Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic (Travelers' Tales Press, 2006)

Natural Born Pig-Killers

By David Farley

I take my first bite of the toast, which
is sprinkled with scrambled eggs and an
unidentified pale-looking meat--the first
sampling from this morning's bizarre pig-
killing incident. The meat's texture is
rough on one side and smooth on the other.
The taste is bitter, and familiar only in
an "I-shouldn't-be-eating-this-part"-sort
of way. A group of dumpy track-suit wearing
Czech men huddle around the rickety wooden
table in my friend Libor's backyard,
devouring the toast like starving lions on
a fresh kill.

"What is this?" I ask about the chewy meat my teeth seem to be at war with. Honza, the next door neighbor and local butcher, replies in Czech, "mozek," as he rips a piece of toast from his mouth. The smirk on his grizzly face is a familiar one; one that suggests regret or nausea could be in my not-so-distant future. Earlier that day, just after the pig had been slaughtered, Libor's older brother and his friends wore the same smirks when they were forcing me to drink a clear, robust-smelling liquid in an unmarked bottle. "Just drink it,"" they repeated, pushing the bottle into my chest.

I've never seen "mozek" on the menu of a Czech pub before, despite the presence of horse sausage and beef tongue. This alarms me. Thumbing through my pocket-sized Czech/English dictionary, I nervously run my finger down the "mo" words. At first my eyes mistakenly fix on the word "mozol," which means "horny skin." When my finger finally locates the right word, it's even more disturbing: I'm eating brains.

* * *

Since I arrived in the Czech Republic to teach English, many of my students had told me about the infamous pig killing, or zabijacka, as Czechs call it. Libor, a tall soft-spoken 28-year-old who usually enjoyed spending our lessons talking about girls, was one of them. "It's normal," he said, referring to his constant chick chatter, as well as the rural Czech tradition of slaughtering a swine in November. Later, he invited me to his hometown to witness his family's annual zabijacka.

My own relationship with condemned pigs was not so different. Growing up in Dubuque, Iowa, my parents used to take my brother, two sisters and me to the local slaughterhouse. From the parked car window, licking on a Dairy Queen dip cone, we were encouraged to taunt the pigs as they marched through the fenced off walk ways to their death. "Here sewey, sewey, sewey, sewey!" Despite this early irreverence for farm animals, as an adult I didn't have much interest in watching a large mammal die.

But then again, I was in a country that was rapidly changing. The barrage of foreign investment was starting to make some parts of Prague indistinguishable from Paris or Portland. I'd come here to see a culture different from my own. I yearned for something unique, something Czech. The zabijacka, I thought, was about a million miles from fast-food-pitching Chihuahuas and white-bearded colonels.  A week later, I strapped on my winter boots and trudged through Prague's slushy streets to meet Libor for the drive.

* * * 

Mikulov was briefly a radical Protestant stronghold during the Reformation. Today it is neither Protestant nor a stronghold. It is a sleepy, romantic town where Austrians cross the nearby border to buy cheap cigarettes, beer and plastic garden gnomes. Like a lot of Czech towns outside of Prague, it is under-appreciated. The combination of narrow cobble-stoned streets winding their way below a large 700-year-old castle and small Baroque churches which sit quietly (and empty) on cozy squares could set even the most hardened traveler at ease.

Libor's parents put us at ease when we arrived at their two-story house not far from the town center. They gave me a typical Czech welcome: after rushing out to greet us, they ushered us into the house for tea, pastries and the usual barrage of questions about life in the United States.

For a few hours, I almost forgot why we were there--then Libor took me out back to the barn. When he swung open the large wooden door, a sliver of light from the backyard illuminated a small section of the barn's interior, and a corner of a small pen. A bulbous pig poked its snout through the wooden beams, snorting with curiosity. "There he is," said Libor, a thick tone of gratification eclipsing his usual meekness. Though I wasn't supposed to feel anything (after all, it was only a pig, Libor would later say), I felt a surge of guilt. Libor boasted about the animal's "healthy" upbringing. "One hundred percent natural," he repeated twice. But the pig had never left the barn. "It's better," said Libor. "Now he is plump."  The words: "Here sewey, sewey, sewey," ran through my head.       

At the local pub that night, I was fortunate enough to meet Libor's older brother, Marek.
After gruffly shaking my hand, he said, "Booosh." At first I didn't understand. Then he said, "Clin-ton."

"Yes, those are American presidents," I said.

A cigarette dangled precariously from his pursed lips as he stared at me. "Ay-ooh," he said, referring to the European Union (EU), an organization the Czech Republic was soon to join.  I simply nodded at him and smiled. Libor looked horrified.

Marek finished off his glass in one large swig and went into another room where it sounded like a rowdy game of billiards was climaxing. By the end of the weekend, I would be forced to endure his small and not-necessarily-useful cache of English vocabulary. He repeated "Beeg Mac," "Michael Jackson," "cowboy," and a handful of other "American" words, in what was, I think, his way of trying to make me feel welcome.

Since the demise of communism in the Czech Republic, the country has been on the fast track to privatization. Former Prime Minister (and now President) Vaclav Klaus' Thatcherite polices in the first half of the '90s enabled the free flow of mass amounts of foreign investment into the country, which created a backlash in the form of rapid price inflation and a resurgence of popularity for the Communist party. Even though the standard of living was currently much higher in the Czech Republic than ever, many of the country's intellectuals had been concerned the transformation had happened too fast. One of those was Klaus' political nemesis, the playwright, philosopher and former president Vaclav Havel. In a 1999 speech, then-President Havel said those who fought (and died) for democracy during the communist era did not do so for McDonalds and shopping malls. It was a daring proclamation for a president of a country that had been so eager to join Western institutions--and, evidenced by the multitude of malls that dot the outer districts of Prague, it was a speech that not many of his countrymen listened to.

* * *

At exactly 6:55 the next morning, Libor shook me out of a deep sleep. "We kill the pig now," he said. "C'mon."

When I arrived at the back door, the action was just about to begin. Libor's father, Vratislav, and Honza the butcher--all wearing nearly identical tracksuits with different shoe company logos scrawled across the back--stood near the closed barn door in the backyard. They tensely whispered orders at each other.

This was the most crucial aspect of the zabijacka. It was imperative that the pig die as tranquil a death as possible. If it became stressed--let alone realizes it was seconds away from being the day's main course--the quality of the meat would change, rendering its "fruits" barely edible.

The dilemma, which no one here seemed to have considered, was this: because the pig had never been out of the barn, the sudden, vast freedom of an open barn door and robust sunlight would certainly terrify it.

Still, they proceeded. Everyone was in position: Honza stood next to the barn door, holding an electric cattle prod above his head. Libor and his brother crouched a short ways away, ready to pounce on the animal after the fatal blow. With a nod from Honza, Libor's dad creaked the barn door open. Wearing a forced smile that suggested we were having a surprise birthday party for the sow, he gently motioned for it to come out of the barn.

I stood in the distance, camera in hand.

The pig slowly crept from the barn, cautiously sniffing the ground before each step. No one moved. Once the 250-pound porker was completely out of the barn, Honza took two deliberate steps forward and, with one brutal motion, brought the prod down in the back of its neck. The pig let out an ear-screeching, almost human-like wail. It bucked like an angry bull as electricity pumped through its massive body. With the prod still stuck in its neck, it fell to the ground, wiggling and shaking.

That's when Libor's dad, cautious that too much electricity would harm his dinner, unplugged the cattle prod. Suddenly the pig was back up on its feet, letting out louder and more horrifying squeals than before. As the swine ran in frantic circles, Libor's dad fumbled with the chord. It wouldn't reach the outlet. Marek yelled. Honza tried grabbing the prod. The women peered out from the second-story kitchen window. The pig was going crazy. Chaos was everywhere. I had backed up to the door of the house, fearing the mad beast was going to charge.

Finally, Libor and his brother looked at each other and then lunged at the pig, tackling it to the ground. Libor's dad resolutely plugged the prod into the socket again and a current of electricity silenced the animal.

It was dead--we hoped. The four men paused, forgetting about the dead beast they'd just slaughtered, and commenced a brief finger-pointing session. Tempers flared, voices raised, and arms flailed. 

A minute later, the pig-killers began the assiduous process of dismantling the massive corpse. They worked like they'd done this dozens of times--and in fact, they had. I helped roll the pig onto its side and Libor washed the animal down with a hose. Marek, lighting up a cigarette, barked out orders. When he mentioned that I should grab a knife, I quietly disappeared, preferring to watch from the kitchen window with the women.

Brief celebrations interrupted the men's work, for which I reappeared. Large unmarked bottles of homemade slivovitz, a plum brandy popular in Central and Eastern Europe, were passed around. The men, hailing the day's triumph, forced shot after shot down my throat, cajoling me about my manhood if I resisted. It was 7:30 in the morning. This would go on throughout the entire day.

* * *  

When I awoke around three o'clock in the afternoon from an alcohol-induced nap, the small, bottle-clinking celebration had turned into a full-scale party. Over a dozen men and women stood around in the backyard drinking slivovitz, homemade wine, and beer. Beneath the weak November sun, they laughed, slammed their empty glasses down, and shoved handfuls of pork products into their mouths. Wicker baskets overflowing with deep-fried fat, brains, heart and boiled meat lay littered around the backyard table. The main course was still to come.

"Clin-ton," Marek yelled in my direction when he saw me timidly standing on the periphery of the party. "Hey, Beeg Mac!"

Honza, the only person still working, was setting up the meat grinder to make sausages. Libor's dad, sitting on a tree stump, looked exhausted as he nursed a beer and a cigarette. Just then Libor approached and suggested we stroll up to the castle.

Libor didn't know much about the castle's history--only that it housed the world's largest wine barrel. Built in 1643, he told me, the barrel held 1,010 hectoliters of wine. As we stood atop the hill on one side of the castle's many vista points, Libor pointed to the small fence running along the Czech-Austrian border about a half-mile away. "It used to be much bigger," he said. "There were soldiers guarding it always." Motioning toward the horizon with a quick nod, he said, "During the old regime, we came up here often and stared to the other side."

And that's what we did--stared across the border in silence, just like the old days. Except now, cars and trucks freely crossed, making only brief stops, some turning into the newly built casino/pub on the Czech side. I could vividly imagine Libor and his friends and his friends' friends, staring over the border for hours, wondering what life was like on the other side, wishing to telepathically place themselves into one of the villages that dot the Austrian side. 

But now, standing in Libor's place at the castle, those days of pre-revolutionary acts of self-preservation were just a fading memory, buried under bills and debts and commutes.  And no matter how horrendous the zabijacka appeared, it's managed to transcend wars, political takeovers, communism, and, even dubious and infectious marketing campaigns. The pig killing smacked of a primal urge, but more specifically, an enduring Czech statement that some aspects of their culture were not going to be relegated to a proverbial folk dance performed for tourists.

As we headed back to his family's house for the day's main course, Libor, still unusually pensive, stopped me in the main square--a small public space, lined with Baroque-era buildings, that probably hadn't changed for centuries. I was expecting him to tell me that he'd taken part in a November, 1989 demonstration here or even say exactly what I was thinking: that despite the declining state of the world or the constant barrage of forces we can't control, it seemed--at least for the moment--like everything was going to turn out okay.

"You see that house right there," he said, pointing to a cream-colored three-story apartment building. "There's a really cute girl who lives there."