Life is good! as I've been back to living in the Czech Republic for three weeks now. In our small town (Rýmarov) of 10,000, you can walk everywhere - to the three-story-tall high schools, to the quiet dark "borovice" (pine) woods, to a friend´s apartment - in a few minutes. I smile at friendly acquaintances everywhere I go. I see good friends every day.
I live with little, happy-blue-eyed, blond Klára Sigmundová, beneath the thick, beige, cone-hatted column of the church, on a side of Rýmarov´s central hill surrounded by fields and distant, small mountains - the blunt top of one has snow on it. I am a local.
The other day, Easter Monday came to us.
There are a lot of words in the complex and crisp Czech language, and one of them, a verb, is "mrskat". I´ll bet it´s almost exclusively used on Easter Monday. It means "to whip, to lash", but, come Easter time, the words "someone´s behind" can proceed the definition.
Marek came to pick me up at nine a.m., and we went to take part in a centuries-old tradition and go "mrskat" women.
That beats looking for the Easter basket! (Klára would later say that all girls hate Czech Easter, and that many of them refuse to open their doors for the boys who knock.)
For some reason, though, Klára invited Marek to our apartment while I got ready.
Blond, short-haired, goofily-smily, twenty-eight-year-old Marek rushed through the door. He grabbed Klára, in her pajamas and pink robe, and tapped her butt with the end of a "borovice" branch. He tried to push her into the bathroom, where he could throw cold water on her. He recited to her:
"Hody, hody, do-pra-vody,
dejte vajcko, malování.
dejte aspon bílý.
Slepice vám slesa jiný."
(Feast, feast, la-la-la,
give us an egg, painted.
If you don´t give a painted one,
at least give a white.
The hen will lay you another.)
I, holding a wooden spoon with a face drawn on it and ribbons tied around it, hurried to help "mrksat" Klára.
But Klára didn´t have any eggs to give us, so we were quickly on our way. Men can only mrskat women until noon, when the ceremony ends, and then the women can actually come after the men. That´s not fair!
We visited Elena, Marek´s step-sister and a former student of mine who´d "maturovala" (graduated) last year. She´d always been intelligent, dignified enough to not like me especially much, and 1940´s cute. Her lanky body was in snug, light-colored sweats, and she playfully screamed when she saw us. But, then, she just danced and smiled at the ceiling - while we hit her and sang. She gave us some chocolate and tied a pink ribbon on my spoon.
Marek´s funny, balding step-father joined us guys when we left. He joked that businessman Marek, in a suit and tie instead of casual clothes, was "our manager".
Marek said the tradition is best when you´re in a group of about ten guys (- and YOU´re a guy, not a girl, of course). He did break one Easter tradition, which I wasn´t happy about, and that was that he drove us in his car instead of walking.
We began visiting older women: Marek´s aunts and step-mom and cousins.
In each of their small, subtly and oldly decorated apartments, we sat down and chatted for a good while. First, we whipped them. ... Then, they gave us store-bought chocolate or a decorated egg. Then, we "feasted" (modestly). Plates were set out with salami-cheese-and-pickles on bread, crackers smeared with a garlic sauce and olives, and pastries. The women were delighted to have us. (We didn´t whip them hard.)
Marek explained that when men hit the women, it symbolizes we are slapping freshness into them. We throw cold water on them for the same reason. Females give chocolate and eggs, to symbolize they´re giving us life. Recently, the tradition has begun to include giving alcohol, but Marek´s step-dad was the only one of us willing to accept a drink, so the women mercilessly kept filling the poor, funny guy´s shot-glasses.
Marek - who now lives in Scotland - liked seeing family. The women and families we visited wore their pajamas and familiarly spoke Czech. But, also, Marek liked Easter because, unlike Christmas, you often meet and are familiar with new people.
Our small town´s streets were walked my many boys and older men, who carried sticks and pine branches with colorful ribbons flaring off them.
A pretty, full-bodied cousin of Marek´s greeted me with a kiss on the mouth - which is becoming more common in this part of the world. She played, for Marek´s step-father, their ancestor´s antique gramophone, the acoustics of which sounded triumphant like being at the opera. She showed him old, family photo´s of the first "pekarna" (bakery) in Rýmarov; the young men posed so seriously, in baker´s caps holding long bread-boards, in black-and-white by the oven.
I took Marek to my friend´s house next.
It was well after twelve when we made our way to Marek´s third aunt´s house. She was bringing a pot of water to her garden when we arrived. She tried to throw it on Marek when she saw him, but he stopped her.
This tiny, wrinkled-like-a-potato lady, who lived in a countryside home, had the best homemade pastries. Little cakes were layered with chocolate and wafer. Elsewhere, thin sheets of crumbly dough wrapped around a marshmallow cream inside. And a rich, berry filling awaited in the center of tiny, chocolate-topped croissants.
Marek glowed to see some family members he hadn´t seen in years. We left his father and step-mother´s house after three. I was exhausted from speaking so much Czech, but happy.
"Hody, hody ..."
- freshness and life,