Sunday, January 26, 2014

(He)art in the right place: Pilsen welcomes Philippine diplomats

No doubt most Filipinos have only one thing in mind when they hear of Pilsen, but make no mistake – what follows has nothing to do with both the Czech and the Filipino nation’s favorite beer.

PILSEN, Czech Republic - When the super-typhoon Haiyan (AKA Yolanda) unleashed its destructive power over the Philippine archipelago last November and thrust the country – once again in an all too predictable fashion - into global spotlight, many Czechs were genuinely touched by the tragedy, expressing their sympathy with Filipinos en masse and donating money for the victims through various local and international charities.

One of the most original ways to express solidarity with the Filipino nation in these trying times was conceived by a group of teachers, students and alumni of the private school of applied arts in the city of Pilsen, administrative center of the West Bohemian region, located about one hundred kilometers west of Prague.

Helping those who help

The school, known simply as Zámeček (i.e. small castle, in Czech), has educated hundreds of artists and specialists in the field of applied painting, sculpture, photography, conservation/restoration, 3D design and graphic design over the last two decades. And while their primary focus might be on giving their graduates necessary skills for their future careers (and understandably so, given it is a private school that has to provide value for money), the teachers are clearly not neglecting the other aspect of education – forming their students into well rounded citizens.
Café Kačaba - where the world comes together

Because that is precisely who these teenagers proved to be by actively taking part in a group exhibition of charity posters that are now being sold to raise funds for the victims of the above mentioned deadly typhoon. The idea, first floated by Jiří Světlík and Pavel Botka, two teachers of graphic design at Zámeček (and hugely successful graphic designers in their own right), met with overwhelming enthusiasm of their students. The results of this creative synergy can still be seen (until the February 3rd) in downtown Pilsen’s Café Kačaba where some two dozen posters grace the walls and can be “adopted” for the price of 500 Czech crowns (CZK) - roughly one thousand pesos - or 30 CZK for a smaller print of the same in the form of a postcard.

The proceeds of the charity exhibition will go to the Diaconia of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren that describes itself as “a Christian non-profit organization offering help and support for living a dignified and valuable life despite age, illness, disability, isolation, difficult social situations and other life crisis“. It should be emphasized that Diaconia was among the first Czech organizations that provided aid to the victims of the typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan last November through its partner organizations (Philippine Citizens‘ Disaster Response Center and German Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe).

Diaconia’s West Bohemian center, based in Pilsen, also happens to be behind the idea of setting up Café Kačaba in 2005 as a „sheltered worskshop“ for people with disabilities, a concept that proved to be as worthy as successful. Thus it seemed only natural to mount the charity posters exhibition for the benefit of the typhoon victims in this place which has been giving hope and dignity to dozens of disadvantaged people.

It all came perfectly together last January 23rd when the delegation from the Philippine Embassy in Prague paid a visit to Pilsen to express gratitude of the Philippine nation for this latest act of Czech people‘s sympathy with the victims of Yolanda (there were many more). The visit started in the ateliers of Zámeček in the Pilsen suburb of Křimice where Mr. Juan "Jed" Dayang Jr., Consul at the Philippine Embassy in Prague and Mr. Ramon "Bong" Gaspar, its cultural attaché, were welcomed by the director of the school Mrs. Renata Šindelářová and some of the institution’s teachers including Mr. Botka and Mr. Světlík.

Blue-blooded intermission
The magical chiaroscuro of the Křimice castle's chapel
After the brief tour of the school’s ateliers and an informal chat over coffee and cakes the delegation was given a rare honor of visiting the neighboring princely mansion of the Křimice branch of the House of Lobkowicz, one of the most prominent Czech noble families that traces its roots to the 14th century. They have been always fond of art, commissioning many masterpieces over the centuries, and they continue the family tradition by supporting the Zámeček school, which uses some of their buildings for its purposes.

The head of the family, 71-year old Prince (however, the title is not officially used in the Czech Republic ever since the newly independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 abolished nobility and did away with their traditional prerogatives) Jaroslav Lobkowicz - who also happens to be a sitting member of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Czech parliament - and his first-born son Vladimir, who takes care of the business interests of the family, were at hand to show the foreign guests an their entourage around.

In the courtyard of the Křimice castle
The story of the mansion – its sequestration by the state after the communist takeover in 1948 and its eventual restitution to the rightful owners after the communist regime’s downfall in 1989 (though the actual turnover was not completed until 2007) – mirrors the dramatic turns of the modern Czech history and to hear it directly from the owner was a truly enlightening experience. It should be stressed that Lobkowicz family counts among the most traditional Catholic nobility of this country and it was through an act of generosity of one of its own -namely Polyxena of Lobkowicz (1566-1642) – that a small statue of Child Jesus, today widely known and venerated (also in the Philippines, of course) as Infant Jesus of Prague, became an object of public worship in the Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague. Therefore it is little surprising that one finds a gem of a chapel decked with masterpieces of Baroque art in the family’s Křimice mansion, restored with a great care to its former glory after several decades of neglect by the atheism preaching communist state.

There’s always a rainbow after the rain

But the time was scarce and it was time to move from Pilsen’s serene suburb of Křimice to its buzzing downtown where Café Kačaba is located for the place was packed with students of Zámeček, all waiting for the rare chance to meet and greet the visiting Filipino diplomats. Mr. Dayang and Mr. Gaspar were each given a copy of a collective poster (consisting of postcard-size views of all the individual posters created for the exhibition) together with several rolls of an original Christmas wrapping paper consisting of suns and stars that appear on the Philippine national flag. In addition Mr. Petr Neumann, Director of the West Bohemian Center of Diaconia, presented the diplomats with a pillow and a throw-rug, hand-made by clients of their sheltered workshop, the symbolic meaning of the gift being the hope that the multitudes of Filipinos made homeless by the deadly typhoon will soon be able to enjoy a sound sleep in a cozy comfort of their restored houses.  
Sweet dreams are made of this (Philippine Embassy's cultural attaché Bong Gaspar gets a pillow from Diaconia's Petr Neumann)

What followed was a mutually enriching conversation about the life in the Philippines, a country that is visited by twenty tropical storms a year on average – something that most inhabitants of the Czech Republic, a landlocked country with a mild climate, can hardly imagine, but also about the deeper meaning of art and creative process and how individual talents can be pooled to create a group exhibition with a sense of caring and sharing (rather than just showing off or creating art for art’s sake) at its core. The positive feedback that students got from the visiting diplomats was the most gratifying part of the entire undertaking, according to Mr. Světlík who had started the ball rolling in November by coming up with the “Merry Christmas for Everyone?” motto for the class exercise that eventually grew into a full-fledged group show, thus setting up its tone (one of alarm and sympathy for those who were denied the joy of festive season which most of us tend to take for granted).
It's more fun in the Philippines and we all know it.

While expressing genuine gratitude for such show of empathy, not expected from usually self-absorbed teenagers, the Filipino envoys tried to pump some optimism into the evening by putting the tragedy of Yolanda into perspective - explaining how resilient the Filipinos are, how famously indomitable their spirit, and also how the year 2013 did not just bring misery to the nation but moments of pure joy and collective pride through multiple Pinay triumphs at world’s top beauty contests or through first boxing victory in more than two years by the People’s Champ Manny Pacquiao. Reviving the DOT campaign’s central motto - “It’s more fun in the Philippines”, which was temporarily suspended in the wake of typhoon’s taking unprecedented toll on human lives, they encouraged everyone present to visit the country and see for themselves that the slogan rings truer than ever.

Sunday, January 5, 2014



Issue II, October-December 2013, Prague, Czech Republic

My dearest kababayans,

I am too little now to understand what has happened to my native city. I have to wait until I grow into an age when I am ready to grasp the tragedy of Tacloban. I will certainly be saddened by the loss of life and disappearance of most of the city, in which I was born two and a half years ago. I will thank God for sparing you and I will thank the Reception and Study Center for Children's staff for evacuating you in time to a safe place. 

I will most likely not see you again. At least not in the RSCC where I spent over a year of my life. 

You are said to have been moved to Manila. No one knows at this point when you will be back in Tacloban. Maybe never. Maybe you will be soon matched with adoptive families and leave your homeland for good. Like I did more than six months ago. 

Meanwhile, my life in my not-so-new homeland has been going on typhoon-free and in a less turbulent way than yours have. 

However, I have gone through some stormier times myself. Some time ago, coincidentally when the typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, I had big sleeping problems. Not only during the day but at night too. It had terrible effects on me and my moods and naturally on the whole family. More in my report below.

My dearest kababayans, wherever you are, I wish you all the best, happy times free of natural disasters and last but not least, happy parents who will love you dearly and unconditionally like my parents love me.

Yours ever,

Rica Vondrova

On sleeping
As mentioned in my editorial, some time ago I had troubles with falling asleep. Despite being very tired, I failed to fall asleep. I would jump all over my mom who would patiently try to calm me down. I would try to talk to her but she would keep singing lullabies and pet me over my head. So I would talk to myself, my fingers or my toys. Sometimes my mom would fall asleep before I would, so I would have to wake her up to remind her I am not sleeping yet.  

Well, you see, life is so interesting, why should I sleep it over, di ba? And yet, I do have to take a lunch nap, mom says, because I would get unbearably restless in the afternoon and would not enjoy life as much. 

During the day mom (or sometimes dad) would put me in a stroller and go for a walk outside. Only then I fell asleep. In the evening it was somewhat impossible.Besides, who wants to stroll late at night when it is dark and cold. Especially now when the temperatures dropped below zero, right?

Luckily, the big troubles with sleeping are gone. I wouldn’t call myself a sleeping enthusiast but I am more easily convinced now to go to bed and actually lie down and try to close my eyes and sleep. Watching a good night story on TV sometimes helps (see the picture - together with my grandma). Sometimes it doesn't. It is still very unpredictable with me, I must admit. 

Sit down, mámo, sit down táto
As for learning Czech, I am extending my vocabulary day by day. As said in my last report – it is a very difficult language and I don’t envy any foreigner who attempts to learn it.  

Some things confuse me, like the word stolička (at first I learned it means a stool/little chair and now I found out it also means a jaw tooth).

Then some words are extremely long. Compare socks in English and ponožky in Czech. Or sun and sluníčko. Or red and červená. Etcetera.

But I enjoy learning new long words. It is fun and it seems mom and dad enjoy it too. They almost always laugh when I try to use them. For example, the word konvalinka (lily of the valley). I can hardly pronounce it but I won’t get discouraged. I keep coming to mom and tell her proudly – kodadinka! She compliments me for trying hard. Sometimes she laughs and I laugh with her.

Despite learning new words almost every day, I retain some of the English or Tagalog/Waray words or my own mix:

Mainom – to drink
Baboy – pig
Ulan - rain
Init - hot
Sit down (my favorite phrase is Sit down, mámo, sit down, táto. I use it so often, mom and dad often sing it as a made-up song in the James Brown fashion.)
Up - much easier to say up than Stoupni si, don't you think?
Deida - meaning lie down

On visiting zoo and riding a fox’s tail
Among the highlights in the fall was visiting the Prague zoo. I was amazed by the size of some animals. Knowing them from books doesn’t give you the proper proportion or size they actually happen to have. I am talking about elephants, giraffes or even zebras. There were also penguins, seals, turtles and flamingoes.

I was most amazed by gorillas, though. I stood there fascinated by the mama gorilla and papa gorilla and their babies, cuddling and hugging just like me and mom and dad do. I didn’t want to leave the place, I tell you.

Apart from animals, I still like food and music. A true Filipina, my parents say. There are karaokes all over the Philippines, you see and the first question you are often asked in my homeland is not How are you? but Have you eaten? In other words, food is always on Filipinos' mind and so is on mine.

As for my passion for music, I have discovered another song by my favorite duo Svěrák – Uhlíř (something like Lennon – McCartney in the world of Czech kids' music) – a mini-opera called Budulínek. I can hardly pronounce the word (try it for yourself boo-doo-lee-neck) but I just cannot get enough of it. Well, just ask my parents. They will tell you how many times I can listen to this piece during the day. I cannot even count that high.

At one point a fox is carrying Budulínek, a little naughty boy, on its tail. I guess that is the best thing about the whole piece – I would like to take a ride on the fox’s tail myself! Or I would like to become the fox and haunt little boys. Mom makes me a little tail out of my scarf and I pretend to be the fox and mom or dad are Budulínek running away from me pretending to be scared.

St. Nicolas Day and my first Christmas
Czechs have this funny tradition called Mikuláš, which translates as St. Nicolas Day. A group of mostly three persons - devil, angel and St. Nicolas roam around the town or households and ask kids if they behaved in the past year.
Those who have are rewarded with sweets and candy; those who have not are put in the devil’s sack and taken to hell or given only a sack of potatoes or coal.

I got plenty of chocolate and candy, so I must have been good. But boy, I was scared to death, I must tell you, not really of the devil but of the angels who mostly had strange (blue) hair and St. Nicolas who had big white beard and a huge cap. 

I could hardly have a look at them when they tried to talk to me (see the picture on the left). I was holding onto my mom and dad so tightly, they could hardly breathe. The chocolate tasted good, though.

On that day I learned a new word - dárek (gift). When Ježíšek (something like Santa) came weeks later and gave me dárek, I was a bit disappointed it wasn’t chocolate. I thought up until then all dáreks are always chocolate. 

Well, they aren’t. I don’t fully get the concept of gift giving yet but I like all the toys and books I got. The best thing about Christmas, though, is the decorated tree – it almost always has chocolates on! 

On singing Christmas carols and meeting Santa and Pinoys
A group of Filipinos living in the Czech Republic organized a Christmas kiddies’ party for all those who love the Philippines. There were many Filipino-Czech kids, plenty of gifts and food and music and of course, there was Santa. 

I was a bit scared of this big guy dressed in red having a strange white beard. My grandma had to hold me in her arms the whole time when we approached him to get a present. Slowly, I warmed up. I was pleased to get more chocolate and eat great Filipino food the Pinoy expats prepared themselves. I was so energized by all the pancit and adobo, I didn’t want to leave the dance floor later on. (See the video here.)

A day before the Christmas Day mom and dad took me to the Charles Bridge where a choir and musicians played a famous Czech Christmas mass by Jakub Jan Ryba. It is commonly known as Rybovka. I sat on my dad’s shoulders and listened fascinated by all the singing and instrument playing.

On the last day of the year 2013 mom took me to a small church nearby our house. There was the New Year’s Eve mass. At one point the priest came up to us to give me blessings but I screamed right into his face: I don't want any angel! I amused everyone present at the mass. He did look like an angel, though, dressed in a long white robe. A wingless angel, though. 

I was fascinated by the music again - organ and male choir. I refused to leave, shouting No bye bye, mom! No going home! The priest seemed to be pleased with me again.

Then there was the last night of the year of 2013. Mom and dad stayed home and had a quiet evening. I slept like a baby, a real baby and no fireworks could wake me up. I was all joyful and full of laughs the next day. I hope the whole year of 2014 will be like that. 

That is what I wish to you all too – joy and lots of laughing moments.Until next time.