24 December 2013

Awaiting Ježišek

The potato salad sits in big pots, the presents are wrapped and the dialogue from a televised Czech fairy tale is making its way trough the apartment. This is Christmas in the Czech Republic, and here, the big day is today the 24th, and not tomorrow.

In most homes throughout the country families are getting ready to eat carp, which has been sold in large tubs throughout the city over the past week. In the old days, families gave the carp a name and let it swim in their bathtub before deciding to chop its head off or letting it back into the river. Luckily, the Special Assistant to the Blogger recognizes that some traditions aren't worth keeping, one of them eating fatty fish, so we'll be having salmon, chicken schnitzel and potato salad for dinner.

After that, presents are opened. And here's the biggest paradox of them all: In the Czech Republic, the most atheist country in Europe, presents are brought by Ježišek, or Baby Jesus. As one student put it earlier this month: "We believe in Baby Jesus, we just don't believe in his father." There is no catch-all depiction of Ježišek -- in fact, the Special Assistant often pictured him as a little hedgehog with boots when she was little.

So that's how it goes here. Wherever you are, and however you celebrate it, have a wonderful Christmas. And don't do this.

23 December 2013

CSI: Prague

And by "CSI" I mean ...

  • Christmastime
  • Sepia
  • ISO 800
Just an experiment when I was out and about with the Special Assistant to the Blogger last night.

Kozí, a street in Old Town.
Obecní dům, or Municipal House. If the balcony looks familiar
but you're unsure why, type "INXS New Sensation" in your
favorite video sharing site. 
Old Town Square.
Old Town Hall overlooking the Christmas Market.

20 December 2013

Bloom or die

So, our tree is up.

No, not that one.

OK, technically yes, this one, but that's not the one I'm talking about.

Yep, this is the one -- although, if one must be pedantic, it is not a tree but rather branches from a special bush that Czechs call "Barborka," because its branches are clipped on December 4, which is the day for St. Barbara. These particular branches came courtesy of one of our school's groundskeepers, who was kind enough to trim a bunch of them and offer them to the Special Assistant to the Blogger and other women at the school.

The Barborka is another of the great Christmas traditions of the Czech Republic, which generally follow this pattern: If the desired result happens, you will have a wonderful year, and if not, you will die. In this case, the buds of the Barborka must bloom by Christmas.

According to the old tradition, you count the number of days after December 4 in which the buds blossom, and that's the month when you'll be happy. Now, these buds blossomed two days ago, which places our happiness roughly in February 2015. Tradition also dictates that if the blossoming occurs, the woman of the house will get married. Additionally, the woman of the house can name the branches after men she likes, and the branch that blossoms first represents the man she'll marry. That might explain why I overheard the Special Assistant name every branch "Jaromir Jagr."

21 October 2013

Put a finger on it

The artist who has given us a saint riding an upside-down horse, babies crawling on a tower, two men pissing in a pool the shape of the Czech Republic, an exercising double-decker bus and a pink Soviet tank with a middle finger has given us another middle finger, this time directed at Prague Castle (and presumably the rather powerful man who lives there).

The good people of Prague awoke today to the sight of a 10-meter-high purple middle finger on the Vltava River. The height is not as important as the direction it's facing. The artist behind it, David Cerny, is quoted (in Czech, obviously) describing his latest work of art this way: "It's a normal f--king finger to those Communist f--king bastards at the castle."

Výtvarník David Černý instaloval na Vltavě mezi Národním divadlem a Střeleckým ostrovem v Praze plastiku ruky se vztyčeným prostředníčkem namířeným na Pražský hrad.
From novinky.cz.
If Cerny wanted attention, he got it. A BBC story on his sculpture has been in the top 10 most read stories as I've been writing this. I got emails from friends in Pardubice and Massachusetts about this. And expats and Czech friends alike are sharing stories on their Facebook pages.

The unveiling is timed with this weekend's Parliamentary elections, which are needed after Parliament was dissolved in August. The Communist party has held anywhere from 22 to 42 of the 200 Lower House seats even after the Velvet Revolution, and some recent polls (which may or may not be trusted) show they may (or may not) get more power after these elections. But there's definitely a group of voters, particularly in the industrial northwest, who miss the days when they were guaranteed a job.

Special thanks to the Special Assistant to the Blogger for her translation skills.

19 October 2013

The Czech Republic: Not No. 1 in getting killed by lawnmowers

Bless the folks at thedoghousediaries.com, because it takes skill to produce a world map that gives you something different. You're going to get a link to the Doghouse map in a moment, but not yet. We have to play a game first.

The map labels each country by something they lead the world in. (Remember that "rule" that says sentences can't end in prepositions? Antiquated. Get over it.) Some of them are not surprising. The Czech Republic, for example, apparently leads the world in drinking. For context, read this report, take note of how many centimeters your shoulders move when they shrug, and that's pretty much how I felt when I saw the Czech Republic factoid. But there are some interesting bits of info, and for fun, I figured I'd change it into a quiz. Based on the Doghouse map, which gleaned much of its info from Wikipedia, match the 10 countries below with the category in which they lead the world:

29 September 2013

Happiness is a cluttered wall

I'd never much paid attention to the John Lennon Wall, a graffiti-filled symbol of freedom in the Mala Strana section of Prague near the Charles Bridge, after seeing it for the first time in the summer of 2011. "Why," I would ask myself or some poor colleague who happened to be there when the topic arose, "would a John Lennon wall have graffiti about nearly everything except, you know, John Lennon or the Beatles?"

Last night, I got that answer.

The wall is not about John Lennon.

"It was about pissing off the secret police."

13 September 2013

On the road again (police escort optional)

I'll be attending my favorite hockey team's season opener tonight, and I can only hope that this time I'll be able to leave the arena without a police escort.

Tonight's trip to Kladno will mark the fourth time I have watched Slavia Prague play on enemy turf. On two occasions I've stood with the boisterous supporters group for a Sparta Prague match. And last March, I was the only non-Czech speaker to ride a bus to Plzen for Game 4 of the league semifinal series.

CEZ Coliseum in Plzen.
The place was predictably hostile. Our group of less than 100 red-and-white-clad fans received plenty of cold stares as we marched to the arena, where we made our way to the upper corner. In the second period, when things got chippy, our fans and the ones to our immediate right (where there was no real barrier) traded verbal jabs, and all was well until one of our fans decided that throwing a cup of beer in their direction was a good idea. The volume went up, the amount of tossed beer increased, and the police made their way to the bottom of our section. Nothing further ensued and Slavia finished off a satisfying victory to even the best-of-7 series at 2-2.

And then, we waited. And sung. And waited and sung, and waited some more. And sung. At least half an hour passed. And then the building looked like this:

Finally, we were allowed to leave. We slowly filed out, singing as we walked through the empty arena, concourse and stairwell. Police led and followed us. 

But we weren't home free yet. Far from it. Apparently there was not enough police to protect Slavia's team and the fans, so we waited by Slavia's team bus. We sang players' names as they emerged. Even the assistant coach got a song. Finally, the coach came out -- Vladimir Ruzicka, who is known for two-plus seasons of offensive brilliance in Boston but is an absolute legend in the Czech Republic, having captained the 1998 gold medalists in Nagano. I waited until he was off to the side, spoke in very poor Czech to him, and then we chatted briefly in English. More players came out, fans took photos and banged drums, we sang more songs, and finally, more than an hour after the game ended, we walked up the hill to our bus ... where Plzen fans who had been standing behind a line of police challenged us to fights. It was at this moment when the reason for the police escort became clear to me.

Plzen won the next two matches and then won their first-ever league title in triple overtime of Game 7, on a goal from Martin Straka, the former Penguin who is now their captain, GM and owner. Straka continued his form last night, scoring the first goal of this season.

And that's where we stand now. The Special Assistant to the Blogger and I will soon be off to Kladno, about 25km west of Prague. I wouldn't mind seeing another victory on the road. I could do without another escort. 

22 August 2013

A stupid wolf, some fog, a neighborhood, and a national record

For those of you who have harbored a burning desire to write the longest sentence without a single vowel in Czech history, you now have a role model. His name is Milan Hanak, a former architect who has crafted a truly historic and utterly nonsensical sentence with 52 consonant sounds and zero vowel sounds.

Photo courtesy of the Agentura Dobry Den (Good Day Agency).
The Special Assistant to the Blogger translates the sentence as follows: "The stupid wolf who is full of non-tasty drinks proudly escaped from the fog of Brdi through the hill Smrk into the neighborhood Krc, which is full of does [female deer]."
  • Brdi is the name of highlands in Central Bohemia southwest of Prague. The use of "Brd" is correct here because noun forms change depending on how they're used in a sentence. 
  • Smrk, in this usage, is the name of a hill; as a common noun, it's a spruce tree. 
  • And Krc is a neighborhood in Prague 4.
The Agentura Dobry Den is an agency for keeping records in the Czech Republic. Up next, according to its website: The good people of Zlin will try to establish a record for most pancakes thrown into the air. My only regret in typing that last sentence was the use of vowels.

21 August 2013

The longest night

Today seemed as good as any to visit the Police Museum in Prague, given that there was the opening of a new exhibition marking the 45th anniversary of one the the country's darkest days -- the Soviet-led invasion of Prague.

Quite simply, the invasion was the Soviet Union's way of showing their annexed Communist countries who was boss. The Soviets had freed the former Czechslovakia from Germany, which had wiped the country off the map. Three years later, Communist rule kicked in. Over time, the Czechs sought reforms that would give them more freedoms, prompting the Soviets to call for about 200,000 troops and 20 tanks to roll into town the night of 21 August, 1968.

Prague - Tanks
Courtesy Paul Goldsmith Photography

15 August 2013

Adventures in German

Actual conversation between the Special Assistant to the Blogger and I somewhere in Austria, after she took a swig from my water bottle during our bike trip last Saturday:

SAB: "This tastes bitter."

Me: "I got it from that neighborhood we were in. The sign said 'Trinkwasser'."

SAB: " 'Trinkwasser' or 'Kein Trinkwasser'?"

Me: (Hoping kein means fresh) " 'Kein Trinkwasser'."

SAB: "Kein is no. Not drinkable water."


13 August 2013

Smooth sailing

This photo isn't the most picturesque from our bike ride from Bratislava to some Austrian villages, but I'll argue that it's the most historically significant:

That yellow building in the background is the former customs building in Berg, Austria. That empty patch of road is where travelers would sit for hours as guards checked cars leaving the former Czechoslovakia (before 1993) or Slovakia (after 1993). Communism fell in November 1989, the Czech and Slovak republics split in 1993, but cars weren't free to cruise on through to Austria or other neighboring countries until less than six years ago.

Before late November 1989, natives of the former Czechoslovakia weren't even allowed to leave the country unless they were important or special enough. After 1989, when they could leave, the average border stop would still last 2-3 hours. Sometimes, if something was suspected stolen or someone who shouldn't be leaving was suspected of leaving, border guards would stop every car. Otherwise the guards would randomly select cars to direct to the side and search. 

There were still restrictions on what people could bring to Austria or Germany, so those families who could travel but were unable to afford, say, eating out for every meal in those countries, were allowed to bring only so much food out of the country. I can't speak to this, but the Special Assistant to the Blogger can, and her family would always (a) make sure whatever they brought didn't exceed what was allowed and (b) include a 2-3 hour wait into their travel plans. Families who chose to bring more food than was allowed packed the extras with their clothes, where they (often correctly) figured the guards wouldn't bother checking.

And then came 21 December, 2007, when the Czech Republic and Slovakia were among nine nations to join the Schengen Area -- the European nations where one can travel across borders without being stopped. Goodbye barbed wire and armed guards on their posts, hello freedom. Celebrations included fireworks and a disco event at the Berg crossing. From this report by Czech Radio:

Back at the Austrian-Slovak border, in Berg, I could feel that today we witnessed a historical moment for Slovakia given the fact that 18 years ago this place was surrounded by barbed wire and many Slovaks were killed trying to cross it in order to escape from the communist part of Europe.
Communist propaganda was praised [sic] the border guards for being very effective in catching all those who tried to cross the border. The use of arms was regarded as a normal practice. The border guards were supposed to be envied by everybody, among other things, for spending their working hours in nature. ...
I was wondering what might these former border guards who served during communism think today? Well, none of those we found wanted to be interviewed. And if I am allowed a personal comment, I am sure that most of them enjoy the new freedom of travelling to capitalist Vienna, without being stopped and checked.
Today, traveling from Austria to Slovakia is as easy as zipping under this sign:

The sign reads "Slovensko," in case you can't read it.
But limiting the effect to cars doesn't tell the whole story. Cycling from Slovakia to Austria (and vice versa) has become a popular way for tourists and natives to spend their summer days. Some companies offer Vienna-to-Budapest packages that include stops in Bratislava. The Special Assistant to the Blogger and I settled for a daylong jaunt to Bad Deutsch-Altenburg (German spa-old castle), Austria, where we ate traditional meals at a fifth-generation restaurant and continued just past town to see an old Roman amphitheater.

A woman walking her cow, and her dog, in the Austrian countryside.

The Danube in Hainberg.

The top of Roman columns at the Carnuntum museum in Bad Deutsch-Altenburg.
The Romans liked the area and set up an army base roughly 2,000 years ago.

Saw these butterflies all over Bad Deutsch-Altenburg.

Remains of a Roman amphitheater past Bad Deutsch-Altenburg.
They still have concerts here.

The past and present meet at the Austrian-Slovak border. In the background,
a cafe and accommodation. In the front, an old sign marking distances
to Vienna and Pressburg (the German name for Bratislava).

08 August 2013

George's town

Roughly 100 meters (and deeper) below ground level in Podebrady lies a supply of mineral water that is apparently helpful in treating heart disease, hypertension and other illnesses.That's the reason most people flock to this spa town of 13,000 people.

As for the Special Assistant to the Blogger and myself, we just wanted to go swimming. So last Saturday we traveled less than an hour by train to visit the town that had plenty of surprises for us, not the least of which was the day happened to be the hottest August 3rd on record in the town at 37 Celsius (nearly 100 Fahrenheit).

The park, across from the train station.

01 August 2013

Cesky Krumlov: It's fairy taley!

Had a student ask me yesterday if "fairy taley" is a word. It's not a real one, I told him, but great minds of the previous millennium and the current one have created words, so why not?

The student was referring to Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO-approved hamlet in southern Bohemia that boasts, among other things, the second-largest castle in Czech Republic, a majestic garden and a revolving theater where the centrally-located seats rotate.

The Vltava River bends and runs through Cesky Krumlov.

27 July 2013

Two worlds collided

It's days like today, when one can work up a sweat simply by staying inside and playing "Roller Coaster Tycoon" on the laptop (don't ask), when I yearn for a slightly colder, more wintry and romantic Prague -- like the one you see here:

For the uninitiated, that is Michael Hutchence, the late singer of INXS, strolling along the Vltava River in the late 1980s, before Communism fell. It is here that INXS shot the video for "Never Tear Us Apart," which debuted on the charts 25 years ago next month. (It peaked at No. 7, while songs such as "Monkey" by George Michael and this abomination reached No. 1. Music fans in 1988, you're going to have to do some serious penance.)

The video was shot before Communism ended, which means the police officers you see are dressed as soldiers, the wall at the Old Jewish Cemetery is in disrepair, the Charles Bridge is virtually empty, and Old Town Square has plenty of tourists but no stands geared toward selling substandard crap to tourists. But you still get to see Prague in all its beauty; I'd even argue that the cold, gray skies add to the romance rather than detract from it. Or maybe that's just the pitch-perfect, wouldn't-change-a-note-of-it sax solo.

All of Prague's standard sights are here: the view of Prague Castle looming over Old Town, the walkway leading to the castle where you get a view of St. Nicholas Cathedral and the rest of Mala Strana, Charles Bridge, a night shot of the National Theater, the astronomical clock and Old Town Square, and the banks of the Vltava where one can feed swans, take photos and, apparently, play the violin. I don't have a blow-by-blow account of which landmark appears when, but luckily this map done in 2008 does.

And now, your tour of Prague, courtesy of INXS.

UPDATE: For those who can't see the video, there may be some copyright-country thingy preventing you from seeing it, depending on where you are. Typing "Never Tear Us Apart INXS" into your YouTube browser should do the trick.

23 July 2013

America. Heck yeah.

Ahoj. So, for my first new Czech Republic-based blog entry in about a year, I'd thought I'd write about ... the U.S. Doesn't make sense until you hear this twist: today's thoughts come from the Special Assistant to the Blogger, who a little over a week ago completed her first trip to the States.

There, she enjoyed many firsts: first steps in the U.S., first visits to New York and Boston, first view of Lady Liberty, first kids' baseball game, first professional baseball game, first hike up an American mountain (which would not be a mountain by European standards), first dip in the Atlantic ocean, first No. 9 pokket (her request before I sprinted across the road during a bus rest stop to get mine: "Something American"), first time meeting Your Humble Blogger's family and close friends, and first time in Jack's Hardware. The latter is not really a big deal, but the SAB chose one sunny day to walk roughly 3 miles from our apartment to the Colonial Theater in Keene (coming soon: Gregg Allman) in a country where most people use a scooter to meet the neighbors. And she passed Jack's Hardware, which admittedly has a small town U.S. homey-hunky-dory feel to it.

Special Assistant to the Blogger in Hampton, N.H.,
touching the Atlantic for the first time.