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Prague at the New Year!

Our friend Marion has visitors from the US, and she asked us to make some recommendations for places to visit in Prague besides the standard Staromestske namesti, Hradcany, and Karluv Most.

Jarda came up with a nice list:
1. Karlstejn Castle, just outside of Prague. High Gothic castle founded in 1348, which has a unique position among Czech castles. It was built by Czech King and Roman Emperor Charles IV as a place for safekeeping of the royal treasures, especially Charles's collection of holy relics and the coronation jewels of the Roman Empire.

Special exhibits can be accessed here:
Hradkarlstejn


2. Loreta, near Hradcany.The previous generations built the Prague pilgrim place Loreta, a former church of the Lobkowitz family (the founders of the church). The following generations have been taking care of this heritage. The history of Loreta includes not only t…

Cracking the nut of Czech culture, part II

My previous post offers a vivid, insightful analogy (round of applause for ucitelka Sara!) about cultures: they are like nuts.

Successful cultures that survive centuries of wars, crusades, cultural imperialism, forced conversions and assimilations, oppression and persecution have very tough outer shells. Like a hard nut, the outer shell protects the tender inner living matter (the nutmeat). This hard shell is a valuable means of protection.

The problem is, though, that if the nut is too hard to crack, the living matter within will die. Did you ever crack open a nut and find a shriveled, bitter bit of stuff inside--a dead, dried-up nutmeat. That hard outer surface became a prison for the living nutmeat, overdoing the protecting part with very bad and wasteful results.

The same is true of cultures. Without fresh ideas, additions to the gene pool, and life-giving oxygen in the form of new influences that challenge the old, cultures will wither and die.

A nut is meant to reproduce. I…

a tough nut to crack

Think of a nut; let's say, a hazelnut:
Imagine trying to crack it open with just your fingers, or your teeth (no! not a good idea!). It would be a challenging task.

The hard surface of the nut protects what's inside while keeping out what's not necessary or beneficial for the kernel of living matter inside--the nutmeat or "inner nut," so to speak. From the nut's point of view, the harder the outer casing, the better.

Cultures that endure are like hard nuts. They present a surface to the world which is hard to crack, while protecting the inner nutmeat.

Living in a culture that's not your own (by birth, heritage or long association) is like trying to crack open nuts without tools. Just when you think you're beginning to understand the culture, or even be accepted into it, you find the hard shell staring you in the face, mocking (if you want to personify the nut) your naive belief that you can ever enter it.

After living in Prague full-time for 16 months…

Officially Christmas

For a country that proudly proclaims itself atheist (40%-90% of Czechs call themselves atheists in various polls), the CR sure puts on a fantastic Christmas! Czechs especially love nativity scenes, and you can find exhibitions of creches all over the CR.










December 1 is the "official" start of Christmas activities. Here we go!

smog--gone (sounds kind of poetic) and Selbu knitting

Finally the temperature inversion lifted, and the smog is gone, at least for now. I've been sticking close to home with a bad case of bronchitis, but knitting away furiously. Tonight three Norwegian women, dedicated knitters, will visit our Prague stitch-n-bitch group. Should be fun! We meet at the Friend's Coffee House just off Vodickova, at 7 pm.

The women are from Selbu, which is famous for its knitting patterns:






here's one of the women (no, not really!)

Fall with a hat on it

Prague follows the Vltava River as it winds through Central Bohemia. The city is built on both sides of the river, on numerous hills--for example, Hradcany is on a bluff overlooking the river. Prague is full of ups and downs, hilltops and valleys, making it charming and intimate.

But these same hills and valleys produce frequent temperature inversions--they "put a hat" on the weather. According to Jan Moravcik from the Hydro-meteorological Institute in Prague, 


"temperature inversion occurs when cold air close to the ground is trapped by a layer of warmer air. As the inversion continues, air becomes stagnant and pollution becomes trapped close to the ground."


For the past week-and-a-half, we've had a constant temperature inversion in Prague. The air is smelly, like an old wood fire mixed with sharp petroleum smells and car exhaust. It stings your eyes and gets in the back of your throat. Kids and old folks are warned to stay indoors. Jarda and I have both had…

Taking care of myself

My friend N and I were talking about living and working in Prague. We agreed that it can be a tough place to live, as there's not much of what I call "lubricating oil" in human daily transactions--that is, not much pleasant chitchat or everyday courtesy of the "hello, how are you?" benign nature.

N made a remark that stuck in my head, along the lines of: "About once a week, I find that I have to stop what I'm doing and take care of myself" (sorry, N, that's not a direct quote!). I knew just what she meant.

Maybe it's the effect of two horrendous world wars with long periods of totalitarian rule (Nazis, Czech communists, Soviet Stalinists and the "normalization" rule after the Pargue Spring in 1968). Whatever is the cause, the result is a culture in which everybody takes care of himself first. And if you live here, you have to do the same--take care of yourself.

I don't mean simple independence and self-reliance, which is nece…

Crazy weather

It seems like the weather is getting crazier all over the world. I don't know if it just SEEMS that way because we have instant updates on every weather event, whereas in years past it might takes months to hear about floods in Thailand, for example.
 Anyway, the month of October here had gorgeous days with sun and warmth, chilly days with wind and rain, and overcast days like today with cold and no wind. The trees are changing color and shedding leaves. I have always loved October and will miss it when it's gone. But look on the bright side--we get back our hour of sleep on October 30!!!

not much empathy in Prague

"Empathy" is not a household word. It's often confused with sympathy but is quite different.

Empathy means that you feel what someone else feels. The old saying to "walk a mile in my moccasins" refers to this skill. Sympathy, on the other hand, implies feelings of pity for someone's sufferings.

Of course, sympathy is wonderful. It can be balm for an injured soul. But it has limits, and it implies a superior/inferior relationship. Sympathy usually has no solutions for problems. It is limited to feeling sorrow and pity for another's plight. Sympathy doesn't usually concern itself with analyzing why a problem exists, or how it can be changed. Example: you are watching TV and see an ad to send money to an African country with famine. Thin children, babies crying from hunger and hopeless-eyed women tug at the heartstrings. You may send some money, but the underlying problems of political instability, corruption, and poor distribution of food will not be c…

Weather, fashion and whatever

We are having a glorious Indian summer here in Prague. The weather is simply perfect, with slightly cool, crisp mornings followed by long sunny afternoons. The leaves are just starting to change color, and the city is graciously lovely.

I am off every morning to work, a strange sensation after not having a regular job for a year, but I like it. It's fun to see everyone else as they start their day. I have noted 5 major fashion trends in Vinohrady, as I travel to my job:

1. Older women in the same clothes I wore in junior high school.

Plaid skirts cut on the bias, knee socks, pullover sweaters, button-front shirts and blazers are the basics of this fashion statement. These women are about my age, and the clothes look like they are also the same age, but lovingly cared for and in perfect shape. I really enjoy seeing these women wearing 1964 fashions from Louisville, KY in Prague. Oddly, the men of that age mostly wear suits that could be from any time after WWII.

2. Older women and …

Brisk or brusque?

I experienced another example of the cross-cultural communication gap yesterday at Paneria's, a local chain of bakeries. This is a Czech-based chain, and the breads, sandwiches, pastries, cakes and salads are quite tasty. But they need, perhaps, a bit of training to distinguish between serving the customer with efficiency and making the customer feel like a cog in the turning wheels of commerce.
I just looked at their website and found their trademark motto: "What do we offer? In just one word - service."
Okay, service, but with a smile? Here's what happeded:

I went into the Paneria store on Francouzska, near my flat. I've been here before, and I know that I can order in Czech, as I've done it before. How hard is it to point and say "jeden" (one)?

But this time my little blonde server had an attitude. She was brisk--well, she was brusque. She made it very clear that I was testing her patience, and not just with my poor language skills in Czech, but with …

why I hate umbrellas

July is over, but its wetness is not. It rained in the Czech Republic as many days as not in July. There was flooding in the mountains as the brooks and streams filled and overflowed.

I love rain, so it's fine with me. In Prague, rain washes the grimy streets and cleanses the dog-doo sidewalks. It rarely rains hard--these are not the Florida cloudbursts we had for 17 years, but are the gentle Irish-types rains that you can get through without an umbrella.

Which is a good thing, because I hate umbrellas. They are ugly, cumbersome and baffling, in that order.
  1. Umbrellas are ugly. Even the word "umbrella" is ugly. It sounds like you're clearing your throat. Anything made of cheap metal, polyester and plastic HAS to be ugly. Umbrellas are so dispiriting that they make me want to just stay home.

2. Umbrellas are cumbersome. You have to carry them. Even the little fold-up types are a nuisance. They are yet another thing to forget, like your purse or your keys or yo…

summer in the city: some meditations

We've had some nice cool weather in July. April was hot and so was May, leading us to expect a scorcher in July and August. But not so far. It's been partly cloudy and about 21-23 degrees, in the 70's and very low 80's. After the 90+ Florida summers, we are enjoying the cool.

But what we don't enjoy is the grime of city life. Even the frequent rains can't keep the streets clean when so many cars clog the narrow streets of Prague. Jarda has one response to cars these days--they have no right to be here. He's a one-man campaign to ban cars in the city.

Under communism, there were many, many fewer cars in Prague. Most people used the trams and buses, or walked to work. Cars were expensive luxuries up until the 1990's, when people reacted to the opening up of Czechoslovakia by becoming as car-crazy as any Western country, without having any rules in place to control those cars.

So today you see cars everywhere they don't belong: in Hradcany (the castle), …

something ugly I saw today

I was coming home from a nice visit with my friend at Cafe Louvre, over coffee, and got off Tram 22 at my flat. There were lots of people getting off, as Tram 22 is the "tourist tram," full of people staying at hotels and pensions nearby. This is the tram where Jarda's wallet was stolen and mine was almost stolen (see "Roma but not Rome").

As I'm going toward my street I see a Roma man in his 20's, standing and doing nothing. About 10 yards away is a Roma woman of indeterminate age, wrapped in a dark blue shawl. She looked like someone from 100 years ago, standing perfectly still with no expression on her face, in a shawl and long skirt. She appeared to have no teeth, though she wasn't old.

I looked at her as she started to inch her way up to a very old man, completely bent over, who was looking in a store window. He had an open shopping bag on his poor, bent back. He was so busy just trying to walk, with his cane and shopping bag, that he didn't…

everyday noises in the flat

In our flat, motors hum, chug, belch and mysteriously stop, only to restart at their own whim. This noise becomes background to daily life, unnoticed till it changes or stops for good.

Last week we had some noises change, in a bad way. Under the kitchen sink is a white plastic box, hooked up to the water and drain pipes. I never knew what it was--thought it might be a water softener. It made a brief "r-r-r-r" sound when you turned on the water and a whooshing sound when water went down the sink drain.


Then last week the "r-r-r" sound wouldn't stop. It was on a Sunday evening (of course) and we went to bed not knowing what would happen. Next morning, no noise at all. I deduced that the motor burned out overnight. Not knowing what the box was for, I didn't panic.

Then on Tuesday we got a call from the landlord. The people in the flat below were being flooded by our sink. Don't let any water go down the drain! Jarda went down and apologized to the people i…