Misunderstandings Diary

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An American who has been living in the Czech Republic and former Czechoslovakia since 1991, I have had numerous misunderstandings with Czechs – some concerned traditions, others had to do with language.

Valentine’s Day

As a child growing up in the USA, my classmates and I made Valentine’s Day cards for each other. When I became an adult, I would habitually send Valentine’s Day greetings to good friends. They would understand that I was wishing them love in their lives and that I was not in love with them. In the Czech Republic this special day has become popular with younger generations. Street vendors sell gingerbreads shaped as hearts on this occasion. One February 14th in the Czech Republic, I gave a Valentine gingerbread that said “For the boss” to the head of the English department where I taught. He was American and thanked me for it. Then I made the mistake of giving a heart-shaped gingerbread with “Don’t smoke” on it to my ice hockey coach who was trying to quit smoking. I wanted to show my appreciation because he allowed me to train not only with the women’s team but also with a boys’ team so that I could practice four times a week. Little did I know that he was unhappily married.

“I know what you want,” he told me, smiling mischievously, after I gave him the Valentine.

“To play in more games,” I responded.

“Wait for me after practice,” he said.

At first I thought there would be a team meeting, and then it suddenly occurred to me that he was under the impression that I wanted to have an affair with him. I had not realized that in this country Valentines are only given to show feelings of physical love. I did not wait for my coach, and he wound up dating the best player on our team. I was relieved he had found someone else.

Cookies hearts love.

Valentine gingerbreads, from http://www.123rf.com

Odd or even?

That was not the only Czech tradition that confused me. During 1991 I was at a premiere of an absurd comedy written by then President Václav Havel, the playwright-turned-president. I wanted to show my appreciation to my hero, so I bought President Havel six roses that the ushers gave him when he took his bow on stage. Only later did someone inform me that you only give an even number of flowers to pay homage to someone who has died.  The living always receive an odd number. Nevertheless, Havel took the roses and bowed modestly to the crowd.

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Václav Havel, from lifee.cz

Language problems

I have also had many linguistic misunderstandings, especially during my first years in Prague. A male friend wrote me a text message that said, “Mám tě rád,” which I thought meant, “I like you.” I knew I could say, “Mám rada hokej.” (“I like hockey.”) And if I used the third person with this verb, I could say, “Mám ho rada,” which could translate as “I love him,” but I thought also could mean, “I am fond of him.” Convinced I was communicating that I liked this kind, friendly man, I wrote back, “Mám tě rada,” not realizing I had just professed my love to him. This proved quite the dilemma. After explaining to him that I only wanted our relationship to be platonic, he refused to speak to me. I never heard from him again.

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One misunderstanding took place at school. Photo from classics.phil.muni.cz

Experiences

That would not be my only encounter with a language mix-up. My first year teaching English, in 1991, I was trying to impress students that I knew some Czech. I asked a boy if he had had any “zkušenosti,” which I thought meant “experiences.” I had no idea that it was used to refer to sexual experiences. The dimpled, red-haired teenager responded, “I am only 16 years old. I have not had any zkušenosti.” The entire class burst into laughter, and I wondered what was so funny.

Dealing with editors

Other misunderstandings have concerned communication or rather the lack of it.  A writer penning articles in Czech as well as English, I have sent my writings to editors of various Czech publications. Some editors did not answer. I did not mind if it meant he or she was not going to use the piece, but occasionally an editor planned to publish the article at a later date and just did not bother to inform me. After receiving no response to an article I sent out to a newspaper and no answer to my follow-up letter, I sent one particular writing to a magazine. The piece wound me being printed in both publications.

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Bust of Lenin, from Antiques and Collectibles Paretski

Czech humor

Yet more misunderstandings revolved around Czech humor – a witty, black humor filled with irony, sarcasm and a love of the absurd. During 1991, I went to the pub with advanced students after our English lessons. The first time I entered the pub, I suddenly stopped, in shock. The bar area was filled with busts and paintings of Vladimír Ilyich Lenin. “This is a Communist pub,” I said, in a panicked tone, to my students.

They laughed. “Don’t you get it? It’s funny. It is mocking Communism, not supporting it.” Later I would discover that a lot of good Czech films made during the totalitarian era would tackle the depressing era with humor – a key element for Czechs in dealing with life during those dark 40 years.

So, I got the gist of Czech humor when it comes to busts and images of Vladimír Ilych: I just hope I don’t stumble into a pub or café where a 10-foot statue of Stalin is staring at me!

Tracy A. Burns is a writer and proofreader in Prague.

The Jára Cimrman Theatre Diary

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Bust of Jára Cimrman, from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

My way of dealing with stress and keeping my blood pressure textbook perfect is going to hilarious plays performed by the Jára Cimrman Theatre in the gritty, down-to-earth Žižkov district of Prague. For me it is a sort of home, a cozy theatre with a little more than 200 seats on a steep, cobblestoned street. I go as often as I can get tickets, usually between once and four times a month.

The plays have helped me cope with life’s trials and tribulations. On November 9, 2016 I was in shock and despair because Donald Trump had just been elected president of the USA. I just happened to have a ticket to the Czech version of The Conquest of the North Pole (It is performed by different actors in English, too.)

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The Conquest of the North Pole, Dobytí severního Polu

One of my two favorite plays, The Conquest of the North Pole  focuses on an expedition to the North Pole, led by Czech Karel Němec (then played by the late Bořivoj Penc), whose common Czech surname translates as “a German.”  The play takes place during the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Germanization was enforced throughout the lands. At one point, when they think they are out of food, the Czechs even consider eating one of their fellow travelers. Although the Czechs are the first to conquer the North Pole –one day before the Americans -, the feat goes unrecorded because the Czechs do not want hated Austria-Hungary to get credit for their accomplishment.

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Blaník

That performance saved me from falling into a deep depression. I watched the Czech expedition overcome a bout of pessimism and other obstacles to go on to conquer the North Pole, and I thought that I, too, could get through four years of Trump’s presidency. I thought I could keep my sanity as I watched the events in the USA unfold from Europe. That play provided me with an outlook that wouldn’t allow me capitulate to negative thoughts. At the theatre that evening, instead of crying over Trump’s victory, I laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed.

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Pub in the Glade, Hospoda Na mýtince

Significant contributors to Czech culture and Czech national identity, the 15 plays performed by the all-male Jára Cimrman (pronounced Tsimmerman) Theatre ensemble feature an unlucky fictional Czech character living in the Austrian part of the oppressive Habsburg-controlled Austro-Hungarian Empire in which German was the official language. (Several plays do not take place during the monarchy’s rule. For instance, The Act is set in the 1960s.) The ensemble, which even includes two octogenarians, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in October of 2016, and all performances from its inception have been sold out. Many spectators know the plays by heart. Most actors have been with the theatre for decades. In Murder in the Parlor Car, two father-and-son acting teams (one for each cast) performed until one of the fathers (the talented Václav Kotek) died in 2019.

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The Plum Tree, Svěstka

Humor is how the Czechs have come to terms with a past punctuated by oppression. Czechs found themselves living in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during World War II and later in Communist Czechoslovakia for more than 40 years, before the Velvet Revolution of 1989 brought democracy to the nation. The plays were written by co-founders of the theatre Zdeněk Svěrák (who is perhaps best known for his 1996 Oscar-winning performance in Kolya) and the late Ladislav Smoljak, who made a name for himself as an actor and director in both theatre and film.

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The Long, Short and Sharp-sighted, Dlouhý, krátký a bystrozraký

The productions are divided into two parts. The first hour is a seminar in which the actors, as themselves, discuss various aspects of Cimrman’s fictional life and work. After the intermission, the ensemble performs the play itself.

Chosen the greatest Czech in a survey conducted during 2005 (though disqualified because he isn’t a real person), Jára Cimrman was a Czech nationalist who was adamantly anti-Habsburg. An inventor who came too late to the patent office with his creations, Cimrman is presented as an unlucky outsider whose feats go unrecognized until 1966, when Svěrák and his cousin discover Cimrman’s posthumous papers and bust at Liptákov 12, a cottage in a hamlet nestled in the Jizera valley.

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The Stand-In, Záskok

Born to an Austrian actress and a Czech tailor, Cimrman was much more than an inventor. He was a prolific writer of plays, operas, fairy tales and novels as well as poetry and amassed the largest collection of stories in the world. He was also an avid traveler who visited six continents, including the North Pole. The man whose parents forced him to dress as a girl for the first 15 years of his life was also a philosopher, teacher, filmmaker, psychologist, builder, self-taught gynecologist and physicist, among numerous other professions. He did time, incarcerated for two months because he told a joke about the emperor. While in prison, Cimrman formed a choir and orchestra with the inmates and organized contests in Morse Code. At another time, he worked as a travelling dentist, lugging with him a foot-operated drill on wheels and a dentist’s trolley.

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Czech Heaven, České nebe

Perhaps what makes this theatre unique is the sense of mystery that pervades Cimrman’s identity. The only photos of Cimrman are group shots taken too far away to make out his features. Cimrman’s bust is so damaged that it is only possible to decipher two eye sockets, two ear holes and two chins. No one even knows when exactly he was born or when he died.

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Cimrman in the Paradise of Music, Cimrman v říši hudby

In Cimrman in the Kingdom of Music, another of my favorites, the actors discuss how Cimrman entered a contest for best operetta with his seven-hour, 96-scene creation but, because he did not send it registered mail, famous composers stole his ideas. In that same play, the group performs Cimrman’s operetta The Success of a Czech Engineer in India. The plot revolves around a Czech engineer (Miloň Čepelka or Petr Reidinger) tinkering with a broken machine that is supposed to make sugar. He fixes the apparatus so that it makes Czech beer. At the end, a British Colonel (Svěrák) sings that he wishes he had been born Czech. A small orchestra plays superbly during this play, and Čepelka’s singing is a true delight.

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The Act by Cimrman English Theatre

For the last five seasons, the character of Jára Cimrman has been introduced to English speakers. The popular Cimrman English Theatre performs four of the plays – The Stand-In, The Conquest of the North Pole, Pub in a Glade and The Act – in English at the same theatre. These plays are perfect for theatregoers who don’t speak Czech but want to experience Czech culture and understand Czech history. The translations are top-notch. The acting and singing by the professional ensemble are amazing.

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The Act, Akt, Czech production

In a world that often seems overwhelming, I keep my sanity and balance in life by going to the Žižkov Jára Cimrman Theatre on 5 Štítného Street, where I can always count on humor to give me a fresh perspective on my problems and the world’s troubles.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer and proofreader in Prague.

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Blaník, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Conquest of the North Pole, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Africa, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Names of Important Czech Historical Figures with Cimrman also listed, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

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View from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

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View from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

 

Jaroslav Weigel Diary

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Zdeněk Svěrák and Jaroslav Weigel. Photo from Divadelní noviny.

I’ve decided to focus not only on places but also on people in my blog. Unfortunately, this post takes the form of an obituary as Jaroslav Weigel passed away September 5, 2019 in a Prague hospital at the age of 88. I saw Weigel act in many of the 15 plays performed at the theatre I love to frequent, The Jára Cimrman Theatre. This theatre is unique because it only showcases plays about the fictional character Jára Cimrman, who lived during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All 15 plays take place at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th century. The comedies employ witty and often history-related jokes as well as language-oriented puns.

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Jaroslav Weigel from the play Africa. Photo from style.hnonline.sk

They all center on the genius Jára Cimrman, whose talent remained undiscovered until his posthumous papers were unearthed in a cottage in the Jizera Mountains of north Bohemia during 1966, according to the playwriting duo of Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak, two of the creators of the Cimrman legend. Cimrman was a man of many trades: an inventor, a playwright, a collector of fairy tales, a traveling dentist, a composer of operas, a gynecologist, a criminologist and a world traveler, to name just a few of his professions. The tales of Jára Cimrman have become national folklore that to no small extent defines the country’s culture.

Over the years, this theatre has helped me deal with stress and hardships, making me laugh when I dearly needed a reason to smile. Seeing the performances allows me to achieve a mental balance in my life, so that I can think more clearly and solve problems more easily.

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Miloň Čepelka and Jaroslav Weigel in The Act. Photo from zpravy.aktualne.cz.

Back to Jaroslav Weigel. Ever since I started attending performances some years ago, I have been fascinated by Weigel’s accomplishments, by his stellar resume of talents and achievements. While I thought of him as an actor, he also made a name for himself as a painter, graphic artist, scene designer and costume designer. He was a member of the theatre ensemble since 1970. His association with the theatre started in the 1960s, when he worked as an editor with the influential magazine Mladý Svět (Young World). There, he came across a story by a young Zdeněk Svěrák, who co-founded the theatre. That marked the beginning of cooperation that would span five decades.

Weigel studied to be an art and history teacher at Charles University, and one of his mentors was the acclaimed Cyril Bouda, a much-acclaimed illustrator and painter. The talented student sometimes visited Bouda at his unique family house in the functionalist Baba quarter, a section of Prague six through which I often take walks. I sometimes try to imagine a young Weigel walking with a determined gait through the streets of Baba on the way to see his professor.

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Jaroslav Weigel designed the Secession-like covers of the DVDs of the plays.

 

Weigel designed the theatre’s distinctive Secession style publications such as the DVD cover of České Nebe or Czech Heaven. Photo from mksvyskov.cz.

Weigel’s talent as a graphic artist has greatly influenced the theatre’s artistic image. He designed all the printed matter for the theatre, including posters and programs, which have a charming and elegant Art Nouveau quality and are artistic works themselves.

However, his contributions did not stop there. He also designed the costumes and the stage sets, which bring the stories to life, helping to shape a fictional world in which the spectators can become engrossed.

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Jaroslav Weigel and Zdeněk Svěrák in Lijavec. Photo from topky.sk.

Weigel also designed postage stamps dedicated to Jára Cimrman, one of which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the theatre that took place several years ago. It shows Cimrman’s practically featureless bust.

The artistic guru also acted on television and in films written by Zdeněk Svěrák, including Svěrák’s first screenplay, Run, Waiter, Run! He last appeared on the big screen during 2007, when he had a role in the much-acclaimed Empties, directed by Jan Svěrák and written by Zdeněk Svěrák.

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The long-time actor’s achievements do not stop there. He also designed covers for records and illustrated books and magazines as well as calendars. He even co-designed a comic strip with Kája Saudek.

What I will remember Weigel for most is his acting. Over the decades, he had performed in all 15 plays, taking on roles as the baron leading an expedition to Africa in a hot air balloon and as the 15th century religious martyr Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415. In Messenger from Liptákov, Weigel played major roles in two short plays. In the Messenger of Light, he played the father of a son who decides to turn his parents’ home into a factory to make flashlights, with plans to have his parents walk 30 kilometers to a retirement home in the mountains. Weigel’s character, who often acts confused, winds up outsmarting his son, hitting him over the head with a flashlight. Then the mother and father make sure their son will not be able to ruin their lives.

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Jaroslav Weigel in Messenger from Liptákov

In the other play of Messenger from Liptákov, Weigel played Hlavsa, who sees into the future by peering into his huge wood stove. A coal baron named Ptáček asks him to find out which suitor is right for his daughter, and Hlavsa tells the wealthy man that he sees the name Petr Bezruč on the gate of one of Ptáček’s mines. The baron, played by the very talented Miloň Čepelka, assumes he sells his mine to the poet Bezruč, not realizing that the mine will be taken away from him during the totalitarian era and that Bezruč’s writings will become a mouthpiece for the Communist regime.

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Jaroslav Weigel as Jan Hus and Petr Brukner as Saint Wenceslas in Czech Heaven. Photo from Třebíčský deník.

The character of Smrtka, personifying death, wears a black suit with black hat and holds a scythe. He waits for Weigel’s character to finish his prophesies in order to lead him to Heaven because it is the day that Hlavsa is scheduled to die. It turns out that Smrtka misses his chance to take Hlavsa to Heaven as the designated time passes, and he has to hurry to his next customer. Smrtka tells Weigel’s character that he has two more years before another younger Smrtka comes along to escort him to Heaven.

I guess that September 5 was the appointed time for Jaroslav Weigel to go on his last journey, ending an illustrious career that helped form the image of the Jára Cimrman Theatre and that helped the ensemble survive more than 50 years.

Tracy Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

 

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Jaroslav Weigel designed the cover of the collected plays

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A stamp celebrating the 50th anniversary of the theatre ensemble, designed by Jaroslav Weigel.

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The book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jára Cimrman Theatre. Cover designed by Jaroslav Weigel.