Thursday, May 10, 2012

J K Rowlingová, or the hilarity of Czech names

Yes, the Czechs really do call her Rowlingová (sounds like Rolling Over).

For those of you who don't yet know, when I got married the name thing got complicated. After some thought, I decided to go, officially speaking, with British tradition, and took my husband's surname exactly. Or rather, without its Czech diacritics, since without them it quite conveniently turns into a very common British name, and this could be useful if we end up living in the UK again, or pretty much anywhere else for that matter. So that's what's on my passport.

However, we also decided to register the Czech version of the surname (female names all end in -ová) for me on our Czech marriage papers, so that if I want to use it while I'm here, I am (officially, even) allowed to do so. Fabulous. But the thing is, I have not yet done so, because on every occasion when I am required to state my name, I'm also required to present my ID to prove it. And my ID only matches the first version, not the second.

Because of this, some hilarious situations have arisen, since the Czechs fully believe that if you have not got -ová on the end of your name, you must be one of two things: a man, or a business.

So here are two examples of what happens when I go to collect something from the post office that is just addressed to "Barton":

PO: Are you Mr Barton's wife?
Me: Yes
PO: Do you have a blehblahblehblah
I hand over Czech marriage certificate, hoping this will be enough proof that I can collect parcel apparently for husband; have passport at the ready.
PO: No, a blehblahblehblah
I realise this means a legal authorisation to collect parcel on behalf of someone else. I also remember that the slip of paper just said "Barton" and that the parcel I expected is in fact for me.
Me: No, I don't, but my name is also Barton. 
PO: Oh! (very surprised post office lady) Oh well that's fine then! I'll just fetch your parcel. 

I wait, still with passport at the ready so that lady can hand it over. Lady hands parcel over straight away without bothering to check passport : if I say I have a weird name, it must be true. No one would pretend to have a man's name!

Me: I'd like to collect this parcel please.
PO: Barton. Is that a company?
Me: Eh? 
PO: Do you have a stamp? 
Me: Ummm... wondering why he is on about companies and stamps when I just handed him a parcel retrieval slip that clearly states who it's for and what it is...
Me, tentatively, hoping it might help: Barton is my name.
PO, looking surprised: Oh! Your ID then please. 
I hand over passport, which post office man checks, looks satisfied, hands it back and toddles off to fetch the parcel. He hands it over with a smile and wishes me a nice day. Ah, foreigners, what weird creatures they are, is probably what he is thinking. 

I've ordered a stamp now. So maybe next time I can cut out the hassle over names and genders and forms of official ID, and just tell them yes it's my company and yes I have a stamp. Though I think all the people in the post office know me now anyway. They probably just keep asking me these things for fun. 

The other hilarious thing about having a name that doesn't fit one's appearance is that the Czechs are completely unable to spell it. So when I arrive and a receptionist asks me for my name, and I say "Barton", they say sorry, could you spell that for me? That's because they can't make the connection between n and ň. So I try Bartoň, and sometimes that helps, but sometimes they look even more puzzled, because obviously I'm a girl and so I can't be called Bartoň. But when I say, you know, like Bartoňová, then it is all as easy as pie. I would just introduce myself as Bartoňová to start with and save them the confusion, except that then they'd probably ask for my ID and the explanation that would then be required isn't even worth contemplating until my Czech is much better than it is now!

The strangers' society vs the nanny state

When I moved to the Czech republic one of the things that most struck me was the society's reliance on official ID. I know that I have a particularly special perspective, coming from one of the few countries that doesn't have compulsory ID cards (yet…), but bearing in mind I've lived in France, Italy and Switzerland too, all countries with compulsory ID, all countries with similar enough set-ups and cultures to this one, I wasn't expecting it to be so much more reliant on them.
Some examples:

  1. If I go to visit someone at their office, and their office (public administration or private business) is not a shop, then I will walk in and find a reception desk / concierge, who will demand my ID, and will record my name, and its number, in a book, before allowing me to enter. I know plenty of places where I would be required to state my name on entering such a place, but the Czech Republic is the first society I've lived in in which it's absolutely standard practice to require proof of this, and to record the evidence, as part of such an ordinary procedure as visiting an office. They also don't require one to sign out again when leaving, so it seems they record this information just in case of future interest, as they couldn't really use it to prove who was or wasn't in the building at any one time. 
  2. If I am out walking, in the city, in France for example, I know that I am legally required to carry ID and that if something happens (for example, an accident) I will be required to show it. However, I don't expect that it will be needed unless I am, in fact, involved in some kind of incident [or unless as part of my wandering I decide to get an EU-under-26s-for-free ticket to visit a museum]. In the Czech Republic, each time I walk or tram-ride around the city, I know that a police officer could stop me and check my ID at any time. It hasn't happened to me yet, I'll admit, but I see them checking someone nearly every time I am out. 
  3. The post office. Admittedly there are occasions on which, if a parcel has been sent to you in the UK and you weren't there to collect it, you would need to take ID to the sorting office in order to retrieve it. But that is, or at least used to be, only in case of recorded delivery (where the item would have required a signature if delivered at the door). Here, not only do they not even try to deliver parcels at the door (the letter boxes are far too small and the posties don't know how to ring doorbells, I suppose, or maybe have the sense to realise it's a waste of their time in 80% of cases since they come mid-morning and most people are at work), they also always require ID to collect the parcel at the post office. This is usually no problem at all, and sometimes knowing I am foreign, they don't bother, but sometimes can be tricky, for example, they like to enter the ID number into their system to record who collected the item. This is more tricky when the ID number doesn't match the Czech patterns ("computer says no"). It can also cause some confusions given that my surname in my passport is not what it ought to be according to Czech tradition (see the following post for further examples of the hilarity this can cause).

    The only thing that could possibly take the place of a passport or ID card, in this country, is a stamp. Stamps prove that you are official (even though they can be bought and customised for a few crowns). I will have a stamp soon, and all will be well. 
I won't go into the history behind this here, but it seems that the society here is (still?) one in which no person can trust another, and where who you say you are, or what you say you are, is not sufficient. It's also a society that has got so used to presenting proof all the time that they don't consider it an invasion of their privacy, or an obligation to provide more information than really necessary, that will be stored for an indefinite time and used in an indefinite way. There's no choice, so you just accept that your activities will be recorded, albeit via pen and paper and not because you swipe a chip card over an oyster reader or into an ATM. 

By contrast, the UK seems (at least to me) outwardly much more friendly and trusting. If you enter an office block and state that you're N, here for a meeting with X, they will usually politely ask you to take a seat, while they let X know that you've arrived. They won't ask you to prove it. 
But the UK society has a different sort of mistrust. It doesn't trust people to have any common sense any more. The threat of terrorism and criminality may seem to preoccupy politics, but when you look around you, it appears nothing by comparison with the danger each person poses to him/herself because he might slip on a wet floor or scald himself by turning on a hot tap.  Fewer are the posters and announcements about baggage left unattended (although they still exist, along with the announcements I most detest about reporting people who act, or look suspicious). Multiplying, meanwhile, are those that warn us that the contents of our coffee cup (shock, horror!) might actually be hot. 

Last year, this was already rather noticeable, and the Czechs and Finns (and no doubt others) over to work/study for the year in Cambridge made no end of mockery of all the ridiculous notices designed to protect the general public from their own stupidity. 
We went back, just for the weekend, a couple of weeks ago, and wow. It has undoubtedly got even worse, and having been away for a few months it was much more noticeable to the point of being utterly dizzying. Every possible public wall or surface bears some sort of caution, warning or notice of information. Every loudspeaker rings out every 30 seconds - 1 minute with an announcement about the public's own safety and security. 

It's not just temporary bollards warning that the floor is momentarily slippery as it's been cleaned just now,  or notices that one shouldn't use the train toilet in a station (which, given the variety of plumbing systems available, might not always be obvious), that one should mind the gap (which one may not realise is there) or that one shouldn't walk on this particular lawn. Those I can understand, they give useful information to help one make one's decisions about how to behave. 

But try these:

  • "Caution: contents may be hot" (coffee cup). I think what it really means is the outside of the cup might get rather hot, while you're busy carrying it towards the train, in a hurry, with a bag in the other hand and nowhere to put the cup down before it burns your entire hand. But that's not what it says. Personally, when I've ordered hot chocolate I rather expect it to be hot. I'd be rather more concerned if the cup said the contents might be cold. Unless I'd ordered a milkshake in which case the contents won't be hot if I've been given the thing I ordered. So no need for a warning, or am I thinking too much?
  • "This [station/airport/bus/train/university campus/church - ok admit I haven't seen that yet] is monitored by CCTV for security and safety management". What this seems to suggest is they've got a guy sitting there watching in case someone trips on the platform, so that they can walkie-talkie the buildings management crew to come and cordon off the trip hazard. I think it would be more helpful if that person was actually on the concourse and ready to provide first aid to the poor person who was running to fast for the train in high heels, but evidently staring at a screen is more secure. And if I was cynical I'd also point out that it enables them to film everyone for future reference, not just the person who slipped over. 
  • "During the Olympics, London transport lines may become busy. Check if this is the case, before you travel, on this website." No, really, I'd never have guessed! And given that I'm in fact dead certain that all the transport lines will be totally clogged up during the Olympics, I doubt that checking the website will help me to get anywhere. It would be better to buy a bike, or possibly buy a ticket on the eurostar before they're sky-high and thereby escape the country for the duration. Oh yeah, already escaped. 
  • "In rainy weather, pavements may be slippery". Do you know, in all my twenty-several years, I had never noticed that rain makes things wet and slippery.  
  • "Please be advised that the train doors will close 2 minutes before departure. This is for your safety." Load of bollocks, if you don't mind me saying. This is partly so that the train is not delayed by last-minute passengers with five large suitcases to load in through the ridiculously small door into the ridiculously minimal luggage racks, (though even then, it hardly ever results in an on-time service), and partly because you, dear train company, have bought pendolino trains that have so much fancy electronics it actually takes them two minutes between automatically closing the doors and automatically actually being able to move forwards. 
There are the type that try to tell us what to do (let's call them nanny notices):

"Please now wash your hands" has become a common one in toilets. I appreciate that some cultures possibly don't have this as an ingrained habit, but I would hazard a guess that the majority of people living in the UK probably do automatically do this, and if they don't, I'm not sure a notice will change that. I should think the presence of the wash basin is a sufficient reminder, if one is required. 

Another one that we came across recently, in a train, was "do not place items in this area" indicating the whole surface around a washbasin in the toilet. Now there could be only two reasons why not: 1) you might get your handbag/jumper/book wet, if you put it there, because the tap splashes, or 2) the surface is slopey and if the train joggles a bit, your handbag/book/jumper will fall onto the dirty floor. In the first case, I would think they should have built a better tap, and in the second case it's really up to the person whether they want to risk something falling off, isn't it. We all know that trains joggle. 

I wouldn't be surprised if next time I buy a sandwich from Pret a Manger, it says on the inside of the packet, "and now don't forget to chew with your mouth closed." Actually, given some of the eating I've seen around me recently, this wouldn't be a bad idea at all. 

There are the type that try to tell us what not to do (dummy notices):

This is an old classic, but it's noticeable, coming from Prague where the announcement on the metro is just "please finish getting on and off, the doors are now closing", to observe that in London as well as the regular "stand clear of the closing doors,"we also need notices that say "obstructing the doors can be dangerous". It's as if to say you might trap your fingers, dear, so don't go near the doors now. It seems to me that most people big enough to step across the gap between the train and the platform edge (what other gap would they be talking about?!) would also be big enough and clever enough to realise that closing doors present the risk of trapped fingers if you get in the way. It is then up to that person whether to risk it or not, once the doors are about to close. That's how we usually live, and I am not sure a notice will really change it. But maybe I overestimate common sense. 

Some give us information we never needed to know:

Some accidentally say something they didn't intend, by misusing punctuation, as one notice for cyclists did when I was in Norwich. Some threaten us (with fines, for example), and some just state the bleeding obvious, such as "caution, hot water" above a tap clearly marked in red (does anyone actually think red means cold, and if they did, would it really hurt them to discover by trial and error?) or "Do not enter when gates are locked."

It can go beyond notices, too. Yesterday my mother parked her bicycle as she does every day, in a quiet spot outside her office. She locked it, but didn't lock it to anything other than itself. This having been sufficient in the past to secure her bike (and she has parked it there very many many times), she was reasonably surprised to discover that it was gone when she came to go home on it in the evening. In fact, what had happened, was that the university Security Services, feeling that her bicycle was in danger of being stolen and imagining, I suppose, that my mother had not even considered for one moment the risk she took by not fastening it to something, had taken her bicycle away for safe-keeping. Or rather, had stolen her bicycle. They left no notice about having done so, and not knowing to whom the bicycle belonged were, of course, unable to inform her that they had done such a lovely thing to protect her bicycle. As a result, she was unable to get to where she was going in the evening on time, and could have been vastly more inconvenienced had it been another day or time. She was lucky enough to have had this same thing happen once before, and so did ask the security services and reclaim her bicycle, but any other person would not have known this was an option, and would surely have given up the bike for lost and reported the crime to the police. Has it really got to the stage where the university can protect us from theft of our property by compulsory removal of said property without warning or informing us?  

(Another post is required on the importance of "security services" of which more perhaps later.) 

I'm not really sure whether I find it nicer to live surrounded by notices that assume I'm a toddler, or to have to constantly prove who I am just in order to go about an ordinary every day task. I don't really like either, and would be rather happy if they found a happy medium. I don't mind proving my identity when that's actually necessary, and I don't mind being warned about something when I couldn't have worked it out for myself, or most people wouldn't have. I'll be interested to see what Olympic visitors to the UK make of all those signs, whether they really find them enlightening or useful. I wonder, too, whether there are some on the Queen's special Jubilee boat, like "please keep hands and arms inside the boat at all times." I mean, it's a good idea, isn't it, but I don't imagine that she would have got through sixty years of being Queen without knowing that sort of thing to start with. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Writing Paper

So. This is my first post from Prague and rather surprisingly it has nothing to do with meat, beer, the Czech language, or any of the other things that strike most people first when they arrive in this country. Well don't worry, I'll come to those things later! But over the last few weeks I have taken up some of the activities that I used to enjoy while living abroad, especially, but in the busy last couple of years back in the UK have been somewhat overlooked. Two such activities are baking cakes, and writing real letters to my friends and family.

Now, in order to write letters, one needs nice writing paper. It doesn't necessarily have to be pretty, but it needs to be proper thick paper, preferably with envelopes to match. In the UK, Christmas-card-sending, letter-writing capital of the world (possibly) it's still possible to find nice notelets and writing paper. It's getting harder, but it's not difficult if you go to the right sort of shop. But here, such things are almost non-existent. Single cards, like birthday cards, and perhaps even Easter cards, are available. But packs of cards, notelets or writing paper (in packs or blocks - I'm not fussy) just can't be found. I thought I was looking in the wrong places  - so I went to a couple of stationers - I mean proper, old fashioned, individual stationers - and to the stationery section of the big tesco department store. In tesco I found one boxed pack, with 5 notelets, a few sheets of paper, and some envelopes. Bright pink with a feather pattern on the paper. Well, it was just about palatable, but not exactly the height of taste and hardly a bargain. In the first stationer, I found there was no writing paper at all. In the second stationer they again had only one pack, this time featuring an orange gerbera, plain white envelopes, and the paper has lines printed on it which looks a bit childish. Well, I bought it in case I don't find any other paper in the whole city, but wow. What is the world coming to? All I want to do is write some letters.... surely I can't be the only one?!

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Dear Lib Dems

Dear Lib Dems,

The appeal of a handwritten letter is in its individuality. If you photocopy the letter (even in colour) and send it out to everyone in the constituency, we can tell. It looks awfully like you are trying to con us into voting for you. We are not fooled.

What is more, schoolboy style handwriting in blue ink on blue paper makes your candidate look like a schoolboy. A Tory schoolboy. He looked young in his photo, but this is ridiculous.

I've put it in the recycling bin. I hope it has a happy reincarnation as a Vote Green poster.


Thousands-of-voters in Norwich South.

Dear Lib Dems,

So you think the Greens are out of the race? It's a "two-horse race"? When you are walking up and down the streets of Norwich to deliver your newspaper-style campaign leaflets that declare this in bold print on their Daily Mail style front page, do you notice that you are walking past Green poster after Green poster after Green poster? Do you realise that you haven't passed a single Orange diamond shape?

Next time don't tell us lies, tell us what you are going to do that's good if we elect you. At least then we would bother to read your next leaflet before throwing it in the recycling.


Dear Labour,

Your leaflet is headed "What we will do for Edinburgh Road". I read your leaflet and it didn't mention Edinburgh Road. Will your government be the same? I don't really want a government that announces one thing and does something else.

So thanks but no thanks.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A little bit of nonsense

(to be continued at some point…)

A bat and a shrew went to sea in a shoe;
They arrived in a land full of palm trees and sand,
And were met by a hog, whose illustrious bog
Was their home for a week full of bubble and squeak.

Now these two little friends found it hard to pretend
That they’d come all the way from the bay of Biscay,
But onwards they went with their miniature tent,
Which they pitched on a beach with a flowering peach.

Golden Crane

Here stands the house of the Golden Crane,
Where the Ancient One sang his last silvery song.
Til now, no crane has returned again
While year upon year the clouds drift on.

The sun is setting above the trees
As clear Yang-tse waters lap the shore
Of the golden-green island, a haven of peace.
But the mists of sadness will lift no more.

("translated" -by me - from a Chinese poem by Ts'ui Hao)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reading to Translate

Part of what we have been doing in this long first term of my MA course, is considering what it means to read as a translator. It is both incredibly obvious and bizarrely surprising that the act of reading can be completely transformed by the purpose for which one reads. Of course, this is no new news. We all learned it in the first week of first year at university (if we hadn't already), when we discovered that reading for an essay necessarily did NOT involve becoming absorbed in the book from cover to cover, as one might read a novel.

But the fascinating thing about reading to translate is that in the process of the reading you discover things about your own "readings," not just of the text's layers of meaning, but of the world, people and things. And becoming aware of the way you read the world can change the way you look at things even when you're not "literally" trying to translate them from one language to another.

Even for those of us who are not translators, it could be fascinating to attempt, for a day, to place ourselves in the shoes of translators, and read people, situations, things, ourselves, as if we are trying to translate them…be it into another language, another landscape, another culture, another person's worldview.


It's been a long time since I've been properly posting on this blog. For a variety of reasons, not because I haven't had time or anything to write about!

One thing that I have, most recently, been meaning to blog about has been the new discussions between the Vatican and the Church of England/Anglican Communion. I was thinking about what to write on that topic, but then I saw Rowan's speech from this week in Rome. And I realised that this speech manages to sum up what I, and I think it would be fair to say, many of the ecumenists I have met in the past year, have been wanting to say about ecumenical dialogue, but haven't quite dared to.

Have a read for yourselves!

More posts on the way soon…

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Other peoples' words

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening
into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitations of thy glory and dominion,
world without end.

(after John Donne 1571-1631)

In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, 0 Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
Yet, 0 Lord God most holy, 0 Lord most mighty, 0 holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, 0 God most mighty, 0 holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.


Almightie God, we geve thee hertie thankes for this thy servaunte, whom thou haste delyvered from the miseries of this wretched world, from the body of death and all temptacion. And, as we trust, hast brought his soule whiche he committed into thy holye handes, into sure consolacion and reste: Graunte, we beseche thee, that at the daye of judgement his soule and all the soules of thy electe, departed out of this lyfe, may with us and we with them, fully receive thy promisses, and be made perfite altogether thorow the glorious resurreccion of thy sonne Jesus Christ our Lorde.

(BCP, 1549 version)

Take him, earth, for cherishing,
to thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
noble even in its ruin.

Once was this a spirit's dwelling,
by the breath of God created.
High the heart that here was beating,
Christ the prince of all its living.

Guard him well, the dead I give thee,
not unmindful of his creature
shall he ask it: he who made it
symbol of his mystery.

Comes the hour God hath appointed
to fulfil the hope of men,
then must thou, in very fashion,
what I give, return again.

Not though ancient time decaying
wear away these bones to sand,
ashes that a man might measure
in the hollow of his hand:

Not though wandering winds and idle,
drifting through the empty sky,
scatter dust was nerve and sinew,
is it given to man to die.

Once again the shining road
leads to ample Paradise;
open are the woods again,
that the serpent lost for men

Take, O take him, mighty leader,
take again thy servant's soul.
Grave his name, and pour the fragrant
balm upon the icy stone.

(Prudentius, Tr. Helen Waddell.) Howells' setting of this text was part of the repertoire of my first tour with Selwyn College Chapel Choir, to Scotland, in 2004.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

This is the night…

Permit me to be a little liturgical in this Easter season…

One service whose magic many churches manage to miss out on for the sake of a few inattentions is the Easter Vigil. Here's the order it went in where I was this year, with some annotations…

1. The people gather around the new fire (which is already lit) outside the church.

Two things are unfortunate about this: firstly, everyone should see the flame being kindled from nothing, to mark the moment of new light. Secondly, the fire should only come *after* the darkness. Which means definitely not at the beginning of the vigil.

2. The newly lit Paschal Candle, with its pins in, is processed into the church and 'The Light of Christ' is chanted three times, increasing in pitch, while the people's candles (which must be new ones) are lit.

At this point there should be no light in the church. Not even in the organ loft!

3. The Exultet is sung

This is well and good, but two things are important: firstly, that it is sung with all the right words, and secondly that it is sung with meaning (that means understanding what is being sung and singing it with poise and atmosphere). THIS is the night.

4. The vigil readings

These should come right at the beginning of the service, before number 1. above. They should be read while the church is in complete darkness, with only a tiny light for the reader to see with. There should be seven readings. Seven. Not four.

5. The vigil psalms

These should be sung to plainsong, including tonus peregrinus where appropriate. They should not be sung to anglican chant (too pretty) nor responsorially, please. Most importantly, the psalms are NOT to be followed with anything resembling 'Glory be…', since these are forbidden words from Maundy Thursday until Easter and may not rise again until Jesus does.

6. The Gloria

After the vigil readings and psalms, it is either Easter, in which case numbers 1 and 2. may follow, and a MASS. Or, it is considered not yet Easter, in which case the service should conclude (possibly with the Exultet but I am not convinced by this theory).

If it is Easter, then after 1., 2. and 3, there follows the Gloria, which, being (as I mentioned before) the first risen Gloria since Maundy Thursday, should be accompanied with the switching on of the lights in the church (or the rising of the sun, if vigil at dawn), an organ fanfare and, as long as Maundy Thursday was properly celebrated*, the ringing of bells for the first time. The people's candles should not be extinguished until this has happened.

This is the celebration of the resurrection, with light and music bursting through the darkness and silence of the first 'vigil' part, and from this point it is definitely Easter. There follows the First Mass of Easter, including as many allelluias (sung and triple) as possible - this word hasn't been said during the entirety of lent!

At the habitual place in the mass, baptisms, renewal of baptismal vows, blessing of the new water, and so on, may take place. Where I was this year, however, more was made of the water than of the fire. Which is a bit of a confusion.

Ideally, the entire thing takes place not in the evening of saturday, but very early on Sunday morning: "And very early, they came to the tomb…"

I don't know of any church that does all of this entirely as I have described it, though I hear from John that such a place does exist. I do know some places that come quite close to getting it right, and when they do, it's among the most moving services of the year. Quite appropriately, I would say: after all, what more miraculous than the moment of the resurrection?

*On Maundy Thursday when the gloria is sung for the last time, the bells should be rung with glee, and from then on remain silent (the organ also remaining silent from this moment on) until the first Gloria of Easter.