Archive for February, 2010

Snowmelt

The snow is finally melting. After the coldest, longest winter in thirty or so years, temperatures are soaring to above zero and the snow is thinning and disappearing. Outside, the colour scheme has very suddenly and drastically expanded, after months of nothing by grey and white, grey and white.

I’ve never seen snow melt before and I feel like I’m witnessing something quietly magical. When it snows in the city here, they sweep it up against the curb and pile it all up, where it hardens into big, ugly mounds that take up half the sidewalk. These collect cigarette butts and city-dust and car exhaust and turn black with it all, the stark of the white showing up the filth that would otherwise meld into the pavement. These are shrinking now, slowly, leaving patches of damp and slicking the gutters. At the roadsides, the street cleaners wait hungrily for the solids left behind.

Snow never melts while you’re watching, of course; instead it thins gradually, so that you look over and there are these little patches of green where there wasn’t yesterday – grass that is still alive after all that. A little soggy and ruffled perhaps, like it has just come inside from a violent rainstorm, but green. Three days under a tent and the same stuff is brown as the Nullarbor, but chuck a foot more more of ice over it for a good couple of months and somehow it emerges alive.

Although the relief of those accustomed to and sick of snowy winters is palpable, I get the feeling I’m not ready for it to go yet. I know grass, I know green and blue together and glorious, I know what the sun feels like. But all that white, that’s the exhilaration of strangeness I’ve been craving. Those grand patches of perfect blankness; the squeak of new snow under thick boots and two pairs of socks; that icing-sugar snow that dusts over all the flaws and blemishes of this city like a botched cake made to look edible; the view out the window interrupted by tiny white dots settling gently from the sky; the way it sparkles in various shades of amber under street lamps like shopping centre displays – no, the way shopping centre displays glitter like snow, because that incredible beauty, the millions and millions of tiny shards of ice catching the light all at once, that’s what party-glitter and sequins have always been trying to emulate this whole time.

I will admit that I really enjoyed walking around outside today with my overcoat open, scarf untied, and gloveless. It was six whole degrees out. I had five layers on underneath that jacket but it was still something, a defiance.

And I saw a man smile out the window on the tram. Nobody smiles on public transport in Prague. You get the feeling that little things like that almost make long winters worth it.

– Zoe Barron

Mluvíte dobře anglicky

Even the beggars here are multilingual.

Surely, I thought, in the Czech republic, in a place I don’t know the language, where I don’t understand the difference between someone asking me for directions or asking for money – surely here I’m safe. Surely I don’t have to go through that moral dilemma of to give change or not to give. I can walk past a street canvaser, or those dudes in shopping centres selling credit cards, and just throw my hands up when they start talking at me, shake my head uncomprehendingly. So this is the approach I take with the beggars.

“Nerozumím”, I say, “I don’t understand” – forceful, hurried; but they just repeat it in English.

“Please, do you have any small change to give to me? I have trouble with the payphone and…”

This happened to me a few days ago at a metro station (the underground). A guy came up and asked me for change. He was all sunken features in a pale as paper face, with a manner as monotone and practised as his speech.

“Nerozumím” I said, looking up at him and shrugging. He was standing, though his posture was stooped, and I was sitting on one of the shin-high, metal railings that loop around the wide pillars that line some of the metro platforms. They’re low things, not for sitting on really, but they can double as benches if the need arises.

“Please, do you have some change,” he said, switching automatically to English. “Just a few crowns for me, I…”

I broke eye contact and shook my head, stared hard at the tiles. “Ne” I said. “No.

He stopped and leaned in a little closer.

“You are a mother fucker,” he said, and turned to shuffle away. He said it in the same monotone as before, but in clipped, well-pronouced syllables, with a comfortable space between “mother” and “fucker” for emphasis and clarity.

I was incenced. “You’re more of a motherfucker,” came my mumbled, primary school reply. But, you know, I meant it. Surely, on the scale of things, he was far more likely to fuck mothers than I was. He was the motherfucker. I was just some innocent waiting to catch my train.

I said it loud enough for him to hear me but he had already turned away and was asking someone else. In Czech this time.

I came up with all sorts of clever retorts on the train, at my station, up the escalators, on the tram. But really, when I think of it now, I probably should have just complemented him on his English and left it at that. That what my Czech language tapes would have done.

– Zoe Barron

Take Note

Hey, this new Australian firewall business is something that really deserves some attention and probably some action as well. Being on the other side of the world I can’t do a whole lot, but you can.

[A digression in square brackets: I just found out that a Czech poet was trying to describe where Australia was geographically in relation to Europe. He said that if the earth was transparent, the Czechs would be able to look up Australian women’s dresses.]

A good mate of mine, Ben Ainslie, descibes his interpretation of the situation on his blog HERE. He also keeps a mighty fine blog that’s worth checking out regardless.

– Zoe Barron

The Search for Suitable Lodgings

I’ve been looking for a flat. Finding one I actually want to live in has proved more difficult that I thought. There are times I want to turn to the person showing me around and say, “Look, sorry, It’s a good price and the room’s OK and everything, even with its prison cell lighting, and your dog’s sort of cute and all, but it’s also pretty nervous-looking and it seems like it would be really needy and annoying.  And I feel kinda sorry for that rabbit in its small cage in your dark hallway. And, well, the kitchen’s the size of a toilet cubicle and there’s no common area to speak of, the whole place smells of old sweaty feet, you have to climb eight flights of stairs to get there and your neighbourhood appears to be populated entirely by teenage gangs, young mothers and junkies. But, you know, thanks for showing me around and good luck finding a flatmate you like.”

There also seems to be a tradition here of landlords organising tenants for individual rooms, so sometimes you show up at a flat and don’t even get to meet the people you’d be living with. Other times the flat’s good, the flatmates seem nice, but the price is too high, or the area isn’t great.

One of these was in Vinohrady, sort of the Fitzroy of Prague, both in terms of street cred and price. A flat there is usually around 8,000 CZK (around $500) at the cheapest, which is really expensive for Prague, and most of the places are more. On the other hand, in the Fitzroy tradition, it’s packed with bars, cafes, second hand shops and music joints, as well as a couple of really nice parks, including Havličkovy sady, which has view like this:

This park is a few blocks away from that particular flat, but five or so minutes from the metro station and right in the middle of Vinohrady. Close to everything.

Jana, The girl who let me in was skinny, cynical and cigarette brown. Her neck and arms seemed to hang forward from her collarbone, like a top-heavy marionette. She led me into an tiny elevator, old and solid as a ship, and then into the apartment where she offered me tea and chain-smoked at the kitchen table as we chatted. The main area – entrance hall, kitchen down the end – was all one wide rectangle with the doors to the rooms leading off of it.

I liked her right away. She had an unapologetic honesty about her that I admired, and she talked about tobogganing down hills in the park on a garbage bag (which has almost made me take the flat right then and there). She shared a room with her boyfriend, who had just returned from several years in England, and the other room was inhabited by a 30-something artist type who made sound for films. I didn’t get to meet the other two but the way she described them, I knew it would be a cool mob to live amongst. And they were all Czech, which offset the ex-pat saturation of the neighbourhood and would be good for my language skills.

The room, though, was small, harshly-lit, unfurnished and, most of all, 8,000 CZK(bills included), which is more than I want to pay. Especially if I have to go and find furniture for it in a country that doesn’t have milk crates. Also, if smoking in the kitchen is allowed, I will, and I should really try to avoid that kind of business.

So, two days later, I made the sensible decision and turned it down. My mother will be happy and lungs are grateful, I’m sure, but I can’t shake the feeling I’m missing out on something. Adventures go on in that house, I’m sure of it. Parties would not feel out of place there. Friends could crash on the couch without feeling like intruders. Jana is an interesting character I want to know more about and I’d be keen to meet the others.

It’s still available, the ad was just reposted on the flatsharing site.

Today, I saw another great place, which I’ve accepted if they’ll have me. It’s a nice room, well lit, furnished and 7,000 CZK with bills. Good-sized kitchen, gas stove, lovely living area/dinning area, nice enough flatmates, in an inoffensive sort of way. They’re showing quite a few people through today and said they’d let me know.

If not though, well, I’m pretty sick of looking at flats. And what’s $500 when you’re tobogganing down hills on garbage bags, anyway?

– Zoe Barron

Other Really Cool Things Winter Can Do

You average supernmarket receipt encased in ice by a sidewalk.

– Zoe Barron

– Zoe Barron

History. What is it Good for.

I’ve been in Prague just over a week now, staying in a giant family home on a hill in a little village called Řevnice, about half-an-hour outside of the city by train. Think Sanderingham from Melbourne, or Fremantle from Perth – that sort of distance and separation from the main city. The ‘burbs, but European style; so instead of being a suburb, Řevnice is a village.

Outside it snows and snows but in here it’s t-shirt weather. I have my own room and the run of the pantry and the bathrooms have HEATED TOWEL RACKS. In the living room, draped across the floor or over pieces of furniture, are two very ugly but extremely luxurious cats.

The family is wonderful. Johana, the girl who invited me to stay, is around my age, softly spoken and lovely. She’s been taking me to the doctor and translating for me (going from 30 degrees to –10 can make you pretty sick, apparently), explaining to the pharmacist what I need, organising my public transport card, the list goes on. I think her sister, 14 year-old sister Estelle, is afraid of me though she seems to be loosening up some now that I’ve been here a while. She doesn’t know enough English to make up a conversation so I haven’t been able to talk to her or get to know her at all.

The girls’ father, Doučan, likes books and stability, while the mother, Martzella (that’s wrong but I’m not sure how to spell it), is restless and constantly travelling. She’s always apologising for the state of her English but when she speaks, she gestures with her whole body. I think she likes having me here because I’m from somewhere else. She jokes that if it weren’t for Doučan the house would be an international hostel.

Doučan is a banker or economist or something along those lines, and one of those men with the weight of the world on their brow. I think he likes having me around because I’m someone new to talk history and politics with, and he sits and shares his white wine with me and we talk about the shambles that is the Czech government, or the faltering state of the European economy, or the unusually long and snowy winter we’re having and how there will probably be problems with flooding when it all melts at once.

We were having one of these conversations the other night, talking about how communism has left a lot of Eastern Bloc countries with struggling governments and problems economically. They’ve had to relearn how to do everything. Even now, twenty years after the wall came down, after Gorbachev and Glasnost and Perestroika, the Czech Republic is still having political crisis all over the place. Doučan was telling me how their many parties keep similar policies but disagree on the smallest of things, how the country’s in debt, how difficult it is to move things forward and away.

We moved on to history. It is after all what I came over here to study and I like talking about how Australia doesn’t really have any, and how great it is to be in a place with a legacy and a study-able story that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. How you can walk around the city among these old buildings – buildings that really are old, not just made to look that way. There’s so much more depth here than in Australia, influences that have resonated right through to now, that can be traced back and looked into.

Doučan just sighed, leaned back in his chair and said, “Yes, but what good is it?”

Which stopped me right in my naïve, young country tracks. He was thinking, no doubt, about the damage that a history can do, that those old influences aren’t just something to be studied – they’re something that has shaped and determined his country.

What history Australia does have it’s often pretty guilty about, but in comparrison we’re a young, mostly unburdened sort of place. We started anew a hundred-odd years ago, destroying any sense of the old the previous inhabitants had as we went. We have little history, but we’re lighter for it.

Doučan expressed in those few words something I’ve been sensing since I arrived, and something Alex and I discussed a bit when I was in Berlin: the burden of history. Here, in the Central/Eastern parts of Europe, there’s a strong feeling of long recovery. Germany, the Czech Republic, probably most of the countries in the region (though I haven’t been to them yet to see for myself), are recovering from their histories. Berlin’s got a divided city to knit together, Prague’s got a regime to bury. There’s a lot of weight in that and it shows in the people. They’re a long way along now, of course, but the effects do still perpetuate.

I’ve always just seen history as this amazingly intricate story that I get to unravel and examine and write essays about at school. Because the histories I’ve studied have never been mine (when I can avoid studying Australian history I do) they’ve never been able to take on much more significance. I understand it’s non-fiction, of course, but without experiencing the effects first hand, it’s hard to conceptualise them as much more than stories.

Coming here has so far had the exact effect I was hoping it would – it’s making history real. It’s giving me a better idea of why it should be studied, and how. It’s not just a story now, it’s the occurrences and influences that have lead up to and shaped the present.

– Zoe Barron

The whitest thing I ever saw

Outside, it’s snowing heavily. Mostly, in this late stage of winter, it snows in tiny white dots that are almost invisible unless contrasted against a dark surface. But sometimes, like now, the tiny white dots clump together and fall in big, bold clusters. “Like broken pillow”, the Czech girl whose house I’m staying at said today.

From the plane it was such a different landscape from what I’m used to. It was so untouched – just these great areas of perfect blankness. As we were flying over Hungary, I wrote in my notebook, “The raised patches of forest are dusted grey with it, roads carved creases in it, houses stamp neat little squares in it. This is new. Completely new.”

The first time I saw it snow, I was in Berlin at Alex’s house. We were sitting on the floor of his bedroom eating lunch and drinking tea. I had my back to the window. Suddenly, Alex got very excited and started pointing outside. “This is what I really wanted you to see,” he said. We jumped up, left the plates on the floor and hurried through the regular ritual of dressing for the outdoors.

Already I was wearing thermal long underpants under my jeans, an undershirt, thermal t-shirt, sweater vest and jumper but then at the doorway we put on big boots over our two pairs of socks, overcoats, beanies (or apocalypse hat in my case), gloves and scarves. As Alex’s housemate Frazie likes to say, “The only way is the onion way.”

What I find most wonderful about snow is how softly it falls. It is this delicate white decent, drifting to the ground or alighting upon your shoulders, head and back without you even feeling it land. It is such a silent, gentle process, this whiting out of the world.

And when you look at it closely, snowflakes are the way they’re supposed to look. They are the tiny and intricate fractal patterns we tried to imitate around Christmas time in school: cutting triangles out of folded paper in fan-cooled classrooms, while outside 30 degrees bore down on our yellow ovals.

When it it’s new, snow squeaks underfoot like the fine sand at the Queensland beach near my mother’s house. It is powdery stuff and it won’t pack into snowballs – it just falls apart in your gloves. So my first few attempts at pelting Alex with snow were pretty pathetic. But if you leave it overnight, it hardens and packs very well. You can make snowballs, snowmen, snow-most-things.

So the day after, Alex and I went to this giant park near his house. It was hailing but small hail, interspersed with tiny snowflakes. The park is presided over by an old bomb bunker and is the only place Alex has found in Berlin so far where you can actually see the city – everywhere else is flat and you just get lost in the old jungle of five-or-so-story apartment buildings and stores. (There are height restrictions on this flat city, and it was built on a swamp, so it’s difficult to keep anything upright.)

Here we discovered the snowball effect. You just have to gather together a small clump of snow and then roll it along the ground in some more snow, and suddenly you have a really big clump of snow. We disappointingly discovered that you can’t make a snowball and roll it down a hill on its own like in the cartoons, until it is a giant man-sized monster of a snowball out to swallow old ladies and dog-walkers in the park. We tried, but it didn’t work. Lucky for the passers-by anyway.

We did, however, create and then violently dismember a very ugly hunchbacked snowman named Ron. Here are some photos.

– Zoe Barron