Monday, 22 February 2010

Lech loves Czech but does Czech love Lech?

According to the legend, there were once 3 brothers: Lech, Czech and Rus. Lech went north, settled down and founded the half-mythical, half-historical Piast dynasty. His descendants are now called Poles.

Czech went south and settled down in Bohemia and Rus went far out to the east. Relations between Rus and his 2 brothers are well-documented but little attention is paid to the relationship between brothers (and next-door neighbours) Lech and Czech.

A quick sample of Polish and Czech language, cuisine and other cultural aspects shows that both nations are cut from the same cloth. For most of history the 2 countries have followed very different paths but in the last century they have similar experiences-- independence after WWI, occupation during WWII, Eastern Bloc, fall of Communism, entry into EU.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these similarities Polish-Czech relations have never been a shining example of brotherly love. True, there are none of the bad feelings which occur in relations with Germany and Russia but neither is there any real sense of kinship or solidarity. Why could this be?

From the Czech perspective grievances could include the disputed Cieszyn / Tesin region and the involvement of Polish troops in the supression of the Prague Spring.

From the Polish point of view jealousy (not a vice which is alien to Poland as even proud Poles will admit) probably plays a part. The Czechs are better off, have a nicer lifestyle and in many areas-- beer, supermodels, football etc..-- they always seem to be better, despite their small population.

Another reason could be language. Although Czech and Polish are very similar, Czech does bear an unfortunate resemblance to toddler-speak to Polish ears. Even the best-intentioned Pole might struggle to keep a straight face whilst listening to Czech. Obviously this does not go down well with the Czechs.

I recently went to Prague for my first trip to the Czech Republic (not counting a cigarette break in Brno bus station a couple of years ago) and I am happy to report that there are signs that the 2 brothers might be getting closer. First of all, I have never heard negative comments about Czechs in Poland, just people laughing at thier language (and mullets). Secondly, people in Prague, who were already friendly enough, became a little bit more friendly when they saw my wife's Polish-Czech phrasebook on the table. Perhaps they were just happy to meet some tourists who didn't automatically speak to them in English...

By a happy coincidence, the very day I set off for Prague Przegłąd magazine published a piece about Polish-Czech relations. Here are 2 opinions taken from the article...

Q: Why do Poles like Czechs more than before?

Mariusz Szczygieł (Pole), scholar of Czech literature

I don't know why other Poles like the Czechs but this is why I like them:
1) The Church in the Czech Rep. plays no role in political, social or private life.
2) Every town and village tries to look like it comes from a fairytale.
3) Even in very small towns you can hire a bike.
4) On Fridays most people, even though they are at work, think about the weekend and make plans which involve more than just sitting at home.
5) They treat culture as an anti-depressant.

Hana Brusova (Czech), correspondent for the Czech Press Agency

I couldn't say why as I have only been in Poland for a few months. However, I do know why Czechs are not so crazy about Poles-- they simply do not know them very well. There are no bad feelings but most Czechs cannot see anything interesting about Poland. When Czechs travel or learn about other countries they are more interested in places like France, Germany or England.

Source: Przegłąd magazine Translated by Czarny Kot 22/02/10

Saturday, 13 February 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

Leaving Prague by train at night and waking up to a winter morning in Warsaw's Zachodnia station is enough to make even the most patriotic Pole, or fervent Polophile, a bit embarassed..

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Apocalypse Then: Haiti circa 1502 AD.

The island which we now call Hispaniola was the first to be settled by christians. Immediately after their arrival the plight of the natives began. The christians started by taking away the women and children of the indians as slaves. Then they started taking away the food which the indians had produced with the sweat of their brows. They were not satisfied with what the indians offered voluntarily as it was not much (it is their custom to only store enough supplies for the immediate future) and because what would suffice an indian family for a month was devoured by a christian in one day.

All this, and other acts of violence and aggression, quickly led the indians to conclude that these men could not have come down to them from heaven. Some hid thier food supplies. Some hid thier wives and children. Others fled into the mountains, away from the fierce, terrible newcomers. The christians attacked with fists, blades and sticks until they were able to seize the chieftains. Such temerity and shamelessness led to the wife of the most powerful king, ruler of the whole island, being raped in public by a christian captain.

After this incident, the indians began to look for ways to expel the christians from their lands. They took up their arms which are offensively weak and defenisively even weaker. To Europeans, thier warfare resembles little more than a children's game. The christians with their horses, swords and lances inflicted many massacres and strange cruelties upon them.

They would enter villages and no child, old person or woman would avoid being diembowelled and dismembered like lambs in a slaughterhouse. The soldiiers would make bets with each other on who could cut a man in half with one stroke or decapitate him with one blow. They took newborns from their mother's breasts by the legs and smashed their heads against the rocks. Others they threw into the rivers to drown.... others they put to the sword, along with their mothers. They would tie up indians in groups of 13 in honour of Our Saviour and the 12 apostles. Then they would burn them alive. Others would cover individuals in dry straw and burn them that way. Some would not be killed. They would cut off both their hands and send them into the mountains as a message for those in hiding. Chieftains and lords were usually burnt by a slow fire so that they would die slowly, screaming until their souls departed their bodies.

On one occasion I saw a group of 4 or 5 indian nobles burning slowly on a pyre. Such was their shouting that the Spanish captain, either from pity or a desire for quiet, ordered them to be taken off the fire and drowned. The master of arms who was to carry out the order (I know his name and am acquainted with relatives of his in Seville) didn't want to drown them so he opted instead to put sticks in their mouths to silence them and put them back on the fire so they could slowly roast as he wished.

I have seen all the above with my own eyes, and many other atrocities. Because so many indians fled into the mountains to escape from these inhuman, pitiless and ferocious beasts, the Spaniards trained wild hounds which, upon sight, would tear an indian to pieces in the blink of an eye and eat him as if he were a pig. These dogs were responsible for many terrible massacres. Sometimes, although few and far between, the indians would with great justification kill a christian. The christians then decreed that for every one of them killed by indians, they would kill a hundred natives.

Bartolome de las Casas was a Spanish Dominican priest and the most vocal opponent of Spanish atrocities in the Americas.

Translated by Czarny Kot 04/02/10 Source: Brevisima relacion de la destruicion de las Indias.