Bar 149 is a good one

I wasn’t in the mood to experiment today. I spent the last two days coding and I just wanted to sit in a cool, familiar place, and get some work done. U Kormidla is just the ticket for that. It is a quiet place, not smoky, and cool on a hot summer day. I pointed my feet down the hill, already planning what I would order. Alas, on the door was a sign with the new hours — hours which did not include the one I was standing in. U Slamu was right next door, but was hot and smoky. There were a couple other places open, but they didn’t serve food. I was thwarted. Lost, adrift, I wandered the neighborhood, looking for the right place to sit and work.

It’s just too damn bright outside to work today, even in the shade my screen just can’t compete. I did a big loop of the neighborhood to no avail, so I decided to head for another neighborhood.

To be honest, I’m not sure what it was that stopped me from getting on the metro. I went down into the station, the train came and left and I didn’t get on. I resurfaced and decided to walk through the park across from the metro station, venturing into unexplored territory. I wandered the paths, my quest temporarily on hold as I surveyed the local scuptures — rocks standing on end. There was nothing handy to balance on them, which was a pity. At the far corner was a small hill, I stood there for a bit, and as I was turning to go back the way I had come I spied a Staropramen banner half a block farther on. What the heck.

Right next to the Staropramen bar is the one in which I now sit. It is right nice. The Guinness sign caught my eye first, then the food specials posted outside. Even so, I almost didn’t come in. Finally I gave myself a little push and in I came.

If U Kormidla (The Helm) has a nautical theme, this place turns it up to 11. Everything is dark wood, and a cieling fan turns lazily, casting shadows in the low light. There is an impressive aquarium embedded in the wall behind my head, and a hodgepodge of kitch in a generally nautical theme. Out of place but welcome is the large electric fan by the door. The only other patron in this room just spent a moment dancing in front of it.

The waitress/bartender is pretty, with an easy smile, and she brings me beer and food. It’s the perfect relationship (although even as I typed that she said “Ahoj” (rhymes with Ahoy) and left). Still, if any place can pull my brain from the land of logic and into the vast uncharted waters of creativity, this is it.

Gender, my eye!

Many languages assign genders to all nouns. In czech, nouns are masculine, feminine, or neutral, and the masculine category is further divided into animate and inanimate. The gender of the noun can make a big difference throughout the sentence, and the rules for how to form the seven cases of each noun vary by gender and by whether the word ends with a hard or soft sound (although there are special cases for certain word endings).

Plural is another story, with the noun changing depending on how many things there are (in most cases there are three forms: singular, plural up to four, and plural five and up).

For pronouns, where English retains a few vestiges of declension (e.g., I and me), Czech is much more complex as well. So when I used a sentence with “my eyes” in it, and very carefully selected the form of “my” to match the plural of “eye”, I was taken aback to be corrected. “Hang on,” I said, flipping to the relevant table in my textbook. “I want to make sure I have this right. Oko is neutral, right?”

Here’s the thing. The singular for ‘eye’, oko, is neutral. The plural, oči, is feminine. The same goes for ears and children.

Why being a writer makes it more diffucult to learn another language.

Each week I receive as homework a set of sentences to render in czech, each carefully designed to stretch my abilities with the language without breaking it. In the past three weeks the scope of these sentences has taken a gratifying and very enjoyable step forward. I will see a sentence, something that would seem quite ordinary, but it represents a whole new range of things I’m able to say. Heady times.

Last week one of my sentences was, “In the middle of my room, there is a chair.” This one really didn’t push any new grammar boundaries, but it was nearly the last sentence of my homework that I did. It seemed like a good opening sentence for a story. There’s a lot packed into that sentence, the narrator’s only room has a chair, seemingly alone, in the middle. It raises lots of questions. It was only the because my lesson was in two hours that I managed to keep on the homework. Homework completed, lesson survived, and a Czech movie with my teacher viewed, I was ready to sprint for the keyboard.

Which is a bit of a pity, because Iveta left the question, “so, what are you doing now?” out there, and I answered with “I’m going to go sit by myself and work.” It’s probably a good rule of thumb, as a single guy, that when a pretty girl asks me something like that, I should keep other answers handy.

Anyway, that sentence was pretty much all I could think about. The chair is in the middle, which puts everything else, narrator included, at the edges. What happened to give the chair such importance? The story’s not finished yet (it’s another of the ‘difficult’ style), but so far so good.

On another homework-related note, for the past two weeks I’ve been assigned to writer a few sentences about my day. The idea was for me to write sentences like, “Yesterday morning I got up at six,” simple uses of the past tense and handy day-to-day vocabulary. I have been unable to perform this seemingly simple exercise. My failure stems from my complete inability to write about something as boring as my life, and all in short sentences, to boot. My first attempt started “Alas, my life is not very interesting, but I did do a couple of things this week.” I managed that sentence all right, and the bit about posting a new version of Jer’s Novel Writer was all right except that “post” (in the sense of upload) and “download” were nowhere to be found in my prehistoric references. After that, I tried to tell about a story I had written, and I got deep into things I didn’t even know I didn’t know how to do.

This week I did a little better, telling the story about trying to tell a joke in czech. A little better, but not much. This week I’m on notice. I’m to write simple sentences that apply what I’ve learned, and grit my teeth and ignore cadence, flow, and expressing relationships in complex ways. In other words: No rambling. Do you know how hard that is?

On another side note, Iveta is picking up a very bad habit of saying things in Czech and expecting me to reply in the same language. The gap between my written and spoken comprehension is vast. It takes me quite a bit of work to separate the words and more often that not some word or cluster completely defies my parsing abilities. I’m considering hooking the TV back up, just so I can practice listening.


Today I was served a huge meal by my brother’s wife’s brother’s girlfriend’s mom. She had almost no warning that we were coming, and we had no intention of staying for food, but there you have it. We were in southern Bohemia, two kilometers from the Austrian border. As had been the case the night before, the conversation was almost entirely in Czech, but I did get a little more tech support. There was a story about our host, who had been a border guard during the communist times until he got caught helping people escape into Austria. I never did learn what happened next.


If you were czech, you would have recognized the title of this episode as a reference to Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke. Last night I was surrounded by strangers who spoke no English, and I tried to tell a joke in Czech. It was my most ambitious attempt to communicate orally outside my lessons.

It didn’t work very well.

I had been listening to the conversation around me, not really hoping to understand a great deal, but at times I knew enough about what was going on that had I been able to form sentences more quickly I might have had something to add. Of course, by the time I had assembled a candidate sentence, conversation had long since moved on.

More often, I would catch words I knew (or knew I should know), standing out like little islands of comprehensibility in the swirling ocean of conversation. (Czech, in fact, when spoken by several people at once, does sound a bit like the surf.) On one occasion, I caught a few words that, when combined, were amusing: “… I bought … five kilograms … piece … zebra … nine crowns …”

I prepared my sentence ahead of time, and sure enough not long after Jirka came by and asked me if I was understanding anything.

“I understand everything!” I exclaimed in Czech, which got a chuckle. “For example…” That caught people’s attention, because I actually pulled off the pronunciation of například pretty well, and it’s not a common word for non-speakers to know. In the following silence my mind went blank. “Moment…” I said, stalling for time, which got another chuckle, a polite one, and I was free to stumble through my joke. “For example, I heard one woman say she bought 5 kilograms of zebra—”

“You mean Žebra,” Jirka interrupted. “Ribs.”

I could have replied, “oooooh, ribs. That’s not so interesting, then.” That would have been funny. Instead I pressed on with the story the way it was scripted in my head, but even after insisting that I had heard zebra, everyone assumed I meant žebra, and the joke came out as someone buying a shitload of ribs for only nine crowns. Which isn’t terribly funny. “I understand everything!” I finished, and got a courtesy laugh, and conversation went on without me.

That’s not to say I would have been adaptable enough to jump on the punch line opportunity in English, either, and I did trot out a fairly complicated sentence that leaned heavily on my new past tense skills, which surprised the folks around me. So it wasn’t all bad. It could have been better, though. It could have been Žert.

Happy Birthday

The reason I was in a tiny village far in the southeastern corner of the Czech Republic was to celebrate the 60th birthday of MaK’s mother. On the big day I sat down to lunch with the family, and after a brief altercation over who would have to drink the warm beer (I almost, but happily didn’t, ask, “whiy don’t you share the cold one and give the other one more time to cool down?”), we were all shoveling down the Special Birthday Soup. These people have a soup for everything. I was debating whether to do a courtesy choke-down on the mushrooms when I heard tinny music filtering in through the double-glazing.

“This is brilliant!” Jirka exclaimed. “When they have an announcement, they play some music, then they make the announcements, then they play some more music. It’s from the communist days. It’s brilliant.”

Jirka spent much of the Czech communist era in North America. He is very critical of all things communist, with odd exceptions. He is himself an operator, a wheeler-dealer, his currency is nods and winks. He is the fire chief (in a village of 300 people), and apparently that means he supplies the ‘club’, the place where the fire department can hang out getting drunk. He figures on being Mayor as well. Communism is not dead in places like this, and his motto is (something like) “work with them, but don’t ever let then forget how badly they messed things up.” I expect when a communist is in a position to help Jirka, exchanging favors and generally doing what it takes to succeed in politics (and everything is politics), history is not an issue.

“Listen,” Jirka says, bounding up from the table as the music ends. He opened a window to the oppressive heat outside and stood, gesturing in excitement with each distorted sentence. MaK and Jessica rolled their eyes.

Of course I didn’t catch it, but even before the end of the “bzhrpt bzfg brchtlejk…” segment of the show the phone rang. It was a call from a fellow villager congratulating her on lasting sixty years. Yes, Jirka had arranged to have the occasion broadcast to the entire village. I suspect most of those who cared already knew, but it was a good way to pick up any stragglers.

Jirka left the window open while the post-announcements patriotic music played.

So, I don’t feel bad about broadcasting Jessica’s age on the Internet. Jirka has already commandeered the most effective vehicle for getting the word out to the people who matter.

A Quiet Afternoon in Moravia

“And then I coughed” my host narrated as I reacted to the bite of the Slivovice. “That’s how I knew it was the good stuff.” He laughed, then turned serious. Like many people, he knows what I should be writing about, and now he was starting to write it for me. “People in America, they would want to read about this, about life here. There are lots of stories here.”

‘Here’ is a farming village whose name I’ve never caught. Horní Something. I was sitting in the home of my sister-in-law’s parents, enjoying the homemade plum vodka (it’s not just wishful thinking, the homemade stuff really is significantly better), while Jirka regaled me with stories of his life in the village, his adventures elsewhere, and most of all, the ongoing restoration of the home in which we sat.

He gestured out the window, where across the street is a small church in moderately good repair. “I was a choir boy in that church,” he said. “800 years old. I could have had a villa in Florida, or an apartment in London, but when I came back here I started to feel it and I knew I had to come back here. Home. I can never be lonely here, even when there is nobody around.” I weighed mentioning some of my own thoughts on home, but for conversations like that I prefer to think slowly, and with Jirka there is none of that.

The house, too, is old, but though the plank floors had fallen victim to moisture and long neglect, the thick walls of stone and brick stand straight. The tile roofs on the main structure and most of the outbuildings were also intact, and the exceptions have now been removed. As with any place that has been filled with humans for a long time, there are stories attached to this old building, and I think more than anything else that is why Jirka bought it.

Some of the stories are larger, and reflect the ebb and flow of history. Before the communists came, a wealthy farmer lived here with his family, and apparently he kept a journal. With the communists came an inversion of the social order, and the family’s lands were confiscated and the people who were put in charge knew little of farming. According the Jirka, the man wrote of mistakes and incompetence as the productivity of the land plummeted. Jirka summarized. “They did not know to spread the manure in February, then they took the man’s last two horses for the slaughter. ‘It is all tractors now,’ the communists said. Too late they found out that their tractors would not work on that land, it was too soft.”

I would like to be able to read that journal myself, not just for the sweep of history, but for the smaller events that transform a building into a home. I don’t know what I would find there, or even if the diarist recorded things like that, but it would be an interesting read.

The house has come a long way since the last time I was here; in fact, it wasn’t really habitable before. The rooms that are complete are very comfortable, and parts of the project reinforce some of my stereotypes of the Czech work ethic. It is obvious Jirka is of the “do it right the first time and never worry about it again” school, and the local craftsmen he has hired do quite well with the message, “time is not important; what matters is precision.” The woodwork is the most obvious example, and one I am less unqualified to comment on. In many cases the old woodwork was lovingly restored, and once again reflects the beauty it must have displayed in the 1930’s, or perhaps even the 1830’s. When new parts were needed, the old style was carefully followed, often using wood from the same era. In the wine cellar he has stripped away plaster to expose the old brick vault, and then coated the brick with modern products to preserve it’s rediscovered glory.

So, you get the idea. It’s shaping up to be a nice place. Assuming Jirka’s money holds out, he should be done with the restoration of the house and outbuildings (“the barn will be a local playhouse”) in another fifteen years or so.

Jirka tells me that there’s another fixer-upper (although already habitable) in the neighboring village going for a pittance. His description of it is intriguing, but I’m not in the market for a career in home repair. It does seem a great chance to build up some sweat equity, though. If anyone’s looking for an escape hatch and isn’t afraid of a hammer, you could do worse.