What would make for a convincing title for a cold war thriller by the likes of John le Carré, had a far less sinister but still quite entertaining back ground:
With the help of a corporate sponsor, we had managed to invite a group of ten veterinary students from different European countries to Prague to enjoy together with us our 27th FECAVA EuroCongress, which after a year’s delay was now finally happening as a physical event.
With the welcoming of the students being part of the opening ceremony, I suddenly found myself confronted with the task to transform it from a mere agenda item to a truly memorable event for both the students and for us the organisers. (For some unexplainable reason these challenges always seem to land on my doorstep…..)
To solve this problem, I had a couple of hours time and I had to find a solution that was not stretching the already very tight conference budget much further. A non-controversial, positive and eye-catching souvenir from Prague or from Czechia was asked for, which the students could take home and enjoy even after the event.
Rated as typical Czech souvenirs I found :
- Czech beer – Certainly world famous, but not everyone is a beer drinker and with a group of thirsty students unlikely to even survive for the duration of the conference…..
- Glas ware – Yes nice…..but lacking the fun part and probably unlikely to make it in one piece back home (before then being passed on to a grateful granny….)
- A Golem – This mystical creature, conjured out of clay of the Vltava River in the late 16th Century to protect Prague’s Jewish community is certainly a very typical souvenir for the Czech capital, but possibly a bit too gloomy and lacking the positive take home message required.
….and so entered Krtek !…..
“…and who the hell is “Krtek” ?”, some of you might ask, while all the others might have to dig deep into their own childhood memories…..
Krtek, or the “Little Mole”, is a very benign cartoon character created in 1956 by the Czech Animator Zdenek Miler. This always busy, always curious and adventurous and never really talking little creature was arguably the star of the incredible successful Czech children TV productions, that with other protagonists like Pan Tau or Spejbl and Hurvinek managed – despite the harsh political realities in the 1950-1980th – to cross the Iron Curtain to entertain and to educate children (and their parents) in a non-confrontational way all over the world. (Not sure if the same can be said of today’s popular cartoon characters like ‘the Simpsons”…..).
With other words: Krtek was the perfect present for our guests.
Investing 20 CZK (= £ 0.69 (!)) in a Metro ticket, I found myself a few minutes later in the center of the old town, scanning the countless souvenir shops for “my perfect mole”.
Eventually, I spotted one – sizable and in form of a puppet – in a tiny shop not far from the world famous Charles Bridge. The shopkeeper, a lively Bulgarian lady, was happy to sell me the puppet at a good price, until I mentioned that I would need nine more ……….
My opposite hesitated, then replied to me with just so slightly dilated pupilles……
“Oh my God !….. nine more ?!” – “Yes!”
“By when ?” – “Now.”
“Oh my God !….not possible……wait……yes, it will be possible !……”
What then followed is hard to describe…….
First of all, three more moles were mustered from storage at the rear of the shop. Next the whole shop was closed and I was taken on a walking tour of each individual souvenir shop in the neighborhood to source more of the same subterranean toys, with a final yield of ………zero!
However, by now I was so impressed by the sheer determination of this lady to help me in my task, that we agreed that I would take with me the four moles that were already available now and that she would organise six more for me by noon the following day.
Pretty pleased with my decision and laden with my initial purchases, I returned in time for my next meetings to the conference center, when I ran into my Ukrainian colleague Vlad Ushakov with his wife and their young son….This automatically reduced my tally again from four to three moles…..
The next day came and skipping my lunch break, I found myself again in the Metro heading North towards the old town.
Already waiting for me – as promised – were another six boxes with the desired content. However, imagine the face of the shop keeper when I cautiously indicated that I was still one mole short…….
Well, what followed was a repeat of the guided tour through the neighborhood, but thankfully this time with far more luck, as the news seemingly had got around that mole puppets were suddenly in high demand and some of the other shop keepers had immediately stocked up with them …….
Finally with another seven moles in bags and fortified by an emergency coffee break in one of Prague’s beautiful outdoor cafes
I left for the presentation with a couple of hours to spare….
As it turned out not only a single mole is pretty photogenic,
but a whole row of ten is quite a sight
and they eventually made for a great start for our forthcoming colleagues at their first international conference – with hopefully many more for them to come in the future.
Lets hope that the virtues of the “Little Mole” – digging deep, working hard, being curious to see new things and to learn new techniques, but also to take some risks will guide them through their forthcoming profession lives.