Monday, October 31, 2005

The Good

First, I must salute Sandra and her mother out in Toronto: when I asked what I should do about getting cheaper internet here, and mentioned the Český Telecom offer, they boldly called the company and asked about it. Next thing I knew, they had signed me up for it and all I have to do is get the ADSL modem. This is even though Sandra doesn’t think she will want to keep the service once I leave. I have never rented an apartment from anyone so efficient in my life. I can see why her employer here let her take a leave of absence; they are anxious not to lose her.
Second, I see that Kristen has felt the need to point out that her comments about Moscow should not be taken as an extended complaint about the city or about Russia in general, but merely as a description of what she encounters and how life there is different from life in Pittsburgh. She does, after all, like Moscow and Russia.
Let me state that while I, too, enjoy complaining (and have been assured that it is a suitably Czech thing to do), I am actually quite happy here. The irritations of daily life are not worse than those I experience at home, merely different. Prague is one of my favorite places to live. It is, just as all the guidebooks say, an extraordinarily beautiful place (at least, now that not all the buildings are obscured by soot). It has stunning buildings and gorgeous trees. The food is excellent (if you like Czech and Italian cuisine, which I do). The transit system is extremely efficient, if sometimes overcrowded. Violent crime is nearly nonexistent, and people roam the streets freely until somewhat after the night trams start, at which point it is safe but not much fun to try to get home. The populace is generally good-tempered in public, and someone or other on the tram will always get up for the less-mobile, assist in pulling a baby carriage on-board, or make an effort to help out a confused tourist. (Of course, those of us who speak some Czech do find that not everyone really knows how to speak slowly when asked, but people will usually repeat themselves, even if at the same rapid pace.)
While some Americans do complain of the restaurant service, thinking it is a relic of communism, it is nothing of the kind. In my experience, under communism waiters did not really see any reason to take orders or bring food, whereas now, they are highly efficient and usually good-natured. They always know when you have finished a drink or a plate of food, and carry off the evidence instantly (if one plans to spear food off a neighbor’s plate, it is best to hang onto the fork); unlike American waitstaff, they do not perpetually inquire (breaking up intimate conversation or causing one to spit up a mouthful of food) whether everything is okay. Generally they total up the bill with great speed, and as a rule they are happy to add up separate checks as this (I am told) means they will probably get more in tips.
It is true that people usually assume that I am Czech until I open my mouth, but this is fine with me. It means that people are always asking if I have any headache pills, if they can borrow my pen for a moment, if the arriving tram is the sedmička, if the bottle of Becherovka on the grocery shelf is the 750ml or the 1-liter, if the train for the Českomoravská stop comes on the left or the right side of the platform, or even (bizarrely) if I would be interested in buying some perfume on the street. This fits with my observation that, internationally, I seem to be a person whom others automatically assume can guide them. Usually this takes the form of asking for directions; when I was apartment-hunting in Washington, I had the opportunity to tell others how to find various streets, and when I went to Munich for spring break, I was able to advise (albeit in broken German) how to locate the music school. When my friend Cesar visited me in Washington, it became manifestly clear that people regarded me as the one to ask for directions and him as the one to ask to take their picture. Not one person asked him for directions, nor did anyone ask me to take their picture in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I’m not sure what this means, other than that I don’t seem dangerous, but so long as my students don’t all want headache pills or to have me read labels for them, it should be useful in my teaching career.

Labels: ,

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Adventures with the Telephone

As in the US, there are two basic types of phone here: land lines and cell phones. Unlike in the US, however, many people still don’t have land lines and pretty much everyone has a cell phone. This is because the venerable Český Telecom was so slow about installing phone service (I know people who were waiting for their phone fourteen years after requesting service) that when cell phones came along, everyone said the hell with Český Telecom and bought a cell phone. As in the US, there are countless types of plan for both types of phone, but my impression is that most people here (myself included) simply buy a pay-as-you-go type of cell phone credit. As your credit goes low, you pay for another 400Kč or so. And, although I don’t really understand very much about my cell phone (why, for instance, did it suddenly take to using a musical ring tone while I was on the bus to Útery, when I have always had it set to vibrate?), I am capable of checking its credit and buying more.
On the whole, Czechs are much more pleasant about their cell phone use than Americans are. In part, this is because Czechs are more polite in general. But it is also because it is much cheaper here to send a text message than to make a voice call. This means that Czechs are constantly, but relatively inaudibly, on the phone. You do not call someone just to chat, but you do spend a great deal of time sending text messages. Sometimes it seems as though it would be simpler just to call and get it over with, but that lures the participants into having a conversation, and next thing you know, the credit you expected to last you a couple of weeks has vanished.
Then there’s the issue of internet. Many Czechs don’t bother to have internet access at home, or use it rarely. At the same time, there are numerous options for getting connected, which (as in the US) depend on where one lives and what one needs. Český Telecom, for instance, does offer dialup service but does not seem to mention this anywhere on its English-language web pages, nor does it reveal the access number on its Czech pages. The phone here has this service, but I have no idea what the access number is, unless Sandra has become more familiar with her computer and has figured out what her friend put in. So, I’ve been using a Prague Compuserve access number, which has a $6/hour surcharge. I was waiting to find out whether this was charged by Compuserve or Český Telecom; the answer seems to both. After looking at this month’s phone bill, I am in immediate need of a better option. Online grant proposals and library/archival catalogues can eat up a lot of connection time, as do, for that matter, web searches to try to figure out why my laptop no longer notices wi-fi network signals other than the ubiquitous (and useless) MSHOME (which seems to be everywhere). What, after all, is the use of having a “wireless ready” laptop if it no longer tells me that I could log into TMobile, Telerama, or the free system at the Národní knihovna? Oh well. After several hours of (online) research, I have concluded that Český Telecom’s current high-speed offer is probably the best option, but I am hesitant to switch Sandra’s telephone service to it until she says it sounds like a good idea. She does not have long to respond before the offer expires and I will have gone ahead and done it for our mutual benefit.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Founding of Czechoslovakia

Friday was the anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia (the founding of the Czech Republic is celebrated in September because that goes so nicely with Sv. Václav, aka St. Wenceslaus). Several of my Czech friends quizzed me as to whether I knew what holiday it was, and fortunately I was able to provide the correct answer. Jesse tells me that his acquaintances in Brno are much less concerned and claim it is only of interest to their grandparents, although apparently one person conceded that it was nice not to be ruled by “Germany”. Hmm. Germany only had sway over Czechoslovakia during the World War II period, when it made a Protectorate out of Bohemia and Moravia and pretended that Slovakia was independent. This dismal episode in Czechoslovak history really has no direct relationship to Czechoslovakia’s 1918 independence from Austria-Hungary, never mind what Hitler might have argued. But some Czechs evidently feel that 1918 is much too long ago to celebrate. They think Americans must be insane for celebrating the Fourth of July, as the United States was founded over 200 years ago and why would anyone need to commemorate that? (On the other hand, other Czechs will happily go on and on about Jan Hus, the Battle of Bilá Hora in 1620, and other long-ago matters.) Well, without being in any way rabid nationalists, Jesse and I thought it seemed reasonable to celebrate the founding of one’s country. National mythology can be fun, when not being toxic. Besides, we like fireworks. (Note: John and I saw some spectacular Fourth of July fireworks when we were in Evanston this summer.)

Well, I didn’t really investigate the degree to which Prague was celebrating the holiday, but I did get a photo of a gathering at (where else?) the Palácký Memorial. The statue of Palácký himself appeared unmoved. Perhaps the group wasn’t actually commemorating the holiday; I didn’t go close enough to find out just what they were doing. Certainly their banners and clothes didn’t strike me as very Czechoslovak in color (which is to say, they were black rather than tricolored).

Labels: ,

Friday, October 28, 2005

Bird, Work, or Laundry Flu?

On Wednesday afternoon I got to the archive only to have the horrible feeling that I was about to come down with the flu or some such thing. This did not deter me from sticking around and looking through Jindřich Štyrský’s will and estate documents, or even from trying to make sense of the curious notations in an early pocket calendar that had belonged to Vítězslav Nezval, but my heart was not really in it and I left somewhat before closing time to drink large amounts of tea and much smaller amounts of Becherovka (which is supposed to be good for one). This morning I was relieved to find that I not only had not really come down with the flu (merely with some sort of minor indisposition) and in particular that I was not going to drop dead of the dreaded Bird Flu. I don’t know to what degree Bird Flu is currently worrying the United States, but the Czech media seems to run stories on it pretty much every day. Last I heard, it had reached Romania or Hungary, but I have not been following the story all that closely and am mainly trying to make sure I have a good supply of food in case it does become a pandemic and I become a recluse. (Of course, none of the flu viruses in my lifetime have lived up to their scare potential, but you never know. Both Egon Schiele and Bohumil Kubišta succumbed to the 1918 Spanish flu.)
More amusingly, I have discovered that in a recent e-mail I wrote “Nemam praci chripku” (I don’t have work flu) rather than “Nemam ptaci chripku”(I don’t have bird flu), which must be some sort of Freudian slip. Although, now that I think about it, depending on where one puts the accents, it could also have been that I didn’t have the laundry flu (the email did not employ any diacriticals, as it is so hard to get them to arrive correctly at the other end). Věra, who tutored me in Czech last fall and who now kindly gives my conversational skills a workout on Tuesday nights, claims that while my grammar is imperfect, I’m very comprehensible, but I have my doubts about this, especially if I’m going to be under the influence of work flu or laundry flu.


Thursday, October 27, 2005

Nuda v Brně?: "Bronze Reverberations of Gongs": Czech Gamelan

I see Jesse has posted a more musicological (but also amusing) description of the Prague gamelan concert: Nuda v Brně?: "Bronze Reverberations of Gongs": Czech Gamelan

Labels: , ,

Cosmo in Prague

I have not been feeling too well, so will resort to something on the lighter side. Some of you will already have read this in its e-mail form, but for those who have not… One of the accoutrements of my Prague apartment proves to be a generous collection of issues of Cosmopolitan, a magazine I seem to have last examined in high school when it featured a sex quiz (which, I now gather, it usually does). Well, there are also a few random magazines--Canadian Living was the first thing I had to investigate since it claimed to have an article on psychic pets (very disappointing)--and a British gossip rag with numerous photos of Charles & Camilla in full royal gear, which was instructive as regards British hats. It also had many pictures of Gianni Versace’s sister and her remarkably ugly abode. (As they always say, money can’t buy taste, but it is alarming to see that the head of a fashion empire decorates with an abundance of what can only be called a sort of nouveau-riche kitsch aesthetic.)
Cosmo has proved to have its own unique style, which is rather different than I recall, although the underlying tone is similar. The vocabulary has certainly taken some getting used to. However, one must brave many things when one has anthropological interests, and subcultural lingo should never deter the investigator (especially one who is trying to revive her spoken Czech at the same time).
The following is a bit tame by Cosmo standards, but struck me as typical in the magazine's journalistic limitations (I have pruned the verbiage just slightly):

hair is: men perceive:
long & straight "ultimate sex kitten" (!)
long & curly "up for anything"
medium length "brainy and very good-natured"
"short and shaggy" "superconfident party girl"

Cosmo does not tell us anything at all about (for example) short and spiky, short and Harpo-Marx-like, limp hair of any length, or about color effects like striped hair or multiple colors inexpertly (or even expertly) applied. Could these be perceived by the male population in a less positive fashion, as in "amazingly frigid," "sleeps all day until prodded with fork," or "dumber than dirt and very whiny"? After all, many women will never fit Cosmo's descriptions, so presumably their hair does not either.
I'm not sure whether my own hair qualifies as long or medium (this is relative, after all) but I am certain that no one other than my mother has ever thought I was a "superconfident party girl."
The more I read of such things (and of more explicit ones, which dominate), the more convinced I am that part of my mission in the Czech Republic must be to write a nice parody, filled with terms like "convo," "vaycay," "PDA," "nooky," "manly," "bod," "undies," and of course "booty" and its many derivatives. The only difficulty is that it does tend to parody itself already, as in suggestions to "sport his Skivvies" and thus share a hot sexual connection all day long. (I realize that almost everything under the sun is a turn-on for someone, somewhere, but surely this one is not high on most people's lists? especially when the items are referred to as skivvies, which somehow always suggests to me that they are tattered and filthy, whereas "undies" merely sound appallingly cutesy.)
More research will have to be done on the magazine's descriptions of how to pick up total strangers, and what its readers claim to have done when they realized they had spent the night with someone 1) toothless 2) elderly 3) underage 4) insufficiently muscular.
It occurs to me that I have not yet noticed an article explaining how to choose men by their hair or furniture, but my sample has been rather limited thus far.
My friend Jane, in her great wisdom, has pointed out that what with Intelligent Design and all, it is clearly no accident that the supply of Cosmo was left in the apartment for me.
Here we can see the magazine basket with one of my own (non-Cosmo) additions. And now off to the archive.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


I realize that this blog has existed much too long without an explanation of what I am doing in Prague and, for that matter, who all these Fulbright people are.
Those of you who know me (which I assume to be the vast majority of my readers; I have no illusions about attracting thousands of strangers to this site) will mostly have at least some vague notion that I’ve been working on my PhD in Art History at the University of Pittsburgh. My reasons for that are perhaps best left unexamined, but boredom with office temp work as a means of supporting the fiction-writing habit did figure into it. In any case, my advisor thought I would do better to pursue my interest in the Czech surrealist Toyen than to try to write yet another dissertation on the Weimar Republic, and this has worked out very well. Toyen and the interwar Czech avant-garde seem to be of perpetual interest to me, even if it could be argued that I’ve bought into the mythologization of the First Republic as a golden age. But—what the heck, just because the First Republic wasn’t actually perfect (what is?) doesn’t mean it wasn’t awfully interesting.
So… the dissertation itself looks at the construction of gender and eroticism in the work of Toyen (Marie Čermínová). I use the word “construction” because Toyen creates her own version of these things (as do we all, to some extent) and why/how is her version different from what other (mostly male) surrealists came up with? (I am trying not to sound painfully academic here, and not really succeeding, as it is, after all, a PhD dissertation.) Perhaps I should give in to academic language here and give the abstract I wrote for the Fulbright-Hays DDRA grant (which is funding me this year):
“This dissertation situates the life and work of the artist Toyen (1902-1980), a founding member of the Prague surrealist group, within the larger discourses of modernism and feminism/gender studies. In particular, it will explicate Toyen’s construction of eroticism and gender within the contexts of early twentieth century Czech feminism, the interwar Prague avant-garde, and Prague and Paris surrealism. As a case study of one artist working within a specific avant-garde movement, this project contributes to critical re-evaluation of surrealism, the Central European contribution to modernism, and the role of female artists in the avant-garde, thereby critiquing the reductive East-West binary that currently shapes English-language discourse about Central and Eastern European art.”
I hope that wasn’t too painful for most of you, and satisfies to some extent the desire some of you have expressed to hear more about my research. Each fall PhD students all across North America write rafts of grant proposals in the hope of getting someone or other to fund their research (assuming that their departments are not funding them eternally), and some of us actually succeed in getting the funding; the three proposals I turned in last fall were abnormally successful and resulted in three offers of funding (FLAS, Fulbright, and Fulbright-Hays DDRA), of which I had to pick only one, namely Fulbright-Hays. Many people have heard of Fulbright, but few have heard of Fulbright-Hays DDRA, which is a related but less broadly defined program that only funds PhD candidates who plan to teach and whose research is focused on certain parts of the globe. Thus, this year there are seven Fulbright Students in the Czech Republic and somewhat more Fulbright Scholars plus some Fulbright Teachers, while there is one Fulbright-Hays professor (Bruce) and I am the only Fulbright-Hays DDRA here. Fulbright and Fulbright-Hays are administered by separate governmental entities, but the Prague Fulbright office does provide some services to Fulbright-Hays recipients, such as inviting us to orientation and events.
Now: my partners in crime, or, that is, the other grantees. I confess that I didn’t really get to know the Fulbright Scholars and Teachers at orientation, because we only shared parts of the process. The Scholars and Teachers are not required to know Czech or to be experts on the Czech Republic, but merely have some reason for wanting to work with Czech colleagues on projects. (This is not to say that it is easy to get one of those Fulbright grants; I am really very ignorant about their side of things.) The Fulbright Students, however, generally have to have a decent command of the language and to have an interesting project to pursue here. This year two of the Student slots were reserved for Teaching Assistants, of whom I only met one, Justin. The other students are Alex, Dawn, Hubert, Jesse, and Vivian, and I expect them to appear regularly on this blog. By some miracle, we are all arts/humanities types, so we have closely related interests.
Alex has her MFA from American University (where I obtained my MA) and is studying Czech puppet animation, notably the work of Jiří Trnka. She is acquainting herself with various puppet animators and has an affiliation here with FAMU (the film school).
Dawn is completing her PhD at University of Toronto, on a contemporary German-language Czech author whose name I have forgotten. In a past life she was a flautist.
Hubert is a composer and has just finished his PhD at UC Berkeley, so his project is to compose something here and have it performed. His affiliation is with HAMU (the music school).
The reason Jesse has already appeared so frequently in this blog is that we already knew each other, having been in Czech class together last summer. We met at the picnic table at school the first morning, ended up in the same class, and spent the next month roaming around Prague and lunching with our classmates Ross, Martin, and Grisha. Jesse is a musicology student at University of Michigan and is writing his dissertation about Moravian cimbalom bands.
Vivian received her BA from Harvard and is working on a project relating to the nineteenth-century artist Brožík. I gather it has a historical fiction component, which sounds intriguing.
Bruce is the other Fulbright-Hays recipient. He teaches history at Calvin in Michigan and is working on a Czech-Slovenian architectural project at the moment. Or perhaps not really at the moment, as his wife Megan just gave birth to their fourth child and I’m sure his thoughts are more on that this week.
I think that is enough for now about all of us. The archival life calls. (As do the unfinished grant proposals for next year, but more faintly.)

Labels: ,

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Tale of the Glasses

Several of my comrades here have probably heard more than enough about my glasses, so perhaps they will prefer to skip this account. Other readers, however, may be curious how one goes about making at least one type of major purchase in Prague, and what can befall one.
Prior to coming to the Czech Republic, I made sure to get my eyes examined and bought new lenses for my glasses, since (as I have learned to stress to optical personnel) as an art historian I really have to have clear vision at all distances. When I am not reading, I am probably staring at a computer screen or looking at projected images, the latter of which may be across a vast auditorium. Being what the Czechs would delicately refer to as a “starší studentka” (as opposed to the sort young enough to get a student-rate transit pass), I require a more complicated prescription than was once the case.
And, having had various experiences in the course of my life that involved loss of glasses (it is not really that much fun going to night-time parties wearing dark glasses, unless, I suppose, a person doesn’t really care about seeing what the other guests look like), I brought along my old glasses and the new prescription with the idea that if I had these along I was really unlikely to need them for anything.
Alas, I had only been here a very short time—I suppose two or three weeks—when I managed to break my glasses. I don’t know what caused them to become so suicidally inclined, but one minute they were entangled in the shirt I was removing and the next they had flown to the bathroom floor, probably hitting everything in the bathroom on their way down. The situation did not look good. I had a nasty feeling that nothing short of a roll of electrical tape would really put the pieces back together again.
And, indeed, when I took them in to a shop that had done a repair on them for free last summer, the optician informed me that they were beyond all hope. We commenced picking out new frames, which at least was more pleasant than had been the case in Berkeley. True, initially the optician tried to steer me towards hideous little trendy glasses, and I realized that I did not know the Czech words for shapes like “rectangle” and “oval,” but I eventually got it across that I was not about to wear anything on my face that involved black rectangles or anything like them, and certainly not anything that looked like the horrible things I had to wear before I was eleven and got nice octagonal glasses (one of the pairs that got lost). Once that was understood, I saw I had a suitable choice of very acceptable frames.
I produced my prescription and inquired whether it was understandable—after all, I don’t understand it myself, so I would not be surprised if a Czech optician didn’t either. He assured me that it was perfectly understandable, and began to tell me all about my diopters, which I would not have followed any better in English than I did in Czech. I did have a nagging sensation that I ought to query him in detail about his understanding of my prescription, but felt that my vocabulary in this area was insufficient, so I settled for stressing that it is very important for art historians to be able to read easily, as we do it constantly. Still, I had that nervous feeling that something might go wrong with that prescription. I do often have prophetic intuitions of this sort, but it is sometimes hard to distinguish them from ordinary everyday paranoia (or groundless optimism, as the case may be).
We spent a good long time going over details relating to the non-glare coating, the manner in which the lenses were to be made (another of those things that seemed all too technical for me), and the payment scheme. Finally I departed, feeling generally pleased with my ability to negotiate a complex transaction in Czech, but not looking forward to suffering through a week or more of reading blurry stuff and taking off my glasses every time I had to look at the change in my wallet. (There is nothing like removing one’s glasses and peering into a coin purse at close range to foster feelings of gross incompetence when the clerk has asked if one has a 50-heller piece and there is a long line is waiting. We can only rejoice that smaller denominations are no longer legal tender and I can put my collection of these to use in some sort of collage.)
A week later I received the welcome SMS that my glasses were ready. Ah, I thought, these people are efficient; it takes UC Berkeley and Kaiser Permanente at least two weeks. I went in. We agreed that they looked spiffy. I read off all the little numbers on the eye chart correctly. And then I glanced down at the desk. Um… it seemed to be a complete blur. What on earth did those papers say? This was reminding me of the shock of getting my dark glasses and realizing that it had not been a good idea to get only the long-distance prescription. (Driving down the highway in dark glasses: what speed does the speedometer say? How much gas is left in the tank? How long has that warning light been on about the fuel injection system? What’s the number of the interstate on that map?)
My foreboding about the prescription had been all too well-founded; the optician had failed to notice that it was for progressive lenses. He looked aghast. We examined the prescription again. We did more calculations. There was further discussion of my diopters and the thickness of the lenses at various points of the final product. It was going to be another two weeks before I could read properly. There were further complications that I will refrain from describing. We withdrew into a more neutral discussion of Czech poetry; was I familiar with a fifteenth-century Czech poet (whose name I have now completely forgotten) whose work is really beautiful? Well, actually I don’t normally read Czech poetry, even if it is in modern Czech. I had just bought a bilingual edition of Mácha’s Maj and noted that it had many archaic spellings.
The optician observed that he also very much liked an early twentieth-century poet who had died young of TB, but whose name was escaping him. Said poet had been a communist but had had good things to say about Masaryk. This seemed more in my realm. I inquired whether he was thinking of Wolker. (I had no idea what he had died of, but I knew it was an untimely death.) Yes, exactly! Wolker, a wonderful poet despite being a communist. I said that a great many poets of that generation had been communists, as I couldn’t in fact think of any interwar Czech poets who hadn’t been. (There must have been some, but they have not made their way into my research.) My mind immediately fastened upon Hoffmeister’s cartoon of Seifert at work at the communist bookstore.
Perhaps this was because along with Maj I had gotten a bilingual edition of Seifert and Teige’s Na vlnach TSF.
Then again, perhaps not. Hoffmeister’s cartoons tend to drift through my mind frequently, along with other fun items from the early issues of Rozpravy Aventina. No doubt one of these days I should propose a conference paper on Hoffmeister.
In any case, I went off to spend another couple of weeks not feeling much like reading blurry stuff, although I did discover that the situation improved if I pulled my glasses way down my nose. I don’t think this looked very attractive, but it was functional. We could say the same thing about a lot of functionalist architecture, but I won’t get into that topic because it relates more to Brno than to Prague. Suffice it to say that I don’t know what Gočar was thinking of when he abandoned cubist architecture for functionalism.
Well, to return to my topic, this afternoon I went in and got the revised glasses. After spending a month or so looking at various blurry stuff, it is hard to know whether I have now got exactly what I ought to have. The computer screen is not as clear as I might like. On the other hand, it always takes the eyes a few days to adjust to a change of lens, so who knows. But, as if my glasses had not been expensive enough (a topic I have refrained from elaborating upon), it turns out that glasses cases cost extra here rather than being part of the package. Had I realized this, I think I would have been content with the cardboard box, as I don’t really see a need to spend over 400Kč on a case that will only get occasional use. But, as they say, live and learn. Tomorrow I can go to the archive and re-examine the documents relating to Štyrský’s estate (last year I took a more cursory look at these just before the archive closed for the summer), and possibly even embark on the daunting task of reading Nezval’s diaries. At least, I’m assuming that these will have arrived on time (I ordered them last Thursday). If they haven’t, I guess I’ll head over to the Městská knihovna and try to figure out the procedure for ordering books that aren’t in plain view. It appears that Bohuslav Brouk’s various psychological tomes were not deemed of sufficient daily interest to put on the shelf next to the books about AIDS and sex instruction (or whatever was inhabiting the shelf in question). I hope this doesn’t mean that Brouk’s writing is unusually dense; my only experience with his style was when I glanced through his article on (Nazi) German perversion. This was one of those articles that I really saw no reason to spend a lot of time struggling through, especially as I thought it was a bit simplistic (that favorite word of many of my students, who imagine it to be a synonym for simple) to argue that Naziism was the result of suppressed or even not-so-suppressed homosexuality. But… à chacun son gout.

Labels: ,

Gamelan to Glasses

I have the nagging feeling that I should describe the gamelan concert I attended last night, because such an event must be rather rare in the Czech Republic, but am torn about this. On the one hand, I think that it is Jesse’s task to describe it since he’s the ethnomusicologist, but he indicated that it might be my task since the concert was in Prague and he is covering Brno. (Since we have both played in gamelans, either of us could say something from that perspective, although my gamelan days are much more distant.) We found out about this gamelan through the odd circumstance that when on a gamelan-related trip to Indonesia this summer, Jesse encountered a Czech gamelan student. Naturally, they exchanged contact information, and during Fulbright orientation week in September, Jesse and I did visit the Indonesian Embassy in the hopes of meeting the Prague gamelan teacher, but unfortunately he was out of town. The Czech gamelan student subsequently sent word of an upcoming concert in the Karlín district.
We showed up shortly before the concert was to begin, having taken an Indonesian approach to time and the public transit system. This was, perhaps, not such a great idea. The venue was a small sort of bar and swarms of Czech gamelan enthusiasts had gotten there before us and taken all the seats and formed a long line for the beer. We ended up sitting on barstools at the back of the room, which was somewhat better than standing, but mainly offered a view of all the standees in front of us. Gamelan appears to appeal to younger Czechs, most notably anarchists and those with masses of dreadlocks. I have never before seen quite so many Czechs with dreads, but there was considerable opportunity to study the phenomenon here. Musically, I don’t suppose I can say much about the concert, except that the instrumentation was somewhat different from that of the UC Santa Cruz gamelan, which is Sundanese (I think the University of Pittsburgh gamelan is also Sundanese; at least, Andrew studied with Undang Sumarna at UCSC a few years after I did and the Pitt concerts I’ve attended sounded much like the UCSC ones). From what I could hear, there was more rebab and suling in the mix than I’ve usually heard elsewhere. In any case, the sound of the Prague gamelan was quite appealing overall, with a silvery timbre. It also seemed much more relaxed than the Balinese variety, which is pretty high-energy. There was a dance performance as well, but I was only able to catch the occasional glimpse of the top of the dancer’s headdress, which was disappointing (the visibility, not the headdress). The dance appeared to be an energetic one, unlike the more refined character dances that I studied back in my undergraduate past.
Following the performance, we met up with Hubert and Alex and were relieved to be able to locate a restaurant that served food after 10:30. Hubert said that Sunday night’s performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was good (where it was and performed by whom, I cannot say) and Alex is making plans to visit some puppet specialists in Zlín. After supper, we had the opportunity to try the night trams, which turned out to be somewhat more of an adventure than anticipated because the night tram to my stop proved to be one of the few that does not go past Národní Třída. This resulted in a walk down to Vytoň since we had missed the 52 while reading the schedules at Národní Třída. The weather was cooperative, we had the chance to examine the Palacký monument yet again and debate whether the group on Palacký’s left could be construed as homoerotic, and along the river there was an interesting clump of police cars interrogating what seemed to be most of the vehicular traffic. After an exciting evening like that, I found it hard to get out of bed this morning, but I made the effort, and was rewarded by a breakfast SMS telling me that my new glasses were ready. That, however, is its own saga.

Labels: , ,

My New Bedmate

I spent the past weekend in Utery, a village in western Bohemia, with my former tutor Štěpanka and her fourteen-year-old son Michael. Štěpanka and I got acquainted two years ago in Pittsburgh when she was there doing research on fellowship and Bob Donorummo at REES persuaded her to give me Czech lessons; fortunately we got along very well and enjoyed such activities as visiting Falling Water, going to Thanksgiving at Kristen's place, and figuring out what kind of product could best be employed to unclog the drains in Štěpanka's sublet apartment. And in turn, I enjoy visiting Utery and having a change of pace from urban life. Utery is situated in a sort of valley surrounded by rather steep wooded hills which are very agreeable to hike and bike in (although I have not been good at remembering to photograph the scenery).
On this visit to Utery, I made the acquaintance of a new member of the household, Vegetka. Vegetka rapidly became passionately attached to me and insisted on sleeping with me, to which I assented with pleasure. Calypso Spots may feel jealous that I allowed Vegetka to sleep in my bed rather than merely functioning as a living alarm clock, but I will say that Vegetka wants only attention and showed no desire to chew on anything on the bed, although she was so excited by my cell phone that it gave up the struggle to stay on the bed and went flying. Thus far, Czech cats have taken a strong liking to me, which is more than some Fulbright students can say. Or rather, Hubert says that his roommate's cat seems to like him just fine but doesn't grasp that he doesn't like claws dug into his flesh.


Monday, October 24, 2005

Eastern European Fulbright Blogs

It occurs to me that I have not yet listed the URL for Kristen's blog about life in Moscow, so here it is: Moskovskie Melochi I think that Kristen's blog generally speaks for itself, but I will point out (for those of you who don't know her) that she has some amusing photos of Russian items. Look for the "Happy Bearers" carton. Also, as Kristen has experienced Soviet Moscow, she has useful comparisons of past and present.
Jesse has decided to start a Brno Fulbright blog (I gather Alex is considering doing one of her own here too), so here it is:
Nuda v Brně I gather it will have some mildly bizarre items once it gets more fully underway, like photos of Brno tram stops and who knows what. (These may not sound interesting yet, but I expect they will be entertaining in their own unique way.) Tonight we are avoiding work on our next-year's grant proposals and attending a gamelan concert. What, gamelan in the Czech Republic??? Well, if there was gamelan to be found, Jesse and I were the people who would find it, and we did.
Once I deal with photos from the weekend, I will post some, but that could take a little adjusting of file size. I realize my remarks are slightly incoherent at this point, but over time I hope to present as intelligible a view of life here as can be hoped for by those of you who (yes, you, Betty) would like further explication.

Labels: ,

Friday, October 21, 2005

Films in the Czech Republic (so far)

Last night several of us (Dawn, Hubert, and Vivian from Fulbright, plus one of Vivian’s Czech friends) went to Kino Aero to see Wim Wenders’ “Don’t Come Knocking,” which had Czech subtitles that were rather interesting to try to follow. We thought the movie was pretty good on the whole, although I was left wondering whether Sam Shepard has really aged dreadfully or if it was partly makeup. It has been awhile since I saw him in anything.
Due to the relatively affordable (for Americans) price of films here and the presence of other people to incite me to leave home in the evening and attend them (or for that matter to watch them on the VCR in my apartment), I have already seen several movies here. (Let’s hope that I spell the titles correctly AND that these appear properly on the Web.)
The first was “Horem Padem.” It's supposed to be pretty good, but my copy is not subtitled, so Jesse and I were only able to get the general idea. It is one of those films with groups of loosely affiliated characters, or in some cases characters whose affiliation to the others remains a complete mystery (at least to those of us who need subtitles). It also struck us as being one of a new genre that emphasizes everything dysfunctional or criminal in the present Czech Republic, and caused us to inquire (since we had also seen the Svankmajer film about the wooden baby, whose name I'm forgetting) whether there is something we ought to know about Czech women and the maternal instinct. The director is Jan Hrebejk. Dawn (who has seen it subtitled) and my former tutor Věra have both assured me that there are many subtleties, so I look forward to seeing it again with subtitles.
The second was “Štěsti,” which has just come out and which I did see with subtitles, on our first trip to Kino Aero (with Alex and Dawn). It was well received by both Czechs and Americans in a full theater. This also had some dysfunctional characters, but the protagonists grow on a person over the course of the film, and the situations/plot are well conceived. I thought it had a pleasing mix of humor and seriousness. The director is Bohdan Slama, who I believe also directed “Divoké Včeli,” which I liked. Věra recommends this film as being reasonably true to contemporary life, rather than concentrating solely on the seriously maladjusted (of whom I gather she sees enough at work).
The third was “Hrubeš a Mareš jsou kamaradi do deste,” directed by Vladimir Moravek. It is also brand new and initially Jesse and I thought that the lack of subtitles would cause us serious problems, but eventually we followed it quite well, I think because it is so bizarre that either one takes to it or not. Or, at least, it is bizarre by American standards. It may not be by Czech standards. (Věra says it’s too much like everything else by Moravek and his crew.) I'm sure that it would have helped to have followed all the dialog perfectly, but this wasn't necessary. Also, I gather that a subtitled version is available here in Prague, so I hope to see it again and get a better sense of what the minor characters are up to, which is clearly equally weird as anything Hrubeš and Mareš come up with. I cannot recommend it to everyone, but it appealed to my twisted sense of humor.
Next week the Prague gang anticipates seeing “Manderlay;” we would also like to see more Czech films but preferably with subtitles, which may mean getting them on DVD. And, on November 2, a film about Toyen (my dissertation topic!) premieres. We may take the trouble to get opening night tickets for that.

Labels: , ,

Blogged already!

My friend Geoff Fox has kindly mentioned this blog on his own, more political and literary blog, so I will return the favor and direct you there:
Admittedly this goes to the bit about this blog, but you can navigate to more diverse topics from there. Geoff and I met back in 1990 at the National Writers Union Delegates Assembly and danced a great deal at the party that year (I feel that it is of great importance to have good dance music at DA parties, as after all the sitting and debating, delegates desperately need to move around... but sadly, not every DA has had decent dance music). Geoff writes fiction and about politics and sociological matters, and his wife Susana is an eminent architect.


Thursday, October 20, 2005


In various emails of the past couple of years, I have commented to some of my friends on the interesting quirks of European washers. They all seem to be alarmingly high-tech, with countless controls and settings that are decorated with mystifying icons, and come equipped with extremely lengthy manuals that (even in English) fail to explain what exactly is involved. For example, on the machines at the dorm on Vratislavova, which also dried the clothes, there was a setting described as “store dry”. What on earth that was, I never figured out; dry as in the store where purchased? If you didn’t watch out, you might eliminate the spin cycle and have to start again from scratch. I really haven’t grasped why one would ever want to have dripping wet laundry. Then there is the issue of which soap to buy. Soap for white laundry? Soap for black laundry? Soap for colorful laundry?
Well, all of these modern machines take approximately two hours to wash a load, and it is pretty hard to get more than a set of bed linens into the small space provided (if, indeed, that much will fit at one time—if there are more than two pillows on the bed, it is unwise to use the extras as their pillow cases will not fit in the same load). This means one can spend a lot of time tending laundry, so the laundry I am spared by having left His Majesty King George the Incontinent Black Rabbit with my parents has not really lessened my laundry time. Also, as a rule I hang my laundry on lines off the kitchen balcony. I KNEW that sooner or later laundry would fall into the courtyard. For the first few weeks here, I had no key to the courtyard, so I am relieved to report that today, when I dropped my first shirt, I found that the additional key really does open the courtyard door. This means I also have access to the building’s stairs up the hill, which require exploration. (See photo)


My apartment and so forth

Since I did not begin this blog immediately upon arriving in Prague, I anticipate that I will produce several introductory entries in quick succession to orient everyone before I forget what might be of interest to my readers. We thus start with something fairly simple: the Prague apartment itself. I was nervous about searching for a place from afar, as I wanted something reasonably nice and convenient, and presumably pre-furnished, without paying foreigner prices (which can be insanely high). I ended up with what is a very satisfactory compromise, which is to say a nice furnished apartment in the Podoli district, right by tram and bus lines, but toward the top of my price range (still, it is much less than many places advertised in venues directed toward foreigners). My landlady had been living there but decided to try returning to Canada for a year, so I have the benefit of her washer, iron, phone, TV, and so forth. As you can see from the photos, it has been nicely renovated and the kitchen is the object of envy by visiting Fulbright grantees. I have not done much cooking there yet, but my friend Jesse (one of the aforementioned Fulbright grantees) persuaded me that we should attempt a pie, and this was a success. We were not really sure what we were doing—there was sort of a tart pan that is somewhat bigger than the average American pie pan, Czech flour is milled differently than American, and Sandra’s cookbook was North American while her measuring implements were metric—but all the same we concocted a very satisfactory pie out of plums and a couple of apples, held together with an experimental sludge consisting of eggs, flour, sugar cubes, and butter. (Hey, who needs cookbooks anyway? Just throw together whatever likely ingredients are at hand.) The oven was higher-tech than we were used to, but we managed to get it to do our bidding.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Why yet another blog is born

A look at blogs by various friends has suggested to me that maybe... MAYBE... this might not be such a bad way of keeping friends and family informed about my adventures in the Czech Republic. Granted, I do send out emails from time to time, and obviously they can be tailored more specifically to the recipients' interests and personalities, but this way I can post photos without choking anyone's mailbox. I suppose I will say something more intelligent about the whole thing (and my life in Prague) subsequent to getting the blog properly launched.

Labels: ,