Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas fish

Ladeeez and Gentleman

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

If a duck quacks in a manger... that's not right...

I have just received a lovely season's greeting email that contained the fascinating piece of information that a duck's quack never echoes, but no one knows why. Ooohhh. Spooky. Seasonal - less so. But I now desperately need to find a duck and a very echoey canyon as soon as possible to test this out.

In other news, former flatmate E has requested photos of Praha looking all Christmassy. So here are some. Since the blog template colours are decidedly non-festive, to help recreate the holiday atmosphere in the comfort of your own home, I recommend humming "Last Christmas", "White Christmas" or any other song with "Christmas" somewhere in the lyrics while looking at the pictures. Enough mulled wine and you'll think you're already in Prague. As long as you don't do it in an office Christmas party karaoke style (aka imitating a herd of wounded buffalo… I'm still traumatised days later), we can all remain friends.

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

Milling around

A long, long time ago... but I can still remember... how the sight of a small pack of giggling Japanese tourists mobbing the butcher's counter as they pointed at the rows of chops and piles of sausages made me smile. They took what seemed like hundreds of photos while I looked on, bemused. No idea why. Maybe Japanese meat counters are unbearably sophisticated affairs compared to the rustic plastic-tray-embellished-with-fake-grass affair of your average Sainsbury's. Or maybe the arrangement of bacon spelled out something rude in hiragana.

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.

Yup. "Zdarma" means free. All well and good you might think. But I have yet to penetrate the motives of the genius that came up with the strategy to offer this DVD as an alternative for those who might be able to spurn the temptations of "RebeLove".
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?

And just in case anyone found it hard to believe that I found these DVDs in the supermarket stuck to plastic packs of scary pink mush, here are both of them together in the display that first attracted my attention.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


I'm still here. But for mysterious reasons, the theme tune to "Dambusters" has lodged itself in my head for the past two days and whenever I tune out just the tiniest bit, I start to whistle it under my breath. This is not good. Especially when there are Germans in the vicinity.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Happy Hanukkah

Of the hundreds of photos that I've managed to take in the last six months, I have precisely two that involve lights in the dark/candles and things of that sort appropriate for a Hanukkah post. It may be something deep and psychological, but it's more likely that it's down to my total lack of ability to take pictures in the dark that aren't wonky due to camera shake. (What is that you say... "Tripods?" Didn't they also invade earth from Outer Space in the Seventies?)

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.

The Horror! Oh The Horror!

Since the ghost of the Seventies was raised in yesterday's post, and invoked again today by rpc, I feel the only way to banish it is to wallow. Besides, that means I have a theme again. Ta-da.

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

Lydia oh Lydia.

No, wait. She was a lady with tattoos

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

It's beginning to look a lot like…


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."
"Roast parsnips?"
"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."
"But why?"
"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.
"Bread sauce."
"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

glazed and confused

Still under the weather (rain). Very tired. This means the world has taken on that peculiar glaze where everything seems just a little bit shiny and surreal. It wasn't helped this weekend by a couple of those moments of oddness.

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

An angel on my shoulder. And a devil. And a bishop.

Well, here's how the Czechs celebrate St.Nicholas' (sv. Mikulás) Day. (5th December)


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

This plastic beaker of svařak* is...


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

Tonight there's gonna be a jail break...

...somewhere in this town.

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.