Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Archive in January

Lest you think that I have ceased spending any time at the library or the archive in favor of gadding about to dentists and ballrooms, let me state that while my hours in libraries and archives have temporarily slacked off (there were holidays, it has been cold, I have had some bouts of feeling unwell), my laptop and I are still to be found at a long wooden desk pretty regularly. Between the dentist and a week’s closure of the Památník národního písemnictví, I have not been up to Strahov much lately, but on Monday I took Dawn up there and resumed reading about the 1936 Karel Janský-Bohuslav Brouk lawsuit while Dawn made preliminary arrangements to work on the newly acquired Libuše Moniková fond.
I am glad that the people whose materials I work on have been dead awhile. Some of them have not been dead all that long, and it is true that I would have liked to meet most of them, but thus far I have not run into any restrictions or had to sign any special paperwork in order to read their papers. Moniková, however, has only been dead a few years, so Dawn has to get permission from the widower (fortunately, someone she already knows). I assured her that while this is a nuisance, it is not unusual in regard to the papers of the recently deceased. Nor is it unusual for correspondence to have been returned to the still-living person who originally wrote it.
Perhaps, of course, this sort of thing also applies to the materials I work with, and I simply don’t know how much correspondence is absent.
In the case of the lawsuit, however, I don’t think there is any missing correspondence. Strictly speaking, it is not very closely related to my dissertation in the first place, but I will look at pretty much anything that is informative about the lives, habits, and ideas of the interwar avant-garde. You never know what might pop up. Toyen sent Janský postcards and of course she knew Brouk quite well.
Besides, the folder includes a charming sample of 1936 tabloid journalism. Much more restrained than the present-day variety, it lets its readers know that Ani labuť, ani Lůna (the subject of the lawsuit) reveals the “Sadistický původ Máje: Fantomy sexuálních perversí v Máchově poesii.” I don’t know whether present-day tabloid readers are even interested in whether famous Romantic poets had an Oedipus or castration complex, but Telegraf found this almost as interesting as the latest murder.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Volunteering in Stricken New Orleans

My friend Barbara, whom I met at language school in Prague in 2004, recently had the opportunity to go down to New Orleans with a hurricane cleanup crew. She has posted an illustrated account of her trip: new orleans. Since I've been out of the US since September and not really keeping track of things there, it was something of a shock to see how slowly the cleanup efforts are really proceeding. So do take a look at Barbara's account of work on just one woman's house, and if you can, lend a hand.

New Scarves for All

I have felt a nagging awareness that, although I do knit, nothing I’ve made has appeared on this blog.
This may be because, unlike my usual holiday and/or conference mode of production, I have only completed one item since coming to the Czech Republic. It’s a scarf I gave Štěpanka for Christmas. Like many scarves I’ve made in the last few years, it’s knit in Eros yarn using garter stitch on size 13 needles, but it’s the first triangular one I’ve done. Somehow it didn’t end up quite as triangular looking as I had in mind… Perhaps I should stick to long rectangles. They require next to no thought.

On the knitting topic, however, alert readers will have noticed a Russian Orenburg lace shawl on my shoulders in recent photos. This was a gift from Kristen, who sent it from Moscow. I have to admit that neither of us is quite up to the challenge of knitting our own orenburg patterns yet, but you can see the pattern better on the one Kristen bought herself (I couldn’t find a good dark background to hang mine against for this photo).
Jesse also got a handsome handknit scarf for Christmas from a friend in the US, but I failed to photograph it, although I would like to try making one like it. It’s a brownish-gray wool with a garter stitch border and a slanting repeat pattern in the middle.

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Scottish Dancing in Prague (or not)

On Saturday, Megan and I were really inclined to spend the day napping and drinking tea, and just possibly getting ourselves to the postcard museum, but the existence of a large pile of unwashed dishes and the fact that Štěpanka would be arriving in the afternoon forced us into a sluggish form of action, which is to say that we washed most of the dishes and I made an omelet. We were reasonably coherent by the time Štěpanka rang the bell.
As I may have noted earlier, Štěpanka had developed a longing to attend the 10th anniversary gala ball put on by her son Michael’s school, and prevailed upon me to go with her. Tickets were much more expensive than the ball in Brno, but we were attracted by the fact that there would be lessons in Scottish dance (the school being the English International School). Štěpanka had wonderful memories of a previous experience with Scottish dance, and I had never done anything like it, so we thought that a dance for an international group of parents ought to be a suitable opportunity, in that doubtless there would be plenty of potential partners and we would be taught the steps.
The said ball was held at the Corinthia Towers Hotel next to the Vyšehrad station, a glamorous sort of place which I remembered from Communist times as the Hotel Forum (not that I had actually ever gone there then). We arrived somewhat early in order to have a chance to look around, which enabled us to find out that the hotel plays Norah Jones in the restrooms. Štěpanka, who is quite fond of Norah Jones, was miffed that one of her favorite singers should be used as a kind of muzak. Personally, I thought that the placement of mirrors in the stalls was somewhat peculiar.
Once we ascended to the top floor, we were photographed and greeted with champagne and hors d’oeuvres. In fact, there were so many hors d’oeuvres that we really did not need any supper afterwards, despite our having turned down quite a few offers of more hors d’oeuvres. (This is better than not enough of them, however.) We spent awhile looking out at the city and pondering whether it was more likely that we would see someone commit suicide off the Nusle bridge or that a terrorist plane would fly into the hotel. While I am sure that the former was vastly more likely even on a cold January night, we were spared the sight. As for the latter, I pointed out that there was not much reason to expect anyone to target the Corinthia Towers, even if they did know that they could thus kill off the staff and parents of the English International School.
Our table proved to be mildly unusual, in that the seating chart suggested it would get nearly all the Czech parents, while in practice half of its population was missing. Our companions were a Czech-Indian couple and a Russian, all of whom were pleasant enough. As far as I know, our table had the only guests who spoke Czech to the waiters.
The food was pretty good, as large catered dinners go, and there were auctions of various goods and services, none of which we chose to bid on since the entrance tickets were as much as we could handle financially. Other guests, however, gleefully bid up startling sums.
The band came on, in kilts and all, and began to play extremely lively music that made us immediately want to dance. No one, however, made any move to dance until several numbers had been performed and the dance instructors came forward. At that point, several couples went up.
While the level of skill shown by the learners did not match the smooth and unproblematic style shown by the dancers at the Brno ball, and there were a good many stumbles and wrong moves, all the same the parent group did an impressive job. The Scottish dances were more complex than your basic waltz or polka (some of them incorporated a polka in the middle), and it was clear that overall this was a group with considerable experience dancing. They were quite nimble on their feet, danced with a lively air and great good cheer, and picked up the steps with astonishing rapidity. (There were lessons in a good many different dances during the evening.)
Unfortunately, all of the dances were for male-female couples and it did not seem to occur to any of the males that there were unaccompanied women waiting to dance. While the dancers clearly enjoyed themselves, we were surprised and dismayed to find that no one danced unless there had just been a lesson, no one danced anything other than the dance just taught, and no one danced as anything but a male-female couple. This meant that Štěpanka, I, and our Russian tablemate sat watching for a good while hoping to dance, until finally we concluded that no one was going to ask us, we were not bold enough to go on as a trio, and it was just too tantalizing to listen to such good music while everyone else cavorted about.
So, we gave up and departed.
There’s a folkloric ball in Brno next week. Perhaps there will be a sizable Fulbright contingent in attendance.

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A New Fulbright Semester

Your Prague correspondent has continued to have a hectic schedule, which ought to die down for the next week or so, as the Fulbright midyear conference is coming up and everyone has to come up with some sort of presentation. There is some uncertainty just what is wanted, but those of us who do research will probably come up with some sort of introductory, yet relatively scholarly, talks about our topics. Of course, some of us will already know exactly what others are going to say; I’ve already read a draft of Dawn’s talk and have a pretty good idea what Jesse will say.
This midyear conference, to be held in Moravia, is a joint effort of the Czech and Slovak Fulbright groups, and includes both grantees who are spending the entire academic year and those who are just now arriving. Since my grant is Fulbright-Hays rather than Fulbright, my attendance is optional, but it is always a good idea to do presentations on one’s research, and I assume the conference will be enjoyable overall.
With the influx of new grantees, none of whom will get more than a couple of hours’ worth of orientation at the conference, and whose past experience in the Czech Republic might be nil, it seemed only reasonable that we should do something to welcome them. This ended up being a Friday night dinner at my place.
Naturally, not all of the continuing or incoming grantees could come, but we still managed to have a full house (my apartment is not all that large). I was not in an adventurous mode in the kitchen this time, so I settled for a reprise of leek and potato soup with yet more roasted vegetables. Dawn had leftover taco fixings from her birthday party, so we also had tacos, and Megan attempted to make hummus without benefit of a food processor (it tasted perfectly fine, it merely had an unusual texture). Alex supplied an aromatic Czech rum for grog. And, while we didn’t force our new companions to bring anything, we didn’t refuse their kind offerings.
A fine time was had by all, and we’ve now made the acquaintance of Susan, Peg and her husband Russ, and Nathan. David, whom we met at the December meeting, also came, and Kelly attempted to come but ran into difficulties, so we’ll have to meet him later.
Afterwards, Alex persuaded Megan and me that we should go find her friend Tom and go to Palác Akropolis, a club in Žižkov. Tom claimed that he had been there when it had good reggae bands, but there was nothing of the sort on Friday. The recorded music did not impress any of us greatly, so before long Megan and I gave up on this form of entertainment and caught a cab back to my place, where we regarded the pile of dishes with great distaste.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Taking the (Yellow) Bus

One undertakes intercity travel in the Czech Republic by train or by bus (well, unless one has a car, but that’s another matter). I have always been fonder of trains than buses, but while the trains here go to a great many places, lower prices and the ability to stop practically anywhere have made the bus more popular among Czechs.
Until recently, taking the bus meant taking a ČSAD bus. These go back and forth from main and subsidiary bus stations in Prague to other large cities and out into the countryside to extremely small villages. For example, while Uterý is considered a village and is the endpoint of a route from Plzeň, it looks like a metropolis in comparison with the village of Frantoly, which is also served by a bus… well, now and then. Let’s just say that when John and I visited Frantoly a couple of years ago to see where his family had come from, we decided that the bus didn’t go often enough and we could walk the 10km from Prachatice. But we got to Prachatice by bus. Small villages like Frantoly tend to be served on weekends by something like an incoming bus on Friday or Saturday and an outgoing bus on Sunday.
The ČSAD buses are not bad. They are utilitarian buses that get you where you are going, as a rule. Often the front of the bus is festooned with the driver’s collection of stickers, photos, and stuffed animals, so that you can immediately see whether he is more interested in his wife and kids, pinup girls, or characters from Warner Brothers cartoons. (To be sure, often he has all three categories, along with some plastic flowers.) People who ride a given bus regularly know the drivers and can tell you that they went to school with him or that he is always in a bad mood. During portions of the drive, the driver will usually play his favorite radio station. I assume it must be illegal to play it during the entire trip.
In Prague, one generally gets a ČSAD bus by going to the Florenc station and either perusing the long and complex schedules or by going up to the window and boldly requesting a ticket. (Usually I like to check the schedule first.) For that matter, often one simply waits for the bus and pays the driver, but this is unwise at busy times.
These days, it’s possible to ignore the posted schedule and go to a computer kiosk with a touch screen. As the touch screen can be rather picky, I find that an even better option is to check the schedules online before leaving home. Czechs who travel certain bus routes often, however, tend to know the exact number of the bus, its departure time, and its stanice number (where it sits in the station).
Despite the fact that everything is really quite well organized, bus travel is rather daunting for the uninitiated. After all, there are all those uncertainties. Knowing whether it is better to get a reserved seat or to pay the driver, where exactly one’s reserved seat is located or if it can be anywhere, and of course the matter of knowing where to get off, are always a bit problematic. There was the time, for instance, when I took the bus to Kutná Hora to visit friends. I had been there before, and I informed the driver in advance that I would be getting off at the Nemocnice stop. Well, this bus stopped numerous times in the middle of nowhere, causing it to take much longer than the schedule indicated, but the driver did not stop at Nemocnice. When I realized we had passed it, and inquired about it, he said it was “pryč.” Gone??? Surely the hospital stop had not been abolished? I had to walk quite a ways uphill in sweltering heat, hoping to recognize the house.
These days, however, ČSAD has a competitor on some of the big routes: Student Agency, which runs luxurious yellow buses with a great many amenities. Buses between Czech cities are only a part of Student Agency’s offerings, but they are perhaps the most noticeable aspect. Travelers going between Prague and Brno, or Prague and Plzeň, and now between Prague and Ostrava, are eager to get reservations on these buses. The seats are comfortable, there are free hot beverages and newspapers, there are movies and TV shows to watch, and the price is low.
What sort of entertainment is shown? Well, on the Prague-Plzeň line one usually gets the American sitcom “Friends” with Czech subtitles. This seems to be very popular, although I confess that a few episodes of it were more than enough for me. The buses between Prague and Brno have time to show actual movies, usually Czech films with English subtitles, and I have concluded that this is an excellent thing. The first one I saw, which I didn’t listen to but became somewhat interested in, was a comedy from the 1970s about two families at a ski resort. While it didn’t look like something I would bother to buy on DVD, I would watch it again on the bus and pay closer attention.
The next film I recall seeing on the bus was a comedy set around 1900 and involving a pair of policemen. I was enjoying this when traffic came to a standstill and for some reason so did the film. The audio continued to function, but the picture never really fully returned, so I gave up, as much of the humor involved visual things like a mechanical replica of the elder policeman.
A third film, another seventies offering, was all about three families whose men always take a vacation from domesticity, and how this time their wives got them to take all six of the kids. While this movie certainly had many individual comic moments, and I did laugh a fair amount, I found the pervasive gender stereotypes oppressive to watch. I can usually tolerate quite a bit of that kind of thing without getting annoyed, but perhaps only in either more subtle forms or when less of the humor depends on finding these stereotypes natural. I suppose I also don’t have a great interest in films that use children as a comic device in themselves. If there are going to be children in a film, I prefer to see things more from their own point of view, rather than having a cavalcade of adult-directed jokes about their stinky diapers, their inability to change their own shoes or bathe themselves, their juvenile love stories, and so on. The children in this film were individualized only in terms of which ones were regarded as stupidest, smelliest, or most inept by the three fathers, while at the same time the viewer was clearly expected to find the children adorable simply because they were little. Yuck.
I have not been good at getting the titles of these films, as while they are starting up, I am usually trying to get my headphones plugged in and the sound adjusted properly. Fortunately, I did find out the titles to the two best films I have seen on the bus.
Což takhle dát si špenát was another seventies-era comedy, which involves a couple of minor crooks who get involved with a rejuvenating machine meant for cattle. While I don’t know that I would call this a cinematic great, I enjoyed it thoroughly from start to finish. It’s really silly in the good sense. Or perhaps it was just what I was in the mood for that day. Unfortunately the DVD is currently 549Kč at Bonton, which is more than I am willing to pay.
Kdo chce zabít Jessii? (1966) is more of a new wave film. As one source says, “One of the first ‘pop’ 60s movies to appropriate comic-strip imagery and dialogue balloons, [Who Wants to Kill Jessie?] is a buoyant, sometimes bawdy exercise in fantasy farce. Two dully married, middle-aged scientists create havoc when her experimental device releases figures from his dreams into the real world. Thus a musclebound superman, bodacious damsel-in-distress and laconic cowboy are suddenly running around Prague, wreaking havoc with their indestructible nature and archetypical fantasy behaviors. It's a hilarious novelty and sci-fi screwball comedy.” What this summary doesn’t mention is how far this film goes in its criticism of Czechoslovak communism. The dream-researcher scientist is an ambitious bitch who hopes to get a Nobel prize for her efforts to excise bad dreams but doesn’t care at all about the subjects of her research; she’s all in favor of mind control. Thus, when her husband happens to have a nightmare after reading a comic book left in his lab (his mistake is to have this nightmare on Thursday, the night his wife schedules for sex), she’s not about to put up with another woman appearing in one of his dreams. Okay, I have a few complaints about gender roles here too, but the film is really innovative and funny. And despite the use of pop elements, I’d say it’s closer to surrealism than pop art. (Read about the production details here)
So, if you travel between Prague and Brno, the yellow bus with the movies is usually a great way to go. (History of the company here)

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Czechs Sing, Americans Forget Song Lyrics

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that on Friday night Dawn held a very fun and successful birthday party, which occasioned a quick trip back to Prague for Jesse and me. Alex was back from Christmas in the US, and brought her new roommate Julia (who got acquainted with us via Deborah, and who teaches English), Megan came in from Kutná Hora, Hubert also managed to find his way, and several Czech friends of Dawn (mainly German specialists) came as well.
We all had tacos (not exactly a common occurrence in the Czech Republic, although there are Mexican restaurants these days) and caught up with those we hadn’t seen too recently (or even those we had). Megan brought a remarkable collection of extremely silly Czech postcards she had just bought, which impressed Alex and me to no end. Of late I have been remiss in seeking out awful postcards, and Megan has shown me that they can indeed be found. I hope I can find my own copy of the one of the small boy with the cake train engine that looks as if it is constructed of bodily parts. Or even the psychotically cutesy kittens, as I feel certain that various people I know will want to receive these, suitably doctored.
For awhile it looked as if the party was going to have a Czech-speaking half and an English-speaking half, with only Dawn and Jesse alternating between the two, which did not reflect well on me, but late in the evening things went in a mainly Czech direction, apart from attempts by the American contingent to sing famous American songs for the delectation of the Czechs. The Americans involved, all of whom have had significant musical training, were pretty much unable to get past the first verse of any song except “99 Bottles of Beer.” We did manage to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as a round, and struggled through “The Eency Weency Spider,” but refused to sing any patriotic or martial song, felt the time had passed for Christmas songs, could not remember enough of any single Stephen Foster song, and could not agree whether “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” featured six white horses or six black horses. Since it always seems that Czechs can sing a vast number of songs learned at school, we did not look too impressive here.
Fortunately, our Czech companions were indulgent and did not laugh too hard at us. And, as I told Dawn when we met for tea the other day, she really has found a nice group of Czech kamaradky.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Loves of a Blonde; or, Czech Winter Balls

January is the month for balls here. Dances, that is, in formal attire.
My American readers will say “huh?” After all, to the best of my knowledge we don’t have that sort of thing in the US. It’s my understanding that high schools still have traditional proms and homecoming dances, which I imagine are vaguely similar to balls (I have not, of course, personally experienced any such thing, and don’t suppose I know too many people who have), but I don’t think adults get much chance to dress up and dance except at weddings and high-society events. (I am excluding clubs, parties, and dance classes, which are popular enough among my acquaintances.)
In the Czech Republic, however, everyone takes dance classes in early life, because every January there are balls to attend. Those of my readers who have watched early Forman films have seen evidence of this tradition, albeit in comic form.
But what would I know about this, other than by hearsay?
Early Thursday afternoon Jesse and I were wandering around Brno, not yet ready to go to the art salon, when Jesse commented that his cimbalom teacher would be performing at a ball on Saturday night and perhaps it would be instructive for him to attend this and see how cimbalom bands fit into traditional winter balls. In addition to the cimbalom band, the symphony and a jazz band were going to be performing.
I said that sounded intriguing. After all, how often do you get that kind of mixture of live music? It seemed to me that symphony plus band plus cimbalom group was a combination to put the average folk festival to shame for lack of diversity.
In short order we had gone in and bought tickets, which to our surprise were no more expensive than regular concert tickets (300Kč), so it then occurred to us that perhaps we could persuade other Fulbright people to join us. Well, Hubert, Alex, and Dawn were also intrigued, but decided that they were not going to go to Brno on such short notice. (We found out later that Alex was under the impression that Brno was four or five hours away, even though she has visited Jesse before and ought to know better.)
Well, it then occurred to us that perhaps we would have to find something to wear to this shindig. The clothes we had worn to the Embassy reception in September, while satisfactory for standing around drinking wine and eating hors d’oeuvres, did not seem quite right for attending balls. (And I will not give in to Megan’s hints and start talking about my Nepalese jacket.)
Somewhat earlier in the week, Štěpanka had entreated me to accompany her to Michael’s school dance (which I suspect is a fundraiser), and insisted that I would not need to buy anything new for that since she wasn’t going to, but of course Štěpanka lives here permanently and has a larger wardrobe to draw on. (I had contemplated bringing something exciting from Pittsburgh, but had, naturally, concluded that any sort of fancy dress would merely take up space in my luggage and never be worn.)
There was a tour of a downtown Brno mall on Friday (yes, I suppose someday I should write about the Czech mall craze). The fact that we don’t really understand European sizes was not helpful, but to our relief, Jesse eventually located an inexpensive suit that would work both for this and for conferences.
On the other hand, if I had thought that I too could have worn a wool suit to a ball, I would have been all set. Had it been a costume ball, I could have dressed up as a College Art Association panelist, although this would not have been my first choice since I would not want to get my suit all sweaty and have to have it cleaned.
No, it seemed likely that I ought to wear some sort of dress, and not one of the jumpers that I had brought to wear to the archives. Unfortunately, everything that looked appropriate for ballroom use was synthetic, and nearly all of it was sleeveless into the bargain. I don’t believe in going sleeveless unless the temperature outside is at least 75° Fahrenheit, and it is my firm belief that synthetic fabrics do not belong next to the skin. Their true function is to be water-repellent, which means that they are excellent for ski jackets and tents.
I did try on one synthetic dress just in case it might work. It looked rather decorative, but was at least a size too small and immediately caused me to break into a heavy sweat, which intensified as I attempted to remove the garment and experienced a claustrophobia attack. I wondered whether I would need to call for help whilst it was stuck from waist to above my head. Further, I pondered whether it would be terribly gauche to start shouting “Pomóc!” from a dressing room in a Brno mall. I was reminded of the sight of Ms. Spots trying to wriggle backwards out from behind my bed in Pittsburgh, except that rabbits like to insert themselves in tiny spaces and have their heads covered up, whereas I do not. The effect was probably more like that of a dachshund trapped inside a boot. (Keep in mind that I am relatively slender, although I expect I gained some weight over the holidays.)
Well, finally the garment consented to slide off and I did not have to enlist anyone to yank it off my body. This experience assured me that it would not be wise to sample any more synthetics, no matter how charming their design. Even when they fit properly, they induce massive full-body sweating.
I thought wistfully of certain beautiful silk dresses that are languishing in my Pittsburgh storage unit. They do not make me sweat all on their own, and they feel heavenly.
Ultimately, I decided that the main thing was to find something easier to dance in than my long black corduroy skirt, and eventually I found a nice long-sleeved cotton top and a full cotton skirt. I contemplated looking for shoes, but decided that with luck the elastic on my Danskos’ straps would hold throughout the evening, as they have a much more delicate appearance than my winter boots.
Jesse will have to describe the musicological aspect of the ball, but we were both intrigued by the anthropology of the thing. We were not sure exactly who the primary participant group was, except that presumably everyone other than ourselves was Czech and lived in Brno. Perhaps they all had a connection to the symphony. Jesse initially claimed that we were by far the youngest people there, but actually I think a fair number of people eventually showed up who were somewhere between thirty and fifty. Not all of the seats had been sold, so we had a table to ourselves, causing us to wish again that we had gotten a larger Fulbright contingent. I would say that the balcony was about 2/3 full, while the main floor was probably sold out.
The orchestra performed first, playing mainly numbers not meant for dancing, and ending with about three short dances, which we observed with interest from the balcony. After a break, a large band took the stage. Its function was to provide the jazz portion of the evening. We were not sure just what sort of jazz this was going to entail, and indeed as the evening progressed, I concluded that perhaps the band didn’t know either. It was a very competent band, I am sure, but although people did indeed dance to its music, for the most part I really did not know what was prompting them to do so.
That is to say, I am very fond of dancing (not that I get much chance to indulge this interest), but I will not dance to just any old music. I like to think that I will dance to quite a wide range of things—I have enjoyed dancing to rock bands of various sorts, swing bands, Cajun music, Hungarian music, Bulgarian music, conga drums, and who knows what else. I’ve taken classes in Sundanese dance, Renaissance and Baroque dance, and at various times I’ve been instructed in minuets, polkas, square dances, and other things (which is not to say that any of the steps remain in my repertoire longer than a week or so). I do require, however, that the music entice me out onto the dance floor.
Most of the music played by this band was of the sort that gave me that sit-down-and-stay feeling, where a glass of mineral water and a handful of pretzels seem more appealing than dancing. Every so often, however, the band would play something really good, causing me to start nagging to the tune of “Well, we’re at a dance, so I think we should do some dancing!” The invariable result of this was that once we got onto the dance floor and began to get acclimated, either the band would take a break or switch to something that struck us as unutterably boring. It occurred to us that on the whole, we were getting the kind of music we associate with wedding receptions held at chain hotels. Or, for that matter, with weddings where someone made a big mistake in choosing the DJ. It was the sort of music I associate with the generation born after my parents and before the Baby Boom. My parents’ generation had some pretty good dance music (as did my grandparents’), but apparently after Glenn Miller’s plane went down things went into a very bad state and there was nothing worth dancing to until Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley.
Furthermore, it turned out that the cimbalom group was not going to take over from the band, but was going to play simultaneously on the lobby level. Had the main band been consistently boring, we would simply have abandoned it, but it had a sneaky knack for playing Gershwin and Glenn Miller tunes whenever we were thoroughly sick of it. We also didn’t want to miss out on (for those who remember from their Czech films)… THE RAFFLE!
Yes, and not just any raffle, but a raffle with tickets sold by majorettes in absurd costumes! Anyone who has watched Fireman’s Ball, or even Divoké včeli, can’t help but want to see a real raffle at a Czech ball. I wouldn’t say that this one exactly lived up to the comedy of the film versions, nor were we all that sure exactly what the prizes were (some of them looked like they might be pajama sets or something like that), but all the same we watched closely, hoping that our numbers wouldn’t be called. (They weren’t. Some people, however, won a whole collection of prizes. Perhaps the drawing was rigged. After all, it was done by majorettes.)
Well, after the raffle we went down to the cimbalom band for good. For some reason the management didn’t seem to think that anyone would actually dance to this group, so the only place to dance to it was in the space in front of the coat check and the restrooms, but we did perform a polka there. Later on some other younger attendees showed signs of badly wanting to dance to the music too, but they stoically resisted the urge, or their partners resisted it for them.
The cimbalom group, however, was excellent and decidedly inspired one to dance (except that apart from the polka, we didn’t know what was appropriate for the songs). During the breaks, Jesse’s teacher and his wife (a violinist) came over and chatted with us.
Overall, we quite enjoyed the ball. I would have enjoyed it more, or at least differently, if more of the music had struck us as worth dancing to, but the rest of the crowd did not seem to have this problem, and danced very happily all evening long. Since our reasons for attending were ethnographic in nature and not purely terpsichorean, we enjoyed watching and discussing the whole thing.
And, fortunately, while it was a cold enough night to be walking a couple of miles back to the house, the temperature had not yet taken the arctic plunge that was about to occur, nor had Jesse’s roommates been around to shut off the heat. All was well.

Photos mainly by Jesse (that is to say, not the tent or the shoe).

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Monday, January 23, 2006

The Arts in Brno

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed a slight unannounced break in the action, which was not due to any dental emergency, but merely to my taking part in various cultural activities. In short, Jesse informed me that on Wednesday night there would be an evening of traditional music and dance in Brno, which a group there does once a month. This seemed like something worth going to, especially since it would mean I could see the new calendar on display in Jesse’s kitchen.
Since Jesse was acquainted with one of the musicians, we went up to say hi, and we were greeted enthusiastically and taken to a table of friendly Czechs who spoke some English. One of them, also named Karla, lives in Texas and was back home on a visit; another of them owns vineyards, so since one normally brings wine to these events, much of the conversation was oenological.
The evening was quite enjoyable both musically and conversationally. The program is rather informal, as far as I can tell, and there is much audience participation, although this is not required. We were especially intrigued by a circle of men doing the verbuňk.
When Jesse’s acquaintance found out I am an art historian, he promptly invited us to join him at an art salon that would take place the following afternoon, so we agreed that that sounded like a good thing and that we would meet him the next day and go to it.
The salon proved to be a weekly venture held at the studio of Vlastimil Zábranský. People come, generally with wine or food, and talk about this and that for several hours. Everyone was very friendly to us. Admittedly (we had already noticed it elsewhere), there are certain topics most Czechs cannot resist discussing with American visitors, such as Czech immigration and Czechs on Pittsburgh sports teams. At some point I will write at greater length about such evergreen topics and how they are usually presented, but I wouldn’t like to give the impression that our salon companions said more about them than other people do. No; in fact, although these topics did come up, overall the topics of conversation were extremely varied, and when as the conversation was more general and not specifically directed to one or the other of us, we got considerable listening practice, which is always a good thing for me.
I do (perhaps rudely) listen in on conversations on public transit, but in general that is not very helpful, because in such situations one person always speaks much more loudly than the other(s) and there is usually, just as in the US, a great amount of repetition of words and phrases that suggests that the communicative aspect of language resides largely in words/phrases like “Well, yes,” “that’s great,” “I don’t know,” and “I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Situations like the musical evening and the salon provide a more varied and intelligent type of listening practice.
I think I am actually pretty good at this kind of thing, and it is excellent practice because it exercises my fairly large passive vocabulary and forces me to make sense of big chunks of spoken material. On the other hand, I estimate I get 80-90% of the meaning, which only seems impressive until someone poses a question to me. What tends to happen is something like (to give an example from Thursday afternoon) I am listening happily enough to someone discoursing on the invasion of Warsaw and the bombing of Dresden, and next thing I know something is being said about feminism and that presumably I am not a feminist (!). We never did quite figure out this particular lightning shift in topic, and I have learned to be wary of discussing feminism here since most Czechs seem to think it is a ludicrous American obsession; it is terribly time-consuming to explain that in general, feminism is not all that alien to Czech culture, which values equality. So… I didn’t explain that I consider myself a feminist art historian. This can always be discussed more intelligently at some later time.
More humorously, Jesse and I were asked whether we had good health insurance. Before we could really say anything specific about that, we were informed that we were totally covered for any kind of health issue that could arise, as there were both a doctor and a dentist in the room. For example, if I were to give birth here, I would be in very good hands.
Personally, I don’t think my chances of giving birth in the Czech Republic (or anywhere else, for that matter) are all that great, but the assembled company seemed to think that I might just start producing an entire litter during my stay.
As the salon is held in a painter’s studio, naturally there were a great many paintings about, despite the fact that Vlastimil Zábranský is currently having an exhibition in Prague at the Všeobecné zdravotní pojišt’ovny ČR v Orlické ulici (at number 2/2020 in Prague 3, continuing until 27 January). He has a very beautiful and evocative painting style, somewhat surrealist, in which I could see echoes of the work of Toyen and Jan Zrzavý, and possibly also Leonor Fini. Judging by the examples I could find on the internet, his paintings of beautiful red-haired women are quite popular, or at any rate he does a lot of them (there were quite a few of these paintings stacked against the studio walls), but I thought the paintings he had hanging on his walls were much more interesting. These tended to have more of a surrealist or satirical content, and if I could afford to buy paintings, I would prefer to get one of those (although I wasn’t sure which one I would choose if I could only afford to get one). The artist told me that in the past he had quite an international career as a caricaturist, and this did not surprise me. While the paintings of beautiful women are very nice in their way, I liked the others better. Unfortunately, I don’t see any examples of those on the internet. Some sites that do show his work include:
City of Litvínov
Galerie Ikaros
Talent Art (in English, sort of)

The artist in his studio (photo from the City of Litvínov site). The other image is from the Galerie Ikaros site.

Friday, January 20, 2006

And Which Pinup Are You?

Another psycho quiz for you.

You are Bettie Page!
Allegedly, I'm Bettie Page. (But a dominatrix??? I don't think so. On the other hand, let's get some of the male readers to take this quiz and report their results. That should liven things up.)

What Classic Pin-Up Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Temporary Glue for a Permanent Crown

The saga of the dental crown drags on. On Friday, I called to inquire whether I ought to worry about my wretched gum, which had been bothering me since Wednesday afternoon.
The dentist asked me several questions designed to ascertain that the problem really lay with the gum and not with the tooth itself. She was not about to let any problem with the tooth pulp go uncared for. I had to say, however, that there was no evidence that there was anything at all wrong with the tooth (other than that there is not much of it left by now).
Well, if my gum was bothering me, then this must be due to insufficient flossing and germicidal rinsing! There must be food trapped there! Go forth and floss and rinse some more!
What food? I have been living almost entirely on yogurt. Admittedly, I forgot that kiwi yogurt has seeds, and I had made the mistake of putting sautéed onions in an omelet. But I don’t chew on the affected side…
I felt a little skeptical about doing anything more to irritate the area, as while I realize flossing is good for me in general, it does tend to disturb my gums. I use the germicidal rinse, but it does make my entire mouth feel a little raw, and I think it is killing off my taste buds. Nonetheless, I went forth and flossed and rinsed, and downed some more ibuprofen.
Ah yes, everything was nice and puffy Saturday morning! Perhaps my gums would entirely separate from my teeth!
This sort of thing has made me prefer to stay home to work on my dissertation, although I did venture out Saturday to have tea with Dawn. Since neither of us was feeling terribly well, the only other thing we accomplished while out was to buy groceries. I felt a bit better on Sunday, which was good since it was my last chance to see Věra before she moves to Pittsburgh, but of course our lunch did me no good on the dental front.
I went home and soaked the affected area in Becherovka, which I believe is much better for one than dental disinfectant. By Monday morning, nearly all the swelling had subsided. Yes, Becherovka is a fine product with many uses! One can toast one’s friends with it, use it as a digestive aid, or kill germs with it. Admittedly, the first use is the most pleasant.
I acquired the permanent crown today, but it is not yet permanently adhered. Apparently my gum still produced trace amounts of blood when the temporary crown was removed, so we have to wait for things to settle down further.
I would never have imagined that getting a dental crown would be such a lengthy process. If this were a mere head-of-state crown, I could have held an insurrection and seized one for myself by this time.

Which would you rather have?
A. A carnival crown

B. The Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor

C. Or this? (note: mine is on a molar)

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Cited When You Least Expect It: Skype Journal

Pretty exciting: Skype Journal gives looking at calendars with Czech politicians heads on famous paintings (see yesterday’s post) as the “Reason of the Day to Use Skype Video”! Better go look at their page before they post a new reason.
Skype Journal looks like a good resource for Skype users, I might add.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Mistr Brno 2005, for starters

While I don't live in Brno, I don't feel that I should be completely ignorant of what is... um... happening there (as Jesse so delicately puts it). Nor should my readers; we wouldn't want to be too Pragocentric.
Therefore, let me point everyone to Večerní Brno's valuable coverage of the Mistr Brno 2005 contest, which took place December 23 at a local club. Contestants had to show their merits in three "disciplines."
Judging by the photos, cross-dressing was a popular free-choice discipline (see right). "Promenading" in underwear (promenáda ve spodním prádle) was, not surprisingly, a significant part of the contest.
The first-place winner (he in the hat and black lingerie) won the title of Tělo roku 2005 back in August.
Today's headline news in Večerní Brno, incidentally, is that Indians are a normal thing in Brno. Judging by the accompanying photo, below, I wouldn't be too sure about that. They look pretty abnormal to me. When did you last see a Native American with dreadlocks? Then again, if they are in Brno, it would be normal for them to stand near a brewery ad, as they are doing.

Skype Goes Video-Capable

For those who don’t keep up on these things (well, neither do I, really), the latest version of Skype comes with video capability.
Since at least one person in the conversation has to have a webcam, my initial reaction was “yeah, that’s nice, who cares?” I don’t spend all that much time on Skype and I certainly couldn’t think of anyone I knew with a webcam, so I didn’t rush to download the new version.
Life being as full of surprises as it is, the very next Skype call I got proved to include video, and since I hadn’t downloaded the new Skype, I couldn’t see any of it!
I’m not sure I missed anything remarkable (I know what my friends look like, in a general sort of way), but I’ve now downloaded the new version just in case someone with a webcam wants to show me something interesting. For example, I’m looking forward to seeing the 2006 calendar that features Czech politicians’ heads grafted onto famous works of art, but I guess I can wait till I next get to Brno for that.

1) Jesse hints at the images on the calendar here. You can pressure him to post the real thing.
2) For the many readers coming over from Skype Journal, welcome and my regrets that this is not one of my more interesting posts (apart from the last line). I like to think that I am usually more entertaining. For something more amusing, you could try this post (inspired by a used-bookstore find) or my recent look at Brno's online journalism. Of course, if you would really like to know more about my experiences with Skype, you can click on the link to my Skype Del.icio.us tag, below.

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Já nevím

As a rule I do not hear much from neighboring apartments, but when my washer shut off this morning, I realized that my neighbor on the couch side of the living room was having a heated phone conversation. What he was discussing was not very clear to me, not because I had any trouble making out the words (they were unusually distinct), but because the main staple of his side of the conversation consisted of Nevím! (I don’t know). This word was repeated countless times in the minute or two before the end of the conversation, with not too many other words interspersed. At one point, he exclaimed “Nevím a nevím!” (I don’t know and I don’t know!”) just in case the person on the other end was in any doubt about the matter. Shortly after this, he switched to a quieter, more caressing delivery, devoid of “nevím,” which I suspect was sarcastically intended, although you never know. Certainly, Já nevím!

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Saturday, January 14, 2006

"You Paint" Revisited

One of my readers has prompted me to further revisit the matter of the woman who paints with her breasts and my observations about the “news” item’s proximity to a reference to the Rembrandt movie.
Our discussion of the matter brings to my attention the fact that in this blog I often function more like a journalist (and not an investigative one, but rather the humorous and opinionated feuilletonist) than like a careful scholar. While I don’t think this is necessarily a terrible thing, I wouldn’t like to mislead my readers.
Thus, other readers might like to know that:
1) I wasn’t implying that Rembrandt was an unworthy subject for a film. (Whether the film is any good, I have no idea.) Furthermore, while I am opposed to grossly inaccurate movies about historical figures (such as the infamous film about Artemisia Gentileschi), I am not necessarily opposed to films that stress the personal lives of historical persons. If the person had a personal life that makes for good cinema, and the historical facts are not skewed and misinterpreted, such films can be worthwhile. It seems to me that the films about artists Frida Kahlo, Camille Claudel, and Carrington fit into that category, at least from what I know of the artists. There are those who will complain that this trivializes the work in favor of the biography, but I think that more often this causes viewers to become interested in finding out about the work.
2) For those who didn’t look, the Quick.cz piece on the Australian woman featured a photo of her face and cleavage (presumably a topless photo, but it was hard to tell for sure--see right) and said nothing about what sort of paintings result. To the best of my knowledge, she is not a serious artist using a gimmick to become better known (or with some sort of underlying theoretical basis to her work), but someone who just thought it would be great fun to paint with her breasts instead of her fingers. Now, the problem here is that it is really impossible to tell from the Quick.cz piece whether I am doing her a grave injustice by speculating that she is more of a joker than an artist. Performance artists are always trying things that sound idiotic until you read the rationale (and sometimes still do even then).
3) While I think that much of what I see of Czech journalism can only be called tabloid-focused and will take any opportunity to insert naked women into the news, I admit that if I were a tabloid editor and heard of someone who painted with an unconventional body part, I would certainly want to run an item on it. Indeed, as you can tell, I am a closet tabloid editor. I am incapable of resisting cheesy, contentless stories of this type, and while I call for gender equity and an end to sexism, I am also a great fan of completely ridiculous pseudo-news and call for more items like (old favorites from the Weekly World News) “Psychic’s Head Explodes” and “Meat-Eating Kangaroos”. (I have little patience with celebrity gossip, however. Elvis Presley’s face has appeared on too many tortillas for my taste.)

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Is Your ____ Running?

Some of my readers may be familiar with the ancient prank call routine which goes:
“Is your refrigerator running?”
(To which the victim presumably answers Yes.)
“Well, then go out and stop it!”
I am happy to report that my refrigerator here runs just fine, thank you (although certain of my guests have noted that it often sounds as though it has indigestion), and I hope that it continues to do so.
I am less happy to report that my toilet is evidently under the impression that what is good practice for refrigerators is also good practice for it. Over the past month or so, it has developed an increasing tendency to run, run, and run some more. Perhaps someone was so misguided as to remark “Run, Spot, run!” in its vicinity.
Toilets I have known in the United States that develop this habit usually respond to a jiggle of the handle, and here a firm press or two of the button has the same effect.
While that works, one does not always want to stand around listening for the water to cease running. Around here, we have other things to do with our time than listen to waterworks, especially since, unlike in the movie Sklapni a zastřel mě (Shut Up and Shoot Me) there is no one tapping “come make love to me” signals on the communal WC pipe.
In the US, if a toilet develops a real habit of this sort of water-wasting behavior, one boldly removes the top of the tank and investigates the float mechanism. Sometimes the chain merely needs to be reattached or replaced. Sometimes, I suppose, a plumber has to be called. In any case, I imagined that perhaps I could take a look at its innards. This required a little nerve, as something in the plumbing often smells vile and I could only hypothesize that there was something horrible in the deceptively modern-looking tank. You know, something like a dead carp from Christmas past, or an alien being that exhales methane gas, or some kind of primitive and unauthorized water-recycling facility.
Well, the highly skilled team of American scholars involved in the investigation were unable to find any way to remove the lid to the tank. Hypotheses about dead carp, alien beings, and so on remain untested. The apparatus continues to run when it jolly well feels like it.
Furthermore, Jesse notes that his return to Brno after the New Year was greeted with behavior of the same sort by plumbing many years senior. I expect these fixtures, like office copiers, communicate amongst themselves in some manner unbeknownst to modern science.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Distract When Needed

Now that the holidays are officially over, I have gotten myself back to the archive (twice!), read a rather lengthy but useful dissertation on Max Ernst, borrowed and read most of a book on dissertation-writing, printed out my stuff for the first time, moved around some text, written some more text… doesn’t that sound just splendid?
Well, in actual fact, while that’s all very well, my gumline around the temporary crown has been bothering me for somewhat over 24 hours now. People don’t understand how I can have dental work without novocaine, but believe me, it is nothing compared to nagging discomfort. When the dentist presses down on the gum with some sort of metal or other instrument in order to do the filling or prepare for the crown impression, this is unquestionably uncomfortable, but it is tolerable—I know that the pain is perfectly reasonable, not extreme, and will mostly go away the instant the dentist stops pressing. It’s kind of like when you peel an orange and the peel goes too far under the thumbnail: you don’t like it, but there is nothing bizarre or mysterious about it.
When your mouth starts to bug you in midafternoon for no good reason, however, that’s different. You ask yourself “Was that chili too spicy?” or “Is dark chocolate bad for the gums?” You wonder “Hey, is there something stuck under that temporary crown, and should I try to find out or will that pop off what ought to stay in place?” When dousing the area in the recommended disinfectant doesn’t do much good, and ibuprofen doesn’t permanently clear things up, you start to wonder “Will I develop an abscess over the weekend? What if I have to have jaw surgery instead of getting a permanent crown on Tuesday?”
I never claimed I was either brave or immune to absurd speculation. Furthermore, I do not like going outdoors in the snow and damp when I feel like this (although I did spend most of the afternoon at the archive happily reading about how Karel Janský sued Bohuslav Brouk in 1936 over a little matter relating to the poet Mácha).
Having returned home with some medicinal Becherovka (Becherovka is always medicinal, I feel certain), I present my readers with a highly entertaining blog called Threadbared, which I learned about on Susie Bright’s somewhat more educational but also entertaining blog. I hope most of my readers already know who Susie Bright is, as I’m sure her fame extends well beyond the greater Bay Area. (I only recently learned she had a blog.) Threadbared is not quite so celebrated yet. Its authors have a remarkable collection of old sewing pattern illustrations and related items, which they approach with unique comedy. If you thought Bisexual Barbie was funny, you’ll like Threadbared.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Thoughts on Cooking in Prague

Since, with my temporary crown, I don’t feel it is safe to eat very adventurously, I am mostly living on yogurt. This begins to get dull, so thoughts of cooking float to my mind.
I have referred to the adventure of baking the first pie, the subsequent autumn feast, and the holiday meals and how these were done mostly by guesswork. Despite my lovely kitchen and numerous utensils, cooking here does remain a bit of a mystery. I’m not much of one to follow a recipe closely, but I like to have a sense of what my materials are and how they function. Most raw materials in the Czech Republic are the same as in the US, but there are just enough differences to baffle the prospective cook. One can neither easily prepare American foods (which Czechs might like to sample), nor figure out how to make standard Czech dishes.
For the first, I really did not expect that I would want to make a lot of American food, but then I also didn’t expect that brown sugar and molasses would be unavailable. I mean, I can cook without white sugar, but without brown sugar? Hard to imagine. (I have now located a Czech variant of brown sugar—dry, with a very different texture—and my mother has sent me two pounds of the real stuff. Splendid!)
On the other front, what I wish, cooking-wise, is that I could find a decent English-language Czech cookbook. I want one with English instructions and bilingual ingredients, and preferably with both metric and English measurements. I bought one of the souvenir-type cookbooks, but soon concluded that I will not learn how to cook Czech food from it. It is full of difficult ingredients like castor sugar (yes, once upon a time I knew what that was, but I no longer do, or whether it was a 19th-century form of sugar no longer produced), lovage (have heard of this but never seen it), goose fat (pretty hard to get unless you have a dead goose), juniper berries (not sure which type of juniper one picks these from, or how to tell if they are ripe), a pig's head (have not recently or indeed ever attended a Czech pig-slaughtering, although admittedly these are big events), pheasant (at least I know the Czech word for it, but is it in the store or must one shoot it?), venison (same issue), damson-cheese (huh?), grated cream cheese (they must be joking, cream cheese doesn't grate), bilberries and rowanberries (what are they in Czech? Have I ever eaten them?), and so on. Cornflour? (Presumably not the same as cornmeal.) Semolina? I won't go into the vegetarian issue other than that while I don't eat vegetarian here, I would still prefer not to deal with raw meat (sausage and broth are ok with me).
It seemed to me that a good many of the ingredients listed in the cookbook must be in British English, as they certainly weren’t things one normally eats in the US unless, perhaps, living on a farm or with someone who hunts regularly. For instance, my family did have lots of goose fat once upon a time, but that was because we had slaughtered some geese (not a pastime that I recommend).
If the recipes would at least include the Czech name for the dish, it would be helpful. The recipe for buchty, being one of the only things using the Czech name and thus one I can verify I've eaten, indicates that damson-cheese might be the code-word for tvaroh (an essential Czech baking ingredient), but another recipe calls for cream cheese where I would expect tvaroh, so who knows what they are talking about. (Tvaroh, I have learned from Kristen, must be akin to the Russian tvorog.)
I remarked upon the problem to Věra, who said that these cookbooks are hopeless and probably not in British English any more than in American. We commiserated about the difficulty of cooking in a foreign land since it is just as hard for her to cook in Pittsburgh, where there is no tvaroh, poppyseed filling, etc. (And her partner is a vegetarian.)
Well, someday I may learn how to make various kinds of cabbage and knedliky and baked goods, but I feel a little dubious.
For an explanation of how to locate the Czech equivalents of baking soda and baking powder, see Jesse’s account of baking peanut butter cookies. The cookies turned out fine, if rather pale from lack of brown sugar. Actually, we thought they tasted like sugar cookies with a hint of peanut-butter flavor. Which was all very well, but not much like the genuine article.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

You Paint With Your What?

My sibling points out, re news coverage of the Australian woman who paints with her breasts, "Surely they'd be all over the story if a man announced he was painting with his penis!"
While this is probably true, I think it would be covered a mite differently. I'm guessing that instead of a photo emphasizing a woman's cleavage, we would get a photo of the man dressed and standing next to the painting.
The art historians among my readers will be aware, furthermore, that it has long been a standard trope for male artists to claim to paint (albeit in a metaphorical sense) with their genitals.
Some male artists take a more literal approach. An Art in America article by Francis M. Naumann (April 2001) details Marcel Duchamp's use of his semen in creating works intended for Maria Martins, a sculptor he was involved with (the article reproduced a photo of the result). My reaction (mainly in jest) was that the substance probably functioned similarly to the egg used in true egg tempera.
A friend to whom I mentioned the Duchamp article told me he knew a woman who paints with her menstrual blood. He sent a link to her web site, which I regret I no longer have. It was interesting. Admittedly, blood has such a strong color of its own that the result is relatively monochromatic, whereas semen presumably mixes well with pigments.
In general, contemporary artists, especially those involved in body art and performance art, use a wide variety of bodily parts and substances. I'd say that much of this work takes some getting used to, but it can be intriguing and even beautiful. In 2003 (or was it 2004?) the student show at Prague's Veletržní palác included a series of sensitively delineated portraits done with strands of pubic hair. I'm not sure how the artist got them to stay in place, but from a short distance her results looked like fine pen strokes. Moving forward for a closer look provided an element of surprise and reassessment.

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Things the Czech Media Wants Us to Know

This morning when I opened my internet browser, I learned that an “Australian woman paints with her own breasts” (Australanka maluje vlastními ňadry). While it doesn’t surprise me that someone, somewhere, would have thought of doing this, it was not really what I expected to see first thing in the morning. Admittedly, it was under the heading of Zábava, specifically under Drby, Celebrity (not under Erotika, which has a warning that it is only for adults), but since when is someone who paints with her breasts a celebrity? It’s not as though Quick.cz saw fit to show any examples of the work. Well, I guess so long as she uses “her own breasts” and not someone else’s, which is what seemed to be emphasized by the use of the word vlastními...
Quick.cz also announces a film on Rembrandt starring Klaus Maria Brandauer. The thought that comes to my mind seeing these two things juxtaposed on their home page is that Quick.cz thinks male artists make good film fodder while female artists can get in the news if they paint with their breasts.
In more serious news, Czech media and politicians are contemplating the benefits of limiting the number of casinos and herna bars in Prague, according to Czech radio. From the sounds of the article, the likelihood of this actually happening is rather small. A related article notes that toy slot machines were a hot seller here at Christmastime. As the article notes, the sound of them under the Christmas tree will probably remind many parents “that this year's Christmas shopping has left them deeper in debt than ever.”
Well, speaking of Czech personal debt, the Prague Post cites a December 27 article in Právo stating that “Czech consumers borrowed 7 billion Kč this Christmas, and that’s only counting bank loans.” Debt here is allegedly growing by 30% a year; in other words, everyone is anxious to take on the worst aspects of capitalism. I knew I should have photographed those signs encouraging people to borrow money for a richer Christmas.

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Prospects for PhDs

Hubert, who recently got his PhD, reminded us on New Year's Day that academic job prospects are often mainly temporary and part-time. He sends links to two excellent articles on the topic.
The East Bay Express article looks specifically at the situation at UC Berkeley and other public colleges and universities in California. It is long and detailed.
The Chronicle of Higher Education offers more of a how-to article for the prospective PhD. The suggestions are very sensible. After having been on the "search committee" myself last year, I can state that reading job applications and participating in interviews does give a grad student a whole new perspective on the process. (And, fortunately, the committee I participated in was both straightforward and successful. There was not much fighting about anything, which I am sure is rare.)

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Bisexual Barbie Arrives!

It is not Czech, it is not dissertation related, but...
The right-wing now claims that Barbie dolls are (horrors) bisexual!
I find this very amusing, and hereby offer some links to entertaining blog entries on the topic.

The War on Barbie (a serious look at the matter)
Barbie's Bi (includes suggestions for many fine potential GLBT Barbies)
Bisexual Barbie (the comments are as good as the original post)

Barbies We Would Like to See(a collection of good imaginary Barbies)

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Rabbit Update

My mother tells me that I am mistaken about the Stray Rabbit getting into the back yard. In fact, it was found near the driveway. Funny, I could have sworn she said it was in the back yard. This just demonstrates that even relatively good memories are unreliable.
And, unfortunately, my sibling, who got to see the rabbits over Christmas, tells me that George is not doing as well as I had hoped.

I'm sorry to report that George is having lots of fits. Although they seem somewhat less violent than in years past, they are coming in bunches of one to three at a time, and he has several of these bunches per day. Hard to say how many, but I would think at least four or five, which would mean maybe eight or ten fits per day on average, maybe more. And he had fits every single day I was home, from the 18th to the 28th. It was distressing to watch, and he certainly seemed to find it even more distressing to experience.

Also, Mom reports that this fall George seemed gradually to lose interest in her efforts to help him hop along the bricks outside (she has stopped now because of the weather, and will try again when it gets nicer). He struck me as almost entirely immobile, although I did see him successfully roll over once. He also likes to have his head propped up on the water dish, which I don't think he needed the last time I saw him.

Otherwise, he does seem to be thriving under the attentive care of the parental units (as does Spots). It's nice to see his fur clean and shiny, and his appetite remains strong. Nevertheless, I do think that when you get back, you should observe him closely to assess his quality of life. […] I'm sorry to submit such a gloomy report, but I wasn't happy to see how things stood, since I am quite fond of him really.

George’s health problems date back to a nasty pasteurella ear infection that he came down with over winter break in 2000-2001. At that time I really had no experience in medicating rabbits, and despite his feeling very sick, he showed quite a talent for avoiding or spitting out the pills hidden in his food. By the time I figured out that I could mash the pills and mix them with baby food, the infection was somewhat chronic. He recovered from the acute illness, but never really got his balance back, began to have seizures, and has become gradually less mobile. There were quite a few occasions when we thought he was going to die, or when we wondered whether he ought to be euthanized. However, George has always had a very strong will to live, and with the help of our vets in DC, Pittsburgh, and the Bay Area, we’ve tried to give him as enjoyable a life as possible. Calypso Spots has adored him from the start, my family is devoted to him, and his rabbit-sitters in Pittsburgh (Kathy, Travis, and Kristen) have been quite wonderful when I’ve had to go out of town.
So do send good thoughts in George’s direction. I wish I could have visited him over Christmas myself, and am looking forward to seeing him again. He loves being held in a towel after his bath, and will lick his front paws enthusiastically when not drifting off into a little nap.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Czech Crown

I went in today for the first work on my first dental crown. Having never had one before, I was nervous (and of course, who likes to go to the dentist in the first place?), but the dentist and her assistant have a very good chairside manner and explained everything in detail. They remembered that I didn’t want anesthetic, and said that I was welcome to change my mind at any time.
First they made an impression of my jaws with green alginate. This was not bad at all, even taste-wise.
Next, they replaced a lost filling (which I had mistaken for a piece of tooth, since it was white). This must have been the easiest filling or filling replacement I have ever had. It was barely even uncomfortable, apart from that I hate having my mouth stuffed full of dental equipment. Unlike at home, they conferred at some length about the precise shade of off-white it should be.
After a rinse (something I appreciate and haven’t gotten in the US for many a year, as American dentists believe it is enough to vacuum out the spit), we went on to the matter of filing down my broken molar for the crown. This too went very smoothly, and while I detest listening to the drill, I think the technology has improved vastly, because it always seems to go faster and faster, with less and less vibration. There was only the occasional mild flash of pain; I barely had to remind myself to relax.
"You must have a very high pain threshold," said the dentist after I assured her it had barely hurt at all.
"No, not at all," I said. "If I stub my toe, I feel like I am going to die on the spot." (It has been my experience that some pain is easy to tolerate and some is very difficult. I am very bad about anything that lasts.)
Finally it was time to push back my gum from the tooth to make the impression for the permanent crown. This was not especially painful, but here we ran into some trouble. Apparently my gum was irritated and wanted to bleed, which would make the impression imprecise. We waited a while for things to settle down, and actually I was hardly spitting out any blood at all, but it bled again on the second try. This meant I was going to have to come back on Monday, but in the meantime my temporary crown could go in.
My gums do have a tendency to bleed when poked at and abraded, so it did not seem strange to me that they would bleed after more than an hour of dental work. We will just have to hope that they restrain themselves on Monday.
In the meantime, I am allowed to eat almost normally, but I think I will try to stick to soft foods without little seeds. This could be rather monotonous since most of the soft foods I eat here do have seeds of one kind or another (yogurt with strawberries, yogurt with raspberries, atd). Perhaps a series of omelets will have to suffice, assuming I do not use cheeses with caraway seeds or peppercorns.
Just imagine me in that chair...

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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Dusk in Podolí

My neighborhood, like most of Prague, is rather appealing in the snow in late afternoon.

My building

The electrical store across the street (buy washing machines, etc., here)

The Činské bistro down the street, a little out of focus

A view toward the Modrá mlekárna, also down the street

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Rabbit Report

I realize that there has been very little about my rabbits on this blog, despite the fact that they appear prominently in the title. While some of you are doubtless glad of that, I know that others are disappointed.
The unfortunate fact is that when one is separated from one’s rabbits by some 5000 miles, it is hard to keep up to date about their doings.
My mother did mention that she was surprised that Calypso Spots had not shown much of an interest in the small Christmas tree, but it sounded as though the tree was on a table above the Spotted Wonder’s head. Ms. Spots does take an interest in many things that are above her head, including quite a few things that are put on tables ostensibly out of her reach (candles, books, floral arrangements), but the lack of carpeting in my parents’ living room inhibits her from jumping up onto the furniture much, as she is a plumpish 7-pounder and doesn’t enjoy sliding on the floor when she had planned to leap onto a chair or table. She also probably has a notion that my mother would be less indulgent about any thefts or damages, not that I am exactly lackadaisical about these. (Well, I suppose I am about thefts of chocolate and baked goods, which I find more amusing than serious.)
I have not heard much at all about George, beyond that his majesty continues to enjoy being bathed and brushed, and continues to have seizures from time to time. Presumably this means that George is not becoming noticeably more disabled (when I left in September he was still able to flop around in random directions), and is having the time of his life being so well cared for by multiple humans. George is easy to please and has learned to enjoy being held in just about any position imaginable, so long as it is by someone he likes. (I don’t know of anyone he doesn’t like, it is true.)
There was, however, a curious adventure recently in that a Stray Rabbit mysteriously appeared in the back yard.
I am really not sure how a Stray Rabbit could have gotten into the back yard in any normal fashion, as it is rabbit-proofed to keep frolicking creatures inside.
My mother describes the Stray Rabbit as a friendly young creature who resembled our long-ago companion Elfie (which is to say light brown with a white underside). The Stray Rabbit was apparently all in favor of being picked up and put in a disused cage for safekeeping.
Unfortunately, Ms. Spots, who is normally a very mellow and gentle creature, found it disturbing to have another doe (I guess) in the house. Does are usually highly territorial, and while we have not really seen this side of Ms. Spots before, apparently she made her displeasure known. The Stray Rabbit had to be moved into an inaccessible room. Meanwhile, my parents were trying to find out whose rabbit she was and return her to her rightful home.
Just because does are territorial does not mean, of course, that they cannot be persuaded to like a stranger. Calypso Spots took an immediate interest in George and was madly in love with him within about two days. Of course, it is true that they met on neutral turf at the Humane Society and she really needed a friend at the time (as did he, since he had just lost his irascible but devoted Penelope). But I expect that Ms. Spots could have learned to like a little brown rabbit too, given time and encouragement.
There is not, however, a great deal of space in my parents’ house. Having two house rabbits on a long-term visit is really their limit, especially when one requires bathing and the other is lively and sometimes mischievous. Furthermore, I would not be in a position to have a third rabbit, as it is hard enough to travel with two. (Unless I moved back to the Bay Area.) Thus, it was essential to find the Stray Rabbit’s home.
No one, however, claimed her. The House Rabbit Society only takes rabbits from overcrowded shelters, not individuals, so my parents ended up taking her to a shelter in Pinole whose staff and facilities impressed them. We hope that she will soon find the perfect human to adopt her, whether from the shelter or eventually from the House Rabbit Society. George and Ms. Spots, and our departed Penelope, all had the good fortune to get a second chance after people had given up on them. Many rabbits don’t.
I still don’t know how the Stray Rabbit found her way into one of the only back yards in the neighborhood where there is a great devotion to rabbits and their happiness. She must have smelled George and Ms. Spots (who spend a certain amount of time there having supervised fresh air) and willed herself to materialize there. After all, if there is one thing that George and Ms. Spots smell like, it is good care and overall happiness.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

On Holiday Time (or not)

While the rest of the world (mostly) has gone back to work, my brain is still largely on holiday time, which means my mind is on food, conversation, walks, and other simple pleasures. Thus, the leek-and-potato soup was made and has partly been eaten (there was a lot of it), I won a game of Scrabble, and Jesse and I watched Divoké včely and Pupendo. (Which I should describe, but am too holiday-like to bother.) This afternoon we decided to finish off the pie before Jesse caught the train (or bus, as the case may be) back to Brno.
Unfortunately I seem to have allowed a chip of plum pit into the pie; there was a great CRUNCH and next thing I knew, I felt quite certain that I had cracked yet another tooth.
This put a damper on my mood, as it seemed much more significant than the piece I had lost before Christmas and was planning to have fixed in the New Year.
I had to decide where to take my crumbling mouth. My mental preference was to go to an ordinary Czech dentist of some sort, but on an emotional level this just didn’t work. I can’t stand novocaine, which seems to exacerbate any existing pain rather than numbing it, and I’ve been going to the same dentist since I graduated from college. I felt an English-language dentist was required.
And so, I’ve been to the dentist and learned—just as I suspected—that I finally have to get a crown. She was a little skeptical of going without anesthetic, but when I told her that I had had nearly all my fillings done without it and had a wisdom tooth pulled in the same manner, she said we could give it a try.
We will see if I can manage not to break any more teeth before I go in for my crown on Friday.

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Monday, January 02, 2006

Silvestr at Karla's House of Pleasure

New Year’s Eve is celebrated in the Czech Republic much as in the United States, but by the name of Silvestr. A great many people do nothing in particular beyond staying home and watching TV (endless Silvestr specials featuring every Czech entertainer imaginable, with flashbacks to Silvestr specials from the distant past). Other people, however, go out to restaurants and parties and suchlike. I gather that Staroměstské náměstí and Václavské náměstí become a seething mass of international drunkenness.
It occurred to Jesse and me, however, that New Year’s Eve would be an ideal time to prepare another feast in my kitchen. After a visit to the grocery stores for ideas, I formulated a menu of leek and potato soup, roasted vegetables, risotto, cranberry sauce, and a plum, apple, and cranberry pie. Several other Fulbright grantees were bound to be available to join us (as indeed they were).
The soup was put off on the grounds that it looked like there would be a massive amount of food without it, but everything else went together without any problem, despite the fact that Jesse’s train was delayed significantly (permitting him to watch a dog fight at the Brno train station and consider acquiring Jehovah’s Witness information on Armageddon to pass the time). When he arrived, I put him in charge of the pie crust as presumably this one would not self-destruct (it did not).
Dawn was the first guest to arrive, as she had another engagement to attend, so round one of the dinner was eaten.
Shortly after her departure, Hubert arrived. He had been slaving over a string quartet and required a break from the rigors of composition, so I began to tell him about the interesting museum Megan and I had visited the previous day.
Megan then called from the tram stop for further directions, so, as my hands were covered with plum, Hubert picked up the phone. “Karla’s House of Pleasure,” said he. (Megan had to give the rest of the details of the museum herself.)
Phase two of dinner was successful and suitably merry. Jesse had found a remarkable volume in a Brno bookstore, the Hudební atlas hub (musical atlas of mushrooms), whose author has composed music for each of numerous types of mushroom. We examined this singular work and also played selections from the accompanying CD. Unfortunately the CD player on my laptop was being a little finicky, but the pieces sounded listenable.
Hubert had brought along some DVDs, so we then watched Kalamita, an older Věra Chytilová film starring the ever-popular Bolek Polívka. It was pretty good, although I gather it was very different from some of the director’s other films. The ending was a bit dull in comparison to the rest.
At that point, it seemed about time to head over to Vyšehrad, which Věra had told me was a popular place for less crazy Silvestr celebrations. The Vyšehrad fortifications are about a mile north of my apartment—a nice walk, generally. There was a bit of precipitation of the rain (versus snow) variety, but not enough to warrant umbrellas. Some of the streets in Podolí had Christmas decorations up, and as we approached Vyšehrad we came across others headed in the same direction.
Up on the ramparts there were lots of people looking out over the city, many of them shooting off fireworks. I am really not accustomed to being in close range of fireworks, but on the whole I felt much safer than I would have expected, as the fireworks (many of them the kind I would only expect to see at a municipal display) were mostly set off into the distance. People on other high ground around Prague were doing the same, so the show was quite impressive until fog and smoke took over the atmosphere. Even then, it was still worth watching. People were animated but, as Věra had indicated, not wildly out of control.
Decorations in Podoli

Fireworks on the way up to Vyšehrad

Up at Vyšehrad

The police watch fireworks

When we began to head back, we found that the cobblestones had gotten really icy. While we made it safely back to my apartment, the journey was a bit hazardous and there were a few falls and near-misses.
Under these circumstances, it seemed pointless for Hubert to go home, so I had three overnight guests. This certainly called for prompt deployment of Hovoříme s hostem, but I didn’t think of that, merely of which bedding I could bring forth. (I am glad that Sandra owns what would usually appear to be a surplus of pillows and pillow cases, so no one had to go without these.) The living-room supply of Cosmopolitan provided bedtime reading matter for those who had not brought their own or who were not in the mood for volume 3 of Karel Teige’s writings on art.
In the morning, I fed my guests coffee, tea, and a ten-egg omelet or frittata (there was some discussion as to which it was). Hubert proved to be a most meticulous onion-slicer.
Megan told us that she had run across a blog with a photo of a most peculiar fountain, which we agreed we ought to make a resolution to find and photograph that very day. Megan was able to find the blog with the photo, but no precise address was given. There was, however, a link to the artist’s website—it proved, not surprisingly (to me), to be a recent work by the Prague sculptor David Černý. (Černý is one of the best-known contemporary sculptors here, and does pretty interesting and often satirical stuff. I got to hear him talk about his work when my Czech course visited him in 2003. On the whole, I like what he does. He is especially known for having painted a statue of a Soviet tank pink.) We thought that as it sounded like the sculpture was on the Kampa, we could probably find it.
Off we went. The Kampa is not large, although it is somewhat labyrinthine. We explored the section south of the Charles Bridge exhaustively without finding any sign of our quarry. Perhaps it was simply in greater Malá Strana and not on the Kampa. We left the Kampa and found Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, which met with our approval. We then saw another sign for Kampa and followed it. Eventually, in the courtyard of the new Kafka Museum (I am not sure how many Kafka Museums there now are in Prague), we found our statue. Unfortunately, it being winter, the fountain and mechanical parts were not in use. We did, however, take quite a few pictures, after which it seemed like time for more food.
After this meal, Hubert decided it was time to return to his string quartet, and the rest of us met up with Dawn to watch Corpse Bride in Smíchov. The tickets were exorbitantly priced, but the movie was rather fun.
Megan really did have to get back to Kutná Hora, so after bidding Dawn adieu, Jesse and I accompanied her to the Hlavní nádraží. We did this not because Megan cannot get to the train station by herself, but because the three of us had formulated a plan for anthropological observation of the train station’s clientele. Not the ordinary travelers, of course, but the seedy characters who spend lots of time there. On this expedition, however, we did not see anything too remarkable. One homeless person had brought his own lawn chair to sit on, which I expect was more comfortable than the slab his companions were seated on. Unfortunately capitalism has brought its evils as well as its benefits to the Czech Republic, and thus there are now homeless people who need a warm place to stay on winter nights.
We are not very thorough anthropologists, however, so shortly after Megan’s departure Jesse and I returned to my apartment and watched Balada pro banditu. This classic musical was filmed in the 1970s and is still performed as a stage play (See Jesse's review of a recent instance) but neither of us had seen the film. While the story is set in Ruthenia during the First Republic, the film has a rather sweet and very 1970s counterculture ambience. Even with the English subtitles, I thought most of the plot and exposition had evaporated; without Jesse’s greater knowledge of the story, I would have been baffled. At the same time, we found it very enjoyable to watch and listen to. It has a nonrealistic, poetic atmosphere (imagine Robin Hood and his Merry Men out in the forest, but at a 1970s Renaissance Faire), and Bolek Polívka gives a memorable performance as Mageri the Jew. It made a pleasant end for New Year’s Day and the music at the end of the DVD loops so skillfully and is so lulling that there is no need to turn it off immediately, especially if (as is normally the case in my living room here) the film is being watched by candlelight. You can just sit there and watch the candle flames and listen. Thoughts of archival research have retreated far into the back of the mind, as should generally be the case over the holidays.
(And now: you are growing v e r y s l e e p y…)

The water wheel at the Kampa

Note: You can see a photo Dawn took of us here.
And Jesse has now written about Silvestr, also with photos.
And Megan also writes about Silvestr, using some familiar photos.

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