Friday, December 23, 2005

The carp have arrived

It's that time of year again, when men in green stand with cigarettes dangling over baby swimming pools, net in hand, while ladies direct them to the choicest fish for their Christmas dinner.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Bruegel in the Czech Republic

W. H. Auden introduced Bruegel to me in high school. I copied out Auden's poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts,“ and taped it to the inside cover of a notebook, above a copy of one of the Pietr Bruegel (the Elder) paintings mentioned in the poem - The Fall of Icarus. The copy was a Xerox, and hard to make out, but it gave me the feeling that I knew a little bit about what Auden was talking about, a dark story transposed from myth into painting into poetry again.

A few years later, my sister and I flew to Europe for the first time, traveling with one great-uncle to visit another. We spent a day at the museum in the poem, the Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, in Brussels. The Institution, my great uncles call it, as it was there that my great-aunt spent her career as an art historian, studying and writing about the Early Flemish Primitives. It was there too that I found Icarus, falling from the sky. After so much anticipation, actually seeing the painting was a disappointment. It was much smaller than I imagined and guarded by heavy glass that reflected the ceiling lights so badly you had to approach it from the side, not straight on. I replaced my grimy photocopy with a postcard. I could just make out Icarus‘ legs kicking as they disappeared into the sea. The color was beautiful.

When we first moved to Prague, we planned a trip to Vienna to visit the Kunsthistorische Muzeum. My great-uncle, who likes Bruegel even more than I do, gave me a lecture about the Kunsthistorische Bruegels before we left on our trip. “At least find the Children’s Games, Massacre of the Innocents and the three season paintings,“ he said. “Buy calendars.“ I knew what he meant. Art calendars come sturdily wrapped, with bigger pictures than in a book or on a postcard, and 12 images for almost the price of one poster. And because they are European style, the dates are so small you can easily ignore them when your year is up. It is a great way to gather a favorite artist's works all in once place, big enough to really see the detail, and without a binding to worry about either.

I bought calendars. And this time thought the Bruegels in their musuem setting gorgeous. I especially loved Bruegel's winter scene - Hunters in the Snow - with its flat, almost asian style, the contrast between the snow and the sky and ice, the cheerful curl of the dog tails.

If you do a Google search on Bruegel and his six seasonal paintings, you’ll see that three of the six are in Vienna, one hangs in the Metropolitan, and one is missing. That is five. The sixth is in the Czech Republic. It lives in a chateau outside of Prague, north towards Dresden.* The chateau (or zamek in Czech) is called Nelahozeves and it is just along the Vltava river, in a small town of the same name - incidentally the same town Antonin Dvorak lived in most of his life, just below the chateau walls.

The chateau is owned by the Roudnice branch of the Lobkowicz family and by itself is a fine place to visit, especially if you like Renaissance architecture. But what makes it different from the hundreds of castles in the Czech Republic is its collection of art and musical instruments. It is the largest private art collection in the Czech Republic, art once scattered across many properties owned by the Lobkowiczs but now gathered together under one roof. The collection includes a Rubens and a Velasquez, and some quite excellent and interesting portraits (Hapsburg family members can mostly not be called beautiful). What really stands out as the jewel of the show, though, is decidedly the Bruegel.

It is a big painting, covering nearly the span of one wall, and the details are what makes it nifty to visit. While I still prefer Hunters in the Snow for its colors and its design, there are more people to get a good glimpse of in Haymaking, and each is doing something a little different from his neighbor. Then too, it's summertime and everyone, even at work, seems more relaxed than in the winter painting. Standing in front of the painting, in its stone room in Nela, I let the design give me a tour, following the characters down the lane, through the broken line of the houses to the hill in the very far distance. Then our real tour guide called us into the next room. I bought a postcard, the colors are beautiful. But I'm looking forward to going to back soon so I can revisit the original.

* The Bruegel, and most of the paintings formally housed in Nela, have since been moved to the Lobkowicz palace next to the castle.

(photo copyright to each painting's museum)

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Over the Rainbow

I’ve been quiet lately, working past midnight on projects for the office and in the infinitely small interstices of free time that I’ve had, gathering Christmas presents. Today I wrapped up one of my work projects, and I'm now putting the final touches on a compilation cd (and cover) for Caroline’s friends - hoping it will be something they like, and maybe their parents too.

Putting together cds is as close as I get to playing Martha each Christmas. Because, even though I preserve a mental tintype of myself as a hands-on creative person (paintbrush in hand), when I try to make anything beyond a drawing or sometimes a painting, imagination and my hand-eye coordination part ways. The one time I met a glue gun I wound up walking out of the workshop with a pipe cleaner Santa stuck to the back of my jeans. I had abandoned him for his lopsided eyes and the excess glue that did not add an edge to his character, but he was undeterred and stuck around until some kind lady in the line at Starbucks pointed him out to me.

Thus, cds. This one has a goodly mix of Caroline favorites and music I thought would go down well with those between one and a hundred. Dance tunes, Tubby the Tuba, and then there is the hauntingly beautiful song that Will dug up and gave to me, knowing I’d enjoy it more than several roses at the end of a hard week. It is a rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” sung by the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. His voice takes the song (with its sometimes screechy octave leap at the beginning, its candy-sweet associations) and transfigures it into something new, a song to sing along with, or listen to when it is dark outside and all you really want to do is see the sky above the chimney tops, way up high.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Paris Weather

Have I mentioned that temperatures have hovered over 0/32 for a week? And how nice this is, so moderate, so easy to live with. It isn’t exactly sunny, but I don’t mind. Cloudy skies filter the sun, so we don’t have to see just how weak its rays are right now, barely skimming the top of the buildings across the courtyard from my desk window, before sinking again and setting at 3:59 in the afternoon.

The weather reminds me of my trip last November to Paris. I stayed with friends in their small flat in Versailles and we bicycled around the Chateau’s gardens, still green. We rode past other bicyclists and children on scooters, past cherubims obviously waiting for the tourists to come back, and more delicate sculptures bundled in their own tents for winter. It was cold enough that we were glad to stop and push our bikes through the outdoor markets to buy fruit, cheese and bread, but not so cold that I couldn't enjoy the simple pleasure of bicycling across the flat sands of the town, past the tourists heading to the train station and back to the big city, while we rode home, residents at least for the weekend.

Monday, December 12, 2005

At the Night Pharmacy

Caroline has a cough. The hacking, messy type, that shows up at moments that are not quite convenient for a toddler - when she is throwing a fit, say, for not getting the second half of a cookie she truly believes is hers. To demonstrate her convictions, she is willing to throw herself from my arms, back arched, heels kicking, while I hold on and try to explain that the cold hard ground and her indignation should not meet just now. Upside down, she starts coughing.

After a weekend of interrupted temper tantrums and coughing fits, I decided to get some children’s medicine on Sunday to alleviate my conscious and hopefully her cough. As I have mentioned before, drug stores don’t sell drugs here, but pharmacies do. The majority of pharmacies in the Czech Republic (there are over 2000 of them) are still owned by individuals, not by large chains, so most of them have family friendly hours for the pharmacists - closing for the weekends and early in the evening during the week. Picking up cough medicine on a Sunday night means standing in line at the special 24 hour pharmacy, waiting to talk to the pharmacist on call. Standing in line, I should mention, outside, while the wind blows a brisk tune through the rigging of my scarf and coat.

Thankfully the line moved fast last night. Most everyone seemed to be requesting either a hangover cure or a cold remedy: Ibuprofen (advil), aceteminophin (tylenol), aspirin, vitamins. I watched the line dwindle to our turn, and then I stood in front of the window and did my cough impression for the pharmacist. "Cough cough splutter. Daughter small, coughingly wettest as this," I said in mangled Czech.

The pharmacist must be used to such dramatic, incomprehensible conversations. She nodded her head sagely and turned behind her to pull out a box, not the expected Mucosolvan (its name says it all, really) but Robitussin. Cool, I said, forgetting my Czech as soon as I saw a U.S. brand in front of me. "Dekuji much, and good night!" She nodded and turned to the next well-bundled customer behind me.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Jaromir Nohavica in Prague - January 2006!

Jaromir Nohavica is going to be playing a host of concerts in Prague next month. Since the excellent unofficial Nohavica website doesn't include a translation of the concert schedule and instructions for when tickets go on sale, I thought I'd pop a brief translation up today, because everybody should have a chance to hear him play at least once!

Advance booking for these concerts begins 12.12.2005, in theatres and cultural centers during their usual ticket sales time. Tickets are also available through the Ticketpro network for the Lucerna concert on 24.1 and become available on 12.12.2005 as well. Ticket prices range from 330 kc to 490 kc. Photography, audio and video recordings are forbidden at each concert. Concerts are not suitable for children younger than school age. Thus endeth my translation.

15.1. Praha 8 - Libeň 19:30 Divadlo Pod Palmovkou (Zenklova 34)
tel.: 283 011 127
16.1. Praha 13 - Stodůlky 20:00 Klub Mlejn (Kovářova 1615/4)
tel.: 235 522 503
17.1. Praha 5 - Smíchov 20:00 Švandovo divadlo (Štefánikova 57)
18.1. Praha 3 - Žižkov 19:30 Palác Akropolis (Kubelíkova 1548/27)
19.1. Praha 4 - Braník 19:00 Branické divadlo (Branická 411/63)
20.1. Praha 1 - Staré Město 19:30 Aula FF UK (Nám. Jana Palacha 2)
Concert open only to students at VŠ
22.1. Praha 4 - Nusle 19:30 Divadlo Na Fidlovačce (Křesomyslova 625)
23.1. Praha 9 - Vysočany 19:30 KD Gong (Sokolovská 191)
tel.: 266 311 629
24.1. Praha 1 - Nové Město 19:30 Lucerna - velký sál (Štěpánská 61)
Advance sales at Ticketpro
25.1. Praha 1 - Nové Město 19:30 Divadlo Kalich (Jungmannova 9)
tel.: 296 245 311
26.1. Praha 4 - Lhotka 19:30 KC Novodvorská (Novodvorská 151)
tel.: 241 494 341

Update: The local news says that all concert tickets sold out in the first three days!

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Ballroom and preserved palm - Ch. 1 in new office story?

We are on the hunt for new office space. This should not be a difficulty, as one thing that Prague has plenty of is available office space. Construction companies build and build but then owners sit on empty space, unwilling to lower their prices for fear of a market slide in per meter square pricing.

My company is small and we can’t afford the expensive new offices in glass buildings; we’re also picky, so we turn down the spaces that remind us of boxes lined in synthetic carpet. We're looking for something with a personality, something we’d want to spend most of our lives in, and show off to our clients. We must be driving our realtors crazy with our requests, but it is the fourth office they have found for me in seven years, and their British unflappability handles our idiosyncracies well.

Our last building of the day is in the middle of downtown, in the middle of construction and tourists and the business of the city. Half of the building is empty and ruined and curtains hang in rags behind the windows of the flat I peer into. But the central staircase is beautiful and when we enter the office we fall in love with the ceilings that arc over head, the parquet floors, marble fireplace, and glass chandeliers. The largest room is the size of a ballroom, lovely and massive. No one even asks about the air conditioning or per monthly utility costs, we simply start casting bids for the coolest office of all, the one with the panelled ceiling and wooden columns, clearly the home of the former company’s president. His shoe scuffs stain the parquet, and turned to the front window, a last palm tree stands, now dust and brown.

We imagine the floors polished, the fireplace unblocked, the walls freshly painted and our own palms and rubber tree plants taking the place of the dessicated tree. I look out the front windows to see the view - a beautifully painted art nouveau facade from the first floor to the sky, casino at ground level, McDonald's to our right and KFC just down the street - Prague in all its paint and glory.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Mikulaš eve, Celebrating St. Nicholas in Prague

December 5th, 7 pm - angels and devils and St. Nicks roam the streets, or actually, make a beeline to the biggest Christmas street fair in our neighborhood. The devils out number the angels and the Nicks by much, maybe because it is more fun to be the guy carrying a bag full of coal than the angel with her basket of candy or St. Nicolas (Mikulaš here) with his hockey stick. We head for the park with Caroline but when we get there, we stop, realizing that we are Mikulaš greenhorns when it comes to kids. All we've ever done before is check out the costumes and eat the tinfoil-wrapped Santas that appear in every store. Now that Caroline is old enough to join in, what exactly is it that she is supposed to do?

We squeeze through the crowds, trying to decipher the process: little kids meet big kids dressed in costume and say a poem or sing a song, then the big kid gives the little kid a piece of candy. Simple, but how to meet the costumes? We blame our coats and foreign looks and sheepishly trail along the outskirts of the park until we find a bench to perch on and reconnoiter.

Caroline is excited, despite her parents‘ shyness. "Mikulaš!" she yells, throwing her arms wide, as she watches kids earn candy by the score. She has already gone out once earlier, with Lucie and Marie, and she apparently knows the routine, but clearly we don’t. So I call our babysitter and ask what we’re doing wrong. "Do we say something special to get them started? Like 'dobry vecer andel?' And do we tip?" Thankfully Lucie is so amused by the idea of me saying 'good evening angel' that she misses my last comment (I’m still blushing).

"Sure," she says, "just say 'hi angel, hi čert' and they will talk to Caroline." Just knowing it is as simple as that, I stop feeling like I’m on an alien planet and start relaxing and within five minutes of us rejoining the crowds, the trios are swooping down on Caroline to rattle their bags, stick out their tongues and ask if she has been a good girl this year.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Play dough breaks concentration barrier

Saturday: Imagine a house full of furniture covered in sheets, windows open to the world (and to the weather), painters swarming about in overalls and Will at work. Caroline seems unperturbed by the chaos and is discussing her favorite baby doll with the painters, trying to eat a baguette and carry three dolls at the same time. She is not letting them paint. So I pull out my secret weapon, something I’ve tucked away for just such a moment, or Christmas - the Kids Dough Factory ™.

Not exactly Play-Doh, but I have high hopes that the recipe for moulding dough is not an intricate one, and I make Caroline swear that this time she won’t eat it. Or rather, I repeat myself three times until she finally looks me straight in the eye and says “Yes Mommie, okay” which is what she says when she decides that I am not going to stop talking until she agrees to whatever it is I am saying to her.

Miraculously, she doesn’t eat the dough. Instead she sits in a chair, pulled up to the table, and plays. And plays, and two hours later is still playing. We test all the moulds that come with the kit, and make a great deal of blue pasta (spaghetti shaped and something we name star-allini). She loves having her own plastic knife to carve with, and quickly figures out how to open the dough containers with her teeth (I stop her when I can), but mostly she just wants to play pretend with the little animals we sculpt. The whale gets a blanket and takes a nap and the cat family each get their own bowl, which she fills up with some of the blue spaghetti while I make her lunch. Sandwich in hand, she keeps playing.

Finally, I crack. This much concentration has worn me out and I call for a nap. It’s a chancy affair, what with the wind blowing through the house and the painters listening to Elvis on the radio, but I pop Caroline onto the sofa in my office, the one room free of painters and still heated, and start singing. Lullaby after lullaby, and my eyes are closing but Caroline is still wide-eyed. Even “Stay Awake, Don’t Close your Eyes” from Mary Poppins doesn’t work for more than the time it takes me to sing it.

The painters leave and we are back with the dough factory, fashioning winter coats for the cats who C says are chilly, and who are noticeably drying out to become a flakier version of the silky smooth green and yellow cats we’d fashioned, a few hours before.

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Friday, December 02, 2005

Remember the turntable? Kid records from the 40s and 50s - ready for your iPod!

When my sister and I were six, a turn table and a stack of records could entertain us for hours. Since our parents were trying to raise us TV free, naturally I thought of records as ear TV and the stereoscope that our great grand aunt kept out to entertain us got called the old-fashioned TV.

Before we discovered the Smithsonian collection of folk music and the Beatles (I plead pre-adolescence) one of our favorite records was Tubby the Tuba. Tubby was on an old 78 our mother listened to as a child, and each side lasted only a few minutes, but we loved that recording more than any other in our children's collection. Tubby taught us about the orchestra, how melodies work, and how to separate the sound of a bassoon from the sound of a flute just by listening. He also gave me the notion that musical instruments had feelings, and that violins had an attitude - two things I still believe in.

I’ve been looking for a digital version of Tubby for a few years, and our good friend Sid helped find him for me through the Kiddie Records site. Thank you Sid! To download and listen, enter Kiddie Records Weekly 2005 and scroll down to September. You can either download the files as mp3 or as bittorrent files.

Every week Kiddie Records releases a new download and Peter and the Wolf is coming up in January - another excellent recording. And if you find any of your favorites, let me know. We've got Caroline sitting in front of the iPod these days and she has already started to say "more Tuggy da Tuba!"

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Battle of Austerlitz commences Saturday at 1

The Battle of Austerlitz began 200 years ago on December 2nd after weeks of maneuvering. Its reenactment will begin this Saturday at 1 pm and run until 2:30. You can catch a bus from Brno to the battlefield, and tickets are for sale through Ticketstream.

If you want to get a good idea of a battle, yet avoid having to walk up hill and down through farmers' fields full of corn leftovers, there's nothing like a novelist to help fill in the details, real and imagined. I remember learning the statistics of Austerlitz in AP European, but War and Peace shaped it into a story that I could actually hold onto in my mind, and the book is the lens I view the battle through today. The way Tolstoy told it, Austerlitz seemed the culmination of fruitless politics, of enthusiasm trumping experience for the Russians and the Austrians. When I first read the book I remember wondering how such massive endeavors could be so misguided. I also remember recognizing the indifferent sky, the same one that Prince Andrei looks up into as he lies on the battlefield, expecting to die.

I had seen it too, playing against a 6’4” girl linebacker in the one high school powder puff game I ever limped out of. We were crouched facing each other, she softly growling while I pondered the differences between running football patterns with my cousins and playing against embittered seniors currently experiencing the best years of their lives. Then I looked up and saw the sky and realized how beautiful it was, so beautiful and so uncaring. When the whistle blew I took off my flag and handed it to the giantess before she could get too excited. “Nice day isn’t it, pity it didn’t rain,” I said before I left the field.

A few hundred kilometers southeast of Prague today, troops have started gathering to reenact the battle of the three emperors.* There will be many thousands of people getting a first hand look at the muddy fields of Moravia mixed with snow, and I wonder if any one of them will mark the day by looking up at the sky to quote Tolstoy and Prince Andrei and say: “all is vanity, all is a cheat, except that infinite sky.“

*Napoleon, Francis of Austria and Alexander of Russia.

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