'Get to know you' evening for Czech and Slovak enthusiasts

BCSA's monthly socials in the Mucha room - Credit Soobin Kim (1)

BCSA's monthly socials in the Mucha room) - Credit: Soobin Kim

Last Wednesday evening, members of the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) and guests gathered in a stately room at Bohemia House on West End Lane.

It’s a monthly affair. The gathering – called “Get to know you” social evening – has taken place on the second Wednesday of each month since the late 1990s, previously at the Czech Embassy and now at London’s only Czechoslovak restaurant, known to locals as the Czech Club.

Familiar faces and newcomers trickled in and grabbed a seat. The tables, set with simple condiments on gingham placemats, had a modesty at odds with the ornate posters by the iconic Czech artist Alphonse Mucha framed on the walls.

Mark Davison, Lola Hruska, and Ruzena Holub

Mark Davison, Lola Hruska, and Ruzena Holub - Credit: Mark Davison

“She was a French opera singer named Sarah Bernhardt,” Ruzena Holub, vice chair of BCSA, said, pointing to the ethereal woman with flowing hair pictured in the posters.

Ruzena, 74, moved to Britain from Czechoslovakia in 1968 when travel restrictions were briefly lifted with the Prague Spring reforms.

Soviet tanks rolled into the capital short after her arrival, Ruzena recalled, and she pored over newspaper articles about the invasion with a dictionary.

Richard Burstow, 70, was an expat in Prague working on a banking project when Czechoslovakia split in 1993.

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“All the banknotes had to be stamped,” he said, nursing a mug of beer. “And the street vendors at Wenceslas Square were trying to rip people off by giving them fake notes.”

“You’re giving a bad name to the Czech people,” Lola Hruska, Ruzena’s sister, said in jest.

Lola, 72, scanned the plates of chicken schnitzel served on the table. “When I go out to eat at a restaurant, I usually have fish,” she said.

“Czech people usually don’t eat fish, except on Christmas Eve, and that’s about it.” Eating fillets of fried carp is a time-honoured Christmas tradition in the Czech Republic.

These monthly dinners, where the menu ranges from pickled sausage to pork brawn, are open to all, but guests typically share an abiding enthusiasm for Czech and Slovak culture.

Mark Davison, a journalist from Surrey, picked up a smattering of Czech in the pub and started taking evening classes to prepare for his trips to Prague.

“Now I’ve been learning for nearly 20 years, I can understand and have a chat and sometimes a laugh in Czech,” he said.

Mark tucked into a plate of breaded fried mushrooms and chips. Marion Gee, sitting across the table, said to him, “Dobrou chut”, which translates to “Enjoy your meal”.

Marion, born in Britain to parents who fled Czechoslovakia before the Second World War, has been coming to BSCA’s social evenings “to practice Czech and exchange with people of different professions”. It’s a welcoming place for the many who came over to England after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, she said.

Bohemia House on West End Lane

Bohemia House on West End Lane - Credit: Soobin Kim

The din of conversation continued for two hours without a lull, as the Slovak barman plied attendees with pints of the famed Czech beer, Pilsner Urquell. A faint smell of fried cheese floated across the room.

When the final round of drinks was emptied, Ruzena avidly reminded guests of the upcoming event on November 30 – a roundtable discussion exploring the legacy of Alexander Dubček, the Slovak politician who led the Prague Spring.

Jointly organised by BCSA, the Slovak Embassy and UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, the event will be attended by Dubček’s son, Pavol.

“If you want, I can put you on the email list for our other events,” Ruzena said, a notebook and pen in her hand, to first-time guests.