Tuesday, March 31, 2009

From "Time And The Bottle"

"I’m a little appalled at all the time I’ve lost, but then, wasting time wasn’t exactly an unforeseen side effect; it was part of the fun. Of course it was; if drinking wasn’t so much fun it wouldn’t be such a widespread and terrible problem.

"While responsible people were working their way up their professional ladders, my friends and I were spending whole days eating oysters, drinking pitchers of mimosas and beer, and laughing ’til we wept on decks overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.

"There is really no drinking half as enjoyable as daytime drinking, when the sun is out, the bars are empty of dilettantes, and the afternoon stretches ahead of you like summer vacation. The gleeful complicity you and your drinking buddies share in the excellent decision to have one more ill-advised round, knowing full well you’re forfeiting the day — you can almost physically feel something lifted from you at this moment, even if you know it will fall back more heavily later on. We used to raise a toast: 'Gentlemen — our lives are unbelievably great.' "

-- From "Time And The Bottle" by Tim Kreider on the "Proof" blog at "The New York Times"

Thursday, March 26, 2009

It Felt Like A Secret

One of my favorite places in Prague burned to the ground on March 22.

It was a restaurant called Koliba, in the forest near the village of Roztoky, northwest of Prague. The cause, as far as I know, has not yet been determined. Electrical problem? An open fire that got out of control? Arson?

In the end, for Koliba's many fans, the cause doesn't really matter.

It's gone.

And at the worst time, just as summer -- when Koliba really shined -- is right around the corner.

I'll never forget the first time I saw Koliba.

My good buddy Stewart had come across it on a bike ride, and couldn't wait to show me, too. It was a cyclist's dream, and with its chalet-style building covered in ivy, and the small pond out front, it looked more like a too-perfect movie set than a real place to sit down and enjoy a few half-liters.

Koliba was the kind of place we always enjoyed taking visitors to. It felt like a secret, a slice of Prague that not everyone had a chance to enjoy -- good food, including fish and meats grilled on an outdoor fire, and great beer (Budvar) in a bucolic setting.

Even in the three years or so I'd been going to Koliba, it had changed ownership a few times, and service was often spotty. But we kept going back because it was so pleasant just to sit back, let the setting sun warm your face, sip a beer, and watch the carp jumping in the small pond out front.

I often felt compelled to take pictures of Koliba every time I passed on my bike, even though I already had plenty. I've put together a little slideshow of some of the pictures I've taken at Koliba over the years. It ends, sadly, with shots taken by my friend Fiona Gaze earlier this week, after the fire. It's now just a charred skeleton.

I had a lot of good times at Koliba, and I'm going to miss it greatly.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Funny Thing Is, I'm Really A Dog Person

Oscar getting a bit better, and a bit more comfortable in his new surroundings.

We have a wild animal living in our bathroom.

His name is Oscar.

Ever since we moved out here into the country outside Prague, we've been feeding a few stray cats in the neighborhood. One cat in particular would show up like clockwork for breakfast and dinner.

At the start, he would run away if we attempted to get near him or pet him. But gradually, over time, he let us scratch his ears, and pretty soon we could pet him for a few minutes before we gave him his food.

Emma named him Oscar.

We grew attached to Oscar over the months, and would worry when he'd disappear for a few days. But he'd always return. Dirtier, and with burrs in his fur, but he'd always return.

He's a tough cat.

Oscar, a few hours after his capture, and while he was still quite sick.

Once, he appeared for breakfast with a very bloody paw. It appeared as if something had sliced into his paw. We could see a bloody straight line in his fur. We discussed what to do. We tried to catch him and put him in a cat carrier, but as soon as he knew what we were trying to do, he'd run away.

We asked around about any city pet rescue service, but nothing like that exists here. We thought perhaps we could tranquilize Oscar with something in his food, but the vet we contacted said that would be dangerous, since Oscar would likely just fall asleep out in the woods somewhere.

So we did nothing, reluctantly.

Eventually, the wound healed, and Oscar seemed none the worse for wear. We were relieved.

A few months later, a large abscess appeared on the side of Oscar's face. It looked bad.

A few morning's later and Oscar appeared for breakfast. The abscess had burst. The whole side of his face was bloody and raw.

We tried to catch him, but as I grabbed him at the scruff of the neck, he'd freak out and run away.

Again, we felt helpless.

But once again, the wound eventually healed, and Oscar seemed fine.

Flakey, a real fighter, on Stewart's lap.

In the meantime, a cat we called Oscar Junior started showing up along with Oscar. They seemed very friendly with one another. We thought that Oscar might be the father, since Junior looked a lot like Oscar.

Sadly, Oscar Junior was hit by a car near our house, a sad story which I previously wrote about here.

We've had some happy cat experiences, too.

Last July, just an hour before we were scheduled to leave to catch a flight to Croatia, as we were chilling on the back porch, Daisy heard a strange noise. It sounded like a bird to me, but Daisy knew better. A little poking around uncovered a tiny white kitten, its eyes still shut, meowing and meowing under a tree in our neighbor's yard. It couldn't have been more than a day or two old. Its mother was nowhere to be found.

How it managed to get under that tree we'll never know.

Fortunately, our landlord, Jaroslav Kumbera, was doing some work on our house, and we convinced him to take the kitten to the vet. We couldn't miss our flight. We'd pay for everything, we just wanted him to see if there was any hope the kitten could survive.

From Croatia, we learned via text messaging that the kitten, whom Mr. Kumbera had named Flake, was hanging in there. They were feeding it special milk from an eye dropper, and it seemed to be responding.

To make a long story short, we returned two weeks later from Croatia, and took ownership of Flake. She was in pretty good shape, all thanks to Mr. Kumbera and his wife. They had saved his life.

Flake had a nasty eye infection (see pictures at left and just below) that was being treated with drops and ointment, but she had a good appetite, and was very active.

After a few weeks, Flake began to eat on her own, and her eyes cleared up.

We already have two cats of our own, and we didn't want a third. And it just so happened that my good friend Stewart was looking for a cat for his two boys.

And that's were Flakey, as she was rechristened, is living today, some eight months later.

Believe it or not, another cat started appearing along with Oscar for his feedings. This cat was so sweet, and had no trouble in letting us pet her. Since Stewart was looking for a second cat to add to his family, it seemed an obvious choice.

Flukey, as she is now known, is living with Flakey, and all is well.

All was well, that is.

Until we started noticing that Oscar had developed a very nasty cough and seemed to have trouble breathing. And it seemed to be getting worse.

I came home from work on March 12 to find Oscar underneath a pine tree in our front yard, coughing so hard he was almost convulsing. He was so sick he didn't even pay me any mind as I walked past. He was obviously a very sick cat.

I decided it was time to try to catch him and take him to the vet. If I could.

I found our cat carrier in the basement, took it outside and opened it up near his food bowls.

Sweet Flukey, in her new home.

Oscar did finally come over to see if there was any food, and I slowly grabbed him by the scuff of the neck.

He didn't resist, and even let me put him halfway into the carrier. But then he freaked out and I was forced to let go. He ran away.

I thought I had blown my one chance.

He eventually came back to his food bowls and I tried again. I grabbed him the scuff of the neck until he was hanging limply. And this time he didn't resist at all as I slid him into the cage and closed the door.

We are very lucky to have one of Prague's best veterinary clinics just a few kilometers from our house -- the Veterinary Klinika in Horoměřice. They have always been gracious, even when I've walked in without an appointment.

I was unsure how Oscar would react to being examined by the vet, but he was so sick that he didn't really resist. He was even docile enough to allow me -- clad in a gigantic lead apron -- to hold him down while his lungs were X-rayed.

Oscar Junior, with Oscar, chowing down one day last year.

I've been back to the vet three times now and spent about $110, and the verdict is that Oscar has pneumonia. He's been given a 14-day treatment of antibiotics, and has been living in our downstairs bathroom since March 12. He's taken to indoor life fairly well, but he's scared of strange noises or sudden movements.

I think he's just happy to be warm and and dry is enjoying the idea of sleeping without having to worry about getting eaten by a wild animal.

Unfortunately, some of the medicine has given him a bad case of diarrhea, so that's not been at all pleasant. Surprisingly, though, he's taken to using the litter box, so it could be a lot worse. A lot worse.

Oscar's due back at the vet on March 30, and the doctor said not to let him outside between now and then or his recovery would be jeopardized. He still has a very horrible-sounding cough, a cough that seems to wrack his whole body.

In the meantime, Oscar's sleeping and eating in his private hotel room, and he's even taken to rolling over so that we can scratch his stomach.

He's really a sweet cat. He loves to be petted, has a robust purr, and has never tried to bite or scratch us. I call him feral, but it seems like he has had a home life somewhere in his past. He is curious about our two cats, but not in an aggressive way. (We're keeping them separate, of course.)

The doctor said he's only about three years old, so it's hard to imagine what life has handed him so far. But he spent all of this brutally cold winter outside, even when we did everything we could to coax him in. The guy deserves a break.

Know anyone who wants to adopt a cat?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ski Trip To Filzmoos, Austria

With all of Filzmoos below us...

Daisy, Emma and I recently returned from a short ski trip to the small Austrian village of Filzmoos.

I'd never heard of it either.

Turns out it's a few kilometers southeast of Salzburg, way up in the mountains. It had been recommended by a friend, who had regaled us with stories of its mountain splendor.

Turns out he was right.

It's a quintessential alpine village, nestled below an oddly shaped mountain called the Bischofsmütze, or Bishop's Mitre.

Sadly, we never got to see much of that mountain, or any of the surrounding peaks. The village was enveloped in clouds for our entire visit. Which meant that it was snowing. A lot.

My morning exercise.

I used to live in Syracuse, New York, considered to be the snowiest big city in the United States. On average, Syracuse gets about 3 meters of snow each winter season. I'm pretty sure that Filzmoos received almost that much during the four days we were there.

Simply put, it never stopped snowing -- morning, noon, and all night, for all four days. The car was covered with a half-meter of snow each morning, and with a half-meter during the day, while we were on the slopes or wherever. It took a good 45 minutes each morning just to dig the car out.

Of course, that meant excellent skiing conditions, if not horrific driving conditions (thank god for my chains!).

We had a lovely time.

Amazingly, the ski rental shop had ski boots in my freakish size (14 in U.S., around 49 in European), so I was able to ski (although I had to ski in my jeans, since I hadn't counted on them actually having my size). We took a private ski lesson and had a great time in the deep powder.

Sleigh ride through the mountain forest. The driver shared a bottle of his homemade apricot schnapps with us on the journey.

We swam in a cool indoor/outdoor pool in the village; drove to a nearby village for the Rodelbahn, a four-kilometer-long toboggan run through empty mountain forests; and took a very long (and very, very cold) horse-drawn sleigh ride (in a real sleigh) up into the mountains to the Oberhofalm, a 300-year-old restaurant that I'm imagining is magnificently located, with views of the surrounding peaks.

All we saw were meters and meters of snow piled high, and its most welcoming lights in the dark woods (right).

We enjoyed some wonderful meals of pork and liver dumpling soup and sauerkraut and dumplings, and drank about 10 liters of weissbier.

We stayed at a cute little pension on the outskirts of town, the Pension Hochkönig.

We're actually thinking of spending Christmas in Filzmoos, with our good friends Momchil and Tanya and their son, Victor, who were supposed to accompany us on our ski trip. Unfortunately, Victor got sick at the last minute and they had to stay home.

And maybe at Christmas the sun will come out and we'll be able to see the mountains.

Daisy negotiates a deceptively tricky stretch of the Rodelbahn.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

It's Not Much, But We Like It (Mostly)

Click to enlarge...

Regular readers of my blogs know that I live in Černý Vůl, an unassuming hamlet some 15 kilometers or so northwest of Prague. Even longtime residents of Prague have never heard of Černý Vůl, and we live on a street that doesn't even show up on GPS, making it extremely difficult for taxi drivers or ordinary humans to visit our place.

Not much happens in Černý Vůl.

A big truck ran off the road and overturned in the village last winter while trying to negotiate a treacherous curve. And our local pub, which we've only visited once in the year and a half we've lived here, has just reopened after much-needed renovations. (It's one of those places where everyone stared at us when we walked through the door, so we just haven't gone back for more.)

But we like the village. Mostly.

Except in the winter, when acrid coal smoke belching from ancient furnaces clouds the air. And in the early spring, when our (partially dirt) road turns into a muddy, rut-filled mess. And except for the lack of basic services. The village's only grocery store is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, conveniently just while we're at work.

Černý Vůl means Black Bull. A small sign on a cycle path below our house says: "Černý Vůl is a site of rich archaeological finds. A Neolithic ceramic bull's head found here gave the village its name."

A friend of mine, Michal Pupcsik, who lives in Beloky, another small village northwest of Prague, collect old postcards of villages in the neighborhood -- Statenice, Tuchoměřice, Beloky, Středokluky, Lidice, Okoř, Holubice, et al.

He just sent me one of his latest acquisitions -- a very cool postcard of Černý Vůl, date unknown, but I'm guessing from sometime in the 1930s. The infamous backward S-shaped road snaking down through the village would tell you it was Černý Vůl, even if the postcard itself did not. (The postcard identifies Černý Vůl as a "settlement," interestingly.) There's also a photograph of the village pub, before renovations.

I took the other photograph out of my bedroom window on March 10, showing roughly the same view.

As you can see, not much has changed in 80 years or so.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Check Out This Blog If You Know What's Good For You

Radek and Hilary in Croatia, on the way to Albania.

I want to call your attention to a fantastic blog, written by my good friends Radek and Hilary over at Motorbike Ventures.

They're the folks who helped me find and buy my own motorcycle here in Prague. They rent motorcycles for those looking for a European adventure, and also do what they did for me -- help locate a suitable motorcycle and then negotiate not only the price, but also the Czech bureaucracy in terms of getting the bike registered.

Radek and Hilary don't just help others to have fun. They also travel themselves throughout Europe on their motorcycles, and Hilary's been writing a very entertaining account of the trip they took to Croatia, Montenegro and Albania last summer.

It's amazing. Great details. Evocative descriptions. And wonderful photographs.

Check it out here. The pictures I've published with this post are from their blog.

If you have any interest in traveling by motorcycle, you won't be disappointed.

I hope Daisy and I can take a few overnight trips on my Honda Shadow 600 this summer, even if it's only within the Czech Republic.

In the meantime, I will continue to dream about riding to Albania. I sure wish I'd had my bike when they were planning that trip!

When Good Mayonnaise Goes Bad

I always smile when I see this sign in the snack bar where I work.

Apparently, someone got sick after eating a sandwich that they'd left sitting on their desk for six hours or something. I guess the legal department told them to put up this sign.