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.

Eliminate Morning Hangovers

Friends in the U.S. often ask me if I follow Czech politics. My usual answer is that there’s not a lot to follow.

Lack of drama can be a good thing. After 45 years of communism, Czechs have basically decided they’ve had enough of run-amok ideology. As a result, there seems to be an implicit handshake agreement in place between every person in the country to keep hot-button cultural issues out of the political conversation. You’re not even allowed fly a Czech flag out of your window–– I’m telling you, the Czechs have had it with nationalism, fascism, socialism, whatever ‘-ism’ you like. I can’t even imagine a political debate in this country about, say, something like abortion rights– it’s simply impossible to picture.

Of course, lack of drama can also be a bad thing. It can indicate ‘everything sucks here politically and we’re so disillusioned that we can’t even drum up the necessary passion to get involved in a big heated political debate.’ Unfortunately, this is just as much the case as the pragmatism described above. I’ve literally never heard a single Czech person say a single positive thing about any active Czech politician. A bunch of assholes come together to make money– as my friend put it– seems to be the common consensus. In the U.S., we engage in a pet pessimism that our politicians are the all same, but deep down we know this not to be the case: you can say that George W. Bush and Al Gore are both assholes, but they’re clearly assholes in very different ways and have different belief systems and represent opposite ends of the Baby Boomer asshole axis. Maybe the ways in which they’re different don’t really matter as much as we’d like, but one can at least clearly differentiate between the two on a surface level. In the Czech case, the politicians really are all the same, and they’re not even assholes in a dynamic sense. For lack of a better analogy, they’re the guy driving the expensive car who nearly runs you over on a crosswalk and then angrily gestures at you to get out of his way. Assholes in a completely unoriginal, commonplace, banal sense. Assholes without affect.

A sign of how bad things are: Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president, is probably the world’s foremost global warming denier (now that Bush and that Australian jerk are no longer in office). Most Czechs I know despise his politics. And yet, they respect him to a degree compared to other Czech politicians simply because he comes across as reasonably ‘statesmanlike’– he’s intelligent, he knows how to handle himself and doesn’t overtly embarrass himself or the country. Compare these qualities to the rank amateurism of Mirek Topolanek, recently-ousted Prime Minister, who once flipped a rival politician the bird during a parliamentary debate and locked a respected journalist in an airport bathroom. Topolanek was the aspiring nobody who got up on stage and referred to Obama’s economic policy as ‘the road to hell’ in last year’s big summit and earned round rebuke from a rainbow coalition of world leaders. The ranks of decent politicians are so thin here that it’s a plus if you can simply carry yourself with a modicum of competence, never mind how bad your ideas might be.

Absent any inspiring ideological battles, and with all of its practitioners thoroughly dislikable (and corrupt, although that’s a subject for another post), politics in this country mostly revolves around allocation of social benefits and deciding how to pay for them. In the upcoming June election, one of the big issues is a medical co-pay scheme implemented by the ruling center-right party that requires you to pay 30 Czech crowns out-of-pocket to see a doctor. 30 crowns equals about $1.50. This is the raging fire of policy debate that is supposed to drive people to the polls: whether or not you should have to pay a buck fifty in addition to the (from a U.S. perspective) shockingly reasonable monthly fee that everyone pays to receive full health care. Hardly Lincoln vs. McClellan 1864. In fairness, there are larger and more systemic issues, to be sure (the aforementioned corruption, and a big deficit), but none of these seem to rile people like the 30 crown co-pay.

The pettiness that punctuates Czech politics is particularly evident in the massive billboard campaigns that you can’t escape for more than a minute if you’re driving on the highway here right now. The one at the top of this post is an attack ad aimed at Jiri Paroubek, leader of the left center Social Democrats (who, incidentally, is even more despised than other politicians among Czechs I know, in spite of the fact that most of these friends have left-leaning tendencies). The ad is meant to satirize Paroubek’s alleged practice of promising all things to all people without articulating a clear sense of how he’s going to pay for it (think ‘tax-and-spend liberal’). So, he’s shown in front of a row of empty bottles with the line ‘I will eliminate morning hangovers’. Here’s a detail from another baffling one that says (roughly), ‘I fight against clams, slugs and mollusks’:

I guess the idea is to paint him as power-mad, vowing to defeat each and every commonplace thing that stands in his way. To me, it seems very much like a campaign that might have been composed by a media team of canny 12 year-olds. Politics in this part of the world have come a long way from iron curtain days…. but there’s still a long way to go, baby.

Green vs. blue: the same, or different?

Via JohnnyO at Burrito Justice comes this puzzling Wikipedia article on green vs. blue and the revelation that many languages do not make a distinction between the two but rather use a single word to describe both. One such language is Vietnamese, whose speakers – when forced to distinguish between the two – apparently call one shade of this color  ‘leafy’ and the other ‘ocean’ to create a distinction.

I was absorbing this weird bit of information when it occurred to me that I’ve been inadvertantly field-testing this phenomenon for years now. Prague has a large Vietnamese contingent (a trend that dates back to the days of Communist brotherhood) who run a great many of the local convenience stores. I frequently buy gum at one such store near my flat. This purchase requires pointing at a wall-mounted rack of gum behind the counter and saying, “Blue Orbit, please…  no, blue… thanks” to the Vietnamese counter person. So far, I haven’t noticed anyone mistakenly clutching at the green gum instead, although I’ll be paying far more close attention from now on. In particular, I’ll be looking to see whether the green and blue Orbital varieties have been arranged at opposite ends of the rack, so as to minimize potential ambiguity.

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.

El Pato Falso

This is my publicly-accessible business registry information as retrieved from the web site of the Czech Statistical Office. The line I’ve highlighted in yellow shows my previous address in U.S. Everything’s okay through street, street number, city… until you get to ‘Spojené státy mexické,’ which is ‘United States of Mexico’. ¿ Um… que ? That’s right: according to the Czech Statistical Office, I’m Mexican. I guess the person entering my info saw the ‘San Francisco’ part and felt confident completing the rest of the entry on the basis of logical association.

This is exactly the sort of situation where I ought to get busy leaping headlong into the pool of Czech bureaucratic magical realism to resolve the error this right away but instead will summarily ignore until it jumps up to bite me in the ass at some key moment (‘Señor Mayer, we cannot remove your appendix until this discrepancy about your home country is resolved‘). On the other hand, maybe it’s better that I at least wait until I’m done with the design project for the Czech Burritos– that would be a suspicious contradiction to try and explain away to the authorities. I guess one humorous silver lining to the whole situation is that my son is now officially ‘Czech-Mex’, according to the powers that be.

Czech Mex

A rejected directional sketch I did for our client who’s selling burritos in Prague:


For such an indispensable and delicious foodstuff, the burrito sure is a difficult thing to make look good. It often winds up looking like an amorphous blob when illustrated and downright repulsive when photographed. There’s a real need in this project, moreover, to show it in a way that’s both appetizing and readily identifiable, as lots of central Europeans are somewhat fuzzy on the whole concept. We discovered that my fellow designer here at the studio, a Ukranian fellow, had no idea whatsoever what they’re about.

I kinda like this pseudo-woodcut look, but we collectively resolved to go in a more diagrammatic ‘Tech Mex’ direction, which is fine with me. I would happily sign the rights to this over to anyone who would overnight FedEx me a Mission burrito in exchange. All this burrito-related design work is making me really hungry.

Obecní Dům Cherub

dobre_dan 202

I’m really fond of our flat here in Prague (and, yes, I know that ‘flat’ sounds pretentious to my American readers, but that’s just how we do things here, so it sounds normal to me now… much like cooing ‘ciao’ to acquaintances). It’s big, cheap, in the attic of a villa and has all sorts of strange quirks and features. Unfortunately, it’s also a deathtrap-in-waiting for our young son as soon as he gets older and starts moving around, with splintery beams, abrupt ledges and – worst of all– a spiral staircase with no bannister. So, facing the reality that we’ll have to move out once our ticking time-bomb of a child gets older, I’m already starting to nostalgize the place a bit. Consider this the beginning of a series: ‘Weird, Quirky Old Aspects Of Our Flat That I’ll Miss Once We’ve Had To Move.’

WQOAOOFTIMOWHTM #1: Obecní Dům Cherub

With all the hurly-burly of finishing The Book and my subsequent visit to an Alpine sanatorium, I forgot to mention that the wife and I had a chance to go to Obecní Dům (Prague’s Municipal House) two weeks ago for a friend’s upscale birthday party. Obecní Dům is one of the architectural landmarks of Czech’s brief one-of-the-ten-richest-countries-in-the-world phase between the wars: Art Noveau masterpiece, houses works by Alfons Mucha, blah blah blah…


This was the first time I’d actually been inside the Municipal House, and the visit was significant to me for one thing because we’ve actually had an artifact of Obecní Dům hanging in our flat this whole time, although I didn’t realize it until fairly recently. When we originally moved in, this giant cement baby head was there to greet us, stonily starting at the floor from his (?) wooden beam perch:


(Note: I realize the balloon spoils the effect a bit, but it’s left over from our Halloween party and the kid likes it. So, it stays).

Being generally intimidated by babies, I avoided making eye contact with the thing for a while and wondered if I would come downstairs someday to find it mysteriously vanished in the same unaccountable fashion that it had appeared in the first place. Eventually resigned to its presence, I thought to ask our landlord about it when he gamely showed up at one of our parties for a few minutes. A semi-retired architect, he told me that he had been involved in a restorative face-lift of Obecní Dům at some point and had managed to pinch it from the site!

While I was at it, it thought I might as well ask him who the previous tenants were. This is the kind of flat where you wind up being sort of curious about your predecessors, given that – as explained above – the place is sort of oddball and only conveniently set up for young-ish, child-less couples. This led to the following exchange:

Landlord: Oh, they were a very nice couple. Much like you, actually: the woman was Czech and the man was an American. And they liked traveling quite a bit.

Me: [starting to get creeped out imagining exact doubles of us living here before us]

Landlord: (after a pause) Except they were quite old. Older than us, in fact.

Me: [radically recalibrating my mental image in light of the fact that my landlord is about 70 years old]

So, there seems to be sort of a ‘Benjamin Button’ dynamic happening with our place. Whether the magic powers of the Obecní Dům Cherub has anything to do with this phenomenon can only be guessed at.

The Appeaser

chamberlainDefinitely my favorite description of the Czech lands is Neville Chamberlain’s classic “a faraway country of which we know nothing.”* It occurred to me last night that Neville would make a good high-concept Halloween costume in these parts, although to get the point across you’d need at least two smaller people to represent an annexed Czechoslovakia and perhaps somebody else to play Hitler too, which would turn the whole thing into a cumbersome troupe-sized endeavor.

I think the quote really belongs in the Prague airport, on the wall in huge letters as you’re going through customs: “Welcome to a faraway land of which you know nothing.” Although it would have been more prescient if Chamberlain had gone to say, ‘a faraway country of which we know nothing, but where bands of British goons will someday find it cheaper to fly to and drunkenly carouse than to pay for a comparable weekend in London, until the Czech Crown finally strengthens against the Pound and forces them further east.”

Incidentally, the Onion did the best imaginable send-up of the airport here with their genius ‘Franz Kafka Airport‘ bit.

* Actually, this is a paraphrase, although it’s the way his statement is generally repeated. What he really said was, “…a conflict between peoples in a faraway country of whom we know nothing” but the paraphrase version gets the point across more readily.