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Thursday December 29, 2005

The cold

As I type this, it’s 30 degrees on the dot outside. That would be the literal flavor of freezing, my friends. It was just a tad warmer yesterday (when I took this picture of Prague Castle from Petřín hill). It did, however, snow heavily all day: it was close to three inches on the ground when I got home at sunset (around 4 pm). I left the house wearing two layers of pants, a t-shirt, long-sleevd shirt, sweatshirt, coat, hat, shawl, and gloves. After a little walking, I was uncomfortable, and ended up taking off the sweatshirt. After that I was good to go for all day in the snow. It was actually more plesant than some previous days, which had more wind.

My point would be that I can start to see where the wind would get to be an annoyance in a place like Minnesota.

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Wednesday December 28, 2005

Prague parks

At over a million people, Prague is a pretty big city. By almost any standard, its “historical district” is so large that the concept pretty much breaks down – with the exception of large modern residential areas on the peripheries, most of the city would be considered historical. More impressive, though, is that there are several large parks and nature preserves within the city, some of which are situated on hills overlooking the center, so that you always have the feeling of existing in a city which is existing in nature. Well within the grid of the tram system is Divoká Šárka, a large nature preserve with a couple of trails, and little else beyond rugged scenery. This is the view from the city-side of the area; from here we descended into a gorge, and hiked most of the afternoon. The preserve transitions very smoothly into regular Czech countryside; after a few hours of hiking, we ended up in a little town outside Prague, and caught a bus back into the city. (This is all a day or two ago; today, it’s snowing like crazy. Photos from that soon.)

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Czech lunch (quick version)

This is the standard quick street-food lunch/snack here: a big, fat, and absurdly greasy sausage (klobasa), a piece of bread, a friggin huge dollop of mustard, and a beer (.5l). I got pretty severely tourist-trapped on this combo, and it ran 80 Crowns (just over $3). Yum, though.

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Friday December 23, 2005

Carp

The official holiday food in the Czechs is carp. a big, bony, freshwater fish, carp may have a bad reputation elsewhere in the world, but here it’s perfect. A few days before Christmas, the carp sellers set up on the sidewalks all over town – a makeshift table, a scale, and a couple of kiddie-pool-like containers with water, packed to the brim with live, unhappy fish. The idea here is that the freshest carp is the best carp. It’s no good waiting until the day before Christmas to buy the fish, though, because all the good (read: big) ones sell first.

The lightweight solution is to find a happy compromise between freshness and size (not that difficult to do, and that’s what my family opted for this year). The more fanatical solution is to buy a live carp, let the sucker live (in your bathtub) until the day of, and kill ‘im dead yourself. This presents some obvious, and some non-obvious, problems. For example, they tend not to want to be killed, and so a messy, slimy struggle is likely.

Whatever. Let’s have a gruesome breakdown of the above photo, shall we? We have a guy cutting off a carp’s head. What happens is, they pull the fish out of the tub with a net, dump him on the table, and pop him in the head with a mallet. This either kills or stuns him (the distinction won’t matter for long, cause), and then they start to cut off his head. They only get halfway – just enough to drain the blood. Oh, right, the signs – the yellow sign has prices by weight: around 70 Crowns per kilo. The green sign has additional services – 5 Crowns for the killing (“Zbavit života,” direct translation: “get rid of life”), 20 more for gutting, and 20 to remove scales. Coming next: pictures of my dad gouging out a carp’s eyeball! Also: more pictures of buildings and food!

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Vánočka

Christmas with the whole family involves lots of traditions, obligations, chores, and responsibilities. Most of these are plesant, but boy there sure is a lot to do. For example, the baking, which was mostly the responsibility of my aunt, with a myriad of drafted ‘helpers.’ About a week before the holiday, the baking starts with the holiday cookies. We’re talking hunreds and hundreds of cookies, in roughly ten varieties. They’re baked over a period of three days (with a different helper each day), and distributed to everyone in the extended family. To say they’re delectable would be an understatement.

A couple of days before Christmas Day (here, it’s the 24th), the baking of the Vánočka. In this case, my dad was sent to help my aunt. My grandmother was also there, apparently to help with the bottom layer. It’s made with nine strands of dough – two woven together for the top layer, three in a regular knotted style for the middle layer, and four in a double-secret woven pattern for the bottom layer. Since they were making four separate ones, this was an all-day thing, on a day when lots of other things needed to be attended to. Anyhow, tomorrow’s the big day. Oh, and yes, it’s delicious – sweet, moist dough, with almonds on the outside and rasins on the inside. Yum – I’m coming back to the states 10 pounds heavier.

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Wednesday December 21, 2005

Hell yes I've got pictures

The sun sets over the river Vltava. Around 3 pm.

The day before, tracks leading from the Prague main train station.

A sort-of non-touristy (really) restaurant. 32 Crowns (aprox. $1.30) for a huge mug of the best beer in the world is considered expensive here.

Only in the center of town are the beautiful buildings defaced with these ads, though the tram powerlines go about everywhere. The particular tram here (part of an amazing public transport system that also includes three subway lines, busses, and a funicular railway ) dates from the early 60’s (it’s much better looking then the newer, boxier ones, and the heating’s better inside).

Technically, Prague is split up into an Old Town, a New Town, and about five other districts. Just for reference, though, the “New Town” was build in the 1300’s, so it’s all relative.

My dad told me the story about the beginning of the Velvet Revolution. This plaque marks the site of the beatings of November 17, 1989. The beatings were real enough, but they allowed for the “dead student” quasi-hoax that brought down the commies.

One of the oldest buildings in the city, this rotunda dates back to the 12th century (the roof is a bit newer).

The Prague Castle (considered the biggest castle in the world, though I call bullshit on that particular reconing) looms over the city, sometimes Kafkaesquely, sometimes picturesquely.

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Sunday December 18, 2005

. . . and I'm out

I was a late adopter to the whole cell-phone thing (about 6 months ago), but then when my watch battery died, I didn’t see the need to get it fixed—I’ve already got this thing with the time on it. Well. I left my phone at home, and the initial disorientation of not haveing a clock is pretty interesting, especially when you mix in travel among multiple time zones. Anyhow, the above crazy, full-on snowstorm greeted me in Prague, where the airplane didn’t pull up to the airport terminal; we got off on mobile stairs and got on a bus. Below, a lightboxed ad inside the terminal, showing the perfect vacation balance – four priceless ancient cultural landmarks, plus someone’s mom playing golf.

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Saturday December 17, 2005

First post

“Hope is not the conviction that tings will turn out well, but the conviction that what you are doing amkes sense, no matter how things turn out.”
Václav Havel (via Bruce Sterling.)

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