Monday, December 12, 2011

Chord by Chord

Years ago, in another life, I went to music school, and for four years got to indulge in that most nerdy of all analysis - music theory. By the time we graduated, if you handed me a score I could take it apart chord by chord and tell you its harmonic progression, no problem. Everyone in our class could, it came with the territory. We also had to chant the chords to "A Star Spangled Banner" while playing the piano as a prerequisite to crossing the stage at graduation, and one memorable night a bunch of us learned how to Texas two-step while singing the alphabet backwards, but those are different stories.

I've forgotten almost all my theory, and only twitter around with Caroline's piano music now, writing out the chords for improvised duets. I hadn't thought about the language behind the progressions for a very long time until our viol da gamba teacher from university posted today's video in Facebook. It's a terrific illustration of the way music is a language that we understand even if we don't know all the words.

If you're new to chord progressions, watch the video and pay attention to certain chords and their effect on you as listener (and also on the little doodle guy in the video). Watch out for those dramatic ii7s in particular!

I promise my next post will be something easier to swallow, but I couldn't resist sharing the little dude and his reaction to Mozart. Thanks June, for posting him!

Friday, December 09, 2011

Die Kleine Hexe

Back in November, I posted about Sandmännchen and the package Caroline mailed to his show. Guessing she wouldn't hear back, a few weeks ago I bought C a small thank you for her effort.

At the time, Caroline's German listening skills were quite decent. Give her a few days in Germany or Switzerland, and she'd become positively chatty. But she'd never been able to decipher any of our German kids books, and while I understood simple books I couldn't reliably translate text into speech. I decided to find a bilderbuch mit DVD to help us both along.

Die kleine Hexe feiert Weihnachten arrived to much fanfare one Friday not long ago, just in time for the weekend. Caroline set its DVD on repeat and read the story over and over again, working on figuring out letter to sound patterns. She decided (and I agreed) that German is much easier to learn to read than English. When she was satisfied we all sat down to hear her read the story of a young witch's Christmas celebration.

The Little Witch Celebrates Christmas opens in the middle of a snow storm on Christmas Eve. We meet our little witch and find her feeling frazzled. All she wants to do is prepare her house for the Christmas witch's annual visit. Instead a covey of other witches and their mediums drop by, warming their toes in front of the fire and getting in the way. In the end, of course, everyone gets organized and helps out, the little witch realizes how much fun she's had with her friends and the Christmas witch thanks her for her generous Christmas spirit.

(Short pause while I consider a daily reading, starting around the 15th.)

So yes, it's a story with a nice moral, but it's also super to listen to on DVD because the story's reader has a marvelous voice. The weekend of the great Die kleine Hexe read-a-thon, C and I vied with each other to see who could most closely copy her accent. (Neither of us conceded. I'm more dramatic, and she voices k sounds to perfection.)

My working theory with accents is that if I put my heart and theatrical leanings into them I'll at least surprise someone. Thanks to our impromptu lessons, I'm hoping that when we visit family in Switzerland this Christmas I can not only surprise my nephew but read to him too. And Caroline is planning another reading marathon, this time with her cousin and James as fellow members of the team.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Mikulas Eve, at Miru

The angels and devils were out in full force at Náměstí Míru tonight. Caroline thought she'd be too old this year, but changed her mind at the last moment. She's decided that next year will be time enough to change hats and don a halo or horns.

If you haven't been in the Czech Republic for Mikuláš Eve before, it's always on December 5th, the evening before Mikuláš' saint's day. Starting around 5 pm, trios of saints, devils and angels head to the big squares around Prague to hand out candy to children willing to sing a song for a bonbon and agree to a yearly review. Kids take the drill seriously; we saw many a long face on our walk to the square tonight. Once past their first talking to, most children cheer up considerably. Caroline sang for at least six trios before we persuaded her to head home to see if the real Mikuláš had stopped by. James refused to talk to a single saint.

Sure enough, at home the children found treasure bags of candy waiting for them (with only one well wrapped potato as a warning from Saint Nick to behave). James sighed with contentment, happy to be home and free from the devils. Caroline hummed her song of the night and decided to start working on her outfit for next year.

{1} Caroline sings a song for one trio; {2} Two devils catechizing a kid on the street (no 4 year old was harmed in this picture,  but he did look guilty afterwards); {3} It's a busy night at Mirak, the angels have to catch up by phone; {4} The devils have already met up, but they're more interested in snacks than quizzing little kids; {5} St. Mikuláš and his devil and angel team up to ask Caroline if she's been good this year; {6} A devil with tail hanging out, bell at her side.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Zdeněk Miler, 1921-2011

Zdeněk Miler, Krtek's creator, died yesterday. I've written about Krtek, the little mole, before. He is the most gracious and kind of Czech illustrated characters and a dear friend of the children. He's also a constant in young kids' lives here, ours not excepted.

Mr. Miler will be much missed.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Unser Sandmännchen

Every evening just before 7, a little fellow with a red felt hat and cotton beard visits German kids' TV, taking his viewers around the world on all manner of rides. Monday might find him on a carpet in India, Tuesday, a submarine under the sea, Wednesday, he‘ll guide a troika into the wilds of Russia. The little man, Sandmännchen, visits children in these far off places and watches a short cartoon with them before he sprinkles moon sand into the air and sends his audience to bed. He’s a popular figure in our house, and if Caroline is not too busy with homework, the kids like to curl up together on the sofa and watch his show while we make dinner.

When she first started watching, Caroline was terrified of Sandmänn's power, and would hide her eyes or run from the room when he blew his sleepy sand. A big eight, she laughs at her baby self now, and watches the show with the vast superiority of someone who knows all the words to its nightly song.

"Sandmänn" the kids yell when he appears. I'll scoot in from the kitchen to see which clip is on, cuddle James and talk to Caroline about the fairy tale behind the story or the puppet featured this time (the show is more than 50 years old, so there are many styles to choose from). Then I'll jump back to finish cooking while the children watch the cartoon that's being introduced. Thanks to these shorts, C has learned a fair amount of German, so she'll often summarize for us over dinner later, with James adding his two cents to the story.

Part of Sandmänn's long running appeal is that children can send letters and drawing in to the show. If they're very lucky they'll have their pictures shown on television and even get a prize. After watching for so many years, Caroline decided that before she got too big, she'd send in her own contribution. She drew an illustration from one of her favorite cartoons, wrote a short letter in German, and mailed her package off.

She's still waiting to see if her picture will show up one evening. It's been a few months though, so I recently decided to take matters into my own hands. But that's a post for another day.

Kinder, liebe Kinder, es hat mir Spaß gemacht.
Nun schnell ins Bett und schlaft recht schön.
Dann will auch ich zur Ruhe gehn. Ich wünsch euch gute Nacht."*

Children, dear children, we've had a lot of fun.
Now quickly, to bed and sleep well.
Then I will also go rest. I wish you all good night.

*The last stanza of the last song of the show each night.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Náměstí Míru Christmas Market

Blue skies and above freezing weather this weekend made it easy to explore the Christmas market at Náměstí Míru and take lots of pictures. The sun (sun!) and shadows kept tempting my camera though, so I gave it free rein, and decided a portrait of a bush was my favorite picture from a morning of clicking shots of Christmas booths.

For those of you with access to the market, do drop by. I'd vote Náměstí Míru the nicest Christmas market in town and am particularly fond of the hot apple cider at the crepes stand just across from the tree. You can drink it with or without a dash of rum. Yum.

(As usual, click on the collage to see a bigger picture.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Czech R and Ř

"T-D, T-D, T-D-ahhhva. T-Dava," said Caroline, standing at attention in front of her kindergarten’s director, years ago. "T-D-am. T-D-aktor," she continued, giggling a little as familiar words turned to nonsense. She repeated the list again, faster this time. We were in the director’s office and Caroline was learning to roll her Rs.

"T-Dava, T-DRava, Trrrrrrrrava." It didn’t take many visits for Caroline to catch on. Rs in Czech are easy to pronounce once you realize that they begin in the same place in your mouth as a D, and then roll. Soon Caroline was rolling her Rs with great drama and length, applying her lessons to every R in Czech (as you should) and every R in English (as you shouldn’t).

We learned rhymes together, lines like:
Trubač troubí, vytrubuje, trubka se mu blýská. Trubač troubí tramtarata, trubka zrovna výská.
(All about trumpets and trumpeters)

And my favorite to say really fast:
Franta frká: frky, frk, holub vrká: vrky, vrk
(Frank has to blow his nose, a dove has to coo)

From R, lessons moved on to Ř. An Ř is typically the last sound children learn to pronounce when they are growing up here, because of its difficulties. Caroline's teacher explained that an Ř is a rolled R spoken through nearly closed teeth. She had Caroline practice by baring her teeth like a wolf and whispering her Rs to create the famous rrrzh sound. "Řepa, řeka, řekla, řekl", Caroline worked on her word list until she finally graduated to a nursery rhyme:

Řežu, řežu dříví,
až jsem celý křivý.
Cut cut wood,
I'm already all crook'd.

This time, the lessons were useful for more than just Caroline. I worked along with C until we could both bare our teeth and pronounce our Řs. Remember the fairy tale from a few days ago? Tři oříšky pro Popelku becomes easy to say if you can remember to roll your Rs, and keep your teeth together. If I were to mangle an English phonetic spelling, it might look like this: Trrzhee orrzheeshky pro Popelku. Go ahead and try, then let me know how it goes!

  • In Czech pronunciaton, a háček, or hook, softens letter sounds. Š = sh, ž = zh, č = ch, etc.
  • Here's a sound file for tři.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent Wreath Time

All over town Advent wreaths are on sale, in various states of readiness. You can either buy a wreath off the shelf or be bold and make your own. Foam core wreaths, hot glue guns, candles of all color and decorations of all types - the world's your oyster when it comes to construction. We made our own again this year (minus the glue gun), and even James helped decorate. This evening, Caroline set the table to show off the wreath, and even though dinner was simple (thankfully, as I'm feeling like a stuffed turkey myself), it felt like a special occasion - a fitting way to end our Thanksgiving weekend and begin the holiday season.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Thanksgiving Special - Tipsy Sweet Potatoes

Yesterday and today are our days to celebrate Thanksgiving, so we're cooking up a storm over here, which doesn't leave a lot of time for writing. In lieu of something longer, I thought I'd post the sweet potato recipe that's become our party favorite, at least for adults. The kids prefer marshmallows,* which just leaves more for us!

Tipsy Sweet Potatoes
4 pounds of sweet potatoes or yams
1/2 stick butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
5 TB dry Sherry

Preheat oven to 425F/218C. Wash your sweet potatoes well and stab them several times with a fork for ventilation. Bake for about an hour, or until you can easily run a knife through one.

Slice potatoes in half and scoop pulp into a large bowl. Add butter and brown sugar to potatoes. Using either a potato masher, a big spoon or (if you've got one) an electric mixer, beat until smooth. Add Sherry and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to large pan.

When you're ready to serve, rewarm the potatoes on the stove, stirring often.

*Are you in Prague, looking for marshmallows that don't taste like strange fruit? Head to Marks & Spencers for vanilla flavored goodness. M&S also stocks Sherry.

Friday, November 25, 2011

"Tři oříšky pro Popelku" or "Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella"

Germany may have been home to the Grimm brothers, but the fairy tales they collected grew in both Czech and German lands. Like regional recipes, these stories share common ingredients if not a common language, more similar to each other than to the saccharine sweets whipped up by Disney. Three Hazelnuts for the Ash Girl,* or, as you might know it, Cinderella, is one such tale, and the clip above** shows the first scene from a famous retelling of that story.

Famous in central Europe, that is, especially around Christmas time. Produced in 1973 in Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany, and distributed in both Czech and German, Tři oříšky pro Popelku has turned into a Christmas classic, broadcast each year in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Switzerland and Norway. We saw it for the first time in Switzerland a few years ago, and now watch it in German there, and in Czech at home.

What makes this a Cinderella story to add to your calendar? The score certainly helps, and the scenery - forest shots in real snow, a squalidly real manor house, one of the more picturesque castles in eastern Germany. The dialogues work as well, batted back and forth by a comic cast of characters who breathe life into an old story flattened by familiarity.

But that's not why it's so re-watchable. I'd give credit to a script twist that turns Cinderella into a strong role to play and to the actress who plays her - Libuše Šafránková. It is the beautifully clever face of Popelka as she rises from the ashes, defies the usurpers who have taken over her home, and wins her prince and freedom that makes this a Czech fairy tale to remember, and to watch again, come Christmas.

* Tři oříšky pro Popelku, also known as Three Gifts for Cinderella in the UK, Three Wishes for Cinderella in the US and Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel in German.

** Dubbed into English and shown on the BBC years ago. You can watch the complete movie on Youtube in English, but the sound quality is much better on DVD.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hope everyone in the States is having a wonderful Thanksgiving, and enjoying the holiday. We'll celebrate Friday and Saturday, but I certainly have Carolina on my mind today.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mountain Daydreaming

Swiss mountain collage
We haven't reached Thanksgiving yet, and already I'm obsessed, not Christmas, though it is looming around the corner shaking its bells and holly at me like a merry bogeyman. I'm obsessed with acronyms like NAO and AO and whether or not they are going to be negative or positive and will we or won't we get that very much needed precipitation that could turn to - snow.

Snow in the mountains, for sledding, snowmen, cross country skiing. Snow for getting us out of the house and into that peculiar crystalline world we make our way through at top speed or slow, measured tread.

My sister and I are sifting through snow news right now. Trading 10 day weather reports, and articles summarizing the European winter forecast. I've caught myself humming our sacred snow song** from high school. (One that never worked, I should add, but we were in South Carolina.) Even James has caught the snow bug. "Snow?" he asks each morning as he snuggles up to check the weather with me. "Just a cyoud Mami. Ok."

Right now the mountains we visit most are barely dusted in snow, and almost as dry as they look in today's collage, though much colder. These pictures are from a late August trip to Switzerland. The weather was dry and hot, the opposite of what we're hoping for this winter. The mountains that day had a daydreamy, end of the season feeling to them, as if they too were paused, waiting for the new season to begin.

Are you ready for snow? Or do you prefer dry and hot, thanks very much?

* NAO = North Atlantic Oscillation, AO = Arctic Oscillation
** Snow, snow when are you falling

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Short Food Rant, Just in Time for Thanksgiving

Last week one of the leading Czech newspapers, Hospodářských noviny, came out with a story slamming Czech food suppliers for the low quality ingredients they use in some of their products here. HN compared the same products in Germany, manufactured by the same parent companies, and found that the reason food tastes better on vacation is because, as we’ve always suspected, it is better. In Germany, ingredients are higher quality – less byproduct, more real. And, get this, on several occasions the German food item was found to be cheaper to buy than its weedy cousin sitting in supermarkets in the Czech Republic. Outrageous.

But not surprising. Stories about low quality food in supermarkets have hit the news before: for years a rumor floated about that the big grocery chains shipped their bruised fruit and veggies from Austria and Germany to their Czech Grade A bins. We gave up buying vegetables and fruit in the big stores when Caroline was born, and now only shop at our neighborhood’s Vietnamese green grocers. They seem to care about quality, and sell tomatoes that have flavor, and onions that aren’t flabby. We shop at small stores specializing in meat, cheese or bread for the rest of our groceries. And then there are the farmers‘ markets. You can see why I’m such a fan.

Many Czechs take a more extreme approach, and leave the country for their groceries. In a recent poll, 1/3 of Czechs report that they shop abroad for food and clothes. Not for all items of course, but that’s still a lot of revenue crossing the border every day. Stories like this give me hope that eventually the big retailers will wake up to the departing revenue, adjust their prices to a regionally competitive level and offer the same quality product that their parent companies offer abroad. After all, I’d rather shop at home and spend my vacations exploring something other than the jam aisle in SuperU.

Monday, November 21, 2011

An Old Fashioned Portrait

Rather than post pictures of yet another darkening sky, I thought I'd brighten us all up with a collage from late October, when we were on a short trip abroad. Any guesses on the country? (Ellen, you can't play ;-).

Note added: There are nine more days of NaBloPoMo. I've got a long list of possibilities to write about, but rather than hear about the syrarna* around the corner, wouldn't you rather send in a question and I'll do my best to answer it? (Within reason, I've never been able to figure out why Clara Schumann married Robert, despite the seance our music theory teacher conducted freshman year).

* cheese store

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ice Skating Season Begins

Outdoor skating rink, Na Františku, opened its ice this weekend, in well timed synch with the Prague Christmas markets. After a few days of accidental meanderings by Náměstí Míru to test out the market's treats, we decided ice skating might be just the right antidote for all the cider we'd tried this weekend.

Sunday afternoon found us adjusting last year's skates to the children's feet and packing up for a trip to the rink. Na Františku is right on the river, a little less than a kilometer's walk from Staroměstská metro. Most of the walk takes you through the Jewish quarter, with its beautiful art nouveau architecture and shop windows galore to enjoy while you walk by. Thanks to the entertainment, it's an easy stroll.

We arrived just after the start of the evening skate (4 pm, have I mentioned that's evening now?). In no time at all we had figured out tickets, a bench for our stuff and how to untie the triple knots in my skate laces. Time to try out the rink.

When you grow up in the South, you don't spend a lot of time skating on ice. Roller skating, yes, and these days roller blading, but I can count on two fingers the number of times I ice skated before we moved to Prague. I'm missing that kid conviction you keep as you grow up with a skill, and each year I wonder if I'm really going to be able to skate when the season begins. Skating backwards holding on to James' hands distracted me, and once I was racing around the rink with Caroline the bumps worked out, my feet stopped trying to remind me they preferred other footwear and all was well.

{1} We eventually borrowed a hockey goal frame for James to push around the rink. It worked better than holding my hands, but he's still not as excited as Caroline is about skating.
{2} If skating's not your thing, there's always basketball, and a playground too.
{3} By the end of the day, the ice had taken a beating, but was still firm enough for some fast footwork.
{4} The Spanish synagogue, one of my favorite buildings on the way back to the metro.
{5} Since the kids were starving afterwards, we ended the evening at a pizzeria downtown that is unusually kid friendly.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Gertie the Dinosaur

An academic husband comes with benefits you might expect – the ability to translate Latin inscriptions at a glance and quote "The Waste Land" at just the right moment, a library of books you’d never buy for yourself, but like to read on occasion, a schedule that allows at least a week off for Christmas. Later you discover that someone who can memorize long passages from Ovid can memorize just about anything, and is a walking database of Beatles songs as well.* And that anyone interested in early 20th century poetry might find early 20th century films just as cool.

Which helps explain why we’ve spent the last few weeks watching silent movies and cartoon shorts each night before the kids go to bed. The animations come from a top 50 cartoons list picked out by a scad of animators almost twenty years ago,** and now listed in Wikipedia for easy reference. The earliest cartoons have a tendency to the surreal, with nightmarish worlds getting built and then twisted inside and out at the whim of the animator, and they are mostly not my favorite. We all developed a fondness for Gertie the dinosaur*** though, and I thought you might like to meet her too.

* I can’t guarantee this quirk in every academic, just mine.
** The list was published in The Top 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1000 Animation Professionals, by Jerry Beck.
*** You'll probably know her parent, Winsor McCay, through his most famous character - Little Nemo.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Puff Pancakes

Do you ever make German Pancakes?* When we were children we loved them extravagantly, but in my fickle teenage years I moved on to other food favorites, like chocolate malted milk shakes, soft shell crabs, shrimp of all variety. Apparently there is a gene for puffed pancake adoration though, because when I introduced one to the family at dinner this week something amazing happened.

Silence settled over the table. Peace reigned. And everyone ate their food.

All of it.

After we finished, there was a reverent pause, and then Caroline asked if we could have pancakes every Monday from now on.

This was all very satisfying to a cook who might please one or even two people at the table but rarely manages to slip anything fancier than an egg by the third. The moment was marred only briefly after C asked what made it taste so good, and how did I make one? When she found out the ingredients, and how easy it is to do, she stomped her foot and said "You fooled me, that's not fair!"

To show her the benefits of simplicity, I decided we’d bake one together. Today’s the second day of school holidays for the children, and they were home with their babysitter, Lucie, while I worked. When I took a break for lunch we stirred together our pancake. Caroline measured, James cut the butter, and they both handled the important task of watching their dinner grow.

There are many pleasures to be found in food this simple: it takes minutes to make, and uses the most basic of ingredients. It’s the type of dish that turns lemon juice and powdered sugar into magic, and it melts in your mouth when you eat it. But perhaps best of all, you get to watch your pancake grow as it bakes, in a sequence usually seen only in time-lapse video. We held our breath while it inched its way up to full height, and then, suddenly, sagged down again with a sigh.

After we ate, the children swarmed me and pelted kisses all over before I headed back to work. Lucie and I laughed, and I decided that I might be persuaded to make another one come Monday.

*A German pancake is also known as a Dutch Baby in the States.

2 TB butter
4 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup flour
2 TB sugar
1 glug of vanilla extract
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 425F/215C. Add butter to dutch oven and place in oven.
Meanwhile, use a fork to mix flour and milk together well, removing all lumps. Once mixed together, add 4 eggs and stir until smooth. Stir in sugar, salt and vanilla, open oven and swiftly pour batter into the dutch oven.
Let it bake for 20 minutes if you like something more buttery, longer for crispiness.

Serve with powdered sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Two Squares' Take on Democracy Day

Today’s joint celebration of Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day and International Students Day meant a day off from school for James and Caroline, but not, apparently, a day off from study. Caroline organized a music class that included plenty of breaks, jingle bell practice, and the well timed „fite with James“ module. After Caroline assured me she meant pillow fighting, not swords, we left them to it.

Eventually the kids started sparring outside their curriculum, and C and I split off from the guys to head out on a ramble. As you can see from the collage, we managed to catch bits of what was happening around the city today - public speeches and demonstrations at Václavské náměstí, and a construction scene at Náměstí Míru, where the Christmas markets were going up.

On the way home from our walk, C told me what she'd learned about November 17th in school this week. Back in 1939 the German ruler of Bohemia and Moravia killed a group of students and their teachers and closed down Czech universities. Since 1941, countries around the world have celebrated November 17th as International Students Day,* in honor of those killed. The date has double significance here, as a student demonstration on November 17, 1989 helped spark the Velvet Revolution.

* The US celebrates "International Education Week" in mid November, in a nod to International Students Day.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In November

In November, the earth is growing quiet. It is making its bed, a winter bed for flowers and small creatures. The bed is white and silent, and much life can hide beneath its blankets.

In November, the trees are standing all sticks and bones. Without their leaves, how lovely they are, spreading their arms like dancers. They know it is time to be still.

-from In November by Cynthia Rylant

Each fall, when the school year starts, we rummage through the children’s book cases and find In November. Its slow pacing and winter world feel exotic then, and we pretend shiver as we read it through at bed time.

November arrives, and with it scarf and hat weather. It doesn’t usually snow, but the skies hang low over our heads, walks lose their pleasure, and when we come in from the cold the first person finished shedding their layers heads to the hot water kettle to make some tea.

At parties and in email, we start to plan Thanksgiving dinner with our friends. We each have a traditional dish to bring, and we search the internet for one or two more ideas to try. In the weeks before Thanksgiving we bake more, and leave the oven door open for its heat when we’re through.

In November, the smell of food is different. It is an orange smell. A squash and a pumpkin smell. It tastes like cinnamon and can fill up a house in the morning, pull everyone from bed in a fog. Food is better in November than any other time of the year.

At bedtime tonight we piled blankets on the children and read In November again. The words felt different, the pictures too. The outside world has slowed down to the same pace as the text, it mirrors the paintings with their beautiful simplicity. The story has turned from exotic to true.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Floating Resolutions

I like month-long projects. A few years ago, before James was born, I decided I’d try to do a little art every day for a month. It was a most creative time, and the happiest mid winter I’ve ever experienced. Thanks to NaBloPoMo, this month I’m trying to write and take pictures every day. And two months ago? In September, Caroline and I set up a challenge for ourselves. I’d pick out a new outfit for her each school day for a month, and she'd get dressed in time for us to photograph the results before she left for school. I upped the ante by betting I’d figure out outfits without buying anything new for the year beyond a pair of boots and the school dress of C’s heart‘s desire.*

For a month of school days, Caroline got dressed without complaint. Our portrait sessions worked wonders on two grumpy morning people, and after a few days we started to get goofy. One Monday, I asked if she could please try some floating. It became a game each day as she tried to jump as high as she could and I tried to find enough light to keep the results from being a complete blur. When the first of October rolled around, we were both a little sad when I didn’t pull out the camera. I put together the collages for C that night so we could see her side by side.

Now when Caroline is stuck deciding on an outfit for the next day, we'll check the collages to help make her choice. I get a kick out of skimming through the pictures and watching how they progress through the month, how we finessed the jump and tried it out in one spot or another around the house, which days left enough time for braids, and which for only pony tails. And Caroline and I are already plotting a new challenge for January, we'll keep you posted on what our next month-long resolution might be!

*Because she doesn’t have to wear uniforms, she thinks they’re cool.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Pan Fried Anchovies from Croatia

It's Monday, how about a fish story?
These beauties were caught off the coast of Croatia the day before we met. One glance into their eyes, and I fell in love. I'd never cooked with anchovies before but suspected that any fish this fresh had to be delicious.

Once home from the farmers market, I found out that anchovies are a cinch to cook. The fiddliest part is the prep, because of the multitudes. But don't let that faze you. It's just a matter of washing well, off with their heads and a thorough gutting to avoid the innards and their bitter flavor. Once your anchovies are beheaded and gutted, rinse them once more and dry inside and out. (Getting rid of extra moisture keeps fish from turning soggy when you're pan frying.)

The hard part's done. Set up a dinner plate with a few cups of corn and wheat flour and salt and pepper to taste. Then roll your fish through the mix, making sure they're covered from head to tail.

Now heat up a big pan full of sunflower or olive oil on a burner that's big enough to get your oil hot but not smoking. You'll want about 2 cm/.5 inch of oil in the pan. Once the oil is ready, drop your fish in and fry until they are golden brown, about one minute per side.

Drain your anchovies with a big slotted spoon, nestle them onto a bed of paper towels and lunch is served!

We dined that day with our fingers, squeezing lemons over the fish while they were hot, adding ketchup for the kids, who ate with gusto. We did too. It was fare to remember.


1 kilo fresh anchovies
1 cup wheat flour
1 cup corn flour
2 tsp salt
ground pepper to taste
sunflower or olive oil for frying
lemon wedges and ketchup for the table

Sunday, November 13, 2011

To Market, to Market, and Jiggity Jig

Saturday morning found us retracing our St. Martin’s walk of the night before, carrying shopping bags and James‘ bicycle in place of lanterns. The fall mists had disappeared with the drop in temperature and all was sunny and cold. Caroline and I took turns finding signs of winter as we walked. Rose bushes bundled up in earth duvets, frost on the grass, hats and gloves on everyone we passed, even the dogs in the park were dressed for the weather.

We were heading back to Jiřího z Poděbrad, this time for the Saturday farmers market. It’s only the second year that we’ve had a farmers market in our neighborhood, and even though we’ve been regular Saturday visitors since spring, each weekend I feel like a kid on Christmas morning as we turn the corner and find the stands still there with their bounty. French bread, cuts of lamb, Czech pastries that taste homemade, apple cider, fresh eggs, sausages of all variety, vegetables and herbs...and best of all, fish. Fish that is so nearly fresh I can poach, pan fry or steam it, knowing full well it will taste like fish and not like an unfortunate trout that has lingered too long in the freezer.

Since the sun was out, I took lots of pictures to try to capture the charms of the market. The top photo in the collage today turned out to be my favorite, showing off the stands with their Czech flag motif just above the hustle and bustle. The rest of the pictures come from our walk over: Caroline sleuthing for signs of winter, a graffiti covered metro air vent, frost in the park. The center picture is of one of my favorite industrial art works. It's a metro air vent too, and I love it to pieces for its cartoon character personality.

What does your farmer's market look like, and does it still run in the winter?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Music to Work By (It's Better than Coffee)

Daily* blog posts aside (and last night's parade), I've worked a lot recently, staying up past midnight most nights as our team finishes projects, and starts a few more. It's November, our busy season, and I know that things will quiet again in January. In the meantime, there's music to listen to, and work to get done. Off I run!

* Because it's November, and NaBloPoMo.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lanterns on St. Martin's Day

Candle-lit holidays come every few weeks now til the end of the year. St. Martin's Day fit the bill tonight, and Caroline's school celebrated with a lantern* parade through the streets of our neighborhood. Caroline and her friends led the parade with their teacher; we were cordially acknowledged and then ignored as C turned her attention to the important business at hand: voices to be warmed up, lanterns held high and the parade kept from wobbling too far off its path towards Jiřího z Poděbrad, one of the main squares nearby.

St. Martin's day in central Europe is traditionally the day new wine turns from stormy to clear. To celebrate, vineyards from around the country set up stands in the square to offer up tastes of their young wine.** After the classes gathered to play recorder and sing, parents sorted out children and headed straight to the wine stands to receive our reward - svařené víno, or mulled wine! Fingers warm for the first time since the parade began, we headed home, lanterns still lit and children humming, ready for the weekend.

* Paper lanterns, with candles. The type of lanterns that boys like to play swords with.
** The festival began at 11:11 this morning, in a nice nod to the date, and borrowing a tradition from our German neighbors.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Palmetto Frond Forts and Other Fun

Joan from Charleston Daily Photos recently mentioned kolokolo on her blog, and added kolo to her low country blog roll. In thanks, I decided to dig into my photo files from the summer for some pictures of one of our favorite places in the world, Johns Island, S.C. I also asked Caroline if she'd like to be a guest blogger today. She kindly agreed:

"My favorite place to play is on Johns Island. Johns Island is full of trees. There are palmetto branches to play with when they fall. There are live oak trees that are so tall you can’t climb them and see their top. They make a wonderful roof. My cousins live there and play with me. We build houses out of palmetto branches. It is exciting because the wind blows hard and flaps the palmetto fronds. We play that we are Indians, and have palmetto swords. I can’t wait to play Indians again when I go back."

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Mushrooms or Mulled Wine, You Choose

Stores here are torn between fall and Christmas decorations right now. I'm favoring the fall for at least a few more weeks, though as soon as the Christmas markets open and mulled wine season begins, I'm sure I'll be singing "Deck the Halls" along with the rest of the choir!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Color of Fall in Prague

Prague's trees don't turn spectacularly crimson or orange, but for a week or so each November, they do line our streets with gold. This weekend the trees and the sun conspired in a final fling of color. Everywhere we walked we saw people taking pictures of the leaves, and the children ran beneath the trees to try to catch a leaf before it reached the ground. We wound up at one of our favorite nearby parks, Grebovka, where the fallen leaves made carpets of color, perfect for scuffling through.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Breakfast with Pumpkins

Is it just me, or do these jack-o-lanterns look like they're plotting to take over the breakfast table?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Reading Times Two

Liz from Lizardek asked about the books in my post office tower. Because I read mostly on a Kindle now, only a few were for me – Mariana, by Monica Dickens and a book on Chinese brush painting. The rest are Christmas presents for Will and Caroline. Caroline's stash includes The Saturdays, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Horse and His Boy. Will reads kolokolo, so I'll keep quiet about his ;-). I love to give and get books for Christmas, and before I bought a Kindle, always looked forward to the days after Christmas when I had enough to read, and more! So satisfying.

Now that Caroline is reading English fluently, having lots of English books around for her to choose from gives me the same satisfaction, and we pour through online book lists to figure out what we can find for her to read next.

"Reading English fluently." Three words to savor even more than a tower of books. A few days ago, Prague Monitor’s Emily Prucha posted an article in Half-n-Half about reading in Czech and English. Her story of her daughter's first foray into reading English reminded me of our own bi-literal try. It's a longer tale than I usually tell here - to make up for it, I promise I'll stick to pictures tomorrow!

Kindergarten, or školka, in the Czech Republic is very different from the UK or the States. Kids learn to change clothes on their own, dance the mazurka, and brush their teeth thoroughly. They draw pictures, sing songs and practice lots of socialization skills. They don't study the alphabet, numbers, or much of anything academic and it's generally a relaxing few years. I thought Caroline's last year in školka might be the perfect time for her to get the basics of reading in English behind her, before she needed to switch to Czech.

It didn't take. Caroline believed books were for us to read to her, and she told us so, loudly. Then first grade came along, and all focus switched to learning to read and write in Czech and to sit still in class. Each was tough at first (especially sitting still). By contrast, the basic English her class studied was easy – she did no work and always knew the answer!

The one word Caroline learned in school those first few months was "jumper." She also picked up a cute British accent she’d use at supper sometimes. English remained a blank book, so by January I decided to go guerrilla. We worked on spelling lists while we walked to the store, wrote letters on the weekend, read picture books together at night. If she did all her chores, she took over my computer and played on Czech is a phonetic language, which makes it beautifully simple to learn to read. English is not. The spelling disgusted C. She refused to believe it could be so illogical, and words like "two" spent weeks on her spelling list. I dug up similarities between Czech, German and English to explain word spellings and turned English's long history into spooky bed time tales. After a while, Caroline decided that English was weird, but cool.

Then second grade arrived, and Caroline found school a lot easier. English class started to get boring. Her teacher and I put our heads together and agreed that I’d help Caroline after school just as usual, but this year she'd give C credit for the extra work. If she had an essay or book report to write in Czech that week, she’d write one in English too. I found workbooks for her and we spent many a Sunday morning playing school.

Last spring Caroline started to read in English for fun. She still writes book reports in both English and Czech, and in the ESL classes each week at school she either works on vocabulary or reading comprehension on her own. She’s joined an after school English class run by Class Acts, and her teacher there inspires her to work even harder. Her essays have become funny and more fluent. It still feels like pulling teeth to get her to sit down and work on writing, but she’d carry a book around and read all day if we let her.

Looking back now, I’m proud of C for her perseverance, grateful to her teacher for the extra motivation, and very glad that James has a few more years until first grade!

And you? If you have kids at home learning two or more languages, what's your best advice for handling the everyday challenges of helping them learn to read and write the languages they're not focused on in school?

Saturday, November 05, 2011


Only two hours north of Prague, Dresden is my favorite city 'abroad' to visit when friends and family come to town. We spent Czech Independence day there last week, basking in late fall sunshine and even trying out an Italian gelato or two. The weather was too good to miss by walking through a museum so instead we walked the city, stopping only for ice cream and some early Christmas shopping.

1. The wings of Zwinger
2. Stop, in East German
3. A piece of the world's largest porcelain painting, the Fürstenzug*
4. A slightly later representation of power on the Cultural Palace**
5. Construction and the Frauenkirche
6. James in his Paddington coat (he's eyeing the ice cream)

* Completed in 1907, the painting was barely damaged by the February 14, 1945 bombing that destroyed most of Dresden.
** Completed in 1969, and called "Der Weg der Roten Fahne", or "The Way of the Red Flag".

Friday, November 04, 2011

How to Eat a Sundae on a Fall Friday

I think the pictures speak for themselves ;-). These are from Friday a week ago, when we headed to Dresden on our fall holiday. More pictures to come!

Thursday, November 03, 2011

A Tower of Books

Czech post offices have come a long way in the twelve years we've lived here. You don't need to use your elbows to keep your place in line any more - order tickets and clearly marked windows preserve politeness, as do the friendly twenty-somethings who speak Czenglish behind the counter. I might miss the quirkiness of getting to talk to someone named Pani Bezchlebova or Pani Bezvodova*, but I don't miss their personalities.

So when I took my package slip to the post office the other day I was surprised when the Hillfiger-clad clerk frowned at the slip instead of flashing his usual smile, and even more surprised when he disappeared from his window and didn't come back. Resigned to a long wait, I'd read halfway through my passport's "notable quotes" by the time he returned.

"Go west young man!"** I read as he slid back in front of his computer. But he only looked at me and shook his head, saying he was afraid the tower would be too much for me to grab home. I switched to Czech and promised that whatever tower he had to offer, I was willing to grab it without fail. Shaking his head again in a way that made me remember Mrs. Without-bread fondly, he piled twelve boxes on the counter, stamped my mail slip and let me go.

I staggered home happily. Who could resist an armful of books? One of my friends recently traded SEO advice for a big book order from the bookdepository, and Christmas had just arrived!

They're hidden away for the next few months, except the top two - early presents to myself for the SEO work, and for carrying them all home without dropping a one.

* Loosely translated as "Mrs. Without-bread" and "Mrs. Without-water," these two ladies worked side by side at the post office near our first flat in Prague.
** Horace Greeley, U.S. Passport

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Door to door trick or treating

When it comes to candy, kids have a long memory and remarkable powers of persuasion. By the end of the day yesterday, Caroline and James had talked us into "just a little" trick or treating. Well prepped on our roles, each grownup hid behind a door in our flat and met the costumed crusaders with candy and Halloween chatter.

James seemed to find home style trick or treating just fine for him and paraded about with pirate hat, sword and hook as if he were out making the rounds in the States. Caroline was more circumspect. "It's better than all pretend," she said, as she counted out her candy, dividing it carefully with James, "but next year can we go outside too?"

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A Czech Cowgirl Halloween

For the last few years the Prague Botanical Gardens has hosted hundreds of kids and their parents for a pumpkin carving, sausage grilling, balloon filled extravaganza on Halloween. We decided to tag along this year with friends and try it out. Carving pumpkins on a table set sideways on a hill isn't my favorite crafting activity (add a folding picnic knife and pumpkin gore for the full shudder), so I'll skip right over that part. We did love the carved results though, and the mulled wine and klobasa fast made the dissection scene a faint memory. Small kids ran about waving flaming pumpkins while bigger kids toasted more sausages around a bonfire, and a band played the blues into the night.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

First Day

On the first day of school,* moments pass by lightning quick. Emotions change just as fast.
a. A boy can't help but get excited when he's all dressed up and ready to go!
b. He's joining the big world - time to eat his breakfast just like Dada.
c. J gives C a brotherly ok on her school outfit. It's her first day too! (3rd grade already.)
d. But to calm his nerves, some guitar strumming seems just right.
e. There are moments where the big world seems a little too big.
f. A talk in the coat room with his babysitter (his true love) cheers him up.
g. After all there are trains to try out.
h. And wait, there's a car!
i. In no time at all, he's made a friend. Bonding over the tool table already.

* Nursery school

Friday, August 12, 2011

The philosophy of sandwiches

It’s a beautiful August day here in the Czech Republic, cool and glowing with light. Walking home from a meeting, my mind is full of those easy going late summer projects that make life feel as if it will always be so – my latest hunt for jeans that fit James‘ long legs, deadlines for a project launching soon, a new book to read. I stop at our local deli to pick up a few chlebíčky for lunch and think just how right they are for a wonderfully normal day in Prague.

Chlebíčky, in case you haven’t met, are open faced sandwiches made from slices of bread spread with a sauce topped with ham, roastbeef, smoked salmon...imagine your favorite deli food and you’ll find it on a chlebíčka of some sort. I’ve never met one that isn’t then garnished with a slice of tomato, egg, pickle, or (my favorite) a thin slice of lemon. Almost any Czech lahůdky, or deli, offer at least ham and roastbeef. They’re perfect for a quick lunch, for party food or an afternoon snack with the children, and despite their toppings, wrap up well to carry home.

Our neighborhood has several delis that sell chlebíčky but if I’m really hankering for something different, I head to Prima Chlebicek, over on Londynska. Check out their site for its range of sandwiches, and you’ll see that they don’t suffer a lack of selection. The choice is so rich it’s most fun to go when you’ve got several people to buy for so you can try out more than a few.

For a sandwich with a side of history, you can’t go wrong with a visit to Jan Paukert Lahůdkářství, or Jan Paukert’s Deli. One hundred years or so ago Mr. Paukert not only opened the first deli in Prague, but he also invented chlebíčky. Apparently a Czech artist asked for a meal he could easily carry and eat with one hand. Mr. Paukert assembled a small slice of bread spread with mayo, some salami and swiss cheese, and presto, chlebíčky were born. The little sandwiches became the rage at parties, delis opened up all around town, and both the sandwiches and the eateries have been around ever since.

Will asked me once why I liked chlebíčky so much. Besides the obvious tastiness of anything meant for party food, I like sandwiches that focus more on toppings than bread. And I love that something so Czech has not only survived but thrived despite more modern fast food, staying wonderfully normal, perfect for lunch on a late summer’s day.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


Pictures from last winter, before James renounced his pacifier, and after he discovered the pleasures of dressing up!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sunshiny Day

It feels like Spring around here, which must mean it is time for me to peek out from behind my work computer and take a few pictures! In the meantime, I thought I'd share a short clip of James and his approach to the weather (and sunshine!)