Damien Enright: Quasi-camping with family in Czech countryside

Damien Enright: Quasi-camping with family in Czech countryside
A 19th-century family of Bohemian ‘strong’ farmers, an ancient bloodline now mixing with the Irish in my grandchildren.

I'm intrigued that edible dormice may share this very barn, my son’s workshop in South Bohemia in the Czech Republic, where I have temporarily set up a desk. I’d love to see one but they don’t stir out of their dormouse dormitories until the middle of the night and then only to take to the nearby treetops where they forage.

Perhaps I could find a nest and with my two grandsons, aged 11 and six, my two sons and their wives, observe them and even photograph them as they snore through yet another beautiful summer day.

The days have all been beautiful since my wife and I arrived. After two nights, we moved from my son’s apartment in a historic building in the middle of Ceske Budejovice (pop 120,000) to his workshop, this enormous barn 15km from the town.

He’s a furniture designer-maker and needs the space. He’s converted the loft above to a summer home-from-home for the family; it’s quarter the size of a football pitch, with swallows nesting under the slates. The fields of rough grass around it, edged by forest, are rich in butterflies and wildflowers.

Adjacent to the barn, he’s arranged a hodgepodge of summer holiday facilities, caravans to accommodate visitors, dining areas under shade, an assortment of outdoor kitchens, barbecues, fish and venison smokers, hammocks between trees, a soft-sided bathing pool 3.5m in diameter, a webbing-walled trampoline, a state of the art indoor ping-pong table, bicycles, trailers, mowers, strimmers — it looks like a gypsy encampment. It’s very relaxed.

My wife and I share a 20-year-old German-built caravan, so it’s a quasi-camping experience, a novelty from home. Younger son and wife, who’ve driven all the way from southern Spain, have another caravan, nearer to wifi so that they can work a bit each day and send out their work to the world, just as I can send out my column to the Irish Examiner.

The two boys are infinitely curious and consumed with the usual boyish interests. Their English and Czech is perfect, not unusual for children with one Czech and one non-Czech parent. Czech is an exceptionally difficult language and the kids acquire the language of the non-Czech parent.

The smallest boy clearly enjoys irony. I told him about the time I was driving my father’s car and my father, then aged 86, suddenly asked me to stop and open my window so that he could lean his (licenced) point 22 rifle across me to take a “pot-shot” at some wood pigeons in a field.

When I pointed out that the “field” was the front lawn of a newly-built house and a ricocheting bullet might go through the picture window facing us and hit someone inside, he replied: “It’s all right, I know them.”

The little fella loved the story and had me repeat it twice. His great-grandfather would have rewarded his appreciation with a sixpence. Manager of a bank, he knew the value of money.

The boys and I may go on a dormouse search later today. They’re interested in wildlife but haven’t yet graduated to the butterflies, damselflies, hawkmoths or other lepidoptera I find fascinating; they’re “boring stuff”.

Here in the Czech Republic there are deer with antlers, and wild pigs with dangerous tusks. We spotted deer in the woods through the train windows as we travelled south from Prague. The journey — airport bus to

the Prague station and two-hour train ride to Budejovice — cost €2 each. There are bears, wolves, lynx and beavers but not around here. We see hares regularly.

If we find fat dormice asleep, we won’t wake them for fear of disturbing their sleep patterns. They are “wildly active” in summer, being awake and busy gathering fruit and nuts or predating of birds’ eggs all of an average 202 minutes in a 24-hour day.

They nest in burrows, a labour-saving birds’ nests or convenient attics, and trust on fat reserves to see them through winters when metabolism and body temperature falls to near zero, and they can stop breathing altogether for an hour at a time.

If food looks scare when they wake in spring, they continue their sleep for as much as 11 months. In the wild, most die during their fourth winter hibernation, their cheek teeth worn to the point where they can no longer masticate food.

Called “fat dormice” by the ancient Romans — the fatter the better — they were favoured as snacks. We won’t, of course, eat them, although Slovenians and Croatians still do.

The temperature here is 31C today. There are golden wheat fields as far as the eye can see, bordered by dark forests. We heard some fine musicians the other night playing in a barn — where else? It was American music, a hoe-down.

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