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.