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.