Caught in a Czech Funk

Travel Stories: All David Farley wanted from the tourist information office in the tiny town of Nove Hrady was directions to the train station. Then he asked the young clerk a seemingly innocuous question: Was that funk booming from the speakers?

02.21.07 | 5:57 AM ET

czech republicPhoto courtesy of Czech Tourism.

In the 15th century, Papal armies, looking to squash a religious reform movement, marched into Bohemia, the western part of today’s Czech Republic. A couple centuries later, the Austrians, also under the guise of religion, conquered the region. Most recently, my wife and I traipsed through the area on foot. I wasn’t thirsty to spill blood in the name of God—maybe just slurp a couple finely brewed beers in a rural pub. Still, despite my benevolence, Czechs can sometimes be wary of foreigner invaders. But when I asked Richard, an under-whelmed 21-year-old working in an empty tourist information office in tiny Nove Hrady about the booming George Clinton-like funk that was roaring from the speakers, I seemed to become more than the latest invader looking for train information.

“You like this?” Richard said, pulling his eyes away from the train timetable, his eyebrows piqued. “Come,” he said, before I could give him an answer, waving me into a paper-strewn back room where he piled a stack of CDs in front of me.

The music was Czech funk, which Richard, I found out, was crazy about—and my simple inquiry, apparently, was enough for him to think I was crazy about it, too. Seconds later, Richard was playing DJ for me, blasting various Czech funk groups through the boom box, telling me their names, their histories and about the concerts he’d been to.

“Yeah, this sounds good,” I screamed. “But what about the train times to—“

“Wait,” he said, holding up the palm of his hand, as he reached over with his other hand to turn up the volume. “Listen to this.”

My wife and I were in southern Bohemia, in the middle of walking the Prague-Vienna Greenways, a series of old trading routes that pass through desolate villages, ruined castles and formerly forbidden Cold War borderland. We’d just trekked into Nove Hrady and found a room at one of the town’s few points of interest: a baroque monastery that was built by the Austrians to help Catholisize the region after the 17th-century wars of religion; most recently it served as the home of Cold War-era guards who stood on the nearby border waiting to snatch émigrés. As the priest plopped the heavy room key into my hand, he uttered the words “rain” and “tomorrow” in alarming succession, leaving us with three options: trudging 22 miles through a downpour to our next destination, staying in sleepy Nove Hrady another day or deviating from our walking tour by taking the train to the next town, Trebon.

We had to be in Vienna in six days to catch our flight home, which made the decision easy: keep moving by train. To be honest, I was happy to take a day off from the trail. After seven days, my feet were aching, my flesh dotted with fresh mosquito bites and my leg muscles strained. And as unpopular as this may sound, I was tired of nature—I wanted to be back in a city where the “trails” are marked with street signs and not a faded or, in some cases, invisible color marker on a tree; where I had a choice of dining options; where entire villages didn’t rush out to their houses, curious about the strange people trekking down the village’s only street. I loved the idea of this trip, but two weeks of it was rough. The thought of putting my feet up on a train, as it barreled through the same dense coniferous forests we were supposed to trudge through the following day, sounded like paradise. Because the nearest railway station was five miles out of town, we’d have to take a bus to the train, and Richard, my funky friend in the tourist office, was going to tell me how to do it.

I had hoped. Occasional reminders that I still needed the train and bus times now went completely unheard, as Richard stood next to the stereo bobbing his head to the loud music. “This is Monkey Business,” he said. “You like?”

“It reminds me a little of George Clinton,” I said.

“Clin-ton?” said Richard, cocking his head to the side. “He is brother of your last president?”

I laughed, thinking about a time when I interviewed George Clinton, one of the founders of the influential ‘70s funk groups Parliament and Funkadelic. I reminded the wild-haired godfather of funk that the President had once played sax on stage with him. Then I asked if Bill was a “brother” or “brotha.” Clinton, the musician, thought about it for a second and then said Clinton, the president, was definitely a “brotha.”

“He’s his brotha,” I finally blurted out, unsure why.

Richard stared at me blankly, lightly shrugged, and then reached into the CD pile. “This one has hard beat—good for your next hike. Funk is friend of the trekking.”

Several song snippets and a few more attempts to get the train times later, Richard finally acquiesced. With the sun now hovering just above the horizon, Richard walked me to the door. We shook hands and exchanged e-mail addresses.

“You must make promise to buy Czech funk CD when you go home in New York,” he said, as I was walking away. “Then send me e-mail.” 

“Okay. I promise,” I said, lying, not entirely sure if I had caught the Czech funk.

The next morning, Saturday, Jessie and I awoke early. The bus was leaving at 7:55 a.m., which would get us to the train station in plenty of time to hop on our Trebon-bound train. Perhaps because Richard had explained our passage so clearly I wasn’t worried when we rounded the corner and noticed the vast parking lot-cum-bus station devoid of buses and passengers at the exact time the bus was scheduled to arrive. But I did worry when I read the schedule: There were no buses on Saturday. 

Jessie and I stood there, looking at each other and then at the schedule again, hoping the arrivals and departures would miraculously change. 

“Nice going,” said Jessie, breaking the silence, as drizzle began to spot my glasses. “You got that guy at the tourist office so enthralled in his Czech funk or whatever it’s called that he overlooked the fact that the seven fifty-five bus doesn’t go on Saturdays.”

I wandered into a nearby tobacco shop and asked a woman if there was a different bus to the train station. Negative. A taxi service? Nope. Out of desperation and needed comic relief, I asked if there was a rickshaw we could take. She just stared at me.

Which left us only one other option. Our thumbs pointing heavenward, we stood on the side of the road that led out of town toward the railway station. It was 8:15 a.m. and our train didn’t leave for an hour. Hitchhiking is still practiced with some regularity in the Czech Republic and, though I’d never hitchhiked anywhere, I was confident we’d make it.

The first car sped past, the driver making what appeared to be the international I’m-just-going-around-the-bend-here hand sign. So did the next. And the next. And the next. Forty-five minutes elapsed, our outstretched arms now limp with discouragement.

“It’s nine o’clock,” Jessie said, and then nodded toward a café on the corner, conceding defeat. I sighed, and tilted my face up to the gloomy sky, thinking about the funk we were in. When I looked back at the road, I noticed a bicyclist approaching. Jokingly, I stuck my thumb out. As he got closer, and his face came in to focus, I had to take a long blink to make sure I wasn’t imagining this: It was Richard. 

When our eyes met, he went from happy to horrified in two seconds. By his accounts, we should have been standing on a train platform at that moment. When I explained what had happened, Richard said, “Okay, I get you to train station.” Just then, he jumped off his bike and hurled himself in front of a clunky orange Skoda. The driver made a wide swerve and then slammed on the brakes. Richard might not have known who was driving the car when he darted in front of it, but in a town this size it was certain to be someone he’d known all his life.

After a quick discussion with the driver, Richard, at one point steepling his hands together in a begging motion, finally looked at us. “My friend Honza will take you. Get in.”

Honza was a fisherman—not that he had to say so. The inside of his car reeked of it. Jessie sat in the front seat straddling a bucket of freshly caught carp between her knees, and I took the back where a stack of logs was piled up to shoulder level. I lay across them on my side, my left hand propping my head up, as if I were laying on the carpet in front of the TV. Cut off branches poked at my ribs. Within seconds, we were speeding down a tree-lined country road, passing cars and slow-moving tractors.

“Don’t you think south Bohemians are friendlier than Praguers?” Honza turned and asked me as we swerved around a carload of gray-haired heads. “They’re better drivers,” I lied, stumbling through the Czech language I once knew so well when I lived in Prague. We laughed and then Honza put his foot on the gas pedal.

He had a point: The Czech capital has become a victim of its own beauty, as foreign tourists make the city swell to a nearly intolerable size each summer. Outside Prague, however, where few tourists forge, traveling can take a less predictable and refreshing course. Or so it seemed, as I brushed away a bug that had made the jump from branch to my left bicep.

“Have you tried the carp yet?” Honza said, nodding at the bucket of fish and then taking his eyes off the road even longer to make eye contact with me. Southern Bohemia is crammed with carp ponds; the fish we consider to be dirty scum suckers are Czechs’ main Christmas feast.

“Yes ... it’s ... er ... quite tasty,” I said, making a promise to myself that if we made it to the railway station without any broken bones or the need for a prosthetic limb or two, I’d happily eat carp tonight in Trebon.

“Try it with garlic sauce,” he said, skittering around a corner. And then he brought his fingers to his lips and kissed them, the way a satisfied Italian might in an old movie. 

A minute later, we skidded to a stop in front of the small train station. “Have a nice journey,” Honza said. Jessie jumped out and I slowly crawled off the logs. We thanked him profusely and ran into the station with five minutes to spare.

That night, the rain having stopped, Jessie and I sat at an outdoor cafe on Trebon’s dressed-up square, nursing beers and sifting through the long menu of carp dishes. I ran my eyes down the list: carp with potato salad, carp with cabbage, carp Chinese style (read: carp with soy sauce), carp with dumplings and, finally, carp with garlic sauce. We both ordered the latter, happy to fulfill at least one promise.

I raised my beer and said “Here’s to aching feet and being gawked at by entire villages tomorrow.”

“And,” Jessie added, “getting out of the Czech funk.”

We clinked our glasses and ordered another round.