Sunday, December 14, 2008

Carpe Diem

 id=Carp are so ugly, a colleague from Winnipeg recently told us, fishermen back home don't even bother taking the hooks out of their mouths. They just cut the lines.

Which would beg the rewrite: carpe carpium, (rather than carpe diem) or seize the carp. Or rather noli carpere carpium: don't seize the carp. (I knew my Latin would eventually come in handy).

In any case, Bratislava - Slovakia as a whole - is on the Cusp of Carp Season, what most of us would think of as Christmas. And the traditional Christmas meal - vying with Easter as the highest culinary point of the calendar - is the oh-so humble bottom-feeding carp. And potato salad.

Next week, the city (indeed, the country) will be peppered with schools of carp mongers selling the eponymous fish from portable vats, barrels or kiddie pools from sidewalks, town squares and general stores. Christmas Dinner will be selected by discerning diners and then tossed onto a scale and weighed. The Carp Man will then offer the buyer the option of clubbing to death dispatching and gutting Christmas Dinner himself or wrapping it up live for take-home. Traditionally, it's brought home live, either wrapped up in newspaper (hopefully for short treks home) or plastic bags, and then deposited into its temporary Carp Habitat (the bath tub) until Christmas Eve when it meets its destiny as Christmas Dinner.

Children, I have been told, delight in having Christmas Dinner splash about in the bath tub for several days. They feed Christmas Dinner, pet it, and frolic with it in whatever manner children and big ugly fish can frolic - although to the best of my knowledge, Christmas Dinners carp are not known for their playfulness. But who knows? Isn't it traumatic? I asked my students. You have what's almost a pet for a week or so and then thwack! - it's pass the horseradish.

Oh, but not so!

My parents used to tell me
, confessed one student, that just before Christmas, my carp had gone on vacation to Russia.
To which I wanted to respond, Vladimir, this is why you work in a call centre. Instead, another student sallied with you should have known better. No one comes back from 'a trip to' Russia alive.

To be fair (not really), carp is the Christmas Dinner of choice in not only Slovakia but also in the Czech Republic. The tradition seems to hearken from the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (although Hungarians wisely eschew carp for roast goose on Christmas Eve), but that still doesn't go far in explaining why über-oily bottom feeders are the meal du jour at Christmas. That carp is as far from being a delicacy as gastronomically possible is borne out by the fact that Slovakians will warn you not to choose too large of a carp because the really big ones are just too oily and gross. Wise words indeed.

Not surprisingly, environmentalists protest the brutality of the Christmas Carp Custom but unfortunately for the carp, no one here pays them much mind. Of course, the fact that Christmas Dinner is an especially bony meal and causes gazillions of holiday trips to the hospital nationwide on Christmas Eve should give Christmas revelers pause. But apparently, nothing says the holidays more than fishing fish bones out of your two-year old's throat.

There's a story circulating that Czech
playwright and president Václav Havel, was once "detained" by the Communists in a Prague prison back in the 1980's. Since he was a bit of a celebrity, he was given a tour of the prison he would soon be calling home, and was shown the interrogation "facilities", which included tubs where recalcitrant prisoners had been immersed to help loosen their tongues and refresh their memories. A tad concerned, Havel was reassured by his guide/guard that the bathtubs hadn't been used for interrogation purposes for some 30 years and that they were now only used by the prison personnel to keep their carp alive before Christmas.

What I have yet to figure out is where everyone bathes or showers those handful of days before Christmas while
Christmas Dinner awaits its fate in the nation's bathtubs. Of course, perhaps after having a live mud-sucking bottom-feeding carp living in the house for a handful of days, no one much notices the smell.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mea Culpa

 id=Mea culpa = sorry I've been doing such a shit job keeping this blog up-to-date (but it's not my fault).

Pán Kocúr and I have lost our coveted (and very pirated) wifi signal without which blogging loses much of its charm and all of its ease. So until the pizzeria below our apartment decides to do something about fixing its signal and learn how to make a proper penne al pesto (they prefer to omit the pesto), we will continue to be losers the hunters and peckers of the wifi world - searching for rogue signals whenever and wherever we can find them.

And although I have much to relate, I have very little time at this present moment to be o-so-snarkily-creative. My loyal reader(s), therefore, will have to make due with this little nugget: in this, the post-communist and very secular country of Slovakia, advent wreaths - with the appropriate number of candles lit - can be found gracing the desks of this city's news anchor desks. So yes, while we watch the violence escalate in Athens - okay we don't, we usually watch Slovak television only to watch the NHL highlights - two purple candles have been twinkling with the promise of Christmas all the while. And after this weekend, a third. And then a fourth.

I can't wait to find out what happens in this, the post-communist and very secular country of Slovakia, at Easter. Those desks are made from a lot of wood. A carpenter with a handful of nails could really go to town with those.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Reluctant History Lesson in Velvet

 id=I am listening to the church bells peel from Kostol Nanebovzatia Panny Márie which may or may not commemorate the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven - although I'm not really certain as my Slovak is still pretty much elementary non-existent. My language skills seem to have plateaued at being able to order a beer.

But I digress.

I am listening
to the church bells peel from Kostol Nanebovzatia Panny Márie up the street here on Blumentálska, and I am mindful that today is November 17th (very important) and a holiday (very very important). I thank the gods for that.

Indeed, if I were any sort of sensitive and
sentient human being, especially a sensitive and sentient human being who spent far too much of her prolonged student days drinking at various Student Union Buildings, I'd be taking advantage of today's date and blogging about International Students' Day and the Velvet Revolution. Yes, today marks the 19th anniversary of the peaceful (hence "velvet") student protests that triggered the unraveling and ultimate fall of Communism in Central/Eastern Europe.

But I have other plans.

Let me just say, by way of an aside, that 50 years prior to the Velvet Revolution, a
Czech medical student by the name of Jan Opletal was shot and killed in an anti-Nazi demonstration by - not surprisingly - the Nazis. His funeral on November 15th sparked further anti-Nazi demonstrations, the result of which was that all Czech universities and colleges were closed, nine students executed on the 17th of November, and 1200 students sent to concentration camps.

Time passes. In 1941, i
n commemoration of these events, November 17th is designated "International Students Day" by the Internal Students' Council in London - an organization rife with political refugees.

Time passes. In 1946, much of the country is liberated by the Red Army and grateful Czechoslovakians vote in the Communist Party
; within 2 years - and as the result of a coup d'état - the country becomes a Communist-ruled state.

Time passes. By 1968, the honeymoon phase has long fizzled out. Dissatisfied dissenter and country leader Alexander Dubček
tries to reform the Communist regime by suggesting that the media be allowed more latitude and that additional human rights (including the freedom to free speech and travel) be guaranteed by law - a sure-fire way to losing your Communist Party membership card. Which he does. The Soviet Union also responds by sending in the tanks. They stay for twenty-one years.

Time passes. In 1989, students in Prague choose November 17th - this politically-charged day - to march against those Communist visitors who had dropped by in 1968 and forgot to leave. To be fair, on the previous day, students here in Bratislava organized a similar event but possibly because it was Bratislava rather than Prague or the fact that they picked the wrong date, no one seemed to have paid too much attention. In Prague, the peaceful protesters are dispersed - no one is killed but radios erroneously broadcast that one student is dead, giving the movement added momentum and sympathy - and within days labour strikes begin to erupt across the country.

In the days that followed, a
ctors in theatres read the students' proclamation rather than their scripts, propelling playwright Václav Havel - who would become the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic - into the international spotlight. (Dubček who lost his key to the Executive Communist bathroom back in '68 over his insistence for silly human rights would become the elected speaker of the federal parliament.) Within 2 weeks, Communist-dominated Parliament removes the nasty little article entrenching Marxism-Leninism as the country's state ideology and the country's leadership a prerogative of the Communist Party.

The rest, as they say, is history - although a heartfelt huzzah! goes to the Czech Republic and Slovakia for their peaceful separation in 1993 - sparing countless children the necessity of learning how to spell

Damn! I wasn't going to talk about this at all. I was going to talk about our latest adventures at the Police Station. Damn, damn, damn! Perhaps,
International Students Day isn't the proper forum in which to talk about my low esteem issues with the Slovakian police. Or perhaps it is. In retrospect, I wish I were in Prague today - not just because the city is so stunning or the bagels authentic or the beer fabulous (although those are all truly valid reasons) - because students and people from all walks of life will gather at Jan Opletal's memorial and pay fitting tribute to this day. I've asked dozens of people in my classes - most of whom are fresh out of university - what's on the agenda in Bratislava - beyond the church bells which have long ceased ringing - and so far all I've gotten is I don't know. We're going to the cottage for the long weekend.


Friday, November 7, 2008

The World Bratislava is Mud-licious & Puddle-Wonderful

(with apologies to e.e. cummings)

To the best of my knowledge e.e. cummings never came to Bratislava because if he did - and I'm pretty sure he didn't - there would be a bronze sculpture of him somewhere in the old city. Bratislava seems pretty desperate eager to commemorate visits by the famous and not-so famous, and at this very moment I am waiting eagerly by the phone for my own appointment with a master sculptor - although I think that Pán Kocúr's ATM machine which robbed us of our savings would suit immortality better than me. In fact, I would like to be the one to pour a few tons of molten bronze on top of it - just to show that there are no hard feelings.

But I digress.

Mud. There is much mud in the city these days and it has nothing to do with the unseasonably warm weather we've been experiencing. The mud that I'm talking about can be found in inflatable wading pools.

Allow me to explain:

A few weekends ago, Pán K, a fellow colleague and I went to a Mexican restaurant/bar (rather "Mexican" restaurant/bar - as taco wings and my favourite, Lady's Hair Chicken, figure on the menu) to have some light refreshment. The fact that it was named Hysteria (instead of, say, El Diablo or El Toro) should have set off warning bells but it came highly recommended and we were stricken by a great thirst. As we looked for seats, we couldn't help but notice that a giant blue wading pool-like apparatus was being inflated near the bar. It's probably for mud wrestling, I said flippantly. Flippantly because this is, after all, a family restaurant.

Needless to say, within five minutes of my flippant comment, Two Bikini'd Young Things appeared in the room next to ours, where a
Group of Admirers of the Female Form - who were probably on their tenth rum and coke by this time - awaited said arrival with robust and undisguised enthusiasm. We watched as the Two Bikini'd Young Things removed what little they were wearing, pulled one lucky admirer to his feet, removed his t-shirt and jeans, and drew him into what was clearly now an inflatable wading pool filled with mud.

Now let me interrupt myself. Having been shorted a few Culture Cards by the Tourism Gods (clearly they were slipped to Prague when Bratislava wasn't looking), this tiny capital city that no one can find on a map has rebounded by becoming a destination point for stag parties. Indeed, Bratislava has become more than just a blip on the map of what is called "stag tourism" - some 1-2,000 Admirers of the Female Form can be found stumbling about the old city on any given weekend during Stag Season. What with cheap flights from the UK and even cheaper pints of Slovak and Czech beer, the city has become a weekend for debauchery, memorialized by thousands of disposable cameras belonging to the world's misguided and brain-dead bridegrooms and groomsmen. In 2007, the court here sentenced one 25-year old Brit to two months in prison for frolicking naked masturbating in a fountain. I can only hope that the fountain had been free of goldfish at the time.

Want to come to Bratislava and make an idiot of yourself? - websites abound which are dedicated to ensuring that, on the cusp of your nuptials, "a beautiful babe [will] take all her clothes off and slide naked over your body!" You and ten mates can get all mud-licious for a mere 625 euros. Fun! Of course, there are lots of other wholesome activities you can choose, but for the most part, the common denominators seem to be beer and naked girls. Of all the companies that promise to make a bride regret having said I do, my favourite is Bratislava Pissup with its signature Steak & Tits special. Sort of says it all (she shudders).

So as we gulped out beer, we watched in horror, delight, and disbelief (there were three of us after all), as the Two Naked Young Things romped about in the mud, sat on each other's faces, ground their netherbits, wrestled - all the while probably trying to remember when their term papers on Early Modern Poetry & the Industrial Revolution were due - and helped make true the dreams of a Group of Admirers of the Female Form - who were probably on their twelfth rum and coke by this time. This in a family restaurant! I could have brought my mother here, I whispered to my companions.

Indeed. I'm just glad that I didn't order the Lady's Hair Chicken.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ghost Town

 id=Today the streets of Bratislava are empty; you can, as Pán Kocúr is fond of saying, fire a cannon down the street and not hit anyone. This is true for two reasons: firstly, today is a national holiday. It is All Saints' Day - the day when Slovakians traditionally go to the cemeteries, clean the graves of the departed, leave flowers, and light a memorial candle. Department stores like Tesco have been selling red, yellow, and blue lanterns since September which either attests to the importance of the day or the overzealousness of the buyer for Tesco's candle department.

Secondly, that Bratislava is a ghost town today also has much to do with the fact that today is Saturday. Having survived the vagaries of living in Spain - a country without Sunday shopping (at least Franco had the decency to open its border with Gibraltar, whose grocery stores and pubs remained open 7 days a week) - I was totally unprepared for Saturday in Slovakia, a day which I had mistakenly assumed would be a prime shopping day.

Yes, the malls are open. Yes, Tesco and Carrefour are open. But on Saturday afternoons, the rest of the town rolls up its proverbial sidewalks, and since I live downtown, I find this little quirk puzzling, annoying and a major pain in the ass. By 1:00 in the afternoon on any given Saturday, downtown stores are closed. Neighbourhood convenience stores (potraviny's) close anytime between 12:30 and 1:00 which begs the question of how convenient they truly are. This has compelled
Pán Kocúr to be more organized when shopping for the weekend's beer. I have racked my pea-sized brain trying to account for Neutron-Bomb Saturdays, and all I can come up with is that on Saturday, the city's mercantile sector likes to join the rest of its citizenry shopping at Vienna's outlet mall, some 15 kilometres from Bratislava.

So it's All Saints' Day and those Slovakians who aren't spending Saturday at the mall or bargain-hunting in Vienna, are travelling to their hometowns to spend some time with the dead. I toyed with the idea of taking a stroll in our neighbourhood cemetery this afternoon, but my curiosity was quickly dampened by the rain beating down on our living room window. It seems that my innate inquisitiveness has its boundaries and those boundaries are really rather pathetic. (I'm sure I'll be housebound with the first snowfall). A few weeks ago,
Pán Kocúr and I did pass an afternoon at the Ondrejský cemetery up the road and found, amidst the rather Teutonic grave sculptures, petrified angels, and art deco grave art, an oddity: a mushroom. Or a toadstool - I never could tell the difference. Or more accurately, a stone mushroom (or toadstool) which had pushed its way up among the more conventional graves.

Why a mushroom (or a toadstool)? Was it associated with any particular person? Had that person been overly fond of fungi? Did the deceased die from eating a poisonous mushroom (or toadstool)? And more importantly, will anyone give that little mushroom (or toadstool) a good cleaning today and leave a candle beneath its cap? Rain be damned, I'm going to the cemetery today to find out.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Conference of the Immortals: Part the Second

The Nightmare in Bohemia Continues

"Enough!" bellowed Zeus, Watcher of the Sea Havens, wiping aside a fine dribble of ambrosia from the corner of his mouth. Pegasus, startled from his post-prandial nap, discreetly and judiciously stepped out of the great god’s line of vision. "Let us finish our Punishment of the Snarky One! Now where are we?"

Mount Olympus?" hedged Aphrodite, Averter of Unlawful Desires.

"No, no, no!" thundered Zeus. "What have we decided upon thus far?"

"Why didn't you just say that?" grumbled the Goddess of Love.

"So, Mačka in Slovak and her husband," Keen-Sighted Hermes began to summarize, "are stranded in Prague, with about 800 Czech crowns to their name -"

"Or thirty euros," Ploutos, God of Wealth explained to the gathered assembly of currency-challenged Olympians.

" - Yes, about thirty euros from which they'll have to buy at least one more international phone card and their hotel bill is still unpaid and they have no return ticket for the next day," reiterated Hermes. "
Because of the time difference, our pair of Deadbeats will have to wait about five hours before they can call the Snarky One's mother. Instead, they call The Nice Americans who are on their way to an airport in Spain - are we all on the same page here?"

"Is there a book you're following?" remonstrated Aphrodite. "I have no idea what you're all talking about. No one gave me a book."

"Aphro, please try to pay attention," chided Athena the Wise.

"This place sucks," pouted Genital-Loving Aphrodite.

"No, you suck," hissed Eos under her breath, still smarting from the curse Aphrodite had placed on her giving her an unquenchable and very inconvenient desire for young men.

"Suck," repeated Echo.

"Okay, so they call The Nice Americans," suggested Ares the Man-Slayer. "But then they learn that because The Nice Americans are on the road - we can put them somewhere in
France - it'll be several hours before they can wire money."

"Do they know that calling a cell phone rather than a land line will eat up their phone card credits?" asked Hades, Receiver of the Dead.

"They'll know soon enough!" chuckled Poseidon the Plant Nurturer.

"In the meantime," prompted Odysseus the Cunning, "because they feel guilty -"

"As they should," Beautiful-Ankled Demeter pointed out.

"Yes, as they should," continued Odysseus. "So let them spend part of the morning searching online for a Western Union office at the airport in Girona."

"What's Western Union?" asked Aphrodite, unsuccessfully stifling a yawn.

"An international money transfer service," replied Ploutos.

Girona?" asked Hestia of the Hearth. "I don't get out much."

"It's in the northeast of
Catalonia in Spain," explained Earth-Bearing Atlas, using his shoulders to shift the planet about so the Olympians could see where the city was exactly situated, "lying at the confluence of the Ter and Onyar rivers. Can you see it? With a recorded population in 2005 of 86,672 inhabitants, it ..."

"Yeah, yeah," interrupted Aphrodite, distractedly flipping through the pages of a Playgirl magazine. "Whatever."

"Needless to say, there won't be a
Western Union outlet at the airport -" proposed Artemis, Leader of the Dance.

"Sweet ...." murmured Odysseus, Raider of Cities.

"So they'll have to call The Nice Americans again and ask them to keep their eyes open for a shopping mall or something en route," continued her twin Apollo of the Mice, "which should be easy to do from a major highway -"

"NOT!" The gathered gods and goddesses doubled over in gales of laughter. Pegasus, startled from his post-prandial nap, opened an eye and gave the Olympians a filthy look.

"Exactly!" howled Apollo. "In any case, in spite of their generous offer to help and what with the flight they have to catch, the Snarky One and her husband really have no idea if The Nice Americans will be able to come through for them."

"Sweet..." murmured Odysseus, Of Many Devices.

"Sweet ..." repeated Echo.

"Since they now have a few hours to kill," the Dioskouroi, Patrons of Travellers reminded the group, "can they at least do some sightseeing?"

"They're not going to want to spend the few crowns they have on admission tickets to the castle or to any of the museums," mused Earth-Shaking Poseidon pensively. "Well, why not? Looking at a few bridges, gaping at a church or two, and gawking at the odd building doesn't cost anything!"

"The beer is cheap," offered Dionysus of the Wine Press. A few of the Olympians shook their heads in disgust. "What?!! I'm just saying ..."

"After a few hours of walking about the city," Hermes of the Golden Wand considered slowly, "and successfully killing time, they find a phone booth and call her mother."

"I think they should have to buy a new phone card," Hades, God of the Underworld pointed out. "Are you keeping track of their phone credits Ploutos?"

"Indeed, they have nothing," confirmed the God of Wealth. "They need to buy a new card."

Earth Mother Demeter politely raised her hand.

"Can we make the mother very understanding? I lost my only daughter to the Underworld for several months - you all remember what I went through when someone," she fixed her steely eye on Hades, "abducted her? It's only natural that a mother should worry.

"Yes, yes," Ploutos waved his hand impatiently. "The mother readily agrees to send money and yes, she expresses concern. Of course, it's still quite early and Western Union isn't even open yet in … where is she again?"

"Halifax - it's the largest city in the province of Nova Scotia in Canada," explained
Earth-Bearing Atlas, using his shoulders to shift the planet about so the Olympians could see exactly where the city was situated, "and originally occupied a small spit of land inside a palisade at the bottom of Citadel Hill ..."

"Yeah, yeah," interrupted Aphrodite, distractedly flipping through the pages of a Hustler magazine. "Whatever."

"So with time to kill," continued Hermes, "they can spend another hour or two looking at a few bridges, gaping at a church or two, and gawking at the odd building."

The Dioskouroi, Patrons of Travellers, nodded in approval.

"I bet their feet ache," commiserated lame Hephaestos.

"Good!" Golden-Winged Iris clapped her hands in glee. "She’s so snarky. I don’t like her one bit."

"In a couple of hours," checked Athena, Bridler of Horses, "they call her mother again, right?"

"Yes, but I think that we should send them back to their hotel to check their e-mail,” suggested Hermes. “They need a pick-up number to receive the money transfer. True, they can save their phone card credits that way but the constant traipsing about the city will serve to tire them out and waste precious time."

"Excellent idea!" exclaimed Wily Odysseus. "So, back to the hotel where an e-mail is waiting saying that money has been wired from Canada. There's a Western Union around the corner from where they’re staying but when they get there, find an English-speaking employee, and fill out the appropriate pick-up form -"

The gods and goddesses leaned forwards, craning their heads towards him as one.

"The person who works behind the desk will advise them", continued Much-Suffering Odysseus, savouring their anticipation, "that the currency selected by the Western Union outlet in Halifax was Slovak crowns rather than Czech crowns!"

“Bravo! Brilliant! Huzzah!” cried the gods, applauding raucously. Pegasus, startled from his post-prandial nap, opened an eye and gave the Olympians a filthy look.

"Unfortunately the young lady who works at that office is unaware that the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic parted company fifteen years ago, and when she heard the word 'Czech', she reasonably but erroneously registered Czechoslovakia. And, of course, the Prague office won't be able to issue the funds in Slovak crowns."

“Bravo! Brilliant! Huzzah!” cried the gods, applauding raucously.

"But they'll have to call her mother again," interjected Demeter. "It seems unfair to punish her mother by making her return to the Western Union branch again. I don’t think some people [stares fixedly at Hades] appreciate how much mothers suffer."

"Guilty by association!" cried Golden-Winged Iris. "Her daughter's so snarky. I don’t like her one bit."

"After calling her mother," continued Hera, Rich in Cows. "It should just be about time to call The Nice Americans."

"Okay, fine," responded ox-eyed Athena the Protectress. "But I don't think we should unnecessarily complicate this particular transaction. We're putting everybody through enough."

"Awwwwwwwwwww," groaned the fifty Nereids in unison.

"I agree," remonstrated Ox-Eyed Hera. "But because of their last experience at the Western Union near their hotel they'll be too embarrassed, so let's just send them to a different Western Union."

"Maybe to two because the woman at the first Western Union doesn't speak any English," suggested Artemis.

“They certainly are getting around,” observed Hephaestos of the Dragging Feet.

"Fine," nodded Queenly Hera. "But they receive enough money to at least pay their hotel bill."

"Time passes," said Hermes, picking up the thread, "to send them back to the hotel to check their e-mail again. I'm assuming they'll need a new pick-up number before they can return to Western Union for their mother’s money?"

"Absolutely and," demurred Wealthy Ploutos, nodding to Hera and Demeter, "this time there won't be a hitch. The Snarky One's mother's money will be there."

"I think they should call her mother to thank her," Hera said. "And call The Nice Americans to thank them as well."

"Then they'll have to buy another phone card," replied Hermes.

"Too bad," shot back Demeter, "It's the least they can do."

"But, can't we toss in another roadblock?" Odysseus proposed. "It's just that I'm having so much fun."

"Yes!" cried the fifty Nereids in unison.

"Yes!" screeched Golden-Winged Iris.
"She's so snarky. I don’t like her one bit."

"Yes," repeated Echo.

"They've already lost most of their Saturday!" argued Queenly Hera.

"Then on Sunday, could they get the departure time wrong for their train back to Bratislava?" prompted Apollo of the Python.

"Do you need to see where Bratislava is?" asked World-Bearing Atlas. "I can show you ..."

"And then it could depart half an hour late?" added his twin Artemis.

"Bravo! Brilliant! Huzzah!" cried the gods, applauding raucously.

"And maybe -" began Apollo of the Mildew.

"Enough!" roared the King of the Gods. "Enough. This will suffice. You have done well my children and the Snarky One's Punishment is just, but I think this must be the end."

He clapped his hands to disperse the gods, scattering scores of tiny thunderbolts and finally compelling Pegasus to search for quieter pastures in which to continue his post-prandial nap.

"The end," repeated Echo.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Conference of the Immortals: Part the First

A Nightmare in Bohemia

What?” roared Zeus setting the summit of Mount Olympus a-tremble with his oratory eruption. Pegasus, startled from his luncheon buffet, discreetly and judiciously stepped out of the great god’s line of vision. “Did I just hear what I think I heard?

“No, no ... it’s impossible. She couldn’t have!” gasped Apollo. His glorious sunbeams paled at the very thought of it.

“She did!” Zeus thundered. “She did!

“What’s going on?” purred a slovenly but nonetheless Golden Aphrodite, rubbing Hypnos-bearing grains of sand from her eyes. “Can’t a girl get a little beauty sleep around here?”

“Around here,” repeated Echo.

“It’s “Oh her,” said Aphrodite, rolling her eyes. “What’s she done this time?”

“She and that husband of hers went to Prague this morning,” the Bright One whispered in not very hushed tones. “And just before they left she said 'what could possibly go wrong?'"

"She didn’t!” shrieked the laughter-loving Goddess, throwing back her head and dissolving in gales of derisive glee.

“She did!” protested Apollo.

“She did!” repeated Echo.

“Well no one listens to her anyway,” and with a wave of her pearly hand, She Of The Beautiful Buttocks dismissed the subject forthwith.

“He does,” whispered Apollo, surreptitiously pointing towards the prodigious black thundercloud forming to his left.

Oohhhhh!” bellowed Zeus, shaking his head like a maddened bull, scattering scores of tiny thunderbolts in its wake. “She dares to challenge me? What could possibly go wrong? I'll show her what can 'possibly' go wrong! The hubris of it all! Has she learned nothing? She must be punished for once and for all! Bring me Swift-Footed Hermes! Summon Rosy-Fingered Dawn! Convene all the gods.

An hour later, the entire Olympian pantheon was seated before the Son of Chronos. “I have given this much thought,” blustered Zeus. “Her punishment is to begin this evening.”

“Why then? Why this evening?” the fifty Nereids asked, cowering – in unison – under his wrath. (Scores of thunderbolts were still flying haphazardly from his head).

Traditionally we have meted out our justice to her during the return trips,” clamoured the All Wise One. Remember all those star-crossed buses and trains in Morocco? All those ferries from Spain?

“But it hasn’t really worked, has it?” quipped Artemis Of The Golden Distaff – a little too petulantly for Zeus’ taste.

“Has it?” repeated Echo.

This evening will be a slight variation and it will definitely affect their return trip,” scowled the Cloud-Gather. “Any suggestions?

“Well, I know for a fact," began Ploutus, God of Wealth, "that they don't have too much money on their persons. He only withdrew enough from the ATM yesterday morning to buy two one-way tickets and some spending money for their first day –"

“'Spending money'”, clarified Athena of the Washing-Day Festival knowingly, making imaginary quotation marks in the air. “That means beer.”

“Beer," repeated Echo.

“In any case,” continued blind Ploutus (for he is blind), “it would be easy to arrange for a skimmer to be installed in the ATM he used yesterday. Of course, I would need Chronos' help with the small matter of manipulating time –”

“Piece of cake,” murmured Chronos, Portion of Time.

“What exactly is a skimmer?" asked Well-Girdled Aphrodite. “Doesn't it have something to do with cows and cream?”

The gathered gods and goddesses doubled over in gales of laughter. Pegasus, startled from his luncheon buffet, looked up and gave the Olympians a filthy look.
“A skimmer is a device,” sighed Hermes, Leader of Thieves. "It captures a mortal's account number, bank balance, and often his or her PIN number from the bank card. And –”

The gods and goddesses leaned forwards, craning their heads towards him as one.

“And,” interjected Wealthy Ploutus, savouring their anticipation, “we install a skimmer and then pluck a techno-savvy lowlife off the street and poof! no more money! I believe the term they use is insufficient funds!”

“Bravo! Brilliant! Huzzah!” cried the gods, applauding raucously.

“But let them discover their predicament late at night, after they've spent what little cash they have on copious amounts of Czech beer” offered Dionysus of the Wine Press. “They should at least enjoy a few litres of pilsner while they can.”

“True! true! It's always brightest before the storm," sagely pronounced the Anemoi Thuellai, the Spirits of Violent Wind Storms.

“And let them try every ATM in a four-block radius of their hotel!” piped up the Lame God Hephaestos.

“Can it be cold?" suggested Golden-Winged Iris. “She hates the cold. She’s so snarky. I don’t like her one bit.”

“Bit," repeated Echo.

“Then," continued He of the Dragging Feet, “they can check the computer at their hotel which will tell them that all of their money has been withdrawn. Can you imagine their reactions?”

“They'll just try to call the bank for clarification,” Athena the Protectress pointed out.

“I couldn't help but notice,” began Wily Hermes, “that they both forgot to bring their cell phone chargers so we can easily arrange for their phones to run out of power. That way they'll have to run out and buy a phone card and then call from the pay phone near their hotel.”

“In a darkened corner?” asked Hades of the Dead.

“Does it need saying?” replied Hermes.

“No, I suppose not,” acknowledged the King of the Underworld.

“And,” mused Odysseus the Cunning, “when they finally do call, all they'll hear is a taped message saying that there's a technical problem at the bank's end and to call again. That will give them a bit of hope - a complete red herring of course - that the problem is technical and can be quickly and easily resolved the next day. Nothing but a computer glitch, they'll think.”

“Hypnos? Where's Hypnos?” Hermes the Trickster called. Seeing the God of Sleep dozing on a cloud, he motioned to Eos, winged goddess of the dawn, to rouse him from his slumber.

“Hypnos,” he continued, "I think it would be a good idea if you absented yourself from their bedroom tonight. A long night of tossing and turning can only add to the fun.”

“I saw a sex shop a few blocks away, so I can keep busy if I can stay awake,” nodded the Spirit of Sleep in agreement.

“During their dark night of the soul,” Apollo of the Oracle prophesied, “they'll probably come up with a few stratagems. They're not completely stupid.”

“Completely stupid,” repeated Echo.

“The next morning they'll probably look for an internet café - from there they can call their bank on Skype. I think this time they should talk to a real person. The real person will tell them – ”

The gods and goddesses leaned forwards, craning their heads towards him as one.

“That all of the withdrawals are," Foreseeing Apollo continued, savouring their anticipation and making imaginary quotation marks in the air, 'legitimate!'”

“Bravo! Brilliant! Huzzah!” cried the gods, applauding raucously.

“Can you make her cry?” suggested Golden-Winged Iris. "I want her to cry. She’s so snarky. I don’t like her one bit.”

“So they have no money for their hotel, no money for their train tickets, barely enough money for food, and their cell phones are dead,” Ares, Destroyer of Cities counted on his fingers, “Should I assume their credit card is maxed?”

The gathered gods and goddesses doubled over in gales of laughter. Pegasus, startled from his luncheon buffet, looked up and gave the Olympians a filthy look.

"So, they're completely stranded. And of course, she'll do what all mortals do when they're in a bind: call her mother. It's so typical - I could write the script.” grumbled Demeter the Great Mother.

“We are writing the script!" chortled Hermes, Messenger of the Gods.

“No, no, no. She's not going to call her mother - there's a five-hour time difference between them,” corrected Chronos. "It's four in the morning in Halifax. She's irresponsible and self-centred but she's not that bad. No, maybe they could call their friends - you know, the ones living in Italy.”

“The Nice Americans?" queried Hermes the Interpreter.

“Yes, but they'll be driving through the south of France on their way to an airport near Barcelona,” added Swift-footed Hermes.

“Why Spain?" demanded Dionysus, Giver of Unmixed Wine, “I mean, I love a nice rioja just as much as the next person - and a tinto de verano is really nice in the summer - but why Spain?”

“I like the tortilla," wistfully added Athena the Wise. "served cold on a bocadillo with a nice glass of manzanilla.”

“And a ración of patatas bravas or patatas aioli," sighed All-Nourishing Demeter. “I'm getting hungry.”

“Goddesses, goddesses, can we stay focused?” snapped Chronos, clapping his hands. “Why Spain? - because having The Nice Americans on the road, it'll be a few hours until they can wire money. In the meantime, she can e-mail her mother. And then they wait.”

“Can they at least walk about the city and enjoy the sights?” demanded the Dioskouroi, Patrons of Travellers. "Just because they don't have any money doesn't mean that they can't appreciate the beauty of the city. They can at least have a coffee.”

“A coffee?!!" scoffed Dionysus First of the Vintage, “By the beard of Zeus, they're in Prague! Let them have a beer!”

“And those nice little honey cakes you can get in Prague?” mused Bountiful Demeter. “What are they called?”

“Medový dort?” suggested Athena.

“Dort.” repeated Echo.

Enough!” roared Zeus of the Thunderbolt, setting the summit of Mount Olympus a-tremble with his oratory eruption. “You have made an excellent start. Let us stop and have some refreshment -"

“Thank the gods,” whispered Demeter to Athena, “I was getting hungry.”

- and after our luncheon, we'll continue to mete out justice to Mačka in Slovak,” concluded Zeus Olympios.

“Mačka in Slovak.” repeated Echo.

End of Part the First. To Be Continued ...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bratislava Needs an Elephant

(but not just any elephant)

 id=Growing up where and when I did, I was educated about the rules of the road by no less than a dove-grey elephant in a red bow tie and orange hat better suited for a harlequin. No matter that he looked a little goofy - because he did - I was able to learn to look both ways before I crossed the street, to keep away from parked cars, and a few other safety nuggets to take along a road fraught with asshole car drivers (ACDs).

Introduced more than 60 years ago (*ahem* ... well before my time) in Southern Ontario, Elmer and his message of road safety helped to lower the incidence of traffic accidents involving children by 44% and his message has now been expanded to include internet safety and bullying programmes. O mores, o tempores.

Bratislava needs Elmer. Badly. The pachyderm's time has come.

Without exaggeration I can say that Pán Kocúr and I face death from an oncoming ACD pretty much every day of the week and often several times a day and that 100% of these near-
vehicular manslaughters transpire at crosswalks.

Can you hear Elmer weeping? I can.

The fact is, Bratislavan ACDs do not stop at crosswalks. Not only do they not stop, but in most cases, they do not even slow down. Not only do they not slow down, in most cases, they accelerate. And in pretty much every case, these drivers will lean on their horns if they find themselves approaching a crosswalk and having to deal with a pedestrian misfortunate discourteous enough to be in the middle of that
crossing and impeding their progress. Poor driver!

Last week, I brought up my latest
near-vehicular manslaughter incident in class - in a class of professional 20 & 30-somethings who work in the IT industry. My harrowing tale of almost certain death entertained them at best; at worst, it angered them. Angered them how, you ask? Did they commiserate with my plight? Shed hot tears at the thought of losing their teacher? Hang their heads in shame at their ignoble compatriot ACD? Dear reader, they did not.

What gives you the right to walk into a crosswalk when you see a car?


What gives you the right to walk into a crosswalk when you see a car?

I'm a pedestrian?


I think the law gives me the right.

No it doesn't.

Yes, it does.

No it doesn't.

And thus it continued. I tried to explain that crosswalks are intended to provide safe conduct for pedestrians - that not only should cars yield to me when I am already in the street but that they should stop and give me right of way when they see me waiting o-so-patiently on the curb.

On the curb?

The class dissolves into a tsunami of laughter. On the curb?

So what's the point of a crosswalk then? How do you use it?

You stand there until you can't see any cars at the end of the street and then you cross. Fast.

Well, there is some truth in that: the pedestrians I've seen taking their lives in their hands crossing at crosswalks do tend to beetle across pretty quickly. I guess there's no telling where and when a car may appear.
God, it's no wonder no one rides a bike here - this in a city where screeching ambulances outnumber pizza delivery cars.

A couple of years ago, I predicted that I would earn an
early death at the hands of one of Morocco's myriad of ACDs but I've since revised my forecast. Clearly, if I manag id=e to leave Slovakia in anything but a body bag, I can count myself fortunate. Until then, I'll just keep repeating Elmer's little mantra in my head whenever I hit the mean streets of Bratislava:

Look both ways
Before you cross the street.
Use your eyes, use your ears
before you use your feet.

... or better yet, just stay indoors.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Puzzling About Muzzling

 id=You'd think that by this point, having lived and worked overseas now for a handful of years, I'd be used to The Expression - The Expression I'm frequently on the receiving end of that tells me that my students clearly think that I am mentally feeble.

Don't you muzzle your dogs in Canada? delivered in such a tone so as not only to drive the point home that I'm mentally feeble but that, if there is no such muzzle law in Canada, then Canada is a few rungs lower on the Developing Nation status - hovering somewhere in the region of Burkina Faso - than my students had originally estimated.

I don't know if there's a national law - I don't think so. I mean, I haven't lived there in over 3 years and I've never owned a dog. I think pit bulls might be required to be muzzled in some provinces ...
We have a national highway! You don't! We began it some 50 years ago and it's been complete for over 30 and it barely takes 5 hours to travel across your entire country, or it would if you had a national highway but you don't, do you?!!

And so I rambled on, further entrenching myself as mentally feeble in my students' eyes, and my country as woefully backward. This all came about because Pán Kocúr and I had begun noticing how many dogs in Bratislava were carried about in purses muzzled - and frankly, it was a little weird if not disconcerting. So I asked my students if there is a muzzle law in Slovakia and sure enough there is. Interestingly (or at least interestingly to me) muzzles - or the muzzling of dogs here - is limited neither to breed nor weight. So the first time I saw a chihuahua in a muzzle, I had to laugh - its face being too diminutive to adequately fill the muzzle - and to say that the dog looked pathetic and its muzzle pathetically ineffectual goes without saying. (Although I just did).

It would seem that in Bratislava, there exists but one size of muzzle - what the Sears catalogue might have called "husky" boy (or dog) size - and with many of the city's inhabitants smitten with purse-sized dogs, it is obvious that one size does not fit all.

There seems to be two responses to the Muzzle Question: either small dogs are trotting about the city with cages essentially hanging from their heads or owners (or more accurately their dogs) are eschewing the muzzle altogether. The appropriate - if not legal - response might be to either import or produce size-appropriate muzzles but that idea has yet to catch on. Or better yet, fight the law.

I can hardly blame the dog owners who choose not to restrain their dogs: these face-caged animals don't look particularly happy and every time I see one I can't help but thing of Orwell's Winston Smith and his face-mask of starving rats. He wasn't very happy either. But what with this mishmash of non-muzzled and muzzled dogs, dogs the size of elk and dogs the size of rodents on the streets of Bratislava, clearly, it's a dog's breakfast out there.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

All Hail (the Taxi)

 id=I readily admit this: I don't get it. I just don't get Bratislava's taxis. And it's not that I'm being inordinately thick about this (I think) - I mean, what's there not to get about a taxi? - you flag one down, it takes you to your destination, and you pay the fare. The worse that can happen is that you get to enjoy the scenic route from Point A to Point B, or your driver is unable to make change for the bill you offer.

But here in Bratislava, there is an additional twist: the fares. The fares - rates 1 and 2 - differ depending on whether you call the taxi by phone (rate 2) or flag one down on the street (rate 1). Although to be accurate, you will probably never flag one down on the street because the only time you'll ever see one on the street - i.e., moving - is when it's ferrying a passenger from Point A to Point B (via the scenic route if it's a visitor to the city).

If you call ahead and order a taxi, you will pay about 30% less than if you find one parked by the side of the road. As taxis don't seem to cruise the streets of Bratislava looking to earn money for fares to pick up, you'll find them at several taxi stands dotted about the city - notably at shopping centres, airports, and train stations. So the upshot is, if I walk to a taxi stand, knock on the driver's window, (interrupting
Vladimir's crossword puzzle) and ask Vladimir to take me to the bus station, I will have to pay 30% more than if I called and asked him to come to my door.

So I ask you, dear reader: is it just me?

Over the past month, I have asked several of my classes to try to explain the logic of this situation to my feeble mind - with, surprisingly, no success at all. The best they have come up with is that the 30% should be viewed in the same vein as that fabled glass of water which is half empty or half full. The 30% is a savings which taxi companies offers its customers who patronize them with their custom - custom that (apparently) can only be conveyed by picking up a phone. This should be seen, I've been told, as an incentive to choosing a particular company. With almost 2 dozen taxi companies (including Fun Taxi, Hello Taxi, and Lady Taxi - which makes me think that Lionel Richie had a hand in naming the companies) serving a city that I could stuff into a shoe box, competition is fierce.

All I know is that if I'm standing outside in the pouring rain, I don't give a rat's ass which taxi picks me up, as long as one does.

But here's a thought: level the playing field. The 30% discount isn't a discount (half empty-half empty!) at all - it's the standard rate. Rate 1 is just 30% higher
(half empty-half empty!). Don't penalize those of us on the street who need a cab - or who don't have access to a cellphone. Oh, and perhaps those taxi companies who automatically charge the higher rate for pickups at hotels could revisit that policy as well. And those scenic routes? A ten-minute ride from downtown to a practically-downtown hotel needn't cost 30 euros - given that 30 euros is, for many people, the equivalent of or more than 3 hours' labour in Bratislava.

And that, dear reader, is why I just don't get it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

My Honourary Full Moon Day

 id=Strictly (or even loosely) speaking, there was no full moon yesterday; in fact, the moon, which is in its waning crescent phase, is anything but a full moon. But in my world, there are full moons and Full Moon Days, so having said that, yesterday was - if not a Full Moon Day - at the very least it was an Honourary Full Moon Day. And just to be clear, in my personal lexicon, a Full - or Honourary Full - Moon Day is nothing more than a less salty variant of "My Shitty Day" which I had intended to call this post, but ultimately decided against in deference to those of more delicate breeding than I.

So with no further ado, I present:

My Shitty Day Honourary Full Moon Day

1) I woke up and found that it was Thursday. Although Thursdays have the unique advantage of being one day closer to Friday, they are an onerous work day for me which begins at 7:30 with a 3-hour stint with my most hated least favourite client at the far edge of the city.

2) I stumbled into the bathroom and found that, not only was it still Thursday, but I had pink bumps on my right eyelid. I still don't know what those bumps might be but I doubt that they can be a good thing. I would add that Pán Kocúr's suggestion that they were insect bites did little to lessen my concern.
3) It began to rain shortly after I left the house. I was sin paraguas.

I didn't get a seat on the tram - whose interior did offer me a headier-than-usual cocktail of stale alcohol, sinus-blasting urine and fresh body odour - but I was afforded an excellent view of the torrential downpour which was now pummelling the outside world.

5) This being
my most hated least favourite client at the far edge of the city, I had to negotiate the 15-minute walk from the tram station to their office through a sidewalk-less industrial park during rush hour in the torrential down id=pour which I was now a part of, sin paraguas. I was not a pretty sight.

6) While negotiating my way, I was enveloped in a wall of projectile mud, thanks to the unhappy union of a swollen rain puddle and a particularly speedy truck - one of a host of half-ton, three-quarter-ton, and one-ton trucks - whose actual tonnage I could not swear to as I had just been enveloped in the aforesaid wall of mud.

Muttering various imprecations to God, his son, his mother, and all the saints and apostles, I continued on my way. At the one & only crosswalk along this id= road to hell route, I had to stand in the torrential downpour, sin paraguas for 8 minutes (yes, I timed it) waiting for a break in the traffic before I could cross. Bratislavan drivers have yet to come to terms with the concept of the crosswalk: not only will cars not yield to you, should you be audacious enough to begin venturing out into traffic, drivers will blast their horns at you for encumbering their progress from Point A to Point B as they whiz by you.

8) I arrived at
my most hated least favourite client soaked to the skin and caked with mud. I had also arrived equipped with the wrong books for my classes.

9) Later that day and well after a mind-numbingly underwhelming
3-hour stint with my most hated least favourite client at the far edge of the city, I left my apartment, umbrella in hand - although it was no longer raining - to catch a tram to the other side of town for a 1:00 class. My tram, which I could see at the other end of the street, seemed to be making no great effort to continue on its way. A quick glance toward the opposite end of the street solved the riddle: a tram had broken down on the track. I had 40 minutes to cross the Grey Blue Danube and get to work.

10) Deducing from the smell of burnt engine which pervaded the street that resurrecting the dead tram might take some time, I ran across the street to grab a bus which might take me to work in a slightly more circuitous fashion - but to work nonetheless. The bus passed me by as I waited in vain to cross at the crosswalk. Little had changed since 7:15 that morning:
Bratislavan drivers had still not come to terms with the concept of the crosswalk.

11) Muttering various imprecations to God, his son, his mother, and all the saints and apostles, I trotted back to where I started, with the intention of walking the 25 minutes or so to the
Grey Blue Danube where I could catch a bus which would take me to work. But Huzzah! the dead tram had been piggybacked to another tram and the backlog of traffic was beginning to move. I waited for my tram and boarded it with a light heart.

12) About 100 metres up the road, our progress was impeded by yet another tram -
Dead Tram #2 - not doing much of anything except being dead on the tracks. Along with my other passengers, I alighted the tram, muttering various imprecations to God, his son, his mother, and all the saints and apostles, with the resolution to walk the remaining distance to the Grey Blue Danube and catch a bus there.

13) Three minutes into this trek, I saw that Dead Tram #2 had
been piggybacked to another tram and the backlog of traffic was beginning to move. I waited for my tram at the next stop and boarded it with a light heart.

14) A block away from the
Grey Blue Danube, my tram inexplicably took a right-hand turn rather than continuing on toward the river, and lumbered down a street I had never ventured on before but which I knew was taking me away from the Grey Blue Danube. It would seem that, with all the confusion over dead and living trams, I had hopped on the wrong tram.

15) A
lighting the tram and muttering various imprecations to God, his son, his mother, and all the saints and apostles, I ran like the veritable cheetah that I am not to the Grey Blue Danube to catch my bus. I arrived at work at 12:59.

16) To the best of my knowledge I probably smelled badly.

To be fair, the day improved. Or if not improved, it didn't get any worse. Thursday, September the 25th was capped off with the receipt of an email at 6:45 p.m. indicating that my employer wished to see me at 6:00 p.m. the same day to discuss a "labour dispute" in which we are entangled. Given that he knows my work schedule, a phone call might have been a more effective way of making contact with me - but then I reminded myself that his incredible lack of foresight only adds to his overall incompetency charm.

But today is another day. The sun has reluctantly made an appearance for the time being, and the temperature has successfully aspired to (the low) double digits. It is a full week until I have to begin my day with the certain knowledge that I'll have to
negotiate the 15-minute walk from the tram station to the office of my most hated least favourite client at the far edge of the city. Those pink bumps are still there but they're itchy now so that must mean they're healing, right? And I must say that it's already 11:00 and I have yet to mutter any imprecations to God, his son, his mother, or any of the saints and apostles. This bodes well! ... although the day is still young.