Baby Jesus and the Brandy: A Czech Christmas Tale Part 2

So as previously discussed, Christmas is not exactly a standardized holiday. Between different nations and/or cultures, the day may be different, the events may proceed differently, the movies are different, et cetera et cetera. There is one rather large part I’ve left out. Food. As opposed to the expected US Thanksgiving, Christmas has no set standard of foods. Some people will prepare turkey (a feverish roll-over from Thanksgiving, I’m sure), but there’s also ham, roast beef, pork roasts, lamb, among others. There’s no one “correct” side dish either, compared to the expected cornucopia surrounding the Thanksgiving turkey.

To the same extent, there is little agreement on desserts, either. Gingerbread men, and maybe decorated sugar cookies? The rest is family tradition or history. Perhaps this has something to do with America’s multi-ethnic and multicultural history, but there isn’t any definitive “American Christmas meal” that I’ve ever known of. The Czechs, however, do have such a thing.

With Vánoce (again, the Czech equivalent of Christmas, please see above link for more clarity and background), their meal of choice is kapr, or, carp. A big ol’ fish.

As a side note, it’s fascinating, really, as opposed to the very typical American standard of having your fish pretty well-prepared and pre-prepped for you in the supermarkets, most European markets have the whole proper fish just chilling out by the deli, and the fishmonger/fish cutter behind the counter can, if you so choose, fillet the fish for you. With the carp, the history of it goes one step further by having you buy the living fish.

“But where,” I hear no one ask, “do they keep the fish, oh brave and learned scribe?” Well, non-existent inquisitor, you may make the humourous observation of using the tub. And you would be correct. Many families keep the carp in their tubs for a day or two before Vánoce before killing and preparing it for dinner. I’ve been told that it helps give time for the fish to “cleanse” itself before preparation, and I have no reason to doubt that.

“But where,” they doggedly continue, “do they bathe when the fish has taken residence in their tub?” Well, most obviously don’t bathe with the fish. It is merely transferred to a bucket or some other smaller vessel for a small time, and dropped back in afterwards. Or due to the traditionally family-oriented nature of the holiday, one would just bathe at a relative’s place. Or you have multiple bathrooms. There’s always some solution.

Not all families now are as comfortable personally killing the carp, so some families now will have someone prepare their fish for them, or they’ll buy the recently-prepared fish from a market. From what I’ve seen though, it still seems to be a day or two before Vánoce, so it’s a level of anxiety that most just come to expect and fear for every holiday season. If you remember that presents come after dinner, the exactness of preparation needed seems far more than the “average” Christmas panic.

So there’s the carp. The second traditional dish for Vánoce? Potato salad. Like any other dish, there are specific styles and methods passed down through generations, but I have been told that it must be homemade.

There are also cookies. Many cookies. I first had Czech Vánoce cookies when I was here last year for New Years (well, technically two years ago, now – 2013 into 2014). There are invariably many cookies, and invariably many types of cookies. Sugar cookies, almond-y cookies, chocolate biscuit things, different types of cream-puff-type-things, butter cookies, tea cookies with jam, and the list goes on.

Perhaps some will be wondering about the “brandy” bit of the title. Well, that’s interesting. I’ve spoken about slivovice before in a past post. I won’t bother having anyone re-read that far back, so to re-explain, it’s an unaged plum brandy, and basically the most traditional liquor here in the Czech Republic, and I do believe also in Slovakia (as well as other countries, but I can’t personally speak for them). However, the name is sort of flexible, in a way. “Plum” in Czech is “slíva or švestka.” Slíva? Slivovice? See the connection? As it turns out, any fruit capable of being distilled can be its own “-vice,” so to speak; all part of the same term of distilled beverages called “pálenka.” So jablkovice: jablko= apple; hruškovice (like hrushkovitse): hruška= pear; etc etc etc. A lovely, logical little system, it is.

The father of the household had a few local makes of brandy on-hand, and had an inquisitive foreigner in his midst, so of course trying some came as a natural result of hospitality. Sometimes in the spirit of the holidays, you partake in some spirits in spirit of the holidays. Sometimes slightly earlier than you would normally expect. But a celebration is a celebration, and one should never run the risk of offending the hospitality of one’s hosts. So bright and early-ish on Vánoce, a friend of the aforementioned father dropped by, and it called for a shot of a blackberry brandy, followed quickly by a second shot, this time of hruškovice. The two shots are a normal tradition, as well (one I also talked about many moons ago), where the first shot is “for the first foot out of bed,” and the second is “to take the first step in starting the day.” When these brandies can be something from 40-70% alcohol, I find at times it has the opposite effect for me, where each shot symbolizes a step towards a nap. But hey, holidays, right?

Digressing back to food, after dinner the heaping cookies were placed back onto the table, and there was a basket of apples. A nice, healthy after-dinner treat, but they also served as another Vánoce tradition. You cut your apple horizontally, and if the seeds form a star pattern, it promises good luck. If it’s a cross, it promises an awful, possibly death-filled year.

It’s always a treat to me to have the ability (or luck) to see places from the local perspective, one that many others may not have the same opportunities to see. Prague (and the Czech Republic as a whole) has an impressive and gorgeous cultural/historical legacy that basically speaks for itself. However, as it always seems to be the case, getting the chance to peer underneath the public image that every city tries to maintain and see how the real people live is the highlight of any journey worth having. Even if it involves dealing with supernatural infants bearing gifts.

Baby Jesus and the Brandy: A Czech Christmas Tale Pt. 1

Christmas appears to be the one holiday that everyone has at least some kind of response to. For some it’s a wistful memory, some bitter hatred, or even an (often over-)emphasized ambivalence, be they theist or atheist, consumers or retail slaves, or be they human or ancient lizardfolk alike. It’s wildly inclusive if one looks at the whole scope of who discusses it, so I suppose it succeeds in bringing everyone together… at least in some tortured manner. The traditions and norms of Christmas aren’t universal truths, however. My “Christmas” is nothing alike that of a friend’s Christmas, nor is it likely the same for anyone outside of the US.

Christmas was never religious for me. Santa was Christmas. Of course, I wasn’t ignorant of the whole “Christ” bit in Christmas, but it seemed always secondary to my “beliefs,” amusing as that may be in the big picture of things. Stockings, the tree, opening gifts early on the 25th, cookies and milk by the tree, the whole nine yards. In my family, we’ve always had this tradition of receiving a mandarin orange in our stockings, something that started with my parents’ families receiving oranges back when tropical fruits were much more rare in the winter months. Santa “brought” them oranges even though they would have been outrageously expensive or decrepit in the shops.

The family I recently stayed with for Christmas would go out with a packet of carrots to string up for the woodland critters and vagabond vegans (vegabonds?). In Spain, I was treated to a very nice, but comparatively quiet, Navidad. If memory also serves right, there also is a higher religious importance still attached to Christmas in Spain than within the US (or at the very least from a commercial perspective, if we want to be more specific). In the Czech Republic, it seems to continue in the more religious way, but in a manner I never would have expected. Continue reading

Rattle and Ramble: The Skeleton Question

Skeletons. If one were to believe the rumours, they are both spooky and scary. They’re also a fairly steadfast companion for the average person; a beneficial tenant in Hotel You. Wave your hand in front of your face. Your skeleton just said hi. But skeletons, what’s the deal with ’em? Skeletons just don’t seem to get any love these days. Anyone versed in classic horror or the fantasy genre knows of skeletons quite well. They’re typical “fodder” enemies in videogames and role-playing games, and they used to be used for frightening moviegoers back in the day (the Original House on Haunted Hill, anyone?). While they’re still used in basically every fantasy world ever, their presence in recent years has become a bit of a joke (Army of Darkness comes immediately to mind). Strange that the reanimated calcified cores of a human would become so banal. Funny how life works, isn’t it?

My question, however, is if these skeletons are so readily able to reanimate, what exactly would that mean? What would be the limits? Continue reading

A Short Digestif for Meals Long Past

Sometimes it can be easy to take the things around us for granted. Enough time spent around a certain stimulus or situation and it will often cease to have the same impact compared to the first time, or returning to it after an extended period of time. Perhaps moving somewhere new, and there’s a particularly pretty commute to work. Or perhaps a particular dish made by a parent or a loved one. You know it’s beautiful, you know it’s delicious, but driving the same place five days a week, or eating the same dish for a week, and the magic is a little dampened, so to speak. You can also have the opposite situation, when moving away from somewhere, and you begin to miss the things that you previously gave little thought, or had just delegated it to one of the regular experiences in your day-to-day.

As anyone who regularly reads here will know, I don’t live where I was born. I was raised in Massachusetts, and though it has only been over a year since I’ve left the United States (however much longer it feels than that, as cliched of a comment as that admittedly may be), I’ve found there are certain things that one may or may not miss that are surprising. They were to me when I first felt them, at least. I’ll just mention one this time.

Food. Of course. That’s an easy choice. The obvious choice. The subsequent example of home cooking is the even more easy refinement than that.

“Fish usually swim in water, too. Right, move on,” said the non-existent, tangent-hater in the crowd.

I could spend hours discussing the nuances of my father’s affinity for cooking, or my mother’s inimitable creativity in making great dishes out of a limited supply, but that’s like talking about how great breathing is. Admittedly (and unfortunately) some people don’t have those kinds of memories or attachments to their childhoods, but perhaps call me naive to think that most people will have some dish, one food, from their childhood that they would pay anything to have again, exactly how they remembered it. That’s not exactly what I wish to explore, as quaint and sweet as it may be. It’s the more odd attachments that I’ve found that I more wish to mention. Continue reading

Bending the Truth in the Mobile Debate: iPhone 6’s Alleged Flaw

Technology and how the technology is used are things that are sometimes at odds with the other. Like something built for one purpose, but utilized for another, or something that can be used to varying degrees according to whatever respective party’s vested interests. Take the obvious example: nuclear products. One one hand, you have treatments for cancer and an energy source with staggering potential. On the other hand, you have nuclear weapons or irreparable ecological damage due to reactor failures (whether due to human error, natural disasters, or whatever). Someone can refine nuclear products for powering thousands upon thousands of homes, or tweaking the recipe to make weapons-grade materials. All in the eye of the beholder, as it were. Or to a much lesser degree, say, the internet. You have a nearly infinite source of just about every scrap of knowledge ever logged by the human race, versus the dangers of hacking, internet addiction, stalking, etc. Pros and cons.

However, there are certain things that you can view with some degree of objectivity. A computer mouse is ostensibly meant to be used by a hand or some manner of appendage for the purpose of manipulating a cursor on the screen, easing the control and navigation of the images and information presented on a computer screen. Usually used on a desk, or maybe thigh if in dire straights, but its use and purpose is fairly clean-cut, blah blah blah. They’ve been tweaked and upgraded over time, going from a rubberized ball and contact points in the mouse to determine speed and direction of the pointer, to modern lasers. Connections went from old plugs, to USB, then to wireless mice, to Bluetooth wireless mice for greater degrees of flexibility and portability in this age of electronic transience. Even so, a mouse is still a mouse, meant to be used on a (mostly) flat surface, controlled by some appendage for the purpose of making a little arrow or hand scurry across a screen.

Perhaps you’re wondering where I’m going with all this. Please consider the following: in a recent post on BBC, today for me, last week for you, there was a report on the new iPhone 6’s allegedly bending in people’s pockets. It’s not the first time it’s happened with mobiles, nor I imagine it’ll be the last. All fine and good, except for one part that made me stop and cock my head to the side in sheer, doggish confusion. The “principal technology analyst at the advisory service Davies Murphy Group,” a man by the name of Chris Green, had a rather interesting point to make: Continue reading

Aphex Twin’s Syro: What Else to Say?

Aphex Twin, for the few that may not know of him, is Richard D. James, one of the most revered electronic artists of all time. He’s built up an impressive library of aliases spanning different eras of music and styles since the 80’s, and cultivated a sort of cult of secrecy about him like: disdaining any interviews and giving flippant, cryptic answers for the few he humoured. His last full album was Druqs in 2001, and his last real released work, the Analord series, frankly did little to inspire me, as expansive as it may have been (~60 tracks over 11 EPs). Now the silence has been broken by Syro, and for an actual interview with him, that’s quite good, I’d suggest reading this, it’ll explain some important things from a first-hand source.

Now, Syro. It’s sort of like a little of the “same,” but in the best way possible. The tracks feel like they have a classical sort of influence to them; they feel old but it’s all brought in a fresh way. There’s almost pervasive 80’s synth feel flowing underneath many of the tracks, like you could expect to hear them in a Blade Runner-esque film. I say that in the best way possible. When acid or jungle beats get piled on top of them, juxtoposed by the strange, processed vocals of James, his sons, or his wife, it makes for a captivating combination. Sometimes the beats, melody, and voices are given such a texture that is just… satisfying. You feel you know some of the samples, yet without feeling trite. I swear I hear the Amen Break sample in several of the tracks, and it’s glorious. Many of the tracks shift from style to style, and because plenty are in the 5-6 minute range (with one being over 10 minutes), they have room enough to breathe and change in an unhurried way. Continue reading

Continuing The Bipedal Question: On the Other Thumb

A quick follow-up to the last post, is another peculiar anatomical anomaly that came to my attention a few years back, and I’ve yet to find a suitable outlet for. So here it is.

Catgirls. Anime catgirls. Everyone has an image of this classic anime cliche (more properly called called neko or nekomimi which just means ‘cat’ or ‘cat ears,’ respectively), so ubiquitous to the anime image, that you can never see a single piece of Japanese animation and know about it.

But stop and think about it for a second. What’s odd about it? What does, or doesn’t work? Continue reading

The Bipedal Bias: Why So Many Playable Humanoids?

Humans are a predictable bunch. Two arms, two legs, head atop the shoulders, front-facing eyes, opposable thumbs. Basic stuff. Same goes with most vertebrates. Us with a backbone to speak of will never have more than four limbs, excepting species with tails, but even then, it’s only so much of a “limb.” When you pull back even further, most creatures have what’s called bilateral symmetry. That is, you could draw a line somewhere down/across the middle of the body and both halves would be effectively equal. Again, that’s most creatures, excepting things like sponges, sea stars, amongst a few others. It all comes down to growth, evolution, and a bunch of factors I can’t adequately explain or understand.

Keeping this in mind, let us look to our own traditions of fantasy and fiction that begin to break some of these scientific limits: Centaurs, Pegasus (flying horses in general, “pegasuses” doesn’t work), dragons, fairies, etc. Or looking to horror, Lovecraftian shoggoths and Elder Things. The Hutts from Star Wars. The list is expansive and continues far from here, but I shan’t go on and make a list nobody needs to read. Continue reading

From Within/Without: A Non-Yo-Yoer at the World Yo-Yo Contest

In this world there are great number of societies and communities hidden far from the public eye. It’s sort of been a lifelong interest of mine to see into these esoteric circles, really, it was a large reason I became a journalist (or was trained as one, if nothing else). Seeing how different people live and work fascinates me, and one community I’ve become entangled with for around a decade is a great example of this. Yo-yoing. A few people who read this will likely be a part of this community, and even more so will at least know of my connection to it. Almost all of my friends in Europe are connected to this hobby/sport/lifestyle, or I’ve met people from people who are a part of it all.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the World Yo-Yo competition was in Prague. Over 1,100 people attended, all from an amazing assortment of countries. For three days, they played, practiced, and drank (when legally permitting, of course) as some kind of big festive family. I’ve never had the chance to see a “Worlds,” so this was a great chance to see what it was all like, perhaps one of the only times I’ll be able to in the near future (next one’s in Tokyo, sooooo). Most of my friends in Prague had a direct hand in planning, preparing, and promoting the event, so it was something much more than just a competition. Continue reading

Living in a Shade of Itself: Review of Half-Life 2 Mod “Grey”

A crowded bar bustling with the sounds of clinking glasses, and the murmur of a sea of voices. A jukebox blares out some nameless rock song no one is listening to. All sounds are muffled and muted through the thin walls of the bathroom where you’re washing your hands, when suddenly: silence. Absolute, screaming silence. Where did everyone go? Were you blacked out in the stall when they closed the bar? This is where Grey, the eponymous protagonist of the Half-Life 2: Episode 2 horror mod Grey begins.

Released in 2012, the mod took an ambitious route of using many new models, animations, and textures than the standard Half-Life 2 library, and that much alone is worthy of some mention. It’s pretty well-polished, and the developers “Deppresick Team” certainly put good effort into their game. Unfortunately, it doesn’t all work.

It’s certainly a short game, so it’s not too much of a commitment to try and beat. The endgame stats told me I beat it in just over an hour, not including deaths or reloads, so if you have anywhere from 1-3 hours to kill one evening, you’re in luck. Continue reading