Galanterie, or haberdashery?

This afternoon, I scampered downtown to find a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom among Prague’s multi-language book stores. As it turned out, none of the usual suspects had it on the shelves, but I managed to track down a copy at a curious little place called The Academic Bookstore, where they wrapped up the book in paper and taped it shut (??):

Anyway, here are some of the things I saw while securing my little ‘literary parcel’:

Please do not disturb or startle this delicate creature, or we will be forced to remove the installation.*

In search of a swanky double entendre, this establishment obliviously wound up at a somewhat nauseating triple entendre.

Prague’s Saddest Building: The Kotva Shopping Centre was quite literally an international tourist sensation when it opened, in part owing to its unique honeycomb shape. Its shelves were often half-empty during the waning years of Socialism, though, and it has been since upstaged by more modern shopping malls that have the advantage of looking like they might actually be enjoyable to spend time in.

I normally don’t start clubbing in the middle of the day, but this Elektro place just looked too awesome to pass up. Until I realized what kind of ‘Elektro’ they’re talking about:

Multi-lingual signs at Tesco:

Galanterie, or haberdashery? I’ll take one of each, please.

Finally, remember when I warned about the coming of Dork Season? Well, it’s September, and here we are…

* Seriously, though: what is going on here?

Jane Mayer Day

Tomorrow is the anniversary of 9/11, or Jane Mayer Day as I imagine it will be known to future generations. (Note: yes, I am proud to share my last name with a crack New Yorker staff writer with impeccable moral instincts. Much more noteworthy than John Mayer, or the Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.)

Resident truther Grandjoe walks us through some lesser-studied photos of the event:

Most people have seen images of a jet-liner striking one of twin towers and bursting into a fireball of flame.  Much less familiar, but no less arresting, are images of the towers exploding into clouds of pulverized concrete.  This happened 102 minutes (North Tower) and 56 minutes (South Tower) after the planes hit.

These photos show the pulverization of South Tower. In the first picture, we see the thick, dark smoke of fires caused by burning jet fuel. Then comes an explosion that turns the top of the South Tower into a kind of roman candle.  Pulverized concrete rains down, and pieces of debris are flung outward (bits of the steel infrastructure?)  As the explosion travels downward, the cloud of concrete elongates and looks like a cascade of waterfalls. It takes about 15 seconds for the explosion to reach ground level.  At that point, the tower is no more solid than an involved column of smoke.  The descent of the North Tower presents much the same spectacle.

See also: Art Spiegelman’s 9/11 cover.

Good times

Around the corner from the studio where I work, there’s a nondescript pizza/pasta place where I go sometimes to pick up take-away food for lunch. The owner, an nice Albanian guy, used to make valiant attempts to engage me in conversation while I waited for my food, but we had nothing in common other than the fact that we both had iPhones before you could buy them in Czech, so we would have the same conversation every time where he would ask me if I had upgraded to some new operating system or bought some new app and I would always say, no, I haven’t. Luckily, he’s since delegated counter service to a crew of Czechs who don’t bother to make conversation, so lately I’ve been free to stare at the walls, which are covered in those framed booze ads that are the default decor of restaurants that can’t be bothered to establish any particular kind of atmosphere.

This is how I’ve come to develop a weird begrudging fascination with the Cointreau poster shown above (sorry the photo is so terrible, but I can’t find the image online and I can’t exactly ask to borrow a step ladder to photograph their poster). Sure, on a conceptual level, it’s completely hackneyed and predictable. But, the execution: it’s so…….. good.  How convincingly the principals seem to be Having A Good Time. How many hundreds of shots must have been taken that afternoon to get this one photo. How rung out the three models must have been at the end.

Since it’s really hard to see what’s going on in this photo, I’ll describe it for you: the woman on the left winks and smiles and holds a drink out to you invitingly, all at the same time. The woman on the right howls in hedonistic delight. Meanwhile, the guy in the middle is pure caddishness unpunished. His hand dangles irresponsibly as his expression says Don’t hate me because I’m feckless. The insouciant atmosphere is ratcheted up another notch by the evidence that its clearly daytime, and by the ingeniously cheesy tag-line: ‘Voulez-vous Cointreau avec moi?’.

I don’t even know what Cointreau is, and yet there’s a tiny part of me that wants to drop everything and join these three for a quick bender in Montmarte. At least, until my pizza shows up and I tear myself away from their seductive invitations. Well done, Cointreau.

Drinking with Czechs

Last night, I went for beers with colleagues from my first, bad job in Prague (an agency that spat out an endless supply of banner ads and sitelets for Vodafone– my co-workers were really nice, but the work was shallow and boring). When I started this first job, I was naturally curious about the drinking habits of my Slavic colleagues, and especially about a certain workplace convention– previously unknown to me– called ‘shots in the office’. Back in the US, I worked at a few places that contrivedly attempted to let their hair down on Fridays and have would beers in the office as the weekend approached, but hard liquor was another story altogether. At this first Czech job, in contrast, I’d be intently hunched over my computer attempting to meet an end-of-day deadline for some inane Vodafone thing when I’d feel a discreet tap on my shoulder, turn around and see Jirka or Lenka or Pavel making the international ‘let’s have a shot’ motion. A bunch of us would scurry into the conference room, where somebody would produce a bottle of slivovice (plum schnapps). Everyone would toast and down a small shot, then busily run back to their battle stations to resume working. Lest this sound too primitive and iron-curtain-ish, I should add that these co-workers were distinctly up-and-coming-professional types– hardly anyone in the office smoked cigarettes, and the general office atmosphere was very trendy and hip in manner of ad agencies everywhere.

Last night, we met at a bar called U Zlatého Tygru (‘At the Golden Tiger’) that’s one of the most representative classic old fashioned Czech bars. The moment I walked in, I thought, “I wonder if this is the bar that Václav Havel famously took Bill Clinton to?”. Soon enough, I was informed that it in fact was the very bar. I would tell you more about the place, but it was hard to see with water gushing out of my eyes from the 50 cartons of cigarette smoke floating around in the air. Rest assured that I was having as good a time as Bill is enjoying in the photo above. I wonder who the guy on the left is– trusted Havel advisor, or random barfly? I wonder what kind of Czech bar food they ate (probably something hideous, given the year). I wonder if Bill remembered to order some wiener schnitzel to go for Monica (heh heh).

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned before here and here, Czechs sure do love their old fashioned bars. There are few places where anyone feels inclined to try to look or act cool– generally, a kind of relaxed slobbery prevails. As evidence, I present this handsome specimen whom I photographed a few years ago at the spot around the corner from my current job (on a Friday evening, no less– one can only assume that this was his special ‘going out’ outfit):


Apologies for the oh-so-crappy image quality. These are actually photos (taken with my iPhone) of photos of a Czech festival called Majáles that my wife’s father showed us while we were visiting him in Karlovy Vary. I guess these are from the late 1950s, although I didn’t ask. That’s him among the ladies, dressed– ahem– in blackface. And again:

Majáles was a student celebration that took on political undertones through the 1960s and directly led to the demise of the Novotný presidency in favor of the liberal reformer Dubček (which, in turn, led to the Big Depressing Thing That Happened In 1968, i.e. the Russian invasion and subsequent smack-down). Basically, it looks to me like a genteel predecessor of the Love Parade, minus the stampedes.

While poking around for more information on Majáles, I came across this excellent footage from the 1965 parade (the one that helped do in Novotný), in which Allen Ginsberg somehow materializes and is crowned king of the event. Ginsberg brags about this in the Dylan documentary No Direction Home, but I’d never known exactly what he was talking about before. Now, normally, I find Allen Ginsberg the second-most annoying person alive after Ray Manzarek, but you have to hand it to him here…

This clip is one of the best pieces of footage I’ve seen from the old days in Prague– in fact, I’m going to link to it again, because I think you’ll enjoy it. Watching it, you just can see the wheels starting to fall off hardline Czech socialism: the parade maintains a fig leaf of kitschy medievalism (this being the mode of public celebration approved of by the government), but underneath there’s a scarcely-concealed roiling undercurrent of hippie liberalism. It’s so nascently hippie, you can practically imagine Os Mutantes suddenly taking the stage. In this sense, its sad to watch, too, as you can sense the coming inevitability: if you were the USSR, you would have invaded this debauched satellite state too.

Bezirksmusikfest Längenfeld

I haven’t been to many places as gloriously stereotype-affirming as the Austrian Alps, where we just spent a week’s vacation. Whether you’re standing on the side of a mountain and picking wild blueberries and reaching behind your head to feed them to your infant son on your back (did this), or being hailed by every single person you pass in the village with a diminutive ‘kruste!’, or watching a lederhosen-clad band pump out polka in a giant tent (more on this in a second), everything feels predictably ‘in character’ a fun, reaffirming way. I like this photo that I took above, as — not unlike Herbert Matter’s famous tourist poster for the Swiss Alps— it seems to capture the essence of the place on three distinct spatial depths, background (Alps), mid-ground (kitschily tricked-out house), and foreground (guy with green hat, feather).

One of the most fun things we did was crash a music festival at a neighboring village– when we heard ‘Bezirksmusikfest Längenfeld’, our ears perked up and we had to go. Pulling into the village of Längenfeld, the first thing I spotted was a car parked next to us with a couple of traditional costume elements (perhaps a backup supply?) tossed carelessly in the back:

For some reason, this amused me to no end. We’ve all heard of Soccer Moms… could this signal the presence of a new demographic, the Lederhosen Mom? Sorry for the crummy, glare-riddled photo, but I was worried that the owners of the car might notice me peering in and take offense, possibly leading to me being viciously feather-whipped by a gang of Lederhosers in the mean streets of Längenfeld.

Anyway, we followed the honking sounds of revelry to a giant circus tent that was filled all the things you might expect: beer, bodices, ruddy-faced people having a great time:

The main attraction was the smooth polka stylings of local village ensemble. Here they are in poster format…

… and in the flesh:

Various brave/drunk souls offered their talents as vocalists. At one point, this guy jumped on the table in front of us and began singing into a wireless mic, to my one year-old son’s great delectation:

Back when I was about 12 years old and used to watch pro wrestling on TV sometimes, there was a villainous bald East German character who (if I remember correctly) had ‘Baron’ and ‘Von’ in his name and would goose-step around the stage and put opponents in some sort of three-fingered claw grip. I can’t remember his name, but I swear he’s the spitting image of this guy.

A few minutes later, my wife caught this surreptitious exchange between obliging fellow and thirsty lass:

I think those kegs are only intended to be worn by rescue dogs, but never mind. As you can see, a good time was being had by all, and love was in the air:

I’m off to Berlin this weekend, so perhaps I can report on a more jaded, urban, sophisticated, cynical, hipsterish aspect of the German/Austrian character when I get back.

Your mouth is the top end of the food tube.

I continue to labor at the Legs of Izolda Morgan cover, kicking around various ideas. I think it’s safe to say that my wife is tired of being beckoned over to look at new directional sketches. Meanwhile, I’m not sure I’ve ever accumulated so much research for a project that will eventually result in just one single image (well, two, if you count back cover). I’ve certainly done much more extensive digging for larger projects… but this is like reading the amount of material associated with writing a dissertation, only to produce a haiku in the end.

Anyway, since I have book covers and related imagery falling out of my ears, here are a few more recently discovered (or, in some cases, rediscovered) images:

The bottom image here is a photograph by Dallas Sean Hyatt, a San Francisco-based photographer who happened to be having a show at Brainwash cafe that I walked into when I was there in April. I exchanged a few emails with him, told him that I like his work a lot. The above image strikes me as being in the same spirit as the second image on the Right Reasons web site (although his is considerably better for being a raw photograph rather than a jived-up collage).

Columbian Magic and other secrets of the stone house

This weekend, the wife and I drove to a village in the the north of Czech for a confab of friends with small children. Here are some of the highlights from Saturday:

Approx. 1:00pm: Wife driving, me sitting in passenger seat. Wife mentions that our hosts for the weekend (whom we’ve never met before) are a family named Vitek, Lubmila and baby Josefina. Sometimes Czechs have weird names.

Approx 1:15pm: Wife and I discuss a friend of hers who apparently cannot wrap her head around the fact that I do not know how to drive stick and never owned a car prior to 2009. Friend has repeatedly asked if I have some sort of condition or chemical balance that prevents me from getting behind the wheel. We resolve that I will act in a highly erratic manner next time we spend time with her.

Approx 1:30pm: Start to drift off to sleep in passenger seat and enter that phase between sleep and wakefulness where you start to have strange, disconnected thoughts. In this state, I realize that as you pass through the membrane into sleep, your thoughts suddenly extrude into three dimensional shapes, like soap bubbles being blown. The shapes are filled with ideas that look like sparkly glitter, which were actually shapes back in the awake world. So: when you fall asleep, ideas become shapes and shapes become ideas. Got that? Good.

Approx. 2:15: We arrive at our destination, which is an awesomely dilapidated stone house owned by the family with the weird names. The outside looks like this…

The inside, meanwhile, is full of the kind of grandeur-fading-and-crumbing-into-ruin that never fails to excite visiting rootless American bloggers. Check out the photo at the top of the post, for example: that was the ceiling of a room where I helped Vitek set up an ornate Romanian bed that lacked any matching parts and apparently turned out to be murderously uncomfortable for the people who slept in it.

Also included on this floor were Mamby-pamby Baroque Piano, No Face Jesus and Mary, and Giant Picture Frame With Nothing In It:

Right after arriving, we get the grand tour of the place, which took a solid half hour and also included…

Approx: 2:50pm: … on the third floor, a working toilet, finally! Except its not really a toilet, it’s more like an outhouse that’s indoors. And painted an inviting shade of pink:

If you open the hatch and look down, there’s what appears to be a bottomless pit. Sort of like an oubliette. Let’s move on…

Approx 2:52pm: our tour takes us to a quasi-secret room, which contains a super ornante wood burning stove. Inscribed in curiously Haight-Ashbury-type lettering (and in English, no less) is ‘Columbian Magic’:

If I had to guess at gun point what ‘Columbian Magic’ is and had a hundred guesses, I would still never guess ‘wood burning stove’.

In conclusion: when you factor in the crazy surroundings and the fact that our hosts were more than a little Ren Fair-ish, the weekend probably more closely resembled a Scooby Doo episode than anything else I’ve ever experienced.

Revisiting Koh-i-noor

Today, we walked past the same buildings in Vršovice that I’d photographed way back when for the Fluffy Spectrum post:

In the original post, I misidentified these as ministry buildings, but one of my students subsequently pointed out that they are in fact (and this is much more believable) the headquarters of the art supply company Koh-i-noor. (The ministry buildings are behind them and look predictably institutional). This is how they looked back in mid-June, when the world was young, the blog was but two weeks old, the sun was shining, and Felix had just come home from the hospital nine days earlier.

Here’s how they looked this afternoon:

Poor technicolor dream buildings… you never really had a chance against the all-enveloping gray gloom of Prague’s February.

The late winter months have been problematic in every ‘four season’ city I’ve lived in, but they seem particularly brutal here. Somehow, every year at this point, I become convinced that there are far-reaching reasons why I should leave this part of the world and return to San Francisco… reasons which, I’m convinced, go well beyond the weather and in fact have a deep structural underlying basis. But then, eventually, spring arrives and I forget about all these ideas instantly (and the instantly aspect really can’t be stressed enough). This year, I’m holding out against this feeling, but it’s still creeping up on me… and I definitely got a melancholic glimmer while passing the poor beset spectrum buildings.

While we were away in the U.S., Prague got its worst snow fall in 30 years, the last of which actually fell the day before we returned. Clambering through the gloom to get to work the next morning, I was puzzled to see large areas of sidewalk blocked off with police tape and homemade signs saying (here is how I understood the signs with my fluency in Czech): ‘Warning: AFFFIUADFFHH SKKKKERWED snow and ice WEEEERWWW WEFWEWEEEE’. It turns out that giant masses of snow and ice had been sliding off rooftops and literally killing passersby below. Good times! Apparently, it’s a combination of (a) super-heavy snowfall, (b) peaked roofs built at too steep an angle and (c) an unusual sequence of extreme precipitation followed by sudden warmth that’s responsible.

After the falling ice floes claimed their first victim (‘a man in Ostrava’ as he’s invariably referred to), it subsequently came to light that Prague by-laws apparently hold property owners liable for any such injuries experienced by pedestrians. This revelation has made things almost more dangerous, as you suddenly had random shmoes up on rooftops hurling the snow off their properties as fast as possible in order to rid themselves of legal liability.

Here’s to a mercifully short winter, and the return of little fluffy clouds over warm Koh-i-noor.