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There’s more to the Czech Republic than Prague

When I think Czech Republic, I think Prague. I did spend a couple of days in Kralupy once but that hardly qualifies as having seen the Czech countryside. Last weekend, I was in Valtice – a gorgeous Baroque town of about 4000 permanent residents and another 4000 cyclists [slight exaggeration for effect] who pass through on the weekends cyling the well-pedalled path between there and Lednice.

Valtice lies in the South Moravian region about 265 km south-east of Prague. Its claim to fame, in the history books, is as the seat of princes of Liechtenstain in the eighteenth century.   The castle is connected to the neighbouring manor of Lednice by a 7km avenue lined with lime trees. Alas, when the Habsburg empire collapsed, the princes lost their seats and when the Communists arrived, the castle was confiscated. Oh to have the power and take what you will – Like it? Want it? Seize it. Wonder how long it would take for the novelty to wear off?

It is a beautiful building and life here must have been nothing short of perfect. But to have it all and then to have it all taken from you – that has to hurt. To have been born into such riches and then lose them has to be difficult. It’s a little ironic to think that while our royals are thin on the ground these days, some of our monied nobels have of late found themselves in similar circumstances – having had it all and then lost it. I wonder what it is like to downsize from a multi-million-dollar home in the hills to a semi-detached in suburbia.

The Town Hall, like many of its kind, is quite a wonder. Built in Neo-renaissance style, it dates from 1887. Such a small town and yet such an imposing building. I’ve seen a lot of this in Hungary, too. Massive, ornate, impressive buildings built to house the town’s ruling class, symbols of power and wealth and perhaps, respect. Laughable that, when I think of the amount of respect I have for today’s rulers. Not enough to house them in a matchbox. How the tide has turned.

The town square is home to one of the first  Plague Columns built in Moravia. It dates back to 1680 and was built in thanks for the ending of the plague. The Virgin Mary (seen as the vanquisher of evil) stands atop, and on the bottom are four cardinal statues. I did have a fleeting thought as to what a modern-day equivalent would look like, were we to manage to banish the plagues afflicting our society – anti-Semitism, nationalism, racism…

The town centre of Valtice has been declared a national heritage site and has as its focal point, the parish church of the Annunciation of Mary which dates back to the seventeenth century. The lobby (if one can call it that) was open and then the entrance gated so you could see in but not get in. Another sad reflection of our times. Churches, once the refuge of sinners and sanctuaries for those in search of solitude and divine inspiration are now locked up and seen only through gridded gates. Perhaps if they divested themselves of their riches and once again became simple places of worship, there would be no need to lock them up.

Suitably chastened by my reflections, I went in search of  libation. This region is famous for its wines. And finding no-one in the wineshop who could speak English, I stood back and watched a local stock up for a party. Then I mimed my way through ‘Could I have one of everything he bought?’ and went away happy with my six bottles of vino just waiting to be discovered. Forget the ashtrays and the miniature plates – wine is the best souvenir you can bring home.

Grateful 35

Punctuation, public speaking, and the use of the English language are three topics that will get me on my soap box any day of the week. This weekend, in Valtice, I saw something that would put a lot of English-speaking expats to shame, myself included. As I struggle to master the basics of conversational Hungarian, these seven competitors gave speeches in a second language – (for some it may even have been a third or fourth language). And we’re not talking elementary here, dear Watson. Far from it, in fact. They spoke on topics ranging from how our garbage is a mirror of ourselves, to the importance of motivation when it comes to leadership, to a future where kids might wonder where the little star Twinkle Twinkle has disappeared to.  They reminded us not to think of ourselves as failures but to show those those have labelled us as such how wrong they are. They challenged us not to listen to our inner naysayer but instead to give full volume to our positive inner voice. They urged us to break the rules – to be different. And they showed us how one moment of carelessness can change the lives of many.

While the pedant in me quivered a little at the sometimes less-than-perfect construct of the language, I was impressed with both the confidence and the competence of these speakers. While I might take issue with semantics that tell me what I should do rather than show me why I might consider doing it, I was humbled by their ability to communicate with such passion. While I loathe the narrow constricts of an international judging system that rewards a formulaic approach to public speaking restricted to inspiration and motivation, I was pleasantly surprised by the intelligent and sophisticated use of humour.

I make myself understood in Hungarian by miming – miming punctuated by short phrases and lone words; this stage of seven made themselves understood by using complete sentences – fluidly, fluently, and frequently faultlessly.  I pat myself on the back if I can get through a two-minute phone call with my társasház; this stage of seven spoke from 5 to 7 minutes with pride, purpose, and conviction. I spend too much time bemoaning the faltering standards of today’s English language amongst its native speakers; perhaps I should spend more time recognising the huge strides being made by non-native speakers instead. Their colourful contributions in terms of their creative and innovative use of English would enrich the basic vocabularly used by many who speak it as a mother tongue.

In a week that was fraught with fear, frustration, and feelings of fragility, I am grateful to all seven speakers for reminding me of the beauty of the language I love and inspiring me to try a little harder with my Hungarian.

[Note: Post Grateful 52 explains the Grateful concept]