Mapping culture divides in a Czech village
Not very many people live in the village of Horni Maxov (Upper Maxov) in the winter — at last count, the Czech census gave 138 permanent residents. The mail comes to the church, and to buy bread here, you have to either drive or ski a few kilometers to the bakery in the neighbouring village in the valley.
Maxov itself consists mostly of small wooden houses with steep roofs spread out over the hillside under the church. You can easily see why not everyone would choose to live here permanently — most of the houses are heated by wood, and the winter brings lots of snow shoveling. If you go a bit further north, the land opens up into passes of ancient hills — you climb the ridge and you can see the landscape turn into a sea of white spruce below you.
In the summer, people wander this gently waving landscape on foot; in the winter, they ski cross country. Long-maintained trails connect solitary huts that often serve as mountain patrol stations — in the winter there are often hundreds of pairs of skis outside them.
It’s in this small village of Horni maxov, within this quiet hilly landscape, that Czech musher Jana Henychova lives with almost 30 siberian huskies. (Her husband Rodney, another musher originally from Ohio, lives in the neighbouring village of Janov with his dogs.) My family’s house is up the road from theirs, so I ask Jana if I can intrude on her privacy to interview her. I’m lucky — she agrees.
I’m to come talk to Jana and Rodney at six, but when I arrive, Jana is still out preparing trails for the dogs. Rodney’s at home, though. He’s a tall man with long hair and a graying beard, wearing padded overalls. I watch him make dinner, piling four different kinds of cheese on top of leftover rice and consuming the resulting mess at a voracious pace.
I sit at their kitchen table, listening to Rodney talk and taking in my surroundings. Jana’s house is a mix of traditional Czech mountain hut and musher’s house. Familiar Czech household items fill the kitchen: the shelves hold blue and white porcelain jars with their contents — Oil, Sugar, Marjoram — inscribed in painted script, and there are decorative ceramic plates on the wall, as well as an old clock that chimes every quarter hour.
Evidence of the dogs is everywhere, though. There are harnesses hanging in the hall and bags of dog food on the ground. The walls are decorated with photos of dogs and posters from races, including the prestigious Finnmarkslopet, which Jana has completed three times — twice in the 500 kilometer race and once in the 1000 kilometer race. (She has also won the European championship twice in her category, although she’s slightly dismissive of this: “The Scandinavians don’t come to those championships, and they’re the best out there.”)
Rodney’s clearly enjoying having a conversation with an anglophone — he’s lived in Czech Republic for two years, he says, ever since he and Jana got married, and he meets English speakers rarely. We talk about the weather. The weather has been shit for dogsledding, says Rodney. There are puddles in the main fields, and the water freezes on the sled runners and forms balls in the dogs’ paws, and that’s no good.
Rodney says he’s barely trained his dogs this year. The conversation then meanders a bit towards politics and about How Czechs Are (vs. How Americans Are), but mostly we talk about food. Rodney says that one of the hardest things about moving here was missing American food.
“I used to be really depressed about not being able to get a good slice of pizza here. But man, now you can even get peanut butter in the supermarket. And it’s Skippy, too! And Oreos. The Czech kids seem to like Oreos, but they don’t get the whole you take the Oreo apart and dip it in milk thing. That’s a key part of the whole Oreo process!”
He asks me how I hold my knife and fork — the Czech way, or the American way? — which brings back memories of being scolded for improper fork technique by a particularly strict teacher in Czech grade school, Mrs. Frigid. At one point I say fuck, which Rodney enjoys — “It’s so nice to hear someone swear in English! Jana told me Czechs don’t have swearwords. I’ve found out she was lying, though.” This much is true — Czechs actually have far more swearwords and are much more diverse in their profanity than English speakers.
At 6pm it’s dark already. As we talk, we can hear the wind whistling in the windowpanes, and the dogs bark outside from their doghouses. I walked past them on my way here — a fenced enclosure contains separate doghouses for each dog, with their names painted on the side. Sometimes, if you spend a lot of time in Horni Maxov, you can hear them howl in unison.
The first time I heard it — at night, under the moon, no less — I was surprised and amazed, but at this point it’s just another part of the sonic landscape. Jana’s had problems with it in the past, though: Her neighbours complained about the noise when she lived down in the valley.
Then Jana returns home, looking tired from the day — she’s cleared trails today and given dogsledding presentations to schoolchildren. She’s a compact and athletic blonde woman. Her hair’s braided and she’s wearing the same padded overalls as Rodney, a big red wool sweater with a Nordic pattern. She starts working around the living room, casually talking to Rodney.
I watch them interact — sometimes they speak each other’s language, relying on gestures and expressions and a shared vocabulary. Jana starts making food, and Rodney says, “Hook me up!”, and Jana stares at him blankly. Watching the angularity of their interactions, I remember navigating my recent home of Quebec through my own horribly granular French and catch myself idly wondering what it would have been like to fall in love in a foreign language.
Meanwhile, Rodney is complaining that Czechs have no sense of humour. “Jana never finds me funny! I do all these silly things, and she just stares at me like she’s embarrassed to know me! I watch Saturday Night Live and I’m cracking up, and she just shakes her head!” I remember my parents thinking the same thing about Americans — I’ve watched my favourite English movies with them, and they’ve gotten bored. Jana and I talk about it and agree on a certain fundamental untranslateability to Czech humour.
Jana shrugs, and I’m left wondering about the limits of language. English is beautifully malleable, and has the biggest vocabulary of any language. Insults invented by playwrights in the fifteenth century are still in common use. Meanwhile, Czech has around 25 verb tenses. We bend and modify our words until they say what we mean — we have a verb tense for “would have wanted to but didn’t.” We also have entire sentences without vowels: “Strč prst skrz krk.” is a popular one. My English-speaking friends tell me I sound like I have a throat infection.
I cannot always express the same concepts in Czech and in English; the two don’t entirely overlap. I can want a slice of bread the same way, but I can’t always make the same joke. I cannot even be sad the same way, I find. Sometimes, when I’m nervous or scared in North America, I retreat into this disconnect, consciously switching my inner monologue to Czech to create a sort of barrier between me and the concrete world.
But as I watch Jana and Rodney, I realize that this disconnect is in some ways trivial and artificial, and when looked at from this vantage point, my magnification of it seems a bit self-indulgent. Continents apart, Rodney fell and Jana fell in love with exactly the same thing, Rodney racing his dogs on Michigan’s Upper Penninsula and Jana racing hers in the hills of northern Bohemia. This makes sense to them, and they make sense to each other. Neither my fear nor Rodney’s homesickness for pizza are any match for that.