Sunday, July 7, 2013

Czech it out

I expected a recent business trip to Eastern Europe would find me in a busy, polluted, post-Communist city. I was pleasantly surprised when I ended up instead in the town of Rožnov pod Radhoštěm in the Zlín Region of the Czech Republic. 

I flew out from Detroit’s huge airport on Father's Day, missing a family cookout at the lake. As I waited in line to board the plane, doing my best "bored-frequent-flyer" impression, I heard the guy behind me tell his friend that he was missing a family cookout at the lake. I thought that was kind of a cool coincidence. Then I heard the guy go on to say that the cookout was at his daughter’s boyfriend’s lake house. It was at that point that I realized that his voice was familiar, the daughter he mentioned was The Boy’s girlfriend, and the cookout he was missing was at our lake house. We said hello and laughed, and he expressed relief that he hadn't said anything derogatory about said boyfriend.

The flight was uneventful but included 2 layovers, so the total travel time was about 19 hours (it took 23 to get back home). Usually the plant I’m visiting arranges a driver to meet me at the airport, and usually the driver is late and speaks no English. I was pleasantly surprised when I walked out of the tiny airport into the bright sunshine and found a work colleague waiting for me. He even bought lunch on the way to the hotel.

The hotel was kitschy looking on the outside but very comfortable on the inside. The beds were just firm enough and the room was well equipped, with an unusually strong internet signal and a full restaurant and bar. The only drawbacks were the typical European shower, about half the size of a phone booth (obviously not made for porky American tourists), and the lack of air conditioning or a ceiling fan. The region was in the middle of a freak hot spell, and temperatures over 90˚F every day meant that the small room heated up to sauna temperatures.

I settled in and then met a coworker from Germany for dinner at the hotel restaurant. I needed to get up at 6:00 am the next morning for work and I hadn’t slept much on the flight, so I turned in early. The U-shaped design of the building discouraged any breezes through the opened windows. What did come through the window was the sound of the man in the adjacent room snoring. I tried to convince myself that it was Czechian crickets, which was the only thing that kept me from chucking one of my steel-toed boots through the window at his head. Eventually I fell asleep until the sunrise woke me up. I was really surprised to find it was only about 4:30am. Sunrise in Michigan at this time of year doesn’t happen until about 6:00am (although sunset in both locations was around the same time).

Work kept me busy during the days for the week I was there, but I did have time in the evenings to explore the area. It was a short walk from the hotel to the old town center, through a beautiful park that ran along a river. The first time I went, my German co-worker joined me. We wandered to town and, after deciphering an ATM that only spoke Czech, we stopped for dinner at a small restaurant with an outdoor patio. Just as we sat down a thunderstorm blew in, so we had a great lightening show to accompany dinner. We considered the possibility of a lightning strike as we hugged the pole of the patio umbrella to avoid the raindrops. We decided the trees and rooftop spires around us would offer the least path of resistance (a decision that may or may not have been enhanced by the good local beer), so we stayed outside for the entire meal. By the time we were done the storm had blown over and we stayed dry on the walk back to the hotel.

The local food is really heavy and starchy. Every meal includes potatoes or noodles, something fried and lots of gravy. There was only one night where I was able to find and order a green salad, and it came with a side of cracklings, which were little fried pieces of goose skin swimming in a bowl of semi-congealed fat. I tasted it for posterity, and was reminded of the time my older sister convinced me that I should try a spoonful of Mom’s secret kitchen treat, Crisco. 

The people we spoke to (who were very friendly and vigorous) contribute their good health to Slivovitz, a local plum brandy. It’s clear and smooth and delicious, served ice cold in clever little short-stemmed shot glasses after the evening meal. It’s highly recommended as a digestive aid.

The best night was a super evening arranged by the Plant. They organized a private English-speaking tour of the Wallachian Open Air Museum, a well-known landmark in this little town. Afterwards we headed to Pustevny in the Beskydy Mountains for a hike and dinner at Hotel Tanečnica. The views were spectacular, and I managed to keep up even though I didn’t know about the hiking part and wore ballet flats. Dinner was excellent and the company was even better. Here are some pictures from our adventure:



My last afternoon was on the summer solstice, and we finished work early. My coworkers headed back to their homes, but my flight didn’t leave until early the next morning. So I explored the town again, venturing outside the parameters of the town square. Most people live in colorful but shabby apartment buildings. Trimming the grass is not a priority. People get around on bicycles or foot-powered scooters. I bought a chocolate gelato (served in a silver holder, which I nearly walked off with before realizing they were just offering a hands-free serving), did some window shopping, took some photographs of the scenery and relaxed by the river with a book. There was a festival going on in the park with many local musical groups performing short sets - an indie-flavored pop act, a quintet of high school girls playing classical music, children in traditional costume singing folk tunes, fresh-faced boyband wannabes and various duos with guitars. It was a peaceful way to end a hectic work week and a nice segue to my long flight back home.