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June 19, 2006

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First impressions can be deceiving. When we first met Jaroslav yesterday at the strawberry field he tends with his wife to supplement their pension, he seemed a bit threatening. A stout sunburnt man with meaty worker's hands (with part of one pointer finger cut down to a rounded stump), he gestured angrily with his hoe while speaking disparagingly about the Romany. The menacing aspect was heightened by the red stains on his skin and clothes. Sure, it was only strawberry juice, but it looked like blood, as if he'd just come back from slaughtering large mammals. Possibly with his bare hands. He spoke too quickly to understand and when I looked at him uncomprehendingly he seemed so disgusted I thought he might hit me. His wife Marie had invited us to come back today to pick our fill of the rapidly ripening surplus. She was sweet but I was hoping he wouldn't be there. He was. But he was much warmer today, even grandfatherly. If life had taught him anything, he said, it's that you have to laugh. "It pays the same," he said in Czech, "whether you go through it happy or sad." After we filled a big basket with plump strawberries in the blazing sun, he invited us to sit in the shade where he told us stories from the three years he spent mining wolfram (tungsten) in Mongolia in the 1980s....

Getting there required 8 separate flights over 24 hours, then 12 hours by car and when he finally got to the remote mining outpost he was greeted by a Mongolian woman who spoke...Czech! (Worldwide, only about 10 million people speak Czech, so to find anyone anywhere who does is unusual, all the moreso in Mongolia.) She'd learned it while apprenticed to a shoemaker in Prague. On a less humorous note, he saw his Czech coworker from Caslav hanged for refusing to sleep with his Mongolian host's wife. It happened quite suddenly the following morning when a lasso was thrown around his neck, over a low branch, and he was yanked into the air by a horse pulling the rope. Nothing to be done about it--he had violated the local custom. There was also the story of the pompous geologist who arrived by train and kept his nose in the air the whole time he was there. When it came time for everyone to fly back, he set off the airport metal detector. He emptied his pockets, took off his belt, everything, but he still beeped. At gunpoint they took him away to be strip searched, where the geologist tried to explain the scar on his leg and the steel hip joint replacement underneath. The Mongolian guards had never heard of such a thing and only satisfied themselves that he was not a threat after a more probing exploration. The fiasco was repeated at every one of the numerous stops along the way, including finally Moscow where you'd think they would have known about hip replacement surgery by then.

His storytelling reminded me of The Good Soldier Svejk, which after many false starts over the years I am at last enjoying immensely. The four-part novel relates the journey of a reluctant Czech soldier on his way to the Russian front to fight for the unpopular Austro-Hungarian Emperor in the first world war. Some of the humor derives from the travel itself, but most of it comes from Svejk's incessant and usually inappropriate storytelling. In that sense it's a kind of Czech 1,001 Arabian Nights. The end.