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?