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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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.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Riveting clown pic - Happy Halloween!

Just in time for Halloween, our buddy Wally sent me this picture from our trip to the circus Saturday. That's one clown I wouldn't want to mess with. Thanks for the fabulous photo Wally!

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Cirkus Alex - the circus comes to town!

Ten minutes late to the show, I had to talk our way into the tent, arguing with the ticket lady that, indeed, we would not be coming back the next day, our friends were already waiting. In retaliation, she made us buy the more expensive box seats, so we sat right by the ring as their clown made his rounds and circus hands cleared the tall fences standing between the audience and the tiger act we had just missed.

The fences had a lean look about them, as if they were more for show than for actually stopping large carniverous cats from jumping into the stands and devouring squirming morsels of small children, prompting Will to quote our pal Jim (who has said this about many aspects of life in Prague, mostly pre EU) “Not exactly OSHA approved, eh?“ Since we missed the big cat show, and dancing dogs don't worry me much, I didn’t really mind the sketchy safety conditions until I looked down at the sawdust covering our feet and noticed cigarette stubs mixed with the sawdust. Prima.

But the show was strangely appealing, maybe because we had a two year old with us to enjoy it with, maybe because I haven’t been to a circus in so many years, and had no expectations other than a vague hope that cotton candy might be on offer (it was). Caroline has a higher intolerance level for sitting still, and the clown and his patter didn’t win her over, so, after looking for the flying trapeze and not finding one, she decided it was time to go - “jdeme out!“ she said, “we leave now!“

Then the next act began and a troop of miniature poodles pranced into the tent and Caroline clapped along with the crowd while the dogs jumped through hoops and paraded around the ring on their fore paws, back feet carefully balanced over their heads. The poodles‘ unscripted riot on the kiddie slide made C furious, “no doggies, mine, mine slide“ she called again and again over the audience roar as the dogs raced up and down the slide and nipped at each other before their trainer shooed them out of the ring. She loved the horses though, four large work horses that ran through their paces so close to us we could see their whiskers and the droop of the feathers in their head bands.

The guys in our group liked the scantily clad lady who hoola hooped and juggled her way through several acts, and in one rodeoesque scene wore an Apache indian headress and let two face-painted lasso-wielding circus guys throw real knives at her. It was all very 100 years ago with P.T. Barnum, but on a smaller scale.

It was the kid who won my heart. The ten-year-old son of the family that runs the circus (also named for him), Alex’s specialty is balancing high on a ladder and juggling, which he does well, and without a safety harness. But I liked best his last routine, where, with safety harness attached, he stood on the very top of his ladder, balanced a tall tripod on his forehead, and threw soccer balls into the hoops of the tripod. His father held the rope attached to his harness, and his mother called encouragement and warning from the sidelines, while the clown held the soccer balls high for him to grab without a glance. Three tries he took to fill the tripod, while he staggered the ladder across a small platform shimmied for balance. His family and Alex did not pay attention to what happened outside the ring, all their focus was on his balance and the act - a dress rehearsal with the audience right there. By the end he was sweating and I was holding my thumbs hoping that he’d catch all three this time. When he did the audience roared their approval and he ran back to his mother for a kiss before bowing once more and leaving the stage.

We took the tram home the same way we had arrived, down the long road that shoots straight into Vinohrady from the perimeter highway, the road the Russian tanks rolled down in 1968, that runs past the biggest grouping of cemetaries in town, past where Kafka is buried, past the TV tower that stands over the remains of another Jewish cemetary. It was dark by then, and as we passed one cemetary‘s gates we saw the banks of candles lit to commemorate the upcoming day of the dead, or Památka zesnulých, on November 2. The candles flickered and wavered like a planted field of sparklers and Caroline pointed them out to me. “Lights!“ she said, “circus lights.“ “Not exactly,“ I said, “But I'll explain later.“

Check out the Cirkus Alex website for more information and performance times.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Summer time dreaming

October 28, and the wind is blowing the last of the leaves off trees. At noon, the shadows still slanted across the playground, and on Sunday the time will fall back until spring. So I thought I'd share a picture from summer, as a reminder of warmer times.

When I first visited my friend's family chata, I decided we'd stumbled on a house from a fairy tale, something that could be found only in a book. Then I got to know chatas (cottages) a bit more and realized where fairy tale illustrators find their inspirations. This one is painted in the traditional red and white chata style that you often find in the north of the Czech Republic - complete with hearts carved out of the shutters.

Perhaps in part because of the little stream that runs beneath the house, the mini rock garden that you see here thrives every year. If you look closely you'll also see a shower bag hanging on the clothes line beside the house, warming water for a bath time scrub. Like most chatas, my friend's has no running water, but a well from the stream and Czech ingenuity keeps the house as clean as if it really were out of an illustration. Can you tell I'm a fan?

Further Projectile Grodiness

Mornings can be dangerous. I’m not fully awake then, and tend to hover over a mug of tea, maybe reading the news online, maybe just letting our orange sofa reassure me that some comfort can be found in the blinding morning world. Caroline starts slow in the morning too, and will putter about, taking an hour to eat breakfast - cereal, oatmeal mush, or, like today, a croissant from the bakery. Eventually though, she’ll wake up, and if I don’t catch her at the right moment, chaos happens. Mush becomes face paint, cereal turns to mini hockey pucks to be flicked away.

But today. Oh my. Today.

Today was bakery day. Sometimes, on a Friday, or when we’re tired of cereal and there are no eggs in the house, we declare a bakery day. Will gets dressed fast and runs out the door, sweeping up change as he goes, to swing back through in five minutes. Dark suit, bright tie, polished shoes flashing, he leaves again in a rustle of bread bags, on his way to work.

Flash, rustle, door slam. Peace settled over the house as C ate her croissant flake by flake, I drank my tea, and the New York Times declared Chicago a second city no more - the White Sox had won the World Series. All seemed right with the world.

Then a curious snort began sounding from the living room. Sniff snort it went.

Sniff snort.

I grabbed some Kleenex and stood between Caroline and her morning cartoons. Her nose had a redness about it that clarified the sniff snort soundings, and I asked her if she had something stuck in it.


“Are you sure? Let me see!“

A small tussle followed. She seemed to be sticking something back up her nose, or digging something from it. I couldn’t tell.

Sniff snort. And that funny finger/nose action again.

“Caroline, can you blow, blow very hard.“


Something globulous went flying. Down my shirt, naturally.

It was a croissant glob. Caroline tried to grab it back. “Mine!“ she said.

“Were you sniffing this and then blowing it out again?“

“Mine! Mine croissant.“

Do I find any consolation that the only child bread sniffer in Prague or perhaps even the greater CEE region can pronounce croissant better than I can? No, I do not.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Capital plan (the quiz)

I like to think I’m at least decent at European geography, now that we’ve lived in the place for more than six years. After all, to distract myself when I fly, after reading the emergency instructions once again - checking to see if the lady sliding out the door is wearing heels, or not, and is smiling, or not - I generally pull out the airline magazine, turn to the flight map in the back and (yes yes, quite nerdy) study and review.

Perhaps I need to fly more, because Moldova still surprises me, and it took me until last week to come up with a trick to remember Lichtenstein vs Luxembourg (stein - between Switzerland and Austria, bourg - between France and Belgium, duhh!). But I've got most of Western and Central Europe down, and I know Lithuania from Latvia, and Belgrade from Belfast. So when I took the following quiz on European capitals and scored a 5 out-of-worst-possible 6 my first go, well, it’s a good thing I’m not in 8th grade any more.

The quiz is fun though, so try it anyway - and if you're feeling chatty, let me know how you score! Your aim, to pinpoint the capital in its correct country and location.

One hint, follow the rivers.

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Monday, October 24, 2005

Upgrade to finger paint

I’m shopping for house paint this week. A lemon yellow, or maybe a sky blue – any color that might match the wallpaper in Caroline’s room. It’s a cute little room, cut out of the bigger space that is our office/guest bedroom. Large enough for the essentials (bed, wardrobe, bookcase), it can hold a bit more, but not much. Our friends who own the flat originally designed it for their baby daughter and, with its yellow walls and blue and white striped wallpaper, it is ideally decorated for someone unwilling to commit to a pink princess theme.

Or at least it was until the day, lo these three weeks ago, when Caroline decided that she’d had enough of the enforced napping we put her through every afternoon, she wanted to do something more creative with her time. Having thrown all her toys out of the crib, stripped the bed and drunk all of her milk, her only resource was herself.

Dirty diaper in hand, she used it as a palette to paint the wall.

Then she called us in to see what she had done. “Bobek, painting!“ she said. She seemed please with the results. (Bobek = pellet = poop, also, a Czech cartoon character)

Five minutes later, sitting in a steaming bath tub as I clean her up, she is still talking about her art work. “Painting, niiice,“ she says, in a soothing tone. Will has just stuck his head through the doorway a third time to remind her not to do that again. He's got the headlamp on his head, a bandana around his nose and mouth, and long yellow gloves pulled over his hands, and he’s scrubbing her wall down. Caroline decides not to argue, but I can’t help but giggle a little bit.

Last Thursday, when Will was at work, she did it again.

I’ve bought Caroline a set of finger paints. And if you know of some wall paint that is water, finger paint and scrub brush resistant, do let me know.

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Friday, October 21, 2005

Jaromir Nohavica live

One of my favorite songwriters, who happens to be Czech, is touring in the U.S. right now. If you're close to any of these locations, I recommend catching his concert!

Here's a review from his D.C. concert. Here is a (my) hack translation of "Moje Smutne Srdce". And here is the best site on the internet for Nohavica news and information.

Jaromir Nohavica
Denver - October 21
Chicago - October 23

Singer-songwriter Jaromir Nohavica moving on to North America...

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Camphill pumpkins

Sunday we drove out to Ceske Kopisty, to a collective farm called Camphill, and picked pumpkins with friends.We were a field away from the Labe river and tall cedar trees lined the banks - adding a Florentine view to the Czech countryside. Caroline and her friends ran through the pumpkin field, tripping over vines, hiding in the tall leaves that dwarfed even the largest pumpkin and child. We roamed too, from one row to the next, discovering carrots, beets, radishes, squash, dill all growing together with the pumpkins. Our guide watched in bemusement as I rushed from one vegetable to the next, exclaiming over the yellow squash, twisting pumpkins off stems, trying out carrot harvesting (harder than it sounds). When she found that I really did like radishes, she brushed aside my picks and offered me more, much more beautiful she said. Better for cooking. Hers were fresh and crisp, but I kept mine too, battered fruits of my digging.

Ceske Kopisty is 1 kilometer from Terezin, a Nazi transportation camp and Jewish ghetto in World War II, the last stop for many thousands of people before they were sent to concentration camps further east. It is impossible to come so close to Terezin’s shadow and not feel its effect, and I find it hard to imagine what it must be like to live and work next door. But perhaps Camphill is an antidote of a sort, and a memorial too. It began in the 40s, when its founder, Karl König, escaped from Austria and the Nazis to move to Scotland and the original Camphill. König established the house as a collective and group home for mentally handicapped people. Today residents and workers say they believe in the value of a simple life and of helping other people, and there are Camphill houses and villages throughout the world, following this precept.

The sun came out while we harvested. Then the wind - blowing in a cold front - paused for a moment and we said that Babi Leto, or Indian Summer, was still here. Will and I carried Caroline through the fields in a green plastic vegetable crate borrowed to haul our pickings back to the car. We swung her as we walked, singing "hopi hopi," guided by her friend Josh, heading us back to our cache of pumpkins and greens.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The last mushrooms of the season


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Growth spurt

A few weeks ago C and I were sprawled out in front of her bookcase, reading through all her books with a good story line (or a catchy rhyme) before the babysitter arrived. The doorbell rang and C stood up quickly - too fast for me to catch her. Her head hit hard on the ledge of her changing table and she cried over the bump, over the doorbell and over the surprise of outgrowing an under-furniture haunt.

Today though, when the doorbell rang and she jumped up from our books, C didn’t bang her head, but gently bumped it, like a dolphin bumping a boat. Then she walked under the ledge its full length, test bumping with every step. Perhaps she just wanted to check the limits of her space, or maybe she liked being in control - able to meet something that had surprised her in the past and say, hey here I am, Caroline, 93 centimeters tall and growing, you won't catch me this time!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A mouse is in the house

It took me three weeks to track down all the words to this little rhyme. Caroline has been walking around the house whispering the words, then belting them out to various tunes, but the only phrase I could partially understand was "Mamo, Tato la la la la nic!" Our babysitter Marie gave me a few more words and Google obliged with the rest.

Mámo, táto, v komoře je myš
Pustíme tam kocoura, ten tu myšku vyšťourá
Mámo, táto, už tam neni nic.

I've filed it away under Básničky (Czech nursery rhymes), and now C and I stomp around chant-singing it together. The rough translation is something like this:

Mommie, daddy, a mouse is in the pantry
Send in the tom cat and the mouse will get clawed out
Mommie, daddy, it's already gone.

Hmm...sounds better in Czech don't you think?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Playground sociology

Many worlds exist here, in Prague. It is easy to forget and become accustomed to noticing only your own small space, but then there are places where those worlds meet: the grocery store, the post office, the playground on a Saturday.

Last weekend we took Caroline over to our favorite playground, the one with the EU approved slides and swings, where the sand is reserved for children, no dogs allowed. With an excited “Hopi, hopi!” (Swing swing!) Caroline headed over to the toddler swings, herding Will with her, leaving me free to soak up the sun and people watch.

Over on the merry-go-round, three 15 year old boys raced each other round after round, until they had to stop, one pretending to shake out sand from his shoes, another with no excuses, just bent double over his knees until he could stagger to a bench. They wore clothes almost hip enough to appear in a U.S. middle school, and though their shoes looked grocery store bought and unbranded, they’d got the short sleeve skater tee over long sleeve knit look down, and their baseball caps had that carefully molded curve only dedication to the art of hat shaping (and several boring math classes) could have achieved.

Two Romany kids marched in to the playground. Both were skinny and in clothes the cool fifteen year olds would never have touched. The smaller had a bruised face, the older watched over him like the kindest of big brothers, letting him choose what to play on, helping him onto the rocking horse when he was too short to reach it. I followed their defiant progress across the yard, watching to see how they’d be received by the other kids. They settled on the slide combo fireman’s pole fort – the new toy on the play ground and the most popular. Immediately though, all the other kids cleared off. Only one child stayed behind, an eighteen month old twirling round and round the fireman’s pole, oblivious to ostracism and to the older boy above, tapping his foot, impatient to claim the pole and its domain for his family. Dizzy, the baby finally let go to stagger face first into the side of the slide. His mother came then, to pick him up and comfort his cries and the Romany boy told her the baby had hit his nose and how. Somehow, this contact broke the ice, and the mother stayed and chatted with the boy until he walked over to the sand box and began to play with his younger brother again, pouring sand from bucket to bucket with the left behind plastic toys scattered across the yard.

Later, more expat families arrived, just as the prudent and early rising Czechs started packing up to go home for lunch. We waited a while longer, until the last bell for noon had rung, then talked a reluctant C into leaving as well and headed back home for our own Saturday lunch.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Cookies are cool

Caroline and I had our first hanging out together, mother and daughter chilling and contemplating the ceiling, late evening chat last night. We’d spent the last three hours together, C keeping me company in the kitchen while I cooked, then gobbling up the chicken I accidentally caramelized in apple juice and sunflower oil (a happy accident), I keeping her from drowning in the bathtub and pouring out all of Will’s shampoo, entertaining her through toothbrushing & flossing, pajama assembling and milk pouring. Then we read, about fifteen books but especially her current favorite Mem Fox book, Sleepy Bears. That we read twice, singing along to the rhymes.

After that we sang some more, “Jingle Bells,“ “Sleep sleep“ and “Little Birdies“, Caroline drank her milk and then I was going to leave until she said, „Lie this, Mommie, lie this.“ (this = there). So I did, just for a bit, and since Will wasn’t home yet. And we looked up at the ceiling and I hummed a little more and then Caroline raised herself up, hand underneath chin, looked at me seriously and said, „Mommie, cookies are cool.“

I didn’t understand at first what she meant, but she said it several times, and when I understood, I had to agree. Then I gave her an imaginary cookie, took one myself and we lay back and crunched for awhile, until she gave me an apple (apfel she said) and we ate that too and then I gave her a kiss, said night night and left her to sleep.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

0100 1000 0100 1001 World

“Computers,“ my grandfather, Jim Jim, said. “The future is computers.“

We were 11 at the time, in fifth grade, and we didn’t know much about computers, but we knew, if Jim Jim said something, it was probably true. He didn’t make pronouncements often, and though he kept a stern eye on us at each meal to make sure we practiced best table manners, after dinner we were more likely to be found leaning against his knees while he read the economic news and we read back issues of Washington Post cartoons, than listening to any lectures.

But Jim Jim was an oracle for us, nonetheless. He was the only non-Southerner in our entire extended family, and though he’d moved from California nearly fifty years before, he still had a quickness and business sense about him which seemed to us to hearken from the cool, rational, North.

So we took this advice to heart, my sister and me. We volunteered to work on a computer badge for our Girl Scout troop, memorizing the binary code for the alphabet and visiting a nearby university to watch a super computer at work. To encourage us, Jim Jim bought us our first computer, a Commodore 64, and night after night Ellen and I would take turns typing in pages of code that the computer magazine promised would turn into a game or music program. At camp while other kids were canoeing and horse back riding, we studied BASIC, and in middle school I became the system administrator, of sorts, for our school’s computer room (whenever something didn’t work I’d turn off the computer and hard reboot, it almost always worked and I never could figure out why the teachers couldn’t remember this simple trick. But they didn’t, so my status as guru for nothing was early on established).

Then I picked up the violin and discovered chamber music and orchestras, and for years I didn’t think of a computer as anything more than a word processor, number cruncher, paper printer and game console. It wasn’t until 1994, in graduate school, when I had the chance to start building websites for the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, that I caught the bug again. But that's another story.

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