Sunday 26th of October, a proper Sunday as the English language forecasts it. The streets are empty, but we wait wisely (ignorant) for the green light in the shade that a squared building throws at us: these are our first steps in the Moravia-Silesian capital — Ostrava, a luminous looking city.
“Ostrava and its region is a former industrial center, but you know, the city and its inhabitants are really willing to get back on their feet, they are very active in investing dynamism into the rehabilitation the region.” Encouraging, wordy but ultimately empty speech that you know isn’t a good omen. On the train, moving away from the typical Prague mix of gothic steeples, baroque churches and the art nouveau blocks of flats where we landed, we had a look at the map, eyes falling on the names of cities such as Karvina—a city originally built for factory workers, or Haviřov, from “haviř” literally meaning “collier,” promising a rather dull atmosphere.
But here we are waiting to reach the sunlight on the other side of the street. The red light changes to green and we begin to cross; not even half-way though, green comes back to red rushing us to the other side. I suddenly felt jetlagged as if the white zebra were now lines of latitude: “going from Prague to Ostrava should not be such an unsettling experience,” I thought, “even from France to the Czech Republic, both of which are two Occidental and central European countries.” A bell interrupted the thought. We were now on the city hall’s square, overlooked by a long and blue neck, a big clock on top. The hands were pointing to 2.30pm, and I glanced quickly at my phone checking for a similarity in numbers, in an eerie feeling of timelag. We might think that time passes at the same pace in all cities, within the same culture and system. But a rhythm’s place doesn’t appear to be only universally urban, occidental, ruled by international economy or simply “the big clock.”
And then, by this radiant Sunday, I noticed that first—and key—impression of a place rarely gets stuck on other people’s words. It is rather a matter of “temps” in the French meaning of the term: both weather and time. Afterwards the impression fades away with everyday life but there is still that image of the first time in that place which lingers in your feelings, a city divided by timeline in two images that only (ironically) share the reality of a same geographic position. I didn’t know it at first, but learning the rhythm of this place would be mainly a matter of light—and not only traffic lights!
So Ostrava was at first sight a luminous city. Like every city or village in the Czech Republic, it has its unique “castle”: Ostrava-Vítkovice, chimneys for steeples, and its industry recently changed from ironwork to cultural work—now a museum and concert hub. The Sunday afternoon sun doubled its steel perspectives, casting geometrical paintings on the ground where kittens were hiding, sometimes running between visitors’ legs. The best way to contemplate this monument was actually in the distance, from the top of Ostrava’s higher hill—Halda Ema—made of coal dump, a favorite among week-end strollers. Sitting on the still smoking edifice, the shadows lovers or photographers grew as they watched the sun changing the impressionist haze in a warm color gradation. It was then time for another radiant atmosphere quaffed in the cosy darkness of a “free-to-smoke” pub, thick foam hanging to smoke-filled talks.
Thus Ostrava was at this specific “temps” a luminous city, perhaps actually just the universal perception of a sunny Sunday—neděle “to do nothing” in Czech—, a hole in our time schedule filling the air of the Moravia-Silesian capital.
After neděle comes ponděli (literally “after Sunday”), a day that people enjoy differently, some relieved to leave behind a Sunday’s stillness, happy to give back a certain structure to their movements; and some (a large minority) having maybe overtaken the dichotomous concept of work and leisure, of busy and free time. And others—the majority?—in the longing of this already-lost-Sunday, especially here where the memory of this blessed day lingers the morrow in the language itself.
Then, Monday. The abrasive ever-same-sounding ring of the alarm-clock. The darkness framed by the overhead window declaring it is too early—5 am electronically flashing with fluorescent symbols.
I decided though to start this new coming week with the morning’s energy believing suddenly somehow in the popular saying: remember, “the early bird catches the worm”: nothing better than a walk along the Ostravice, former liquid border between Moravia and Silesia, while the city is still drawn in a horizontal human geometry.
But going down the stairs, the smell of perfume already precedes my steps. “A neighbor going to walk his dog,” I think: the building seems actually to be inhabited by more dogs than humans. Out in the street though, the window panes of the corner café show a well ensconced crowd of polevka (the Czech soup, which is often more than a mere fluid vegetables mix; made from broth, pieces of cabbage and potatoes, sometimes meat), rohliky (bread buns), coffees and their consumers looking perfectly up and awake when my short-sighted eyes still swim in a certain vagueness of reality’s contours. I checked the hour on the town hall tower—a convenient thing: time in the Czech towns and cities is everywhere; churches, towns or random clocks, tramways and trains stations, clocks in the school…so that you almost feel puzzled when suddenly there’s no clock surrounding you. Convenient thing until you realize that none of these time indicators are synchronized: layers of time repeatedly appear to get lost or won while you travel to your destination. The tower, this time, confirmed the fact: it was actually 5 am. 5 am and the city working as if it was noon without daylight. First thought: “of course, Moravia-Silesia being an industrial region, people must still go early to the factory where they work.” This was a memory of some words I heard once: “there are not so many bikes in the city. You only see factory-workers around 5am proceeding to work on the bike lanes.” He was talking about Karvina, a city built for coal-workers, surrounded now by lakes covering the abandoned coal, new playground for seagulls in Spring. “In this country of old time’s darkness and winter” writes Ondra Lysohorsky in 1937 about his native land. Indeed the “dark horror of [his] Lachian country” (Room in Tachkent and Ostrava’s Faubourg) Communism and coal industry’s tinge, could still hover in the still-standing chimney stacks, or the triangular cottages like hundreds of Hansel and Gretel little houses populating the back country. Historic memory dwells longer in concrete and stone—socialist-realism statues, blocks of flats, huge and squared architecture, constructions on which the look now slips without notice. This “old time’s darkness and winter” however was not present in the peculiar architecture and factories’ exhalations, but rather in Winter’s fumes, a mist gliding over the trees and giving its steeliness to the river Ostravice. Thus, from Listopad (November), literally month of the falling leaves, the landscape slowly fitted the poet’s words framing human activity “from white morning to dark night” (The Rowan’s Ballade) barely dropping any sunbeam.
“Paddling towards the sun. The sun doesn’t wait,” he writes in the same poem: the race to the sun is something that only Northern and Eastern countries can seize. Going East, the vychod slunce, both East’s sun and sun’s exit—happens earlier in Spring and Summer, and sets way to soon in Autumn and Winter. This would actually be a rational explanation of the 5-3-5 Czech time schedule that characterizes the East part of Czech Republic: getting up at 5am, finishing work at 3, being ready to fill hospody and hospudek—the Czech pub—at 5pm when there’s not enough daylight to be out or too much to stay in; their pleasant buzzing peak hour (and often opening time) atmosphere handily coinciding with shops’ closing time.
It was in one of these places where your glass, filled with a luminous beer, becomes the main light source that I heard the official version: “if we get up early, it is because of František Josef I, the Austrio-Hungarian Emperor at the end of 19th century. He was an insomniac.” He sipped slowly the thick foam before continuing. “And he apparently decided that not only he would suffer from sleeplessness, but that all his subjects would have to be awake too. This habit is more visible here than in Bohemia where the traditions dwell stronger.”
Story or history, one will never know. Remain the beer and the sun. Which were maybe the reasons why Joseph could not sleep so well.