Moravia, Bohemia

It’s a clear frosty morning in Velky Osek where we are visiting Katka and Tom for a few days. Beyond the trees below the field I can see from the window, the Elbe River flows with its cargo of ducks. We walked there yesterday, through an oak wood where I found this bouquet:

Katka has been feeding us with sublime meals — chicken lasagne, potato soup, buckwheat pancakes with her mother’s apricot jam — and last night Tom showed us Mars and Jupiter in the starry sky where we’d walked earlier under the watchful eye of Orion.

In Roznov, before we came to Velky Osek, Petr and Lenka took us to an outdoor museum of traditional wooden Wallachian buildings. What amazed me was the size of the timbers used for their construction, like the beam across our patio, and the smell of the church was exactly the same as St. Stephens on the Saanich peninsula. Home calls to us in such unexpected ways.

Churchbells in Horni Lomna

On February 24, Petr and Lenka took us from Ostrava to my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomna in the Beskydy Mountains near the Slovak border. I have such scanty information about her life before my father was born to her and her second husband in Drumheller in 1926 but I’ve always known where she came from, and when she was born — 1881, though her naturalization papers say 1883; I will believe her birth certificate which accords with my father’s memory… When my father died in the fall of 2009, my mother gave me a small bundle of papers which included these things and after her death in 2010, I found a few little bits and pieces, including this photograph of my grandmother, Anna Klus (or Anna Klusova as she would have been here), with her first husband, Joseph Yopek.

Petr had been calling the office of the mayor of Horni Lomna for a week to find out about accessibility. Last week there was a severe snowfall — 2 metres — so we couldn’t have gone then. On Friday the mayor’s assistant said that yes, there was snow, but people were getting through, so Petr was willing to give it a try. Bless him. As we got closer to the village in its narrow valley, the snow was astonishing, high drifts on either side of the road. But then we were there:

Horni Lomna is a village of fewer than 500 people. At the village office, the mayor’s assistant explained to Petr where the house, number 26, was located. We couldn’t drive — the road was deep with snow. So we left the car and began to walk. The village was strangely familiar with its wooden houses and tall conifers, mostly spruce, and a skittering of small birds. We’d been told to take a road that veered off the main one and we were to watch for a bridge over the Lomna River (Horni means “upper”; there is also a Dolni, or “lower” Lomna, nearby). We wouldn’t be able to get right up to the house (no longer occupied), the woman had explained, because of the snow, but we would be able to see it from a neighbouring house.

I thought of my grandmother walking this road — to school, to church, to her wedding to Joseph Yopek, and perhaps even after saying goodbye to her parents in 1911 before she left with Joseph and their five children (four more would follow) for Antwerp where they boarded a boat for North America.

And then we saw her house.

Every winter it would have looked like this, tucked below its hill in the narrow valley of the Lomna River, not far from its headwaters. Those are fruit trees around it, but what kind? Plums? Apples? Her birth certificate tells me her father was a farmer so there would have been crops of some sort and this is sheep country so no doubt they would have raised sheep and maybe a pig or two. So much I don’t know, and perhaps never will. But seeing this house, in snow, gives me a sense of where she began, and in a way it’s where I began too.

Walking back, we heard churchbells announcing noon. The same churchbells, the same road, the deep snow carrying the sound as far as the heart can travel.

Poetry in Ostrava

We’ve spent the last two nights with our friends Petr and Lenka in their flat in Ostrava. Petr teaches at Ostrava University. Yesterday we met with a class to talk about the writing from British Columbia and then in the evening there was a poetry festival to celebrate the literary journal Protimluv. The next issue of the journal will feature some of John’s poems in both English and in Czech (translated by Jiri Mesic — and I apologize, Jiri, if you’re reading this because I can’t figure out how to do the diacritics in this program…). John was invited to participate in the festival, reading five poems in English with projected bilingual texts behind him and Jiri at hand to translate his comments on the poems. After he read, there was an interview with Jiri and Petr. The gallery was full with people standing behind the seats and a guy from Czech television filming the event. People asked John to sign copies of the festival programme, small postcards with his photograph on them, and even just blank pieces of papers. Who said poetry was dead? It was a wonderful event. Ten other poets read briefly and although they read only in Czech, I could sense which ones were influenced by the Beats, which ones were lyrical, musical, and of course which ones were funny. The organizer Jiri Machacek played a violin to accompany Yvetta Ellerova as she sang (a voice from heaven, truly) poems by her husband Petr Hruska and she played a silvery xylophone as she sang. One of the pieces was in English, a poem about the Beskydy Mountains which we can see from Petr and Lenka’s kitchen and where we will go tomorrow for two nights. They have promised to take us to my grandmother’s village in the mountains where the house where she was born still stands. I’ll post some photographs (I’m not using my own computer right now).

After the poetry reading we went to the Moravian National Theatre bar for a drink and how lovely it was, the high ceilings and old leaded windows, the long wooden tables against the soft yellow walls.

In Olomouc

We spent yesterday exploring this beautiful Moravian city, full of narrow streets, buildings that make you catch your breath . . .

. . . and (as it turns out) a charming tortoise in the main square:

We read to a large and generous audience at Konvikt (part of Palacky University) and then went out for drinks and a light meal (slices of duck breast for me on buttered toast, and rabbit for John…). Here’s John reading:

We’re meeting with a class later this morning and then travelling on to Ostrava. It’s a glorious morning, the sky mauve and pale gold. And there’s frost on every roof.

The mystery of eyes

Yesterday we visited the Mendel Museum at the Augustinian monastery in Brno where Gregor Mendel worked with bees and peas (most famously) as well as apples and other plants. The instruments for his weather station and his careful notes were inspiring. His pruning kit is beautiful — the tools well-cared for and gleaming in their case. I was interested in the charts showing how he’d worked out the mysteries of inherited characteristics but I confess that there was entirely too much math for me to follow past the third generation. But it moved me to think about eye colour in my own family. I had two parents with hybrid-brown eyes — or at least that’s what I’m assuming. My mother’s eyes were very brown but my father’s were green, which I think is hybrid brown. My eyes are hazel, which again is hybrid brown (I think). John’s eyes are also hazel. His mother’s are too, though his father had grey-blue eyes. We have three children, one with brown eyes (hybrid brown?) and two with blue. I stared at the charts and wished that kind monk was present to explain to me the mystery of eyes.

We have our hotel window while we pack to leave for Olomouc and we can hear the Sunday churchbells of Brno sounding out to the morning. I wish I could share them with you.

Last class

These are the bright faces we spent our week with, shown with John at the end of the class yesterday. It was such a privilege to have had the opportunity to introduce them to our west coast.

It’s our last day in Brno and we’ll go to the Mendel Museum after grading papers. Tomorrow we take the train to Olomouc for another adventure.

Awake early…

…to more snow on the streets of Brno, everything soft and white. I’ve been thinking about this morning’s class, my last (and John’s is in the afternoon), where I hope the texts I’ve chosen will somehow sum up our week. We’ve talked about place, as in the west coast of British Columbia, and various strands of weather, history, understanding, and dislocation (in some cases). So I thought we’d end with two pieces — Terry Glavin’s essay, “Oolichans”, from This Ragged Place, and the final chapter of Judith Williams’ Two Wolves at the Dawn of Time, which speaks so beautifully of the different legacies of those who have lived at Kingcome Inlet. The students have been just wonderful and I’ll miss them. Yesterday we treated them to a taste of our coast, putting out plates of smoked sockeye salmon, candied pink salmon, salmon and cream cheese pate, and salal jelly, with bread and apples from Brno, I love the questions they ask, their curiosity, their courage in spending a week with writers from the other side of their world, reading work that must seem foreign and maybe even hermetic at times.

Dragon and church

On our way to dinner tonight, through new snow, I saw this view of the baroque St. Thomas:

And although it was snowing outside, we were nicely warm in the Moravian wine cellars where we ate beef with cream and paprika, chicken prepared with tomatoes and fresh basil, accompanied by a bright Frankova wine:

And then, replete, we walked back under the dragon again:

under the dragon

Just back from dinner at a Moravian wine cellar under the arch where the Brno dragon hangs from the stone ceiling, his rather dear five-fingered feet splayed as though testing his flexibility. Our lovely young waitress helped us with Czech phrases — Thank you, and That was delicious! –and brought us little glasses of Auer’s Cross 2010 Port to have with our warm raspberries and cream. This is such a generous and beautiful city. The churches and civic buildings stand quietly among the snowflakes and tug at my heart as I pass them on my way back to the hotel.

We taught our first day of seminars in West Coast Writing today. I began the morning session with a brief overview of B.C. coastal history, followed by two pieces: Sue Wheeler’s wonderful essay, “Geography”, and a chapter from Beth Hill’s Seven-Knot Summers. The students were very perceptive and it was great to discuss the writing itself and the broader notions of the curve of time and history. In the afternoon, John introduced them to poetry — a sampling of poems springing from landscape of this province and its watersheds.

Tomorrow I teach a chapter from Fishing with John (Edith Iglauer’s John Daly, not my John Pass!) and a section from Hilary Stewart’s Indian Fishing. Think of us as we discuss the Pacific salmon, trolling equipment, ancient fish weirs, and the weather of the Salish sea.