You Can't Bathe in the Same River Twice

30 November 2005
Brno’s Divadlo Husa na provázku (Goose on a String Theater) revived their legendary (in Brno at least) production Balada pro banditu last Thursday (Nov. 17). The musical, created by the Brno team Milan Uhde (book) and Miloš Štědroň (music), was first presented in 1975. The story must hold a strange fascination for Czech audiences. Since the first premiere, a successful movie of the musical was made and Koločava, a second musical based on the story (by Petr Ulrych, another well-known Brno musician), was a hit in 2000.

The plot of Balada is taken from Ivan Olbracht’s novel Nikola Šuhaj loupežník (Nikola Šuhaj the Outlaw, 1933; translated and published in English by Northwestern University Press, 2001). Olbracht, a writer associated with Czechoslovakia of the interwar period, was inspired by the people and terrain of Transcarpathia, known to the Czechs as Subcarpathian Ruthenia. The novel, apparently considered one of Olbracht’s best, combines mysticism, magic, and historical events. The character Šuhaj was inspired by a real-life Ruthenian bandit.

The action takes place during the First Republic (1918–1939) in Transcarpathia (present-day Ukraine). This region, famous for its fairytale mountains and rugged ethnic minorities, fascinated many Czech artists and intellectuals of the time. It still fascinates Czechs today. One reason might be that Transcarpathia was Czechoslovakia’s only colonial province and the story depicts the “golden age” of Czechoslovakia. The major characters are Nicholas Šuhaj and his girlfriend Eržika, Mageri the Jew, and the Czech Chief Gendarme. Šuhaj, a Ruthenian (an actual ethnic group that becomes mythologized in the story), is a bandit who robs rich Jews and gives their money to his friends. The action, at least that not related to the love story, stems from the fruitless efforts of the Czech gendarmes to find and arrest Šuhaj. When they finally find him (by bribing one of his friends), it turns out that their bullets do not hurt him because he has been enchanted by a magical forest spirit. Šuhaj dies in the end, of course, because he has angered the forest spirit by attempting to kill her (hoping to attain eternal life, I suppose). Because Šuhaj is overall a sympathetic character, his death is tragic, and the audience is left wondering what will happen to Eržika and his child. I have seen both musicals, and they center on this love story. But a larger parable is being told (graduate student peanut gallery: “ooh, meta-narrative?”), though it is not less Romantic: civilization (the Czechs and Jews) is powerless against the rawness of nature (the Ruthenians and the primeval forest spirit). Seemingly unable to conquer nature or to live by its rules, civilzation retreats. There is a bit of the noble savage here, perhaps. But different rules operate for the two worlds, they are incompatible, and after a short confrontation they go their separate ways.

I had a ticket to the Saturday-night performance (Nov. 19). Though I thoroughly enjoyed the production, it seemed to lack life. This may be due to recent artistic “crises” at the theater. During the Communist period the theater survived only due to the perspicacity of dedicated and gifted actors and directors. (Zdeněk Pospíšil, who directed the original Balada, was one of the major driving forces. He committed suicide in the early 1990s.) However, now in a new facility – “the best theater space in Central Europe,” claims the current artistic director – the theater has slowly lost direction. While this production was very good, I suspect that it was revived in part because for the theater’s posterity rather than artistic reasons. The production emphasized ensemble rather than individuals, though Jan Zadražil (Šuhaj) and Jiří Vyorálek (Mageri the Jew) stick in my memory. The most striking aspect was the music. (I don’t say this only because of my bias, really.) While thoroughly accessible to a wide audience (many of the songs have reportedly become the kind of songs that Czechs sing around campfire), there were various themes for different characters and ideas (leitmotifs) and masterful orchestration for an ensemble of piano, violin, cello, and synthesizer (plus voices of the ensemble and various amplification effects).

Although I don’t have enough information about the original production to say all of this, it seems that a lot of the original performance’s edge and message might be gone. This surprised me because director Vladimír Morávek’s films are quite quirky yet have a hard-to-pin-down sense of weight and are many-layered. Unlike his films, Balada was plain sentimental. While the music implied many nuances in the action, the plot centered mainly on the love story. There was apparently a more pacifist message to the 1975 production (Šuhaj's guitar doubled as a “gun”). This message, and the idea of ethnic repression/intolerance, would have likely been close to the hearts of a 1970s Czech audience than today’s. Uhde, in fact, was a banned author and not even credited as the writer for the initial production. In the 1970s Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Russians and there was anything but an open or civil society. Perhaps the revival’s guns, axes, and self-consciousness--at one point the actors stop to “take a break” because one of the actors is “tired” or “hurt” (after all, one actor says, this is live and the actors are humans)--is meant to resonate vaguely with the situation in Iraq. If so, however, this meaning was incredibly far-removed from the production’s actuality. But the producers were well aware that it was impossible to re-create a legendary production, which was perhaps why they chose the new production’s tag line: You never step twice into the same river.

Moravian Girl on the Town

29 November 2005
Wow, I'm so behind in blogging. My goodness. Last Sunday (Nov. 20) I went to a concert by Iva Bittová in the Besední dům ("Gathering house"), the home of the Brno State Philharmonic. Bittová is one of the premiere international performing musicians in the Czech Republic today, and she is one of those performers who likes to be "outside the box." While it would be possible to characterize her performances as merely "serious" (in Czech, vážná hudba ["serious music"] usually covers what is loosely described as "classical music" in American English), she is often inspired by folkloric sources (her father was a famous fiddler in Brno) and popular music (she has claimed in interviews to like house music). Of course, she likes it that way. She infamously rejected a prize from the Academy of Popular Music because, as she told one reviewer, they like to label creative people and throw them into one bag (interview with Ondřej Bezr in Pětadvacet [rozhovory s ceskými muzikanty] [Brno: Petrov, 2004], p. 190). Bittová is often compared to Meredith Monk or Björk (among others). I came away with an impression of a more Laurie Anderson-like performer but with Bobbie McFerrin's vocal talents and sense of humor. Almost every English-language article about Bittová mention her Moravian roots which, by implication and in a vein very intriguing to my research, are taken to be a major source of her musicality. What these roots do mean I have yet to figure out. (You'll have to read the dissertation to find out...)

Though Bittová was the headline act at the concert, she was accompanied by the Škampa string quartet. The quartet was an integral part of the performance, they even sang and danced at various points throughout the performance. Janáček's Moravská lidová poezie v písních [Moravian folk poetry in songs], originally arranged around 1908, was the heart of the concert. The arrangement for voice and string quartet, done by Vladimír Godár, was recorded by Bittová with the Škampa quartet last year on Supraphon Records. Because this is a rather long work (over fifty short songs) it was split into two parts, and about half of these songs began each half of the concert. The end of the first half was (presumably) a solo improvisation by Bittová with voice and violin. Though known mostly for singing, she is very talented violinist. The improvisational section of the performance really let Bittová's love for sound as a medium of independent expressionshow through. One of the special characteristics of Bittová's performance style that also showed through here was her sense of humor and playfulness, elements that often do not come through in improvised music. The second half, after Janáček, was filled out by Bittová's Quator pour Cora. This piece requires "extended techniques" from the quartet, including foot stomping, vocalizing, and clapping. Encores included an arrangment of a lullaby on a text by J. A. Komenský (I think) and another solo song by Bittová.

The performance quality was great overall, but marred by faulty sound equipment in the second half. Some sort of buzz or feedback on the speakers was enough to distract the performances at the end of the Janáček so much that Bittová missed her final entrance. They did recover, however, and the ending was fairly solid despite the loss of concentration. The lack of program also left the audience confused - when to clap? what were they playing? is it intermission yet? This resulted in all the pieces being interrupted by applause, which I do not consider a horrible faux pas, but often it was obvious from the performers' body language that the applause was not at an appropriate time. This was particularly evident in the Quator, but this is partly due to its strange balance (the last movement is the same length as the first three combined, and the third movement is very energetic which gives the impression that the piece were over).

Bittová has just released a CD with the Bang on a Can All Stars, a spinoff from the New York-based Bang on a Can performance collective. It sounds very fresh and showcases Bittová's compositional talents. You can read a review of the CD here (New York Magazine Online) or find a variety of other responses from her website, (linked above).

České jazykolamy

A selection of my favorite Czech tongue-twisters.

The infamous sentence without vowels:
Strč prst skrz krk. [Stick a finger through your throat.]

Vlk zhlt hrst zrn, zvlh plž pln skvrn! [A wolf wolfs a handful of grain, [and] slobbers on a spotted slug.]

The ř, classic:
Tři sta třiatřicet stříbrných stříkaček stříkalo přes tři sta třiatřicet stříbrných střech. [Three-hundred thirty-three silvery splashes over three-hundred thirty-three silvery roofs.]

The ř, food:
Kmotře Petře, nepřepepři pepřem toho vepře. [God-father Peter, don’t over-pepper that pork with pepper.]

The ostriches:
Pštros s pštrosicí a pštrosáčaty šli do pštrosárny. [The ostrich father, mother, and baby went to the ostrich area.]

And then English:
Betty Botter bought a bit of bitter butter, and she put it in her batter but it made her batter bitter. So, she bought a bit of better butter and she put it in her batter and it made her bitter batter better.

Ha, Czechs, let’s hear you do that one three times fast.

Nudli 3: Brno Hybrid

28 November 2005
This is one of my favorite Brno foods. Fried cheese served over noodes with coleslaw and mayonnaise. I know it sounds strange, and believe me, I probably would never eat it anywhere else in the world. But I find the "Asian bistros" of Brno very intriguing, and this is their best hybrid dish. Asian noodles and fried cheese. Hmm. Weird.

Silent Witnesses Reach Czech Republic

25 November 2005
Awareness about domestic violence is growing in the Czech Republic. The organization ROSA (english) is pushing for a new law that could allow law enforcement greater authority in domestic violence situations. At present there is apparently no legal provision to allow police to separate abusers and victims. Even among other Central European countries--including Austria and Slovakia which allow grant greater jurisdiction to law enforcement--the Czechs are apparently far behind, even compared to neighbors Slovakia and Austria. Unfortunately many Czech MPs do not support any changes in the current law. According to a somewhat disturbing story from Czech Radio, some MPs fear the new law may be "abused," resulting in more "messy divorce cases." Surely there are plenty of divorce cases already, and this is obviously a pressing issue--ten women have already been killed in abusive relationships this year in the Czech Republic. The opposition seems to be another facet of strange ideas about "the family."

The Silent Witness project, begun in Minnesota, has supported a public exhibit to raise awareness about domestic violence and to cultivate community-based violence reduction efforts. Like their American inspiration, the Czech exhibits feature red silhouettes of abuse victims killed by abusers. The silhouettes are displayed in a semi-circle and bear information about the commemorated victim. Lighted candles stand in front of each silhouette.

Ancient Czech Blend

24 November 2005
You're probably thinking I get a commission for all this product placement, but I don't. :(

Today's feature is Jihlavanka's "Ancient Czech Blend." It's coffee. The package clarifies below, in case you weren't sure what was in the bag, "genuine Czech Turkish coffee." A blurb on the back of the package suggests that, for "preparing a really strong genuine cup of Turkish coffee, the Ancient Czech Blend is absolutely ideal." Since this is bound to confuse some shoppers (I haven't met any Czech Turks in Tesco recently who might explain), the packaging includes a helpful serving suggestion (displayed at left): white cup and saucer, black foamy liquid. The white plumy thing is supposed to indicate, "serve piping hot."

I normally drink tea in the mornings, but it is nice to have coffee around. Being a graduate student I have inclinations toward coffee snobbery--actually it's not a matter of taste alone, buying instant coffee doesn't really cross my mind when I'm at the store in the U.S.--but, as the beverage post revealed, I have resorted to instant coffee here. There are practical reasons for this. It is, one, rare to find a large selection of whole-bean coffees in any store here. Most (if not all) of the downtown Tesco's coffee selection is instant; the rest is pre-ground. And, two, coffee-making equipment is not available either. I didn't even see filters while I was there this afternoon. This was explained in icon form on the back of the Ancient Czech blend. Recommended preparation: 1) Add seven grams of blend to empty cup. 2) Pour in 100-degree liquid (water?). 3) Look at cup?

Now I seem to be set. I don't have (only) imitation powdered coffee but the real thing. But there is one problem. I can't drink it. I have no cup to match.

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Into the Historical Liver (of Moravian Folk Music)

23 November 2005
At least that's what I thought the performer was announcing from the stage. I just got back from a concert at the Brněnské kulturní centrum (Brno Cultural Center) located in the Stará radnice (Old Town Hall). The small concert venue is located just above Brno's stuffed dragon (no kidding) that has hung in the building's passageway for more than a hundred years for a long time, so I thought maybe it was a joke of sorts. It turns out that there was a simple mistranslation: I heard játra ("liver," as in chicken liver) when he said jádro ("core," "nucleus," "center"). Oops. He was actually saying that the hudecká muzika (fiddle groups) was at the very core and root of traditional Moravian music. Some people might argue with this, but the sentiment certainly tapped a sympathetic vein with the audience.

The speaker was Jiří Plocek, leader of a duo with Jitka Šuranská. Their performance celebrated the release of their new CD, Plocek & Šuranská: Písňobraní ["Song Harvest"] (Indies Records, 2005). The duo follows Plocek's earlier group Teagrass, which was known for its combinations of Moravian folk songs (as taken from published collections) with bluegrass (Plocek picked up this style during post-graduate studies in Indiana). The duo widens Teagrass's eclectic taste to include jazzy-bluesy feels (though they're nothing like Brian Wilson's – that's a joke, sorry for the obscurity since I'm probably the only one who gets it), Romanian/Slovakian/Góral songs and timbres, and a hint of Celticness thrown in for good measure.

The first half was nice but lacked energy. The liver of this part was the partial ballad taken from František Sušil's nineteenth-century collection of Moravian folk songs. Although Ms. Šuranská had a beautiful and clear voice, it did have the sharp timbre or projection to compete with Mr. Plocek's violin at all times. In the Sušil ballad however, probably due to the starkness of their arrangement (very limited violin part), her voice worked quite nicely. (This problem is masked on the CD by good sound engineering.) It also featured Mr. Plocek's playing on birchwood "clarinet" made by Wallachian instrument-maker Vít Kaspařík. This instrument has a beautifully plaintive timbre and a fascinatingly smooth yet not-so-finely-textured tone. It sounds like a clarinet, but the player has less control of the reed (I gather) which makes changes in the pitch continuous glissandos with a smooth wavy-glass-like quality. Most of the songs on this half were from the duo's new album, others from Teagrass’s album Moravské písně milostné (Gnosis Records, 1999).

The second half picked up the energy and featured friends (and family) of the duo. First was the Slovak (?) violinist Stanislav (Stano) Palúch. He helped christen the new CD with a bottle of the bubbly and a bit of comedy (I didn't get the jokes since they were in Slovak, although it was clear that the audience was amused by the phallic implications of the bottle and the exertions of opening it). Stanko is an energetic performer and I gather he is well-known for his jazz/bluegrass violin technique. He added spontaneity and a welcome joie de vivre to the rest of the concert. The trio was joined by Plocek's daughter, Markétka, for "Hlubočí, hlubočí" (deep, deep [river]). The final highlight of the evening was the singing of Jaromír Nečas with cimbál player Jura Petrů (both from Kyjov, a town to the south and east). Nečas was welcomed as a friend of Plocek's (they collaborated on the 1998 critical release and re-mastering of [some of] Leoš Janáček's field recordings published by Plocek's independent company Gnosis Brno). Nečas is also featured on the new CD, but the highlight of his performance were the songs with cimbál. Though not known as a singer, he certainly has a feel for the songs, probably gathered in part through his many years of work as an editor at Czech Radio in Brno. Both duos (minus Plocek's daughter and Stanko) played together in a final encore which also featured audience participation.

Nečas's spoken comments also caught my attention. He noted that at least two of the songs he sang were notated in Sušil's collection. He noted, however, that while Sušil listed one of them as originating in Rousínov, it was actually from Kyjov (or at least would be performed in that style). He also called Sušil's collection the "bible" of Moravian folk song. In many respects this is true: the collection is still revered by many performers and scholars today, is still the most comprehensive published work notating such songs, and is still in print 170 years after its initial release in the 1830s.

The Curse of Brno!

22 November 2005
During my spell at the music department of the Moravian Library this afternoon I came across an interesting interview with Miloš Štědroň, a major figure on the Brno music scene since the 1970s. Štědroň is currently a professor at the Musicology Department of Masaryk University (or the "Institute of Musical Science" as the article has it). He said a lot about music, of course, but what grabbed my attention were his comments about Brno. He touched on my pet topic, the difference between Prague and Brno and even mused on what makes Brno unique.

Asked by the interviewer to describe the "dynamic" musical life of Brno, Štědroň answered, "it was marked by what you might call the 'curse of Brno', which is hard to explain. Usually I say it is a matter of the relationship between Czech and German identity in the area." The relationship became more uneasy throughout the nineteenth century. German influence here was much stronger due to the city's proximity to Vienna, the Hapsburg capital. The situation came to a head in 1905 when a worker was shot during a demonstration. Štědroň continues, "Blood was spilt and there was no going back. Up to that time the Czechs and Germans in Brno had always quarrelled, brawled, and then always come together again in support of some idea. After 1905 it was no longer possible for Czechs to go to the German theatre. The divorce was final."

This, he suggests, is one explanation of Brno's unique cultural life. As in every cultural debate in the Czech lands after the mid-nineteenth century, there was a tension between German and Czech culture. This was more uncomfortable than in Prague due to the strength and importance of Germans here, and the final "break" between the two groups did not come until much later than in Prague. The unique situation of the Czech-German tension in Brno was one factor in shaping Brno's strangely modernist leanings that continue to the present. Štědroň cited architecture:
Generally a kind of embarrassment about the fact that actually there is a double or triple culture here. It is most obvious in the architecture, because in order for Brno to be given a Czech face something absolutely new had to be found. That was the reason for Functionalism. It was clear that this was something new, Czech, beautiful. This is the principle on which I would explain the specific character of Brno. The modern started here practically from scratch, much more so than anywhere else. (More)

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Morava: The Concert

Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
Last Thursday I heard a concert at Brno's club Semilasso. The featured artists were well-known bassist George Mraz, Emil Viklický (piano), Zuzana Lapčíková (cimbál and vocals), and Laco Tropp (drums).

Mraz and Viklický are known as the forces behind the 2001 album Morava (Milestone Records). Lapčíková was also featured on the recording. Their quartet repertory centers on Moravian folk songs played in a jazz style. The major Moravian elements are the cimbál and the song texts, although they also featured a composition by Brno's famous composer Leoš Janáček. To further iterate the Moravian theme, the backdrop featured a landscape of yellow-green fields and sky, and the lights formed a line of "hills." My favorite was the bass-vocal duet of "Gray Falcon" (Zalet' sokol, šivý pták), a superbly executed and moving duet that elicited deep expressiveness from both performers.

The concert was recorded by Czech Television. This added lots of annoyance, including noisy cameras moving in front of the stage and a boom that kept swinging above the audience. It also seemed to necessitate the use of a smoke machine (I have no idea why, but perhaps to give a more "club" effect?), and overwrought lighting effects (hills in the background, lights shining at the audience, red and blue washes, and even yellow). This is the kind of music that I hope to deal with in my dissertation. Questions include: what makes it Moravian, how is it related to earlier music, what do the performers think of it (is it just a marketing ploy), and what is so important about the cimbál that, singlehandedly (so to speak), it can come to represent an entire region with just a few notes? In fact, it's mere visual presence can accomplishing this "placing" and "localizing" effect. Basically, though this may not have been the only intent, the concert made an implicit claim to represent an essence of Moravia through music. Or at least, an essential Moravianness through music. I think it was Karla who noted that, while the liner notes to the CD (she wasn't at the concert) were interesting, their claim that the combination of jazz and Moravian folklore is akin to the combination of jazz and blues is somewhat suspect. Certainly one could make a broad comparison but these were quite different processes happening at very different times and in different places. For one thing, neither jazz nor blues were really defined when they merged. "Jazz" as a genre did not really exist when "blues" (also a more modern term as I remember) combined with New Orleans African-American music. For another, the jazz that this group creates is far more European-ized than when jazz was taking shape in New Orleans. The elements combined here are being combined in a very modern way by musicians trained in non-jazz ways and thorougly educated in European jazz. Jazz and Blues did not have the iconic status that both of the genres combined in this music do. (Not to get over-academic on you all but I use 'iconic' in a Peircian-influenced semiotic sense here.) But I digress.

More at the following websites:
At Lincoln Center
Lapčíková's webpage (English version)

The Fashion Police is Out

Have you taken an etiquette course recently? Well, neither have most Czechs. A recent course offered free of charge was cancelled due to lack of interest, reports the Prague Post. Are your necktie knots a mess? Oops! Well, apparently you have a lot in common with 99% of Czech politicians.

Though impolite to name names, some of the fashionistas behind the political scenes praise current President Václav Klaus and ex-President Václav Havel for their exceptional taste. I am disinclined to believe this however. One of the most-remembered moments of Havel's 1989 inauguration was when he crossed the courtyard of Prague Castle, one of the most powerfully charged places of memory you can find in the modern Czech Republic, wearing high-water pants. In an interview with Marek Eben on the popular show Na plovárně ("Next to the Swimming Pool," a popular interview show on Czech Television), Havel later claimed that he had just "hitched them up" a moment before as he was walking down the stairs.

What about the calculatedly unkempt look or purposeful breaches of etiquette? Well, I imagine those are beyond most politicians whether they are Czech or not.

A refresher course:
*At social events, maintain personal space of at least 75 centimeters
*Using a mobile phone while making out is impolite
*If someone's dress is unzipped, let the person know in a discreet, tactful manner

And a Czech classic:
*Men should always hold the door open for ladies, but should walk into bars ahead of them; better the man get hit by something thrown in anger

První sněžení

Snowy Rooftops
Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
My first Moravian "snowfall"! Not even an inch, but still nice. This is the view from my neighborhood toward the center of Brno.

New Moravian Archives! Where?

21 November 2005
Ground was broken earlier this month, reports Czech Radio Brno, for a new building to house the Moravian Regional Archive. The new building will be adjacent to Masaryk University's new campus in Bohunice, a southern suburb. The archive is currently housed in seventeen (yes, only 17!) different buildings that are scattered among three regions of southern and eastern Moravia. The planned facility will have depository space for eighty kilometers (yes, 80!) of archival records and will be linked to a new reading room and exhibition space.

Yay! Now maybe I'll have a place to do my research. Unfortunately, since there is no date for the scheduled completion, the new building will certainly not open until after I leave Brno. I hope they have a bus between all those other facilities.

Another Plus for Brno

18 November 2005

Good news
Originally uploaded by merkwurdigliebe.
Don't miss the good news. Click on the photo for a translation.

Advice for Graduate Students

I will get back to the Czech Republic soon, but in the meantime I thought there are enough readers who would appreciate some advice for graduate students.

Some things make you want to broaden your career horizons.

Other non-academic options for (prospective) PhDs here and here.


Tree at Spilberk
Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
Winter is on it's way. Last night was Brno's first frost of the season, and it's supposed to be cold tonight as well. (But that's nothing compared to the Keweenaw's 10 inches of snow on Wednesday night.)

This tree is in the main courtyard of Spilberk castle. This time of year it's every bit as cold and stark and lonely as it looks.

Let's Help Each Other

Feelings of isolationism are on the rise among Americans, says a new research poll (reported in the New York Times Online).

Perhaps we'd be better liked generally if we worked together with and helped other countries rather than invading them and imposing ideologies for political reasons. And maybe more people will think about these sorts of things before they go to the ballot boxes next time!

Music and Protest

17 November 2005
Despite my previous prediction, some events commemorated the Velvet Revolution holiday today. In Prague, reports Lidové noviny, thousands of students staged a silent march as a reminder that the crimes of the communists make them "more like a criminal organization like the Gestapo than a democratic party."

An annual concert also marks the anniversary. The anti-communist event is titled "We Will Not Be Quiet." Among many bands and singers, reports LN, was Ivan Mládek with his Banjo Band. "I came because it is fitting. The Communists bothered me for 30 years, so now it’s my turn to let them know," he said.

The aftermath of the Velvet Revolution has not been totally clear, however. One extreme critic has claimed that the country remains Communist! Josef Mašín, who escaped to West Berlin in the early 1950s, said in Bratislava recently, "It was said that you have the Velvet Revolution and that you live here in democracy, but that’s not true. Just look at what is winning today in Bohemia. Where there are Communists, their strength and activity continues to spread. It’s getting worse. Why? Because the nation doesn’t know it’s history. Those fifty years, those crimes perpetrated by the Communists, were bigger than the crimes of the Nazis." (A bit of exaggeration, but he was trying to make a point.) Though the Czech Republic is now a member of the EU and NATO, there is still support for the Communist Party in many areas and among certain demographic groups (e.g., the elderly). The Czech Communist Party is the only "non-reformed" communist political party remaining in the former Eastern Bloc countries. All the others have at least changed their names. It is possible that the Czech Social Democrat Party (somewhat "right" leaning, I gather) may make an alliance with the Communist Party. Also recently, a bill was introduced in the Czech Parliament to legally ban totalitarian regimes. (Aside: How could this ever be enforced? And is not the fact that someone thought it necessary to introduce the bill somewhat scary in itself?) It is not expected to pass.

The "Czech Family" in Crisis, and Other News of the Weird

16 November 2005
"The Family in the Czech Repubic finds itself in serious danger. On Thursday and Friday of last week the Ministry of Jobs and Social Programs made public the alarming numbers," Czech Radio reports. Apparently "many young people" are not marrying before the birth of their first child and some (gasp) are even choosing to "live without a partner." This is, to me, no cause for alarm. It is well-known here that the average age of parents and married couples is on the high side (26 say the new statistics). This is in fact a wider European problem. However there are rumors of a new baby boom and the population of the country, which some fear is actually shrinking (their age, not the country), will certainly rebound. That's not scary either. One solution is to exempt newly married couples from certain taxes. Still relatively run-of-the-mill. Some politicians think that encouraging immigration will help balance the age of the country.

That's when it starts to get weird. Brushing aside politicians who encourage Czechs to adopt a "more tolerant" attitude toward newcomers, Marián Hošek (a deputy to the Czech Parliament) announced: "Although some immigration is natural, we mainly want Czech children to be born in the country. This is the only way to preserve cultural continuity in our land." Whoa! This is all part of the less-than-tolerant attitude that exists alongside the fabled openness and acceptance of Czech society. There is certainly less than an accepting attitude toward visible minorities here, particularly toward Roma (less pc, "gypsies"). This politician apparently thinks that "culture" can (and should) be governmentally determined and that national ethnicities are a priority of the state. Moreover, he feels he has the right to legislate ethnicity and birthrates. (There is ominous implication of a sort of quota system.) This seems derived from the eighteenth-century search for ever-elusive cultural purity (a rhetorical concept in the first place), and it's disturbing to find it so often in current social thought. It is particularly unsettling coming so close to the 16th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, one recent and inspiring triumph for human rights and humanistic values. (A more extreme example of this phenomena is noted by Kristen in Moscow.)

In other news, Václav Havel and other former dissidents have supported a move to keep files on former Communists secret unless the subjects give their express release to make such information public.

According to an IKEA survey, Czechs are less likely to have sex in the kitchen. (Could this explain the family situation?) Then there's the crazy obsession with beauty contests, which has spawned a fight over who's the real champion: Czech Miss or Miss Czech Republic? And finally, the Czech Republic has another jewel in its crown (?): the new European champion of "imitating an elks' bugle call" is Czech. They claim that the champion is "practically impossible to distinguish . . . from an elk." (Don't ask me where the elks got the bugles.)

The Eve of Tomorrow

Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
What is that day again? Oh, right, the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. One of the most significant days in our country's modern history! Walking around in Brno today it was hard to tell that tomorrow marks the fall of Communism in 1989. It was gray and rainy. People were going about their business. And apart from the exodus of students to their homes - not because it's an important day but because they have a long weekend - it wasn't too different from any other. It's just another day when you don't have to work.

The picture was taken on October 28, another important Czech holiday - that day marks the declaration of independece for an independent Czechoslovak state in 1918. They were already putting up Christmas decorations at Tesco! This would be like celebrating the Fourth of July at home without fireworks, or putting up Labor Decorations rather than going to a cookout. (Come to think of it I've not seen many Labor Day decorations ever, and that could be an improvement.)

I don't consider myself to be particularly patriotic. But I am still surprised at the way such holidays are celebrated here. Some people think that it is a lasting effect of the Communist regime. First, Czechs don't like to be told what and when to celebrate. Aparently during Communist holidays buildings were decorated with flags and everyone had to celebrate. Now, the argument goes, people can exercise their freedom to celebrate when, where, and how they want. Second, I suspect that people were more inclined to celebrate holidays with their close family during that period rather than under the watchful eye of the state. Strangely, despite the secularism that supposedly reigns here nowadays, I have noticed more public recognition of religious holidays than I suspect to see tomorrow. The picture tells this story not through the decorations but with the spires of the Brno cathedral looming behind the monumental socialist realist building that is the Brno Tesco.

Double Take

15 November 2005
I think I can remember fairly clearly, well at least a bit, no actually through a high-school haze (probably more like junior high actually), the embarrassing visit of Bush I to Asia. It is probably one of the first things that I even remember with a political tint. (At least it provides a backdrop that makes it near impossible for the current visit to be worse, haha.) Well, it's unlikely that Bush II will get food poisoning or bird flu, whatever happened. Apparently the recent visit to the 'other' Americas was already bad enough. The Asia fun has begun "among Japan's greatest cultural treasures" (from NYTimes online).

I couldn't resist one quote that preceded the current Asia trip. Reminiscing during an interview about a visit to China while Bush the elder was US liaison there, Jr. said: "Everybody was on bicycles. . . . I rode all over the place in Beijing, which was fascinating." (So observant, culturally sensitive.) He then recalled "how odd people thought I looked." (Some things never change. Was it the smirk or the sneer?) I'm sure he's going to love the Japanese court music, certainly among Japan's cultural treasures. (It put my students to sleep last year, even though I played the videos with Bill Malm's 'light' commentary.)

Fantova kavárna

Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
You're probably tired of hearing of it by now, but I still haven't got these photos to upload correctly. This is another try for the ceiling of the Fant coffee shop. By clicking on the caption or the picture you should be able to see better versions of my other pictures too.

The Dark Underbelly of Prague

I suppose what I saw of what Alex calls the "dark underbelly of Prague" wasn't quite as dark as what she sees on a more regular basis. In fact, after going through the Fantova kavarna (Fanta's cafe) in the main station, everything was pretty warm and well-lit.

Karla has beat me to it and recorded all the highlights in a richly illustrated account. I wish everyone could've been here to taste the soup and pie. Yummy!! And to top it off we had Black Bear's Blood to drink (Bulgarian wine).

Read And Now We Celebrate: "Jesse was feeling bored in Brno and had acquired soi-disant pumpkins from his tutor, so he promptly invited several people to come dine at my apartment." Of course, I also went because Karla's kitchen is so much more awesome than mine, which made baking a pie actually possible.

Bad Karma, or Karmic Heat Wave?

14 November 2005
It was an ordeal to have the furnace lighted in my house. Our hot-water radiators are powered by a gas furnace. The water heater, located just above the furnace, is also gas. Evidently gas furnaces and water heaters of this type, like certain painted walls, are considered “old fashioned.”

In fact, our furnace is so old that (supposedly) none of the heating/cooling technicians in Brno know how it works! This meant that when nights started to get cold and we wanted to turn the heat up, it was necessary to find a very special technician. The owners of the house contacted an older repairman who lives in a village outside Brno. He came to turn on the heat, but he could only come at 8 in the morning. He also deemed it his business to pass judgment on more than just the furnaces, such as the state of housekeeping in the downstairs apartment.

Of course there had to be an adventure somewhere in all of this. Well, about five minutes after the repairman left I was sitting in the kitchen and talking with my Czech tutor. Suddenly, we heard (and felt) a loud explosion-like noise. After sitting in shock for a moment, we realized the house was still standing and there was no fire. Apparently the pilot lights blew out shortly after the repairman left. I have no idea why they made a noise like that, but I was more than a little nervous about the heating for a while after this.

The next logical step was to turn off the gas, but I didn't know how to do this. There is a furnace manual. Presumably it is meant to help you figure out one very complicated task: how to turn the furnace on and off. It is entirely in Czech. It also features helpful diagrams with circles and triangles, dotted lines and arcs, and even alpha, beta, and gamma symbols. No problem, I mistakenly thought, I can read diagrams and I can read Czech. From what I understood, it seemed that you were supposed to open the small glass door with your right hand (you have to hold it because it has a spring that snaps it shut otherwise), then press the red button in the center of the white knob with your left, wait five seconds, and turn the knob counterclockwise until you hear gas flowing. Now, hold your breath, stand on your head, use your left foot to strike a match (your right hand is still holding the small door open), turn the white knob until your reach position beta (approximately half way) and sing the Slovak national anthem backward in triplets. The anthem, “Lightning Over the Tatras,” presumably summons the old Slavonic goddess of fire to your aid, who thenceforth ignites the pilot light with no further effort on your part. In short, I could not resurrect the pilot light and, since I preferred having a cold weekend rather than exploding on Friday morning, I left the situation as it was. I opened the outside door to improve ventilation and then decided to go out for the afternoon.

My landlords came by the next morning (a Saturday, again at 8 a.m.) to assess any damage. They were eventually able to relight the pilot lights, and there was no apparent damage to the furnace or water heater. We now have heat, which means that I’m slightly more prepared for the winter.

What about the title? The type of water heater that we have is colloquially called a karma, reportedly a conjunction of the first and last names of its inventor. Through the round hole in the front you can see the pilot light. Underneath, there is a lever that can be slid from left to right, regulating the temperature of the water output. But due to some problem, ours will only heat water to the maximum or not at all. This makes it very difficult to achieve any gradation of “warm” water in your shower or for washing dishes. Thus, as anyone who has been scalded by my shower can attest, our house has a bad karma. Actually, it’s a pretty decent one – it certainly accomplishes what it’s supposed to – but perhaps it is in need of therapy. Or maybe it’s an Irving Berlin fan, “We’re havin’ a heat wave, a tropical heat wave.”

Basil the Coleus

It's official (two votes tabulated), it's not basil but coleus. But I think it will still be named Basil.

To Prague for the Weekend

12 November 2005
I took the late train to Prague last night, and just wanted to note that Prague's main station is incredibly sketchy. Even Brno's station, though slightly smaller, seems cleaner in comparison. You can see pictures of the would-be gorgeous art nouveau cafe inside, Fanta's coffee shop, here. Unfortunately, while the cafe could be absolutely grand, it is marred by the peeling paint on the walls and the six-lane expressway that passes within feet of the front entrance (literally, thank you Communists).

Update: Photos


11 November 2005
OK, so a Simpson’s bar isn’t that unexpected. I wonder if they serve Duff Beer in Pilsner Urquell glasses?

This one is a little more disturbing. The name is Otesánek, which roughly means hewn out of logs. The inside of this basement pub may seem comfortable at first. It is decorated in “barn” style with exposed wooden beams and hay mangers. But if you’ve seen the film of the same title (by Švankmajer) then you might think twice before entering this one. The film, based on a Czech legend, is about a childless couple who "adopt" a humanoid piece of wood. The mother is a bit crazy and takes care of the thing as if it were actually a child (wheeling it about in a pram, feeding it warm milk, etc.). Finally it comes to life and, as it grows, begins devouring everyone who visits the couple’s flat. So eat here with caution.

(If that isn’t enough, then consider the food. They were advertising "bull’s eyes" on the menu when I walked by. And it’s just across the street from the monastery where Gregor Mendel lived and "created" [žil a tvořil], so who knows what sort of genetic modification has been developed by now.)

Some People Can Make a Bar Out of Anything

10 November 2005

Autumn Leaves?

Yes, I suppose it will soon, though I was thinking of the song and fall colors. I fear that winter will be drab and gray, but for now there are still some gorgeous leaf colors. In Czech, November is listopad, "leaves falling." I noticed this nice view today and thought you might enjoy Brno on a cloudy but crisp, leaf-falling day, too. Don't miss the functionalist church in the distance - not quite a Midwest fallscape, but very Brno.

Does Your Beverage Match?

09 November 2005
There’s a strange connection between the beverage you order and the glass it is served in. Particularly here, and particularly in pubs, which often hang the sign for a particular beer outside their door, the glass seems to mean a lot more than it might at first glance. In fact, if you look around at many of these places, you notice that not only does the glass match the beer, but so do the tablecloths, the coasters, the mirrors, the seat coverings, the menus, and sometimes even the lamp shades.

Coca-Cola glasses are popular in the U.S., and you often get special cups at gas stations or fast food restaurants, but the practice reaches a completely new level in the ČR. Here, one finds glasses emblazoned with the brand logo of a wide range of beverages including beer, cappuccino, espresso, juice, chocolate, instant coffee, even hot cider.

I was going to post these observations a while back, but I never got around to it. In fact, my first idea was to make some sort of sweeping structural interpretation of all of this. Isn’t it obvious that it must reveal something about Czech society – perhaps an obsession with orderliness, identity, appropriateness and propriety, control, a certain feeling that form (i.e., your glass) must match content (i.e., your beverage)? Well, I suppose the list could go on. But there’s always the simple explanation that maybe they just had that glass handy, or they came free from the brewery. And there is never a guarantee that the glass actually contains what the logo on the outside claims.

New Blog Friend

For lack of a better name at the moment, I'll call it Basil. My Czech tutor brought me this pretty decorative basil or mint plant to keep me company. (You can't see the square stem in the picture, so you'll just have to take my word for it.) Hopefully I've identified it somewhat correctly. It's quite nice and, even though only in a temporary facility (jar) at the moment, seems happy, already growing lots of roots.

Cat Got Your Tongue?

07 November 2005
The label reads, "Little Cat Tongues":

I did a double take when I first saw this box on a grocery store shelf. If you've ever been to the store with me, then you know I usually walk around in a sort of daze, presumably overwhelmed by the vast selections, but I snapped out of it when I saw these. Had I walked into a Harry Potter-esk potions store? Were those cute little kittens on the box actually tongue-less (!)? The contents, despite the name, are actually quite nice - thin strips of milk chocolate, not as leathery and scratchy as I feared.

So if the cat does have your tongue, then take it back with these "little cat tongues," available from purveyors of fine Czech sweets.

Mořský ježek, What's In a Name?

06 November 2005
Of the droves of eager blog readers jamming my precious bandwidth (cue laughtrack), one has asked whence comes the title of this webspace? What, if anything, is a mořský ježek? Here is the answer.

Mořský is an adjective derived from the word moře, sea, and ježek is Czech for hedgehog. A Czech “sea hedgehog” is sea urchin in English. I found this by chance while looking up ježek in my Czech-English dictionary. Ježek is also a Czech family name, as in Jaroslav Ježek (1906–1942), one of my favorite Czech composers. He wrote classical music and songs with jazz influence in the 1920s and ’30s. When I saw the note in the dictionary’s entry on ježek that said (mořský ~, sea urchin) it stuck in my mind. At least since Shakespeare wrote about the “coasts of Bohemia,” Czechs have had a we-have-no-sea inferiority complex. The country is landlocked, and there is a strange fascination with “the sea.” So the name was a great combination of a bizarre Czech obsession and my interest in Czech music.

Tram Culture 101: Tickets and Customs

04 November 2005
Street trains (trams or tramvajein Czech) are found in many Central European cities. All the larger cities of the Czech Republic – including Prague, Brno, Ostrava, Olomouc – have efficient transit networks of street trains, buses, and trolley buses (buses that run on electricity). After riding one of these trams for just a short time (if you haven’t already), you will notice that before you become a “competent” rider (i.e., not completely lost and confused) you must learn the code of customs and habits. Since I plan to write more about the Brno trams, I thought a short primer on tram riding might be helpful.

First some Brno trivia for the day: trams are called šalina in the local dialect rather than tramvaj. When you hear šalina jede, that means the tram is coming, and you can even buy a special šalinakarta rather than tram pass.

Now, welcome to “Riding Czech Trams 101.” The most important thing is to have a ticket. Tickets are most easily bought at automatic ticket vending machines, at street-side newspaper stands, or from the tram driver. (The last option is least popular for a few reasons. If you buy tickets from the driver they are more expensive and you need exact change. The drivers only sell the most basic kind of ticket. Plus, everyone else on the tram will be glaring at you for slowing them down; after all, they already have tickets and are having to wait for you to talk with the driver.) Unless you are buying from the driver, you will have to choose what kind of ticket you want. They are divided into a surprising number of categories. Since it probably won’t be necessary for most of you to know all about tram tickets, just a few basics: the major distinction between tickets is how long they are valid. In Brno, the cheapest ticket is non-transferable (only valid on one bus or tram) and lasts for just 10 minutes (cost, 8 crowns or about 30 cents); the next step up lasts for 60 minutes (90 minutes at night or on weekends) and is a transferable (cost, 13 crowns or a little less than 60 cents). Here we see yet another reason that Brno is preferable to Prague: comparable transfer tickets in Prague cost 20 crowns!

Even from this simple example you can see that the system, like all Czech bureaucracy, is flexible but incredibly confusing. It’s not just enough to have a twenty-crown coin. You must know how far you’re going, whether it will require a transfer, and when you will validate your ticket (is it after 8PM or a weekend?). And I haven’t even mentioned the routes and timetables posted at each stop or the system of zones that sometimes require different tickets. As you might imagine, it is common to see tourists gazing confusedly at the ticket machines (it doesn’t really help that these machines often have an English language option). Those of us with monthly tickets laugh on the inside when we pass by the gawking or grumpy lines at the ticket machines thinking, “Well, at least we don’t have to do that anymore.”

Next, immediately upon entering the tram, you have to validate your ticket. To prevent you from riding all day on a ten-minute ticket, you are obliged to find a yellow box, immediately upon entering the tram, to insert your ticket (proper end first if you notice the little arrows that tell you this), and to get a stamp that notes all the important information (the tram’s number, the route number, the zone you are in, the date, and the time). I have always wondered in what case they would need all this information, but that’s just the way it is. It didn’t strike me as quite so strange until I rode Ukrainian trams. In Lviv, you just get on the tram; then a lady with an apron full of change and little slips of paper – “tickets” – comes around (not immediately but whenever she feels like it) and collects your money. I suspect that the Czech obsession with details on tram tickets stems in part from a wish to feel more “civilized” than the “primitive” system of the Ukrainians (for example), but I digress.

Much more interesting are the unwritten rules of tram riding. First, you’re not supposed to look at other people. Of course, everyone steals glances at each other – “What did she buy at the store?” “What’s in his backpack?” “Why does he smell like beer?” – but for the most part these looks should not be conspicuous, and as far as I can tell, you are supposed to pretend that there is no one else on the tram at all even when it is full of people.

Younger people who are seated must get up and offer their seat to the elderly; able riders should give up their seat for the handicapped or disabled; and to a certain extent, though not as much, men are supposed to offer their seat to women. This can get a little dicey. For example, if one gets up for an “old” lady who is not really old enough yet to be recognized as such on the tram, then often the seat stays empty because she wants to prove that she is not as old as you think. This makes both of you feel embarrassed, so giving up your seat is certainly an honorable act but it is accompanied by many social implications. In the opposite situation, if you don’t get up when you are supposed to, then it often seems like everyone else on the tram is glaring at you until finally a middle-aged woman will usually get up and yield her seat to the old lady, meanwhile shooting a scolding glance at the offending young person. (Of course, Americans are well aware of the political implications of seats on public transport, particularly in the wake of Rosa Parks’s recent death.)

Czech mothers also have a strange obsession with wheeling their babies around in prams. This is not a problem until they want to ride the tram; normally in this case they will ride with a friend. But if they are traveling alone, then other riders are expected to help them get on and off. The first people asked are younger males who, by virtue of their age and gender, are supposed to be strong and chivalrous. I didn’t notice this until August when I was riding the tram in Prague. I was on my way to check into my hotel, so I was carrying a very heavy backpack and a suitcase. And it was vedro (a hot, humid day). I was standing in the back so I didn’t bother other riders. Unfortunately, this is also the area of the tram that prams are supposed to go (there are usually signs indicating this). When we pulled up at one stop where a couple of women were waiting with their pram, who was asked to help them up the steps? Me. Even though there were other completely able riders who were not carrying their worldly possessions with them. So, even though the last thing I wanted to do was lift a heavy baby carriage, I dutifully got out and helped lift the pram into the tram. (I don’t have a problem with this obsession with prams or taking babies for walks, but anyone who’s seen the films Otesánek or Horem padem will know that there is definitely a strange connection between Czech women, babies, and prams. Why don’t they find a more functional way to carry their kids, like a backpack?)

If you are wondering why I have gone through all this detail, here is the reason. Trams are fun, and for me riding them is more than just a way to get from point A to point B: it can be a great way to learn about a place. As you’ll see when I post my story about the number 4 route, tram rides are opportunities to learn about the history of the city, to experience the character of different neighborhoods, and to find beautiful areas that you never would otherwise. Riding the tram can be an adventure, it can be exciting.

This is only an introduction, so don’t expect to know everything about public transport if you visit the Czech Republic. Please, relate your experiences, agree or disagree, or make additions in the comment section.

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03 November 2005
I mentioned Dušičky yesterday. What are these “little souls” celebrations? Commonly celebrated on the second of November, they coincide with the Christian celebrations of All Saints Day (1 Nov.) and the Day of the Dead (2 Nov.). Christian belief traditionally marks the Day of the Dead as a time in which to express gratitude and respect for ancestors. According to folk beliefs, as noted in Vlastimil Vondruška’s book Církevní rok a lidové obyčeje (The ecclesiastical year and folk customs; published by Dona), the spirits of the dead are released from purgatory on the eve of Dušičky. This is the only day of the year on which the spirits are permitted to rest. Often lamps were burned with butter for oil (butter is thought to sooth burns, even those inflicted by unearthly fires I guess), or families drank cold milk because milk was thought to aid in cooling scorched souls. Today families often make a trip to the cemetery in order to light a candle on the graves of the departed. There were certainly more people in the cemetery than I have ever seen there at one time.

Not having any family buried in Brno, I lit a candle on the grave of František Sušil, my favorite nineteenth-century folk-song collector. Many famous personalities had similar flower arrangements placed on their graves, and graves of national heroes were draped with the Czech trikolora (tricolor, i.e., blue, red, and white). The poem on Sušil’s grave reads (roughly) as follows:

Two beauties hold sway over my sleeping spirit at this stone,

One earthly, the other sent from heaven above.

The Church and the homeland, by sisterly love entwined in my bosom,

My heart holds them both: each has but a half yet at the same time the whole.

Our Icons

02 November 2005
Today was Dušičky, the Czech celebration of All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead, and I did honor the holidays with a visit to the Brno cemetery. Needless to say, there were plenty of icons at the cemetery. But I can’t stop thinking about another icon who deserves mention: Rosa Parks was remembered in Detroit this morning during a funeral service attended by thousands.

The passing of Rosa Parks has gone largely unnoticed by the European press. (There are lots of pressing issues here like riots in Paris or, maybe, the British cabinet minister who has resigned from his post for the second time in a year.) Bill Clinton, who presented Parks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, said her actions “ignited the most significant social movement in modern American history,” and despite it not being America, I know her memory resonates with many issues here in Europe too. (Václav Havel received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003.) Fortunately Parks has been highly honored in Detroit and throughout the U.S. It’s saddening yet encouraging to hear that she was the first woman to be laid in state at the capitol. A public viewing of her body at Detroit’s Wright Museum of African American History lasted until early this morning, and her remains were then transported to the Greater Grace Temple. In addition to Clinton’s, speeches were prepared by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Senator Debbie Stabenow, and ; Aretha Franklin was scheduled to sing. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm called parks a “heroic warrior for equality.” At least there are some things that are still worth fighting for.

The only similar event I have experienced while outside the U.S. was Ronald Reagan’s death and funeral last year. I never considered that I might compare these two icons of American history. I could think of little to celebrate about Reagan, but in former Eastern Bloc countries, he was the voice of freedom—the only politician who had the guts and power to face off with the “Evil Empire.” In the end I suppose, someone had to do it, but he did. And when I saw this here last summer my opinion of him changed slightly, though only slightly. (Reagan also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in January 1993, apparently a last-ditch act by Bush I; of course, Charlton Heston also received the award in 2003, so who knows what meaning it has if any. Just another icon I suppose.)

I hope that Parks’s memory and legacy grows to become an inspiration to Europeans, dealing with their own issues of integration and racial tension, in the future. I hope that her spirit eclipses Reagan’s legacy, even in Eastern Europe. And I hope her memory is proof that there are some wars worth fighting despite all of the false icons that America has been (and still is) wont to follow. Parks’s heroism was best captured in Gov. Granholm’s remarks, quoted in the Detroit Free Press: “Her greatness lay in doing what everybody could do but doesn’t.”

A Poem for Brno and Bats

01 November 2005
I may have a translation later, but for now I guess this one is just for Karla. Anyone else interested will have to attend the natural history exhibits at the National Museum in Prague to understand the fascination with naši netopýři, "our bats." (Poem from Brněnský metropolitan, 10/2005, p. 18.)

Co mi řekl netopýr

by Michal Polický

Z Brna se stává stará panna
V noci zůstává samo a špatně spí
Mravenečkové totiž šplhají na Olymp
pro nedopité lahve ambrozie
nebo skládají dobrovolně hlavu na Špalek

V noci Brno umírá
ráno se rodí s kruhy pod očima
Vzpomíná na Švédy
a chtělo by se zas někomu bránit

Music, Anyone?

Finally! The cimbál has arrived. It was quite an undertaking: not exactly easy for my teacher to back his car through my narrow driveway gates after hauling the instrument across town, then it needed to be lugged up one flight through the stairwell, into my room, and reassembled. And that is only the story's happy ending.

I’m renting the instrument from the Konzervatoř Brno (Brno conservatory). Like other seemingly straightforward activities (e.g., baking cookies), this was nothing of the kind. My teacher, a professor at the conservatory, had no problems with me borrowing the instrument since it is “old” (from 1992) and not in “prime” condition, but before he could allow me to take it, we had to confirm the arrangement with the conservatory’s administration. A nod and a handshake kind of agreement, right? Not exactly. I am now the proud holder of a one-page contract that is signed by me and the director of the school. The contract is, well, Czech (that is to say, Slavic but with a generous dosage of up-tight Teutonic bureaucracy thrown in). On top of the “symbolic” monthly fee (I am renting the instrument after all) they added 19% sales tax (though I’m not buying the instrument). Then (if I’m reading the contract correctly) there is a clause that entitles the conservatory to use the instrument for two days every month (“for their needs”?), another that obligates the conservatory to pay “0.1%” of the cost for repairs if they take more than fourteen days, and one that forbids me from “traveling outside the Czech Republic with the cimbál.” (I added italics because it’s inconceivable that I could even get the thing outside of my house by myself, let alone out of the country when I don’t have a car. Where would I even take the instrument within the borders? No one has been asking for any performances yet.) But the important thing is that, after three weeks of missed appointments, late trains, and lots of SMSs (short [text] message service for mobile phones), everyone was finally in the right place at the right time. This means that I can finally begin on another phase of research, hopefully at a faster pace than things up to this point.

Brno in Motion

From Brněnský metropolitan, a Brno paper with metropolitan news and events (October 2005, v. 1, no. 2, p. 1):

Are you going through town? The nicest way will be via the historical tram!

The historical tram should be the new tourist attraction in the center of Brno next year. ...

"The historical tram will make the center of town more attractive," hopes mayor R Svoboda. "I believe that it will appeal to tourists and for residents."

Expenses for the new project are not low. The plan will require 8 million crowns. Part will go toward the reconstruction of the historical carriage, and 2.5 million will go toward repairing the tracks. The service will cost 1 million crowns a year to operate according to estimates.

Tickets will be punched for travelers by conductors in period uniforms. The conductors will also serve as guides to introduce the city. For now it is not clear how one will get the tickets. It has yet to be decided whether a special tariff will apply to the historical tram or if travel will be allowed for holders of regular tickets and prepaid coupons valid on the rest of the city transit system. The frequency of the service will depend on the requests of tourists.