Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Christmas Gift

Once a year, in December, Will and I go shopping for my Christmas present. We meet downtown and wend our way through the storm and swirl of Christmas crowds to a favorite design store, a bookstore, or jeweler. Shopping doesn't takes long - I plan ahead and we're never more than fifteen minutes.*

Purchases made, children otherwise busy, and work on hold for an hour or two, we're free and together on a week day. No gift tucked away for the tree tops this moment. One magical year we walked through new fallen snow to a cocktail bar in Mala Strana, where we toasted the holidays with Old Fashions. Another December found us in a favorite French patisserie splitting a chocolate tort. This year, we climbed the steps to the first floor of Myšák, a coffee shop near Václavské náměstí, and sipped coffee and cocoa in Cukrárna Myšák's old-is-new splendor.

Night falls close to 3 these days, so it was dark by the time we left Myšák to head back to our offices. "See you at home!" I called, before running down the metro steps to catch the train to our neighborhood. "Thanks for the present!"

* Though this year, price negotiations threatened to push us past my time limit (if you hesitate and hmm a bit, jewelers here start dropping the price, opening the floor to further discussions and making me wonder just what type of margin they usually enjoy!).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


I took this picture riding down an escalator packed full of people, rushing in all directions decidedly away from where they were then. I like that you can't see any of that rush in the photo. Just the roof, bisected by window patterns.

Photo of hlavní nádraží, the main train station in Prague, Czech Republic.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Year Ago, Today

Václav Havel died a year ago today. After his death, thousands of people came to Václavské náměstí (Vaclav's square) to place candles and flowers beneath the statue of St. Vaclav on his horse. The Czech Republic mourned and the media declared that leaders like Havel were once in a lifetime, that the country would not soon see his like again.

Yesterday, in Pravo, Jiří Pehe had this to say about the President. "Jeho nejvýraznější kvalitou totiž byla schopnost, i během pobytu v politice, zpochybňovat „samozřejmost“ politického i civilizačního provozu a stavět proti němu odpovědnost." - His greatest quality was the ability, during his life in politics, to question what everyone else saw as obvious political and societal assumptions and to find a way to responsibly oppose them.

As a writer Havel understood subtext - how to read between the lines and see not only the face value of a story but what lay beneath it. As a dissident he saw just how easy it was to not force change, to not question assumptions, to say, "not now, it's not the time to act."

He acted anyway.

By acting on his beliefs, by writing about them, by helping to free an entire region from a very rigid set of assumptions, all while in the role of an everyman, Havel left a legacy behind him. It is this: there is no need to wait for a leader to take his place. We too, as everymen and women, can read between the lines and understand that just because something has been so for many years, it need not always be so. That there are ways to responsibly oppose assumptions. And that there never will be a better time than now.

In the United States today, there are certain assumptions that Americans hold to be true. Thanks to one of them, school rooms full of children were slaughtered last week by a man who should never have held a gun. The country grieves, and people come to place candles and flowers around the entrance of the school where the children died. But mourning is not enough. Now, I believe, is the time to remember the legacy of Vaclav Havel - to question our assumptions, and then to act.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Steam Train to Křivoklát and an Advent Fair

steam train arrives in Smichov train station, Prague Czech Republic
It's impossible to capture with pictures the power of a steam engine coming into a station. There's the sense of an unstoppable force rushing forward, steam rolling ahead filling the platform, the tremendous, ear blasting whistle announcing its arrival. Trying to capture its power pulls you towards it, and Will had to tug my coat to save me from tumbling onto the tracks as the train pulled in this morning.

My first thoughts after watching our ride arrive - now I understand the 19th century much better,* and, no trip is going to top that!

Though there were no more adrenalin filled lunges towards the rails for me, we had a good time anyway. We bundled in to 1950s train cars to take a ride with friends to a medieval castle and its Advent festival. The train trip lasted two hours. Because it was cold, we could keep the windows up and avoid the coal smoke. Instead, we watched the clouds billow behind us along the valley floor. Beautiful through the glass, but we all agreed that electric trains were a considerable air-quality improvement.

steam bellows from steam train (parni lokomotiv) in Krivoklat, Czech Republic
Once in Křivoklát, we slowly slid down the icy path towards the town below the castle. All the restaurants were full of speedier train fans, so we stomped our way through the snow to the Advent fair, in the castle's courtyard, and dined on klobása and trdelnik, with hot tea to wash it down. I'll post pictures tomorrow of the fair, it's a train day today, but I decided that castles are like cathedrals - they're much more interesting when they are full of people.

We came home on a regular České dráhy train, a few hours after we arrived. Our ride home was much warmer and faster, despite the extra stops and a train change. It wasn't half as exciting, said Caroline, which might explain why nearly everyone fell asleep before we got home.

Sitting at my desk right now, I've just heard another engine blast its warning before the train tunnel beneath Vinohrady. From far away, you miss its fierceness, and only hear the lonely third wavering as it rushes into the hillside, towards its last stop of the night.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Here's a rough schedule for next year's steam engine trips from Prague. The first train of the season leaves Branik train station on Easter weekend, Saturday March the 30th. It's heading to Křivoklát again. With any luck, we will be on it. Thank you W and M for introducing us to the steam trains of the Czech Republic!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* Have you ever seen Monet's paintings of trains? Read The Railway Children? Monet and Nesbit were right, steam locomotives are dragons of power.

conductors watch a steam train in Beroun Czech Republic

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Carrying home the Christmas Tree

carrying the Christmas tree home, Prague, Czech Republic
As you can see, James helped carry the tree home this year.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Icing on the Cake - Snowfall at Namesti Miru

namesti miru tree and christmas ornaments in the snow
It's been a wonderful, busy weekend. Caroline and I sang in three choir concerts, filling our afternoons and evenings with music. After rehearsing and performing for two days I'm vocalizing every other word. "Why YES, I do want to use that string of lights, bring them O-VER here." Singing your sentences beats humming, right? (And it is so hard to resist when your voice is all warmed up.)

After the last concert tonight, I stepped out of the hall to find snow blanketing the ground, several centimeters thick. Snow is unusual enough in Prague that, once home, the kids and I bundled up to go play. Dinner time or not, fresh snow at Christmas trumps evening routine.

We walked to Namesti Miru to see what we could see, and found that the lights of the Christmas market mixed with snow went just as beautifully together as you might imagine.

Even James was impressed, at least momentarily. "It's so boo-tiful, I can't believe how boo-tiful it is," he said. Then, "Okay Mommie, stand still so I can throw a snow ball at you. Oh wait, my glove fell off again, Mommie, help!"

We threw snow dust (very cold snow doesn't stick together well), stomped around making pictures for the stars to see, and then, when it really was almost too late, headed home for breakfast for dinner, warm baths, and hot apple cider. Icing on the cake, indeed.

namesti miru christmas market in the snow, prague, czech republic, 2012

Friday, December 07, 2012

On Display

christmas cards in shop window, prague czech republic
Passing by a favorite coffee shop last year, I saw these cards in the window, the buildings beautiful, layered above them. Cold fingers and all, I stopped for the reflection.

A year later, I pulled up the picture again. This time, I didn't notice the reflections as much as the display. It's very typical for Prague - it declares, rather than dreams. It offers up its prospects in rows of statement. In Paris at Christmas the displays hardly hint at what might be beyond them. Stuffed bears twirl, plastic snow falls, velvet drapes over staged mountains. The store sells table linen.

I'd like to see the Parisian Christmas windows sometime. Walking through cities rich in display thrills me; I redesigned one of our web sites after a trip to Barcelona, the other after a weekend in Copenhagen. But I'm also content with knowing what's behind the windows, with Prague's a to z declarations of intent.

The reflections aren't bad either.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Happy Mikulas Day!

Mikulas Eve kick starts the Christmas season into high gear here in Prague. Last night we made our annual trek to Namesti Miru to watch the crowds of devils, angels and St. Nicks out in flocks in the square. By the time we'd lit a few sparklers, lost several balloons to the night sky, and eaten a round of spa wafers, everyone's toes were beginning to feel ice-like and even Caroline declared herself ready to head home. Our timing was perfect though, because this year we ran into Mikulas as he was leaving presents for the children. He was a sight to behold, and his angel a vision. (The devil was pretty cute too, though the two year olds in our party didn't think so!)

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Antidote to Christmas Crowds

Shopping in December usually ranks high on my list of chores I’d rather not do. Add an errand run to my day’s work list and, presto, I decide it’s time to write my next proposal, and didn’t that cabinet need to be reorganized?

Add Caroline to that same errand run, and crowded trams, surly shop attendants, rainy weather become peccadilloes to add to the comedy routine which is Caroline on a shopping trip.

Quotes from a recent afternoon out:

"No Mommie, we can NOT wear that pink. This is the maximum pink we can wear."
(Shows me a sweater so burgundy it's about to turn blue.)

(Surveying a very long, shapeless dress.)
"That would look HORRENDOUS on most people. It’s only for a model, maximum."

(Checking out an unusual mannikin display.)
"Have you seen this...this boot? What are they thinking? It’s like they’re trying to poke an eye out! That’s really the maximum."

(Long thought)
"You know, I like the word 'maximum.' Maximum and minimum, they cover it all."

Monday, December 03, 2012

Jizerské Hory Cross Country Highway

Our favorite cross country ski trail opened this weekend. Just knowing that the trails were groomed and ready for action made me want to play hookey and head for the hills, but then I watched this video from Saturday. If you don't hear from me for a few days, you'll know where I am!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
If you're in the Czech Republic and wondering where you too can find good cross country skiing, look no further than the Jizerská magistrála, or Jizerske Highway. It's a series of cross country and hiking tracks over 170 km long. There's a trail for everyone, even if you're skiing with a kid in tow.

We usually drive up to Bedřichov, and ski from the Maliník parking lot. My advice, get there early. We took a vacation day one Wednesday to try to beat the parking lot crowd, arrived at 10, and snagged the last space in the lot. Once you're on the trails though, it's not crowded at all (there's enough space for everyone when you have so many kilometers to choose from!).

Here are pictures from one of our treks last year. Tempting isn't it?

Bedrichov and the entrance to the Jizerske magistral, or Jizera highway

Sunday, December 02, 2012

First Sunday in Advent, 2012

advent wreath 2012
By now, Caroline and I are old hands at putting together our Advent wreath. We bought the evergreens yesterday, and (once we'd unearthed our decorations) Caroline layered the wreath with stars, orange slices, golden pine cones, cinnamon and all spice. With a little help, James had the honor of lighting the first candle. He held the match with pride and, as he pointed out, did not catch anything wrong on fire.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Saturday at the Farmer's Market

The light at the Jiriho z Podebrad farmer's market today made everything glow. I thought you might like to see the old fashioned weights that the flower stand uses to weigh their pumpkins (they sell flowers, pumpkins, advent candles - whatever seems to strike their fancy).

The pumpkins look like they are on their way out, but that's fine by us. Wreaths and garlands have arrived and smell just like Christmas, says Caroline. We bought some garland today for our Advent wreath. The kids already have the glue gun out - let's see what sticks!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Origami Advent Calendar

It's nearly midnight, and I'm in the middle of folding boxes for the children's Advent calendar. The Playmobil people look concerned, but I'll find a spot for them all, I promise!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Czech Glass Ornaments

One of our favorite stands at the Namesti Miru Christmas market specializes in hand blown glass ornaments. Every December, the children and I choose a new figure from their collection, and each year I wonder - where did you come from?

Today I decided to find out. The Czech Republic (and Czechoslovakia before it) has a long tradition of glass making, and I've even visited a few bead making workshops. I didn't know, though, if the factories for hand blown ornaments still existed.

Happily, I discovered that they do. One factory, Opavska Tovarna, creates over a million ornaments a year. Most are sold abroad, but at least 10% stay in the country. Another, Ozdoba CZ, has a history that stretches back to the 19th century, and is a family run factory restituted after the Velvet Revolution. Glassor's selection of ornament shapes is one of the most extensive (and beautiful) I've seen.

As you can see in the video below, it still takes a great deal of manual labor to make glass Christmas ornaments. After watching the factory ladies handle the hot glass, form it into many different shapes, then decorate the results with glue, glitter and color, I have a new appreciation for the figures we collect, and for the people who create them.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Snow (and Ice) in the City

Czech dailys get excited when the weather starts to change. "Snow invades - prepare for ice!" runs one headline. "WARNING, Icy Roads!" cautions another. The Facebook page for our favorite cross country track sounds decidedly more optimistic, and keeps updating its snow forecasts. They know their fans are ready to hit the trails again.

Here in Prague, we'll probably see a centimeter or two of slush on Friday, with a side of ice and cold weather. We're in a river valley and the clouds that keep the sun out also keep temperatures warmer than up on the plains a few kilometers outside of town.

If it does snow, though, the kids are just as ready as cross country skiing fans. They can make tiny snowmen out of almost any frozen stuff that comes their way. When it snowed at the end of October, they scraped snow off park benches, rolled out snowmen, and gave one flowers for eyes, the other, a golden crown of leaves. (The seasons collided that day).

This time around, they're hoping for more than just a dusting, and have begged me to bring out their sled. I think I'll wait until Friday to climb into the top of our closet and haul down the toboggan, but, just in case all the newspapers are right and the city does get icy, I've got my eye on a pair of cleats for my boots. It sounds like they could come in handy this weekend!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Richard Scarry's European Word Book

Every now and then, the kids and I play a word game with simple rules - we work our way through the alphabet, trying to think of a word that starts with the same letter in both Czech and English. For extra points, we add German too.

A is for alligator or aligátor, B is for banjo or bendžo, C is for circus or cirkus...

It's particularly fun to run with a theme - animals for five letters in a row, musical instruments for three. When we think of a new word pair we like, I write it down. For years I've wanted to illustrate a bilingual alphabet, and these lists inspire me each time we play.

Maybe one of these months I will finally create my abeceda. In the meantime though, I've just discovered a Richard Scarry word book* that is bound to take the game to new levels. I was tempted to do some secret cramming with it before our next round (both James and Caroline are way ahead on the Czech side of things), but then James did a little closet excavation, and the gig was up.

Like all Richard Scarry books, the illustrations are beautifully detailed and full of animals. I'm fond of the fins on the cars, James likes the old fashioned machinery. What makes Scarry's European Word Book (or Evropsky Slovnik) perfect for us, though, is that it is in English, German, French AND Czech.

It is, as Caroline would say, fantastic (fantastický, fantastisch, and of course, fantastique!)

 * We found Evropsky Slovnik at Amadito and Friends, an international children's bookshop in Prague 5.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Night Tram

If you read the comments here at kolokolo, you will already have met Robbie, from Tone Deaf. He's an excellent writer and the type of editor who can nudge a person into straightening up a bit of prose by simply quirking an eyebrow. He also inspires me to keep thinking (and sometimes writing) about music.

Today on Tone Deaf, he wrote about Elliot Carter's Double Concerto - a puzzling piece to listen to the first time round. I found a Youtube recording and thought about it for the rest of the day, wondering if I could possibly articulate why it winds up working.

Then on the way to choir tonight, reflections in the tram window caught my eye. Just for a snap shot of a moment, I realized that this is the way I see Carter's music - layers of sound (or image) that are not designed to respond to each other, but that, if we listen long enough (or look at hard enough) unravel from each other and begin to make sense, and then (because we're human and we make connections even if there aren't any to be made) come back together again into something that we can hear (or see) as a whole.

Tomorrow - back to the everyday, I promise! In the meantime, a picture hint - look for the cross walk.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Spelling without sound

A few months ago, Caroline asked me to teach her the alphabet in American sign language. We went from A to Z several times, but it never really stuck.Then her babysitters showed her the Czech manual alphabet, or prstová abeceda. She memorized it nearly instantly, and started spelling to me in the tram or in the metro, or when she was across a noisy room and didn't want to shout.

Because Caroline learned the two handed version, (or dvouruční prstová abeceda), many of the signs look very similar to the letters of the alphabet and are easy to remember. By the time I'd found a chart with all the letters, she'd drilled most of them into my memory.

Now that she's turned from student to teacher, I tell Caroline it's time to move on to harder stuff. She's debating between working on my downhill skiing or Czech pronunciation. I'll keep you posted on the results!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sunbathing on a Saturday

After weeks of inversion, the clouds lifted today and Prague got busy washing its windows.

The light was delicious and when we finished washing windows, we bathed in the sun, content as cats. Rosemary, as you can see, sunned herself too.

Friday, November 23, 2012

L is for Alto

In the morning, James climbs up into our bed and puts his head next to mine. He doesn't want to get dressed quite yet, so he picks the longest game he can think of - the alphabet game.

"A is! What's next, Mommie?."
    "B", I say. "As in 'Be quiet, I'm sleeping!'"

"Funny Mommie," he says, then keeps going until halfway through the alphabet, when he gets to L.

"L. Hmmm. L. Lalala, how about, L is for Alto!"

I swing him off the bed and carry him upside down and giggling to breakfast, wondering how many more mornings we have where he'll still be small enough for me to whoosh him around like a small boy, how big he already is to be able to play with words, and how these moments I must remember.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

This Way to Thanksgiving

I've celebrated Thanksgiving in many places, but when I imagine the day, this is the road I see leading up to it. At the end of the road is my grandparents' old house, the houses where my aunts and uncles and cousins live, the farm. Today, my great uncle tells me, they expect only a few people for dinner. In family parlance, that means less than twenty. There might not be fifty relatives* showing up, but I know there will be lots of good food, kids and dogs running around, jokes laughed over, and stories retold. Afterwards, my aunts will send everyone home with leftovers and big hugs.

There's a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter that reminds me of the road we take to get there and home again. Here's the video:

*Fifty people equals a crowd, one hundred, a large crowd.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Namesti Miru Christmas Market is Open!

namesti miru christmas market 2012, Prague Czech Republic
The market at Namesti Miru opened yesterday, a welcome brightness in the days that darken so soon this month. This afternoon, on the way home from writing club, Caroline and I stopped by to see if our favorite vendors were back. Happily, they all were. We quality controlled a few - testing out a trdelnik, or sweet roll, and some cider - and C declared them ready for the season.

Tuesday evening, mid November, and still locals packed the square, meeting with friends after work. By the time we finished our cider, the sun had set and it was time for us to head off, content in the thought that for the next month, the market at Miru will be here to make the evenings bright.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Start with String

It's grey, cold, and foggy here in Prague, so the children are spending lots of time rummaging through the art cabinet, looking through projects and books we've saved for a rainy day (or month, or two). On one rummage, Caroline finds a Klutz book on string figures. In no time at all, she's an avid fan.

"You start with string," she tells me, authoritatively. "It's really amazing because that's all you need!" Her voice goes peeping high in excitement. She thinks it's almost magical that, with a bit of advanced thumb twirling, she can build the Eiffel Tower, twist together a witch's broom and cat whiskers. She's even conquered Jacob's Ladder, her proudest feat.

Magic might not be involved, but there's definitely something meditative about making a string figure. I think it's the way our hands work together, mirror imaged, to create further symmetry. Or maybe there's something to be said for twiddling our fingers, some sort of innate soothing ritual our ancestors developed along with their opposable thumbs. It's certainly an old game. Anthropologists tell us that string figure games have prehistoric roots, and are also well known in cultures around the world.

Caroline has already memorized all the figures in her book, and we're on the hunt for new challenges. Let me know if you have a favorite pattern to recommend!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunny Side Up

Sometimes it's easy to overlook the basics when it comes to food. Especially week day mornings, when you don't want to even pretend to think while you're hustling children into clothes, making breakfast, getting everyone out the door on time.

Weekends though, I like to experiment when I cook. So when The Wednesday Chef posted a recipe for the perfect fried egg, I decided to try Wednesday's sunny side ups for breakfast Saturday.

And they were good.

A cinch to cook.

Tasty even for the four year old who likes all food just so.

Here's how:

1. Melt a lump of butter in a pan over low heat.
2. Crack your eggs into little bowls and then slide them into the pan. You can also crack them directly into the pan, but then your yolk will get bubbles in it. This might not bother you, but if you have a perfectionist in the family, or a four year old, go for the little bowls.
3. Cover your pan with a lid.
4. Leave the heat on low, and let your eggs cook for 3 to 3.5 minutes, depending on how runny you like your yolk.
5. Slide your eggs from pan to plate and enjoy!

Thanks to popular demand, I made them on Sunday too. Caroline modeled them for me this morning, along with her toast and tea.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Nicholas Daniel at the Rudolfinum

Every now and then I'll leave a concert floating on air because of a performance. Last night was one of those times. I felt bubbly all the way from the Rudolfinum, to the metro, to our short walk home, excited by what we'd heard.

The Czech Philharmonic opened with Kodaly's Dances of Galanta, and I thought we'd just listened to the best piece of the evening. Then Nicholas Daniel began to play James MacMillan's oboe concerto, and I realized I was wrong.

If you ever have the chance to hear Daniel play the oboe, grab it. He's a virtuoso with remarkable technique, but he's also a powerful performer; I could read the composer's notes from his expressions. And the music - if modern classical music is going to survive and thrive, it will be because of composers such as MacMillan writing for performers such as Daniel.

Unfortunately, the oboe concerto doesn't seem to be recorded anywhere, so I can't link to it, but as an encore, Nicholas Daniel played "Arethusa" from Britten's Metamorphoses after Ovid, and I did find its recording. The setting in the video may be slightly less formal than the Rudolfinum!

Friday, November 16, 2012

View from the Rudolfinum

View from the Rudolfinum, Prague Czech Republic
View from the Rudolfinum*

Tonight we're off to meet friends and hear the Czech Philharmonic play Kodály, MacMillan and Brahms at the Rudolfinum. I'm spending time listening to the music while I work, because most of the program is new to me.

Will kids me a little when he finds me pouring over music on YouTube that he knows I'll hear in a few hours. I do like the surprise of hearing something new, but the pieces I really enjoy are the ones I've heard before. I like knowing the road map of a piece and where the orchestra is going, to be able to wait for a favorite moment and compare it to other versions tucked away in memory.

I'm guessing that the Kodály will be my favorite of the night, with its horns, lush strings and Hungarian dance tunes. The Brahms sounds ideal for day dreaming or orchestra watching. I haven't been able to track down James MacMillan's piece anywhere. One surprise a night seems just about right.

*Definitely not from today - this was from an evening in June when the sun was still high in the sky. Today the sun barely gave us a nod before ducking down again for the night.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Game Night

Thursday evening, and it's game night over here at kolokolo. We played Cluedo, ate popcorn and sang into bowls. Or at least the children did. I stuck to popcorn and detective work. We finally figured out that Gatow did it with the Gift in the Wohnzimmer, stopping our local crime wave in its tracks just as pj time arrived. (Our Cluedo set is from Germany; translating keeps us on our toes!)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Prague's Doorways

old door in Prague, Czech Republic
Did you know that the word for threshold in Czech is práh? Legend has it that Libuše, the mythical founder of Prague (or Praha), ordered her clan to search along the Vltava until they found a man hewing a doorway, and there found a city. A vision told her so.

Now, I've always thought this story was based on wishful thinking by an amateur etymologist. On the other hand, if Libuše had decided to build a city, she chose her river well, and I do appreciate someone who sees the value of being a safe second mover. "Let other people try out the neighborhood first," she probably said to herself. "At least this way I'll know my castle won't fall into the river after the first big rain of the season."

Apocryphal etymology or not, the city's doorways still have a way of drawing you in, and I'm particularly fond of old doors like this one. It's rather a vision too, don't you agree?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Marks and Sparks Gets Fresh

Marks and Spencers in Prague, Czech Republic
Prague's Marks & Spencers gave expats an early Christmas present this week when they expanded their food selection to include fresh produce, gorgeous cuts of meat, and a plethora of exotic (British!) cheese. We even found watercress, so it might be time for a tea party or two.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Džbánek for the Road

Czech beer pitcher or džbánek
St. Martin's day and wine go hand in hand, so today I thought I'd give beer its equal due. The pitcher above is a Czech beer pitcher, or džbánek, handy for carrying tapped beer home from the pub.

When we first arrived, low these many years ago, it took a while to get used to seeing liquor in the grocery store, beer drunk openly on the sidewalk, and kids eating dinner with their parents at our local pub (or hospoda). This was all very refreshing after growing up with blue laws and red dot stores. What really got our attention though were the beer pitchers. We'd see people head into a hospoda with pitcher in hand, then walk out a few minutes later, the pitcher (or džbánek) brimming with beer. Our friends told us that if we kept an eye out, we'd even see children fetching beer home.

I've got enough Victorian left in me to say that I'm glad I've never spotted a kid on beer duty,* but we do have our very own džbánek now. I found it in a bazaar tucked behind the theater on Náměstí Míru. The old pitchers stand in a long row in the bazaar, just above the beer glasses and brandy snifters. They're usually ceramic, and come in varying sizes. Ours holds four beers (or 2 liters) and is a hefty weight when it's full. Luckily there is a pub on nearly every street corner in Prague, so the trip home is never long.

*According to our babysitters, children stopped carrying beer home before the Velvet Revolution - but you still see references to kids buying beer in books and movies. (Thanks Anne!)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

St. Martin's White Horse

st. martin's day festival at jiriho z podebrad in prague czech republic, 2012
St. Martin rode in on a white horse today at Jiřího z Poděbrad, at exactly 11:11 on 11/11. No snow arrived with him,* just the new wine carried with medieval pomp and basketry to be presented to the crowd.

And what a crowd it was! Hundreds of people came out for the festival, and even at 11 most were already testing the new wine, drinking from glasses hung around their necks. We carried our bottles home with us, but before we left we sampled the music and the freshly made potato chips, and of course watched St. Martin arrive in style.

*According to Central European tradition, St. Martin's white horse ushers in the first snow of the season.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Carp Harvest

Every October, towns across the south of the Czech Republic drain their ponds, preparing for the carp harvest. As the water disappears, the carp school together until they're cached in water shallow enough for nets.

On harvest day, fishermen begin their roundup at dawn. Each is assigned a position - as a beater, slapping the water with a long pole to frighten the fish away, or on the nets - pulling the fish in to shore.

Once the catch is secure, the fishermen sort the carp from other fish and into holding tanks. Later on, once the sun is high in the sky, the men will reenact the hunt, wielding their poles and nets for the crowds that arrive for the harvest festival celebrating the day.

In the early hours of the morning though, it's just fishermen and fish working their way through a ritual their forebearers have followed for over eight hundred years in the ponds of southern Bohemia.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Birds fly, leaves fall

Running to a meeting this afternoon, I stopped at Namesti Miru to take a picture of a favorite statue before all the leaves behind her blew away. There are many statues around town - they're historic, and even heroic, but I think she is my favorite.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Backstage at the fashion show

back stage at a Prague Fashion week show, September 2012
We went to two shows this fall during Prague Fashion Week. They featured young Czech designers, with avant-garde flair. I enjoyed watching the designers cheer for each other as their collections premiered, and Caroline and I got a kick out of deconstructing outfits and figuring out their inspirations. "Monster movies," decided C during a collection that was clearly zombie inspired. I introduced her to Mondrian after another.

The shows were well choreographed, with music and images on screens behind the runway, and the models shone (when they weren't dressed as zombies), particularly our babysitter, who made every outfit she wore look like it was sewn with silver and gold thread. After the first collection I asked Caroline what she thought it was all about. "It's funny," she said. "I thought a fashion show would be about clothes, but it's really not, is it. It's more about art."

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Watching the Results Come In

watching the 2012 US Election results in Prague, Czech Republic
Last night I stayed up to watch the U.S. election results at the American Center here in Prague. As the sun rose and the light filtered through the archways of Mala Strana, we watched Ohio slowly become a certainty. It was magical.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Today We Wait

It's election day in the U.S., and voters will soon be lining up at their polling places, while volunteers help get out the vote. Here in Prague, it feels funny to be sitting on the sidelines on such a busy day. Overseas, voting starts early - in the last few months I've helped first time voters sort through their paper work, worked help lines, organized voter registration, and of course sent in my own ballot. Voting from abroad ends early, too.* The die is cast, our ballots are in. Today we wait.

Back in August, I decided I'd try to register fifty people; I wound up registering many more. I thought I'd call five or six of my friends; I called pages of friends, acquaintances and strangers. I thought I'd never stop an American on the street and ask if they'd registered; I ask every English speaker I hear now, "Where are you from? Have you registered? No? Here's how." It's hard to stop the momentum once you get started. There's so much at stake, and always something more to do. Until today. Today we wait.

I'm trying not to obsess too much about the outcome. It will be morning by the time a winner is declared (if we're lucky). I'll be up before dawn to watch the last results come in. But today, today we wait.

*At least for most states. There are a handful that accept ballots received after November 6th as long as they are postmarked by today. has a full list here.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Land of Counterpane

The Land of Counterpane
by Robert Louis Stevenson
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I asked Caroline to overhaul the sloop today for James, so she set it to rights, and then played a little. Apparently the ship sails sweetly, even beam on to a swell of sea green duvet.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Dragon in training

{Late fall light on facades at Grebovka park; Halloween story telling at the park's pavilion; first star of the night; Caroline, dressed up and ready to roar}

This weekend C helped out at a story telling of Room on the Broom. Part of a Halloween party held at our favorite local park, the show entertained little kids in between the three legged races and a treasure hunt. Caroline played a dragon hungry for a snack, and roared her way through her lines with glee.

Which wasn't how she'd first approached the part. When I first talked to her about it, she was disappointed. "If I'm the dragon, I'll be the bad guy, and a scaredy cat. I don't want to play a wimp!" We talked a lot then about what it meant to be in a play, about teamwork and putting a good face forward even for scaredy cat parts.

C sings in a choir ruled by a choir master with regimental leanings. She loves the discipline - the way the choristers are taken seriously, and are themselves expected to take the music seriously. She goes to practice thirty minutes early so she can get organized, review theory homework, and hang out with friends as they warm up. She understands the importance of team work there.

Theater has always been about playing pretend to her, but once she realized that she could treat it just as seriously as choir, she straightened her shoulders and decided to be the best wimpy dragon in Prague, and to have fun doing it.

And she did.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Just a Peek

Walking along Pragerstrasse in downtown Dresden a week ago, we met a man and his flag. We weren't sure why he was there. The rest of the crowd wasn't sure either, and pointedly ignored him or peeked over their shoulders after they'd walked by, to see what he might do next. The dogs did not care.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Sculpture in Motion

{picture and carving by Mirek Trejtnar}

A well carved wooden puppet shows off a new mood with a turn of its head, dip of its chin, lift of its hand. It's sculpture in motion, designed for story telling.

When a puppet maker works on sculpture, it's no surprise then, to find that his creations shift expressions almost as easily as a marionette. Posed, they let our motions redefine them, as if they're waiting to go on stage, ready to be set to life by a puppeteer. Or, perhaps, a room full of children.

A few weeks ago, James, Caroline and I went to the opening of a new sculpture exhibit by Mirek Trejtnar, a master puppet maker here in Prague. Galerie Výtoň celebrated the opening with a production of the Snow Queen, and the rooms were packed with people. After the show, kids roamed about the exhibition, peering into carved eyes, turning cranks to watch wooden faces spring to life, trying to decide what this angel might be thinking, or that man in the moon about to do. I imagined the stage set and story for a few favorites, and then it was dinner, and time to go.

The show runs three more weeks at Galerie Výtoň, two blocks from the Výtoň tram stop, close to the river on Vyšehradská 3. If you stop by, let me know what tales you imagine too!

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Trick or Treat

trick or treat in Prague, Halloween 2012
{Caroline tries out a levitation spell on James; J practices being scary; one of our favorite decorations of the evening; tightly woven braids gave C the frizzy head of hair she's always longed for; witches a prowl on all Hallow's Eve}

Last night, as we inched our way past parked cars, and streams of children rushing from house to house, James worried about candy.

"Will there be any left? Are we too late?" he asked, prepared to leap from his seat the moment I turned off the car. Caroline, deep into her role as Hermione the defender of reason, answered him before I could. "Now then, even if they're out of candy, at least the houses will be decorated." Her British accent was perfect.

To the kids' delight, the houses were not only decorated, but still full of sweets. Many thanks once again to the families in Nebusice for opening their doors to the hordes of candy loving children in Prague, and making many an American feel that, just for an evening, they'd headed home for Halloween.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Writing Club

{Reading the last pages of Harry Potter IV; up the stairs in the sunshine; jazz hands at a Saturday concert - pictures only vaguely related to post ;-}

"She’s a ballet dancer, twirling around?"
   "Wait, she looks guilty about something, see her smile?"
"I know, she’s about to grab those Oreos. She’s pretending to sneak a cookie!"
"You’ve guessed right, Caroline’s a cookie thief!"

This week in writing club, we’re working on expository paragraphs - the hard working support staff behind so many essays. I love digging into words and making them recognizable for kids, so we start by chopping "expository" up to find "expose" and "pose." Then I promise the class that if they can play charades (and expose a pose) they can also write an expository paragraph without even knowing it.

Prepped ahead of time, Caroline poses as a cookie thief while everyone else yells out their guesses. Afterwards, I write up the class’s first thoughts, the cues that clued them in, and finally, their winning guess. Once done, I introduce the girls to the first draft of their paragraph, complete with thesis, supporting sentences, and conclusion.


We’re not home schooling Caroline, and I haven’t decided to switch from the IT world to education. We are sending the children to Czech schools that teach ESL English though, so we supplement. Caroline goes to class with grammar and spelling workbooks from the States. She writes book reports in both English and Czech, and does assignments for her writing club, a mother-run after school class that meets twice a month.

Six weeks into the semester, C’s worked on poetry and creative writing, written a news story, and expanded her vocabulary of expressive adverbs, verbs and adjectives. Today, we’re talking about expository paragraphs and linking words. It’s the first time I’ve taught in front of Caroline’s friends, so she’s asked me to make it "fun and teachy too."

I try. The time disappears in a flash, but each girl gets to pose and have her charades skit turned into a paragraph that the class writes together. By the end of our hour, the paragraphs evolve from bullet lists into well linked sentences full of transition words and active verbs. I consider writing blog posts using a committee of fourth graders. (I’d at least write more!)

The only cloud descends when Caroline gets her feelings hurt; I haven’t called on her as much as I do at home. On our walk back to the house, she’s still upset. Looking into her ear I diagnose a case of "mami-ucitelkitis" or "mother/teacher syndrome" and explain that the only cure is repeat application. In the meantime though, we might bandage it up and do a little window shopping as we walk. We do. But that’s a story for another day.

Monday, September 03, 2012

A New Year (and the First Day of School)

James gave his teacher a big hug before running to play this morning, and Caroline told me that walking into her old classroom, with her friends and her teacher waiting for her, felt a little like coming home. It’s been a long summer apparently!

1) James eats breakfast with his jacket on so that he really is the first person all ready to go.
2) The rush to the door.
3) C models her first day of school outfit.
4) Who can grimace more during an official picture? Always a question!
5) Caroline didn't want to forget to tell her teacher all the fun things she'd done this summer, so she wrote her a letter this morning after breakfast. Which inspired me, in turn, to post a note of my own on Kolo. It's been too long.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Outline of Spring

Spring weather has already arrived, and the trees are working hard to catch up, but they still stand bare with only buds showing at their tips. The children don't notice though, they are thrilled to be back on the playground and come home happily worn out, with sand pouring from their shoes (and their pockets). We've put away our skis for the season, it's biking time again, and I vow that this year will be the year I carry my camera along on our weekend biking trips. I've other spring resolutions too, they seem to arrive with the season and inspire me to spend a month pouring my free time into learning a new language, jogging every day, eating healthfully. Green is the color of creativity and inspiration, after all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Hearts

Happy Valentine's Day. I'll be back shortly with tales from the icy heart of Prague, which seems to be in line for a thaw! In the meantime, what could be nicer than two boys cooking up dinner (beef and broccoli, yum) and hearts abounding, if you just look for them.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Cross Country Cross Checking

There's no snow in Prague right now, but the weather reports are full of the news of snow in the Czech mountains. I'm spending my work breaks piecing together snow reports, train schedules and Google maps in search of the closest open cross country track and day dreaming about our Christmas vacation in Switzerland.

We didn't have a lot of days free for skiing, but any free time we had found us out in the mountains with the children. They practiced their down hill skiing, built snow men and Caroline stepped away from the ski lift to go cross country with me once. The weather was too warm for ice skating on the lakes, but we're hoping that when we head back to Switzerland in February for ski break the Christmas thaw will have ended and the deep freeze set in for the season.

In the meantime, does anyone in Prague have a favorite cross country track they'd like to recommend? And are you skiing where you are?