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The next morning Anna took the day off work to show me around Hajske. The village was founded in the 13th century during fighting with the Ottomans. The Hungarian-Slovak soldiers were camped on one side of the River Váh; the Ottomans stationed themselves opposite. The Ottomans had cows, while the Hungarian-Slovaks had little to eat. The Slovak captain sourced a bull and kicked it till it mooed in the night. In the morning, every Ottoman cow had crossed the river to mate. The Ottomans were left hungry and defeated. For his brilliance, the Slovak captain was given the title Count the Thief. Centuries later, said Anna, another count in the village was bitten to death by fleas.
Anna took me to a shrine where miracles were said to have occurred. A lame man had famously thrown down his crutches on site. Next, we walked down a Roma street. The Romas, sometimes called gypsies, were believed to have migrated to Europe from India in the 11th century. Slovakia had faced a hammering in the press and from the EU over its modern-day treatment of Romas. One glance at this street revealed major problems. Families of 10 were living in collapsing brick huts that looked as though they’d been built by a man on crutches in the night.
I approached a group of tattooed smokers, including a Pat Butcher lookalike, leaning idly on a red Lada.
Watch out,’ whispered Anna, three steps behind me. They don’t know you . . . They might throw a piece of scrap metal at you or something.’
Anna walked up to ask if I could take some photos. The Romas nodded and posed proudly. Anna said something else to them.
I just asked why they aren’t working,’ she told me. They say they are not so poor that they have to work.’
As we walked down a parallel street, where every house had a prize-winning rose garden, military music burst out across the village. It came from tannoys fixed on to telegraph poles.
Are those from the communist days?’
Yes,’ said Anna. They announced meetings for the workers. Now the town hall uses them for other notices. They tell us if planes will be applying fertilisers on the fields that day so we can put our bees inside. When it was Cricket Day they announced the event for a whole week!’
Why military music?’
It means, Put your pot aside, come outside and listen.” ’
Do they play other music?’
Sometimes traditional, sometimes 80s.’
No. It might give the old ladies heart attacks!’
When the record ended a lady began a long announcement.
She says there will be shoes, trousers and underwear for sale
in the centre today,’ translated Anna. The market is coming. She will read out everything that is for sale.’
The list was still droning on when Anna showed me the prospective new cricket ground. It was currently a wheat field behind Vladimir’s gran’s house. To finally free themselves from the football officials the cricketers would have to create their own terrain.
Continuing our tour, Anna announced, This is where the count who was bitten to death by fleas lived. The communists bulldozed his mansion.’ We stared at the patch of grass.
Because of the flea infestation?’
No. Because it was a sign of wealth.’
Yes. We lived two lives under communism: one in public and one in the house. If someone asked you something on the street, you had to answer differently. Vladimir’s grandfather used to queue from 4am to 2pm to get meat. Meat was on Saturdays, ice cream on Thursdays.’
PJ O’Rourke, in Holidays in Hell, wrote: To grasp the true meaning of socialism, imagine a world where everything is designed by the post office.’ I could see great parallels between this old system and modern day Britain. Instead of queuing at the meat and ice cream shops, we did it on the phone to call centres.
Finally Anna and I reached the much-advertised market. Tables had been set out by the roadside with shoes and tracksuits spread across them and over a Lada’s bonnet. I wasn’t sure if the car was for sale too.
I asked some babushkas inspecting the goods if I could take their photo. Anna translated.
Yes,’ they replied. But we are old and we have herpes.’
This is terrible,’ said Anna, embarrassed. Now you will think our village is so poor!’
No, no,’ I assured her truthfully. This is wonderful. I’d take it over Tesco any day.’
Table of Contents1. When a Psychic Tells You You're Going to Do Something, You Do It
2. Batting in the Baltic
3. The Batsman Who Would Be King
4. It Was Like a Stephen King Novel
5. Fielders Without Fingers
6. The Village that Beat Poland
7. The Worst Coaches in the World
8. The Lost Tribe of Mežica
9. Sex on the Wicket
10. On the Trail or Torvill and Dean
11. The Spy Who Left Cricket Cold
12. The Cricket and Kickboxing Club of Bulgaria
13. Midnight Express
14. A Man on My Chest
15. Transylvanian Toothache
16. Trotsky Was a Ukrainian Cricketer (of Sorts)
17. Inspector Morski
18. Pummelling the Poles
19. Psychic Revisited