Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Birthday Wishes

It’s Lauren’s birthday today, and now even in the US she is allowed to have a glass of champagne to celebrate.

That’s what she asked for. And really, she deserves it.

She’s doing well in college. She’s got plans and ambitions. She surrounds herself with good people. She’s fun to hang out with. What more could a parent hope for?

She had her birthday party on Friday last week over at Main Campus University so tonight will likely be a little quieter, though it is Halloween on a college campus there so probably not that much quieter. You never know. I suppose we’ll hear the stories, or at least some of them.

We’re in Our Little Town, passing out candy to the younger kids trick-or-treating at our door and wishing her well from here.

Happy birthday, Lauren.

I’m proud of you.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

News and Updates

1. You forget, three and a half years into a pandemic, that there are such things as colds. Especially when you’ve already scheduled a flu shot and a Covid booster on top of everything and you can’t really reschedule them and – BAM! – there you go. So yeah, it’s been a fun week around here.

2. It’s the middle of the semester and it’s been a fun week that way for pretty much everyone, as far as I can tell. This is the point where the stress starts to get to students and we just try to be there for them. Sometimes all it takes is a friendly voice telling them that this is normal and here’s what you do next and why yes we do have a form for that exact situation, in fact.

3. At some point I will get back to reading books again. It’s been that kind of year. I actually have good books I want to read. I’m in the middle of a book on Douglas Adams for which I was one of the Kickstarter sponsors – have been in the middle of it for over a month now – and last week I managed to see John Scalzi when he came to Madison. He was gracious as always and very funny and I came home with yet more books that I really will read at some point.

4. I will also get back to the BFT posts, as there are – by my count – three more I need to make. I’m glad that there are people who find them entertaining. I try! But mostly I just want to get the stories down before I forget them, which happens faster and faster every year. Maybe someday I’ll get all this whole blog printed out as something more permanent than electrons on someone else’s server, and my descendants will enjoy all these stories too. One can hope.

5. I have nothing in particular to say about the current situation in the middle east, because I do not really keep up with goings on in that area and there is already enough uninformed nonsense out there that I don’t feel any pressing need to add to it. The history behind all of this is more complicated and less decisive than either side is willing to admit and there are sins and atrocities aplenty to go around.

6. Meanwhile, Kyiv still stands.

7. Over here in the Land of the Free™ the House GOP managed to select a leader even worse than the sexual predator or the open racist that they tried to elect before this guy, which is an astonishing achievement but it is a target-rich environment that way – really, all they had to do was toss a beanbag at one of their meetings and the odds of hitting someone worse were pretty good. The new guy is an avowed theocrat who thinks his personal faith is more important than laws, morals, the Constitution, or you; who is perfectly happy to abandon our allies abroad and anyone who isn’t exactly like him here at home; and who has exactly zero experience with any responsible post in Congress. So we got that going for us. At this point the chances of a complete trainwreck are somewhere between Absolute and Already Happened.

8. The bunnies are in for the winter now, as we are about to head into a solid week of below-freezing overnight lows and that’s just not good for their water bottles. They’re down in their newly reconstituted basement lair, where it will be warmer but rather less interesting visually, though I’m not sure how important that is to a bunny when all is said and done.

9. The Phillies lost in the NLCS, and there was much sadness. They were an entertaining team this year. On the other hand, the Eagles are leading the NFL, the Union is in the playoffs, and the Flyers are, well, working hard. The Wolves haven’t been relegated out of the Premier League yet, and none of the other sportsball teams that I follow in whatever vague ways I follow them seem to be doing too badly. So that’s going well.

10. I am really looking forward to a period of downtime where I have nothing pressing to do. I suspect this may happen in June. We’ll see.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

BFT23 - Kafka

Pro-tip: If you’re going to go to Prague you really should become familiar with Franz Kafka.

Kafka was an insurance lawyer who through hard work and incessant effort rose to complete obscurity as an author in his lifetime but became famous for it later (the writing, not the insurance) in a way that he would have found perfectly understandable and grimly humorous. He hovers over the city in much the same way that Marianne hovers over Paris, John Bull over London, and Gritty over Philadelphia. He is the spirit of the city, its daimon, the city made manifest.

It isn’t every author whose name becomes an adjective in common English, after all. Especially if that author didn’t originally write in that language.

As part of our preparation for this trip Kim required us all to read The Metamorphosis, a short story in which an office drone wakes up one day to discover he has become a large cockroach. “Loaded with laughs,” as the old comedian Shelley Berman once noted. It was a chore, really, but I suspect that Kafka intended this as part of the message of the story so you have to hand it to him on succeeding. I’ve read other things he’s written, some of which I inherited from my grandmother when she passed away back in the 80s, and those I enjoyed more.

You’ll find Kafka pretty much everywhere you go in Prague, often in the strangest places.

On our first night in the city, after we left Wenceslas Square and the Golden Chicken had done its thing for us, we found him on one of the street signs that Europeans insist on putting high up on buildings rather than lower down on posts the way Americans do.

This discovery introduced us to two things. First, the ubiquity of public art in Prague, as the bronze artwork on the wall was more than what would have been required for just a street sign. And second, the equal ubiquity of Kafka.

If you’re interested, according to Google Translate (as loosely retranslated out of the computerese by yours truly), the signs read:

Franz Kafka Square, Old Town – Prague 1


A native of Prague, a German writer, a lawyer by profession at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Company. He left behind a simple but prophetic body of work, such as The Metamorphosis.

I have to say that I really love the description, “simple but prophetic.”

Kafka was born in 1883 where the Square now stands, and he lived there for a couple of years before his family moved elsewhere in the city. The house was torn down during his lifetime when that part of town was cleared in 1897. We passed by this corner a few times during our stay there, and every time we felt a certain obligation to note this fact. It seemed appropriate.

We also found Kafka at Prague Castle.

After you’ve gone through the courtyards and the Cathedral and the various other bits and bobs that make up the Castle complex, you find yourself on a small road known as the Golden Lane, lined with even smaller houses, many of which now have been turned into shops. Toward the beginning of this road there is a light blue one, No. 22.

Kafka lived here for a while in 1916-1917. Like everything else in Prague you’re not really supposed to take photos of it and like everything else in Prague everyone does anyway. It’s an unassuming little place, but well marked.

There’s also this statue that Kim and Oliver ran across when they were exploring the Jewish Quarter of town. It’s tucked between the Spanish Synagogue and a church, and there seems to be some debate in the various sources I’ve looked at while writing this over which of the two figures is actually Kafka or if neither of them are and it’s just the spirit of the whole piece that is meant to evoke Kafka, and this is another thing I suppose he’d find funny.

But if you’re going to explore Kafka, the place to go is – not surprisingly – the Kafka Museum. Because of course there is a museum for him, although this one isn’t really that old and you have to wonder what took them so long to set one up.

The over/under on the opening of the Gritty Museum in Philadelphia is 2032 by the way. You heard it here first.

Lauren was the one who really wanted us to go to the Kafka Museum but it took us a couple of tries to get there. We’d thought about visiting after our trip to the Castle, but the timing didn’t quite work out – it’s hard to tear yourself away from the Castle, and the Museum does eventually close – so we made a concerted effort to get there the next day.

It’s an unassuming place from the outside, highlighted by a pair of statues that you have to look at twice just to make sure that you’re actually seeing what you think you’re seeing.

There are two things that may not be obvious about these statues from the photo.

One is that the pool they’re standing in is shaped like Czechia. You’re looking from north to south in the photo, so the northern border of the country is actually at the bottom of the picture, and the guy on the right is standing more or less on Prague while the other guy is standing near Brno, the second largest city in the country. The fact that they’re pissing on the rest of the country is probably a statement of something.

The second thing is something I learned by watching the innumerable tour groups that walked by. The groups would circle up around the statue while the tour guide would go into long explanations of things in languages I didn’t understand (admittedly a wide range) and after a while the tour guide would reach over to the nearest statue and move its dick. Yes! The dicks go up and down! And they never stop pissing! This is how you know it’s Art.

Lauren and I watched these statues for a while, taking it all in, both before we went into the museum and after we came out since we didn’t stick together in the museum and we had some time to sit on the bench outside and just observe while Kim and Oliver finished up their more thorough examination of the displays. This is where we found out that Lauren actually got the job she had interviewed for when we were in Irsina, so she and I went across the way to a little bakery and bought celebratory gingerbread.

You can’t actually buy your tickets for the museum at the museum – you have to do that across the courtyard in the little gift shop, which is a lovely little absurdist touch when you think about it. We spent a fair amount of time and money in that gift shop afterward, and we regret nothing.

There’s also the giant K statue just outside the door, and you have to appreciate that.

Speaking as someone who has run a museum, the Kafka Museum is really well done. It’s dark and twisty, much as you would expect given its subject, and it is packed with information about Kafka’s life and times. Whoever put together really loved their job and understood the assignment. It’s not a place that will take you more than an hour or two, but it is definitely one you should put on your list if you find yourself in the city.

If you open the drawers in that room full of filing cabinets, sometimes you find phones where you can listen to things.

After we left the Kafka Museum we mostly wandered around the city for a while, stopping to look at grocery stores and various bits of artwork before we stumbled into our final bit of Kafka.

For reasons I cannot even begin to fathom but which probably involved a fair amount of distilled liquor, sometime in 2014 the city installed an 11-meter (36-foot) high statue of Franz Kafka’s head made entirely out of horizontal slices of highly polished steel, which means it looks a lot like the pissing guys by the museum except those are bronze. This is not a coincidence, since both were done by the same artist, a man who seems like he’d be a lot of fun late at night in a rundown bar. Each slice moves on its own, and every few minutes the whole thing starts rotating at different speeds so for a while it looks rather disheveled but then it all sort of magically snaps back to the original shape, though usually facing in a different direction from before. And then it does it again a few minutes later.

We watched it for a while and then realized two things: first, that it was raining a bit harder than it had been for most of the day, and second, that we were hungry and standing in front of an indoor shopping mall that had a food court in it. So we went inside and, for the second time and in a second country on this trip, we ended up at a McDonald’s. It’s slightly different in Czechia than either Italy or the US and for that reason more interesting, but not all that different really. Sometimes you’re just hungry and wet and happy to have something hot and familiar.

There are very few experiences I’ve had in my life that have been more surreal than sitting in a McDonald’s on a grey rainy day in Prague and watching the giant motorized head of Franz Kafka slowly spin around and around. It makes you question things, yes it does.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

BFT23 - The Sights of Prague

On our first full day in Prague we decided we were going to check off a few of the things that you’re supposed to do in Prague as a visitor, and since that included meals we headed out bright and early for the local farmer’s market.

Not too early. It was vacation after all.

And not too bright, really, since it rained most of the day.

It was the Vacation Day of Theseus, I suppose, but it was the thought that counted and we had a grand time, so there.

We looked up the route on our trusty GoogleMap machines, found a tram that would get us close, and then walked the rest of the way to the farmer’s market in a light rain that made us glad we’d bought those umbrellas at Wenceslas Square on our first evening in the city.

The market sits right by the river, and it was hopping as you would hope a farmer’s market would be. There were booths selling produce. There were booths selling baked goods. There were booths selling cheeses and meats. There were booths selling a fair assortment of alcohol – some of which was bottled for later, and some of which you could just get your day started with right then and there, which is always a surprise for Americans as for all the alleged moral decrepitude of the modern US it is still a fairly strict Victorian middle class place in many ways. It was pretty much everything you could want in a farmer’s market, all in a language that none of us happened to speak. People were pretty nice about it, though. Most people in Prague can speak at least a little English, and they’re often willing to do a bit of impromptu translating for those who can’t – a happy generosity that we were glad to benefit from. This is how Oliver and I bought our cheeses, as I recall.

We split up when we got there, with Kim and Lauren heading off into the depths of the market while Oliver and I stopped at the first place we saw that looked like it sold something we wanted to eat for breakfast. This happened to be a sausage booth.

Oliver and I did a bit of pointing and handing over of coins and eventually we found ourselves in possession of our meals. I got one of the big sausages, and Oliver got one of the smaller ones, though eventually he did go back for a big one too, as they were really good.

The booth had a small tent to the side with a table you could stand next to and eat your sausages out of the rain. You will note that this meal did not come with any utensils. You ripped the sausage apart with your hands and dunked it in the mustard, and if you felt particularly adventurous you could tear off a hunk of the bread to go with it. It was very good, though rather napkin-intensive. There were a bunch of us under the tent, and a Norwegian guy across from me struck up a conversation. Apparently he visits Prague on business a lot – he works in the paper industry, as I recall – and he really likes the city. We confirmed that we liked it too, so far, and apparently that’s all you need to have a perfectly lovely conversation with a stranger over a sausage.

Eventually Kim and Lauren had sausages as well. They were really good sausages.

We walked the length of the market for a while, pausing to admire the strawberries at one booth and the various things floating by on the river. Eventually we found another tram that took us to Wenceslas Square for a bit of shopping, and then it was on to the main attraction for the day – Prague Castle.

The Castle sits perched above the city, as you would expect with something designed to be both a visible symbol of power and a defensible fortress, and like everything else in Prague it is accessible by tram. We found the tram we wanted, got on, and about a stop later we were joined by the entire population of Spain along with their tour guide. They were friendly and polite so it wasn’t a bad ride but it was rather crowded and once we got off we made sure to walk ahead of them as we made our way up the hill and into the Castle grounds.

The Castle isn’t just one building. It’s an entire complex of buildings, encompassing several churches (including an entire cathedral), a Royal Palace, more than one pedestrian square, and a lane full of little shops, apartments, and assorted knick-knackery. There’s a lot to do there. We found our way to the main entry area and bought our tickets.

Our first stop was St. Vitus Cathedral, which is an incredibly impressive place and the first time I ran into one of the more intriguing things about being a tourist in Prague. In several of the places we visited I would go to the entry point and show my ticket to the person working there and they would immediately point to the camera hanging on a strap from my shoulder and convey, by word or gesture, that photography was strictly forbidden. I would of course agree with this prohibition – otherwise I’d have had to stand outside – and enter the site, only to discover that everyone and their idiot twin brother had their phones out, merrily snapping photographs without any sort of restriction or consequence whatever, and then I would join in. It was a little dance we did. I’m not sure why they singled me out other than that I had an easily identifiable camera – though, given advances in phone cameras, mine was neither the most sophisticated nor the most professional quality device there – or why, given the general lack of enforcement, they bothered with the charade of telling me I couldn’t take pictures. Perhaps it was a holdover from the old days of Soviet occupation, when the mere impression of doing a job was sufficient. But for whatever reason this act was performed at a fair number of the places we visited and I still came home with a wide variety of photographs which I am happy to reproduce here.

It took us some time to find the end of the line to get into the Cathedral, but eventually we did – it snaked through several courtyards and at least one tunnel, but it moved quickly enough. We all took photos as we got closer, since the Cathedral really was a lovely thing, and eventually they let us in.

It’s really big. We’d just been to the Basilica of St. Paul in Vatican City, which was bigger and which, in an astonishing display of pettiness, very carefully noted just how much bigger with brass inlays in the marble floor of the Basilica itself, but you can’t help but be impressed with St. Vitus.  We all took a pile of photographs, prohibitions notwithstanding.

It also has some interesting architectural features.

And a lot of just random things to see, ranging from religious artwork to statues of St. George the Elongated, to various bits of other things.

Off to the side there were several small, ornately decorated rooms, most of which you couldn’t get into because they were blocked off, but we looked into them anyway because somewhere in the Cathedral there is a door with seven locks that is only opened once every eight years or so. We never found it, but we had a good time looking for it. 
[EDIT: Kim says she found it.  It's in the room in the second photo below, just out of frame on the right.  She even says she told me about this at the time, which I will not deny.  This is the danger of taking so long to get things written down, I suppose.]

There was also this thing, which has to be the gaudiest thing I’ve ever seen and I’ve been to the House on the Rock. It’s even more so in person, as it seems to go on forever and every time you think you’ve gotten a fix on what it looks like you move slightly and a whole new vista of baroque excessiveness opens up before you. It. Was. Fascinating.

What really stood out about the Cathedral were the windows. The place is just covered with vast and ornate stained glass windows, each one more impressive than the last. Some are old and some are new. At least one was designed by Alphonse Mucha, one of the leading figures in the Art Nouveau movement and an artist with an entire museum dedicated to him in Prague which we went to a couple of days later. They’re all astonishingly gorgeous.

What else could we do but try to get in on that?

We left the Cathedral, though not without admiring the outside a bit more. The mosaic was bright and shiny on a grey day, and the iron figures on the gate represented the seasons.

From there we went into the Royal Palace, which was impressive enough but kind of suffered after the Cathedral. After again being summarily warned against taking photographs, we were allowed to go inside where we found ourselves in a big empty room with a path that led around it, surrounded by people taking photographs. There was a hallway that led off from one corner into some display areas full of oddities – notably a large green oven-like thing that stood in one of the little rooms.

The more interesting part was a small set of stairs that went up from the big room and led you to a records room where the government used to meet. It was full of old books and on the ceiling were the seals of various families who were required to register themselves, and it was quite impressive. There was also a replica set of the Czech crown jewels for those who wished to see them.

At one point we found ourselves outside of the Basilica of St. George – an ornate building on the outside, but a rather austere one inside.

We also stumbled into a small lane with shops and houses along the side, which was a pleasant way to end our time there. We visited a few of the shops – including one where Franz Kafka used to live, which I will get to in a separate post – and slowly made our way down the lane to the end where there was a former house showing an old silent movie about the various things that had happened there.

By this time we were hungry for lunch, and while we never did find the café we were looking for we eventually ended up in this place, which provided good food and interesting things to look at, and again we were impressed with how helpful the people working at these places were when it came to avoiding food allergies. 

From there we walked slowly down the hill, back toward the rest of the city and the Charles Bridge.

The one Required Element that I had for Prague was to walk across the Charles Bridge. I’m not sure why this made my list, other than the fact that I grew up in the Cold War and for much of my early life this was my impression of the Iron Curtain – a grey, foggy bridge across a slow river in an occupied country, a bridge lined with impassive statues and so thick with spies passing secrets that they were probably waiting in lines to do so. The accuracy of this impression was somewhat debatable even at the time, but there you have it. It was something I wanted to do, and since it was also a functional bridge that would take us from where we were to where we wanted to be it seemed like something that would serve multiple purposes.

We walked over to the Castle side of the bridge, through cobbled streets and various shops that we poked into, and then we found ourselves at the foot of the bridge. You have to climb up from the street level to get to it, but once you’re there you find yourself at a whole other street level.

On one side of the tower there is a thriving city street, and then you go through the archway under the tower and you’re on the bridge.

It’s a big, wide bridge full of pedestrians now. The spies have moved on to more clandestine spots, and even on a grey rainy day there was no fog, just people walking past the art. We had some discussion as to whether the art was original or reproduction – it turned out that most of it was original, but some wasn’t – and we took our time slowly ambling across, admiring the scenery and the river below.

Eventually we reached the end of the bridge and passed through the tower on that side.

It wasn’t the most dramatic part of our visit there, but I enjoyed it. Now I can say I have walked across the Charles Bridge, and that made me happy.

From there we took the tram back to our apartment for a siesta, and eventually went out to get dinner at the pho place down the street from us.