I’m stealing this feature from the Dreamstress to make sense of my own musings... Some things I remembered yesterday trigged this, and I thought it could be a good way of introducing you to some tiny details about the Czech Republic (and me, admittedly).
I may, sometimes, somewhere, mention that I’ve been to the USA. That was in 2007, thanks to a Presbyterian congregation that decided to play host to someone from my church in connection to the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, something they call “youth conference” which quite scared me at first before I realised it was almost the same sort of youth meeting I was used to, only much bigger and with more paperwork. The Triennium was a huge, and kind of eye-opening and life-changing event, if in small ways. There’s nothing quite like meeting fellow young Christians from all over the country and all over the world... And, well, let’s say that after having spoken in prayer in front of some 7000 people, delivering a school presentation to some 30 people is not much of a problem anymore...
I spent a bit less than a week on the Triennium, and about three weeks with people from the congregation, thanks to whose hospitality I had a chance to visit various places along the East Coast. (My least favourite, and my favourite, was Baltimore, which I’ll get to.
Aside from the following five things I missed, there’s also the matter of “the feeling of safety” that surfaced during the long security lines in the Spy Museum in Washington and at the Statue of Liberty. At the Statue of Liberty, I realised with quite a shock that I was in a country where a Swiss Army knife was a weapon, while I’d lived all my life in a country where it is a tool. Not that I discount the possibility of it being used as a weapon, or the fact that terrible things did happen in New York and elsewhere. It’s just that I live in a country that has a very different mindset, and had a different mindset even before that, which is a bit of an explanation why those things happened in the USA and not in the Czech Republic, whether that's a bad thing or not.
Enough of that.
#1: Soups. As a child, I used to hate soups with a passion, the notable exception being the sauerkraut soup and some three or four others. I gradually came to accept soups and like more of them. Then I went to the USA.
During my month in the USA, I had a soup two times: in a Viet-Thai restaurant the day after I arrived, and in an Irish restaurant the day before I left. In the interim, I missed soups terribly. In the Czech Republic, you would very often get both soup and a main course for dinner (lunch, because the main meal of the day is the midday meal). You would, also, very often only get soup for your dinner. Living on sandwiches and salads (I ate much more salads in the USA than I normally do, in an attempt to escape the less healthy options) and the occasional chicken, I realised that I actually loved soups. And begged mother to cook a soup for me when I come home.
#2: Bread. There’s Czech bread. And then there’s the bread in my hometown. About a thousand light-years removed from both, there’s the white bread I encountered in the USA.
Czech bread isn’t just any bread. It’s bread you actually, hypothetically, could live on. There are days when I pretty much do. Father sometimes says, quoting something (I wish I knew what): “It seemed to me that nobody loved me, so I bought a loaf of bread and wolfed the whole thing.” ("Zdálo se mi, že mě nikdo nemá rád, tak jsem si koupil bochník chleba a celej jsem ho sežral.")
The loaf of bread we’re talking about here is usually 0,9-1,2 kg. And when it’s fresh, it is quite possible to eat the whole thing, as it is, just because it’s so good as it is. Czech bread, when done properly, has a crunchy crust and a wholesome inside, and it smells of grain and caraway seeds. My uncle, (in)famously, was once instructed by my aunt to buy a whole loaf of bread, but the bread was so enticing that he kept nibbling at it on his way home, and at home he sliced off the eaten part cleanly, pretending to have only bought a half of a loaf... (Yep, that's a pound of bread nibbled at.)
Moreover, I live in a town where the local bakery is apparently one of the last mass-produce bakeries in the Czech Republic to make genuine sourdough bread. And a bakery in a town not so far away makes the best breadrolls, the kind of breadrolls that’s spoken about far away as something you have to taste to truly have lived...
Compare this to the white, tasteless sponge that the Western world calls "bread", and you’ll understand why I missed bread so much.
It’s the little things that throw you. The little thing that threw me was the absence of an under-the-window heater to rest my leg on. It’s an automatic thing for me. I have somewhat short legs, and the comfortable way to sit while travelling is to sit at the window and rest my leg on the heater. It is, also, something I cannot do in a car, making car rides all the more tiresome.
But there was also the general absence of trains from the country and from people’s lives. No timetables to observe when travelling. Almost no railroads to cross. Czech Republic is criss-crossed by railways, one of the countries with the highest density of railways in the world (guessing by a map I found online, surpassed only by Germany and Switzerland). The USA, while it has the longest railways in the world apparently, has none of the railway culture the Czech Republic has. My father is a railway enthusiast, and I practically grew up with trains. (I still find an article on prototype locomotives in Czech history a far more interesting thing to read in a magazine for railway passengers than, say, an interview with a famous person...)
This brings me to Baltimore. Baltimore is a terrible city for someone used to walking everywhere. But, as I learned after my first visit there, it houses a railway museum. (Railroad. Whatever.) The day before I left, then, I visited Baltimore again, and spent a very enjoyable day at the museum, including a very short, not at all picture-perfect train ride. I put my leg on the heater and I was a very happy marmot.
#4: The landscape and the countryside. The thing about Czech landscape is that it is very rarely flat. And it is quite green. When flying home, I knew we had crossed the border by the bunches of little forests scattered all over the country. A village, a field, a forest. A village, a field, a forest. And so on.
Czech Republic has almost no truly high mountains (our highest mountain is 1602 m high). But it also has almost no plains. Czech Republic is one of the watersheds of Europe, and everybody knows that rivers flow downwards. And Czech Republic is full of hills. It’s a rumpled country, and I missed that rumpledness terribly in the flat, flat, flat regions of the USA I visited. Czech Republic’s rumpledness makes it a very cosy country.
#5: The music. This is the one I would not have expected at all. I expected to miss the food, and the language, and the cultural customs – maybe even the landscape. I do not listen to Czech music all that much and modern music seems to be so American anyway, right?
Well, that’s modern music, perhaps. But I missed Czech Christian music. I missed the music of my church. On the Triennium, on one of the meetings with the other international participants, we sang a song (Jesus Loves Me, or some such) that they chose because they thought everyone would know it. Everyone did, except me. Because, while I come from a church with a Presbyterian organisation, my church has a very different history, very different background, very different tradition. I only knew two of the songs sung on the Triennium: Bless the Lord, My Soul – which, to the best of my knowledge, originates with the Taizé community in France – and Amazing Grace which is... well... Amazing Grace.
Here comes a rant. It could have been an excellent opportunity to learn new songs, if only the majority of songs sung at the Triennium had not been “worship songs”. In retrospect, on the Triennium I came to realise that while I definitely believe in worship by song, I do not believe in “worship songs”. They were all so tepid, without any taste of their own (just like the white bread...). The tunes were interchangeable, and the words were interchangeable, too. Had I known nothing else, I might have found these songs, sung by the mass of people, moving – I did find it moving at times. The thing is, before I attended the PYT, I had attended numerous youth meetings in my own church, and experienced a very different kind of song. The sad fact is, even compared to the many medieval, renaissance and baroque songs I know, those modern worship songs were very much dead.
This, for your info, is a 1630s song.
It helps that my church’s current cantor really has a knack for bringing those old songs to life.
Unfortunately, this is not one of those old songs. Neither is, technically, this, because that's his own creation. But it gives you an idea of what he is capable of. This is originally from 1490.
Sorry about the bad quality; while Ladislav Moravetz is a celebrity in my own church, he's not much of one elsewhere.
I missed variety. “Worship” is all fine, but not even all Psalms are “worship songs”, are they? There is a lot of anxiety, a lot of despair, a lot of almost prideful assuredness, a lot of joy that makes you burst and want to dance. You do not get any of that from the sort of tune that usually accompanies “worship songs”.
I do not want to mislead you: the “music culture” (for lack of a better term) at my own congregation is quite atrocious. But I can’t help myself; I now have a lot of almost prideful assuredness in my church’s variety in Christian songs. It's not just in comparison with the Triennium: many other churches I encountered also tend to have songs from only one period, songs of only one style.
My church's very checkered history prevented that from happening. We have some (few but some) songs from before the hussite period. We have hussite songs. We have songs from the Unity of Brethren. We have renaissance songs like those written by Martin Luther, baroque songs like those written by Jan Ámos Komenský AKA Comenius, classicist songs, 19th century songs, 20th century songs. There’s something for every situation. There are songs that tell a story. And there are songs that are very much a credo; those are usually the best...
EDIT: I just ran into this on YouTube, and had to share...