Behind the Iron Curtain part 25 – Christmas

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


Not only the Christians have realized that trying to ban solstice celebrations that have gone on for thousands of years is like pissing against a hurricane. Communists realized that too. To my knowledge, they did not even try to eradicate or co-opt it. They just went along with it as it was.

I mentioned already that the regime was in fact actively anti-religion and anti-theism in general. This had little to no effect on the general population though. Czechs were heathens before, during and after the Iron Curtain, Slovaks and Poles were strongly catholic before, during and after the Iron Curtain. And since I live in one of the most heathen parts of Czech Republic, my childhood Christmas had nothing to do with any religious mumbo-jumbo whatsoever.

So how did we actually approach the Christmas? As a family holiday, a time for spending time together and gift-giving. The TV run mostly light entertainment (and still does) for three days straight, with emphasis on fairy-tales, whose airing on TV literally became a new christmas tradition in itself. There are fairy-tales that are expected to be aired for generations, and when they ceased to be aired after the fall of Iron Curtain, because they do contain some propaganda stuff hidden in them, they were nevertheless demanded by the public and thus got aired again.

My parents tried, not very enthusiastically and therefore with little success to bring some “magic” to the gifts appearing under the christmas tree by being brought by Ježíšek (Baby Jesus), whom they never defined to me. However it did not last long and I in fact remember nearly nothing about it. By the time I started to go to school one girl in our class got mercilessly mocked by most of the class for openly saying she believes in Baby Jesus bringing gifts. Most of the kids by that time already knew how gift giving really works.

First time I have learned what Ježíšek is actually supposed to be that I remember was when reading the book by Josef Lada “Kocour Mikeš” (Mikes the (male) cat). The book contains the whole biblical story of how Jesus was born in Bethlehem, sanitized for children audience into a fairy-tale form. Which is how I got exposed to most of religious ideas – as fairy tales. Which is what they are.

As soon as I gained some skills, I was trying to make christmas presents for my parents and siblings. The first succesful attempt that I remember was making simple paper models of a church (for my Mum) a castle (for my father) and a fort (for my brother). Blast it, I completely forgot what I have given to my sister that year. Nevermind, this was and remained for me the true meaning of christmas, but I grew up to resent the mandatory gift giving because life obligations are not so kind as to align with arbitrary date in the calendar, so nowadays if I come across something that would be suitable as a christmas gift, I give it on christmas, but I do not fuss about it. I give gifts to family and friends when opportunity and/or need arises, Christmas or no.

The one tradition that endured all political changes in our country, and which even our heathen family still observes, is eating of fish – specifically carp – for dinner on 24. of December. The fish are generally sold alive a few days prior. And since my mom was the boss at local food store, she was in charge of these yearly fish sales. So as a child I have spent a few adventurous days from 4:00 a.m. till 5:00 p.m. with my dad and a few other people outside, near the huge vats in which the carp swam. I learned to kill, gut and dismember fish before I finished school. I learned to recognize a few fish species that way too, because other fish got occasionally caught with the carp. I had a lot of fun there and I looked forward to that part of Christmas the most – when I was healthy enough to actually participate that is.

I like the fish soup and less so the fish steaks, but what I do not like at all is the killing and dismembering the poor animal. I am not opposed to eating meat and killing animals for that purpose, but I do not enjoy it either. However since my father has a really bad eyesight now, it is nowadays my duty to do these chores. I usually let the fish being killed at the stall however, so the poor animal’s suffering is over quickly

A tangent – how Chuck Norris was unable to kill christmas carp. The man at the end says “Everyone can be tough on TV”. I know Chuck Norris is a bit whacko and a Republican, but there is no denying he does have a sense of humor:

 

Happy whatever, everyone.

Slavic Saturday

Lets put Christ back in Christmas, shall we? Christ is the reason for the season, after all! That’s why it’s called Christmas!

Whenever I hear this nonsense from American Christians, I am reminded how shallow and uninformed their view of the world is. They actually really think that English language is prescriptive of how reality works and that Christians invented solstice celebrations.

So lets today just briefly look at the Czech term Vánoce. It is not actually slavic word in origin. It comes from German word “Weihnachten”, which probably just means “holy nights”. We borrowed quite a few words from our neighbors over the centuries. The original Slavic word was possibly “god” or “gody”, which has nothing whatsoever to do with any deity, it is a word for a celebration, holiday and/or feast.

Like I mentioned, there are no written records from old Slavic cultures, but something can be ascertained from what others wrote about them, especially christians before and when they started converting Slavic pagans to Christianity around 800 A.D. From this it seems that on the night of solstice Slavs celebrated the death and rebirth of a god Dažbog (Daž – give, bog – god), who was the sun-god. The celebrations consisted of having a huge bonfire lasting from sunset to dawn and feasting (without meat foods) around it. The feasting has lasted for a few days, cookies ornated with crosses and swastikas were a part of it, as well as going around singing carols and receiving/giving gifts. Note that these were de-facto celebrations of a new year – old man Dažbog has died on the evening, and he was re-born in the morning to grow (spring), gain strength (summer) age (fall) and die again next solstice. Whilst Dažbog was alive, world was safe. But during the night he was dead the chaos and evil could enter the world – thus the bonfires to keep his strength in the world and people safe from chaos through the night.

I won’t go into details, because I do not know them – I am not an expert, just a guy who read something about these things now and then throughout his life. And even experts must rely a lot on extrapolations from linguistic and still living traditions. There might be mistakes in what I wrote and it by no mean is comprehensive. Whole books are written about it. However one thing is sure – these traditions were old, predated christianity (at least here) and many of them never died.

Similar traditions at this time of year were also held by Germanic (hence christmas trees) and Celtic (mistletoes) pagans.

Christian missionaries were fully aware that trying to eradicate such traditions is akin to pissing against a hurricane, so they co-opted them. Instead of re-birth of the sun-god, it was told Baby Jesus was born. You can keep your crosses and your feasts, but instead of holding a wake at a bonfire, go to a mass at midnight etc. etc. at bleeding nauseam.

Christ was never the “reason for the season”. The sun was.

David Ruston’s Roses

From Lofty, the story of the man behind Australia’s famous Ruston’s Roses.

This is a statue of David Ruston in a park in Renmark, a tribute to the man and his contribution.

… Ruston’s Roses in Renmark, once Australia’s biggest rose garden. David Ruston began working here at 18, and developed a life long passion for roses. He became world renowned, and was for a time President of the World Federation of Rose Societies.  He built his father’s original collection of 500 rose bushes in to over 50,000 bushes. But he didn’t just grow roses, he was also an expert floral arranger.

Sadly, his health declined, as did the gardens, although they are still open to the public and with new ownership I hope the garden will return to its previous splendor and supply roses to the world once again.  The garden currently has a contract to supply rose petals to the Nineteenth Street Distillery in Renmark for use in their Gin.

David had a fall a year ago, and although he was present for the opening of the Renmark Rose Festival he was unable to participate.

I like the use of hard steel to display a man of flowers.

©David Brindley, all rights reserved

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Slavic Saturday

Slavic people are today mostly seen as “white” to the point that a Polish game developer was in USA criticised for making the computer game Witcher 3 without any people of color that could be recognized as such in modern world. Similarly a few years later a Czech developer was criticised for the same thing in a game Kingdom Come: Deliverance, deliberately set in medieval Bohemia and made as historically accurate as possible.

Whilst I understand all the arguments for the importance of diversity in representation, I think all these critiques were misguided, because they were targeted at the wrong target – they criticised products of one culture from the perspective of another culture with entirely different roots.

Slavs are indeed white when you look at the color of their skin, and by Gob do we have an awful lot of white supremacists and neo-nazis today. However a white nationalist or even a neo-nazi Slav makes about as much sense as white nationalist or neo-nazi (or Trump loving) Jew.  After all, Jews have white skin too. And after all, how many Jew-hating Arabs and Arab-hating Jews know that both Jews and Arabs are in fact semitic tribes? I would venture a guess that many do not, or they do but don’t care. People are perfectly capable of being misguided, misinformed, bigoted and downright willfully ignorant and hold contradictory ideas in one head, so there is that.

Historically Slavs migrated in the Europe from east and north, displacing come celtic and germanic populations. As a result they lived mostly in the woodlands and mountains of north, central and East Europe and they were comparatively poor. They had no written language that we know of, so very little is in fact known about their culture or religion. Some knowledge can be derived from linguistics, some from written reports by neighbouring nations, some from archeology, but Slavs established themselves in Europe during the dark ages and knowledge is therefore scarce.

However it is sometimes alleged that their own name for themselves – Slovan (originating from the word sloviť=to speak) might have been the origin of the word sclavus (Lat), and later on Sklave (Ger) and  slave (En) . Because these poor people were popular sources of cheap slave labor for neighbouring Germanic and Italic tribes through the early history of Europe way over to the Ottoman Empire in Middle East later on.

And even apart from slavery, a lot of the time right from Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages until very recently most Slavic nations were second-class citizens in countries led by people of other nationalities. Only Russians have managed to be oppressors and not oppressed in this period, and ironically they mostly oppressed and sometimes even tried to exterminate other Slavs. Both Czechs and Poles did not have any independency right until the end of WW1, after which they had few short decades to get the taste of self-determination before being swept into the bloody cauldron of WW2.

Under the Third Reich the Slavs were seen as barely people. They were not targeted for outright extermination like Jews and Roma, but the intent was to put them back into their proper place – slavery (that is why I think that a neo-nazi Slav is an ignoramus and a completely daft person – if nazis got their way, he would think scrubbing floors with his own toothbrush is a posh job).

After the WW2 all slavic nations ended up being wrapped behind the Iron Curtain under the not-so subtle hegemony of USSR. This time at least it was not overtly attempted to obliterate local cultures and languages (not here anyway). But whilst the Russian rule did try and manage to instill some sense of Pan-Slavic belonging, they also managed to instill some anti russian sentiments along the way (in Poland on top of the hundreds of years long grudge Poles held against Russians from the time of the Russian Empire). And the sense of always being second class, not being allowed anything truly ours, pervaded.

In this sense, sprouting of some nationalism after the fall of the Iron Curtain was perhaps inevitable, what with the nations trying to finally re-assert themselves for good. I do think white nationalists are going about the business the wrong way, proclaiming your superiority over others is not the right thing to do and it is also demonstrably false. But I also think that Polish game developers who make a PC game packed with people who bear the typical facial features of contemporary Poles, with architecture and ornaments of medieval Slavic kingdoms and based on Slavic mythology, or Czech game developers making a game set in a very distinct and specific area of medieval Kingdom of Bohemia with focus on historical accuracy are doing nothing wrong and are indeed going about it the right way. And even though these works of art have managed to succeed on an international stage, their creators were in no way obliged to fall in step with USA culture and reflect USA racial make-up.

Those who criticised these two games for a lack of representation of POC have failed to realize that they were essentially trying to bully others into giving their own culture away and let the USA to appropriate said culture the way USA likes it. In fact, they should take these games as an opportunity to learn that “white people” are not a monolith and that outside of USA there is a lot more that defines your ancestry and your culture than the color of your skin. This way said critics were – probably unwittingly – perpetuating the USA collonialism ad absurdum, by requiring everyone everywhere to reflect contemporary social ills of USA.

We do not need nor want to do that, thank you very much. We have our own social ills to deal with.

Is this a Dinosaur Tooth?

I found this fossilized tooth in my yard several years ago and I’ve been curious about just what kind of tooth it is ever since. It’s big, about 4 cm x 2.5 cm x 2 cm and it looks to be a tearing or biting tooth. If it were human I’d say it looks like an eye tooth. The bottom edge has been worn down to the dentin and the top end has no attached bone. It’s possible that it was buried in my yard, but it’s more likely that it arrived with a load of rock gravel that we ordered in. I have no idea where that rock originated so I can offer no real clues about its provenance. I know it’s difficult with only a few photographs, but I’m hoping someone out there can tell me a bit more about it.

Mystery fossil side view, ©voyager, all rights reserved

Mystery fossil root end, ©voyager, all rights reserved

Mystery Fossil biting end. ©voyager, all rights reserved

 

Youtube Video: Feudal Japanese vs Medieval European CASTLES

Shad of the YouTube channel Shadiversity is a bit peculiar fellow. His performance is a bit over the top, but that is his selling point and it has an entertainment value. He has some old-fashioned notions about gender, but that is sadly to be expected, because not only is he male, he is also a practicing mormon. Thus being another proof of the to me totally baffling fact that evidently intelligent and well-educated people can believe the most ridiculous, silly and multiple-times over falsified notions if those notions are under the guise of “religion”.

However his videos on medieval castles are very informative, educational and fun to watch, so I can recommend those with clear conscience.

Youtube Video: Medieval ASSASSIN’S CROSSBOW (Balestrino) ASSEMBLED & TESTED!

I could not decide between multiple videos, as usual, and last-minute decision fell on this one. It is a nice piece of engineering and the video is reasonably short and packed with interesting information.

It might also be Halloween appropriate? I have no clue, since I originate from and live in a country with no Halloween tradition whatsoever and honestly I do not understand what Halloween is supposed to be about at all. But I read something about murderers and monsters the other day, so maybe an (alleged) assasin’s weapon might fit in.

I have a day off and I planned to do some knife-work, but I have to pass on that since I am still not well.

How Hard is Hard Enough?

This is about steel and blades OK? Just to be clear upfront.

In my article Knifesharpenophobia I have mused a bit about how being all anal retentive about the hardness of a blade is not all that necessary. Now I wish to revisit that heme a bit, after my hardening attempt of a blade did not go as well as I would wish to.

If you remember when I was trying to harden the rondel dagger I was also hardening a kitchen knife blade and I was pretty sure that this particular blade is properly hardened. So I took it to work and measured the hardness on the tang (the knife is not finished yet), where it is hardened, but probably not as well as the blade. And the gage showed HRC 54. From technical standpoint, difference between 50 HRC and 54 HRC is not trivial (HRC is not a linear scale) and that knife is thus indeed properly hardened. What was the difference in the work process? For that knife then I have used the gas forge only for heat-soak, the final heating to 1050°C  before quench was made with charcoal, which allows for more even heating. HRC 54 is still not full potential of this steel, but if the tang has it, the blade has probably more.

But this whole thing got me thinking again – is that even relevant? Do I really need to be afraid to give that knife to a fried as a gift because the hardness of the blade is “just” HRC 50? Am I being unnecessarily obsessive about an inconsequential detail (again)?

So I tried to look at what is the actual hardness of historical blades. I did not spend too much time with it, but the article Sword Blade Hardness: A look at the current research is an eye opener and a good read. To be clear, it is about swords, not kitchen knives, but it still clearly shows one thing – the crappiest knife that I have ever made is vastly superior to most knives that were used throughout history before the invention of blast furnace. Not because of my superior skill, but because I have access to superior steel. Furthermore, HRC 50 is not actually bad at all and someone who takes a good care of the knife would probably not even notice any downside when cutting. And it has an upside too – a blade in this hardness range needs to be sharpened more often, but stropping and sharpening should be reasonably easy and quick and the knife will not break easily when you drop it on the floor by accident.

It is not the best that could be, but it is good enough.

Why Did You not Try to Stay in USA?

As readers of Affinity know, I was growing up until 13 years of age in a totalitarian state with little real autonomy, an effective satellite of USSR. I also grew up in a poor family so it was a bit of an uphill financial struggle for me to get a university education.

Towards the end of my education I had to decide how to actually start my independence and one of the options that presented themselves in 2000 was to go to USA with a “Work And Travel” program and J1 visa. I might write about my American adventure maybe some more later, today I wish to only briefly discuss the question in the title, which in various forms was posited to me in later years from many people here, old as well as young.

Even before venturing to USA I was of the opinion that it is a proto-fascist state and my opinion was further solidified by my experiences there.

So my answers at that time were these four points:

  1. Crappy healthcare. I have met ordinary people fearing that a simple case of flu might send them down the spiral of personal bankruptcy. I have seen outrageous prices for one course of antibiotics. I knew that USA had, in contrast to European countries, no universal healthcare, but seeing it first hand was a real eye opener. Fear of loosing even the crappy health insurance provided by the employer kept many people in essential slavery, when the were putting up with blatant abuse by their managers. For my friends I summed this argument up as “if I have grown up in USA, I would not live to become an adult, because my parents would not be able to pay for the medication I needed”.
  2. Crappy education. I have already mentioned that for me to get a university education was an uphill struggle. I was not bad student, but I am not so intelligent as to be able to study and work (not to mention that job availability was not that great – unemployment rate 8%), so I had only negligible income and I had to rely on my parents, which was hard – I had to live by with about 100,-$ a month to pay for my lodgings, food, books etc. For my friends I summed this argument up as “in USA I would not get a university degree, because even without tuition fees it was not cheap and with tuition fees it would be ruinous”.
  3. The mony that I made n USA was worthless there, it only had worth here because of the very favourable exchange rate. In US, the measly 5.50$/h were to barely live by – even though as a student I was tax exempt. So staying in USA would mean to lock myself into perpetual poverty. I find it incredible how many of my peers with university education failed to grasp this reality, that money’s worth is contextual and 1.000,-$ monthly income in USA is shit, whilst being absolutely amazing and nearly unattainable here.  I tried to sum it up as “for the money I was making there, I could not even rent a flat. And I would be forced to do work well bellow my qualification even for that. Here, I could use it to at least repair my house.”
  4. Absolutely inane laws and judiciary process. I have always thought that outcome of a judicial case should not be decided by a bunch of barely literate amateurs and that precedent law should not still be employed in any civilised country. And what I particularly did not admire was the “sue happy” culture in USA, where people try to win the lottery by suing each other for money. And the lack of properly functional system for “ex officio” advocates for people who cannot afford to pay. I summed it up as “any time you could get sued by some idiot over some trivial thing and if they could afford better lawyer than you, you are screwed”.

And mind you, this all was in 2000. The only progress that I see from behind the Atlantic was on health care, everything else got  much worse since then. And it seems that USA is managing to drag back the rest of the world as well – in last decade or so the main American exports are jingoism and creationism.

The USA was never democracy and never free. It only managed to convince its enslaved citizens that they are free. I am entirely content with my decision to not even try to live there permanently.