Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Stepping into reading, one word at a time

Do you remember the first time you read a word, free floating, out in the world? I don’t know how old I was, probably four or five, but I remember the moment. Sitting in the backseat of our VW Bug, stopped at a red light, I saw "on" and then "no" on a billboard behind the light. I vaguely remember the words (a plain font, black on white), but what I wholly recall is my lecture to myself. "Remember now," I thought. "You'll never again not see words. These scribbles will always be there to figure out." I thought reading meant I was no longer a child.

Caroline’s day for discovering words outside books came on Sunday. It was the first spring day of the year, and we decided to spend the morning at the zoo. We drove and Caroline spent the ride pointing out all the blue "P" for parking signs that we passed. She collected at least a dozen by the time we arrived - mostly because we had to circle the zoo's neighborhood looking for a parking space in company with all the other Praguers who’d had the same thought when they woke and discovered the sun.

While we circled, and Will listed the practicalities of buses, I decided to distract Caroline from her P quest with a new challenge. If she could find the word "zoo" I’d give her a piece of her favorite Hubba Bubba*. Caroline rarely forgets conversations that involve chewing gum and sure enough, halfway through the kilometer hike from parking lot to wild animals, she found ZOO - and then again and then again. We traded a lot of high fives that day and I told her I'd make a picture for her to remember her first big step into reading in the wild. See above.

* Czechs, and Caroline, pronounce Hubba Bubba "hoobah boobah", to my delight. Just a note in case you're looking for some on your next trip to Prague.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Signs of spring in the city

The weather's doing flip flops this week. I've taken to carrying my camera in my laptop bag to try to catch the show - it's most entertaining.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Back to winter

Today we're back to clouds and chilliness. But I don't mind, the city was cheered up by yesterday and there is a lighter step in people's walk (and talk).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

February Light

We swam in light this weekend.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Geographically challenged

Google "Europe country" tonight and the first link you’ll see points to an inspiring, all-American, YouTube clip.

The clip, if you don't follow the link, is to the Kellie Pickler video so popular Prague taxi drivers are talking about it. The same guys who quizzed me last week about the contest between Obama and Clinton are now asking, "Is it possibly true about this girl? This 'Europe is a country' girl? Are Americans this dumb?"

Such a good question. My short answer, when I quit blushing and start thinking about it, is no. First, and I always mention this first when responding to generalizations, because my European friends (and taxi drivers) perhaps forget this or have a hard time grasping it without having experienced it themselves: the U.S. is a giant country. There are lots and lots of people there, 301 million and counting. Making a generalization about a country that big based on one person is about as silly as getting a continent confused with a country. After all, the kid on the show knew the answer, and who talks about him? Her audience, both on the set and across the U.S., was just as ready to laugh at Kellie as the world now seems to be. I don’t buy the sudden worry that we have a national deficit in gray matter.

And besides, not knowing geography isn’t about stupidity, but about ignorance and lack of experience. It's easy for me to remember the capitals of Europe and untangle the Balkans on a map - I have the stamps in my passport to remind me. Most Americans won’t ever leave the U.S. even once*; in a country the size of the Czech Republic (the size of South Carolina), people cross the border on a Saturday morning to do a little grocery shopping. Europeans have more time, too, to take vacations and actually travel. Four weeks of vacation a year and at least 8 public holidays gives people time to see the grandparents and venture beyond their usual haunts. Some of my friends in the States get 10 days off, total. Ten days is not a lot of time to see the world.

So, while I do admit to feeling intense chagrin when I saw the clip last weekend, and I must also admit to spending an hour (or two) on the internet, brushing up on Middle Eastern and African countries, if you were to ask me today about Americans and geography - I would confess to "Not stupid - but challenged, and here's why." Then I might ask you to reel off the countries bordering the UAE, and for bonus points, please list the 7 emirates themselves.

*From 1996 to 2006, the U.S. government issued 85 million passports. Passports for adults expire in a ten year period, passports for kids in five years, so I assume that up until 2006, less than 30% of the population had a passport.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Soaking my head might have been a better plan

"To clear your sinuses, soak your mains* in hot water for five minutes," the ENT doc said, before writing out a prescription for penicillin. I ignored her first instruction, to focus on the second.

"I just told you I’m allergic to penicillin," I said. "I don’t think this is a good idea..."

"It is a very small dose, a child would not feel it. Just try one pill and call me if you have any problems."

Stupidly, I took the medicine. Six hours later, the doctor did not answer her phone. In between bursts of fury at my stupidity, and throwing up, I was singing late Beethoven - a bad sign. I called my OB and she told me to try another tablet because perhaps I’d adjust to the medication. I gave up on doctors for the night, and ignored her advice.

In the morning, I tracked down the ENT. She said, "Oh my god, you were true. Skip the antibiotics for now, but please, keep on soaking your mains, it is very important."

Freshly bathed, my hands are happily warm and typing away. My nose? Still waiting for clarity.

*mains = hands in French. We live in the Czech Republic and neither doctor or patient is French. This did not lessen the surrealism of the day.

Monday, February 18, 2008

An ice skating Saturday

A neighborhood needs its social center, its place for promenades and get togethers, even in winter. In Prague on a Saturday morning, our local ice rink fits the bill.

At our stadium, free skating starts at 10. When the hall opens its doors, Czechs of all ages jostle in. It takes practiced skaters no time to pick their bleacher spot, fortify it with bags and shoes, lace boots on tight and head to the floor. Ten minutes after the hour, the ice teems with people - figure skaters cut eights in the center; racers scissor by, arms and legs aswing; couples and children with parents hold hands and migrate to the edge of the crowd, setting their own, slower, pace.

We head to the beginner’s corner, a half moon of ice divided from the central rink by cones. It is, comparatively, a safe place to practice with children learning the basics, but Caroline and her friends wear helmets for safety - we’ve seen too many speeders skid out of control and slam into kids to be without them. Gloves, snow pants and parkas complete the package and sometimes C falls freely and for fun, well padded against the ice. But mostly she competes to not fall - reporting her trip ups to me at the end of each morning - „Only one time Mommie!“ or „Twice, but the big boy ran into me.“

There are lots of children in the kids‘ area this Saturday. Since I am banned from skates because I'm pregnant, I entertain myself today by checking out kid training styles: In the quietest corner, a careful grandmother (in shoes, not skates) stands behind her granddaughter, holding her hands and steering her forward; saloming around the cones, a couple balances their son between them, lifting him off the ice for the turns; a father skates backwards in front of his daughter, staying just out of reach of her windmilling arms; a mother encourages her daughters to race each other across the floor, to swoop down to the ice and grab gloves and stand up again - great balance practice actually, but better for kids with more years on them than C.

Our family’s style, based on two winters of skating with Caroline and trying all sorts of tricks, comes down to one phrase - stand on your own. Before C gets out on the ice, she practices walking on the mats surrounding the rink to get used to her skates again. (Our friends who know better remind me that this dulls the blades, but hey, what’s a sharpener for!) Once she’s in the rink, I issue a no cling alert, and challenge her to skate to the cones and back, well away from the walls. Arms spread wide for balance, feet already used to skates, it takes just a few minutes before she’s walking and then running across the floor.

Since C’s still happy skating like this, and I can sneak on to the ice only in my shoes, she’s probably not going to learn to glide this year. Her friend Paige though, five and more patient, goes from never skated before, to walking, to the slide glide in one day.

You know the slide glide, right? Keep one foot still, and push out and back with the other. Do it again, and then again. You’ll start off slow but it's a great way to ease into the dynamic motion of skating, and by focusing on moving only one foot it's much harder to get tangled up in feet. I’m looking forward to trying it out with C once I’m back on the ice next year, but in the meantime, my teeth are chattering and I decide it’s time to test out the hot chocolate from the rink's coffee machine. For 10 kc ($.60), it is the cheapest I’ve tried in Prague so far and nearly beats Starbucks (at 80 kc or almost $5) for flavor.

Cocoa in hand, I cushion our bleacher seat with all the coats I can summon up and happily watch the parade of people circle the ice, waving at C as she runs races with Paige and they try to skate over and around the cones at the edge of the beginner's rink.

Friday, February 15, 2008

And I thought the naming of cats a difficult matter

Eleven weeks till baby launch and still he swims, nameless, in the belly.

Actually he’s not swimming any more, he’s a tightly packed in fellow by today. I can tell when he’s awake and wants to suck his thumb: he elbows me politely as if to say, “Oh, pardon, could I just move my arm a tad? Right, that does it, thanks.” He's less polite when he feels like stretching. I've rolled from one side of my chair to another following his feet across my ribs.

With all the pokes and rolls and internal conversations, you’d think by now I’d have a character sketch I could pin up and say, “Yes family, this is our guy, our X.” But, no. And no name has come to me in the middle of the night, while standing in the metro, or while day dreaming over Amazon book lists. No one idea that makes it clear the right choice has arrived and I can check ‘name’ off the baby to-do list.

In desperation I have tried the following:

Polled friends at dinner parties. Results: discovered this method to be slightly painful depending on how late in the evening you start the poll, and how much humor you have hung onto throughout pregnancy. You do get to know your friends better.

Polled immediate household. Results: adventurous additions to our list of “Future Names for Pet Fish”. Examples include Budvar, Elijah, Cellar, Kittycat and Boy. These were not all from Caroline.

Read up on ancestors in search of interesting precedents. Results: discovered that people changed the spelling of their last names quite freely two hundred years ago, but first names stayed the same from one generation to another, to another. Also, that downloading census records is slightly addictive.

Scanned junk mail daily. Results: More names for our fish list! Favorites from last night: Manumit, Eloy, Vinicius.

Used the web to look up lists of names. From the U.S.’s Social Security website to Czech saints’ names, there seem to be over 12 million baby name lists on Google today. I'm not kidding, go run a search and see. Results: I believe I’ll skip Bohumir, and while I’m a big fan of iVillage’s Name Voyager tool, I’m still puzzled in Prague.

I’m now holding name auditions - calling the baby a likely name for at least 24 hours to see if it sticks. Caroline and I also practice yelling our favorite names to see if one feels right paired with “Caroline B. B. get over here right now!!” Audition time slots are still open, so suggestions are welcome. The winner gets a free book of Czech baby names, mailed to their address of choice.

* Name Voyager: A timeline that charts the popularity of a name from the 1880s till today - fun with statistics!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hearts on the line - Happy Valentine's!

Caroline woke me up this morning with a question:
     Mommie, how do I say "Happy Valentine's Day" to my teacher?

Never a coherent translator early in the day, I mumbled something about Valentinska, but then recommended that C just hand her teacher a heart and add a hug to go with it.

We have Valentine's hearts to go around, as C spent a long Saturday painting splashy, many hued watercolors for me to cut into valentines. The cards didn't scan well, so I collected our extra hearts and laid them out for all to see. Photoshop gave me a few extra layers and voila, kolokolo's valentine's card to its readers!


Valentine's Day isn't exactly a Czech holiday, but each February 14th finds Prague florists and restaurants busier than the year before. Today Will came home with the news that the flower shop had a line out the door, and when we called in an order of bibimbop to our favorite Japanese/Korean restaurant they apologized and told us the wait would be at least an hour. I was happy waiting for flowers until tomorrow, but couldn't resist the bibimbop - its addictive spicey sauce has tempted me all day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What I meant to say about friends

Friends: There’s a meme I saw the other day that suggested bloggers link to their favorite post on friends. Several of the blogs I read regularly have taken up the challenge, and I thought about adding a few links too. But when I read through my archives I realized I didn’t have one friend post that I’d classify as a favorite. For me friends are hard to talk about. Like my work, I feel as if I should avoid presenting my friends in a public space, misrepresenting them with my perspective, identifying them.

I considered what I would write, if I did take on the topic. I thought about writing, not about my friends and their own stories, but about their affect - their light and how it falls across my life. And I thought about my friend Marjorie, my best friend in Prague. The friend I babbled on the phone with everyday, the friend I spent Fridays talking to till late in the night, the friend we nearly bought a house with - sketching out flats and making plans for visits up and down stairs. Host of holiday dinners, birthday cake baker, festival and party planner - the center of our social world. The friend, Southern too, who understood the importance of silver and knowing your first cousins twice removed, but who had left the South, because, like me, she was too outspoken and ambitious to truly fit and wanted to try somewhere else.

The friend who died, suddenly, in the early days of November last winter, leaving me with nothing to say that could possibly be enough.

But then I thought about my other friends and how it might be possible to write about them. To write about how their friendships stretched beyond words that terrible season. How Will let me disappear into work and something other than recollection, stepping in to care for Caroline for months; how two others delivered food and companionship sometimes daily; remembering the friends who made Thanksgiving for us that year, the two who traveled across Europe at New Years to pull us out of the house for fireworks and toasts, the friends who gave me the gift of being their daughter’s godmother, the friend who lent me his piano so that I could play into abstraction and nearly joy, the friend - my sister - who shook me out of constant sorrow and back into myself.

You see? Each a light, falling across that terrible darkness that comes from losing someone so close to you it's impossible to imagine her being gone. If I were to talk about my friends, that is what I would want to say. That, and thank you.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Masthead Photo

Summertime in Denmark, when the sun comes out the light seems made for photography. Two years ago we spent a week in Copenhagen, and each time the sun appeared my camera did too. I took this picture as we strolled down a main street of town, heading home from one of the parks we'd explored that morning. Danish design slays me and I took frame after frame of store windows we passed. I particularly liked this pic - the lighting shop's lamps suspended, the reflection of the holiday wreaths in the windows across the street, even the bar code cloth combined to make it one of my favorites from the trip.

I chose this image for the masthead because a blog is all about reflections, about what we see in front of us and behind us. And because I love those lamps, stars in the winter.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Roll those rrrs

Drrrrnda, drrrrnda.
      Drda, drmda.
Again! Drrrrnda, drrrrnda.

Caroline and Lucie are practicing rolled rs in the living room while I work. There are plenty of kids who don’t have r down yet, but Lucie is heading to Asia for four months Monday (the life of a babysitter model), and wants C to get in some practice before she leaves. Lucie learned her rrrs on drnda, or chatterbox, and so Caroline does too.

Thanks to Lucie and her family, our babysitter family, C speaks fluently in Czech, with a Prague accent to boot. She speaks to Lucie in Czech automatically, but English is the language she pulls out when she meets strangers, and especially new children. Rumor has it that she tried to convert her kindergarten to English a few months ago but that the kids stuck to their native tongue. When I asked her about this, she said that she thought everyone should speak like us. She said it regretfully, as if she thought they were missing out and she was just trying to help. (I sometimes wonder what her kindergarten teachers make of C. Once every two weeks or so, they’ll send her home with a note that says she was awfully good and didn’t boss anyone around that day. It makes us wonder about the rest of her days.)

Luckily her idol worship of Lucie, home for the last two months from Singapore, has helped make Czech cool again, and she has pulled out her Czech children’s books and asked us to start reading them. She gets Will to read them in English, but she says she doesn’t mind if I read like Lucinka. The nursery rhymes are easiest for me to pronounce well, so that’s what I mostly stick with. Rhymes, plus I’ll read Czech kids’ magazines, pages beautifully full of pictures and activities with only a few words in between.

Tonight we played a game from one of her magazines, Méd'a Pusík, and I read the instructions, deciphering them together with C. Okay, take the kostky, that's dice, and if you land on the walrus you have to go back three ice flows because he was grumpy. Um, does that make sense?

We look at the picture of the walrus and decide it probably does. Then Caroline practices saying mrož, or walrus, a few times. She doesn’t quite get the r but that’s okay, and we roll the dice and keep playing.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Sprucing up Kolokolo

Every flower shop in Prague hosts little pots of spring bulbs this time of year. The day after we take the Christmas tree down, I'll buy a few bulbs for the pleasure of watching spring arrive inside earlier than out. Already two hyacinth blooms have grown green from between their leaves, burst into pink and started their fall. I think I'll try a daffodil next.

Meanwhile, today I decided to add some spring to Kolokolo and switched its template from Blogger's classic format into a layout template. I kept the colors I still like and took advantage of the simplicity of the new header bar format to spiffy up the title. I also really wanted to list my labels in a cloud (the true reason I switched to layouts) so found a nice script for this and added that as well. Any comments, suggestions and criticisms are most welcome.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Hot Chocolate Choices

Drop two squares of 70% chocolate into the bottom of a mug of whole milk. Microwave mug for two and a half minutes. Add kahlua or amaretto for supreme tastiness. Stir. Enjoy. Best when made by other half as an evening treat.

But if you are not at home with ingredients before you, there are other options in town. The best hot chocolate I've tasted in Prague came from Pavilon Kavarna on Vinohradská. We wound up there by chance, when we found the cukarna (sweet shop) we'd picked for Caroline’s after recital celebration closed on a Sunday. The café’s coffee is good, their ice cream okay, their hot chocolate delicious. I ordered the double with a touch of Grand Marnier. It had a hefty price tag - 85 CZK/$4.85 - but it came in its own pot and served three cups worth. It met our hot chocolate recipe and raised it (steamed milk makes real hot chocolate sublime). A single, without Grand Marnier, cost 55 CZK/$3.15.

A few weekends ago we took Caroline ice skating at Hockey Hvezda, a typical Czech bunker-style ice rink used mostly by hockey players, but open to the public at random times during the week. I was banned from the rink for balance reasons, so I watched Caroline through the windows of the pub set conveniently close to the children’s corner. To pay for my spot, I ordered a hot chocolate. The pub owner finished topping up the beer from the order in front of me and then (to my astonishment) turned to an espresso machine and foamed steamed milk into a mug. He added a powder mix, but the steamed milk made it the tastiest powdered cocoa I remember. I paid my 25 CZK/$1.43, took mug in hand, and turned back to watching Caroline play chase across the ice with her friends. There are plenty of places to skate in town, but thanks to the cocoa, I'd go back anytime we can fit into their schedule and not fall asleep - weekends, the ice is open from 6 to 8:15 pm, and 11 to midnight.

Then today, after a business lunch, I persuaded my colleague to walk into the new Starbucks with me. It was my first trip (illnesses have abounded in our house since it opened, keeping me on our side of the river) and I knew he’d get a kick out of critiquing the design and layout. It is a beautiful space - an old coffee house with arched ceilings and small rooms still intact. But it feels oddly neutral, not quite a Starbucks, nor the café it used to be. A bag of beans costs more than 10 dollars. I passed it up and tried the hot chocolate. A tall cost 80 CZK/$4.70. It arrived lukewarm with whipped cream on top. I won't be trying the chocolate again, but I’ll give them another chance when I’m a bona fide coffee drinker again.

In the meantime, our microwave beckons.

Kavarna Pavilon - Vinohradská 50, Praha 2
Hockey Hvezda - Na rozdilu 1, Praha 6
Starbucks Prague - Malostranske nám. 28

Sunday, February 03, 2008

In which I forget the existence of hips

Saturday night, home from a party, none of us were ready for sleep. Caroline and I lounged about reading and listening to music set to random. Blues followed country followed jazz. Then “99 Luftballons” came on. I solemnly took C's hand and said, “This, Caroline, was the European youth anthem of the 80s. Perhaps the most fabulous song recorded that decade, it will stop a room full of grownups in their tracks and make them dance.”

Then dance we must, in the kitchen on the wide oak boards just right for bare toes. Pajamed, stamping feet, C and I threw ourselves into the beat. I picked her up and twirled her around, we tried a few swing steps, then Caroline grabbed my shirt and pulled it over her head, “Hello baby are you dancing too, let’s all dance” she said. And we did.

I’m a little stiff today, but glad to know that I can still boogie with less than three months to go.