Friday, May 22, 2015

Arrival & Orientation, Czech

I admit to having succumbed for a few minutes Wednesday to a feeling of smug satisfaction about the packing job I did for this trip. Tuesday, when I was hauling my 50-lb suitcase up a flight of concrete stairs at the metro station, I wasn't so thrilled with my luggage, but the next morning, stepping out unencumbered into dripping rain and chill, I was so happy I'd included long-sleeved tops, a scarf, and a compact umbrella.

I was upgraded from Economy to Business Class on the Air France flight from Paris to Prague, a nice surprise! As proof of our exalted status, we had metal utensils, small glass cups, cloth napkins and tiny individual sets of salt and pepper shakers with our midday meal (I don't know how the food differed from the plebe area, but it was delicious). The tiny amenities were as good as it got--the seats were no bigger than the base section.  That said, Economy in the 747-500 on which I'd crossed the Atlantic wasn't bad at all, though of course it was impossible to sleep. People all around me were doing a good job of feigning unconsciousness (except for a group of American and Russian twenty-somethings, who were standing in front of the tail lavatories, drinking and talking), but though there was an empty aisle seat next to me (praise God! I wasn't squished like sandwich filling), no matter which way I turned, twisted or contorted myself, there was no getting into a position where I could drop off.  The dinner (not the breakfast, which consisted of unidentifiable Dole plastic tub fruit) was superb, as one would expect from the French. Good champagne, decent wine to accompany salmon pasta. And the flight attendant, a tall, handsome African-heritage Frenchman, was nice enough to pretend to assume I spoke French, bless him, though my "je voudrais" probably sounded fresh off the hick farm.

When I got to Prague, I helped several middle-aged Americans who were struggling with the airport cash-change machine and then (having eventually remembered my own PIN number) headed to the public transport kiosk, where my having extra passport pictures came in handy when I paid for a month-long pass good on metro, trams and buses. And because I took public transport from the airport, I got that and the next month's worth of transport for less than the price of the one-way taxi ride (abt. $28, as opposed to $35). I love clean, efficient public transit!

There were a few hiccups: although I was able to take an elevator down into the metro, there wasn't one at the stop where I landed, and the escalator (which moved with typical Soviet breakneck speed--you have to be quick of step to avoid falling on either end!) only went part of the way up. So I was a sight, clunking my luggage from step to step up the last flight to leave the station (and did I mention my backpack was more than 25lbs?). And my friend Frederica lives ten minutes' walk from the metro, on the second (to Americans, the third) floor of an Art Nouveau building where (again, in characteristic Eastern European fashion) the elevator opens on the landings between the floors...  Needless to say, between the length of the trip, the lack of sleep, and this final muscular effort, I was quite tired by the time I arrived (at 5pm Prague time), and could only force myself to stay awake until 8.

Frederica has a great apartment, with all the amenities, including the first dishwasher I've seen in Europe. The ceilings in the rooms are 15' tall, and the double-glassed windows make artificial illumination unnecessary all day.  And the surrounding older city is beautiful. Prague shares with other European capitals the allure of classical architecture with its fantastic details of figures, flowers, frescos, mosaics and ironwork, besides the appeal (to Americans, at least) of antiquity which our home country cannot approach.  It felt immediately familiar, given my past travels in the former Eastern Bloc, from the comforting tones of a Slavic language (some of it Russian--there are many tourists here, in addition to French, Germans, Japanese, Koreans, and tons of other Americans) to the lush damp greenness of the gardens and the crumbling bits of Soviet construction in the mid-century sections of town and in the metro.  Prague is in better trim than St. Petersburg, for example, primarily because it wasn't bombed to rubble 70 years ago, and because in the last 25 years its central location has attracted tons of investment, enabling the Czechs to carefully remodel what the socialists had neglected, but not outright destroyed.  

Frederica's flat is in the Vinohrady section of the city, across from a park. I asked her if there had been any vineyards (vinohrad/vinograd--Slavic for vineyard) in the area, and she said there was still one thereabouts. Her mostly-residential neighborhood is quiet, with cobblestone streets and sidewalks, and there is paid reserved parking, neatly observed (over the last couple of days, I've noticed that the Czechs seem to be quite law-abiding when it comes to traffic rules--not only do pedestrians almost religiously observe the crossing signals, cars stop at zebra walks and I have yet to hear a commuter blowing his or her horn).  There are a lot of small shops and restaurants on the ground floor of the apartment buildings, which don't exceed 6 floors in most of the downtown area.  There's a Vietnamese, two Indian and a Japanese restaurant within a two-block radius of Frederica's flat, not to mention an antique store.  When I walked out of the metro yesterday evening, there was a Vietnamese culture festival in the square (alas, one of the few things I did not pack for this trip was the outfit Leah had custom-made for me when she went to Vietnam a decade ago!). 

Today I plan to tour the castle--I hiked there via the Metronome in the Summer Garden yesterday, just to get the lay of the land (I also attempted to walk to the language school where I will be studying, but gave up after the fourth mile and got on the metro). This afternoon, we're taking a train to Tabor for a church retreat (an appropriate spot for Protestants, the town having been founded as a Hussite fortress). Monday morning, at 8:30 AM, my CELTA class begins, and all touristy activities will be on hold (except perhaps during weekends) for a month.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Prague Tired

Presumably I will have sufficient free time and enough renewed energy at the church retreat we're going on this weekend for me to catch up on blogging about my trip to and wanderings around Prague, but given that I've walked close to twenty miles the last twenty-four hours and am still profoundly jet-lagged, I can't bring myself to do it now.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Electronics & Clutter

Apparently, good landscaping is the solution to the undead menace: my niece and nephew are addicted to a game called "Plants vs. Zombies," which I loaded on my old iPhone 4 yesterday  morning and sent off to Rhode Island via Priority Mail yesterday afternoon. I had to upgrade my electronics for Monday's departure for Prague via Paris, since my old phone wouldn't communicate with the European networks--now, I've got a short-term bundle of data, calls, and text which should keep me in touch with the stateside world even when I'm a third of the way around the globe.  This is the first time since 1995 I'm going overseas for more than a week without a laptop (except Poland 1996--there was no internet connection at the student hostel, so no point in bringing one)--my new phone is sufficiently large in size and memory (and I've ordered a Bluetooth mini keyboard), that it will act as my word processor and network link. I'm debating about whether to haul my camera along, but right now it's going as it has a great zoom lens that even this super new iPhone 6 can't incorporate.

My next door neighbor has two small asthmatic dogs she lets out late at night, and I can hear them obstreperously wheezing at mosquitoes behind the fence outside my bedroom window as I settle in for sleep.  My bedroom has become a really restful area over the last few days--all the lamp parts which had taken up some twenty square feet of floor space have been removed to a new shelf in the garage, my new chair is comfortably situated beneath the floor lamp, and my Harold Gimeno landscape painting is hung between the windows. It looks like a proper bedroom, a safe haven, instead of a storage locker and workshop.

I vacuumed the whole house and did a survey of my closets yesterday, pulling out four pairs of shoes and a bagful of dresses for donation. Most of the clothes in my closet are not practical for everyday wear--there's a lot of what I'll call quirky or unique pieces, from hand-embroidered silk robes to traditional ethnic garb from Poland to Vietnam. Still, I was amazed at how many conventional items I own, despite my general antipathy for shopping. This is partly attributable to my general antipathy for discarding, but I've arrived at the "enough already" point. I want to live a lighter life, unburdened by unnecessary things--the more not-regularly-enjoyed/employed I can sell or give away, the better I'll feel.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Tripping In Lex

The Lexington bookstore has a newsprint gray cat that suns intself between the bestsellers in the sunny windows and strolls elegantly between the shelves, accepting the admiration of customers. The boys (Paxifist's three sons) were drawn to a tableful of boxes of marbles of assorted shapes and colors, and asked their mother if kids had carried around marbles when she was a kid. We told them that was something not of our generation, but of their grandparents' or even greatgrandparents'.

I need a jigsaw. There are several projects that require one that I've been thinking about for more than a year.

The house we've rented for this particular Alumni Weekend (not that any of us bothered to register officially--we're just hanging out in our usual group of families, visiting campus on our own time, without being directly solicited for money) is within walking distance of downtown, but still enjoys open mountain views. Last night there were three deer and two large rabbits in the side yard. We packed the children off to bed in a room at the far end of the building and sat around talking about Russian zombie chickens and drinking wine of dubious quality until midnight.

I think we're eschewing the usual German restaurant tonight in favor of something prepared at home--less expensive and the older folks can enjoy adult beverages while the younger ones can run around and play. Tomorrow afternoon, we will return to the workaday world--I'll be continuing my drive to DC with a carload of furniture, pictures, and lamps, intending to leave these for sale when I depart after two days of estate prep, my last until July. Or at least my last PAID prep until July--family obligations are taking me back to Macon late next week for another run at my step-grandmother's "doghouse" storage outbuilding. Then there's a week of frantic packing, what I hope will be a final successful pottery market day, and then it's off to Prague on May 18.

A classmate just recognized me by name while I was sitting on a curb writing. Her husband had a book signing yesterday. One of these days, I, too, will be paid for my work...

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Falling & Filling

That plaster ceiling was closer to collapse than we'd presumed. On Tuesday, the contractors were planning to cut around the edge, to replace the main expanse with sheetrock while preserving the elaborate cast molding at the top of the walls. All furniture had been cleared from the room, the doors to the rest of the house shut and sealed with plastic, and a large window to the patio removed for ventillation. Drop cloths were down, and they carefully carried the antique crystal chandelier to the kitchen, then returned to climb on a ladder with a power saw to make the first cut. And suddenly, there was a distinctive popcorn/gravelly sound. All three men dove for safety, and in a tremendous 45-second crash, all 3000-plus pounds of plaster rained down. The aluminum ladder was mangled, and part of the molding precipitated with the ceiling, so it can't be saved. We were just grateful that no one was seriously injured or even killed. And happy that we'd made the right call about postponing the sale until the situation could be fixed.

We spent the week cobbling together a sale out of scraps, which is our least-favorite preparation method. The owners had signed a contract ages ago, but then left only a few 80s-era dregs in the house, much to my sweet boss's disgust. Formica over particle board and grungy upholstery in pale Pepto Bismol pink. And there were very few smalls. Everything was dirty or broken, and mostly both--I'd have been ashamed to run a yard sale with much of it. Definitely not up to our usual standards. We rearranged and accepted vast quantities of consignments, and after washing and fixing and vacuuming and supplementing, it looked to be decent. Again, not as dazzling as normal, but the homeowners will make considerably more on the few things they left because we'd staged it so well--had we not, customers would have simply walked in, shrugged in disgust, turned around and walked out. As it is, turnout has been modest and sales pitiful thus far, with only one more day left to run. Unless it's a blowout, this will have been a less-than-satisfactory experience, financially. I have written a lot in the lull times though, from reviews of the latest Kdramas to musings about the troubles of repatriation, so it wasn't a bust creatively.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Rejecting Virtual Life For Actual

A very real "First World" problem is the subtle trap of living only vicariously, mistaking knowledge about an individual or event for real familiarity--experience and personal relationship built on personal interaction. Oddly, I am not singling out Facebook for criticism, as that has been only a recent and comparably small part of my life, but the many other means by which I have been lulled, or have lulled myself, into thinking that I am engaged with the world around me, but instead have distanced myself from its people, its real problems, and its Creator.

In recent months, I've lamented how close family members can choose to miss out on delightful opportunities to interact with folks like Grandmommy--why they would deliberately avoid such moments of being well fed and better loved mystified me. And yesterday, the sermon at McLean Pres made me realize that I'd been doing the same, albeit on a grander, more awful scale. Isn't it far worse as humans to have the means to know the God of all the universe, and to ignore him? What real joys I have ignored! I feel like an idiot. Anyone can know tremendous amounts of trivia about a given well-known accomplished person, but actually knowing and being known by that one is wholly dissimilar. I am terrible at remembering my friends' birthdates, but I love them dearly--to think this can be demonstrated by not being in regular contact is silly. It's really easy to fritter away my time meaninglessly, not just sitting on the metaphorical winning ticket, but witlessly foregoing a lifetime of friendship with the only Genuine? I pray (really!) that this seeps deep into my marrow, that this burnt marshwiggle moment doesn't recede easily into my bottomless cache of lost memories.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Macon Cleanout, Augusta Marketday, Music

My mother is the antithesis of packratiness--I've always said, "If it's not nailed down, she'll throw it away...and if it's nailed down, she'll pull up the nail and then throw it away." My late father was a packrat, and I (as his clone) am a packrat, and yet my stepdad, bless his heart, once made us look like amateurs (he has voluntarily cleaned out a huge quantity since marrying my mother--evidence of true love!), so I was amazed that he allowed my mother and me, without supervision, to go down to his parents' house in Macon last week to clean out the "Doghouse", an 1000-square foot brick structure where the contents of the main house were stored while the latter was being rented out these past several years. Perhaps John was tacitly expressing his confidence in me to limit my mother's cleaning-out zeal? I rescued as much as possible (tons of items we rough-cleaned and repacked), but there was a lot that proved irrecoverable, since the damp and heat had caused much of the sensitive organic material (paper, cloth)--some of which had been properly boxed--to molder. We were able to make it through only 3/5 of the Doghouse contents in 20 hours of hard work, so we plan to return in early May, after my latest trip to DC and before I pack for Prague.

At dusk Wednesday and Thursday my mother and I drove to Dublin, GA, for food and sleep--Grandmommy was delighted that we came; though the decision to stay the first night was really last minute, of course she managed a sumptuous repast. Thursday evening I was at the wheel on I-16 when I looked down to see the setting sun illumine my wrists, whereon there was a clear demarcation--a dirt line beginning where my work gloves had ended and extending up my arms to my dusty purple shirt and down to my grubby jeans, which had been fresh-washed only that morning. I was filthy top to toe. The minute I made it to Grandmommy's, I peeled off in the laundry room and streaked to the pink bathroom at the end of the hall to scrub every inch with hot soapy water--total body clean had to be established before I could take a bite of dinner, no matter how hungry I was! Mums and I'd bathed before supper two nights running--there's nothing like the memory of mildew and the vestiges of old cobwebs on your clothes to interfere with a good appetite.

Since I was still in Augusta on Saturday (the sale up in DC had been postponed because of the falling plaster in the main room that needed to be fixed before we allowed customers in), I returned to the Augusta Market with the Polish stoneware I'm selling. My new professional sign ("Pottery from Boleslawiec, Poland. Oven, Microwave & Dishwasher Safe") was rather unprofessionally suspended--with twist ties--from the frame of my tent, which dripped from the rain that was falling when we began our setup, but it dried off quickly. I had my first browser early, which was encouraging. Other vendors chatted among themselves and put the final brush up touches to their displays. Two were generously-proportioned white women, one with teal-tinted hair, the other with rose-magenta highlights, each patchily tattooed--never let it be said the South doesn't have visually peculiar characters! Technically, the market opened at 8, and the diehard exercise fanatics with their dogs left for their weekly eight-mile run ten minutes after that, but shoppers were few for the first hour except for the earlybird vegetable buyers, their arms full of empty cloth shopping bags, headed determinedly for their favorite farmer's tables. I'd had little sleep, for the second night running, as I woke up just after midnight and lay there for hours, counting down the minutes until my alarm. Praise God, I rolled out of bed right when it sounded and hustled for downtown, because otherwise I'd have been pushed to the sloping passage through the levee toward the river. A squirrelly market man gave me the last spot by the fountain, next to the largest tree, where I was delighted to discover a dry spot to unload my boxes. It being the final weekend of a certain PGA golf tournament, every vendor was determined to be present in hopes the out of town visitors would be stopping by to shop.

Tuesday, I'd gone with Bella to hear live music at a small subterranean watering hole near her downtown group house. We'd been advised to arrive early, which gave us time to grab a central table and order beverages without having to shout over the super-amplification (we both resorted to earplugs shortly into the concert, and could still hear loud and clear through the foam). It was a four-man ensemble: The bass player--who to prove witty currency was wearing a black t-shirt with the slogan "No Treble"--strummed an instrument that may have been produced by a NC mountain mandolin maker--smooth dark wood for the body of the instrument, almost-white ash pierced in the shape of a heart for the bridge, and shiny nickel fittings. Most of the time he plucked the strings, so the bow was slung in a handmade leather holster on the front, easy to hand. The pleasant tenor was sung by a slender septuagenarian in a spring green golf shirt, as was appropriate for his subject (mostly classic Irish folk) and for the Masters Week crowd, which had rented out every room of the bed and breakfast upstairs, and swelled the crowd as the evening wore on, so there was standing room only. The fiddler could have been the prototype for Johnny in "The Devil Came Down to GA"; that violin was practically smoking as the gut rasped over the strings and his fingers outdanced Michael Flatley's feet. His face bore the flush of one too many whiskeys, and a cluster of brown bottles accumulated beside his seat as song followed song, but if anything he played with ever more swift assurance, his face glowing intensely from alcohol and exertion. Tattoos curled up the neck and down the arms of the drummer, who tapped a small snare with a succession of wooden sticks and steel brushes, rocking along to the melody of the man at his right elbow. And the venue was perfect for an intimate musical evening, in the cleanest, driest red brick basement I've been to, lit with festoons of white Christmas lights, the host a fat man with a balding pate and white ponytail who glad-handed the guests, the hostess a bustling woman with flying grey hair and an attentive "Darlin', you doin' alright?" every time a glass level dropped, and a convivial crowd that sang along cheerfully to the music and knew all the hand gestures to several, like a well-schooled Rocky Horror Picture Show audience (I don't think I will ever forget the movements to accompany the lyrics to "Shearing Sheep in New South Wales", which I found myself humming for days afterwards). I had a lovely time. Bella didn't--she decided that she really doesn't like Irish music, despite being half Irish. Ah, well, to each her own.