Sunday, December 24, 2006
I give to you, the Czech Christmas... In fifteen minutes or less. Thanks to bookwormom for reminding me about this one.
Yes, Virginia, here in the wilds of Bohemia (and Moravia come to think of it) there is no Santa Claus. Instead, the traditional Czech bringer of gifts is Ježíšek, which roughly translates as "Baby Jesus". He arrives on Christmas Eve and drops off presents on a table in one room, while the children all wait patiently in the other. As he leaves, he rings a little bell which is the signal for Czech kiddies to burst the eardrums of any on-lookers with shrieks of delight, stampede into the room and proceed to clout one another around the head with their new gifts.
During the communist period, Ježíšek managed to survive the Russian invasion of "Grandfather Frost", who tried to boot Christmas into the stratosphere and replace it with a more secular timetable for present-giving at New Year. There's an iron-(curtain)y buried in there under the discarded wrapping and (velvet) ribbons.
Although Ježíšek managed to stand firm in the face of Ded Moroz, now Santa Claus appears to be encroaching on Ježíšek's territory in a big way. As a result, a casual group of professionals in the advertising game have set up an anti-Santa campaign, which has attracted some attention.
Happily, I can report that other aspects of the traditional Czech Christmas are alive and well, such as the eating of carp and potato salad for Christmas dinner. Well, at least the carp are very much alive and swimming around in their big plastic blue buckets behind the street-corner stalls, although I personally think that these carp don't have much going for them in the liveliness stakes. At least, not compared to say, sharks. These days, instead of being carried home live and dumped in the bathtub to keep them going until Christmas Eve (sharks would definitely add interest to this tradition), they are instead bashed on the head and filleted at point of sale.
Close enquiry of a bunch of Czech people has confirmed that the traditional Czech potato salad is not made from feral potatoes that have run wild in the Krkonoše mountains all year.
Gotta go - Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, or as Mrs. Jana would make me say (several times while bashing a ruler on the desk), Hezké vánoce a šťastný nový rok 2007. Please don't tell her I just read the year as individual numerals.
Friday, December 22, 2006
A large purple tree.
Old Town Square has a very big blue tree...
...and also trdelnik, cooking on a trdlo. mmmmmmmmm...
Round it all off with a rousing chorus of "Little Donkey". You know you want to...
Thursday, December 21, 2006
But at last, I can finally announce that I too have tittered at a supermarket refrigerator full of cold cuts and even taken photos, although my own efforts were far more surreptitious. Well okay, furtive. What can I say? I felt weird. Besides, I was in one of the two subterranean supermarkets near Můstek metro station. The thing with these two stores is that the combination of cement floors, steel warehouse doors painted off-white and nasty fluorescent tube lighting makes me hideously aware that I am surrounded by concrete on all sides, and UNDERGROUND. And I'm not even claustrophobic.
To the cabin fever simmering gently in my subconscious, add the winteriness of the evening, presence of "interesting" characters that like to hang around public transportation and best of all, the heavy metal music in tongues that they blast from the speakers during the late-night shopping hours. Taking photos probably would have blended, come to think of it. If only I had thought to put on my very cheap new woolly hat that makes my head look pointy.
So I'm feeling weird, and taking photos of processed pig products. But why? Ahh… young love. Rebel love. (bear with me here - this isn't really a non sequitur. Oh. And come to think of it, I wasn't feeling that weird.) Where was I? Oh yes, Rebel love. So wild. So free. So rebellious. James Dean, spiky hair, leather jackets and maybe even the poetically tragic, doomed romance between the young idealistic revolutionary and the offspring of the corrupt local governor. But what of soft furnishings, long flowing hair, nicely-pressed linens and low-cost paté?
Well it would seem that at least one of Czechland's manufacturers of meat paste has taken this question to heart. And thus, they have decided to exploit this newly-discovered niche and entice customers to take advantage of their 2-for-1 deal by throwing in a free copy of this DVD.
That's Czech for "The Princess from the Mill", a famous comedy from the last decade.
But look. Teeth. Who needs teeth like this to chew paté?
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Friday, December 15, 2006
It's just gone dark here, so apologies for the paucity and here's a candle for anyone who's calling today 25th of Kislev, especially the lovely D'eath, son of D'eath, husband of D'eath and bump of D'eath.
Last weekend, I picked up for the princely sum of 70 KC (about £1.75/$3.50 US - yes, English language books are vvvv expensive here) a second-hand copy of a book published in 1971, and based on a TV show of that era, called "Dark Shadows." After all, how could I possibly turn down the chance to own "A Paperback Library Gothic - #28 in a series?" Especially as it rejoiced in the deliciously gloomy title, Barnabas, Quentin and the Grave Robbers, and the tag line, "Was there no escape from the evil Dr. Bentley - even from the land of the living dead?"
And I have to say that so far it is a Hammer-tastic overly melodramatic late Regency pastiched delight. (I can only really read one chapter at a time, because I slightly lose it after about 3 pages of this sort of thing.) The heroine is the most unbelievably stupid brunette to ever get locked up in a coffin by fiendish cock-er-ney 'enchmen. The hero does absolutely nothing apart from turn up at the last possible moment to rescue the dimwitted heroine. The villain revels in his unspeakable vileness and delivers lines like, "If you prefer not to be my wife then I shall have Hoskins prepare you as a cadaver for dissection at the Winslow Hospital Medical School." Why add tags to denote maniacal laughter when his dialogue fairly shouts it?
This is the extract blurbed on the back cover. I haven't yet reached this point in the book, but so far it does what it says on the tin. Best read aloud in the finest imitation of a TV announcer of Dooooommmwhaahahahahaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!!HAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!HAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!
"You see, Paula, how well it will work out. Lily will drink the blood of the village maidens - and Barnabas will be blamed." [Insert evil laughter here. Think: Barnabas? Barney? The dino- No, wait. Don't think. Just read.]
Paula stared at the evil doctor in horror. [I think horror means goggle-eyed. To make sure this is clear to passing migrating wildebeest, shriek breathily, as if you've just trodden on a slug after inhaling a balloon-full of helium.] "Whatever happens to Barnabas, you'll still have Quentin to reckon with!" [Stretch out arm, then retract abruptly to forehead as if it were a highly desirable wet fish. Try not to concuss yourself with enthusiasm.]
Dr. Bentley sneered. [Flared nostrils work well here. With practice, you can probably do one at a time and waggle your eyebrows simultaneously. This is the epitome of evil if you don't actually own a pair of retractable horns.] "The werewolf? If Quentin tries to interfere with me," [rude gesture optional] "I'll find a way to deal with him." [More evil laughter, and rub hands gleefully. It's exhausting, this level of evil-tude. If you laugh evilly for 3 minutes, you burn off enough calories for 2 and a quarter chocolate digestives. But you gotta go with gusto.]
Lily added [Who's Lily? Oh yes, she of the drinking of the blood of the village maidens. Eeyuch.], "Better come over to our side, luv." [Ah... a cock-er-ney 'enchwoman. Flounce like you've never flounced before, me ducks.]
"I'd rather die," Paula said firmly, [yet gently]
"An interesting suggestion," Bentley remarked pleasantly. [I'm pretty sure "interesting" should be pronounced "eeeeenteresting". In fact, you could try doing all of Dr.B's dialogue with a really bad fake German accent.] "Dying could be your first step in joining my company of friends - zombies, if you will." [You see? Not "will", "vill". It makes people think eee-villl. How much more sinister could things get?] "Then you could be truly useful to me." [Oh look. Foreboding. Even more sinister. Get your bodes to the fore and dare I say laugh maniacally? Or even go for bust and try megalomaniacally. For variety, Paula could probably shriek a bit. Laugh! Shriek! Laugh! Shriek! Laugh! Shriek!]
Are the village maidens like the Village People? Where is the land of the living dead? Will Dr. Bentley get in touch with his inner zombie? How will Quentin interfere with Dr. Bentley? Why do all old second-hand books smell funny and have mysterious shopping lists scribbled in the front page? Can I have my biscuits now?
(all extracts quoted under fair use, she says, covering her arse, as she's been shooting off her mouth about plagiarism elsewhere)
Thursday, December 14, 2006
According to the Guardian, beards are back in fashion - for men, anyhow.
Don't quite know how to react to this. I mean, it had to happen. The eternal wheel of fashion will do its going around thing. So sometimes it must inevitably roll downhill over the pointy toes of its followers. And beards are probably better than 'burns, muttonchops or even lambchops. Because that Victorian gentleplum look was a fashion to set the world alight, or at least make a terrible smell as a set of manly sidewhiskers smouldered darkly in close proximity to a newly-installed gas chandelier or two.
The newspaper claims it's related to two seemingly contradictory trends (neither of them economic, unlike theories about hemlines):
1) Spread of "metrosexual" fashion necessitating the adoption of other indicators of masculinity to counter-act the girlifying effects of pink ties and lavender lounge suits.
(Note to self: remember the Seventies? Or at least, remember the old poster from the Seventies that was glued to my dentist's ceiling to distract his hapless patients? There is something very disconcerting about enforced study of a set of perfect gnashers gleaming whitely from a dark, hairy nest of luxuriant facial shrubbery. Particularly when said manly hirsuteness is perched on a skinny body in powder blue drainpipes and a ruffled shirt. Maybe it was the injections, but I seem to recall him sitting in a golden, hazy field of wheat above flowing letters which declared soothingly, "Love is… having regular check-ups and flossing twice daily. Use fluoride."
2) Popularity of facial fuzz and rRraaWwk (I'm never quite sure how to spell that) music go hand-in-hand. Bands do it, so fans do it.
Quick visual poll of surroundings reveals
3 undetermined (It's blonde. It may be long stubble, it may be deliberate, it may the acorns that herald future growth. It's a bit scruffy. There is no way to tell without asking the owner. They wear band t-shirts to work, if that helps.)
1 definite chin-and-moustache affair, neatly trimmed (he's French, so does that still count?).
1 goatee (in transit).
1 very heavy five-o'clock shadow, which blends imperceptibly with shaved head.
2 really long sideburns with sharply razored ends. Think they're supposed to replace cheekbones.
No bearded ladies, but I live in hope.
Interestingly, the scruffy undetermineds are scruffy all over. Where the facial fuzz seems deliberate it also appears to have migrated from forehead to chin(s). Is there a maximum possible quota for overall hair on a man's head? At what point does he reach overkill? Is that when they make you pose for dental hygeine posters of dubious taste?
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
For those interested, there is still no snow. We're basking in highs of 7 or 8 (celsius) and the Praguers (Praguees?) I've spoken to are all saying things like, "It doesn't feel like Christmas at all. It's much too warm." This is despite the presence of Christmas-tree salesman by practically every metro station, lights on pretty much every building downtown, Christmas markets full of glittery tat, choirs singing carols and svařak everywhere. Some of them have been reduced to watching snow cams from the Tyrol and Krkonoše mountains to meet their visual quota of the white stuff.
But it is always odd what makes people feel Christmassy, or festival-y of any kind. For me, the feeling is built up out of many layers, some more fragile than others. The obnoxiously loud singing of Christmas carols (pref. with surprise soprano descant that scales the Flipper-summoning heights of the range) is a thick fudgy one, particularly when done outdoors on a cold night.
Then there's lots of smells. A whiff of pine, or any strong tree resin, coupled with a flash of red ribbon. That particular recipe for gingerbread with orange bits, and the smell of mulled wine in company. The faint feeling of panic when you think of post office queues. The endless lists and planning. Tinsel. The annual conversation about what to feed the herbivore which magically turns me into a provoking teenager and the other party into the supreme warlord and all-powerful dictator of festive foodstuffs:
"What do you want for Christmas dinner?"
"No. You have to have something besides roast potatoes."
"No. You have to have something besides roast vegetables."
"I don't like sprouts."
"Don't be an idiot. What do you want to eat?"
"I want to eat roasties. I mean, I really like roasties. I could eat my weight in them."
"You can't. There have to be some for everyone else. Now what do you want instead of turkey?"
"Why is a dead bird festive?"
"Stop trying to annoy me."
"Look. Just stop it."
"Ok. Nut loaf."
"Don't be stupid. We're NOT having some bloody twig-filled, sandal-wearing lump of muck at Christmas dinner."
"Nut loaf is nice."
"I'll make it."
"With tomato sauce it's nice. And festive-coloured."
"We could stick a holly leaf on top."
"Look," A pause while a brief grown-up moment shimmers on the horizon. "Really, I'm happy with the side dishes. Just cook the veg in olive oil and I'll be fine."
"No. You have to have something special." The moment is gone.
"No. Bread sauce is disgusting. We're not having bread sauce."
"So are sprouts."
"Sprouts are traditional."
"Sprouts taste like farts."
"Stop trying to distract me. It won't work. What do you want for Christmas dinner?"
"Pizza is not a Christmas food. You can't have pizza."
"There were mini pizza bites the year I had Christmas dinner at --'s"
"Exactly. It was crap. They completely ruined dinner."
"They didn't ruin my dinner."
"Yes they did."
"No. My dinner was ruined when the dog ate all the mince pies and was sick on the rug. And I stepped in it in my new socks on the way to the kitchen to get more roasties. Besides, how do you know? You weren't even there."
"Exactly. If I'd have been there, there wouldn't have been any bloody pizza. And the dog would have been better behaved."
"You hate dog sick."
"Right, that's it. There's no point asking you to be sensible about this. I'm making you stilton tarts with walnut and garlic sauce. It's in my cookbook."
"How is that Christmassy?"
"Stilton. Stilton is Christmassy."
"I had Stilton yesterday. I think it's more Advent-y. And sometimes it's also Easter-y. If you eat it at Easter, for example. Except what if you started then, but had a big wheel and didn't finish it until after Whitsun?"
"Stop being so BLOODY ANNOYING."
"Can we pray for the turkey?"
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
For possibly the first time in my life, I spotted not just one, but TWO men whisking their (ahem) "dates" past reception and into a hotel lift. Maybe it's just because I don't spend an enormous amount of time hanging around in hotel lobbies. Anyhow, some might say this sight shouldn't be a huge surprise, because Prague is considered a "party" town and has a large number of business travellers. With FDI being a significant chunk of the country's GDP, I guess all those foreign business people want to see what they're spending their bank's money on.
More importantly, I've also discovered that there is apparently a universal human expression for, "Oh my God, did he just go into a lift with a woman of uh… a lady of the uh… a hoo… uh… you know? In the afternoon?"
But maybe I'm not naïve and easily shocked, but in fact too cynical. Maybe the grey-haired old fart in a suit draped in giggling, peroxide, leather-mini-skirted blonde was lending a helping umm… body part to a long-lost niece who had over-indulged in the mulled wine. Perhaps the sheepish guy in the red wool jumper who came out to introduce himself and shake hands with another bottle blonde wearing spike-heeled boots, denim shorts and a fur jacket waiting outside the hotel door, and then whisk her promptly to the lift was deeply anxious about the state of his cuticles and had sent out for an emergency manicure.
Then there was the airport bus. Some passengers might consider that it does not bode well to enter the warm mugginess of the number 119 to Dejvicka and be greeted by a blast of Alice Cooper from the driver's cab. On a wet, chilly night, "Poison" could be considered the sort of background music used in a scene for one of those possessed-escaped-convict-driving-a-bus-at-high-speeds-to-eternal-damnation films. There may be blood.
But y'know, I'm down with the er… middle-aged man with the receding hairline and ponytail. I have banged my head in many a sticky-floored, or even sticky, floured, beer-splattered excuse for a nightclub. I have danced the wonky dance of a thousand ciders, or a half-pint of home-brewed scrumpy. I have worn black clothes, DM boots, flannel shirts and ironically boogied my way through Guns N Roses albums with strangly tidy German punks. I have played ridiculously enthusiastic air guitar in ripped denim and tie-dye at wedding receptions to which I have not even been invited (to be fair, I was supposed to be working the bar, in the serving of alcoholic beverages and the occasional orange juice and lemonade kind of way).
But lest anyone thing that any of the above actually indicates either a) rrrrawk credibility or b) extreme sadness, I must protest that it is the latter. I'm a dabbler, not a dunker. I couldn't name a bass player if you covered him in molasses, stuck on a pair of bunny ears and threw him at me. The upshot being that I do sometimes like loud noisy music and can empathise with the need to have it when doing pretty dull, routine job.
Anyhow, given my vaguely chequered past and lamentable lack of cool in the face of an occasional need to jump around looking like an idiot, preferably doing mime to the lyrics of songs, I try not to make judgements based on musical taste. Just because a bus driver plays Alice Cooper very loudly on a rainy night, it does not mean he's going to screech off at 90 miles an hour through the sodden streets or take corners on two wheels. Despite those studies that link aggressive music with aggressive driving, I do not yearn for a quick change of mood to Toni Braxton's "Unbreak my Heart," or something vaguely Celtic with panpipes. In fact, to do so might actually be more unsettling.
It's cool. I don't mind. I'm relaxed. I understand that loud, noisy music does not a scary, freaky bus driver make.
Except… he played the song twice in a row.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
1. Acquire costume.
Angel - white flowing clothing, tinsel halo and some wings. Blonde wig and face paint optional.
St.Nicholas - white beard, gold and red robes of a vaguely clerical kind, wood crook.
Devil - red horns, black wig, red and black clothes, black face paint. Sinister sack.
2. Wander around areas heavily populated by children.
3. Demand if child has been good (bishop is head inquisitor).
4. Child shrieks. Bellows poem or song.
5. Child receives sweets from angel.
6. Identify naughty child (parents usually grass).
7. Child receives coal from devil.
8. Identify very naughty child (see bad child).
9. Child kidnapped, popped in devil's sack (see costume) and carried off to Hell. This may be metaphorical if exit routes are blocked.
10. Laugh at shrieks of terrified children.
11. Sing songs.
12. Drink svařák*.
1. Wander around areas heavily populated by sellers of svařák*.
2. Buy svařák*.
3. Drink svařák*.
4. Drink more svařák*.
5. Notice a few people wearing plastic twinkling devil's horns.
6. Look around for seller of twinkling devil's horns.
7. Buy twinkling devil's horns.
8. Wear twinkling devil's horns. Backwards. More evil that way.
9. Drink more svařák*.
10. Let off firecrackers under tyres of passing cyclists.
11. Eat a sausage. (Veggies may observe eating of sausage and pass comment.)
12. Drink more svařák*.
*svařák* = hot mulled wine of the Czech kind. Left "*" on because it has a little zing.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
I cannot find boxes of Christmas cards anywhere.
The god of plumbing is still angry.
I have incurred the wrath of the Three Furies of the Temple of Going Out In The Cold With Wet Hair and despite my woolly hat, now have a streaming cold.
Visitors will descend this weekend and already disaster looms in the form of cancellations, complicated requests and a rather terse exchange of texts.
I have found rather elegant Hanukkah cards (tasteful pen-and-inks of antique menorahs, that sort of thing). So some people are in luck. There's still time for a quick conversion if you know a friendly rabbi.
Trdelnik (sort of an unrolled cinammon/sugar bun wrapped around metal cylinders, baked over an open flame and served immediately) are widely available.
The big Christmas tree in Wenceslas square at night is the most over-the-top explosion of lilac-lighted, purple-tinselled campness in arboreal form I have ever seen. By day it's green. Weird.
The big manger in Old Town Square contains live animals, including two sheep and a donkey. They might escape and stampede - the fence is looking very rickety indeed.
*Czech hot mulled wine
Monday, December 04, 2006
But probably not here. Maybe at the jail.
Really really really really busy - the work thing is out of control. And it appears that my newly-purchased mop has been cursed by an angry god of plumbing.
Maybe I can appease it with offerings of a socket wrench, u-bend and very large mug of hot, sweet tea? Probably have to do it on bended knee to demonstrate appropriate degree of bottom cleavage though. Will hunt out lowest-waisted trousers.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Besides, the mushroom comparison (for ever after known as the mycelium metaphor) allows me to cheat and pretend that some kind of thematic thing actually is happening here, since I have mentioned fungi at least once before. Twice creates a theme. If I bring them up a third time before the end of the year and cook them for hours in a heavy cream sauce on a gas ring with my hair in plaits while maundering on for several days about the twilight of the gods they probably become a leitmotiv. And I win a Xena apron.
Damn. Christmas must be soon, I just made a dodgy Wagner joke.
Anyhow, there are mushroomy clusters of huts all over town now. Brown, wood, small. You know the type. And they have popped up all over the place in preparation for December's Christmas market spectacular. They've pretty much colonised Old Town Square (also known by the hard Czech name, Staroměstské náměstí) and the north-east end of Wenceslas Square (also has a hard Czech name - Václavské námestí, and it's not even square). Both locations are perfectly situated to lure in the ravening hordes of tourists. There's also a row in Smíchov by the tram stop to catch the American students on their way to the Big Shiny Shopping Mall and one in Náměstí Míru so the expats don't have to hobnob with the short-breaking hoi polloi.
A brief informal poll around work revealed that most Czechs view them with disdain and won't be venturing anywhere near Prague central for the next month except maybe to buy their carp.
The Poles think the ones in Warsaw are better and cheaper because the Polish are the bestest merchants in the world evAH and don't you know that even before Solidariność they would trek miles barefoot through howling gales and driving rain to flog a bright-green plastic pencil sharpener with a missing blade to an Albanian who would thank them, dammit, for the favour. And how can anyone sell with Czech food in their belly anyhow? Except maybe svíčková. This food is quite okay and they make something very similar in southern Poland, but the flavouring is much more subtle - they use this special herb and anyhow…
The Hungarian doesn't like to shop, period, he just plays Warrior's Doom-Laden Trek wiv Gory Battles and Barbarian Gurls. The Bulgarians think that the markets are full of over-priced tat they could knit themselves and would rather just stay home where it's warm and eat something good like moussaka with a couple of bottles of red wine and a whisky chaser.
Being an expat who loves to play tourist and is expecting my own weekending visitors, I intend to embrace the Christmas market scene with an awe-inspiring fervour, fuelled by my unbridled lust for tinsel, mulled wine and special Christmas cookies. I also predict that many of my friends and relatives this year will be getting Official Product of the Czech Republic HandMade Bohemian Christmas Themed Gift Objects. Probably ones made of nice, light straw. A shopping extravaganza awaits. More later - particularly about the carp, which requires further elaboration.
Monday, November 27, 2006
I could tell they were new because they had "novinky" labelled on the box.
Ladeeez and Gentlemen, Ambi-Pur proudly presents:
His 'n' Hers car perfume.
Yep. One box for the manly men, distinguishable by its brown colour, and three photos of "manly" things: a black&white pic of a flexed bicep, grass and the open rooooaad. The woman's was pink (sigh) and featured pictures of lilies, lipsticks and a peach. Oh my. In a fiendish act of savvy marketing, the manufacturers have tapped into my long-repressed desire to dance gaily in a shower of lipgloss while clutching a huge bouquet of flowers to my chest and stomping on soft fruit.
Although the boxes were sealed to prevent reckless perfume abuse they also provided a handy-dandy scratch 'n' sniff patch at the top. After rummaging through the boxes to find stickers that were still intact, I can reveal that "His" smells of cheap aftershave with a hint of paper and "Hers" smells of cheap floral fabric softener. Somehow that doesn't make me feel any better. To say nothing of the complicated logistics problems created by having a gender-based car scents.
Fortunately, when I went to have a coffee to recover from the shock, I found the following personal advert at the back of the weekly English-language newspaper, The Prague Post which made me feel much better:
Edited to ad(d): Didn't have a copy of the advert with me when I wrote this, but thought I'd remembered enough. Except I went home, checked the paper and it's actually worse than I remembered. Here it is in full unabridged glory, but without the big box around it that caught my eye in the first place:
Rich, handsome, powerful yet modest urban professional seeks a woman to gaze into his eyes adoringly before and after. I am 33 y.o. from London looking for a younger Czech girl for a serioius relationship. No time-wasters
What can I say? If it's not a joke, then in this man's world, "irony" is a bit like "goldy" but made of iron.
Thursday, November 23, 2006
The shaky, blurred and dodgy photo is mine, the sexy type is a Czech font (no stone left unturned to develop the shapes which best suit the use of diacritics) called Fedra, by Peter Bil'ak. The high art creator and font-hunter is rpc, who occasionally takes it upon himself to give me a gentle yet well-deserved kick in the style/graphic/design trouser region. For which much gratitude and kudos.
It's all cunningly woven together to fit a theme. Really. Not a smidgen of harried, "Dammit, why are all my photos so vertical? Aarrghh. Hang on...the metro ones - they're horizontal... maybe rpc can cut out the backs of people and wandering thumbs," about it. It's carefully planned. Observe the wall. A very wall-like wall in Prague. Malostranska metro station to be precise. It even has extra-special-added "woosh" blurriness from an oncoming train.
There may possibly be animals stuck to said wall - that could be where the dents came from. The "woosh" makes it hard to tell. Or perhaps a pair of cut-out, yellow ducks hovering beak-to-beak were attached to a section slightly above the bit showing in the cropped shot. Although they usually appear on the yellow line, and Malostranska, as any fule know, is on the green line.
The ducks are one of those random street art things that crop up here and there. Slightly quirky, child-related objects seem to be popular at the moment. Dolls and wooden toys are propped on buttresses, or ride decorative stonework in seemingly hard-to-reach locations. Take the wooden puppet lounging on lintel in a corner of the Spanish synagogue, or the little girl sitting on the high wall around the Klementinium complex (Jesuit-college-built-on-Dominican-monastery-turned-national-library). But then, what else can you expect in a place where Stalin's statue was replaced with a giant metronome?
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
...aaarrrggghhhhhh. Over-weening confidence in non-existent computer code skills...
...aaaarrrrgggghhhh. The realisation that I am computer-illiterate...
...aaaarrrggghhh. Deep-down, suspect I may never learn...
Maybe more tomorrow when I've taken a few deep breaths, heard some whalesong and figured this banner/graphic thing out. sigh. I can't go on like this.
PS. Maybe green?
Monday, November 20, 2006
Finally, for anyone considering dining chez Peril & co. in the near future, you will be relieved to know that thanks to bookwormom's suggestion of ammonia, I was able to go to the chemist's (drug store), ask for "amonika", mime scrubbing while saying "oven" in Czech wrong, and eventually end up with a glorious choice of no less than three types of suitable cleaner. And the mop. And so, the quest for the clean grill has been achieved. More or less. *insertangelchorushere*
Honza is not one of those flighty types who emotes in public. Even when he speaks his facial muscles barely twitch. His voice is similarly controlled - he commits no feats of vocal daring. He never varies from a measured rhythm and tone, even when speaking in his native Czech.
When he switches to English, his mother tongue strongly affects the inflections of his speech. Most of his generation never believed they would use English as more than an academic exercise. The closest many came to hearing native speakers were ancient recordings of received pronounciation or illicit voices on fuzzy radios. Speaking Czech has trained him to place equal weight on each syllable and he pronounces them all with deliberation. When coupled with the uncertainty that comes from twisting his tongue around unfamiliar sounds, the result is a slow, driving monotone.
Everything about Honza is round: glasses, hands, face, cheeks, eyes, tummy and bald patch covered with dark fluff. This past weekend he went to his cottage in the mountains with his family for the public holiday.
Seventeen years ago, on the 17th November, Honza and 14,999 or so of his fellow students went on a government-sanctioned march through Prague. They said it was to commemorate the day that the Nazis closed all Czech universities and colleges, stormed Charles University, deported 1200 students to concentration camps and executed 9 student leaders after mass anti-Nazi protests at the funeral of Jan Opletal. Jan was a medical student had been killed in an anti-Nazi demonstration some days earlier.
Fifty years later, Honza and his fellow students marched with anti-Communist slogans. He went, he says, "because no one really knew, but we thought something might be changing." They continued past its official end and walked to Narodni Trida. There, riot police blocked in and attacked the demonstrators. Rumours started that another student had been killed. That evening, students and actors in Prague agreed to go on strike.
By the following Monday, a mass demonstration in Prague attracted 100,000 people. The protests escalated and spread through the country until the 28th when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia ceded its monopoly on power.
Honza has no photos of his velvet revolutionary days to show his children. If he ever had long hair or wore tie-dyed jeans, he won't admit to it. At the time, he says, "no one wanted to stand out... or have their pictures taken, just in case..well, just in case. You didn't know, really, who was looking or what they were thinking."
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Public holiday tomorrow and since my cultural clock is still set to Greenwich, I'd forgotten about it until today (joy unbounded!). It brings in its merry wake:
Lie-in possibilities of the kind described by others (with lesser gifts of concentration) as hibernation.
No reason for work to ring this weekend (touch wood, particle board and skull).
I have a lead on a source of oven cleaner/ammonia.
New flatmates have now been in residence for almost a week and so far no one appears to have plans to inflict The Death Of Ten Thousand Paper Cuts, or The Hideous Torture Of Thirty-two Late-Night Flushes on anyone else. Too early to tell about The Horror Of The Mysterious Bowl Of Green Fur That Creeps At The Back Of The Fridge, but I am strong.
I have managed to not accidentally lock anyone in the flat thereby causing them to miss work and disturbing the delicate harmony of domestic life.
One of them has a student who has kicked things off a treat by giving her enormous quantities (ten of those posh 150g Swiss tablets) of chocolate.
They showed no sign of fear and dread when I revealed the Awful Truth Of The Late Evening Vocal Effects Produced Through The Living Room Wall By The Woman Next Door (in keeping with tradition, did so only after they had paid rent).
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Something is wrong with this picture. Smoked paprika? No problem. It's something you can reasonably ask a friendly compatriot to pick up if they're back in Blighty for the weekend. Friends and family can post emergency magazines. Well-trained sales assistants can be persuaded to sneer and ignore anyone who looks furtive and dresses badly enough. But oven cleaner? Oven Cleaner?
'Tis true. Over the last couple of weeks, my grail runneth over with caustic soda. And it's not even my oven, per se, that's the problem. It's actually the grill pan. While I was on holiday it seems to have acquired a thick layer of goo the consistency of road tar on a sunny day. The first notice of the problem was when cooking a pizza filled the flat with clouds of noxious black smoke.
Brillo pads and cream cleaner just won't touch this new blight on my domestic soul. I've used half a bottle of lemon-scented Cif, and destroyed three scrubbers in the process. Soaking it with vinegar merely gave the sludge a nice sheen. It's time for the big guns.
Except that the land that gave the world the dumpling-distribution cannon appears to be somewhat lacking in kitchen heavy artillery. I've spent hours scouring the aisles of various Alberts, branches of the well-known-supermarket-that-ate-the-world (sorry s-i-l, but desperate times and all that), and local potravinys (corner shops) for a heavy-duty bottle of noxious looking fluid bearing a picture of an oven with a little *ting* star of sparkling shininess and a skull and crossbones.
So far, nada. Not a sausage. Well, actually plenty of sausages, for this is sausage country and we are moving into sausage season. But sausages, no matter how old the horsemeat and how strong the garlic are of no use whatsoever. The slick is too goopy to beat into submission. Anyhow I have deep suspicions that the whole household environmental catastrophe may have been kicked off in the first place by the roasting of an unwise pig product. But nary a bottle, flask or spare lead container of nuclear waste to be found sloshing about anywhere in downtown Praha.
In desperation, I abandoned my devil-may-care insouciance and approached my cleanest-looking colleague for assistance, only to hear her proudly declare with a merry laugh, "We don't have that kind of oven." Oh, the shame. Presumably the oven, grill pan and baking trays in question have never been permitted to reach the state where only industrial-strength chemicals will suffice. The humiliation. I am unclean.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
One of the things that tends to happen when I go off to live abroad is that my name changes. Not through any choice of mine, even that time I was on the run from a really big library fine. Honest, guv. But I've got one of those ordinary names that has versions in most European cultures. Because the name's been around for a while, it always seems to have a local variation which is usually spelled differently as well.
Versions 5.1, 5.2, 5.3 & 5.4 (western and southern slavic languages) of my name also come equipped with an enormous number of different nicknames, depending on language of origin. They decline like all the other Proper Nouns in the neighbourhood. But that's not all. My surname, owing to its anglophone-ness, doesn't benefit from this kind of linguistic upgrade but does get a bolt-on owing to my female gender. And so Peril becomes Perilova.
Somewhat disconcertingly, the correct form of address in this case, "Pani Perilova" is usually translated to "Mrs. Peril", even though I'm not married. This is because I'm too old to address as "Miss" and remain polite (yeah…). Of course, this ends up making me feel entirely too mature for my liking, or just looking around for my mother.
But it turns out that the -ova suffix is a matter of some hot 'n' fiery debate. Mrs. Jana finds it to be an absolute linguistic necessity. For her, it's up there with the proper declension of the masculine animate in the accusative. The world will stop turning before she leaves it off. Quoth she, "We are Czech, and we must speak the Czech language PROPERLY. This is correct. It is the way it is supposed to be."
But others find it, "…really stupid. Everybody knows that these words are foreign, and it's stupid to see them like this with Czech endings. They are foreign names, not Czech names. This isn't the proper way to write these names." I'll leave them to fight it out with knedliks at dawn.
All this is why when scanning the book racks, it's not unusual to see the works of Jude Deverauxova and Jude Deveraux side-by-side, depending on the translator/publisher's preference. It's also why I cherish a secret hope that the Paltrow/Martin offspring, Apple, will marry a chap called "Tern" and then write a book which is published in Czech translation by "Apple Ternova".
Given my childish amusement in such things, is it any wonder that when wandering around the cemetary at Vyšehrad this weekend (key phrase: "it's really nice here, when it's not raining") I was filled with delight to come across the memorial for Jakub Benda and his wife, Zdenka…
Monday, November 13, 2006
Firstly, I must apologise to the entire Czech nation. For some reason, probably related to other dumpling-like potato-based products I have consumed in the past in other countries that were formerly located behind Mr.Churchill's famous ferrous window-dressing, I assumed that the noble and glorious knedlik was uniquely of potato origin. But it seems that nary a whiff of Mr. Raleigh's preferred New World tuber has made it into some of the recipes for this Czech culinary delight. And me having lived here for (on-and-off) five months, too. I hang my head in shame. Ignorant foreigner. No knedlik.
So although the knedlik distinctly resembles a squishy boiled spud in certain incarnations (unsliced), it actually resembles bread in others (sliced). It's all down to the recipe, flour, (potato or wheat) cooking and cook's creative muse du jour. Or which packet of ready-made frozen knedlik dough you buy in your local Albert supermarket. (None shall speak of the supermarket chain that ate the world, as a mark of respect for s-i-l's "commute from hell" period after construction above collapsed railway tunnel beneath on the main line via the Chilterns to Londinium.)
Knedlik dough is made from either potato flour, wheat flour or even mooshed-up bread, eggs and milk. Regardless of type, it's squeeshed into balls, boiled and served as an accompaniment to your favorite meat (pref. pig)'n'gravy-based main dish plus sauerkraut and PIVO (beer). Exciting variety can be obtained by stuffing the knedlik with things, mainly of the meat variety, drinking more PIVO, or taking the novelty approach to food service and delivering multiple smallish filled knedliky to the awestruck diner in a small brass cannon mounted on a wooden cheeseboard affair. This somehow seems more amazing if you drink more PIVO.
For the herbivores among us, the lack of acceptable gravy might make the knedlik a little hard to swallow. Inexplicably, despite the hordes of Czechs thundering through the mushroom groves (or fields, or patches, or rings) after the rains, straight-up pig-free mushroom ragout does not feature on many menus. But this is where the glorious and wonderful fruit, or "sweet" knedlik comes into its own. Yeasty or even soft cheese dough, filled with seasonal fruit compote, boiled and smothered in smetana (runnier than sour cream) or icing sugar or both. Mmmmm... My own bizarrely puritanical nutritional tendancies force me to class them as technically a dessert, but more reckless types do eat them as a main course.
One knedlik, two knedlik, three knedlik, four...
Fashunating fact only discovered while idly internetovating for knedlik recipes: the fore-runner of the slurpee (ICEE) was invented by a chap called Omar Knedlik who sold them in his Dairy Queen franchise. Queens, see?
Thursday, November 09, 2006
Fortunately for the fate of my dining future, I'm not one of the goulash-guzzling fraternity, but I was wholly absorbed as the gentleman described in halting terms his slow recovery from the knedlik-eating pit in which he had dwelt for so long.
Then, a discussion of my goulash-dodging tendancies steered the conversation into the calmer waters of mushroom-picking. This, the couple described as a traditional Czech sport, "like hunting, but not so violent." Throughout the year, it's possible to see people tripping through the city streets with baskets filled with freshly-foraged fungi (look, kids, alliteration!). Wicker baskets, even. People even take special mushroom-hunting holidays (more alliteration!).
So I had food fantastic on the brain when I headed off to exercise my feeble Czech language skills and deal with my share of the meal bill. To pay for my fried aubergine salad with warm stinky garlic and balkan cheese spread (mmmmmm...), I announced to the (fluent-English-speaking) waitress in my best "stress-on-the-first-syllable-banged-out-on-the-desk" Czech that I had eaten "smaženy lístek". Sounds good, you might think.
Except that Czech for aubergine is "lílek". Last night, dear reader, I proudly announced to the waitress and half the patrons of the restaurant that I had eaten fried menu.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
"Hello. This is K---. I am here for the flat."
"K---. Have we spoken before?"
"I am here to see the flat."
"Yes, but you are new to me. How did you hear about the flat?"
"You are not comfortable to live with me?"
"I want to know how you got this number."
"You don't want to live with strange person? I am a good person to live with. I like people. I have a job. I will not torment you."
"That's fine, I'm sure. But who gave you my phone number?"
"I work for [insert name of well-known courier company here]."
"Yes, but how did you hear about the flat?"
"I live all over the world. Shanghai, Chicago."
"Where in PRAGUE did you hear about this flat?"
"I live ten years in Chicago. I am an operator."
"WHO GAVE YOU MY PHONE NUMBER?" (catching, see?)
"R---.* He did not like the flat, but I do."
"Oh. I am sorry, but I've found someone else."** (should've done that six questions ago)
"I live ten years in Chicago."
"I am sorry, but there is no room to rent here."
"No. No room anymore."
"Yes, quite sure."
"It's not because you don't want to live with me?"
"No. There is someone else."
"Oh. Okay. Bye."
Text message: "Hello. This is K---. I am sorry if my phone call offended you. Will you go out for drink with me?"
*Viewing no-show. Apparently psychic.
**At the time, this was a lie. Luckily, didn't mess karma. I think.
Monday, November 06, 2006
... and then rain.
I've been too preoccupied with other matters to mention it, but I am hereby fulfilling the naturalised-culturally-enforced demands incumbent upon me to comment on the weather and consequent state of the national traffic and rail networks. Gosh, it fair warms the cockles (and mussels alive-alive-o) of my icy northern heart.
Actually, the snow happened last Thursday morning and went by lunch, but there was a visible layer of slushy white stuff for at least a couple of hours. The sort that grinds the UK* transport network to a halt. And it has been cold. Warmed up a bit now, though.
On the matter of cultural obligation, be warned that house prices could feature next. (May-be it's be-cause oi'm a Landanaahh...)
Blame blogger - it went down for aaaages. Oh, and I'm emotionally strained from dealing with flatmate candidates. What is it about a)the price, b)the location or c)the advert, that attracts these rather odd characters? Or is this like those occasional phases I go through of being chatted up at bus stops and in front of estate agents' windows by scary bearded old men who stink of rough cider and wee?
*Of course, being in Prague, everyone apart from me smiled knowingly and said helpful things like, "Snow? You call that snow? This is your first winter here, right?"
Did I mention how scary I find this sort of comment and how it makes me want to rush out and buy a portable igloo and large, angry walrus (useful for subduing hordes of hungry citizens after my stash of baked beans, or worse... Who knew I'd be this damaged as a consequence of studying post-revolutionary Russian winter famines at an early age? And yes, I know I'm in the Czech Rep., which is nowhere NEAR Russia, but I'm still working at hammering my stupid, deeply-entrenched western ethnocentricities, generalisations and ignorance into submission.)
Friday, November 03, 2006
My name is Z--! I was very EXCITED!!! to read about your flat! PLEASE!!!! answer IMMEDIATELY!!! I am DESPERATE!!! to find a NEW PLACE to live!!!! I am living in a HOTEL!!!! and it is VERY EXPENSIVE!!!!
PLEASE!!!! call me VERY!!!! SOON!!! I DESPERATELY!!! want to find a new flat NOW!!!!!!!!
Do you have INTERNET??????????
PLEASE CALL ME SOON!!!!!!! I must move in QUICKLY!!!!!
I am a VERY FRIENDLY!! HAPPY!! PERSON!!!!! Also CLEAN!!!!
CALL ME PLEASE!!!!!!!! I am VERY HAPPY to hear from you!!! Also EXCITED!!!!
I have a pathological fear of extreme punctuation. It's not irrational as this person is clearly insane. Eeek.
Thursday, November 02, 2006
"Hello, I am phoning about the flat."
"When are you leaving?"
"When are you leaving? When can I move in?"
"I'm not leaving. It's a flatshare."
"It's not a flat?"
"Yes, it is a flat. But we share it. It's a flatshare."
"What is that?"
"It is a shared flat. A shared apartment."
"It is an apartment? An apartment is a flat."
"Yes. It's an apartment where everybody lives together."
"You are sharing a room?"
"No. A flat. An apartment. It's a flatshare. Everybody has their own room."
"There is no bathroom?"
"No. There is a bathroom. We share the bathroom."
"Everybody has a bathroom?"
"There is one bathroom. There are three bedrooms. There is one kitchen. Everybody has their own bedroom. We all use the same bathroom and kitchen."
"Everybody is in the bathroom together?"
"No. It is a flatshare. This means we all use the bathroom. We share the bathroom."
"Everybody shares the bathroom all together?"
"There is a separate toilet."
"It is a flatshare. A shared flat. A shared apartment. We live all together. Is this what you are looking for?"
"Yes, yes. A flat."
"You want to rent a room in a flat."
"Yes, yes. A one-room flat."
"This is a three-room flat."
"Three rooms? In the flat?"
"There are three bedrooms. Everybody rents one room. They share the rent."
"Is this what you are looking for?"
"Yes. When are you moving out?"
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Aviation quotes, no idea of their authenticity. But they're still better than anything my poor brain can come up with tonight. Toniiigght, toniiiigght, there'll be a moon toniii-- aaarrrgghh
"You, you, and you ... Panic. The rest of you, come with me." – USMC Gunnery Sergeant
"If the wings are travelling faster than the fuselage, it's probably a helicopter -- and therefore, unsafe."
Advice given to RAF pilots during WWII: "When a prang (crash) seems inevitable, endeavour to strike the softest, cheapest object in the vicinity as slow and gently as possible."
Basic Flying Rules: "Try to stay in the middle of the air. Do not go near the edges of it. The edges of the air can be recognized by the appearance of ground, buildings, sea, trees and interstellar space. It is much more difficult to fly there."
Monday, October 30, 2006
1 book West Indian cookery (soft-back, recipes include jerk seasoning and Guiness punch)
1 large box Yorkshire Tea
1 large block Irish extra-strong cheddar (store-brand)
1 packet organic bacon (no moral objections to carrying products of animals that died happy, it appears)
20 security key fobs
1 box "Celebrations" chocolates
3 trashy magazines and a "Hello" to lend an aura of respectability to the proceedings.
1 book piano nocturnes (Chopin)
30 concert programmes (with peak performance stapling effect)
3 half-tubes toothpaste (sorry, oh bearer of the collective suitcase, but I don't want to check my bag)
1 gentleman's disposable razor in plastic bag (ditto)
1 nearly used tube shaving gel, "Jill Monroe" brand (sorry, oh bearer of the painfully bulging suitcase, but the zipper on my bag is broken)
1 box sausage rolls (mini)
1 jar Thai red curry paste (large, extra-hot)
4 rolls toilet tissue (extra-large, extra-soft, extra pillows - this last person is a forward planner)
Percentage chocolate and first dibs on the caramels
Bottle fizzy water
Discourse on leopard print as a fashion choice
Bowl pea soup with mint
One W.Indian veggie dish containing ackee and cooked to perfection for dinner
Explanation of the meaning of the word "jerk"
Three filthy Czech phrases, with context-appropriate translation
Begruding gratitude of IT dept.
And miraculously, my luggage was no. 2 off the carousel twice in one day. I am the champion. I can be bought.
Friday, October 27, 2006
Despite the howls of outrage from language purists, English loanwords are no bad thing for the anglophone language learner. For one thing, it's always helpful to have bits and pieces of vocabulary that sound the same as words you know, but with a funny accent. It gives you something to say in those loooong, awkward pauses. And besides, the borrowing language often takes its revenge and shoves a few false friends in a learnerly direction.
Czech has four main groups of verbs that conjugate in similar ways, depending on the ending of the infintive (leaving out exceptions group here). The third group are verbs that end -ovat, and tend to be formed from nouns. Foreign imports tend to find their way into this category, which means that for nonce, my favorite activities in Czechland are the following. (At least as far as Mrs. Jana and our agonising Monday-morning, "What did you do this weekend?" conversation is concerned.):
luxovat (think Electrolux and hoovers)
(May have messed up some diacritics, but the accent on a vowel is meant to make it long.)
I like the "x" ones best. Long may they live. And may I humbly offer the following words at a modest rate of interest to the Czech language:
blingovat: to ornament oneself in a roccoco fashion
hardhatovat: to protect oneself from the consequences of defenestration
alfalfovat: to forage for green leafy vegetables in the supermarket
eskimovat: to buy flannel bedlinen
muffinovat: to over-indulge in palačinky - Czech pancakes
navelovat: to use one's higher consciousness to contemplate the texture of an orange
Thursday, October 26, 2006
All of which perturbs me somewhat, because my original notions of Czechland were that it was a land-locked country, forever prey to the chilly claw and howling maw of Icy Winter. A bit like many think of Canada, akshully, so I should've known better. But since I made my first foray here in April I've been experiencing ye olde Bohemian spring/summer. Which has been lovely.
In fact, the closest point of reference I have is a trip here late last November when the snow lay thick on the ground. Although it wasn't exactly bikini weather, it wasn't particularly bad either. But when I mentioned this at the time, one of my colleagues commented, "Ah no. It's not so cold this week, but last week it was minus 15."
So with this in mind, I've been making shopping lists to help me see out the season in fine style. When you start looking, it's amazing what you can find in the fine fabric that is known as flannel. Woollens have never seemed so wonderful. Fear makes manolos (not that I wear them, but I'm all alliteration crazy today) out of mukluks. Now, where did I leave my thermal nose-guard?
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Cheating slightly on my content rules, but this came through via email, and dammit, it's relevent. Anyhow, it's sneaking under the wire because I won't tag anyone, but if anyone would care to be tagged then they're more than welcome to post here, there or anywhere. Or just sing along.
Total number of books owned:
Absolutely no idea. Vast numbers. Reinforced floor demanding quantities. Unfortunately they aren't all in the same place, or even the same country. It boils down to:
40 smallish boxes (bigger than a breadbin, smaller than a teachest) in storage,
Carrier bag at one relative's. I think it's a supermarket one.
Shoe box at another's. Male relative, size 13 feet.
15 or so boxes in another's attic.
(none of these people know about each other…)
Two shelves here.
All this, despite my occasional ruthless periods when I cut a swathe through the paperbacks like the barbarian hordes of old. I'm slowly coming round to the notion of eventually retiring to a house constructed entirely of used novels. I'll probably tile the roof with old category fiction.
Last book bought:
These days, I buy in bulk when I get to a bookstore that sells in a language I can read. Some of them can see me coming from miles away and rub their hands in glee - I suspect it's the wild-eyed stare or something. Anyhow, I'm in a dark and grisly mood at the moment, so last trip's haul included:
Petty Treason Madeleine E. Robins
Triptych Karen Slaughter
Break no Bones Kathy Reichs
About three Lindsay Davis (glomming)
Sacred Pain Ariel Glucklich (have read it, but it was in the sale rack so couldn't resist - yes, he needs an umlaut, but the yesterday's post exhausted my supply of diacritics)
The Magic Circle of Rudolf II Peter Marshall
The Surgeon of Crowthorne Simon Winchester - the OED, murder and insanity. What's not to love?
Last book read:
That's not on the above list? Uhh… There's a half-read Angela Knight floating around the flat that I just haven't been able to finish. Not what I fancy right now. I've usually got a fiction and a non-fiction on the go. Just finished off Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (Charles Seife)
Five books you remember:
I think I'll do ones I haven't mentioned before here.
So, in some kind of chronological order of encounter.
Anne of Green Gables I was so obsessed with this series as a child that I used Mum's rouge and red felt-tip markers to try to make my hair red. Haven't read it in years, because I'm worried the magic won't be there.
Pigs Have Wings. Actually, I want to say everything by P.G. Wodehouse. This just floated to the surface of my brain 'cos it has pigs in it and is the most recent one I've picked up. Perfect comfort reads, with added glamour factoid: he was published by Mills & Boon. Really. Him and Georgette Heyer and Jack London were all stablemates.
Good Omens is responsible for the first time I ever managed to clear a space on a train through uncontrollable insane laughter. Although the mildly goth outfit and aura of teenage angst probably helped. I think I own about three copies in varying states of decay because I have to read it annually.
The Age of Extremes. I could have picked a tonne of stuff in this area, but it's all pretty much Hobsbawm's fault. Well, him and the poison dwarf, aka sixth form history teacher. In a major moment of intense geek-girl squeeing excitement, I actually got to touch the man's hand (Hobsbawm's, not the dwarf's) a couple of years ago. Since it took place during a ceremony thingy, I didn't have the chance to actually say anything to him except a choked-up "Thank you". All told, this may have been for the better, since impartial-yet-caring witnesses noted that I was pretty well incoherent. Nonetheless, there is Actual Photographic Evidence of me holding the hand of Eric J. Hobsbawm. Oh, and he said a nice thing too. I did wash the limb eventually.
The Strange Hours Travelers Keep (August Kleinzahler). This was a present from someone I didn't know very well who magically managed to get it exactly right. Just fantastically good poetry, words, ideas. Love it.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Think about it. I have. On long journeys up escalators. In supermarket queues. While addressing postcards. Whither the "Cz"? I mean, the Czechs don't do it - they invented a handy little hook called a haček (rhymes with hatchet) to do the job. They speak Čestina in the Česka Republika, děkujuverymuch.
Their European neighbours aren't too bothered about creating extreme orthographic weirdness despite the sound not being a standard in some of their languages. They just cobble together a few random consonants and leave it at that. Thus "Tchèque", "Checa", "Ceca", "Tschechien" (Okay, maybe the Germans...). Or they fake it as best they can with exotic-sounding versions like: "Tsekki" "Tjecken" and "Txekiar".
But these languages use the same clusters of letters (aka digraphs, trigraphs and assorted multigraphs if you're in a pedantic mood) for similar sounds in other words, even if they're loaned ones. Whereas Czech? Well, there's "Czech" and ermm… "czech", and ermmm… "Czerny". If you're of a musical bent. And he was Viennese of Bohemian origins. Well, they did think about these things differently back in the day. After that exhaustive list, we're pretty much left with "Czar". Which you say "Tsar". As in "Twinkle, twinkle, little Tsar." (Hahahhhaaahhaaahahaha)
But if it's not from the Czech, and it's not from some weird English historical thingy, what is it? According to various online dictionaries it's actually 19th century from the Polish. Unfortunately, I don't have handy access to the OED, so no citations or anything. But why Polish?
Digging a bit, things actually get more interesting. Since it kicked off around the 10th century, Czech's pretty much always been usually written in Roman letters, rather than Cyrillic, but is full of sounds (aka phones) that don't exist in Latin. So after getting annoyed with just writing the letter closest to the sound they wanted, people invented clusters of letters to represent these sounds. Like English does with "th". But whereas English uses "h" to indicate that the preceding letter should be softened, it seems that Czechs used the letter "z" to do the same job. Hungarian and Polish still do this, which accounts for those eye-popping words that seem to twist their tongue in the face of human physiognomy.
Buuuuttt… then along came a man called Jan Hus. (Sounds like "house" and "moose" in a really bad fake Scots accent). In between sermons, rabble-rousing, reading Wyclif and generally making a nuisance of himself to the Holy See, he apparently found time to pen the stirring work, De orthographia Bohemica. Well, it's at least attributed to him, and since he was immolated (nice word, nasty death) at Council of Constance in 1415 he hasn't been in a position to confirm or deny things for quite some time. In it, he proposed a system of diacritics (little dots and slashes above letters) that would almost completely replace diagraphs. From now on Czech, sorry, Ċech (he left the "ch" in) schoolchildren would no more cower 'neath the tyranny of silly spelling rules. Well, that was the plan, anyhow.
Friday, October 20, 2006
"What is it?" sniffing dubiously at plastic cup.
"It's good. Drink some!" genial offer from smiling host.
"But what is it?" more dubious sniffing.
"It's healthy. Very good for you."
These are danger words. Any drink touted as "healthy" by locals usually is only so in the sense of "healthy" competition. As in Darwinian competition. As in, if you can drink 2 litres of this liquid without undergoing immediate and dramatic liver meltdown, and retain the ability to bear children (some places, I think they make visitors drink this sort of thing in an icy stream) you are a survivor of the fittest.
So this sort of offer at quarter past nine in the morning is bound to make the gooseflesh rise. Especially as the liquid is the sort of murky brown that I last saw while ambling through South Bohemia's peaty swamps.
"Ahh… It's quite early and I haven't finished my tea yet."
"No. It's healthy. You must drink." Three beaming faces watch the cup in my hand assiduously. I attempt to discern any trace of guile or deviousness in their eyes. There is none. This makes me more nervous.
I sniff. I sip. "Oh! It's apple juice." Knees go weak with relief.
"It is not apple juice. It is mošt!"
"Yes, yes. Mošt! It is just the apples, prrrressed." Mirek demonstrates the prrrressing of an invisible bushel of apples between his hands.
"But not apple juice."
"No. It is just the apples. Nothing else."
Petr likewise squishes some invisible apples. "Mirek's friend makes it. We take apples to his factory and he presses them."
Mirek adds, "Yes. They press many fruits. His parents make the alcohol."
"Ah, I see. But this isn't alcohol."
"No. It is not. It is mošt." Before, uh…" Jacek pauses. No one really talks about "before" here. "Before... In that time, we could not buy apple juice in the boxes in the shop. So we took the apples and pressed them. Now, this is not so common."
"I see. Why so?"
"The apple juice in boxes is different. It lasts longer but is full of, full of… chemical things."
"Yes, preservatives. Mošt, you must drink quickly. But it has better flavour. Very healthy." Mirek and Petr nod in agreement and we all take a sip of healthy, short-life mošt.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Perhaps it was the lack of white facepaint and stripy jumper, but it didn’t work. Paper cup of tea arrived at the end of the station with a lovely frothy head that would do a cappuccino, or even a Belgian-style serving of lager proud. I wept. It always seems to be the way. You spend time in a place where good coffee is steam-pressed by a million precision-engineered geysers, and the tea just goes wonky. If the tea is perfectly brewed nectar of the gods, then the coffee is made by someone running warm tap water over a few clumps of petrified instant coffee and shaking it about in a polystyrene cup.*
All of which leaves me, a tea-drinker at heart who has a fondness for really good coffee, somewhat bemused. I mean, why go to the coffee place and order tea? That's just asking for trouble. But sometimes, I just gotta dice with the gods. Live on the edge. Oh yeah, baby.
So given the deep and abiding excitement of my life, is it any wonder that I enjoy the odd spot of evil-villain(ess) excitement in my reading material? Possibly not. Nevertheless, I've never really had character identification as one of my top ten reading requirements. When I encounter this sort of bad dudette, I don't gush, "Ooh how thrilling! Secretly I have always wanted to claw out my enemies' hearts but lack both courage and pointy fingernails. At last, I can vicariously satisfy this thrill within the confines of a novel!"
Of course, I'm not going to deny the odd fantasy about bashing people's heads in after a stressful day. But it's a big step from that to thinking, "Aha! I have at long last discovered my soulmate, the one person in this crazy, mixed-up world who can truly understand me!" As I said, I don't actually like her. But compared to the witchy-washy heroine who's out to defeat the Mega-Evil That Lurks 'Neath The City, the villainess has more internal conflict, more personal growth and more tension. Could it be that a lifeless heroine makes the scary lady come alive by comparison?
*leaving out places Middle East in this, because there both tea and coffee are good, but neither taste the way I usually expect.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
But all the effort to decide whether I'd get someone to plant a small woodland glen, or just sponsor a wildfowl whanging windfarm has exhausted me. I am thus inspired to reach back into the dawn of time (or around October last year) and haul out a very old rant that I never got around to finishing or posting anywhere handy. These things happen. It never got posted because it was too damn long.
Paddling about in the primordial soup that is my "drafts" folder hasn't really helped much in the length department. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if it had grown. So I'm going to chop it up into manageable bits, edit them a tad and then post them up in chunks. Genius plan to keep blog entries up in a busy week, methinks. And now, without further ado, I bring you, the unholy tapeworm that is:
I don't like you much, but your friend's kinda hot… Part 1
(It's all about books, and it's long - be warned)
I've just finished reading a book. Shock. Horror. Was okay. Again, falling off seat with astonishment. Hero and heroine both suitably imbued with purportedly likeable qualities? Check. Lively action scenes? Check. Good dash of healthy animal spirits (no, not the Keynsian ones)? Check. Fiendishly evil villain? Che--.
Ahhh, well here's the rub: I didn't like the villain(ess) - too tame. I didn't even love the villain(ess) - she's a bad guy, right? But I loved her scenes. Don't get me wrong, I'd run off screaming into the night barefoot over broken glass at the possibility of an real-life encounter, however unlikely, cos y'know she was baaad. And scary. And a people-eating human-possessing monster from the depths of the underworld with claws, scales and freaky glowy eyes. So I doubt she'd be overly impressed by my fascination with her inner demons if she stumbled over me cowering in a darkened alley. She'd likely eat me for being annoying.
But dammit, she was interesting. She had internal conflicts a-go-go. Best of all, while she was eeeeeviiilllll, she was interesting eeevvvillllll. She wasn't some two-dimensional monster stalking the pages like a badly-produced publicity bookmark. Yes that's right, kids. A character I'm pretty confident I do not like, but still want to read about. It's not such a big step. After all, I read about real-life bad guys all the time. Others do as well. So what's the appeal?
(to be continued)
Monday, October 16, 2006
Interestingly, last month Warsaw's conservative administration altered a poster advertising the contest with a discreet white scarf after deciding it was too racy since it depicted a mermaid with an artistic "wardrobe malfunction". Fortunately, Ms. Kucharova and her fellow candidates appear to have avoided that hazard. No one ended up in Narnia or anything.
In another beauty competition mercifully unlikely to feature a "wardrobe malfunction" but still featuring persons of Czech origin, posters are up everywhere for elections to the senate. Now I only have the foggiest idea of Czech electoral procedures, so I'm not going to dwell on these here. In brief, things are a bit iffy, constitution-wise. But frankly, looking at these characters' faces on the way to work doesn't give me huge faith in the imminent future.
None of them really look as if they like animals very much at all, even the one chap who resembles an aerodynamic stoat with a little grey moustache. There's another truly terrifying woman who greets me with a manic grin and hugely-shadowed eyes from the lamp-post by the metro entrance. And then there are also a couple of other likely lads who look as if they enjoy regular tasty snacks of fried cheese with extra sauce much more than Ms. Kucharova.
Of course, many would argue that elections are fought on policies, not potato consumption. But funnily enough there aren't many actual words on these posters.
Monday, October 09, 2006
It is a truth universally accepted that a family during the festive season must be in want of good telly. Fortunately, the folks at Shaw (Canadian digital provider) have come up with the ultimate solution for Thanksgiving (which is today if you're in Canah-diah): Turkey TV. All day long, lucky lucky Canadians celebrating the holiday can tune in and watch a turkey being roasted. Live. (Just the filming, not the turkey, one hopes) With occasional basting. There is even the roasting of vegetables and the stoking of fires. Most festive indeed.
Moi? I got to watch the little plane move slowly over a digital map of England, the North Sea, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Rep. Not a golden brown roasted parsnip in sight. Not even a baguette, since the gastronomes on the incoming flight from Milano had scoffed the lot. I was offered a "snak-pak" as a substitute, but refrained on the grounds that the spelling would give me indigestion.
But I am thankful. Mainly and rather selfishly, I'm thankful that I don't have to get on another plane for four whole days. Even a floatplane. I'm on bended knees with gratitude that for the last couple of trips I've come out
So happy thanksgiving to those who celebrate it today, even if your turkey is only virtual (and by that, of course I don't mean turkey twizzlers). And happy advance thanksgiving planning to those south of the 49th parallel who have to wait another month(?) but may even be looking up pumpkin pie recipes as I type. In case anyone's wondering, I'll be having eggs tonight. But I might decorate them with a drumstick-shaped splodge of hot sauce.
Friday, October 06, 2006
Oh yeah…my only aid the mighty coffee and the mightier still chocolate. But even these valiant weapons are beginning to flag, and I seem to be stuck in a mid-Atlantic time zone, perhaps one just off the coast of St. Helena.
A fascinating, witty and brilliant post came to me in one of those lucid dreams: the sleep-deprived kind that seem so real while sitting in a micro-chair four thousand or so feet above the Atlantic swells and distinguished only from its neighbours by a peculiar lump at mid-hamstring level. Unfortunately I've forgotten it. All I can remember wondering is how far I would actually have travelled across the surface of the earth if I bounded forward a couple of feet down the aisle towards the drinks trolley.
The post may have had something to do with float planes. Or parrots. I'm not entirely sure. And to be fair, it was probably less unmitigated genius and more along the lines of "Wha-fooo. Flrrrr... Parrot heehee means the life of the sailor. Oh my. Mmmm... Flffrry pillow. Wsfrgt my head stugg nunder armwrest?" But in the finest spirit of blogger, it's entirely unrecoverable. So instead I should probably reveal that I did end up taking a float plane (couldn't find the helicopter terminal), but the parrot was a completely different conversation altogether.
I probably shouldn't be operating this heavy machinery.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
Airport duty-free normally holds very little appeal to me. I'm not one for perfume, booze or fags. The clothes shops are all a tad upmarket for my scruffy tastes, and full of scary assistants that wear too much make-up and give my very disreputable carry-on luggage their most professional scornful glare. I've taken up the habit of not buying top ten bestsellers in regular bookshops because they're the only ones that ever seem to appeal in the better airport bookshops. The worse ones are where Sidney Sheldon books go to die.
However yesterday, as I hauled my appallingly-to-a-shop-assistant-non-Burberry-clad self up to the departure gate while chatting to rpc via mobile, I was compelled to interrupt the flow of our conversation.
"Oh my god, it's a book vending machine. In the airport."
"I see," says rpc, being his usual supportive self. "Tell me about it." (or words to that effect - maybe I just imagined those ones, but they're true to the spirit of the man and I have hardcore jet lag).
"Well, it's a vending machine. But with books in it, not chocolate. They're covered in clingfilm wrappers and everything."
Pause while I reverently stare at the glass case of a red metal box. I note the books are not the same price as chocolate, but are not apparently over-priced either. Downside is the lack of ability to read back-blurb or browse. Upside is that I can imagine these mushrooming all over the country, in motorway service stations, train stations, left luggage offices, work breakrooms and so forth. Imagine someone wandering into a service station thinking, "Ooo. I'll just get a packet of mints. But look, a book vending-machine. Perhaps I'll pick up a paperback too."
"So what sort of boks are there, then?" (more support from rpc, who understands these things).
"Ermm... the usual. Dan Brown in the top row, the latest Jodi Picoult, Zadie Smith, Kellerman and No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency a Harry Potter, some colouring books, a few Sidney Sheldon..." Reverential silence as I realise that I've already read the books that appeal to me. "Maybe a colouring book. I could do with some felt-tips on the long flight." Not sleeping for 24 hours does put me in the mood for colouring.
"Yes. Well you'll have to blog about it."
Can't help feeling that like the German cigarette vending machines on the street (I'd only ever seen them safely indoors in pubs/clubs before) it's the novelty, rather than the content that appeals.
Monday, October 02, 2006
Originally the plan was to then find another job October-time elsewhere, but I've now accepted a new job here so hip-hip-hooray for the lovely landlord and Mrs.Jana is chortling all the way to the bank as I sign on for another term.
So the "???" regarding location in the short-term can now be removed from my profile, when I get around to it. Luckily, to keep things interesting, the lastminute.com nature of the whole thing means I have a tonne of other things to sort out that I'd previously put off until the end of the year. The intention was to deal with them when I had more time. Now I have less of that commodity than before and have to do everything from a foreign country too. Roll on November.
Consequently, the "???"s have been let loose to frolic all through my life. Which is both good and bad, and leads me to my latest dilemma. This week I have to whizz off to God's Own Country for family reasons. 'twill be an occasion on the sadder side of life, but had thought to cheer myself up at the end and brace myself for jetlag hell and hideous charter-flight-return-induced-dvt by adding to my small-but-perfectly-formed list of more unusual methods of transport I have used. The float plane has been done before but I wouldn't object to a repeat, especially if I can do it from a different harbour. But in the course of my research, I have discovered that there's also the possibility of the never-before-experienced helicopter ride... oooo???
Friday, September 29, 2006
The Maasai are possibly East Africa's most well-known tribe. They're renowned for their warrior fierceness, their cattle currency, and their long thin silhouettes which appear against the setting sun in numerous postcards. Sometimes near a thorn tree, sometimes just with a spear. The young men are also famous for their demonstrations of youth and vigour in the form of jumping very high from a standing position. To do this, quite flexible achilles tendons are required, which is also helpful exercise if you're interested in improving your running style.
This jumping business is often described as a dance, but I can report that some Maasai also boogie, bounce and hip-hop. They may even do the funky chicken, but the night I saw a Maasai man dancing, the music wasn't appropriate. They play mainly reggae in the Come-Back Club, Watamu. In any case, he looked far cooler than the sprinkling of badly aging wazungu on the prowl for younger, more attractive Kenyan *koff* girlfriends and *koffkoff* boyfriends. Since they both share the same fondness for jewellery, and he'd checked his spear at the door, it must be the lack of a slightly-too-small, uncannily black toupee that does it.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
At the other end of the park, about 100 km or so away from the city, there aren't any fences. It just sort of stops being nature reserve at the Athi river and starts being something else. Buffet, perhaps. In the middle it's a black rhino sanctuary and is the scene of the summer wildebeest migration. I missed both these things, but did manage to see loads of buffalo (not shuffling so much as snuffling) and a pair of lions having a snooze. So that's two out of my big five.
The male lion spent most of his time hunkered down in the grass pretending to be a furry leaf and graciously ignoring the over-excited tourists and the enormous green lorry of the KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) as it thundered past several times. The female on the other hand was sprawled out in a pose remarkably similar to the one the dog-niece adopts when she flaunts herself illicitly, pr0n-star stylee, on elder bro's fatboy when I do the dog-sitting. So you heard it here first. Dog is merely in touch with her inner lioness, and I am her enabler. Rar.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Related to this, I realised last night that the noise the boiler at home makes as it switches itself on is identical in rhythm to the opening drum riff of Blondie's "Call Me." Also, when I flew up from Malindi to Nairobi the other day, I looked out to my left and saw Kilimanjaro rising above, er… Tsavo East.
(Favorite bit of that journey: the security screeing at Malindi airport. Two men in a uniform book-ending the most enormous steel beast purporting to be a luggage x-ray machine, but no one actually looking at any images it might produce. Mind you, it could have been emitting rays of doom to neutralise any illicit goods instead. Which would have been cool. It did have that kind of look, and that might have been an explanation for the peculiar grinding sound.)
At least the inevitable looping riff (Sehh-ren-ge-teeee) kept my mind off the pilot's unswerving determination to hit every pocket of air turbulance en route. (Quote from white-knuckled nearby passenger after we landed, "I wish to get out and kiss Kenya's good and Godly earth".)
Clearly, the 80s have left their neon and be-permed mark on my soul. Can a mullet be far away?
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
But it appears that the matatu's vim and vigour has been muffled of late. From the danger point of view, this is rather a good thing, since matatu accidents have traditionally been fairly horrific. In Nairobi, fleets of nicely painted uniform minibuses in either purple or green now clog the rush-hour traffic. According to a taxi driver I spoke to, it all has something to do with the relative of someone in government who owns a bus-import business. Consequently, the green ones are better than the purple ones. Or was it the other way around?
Down on the coast, matatus have retained their free-spirited approach to music and décor, as long as it doesn't involve actual people and their relatives doing performance art out of the windows. However, a new new form of transport appears to be filling the gap 'twixt bumper and gearstick. The same three-wheeling star of Public Transport Destiny shines on the coastal towns of Brighton, Malindi and Mombasa: they have all taken the tuk-tuk to their hearts and made it their own.
I have seen at least six and a half (counted limbs and divided by 4) people crowded into one of these motorised rickshaws (what else is a boot for?), but the more usual two (fat) or three (skinny) passengers appears to be the norm. As for me? I'd advocate a sports bra on most routes.
The cheaper, more eco-friendly alternative, the boda-boda remains popular as well. Since proper ladies ride sidesaddle these, a certain degree of genteel fearlessness is necessary when it comes to maintaining dignity on the padded seat. Particularly while flying over speedbumps on a downhill slope. It's all a bit like swans, really. Frantic movement below the surface, while above, a serene smile and unruffled countenance. If I can ever get the hang of toting a bundle on my head while riding as well, I'll be indominatable.