Something’s Brewing…

One of the nice things about the house where I live is that the back yard has several large fruit trees. A month ago my landlord was forcing upon me all the apricots I could possibly eat, then a few more. Recently it’s been plums.

On a couple of occasions in the last couple of weeks the smell of plums in the stairway has been pretty powerful. Obviously Otakar was not finding uses for the plums as fast as he was collecting them. Time waits for no plum.

But here, sometimes the obvious is not the same as it would be in other places. Anyone who live here would already have figured out that the plums downstairs were not going bad, they were going good. As I came down the stairs this afternoon there was a pot of plum juice, complete with peels and some of the pulp, sitting by Otakar’s door. The light bulb suspended over my head blinked on. He’s making Slivovice.

The Czech Republic has two national boozes. Becherovka is a brand name, made from a supposedly secret recipe; it hails from the Jagermeister school of boozemaking but is far less foul. Slivovice, or plum vodka, is just the opposite. It’s a people’s drink, the recipe owned by all collectively, and the best stuff is homemade. (I have had three chances to confirm this, and the homemade stuff really is better.) You have to love a country with a national tradition of making hooch. I wonder if old-timers lament that kids these days are content to drink liquor from factories rather than make their own.

Czech word for the day…

The spelling may not be quite right, I’ve not seen it written down. The word means ‘wallet’, as in: Zapoměl jsem mou penižinku, or in English, “I forgot my wallet.”

Some lessons stick better than others. More context, you might say.

2

I’ll always remember What’s Her Name.

The guy who runs the little café near home is, by all accounts, a jerk. There’s been some turnover in the staff lately, but when I came back from the mini road trip I found the owner’s girlfriend long gone and in her place there was What’s Her Name. I’ve mentioned her before. I have, in my day, exchanged words with more than a couple of bartenders, and often the connection is an illusion constructed to enhance tips, but around here there are no tips.

She looked over my shoulder as I practiced my Czech, something I was awkward with at first, but I quickly got used to. She was practicing her English at the same time, and her advice and expansions were welcome. Somewhere around the time I managed to pronounce Kristina and Kristyna differently, I knew we had become friends. Apparently most people who share What’s Her Name’s name have given up on the distinction. She’s Moravian, though, and they like to get things right. Apparently her speech was a little too formal for the crowd here. That’s the way she tells it, anyway; she never felt welcome.

Under the incandescent light of the bar she was not what you might term a classic beauty. Whatever that means. There is the beauty her boyfriend has captured with his camera, and let me just tell you, hoo-dang somewhere between the eyes and the lips, with a side order of wild hair, I’m sold on the photographs. Wow.

But my What’s-Her-Name is not the beautiful, passionate woman in the photos. Those photos remind me of just how much I’m not an artist. I see them and I know I’m just a hack, some guy spewing words, and I’ll never be able to match that expression in that photograph, the one when she’s looking straight into the camera and there’s only one word (the other 999 unnecessary) and that word is yes.

She is leaving now. She’s worried that her boss is going to rip her off on the way out the door, but overall glad she won’t be working for him anymore. It’s a pity. She had an almost American-style friendliness, and she responded well to my American-style humor. Now, she will join the legion of bartenders I’ve met, connected with, only to have one of us (usually me, given my wandering ways) move on.

Will I see her again? That’s a tricky thing, isn’t it?

A Little Bit of Humor for You

A regular at the Little Café Near Home told me this joke last night. I offer it to you as a lesson about the culture I am now surrounded by. (This is not a verbatim rendition, my rambling instincts are evident in the retelling.)

An American, a German, and a Czech were exploring the deepest jungles of the Amazon when they were captured by a tribe of cannibals. They were trussed up and brought before the chief. With three large pots heating over roaring fires behind him, the chief addressed the captives. “You will each be given two glass spheres,” he said, “and placed in separate huts. I will visit each of you in turn. If you can show me something with the spheres that I have never seen before, I will set you free. Otherwise, you’re on the menu tonight.”

The three captives were each given a pair of glass balls and taken to their huts.

First, the chief visited the American. When he entered, the American was sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor, with his hands in front of him. Over each hand a glass ball was hovering, in complete defiance of gravity.

“Seen it before,” said the chief.

Next he visited the German. Like the American he sat in deep concentration. He was moving his hands fluidly, and the spheres were flying about the room in a graceful dance.

“Seen it,” said the chief.

Finally, the chief visited the Czech. He entered the hut and returned almost immediately. The tribe waited for the verdict. The chief shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It’s been five minutes and the guy broke one of the balls and lost the other.”

A Good Day at the Potraviny

I go to the market often now. Rather than occasionally going in and stocking up with all I can carry, I try to make a habit of grabbing a few things every time I pass by. This has led to a steadier supply of food in the domicile, but less variety. The cycle goes: buy rice, stay home until the rice is gone, go out and buy rice. Today I had to go down to the bankomat to withdraw rent, so I found myself outside the market when I already had a supply of rice at home. What do you buy for someone who has rice? Bread. If you have bread, you have to have cheese. Cheese requires talking to the woman at the meat and cheese counter.

There are three women with whom I interact while buying sliced products. One of them is almost shy with me, one indifferent, and the third is strict. Now that my face is showing up across the counter from her more often, she expects me to order correctly. Last time I was in there, I asked for one hundred grams of bacon. “Deset deka” she said. Ten decagrams. This time I was was all over it, and she gave an approving nod as I said “Taky patnact deka” for my second variety of cheese. While she measured out my cheese I heard “Dobrý den“, and turned to face a very pretty czech girl smiling at me.

Of course, if a girl smiles at me, she is by definition a member of the food service industry. This fine example of the best the republic has to offer (blonde, curvy, cheekbones, taller than me) works at the bowling alley. On days when I need to get out of the house but I don’t know where to go, she is a definite factor in my decision.

It was a good moment. I had won the gruff approval of the sliced things lady and I had a pretty girl smiling at me, who had just heard my successful use of her language. I took my cheese and got in line. It was a little awkward when she ended up in line right behind me, having received her sliced goods much more quickly. On my way out I said goodbye to the people in the store, as one does here, and I enjoyed my walk home.

Itchy!

File this one under ‘more things you really didn’t need to know’…

It started a few days ago. I started feeling itchy all over. Then the bumps started showing up. I am now covered with itchy red bumps. Writing about it makes me think about it even more. Itchy, itchy itchy.

You’d never know by looking, however, and when I figured that out I had the likely cause of my malaise. I only have bumps where my clothes touch me. Two weeks ago I bought a new batch of laundry detergent. I have heard the complaints of others (some who read this, in fact) and I have always counted myself as fortunate that such afflictions do not affect me. Until now. I can’t imagine what would happen to someone who actually had sensitive skin if they used this stuff.

Of course, after I bought the detergent I washed all my clothes (had a bit of a backlog waiting for the detergent) so suddenly I was left with practically nothing to wear that wouldn’t make things worse. My hawaiian shirts escaped, but the weather isn’t really favorable for those. The worst, of course, is the underwear. Once I figured out the problem I put the remainder of my clothes that were still clean through another wash cycle with no detergent, hoping for some intensive rinsing action, but I’m still itchy and bumpy. I’m not sure what it’s going to take to fully expunge whatever chemical it was that I reacted to. Whatever it was, it was nasty.

Hopefully it’s just that the irritation is slow to fade and its not that the problem is actually something else entirely.

Thunder in Krumlov

Out on the water, making our way downstream, our raft stood out. Cap’n Soup Boy standing tall, waving the battered Jolly Roger, wearing his pirate gear, while Izzy and I acted in a generally piratic way… it worked. Those on shore called out and took pictures. There was no doubt that the ladies were particularly impressed (I kept a low profile). Izzy was making plans. When we got to Krumlov, he was going to tear that place up. Rock and roll all night, etc.

We pulled up at our final stop (“Let’s keep going!” Little John called), dried off, and boarded the van to Krumlov. It dropped us off right in front of our hostel. (Total cost per person for the rafts and the lift into town: $12. Just try to beat that.)

The van brought our baggage with us, and most of that was of the personal kind. While we on the Zen Boat had had a most enjoyable pull, there was dissent on the other boat. Nothing major, but there were some larger-than-average personalities crowded onto the raft, and friction occurred. I was surprised, then, when later there was friction between Zen Boat members, and that I was one of them. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We were delivered safe and sound at our hostel, and the seven of us checked in. We were put in an eight-bed room, with the last bed already occupied by a chinese guy traveling alone. He was nowhere to be seen, but already I felt sorry for him. It was pushing nine o’clock when we invaded the place, and I groaned when Soup Boy declared that he was going to take a shower before we went out. I was hungry after paddling his ass around all day. Soup Boy showered. Izzy declared his intention to shower as well. I said I wasn’t going to wait while everyone showered, and if that’s what was going to happen, I’d just go on ahead. Rosa also objected.

Izzy got pissed off. Not at me, though, at Rosa. If he’d gotten pissed off at me, I could have apologized and explained that it was my stomach talking and I would continue to be a pushy jerk until I was fed. His anger was directed at Rosa, however, because for much of the day her advice sounded like criticism, and even though Izzy was not the target for most of it, it still bugged him. (In retrospect, I realize I could have stepped in an apologized and intercepted the anger. That’s hindsight for you.)

Advice and criticism. The distinction is not simple, and it’s more complex when you consider friendly criticism. Rosa, however, could improve her delivery. Like me, she was among strangers, and I think she wanted to present her most competent and assertive self. With two exceptions on this trip, I just paddled. Exception one was getting our collective ass out the door for food before everything closed. Izzy knew of a place with a dish called Bohemian Feast, which translates into English as “Big plate of food for not so much money”. Were it not for this special knowledge he held, I might have taken off on my own.

The castle tower in Český Krumlov

The castle tower in Český Krumlov, taken from the riverside table where we ate out feast.

I’m glad I didn’t. The bohemian feast is awesome. We sat at a table by the river, and the food was plentiful and bohemian. Izzy made the right call, and not for the last time. We ate, we drank spiced mead, and fun was had by all. We toasted Soup Boy and I officially thanked him for putting the trip together. We ate more.

Finally it was time to go. Izzy and Little John, both determined previously to get laid seventeen times each, declared they were tired and going back to the hostel. I was up for a bit of nocturnal walking around, and when Soup Boy signed up, the rest of the party expressed interest as well. Where we ate was on the riverside, with the castle soaring above us on the opposite bank. We headed that way.

We strolled through the castle grounds. I was mostly with Rosa, and we chatted about nothing important. Jane was dedicated to talking with Soup, which left Beau on his own. That made me a bit uneasy, since he was Jane’s boyfriend and all. Beau, I think, has a traditional streak like mine. It was peaceful at night, and during one moment of solitude I saw flashes away behind the hills. Lightning, still too distant for me to make out the thunder. I noticed later that the flashes were getting closer. Eventually we moseyed down into town, and looked around for a place to have one final birthday toast. Although it was the weekend during tourist season, most places were closing up by then, with the exception of clubs that looked loud and uncomfortable.

Shadows on the castle wall, Český Krumlov

Shadows on the castle wall

Eventually we found a spot that wasn’t quite closed yet, and I voted for the patio. Others thought maybe we should get home before the rain started, but for me the right choice was to be under a big umbrella outdoors when the deluge happened. I carried the argument for a while, and when Beau complained of getting wet I managed to get us to move to another table with better umbrellage, rather than go inside.

The rain came down. Torrents of big, fat drops splattered into the street, quickly soaking anyone caught out in it. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, I sipped my beer and wondered how it could get any better. When the waiter came to suggest we go inside for shelter, Beau and Jane jumped at the chance, however, and so we went into the closing restaurant and sat next to a table full of smokers. Even so, the conversation was pleasant, and I had a good time. The storm passed, we paid our bill, and headed back to the hostel, with only one wrong turn.

When we got there the light was on, Little John and Izzy were sacked out, and Chinese Guy was asleep on the bunk underneath mine. I tried not to jiggle the bed too much as I climbed up. Soon I was asleep.

But not for long. I awoke a short time later to the sound of Chinese Guy snoring gently, and the feeling of my shoulder stiffening up. Hours of steady paddling was going to take its toll on muscles more accustomed to typing. I rolled over to put my arm in a more comfortable position. The bed shook. The snoring stopped.

That set the theme for the rest of the night. Short sleep, snoring and stiff muscles, roll over. I didn’t sleep that much, but I was pleasantly surprised to awaken in the morning, (after Izzy’s alarm went off at 4:30 and Chinese Guy got up early and quietly left) with my muscles in relatively good shape. After a bit of that very pleasant lazy-morning snoozing I climbed out of bed, planning to write while others slept. Izzy and Little John both got up as well, however, and without a single word being spoken we headed out to find breakfast. Not one damn word. That, friends, is how decisions should be made. I enjoyed everyone’s company on the trip, but I was glad to get out into the morning air before other people got up and the inevitable decision paralysis set in.

The streets were deserted that early in the morning. We headed back toward the middle of town, where the most touristy places were, and eventually Izzy landed us at another great place to eat. It was a hostel with a full kitchen that served true English breakfasts, and had unlimited self-serve tea and coffee. On top of that, it was cheap. Breakfast was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip, hanging with a couple of guys, not having to talk but finding things to discuss, some of them even meaningful.

Eventually it was time to go back and join the others and catch the bus back to Prague. As smoothly and calmly as the morning had been to that point, going from a cluster size of three to one of seven increases complexity by several orders of magnitude. Eventually I went out to the hostel’s garden to wait for the others to unknot. Izzy was already there, and Rosa was not far behind me. Beau, it seems, is not a fast starter in the mornings.

Finally we were moving (after Beau ran back to get his phone), but we didn’t get far before some people wanted to stop for breakfast. It was cutting the time a bit close, but I figured that the absolute worst thing that could happen was that we’d be stuck in a truly pleasant little town for another day. From my point of view, that wasn’t so bad, so once again I forced myself to relax and not worry so much about missing the bus.

Sardines

The bus ride home (artist’s rendition).
Photo stolen from here

We did not miss the bus, thanks largely to Izzy and Little John. I’m not sure if it wouldn’t have been better, however, if perhaps we had. When we got on, there were no seats left, so we stood in the aisle. A few more people got on, and the driver called out for everyone standing to squish together more so we could squeeze more people on. Some of our group ended up standing the entire way back to Prague. When people needed to get off the bus, it was a major chore for them to make their way to an exit.

At least there were no chickens. There was a fat guy who wheezed on my head for a few kilometers, and I wondered if there would be more rainstorms in Český Krumlov that night, and why I had wedged onto the bus just because everyone else did. The bus the next day would have been much less crowded. Still, I got to sit much of the way, which is more than some of the others had.

Home at last, tired, happy to be away from the crush of people, I truncated my goodbyes as much as possible without being too impolite and headed for home.

Happy Birthday, Soup Boy, and thanks for putting together a fantastic weekend.