Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Night at the Opera

So this evening we went out with Krissy, Geoff & their roommate Mandi to help celebrate Krissy's birthday. We had a great dinner at Dinity- located in the Jewish Quarter of Prague. They had wonderful homemade pasta. Emrys once again made mention of my imaginary KitchenAid that will go with the pasta attachment that is in storage waiting for our imaginary house to become a reality.

After dinner we set out to the State Opera House for an evening of multi-lingual culture. Unfortunately the one language that our mostly monolingual party spoke was not one of the languages in the evening’s show of Mozart’s Magic Flute. So we enjoyed the language of music and worked to follow the body language of the opera characters while they sang away in German and as the subtitles floated on the screen above in Czech. It was a lot of fun regardless. The costumes were fun and the Opera House was exquisite.


Sunday, May 28, 2006

A Busy Week!

The absence of posts is the indicator of the craziness of this past week. Emrys’ mom arrived in Prague on Wednesday morning with a tour group and we hit the ground running with her. Emrys played tour guide as we escorted a rather jet-lagged Mom through Wenceslas Square, the Jewish Quarter, around the bridges and then when her vision was sufficiently blurred from lack of sleep (she was on a red-eye Tuesday night) we deposited her back at her hotel. Thursday we tagged along with her group (thanks to a couple of cancellations within the group) as they toured Prague Castle and made the walk from the castle, across Charles Bridge and back to Old Town. From there we strolled around a bit more, and parted ways for a bit before the evening dinner cruise on the Vltava River. Thanks again to extra room on this optional trip for the group, we were able to go along as a belated birthday present- such fun and something we probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. It was then that I realized that in all our time in Prague, we hadn’t been out that much at night and the city takes on a completely different look. So to our “To Do Before Leaving Prague” list, we’ve added stroll around and night for pictures.

Friday brought a dinner party to our little home. Ricki, Valerie (friend of the family for years), Geo & Krissy joined us for dinner and then on Saturday was more sights, dinner at Geo & Krissy’s and then out to a pub that they’d found for drink and conversation. Whew! I think that’s enough for 4 days! More touristing than we’ve done at one time since we got her but it was great to spend time with everyone.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

A Concert in Prague

Two weeks ago we attended a concert in St. Nicholas’ Church on Old Town Square. From April 1 through the summer Prague is replete with musical events, especially those of the Baroque and Classical variety. The city was, after all, a hotbed of compositional activity during those eras. So it seemed only right that we attend a performance of some Baroque and Classical pieces while we’re here.

St. Nicholas’ Church is a massive Baroque structure with a great dome that vaults five or six stories over your head as you enter. Statues of St. Cyril (slaying the devil) and St. George (slaying the dragon) sit on either side of the deep chancel. At the back of the chancel is a portrait of Jesus, his two fingers raised in the sign of peace. We sat down in the echoing chamber of ornately carved stone and perched cherubim. Craning our necks we could see detailed frescoes on the ceiling depicting anthropomorphized virtues of the Christian life. The audience crept into the hush of the sanctuary one by one, gradually filling up the pews and folding chairs. We waited in whispering anticipation for the concert to start; but no musician or announcer stepped forward. We just sat before this image of Jesus, offering us a silent peace while we waited.

Then the organ began to speak into the silence. The powerful notes of Preludium and fugue in F Minor by the great J. S. Bach reverberated through the sanctuary, vibrating the walls and floor with strong bass notes. The kaleidoscopic effect of a repeated musical theme infused the air, beckoning the audience to breathe in the thick scent of Baroque musical splendour. The overwhelming power of the music ebbed and flowed from under the organist’s expert hands, stretching and relaxing the aesthetic fibres of our being. The shifting tones of the fugue danced together, then apart, then together again until the whole piece came to its climax: a crescendo of volume and rhythm crowning the pinnacle of tonal resolution.

Then silence: a void both pregnant with applause and hushing with the wake of such gorgeous and powerful music. It was as if God the Creator, the Father, had spoken the word, and no other word could be dared to speak after it.

But another word was spoken. Next the flutist began his solo: Telemann’s Fantasy in B Flat Minor. In stark contrast to the deep rumbling notes of the organ, the breathy tones of the flute danced high above our heads. They called us to look upwards in search of the melody as one would search for a tiny bird among towering trees. The measures of aerial music hopped across the space above us, touching the hard stone walls and cascading down to our ears. Listening to this music lifted us up out of our seats and into the midst of the cherubim floating above us.

If the organ was the Father speaking then this was the Spirit speaking in her light but compelling tones.

Then flute and organ spoke together in a duet: der Grosse’s Solo in C Minor. The deep throaty growl laid a melodic groundwork for the high-flung harmony of the flute. We were drawn into the earth and carried to the heights of heaven all at once. If we might compare the divine voice to the mystery of music, then we came as close as a human might to experiencing the Trinity: Father and Spirit spoke above, below, and around us even as we sat before the Image of God, the Son, present before us.

After both flute and organ melted away and a round of applause clapped the air, the whole sequence began once more. Organ, then flute, then both played renditions of Bach, Marais, and Vivaldi. We received the word of music once more in an exquisite performance that fulfilled the angelic purpose of the architecture. The experience confirmed our suspicion that attending a concert in Prague is an absolute must for anyone who visits. To do so is to get a taste of history and more—perhaps a taste of divine beauty itself.

~ emrys

Saturday, May 20, 2006

National Day in Oslo

On 17 May Norway celebrates National Day. On that date in 1814 the National Assembly finalized the constitution of the country and elected Prince Christian Fredrik to be King of Norway. Never mind the fact that Norway was under Swedish dominion at the time—the citizens of Norway held up their own constitution and linked their future to their past, when their lands were possessed by neither Sweden nor Denmark. Since that day 17 May has been an occasion to celebrate.

Maria and Martin (our hosts in Oslo) managed to get us tickets for the parade grounds right in front of the royal palace. We got to see the royal family of Norway (king, queen, crown prince, his wife and new daughter, and princess) come out on the balcony to begin their three hours of waving to parade participants and spectators. From that place we could watch—between umbrellas, for it drizzled all day—the parade go by.

National Day in Norway is first and foremost a day for children. Over one hundred local schools take part in Oslo’s parade, waving their flags and saluting the royal family as they go by. Legend has it that since Norway was under the power of the Swedish throne in 1814, Norwegians were not allowed to celebrate any sort of independence. They certainly could not make any show of military strength—the usual format of independence day celebrations. So the citizens of Norway led their children out into the streets on parade, knowing that the Swedish authorities could not levy any power against young children. Thus a tradition was born. Now the adults line up to watch the young people of Norway carry thousands of flags—large and small—down the main avenue of Oslo.

In spite of the rain that day the parade was a feast of colour. Besides the ubiquitous Norwegian flags, spring hues came in the form of the many national costumes worn by Norwegians on this holiday. Men and women wear the formal outfits of the region of Norway from which their family originates. The traditional linen and wool shirts, dresses, breeches, and coats are dyed bright colours and boast gorgeous embroidery. Norwegians wear these costumes all day (as well as for weddings, baptisms, and other formal occasions) and make conversation by asking, “From where does your costume come?” It is a beautiful sight to behold.

In case it wasn’t enough to watch the parade, we actually had the chance to walk in it! When we had had enough of the rain, Martin led us off the island reserved for spectators and into the parade behind one of the many primary school groups. Waving our Norwegian flags we marched up to the palace, under the balcony—where the royal family waved to us—and back down into the city. When’s the next time we’ll be able to march before royalty?

That evening we attended a concert in the National Theatre in which Martin played violin with the orchestra. All the pieces were written by Norwegian composers, and the bill included performances by high school students (in line with the children’s emphasis of this holiday) that were outstanding. (I was particularly impressed three boys performing a jazz piece for piano, guitar, and bass.) Norway was paying homage to one of their great playwrights, Henrik Ibsen, this year, so between musical pieces young students performed theatrical pieces from Ibsen’s work. Although I couldn’t understand the Norwegian, their emotive performances were excellent and made it a joy to watch.

So if you’re ever in the mood to go to Norway, make sure to plan your trip to include the 17th of May—it’s a blast. Thanks to Maria, Martin, Sissel, and Michael for making it such a fun time.

~ emrys

P.S. Photos are posted :) ~sjt

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Life at Sixty Degrees

We’ve been in Oslo, Norway (alright, for those who are sticklers: we’ve been mostly in the town of Ask, twenty minutes northeast of Oslo) for a few days now. We’ve experienced enough that I feel qualified to make some observations.

Oslo sits on the surface of the earth at 60 degrees north latitude. For the record, this is the furthest north that Sara and I have ever been. For those of you reading from the United States, some points of reference may be in order. Los Angeles sits on the 34th parallel; Durango, Colorado on the 37th; New York City is at 40 degrees; the northern border of the western states is at 49 degrees latitude (the border with Canada); and Anchorage, Alaska is at 61 degrees. For our Canadian friends: the northern border of the prairie provinces and BC is drawn at 60 degrees north latitude. No matter where you’re from, we’re pretty far north.

Oslo’s situation on the globe seems to encourage certain strange behaviours in the sun. Whereas on most parts of the earth the sun follows a path that blesses God’s children with approximately equal parts of day and night, in Oslo the sun seems to enjoy working overtime. (Perhaps it is the beauty of the fjords that causes the sun to dally—but who can speak for the motivations of the heavenly bodies?) In her zeal for distributing light to the blessed land of Scandinavia, the sun rises at 4:45 am and saunters around among the clouds until 10:15 pm. And there is still a month until the solstice!

I need not explain what happens to one’s sleeping patterns under such conditions.

Norway is a beautiful country in spring. Driving from Ask to Oslo resembles very much driving through eastern Pennsylvania with its rolling green hills, patches of farmland, and tall forests. The city of Oslo is small as capital cities go—it boasts only six hundred thousand residents—but it has the air of cosmopolitan Europe about it. The streets are often paved with cobblestones, the buildings boast architecture from the middle ages and art nouveau, and the town is textured with artwork and sculpture. It’s everything you’d expect from a European city: green parks, extensive museums, ocean access, ski slopes, royal palaces, and tasty cheese. If it weren’t the most expensive city in the world, it might be a great place to emigrate.

If you checked yesterday’s post you saw me posing in front of one of Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures. This amazing sculptor designed a whole host of sculptures depicting human life and granted them to the city of Oslo. A huge park, which also includes rose gardens and a cobblestone labyrinth, sits in the middle of the city and acts as a display case for his work. It’s a must-see for anyone visiting Scandinavia.

Two days ago we drove to Fredrikstad, just south of Oslo, and had the wonderful experience of Martin’s mother’s hospitality. Our time there included a tour of the old fort and neighbouring fortified city whose walls and moat were formed in the shape of a star for better defence. We wandered around the old town and drove out to take in the beauty of the crenellated coastline where sailboats drift lazily by in the early summer sun. The ancient glaciers have left the rocks there smooth and perfect for sun-bathing.

Now it may seem to you that we have re-discovered Eden here across the sea from Denmark. But there are other, much stranger, things to be found in Norway. One of these is “Russ.”

Russ is a shortened form of a word that I cannot pronounce meaning “losing the horns.” It is a tradition long held in Norwegian high schools by which students prepare themselves simultaneously for National Day, final exams, and graduation by engaging in unpredictable behaviours, wearing bright red coveralls, and holding large parties into the wee hours of the morning. (It is my unconfirmed suspicion that Russ is the origin of the American college freshman phenomenon known as “Rush,” but further research must be done to provide any substance. However, see below.)

There is an element of competition in Russ that is satisfied by the accomplishment of various feats of derring-do on the part of these near-adults. One of these feats is, of course, public displays of nudity. Or, because of the Norwegian tendency to modesty and reserve, near-nudity.

There are times when one is made to feel as if he stands on the precipice of some strange new reality, or at least upon the uneasy fault line between two radically incompatible states of being. Such a moment I had while wandering through the ancient cobblestone streets of Fredrikstad, admiring the old architecture and cozy medieval feel of the place, when a young woman passed me by. Now the passing of a young woman is nothing of note—unless perhaps she might possess the kind of beauty that would set a thousand ships to sail. Alas, this was not such a passing. What caused my existential compass to quaver were rather the presence of fear and desperation upon her face and the absence of clothing upon her body. Save for a bra and underwear ill-suited to accommodate the physics of a full sprint, she was naked. Then as quickly as she had appeared, she disappeared around one of the quaint old buildings whose façade belied the reality of my experience.

Now mind you, when the sun has been rising before dawn and setting long after a decent person’s bedtime there is a higher-than-normal chance of hallucination. Let us not discount the effect of strange diurns on the human mind and senses. However, with confirmation of my sanity coming in the form of an all-but-naked young man running the same route through cute little old Fredrikstad, it soon became clear that the high school students of this little town were in the throes of Russ.

I wonder how many points you get for streaking through the old touristy section of town?

This is Russ: the last hurrah before you have to get down to the serious work of university study, work, getting married, and wearing clothes every day in public. It is achievement and embarrassment, success and ridicule, creativity and destruction met in the cauldron of tomorrow’s society.

I have to give credit where credit is due, however. Thanks to Russ, I have seen more of Norway than most tourists see.


Sunday, May 14, 2006

Art Imitates Life Imitates Art

From Vigeland Park in Oslo. Happy Mother's day to all the mom's out there!! May your day not include any scenes like this!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Concerts, Riverboat Rides and now In Oslo

We've had a lot this week! Wednesday we went to a concert featuring pieces by Bach and Vivaldi in one of the ancient churches in Prague. Nothing like pipe organ and flute bouncing around stone walls hundreds of years old! I'm gaining a new appreciation for classical music. Then on Thursday night we were treated by friends of Geo & Krissy's to a riverboat ride (their friend is the captain). It was a fun little tour of the Vltava river through Prague. We arrived in Oslo today and are enjoying a wonderful time of visiting with friends we met in Pasadena. Martin & Maria are our generous hosts while we're here and it's been great to visit and share travelling stories. Tomorrow we're off to explore Oslo. ~sjt

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Monastic Rhythm

We’ve been living here at the International Baptist Theological Seminary for over four weeks now. The Seminary is unique in that it offers students postgraduate degrees in theology and mission that serve not only as “divinity” degrees but also “magister” degrees. A magister degree is approved by the Czech government and therefore will qualify its graduates for teaching work in secular institutions. Therefore, unlike other seminaries and Bible colleges in Europe, these graduates can put their degrees to work in the church or in the wider job market.

But the seminary is more than classes and degrees. It also has a monastic feel to it. Physically the seminary comprises four main buildings arranged around a central courtyard with a fountain. It takes little imagination to see a columned cloister garden in the layout. The seminary has a cafeteria that serves breakfast and lunch to the students, visitors, and those on sabbatical, so meals are eaten very much in common. The seminary holds chapel every morning at 9:00. This time includes singing, the reading of scripture, and intercessory prayer; on Wednesdays one of the community members offers a homily and we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Sunday mornings the chapel hosts a congregation that is open to the wider community but contains mostly students and faculty to the seminary.

All of these factors conspire to produce a rhythm to life which is rare to find anywhere outside the traditions of monks and nuns. It is a daily heartbeat, a thud-thud that speaks of constancy even in a place where a wide variety of backgrounds and languages makes for lots of curves and surprises. The rhythm is something to be cherished, I think. It is something to be craved, I suspect, for I find it answers some deep indescribable hunger that I barely knew I had.

Yahweh gave the Israelites means by which to live with a rhythm: the Sabbath, the feasts and the festivals. I think the Church must keep up that rhythm. There is a new way to keep the Sabbath of course, and there are new feasts and festivals. But together we must keep them. To keep them—to attend Sunday worship, to participate in a Wednesday prayer group, to sing carols at Christ’s Mass, to wake up early for Easter, and to light the Advent candles—means keeping the systole and diastole of the Church’s heart. To skip these things, to allow them to slip away from our busy schedules, is to suffer arrhythmia. Just as a palpitating heart gives us cause for alarm, so should a life that does not beat with the regular thud-thud of communal rhythm.

Like a single cardiac muscle cell in a Petri dish, the single believer cannot make the heart of the Church beat. It is only bound together in that tight, fist-sized mass that those cells can squeeze the Blood of Life through the entire Body. So we must bind together, beat together, and let the Blood course through us together. So we must keep the monastic rhythm of life.

I hope that we can find this in the Church when we return home.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Beer Tour II

Plzeň is the city where it all began. Sure, the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians knew how to brew. Sure, the Germanic tribes knew the secrets of yeast. Sure, the ancient Celts imbibed that frothy drink that eased the muscles and quieted the soul. But it wasn’t until the brewers of Plzeň in western Bohemia discovered the secret of bottom-fermentation that the world could be graced with a beverage properly called “beer.”

At least that’s what any self-respecting Plzeňer will tell you. And if you know your beers, you’ll agree (or so I'm told).

On Saturday we toured the brewery in Plzeň. Plzeň is an hour and a half by train west of Prague, an industrial city settled on the confluence of three rivers. Plzeňský Prazdroj, or “Plzeň Brewery,” sits just outside of the city centre on a large piece of land that has the air of medieval-town-done-Disney-style—but not quite. There’s a large stone entrance gate with a guard and red-and-white bars to keep unauthorized vehicles out. The little cobblestone street is clean, there’s an over-sized chessboard on the sidewalk on which the pawns are stylized beer bottles, and there’s another green iron gate through which tours enter the brewery. And there are little patches of tulips reminding you that it's spring in Central Europe.

Our guide—quite proficient in English and unafraid to yell at the construction workers whose noise impinged on her monologue—led us first to a large board explaining in flowchart form the intricacies of brewing. Barley, water, mixing, heating, mixing, hops (only the female parts, by the way), fermenting, fermenting, fermenting, and drinking! Then she took us past the fermentation tanks and into the extensive cellars (9 kilometers of zig-zagging tunnels) where the thousands of barrels used to be stored.

They still brew beer in barrels, but only a few barrels and only for two reasons. First, they want to serve it to tourists (this is where we score big time). Second, they want to make sure that no matter what technological advances are introduced, the beer stays the same quality as the original product. That’s the kind of traditionalism we can live with.

It was standing before eight huge barrels of actively fermenting brew that we found out Plzeň’s secret: by controlling the temperature of the fermenting mixture (and keeping it low), they get the yeast to sink in the barrel. This is called “bottom fermentation” and gives the beer a distinctive bitterness. But even though the name of the beer from Plzeň is trademarked, the name of the process is not. So anywhere you see a beer with the label “Pilsener” (which is German for Plzeňer), it should have also been produced by the same process.

After delivering this unique bit of information our guide led us over to where a gentleman distributed cups of beer tapped right from the barrel. That’s right—no pasteurization, no filtering, no nothing. We had old-school beer, Martin-Luther-style.

It tasted just like the Staropramen I had last week. Oh, well.

So we’ve done it. We’ve toured the place where golden lagers and bottom fermentation began, and plucked the fruit, as it were, from the vine. If you’re keeping score, mark Plzeň, Czech Republic on your card.

By the way, for some reason the brewery has chosen to market (even here in the Czech Republic) under the German permutation of their name: “Pilsner Urquell.” So if you’re interested in tasting the real thing, wherever in the world you are, look for Pilsner Urquell (not Plzeňský Prazdroj).


Sunday, May 07, 2006

Thank You Days

It occurred to me, as I pondered how determined Plzeň is to remember the army that liberated her (see last post), that perhaps the United States should have a similar day of remembrance. After all, without the aid of France, the United States would have been a British colony as long as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

Perhaps the United States should celebrate “Thank You France!” Day. Maybe on 2 July, or some other date of significance from that conflict. It would seem only right.

Just an afterthought.


Thank You America!

Yesterday we were in Plzeň. Plzeň is a small city west of Prague that has a unique place in Central European history. As most of us know, the Nazi army invaded most of what we now call Central Europe in 1939, beginning the epic conflict now known as World War II. (If you’re old-school, you call it the World War, because World War I was the “Great War.”) The land of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) fell under the advance of the Nazis in that year.

Near the culmination of World War II, the Allies made an agreement about how the capture of the final Nazi holdouts should take place. Russia was to advance from the east and take Prague. The United States, led by General Patton, would advance and take Plzeň, but stop there so as not to interfere with (or complicate) the Russian advance. Thus, two days before the complete liberation of Europe, Plzeň greeted General Patton’s tanks and troops at the final stage of their advance. Now, sixty-one years later, as 8 May marks Liberation Day in the Czech Republic, 6 May marks Thank You America Day in Plzeň.

We stood amidst the crowd at the Thank You America monument in downtown Plzeň as six different speakers took the stage and spoke of the memory of the United States Army’s military efforts in Europe. All around us—in fact, all over town—American flags were as numerous as the Czech flags.

It was intriguing to hear the speakers at the Thank You America celebration (all the speeches were translated into English, except that of the US Ambassador to the Czech Republic, whose thick Texas accent was translated into Czech). All six spoke of the repeated occupation of the land—by the Nazis, then by the Soviets—and of the great blessing of their liberation. At least one speaker attributed both liberations to American effort: the end of World War II and the Velvet Revolution in 1989. It was strange to be a U.S. passport-holder and be present for this lavish praise of American military might in a foreign country.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing to me was the desire to remember. The date of Patton’s advance into Plzeň and the nationality of those soldiers (save for the Belgian volunteer contingent of whom we kept hearing) is etched in stone on a pair of pillars in the plaza. But the story of what happened—of what Plzeň needed liberation, of how this liberation would have to be repeated in 1989—exists in the minds of Plzeňers, and they know it. 6 May serves Plzeň as a day to remember, a day to tell the story again, a day to be warned by the substance of that story of how easily people find themselves in captivity.

Of course, they may still hear the stories of men who were there on 6 May 1939. Several of them—American, Belgian, and Czech—marched across the plaza in full dress uniform and placed wreaths on the steps of the monument. There are still those whose wounds, whose eyes, and whose storytelling serve to keep the tragedy of World War II in the collective memory. But soon those people will be dead. And how will a pair of stone pillars tell the same story?

It was not my U.S. passport that made the experience of Thank You America! Day powerful. It was Plzeň’s determination to remember, with gratitude, the meaning of their liberation. May we all be as determined.


Friday, May 05, 2006

Beginning the Beer Tour

A couple days ago we began the Beer Tour. This is both a fun activity and a burden we bear for our family back home (names shall go unmentioned here), who wants us to scope out locations for a future Beer Tour of its own. (Those who are unmentioned should start taking notes now.) Here’s stop Number One:

Staropramen Brewery, Prague, Czech Republic.

The name means “original source.” It’s the native beer of Prague and probably tries to claim the status of first beer produced in Europe. Of course, we (this is Geo, Krissy, Sara and I) don’t know that because we didn’t actually take the brewery tour. That’s happening this weekend. But we did go into their restaurant, which boasts excellent fare (of large proportions) and of course the full list of Staropramen brews.

I tried the unpasteurized version, thinking that all that native yeast still hopping around in the brew would make it muy distinctive. Alas, while it felt a little heavier on the tongue, it was still beer. Geo and Krissy got light and dark ales in tall stylish glasses with “Staropramen” etched out of the glass down the side. Sara got what looked like a vat of beer (“looked like” because of the huge glass in which it was delivered), a wheat beer that was quite tasty. I think we’re both acquiring more taste for wheat beer than traditional hops. We’ll see.

This weekend it’s off to Plzeň, the town after which Pilsner is named (Pilsner is Plzeň in German). It’s a short 2-hour train ride west of Prague. There we’ll go on an actual brewery tour as well as sampling the local fare. Stay tuned.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Kudos to Moms

So in honor of Mothers Day CNN and came up with a calculator to determine how much it would cost to contract out all the work a Mom does. I thought it was fun... Enjoy!

Mom Salary Wizard @

Monday, May 01, 2006

Forsaken Traditions

We were descending the walk from Karlštejn castle with two new friends from Prague. They are Czech natives and friends of folks from home, so they helped us to navigate the trip to Karlštejn, ordered lunch while we were there, and provided wonderful conversation about the Czech Republic and their extensive travels. They have excellent English, though their accent (as with any non-native English speaker) sometimes makes me request a repetition. And, of course, there are certain vocabulary words that you just don’t have if you didn’t grow up speaking English. It was the latter that made the following strange encounter that much more interesting.

As I said, we were walking down the path from Karlštejn castle. It was late afternoon, we were on our way back to Prague. I thought, given the fact that they have a young son, that they would want to say good-bye to us and head home for a restful evening. Not so.

There had been a lull in the conversation for a moment or two, then our Czech host says:

“Would you like to go to a, um—” a moment while he searches for the word, “Burning—”

Burning? What English word could he be trying to get at with “burning”?

He asks his wife for help (in Czech), but she doesn’t seem to have the vocab for this one, either.

“In English you have the veezards, yes?”

“Veezards . . .” Think! What word in English, when spoken in a Czech accent, produces “veezards”? Wizards! “Wizards?”

“Yes, wizards!” he says. “But the women wizards.”

Suddenly I am hit by a lightning bolt—probably a magical one. “Witch?” I’m not really keen on saying the rest of it, in case I’m wrong.

“Yes, witch!” he says enthusiastically. “A witch-burning!”

Did he just invite us to a witch-burning?

I repeated the phrase in disbelief, wondering how we had moved from discussing post-communist Czech democratic politics to the shameful tattered remnants of Salem, Massachusetts. Maybe “witch-burning” means something different to the Czechs than it does to us. At least I hope so. As much as I like trying new cultural experiences, I don’t think I could justify hanging out and watching while they burn young women at the stake.

It turns out that the Czechs didn’t really know the origins of this “witch-burning” tradition, either. It’s just something they do every year, usually involving a bonfire, hot dogs, and dressing up the little kids. So we went with them to a big public park in southwest Prague, ate klobasy (Czech sausage) and watched as firefighters in full gear managed a raging bonfire amidst a crowd of youth and young adults. The closest we came to a witch was a bunch of kindergarteners with face paint and a woman with a pointy black hat. (She was enjoying a klobaska, too.)

Our friends looked on the internet and found that the “witch-burning” of Prague dates back to a time when 1 May was the first official day of spring. The night before was considered especially vulnerable to evil spirits (including witches), so the village would gather around a bonfire lit to scare them away. Then folks would take torches or ash-brands into their homes and clear the evil spirits out of each room. (This sounds similar to the rituals around Beltane, the Celtic day(s) of fertility in the spring.) There must have been witches burned at some point, because apparently some 30 April celebrations have a straw witch to be burnt in effigy; the fire we attended didn’t have one of those. They just had big bright balloons with rabbit ears for the kids.

For any of you who are interested, the evening is also called “Philip-Jacob’s Night,” but our Czech hosts didn’t know why this is so.

We look forward to future parties when we can tell people (over knackwursts, maybe) that we went to a witch-burning in Prague.



On Saturday we went to a place outside of Prague called Botanicus - some of you may have already checked out the link in the prior blog. Anyway, this company makes soaps and oils and other aromatic stuff and they have gardens in Ostrava where the herbs and flowers come from for their products. They also have a little renaissance village set up that was full of activity. When we arrived there were sword fighting theater acts going on- most of which was lost on us since it was in Czech but amusing anyway. The little artisan sectors housed candle-makers, woodworkers, blacksmiths, rope-makers, papermakers and more. Their current exhibition was a weapons exhibit so my walk through the garden was peppered with the occasional gunpowder explosions and smoke. Renaissance style grilled meats and potatoes were served up for lunch and going after sweets, Geoff returned with a cheese pastry topped with fruit – or so he thought. It was actually caviar. Mmmmm. It was a fun day and we arrived back in Prague with the rain. Photos are posted- enjoy!