“And then I coughed” my host narrated as I reacted to the bite of the Slivovice. “That’s how I knew it was the good stuff.” He laughed, then turned serious. Like many people, he knows what I should be writing about, and now he was starting to write it for me. “People in America, they would want to read about this, about life here. There are lots of stories here.”
‘Here’ is a farming village whose name I’ve never caught. Horní Something. I was sitting in the home of my sister-in-law’s parents, enjoying the homemade plum vodka (it’s not just wishful thinking, the homemade stuff really is significantly better), while Jirka regaled me with stories of his life in the village, his adventures elsewhere, and most of all, the ongoing restoration of the home in which we sat.
He gestured out the window, where across the street is a small church in moderately good repair. “I was a choir boy in that church,” he said. “800 years old. I could have had a villa in Florida, or an apartment in London, but when I came back here I started to feel it and I knew I had to come back here. Home. I can never be lonely here, even when there is nobody around.” I weighed mentioning some of my own thoughts on home, but for conversations like that I prefer to think slowly, and with Jirka there is none of that.
The house, too, is old, but though the plank floors had fallen victim to moisture and long neglect, the thick walls of stone and brick stand straight. The tile roofs on the main structure and most of the outbuildings were also intact, and the exceptions have now been removed. As with any place that has been filled with humans for a long time, there are stories attached to this old building, and I think more than anything else that is why Jirka bought it.
Some of the stories are larger, and reflect the ebb and flow of history. Before the communists came, a wealthy farmer lived here with his family, and apparently he kept a journal. With the communists came an inversion of the social order, and the family’s lands were confiscated and the people who were put in charge knew little of farming. According the Jirka, the man wrote of mistakes and incompetence as the productivity of the land plummeted. Jirka summarized. “They did not know to spread the manure in February, then they took the man’s last two horses for the slaughter. ‘It is all tractors now,’ the communists said. Too late they found out that their tractors would not work on that land, it was too soft.”
I would like to be able to read that journal myself, not just for the sweep of history, but for the smaller events that transform a building into a home. I don’t know what I would find there, or even if the diarist recorded things like that, but it would be an interesting read.
The house has come a long way since the last time I was here; in fact, it wasn’t really habitable before. The rooms that are complete are very comfortable, and parts of the project reinforce some of my stereotypes of the Czech work ethic. It is obvious Jirka is of the “do it right the first time and never worry about it again” school, and the local craftsmen he has hired do quite well with the message, “time is not important; what matters is precision.” The woodwork is the most obvious example, and one I am less unqualified to comment on. In many cases the old woodwork was lovingly restored, and once again reflects the beauty it must have displayed in the 1930’s, or perhaps even the 1830’s. When new parts were needed, the old style was carefully followed, often using wood from the same era. In the wine cellar he has stripped away plaster to expose the old brick vault, and then coated the brick with modern products to preserve it’s rediscovered glory.
So, you get the idea. It’s shaping up to be a nice place. Assuming Jirka’s money holds out, he should be done with the restoration of the house and outbuildings (“the barn will be a local playhouse”) in another fifteen years or so.
Jirka tells me that there’s another fixer-upper (although already habitable) in the neighboring village going for a pittance. His description of it is intriguing, but I’m not in the market for a career in home repair. It does seem a great chance to build up some sweat equity, though. If anyone’s looking for an escape hatch and isn’t afraid of a hammer, you could do worse.