Romani community member Olga Halušková has been guiding visitors through Czech castle Karlštejn for more than a decade
OLGA HALUŠKOVÁ has been working for 12 years as a local tour guide for one of the Czech Republic's most-visited castles. She works with more than 50 other guides and annually leads about 15 000 tourists through the attraction.
Born in 1971, Halušková grew up first in Králův Dvůr and then in the village of Počaply. She is a graduate in travel and tourism from the Secondary Vocational School in Beroun.
She lived for four years in Italy until the age of 25, and after returning to the Czech Republic in 1997 she settled in Karlštejn, where she lives and where she has worked at the castle on and off as a guide. She has one daughter and also worked at Švihov Castle during her maternity leave.
Q: How did you become a tour guide at Karlštejn?
A: I lived for four years with my boyfriend in Italy. One day he made me angry, so I told him I was leaving him, that I was going home to be a tour guide at Karlštejn, and that is exactly what I did. I returned to the Czech Republic, but when I first called the castle, they said they didn't need any tour guides. I found a different job, but then my uncle, who is a maintenance man here, intervened. When he found out they had rejected me, he said to them: "She speaks Italian and you didn't hire her?" They hadn't known that about me. The deputy warden got in the car and drove to fetch me. He had 19 groups of 60 Italians each coming to the castle every day and he didn't know what to do with them. When we met, he hired me immediately.
Q: So it turned out well...
A: That was thanks to my superiors. A boss who hires somebody Romani should approach that person without prejudice. For that, he has to be mature, both as a person and as a professional in his field. If he succumbs to the prejudice that Romani people "don't work", then no Romani employee will feel support from him, it won't be pleasant for them to work for him, they will leave. He will never discover their potential and talent, they will never learn anything new. The bosses who hired me - warden Jaromír Kubů and his deputy, Tomáš Řehoř - have never been bothered by any such prejudices.
Q: A Gothic castle, the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, Charles IV - which do you imagine first when I say "Karlštejn"?
A: The first thing that comes to mind is this courtyard, where we are right now. The visitors, the guides, lots of people. This is the second courtyard, which is also the biggest, and the ticket office is here. I imagine that it's 35 degrees Celsius - I love heat. There's a long line in front of the ticket office and a big group of people, 50 of them, ideally 20 of whom are children, and they are all waiting for me.
Q: What does your work at the castle consist of?
A: I accompany tourists in Czech and Italian and take care of the guide who brings them here. I handle their accommodations, so I'm constantly on Facebook 24 hours a day. The guides can write to me at any time to say they're coming, many even around midnight. If they're hungry and I've cooked something, then I feed them, and if they don't have food for the next day, I prepare some for them, because there's just a refreshment stand in the courtyard and there may not even be baguettes there. I help them learn the tour guide texts. It doesn't always go well, so I support them and tell them not to give up.
Q: What do you recall of the days when you were studying those tomes yourself?
A: Actually it amused me, but I have to say I was greatly aided by a guide who was also a history and physical education teacher, Mr Sulkovský, who was here at that time. He commuted here daily from Prague. After each tour I would run down to him and he was always like an open encyclopedia. The children overhear me and the other guides, and they choose the commentary they like the most and do their best to imitate it. They look up other facts to go along with it, interesting information, they attend thematic lectures.
Q: You call the other guides "children"?
A: They are like my children, that's how I see them. They're between 16 and 42 years old. I love those people. Altogether there are currently between 50 and 60 of them. I house them, I do their laundry, I cook for them. During the time I've been accompanying them around Karlštejn there have been about 500 such "children", even more, maybe a thousand. Today it happens that I may no longer even recognize them, they return for my tour and at the end they thank me and hug me. All of them call me madre - they see me as their Mom.
Q: During our first meeting you said your job is not exactly a fairy tale...
A: It's demanding work, physically and psychologically - you must constantly be kind to the visitors, smile at them. Big groups are accompanied on the tours, for Tour Number One there can be as many as 55 visitors and you do that twice or three times in a row. If the group is waiting, then you don't eat. We all comprehend the drill. We aren't here just to make money. Karlštejn has to grab you by the heart.
Q: It decidedly grabbed you if you came here immediately after returning from Italy...
A: Yes, that was in 1997. Ever since I have lived down there, beneath the castle. I accompanied guides at the castle for four years, then I was on maternity leave and I also worked at Švihov Castle. I was a cleaning woman there, I sold tickets, and I accompanied groups. Then I returned to Karlštejn and altogether I have worked at Karlštejn 12 years.
Q: What did you mean when you said we shouldn't look "just at the furniture" at Karlštejn?
A: Karlštejn is a Gothic castle built by Charles IV for a certain higher purpose. The tours are naturally focused on exhibitions about the lifestyle back then, which we demonstrate through period equipment, furniture and porcelain that is similar to what would have been used in a 17th-century chateau. However, we also have a tour focused on the spiritual dimension of the castle, because during the Gothic era, Karlštejn was an important spiritual site. For me it is the most powerful spiritual place I have ever gotten to know in my life. I have been to Rome, I've visited the Vatican, I've walked through the Holy Door, I have walked on the staircase where Jesus was, but actually I believe the most powerful sacred site is Karlštejn.
Q: How do you familiarize tourists with that subject?
A: If I am accompanying them on Tour Number Two, which is focused on the sacred spaces, then I wait for the visitors behind the third entrance. As they are walking in, I can already feel and know what to give to each of them, what the atmosphere will be like during the tour. Most of the time a little group like that has 16 people maximum. I lead them to the Chapel of the Holy Cross and tell them it will take them to Heaven. They comprehend what I mean, because in the first room I prepare them for the tour by telling them their way will be long, thorny and difficult, so they laugh a bit. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary symbolizes Purgatory, and I tell people that first we must pass through Purgatory and then we will enter the Heavenly Paradise...
Q: When we walked through the castle together you said you feel the presence of God there. Have you been a believer since childhood?
A: That has come to me gradually over the course of my life and it began exactly when I started accompanying groups at Karlštejn. Before then I knew absolutely nothing about faith. Over time I have been learning about it by listening to the texts I have been delivering to the visitors. I had absolutely rejected such things once a long time ago. Today I feel the presence of God and his mercy.
Q: Has it ever happened that somebody during the tour has commented on your Romani origins?
A: That has happened to me twice, but it turned into a comical situation. Once it was at Švihov. I was explaining what hygiene was like in the 14th century, and one lady in the group called out "They didn't bathe, just like those gypsies." I answered: "Ma'am, I'm a Romani woman and I've bathed," and the entire little group began to laugh.
Q: Where did you grow up with your family? Do you speak Romanes?
A: I grew up in Králův Dvůr, in the neighborhood called Karlova huť [Charles' Smelting Works]. My father, grandpa and grandma worked there in a factory and got housing there. I have very clear memories of it. When my father turned 19 and had to do his military service, we lived with grandpa and grandma. They spoke Romanes to me, so I learned it. My mother to this day has never told me why she named me Olga - I perceive that name to be just a Romani name. Later the factory was reconstructed, the buildings were demolished, and our family moved the village of Počaply.
Q: You told me your father was a famous Romani musician...
A: In Beroun everybody knows me thanks to him. His name was František and everyone used to call him "Feri". Whenever I go anywhere, everybody knows who I am because as a little girl I was at all his shows, so they remember me. I don't sing the way I should, myself. When Dad was still alive, we listened to songs together from those tv competitions, and I could hear the moments when the singing was poor, so I have a musical ear - and Italian intonation [laughs].
Q: You said that previously you did not perceive your own ethnicity so much. When did that change?
A: Sometimes I spend the evening with the guides. I always make something good to eat, we drink a bit, and we begin singing. We listen to songs by [Romani performer] Věra Bílá, we laugh, we talk, and one evening a guy, a colleague of mine, sang Romani songs. The first time I heard those songs from him, it awoke something in me.
Q: So do I understand correctly that your Romani identity was not awakened in you by somebody from your family?
A: Where I belong, where my roots are, my Romani identity, was not awakened in me by my father, but by this guy singing in Romanes, yes. Nobody from my family did that. I feel like singing Romani songs, speaking Romanes, and going to Romani parties. This year I went to the KHAMORO festival for the first time ever and I've been to three Romani weddings held in churches, and I was absolutely energized by it.
Q: What did you dream of becoming when you were little? Did you want to be a tour guide?
A: I had no idea what I wanted to be. At the time I was a child and a teenager, nobody knew what they wanted to do. When my daughter was born, my life was governed by her needs, my work day had to end at 4 o'clock. Back then I applied for a job with Caritas in Beroun and I worked for a time there in a program for homeless people.
Q: Is your daughter following in your footsteps?
A: She does not want to be a tour guide, but she is studying travel and tourism in Beroun. She doesn't yet know what she wants to be or whether she wants to study further. That remains to be seen.
Q: Do you ever get to go on vacation yourself?
A: I take vacation in February when the castle is closed. I rest and I don't have to go anywhere. In the little house where I live I have a skylight. During my time off I look up through that skylight at the castle and I can still perceive its energy, its spirit, even while I'm at home.
First published in the magazine Romano voďi.
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