Wednesday, November 30, 2005

How to survive a northern winter and even like it

In South Carolina, where I am from, we like winter because it is the best time of year to be outside. No bugs, you can camp out and not worry (too much) about snakes and alligators, and the poison ivy is a little easier to spot then too. Before Prague my first white Christmas was the winter of 1989, three months after Hurrican Hugo demolished much of the coast. We thought it was divine justice after having to put up with the hurricane, until the water turned off. It took only 8 inches of snow (a record) to freeze the city’s pipes and close the roads for a week because snow plows don’t exist in the coastal part of South Carolina.

I was just about as prepared when I moved here, and it took me several winters in Prague to be able to venture outside without fear of frostbite or the need to duck into every third cafe for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine (to warm up you know). Since then I have learned a few tips that I thought I’d pass along to any of you southerners who might be considering a visit to more northerly climes.

  1. It really is true - gloves, a hat and a scarf will do wonders. Today I bundled up in my parka, gloves on and a scarf around my neck and trekked to the chicken store and back. By the time I got home I was warmer than I'd been all morning sitting in front of the computer.

  2. Scarves only work if you actually wrap them around your neck. None of this catalog casual loose knot and dangle business please. A Boston friend of ours taught me how to tie one on for warmth - double up your scarf and pull the ends through the loop. And remember to tuck the scarf under your coat if it is really frigid out.

  3. Stompin‘ boots (with thick soles) are much warmer than those thin-soled beauties from Italy. I've decided this explains a few things. Like the shoes European punk rockers wear - maybe it isn’t the kick the man in the shins thing, it's the weather!

  4. Long underwear - that fancy synthetic stuff you see in L.L. Bean catalogs? Buy it. wear it. Cotton gets sweaty and bulky and on guys it can get stinky too - that is just not cool dudes.

  5. Make a point of seeing the sun in the morning, because it isn’t going to be there the rest of the day. The only winter I got seriously sun starved was the year my office was in the ground floor of a medieval building with 1 meter thick walls, ceilings I could touch with my finger tips and a window designed for a cross bow. Today the sun set at 4:05 today. You see what we’re working with here.
Things I have not yet accepted but am gradually coming to grips with:
  1. Metal earrings hold the cold very very well;

  2. Wearing a hat. Yes yes, I remember my first point too...but I have a massive head that looks funny under anything but its own hair or a towel wrapped turban style. On very cold days I will occasionally venture out in the one hat I’ve found that fits - something so Siberian my business partner greets me in Russian when I walk in the door;

  3. Don’t throw snow balls with bare hands. A former snow neophyte, I still have this romantic idea about taking off my gloves and digging my hands in the snow before sending it soaring;

  4. Don’t cut through a park when it says all paths are closed due to excessive snow. I cut through every year even though I know better because a. it is a park, not a road b. birds show up beautifully in the snow and c. every day I run a contest with myself to see how many bird types I can spot in one morning‘s walk (see b) and I'm a little bit serious about beating my top score.

    At some point in the hike you will find me either very very slowly edging down the crunchiest parts of the path or if the way is completely slick, sitting down and ignominiously sliding down the hill. I have finally learned to not even try to climb the park hill on the way home, the birds are asleep by then anyway;

  5. Winter sports. At the beginning of every winter, I tell myself that it would be a waste of time and money to learn how to ski/snow shoe/ice skate because after all I can only play a few months of the year. Six months later, when the last ski run has finally closed in May, I realize again the folly of my ways.
And now, I’d love to hear other people’s tips on how to best that ole Winter thing.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Raz, dva, tri - on your mark, get set...

Go!" Caroline cries, and then waits as Lucie and I launch ourselves across the kitchen floor in a hopping contest. She waits until we have landed, takes a demure hop herself and applauds our efforts. "Again" she cries, and again we hop, she waits and then claps. Clearly this style of director‘s chair organization gives her a thrill, especially when it involves the grownups who are most likely to tell her what to do all day. At those rare moments when her babysitters and I are all together with her - on birthdays, a Czech Christmas cookie session, lessons in mushroom cooking - she directs us into a circle, and all holding hands we dance around singing Kolo kolo mlýnský to the end. "Udělalo bác!" we say and all fall down. All of us, of course, except Caroline who watches us grownups acting silly and then helps us stand up to twirl around once more.

Lucie dances with Caroline in the afternoons when C won’t take a nap and she’s chock full of the energy that running laps around a small flat can’t burn off. They dance to anything with a beat - Pop goes the weasel, hip hop, Ravel's Bolero. When I stop work and join Caroline in the kitchen she’ll show off her moves - grooving with her shoulders and twirling herself around, then moments later, standing up straight, hands clasped behind her back, to sway from toe to toe like a little Czech girl in a folk dance. Sometimes Caroline likes to dress up for the music, and she’ll race to her room and open her closet door to examine her possibilities. We’ll top turtleneck and cords with her Danish sun dress, or add a fairy skirt with wings to match. Then she moves on to my closet and says "nice dress Mommie," and I’ll pull on the beautiful blue ball gown I’ve borrowed from my friend Marjorie and flip our iPod to Pink’s "Get the Party Started" and we’ll dance.

Monday, November 28, 2005

All dressed up - having a ball in wintertime

It is officially cold. The high today is 0C (32F) and the five day forecast from CNN repeats like a skipping song, 32/28 32/28 all week long. Saturday, in the midst of the snow and freezing rain which is making November not the most pleasant month of our year, we went out to a dinner ball at one of the national art galleries. I was excited, because dressing up is fun. I love dancing, meeting people and pretending for a night to be an elegant creature who can swoop about in a dress. But my favorite moment in all the hoopla is not at the ball, but when Caroline first sees me all dressed up and ready to go out. “Niiice dress,“ she says in genuine appreciation, picking up the skirt and ducking beneath it. “Caroline’s!“ She’s not sticky, so I wrap the skirt around her and give her one last kiss before running out the door, trying not to step on my long hem with the high heels I wear once a year.

Those heels might be useful for dancing but they aren’t designed for snow, so Will has to balance an umbrella in one hand and my elbow in the other as we propel ourselves up the orange carpet laid over sidewalk and into the hall, glad that only door guys (short) and security men (tall) can see us as I totter slide up the slope. The ball’s Hollywood theme extended to green lasers slashing rectangles into the sky, and Will says it was their retina burns that bothered him more than my near slips, but we were both glad to get inside and find our friends amongst the teeming masses (over 700 people!) of humanity dressed in various shades of finery.

The dresses ranged from well-cut black cocktail to full ball gowns made of richly colored taffetta that swished side to side when a lady danced or even walked. One of my friends, who is tall and therefore designed for such things, wore a gorgeous ginger colored taffetta dress with full crinolines beneath. I met her halfway through the evening, waiting outside the bathrooms, and asked what she was up to. She said she was walking her dress, and I understood just what she meant.

The art of appreciating ball gowns must be left to girls, as the guys in my life seem supremely underwhelmed by them. Will complains that they package women funny, and that he just doesn’t understand what the little beads are about. When I get him to try to point out a dress he does like, he can’t and I wonder what has gone askew in our fashion world to make a fancy dress so attractive to women and so odd to men. I’ve wondered about this since I was in college, and went to my first semi-formal. I was so impressed by my dressed up self that I kept stealing glances in the mirror of the car we rode in, looking at my for-once-smooth hair and the green dress I’d borrowed for the occasion that I was sure made me look at least 23. My date was supremely unimpressed however, and it wasn’t until the semi-formal was over and we were back in our everyday clothes for a trip to IHOP that he mentioned that he’d noticed my hair and had I switched shampoos?

I couldn’t understand his attitude then, but later thought it had to do with approachability, or that a guy likes to stick with the person he first falls for, not her dressed up self, or maybe just the fact that I look much more natural in an oxford shirt and my ancient v-neck sweater than in a dress that reaches to the floor and creates an urge in me to peer into mirrors, spin in circles and slide across the floor just to see the material come alive.

Hm...maybe anyway, despite being a short person designed for blue jeans and oxford shirts, maybe for my next ball I’ll find a dress that I can take for a walk, just the two of us.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Just don’t call him that - the slippery slope of house shoe parlance

If you live in a city, you walk a lot more than your suburban bretheren. I’m a fan of walking. It is, in fact, my favorite sport when the weather is nice. But walking in Prague has its hazards, with the dog population in the local park out numbering the children 2 to 1, and poop scooping dog owners in the minority. So although it pays to hone your sidewalk radar, only levitation could save your shoes from any fodder gack accumulation.

Thus, when we moved here we quickly adopted the Czech habit of taking off our shoes as soon as we step into a house or apartment. We’re happy to be shoe free at home, and we wear socks to keep our toes warm. Our Czech friends, however, they wear slippers. Slipper culture is so huge I’d wager every Czech owns at least two pair - one for home and one for work. Most have more so that they can offer them to guests, and of course everyone sports their summer and their winter models. Each child carries slippers to school - backpack, notebook, pencil case, slippers, you’re set to start kindergarten.

Probably because of the prominence of slippers here, they seem to have more names than in the U.S. A pair of slippers with no heels, the kind some ladies wear trimmed with pink boas, these are called pantofle or trepky. Leather moccasins are easily transposed into mokasíny, and their cloth counterpart - fully fitted slippers that look like real shoes but without laces - these are called bačkory if you are a grownup. If you are a kid and your slippers are small too, you’ll call them bačkorky. Slippers even have their own nursery rhyme:

Do školy a do školky
nosíváme bačkorky.
Do školky maličké,
do školy větší,
každá ta bačkorka
je přece něčí.

To big school and to little school
we dress in bačkorky.
To little school little girl,
to big school big girl,
for every bačkorka
is surely someone‘s.

Marie, our babysitter, taught me about slippers while she was fixing up a spot in our shoe cabinet for her winter pair and her summer set. Satisfied with their positioning (and with the flowery scented drawer liner I’d brought to freshen up the cabinet) she chatted a bit longer and warned me to be careful about my use of the word bačkora, as it was not a nice word when applied to a guy. It means coward or milksop and no man will put up with that, she said. Czech swear words amuse me in general, so as soon as I could free myself from our shoe organization, I dove onto the computer to look up bačkora ( and see if indeed one might insult a guy by calling him a dirty rotten slipper. And yes, research suggests this is true!

Because I know I'm not the perfectionist I should be when it comes to language, and because dictionaries have been known to be wrong in the past, I'm leaving the final word up to the internet for your opinion on the matter. Please let me know if I have even a hacek misplaced and I'll fix it. I try, after all, not to be a bačkora.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Find a turkey, track down that yam: Thanksgiving in Prague

Turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and American football. Thanksgiving staples in the U.S., exotic imports in Prague.

Celebrating Thanksgiving abroad, you don't just hop in the car and make a grocery run round about Wednesday night. My friends who spend the holiday in France every year import their own sweet potatoes and hope they don’t go bad in transit. They’ve developed a relationship with a butcher in Versailles who helps them to a turkey, only grumbling a bit about the odd pagan American holiday that requires the roasting of a sacrificial bird, complete. Here in Prague I draw up my list and start to track down the sturdier goods in late October.

For pumpkin this year, we drove out to the countryside and picked our own at the Czech Camphill; you can find pumpkin at Makro too (a European Sam’s Club) and at certain health food stores and green grocers around town. Turkey I ordered from our favorite British butcher, but friends of ours swear by a poultry factory out in the countryside that raises turkeys to sell by the part. They’re happy to sell a whole one too, maybe even prefer it because it saves them time.

After years of having to resort to overpriced jellied cranberry sauce from Tesco, available only in the winter and tasting of aluminum can, you can now walk into almost any Czech hypermart or local grocery store and find dried cranberries - brusinky in Czech - to use to make your own sauce. And for ready-made sauce, the selection is even better. For fun this year, our friend Marjorie, the star cook and host of this Thursday’s Thanksgiving, is setting out a sampler buffet of cranberry sauces, from Ocean Spray to Marks and Spencer’s best.

Sweet potatoes (pataty) are hardest to find. On our first reconnoiter, we checked out one of the giant Vietnamese markets on the border of town. I bought spring rolls, lemon grass, Vietnamese mint, rice and a very pungent fish sauce for almost nothing; unfortunately the Vietnamese yams we found were purple on the inside and more starch than sugar, no good for Thanksgiving sweet potatoes. Next we hiked to Fruit de France, a luxury vegetable and foreign food importer. The prices were so high we decided to save their stock as a last resort, and were rescued from having to spend five euros a kilo by Marjorie who called every Makro in town, tracked sweet potatoes down to one store in Pruhonice, and then bought five kilos for the same five euro we would have spent on one, because bulk is how Makro sells pataty, and Prague cellars (previously used for coal) make the perfect cold storage space.

You might justly remark that all this effort seems hardly worth it for groceries that are comfort food basics in the U.S. Red currents taste great with the local duck, make some apple strudel instead! But celebrating a national holiday abroad is different from living it in its native space. You don't want to rebel against your holiday's traditions because it doesn't exist here. There are no specials of the same old stuff in the grocery store, no time off and long weekend, no thousands of travelers disembarking all at once to reassemble their family circles. Thanksgiving is something we create from scratch, digging into our memories for the most basic elements we can find to build a day and a celebration around - turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce.

And I’ll bring a football for afterwards, to toss back and forth down the hall with its high ceiling standing in for sky.

If anybody wants more specific directions on where to pick up stuff, just email me at juliaprague at yahoo dot com.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Turkey time: the bird arrived early this year

turkey fresh from the oven
Since we’re going to be hosting Christmas in a month, Will and I decided to start laying in provisions, and practicing a few of the bigger meals. Last week I ordered a turkey from our local butcher, and Saturday afternoon we got down to the business of cooking it. Besides the usual grossness of having to handle a very large carcass, and the less usual - sawing its very long neck off, plucking out forgotten feathers, and tying its legs into compromising positions to fit our European-sized oven - the process turned out to be easier than we thought it would be, and the turkey tastier. I give most of the credit to the turkey (who was alive on Thursday and never frozen) and to the butter that we massaged under its skin, and then basted with at each hour.

Here's the turkey recipe, in case anyone is wondering. A nice and easy way to cook a bird, but we can't recommend the gravy.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

First Snow over Prague

This morning at 9.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Top 10 toddler taming tips from Caroline, age 2.5

  1. If a kid chews up crayons, switch to colored pencils - grownups aren't that good at resisting temptation either.
  2. If you catch a temper tantrum early enough, simple distraction still works: ex. look at Dada, he’s eating a banana!
  3. Time out is mightily effective, as long as you are consistent. Bonus: kids learn to count to forty pronto.
  4. A bag full of balloons can fill up an entire afternoon and the living room too, needless to say, try this only if fully supervised.
  5. Just keep reading to her. Don’t ask if she wants to, saying no is way too easy when you are 2.
  6. On the other hand, a little TV can be relaxing for everyone, especially after a long day on the swings.
  7. Want to get a toddler's attention? Get down on her level and look her in the eye.
  8. Naps are boring, so parents need to be even more boring than a nap. If there is a crowd of people around, fuggedabout it.
  9. Never try to force a kid to eat something she doesn’t think she wants. Coercision is an altogether different animal.
  10. Even if a toddler looks like she isn’t paying attention to you, and you suspect she’s got other things on her mind, like where the head of her baby doll is and why pink, heart shaped pencil erasers don’t taste as good as they look, chances are she really is listening. Getting an answer out of her, that is another story.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

16 years ago on the 17th (the Velvet Revolution began)

November 17, 1989, Students in Prague assembled to march in memory of November 17, 1939 - the day Hitler ordered the execution of nine students and sent over a thousand more to concentration camps for protesting against Nazi occupation. retold that story today.

Sixteen years ago, the students' march through Prague, retracing their predecessors steps, had a much happier ending. All the best on your anniversary, Velvet revolution.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

We both read music from left to right

My Czech friends wonder sometimes how a foreigner can appreciate and listen to their music. I’ve heard this so many times, I generally just chuckle and let it pass, especially when we are sitting around a campfire singing old Czech favorites like “Ruže z Texasu,” “Yellow rose from Texas,” or “Veď mě dal, cesto má,” John Denver’s “Take me home country roads.” And after all, I’ve never been to Texas or spent any time in West Virginia, but I think they are mighty fine songs, regardless ;-).

Tonight, in case you are wondering what the words might mean to a favorite song, the one that you've been humming along to, getting the gist but wanting more, I’ve hashed out a translation of Jaromir Nohavica's “Moje smutné srdce.” Further translation suggestions are welcome.

My sad heart
Black clouds hang over my head
I ask folks why I am loveless
my heart
sad heart

Naked, unshod, I walk the street
I look for love, just one from so many
my heart
sad heart

It isn’t just a vain illusion
long ago scrawled on a pawnshop door
my heart
my sad heart

Moje smutné srdce
Nad mou hlavou černé mraky plují
ptám se lidí proč se nemilují
moje srdce
smutné srdce

Nahý bosý chodím ulicemi
lásku hledám jednu mezi všemi
moje srdce
smutné srdce

Není není je jenom přelud marný
zašlý nápis na dveřích zastavárny
moje srdce
smutné srdce

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

St. Martin on a white horse - winter rides in

“The heavens are ripe with snow,“ our babysitter said this morning, stamping her feet and warming her hands above the heater. Every day this week she has predicted snowfall, ever since November 11th, the name day of Martin, who by Czech tradition reigns in the winter on his white horse of snow. Since our balcony thermometer said 5C again this morning, I waved aside her predictions, but helped bundle up Caroline tight before they ventured out for the day.

The Czechs are a secular sort of people, and they have given up most religious holidays. In place of saints days, they celebrate name days, raising a glass to all the Martins of the Czech Republic on this particular holiday. You wouldn’t know it, living in Prague, that St. Martin’s day, or Martinmas, has been Europe’s first day of winter since the middle ages and a major feast day too. St. Martin’s day was the time to try out the new wine, eat a fattened goose and slaughter your stock for winter. In some parts of Germany, children still celebrate - carrying lanterns in the shape of the moon, stars and sun from door to door, singing Martinslieder and reciting rhymes in exchange for small gifts of cookies or bread. The songs find us even in Prague, and Caroline and I sing one regularly each winter:

Laterne, Laterne, Sonne, Mond und Sterne.
Brenne auf, mein Licht, brenne auf, mein Licht,
aber nur meine liebe Laterne nicht.

Lantern, lantern, sun, moon and stars.
blow out the lights, blow out the lights,
only leave my lantern so it can burn bright.

Tonight the temperatures have dropped and the clouds hang low in the sky. Will St. Martin ride by?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Prague's coffee culture

Today Tchibo is running a promotion in our local drogerie, giving away balloons to children, filtered coffee to adults. Grateful for the balloon, I accept a coffee. It is, predictably, lukewarm and scalded. Balancing the cup carefully on the checkout counter ledge, corralling Caroline with my legs, I pay for diapers, bird feed, trash bags (sundries but no medicine found at drug stores here). Outside I try another sip, but it is dreadful stuff and we caffeinate a tree before throwing the cup away in a city trash can.

When Will and I first moved to Prague, filtered coffee was a novelty, the closest approximation something the Czechs called Turkish coffee, and we called cowboy coffee. Cowboy coffee is hot water poured over coffee grounds, left to steep, and filtered by teeth or the careful tilt application of the cup. Will and I had arrived in Prague with our first trip to Europe fresh in our memories - a visit to Italy, where our perhaps favorite pastime had been drinking espressos while we leaned on counters throughout the Veneto region, learning how to travel on our own, learning how to travel together, on our honeymoon.

A year later, Prague in May had an Italian look to us, with its blue skies unfuzzed by humidity, its burnt umber and golden yellow buildings, facades crumbling but still demarcated enough to show off the beauty of the art nouveau design. Prague had a history too of cafes, old kavarnas that matched the style of Viennese coffee houses - beautifully tall and ornate ceilings, coffee served by waiters in tuxedos bearing tin trays complete with the requisite tiny cup of water as chaser. So we had high hopes.

Drinking lukewarm cowboy coffee soon taught us the difference between Vienna, Venice, and Prague in 1999. We learned to make our own drip coffee with a filter that we could set on top of our mugs, sharing out beans that we established as toll for our first guests, who flocked to visit Prague that summer, still missing us, and with our guest room on offer. Our grinder was a ferocious thing, bought from an expat moving back to England, a treasure even after we discovered its remarkable ability to hold a charge for hours after we unplugged it, shocking unwitting handlers to this day if you don’t take care.

November 2005, Prague is a different city. You can buy excellent coffee beans in many places here now, Colombian roasted if you are a connoisseur, Starbucks if you are an addict. Within only a few blocks of where we live, cafés now routinely serve my favorite Italian coffee and I can find coffee filters even in our local green grocer (in 1999, we bought our coffee filters in certain hardware stores whose addresses were circulated amongst the desperate and under caffeinated). And even though the filtered coffee might be burnt and cold after hours sitting near the door of the local drug store, it is there, on promotion, ready to be handed out along with the balloon that will slowly lose its air while my daughter bats it across the room and back again, a few minutes worth of fun.

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Oof, Arf and Ruff: Bedtime tales

Every few nights, when Caroline has settled into bed on time, the lights are out, the songs are sung and I’m not in a rush, I’ll ask, “story?“ C always says yes (anything to keep from going to sleep), and so I tuck her in, stretch out on the floor beside the bed and tell a tale.

Every story starts the same way: “Once upon a time, maybe yesterday, Oof, Arf and Ruff decided to go find their friend Caroline.“

Because she’s still so little, we don’t go far in these stories. Usually the three dogs (Oof, Arf and Ruff are talking dogs, naturally) will meet up with C at the park, or if it's rainy they’ll visit somewhere close by that Caroline knows well. Today they went to the big church a few blocks away, to see if they could hear any bells playing. There they heard a baby crying, and Oof with his ears, Arf with his nose and Ruff standing up as tall as he could stand, found a little one-year-old lost and crying beside the organ. Caroline stepped in to cheer up the baby and hold his hand to guide him back to his mother, who was just around the corner.

Any lines that C has in her story, she likes to say back to me, and when we finish she’ll briefly review our tale. “Baby,“ she said tonight, “Come on, okay, here’s Mommie. Thank you, bye bye.“

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Categories in Blogger - tag you're IT!

If you want an instant community, easy to use interface and free storage space for your blog, you can’t go wrong starting with Blogger. If you keep writing though, you’ll find you need a way to organize your posts, something that is more descriptive and user friendly than the monthly archives that Blogger provides.

This is where categories come in. Most blogs have story lines that they return to now and again. Toddler stories, Prague stories, even a few geeky stories like this one make up most of Kolo kolo mlýnský. Creating categories that readers can click on to find more stories under a similar story line, this is something many blogging services have worked into their templates (Wordpress and Typepad to name two). So far, however, Blogger has not.

And then there are tags. As Technorati so simply says, “a tag is like a subject or category.“ I would add, “but more.“ I think of tags as if they were keywords for an index. And because a blog post that I might only file under the category “Prague stories“ can be tagged, or indexed, under Prague, circus, clown, toddler_tales, history, and so forth - well, that does add organizational opportunity! It also adds an easy way for readers to find the post, especially if they use sites such as Technorati, which tracks blog posts and indexes them by their tags.

Like any consultant/web developer, when I decided I wanted a solution for my organizing problem, the first thing I did was a little benchmarking. Which means of course that I looked around at what my friends were doing. Most seem to still be using general categories, but Matthew over at AllPeers (always ahead of the game that Matthew) recommended that I combine the concepts, and think of tagging as just a more robust set of categories.

I said hmm, and decided to look for a hack that might let me mix them up together.

A quick search through Blogger’s help pages sent me to a cool category/tagging solution that, though linked from Blogger, is indeed a hack. But a few Firefox extensions later and I really don’t notice. And the end result is an index of stories for you, my reader, which is, after all, the point.

If you're interested in something similar, you can find the solution here, under 3 ways to use for categories in blogger. ( is a hard to type site that is easy to use, and that lets me create that index of story tags.) Thanks and thanks Blogfresh.

To see tags in action, do check out the tags in the side bar.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Not from around here - double locked doors

We double lock our doors, here in Prague. Building doors, not just apartment doors, get this nightly treatment. As a result, goodbyes often take place twice - upstairs, politely and at length, and then downstairs, quickly, after your host has released you from the building with his master key.

We live a few floors up from the street, close enough to hear when our guests leave, listening for the whomp whomp of the door refusing to open, hoping we’ll hear instead that lovely squeak slam that tells us we‘re in luck, our friends have escaped, we won’t need to pull on shoes and run down the stairs.

Monday night and I stand at our landing, listening as our babysitter leaves for the night. Squeak slam, someone has just come into the house. Marie is still in the elevator heading downstairs, so she will be locked in. I reach for my shoes and for the keys too. Then, up the stairs walks our neighbor and his girlfriend. He kindly offers to let Marie out, so I stay and talk with his friend, waiting for the neighbor to come back so I can thank him once more. While we wait, she asks where I am from, and when I tell her she smiles and says that she too is a stranger in Prague.

That she is a stranger does not surprise me. After all, I understand her perfectly - the simple Czech that foreigners sometimes speak is easier for another foreigner to understand; then, she does not have that perfectly coifed look Prague women often wear; and finally, she is standing on our landing smiling and chatting even though she’s never met me before - so uncity like.

I ask in turn where she is from. I expect Romania, Hungary, or Slovakia at the closest. But it turns out that though she is not from Prague, she is from somewhere in East Bohemia, only an hour away. This tickles me so, her assertion that she is a stranger too, a foreigner to this town, that I wake up Will to tell him the story when I finally say good night and go inside, carefully double locking the door behind me.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Hair cuttery - don't try this at home

Caroline’s hairdo is currently suffering from parental pride, or hubris, if you'd rather. Because, though not Olympian in extent, our overconfidence in our abilities to cut hair have resulted in a toddler with bangs that define uneven.

My line (and this time, I’m sticking to it) is that all would have gone straight, if not horizontal, had the father of the household persisted in his job of keeping the daughter’s chin up. But like anyone who has to watch someone else do a thing slowly (fish the last olive from a long glass jar, untangle a knot) Will as watcher decided that if he could just get his hands on those scissors, he’d be able to get the job done with efficiency and considerably less squirming and squeaking by C and myself. Five minutes later and much hair cut at vertical angles, he handed over the scissors again for a little clean up work.

The result of our three tries? Bangs with three distinct slices upwards and a fringe of unevenness that quite closely resembles the fuzzy mop on the clown we saw last week.

But as Will says, at least the hair isn’t in her eyes anymore!

Update: our babysitter decided to redeem C’s bangs before she took her to the theater today. It is now on a much more even keel.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Prague design tour: from art nouveau to cubism

Christmas is at our house this year! Though, I should really say our flat, or our three point five rooms. The thought of entertaining 12 people for a week at Christmas is slightly daunting, to be sure, so I’ve decided to get organized and forego my usual lackadaisical tour guide approach (here is a map marked XYZ, take the tram to the castle - X, roll down the hill and you’ll hit the Charles Bridge - Y, here’s our house - Z, see you in time for dinner!)

This time I've decided to think thematically, to try to come up with new routes around the city that bypass the end of the alphabet etched in red on all of our maps. Not that I'm throwing away the castle-roll-down-the-hill tour but I’m adding technical museums and architecture, sports centers and opera. Watch this space as new letters get added to the map each week.

The first tour (beyond the castle):

The Mucha museum
Just off one of Prague’s busiest shopping streets, the Mucha museum is a tiny space dominated by the oversize work of Alfons Mucha, the artist who founded the Art Nouveau movement (originally called Le style Mucha) in Paris in the mid 1890s. By spending even an hour here, you’ll exit the museum with a new perspective and understanding on a good slice of the design around Prague - from Czech money to many of the buildings built during a time of great construction in Prague, 1900 to 1910. I recommend watching the video while you're there.
Mucha museum website
Panská 7, Prague 1. Open daily 10:00 to 6:00 p.m.

Obecní Dům, or the Municipal House
A massive highlight of Art Nouveau architecture in Prague, the Obecní Dům is located just down the road from the Mucha museum. Completed in 1912, it was the last of the big Prague Art Nouveau projects, and Mucha had a hand in many of its murals. I recommend viewing it from both outside and in as the Obecní Dům is a beautiful example of design applied to everything from bathroom tiles to building facades.
Municipal House website
nám. Republiky 5, Prague 1. Open daily 10:00 to 6:00 p.m.

The House of the Black Madonna, the Museum of Czech Cubist Art
Built the same year the Obecní Dům was completed, in 1912, the House of the Black Madonna not only demonstrates cubist architecture (apparently an architectural style unique to the Czech Republic) but hosts art by Czech Cubists. It is part of the National Gallery in Prague system.
More information on the House of the Black Madonna
Celetná 34, Prague 1. Open daily except Mondays 10 to 6 p.m.

Grand Café Orient, at the House of the Black Madonna
Recently reopened and reconstructed to exactly match the plan of the original cafe, completed at the same time as the house, the Café is a beautiful place to take a break and have some coffee. Reviewers recommend the latte.
Celetná 34, Prague 1. Open daily 9 a.m.–10 p.m.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

Take the quiz: discover your inner dog!

Just in time for Friday...if you could be a dog, what type would you be? Thanks to our friend Sid for sending me this link: you can test your dogginess here

My match? A Swedish Vallhund - To quote: "Excellent family dog, particularly with a family and children. Very energetic, lots of vitality and generally friendly towards strangers. An independent thinker that gets bored easily."

What can I say? Vov Vov!! (That’s Swedish for Ruff Ruff.)

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

The foggy season, or "smutné" times in Prague

Dense fog says CNN weather. Down in Mala Strana, a medieval part of Prague close to the river, the fog rolls off the tops of buildings like steam unfurling, and you see the sun only in the leaves, still gold, that have fallen on the street. There is a bittersweet smell in the air from the decaying leaves, and Czechs are talking of “smutek“ or sadness.

That song, it is so smutný, says a friend, listening to a wedding band wring “House of the Rising Sun“ from a cheap keyboard and off-key singer (I agree for ear quality reasons). The big water in the U.S. South, it was so smutná, says my next-door neighbor, an older lady who has kindly offered me condolences for my home town’s problems during the recent hurricane season. I try to explain that South Carolina and the Gulf Coast are far apart, but she imagines the U.S. South as about the size of Moravia (or half of S.C.), close together and necessarily related, so I say thank you anyway.

When a Czech lady says smutné(ý/á), she might shake her head, and look down. She’ll acknowledge the seriousness of what she has just said, but you often see a solemn smile on her face. She isn’t being ungenuine, just knowing, glad that we two are safe (and warm and dry), privileged to be able to appreciate the sadness of a song, or worry about others far away and unknown.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Dr. Seuss as Mother Goose

"Oh deah, oh deah, I cannot heah, will you please come over neah, will you please look in my eah?" said the small one to Will the other day, in a croaky stilted voice. He dropped the magazine he was reading and got on the floor to look at her. “Julia! There’s something wrong with Caroline’s ear!! Get over here quick!“

But I just answered, "Say, look a bird is in your ear! But he is out. So have no fear!“* and Caroline laughed and practiced her line again.

*As says Seuss in One Fish Two Fish, if you’re a little rusty on your kid books these days.