Saturday, February 24, 2007

Da books! Da books!

In order to improve my general quality of life and the fatness of my bank balance, I set out last weekend to register for not one, but two libraries. The kind folks at the City Library puzzled their way through my non-existent Czech to confirm that I actually need a real, live Czech person to act as a referee. And pay a substantial deposit. So will be back next weekend after the blackmail kicks in.

To be fair, for the privilage I get to borrow from their extensive English-language selection, kindly donated by the British Council some years back. Although perhaps not all 8000 books at once. They also have a giant sculpture in their entrance hall in which thousands of books are bricked up to make a giant hollow tube. Through a split in the side, you can look in and get mild headrush from the mirrors placed at the top and bottom. I panicked, checked to see most of the books were in Czech and breathed a sigh of relief.

Then I popped across the square to sign on at the National Library. After a fairly extensive inquisition and some complicated manoeuvres with a black felt-tip pen and the coat-check lady I managed to acquire not one, but two identical cards. I think one must be a spare. Sadly, neither of them can be used to borrow books, but I do get to use the reading room and flit through the stacks like a giant-stack-flitting animal in a coat and glasses.

To make the place even better, the whole library has that wonderful shabbiness caused by endless rows of handwritten card catalogues, large potted plants with big dusty leaves and antiquated computers and those huge microfilm readers bought in a fit of wide-eyed technological enthusiasm back when a very different bunch were exporting technology to this corner of the world. Haha! Yes, meeztress perille... Ve haff ze mikrofeelm! And a way to read it... Now crank zat hendle harder! Harder I tell you! haha!

But the reading room is the best of all. Huge and high-ceilinged, with desks that creak and snap as the unwary brush past, brass-shaded lamps connected by electric flex covered in brown cloth, floorboards that groan under hard wooden chairs, and strange chilly drafts of undetectable origin.

At the far end, the wall above the main entrance is covered by an enormous mural in shades of grey. Doubtless its subject matter is meant to elevate and improve the moral and intellectual fibre of the hundreds of thousands of students who use it to practise critical eye-focussing exercises in those all-important and infrequent mental breaks.

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to be distracted by the 30-foot, black iron, eighteenth-century roccoco stove that looms up against this same wall blocking half the mural, and thereby reducing the edification factor by as much again. Enormous, big enough in the belly to cook thirty skinny students and presumably once used to heat the vast room during the sort of freezing winter that passed us by this year. It is my new favorite thing.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Raiddrops keep falling on my head

Today, the sympathetic weather is working overtime. The skies above this little corner of the Czech Rep. have generated the kind of overcast cloudiness that reflects my general muzzy headedness that not even floor-varnish-dissolving coffee can cut through. And thus the randomiser is born: a collection of those small wisps of thought that on a good day might have been quashed 'neath the weight of more sensible matters. Or thoughts of manatees.

First to walk the plank is the "Special Edition" washing-up liquid. It honours our kitchen sink with its noble presence. After the supply flatmate's wild flirtation with the dark side of grapefruit-scented detergent, her departure to Frenchishier shores and the inevitability of time's effect on supply means we're now back to a more normal green.

Of course, as the lovely D'Eath is sure to remind me if she can put down the Daughter Of D'Eath quickly enough, by using the qualifier "normal", I am imposing my own version of "normality" upon dish-washing Others in the form of liquid detergent stereotypes. In fact, even the term "liquid" is deeply suspect, redolent as it is of westernized industrial manufacturing practices and dismissive of the paste-based substance widely used in the South and other parts of the world.

Furthermore, to essentialise this product based on its most narrow purpose within the domestic sphere ignores the potential for its change and growth beyond the narrow confines of the kitchen and its consequent reinforcement of gendered relationships. After all, is it not also a useful de-fogger for diving masks? Although the debate between the relative merits of this substance and saliva in this arena should probably seek to avoid a focus upon loaded Western conceptualizations of "health" and "gentility".

In any case, before venturing further into this territory, I must acknowledge that my own culturally-biased view of washing-up liquid is probably a form of cultural imperialism, situated awkwardly upon the false dichotomy of "normal"/"grapefruit".

In an effort to move from this central focus upon "green"-ness at the centre of my personal cultural universe, I must therefore also acknowledge that while green, the substance in question rather than being lemon or pine-scented, in fact has the more peripheral odour of apples, I think. Not speaking Czech, I am basing this assumption on the pictures of fruits which strongly resemble (to my mind) green apples on the bottle.

Of course the individual who has never seen an apple, may perceive this image as one representing another fruit or even another object altogether. Such as a tennis ball. And their perception of tennis-ball-scented detergent is of course equally valid, given the filtering experiences of our own lives.

However, since the more novel (to my culturally-limited viewpoint) grapefruit-scented detergent does not merit the label, "special edition", and the colour green predominates in the supermarket shelves (except for deuteranopic individuals), it may in fact be the dispensing pump that is the basis for such an attribution.

For there is no squeezing of bottle in the domestic sphere of Peril & co. Instead, use of this "Special Edition" dispensing system subverts those attributes deemed masculine within the dominant western idiom that governs our ritual hygiene practices, by the enhancement of a simple task with the application of technology.

Of course, this consumption of technology is in fact more ambiguous than it appears at the outset, since while the appropriation of technology subverts certain masculinized traits, the role of the consumer is considerably more nuanced. Furthermore, the label "special edition" itself signals the uniqueness of this particular act and thereby underlines and reinforces the association of masculinity and westernization with the novel and the progressive. Perhaps we are collaborators, merely confirming entrenched practices and biases.

Perhaps this is why I am feeling slightly underwhelmed by the "specialness" of this "edition". And yet this may also help me to place into context my annoyance at the way flatmate XYZ uses three WHOLE pumps when cleaning a few plates. It must be due to subconscious anxiety about social roles and the suppressed urge to reinforce "traditional" feminities within the domestic sphere. Perhaps we should be adopting entirely new ways of doing the washing-up.

(Is it very obvious that this studying thing has kicked off again? But I'm still using that bourgeois punctuation nonsense. Must try harder.)

Monday, February 19, 2007

Penguin! My Penguin!

Or, I'm Going to Take a Heroine For Whom No One has Provided a Jacket

The real evil, some might say, of an author's situation is their having rather too little power over the marketing and presentation of their work. The unfortunate choice of cover art or artiste can threaten to alloy her enjoyment of sales beyond a particular niche and create a disagreeable consciousness of the most unfavourable perception of the quality of her writing.

The same might be said of the gentle reader, whose choice of material may do a great deal to distress or vex her. With none of the inducements of an offering more attuned to the artistic sensibilities, there remains little beyond obvious cliché for defence when affronted by the prejudices of others. Rare indeed is the cover which unites some of the best blessings of a book's existence; more frequent, those covers which bring grief to the unlucky reader in the form of pointed commentary upon one's state of mind and possession of more hair than wit.

Those who suffer thus may therefore count ourselves extremely fortunate that Penguin have released editions of six classic works whose pristine covers the happy reader may embellish at will, and upon whose blank canvas one may depict as attractive an image as one might wish to present to the idle observer. For the sum of five pounds, your humble blogger has thus secured the purchase of Miss. Austen's fine volume, Emma, and will doubtless present her own raw efforts in the usual haphazard fashion upon their completion and her acquisition of log-in rights to the scanner.

Postscript: On the subject of my last entry, it has occurred to me that this post may be a fitting submission for Beth's own SB Day. However verification of her site reveals that the weekly announcement has yet to appear. Perhaps later.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

How do I dub thee?

...cheesiest of days?

For some today is a festival of the highest squidgy-wuv-bunny-wunniest degree. A time when women are not ashamed to out-ruffle the pink chiffon whiffliness of la Cartlande, and men dress in tights and floppy hats to serenade their inamoratae 'neath a honeysuckle-scented arbour. A time to shout your love to the heavens and not fear the next morning's sore throat.

It is also time of expensive and scratchy underwear that you secretly feel will look faintly ridiculous at a later date. A time to venture into the hostile territory of fiercely-regimented public dining, expensive meals that do not become inspiring by virtue of being in the shape of a heart, or worse, cupids performing unmentionable acts. A time of embarrassing public gaffes, dry cleaning bills and a "rose for the lady." For others it's worse.

And so, here is the anti-valentine. It's dull, obvious and actually written on corporate email while doing a poor impression of writing an unpleasantly tactful memo about the people who remove their shoes in the office. It has then been printed out on featureless stationary and typed up in a badly-lit late-night airport waiting lounge where all the shops are closed apart from the one that sells bad overpriced coffee. The closest it comes to romance is the 25-crown-for-5-minute-leatherette massage chairs that look like someone's stuck a motor on the cast-offs from a garage sale.

Note the lack of hearts and sentimentality. Note the lack of pictures, even from a corporate logo (although the one with the dead turtle might have been appropriate, come to think). Worst of all is the fact that I have extracted this whole thing from an email to a friend and then re-worked it into a blog post in order to completely de-personalise the whole experience and ensure it thereby loses all meaning.

And to round things off nicely, I slept poorly, my breakfast banana was bruised, the milk in my tea tastes funny and I'm flying east-west so the whole day is actually 25 hours long. Happy Valentine's Day.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Nearly accidentally deleted this...

...better publish and be spammed.

Bookwormom hath spoken and thus for Monday's post, there is a meme... This is a) a relief because it gets me off the hook thinking up ideas on a busy Monday, and b) rather terrifying since I have absolutely no idea what to say. It's supposed to be ten weird things about me. This is hard, because anything about me that causes other people to give me that squinty-eyed, funny look with a puzzled shake of the head (like that multiple-book a week habit which leaves the newer, book-every-few-months, flatmate astounded) seem pretty normal from this end of things. Even the monkey.

Luckily, for those fearful of angering the gods of meme, the February edition of the Fortean Times has hovered to the rescue like a UFO filled with silver-clad inspirational aliens on white horse-like creatures. It specialises in the weird. So I am in a position to present 10 weird things very tenuously related to me.

1. One of the most destructive tornadoes to ever hit the UK was recorded in Birmingham two years ago in July. I used to live in Birmingham nowhere near the place it happened, but had moved by then.

2. There was also a tornado last December in London. Eerily, I also used to live in London several miles from where this tornado touched down, but had also moved months before it happened.

3. Erich von Däniken, the Swiss writer most well-known for his "ancient astronaut" theory of alien intervention in the prehistoric development of humans opened "Mystery Park" in Interlaken, Switzerland, in May 2003 to showcase his theories. It closed last year. I have been to Switzerland and admired the punctuality of their trains and dust-free plants, but have never been to Interlaken, nor visited "Mystery Park".

4.In November, 2005, China's first restaurant to specialise in dishes featuring the, uh, male organ, (gulp) opened in Beijing. I have never been to China, and since reading about this restaurant, am more herbivorous than before so unlikely to sample food in this restaurant.

5. When a Swiss driver was caught by Canadian police driving 100 mph (160 kph) in a 62 mph (100 kph) zone on the highway between Montreal and Toronto, his excuse was that he was caught up in the delight of being able to drive quickly without the risk of hitting goats. I hate goats.

6. On Bonfire Night last year in Monkwearmouth, Sunderland, a 22-year old soldier inserted a Black Cat Thunderbolt Rocket into his, uh, hindquarters, and then proceeded to ignite it. I have attended several Bonfire Night parties and once drove through Sunderland in a car. Not a rocket.

7. A woman in Croatia was struck by lightning when brushing her teeth last year, after putting her mouth under the tap to rinse. The lightning travelled through her body and exited out of her, uh, rear exit. Doctors say her life was saved by her rubber-soled bathroom shoes. I also brush my teeth, although I have not yet had the opportunity to do so in Croatia. I do not own rubber-soled bathroom shoes, but am considering the investment.

8. A palæontologist has concluded that the osteology of the plesiosaur, Murænosaurus would make it unable to lift its head and neck above water swan-style. Instead would have acted like a feeding-tube, used to pull up soft-bodied prey from the seabed. This makes a living fossil of this species to be an unlikely candidate for Nessie's secret identity. I have been to Loch Ness and really liked typing the "æ" in those words.

9. A Romanian man who was jilted by his finacée just a few days before the wedding offered to marry the first woman who could fit into her erstwhile wedding dress. Dozens of candidates applied with the (presumably lovely) Ana Maria out-Cinderella-ing the lot, leading to accusations of "love at first sight".

It took three fittings and the most wire-pokingly, chicken-filleted, strapless doohicky for my last bridesmaid dress to behave as it ought. I spent most of the wedding and reception absolutely paranoid that any stray breeze or overly enthusiastic handshake would upset the whole arrangement and lead to one of those "wardrobe malfunctions" without the Timberlake to hide my shame. Luckily, my 'do, which contained 2 cans of "product", 43 bobby pins and 3 elastics would have maintained its rock-like solidity even in the face of one of the aforementioned tornadoes, although crashing into the main marquee pole may have shattered it.

10. Rohan Kriwaczek wrote The Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin (Duckworth), which describes the history of this musical style from its emergence in the Reformation to its wholesale destruction under the aegis of Pope Gregory XVI in the first half of the 19th century. In October, after a New York Times article suggesting it was a hoax, Mr. Kriwaczek admitted that the whole thing was a carefully-researched fake.

When I was younger I played the violin at a funeral or two, sometimes in ensembles, sometimes not. I also used to write book reviews for school assignments about books that hadn't actually been written by authors who didn't exist. If my teachers ever suspected this, they never said a word.

I am now too exhausted to nominate candidates, so if you like it, you can have it. If you don't, no worries.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Street and a few veg

In an increasingly pathetic last-ditch attempt to keep this blog thematic, I can now reveal that last week while in London I walked right past the entrance to Peckham train station, completely oblivious. And it was all because of those pesky vegetables. Not a potato or a talking dog in sight, mind you. Instead, the cunning greengrocer had to make do with:

boxes of crinkly red scotch bonnets
shiny white globe aubergines
piles of the green bumpy cucumbers that are bitter melon
the stinky durian fruit beloved by bats
long white daikon
leaves, many, many leaves
bitter gourd
bottle gourd
snake gourd
calabash (isn't it a gourd, too?)
purple mangosteen (note to self - this would be a really good name for a Victorian-era disease: Galloping Purple Mangosteen. Cured only by Dr. Proctor's Patent Syrup of Centrifuged Worm Fungus and peat baths.)

I should probably point out (if it wasn't already obvious) that the selection of fruit & veg in Prague has been rather limited of late. Apparently, now all someone has to do to lure me off the straight and narrow is to leave a trail of okra for me to follow. I'm so weak-willed that all this vegetable glory, which included the humble carrot looking a bit perkier than I've seen lately, made me late for work.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The wrong vegetables

The reason I haven't blogged for a while is that conversations like the following are beginning to make me lose my already tenuous grasp on sanity, reality and most of the social graces.

The scene: an anonymous kitchen furnished in Ikea and early discount paper towel rails which is absolutely not anywhere near any office. A professional coffee machine gleams like a french-roasted beacon of hope amidst the UHT milk and mismatched crockery.

An anonymous person, possibly exuding a discreet air of peril, is eating homemade vegetable harira (skip the beef, add marmite to the stock and extra chickpeas) with rosemary flavoured crackers and reading The Singing Neanderthals (the bit about vervet monkey alarm calls).

Enter The Current Rather Podgy Bane Of Her Life in a pumpkin-coloured shirt, Simon-Cowell-high-waisted trousers and foreshortened tie with its tip snugly tucked into a black leatherette belt. The voice is oddly high-pitched and squeezed through the throat, with an extremely peculiar accent that takes an experimental approach to the use of vowels.

"Are you ea(r)ting soup?"

"Yes." Slurp.

"Oh. What kind of soup are you ea(r)ting?"


"Oh. How int-er-e-sting!"

Pause to consider the most logical response. "Thank you".

"By times, do you ea(r)t the(r) potato soup?"

"Sometimes, yes."

"Oh. That is also very int-er-e-sting!"

Slurp. Bemused silence.

"Is there any potato in your soup right now?"

Slurp. "Uh… no."

Pause. Brief moment of hope, rapidly dashed (mashed?).

"So now... now I have some que(r)stion for you."


"In E(r)ngland. The(r) people… are they ea(r)ting the ye(r)llow potatoes or the white potatoes?"

Blank look. Puzzled slurp. "Umm… I guess it depends. I tend to use yellow potatoes in cold food like salads and white ones for things that need to be fluffy, like mash."

"Reeeaally? That is so VERy int-er-e-sting!"

Slurpslurp with quiet desperation.

"Yes. It is VERy int-er-e-sting be(r)cause in the EAST of Poland the people only eat the white potatoes be(r)cause the ye(r)llow potatoes are only for the animal food."*

Slurpslurp with slightly louder desperation in the hope that soup noises will drown out this flood of information.

"But you know, ha-ha, in the WEST of Poland it is comPLETEly the opposite. ComPLETEly. In the WEST of Poland, ha-ha, they eat the ye(r)llow potatoes. I have ABsolutely NO idea(r) what they are doing with the white potatoes." Chuckles.

Careful examination of soup to see if any remaining carrot is of suitable dimension to lodge in a passing windpipe.

"Ye(r)s. Ha-ha. It was VERy funny when I went to the WEST of Poland to the university and I could not find the white potatoes aNYwhere!"

Upon reflection, carrots are too small. Curse my blind adherence to recipe dimensions that call for half-inch cubes.

"It was simply crazy. No white potatoes in ANY shop! Ha-ha." Shakes head ruefully at this clear example of Western Polish willful insanity. "VERy funny."

Pieces of tomato appear too mushy or not hot enough for the desired result.

"And so that… this is why it is so VERy int-er-e-sting to hear that in E(r)ngland you are eating the white potatoes AND the ye(r)llow potatoes."

"Well, we have other kinds of potato too." (Oh gods, stop the madness.)

"Ye(r)s. But it is the white potato and the ye(r)llow potato that are so important in this thing."

"Mm-hmm". (Silence is golden. Like a perfectly-crisped potato.)

"Ha-ha. You British people are so VERy funny. Eating the ye(r)llow and the white potatoes. In Poland we do not ea(r)t the cold potatoes. Ha-ha. Potatoes in the(r) salad. Ha-ha."

Pumpkin appears to be reaching bursting point as a consequence of the unintentional hilarity of the tuber consumption habits of the British nation.

"Yup." Considers the rosemary-cracker-to-watery-eyeball trajectory. It could be done.

"The(r) white potatoes AND the ye(r)llow potatoes. Ha-ha."

"You'll have to tell your wife."

"Oh ye(r)s. I must tell her straightaway. She will find this so VERy int-er-e-sting. And funny too. Ha-ha."

"Always happy to oblige."

"Ha-ha." Leaves in haste to presumably flash mail all of Poland with the wacky gastronomic habits of Perfidious Albion.

Aren't raw potatoes poisonous?

*note, the shades of potato may be the wrong way around. I am no Polish potato authority - traumatic amnesia is nasty stuff.