What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Usti nad Labem

I went up to Usti nad Labem on the train – took about an hour from Prague.  There were trains ever hour or so and different express and local versions.  The quality of the trains was much better than it used to be here.  The type that makes me think that you could easily commute comfortably, it was surprising.  Air conditioning, plugs, tables, all new.  I sprawled my Czech language stuff out on the desk and studied for an hour.  The topography changes about 40-45 minutes into the trip from rolling hills and flat agro/foresty stuff similar to Hudson Valley (New York) type mountainy terrain.  Maybe a little steeper, but I was on the river so seemed similar to the Hudson in between Poughkeepsie and Peekskill.  The river was narrower though (the Labe, or Elbe).  There were occasional castles on the mountain tops and houses all along the river.  It obviously is a well-populated region and for good reason.  It was very nice on a perfect 70 degree and sunny day on the water.

When I got to Usti, I was very curious to see what it would be like.  If you listened to the Czechs I spoke to prior, it was going to be a dismal smelly industrial wasteland full of dark skinned, poverty level communists.  Oh wait…. No, not at all.  My one friend Shaft, who went to school there had very positive things to say about it.  The typical type of stuff you here about US cities with bad reputations from anyone who has spent time there.  “It is fine, it's nice, you just have to be careful about where you go and when…”  Basically, there are some dangerous places, as with most cities.
I walked at length around the city center and certainly there were more “dark skinned” people (Roma) than I am used to seeing in Prague, and a grittier component, but I was definitely NOT the only white person as was foretold.  It was basically to me a blue collar city with a solid industrial foundation/heart.  Maybe on the right day/with the right weather it is tough and smoggy, but it didn’t seem like it to me on this day.  The park towards the top of the hill was a bit in need of care and a good lawn mow, but so does Washington park in Newark!  Everything is always subjective as to bad and good…  If people from Prague came to Newark and saw the falling down houses they might think Usti was heaven.  I think there is definitely something to research further there in these perceptions, subjectivities, and prejudices.  Next weekend I’d like to go to Liberec and see what that is all about.  Even asking the same people for their thoughts to compare. 
Somebody thinks it needs to be cleaned up!
After wandering around and taking lots of pictures, I started heading towards the football game I was going to watch.  It was quite further than expected – hence the hurting feet – but a very nice walk by most measures.  I walked across a rain bridge then along the river on a bike/walking path/park that goes all throughout the region and into Germany.  There is a tremendous amount of hiking and biking opportunities in the area.  I was very impressed.
Then I got to the football game… are you kidding me?!?!  For the fifteen years that I have now been involved in the Czech Republic I had always hoped, longer for, wanted, dreamed about what I saw that day.  I turned the corner and there was an American football game in Usti nad Labem, CZ.  There were two teams with 20 plus players on both sides, there was easily 200 fans there and countless cyclists and rollerbladers poking in to check it out.  The city was obviously aware, and even interested.  It might be that these smaller cities are the places to work on the game, not Prague where there are a million other things to do. 
The fans were into it and even seemed to know a little bit of what was going on.  The football was solid enough.  Certainly as compared to what I used to see in my time there.  When I left in 2008 there were 9 teams.  There are 23 now.  The entire league was simply dominated by two teams from Prague and everyone else simply got beat up by them and then played each other even enough depending on the year.  The talent on the field was not much different than many of these teams from back then.  And here we were at the semifinal of the third division (which plays seven person a side football), and the number four seed beat the number 1 seed.  Never would have seen parody like that ten years ago.  I remember my first season in Prague we were 1-5 with three cancelled games due to not enough players.  We were trying at times to play 11 on 11 with 20 guys. You simply can’t do it.  And that is in a city of 1.2 million people.  But you can play 7 on 7.  It works, and it works in smaller cities.  The game is more accessible, and the teams are developing.  The Usti team, was running the “pistol” formation and incorporating a lot of wing T styled misdirection with intricate timing (intricate and difficult to master if you’re not taking it seriously).  I was quite impressed.  And more realistically, felt really proud.  All the work that I had done with those kids and guys in the Czech Republic while I was there, and Friday night I had long conversations with them as men, and then went and watched a game that was on the whole leaps and bounds from where we were a decade ago.  It was a great feeling.  I basically taught the guys that are coaching now how to catch the ball, not to mention the game itself – and from what they told me – a lot about life as well.  AND on top of all of that, off the field they had created an event.  Beer, noisemakers, food, entertainment, all these things that I spent years trying to make the Lions games into in Prague, and a three year old team in a city of 98,000 in north Bohemia had it!  There were announcers and teaching moments – only two cheerleaders though.  But they seemed to have embraced the entertainment and business side that I had pushed so much.  Amazing.
All that being said, I am here as an anthropologist!  So should get back to it!  I talked for a bit after the game with a guy from the other team.  Got contact info and hopefully will be able to reconnect and find a way in through football if need be.  It is my ticket to wherever I want to be in this country should I need it. Otherwise, the city was really interesting.  I am really intrigued both by its reality and its reputation.  There is a strong working class feel… so what about collective bargaining, labor rights, and unions?  There is a race relations and prejudice issue with rumors and realities colliding.  Not to mention, a poverty, inequality, opportunities, and political bent to it all, especially when coupled with a boot straps mentality in Prague.  How are people there imagining their lives and the answers to the issues they face? Especially the political and economic issues?  Are they organizing?  Imagining?  If so how?  It will be an interesting place to explore for the future.