My father was always proud of his Bohemian heritage. When I was a child, I listened with fascination as he told how the Kingdom of Bohemia was a wealthy, culturally sophisticated and intellectually advanced country when parts of Europe were struggling out of the Dark Ages. He explained that Czechoslovakia was comprised of Bohemia in the west, Moravia in the east, and Silesia in the north. It sounded so exotic, like a fantasy kingdom in an old fairy tale.
I remember learning in school that Bohemia was part of the Holy Roman Empire and later the Hapsburg Empire, and that Charles University in Prague, the capital of Bohemia, was one the first universities founded in Europe. My grandmother had a collection of beautiful red Bohemian crystal bowls and glasses, and she made delicious, velvety-soft dumplings at Christmastime. And from time to time my high school chemistry teacher would greet me boisterously in Czech, happily recognizing my last name as Bohemian.
Present-day Bohemians along the Vltava River, Prague
But I’d also heard, growing up in the Chicago area, the disparaging term “Bohunk” to describe a person who had emigrated from central or eastern Europe. I heard somewhere that Bohemians were social outcasts, and actually really gypsies from points farther east, maybe from Egypt or India. And then, from the mid-70’s, who could forget Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd as the (now probably politically incorrect) Saturday Night Live Czech brothers – the “two wild and crazy guys” – with their plaid slacks, blue engineers’ caps, boorish manners and naïveté. None of this made sense.
A “Bohemian,” to my mind, was someone who lived from moment to moment, defied convention and was arty. A free spirit, uninterested in material acquisitions or status. Or someone from the Beat Generation, an uber-hippie of sorts. Then there was David Brooks’ book, Bobos in Paradise, published in 2000, which described a class of wealthy individuals who combine contradictory bourgeois and bohemian life-styles. And in 2005 we saw “Boho Chic,” the messy, arty, mismatched fashion style popularized by Kate Moss and the Ashley twins.
So who, and what, are the Bohemians? Around 800 BC a Celtic tribe called the Boii inhabited the central part of Europe. During the time of the expansion of the Roman Empire, their lands were labeled Boioheamum in Latin and Proto-German, meaning “home of the Boii.” Later, Germanic and Slavic tribes also moved into the region, but the area retained its early identity.
Turn of the Century Prague sewer system was the most advanced in the Austro-Hungarian empire.
But how did the attribution, “Bohemian,” come to have such quirky and contradictory connotations, and persist as long as it has in the zeitgeist of the West? It started centuries ago: in Western Europe in the 1600’s “Bohemian" was a synonym for "gypsy," based on the belief that gypsies had originated in Bohemia and migrated to Europe. Gypsies had in fact arrived in Western Europe in the 14th century, and were noticed in Britain around 1500, where they acquired a reputation as itinerant craftsmen, traders and horse dealers.
We now know from genomic analyses that gypsies, the Roma ethnic-cultural group, originally came from a single group of individuals in northwest India, likely from the Hindu dalit, or untouchable, caste. They left 1500 years ago, going first to the Punjab, then to the Balkans and on further to the west, perhaps fleeing Islam. At some point they passed through central Europe and Bohemia on their journeys, and spread out through Europe.
It was Shakespeare, in fact, who was one of the first responsible for the wide dissemination of inaccurate and speculative information about the region. Some scenes in The Winter’s Tale take place in Bohemia, characterized as rural and idyllic, and defined in his stage directions as “a desert country near the sea.”
But it is William Makepeace Thackeray who should take much of the blame for the persistent and widely accepted notion that “Bohemian” describes people who lead a carefree, nomadic existence. In his novel Vanity Fair, published in 1847 to wide acclaim, he describes the quasi-heroine Becky Sharp as “of a wild, roving nature, inherited from father and mother, who were both Bohemians, by taste and circumstances."
Thackeray, who lived in Paris and associated with young artists, conjured up an enviable if mythical Bohemia, "a land over which hangs an endless fog, occasioned by much tobacco; a land of chambers, billiard-rooms, supper-rooms, oysters; a land of song...of delicious reading of novels, magazines, and saunterings in many studios…a land... where most are poor, where almost all are young, and where, if a few oldsters do enter, it is because they have preserved...their youthful spirits, and the delightful capacity to be idle." Sounds like a nice lifestyle to me! Thackeray's metaphor quickly spread, and soon "Bohemian" was applied to writers and artists, especially if they flouted conventional social mores, like romanticized, idealized gypsies.
In fact, the most famous European Bohemian artistic community flourished in Paris in the 19th century, then vanished at the start of World War I. It was best depicted by French writer Henri Murger in 1851. His Scenes de la Vie de Bohème, a collection of stories set in the Latin Quarter in the 1840’s, glamorized the Parisian artistic lifestyle. The libretto for Puccini’s 1896 celebrated opera, La Bohème, is based on Murger’s stories.
I’ve found other intriguing definitions of the term “Bohemian.” According to French writer Alphone de Calonne in his 1852 work, Voyage au Pays de Bohème, “The land of Bohemia is a sad country, bounded on the North by need, on the South by poverty, on the East by illusion, and on the West by the hospital. It is irrigated by two inexhaustible streams: imprudence and shame."
Bohemianism crossed the Atlantic. American artist, writer and journalist Ada Clare, who lived in Paris, New York and San Francisco, was known as the “Queen of Bohemia,” presiding over a New York salon of sorts called “The West 42nd Street Coterie.” She wrote in 1860:
"The Bohemian is by nature, if not by habit, a cosmopolite, with a general sympathy for the fine arts, and for all things above and beyond convention. The Bohemian is not, like the creature of society, a victim of rules and customs; he steps over them with an easy, graceful, joyous unconscious-ness, guided by the principles of good taste and feeling. Above all others, essentially, the Bohemian must not be narrow minded; if he be, he is degraded back to the position of near worlding."
In San Francisco, meanwhile, in 1872 the Bohemian Club was founded as a gathering place and residence for journalists, artists and musicians. The club is still active today, although now an exclusive men-only club for captains of industry and finance. One early prominent member was George Sterling, Romantic poet, pupil of Ambrose Bierce and friend of Jack London and Robinson Jeffers. At the Bohemian Grove in 1907, the club presented Sterling’s play depicting the battle between the "Spirit of Bohemia" and “Mammon” (greed and wealth) for the souls of men. Sterling wrote, "There are two elements, at least, that are essential to Bohemianism. The first is devotion or addiction to one or more of the Seven Arts; the other is poverty. Other factors suggest themselves: for instance, I like to think of my Bohemians as young, as radical in their outlook on art and life, as unconventional..."
During my travels this summer in the Czech Republic and the lands of Bohemia, I decided to explore all these assertions. Are the Czechs in any way “Bohemian”? And am I Bohemian in character?
The Czechs and Bohemians are known firstly, I believe, for their beer drinking habits. The Czech Republic today has the highest per capita beer consumption in the world, at 132 litres per person per year, followed by Germany at 107 and Austria at 106. The giant glasses of beer I drank there were pilsner lagers – hoppy, with a clear golden color and lots of foam. They didn’t seem particularly alcoholic. Or perhaps I was just enjoying myself too much to notice? (Pilsner lager is now the world-wide generic term for beers originally from Pilzen.) Usually the beer is delivered directly from the brewery in large refrigerated tanks, unpasteurized. Yummmm.
Drinking seems even to take priority over education, at least historically. The first Bohemian brewery appeared in Prague’s Břevnov Monastery in 993 A.D. The city of Brno began to brew beer in the 12th century, and the two cities most associated with Czech beer, Plzen and České Budějovice (Pilsen and Budweis, in German), had breweries in the 13th century. Charles University wasn’t founded until the 14th century – centuries after the Bohemian breweries!
When it comes to religion, the Czechs are nothing like their devout Polish neighbors. Part of the Holy Roman Empire, central Europe was heavily Catholic. The Czechs, however, staged their own revolt and reformation a full century before Martin Luther, although these Protestant agitators were ultimately defeated in battle. And today? A recent Czech statistic puts only 14% of the population declaring themselves to be Christian. Another survey reports 10% Catholic, 34% stating they have no religion, and 45% not responding. The net – only 20% claim to have some kind of personal religious belief. The Czechs I spoke with seemed to take pride in their intellectual and atheistic stance.
Really, modern Czechs are the original post-modern hipsters: ironic, skeptical, with a teasing wit and a love of the absurd. There’s also a certain cynicism and resignation about less than ideal conditions. Czechs can be headstrong, with disregard for any dictates about how to live their lives. As one of my uncles used to say, “You can tell a Czech, but you can’t tell him much.”
The best example of the Czech’s absurdist humor is found in their national hero, Jara Cimrman. Presented as one of the greatest Czech playwrights, poets, composers, teachers, travelers, philosophers, inventors, detectives, mathematicians and sportsmen of the 19th and early 20th century, he’s sort of the prototypical Most Interesting Man in the World.
He was, in fact, invented by two journalists for a radio program in 1966. The joke is that Cimrman does things first, but somehow, like all Czechs, others beat him to it. Cimrman invented the light bulb, but Edison got to the patent office five minutes earlier. He reached the North Pole first, but was 20 miles away. He is said to have advised Chekov, “You can’t have just two sisters, you need three.” He wrote a manifesto, The Essence of the Existence, long before Sartre and Camus developed existentialism. His credo: “Existence Cannot Not Exist.” The love which the Czech nation has for Jara Cimrman is so strong that he was voted the unofficial winner of a Czech television poll to select “The Greatest Czech Ever,” more influential even than good King Wenceslas or Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, ruler of Bohemia during its Golden Age.
Another stunning example of Czech collective parody is the creation of the Kingdom of Wallachia in the eastern Czech Republic. There is indeed a small mountainous region historically known as Wallachia 230 miles from Prague, originally settled by migrant Romanian shepherds called Vlachs, who crossed the Carpathian Mountains in search of pastures.
In 1997 a local photographer came up with the notion to create a faux kingdom, and installed a Czech actor with classical clown training as King Boleslav I the Gracious Forever, Monarch of the Kingdom of Wallachia. The kingdom has a currency, consulates in the Arctic Circle and Togo, a Royal Wallachian Navy with 40 canoes, and a Communist-era Trabant as state limousine for use by dignitaries. It even offers a passport – its cover depicting the Slavic pagan god Radegast, the deity of hospitality, fire, war and the evening sky, with pages inside devoted to humorous Wallachian sayings and images.
There are close to 100,000 citizens of the make-believe nation, once including George W. Bush, who was given a passport by a Czech living in Texas. Bush’s citizenship was revoked by the kingdom in 2003, however, after the United States invaded Iraq. I, too, am now a citizen of Wallachia, holder of a passport and an official Certificate of Domicile.
The founder, son of a former Communist school teacher, explained that the Kingdom of Wallachia is a parody of Czech identity because nothing is holy for Czechs. The country’s history and reality is marked by depression, invasion and occupation, while fiction and fantasy let you do and be whatever you want.
There’s even been a real coup in the faux kingdom, reported by the International Herald Tribune, and even our New York Times. Wallachia is now a popular tourist attraction, generating hundreds of thousands of euros a year for local businesses. But, a few years after the kingdom’s founding, the Crown’s interests and activities became suspect: King Boleslav was accused of opening consular offices without consulting the founder, and even had demanded remuneration for his efforts running the kingdom. He was duly deposed. A local construction worker was installed as the new ruler, King Vladimir II, along with a Queen Mother, a local folk-singer.
The clown-turned-actor-turned-monarch actually went to court over who owned the kingdom’s trademark! But after seven years of litigation, the Czech court ruled that he had no right to profit from any association with the Kingdom of Wallachia. Yet Boleslav I claims that he still has followers, that 23 of 28 municipalities across the kingdom regard him as the rightful king, that “there is an air force loyal to me and a royal guard. We even have a Trabant tank division. We have not only conquered space but planted our sacred blue plum trees on the moon.”
The new Wallachian monarch, Vladimir II, who replaced the deposed Boleslav I. To become King, he won the Battle of the Knights, defeating all others in singing, dancing and in a series of Wallachian games. I love the sausages on his scepter and the blue plums on his royal cape. (Photo from International Herald Tribune)
After my stay in Wallachia, I went south into the heart of Bohemia and to the towns of Kutna Hora and Český Krumlov, my paternal ancestors’ homelands. The Czech countryside with its storybook villages and castles is charming, almost as I imagined it as a child. The region has gentle rolling hills, winding roads, meadows, forests, streams, small lakes – a lot like Wisconsin, where many Czechs, including my great-grandparents, settled in the mid-19th century. In fact, the Commissioner of Immigration of Wisconsin in 1852 advertised in European newspapers, and sent agents to Bohemia with pamphlets describing how much Wisconsin was like Bohemia – forests of spruce, pine and oak, fertile land and rich resources. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave these invited newcomers land grants of up to 160 acres; my great-grandparents obtained half – 80 acres – through this act. The Bohemian countryside is popular with vacationers from the Czech Republic, as well as from Germany and other nearby countries. Under Communism, most Czechs were not allowed to travel outside the country, so families often obtained cottages a few hours drive away in which to spend summer weekends and holidays. Many families still travel only locally today as a result.
Close to the border with Austria, Český Krumlov’s medieval Krumlov Castle and its Old Town perch on a tiny island-like peninsula formed by the winding Vltava River, the same river that flows under the Charles Bridge in Prague and north to join the Elbe. The river here twists through the land, around the castle and through the town – perfect for rafting and kayaking. Vacationers were out in force on a sunny Saturday afternoon, laughing as they paddled around sharp curves, screaming as their kayaks went down over rapids, and clambering, water-soaked, out of their rafts onto the river’s grassy shore. The romantic countryside and villages are also a favorite with motorcyclists.
Traveling with me was my college and grad school chum Beth, whose in-laws also hail from Bohemia. I caught her stifling giggles, as she pointed out one woman after another, “She looks just like my mother-in-law,” and again, further down the street, “Oh, look, another! I swear she looks just like her!” Then we found a group of them, improbably seated together, absolutely sharing a certain physiognomy, body-type and even fashion sense (although not Boho-Chic).
On our way back north to Prague from Český Krumlov, the bus took a different route, one that appeared to be skirting far around the city of České Budějovice and added well over an hour to the trip. Back at our hotel, we learned from BBC Online that the entire city was closed to vehicles due to riots and the presence of SWAT teams. It had all started with an incident in a playground, which escalated into a violent conflict between Roma and non-Roma parents. Subsequently, demonstrators appeared – many of them neo-Nazis – and tried to break through a cordon of riot police. The neo-Nazis were giving Hitler salutes and shouting racist slogans, cheered on – and then joined by – local residents.
More violent riots and marches took place later in the summer. In Ostrava alone, 62 people were arrested; two dozen officers were injured; and police confiscated wooden stakes, baseball bats and machetes. A number of Czech anti-Roma Facebook pages sprang up to publicize upcoming marches, including “A Demonstration against Black Racism”, “A Demonstration against Non-Adaptable Citizens” and simply “A Walk through České Budějovice.”
Roma families tend to live in dilapidated housing developments in run-down parts of towns, usually after being relocated by corrupt property speculators. NGO’s say the communities are often hotbeds of crime and disorder beginning to resemble ghettos, and the marches against them, pogroms.
DeutcheWelle, the German news source, interviewed a young, educated, Prague-based Roma activist who is a member of the Czech government’s council on the Roma minority. (Between 250,000 and 300,000 Roma lving in the Czech Republic.) “These are not just marches by extremists,” he explained. “Regular citizens are joining in. What's hard to enumerate is the psychological stress and fear among the local Roma community, cowering in their council flats as the marchers shout ‘gypsies to the gas chambers.’ Skinhead gangs are chanting 'Czechia for the Czechs!' bringing to my mind the Nazi chant 'Juden Raus.’"
(Far right anti-Roma protestors in Pizen, 2013. Photo from BBC.co.uk)
The irony is excruciating, on so many levels. Do they not know that Bohemians for centuries were thought to actually be gypsies? Don’t they know the Nazis targeted people of Slavic origin, including the Czechs, considering them “sub-human.” And do they not know that many Czechs actively worked to protect and hide Jews from the Nazis? Most of the young male skin-head instigators today are from neighboring countries, with no other specific interest in the Czech Republic. Is far-right, angry, tribal nationalism the only response to the weaknesses in a communist-turned-capitalist society struggling in a global economic slowdown? I just shake my head.
I observed complexity – and corruption – in other parts of the Czech social order, as well, including a long-standing class system with differing levels of access to position or opportunity – a system present before, during and after the Communist regime. Ringing towns and cities throughout central Europe are massive, uniform, grey apartment complexes built by Communist governments to encourage a collectivist mindset. Czechs call thempanelák, “panel houses,” referring to their low-quality, pre-fab concrete construction. Many young adults grew up in these bland housing units. For some now the dream is to live in Prague, sharing with others even the tiniest studio flat in a converted, grand, turn-of-the-century apartment building.
Others just want to leave the country. We asked one woman in her mid-30’s with a lovely full figure what the dating scene was like. She told us that Czech men were spoiled. Like she, they had grown up in panel houses. Under Communism their mothers had married early, opportunities were limited, they had settled for less. Now, these women indulge their sons, telling them they can do whatever they want, that they should put off marriage. “They only want to party, to go out with skinny blondes. I don’t have a chance,” she said.
True Czech that she was, using parody to soothe her disappointments, she had composed Dorothy Parker-like songs about each of the young men who had dumped her, and sang a few for us at the lunch table. From that point on, it seemed everywhere we looked were clusters of beautiful, improbably slim girls in their 20’s, with long blond hair, high cheekbones, and wearing skinny jeans.
Another woman we spoke to whose ancestors had been royal guards in Prague for monarchs over generations was considering leaving the country due to lack of job opportunities. In fact, the female rate of unemployment today is 33% higher than for men in the Czech Republic.
I spoke to a man with high Slavic cheekbones, aquiline nose, and a long ponytail who told me he grew up in a villa in Prague. His family had five such homes, and although the Communists confiscated them all, the properties were returned after the fall of Communism in ‘89. He told me their son, who had just graduated from college, had no difficulty finding a job – in a country where nearly of fifth of young adults can’t find work.
And here is where the class system asserts itself, what Communism was supposed to do away with. Walking at dusk in the hilly neighborhood where the city’s wealthiest live, the Prague city lights twinkling below, I saw evidence of new money invading the old. The dignified turn-of-the-century architecture was slowly disappearing, torn down and replaced with the Prague version of McMansions. Every block featured one or two new multi-story, modernist, Corbusier-like homes, with concrete facades, wood panels, and vast windows. Some had elaborate gates and fences, with multiple satellite receivers on the rooftops; they looked like embassies, but weren’t.
My friends sardonically called them “Mafia Houses” – the fruits of connections and corruption in the Czech government and the upper business echelons, not to mention organized crime. And another irony – the new houses often have the cold starkness of Communist-era construction.
Another Czech friend explained that when the Iron Curtain fell, Communist officials and managers of state-owned enterprises hopped over to the same positions in the new political institutions and capitalist companies, keeping their privileges, perks and connections. Also distressing, the Czech government collapsed this June as a result of bribery, illegal spying and corruption scandals, and then the parliament was forced to dissolve itself in August. As a consequence, the Communist party is on the rise, coming in third in the October general elections with 15% of the vote, and possibly likely to be a part of the next government. Why? They were untouched by the scandals in the Conservative party.
Nothing has changed, my friend sighed. Once again, the Czech people come in second, and resigned to the absurdities around them. But there is no doubt their Bohemian character sustains them!
When I returned home to the Bay Area, I found this quote from Gelett Burgess, a late-19th century San Francisco artist, poet, author and humorist:
“To take the world as one finds it, the bad with the good, making the best of the present moment — to laugh at Fortune alike whether she be generous or unkind — to spend freely when one has money and to hope gaily when one has none — to fleet the time carelessly, living for love and art — this is the temper and spirit of the modern Bohemian in his outward and visible aspect. It is a light and graceful philosophy, the Gospel of the Moment…; and if, in some noble natures, it rises to a bold simplicity and naturalness, it may also lend its butterfly precepts to some very pretty vices and lovable faults, for in Bohemia one may find almost every sin save that of Hypocrisy. ...
His faults are more commonly those of self-indulgence, thoughtlessness, vanity and procrastination, and these usually go hand-in-hand with generosity, love and charity; for it is not enough to be one’s self in Bohemia, one must allow others to be themselves, as well. ...
What, then, is it that makes this mystical empire of Bohemia unique, and what is the charm of its mental fairyland? It is this: there are no roads in all Bohemia! One must choose and find one’s own path, be one’s own self, live one’s own life.”
Somehow, I identify with that.
Bay Area-based Susanne Houfek is a Bohemian/ Adventurer/ Photographer/ Writer/ Artiste/ Renaissance Girl who loves history, delights in living in the moment, and enjoys sharing her discoveries, experiences and observations. She grew up on Chicago’s North Shore, graduated from Stanford University with a degree in French Literature, and has an MBA from the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley. She advises start-up companies and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and world-wide.