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.