It’s summer, and at the weekend chances are a lot of Czech families will be na chatě – at their cottage. The cottage – or weekend house, as it is also known – is a firmly-entrenched local institution. What this means for an expat with Czech in-laws is that the cottage lifestyle is hard to avoid. Though the idea of leaving all the comforts of home and the city for a village may seem peculiar at first, the tradition has a lot to recommend it – if you give it time.
How it All Began
The tradition goes back to the twenties of the last century. The earliest cottages were established around the Vltava, Berounka and Sázava Rivers. The pastime was closely associated with the so-called tramping subculture. Cottages which were part of this tradition were simple wooden affairs, often bearing some aspect of American wild-west culture and located in an osada (settlement). (Despite the translation, I think the word ‘village’ better captures the atmosphere, even if it isn’t the precise legal status). In the sixties, with the restrictions on travel and the continued desire for people to be outdoors and have a place of their own, the tradition flourished.
Another type of weekend house is the chalupa (not to be confused with the Mexican dish), which is large type of cottage or farmhouse used for recreational purposes. This type of second abode is not usually part of a settlement, so the lifestyle of chataří (people with chaty) and chalupaři (people with chalupy) are a bit different.
Joining the Club
My in-law’s cottage is very much a part of this tramping tradition. Wooden cottages stand side by side in a valley with a creek winding through the center. Cars are left outside. As you walk through the village, everyone says hello.
The customs here are not so rigid. Sure, on Saturdays the people gather at the outdoor pub with different members taking turns to man the beer tap. In the cooler months a fire will blaze, and whatever the weather those people who can play instruments will do so – mostly tramping songs. The musicians range from teens to people in their seventies.
At different times of the year, the village organizes social events. They regularly prepare a feast of wild boar for the members and a wine tasting day. Every year there is a music contest when people from other villages turn up and play. They have kids’ days, when the children (and some adults) dress up and the newborns are welcomed, as my daughter was last year. Every season ends with a ball at which the resident musicians play.
On top of that there is plenty of time for people to relax and enjoy the peace and quiet. Despite what seems like a busy social calendar, most of the time my wife and I relax on deck chairs, go for walks in the adjacent forest, or help my wife’s parents with their small garden. The lifestyle strikes a balance between a sense of community and privacy. But my views were not always so positive.
On my first visit, I was undeniably struck by the serenity of the village’s location. Everything was so green. It was peaceful. The only sounds were the birds and a breeze. However, several weekends of this started to become tiring.
I can offer several reasons. I was in a then-new country. I wanted to go and explore not see the same faces every weekend – no matter how friendly. Then there was this issue of closeness. I grew up in the city. I never really knew my neighbors. Here, people knew things about me before I had even met them.
After a short while, I got the sense that I was an outsider. Much more so than in my other interactions in this country. The village was (and remains) a bucolic ideal a little removed from the rest of the world. As one of the residents said to me recently, “It’s better at the cottage.” The weariness in his voice suggested he meant better than all this – the bigger, broader modern world. Back in the beginning I got a sense I was an interloper. I was always reminded of being a foreigner and the situation was helped by my tendency to be a little aloof.
I can’t pinpoint when my attitude and the attitude of the people in the village changed. In some ways it was the same old story of the proverbial new ‘kid’ taking time to find his place and the others getting used to him.
I should stress that my in-laws always made me feel welcome, so it was only natural that over time I came to befriend their friends and the children of their friends. Even so, I couldn’t shake the sense of simply being regarded by others as their guest.
The first instance which stands out in my mind of being really welcomed was at the village pub, when by the fire one night one of the older members of the village started to speaking to me, putting up with my poor Czech, and showing a genuine interest in me as something more than the foreign son-in-law.
The moment I felt I was welcomed as a full-fledged part of the village was when I had to contend with a minor disaster. A couple of summers ago, the creek burst its banks and swept a pile of gravel from my in-laws’ cottage across the village thoroughfare. They were away, and would be for some the time, so it was up to my wife and I to clean up the mess.
About a ton of gravel was strewn for several meters, and we had to move it by shovel and wheelbarrow. Right when I was sure I was going to quit, two of the younger villagers turned up with shovels and a second wheelbarrow and helped. From then on, I felt my relationship with the rest of the village had been cemented.
Seeing the Positive Side
I wouldn’t claim that my current favorable opinion is just because of a flood and a load of small rocks. The accident only highlighted what was happening over time.
I was already enjoying our summer weekends there now that I’d seen a lot of the country. We have a stone grill there. The creek is a good a place as any to cool down on those rare hot days (which seem less rare in the last couple of years). There are mushrooms in the forest. I could always see these things, but it just took time for me and the rest of the village to get used to each other.
Now that I have a small daughter, I can see the other benefits. She has plenty of places to run around and explore and there are plenty of kids around her age, so she won’t be short of friends. Plus, her mum and I know aunts and uncles will be watching out over her as they will the other kids.
I still have plenty of time to sit in a deck chair and wile away the afternoon with a book or just take in the tranquility. But I also know that when I want some company, it’s there at the pub, where I’m sure to be when the sun starts setting.