricks. One player makes a bid to win a certain number of tricks and the other two try to prevent him. The game uses a German set of 32 cards: ace, king, overknave (svršek), underknave (spodek), and ten through seven in the four suits of acorns, heart, leaves, and bells. The name comes from the French for marriage which refers to the marriage between the king and the overknave which is worth extra points. More complex than the game are the betting permutations which used to be measured in haléře (the now defunct pennies).

I’ve noticed people driving around in a three-wheeled car. What is it?

This car is known as a Velorex. It was developed in the 1940s by the brothers František and Mojmír Stranský and originally called an Oskar. Besides the three wheels, the distinctive features are a canvas tarpaulin or metal shell around the outside and a Jawa motorcycle engine inside. Though production was definitively ended in 1973, the Velorex has become popular with collectors and can be seen at car fairs. The film Vrchní, prchni (Run, Waiter) accurately captures the hit in social standing you took for driving a Velorex when your friends had Škodas or Trabants.

Some friends who recently had a baby invited me to what they called a welcoming ceremony for their baby. What is this?

Known as the vitání občanků (welcoming of the little citizens), this ceremony was introduced by the communists as a sort of secular alternative to christenings. The ceremony usually takes place at the town hall and is presided over by a government official who makes a speech welcoming the infants to the community and gives them small gifts (like a scrapbook). Despite the fall of communism, the mostly innocuous ceremony remains relatively popular.

I got caught by an inspector for not having a ticket on a tram. What powers do they have? Can they arrest you?

No, these inspectors (revizoři) are not allowed to use force to hold or detain you. They may, however, call the police if you refuse to cooperate. Of course, at the same time, you are legally required to show them your ticket or proof of your identity even though they have no legal means to compel you to do so.

Who are the guys dressed in fatigues getting on the trains on Saturday mornings?

They are known as tramps and belong to organized groups (often with English names like Red River) who meet at a specified place in the woods (their osada or settlement) to camp, hike, and sing. The phenomenon emerged between the wars as young people looked for an alternative to their modern city lives. The tradition grew under communism as a sort of quasi-protest against the official mass-organized recreation of the communists. It was popular enough in the seventies and eighties that there is now a whole genre of tramp music (often borrowed from American country and folk music). Tramping is less popular today as young people have turned to more consumerist pastimes, but some remain faithful to their clan in middle age.

The sports news broadcast that the Czechs had won the world championship in some strange sport that looked like cyclists playing soccer. What is it?

This sport is called kolová (cycle ball or radball) and was invented by a German in the late 19th century. It is played like soccer but by teams of two riding specially designed bikes with fixed gears and no brakes. The players pass and shoot the ball with the bike’s front wheel. Matches are usually accompanied by displays of artistic cycling (krasojizda) Like nohejbal and a special Czech form of handball (národni hazená), it is another sport that achieved popularity so that Czechs could proclaim themselves among the world’s best. Most memorably the Pospišil brothers won twenty world championships between 1965 and 1988.

What are the short columns with crosses that I see by the sides of roads and throughout the woods?

These are known as boží muka (literally, “divine suffering, but better translated as wayside crosses). They consist of a short column with a shrine containing a small statue, a picture of a saint, or an inscription. They point the way to pilgrimmage sites or memorialize the scene of an accident.

I raised my finger to order a beer, but the waitress brought me two beers? Why?

You probably used your index finger to indicate that you wanted one beer, but Czechs start counting with their thumb so a raised index finger means “two” – the thumb plus the index finger. Next time, use the thumbs-up sign for ordering one beer. Speaking of hand gestures, you might have also noticed Czechs holding their thumb (držet palce) which is their equivalent of crossing your fingers for luck.

I’ve noticed that some Czechs have titles both before and after their name – like Dr. Jan Novak, Ph.D.. Why?

Like their German neighbors, Czechs are obsessed with titles and so rather than follow the American habit of just indicating the highest degree they’ve achieved, they often like to show multiple achievements. You can find some of the more common titles and their placements at the following websites:

I received a postcard from my friend that just had the letters PF on it. What does that mean?

This is the Czech version of Christmas cards, but transferred to the New Year. P.F. stands for the French phrase pour felicitér and means that they are wishing you all the best in the coming year. You can find high art versions of these greetings on sale in second-hand book shops.

I was at a camp site and saw Czechs playing a strange game that looked like a cross between soccer, volleyball, and tennis. What is it?

This sport is called nohejbal which literally means football (noha = foot), but is translated as football tennis. It was developed in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 30s and is played on a volleyball-sized court with the net set at tennis height. The rules are similar to volleyball, except that the hands and arms are the only parts of the body which cannot touch the ball. Teams consist of two or three players and points are usually concluded with the equivalent of a smash – the leg raised high and brought down over the ball. The game is quite popular among Czechs and they like to claim that they are the world’s best (partially a consequence of being one of the few countries who play it)..

During the credits of old films, I’ve noticed that some names are accompanied by the phrase nár. umĕlec or zasl. umĕlec. What do they mean?

These were communist-era titles bestowed on outstanding figures in the arts (in fact they were inaugurated by Masaryk). The higher honor is National Artist (Národní umĕlec) while the lesser one is Distinguished Artist (Zasloužilý umĕlec). Naturally, it wasn’t just artistic achievement but political criteria that were used in choosing recipients. Few artists had the courage to refuse the award which was accompanied by a higher salary and other perks. Among the holders of the titles were the poet Jaroslav Seifert, the actors Jan Werich and Vladimír Menšík, and the opera singer Peter Dvorský. The awarding of such titles is an indication of the high regard in which cutural figures are held.

What are the tall, windowless buildings I’ve seen in several villages (see photos)? Do people live in them?

These towers are used by the fire department for drying out their hoses. The hoses need to be thoroughly dried after they’ve been used to prevent deteroriation of the material and their length requires a tower-like structure.

I was visiting a friend in a village and all of the sudden music started playing throughout the village. Was it some sort of concert?

No, that was the village’s PA system (místní rozhlas) which is used mostly for broadcasting public service messages – recycling days, town meetings, school closures, etc. – but also sometimes plays the national news and even music mostly for the benefit of the town’s seniors.