Nudli 2: YumYum

31 October 2005

Trick or treat?

Waiting for the Tram, Functionally Speaking

30 October 2005

I go by this tram stop (Obilní trh) almost every day and, from the looks of it, most of the city has forgotten about it. Though in disrepair it is still an attractive bit of modernist architecture. I may get into functionalism in a later post (sorry I don't have more details about it at hand for the moment), but here are two things that make this tram stop "functionalist": 1) it is basically designed with an "open plan," and 2) it has attached restrooms (below the waiting area). The simple pipe railings are also characteristic.

These may seem like odd criteria. If, in response to the first criteria, you are thinking, "But tram stops not built on the open plan model and with lots of obstructions are hardly worth building even in other architectural styles," then I can only answer, "Yes, but this one is still functionalist." And it is hard to appreciate the implications of the second criteria if you have not visited the Czech Republic (or Europe). However, the importance of toilets and large bathrooms were valued by the functionalists - they encouraged personal and urban hygiene. And if you have ever used Czech toilets (at least in most buildings built before the last five years or so), then you know that toilets and bathing areas were not given as much space as is usually taken for granted in North America.

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The Walls of Communism

My house is in the Masarykova čtvrť, or Masaryk’s Quarter. This Brno neighborhood, named after the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, was developed early in the “Second Republic,” the independent Czechoslovak state that existed between the two world wars. Most of the houses here look to have been renovated since that time. However, mine has been changed only slightly and possibly (not being an expert Czech architecture of the 1920s I can’t say for sure) contains original fixtures and decorations.

The wall decorations in the main stairwell may be part of the original interior. They are unique: a maize field with swirls of darker yellow. These patterns have been painted on and are not wallpaper. According to one of my housemates, this is an older style of painting, probably done with a special roller or stamp technique, that is no longer very popular. But I find them unique, attractive, and probably because I don’t remember seeing anything quite like them in American houses, a characteristically Czech decoration scheme. (Not quite on the level of cubism or Brno modernism, but none the less worthy of note.)

I didn’t think much more about the patterns until recently. When my Prague friend Karla visited she commented that she had noted similar patterns in other Czech houses. Then last Friday, during a party hosted by the students who occupy the downstairs of the house, a guest pointed to the walls of the living room, decorated in blue paint covered with lighter blue triangle patterns, and said, “That’s a relic of Communism.” He meant that the wall decorations were old and, in his mind, associated with post-WWII Czech society. In a word, ugly.

The party guest’s comment told me that some Czechs nowadays think these patterns are unsightly and should be covered up. Certainly these patterns were not particularly special when they were painted. They may or may not be original décor from 1924, the year when the house was probably built, and they were probably found in thousands of houses and apartments throughout the Czech Republic in the not too distant past.

But today they seem to disappearing. It turns out that the owners plan to renovate this house next year and, they tell me, completely rebuild the interior. This is largely for the good since many parts of the house are in disrepair (e.g., the kitchen). Because the neighborhood is recognized as an historic area, the exterior will not be changed, but I imagine that the interior will be completely redesigned. This means that all the unique elements – door handles, wooden windows, radiators, custom-built wooden doors and window frames (each to slightly different measurements, not mass produced), wrought-iron railings in the stairwell and on the balcony (distantly reminiscent of art nouveau), the porcelain bathroom tiles, and of course the painted walls – will disappear. And to me, many of the “Czech” aspects of the house will go with them.

I can understand that many people want to get rid of any vestiges of Communism. It was an unpleasant period that probably did more harm than good. I understand that many people want to remake everything, particularly if they have the monetary means. And I understand that there was not much opportunity or possibility for many such repairs to be done under the former regime. The obsession to erase that era’s legacy is (in part) manifested in the many reconstructions and renovations seen all over the country. It is unlikely, but I hope that this enthusiasm does not go overboard. (One parallel that comes to mind is the destruction of most of mediaeval Prague during the late nineteenth century to make way for “modern” apartment blocks). Does every reminder of the past have to go, to be painted over?

Pipped at the Post

27 October 2005
Well, wonder of wonders, it seems that a journalist from Travel and Leisure has discovered Brno, too. Perhaps the city is catching on. The article, reproduced (in full?) on another blog, is a send up of modernist architecture in Brno. Unfortunately, the functionalist tram-stop at Obilní trh (grain market), one of my favorites, was left out: the functionalist tram stop (really, is there any other kind of true tram-stop?). Read about everything else here.

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"Bronze Reverberations of Gongs": Czech Gamelan

26 October 2005
If you had made the unlikely prediction a year ago that I would be listening to a gamelan concert in Prague, I would have been doubtful. Yet to my surprise, I was in Prague last night (24 Oct) to attend a gamelan concert. My Fulbright-Hays friend Karla and I witnessed the unique event from bar stools at the back of Klub Podsklepeno (Karlínské náměstí 7, Praha 8).

The concert presented a wide variety of gamelan styles and included one Balinese dance piece. Apart from a few precarious moments at Irama changes, the ensemble was very aware and played well together. Asmaradana successfully "made fun" (i.e., brought the audience to a joyful mood). The ensemble was even brought back for an encore after playing their last prepared piece. Considering that the concert was in part a “graduation” for the members of a two-month course taught by Sumi, the ensemble’s generally high playing-ability and proficient performance were impressive.

Two further highlights featured reduced instrumentation. One was a shimmering Balinese solo piece that featured close ostinatos featuring an accomplished (Balinese?) member of the ensemble. The second was a beautifully refined Subukastawa with Sumi's singing accompanied by gendér.

The performance was the most recent of a series of gamelan events sponsored in Prague since 2003 by Gamelan - sdružení přátel tradiční indonéské hudby (Gamelan: Friends of Traditional Indonesian Music), a group founded by Christopher Stones. Guest Director Sumiyanto (Sumi) introduced each section of the concert in Indonesian or English, and Czech translation was supplied by L. Felcan, a Czech student who studied last year at the Academy of Arts in Solo, Indonesia (STSI). It would’ve been nice if these informative bits – e.g., introducing the instruments of the gamelan, translating the song texts, and discussing the relationship of gamelan music to shadow puppet plays – had been a bit shorter, particularly since only a few words were audible at the back of the hall.

While the venue is ideally suited to rock and jazz concerts, it didn’t quite bear up to the standards of a refined court music. On top of that, there was not adequate space for the audience that showed up. We were seated against the club’s back wall behind an aisle that filled with standing audience members. Our seats were ideally located to view the bartender’s scowls as she was asked to turn off the cooling equipment for the beer machine, shut off the lights in the cold-drinks display, and finally to stop washing the dishes so loudly (prompted by the complaint from an audience member that “I could be home in front of the television rather than here”) . As you can imagine, these seats were not well-suited to hear (or see) the concert, and the nuances of the soft instruments, particularly celempung and gendér, were lost in the swirl of bar noises.

Overall, the concert was enjoyable and, for me, completely unexpected. There was mention of an effort to continue the ensemble even though instructor Sumi is returning to STSI. The concert was sponsored in part by Tenggara, a Prague group supporting Southeast Asian studies, and the Indonesian Embassy in Prague. If you want to learn more about gamelan, you can begin here. Also, be sure to have a look at Karla’s account of the concert (her comments on the dreadlocks are so true).

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Nudli 1: Dej si "Superpauzu"

Ah, lunch is served. Have a "super pause." Brings back the days of dorm cooking and ramen noodles, but hey, they're Czech! (Which means that this "curry" flavor is definitely mild.)

The Adventure of the Peanut Butter Cookies

24 October 2005
“Every family’s cooking-pot has one black spot.” —Chinese Proverb, from The Columbia World of Quotations (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1996), no. 1532.

When you’re not familiar with the foods, measurements, and dishes of a place, cooking is always an adventure. The first implementation of my basic cooking strategy—plan meal, find recipe (or just improvise), buy ingredients, mix ingredients, bake or cook, eat—turned out to be much more complicated than I first expected.

Last Saturday, I decided to make peanut butter cookies. “Cookies” of any sort, at least as I imagine them (chocolate chip, snickerdoodles, molasses), are rarely baked in Czech kitchens. I chose peanut butter after one of my housemates told me that he’d never tasted peanut butter. So introducing a peanut-themed dish to our house’s menu seemed an ideal way to start promoting cultural interaction and dialogue, part of my Fulbright “mission.

First I had to find a recipe. This was easy enough to do online, but of course the one I found listed everything in cups, tablespoons, and degrees Fahrenheit. These are not standard measurements in Europe, so I found a website that offered conversion tables. Ultimately these tables did not prove as helpful as I thought they would, but at least I ended up with the right proportions of ingredients.

The next task was to buy the ingredients. Prague friends have told me that you could buy peanut butter in some of the larger stores here even though it’s not very popular. My neighborhood store (Brněnka, one of a chain of small groceries which has adopted the Brno “dragon” as its mascot) was open, but they do not have peanut butter. So I took the tram downtown to Tesco, a chain of larger department stores.

My idealized vision of walking into the store, buying the ingredients, and going home was dashed in minutes. None of the ingredients were simple. There were at least three types of flour. Which one to pick? Should I get “soft” flour, “Half-grain,” “smooth”? I finally chose the one with pictures of cakes and cookies on the front. What sort of sugar? There were also three or four types, ranging from confectioner’s sugar to a “fine” grind to “coarse.” The flour I’d chosen had a cake recipe on the back, so I got the type of sugar it recommended for cakes. The most difficult item was baking soda. It was nowhere to be found! Even after calling Karla, with whom I’ve baked before in the Czech Republic, and consulting with her friend Štěpanka, I couldn’t find the right stuff. I finally decided to give kypřicí prášek a try, as recommended by Štěpanka. It seemed close to baking soda.

When I finally had everything, it was time to go home and mix the ingredients. For some reason they had decided to reroute my tram because of repairs, but I didn’t realize this until after stood at the wrong tram stop for at least 15 minutes. My vision of speediness suffered another blow.

At home, the conversions, which had appeared to be easy calculations on the online chart, were not straightforward. If half a cup was one deciliter, then why was my flour measuring cup only in grams? I was obviously mixing up measurements for fluids and solids. But deciding that 100 grams were probably about equal to a deciliter, I forged ahead.

While online to look up these conversions I came across an article that stated bluntly, there is “no substitution” for baking soda. It was evident that the baking-powder-like substance that I had purchased was not going to work. Fortunately, the article was quite informative:

Baking powder and/or baking soda is used as leavening in many cookie recipes. Baking soda helps neutralize acidic ingredients. Baking powder and baking soda are not interchangeable and there is no substitution for baking soda.

Try the pharmacy, or the pharmacy section of the supermarket, and ask for bicarbonato. Baking soda is also called sodium bicorbonate in Britian, or NaHCO3. (More…)

Note for friends in Czech Republic:

kypřicí prášek (do pečiva) is basically like baking powder.
jedlá soda or bikarbóna is baking soda.

I did want edible cookies, so I decided to return to Tesco. But would it be open? I instead found the wonderful Interspar located in Galerie Vaňkovka. It has a better selection in food and an inviting atmosphere (not the sketchy, dirty feeling of downtown Brno’s Tesco).

Upon returning home, I mixed the ingredients, wrongly assuming that my trials were over. That was not to be. I found that the oven at my house works strangely too. I knew that the cookies should bake at 190 C, but that wasn’t enough information. Once you turn on my oven, you still have many options: do you want to “grill” your food (i.e., use the upper and lower heating elements with the door open), heat from the top, the bottom, both? Evidently the oven’s thermostat doesn’t work either. After baking for only about 7 minutes, the cookies were overdone on the bottom. But they were still edible. The second batch of cookies burned.

You can imagine the rest. I shared some of the edible results with my housemates. Luckily peanut butter cookies go well with port. We polished off the evening with both.

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Language in the making from Sakal77

23 October 2005
Check this out (no pun intended). You can 'blog' just as well in Czech as in English. Apparently the -ovat and -nout verb endings work here too. These endings are often affixed to non-Czech words - e.g., startovat, emailovat - to make verbs. So from 'blog', you get 'blogovat' and 'blognout'. I love it. It's always great, at least for us non-native Czech speakers, to learn some new Czech words.

From Sakal77, a Czech-language blog ("Poznamky Sakala77"), the following:

Dokonce se přes to lépe blogují fotografie než přes Hello!
(In the end it [referring to another photo-hosting service] blogs photographs better than Hello!)


22 October 2005
What does the blog's title mean? No, it doesn't mean that Brno residents are bored and boring all the time. The title was inspired by the Czech director Vladimír Morávek's film Nuda v Brně, released 2003. The title translates as "Boredom in Brno" (it was called something like "Sex in the City" in German), though the similarity of nuda and nude exists too in Czech and brings various connotations to the film's Czech title.

Being the "second city" of the Czech Republic, Brno usually gets the short end of the stick, particularly when compared with Prague, the Czech Republic's capital. Brno is smaller, it doesn't have any mediaeval architecture, it has fewer museums and galleries, and it doesn't have a metro. In Czech (mostly in Prague I think), you occasionally even hear people describe undesired results or outcomes as "mistakes like Brno." But it really isn't so bad (or boring) in Brno. The city is just less well known. So in addition to broadcasting my life to you, I'm hoping that this blog provides a testament to another reality: Brno is a burgeoning metropolis with an exciting and vibrant cultural life. (Of course, I'll be mostly focusing on music since I'm chauvinistic that way, but nonetheless...)

There's always the possibility that this blog will be proof that Brno really is boring, but I'll withold any more musings on that topic for the moment.

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And a blog is brno, er, born

Dobrý den a ahoj! Hello! Welcome to my first blog. I've been thinking about ways to keep in touch with people here and back home, and finally, inspired by Prague friends and websurfing, I decided a blog might be the thing. I can even incorporate Czech diacritics. How exciting! You probably think that this is not as exciting as I do, but with my primitive HTML authoring abilities, I was never able to make these display correctly on other webpages. Wow.