Saturday, February 28, 2009

President Obama is Coming to the Czech Republic!

What a great time to be an American in Prague! It's incredibly interesting to watch the Czech Presidency of the EU (that's the first six months of the year), the Velvet Revolution is twenty years old in November, and the President of my country, the United States of America, is coming here in April! How cool is that?

It's not everyday that I'm inspired to write a politician a letter. My Czech friends, with their heartfelt and probing questions about the proposed missile base, inspired me to write this one to President Obama in January. Link on the title to read the post.

It's actually going to happen!

More Patriotism: In Love with Abe Lincoln

Ben Franklin said after America declared her independence: "you have a Republic, if you can keep it." The last eight years we came pretty close to internally losing our way as a country, rather than someone taking it away from us.

Bad leadership is not the norm in America. I don't know why, but my country has been blessed with some really extraordinary, humble men leading us that inspire love. Maybe I'm a little homesick for the known. Or maybe it's knowing that Lincoln inspires my new president too. Or maybe it's just I appreciate where this writer is coming from after I spent four days learning about Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois last year. This beautiful tribute to Abe Lincoln in word and pictures that I've linked to in the title moves me so, I wanted to share it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Unexpectedly Patriotic Weekend

This weekend I went over to my friends' flat and watched the first two installments of the HBO series "John Adams" about America's founding father and second president. My friend Nhan said, "it can't help but make you feel more patriotic." So true.

John Adams had an eye for talent. He considered himself obnoxious and widely unpopular in his own time. Yet it's impossible to not like a guy who valued his wife's advice so much. On my life list of 'things to do' is to read the letters John and Abigail Adams wrote to each other while he was away at the Continental Congress. In addition to selecting a great partner, Adams also suggested George Washington to be the first General of the Continental Army and Thomas Jefferson to author the Declaration of Independence. Humanity's general consensus: good calls.

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk

The next day I went out to see "Milk," the new movie about San Francisco activist Harvey Milk, starring Sean Penn. Sean Penn was totally believable as a gay man. Penn won the Oscar later that night for "Best Actor." He deserved it.

It was fascinating to see how America's founding fathers constantly inspire new generations of people to demand their rights. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician elected in America. Today in America, being openly gay still takes a lot of courage (American teenagers who are dealing with their sexual orientation have a higher than normal suicide attempt rate) but it's a lot easier because of people like Harvey Milk. This movie, like the "John Adams" mini-series, made me so damn proud of my country. Here was another wonderful example of Americans leading the cry for us to live as if "all men are created equal." MILK is a movie that sends hope all over the globe to people who need it. That's what the America I know and love is supposed to do. Spread hope.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My First Negative Experience in the Czech Republic

Yesterday my cell phone was pickpocketed. It happened at one of the metro stations most frequently used by tourists. Email me if you need to get ahold of me. I swore this would never happen to me and it did.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What was it like to be a Czech Christian during Communism?

St. Clement's Church in Old Town Prague

My church, St. Clements, is a happening place full of happening people. I like it. Nobody in the congregation takes themselves too seriously, including our very nice chaplain. I'm adding his blog to my list of Czech Expat Blogs on the side of my home page. Ricky Yates hails from Britain originally. I hope you enjoy reading about his Anglican adventures.

One of the things I enjoy most about my church is our wonderful sense of community. This week after church we had a quite fun and quite silly 'soup luncheon and bottle raffle'. Raffle tickets could be purchased for anything in a bottle. It was fun to chat up my fellow expats and see who would win the single malt scotch (which would be totally wasted on me!) and who would win the champagne and bubble bath (yea! I won these and they are not wasted on me!).

On behalf of my fellow parishioners, I'd like to invite you to join us if you live in the Prague area for a series of thought-provoking lectures about being a Christian during Communist times. Here are the details from Ricky so far with more to follow later:

Lent Seminar Series
2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. But what was it like to be a Christian during the Communist era, particularly the period of religious suppression that followed the Russian invasion of 1968? On five Thursday evenings during Lent, we will have five different speakers from various Czech Christian Churches speaking about their experience. They will either speak in English or be interpreted into English by one of our Czech speaking members.

Venue: No. 18 Klimentska down the street from the church (take the elevator to the 3rd floor). This is our fellowship hall.

Time: 7 p.m. - 9:15 p.m.

Thursday 5th March - Bishop Busan Hejbal of the Old Catholic Church
Bishop Dusan was forced to work as a tram driver and construction worker by the communist authorities. He was also a folk/rock protest singer and he has promised to bring along his guitar and possibly sing one or two of his protest songs!

Thursday 12th March - Professor Tomas Halik of the Roman Catholic Church
Professor Halik was secretly ordained as a Roman Catholic priest during the communist era in the former East Germany. He is a well-known writer and speaker and a number of his books have been translated into English by Church member Gerry Turner.

Thursday 19th March - Professor Jakub (Jack) Trojan of the Czech Evangelical Brethren
Professor Trojan is professor of theological ethics at the Protestant Faculty of Theology of Charles University.

Thursday 26th March & Thursday 2nd April
Confirmation of final speakers to be announced later.

Monday, February 16, 2009

I Could Have Danced All Night

For a jazz lover, the Prague Jazz scene is wonderfully vibrant. I could go hear live jazz in a different spot for probably three weeks straight. Last week though was something special: the 50th anniversary of Traditional Jazz Studio, a Prague jazz band playing FANTASTIC music.

You read that right. This band has been playing together since the 1950s for 50 years! Last week they played and reminisced at the smoke-free Czech National Museum of Music.

Pavel, clarinetist and band leader

Pavel, the band leader, said that back in the 50's, the Communist regime didn't object to their music too much because it was, after all, the music of the "poor American Negro." Doing more instrumental music, rather than vocals, helped avoid official objections.

By the 1960's Pavel said musicians must have dropped in status, in the regime's eyes, as a potential danger to be watched extra carefully. The authorities turned their censorous attention to people in literature instead.

The band playing together full tilt
This was probably
"When the Saints Go Marching In"
Two horn players having a blast (literally)
Fantastic brass and bass

The piano player had great riffs
all through the night

Align Center
I almost couldn't get a picture of the drummer
he was back there working the skins so hard

Two musicians who obviously enjoy each other
on the bandstand and off.
Here's someone you don't meet everyday: a contented man.
The trumpet player had all three
of his childhood dreams come true.
He became an engineer.
He plays the horn for joy, not as a job.
He played it in America, live.
No one could keep off the dance floor!

These guys have created magic for 50 years. The next day I was so exhilarated from all that dancing I kept singing Rogers and Hammerstein's "I could have danced all night, I could have danced all night." Is there a mailing list? Put me on in it! Wherever these guys are playing, I'm there!

You might enjoy this later post about Pavel's band:

An Evening of Jazz at the Reduta

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Two great spoofs

Rick Steves, an American TV host on PBS famous for his shows about travel in Europe, has found a new travel expert that he is really excited about...someone who may be able to tell you more about Europe than he can! Where else would you find someone this skilled but YouTube. Enjoy:

And daughter #2 has sent along an Obama spoof that perfectly captures America's joy besides being completely hilarious. I can just imagine the dance floor filling up with everyone singing along when this video gets played:>

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sunday Morning, Before Tourists, at Old Town Square

The Jan Hus Memorial on the square. Jan Hus was the Czech equivalent of Martin Luther. He is virtually unknown in the West.

How did this magnificent
baroque church end up with these buildings
in front of it?
Churchgoers must pass through a passageway
to get inside the church.

I attended one Sunday because I simply
could not resist the beautiful ringing bells.

One of a million examples of Czech
craftsmen's attention to detail.
I love this tilework!

No people yet. Only peace, quiet, and snow.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Two "Capitalist Running Dogs" Visit the Museum of Communism

Lenin and me -
there's something about Communist kitsch
that gives me the giggles
My friend Robin posing with
ideology frozen in a museum
like taxidermy

Soviet President Josef Stalin
and Kurt Gottwald,
the Czechoslovak Communist Premier

Gottwald was known for his drinking and his womanizing

(George Washington he was not)

Hey, isn't a decesive (sic) strike
against American Aggressors

what gets YOU up in the morning?

I practically expected this Communist victory
over Nazi, British, and American aggression
to be needlepointed!
What came first?
Young Pioneers or Camp Fire Girls?
The story of this monstrous ego trip
on Stalin's behalf was fascinating
and I was learning about it for the first time.

What's the difference between this and Mt. Rushmore?
Mt. Rushmore doesn't get dynamited with enthusiasm
when the administration changes.
This picture gives perspective on just how massive
that Stalin statue was going to be.
Communists like to make their art enormous
so the workers see it whether they want to or not.
This poster ACTUALLY SAYS:
No American agent shall get through our village!
Help the National Safety Corps protect your
United Agricultural Cooperative against Western Imperialists.

This one said:
"We know what to do with Bourgeois Imperialists!"

The interrogation room
The Communists finally messed with
that which can not be messed with:
rock and roll!

When they tried to surpress this
rock band, the Velvet Revolution started
with dissidents who signed a Charter
demanding that the Plastic People be allowed to play.
A facsimile of the Berlin Wall
The Museum of Communism was created by two Americans. It would take Americans to start it, because it will be years before Czechs are interested in the subject. They lived Communism and have no need to revisit in a museum.

The Museum has an irreverent tone which is part of it's charm (as witnessed by the title of this post).  One friend, a former Communist himself, hates this about the museum. "They don't capture the heartache and the tragedy and treat these crimes with all too frivolous an attitude." I do think that's a fair criticism.

One of the most shocking things in the museum is news footage from Wenceslas Square before the Communist regime was overthrown. Plainclothes policeman would infiltrate the crowds of people congregating to demand a better government. Then they would tell the uniformed police which ones to beat up. As to be expected, the young men in the crowd got it the worst. But there were many, many more bodies than they could possibly beat there and control was no longer in the government's hands. They couldn't beat them all.

One death is a tragedy,
A Million Deaths is a Statistic.
~Josef Stalin

I wish the nighttime footage from the Velvet Revolution was on display. I think that would interest the Czechs. They could show to their children the history of their admirable regime change. To this day, I remember it all and am inspired by it. I would like to show it to my children when they come to Prague. I would tell them this is the first of many things that I want you to know and respect about these people, the Czechs, that I'm living amongst.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Serious Girlfriend Time

Surely we look exactly the same as we did 30 years ago?

My beloved friend from Cottey College, Robin McClellan of Palco, Kansas was in serious need of a girlfriend weekend. Robin has a complicated life right now. She lives in Provence, France, where she is nursing her husband as he recovers from a brain tumor and raising her #2 daughter, her job with the American State Department is in New Delhi, India (currently on hold while she helps her husband) and husband Jim, the king of the grand gesture, is receiving his treatment in Perth, Australia where Robin was last posted as American Consul General. Nothing like a three-continent life to keep you busy.

To say Robin needed a girlfriend weekend would be an understatement. To top it all off, everyone in her house had the flu! Jim, and daughter #1 who was visiting for the holidays from Australia, insisted that Robin come see me in Prague. Yea!

Robin loves to tell the story
(which she did when she delivered
the commencement address at our alma mater)
of how when she lost the student body presidency
she ran off in tears - but not before her dear
friend Karen comforted her with the words:
"Robin, can I have your potatoes?"

Two girls in Old Town Square

Doing what Robin loves best: window shopping!
I think we visited 54 shops.

Relaxing on the Charles Bridge

When was the last time you saw an organ grinder?
This one is on the Charles Bridge over the river Vltava.

Rubbing the lucky statue on the bridge

Friday, February 6, 2009

Following My Favorite Blogs

I'm really enjoying the new feature offered by Blogger where you can sign up to follow someone's blog. It puts new posts from your favorite bloggers in a queue to read so that you don't have to click more than once on their blog to see if they've updated it.

Presumably it cuts down on the number of clicks my blog generated just to see if I had an update so each click is real readership growth.

One of my favorite humor blogs I follow is called "Adventures of a Foreign Salaryman in Tokyo. This guy consistently makes me laugh. He's a Swedish-born businessman working in Japan and he is the master of describing the absurb. Click on my title to give him a try.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Battle Royal for a Chief of a Czech State of Mind

Have you ever heard of the Kingdom of Wallachia? It's a delightful bit of fun thought up by the locals in one area of the Czech Republic. The imagined kingdom of Wallachia has so captured the imagination of Czechs that it is starting to create some real wealth. So who gets it? That's the question. The NYTimes had an article this week detailing the players.

We had something similar in my home state of Iowa. A couple of brothers who owned a T-shirt shop in a tiny town next to the resort lake of Okoboji, Iowa dreamed up the University of Okoboji. The motto: In God We Trust, All Others Cash. It was an immediate hit.

Ownership was clear, however, and the brothers have had a blast thinking up more and more uses for their University. Click on the title to read about the Czech kingdom of Wallachia. Even George Bush had a passport from there!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Wonderful English Language Theatre in Prague

One of the nice things about having a large English-speaking population in Prague is that expats have started to create and grow their own institutions. We are like the population of a smaller town within a larger city. We can keep the doors open to special gathering spots like bars, restaurants, and theaters on our own.

This weekend a friend and I went to see Glengarry Glen Ross, the Pulitzer-prize winning play by American David Mamet. It was presented by the Prague Playhouse under the direction of Brian Caspe. The play was held in a cozy theater called Divadlo Inspirace. The theater holds about 70 people in the gothic basement of Malostranske namesti 13, a stunningly beautiful part of town. The whole place, including the foyer where beer was sold, had the feeling of a secret clubhouse. Who else should be there but Blogging Gelle and a whole row of his pals, which was a fun surprise.

When I saw this play as a movie with Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon, I found the language so brutal it was hard to get passed it. But as Mamet said when he wrote his play set in a real estate sales office in Florida, "this is how real estate guys really do talk to each other." This time I was prepared for the language and was able to see the humor and the humanity of the characters.

There is a masterful opening monologue by actor Curtis Mathew, who played Shelly Levene, "the Machine" who tried to persuade his boss that he had just hit a selling dry spell and only needed the best leads to turn it all around. Throughout the play, Curtis did a great job showcasing the ego dejection of his dry spell and the ego inflation of turning it around.

If you've every been around a sales team, or managed a sales team, you will thoroughly enjoy the point-by-point account of how he closed a sale. Who hasn't heard a business war story retold in detail like that in real life? Heck, who hasn't told one!

There is another monologue I love in this play where one man accuses another of "being like a child" but I won't tell you anymore about it. I have to leave some surprises, right?

As usual, the Prague price for this professionally-acted theater is fantastic: 200 kc or $10 a seat. Brian predicts the show will sell out. Click on my title if you are interested in seeing the play on the remaining three dates that have seats available.

I would like to ask Czechs learning English if hearing and seeing an English language play is easier to understand than hearing an English-language movie? What do you think, my dear Czech friends?
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