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.

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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!

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* 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!
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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!