Starter for ten: What is the second largest city in the Czech Republic, with approximately 400,000 inhabitants; is the historical capital city of Moravia; is included as a stop on the annual Moto GP circuit, and recognises noon at 11 am?
If you answered Brno to the above question, then congratulations, as that’s more than I knew as I found myself racing through the Czech countryside on a two-and-a-half train journey eastwards from Prague towards this fairy-tale city. I’d agreed to meet my old housemate Lukas for a weekend city break, and the only reason we’d chosen Brno as a destination was that it’s fairly equidistant between Prague, where I was situated at the time, and Vienna, my Austrian friend’s hometown. Little did I know then that I would fall completely in love with everything about the place in just a short two night’s visit.
Each year in Brno, the government sends out a survey questionnaire to the city’s residents asking them to identify what areas and aspects of the city they feel could be most improved. These responses are then analysed and used to democratically decide how to split the annual spending budget. As a result of the most recent answers, the main train station was closed for renovation, so I found myself disembarking just out of town at a smaller replacement station. Stepping down onto the platform and into the red warmth of the setting evening sun, I laughed at where I found myself. A vast expanse of nothingness lay before me; rolling fields covering the landscape like crumpled bed sheets and not a building in sight. There wasn’t even a bridge over, or a tunnel under, the two platforms, and we had to queue up until our train continued on its way towards the final destination of Budapest before being chaperoned across the tracks by a podgy uniformed female railway conductor; blowing her whistle with the authority of a referee at a football World Cup match. It was like when our train had reached 88 mph we’d time travelled back into the ages of horse-and-cart rural farming communities. Oh well, I was there now. Slinging my bag over my back, I mapped a route to Hostel Jacob, where I’d booked a bed for the evening, and set on my way.
Passing through the giant shopping mall that links the train station to Brno’s Old Town, I suddenly felt myself catapulted back to the present day; every large fashion and cosmetics brand seemingly having fought for retail space there. The hands on the large clock in the exit hall indicated that it was a hair after 7 pm, and as I entered the cobbled, tram-tracked, roads of the Old Town itself, it seemed like the whole city had come out to celebrate the end of the working week.
Lugging my bag across the main square, which actually forms the shape of a triangle, the colourful yellow, pink and white buildings bordering it ushered me into the heart of the city. The variety of architectural styles in Brno is a visible timeline of this city’s history, with communist-era blocks standing alongside grandiose buildings from the Habsburg Empire, modernist designs, and jaw dropping gothic cathedrals and churches. For being one of the most atheist countries in the world, the Czech Republic sure does have a large number of religious buildings; a reminder of the protestant and catholic eras the country went through in the twentieth century.
Continuing along, I found myself swerving around the hundreds of patrons spilling out into the street from the packed, quirky, bars. The al fresco summer drinking culture found in continental Europe is something that the British weather and alcohol temperament of its locals has never permitted. Brno has an extremely large student, and therefore young, population, and the variety of hipster cafes, restaurants, and pop-up drinking establishments found in the city is a testament to this. A makeshift fake-beach had been constructed in the main ‘triangle’; a Gatsby-themed cocktail bar stood on the next corner; and, as I rounded this into St. James Square, which my hostel overlooked, there was a beer stock exchange that would make any drinker feel like a would-be Wolf of Wall Street. It had eight beers on tap and the price of each changed every minute based on levels of consumption, with a NASDAQ-style board keeping track of the movements.
According to the friendly camp guy at the hostel reception, St. James Square never used to be that special. A few years ago, however, a bar called Standing Up opened on it and people began flocking to what was soon ranked the best pub in the whole of the Czech Republic. As he showed me to my room, violin music and the laughter of the crowds wafted through the open windows. Whereas in the rest of the city it is prohibited to drink in the street after 10 pm, the rules were relaxed for this particular spot, and you can buy beer and chill out on the kerbs or by the fountain with friends until the early hours of the morning without being hassled. I grinned. If they tried to do this in Scotland then a riot van and armed police would have to be waiting in anticipation of the trouble that would inevitably break out. Dumping my bag, I headed out for dinner and then joined them for a cold half-litre of micro-brewed beer.
I met Lukas in a museum café the following morning, and over a breakfast of Norwegian smoked salmon we caught up on life. It had been one year since I’d last seen him in Vienna, the events of which are depicted in my second book We Ordered a Panda, and in that time he’d quit his job as a lawyer; travelled through Asia; become a pizza delivery driver; applied for medical school, and found a love for beach volleyball. Brno’s residents proudly admit that they spend many hours sitting in cafes during the day, relaxing and people-watching. Many of them act as all-day hangouts and it’s not surprising to find concerts, improve-theatre shows, exhibitions, or even debates taking place in them from time to time.
Paying our check, we took a wander down to the main ‘triangle’ and the controversial Brno clock. A free walking tour of the city leaves from here on a daily basis at 11 am, or what is known locally as ‘Brno noon’. Called the ‘cock clock’ or ‘erection at the intersection’ by the locals, this piece of modern artwork is meant to be shaped like a black bullet, but everyone knows that it more resembles a giant twenty-foot high dildo. It is apparently a reference to the year 1645 when Brno was besieged by the Swedes. Legend has it that the Swedish general, Thorstenson, boasted that Brno would be conquered by noon otherwise his army would leave and fight elsewhere. Struggling against such a powerful army, the good people of Brno knew that they wouldn’t survive until then, so in an act of trickery rang the bells of Petrov Cathedral an hour early, at 11 am. The Swedes fell for this cunning trick and left, saving the city. The cock clock now stands on the ground where the cathedral used to be after it was demolished to put the tram network in place. The locals openly admit that they don’t really know how it works, either, but every New Year’s Eve they are given a chuckle when the phallus shape is wrapped in a huge condom-like cover to protect it from errant fireworks.
As our tour began, we were taught loads about the history of the region of Moravia, the city’s status under the Austro-Hungarian rule, and its political landscape. We were also quick to find out that the cock clock was not the only piece of thought-provoking artwork in the city, which went as far to include a giant oversized statue of Jost of Moravia on his horse complete with massive balls and penis. There were also several smoking pipes and traffic signs which, unless you were told that they were meant to do that, would appear to be definite safety risks. Instead of contacting the council, however, locals began ironically worshiping these as monuments and, according to some, they show that Brno’s dragon is, to this day, still resting in its underground lair. Wait, did you just say dragon? Yes, reader, that I did.
A long time ago (nobody really knows when) a dragon was brought into Brno by Crusaders. The beast decided to make the city its home and threatened the citizens and all of their livestock. As a result, merchants stopped coming to the city to sell and women stopped going to the market. Plans were made as to how the dragon could be killed, but nobody has the courage to actually do it. That is, until one day a butcher travelling through the region got very drunk at one of the bars and volunteered. Taking a sack made of sheep fur, the butcher filled it with lime and placed it down by the river where the dragon was most frequently spotted. It took the bait and, eating it, became so thirsty that it kept drinking until its stomach expanded with the lime inside and burst. With the beast killed, the citizens celebrated by having the dragon preserved and hung in the Old Town Hall. A replica still exists there, and one can’t help but see that the so called ‘dragon’ looks an awful like a giant crocodile.
Following our tour, Lukas and I thought that we better make up for our not-so-local breakfast by having a stodgy traditional Czech dinner. Taking a recommendation from our guide we went out of town to a place called Hostonec U Seminaru and, taking in the décor of interwar Czechoslovakia, we ordered up a feast of duck liver pate, sirloin in cream sauce with dumplings and cranberry, and pork slices with black beer and honey roasted potatoes. Washing down our food with Pilsner beers poured from tanks instead of barrels, I raised a glass to Lukas and thanked him for such a pleasant weekend.
“There’s still plenty of Brno to explore,” he said, smiling. “I’ll definitely be back here. And sooner rather than later.”
‘Likewise,” I nodded. “This city has completely captivated me. I just can’t understand why I’ve never been recommended to come here before. People need to know how awesome this place actually is.”
For a country that seems to be so famed for its condensed milk iced coffees, worldwide distributed premium beans, and infamous weasel poop plantations, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a good cup of Joe in Vietnam. Forget latte art, most of the brews I had the displeasure of drinking during my month spent traversing the country more resembled murky pond water than milky delights, coming complete with sea floor debris in the form of ground beans glued the bottom of the dirty ceramic cups they were usually served in.
Pleasantly greeted with a warm smile by the young barista as I walked through the brightly painted narrow door of the hole-in-the-wall Note Coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City, therefore, I was over the moon to see her go about operating the shiny new roaster that took its pride of place on the counter in an absolute seamless manner. Finally, a coffee that wasn’t going to be made using frozen instant beans and boiled hose water. Ordering a flat white and banh mi sandwich, I took a look around at the kaleidoscopic walls and ceiling. It was rather evident how the café had got its name. Signed post-it notes had been stuck to every feasible area of white space, words of inspiration and love being spread by Note Coffee customers from all four corners of the globe.
Delighted at having stumbled across this absolute jewel in the heart of Vietnam’s largest city, I followed the girl in the neatly-pressed apron up the winding staircase at the back of the shop to the rooftop seating area. She was a student studying Korean and English language at a local University, and clearly loved any moment that she could get to practice with a native speaker. As she went downstairs to make my order, I nipped into the toilet, which was styled as a British red post box, of course, and soon after she returned back up the steep stairs with my food and drink on a slip-proof tray. “Here you go,” she grinned, placing it down on a table that had views over the window-box flowers of the street below. “Thanks,” I responded, handing over the cash. I don’t think that smile had left her face since I’d arrived.
Complementing her on her English, she then proceeded to ask where I was from and where I was travelling and soon we’d entered into a lengthy conversation about my plans to travel up the entire coastline of the country to the capital city of Hanoi. “You need to visit our sister coffee shop when you get there then,” she said to me excitedly. “That is the original Note Coffee, with this one having only opened a couple of months ago.” On my way out the door a half-hour later I repeated my promise that I would say hello to her colleagues in the North; a note reading ‘love her but leave her wild’ in homage to my favourite poet Atticus left in place of my empty coffee cup.
Two weeks later, I strolled around the pond in the centre of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and spotted the place I was looking for. Well, it wasn’t that hard to find considering there was a youthful staff member stood at the door waving at me from the other side of the street. ‘There must be something in the water,’ I thought as I crossed the road and greeted him, not quite able to comprehend the levels of staff morale and happiness maintained by this small business. In a completely personal opinion, from all my travels I’ve found the Vietnamese vox populi to be the most rude and curt in the whole of South-East Asia. Managing to find this anomaly of love and joy in an otherwise bitter and grumpy country was an absolute revelation.
“What’s your name?” asked the same guy as he placed my coffee down next to my laptop. I’d already decided that this was going to be the perfect place to get my writing done whilst in the city. “Crobs,” I said, shaking his hand. “I’m going to be in Hanoi for the next twelve days before heading back to Europe, so you’ll probably see me a lot over the coming fortnight. I actually came here because of how awesome the staff in your Saigon branch were.” As a side note, Ho Chi Minh City used to be called Saigon until it was officially renamed in 1976 to commemorate the first leader of North Vietnam. Depending on their political standpoints, however, some Vietnamese people are still not too happy with this, so I cautiously ensured to still use the old name when talking to the locals. “We run a weekly English club every Monday night,” responded the guy. “If you’re still going to be here then it would be awesome if you could attend and help out.” How could I not?
Convincing my friends Tilly and Pete to join, the three of us sat down at 8 pm that following Monday in the circle of wooden chairs which had been arranged by the owner of the Note, and English club member, Tien. We introduced ourselves, and soon after the full-house of members had arrived and were ready to start. “Today’s topic of discussion is going to be ‘vacations’,” announced the confident teenage girl in charge of proceedings. She had just passed her final high school exams and was looking forward to having a study-free summer in front of her. I offered to start off and explained the purpose of my world tour trip, detailed some of the countries that I’d visited along the way and my impressions of Hanoi.
After my well-enunciated and deliberately slow monologue, I assumed that the stage would be set for the next person in the circle, but instead, a flurry of questions came my way. What was my favourite place? What did I dislike about Vietnam? How does life differ back in Scotland from Asia? They were all so interested in what life was like for someone from a completely different background, and I was happy to oblige them with detailed answers. They were just so eager to learn and in an informal out-of-classroom setting were all a lot more willing to participate. It also made me realise that learning a new language is not all about grammar and tenses, but in also understanding the culture, lifestyle differences, and unorthodox dialogue. Over the course of the next two hours or so, Pete, Tilly, and I gave them an epic geography lesson which they clearly very much appreciated. I also proudly managed to slip in a few Scottish slang terms along the way which at first baffled, and then very much amused them.
“We will miss you. Always be happy and have a safe flight.” That’s what the note that accompanied my coffee and cake the next morning read. ‘I’ll miss you too,’ I thought as I left the Note for a final time. For reasons I’ll not go into it had been an emotionally scarring time for me, and although I always try to come across as happy to people, at times I’m far from it. In that moment, however, for the first time in a long time, I truly believed that happiness was just around the corner.
Against my better judgement, the first thing that struck me when crossing the railroad tracks running directly through the heart of Auschwitz-Birkenau was the sheer beauty of the place. As I stopped to take in the 360-degree panorama, not a breath of wind in the air, only the soft chirping of birds broke the silence; hauntingly highlighting the nascent wonder of life in a place where so many were horrifically lost. Rolling fields of green sprawled out as far as my eyes could see beyond three sides of the rectangular-shaped concentration camp and the sun set from a perfectly blue sky behind the giant evergreen trees that lined the fourth. It was nothing but picturesque. A wave of guilt spread through me as a result of these happy thoughts but I was soon snapped out of my trance and back to the paradoxical reality of where I was standing as my guide of thirty years’ experience coughed and continued with his educational tour. The trodden ground under my feet contained the ashes of an estimated 1.1 million souls who were mercilessly killed here before the close of the Second World War.
Named after the nearby Polish town of Oświęcim, Auschwitz is actually a network of three concentration camps that were built by the Nazi’s in this annexed area. It was first constructed as a labour camp in 1940 to hold Polish political prisoners, and throughout the Third Reich regime this lie was upheld despite the extermination of prisoners by gas chamber starting as early as 1941; the unthinkable reality of what was happening behind the barbed wire fences and in the on-site ‘washrooms’ remaining a well-kept secret. Prisoners would initially be told that they were going for a shower, fake faucets even fixed in place to maintain hope whilst they undressed and exposed their frail and broken bodies. Being shuffled into place by a number of the some 7,000 German SS guards who were stationed in Auschwitz throughout WWII, however, the Nazi’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question was them imposed upon them as they were sprayed with Zyklon B pesticide. The ashen corpses were incinerated and carted out by the trainload on a daily basis.
Before taking us to Auschwitz-Birkenau, otherwise called Auschwitz II, our guide had given us a tour around the Holocaust Museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site of the smaller Auschwitz I; the sickly ironic phrase ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ stamped over the main gate impossible to ignore as we entered. Translating to ‘Work Sets You Free’ in English, this was the Nazi slogan used in concentration camps all around Europe. Nobody was ever set free, of course, but a few prisoners did miraculously manage to survive until the end of the War and live to tell the tales of their almost unimaginable ordeals. Two books I would strongly recommend reading are Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and If This Is a Man by Primo Levi. Both men were lucky enough to have passed in and out of Auschwitz in the same life, and their accounts of the experiences and emotions felt throughout are invaluable.