Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Easter In Berchtesgaden, Bavaria


These lambs wobbled their way to the fence long enough for us to give them a quick scratch.

Call them family traditions in the making.

This summer, Daisy, Emma and I plan to once again spend a lazy two weeks on the pristine beaches of Brela, a tiny village on Croatia's Adriatic coast, about an hour or so south of Split.

And we've all just returned from spending Easter in Bavaria, in southern Germany -- the second year in a row we've done that. And I'd bet anything we'll do it again next year.

Last year, we spent two or three nights in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, at the base of Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze. We took a train and cable car to the peak, and also hiked through the dramatic gorge known as the Partnachklamm. We drank liters of weißbier, ate meters of sausages, and -- after a refreshing climb -- gulped freshly made buttermilk at the top of the Eckbauer.


A family portrait with Berchtesgaden behind us.

In fact, we've been to Garmisch three times now in the past two years. Daisy and I went once in 2006, we were there for Easter with Emma and Daisy's mother, Robin, in 2007, and I showed my sister, Carol, and my nephew, Alex, around the place when they visited Germany last summer.

This year, we decided once again to spend Easter in Bavaria, but to visit a different village. We chose Berchtesgaden, further east, almost in Austria -- about 20 kilometers or so from Salzburg.

I'd visited there before back in the early '90s with a friend. We even played a round at a golf course there which was tied in some way to the U.S. military. High above the course loomed Hitler's "Eagle's Nest."


The drive from the hotel into the village of Berchtesgaden includes this panorama.

Berchtesgaden is famous for its stunning alpine scenery, and the beauty of these sweeping panaromas was not lost on the members of the Third Reich. The Eagle's Nest was built as a mountaintop retreat for Hitler's 50th birthday. Today, it's a simple cafe, albeit one with a stunning pedigree and views to match. But there's something quite delicious in the irony, of an evil man's playground now serving coffee and sandwiches for tourist families.

Or perhaps it's actually kind of disturbing. Like Stalin's sauna being turned into a winebar or something.

From Prague, Berchtesgaden was a 530-kilometer drive, which took us about five hours in the pouring rain.

We love Garmisch. I think Berchtesgaden gives it a run for its money, though.

Where we stayed


We booked a room online at the delightful, family-run Alpenhotel Weiherbach. Berchtesgaden's old town is only a few kilometers from the hotel by car, or a short, mildly strenuous hike over a little mountain called Lockstein.

We were quite pleased with the hotel. A little hard to find at first (we had to ask for directions at the information kiosk in town), but in a wonderful location, in the mountains above the village, with easy access to hiking.

Our corner room was clean and comfortable room, with a small balcony. Delicious, imaginative breakfast. Extremely friendly and helpful staff. Free WI-Fi. Beautiful indoor swimming pool, whirlpool and wet sauna.

The cost for the three of us, taxes and breakfast included, was 111 euros per night, or around $175.

I'd stay there again in a heartbeat.

My only quibbles? The pool was quite chilly for my taste, and you had to pay extra to use the sauna or the whirlpool (4 and 5 euros, respectively).

Where we ate

We had one of our most memorable German dining experiences at Gasthaus Bier-Adam at Marktplatz 22. We had such a good time the first night that we went back for dinner the next two evenings, as well. Why mess with a good thing?

We ate suckling pig and roasted pig's knuckle and a farmer's feast of sausages, pork and bacon and sauerkraut, homemade spatzle with cheese, white asparagus, and about 34 tall glasses of cloudy, lemony weißbier.

The food was great, and the atmosphere upstairs where we at was cozy and warm. It was particularly memorable due to our waitress, Suzy (that's her at right), whom I consider one of the Greatest Waitresses Of All Time. Bubbly. Attentive. Knowledgeable. Perfect English. She really looked after us, remembering what we liked to eat and drink on successive nights.

I told her I thought she was a fantastic waitress.

"That's what happens when you love your job as much as I do," she said, before hustling off to tend to the other tables.

(As an added plus, I don't think the restaurant allows smoking either.)

We also discovered what Daisy confidently declared as being her favorite dessert of all time -- germknödel. Germknödel is a yeast dumpling the size of a small pillow that's filled with plum jam and then steamed. It's then served swimming in melted butter and smothered under a blizzard of sugar and poppy seeds.

(Insert Homer Simpson gurgling noise here.)

I think I may have to agree with Daisy on this one.

I had it in Garmisch last summer, too, but it was served in a vanilla sauce. I prefer the melted butter, frankly, but they were both good.

We ate lunch one day at Gasthof Goldener Bär at Weihnachtsschützenplatz 4. I'd recommend this place, too, although it's not as cozy as Bier-Adam. They did have some nice outdoor seating, however, which would have been lovely on a warmer day.

Dinner each night came to around 60 euros for the three of us ($95), give or take a few euros, including drinks and dessert.

What we did

We had two full days in Berchtesgaden. On the first full day, Daisy and Emma spent the morning swimming while I drove to the nearby village of Konigsee, to a petrol station and garage recommended by the hotel. Not exactly how I wanted to be spending my first day in Berchtesgaden.

It seems the engine light on our 2001 Mazda 626 popped on for seemingly no reason the previous night (causing me no end of worry, considering our long drive back). In fact, the mechanic could find nothing wrong, although he did manage to get the light to go off.


Daisy and Emma head toward the summit of Lockstein.

That afternoon, we hiked from the hotel to the village, over the top of the mini-mountain of Lockstein, which has a pleasant cafe on top (closed when we were there) and, it turns out, two holiday flats, which look very nice, based on their website and which are quite reasonably priced. The views from the rooms must be amazing.



During our hike, we had a memorable encounter with a small flock of sheep grazing on a steep hillside and five or six wobbly lambs, so cute you just wanted to weep.

Emma also discovered a cute cat at the Cafe Lockstein which she named Monet, for some reason. (She put the accent on the first syllable,)


"Monet" the cat strikes a pose above the village of Berchtesgaden.

On the second full day, Easter Sunday, after spending the morning at the pool again, we drove to Konigsee, famous not for its car repair but for its pristine alpine lake -- some 8 kilometers long and 190 meters deep. It's emerald-green water is said to be the cleanest in Germany. It's surrounded by steep mountains on almost every side, and is basically only accessible from the village.

Boat tours operate regularly (29 euros for the family, if I remember correctly, or about $46 -- pretty pricey, actually).

The weather didn't cooperate (it was overcast and cloudy and snowing quite profusely), so we were robbed of some of the sweeping views visitors normally enjoy, but it was still gorgeous.

An electric boat takes about 35 or 40 minutes or so to make its way -- very slowly -- to the chapel of St. Bartholomew, which sits at the end of a peninsula jutting into the lake. It's a heavily touristed spot, but admittedly quite lovely. I imagine the lake must be overrun by visitors in the summer months.

There's an old hunting lodge there where you can grab a decent meal (Emma, a confirmed meat-eater, keeps boasting about the deer she ate there -- venison goulash). Next door is the Fischerstueberl, a small wooden lodge where they sell only one thing -- smoked trout. Freshly caught in the lake that morning, it's said.

I bought a trout for around 3 euros ($4.75) and took it back to the hotel, where we enjoyed it on brown bread, washed down with a couple of glasses of Enzian, the local schnapps made from the root of the Enzian flower.


Smoked trout from the Konigsee, with a couple of glasses of Enzian schnapps.

During the boat ride, a tour guide pointed out various sights along the way, and made jokes that everyone laughed at but us. The commentary was all in German. We even shut off the engine for a few minutes in the middle of the lake to hear the famous Konigsee echo. The tour guide opened the hatch, told us all to slide our windows open, whereupon he pulled out a trumpet, aimed it at the highlands, and proceeding to a play a few figures.

Sure enough, the echoes were clear and sharp. Impressive.


Emma and the chapel of St. Bartholomew on Konigsee.

Next time, we'll hope for better weather, and perhaps take the boat a bit further down the lake to Salet, where you can hook up with a spectacular mountain trail that takes you past a 400-meter waterfall to another lake, the Obersee.

One quick note: They say the boats operating on the lake are electric, to avoid polluting the pristine waters, but quite a few times during our trip, thick blue oil smoke belched out of the engine of our boat and polluted the air inside our small cabin. There's something fishy here, methinks!

Final thoughts

We awoke on our last day, March 24, to find the landscape blanketed in deep, puffy snow. I'd stupidly removed the winter tires from our car a few weeks before, but fortunately the roads were mostly just wet.

I hope we go back to Berchtesgaden. We'll visit the Eagle's Nest and do more hiking around Konigsee. There's also a famous salt mine in the village that looks like it'd be fun, especially for kids.

And we'll head back to the Bier-Adam and hope that Suzy is still there.

I'm sure she'll remember us.

BERCHTESGADEN SLIDESHOW



Click on pictures for caption information.

German sex object



We just came back from spending Easter in beautiful Berchtesgarden, in the Bavarian Alps, in southern Germany.

I'll be writing more about the trip very soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share something curious that I came across in a public toilet in Konigsee, a small village near Berchtesgaden famous for its emerald-green lake.

One side of this vending machine dispensed condoms, for those fortunate enough to have a partner.

The other side dispensed something called a Travel Pussy ("The Artificial Vagina"), a product aimed, it seems, at the lonely but no less libidinous.

The cost? Four euros each, or about $6.25. (As a friend of mine said, incredulously, didn't that activity used to be free?!)

I did not make a purchase, but from what I gather, the device consists of a plastic bag within another plastic bag. The outer bag is filled with warm water. The inner bag is then filled with, well, you get the idea.

The kit even contains a small amount of lubricant.

Safe sex, indeed.

No beating around the bush (so to speak) with the name of the product, though. The Germans have never been accused of subtlety.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

On the Nose


Is it possible to look any more ridiculous? Me, outside the lovely Poliklinika Modřany after my surgery, sporting a bandage the idea behind which hasn't advanced much past the Middle Ages or Saturday-morning cartoons.

The idiotic Mr. Bread Roll waving at me from the lobby didn't help calm my nerves.

Neither did the shifty-looking guy selling cheap leather goods from a table near the elevators.

This was supposed to be a hospital, after all, and it was my first time under the knife. I had already made the long and depressing drive out to the beleaguered Prague suburb of Modřany, past graffiti-soaked train stations and some of the most depressing urban architecture I've ever seen.

Seeing the hospital for the first time, the Poliklinika Modřany, also didn't instill any feelings of confidence or calm. It was a classically drab Soviet-era hospital, with a muddy, trash-filled parking lot and a gaggle of ill-looking folks standing outside the sliding glass doors, sucking hard on awful-smelling cigarettes.

I was there to have my nose operated on -- a septoplasty -- to correct a deviated septum, that piece of cartilage that divides your nostrils. Mine looked like an S when it should look more like an l.

I'd also be undergoing general anesthesia for the first time. I admit to having had a few nerves, and probably would have even if the operation had been taking place at the Mayo Clinic. But this particular procedure was taking place in the Czech Republic, a country whose medical services I've never been particularly impressed by.

So I was just looking for a little reassurance when I walked through the hospital doors, something to inspire a sense of confidence.

And that's when I came across Mr. Bread Roll and the leather-goods guy.

I made my way up to the fourth floor, where I encountered a classic Soviet-style scene -- a room filled with all manner of sad-looking folks and many unhappy children, all seated outside of closed white doors with little or no indication of what, or who, was behind them.

No receptionist to greet you and point you in the right direction.

Just a room with five or six white doors, all closed.

I knocked on a few, was received rudely, but eventually found the right one.

Once inside, I felt much better.

My surgeon, Dr. Tomas Fort, whom I had met previously, said he'd performed hundreds of septoplasties. In fact, he said, it was his favorite procedure.

My anesthesiologist was a very attractive woman who also put me at ease.

The operating room looked, well, like an operating room.


I "accidentally" took this picture of the operating room as I was putting on my hospital clothes.

I put on a green hospital shirt, laid myself on the table, and some needles were stuck in my arm. I'd be getting my anesthesia intraveneously.

"How are you feeling?" the anesthesiologist asked.

"I feel fine," I replied.

Two seconds pass.

"Oh, I feel a little something now."

"Nighty-night," she told me, and that's the last thing I remember.

(Here I must insert a hilarious anecdote told to me by my old boss and dear friend, Tim Bunn, the former executive editor of the Syracuse Herald-Journal in Syracuse, New York. In an e-mail exchange, I asked Tim if he'd had general anesthesia when he underwent shoulder surgery a few weeks ago. Here's what he had to say:

"My shoulder operation was my second encounter with general anesthesia. My first was so long ago it hardly counts: I had my tonsils out in 1952 and they put me out with ether. Believe me: Better they put you out by having Mike Tyson clock you with a left hook. Ether is awful stuff.

I don't know about you, but today's general anesthesia was a very nice trip. First they gave me some kind of Valium-like substance through my IV to get me ready. Mellow.

Next thing I know they've wheeled me into the operating room and the anesthesiologist has an oxygen mask over my nose and mouth. "Breathe deeply, Mr. Bunn, and in a moment we'll administer the anesthesia through your IV."

Lights out.

I wake up sometime later in the recovery room wondering who I am and where I am. Moment by moment, I regain some of my faculties. My wife is at my side. I see a bunch of nurses walking back and forth. Some are wearing green scrubs, some blue, some have two-tone scrubs on. One comes up to me to ask how I'm doing. I look at her and say, "You are very attractive." (She was.)

She thanked me, though it occurred to me that it was quite out of character for me to say such a thing to a stranger.

Across the room I see my surgeon. I yell across: "Hey, doc! Are there any female surgeons here or are all these women nurses?" He tells me they have no female surgeons. "Why the hell not?" I demand.

One of the nurses, apparently trying to pull the fat out of the fire for the doctor, says, "Maybe it's because in orthopedic surgery you have to have the physical strength of a man."

"I don't think so," I say. "On 'Gray's Anatomy,' one of the surgeons is an orthopedic surgeon, and she's a woman."

Awkward silence in the room.

In my drug-addled brain I hear all the nurses cheering for me: "Yeah, the chauvinist bastards would never let us get ahead. You tell 'em, Mr. Bunn."

Pretty quick, they get me packed up and out of there before I set off an
insurrection."



Recovering in the recovery room, but feeling well enough to snap a self-portrait after my harrowing 45 minutes in the operating theatre.

OK, back to my own story ...

I woke up with the nurses and the doctor asking me to slide over onto a recovery bed. I was pretty groggy. My nostrils were packed full of bandages, and I was also wearing a ridiculous-looking bandage under my nose, held in place by another bandage that was tied behind my head.

I have to admit that the bandage under my nose looked like something I could have fashioned out of stuff found in my bathroom or garage at home (a rag and some twine ...), not something applied by professionals.

I also found some blue-green goop smeared generously around my eyes. I looked like I was wearing mascara. I found out later that this gunk is placed in and around your eyes to prevent them from drying out during the operation.

I slept off the remaining anesthesia for an hour or so. At one point, blood started to leak out of my nose and run down my face. I called lamely for the nurse, who came and wiped me off and readjusted my blood-catcher.

"Dracula," she said.

Dr. Fort eventually stopped by, asked me how I was doing, and if I was an athlete. I said I cycled and played squash.

"During the operation, your heart rate was 36," he told me. "That's what marathon runners have."

Cool.

He also told me my blood pressure was very low during the operation and that they had to give me fluids to coax it back up a bit.

Not cool.

Daisy came to drive me home. Before leaving, Dr. Fort told me not to shower or drink any hot liquids for awhile. "Have some water, or beer," he said.

I like a doctor who prescribes beer.

Once home, I laid down on the couch and nursed a beer.

One of our cats, Chicho, made himself at home on my lap.


Couch? Check. Beer? Check. Cat in my lap? Check. Remote controls? Check. Stupid-looking bandage? Check. Let the healing begin!

Later that day and all through the night, my nose bled like a stuck pig. I even called the doctor to make sure that was normal.

It turns out that I've had a little complication with the healing -- a hematoma (a collection of blood) that formed in my left nostril and that has required periodic drainage over the course of a few more visits to Modřany.

Despite some local anesthetic, I felt like Dr. Fort was poking a red-hot knitting needle through my face during my most recent visit, as he drained the hematoma and also removed some stitches. The nurse had to stand behind me and push my head forward so the doctor would gain some traction inside my nose. Yikes. It brought involuntary tears to my eyes.


"I am not an animal. I am a human being." The morning after, bloody unhappy.

It's been 10 days now since the surgery, and I'm feeling much better. I still can't breathe properly through my nose, but the doctor says that's normal and that the benefits will come in time.

I have to say that, overall, the experience has been a positive one. It's pretty nice to be able to have such a procedure done competently in a foreign country and have the doctor speak my language, when the reverse cannot be said. My Czech is laughable.

It might be a good idea, however, to move Mr. Bread Roll so he's not the first thing patients see when they come through the door. (Am I the only one who finds it funny that there's a bakery and, nearby, a snack bar selling sausages and beer, all on the ground floor of a hospital?)


A good friend submitted this as a "Separated at Birth" entry. I don't think Jack Nicholson would have looked quite so cool in "Chinatown" if he'd had to wear a string bandage around his head.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Look at me, I'm clever and well-read because I have an obscure quote*

"To change one's life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions."
-- William James, American psychologist and philosopher (1842-1910)

*with props to DoubleFister on expats.cz

Prague Spring 2008


Forsythia in Prague 6.

Prague can be so beautiful at times that it's hard to contemplate living anywhere else...


The first crocus in our garden in Černý Vůl.

Wait a day, however, and it's so dark and cold and snowy and dreary that it's all you can do to keep the razor and your wrist separated...


Fierce snowstorm in central Prague on March 18.


This monstrosity near Modřany could be the ugliest building I've ever seen. Architecture like this is depressing even when it's not cold and gray outside.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Best Red Wine In Prague For $5 Or Less?


Is there a better red wine in Prague for the price?

At my house, we like to drink wine -- sometimes white, but usually red. I'd say we drink, on average, a bottle a day with dinner.

When you're drinking a bottle of wine a day, it's nice to find something that tastes nice but that won't break the bank. In the United States, it's very easy to find drinkable wines that cost $5 or less per bottle.

It's a lot tougher here in the Czech Republic. There are certainly a lot of Czech reds at reasonable prices, but they're usually the color of watered-down grape juice and taste just as bad. The decent Czech reds cost much more than $5 per bottle.

There are also some delicious Australian and Chilean reds for sale here in Prague -- from such established labels as Tarapaca or Jacob's Creek -- but they'll set you back anywhere from 200 CZK (about $12.50) to almost 300 CZK ($19) per bottle. (I was astounded to see Tarapaca Cabernet and Carmenere on sale for 99 CZK ($6.25) at one of the Hypernovas here in Prague a month or so ago, and bought a few cases worth, but the sale was short-lived.)

Is it possible to find a decent red in Prague for $5 or less? That means for around 80 Czech crowns (CZK), at today's exchange rate.

I used to really love a Chilean red from Tupahue that was a a bargain for around 70 CZK per bottle, but it mysteriously disappeared from local shelves about a year or so ago.

Now, my affordable, but drinkable, wine of choice is the 2006 Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon from Brise de France, which retails for 70 CZK to 79 CZK at a few of the grocery stores I frequent (the Hypernova at Sestka, near the airport, and at a Vietnamese market near Hradcanska metro, but I think they also carry it at Billa).

Right off the bat, it's a pleasing wine, pouring a dark, deep, rich red. For the price, it's got a nice little bit of spiciness, with hints of black cherry.

It's not going to knock your socks off, but it's eminently drinkable, and for the price, it's hard to beat, at least in this city.

What's the best wine in Prague for 80 CZK or less? My choice is Brise de France 2006 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Your nominations are welcome!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hot Dog!



We had a barbecue recently, and I couldn't resist buying this package of chicken hot dogs for the grill.

They are called Striptyzky.

And yes, each hot dog is encased in a plastic, uh, condom.

On each condom is a drawing of a rather voluptuous woman. The woman in question has one arm wrapped around herself demurely, while the other appears to be slowly pulling her dress up.

Next to the woman, it says, in Czech, "Svlekni me." That translates to, "Undress me."

Which means you've got to peel off the plastic casing before cooking or eating.

First of all, what's with the plastic casings? In the United States, I don't believe I've ever had to peel casings off any hot dogs I've grilled.

Secondly, why don't Czech hot dogs withstand the barbecue? Most every hot dog I've ever tried here basically explodes over an open fire. I've tried every trick to prevent it, but most of them end up looking like the unfortunate victims of a sixth-grade biology class learning about dissection.

Although I must admit that the Striptyzky are the best hot dogs I've yet found here. They didn't explode, and they tasted pretty good.

And there's a half-naked lady on each one.


Interestingly, the label features a pub with a few pints of Guinness featured prominently.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Never Knowing



Editor's note: I wrote the following short story around 1997 in Prague. I came across it recently and thought it still had a certain something. Not great, by any stretch, but not a bad effort, all in all. While the story is fiction, the photos are real, taken by me on a trip to Santorini around the same time.


By Grant Podelco

The villa was on the east side of the island and overlooked the vast, flooded caldera of an ancient volcano, flooded with the bright blue water of the Mediterranean, flooded with light, flooded, it seemed to him now, looking back, with the possibility of happiness.

Certainly, the village streets and the dark blue ocean and the rust-colored cliffs all were beautiful, and the food was simple and delicious.

The villa perched on the edge of a cliff that was a thousand feet high. There was a small terrace with a table and four chairs and an umbrella to shade the table from the hot sun. There was mint and bougainvillea growing in large pots on the terrace. The couple snapped off sprigs of the mint and let them float in their iced tea. They enjoyed the sharp smell of the mint in their noses when they drank.

The view from the terrace was breathtaking and they never tired of it. They often sat on the terrace and looked out into the flooded volcano and across to its far rim, silhouetted in black, surrounded by sea. They watched the large cruise ships, swollen with tourists, sailing into a larger village farther down the island. The water sparkled.

It had been worth the long, angry trip, he thought, if only for this view.

The couple made love in the big bed in the back room of the villa they had rented in the whitewashed Greek village. It was one thing they were good at and that they enjoyed equally. It was dark and cool where the bed was, set back far into the face of the cliff.

The sheets were white and crisp and felt clean on their damp skin.

It was the middle of the afternoon and there was only the sound of their breathing and their lovemaking. The village was quiet.




Her bronzed skin looked even darker against the white of the sheets. Her hair had been streaked blonde by the sun and the sea. He ran his fingers through it as they rested.

"It's better this way," she said.

"What way?"

"When we're happy and we're not like we were. I hated us in Athens."

"It can't always be like this."

"Like what?"

"Like you want it."

"I only want you to be the man that ..."

"I'm not that man anymore, and you're not that woman," he said softly, resigned to the fact, no longer angry at her or at himself. "That was a long time ago. We've both changed. Not for the good or for the bad but we've just changed. It's not right or wrong and I don't know what to do about it. I don't know if there's anything that should be done about it."

"I only want us to be happy again."

She got up from the bed and walked to the bathroom. She shut the door.

He laid back on the rumpled sheets.

"Goddamnit," he thought. "I have changed and I don't remember doing it. Is it possible to change, to go back? Do I want to go back? Is it bad to have changed? Maybe I changed for a reason. When I fell in love with her, I wasn't the same person I was before I knew her. Which one of me is the one that is true?"

She came out of the bathroom, still naked. She looked pretty in the half light. He could tell she had been crying.

"Let's just try to do the things that make us happy together and not do the other things that we know we shouldn't," she said, sliding beneath the cool sheet.

They made love again and were happy and then they were hungry and it was time for food.

On the terrace, they drank the clean white wine made on the island and ate strong black olives and a large loaf of crusty bread dusted with flour. They stared out at the sea, saying nothing. The late afternoon sun was golden and bathed the cliff side in a honeyed wash.

They could see the island they had sailed to the day before and where they had gone swimming in the hot springs.

They could see the tiny silhouettes of the people gathered on the point to watch the sunset.

They could see the island ferries leaving the caldera, for Athens or Crete or Cyprus.

He wondered if it was possible to be happy just by looking at beautiful things, by being surrounded by beauty.

They sat and drank and ate and he wrote and she read a book and they only grew hungrier by their small eating. They dressed for dinner in their best linen clothes.


************



The two dogs appeared to the couple as they walked along the dark, narrow road on their way to dinner at the Finikia. The Finikia was a small taverna they had discovered after speaking with an old man who swept the floor of a cafe where they had been drinking one night. He told them -- confidentially, he said -- that the Finikia served the best food on the island and that it had not been discovered by tourists because it was too far out on the road that led from the village into the mountains.

They had eaten dinner there three times now, and they had become friends with the waitress. The waitress knew much about the food and the ingredients and how each dish was prepared. She also knew about the local wines and was eager to share her knowledge with the couple.

They had eaten many wonderful dishes at the Finikia, but they especially enjoyed the eggplant salad that was made with lots of garlic and speckled with the large capers grown on the island.

The couple was alone on the road as they walked to the Finikia until they saw the two dogs resting in the bushes under a streetlight a short distance ahead.

"Looks like we've got company," he said.

The dogs looked up at them as they approached.

"Don't pay any attention to them. Maybe they'll go away."

They did not know if the dogs were dangerous, although they did not believe they were. There were many stray dogs and cats on the island and they never bothered anyone, except to beg for scraps at the outdoor cafes. The couple simply did not want the dogs following them along the road. Cars sometimes drove by very fast.

The two dogs slowly rose from the dust where they had been resting and began walking toward the couple. The heads of the dogs hung low and their tails were tucked behind them. One dog was white with small black patches. The other dog was buff in color and walked with a limp. The dogs were medium-sized and thin. Their ribs were showing through their fur.

The couple walked by the dogs, not acknowledging their presence, and continued up the darkened road. It was warm in the evening and the man began to perspire from the walking. They did not look back to see if the dogs were following them.

Finally, they did look back and saw the dogs behind them, following at a small trot.

"Shit," he said.

"Go on home," he told the dogs, but he knew they had no home other than the road and the bushes and the dark places beside the road.

The couple could see the headlights of a car approaching far ahead. The headlights got larger and they could hear the noise of the car's engine. The road was narrow, and it was dark, and they moved over as far as they could to the side of the road. They worried about the dogs, but the dogs seemed to be used to passing cars, and they, too, moved in a pack to the side of the road. The heads of the dogs hung low when the car whooshed past a few feet away.

A few more cars passed by them on the road. Each time the dogs moved slowly to the roadside and waited safely.

"They remind me of us," she said, unexpectedly.

"What?"

"Those dogs remind me of us. They don't know where they're going. They're together but ... They're just following a road. They don't know where it goes. Things are moving quickly by them and they stand to the side and let them pass by and try not to get hurt."

She continued.

"So I'm going to name that one Steven and the other one Ariel. Steven's the one with the limp."

She laughed softly. He did not say anything.

They could see the lights of the Finikia ahead, the bare white bulbs strung around the outdoor courtyard, candles flickering on tables. The dogs followed them closely, quietly, all the way to the entrance. No more cars drove past.

During dinner, the couple did not think again about the dogs.

They talked about the good food they had been eating on this trip and how awfully the other tourists behaved. They were glad to be away from them.

They talked about how much fun it had been to rent the motor scooters and buzz around the narrow twisting roads on the island, to park their scooters and walk along the black sand beach with the nude sunbathers, dark brown and oblivious to their passing.

They talked about sailing across the caldera to the small volcanic island in its center, the cone, and swimming in the hot springs there, watched by a small herd of goats clinging to the black rocks overreaching the natural pool.

They talked of eating lunch of grilled fish and squid and vegetables and fresh-smelling tzatziki at a sunny table near the gentle beach.

They talked of walking up the long, steep stairs cut into the cliff side from the seaside to their hotel, not wanting to burden the donkeys who had made the arduous climb hundreds of times before but who always looked like the next climb would kill them.

It was late when Steven finally paid the bill, leaving a generous tip for the waitress whom they liked. They walked through the Finikia's front door and into a warm night breeze and stepped again onto the road in front of the taverna.

Only then did the couple remember the dogs.

"Do you think they're still around?" Steven asked.

"I think they are always here," Ariel said.

It took a few minutes for the two dogs to show themselves to the couple.

"Here we go again," he said.

"Hello, Steven. Hello, Ariel," she said brightly, as if greeting small children. "It's nice to see you again. Have you been well? You haven't been fighting, I hope."

They all walked down the dark road that led into the village.

The man and the woman cringed each time a car sped by, but the dogs, each time, hugged the thin strip of roadside.

The couple held hands and walked slowly.

"That was a nice dinner," she said. "And we had nice things to talk about."

"For a change," he said.

"There's hope for us yet, you know."

"I don't know what to think anymore," he said.

He squeezed her hand. She squeezed back and smiled.

Another car hissed in the distance and grew closer, quickly. The couple stepped off the road and onto a path that led to their hotel. For him, it was time for a glass of grappa and a good cigar on the terrace in the dark. She would take her bath while he sat by himself in the quiet.

As he stepped onto the path, Steven turned to watch the last car pass and he saw one of the dogs standing in the middle of the road, confused.

The car hit the dog.

Steven saw it happen as if he was watching a sad play, a tragedy, the road a stage illuminated by the car's headlights. He was immediately sickened, not only by the sight but by the sound, a bad sound forced from deep in the animal's lungs.

The car passed over the dog, who now lay on the road, unmoving. Steven thought it was one of the worst things he had ever seen.

Ariel heard the car and the collision and she turned to see the dog in the road, still. She started to cry. She was crying hard and she tried to run toward the dog before Steven grabbed her arm.

"There's nothing we can do," he said.

He saw that the car had stopped and the driver was kneeling next to the dog. Another car had also stopped and the dog lay in their crisscrossed headlights.

"Oh, god," she said between sobs. "Oh, god."

She was crying harder now. He turned her from the scene and led her away, up the path. She didn't want to go. He did not want to stay. He felt like throwing up.

"What can we do?" he said. "There's nothing. It's over."

They walked farther up the path. He put his arm around her and gave her a red kerchief from the pocket of his trousers.

They came to the top of the path and turned onto a tiny walkway that led down to their villa. They both heard a rustling behind them and turned together to see two dogs behind them. One of the dogs was the dog that had been hit by the car. He appeared unhurt. It all seemed unreal. A ghost dog.

"Are you OK, boy?" the man said, kneeling down to gently pet the dog's head. He could see no blood. The dog was limping but he had been limping before. The dog did not mind being touched.

Neither Steven nor Ariel could understand what had happened, what was happening. It didn't make sense.

Ariel was smiling now and crying, and the dog that had been struck was pacing around and it jumped on top of a rock wall and then down again and it showed no visible signs of hurt.

No persons from the cars had followed them. They heard no sound from where they knew the road was.

"He looks OK," Steven said. "He doesn't look hurt. I can't believe it. It's really quite something. How is that possible?"

The man and the woman walked back to their villa. They passed no one else on the path.

The man did not know what to think. He had seen the car strike the dog and pass over the animal. He had seen the dog on the road, dead.

He told his wife that he would take some food to the dogs if he could find them again and put both of their minds at rest that the dog that had been hit really was unhurt.

He retraced his steps up the path to where the dogs had last been. He carried cheese and bread for the dogs.

He looked everywhere for the dogs in the darkness. He could not find them. He guessed that the two dogs would be all right, but without seeing them, he did not know for sure.

He really wanted to know they would be all right.


Photographs by Grant Podelco

Monday, March 10, 2008

PragueScape



As I was taking this picture of a roadside potato seller in my home village of Cerny Vul, I could sees an older man approaching me from my right. He was carrying plastic bags in each hand, and was wearing a large overcoat. He must have just gotten off the bus from the stop up the hill.

I didn't expect him to say anything to me, that's for sure.

"What does that sign mean?" he asked me, in perfect, if accented, English.

"It means if you buy three bags of potatoes, you get two bags free," I replied.

"What's someone going to do with that many potatoes?!" the man said.

"Yes, that's an awful lot of potatoes," I agreed. "I guess it shows how important potatoes are to the Czech diet."

"You'd have to have all of your friends over for a potato party!" he said.

Turns out he's a civil engineer living for the time being in Cerny Vul. I was dressed in my cycling clothes, which is why he said he spoke English to me right off the bat.

"You'd never be a Czech in that outfit," he said, which of course isn't true in the slightest.

I never did get his nationality.

He asked me what I was doing in Prague, and I told him I worked for Radio Free Europe. He was very familiar with it.

"Make people happy, and make people free," he said, as we shook hands and parted ways.

PragueScape is a photo series documenting the quirky, the delightful, the odd, and the unexplainable side of life in the Czech capital.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Easy, Delicious Chili Con Carne


The world needs the recipe for Grant's Mom's Famous Chili.

Everyone loves this chili.

My mom made it quite often when I was growing up. We'd always crush saltine crackers over the top for the final touch. I use Jacob's Cream Crackers now, since you can't buy real saltines in Prague. (Robertson's sells Cream Crackers.)

There's just no way to screw up this chili, and it's versatile enough that you can add (or subtract) anything you want from it.

You can add more meat, or make it half ground beef and half ground pork, or take out the beans, or just add one can instead of two, or spice it up with more chili powder. I've even poured a few shots of bourbon in for a little extra kick.

It's also very simple to prepare. Open a few cans, chop an onion and a pepper, and that's it.

It always comes out tasting great, and is the hit of any party I bring it to. I always bring home an empty pot.

GRANT'S MOM'S FAMOUS CHILI

2 lbs ground beef (around 1 kilogram)
1 large onion, chopped
1 large green pepper, chopped
1 or 2 cans kidney beans
2 large cans chopped tomatoes
2 or 3 cloves of crushed garlic, or garlic powder, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
1 package chili con carne spice mix


Place beef in big pot and add 1 cup of water (about .25 liter). Stir beef to remove lumps. Add other ingredients.

Cook on low heat for 3 to 4 hours until done.

Add extra chili powder when finished, to taste. But be careful, a little goes a long way.

Enjoy!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

PragueScape



pince-nez /pins-ney or pans-ney/ n. a pair of eyeglasses with a nose clip instead of earpieces.

I saw this dapper gentlemen sitting on the Prague metro as I was riding home from work. Dressed in an elegant black suit and a bowler hat, and balancing a pair of gold pince-nez on his nose, he was a vision from 1890, not 2008.

The pince-nez had a delicate gold chain hanging from its right lens.

I don't think I've ever seen anyone wearing a pair of pince-nez before.

To make the time-warp even more striking, he was busily tapping away at some sort of PDA or Blackberry.

I can only presume there was a horse and carriage outside his metro stop, waiting to whisk him home.

Forgive the blurry image. I was a little shy about taking the gentleman's picture, so I turned off the flash.

PragueScape is a photo series documenting the quirky, the delightful, the odd, and the unexplainable side of life in the Czech capital.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Getting the Blues on the Charles Bridge



You're liable to hear all sorts of music as you stroll across Prague's famous 650-year-old Charles Bridge, perhaps the city's most famous landmark.

There's a band of older guys who've been around forever who play some sort of weird Dixieland music, with the lead singer singing hoarsely through a giant megaphone. There's another guy who plays a zither. You can usually find someone strumming away on a guitar, singing Beatles tunes.

Crossing the bridge recently as I ran some errands, I heard something I'd never heard on the bridge before. The blues. Really good blues.

There was one guy thumping an upright bass, someone else playing a steel resonator guitar with a slide, and another guy playing the harmonica and singing through the horn ripped from an old gramophone.

A small crowd had gathered to listen -- too small, based on how talented these guys were.

A small sign in front of the singer just said "Matej Ptaszek, gramophone vocal, harp."

A quick search on Google reveals these guys do perform regularly and have recorded. Ptaszek is Czech, and what I found on Google has him performing with a Slovak guitarist named Lubos Bena, but I swear the guy in the video I'm posting here isn't Bena, based on the pictures on the web, but another talented guitarist. The guy I saw play is much younger. He's really good.

Anyway, I thought these guys were great and I wanted to share a snippet.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Original Giant Leap For Mankind


Kittinger's autobiography, published in 1961, was aptly titled "The Long, Lonely Leap." Sadly, it's out of print.

I have watched the video of Joseph Kittinger's famous skydive hundreds of times, and each and every time, I get cold chills.

In my opinion, Kittinger is one of the bravest men in history. And perhaps the most unsung hero of the Space Age. Everyone knows the names of Glenn and Gagarin, Armstrong and Aldrin. Ask even space nuts about Kittinger and you're liable to meet with blank stares.

I believe Kittinger, a test pilot, should be credited for being the first man in space. In August 1960, at the height of the space race, he ascended in a helium balloon to almost 103,000 feet (31,300 meters). It's certainly the edge of space, if not space itself. But let's not quibble about mere numbers here.

Footage taken from the balloon shows the curve of the Earth below the open gondola, and inky blackness everywhere else. He's in space, for all intents and purposes.

What he did next defies belief.

He jumped.

And survived.

Encased in a pressurized suit, he free-fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds before opening his parachute at 18,000 feet (5,500 meters). He was testing the possibility of bailing out of spacecraft at high altitudes.

It's said that Kittinger, during his free-fall, became the only human ever to have broken the speed of sound without the aid of a rocket car or airplane or other piece of machinery.

He only had gravity to help him.

I always wonder what went through his mind just before he took that step off the gondola. What is your brain saying to you in that situation?

And Kittinger's record, by the way, still stands, for both highest jump and longest free-fall -- 48 years later.

Check out this music video by the group Boards of Canada for their song "Dayvan Cowboy." The video incorporates incredible archival footage of Kittinger's jump, which later turns into more fantastical imagery later in the song.

I dare anyone to watch it and not be moved:



There are lots of other videos about Kittinger on YouTube, many of which detail the two previous high-altitude jumps he made before his historic leap in 1960.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Kittinger flew almost 500 combat missions in Vietnam and spent 11 months as a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

He retired from the Air Force and went on to become the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo in a balloon in 1984, among other accomplishments. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1997.

Kittinger is still alive and living in the southern United States. Seems like he's got a few chapters to add to his autobiography.

My dream is to interview him for a story.

The ironic thing is that I just can't seem to conjure up the courage to give him a call.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

'Gusto' Manifesto

"I want to lead an interesting life."

So began one entry in a journal I began in 1995, the year I left the United States to begin working in Europe.

The sentiment was sincere, even if the words were banal.

So far, I think I'm succeeding.

I live and work in a foreign country that always surprises me.

I travel a lot.

I share my life with a gorgeous woman, Daisy, and her bright and beautiful daughter, Emma.

I like to eat and drink and write and take photographs. I'm an amateur bartender.

I play squash and cycle and am eager, if a little nervous, to get back on the golf course again after a year or two hiatus.

To put it simply, I find life interesting. I've always said how much fun it is to be an adult. You can do whatever you feel like doing. No one can tell you no. And I feel like I'm in a race to experience it all before something happens.

As I wrote rather melodramatically in my journal in 1995, "When are the bad things coming?"

I'm a passionate man, and I am passionate about many things. I can talk for hours about one of my literary heroes, Ernest Hemingway, appreciating the flinty prose in his early work while dismissing the mushy self-parody of his later novels. I can also talk at length about Froot Loops, and why it's the best breakfast cereal ever created.

I love listening to Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Stravinsky, but also The Doors, AC/DC, Steve Reich, Maximo Park and Lucinda Williams.

You can even find the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls on my iPod.

I've gone hot-air ballooning, scuba diving, whitewater rafting, and bunjee-jumping. I once drove a BMW 850i at 150 mph (240 kph) on the autobahn. I spent four weeks reporting from Afghanistan in 2002, and once performed my own jokes onstage at a comedy club. (Guess which one was scarier.)

In short, I like to think that I approach life with a certain, well, gusto, while also trying not to take myself too seriously.

It's always fun to hang out with others who share the same interests you do. That's why I created this blog. And I hope that's why you've stopped by.

As Papa himself said, "My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way."

That's a worthy goal, truly.

Let's get started.