Friday, December 07, 2007

Mikulas Eve

Mikulas (or rather, Mikuláš) came to our house Wednesday night, and we have the candy to prove it. This morning I realized our Christmas count down was fueled by four advent calendars filled with chocolate. (We began with six, but I gave one away and took the other to my office for food emergencies.) On the top of our pantry the sweets-stash wok brims with bags of bon bons from the babysitters and neighbors, and the candy C earned singing songs to Mikulas trios is buried in the back of my top dresser drawer. If you break in tonight you now know where to find the goods. You're welcome to most of it, but do leave the Josef Lada advent calendar - it’s my favorite.

Caroline was in heaven all Mikulas evening, practicing her songs, opening her candy bags, walking to Namesti Miru with her friend Paige to meet the saint and his friends. She was proud that this year she was brave enough to face up to the kids dressed as devils, angels and the long bearded bishops who all seemed to sport hockey sticks wrapped in aluminum foil. This year she sang at their first request, first a Czech nursery rhyme, then her own Christmas song in English.

She sang in whispers by herself, but when she sang with her friend, their shyness disappeared and they belted out Rudolph to the last trio of the night, a grownup group in film studio costumes who blessed the girls and handed out yet another advent calendar (a Catholic edition with bible verses). As we walked away, the devil in their trio grabbed a ten-year-old and ran down the street with the boy flung over his shoulder. Mikulas followed in hot pursuit, advent calendars in one hand, hockey stick in the other.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Christmas tree has gone up

In Namesti Miru, that is. Caroline and her babysitter walked over last night, after it got dark at 4:30, and came home bearing gingerbread Mikulas (St. Nick) cookies. Caroline says the tree goes up and up and doesn't stop and people are already singing.

She is too, mostly her own improvisations about Santa Claus coming our way. I'm teaching her more traditional Christmas carols out of a big piano book I ordered from the States for Christmas. I've been playing my way through it on the weekends, working up its easy pieces into something I wouldn't mind playing for friends, or at least our family.

As December gets closer and my work gets busier I find myself cramming Christmas pleasures into all the moments of peace I can grab. When I'm home, Caroline and Will have a surfeit of mandarin slices to choose from (for the smell of a just snapped open orange). C and I spend my free Saturdays drawing designs for cards we'll probably send in January. It's early still, and Will thinks I'll be tired of Christmas by the time it arrives, but I know that by the beginning of December I'll be working until midnight, weekends too, and will have hardly a moment to spend with Caroline enjoying ourselves, building her Christmas memories.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Testing the Sirens

The first time I heard them go off, June 1999, I was working in our office alone, skipping lunch. The noise was deafening and I thought Prague was under attack. It wasn't something you could ignore, so I climbed to the cat walk on top of our building and looked out over the city and down the highways heading out of town, wondering how fast I could get to the nearest metro in case anything really was happening, wondering how Will and I would find each other in the melee.

A minute passed, the sound stopped. Later, I asked the developers in our office what had happened. They laughed and said, "nothing". It wasn't until a few months went by that I found out the city tested their sirens regularly, the first Wednesday of the month at noon.

Years passed and we moved offices. I didn't notice the sirens much any more, probably because there wasn't one right next to my window. In August 2002 they went off for real, warning our friends living downtown that they had to evacuate. In the village where we spent summer weekends the sirens warned us about the flooding too, and loud speakers told everyone about chemical waste released from a plant near the river. The village evacuated within an hour. Thankfully, I've never heard them used in earnest since.

When they go off now, I grit my teeth, remind myself they serve a useful purpose, and turn on something in the same key. "The Swan" from Carnival of the Animals worked well today. Accompanied, the siren sort of sings along to the music. It takes the sting out of it, like singing with your vacuum on busy Saturday mornings. You try too.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Carriage, found

We spotted it in a shop off a small highway in Germany, heading home from Stuttgart last week. The day was beautifully sunny and I'd just fallen into that dozey car daze that passes the kilometers away when my business partner saw the sign - "wake up J, I think it's Kinder Welt!" Sure enough, it was.

19 euros, and this baby doll wagon (Puppenwagen in German) has more features than the umbrella stroller I pushed C around in for years.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The blue kocarek

Caroline’s special symbol at school, the one that tells her where to hang up her jacket and unpack her playground clothes, and where her toothbrush cup should sit, is a blue baby carriage. Caroline memorized this straight away and came home chanting “modrý kočarek” under her breath on the first day of school. She’s carriage obsessed anyway, and even though it isn’t my favorite accessory, I vowed to find one for her.

Doll baby carriages in Prague, if you haven’t priced them lately, cost an astronomical sum. The cheapest I've found is $50, and Sparky’s offers several over $100. I’m now searching the Vietnamese markets, hoping to find a gem buried under all the almost Barbies and I’ve warned my business partner that on our next trip abroad I’ll be springing into toy stores in hot pursuit.

Why the sudden fervor, you might well ask. You see, when Caroline first realized she had to go back to school every single day, she developed this act full of sobs and clinging fingers, to be presented at the classroom door each morning. She did this for three days, adding drama daily. Friday morning came. She picked up her backpack, I velcroed her shoes shut. Then I asked her to try being brave, to see how that played out. If it worked as well as I thought, five days of the same show would surely warrant a present. She thought about this, nodded and whispered into my ear - "a blue kočarek?"

A deal was made. The crying stopped. Even though she can’t count days beyond tomorrow, she still remembers the doll carriage. I found this design at a Flickr site* illustrating matchbox lids from the 40s and 50s. By the weekend, Caroline may have a real set of wheels to push around; for now she's got a carriage printed and posted above the bench where we put her shoes on each day, on the way to school yet again. The matchbox says, "everyone saves with PKO." I quite agree.

* Check out the Flickr site for more matchboxes, they are fabulous and mostly from our neck of the woods. My hat's off to the designer, Jane McDevitt, who found these and posted them to the web. She has an excellent eye.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Havel's choice

In case you missed it, the NYT posted a short article today letting the world know that Vaclav Havel has finally decided on the theater for the premier of his latest play, Odchazeni, or “Departing.” After much hoohah in the local press, he chose Vinohradska Divadlo. 100 years old this year, the building is one of the most beautiful performance halls in Prague and within strolling distance of our house. Here it is this weekend. Its winged seraphim seem to positively revel in the sun. (As did we.)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Sartorial Challenges of Školka

School and Caroline have now survived each other for eight days. During that time, Caroline has switched from waking up at 9 (or later) to 7:15 without a blink. She hasn’t walloped anyone, she shares fine, she likes the food and her Czech is up to snuff. Because she suffers from foreign parents, however, she comes home with notes every day about something new we have neglected to send with her.

On the first day of school, she wore a dress. It was cute, but not fancy - perfect for playing in. That afternoon she met me at the door with a strange pair of sweats and a shirt I needed to wash. Apparently the dress wouldn’t do for the playground so she’d had to change and borrow some clothes. Oh, and would I please remember to send a toothbrush tomorrow?

The next day, we packed her up with a toothbrush and cup, and dressed her in a tee with jeans and a sweater. She came home, once more, with someone else’s clothing and a message explaining that she needed separate clothes for class and for the playground; the jeans didn’t exclude her from changing. Oh, and the sweater was nice, but could we add a jacket?

And thus it went, all week. On Friday I sent Caroline to school in jeans, an undershirt, long tee, sweater, and jacket. She carried a bag with sweats, old tee, and an old jacket. She wore velcro-closing shoes, not white, and for good measure, she had some kleenex zipped into a coat pocket. Waiting for her at school were a toothbrush, cup, and a pair of slippers. I snapped a picture of the complete Czech kindergartener as she went out the door, and patted myself on the back.

She came home with a message that perhaps the coat was a bit too hot, could we consider something a bit lighter? Oh, and please send a photo to school on Monday, she was the only kid in her class without one.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mushroom time

Boletus edulis
When I called up one of our friends the other day, her husband answered and said, "She's scrubbing mushrooms, Julia, call back in 10!" It must have been a good weekend for mushrooms because the next day our babysitter arrived with a basketful - Boletus edulis if you'd like the Latin name, hřib in Czech, porcini in American mushroom parlance. We admired our lot and then Will diced it up and made soup.

I somehow doubt that there are stores in the States advertising their fall wares decked with fungus, but in central Europe the mushroom - in all shapes and sizes - is a definite decoration choice. And after all, why not? There is something tactile and satisfying about a mushroom. Perhaps you as window shopper conjure up its earthy nutty smell, and remember early mornings out on the hunt, shuffling through fallen autumnal leaves, collecting your free bounty from the forest. You consider the store keeper, and decide she too understands the beauty of a mushroom and if you share this understanding, you might also share the same taste in skirts, or bonbons, or whatever she is selling.

At least this is how I imagine it goes. You can window shop right here and see what you think.
fall display in Zurich window shop

Monday, September 10, 2007

Rainy weekend work

A fingerpainting, print making weekend

The weather continues in its persistent winterish way. We're all hoping that we'll see the sun again and warm weather before next spring, but in the meantime Caroline and I are working on remembering what we do at home on those long gray weekend days.

This Saturday I pulled out finger paints and a cookie tin and C happily painted for an entire five minutes all in red until she could bear the goo no longer and had to wash her hands. Thinking blue wouldn't be as gooey, she switched colors and, five minutes later, ran to wash her hands.

Then I had a minor brain storm and we abandoned tetchy finger work and became printers, making mono prints using the paint and the cookie tin. A cookie tin is a perfect printing plate - you just paint the tin with colors, draw designs in the paint, and then carefully smooth paper over design before peeling the paper away to find your print. Much less messy than fingerpainting and more magically instantaneous. C loved it and we printed until we ran out of paper.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Day in Dinan

While in Brittany, we spent one day in Dinan. A medieval town famous for its timbered houses and the ramparts you can use to hike around the city, it also hosts a pair of competing musicians who have staked out their personal stages. In the center, an accordion and hurdy gurdy player moved from one likely spot to another all day. Near the ramparts, we hung out with a hand organ/singer/actor as he entertained the girls with song after song and persuaded us to sing along too. His props kept them entertained and they enjoyed feeding his cap, well positioned on the street for donations.

I like this picture because it shows off our singer, the old houses and the curious outfits that some of the locals like to wear. The guy on the left had just popped off a motorcycle, but he looks like he is heading for a sword convention, don't you think?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Coast guard house in Brittany

It wasn't all rain and clouds in France. Whenever the sun came out we were on the beach, or hiking along the coast around Val Andre. Here, we're on top of a cliff overlooking the sea, in front of an old coast guard house that still stands as a memorial to the guard.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Parisian pigeons

Walking down the Seine, across from Notre Dame, we ran into pigeons flocking. Flying in uneasy bunches they'd take off, settle down, then take off again. Ellen's camera packed away, she asked for the shot. I took ten and this is my favorite.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The coast of Brittany

Just back from a holiday in France. We spent two weekends in Paris and the week on the coast of Brittany. As might be expected in northern France, the food was fantastic, the weather slightly less so. But despite the sun's poor showing we had a wonderful time especially splashing in the sea and hiking along the seashore. More photos to follow.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The new year started today

The first Monday in September feels like the beginning of a new year. People are back from vacation, children start school, businesses answer phone calls again and, right on cue, the weather has snapped from sunny to cold.

We were in Paris yesterday, on the way back from Brittany. At our patisserie, adopted because the owner knows Caroline by name, the locals were out in force, greeting one another with kisses and exclamations in honor of the end of the holiday season. August was over - Parisians were ready to take back their streets from the tourists and the silly season. The church across from our hotel had a regular circulation of families in their Sunday best, girls in navy cardigans, mothers in sensible skirts, fathers with smoothed hair and tennis tan lines. In the middle of rue Mouffetard, right where a playground meets the market, retired hippies sang and passed out song sheets. Couples with long grey hair and flowing skirts and shirts danced polkas to accordion music, the next younger generation, dressed still for church, watched sedately while their parents frolicked in the square and their children swung through the playground.

We’d walked by stores and restaurants closed for the month, promising to wake again on Tuesday, September the 4th, and I thought about their owners, wondering if they were part of all of this celebration and settling in; who might be who in the great crowds of people enjoying the day. We sang some of the songs, danced none of the dances and drank coffee on a playground bench while Caroline practiced her one French expression - “Regardez moi!”

On the boulevards the chestnut leaves have already started to fall, and when the weekly rollerblading parade swept down St. Germain in the late afternoon, the skaters swept the leaves in front of them. We watched the skaters pass, Caroline waved once more, and then we walked down the Saint-Michel metro stairs to an RER train and the airport. We were ready to be home too.

Prague is not as adamant as Paris is about its right to take the entire month of August off, and so September first is not as big a date here, but even Prague had a more than usual bustle about it today. Outside the schools on our block, parents waited for their children to finish their half day, students whistled as friends appeared, Caroline whirled in her new dress and posed for pictures before walking into her first day of school, summarily dismissing me with a “bye mommy” and a languid wave.

I hung out for an hour anyway, sitting in a chair for toddlers, the only barefooted person in the room*, trying desperately to decode the whispers of the other mothers and at the same time assure them that although, and uniquely, Caroline had arrived at school with a team (Will, Marie and myself) we really weren’t that unusual. I picked her up again at 12:30 and the director told us she’d been a hodne holcicka, a good girl.

Tired out from being good, Caroline started to cry as soon she saw me, and I carried her home, sobbing on my shoulder. She told me that she didn’t have a flower for me and it had broken her heart. The flower turned out to be a finger painting, all in red. Marie found one for Caroline to take home. Consoled by strawberries, hot cocoa, and a card of flowery swirls, Caroline fell asleep as soon as we pulled up the covers at nap time.

* Avoid sandals at Czech pre-school events - you'll have to take off your shoes to enter the classroom. If you must wear sandals, bring slippers. At least half the mothers brought their own.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Happy Birthday Ellen!

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A new chapter

Caroline and I are reading her first chapter book - Charlotte’s Web, a present from my brother. She wonders where the pictures are, but every night asks for more. We begin by skimming through what we've already read, looking at pictures and talking about what happened yesterday, the day before. Then we start reading the next chapter. Sometimes, while I’m reading, she’ll sit down beside her children in their bed on the floor and pat them, making sure they are happy and falling asleep. (The children are small stuffed animals, the bed a shoe box. They are wrapped in a cloth diaper.) Usually by the end of the first chapter she is ready to jump on the bed and on me to bounce out her energy. After a few jumps I grab her and we start reading again.

I’ve worked on the voices and she listens carefully when I get to Wilbur or Charlotte. I don’t have a good Templeton voice - Paul Lynde’s voice echoes but I can’t get its whiney tones right. Uncle Homer's voice is my favorite and I dig out all the gravel I can when I read his lines. E.B. White is a writer who knew how to edit. Every word is placed right and I read them all. It is a pleasure to do so.

Tonight when we finish our two chapters she roots through her bookcase for two more books - picture books from when she was a baby, Pat the Bunny and Just a Snowy Day. She reads them to me, and shows me each picture. She asks for five more minutes to read, so we kiss and I pull up her covers and say goodnight.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Biking in Southern Bohemia

Heaven yesterday was a bike trip near Třebon. The day was perfect for a ride - chilly in the morning, warming up as we peddled along roads dappled by sun and patched pavement. Our rental bikes clanked and our map’s too many details confused us, but once we were oriented (to our bikes, our location amongst paths and ponds) we rode happily all morning, arriving back in Třebon for a late lunch before heading home to Prague.

I liked being on the road, on a bike. The world was close again. I brushed against goldenrod, purple asters, avoided stinging nettle, reached for apples hanging low from trees. With one step I could be off the saddle and taking a picture. I took a lot of pictures.

Time compresses on a bike and spaces expand. We saw more on wheels than we ever could hiking: steeplechase horses in paddocks with fences taller than they; hay bricked into high bales drying in the sun; small villages, smaller farms, ponds stretching to the horizon. I rode hands free down a road from South Carolina - the scent of pine needles and marsh made me homesick, the cool weather and lack of mosquitos brought me back, happy, to the Czech Republic.

I liked the challenge of figuring out the way, of picking the paths most under trees, least along busy roads. The map gave me patience when we climbed hills, knowing how much longer I’d have to ride (or push) until I could coast. It made me brave too. I would like to go back and bike without plotting ahead - bringing out the map only when I need to. I’d like to expore all the paths we passed. We rode mostly on roads and paved cart tracks, but our last six kilometers took us along a rocky path where I learned how to break on downhills without fishtailing.

We rented our bikes from Hotel Zlatá Hvězda, on the main square in Třebon. It's an official Cyclist Welcome hotel in the Czech Republic, for good reason. They lent us a lock, a child seat and helmet for Caroline, no extra charge. When we took our bikes back at lunch, their cellarful of bikes was empty, so I was glad we rented early. I bought along my VKU tourist map of the area (1:50 000) and most of the time it told us where we were. The maps posted on kiosks along the bike paths helped even more.

We rode from Třebon along the Svět and Opatovicky rybníky (ponds). We rode 154 to Branna, then took a cart path to Domanín, and another road to Spolí. From Spolí we took the red trail off road and up again to Svět rybník, before cutting over to 155 for a smooth ride back to Třebon. That’s the official version. We probably rode another 5 kilometers of test roads before we figured out our way. Caroline was patient with us the entire morning, and we fed her cookies and leaves at regular intervals (the cookies to eat, the leaves to study - she likes leaves).

This was my first bike ride in the Czech Republic. I prepped for it by rereading my favorite biker blog Grant's Prague bike blog and googling “bike rental Czech Republic.” When English keywords turned up only defunct or Prague-based bike rental firms, I switched to Czech. “Kol pujcovna” got me a lot further. I found out that you can rent bikes from České dráhy (Czech Railway), and that many towns in southern Bohemia have at least a few bike rental companies. I called Třebon’s sports and cultural department and wrote down phone numbers for four. Eventually, our hotel rented us our bikes. It was easy. I want to go back next weekend.
Oh, and try the carp if you get to Třebon. It's a lot better than it sounds if you read Rick Steve's post on his trip through town last week ;-). Thanks for pointing out that post Dad!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Czech language at the A2 level

A few days ago, our babysitter greeted me with the morning's news - foreigners wanting to get a long term residency permit were going to have to pass a language exam! She was aflutter with the news and I suggested that she'd have to add bureaucratic jargon to our day-to-day conversations, since that is what the stories said foreigners would be tested on. She thought that as Americans with conversational Czech, we'd have no problems passing the exam. Having been denied my visa last time I applied based on missing page numbers in the statement my health insurer mailed over, I doubted this leniency and started reading up on the subject.

The proposal seems to still be in discussion, but the tests would be based on Czech at the A2 level. The government has agreed that the tests would be free; lessons, not. A little digging found a book in pdf form called "Čeština jako cizí jazyk, Úroven A2" or "Czech as a Foreign Language, Grade A2" It is downloadable from the Ministry of Education and is a guideline for the European Union on how Czech at the A2 level is understood, taught and assessed. For anyone interested in taking the test, I hope this helps.

I scanned through the guide tonight and can assure you it covers grocery shopping and visiting embassies. Unfortunately, it lacks a discussion about the colloquialisms that truly make getting around the country an easier experience. I feel a bit sorry for the studious foreigners armed with their A2 lessons trying to understand the slang used by their fellow citizens (in stores, taxis, restaurants and even governmental agencies). But, in the end, we learn from our language failures and experiences and that may be what the people recommending the exam want foreigners settling in to be encouraged to go out and get.


When we go on car trips in July, I keep an eye out for sunflower fields and roads that run near them. On last weekend's trek to Hradec Kralove, we found a field and road we could stop on but the flowers were, all but one, resolutely facing the other way.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Postcard from the Bohemian border

The dials turned randomly, but I liked the weather station on the main square in Hradec Kralove.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ice Cool

Last week's high temperatures found Caroline splashing in our bathtub building waterfall towers and holding tea parties for plastic animals, or sitting in front of the fan humming songs into it. This week the weather cooled down to European summer celsius. But Caroline has kept on good terms with the fan, and added it to her prop box for odd projects.

Yesterday she turned on the fan and started to wrap its base with dish towels. Dish towels arranged decoratively on the floor seem oddly domestic but harmless, so I ignored her and kept working, stuck on mute in a conference call. She began to hum along with the fan. I kept working. Then she added a percussion line to her melody – the freezer door opening and shutting, on repeat. I got annoyed.

“Don’t worry Maminka*,” she said, “I’m finished, see!”

Arranged on the towels were six ice packs lined up in rows. She'd set the fan on high to blow over the blocks and onto C. “Look Mommie, It’s going to get cooler any minute!”

It was a play on a year ago - the last time we tried this trick.

Today I noticed in the news that big companies in New York City are also getting into the action – melting giant ice blocks to make AC, thus saving on electricity and going green.

Hey Caroline, we’re early adapters!

*Maminka - mother in Czech. Used by C strategically, especially when trying to get away with something.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Important weekend business

Yesterday I persuaded Will to drive me to Big Ben Bookshop to pick up a certain book I had on hold. This involved driving through the construction zone along the riverbank, then navigating tourists and tight streets. Will thinks it is nearly criminal to take a car downtown, but he drove with a minor modicum of fuss because he knew how much I wanted to go, and because I’ve had mono for a month. Getting downtown by foot won't happen for a while.

So there I was on a sunny, sleepy Sunday afternoon, three blocks from Old Town Square, on a quiet street surrounded by Prague’s oldest buildings. Only one store’s shutters stood open. Its proprieters found my name on their list and I made my purchase. Then I walked back to the car across the empty cobble-stoned street, swinging my book in its paper bag and feeling exhilarated and nearly as guilty as Will for driving in an almost pedestrian zone, for having business in this most touristy of spots, for being on the brink of reading the first page of the last Harry Potter.

I read the first page in the car. Then family intervened, and friends called for dinner. Night fell, the house was asleep. I started again and read the next page and the next, reading on the cool floor of the bathroom until it was 5 in the morning. At noon today I finished it.

How did you read your Harry Potter?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Conversations with Caroline

Words you never thought you’d hear from a 4 year old
I’ll hang out here, you take a nap.

Thoughts on knit pants
C: Ahh, teplaky. I like teplaky....they are for home.
M: Just for home?
C: Yep. For home.

*Teplaky is the Czech word for knit pants. They are considered house clothing, something to change into when you get home, to save your good clothes for later.

Compare and contrast
I like chocolate and bread, you like chocolate and bread...
I like pink and you like pink.
You like showers, and I like baths.
You like naps. Not me.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Sunbury Backwater

5 minutes of sunOur fifteen minutes of sunshine on the river

A few Fridays ago we flew to England for Caroline’s birthday weekend. The first car packed full of explosives had just been discovered in West London and security was on high alert at the airports. But our friends were calm and matter of fact. They said they felt safe, and not to worry, the British police would track down the terrorists.

Avoiding downtown seemed a good idea that weekend, so we spent the trip visiting friends in Twickenham and Sunbury, mostly dividing our time between playgrounds, pubs and tea rooms (when it rained too ferociously even for four year olds).

We were lucky enough to get to stay on the river, just below the weir in Sunbury. I played hooky from the family one afternoon to mess about on the water – mostly acting as ballast and revelling in the view, but the captain of our boat kindly let me steer for a long stretch of the river and I worked the bow lines each time we docked, careful to keep my lines untangled, the boat off the wharf and my knots in order - an overcautious land-locked sailor to the tee, but a very happy one.

We cruised by a flock of green parrots swooping from tree to tree above the tow path, and then a small yacht club released its own flock of sailors on tiny boats to flit on short turns up the river and back again in a mini regatta. The great blue herons straightened into reeds as we passed, as still as the stilt-legged cottages they stood by. It was the river of my imagination, the river of the Wind and the Willows, and it went a long way toward making up for the nearly incessant rain.

Near the end of our boat trip we went through Sunbury’s lock. It was Saturday and the lock was full of rental boats motoring down to Twickenham (even in the rain the river was full of boats). Most of the crews were already drunk and threatening to slip into the lock along with the wine they kept sloshing all over themselves. The lock keepers, weekend volunteers, kept the sloshers mostly in check and we had only one boat to fend off before it was our turn to loosen our lines from two thick mooring posts and slip past the lock gates and into the river. From there we turned upstream again, towards our home dock in the backwater recorded by Jerome K. Jerome in Three Men in a Boat:

We reached Sunbury Lock at half-past three. The river is sweetly pretty just there before you come to the gates, and the backwater is charming; but don’t attempt to row up it.

I tried to do so once. I was sculling, and asked the fellows who were steering if they thought it could be done, and they said, oh, yes, they thought so, if I pulled hard. We were just under the little foot-bridge that crosses it between the two weirs, when they said this, and I bent down over the sculls, and set myself up, and pulled.

I pulled splendidly. I got well into a steady rhythmical swing. I put my arms, and my legs, and my back into it. I set myself a good, quick, dashing stroke, and worked in really grand style. My two friends said it was a pleasure to watch me. At the end of five minutes, I thought we ought to be pretty near the weir, and I looked up. We were under the bridge, in exactly the same spot that we were when I began, and there were those two idiots, injuring themselves by violent laughing. I had been grinding away like mad to keep that boat stuck still under that bridge. I let other people pull up backwaters against strong streams now.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Floors, continued

Because changing your house around is almost as memorable as going on a trip, and because I was inspired by a blog pal to put in our new flooring in the first place, I thought I'd add some pictures and show off just what we've done to the place.

The idea for our new floor came from Christina from Mausi. Her February post on her new kitchen floor (designed to look like flagstones, but much easier to install and cheaper too) got me started researching similar options here. With the help of our flat's owner (the most accomodating landlady in the history of tenantry), our own version was installed with very little trouble - a laminate that looks just like parquet.

Truly the only hitch in the whole plan was that I had to pretend to be a mute Czech person for several days while we got the floor installed (our landlady didn't want my American accent to drive up the price). The results were worth it though, and on the last day after everyone was paid and I could speak again, Caroline and I danced around on our new floor and I thanked the installers in my awful Czech. Then we all drank our instant coffee together with great comraderie before the floor layers left with their carefully stowed cash and our old carpet (to be turned into more cash? We didn't ask, but it didn't show up in the trash).

The next day the painter came and the next adventure began. Luckily we paid ahead of time so I didn't have to pretend anything, and he finished his work in one long day.

It is amazing what a lick of paint around the place will do - while Will still hasn't decided if he can see any difference between our old white (and grottily grimey) carpet and the new floor, he did tell me the other day that he thought the painting had turned out rather nice.

Floor before painting
After painting

Friday, June 29, 2007

Happy Birthday C!!

Today is Caroline's birthday, Happy 4th C, we love you!!

New floors, fun colors

This week we’re putting down new floors, plastering and painting a few rooms in one fell swoop. Because of the chaos (and because I’m missing my normal work perch and have moved into C’s play area) Caroline has spent a lot of time out of the house, visiting our babysitters and their families. But despite babysitter camp occupying her days, she still keeps careful track of our progress and at night her pretend is all about painting.

Today when Caroline woke up, her first words were, “Can I come out to see the painter man?” I picked her up, pajamas and all, and we peeked into the room, while she explained to me that our wall, it was yellow, but the man would paint it blue and in the end it would be green!

Green walls I’m sort of hoping to avoid, but it was pretty cool to hear her thoughts on color mixing. We spent our breakfast adding up colors. Our favorite sum: bright red chairs topped with a yellow lemon pointing to C’s play table - deep orange, of course.

Breakfasted and dressed, Caroline trooped off to the zoo, discussing painting technique with her sitter in her variety of Czenglish. First nahoru, then dolu, you know? Up and down. Vis?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Drums, horn, the opening bars to “Fanfare for the Common Man” sound. I stand at our bookshelves, and try to decide what to read to such music. I stand as straight as can be, and laugh when I find myself ready to put hand to heart. Then I remember - it is nearly July. Already, the Ambassador’s invitation to a July 4th reception hangs on our refrigerator, reminding me it is midsummer.

The music nudges memories of other 4ths too - watching fireworks over the Capitol from the banks of the Potomac; picnics on my grandparents’ farm surrounded by hundreds of relatives and family friends; a pig picking along the North Edisto, where food came second to the freedom of running wild with cousins, lighting sparklers, swinging from ropes into the cold black river; later, playing Barber and Copland to audiences melting in the heat of south Georgia, still gracious enough to thank us for the music.

Now, I’m always thankful it isn’t as hot here as it is in the South this time of year, but I miss the celebration. We celebrate the 4th mostly by explaining its significance to our friends. This 4th we’ll be in the middle of coming back from one trip before heading off to another one. We don’t have any plans (the Embassy party is this week to avoid the Czech holidays) but tonight as the music plays, I decide that I’ll celebrate by listening to all the Copland and Barber in my collection; I’ll gather up Gershwin and Charles Ives, John Cage and George Crumb, and hit play.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Summer Solstice

Rain has fallen all across middle Europe today, hiding the sun and the solstice. This afternoon I snapped a shot of our balcony before the sun could completely disappear. I've got strep throat, and couldn't celebrate the day as I might wish, but I did enjoy sitting on the step between our bedroom and balcony, waiting for the storm to break. It arrived in great claps of thunder, no lightning to be seen, and then a massive downpour.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Summer means travel

A few Fridays ago a very nice guy from Czech Radio interviewed me about living in Prague as an expat. Maybe it was the hiking map I’d just bought and the beautiful weather waiting just outside the café, maybe it seemed a safe angle to take, but my answers had a decided slant to them. You can judge for yourself:

Why did you move to the Czech Republic?
Because we wanted to travel more and knew we wouldn’t have time if we lived in the U.S.

What do you see is the difference between Czechs and Americans?
Czechs are more experienced travelers, at least in part because they have a great deal more vacation time than Americans!

What do you like to do on the weekends?
Travel around the countryside.

A tak dal.

By the end of the conversation, I’m pretty sure the interviewer had decided I was a travel nut and as granola-y as they come. He asked me if I’d ever consider moving outside the city to the country (since I apparently spend all my time there). Citified as I am, and never having been asked this particular question, I was caught off guard and vehemently said “no way!” My reasons were pretty weak and I believe I mentioned an overweening love of vegetable stores and potable coffee at least three times before I stopped burbling and changed the subject.

It was an interesting question though, and I whiled away some time on the subject while walking back to my office.

Why I prefer to live in a city:
1. I love to walk and get somewhere I need to go. I love that I can walk for kilometers around Prague and still be in an interesting area and not on a highway.
2. A house in the country requires a lot of work. I begrudge time spent changing light bulbs. At times I do wish I had that maintenance bone in my body, as I love visiting chatas and camping out in the country, but I just don't possess it.
3. I like living in a place with enough people for me to blend in with and be ignored on those days when I don't feel like chatting.
4. In a city there is always a new person to meet. (See, I’m not a misanthrope!)
5. Have I mentioned vegetables? There are four veggie shops within one block of our flat. They compete to see who has cilantro, even in the winter.
6. In a city, there is always something new to experience: a new restaurant, an exhibit, concerts, new playgrounds. This is also why I like to travel.
7. I like the idea that there is an English bookstore within a few blocks of our house, just in case.
8. And then, there is the coffee.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Southern Bohemia weekend

Left to right, top to bottom: 1. Caroline poses with coaster 2. Tabor town square 3. Třeboň spa 4. Třeboň's river folk 5. Caroline assembles a bouquet 6. Gateway to Český Krumlov 7. Sky view from Krumlov castle 8. Moat garden around Třeboň 9. Peonies in spa garden

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Weekend in the Sun

This weekend we drove to Tabor, Třebon and Cesky Krumlov to visit our babysitters at their spa and to introduce Czech towns to my father. The weather continued hot but the skies were magnificent and this picture from Cesky Krumlov shows off the amazing light we revelled in all weekend.

Added bonus - if you peek closely you might even be able to find Caroline watching the boaters slip over the weir! (She is not in the stroller, as she emphatically reminded me ;-).

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Scenes with a three year old

I may have to rethink movies with Caroline. This just in after a particularly painful thirty minute reenactment of cousin Colin in The Secret Garden. In case you don't remember the 1993 movie adaptation, bed-ridden Colin has a powerful set of lungs and the ability to throw himself heedlessly to the floor in a fit worthy of a three year old's awe. Tonight after watching the movie with me, Caroline rehearsed Colin’s tantrum in lieu of going to bed. She particularly worked on the high pitched screams interspersed with sobbing bit. When I started to sing along to match her highest shriek, she giggled but kept up the show until I turned off the lights and left her to her own devices. She is now humming to herself somewhere around middle C. Peace in our time.

C’s adoption of Colin at his worst isn’t too surprising. She has a habit of admiring the bad guy in a movie. During The Incredibles phase our household went through a year ago, Caroline liked to pretend she was the Bad Boy (aka Syndrome) and imagined every shoe into a rocket boot. When we pull out Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers, she hales Feathers the penguin as an old friend. I’ve caught C practicing speedy rail laying with her train set in case she needs to help Feathers out in his next venture. At least Feathers keeps his voice down.

And really, Caroline’s not so chatty either - talking about her day ranks way below flossing teeth on her list of fun things to do. She does like to act though. Today while we waited to sign her up for kindergarten, she tagged behind one prospective school mate, following him everywhere until he climbed up a slide backwards. Marie and I had just told her in both Czech and English not to climb up that very slide, and she obediently watched without following him, but then she turned to us and, flat of hand gesturing towards boy, twisted her mouth and narrowed her eyes so that we all could know she was thinking, "And yet, HE can climb the slide?" "Our little actress," Marie said, "our herečka." (Sadly, despite her example of instantaneous cross cultural communication, C did not get into that kindergarten - we're holding our thumbs for the next).

Ultimately, while Will and I might shake our heads and imagine that Caroline suffers a severe case of Paradise Lost syndrome (that classic condition most readers of Milton fall prey to, characterized by guilty admiration for the evilest character in Christiandom), I suspect that C just realizes most bad guys get juicy parts and short lines - just right for a less than chatty actress, with a world of faces at her command.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Spring arrives at kolo kolo

This weekend we made jam. Strawberries, mixed with sugar and lemon and stirred into a bubbly froth of jam. Strawberries, lifted from their paintbox of color in the windows of our greengrocer, a red so red the purple pink radish in the next box vibrated ever so slightly out of key.

I started the jam first thing Saturday morning, before coffee and after tea, after peanut butter toast but before Caroline woke up. I can’t make pancakes in the morning without burning them, but pouring a kilo of sugar into a pan, squeezing 2 lemons and mashing a pound of berries I can do. While I stirred (over low heat until all the sugar is absorbed, and then over high), Will washed our empty jam jars from last summer’s grocery spree in France and made more toast to test out the first sampling.

"Jam is ready when a spoonful of liquid gels when dropped onto a cool plate," the recipe said.

The next drop met bread. The first jar disappeared in two days.

Our babysitters don’t quite trust my cooking, and this morning Teta waved off an offer of a taste with a reminder that she was on a diet. "13 days and 5 kilos so far!" she said. She’s eating rohlik and grilled chicken, and as much iceberg lettuce as she wants. On occasion she'll drink coffee too.

But she made Caroline toast for breakfast and conceded to use the jam. It wasn’t peanut butter, after all, and we didn’t have anything else in the pantry. (Our sitters feel that peanut butter should only be consumed by Americans over the age of consent). Caroline ate all her toast and asked for more, and then Teta asked me, was it was possible I had made this jam, it had such a nice smell and what was the recipe? Teta, here’s the recipe for you - it goes well with rohliky too.