Brněnský Drak Wishing You a Happy New Year

31 December 2005

Brněnský drak
Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
Here's my fuzzy picture of the drak. I guess it was going so fast that my camera could barely catch it in motion.

Šťastný nový rok přeju vám všem!

(Happy New Year! Sorry if you celebrate New Years at other times, I am afraid this will have to do from me. Cheers!)

The Czech Museum of Music: Review and Reflections

30 December 2005
Prague has lots of big museums. Most of them are special, most are interesting, and most are well taken care of. The new music branch of the National Museum, however, is still exceptional. Most noticeably, it's brand new. Rotating exhibits are housed on the ground floor while the museum's permanent collection is (at least partially) displayed on the first floor. The massive Vrtbovský palác has been restored in a tasteful, understated style. The building's large inner court apears to be suitable for concerts and lectures, which are set against the dramatic backdrop of the main staircase. Upon entering, your attention is drawn up past three balconies with wrought-iron railings toward the large cupolo skylight that illuminates the main hall. It is impressive.

The exhibits are also well-integrated with sound examples. It is altogether too easy and (probably) too standard to have a silent "music" museum. So it was quite nice to hear the many sound examples. Most of the rooms in the standing exhibits have a small kiosk with headphones from which visitors can choose to listen to characteristic music played on the instruments in the room (or at least on instruments that are similar to those on display). The kiosks are user friendly and are one of the few places in the museum that feature English translations. It is, however, a bit difficult to fit in enough time to listen to all the examples. Most of the kiosks have three or four examples (some of considerable length) and there are no chairs, which means that guests who listen to all the examples spend a lot of time on their feet. There are also only two headphone sets per kiosk.

The museum does have a few shortcomings. The permanent exhibit is promisingly titled "Man, Instrument, Music"--implying that in addition to the instruments on display there will be some discussion of their making, the relationship of people with musical instruments, and a suitably diverse array of instruments. This, however, is not what the exhibit accomplishes. It is a collection of fine instruments beautifully displayed, but there is almost no explanation of how they are made, what significance they might have (extra-musical or otherwise), or how and when they were played. For example, in the room of brass instruments there was no explanation of why two portraits were hanging on the wall. They turned out to be the Červený family, who founded and/or owned a major factory that manufactured brass instruments. Overall the museum could do with more explanation of any sort. Though the rotating exhibit had no English translations, the permanent exhibit had hardly any text in Czech to translate (though translations of the existing text were given). An interactive museum might get away with less text, but this is decidedly not an interactive museum (at least in a hand's-on way, though the listening kiosks do provide a different sort of engagement). The instruments are in cases and those that aren't cannot be touched. It seems that there should at least be text available for those of us who are interested in more detailed explanations.

The instruments are loosely categorized by a system developed by musicologists Erich M. von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs (publishd in 1914). The so-called Sachs-Hornbostel system classifies instruments into groups according to how they produce sound. Major groups are aerophones (produce sound with a vibrating column of air), membranophones (sound from a vibrating membrane), chordophones (sound from a vibrating string), or idiophones (sound produced when the body of the instrument itself vibrates). These make acceptable categories, but they are not as clear as they might seem. For example, as was noted in one of the rare bits of text, the accordion is an aerophone but might also be classified as an idiophone since it small reeds are vibrating to make sound. Actually I'm not sure why this would make it an idiophone anyway since this usually means that the entire body of the instrument is involved, such as in a woodblock. As organologist Klaus Wachsman writes (under "aerophones" in the Grove Music Online), Hornbostel and Sachs "divided aerophones into two subclasses: free aerophones (freie Aerophone) and wind instruments proper (eigentliche Blasinstrumente). Reeds appear in both categories, and although the classification may be based on controversial acoustic premises it provides a valuable compendium for surveying various kinds of reed instrument." But that doesn't explain the idiophone reference at the museum. Of course, if you want to be picky all instruments could be aerophones since the only way to produce sound is to vibrate air. But that would just be silly and it wouldn't accomplish much of a classification.

There is a bigger problem with the H-S system, though. While appealing to a "rational" or "scientific" approach to organizing everything, it does not tell us anything about the cultural meaning of the instruments. For example, why do some of the viola d'amoures feature a scroll carved as a human head while some do not? Why are some of the heads blindfolded? Is this significant? Why is one of the 18th-century harpsichord cases decorated with detailed scenes from the orient, "chinoiserie"? What inspired the "giraffe" piano? I'm just posing these questions rhetorically, but I do think that their answers (or even offering them as possibilities for thought) would enrich a museum-goer's experience if he or she wanted something more. The H-S system is also wont to privilege European musics. The exhibit of Alois Hába's quarter- and sixth-tone pianos and organs was fascinating, but these are not (as the short text implied) the first instruments nor the only instruments to use non-tempered scales. And how did Czech folk musicians talk about their instruments? Were there any "indigenous" terms? If so, these are completely obscured by the H-S system.

I visited on 18 December 2005 when the special exhibit was about Josef Suk's symphonic poem (or cantata) based on Karel Jaromír Erben's nineteenth-century poem Svatební košile from his book of poetry Kytice. For more information, visit the National Museum's Web site or the site of the National Museum of Music. The new building of the Czech Museum of Music (České muzeum hudby) is at Karmelitská 2/4, Praha (Mala strana)

Quiet Evening

29 December 2005

Lamp with snow
Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
Snow fell yesterday and I took a wonderfully quiet walk after dark. It seems that the city has emptied considerably over the December holidays. There were so few people out that you could hear your shoes crunching and squeaking on the new snow. I wish that there were always so few people at the grocery store.

Big Americans

28 December 2005
While strolling unsuspectingly past the freezers this evening at Interspar I innocently glanced to the right. My shopping daze was rudely interrupted by a shocking display: frozen pizza! Not so surprising, you think? Indeed, it was not the frozen pizza alone (in itself relatively boring), but the packaging. This was not your average frozen pizza. The boxes read, "Big Americans: Pizza American Style." In English, no Czech, German, or French. Could you pass it up? Neither could I. Particularly when I saw that many were "Texas" flavored.

I'll refrain from making any tasteless remarks (oops! too late already). You'll have to fill them in yourself.

No, it was not very good. But it was very funny. And my oven didn't even burn it. Click here for a serving suggestion.

The Christmas Bustle

A series of impressions from the week before Christmas. It is, of course, lovely to be in the Czech Republic for Christmas, but I tried to notice the less conventional side of things, or at least the non-everyday things. (I was so caught up in the 'bustle' last week that I didn't get around to photographing much of it, and some of the photos are from after the fact.)

For example, remember Ježíšek? Well, Frekvence 1, a popular radio station, encouraged listeners to send Ježíšek an SMS (short test messages that can be sent from mobile phones). If your message was chosen as one that could "shock, surprise, or make Ježíšek laugh," you could win 10,000 crowns! On Friday before Christmas Eve Karel Gott, the reigning king of Czech pop music (somehow I always imagine him as a cross between Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and Lawrence Welk), came to the studio to award a special prize of 100,000 crowns. Frekvence 1 offers many eclectic horoscopes--Indian, Egyptian, Chinese, Aztec, Indian, Celtic, Gypsy (they are only in Czech but if you want to acess them, scroll down to 'Horoskopy' on the sitemap).

On náměstí svobody, the "square of Freedom" at the center of old Brno, there was a large Christmas market. You could gorge yourself on many types of sausage or other other unhealthy but festive food like svařák (hot spiced wine), bramboráky (fried, in lots of grease, potato cakes), or freshly cooked pork cut from a roasting hog caracass while you wait. Next door to the cooked meat stalls stood Ježíšek's post office. A little farther down was a carousel for kids. Next to that a blacksmith forged horseshoes for luck and bells for your home betlem (nativity scene). In the middle of it all stood a huge Christmas tree with a little tables under it where you could stand to sip your beer.

Ježíšek's post office; you can get a postmark that says "Traditional Czech Christmas, Brno."

Then there are the carp sellers. They were on all the major squares I visited in Brno though I never got a picture. Rumor has it that one should not buy carp from the sellers on Prague's Staroměstské náměstí because there is "something" wrong with them. Whether it is fumes from the roasting pigs, something seeping up through the bottom of the pools, or some strange trace in the water, beware! Some Fulbrighter's got together to try the traditional meal, as Deborah reports and depicts. Julia, a Prague blogger, memorably describes the carp sellers:

It's that time of year again, when men in green stand with cigarettes dangling over baby swimming pools, net in hand, while ladies direct them to the choicest fish for their Christmas dinner. (More...)

There was a lot more bustle, but that will have to do until New Year's. Hezké svátky vše!!!

Tuesday on Sunday

27 December 2005
It was a lovely Christmas in Úterý. I was invited via Karla, who met Štěpanka and her son Michael when Štěpanka was an exchange scholar in Pittsburgh. Štěpanka is a scholar of Czech-American immigration and has published a well-regarded book on the subject, and her son Michael is going to high school in Prague. They also have a sweet feline companion named Vegetka (Michael thought she was lazy, so I guess that is a sort of Czech version of 'vegging' out as in sit around and be lazy). We made a pretty cozy group in the small cottage.

All in all, it was a very Czech Štědrý den (Christmas Eve). This is traditionally a bigger celebration for Czechs. As dusk was falling at 16.00 we attended a Catholic "midnight" mass in Úterý's magnificent (unheated) Baroque church. Then we wandered back to the cottage--making our way through the haze of coal and wood smoke since there is no gas service in the village--for a traditional dinner of potato salad and fried carp. I had initial misgivings about the carp, but it was delicious and quite light. Then we exchanged some small gifts (chocolate, books, wine) and talked.

We had a more "American" Christmas Day. Karla and Štěpanka cooked the main dishes. We had visions of a great vegetable feast (well, not really, but it could have turned out that way). Štěpanka had a goose which she baked in the oven and Karla made yams (a rarity here) and roasted root vegetables. This was the first time I've ever had Christmas goose. I planned a pumpking pie for dessert, but there was a strange disaster with the crust--it turned into a buttery goop at the bottom of the pan. (I forgot my camera so there's no picture to proove it.) Complete disaster was averted by Karla who had the wherewithal to reform the goop into a pie-crust-shaped mass into which we poured the pumpkin filling. Considering the circumstances, the pie turned out well. It was served with whipped cream, graciously provided by Michael. We then walked around the village looking for Christmas decorations at the other cottages.

Other highlights were the snowball fight between Michael, Karla, and me; a walk around the village during which Michael filled us in on the gossip (including the details about the local arsonist, the sausage dogs, and the many 'shortcuts' around the village outskirts); a very large, red-spotted concrete mushroom in a neighbor's backyard, but not a single garden gnome (I guess the gnomes celebrated Christmas elsewhere); peering through the keyhole of the other baroque church--or was it gothic redone as never can tell--just up the hill from the village; and the German guy using the cemetery wall as a latrine.

As I say, I forgot my camera, so you'll just have to imagine the scene. I have to admit it was quite idyllic, and the peace and charm of the village was worlds away from the Prague (or even Brno) bustle. (Karla posted some of her pictures.)

Christmas in Tuesday on Sunday

22 December 2005
There will be a little break in posting over the holidays. If I posted a sign to that effect, it would soon be covered with graffiti or other things, like this. Instead of writing I've recorded a holiday greeting. You can access it by clicking on the link. I'm going to a little village called Utery ("Tuesday"), which should be picturesque and have more snow than Prague or Brno.

Happy Solstice

Hey, it's officially winter now. And the days are going to get longer. Let's celebrate.

Thank you, Brněnský drak!

19 December 2005
The semi-high-speed express between Brno and Prague, the Brněnský drak, was great. (The "Brno Dragon," which brings up another story but I'll have to post it later...I've been very remiss to have a Brno blog and not mentioned the dragon!) I rode it to Prague last week and it only took two hours and twenty minutes! Buses take two-and-a-half hours. The fun part about the Brněnský drak express is that it is in Czech Rail's new trains that travel slightly faster than the regular ones. Apparently this is possible because the carriages of the trains lean left or right while the undercarriages are traveling on level tracks. This creates enough momentum so that you and your luggage aren't sliding off the seats and shelves whenever you go around a corner. It's fun, sort of like a race car.

I was glad I took the train back, too, even though this was only the Vyšehrad and not the dragon. I even had a conversation with a friendly Czech on the train! (In Czech, of course, although my accent seems to have suffered from a long weekend of Fulbright.) It turned out to be an especially portentous decision as I am reading about the trouble on the D-1 expressway between Prague and Brno. Last night, after a snowfall of "over 20 centimeters in some places," a 40-kilometer stretch of the freeway was closed, "for the first time in its history," for twelve (12) hours! Cars were backed up for 50 kilometers, and reports say thousands of cars had to wait. I can almost imagine sitting in the bus that long. Yikes! (I can't sympathize too much given that this was barely eight inches of snow at maximum, although I'm sure it fell quickly. But they should try maintaining a road in the U.P. where they've already had over six feet of snow this winter!)

It was a dire situation, however. Police reported 13 traffic-related deaths over the weekend and 1900 accidents. I'm glad I rode the train.

In good news, the lower house of the Czech Parliament (the Chamber of Deputies) passed a bill that would legalize domestic partnership for same-sex couples. This is the third time such a bill has come before the Parliament. I believe it would still have to be passed by the Senate to become law, and it is not as well supported there. While it's hardly surprising that President Klaus has not supported the bill, I was surprised to read that many representatives from the Citizen's Democratic Party (ODS) do not support the bill. That is too bad, even though some might claim legal reasons rather than ideological ones. Rumor has it that the bill will not pass the Senate.

The State of Gender Studies

18 December 2005

Gender Studies
Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
While I was walking in downtown Prague yesterday with Karla, we happened upon a Prague center for gender studies featuring an "information center" and "library." It's just behind the dancing building at Jiráskovo náměstí. It struck us as quite amusing that the scantily clad masculine statuary above the imposing doorway appeared to be glaring down at the upstart gender studies center. They were, however, too busy holding up the building to do anything about the sign. The sign fared better from my camera's perspective as it seems to dwarf the statuary in the picture.

No Posting!

"Forbidden to post placards and ads of any sort"

In Prague

17 December 2005

Old Town Square
Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
I forgot to mention: I'm in Prague this weekend. You probably figured that out already if you have been reading other recent posts. Here is the christmas tree on Old-Town Square. It was cold, overcast, and very windy yesterday. Despite the weather Prague does have its magic. You can see the weather only mildly cut down on the number of people at the Christmas market.


Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
This is Hubert's very friendly apartment companion. (There are a few other students as well.) After the meeting we adjourned to Hubert's. Nori (hopefully I got the name right) seemed happy to meet us and is a very nice cat (except for the claws). Hubert kindly warned us not to pick up Nori by his back legs if we wanted to avoid being bitten. No one tried it.

Another Fulbright Meeting

Last night was a pre Christmas / end-of-the-year meeting/dinner with the Fulbright group. It was more personable than the embassy's silver-trayed and white-gloved waiters. At the 'meeting' we all talked about our experiences in the Czech Republic. What went well? What didn't? Those of us not located in Prague had a chance to get reacquainted with each other and the Praguers and even to meet some new Fulbright grantees who will be joining us for the winter. Afterward we had dinner at 'Hot Wings', a restaurant of unlikely name so perhaps I'm misremembering. Anyway, I was afraid that they would only have chicken wings. We, however, had a multi-course dinner served at a leisurely pace (to facilitate 'networking'). The food included a large "Capri" salad (tomatos and mozzrella), chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms (with lots of potatos on the side), a dessert course of "Tiramisu" (though it was more like small dessert things), and a chaser of Becherovka. So my weekend in Prague continues. I hope to return on the 'Brno Dragon' express. More about that when I get back.

Pizza, Go Home!

16 December 2005
If you are ever in need of pizza delivered when you are in Prague, just tap your heels together three times quickly and think intently, "Pizza, Go Home!" The shop of the same name will soon send your pizza running on its own two legs towards your apartment or hotel. If you're lucky it might even have toppings. Their central location (on the expressway through town) ensures quick delivery even in outlying areas such as Prague 10 or, in a pinch, the National Archive near Chodov.

Dear Little Jesus: Have You Seen My Kitchen Lately?

12 December 2005

Yesterday was the third Sunday of advent, and so I figured it was about time to write my letter to Ježíšek (little Jesus). Czech kids usually write to the little baby Jesus rather than Santa Claus when they request Christmas gifts. I already showed a picture of St. Nicholas celebrations, and though these are a part of the Christams season, St. Nick has his own holiday here. I guess little Jesus flies around in his manger, or other transportation, and delivers gifts to children.

Dear Little Jesus:

I hope you've had a good year down there in Bethlehem. Have you been to the North Pole recently to visit Santa Claus? I hope that you were wrapped warmly and that your mother pushed the pram quickly so that your little nose didn't freeze too much.

Say, I hear that you bring presents for Christmas. That's nice. If you have a chance, I was wondering if you just might be able to have a look at my kitchen sink. Here's a picture so you don't even have to make the trip.As you can see, it's nasty. Even after it was cleaned with heavy-duty cleaner it was still black on the bottom! And it's small, and the cupboards are too low above it. Do you think you could find space in your cradle for a new sink when you fly by on Christmas Eve? Thanks.

I'm also sending a picture that shows how seriously I am taking my pagan celebrations. I've been dutifully recognizing advent by lighting a candle every Sunday. I have also been 'festive' by adding a wreath and a small, tree-like ornament to the table decor. It has 'spruced' up my kitchen (note the dull yellow 'curtains' that do not actually extend far enough to cover the windows).

Sincerely, Little Jesse

Žďár nad Sázavou

Last weekend was taken up by an outing to Žďár nad Sázavou. Karla and I met there to go skiing, although we never really did find skis or trails. Apart from being a small, quiet, and relatively nice Czech town, just to the north of the center there is a UNESCO-recognized church at Zelená hora (Green mountain). The church is situated at the top of the mountain but hidden by trees until you get close. The unique church and surrounding churchyard is dedicated to St. John of Nepomuk. It was built in the early eighteenth century. It was kind of funny walking around in the downtown, scattered with communist-era socialist realist art, e.g. the town theater, while knowing the church was never more than two or three kilometers away:

Another strange site/sight was the closed Julius Meinl grocery that still advertises "Quality for low prices" (note the empty shelves). It's not clear what they're referring to. Some people think they can sell you anything.

Finally, a trumpeting angel heralded the distant TOKOZ factory from another Santini construction, the Lower Cemetery outside the chateau.

Finnish as a World Language

I suppose those who actually read this stuff occasionally are not going to be so happy that I stayed home today because of my cold. I had a sore throat when I was awaken by the water-meter reader's angry ringing on the doorbell very early, and the sore throat was compounded by some swollen stuff behind my ears. The positive side of all this is that I'm just sitting around surfing the Web. I found this entertaining article:

"The problem we now face is how to convince the remaining 99.95% of the global population to learn Finnish." (More...)

Would you like to imagine what I do whenever I open my mouth in Czech? The above article captures the experience and, surprisingly hilariously, the thought process. When you read the next excerpt, substitute Czech for Finnish/Finn, eliminate a few cases, and throw gender into the mix for good measure. Enjoy:

When you are about to use a noun, always reflect according to the following pattern:

· Which is the corresponding noun in Finnish?

· Singular or plural?

· What case? Nominative, accusative, genitive, essive, partitive, translative, inessive, elative, illative, adessive, ablative, allative, abessive, comitative or instructive?

· Is it possible to avoid using the noun?

After you have contemplated this during the proverbial fraction of a second, take a deep breath and pronounce the first half of the noun in a huge, booming voice. Then gradually weaken the voice so that by the time you pronounce the case ending, it is only in a hoarse whisper. This method of demonstrating your mastery of case usage is completely safe since, although you cannot prove that you were right, nobody, Finn or otherwise, can ever prove that you were wrong. Above all, look confident.

And an often interesting blog by an aspiring comparative linguist who often discusses Finno-Ugric languages.

Those Prams Again!

On an unsuccessful ski-trip this weekend (there wasn't enough snow as you might imagine), I met up with Karla in the Czech-Moravian highlands between Prague and Brno. We spent a lot of time sipping coffee in cafes and watching women push prams by outside in the cold. I am still perplexed by the multitude of babies in prams you see here. This was in a small town, too. I bet in the course of one hour we saw at least twenty go by. Usually they are pushed by single women, but not always. It does seem that the entire family (Mom and Dad and Baby) often go out for walks together.

Today on an article about traveling with your pram has appeared. It's filled with advice to mothers about how to get on and off trams, with prams. While the article's writer should spend a little more energy on suggesting transportation alternatives, she mostly presents a primer on how to get around with your pram. I have to say this all seems kind of crazy, but nonetheless it's interesting to find out how deep pram culture really goes. You can, for example, get a free sticker for your windshield from a group called "Prague Mothers" that entreats drivers, "Don't park on the sidewalk" (presumably because the prams can't get by). The article only notes in passing stress that "many mothers with very young babies have also had good experiences using a baby carrier or sling on the MHD [city transport], which also allows you to board easily." Indeed, it would make things easier for everyone. Prams are bulky, get stuck at curbs, need to be lifted into trams by at least two people, and are probably quite expensive (you really have to see the 'deluxe' ones that go by sometimes...color coordinated, matching canvas covers and shock absorbers, all-terrain tires, mud flaps over the wheels).

If you really need to get out actively, then you should look into the 'jogging stroller'. The article notes, "Jogging strollers have finally arrived in Prague, although you may be the first in your neighborhood to have one. The store Dve plus dve [sic] in Prague 4 ( sells two models of chariot-style strollers that convert to bike trailers and can be used from 6 months of age."

Then, if you really really really really need to get out, find a skiing pram (or, as the lingo has it, 'chariot'). Now, does this not seem a bit much? I may find the prams a bit over-amusing, but really, where does this end? What is the purpose? Would it really be possible for this guy to be skate-skiing while towing that thing?

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On Winter

Here is poser-winter that we get in Brno. (My back yard this morning.)

Here is real winter that they had in Calumet last week. (My parents' back yard last week.)

Sv. Mikuláš

11 December 2005

Sv. Mikuláš
Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
Last Monday many people here recognized the saint's day of St. Nicholas. When I walked through town during the day I noticed a few processions of the saint (carrying his shepherd's hook and usually a bell), followed by a devil (usually black-faced), and sometimes accompanied by an attendant or two. The festivities are mostly for children. The saint and his entourage stop at houses and usually hand out a small gift. (That is, if the child has been "good.")

I helped out at a community center for environmental education. During most of the evening children circulated between various tables where they could partake in activities--making a christmas card, weaving on a loom, sawing shapes in wood. The highlight of the evening was St. Nicholas's visit. We all gathered in the central room after hearing the procession's approaching bell. The bearded St. and the devil went through the "Book of Sins" (e.g., irritating your teacher, not cleaning your ears, not doing what your mother tells you to do, or picking on your classmates), and asked if they had been good. Many of the kids were laughing and admitting to being "bad." At the end we all sang "Bethlehem," a popular carol with the accompaniment of the young violinist who accompanied this procession. It was a fun evening.

Concert: Impressions

09 December 2005

Last night I heard the Brno State Philharmonic at the Janáčkovo divadlo. The hall is not so great. It reminds me of Corson Auditorium at Interlochen. It's not bad either. But the musicians seem to have trouble hearing from the back to the front of the stage. There were lots of strange intonation issues and untogether entrances. They played Shostakovich's Suite op. 145a, "Six songs after Michaelangelo." The bass soloist (singer) was great. But while the strings were suitably icy and static for Shostakovich generally, the bass solo (double bass) was rather weak and tentative. Considering that the entire bass section used the German-style bowhold (which is supposed to give a more aggressive sound), this was odd. The second half was Brahms's 4th Symphony. This was overall OK, but the last movement was rather brisk and it seemed under-rehearsed. I suppose it's one of those "war-horse" pieces that gets played so much they don't think they need to work on it. The conductor, Petr Altrichter, was too theatrical and seemed not to help the orchestra very much. The woodwinds (barring the principal bassoon) were generally offensively out of tune and played with insensitive tone. The clarinetist in particular had an unremarkable tone that could've been so much warmer and friendlier. The trombones were very good. Unfortunately there is no tuba in Brahms 4.

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Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death. "Imagine" has been playing a lot on the radio here. One of the great homages to Lennon is a graffiti wall in Prague. Brno, unfortunately, does not have one as far as I know. I've clipped the below from flickr.

"On this Day" from the BBC.

The Ubiquitous "Read These Blogs" Post and Other Dirty Laundry

07 December 2005
It seems unlikely, but apparently there are a few blogs out there about Brno. I'm slowly exploring the "blogosphere" as well. It's kind of neat. People link to each others' blogs, and then they get more "authority" on certain blog indexes. One feels "connected" and has the illusion that one can be believed. While I don't completely buy into all of this, I have been finding it interesting to read blogs by other people with common interests. At least regarding Brno. I was surprised to find that there actually are other blogs about Brno in English!

I imagine that these blog writers will be more surprised to find that I am listing them here than I was to find them, but I hope they don't mind.

Another American (I assume) in Brno writes a blog about his experiences working here.

Another academic (it seems, affiliated with Univ. of Wisconsin) keeps a nice photoblog. (Note that this page has never been devoted solely to Brno, but there are lots of nice pictures if you search.)

Now, one more item. While I have my own laundry experiences, laundry stories generally seem to be a trope among Americans living abroad. So, you can read Karla's, Kristen's, and OYNAG's (if you're interested).

Find similar posts with these Technorati Tag links: , .

Zvláštní Austerlitz 2005

Strange trip?
Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
[Scene at the bus stop]

Czechs: [translation] Hey, is that our bus?

French: Oui.

Czechs: Well, what are you doing on it?

French: --

Czechs: Yes, going to the frolic, no doubt. Oh boy! So are we. What a strange trip this is.

French: Oui.

Czechs: Pardon us, do you have any grey poupon? We have only the cheap yellow kind.

French: Oui!


On Saturday, 2 December 2005, I went with a group of Fulbrighters and friends to see the battle of Austerlitz rise again. It was on a field with scale-model model houses and things that actually burned down. From our vantage point, the people looked like scale models too. ("Hey, is that grey dot on the white horse Napoleon?" "Yeah, I think so." "How can you tell?" "Well, see he's wearing that funny hat." "No, I don't really." "Well, it's very small." "Ah yes, a scale-model original.") The original battle, in which Napoleon's army of 75,000 routed the combined Austrian and Russian armies of 90,000, has become rather legendary. You might have guessed that the French won from the dialogue above. But you probably didn't since it may have given the impression that the French were all driving around on a snowy field in fancy cars insulting the Czech's cheap yellow mustard. In reality the re-enactors (French, Czech, Austrian, Russian alike) were overcrowding the city transport and drinking too much cheap Czech beer. Overall the re-enactment was, well, small and far-away. The most dramatic part was the burning church and barns, which you can see by clicking on the picture at left (click on the slideshow feature at the right when you get to "Vive la France!"

My classic "scale model" Breugel photo of the re-enactment is here, others are gathered at my Austerlitz tag on flickr.

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Dreary: Brno Winter

06 December 2005

Brno snowfall
Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
Here is a picture of the beatiful snowfall from a week ago. Today it was above freezing but blustery, drizzly, overcast, and dark. Where did beatiful winter go? Perhaps I will adjourn to the moutains for the weekend. (Unfortunately when I was in Kopřivnice, which is in the Beskydy, it was raining there too. But I hear that elsewhere it is still nice.)

Kopřivnice Trip

Kopřivnice band
Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
It was already over a week ago. Yikes! So I will be brief. I visited Kopřivnice in late November (the 26th). I first visited this band in 2002, so I've been in touch with them longer than any other Moravian musicians. This was their annual holiday concert and featured four (!) guest conductors and a program of classics and lighter pieces. I had a great time visiting with the Debef family who were very hospitable. I went to their "ranch" on Sunday for dinner where the grandmother cooks on a wood stove, I helped them bring in wood from outside, and even saw them loading coal. So it was the real thing. (Apparently due to rising natural gas prices some people are switching back to coal and, according to some reports, even burning garbage for heat. Needless to say this doesn't improve air quality. However, I don't think that's the reason they burn coal on the ranch - it's kind of a country retreat and it's just what you do out of town.)

You Play a What?

05 December 2005

First it was the euphonium, now it's the cimbalom. I suppose there are probably more than a few people out there wondering where I find these esoteric instruments. I guess I owe you all an explanation. First, a little about what the instrument is called. I was pleased to find that there is a lot more than "just" a name involved in all this. In fact, as is usually the case, the name of the instrument can tell a lot about where the instrument came from, how people were playing it, even what language they were speaking.

The instrument name for the cimbalom seems particularly tricky. Cimbalom, which I take to be the more-or-less correct English name, comes from Hungarian. It makes sense to use the Hungarian name because the modern-day instrument was developed in Budapest in the 1870s, though it was created by J.V. Schunda, an instrument-maker of Czech origin. In Czech, it is just cimbál. A cimbalom band, usually consisting of two violins, a bass, and a cimbalom, is called a cimbálová muzika in Czech or cimbálka for short. Dulcimer would be a slightly more correct English name. This denotes a family of trapezoidal zither instruments, but that name seems too general. If you're really into technical organological jargon I suppose you could say these are 'dulcimer-type hammered zithers', but that's a bit much. 'Hammered dulcimer' would tell more about how the instrument is played, but usually this name usually designates only hammered zithers in Appalachia, which are an independent group of dulcimers that is distantly related to the Hungarian types. I decided last year to call the instruments I'm looking at cimbaloms because it seemed to be the most standard and applicable term in English. My Czech cimbalom teacher was also adamant that the correct English term is cimbalom and not dulcimer. (Cimbalom comes from the same Greek root as tympanum, for example, so to me it encapsulates the idea of a resonating chamber as well as the striking method. It's also the name listed in the OED.)

There are a lot of other colorful names for instruments of similar types, like the whamdiddle (sometimes in the American Midwest) or butterfly harp (Hong Kong). One of the reasons that there are so many names is that this instrument type is very old and adaptable--all of the instruments I just listed are possibly related (albeit distantly) to either Middle Eastern or European prototypes. The instrument probably came to Asia via the silk road trade routes. So the wide presence of the instrument in America, Europe, and Asia is a good example of early globalization. In the Czech Republic, even though the modern-day instrument is related to the 'new' Hungarian instrument, the existence of dulcimer-type instruments in the Czech lands has been documented to the 15th century. Regardless of the language used to describe the instrument, it seems pretty clear that the instrument has been around in Central Europe for a long time and its history is part of a lot of places including Germany, Hungary, and the Czech lands.

Who Stole Put back Christmas?

Well, there's plenty of Czech stuff to write about, so I promise I'll stop doing all this news stuff someday. But finally, some perspective on Christmas.

Regarding a move (by Fox news anchors and some conservative Christian groups) to boycott stores that don't advocate "Merry" Christamses, and other things:

"They claim that the 'traditional' American Christmas is under attack by what John Gibson, another Fox anchor, calls 'professional atheists' and 'Christian haters.' But America has a complicated history with Christmas, going back to the Puritans, who despised it. What the boycotters are doing is not defending America's Christmas traditions, but creating a new version of the holiday that fits a political agenda." (More)

Happy Holidays, everyone!

"Czech" Verbuňk Recognized by UNESCO

04 December 2005
On Nov. 25 UNESCO unveiled the Third Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The verbuňk dance, one of the most virtuosic Czech "folk" dances, was among the forty-three citations. The result was decided by an eighteen-member international jury appointed by the UNESCO Director-General and came after a two-year selection process. The citation gives a general description. It does not, however, address much more. For example, why is the dance Czech (Moravian)? What influences came together in the formation of this tradition? Is it more deserving of recognition or "preservation" than other art forms in the region?

The dance is obviously the product of complex multicultural interactions, but these happened more in Central Europe (a region), more specifically the Austro-Hungarian Empire, rather than in the Czech Republic (a political entity). The name was adopted into dialect from the German werbung, "recruitment." The Czech verb verbovat, from the same German word, means roughly "to conscript" or "to recruit" soldiers. The music for the dance, "New Hungarian Songs" according to the UNESCO site, is also not Czech. (By the way, this includes cimbál bands, too, since they are part of this Central European culture as well.) So to my eyes, this citation is most interesting for the tension that it illustrates between the trend to localize culture and culture's concurrent regional character. At present in the Czech Republic, such localized phenomena tend to become symbolic of codified "national" culture. This is not new. The folk culture of South Moravia has been regarded as a bountiful heartland of "authentic" and "living" Czech culture since the nineteenth century.

One wonders how, exactly, the dance was singled out. (I suspect that I know or have met at least a few of the scholars involved.) In Czech Radio's report Czech Minister of Culture Beneš claims to want, in the coming years, to strengthen Czech representation on the UNESCO intangible heritage list. He suggests nominating, "for example, pre-Lent parades in Hlinecek or the Ride of the Kings [a spring ceremony] in Vlčnov." ("Podle Michala Beneše bude Česko v nejbližších letech usilovat o to, aby se na seznam nehmotného kulturního dědictví dostaly například masopustní obchůzky z Hlinecka nebo vlčnovská Jízda králů.") This begs the question of why the dance was singled out. And, moreover, why and how such regional cultural activities get narrowed down to single towns. (Even the verbuňk is listed as mostly from Kyjov, and partly from Zlín.)

I started thinking about these issues last year when I was at a lecture by Joseph Roach. He claimed to be "indifferently" critical of the Intangible Heritage project. If it hasn't been done I think that someone should look for any correlation between the makeup of the jury (by country) and the results of the proclamations. For example, a newly appointed Czech member is now serving on the jury and we get Czech and Slovak recognition. Does this system disadvantage places that can't produce or nominate "experts" with the appropriate ethnographic credentials (or political connections) to serve on such juries. Their deliberations obviously have great power since the designated "traditions" receive even more research interest (maybe), funding, and validation while non-recognized traditions may fall by the wayside. In addition, the process inevitably institutionalizes and codifies expressive culture in a way that may have unpredictable and long-lasting effects. UNESCO should present more self-aware and critical portraits in the future.

In case you don't read Czech or get to the UNESCO site, the dance is a solo men's dance that features leaps and improvization. The singer is also expected to sing a song text during the slow introductory section. As with all dance types in the region, the verbuňk is always accompanied by music. The beginning is slow and warm-up like and the ending is faster (that's when the leaping comes in). The major sections are usually separated by sung verses during which the dances stands, faces the audience, and "orates" (for lack of a better term). (After having sat through a lot of these last summer during at the competition during the International Folk Festival in Straznice, I can tell you that the singing is not usually as polished as the dance. Almost every melody that I've heard features a large-interval leap--a fourth, fifth, or more--somewhere toward the beginning. This meant that the melodies often covered at least an octave. The performers were generally not able to sing melodies with such a wide range.)

The Slovakian fujara, a fascinating wind instrument that only produces sounds on two overtone series, was also recognized in the third proclamation.

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Your What?

That's right, I've tried to start a podcast. Listen to the Introduction.

If you can let me know whether it works or not, I'd appreciate it. It doesn't work for me, but then I have a strange connection. I hope you can enjoy it. If it works then I'll post sounds from the Battle of Austerlitz 200th anniversary re-enactment that took place today. (Kaboom!)

More Czech News: Are We Living in a Tabloid?

03 December 2005
In the "Health and Lifestyle" section of Friday's (Dec. 2) MF Dnes I read the following:

Creative People are Successful in Sex

The connection [between creativity and sexual activity] is not just a rumor. According to new scientific research artists have twice as many sexual partners than less creative people.

It turns out later in the article that only heterosexual males are "creative people." "More success, more women" reads a subheading. This all brings up so many questions! What about non-artistic creative people? Or uncreative artists? Is the measure of sexual "success" indicated by the number of a partners? Does having sex with many partners raise your creativity?

Does this kind of thing appear more in Czech papers than elsewhere? Or do I notice it more?

The pull quote reads:
"Poets are sexually attractive, but also often depressive."

Sorry to Disappoint

My regular readers (Laughter.) will note that I recently added a tracker to the blog. This is not a private tracker, anyone can go look at all the statistics. (Click below "you are being watched by" at the right to see for yourself. Thanks to Karla who brought the possibility to my attention.)

Disclaimer: In case you are one of the people (from Georgia, Florida, or even Mogadishu in Somalia) who searched "nuda" or, even better, "hot and nuda," then please note that the blog title is in Czech. That's not English. Nuda means "bored" (not, ahem, "nude"). Just don't want anyone to be confused. (They obviously weren't since the visits lasted about 0 minutes total.)

In other news, Donna Buchanan's book Performing Democracy: Bulgarian Music and Musicians in Transition is to be released soon by University of Chicago Press (part of the Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology series). How exciting.

Day With Rant

01 December 2005
I was going to keep silent today: just a Day With(out) (much) Weblog. But then I realized that I can't resist, after only a simple internet search, reporting that I'm fed up. As usual politics is out of touch with reality, and I'm more in touch with all that "thinking," but it is better to express something rather than just taking it all in. So here you are. Judge for yourselves.

The New York Times (Online) lead editorial, responding to Bush's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," concludes: "A president who seems less in touch with reality than Richard Nixon needs to get out more."

So I went to the White House webpage. What is going on? Apart from the NSVI, I was relieved to learn that the White House is "Celebrating 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' throughout the holiday season." How sweet. Somewhere below was a link for World Aids Day 2005 that trumpeted all of our American contributions. (These would be basically non-existent compared to the defense budget, but it doesn't say that. Wouldn't want any "perspective.") In a transcript President and Mrs. Bush "discuss" World Aids Day (actual quotes below):

MRS. BUSH: Good morning, everyone. Good morning and thank you all very, very much for joining us on this important day, World AIDS Day. ...

In July I visited three countries in Africa, and there I met people, . . . women at the Mothers To Mothers-To-Be Clinic are working to prevent the transmission of HIV from mothers to their unborn children. Mothers who have been through the program help HIV-positive mothers who are now pregnant and need guidance and strength from someone who has walked in their shoes.

The women and staff at Mothers To Mothers-To-Be, including Robin Smalley, who is here with us today, are -- were a wonderful host to me. Where is Robin? Oh, good -- right on the very front row. Hey, Robin. (Laughter.) ...

[Introduces President. Applause.]

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all. How about my line of work, where you get introduced by your wife? (Laughter.) ...

[Thanks at least ten people, ad nauseum, some of whom have done a "heck of a job."]

Today, with people around the world, not just here in America, but all around the world, 40 million -- we turn our thoughts to the more than 40 million men, women, and children who are living with HIV. That's what World AIDS Day is all about. ...

Here in the United States, over a million of our citizens face this chronic condition. At the start of this century, AIDS causes suffering from remote villages of Africa to the heart of America's big cities. This danger is multiplied by indifference and complacency. This danger will be overcome by compassion, honesty, and decisive action. ...

We [Americans] are guided by the conviction of our founding -- that the Author of Life has endowed every life with matchless value.

HIV/AIDS remains a special concern in the gay community. ...

We're working with our partners to expand prevention efforts that emphasize abstinence, being faithful in marriage, and using condoms correctly. This strategy -- pioneered by Africans -- has proven its effectiveness, and America stands behind the ABC approach to prevention. (Applause.) ...

Wowzers, did he say "gay" and "comdoms"?!? And "Author of Life"? The ABC approach as "decisive action"? Wait, Africans "pioneered" an ideology from missionaries and fundamentalists imposed upon them by colonial and post-colonial frameworks of inherently always and already unequal power structures because they didn't even know they were making a choice? Oh, right, now I remember. I still can't really tell you what Worlds Aids Day is about.

But I know everything is light and fluffy. So comforting to know it's all bright and beautiful everywhere, um, not just in America, but all over the whole wide world. (Laughter. Applause.)

Day With(out) Art

In recognition of World Aids Day, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, along with many other arts institutions, held its "Day With(out) Art."

According to reports (UNAIDS), the number of HIV+ people continues to rise at a high rate, most markedly in Southeast and Central Asia (in some areas over 50% increase in the last two years) and in Eastern Europe. Women and children are especially high risk populations in these areas. The situation is rather alarming, particularly considering that drug treatments have increased since the disease was first documented. Since 1981 more than 20 million people have died of AIDS.