26 March, 2009

How I know I'm not French.

It has been an interesting couple of days.

For starters, I got a taste of that well-known governmental bureaucracy thanks to an on-going saga to obtain my French driver's license. Unfortunately, my Dutch one was either lost or stolen (it's somewhat unclear), but since it occurred here--after already having officially moved from the Netherlands--I was no longer eligible for a Dutch replacement license.

Upon my first visit to the Prefecture du Gard, I was surprised to find a room absolutely crammed full of waiting people, a long line of windows, and only one actually open for service. I decided there must have been some strike going on or something to explain only one person working. This is after all the administrative body for the entire Gard region, in the land of the fonctionnaire, or civil servant. (The fonctionnaire phenomenon is a whole other story...) Upon my third visit, there was still only one person working, and 58 people waiting ahead of me. I don't get it. When it was finally my turn, I discovered this was one bitter fonctionnaire, who seemed to view rudeness as an effective coping mechanism. I have to go back again, by the way. Hopefully the one person on duty will not also be sucking on a Mediterranean lemon.

In the meantime I got a note from school: the party this weekend begins at "about" 16h12, the parade at 17h19, and dinner at 19h01. Si, si.

I don't get it. The specificity I mean, not the party. Especially in the Mediterranean mañana land that is the Gard...

One of the nearby communes (not in a cult sense of the word) recommended in their newsletter that people use a flamethrower to kill the chenilles processionaires while still in their nest/cocoon. These are awful caterpillars which form creeping, snake-like "processions" in the spring, which are meters and meters long. No idea what the creatures are called in English. I do know they cause severe allergic reactions especially in children and can kill dogs outright (rapid suffocation by swelling of the tongue). Hence the flamethrower.

The next issue of the newsletter recommended, however, that people please remove the part of the tree containing the nest first before incinerating...Unfortunately, I can't laugh too hard as I have discovered several nests in my own pine trees (they prefer to colonize pine). One nest is so unbelievably high...so now I am looking for someone with a gun, because, yes, blowing the nest away is also possible, although not as fully effective as, say, a bonfire. If you hunt in the Cevennes, why don't you drop me a message in the comment section. If you have a flamethrower, that'll work too.

After waxing lyrical to a French acquaintance about making this home the "roots" for my multi-culti children, I headed to "my" little village supermarket. I ran into the one Dutch person I know in the entire region. Pleased to see one another, we were exchanging news when another older customer turned to us and very tartly snapped at us (more of that lemon going around, it seems). Apparently, the least we could do was speak in French, being in France and all. My friend gaped at me. I did likewise, but suddenly didn't feel like talking anymore. Until that is, when the same customer turned to another and started complaining about foreigners like us. The other customer was in heartfelt, loud-voiced agreement. Suddenly I felt like talking again. I approached them, as did my friend, and we both started speaking in rapid-fire French. We were then told that it was basic politeness to not speak a language that others couldn't understand...that in fact what we did was unacceptable. Logically we inquired whether they would keep speaking English in England or German in Germany when they run into a fellow French person. Well, of course we got nowhere (logic having nothing to do with this). It was suggested that we go back to Holland.

Neither of us had never previously experienced anything remotely like this and were somewhat shaken. Besides the highly confrontational language used, it felt all the worse for occurring on "home ground." Of course, the feelings they expressed are felt most likely by more than a few, and I can appreciate that. Really, it cannot always be easy being an older person confronted with the internationalization of your space, or at least the EU-ization of your part of the world. Respect, or even sullen acceptance, were not options they were willing to consider, however.

I have spent my life as a bit of an outsider, having been born in Asia, raised in Africa and lived in the US (where I sometimes felt far more of an outsider because I was "supposed" to fit in), and now Europe. Establishing roots has become more important to me over time.

This could have happened anywhere, but it still felt like a sucker punch.
April 3 Update: unexpected development...I returned to the little supermarket, where they were quick to assure me that someone else who was present spoke to the market owner. She then confronted the one lady for behaving that way in a public space, saying she would not accept that in her market. The lady has since refused to return. The other lady's identity is unknown, so she's still on the lam...

23 March, 2009

Bricks and mortar, Praha style.

Accepting that there were real limits on my time in Prague, I forced my culinary passion to take a back seat, and allowed my feet to take over. No blisters this time, but my, what a wonderful city in which to have a good wander. Merely keep your attention directed away from the predictable tourist claptrap, and it becomes a dream of a city, with buildings for every taste, a living and breathing Architecture 101.

Here's a bit of a grab-bag of impressions of my stay. I didn't necessarily include the most famous landmarks, but you can easily find those in any decent guidebook online or off. These were just some of what I experienced and enjoyed, and I hope you'll also enjoy browsing through them.

Understatement at the State Opera.

This stairway, between two buildings, was considered so narrow that someone (with both a sense of humor and an awareness of average tourists' waistlines) had pedestrian stoplights installed.
A coffeehouse as Edward Hopper would imagine it, complete with 1950s feel and slightly greenish lighting.

You can see the effort made to restore this building facade to its former glory. The city has gone from its Communist-era soot-black coating to a virtual rainbow of colors.

Such distinct styles for each...

I strongly recommend stopping at the Municipal House (above) for a coffee--they come in triangular shaped cups. As unexciting as its name sounds, it is a real Art Nouveau gem, inside and out, down to the smallest detail. You can go have a peek downstairs also, where there is a gorgeous bar. The tilework in the hallways is jaw-dropping. If you find out ahead of time, you can join the building tour, which is apparently also quite interesting. Avoid the "concerts" however, as they're disappointingly low-grade, featuring just a barebones "orchestra"--meaning four or five instruments--meant to draw in a bit of extra money only, and failing at that. Pity, as the space is quite nice.

In addition to the remarkable Astrological Clock and its many moving parts (above), another uniquely Prague feature is the presence of the so-called Cubist architecture. In the architectural order of things, Cubism came about in the early 20th century, and it preceded Art Nouveau, which in turn was followed by Art Deco, roughly speaking. While there is some argument about what Cubist architecture really consists of, you can just avoid all the fuss and check out some of the buildings for yourself.

A good start is the House of the Black Madonna, originally built as a department store. While looking at the building's exterior, you may be underwhelmed by its Cubism, expecting something a little more garishly Picasso-esque. In fact, the city insisted that the building blend in a bit with its Baroque neighbors. Go to the small Museum Shop for some beautiful examples of Cubist theory in craft (furniture and porcelain), but don't miss the cafe upstairs, which is claimed to be the only remaining Cubist interior in the world.There is also the 1996 Frank Gehry "deconstructivist" structure, nicknamed the Fred and Ginger building (above). It was designed to leave the city view of the existing buildings unimpeded. I love the ingenuity and energy it exudes. What do you think?

So-called modern work can sometimes be a bit of a mixed bag, in Prague as elsewhere. In front of the Kafka museum, which is helpfully indicated by two enormous capital Ks, there are two full-size statues with continuously swiveling body sections (see photo below). Even the penises go up and down--while urinating continuously into a pool the shape of the Czech Republic. Hmm. A wry bit of anti-nationalist comment--or had the sculptor drunk too much Czech beer? Given the time constraints, it was impossible for me to see everything; I entirely missed the Jewish quarter, with its old cemetery, pictured below. There's enough in Prague for a return visit, in the off-season...
Please note that the photos of the Astrological Clock, the Gehry "Fred and Ginger" building, and the old Jewish Cemetery were taken by the talented Paolo Rosa.

There is an interesting New York Times article about the Prague Golem and its resurgence in today's times of worry.

20 March, 2009

The birds are back.

I'm getting around to posting my Prague photos (the ones that don't feature beer), but it's not so easy: the birds have returned. The woodpecker was busy this entire morning, from when the kids and I had warm croissants and bracing Kenyan tea--liberally dosed with condensed milk--to when I hauled my favorite deck chair out of the shed. The sounds are everywhere now, under the eaves, in mid-flight, in the trees. Not to mention the buzzing of the bees. One birdlet found itself marooned inside, perched up on the second floor of our stairwell. I managed to continuously move from one outdoor project to another the entire day (without ever actually sitting in that deck chair)...until a pair of owls brought us into the hushed and chilly night.

In this evocative and au naturel video (read: un-doctored), Wes Johnson juxtaposes an awful lot of birds with Yann Tiersen's "L'autre Valse d'Amélie" to rather mesmerising effect. Yes, the accordion music is from that movie. Thank you, Wes--and Yann. Hint: you can expand the image to fill your computer screen by clicking on the little arrows in box formation, and if you would like see it in High Definition (which does make quite a difference), watch directly on Vimeo, and catch his Sunrise Run, which is also enchanting.

17 March, 2009

Prague Spring.

I would love to write about food right now, really I would. What I know of Czech food, however, is pretty much limited to what I've found online. Based on this past weekend, I have the strong impression that in Prague, the authentic Czech dining experience has generally been either "Disneyfied"--i.e. become a low-grade, relatively standardized copy of the real thing--or co-opted by showier "international" cuisine.
I'll settle for writing a bit about beer in Prague. I am absolutely not an expert, but I do enjoy dark beers, and there were certainly enough to choose from, even in the land of golden-hued pilsners. Like everywhere else, the draughts are superior, and the ideal would be to head to the off-the-beaten-path, poorly advertised beer halls and gardens. True beer nirvana, and still inexpensive to boot. As I was in Prague briefly and with a group, we didn't have the latitude for too much impromptu adventuring, but we made out well enough... My personal favorite was a draught brewed on the spot in a former monastery-turned restaurant, called the Strahov Brewery, on Strahovske nadvori 301, in the Prague Castle District. The location itself is a pleasant respite from the bustle in the center further below. Founded in 1140 by King Vladislav II, the monastery has a wide-open, spare feeling to it, which helps mitigate the reality that the restaurant's location and its prices, which are a touch higher, mean that it caters more to tourists. The first mention of the brewery dates back to the turn of the 13th century. The brewery was completely overhauled first in 1628, and again in the last few years. And the beer I had was, well, just plain delicious. The waiter called it a dark beer, but it looked more like a dark amber to me, which is a beer drinker isn't at all the same thing (see above). It was full-flavored and so refreshing yet low enough in alcohol that having it with lunch entailed no later regrets.

Apparently a real treat--even for locals--is the brief annual appearance of the sought-after Strahov Christmas beer, feted at a Christmas Mass held December 4th on premises (also featuring a choir and orchestra, natch). The "limited-edition" brew is described as a darkish Doppelbock that is well worth the trouble. If you are around in that period, reserve yourself a spot, and bring on the holiday cheer!
Or how's about a Bud? Yes, a Budweiser, but not the kind you think (see the logo above). After a lengthy and bitter dispute with Annheiser-Busch, Budweiser/Budvar (made in Budweis since 1785) is now marketed in the US as Czechvar, while the US namesake is now usually known outside of the US as Bud. This widely-available beer (third largest producer in Czech) puts the American one in the shade. Which isn't that hard to do, I'll admit. I also enjoyed a bottled version of Krusovice (see above), but was underwhelmed by the bottled version of the Czech number two, called Staropramen. I'm also convinced that Pilsner Urquell, the internationally most well-known Czech beer, really doesn't taste as good as it used to. I did some czech-ing around (...) and they recently "improved" their brewing processes, switching to a more modern approach. Sigh. It isn't the only thing to have changed.

Nice stop at the airport, but skip the soggy sandwiches.

In fact, a whole lot has changed in Prague since the turning-point that was the spring of 1968. I was able to visit the city with Prague "veterans" who have repeatedly visited over the past few decades, and they remain surprised by the rate of change.

Yes, vintage Skodas are still around; for a decadent tourist tour, that is.

Much of this change is due to tourism and the ready currency it brings. To give you a little sense of the scale of tourism, some 1.2 million people call Prague home; last year alone, some 4 million tourists came. Tourists (like me) are inescapable in any season but come in suffocatingly large numbers during summer, by all accounts. Behind this is also the 66% increase in low-cost air travel seats in just the past four years. This degree of mass tourism means, at least for me, that you have to make a concerted effort to ignore the omnipresent ground floor trinket shops (Genuine Pashmina Shawl 10 euros, or Bohemian Nesting Dolls ad nauseum, anyone?) and generally low-standard food establishments. Concentrate your attention on the gorgeous variety of buildings, clustered dizzyingly close together--there are pristine examples of Art Nouveau, Baroque, Renaissance, Gothic and Cubist theory, among others. But I have to sort out my photos first before going on; the architecture of such a city deserves an entry of its own.

10 March, 2009

Packing my bag.

Recovered from the smack-down that was stomach flu, I am out madly pruning and tidying the lavender, roses, and the Russian sage (Perovskia) that rivals and outlasts the lavender's blues. Another favorite in my garden is the elegantly swaying white bee-blossom (Gaura) tucked in between the shrubs. I'd show you photos, but all you'd see are clipped bits, with just the delicate promise of buds. I can assure you that for much of spring and summer the scent is intoxicating in parts of the garden, and I will do my best to show you some of this in the growing season.

I'm one in a line of care-takers of this old home, and that's quite clear in the garden, where primroses and all kinds of bulbs continue to pop up unexpectedly. I nurture the hydrangeas and the old, old roses that someone else planted and loved. The roses are an unknown variety with densely packed, unfashionably grandma-pink petals, a thick, thick scent that grabs you and does not let go, and a complete thicket of horrendous, differently-sized thorns; despite this quite forbidding armature, I won't let them go either.

The raspberries are trimmed and ready, but I had to cut back a bit of the exuberant gooseberry and black currant growth so you could walk by and get to the strawberries. They didn't make it through this winter so well, and it might be time for a little re-stocking. Just snipping the few black currant boughs released a pervasive and dark scent, seductive harbinger of the fruit to come. The grape vines are still sleeping.

No tomatoes this time. As much as I adore them, I am older and wiser in this one small regard (since last year). They seem to be a canine version of catnip for Dakar. I'm just not elegant when I howl about yet more lost tomatoes. (Insert visual here of silver dog slinking around corner.) So I will be buying tomatoes at the market, green ones, orange ones, pink ones and black, and placing them well out of dog reach. The children will find them in the kitchen, as children tend to do. They will look at me with dimpled, enquiring smiles and bite into them like apples. Just a few more weeks of waiting.

Oh the gardener's list of things to do, the definition of hope. All this is suddenly frenzied, because I lost focus and time being horizontal, and I'll soon be tucking the kids under each arm and taking the TGV to Paris. The day after tomorrow in fact. Thrilled as it is with the idea of rail travel, the small ones are also very happy to be spending time with Max's Parisian godmother and her similarly-aged brood.

I will be continuing onward for a family reunion in Prague; now there's a change from the garden. Never yet been, but am hope-hope-hoping for good weather, so as to be able to share what I see with you. Maybe we will feel spring there as well. If not, there's always the beer. And family. And kynute knedliky (raised fruit dumplings). Just maybe not in that order.

A Charles Rennie Mackintosh watercolour, found at Lark.

04 March, 2009

No food. Please.

I was doing so well. All things come to an end, however, and I too succumbed--utterly and completely--to stomach flu. Ha. What a mild mouse of a name. The French know what to call it: la gastro. Gives it an ominous sound more in keeping with the kind of havoc it raises (ahem). And raises, and raises. It had to happen eventually, and I'll take my turn if nothing can be done about it, but boy, this was what caps, italics and bold were invented for; j'ai une GASTRO. I was already dealing with basic flu-like symptoms, managing to fight them reasonably well--but I was just flattened by this. The headaches, wracking body aches and pains, dizziness and nausea (I stopped eating for over 24 hours. Me!) are gone, thank the heavens. Next step in the recovery process: a little comfort of the non-edible sort. Ears seemed a safer point of entry (for the love of Michel, don't even suggest an infection there). Feeling out of sorts and craggy, I was longing for some vintage something or other, the kind of wistfulness in Willie's "Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground," or something from his jazz-inflected Stardust album. That or else some go to hell, red-eyed "Whiskey River" or "Bloody Mary Morning."

Instead I went for something Swedish, female, and young.
Known as First Aid Kit, the duo is covering a Fleet Foxes song (devoted reader that you are, I am sure you know I've already earlier posted about them) but First Aid Kit has also produced some fine work of its own. If you want to be impressed, just try listening to their "Tangerine" or "I met the King," among other little First Aid Kit gems, on You Tube. The two songs I mentioned just now might even be better examples than what I chose to post, but I so liked the forest they're sitting in above, the background noises and, well, I just couldn't decide in this weakened state.

Sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg are just 15 and 17. At Vimeo, their music is described as "hardly young...The emphasis is on narrative lyrics accompanying playful melodies with intense, thick harmonies." If you want to follow your curiosity a bit further, as I did, have a listen to an 8th grade Klara in the school auditorium belting out a shockingly profound and mature cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Amen, is all you can say following such a virtuoso go--even with the miserably shoddy mobile phone camera footage. After which you blow your nose to evict some of the last of la gastro and trudge back to bed.

Happy listening.

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