The last time the Olympics were in Tokyo, in 1964, something funny happened to a certain man from Heršpice. He had some money burning a hole in his pocket, and he really wanted to go see the games in Japan. So he went down to the little train station in Heršpice and asked for one first-class ticket to Tokyo.
The woman at the ticket window laughed and said, “Are you crazy? You can’t buy a ticket to Tokyo from here! You’ll have to go to the main station for that.”
So he took the tram up to Brno hlavní nádraží, walked over to the window, and asked for one ticket to Tokyo. “Impossible.” the ticket seller said. “For that you need to go to the main station in Prague.”
So the man went to Praha hlavní nádraží and asked again for one ticket to Tokyo. “Oh, I’m afraid we can’t sell you a ticket to Tokyo just like that,” said the man at the window. “First you need to go to the Ministry of Transportation, fill out the proper forms, get the necessary permissions…”
Well, to make a long story short, in the end, the man got his ticket, and he went to Tokyo and had a great time at the Olympics. But when the games were over and it was time to head home, he realized he’d only purchased a one-way ticket. There was a little train station just down the street from his hotel in Tokyo, so the man went there. Nervously he approached the window. “I’d like a ticket back home, please,” he said. “To Heršpice.” The woman in the ticket booth nodded and said: “Horní or Dolní?”
When I told my friend Lenka that Dolní Heršpice was the next neighborhood in my Brno journey, she immediately laughed and told me that joke. Her father had repeated it so many times she knew it by heart. I laughed too, and I knew I had to retell it for this article.
One reason I love that joke is that it has all the classic elements of a Czech epic: a totally absurd premise; an oblivious hero making his way through layer after layer of inane bureaucracy, the comedic tension building with each of his failures; and then what might be called the moment of triumph quickly glossed over, before the final, hilarious, crushing blow comes – a tossed-off line from a stranger that shows what an easy and beautiful life the hero might have had, had he been born anywhere but Brno.
Another great thing about the joke is that it gives me an excuse to cheat, and cover two neighborhoods in one article (after all, I’d like to finish this project before the next Tokyo Olympics).
As I’ve explored the two Heršpices over the last few weeks, getting lost and turned around many times, I’ve kept retelling that joke to myself, enjoying its mischievous depths.
The punch line works because Heršpice is the epitome of an insignificant backwater, a place obscure to the rest of the civilized world – even to the rest of Brno.
But it also works because we understand a place like Heršpice – marginal, miniscule, unknown and unloved – can still be a home. And, I think, because we want and need to imagine it as one.
So choose your destination, reader: Horní or Dolní?
The flat geography of Heršpice has destined it to be Brno’s welcome mat. Unfortunately, the visitors it has attracted have not always been that welcome.
Brno is surrounded by steep hills on three sides – but the twin Heršpices squat low on its exposed south side, straddling the Svratka River (if “Upper” Heršpice is any more upper than “Lower” Heršpice, it must be only by a few centimeters). So for centuries, anyone who’s wanted to get into Brno, to claim it for their own, has trudged through here, wiping their muddy boots.
The Swedish armies camped here during their failed siege of 1645, leaving the place trashed like a rock star’s hotel room. That pattern was repeated over the next hundred years or so, with various armies sweeping through and pillaging and leaving.
The only people who stuck it out and stayed to work the land were German-speaking farmers; at some point near the end of the 17th century, someone counted only three Czech speakers in Horní Heršpice. But the Germans were brutally marched out of town at the end of World War II, leaving the area once again barren.
As Brno grew in the second half of the 20th century, it needed a place to put its motorways, freight tracks, factories, and shopping centers – and what better place than its conveniently cleared-out bottomlands? Thus Heršpice was converted into (as the Encyclopedia of Brno History nicely puts it) “industrial periphery.”
The transformation of the area since the 1960s has meant that Lenka’s father’s joke (again, like many great Czech stories) has accumulated several layers of unintended irony.
A man from today’s Heršpice wouldn’t even have to leave the neighborhood to have an international experience. Foreign industries and retail outlets have colonized the area, building malls and factories which are indistinguishable from similar places in Tokyo or anywhere else on the planet. Their slick facades sell us a vision of the world at our doorstep – affordable, homogenous.
And yet, our modern-day hero would have difficulty just getting from one Heršpice to the other. Development has chopped up and paved over the former villages and fields, dividing the land into snippets that don’t connect. Train tracks and highways hashtag through the area, making it easy for products (and their consumers) to get in and out of the malls and factories – but making it very difficult if you want to stay and explore.
It may be that the Horní Heršpice train station really does sell tickets to Tokyo! No one would ever know; it’s an isolated dump, with a rusting car sitting in the weeds by the main entrance.
And the long, violent history of razing and displacement that created this fragmented landscape isn’t over; the neighborhood’s neck is still on the chopping block.
I found out about this over a few beers with Bruno Zalubil (writer of the wonderful “Br(u)no” column for Brno Daily), who lives with his family in Horní Heršpice.
We peeked in to have a look at the menu at Valoria, one of the fanciest restaurants in Brno…but a svíčková for over 300 Kč was the most affordable lunch option, so we walked our cheap asses back under the train tracks to the much homelier Restaurace Parlament.
As we drank Starobrno in the empty zahrádka, Bruno told me about the city’s new zoning plan, which shows a big highway (part of the proposed outer ring road) smashing right through his back garden.
The plan may not actually go through, and even if it does, it will be many years before Bruno’s house gets bulldozed. In the meantime, though, he and his neighbors have to live in uncertainty: should they invest in improvements and repairs on houses that might be gone in a decade or so? Or should they start looking for other places to call home?
What does it mean to imagine yourself at home in a peripheral landscape, a place sliced up by progress, by armies and industry, by the needs of a swarming city?
It might mean actively seeking out the dead ends, and finding grace there, in your blocked path – or just occasionally, finding a secret connection.
I made my way up Košuličova street to where it curves under the tracks, hoping to follow what looked (on mapy.cz) like a path through to the far northern tip of Horní Heršpice. The way turned out to be blocked by fences and warning signs – but in the labyrinth of underpasses there, I discovered an eerily beautiful open-air gallery of abstract art. I spent a while in the strange silence before turning back the way I came.
Later, nosing around behind a garage off Rajhradská street, ignoring the map this time, just stubbornly hoping to find a way to walk through from Horní to Dolní Heršpice, I discovered a faint line of rubbed-away grass.
It led to this magnificent graffiti cathedral under the Vídeňská highway…
…and then over the train tracks, into a dense thicket beneath the D1, and past a few scraggly gardens (and a few more rusted cars). Eventually the trail widened out onto a gravel road, and I emerged at the other end…into nowhere.
What does it mean to imagine yourself at home in a furniture showroom?
I’ve spent hours in a trance, sitting in a STRANDMON, trying to feel how my butt feels – I mean, how it really feels. Meditating. Concentrating. Trying different postures I’d never try otherwise. Can I bend my left leg up against my chest better here, or in the POÄNG? I get up, walk a few steps, plop down in the POÄNG. The room bounces slightly.
But the room is actually a set of rooms, cut away as in a human-sized doll house, each room with its own style, its bed made differently, its clock set to a different time, its bookshelf higher or lower on the wall (but each filled with the same strange Swedish books).
Big white price tags hang from the picture frames. Families that aren’t mine stare out from the pictures. Other strangers – other shoppers – buzz by, entering and leaving each room, passing through the walls.
I see all this. But to be a successful visitor, a successful shopper, I have to look through it and beyond it, to imagine some other landscape. I imagine my own apartment. I try to feel the size and the weight and the texture of the POÄNG with me sitting in it, in my own room, in another part of the city. I try to become one body with the chair. It’s a chair that thousands of other bodies have sat in, and wiggled their butts in, and yet I know that the real chair, the true chair, my chair – remains unassembled, and pure, scattered across different shelves in the warehouse beneath me.
I transport the chair and I into silence and private space. Will there be room for us there? Will we match the walls? If I buy the KALLAX shelves, will I be able to reach my books from the POÄNG? Or should I choose the STRANDMON instead?
In the lower depths of the labyrinth, I stare at a glowing wall, my pupils dilating. I focus on the ÅRSTID lamp. I try to ignore the light from the TÄRNABY, the FADO, the MISTERHULT, the KNUBBIG. I ignore the sound of blabbing kids behind me. I have to concentrate. I have to imagine a different scene. How will the light from the ÅRSTID fall on the arms of the POÄNG? How will the shadows of my arms fall on my lap, on the screen of my laptop?
Hours have passed, and yet somehow I’ve moved (or been moved) through the bowels of the labyrinth, past the fake plants, through the cathedral-like warehouse with its boxes stacked to the ceiling. I’m approaching the registers with nothing to buy. I know it’s unacceptable to pass those beeping machines without a bar code to show them. I panic.
The next thing I know I’m out in the Avion parking lot, clutching a box of KEX alphabet biscuits and a jar of SYLT lingonberry jam.
The bus back to the center of town is pulling up in front of me, but for some reason I can’t fully understand, I don’t get on it.
I’m drawn back into the labyrinth, down another path, beyond the grey tunnel of the mall buildings, around to the back of the complex. There’s a playground, a bike path, a bit of grass. A few uneven picnic tables under some big beer umbrellas. A folding sign advertises Gambrinus and zmrzlina.
Beyond that, a white bridge crosses the river.
I’ve crossed that bridge a few times already; I’ve seen what’s there. It’s just another part of Dolní Heršpice, another part of Brno.
And yet I imagine that this time, when I cross the Svratka, I’ll finally get to the real Brno, the true Brno, my Brno.