Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Party Off

One of the great things about the Internet and the proliferation of camera phones is that where as once you would always be half wondering "was it really THAT bad?" when some celebrity scandal breaks, now you just go to YouTube and wait and see. C.f. the case of Michael Richard, the performer famous as the Kramer from Seinfeld and now as he of the racist tirade. Because the press needs its scandals and would much rather act aghast than analyse, an ambiguous or even satirical remark can easily be trumped as a racist/sexist/homophobic/heterophobic/pressophobic tirade.

In this case it was not like this at all. This was a tirade in the purest sense of the word. It's horrible. The abuse is way over the top for people allegedly talking during your show, which is annoying, but can be dealt with better and is usually a sign that your act is not going well. In fact in the videos which only start during the tirade, he doesn't look like a man whose act is going well. However there is ONE funny thing said on the videos. It's by one of the guys walking out: "That's why you're a reject, never had no shows, never had no movies: "Seinfeld" that's it!"

Monday, November 27, 2006

Party On

A few days ago, the Dutch voted for a new government. The Dutch have a sort of proportional representation which results always in a coalition. Which I am all for. Coalitions prevent one party inflicting too many short-term changes in the name popularity or self-service. It avoids the problem of meglomaniacy where one leader can surround himself with Yes-ministers. Despite what it seems, it is not the place of government to change things (unless it is clearly needed) but to manage the country and keep it going. With a single strong party, there are always new laws to suit they own, temporary popularist notions.

This election saw a few changes to the power structure. The Christian Democrats are still the strongest and so Jan Peter Potterlijk is still likely to be in charge. The Socialist Party made great gains showing a general shift to the left which was also indicated by the loss of all remaining seats for The Party for Sympathy Votes for Pim Fortuyn. In their place, the Party for the Animals got two seats. It's nice to know in these times of concerns about integration, immigration, religious freedom, people still have some time to care about sheep, cows and tiny little dogs.

One party that didn't get any votes is The Party for Brotherly Love, Freedom and Diversity (PNVD) which wants to allow inter-species relationships and to reduce the age of consent to 12. Even the newspapers call this the Paedophile Party. It is hoped the votes for Party for the Animals were not from people thinking they were voting for the PNVD.

Coalitions take time to form, so we are still waiting the outcome.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Travel: 21/10/06 - Prague

Czech Out (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

Having checked out, we had breakfast at a place just over the road called Bohemia Bagels which is a real upmarket backpacker’s place, which is suitable given that we pretty much managed to keep on the tourists tracks our entire time here. There you can get unlimited coffee and great bagels for a few cents each.

After this we gathered our belongings and dragged them to the metro, passing on the way the theatre showing Golem the musical. The Golem is a tale of the old Jews of Prague about the time a Rabbi created a creature from mud in order to protect the Jews. In true Dr Frankenstein style, this playing God backfired and the monster ran amok. It’s now a musical (www.golem-muzikal.cz) although for a Jewish tale, it’s odd how in the logo the cross seems to be towering over it. Maybe it’s drawing our attention to the fact that Christianity is also a monster created by misguided Jews.

Again the metro and bus were very easy and there was very little waiting around. The tickets you buy have nice gold designs on them to stop counterfeits, but must mean they cost more than 80 cents you pay for them. It must be one of the easiest airports to get to despite having to change.

The flight was not too busy and fortunately Schiphol wasn’t too disorganised when we arrived. Of course we had a 20 minute taxi from landing to where the bus was waiting, and of course the bus from there rode over the kerb on its way to the terminal, because that is simply the route the bus has to take.

And we never did find out why there was a Church of St Paul at the Laundry. I guess it relates to the old carol...

While shepherds washed their socks by night,
All seated round the tub,
The Angel of the Lord came down,
And said, “Give mine a scrub.”

Maybe we’ll never know.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Travel: 20/10/06(2) - Prague


One thing that had been bothering us was the fact that every art shop, every bridge-side artist, every souvenir shop… all sell pictures, cups and sculptures of cats. Images of cats are every where in these shops, yet in the time we have been here, we have not seen a single one. How can the art establishment be so obsessed with an animal that is not there? There is a story there, we were sure. One clue was that many of them were in a particular style, with a crescent-shaped head. There was indeed a mystery afoot.

We climbed back up to the castle to check out one exhibit that sounded good. It was about alchemy, amongst other things. There was, however, no sign to it, but we found the building easily. The door was shut and unmarked, but was not locked. Inside, there was no mention of alchemy, the exhibit was announced as being about warfare. The box-office was closed, so we wandered by it and up the stairs to come to a glass door behind which several curator-type people were having a meeting. Probably about why the unsignposted exhibit was not doing well. Or to query the wisdom of turning the golden alchemy exhibit into a base-metal one about war.

On our way out of the castle, we noticed the history museum had closed too. Museums must be having a hard time. The toy museum seemed to be doing okay, though. We went back to the bridge via a different route than before and dropped in at the Kafka Museum Bookshop. The shop was bright and spacious, which seemed a little incongruous. Surely a dark, oppressive room would have been much more the thing. However the eagle-eyed, old woman in the corner eyeing everything you did was a nice touch. In went to buy a copy of The Castle, but there were at least three different translations into English alone and there seemed no choosing between them, nor reason to pay so much for such a book, so I left empty handed.

We stopped for coffee in the place next door and it turned out to be another in the Ebel chain. Here was the spot for a Café Metamorphosis or The Coffee Trial. The coffee was well earned as we hadn’t had any all day. After a huge bowl of latte the size of a soup, we crossed the Safe-Pocket Bridge and headed for the Jewish quarter.

It was Friday and getting dark so the functioning synagogues were busy with people celebrating the weekend. The main one had an armed bouncer on the door, and a few other heavy people hanging around the street. I recalled from the paper that there had been threats recently against Jewish targets from some terrorist faction.
Just down from the New-New Synagogue is the Old-New Synagogue. It’s a beautiful old building from the middle ages and looks more like a fort than a place of worship and has that haunted look.

Old-New Synagogue or Home of the Munsterbergs.

We scurried around for a bit to try to find stamps before we discovered that post offices here stay open late. We’re used to post offices considering themselves banks and opening for a few hours a day just so no one squats there.

Dinner was at our previous first choice, the Newtown Brewery, thanks to us reserving a place or, rather, getting the receptionist at our apartments to reserve. When we arrived the place was empty downstairs but reasonably busy on the indoor ‘terrace.’ So we wondered if booking had really been necessary, but when we left the place was packed again.

The food was typical Czech fare as in the other bars we had eaten. Plenty of meat; bread and potato dumplings with everything; some nod to other vegetables in the guise of sauerkraut or similar. All the menus we have seen so far have had a weight indicating the amount of food (or meat) you get next to each dish. This is the best menu idea I have had in a long time. Really avoids those annoying times when you order two dishes and find you have food in front of you for the whole bar.

The beer was good, too. They brew their own there, as the name suggests, and both the light and dark were tasty if a little weaker than others beers we’d had.

The downside to the place is it is on the tourist chart. Busses of Germans arrived while we were eating. On the plus side, they have a live accordionist playing while you eat. I think this is a plus. They seemed to think so. However he didn’t come over to our area and we only heard him, not see him.

Before we came here, we only knew one Czech guy. He is called Frantičak and now lives in Hong Kong. To me the name Frantičak is rare and exotic. In the Czech Republic, most of the men are called Frantičak. The accordionist in Novometský Pivovar was no exception.

Eventually, because we were tourists and these sorts of things send out tourist homing signals, we found ourselves back at the Racist Clock Square and decided to celebrate the start of Shabbat with a beer or two there on one of the several heated terraces provided for that purpose. They seem to be provided for tourists as no Czech-speakers seem to use them. The reason is clear when the bill comes. Having spent a few days getting used to Czech beer prices, it was a shock to suddenly find yourself paying airport prices.

In Prague, the real criminals are not in the metro which seems very safe, they are not on street corners, they don’t even appear to be on the Charles Bridge where they’re supposed to be. No, my friends, in Prague the criminals are running terrace bars on the Old Town Square.

Rip Off Square, Rascist Clock and Superspired Church.

We finished our drinks, soaking in the rich tapestry of accents around us, and then had a final night time wander around the area. We even cleaned up one mystery. In one art/tourist shop we saw a bunch of artworks of multicoloured cats many with crescent heads all by one artist, one Rosina Wachtmeister. She is very famous for these cute sorts of cats but seems to have no connection with Prague other than artists here are obsessed with her work. There seems to be no story of cats being carted off. Now the only mystery is what’s the story behind the Church of St Paul at the Laundry.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Travel: 20/10/06(1) - Prague

Return of the Saints

Today wasn’t such a late start and began with a mission of food. We crossed the Pickpocket Bridge, which we are thinking of renaming as we haven’t seen hide nor hair of a pickpocket nor felt the rough touch of rogue fingers on our personals. I guess our fervent scanning for such ne’er-do-wells put them their guard. Pity as everyone else who has been here seems to have story about this sort of thing. I don’t even have the satisfaction of saying, “a petty pilferer picked the pocket of pickled Peter in Prague.”

Today’s levity was provided by some old guys playing jazz.

Czech Republic has a very enthusiastic navy for a land-locked country.

In the meantime, we have discovered that St. Goliath is in fact the patron saint of Czechs, St. John of Nepomuk who was thrown in the river and drowned by Wenceslas IV (not the good one). The good one, however, does appear several times. But apparently he’s not a king but a duke and not called Wenceslas but Václav. Personally I think there has been a mix up as I don’t know how a Good King Wenceslas could be confused for Bohemian Duke Václav. The duke made Christianity the state religion so it’s up to you to decide whether he was a good man or not. Wenceslas/Václav is depicted on the bridge at least twice and in none of these statues is he shown going out on the Feast of Stephen.

Other saints on the bridge include St. Jude of Thaddius, the patron saint of hopeless causes. It’s nice that if your cause is hopeless, you still have a figure to give you... well not hope, obviously, but I guess someone to moan at. Spiritually.

There’s even a patron saint of the godforsaken, apparently. Although what good a saint is going to do if God’s given up on you, I don’t know.

Saints here seem to be of the shepherd type (carrying a staff or crook) or the TV-repair type (carrying an aerial). This is presumably to reflect the old and new values we attribute to saintlihood.

Statues of an angel (l), shepherd (r) and TV repair man (c).

After the bridge, we climbed the steep road that goes up beside the castle, which was not nearly as steep as the one that goes up directly to the castle which has steps of Exorcistic proportions. There we located, as recommended by the local paper for non-locals, a Vietnamese Buddhist restaurant. Who’d have thunk it?

Inside was one of the most peaceful eating environments in the world. Soothing smells, music and half-light. It was the perfect time to renounce the meat and beer that generally constitutes the Czech diet. We had healing teas and overdosed on vegetables. It was one of the most calming, reflective and indeed healthy meals I’d had in a long time and we finished it up with some exquisite Halva. I left with an inner contentment but a serious need for a coffee.

As we were in that area, we meandered over to one of the city’s many monasteries. This one still (or rather again) partially in use, but also partially converted into a gallery and library. Not to mention a restaurant and a museum of microscopic wonders, but the latter was closed alas so we sulked off into a nearby park which has a maze at its centre. After about 30 minutes of rambling, we checked the map. Lonely Planet maps often have the feel of having been drawn late at night by two stoned Australians, but it was soon clear we had missed our intended target. In fact we were now back near the castle. We decided to give up on the maze. After all, if you can’t even find a maze, the last thing you should do is go into one - you’ll never get out.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Travel: 19/10/06(2) - Prague

Boiled Sweets

Over the river is Prague Castle or Hradčany or Hardcandy if you look at it quickly. It’s a large, imposing affair on a hill overlooking the city, not unlike the castle in Kafka’s The Castle. It’s big. We didn’t go into any of the buildings, just wandered around the enclosed area.
As all good castles should, this one features its own convent and a toy museum. It also has a huge cathedral in the middle, complete with some of the most disgusting gargoyles protruding from it. Ugly, dog-like creatures some of them, other more human but with vast tongues hanging out. One or two were playing lutes. As has been previously established, the lute is the instrument of the pagans and evil-doers, a little like today’s electric guitar. These ones only needed white face paint to resemble a Kiss concert.
Gruesome Gargoyle

Kiss, Live in Prague

More Gargoyles

At the main entrance to the castle are those ceremonial guards that stand still for hours on end and display much more skill at it than those human statues although the public treats them quite differently. Despite the fact the human statues are not trained to kill.

Atop the gates, are some more statues. These depict saints engaged in Extreme Conversions. One holds a club aloft over the head of a sinner, the other is about to stab a second. None of this door-to-door pamphlets for these guys.
Human Guards dwarfed by violent saints

We wove our way down from the castle in the royal gardens. Built on a steep hill, they are layered and maze-like, connected by narrow steps. Partly restored by HRH Prince Charles (not wuite sure what he did exactly), it is a perfect place for a secret royal assignation. As said to Catherine on one of the secluded benches, this is exactly the sort of place a king would seduce a parlour maid. “Something like that,” she said. “Or perhaps where a queen would seduce a stable boy.” Something like that.

One of the garden areas is definitely in the French style (think of a bonsai Versailles). Here there was a fountain of a man astride a three-headed, water-spouting fish. As you’d expect he was just about to convert one of the heads to Christianity with big fat golden club.

Eight most common things to see in Prague

1. Marionettes
2. Black-Light Theaters (sic)
3. Churches
4. Russian Dolls
5. Absinthe
6. Chess Sets
7. Pictures of Cats
8. Cannabis Vodka

Gutenabend, eh

For dinner we tried a second time to get into last night’s first choice. We failed: again it was full. Popular place. We ended up, after a walk, eating at U Provaznice, a popular (mostly with tourists and ex-pats, I think) bar and restaurant. It translates as “At the Rope-maker’s Wife’s” and relates to the wife of a rope-maker who seems to have opened this or some other pub in order to meet men while her husband was away selling his rope. He came back found her at it and used some of his rope making skills to fashion a noose for her.
They had dark beer on tap, which was nice, and typical meat-heavy Czech dishes.

We shared a table with three jolly Swiss postal workers who made me think Switzerland must be the Canada of the German speaking world, covered as they were with Suisse/Zweis caps and the white cross on the red t-shirt emblem. I think I might start calling it the maple-cross. Or I might not.

After dinner, we caught the chiming of the Racist clock again, but this time in a better position to see the saints go marching by. Did I want to be in that number? Well I was. Saint Peter jerked by carrying a key.
Racist Clock: in action at night

On our further strolls we discovered the whereabouts of the fabled Sex Machines Museum but it was a little close to closing time and a little pricy to see instruments of pleasure that look like instruments of pain as well as all those devices of frustration: chastity belts, etc.

We also bumped into a drunken Irishman. What are the chances of that? He was looking for the fabulous bar of the end of the rainbow, or to be more precise, Harley’s bar, where apparently people eat fire and (according to the poster we saw later) men drink tequila out of the navels of young women. Anything to sell you smaller measures, I’d demand mine from the navel of a fat, old man.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Travel: 19/10/06(1) - Prague

Church Trail

We had a long lie in to plan and recuperate, and to settle into our apartment. Eventually, we set off in search of the real Prague or at least an experience we could consider being real enough. We decided to follow one of the suggested walks in our borrowed guide from 7 years ago. I often get the feeling that Lonely Planet routes are written quite late in the day back at the hotel by stoned Australians.

We touristed in circles for a bit trying to keep to the route. After seeing some of the various façades of Prague - you name an architectural style and you’ll find a great example of it here - we went for coffee.

Café Ebel is a pleasant, well-run coffee house in a touristic courtyard, Týn Court, I think. It seems to cater mainly for foreigners as its German name should have suggested. But the coffee was great, if a little strong for my tastes (it is in most places outside the UK), and the quiche and soup very tasty.

On the same court is the Hotel (and Café) Metamorphosis. Any cockroaches found there are just past guests, I would assume.

Chasing the trail for a bit longer revealed a few more churches - Pragians used to be very religious before communism took over. Communism doesn’t like people to believe anything except its own tenets. In that respect it’s just like any other religion.
Door featuring sculpted Jesuses

We were just in time to catch one of the must-see tourist attractions of Prague - The Racist Clock, more usually known as the Astronomical Clock. Every hour, Death, the skeleton, rings his bell and a parade of saints marches by open windows. Its racism comes from its depiction of greed as a Jewish moneylender (which has since been altered to look like a drunk, it seems) and pagan invasion as a Turk who appears to be holding a lute.

The clock itself is a mass of dials, arms and even a sun to indicate where the sun is in the sky. For 1490, it’s an amazing piece of technology. And it still works, even if it is a little difficult to see what the time actually is. But that's okay, as the tower also has a regular clock face so you know when the Astronomical Clock will chime.
Racist Clock: Jew minutes to Turk

We eventually crossed the Vltava river at the famous Karlov most or Charles Bridge. Every guidebook, every previous visitor, every instinct we had warned us that on this bridge pickpockets operated. We were on our guard and so busy looking for pickpockets and their ilk, that we barely noticed the austere statues that line the bridge. They are all very religious and depict various Christian figures and episodes. There are saints doing saintanic things; Christ bleeding on the cross flanked by a couple of Marys; Saint Goliath carrying the tiny Jesus on a cross to safety.
Hanging out with Jesus

St Goliath carries Jesus away from the stone-throwing Davids

It would be quite disconcerting to have to walk across the bridge twice a day every day. It’s calculated to make anyone feel pious. However, some levity was provided by a man playing jolly tunes on an organ and a marionette playing guitar. And on the way back, a man was playing glasses filled with water making an intriguing, atmospheric soundscape something like an avant-garde film soundtrack.
Guitarist Marionette

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Travel: 18/10/06 - Prague


Schiphol is an airport overreaching itself. You can tell this when instead of strolling out of the shopping area and along a gantry to the plane, you have to walk five miles along ever narrowing corridors until you leave the airport and walk for three minutes to your plane.

The plane for Prague leaves from gate D06, not so far to walk to, but it seems 13 other flights also leave from gate D06 and so it is divided into sub-gates A to M. As it happens, gate D06 is not really a gate but a bus terminal.

The busses that run from Bus Terminal D06 to the various aircraft are run by Connexxion who were the bane of my life in Leiden until I got a bike there. Now all I have to do is avoid the buses, but that’s easy as they don’t run all that often. Our bus took us all round the D06 building; it barged in front of a minor traffic hold-up, riding over the kerb as it did; it drove past a large part of the terminal, past the works area where they store the bits needed for extending the airport to make it even more complex, past the carpark for contractors, past the container depot complete with horse boxes; finally, it drove round a junction near the perimeter and into the KLM overflow airpark. There we were herded onto a Fokker.

Air travel used to be glamorous; then it became easy; now it’s just cheap.
It’s nice to know Fokkers are still being made and flown. They have a great comedy name that far surpasses even Heinkel, Boing, Hawker-Siddeley. Plus the original Mr Fokker was a Dutch designer, albeit one who made his name designing aircraft used by the Germans in Wold War I.

A Fokker almost like the one we flew on.

Prague is one of those cities you assume everyone has been to except you. People always seem to have tales of its beauty, its romanticism, its pocket pilferers. So it’s good to finally go. It’s a city preserved by communism and now mobbed by tourists. It was the home of Kafka and is dominated by a huge castle. I couldn’t help but wonder how often people do turn into cockroaches there.


Living in the Netherlands it’s easy to forget that countries aren’t naturally flat. All natural countries are very uneven and the Czech Republic has a great, varied landscape.

Coming into land, I was surprised by one thing: the number of pools I saw in people’s back gardens. I don’t know why I was surprised. I guess it didn’t fit into my notion of what I expected the place to be like. yet, people are people and many of them will want pools, thus if those people have the money for a house in the green bits around a city, they can afford a couple of chaps to dig a hole, paint it blue and fill it with water. I guess it comes from the assumption that even in former communist countries, luxuries are frowned upon. I was also vaguely surprised at the brightness of the colours as if I had expected everything to be dulled, or even only in black and white.

Prague airport doesn’t suffer from being overextended. It has the feeling that it has room to grow. In fact it was positively quiet that day. I don’t know to what gate we arrived, but it certainly wasn’t T406-K part 2/B (behind the coke machine). We had a tunnel from our plane to the terminal just like in the old days.

There are plenty of taxis at the airport, of course, but when you can sample the local public transport all the way to the centre for 80 cents, there's no point in paying a vast multiple of that to a criminal in a car. And the local transport is amazingly tourist friendly, even down to the helpful people in the ticket office whose time spent on showing us what we have to do must have cost more than 80 cents.

The bus wound its way from the airport carrying a few newly arrived travellers (and pretty much no tourists except us). It picked up considerably more people travelling home from work and school, but the bus never got jam packed. The display had both Czech and English and announcements for tourist stops are announced in English, which on ours was only the end of the line (and the start of metro line B) where we were efficiently told by the voice to “please leave the bus.”

The start/end of the metro B line is very convenient for Ikea and Tesco. Tesco is quite established here, but it seems to sell everything rather than just concentrating on food as it does in the UK.

The metro is modern and the stations airy and new. We had barely a few minutes wait for one. It was not very crowded for most of the trip and the relatively simple announcements and clear metro station signs made navigation easy. It also helps that the station names are all very different. Zlicín, Luka, Cerný most - they all have different letters and lengths so even if you had no idea about European languages, you can know when you are not at the right stop. I guess I had been dreading a metro system where stations read like: Gwar, Gwor, Gwor, Gwur, Gwr, Gwãr (Nub), Gwãr (Nib), Gwãr (Neb), Gwaar (end of line, please change here).
Ornate Façade


We had gone for an apartment as it was cheaper than the hotel’s Mr Michelin had recommended. Ours was very close to the old square and you certainly get a lot more room than in a hotel room, which would be great for a longer stay. After regaining strength, we wandered the streets in search of food. We walked past shops selling Versace, Louis Futons, etc. It seems Prague is a great place to go for designer clothing. One shop we did not recognise was New Yorker. New Yorker is the place to go to get your bling and especially your clothes and accessories that already have a lot of bling on them. I wasn’t sure exactly who shopped there, but there seemed to be a couple more people in there than in the Versace shop. I.e. a couple.

We picked up a copy of The Prague Post, probably the largest and best-written expat newspaper I have ever seen. Far better than Amsterdam’s fledgling efforts.

After a good wander, we found the place we were looking for, Novometský Pivovar (or První Novometský Restauracní Pivovar to be fully accurate or Newtown Brewery), but alas it was full.

Czech wait staff make Dutch wait staff seem helpful and attentive. it makes you realise that the Dutch look meaning, “What? Can’t you see I’m on my cigarette break?” is actually a lot closer to the American “Hi, my name is Candy and I’ll be sexually energized to take your order” than you think.

Our second choice was packed full due to a concert by an oompah band. Could we have found a place to stand, we would have stood out for not knowing the words.

Eventually we found a suitable location and the barman reluctantly admitted there may be some spaces downstairs. Whether we came in and increased the prosperity of his establishment he didn’t care. In fact I think he’d rather we didn’t. We went downstairs and found a darkish corner in a reasonably full, bright cellar.

Czech food is big on meat. They like to fry big lumps of it and wash it down with ample beer. Even breakfast can be like this. This is why Czech men are so big and hearty. It doesn’t explain why Czech women seem to wear Versace and Louis’ Futons.

At U Zeleného Stromm, we had big meat dishes, mine with both red and white sauerkraut, which was actually the first sauerkraut I’ve ever had that tasted good. I had always assumed it can only be horrible or at best, just about bearable. It was all washed down with a couple of steins of local favourite Pilsner Urquell, a solid tasty beer with more body than most lagers.

After such a huge meal, we had to do more walking to ease it through our systems. We passed what appeared to be Prague’s red light district. In fact it may not have been all of it as it was just two women leaning up against a post wearing New Yorker outfits. Now I know who shops there.