Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Goodbye Autumn

All right, here are those fall photos that I have been meaning to put up. I just hope they aren't impossible to load for people on dial-up connections.

From early October, when Věra and I went for a walk around Karlštejn.

And, also from October, from the hill behind my apartment.

Ivy on the neo-gothic castle at Lednice (Moravia), in later October.

A dramatic sky over the gardens at Lednice. I was not sure whether it might start to pour, which would have made the planned hike to Valtice rather nepřijemný.

Jesse and I sitting in front of some sort of memorial at Lednice before commencing to hike. There were some gorgeous plantings nearby, but no good place to put the camera near them. Remind me to carry the tripod in the future...

I am standing near one of the numerous rybníky (fish ponds) outside Lednice. In the distance, although not particularly visible in the photo, is a structure referred to as the Apollo chrám. Věra was quite baffled when I told her that there was a chrám between Lednice and Valtice, as the term normally means a cathedral. In this context, however, it referred to some sort of fake temple. There were quite a few pseudo-Greek and pseudo-gothic temples and chapels along the way, most of which I photographed, but there is not much fall color in the photos.

Woods somewhere between Lednice and Valtice.

More woods between Lednice and Valtice.

I always find dark woods enticing (but refrained from leaving the path).

The rest of these are all from Vyšehrad, the park and fortifications not far from where I live (and which were directly up the hill from the dorm where I stayed in the summers of 2003 and 2004. I took these at the beginning of November.



I ran across an interesting mostly visual blog this morning, Bohemistika. The artist lives in the United States but is learning Czech and mentions that Nezval's novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders recently came out in an English translation. I had seen it is out in a new Czech edition but haven't read it, and there is also a 1970 film (which I haven't seen but know is in the University of Pittsburgh library).
This artist's sketches remind me of the work of Leonor Fini in their style and content.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

More Signs of Apparent Czechness

Recent indications that people on the street imagine I am Czech include a young woman who requested (and received) directions to the Městská knihovna and an elderly man who was having difficulty getting his balance after getting off the tram and asked if he could steady himself on my arm (I assented). I was also recently asked if I was already in line to get a shopping basket at Tesco, and got to hear complaints about how slowly the line moved and the ridiculousness of having to do this. I entirely agreed. At most Czech supermarkets, one can pay to use a shopping cart, but this strikes many of us as stupid, especially if we only wish to buy what we can carry. The grocery section at Tesco does have wire baskets for people like us, but they are in great demand and you have to stand and wait for an earlier shopper to hand you one. The supermarket at Nový Smíchov at least has employees on roller blades (!) who bring stacks of baskets to a basket area. The shopper might get run over, but will at least get a basket.
Anyhow, I suppose that standing in line at Tesco to get a wire basket does mark one as a person in the know. Maybe that's another major element in appearing Czech (or anything else): knowing how things are done. I wouldn't say this is always easy, but sometimes (as with baskets) it's just a matter of acting like everyone else. Keep your voice down, stand in line, blend into the scenery.


Archival Invertebrates

This afternoon I was sitting contentedly at the archive actually writing about some of Nezval’s diaries rather than merely attempting to transcribe sections (I believe I was comparing what he wrote there to the way he described the same events in Ulice Gît-le-Cœur), and thus I was only occasionally looking at the paper diary.
Eventually, however, I wanted to check something in the diary, and discovered to my horror that somehow a WORM had found its way onto the page! I suppose that technically it was a larva or caterpillar, since it looked exactly like the kind of worms one finds in fruit. Where this worm came from remains a complete mystery since the other researchers were working diligently and were not wandering by flicking worms at Nezval, and there was a hot lamp shining over the pages, unlikely to have been the home of young worms. Nor had I ever (fortunately!) seen other worms crawling around in the carton of Nezval’s diaries.
Lacking any better ideas, I tore a piece of paper off a museum ticket and removed the worm to a wastebasket in the next room, although if I had been thinking clearly I would simply have flung it out the window.
It is to be hoped that no more worms take an interest in my archival materials.

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

A Fulbright Thanksgiving

The Czech Fulbright group decided to have a Thanksgiving dinner, which several of us offered to host, but which ended up being at the home of Hanka Ripková of the Fulbright office. Certainly her suburban house proved to be larger than any of the visitors’ apartments, and it was a charming place to gather.
Of course, as many of the Fulbright grantees live far from Prague or had other commitments, not everyone was able to attend, but there were about as many of us could reasonably fit at and near a very large table.
There was considerable anxiety in advance about the menu, as some people were determined to have favorite dishes (ingredients not readily available) and in general the Americans wanted to give the Fulbright office staff a sense of what a Thanksgiving dinner is like. Thus, there was extreme concern about where to find turkey and who might have an oven large enough to cook it. Turkey does exist here, but is not especially popular, and probably doesn’t usually come in gigantic sizes. However, Dawn and Hubert found some quantity of turkey and each of them fixed some, with Hubert preparing his in batches (I don’t like to imagine this, but perhaps it was actually easier that way). Hubert also found a very good marinade recipe online. I don’t usually eat much turkey, but the marinade enticed me to have a second slice.
Deborah and two of her friends who teach English somehow obtained sweet potatoes in large quantity and cooked these. Had there been sweet potatoes at the store, I would probably have made them too, since I too prefer not to go without sweet potatoes/yams. (I thought I might be able to get a similar effect from buttnernut or acorn squash, but there were none of those to be had either. Remember, squash is a New World crop, although not unknown in Europe.) Deborah also came across jars of cranberry sauce and brought those. They were not bad. I had bought a package of Ocean Spray cranberries (!) but then realized I hadn’t bought anything to add to them; I like to add additional fruits to the mix. Cranberries are known here and turned out to be brusinky. In fact, one of the pies was a raspberry-cranberry pie, which I would like to duplicate.

I was somewhat at a loss what to make, because things that are easy to make for one’s own guests are not always easy to transport—especially when that means 45 minutes on the tram followed by half an hour or so on the train. Besides, while Sandra has left me a pretty good selection of kitchen implements, there are not a lot of truly portable bowls and such (and a person usually wants to reheat the food upon arrival). I finally settled on a roasted vegetable medley, in part on the grounds that I had never before roasted vegetables and it seemed like time to learn how this was done. In essence, I chopped up some carrots, parsnips, and beets along with an onion and some garlic cloves, tossed them in olive oil with salt, pepper, and every spice in the cupboard that smelled suitable, and shoved them into the oven in the pie pan. I didn’t turn them quite often enough at first, but the degree of searing that transpired proved not to hurt the flavor. I may make more tomorrow so that I can eat all of them myself.
Bruce and his wife Megan, who describe themselves as pumpkin snobs, had pumpkin sent from Minnesota (which they also have done when they are at home in Michigan), and thus brought a very nice pumpkin pie. Jakub from the Fulbright Office brought a bundt cake which was quite elegant.

We also had salad, mashed potatoes, homemade bread, cookies, carrots, broccoli, and beets. It’s possible I’m forgetting something, but it will have to remain forgotten.
After the meal, several of us went for a brief walk around town. Three sheep came running to meet us when I greeted them, but I think I was the only one who was really interested in communing with sheep. They did seem like very nice sheep, but maybe life with rabbits has simply disposed me to get along well with herbivorous mammals in general.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Retail Adventures, or Autumn to Winter

The season here is in the process of shifting from autumn to winter. Much to my surprise, the Friday after US Thanksgiving, infamous as a shopping day for those Americans who aren’t enjoying a peaceful day at home (in my better organized days, this was when I once wrote Christmas cards), also seems to be the day when Czechs begin their Christmas shopping in earnest. As the archive closes at 2:30 on Fridays, I decided to run some errands instead of going over to the library, and thus I discovered that vendor stalls were being installed and starting to open all over Staroměstské náměstí and Václavské náměstí. Stopping in at Bonton to look at CDs and DVDs for the first time since arriving, I not only discovered that the DVD section has vastly increased in the past year (I had suspected this, as manufacturers are starting to dump videos at bargain prices) but that most Czech DVDs have gone down to 300-700Kč instead of the 1000Kč that was once standard (and had prevented me from buying any).
When I took my choices to the counter, and even at the relatively low price of Czech CDs and DVDs compared to imports, I felt that I was making a significant purchase… until I noticed the total for the customer ahead of me. His stack of DVDs (mostly Hitchcock boxed sets) ran to 6250Kč, which is more than a lot of people (even in Prague) pay for rent! In fact, I know that one of my Czech friends regards her daughter’s 5000Kč apartment as insanely extravagant, although admittedly that apartment is not in Prague. Anyhow, I am wondering whether this customer’s job pays abnormally well, or whether he is simply running up a large bill to be paid off later. There have been quite a few signs up lately advertising that if you want a richer Christmas, you can borrow the money for it. One hopes that not too many people are doing that.
On Wednesday Dawn and I investigated the new mall that has opened at the Chodov metro station, on the grounds that we needed shoes more suitable to winter and could use additional pairs of socks. It was a mistake not to take my camera, as the mall is a gigantic retail extravaganza with lots of Christmas lights. (We did find what we were looking for.)

Today I ventured forth to Nový Smíchov on the grounds that I needed groceries and other necessities. There proved to be quite a few vendor stalls nearby (some with items I considered buying but decided to wait on as the groceries would crush them). These were quite pleasant. The crowds in the Nový Smíchov mall, however, were claustrophobia-inducing. I really did want to get more socks, and the Czech reluctance to have more than a few pairs in any one store necessitated a search. I had seen a pair of tights I really liked at the Humanic store where Dawn and I found our shoes, but Dawn assured me they were way too big for me, and when I asked the clerk if they had some in a smaller size, her response was to paw through all the other tights until she found a different size in a completely different color and pattern. She seemed surprised when I indicated that I was only interested in the pattern I had pointed to. This (the tights, not the moronic clerk) led me to take a look at the Nový Smíchov Humanic store, which had none of the tights I wanted but had some relatively similar socks. Other shoe and clothing stores at Nový Smíchov either had no socks at all or a remarkably limited selection, which was also the case in the store specializing in tights. I gave up on socks and tights and proceeded to buy groceries.

Beginning to lose all interest in Christmas or other shopping, I recalled that I had to buy more phone credit. Ah well, I knew there was a T-Mobile store handy, so I went there. There were some clerks busily explaining cell phones to customers, and one guy who seemed to have nothing to do. After a moment of indecision, I told him I wanted to buy phone credit. He replied, “You can speak English to me.”
I have had no problem at all buying phone credit in Prague in the Czech language at kiosks and Trafiky over the past year and a half, and in fact this was the first time since my arrival in September that anyone anywhere has suggested I switch to English. I felt mildly insulted but repeated my request in English. He then informed me that one of his colleagues would help me, and resumed sitting indolently. After a time, when it appeared that his colleagues would never finish dealing with their customers, I departed. Almost next door was a rather busy newsstand where I was able to buy my phone credit much more rapidly and easily.
Since my photos of fall color will rapidly be absurdly out of season rather than just slightly inaccurate, I will attempt to post some photo essays this weekend.

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Friday, November 25, 2005

The Archival Life

One of the main places in which I spend time is the Památník národního písemnictvi, a literary archive with holdings well beyond the purely literary. Now that I have spent quite a bit of time there, and gotten on pleasant terms with the archivists, I find it a very congenial spot, although one in which I feel I must devote every minute to my work.

Like many institutes and archives, the PNP is not easy to find from the street. It is tucked away in Strahov, a courtyard area formerly belonging to the Church and now somewhat returned to it (it is actually possible to see men in cassocks, although tourists are a more typical sight). Strahov is the home of a famous library, which all visitors to Prague evidently want to see, and this complicates the researcher’s search for the PNP, as if you mistakenly tell the beleaguered cashier that you are looking for the library (as the PNP does include a library too), she will start irritably gesturing toward the main courtyard. After all, she does have a large sign posted that she does not sell tickets to the library. (I’m not sure exactly what she does sell, but it must be something or other related to the archive. Perhaps she sells guides to the different collections, or copies of the archive’s journal.) Once you realize the error of your ways and tell her you are looking for the archive, she becomes friendly and bustles you over to the correct door.

Once you go up the stairs, of course, you still have to figure out where to go next.
I underwent this interesting procedure in May of 2004, when I had a Czechoslovak Nationality Room scholarship to spend part of the summer doing research. At that time you could just walk into the complex of rooms that constitute the reading area, which could prompt a degree of confusion since once there you have to go through two rooms in order to get to the room where the archivists actually sign you up to do research. They have now instituted a buzzer system, to keep out lost tourists, I suppose. Fortunately it isn’t one that requires explaining why you are there; you ring the bell and they buzz you in. (It still helps to know where you are going.) If you haven’t worked there before, or haven’t worked there in a long time, it’s necessary to fill out paperwork. There are forms telling you all the rules, which you sign and then never see again (so much for knowing what the rules actually are). ID is necessary, and a student card or letter of introduction is useful. But overall, it is a friendly place and the archivists are not trying to keep people out. I suppose they need to keep statistics on their users, and all that sort of thing.

Ideally, the researcher has already found the archive’s web site and come up with some people whose papers might be of interest. The next step is to go through and write out request slips for the desired materials, like “Nezval’s diaries, 1925-1938” or “Teige’s correspondence with Černík.” The request slips have their own strange format, so the best plan is always to verify that they are properly filled out. Once the archivist is satisfied about that, she tells you whether the desired items can be obtained the same day or in a week or so. Another researcher told me that he had actually gone to work at the archive’s other location, but that it is not heated in the winter. I decided that in that case I could continue with last year’s strategy of having things brought to Prague, where the reading room is cozy and has quite a few places to plug in laptops.

As you can see from the photos, the environs are quite picturesque. It is no longer quite as autumnal looking, however. Most of the leaves have now fallen and today it snowed.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Fun with Statistics

Now that the statistical part of the blog has been functioning for an entire week, I thought I would compile some counts.
Thirty-three visits were made by people who apparently already had the URL bookmarked and went straight there. (Wow! But that does include visits by Kristen, Jesse, and my brother, all of whom I can identify individually as regular visitors.)
Twenty-two visits were by people coming directly from the Moskovskie Melochi blog.
Five visits occurred as a result of search engines.
Three came from people looking at my Blogspot profile, and three from people on random blogs that have no link here (that is, presumably the person clicked on Next Blog).
Two visits came via the Nuda v Brně blog (when I look at Jesse’s stats I see that there is more motion in the other direction, with five of you having gone there from here since Monday).
One came from an email that was read on the Web (no, I can’t read your mail, I just know that’s what it was)
Most of you look at the main page rather than at archived pages.
There continues to be international interest: two visitors today are situated in England.
Some things remain a mystery, however. For example, I know that my parents read this blog, but they certainly don’t seem to be showing up on the statistics. Perhaps their laptop is inadvertently set to indicate that they are in Atlanta, Georgia, as there seems to be a lot of interest in this blog there. Most of the people I expected to be reading the blog live in California, but only two cities in California have shown up: Palo Alto and Hayward. Well, I guess maybe my friends in California are keeping in touch psychically rather than by reading what I am writing for them. The vast majority of locations shown are east of the Mississippi (even if only so far east as St. Paul and Peoria).
I know it's possible to lie with statistics, but as I am a moron about statistics, I doubt I know how to do that.


Figuring Out Handwriting

It's Thanksgiving, but of course that's a purely North American holiday, so the only people I know who are celebrating it today are those who (in an apparently random fashion) got invitations to dine at the Embassy. There will be a big Fulbright gathering on Sunday, however.
So, my thoughts--some of them--are back on Nezval. One of the major challenges of archival research is the deciphering of handwriting. This is a particular when the researcher is dealing with a foreign language, and especially a complicated one. I am usually pretty good at figuring out anything written in English after about 1700 (handwriting changed to something much more like what we use now around that time), but otherwise I am heavily dependent on the legibility of the text and my knowledge of the language and topic.
Nezval’s handwriting, which varies depending on what he was writing, is small and relatively consistent in the diaries. In these, Nezval clearly wanted to keep track of what he had done, and was not concerned with detailing his feelings at length. Thus, the handwriting is relatively clear. Yet even so, it can be quite mystifying. Czech has a good many one and two-letter words (mostly but not only prepositions), such as a, i, o, u, do, s(e), si, v(e), k(e), po, ne, na, mé, ta, te, ti, to, tu, ty, za, and z(e). A fair number of these look identical in Nezval’s script, so one is obliged to rely on context as to which one is meant. Is that a or s(e)? Aha, it is followed by Štyrským rather than Štyrský, and therefore we are dealing with “se Štyrským.” But is the main word Manesa or Manesu, and thus what is the word before it? (And why does Nezval, usually so good about diacritical marks, never write Mánes?) Nezval also throws in spaces in mid-word, so that what one initially imagines to be something like “k oleum” looks more like “kolem” upon reflection. Something that looks like olijknti is probably diskusi. Likewise, has he put Pak Nikodem or Pan Nikodem? Either is usually possible. This sort of interpretive game makes me all too aware of my inability to remember most Czech case endings, as if I could only remember these, I am sure I would immediately recognize much of what I’m looking at. The fact that Nezval constantly uses the instrumental singular (a case that I have next to no problem recalling) is helpful, but then, that is also relatively easy to figure out from context, whereas the accusative and locative can get tricky. (It would help if cases never—or on the other hand always—shared the same endings, and if words like “na” didn’t sometimes require one case and sometimes another.)
As regards little tricks to aid comprehension, it is also useful to know the names of books, and of minor characters who might pop up suddenly in the narrative. An illegible mess suddenly confesses to being “s Išou Krejčím”. Another one admits to being “s Nečasem” despite looking more like “p Nečere su”. Fortunately, I know that Vincenc Nečas cowrote a guide to Paris with Štyrský and Toyen (or, as Nezval would put it, “se Štyrským a s Toyen”), and Iša Krejčí has crossed my path a couple of times even though I am not quite sure who he was (possibly the same person as the Marxist journalist Jan Krejčí, who died in prison in 1941). On the other hand, for quite some time I thought Nezval was referring to Jaromír John when in fact he was writing “Jdu.” I don’t think I have ever before encountered someone who liked to keep the parts of the small letter “d” separate from one another. And, in fact, it appears that Jaromír John spent his time in cafés not usually frequented by Nezval, and probably had relatively few ties to the surrealists—although we cannot be too sure of that, as in 1930s Prague, anyone who was Anyone on the cultural scene does seem to have been at least acquainted with everyone else who was Someone. (On April 3, 1934, Nezval refers to going somewhere with Toyen and Brouk, where he was “forced” to sit with Konrád and an illegible person.)
Another issue in deciphering handwriting is, to be blunt, my level of tiredness. I don’t always do well when I first sit down with a Nezval diary, because I have to reacclimate myself, but within a few minutes I can usually figure out words that baffled me at the end of my last session. This means that it is best for me not to spend more than about four hours a day with Nezval, and other amusements (um, research areas!) must be pursued.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Random (or not so random) News

John tells me that he photocopied several hundred pages of archival material on his recent trip to Seattle, and that he’s very glad he went to the American Musicological Society meeting, where he heard some interesting talks and met quite a few people. He will not make it to Prague for Christmas, though.
My friend Milt Wolff recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday and then (as far as I know) went off to revisit Spain, which he does every so often. His autobiographical novel Another Hill, which I edited, is still available from University of Illinois Press.
Diane and Greg have reinstated comments on their blog now that it’s possible to avoid comment spam, so if you read something interesting there you can actually respond. Diane covers a wide variety of intriguing music (see link to right).
Phoenix the rabbit, victim of a brutal attack by an obviously seriously disturbed teenager in Northern California, has had a gruesome but not surprising new health complication but is otherwise recovering with astounding speed at the San Francisco/Marin County House Rabbit Society. To read more about him, and/or donate toward his and other rescued rabbits’ care, please visit the SF/Marin HRS web site at The case will be heard in the Solano County Juvenile Court, with the Deputy District Attorney seeking felony charges of animal abuse and torture. Phoenix will not, for obvious reasons, be available for adoption for some time, but many other Bay Area rabbits are in desperate need of homes due to animal shelter overcrowding, so if you can adopt or foster a rabbit there, contact His majesty king George was adopted from the House Rabbit Society quite a few years ago (Ms. Spots came to us via the Humane Society in Pittsburgh).

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Tracking the Site

Last week I took the bold step of installing a site tracker. I have mixed feelings about keeping tabs on who reads the blog, but rest assured that most of you are really quite anonymous. This is to say that I am sure, for example, that Kristen is my only reader in Moscow thus far. My reader(s) at University of Pittsburgh are not individually identifiable even though I suspect they are all in the History of Art and Architecture.
What I have learned in the several days the thing has been installed is that a surprising number of complete strangers do find their way to this blog. One of them, it is true, found the site by searching on the words “Calypso laundry machines.” I don’t suppose that reader found what s/he was looking for, but perhaps he or she obtained some enjoyment all the same. The reader who sought “film as meditation” is more likely to have found something of use, although you never know.
While a fair number of people have come to the blog from Kristen’s link and a few from Jesse’s (welcome and I hope you find it equally interesting), most of you are not shown as coming from a separate page, but rather have gone directly to my URL.
This is intriguing. Does this mean that random clicks on “next blog” show up the same as if you had bookmarked the site? Or does this mean that I have already built up a surprisingly international audience of what must be repeat visitors? (Readers have arrived from Australia, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands as well as the US and the Czech Republic.)
I really hadn’t imagined that very many unknown visitors would be finding their way here, but since you are apparently doing so, I am delighted and hope that you are enjoying my observations about Prague, surrealism, and other matters.
Finally, if you like this blog, I feel certain you will also enjoy those of Kristen, Jesse, Diane and Greg, and Geoff (see links at right). Their observations are also idiosyncratic, well written, and copiously illustrated.


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Václav Špála, Iva Bittová, and More Cafes

Even though my general impression is that Jesse and I spent most of the weekend eating and drinking (whether oatmeal, Czech dishes, Italian food, or still more coffee drinks and their accompaniments), it occurs to me that we did also get to the Václav Špála exhibition at the Moravské galerie v Brně and an Iva Bittová concert.

The Špála show closes November 27, but is described here with no pictures:
The concert was excellent, although we weren’t given programs (apparently there were none in existence). At intermission, I got to meet Jesse’s Czech tutor, who told me that she had adopted him (something I had already concluded). During and after the concert, we had the opportunity to contemplate the interesting variety of concert-going attire chosen by the audience members (one always hears that Czechs believe more strongly in dressing up for concerts and theater than Americans, but I am skeptical). I would say that most audience members had made some effort to dress up, but in many cases this was not really a success from an aesthetic perspective. Jesse argues that this problem could be solved if everyone simply wore a dark color, as in an orchestra, but I cannot agree with this. Many people (especially those who perceive the world in a primarily auditory manner) simply have no visual sense and will proceed to wear some sort of dreadful fabric cut in a manner that does not suit their body type. Many other people do have a well-developed visual sense but take pride in choosing the ugliest thing possible as an anti-aesthetic statement or an expression of their sense of humor. In the Czech Republic as in the US, one is more likely to see an attractively dressed audience at the theater than at a concert, just as the opera brings in a more expensively outfitted crowd overall.
Anyway, as Iva Bittová is internationally known, you can actually read about her in English at these and other web sites:
The Ectophiles’ Guide
Also, Jesse has now added a more in-depth discussion of the concert.
There are a fair number of cafes in Brno, so in between our cultural investigations (well, we did also mean to go to IKEA to look for bookcases but didn’t quite manage to drag ourselves there; the same could pretty much be said for the grocery store except that there are no bookcases there) we have sampled the cafe scene. One of these had very impressive looking ice creams, only I thought it was too wintry to indulge in those. We also went to an attractive little spot that seems to regard latte as a warm milk beverage with a soupcon of coffee flavoring (perhaps Videnská kava would have been the safer choice).
We were very satisfied with the Zemanová kávarna, which is a reconstruction of a functionalist cafe (designed by Bohuslav Fuchs in 1925) that was destroyed in 1964 when the opera house was built.

The weather in Brno proved to be colder than that in Prague; it snowed on Sunday night, prompting us to go up to the attic first thing in the morning and take photos from there. I also got some nice pictures of the snow from the kitchen window. There was a very attractive dusting of snow along the way between about Brno and Kutná Hora or thereabouts, but none to be seen in the vicinity of Prague.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

The Villa Tugendhat (mostly)

As an art historian, albeit not one who knows all that much about architecture, I felt that it behooved me to visit the Villa Tugendhat on one of my Brno excursions. Jesse had already seen it, but since he finds functionalist architecture interesting, I knew I would not lack for company, especially since he and Alex had recently tried to go but were turned away (presumably for not having made reservations).
The Villa Tugendhat is an extremely well-known house by Mies van der Rohe, built in one of Brno’s pleasant hillside neighborhoods for a wealthy Jewish couple 1928-30. (There is also a functionalist hospital, down the street, in case one just can’t get enough functionalism.)
We went there by tram after a nice walk through the woods and past a folkloric house not far from where Jesse lives; as it is on a different hill from where we started, the tram ride was educational in itself and cost 13Kč rather than the 8Kč that I have become used to spending in Brno. I did not take any pictures from the tram, but upon disembarking, I felt compelled to record the view of a large cooling tower.
(I don’t think it is visible from Villa Tugendhat, as the house faces another direction.)
Like many modernist houses, the Villa Tugendhat is set into the hillside and one could easily walk by it without especially noticing that there was anything of interest there. When Jesse drew my attention to the fact that we had arrived in front of it, I am afraid I pointed out that it reminded me forcibly of an abandoned bus station or some other disagreeable industrial ruin. Well, it did look like the sort of place that would attract winos if there weren’t a fence around it. I mean, if I were a wino I would be more attracted to someplace cozier, but cozy is not usually an option for the down-and-out. (I realize that all the architectural historians I know, as well as many who don’t, will now want to flay me.)
About ten of us gathered for the one o’clock tour, which was given in rapid Czech by a guide whose mode of delivery is in the monotone-with-end-of-sentence-drop-of-pitch style (as opposed to the more melodic version of the language that I hear is more typical of Prague). Initially, we milled around on the terrace, which struck me as strangely dreary despite the nice view. Jesse kept assuring me that the interior would be really great. We could see in through some large windows, so he informed me that the rooms were LARGE! And had CLOSETS! And there was WOOD! Well, I’ve seen lots of houses with large rooms and closets, so this didn’t impress me particularly. Jesse next resorted to telling me that the house had POTENTIAL. I refrained from telling him it looked like a fixer-up-er to me if I had ever seen one. After all, we weren’t in a position to buy it out of our stipend money.
The guide finally took us inside, which was an improvement. I was still unpleasantly reminded of all too many dreadful modernist houses that my parents had considered buying at various points in my childhood. Besides, the upstairs flooring was made from a type of stone often used on the outsides of communist-era Czech buildings, which always looks horribly insanitary to me. It has lots of blackish holes and must be hellish to wash. Jesse found the door handles very exciting, but I’m not sure why, since they looked like normal Czech door handles to me. (One can never share all one’s friends’ enthusiasms fully.) Fortunately, a large plant made the upstairs a little less stark. (I gather that nearly all the furniture disappeared after Fritz and Greta Tugendhat were obliged to flee Czechoslovakia.)
The downstairs featured a display of photos of the house with a certain amount of furniture, which did seem like a great necessity. And, at last, we were taken into the only area with any furnishings whatsoever. I viewed these with great relief. There is a library area with built-in shelving made from a striped Indonesian wood, which is separated from a living-room area by a wall of onyx. The weather was gloomy, so it merely looked like an unexpected choice of divider, but according to Jesse, the guide, and a photo, when the light is right the onyx is translucent and turns all sorts of dramatic shades of red. This must be quite astonishing, and I am willing to believe it is beautiful.
The living room faces a wall of glass, and therefore has a view over Brno (and the garden). With the right accoutrements, it would probably be quite stunning. Currently it has a selection of Barcelona chairs, which are at least authentic in style even if they do remind me of airport lounges and dentists’ waiting rooms. The specimens in question looked like much better quality Barcelona chairs than I have ever run into; it’s never good to see derivatives first. You could definitely see how, decked out properly, the house was once an impressive place to entertain.
Unfortunately, it’s obvious that (to use real-estate terminology) the Villa Tugendhat suffers from deferred maintenance. It gives the impression that no one has fixed anything since about 1938, although this is not strictly true. There are alarming structural-looking cracks in the exterior, the plaster is peeling away, and so forth. One can only hope that new funding succeeds in paying for repairs and restored furniture. It’s unquestionably an interesting building (even if in a style that often grates on me) and deserves to be seen at its best.
See the links below for attractive photos of the house.
Its website
World Monuments Fund

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Hospodářské noviny and the Case of the Roman Bikini

While nosing around Jesse’s kitchen this weekend, I noticed a copy of the Hospodářské noviny (Economic News) lurking atop the cupboard. I had always imagined Hospodářské noviny to look something like the Wall Street Journal, but instead it is a small four-color magazine-style publication. (Well, this part was.) This issue, to my astonishment, featured an elaborate castle on the cover, with the caption “Hluboká nad Vltavou: Filmový zámek.” I picked up the magazine in order to take a better look at the thing, and immediately found my attention diverted instead to a smaller heading entitled “Bikiny ze starého Říma.” Bikinis in ancient Rome?! What could this possibly have to do with economic news? The castle at Hluboká nad Vltavou could at least be considered to be attracting the film industry. But the mosaics in Sicily’s Villa Romana del Casale, while part of a UNESCO site, were described as telling a story of love in everyday life.
I had a good notion of which mosaic was involved, since I have seen a good many reproductions of Roman mosaics, but I could not imagine what it was doing in Hospodářské noviny, especially in the form of an ancient love story. I promptly turned to page 15 to find out.

First off, the main photo on the page is not of the “bikini”-clad Roman woman, but of a female clad primarily in jewelry. This seemed to me a remarkably Czech manner of illustrating an article about a UNESCO site, but still not what I would have expected from Hospodářské noviny—more like what one would find in the tabloid Blesk, should it ever happen to feature a Roman mosaic.
The first pull-quote (in red ink) indicated that Roman bikinis pose many questions, or at least are associated with questions (“Římské bikiny a plno otázek”). This seemed just bizarre to me—not that there might be questions about Romans or their clothing, but again, that Hospodářské noviny would be asking them.
I began to examine the text. The entire lead paragraph focused on how the modern bikini took the world by storm after World War II! The second paragraph then pointed out that the bikini has been around for a lot longer than that, because the most celebrated examples show “girls” (dívky) in Roman mosaics cavorting in two-piece outfits, and (in subsequent paragraphs) that beautiful women often appeared in Roman mosaics from the time of the caesars (presumably to divert people from their economic and political woes). The author of the piece ponders the Roman ideal of female beauty and refers to pictures of a “sportive type” of slender, muscular women with long hair and small round breasts (or you could translate the latter bit as “minute, globular boobs,” which I was initially tempted to do but which is probably less positive than what the author intended by “drobnými kulatými ňadry”).
I’m not sure, but I am inclined to think the author was inserting his own concept of ideal female beauty there. It’s true that the Roman ideal for women does not seem to have called for large breasts, but I have yet to see an image of an ancient Roman woman that struck me as muscular. More often, I would say that they are shown (when unclothed) with implausibly enlarged hips and buttocks that suggest this part of their anatomy had been artificially inflated (that is, not enlarged in the manner of persons who are by nature extensively endowed in this region, but maybe with the help of a bicycle pump). Then again, I don’t know how representative a sample the wall paintings at Pompeii and Herculaneum actually were. Perhaps they depict a subgroup or a subcultural interest, and the Sicilian bikini-women are more like the average imperial dancing girl.
There is a small amount of information in the article about the archaeology of the site, but mainly in regard to how the entire villa was buried in muck.
After I noticed that another front-page item in Hospodářské noviny related to golfing but was illustrated with an apparently bottomless female golfer (a larger photo of her on page 28 shows that she merely wears extremely low-cut pants), I concluded that Hospodářské noviny is indeed not the periodical I had been led to believe it was. Jesse confirmed this by assuring me that his impression had been that it seemed to feature the kind of articles we might have expected to find in Blesk; except, I suppose, for a more literate audience that doesn’t admit to watching reality TV. It’s not that I object to reading fluff about Romans in bikinis, I just have the puritanical American feeling that that level of journalism belongs in the travel sections of the more frivolous newspapers, or maybe in the pages of Cosmopolitan. (Note: I have since discovered that the section I found in the kitchen was from the paper’s “magazine” section.)
Unesco’s web site provides a more factual discussion of the mosaics, although not without reference to “bikini girls.” There are numerous photos of mosaics and other parts of the villa. Hospodářské noviny can be examined online as well as in Jesse's kitchen.

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Premiere of the New Švankmajer Film

I arrived in Brno Friday evening on a non-express bus that was, nevertheless, on time despite its feeling for about half the trip as though we were jolting along on a flat tire. (Some of you will recall that I got a flat tire in Wisconsin this summer and initially attributed the sensation to increasingly poor highway, which did indeed seem to begin the minute I crossed the border from Illinois. I am now very alert to abnormal bumpiness on the highway, although in California these days all roads feel in need of repaving.)
Bus issues aside, I arrived in time to have a quick dinner with Jesse and get to the local multiplex for the new Švankmajer film, Šílení (Lunatics). According to the theater, it was the premiere, but you would not have guessed this otherwise, as the theater was relatively empty and there were no festivities. Presumably the official premiere was occurring in Prague. (It occurred to me to wonder what that could have been like, considering that Eva Švankmajerová had just died and it is likely that Jan Švankmajer was not feeling especially celebratory.) And who knows, perhaps the inhabitants of Brno just don’t care for Švankmajer films. I don’t suppose that most people in any city do.
We, however, like to see weird films that most people don’t like. We don’t always like them either, but they do have to be seen. Well, some of them, anyway.
The Švankmajers are/were part of the postwar Czechoslovak surrealist group, indeed probably the members best-known abroad. When I tell people that I am working on Czech surrealism, their assumption (if they have ever heard of it in the first place) is that I must be studying the Švankmajers. Since I don’t actually know all that much about the postwar Czechoslovak surrealists (as opposed to the original interwar gang), the least I can do is try to familiarize myself with the Švankmajers’ large and significant oeuvre so that (at worst) I don’t look like a complete dummy and (at best) I can have a better understanding of the overall surrealist movement here. This means that I went to the major Švankmajer retrospective last summer (and probably spent much too long examining the grotesque assemblages made out of various bones and taxidermy animal parts) and that I welcome the chance to watch the couple’s (or just Jan Švankmajer’s) films. While the films are often a bit repulsive, they are also brilliant in their own inimitable way. I will not soon forget the experience of watching Otesanek during my August Czech course last summer. One of my classmates and I were repeatedly laughing uncontrollably at various lines or scenes (Otesanek is a relatively mainstream sort of Švankmajer film and can be shown to a general audience of people over ten), and one or two other people in the audience indicated that they had also liked it, but my impression was that most of the other students thought it was sick (the maternal instinct does not come off looking too good) and not to be mentioned in the same breath as that lovely, heartwarming film Želary that we had seen a week or two earlier. (Well, Želary is a pleasant enough romance, but the world is full of those, whereas Otesanek is in a class of its own.)
Thus, Jesse and I were not too sure what to expect since we had only seen brief previews for Šílení, but we both like Otesanek and find the short films pretty interesting, so it did seem we really ought to see this.
Šílení opens with a warning that there are only two ways of looking at the world, unless you take a third path that partakes of the extremes of both of the others and approach life as a lunatic.
In a nutshell, Šílení is the story of an unfortunate youth named Jean who has recurrent nightmares of porcine grinning asylum attendants coming for him with a strait-jacket. His mother, it transpires, has been a patient at Charentin. Jean lives to some extent in the twentieth century, but after one of his attacks makes the acquaintance of the Marquis de Sade, who takes a fancy to him. The Marquis insists on taking Jean out to his chateau (evidently not the Chateau de Silling but perhaps a reconstruction of Chateau La Coste), where Jean has some rather unsettling experiences. After the Marquis rises from the dead (or a cataleptic state) and tears the lid off his coffin, he takes Jean for a visit to the local insane asylum, the setting for the remainder of the film. Jean, who is goodhearted if not remarkably bright, ends up making what turn out to be (but might so easily not have been) some errors of judgment. (It should be noted that women are not necessarily trustworthy in this film.)
This little summary is, of course, leaving out the role of the animated pieces of raw meat that punctuate the various scenes to the sound of a fairground calliope. You can’t really have a Švankmajer film that lacks horrible foodstuffs or perverted relationships with food and/or body parts. But perhaps I will refrain from describing the antics of the raw meat, as most of my readers will already have been sufficiently disgusted and the rest will go and see the film for themselves.
This film is decidedly not for everyone. We noticed that a significant portion of the audience found early on that it was really too much for them, although anyone who has seen more than two or three other Švankmajer films ought to have no illusions that it might be cute or innocuous. Even people who liked Otesanek might find that Šílení is just too savage.
On the other hand, while it is not a film that most people would find enjoyable in the usual sense (it is hard to imagine not being uncomfortable at least now and then while watching it), it’s really very good in its horrible, uncompromising way. As might be expected from surrealist filmmakers, it is not about sadism (certainly not extolling it), but about human fears and anxieties in an unpredictable and often cruel world. The Marquis is an unpleasant and frightening character, but perhaps not the worst of the lot. The film does follow standard surrealist thought in theorizing him as an important and neglected Enlightenment philosopher. Not, perhaps, a very sane one, and certainly not one you really want to visit, but one who shouldn’t be ignored.
It’s a little weird listening to big chunks of Czech translations of the Marquis de Sade’s writing (and apparently also pieces from Huysmann, presumably used in the satanic scene) spewing relentlessly from the actor’s mouth, but then the character’s two main modes are harsh philosophical ranting and maniacal laughter. And, in a strange way, it works. The character is repulsive, but fascinating.
It’s also a bit unsettling to see the same actors in the main roles that one sees in lots of other Czech films—minus Boleslav Polivka, who probably has too lovable a persona to insert here—but that’s typical of the Czech film industry. I am terrible at keeping track of actors and their names, but even I can recognize that I’ve seen these people before, some in quite a selection of roles. In a way, it adds to the nightmarish quality to know that you’ve seen some of these people playing Nazis or troubled youth elsewhere.
Anyhow, it’s quite an interesting film.
Some links about the film (text in Czech):
Czech TV

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Friday, November 18, 2005

We Speak with Guests

On a visit to an antikvariat some weeks back, Jesse and I encountered a remarkable item that begged to be read aloud from and which I decided needed to be purchased. (I also bought an elderly postcard that shows the source of the Vltava as being a sort of drain spout appearing, in surrealist fashion, in the middle of a forest.)
Hovoříme s hostem is a small but thick book that gives English, French, Hungarian, German, Russian, and Spanish translations of various handy phrases. For example, with its aid I can tell my guests the likes of:
“Will you please have a look at our wine-list” or “Help yourself to the cutlery at the end of the serving line.”
I can also announce, “Excuse me, smoking is prohibited in here” and “No meat is served today.” After all, it’s important to let my guests know where I draw the line.
If guests want to borrow my phone, I can sternly say “You’ll get telephone tokens in the cloakroom.”
If I wish to draw their attention to the periodicals in the basket (see earlier post about Cosmopolitan) I can inquire “What magazines or newspapers can I bring you?” After all, I am sure that someone will want to read my old copies of Ateliér, and of course everyone who visits wants to see what Cosmo recommends to “Turn Him On Like Crazy.”
If I am feeling a little rushed and overwhelmed at the outset, I can say “Excuse me I’ll first set the table a bit.”
In certain circumstances, I might be obliged to tell a guest “A gentleman [lady] was asking for you. He [She] will call again at six.” This will be especially useful if I’m unsure of the gender of the caller, for instance if s/he provides evidence of hermaphroditism. (It’s always possible that one of my soirees might begin to resemble something out of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, although this has not happened thus far.)
If guests begin to seem restless, I can say “I recommend you to stay for a while, there’ll be some music.” Or, if their fidgeting appears to relate to an addiction of some kind, I can state “Here are the cigarettes and matches.” After all, there is a pack of ancient cigarettes out on the balcony that may as well get used up.
If the guests are very energetic, I can assure them that “There’ll be dance music from nine till two a.m.” After that point, when I may be starting to feel a trifle weary, I can inquire “Up to what time does dancing go on?” and, if they show no signs of ceasing their exertions, I can let them know that “You can switch to the club where they close as late as four a.m.”
Musically speaking, Jesse and I were interested to note that the translations in Hovoříme s hostem are not always entirely accurate. “Dnes večer vystupuje cimbálový soubor” is rendered into English as “Tonight there’s a performance of a cymbal group.” We are a little nervous at the thought of a group of crazed percussionists taking the place of the cimbalom band. I don’t think that “un ensemble de cymbaliers” is probably correct either, although I expect the Hungarians will be safe with their “cimbalmos-együttes.” (At least, I know that the együttes part can’t be too far wrong, as it is one of the only words I know in Hungarian.)
Once the guests have dealt with the cymbal or cimbalom group (presumably it would be in my living room), I can tell them “That’s the well-known singer K.” I’d like to know whether the English translation uses the form “K” as a tribute to Kafka, as the Czech, Hungarian, German, Russian, and Spanish refer to “Krosnová” (not a singer I have heard of). The French apparently require greater detail, as they are told she is “Irène.” Why she will be crashing my party is another matter entirely.
As things wind down, I can say “We serve six special kinds of coffee” and “I can recommend you this fruit gateau.” Being an obliging hostess, I can add “Of course you can have whipped cream,” as I have the use of a high-tech mixer that has already aroused great interest among my guests. Furthermore (perhaps a little late in the game), I can state “Sorry, drivers mustn’t be served alcoholic drinks.”
If it seems to me that financial remuneration would be desirable for my services, I will be able to tell guests “I’ll have your bill made out.” If I wish to be picky (or they are waving 1000Kč notes at me), I can ask “Have you got small change please?” If I wish to be really, really picky, I can demand to know “How many crescents or rolls did you have?” It may, however, be necessary in some cases to state “I’m afraid we can’t exchange your money” (if they attempt to pay in Monopoly bills or Transnistrian currency).
Likewise, if I wish to make it clear that I am not too inebriated to have noticed that they are total strangers who wandered in off the street, I can say “I didn’t catch your name. Would you write it down for me please.” If they balk, I can say “Will you please show me your passport.” (You never know when that sort of information will come in handy, or for that matter who might be interested in purchasing the passports.) When I withhold the passport for later sale, I can say, first, “I’ll return the passport in a minute, as soon as I’ve filled in the registration form,” and then, when the gate-crashers get nervous, “You’ll get your passport again in about half an hour” or, better yet, “You’ll get your passport at the porter’s lodge tomorrow morning.”
On the other hand, if my guests are especially good company, I can announce “I can offer you a single room with extra bed” or “I can offer you one of our best rooms.” (I don’t know where the extra bed would come from, but I gather that my couch is a very desirable berth.) If I can’t remember how many people I am already housing, I can say “I’ll have a look which room is still free,” which will give me an excuse to see what everyone is up to in the other rooms. I can then say “Yes, we’ve still some free beds,” meaning that everyone else is passed out in the tub, smoking on the balcony, or is having sex on the kitchen table (see Jesse’s report on the IKEA survey regarding the latter). If I feel extremely obliging, I can say “I’ll gladly help you unpack your luggage” or even “You can ring the bell whenever you need, there’s night service here.” After all that night service, to be sure, I might be obliged to promise “Tomorrow your clothes will be in order again.”
If need be, I can say “We’ve prepared 25 rooms for your group,” although I am not certain where these rooms would be. Perhaps tents could be erected on the hill behind my building. If things get that elaborate, I might have to say “Here is a breakfast voucher worth twelve crowns.” Or, more realistically, I could admit “I’m afraid I can’t accommodate the whole party at one place.”
If I should happen to fall in love with a guest (zamilovat), I might be so bold as to state “Our employee will take you to the aliens’ department and they’ll prolong the validity of your visa.” (As I have no employees, this would be a complete fiction, but when one is in love, the truth is sometimes a little flexible, ie one offers the moon whether or not it is actually available. Or so I’m told.)
If I decide to put my guests to work, I will be able to say “My shirt needs washing and ironing,” “Could you sew on this button,” and “Can you prepare a bath for me?”
If there is some question as to whether my guests plan to move in permanently, I can delicately inquire “How long do you intend to stay?” Or I can suggest “You’ll get all information about accommodation facilities at the Čedok travel agency.” (Čedok has survived over eighty years, through capitalism, communism, and more capitalism, so they must know something by this time.) If the guests are obdurate, I could say “We’ll try to get the air-ticket for you immediately” and follow that up with “The plane takes off at 13.30.”
If my guests (or I) are beginning to hallucinate, I might find myself saying things like “Here is the fishing licence valid for a week” or “For your children, we’ve got sleds here.” I might also proclaim that “The porter will get you the deckchairs and the parasol,” “The elevated construction for washing cars is behind building number three,” or “Of course, meetings with young sportsmen can also be arranged for, either by the Czechoslovak Youth Travel Agency or the Sport-Turist.”
If I have really lost my mind I might say “I can recommend you jugged hare in cream sauce.” (This, however, is not bloody likely!)
Eventually, I might decide that “I’d like to go to a nice bungalow camp for a few days,” or I might find myself asking “How much is a seven-day trip in southern Slovakia?”
Then again, perhaps I would merely state, “I should like one first class ticket for the express to Brno.” Let Jesse have guests for a change. After all, there is more room on his kitchen floor for the orgiastic guests; my own kitchen table might actually be from IKEA (although it looks of higher quality) and might not stand up to the rigorous use of all these hypothetical guests who would be eager to show IKEA that Czechs (and other nationalities) really do go at it in the kitchen. I could sleep on the special guest mattress (I have forgotten whether it came from IKEA or Tesco), experience again the amazing scalding water from the Karma heater, and finally have a cimbalom lesson and visit the Václav Špála exhibition. If no other guests show up to take over the kitchen, a relaxing weekend could conceivably be had.
(Hovoříme s hostem was compiled by Antonín Žižkovský, Jiří Čech, and Jiří Krupička, and sold for 24 Kč in 1983. Due to capitalist inflation, I had to pay 78 Kč for the gently used, somewhat yellowing copy that is now sitting on my couch.)

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Kinsey in Czech

Brno and Prague are currently holding their sixth annual Mezipatra gay and lesbian film festival. It is a little hard to tell from the program how many (if any) of the films are actually Czech, but it is clearly an international selection, with offerings from the United States, Britain, France, Spain, and Finland, among others. Everything is shown in the original language, with either Czech subtitles or simultaneous translation.
It does occur to me that the Czechs may be reluctant to include items from their apparently large gay porn industry; perhaps this is because Czech gay-porn actors are busy telling the world that they're actually heterosexual and only in it for the money, but more likely the festival is trying to emphasize films with... ahem... some artistic and narrative content. Then again, maybe it has something to do with the assurances the porn actors get that the films will only be shown outside the Czech Republic, where Grandma and the guys at the pub might not see them (although as I gather they are mostly for internet use, I don't see why Grandma and friends couldn't download them).
Not knowing anything about most of the films beyond whether their content was a) lesbian, b) gay, c) trans, or d) other (whatever that might mean), thus far I have only gotten around to seeing Kinsey, which I had sort of meant to see in the US and (as usual) was too sluggish to get to.

Oddly, the festival categorizes Kinsey as a gay film, although surely it must be one that really falls under the rubric of “other.” However, it is certainly gay-friendly, and I suppose it can’t really be said to have much lesbian or any transgender material. More importantly, it’s a good movie that I can recommend to all except the resolutely puritanical (although I am certain they would benefit the most from seeing it). It is a biographical film that also manages to convey a considerable amount about the research for which Kinsey and his team became famous. Well scripted, sympathetically acted, and with attractive cinematography, it succeeds both as entertainment and education. (And now I know why the Kinsey library/archive is at University of Indiana.) Go see it, or, more to the point this year (it came out in 2004), rent it.
While it played in Světozor’s larger hall, the audience was not all that big. This was probably because it showed at 5:30 and is probably easier to find in video stores than the other films. When we got out, there was a crowd waiting to get into the theater for the next film.
Being the sort of person whose eye immediately goes to the printed word, I found myself reading the Czech subtitles while listening to the English dialogue. While this was good practice and useful, I don’t seem to have learned any new vocabulary (it was too dark to write anything down), although I did notice that a word I did not recognize was employed where I expected to see a form of “mrdat.” The only vocabulary that really stuck in my mind was when I noticed that “horse” was translated as “kráva” rather than “kůň.” At the time, my only thought was that this was a peculiar error to make. Subsequently, however, it occurred to me that the translator was actually doing a good job. In English, the interviewee says he had sex with whores but due to his accent the interviewer mistakes this for a horse. In Czech, it would make sense to substitute “kráva” (cow) because it sounds more like “kurva” (whore).
One of the things I especially liked about the film was the portrayal of Kinsey’s solid and enduring partnership with his wife. If their marriage at all resembled the film depiction, they must have been quite a pair and lucky to have one another.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Why I Don’t Yet Skype

Skype is a technology well known among the recently well-traveled, but which does not seem to be making much headway among stay-at-home Americans. In brief, if one has Skype—which is free to download—one can make free calls to other Skype users, merely by getting on the internet and plugging in a headset. In other words, you can call anywhere in the world for the price of a local call.
The difficulty seems to lie in getting people on the other end to get with the program. True, we can pay the Skype people a little to call ordinary telephones, but why would we want to do that when Skype-to-Skype is free?
Several people have assured me that Skype works splendidly and that they use it all the time to call husbands in Italy or friends in the US, but I have yet to experience this (though in part because I only recently received the password for my new cheap internet service). Weeks ago, when Jesse got internet access, we decided to test our Skype skills, as presumably this would be easier between Prague and Brno (same time zone) than transatlantically. We plugged in our headsets. We went online. The connection was made. … and then it broke off. And was made… and broken off. After about twenty minutes of this, we decided that there were some technical difficulties on the Brno end. As far as we can tell, these relate to the type of internet connection there, which is a little unstable.
It seems clear that I can use Skype from my apartment, but since everyone I know who has it is nearby, I have not yet experienced a Skype call that lasted more than two minutes, and if that’s all that a call is going to last, there is not much reason to use Skype. Skype is for leisurely conversation, not “Hi, I’ll be over in half an hour.”
So if you register on Skype, let me know or I probably won’t call.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mosaic of Life

As a change from things about Prague, take a look at Mosaic of Life, a neat blog (one of several, in fact) put together by Clearbrook. I discovered her blogs when I added "house rabbits" to my blog's list of interests as she too has house rabbits (Frodo and Samwise). I find it extremely refreshing to find someone with her unusual mix of interests and passions, which include art, Celtic music, ecology, leftist politics, and Christianity. I love her list of desired bumperstickers:
Proud Member of the Religious Left • I support the separation of Church and Hate • When Jesus said "Love Your Enemies" He didn't mean "Kill Them!" • God wants Spiritual Fruits, Not Religious Nuts • "You must be the change you want to see in the world" - Gandhi • "Blessed Are The Peacemakers" - Jesus • I believe evolution is one of God's creations! • Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8 • Pro-Life does NOT end at birth
So, stop by her blog and say hi!


Czech Language and Gender (in a sense), Plus More Cafés

One of the feast invitees who was unable to attend was Jesse’s friend Carmé (I hope I am spelling her name right), who lives in Olomouc but was in town for the weekend visiting friends and apartment-hunting. We met up with her and her friends for lunch on Sunday. Carmé hails from Valencia but speaks excellent Czech (the first Spanish Czech-speaker I had met whose Czech I could understand, although her pronunciation does have some minor quirks); she teaches Spanish. Her friend Sabine is German but speaks Czech well, and Ondra is actually Czech. Thus, our entire conversation was in Czech apart from the occasional phrase of English or German. It was very comprehensible to me, but I was not really energetic enough to say much myself.

We dined (if one could call it that) at what I think was the Café Indigo on Platnerska 11 (there is not enough online about this café to be sure I am remembering correctly). While the décor is bare-bones in most respects, it has a striking selection of contemporary art, of which I should have photographed the gory bas-relief of dismantled baby-dolls. Fate had clearly led us there, however: the first poster inside the door was for a long-past retrospective exhibition of Toyen and Štyrský’s artificialist work. Furthermore, when I went downstairs, I discovered that the women’s restroom is identified by a photograph of Toyen.
If a similar photo of Štyrský once adorned the men’s, it is now lost and men have no visual aid of any sort. To be sure, as Jesse pointed out, using Toyen to identify the women’s restroom could be considered a little confusing for those who like their gender roles to be firmly defined.
Following our meal, we headed for the Literární kávarna, another of those fine present-day Prague cafés about which I have not really written yet. Our purpose there, besides that of drinking coffee, was to meet up with additional friends of Carmé. We took up a good part of the room and I was greatly impressed to meet so many non-Czechs who spoke Czech so well. People don’t usually think of the Czech language as a lingua franca, especially when the majority of the people in the room speaking it are native speakers of Spanish, English, and German, but perhaps we are the wave of the future. English will become a business-only language and Czech will become the common language of arts and humanities people. (And now repeat after me: Strč prst skrz krk! And after that, say the one about the ostriches, which I can no longer remember.)
Like the Prague surrealists, however, we could not really quite bring ourselves to stay in the same café (or even just two cafés) all afternoon. Jesse and I went wandering off trying to locate a café formerly frequented by the German population, which apparently has impressive tilework. The fact that we didn’t know its name or exact location was not helpful; I thought it might be the Arco, but we now think it is a different one (alas, I have forgotten the name, although we found some photos online later. Our attempts to look up the Arco online were, interestingly, complicated by the existence of the Arco Guesthouse, which is mentioned in countless guides to gay Prague. This intrigued us greatly but was not of much use in our quest.)
Unable to find the café in question, although it was not far from us, we removed ourselves to Kino Aero in order to see the Toyen film (my second viewing). There was a good-sized crowd, but we were able to get tickets. Sadly, the shorts shown before the feature did not include the hilarious old ads for soap and knedliky that were shown the night I saw Don’t Come Knocking. However, we did get to see a most remarkable item in which a man has an extended sexual encounter with a mannequin as the two go up and down (and up and down) in an elevator. The mannequin ultimately got the worst of it, so I suppose one could try to claim that it was a parable of sorts, but I am not sure that I would go so far as to say it really functioned as a critique of male-female relations.
I was very much looking forward to seeing the Toyen film again, as I was hoping to follow more of the script and just generally absorb more. To some extent I was able to do this, but overall I did not come to any new or different conclusions about the film; on the contrary, my original impressions stuck. Jesse and I pondered the film and related issues at length afterwards in the kino bar/café and then down the street at the Zaležitost. While he admits to knowing little about Toyen other than what I have mentioned in conversation, he too thought the film centered more on Heisler (and the Kalandra trial) and that it gave the impression that Toyen’s life revolved around Heisler and effectively ended with his death.
This led us eventually (in not all that convoluted a fashion) to the ever-fascinating topic of why Czechs are determined to believe that their gay porn stars are nearly all heterosexual, yet they are so reluctant to explore the economic and class factors that might actually factor into the matter. (See Lidové noviny and, in English,Český rozhlas for our sources.) We have our own opinions about this, of course. (What, there are different classes in the Czech Republic? Not every region is thriving like Prague and Brno? Not all Czechs are solidly heterosexual? )
Perhaps one or the other of us will explore the topic further at another time, especially if the Czech media keep publishing less-than-informative stories on it.


Monday, November 14, 2005

And Now We Celebrate

After much agony over not just the wording of my two latest grant applications but also over missing transcripts and pieces that just didn’t want to cross the Atlantic as e-mail attachments, the maddening things are on their way. As my advisor wrote, “OK, you may now unchain yourself from your computer. I have everything […] You owe me a nice drink when you win your fellowship!” Since she indicated I could celebrate, I immediately took this at face value.
In the meantime, Jesse was feeling bored in Brno and had acquired soi-disant pumpkins from his tutor, so he promptly invited several people to come dine at my apartment. Initially, we merely thought we would try to replicate our previous baking success using the pumpkins instead of plums.
We did not think these particular Czech pumpkins particularly resembled the American kind (although we had noted that American-style pumpkins are grown in the fields of southern Moravia and are rampant in store display windows), but I had read that canned pumpkin pie filling is made from all sorts of orange squashes and not just from actual pumpkins, so a pie made with some sort of squash alleged-to-be-pumpkin ought to work. Consequently, bright and early on Saturday morning (or, more accurately, after a leisurely breakfast and consultation with the cookbook) we took off for the Nový Smíchov mall, where there is a particularly well-stocked supermarket (possibly even a hypermarket). Spices and evaporated milk were the main items on our list, and our visits to the Modrá Mlekarna around the corner (which could be called the Nemlekarna in light of its small dairy section) had not made us confident of finding such obscure things there.

It is not hard to find spices at a well-stocked store here, but finding the desired ones in the desired form is more of a challenge. We immediately located the cinnamon, but nutmeg and cloves were more of a problem as we didn’t really care to grind our own. It turned out that the store had (at least) two spice sections, but this was not immediately helpful. We also had to resort to a small dictionary in order to make sure that we were correctly identifying our choices. As you can see, most Czech spices come in packets rather than bottles or cans, so I hope these will not lose their strength before I can use them up.

Evaporated milk was also something of a challenge. It was no problem to find something of the kind, but we were unsure whether it was evaporated or condensed. We read the labels on numerous cans and bottles of thickened (or inspissated, as the dictionary translated the term) milk products and decided to bring back a collection of the most interestingly packaged unsweetened varieties. With less difficulty, we also snagged a container of whipping cream (we knew what that was without having to ask).
Brown sugar is an important American baking ingredient, but not one known to Czech cooks, to our sorrow (neither is molasses). Still, Jesse claimed he had found some in the health food section in Brno, so we tried the health food section in Nový Smíchov. We could have bought plenty of artificial sweetener, along with many more appealing items, but the closest thing to brown sugar was something that faintly resembled Sugar in the Raw. We bought a sack. (Back at the apartment, we discovered the remains of a box of something called Granulated Brown Sugar, a truly odd product that I am still not sure wasn’t insect droppings, although we did put it in the pie.)
While at the store, we decided that leek and potato soup would be a desirable addition to the menu, although we still had no idea whether any of the invitees were going to come. We were also rather taken with the mall’s florist shop, so I bought something that we speculate might be a bromeliad of some kind. After all, Sandra’s plants are all about the same dark green color and have no blossoms.

We then spent the remainder of the afternoon making pie and soup.
Everything seemed to come together very nicely despite our having to re-learn how to use the oven and despite the fact that we were following the recipes only in a very loose fashion, as will be evident from the photos. In the late afternoon, Hubert arrived.
Since he assisted in stirring the soup, we have agreed to grant him partial authorship, although probably in the form of an asterisked note rather than as Third Co-Author.
Alex and Tom got somewhat lost on their way over but brought several bottles of wine and a couple of DVDs of Švankmajer and other films. Since Alex is a filmmaker, she was determined to add to the documentary footage of our feast and has immortalized not only the antics of the chefs but also the electric mixer, the bowl of whipped cream, and a slice of bread and butter. (I have chosen to post only the photos most likely to interest a broader readership.)

After happily gorging ourselves, the five of us settled in the living room to watch Švankmajer short films and ultimately to see Nuda v Brně in its entirety with Jesse providing a simultaneous translation of all of the dialog (or, in some cases, before the actors had a chance to say their lines). Now that I have seen Nuda v Brně, I cannot say that I agree with Věra that everything by Moravek is much of a muchness. It’s true that you can tell Nuda v Brně and Hrubeš a Mareš are by the same director, but I found both of them quite worthwhile.
In any case, there was general agreement that both the films and the autumn feast were definitely worthwhile. (Note "rabbit ears" made from leftover leeks.)

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