Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Concert

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone!

I am very busy today, so no time for a long post. Here, everything happens on Christmas Eve, so it's all about eating, decorating the tree (done this morning!) cooking, eating more, and opening presents today. We'll be eating potato salad and trout, salmon and/or schnitzel for dinner, apparently the Czech tradition. I'm quite happy as it is a lot like ours at home - we eat smoked fish and my dad makes a special potato salad - but no carp. Carp is the real Czech tradition - there are tubs filled with live carp all over the city, and when they are purchased, men in bloody aprons with big knives gut them on the spot. But my family here doesn't eat carp at Christmas. I am slightly disappointed as I think I have never tried it (or maybe when I was four), but it is a very mild disappointment as my mother says it tastes like mud, and I trust her opinions as well as her taste buds.

So, no big catch-up, but I uploaded some videos from the Christmas concert we went to yesterday afternoon, and I will embed them here. It was so nice and beautiful, underneath or at the foot of the Charles Bridge, and all Czech carols - I know the tunes to most of these but the words, except the chorus to one, which we learned as kids and performed for my father on Christmas Eve. Maybe we should have done that more often!

Saturday, December 19, 2009


This morning, I went with Roman to take Ema sledding. (No, the picture I've posted has nothing to do with the entry, but it's Prague looking pretty at Christmastime. What more could you ask for?) We got all bundled up because it's -7 (that's 19 degrees Fahrenheit) or something out there (it was -10 earlier but we waited and it got a teeny bit warmer).

We trudged out - don't you love that crunching sound of snow beneath your feet? - to a little hill covered with kids. I stood on the hill while Roman went down with Ema, and watched.

At some point I looked down and gasped. Hundreds of little snowflakes were clinging to my black wool coat. Not the snowflakes like we get in Portland - little wet clumps of snow - but real snowflakes, that looked like the kind you cut out of paper! And, because it was so cold, they stayed like that: 6 little hooked arms radiating away from the center. I couldn't believe how pretty they were, and I can't remember ever seeing snowflakes that looked so much like, well, snowflakes.

I do remember, one year long long ago, when we lived on Morrisson street, and it was snowing, we ran for the microscope. We caught the flakes on plastic slides and slid them under the lens quickly, trying to catch a glimpse of their shape before they melted. (You see? Another random memory that I haven't thought of in years, and here, today, in PRague, it comes back to me.)

But these ones, today, were so much bigger!

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Different Sort of Home for a Different Holiday

Prague is a complicated place, for me. The sensations that are wrapped up in, through, and around this city are so multi-dimensional, concerning so many different parts of me, of family, of memories and future, of linguistic phenomena... it's like a sensual explosion of self-discovery.


Getting here was certainly an adventure. I came by train, dragging my suitcase down three or four cars to find my compartment. My compartment mates were not the dressed up girls or older couples on vacation that I had passed in the other compartments, no; in my compartment were three guys, in their twenties, some pierced, some tatooed, drinking beers before moving on to whiskey.

In my head I was thinking, how is this possible? Then, This never would have happened to Betsy on her train trips through Europe. No, I live in the 21st century, when it is okay to put young women in cars alone with three strange men...

Of course I was making a mountain out of a molehill. There were two Dutch guys, friends, and a German, who made the trip from Dresden to Amsterdam frequently for work. They watched TV on a laptop, I watched the last episode of "Glee" on my iPod. (It was excellent.) Then, at some point, a German man got on and insisted through huffs and puffs and pouts, rather than just talking like a normal person, for bed. (The younger German in my compartment even said, "Whoa, tiger!" to get him to calm down!) So I got in my bunk, too, and the others went to an empty compartment to kill a few hours.

I woke up around 8, looked out the window at the sunrise - a layer of pink sitting on the horizon - and thought, "Hooray! Prague in an hour and a half!" I dozed until we pulled into a station, the name of which included the word "Berlin".

That did not seem right. I tried to picture a map of Europe in my head, wondering if we really were in Berlin, and if you could really get from Berlin to Prague in under two hours.

The answer is no, you cannot. We were 326 minutes delayed.

At least I got to enjoy some scenery. The snow in Berlin made everything look dirty - you know the dusting that is not enough to cover any of the unsightly things, but enough to make everything look filthy and old in comparison to that fresh white snow? It was like that. But once we were in the country, it was very pretty. And the landscape is so rugged! hills and bluffs and huge wide rivers... Oh, I have missed this sort of topography.

We finally arrived at Holesovice station - I knew we were in the Czech Republic when I saw the haceks on the signs for Decin station - and I stepped off the train just as Kata, my second cousin, and her daughter Ema came up the stairs to the platform. I had finally arrived in Prague, where I am spending Christmas and New Year's.

And that's when the strange feelings and thoughts and observations and memories start coming.

Well, really it started with the Decin station. I had only seen the name written without accents, but when I saw the sign, I knew how it was supposed to be said. My father's language is one that I can pronounce, to a certain extent. I can read, I just don't know what I am saying.

Then I start hearing things, reading signs. Zlaty means gold. I remember that. And Cerny is black. And Most is bridge. And these are all words I saw on signs during our tram ride through Prague. Short phrases sound almost as familiar as English, though I don't know what they mean. When I hear the translation, it's like deja vu - I knew that.

Of course, the Czech Republic is inextricably linked with my father - but so many different versions! I saw three bridges in a row, and thought of the time, 5 years ago, when the whole family was in Prague. Dad showed three small bridges, directly above and below each other, and said proudly, funnily, "Now, kids, here, we have a tri-bridge situation."

And then there's the memories, the little ways Czech was always present in my childhood: my dad speaking Czech, which mostly happened in the background - Dad on the phone with the grandparents. Or when my grandparents visit, and Dad stumbles along, his English showing through where his Czech has worn thin from under-use. Letters that came for my father on rustling paper as thin as tissue paper, in air mail envelopes with the blue and red borders, in writing I found illegible - whether it was the handwriting or the language that I didn't recognize, I don't know. The occasional box of oplatky that my grandparents sometimes brought after a trip to the Czech Republic, the unreal stories my Dad told to me and sometimes my classmates at school about running away in the middle of the night, and those flickering silent movies of him and his sister, as children, fighting corn-husk wars.

And even dimmer, and weirder, are the memories of my first time in Prague, when I was four. I think some of these memories are the re-fabricated kind, growing in my mind out of stories and pictures and home videos and my mother's Gourmet article. But some things I remember for sure: Kata and Lucka playing with... comics? bubble gum wrappers? Something which they kept very specially in an envelope and took out to admire. The amazing playmobil farmhouse we got for Christmas. Looking out of the car at several inches of snow, and footprints and car tracks in that snow. A shop window like some sort of elaborate vending machine. I think I remember even breakfast on Christmas morning, and then, of course, the Christmas tree sparkling with real candles, and my brother and I on our new hobby horses.

And that's not even the half of it. I can't explain it all, but it's so strange to come here. Memories and a strange feeling of having found something that's missing, but not being able to reach it. It is so strange to feel like, in a way, I belong here, or come from here, that this is somehow a home, and on the other hand being such a stranger to it.

I've decided that 2010 is the year I start making an active effort to learn Czech. In the past, each time I've come to Prague, there has been a reason not to start learning. In 2003, I was living in France, and I needed to focus on French, not get distracted by another language. In 2004, I was with the family, speaking our bubble of English, like all of the other tourists. But this time... my Dutch could use a distraction, I'll be here for nearly three weeks, and... it's time.

In the past, when I have mentioned to my father or grandparents that I want to learn Czech, that I wish Dad had spoken it to us more as children and think it's too bad that I don't speak it, they have told me, "Oh, Czech is a useless language, you don't need to learn it." But now I speak two useful languages (French and Spanish), and after this many trips to the Czech Republic, where I actually have family, it would indeed be fairly useful for me to speak it.

So I will start now, while I'm here, because at the age of 22 I still don't know how to conjugate a basic verb in what was my father's primary language until he was... well. Not much older than I am now. Which gives this undertaking a nice sort of symmetry, a link to the past and my Dad. It's time to start, and hopefully after this year, I will be closer (proximity-wise, I mean; my father and I to have a very good relationship) to my Dad and be able to test out whatever I learn and practice pronunciation and conversational skills with him. I will treat him as an untapped resource of great cultural value!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sinterklaas 2009

I'm celebrating a little late this year. As Sinterklaas was actually on a weekend, most group celebrations were postponed. (Luckily for me, as I was in Paris on the 5th.)

So yesterday we had a Sinterklaas party with all my fellow students and most of the teachers. I feel silly calling them classmates because although I don't know all of them that well, I like them all, and all of my friends here are also my classmates. So the distinction is fuzzy.

We had the party in someone's apartment, not far from school, and everyone brought some food - it was supposed to be something from your country. This gets tricky for me, because what is there to bring? Hamburgers?

Okay, I know there are more American foods than that - once I brought coleslaw to a potluck, I thought that worked pretty well. But this time I opted for hot chocolate. Not exactly an easy thing but one thing about me is I love cooking and making things complicated for myself in that area. So, yes, let's premix the dry ingredients for two different hot chocolate recipes at 7 in the morning, cart them to school with all sorts of whisks and measuring cups, stop at the grocery store later to lug around 5 liters of milk and a pack of marshmallows besides, and then take over someone's stove for an hour or two, invite various friends to be co-chefs, and whip up a couple of batches of the stuff under the impression of very great effort.

Actually, lots of people asked if I had made it myself (what does that mean, actually?) or if I usually made it that way at home. (Yes. I mean, we don't grind the cacao beans ourselves to make the cocoa powder or anything, but we get plain milk and cocoa powder or chop up some chocolate and add our own sugar and spices and all of that sort of thing.)

So I threw together some Mexican hot chocolate and a batch of "Hungarian Heat" from my hot chocolate book ("Is this really just a book about hot chocolate?" someone asked. Again - yes.), and although I think I added a bit too much paprika it was pretty tasty, especially with the melted marshmallows to soften the picante blow.

We did it all in English this year, so I did not have the trouble writing my poem that I did last year. But in hustling to get everything together at the last minute (up until 3, and then up at 7 to get the hot chocolate together) I forgot that I would be receiving something too. (Don't you love that?)

As usual, however, the poem was by far the best part. Since it references my blog, I obviously have to repost it here. I still don't know who was my sinterklaas, so if you would care to reveal yourself in my comment box you're welcome to, and receive some credit for your creativity. But the mystery is also pretty fun.

Sinterklaas was worried because he couldn't find Grace in his book
Fortunately Zwarte Piet yelled: Sint! Come look!
Kids these days have a book of their own
On which they can show how much they've grown
I found a link to a diary of sorts
And it seems Grace really likes sports
She would love to receive the Boston Red Sox
Alas, I couldn't fit the players into a box
Eventually I used her blog as my muse
And bought her something I think she can use
Sint and Piet

Genius! Genius!

Oh yes, the gift: A Time for Tea with Mary Engelbreit box, containing a tea egg (always extremely useful) and a very informative booklet on varieties of tea. In the second pack was not just one chocolate letter, but five, carefully wrapped so as to spell out my name.

Dank je, Sinterklaasje!

Tonight, it's off to Utrecht to do it again with my old RA friends, in the form of a Sinterklaas sleepover. It is sure to involve more good food and merriment, as well as a Christmas movie and a game of Scrabble. Can't wait!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Faux Pas

Yesterday morning, I made a mistake.

It was really obvious, and the moment I said it I felt like such an idiot. I did, after all, LIVE in France for six months, but I guess the influence of the somewhat prompter and more time-concerned Netherlands has rubbed off on me.

Marie Clare and I had stepped into a honey store near her apartment. There was a funny round man presiding over the store, stocking and unpacking boxes at a leisurely pace. We said our bonjours and began to hover over beeswax candles and soap and the widest collection of honey varieties I have ever seen.

Really: Orange honey, lemon honey, and honey of just about every other citrus fruit you can imagine, plus their blossoms. Rosemary honey and thyme honey and all sorts of other herbs. Eucalyptus and Acacia honey and other trees. Even Buckwheat honey.

Another man came in to look around. He was either a street cleaner or a garbageman or one of those other jobs that involves green clothes and a brighter, more neon vest on top. The two men were chatting happily. Marie Clare and I wanted to smell some of the honey, so I turned to the man and politely waited for him to finish talking to the other customer.

When he turned to me, I asked if we could smell the honey.
"Non," he said, and for a second I was afraid I had asked if I could feel the honey rather than smell it, but then he continued to explain that we could taste it.

Then he turned back to his other customer.

I waited a moment longer, and when he turned back to me, I explained (still in French, of course!), "It's just that, we don't have that much time."

I knew the moment I spoke those words that they were the wrong words to say. Very wrong. Faux pas is an understatement, I think.

But it turned out okay. Although I could see a little glint in his eye, He simply replied, "D'accord. Mais je finis", and turned back to the customer.

At which point I thought, okay, laisser tomber, fair enough. Let the guy finish his conversation. It is Sunday morning, after all, and you should probably just be glad that he hasn't kicked you out of his shop.

In the end it was fine. He seemed quite happy with us. I asked if he had a larger jar of some of the flavors and he began explaining to me how the bees, you see, they are not like humans, they take vacations all the time (which to me sounds an awful lot like some French persons. Marie Clare has lived in that area, a very non-touristy one, since August and never passed the honey store when it was open, and then suddenly on a Sunday morning, voila!) and therefore it is impossible to predict when you will be able to get honey and when you will have to wait. And then, after we made our purchases, he said, "Merci, jolies filles", so I think it worked out okay.

But still. Really. Telling the Frenchman in the store that we were in a rush, when he was in the middle of a conversation? I thought I knew better!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Bonjour Paris!

It's an unoriginal title, but it has been floating through my head the past few days as I've walked around Paris, because for some reason, I can't stop thinking about the song from the Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn film, "Funny Face". (And I don't even like that movie very much. I know, sacrilege, for a Fred fan like me...)

But it's true, I am in Paris, and I am loving it. How could anyone not?

The first day I was thinking of Portland a lot. I felt a little guilty, because really, who comes to Paris for a long weekend and can't stop thinking of Portland, Oregon?

But then I realized that, even if I could go home now, I would at least push it off until next week, and probably until after the end of January. (I'll really be on the go these two months, with trips to Paris, Prague for two + weeks at Christmas, a day trip to Antwerp with school, and, hopefully, a week in Norway in January.)

And I am so happy here!

Paris at Chrstimastime is really nice. I've only ever been here in the April-June months before, and once in October, and December is very different. One thing I discovered is that it costs more to come here in winter because you can't sit in a park all afternoon. You can't buy your sandwich to go and eat outside because the benches are all wet from the rain or it's just too darn cold to sit still that long. (Although I'm being a little silly, it's not that cold!) So, instead, you buy your sandwiches for there and pay almost a euro extra to sit. Or you do what I do, and walk all day, wreaking havoc on your feet.

So far I have seen some very funny little things. The first morning, I arrived at 6, dropped my things off in Marie Clare's apartment, and went for a cup of coffee. Then I spent most of the morning on the banks of the Seine, the Ile de la Cite and the Ile Saint-Louis, watching the sky. It was amazing. (When I get back home I will post pictures but as you can imagine they hardly do the real thing justice.)

While I was doing this, I saw a boat, which seemed to be looking at something. Then I saw what it was looking at: two snorkelers in the river. They were covered head to toe in wetsuits, except their hands, which were bright red. That water must be so cold.

Yesterday I saw a very impressive man in a cafe. He was extremely tall. His overcoat nearly reached the floor. He had on black suede shoes and blue and black striped socks, a great pair of glasses and held a cigarette in a holder. It did seem too bad that he had to go outside to actually smoke. The indignity! But in reality, I still can't say that I mind.

Today is a busy busy day! Fabric shopping and coffee with a friend of my family. Actually, both our families. And I'll fill the rest of the day with... more walking, probably, and possibly shoes - my feet are really dying here - and either a movie (although Marie Clare disapproves) or lots of sitting in a cafe with my journal and Guy de Maupassant's "Clair de Lune et autres contes", which I have looked for in three countries and finally purchased here.