Saturday was the birthday celebration. First was brunch, then a walk through Vinohrady, and an afternoon talk with Karla while Alex baked chocolate chip cookies. (Those were great cookies, by the way. It's been a while since I had any genuine chocolate chips. I did attempt to "manufacture" chocolate chips by hand from a normal chocolate bar, but the ensuing batch of cookies did not turn out due to my old oven's refusal to cooperate.) The main birthday event was a potluck dinner at Hubert's. The first course featured a chicken and eggplant dish with rice (delicious spices - particularly the ginger), a hearty spaghetti and tuna option, baguettes and cheeses, and wine (including a very light and fruity Moravian Riesling). A second round of dishes added a mushroom and onion risotto and a fruit salad (with quark!). Dessert was the chocolate chip cookies. We finished off with a round of slivovice (a plum brandy, a.k.a. "Moravia's finest," except when one is speaking of wine). This last was one of my offerings from the Moravian provinces, and although it was a bit strong for some, we enjoyed observing the various responses and facial expressions as subsequent
In honor of Easter, a pomlazka was presented to the birthday girl. This is a switch braided from flexible, water-soaked willow branches. There are traditionally eight-strand swithces, though they can be more complex. Traditionally, according to Czech custom, young men in villages wake early on Easter Monday and go from house to house with their willow sticks beating the prettiest girls. Girls whose houses are not visited are, perhaps, insulted because it is implied that they aren't pretty enough to attract attention. In return for their visit, boys receive slivovice or kráslice (decorated eggs). Pomlazky were also thought to guarantee prosperity, good health, and luck to those who were hit with them. The purpose of the ritual is rejuvenative: to transfer the vitality of the re-awakening twigs (and, by extension, the fertility of spring) to the living people via the whipping ritual. There are obviously more Freudian interpretations of this practice. As Czech Radio delicately explains, "young men can show affection in their own ways to the fairer sex."
After the potluck we took in a bit of "latin and cuban" jazz at U staré paní, a club in Old Town. The jazz combo was quite good, though their offerings seemed to be mostly "latin-tinged" rather than full-on latin jazz. This was not a problem as they were a solid jazz combo, but we did feel that more truth in advertising was desirable, at least at the prices they were charging for drinks and admission. The combo opened with a bebop-influenced samba that struck me as a bit more like a Charlie-Brown version of latin jazz than anything, but things greatly improved. Many of the numbers had latin-influenced rhythms and one was even described by the pianist as "genuine Cuban" (not, I suspect, unlike the cigars that were lit, much to our disappointment, at a nearby table later in the evening). These - the songs, not the cigars - were interspersed with other classics such as Desert Caravan and, the inimitably Pee-Herman-esque favorite, "Tequila." The saxophonist/flutist was quite respectable, though for the most part he shone only on the straightforward jazz numbers and not so much on the latin portions (the flute made "Tequila" sound like a cross between a Gunther Schuller jazz composition and a Henry Mancini lounge arrangment). The bass guitarist and drummer were a very competent rhythm section and even provided a few excellent solos throughout the evening. The pianist, however, was the highlight of the group and his solos kept the energy up at more than a few times in each of the three sets. The humor of his playing was most remarkable. His solos evoked Ellington and a few other pianists whose names escape me this morning (certainly not Bill Evans), but the humor arose from his classical chops which allowed him to weave allusions to (and even outright quotes of) rhapsodic Gershwin, hyper-Romantic Rachmaninov, dainty Mozart trills, and even a sort of mechanical Bach fugato among the jazz portions.
All in all the evening was enjoyable. As I watched the receding yet flood-swelled waters of the Vltava from the Smetana embankment on the way home (parting ways with the birthday contingent in front of Karlovy lázně, formerly known as the "largest disco in Central Europe" and perhaps still bearer of that dubious honor), it was nice to notice that all was well in Prague's tourist trade and that I had a decent night's sleep ahead of me.