Monday, 18 November 2013

Czech Republic – Bitter rivalries in the bitter cold

November 17

Hello everyone!

The Czech Republic, though small in size and population, is a global powerhouse when it comes to sporting achievement. Since independence they have certainly punched above their relative weight; from reaching the Euro ’96 final to producing world-class athletes such as Emil Zatopek and Roman Sebrle, they have certainly announced themselves on the sporting stage.

Though the national football team is currently experiencing a turbulent period – losing at home to Armenia is the currently nadir they are trying to clamber up from – the country is represented in the Champions League by Viktoria Plzen, who have given a good account of themselves in recent matches with continental powerhouses such as Bayern Munich and Manchester City. All of their European matches are on domestic television, allowing the whole country to get behind them, whether from Plzen or Prague.

Arguably their greatest successes have come on tennis courts, with Grand Slam winners such as Jana Novotna and Petra Kvitova complementing their continued presence at the top table of the national team tournaments, the Davis and Federation Cups respectively. This very weekend the men’s national team went into the Belgrade bearpit and beat the world number one’s country on his own patch, thus retaining the Davis Cup. A joyous moment for the country to unite behind.

Tennis should enjoy this moment in the limelight, because it won’t be seen on any back pages for the foreseeable future. Nor will Plzen’s assault on the Champions League. This is because one sport, ice hockey, dominates during the dark days of winter.

In addition to competing in the Kontinental Hockey League alongside such luminaries as the Moscow teams (as well as the also-rans of Astana), the country possesses a strong domestic league. As one would expect with one city topping the charts for area, population and money, Prague boasts numerous hockey teams within the fourteen-team league. The major two are Slavia and Sparta and, with many teams who share a fanbase within a large city, they abhor and despise one another.

It was thus incredible fortune that we came across an internet advert on the Saturday night before the next set of fixtures, which highlighted that these two giants of the ice were going to clash the following day, and that tickets were available for a mere 149Kc (or £5). There weren’t many left, so we snapped up the tickets in a lower corner of the Tipsport Arena and slept soundly, dreaming of flying pucks and flurries of fists.

Derby day came, so we took a tram across to Prague 7, where we were met by throngs of maroon shirts, signifying a mass of home support for Sparta. The hosts were top of the table heading into battle with their local rivals, who were languishing in eighth place. Remarkably, it seemed that most people were outside even with the game soon to start. It transpired that you weren’t supposed to smoke inside the stadium, so everyone was fighting the chilling breeze to fill their lungs before clearing them by shouting at the poor Slavia supporters.

Shouting loudly. A cacophony of noise erupted around the stadium when Sparta took to the ice through a hilarious blow-up helmet from the film 300. Not that we were cheering with them. You see, the Czech small print, if I’d bothered to read it, would have told us that our tickets granted us access to a small terrace…filled with the bright red of a minority of Slavia fans.

Not that this minority were quiet or intimidated by the home support. Far from it; at times it seemed that the away fans, led by a mad man wielding a megaphone, were winning the battle of the stands, even though the battle on the ice had taken a bad turn with an early Sparta strike. The men with megaphones at the front, who took turns to save their voices, were mesmeric: their command of the obediently crowd frighteningly tyrannical. From whipping off their T-shirts in such close proximity to ice, through leading chants with their mouths and flailing arms, to the steely stare at people who weren’t joining in with their hearts as well as their mouths (I will unashamedly admit I was able to hide behind taller men in front of me to avoid this death stare), these men possessed an enormous power over their subjects. They weren’t even watching the game.

 Though they lost the match, I shall continue to support Slavia, mainly because it turns out that all of my children support Sparta but also because of the ferocious support of the travelling fans in the Tipsport Arena. The Czech Republic boasts brilliant and passionate sports fans, and successes on the clay of a tennis court or the ice of a hockey arena are the least they deserve for their loud devotion.

Love you all


Sunday, 3 November 2013

Czech Republic - Good afternoon Vietnam!

November 2

Hello everyone!

Part of my heart will always be Asian. Specifically, the thoughts of my year living in Korea will always bring back warm memories, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time travelling across the eastern seaboard of the world’s largest continent. From racing along the Great Wall of China to scaling the monstrous Kota Kinabalu on Borneo, some of my greatest adventures have been in the countries lapped by the Pacific Rim.

 Yet there are many places which I failed to explore, simply because of the lack of time. I 
know you must be thinking that it is plain greedy for a teacher to be asking for more holidays, but I would have relished the prospect of backpacking my way through the countries that I unfortunately didn’t get to during 2010 or beyond. Reading about the impending typhoon that will wreak havoc upon the Philippines fills me with worry but also regret that I am yet to see its beautiful beaches with my own eyes. Similar feelings arise when I think of countries such as Indonesia and Cambodia, which would surely enrich my life if I spent time within their borders.

Of course, there is still plenty of time for my travel radar to land on these places in the future. Yet there is one country in the region that really appeals to me, to the point where I have been particularly close to visiting on two separate occasions. I won’t pass up a chance to say ‘Good morning’ to Vietnam a third time. Even if that means I have to find Vietnam in the Czech Republic…

I am reliably informed that Vietnamese immigrants represent the third largest ethnic minority in the Czech Republic. According to the 2011 census, the Vietnamese diaspora numbers an incredible 83,000. It is thus understandable that Vietnamese cuisine can be found across the capital city. One area that was potentially airlifted from Hanoi to the centre of Europe is a market area known as Sapa, in the southern outskirts of the city. It is here where I reconnected with my Asian heart.

The number of young adults of Asian origin decamping from the local bus intimated to us that we had reached the place often dubbed ‘Little Hanoi’. Walking through a side entrance we noted signs in a variety of languages offering flights and money exchange.

Of course, there were some subtle differences that reminded us that we were in central Europe as opposed to Saigon. The weather was undoubtedly one of them. I may have a utopian view of the Vietnamese climate in my mind, but I am pretty sure that dank, glum, overcast afternoons do not happen frequently in Vietnam.

The market itself also seemed slightly strange, more reminiscent of a scrapyard than an actual market. It reminded me of Soviet-era Kazakh markets, rather than the bright lights and fervour attached to the Asian markets I have frequented. The shopping trolleys filled with the latest goods hark back to a different era.

So what exactly were we looking for? Certainly not Christmas trees, yet they had them in abundance. At least we know where to return to if we decide to plump for having a fake evergreen in the apartment. Garments of all shapes and not too many sizes, perhaps befitting the stereotypical smaller stature of east Asians in general, could be found inside ramshackle concrete buildings. The insistence from sellers prohibiting photographs unfortunately means I cannot show you the best treasures from the jewellery shops, not to mention the gigantic Confederate flag hanging at one of the edges of the rows of stalls…

The main attraction for me was the opportunity to sample authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Though I’m sure the Vietnamese food we have sampled in the Czech Republic so far has been legitimately indigenous, I was looking for an Asian ‘atmosphere’ to go along with my pho. I also hadn’t yet had pho, so needed to rectify that situation as soon as possible.

Before the food came one of the stranger drinks around – bubble tea. For the uninitiated, bubble tea is a flavoured tea which comes with bizarre orbs of jelly at the bottom, which can be sucked into your mouth through a comically oversized straw. The machinery used to blend the drink – essentially attaching the drink to a metal arm which shakes it wildly for a while – and create the thing plastic lid were particularly fascinating to watch. As for the drink…better to order hot than cold in glum Czech weather like this.

Pho is a Vietnamese institution. A thin soup housing countless herbs, spices and flavours, as well as meat and noodles, it seems perfect for a day like this – a day that, as I’ve mentioned, may not happen in its country of origin very often. We ate in a small cafĂ©-style place which reminded me very much of living in Asia – being able to see the food prepared, the smiles of the staff, the family nature of the whole place…and of course other people firmly focused on slurping spoon after spoon of good food down into their stomachs without a glance at what is around them.

The trip to Sapa Market reminded me of many happy memories of my time in Asia. It is nice that I now live in what is very much an international city with cuisines from all over the world to sample. All of my senses were ignited by the surroundings of this strangest of places. The day has made my desire to visit Vietnam, and sample more bubble tea and pho, that much stronger. Or maybe I’ll come and reconnect later in the year by returning here, and grabbing some Christmas decorations for the fun of it.

Love you all