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A Weekend in O

Rating: PG

The tourist boom that has hit in Eastern Europe since the beginning of the 1990s has not yet reached as far as O, and if one should stumble across this picturesque area in the foothills of the Tatra mountains, you would immediately begin to ask why. I arrived there on a beautiful, sunny summer morning. Flowers bloom in the middle of the town square at the heart of O's capital Rzwzclck (pronounced Jeff-shits) and as the Os go about their everyday business around this scene, one is immediately struck by the peacefulness that sets O apart from its larger neighbours.

I arrived by train from Prague into the curiously named Alan Smith Station (Dworzets Alana Smitta). (Apparently the Os are big fans of the former Arsenal striker, and in the absence of any national celebrities of their own have adopted one who they claim 'looks like an O'. The fact that the name of the station is written in black marker pen on a wipe-off board suggests that as the O identity imposes itself they will begin to celebrate more of their own.) The train takes around five hours, and any would-be passengers would be advised to make sure they have been to the toilet before boarding. A return ticket costs twenty-five US cents (hard currency only), but as nobody ever has any change, or accepts coins, be prepared to part with a full dollar. At the other end, you will be told that a return portion bought in Prague is invalid for travel from anywhere in O. Haggle with them. They seem to enjoy it, and a bribe of around two dollars per guard will find you happily in a second-class carriage.

The train consisted of just two carriages and an engine. I was the only passenger going all the way to Rzwzclck. Other stops on the route include Prdprdgrd, Trzck, and Cc (about which more later). Stepping off the train into the fresh O air, I filled my lungs with the smell of fresh stew and diesel, and prepared myself to fight off armies of taxi drivers and agents offering me accommodation and rides of various sorts. But there was no-one meeting the train. There were no cries of, "Hey, mister, you need taxi?" Nobody approached me with an album full of pictures of hotels. I was perplexed. In every other city in Eastern Europe, the easiest way to find accommodation is to follow an old man back to his family-run apartment. (A warning: This is also the easiest way to end up bloodied and penniless in a dark Warsaw back street, but so far in my life I have a record that is better than 75% in this region, so it seems to be worth the risk. To keep your wits about you at all times is simply common sense, and hardly needs stating here.) At a bit of a loss, I was relieved to see an old man hobbling towards me, but when I read the note it turned out he was offering to sell me his daughter for marriage at a price of three and a half million kacks. He pointed to a girl standing at the end of the platform, and though she was pretty, there was no guarantee that this was the girl offered for sale. (While O does not have the same number of unscrupulous businessmen as other places, the rise in tourism is sure to attract a simultaneous rise in people trying to profit from those visitors.) He cut his price to three million as I walked away, which when I checked the exchange rate later that day turned out to be just under seventeen pence.

Alan Smith Station is handily placed just on the edge of the centre of town, and you can be in the Town Square (Mesto Goroda) in just a few minutes. In search of cheaper accommodation I headed away from the town centre, but found that away from the town centre, not only are there no hotels, but in fact there is nothing at all. There are suggestions of a large out-of-town leisure and shopping complex being built on the empty land to the east of the station, but I have to say I hope they will not go through with it. While it would no doubt generate much-needed cash, jobs and prosperity for the struggling local economy, it would cast a long shadow over what is up until now the most beautifully unspoilt of all the Eastern European capitals I have visited.

O's tourist industry may still be in its initial stages of development, but that is part of its charm. Here you will not find any of the large chains of luxury hotels that house huge groups of Japanese or German tourists. The half-dozen guest houses that you can find in Rzwzclck cater mainly for Os coming to the capital from the out-lying towns, and hence are rather cheap by Western standards. If you want to splash out on a little luxury, try Grennan's Bed and Breakfast, run by a man from Dublin who arrived here just after independence, and liked it so much he stayed. At five US dollars a night, Grennan's is out of the price range of most ordinary Os, but is considerably cheaper than similar hotels in Prague, Warsaw, or even Vilnius.

As the only guest I had a choice of rooms, and took a large, en-suite room with a view of the mountains in the distance, and the spoon factory in the foreground. I am assured that it is possible to tour the (still fully operational) spoon factory on weekdays, but as I visited on a weekend that joy will have to be reserved for a future, longer visit. The room had a shower, but due to a shortage of hot water, residents of Rzwzclck are only permitted to take a hot bath or shower once a week, and Grennan's allocation was on a Wednesday. This restriction is only in force during the summer months, a situation which has its roots in the rather unique political arrangement which rules O. Due to restrictions of space, I can only offer an overview of the politics and societal history of O. (However, I would recommend anyone planning to visit to read up on the subject, as it offers an invaluable insight into the national psyche, and I can highly recommend the book The People's Republic of O -- Life as a Vowel by Lyz Russell-Ozcoco, an expert in the field, and herself married to an O.)

Little is known of O prior to the start of the 1990s. Although some historians claim that there were settlements here as far back as the seventh century AD, there are no records that suggest that O had ever enjoyed the status of an independent republic until recent years. In fact, there is no suggestion that O existed even in people's minds prior to the initial talks over the break-up of Czechoslovakia into separate, independent countries. When the Czech Republic and Slovakia decided to split, O was left, unwanted and unacknowledged in between. In the wave of declarations of independence that followed the loosening of Soviet control on Eastern Europe, the Os got themselves caught up in revolution fever and declared themselves an independent state. A flag and national anthem ('Thank the Lard for O') followed, and the native Os celebrated in their culture and took to playing the spoons (so much a symbol of O independence) in the street.

When people woke up in the aftermath of the Independence Day celebrations, the difficult process of building a country had to begin. So used were the Os to having their lives controlled by outside forces that it was almost too great a challenge. The Os had never been politically involved, and the feeling from all parts of the population was that they were all too busy to get involved with running the country. For several months, the emerging nation of O looked as if it would slip into lawlessness and civil war.

Despite a population of only 60,000 people, there remains a split between three diverse ethnic groups. In the hills live the descendants of the nomadic Wirrarwy people; the towns are populated chiefly by native Czechs and Slovaks who found themselves left in O after the borders drawn up on a serviette in a Prague beer hall were smudged by a spilt glass of Budvar; the third, and smallest ethnic group, are the Dumvuks, descended from exiled Belorussian village idiots, and now mostly living dispersed on isolated farms, though larger communities are developing.

In contrast to ethnic disputes in other newly free countries, none of these races claimed superiority over the others. In fact, all three claimed that the other two groups had more right to dominance. Eventually, after outside mediation by representatives of the European Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States and McDonald's, the power vacuum was replaced by what is known as 'Seasonal Rotational Interdependent Governance'. In other words, each group has been forced to take power for one full season, and in winter (when most Os are in semi-hibernation) the country is run by a coalition of outside business interests. The seasonal rotation reflects the traditional rural community values of O, and while the system doesn't suit everybody, most of the people are happy for the three quarters of the year when somebody else is in charge.

And while the ethnic mix of O has contributed problems to the growth of the nation, it provides a fascinating blend for the visitor. The three groups generally co-exist happily, but they don't mix. They speak slightly different dialects of Ovian (though don't worry, all are mutually understood), eat different foods and each group has its own particular alcoholic speciality. For those outsiders who feel no need to discriminate, this leads to a much greater diversity than you will find in many larger countries. A weekend in Rzwzclck can sometimes feel like being simultaneously in three different countries.

And so there is much to entertain the casual tourist as well as the student of Eastern European society. Whether your pleasure is food, drink, culture or beautiful scenery, you will find that O caters to all tastes. After my arrival at Grennan's I headed for the National Gallery. Housed in a converted family home at the northern end of Mesto Goroda, the National Gallery is free to enter, and is open whenever someone is there. I was lucky enough to find an English-speaking guide to show me around the four galleries and the garden. One room contains a depiction of modern family life in O, with a family still living in it (I think I disturbed their lunch). Two of the rooms contain landscape paintings of scenes from O, all painted by native artists. (Perhaps the most eye-catching picture is an Andy Warhol-style depiction of a tin of spaghetti hoops, which my guide told me was representative of life in O.) The final room is set aside for portraits of figures from O's history. At the time of my visit this consisted of a picture of my guide surrounded by his family and several empty frames. My guide told me that he was waiting for anyone from O to distinguish themselves, then he would paint them.

The garden was similarly set aside for statues of great Os. Here there were several plinths, bearing the names of former Communist leaders. The statues had been removed but not yet replaced with revised heroes. My guide told me that it was unlikely that they would ever be replaced, as he was a hopeless sculptor, and besides the materials were expensive if they were available. For now, visitors have to be satisfied with depictions of a hula-hoop and another tin of spaghetti hoops, which on closer inspection turned out not to be depictions, but the objects themselves.

After visiting the gallery I strolled down the Town Square and decided to stop for a drink at a small street cafe. Though all the tables were sheltered under Coca-Cola umbrellas, when I tried to order a Coke, I was brought a coffee. My attempts to complain to the waiter came to nothing. All the cafe sold was coffee. Don't be afraid to argue with Os. They love to argue, and will often take an opposite point of view simply for the sport. However, if you question their hospitality they may be offended, and so I drank my coffee without further complaint. I was in a Wirrawy cafe, and so my coffee was served with a complementary sweet biscuit to take the bitter taste away. (Wirrawy coffee is considered the best in O. Dumvuk coffee is best avoided, though their curried variety is gathering a special status in some of Rzwzclck's trendier quarters.)

It would be easy to spend an entire afternoon sitting at a cafe table in Mesto Goroda, but with only a weekend in O, I soon have to move on. Two cups of Wirrawy coffee are, it is said, enough to animate a dead elephant. I limit myself to one, which provides more than enough stimulation for the rest of the day's exertions. The blend of coffee used by the Wirrawy is a closely-guarded secret, passed on through generations from an original recipe as old as the Wirrawy themselves.

Feeling sufficiently stimulated I head off across town to check out the weekend's programme at the National Theatre (Teatr Norodniy Ovich). My hopes were raised by the poster's promise of a performance of a modern O folk opera, 'Oh, Oh, O!', but when I tried to buy tickets I found that the ticket office was closed, and there was a sign telling me that the performance was cancelled because the stars were all required at the family farm after an outbreak of fever among their chickens. The programme showed a packed schedule of old favourites mixed with newer O creations. The small theatre must offer an intimate arena for any performances, but for this weekend I had to be satisfied with peering through a window at the stage.

Feeling disappointed I headed back to the town centre with the intention of seeking out other forms of traditional O culture. I knew that I couldn't go far wrong with a beer hall by the name of The Drunken Cats (Pjanniy Kochki). I entered and ordered myself a litre of Prdprdgrdneroyepiwo, an O beer that repays the effort made to order one. Don't worry, after five or six even the natives find it difficult.

Beer halls provide an inexpensive alternative to restaurants, as most of them serve food as well as fairly cheap beer. The menu at The Drunken Cats is typical of many such places in O, though offers a little more selection than most. In O, as in other countries in the region, the most common dish is goulash. In several restaurants in O, you will find that goulash is the only item on the menu. At The Drunken Cats you are faced with several options. I went for Traditional O-Style Beef Goulash, though I can also recommend the fruity alternative Beef and Banana Goulash, or their special Drunken Cat Goulash. Other typical O dishes are Three-Meat Plate, or Five-Meat Plate in the more up-market establishments, and a special spiced meat and pickled salad. Vegetarians may find it hard to find suitable places to eat in O, but so much effort goes in to the preparation, it would be churlish to refuse simply on a matter of dietary principle. (See also my previous note on O hospitality.)

I washed down my goulash with several glasses of Prdprdgrdneroyepiwo, and sat back to enjoy the evening's entertainment. O is going through a stage of cultural development, along with its other advancements. Currently they seem to be in love with punk rock, and after a warm-up act of three drunken Dumvuks had finished their routine of drinking songs, accompanied by many of the customers, the stage was occupied by half a dozen young men going by the name of The Sick Pistols. One had to admire their knowledge of English, particularly some of its coarser words. But while their social comment may indeed prove very interesting, I was in no mood to analyse their lyrics, and so I paid the bill and strolled back to Grennan's. I had just enough energy for a pint of Guinness in the Irish Bar in the basement there, where the sweet Irish music relaxed me to the point where I had to take myself up to bed.

Not surprisingly breakfast in O consists of coffee and a mixed meat platter, usually served with pickled bread. I got up early to make the most of my final day in Rzwzclck, and headed for a Wirrawy cafe. After a night of Dumvuk beer, Wirrawy coffee is the best cure for the ensuing hangover. (Perhaps this offers one explanation as to how the tribes manage to co-exist so well.) If you stray from the beer, however, be warned. It takes more than coffee to repair the body after a few glasses of Dumvuk cabbage wine. One coffee aroused me, the second provided the kick I needed to get me on my way. Only ten hours left in O, and I had so much left to see.

Having spent Saturday in the town, I wanted to get out into the countryside. As a landlocked country, Os do not have a coast to visit. As a result, the most popular destination is the lake at Cc. You can take a train there, at a cost of a mere 500,000 kacks. The station you want is Cc (pronounced Tsch), and the journey takes just twenty minutes by local train. From Cc station the lake is only a few minutes walk away along the only road. Here you will find dozens of people crowded around the shore of the lake, some fishing, some paddling, others just sunning themselves. Here is the best place to enjoy the nature of O at its very best. Fields stretch out to meet the trees at the feet of the mountains which can just be seen through the haze. The land is dotted by farms, and the chimneys of the power plant which makes it impossible to swim in the lake during the winter. In summer the power station barely operates, and the acidity in the lake is diluted to a bearable level. Still, if anyone tells you they have caught a fish in the lake at Cc, they are probably lying. In any case, do not eat it.

A walk around Cc lake takes about an hour, stopping to admire the opposite view from the southern end. From here you can see down into Rzwzclck, and the tall towers of the spoon factory can be seen at the far end of town, the criss-crossing streets leading off from the Town Square, the ugly Communist-era tower blocks looking on jealously from a distance at the beauty of the rest of the city. There is some evidence of the beginnings of an urban sprawl that one day will bring the suburbs of Rzwzclck right out to the lake at Cc. In a few years the skyline of Rzwzclck, in fact all of O, will no doubt be dominated by huge tower blocks, the neon advertisements and McDonald's Ms.

For now, though, O is the last unspoilt area of Eastern Europe, and even when it is as over-run by tourists bored of Prague's commercialism, I will still remember it like this. Before I head back into Rzwzclck, I decide to stop at the hut on the eastern shore of the lake. This is a new business, though there has been a kiosk here for many years selling snacks and postcards to visitors from the cities. Now, however, it is at the leading edge of the wave of tourism-oriented business slowly washing over O. Children scream at their parents to be allowed to eat there, and while the prices are high for many Os, they see it as a special treat, and on this day much of the cafe was taken over by a birthday party.

The speciality of the Cc Lake Cafe is ice-cream, all carefully prepared on a theme of tourist attractions around the world. The Pyramids get an ice-cream equivalent, as does the Eiffel Tower and Lenin's Mausoleum. While this latter tempted me, I felt I had to sample something with an O theme, and what better than Lake Cc? When it came, this turned out to be a large ring doughnut, with melted vanilla ice-cream poured in the centre. A chocolate drop signified the Cc Lake Cafe. It was one of their simpler creations, perhaps symbolic of the nature of the country. It was very pleasant, and with the sounds of 'Many Green Jumpers', the O equivalent of 'Happy Birthday' ringing in my ears, I headed back to the station. I had barely six hours left, which gave me just about enough time to buy my ticket back to Prague.

On the train, I watched darkness fall on my way out of O and back to Prague. Two days is never long enough in a country with so much to reveal as O, and every time I leave I promise myself and the country that I will return soon. As the O say, zanozichotet -- go, but come back again soon, and stay healthy until you return. Zanozichotet, indeed.