Sunday, December 31, 2006

More Poetry and Performance

The days after Christmas have their own unique quality: people sit around reading all day, or get back online, or head down to Half Price Books to take advantage of the 20% off sale (sorry, it ended Friday). I think I got three books there and a much larger stack (mainly items like The Weimar Republic Sourcebook) at Moe's. The invitees to the Revenge of the Holiday Ham party have been eagerly checking out the photos, and Cesar tells me that the email response has been gratifying (it never, of course, occurs to anyone to put their remarks in the blog comments). Orion and Ms. Spots have eaten quite a few beet greens, although they prefer carrots and parsley.
Since, however, the holiday season continues, there have been further opportunities to go out and get into mischief. Cesar tried to get me to go to an afternoon poetry-reading party held by one of his associates, but I was a bit tired and unpoetic, so I passed on that one although I gather it went very well. We did go to a similar event at Eileen Malone's last night, though. Eileen and I know each other from the National Writers Union, and she and Cesar have been in the same poetry group for the past year or so. Eileen has a lot of experience hosting arts events and readings, and each year around this time she invites friends to a holiday party where people can present a little bit of their work after dinner. Like the Ham party, this wasn't limited to poetry, so we got to see some gorgeous underwater photography, hear about some publishing projects, and listen to piano and koto performances as well as hear readings. (Cesar read a couple of poems and I presented the beginning of one of my more embryonic novels.) It was a very enjoyable and varied collection of talents and endeavors.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas with Rabbits

With the excuse that having rabbits in the living room there is no room for a regular-sized Christmas tree, my parents have taken to the miniature variety. It is true that with rabbits, there is no real place to put the gifts until the last minute. On the other hand, I must admit that Orion and Ms. Spots are very decorative under the tree, which is one of their favorite places to nap. My mother was originally concerned that Orion would be anxious to see what was up there (I don't know why the ever-curious Ms. Spots wouldn't also want to know), but neither rabbit has shown the slightest inclination to get involved with the tree. Perhaps they are too busy cuddling up.
In my role as Designated Chef, I was allotted two sous-chefs in the person of my sibling and an old friend of his who came for Christmas Eve. Between the three of us, we managed to prepare a suitable feast with sweet potatoes, roasted vegetables, sauteed spinach with raisins and walnuts, a jello recipe, and some ham. I am pleased to say that my sweet potatoes enticed a former hater of sweet potatoes to ask for seconds, and while we made some errors in following the jello recipe (not only did we let it set a little too long before adding the other ingredients, but we didn't notice that the can of pineapple was 20oz while the recipe expected 8oz), everyone thought the jello was perfectly good. There had been plans to make mashed potatoes, cornbread, peas, and pie as well, but the Designated Chef has not been too energetic and also has trouble finding implements in the maternal kitchen. Fortunately, we had more than enough to eat as it was.
The Christmas Day dinner is now underway. There will be an Arabian Squash Casserole (an item that John and I have prepared with great success in the past), more roasted vegetables, more sweet potatoes, more jello, and whatever else I have the energy to put into action. I think this will mean peas and perhaps the cornbread that didn't get made last night. Unfortunately there were no fresh cranberries to be found on any of our forays to the various grocery stores.
At least we have nice-looking compost for the holidays (contents of the litter boxes are buried somewhere under the leaves).

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Revenge of the Holiday Ham

Cesar and John decided to throw a holiday party that would showcase some of the guests' talents, so after some consideration (my input was requested but I was a bit out of commission at the time and not very verbal) the event was titled Revenge of the Holiday Ham. One of John's roommates kindly volunteered his bedroom as a performance space, so the intrepid hosts rigged up a stage at one end (I added the lights). As is his custom, John cooked for two days straight. I intended to help out on that, but since my mother had just had major surgery and I am the designated chef at home, I was not all that useful on the party catering front either.

Cesar undertook the role of master of ceremonies, which he carried off with skill and panache. John and I were disappointed, however, that he did not wear the hat during the majority of the party.

Given the title of the event, I was not sure whether to expect stand-up comedy to take over. However, all the performers (participation onstage was optional though stronly encouraged) ended up either presenting poetry/prose or performing music. (If I am reminded of the names of all the performers, I will be happy to add them next to the photos... sorry, I only know some of you.)

The first half of the program was primarily literary. Clifford, for example, gave a spirited reading of a long poem.

Sanjeev gave a moving performance of a devotional song. He claims he is an atheist, but that he likes this particular song. It was extremely well received, which is more than I can say for how the photo will be.

Memories of departed family members made for an unexpected but appealing change of pace.

Not all of the literary offerings were written by the performers; we also heard some John Donne recited in a quietly compelling fashion.

A combination of fiction and court testimony also proved effective.

After the intermission, we moved into John's bedroom in order to use the piano. John, Rachel, and Shirley started off with a Purcell duet, which prompted musicological inquiry.

Since it is usually hard to come up with fiction short enough to read in less than twenty minutes, I settled for some piano improvisation. Fortunately the muse cooperated and no one threw fruit.

We then returned to the main stage, where Peter gave us the benefit of a shakuhachi piece. I think it was of his own devising.

Shirley then presented a classic Chinese poem in her parents' native dialect.

An enchanting Caribbean song followed, but I confess I've forgotten whether the performers learned it in Venezuela or exactly where.

More poetry followed.

Some of the audience actually got to sit on chairs... Somewhere around this point Shirley led a sing-along of Greensleeves.

We also had a song with guitar accompaniment.

Since there had not been any pictures of John, Cesar, and I before, Cesar and I persuaded John to join the lineup and Laurie to operate the camera. And, since John and I met precisely six years ago at one of Cesar's holiday parties, it seemed like an appropriate time to get the three of us together. (Certainly more so than when we were dismantling the stage the following morning.)
In any case, a fine time was had by all.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Holidays Strike Prague

Before we plunge into West Coast holiday madness, a few photos of Prague holiday madness are in order.
First, holiday advertising in my own neighborhood. One would have thought that a country renowned for its beer would have been spared this billboard.

Holiday shoppers (both Czechs and others) approach the Christmas market on Staroměstské náměstí. This is one of the better directions from which to approach it. Last week I made the mistake of trying to get there from the south and found myself in such a traffic-jam (in the alley with the Museum of Sex Machines) that everyone was taking about one step forward per minute. There was a lot of jocular yelling back and forth to the effect of "Don't lose Grandma!" and the like. The people behind me seemed to imagine that if they kept pushing me I would actually be able to move forward. They were deluded. A lot of women seemed to be using small children as their personal battering rams. This didn't work all that well either. As far as I could tell, I was the only person in the crowd who found the situation less than entertaining. It seemed to me that the gingerbread I sought was being a little too dearly bought.

Admittedly, the whole scene is fairly decorative. Alex and I concluded, however, that on the whole one finds better gifts at the neighborhood Prague Christmas markets, which are not trying to sell so many tourist items. We thought the market at Náměstí Miru was superior. It's true that we could have bought mead at any market, but it was pleasanter buying it away from the crowds, especially since the vendor was using a cast of his grandma's teeth to hold down the napkins. (I hadn't brought my camera, but Alex requested permission to photograph the item, so it may appear on her blog one of these days.)

Friday, December 22, 2006

Not Dead Yet

Frequent readers may have imagined that I had been killed or incapacitated during the past week, but in actual fact I merely flew to the Bay Area for the holidays. Small amounts of holiday shopping have occurred (mainly for food, as I am the designated holiday chef), the dentist has been visited (no cavities or other problems), and my writing group has met.
As one would hope, Calypso Spots and Orion were very pleased to see me. I hadn't thought Orion would even remember me, but although he is still a little wary of humans, he settled right down to be petted as soon as I put down my luggage and came near. Ms. Spots, whom I had been attempting to pet telepathically all fall, licked my hand the next day. She only does this when particularly moved (usually when I've just retold the story of her adoption).

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Waiting for the Tram

Since it gets dark somewhere between four and four-thirty these days, taking the tram home from the library tends to mean waiting in the dark. (No, I did not go to the library today. I'm not going back until next year.)
There is at least a certain amount to look at while one stands at the Staromestska stop.
Like the Rudolfinum.

And sometimes a tram goes by advertising the film school in Zlin.

Friday, December 15, 2006


You might say it was a surprise this morning when I got to the library and discovered, at the coatcheck, that I have laryngitis. I don't often lose my voice (straining it now and then is one thing, but losing it?), so I never expect anything of the kind.
And, while I don't think of myself as unusually talkative, like most people I do feel annoyed if I can't say something when I want. Fortunately the library staff were very nice to me when I produced a few croaks intended to say that I couldn't talk.
A quick search on Google has no very useful advice for cold-related laryngitis. Since I don't smoke, drink excessively, or happen to have croup (a disease apparently limited to those under the age of four), allegedly all I can do is shut up and wait for it to go away. If it lasts more than two weeks, I should consult a doctor.
TWO WEEKS?!! Whoever heard of laryngitis lasting two weeks? I don't think I've ever had it for more than a day. But, of course, this makes me nervous. I just wanted to know how to coddle the vocal cords for immediate recovery. Now the fact that Shawn and Jesse both called and I attempted to speak to them makes me fear that things will be no better tomorrow, when Alex arrives from Zlín for a visit and some Christmas shopping before we catch our holiday flights.
I will be very annoyed if my voice is not back by 11:15a.m. Saturday.
But in the meantime I went to the Dekadence exhibition at the Obecní dům and bought two massively discounted but extraordinarily heavy books there (one on Jan Preisler, one on Jiří Karásek's art collection). I'll be very surprised if these can be successfully added to the holiday luggage.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

More Bookshelves

In honor of books that are about to be taken back to the US, I offer up Jesse's Brno bookcase. Since music books don't usually take up as much space as art books, these shelves aren't quite as packed as they might otherwise be... there are a lot of pamphlet-thick items here. And, of course, some novels may have been loaned out at the time the photo was taken. I'm afraid I failed to immortalize the shelves of CDs and DVDs.

And then there's my own bookcase, which even after the removal of some of the heavier books seems a little saggy to me (the photo is pre-packing). This set of shelves doesn't even have that many art books because 1) most art books are bigger and 2) I took as many home over the summer as I could manage. As can be seen below, there are still enough big heavy ones to cart back for the holidays.

And, of course, if there weren't that TV sitting there taking up space, I'm sure a lot of useful things could be put there... I did plan to use the TV to improve my Czech, but between the fact that I've barely watched any TV of my own volition since high school (I do sometimes encounter it when visiting) and the seeming impossibility of figuring out the remote controls on the TV here (there are two, neither marked as to which is for the TV and which for the VCR, causing me to press buttons randomly until something appears on the screen, which can take a long time), this seems to be a lost cause. When I don't feel like there is enough time for things I actually want to do, figuring out how to turn on the TV in order to watch what I'm told is low-quality programming is just not high on my list, no matter how educational.
Although... just think of all the Karel Gott specials I'm missing! Well, if I ever get that yearning to watch the Czech Elvis (Shawn does not permit him Elvis-hood but places him with Wayne Newton), I can go to YouTube. There were 32 Karel Gott videos there last I checked!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Traveling by bus in the Czech Republic? You too may find this on the back of your ticket (assuming you have a reserved seat).

Looks to me like the sort of thing we've all gotten a lot of spam about.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Christmas Displays in Brno

While I can't say that I actually went hunting for intimations of Christmas during recent visits to Brno, I did come up with a few photos of seasonal (or not so seasonal) displays. Behold, for example, the Brno Tesco in its glory! (The Prague Tesco has a similar decoration.)

I have no recollection what this window was for, but I like the combination of the red ornaments and the lion. Incongruity has its appeal...

There were not all that many snowmen about (perhaps because the temperatures have been remarkably warm in both Prague and Brno) but I found these.

There is probably nothing at all Christmas-like about this guy, but he does seem very Czech in his slippers. I don't think you will find a Czech household without its slipper and house-shoe collection. Mine has been found lacking since I only have one pair of slippers.

I'm curious whether anyone will buy these for Christmas, but I don't suppose I will find out.
In the meantime, Hubert had his going-away party in the midst of remarkable chaos (the entire flat has been repainted and his roommates are moving things around), and has reached the US safely but somewhat the worse for wear from what he told me this afternoon.
I too have been worse for wear since the going-away party (a cold and sore throat), but recovered sufficiently to venture to the library today, where I photographed two volumes of Reflektor. This periodical does not relate all that closely to my dissertation (although vol. 4 featured advice for some readers with VD and for one person who was told to sleep on a cold, hard bed and avoid stimulants of all kinds), but it has an interesting layout, with numerous photos of Communist demonstrations and "primitive" people doing their hair or hanging out in front of their huts. There was also a photo of Lenin on his deathbed, six years after the event. (Well, as a commemoration of the anniversary. I believe Lenin's body had been moved to the mausoleum in the meantime.)
In addition to the library venture, I managed to buy paper and printer ink despite the holiday crowds, so as to print out a copy of the dissertation just in case anything dreadful happens to the hard drive. Remind me never again to buy inkjet ink in the Czech Republic; its exorbitant cost in the US must be about doubled here.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ouško Revisits Jesse

Once back in Brno (the return bus trip involved watching the movie Troy, which was most diverting for all the wrong reasons... who scripts these things?), I thought we should permit Jesse's spotted neighbor another hop around.
Ouško himself was very excited about the prospect. He and the gerbil generally go into a frenzy when we go by their cages, and Ouško now associates me with excursions as well as treats. He thought it was a very fine thing to be able to hop atop his cage and survey the cimbalom. And, of course, for an animal who spends his life confined, the idea of sitting on the cage instead of inside it must be very appealing.

Ouško also enjoyed sniffing a wide variety of things. The cimbalom and the music stand legs got their share of attention, but he thought the socks were especially fine. Rabbits tend to like to sniff socks, but usually they are most interested in socks that are on feet. Being a little skittish, Ouško preferred socks on their own.

After a good deal of hopping, sniffing, and general exploration, our hero settled down for a rest. Orion and Ms. Spots would have been proud of him.
I'm sorry to say that I don't expect to see Ouško or the gerbil again, though, as Jesse is about to move back to Michigan. While I'll miss Jesse the most of the three, at least I'm confident that he can enjoy life back in Ann Arbor. Ouško and the gerbil will probably lead an even drearier life now.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

More Budapest

A few more photos from Budapest... while not, I think, quite as photogenic as Prague, Budapest is not short on beautiful and interesting photo-ops. To the left is the courtyard of our host's building. The rather surprising shade of green is frequently to be found in the city, but I have no idea why. It's brighter in real life than in the photo, something like the old Crayola "spring green." I gather that it is not all that difficult to buy property in Hungary (compared to in the Czech Republic); the main thing foreigners need to do is give evidence that they won't be letting the property become derelict, and that they won't be removing historical treasures from the country. So, somewhat like a condo or coop in the US, you can buy an apartment in a building like this. I didn't ask how much these things cost, but presumably renovations are often in order.

Some buildings, for that matter, still have bullet-holes from (I assume) 1956. I don't suppose most people who have a building with such a historic form of disfigurement are likely to cover it up at this point, but you never know.

Not noticeably disfigured in any way (unless one simply abhors the style) is the New York building. This historic cafe was recently renovated and appears to be utterly swanky. We didn't go in, but I thought the sinister lamp-holders were a nice touch.

Here and there one also finds some stunning art nouveau doors.

Budapest also has numerous bridges across the Danube, although I think Pittsburgh outdoes Budapest in sheer quantity. They are fun to walk across at night, anyhow.

Back on the Pest side of the river, one apparently has a choice of brands in American hamburgers. We were more interested in sampling the Hungarian fare, which bears some relation to Czech but cannot be considered the same. There tends to be a lot of paprika in the sauce. I didn't get to sample very much Hungarian food, but I enjoyed what I did try.
Another Hungarian specialty that I tested out was a liquid called Unikum. We went to a tanczok one night, where a crowd of regular attendees were dancing nimbly to Moldavian music (which, I'm told, has been adopted by the Hungarians), so it seemed appropriate to try the Unikum. The flavor isn't bad, but the aftertaste is unpleasant. Nonetheless, I was so bold as to have two shots of the stuff. Whether it helped or hindered me on my one foray onto the dance floor is uncertain. Probably neither.
A particularly agreeable aspect to visiting Budapest in December proved to be the Christmas market, which I did not photograph. It's my understanding that Prague is much better known for its holiday markets, but the markets I've seen in Prague are extremely disappointing. In general, I don't know why anyone living in Prague goes to them except to eat holiday food and (on Staromak) to listen to holiday music. The wooden toys are nice, but exactly the same as those found year-round all over the city. The rock-salt lamps are also appealing enough, but again, you can buy them any time. I have yet to see any non-food, non-Christmas-decor item at a Prague Christmas market that couldn't have been bought in a regular store or vendor's stall at another time of year.
So... it may be that I am biased toward the Budapest market because I don't live in Budapest and don't see the same things year round. But I don't think so. The Budapest market was not filled with mugs emblazoned with the name of the city, Russian matryoshkas, refrigerator magnets with pictures of bridges, and so on. The Budapest market did have a lot of CDs of Hungarian folk music, ceramics of a wide and generally impressive variety and quality, traditional embroidered goods, leather hats and wallets, interesting items of clothing, and generally speaking a lot of crafts. I got a few things, but my purchases were limited mainly by my lack of a way to carry them off rather than by price or lack of selection. I would have liked to have gotten more ceramics, but I knew that this was just not a good idea (and, in fact, the one plate I bought has already been dropped and broken, although I think it should be fixable).
I don't know what the Hungarians think of their market, but I thought it was one of the more impressive craft markets I've ever been to.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Signs of Music in Budapest

Budapest, like Prague, has a certain awareness of its past and present musical life. And, of course, we were there for musical reasons. This all being the case, we had to go by the statue of Liszt Ferenc (aka Franz Liszt) undergoing an ecstasy of composition. It was something of a challenge to capture the statue's frenzied appearance, and altogether I seem to have failed at that. Whether Liszt actually posed thus, I couldn't say, but as Jesse and I informed our host, Liszt was alleged to get so impassioned in performance that he broke piano strings. After discussing this legend, we are a bit dubious that it can really have been true, as piano strings are pretty tough and Liszt wouldn't have been doing anything more remarkable than banging on the keys. Still, it is one of those tales that every piano student learns early on. I'm not sure I actually aspired to break any piano strings, but I did regard Liszt as a performer to emulate. (This did not, I think, come across to any of my piano teachers.)
Whether or not Liszt broke his piano strings (and early pianos were probably more in danger of this than today's variety), Budapest's music academy is named after him. It is a large and ornate building.

The interior of the academy is particularly stunning, but after photographing the important sign below, I noticed a different sign forbidding photography.

I'm not certain why music academies feel it necessary to post signs forbidding bicycles and dogs. Are music students more likely to bring these than other students? Do people (in both Prague and Budapest) typically bring them to concerts? Well, I admit that the Czechs bring their dogs just about everywhere (except for Zlin's 21 building, where they are forbidden). I can't speak for the Hungarians.

After dragging ourselves away from the Liszt academy, we visited a cimbalom maker. The store across the street from the workshop has both pianos and cimbaloms, so Jesse tested both the new and renovated variety. There was considerable discussion of the Schunda and Bohak systems and other niceties. Most of the discussion, however, centered on what would be involved in fixing our host's damaged instrument, which was not in perfect shape when bought and which was not improved when some workmen decided to store the bathtub atop it during renovation of the apartment. I'm not certain why the workmen thought the cimbalom was a better place to park the bathtub than the floor; perhaps they had a dislike of cimbalom music.
Speaking of cimbalom damage, and for that matter of breaking strings, Jesse revealed that there are legends of cimbalom strings snapping during performance. It is true that violin strings occasionally give way and cause minor mayhem, but a snapped violin string can hardly compare to a snapped cimbalom string, which would be more like a piano string. We had dire visions of cimbaloms crumpling from the stress of the stretched strings and the strings flying out into space. It seemed to us that someone was likely to get killed if this happened, although I do think the performer would have enough warning to step back or even run away.

After we ran away from the cimbalom workshop, we looked at a lot of books, CDs, and sheet music. Jesse bought a fair amount of sheet music, but restrained himself from getting this item. I really can't see why, although one cannot buy everything...
And, as a postscript, it must be noted that tonight Hubert is celebrating his imminent departure from the Czech Republic. While I was in Budapest, he SMS'd me asking if he could stay at my place while some sort of renovations were happening in his bedroom, but unfortunately there was no way to whisk the keys back to Prague. I gather that someone painted the room pink and warned that the ceiling might fall in. This could be an exaggeration; I will seek the truth at Hubert's within the hour. However, whatever the state of his bedroom, Hubert departs tomorrow and will take up the peripatic existence of the wandering composer, going from one artists' colony to another. I suppose he will also apply for a few teaching jobs.