Noilly Prattle: February 2012

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hunting for Food...and other things

My road buddy (promoted from “the SO”, then “my wife”) decided to hit the road within the road, so to speak. I hate phrases like “so to speak” or “as they say” or “as it were” but sometimes they are unavoidable—like a short cut or a detour. But, first, a little detour to splain how the SO evolved into my road buddy.

good road buddies
Over a glass of wine (in vino veritas) I said to my wife: “You know (and I'm not overly fond of “you know”, but you know how it is, you know?), you've been a good road buddy all these years.” And drank a toast to it. Then, remembering one of our first travels together, I continued: “Remember that horrible flophouse in Bangkok? Of course she remembered. “You didn't freak out. That's when I knew you'd be a good road buddy.”

Now that that's cleared up, on to the story of the hunts.

principal cast of "Maria Stuarda"
On a side trip by train from Prague for a few days to go to Linz for a production of Donizetti's opera “Maria Stuarda”, with a couple of stops along the route to see some castles and a medieval town. BTW, in case you haven't noticed, there are castles galore in the Czech Republic and in the rest of Europe for that matter.

Before going on to Linz, two days in Ceske Krumlov (a world heritage town); but pictures can say more about that beautiful town than words. On the return trip from Linz we got off the train in Ceske Budejovice (the original home of Budweiser beer) to take a local bus to a town called Hluboka nad Vltavou pod Kostelem (try saying that without biting your tongue). Here is where the story of the hunts begins.

First hunt: My road buddy's guidebook said there was a bus stop in front of Ceske Budejovice station where we could catch a bus up to the castle town. When we walked outside there were several bus stops all right but with all the schedules in Czech which neither of us can read. We were able to figure out by the transit map that we should take bus #4, but each stop we looked had any number but #4. Getting a little anxious and antsy now—new town, difficult language and only sporadic English speakers. At the last bus stop and no #4 I tapped a young woman on the shoulder and asked in very simple English and gestures where we could find #4. She seemed to have a halting knowledge of English and smiled (I smiled too, not to say 'beamed' back) and asked us to come with her saying: “We'll find it.” Back down the row of the wrong bus stops; she suggested we go across the street where there were more stops. Thanks and thanks and bowing and swearing eternal indebtedness we parted from the good samaritan and went to other side where we found #4 at the absolute last bus stop. Perfect strangers can be guardian angels I swear to the great spirit of the universe. Hugh sigh of relief!

Second hunt: We were staying at the Hotel Stekl annexed to Zamek Castle, which is what we stopped in Hluboka to see. We stayed in a castle as it were (there I go again!) Anyway, this story is getting longish. Sometimes you can't get started and then you can't stop writing.

I've got a few photos I want to tack on so I think I'll stop here and finish about the hunts next time. Serials and cliff hangers shorten the attention span required for reading and hopefully whet the appetite, or the curiosity, for the rest of the story. I wouldn't want to bore the audience.

my first impression of Zamek Castle

To be cont'd.  

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On the road

Hotel Stekl
I haven't gone on to my eternal reward yet, nor have I given up blogging, just haven't had time to get to it because we are on a side trip. Got a few ideas jumbling around in my head, but we have to check out of the "royal suit" in this "castle hotel" in  a few minutes. The "royal suite" in a story it itself, but no time to get into it. We are heading back to Prague after a look see at Zamek Hluboka Castle to which this Hotel Stekl is annexed. More later. Bye-bye.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

“Stalinist Architecture” now a 5-star Capitalist Hotel

Soviet tank in Prague 1968

Czechoslovakia was, until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, one the SSRs (Soviet Socialist Republics). (Remember the Prague Spring of 1968 when Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks appeared in Vaclav Square and put down an attempt at political liberalization by Alexander Dubcek.)

There is still an area of Prague where echoes of the Soviet era can still be heard—or rather remnants of the finest and ugliest of Soviet era buildings for Communist Party members and the proletariat can be seen. In the theoretically classless society you can imagine who got the finest buildings and who got the slum tenements.

guest house for high Party officials
now Hotel Crown Plaza Prague
no longer red star
We were looking for a restaurant in the Dejvice District a short tram ride north from our apartment. My wife wanted to try the roast duck that is the restaurant's specialty. There happens to be an interesting Soviet era building a 15-minute walk from the duck restaurant; we decided to have a look at it. Built in the 1950s as a guest house for Communist Party officials it is the largest example of so-called Stalinist architecture in Prague. The building stands out from everything around it complete with a no-longer red star on top and its blocky facade can't be missed even from afar. The beautiful entrance door is made of brass and glass, while the lobby is decorated with black marble facing and art deco elements here and there. There are some interesting bas relief sculptures over the entrance that are typical of Soviet art glorifying the proletariat, as well as some paintings inside also depicting rather sentimental and idealized views of peasant and worker life.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the building is now a 5-star hotel—the Hotel Crown Plaza 

bas relief over the entrance (1 of  3)
brass and glass entrance door
art deco glass panes
sentimentalized paintings of proletariat
idealized painting of peasantry

Walking back to the tram stop we walked past what I took to be the more prosaic Soviet era tenements that housed the ordinary workers who were not necessarily Party members and probably never got to see the inside of the Stalinist guest house. 

 stuccoed concrete - probablySoviet era housing
for ordinary workers

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Masked Parade that wasn't

We had arranged to meet with my wife's blog buddy, who has lived here in Prague with her husband for some eight years, in front of the Starbucks in Malostranské náměstí to view the masked parade that I mentioned in my previous post.

costumed family on Nerudova Street
As it turned out it was more of a masked milling about in another square up the hill from ours called Loretánské náměstí. As we were hanging around Malostranské there didn't seem to be any sign of a parade, but there were more people in the streets than usual who seemed to be going up Nerudova Street toward Loretánské; we decided to follow along and see what the score was.

up the steps

While we were walking up the hill I noticed a couple in costumes going the same way and decided to follow them, but they ducked into a coffee shop. A few minutes later I noticed a costumed family of four going up Nerudova and decided to follow them. I figured they must know where the action is. Soon they turned off to the right in what was a long flight of stairs towards what I knew to be Loretánské náměstí. Lo and behold there was music coming from the square and, as I puffed up to the top of the stairs and turned the corner there was the action. A large crowd, some costumed others not, was gathered around a group of musicians and milling around drinking some small glasses of alcoholic beverage, and taking photos of each other. So, we decided to do the same and took lots of fun and colorful pictures.

lovely young women of Prague

Vinohrady park
Later on we took my dear old tram 22 to meet with our friend's husband for lunch at a Mexican restaurant (Las Adelitas) near their flat. My wife and I had Blue Margaritas (tequila and Blue Curacao) before lunch—starting rather early in the day, but, what the hell, it's Carnevale time, right? The food was excellent and after lunch we walked around a bit in a beautiful nearby park in the Vinohrady (means vineyards) district of Prague, bought some wine and ended the day drinking wine with the great view from their flat, before returning, again on tram 22, to our own apartment in Malostranské.

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday, and tonight we are looking forward to a costumed baroque concert and dance. It's beginning to feel like the season is slowly turning.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Old Man Winter Fare Thee Well

poster for Carneval
It's been a rather long and bitterly cold snap this winter in Prague and throughout Europe. People were bundled up to the eyeballs (literally) in -15 C. temperatures. It was long underwear, woolen caps and triple and quadruple layers on the upper body.

carnevale mask
Now, it's time to bid winter goodbye and party before the Lenten season—yup, it's Mardi Gras time. The Venetian Carnavale and New Orleans' Mardi Gras are a couple of the better known ones, but Prague also has a long tradition of pre-lenten carnivals, interrupted during the Communist era, but being revived again as the Bohemian Carnevale.

comedy show in Old Town 
The festivities last about a week and end with Ash Wednesday signaling the start of Lent in Roman Catholicism. Lent, of course, is supposed to be a time of fasting and penance for one's “sinful life”, but before the penitence let the party roll on (adding on, I suppose, to the shopping cart of “sins” for which Lent is all the more necessary).

anti-ACTA demonstration
We have had a look see at some of the events (comedy shows every hour in the Old Town Square) and are going to watch a masked parade from Prague Castle, past our neighborhood, and on to the Old Town Square today. These events are free for the watching. BTW, there happened to be a large demonstration opposing Internet censorship at the same time as that comedy show the day we were there. The demonstration attracted far more people than the show in fact.

Clam Gallas Palace entrance
Tomorrow night we have tickets for an evening concert of baroque music and dancing to be held in an old baroque palace with an interesting name—Clam-Gallasův palác—across the Moldau River from here in Lesser Town. Not an opera, but we like baroque music and are looking forward to this concert.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Not a bad way to live

Reading some comments on my most recent posts I sense that I may have given the wrong impression, particularly in relation to the manner of Whitney Houston's death.

Let me be quite clear on one point: I am not advocating for slow suicide through drug and/or alcohol abuse. a burning pace like a white hot sun...
Being nearer the ending than the beginning of my own life (Alec Guiness in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai); surveying the canvas of my past 70 years it seems to me that we spend a good part of our lives wrestling with our inner demons—some successfully others not so. Many artists, not only wrestle with them but actively seek to express (and communicate) their struggle not only with their own inner demons, but the ones imposed on them by the societies they live in. This is why we are moved by music and art. These, dare I say, semi-divine beings live their lives at a burning pace like a white hot sun, such intensity perhaps too strong for mere mortals to withstand without the aid of relaxants and stimulants—think of that cup of coffee you have to have to get going in the morning, or that beer, or glass of wine or martini before dinner to relax in the evening.

So, these gifted people (Whitney, Elvis, Janice, Kurt, Michael [maybe Mozart?], the list is endless), their time in the limelight passing, killing the pain of declining popularity, perhaps ill health or abusive relationships, and what must, for them, be an incredible absence of adulation with the abuse of alcohol and drugs, chose consciously or unconsciously not to endure the unacceptability of obscurity; neither could they, unassisted, intentionally step through the exit door.

When I say “Not a bad way to go”, I am not saying that we should all drink and drug ourselves into oblivion. At 70 I am in good health, most of my demons banished, and, as long as I am able to do what I want to do, find life enjoyable and worth living, and I don't scoff at enhancements.

The immortals who will stay forever young in our memories shouldn't be mourned for the time nor the manner of their passing, but remembered for the gift of art and music they gave us.

That is what I meant by my “Not a bad way to go.” Not that they died young, but that they shared themselves and gave us so much in their short but intensely lived lives. That, I believe, is the greatest love of all, or the greatest gift of all.

Not a bad way to live, either.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Greatest Love Song of All Time

The Greatest Love of All

This is probably my all time favorite song since I first heard it by George Benson on his “Weekend in LA” album. Some critics contend that he sings the song better than Whitney Huston. I will say they are very different as are both the singers' voices. A person who commented on the above linked YouTube said it better than I can. He (or she) called it the “Greatest Love Song of all time.” BINGO!

I recommend listening to both versions (linked to this post and the previous one titled “Whitney”). Both are just an excuse to listen to the song again after all these years.
Oh, yeah, and listen carefully to the words.

Monday, February 13, 2012


Greatest Love of All

What on opera singer she could have been.

This is one of my favorite soul songs.

I first heard it performed by George Benson.

Whitney gives it another dimension with the gospel riffs here and there in it--and the incredible range and rapid octave shifts she could make.

She, like so many others before her, will stay forever young.

Not a bad way to go.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sex orgy at the opera

After a side trip to the winter wonderland of Fussen to see the castles (Schloss Hohenschwangau and Schloss Neuschwanstein)we returned to Munich to attend two operas: Wagner's Das Rhinegold and Donizetti's Roberto Devereux.

Das Rhinegold , ably conducted by Kent Nagano, was the second performance after the premier of a new production of Wagner's opening opera in the four-opera cycle of the Ring of the Nibelungen. It was a top tier performance by the entire cast but notably by the baritone Wolfgang Koch who played the bad guy Alberich and the tenor Stefan Margita who played the fire god Loge.

dancers on stage before Overture
closing scene with dancers clothed
It was especially notable for the avant-garde use of nearly naked human bodies to underline and emphasize various elements of the opera, such as the flow of water in the Rhine River in the opening scenes. The stage wasn't curtained and the dancers who were to do the non-singing elements of the opera were sitting and milling around the stage before the start of the music and undressed onstage and smeared each others bodies with blue paint as the overture began. They then began to emulate the flow of the river in what also looked like a sex orgy with entwined bodies writhing to the music. It was quite mesmerizing and erotic.

Roberto Devereau, conducted by Friedrich Haider, included the coloratura soprano Edita Gruberova (known to her fans as “la coloratura assoluta”) in the role of the aging Queen Elizabeth I of England. Although in her mid-60's, Gruberova's voice has lost none of the power, tone and subtle nuances in the very high register that she is rightly famous for. Never one of her strong points, her lower register seems to be weakening, but she still commands the stage as the artist and professional that she is.

Gruberova and incongruous crown
I do have one small point of contention. Although an opera about the 16th Century, this production is in modern dress with Elizabeth as a company CEO. You will notice an incongruous crown in the photo which doesn't fit the modern business theme. Maybe, just maybe mind you, they should do period dramas in period costumes, or find another prop more appropriate to modern business.

After the show, we were speaking with another operagoer at the tram stop outside the theater. She had come from Zurich specifically to see Gruberova, and she voiced a sentiment that the SO and I both share: to wit that no one else now singing can handle the very difficult Bellini and Donizetti roles that she seems to do so effortlessly.

She was ably supported by an outstanding cast that included the fine mezo-soprano Sonia Ganassi. She is able to hold her own in duets with Gruberova and that alone speaks volumes for her talent. The men also turned in stellar performances: baritone Fabio Mario Capitanacci as Nottingham and tenor Joseph Calleja as Roberto Devereux.


I seem to be having dustups with women lately.

No, not with the SO—other non-significant women (except at the time of the dustups)

the Brunhilde who caught me with my pants down and caused
camera shake is the woman coming through the doorway
The first encounter of the worst kind occurred at Neuschwanstein Castle. You must take a guided tour through the inside of the castle and, of course, since they herd you through a couple of gift shops, taking photos is not allowed. They want you to buy their stuff. However, bad boy that I am, I was sneaking a few shots when I thought the tour guide wasn't looking. I forgot about the tour on our heels which had a big bad Brunhilde type for a guide. I was in the middle of sneaking a shot with the camera, unbeknownst to me, pointed right at her when she let out a screech worthy of a true Valkyrie—in German. Of course I knew what was freaking her out, but I don't like being yelled at, especially in public, so I returned her dirty look, smirked and walked on—a symbolic extended middle finger. I kept an eye out for her, and tried to sneak a couple more pictures, when our own tour guide caught me, but she didn't yell, just pointed it out to me. I could appreciate that and stopped with the photos. As we were leaving, I caught my first antagonist watching me like a hawk as our tour ended. I smiled at her, but didn't wave.

The next drama occurred at the Munich Bayerische Staatsoper with the female person to my left. When the SO and I entered and found our seats this lady was standing half over my seat chatting with an apparent acquaintance in the row behind. I politely waited a few moments to she if she would realize that she was blocking my seat, but, no, she obliviously (or maybe she just didn't give a damn) kept on blocking and chatting. So, finally I caught her eye and pointed to the seat, which she slowly and reluctantly released. While waiting for the show to start, chatting with the SO and gesturing with my hands and arms, out of the corner of my eye I noticed the neighbor acting annoyed and impatient while following my gestures. During the performance I was chewing gum, I guess a little too loudly, when suddenly the lady turns to me during the performance and loudly and angrily whispers “gum”. OK, fair enough. I stopped chewing and stuck the gum under my tongue until the intermission, when I threw it away and suggested changing seats with the SO. I told her about the animosity that had built up with the woman as a result of the blocking the seat business. I didn't mind so much about being scolded for the gum, but I thought it was pretty rich coming from a person who had been rather rude about letting me have my seat before she was finished with her chat. People who give offense are the same ones who bridle when they feel offended—and that applies to me, too. I thought it best to put some space between the unhappy lady and me. But I'm still a gum chewer.

More about the dramas that are properly on the stage a little later. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Best “Figaro”--so far.

Contessa perdono - The Marriage of Figaro

Jan Chalupecky

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is one of the best known and best loved operas in the repertory, the result of the brilliant collaboration of Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. It is crammed with pithy humor, emotions that are universally felt and understood across cultures and some of the most beautiful music ever written in my opinion. The pacing of the action, in terms of theatrics, is near perfect—never a dull tedious moment.

Frantisek Zahrandnicek
This Figaro, presented Friday evening, February 3, 2012 at the Theater of the Estates in Prague, was the most enjoyable production that I have seen so far, bar none (and I've seen quite a few). Right from the opening notes of the Overture by conductor Jan Chalupecky you could tell that you were in for an auditory feast: crisp, clear, vibrant and pure Mozart. A moment of doubt crept in with Figaro's opening lines measuring the size of his marriage bed to see if would fit the room. The baritone, Frantisek Zahrandnicek, was not quite sharp and forceful enough, maybe a little off the beat. In fact, he was the weakest link, along with the mezo-soprano who played Cherubino, Stanislava Jirku, in an otherwise superbly cast production. Weak link doesn't mean poor quality singers, just not as WOW as the rest of the cast.  

Stanislava Jirku
The sopranos who sang the Countess Almaviva (Marie Fajtoka) and Suzanna (Jana Kacirkova) were pure ear candy—probably two of the finest interpretations of those roles I have so far listened to.

Marie Fajtoka
We had a box entirely to ourselves with an excellent view of the stage and total privacy. So, I surreptitiously (bad boy doing a no-no) tried a couple of videos. The audio quality doesn't do justice to the beautiful voices, but I put up a link to YouTube above anyway. And so the house prohibition against making recordings wins.

The baritone who played the Count Almaviva (the same Martin Barta I raved about in the role of Rigoletto recently) was extraordinary in the closing lines of the opera where he begs forgiveness (see YouTube clip) for his philandering transgressions and neglect of his unhappy wife, the Countess. Her notes of forgiveness along with her perfect delivery seemed celestially inspired—divine forgiveness shall we say.
Martin Barta

Jana Kacirkova
The SO and I were almost literally walking on air, cold as it was, on our way back home. Sharing a midnight snack we found ourselves burbling the usual adjectives and superlatives, which are becoming the norm after each performance. I jokingly said, biting into my peanut butter on toast, that we are beginning to sound like broken records. Perhaps it is my fate to be iconoclastic. 

private box with good view of stage

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Persian Odyssey Postponed

For those of my readers who may have been following my Iran remembrance and reconstruction of 1978 I apologize for my lack of attention to it, but perhaps I can be forgiven since I'm on a kind of new odyssey of discovery and the pure pleasure of being in a place that suits me to a T. Just when I think that there couldn't possibly be any more to learn about Prague, I turn a new corner and there, right before my eyes, is something I hadn't seen or noticed before. To put it plainly I'm rather preoccupied with being here and now; no time to dredge up the past. Persia is history and will still be there when I have the time to dig back into my memory. Iran, however, is another matter.

Caution: political rant to follow

I will mention that I am quite concerned with all the sabre rattling and beating of drums for a war with Iran. Unfortunately, the impetus for the latest round of Iran bashing is coming from Israel, which appears to be champing at the bit to try and drag the United States into sharing an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and inviting a serious blow up in the Middle East. All this on the unfounded hype that Iran is planning to build a nuclear weapon. If there were any evidence for it, it wouldn't be beyond comprehension considering the sanctions, scorn and hatred being heaped on the country and its leadership. Furthermore, the worst kept secret in the ME is that Iran's principal antagonist, Israel, is armed to the teeth with undeclared nuclear warheads and is not a signatory to the Non-proliferation Treaty, whereas Iran is.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Common sense would indicate that Iran would take no advantage from even a first strike on Israel with a few paltry bombs. It would, and knows it, invite immediate massive retaliation not only from Israel but from the United States as well. If nothing else, my limited experience living in Iran, tells me that the Iranians are not suicidal. If they want to live under Islam that's their business. And even Islamists are happy to do business as usual selling their oil.  I need only mention Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, which is much more strict and fanatical than Iran would ever dream of being. I know, I once lived there, too. Worst experience of my life.

Instead of all the bullshit hysteria and paranoia polluting the media waves these days why not just get down to business instead of trying to regain the promised land. It's 2012 and there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then. Even Moses didn't get there, but Bebe and his crew seem to be trying it again.

My apologies in advance to friends of the Jewish faith who might take offense at this post.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Routines—can't live with 'em...or without 'em

Things are settling down after nearly a month living in Prague. Two more to go before returning to Japan and full retirement from the 9 to 5 workaday world. This three-month stay serves as a kind of transition phase between the routine of getting up early enough to shower and have breakfast before leaving home at 8:15 a.m. for work and the non-routine (new routine?) of getting up whenever: leisurely coffee in bed, exercise, bath, brunch around 11-ish, out for afternoon walking exercise, dinner in or out and entertainment in the evening—or not as the case might be.

local opera goers fill the auditorium
Good to exceptionally good shows seem to be becoming the norm. The most recent events we've attended have all been above reproach and beyond criticism. Last night we went to see the ballet Swan Lake. It's truly a memorable experience to have nothing negative to say, especially for a demanding perfectionist like me. I am very much impressed with the professionalism and artistry of the performers here in Prague. If the theaters here are not “world-class” it may very well be because they are more concerned with high quality performances for people who truly enjoy them—and not, God help us, for fans of “stars”. True theater, the real deal.

I'm allowed to occasionally dig into my bag of gripes (I have a low opinion of fans). A blog of only sweetness and light would be ultimately boring (just as this blog may be). I know, I'm incorrigible. Just write whatever pops into my head. (But you should see what I delete.) Swan Lake was just simply beautiful to watch and listen to. The grace and precision and apparent weightlessness of the dancers and the simple beauty of bodies trained to the peak of perfection; “in form and moving how express and admirable,” said old Will S. in one of his plays—Hamlet, I think it was. Well, he must have had dancers in mind.

poor choice of seats this time
Come to think of it I DO have one small criticism of the ballet. I got a stiff neck leaning out over the balcony in order to see the whole stage. Our seats were too much to the side and half the stage was obscured. But that has nothing to do with the wonderful dancers and orchestra; it has everything to do with my poor choice of seats this time. I have only my own arse to kick.

3 curtain calls
The audience was obviously delighted with the performance as we applauded and whistled and bravoed enthusiastically, yours truly included, for nearly 5 minutes and 3 curtain calls.