Monday, November 06, 2006

Saturday morning, 6 am

Saturday, I woke at 6 and took the tram to Mala Strana, to watch the sun rise over the castle and see Charles Bridge without tourists. There was no one about except us....
and a bunch of photographers with their tripods at the ready.

After the sun rose, we headed to Old Town Square, to enjoy downtown free of the hordes. It was my first visit to the clock without a crowd pressed around, and so I took a few close ups. My favorite of the morning:

After the clock, the next step was breakfast. There was a crowd at the bakery. The service was surly, the coffee most welcome, and the sheep dogs most hairy.

Then I came home, just as Will and C were waking up. An excellent morning. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Photos of fall

A few weeks ago, Nerd's Eye View sent me to a super recipe for plum dumplings over at Mausi. When my plum supply was replenished (it is the year of the plum, I'm told) we ate many many many until C was sick of the sight of them. When I came home from work one day, I found a plum dumpling surprise awaiting us, thanks to a long nap and a very kind babysitter! C had no problem eating these. We rolled them in breadcrumbs and powdered sugar and they were very good. But I still want to try the German recipe for comparison.

Our courtyard - the new Vermont for seasonal foilage tours?
Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Who is the Emily Postova of Prague?

Because I need to meet her, or at least read her book. I mean, I thought I knew a few things about Czech manners. I knew to always take off my shoes when I walk into someone’s house, even if they tell me not to. I knew to always offer someone something to drink when they first arrive in the office. I knew to eat with both hands showing above the table at all times and to keep my fork in my left hand instead of switching it back to the right. I knew how to use forks and knives as signals to my waiter that no I’m still eating (fork and knife at 8 and 4 o‘clock on my plate), or yes I’m done (fork and knife neatly aligned at 3 o’clock). I sort of thought I had my protocol down.

But then.

Just a few days ago, I was out with a good friend of mine, eating Chinese in the middle of nowhere. It was very bad Chinese food, and we were the only people in the restaurant, but it was also the only restaurant within a kilometer of where we were working. So there we dined. And suddenly, my friend said:

F: Julia, why are eating your food that way? Where’s your knife?
J: A knife? For all the giant pieces of identifiable meat that are not on my plate right now? What are you talking about?
F: Because it is bad manners to only eat with a fork.
J: Next time I’ll ask for chop sticks. We’re eating Chinese you know.
F: I mean, generally. You’ve got to always eat with your knife and your fork, like this. Didn’t you realize? (He demonstrates.)
J: Aha! Now I see!! (The light breaks and years of wondering why Czech people needed a pusher to get food on their fork are suddenly clarified.)
F: And if you want to be very polite, you keep your arms tucked by your side. No elbow flapping.
J: (Considering my elbows) I really hope everyone knows I’m an American when I eat out or they’d think I had horrible manners.
F: Don’t worry, they do.

And with that, we changed the subject.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Are you asleep yet?

Caroline’s favorite song of the moment, as she has decided it should go:

Bruder Jakob,
Bruder Jakob,
Morning bells are ringing,
Morning bells are ringing,
Ding dong ding. Ding dong ding.

The Czech version her babysitters sing:

Bratře Kubo,
Bratře Kubo,
Ještě spíš?
Ještě spíš?
Venku slunce září,
Ty jsi na polštáři,
Vstávej již,
Vstávej již.

Imagine the two versions in a round. That's our house right before nap time.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Plum days

Seven years after moving to Prague, I’m wearing my first pair of Czech bought jeans today. Okay, so they were about double the price I would have spent in the U.S. for a pair of jeans. And one day post purchase, the decorative rivets have started to decorate our floors. But these jeans did come from a shop a mere block from our flat, were hemmed to just the right length and as a finishing touch, came with a beaded key chain, courtesy of the shop owner’s sister.

Most importantly, however, these jeans fit. They fit! After twelve weeks of counting the numbers in the food I eat, I have counted myself down to the size I was before I moved to Prague. This is mostly a good thing, but it means that I no longer fit into any of the clothes that hang in my closet, and I shuffle around walking like a rumpled penguin. Having to hitch up my trousers every five minutes almost made me revert back to eating cookies in the afternoon. Thus, the rivetless jeans.

The hardest part about all of this counting wasn’t telling myself I didn’t want to eat something but telling other people. You try explaining to your daughter’s grandmotherly baby sitter that, no you still think several slices of homemade gingerbread aren’t on the menu for you today, even if you stand up to eat them.

I seem to have finally persuaded her. Today, to celebrate the new pair of jeans, our sitter arrived carrying a giant paper bucket from KFC.

It was full of plums. Does anyone know a good recipe for plum jam? Or maybe a compote recipe would do. We've got about a hundred and fifty here ready to cook, at last count.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Brown Bear redux

Did I mention that Caroline is telling her books to us now? She’s been working on this for a bit - first lip syncing as I read to her, then echoing every line or jumping ahead to reach a favorite word or phrase before I get there. Sometimes during the day you can hear her rehearsing: "Do you like my hat? No, I do not like your hat. Good-bye! Good-bye!"

We often read the same book three times in one night. This is not always fun, especially if you and the Cat and the Hat don’t get along so well. So now I say that third time through is Caroline’s turn and hand over the book. Sometimes she’ll go for this, and ramble through the story ad libbing as she turns each page. She’s a perfectionist though and eventually she gets dissastisfied. In the middle of her account she’ll decide it‘s time to sing songs, or do something else more entertaining, or at least less work.

Then we tried Brown Bear. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. is a simple story book with beautiful illustrations and a catchy bit of repeated chatter: "(Brightly colored animal), what do you see?" "I see (another brightly colored animal) looking at me." Caroline loved it when she was a little baby, but we hadn't read it for nearly a year when I pulled it out again a few nights ago.

And discovered that the book is great for reading by heart because "what you see" is always the animal on the next page. Brown Bear sees Red Bird and Red Bird see Yellow Duck, and Caroline can easily keep going through blue horse, green frog, and on to gold fish with no problem. This is satisfying.

With Brown Bear, Caroline doesn’t let forgetting her lines phase her. The first time she read almost all the way through with no problems until she reached nearly the last page and realized she had no idea who the lady with glasses might be. She blinked twice, renamed the teacher "Green Shirt," and moved on with a flourish. Finished, she cheered in victory, gave me a high five and ran to the other room to tell Will, "Dada I did it!"

Now at night I ask her to read me Brown Bear, Brown Bear all by herself. She’ll go for it once or twice, but by the third time she’ll tell me, "Okay Mommie, how about a new one, this book looks good too don’t you think?" And I’ll say yes, and stretch out on the bed with my hands behind my head to hear the next rendition of stories from Caroline.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Kaštan creatures

A few days ago Caroline and one of her sitters came home with a bag full of chestnuts, some pine cones and a feather or two. They’d had a fun hunt in Petrin park, and I thought that a fine thing, a great activity on a September day when the chestnuts are falling and the leaves are crisped just right for scuffing through. Caroline and Jarka and I talked in our roundabout way about about the word for pine cones in Czech (šiška) and what type of bird the feather might have fallen from (my guess, pigeon). Then I went back to work.

Two hours later I found out that chestnuts aren’t just for keeping in your pocket for good luck.

Chestnuts in September

Monday, September 25, 2006

Morning poem

Though I admire the morning and wish it most well, I prefer to greet it after a shower or at least a hot cup of coffee and fifteen minutes worth of waking up in front of the New York Times. When I told Will I was going to try my hand at writing a morning poem, following's lead, he said, "Good thing 'grrr grrr grrr' rhymes." He’d just delivered me a cup of tea so I didn’t hold it against him. Plus I’d already written the poem. For a precis, see grrr grrr grrr.

A Scrabble morning
"Draw the blinds", she said and
Craned her neck to view the ashen sky,
thinking - Victorian phrases,
that's what I'm left with.
What are the words for today?
"Stunned by sleep", "bitter", "sore"...

I slide those tiles from the table,
no points won,
stretch my pajammed legs and
pad to the kitchen for coffee.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Coloring book lessons

C and I had a colorful morning. We paper-machéd a jar to make a lantern (thanks to the directions of Be*mused) and then, while our jar sat to dry, we pulled out the magic markers. These are much fun and many colors and have I mentioned French, so their allure is strong and I was pretty quick about getting Caroline set to color a playground scene I’d drawn for her. Then I got absorbed into my own world of pens and paper. When I looked up again I realized she had colored in a one inch by half inch swing set - yellow, and quite thoroughly, but that was it. She was prepared to rework that swing and already the paper was nearly see through. I persuaded her to switch to a coloring book, to a picture of a train, and she took her yellow pen in hand, and then stopped.

She stopped because the picture had no yellow in it. Of course it didn’t, you might say, she hadn’t colored it yet, but what I mean is this - a lot of Czech coloring books have the picture on one page already illustrated, right next to the page waiting to be colored. Her illustrated train was blue, with pink wheels, and a black smoke stack. Yellow? No.

Czech kindergartens and her babysitters seem to put a lot of emphasis on coloring in the lines, and of not getting too loosie goosie with the colors. If Zdenek Miller colored his butterflies orange and brown, so should we all. Maybe this is good for hand-eye coordination and learning how to match colors, but I sometimes paint my skies apricot and my seas orange and I like to draw without thinking about it and for fun. So when I see her shoulders all wound up concentrating on getting something right, I don’t quite know what to say. She’s three after all and mostly acts rather than listens.

Caroline gave me the yellow (here you go mommie, your turn), picked up the pink and started to copy the pink train wheels into her picture, as careful as any three year old possibly could be. But try as she might, she accidentally filled in the white hubcaps on those wheels. Hm...she said, then shifted up to the already illustrated picture and used her marker to pink up its white hubcaps, and was done.

I decided to save my lecture on looseness for another day. The jar spent all day drying, while we went triking and roller blading and ate ice cream by the river. It is now a lantern alit outside my window, rather twinkly and blue.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hatmatilka to some, poetry to others

Sometimes my job involves reading contracts. They start out shiny and smooth on the surface, impenetrable. I tend to get a lot of other work done before I read a page. Then I’ll reward myself with coffee, sit down again and realize I haven’t absorbed a thing. That’s when I pick up my pen and start drawing. ?? and "what in the.." and before I know it that contract has lost its hermetically sealed look and become something a bit turfy and easy on the eye. The work gets fun then and I argue my way through each clause until I’m done. It’s a lot like reading Wallace Stevens, actually.

Except that, working in Prague on contracts written by non-English speakers in English, I’m bound to find a humdinger of a sentence that just doesn’t work backwards or forwards. So sometimes I send it over to my Czech business partner, ask him to think about it in Czech and then in English again and see what we can figure out. (His hourly rates are a lot better than the lawyer‘s.) It mostly works.

Yesterday I sent him one of my humdingers, prefaced with "gobbledygook coming your way!" Gobbledygook was a new word for him and we looked it up. Lingea Lexicon gave us hatmatilka as its Czech equivalent. My etymology dictionary told me that hatmatilka is from the expression hat' mat', which is similar to hatla patla and halabala and related somehow to Halí belí, the Czech song and nursery rhyme that Caroline currently has stuck in my head from incessant singing. If anyone can tell me what hat' mat' means I’d be most appreciative. In the meantime:

hatla patla and halabala = seem to mean slapdash or shoddy. I love learning words like that, they just seem to stick in my mind somehow.

Halí, belí...
Halí, belí, koně v zelí
a hříbátka v petrželi.

Whoops, the horse is in the cabbage
And the colt in the parsley.

Okay, enough procrastination, back to clause 10.4.1.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Duck sounds so complicated

But it's not.

Sunday night I headed to the grocery store, list in hand to make a Czech-Mex dinner - chicken, tacos and salsa fresca. Will wanted to use up our taco shells and I thought it might be a good way to distract myself from thoughts of French food. When I got home though, I found that the chicken breasts I thought I’d bought had welded themselves together into one large duck breast, with bones. We nixed Mexican and decided to see what our cookbooks might recommend.

They didn’t. A duck complete was called for in all instances. Epicurious however, had several suggestions. And I finally found a use for the multitude of fennel seeds in our larder (in Prague, the spice sold as "cumin" is in fact fennel.* We have accidentally accumulated enough to season several potato fields).

1 duck breast, deboned (cooking shears make this an easy job)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp, fresh rosemary, chopped
1 tsp, fennel seeds, ground (caraway seeds work too)
2 tsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
cooking twine (finally found a use for the string that comes with Will’s favorite French sausages)

Preheat oven to 400F (200C)
Wash, dry, salt and pepper your duck. Place it on a plate, skin side down.
In a small bowl, combine garlic, rosemary and fennel with enough olive oil to make it all stick together. Rub seasoning into meat. Don’t be shy, really rub it in, your taste buds will thank you later.
Roll up duck, skin side out. Secure with string. Two seem to work.

Heat oven-proof skillet over medium high heat on the stove. When skillet is hot, add the duck roll. Brown for about 10 minutes, turning to make sure every side gets toasty looking. When nice and brown, pour off fat and pop skillet (and duck!) into hot oven. Roast for 15 minutes, turning duck every now and then. Remove from oven and let it sit for 10 minutes. Only then, snip off twine, unroll duck and slice. - Makes enough for 2 adults plus 1 slightly picky 3 year old.

So incredibly simple. You don’t even need a sauce because duck is tremendously juicy and drippy (also why you don’t need to oil the skillet). Will licked his plate clean. I forgave the Czech grocery stores for not being in France, and when Caroline finished she said "ok, kde je moje pain au chocolat?" (Where is my chocolate croissant in Czechfrenchlish).

*Actually, the spice sold as cumin (kmín) is in fact caraway seed, as Dana quite rightly points out here. Will claims confusion and says he gets caraway and fennel mixed up in English too. Just to let you know, the caraway seeds tasted great with the duck.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Home from vacation

I entertained myself on the long car ride yesterday by coming up with a list of what I was looking forward to doing when I got home. Top of the list - sleeping on my own bed. After a week in France, my list did not include "going to the grocery store." Nor did the list mention "drinking pastis with orgeat at the little cafe at the bottom of a ravine by the side of a gorgeous river," or "star gazing in the fields next to our house and counting shooting stars." But I wish it did.

Because I love French grocery stores, I do. Actually, both Will and I do and now that we have a three year old, we will happily exchange a morning at the crowded local French town free-for-all market half filled with stands selling patchouli soap and pottery made in China for thirty minutes in the wide (uncrowded) aisles of the Super U admiring the yogurt, cheese, jam, cookies, sausage, wine, olives, chicken, chocolate.

And pastis tasted so perfect on that river, so much better than it ever tastes in Prague or anywhere other than the Mediterranean in the afternoon on a hot dry sunny day with old men playing bocce between the sycamore trees and children (ours too) playing in the fountain.

I will find the stars but they will not be right outside my door. I miss them tonight.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Happy Birthday Ellen!

Happy Birthday Ee! I love you.

J on our birthday

Sunday, August 20, 2006

 Posted by Picasa

The grapes of August

This season’s grapes have arrived, and the boxes outside the fruit and veggie stores all along our street are dripping with them. Walking home from work on Friday I saw the green and thought "the fox and the grapes", and imagined an illustration for Caroline’s room, and then my stomach rumbled and I abandoned foxes and remembered a chicken recipe my grandmother used to make. Epicurious came through as it usually does and miraculously so did our grocery store.

It was a delicious early fall dinner, just perfect for celebrating the grapes, looking forward to the new wine that is nearly ready to pour and enjoying a delicious Ryzlink from a few years ago.

Chicken and Grapes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 whole chicken breast, halved and pounded flat
1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour (mouka hladka)
1/3 cup Riesling/Ryzlink
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (juice from 1 lemon)
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1/4 pound green grapes, halved crosswise and seeded (about 3/4 cups)

For the instructions, check out the recipe at epicurious.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hello Garfield

Caroline is an affectionate person, to a certain point. At night when I put her to bed she’ll hook her arms around my neck and not let go, coercing me to lie next to her for just a little bit. It is hard to resist that hook, since so often these days she spends her time practicing to be twelve, scowling at me and telling us vigorously to shhh when we say something distasteful to her (as in, just about anything she didn’t think of herself). So the hook works, and she can keep me for that little bit, until her delight turns to wiggles and she starts poking and prodding, or (if she’s feeling particularly silly) licking my glasses. But while she’s physically demonstrative, she’s not much for saying I love you, and has come up with her own version of the last bit of my good night ritual, when I say I love you, and she says hello garfield.

Helloo Garfield.

It took me a week or two to figure out this Garfield business, and it wasn't until tonight, lying beside her while we sang our good night songs and enjoyed the end of a fine weekend, that I realized what had happened. When I said I love you, she used to mumble I luv you or even I guv you. Then one night she switched to I Garfield, then to Hi Garfield. Tonight, perhaps inevitably, she decided on Hello Garfield. As a teenage three year old I guess she thought that even the cool kids couldn’t figure that one out, should she slip up and say it on the playground one day.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Ancient Egyptian a/c

Yesterday the sun baked our flat to its highest temperatures yet - something like 89F at 9 at night. This was a bit much even for our southern souls, and I decided to get creative with my cooling technique.

Inspired by a vague memory of a drawing of Egyptians fanning ice, I grabbed most of the ice packs from the freezer (we have an abundance, unused most of the year) and reverently placed them in front of our one fan. Then Caroline and I arranged ourselves Cleopatra style in front of the fan/ice setting, and waited. I took notes while Caroline tried to decide if it were possible to eat the ice packs, unstopper them or generally use them as weapons of chaos and destruction.

Once Caroline got tired of pretending to be Cleopatra, and the ice packs lost their icey edge and turned into wet packs we undid the arrangement and each tried our own technique.

Caroline draped a wet sheet around herself and refused to remove it.

I placed one last ice pack on my head and walked around quite elegantly and absurdly.

Will froze a beer to slush and drank it while lying on the floor and listening to music.

At midnight the flat had cooled down enough for me to get perky. So then I went to sleep.

* My notes: The air in front of the fan did get cooler as the ice in the packs started to melt (classic evaporative cooling). We decided it would have been even cooler if the packs were set in water - tonight’s experiment!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Counting, counting, numbers are for counting

Song Caroline likes to sing from her favorite Winnie the Pooh dvd, refrain running through my head these last few weeks as we track every heller and koruna we spend as an exercise in summer frugality. There is something oddly addicting about keeping track of daily life this way, so after a week I began looking around for something more to count. It didn't take long for me to add food eaten and calories burned to my opened often excel collection.

Watching the numbers add up each day has taught me more lessons than I expected it would. First lesson: the interesting relationship between calorie burning and consumerism. It’s obvious that when I don’t leave the house and instead work at home, I save a lot of money. No sandwich at lunch, no magazines or placemats purchased on the spur of the moment. But staying at home means that my daily walk to work is, well, nonexistent. I try to make up for it by pacing when I talk on the phone, doing lunges, toe lifts and other hanging about in a small space type exercises but the calorie burn just doesn't happen.

This week, I worked mostly at home. The thermometer kept registering 37 and beyond on our balcony, and when the mercury reaches numbers like that, our western facing office feels more like the inside of a bakery with the oven doors all open than a space for thinking. So I stayed at home, worked diligently, saved money, and was slothful. Until today. Today, I went to dance class.


That rolls off well don’t you think? I’ve already casually inserted that information into at least two sms and three IM conversations (yeah, just back from dance, and you?) but I do believe that this could well have been and in fact, okay, it was, my first dance class.

I didn’t fall down. Hurray!

Actually it went even better than that, and I credit the fun to the teacher who is a friend of mine and not only a great dancer, but a damn good programmer, business analyst and knitter. She patiently worked us through the routine, matching the music to our pace - slow slow slow slow slow until we had some twenty moves learned, and then we danced, fast, hip hop.

I can’t wait to show Caroline some of these moves when she next pulls out our dancing shoes. She’ll probably wonder what I’ve been up to while she’s been at the swimming pool staying cool. Maybe I should think about putting together a hip hop disney mix. Hm...

In the meantime, I’m heading back to dance class next week. Let the numbers add up, it‘s worth every cent.

Friday, June 16, 2006

And that was Friday

This evening I felt so Fridayish I wanted to go out, not stay inside thinking about work one moment more. So we did, getting Caroline all dressed again after she had too quickly stripped to jump in the shower and pee. Yes, that’s right, pee in the bathtub, but on her potty, of course. Pretending to take a bath was apparently just the right combination for her to decide to use the potty (this time). Toddlers are a bit like people with Asperger’s syndrome, always on the look for the right combination, that magical feeling, before they accede control.

After she successfully peed on her potty and got dressed again, we walked to the park. The park a few blocks from the TV tower, the one with the beautiful view, one lone rocking horse and a pub surrounded by tented tables, with plenty of lawn to run about on. When we got to the park we said "Caroline run! You can run on the grass and not worry about cars!" And she did, though she had to worry about dogs - a big Afghan, a medium sized greyhound type and a terrior. "Daddy mommy and baby" she named them before she clamored for Will to pick her up out of dogs‘ way. When they ignored her she did run and Will ran with her too. It was a beautiful evening and everything smelled so green and fresh. The wind blew in from the north and the dogs leaped up like marionettes on a string, so happy to be out together. C triumphantly climbed into the v of a tiny tree, and said, "look Mommie, look at me, I’m climbing up and up and up." And then she jumped down an entire two inches, took our hands and we walked home.

Monday, June 12, 2006

0-3 Czechia!!!

It has of course jumped from 48F to 80 and everyone is now complaining about the heat. But at least it feels really like summer. I took a walk tonight, as usual grabbing my jacket before I walked out the door, and laughed at myself when I got outside. It was 10:00 and the air was warm enough to swim in, the sky that dark cobalt you see on summer nights when the humidity holds onto the light and mixes it up with evening blue. I tied the jacket around my waist and proceeded.

Anyway, thanks to the beautiful weather and the World Cup, many many people were off work today. Anyone who wasn’t left their offices at 5 to head out to watch the game (U.S. vs. Czechs). We won, 0-3. Caroline and I watched it at home, and I had to start censoring what I said because after the first few "oh no!!" and "poor guy"'s Caroline started clutching her head and moaning, "oh poor guy no" each time CT2 showed a close up of someone heading the ball. I tried to convince her that it was just a game and the players were really having a fun time out there, but then they carried someone else away on a stretcher so I pulled out a banana as distraction. She can now say she almost watched the Czechs beat the U.S. in the World Cup 2006.

It was a fun game to watch, even mostly by myself, because I knew that so many of my friends were watching it too - a weirdly communal experience enhanced by hearing every score celebrated on the street, and getting sms from several continents, nearly simultaneously, all saying, "goal!!!"

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Sun shone down sure enough

The sun shone today; grey parks leaped into green; old men smiled and met at tram stops to drink beer together. And this was in the city. If the sky stays clear like this the streets of Prague* will be empty Friday evening.

* Not including downtown and the Charles Bridge of course.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Discovered in a notebook while cleaning out my desk Friday, a poem from after our grandfather's funeral two years ago.

I did not cry when we followed him in,
   nor when we sang
Amazing Grace, his favorite hymn.
   But when Grandmama fiercely wavered
the last stanzas of the last hymn,
   when the boys stood sentinel
as we watched the flag fold by fold -
     Only then.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Recipes for my brother (Easy linguini)

Remember those college days when a dorm meal of ramen noodles, cottage cheese and salsa represented the height of your creative cooking? Then you graduated to an apartment and started making pasta in earnest, with real noodles, and sauce in a jar, maybe some slightly plasticky parmesan to sprinkle over everything.

I remember. I ate that meal at least three times a week for several years, interspersed with music recital food (honestly gained by attending the recitals) and dinner at fancy Nashville restaurants (courtesy of my dating circuit). I can’t stand spaghetti noodles any more, but we still eat pasta, and I keep finding new sauce recipes that are so tasty they must be tried again.

Here’s one from last night, modified from an epicurious recipe to match what I could find on the walk home from work yesterday. Modified also for my brother, who has just embarked on apartment living. Happy cooking Bro!

Linguini (it is so much tastier than spaghetti after all)
Red onions, chopped into bits (3), garlic works too (6 cloves)
Olive oil
Pancetta or English bacon or regular bacon (as you wish, but at least 4 slices)
Red pepper flakes (two good shakes)
Sun dried tomatoes in oil, cut into bits. (1/2 cup)
Cherry tomatoes halved or larger vine tomatoes, chopped (2 cups of cherry or 3 tomatoes)
Parmesan or Romano or Pecorino, grated (2 cups)
Salt to taste

Follow instructions on packet for linguini. Test when near done to keep that al dente taste. Don’t bother throwing pasta on the wall to test it, your teeth are much smarter than the wall. When done, pour into collander to drain water, then return drained pasta to pot.

Mix oil from sun dried tomatoes with olive oil, enough to cover the bottom of the frying pan. Heat on medium until hot, but not smoking. If it smokes, carefully throw oil away and start again. Add onion bits. Cook for longer than you think, until they are soft and nearly translucent. Add pancetta or bacon, saute (stir but not incessantly) for 4 minutes or until starting to crisp.
Add tomatoes of both sorts, saute for 4 minutes.

Pour frying pan contents into drained linguini. Stir together. Add most of cheese to pot, stir to coat the linguini. Salt to taste. Serve, then sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top. Consider adding basil if you’ve got it growing on your patio.

If you don’t have the red pepper flakes or dried tomatoes, no worries, it works anyway.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Eyes Wide Open

Dinner table conversation the other day -

C: You have blue! Two blue eyes!

W: Yes I do, what color eyes do you have?

C: Green.

W: You have green eyes? What about Mommie?

(Caroline peers into my eyes and then thinks for a bit)

C: Hm...She has half brown and half black.
(looking closer at Will and pointing to his iris)
And you too - half blue and half black. (then she pulls up her own eyelids)
Look! I have half red!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

May traveling

We didn’t venture out much this winter. I realized just how little when I happened to call our rental car company to see about renting a car for the weekend.

“Julie, you’re alive!” our car guy said. “Wait, but you’ve bought your own car, is that it?”
No no, I promise we haven’t.
“Then,“ (his voice chokes up) “you’ve found someone else?“
No, really Alex, we haven’t rented a car in months! But it’s spring you know, so time to start traveling!

That was five weeks ago. We haven’t been home on a weekend since. Last Thursday found us in Paris, where we experienced French life with a toddler, a stroller minus a wheel and winds that threatened to blow the horses off the carousel in the Jardin du Luxembourg. At a certain moment I had to remind myself - in a year you won’t remember the pollen lashing your face like a sand storm, you’ll remember the foie gras, the coffee and the pain au chocolat. You’ll remember playing gamba with your teacher while Caroline pretends to play harpsichord on the music stand, the fountains blowing across the gardens at Versailles, the Sunday market at Versailles with more fish than you’ve seen since South Carolina.

And mostly that is what I remember from our weekend in Paris. But I am guessing I’ll also remember having to floss my teeth late Sunday night, just home from the airport, to get rid of that last tricky piece of pollen, wedged there by the winds of the North Atlantic blowing into Versailles.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What's in your Google history today?

Google search histories are a bit like a Scrabble board after a game - cues to what its players are mulling over. At lunch I looked through my Google history to see what my morning’s ponderings (not including work) had covered. Here they are:

• where was Tara supposed to be in Gone with the Wind1
• when was Jonesboro, Georgia founded (and Tara built)
• what is a loutka kachna
• where does the word loutka (puppet) come from
• is there a metro to the Prague zoo yet
• what street is close to the super playground in Smichov
• what buses run by the super playground
• who wrote "Will to Fail"2 and when
• what type of musical genre is "Will to Fail"
• what is space aged pop?
• who is Les Baxter?

1. Just watched Gone with the Wind for the first time this week. I had a hard time believing that this movie shaped so much of what, in the 40s, 50s and 60s, the South thought of as antebellum. I also decided that the movie's portrayal of a Southern business woman is pretty damning and could explain some things!
2. A favorite Caroline song (because of the cool textures). I wanted to see if I could find more music like this, minus the psycho-therapy lyrics. I did! Check out for more, and download tracks from the site here.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Night light

Caroline likes to stay up late. She’s not a morning person, and hates to wake up once sleeping, but falling asleep is hard for her. In the last few months, she’s tried to stretch her bedtime later and later. She’d stay awake playing in her room by the light of her star-shaped night light (star light she calls it), until she tired of her books and ran into our room to demand more milk, or for me to stay awake with her. We tried to be civil and explain it was bed time, we tried ignoring her, we tried time out, but mostly Caroline just got more riled up and stayed awake anyway. Finally, Will said - turn off the star light, it’s as bad as coffee. We did. She got mad at us and another week of mayhem and late nights ensued.

Then, last weekend in Germany, hanging out in a hotel room, I got C ready for sleep and turned out the light. I thought we’d both go to bed, since I knew the light would keep her up. Caroline started asking for star light, the room light, anything to see by. The dark was too much, falling so fast.

I told her I knew a trick, and if she wanted, she could try it too. I said - hold out your hand and start counting, by the time you get to five, you’ll be able to see your fingers. She counted. She saw her hand. We counted to five again and she could see the end of the bed, next she could see the door and the curtains on the other side of the room. She fell asleep a few minutes later. Now at night, before I sing her lullabies, I turn out the light and we watch our hands reappear. She doesn’t try to turn on her star light any more and tonight, she fell asleep at 9:00. Perhaps my nights will reappear too, I’ll wait and see.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

MPs cut VAT on coffee, tea, chocolate

Isn't that a nice headline to wake up to?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Heading to the online library

It’s Friday night, and I’m between books. I’ve read the New York Times from top link to bottom and I’ve visited each of my favorite blogs to see if by any chance, they’ve been updated. Nothing happening (it is Friday after all). I decide it is time to click to the University of Pennsylvania's Online Books Page to see what’s new.

English language libraries are a bit rare here in Prague and new books pricey, so I've gotten in the habit of reading ebooks. The Online Books Page is a prolific indexer of electronic books - some days they add twelve or more books to their search engine. That sort of addition accumulates and in November, they celebrated adding their 25,000 book. Tonight I scroll through the newly added list, then search out an old favorite just remembered. In a zip, I've got a handful (mouseful?) of ebooks to check out.

Here are some of the notables:

The evening's most creative author name (and her work) - The Refugee’s Cookbook, by One of Them, 1906. Listed in honor of the anniversary of the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. You can't download the entire book unfortunately but you can read samples. Let me know if you think those recipes are constructible in a tent!

A favorite children’s book, refound - Mother West Wind 'Why' Stories by Thornton W. Burgess. For more Burgess books online, here's the index.

A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, by Amelia Edwards. After reading the first chapter, I suspect one of my favorite mystery characters - Amelia Peabody - of having A. Edwards inclinations.

Text to send to a British friend who thinks humor was invented in the mid 20th century. Bill Nye's Comic History of England, by Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye.

That's it for tonight. Hesky vikend*!

*Nice weekend!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Green green green, unless you are asparagi

Everything is turning green green green outside my office window. Even the spindly birch growing from the roof of the decayed atelier next door has draped itself with festoons of pollen, like a May Day pole wreathed in one color ribbon. From one day to the next I can see the leaves unfurling on all the trees, shading from yellowish green to darker as they absorb the sun. Photosynthesis at play.

But other signs of spring, untouched by sun, have arrived in town. White asparagus is back on restaurant menus and on ours too. Last night Will made a detour on his way home from work to run by the green grocers near by. He was going to pick up some strawberries but the asparagus changed his mind so he arrived home with a bag full. Luckily we had eggs, the near rind of a parmesan chunk and some prosciutto left over from Easter. Our first dinner on the balcony this year turned nearly gourmet thanks to the leftovers and asparagus. Here is the recipe:

Prosciutto or ham slices
Parmesan, sliced or grated
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400F/200C

Fry the prosciutto or ham slices in a pan until crisp. When done, remove from heat and arrange on plates.

Trim asparagus of woody parts (not the tips!) and if still a bit stiff, use scraper to remove excess skin (bark?). Toss with olive oil. Assemble on cooking sheet. When oven is hot, place sheet in oven and cook for 10-12 minutes, or until roasted. Top with parmesan and place back in oven until melted (3-5 minutes). When done, arrange on plates.

Boil two inches of water in large pot. When water is simmering, crack shells and drop eggs into pot. Let cook three minutes or until whites are set. Using slotted spoon remove from pot, arrange on top of asparagus.

Salt and pepper to taste.

That’s it. So easy and good. Best of all, it took 2 minutes to clean up! Happy Spring.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Card games

I read an article last weekend that claimed an "alarming number" of parents in the United States report that they talk to their children for only a few minutes each day. I started to think about my conversations with Caroline. Would reading books count as a chat? Probably not, Caroline’s favorite books right now are poetry that we sing in our own form of recitative. Sometimes I can get her to talk about her books with me, but mostly she will interrupt anything she thinks sounds educational, turn my head back to the page, and demand that I "stop and read!"

Then I thought about dinner time. We always do ask her how her day has been, and talk about whether she went to the park, but the majority of our discussions seem to dwell on whether she will or will not chew her food all the way through. I decided we needed to expand our conversational mediums.

This morning, full of resolution, I sat down with Caroline and tried to teach her to play a matching card game called Snap. In our family, playing cards has always been one of the best times to have a conversation. Someone will put out the cards, softened to a velvety patina with age, set up a bowl of M&Ms and tall, ice filled glasses of water, and we’ll draw to deal, then start a round of Hearts, Spades, or Canasta, depending upon who calls the game. We’re pretty competitive, so we’ll pay attention to the game, but mostly it is a good way to be together and to catch up.

Caroline, like most toddlers, resists rules. Each time we try to play a game, I bring out my unoriginal explanation that a game, with two people, needs some sort of rule to make it fun for each person. But really, I haven’t quite come up with the best way to explain this annoying phenomena to her - some clever explanation that will fit into her toddler perception of world revolving around self. As usual, the game this morning didn’t go over very well, because she wanted to hold all the cards, and each time I placed a card down, she’d snatch it up and say, "mine, Caroline’s card!"

Finally I asked her if she wanted me to play with her and explained (again) that if you want to play with other people you have to share. I thought that we’d have to pack it up and go back to reading books. I waited. Caroline waited. We sat there for a good two minutes, Caroline holding onto all of the cards while I contemplated the unmade bed, the dishes in the sink. Then she handed me half of the deck so that we could try again. We played four rounds of Snap. We talked about matching colors together, and how green meant go and red meant stop. Then the babysitter came and I went to work.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The politics of nursery school

Yesterday was registration day at the local nursery school in our neighborhood. Our babysitter decided we needed to make a good first impression, so she dressed Caroline up in her favorite dress (navy blue top over a green plaid skirt), pink sweater, brilliantly white tights, and Sunday shoes. Then all three of us: babysitter, Will and myself, herded Caroline to the little skolka that is just across the street from our flat.

When we walked in we realized there was a crowd of people ahead of us. Czechs are expert at self-regulating lines though, so we just had to ask to find out who we would go after, how many families were in front of us (four), and how long the wait might be (an hour). We spent the hour entertaining Caroline, chatting with the other waiting parents, and trying to figure out just why it took twenty minutes to sign a three year old into a public nursery school program.

Our best guess is that the filtering system so obvious in middle to high school education in Europe gets its start with 3 year olds, and that these meetings are designed in part for the director to check out the parents and child and decide if she wants to see them again. It’s a guess only because we didn’t get a chance to hear the regular spiel.

Instead, as we sat down for our meeting, the director said, “Aha, you are the foreigners who visited during open house. I’m so sorry to tell you but because you are not EU citizens, your daughter probably cannot go to this school.“

It turns out that the government doesn’t pay schools a stipend for children who are either not Czech or non-EU. In the past, schools have gotten around this problem by charging foreigners a certain amount a month, but then a story appeared in the Czech press about a town where the elementary school was funded mostly by the Vietnamese families who sent their children there. Although what the school was doing was technically legal, the story created a stir around the country, and so some schools now have decided it is just easier to not accept foreigners until the laws are straightened out.

We spent most of the meeting listening to the director explain all of this, and then in the end, she asked us what we did and if the laws get worked out, if we could afford the stipend. She didn’t care a whit that I had my own company (only question, when will your next child be born?) but when she found out that Will works in the educational sector and what he does, her hands started trembling and she began to randomly apologize (for spelling his name wrong on the application form, for the bother of the whole thing). It amused me at the time, but when we got home and started talking about the meeting, we both thought - do we really want Caroline to go to a school that didn’t want her until they found out what her father does?

So now I am looking into private schools for Caroline. Some place in Prague 2, 4 or 10 that doesn’t charge outrageous prices for children to get to together and play. Some place where Czech kids go but a kid from another country could fit in happily too. Suggestions welcomed.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Working on my roots

When I turned ten, I defined sophistication as the ability to successfully harbor candy in your purse. My grandmother has that gift, but I thought I never would. Unscabbed knees and manicured nails, a pack of almost full peppermint lifesavers in my pocketbook - on the advent of adulthood and my first double digit birthday I couldn’t imagine a time when I might reach a level of maturity and self control able to pull off all three. Twenty some years later, my knees stay unscathed, and I don’t bite my nails any more, but I’m still not very good at approaching candy or life one tasty tidbit at a time. I don’t have the patience and when it comes down to it, I don’t really have that type of long term attention span.

So when I revved up another one of my New Year’s resolution this week (to learn more Czech by practicing it a little each day) I had to hold myself back from jumping in and trying to memorize a chapter of words. I decreed I’d learn one word per day, and then I tried to choose a word, the first word for my list. stood in as my rosetta stone. I skimmed through several stories, trying to find a common word, something I could use in daily life and hear with regularity, something worth focusing on for one whole day. I finally picked snížit because it showed up several times in a row, and I like a word with a z in it. Thirty seconds later, I’d typed snížit = to decrease, lower into my word list, and I was done. One word seemed a tiny, futile step towards improving my Czech and resolving my resolutions. I wanted another word, something more substantial. Reaching for my dictionary, I realized I was once again about to pull the bubble gum pack from my pocket and chew through it all in one sitting.

Then I noticed three letters buried in snížit: niz. Niz - its root. I wrote a new decree in my head (one root per day), and then, my sweet tooth for words on the way to being sated, settled down to foxing out some of niz’s relations.

snížit = decrease
nízký = low
nízce = basely
nižší = lower
Nizozemsko = the Netherlands

Monday, March 20, 2006

A Lada Winter? Come, Spring

Josef Lada sledding sceneIt’s easy to agree that it has been a long long winter here in Prague. A few weeks ago we flew off to more southern parts, hoping that by the time we came home again the snow would be gone for good and spring in its place. Instead, we barely missed the biggest snowstorm of the winter and flew home on a plane packed with people who had missed their flights the day before and were ready to remove themselves from the hard comforts of JFK even if they had to arm wrestle for a seat. There was a collective sigh of relief when Smetana burst out of the loud speakers as we landed in Prague and I thought that, perhaps finally, someone on the plane might start smiling. Then I looked out the window at the snow drifts and decided our fellow passengers might have a point.

In commiserating over the winter last week, at least three of our Czech friends (and Radio Prague) pointed out to me Jaromir Nohavica’s new song now available on his website. "Ladovska Zima", or "Lada Winter", invokes the beauty of an old fashioned winter as illustrated by Josef Lada (children on sleds, quaint and beautiful views) and then teases and fusses along with us, will it ever be over, enough is enough already with this white mess (bílé svinstvo). You can download the song from the nohavica website, here. It sounds even sweeter now that the sun has melted most of the "svinstvo" away.

Oh, and if you noticed the template change - Blogger is messing with their system apparently and the result is playing havoc with my old template. I'm going to hold onto this one for a bit before I try to switch back, or update to something new, it is time for spring cleaning after all!.

Josef Lada image courtesy of Radio Prague.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Back again

I haven't retired, just disappeared for two weeks into vacation, then spent last week wandering about with jetlag and so much work drifted up, I wanted to go outside and borrow a shovel from the guy clearing our sidewalk of the massive snowfall that arrived in Prague just before we did.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Krtek, the Little Mole

KrtekKrtek does not live in America. He is originally Czech, and like many Czechs, he likes to travel, but he’s never found a niche in the U.S., never had the chance to settle down and stay awhile.

Krtek grew up in Kladno, a mining town a few kilometers from Prague, drawn into life by Zdenek Miler in the 1950s. You can find him in 62 short films, now collected into DVDs in the Czech Republic and Germany, where his films were produced. Our European friends watched him as children and when they come to Prague and walk past a store where he stands patiently waiting to be noticed, they do. "Der Kleine Maulwurf!" our German friends say, while Caroline argues with them - "ne, Krtek! Krteček!" His films are short, about five minutes each, filled with music, but few words. The shorts are so expressive Caroline laughs with joy when she sees them, and it is a thing to hear, that bubbling up of delight caused by such a fellow - a small miner all in black, his hands and whiskers his most expressive features.

Krtek isn’t a complicated character. He doesn’t outwit anyone, engage in long chase scenes, or become the fall guy for physical comedy. He is simply a kind soul, good to his friends, something of an environmentalist and an excellent gardener, when he isn’t expanding his mole hill. His curiousity and willingness to try give him great charm. My favorite shorts take place right in his front yard, beneath the cherry tree that stands as a calendar for his seasons.

Caroline’s pick would be "Little Mole and the Snowman" (Krtek a snehulák), produced in 1998, towards the end of Miler’s career. The movie opens in winter, as Krtek builds a snowman that then comes alive. They play, eat icicles, and become good pals. When it turns warm, predictably, the snowman begins to melt. But Krtek refuses to let his creation down and saves him by taking a trip to the top of the coldest mountain around and leaving his friend there, safe and sound while Krtek heads back to his cherry tree alone, to wait for the seasons to change. When winter arrives again, the snowman skis down the mountain to the film’s happy conclusion.

I like this short too, because to me it is a story about a story. Both Krtek and Miler have made friends with their creations - love them in fact. In the film, Krtek doesn’t want his snowman to change and melt; it would clearly be the end for his friend. I imagine Miler working out the plot while thinking about his own future. Growing older, and ill with Lyme disease, Miler declared a few years ago that he would not sell off his rights to Krtek, because he believed changes made by Krtek's new creators would be the death of the little mole. Perhaps Miler felt that, like the snowman, Krtek would have to go away to be preserved, safe and sound.

Let's just hope that with the increase in digital distribution those films that now exist will eventually find their way to mainstream audiences in America. In the meantime, you can order Krtek dvds from, or buy them in stores in the Czech Republic.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Paging, the mother of the two year old with a lollipop embedded on her lip...

I’ve been trying to teach Caroline her name and age, working towards that day when she wanders off and finds the people who page errant parents in airports around the world. I figure any human with enough patience to spend three hours licking a lollipop down to the cardboard stick can learn her name and age, and her parents' names. Right?? Maybe. Here’s a sample lesson from last night:

Caroline, how old are you?
....I Caroline Boynton.*
That’s your name. How old are you?
....I two.
Can you tell me your name again?
....I Caroline Boynton.
What’s Dada’s name?
Can you say "Will Boynton"?
....Will Boynton.
And what’s Mommie’s name?
....Mommie Boynton!
What’s Mommie’s name?
....Umm...Mommie Caroline Boynton!!

So if you hear "Paging Mommie Caroline" over the intercom, next time you travel, you'll know we too have been by.

* Name changed to favorite kid’s book author of the moment.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A paean to leftovers

As chief cook in our household, I love leftovers. Food just tastes better when I haven’t been handling it for the last few hours. A lunch of last night’s pork chops, mashed sweet potatoes and green beans sauted in caramelized onions - that’s happiness. Add the sun, a window facing south, and fifteen minutes of the New York Times, and I've found heaven in the workplace. Hope you have a happy lunch this Valentine's Day too.

Monday, February 13, 2006

First sled ride

My sister just reminded me of Caroline's first sled trip, before she turned one. We pulled her along, rather than sledding with her (the snow was 3 meters deep) but she was indeed on runners. Here C is all tucked up in her eskimo bundle, ready for the snows of Switzerland. She's got on her skeptical look - the one she still wears when she thinks I'm going to try to educate her or persuade her to eat an orange food. "No to the alphabet! Death to sweet potatoes!" those eyes say to me today. Two years ago I think she was wondering where her bottle was and did anyone notice there was a baby in all this fleece?

Silver is also beautiful

Yesterday morning we watched Kateřina Neumannová battle through the Olympics cross country pursuit 7.5 +7.5 kilometer, known in Czech as the skiatlonu. It was a super race to watch, particularly as we saw all 15 kilometers, uncut by shots back and forth to other events or long ad breaks (so usual in U.S. Olympics coverage). When you watch all forty minutes of a cross country race, you can better fathom how grueling that sort of match must be, and we cheered for each woman when she crossed the finish line and threw herself onto the snow. Like the rest of the Czech Republic, we were a little sad because Neumannova, despite pulling ahead in the last two kilometers, didn’t get her gold, but as she said in an interview yesterday: "I stříbro je krásné." Silver is also beautiful.

Caroline watched with us, pointing out Neumannova’s racing number 3 whenever she showed up in a shot. When the service people started passing out bottles of water, C tried to pass over her sippy cup to the skiers too. The race over, we finally were able to peel her away by promising we would find some snow to race through ourselves.

Dressed, finally (the epitaph to every morning with Caroline) we headed out the door and over to our local park, Riegrovy Sady. Will hitched our new sled over one shoulder, and Caroline happily swung along between us.

On the way, Will mentioned he’d never gone sledding on anything but a cookie tin in his university years, up north. He was nervous. “How exactly do you steer this thing, and what about stopping?“ Since anything is easier to sled on than a tin square, I thought he’d have no trouble, once he got started, but we both wondered if there would be any snow left, since the streets were running with water and slush from the warm weather (1C/33F).

The park snow stood, mostly unmelted and covered with runner tracks. We found a hill, and Will and the sled went on their first run. Will had a great time, the sled did well too. Then, Caroline’s turn. We tried each hill in the park, until we decided the long double drop facing west, towards the castle, was our favorite.

Caroline loved everything about sledding - she hallooed and whooped on each run down, sitting snug in our laps; on trips back up the hill, she held on firm and encouraged us with giddyups. She seemed older somehow, chatting easily about the crunch of the snow, gloves versus pockets, the best way to carry the sled over cement (with her still on it). Before she went to sleep last night, she imagined her reading chair into a sled and bade me take the chair out, through curves and steep slopes until we landed back in her room and it was time to climb into bed.

Filed under:

Friday, February 10, 2006

AllPeers Alpha - Alive and Kicking!

So yes, it is still in alpha mode, but the talk of the Firefox world is up and running right now. AllPeers is in friends and family testing while their software team works out those last odd bugs that only naive testers can find. Since I qualify especially for the naive part (and was around one evening when they needed a tester) the app is nested in my browser as I type.

Wednesday night I put it through its paces. Item 1: Install. If you’ve ever downloaded and installed a Firefox extension, you know how easy it can be. Download, install, close your browser, open your browser, and you’re in. That’s it - a GUI designer’s dream of simplicity, a marketer’s delight. That of course, is how easy it is to install AllPeers. It is, after all, a Firefox extension.

Next test item: contacts. Adding contacts to my AllPeers buddy list was as simple as the setup, and only currently limited by the tiny poolet of people signed up. Users can find pals by nickname or email, and if they aren’t signed up yet, send an email invite. Matt, blogger supreme and CTO of AllPeers, roped me into the testing, so I returned the favor and added him as my first contact.

And finally: file sharing, the meat and potatoes of the app, its cream and caviar too. First I took the conventional route and uploaded a folder straight from My Pictures - "Film pics". I decided Matt would appreciate King Kong, so selected fifty years of monkey film photos, and clicked Matt’s name on the contact list. Kong shared.

I tried downloading files from Matt too, a few mp3 files that I of course deleted immediately. The files showed up under Matt's name. Downloading each one required nothing more than clicking on it once.

When that worked, I decided to get messy and see how far the app would go. I began importing individual files, then dragging them straight from the import folder over to Matt’s name to see what happened. He got the file. I tried opening a picture through the Firefox browser menu, then dragging it over to my import folder. That worked too. I managed to crash my computer by checking to see what would happen if I tried to import my music folder into the window. A few seconds later, the blue screen of death appeared. Apparently 421 music folders and 265 separate files put a bit of burden on the system - at least for now.

As soon as my computer kicked back to life, I sent in my feedback by IM: "Hot diggity damn, we got a live one!" I typed, until I remembered the boys over at AllPeers might not understand my southernism, and emended the message to: "Super work you guys!"

Note: For more information and to sign up for an email alert when AllPeers goes live, head over to more about AllPeers.

Filed under:

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Dinner with echo

Having a conversation with Caroline now is a bit like having a conversation in an echo chamber with an active imagination. I’d guess this is true of most two year olds, but C’s desire to mimic us and everything else around has engulfed even her desire to say no. Add characters from the books that she reads (and movies she watches), and you really never know what might come up in your next Caroline chat.

Will was not home for dinner tonight, so our dinnertime conversation was even more surreal than usual.

Caroline, here’s your soup.
...Soup. Polevku
...Polevka. Hm... Beans. And big carrots. Little carrots too for Rabbit.
You’re going to give Rabbit the carrots?
...Give Rabbit the carrots?
Are you going to give Rabbit the carrots that you’re talking about?
...Give Rabbit the carrots?
Right, okay. How about another bite, yum.
...Snowman, I need a hammer for the snowman.*
Okaaay. How’s the soup, do you like the soup?

* We have hung little paper snowmen on our windows, and Caroline thinks they need to be hammered in place if they, for example, blow in the breeze. The last time we had carrots for dinner the snowmen got twisted up from a draft and we had to straighten them out. Not that I remembered the carrot/hammer/snowman link until after dinner. When it's just you filling in those memory connections in long skip-about conversations, deja vu moments happen more often than epiphanies.

Filed under:

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Snowy Saturday

Snow has fallen all day, and the sidewalks and streets are covered. Tomorrow, if we’re all recovered from a cold that snuck into our flat, we’re going to take Caroline out for a ride on her sled. It has been waiting for her since just after the last big snowfall, when I bought it as insurance against too many weeks of city slush (sleds, like umbrellas, seem to keep precipitation at bay).

In the meantime, we have stacked books up like LPs on an old turntable, waiting their turn to be read. Caroline likes to stick to one author at a time, so we read first through Seuss, then Boynton and the Corduroy books before we get to the singletons. When it all gets too sedentary, Caroline shows off her tumbling act on our big bed - one somersault after another and then takes a few loops around the flat until she is back in the kitchen and a song catches her in mid step and she has to stop to dance to its beat before she begins her loops again, or stops for another book.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Tools for the distracted chef

Peeling ginger for dinner yesterday, I thought of the catchy names TV cooks use to describe themselves - the iron chef, the vegan chef, the naked chef. If I had a cooking show, what would my modifier moniker be? Moderate, messy, mayhem-causing....hmm. I stopped peeling and held the ginger to my nose like a spicy garni, knife set aside and forgotten, while I tried to untie my homemade mental knot.

Then it came to me. Distracted! I’d be the distracted chef!

I like to believe I come by this condition naturally. My paternal grandmother, after all, is famous in the family for reading novels while she cooked for her four children and husband, remarkably only burning the rice a few times. I used to read too, until that grim day when my favorite copy of Ali and Nino almost caught fire when I leaned too close to a burner while stirring and reading (and sniffing, I’d hit a sad part).

Just because I’ve banned books in the kitchen doesn’t mean I actually focus there now. In the middle of slicing veggies for dinner I’ll pop into the living room to build a tower with Caroline, when I double check a recipe on the computer I can never resist peeking into my email, or as happened yesterday, I‘ll stop and ponder a thought and get, yes, distracted. Recipe time estimates - "30 minutes tops!" "45 not including baking time" - never seem to apply to the recipes in our collection, at least when I’m at the counter.

To keep from having to call myself the "truly awful cook," or "the burnt and tasteless meals chef," I’ve come up with some strategies for manouevering somewhat successfully through dinner each night. For all you distracted chefs out there, here they are...

Gather before go: Before I start cooking I’ll arrange all the ingredients on the counter, mixing sauces and catching chopped garlic and ginger in small bowls, balancing larger ingredients on Caroline’s rainbow of plastic plates. It takes a while to get it all ready, but once everything is set out, running through a recipe is infinitely easier and I’m not so likely to forget an ingredient.

Automate: Because I’ve continued our family‘s tradition of eating rice nearly once a day, I love the rice cooker we bought last year at one of the local Vietnamese markets. Pour in the rice, click the button and it’s onto the next chore. Even Will, our counter space hoarder, is a cooker convert, and I always know that even if I let the pork saute too long, or forget a crucial ingredient in a casserole, at least the rice will be fluffy, hot and ready to eat come supper time.

Post in plain view and time everything: My current favorite tool is the stainless steel splashback I recently propped up behind the stove. Besides giving us something rewardingly shiny to polish once a week, the splashback keeps a timer in reach and recipes at eye level while cooking. So many of our recipes come from epicurious these days, I just print out what we’re cooking, make notes, and post each page on the splashback with the magnets we bought with the timer. The timer I set at each recipe step, so that it can count down to "earth to Julia, come back and cook!" And I do, really I do.

Filed under:

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Keeping up with the two year olds - a Czech word list for toddlers (and their parents)

On a whim, today I asked Caroline how to say 'window' in Czech. She said "oko, ne, okno". And I thought, "At last, translation services!" The image of a dictionary emerging from the pools of primordial slime flickered through my head.

But she wouldn’t repeat the show for Will. Instead, she climbed onto my office chair and ordered me to turn her around and around - "točit" she said. Each time we passed the keyboard, I tried to add another word to the list of Czech words she does use regularly around the simpletons who are her parents. Most are standard Czech words, but a few are what I call children’s Czech, or simply colloquial Czech that C’s picked up from our babysitters.

She hasn’t surpassed us yet (only a matter of time), but she has added to our Czech vocabulary. Who knew heiss (hejs?)had wiggled its way into Czech?!

Our toddler primer, or words C employs
točit - turn
houpi - swing
dolu - down
nahoru - up
ovečka - little sheep
prasátko - pig
pes - dog
kočička - kitty cat
slon - elephant
panenka - doll
balónek - little balloon
boty - shoes
nohy - leg
čepice - hat
t'api t'api - walk
pojd‘sem - come here
nejde - not working
není - isn‘t
hači - sit down
haji - lie down
čurat - pee
bobek - little pellet, poop
tak - so
to - it
tam - there
tady - here
ne - no
prosim - please
děkuju - thank you
ahoj - hello/goodbye
heiss - hot
ham - food
papat - to eat
vejce - egg
kaše - gruel ;-)
mlíko - milk
sušenka - cookie
bonbon - sweet
spinkat - to sleep
plakat - to cry
holčička - little girl
pán - man
mimi - little baby
písek - sand
pá pá - bye bye

Warning: some of these spellings are probably off, as no dictionary I've found includes haji, let alone tapi tapi. If anyone has better spelling suggestions, please send them in, I'll mail you a postcard as thanks!

Update: haji is from hajat, and t'api t'api from t'apat (also perhaps tlapat?). They can both be found in Lingea Lexicon - if you know what you're looking for.

Filed under:

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Ice skating in Prague

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

Time for action.

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

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

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

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

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

USK Hotel Hasa
+420 271747128

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

Filed under:

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Nohavica concert and download his music while you can

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something more like what he actually sings

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

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

Filed under:

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

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

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

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

Now it’s your turn.

Filed under:

Sunday, January 22, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 20, 2006

A steel guitar sketch

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under:

Monday, January 16, 2006

Yet another reason to go to Riegrovy sady on the weekends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under:

Thursday, January 12, 2006

2.5 and singing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under:

Friday, January 06, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under:

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The tree comes down

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

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

*Very kindly imported by my sister.

Filed under: