Hockey Night in the Czech Republic

It’s hockey season again, and the NHL has decided to kick things off with a pair of games right here in Prague. The Czechs are excited about it; the matchup is the team that Jagr used to be on versus the team that Prospal is on, but the ticket prices are outrageous, so I am at the Budvar Bar Near Home (Budvar is the hockey beer). The game is in the first intermission, tied 0-0, and it’s been pretty exciting.

Yet, despite the full stadium, the crowd seems quiet. Sure there’s plenty of shouting going on, but something is missing. Finally I realized what it was: There’s no one playing drums! There aren’t any horns blowing Poot Poot Poot-poot-poot — Poot-poot. There isn’t even an accordion that I’ve noticed. I guess the drum corps comes out for the home team, and neither one of these teams is home. (Note to self: when I own an NHL team and it’s playing here, recruit a drum squad. The rest of the crowd will assume that my team is their team. Instant home ice advantage!)

This is a country that brings their drums to tennis tournaments (that is not an exaggeration – at the Davis Cup match between the US and ČR the drummers were out in force). The real shame is that the US television audience has no idea what they’re missing, and the Czechs are missing a chance to show the rest of the world how things are done here.

Happy SOS Day!

Things are quiet here in Strašnice today, many of my favorite places are closed in observance of the holiday. What an enlightened nation!

Although this just might be a effort to extend Yesterday’s May Day celebrations into a four-day weekend, which is also an enlightened policy. (SOS Day gets its name because “SOS!” is what often comes after “Mayday!”) The Czechs take May Day seriously; around here it’s National Kiss Your Sweetie Under A Cherry Tree Day. More than one couple had told me about “their tree”. The cherry trees have been blooming, and when the wind blows their petals fill the air (where there are enough trees, at least).

That was yesterday; I meant to alert you all to it in time for you to go find some sort of plant to stand under and do some smooching with someone you like. Still, it’s never too late for that. Perhaps we could come up with a related activity for SOS day. Hmm… something that follows kissing under trees, and as a bonus would include some connection to pleas for rescue.

Nothing I’m coming up with would be termed “romantic”, I think.

Capr, Dlouhý Den

Here is part two of the epic video chronicling my attempts to turn carp into something to eat. I really didn’t feel very sharp as I was shooting this, so the humor is even more sparse than in the first one. In true Hollywood fashion I tried to make up for a lack of substance by increasing production values.


Capr, Prvni Den

Here is the extended version of the previous video, giving you the entire day’s exploits. The story is not finished – oh, no. Not by a long shot.

I learned a few things – first, give the camera plenty of time to get rolling and dont hit stop until long after I’m finished. But overall I really didn’t learn much about cooking carp.

Sneak Preview!

Here we go…

Production for the rest of this documentary might be tricky, as I won’t be able to film while I’m actually doing things. It will be more like a montage. I certainly don’t have the skills to make a stop-action animation out of it – but that would be cool.

In the zone.

I woke this morning to differing clocks. It took me a while to notice; the clocks on the computers are how I tell time when I’m at home, while the time on my phone is what I use when going mobile. When time matters at all.

Tonight I’m at the Budvar Bar Near Home, and the television is on. They just showed a feature about the confusion caused by the time change, and part of that was footage of engineers resetting the astronomical clock in the center of town.

This clock is a big tourist draw, a bigger tourist disappointment, and the ancient mechanism should not be subject to modern arbitrary time laws. The clock should be showing solar time, the way it did when it was first built. While every other timepiece in the square is telling you what time we have decided it should be, that one clock should stand defiant, and say what time it really is. I guarantee that will only add to the magic.

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.


Czech Heroes

OK, you have your statue of the Good King Winceslas (they insist on calling him Vaclav here), at the top of the main drag here in Prague. There’s Charles this and Charles that, named for a king who pretty much kicked Europe’s ass. Only they didn’t call it Europe then.

Those guys were a long time ago, however, and the Czechs, as far as I can tell, don’t really think of them as being Czech. Who are the Czech heroes?

It should be noted that the Czechs aren’t that big on the whole hero thing, except now the tabloids are trying to change that. There are sports heroes here, built up to be torn down just like anywhere else with a ‘free press’. But we will ignore that unpleasantness for a while.

I’ve lived here for a couple of years now, and I’ve come across two modern military heroes. George Patton is one, the liberator of Plzn and a man who really wanted to get to Prague first but the politicians stopped him. The czechs like to imagine what things would be like had be been given freedom to roll. Obviously he is not a Czech military hero, but people here revere the man.

Then there’s the Good Soldier Svejk (rhymes with ache). I saw a movie about him just the other day. During the brutal battles of World War I, Svejk had one goal, and that was to stay alive. He was lazy, sneaky, conniving, and insubordinate. He recognized that war is the absolute last place where you want to go to the head of the class. I would not be surprised if What’s-Her-Name at the Little Café could not name another twentieth-century Czech military figure.

The second hero I stumbled upon by chance. Last summer, during the World Lying-On-the-Grass-Holding-Your-Ankle contest (some people call it ‘Soccer’ and others ‘Football’, but as for the World Cup I think I’m being charitable here), there was a break between games. Česke Telecom announced they would be showing a documentary. When they announced it would be about the life of Jára Cimrman, the low-key folks at the Little Café cheered. “Turn it up!” one girl called. The national hero was on TV, in scratchy black and white.

In a high-profile nationwide poll, Jára Cimrman was voted the greatest man in Czech history. In the documentary I watched a reenactment of a meeting between him and Gustave Eiffel, while a local scholar told us about modifications to the design of the Eiffel Tower. Without Cimrman, it seems, that tower really would have sucked. A true Czech hero, Cimrman’s greatest accomplishment was never getting credit for his accomplishments.

This country’s favorite modern military hero and the man voted by the nation as the Greatest Czech Ever have one thing in common. They are fiction.

Knowing that, it’s time to visit Vyšehrad. It’s quiet there, but not sombre. It doesn’t take long to see a trend. You are walking among musicians, artists, writers. Names you’ve known for a long time, but seeing those names on tombstones is a bit of a shock. Only now do you realize they were human enough to die. Somehow those names seemed above that.

I am sure that among the memorials lie military heroes, and the Czechs value bravery (well, stubbornness) as the highest virtue. In the cemetery lie the greatest of the czechs who did not simply vanish under totalitarian hands. The Czech pilots who came home after helping win the battle of Britain might have been made heroes but instead were sent to labor camps for sympathizing with the west.

The Czechs had a revolution a few years back, and still didn’t get a war hero out of it; the revolution was peaceful and led by writers and musicians. The Czech national anthem, “Where is my Home?” is frightfully beautiful, and not even remotely militaristic. It was part of the score for a comedy called Fidlovačka, Or No Anger and No Brawl. That their only modern war hero is fiction, and (intentionally) horribly bad at war, makes sense. War is ridiculous, and the Czechs have the writers to prove it.


In Czech, there are seven forms for every noun and pronoun. These different forms provide important information about the relationships between the elements of the sentence. In English, most of those forms have been weeded out over the centuries, replaced by helper words and word order conventions. We still have the possessive form and the plural, but that’s it.

Except in pronouns. Now I call the English-speaking world to action, to hasten the inevitable and beat down those who would hold our language in stasis. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do. Let’s put the wooden stake through the heart of ‘whom’. No ambiguity is introduced when you use ‘who’ instead, English has developed all the mechanisms to keep the sentence clear without declining the pronoun. We just don’t need whom.

While we’re at it, let’s not stop there. I, me, my — it’s time to straighten all this out. We only need one pronoun to express the first person singular. All we need is ‘me’. “Me Tarzan, you Jane” is not at all ambiguous, and even introduces an implied ‘to be’ which can come in handy. “All for me grog” is not open to alternate interpretations. All these extra pronouns running about are causing more harm than good.

Granted, getting rid of ‘my’ may be pushing things a bit much, as English still uses the possessive form. If we really want to disdecline the language, we would have to resort to using ‘of’ a lot: “the pants of Jerry”, rather than “Jerry’s pants” (in the phrase “Jerry pants” mine name comes out as an adjective). Me not quite ready for that. Before you know it people would be writing “pants o’Jerry”, and the possessive would be back, only this time an o’ prefix rather than an ‘s at the end. Even so, ‘my’ and ‘mine’ could be consolidated without any loss. It’s already happened for nouns and most other pronouns. Kiss ‘my’ goodbye, and flush ‘yours’ down the drain.

These silly pronouns are holding us back. They remain mired in days gone by, the subjects of rules that are based simply on properness, not effectiveness — all they do is prove you paid attention in school. (Ironically, one pronoun we already have shed, ‘thee’, would still be useful to reduce ambiguity. Me therefore also call for the recognition of y’all to be what ‘you’ once was.)

Me not ready to embrace this principle in me everyday writing, as, alas, there are many who would judge me based on outdated ideas of correctness. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? If me were to go it alone, me would be quickly written off as an ignorant buffoon, not a force committed to making the English language better. What can me do?

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.

Back to the Past

Yesterday it happened. We reached the point in my lessons where I have been entrusted with the tools to travel through time. I now have the knowledge (ability will require a lot of practice) to reach back to events as distant as yesterday, and bring them to life. How will I use this awesome power?

Incorrectly, if my past performance with the language is any guide. But there have been many times when I have thought of things I’d like to say, and even had someone willing to wait while I worked things out, but I would be stumped by the past. I’m going to spend some extra study time this week on forming sentences that speak of a time that is no more. The folks at my regular watering holes have also begun to tutor me now and then, correcting pronunciation they used to let slide and adding to my vocabulary things that aren’t found in the textbooks. I believe I crossed a threshold recently, where I have enough words that I can get the gist of what people are saying (some people anyway — for others speech is still just a long string of sound without any apparent structure at all), and this has increased the enthusiasm of people around me to try and communicate with me.

That has a down side, of course. It means more interruptions to my work and I am more easily distracted by conversations going on around me. A word from the next table will drift into my ear and I’ll pause to think, “hey! I knew that word!”

I am composing an episode about Czech cursing. Stay tuned.

Almost, but not quite

Around here you will often hear the word docela translated as “quite”, and the other way around. My textbook (gathering dust right now) translates those two words that way. Only trouble is, they don’t mean the same thing. Soup Boy brought it up again this morning; he had an interesting conversation with a girl last night, the confusion caused by this mistranslation.

For instance, in English, “quite good” is more emphatic than just good. It’s good-plus. Docela dobře is good-minus. “Sort of good” would be a better translation.

I think you can easily imagine the sorts of problems a misconception like that can lead to in a conversation between a guy and a girl. “Quite close” and “sort of close” are quite different.

Who are you?

In Czech, “to teach” is učit “to learn” is učit se which, although it doesn’t seem like the czechs think of it this way, translates as “to teach myself”. Likewise, půjčit means “to lend” while půjčit si means “to borrow”. There is a very appealing symmetry there. Apparently “lend”, “borrow”, and “return” in English forms an inscrutable quagmire for the native czech.

When the verb is accompanied by se, it is an indication that the action of the verb is being reflected back onto the speaker. Si, on the other hand, indicates that the action is being applied to another object.

When you get to washing, this becomes interesting. You can say, míju – “I wash” – but that applies strictly to the general act of self-cleaning. When you are washing your hands, Míješ si ruce you are washing some external object. Your hands are not you. Built into the language is a separation of the parts and the whole. You could name any part: heart, brain, foot, and that part is not you. It’s not even part of you. It is something separate, an object you interact with the same way you would with a stone.

And there you have, built into the Czech language, a distinction between the whole and the parts.

Strč prst skrz krk

No, that’s not gibberish in the title of this episode, it’s Czech. It is a sentence just about anyone over here will quote when you mention vowels. It translates, more or less, to “Put your finger through your neck.” It doesn’t seem that useful in daily conversation, but it is notable for having no vowels at all. The Czechs are a frugal people, saving up their vowels, but they are also binge spellers, writing whole words with no vowels at all only to write others with strings of vowels, each of which is voiced.

I do not know enough czech to come up with my own vowel-free sentences yet, but it sounds like a fun game.