Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Spring in Prague

It has become quite the rainy spring here, and in fact yesterday I noticed that the river was getting a bit high again, covering the floor of at least one outdoor cafe.
On a not quite so rainy weekend a month or so ago, I went for a walk with Megan and Kelly and took these pictures.

The Vltava, looking away from the National Theater.

Some fine spring leaves.

The Savoy, where Megan and Kelly had managed to order brunch before my arrival. It looked delectable but the waiter was not at his best that day, so I only got coffee and some scraps.

We went up to Strahov, where we took a look at the miniatures museum and the Strahov library. Both pleased us in their own strange ways. Then we headed down into Malá Strana and I enjoyed getting photos of the hillside.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Weirdness Quiz

You Are 40% Weird

Normal enough to know that you're weird...
But too damn weird to do anything about it!

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

To Soap or Not to Soap?

I was recently informed, vehemently and at great length, that it is extremely unhealthy to wash dishes with soap. Allegedly, one can never rinse away all the soap particles, which then get into the food and eventually cause cancer because they dissolve the fat molecules in the intestines and kill the beneficial bacteria that help us digest our food.
This was not a theory I had ever heard, and while I am reasonably receptive to alternative ideas about health, I responded with considerable skepticism.
My informant asserted that, sadly, few people are aware of it (although one would have thought from the original remarks that use of soap on dishes was a barbarism not normally encountered in Prague), because soap is big business and a lot of money would be lost if we didn't use it on dishes. If there is grease on the dishes, one must use vinegar.
I did not really feel up to debating the issue, as all I really wanted to do was lie down and close my eyes, or perhaps simply get the dishes washed. Assuredly, of the various complaints I have heard in my life about my housekeeping, this was an utterly new one. Even roommates who thought I spent too much time ironing and cleaning out the sink never claimed that soap was actively harmful.
It has occurred to me to wonder, however, whether one must also avoid using soap on clothing and external bodily surfaces. I don't really think I want to know. I don't want to hear that I should be cleaning my clothes by rubbing them against a boulder in the Vltava, or coating my body in oil and scraping it off as if I were in ancient Greece.
I would be interested to know whether any of my readers have previously encountered the dish-soap-as-carcinogen theory.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Pravda (the Castle, That Is)

When I visit Rakovník, the schedule of events generally involves 1) tea or coffee with baked goods and conversation; 2) lunch with additional conversation; and 3) some sort of afternoon outing. Though the weather was chilly and threatened to be rainy, by afternoon it was such that we felt able to embark on a hike to a nearby ruined castle. (Well, first we had to drive to where we could reasonably begin our hike.) The said castle was uphill through a forest, but the path was not steep and none of us got at all out of breath, unless possibly the dog Agip, who is a bit elderly.
I did not expect the castle to be called Pravda, but I suppose its medieval owners had no notion that this name would later be appropriated for a Communist publication.
While the sign warns that one crosses the bridge at one's own risk, the said bridge was made of poles and appeared perfectly safe to me, not like some sort of rope bridge over a chasm.

Once we entered the gate, we found a wooden building with an informative sign.

Other than that, the interior of the former castle was pretty much wild, but very agreeable. I gather that it is even more attractive in the fall.

We examined the ruins at some length and then turned around and went back. Somewhere in the neighborhood there are also menhirs, but we didn't have time to find them this time around. We did, however, take a look at the Devil's Stone from the car, which I failed to photograph. Allegedly it is geologically unlike anything nearby, although it looked like a normal enough hunk of weathered sedimentary rock to me. I suppose the Devil had a hand in carving it as well as in transporting it to a field. It was certainly not like the rock used in the castle or in local houses.
And that's all I have to say about that.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006


On Sunday I visited friends in Rakovník, which is about an hour and a half west of Prague by bus but somewhat less by car (unless the car stops at all the same villages on the way as the bus).
We had a fine time and I don't suppose I spoke more than about five words of English until I got back to Prague. However, the focus of this post will be the garden!
I always had a general impression that the house was extremely interesting and that there was a nice garden as well, but it was perhaps only on my last visit that I began to grasp what a remarkable garden it really is. This time there was no missing it, as nearly everything was in bloom or about to be. There were massive quantities of rhododendron and azalea blossoms, as well as some lilies and roses.

There are also numerous other kinds of flower, some of which I recognized or had even grown myself (well, for that matter I've grown azaleas and rhododendrons, but not with such stunning success). Many of the flowers were of the small ground-cover or rock-garden sort and didn't quite make their way into the photos.
Another notable feature of the garden is its collection of diverse evergreens from all over the world. There were tall thin ones, conical ones, round ones, and creeping and weeping ones. If I remember correctly, there were pines, spruces, firs, cedars, and junipers. The only one whose precise identity I got was the Ponderosa pine, although if I had taken notes I could have gotten the Latin names of most of them (not that this would have been of any immediate use to me).

There was also a Japanese maple, visible to the right. I'm not sure what the red-leaved tree to the left is anymore. Unfortunately I had taken quite a few photos on our afternoon hike and my camera batteries gave out before I could satisfactorily deal with the second side of the house. There are, thus, no photos of the new rock garden at the back (with lavender and other fragrant herbs), the vegetable garden (not very photogenic at the moment), the blueberry bushes and raspberry-like items (whether they were blackberries, boysenberries, or some other thing I don't know), the roses, columbines, tulips, and various other wonders such as a tree that produces twisty leaves.
I wish I had a garden like this, but although I have done a certain amount of gardening, especially as regards putting in bulbs and rare old roses, the fact that I haven't spent thirty-plus years in one spot has been something of a hindrance.
Of course, my skill level is also relatively low despite having worked on various garden books which taught me a lot about aphids, mites, and miscellaneous lawn fungi.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

ABC Prague

Do you want to know what's happening in Prague and the Czech Republic from a broader perspective than I'm normally in the mood to provide? Well, yes, you could take to reading the Prague Post and going to Český Rozhlas, and those are both useful options.
Another excellent choice is ABC Prague. This English-language news blog provides short write-ups and handy links (some even to my photos!), alerting the reader to a wide variety of events and occurrences here. Mirek, who compiles the blog, covers Culture, Economics, Entertainment, Photos of Prague, Politics, Sport, Travel, and more. The latest entry alerts us to this week's Roma music festival, "Khamoro 2006"--I hope I can get to some of the performances, which go until Saturday. I was also much amused by an account of recent political fisticuffs.
Take a look!

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Personality Type Quiz

Being too tired to be clever, creative, insightful, or sarcastic (or even descriptive), I proffer this:

Your Personality Is

Idealist (NF)

You are a passionate, caring, and unique person.
You are good at expressing yourself and sharing your ideals.

You are the most compassionate of all types and connect with others easily.
Your heart tends to rule you. You can't make decisions without considering feelings.

You seek out other empathetic people to befriend.
Truth and authenticity matters in your friendships.

In love, you give everything you have to relationships. You fall in love easily.

At work, you crave personal expression and meaning in your career.

With others, you communicate well. You can spend all night talking with someone.

As far as your looks go, you've likely taken the time to develop your own personal style.

On weekends, you like to be with others. Charity work is also a favorite pastime of yours.

Only those who know me can assess whether this one is correct. But it sounds pretty agreeable to me. Take it yourself and report back!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

New in Brno

Jesse appears to have new neighbors. This little pair has taken up residence on the landing to his new apartment. They were very excited when I came by. I'm not sure whether it was simply because they were having an extremely dull afternoon sitting in the cage, or because they could tell I was familiar with small mammals and wanted to meet them. Both the rabbit and the gerbil began bouncing up and down and asking for attention. They became even more excited when we brought them carrots, lettuce, and fresh water. Hay and fresh litter were also well received.
We have no idea who they belong to or how permanently they will be on the landing. Obviously, it's not a good place to keep pets of any kind. They can't be let out to exercise for fear they might fall onto the landing below or the yard, but the cage is too small for a rabbit and possibly also for gerbils.
They are quite friendly, especially to each other, but also to humans. The gerbil seems somewhat more confident about humans, while on the whole the rabbit is ok with humans but doesn't like anyone to stick their hand too far into the cage. While it is a little startling to have an otherwise agreeable animal fling itself at one and give a light bite, this is normal behavior for a rabbit that doesn't have enough space of its own and that doesn't have any overwhelming reason to trust the invader. This rabbit never made a real attempt to hurt me, just wanted to make clear that I should respect its space. With the right treatment, and more room to exercise (and a spay or neuter operation), it would probably have quite a nice life with its pal. I looked up gerbils, and they are supposed to be extremely friendly, so as rabbits also need at least one creature for company, it is no surprise the two spend a lot of time nestled together.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Don't Get Fresh With Me!

As a rule I find my Lingea Lexicon computer dictionary to be pretty good. I can search for verbs by using forms other than the infinitive, and there are usually a good selection of possible meanings and uses. On the other hand, it is picky about long and short vowels, so if spelling has changed since 1920 (or if there is a typo in the original or I can't see whether the I is long or short), I will not get what I'm looking for.
I have just encountered a strange one, however. The Městská knihovna has sent me an email that begins (sans accents for ease of transmission):
"Vazeni ctenari,
dovolujeme si Vas upozornit na letni provoz pobocek..."
I was not surprised to be called one of its Esteemed Readers, but as I often hear versions of the verb "dovolovat (si)" on the tram, I thought I would look it up to get the precise meaning. It always seems very polite.
Imagine my surprise, then, when my dictionary informed me that "dovolovat si" means to be "fresh" or "saucy" and that to say "Nedovoluj si na mě!" means "Don't get fresh with me!" No other definitions were listed.
Is the library really telling its cardholders that it wants to saucily bring our attention to its summer schedule?
I believe it is time to acquire a second good-sized dictionary.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Good News on the Home Front

After a weekend of mourning George (it's all very well that he probably never felt death coming, but what about those of us who took such pleasure in petting and massaging him and gazing into his eyes?), I suspect we were all a little nervous about Ms. Spots' Monday vet visit. Just because it was a routine checkup didn't mean it might not include a nasty surprise.
To our relief, Dr. Harvey saw nothing whatsoever wrong with the Spotted Wonder, other than to suggest that we limit her to 1/4 cup of pellets a day so that she might lose about half a pound. (She looks very attractive at her present weight, but I agree she will probably be more comfortable and agile with a little less bulk.)
Anyhow, her heart was fine (no recurrence of her previous trouble), she had no fleas or mites, she has nice teeth, her ears were clear, and so on and so forth.
All she needs now is a new partner to love. As she is a highly intelligent, sensitive creature with a good memory, I know she won't forget George, but when she meets the right new rabbit, I think she will be very glad. She has been a bit territorial about visiting rabbits in the past (normal behavior for does), but she is a fundamentally sweet and affectionate creature, so I am confident that it will not be too hard to find a good match. Ideally, the doe should be introduced into the buck's territory, as male rabbits are less territorial (this is true whether or not they have been "fixed"), but obviously any new rabbit will be coming to live with her rather than vice versa. We'll just have to see who's up for adoption and what she thinks of her choices.
Meanwhile, Jesse tells me a rabbit has arrived on his landing. It has a companion of another species, but I couldn't discern what from the photo. The rabbit is white with black spots around its eyes, and its companion looks somewhat like a chinchilla. Since I am about to visit Brno for the monthly folk group evening, I might get to see these creatures. I just hope they are well cared for and frequently come out of their excessively small cage for exercise. People tend to keep rabbits in inappropriately small cages and not provide anything for them to play with.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Google Goes Bonkers

As noted earlier today, some odd searches bring people to this blog. But at least people searching for s-x m-chines and d-ntal cr-wns, not to mention c-rt--n r-bbits, find something suitable to their interests. This evening I have concluded that Google (worldwide) is malfunctioning. Whether you are in the US, Iran, Belgium, or Mexico, there is currently a significant chance that Google will lead you to a site that has never featured anything remotely resembling the topic for which you search.
Since I like to provide something of interest to my readers, and a frustrated searcher is unlikely to enjoy hunting for something that isn't really there, I find this annoying.

Strange Searches

Through the miracle of Sitemeter (see bottom of page), I find that for the last two or three weeks a large percentage of visitors to this blog have arrived seeking one of two topics: the c-rt--n rabbit rendition of Br---b--k M--nt--n OR s-x m-chines. (I am inserting the dashes so that this newer post does not attract the traffic rightfully due to the posts in question!)
It appears that my blog post on the c-rt--on rabbits must be one of the only references to them on the internet, which I find extremely hard to believe, given their popularity worldwide. I am glad I can provide the small service of leading people to the correct site, although I would be more pleased to have people continue to read my review of the original film.
As for the s-x m-chines, I can only assume that there must have been a recent television special on the topic in North America, as while over the past few months there were always a few searches on this topic, suddenly it has apparently become a subject of burning interest to the American populace. This is rather amazing to me, as while I find the subject of some mild interest, it would not normally occur to me to look it up on the internet. I mean, if I was curious about the use or history of a specific type of s-x m-chine, I would search for it by name, but the overall subject doesn't really interest me that much from a practical standpoint (although somewhat more than the museum of medieval t-rture instr-ments, of which there is also one in Prague).
It is true that I will look up all sorts of unexpected things on the internet--just last night I was intrigued by the idea that we have a "second brain" in our digestive tract and consequently found myself reading up on that--but I am not normally prone to reading up on the latest gastrointestinal tract research. I daresay some of the recent s-x m-chine queries come from a similar fleeting curiosity.
There are other somewhat common searches that find their way here. I am, for instance, intrigued by the number of people who search for "Brouk" and "mountain" together. I don't usually associate Bohuslav Brouk with mountains, and the word "brouk" means "bug" in Czech, so I am guessing that these searchers (mostly from Spain and Italy) are not sure of their English spellings.
Jesse's blog has also been the subject of some unexpected searches. We are accustomed to the idea that people will happen upon his blog by searching on "nuda" (which means bored in Czech), but the recent interest in s-r-rity whippings was a bit startling. It apparently resulted from his mentioning a s-r-rity girl type too soon after describing Czech Easter customs. You can read all about it in the intro to and comments on his (more serious) discussion of child prostitution in Cheb and other cities here.
Recently I have encountered the phenomenon of searches that should in no way bring anyone to my blog. In the past, I have occasionally gotten visitors via searches that I did not think had anything to do with this blog, but which turned out to include words from the comments section which combined in some unexpected way with words from somewhere far away in the blog. (People, please keep in mind that if you want to search for a phrase, put it in quotation marks! Otherwise, you will get very unpredictable results.) It is clear, however, that Google can go crazy and throw something totally inappropriate into the results, as is evidenced by someone's recent search for "Olga" and "Jack Astor" (which were nicely put in quotes). I gazed at this in astonishment, thinking it was vaguely possible I had mentioned an Olga at some point but could not possibly have referred to Jack Astor (isn't it a dog breed or something?). When I followed the Google search, it brought up the blog, but not with any reference to those words. Alas, now they are in the blog and if anyone else searches for them, they will find this post and marvel. Obviously Google has its bad days from time to time.
Life is always interesting, if rather unexpected, in the blogosphere.

Monday, May 15, 2006

In Memoriam: George

My mother sends the sad news that George has died. I’m afraid it was not what I was expecting to hear first thing in the morning. Since George has been increasingly disabled and in intermittent bad health since January of 2001, we have periodically expected him to die, but George had an extremely strong will to live and repeatedly surprised us.
This time, evidently, his neurological problems were too much for him. According to my mother, she heard an unusual sound from him, so she went and picked him up as she always did when he had a seizure, but this one was the most violent she had ever encountered. She could hardly keep hold of him and next thing she knew he had gone limp. I cannot think how many seizures George must have had over the years, some of them intense and long-lasting—he used to have whole mornings when he would barely start coming out of one before starting another—but during the last couple of years his fits had been much milder and we had come up with some techniques to soothe him. I didn’t really think anymore that he would die of a seizure.
Still, I suppose it was not such a terrible end for a rabbit in his situation. The seizure was brief and he died in the arms of one of his very favorite humans. My only regret regarding the manner of his death is that he probably didn’t have any idea that my mother was holding him. He would have been glad to know that she was there to ease the way.
George was a remarkable rabbit. It seems a little peculiar to say this since most rabbits I’ve known well were also remarkable; the significant thing is that each has been remarkable in an individual way. When I first brought George home from the House Rabbit Society, he certainly didn’t seem remarkable in any way. Very likable, yes, but not possessed of any very striking characteristics other than that he was very energetic and seemed (and proved to be) capable of handling life with Penelope (a rabbit of difficult temperament). He didn’t seem particularly bright to me, but I later concluded that George simply had a different type of intelligence than some of the other rabbits I have known. He didn’t have a strong spatial intelligence and didn’t seem to figure things out the way Penelope did—Penelope was very smart but her psychological problems got in the way of her using her brains very well—but George proved to be psychologically smart, and as the years went on he became very wise. In his youth, he tended to do things like run back and forth hoping you would pet him as he went by, because he couldn’t sit still long enough to be petted in the usual way. He also had a tendency to behave like popcorn popping; every so often his energy got to be too much and he exploded into the air. He had a voracious appetite and could be lured anywhere with just a piece of celery; he constantly gave the impression that he hadn’t eaten in weeks.
Still, when I took the rabbits to the East Coast with me for grad school, George was the one who didn’t really have a problem being stuck in the car for a week. Most rabbits dislike car travel, and Penelope was no exception—she hated it passionately and refused to eat or drink—but George regarded as merely inconvenient, and settled down rapidly once the car stopped. He adjusted to our new apartment immediately and explored it with great interest.
Unfortunately, that first year in grad school I didn’t know that one could really take rabbits on the plane, so I came back from Christmas break to find George was seriously ill with what proved to be a pasteurella infection. I had no experience medicating rabbits, and George was very good at spitting out his pills. Had I realized then that I could grind up the pills and mix them with baby food, we might have knocked out the infection quickly and he might have made a full recovery. As it was, I was getting some medicine into him, so he got better, but we spent months trying to get him over the pasteurella and presumably it never really completely went away. This left him open to other ailments, some of them probably caused by e. cuniculi.
Gradually I became aware that he was falling when he turned corners, and I also realized that the thrashing sounds I sometimes heard were George having seizures rather than Penelope getting aggressive with the carpet. By the time Penelope died of a thymus gland growth in 2002, George was significantly less mobile. He fell a lot and had a very hard time getting in and out of the litter box despite my cutting away one of the sides. Fortunately, Calypso Spots cheered him up greatly, and he liked following her down the hall to watch her get into dreadful mischief by the front door.
Eventually we had to learn how to bathe George, as he could no longer groom himself. Initially, he hated anything that involved not being fully upright and in control of his body. After a time, however, he got used to the idea that being picked up and even bathed were not such bad things, and could even be enjoyable. He also quickly became accustomed to going to the vet, and regarded this as an opportunity to eat more treats. Veterinary assistants were always charmed by his easy-going temperament and the fact that he would simply lie there and eat a carrot while they were taking his temperature or giving him a shot. His vets in Washington, Pittsburgh, and California were very fond of him, and I think he liked them as well.
Actually, I don’t think George ever met anyone he didn’t like. He was a friendly creature, even if not especially demonstrative. Early on in his illness I had my brother coming over twice a day to help me give medicine (one person to hold George, one to syringe the stuff into his mouth), and he remarked that even though George knew he was there to assist with something unpleasant, George always hopped forward to say hello.
George charmed pretty much everyone he ever met during his last few years. As a creature who had once been so active and who became incapable even of standing up, he could have become embittered and bad-tempered. True, at times he did express his impatience about the whole thing, and he seemed convinced that one of these days he would simply be able to leap up again and run across the room. But I always looked upon George as a wonderful example. Should I ever become even half so disabled and am able to be half so cheerful and patient about it, I’ll be impressed. I’m not sure it’s even in human nature to be so patient about affliction. I simply hope that I never have to go through anything like what he did. I know I learned an enormous amount from him.
It pains me that I couldn’t see him before he died, but I know that he was extremely happy staying with my parents. No one could possibly have taken better care of him and paid more attention to his needs and moods. He had daily brushing and lots of cuddling, baths whenever needed, and a wide variety of delectable fruit and vegetable treats. He also had the benefit of a passionately devoted companion in the estimable Ms. Spots. She seemed to fall in love with him almost at first sight and loved to snuggle up with him and lick his ears and face. It was difficult for her when he could no longer follow her around the living room, but she accepted his limitations and worked out ways of playing by herself (tearing up phonebooks and boxes, mainly, and having adventures atop the furniture).
After George died, my parents left his body in his usual resting place for several hours so that Ms. Spots could get used to the idea of his death. She lay next to him at times and sometimes licked him, but I suppose then it would get to be too much for her and she would retreat to the area behind the love seat. She is getting a lot of petting and attention to help her through her grieving.
George is now buried under the fruit trees in the back yard, which seems like an ideal location. He loved to eat fruit, he spent many hours of his youth napping under the trees, and it is an attractive spot. We can be reminded of him when we are in the back yard. He was greatly loved by the entire family.
Being a black rabbit, he was unfortunately a bit hard to photograph well.

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Folk Dancers on Staromak

Last Friday I happened upon a series of performances on Staroměstské náměstí while on my way to the Czech Caricature exhibition. I didn't take any photos of the jazz band, but it seemed as though costumed folk dancers really shouldn't be resisted. Unfortunately, while in many ways my camera is an excellent one, it delays significantly between one pressing the button and actually taking the picture, which means it is not great for action shots. No matter how I try to anticipate what dancers will do and how long the delay will be, the result is usually not what I had in mind. Ultimately I took to shooting at random. Of course, there was also the issue of the sound equipment impairing the view significantly. But, out of a barrage of photos, here are a few examples. The dances were described as being from Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, and Hungary.
The music was provided by a fairly large cimbalom group which, if memory serves me, had four violins, two violas, a bass, and two clarinets in addition to the cimbalom.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Sartorialist

I don't often look at Blogger's "Blogs of Note," but recently I happened to and wandered onto The Sartorialist, a delightful look at how people in New York City dress. The author, who works or worked in the fashion industry, photographs people he (I assume he) encounters who strike him as appealingly attired. People of both sexes and a wide variety of ages are featured, and while the photographer has a particular love for classic men's suits, one of the most charming things about the blog is the openness to and enjoyment of many kinds of style.
While no one could ever call me fashion-obsessed, I do love beautiful fabrics and the textile arts, and I quite share the photographer's pleasure in encountering people who look good (whether unobtrusively or surprisingly) in their clothes.
Since I am not good at approaching strangers, however, I suppose this blog will not become a showplace for the well-dressed of Prague. In your mind, imagine older men in berets (not necessarily black, and not quite the same kind as one imagines in France--think of the beret on the neighbor in the film Musime si pomahat/Divided We Fall). Or older women in interestingly knitted berets or tams, or in colorful felt berets. Or women of all ages draped in patterned pashmina-style scarves.
The Sartorialist has lots of remarkable and sometimes humorous photos from the Easter parade. This photographer definitely has a nice rapport with people encountered randomly on the street.
Meanwhile, the weather here has become relatively balmy, causing me to realize that two short-sleeved shirts are not really enough, and that my pants and skirts are very wintry. I did get another couple of T-shirts, but might have to give in and get something additional for spring. This is an unpleasant thought. If only I could magically transport some of what I have in storage to my wardrobe here!

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Be Willing to Look Foolish

While Taurus is not my astrological sign, I see that Rob Brezsny's advice for this week for that sign applies daily to me and to everyone else learning a language:
TAURUS (April 20-May 20): "Nothing would be done at all," said Cardinal Newman, "if a man waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault with it." Let's forgive his sexist language and concentrate on the truth he articulates, which is profoundly apt for you right now. It's important that you try to do what you can't do very well--that you not use your lack of mastery as an excuse to avoid practicing an immature skill. Be willing to look foolish as you improve, and paradoxically you will often appear brave and inspired.

I also like my own horoscope this week, which may be applicable to some of you as well:
LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): I just received a check in the mail for seven ents. It was from the Screen Actors Guild, a residual payment for my tiny role in the Robin Williams' movie *Being Human,* in which I played a TV psychic who gives readings for pets. Though the 1994 film was a critical and box office failure, it has continued to earn modest revenue through video sales in Third World countries. I decided not to cash my miniscule check, but rather frame it and put it up on my wall as a conversation piece. I predict a similar event will soon occur in your life, Leo: You'll receive a "reward" whose value will consist almost entirely of its power to generate joke and story material. That's not something to be sneezed at.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sunday in Přeštice

After a leisurely breakfast at Štěpanka’s with the other overnight guests, it was time for us to hit the road so that I could visit friends in Přeštice, which is south of Plzeň while Úterý is somewhat north. It was a quick trip, although when I called ahead to give an estimate of my arrival time and said that I was near Bezdružice, I was told that that was very far and I should do my best to arrive. This seemed unduly pessimistic to me, and indeed we arrived in something like 45 minutes. My idea of far and other people’s idea of far do not always coincide even in the Bay Area, where I regard 45 minutes as about average to get anywhere that involves crossing the Bay or venturing south of Berkeley. But then, some people, even in the Bay Area, never leave their own neighborhoods unless forced.
Once in Přeštice, I was relieved to find that I immediately recognized the street and building we sought. This was especially welcome as I had not only forgotten my address book, but had forgotten to ask when I called from Úterý. I get very nervous conducting phone calls in Czech and generally sound like a complete idiot, especially when calling anyone I actually know but don’t often see. In any case, I said goodbye to Jesse and Amy, who planned to spend the day exploring Plzeň.
While the national holiday is one of World War II liberation, and thus massively celebrated in Plzeň, the reason for choosing this particular time to visit Přeštice was that the town was celebrating its 780th anniversary that week. Since 780 seemed like an odd choice of number, I inquired how often the anniversaries are celebrated, and learned that it is done about every ten years. Although I was, for some reason, incapable of locating the program online ahead of time, I see now that each day of the celebration had a special theme, so I am just lucky that majorettes were not the theme on Sunday (they had been the preceding Monday). Rather, Sunday was a historical day with costumed dancing and jousting. Hana and I spent most of the afternoon roaming the area looking at booths with pseudo-medieval items and profusely decorated gingerbread (always a staple of Czech fairs, and very enticing), and quite enjoyed watching the dancing and jousting. After all, it is not every day one gets to watch jousting, especially in a park surrounded by panelaky. Our view of the action was not ideal, but at least we were as close as anyone could possibly get.
Hana has been diligently studying English for the past several years, and as a retired language teacher she knows how to go about this sort of thing, but unfortunately she has no one to practice with in Přeštice. We have a system wherein she speaks English and I speak Czech, which works pretty well in terms of communication but less well in terms of improving her English, as she is better at speaking than at understanding the spoken language. I, on the other hand, have more experience listening and reading, but can employ a basic vocabulary with considerable success so long as I am not confronted with anything too complicated. An afternoon of this seemed like the ideal practice for both of us—not too long, not too tiring.
And this almost worked exactly according to plan. Hana informed me that there was a new bus service that goes directly to Prague, so we thought that I could easily take this back in the late afternoon and Jesse and Amy could return from Plzeň at their leisure without having to worry about picking me up. Shortly after 5:00 we headed for the bus stop.
Now, generally it can be said that if a bus is supposed to show up in the Czech Republic, it will do so, and pretty much on schedule. There are exceptions, but they are not the norm.
This bus did not show up. Hana admitted that it was not a ČSAD bus, but a privately operated bus. Well, these can be good, but they are less reliable. I examined the bus schedule and did not see any reference to such a bus, but it did look as though there ought to be a bus around 6:00. Hana felt we ought to wait until at least 6:00 for this bus, although I pointed out that I could simply ask my friends to pick me up as originally planned.
We waited. No bus of any sort arrived. Someone else waiting remarked that if there were not passengers for the private bus, it didn’t run. (I was unsure how this bus was supposed to find out whether there were passengers if it did not show up.) As it was getting cold, starting to sprinkle, and the fair booths were being dismantled, I announced that I was simply going to call and ask for a ride, and proceeded to do so. Regrettably, Jesse and Amy were not in a position to find the car and depart immediately, but all the same I supposed they would not be excessively delayed.
As Hana is a highly responsible and maternal person, she was not about to leave me sitting at the bus stop, even though I might have preferred this. (It must be stated that I probably would not have left a guest sitting at the bus stop either, unless I was convinced that they knew how to get around.) By this time we were tired, although neither of us was about to say so. We had been practicing our language skills for hours and said all sorts of things about our families, our daily lives, the anniversary festival, and various other topics. We were going a little brain dead. Words for mundane topics were going out of my head despite my having just used them. Hana was showing signs of that fatal affliction wherein one is thinking so hard about what to say that one cannot understand anything said even in one’s own language. We had had a lovely afternoon, it was over, and we were vastly relieved to see the blue rental car drive up considerably after I really expected it to. I collapsed into the car and began yawning profusely. But on the positive side, I had come up with a whole list of perfect gifts for Hana, like sheet music with fun English-language songs, and cassettes of spoken American English with accompanying written text. On the whole, it was a fine day.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Saturday in Úterý

It was yet another holiday weekend. No research occurred. On Friday night Jesse and his friend Amy arrived in Prague, and in the morning (admittedly the latter half of the morning) the three of us made our way out to Holešovice to pick up a rental car. We were not the only people with weekend reservations, and for some reason there were (allegedly) no rental cars handy, so some had to be brought over from the airport. This delay permitted us to 1) examine the wealth of magazines on the waiting area table; 2) eat extremely sweet and sticky baked goods that Jesse had found at the cukrárna down the street from me; and 3) check email on a free internet terminal. None of these activities were all that fulfilling.
Once we had acquired our rental car and inspected it for dents not mentioned on the paperwork (the system seemed exactly like that at home, judging by my occasional experiences of car renting), we embarked on the adventure of getting out of Prague and onto the highway. As the car was rented in Jesse’s name, he got to drive, I got to navigate, and Amy got to look at the scenery. We got ourselves safely out of the city and I soon concluded that Jesse drives pretty much just like I do. Whether this is because we both have Saabs at home or there is some other explanation, I found it calming. Some people do not find my driving to their taste (it unnerves them when I suddenly make a U-turn in order to nab a parking space in San Francisco), but I appreciate drivers who manage to be both relaxed and alert, and can make rapid decisions. Impatient or indecisive drivers can get on my nerves, and I do not enjoy the role of backseat driver.
In any case, it was not long before we reached Štěpanka’s cottage. I was quite impressed by the way Jesse managed to drive directly to the door without any assistance despite the fact that he had not been there since Christmas; it is true that the village is small, but it does have more than one street.
We were not the first guests to arrive, but there were still plenty of seats at the main picnic table, which was adorned with some delectable cakes and garden flowers. While everyone who had gotten there before us was Czech, they all spoke some English, so initially the conversation veered back and forth between the two languages. Soon more guests arrived and the conversation went mainly to Czech. Since Amy doesn’t know any Czech (she is about to begin learning Indonesian), some translating and explaining had to be done, but in actual fact, as the day went on, I could see that Amy was rapidly getting a sense of basic phrases and how to divine approximately what someone is getting at despite not knowing any vocabulary. This is always an important skill, and one much underestimated in language classes. (I am pretty good at it and probably rely too much on my ability to do this, which leads me into a whole new range of errors when I understand all but one key detail. Rabbits as well as humans have been known to wonder what’s happened to my ability to comprehend.)
Štěpanka’s garden was an enchanting sight, as, for that matter, were most of the guests (dressed in one form or another of garden-party attire). She received a fine assortment of birthday gifts and numerous offerings of food and garden bouquets. We all ate and drank vast amounts; some of us also went for walks around the village; and in the evening there was a nice bonfire for roasting klobasy, to the accompaniment of recorder music and later guitar. Those who could see the sheet music sang along, as did those who actually knew the words to the various songs, most of which were Czech versions of American tunes.
While there are, in fact, a vast number of Czech folk and popular songs, American songs with Czech lyrics are also extremely popular, so we got to hear versions of things like “Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Red River Valley,” and “On Top of Old Smokey.” (This was a change from the ever-popular “Downtown” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”) There was also a song that sounded a lot like “Jarama,” but as I don’t know where the tune to “Jarama” came from, for all I know it could have been a Czech standard before it became a Spanish Civil War anthem.
Late in the evening, things wound down and we said our goodnights and headed for the new village pension, which has finally been completed and put into use. We were not entirely sure why the management felt that the three-bed room ought to go to a couple while the three of us ought to be split between two two-bed rooms, but we resolved this issue by moving one of the mattresses. After all, in case of late-night conversation it would not be very nice to leave one person out, and were we supposed to flip a coin as to who was going to be left out? (As it happened, we all fell asleep almost immediately rather than staying up any later, but you never know.) Apart from this quirk of the management, we were greatly impressed with our charming and inexpensive lodgings, although admittedly the slippers were too big for me and Amy to wear properly.
Thus went our Saturday. To be sure, it also included an encounter with a flock of chickens (apparently reincarnations of some I have known, they listened with great interest to my account of their defunct relatives) and examinations of unfamiliar garden flora.

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