Brno from B to Ž: A Tough-Love Guide to the City’s 48 Neighborhoods, Part 3 – Brněnské Ivanovice

Work of art: Joe Lennon.

“No world projection is good at preserving distances everywhere”


Okay, I know that in the next few weeks, as we all enjoy moving around more freely again, Brněnské Ivanovice will not be first on your list of places to visit. Actually I know that it won’t be anywhere on that list. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most of you don’t even know where it is. And some of you who think you might sort of know where it is are very likely thinking of somewhere else entirely. So I’m not writing in the hope that you’ll pay this obscure little part of Brno a visit. But since I’ve spent the last several weeks thinking about Brněnské Ivanovice while not actually going there, I’ll assume you might be willing to do the same for a few minutes, and to consider the strange things that can happen when the mind travels to a place without the body.

In my last neighborhood article back in March, I imagined that as the virus lockdown continued, areas just across the city from where we live might start to seem as distant and exotic as places on the other side of the globe.

That ended up being true for me – but I wasn’t prepared for how that new sense of distance made itself felt in my body – a body used to long walks, to experiencing its freedom and its self through strange streets, unfamiliar corners, new faces. All my senses that usually open up and outward in spring have been turned back in on themselves. 

I’ve been smelling my own recycled breath instead of the flowers.

I’ve been drinking bottled beer at my kitchen table, pouring each bottle into the same glass. But without the satiny stains of a green pub tablecloth beneath it, it just hasn’t tasted the same.

And I’ve been weighed down by my winter body. During that early warm spell in April, I felt like getting out and shaking off the cold, swinging my limbs in sunlight. At the beginning of May, my girlfriend and I were supposed to be kissing under pink trees. But we were sheltered in place, heavy and layered, each of us our own multiple exposure. I’ve felt my body superimposing itself over itself – and each copy, unfortunately, a little bit bigger than the last….

I’ve waved to my friends over delayed video. I’ve got used to the jerky rhythm of Skype/Zoom/Teams/Hangouts conversations – the squeak and blare of us talking over each other, then seconds of silence as we self-correct and wait for the other one to say something, while they wait for us to say something. “No, it’s okay, YOU go…”

This spring has been oppressively audiovisual, at the expense of the other senses – smell, taste, touch. The ones we don’t pay much attention to until they’re muted.

This past weekend I ventured into the city center for the first time since the lockdown began, to have a beer with my buddy in Náměstí Svobody. I wouldn’t have expected that something so easy and (usually) enjoyable would make me nervous – but it sort of did. In the previous three months, I hadn’t left the northeast corner of the city where I live. It felt very weird to be so close to so many people in the square, to negotiate that minefield of hands and noses and mouths. Everyone was giving off a suspicious static.

Photo credit: JL.

Now the lockdown is easing, and we’re allowed to amble again, and go inside pubs and public buildings, and be travelers and tourists again. But I think there’s going to be a period of disorientation and discomfort as our sense of place recalibrates.

We’ll have to redraw our internal maps of the city – since they’ve been deranged along with our senses. They’ve been shrunk by our inability, or unwillingness, to take trams or trains. Or they’ve taken on baroque, occult shapes as we’ve tried to find new routes between home and the supermarket two streets down. Perhaps for some of you, your map of Brno has been clouded or crossed out completely by the two small lanes of the family village where you’ve been quarantined. And maybe some of you have superimposed a map of the place you were meant to be this spring or summer over your map of Brno – a stubborn, shitty Photoshop job in the mind: if your body can’t be in Croatia, at least you can squint in the sun and see the blue sea for a second as you walk down Jugoslávská.

It’s this last sort of map – one made from maps laid over other maps – that I became slightly obsessed with during the lockdown. I was thinking about how I wouldn’t be able to fly to the US this year, as I usually do in the summer. Great news for my bank account – which wouldn’t show that seasonal plummet it typically does. And great news for my lungs too, since Trump’s America – and especially my home state of Georgia – seems to be filled with people who think wearing a mask (i.e. being considerate to others in a society) is an assault on their civil liberties. But still, it made me really sad to know I wouldn’t be able to see my elderly dad and the rest of my friends and family there. Feeling that ache you feel when there’s something anchored inside you that’s also adrift, I thought of this strange map:

It’s from the CIA World Factbook, a handy resource for Americans who want to learn more about places in the world which we might someday have to make safe for democracy. It’s most charming feature is that it compares the size of every mysterious foreign nation to the size of places we all already know the size of. For example, it very helpfully explains that Czechia [sic] is “about two-thirds the size of Pennsylvania,” or “slightly smaller than South Carolina.” And to illustrate the comparison, there’s this wonderful map, which shows the wayward ship of Czechia run aground on the Atlantic coast, its prow pushing into coal mining country, its stern somewhere near the places Springsteen sings about. Ostrava has landed near Camden, one of the murder capitals of the US (yes, we call them that!), and Brno finds itself with Chesapeake bayfront property.

Map: CIA World Factbook.

I think the main thing that makes this map so funny, and unsettling, is the gulf between its (I think) innocent intention – to make a strange and faraway place more comprehensible to its target audience – and its surreal visual effect. The map invites us to see the world, for a moment, as a desert made of only distance and shape. It shouldn’t make a difference if one shape drifts over another, right?

But no, it doesn’t quite work – mainly because it’s impossible to see the shapes of countries as just shapes. There’s a cognitive dissonance that comes from reducing two nations – two organic squiggles, fraught with mutually exclusive political meanings – down into a single dimension.

That weird wrongness, though, is exactly why this map became the map of the moment for me during lockdown. It somehow embodied that ache I felt at being cut off from a larger body I belonged to.

Photo credit: JL / Brno Daily.

Of course, I was lamenting that, not only would I not be able to go to the US, I wouldn’t be able to go to Brněnské Ivanovice, either – even though I was supposed to write about it for this column. Okay, of course, I could have gone there – but in those first few weeks of the lockdown, wandering around neighborhoods that weren’t mine seemed definitely non-essential. And anyway, wandering around is all I would have been be doing – since everything was closed.

So, fascinated by the map of the Czech Republic superimposed over the US, I started imagining the same thing on a Brno scale. I saw the neighborhood I grew up in superimposed over Brněnské Ivanovice, a place I had only been to maybe twice in my life, briefly – and yet which now, somehow, seemed to have the perfect shape for carrying my lost home back to me.

Maybe the cabin fever was getting to me a little bit, I admit.

But the strangeness wasn’t just coming from me – because as I started to look into the history of Brněnské Ivanovice, the appropriate inappropriateness of these mismatched mental maps I was making only started to seem more and more inappropriately appropriate.

Credit: JL.

Because as it turns out, Brněnské Ivanovice isn’t Brněnské Ivanovice at all. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

In case you’ve never noticed, the city of Brno has two areas named Ivanovice – one to the north, and one to the southeast. If you’re confused by this, you might be happy to learn you’re not the only one, and that the confusion didn’t begin with you – it started almost 250 years ago.

The best explanation I found for the whole mess is here – in a post on the travel site I’m not sure what the author’s real name is, but they seem credible; a less detailed version of the same story appears on the official Brno-Tuřany website and elsewhere on the web.

The quick version: In 1793, a guy named Franz Josef Schwoy compiled a list of all Moravian village names in his book Topographie vom Markgrafthum Mähren. The book was written in German, but Schwoy was inclusive – he listed the Czech names of places after the German names.

Unfortunately, Schwoy made a mistake when it came to one particular village. Next to the name “Nenowitz” (which is what the German villagers had called their village since time immemorial), instead of writing “Nenovice” (which is what the Czechs had called the same village since time immemorial), he wrote “Wewanowice.”

Here’s a photo of the offending page (I think…I can’t read Oktoberfest-font German (or any German), so correct me if I’m doubling down on the errors):

An excerpt from the book: ‘Topographie vom Markgrafthum Mähren’.

Not only did no one correct the illustrious typographer Schwoy’s typographical error, but some later officials even asserted that it was “Nenovice” that was the mistake – even though the villagers continued to refer to their own village as “Nenovice.” (And apparently some of them still call it that today. Are there any true Nenovičáci out there who can confirm this?)

As the years went by, the mistake snowballed, and the incorrect “Wewanowice” became, in official documents, “Vejvanovice” (when the neighborhood joined the city of Brno in 1919) and then somehow “Ivanovice” in 1924. That last change caused serious confusion, since there was already another Ivanovice near Brno (the one to the north). That Ivanovice had the greater claim to the name, so that Ivanovice got to be just “Ivanovice,” and poor Nenovice got saddled with the rather absurd name “Brněnské Ivanovice.”

There are lot of other places in the world which have been given a name that is alien and nonsensical to the people actually living there when it was named that. “America” is a good example. “Czechia” might be another. (Ugh.) But the case of Brněnské Ivanovice seems especially daft. For 200 years, apparently, no one from the city offices in Brno happened to go out to an area which was pretty much within their line of sight, talk to the inhabitants, and realize that the official documents (and maps) had a silly fake name on them. Of course, it’s very likely that the inhabitants themselves didn’t care – most of them probably had little need for those documents and maps, since they knew by touch and temperature where the streets near their house led, and they knew by shuffle and scent what they were called.

It’s a good reminder that every map – even one without imaginary names, streets, or countries superimposed on it – is an illusion. It’s a strange, unnatural fusion of technology and body – something like what Jeff Goldblum becomes in the last scene of The Fly. In a way, a map is just as grotesque as a Cronenberg creature – its bright colors and symbols are gaudy parodies of real, gritty greens and blues and church steeples. But it’s also just as compelling – since it allows us to enter a hybrid space, in which our personal sensual worlds can fuse with the collective geometry of a shared place.  

I probably won’t go back to Brněnské Ivanovice any time soon, now that this article is written, and now that there are other, more exciting places to see, and smell, and taste (Bystrc!). But I have a feeling Brněnské Ivanovice might follow me around anyway, a memento moru of that time when it was as close to me as any other part of the wayward world. 

Photo credit: JL / Brno Daily.

Disclaimer: Opinions and views expressed in the text above are of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.

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