Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Ice skating in Prague

Try a winter sport. One of my New Year resolutions, near the top of the list to try to check off quickly. But by last weekend, all I could claim was hiking in the cold and complaining about it. I started to get a little worried when I saw the strawberry baskets cluttering the counters in our green grocer, and our junk mail shifted from flyers for skis to catalogs of sleeveless shirts. What if Prague's mini ice age ended and spring arrived early! I'd have missed another winter, my resolution would remain unchecked.

Time for action.

Cross country takes a weekend, downhill a new set of knees, so we decided to try ice skating first. There’s a rink at the base of Vinohrady, very close to Vrsovicke namesti, and we’d watched people skate there before, enjoying the view as we savored a bottle of wine in the little wine bar at the foot of Grobova Chateau and watched skaters glide across the lit rink.

I remembered that view on Friday, and it didn’t take long to find out the rink was called the USK Hotel Hasa winter stadium and that it was open nearly every day for free skating, though at occasional and odd times.

I called, they told us to come between 10 and 12 on Saturday, and we went. What I didn’t find out, unfortunately, is that they do not rent skates. We don’t have our own (this was my fourth ice try) but the guardian at the door let us go inside the rink for free and we met up with one of our friends there, who lent me her skates for a quick swoop around the ice.

Or actually a few tottering steps, knees locked, until I realized I wouldn’t fall down, then judicious slides to the children’s corner. I hung out with the four year olds for a while, getting my ice legs, then slid out onto the main rink. Twice around, I decided to stop - I was still enjoying myself, hadn’t fallen down yet, and I really wanted to come back soon with happy memories (and then there were my ankles).

Tickets are 50 kc each, you pay as you walk in the door to the hotel/stadium. The schedule changes often to fit in lessons and team practices, so call before you go. I’ve posted this week’s schedule below so you can see how it generally works. Besides remembering your skates, you also might bring your own hot coffee or cocoa and join the rest of the crowd on the bleachers with their thermoses and snacks, taking a break before heading back to the ice for another turn. If I can find some skates this week, perhaps we'll see you there!

USK Hotel Hasa
+420 271747128

This week’s schedule:
M: 9-10:50
T: 9-10:50
R: 8:30-10:20
F: 9-10:50
S: 10-12:00, 16-18:00
N: 10-12:00, 13:45-15:45

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Nohavica concert and download his music while you can

Last week we went to one of the eleven concerts Jaromir Nohavica is playing this month in Prague. Akropolis is small, Nohavica fans are enthusiastic, so we arrived fifteen minutes before the concert was slated to start. Outside the hall fans held signs up, asking for tickets; inside most people were already in their seats. We were relieved when we found places to sit down - two spindle chairs in the corner of the balcony - and as I padded mine with my coat I made a mental note: Nohavica concerts - get there early.

I knew only a few of the songs he sang, but the rest of the crowd seemed to recognize each one, and they sang along in perfect pitch, quietly but all together. The music never stayed the same - he sang ballads and louder rocking numbers, finger picking some songs, playing the accordion on others. There was even a blues rock piece where he and his guitar performed under lights choreographed to remind us of B.B. King and Lucille, rocking out for a concert, in Austin, Texas or Memphis Tennessee.

Jaromir Nohavica stands on the stage like it is his living room, and his audience are friends visiting for the evening, so calm he is and so composed. He played and he chatted - making jokes about the afflicted Pendolino fast trains, taking the crowd’s picture with his phone, telling everyone to go to his unofficial website and unofficially download some of the music from the tour. I didn’t understand most of what he said, and that was the only time that I felt the loneliness of not being Czech, wishing I could be part of the conversation that had everyone leaning towards the stage to catch every word he said. Luckily, it didn’t matter once the music started again.

I am at home tonight, listening to the songs we’ve downloaded from his site and transcribing them. My transcriptions are listening practice only, because you can find the Czech lyrics easily on the web. I'm currently cracking myself up with my ludicrous efforts though. Here's my favorite:

V letadla Praha Montreal
Pade jizlo a jak slzy do lavoru
Na nebišutsi stany jol
Stany jol, z cokolada za 35 korun

On the plane from Prague to Montreal
Dripping acid like tears into a volcano
Don’t bang on this tented yacht
Tented yacht, and it’s 35 crowns for the chocolate.

Something more like what he actually sings

V letadle Praha Montreal
Padají slova jako slzy do lavoru
Na nebi šustí staniol
Staniol z čokolády za 35 korun

On the plane from Prague to Montreal
Words fall like tears to the pit
Tin foil whispers in the sky
Tin foil from a 35 crown chocolate bar

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

It’s cold - just how cold I’ll tell you

Borrowing an idea from Anne over at Tuckova - taking an unchangeable fact that makes you miserable (cleaning house, the arctic weather) and turning it over and around into as many different storylets as you can think of while experiencing that miserable fact, so that you wind up almost relishing the experience because you want to figure out what you would say about it - today I thought of all the ways I could describe how cold it is outside.

It is so cold that...
1. The sound of bees buzzing in a Winnie the Pooh video made me nearly weep with nostalgia for the summer, green grass, even pollen. We watched the scene three times until Caroline very politely said, “Next?“
2. A Southern accent seems out of place. Each of C’s principal animals have their own voices. Bigby the bear speaks with an island accent, Charles the lamb stutters, Silver the cat meows through her requests for more milk, and so forth. But today Bigby lost his voice. I tried, but a South Carolina accent just didn’t sound right coming from the North Pole where he is currently camped. So he has the flu and is whispering his bearish thoughts.
3. The inside of my nose froze as I walked home from the foreign police this morning. When I got onto the tram for the last leg of the journey, the sudden thaw steamed my glasses up for the rest of the trip. Luckily I didn't need to see because I was a bit preoccupied by the tips of my ears - frozen, not frozen? Still bending so there's hope.
4. When your dog poop radar fails your footing, the result skitters instead of smushes.

Now it’s your turn.

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Catchy Boing Boing headline of the day - “Peeling bananas from the other end is easier“

After reading the blurb, I had to add bananas to our breakfast menu. We had four, and I passed one to each person at our table, explained the story, and made the inaugural pinch and peel.

It was fun. It was easy. And somehow a lot less messy than I thought it would be. But I wondered how many bananas it would take until I automatically peeled them that way.

Apparently a lot - if our breakfast dialogue was any indication:

J: Here you go C, try peeling it from this end like Mommy.
Caroline: Noooo....I do it this way!! (opens banana from the stem, smashes half of it in the process, as usual).

J: What do you think, a technique to try again?
Will: It‘s surprisingly hard to adjust to. I mean, it inverts the natural order.
J: You mean the learned order?
Will: I mean how I was taught to do it as a kid. But hey, if it works for the monkeys it’s all right by me.

Naturally, I had to write this scintillating experiment (and dialogue) down for the world to see. And when I did I remembered a story from the New York Times that has been on my mind since December: Children learn from Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don‘t."

The story describes a study that demonstrated children were more tied to learning through mimicry than monkeys. Apparently monkeys and children both will watch someone solve a problem - say opening a box, or peeling a banana - and use the same gestures (even extraneous one) to get to the goodie. But if a monkey then sees a faster solution, he’ll skip the extra steps and go straight to the banana. Children in the same situation stick with the original extra gestures.

The scientists in the study speculated that by learning through imitation, humans don’t have to understand a solution in order to achieve it. My own speculation is that yes, it is useful to learn without thinking (remember spelling class?). But copied gestures are also a great way for a complex society to survive without being overwhelmed by the detail of constant difference. Sure, we don't speak the same language, but by gum, we all peel our bananas the same way.

Unless, of course, you're a Boing Boing reader. What do you say - want to change the world, one peel at a time?

Friday, January 20, 2006

A steel guitar sketch

Today Caroline decided that she wanted to draw Will’s steel guitar. "I draw tar" she said, grabbed pen and paper and sat down beside the guitar, drawing lines from one page to the next until I offered to help her (it was my work notebook after all). Caroline handed over the pen and pad quite officially and then stood by the guitar, posing solemnly, hand on its neck for an entire ten seconds until she considered the job done and came over to see the results.

I drew for her the guitar's shoulders, its tuning pegs and the sharp curl of string ends. I named the frets and the resonator box and after every line drawn and identified she repeated the names back to me. Then she took the scarf that I had given her at breakfast for her baby doll (a chilly morning), and wound it around the guitar’s neck. "There" she said, "now we go out." Instead, we sketched the scarf into the drawing.

It is a mighty fine looking guitar and I don’t wonder that she has taken to it more than to Will’s other instruments. It sits out for one thing, free of its case, reflecting the light from our balcony window off its steel brightness, ice cold from its spot by the door. And it is loud - even the carpet beneath it can't dull its sound.

Sometimes Caroline will slip away from a babysitter and run in here as I work, to stand by the guitar and pluck a note, then use it as her cue to sing for me until I swoop her up and carry her back out to the kitchen or to her room, kissing her for all she’s worth until it is time to go back to my work, back to solitude and concentration.

And if you ask me, would I trade the work or the time together, I'd answer - both are made sweeter by the other, like a note from a steel guitar, resonant from its metal casing, but clear, too.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Yet another reason to go to Riegrovy sady on the weekends

I’ve been a fan of Riegrovy sady, a local hillside park, since the second day we moved to Prague. That was the day Will and I hiked to the top of Vinohrady from our pension across the river so that we could check out one of the English language bookstores we’d read about before we arrived. The bookstore was at the far end of Manesova, one block from Jiriho z Podebrad, and on the way up that endless hill we passed by an edge of a park that made me think I had seen a mirage, so green was the view in the middle of the gray city. We had caught a glimpse of Riegrovy beach - the south-facing hillside where sunlovers lie even in spring to catch the rays. It turns green sooner than any place I know in Prague and it is a sight for eyes jaded by the cold.

We wound up renting a flat a few minutes from Riegrovy and ever since I’ve often gone out of my way to walk through it on the way to work, to play basketball on its outside courts, meet up with friends in the beer garden in its center. Now we spend many a Saturday morning at the Riegrovy playground, hanging out with friends until we can wrest the kids away and head to a restaurant or café for lunch or coffee.

There are a fair number of kid-friendly restaurants in the area, especially on a weekend at lunch time. In the summer the best place by far is the Greek restaurant Olympos, because it has a garden with its own playground. But come winter and fall, Olympos is too crowded inside for children, so we rotate between the friendly Italians at Roca and a table tucked into a corner at Kaaba. This last Saturday, we decided to try some place new.

I’d noticed the café before Christmas, walking home through the park. Its Illy sign suggested good coffee (and wise management) but with December upon us I mostly forgot about it. Friday though, one of our friends mentioned the café had paired with a bookshop next door - a used books bookshop, of the English variety - and from some place to try sometime soon, Cafe Metropole became some place to try tomorrow.

Saturday it was cold. Very cold. We skipped the playground and instead swung C between our hands as we walked. We swung her to make up for missing out on the playground, and so we could get there faster. As we ducked into the basement bookstore my ears began to melt and my glasses to steam up, but I could still see enough to make a beeline to the children’s books, looking for something that would serve Caroline as a distraction we could afford to take home. Mother Goose! In seconds C was posted in the store’s chair, reading, and it was my turn.

The store is the little sister of the larger Anagram bookstore downtown. It is a small collection, but tasty, not the usual canonical stuff you often see in used book stores along the great college kid migration path in Europe. I found a book of short stories by Ellen Gilchrist and an Ellis Peters mystery; we bought the Mother Goose book too. Then we moved next door to eat lunch and try out the coffee.

Both the café and the bookstore are in a basement, with low ceilings and high windows. The owner has lightened what could be a dark space with leather chairs and walls just the darker side of cream. He said that he’d kept painting until the walls looked right, not too white but light enough to reflect light back into the room for those dark middays in winter. We tried some sandwiches and a coronation chicken wrap, and all were good: a real BLT, delicious curry, sandwiches C could eat with relish and ease. The coffee was as good as I hoped, and the owner proved his client friendliness by serving it to me twice - once just before Caroline started to howl (and I ducked with her into the bathroom) and then when we came out, face washed and ready to try civilization again.

We’ve already got plans to try the café out again too - next weekend. I’ve heard they’ve got karaoke Saturday nights!

Café Metropole and Anagram bookshop - Anny Letenske 18, Prague 2.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

2.5 and singing

Caroline turned two and a half just before New Years. In all the holiday craziness, we didn’t even note it and it wasn’t until someone asked me if she was nearly three that I realized she still had six months to go. Something about the end of December makes me think that she will not be celebrating her half birthdays the way my sister and I did when we were little - with homemade brownies and much excitement that we could now say we were officially something and a half.

Now that she is a grand 2.5, I thought it a good time to write up what she is up to for all of those long distance relatives and friends out there who might be saying - okay, enough about Prague, what is Caroline doing these days?

So let me tell you a story: Sunday, walking home from a long trek back from the suburbs (and the biggest shopping mall in Central Europe - a story all to itself), she gamely trotted along, strung between my hand and Will’s, still moving forward though she had almost fallen asleep in the metro coming home. "Duvet please," she asked when we first got on the train and she stretched out on my lap.

Off the train, she was still awake enough so that, coming around the corner from our metro stop, on the last few blocks of our trip, she could look up at the sky and find a friend.

"Moon!" she said, and there was the nearly half moon shining down on us during the day. Almost everything that Caroline likes has a song attached to it, so she sang "Mr. Moon Moon, shine upon me moon" over and over again at a whisper and then at a shout, singing down the street until we reached home, her bed and Caroline-sized duvet, which she pulled up to her chin and promptly fell asleep beneath.

C recognizes the differences between Czech and English pretty well now, and sings English songs with us and Czech songs with her babysitters. I heard today that she sang "Kocka leze dirou" throughout lunch at the local hospoda, or at least until the waiter could (in double quick time) bring Caroline and our babysitter their soup and dumplings. Luckily for us, her voice has gotten a lot better than it used to be, and she sings in tune to herself. Singing with someone else, she still raises her voice a second above us (to hear herself better?), but if I turn it into a game, I can get her to sing along with me, and we’ll play with pitch - moving notes in and out of tune like a pair of bag pipes getting warmed up.

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Friday, January 06, 2006

The record you didn’t know you were waiting for...Peter and the Wolf

Head over to Kiddie Records this week if you would like to hear the first recording* of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

Encouraged by Serge Koussevitzky (conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, founder of Tanglewood, and champion of new music), Prokofiev came over to the U.S. in 1938 and premiered Peter and the Wolf with the BSO. Less than a year later, the orchestra put together this recording under Koussevitzky’s baton, and with Richard Hale narrating.

Hale sounds like a combination of Vincent Price and the elocution teacher in Singing in the Rain, but his melodramatic vocalizations add a certain something to the recording and remind me that public speakers did not always have the same song newscaster voice we are so accustomed to now. The sound recording is pretty amazing too, considering it is from a sixty-six year old record. Thanks Kiddie Records!

* So says the Library of Congress’s recording registry.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The tree comes down

After a long goodbye last night - Caroline and I sang good-night and farewell songs, unhooked ornaments, nibbled on wintergreen candy canes*, and packed everything away - we took the tree down. We were two days early by the Czech Christmas calendar, but the tree was losing its green fast. It had already shed so much that I didn’t even try to vacuum up the three inches of needles that had accumulated under it, but instead swept. And swept. Until there was only a scant carpeting of needle left which the vacuum cleaner swallowed with ease, for all the world as if this was just a case of light housework, nearly solved.

Because I am the sentimental sort, we told Caroline the tree had disappeared back to the forest until next year, and I kept her entertained in her room while Will frog marched the remains out the door. He was thickly padded with many layers of clothes, coat and gloves, but still wound up looking like he had been attacked by a forest green porcupine. I’ve already made a note for next year - I’ll follow our babysitter’s advice and buy borovice (pine) not jedle (spruce). A pine isn’t as classically Christmas as a spruce, but at least it holds onto its needles.

*Very kindly imported by my sister.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Watch it if you can - Rok ďábla

Will and I had an O’Henry moment Christmas Day. I’d just given him a present and he was starting to unwrap it when he stopped and dashed from the room. He came back with another package and handed it to me.

"Let’s open these together," he said and we did, laughing because we knew what we’d find. Sure enough, I’d given him the dvd for Rok ďábla, and he had given me the same.

"At least I didn’t have to cut off my hair to buy it," I said as I gave him a thank you kiss and tried to decide who might enjoy the movie as much as we do.

It’s a good one, especially if you are a Jaromir Nohavica fan. Rok ďábla is a mock documentary - a rockumentary, Will calls it - so it doesn’t have a thick plot line to worry over. If I had to sum up the story line I’d say: Nohavica starts the movie alone in rehab as a famous, drunk folk singer and ends it alone, sober and a rock star. In between he meets a Czech band, a Kiwi punk composer and the big sound and texture of rock.

We’ve seen it several times, on rental. Although a live concert would be even better, the subtitles add a lot to the music for me. Because, besides being a folk singer, ex-drinker, sometimes rocker, Nohavica is also a poet. His songs are worth listening to, and understanding.

Note: although the original website for the movie has been removed, you can find a copy of the Rok d'abla website here.
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Monday, January 02, 2006

Seeing is believing

Happy New Year! I’m still picking up the pieces from December, after much family and then the flu descended upon our household. But I’ll be back on the blogging track shortly and in the meantime, did anyone else notice how many pharmacies were closed today?

I did a little research on the matter (an extra day off for pharmacy people? anything to do with the Swiss holiday aptly called "Day After New Year's Day"?) and found out from my babysitter and ceskenoviny that the pharmacies were actually on something akin to a strike, waiting to hear if they really must lower their prices starting with the new year. Health Minister Philip Rath says they must, to reduce health insurance costs, but pharmacists across the country say „NE,“ they won’t until someone hands them a printed directive saying they must.

The directive was still at the printers today, so pharmacies stayed firmly closed.

In the meantime, if you need some cold medicine, the handy all night pharmacy on the corner of Belgicka and Namesti Miru is still open.

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