Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Partying Hard With The Bard Of Scotland

Daisy and me at Burns Night. My luve's like a red, red rose ...

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

-- "Selkirk Grace"

And with that old Scottish prayer, so began our first Burns Supper.

In fact, up until last year around this time, Daisy and I didn't even know what a Burns Supper was. Our good friends here in Prague, Stewart and Kathleen Moore, who are originally from Aberdeen, invited us for the first time last year, but we had already booked a trip to Venice and couldn't make it.

We made sure we were in Prague this year.

And so, on the evening of January 24th, Daisy and I attended a Burns Night, sponsored by Prague's Riverside School, in a gorgeous Art Nouveau ballroom at the Restaurant Na Marjance in Prague 6.

Burns Night celebrates the life, loves and verse of the beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns, a national hero in his native land. This year's celebration was a bit special, as it was the 250th anniversary of his birth.

To those of us who hail from the United States, Burns is perhaps best known as the author of the poem "Auld Lang Syne," which was set to music and is traditionally played on New Year's Eve, as the clock strikes midnight.

He also wrote "A Red, Red Rose":

O my luve's like a red, red rose.
That's newly sprung in June;
O my luve's like a melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will love thee still, my Dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my Dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
I will luve thee still, my Dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare thee weel my only Luve!
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile!

Thanks to my other good Scottish friend, Kenny Mitchell, I was able to wear a kilt (his) with all the fittings to the Burns Supper. Daisy looked ravishing in a formal evening dress.

In fact, everyone looked fantastic. It's a dress-up affair, with most of the men either wearing kilts or tuxedoes, with the women also dressed to the nines.

Me, Stewart (right) and Kenny, all in our Scottish finest. Kenny's wearing a more formal Scottish outfit, called "trous," which are basically tartan pants.

The evening begins with the Selkirk Grace, and then, accompanied by a bagpiper, a ceremonial plate of haggis is paraded into the hall. See my short video clip below of the Entrance of the Haggis:

After the Entrance of the Haggis, Robert Burns' "Address to a Haggis" is read aloud, as the haggis (a sheep's stomach filled with offal, spices, onion, oatmeal, etc.) is sliced open with dramatic flair.

Here's a taste of the poem's first three stanzas (there are eight in all):

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dicht,
An' cut you up wi' ready slicht,
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
Warm-reekin, rich!

And here's a translation:

Fair is your honest, cheerful face
Great chieftain of the pudding race!
Above them all you take your place
Stomach, tripe or guts
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm

The groaning platter there you fill
Your buttocks like a distant hill
Your skewer would help to repair a mill
In time of need
While through your pores the juices emerge
Like amber beads

His knife having seen hard labor wipes
And cuts you up with great skill
Digging into your gushing insides bright
Like any ditch
And then oh what a glorious sight
Warm steaming, rich!

That's real haggis to the right, and vegetarian haggis to the left.

Then we all sat down for a traditional meal of cock-a-leekie soup; haggis (which has such a horrible reputation, but it's really delicious); neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and mashed potatoes); and some Scottish beef stew.

All washed down with liberal amounts of whisky.

Then there were more toasts, such as the Toast to the Lassies, and then the Reply of the Lassies (both of which got quite ribald), and then the tables were cleared away for some traditional Scottish country dancing.

It was a glorious evening.

I'm one-eighth Scot, and wearing the kilt felt completely natural. Kenny showed me how to put it all together, from the flashings on the hose to the ghillie shirt and ghillie shoes, to the sporran -- the original "man bag."

I was even packing a real metal sgian dubh (pronounced, I believe, skee-uhn dew), a sharp little knife that gets tucked into the knee-high hose.

I felt like a million Scottish pounds.

My plate runneth over.

More importantly, Kenny showed me the proper way to sit down in a kilt without displaying my Lock Ness Monster for everyone to see.

I love Scotland. I love my Scottish friends. I love haggis and whisky. And I loved Burns Night.

Thanks, Stewart and Kenny. I can't wait for next year.


Our wonderful Prague friends, Kathleen and Stewart Moore.

Our other wonderful Prague friends (we're doubly blessed), Tanya Kancheva and Momchil Blagoev, with whom we'll be traveling to their native Bulgaria in April.

Stewart and our friend Mark Baker share a laugh.

Stewart regales our friend Nancy Bishop (Kenny's better half) with some tall tale.

Looks like Stewart and Daisy have something to hide.

Tanya won a bottle of Ballantine's whisky, which she was gracious enough to share with our table.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Martyr Remembered

The memorial at the top of Prague's Wenceslas Square, in front of the National Museum, where Palach committed the ultimate act of self-sacrifice.

On January 16, 1969, a 20-year-old Czech student named Jan Palach (pictured) walked to the top of Prague's Wenceslas Square, emptied a can of gasoline over himself, and set himself on fire.

He died three days later in hospital.

Palach's self-immolation was an act of protest against the complacency of his countrymen in the face of the August 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Others followed his example -- student Jan Zajíc in February of 1969, in the same place, and 39-year-old Evžen Plocek in the Czech city of Jihlava in April.

Acts of self-sacrifice that are difficult to comprehend, but which continue to resonate 40 years later. Their acts of martyrdom were designed to inspire, to motivate, not to maim or kill.

As a colleague of mine, Luke Allnutt, wrote so eloquently in a piece in "The Wall Street Journal" this month, "[Palach's] protest...was true to the original meaning of martyrdom -- a self-sacrifice designed to save others, not to kill them. And so his legacy still endures, remarkable not just for its altruism, but for its spiritual and intellectual significance."

On the 40th anniversary of Palach's self-immolation, many in Prague stopped to lay flowers and light candles at a memorial to Palach and Zajíc at the top of Wenceslas Square.

Or simply stopped and paid silent tribute.

Monday, January 12, 2009

It's All Downhill From Here

Emma and I joined some close family friends on Sunday for a little sledding (or sledging, as they say over here).

We joined Momchil Blagoev and his wife, Tanya Kancheva, and their son, Victor, as well as my biking friend Stewart Moore and his wife, Kathleen, and their two sons.

We ended up sledding down a long hill near the village of Únětice, northwest of Prague, near our home.

We had a blast, all of us. We enjoyed hot tea, bacon sandwiches and tomato soup in between runs, thanks to Kathleen and Tanya. The kids got to expend a lot of pent-up energy. And the adults got to act like kids.

I've also added a sledding video that I found on YouTube that made me laugh so hard the first -- and 18th -- time I saw it. Enjoy.

That's Emma taking the lead:

Here's Momchil and Victor:

The kids try to get a "train" going, with mixed results:

Even the moms get in on the action:

And here's that very funny (at least to me) YouTube video I happened to run across: