Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Devil and St. Nicholas

devil-wmaster

Ancient Czech Christmas Carol (fragment)

Translated by T. Banngerald


Here comes Santa Claus
here comes Santa Claus
walking with the Devil
looking for bad boys and girls
gonna hit them with a shovel
and if you've been really bad,
better listen to my song,
they'll throw you in a big sack and
kick the shit out of you all night long



Interesting side note, Czech children are quite well behaved.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

News of the Small and Worldly

Courtney and I have moved across the highway and a world away. An apartment complex we actually like coming home to, there are trees and a little stream (trash choked, yes, but a stream none the less.) We can walk to Blunn Creek Park, where Sharka plays. Austin is finally starting to feel a bit like home.

I've been hired by Half Price Books, thank-the-radiant-namelessness. A good company, for a low wage job. Health insurance, quarterly profit sharing, 401k plan, and, of course, all the crack- er... books I can squander a meager paycheck on.

Semester is over for Courtney, she did quite well despite stressful circumstances. I'm proud of her.

Rough

Rough month, that November.

Travelings, passings, demons faced. Sometimes your life is shaken, sometimes you make it out okay.

Courtney's grandmother, Penuel FitzGerald, died a week ago. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August, she had been slipping these past few months, and she was ready. She saw her loved ones at Thanksgiving, then let go.

Beautiful.

Lost

One too many crossings
the river slices away the horizon

trees crowd the crossroad
island adrift in the now

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Bad Week



Bad week for roughly half of america. Woke up on a wednesday morning to find that we had been convincingly stripped of our voices in two branches of government. Soon enough the third will follow.

Winner-take-all is untenable.

Friday, October 29, 2004

National Write Your Damn Novel In A Month Month



November, coming up quickly (with nary a cool breeze to be felt), is a month in which 'bloggers of all stripes come together in tedium and attempt to hammer out 175 pages of thematically unified something. Now the idea is to start from scratch and bulldoze your way forward day in and day out, five to ten pages a day, revision, verisimilitude, characterization be damned!

Having already started the novel in question, I am officially a cheater and therefore ineligible for whatever fabulous prizes are handed out at the end of the month (Herbal Viagra, invites to e-black jack tournaments and various masculinity aids are my guess, based on my internet experiences so far,) but I like the idea of kicking my discipline up a notch and becoming one of those frenetic, short tempered writers hand-cuffed to their typewriter that make such great fodder for TV movies. So, yesterday I sat down and made myself write 10 pages of "Automaton Reboot" and was quite pleased with the outcome. My goal for the month of November is to write 40 pages a week and I beg of you to wish me luck.

Will I post excerpts? Probably not, (but maybe) but I will keep updating on my progress...

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Purple

It's my toe, she's a turning purple.

Swollen, probably broken.

Ain't good.

Flashback

See, we were running through the living room, the little dog and me. She was chasing, I was chased, back and forth to the bedroom, back and forth to the kitchen-

Disaster. Sharka tangled in my legs, corrective maneuvering attempted

The wall. Corner, specifically. Little toe on my left foot.

Such a pathetic injury. You hobble around for a stinkin' pinky-toe that's only purpose has ever been to go "wee-wee-wee-all the way home." And now it goes wee-wee-wee all the way up my synaptic relays, each wee an electric signal of *stop walking on me idiot!*

Oh, the hazards of unemployment.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Wage-slavery, take me!

It was almost Fall.

But pollution thick clouds have rolled in and now squat over the city suffocating us with a sickly heat. The light is dirty and yellow, every one walks hunched over and slow, their eyes squinting against the acrid air.

I'm not happy about this. I demand the autumns of my youth! The breezes were cooler then, the light full and golden, and by god, Halloween was full of mystery and darkness.

What happened? I blame the Bush administration.

In other news, I've been applying to wage-slave jobs lately, and, as we humanity majors know, the king of wage-slavers is the bookseller. True, it pays much worse than most non-fastfood places, but the opportunity to sate a serious paperback addiction, utilise a much practised elite/efete intellectual sneer and at the same time, well, avoid labor make it a sweet plum indeed.

Unfortunately, I'm not the only lost English major in Austin, and entry level $6/hr bookseller positions are continually circled by the hungry eyed. As a result, the bookstores have set up hoops for us to jump through. This weekend I applied at a local store that required an essay on my part. An essay. About how much I wanted to work for a book store. For $6 an hour. ("Be creative!" the instructions read, somewhat redundantly.)

This, my friends, is a hard essay to write. One can either go with the ass-kissing "all my life I have admired your fine store and dreamt of the day that I could be the one upsetting your customers" route, or one can shift gears and try to attract attention with the "peculiar non-sequitur" technique.

I chose the latter.

In the interest of BannGerald transparency, I present the essay below uncut and uncensored. A little schmaltzy, but true enough to my feelings on the matter.




The Bookstore at Night

Both bookstores I worked at were haunted. Flitting shadows in the back of the building, lone shelvers being watched, footsteps, of course. Footsteps down empty aisles.

“When this was a movie-theater, the projectionist hanged himself,” Lara at Bound To Be Read told me on a lonely night. She took obvious pleasure in sharing the story, and lowered her voice in conspiracy and mystery.

Zelda, who closed five nights a week for ten years at Page One Too and knew the store’s every secret, also testified, “Her name was Linda, she drowned in the back where there used to be a sauna.”

Do I believe these stories? Perhaps. Buildings change, people come and go, lives are lost on the ground you stand on, this is true. Perhaps a sad, stray spirit does linger in the corners of Bound to Be Read; maybe a dark presence does yearn for a long-ago life from the shadows of Page One Too. I cannot really speak to that.


However, I did feel something at these stores. Time and again, in a quiet hour in a quiet corner, a sensation of presence washed over me. But, I do not think that what I felt was due to a remnant, unhappy soul, for I feel the same sensation in other bookstores any time I pause and let myself notice it. It is a sense of the otherworldly, a watchful feeling, a peculiar, (for want of a better word) metaphysical weight that gathers itself around the shelves and prickles the hairs on the back of the neck. It is a sensation akin to the supernatural, yes, but somehow more generalized, and it makes me think that perhaps the ghost stories hint at an uncanny truth beyond the specifics of history and location, a truth that pertains to all bookstores, in fact, all collections of books.

Perhaps (and bear with me, for I am about to wax rhapsodic), what truly haunts the aisles, the presence we can feel nestling, rustling, trailing behind us and darkening the corners, has more to do with the words themselves.
Books are words, words are stories, stories are lives. Lives bleeding one into another, bleeding into me (another volume barely contained by a dis/integrating body), every shelf of every aisle is alive with story. There is an undeniably transcendent quality to books; crack open the pages and displace your time and space, touch lives long dead, places that never were, delve deep outside the here and now. In a bookstore, where shelf after shelf of book after book lies waiting, each life whispers and calls out to the open mind.

Try it. Find that hour of the night when the store is quiet enough for some real shelving to go on, take your cart and work in a lonely spot. Wait for an empty moment of peace, and then just let the combined weight of the words wash over you. If you have marrow, you will feel a chill.

This is beautiful to me. This is why, in an age where every conceivable title is available through the Internet, I seek out the physical space of a bookstore or a library. It is literally hallowed ground.

Monday, October 18, 2004

&#*@!

Crap. Just lost the entry I was about to post. I'll be back later when patience returns.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Radio Free Austin

The radio in this town kicks ass. At least when compared to 'Burque and Houston, both Clear Channel dominated cities where the dial takes you from KISS to ARROW to THE BUZZ and leaves you sobbing. Here we got two public stations, one more quasi public station (a community minded african american targeted channel with the best morning talk show I've ever heard) and 107.1 which plays a fair share of local artists as well as a general music mix that feels like it was selected by humans and not focus groups. Oh, and one more, 90.1, "All Crazy Talk, All the Time."

Yep, crazy talk on the FM band. And not just any crazy talk, no this is vitriolic left wing crazy talk. Crazy talk so far past liberal it's almost, but not quite, coming full circle and veering into liberterian. Splice Noam Chomsky with Lyndon Larouche, give the resulting philospher king a tab of LSD and a microphone and this is what you'd get.

In its way, I like it. I can't stand to listen to more than five minutes at a stretch, mind you, but I guess there are times when you want a reason to look over your sholder, to listen for clicks during your phone conversations.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Pupcentricity

So-

One week, two torn sutures, 6 veterinary visits, untold amounts of (forgive the graphic nature of the following word) puppirrhea , the beast sleeps comfortably, happily, healthily upon my discarded hiking boots below the computer desk, as I type these very words.

Guess what? She's cute. No surprise, a puppy being the embodiment of cute, but hey, I swear, she's really cute.

Cuter than your first dog.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Sharka



World, meet Sharka.








Good girl, Sharka.

Friday, September 17, 2004

I lieu of an update that actually requires work on my part, here's a link instead!

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Scrap

I stopped being an idiot (ha!) and realized that the 'comment' function can be changed to allow anyone to post, so I did. In theory, you happy, friendly readers can now glowingly gush about the feelings of joy and wonder my journal has brought to you.

In reality: I don't post, so why should you?

Except, of course, that I am posting, right now , this very instant, so I'd better think of something to say.

Austin is the new Albuquerque. This has become abundantly clear. We former Burque-ans have crept in to this unsuspecting town by way of every corner of the globe and now infest the streets of Texana Central, shuddering at every red-neck mystery, loudly complaining about the sad excuse for "green Chile" these poor ignorants proffer up on their mexican menus, constantly going on along the lines of: "Oh, yeah, Albuquerque had one of those too, only it was more culturally diverse and closer to the mountains." Once, long ago, the Texas Army marched on the capital of New Mexico in a bid to add the territory to their own. They were beaten soundly (of course! Every school child knows: Don't Mess with NM!) and now, one hundred and fifty years later we are slowly gathering for the counter strike. Attention Agent Roberts, I have positioned myself just outside the perimeter, within viewing distance of the Capital herself.

Ah... but what would we want with this place anyway? The Texans don't deserve to be taken over by us.

But there is something of a confluence here, my friends and acquaintances from many different stages of my life (not just NM, but Clear Lake, Prague, and elsewhere,) do seem to have gathered here. It's really quite cool, to have moved to an unfamiliar town yet still be able to keep a fairly full social schedule. The loneliness I normally encounter with such a move is completely absent. Obviously there is some great unexplained purpose behind it all, some destiny that has drawn us here, like... maybe we're all supposed to open an ice cream store together or something.

Hey, then I'd be employed!

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Bats

As evening comes on, you can stand under the northern end of Congress Bridge and hear the bats chittering in a continual, eager chorus, their tiny voices calling out, responding, calling out from the dark cracks in the structure above. The air is heavy with their rich odor, and the effect is somewhat unsettling; it feels as though you are about to witness something forbidden. Other people seem to notice this feeling too, and only a few come under the bridge as they gather to watch the nightly flight.

As the sky darkens, people begin to line up on the bridge top, to cluster on the riverbank, some paddle slowly in canoes and rowboats. It is a congenial atmosphere, quiet and relaxed. Soft conversation drifts along the water, families lounge on the bank, children idly pluck at the grass blades.

Then, just as the sun disappears and the sky darkens from periwinkle to grey, the bats erupt. They spiral out from their cracks in sudden clouds, each a turbulent mass of erratic flight with all the grace and direction of paper caught in a sudden wind. They whirl and dive after insects, chaotically undulate in the breeze, their thousands of wings producing only a surprisingly soft flutter. A chorus of flashbulbs greets them from above as the bats churn along the outer edge of the bridge.

The clouds are gathering at the center, and a great billow suddenly stretches east and upward, a finger of flapping black smoke uncurling into the sky. A moment later and it is a river snaking toward the horizon, bats farther than your eyes can make out in the dimming light, and they are still streaming from under the bridge in a thick, muddled mass.

And we are watching. On the bank, people are standing and pointing, children flapping their hands and calling out. The river has somehow produced open-decked tour barges filled with passengers holding newspapers over their heads to protect them from the sudden storm of bat-feces raining down on them.

On the bridge, it is now a circus. The crowd has lined up en masse along the edge of the bridge, three or four deep. It is loud up there, shouting, laughing and even, at the first dramatic burst of bats, applause. Vendors of glow-in-the-dark bracelets push their way along the side walk, pre-teen girls loudly assert their boredom, a haggard man in a Grizzly Adams beard and a bikini (!) trots through the crowd, collecting double takes and shocked steps backward. A white suburban drives slowly along the bridge, U-turns when he comes to the far side and then drives back, over and over, all the while playing some sort of amplified cat-miaow at top volume, his intentions unknown.

When it becomes too dark to see, the crowd quickly breaks up. The ones on the bridge go first, as it's hard to see dark bats against dark water in dimming light. The watchers on the bank linger the longest over their dramatic view, the bat-swarm still visible against the last shreds of lighted sky.

We leave later than the rest, walking over the now quiet bridge. Looking down, we see the soft tumble of bat flight, more emerging from their cracks to join the hundreds of thousands already winging through the night air


More about the bats.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Austin

Austin is...

Hot.

Sadly, spoiled as I am by the arid conditions of New Mexico (and to a lesser extent the temperate spring of Prague), this is my main impression of what is no doubt a beautiful city.

A beautiful, hot city.

We open the door and step out of our apartment, a tangible wave of heat pushes us back in. Outside for fifteen minutes, neural synapses begin mis-firing. We cook in the car, simmer in the sun, broil every minute outside.

We have an apartment, not the greatest part of town, but the space is roomy, and it has skylights and a fireplace. Not that the latter will come in handy in this blistering weather, but well, there’s just something classy about having a fireplace. Even if it is God’s cruel joke.

I am jobless still, Courtney has a few weeks until school starts, we spend the days scratching imaginary fleas and howling at Saturn’s moons. We really need an outlet.


So, obviously this journal is back in action. There will be changes, of course, but probably not any time soon. Perhaps the most dramatic will be an eventual change of venue, there are too many things I don’t like about Blogger. But I’ll probably have to shell out for any other web site, and maybe even learn some (yeek!) html before that happens, so a couple more months at blogspot at least. Other changes? Heh, get ready for this one:

shorter, more frequent updates.

Maybe I’m just telling stories, maybe it’ll really happen. Check back to find out!

I know I will!

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Return From the Czech Lands

After the drudgery of a 38 hour return flight (I'm pretty sure it was that long,) and a harrowing final descent through lightning streaked rain clouds (an adventure far too exciting to relate in full here),

we

are

back.

Back for a week now, actually, jet lag is long gone, low-key culture shock still lingering. Confronted by the anonymously striped lawns of Clear Lake Suburbia and No Place To Call Our Own we are attempting to settle into a waiting-out-the-clock lifestyle. The clock in this case referring to our apartment move-in date of July 7th. The point is: We Are Wrecked.

David (Courtney's dad) has been nice enough to let us stay at his house and eat his food, so we will do that until we need a change of venue, and then my mother has also offered the same. Bouncing back and forth between beds and other people's houses is a little jarring but it is good, really good (I can't stress this enough) to see our family again.

Quick list: Other Things That Are Good:

- English is good. Although I thought it would be a lot nicer to overhear English conversations at grocery stores/restaurants etc than it is. Funny thing is: it turns out that people just aren't talking about anything interesting most of the time.

- Hamburgers. Specifically the super-greasy double meat cheeseburger at Tookie's, aka The Best Burger In The Whole Damned World (and I'm happy to engage in an extended, overly-emotional e-mail flame war with anyone who thinks otherwise). I'm never prouder to be an American then when a lump of rare cooked beef is oozing between my clenched teeth.

-Bathtub. Not only did our apartment not have one, the shower was so small I couldn't stand in it without touching two walls at all times. My first night back I slipped into David's oversized tub, filled to the brim with scalding water and soaked for three hours, and it felt goooooooooood to be back.


My original intention was to close this Journal down once we were back from Prague, but it turns out my narcissism knows no bounds. I've gotten rather attached to the old girl. I don't know if anyone is still reading this (well, I know a couple of people are,) but for now I will continue to update on a sporadic basis until I'm pretty well sick of it. A reevaluation of purpose will be necessary if I do indeed decide to keep it up (I'm thinking a change from "travelogue" to "herbal viagra testimonials") so I'll have to mull things over.

observant readers will have taken note of a new feature on RFB, the comment box. I don't exactly know what it does, but maybe you can use it to... comment? Or vote me off the island?
Or something... Try it out.

Maybe it'll be fun!

Or maybe it will suck.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Report From Slovenia: Danger!

We have returned from our trip to Slovenia, battered, bruised, stiff legged, with a healthy respect/fear for the whims of Mother Nature, and a newfound distrust of guides. It was a misadventure, nearly blundering into disaster, and Thank-God-It’s-Over.

There were intimations of trouble before we even left; the weather had been horrible all week in Prague, 15 Celsius and raining; Zach had been lobbying for not going at all, and we would have been happy to have a relaxing weekend in Prague ourselves, but Martina had been looking forward to the trip for some time. Besides, we had already paid. As far as the weather was concerned, well, any guide worthy of the name would cancel the trip if the conditions were less than favorable, right?

So, we borrowed some sleeping bags, packed up, and one dark 12-hour bus ride later we found ourselves at the base of the Slovenian Alps at 8 in the morning.

As we got out of the bus, we took our first look at the mountains. They were incredibly beautiful, fulfilling our every expectation of what the Alps should look like, sheer and jutting like broken fangs, snow covered and cloud fringed.
Unfortunately, the constant chilly rain dampened our enthusiasm.

We all stood beside the bus getting ready, some twenty hikers and three guides. The guides were having a conference, having just spoken to an official at the trailhead and receiving (as we later found out) a warning about the conditions. Finally they reached a decision.

“We will provide you with some climbing gear,” one of the guides told us in his accented, somewhat awkward English, “we will not be using this until maybe tomorrow, but for safety you should have it today.” They began to pass out the gear: crampons, picks, helmets and rope harnesses.

Courtney looked at me and said, “I’m not ready for this.”

Neither was I.

I asked the guide, “We aren’t going to use this until the second day, right?”

“Yes, today we bring it just to the cottage so we have it tomorrow.”

“If it looks rough today, can we maybe stay at the cottage tomorrow?” I asked.

“Yes, this is fine. Don’t think about tomorrow yet.” He answered.

“So we’ll do that,” I said to Courtney. “ This equipment is just for safety. If it looks bad tomorrow we’ll stay at the cottage and read our books.” Reluctantly, she agreed.

And so we suited up, tied picks firmly in place, packed away crampons, dangled the helmets from our packs. Truthfully, I was kind of excited. I envisioned a strenuous but safe hike, within our abilities, with perhaps one area where we would be using the equipment, up near the summit of Mt.Triglav, scrambling over a few of the granite boulders on our triumphant way to the top.

With such foolish optimism, we set off.

It was still raining, miserable, cold and wet. The guides led us perhaps 1/4 mile in and then suddenly we were lost. Apparently a storm had washed away the trail that they were used to, so we all stood halfway up a lovely forested canyon wall and waited as they ran back and forth, desperately looking for some sign of direction. In retrospect, it was a very pleasant part of the hike, and now I wish we could have stayed there for the weekend, relatively warm and only moderately wet, and never even touching those damn crampons. Unfortunately, after about an hour we started up again. We made a tough, snowy ascent, then a descent through switchbacks, then up again. Not so bad, we were all enjoying ourselves, getting our exercise. Courtney in particular was getting into it, outdistancing all of us.

Then the trouble started.

The last half of the trail was a long, steep ascent, covered in frozen, snowy patches that turned the quite reasonable switchback trail into catwalks between treacherous, slushy, 70 degree inclines ending in sheer hundred foot drops onto broken rock. Snow is not easy to walk on under any circumstances and our hike slowed down considerably with much slipping and sliding. The guides told us to break out the crampons and showed us how to use them. We strapped them on and were glad for the extra traction they provided.

It was all kind of fun until Courtney fell.

My stomach gets queasy when I think about this, especially when I think about how close she came to tumbling over the ledge. She had made it about half way across one of the snowy inclines, one that I had noted as being particularly precipitous and dramatic. I was behind her, casually watching, when suddenly her foot slipped on a loose patch of snow. She fought for balance, gained it briefly, her other foot slipped, and then she was falling, tumbling through the snow, faster and faster.

She says she had two thoughts that she can remember as she fell, the first was “Oh shit.” The second was a surprisingly rational and cold voice that simply said “So this is how I’m going to die.”

Thank God she did not. Miraculously she caught herself on a mound of earth that stuck out of the snow and stopped herself just in time, about fifty feet below the trail and ten from the ledge. A few feet to the right or the left.... It’s best not to think about that.

I was horrified, needless to say. I shed my pack and tried to find my way down to her, unsure of what I would do, but needing to do something. One of the guides, Ivos, called out to me to stop, he would take care of it. This was certainly a better idea as the guides, though perhaps prone to errors in judgment, were sure-footed and experienced climbers. He slowly made his way down to her, cutting steps into the snow, and then led her back up. She was unhurt, but extremely shaken.

We should have turned around then.

“No, no,” Ivos said, “We are close to the cottage, we will help you cross the snow.” And so, somewhat reluctantly, we continued.

The other guide, Tereza, stayed with Courtney for the rest of the journey. When we crossed the snowfields (of which there were many more,) Courtney was harnessed and attached to her. It may not have made much difference if one of them had fallen, but it did help Courtney’s confidence. At any rate, it seemed the worst was over, nobody else fell, and we slowly made our way to the end point.

Then we broke out the harnesses.

We had rounded a corner, and there, sloping over the path, was the steepest snow incline yet, perhaps 80 degrees with nothing below to stop a climber from falling over the cliff and breaking their body on the jagged rocks far below. The guides had decided that none of us could take the crossing unaided, and so, working slowly for perhaps half an hour, they cut a long groove into the snow where the path should have been, and attached a rope line to the rocks to steady us.

It was too late to turn back, the guides assured us; besides, the cottage was just around the corner.

With a deep breath we lined up, had our harnesses inspected and were given instructions. Even Zach was worried by this point; it was obvious that if somebody really fell the safety line would do little to help them. Of course, no one mentioned this, but everyone was thinking it. One by one we watched our fellow hikers cross, sideways, facing a wall of snow, feet shuffling across the narrow indentation, every one of them slow and careful, every one sneaking a mistaken glance down to the drop below.

Finally, it was our turn. Courtney went first, I held my breath. She was slow and cautious, safe, but it was torture to watch her. Finally she stepped down onto the other side. I breathed, then stepped up onto the groove.

As I latched my harness to the rope, I was surprised at how happy I was to have it there. The nagging thought that it wouldn’t hold me faded into the background, it was a securtiy blanket that I was glad to use. I drove my pick into the snow and shuffled to the right, stopped, pulled out the pick and drove it in a little farther on, then shuffled over a few more steps. Half way through I paused for a moment.

Don’t look down, I thought.

I looked down. It was sickening, and I quickly looked back up. For the rest of the crossing I stared straight ahead at the snow wall. And then, I had made it. I carefully unlatched my harness and stepped down onto the granite path.

We waited for the others, and then with relief we rounded the corner knowing that we were almost done, that the worst of it was behind us.

Legs aching, packs wearing down our shoulders, muscles cramping, we made our way up a long, steep, snow covered hill, two steps forward, one step back, our resolve bolstered by the first sight of the cottage, a small peaked roof still far away and much higher than us, but visible. We were going to make it.

Evening came on, and we reached a small plateau just before the last snowy ascent, the cottage close. We rested and chatted; the guides went aside and conferred.

And conferred, and conferred. There were gesticulations, seemingly an argument. Finally they came back and told us the news.

The bad news.

The last ascent was too steep, the snow unstable. So many of us climbing would cause an avalanche, it was unsafe. It was too late to turn back, we couldn’t take those cliffs in the dark. “Put on all the warm clothes you have,” the guide said, “we will have to stay the night here.”

We would have to spend the night there, in the snow field, surrounded by granite walls on one side, sheer drop offs on another and the danger of avalanche before us. With no tents, no shelter, no means to make a fire.
There was shock all around, disbelief. The cottage was right there! Some of the hikers argued, but most of us preferred to not risk the avalanche and just complained as we set about getting ready for a cold night. In the middle of the field there was a rocky outcropping free of snow, we all headed to it and made our meager preparations to last till morning. Martina, Zach, Courtney and I were all afraid. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to freeze to death, exposed on a snowy mountain peak; all it would take was a sudden plunge in temperature, a freak snowstorm and we’d be front page news in the Slovenian papers.

“I just don’t want to freeze to death in June,” Zach said, “That’s too ridiculous.”

We started to put on our clothes.

“Oh shit, all our socks are wet,” Courtney said.

“All the socks on this fucking rock are wet!” the guide shouted back.

The hours of rain had taken their toll. Not just socks, but every article of clothing that we owned was at least damp if not sopping. But we put them on anyway.

We curled up into our sleeping bags, backs propped up on the larger, smoother boulders, trying to find just the right spot to snuggle up to the sharp cornered rocks. It was impossible to lie down, and we knew none of us would sleep that night.

The guide Tereza came and spoke to us for a few minutes before dark, giving us advice on how to stay warm. In the course of the conversation she told us something I still find upsetting:

“Yes, the old woman at the trail head said that this trail would be impassible, but we said ‘we will see.’”

“And now we see,” I grumbled. She left, and we spoke amongst ourselves, incensed that the guides had withheld this vital piece of knowledge. If they had told us that their only information about conditions on the trail said that it was ‘impassible’ we would have never come, and wouldn’t be risking our lives right now.

We talked for a little while as darkness fell, then as it became colder we retreated into our mummy bags. So far so good. Then the wind came, and the rain. I found myself curled up in a fetal position at the very bottom of my bag, all night I had to hold the opening shut with my hands to prevent the water from flooding in, exchanging right for left as they became too cold. Regardless, the water gradually seeped in. At least it’s not freezing yet, I thought.

A few hours later the rain cleared away and the wind died down. I took a peek out; the sky had grown crystal clear in a matter of minutes. It was beautiful.

And then all the heat escaped. My fingers and toes started to tingle; I wiggled them constantly to keep the blood circulating.

We passed the rest of the night curled up and shivering, every twenty minutes or so someone would ask “Is everyone okay?” their voice muffled by layers of sleeping bag. Each time the rest would answer back in the affirmative.

Finally the sky began to lighten, and hiker faces began emerging from their mummy bags.

Everyone was cold, wet, miserable, sleep deprived, in pain, but essentially okay. Zach had a touch of frostbite on his middle finger, but that was the worst of it. Not too surprisingly, everyone had had enough, no one was interested in the planned hike to the peak of Mt. Triglav, and we started our descent almost immediately. We took a direct route down to the valley floor, on the wrong side of the mountain from our bus, but much safer with a minimal amount of cliff and snow field crossings. We did have to go on the ropes again, and we did revisit some of the more dangerous crossings, but we made it relatively incident free to the valley floor.

Except, of course, for my own fall.

It was like this. I was shuffling my way behind Courtney and Tereza, thinking about how we were almost through and soon I would not have to worry about risking my life every half hour for any reason, when my left foot slipped. I tried to dig myself in with the pick but the snow gave way and before I knew it I was sliding down on my belly toward the bottom. I think I would have been okay if weren’t for those damn crampons. The thing about crampons is that they are very useful for preventing a fall, but worse then useless for recovering from one. Instinctively I tried to dig in with them, to put on the brakes as it were, but the effect was to flip me over into the air, adding to my momentum and completely disorienting me to boot.

Fortunately, there was a stand of scrubby juniper trees between me and the drop off.

Unfortunately, there were some massive granite boulders between me and the juniper trees. I’m happy to report that I received no permanent damage, no broken bones or anything. Just an enormous raspberry bruise on my right hip and a complete inability to sleep on my right side. Tereza trudged down and helped me back up.

And that was it. We made it down to the valley floor, walked a few more miles through the Slovenian countryside (absolutely beautiful) and collapsed by the river to sleep until the bus came at seven that night. We’ve spent the last two days in Prague asleep, recovering from our various exertions and quite happy to not have to think about clawing our way across ice-covered cliffs on our way to the grocery store, or weighing the risk of avalanche against the risk of freezing to death to decide where we’ll sleep tonight.

Oh, and the name of the tour company is "Adventura." Avoid!

Slovenian Pictures

Here are a few shots from our death defying adventures. The camera battery was failing, so we didn't take too many. A few notes:

The picture of the crowd of hikers watching the man with the rope shows the guide having just completed a slow crossing of a nearly 80 degree snowy incline. The rope he is holding is the one that we all had to harness ourselves to as we crossed.

The very last picture is of the cottage where we were going to stay the night. The rather grim effect was achieved via failing battery, but pretty accurately sums up our mood when we heard we would have to stay the night on the snowfield below.

That's all.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Please Forgive the Lateness of my Reply

The problem is that I've grown to loathe the Globe Cafe, really the only place in town that I can bring my own computer to upload pictues and such. It's one of those places that makes one far too aware of just how trendy one really isn't, the waiters all in tight black and euro-synthpop played at a gratingly high volume... My tolerance simply wore away and I wound up avoiding the place for four weeks.

In that time we have muddled along through a handful of beautiful spring days, almost all of which occured on tuesdays, and quite a few more miserable wintry throw backs, mostly on the weekends. The days are ripping past far too quickly, we'll be gone before we know it. Already we are at the onset of our last week teaching, then we will go with Martina and Zach to the Slovnian Alps, and then, back to the States and I suppose the Next Thing.

Zach has arrived, we've spent a few days hanging out, this weekend we're going to Plzen to sample various fine beers and lose ourselves in the ancient tunnels that spiderweb their way beneath the city. There really are a lot of strange, beautiful and amazing things in this part of the world.

I have pictures for you. Last weekend Courtney and I went off with some Czech friends of ours to Cesky Krumlov, sort of like all the best parts of Prague in one small town. We documented the carrousing and the sights. A note about that: there is one picture taken in the museum of Cesky Krumlov that isn't clear at all, and needs a bit of explanation. It's of a chunk of tree, with various ribbons connecting the rings to significant historical events, Colombus discovering America, World War One etc, etc.. The strange thing was that one of the events was covered up by a taped on piece of paper, and me being me had to remove it and see what event was so terrible that it had to be hidden from our view. The event was the October Revolution. I was a little offended by the fact that it had been covered up, I can understand that there's significant backlash against any communist sympathy in this country, and for good reason, but the event DID occur, and DID have a dramatic impact on the world, especially this part of it. Consider this to be the Czech equivalent of political correctness.

We're quite looking forward to coming back, but it does seem to be creeping up on us more quickly than I 'd like.

Here's the part where I make some hollow promise about updating more regularly.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Two months left

Every once in a while I look up and realize I'm in Prague. It's surprisingly easy to forget that in the day to day banalities, and it is undoubtedly the height of gauche to mention it as incessantly as I do on this site, but dammit, here I am.

And not for much longer either. I'm in the Globe once again (although after hearing the owner chew out an employee last week I swore I wouldn't come here except out of neccesity,) with seven weeks left in the Czech republic, terminally low bank account bolstered enough to get us through the remaining weeks, miserable weekend weather giving way to beautiful spring time sunshine perfect for my inside days, and maybe it's the beer but suddenly I'm quite a bit happier than I've been in several days. I realize that I need to strike a balance: to allow my enjoyment of Prague to fuel me through the next couple months, and when that inevitably gives way to traveler-alienation I will think expectantly on our immenent homecoming.

And now we have plans, plans, plans. In early June Martina, Zach, Courtney and I will head south to the Slovenian Alps for a weekend of hiking, in late May our fellow teacher Dana has invited us to spend some time with her in Southern Bohemia in late May, this weekend will go to Terezin, a Hapsburg era fortress cum WWII concentration camp... enough to get us through the coming weeks.

Right, well, enough.

Ty

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Well, gee, we just don't know...

Easter fast approaching-

Easter in the Czech republic, and I dearly hope we get to witness this first hand, means some serious ass-whipping. Institutionalized, traditionalized ass whipping. By which I mean the repeated striking of rear ends.

You see, come Easter Monday (a concept that is unfamiliar to me) the boys and men in a given village gather up in the town square, each wielding their own implement of destruction, namely a rod formed from eight sticks braided together and decorated with pastel ribbons. They down a half liter of their choice alcohol and set out to the homes of various families, knock on the door, clear their throats and intone the Easter Carol-

I'm sorry. I don't know what the Easter Carol is or I would eagerly transcribe it for you-

Whereupon the women of the household... hmmm... How best to put this... present themselves Cheeks Forward-

*Whack!* (and *Whackety Whack!* as well)

Having recieved their Easter blessing, the women turn back around and give the men their due, decorated eggs for the younger folk, a shot of booze for the elder. The men, still relatively sober, then continue up the lane to the next house-

Carol

*whackety whack whack whack!*

Eggs/booze presented

Stagger up the lane,

Carol, most of the words still remembered...

*Whackety Whack WHACK!!*

Eggs/booze

stumble up the lane and so on, the carol becoming increasingly garbled, the whacking a little bit harder each time, the route from one house to the next a little less stable until they come to the edge of the village and, as my student explained to me,

"some men are maybe sleeping in the gardens..."

And then, noon time rolls around, and the process repeats itself with one key difference,

Now the women take up their braided sticks. And they've got revenge on their minds.



Monday, April 05, 2004

Friday, April 02, 2004

It's Official

We're heading to Austin this Autumn.

Courtney's been accepted to UT as a graduate student:

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted to the University of Texas at Austin. It is recommended that you contact your graduate adviser as soon as possible. It is a pleasure to welcome you as a graduate student.


Hooray!

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Spring?

Careful lest I speak to soon, but perhaps winter is behind us... Buds appearing on the bushes, the sky clears up on a nearly regular basis, the air is breathable, and suddenly everyone is sick. The Polyglot Plague has swept through the language school, felling native-English speaker and Czech grammarian alike. Courtney had it last week, all week, I have it this, but just in time for the weekend don't you know, so I don't have to miss precious work time (sneer.)

April is a crazy damn month of course, I typically swing from overwhelming feelings of euphoria and freedom to those of a snarling animal unhappy with the abrupt end to hibernation. Winter kept us warm and all that. Work continues to settle toward monotony, some days it's easy and fun, other days a struggle to be onstage for an hour and a half. Especially if the audience/students are lawyers. I've learned that Damn lawyers require a stricter approach, they want someone to put them in their place, to make it abundantly clear that the instructor is some sort of superior being, that they are scum for not understanding conditionals. Every lawyer adores a fascist. I'm a little surprised, but of the classes I teach the ones with lawyers are the most similar to my experience substitute teaching at public school; much like hormonal teenagers lawyers push the limits constantly and if you let them get away with it they lose respect for you. I prefer classes with adults.

We haven't had much chance for sight-seeing, money concerns and bad weather have put something of a damper on out of town excursions and the center of Prague is becoming increasingly glutted with the tourists. But with the warming weather and our first full paycheck in a couple of weeks we should be able to escape toward something novel soon. Easter is approaching and the Czechs have some interesting traditions concerning it, hopefully we'll be able to get to a less touristy place and visit an Easter Market not squarely aimed at selling marionettes to westerners.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Five Things to Avoid In Prague

5. The Museum of Communism

Opened by an American businessman, situated on Wenceslas Square (the most expensive and fashionable shopping area in the city,) sandwiched between a McDonalds and a casino, this “museum” is squarely aimed at western tourists who want to pat themselves on the back for being born in a capitalist country. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a defender of the trampling of individual rights that occurred under the banner of “socialism,” or of the Soviet occupation beginning in 1968, but when I go to a museum I expect to see a well rounded, fairly even-handed account of the subject in question: what were the ideals? How did the politburo work? What sort of rationales justified job placement or property redistribution? Instead, information is scant and heavily slanted (mostly along the lines of “the Communists were bad and everyone hated them”,) the exhibits are mostly life size dioramas with little explanation, and, other than a number of interesting propaganda posters, there is a surprising dearth of Communist era artifacts, and those that are there are placed without context. On top of that, it was expensive. Truly a capitalist monument.

4. McDonalds

Well, duh. Sadly, there is no lack of American fast food in Prague; Wenceslas Square alone has at least five McDonalds in a three-block radius. What is truly amazing is how many people flock to these places, and in touristy areas no less. I mean, the Czechs have an excuse, there is still a novelty associated with western fast food (although that novelty is rapidly diminishing,) perhaps there is still a pleasure in biting into that long-denied symbol of American freedom, the poorly cooked, extremely greasy, disgusting hamburger. But in Wenceslas Square or Mala Strana, it isn’t Czechs who fill the place to bursting, it’s the Americans and the British, who have traveled here, I assume, to experience a different culture, and wind up huddled inside a restaurant that serves the exact same food that they can find at home.

To some degree, I can understand; it can be quite scary to have to deal with a language barrier and strange unknown food. There is, perhaps, a certain comfort in the fact that all McDonalds look the same, are staffed by the similarly surly, acne-ridden teenagers, and there are no mysteries on the menu. But this is an act of desperation, plain and simple, a cultural cowardice that must be avoided at all costs!

One caveat, however: I’ve found that when one is in serious need of a restroom, there is no place better situated for running inside and not buying anything than a McDonalds or KFC.

3. Driving

Good God, they drive like complete maniacs here! High speed dragging down cobblestone streets, car glutted intersections with no traffic lights, narrow pedestrian stuffed alleyways, this city is a nightmare. And yet I’ve met people who drive here on a regular basis. Some Americans apparently ship their cars over the ocean, the other day I saw an H2 with California plates attempting to traverse the tourist-spill over in the maze-like and altogether undrivable streets of Stare Mesto. Freaking insanity.

Sadly, it can be quite harrowing to walk as well. The other morning I was almost run down by a car skirting traffic by driving on the sidewalk. And it wasn’t the first time either.

2. Museum of Medieval Torture

Okay, honestly I haven’t been there. But my first warning signal was that fact that, like the Museum of Communism, it’s sandwiched between a McDonalds and a Casino. The second was an advertisement for the museum lauding a “new exhibit featuring over 100 of the largest and most exciting scorpions and spiders!” I’ve traveled along Route 66 enough to know that that’s just bad news.

1. Bacon Flavored Popcorn

Looking over my list, I realize that this is the only truly Czech item that isn’t directed at tourists (well, maybe driving as well.) But it is something that must be avoided at all costs. It can be argued that Czech culture revolves around various forms of heart disease, so naturally when they go to the movies, this is what they eat. Courtney and I stumbled upon it by accident. We wanted cheese flavor, which is actually quite good, but wound up with this which is as bad as it sounds.

Avoid!

(shudder.)


Friday, March 19, 2004

Thoroughly Creeped Out

The honey-moon is over. I just realized that the little box above this journal is now displaying Prague related advertisments. I feel violated, I mean, I knew that the price of this "free" site was that ads could start appearing at some point, but I hadn't quite expected the Big Brother overtones.

Please ignore the box completely.

What To Read

Several months in a country with a fertile literary history. Long winter nights. A television that doesn’t work. Many book stores with a well stocked selection in English, a wide array of classics and history. A perfect opportunity to catch up on one’s reading.

So... what to read?

There are two thoughts on the subject. In neither can you escape the locale. Prague is, through its architecture, through its age, its political and yes, occult history, an undeniable influence upon the imagination. After all, these are the very streets Kafka walked down. These are the musty alleys from whence the Golem reached out his clay hands, this claustrophobic bar is where drunken Hasek first began to write down his stories of The Good Soldier Svejk You can’t escape this influence, your choice is to go along with it and stock up on Bohemian literature, or you can react against it.

I asked a friend, an American from Maine, if he had been catching up on his Czech reading since he arrived. “Oh no,” he answered, “I’m waiting until I go back. It’s just too clichĂ© to be reading Kafka or Kundera here. I don’t want to be one of those people.”

He doesn’t want to be one of those people, at least until he goes back.

Sadly, I know exactly what he means. All it takes is one look at the crass consumerism in Old Town, just one look at the tourists wearing their Kafka tee-shirts, sitting in the Kafka Cafe, mulling over whether to buy the Kafka Beer-stein or the Kafka marionette, and suddenly I realize I can’t hold my head up high while purchasing The Trial from the local ex-pat book store. Plastic Svejk mannequins beacon from overpriced bars, Golem figurines are sold by the dozen in impossibly crowded souvenir stands pumping out Britney Spears hits, every possible manifestation of “Magic Prague tm” is exploited, drained of its integrity and crammed next to the “Prague Drinking Team” and “Czech Me Out” tee-shirts. The gag-reflex kicks in, and in much the same way that I continue to avoid a perfectly innocent foodstuff for months after ingesting it coincidentally before a horrible bout with stomach flu, so I am tempted to turn away from Hasek, Kafka, Meyrink, Kundera, and any other author that has been swept up in the frenzy of Commercial Prague.

But, there is a baby in that bath. The fact is, there is no better place to read the expressionist text of Meyrink’s The Golem than Prague, where you can still trace the labyrinthine streets of the vanished Jewish Quarter, still wander into narrow, blind alleys that “smell of the middle ages.” No better place to read about Svejk’s obstinate, peculiar rebellion through utter subservience, and to see this slow, surprisingly effective revolt reflected to this day in the Czech culture. No better place in the world to pick up even poor, oversold Kafka than Prague, where you can cross the ancient Charles Bridge on your way to the ever looming Castle, surrounded by endless ministries and bureaus. It would be a shame to sacrifice the opportunity simply to appease my self-consciousness.

The point is, I’m reading Kafka, but I won’t buy the tee-shirt.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

This is not a post

This is a reminder to have faith, and I will update this site with a *real* post soon. In my defense I plead too many new classes, too many lesson plans to write. And, of course, the fact that I'm reliant upon internet cafes for my access. Damn Cesky Telecom!

Yesterday a surly Czech waiter tried to Czeat us. Over-inflation of a restaurant bill is common here, especially in the more touristy areas, and English speakers especially are targeted. I was upset, angry, and ready to walk out when he dropped a tab for more than twice what we had ordered. We talked to him, and he lowered it (somewhat, we still wound up paying extra for a "cover charge",) but I hate it when people live up to your worst expectations.

Right, so, next time there will be more, I promise.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Wandering

Well, the sun has finally started poking through the grey, and though it’s still colder than cold should be (at least for us spoiled South Westerners) the days grow longer and bird’s chirp expectantly and spring must, must, must be coming. Any day now. But even April will find you by the fire, so the Czech addage goes, so we will tighten our hoods and bundle into gloves and scarfs for a few more weeks now.

We wandered for hours yesterday through the Old Town, through Mala Strana below the Castle. The throng was out like we’d never seen before, people people everywhere, a band played blues in Old Town Square, bored faux blacksmiths perform for the tourists children gawking open mouthed at each spark-showering hammer blow, marrionettes swung from outdoor racks: Faust, Mephisto, Harry Potter. We stopped at every shop and pushed our way to look at decorated thimbles and stein after stein. We climbed the narrow stairwell (dark stones layered with graffitti, some hundreds of years old) of the gothic bridge tower and looked out over the Prague roof tops. We discovered a church with a miraculous wax effigy of the Infant Christ, said to have stopped the Plague from ravaging the city; in gratitude his doll clothes are changed regularly, and hundreds of velvet, silk, gold fringed dresses wait for him.

This is a city to wander in, some days with no care for the history, no concern for the who and the whys of the statues peering out at you from every corner, every shadow. Some days we make up their stories, some days we let them silently lead their old stone lives and make their mark on us as we pass by.

Here are some pictures, no real context. But this is Prague.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Today We Are Lonely

Today we are lonely, a bit of homesickness creeping in. Courtney and I both feel it, we both woke up with it, missing friends and family, the pervasive uncertainty of our lives right now takes its toll. We haven’t really made many contacts here and it’s quite difficult to start from nowhere and meet people. We hang out with Martina, and that’s nice, but we don’t want her to be our sole means of social support. The other expats that we’ve met through the school have seemed somewhat standoffish, and I understand; they’ve been here for a while and have a developed clique. Or perhaps they catch a desperate glint in our eyes and keep their distance.

But it is important to remember that aside from the beautiful sights and the touring around, this is also why we are here, to test ourselves away from the safety nets we’ve learned to rely on back home. Quite simply, you learn about yourself when you are lonely. Step away from the elaborate constructions you create to tell you who you are and what are you left with? Who you really are, assuming you can pull yourself away from the disorientation long enough to take note.

So who are we really? It’s unexplainable, in the same way that all extremes or absolutes (whether they be the misery of heartache or the joy of love) are at their root truly unexplainable; we are who we are, as is every one else; we are the same as everyone, yet utterly unique. I’ve been thinking a lot about this juxtaposition, how the transcendent and the banal nest so close together, actually taking on the same form, just viewed from different angles.

Case in point: in Kutna Hora, a baroque encrusted town 100 km east of Prague, there is an old chapel, so much like all other old chapels from the outside. Inside, however, there are the skeletal remains of 40,000 human beings interred over a few plague-racked centuries. Apparently, the cemetery ran out of lots early on, and so the medieval care takers simply started piling the corpses up haphazardly around the property until an utterly ridiculous number of bones littered the place: bones between the graves, bones scattered across the lawn, bones piling up by the door, bones inside the door, bones inside the chapel itself, bones on the altar, bones in the vestibule, bones under the carpet, bones-bones-bones. At this point, sometime in mid 1700’s, I suppose the church started to find the situation rather embarassing and sold the whole biohazard charnel house off.

And so it sat until the mid-1800’s when the new owners of the chapel decided that, for god’s sake, something, anything needed to be done. But what do you do with the remains of so, so many people?

They hired a local wood carver to “do something” to tidy the place up. So he did: logically, he began his project by boiling the bones, removing any remaining scraps of parchment-like flesh from them and doing his best to disinfect them. And then this artisan with unique vision set about doing something , indeed, a bricolage of grand guignol proportions. He created bone goblets, bone pyramids, he wrote in bones, signed his name in bones, made a bone chandelier (an example of every human bone occurring at least once in its construction,) he strung skulls from the ceiling, recreated grisly scenes with bones (in one corner of the chapel, a "Turk’s" eye is plucked out by a raven, both elements Turk and raven constructed from bones,) he rendered the coat of arms of the owner in hip bones, finger bones, foot bones, ribs-

Can you imagine?

I’ll answer that for you: No, you cannot.

I couldn’t. I read about the place and tried to imagine it. I thought about it quite a lot, actually, trying to guess at the sheer macabre intensity of such a spectacle, to predict how I might feel in viewing it. Words rolled around in my head: morbid, horrific, grisly, ghastly, grim, grotesque. Would it be a spirtual moment? Would it be frightening? What meaning would I find there? And then, I went.

Yes, you can pay your 2$ and pick up a laminated sheet in broken English explaining the site, then walk down the stairs and see it with your own eyes. I did, Courtney was there- and I tell you this, I was completely surprised by my reaction.

You cannot imagine how normal you feel looking at this utterly ridiculous assortment of skeletal decoration. Everywhere in that room there are centuries old skulls leering at you, skulls that once had a face and loved ones who were grief stricken, who were torn apart by their death, physical evidence all around of the most profound transformation, of the most transcendent fact of life, and yet it is not dread, horror, spiritual epiphany, or any emotion that you the reader imagine yourself feeling. You feel normal; you look at these 40,000 skulls and think to yourself, “Well. So that’s what 40,000 skulls look like.”

40,000 skulls look like 40,000 skulls.

Death is transcendently boring. After all, everyone does it, so how exciting can it be? When I’d heard my father had died, the same feeling was upon me, the incontrovertible fact of that moment countered any feelings of metaphysical intensity, of profundity, of transcendence that I had imagined one must feel when facing the death of a close loved one. And even when grief overwhelmed me it was grief before a fact of such banality that I could no more be transported by it than the incontrovertible fact of a chair or a table, or the very presence of my father in the first place.

But, here’s the catch:

Transcendently boring is still transcendent . Death is the very definition of miracle, the transformation from one state to a completely other state, even if you believe in no after-life at all the transfer from a state of being to a state of nothingness is utterly miraculous, you break the bonds of the human condition and the bonds of human understanding. Yet it is at the same time an inescapable fact, an every day occurrence, a universal experience, utterly ordinary. If the most miraculous aspect of your own life, its cessasation (or its instigation, no real difference,) is in itself boring and banal, well, think about all those other boring banal underwhelming facts of your existence; the miraculous and transcendent is hiding within them as well.

The point is this: here we are, lonely and bored, forging our selves in the crucible of incontrovertible, banal fact, transcending who we were into who we are, moment by moment, breath by beautiful breath.
Pictures from Kutna Hora. I know everyone will want to see pictures of the inside of the ossuary, but I couldn't bring myself to take any. Sorry.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Working Stiffs

It’s been a busy week for us. Officially this is our second week of work, but enough new classes have cropped up for both of us that every working day feels like our first day again. Next week, even more will be scheduled, so it will be awhile before we get a chance to get used to this.

I’m teaching adults only; all of them (so far) fairly advanced speakers of English whose main difficulties lie in pronunciation and conversational flow. As far as I’m concerned, this is perfect. The only difficulty is in finding lessons that are not too basic for them, as they are easily bored. I only have three classes this week; two of them are individual students, which is quite a new experience for me. It is strange to teach one on one, a little too easy too slip into comfortable conversation, which may not be as challenging as needed.

Courtney has three classes of small children, ranging in age from 6 to 9. These kids barely speak a word of English, so she has found it to be quite challenging to attract and maintain their attention. She must be doing it quite well, however, as the director of Polyglot, who attended her first class, was so impressed that she took classes away from another teacher and gave them to Courtney. Courtney also has a few adult classes, which have also gone well.

The only downside to this whole teaching business so far is that we both have classes in far off Mlada Boleslav, a factory town about an hour away. Oh, we have a ride there, our classes are at the same time so we do have each other’s company on the journey, and the students are nice and enthusiastic, but the commute requires us to get up at 5 in the God-awful-A-M and stand shivering on the sidewalk, exposed to a cruel Bohemian February well before any sane person would even think of rolling over in their sleep much less trekking off to teach a group of automotive administrators the nuances of the linguistic train-wreck we call English.

Ah well.

I put up some pictures of our Saturday trip with Martina (Zach’s fiancĂ©.) She and her mother were scouting out locations for the wedding and kind enough to let us accompany them. Neither of them care for having their pictures taken, so the few I have of them were snapped surreptitiously and thus the low quality.

The first place pictured, the big pink building, is an old Chateau once occupied by decadent aristocrats of the Mannsfeld strain. Lots of lovely furniture and so forth inside. The second is Krivoklat Castle, some 900 years old and perched on a rocky crag over a sleepy little village. Can’t tell you much about either place cause the Chateau tour was in Czech and there wasn’t an available tour at the castle. She settled on the castle (lucky you, Zach,) and I’m sure after seeing the pictures you won’t need me to explain why. The last couple of pictures are from the bungalow where the reception will be held. Quite lovely, and good food to boot.


Thursday, February 05, 2004

The Sights of Prague: Hrads and Otherwise

Pictures!

The nationalist bookends of Prague, the two Hrads (castles), lie upon either end of the historic center of the city. Upon the south eastern bank of the Vltava lies the hilly ruin of Vysehrad, The High Castle, the spot where legend says Libuse, princess of the wandering Slavic tribes, first prophesized the great city of Prague and compelled her people to settle here. North through Vinohrady, New Town, Old Town and across the river, is Hradcany, known simply as the Hrad, still the political nerve center of the Republic; the spires of the St. Vitus Cathedral in its third courtyard are visible from nearly anywhere tourists such as ourselves would care to go.

According to the legend, Libuse told her people to explore the western bank of the Vltava until they found a man building the threshold (prah, hence the name of the city, Praha,) of his home. They did so, and on the spot constructed the first fortification in Prague. I’m afraid that I don’t know what happened to the man or his house, though I like to think that he was very lonely and quite happy when a tribe of wandering castle builders asked him kindly for permission to found their great future metropolis where he had been intending a breezy porch suitable for sipping lemonade and staying out of the sun. I suppose it’s just as likely that they used his blood to paint their nice new castle walls, however. Regardless, the Castle was founded, and, with only a few brief exceptions, it’s been the center of the Bohemian world ever since. Today it still houses governmental administration offices, the Presidential apartments. and is surrounded by embassies.

Charles IV (remember him?) made the most visible additions to its grandeur, especially with the initial construction of St.Vitus Cathedral in 1344, supposedly on the site of a pagan altar. The Cathedral, which was not completed until 1929, houses the royal crypt wherein lies, among others, St.Vaclav I, known to Anglo-Saxon ears as Good King Wenceslas, the first Christian ruler (Duke, actually, not King,) of Bohemia .

In contrast to the stately, lively and above all official grandeur of the Hrad, Vysehrad offers a much more meditative pastoral aesthetic. The High Castle, founded by a separatist off-shoot of the Premyslid dynasty in the 10-11th century, is long since ruined, and even the magnificent palace Charles IV built here in the 14th Century was neglected, burned, and ultimately demolished by a string of political and revolutionary events, not the least of which was the Hussite Uprising in the 15th century. The battlements and fortified walls still remain, making it the most well defended picnic grounds I’ve ever been to. Within the maze of grassy pathways, St. Martins Rotunda, in fact the oldest building in Prague (early 10th Century, perhaps even earlier,) still stands. There is a church, a cemetery where Dvorak and others Czech musicians and artists are buried, and, in a copse of trees, a prehistoric stone monument of uncertain origin.

When We're Not Freaking Out, We Love This Place.

Unfortunately, sometimes we freak out. Sometimes walking down the eight flights of stairs and into the skidding honking streets of Nusle is more than we want to deal with. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the frustration of not being able to speak the language, of not being able to ask for proper change, or for directions, of not being able to discern what the cashier is insistently telling us over and over, of having to mime our desires if they’re more complex than a simple purchase transaction.

At the end of long days, or sometimes before the day can even start, we hide in our apartment. It feels safe, we can retreat here, hide out until we can once again gird our girdables and face the Weirdness Of It All. Usually, we can leave our culture shock at the door.

But the other night, Culture Shock came-a-knockin’.

In this case, Culture Shock took the form of a very excited, very loud older gentleman, whose stocking cap stood straight up like an exclamation point for each of his Very Important Indecipherable Announcements. He pounded on our door at 8pm, barged in upon its opening and proceeded to regale us in very fast, very loud Czech.

“Uh... Nemluvim Cesky,” I tried, adding, without much hope,“Mluvite Anglicky?” I don’t speak Czech, do you speak English?

“Eh--” He said, looking disappointed. He took a deep breath and once again began to speak, still in Czech. Only now he said everything louder. And faster. He filled our apartment with a torrent of consonants, we were drowning in c’s and z’s, panic began to set in. What did this terribly excited person want with us? How would we ever find out? Then, almost in self defence, I began to speak in English.

This was a breakthrough. Suddenly we were on equal footing. Instead of him speaking and me trying desperately to understand him, we were both speaking and neither understood. For a moment or two, I felt comfortable even though I was no closer to getting hi meaning. At the very least, the language barrier was mutual.

At this point, we entered the pantomime phase.

“Okay, you’re pointing at the sink again and again. Uh... Water? Water? Something about the water... Hmm.. you’re miming something, I’m not getting it... Something about the water though, do you want some water? You?” I pointed at him, “ Want?” noncomittal gesture, “ Water?” I gestured at the sink, “ No? Okay.. what then? Yes. Water. Got that part. Something about the water...”

And then, with one word, he bridged the communicative gap that had yawned between us. The word was :

“Kaput!”

The water was Kaput! I understood!

“Oh! The water is Kaput!” I exclaimed, and his eyes lit up as I pointed to the sink and then chopped with my hand, saying that magical word over and over again “Kaput! Kaput! The water is Kaput!”

“Ano! Ano!” He affirmed, chiming in with my Kaput refrain, both of us very excited. Then, with the benevolence of chance and fortune, he added, “Kaput zitra!”

Zitra! One of the few words in Czech I understand, Zitra- Tomorrow!

The clouds did part, the harmony of an angelic chorus filled the room.

“Ah!!” I said, relieved, “Ne water zitra!”

We both sighed, relieved, and smiled. He left me then, filling up bottles and other containers with tap water in preperation for our waterless tomorrow.
***
Still no internet connection at home, and chances are we'll not have one for the duration of our stay. There's no phone jack in our apartment at all and Cesky Telecom charges an arm and a leg for installation, so we went and did the unthinkable. We got a cell phone. Yep, we're one of those people now. Actually, considering almost everyone I know has a cell phone, we're one of you people now. Don't worry, it's good company to be in. The point is that once a week is probably the most regular that can be expected for us to answer e-mails, and certainly to update this site.

Courtney and I both have jobs at Polyglot now. Betka Sulakov, the woman who hired me, was desperately searching for someone to teach a few classes of young children. Courtney, all levels certified in the state of Texas don’t you know, was a sudden ray of hope for her.

She’s off teaching now. Wish her luck.

***

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Pertaining to Our Future, Advances are Made

Three major advances have been made on our road to long-term self sufficiency in Prague.

First of all, jet lag is now a thing of the past. We now eat, sleep, wake up and emote like normal human beings; the shuffling zombies of last week, with their stomach cramps and bad attitudes, are no more.

Secondly, we have attained an apartment! And not without considerable effort on our parts either. You see, neither the realty agent nor the apartment owner spoke english, not a word. And of course our Czech is currently limited to “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Two beers,” and the always popular “We pay now, please.” Still, we found that despite the communication block we were all able to speak the universal language of Waving-Your-Arms-Around-And-Looking-Like-An-Idiot, as well as the sub-dialect of Calling The Landlord’s Daughter On the Phone Because She Speaks English when questions concerning the deposit and the location of mailboxes were raised. Eventually the lease was signed, money was handed over, and Courtney and I are now the proud renters of a two room plus kitchenette apartment. It's a cute little place, despite the inevitable quirks: the freezer works but the fridge doesn't, in order to light the stove we have to turn on the hot water heater, etc. The best part is that it's located two blocks away from my new job.

Pictures!

Which brings me neatly to Advance Number Three: The job. Through Zach’s well placed recommendation, I am now employed at the Polyglot Language School. The school focuses on immersive conversation and not on grammar, which, as anyone who has been following this log knows, works out well for me. I wouldn’t know a past perfect tense if it had bitten me on the ass. This Monday marks the big First Lesson, so wish me luck.

Sights of Prague: The Hunger Wall, Charles’ Bridge, Stare Mesto:

Pictures!

In the mid 1300’s, Charles IV, Emperor of Holy Rome and King of Bohemia, shocked the Empire by moving his seat of power to Prague, where his ancestors had founded the Premysld dynasty nearly four hundred years before. He immediately set about transforming what was then a back-water leather trading town into what he hoped would become a metropolis on a par with Venice, Paris, or Luxembourg. He founded Nova Mesto (New Town), fortified his city, began St.Vitus Cathedral and founded a University, among other projects.

The first set of photos are of two of Charles’ more visible projects. The Hunger Wall, which lopes down Petrin Hill to the Vltava River, was one of the last of his works to be started. With the completion of his other projects, Charles found himself with a near army of unemployed construction workers on his hands. In order to keep them busy he had them build this massive wall in exchange for food, hence the name. The hill itself is beautiful, with plenty of crumbling fortifications hidden among the trees and stunning views of the city itself.

Charles’ Bridge is possibly Prague’s most visited site, on any given day it is thronged with tourists and one can hear examples of nearly every spoken language filtering through the cacaphony. Many of Prague’s defining moments as a city have happened on this bridge: St. John of Nepomuk (Prague’s other Saint, apart from Wenceslas) was tossed over it and drowned in 1393; the heads of 27 rebellious protestant lords hung from the bridge tower after their unlucky revolution against the Hapsburgs in 1621; and in 1648 a rag-tag collection of students and Jews from the Josefov district managed to defeat the invading Swedish army, bringing the 30-years war to a close. The statues that encrust it were added in the 1600’s (starting with the dunked St.John,) in a neat bit of Catholic propaganda. There are thirty in all. Touch St.John’s plaque for good luck, rub the bronze crucifix to ensure your eventual return to Prague, and watch out for the lantern on the the Hradcany side; if it goes out as you pass, you’ll die within the year.

Follow the hordes of tourists east across the Charles Bridge and you’ll find yourself in the Stare Mesto district, Prague’s Old Town. As you turn your way through the winding, narrow streets, bristling with souvenir stores and overpriced bars, the word ‘labyrinthine’ comes to mind, and indeed, you will undoubtedly find yourself quickly lost. Pull out the map, follow the blaring American music, go with the flow of people and never fear, you have landed smack in the middle of Old Town Square.

And it is lovely. A cluster of buildings related more by proximity than architecture forms the center piece, Old Town Hall, surmounted by the its gothic clock tower. It was before this tower that the twenty seven protestant agitators had their heads lopped off, and that the Nazi’s staged their last effort to hold on to Prague before the uprising swept them out. Now crowds of sight seers gather around it hourly to watch the unique 15th century Astronomical Clock (its face tells Central European Time, Old Bohemian Time, and Babylonian time; the rings tell you the position of the sun and moon, the appropriate saints day and the relevant zodiac symbols) chime. It does so with a barrage of automata, twelve apostles parade past the windows, bowing in turn, Death turns his hourglass right side up, Vanity shakes his head while peering into a mirror, and finally a brass cock crows and flaps his wings.

Just to the north east is the Palac Kiniskych, and more importantly the balcony where Prime Minister Gottwald announced the coup that brought the Communists to power in 1948.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

We Have Arrived

Months of planning, waiting, planning, waiting and now... now we are here.

The flight was awful of course, typical traveler drifting, sacrifice will to motion, anticipation to waiting, and no single place seems different from any other, all the same plane, all the same airport, all the same passers-by and fellow passengers.

But approximately twenty hours after we set out, Zack and Martina met us at the airport and drove us through nighttime Prague. Impressions: cobblestone streets, something like a miniature Eiffel tower upon a hill, the Castle across the river, the cabman driving like an insane person among insane people.

Martina, who is wonderful, reserved a room at a Pension for us. It’s small and bare, with a fridge but no phone, heat but no sheets, a bath but no shower, yet it is comfortable, easy to adapt to. Perfect for staging our battles against Jet Lag.

Ah, there’s something new, not just the sleepyness that I expected, not just the vague feeling of needing to be up when you’re in bed and vice-versa, no, our bodies are in full scale revolt, surprise wakefulness at three am, desperate fatigue at 10 am and 7pm, stomach cramps for every meal, dizziness, it’s one of the more awful feelings I’ve ever had. But day-by-day it lessens.

The city is impossibly beautiful. Cracks and spires, narrow streets between centuries old buildings, every turn is another post card perfect picture. We are overwhelmed, honestly.

So, the big questions still loom: will we find jobs? Will we find an apartment? Are we really going to stay? It we get jobs we will stay, if we don’t, we will cut out of Prague and make this excursion into more of a site seeing venture. Above all else we must be able to adapt.

The Sights of Prague: The T.V. Tower

Upset by the ability of the Praguelodytes to tune their televisions in to West German stations, the Soviets erected a massive transmission tower in the Zizkov area capable of jamming the signals, as well as broadcasting state channels beyond the Czech border.

It is truly one of the ugliest buildings ever erected. Over 216 meters tall with grey windowed rooms projecting growth-like from the central shaft, it looms over the Zizkov district like a sentinel from a dystopian sci-fi novel, or, more accurately, a remnant of an actual dystopia only recently fallen. Adding to the travesty of the project is the fact that the Soviets decided the best place for their monolith would be in an old Jewish graveyard and proceeded clearing a swath across the majority of the space. The remaining graves huddle in one small corner of their former allotment as though afraid of their monstrous new neighbor.

After the fall of communist Czechoslovakia, the Vaclav Havel administration took action to amend this blight on Prague’s horizon and commissioned artist David Cerny to augment the tower. Now, I can’t speak for his original intentions, but the effect of his work was to transform the architectural travesty into something truly nightmarish. You see, he decided that what the tower really needed was...

wait for it...

a multitude of giant, black, faceless babies crawling up and down it.

Really. Want to see the pictures?


Sunday, January 18, 2004

First Week Pictures

Well, no time for an update yet (no connection of my own at this point,) but here are a few pictures to peruse. Enjoy!