Archive for July, 2008

The bags are packed, save for the couple of last-minute toiletries and pajamas. A cab is ordered. Our final souvenir gifts (think consumables) have been purchased and safely stowed. We’ve done the top-to-bottom cleaning of the apartment, and otherwise put our affairs in order. It’s time to head back.

We had a nice last Czech dinner tonight at Ferdinanda, a place for good Czech grub with a bit more variety, plus delicious Ferdinand beers on tap. It’s perplexing how it never seems too crowded, even during the dinner-time rush when restaurants just up the block have nary a free table (save for those that seem permanently affixed with a “réservé” sign awaiting no diners in particular). It’s a little surprising as well, since it’s just a block off Václavské náměstí, the long, broad boulevard that’s one of Prague’s main tourist drags. And it’s also reasonably priced. But we’re not complaining, since we were famished and hadn’t been able to wrangle a free table at our previous target.

We started with an beer cheese appetizer, which was a plate with little pats of the namesake cheese, plus a couple of triangles of creamy butter, a nice splay of brown mustard, plus little piles of paprika and what seemed like cumin. It went well with the bread basket (or at least the slices of rye, since the butter knives on the table didn’t slice the rohlíky too well, and rohlíky — plain, breadstick-looking rolls that are cheap and ubiquitous in the Czech Republic and Slovakia — aren’t terribly inspiring anyway). For mains I ordered the roast beef “dragon style,” which was a 200-gram cut of beef, cooked pretty well (it was a little tough in places, but that might’ve been where it had more fat and connective tissue), in a nice creamy brown sauce (a little like gravy), and covered in shavings of fresh horseradish (ergo, “dragon style”). It was filling. C ordered a favorite Czech dish that’s sort of a dirty little secret, since it’s so bad for you yet tastes so good: smažený sýr (fried cheese). I always try to describe it as something like a giant fried mozzarella stick, but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s usually Edam (as hers was tonight), or sometimes Hermelín, a rinded, brie-like cheese I’ve never seen in the U.S. Normally it’s fairly greasy and cooked kind of slap dash, since it’s just cheap, popular fare. But this was probably the best fried cheese I’ve had, at least this past year. The coating was nicely browned, not greasy, and they had bothered to sprinkle a little dried herb on it. On the inside, the cheese was at a good state of melted, not too gooey, not to chewy, just delectably savory. Plus, I should add that the presentation was excellent. Our appetizer came artfully arrayed, as did the mains. Whoever the sous-chef is, she or he does a fine job of using a fancy cut on the garnishes, to produce a pleasing visually effect. I washed my meal down with a large mug of the Ferdinand dark beer, which C thought had some smoky notes and a coffee finish, and C had a couple of glasses of the house limonada, which is basically a citrus-y soft drink made in shop. And the total for all that, with time, came out to a shade under $30, which is just right. It was a pleasant way to cap our culinary adventures with Czech cuisine for this year.

I’m still not sure how I feel about going back. There’s a pronounced contrast to leaving Prague now versus the first time I left in 2001, or even when I departed three years ago. Obviously, the first time it had capped my first trip to Europe, and I didn’t really know when I’d get to return, plus I had grown smitten with the country. It also made me rather bitter and frustrated by a lot of things that I saw as stupid when viewed from a European lens once I returned to the U.S. Three years ago, I think I was a bit more wistful than morose, in part because I knew I could expect to be back in Europe before too long, and in large part because it meant I’d get to see C pretty soon.

But this time, I have to admit, I’m probably a good deal more sanguine about things. Even though the last two stays in Prague had been two-month stints, they weren’t really short enough to feel like I had broken out of the visitor mold. Staying in dorms (and having to change dorms midway through both times) didn’t help to dispel those feelings of transience. However, this time, we’ve been here long enough to feel almost settled, or at least as settled as you can be knowing the exact date of departure. This is less true for Prague, since we’ve only spent three months here, whereas we spent nine months in Bratislava, longer time than I’ve lived in some apartments. And even though we existed in a state of perpetual in-between-ness — going away for too long to feel like it was just a garden-variety trip, but not staying long enough to lay down permanent roots — we did adapt. We carved out a sort of life for ourselves here. Even if it was only a chapter in our lives, it was still a noteworthy one.

All that said, the trials and tribulations of moving to a foreign country made me long for certain things we can look forward to back in America. Much of it is simply a question of favorite products not available here, things like diet sodas other than cola, band-aids that don’t seem to dissolve when wet, and Mexican food that doesn’t make Taco Bell seem desirable. Some of it is getting back to a more familiar form of bureaucracy. Not having to get every document stamped with a special seal. Not having to get up before dawn to be able to transact business at a government agency. Or being able to walk up to the stacks in the library, pick out the book I want, check it out, and take it home. These are all things I could eventually learn to adapt to, were I to decide some day to uproot myself and relocate here permanently, but barring such a rash and unforeseen change of heart, I prefer to have my diet soda cherry- or vanilla-flavored, my band-aids water resistant, and my Mexican food authentic.

There’s a litany of things I’ll miss — cheap beer, cheap and efficient public transit, picturesque town centers and comfortable train travel, having a conversation in a foreign language, to name a few — but I think that will only set in after I’ve gotten over the honeymoon period of making up for all the stuff I missed this year. It’ll be a bit easier on me, than on C, I’m betting, since I did actually go back to Pittsburgh for a long weekend in March. But even that experience was really an artificial return, since I knew I’d be leaving just as soon as I arrived.

So, we’ll see how things pan out. I’m not really fretting things too much, except for having to move a year’s worth of stuff from Pennsylvania to California, and moving a vehicle and a moving van from California to Seattle. There should be plenty of stuff to distract me from that for a couple of weeks, since we’ll get to see family and do some fun stuff. And there’s always that dissertation.

So, I suppose I’ve waxed philosophical about things enough for tonight. Time to try to get some shuteye before eighteen-plus hours of travel tomorrow. If I don’t post anything for a couple of days, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party

This was a game C really wanted. I might not have been so keen at it, just because I think she often bested me when we went head to head (though I totally scored the upset when we squared off at the arcade in Niagara Falls, Ontario, a couple of years ago), but it was definitely a game I wanted to get.

Once again, we haven’t played this game a whole lot. But the culprit here isn’t the same. The first time we played it in our apartment in Bratislava (after ordering it from Amazon and having someone ship it to us overseas), we got a call from our landlords downstairs asking if we knew what was causing all that banging. We apologized and retired it for the night, and pretty much didn’t play it the rest of our time in Slovakia. But we have pulled it out since we’ve been in Prague.

This game is good for working up a sweat and burning some calories, which is another reason I don’t play it as much as I should. It’s not that I seek to avoid the exercise, it’s just that I don’t really have workout clothes here, and it’s the sort of thing where I always need a shower afterward.

But I like that DDR actually has an exercise mode in which you can set a target number of calories you want to burn, then you play through a series of songs, with a progress report in between each number, until you meet your goal. Of course, it’s imperfect, mostly because it can only estimate your calories burned based on the steps it can record. So if you’re shaking your whole body as you step, or if you’re like me and perpetually wind up off center and thus not stepping on the right part of the dance pad, you probably wind up burning a good bit above your stated total.

I don’t have a lot to say about the song selection. There are a lot of songs I don’t recognize, and a lot of the ones I do recognize (such as “Blue Monday”) are cover versions. But, then again, I don’t exactly go clubbing, and I don’t listen to dance music very often (unless you count various Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie and Moby tracks as dance), so that’s not too surprising.

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Nadia said she wanted to major in English at college and someday hopes to be published. She does not see a problem with reading few books. “No one’s ever said you should read more books to get into college,” she said.

Hmm. Technically, that might be true. I don’t recall anyone ever saying to read more books to get into college. (My magnet high school of overachievers had plenty of people joining clubs and volunteering to pad those college applications, but no one was suggesting specifically reading more.)

And certainly I’ve encountered plenty of students as a teaching assistant who seem never to crack a book (at least none of the ones required for the course).

I agree with one of the arguments from this story, the idea that spending a lot of time online probably encourages people to read and write a lot more than they would otherwise. I know I’m a voracious consumer of digital content, more so the text than the pictures and videos.

But I also wonder if there’s something to the idea that reading and spending so much time online encourages fragmented attention spans and the inability to concentrate on a single task for very long. After all, I’m reading the New York Times and blogging about it instead of finishing my outline for the last section of Chapter 2 right this minute.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways the Internet is the bane of my existence as a teacher. Wikipedia, easy (and lazy) plagiarism, Wikipedia, mispelins, Wikipedia, spell Czech, Wikipedia, and so on. (Wikipedia.)

Pacific Northwest tree octopus, anyone?

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And now for something completely different, selected jokes I found to use in my dissertation.

Everyone knows how well Communist economic planning worked, with notoriously unproductive five-year plans and perpetual consumer shortages. Unsurprisingly, these were a source of humor for those who could laugh at the situation.

Czechoslovakia had a provisional two-year economic plan from 1946 to 1948, and then launched the First Five-Year Plan in 1949. During the period of preparations for the latter, a Slovak satirical magazine, Šidlo (Dragonfly), printed a joke about the two plans:

– What do you get when you add a two-year plan and a five-year plan?

– Seven years of poverty!

At the same time, rumors spread that one of the quotas of the five-year plan called for everyone to get their own airplane by the end of the plan. This provided fodder for Šidlo to crack another joke.

Two pilots are flying over Bratislava. One gets on his radio and asks the other, “Where are flying?” The second pilot answers, “To Košice [a city in the opposite side of Slovakia], they say you can get ten grams of butter there.

Another anecdote I came across was recounted by Vladimír Clementis, the Slovak foreign minister later executed on the trumped-up charge of “bourgeois nationalism.” Clementis spent the years of the Second World War first in France, and later in England. He recounted an episode from a meeting with Stalin in Moscow.

Stalin asked Clementis if it was true he had been imprisoned in France and England. Clementis confirmed this. Then Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, turned the Soviet leader and said, “Should we lock him up like the English and French allies?”

Actually, that one’s not very funny, given what ended up happening to Clementis a few years later.

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With a bit of effort, and some fortuitous discoveries, I’ve made considerable headway on Chapter 2. It’s still a bear of a chapter to write, and I’m not certain yet if I’ll be satisfied with the final product, at least in the current iteration. But I am now creeping onto Page 25, probably a bit beyond the halfway point of the chapter (though it’s always difficult to predict page length).

Currently I’m in the big section focused on the creation of a socialist Slovakia, complete with Stalinism. Where Slovakia was concerned, the big “sin” in the 1950s was “bourgeois nationalism,” which more or less amounted to suggesting Slovakia should have a modicum of self-rule that would cut into the authority of the center, or questioning the Prague government’s management of Slovakia. A lot of this section (or at least much of what I’ve written so far) describes the persecutions of specific Slovak Communists. And thanks to some useful sources I’ve found in my notes, I have gruesome details about a few cases.

The Communist secret police arrested Vladimír Clementis, the foreign minister, in an action dubbed Operation Stone. On 21 January 1951, Clementis went for a walk in Prague, and some police agents caught up to him and forced him into a waiting car. The vehicle drove Clementis far from Prague, across some stones marking a fake border, where agents dressed in German and American uniforms “welcomed” Clementis as a defector. Clementis didn’t play along, so the agents took him to a makeshift prison near the Austrian border and forced a confession out of him. He was later convicted and executed in December 1952. The agents who transported the remains of Clementis and others executed in the Slánský Trial spread their ashes on an icy road in order to get better traction for the limousine they were driving.

Daniel Okáli was the Slovak commissioner of the interior (that means the police instead of the environment, in case you’re curious), and received a positive performance review and a letter of gratitude from Prague on 2 February 1951. Two days later, secret police agents made their move. A pair of agents tried to force Okáli off the street and into a waiting car, a là Clementis, but Okáli fended them off. However, he couldn’t protect himself from the other two agents lying in wait at home, who overpowered and abducted him gangster-style. Police agents tortured Okáli in prison, extracting a confession.

There was nothing “bourgeois nationalist” about Ladislav Holdoš either — certainly there were even weaker grounds for accusing Holdoš of this “heresy” than in the case of his fellow defendants — but he wound up being charged with the “crime” of “bourgeois nationalism” after someone higher up decided to punish him. Holdoš had fought with the International Brigade on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, and later fought with the French Resistance. He spent time in a great many prisons in his lifetime, including the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, but he said none was as demoralizing as the ones where the Communists of his own country held him at Ruzyně and Koloděje.

I don’t have the particularly gruesome details of these cases, but it’s pretty clear this was a nasty business.

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Last week in Prague

Hard to believe, but we go back in just one week. In some ways it’s not that strange to me, since I was in Pittsburgh ever so briefly at the end of March, but it’s still a bit odd to think we’ll be pulling the plug on our European adventures.

I can’t say there’s a ton of stuff that comes to mind that I want to make sure we do in our final few days. We’ve been in Prague three months, and that’s on top of the close to four months total I’ve already spent here before. I’d like to get some nice Czech draft beer before we go, just because I’m unlikely to find any on tap when we get back, and I know from experience that even when I get, say, Pilsner Urquell on draft in the U.S., it lacks the same quality for whatever reason.

Mostly, I’m just thinking in a lot more mundane and practical terms. I’d really like to get Chapter 2 done by the end of this week, and we’ll starting packing at the beginning of next week. It’ll be nice to return to various things we’ve been missing (like inexpensive Mexican food), but it’ll also be rather chaotic for the month and a half or so when we get back, since there’ll be a lot of bouncing around for family visits and moving.

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Well, after feeling catatonic at mid-afternoon, I finally pulled myself together (fueled by almost two liters of cola) and got cracking again on Chapter 2. It’s still a slog, but I managed to make it through the first section, then realized I really needed at least a brief introduction and overview of the chapter. Essentially, I think I was really dissatisfied with what I had written because there was no real sense of direction. So, yes, it helps to have an overview.

Of course, it also helps to have something resembling an argument for the chapter, or at least a point to the chapter. I think it’ll be easier to make some sort of argument for the subsequent chapters, since those are where the main contours of my overarching argument take shape and unfold. But, at least for the moment, I’m settling for just having a point in this chapter. I tried to make the brief introduction somewhat argumentative. But, again, it really feels like the vegetables you’re forced to eat.

(And I don’t know why I keep returning to that analogy, since I like eating [most] vegetables and don’t ever recall being forced to eat them as a kid. I suppose it’s just a reflection of the pervasiveness of that cliche in our culture.)

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