Thursday, April 26, 2007

Run for your lives! The Mercians are coming!

I no longer believe in the Saxon invasions.

Okay, it's hardly something that has reduced the bedrock of my life to fine powder, or will bring about the downfall of civilization as we know it. But it is one of those beliefs that I picked up as a child and never really questioned. I've studied history a fair bit, but not that particular time and place, and the books I read tended to take Bede's line. Never underestimate the power of an ecclesiastical-sounding title, wise-looking beard and funny hat.

Then archaeological evidence (in book form) came along last week and wobbled a tiny corner of my worldview. It reminded me that histories are written by people who are ultimately fallible and biased, especially a hundred or so years after the events.

I wouldn't go so far as to call the Venerable Bede a propagandist (if I did, a certain relative would probably take me out in the dead of night, and that would be that), but let's just say that he had an Angle (heheh). Of course, archeaological evidence is itself subject to interpretation by similarly flawed humans. But for the moment, I'm quite enjoying trying on their reconstructed early Briton shoes, despite the blisters from the centre seam and undressed oxhide.

It also reminded me that writing always leaves out more than it keeps in. Even the most real-seeming, detailed book in the world is more like a map than reality. It leaves spaces for the imagination to fill - this is where the book comes alive in the reader's mind. These fragments of emptiness create places for interaction and dialogue between the reader and writer, uncluttered by words and filled with imagination. Maybe a writer's skill lies not only in her writing, but her not-writing - the way she carves out space in her work.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Zen and the art of olfactory maintenance

From Star Scents' promotional website, a celebrity endorsement for Cliff Richard's perfumes:

I bought it especially for my Mother, and I can't wait for the Scented Candle for me.
- Christopher "He came, he saw, he damned with faint praise" Biggins

In fact, Sir Cliff and that sensitive-nosed mistress of the balmy arts, Sheila Pickles, have managed to capture in scent the essence of not one, but three of his pop hits: "Dream Maker", "Miss You Nights" and the latest release, out for Christmas 2006, "Devil Woman". The target audience for this new scent are the legions of Cliff fans who know that smelling like Cliff is the next best thing to being with Cliff, and some other women who want a warm, musky fragrance.

Why buy Danielle Steele perfume and exude the odour of overblown emotional drama, when you can smell of clean-cut 60s pop songs (except for the sultry, moody one in the corner)? In the company of such nice people too. To help you choose from the wider range of scented products, a sample Eau de Toilette set of all three perfumes is now available. As Sir C. himself reminds us, "The different scents in these beautiful perfumes evoke memories of each of my homes."

On the "Cliff-Guaranteed" fansite, the man bares his odourous soul and reveals that he shares Olivia Newton John's love for the fruity, musky scent, "Devil Woman". He describes its topnotes of grapefruit and bergamot; its delicious cassis heart. For him, the heady and alluring evening fragrance evokes "...exotic and distant lands - places where I may well have performed the song on some far-away tour." Oh, for the scents and sounds of those far-away tours. Those far, far-away tours.

But perhaps Joan Collins sums it up best in her inimitable style, "Like everything Cliff does, this will go straight to Number One."

Monday, April 23, 2007

No, we are not being served.

Resist the urge...

Something I always struggle with is the whole loggorhea thing. It's my dream to write the perfect, pithy sentence, full of wisdom and meaning. Something zen, like a single, perfectly-placed stone in an expanse of purest white sand. Or the total emptiness of the space where a possibility once existed... the one between your ears. You know, there is a reason we hide those vanished possiblities in the cupboard.

So while I don my nifty grasshopper costume (after wrestling to get the zip over the wings) and continue to study the art of saying a great deal with very few words at the hairy-toed feet of my masters, let us take a moment of quiet inspiration and contemplate what might be my very favorite JD Robb cover* translated into Czechish. If you don't know the author, she's written a series of cracking thrillers set in the near future which feature a fully-clothed female detective.

The cover artist in this case seems to have taken less-is-more to hitherto unimagined levels. For us, it's a lesson in worthy restraint. Be noble, be strong. Snicker ye not. I dare you.

*ting* of meditation bell

Just goes to show what a misunderstood genius can do with an old magazine and a pair those safety scissors with the rounded ends.

Disclaimer: SBTB did have first dibs on this, (For all your cover snark needs - visit SmartBitchesTrashyBooks. Professional, reliable service with a snarl. No back-combed mullet too big or small. Bonus mantitty with your tenth visit. Now with added fibre and leather-trousered vitamins.) but it's been a while. Candy or Sarah may apply a delicate boot to my posterior if they feel I've breached netiquette.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Like Frankenstein, I did it my way

In some circles, they call me Typhoid Marika

Late last week, I decided to beat this head cold into submission. Well, either that or at the least assuage my fears that the strange goings-on in an auricular direction weren't signs of some incipient horrible secondary infection that would leave me defeated; a broken woman in neon wraparound visors, weakly humming stadium rock riffs. So off I hied myself, my Czech Health Insurance Card and my fug of rhinoviruses to the clinic with the English-speaking doctors recommended by a friend (it seems illness withers up my Czech language gland).

Two stops across and four stops down on Prague's rather crowded metro, I arrived and battled with the very complicated entry system to greet the doctor himself.

For 'twas indeed a male doctor and one quite attractive in a grey-blond sort of way. Things began to appear rosier. The tiny part of my mind not wholly occupied on working out precisely when I have felt more miserably ill before in my entire life perked up and started to take an interest. It glowed with approval as I explained my symptoms, deftly skirting around the whole Pink Floyd issue.

"Hmmmm…" he frowned, just like every other doctor in the universe. "Do you have fever?"
"Umm… no. I don't think so."
For a brief moment, I wondered if now would be a good time to bring up overstated twin reverb and dry ice. The tiny non-illness-obsessed part of my brain moved with the speed of (laser) light to stifle this urge with a barrage of sneezing. There was a pause while I mopped up with a scrap of tissue. Bit of an own goal for the mucus-brained one.

After a brief hand movement reminiscent of an amateur (pre-bunny) magician's, the still-attractive but more elusive he-doctor lunged forward and grabbed my forehead. Paralysed by shock and a strong Czech accent from a man in a white coat, visions of brain-sucking machines danced through my head.

"No. You don't have fever."
"Oh, well, that's good." Did brain-sucking really require complete cranial rigidity? "But it's really my ears that I'm worried about." I pointed at my ears. They stick out a bit, but are not unattractive.

His hands shifted and his thumbs pressed down very hard on the bumpy bit of skull behind my ears. "Does this hurt?"

Strong hands or not, torn by the brain-sucking issue, it was something of a relief to find him less attractive from this perspective. "Well, you are pressing quite hard."

"No. But do you have pain here?" More pressing.
"Not really. It's more sort of here." I did my own pressing, this time on the squishy bit behind my jaw where the crackling noises seemed to originate.

"Then you do not have ear infection."
"Well, that's a relief."
"You have a cold."
"Yes, I knew that. It's just my ears…"
"There is no medicine for a cold. You must rest. You must drink water."
"And if you still have the hearing problems after the cold is gone, you must see an otologist to clean your ears."
"Now, goodbye."

And so, suitably chastened, I took my dirty ears home to tune the air guitar.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Division ding-dong.

It's slightly less obvious than "The Wall".

With the usual seasonal irony, it's been absolutely beautiful and warm for the last few days while I wrestle with a filthy cold. The evil germ has done weird things to my ears that make me feel as if I'm listening to a Pink Floyd album in a submarine. In other words, I have very blocked ears because of sinus inflammation, can hear sloshing and crackling when I move my jaw, and my left ear generates a peculiar tinny echo for all but the lowest-frequency noise.

Given my age, the Pink Floyd reference is a good indicator for the extreme noncool level of my de rigeur "I'm-miserable-and-ill-now-go-away-you-bastards-and-stop-hassling-me-about-borrowing-the-ironing-board" flannel pyjamas, striped socks and bad hair. I'm too old for it to be ironic and/or retro (the fact that I don't really have a clear idea of which it's supposed to be probably speaks volumes), and too young to be a first-time hard-core fan with original vintage concert T-shirt, who can sneer at the wannabe pj's in their pastel-snowflake-printed sadness.

Worse still, I've been this way for a very long time. But illness tends to bring out the dark side of my stadium rock/big album secret vice. One of the reasons that I avoid medication for the average cold-type bug is a sneaking fear that one too many decongestant tablets will find me in head-to-toe denim, and BIG hair, waving a zippo lighter with enthusiasm at a Status Quo gig. It could happen. I once bought a tape of the best of Bon Jovi while under the influence of one too many medicated throat sweets/cough drops and ten years later, not only can I still sing all the words, but I even know the track order.

So somehow it all made sense to my mucus-addled brain to go trawling through the archives and dig out this photo from an excursion up to the castle last summer. At least it might help to illustrate why I'm anticipating the coming summer with not a little dread. While last year, leopard-print ruled, I think gold and "brights" are supposed to be in this summer.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sometimes, it's just like the Sound of Music

This is what guys living in Czech-land chat about 'round the supersonic coffee machine on the Tuesday after Easter Monday.
"Hey, so did you beat your wife on the legs with ribbon covered twigs yesterday?"
"Yep. Well, she was quite insistent. What about yours?"
"Yeah. Our family is pretty traditional. I sang the carols and everything while I was doing it. Did you make the whip yourself?"
"Nah. Her father made it for me - I've never been able to braid the pussywillows properly. Guess you need to be born here to get the knack."
"Nice of him. This year, I forgot to buy one and ended up using a wooden spoon. Didn't get a whiff of slivovice* afterwards, let alone a proper egg. She just hung them all on the tree for the kids. I'll never hear the end of it now. She reckons a wooden spoon wasn't enough to get rid of the really bad spirits - let alone the fertility thing. She thought it was a total cop-out, without the ribbons.""Yeah… I know what you mean. My wife never lets me forget the Easter I doused her in water instead of flogging her legs. It ruined her favorite shoes. I didn't get any of the gingerbread lamb that year."
"Your wife makes gingerbread lambs?"
"Uh-huh. Hearts and rabbits too, but I like the lambs best."
"I think lambs are supposed to be just as good for fertility as the water thing."
"Probably. They're pretty tasty anyhow."
*plum brandy

Friday, April 06, 2007

…tastes just like cherry coh-lah...

(stripped of branding to make it acceptable for public blogcast)

But first, a quick, polenta-fuelled, trip up a mountain to see the natural sculptures in the Valle di Sella in the snow. Up where the air is thin and the snow doth fall in late March, artists are ferried in during the summer (less snow then) to make sculptures out of natural material which are left to weather the effects of the elements.
Top of the list is the work-in-progress tree cathedral. In theory, after 25 years, the trees inside the wooden framework will have grown into the desired shape, and the framework itself will have rotted away, leaving a living, leafy building.

Among the other bits and pieces (including an amphiteatre made of woven twigs) that are scattered through the forest is this one, which as far as I recall is called "Pieces of Stripped Pine" or something.
Then off we went to Trento to dry off our trouser legs and practice looking more glamorous while wandering through streets where the walls looked like this… …and the sky looked like this… But, whither Lola? Luckily, Trento isn't all about miniscule gelati and elegant little cups of espresso. All that fresh mountain air means they take their food seriously south of the Dolomites, and on the day we visited, a cheese fair had plonked its ripe and oozing self in a square right by the main underground parking lot. Imagine my delight! Italian cheese piled high in stinky piles of beautiful ripeness! Oh unspeakable joy! Oh unbounded rapture! Oh momentary anxiety over the transport of dairy products by plane! Giddy with various edible fungus fumes, I bought:

1. A wedge from a wheel that smelled of old socks and looked as if it had been buried in a burlap bag and left to rot for several months.
2. A slab of gorgonzola so gloopy, blue and melty that it was sliding off the display board and slowly dripping its way to freedom.
3. A small roundel (I think I just made up that use of the word, but it fits) of very stinky goat cheese infused with the juice of a head of garlic, in its own special straw nest.

I did not buy:
1. A chunk of bright yellow Sicilian cheese studded with peppercorns and made with saffron flour, mainly because the stallholder was quite annoyingly insistent on flirting with us and sang very bad Italian pop songs.
2. Some strange stringy stuff with a faint plastic aftertaste.
3. Something with an unpronounceable name, rolled in dead leaves and ashes, because the guy wouldn't let us taste it first.

And then there was the highlight of the Trento Regional Cheese Fair (probably not its real name). That fine spring day, we had the honour of being graced by the presence of none other than Lola, the prize-winning cow. According to her nicely hand-lettered sign this fine speciman of bovinehood had presented her proud owners with 14 calves (ooof) and vast quantities of milk, as a consequence of which said owners were forever grateful and prepared to say it in painting on a wooden board decorated with flowers.
Not only that, but Lola's supreme conformation and top quality milk production had endeared her so much to some judges not a million miles away from the secret alpine headquarters of the Federazione Provinciale Allevatori di Trento, that she was designated "Queen of the Mountains" and given a very large shiny bell to prove it. Lucky, lucky Lola.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


It may have been raining in Bolzano...

...but there was sunshine in my heart.

Personally, I blame an overdose of the free samples at the Trento regional cheese fair for that brief moment of insanity.

Since the mutual friend lives in the wilds of northern Italy, one of the many edumacational opportunities offered by a fleeting visit in her direction is a quick trip to Bolzano, which by virtue of the multiple "o"s is very satisfying to say. The Alto Adige region is but a hop, skip and jump to Austria which means that not only is it a nice place to eat pasta and look at mountains, but also sausage means more than mere salami and can come curry flavoured with mustard, almost everyone speaks German of a kind and most events can be rounded off with a nice piece of strudel/struedel/struedl/strooooodol (mmmm...).

On the downside, the weather was springlike only in the sense that torrential rain, sleet, fog and snow also can happen in March too. But that's quite a handy excuse for eating enormous helpings of polenta swimming in melted cheese, fried mushrooms, meringue-y things, heaps of risotto, yet more strudel, Sachertorte and chocolate Easter bunnies. Have a food picture.

I usually go for the ears first.

Tomorrow: Lola the prize-winning cow and her very big bell.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Mysterious Dimensionless Points

Polyps update: mysterious brooding.

Mysterious cause of camera refusal to download photos to laptop: assumed mysterious battery.

Imagine some pictures of snow here - I was in the mountains when I wasn't stuck in the portakabin or the smallest hotel room in the world (very clean, but mysteriously kettle-, drawer- night-table- and electric-socket-less).

The most mysterious thing, however, about the recent jaunts abroad is what has happened to my default foreign leungwidge. The DFL is the massacred version of an otherwise innocent and inoffensive foreign-to-the-speaker language that pops out in the absence of any decent command of whatever local language might be. It often bears absolutely no resemblence to the actual language you should be speaking, unless by doing so it can cause insult to the local person with whom you are attempting to converse (badly).

The DFL may be accentuated by the atrocious and yet irresistable urge to mime if doing so will cause acute humiliation. These days, however, it is only rarely the speaker's own native language spoken Clearly. And. Distinctly. In. A. Loud. Voice. With. Odd. Em.Pha.Sis. Or. A. Funny. Accent. Normally, it's whatever language you studied least and worst or most recently quite badly. It should not be confused with those foreign languages which a person speaks with any degree of fluency. Oh no. Far be it that you should be confused with a reasonably articulate speaker of anything apart from helpless grunting noises that never quite sound the same no matter how hard you try.

Nor, however should the DFL should be confused with those bits of language you pick up while abroad ("Do not flush/use the toilet while the train is standing in the station", "Do not feed the monkeys children - they bite"), watching films in smoky arts cinemas, or reading those books where the mysterious, foreign, tycoon hero peppers his speech with exotic endearments, curses and the odd (ungrammatical/mispelled/or both) sentence in his mother tongue. ("Efharisto!", "Querida!", "Avec les roberts comme ça, ta rhumba est exceptionnelle" and, "Non credevo che 'impotente' volesse dire 'non può divertirsi'", my darling.)

Anyhow, over the last few months, my default foreign longwidge has now become Czech. Heaven and Mrs. Jana both know I can barely manage a word or two in Czechland, but it seems that distance has an effect rather like that of half-a-bottle of Becherovka. My Czech actually gets more fluent the further away I am from the country where my mangled efforts would be most useful.

Those poor Italians hardly knew what hit them, what with my volley of "Prosím"s and "Promiňte"s as I hurdled through the Milan metro and fervently embraced the whole of the south-Tyrolean train network with a deathless passion.

Of course, now that I'm back in Czechland, 3 whole days of being indoctrinated into the vagaries of Italian (can't speak it, can follow some, thanks to french, music and a whiff of distant latin) by Our Mutual Friend and boyfriend, means that I'm now apologising and thanking people in dreadful Italian. Probably just long enough to annoy the bilingual flatmate of Sicilian extraction.