Jindřichův Hradec: City of the Golden Rose

29 January 2006
If you have noticed my blogging hiatus, here is the reason: I have been traveling around Bohemia for the last week with my Mom and step-dad. While this was not such a good reason to discontinue blogging (after all I have a mobile internet connection which, perhaps, I will eventually tell you about and relate the adventure of finding an internet connection in Brno), the brain deadness of long days of continual translating between Czech and English has disinclined me to write much. In fact, even after a whole day of rest from the family-filled visit to South Bohemia, I still don't plan to do much crafting for a special blog post.

We have reached the castle of Jindřich. The trip from Plzeň, which we planned to make by train, was made in the car of a (very) distant cousin, Jan, who generously offered to drive us. We knew he offered out of politeness more than anything, but not realizing how far the trip really is, we accepted his offer. Two-and-a-half or three hours later we alighted from the miniature Škoda hatchback, attempted to stretch our cramped legs and backs, said our goodbyes and expressed our apologies to Jan, and checked into the two-star Hotel Vajgar on Jindřichův Hradec's main square, náměstí míru (Square of Peace).

This is an old town, even by Czech standards. Early mention of it dates from the thirteenth century, and until the seventeenth century the town was among the largest communities in Bohemia. The zámek (which I usually translate as chateau, though in this case it definitely is a castle) is the third-largest in the Czech Republic, according to the propogational materials of the town. I took many pictures of the beautiful doorways, renaissance vault-ceilings, baroque chapel, and odd signs that were put up to confuse tourists, but it seems that I have forgotten my USB cable and will not be able to post any of them until a later date. For now the above picture from the town website will have to suffice.

We noticed that many of the doorways featured a five-petalled flower device. This also appears on the town crest. Apparently it represents a golden rose, the symbol for Jindřich I, an early lord of the town and its namesake. He was the son of Vítek of Prčice who owned much of South Bohemia in the late thirteenth century. When Vítek died, his land was divided among five sons, and they each adopted rose devices of a different color. Jindřich received the gold. In 1483 the letter W was added to the crest by permission of Wladislav II, and the modern town seal shows the W over the golden rose on a blue field, topped by the Czech crown and supported by two double-tailed lions (signifying Bohemia).

I am very impressed with the beauty of the town. The square is bordered in places by buildings with gothic arcades and in others with neo-classicist facades. False fronts (where the walls of the building are extended to give an impression of greater height or different shape) are common on the old buildings here; this is vaguely reminiscent of southwest American frontier towns or the mining towns of the Copper Country (upper Michigan). Hotel Vajgar was in one of the buildings on the square, but unfortunately the interior décor did not live up to the outside. The dorm-like furnishings were accented with a ventilation fan that sounded like a propeller plane about to take off, the brown carpet seemed a combination between AstroTurf and steel wool, and the third "bed" (mine) was actually a fold-out chair that had a large wooden plank running through the middle of it surrounded by too-soft padding. Otherwise the service was good, the desk clerks helpful (though they only spoke German or Czech), there was a very good restaurant across the street, and I certainly recommend breakfast option two (2). (Just tell the desk clerk "dvojka" when you check in.) We decided to splurge today and moved across the square to the Penzion 'At the Fifteenth Meridian'. We were offered the "apartment," a sort of suite with a loft and handicap-accessible restroom (a rarity in Czech hotels), and we've chosen the "Swedish Table" for breakfast.

After spending time with our distant relatives, I think my parents are officially indoctrinated into Czech beer culture. Since visiting the beer museum in Plzeň, many dinners of large portions, and Pilsner Urquell® restaurants with the relatives, we are taking a break on the alcoholic beverages. I have tried to indoctrinate them (and myself) in the subtleties of Czech beer food from the beginning, however. The night after their arrival, for example, I ordered topinky (fried bread topped with eggs, mushrooms, onions, and cheese, or other delicacies) and utopenec (a pickled sausage served with onions and bread). We have been stuffed on the large-portioned vegetarian meals (apparently if there is no meat on your plate they feel obliged to give you gigantic portions to make up for the lack of 'real' food), so tonight was a "light" dinner. I ordered "pickled" hermelín (a Camembert-like cheese). This came with onions, ketchup, mustard, and bread. It is spiced with paprika (quite hot by Czech standards) and served on oil (I gather this isn't an optional part). Though not quite as light as we had hoped, it did seem to live up to the motto of Czech restauranteurs (I'm not making this up) proclaimed by one of the advertisements in the travel guide we found at the Penzion's front desk:
"The Czech cuisine is heavy, fat, and unhealthy – but very nice."

3 Million Hectolitres

25 January 2006
Czech beer exporters have "reached that magic limit of 3 million hectolitres but for sure, exports will keep growing," states the chairman of the Czech Brewing Association Jan Veselý.

Tomorrow I and the the visiting parental units travel to Plzeň (Pilsen), home of Pilsener Urquell beer. The famous brewery is only one of the attractions of this Western Bohemian town. It is also home to the Škoda automobile factories. (In an air raid during WWII, Allied forces mistakenly bombed a monastery, which was mistaken for the auto works buildings, in the nearby town Bezdružice). Visitors to the area can also enjoy other Czech "bests," including the highest church tower, largest lake, oldest airport, and the second largest synagogue in Europe (third largest in the world). You can find more bizarre things in the area, too: the leaning church tower in Domažlice; the smallest town in Central Europe, Rabštejn nad Střelou, with "less than 30" residents; the three-ton glass altar in the town Dobrá voda ("Good Water"); or the largest glass nativity scene at the chateau in Bezdružice ("Without Satellite"). You won't find the largest picture of groceries next to a bus stop, though--I photographed that in Vienna and plan to submit it to the Guinness Book posthaste.

The Infamous kalendář

18 January 2006
Karla got a link of limelight for proposing a novel use of Skype's new video chat feature. Just to take credit where it's due, I am the owner of the calendar. Now I'm not sure if it's ethical to post the pictures on my blog without first revealing them via Skype video. What do you think? Would you like to see President Klaus as Napoleon? Ex-premier Špidla in a compromising situation? The ex-premier's wife exploring secret desires? If there is an outpouring of interest I might post them. If not, you'll have to wait to see me on video chat (which doesn't happen very often).

Upozornuji čtenáře: nákupní událost

Dnes se konalo slavnostní zahájení nového nákupního centru “Omega” na náměstí Svobody v centru Brna. Není ještě budova kompletně hotová, ale pár obchodů měli otevřeny za slavnost. Centrum má italskou restaurace, Delvitu (potraviny), Droxi (drogerie), kavárnu, aj. Přeji ti hezké nákupní zážitky.

[English translation provided on request for Brno residents and visitors only. Executive summary: a new shopping center opened today in Brno.]

Nuda v Brně? celebrates its one-hundredth post with this announcement.

Driver Safety

16 January 2006
Just a public service announcement. As I listening to Czech Radio 1, it was time for their daily feature "Motojournal." All the news about the roads. Today a panel of experts--doctors, driving instructors, traffic watchers--was discussing the problem of 'wearing a winter jacket behind the wheel.'

See, we have had relatively cold temps the last couple weeks - below zero. So some people are, understandably I would think, wearing their winter jackets while driving. A grave problem indeed.

The doctor says: Be sure to readjust your seat ahead of time so that you don't hurt your back by chance. There is less space in your seat when you are wearing a winter jacket.

The driving instructor: You should not wear a winter jacket while driving because it may hamper your movements and reactions should a mishap occur. I never let my students drive with them on.

Traffic watchers: If you have a new car, then it is no problem because it will warm up after a few minutes and you will not want your jacket anymore. If you have an old car, well then you'll have more of a problem.

I just can't help but wonder - are there not more important winter driving issues that should be discussed!! Obviously the atrocious downtown parking situations are not addressed by the instructors - "Park wheree'er you please." The cars going too fast on badly maintained winter streets are not a danger to anyone. Passing street trams going uphill on blind corners is fine. Certainly, the most pressing problem is the winter jacket.

The doctor closed with some consolation for those with old cars. "In any case wear a winter hat when you are driving in cold weather because this will not impair your driving."

Beware, Winter

15 January 2006
Over at Večerní Brno, a source of news for all things Brno related, you can find many interesting...ummm...happenings...cultural events...news items...well, you know, stuff.

Recently they warned readers: Beware of dangerous stalactites (that is, frozen sludgecicles) falling from frozen overpasses. Falling ice can be a problem, and not just on overpasses. Many buildings here have slanted roofs from which snow and ice will eventually slide off and fall to the sidewalk. If you are walking by at this time, cover your head! It reminds me of that FarSide cartoon where you see things from a "bird's-eye view" and all the people walking around down below have targets on the tops of their heads. You never know what's going to fall out of the sky. Wheelbarrows, for example. Or more realistically, old bricks and pieces of rocks. There is an old church in the center of Olomouc (another Moravian city) that has had signs on its walls since 2004 warning pedestrians of "falling remains."


Czech Language, France, and Other Funny Stuff

A bit of recognition and information for readers, friends, colleagues, and other funny people. :)

I was just tipped off about this interesting forum of Czech-language-related stuff at LiveJournal. The community forum is named pojďme, or roughly "Let's Go!" or "Come On!" It carries the humorous English name, "Come, Murder the Czech Language With Us." If you like Czech, there are lots of interesting things there, both in Czech and English. I haven't seen much Czech stuff on blogger, so had no idea there was such an eclectic group.

I've recently been reading a "musicologist-related" blog. Check out Amy (and Colin) Roust's blog, J'habite à Paris!, about Paris and life in France. I've enjoyed Amy's posts on odd signs, including flaming wheelchairs at the Georges Pompidou Center.

And in order to lighten things up - as if anyone didn't need a good laugh on the days before the thirty-seventh anniversary of Jan Palach's self-immolation - have a look at Laura Swisher's blog. An oddly appropriate (to the anniversary) post discusses laughter. Karla's post on Bisexual Barbie clued me in. SAC (if she's ever reading this) might appreciate this.

Even If Wheelbarrows Were Falling from the Sky

13 January 2006
I found one of those Czech expressions you don't hear everyday while paging through my dictionary this evening:* i kdyby trakaře padaly. Literally it means "not even if wheelbarrows were falling." My dictionary (Fronek 2000) translates this as "come hell or high water." I suppose this makes sense as one certainly doesn't expect to find a "fifty percent chance of wheelbarrow showers" in a run-of-the-mill weather report. The dictionary also reacts to the phrase with a small sniff of disdain by preceding it with the marking hov. That is, it's a hovorový výraz or "colloquial expression" not to be confused with spisovná čeština, the "written Czech" language. This spisovná language might be compared to "high" forms of English like the fabled Queen's English or Oxford English. These, however, apart from their existence as ideals, hold little real power over actual English usage.

In Czech, on the other hand, a central body of sanctioned experts decide what is "right" and "wrong." From the hallowed halls of the Ústav pro jazyk český Akademie věd České republiky (The Institute of Czech Language at the Czech Academy of Sciences), these comptrollers of language dispense their eminent decisions to the Czech-speaking mortals (mostly native speakers but I suppose even a few of us academics). Henceforward I shall refer to them - the Institute - endearingly as the UJC. You can email the UJC if you have a quick question, though they probably don't want to be bothered with mundane issues like the above hovorový výraz. They are concerned with more important things, such as whether the ambiguous consonants (b, f, l, m, p, s, v, z) should be followed by -i or -y. To explain why this is an issue - the sounds are virtually indistinguishable when a word is spoken - would require a rather more lengthy exposition on Czech grammar than you are likely to want to read or I to write. But it might explain why the plural of the aforementioned trakař ends in -e. The UJC, in essence, guards the Czech language. This guardianship is an almost holy duty as the language is often referred to as one of the most valuable items that a Czech inherits. The UJC webpage, for example, warns visitors to beware that imposter website of unsanctioned Czech grammar, www.pravidla.cz, "the contents of which the UJC cannot be answerable for." Those who can claim to speak Czech "fluently" as their mateřština ("mother tongue"), after all, are quite lucky as it is a notoriously difficult language; it is not for them, however, to decide whether they speak "correctly."

The existence of such high linguistic standards doesn't mean that people stop their everyday conversations in mid-flow to send SMSes to the UJC for clarification of grammatical minutiae. Everyone jabbers away in their own regional dialects most of the time, and most people are quite happy with this situation. Spisovná čeština, as its name implies, exists mostly in books, at academic conferences, in university classrooms, and in the rarefied air of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Outside these spaces the written language gasps for breath in the considerably less refined, yet infinitely more colorful and lively, atmosphere of spoken Czech. Except, however, in the classrooms where Czech is taught to foreigners. In these rooms, the written language is not just alive and well, but it is being spoken by everyone present. Well, that is to say that all present are "aspiring" toward it - that this is only an a "inspiration," an ideal that will never be reached even in our dying "expiration," is a completely different issue that is never revealed to the optimistic flock who gather in such classrooms. But as the saying goes, dum spiro, spero.

It's a bit difficult to comprehend all this as someone who comes from a language with no centralized control. It's strange to wonder if one might be descended upon by grammarians who will correct your every word - and believe me, there would be a lot for them to correct when I open my mouth in Czech. I sleep calmly at night knowing that, while my English will be judged by everyone who hears it, they can't throw the book at me when I break a rule. English speakers are not really expected to know how their language works anyway - we just use it. That doesn't stop perennial worrywort linguists or cultural critics - there's always someone - who echo Professor Higgins's lament, "Why Can't the English Teach Their Children How to Speak?"

But I also know that, in case wheelbarrows do start falling from the sky when I wake up tomorrow morning, I can always email the UJC to find out whether or not that -y at the end of padaly shouldn't really be an -i or whether my dictionary is correct and I am in error. Thanks goodness for the UJC. Sweet dreams.

Photo: Don't stick that tongue out too far, Miss Julie! (From a Czech Television production of Strindberg's Miss Julie)

* Well, what did you think graduate students do for fun?

That's Original

"In interpreting the Constitution," [U.S. supreme court nominee] Judge Alito said Wednesday [during confirmation hearings before the Senate Judicial Committee], "I think we should look to the text of the Constitution, and we should look to the meaning that someone would have taken from the text of the Constitution at the time of its adoption." (More)

Pardon my ignorance, but I am curious as to how lawyers, reputed to be so hidebound and "literal," can even permit the idea that "someone" (which really means the "founding fathers," largely a group of white male anglo saxons) had one idea about the "meaning" of the constitution? If they speak for individuals, how could there ever be only one true meaning of the said document? In reality, the "someone" is just our projection of then (as created in the now) into now (and passed off as the then). Which means that the reflected "meaning" shows as much or more about us and our philosophy as about any purported original philosophy or "meaning" (i.e., this is about our beliefs and not our facts). How could we know anyway what anyone would have taken from this text "at the time of its adoption." It's hardly believable that every "someone" then had the same ideas, feelings, and beliefs, which means that no single coherent "meaning" existed in the first place. It's the same kind of chimera as "journalistic objectivity" or "absolute truth." It doesn't exist. They are values, not "facts." Objectivity is only perceived through a filter of subjectivity. It's a construction of our unconscious and a product of our time. Not only that, but it's rarely unconscious as it might look - in fact it's probably much more conscious and, I suppose they would say "conscientiously," constructed opinion than they might suggest. Are we just supposed to ignore all that has happened - those ammendments, re-ammendments, and social changes - that have taken place since the constitution's adoption?

The State of the Republic

12 January 2006
The Czech President traditionally gives a speech before the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the Czech parliament) on the first of the year. This year was no exception. Here was the response of one listener (my translation from Czech Radio):

"After 15 years of freedom [a reference to the Velvet Revolution of 1989] and following Presidential speeches, I have never heard a speech with such little content of reality," commented Martin Komárek, chief commentator for [the paper] Mladá fronta Dnes. "In essence Mr. President said that last year nothing of import happened, that probably nothing of import will happen this year either, he praised people's virtues and criticized their weaknesses, and said that we should be kind to old people and go vote," he added critically.

It's so refreshing when politicians have such a strong hold on reality. Everything is perfect in the Czech Republic. As I read Komárek's responses to the speech, something struck me as (W)ee bit familiar. . . .

Prague Post response to Klaus's 2005 speech.

My Crumbling House 2

Actually, leaky would be more like it this time. When I returned to Brno after the Christmas holidays I found the following note from my neighbor:

Hi Jesse!

Sometimes our toilet is making trouble. After flushing, the water does not stop and continues flowing (sometimes it even gets outside - that is why it was wet on the floor this morning). To stop it is necessary to move (push) the flush handle upwards and move the lid of the tank.

Have a nice Christmas!

It was illustrated with helpful technical drawings. There is a picture of the entire toilet, in which the bowl is conveniently identified, and then there is a detail of the tank with helpful step-by-step indications. My neighbor is studying engineering. Can you tell? I didn't notice the wet floor, but one never knows when something else may go wrong around here. At least there are qualified residents. (Next time we have a musicological emergency perhaps I will come to the rescue.)

Of Brno and Other Heavenly Bodies

10 January 2006
That's right, somewhere out there, in space, there is an asteroid with Brno's name on it. OK, so I suppose that asteroids couldn't really be placed in the same category as all those other things in the heavens; after all, people didn't really notice them until 1801. Nonetheless something up there is named Brno. According to factbites.com, which is not always reliable but still interesting, no. 2889 Brno is a "small main belt asteroid, which was discovered by the Czech astronomer Antonín Mrkoš in 1981."

This means that in order to see Brno you just have to get out your telescope (asteroids are small) and look around the night sky. You may need a large telescope. In fact, you will probably need to build a giant radio telescope in the backyard since 2889 Brno will be virtually indistinguishable from thousands of other flying rocks somewhere in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But you could try if you really want.

There are other asteroids with Czech names, too. For example, the Maccocha abyss in the Moravian Karst--the abyss is reportedly the deepest collapsed limestone dome in the world--also has an asteroid named after it. Then there is a Masaryk (named after the first president of Czechoslovakia), a Vltava (the river flowing through Prague), and a Československo (Czechoslovakia). Even folk music has its asteroid: one is named after the famous Romani violinist Jožka Kubík from the Moravian town Velká nad Veličkou. (The statue of Kubík in Velká is known as the only statue of a Roma in the entire Czech Republic.)

So if you want to be famous in the Czech Republic, be sure to get an asteroid named after you. And if you buy a ticket to Brno, be sure to specify, "the city, not the asteroid" or you might end up somewhere quite different than you expected.

Click here for more random information about Brno. Here for more asteroid info. Picture of 951 Gaspra from NASA.

Tire Paradise

09 January 2006

Ah, advertising. I've seen this sign before and finally had my camera along today. The sign says "Paradise of Tires." (They probably mean "A Paradise of Tires" for your pleasure, but Czech does not have an equivalent indefinite article so it's impossible to say.) I can't help but wonder how a tire might imagine paradise--would there be clear skies or lots of acrid black smoke, hot weather or cold, cobblestone streets or asphalt? Would there be music?

Sometimes it seems that capitalism hit too fast: everyone wants to sell their products by any means necessary. There are many advertising strategies, most of which lead to the surprising amount of advertising in public space. This is overbearing, though rarely offensive. At least half of the trams in Brno are painted with advertisements--classic trams are red and white, but many are yellow (a travel agency), blue (Tesco), flower-covered (gardens?), and more. In Prague, the beatiful mediaeval tower next to the Mánes gallery has been covered with different advertising banners every time I saw it this fall. (Ironically, it was once a water advertisement on a tower that stands on the banks of the Vltava river.) Advertising banners also hang from the sides of many apartment buildings and even some houses.* Of course, in most cases the apartment blocks are not very inspiring to look at without the advertising so it doesn't really matter; if someone is making a little extra money by renting their building's exterior, so be it. At worst the advertising is disconcerting--for example the ads soliciting "pretty girls" with a "knowledge of English" for internet companies with "foreign clientele"--and at best entertaining.

* These also remind me of the scene in Goodbye, Lenin where the mother sees the Coca-Cola advertising being unfurled on a neighboring apartment block in the former East Berlin. If you are interested in former communist countries and haven't seen this movie, you should.

What Lies Beneath: The Station

I was recently at the main Brno train station (hlavní nádraží). They are carrying out a minor renovation project, and I noticed remnants of an older structure exposed in a few places. It was a glimpse of a bit of Brno's cultural history. Under the (presumably) socialist realist renovations ("communist") of the late twentieth century were pieces of nineteenth century architecture ("German") and all this is soon to be supplanted by a new building ("democratic capitalism").

In 1839, Brno was the first city in the Czech lands to be connected to Vienna via rail. At this time Moravia belonged politically to the Austro-Hugarian empire, and so the train station presumably showed the area's connection with, as well as symbolized its allegiance to, German-speaking culture. As the provincial capital, Brno was at the administrative center of this connection as well. The current station was built in 1850 and underwent a secessionist-style renovation in 1902-1905. It has a wonderful sort of nineteenth-century look in the high-ceilinged ticket hall supported by marble pillars. The front facade is held up by filigreed pillars and on the roof nymphish statues are heralding the arrival of the railroad, as symbolized by the winged wheel.

Sometime during the 1970s or 1980s there must have been another renovation. This probably involved the creation of the current pedestrian underpass that provides access to the tram lines that go past the front of the building. The underpass houses many shops for cheap clothing, an Asian bistro, a calendar store, and a betting office. The general decor bears a striking resemblance to the Prague metro, and I like to think of it as the "Brno Underground." (The strange things in lower right corner of the picture are shelters for stairways that open onto the tram platforms.) This decor was also added to most of the station's public areas. In the process most of the original plaster decor was covered by gray "marble" panels.

Before seeing some of the panels removed I had never noticed how incongruent this all is. In the picture you just glimpse the wonderful tile that covered the lower walls. The gray marble, in contrast, usually looks dirty and somehow oppressive. Judging by my short glimpse underneath, I suspect the previous decor was more attractive and probably made the building seem more complete. (I know this is hard to see in the picture, but it does show the contrast. And note the graffiti.) Now when I go to the station, I look more closely and notice more of the old parts peeking out from behind this gray facade and under the dust and soot. I wonder how much of the older decorations may still be left.

Brno has recently approved a bid for inclusion in a high-speed rail system that will connect many major European cities. Brno would be a stop on the line between Vienna and Prague (see maps here, but in order to be included the city must build a new station that can accomodate the high-speed trains and tracks. Plans were recently publicized for the ultra-modern new station, and much of the current station will be restored and possibly turned into a hotel. This is a wonderful chance for the city to raise its local profile, regain its status as a regional hub, and re-establish connections with Vienna. And there is a chance that some of the old station will be restored. I hope that they don't use too much gray marble in the renovations so that in another half-century someone else won't walk by and notice that there is hidden beauty lying just below the surface.

(Photo source)

The Little Boy Who Was Turned into a Lamp

08 January 2006

Přiběh fotky. Představ si: stojíš v předsini Mahenova divadla v Brně. Je pozdní prosinec a venku je tma. Dřív jsi rozhodl, že půjdeš na představení protože nikdy byls v tomto divadle. Teď je přestávka. Bohužel, to představení je hrůza! Úplně špatně děláno. Nestojí za houby ani hovno. A hlediště je poloprazdno. Tak odcházíš. Ale, co to je tamhle??! Vidíš vedle schodu sochu—anděl můj, ale počkej!!—to není anděl. Je to cherubín, zlatý krásný lampový chlapeček a čeká. Chce, abys ho vyfotil!!! Ale pozor—davej se pozornost na uvádečky, ty staré babičky, staré ježibaby. Sledují, a vědí, že “fotografování je zakázáno!!!!”

Why Do We Have So Many Polkas and Waltzes?

07 January 2006
I have done a bit of research on the polka in “ethnic” America, and this really is a pressing question. At least in some circles (ahem). Some bands, if they play this sort of music, really do play only polkas and waltzes. My answer was that the polka’s dance movements are relatively simple, can be fitted to almost any duple-meter music, and are hardly distinctive (apart from the hop that is often omitted anyway). Not everyone agrees with this assessment, but it’s not a new idea.

Moravian/Czech composer Leoš Janáček asked and gave his answer to this question in a column. He wrote, in Lidové noviny of 9 April 1905:

Every dance has its choreographic idea to which the musical idea fits. Twirling in a circle in time-units of four or three beats is the smallest and purest of these ideas: even children are polkaing and waltzing. We can dance thus to any sort of music. The simpler the choreographic idea, the richer the corresponding musical repertory. We find in it the names of the celebrated composers. It is different for the complicated choreographic ideas of Moravian folk dances. For the movements of such complicated ideas we remember a specific melody. People dance the pilkas and čeladenský only when they hear the melody that they know; musicians can only give some variations on this melody. This explains the style of folk dances it is necessary for us to save. Only a ballet troupe with its training would be able to present pilkas and čeladenský with new music or that of another composer; [dancers are the scab workers of the world]. Therefore we have about 300 types of folk dance in Moravia among which the polka and waltz were not particular folk dances: but their choreographic ideas (twirling) were only a few among the many motives of the rich dance choreographies. Now it is different: they are dancing hardly more than two dances, the polka and waltz, and the music to them is—for shame.

(This rough translation from the reprinted article in the 1955 edition of Janáček’s writings, O lidové písně [On folksong], ed. Jiří Vysloužil, p. 229)

Do keep in mind that it was Janáček’s program to distinguish what was Moravian about the music and dance he was studying. He was a staunch nationalist and pan-Slavist in many aspects of his life, so there is more than meets the eye to this article.

What Janáček doesn't mention, though, is "polka happiness." That is the key to any serious study of the polka. Seriously! It was theorized by Charles Keil and examined most thoroughly in his book, coauthored with Angeliki V. Keil and Dick Blau, Polka Happiness (Temple Univ. Press, 1992). It's a good read.

Photo from the Illustrated London News, 1844.

The Moratherm, or, My Crumbling House 1

06 January 2006
I haven't mentioned my house much lately. I have already discussed the heat and the yard and the walls, but now there is a new problem. Our Moratherm gas furnace is grouchy. The cool temperatures have been more noticeable as the snow settles in. Brno got a white Christmas after all and the snow has stayed on the ground for a few weeks now. Though it's still normal to get rain and the temperature is hovering around 0 C, it has been desirable to have the furnace on.

I returned from Prague on Tuesday after a weekend of New Year's observations with fellow Fulbright students. I arrived home to the usual cold, about 13 degrees (that's about 55 Farenheit). It's always about this temperature because we can't leave the furnace on when everyone is gone since it would heat indiscriminately until the entire house was 40 degrees (that's over 100F)--there is no thermostat. "It's old," says the repairman (he is older).

That is not the main problem, though. The pilot light does not stay lit. When I was here last week the pilot light kept going out and I could relight it, but finally it was no use. The pilot was out and could not be relit. What I read online about the Mora (that's the brand, short for MoraTherm, which is located in Moravia) furnaces and other gas furnaces indicates that this is a bad sign (particularly on my mind give the recent Brno gas leak). If this happens to you, there may be a serious problem with your furnace. But again, our furnace is old.

When I arrived home the furnace was disassembled and a handwritten sign read, "Do not turn on the furnace." Uh oh. I had been planning to buy a portable heater anyway because my room tends to be on the cool side since it is the last furnace on the circuit. I also have a large window. This meant the first thing I had to do was go shopping for a portable heat source. I had already borrowed the space heater from downstairs, but presumably they want it back.

I went to all the big department stores, and they all seemed to be out of things, not have anything worth buying, or had things that were too expensive. There was BauMaxx--seemingly related to the Bauhaus chain but more like HomeDepot in orientation. They advertised portable heaters at "sell-out" prices, but none were under 9.999Kč (about 400USD). Then there was Carrefour--they had a few tiny fans with heating elements and one "halogen heater" but nothing significant. I almost went to Interspar, but that was out of the way and might have been closed already. So I finally ended up at Tesco--not the dirty downtown one, but the brand new one by IKEA south of town. They had one "oil radiator" left at discount price (799Kč, less than 40USD). I grabbed it and went home to spend a cool but not freezing night in my not-so-cozy room with a view.

The regular furnace has now been "fixed." The solution is to leave the door that shields the pilot light open. I don't know what sort of solution this could be, but my neighbors think it will work. Hmm. The pilot has stayed lit for almost the whole day! There has also been a new part added. I still can't get over the feeling that there is probably a bigger problem with the pilot light, but who wants to fix an old furnace?


A few recent news items:

A column in Brno's paper Rovnost discusses karaoke. The author reports that police had to be called to one Prague karaoke venue because three singers were so bad that the other customers couldn't take it anymore. In case this happens to you, remember that the emergency number for police is 158. (Picture source)

Thirty residents were evacuated from downtown Brno (Kozí ulice) due to a gas leak, reports Lidové noviny. Power in most of the city's historical center was turned off. I walked through after coming home from a performance last night, and it was quite eerie to see the darkened buildings and deserted streets. The Rovnost website reported this morning that the outage lasted about two hours.

Czech Radio featured an interview with Věra Šustíková, creator of the exhibit on Fibich's symphonic poem Štědrý den (Christmas Eve). I noted the exhibit and commented on the new Czech Museum of Music here.

A new list of cultural heritage sites has been released by the National Institute of Memorials. It includes the usual things, cultural treasures etc., as well as the Ještěd television tower--not your average television tower, but one that also contains a hotel. It is hoped that the tower will eventually be added to UNESCO's list of world heritage sites.

One-third of Czechs live in paneláky, and they are tired of them being ugly. (A panelák is an apartment building assembled from mass-produced panels. They were characteristic of the Communist period, and you see them still littering the landscape of every city and most smaller towns as well.)

Reality shows are growing in popularity. The new hit is about gorillas, not people.

Hopi Popi

04 January 2006

Hopi Popi
Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
If you're going to have popcorn, be sure to choose something happy. Like this corn-happy brand. There isn't any translation--something like Hop'n'Pop since I doubt that the hopi is a reference to the Native Americans. It was a great movie accoutrement at New Year's Eve and even includes a fun "legend" about the origins of popcorn on the back. Available at purveyors of fine Czech popcorns.

Silvestr v Praze

03 January 2006
The highlight of New Year's Eve in Prague was our walk through Vyšehrad. Karla's friend Věra tipped us off that it would be more pleasant than the noisy drunkenness that sprawls over Václavské náměstí and Staroměstské náměstí. Vyšehrad probably had a higher density of Czechs in the crowd, but there was plenty of German, Russian, and English to be heard among the other people milling around the walls. Not much conversation was possible since we were surrounded by fireworks. In most places the air was thick with powder smoke and fog before midnight.

To better appreciate our experience, one has to know about Vyšehrad's significance in Czech (and Prague) culture. The name means "high castle," and it is a complex of old (and newer) buildings enclosed by a wall of fortifications. It sits atop a rock bluff that juts out over the river Vltava just south of Prague's center. The area was not originally "in" Prague (the medieval city was much smaller and enclosed by walls), but it has been surrounded by Prague suburbs since the nineteenth century. From the walls of Vyšehrad one can look northward over the Nusle valley and see the Prague castle and most of Old Town as well as more recent constructions, such as the Radio Tower and the Nusle Bridge that carries the freeway and metro lines south from Vinohrady.

The center of Vyšehrad is the neo-gothic church of Sts. Peter and Paul (built in the nineteenth century), easily recognizable by its lacy lattice-work towers. Next to the church is a cemetery partly conceived as a "Pantheon" of Czech greats where many famous personalities of Czech culture are buried (most-noted are Dvořák and Smetana).
Another highlight of the complex is the romanesque rotunda of St. Martin built around 1070.
The site is also significant as the mythical site of the founding of Prague. According to legends (popularized and made into "literature" by nineteenth-century cultural revivalists), the priestess-cum-prophet Libuše looked off the rocks of Vyšehrad and foretold the future glory of a great city. The picture is Myslbek's statue of Libuše with the legendary father of the Přemysl dynasty.

There is certainly a large and magical city now. On this Silvestr (the Czech name for New Year's Eve), the park surrounding the church and other buildings was full of people setting off fireworks, drinking champagne, and carousing. There were no municipal fireworks. Instead people were igniting their own fireworks and setting them off amongst the crowd. There were no mishaps, but there was certainly potential. Some of the rockets were very large and required small launching tubes that were packed in snow and aimed off the fortifications. It certainly beat the re-enactment of Austerlitz for noise and general rowdiness. All in all it was a great way to ring in the new year.

Karla mentions our pre-midnight feast, has a nice picture of the rotunda with fireworks, and features the ever-popular Musical Atlas of Mushrooms (now one of my prized possessions) and other oddities. As the composer Václav Hálek explains, "every mushroom has its own idea which the Creator breathed into it, and . . . it's possible to hear this idea if we're modest enough and if we ask the mushroom nicely to sing it for us. I've always been able to hear it." Hálek also writes Christmas music.

Vyšehrad portal. Some of the photos above were taken earlier in December and you can see them in better resolution on flickr.

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