I have just returned from three post-Xmas days in the quiet of the South Bohemia countryside where my daughter was skating each day on a frozen lake, my wife was cross-country skiing and I went to a dance organised by the local “forest men” at a hall in one of the small towns down there.

I should point out that “forest men” are not Tarzan look-alikes.  Its a literal translation of what I guess we Brits would consider woodsmen.  They are state employees who dress in green tweed from head to foot, wear jay’s feathers in their hats and live in houses in the middle of the forests where they tend to the flora and fauna – and every year they have a ball in some local town.

There are community centres in every town, large and small in the Czech Republic and they play an important role in the life of the town or village.  There is always something going on in these places.  The “forest men’s dance” is just one of a glittering calendar of events that really brings it home to a Brit just how different life is here.

We arrived to discover the atrium lobby of this substantial and newly renovated two-storey first-Republic building transformed with custom-built racks upon which hung rows of freshly shot game ranging from ducks to wild pigs and deer – these were the raffle prizes and there were at least a hundred!

On the large stage an eight-piece band was thrashing out a polka one minute and rock-n-roll the next with equal vigour.  What they lacked in musical skills (which was a great deal) they more than made up for (unfortunately) in stamina as they played from 7.00pm until three thirty the next morning!  No sign of musicians’ union here! We arrived late and left early to a chorus of tut-tuts.

My wife bought four raffle tickets, which appeared to be the requisite number and I followed suit.  My wife, the local girl, won nothing … I won three pheasant!  Which only made it more difficult to slide out early un-noticed!  Well, even at a forestmen’s dance its hard for a foreigner to remain inconspicuous with three dead cock-pheasants in full plumage under one arm!  I felt like I was making away with the Stone of Scone.

My Czech friend (who I really must write a piece on later just because of his amazing escape from Communist Czechoslovakia) asked whether we ” … do this kind of thing in Britain”.  I had to say “no”, but pondered on it for a while because I felt that my answer deserved an explanation.  Looking around the two-or-three hundred people at the Zirovnice Forestmen’s Dance I had to admit that the British class system really precluded that a best-selling author, politicians and the drunks from the local pub should be rubbing shoulders as they were here.  And the thought of my teenage nephews and nieces, or even my almost thirty-year-old son Polka-ing one minute, jiving the next with the odd Russian Cossack dance thrown in, as the young locals did here, was taking things too far.

This kind of strong cross-generation, community is probably why they can plant lillies in the high street and expect them to last more than a nano-second before, as would be the case in a similar UK town, the first, brainless twat that comes along takes their heads off with a pseudo Kung-Fu kick and why people will think nothing of sitting next to (or even opposite) someone carrying a shot-gun and a brace of pheasant on the bus – which is commonplace in many parts of the Czech countryside.  It may well be that in a few years time in their clamour for Western products, services and living standards Czechs will have reduced themselves to the same level that we have, but I find myself reflecting on how relatively quickly they have acquired most of the worthwhile trappings of Western society – freedom of speech, travel, contemporary sports, healthy diet and the like and wonder if we could replace the things that we have flushed down the toilet, such as standards of behaviour and respect for elders, as quickly.

So much for “developed markets”!

Michael Weaver
January 1, 2008

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