Welcome to a very special edition of Mailbox. It is special because today we will announce the winner of the 2005 Radio Prague listeners' competition. This year the question was "What Czech beer means to me?"
All six language sections of Radio Prague received 729 letters and e-mails, more than 200 came to the English Section. After much reading and discussing, the jury representing all Radio Prague's departments chose:
Ms Agnes Simoni from Marseille, France
as the winner of this year's Radio Prague listeners' contest.
Congratulations, from all of us here at Radio Prague. And now let's hear the winning entry:
The first person to tell me about Czech beer was my aunt Miluska - my father's half-sister. She told the little French girl - that I then was - about a country where you find hop gardens instead of the vines of my native Provence, a land where men and women take pleasure in putting great crocks of frothy beer to their lips. What a marvel, this beer! In my adolescent mind it became a synonym for liberty and independence. For I imagined these Czech women defending their ideals and their rights in the same spirit as they downed a glass of beer!
Some years later I read a book which reinforced this idea in my mind and acquired something of a cult status for me. It was "Cutting it Short" by Hrabal. The heroine fascinated me with her energy and spontaneous spirit, with her joie de vivre, with her sensual appreciation of good food and above all the way she drank her beer, as if refreshing herself from a spring - avidly until her thirst was quenched. How I loved this heroine. And I would have loved to hold up her cropped hair as a standard to the world, a symbol of a life full of simple and beautiful joys. For me too Czech beer became the expression of these joys.
As I continued my wanderings through literature, I discovered the cafés of Prague, which distil the spirit of the nation as much as the beer itself: "When the great actor Norinsky walked into the Café National opposite Prague's Czech Theatre at three in the afternoon..." (Reiner Maria Rilke, "King Bohush").
How I dreamed of these "hospody", these taverns that are so special to Prague, of these "kavarny", where you could sit at the same table for years, of all these places where Czechs put the world to rights over their favourite beer. I could almost make out the shadows of the Golem and the Good Soldier Svejk dancing in the thick fug of smoke!
A few years on, when I was studying languages, and Czech in particular - for my childhood dream had never left me - I discovered other facets of Czech beer, less romantic but just as important.
To start with, there's the quality of the hops (considered among the best in Europe) and the savoir faire of the brew masters who have made the Czech Republic (along with Great Britain, Belgium and Germany) one of the four biggest beer producers in Europe. The country has numerous breweries, most of them in Bohemia. I shall share with you some of the names that come to my mind, magic names which evoke a world of colour and conviviality and the pleasures of the palate: Staropramen (with its Smichov beer, a great classic), the biggest brewer in the country, founded in 1869; U Fleku, the oldest tavern-brewery in the world (dating back to 1499), a true paradise for beer connoisseurs, where you find a classic beer, amber in colour and with no brand name (as it is never bottled); Pilsen, which is one of the three corners of the "Golden Triangle" (the others are Munich and Vienna), where the brewing of lager dates back to the beginning of the 19th century. The town has even given its name to the lightest of the lagers, known the world over by the words on its white and golden label: Pilsner Urquell. This beer has won awards at numerous international fairs, is widely exported and its contribution to Czech foreign trade is by no means insignificant, something that is also well worth noting! My memories would be incomplete if I failed to mention Ceske Budejovice and its Budvar brewery, founded in 1895, which produces one of the greatest beers in the world, Budweiser.
I shall never forget my first Czech beer, in a shaded beer garden in the heart of Prague! As the shadows of the leaves of the tree above played on the big, light-coloured wooden table, a beer glass - at the time it struck me as huge - was placed on a cardboard beer mat in front of me. I stared into it, with its honey and amber hews, its head tickled my lips, its sudden bitterness was swept away by my quenched thirst, and finally the flavour, that came as such a surprise to me as a foreigner - unforgettable. And then around me the happy faces, young and old, from all different walks of life, some even from abroad. As I lifted my glass I understood that there was something magic in this drink and that it brought us all together. I even thought for a minute about the champagnes and the great French wines that my compatriots love so much and which only the privileged can afford. Czech beer is different, it is for all. National unity.
The head gently caresses
The deep taste on my palate,
Czech beer is like a kiss!
How can I forget you,
You who gave me this love!
Congratulations once again and many thanks to everybody for taking part in our contest. Unfortunately, only one can win the main prize. But there are Radio Prague goodie bags for the runners up and on top of there is still a chance to win a CD of Czech music in Radio Prague's monthly competition. You still have until Wednesday to send us your answer to the following question:
"In the 1930s an alternative typewriter keyboard to the QWERTY keyboard was invented and patented in the United States by a man of Czech origin. The man, who was born in 1894 and died in 1975, used his extensive knowledge of linguistics and body mechanics to create a simplified keyboard which was supposed to speed up typing and reduce the typists' fatigue. If you think you are totally in the dark, there is a clue: His has the same surname as a world-famous Czech composer, who was actually his distant relative."
The address is as usual, Radio Prague, 12099 Prague, Czech Republic or English@radio.cz
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