Thursday, May 31, 2007

Life Is a Dream, Part II

The Jan Zrzavý show at Waldstein takes dreams in a different and (possibly) more palatable direction than Neo Rauch. Still, like Rauch, Zrzavý will appeal strongly to some viewers and annoy others. I happen to like his work overall, but decidedly some works more than others.
Zrzavý devoted considerable time to the Cleopatra theme, which resulted in quite a few paintings and drawings, but with my apologies to the artist, I can't say these works are among my favorites.

Zrzavý did a fair number of book illustrations, many of which are quite enchanting. This one is for the Mácha's Romantic-era poem Maj (a work that even with my non-literary level of Czech comes across beautifully, although it helps to have read a translation first).

I'm also rather partial to the painting Girlfriends and some of the other works with a similar moody palette.

I have a special fondness for the Exotic Dance from 1908. I don't generally care greatly for works of this sort--imagery of multiple bathers and nude dancers in nature was rife around 1900 and I tend to feel I have seen way too many of them, but I like those that depart from the arcadian norm, which this one certainly does.

Zrzavý's early self-portraits also get my stamp of great approval. It is hard to imagine what other teenaged artist, even during the fin-de siecle, would have portrayed himself quite like this. Zrzavý's Antichrist (in the show and usually on display at the Veletržní palác) is also something of a self portrait. Unfortunately I couldn't find an image of it.

For more on Zrzavý:
A brief English-language description of the show
One can also see Zrzavý's work while visiting Telč, where there's an entire gallery devoted to him.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Life Is a Dream, Part I

Prague is offering several dream-related exhibitions this summer, although the dreams of the artists in question are perhaps better experienced awake in the gallery than invading our sleep. Or rather, I should say I'm quite willing to dream about these artists and their work, but I wouldn't want my dreams to adopt any of the artists' visions in a permanent sort of way.
I first encountered the work of German artist Neo Rauch at a 2001 show in Munich. I had gone to see the Schwitters show next door and decided to take a look at the Rauch as well. At that time, I found the work memorable but not at all appealing. While I'm not sure I had seen anything quite like it before, I felt as though I had seen quite enough art that fixated on 1950s "retro" imagery in supposedly "ironic" ways, especially in hideous color combinations. OK, it's true that most of what I had seen was American whereas Neo Rauch grew up in East Germany, but I felt the aesthetic was all too familiar and that seeing monumental scenes of stolid figures having mystifying interactions with industrial machinery and ugly mid-twentieth-century architecture (in shades of mustard and dried blood, no less) just didn't strike me as very interesting. Really, I felt like I had been seeing some version of this stuff since 1981 or so, and the sooner I stopped seeing it, the happier I'd be. The 1950s may play, to my generation and those somewhat subsequent, a psychological role similar to that of the fin-de-siecle for the surrealists, but the fin-de-siecle visual world just seems more interesting to me on the whole.
Consequently, I was not exactly dying to see the Neo Rauch show in Prague. I regarded it as only slightly more enticing than the Gross Domestic Product show currently up at the municipal library, which I suppose I'll eventually get to since I admit there are artists who have done interesting work with/about excretions and secretions (Kiki Smith, for one).

To my surprise, then, I found that I kind of liked the new Neo Rauch show. It may simply be that my palate was not replete with Schwitters and Münter, or it may be that I knew I was likely to see more big canvases of retro-style figures and machinery painted in revolting color schemes. Or it may just be that I like the newer canvases better than the earlier ones. Be as that may, as I proceeded through the show I found myself increasingly drawn in and entertained. It's like weird dreams of a twisted Ostalgie. The figures initially appear to be directly from some sort of period illustration or photographic source, but they're always subject to strange distortions in scale. Supposedly the artist doesn't actually use direct sources, but I have to say that my impression was that surely he must start with some sort of photo-realist method in which he projects images of individual things onto the canvas and arranges them into a psychotic painted collage. However he comes up with this stuff, it's interesting to spend awhile wandering in his nightmare. I might just get the catalog so that I can experience the fascinating unsettling quality at will.

"It's clear there's a problematic core to them that's grounded in the Apocalypse. I approach the phenomena of this world by letting things go through me in a nonhierarchical order, and then putting together private, very personal mosaics from the filtered material. In the best case, this leads to patterns being created that point to something above and beyond what people generally attribute to the things." - Neo Rauch

Neo Rauch is all over the internet, but here are a few links. Note: the colors look much more appealing on the computer monitor, in miniature. They tend to look really abominable and sickening when towering over the viewer, which I'm sure is the artist's intent.
The Coolest Name in Art: Neo Rauch, by David Hudson
Interview with the artist at
Reason without Meaning by Jerry Saltz
some works from 2006

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Just for Fun

Back from Budapest, too tired to get into the various exhibitions here and there... so instead, some trivial amusement...

Nutty and gooey - you always satisfy.


Sunday, May 27, 2007


On Wednesday Deborah (whom I know from last year's Fulbright group) and I traveled to Boskovice to scope out the museum where she's scheduled to do a workshop for museum workers. We had quite a pleasant afternoon with the director of the Boskovice museum (soon leaving to go to the Mendel Museum in Brno) and got to see an exhibition of Velorex three-wheeled cars!
We thought they were very fine.
And now I'm off to see if I can catch the night train to Budapest.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Kramerius Cracked

I have finally succeeded in getting usable access to the digitized periodicals in the Kramerius system. It has not been easy. In fact, it still isn't all that easy.
Initially, I was using the computers in the library's service hall, which are, after all, perfectly good for searching the catalog or for reading full-text articles. They were not good at all for looking at or getting copies of anything on Kramerius. When I went to Datart to buy some floppies to use in these machines, there were none to be had.
I then had the bright idea of trying the Reference Center instead. The Reference Center has newer computers. It took me awhile to find the USB ports on the computer I was assigned, because Dell had cleverly hidden the ports behind a door. Once that was taken care of, the Kramerius system began to act up.
Every time before that I had attempted to access the system, it was up and running and my only problems related to getting at the material. I now spent a week or so going to the Reference Center and finding that the system was down.
I persevered, however, and developed a system of putting my things in the main reading room, using my laptop to check if the system was up, and if it was, running over to the Reference Center with my flash drive before surrendering my library card in exchange for books.
I wouldn't say the system is all that easy to use even now. The user saves up to 20 pages at a time to a PDF file, a process which takes an astonishing amount of time. (Why is it so slow to make a 20-page PDF file from DJVU pages?) The result can be over 10MB, and my flash drive only holds 128MB (but it takes half an hour or so to fill up the flash drive, so the boredom factor becomes strong).
If the user really only cares about getting one article from, for instance, Kritický měsíčník, it's pretty straightforward. So long as you know the page numbers, the article is soon acquired and can be read at leisure. Similarly, if one only wants one article, or one issue, from Přítomnost, life is not too difficult as Přítomnost is organized by issue number and the issues are only 16 pages each.
It's when you want to be able to examine the entire volume that life gets hard. Disk, which is pretty hard to find outside of archives, fortunately doesn't have too many pages. More than 20, but not hundreds. Something like Volné směry or Tvorba, however... well, we're looking at a significant amount of time just to get a PDF file that can be looked through more comfortably in portrait view on the tablet-convertible laptop. It's worthwhile, but clearly not what the designers of the system had in mind. What, scholars might want to look at an entire volume of a periodical? They might want to be able to analyze the content as a unified whole? They might want to see if there's something of interest in there that no one has cited before? Well, perish the thought!
Fortunately, I'm patient. Not patient enough to use Kramerius for everything I might like from it. I'll have to continue using my grubby fingers and the digital camera on most things.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

More from Tvorba (and Štyrský)

A more typical image from mid-1930s Tvorba is this photo of gas-masked cameramen in San Francisco covering a strike. Tvorba and other periodicals of the day showed an unending parade of photos and cartoons of people in gas masks.
Which reminds me that in honor of the upcoming Štyrský retrospective we wouldn't want to forget about this collage from Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream (note figure in gas mask to the right):

And no, I'm not sure how many people's limbs are shown on the left either.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Wildlife in the Vltava

I think that when most of us think of fauna in the Vltava, ducks and swans are the likeliest suspects. Or maybe, if it's just after Christmas, carp that (at least for awhile, perhaps no longer) were mistakenly released by families who couldn't bring themselves to slaughter the holiday meal. (Carp evidently don't do well in the Vltava, preferring muddy carp ponds.)
Furthermore, I suppose that when most of us think of the 1930s incarnation of the periodical Tvorba (ok, I realize that probably not more than one or two of you ever think of Tvorba at all), thoughts of Communism, socialist realism, and coverage of the interwar political landscape are foremost.

Well, sometimes Tvorba took an unexplained shift of direction. None other than revered Communist journalist Julius Fučík wrote the article accompanying this intriguing visual of dinosaurs emerging from the river to embrace the National Theater.
I confess I didn't read the article, but the picture could hardly be passed up.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Horrible Spam!

Spam does have a way of coming in waves, but the latest wave appears to be gearing up to be a small tsunami. I checked my mail reasonably late last night, so I was STUNNED AND DISGUSTED to find, at 8:00 this morning, that there were 100 new emails of which 64 were spam.
I mean, I do get a good deal of genuine email via email lists and real people, but I can unsubscribe from email lists before I go out of town. This quantity of spam would clog up the works if I merely went away for a long internet-less weekend.
No, no, a thousand times no, I do not want to hear from those pretending to be Oprah, JC Penney, an anonymous airline, or my Love Guru.
Ah well, just think, when I return to the US I'll start getting physical junk mail again as well. Ms. Spots used to like to use that as a chew toy.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Black and White (and Read All Over?)

I avoid buying clothing in Prague since in general the quality is poor and the prices are high. (And where did the Nostalgie store move to? why didn't I write down the address before it departed? all its customers come to this blog in hopes of finding out...)
I will admit, though, that it is much easier to find skirts here than at home. Czech women wear more skirts than American women, and so the stores stock lots of them. Many of them are even in natural fibers.
Thus, when I ran across this little item, I was rather pleased with myself. It seemed most unusual and striking, and I already had shirts that could be worn with it.
Well, almost no sooner had I gotten it home than I started noticing a strange phenomenon, which was that all around me women were wearing clothing patterned in black and white. I swear that they weren't doing this in any numbers before I bought the skirt. But suddenly they were everywhere. Apparently black and white is the new spring look.
If there is one thing I detest (well, actually there are quite a few, but let's keep this simple), it is looking trendy. I do not wish to look like some sort of slave to fashion, it is a degrading thought. This does not mean I am uninterested in fashion; I merely prefer to wear what I like.
But, as I remarked to Nathan's wife Jamie the other day (Jamie admitted to a strong interest in fashion, as well as vintage Pyrex dishes), the unpredictable nature of the fashion industry dictates that if I'm going to wear what I like (without having to sew it), that means I have to buy it when it's in fashion so that I still have something to wear when nothing I like is in fashion.
Life is difficult, then, whether the most trendy item appeals to me or repels me. But I think I can live with black and white as a spring trend, because the results are varied but most of them look good on most of the wearers.
The other day I observed a young woman wearing a black and white print sundress with a black and white cotton head scarf, tall black boots, and black opaque tights. I was torn between thinking that this combination was either going to make her too hot or too cold, and admitting that while I could not see myself dressed up like that, it looked very handsome on her.
To be sure, as one can learn on Japonisme, wearing black and white is unlikely to be in style everywhere. In parts of Asia both colors are associated with death. I will not be wearing my new skirt around Japan unless invited to a funeral, and perhaps not even then as the style is more suited to dancing.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Pickles by Jana

I thought my mother made good pickles (and quite a few different kinds), but I conclude that our friend Jana has her beat. I'm not sure what all goes into these, but in addition to the cucumbers, I noted some carrot, parsnip, and onion slices, part of a small red pepper (not sure which variety), a peppercorn, a clove, a bay leaf, dill, and a lot of small round items that I've seen many times before but can't identify.
I'll bet Jana doesn't make watermelon pickles, though.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

More Blogs and Why They're Good

All the blogs I link to are, of course, worth checking out. Here's why.

Diverse cultural stuff:
Moskovskie Melochie and Procrastinating in Pittsburgh: written by my colleague Kristen, the first chronicles her stay in Moscow (and inspired this blog with its colorful and entertaining coverage of life there) and the second is the Pittsburgh follow-up, which is a more general personal blog covering all sorts of stuff.
Literature and Society: my old friend Geoff looks at literature and politics, often with a Hispanic focus. The main page to his website is here.
Brian Goes to Syracuse: Brian muses about his readings in philosophy and education, discusses music, and includes cat photos.
Mas o Menos: P'tit Loup chronicles life in the field of social work, interesting music heard, and various experiences and encounters.
Rabbit Reads and Rabbit Girl's Blog: Life as a librarian, rabbit rescuer, and generally interesting person.
Take a Swig of Alf: Political commentary and lots and lots of YouTube films on all sorts of things.
De Libertas Quirkas: French-language blog about a wide variety of cultural things (books, customs, photos, Europe). Hard to categorize but worthwhile.
Swobodin v Brně: Multilingual (mostly English and French) blog from Brno, by photography enthusiast and computer expert from Tunisia. Diverse cultural and political topics.
Princess Haiku: "a literary collage of poetry, prose, photography, classical music, dance and book reviews, written in the tradition of a poetic memoir." Some gorgeous flower photography here, I might add.

Specific Topics
Alexvision: Alex presents very cool photographs, often from Zlín, where she studies puppet animation.
FM: Diane and Greg, also old friends, discuss a wide variety of music and (briefly) post downloadable MP3s so you can hear what the music is really like.
ABC Prague: Your guide to what's happening in Prague. Great for anyone planning to visit the city.
The Sartorialist: This blogger, who has a knack for finding and photographing interesting street fashion, seems to be traveling the world's fashion capitals these days.
Apophenia: Berkeley grad student Danah Boyd works on internet social networking among youth. I don't know what half the stuff she studies is all about (a sign of my advancing age), but it's interesting.
Ephemera: Exploring the World of Old Paper: This very appealing blog deals with collecting ephemera (not solely, but mostly, old paper items) and features lots of interviews with collectors of specific types of ephemera. Anyone interested in American history and visual culture should take a look.
Giornale Nuovo: A fascinating exploration of early printed art (and maybe non-printed, but lots of prints). My only reason for not putting this on my Thinking Blogger list was that I haven't spent enough time with it yet.
Filboid Studge: Great visuals from old magazines, named after one of my favorite Saki stories.

Make Me Laugh
Threadbared: No one will be nominating this for a Thinking Blogger Award, but it would certainly get a Laughing Blogger Award (does one exist?). Bizarre tales about old fashion imagery, especially patterns. Oh, and the perverse tale of Barbie's crocheted world!
Rate Your Students: Wicked reaction to the Rate My Professor site. It's not entirely one-side, but it does focus on the more regrettable (though often hilarious) aspects of academic life. You have to be in the right mood for it, but at those times it's quite amusing.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

But I'm Only Thinking Part of the Time

It's probably a law of nature that whenever a person produces a series of especially interesting blog posts (thought-provoking, gorgeous, or what-have-you), it coincides with regular readers going on vacation or getting too busy to read blogs, a drop in casual traffic, and a rise in people visiting only one's most banal and long-ago posts because one happens to have mentioned, generally only in passing, whatever it is they seek.
The corollary is that surges in traffic invariably happen when the blogger has not said anything remarkable just lately, or has posted fewer than usual interesting pictures, or recently said something fairly stupid.
While I wouldn't categorize the past week's posts as among my best-ever, I am glad to say that at least they're not bottom-of-the-barrel.
Since many new readers are stopping by, then, I suggest some of my own favorites, of diverse sorts and in no particular order.

We Speak With Guests (very, very silly)
And Now We Celebrate (team cooking in Prague)
More About Nezval (signs of actual dissertation research)
I Blame Jindřich Štyrský (dissertation research invades my dreams)
The Café Life (historic Prague cafés)
Rakovník in 2007 (photos of a most impressive home garden)
Calypso Spots Is Five (photos of Her Abundance and her mates, for those who like rabbits)
Fun With Hygiene (interwar journalism at its finest)
Graves of the Obscure and Forgotten (photos worthy of Halloween, but from the wrong time of year)
The Museum of Sex Machines (one of Prague's lesser amusements)
The Žd'ár nad Sázavou Adventure Part I, Part II, and even Part III (an attempt to go skiing near a UNESCO monument)
Bohuslav Brouk (Czech surrealist and his oeuvre)
Mistr Brno 2005, For Starters (present-day Czech journalism at its finest)
Silvestr at Karla's House of Pleasure (Fulbright grantees amuse themselves on New Year's Eve and Day)
Spring in Prague (photos)
Folk Dancers on Staromak (photos)
Cubist Houses (architectural photos)
Traditional Buildings in Kutná Hora (architectural photos)

Some of the page formatting looked peculiar when I was hunting these up, so I hope it was a temporary glitch and not something dreadful introduced by the new version of Blogger.


Friday, May 18, 2007

The Thinking Blogger Award Is Upon Us

Those of you who visit a variety of blogs may have run across the Thinking Blogger Award. I saw it for the first time the other day on Princess Haiku.
Well, now this blog too has been nominated! Dr. Zaius states, in his nomination:
This is a blog about the author's stay in the fictional country of Pottsylvania. Aside from that, I can't figure out what the blog is about, except that there are lot's of great articles and stuff - and occasionally there are pictures of rabbits. More rabbit pictures, please!

I'm not sure why Dr. Zaius is unsure what the blog is about (more than one thing, I hope), but I am looking forward to posting more rabbit pictures this summer and will let him continue in his labor-of-love, which is to say showing many images of Nancy Pelosi in the role of Wonder Woman. (For those not familiar with Nancy Pelosi, she would immediately become the President of the United States if the current President and Vice President were deposed or assassinated. I can see why Dr. Zaius has a special fondness for her.)

It's now my turn to nominate Thinking Bloggers. All of the blogs on my sidebar deserve mention, but it must be admitted that some provoke thought more consistently than others, and some bloggers spread the thought-provokingness across more than one blog, so I apologize for not nominating the whole lot. (Also, I'm more familiar with some than others.)
And now for my nominees, to be presented alphabetically:
BibliOdyssey: Surely one of PK's many other readers has nominated BibliOdyssey already and he has merely been too busy to admit it, but just in case no one has, here goes. Amazing examples of old and new book art, posters, and suchlike with much information about them and links to further resources. The curator is modest but writes very good copy.
BikerBar: Lawrence always puts up an intriguing mix relating to art, music, hermetic philosophies, and life as an American in Prague. Not your average expat, he's now also chronicling life as a new father.
Japonisme: Lotusgreen presents a beautiful and carefully researched exploration of the theme of Japonisme (roughly speaking, the West's fascination with things Japanese, but slightly more broadly interpreted here). As when I first encountered BibliOdyssey, the riches here have me a little daunted and I'm only gradually beginning to explore this trove.
Kolo Kolo Mlynsky: Julia has been, perhaps, a bit preoccupied of late and not blogging much (I suspect that life with Caroline, who is no longer exactly a toddler, is a new challenge every day), but she writes with such grace and charm when she does get around to it. Julia gets to the poetry of parenting a small child in Prague, and all the lovely things about life here.
NvB (formerly Nuda v Brně): NvB has been a thought provoking blog right from the start. Jesse has covered a wide variety of issues relating to the Czech Republic, music, human rights, and of course just plain interesting and humorous stuff. Posting has been a little slow since Jesse moved back to Ann Arbor and went back to reading Clifford Geertz, but let this be a prompt from all of his friends and fans to keep up the blogging.
Susie Bright's Journal: As with BibliOdyssey, it seems a bit unlikely that no one has nominated Susie Bright as a Thinking Blogger, but hey, just because she's famous is no reason to leave her out. I'm sure Molly Ivins (were she still with us) would approve of this nomination, which provides lots of sex and politics and is often, as they say, wickedly funny.


1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.
3. Optional: Proudly display the Thinking Blogger Award

Following Princess Haiku's good example (not everyone who gets awards chooses to participate), I have nominated more than five blogs. If your name is above, go for it.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Change for the Better

It's that time of year when not only is the library rather full (yesterday, not long after I got there, they put up the dreaded sign that the reading room was full), but people contact me about their travel plans.
I am pleased to report that Dawn probably has a job (not firm last we spoke, but she did have an offer)--in the midwestern US.
Very excitingly, Alice, who first told me about Fulbright-Hays and encouraged me to apply, has received Fulbright-Hays herself for next year and will be in Prague researching film.
Deborah, who was here on Fulbright in Fall 2005, arrives today to do some sort of training in Boskovice. She is hoping I'll help translate her words of wisdom... well, I've never been to Boskovice but Jen's blog last year made it look appealing.
Nathan and his wife are in Prague for "a few days" (?!) so I'm meeting them for lunch today to find out the scoop.
Bob D, czar of various things Eastern European at my university (let's not get into the geographical debate, for the moment let's use Cold War terminology since that's how REES is set up), is in town with a gaggle of students and if all goes according to plan, we'll be dining this weekend so that I can get him up to date on my research.
Hubert, who has a long list of residencies and such lined up, will be getting to Prague June 7 before heading down to Tabor to do some sort of collaborative musical venture.
As for me, I was originally scheduled to go back to the US on May 18, on the grounds that I had no idea how long I'd want/need to stay and required a ticket with a low date-change fee. Two things arose that indicated a longer stay: the upcoming Štyrský show at Dům U Kamenného zvonu/The House of the Stone Bell, which my dissertation requires I attend; and the possibility of giving a paper in London on June 15. By the time I was clear on the opening date for the Štyrský show, and had a moment to sit down and call the airline, it was a bit late. The not remarkably helpful agent told me there was nothing available in the second half of June. Since I had to see the Štyrský show but hadn't even heard whether my paper was accepted for London, I compromised with a new return date of June 8. I'd been telling everyone I was leaving in mid-June and this seemed awfully soon, but...
Naturally, no sooner had I done this than I got word that my paper proposal had been accepted.
I underwent some agonizing (or at least miserable) calculations. While the conference was one of graduate students, it would be at the Tate and everyone would be a surrealist specialist, so the professional contacts would be very desirable. Should I ignore my return flight and try to get a one-way from London? ah, but then I'd have to take the train to London, since you can't take much baggage on intra-European flights or on the bus. What should I do? Airfares of any sort are hideously expensive just now.
Eventually, I decided to see if any seats had freed up in the latter part of June. I thought I'd give this only one try, since the conference organizers were waiting to hear whether I'd manage to come or not.
This time I got a very pleasant and professional agent who quickly checked into what I was eligible to do and found that I could fly out on June 19. While this is only 11 days later than the other, somehow it makes a huge difference even beyond allowing me to go to the conference. I can get a little more research done, and in addition I can think about whether to spend a few days in Britain, make a quick trip to Paris to scope out future research there, visit friends in Berlin, or what. I can't do all of these, but at least I have some options for the remaining time.
Life suddenly seems much better even though I won't get to see Orion and Ms. Spots for a whole month still.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Rabbit in the Moon

My parents tell me that when they finally reached home, considerably later than anticipated, they discovered that Orion had gotten sick while boarding at the House Rabbit Society and had had to be rushed to the vet (he was fine the morning of April 27, but listless and unresponsive by afternoon). He was given fluids and medication, and while the exact problem is unclear, he responded to treatment and was taken off the medication a couple of days ago. He appears fine now, though he has to go in for a re-check in a week, and both rabbits are glad to be home.
We are vastly relieved that he pulled through and hope he won't have any more problems, especially once I take the rabbits back to Pittsburgh, where there is less rabbit expertise (although my vet there is quite fond of the rabbits I've brought him and will be sorry to hear of George's death). Many thanks to the HRS staff and volunteers for their prompt action in getting Orion to the vet!
Now up on Japonisme is a gorgeous collection of Japanese rabbit images, plus the legend of the Rabbit in the Moon.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Cemetery in Merklín

On our trip to Merklín, site of my family's first encounter with the Czech lands (1945), we took our usual trip to the cemetery, which is a short walk out of town. Last time I was there, an astounding windstorm blew up just as we arrived, so we've wondered forever after whether the spirits were offended. Why they might be offended is beyond our comprehension, however. Our old friends buried there aren't the type of people to be upset that we don't bring flowers.
This time there was no sign of spirit or weather unrest, but there were so many flowers on most of the graves that I wondered whether there was a spring grave-visiting holiday that I haven't learned about. I know everyone goes to the cemetery at the beginning of November with flowers and candles, but in May? Perhaps it was because there are so many Czech holidays at the beginning of May that everyone had time to go to the cemetery...
There were somewhat fewer flowers on our friends' tomb since no one in the family lives in Merklín anymore. We heard later on that the tomb is scheduled for repair in July, but we didn't notice anything wrong with it in the course of the visit. It looks in pretty good repair to me, but apparently some part of it is falling apart. I'm glad to know that the family intends to take care of whatever it is before it looks like some tombs I've seen (even in the same cemetery) that look like something out of a horror movie.
It's a very nice little cemetery overall.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Studying, or Not, in Cafe and Library

Kristen has already linked to it, but as the end of the semester in the Czech Republic nears, I too point my readers to The Panopticon, where Franklin encounters a ludicrously rude (and seemingly also stupid) college student in his local cafe.
In Prague, cafes have not been taken over by students; students can be seen here and there (myself included), but they do not take up the majority of the space, or even a quarter of it. This is as it should be (not that I am opposed to a given cafe being student-oriented versus another being over-60 oriented). In Prague, I am pleased to say, most cafes have a very mixed clientele and it is normal to have a wide variety of ages and activities underway from table to table. If things get too distracting for me, I point out to myself that I could be in the library (quiet but no food) or at home (quiet but with other distractions).
It is, however, that heavy-duty study time of year and one needs to get to the library early in order to find a seat near an outlet. Students in Prague are much more polite than American students, but they do tend to camp out at their spots all day long whether they themselves are physically present or not, and often one does see them doing something other than study on their laptops. Still, I think most of them will probably end up competent to remove my gallbladder should the need arise.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Good and the Bad

Now that my parents have safely departed (and reached the Western Hemisphere), and I have had a few days to recover from so much intensive visiting, a variety of observations come to mind.
First of all, it is clear to me that while some people actually regard me as extroverted, they are sadly mistaken. I have always been well aware that I fall somewhere in the middle of the chart, since on those personality questionnaires my answer to the question about whether I relax by going to a party or hiding in my bedroom is invariably "it depends." I am a sociable enough person under the right circumstances, but I can only take so much human contact before the zombification process begins to take over. Fortunately this mainly occurred while I was driving and needed only to worry about whether my headlights were set properly (I have now received the obligatory ticket for putting them at the wrong setting).
Second, I am glad to say that car rental is no harder in the Czech Republic than at home, but that no one in their right mind would want to drive in Prague. Being accustomed to city traffic in San Francisco and other places (Manhattan proved not nearly as troublesome as advertised), I was not so much alarmed by the traffic as inclined to fret that if only I were on the tram, life would be so much better. Fortunately, the need to drive in Prague was minimal, as we only used the car to go to places like Uterý, Rakovník, Merklín, Přeštice, Kutná Hora, and Ostrov. I was also greatly startled at how well I could find my way around the city in the car despite never having driven there in my life. This was even in neighborhoods where I had never really previously wandered. Czech signage, however, takes getting used to and is sometimes just not there.
Before I got the rental car, and had all the visits arranged, we actually had some free time and took trams around Prague. I've always been impressed with the Czech custom of giving seats to the elderly, the disabled, and people with small children, but it seemed that absolutely every tram we got onto lacked free seats and required someone to get up for my parents. They did so very reliably and pleasantly.
Nearly everyone we visited was someone I've known for many years and feel quite fond of. This is, naturally, on the whole a good thing. On the other hand, it's just like having relatives. If someone thinks you don't visit enough, or something like that, you can be in for trouble. So long as you live in a distant foreign land and only show up every few years, all is well. One the other hand, if you live in the same general area, well, then why don't you call or visit more often? Where on earth have you been? The fact that you work all day and spend most of your evenings contentedly at home alone recovering from reading all that Czech all day long just doesn't excuse you. On the other hand, everyone claimed my Czech was great. I wouldn't go so far as to agree with that, but I did feel pretty fluent the whole time. The only time I really missed something important was when in the midst of a discussion of something else, our hostess inquired whether I thought it was time for lunch. I thought she sounded like she was asking about lunch, but this seemed so improbable that I didn't believe my ears. After all, we had just eaten a platter of sandwiches and several kinds of dessert. I had forgotten that she likes to change topic with baffling speed while you're still on Topic A.
Understanding most of what people say is not always so great, however. When we stayed with some people my parents had gotten to know without me, the elderly materfamilias took a liking to me and favored me with a long, long, diatribe about the difference between the nice, concert-going American liberators and the nasty, brutish Russians who tore paintings out of their frames. That part was nothing new to me, but after awhile I tired of hearing how the majority of Russians are an Asiatic horde of animals, especially when she got going on the Yellow Peril. I hadn't even known that the Czechs used this term (Žlutý nebezpečnost). I thought it went out of style in the US around 1925, or at least by 1950. Well, sometime before my time.
Other people also had their say about the Russians, and while dislike of Soviet control is one thing, I had never before gotten such a sense that the generally sane, educated people of my acquaintance had anything particular against the Russian people (and I daresay most of them don't). And then, admittedly not from anyone I had previously been acquainted with, all sorts of garbage about how the Arabs are just waiting to cut other people's throats in the night. What century are we in? Why should it be so unbelievable that some Arabs are terrorists and others aren't? Even the average terrorist is not going to waste time going to your house and individually slitting throats. Did Timothy McVeigh bother slitting throats? Certainly not, he blew up a federal building. The same applies to the minority of Arabs who go in for terrorist activity. If you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, too bad. Otherwise, chances of death by terrorism are not all that high, especially in your average Czech village.
It appears, however, that Czech TV has been feeding people here the same kind of ill-digested scare material as American TV feeds its viewers. I do not take well to having to argue with people I've always regarded as intelligent and reasonable, over the alleged need to build a wall between the US and Mexico. Sure, illegal immigration is sometimes a problem. I would not deny that having more poor people puts a strain on local resources. But a wall? Since when are the Mexicans enemies? Didn't the Mexican-American war end more than 150 years ago? If Mexican workers are willing to do jobs that American workers don't want, let them have the work (and don't kill them with unsafe working conditions). ...Well, but they'll have more children and outnumber the white Americans! (I confess this nearly stupefied me coming from someone who's not even American and shouldn't be subject to this sort of notion.) WHO CARES if they outnumber the white Americans someday? Over a hundred years ago Americans were obsessing over the danger of the Irish and Italians. I've got close relatives descended from Africans, Asians, Mexicans, and who knows what else, and this does not bother me in the slightest. However, if we're going to build a wall against Mexico I guess we need one against Canada and had better build a bubble around the US so that no one can come in or go out.
As if this sort of thing were not enough, I suspect we know only one Czech who shows any sign of grasping why anyone would live with a rabbit, and that it's about the same as living with a cat or dog. I grant that there is a cultural gap here, in that Czechs are deeply invested in rabbits as food and are averse to the idea that any animal they view as dinner could possibly be good company. However, my family has had house rabbits on and off for something close to fifty years, so it should be no news to any of our friends by this time. I am very tired of explaining that rabbits are clean animals (when healthy) who use a litter box, that they are friendly, intelligent, and playful, and that they enjoy being talked to and petted. None of this is classified information. I don't know why three people discoursing on the merits of house rabbits and how nice they are to have around cannot persuade an audience that it isn't a law of nature that rabbits are best stuck in a shed somewhere out of sight. I mean, really, my family is tired of hearing how great rabbit meat is and that rabbits are dirty, smelly animals. If we were dealing with the average dog-obsessed Czech, I would have pointed out that dog meat is very popular around the world, but I let it suffice to have my parents explain that rabbits are much cleaner than dogs. Dirtiness has never stopped humans from making any animal into a pet, probably because humans are also dirty.
Well, there are my rants in response to other people's peculiar and annoying notions. I made my opinions known in a somewhat more abbreviated form at the time. But apart from such things, and getting thoroughly exhausted, I mostly enjoyed our visits.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Our Baby Is a Rabbit?

There are those times when something on BibliOdyssey prompts strange things in my brain... in this case, the prompt was a post with images of remarkable persons.
I don't claim to know of very many people who would have been chronicled in a nineteenth-century collection of strongmen, people who lived to be 129, and female sailors who beheaded Frenchmen, but Mary Tofts, decorously depicted with a little rabbit in her lap and labeled "The Pretended Rabbit Breeder," was familiar enough. Long, long ago, the entity now known as Dr. Zaius brought one of Hogarth's renditions of Mary Tofts to my attention, as in those days we were busy bringing up a Fierce Bad Rabbit (well, not actually all that fierce, but he liked to bite through phone cords while I was on the phone). I'm not sure whether the image in question was Cunicularii

or Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism or some other print that I haven't run across on the internet, but what does it really matter... Mary Tofts and her alleged ability to give birth to large quantities of rabbits could hardly but stick in my mind. (And for all I know also inspired the Julio Cortazar story "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris," which involves a narrator who constantly vomits live rabbits.)

The desire to parent rabbits is not unique to Mary Tofts or to those of us who belong to the House Rabbit Society, as this brilliantly surreal Calvin and Hobbes strip from 1989 suggests. It made me laugh uncontrollably back then and still does. (No doubt I still have the original clipping somewhere, but I found this one here, where you can read the text easily.)
Czechs find it utterly bizarre that anyone would bring a rabbit indoors as anything except dinner, but my parents know that they've got to take their grandchildren in the species they come in. You can support the House Rabbit Society's rescue and education efforts by getting something like this at their online Cafe Press store.
Ms. Spots and Orion, currently boarding at the HRS, say "Buy those HRS pillows and T shirts!"
I say, Adopt, don't be like Mary Tofts who stuffed dead animals where they don't belong.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Adventures in Snapter Testing

Awhile back I read about an interesting new piece of software on The Student Tablet PC blog. Snapter is intended to straighten out photos taken of papers, business cards, and books. Since I've photographed a lot of books for my research, I was excited, especially since it looked like it was possible to get very nice results.
First, let me clarify what I do, why, and how I do it.
Many books I need in my research are relatively hard to find; they also tend to be long and/or include images I want to study. In the US, I ordered some of these via Interlibrary Loan, and while ILL is a heavenly service, the laws of nature apparently dictate that anything ordered on ILL will arrive when one has the least possible time to peruse it. Consequently, I scanned a few of the shorter and less fragile titles, and used our departmental camera stand to photograph others. I also photographed some books from our own library, or that I had bought, so that I could have the material readily available on my laptop when I went to Prague.
In Prague, I photograph some books but particularly material from bound journals, most of which are from about 1920-1938. Some of these have very tight bindings, meaning the pages don't want to lie very flat, and some of them have fragile or damaged pages because they were printed on poor quality paper and have been heavily used over the years. I also photograph archival documents.
My next step, usually, is to create a PDF document of the book or journal. This is in order to have one file rather than hundreds, and so that (theoretically) I can set it up for highlighting and other markup. I use Acrobat 6, and the process is 1) Create PDF from multiple files; 2) do any rotations necessary; 3) if the text is fairly straight and in a western European language (i.e. not Czech or Polish), I run the Capture feature. Acrobat's Capture feature is a type of OCR and makes the document searchable and highlightable, but unfortunately version 6 doesn't have support for Czech documents, so I can't do this on most of my texts. Also, which is relevant to Snapter, the Capture feature fails on documents where the lines of text aren't straight enough. (Capture also requires a minimum 300 dpi image, more for small text.)
I perceived, then, a need for something that could correct problems relating to page curvature. After all, if something is merely crooked, I can rotate it in Photoshop, but I'm not aware of any curvature correction in Photoshop (I'm not an advanced user so it might be there, but probably not the kind I seek; correct me if I'm wrong).
Well, I'm sorry to say that my initial experiments with Snapter were disappointing. This shouldn't prevent anyone from trying it, as it's a new product, still being actively tested and improved (barely out of beta), a free trial, and other people's results may be very different than mine. So, go ahead and download it and test it yourself!
I thought, however, that I would show some screen shots of my testing results. They go from the abysmal to the usable.

Figure 1.
Using your fingers near the spine to hold the pages flat (something I frequently have to do) causes Snapter total meltdown. Click on photo to view exactly where the bounding lines go on this otherwise pretty straightforward photo. Yeah, they're all up above the book.

Figure 2.
Here, the fingers are farther apart so Snapter at least recognizes that it has to do something. Putting lines around the book, however, are not yet on its agenda.

Figure 3.
One of my main gripes about the version I used (1.03.04) is that I didn't find it very adjustable. OK, so the program initially didn't quite recognize the page borders, but it should be possible to manually adjust. Note the placement and length of the yellow line. It's supposed to be the divider between the two pages. I found that it was somewhat possible to move it right or left if Snapter misplaced it, but for some reason it usually was very short and I couldn't get it to lengthen to the full height of the book. That then messed up the red lines that are supposed to delineate the edges of the pages. Note how on this pretty much nice-and-flat volume the red lines go all over. If this bound journal were any flatter, I wouldn't even bother to try correcting it. As far as I can tell, the problem here must be that the page goes to the edge of the photo at one point, as Snapter requires a dark background all around. Well, when I took the photos, I was trying to maximize page coverage, and avoiding having background. I had no idea I would later need a dark background for Snapter.

Figure 4.

In this example, Snapter messes up the outline for the left page, which I think (I did these a couple of weeks ago) resulted in it working on only the right page. (Click on the image to see a larger version that shows how the red line cuts off the left-hand page near the gutter.) It is possible to move the red lines a small amount, but what I found curious is that while they have various nodes that ought to be adjustable, I was only able to move two of the nodes--those that represent the centers of the page edges farthest from the spine. Even those could only be moved a small amount. This meant I couldn't correct for most of the problems presented in Snapter's initial attempt.

Figure 5.
In this instance, the paper I had used to hold the left page in place messes with Snapter's need for a dark background. However, I really don't understand why that affected the rest of the image. You'd expect it to mess only with that edge.

Figure 6.
Some of my photos are single-page, so I did some tests using the Document setting rather than Book. Here, it cropped ok (but so would any image-editing program), but since I could only choose the corners for adjustment rather than additional nodes (still an improvement over the adjustability for the Book setting), the result didn't flatten much. In other words, I could have gotten the same result in quite a few other programs and not had it mysteriously rotate.

Figure 7.
Another try using the Document setting. The finger on the side didn't cause any real problem, but again the result wasn't much different than cropping with a regular image editor.

Figure 8.
I decided to try doing a two-page spread on the Document rather than Book setting. Actually, I did this because I couldn't get Snapter to start a new project (ie with different settings) without closing the program, so why not experiment? But as one might expect, the results were pretty much just a closer crop and the strange rotation. (Note: the reason I couldn't get it to start a new project seems to have been that I was dragging and dropping into Snapter. The program seems to want you to use a specific folder for the source images, namely the one they have examples in, but my photos were on my second hard drive and it was a real pain constantly choosing that directory.)

Figure 9.
So... I restarted Snapter and did the same spread using Book. This shows results for the left page--the finger doesn't cause much of a problem, but I couldn't correct the top border, so there's little curl adjustment.

Figure 10.
And here's the result for the right page. It doesn't do very much, I think. A bit straighter but still curled.

Figure 11.
Here, I was able to get pretty good results despite the finger in the lower left corner (the outlines are adjusted the best I could), but while I grant that the finger throws off the lower left corner, why should that affect how Snapter deals with the other page corners? And, while this result is not bad, I wouldn't say it's any improvement on the original. The same was pretty much true of the right-hand page... good but not remarkably better.

Figure 12.
Here I got quite good results. Not perfect, but quite good. Had I been able to adjust the boundaries more, the results might have been better. My question with this one is, when the original is this good, and the adjusted version isn't perfect, why would I really bother? Some people would find this amount of adjustment satisfactory. For me, the original was quite readable and I would have wanted the adjusted version mainly so that I could have a nicer looking image for presentations.

I conclude that at this stage, Snapter may be useful for single-sheets or pages, and for books that are very carefully photographed to be well centered against a dark background, with nothing holding the pages in place. I question, however, whether a person really needs to do anything special to most photos that fall in that category. Generally I'd think you could crop and rotate them nicely with most image editors, with less fuss. Other users will have to decide whether their images benefit.
For photos of open books, I believe Snapter has wonderful potential but needs a lot of development in order to be able to handle normal real-life situations. Most books don't open very flat, so the photographer has to do something to make the text reasonably visible, like hold the volume open with one hand or with another book. It seems to me that if the user could adjust all the nodes fully, this would go far to eliminate bad results. Not being a programmer, I don't know how easy it would be to implement that.
Snapter claims that it will do bulk adjustments. I haven't tested this, because I have yet to try a photo that didn't need quite a bit of fiddling with (even those that could be made to produce decent results). Let's face it, even with Irfanview, which can do lots of relatively sophisticated batch edits on photos, I wouldn't be likely to do a batch edit that changed the picture quality, I only do batch edits that do things like change the file name or size or that put a copyright notice on the image (and I do these on copies, not originals, but Snapter does do everything to a copy, not on the original, so that's not an issue here).
I'd also like to see better documentation for Snapter. As far as I could tell, its documentation consists of some basic tips on their website regarding using a dark background and centering the object. I didn't find its supposedly intuitive interface that easy to deal with--it's too dumbed down. Also, it relies a lot on right-clicking, but nothing in the regular menus alerts the user to this. I've used a lot of different programs over the past twenty years but still find Snapter kind of clunky to use since it seems to expect me to read the developers' minds regarding what its different features do or how to accomplish basic tasks. I mean, come on, if I don't understand something in Photoshop, at least I can look it up.
So... that's about all I intend to say about Snapter until the software is further developed, which I very much hope it will be!

Note: A new version of Snapter has come out (July 2007).

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bees Near Merklín

My parents are on their way home now, so I anticipate that they're getting even tireder while I'm taking a short rest. But then, I did all the driving and spoke Czech at great length nearly every day while they were here. We agreed that overall the trip had been a good idea, despite its tiring aspects.
I believe it is appropriate to note that we were much taken with a joke related to us by friends in Kutná Hora. The father of the family, now long dead but fondly remembered by all of us as a man of very dry wit, used to insist upon accompanying guests out to the car or other means of transport. While this is a courtesy often practiced in both the Czech Republic and the US, his remark about it was that you had to make sure the guests were really gone (especially relatives). Therefore, I was careful not just to drive my parents to the airport, but to go in and make sure that they got safely checked in and over to the passport control area. If they are not now gone from the airport and somewhere over the Atlantic by now, there is not much I can do about it. But since there has been no distress call from the other side of the passport control booths, I think it is safe to say that they will be in the US tonight, and will probably soon reach my sibling's lair as planned. My guests are safely gone.
It does not appear that I took all that many pictures during our wanderings, presumably because my mother was taking her share and I felt absolved of the need to record everything. However, I did take some in a garden near Merklín (the Merklín near Přeštice, not the other one). This garden belongs to a family whose activities include beekeeping. Since my family used to keep bees as well, we could not miss out on seeing the Czech beehives.

My family had, at maximum activity, about five hives. They were white in color and sat down near the road amidst the trees. These five or so hives produced enough honey for us to eat, sell, and give as presents, and my mother assures me that we have not yet run out of honey from those hives. We were astonished, then, to see that there were about fifty hives in this garden, which are tended by about three people. We liked the multicolored hives.

Of course, it is not enough just to look at the beehives, attractive though they may be. The honey also has to be sampled and the bees themselves admired.

First the bees have to be lulled with smoke. Otherwise they become upset when the hive is opened and the frames removed.
Once the smoke has settled them down, the bees sit on the frames in a relatively placid manner. It has been many years since I was involved in the honey-removal process, so I have forgotten most of the details, but in this case we simply scraped away some of the wax and scooped up some of the honey to eat. As it is early in the season, the honey was light and of a very subtle flavor. Later, as more trees and woodland fruits flower, the honey will be darker and stronger.
While at the garden, we saw quite a number of different things, including the centrifuge used for the honey, the remains of a small brick factory, and some mallard ducks. However, I did not photograph most of these things.
I did, to be sure, photograph a wary barn cat for the benefit of Kristen and other cat fanciers. We were much amused at the sight of green eyes in the dark under the barn door, and the gradual emergence of a small head.
Eventually the entire cat appeared, but it did not really want anything to do with us.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

We're Still Tired...

...and haven't dealt with any of the newer photos in the camera.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Political Quiz

After a visit which entailed some degree of discussion of the Democratic party's presidential candidates and their chances in the next election, I offer this quiz (which I hope will center properly on the blog, which it is not doing in the draft form). Tomorrow we have the last visit of the parental trip, which will take us the farthest afield. I hope we have mostly got their suitcases packed before we get into the rental car tomorrow morning.
You are a

Social Liberal
(73% permissive)

and an...

Economic Liberal
(11% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on OkCupid Free Online Dating
Also: The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Online Documentaries!

Being exhausted from a weekend of nonstop visits, I direct you to Take a Swig of Alf, which reveals where to find lots of full-length documentaries online. Pretty impressive. I wouldn't try these on dial-up, though.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Rakovník in 2007

Long-time readers of the blog may recall the photos I took last spring of an amazing garden in Rakovník, where friends of my family have been gradually adding plants over the past thirty or forty years. While our friends claim that the garden is just gearing up at this time of year and will be better later on, I think that one can hardly complain of an insufficiency of blossoms. And this year my camera batteries didn't give out halfway through the yard.

The house itself, in Secese style (Czech art nouveau), was designed by Otakar Novotný and was built in 1911. Novotný also designed the furniture.
Novotný, a very significant architect, had a long and varied career which included the city's Sokol building (somewhat similar to the house) and the design for the Mánes building in Prague, which is in a completely different style. You can get some data about Novotný at Archiweb (in Czech) or just do a Google search, which will turn up many references and photos although the texts are nearly all in Czech. Before lunch, we got to look at the original plans for the house and furniture, which was pretty exciting.

Since we're enthusiastic about gardens as well as architecture, any visit has to include a detailed tour of the plants. While I am neither a botanist nor a remarkably experienced gardener, my several years of gardening in California (when I haunted Berkeley Hort with some regularity), plus my parents' longstanding habit of planting fruit trees and tomatoes, seems to have enabled me to understand a considerable amount of Czech garden data. It is, of course, convenient that certain plants have similar names in both Czech and English, and that our friends are able to provide the Latin names of their plants at the drop of a hat (not that I know very many Latin names, but a few of these go a long way). Consequently, I was able to tell my parents which azaleas were Japanese and bloom late, that the tall pine tree was Canadian, that the cedar was from wherever it was from (the Himalayas?), that the taller Japanese maple's leaves vary greatly in color from season to season, that the tree with the peculiar shape and twisted leaves is a willow with a weeping habit, that the small fir shrub (or was it spruce?) is native to high altitudes, that birds tend to eat all of the yew berries, that the salvia is next to the oregano and lavender across from the blueberry bush, and that the rose bushes will have salmon-colored blossoms and will be about six feet tall by the end of the season. I didn't bother to translate most of the more technical data since most of the time my parents were wandering in some other part of the garden where they could look at the rhododendrons without being burdened by all of the details about each plant, its origin, its growth habits, its need for sun or pruning, and whether other variants had flowers of vastly different hues.

As may be apparent, I would like to have a garden like the one in Rakovník, but I realize that this is unlikely to happen since the gardener does have to keep at the project for much longer than I have ever lived in one place.

As we left the garden to go for a walk in the external world, our friends noted that the fact the house faces an extensive wooded park does effectively extend their garden. The park is quite long and a splendid place to walk in its own right, and we all agreed that the panelaky nearby had a most enviable view. While panelaky used to be hideous monstrosities (and some still are), we all agreed that with recent renovations and colorful exterior paint, Czech panelaky are finally beginning to look relatively appealing. (One of these days I intend to feature some photos of them...)

And it should be mentioned that while I didn't take any photos (being the designated driver), we thought the woods on the way to Rakovník were singularly gorgeous.