Sunday, November 28, 2010

First Sunday in Advent

Caroline looks forward to the first day of Advent for months because, as she says, it's candle lighting time! Advent wreath candles, that is, helping C count down those long-for-her weeks until Christmas.

Since our wreaths are made out of fir and dry out quickly, I usually wait until the very first day of Advent to buy one, visiting the local floral store and the fancier shops in the malls. This year we didn't find anything we perfectly liked, and I had just about decided to buy the most passable version and prune it to satisfaction when I remembered that some of our Czech friends make their own wreaths.

Sure enough, a little digging around in our local shop turned up ribbonless wreaths, candles to spec and all the decoration you might want. We picked up a tiny mushroom in honor of Eurolush, golden pine cones which reminded me of the South, and dried cinnamon and oranges for C who thought they smelled divine.

Just before dinner, we constructed our wreath - C shows you how. Her favorite addition, held in the wings till last, is the angel given to her by one of the ladies in a neighborhood store. It was a present given to her for a smile and a long question in Czech. For her it represents serendipity, for me it's a reminder that behind stern public faces there are soft hearts. Soft hearts and hands that make beautiful wreaths, then light their candles in our December dark.

Thanksgiving in Prague

We don't take time off for the long Thanksgiving weekend, though I do get a little free and easy feeling, as if I'm on vacation rather than writing proposals until midnight. That's thanks to Facebook and the holiday high my friends from home catch on Thanksgiving Eve, when everyone turns giddy for a few hours before they head off for the long weekend.

So, no Thursday holiday but we did get to reap the rewards of another friend's day off and the huge turkey feast he cooked to show the children just what Thanksgiving is all about. It was a delicious turkey, and the food nearly made me weep (since he couldn't find cream of mushroom soup for the green beans he substituted bechamel, he's that kind of guy). The kids thought our story of the pilgrims and Indians more interesting than the food, but at least we all agreed that the crunchy Thai dried onion mix (our local replacement for french fried onions) was good on just about everything, not just the green beans.

Prague Thanksgivings come in at least twos, sometimes more, and Saturday is our traditional fancy dinner, celebrated with another set of friends, no children, until the wee hours of the night. This was our eighth year together, and there is something so civilized about being able to talk through a meal that we haven't yet invited the kids, though we did debate it. We eventually decided that as soon as they like turkey, they can come.

Next year it's my turn to host the kids for a Thursday night meal. We'll tell stories, I'll have onion mix and ketchup ready at hand to spice up the turkey and mashed potatoes. And I'll look forward to our Saturday night supper, sans children, but full of fun, good conversation and long lasting memories. Cheers to you Miss Marjorie C!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


Before school started, I flew over to the States for my grandmother's 90th birthday and a whirlwind weekend in NYC. My battery did not last through the trip, but I did take a few hundred or so pictures, and particularly liked the two that top the collage. They just looked so New York to me.

The pictures on the bottom row stand as my Czech contrast. The first is the front of Hotel Pariz, downtown, and the second is a picture from way back in September on Caroline's first day of second grade.

She's having fun this semester, thanks in part to being back in her old classroom with her old teacher and all of her friends from first grade. Theoretically, that means she can concentrate on other, more important, bits of school. An interview with C about what those bits might be goes something like this:

Interested Parent: Learn anything new today?
C: Ummmm, nope.
IP: Nothing at all? How did Math go?*
C: Hm...I can't remember. Oh, I know! I learned how to boil rice in a bag today, so we don't have to steam it any more!**

* Every now and again we like to tax our brains with the odd problems in Caroline's 2nd grade math work book. The hardest are so cleverly illogical they've stumped even the professor in the family for a good ten minutes.

** C thinks we're crazy to eat sticky rice from a rice steamer and keeps trying to tempt me with tales from the cafeteria of goopy Czech rice covered in sauce. I may have to send her to South Carolina for some rice habilitation!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

I'm with the band

Imagine, if you will, a project that keeps on growing, time frames that can't, and hot hot weather pushing house temperatures up past 90. Antidotes included working long hours, ice packs as foot rests and the occasional stop to smell the flowers and take a few pictures.

Caroline has been at camp for two weeks but we're picking her up tomorrow and James cannot wait. He's in a stage where he loves all things Caroline. Since she's been gone, he's insisted on sleeping in her bed every night and he helped me pick out this picture of the two of them today.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Caroline blogs on her birthday

This morning was very wonderful. It was so cool because today is my birthday. For breakfast I had a chocolate croissant and an egg and also tea out of my special tea cup. It is a special tea cup because it is Mommie’s and mine. On the teacup is a picture of a frog. His name is Jeremy Fisher. I got dressed after breakfast. I put on a short sleeve stripy t-shirt, jeans with picasu and my blue heart necklace. I then brushed my hair. My hair today is short because yesterday I went to the hairdresser. The hairdresser is my favorite hair dresser because the name of the store has my name in it. It is Salon Karolina. I like short hair because now I can brush it by myself. The End.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fore and Aft

popcorn flowers
In a few weeks these flowers will be gone, to be replaced by the children's favorite entertainment on a country walk - little white berries that go !pop! when you step on them.

C picked this bouquet for me, and after we'd marvelled over the cute little freckles on the flowers, we decided that the best way to keep them forever would be for us to take their portrait.

So I did. Here it is Caroline!

Friday, June 04, 2010

A Day at the Spa

collage of Lazne Belohrad, Czech Republic
We've visited spas before at Kolokolo, heading to Třebon three times in the last few years. This year our sitters went to new spa just north of Prague in Lázně Bělohrad. After giving them a few weeks to discover the best cukarna in town, we went to visit.

The spas our sitters stay in are health oriented, not aesthetic, and this particular spa focuses on peat bath treatments and lots of exercise. We didn't try the mud baths, but we did go on a walk around the town and into the countryside, passing by the {1} fields of new wheat as we walked. Most of the spa buildings are new, but {2} this one is a reconstructed building that was part of the original spa built in the late 1800s.

All of the spa buildings were in beautiful shape, and the town nearby was bustling and full of commercial life. Once we walked downtown to the main square, we discovered the unreconstructed side of the town, including {3} Lázně Bělohrad's local chateau. It may be crumbling into decay, but its guardian eagle still stands proudly by the main doors. I liked the irises the town planted to keep the eagle company. {4} The main square is a mix of Asian dry good stores and Czech butchers. The facades are beautiful but, like the chateau, crumbly.

{5} I thought it apt that the most prominent building in town was not the chateau, or the city hall but...a pharmacy.

{6} Walking in the countryside, we passed carefully maintained gardens and country cottages, and this well channeled stream. It seemed a lively answer to the {center} town map I found stenciled on the chateau's wall.

cukarna = sugar shop, or candy store. A very Czech version of a coffee/ice cream parlor, they usually stock any candy you can imagine and are delightfully child friendly in a way that a formal coffee house is not.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The World Outside Her Door

We're in the middle of a bad weather stretch of days - rain and chilly temperatures. My tomato plants are not pleased. The weekend promises better things though, and in anticipation I've updated kolokolo a bit. I widened my template to make room for bigger pictures, changed the colors (yet again), and added a new, probably temporary, header. Funny how a little sprucing up can make everything feel cheery again!
All the photos in this collage are from May and a particularly valiant sunny day. C, if you can't see her, is standing in our building's hallway about to head out. I made sure to be armed with my camera that day because I knew the light would be beautiful on the buildings. They are all from the late 19th, early 20th century, which was when our neighborhood really came into its own. I particularly like these two towers and how different they are. One of them is a water tower and one a church tower. Can you tell which is which?

Lynn is right - the Vinohrady Water Tower is the beautiful neo-renaissance building on the left, and the Congregational Hussite Church is on the right. Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the Hussites here.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Pillar to Post

Prague photo galleries are full of black and white photos of architecture, bridges, sign posts and people from the 1950s through '89. Every image I have of the country in my mind, pre-revolution, is in black and white. As if all the color were seeped out of the landscape by the politics of Communism.

But of course Prague wasn't black and white before 1989. The city had values and variations then too. Today I decided to play with what an old photo might look like, in four color. Here are two photos I took of a resolutely Prague view - one in black and white and one, for contrast, in technicolor. Which do you like better?

Tricky, I know!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Spring storm over fields

fields of rapeseed in bloom in the Czech Republic
There are times I love the tyranny of perspective.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Springing into Two

James turned two a few weeks ago, and is on a determined bounce into growing up. He's happily moved into a big boy bed, he tries to make his own breakfast, he loves to put his train set together, he sings along with us (and Caroline's music player) and he really thinks that if he just repeats after C, he'll have conquered all the words that matter.

Caroline says he's fun these days, especially when they play The Game. When asked what The Game consists of, she explained the rules very patiently. To quote :
#1. Run around the house fast,
#2. When I see James, or he sees me, stop and scream.
#3. Run again.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Stromovka Spring + our Wolf Story

Rouchswalwe asked if Prague has reached beer garden time yet, and I'm happy to say that it has! For the last two weekends we have gone rollerblading in our favorite park - Stromovka - and in the evening, after a good several kilometers of pushing James in his stroller around the park, a beer outside is just right.

The top and bottom row of pics are from Stromovka, the middle row are on the way to a beer garden in our neighborhood.

But before I completely turn my back on Winter, one more story for Eleanor: Our family, inspired by my brother-in-law, has a history of attempting crazy outdoor adventures. This might mean snow shoeing through three meters of snow AND towing a sled behind (on the stomped down snow shoe path). Or it might involve one person biking on two bikes along the tow paths of the French canal system, because that was the fastest way for us all to get to dinner on time. The list goes on, and has led me to always carry emergency rations when I hang out with my b-i-law, a pocket knife, a match or two, bungee cords...

I'm not naturally adventurous, but these habits have grown on me, and it doesn't feel like a vacation unless we try something a little bit challenging. For our Easter trip, that something involved cross country skiing, darkening day, and two sisters who were not going to let a snow storm get in the way of their planned afternoon ski trip. Thus it was that on the evening before Easter Sunday, while snow fell, the wind blew and the residents of the Engadine valley hunkered down for the night, my sister and I set out on our Easter adventure.

The cross country paths were snowed over, but the wind was at our back, and we reasoned that we'd make ten kilometers in an hour. Three hours later, after what turned out to be my favorite trek of the holiday, we arrived home. We were tired, but content. Because no one else was out, we could ski side by side and talk the entire way. The fresh snow made the hills easy to get up and down, we'd shared a chocolate bar to keep up our energy (rations, naturally) and even though we were completely snow covered, we were happy we still had the habit of adventure. But three hours? How to explain this to the guys at home, taking care of the children? Then around the corner came the first person we'd seen all afternoon - led by his dog, bounding in the snow. And our wolf story came into being.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Winter's come and gone?

I left you in deep midwinter, full of promises of more pictures to come. I rarely apologize for not hanging about but this time I feel I owe you at least a quick catch up.

So, work work work, no time for photography, work work work and of course children. Does that sum it up?


Then how about some pictures.
(1) About a month ago, the snow in Prague began to melt, and even the drifts disappeared finally.
(2) Signs of spring began to abound, along with odd Easter trappings.
(3) So warm was it, we started to hang out in restaurant gardens, and
(4) James discovered shades.
(5) Prague stayed gray, but warmed up enough for us to take weekend walks across the river.
(6) After three months of working till midnight nonstop, it was time for a holiday. Easter break found us headed to Switzerland to meet up with my sister and her family. After trying to drive over a Swiss mountain pass in a snowstorm, we turned around and made the trip through the mountains on a car train instead. Highly recommended, magical (says me), just the right bit scary (says C). Will slept through the whole ride.
(7) The winter ends with a great milestone passed - C learns to ski in Sils, Switzerland. She's absolutely great at running up hill in her skis. (It was a prerequisite to using the tow rope - the perfect motivation!)
(8) The view from the children's ski school.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

More Blue

fence posts in perspective in the south of the Czech Republic

snow covered fields near Lipno Lake in Southern Bohemia

a snowy road back to the pension in Kovarov

Driving into Kovarov in Southern Bohemia
More pictures in blue. Every step closer to our pension on this walk made me feel I was a step closer to being warm again, and the pictures definitely said the same thing to me.

About the blue - I've been trying all winter to take an evening shot of the snow and capture the blue of night fall. In Prague the city lights turn everything yellow and I thought that I'd need a filter to find my blue. But no, all I needed to do was drive south to the border and take a walk in the countryside as the sun faded. A friend of mine (also a camera buff) walked with me and we decided that taking a walk in the country wasn't just good for pictures. I'm glad I live in the city but I love being able to get out into forests and fields when we can.

These pictures are all taken in the south of Bohemia, just below Cesky Krumlov and a few kilometers from the Austrian border. We stayed in a little lake-side pension there and spent the weekend cross-country skiing and visiting Cesky Krumlov in the snow. More pictures tomorrow!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Winter White

Or rather blue. I thought winter this year would last forever. Today it's above freezing. Before I run back to work (which has buried me much more than the snow) I thought I'd post a picture of Bohemian fields covered in snow. Stark and beautiful.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Snails in the Shell, Graffiti on the Wall

For Saturday lunches, we like to turn out fast but tasty spreads of flavor. Summer finds us bringing home food from the Lebanese deli close by, or maybe the Greek store, or the Italian grocery...cold cuts, bread, olives, cheese and something different like octopus salad or falafal and baba ghanouj.

Teeth chatteringly cold Saturdays in the winter call for something different. I headed out this morning in 15F/-9C degree weather to do our Saturday morning shopping. Living downtown, far from the megamarkets, that usually means stopping at three or four little stores along the way. I stopped at five or six just to keep my eyelashes thawed. The last was a French cheese and vegetable store, where I picked up enough cheese to satisfy the many tastes of the family and then - on a whim - twelve butter and snail filled shells.

Nestled in aluminum foil to keep from tipping their butter out, they baked for ten minutes in an oven set to 450. We each had four and dripped the juices all over toasted bread to finish up. "I love snails," Caroline said. James said "no comment at this time." Which came out, "uhmmm, cheese". Will asked me to make more tomorrow.

We've got a can of snails we brought home from France last summer. We've got butter and parsley. That seems pretty much all you need to make your own. So I will. And maybe this time I'll remember to take pictures of the shells before we scoop out all the goodness!

{The graffiti lady in the top photo seems very city-like to me, so I thought I'd add her to a post about city living. The tag above her head reads "AIR".}

Monday, January 18, 2010

Understanding Exposure, a Start

{1} Prague castle in the snow; {2} toy trumpeter braves cold, poses at 6; {3} a sledding hill straight from Breugel; {4} C, kindly putting up with me and my photo taking ways.

And another book review...

Understanding Exposure, by Bryan Peterson *****

Peterson writes like a teacher, one of your favorites maybe, the one with the knack for using simple stories to clear up complexities. He starts slowly, explaining as he goes so that you can easily keep up. He hangs memorable tags on abstractions, neatly parsing aperture scenes into three types ("storytelling", "who cares" and "single theme") so that by the time you get a few chapters in, you can already start filling in his tags before he's finished. Success.

I like that he ties theory to his own photography too, showing just where in a view he takes his metering, and why. He suggests exercises, he explains every (gorgeous and well printed) photo in his book. His method is basic, and it works. I tried all the exercises twice, and read each chapter twice too, just letting the ideas sink in. It took me a few weeks to finish, just to make sure I got it.

And it worked. I did get it. I understand exposure; shutter speed and aperture are no longer mysteries to me. Depth of field, no problem; light metering, a cinch!

At least in theory. Whenever I understand something better technically, it takes time for that technique to show up. I start thinking too much, and thinking kills my ability to see. Or maybe it's the ton of snow and children demanding sledding time. No pictures, Mommie!

Everyone needs their excuses, right?

Even Understanding Exposure. It is a fabulous all around introduction, but I did miss a few things. Peterson skips focal length completely, and he rushes through filters as if the bell were about to ring. (Really rushes, it's sort of startling).

Still, if you're just getting to know your DSLR, or want to know what to do with the M setting on your better-than-a-snap-and-shoot, I'd check the book out. I gave Understanding Exposure a 5 star review on Goodreads, and I also gave it a kiss* when I finished. High praise indeed ;-).

*Thanks Meg, I really did love it!

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Snow in the City

Enough snow for sledding arrived in Prague last night and we hurried to the park this morning to make sure we didn't miss our chance before it melted away. The snow is beautiful - powdery and perfect for sledding; not good for snow balls, says Caroline.

{1} Sleds replace strollers when the snow gets thick; {2} trees iced in snow; {3} C stops by a graffiti door; {4} James still does not believe in snow, but he humors us; {center} ready for her first ride of the day.

As always, click to see a bigger picture.

Friday, January 08, 2010

New Year books

Picture unrelated to post, here for the red berries and snow. View from Braunwald, Switzerland.

I try to write down every book I read using Goodreads, and this year I thought I'd make a point of adding a note to each title to try to remember it better. Luckily Christmas and my family were kind to me and I started the year with a nice tower of books to get through. Unless anyone objects, I think I'll start posting my list on Kolo too (more posts, what an idea!). In the meantime, here are my books read so far this January:

Peril at End House, Agatha Christie ****
The usual twisty turny Poirot plot; a perfect page turner for New Year's eve and day.

The facsimile edition added an extra star to my review - imagine a light, six inch high hardback, old-fashioned type printed on sturdy vanilla stock. The book fits just right into your hands and reads gorgeously. If you like Agatha Christie, I absolutely recommend searching out these facsimile editions, they seem to be available in the UK and Germany. If you're an expat, check The Bookdepository for the lowest prices and free shipping.

Girls in Trucks, Katie Crouch ** 1/2

Living abroad, I'm plenty nostalgic for glimpses of my hometown and the area where I grew up and if I find a book that talks about South Carolina marshes, chances are I'll read it. Remembering Katie from our childhood choir and finding Trucks on my sister's shelf turned this book into a definite addition to my reading list. For once, the details about Charleston and the lowcountry didn't disappoint and I was happy to discover that becoming a writer doesn't mean you must forget the mosquitos and stinky pluff mud that add that certain something to romantic river views.

About the book though - Girls in Trucks is marketed as a novel, but it feels more like a collection of short stories laid out in chronological order. The main characters spin in and out of the stories without resolution, the perspectives change, the language shifts - all frustrating in a novel but typical in a collection of stories. Katie is an apt short story writer too, and possesses the wit and ability to spin bon mots and endings which keep these stories satisfying and lodged in your memory.

Would I recommend Girls in Trucks? If you'd like to dip into a few chapters, yes. If you want to read a novel about a developing set of characters (particularly the protagonist), maybe not. Most of the book, I couldn't bring myself to like the main character at all. I thought a pickier editor would have split her into two - she seems sharper and possibly more autobiographical in some chapters, and then hammered into a simpler and more frustratingly destructive and sterotypical shape in another. As the book ends, she resolves too swiftly upwards in a hockey stick curve that feels editor driven. I'd recommend keeping an eye on Katie as a writer though, and trying to catch her short stories as they appear.

Sick Heart River, John Buchan ***1/2
Long descriptive passages often find me (im)patiently plodding through a page (or, hmm, just flipping right by it). John Buchan's descriptions are another story - he writes words into pictures with such clarity I read them again and again to enjoy the view along with the fast paced plots and characters I'd love to meet.

Buchan's last book, Sick Heart River, has a slower plot pace and is much more introspective than the rest of his books. The painterly descriptions remain, and because of the slower pace, they stand out even more than usual as graceful, unusual images.

It is in many ways a final book - like most authors closing down their imagined world, Buchan spends a good bit of time tieing up shutters, and preparing his characters to set off toward a further shore. He even sends the protagonist, Sir Edward Leithen, north to a land that reminds me of the country Frodo sails to at the end of the Lord of the Rings. (Spoiler alert) But here Buchan does a curious thing - rather than setting Leithen to sea with a hero's farewell, he turns the tables and ends his writing world with a humane, counter fairy tale ending I found touching and unusual.

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, Agatha Christie ***

Another Agatha Christie facsimile edition, this time a collection of short stories.

The book begins with Poirot in the country enjoying an old fashioned Christmas, complete with turkey, Christmas pudding and a thick blanket of snow. The stories are enjoyable, and the mysteries somewhat easier to solve than most of her books because the clues arrive condensed. If you can hold out until next December, I'd recommend Christmas pudding then - it's an ideal over-Christmas read for those nights when just one story will do.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

A Swiss Winter Wonderland

Christmas in Zurich is about as magical as you can imagine - with lights reflecting off lake, candles balanced on tree and even a round bellied fireplace perfect for a Santa slide (see fireplace behind Caroline). Sibling happiness reigned!

After Christmas we spent a few days in the mountains. Because we were sledding and cross country skiing, we mostly avoided the crowds and got to venture into some quite remarkably remote places. My sister introduced us to the highest upper valley in Switzerland, Urnerboden (population 40), where we skiied, sledded, and watched the dog teams race across the valley floor (sadly, I didn't have my camera when they ran by).