Wednesday, April 30, 2008

And now for the real thing...

Good thing we practiced the trip over the weekend. Now to see if we can make it in the dark ;-).

I'll be back in a few days!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Driving practice

This weekend we decided to practice driving to the maternity hospital once again. Now, I suspect that in most cities driving from one major highway to another and then pulling off onto a short side road to visit the largest hospital in the area might not be something to be overly worried about, but Prague is a city averse to navigational convention. Highways, while named on maps, demonstrate a modestness when met that is amazing to see. They don't flaunt their numbers, they'd never overwhelm you with a compass point. If they admit to their existence at all, it's to state where they head to - neighborhood, town or city.

We found the highway to our hospital by following signs to Vienna, and then veering onto the road to Nuremberg (three hours west, in Germany). Finding our way in the first place took a try try again approach. We wanted to make sure we could find it again when circumstances might be a little more stressed. Hence our rehearsal drive, Sunday.

I should say right here that I’m a fan of cars. I love traveling out of the city to visit green hills and castles, to drink beer and eat pickled cheese in pubs discovered by chance. I like being able to turn on the radio loud and listen to driving music without having to wear headphones, and I really like being able to take back roads to mysterious places not marked on the map and figure out how to get home from there.

My family, however, does not share my enthusiasm. As soon as Caroline gets in a car she rotates between discussing her sensitive stomach and demanding to stop for a hamburger. Will grits his teeth, eulogizes public transportation, and loses all ability to navigate himself from point A to point B, even if those two points are around the block from each other. I keep a plastic bag in our glove compartment for Caroline (handy for those moments when she really does throw up) and there are times when, ten minutes into a trip, I feel like pulling it over my head and gently pulling the tabs taught.

To avoid family contention (and diminution) we don’t drive much. The last time we filled up our gas tank, we were on our way home from a Christmas trip in late December. We still have half a tank of gas to go before we face the sticker shock of gas prices, I'm guessing June will mark our next trip to a gas station. Due to extenuating circumstances however (the eminent arrival of child #2) and my lack of desire to take a taxi while in labor, Will has agreed to drive to the hospital when the time comes. To make sure we get there, we've added rehearsals to our Sunday schedules.

These practice drives have served us well, because while we still have never returned home from the hospital the same way twice, we’ve finally worked out how to get there, and all that practice has given me a chance to put together a photo map of the route for Will. I'm planning on taping it to the windshield so that I can take comfort in knowing that, even if I lose the ability to formulate sentences such as TURN RIGHT NOW, I DONT CARE IF IT SAYS AMSTERDAM, we may still make it to the maternity ward before the baby is born.

By the end of our rehearsal drive Sunday, Caroline had turned pale green from all the twisty roads we'd taken to reach home. Calling the trip done, she and I stumbled out of the car several blocks short of home and claimed an outside table at a café nearby. Will parked and found us sitting there a while later, soaking in the sun. He sat down, ordered a beer to match our apple juice, and peace reigned for several minutes. I revelled in the sunshiney weather and the knowledge that our flat was only a few short blocks away - ahh city living. Then Caroline demanded to know when we were heading to McDonalds, she was hungry, and could we go through the drive-in?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"At least they didn't shoot out the window this time"*

Two in the morning, we woke up to our downstairs neighbors giggling in the hallway while they tried to fit key to door and stumble into their flat. I heard the clink clink of vodka glasses and then the loudest fellow, in a rush of enthusiasm, flung himself onto his balcony and started to bellow. No one answered, and after a few more romantically sobbing rants, he came inside, his friends settled him down and the party turned up its music as loud as it could go. Ukrainian turbo pop, meet the rest of the world. Do check out the purple pants suit in the sample below:

Glassy-eyed and on edge from an overdose of synthesized flute music set to an oompa beat, I woke at six and steeled myself for our neighborly construction workers to start their day. No sound came. An hour later, still no creak creak crashes. We opened the windows, checked again for their tell-tale beany hats and realized the date of today.

Ukrainian Pascha has just begun. The construction workers (almost all from the Ukraine) are on holiday. So are our neighbors. We figure we’re in for a weekend of late night celebrating, but if it means we can sleep late for three days, that’s one trade off I’m willing to take.

* Quote from Will, on the increasing regard for safety our neighbors display as they grow older.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Going green the easy way - life without a dryer

Did you see last weekend's New York Times magazine on going green? Will pointed it out to me yesterday, noting that even without trying we were going green because we recycle, walk to work, drive a car rarely, have no air conditioning or central heat, and don’t use a dryer. Since we live in a city where most of our neighbors could say the same thing, I didn’t think we should gloat, but it did make me think about dryers a bit more. Because according to the NYT, they use up to 10 times more energy than a washing machine, and are second only to the refrigerator as the top energy-eating household appliance. The magazine even featured a long paragraph on "Project Laundry List", discussing one guy's clothes line advocacy movement.

Clothes lines: shudder the thought, right? When American friends talk to me about drying clothes without a dryer, one of the first things they say is, "I don’t have a place outside where I can hang my clothes to dry." What they mean is, "I really don’t want to have to haul a heavy basket of clothes to a stand outside, only to wrestle with face-smackingly wet sheets, sundries and clothes pins and then pray it doesn’t rain. I don’t want all my clothes on display to the world, let’s leave that for old timey photos of Hell’s Kitchen or picturesque images of back streets in Italy."

And I understand that, really I do. Growing up, my sister and I used to play in the side yard of our great-great aunt‘s house that still had the rusty drying racks standing at attention in the tall grass. This yard was so out of the way and such a throwback to another time, we would only venture there if we got chased into it, or needed a quick exit through the fence to the yard next door. Drying racks seemed as ancient as dinosaurs to me then and I didn't give them another thought for years.

Then I moved to Prague, where gas and electric dryers are rare and expensive, and if you find one, only dry clothes halfway. Here, through trial, error and a series of educational lectures presented by our babysitters, I learned how to easily dry clothes inside our flat without a dryer. I thought you might be interested too:

Use a drying rack, not a clothes line.
Clothes lines are space inefficient and rotten for your back. Hang clothes on a clothes rack. You'll save a ton of space and find that hanging clothes at hip height avoids clothespins, is easy on your spine, and you can hang several loads at a time. When I did a quick search through Amazon I found a drying rack pretty similar to what we use.

Hang your clothes with forethought
Wrinkly clothes are a natural byproduct of hanging to dry, right? Not if you follow our babysitters' maxims:
1. Pull button downs immediately from the washer and hang them on hangers to dry.
2. Hang knits, towels and sheets on their first fold. Hanging them on their first fold means when you pull them off the rack, not only are they fairly smooth, but you’ve started the folding process already.
3. Stretch out knits and make sure sleeves, toes, legs are not bunched up when you hang them. This makes them easier to fold later anyway.
4. Give your clothes room, don't scrunch them up.
5. Hang lighter clothes in the middle of the rack, heavier (and wetter) clothes on the edges.
6. Hang bigger clothes first, socks and small things last - this avoids having to redistribute later.

Take the crunch out of towels and blue jeans
True, blue jeans and fluffy towels are the hardest clothes to dry by rack (accidental pun, I promise). We switched to waffle weave towels that don’t hold as much water as regular towels. After you've used them once, they are just as soft as their mechanically dried compatriots. For blue jeans, a quick snap or two gets rid of most of the crispiness.

Drying by air doesn't have to take forever
Use your air vents/radiators/fans to speed up the process. I’ve washed and dried four loads of laundry in a day using fans. Radiators are even faster. And if you need to dry something really quickly, an iron works wonders.

Do you have drying rack tips? Send them over if you please!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Not exactly OSHA approved

Saturday morning, 7:30, crash, hallo!! Another crash, then a drill sounds vrrrzzz.

I pull a pillow over my head and sleep for thirty more minutes. It's just the neighbors, off their coffee break.

Like many buildings in our neighborhood, the house next door is under renovation. This one has stood almost empty since we moved here. I toured it three years ago, stepping carefully because the floors had rotted from a leaky roof and inattention. Only a caretaker still lived there, nearly always drunk, the ancient key keeper. Now he's gone, the building is sold and the new owner is remodeling from top to bottom. After six months of work, his crew has finished the roof. This quarter's project is the elevator.

Everything about this job is hand-labor oriented. The guys built the scaffolding in tinker toy fashion, and every now and then a pipe or one of the slats standing in as floor will fall to many curses from below. Each of those bricks you see here got lifted by pulley brick by brick (not crane or elevator, which is slightly unusual). Twenty-one days of pulley squeaks into the project, I have the feeling I've been helping too.

The workers are half old school and half new - you can tell by their outfits. The older guys wear one-color overalls and little hats that puff up at the top and don't fit over the crowns of their heads. The younger guys wear well-worn sports clothes and hiking boots. Mostly they don't wear hats, but when they do, they wear baseball caps with the brims pulled well down. There are no hard hats on site.

Even though the crew works seven days a week and starts each day at six in the morning, the pace of work is incredibly slow. The guys spend much of their time watching what is happening in our building, and if I so much as lift a blind three people will stop work to see what the stir is about. When I water our plants on the balcony the entire construction project stops. I feel like I'm a panda in the zoo, though I doubt the pandas comb their hair before they go on stage to eat their bamboo.

I watch them too though, and when I am resting and have run out of books to read, I count a wheelbarrow rising up, twisting and turning on the pulley, as high entertainment. Then the next brick goes past, some timber falls from the sky, hallos sound and life settles back to squeak squeak vrzzzz.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

An Equal Music

The smell of rosin on a bow, the satisfaction of slow scales played with a partner, the sleepy somnolence of working a piece through in your head just before sleep - I miss these things. I forget them too. Viktor Seth lent them back to me this week, in his novel An Equal Music.

I’ve read An Equal Music before, quickly. This read, with bed rest time to spin through, I read it page by page, at half tempo. It was delicious. Seth recreates the world of a violinist in a string quartet, bringing in the human element of chamber music, and, more bravely, the music. Music is frustratingly difficult to write about - what seems glorious to experience becomes trite on a page, or simply does not show up. But Seth does it well, mixing chewably real details with tone poem text to help you hear the music.

Or almost. After the first few pages, when he really started to dig into the sound, I had to stop reading and start looking up pieces so I could hear them too. Some of them I've played and know well, like Mozart’s Sonata in E Major, and the Prelude to Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 3. Others I could only find as snippets on iTunes and Amazon. A snippet wasn't enough, but I didn’t want to download entire albums (classical music used CDs have a higher sound quality and are cheaper than buying digital). After a day of searching the web for individual pieces, I thought of YouTube.

Not all the music mentioned is there, but about half of it is, and I made up a list for anyone who needs to hear, straight away, some of the music in the book before they can locate a CD. And as an extra bonus, the old recordings of players like Nathan Milstein, Jacqueline du Pré and Glen Gould are remarkable in their own right, not just as introductions to the music in the book.

Ralph Vaughn Williams: "The Lark Ascending" Janine Jansen

Mozart: Sonata for Piano and Violin in E minor, K. 304, Hilary Hahn

J.S. Bach: The Art of the Fugue, Contrapunctus 1, recent Glen Gould and younger Glen Gould, slightly out of tune but also beautiful.
Partita for Violin Solo No. 3 in E BWV 1006, Preludio, Nathan Milstein

Beethoven Piano Trio in C Minor, op. 1. no. 3, Allegro Con Brio, Isaac Stern, Eugene Istomin, piano, and Leonard Rose on cello.

Franz Schubert: Piano Quintet in A, "The Trout"
For a complete recording, follow the movements through this link. To see one of the most famous concerts of the Trout, featuring Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline Du Pré, Zubin Mehta and Pinchas Zukerman, try these excerpts: cello snippets; 3rd movement; 4th movement; documentary of concert.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sun on Door

I'm pretty fond of the doors in our neighborhood. When the sun comes out and shadows show off the designs carved into panelings, they become irresistible.

This door is about to get scraped and repainted, along with the rest of its house. I thought I'd post a portrait for posterity.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A salad is whatever you want it to be

I'm not tremendously mobile right now, but I do try to get outside briefly every day. Today's walk was inspired by a recipe in Gourmet, and modified by Prague and pregnancy. I've posted my version of the recipe below:

Octopus Salad

The night before
Receive latest copy of Gourmet. Flip quickly past nearly all food in magazine due to its heavy meat and pasta orientation. Discover photo shoot of exceptionally beautiful octopus salad. Decide said salad is a nutritional necessity for sustaining life while pregnant. Eat several sticks of celery to compensate for saladless evening.

Day of salad
Contemplate octopus sources in Prague. Rule out nearby aquarium as too pacifist and fish store downtown as too far. Recall Greek deli nearby!

Slowly proceed toward deli. Soak up sun while walking. Since pace is so snail-like, notice an unvisited electronics store. Unnerve shop keeper by expressing interest in voltage meters.* Mollify his sensibilities by purchasing glue gun and glue sticks instead. Continue to Greek store.

Purchase marinated octopus and other essentials (greek yogurt with honey is an essential).

Return home, keeping on the sunny side.

Chop up octopus (save out one tentacle), add chopped bits to salad bowl.

Chop carrots, celery and parsley, add to salad. Pour a lemon’s worth of juice and the marinated oil from the octopus container over the salad. Stir and salt to taste.

Share tentacle with Caroline and babysitter when they return from playground. Give babysitter a mountain of credit for bravely smiling throughout taste test.

Encourage salad to marinate by itself until dinner, request Caroline follow salad's lead.

Serve salad with toasted pita bread, grape leaves, and eggplant spread.

Delicious. Nutritional crisis averted. Time for the yogurt!

*We have electronic issues in our flat that cause light bulbs to live short lives. I want to know why.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

And now the tune to "Zajicek v sve jamce"

A few days ago, my friend Karla of rabbit blog fame asked about the music to the song C taught me last week. Karla is in the midst of wrapping up her dissertation and applying to schools next year - in my mind, decidedly in need of being pampered with cookies or, perhaps, a new tune to hum. Since Prague to Pittsburgh is a hike for cookies, I decided to send her a tune. I searched around the web for simple (free) notation software, found it at Finale, and wrote out the song. At first try, the software appears too basic to let me use diacritics and as many hyphens as the text might need, but I think you can get the idea.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Portrait at 36 weeks

I took this picture today as I was about to run out the door (or rather walk in tiny, mincing steps as quickly as possible) to meet a friend for coffee. I liked it because it highlights the belly and shows off a present Will made for me, just framed and ready to hang.

Anyone want to guess what's in the frame?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Pre-assembly instructions, or, what I learned from a manual last night

Caroline wants to know how she is put together. "What’s inside my tongue?" she’ll ask, or "What do ribs look like?", and of course, "How do babies get borned?" The internet is great for answers to these important questions, and I look out for sites that have just the right amount of info for her - pictures that illustrate without being gruesome, that show just what she’s asking for rather than overwhelm with details.

Yesterday I found a drawing that showed the inside of a pregnant woman’s belly at 36 weeks. "That’s me!" I said and C and I poured over the picture to figure out just how the baby could fit into that tight squeeze of a belly and where other organs normally present had wandered off to.

It was no surprise to find that my lungs are stuffed into a space about 70% the size of their normal home, and that the baby is headbutting my bladder. What I did find amazing was the sight of liver and stomach lodged high beneath Ms. 36-weeks' ribs. I pondered this for a bit, and even dragged Will over to see the view, but then Caroline got tired of torsos, and we switched to dressing up Max and his sister Ruby, over at Nickjr.

Last night, hunger struck in the early hours of the morning and my stomach started growling. I patted my belly in solidarity (comfort was all it could hope for that late). Then the illustration flashed in front of me and I realized I was patting the baby’s shoulder and side, not my stomach. But wait, where were those hunger pangs coming from? With thought they disappeared and they’ve stayed gone ever since.

This morning, C asked me how her feet grew. I was relieved. Discussing feet expansion seems like a nice safe subject - guaranteed to not keep a person up at night chasing elusive hunger pangs in what might be the silliest self-inflicted case of insomnia yet.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Language lessons

Caroline wants to add a new song to our going to bed repertory. It's a Czech song and I don’t know the words, so I promise to learn them from Teta Jarka and sing it tomorrow night.

But no. "Now!" she says, in a four year old sort of way. When I tell her I can’t, that I really don’t know it, she says "That’s okay Mommie." Then she starts, very slowly, to sing a phrase at a time, getting me to sing phrases back to her just the same. She even stops and corrects my pronunciation, and I make my lazy tongue work hard to sound Czech.

Afterwards, I can’t remember most of the words because I spend the lesson wondering when this jump in language arrived, and how C learned to teach someone to sing a song so slowly and still get the words just right.

After Caroline falls asleep I go to Google and look up Czech nursery songs until I find it:

Zajíček v své jamce
sedí sám, sedí sám.
Ubožáčku, co je ti,
že nemůžeš skákati?
Chutě skoč, a vyskoč!

Little rabbit in your den,
sitting alone, sitting alone,
poor little thing, why is it
that you cannot jump?
Try* to hop,
hop and skip!

The song is so apt somehow, such a good nudge for me and language learning, that I laugh when I translate it. Maybe it is time to hop out of my den of comfortably bad Czech and try again to hop and skip in this language C shares with me so patiently.

*Want or desire to hop would be a closer translation but somehow try works better in English.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Messing with your mind, and it’s not even April Fool’s Day

I stumbled on this cool experiment when we had friends over for brunch this weekend and I wanted to keep the kids entertained. In place of mimosas to start their day, C and her friend bound books by hole punch*, then, in between chasing each other around the house, spent a good thirty minutes writing „stories“ and illustrating them. (How I love crafty kids, especially in the morning, it keeps the noise down.)

When the books were nearly done, and my daily cup of tea had fully kicked in, I showed the kids how to draw with two pens at the same time using two hands. They thought this very cool, and we pulled out extra paper to play with.

Here’s the trick: decide on a symmetrical picture to draw. Then, starting at the top of your paper, two hands and pens together, start drawing down the page, making your lines mirror each other. Flowers, hearts, airplanes, they all work.

This wasn’t revolutionary to me - symmetry makes sense with our brains and I play this game all the time. But then I thought I’d try writing with left and right hands going in the same direction at the same time. And bam, realized how easy it is. It seems that by writing at the same time with both hands, your brain is tricked into supplying coordination to your non-dominant hand.

To get the full effect try this:
1. First write your name with your off hand. It will most likely look like chicken scribble. This will be satisfying later.
2. Next write your name with both hands, same direction. This should be considerably easier than the first attempt (even Will, who is a skeptic about such experiments, was impressed by the change).
3. Now write your name with your off hand, while using a finger from your dominant hand to trace your name at the same time. You should still feel the benefit of the right hand coordination.

Wacky. Fun! Did it work for you? I am brainstorming how to adopt this trick into something more useful than party entertainment. Ideas welcome!

*Hole-punched book, bound by popsicle stick and rubber band - example here.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The sun comes out at the end of the season

Davidson’s student body is home from Detroit now, back from the NCAA tournament and a weekend of glorious basketball that ended, improbably, with one shot bounced off Davidson’s backboard. Sunday night’s game lasted till nearly 1:30 am here, and I couldn’t sleep afterwards, replaying the last seconds of the game and the dice roll that ended Davidson’s run.

I woke up gloomy, determined to avoid the news so I wouldn’t have to read sports reports and the articles spouting "just as I predicted". (Why sports journalists care so much about being right in retrospect is beyond me. When a game is lost by two points in the last five seconds, who can call the better team?).

A kind friend let me replay the game at lunch on Monday. Then she asked if I minded the weather - sunny finally, and warm - a contrast from the gloominess of Davidson not winning. Not at all I replied. Sun means spring and summer. Prague as paradise starts now.

Walking home and back to work, I realized it was true. The sun swept away my morning mood. I took my time strolling up our street and watched neighbors go about their business - most of them lingering outside too before going into stores and offices, or boarding trams to downtown.

An older lady stood in front of a travel agency, inspecting trips to Greece. She glanced through the plate-glass window, tucked a brochure into her purse and straightened her silk scarf before walking on. A young woman with child in stroller carefully folded back the carriage top so that the sun could reach her (still) well-swaddled baby. Teenagers lounged in groups in front of the high school, sunning themselves in poses as cool as they could assume without setting up lounge chairs.

Arriving home, I shook out my keys and pushed open the heavy front door. I stepped from the warmth of the sidewalk to the coolness of our hall and was nearly ready for work. First I thought I might read what the news had to say about Davidson’s team nearly beating the biggest Goliath they’d played yet.