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.