The Comenian Islands

Living in a small European nation, there are often times when I feel that I’m missing out by not living in a larger European nation, one with more historical prominence and cultural relevance. For instance: I don’t even know how the Czech national anthem goes. It’s half-surprising there even is one anymore, after centuries of pummeling from foreign neighbors. Somehow, I don’t think I’d have this problem if I lived in France or Germany. And it would be nice if mentioning where you live brought to mind a deserving historical figure than Jaromir Jagr for the average listener. Even if it was one as belittling/reviled as Peppy Le Peu or Adolf Hitler– still, it would be an improvement.

But most of all, I feel I’m missing out by not living in country with a colonial legacy. Um, not that I’m into colonialism, per se– heck, it’s responsible for all sorts of bad things. But from a sheer present-day travel perspective, it would be fantastically entertaining if we could jump on a plane during these cold winter months and taking a lengthy flight to some distant Caribbean island with a poignant connection to the Czech lands. I imagine local guys wearing white sweaters and playing cricket while speaking in an island patois variant of Czech. Jerk goulash. A mysterious, enduring tradition of giving male children traditional Czech names like Jaroslav and Svatopluk.

In all likelihood, this island– if it existed– would be named after Charles IV, like everything in Czech. But let’s pretend that they throw us a curve ball this time and name it after the third-most historically noteworthy Czech, Jan Komensky. ‘The Comenian Islands’ have a nice ring. (Komensky fun facts: generally regarded as ‘the father of modern education’… was allegedly asked to become an early president of Harvard University… pops up in a Rembrandt painting… attempted to invent a language in which false statements are impossible).

My unreliable sources inform me that there actually a brief flickering moment where the possibility of the Comenian Islands could have become a reality: at some point in the 90s (sic?), Croatia owed Czech a ton of money, and the idea was briefly floated of the debt being paid off by Croatia handing over one of its innumerable islands. Unfortunately, they seemed to have come to their senses (or perhaps this never happened– I’ve been totally unable to confirm it). I think the group that gives up the island for cash always winds up regretting it down the road.

My favorite-ever parent-child relationship in the annals of colonialism is definitely Denmark and Greenland. Like a tiny parent walking down the street with its Augustus Gloop-sized offspring, there’s a delicious size juxtaposition at work here in this relationship. One salient fact that I think is often overlooked is the fact that Greenland and Denmark are actually similar in shape, despite the massive difference in scale (shown below with the Faroe islands, to complete the formidable ‘Danish Commonwealth’):

I would love it if the two were somehow exactly the same shape, in some sort of unparalleled geological and political coincidence.

Hello, Birdie pt. 2

This past weekend, we threw the kid in the back seat and drove to Berlin through some really bad weather. On the D8 highway that connects Czech Republic to Germany, there’s a big Mattoni sign that looms over the highway. I’ve always thought the sign is pretty cool looking, but I can only remember doing the drive in decent weather before. In the foreboding context of our Friday drive– low visibility, gathering clouds– I suddenly realized how much it looks like a giant prop from Schindler’s List or some other Nazi movie, ‘welcoming’ you to Germany:

In normal weather, the sign has much more of a ‘hello, birdie’ quality:

(Photo: Flickr user Bharfot).

Unfortunate communications misstep that could have been avoided if they’d provisionally changed the Mattoni mascot to an anteater or a caterpillar for the Czech market. But I suppose the brand dilution wouldn’t have been worth it.

The choice of title for this post is sort of an homage to my favorite-ever Roz Chast cartoon, which I’m desperately trying to find an image of online but without success. It appeared in a New Yorker issue rightaround when Prozac first hit the market, and the premise is basically: What if various historical figures had access to anti-depressants? There are four examples, and the last one shows a doped-up Edgar Allen Poe cheerfully looking over his shoulder and saying, ‘Hello, birdie!’ to the raven.

See also: Hello, Birdie

Tajikistan Calling…

Today’s add-your-own-caption contest comes from far-flung Tajikistan:

My friend recently ventured there with this girlfriend (who is studying Central Asian languages) and snapped these photos for me from a book he found somewhere along the way. It’s impossible to imagine what’s supposed to be happening here, but as you look through more of the images, a vague plot-line begins to emerge that combines elements of Columbo, National Geographic, Iron Chef and a James Bond movie:

But then — as if just to throw you off the scent — there are also generic shots of harmless frolicking locals:


Hey, remember Barf laundry detergent? My friend also brought me back a sample box of this. The packaging is most excellent, as it depicts a model family smiling up in appreciative wonderment at the technicolor Barf masthead:

So many boxes of this stuff must be carried off to the West as souvenirs that they could include some little caption on the side, like ‘My friend went to Tajikistan and all I got was this vomitous packaging concept.’

See also: previous add-your own caption contests, San Francisco and Berlin versions

So long, old friend

For my money, Berlin is the best place around. A friend of mine who lives there was once describing the feeling of relief that comes over him every time he returns to Berlin after a trip– that “Ahhhh, I’m home” sensation. I thought about this for a second and said, “Actually, I feel that way and I don’t even live there.” There’s just something about the place that feels so comfortable– for a city that was once the worldwide headquarters of Evil, it sure has gotten awful hospitable in recent years. Plus, there’s tons of cool cultural stuff going on. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about much of it because I almost never wake up before 2pm when I’m there… but it’s heartening to know that its there anyway.

Two things I did manage to do while I was there: get a burrito at the Mission-themed Tacqueria Dolores, and buy a new wallet. Here’s the spent husk of the old wallet…

… and here it is sitting next to a mostly-eaten Tacqueria Dolores burrito, having just been officially decommissioned (I did the switcheroo to new wallet while eating the burrito):

There’s nothing that you put so little time into selecting but then wind up spending so much time with as a wallet. This sad, battered one had been with me since 2004 (?) and has gradually deteriorated into the leather equivalent of a wet paper bag, loosely enwrapping its contents. When a 1000 crown note nearly fluttered out of it a few weeks ago at the beer garden, I decided it was time for a change.

Having tired of a the default black leather look, I selected a more jaunty one this time around, black with red stitching and a zippered change purse area (this is a big deal for me, as having too much change slushing in my pockets is a constant condition in my life and one that I feels undermines my general credibility). Granted, it’s a bit womanly. In fact, I think it is a woman’s wallet. But I feel good about it so far, and think that this new era of my life is off to a promising start.

Now, if only I hadn’t left my house keys in Berlin…

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.

Off to the Alps

There are literally 20 emails in my inbox from my mother all from this past week… and you know what that means: a family get-together is brewing. Whether its train connections, presents for her grandson, or the weather, my mom has got a question about it. So, yeah: we’re picking her up in Innsbruck and heading towards the same general neck of the woods where we went last fall, although it should be far less cold and foggy and Led Zeppelin-y this time around.

See you in a week.

Brno Bienale and Polish film posters revisited

Yesterday, I went to Brno to take part in the opening of the Brno Bienale, a design exhibition in which the CTP book I spent all last summer and fall working on is being displayed. (Note: there are literally hundreds of works being displayed there, so it’s not like this is any great distinction.)

Here’s my trip in handy ascii map format:

|||||||| >>>>>>>>>>(me on train)>>>>>>>>>>>||||||

Assorted highlights along the way:

1. Prague main train station, 10:05am. You gotta love the cafés associated with train stations in Central Europe. It’s just past 10am and I’m drinking a small beer, yet I’m allowed to feel that this is a somewhat upright behavior given that the two guys next to me are pounding shots and smell like they’ve been cleaning out that barn that Hercules had to irrigate for one of his 12 tasks.

2. Brno main train station, 1:15am. Pleasant surprise of the day: getting to Brno and kinda remembering my way around from two previous brief day trips here.

This is a memorable contrast to my first ever trip to Czech Republic, back in 2001 when I was just blowing through on the way to Vienna and had no notion that I’d ever be living here. After staying up most of the night running around Prague, I got on the train to Vienna and instantly fell into a deep, catatonic sleep. After two and a half hours, I suddenly lurched awake when the train stopped, blearily peered out the window into the darkness and was met only with a large, inscrutable sign reading ‘BRNO’. Having never heard of Brno before at that point, I momentarily panicked, imagining perhaps that I had been asleep for twelve hours and had now been carried into some regional outpost on the edge of Siberia. “Oh no! Brrr!” I cried out involuntarily, and then saw the reality mirrored back at me again by the horrifying sign: BRRRR-NO.

3. An exhibit called ‘Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design’, 6:45pm. After the opening ceremony, speeches and awards, and after looking at the main exhibits (all of which turned out to be pretty un-fun for various reasons which I won’t bother getting into… but suffice to say that the part I’m about to describe was the only fun part of the Bienale for me:) I wound up looking through a great exhibit curated by Rick Polynor about the tradition of surrealism in graphic design. Remember those Polish movie posters I blogged about? Czech movie posters from this era were done pretty much in the same style, and this exhibit had fascinating ones from both countries. Check out these various interpretations of Hitchcock’s The Birds:

As my Czech student put it while we looking at these, “See… there were some good things about Communism.”

(Note: the top one borrows directly from Max Ernst’s The Robing of The Bride, which I blogged about in the Quiet Visualizations of Evil post.)

Continuing on the weirdo bird theme, here’s a bird in high heels executed by a 60s Croatian artist that I know nothing about:

For our last bird-related item, check out this incredible 1972 kraut rock cover for Amon Dull’s Carnival In Babylon:

Have you ever seen anything that straddles the line between so-bad-it’s-good versus SO-bad-that-it-swings-all-the-way-back-around-into-bad like this?

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.

The Siberian Basketball Diaries, Part Eleven

[ed note: the following is an excerpt from the travel journal of my old high school friend Andrej Mucic. In 2005, Andrej bicycled over 7,000 miles through Siberia to raise money for the American Anti-Slavery Group. Previous installments start here.

In this– the final installment– Andrej comments on the political kertuffles taking place just as he’s leaving Moscow.]


Subject:  The Warriors
Date:  8/31/05

Remember the cult film classic “The Warriors?” That’s what the Moscow political scene has turned into. And your humble narrator was right in the middle of it, but I missed the oppurtunity to rumble alongside my friends in the National Bolshevick Party, by just one day.

Sunday I participated in a demonstration in front of KGB headquarters calling for the release of 39 NBP political prisoners. Here’s them in the can:

What suprised me most about this rally was the large number of young people present. In the West, there is a media assumption that all neo-Soviet forces in Russia are angry old people demanding free sausage. This could not be further from the truth. The appalling economic and political situation in the Motherland has radicalized people that were not even adults at the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The demonstration went well. Afterwards, me and three party activists went for a walk. They included:




They took me on a fascinating tour of the city. We eventually arrived at the site of their First Bunker, and there we sat down in a beautiful little park and drank beers, ate pickles and talked. I am very impressed with these people. In a land of almost universal apathy and political inaction, the NBP is an island of patriotism and optimism.

That night as I was saying goodbye to the lovely Natasha on the subway, she invited me to a meeting they were having the next day. I told her that I was leaving tommorrow and that I could not make it. I’m lying. What I really said was, “I’m a friend of the Party, I am not a Member.” I really regret not going, because that meeting was stormed by soccer hooligan street-thugs, known as the Gladiators, loyal to President Putin. Oh how I wish I’d been there to break a few heads. The weapons on choice are baseball bats and flag poles, both of which I feel very comfortable with. Here’s an article that describes the event and the way in which Putin deals with political opponents.



The Siberian Basketball Diaries, Part Ten

[ed note: the following is an excerpt from the travel journal of my old high school friend Andrej Mucic. In 2005, Andrej bicycled over 7,000 miles through Siberia to raise money for the American Anti-Slavery Group. Previous installments start here.

Nearing the end of his adventures, Andrej returns to Moscow and explores the city.]


Subject: The Underpass

The time had come for me to pick up my ticket for Montenegro. The JAT (Serbian Airline) office is near Arbatskaya, in the belly of the Moscow beast.

The weather alternates between rain and sun. I am in my traditional attire and I am lost. The streets here aren’t marked, and a compass is very helpful.

I’m practically naked and walking in an underpass. At the end of the underpass is a stately old woman wearing a Soviet army uniform, sitting on a box and begging for change. As I approach her I’m already fishing around in my pocket for change. Then she suddenly comes to life and shouts, “Hey sportsman…nice pecs! You look like you’re new in town.” Yes dear readers, she was hitting on me.

She tells me that she’s 80 years old and that if she was a few years younger, she’d just love to jump my bones. I tell her that she too is a hot little ticket. She is flattered, and she tells me that back in the day she was a champion sharpshooter and that she personally killed 27 Germans in the Great Patriotic War. She says that she begs as a hobby; something to do to get her out of the house. She is saving her begging money to buy a new set of teeth so she can be beautiful again. I can tell that she must have been incredibly sexy back when she was one women slaughterhouse.

I give her one hundred roubles, because she is the first Russian girl that hit on me. Finally!!!! As I’m half-naked and chatting with one-shot-one-kill Natasha, two wicked hot young blonde hotties approach me from behind. “Spechenzee Duetch!?” they ask “Nyet.” I say I could not believe my luck. It was like a tag team hit-on-Andrej Ho-Down in the underpass. Russian gils are usually very shy and they seem to be afraid of me. God bless German girls (and Irish girls). They’re truly are the salt of the earth.

I tell the two little hotties that I’m an American and that I also speak Serbian. Their giggles fill the underpass. I’m giggling too. They also speak a little English. Turns out they are Russian, not German, and they study languages at the university, and they are eager to practice their English. So I insist on buying them some beers. I say good bye to Natasha and go above ground with my new little friends.

And so there I am, in my underwear, in an outdoor cafe in the Arbatskaya, sippin a cold one and giggling with the ersatz-Olsen twins. From there I drift in to Sector Southwest. As I leave  Sector Center, it begins to rain, hard. But what do I care? I’m practically naked. I think that walking through Sector Southwest, in the rain, ranks as the top ten of the greatest days in my life. As I walked, I meditated on Rutger Haurer’s improvised and haunting last lines in Bladerunner.

If you haven’t walked naked through the rainy streets of Moscow, you haven’t lived. I’ve done the Paris in spring time thing, and it doesn’t even come close.

[Yuri Gagarin statue photo courtesy of Flickr user Spaak]

Then, suddenly, I enter a huge square; it isn’t really a square, it’s more like a gigantic intersection of five eight lane roads. And in the middle is fucking super cool titanium monument to my nigger Yuri Gagarin. This is definitely my favorite monument in Moscow. And across the square is the extremely interesting looking Soviet Academy of Sciences. I don’t know how to describe this building. Imagine Viennese art nouveau meets David Lynch’s Dune. I explored its court yard.

[Academy of Science photo courtesy of Flickr user Dash Morgenstern]

From there I entered a mighty wood and walked for two hours until I reached Moscow State University. There I sat, on the dry fountain in front of this awesome building in the middle of a forest, and meditated on my own academic future.


Next: Warriors