Sunday, 26 February 2012

A gadgieman abroad  February 16th - 23rd.
Czech mates.
  In 1993 I was invited to take a party of sixth formers on an exchange visit to the mining town of Bilina, some 50 miles North West of Prague in the Czech Republic or Czechia as I prefer. Trusted with a dozen teenagers!
 I made friends with one of my counterparts in Czechia, Helena Patkova and over the past twenty years we have visited each other on about eight occasions. For the last three years I have gone to Bilina in February and in exchange for some hospitality have talked to children in Helena's school, the Bilina Gymnasium, and to her classes of miners who wish  to learn English. As a retired sums teacher I do my best. So instead of going out with the gadgies here is a brief account of what I did.
February 16th.
 Flew from Newcastle to Prague with, nice flight even if the plane had a henparty determined to drink the capital dry. The Czechs welcome our money but have reservations when it comes to the behaviour of some of our citizens.
I was met by Helena and her son in law Marian and taken to Bilina, a town I have come to like. I do not stay with the Patkovs as they only have a one bedroomed flat so I checked in as usual to The Lion Hotel. The rooms are clean the water in the shower is hot and the TV set shows Czech and German programmes.

The view from my hotel window. The castle in Bilina. More like a mansion or chateau.

The town square. The Lion Hotel is through the arch on the left, the tower is on the church originating in the 11th century. The building on the right is the library and the hill in the background is Boren, a nature reserve, the summit is about 550 metres of pleasant stroll with a terrific view of the area from the top.

After dinner at Helena's house I was invited to join her at choir practice. If you have read my Gadgie Ramble blog you will know I do not like to sing but I went anyway. I recognised some of the tunes the choir sang and, as it was one member's birthday, was invited to drink some wine and eat some home made cakes. Perhaps I should have joined a choir, too late now.
I returned to my hotel room quite early, noticed MASH was still being shown on TV, in German. The ipod is one of the world's great inventions, far more useful than the wheel.
Friday February 17th.
 Helena's teaching day began at 7am, mine at 9. I presented myself at the local gymnasium (grammar school) and was introduced to my first class.

The Gymnasium in Bilina, part of the Most Gymnasium. The school has about 250 students.

They listened politely as I talked about life in North East England, illustrated with a carefully prepared Powerpoint presentation, the first I had ever done!
The children seemed quite pleased that I had bought, and praised, a Skoda car, although I expect that given the chance they would opt for a BMW or Mercedes.
 Schools in England usually have uniforms, some heads become quite obsessive about it and the usual arguement is that uniform is a great leveller, without it children would attempt to outdo each other with stylish clothes. The students in Bilina, presumably in other Czech schools too, are not required to wear a uniform. Jeans and sweat shirts seemed to be the order of the day, they looked smart too and I saw no evidence of competition in style.

 Me at work in the Bilina Gymnasium.

Two lessons later I was invited to join staff at the school canteen for lunch. A fixed menu, soup, risotto with sauerkraut fruit juice and an apple. Not a chip or burger in sight, and nobody complained, not an overweight child in sight either!
After school I joined Helena on a shopping trip to the local Spar Supermarket. Not an enthusiastic shopper, nevertheless I looked at prices, as requested by my wife. With the exception of beer* and bread, prices seemed similar to ours, sadly wages are  not. I also noticed petrol was pretty much as expensive as it is in the UK.
In the evening, with two of Helena's friends we drove to the Jazz Club in Teplice, a town about 8 miles away. A folk/rock group from Prague were performing and although they sang in Czech I recognised the Everly Brothers ballad of teenage agony  Crying in the Rain, Procul Harum's  Whiter shade of Pale and a song by Elton John. The patter between songs went over my head but I enjoyed the evening and retired to watch an episode of MASH in German

February 18th, Saturday

 We were met by Marcella, friend of Helena and local librarian. Marcella had her dog with her too. We drove to a small village called Milesov, not too far away and walked up mountain called Milesovka, 837 metres high, ( 2745 feet) and higher than most English peaks.

Milesovka, the highest peak in Central Bohemia. On the summit is a meteorological station - and a small cafe.

Quickly donning my leather patched jacket I can tell you that this mountain was formed by volcanic action below the surface of the earth, causing an extrusion of basalt. There are a number of hills such as this in the area. Geologists may well want to correct me. Back to the gym in my tracksuit.
 Although the mountain looks steep the path zig zagged gently upwards through the snow, never more than about a 20 degree slope and as the path was well worn and  had markers the walk was quite easy. On the summit we had lunch and coffee in the small cafe, decorated mostly with an assortment of firearms.

Milesovka cafe, Helena on the left, Marcela on the right, dog under the table.

Three intrepid climbers about to tackle Mount Milesovka, without sherpas too.

Back down the mountain, after a walk of about 5 miles according to old faithful Higear, we went to a country pub for a Czech lunch, which always includes beer. It was, of course, excellent.
Back in Bilina we said our farewells to Marcela and her dog, had a light tea and watched The Queen, starring Helen Mirren as Her Majesty. Afterwards.......MASH in German. Thank you Mr. Jobs for the ipod.

February 19th Sunday
 We went to Helena's brother's house nearby in Bilina. Merek and his wife Hannah took us to Most, another mining town nearby.
Most was built near an existing village in the sixties as a centre for the mining industry. It consists mainly of blocks of apartments with a well laid out centre. Many of the blocks have been painted pastel colours since the revolution and the effect is quite pleasing. The most interesting building in Most is the church. Quite old and large it was in the way of the mine so it had its tower removed, was put on rollers and taken out of the way. On its new site, with tower replaced, it is not correctly alligned for a Christian church so I am told, and as I didn't have a compass with me I accept this. I ask  scouts and guides not to tell me to point the hour hand of my watch at the sun and divide the angle between hands to find north, let me tell you it was a cloudy day. Quite close by is another church, built completely of wood and belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  It is quite new so presumably points the right way.
 We paid a visit to the towns race course, sadly there was no meeting. Unlike English courses it was perfectly oval. It was built on reclaimed mine land. Much reclaimed land has been planted with trees, in one area vines. So successful is the reclaimining that deer and wild boar have returned.

Most race course. Movable church and Boren in the background.

After  lunch in another pleasant Czech pub we returned to Mereks for coffee and cake.

Lunch in the Asas bar and restaurant.
Me, Helena, Hannah and Merek.

In the evening we went, with Marcela, to the cinema in Usti to see Hugo. A very enjoyable family film with a strong English cast. Sir Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour and Jude Law.
Usti nan Lebem is at the point where the River Labem (The Elbe) is joined by the Bilina river. An industrial town with a new shopping centre and cinema complex it also has an interesting church. In World War II an American bomb missed the church but exploded nearby, causing the church tower to lean slightly, it is the building with the largest tilt north of the alps. I would print a picture but if you have read  "Curry and Rice Pudding" you know that in my photograph it would be vertical.

February 20th  Monday
If you have never been to Prague, make the effort and go. One of Europe's most  beautiful cities, sitting astride the Vlatava it has so much to offer.I have been several times and wandered through most of the four towns that make up the city centre. Today we visited the castle to see  an exhibition of artefacts lent by the Russians. "The court of the Tsar under the Romanov Dynasty". The display included gold and silver plates and bowls, horse harness and some kaftans worn by the Tsar in the early 17th century. An interesting account of choosing the Tsarina too: take 100 young, healthy and pretty maidens, whittle them down to 10 and let his majesty choose. And the Tsarevitch when he arrives ? Keep him in luxury but out of the public eye until he is about 15.
I walked round the courtyards outside St Vitus' cathedral and then we headed down to Mala Strana for lunch.

St. Vitus' Cathedral, Prague.

No visit to Prague is complete without crossing the Charle's Bridge and rubbing the statue, so we did. My friend Ian Lennox has recently published another novel, The Net,** a crime thriller with a soccer background. At one point a character in the book aattempts to shoot a Russian oligarch from the Charle's Bridge. I think I found the exact spot.

On the Charle's Bridge. St Vitus Cathedral and Prague castle in the background.

We went to the old town square in search of a T shirt with Hasek, the Good Soldier Svejk or Franz Kafka on it but there was very little choice, just the usual tourist ones. In Wenceslas Square we visited the Palace of Books which sell books in nearly every European language. Puts Waterstones to shame !
After coffee and cake in a small French cafe we caught "The Hungaria" back to Usti. It is strange for an island dweller  travelling on a train that is crossing several countries. This one was going from Budapest to Berlin. Should you catch it the drinks trolley and restaurant car only take Euros.

Hungry Helen on the Hungaria.

February 22nd  Tuesday

It had been -6 degrees overnight. Amazingly buses were running, trains were on time and the schools were open. It was the day of my trip to the mine!
This is the third visit to the Bilina mine. On my first trip I was taken round the huge surface mine. To give my readers some idea of its size the coal face is 7 kilometres long, a number of 3000 ton rotating coal cutters work round the clock to remove coal. It is put on to conveyor belts with a total lenght of 70 kilometres and moved to the washing plant. Once cleaned 80% is used in the nearby electricity plant, 10% is used for domestic heating and the rest goes to Germany. The mine digs out 25 million tons a year. The Shotton Colliery, an opencast site near Cramlington, delivers 2 million tons a year. The Bilina power plant, when complete will deliver 660 megawatts from its French machinery.
Today I was taken round the computer controlled washing plant which separates coal by quality, washes it with water from the Elbe, which is then filtered clean, and delivers the clean coal to the power station or the waiting trains and trucks.
Dressed in protective clothing we were shown round by George, a gentleman I have met before and very knowledgeable on the mine and its workings.
A distant view of the power plant.

Happy and Dopey prepare to go down the mine.
My reward for getting dirty being shown round this huge plant was lunch in the company canteen. I always think you should at least try the local dishes when abroad so I opted for  pork and potato dumplings. Delicious, just what a hard working miner needs. The company allows pensioners to eat in the subsidised canteen. The company allows its workers to follow a programme of education too, which is why I am here, conversational English.
 I spent the afternoon talking to the miners about life in North East England, using my Powerpoint presentation. I had met some of the miners last year and, thanks to Helena their teacher, their English had improved. One of them, Peter had been a Chelsea fan when I first met him last year. He now follows "the toon"*** and watches them regularly on TV. (In most foreign countries you can take your pick of English Premier League games on a Saturday)
My class were interested in other aspects of British life. Pensions and health care in particular  but also the EU and I hope I managed to answer all their questions well. I got the impressioin that this group had very strong reservations regarding their country joining the Euro. They feared it would lead to a rise in prices as apparently it has in neighbouring Slovakia.

                                      One of the classes of miners.
After tea we went to see Blanka and Marian, Helena's daughter and son in law, for tea and cakes and followed that with a rail trip to Teplice to see the film Safe House.
Not really my sort of film but it illustrates what safe cars BMWs are. Riddled with bullets, crashed into, crossed traffic lanes, they drive on and all you get is a scratch.

February 24th Wednesday.
My hostess was occupied this morning so I was left to amuse myself. Rather than watch MASH in German I went for a walk round Bilina. The town has a park that probably looks great in spring and summer but a bit drab on a February morning. There is a spa building in the park, sadly unused as it is a handsome structure. There were quite a lot of Mallard Ducks on the river and some cormorants too.

                                              The Bilina Spa.
In the afternoon I had another lesson with the miners. This time the group were beginners so I had to work a little harder, but still enjoyed it.
In the evening we watched The Young Victoria.  I need to brush up my 19th century history. I remembered Melbourne and Peel, but, apart from  the latter inventing "bobbies", couldn't remember their politics.

February 24th  Thursday.
Up fairly early, packed, washed and scrubbed, I was taken to Prague airport and by 4pm was back home. On the approach to Newcastle Airport the plane flew over Blyth, I could see our street in Cramlington and could pick out the huge earth statue Northumbria, built from the spoil taken out of Shotton open cast. How my miners laughed when I told them about her.

Book of the blog: The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek. The hilarious adventures of the non too enthusiastic Czech  called up to the Austrian Imperial Army in World War I 
Munich Appeasement  by Neville Chamberlain. A beautiful young lady is betrayed by an older man. After years of abuse by various cruel masters she finally finds her freedom.

* Czech beer is mostly a light coloured lager type, but unlike the insipid lagers brewed in the UK it has taste and strength and several hundred varieties. The best, according to my friends is Pilsner Urquwell, but we all have different tastes. There must be an awful lot of small breweries in the country and when I have finished my book on Cumbrian Gate Fastenings I shall write a dictionary of Czech beer which wouild of course, mean having to sample them.
** The Net  by Ian Lennox. The author's third novel                                            ISBN number978-0-9546359-2-3  Gordon Libert Publishing.
***Newcastle United FC