Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Gnomes. And Whores

The Land of Gnomes. And Whores

I'm standing in the middle of a pretty Czech town called Cheb. With its pleasant colonnades and mouldering Gothic churches, it seems unexceptional. Yet this small town is the centre of the world's greatest concentration of hookers. And gnomes.

The main reasons for these bizarre proliferations is the proximity of Germany (just ten miles down the road), and the gulf in income represented by the border. Since the old Iron Curtain collapsed, rich Germans have driven over the frontier to buy favoured items from the poorer Czechs.

One thing they come looking for is gnomes. Garden gnomes and other kitsch ornaments are incredibly popular in southern Germany (they have never been anywhere near as popular in Czechia). Germany used to have its own gnome industry. But in the last few years German gnome moguls have discovered they can manufacture and sell gnomes much cheaper on the Czech side of the frontier.

The effect of this is that every shop around Cheb appears to stock gnomes. You can buy gnomes on roadsides, in grocers, and in petrol stations. You can buy them from stalls, supermarkets and newsagents. The centre of Cheb has a huge bazaar, run by Vietnamese, almost entirely given over to gnomes. They specialise in the more adventurous end of the gnome market.

Naturally, there is a humorous side to this. Less amusing is the market for commercial sex. According to a recent study, Cheb has more brothels per head of population than anywhere else on the planet: at least 35 bordellos have been counted, in a city of just 30,000 people.

There are underlying factors behind the explosion in Cheb's sex industry - besides the proximity of Bavaria. Decades of communism have made the Czech Republic a secular society that sees little shame in sex, of any kind - at least when compared to Catholic areas of western Europe. A swirl of nationalities in this region - including Ukrainians, Roma, Slovakians, and Asians - arguably makes for a certain rootlessness, that encourages vice. Moreover, the age of consent in the Czech republic is just 15.

Whatever the precise sociology, the impact of this widespread prostitution is intense. A few hundred metres from the cutesey centre of Cheb, the whores begin. Every streetcorner has a knot of blonde women, loitering and beckoning. Every third or fourth building seems to be a "club", or a "night bar" or a "playhouse". The brothels have ancillary service industries, of sex shops, solariums, and hairdressers.

The surreal atmosphere extends beyond the city limits. The forests and meadows surrounding Cheb are adorned with placards showing the way to yet more cat-houses: the Happy End Bar, the Eden Club, the Vanesa Night Bar. Lines of German trucks stand parked in the forecourts.

Unsurprisingly, prostitution makes Cheb a sad and even sinister place. I'm keen to leave. But halfway down one particularly dingy street, I am accosted. Four drunken gypsy youths, brandishing plastic cups of beer, stop and stare at me. With them is a girl of maybe 16, possibly younger.

Is she their sister? Maybe their niece?

Who knows. She offers herself to me, for money. The lads grin in approval. I flee to the safety of my rented Volkswagen and make for the German border. On the way, I see that the roads are lined with hundreds more prostitutes. And thousands and thousands of gnomes.

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