Good Reading : June 2008
16 good reading ı JUNE 2008 me myself and dad behind the book One of the difficulties with writing a book about a year in your life is figuring out how to let your friends and family know, sensitively, that you have exposed them to the rest of the world. My book, about my year in Prague, turned out to be largely about my father, who is Czech, and my relationship with him.Without meaning to, I drew a very accurate picture of him, a beguiling mixture of charming and exasperating. I say ‘without meaning to’, because I didn’t realise until I had finished writing the book that it was about my father. In 2005, I went to live in Prague for a year, ar med with a contract from Allen & Unwin in which I promised to write a book about my year in Prague. I was 39 at the time, single and making a living as a secretary.Thanks to the vogue for ‘My year in …’ books, I went to Prague with a head full of romantic notions, fully expecting to fall in love with an exotic European man, to sit in cafés discussing Proust, to become, in fact, the person I thought I would become when I was a teenager, instead of the person I actually did become: someone who’s never read a word of Proust. Naturally, my life didn’t magically transform. In fact, it turned out to be murderously difficult, moving myself to a country where I didn’t speak the language and where I had no friends.What had I been thinking? To make matter worse, the Czechs, it turned out, are not easy people to get to know. For an Australian, used to sunny smiles and cheery ‘Hellos’ when you walk down the street, it’s incredibly disheartening to be greeted with stony stares. I began my life in Prague chirpily saying hello to everyone I met in shops and on deserted streets. I ended my year staring moodily ahead. The Czechs, I discovered, only do as much work as they have to and spend as much of their time as they can outdoors with their kids. On the weekends, it’s nothing for the entire family to go for a 100-kilometre bike ride and camping trip. I got into the hiking culture in a big way because it was so easy to do.The bush is completely different to Australia – all pine forests and fields of sunflowers. Hunting is a major sport and more than once I came across fresh boar kill on the trail.The countryside is dotted with hides: rough wooden structures that you climb up to watch out for boar, deer, hikers, whatever you mean to kill. I was impressed with these stands, picturing eagle-eyed hunters shading their eyes against the sun and surveying the forest with practised skill, until I climbed up one myself and saw that the hunters had built a clearing not ten metres from the hide which they’d filled with bread.They wait for the target to come and munch on bread, then blam. Frankly, even I could hit a wild boar at ten metres. This style of hunting, however, epitomises the Czechs.They like to do things the easy way, without making too much of a fuss.The Czech lands have a history of constantly being overrun by invaders and Czechs deal with it by keeping their heads down and waiting for the invader to get bored and go away. Centuries of oppression have bred in the Czechs enormous gentleness and a very, very sharp sense of humour, characteristics which quickly became apparent once I acquired Czech friends. The last oppressors were the communists; the Czechs put up with them for sixty years and they survived it by poking fun at the Russians rather than throwing Molotov cocktails at them but it’s no wonder they don’t smile at strangers. My own father escaped after World War II, leaving my grandmother behind the Iron Curtain. I never knew my grandmother, who died before the communists could be laughed off stage. Nor did I know much about my grandfather, who was killed in a concentration camp. In fact, I didn’t RACHAEL WEISS was expecting to find romance and excitement during her year in Prague. Instead she found an extended family and a family history that enabled her to know her father as the man he really was.