Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Černý Vůl Christmas

Emma and Daisy in front of the fire on Christmas eve. Note Emma's note to Santa hanging to the right of the fire.

We had a lovely holiday, just the three of us.

There's something to be said for a quiet Christmas, and for celebrating with a youngster. Emma is 8, believes in Santa Claus, and couldn't have been more excited.

We had a fire in the fireplace, good food and drink, and even shared the holiday spirit with our neighbors out here in Černý Vůl, a hamlet no one has ever heard of, northwest of Prague.

Our cat Zhenya strikes a pose.

On Christmas eve, we took some home-baked chocolate chip and Italian almond cookies to Petr and Jirina Hlavaty, who live on one side of us, and about whom I wrote a few weeks ago in this blog.

They came over on Christmas Day and delivered some of their own homemade Czech Christmas cookies.

Czech Christmas cookies.

Then we delivered more of the same to our other neighbors, whose names we still sadly don't know, more than a year after moving in. But we do say hi to them all the time.

Only the husband was home, cooking away in the kitchen, and he came out, all smiles, and took our cookies, then went inside, grabbed some shot glasses, came back out, went to the trunk of his car, brought out a bottle of what I believe was Stará myslivecká (Old Huntsman), a sort of herbal Czech liqueur or cognac, and we had three shots standing out in the driveway.

Merry Christmas indeed!

Our other cat, Chicho, gets in on the act.

Emma hung her Christmas list from the fireplace mantle for Santa. She asked for a spy kit and a Polly Pocket doll house, among other things. Overnight, Santa drank the milk and ate the cookies that Emma left out for Santa, and it appeared that the reindeer also enjoyed their carrots.

For Christmas dinner, we decided to go for roast beast, as Emma likes to say, thanks to "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas." Or roast beef, ordered from the English butcher in Prague, Chris Robertson. (Last year for Christmas we had an unbelievably delicious ham from Robertson's.)

Unfortunately, when I arrived on Christmas eve to pick it up, there was a slight mixup in my order. (In fact, my order wasn't there. But there was a roast in the display case, albeit about twice as large as the one I'd ordered.

Even though they offered to cut it up to my liking, I decided to take the whole damn thing.

We ended up with a 2.2-kilogram (5-pound) top loin roast for about $80 (1,542 CZK). Not cheap, but Christmas dinner comes once a year.

I'd never cooked a roast before, amazingly enough, and so I consulted both "The Joy of Cooking" and Craig Claiborne's "Kitchen Primer" for some tips.

I'd purchased a meat rack and an instant meat thermometer for the occasion (both ordered from the U.S.; I couldn't find a meat rack in Prague to save my life).

In the end, I was talking to my parents on the telephone and lost track of the time, and I ended up with a medium roast after about three hours in the oven at around 350 degrees F, or 177 C, when I was shooting for medium rare. Oh, well.

It was still delicious (and also made for great leftovers), especially with a little horseradish on the side.

I even made my own gravy from the drippings, which turned out better than any of my previous gravy attempts (again, thanks to "The Joy of Cooking").

Daisy made some fantastic side dishes, including maple-glazed carrots, mashed potatoes with celery root, and an unusual -- and delicious -- celery-fennel salad with freshly grated parmesan and lemon juice dressing.

We ate well. And did so for quite a few days afterward. The leftovers were even better.

The roast after.

Christmas dinner.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Getting The Tree

It's kinda cool living out here in Cerny Vul, west of Prague, at Christmastime because we can walk from our house to a very nice garden center, called T.R.E.E.S. (believe it or not), buy our Christmas tree, lift it up on my shoulders, and walk it right into our living room.

Feels like an old-fashioned Christmas.

What's not exactly old-fashioned is the fact that they put the tree into a cool little gizmo and wrap it up all neat and tidy in some fine plastic mesh.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mosor Morning

I've coveted this painting since I first saw it, and now I am very pleased to say that I own it.

It's titled "Mosor Morning," and it was painted by my good friend Stewart Moore, aka Booda.

Stewart hosted an art showing at his house a few weeks ago, and we purchased a couple of works, including "Mosor Morning."

It dates from the summer of 2006, when our two families spent a couple of weeks together in the Adriatic village of Brela, Croatia, about an hour or so south of Split.

Stewart arose before the sun one morning, his easel on his back, and hiked into the hills. He returned four or five hours later, as we were all having breakfast on the terrace, a few splotches of paint on his hands and face and shirt.

And he was carrying this painting in his easel on his back.

I thought it was amazing, and captured the vibrant light of the Croatian coast perfectly.

We've been to Brela five years in a row now, and I'm sure we'll be going back again this summer. It's a magical place, of which we have so many fond memories.

And now I have this painting to remind me every day of those good times. It makes me happy every time I look at it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Horror, The Horror


I once had hopes of becoming a filmmaker.

Seems laughable now, but I was young and energetic and full of ideas. I wrote short stories and poems and radio plays like I write e-mails today. I hadn't yet learned to criticize my own work so viciously. Now, I find myself frozen in a kind of creative paralysis, afraid of putting any halfway imaginative thought down on paper because before the ink is dry I know I will have concluded that it's crap.

But I digress.

I once had hopes of becoming a filmmaker. I even remember sending off a letter and resume to some B-movie film studio I seem to recall was in North or South Carolina at the time, in the hopes of landing a job. I figured Hollywood was out of the question, but that I had a chance in North Carolina.

I never heard back.

When I was in my mid- to late teens, I, along with a good friend of mine, Tony Bezich, wrote and directed four short films, each about four minutes in length. To say "wrote and directed" is a bit of a stretch, since each of the plots could be summarized in one sentence, and our direction consisted of yelling "Action!" and "Cut!" and nothing more.

We were obsessed with horror stories, and so we made horror films. (Now, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, they could best be called horrific.)

We made the first film, "Scenes of Horror," in 1977, and cranked out another one each summer for the next three years.

We used an old Kodak Brownie regular 8mm movie camera that belonged to my parents. I still have it.

"Jesse Black: Bounty Hunter"

We had no editing equipment, so each movie was a series of one-take shots. If we screwed up, the movie was screwed up.

We'd wind up the camera, film two minutes of footage, and then we'd have to open the camera and turn the spool of film over so we could shoot for another two minutes. Then we'd take the exposed footage to the Foto Shack in the parking lot of some strip mall. They'd send it away for processing, where someone would cut the film down the middle and splice the ends together to make a four-minute movie.

We'd have to wait a couple of weeks to get the film back. It was excruciating.

The movies were silent, so we'd usually make up some cassette tape of spooky music roughly timed to coincide with crucial parts of the plot. We'd hit the play button on our Radio Shack cassette player as soon as we'd start the projector and hope the timing was OK.

(I've added some music to these YouTube version to try to achieve the same effect.)

We made four films, three of which I was able to salvage by taking them to a camera shop here in Prague and having them transferred to DVD. Amazing that places still do that, really.

The three films are "Madman," "Night Visions," and "Jesse Black: Bounty Hunter," which is more of a surreal action-adventure film than horror, but what the heck.

I've uploaded them onto YouTube, just for fun.

I think "Night Visions" is the most accomplished, if I can use that word. I think it was our last one, which means it most likely dates to the summer of 1980.

It features some crude stop-motion animation and a disappearing and appearing man. The animation was created by duct-taping the camera to a tabletop, pointing it at a bookcase in my room, and then flicking the shutter so that as few frames as possible would be exposed. We'd then rearrange the items on the bookcase ever so subtly, and then expose a few more frames. The end result is, well, not too bad for a first effort.

"Madman" is pretty damn boring, even for a four-minute 8mm amateur movie, but it does contain a cool shot of an ax blade slowly being lifted in front of the lens, while the Madman's victim can be seen in the background. Let me tell you, it wasn't easy holding the camera and activating the shutter with one hand while wielding a full-sized ax in the other.

"Night Visions"

There's also a fairly imaginative shot in "Jesse Black" of the bounty hunter's boots stomping through a forest, shot from above.

That's about as good as it gets here, folks.

Tony and I were living on opposite ends of Pennsylvania while we made these movies -- he in the tiny burg of Slickville, southeast of Pittsburgh, me in Bloomsburg, in the north-central part of the state. We filmed "Jesse Black" in the backwoods of Cuyler, New York, southeast of Syracuse, where my family moved in 1979.

The films have deteriorated markedly over the years, with mold being the primary culprit. But the mold has produced a cool effect on the film that you'd probably have to pay big money for today.

The mold is so bad on "Scenes of Horror" that it's not even worth posting, however.

It's been a lot of fun to see these movies again after all these years. I have no pretenses about their artistic merits. They're awful, but in a fun sort of way.

I hope you get a kick out of them.

And if you know where Tony Bezich is these days, don't keep it a secret. I've lost touch over the years, and reconnecting would make a nice ending to this story.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

So, Which Is It?

I've always been amused by this shop in the Šestka shopping mall in Prague, out near the airport.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Clean Lines And Black Boxes

I've always been interested in architecture. I really enjoy being in a building (the Tate Modern in London, for example) or a house (Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater comes to mind) that makes you feel something.

I enjoy being in a building and letting the building have its way with me, to let it influence how I'm thinking and what I'm thinking.

I might not like them in the end, but I admire buildings that elicit a reaction of any kind.

So many of the buildings and houses built today are so, well, boring. There's no imagination, no effort to instill the structure with a soul or personality. Does it really cost that much more to add a little whimsy to a building, or a detail that is pleasing to the eye?

I live in Prague, so I'm never far from some amazing architecture -- 1,000 years of architecture. In Prague, we have everything from the 14th-century Charles Bridge, to Frank Gehry's so-called Dancing Building, to the Art Nouveau masterwork Obecni Dum, or Municipal House, one of my all-time favorite buildings in the world.

Lately, I've been interested in apartment buildings in Prague. I've noticed that a few the apartment complexes being built around the city have a certain style that I admire. They're not cookie-cutter buildings.

A few months ago, I took some pictures of what I believe are two separate apartment or housing complexes off Evropska, toward Divoka Sarka, that I admire. I think they're cool. They've got clean lines and splashes of color and I really admire them.

I'm not quite sure what style of architecture these buildings would fit into. Post-Modern? Functionalist?

Take a look above and below:

On the flip side, I discovered a couple of houses in a new neighborhood in the village of Roztoky that seem to take the same general idea and totally botch it up. They can only be described as black cubes.

I use to think that they were not quite finished, but now I'm convinced that this is the way they're supposed to look. Why someone would design such an ugly house I do not know. I wonder what it's like to live in them.

Is there a method to the madness?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Gusto To Spare

An amazing photograph of Petr Hlavaty and Jirina taken sometime in the mid-1940s.

I want to tell you about a man I know who defines the word "gusto."

His name is Petr Hlavaty, and he's my next-door neighbor here in Černý Vůl, the little village I live in, west of Prague.

Mr. Hlavaty doesn't speak any English, and I don't speak any Czech, save for a few pitiful words and phrases, so we've never had a chance to talk, which is a damn shame. Because I've admired Mr. Hlavaty from a distance ever since Daisy and I moved here in September 2007.

Mr. Hlavaty is 84 years old, but he looks -- and more importantly acts -- at least 20 years younger. He's got a wonderful vegetable and flower garden surrounding his house, and I've never seen a man work as hard at it as he does, all year long.

The happy couple today.

He is always outside -- digging or mowing or planting or weeding or pruning or laying paving stones. His energy is breathtaking. If I'm not mistaken, he also built the large house we both are living in -- he on one side, Daisy and I and Emma on the other. His son-in-law, Svatoslav Gosman, told me he dug the massive cellar himself, by himself.

And the results of his labor are something else. He's been kind enough to share some of his bounty with us over the past year -- a massive zucchini last year (that's Emma holding the monster at right), and earlier this year a huge basket of what were the sweetest strawberries I've ever tasted, along with a delicious strawberry cake baked by his wife, Jiřina, herself a marvel at age 83.

The couple recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. They were married in September 1948 in Podivin, in south Moravia. They met while Mr. Hlavaty was serving in the Czechoslovak Army. He retired as a colonel. She worked as the assistant to the general manager of the Czechoslovak State Archive until her retirement.

I had the pleasure of being able to congratulate them as they were leaving for an anniversary party at Mr. Hlavaty's son's house in the country near Křivoklát, and I got to see a wonderful framed photo of the two taken in the mid-1940s, shortly before their marriage.

You know what?

They haven't changed a bit.

All the best to you both.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Farewell, Little Friend

Oscar and Oscar Jr. await breakfast one recent morning.

We lost a little friend of ours yesterday.

One of the things about living in the country as we have for the past year is that you encounter a lot more wildlife than you do in the city -- everything from spiders and snakes to hedgehogs, pheasants, martens, and, of course, cats.

We have two indoor cats, and last year we "adopted" a stray cat in the neighborhood. Emma named him Oscar. He's white and black and a little gray. He wanders away for most of the day, only to reappear at breakfast and dinner. Or sometimes he just snoozes the day away under one of the shrubs or pine trees in our front yard.

Oscar lets us pet him, but he won't let us pick him up.

He's a sweet cat, and he's had a hard life. He appeared one day last winter with a severely injured paw. It was all bloody, and he was having trouble walking on it. We tried to lure him with food into a cat carrier so we could take him to the vet, but he'd have none of it.

We didn't know what to do. Sadly, the Czech Republic doesn't have any sort of animal rescue service. You're on your own in this type of situation.

Eventually, Oscar's paw began to heal, and he began putting more and more weight on it. As far as we could tell, it never got infected.

Then, a month or two ago, we noticed that Oscar had a large swelling on the right side of his face and neck. We couldn't tell what it was. It didn't seem tender to the touch. He'd let us pet him there on his face with no discomfort.

Then, one morning, he appeared for breakfast with that side of his face all bloody and oozing.

Whatever it was that was causing the swelling had basically burst open. His skin was raw and the hair was gone.

Again, we made some telephone calls in an effort to see if we couldn't get some professional help, but were told there was nothing that could be done, unless we could capture him. We tried again, and failed again.

The bleeding seemed to stop, though, and even though Oscar couldn't really clean the wound, it appeared to get better day by day.

Now, the hair is growing back and he seems just fine.

A month or two ago, Oscar began to appear for meals in the company of a friend -- a kitten who looked just like him. We called him Oscar Jr. The tip of his nose was black, like he'd scuffed it somewhere and it was still healing.

Oscar and Oscar Jr. would scamper and wrestle in our front yard like old pals, and nestle close to one another on our stoop after they'd eaten. We even saw Oscar Jr. trying to nurse Oscar.

We figured that perhaps they were father and son, but couldn't be sure.

Oscar Jr. was a lot more skittish than Oscar, and would watch from the safety of a bush or clump of grass as we put out the food. When we'd close the door, he'd run and join Oscar at the bowl. Eventually, he would hang around nearer the bowl as we put the food out, just out of reach. He was getting used to us.

Maybe Oscar told him we were all right.

We felt we had four cats now -- two indoor and two outdoor.

We'd sometimes see Oscar Jr. peeking through the glass of our back door as we sat watching television. One night, one of our indoor cats, Chicho, started going crazy. Turns out, he had seen Oscar Jr., who was sitting in an empty flowerpot, looking in at us through the window, cute as could be.

Oscar Jr. in the flowerpot, as Chicho looks on.

This past Sunday morning, Oscar Jr. didn't show up for breakfast, which was unusual, but not unprecedented. Both of them sometimes missed a meal, or showed up a few hours later than usual.

Daisy and I were both working on Sunday, but she had to be at work earlier than I. She left the house, and not five minutes later called me from her car. She'd passed a dead cat in the middle of the busy road below our house in Cerny Vul. She'd stopped the car and checked.

She was pretty sure it was Oscar Jr. It was the black scuff on the nose that did it.

She was upset. I felt sick to my stomach.

Oscar Jr. had a little black scuff on his nose.

I told her I'd check it out for sure. I threw on some clothes, found a pair of gloves, and headed out our back gate. The road runs close by.

I walked up to the road and saw him sprawled in the middle of a lane. Death had come swiftly.

Dodging cars, I dashed out into the road, gently picked up the body and carried it back home. I found a pickax and dug a grave in our backyard, and I buried him.

For a while, I convinced myself that this dead cat was too big to be Oscar Jr., and that we'd find him waiting for dinner that night. But he hasn't come back. And I don't think he's going to.

It's funny how little things like this can affect you so powerfully.

I barely knew this animal. In fact, until I picked him up, broken, from the asphalt, I'd never even touched Oscar Jr. before. But I felt I'd gotten to know this cat just a little bit in the past few weeks. We'd fed him and set a bowl of water out for him, and I invariably looked out for him and Oscar every time I passed the windows in our front door.

He was a sweet cat. I could tell that.

I'm amazed by how such events in our lives can happen so suddenly. One minute, I was lounging around in my pajamas on a Sunday morning, drinking a cup of coffee. The next minute, I was carrying the battered body of a kitten we once knew and digging his grave in our backyard, sweat pouring down my face.

Oscar Jr.'s death has made me ridiculously, inexplicably sad. I can't explain it. Pretty silly, I know.

Only I can't make this feeling go away.

So long, Oscar Jr.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Racin' With The Wind

Trying to look cool but succeeding only in looking angry.

After enduring a month and a half of motorcycle lessons through the Ondřej Horázný school, and agonizing over the very tricky Czech motorcycle license test, I finally received my Czech motorcycle license.

I felt a great sense of accomplishment, I must say.

And to celebrate, I bought myself what I didn't yet have -- a motorcycle. A beautiful 2002 Honda Shadow 600, to be exact.

To help me find a bike that would suit a beginner like me, I enlisted the help of Hilary and Radek at Motorbike Ventures here in Prague. She's American. He's Czech. They're both cool.

I couldn't believe my luck when I stumbled upon their website (which also features a cool blog about their recent motorbike trip to Albania). In addition to renting motorcycles and organizing trips, they also offer help to neophytes like me.

As their website says:

Are you looking for your very first bike and don't know where to begin? Or are you simply buying a bike for your home away from home and know exactly what you want, but you don't speak Czech and are not quite sure how to register your bike? Let the experts take care of you!

I hired them to help me find a motorcycle. Everybody told me I should really consider buying my bike in Germany, because the Germans take better care of their machines, and the prices would be cheaper.

However, I wasn't keen on buying a bike that I had never ridden, or alternatively, traveling all the way to Germany to see a bike that I may or may not like, or may or may not be able to agree on a price.

A boy and his bike.

I really wanted to find a bike here in Prague -- a bike for a good price, one that I could see if not ride, that I would feel pretty confident I'd be happy with.

Turns out, I fell in love with the first bike in Prague that they sent me an Internet link to.

Radek and I went out to see it. It was exactly what I wanted. A candy apple red Honda Shadow with low kilometers (around 22,000 km), and kitted out with lots of extras -- saddlebags, custom mirrors and handgrips, a GPS hookup, an alarm system, etc.

Turns out, though, that in the end the owner wanted 15,000 CZK more than what he'd advertised it for, something to do with the VAT I'd have to pay since I didn't own a business. He apologized, but Radek and I left disappointed. The original price had been great; adding 15,000 CZK to it made it nothing special, if not a bit overpriced.

The thing is, I couldn't stop thinking about the bike. I had dreams about it that night. It seemed to me the extras were worth the extra 15,000 CZK. Plus, the bike was right in front of me. I didn't have to keep searching. My time is worth something, no?

I called Radek the next day to tell him I'd decided to take it, and Radek called the owner, negotiated a bit, got a few thousand crowns knocked off the price, and we had a deal. And I had my bike.

I bought a Caberg V2R helmet and leather gloves at Biker's Crown, a Czech chain of bike stores, and leather pants and a leather motorcycling jacket stuffed with all sorts of protective pads at Brixton Biker's Best, a local shop specializing in leather gear that amazingly enough has a location in the tiny village of Únětice, just next door to my home hamlet of Černý Vůl, west of Prague.

Brothers Petr and Vadim Dillinger design their own biking clothes and have them made-to-order in Pakistan. They've got a huge selection of quality stuff at reasonable prices.

I'd seen the bike and sat on it and dreamt about it, I'd even paid for it, but until Radek dropped it off at my house, I hadn't actually ridden it.

So much fun riding the same twisty back roads I'm used to bicycling.

Although it did take some getting used to at first.

It's a cruiser, so the seating posture was quite different from the Honda CB500 I'd trained on. And it feels quite a bit heavier. It took a few kilometers before I felt totally comfortable going through turns.

And I've still got a lot of practicing to do. Hilary recommended I buy and read "The Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Guide to Motorcycling Excellence: Skills, Knowledge, and Strategies for Riding Right," which I ordered from Amazon and have been poring over ever since. It's quite helpful.

Riding on country roads, amid the fall colors.

The fastest I've ridden so far is around 105 kph or 65 mph, which on the Shadow feels plenty fast.

I can already see, though, how the urge immediately develops to trade up for a bigger engine. The 600cc is fine for me now, but I'm a big guy, and I'll probably need something more powerful sometime in the future.

And I've now taken Daisy out for two rides as my first passenger. We bought her a helmet last weekend, but still need to get her some leathers.

I still love bicycling, and don't plan on starting Grant's Prague Motorcycling Blog anytime soon, but there's an adrenaline rush to motorcycling that you just don't get on a bicycle, except when you're heading fast down a steep, winding hill.

With a bicycle, you only get that feeling once every ride, if you're lucky. On a motorcycle, you feel that sensation every minute you're riding.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Interesting Phenomenon

I bought a bottle of red burčák last week from a roadside stand.

Burčák is the young, partially fermented wine that the Czechs love to drink at this time of the year. It can be quite good, almost like alcoholic apple cider. It goes down quickly and can catch up with you, since it has an alcohol content of around 5% to 8%.

Anyway, I drank about two-thirds of the 2-liter bottle. When I came back to the bottle, the foam on the top of the burčák had taken the shape of the indentations on the bottom of the bottle.

When I shook it up a bit to destroy the flowerlike pattern, it reappeared a short time later.

Anyone know how or why this happens?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The New Best Red Wine For $5 Or Less

I have discovered my new all-time favorite red wine (for $5 or less, that is).

Regular readers of this blog will recall my quest to find a bottle of red wine in Prague that was both cheap and delicious. Turns out it's possible.

My previous favorites basically boiled down to two wines:

-- The Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot from Brise de France (around 80 CZK per bottle, or around $4.80).

(I just noticed that the 2007 Cabernet from Brise de France has been selected for the Gilbert & Gaillard wine guide, which sounds pretty impressive for a $5 bottle of wine, but I don't know anything about that particular guide. It's possible that wineries may pay to be included in the guide.)

-- The California Cabernet Sauvignon from, believe it or not, Tesco. At 55 CZK ($3.35), it was a real bargain, which is why it previously held the crown of the Best Red Wine In Prague For $5 Or Less.

But there's a new king.

It's not cheaper, but it's more bang for the buck.

I'm talking about the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Misiones de Rengo, an award-winning Chilean winery with a cool website.

I first saw it at the large Interspar grocery store at the Metropole mall at Zličín. It looked promising. A Chilean red for only 79 CZK (about $4.80). I bought a few bottles to try it out. I'm very glad I did.

A deep black-red in color with the taste of of black cherries, and a bit of spiciness and tannin. It's a chewy mouthful of flavor.

I give it a 9 out of 10 on the Wino-Meter.

It reminds me very much of the Carmenere or Merlot from another Chilean winery, Tarapaca. The difference is that the Tarapaca is normally around 289 CZK per bottle ($17.60) in Prague. (Although I stocked up during the summer when the Hypernova at the Šestka mall near the airport was selling it regularly for 99 CZK ($6) per bottle.

I must have bought about four or five cases at that price, of which only two bottles remain. I'm waiting for it to go back on sale.)

Anyway, the Misiones de Rengo is an absolute steal at 79 CZK per bottle. The only problem is that I've only seen it at that particular Interspar. If anyone has seen it closer to the city center, please let me know.

In the meantime, it's the new king of the cheap but tasty Prague wines, and I'm heading to Interspar to bring back a few dozen bottles.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Some Pig

"The difference between utility and utility plus beauty is the difference between telephone wires and the spider web."-- Edwin Way Teale, American naturalist

Daisy, Emma and I were heading out the door the other morning when Emma noticed this amazing spiderweb glowing in the sun.

Seems like a small bird would have trouble extricating itself from this monster!

So intricate. So beautiful.

Click on the photo to enlarge it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Two Wheels Good

Not exactly what you'd call cool. Me and my learner's vest and my Honda CB500.

Only a biker knows why a dog sticks his head out of a car window.
-- Author Unknown

I just obtained my Czech motorcycle driving license, and my first thought after successfully negotiating the difficult slalom course of testing and riding and studying was, if they have to do through all of this to get their licenses, why aren't Czechs better drivers? Why do they transform into insane maniacs once they get behind the wheel?

Even Czechs will admit that Czechs are horrific drivers. Aggressive. Careless. Discourteous.

Ironically, the Czech state system for getting a driver's license is strict and unforgiving, or at least I thought so as I attempted to get a license to ride the most powerful class of motorcycles.

I had a motorcycle when I was a teenager -- a Bridgestone 100 -- which I only rode in the fields and on the trails in the country around our house, never on the roads. I'm not sure what happened to that old thing, and I lost touch with motorcycles once I headed off to college.

I hadn't been on one in 30 years, save for a romp around Santorini on a moped in the late '90s.

I'm 47 now and, like many men my age, as I sense the steady approach of Death, I feel the urge to do those things I've always wanted to do but never got around to doing.

And what better way to hasten the approach of Death than to ride a motorcycle in the Czech Republic, where, I've been reminded many times, the police refer to motorcyclists as "organ donors" and where five cyclists were killed in separate accidents around the country on one horrific day a few months back?

I've personally passed three crashes involving motorcycles in the past month or so in Prague. My gut tells me, however, that the majority of crashes involving motorcycles in this country are the fault of the cyclists themselves.

I see a lot of bikers doing some crazy shit out there.

As someone once said:

Most motorcycle problems are caused by the nut that connects the handlebars to the saddle.

I thought about getting my motorcycle license in the United States, but it seemed too much of a hassle, involving classes and such that would take a lot of time and a lot of money.

But I was also put off from getting my Czech license by rumors I'd heard that, if I failed my motorcycle exam, I would somehow also lose my car driving privileges. (My U.S. license, plus an International Driving Permit, suffice over here).

I was assured that this was not the case by Ondřej Horázný, who runs his own driving school, or "autoskola," on Ondrickova 9 in Prague 3, near Jiřího z Poděbrad. Horázný offers instruction in both English and Russian.

Horázný's humble school near Jiřího z Poděbrad.

I figured I'd spent way too long talking about getting my license. It was time to start doing something about getting my license.

I signed up for my classes in early July. The total cost for the lessons was 13,000 CZK (about $750) and involved something like seven 1.5 hour lessons, most of which were spent on the bike, with an instructor riding on the back. One 45-minute lesson was devoted to the mechanics of the bike.

My instructor was a grizzled guy named Marek, whose English was a bit, shall we say, broken. We spent our lessons doing exactly what I hope not to do when I get a motorcycle of my own -- that is, riding around the crazy streets of downtown Prague -- dodging cars, trams, tram tracks, buses, pedestrians, and negotiating the crazy system of traffic laws, most notably the default "right-of-way" law, which does away with stop signs and traffic lights in many situations in favor of a system in which, if a street is not specifically marked as the main road, drivers must always yield to cars entering from the right, even in a situation where it seems obvious that you should have the right of way because you're on a main street.

If the street you're on isn't marked with a yellow diamond, however, you're not on the main road, and you've got to remember to slow down before every cross street coming from the right.

In the United States, of course, traffic lights or stop signs or yield signs govern almost every intersection, and if you're on a smaller road and entering a busier road, you're expected to give way to the larger road. Basically, you've got the right of way unless you're told that you don't.

Not so in the Czech Republic.

It was great to be back on a motorcycle after 30 years (despite having to ride around wearing a bright green vest sporting a big L on it), and it all did seem to come back to me -- the gear changing, the leaning into turns, the stopping and starting. I did forget to turn off the turn signal quite a few times at the beginning, however.

We were riding a Honda CB 500, equipped with an odd, extra set of handlebars with brakes for the instructor in the rear. Kind of embarrassing, frankly.

I didn't kill anyone, least of all myself, or Marek. The lessons all went pretty well, and served to remind me why motorcycles are so much fun, even if you're just riding around the city. Motorcycles give you the rush that you get on a mountain bike going fast downhill. Except on a motorcycle, you have that feeling all the time.

The lessons successfully completed, it was now time for my state exam, which would consist of a written portion of 25 multiple-choice questions; a driving test with a state magistrate riding on the back of the bike; and a technical test, in which I would be asked two questions about the mechanical functions of the bike.

I was given a copy of the Czech Road Traffic Act, a thick tome full of obscure rules and regulations, all conveniently translated into fractured English for me. It is an intimidating volume.

I was also given an equally thick copy of a booklet containing all of the questions that could potentially be asked on the written exam. That would have been reassuring, except for the fact that there must be 500 questions in there, and there are lots of doozies, such as:

When regulating the traffic by light signals signal with the simultaneous signalling of red and yellow lights "Attention!" means:

a) Warning that operating the traffic with light signals will be finished.
b) The duty to stop the vehicle in front of the light signal device because the signal "Stop" will follow.
c) The duty to prepare for continuous driving.

Or how about these gems:

You are an A1-subcategory driving license holder. Can you ride a motorcycles of 125 cm3?

a) Yes, but motorcycles with output of up to 11 kW.
b) No the cubature was not exceed 50 cm3.
c) Yes and not depending on the engine output.

Sudden front wheel skidding resulting in the fall of a motorcycle can be prevented:

a) By accelerating to increase the output that is transmitted to the rear wheel.
b) By releasing the front brake before banking the motorcycle.
c) by increasing the brake power on the front wheel with the front brake lever.

Study for and taking the test was one of the most stressful things I've ever done.

I studied a lot (including a helpful online version of the test, in English, that the school offers), and showed up at the ungodly hour of 7:15 a.m. at the school, as instructed. Where I sat for the next two hours in a classroom full of other students, waiting to actually take the test. Very frustrating. (Orazny said something about it having to be this way because of the time needed to get all the necessary paperwork organized, but that seems a little much, to be honest.)

I was finally called in to take the test (which I think cost another 850 CZK, or $50) with the help of a translator (1,000 CZK, or $60). I had 30 minutes to answer 25 questions. Anything less than a score of 85% means you failed.

Since each question needed to be translated, it took all of the 30 minutes for me to complete the test, and I ... failed.

Yes, I failed.

I had missed four questions. I was devastated. I was angry. Very angry. With myself, and with the system. I would have to come back and take it again. (As I understand it, you can take it as many times as you can within six months.)

In the meantime, I had to pull myself together to take the technical and driving parts of the exam.

Some 45 minutes later, I was called into a room and sat before a stern-looking state magistrate, who held out a pack of cards, face down. I was to choose one card, on the other side of which would be a technical question about the bike that I would have to answer.

The question I chose had to do with the difference between two-stroke and four-stroke engines. I mumbled something about the fact that the petrol and oil are mixed together in a two-stroke engine, while in a four-stroke engine, they are separated.

Seemingly satisfied with that answer, the magistrate asked me another, something like, "If it's not mixed in, how is the oil in a four-stroke engine distributed throughout the engine?"

I winged it on this one, and said something about the oil pump.

"Excellent," he said, in Czech.

Whew. Dodged a bullet on that one.

I then had to wait around another 2.5 hours for my driving test, since the instructor was busy with some dudes who were trying to get their licenses to drive city buses.

I left for lunch and came back at 1 p.m., only to be told that we couldn't do the driving test since it had started to rain, and the state instructor isn't allowed to ride on a motorcycle driven by a novice in the rain.

I would have to come back the following week.

So ended one of the most stressful days of my life, and I was only one-for-three.

I came back the following week, on a sunny Tuesday, and took my driving test, which I passed easily -- 10 minutes or so of tooling around the streets of Prague. I hardly noticed the guy on the back.

A few days later, I had my rescheduled written exam (an extra 100 CZK, or $6, plus another 1,000 CZK for the translator). Again, I showed up at 7:15 a.m., and again I had to wait until 9 a.m. to actually take the damn thing.

And you know what? I passed, with a score of 92%.

I have never felt so relieved.

I had done it. I felt -- and still do feel -- a real sense of accomplishment.

I've now applied for my license, which should arrive in about two weeks. In the meantime, I'm looking for a motorcycle to buy.

I'm interested in buying a cruiser bike, something like a Honda Shadow, as opposed to a sport bike like the Honda I trained on.

A Honda Shadow.

The good folks at Motorbike Ventures in Prague are giving me some help, as I try to find a bike that's a good fit.

I can't wait to get my motorbike out on some of those rolling country roads that I mountain bike on.

I just hope I can stay clear of all of those crazy Czech drivers who somehow managed to make it through the same grueling process I've just completed.

And I need to see about a sidecar for Daisy.

Oh, want to know the answers to the three test questions above? It's C, A, and B, in that order.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Prague Sunset

I took this picture of the sun setting in Prague on August 21, 2008, coincidentally, the 40th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.

You can see the outlines of St. Vitus Cathedral on the right.

Click on the picture to make it a bit bigger.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Back From Brela

A plate of grilled calamari from my favorite restaurant in Brela, Nikolino's.

We've just returned from two weeks in the Croatian village of Brela, about an hour or so south of Split, on the Adriatic coast.

It's wonderful in Brela. We've visited five years in a row now. The food. The weather. The sea. The people.

At the risk of letting the world in on our secret, I plan on writing about our trip in detail in the coming days, so stay tuned.

I also have quite a few other topics I've been meaning to tackle. I'm afraid I haven't been a very good blogger on Gusto lately. My other blog, Grant's Prague Bike Blog, has been keeping me busy, as well as work, life, etc.

It's hard to live a life of gusto and also find the time to write about it all!

But I promise to try harder.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Couldn't Have Said It Better ...

"I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive." -- Joseph Campbell

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Most Extraordinary Pie

"When you die, if you get a choice between going to regular heaven or pie heaven, choose pie heaven. It might be a trick, but if it's not, mmmmmmmm, boy."
-- Jack Handy

I wanted to share a photo of a pie that Daisy made from scratch yesterday.

It's a strawberry-rhubarb pie, and it was extraordinary in both taste and appearance.

I don't think I've ever seen a more handsome pie in my life.

Sadly, I forgot to take a picture after it had emerged from the oven.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

'A Wee Tingling In My Heart' -- A Quick Trip To Dublin

Daisy looks out over Loch Tay, in the Wicklow Mountains. It's known as Guinness Lake for obvious reasons. And the bordering estate is apparently owned by the Guinness family.

“I've always liked it here. Part of me is Irish. ... My family comes from the west coast, so whenever I come to Ireland I get a wee tingling in my heart that I'm where I belong.” -- Billy Connolly, Scottish actor

Everything you read in the following post is unashamedly biased. The views expressed herein are not objective.

But it's all true, I assure you.

Daisy and I just returned from a long weekend in Ireland. I love Ireland. I'm one-quarter Irish, and the land and its people -- its wonderful people -- well ... they speak to me.

It's a damn cliche, but it's true.

Mike (left), Paul, Daisy and I in the Wicklow Mountains.

Daisy's father, Dr. Paul Sindelar, who's an associate dean in the College of Education at the University of Florida, was in Dublin to work with an associate of his, Dr. Michael Rosenburg, a professor in the special education department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who was in Dublin on a Fulbright scholarship at St. Patrick's College.

We decided to visit them both for a few days and hang out and see the city and the countryside and eat some fish and chips and Indian food and drink some Guinness.

OK, not some Guinness. A lot of Guinness.

We had a great time. (See the bottom of this post for a full slideshow.)

Getting there

We booked a cheap flight from Prague to Dublin on Ryan Air for about 2,700 CZK each roundtrip, or around $175. Not bad. Unfortunately, hotels are another story. Turns out there was a massive outdoor Neil Diamond concert on the Saturday night we were there, and hotels rooms of the affordable variety were booked solid.

Not even my old friend could come to the rescue.

In the end, I found a room at the Schoolhouse Hotel, slightly off-center from central Dublin, but only about a 15-minute walk to Trinity College. Turns out, it was one of the nicest hotels in which we've stayed. An old 19th-century schoolhouse converted into a hip hotel. High recommended (but pricey at an average of 218 euros a night during our stay.)

What'd we do while we were in Dublin?

Well, we did the usual tourist stuff (saw the Book of Kells, toured Trinity College, paid a visit to Christ Church Cathedral, where Handel's "Messiah" was first performed, wandered around the Temple Bar district and downed a few pints, tried to take the Guinness brewery tour but were repelled by massive crowds), but there's no use in me writing about all the things you can find explained in any guidebook.

I'd like to try to offer some advice and insight that might be unique to "Gusto." Or at least some tips that Rick Steves hasn't already written about.

I am confident in my masculinity, so I can admit that I drank something called a Baby Guinness -- Tia Maria and Bailey's. Pretty tasty.

Cheapest Guinness In Dublin (Probably)

We drank a lot of Guinness while we were in Dublin, including a pint at 6:45 a.m. in the airport as we waited for our return flight.

I couldn't wait to taste my first pint. It had been too long. But at an average of 5 euros a pint ($7.87), it's quite a shock to the wallet after the $2 half-liters of fantastic Czech pilsener.

Mike to the rescue.

He came across a cool dive -- the Palace Guest House and accompanying Restaurant Royale at 15 Upper Stephens Street, not far from Temple Bar -- that sells pints of Guinness for 3 euros each. Now that's a bargain.

(You can also enjoy a pint of Budweiser for the same price. Guinness or Budweiser? Hmmmm. How many people actually choose Budweiser?)

The Palace Guest House and Restaurant Royale.

Sure, you might have to share a table with Russian-speaking toughs downing pints early on a Sunday morning, but it's a small price to pay. And hey, we were downing pints early on a Sunday morning, too, so we couldn't point any fingers.

The staff was friendly, if a bit bruised and bleary, and you can also get a decent greasy breakfast for around 5 euros.

Best Bargain For 10 Euros

If you're going to go see the incredible 9th-century illustrated manuscript known as the Book of Kells at Trinity College (and I recommend that you do so), you'll pay 8 euros admission. For 2 euros more, you can enjoy a guided walking tour of Trinity College led by charming, witty and smart Trinity students.

And the 10 euros includes admission to see the Book of Kells and the amazing Old Library at Trinity College.

Somewhere in the Wicklow Mountains.

The guide we ended up with (I wish I'd gotten his name, or at least his picture) kept us smiling the whole time, serving his college history with a liberal dose of disparaging remarks about some of the newer architecture on campus; the etiquette at the dining hall, and why there was a woman's high-heeled shoe lodged in a branch of one of the gigantic Oregon big-leaf maple trees in the commons.

I don't normally take tours, but I'm very glad I took this one. A hoot.

A Surprising, Remote Memorial

We rented a car for a few days and headed south of Dublin, up into the beautiful Wicklow Mountains. While driving through the tiny village of Glencree, we passed the easily missed Glencree Deutsche Kriegsgraberstatte, a cemetery for German airmen and sailors from both world wars who either crashed on Irish soil or washed ashore. (Ireland was neutral in World War II.)

The German cemetery in Glencree.

Almost 50 of the 134 graves in the tiny cemetery are of civilian German detainees who were being ferried from England to Canada for internment when their ship was hit by a torpedo fired by a German U-boat near the Irish coast.

It's a lovely little spot, and quite moving, in its quiet way. It's easily missed, so keep an eye out if you're in the area. It's worth a stop.

Daisy and her father, Paul, on Father's Day on the beach in Bray (above) and on the top of Bray Head (below).

Fading Seaside Resort

Some 20 kilometers south of Dublin, along the coast, is a faded, and still fading, resort town called Bray. It's easily accessible by train from Dublin, and it's worth a day trip, or even an overnight stop.

I don't know what it is about the place. It's picturesque, but it's not Nice. And it's more than a little frayed around the edges. But Daisy and I have been to Bray twice now, and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly each time.

There's good hiking along the clifftops to the neighboring village of Greystones, or to the top of Bray Head, which is what we did on this visit.

And there's a quirky old Victorian-era hotel that faces the sea called the Esplanade that we really like. Double rooms were around 79 euros a night.

Plus, Bray is the perfect base from which to explore the Wicklow Mountains, where
many scenes in movies such as "Braveheart" and "Excalibur" were filmed.

Where We Ate

We enjoyed a fantastic Indian meal at Jaipur, at 41 South Great George's St., in central Dublin. Pricey (but what isn't in Dublin?), but worth it (main courses around 20 euros each).

Some of the beat Indian food I've ever had.

We also ate well at Unicorn, at 12b Merrion Row, near St. Stephen's Green, an Italian restaurant that's made something of a name for itself. Again, pricey (main courses around 30 euros each), but the food and the atmosphere worth it. It's got a nice buzz to it. You can tell people are having a good time, and eating good food.

And in conclusion ...

There's energy in Dublin. Young people clog the streets, and they seem happy. There's a lot of laughter and good spirits. The restaurants and bars and shops are packed.

And everyone -- and I mean everyone -- is so damn friendly.

When I travel to Ireland -- and I must have made some 15 trips by now -- I feel like I'm home.

I can't wait to go back.

P.S. When looking for a nice quote about Ireland, I happened to come across the one by Scottish actor and comedian Billy Connolly that begins this post. Not only does he say what I, too, feel in my bones, but in an odd coincidence, we happened to run into Billy Connolly while we were doing a bit of shopping in Dublin. He was in town for a sold-out show at the Olympia Theatre. We happened to be watching a street performer when Connolly walked by, stopped, and threw some money into the hat, with a twinkle in his eye and a big smile. He seemed genuinely delighted by his brief encounter with one of those statue people covered in metallic paint, and then stayed to watch as a wee little girl came up to the performer, hypnotized. It was a nice little moment.

A funny name for a Chinese restaurant in Bray (above) and a shop in Dublin (below).