Tuesday, January 10, 2017

the madness of Czech New Years

Prague during New Years was utter madness.

I’ve been to my fair share of mad New Year celebrations.

There was one in the small Georgian town of Bolnisi. Georgians are a bit on the insane side with fireworks, in that kids’ favorite hobby there through the month of December is to shoot people with Roman candles and lob around M80s like they're dubloons at Mardi Gras.


The view from Vitkov
Besides that, the town had organized a concert, with a grand fireworks display afterwards. The only problem was that during the display, one of the rocket tubes fell over and started firing the fireworks into the crowd. I imagine probably one of those danged kids did It, but I’ve no evidence.

Tbilisi itself is equally crazy. I spent one New Years on a rooftop, with basically a three-hundred and sixty degree viewing of fireworks for about thirty minutes, enough explosions to make you question if the Russians had decided to invade that night or not.

I tell you, when it comes to fireworks, Americans are nothing but pansies. We can blow up any country in the world, but when it comes to shooting off a little powder into the sky for a nice view, we’re completely incapable and terrified of it. Europeans and others completely lack that fear, and they don’t have all the nanny laws that Americans have built in, since they don’t care as much about frivolous litigation. Americans love that crap. Just look at who we voted in?

Prague

Prague though definitely ranked up there.

It’s tempting of course to book something expensive to party through some night that’s supposed to be memorable because a 16th century Pope told us it was.

But we decided to take the cheap option.

We started the night at Brix Bar and Hostel in Zizkov. Brix had all the appearances of a cool hipster hostel, if you had no sense of olfactory. As soon as you open the door, you’re hit with a wall of smoke. Even if people weren’t smoking, the place would still wreak of stale, chemical laced tobacco, not the good loose leaf your granddaddy used to smoke on the patio.

The bar though was a good thrill. Lots of people, lots of friends and locals, not what you’d expect from a hostel bar on such a holiday. The beers were nicely priced and the staff friendly enough, filling up to-go cups so that we could walk up Vitkov Hill well-stocked. Another difference with most cities in America--you can drink beer on the streets.

Vitkov Hill

For those of you who’ve been to Old Town Prague, you might have spotted Vitkov. It’s the one past the rail station and the highways, with the giant equestrian statue on it. That monument belongs to the great Czech hero, Jan Zizka, for whom the neighborhood is named, who defeated King Sigismund during the Hussite Wars. I think it says something about Czechs that there are more rebels on their list of national heroes than there are kings.

The Hussites had taken Prague and Sigismund had sent down an army to quell the rebellion. They set up camp and fortress in the king’s vineyards on the hill, but were quickly attacked by the Hussite general, who led his armies to victory, and sparked an eventual consolidation of Prague’s fortresses. The battle was immortalized by the painter Alfons Mucha in his “After the Battle of Vitkov Hill”, featured in his grand opus, The Slavic Epic.

After the Battle of Vitkov Hill, by Alfons Mucha
War returns to Vitkov

For anyone spending New Years up on Vitkov, it would have seemed that the war had returned. Rockets began their red glares even before the countdown to midnight began. Across Prague Roman candles and smaller peonies and horsetails started their bursting above the tiled rooftops. And then when that countdown finally hit midnight, the real fun began.

On cue, the entire city seemed to explode. Chrysanthemums, kamuros, spiders—fireworks of all kind erupted. The main city staging grounds from what I could tell were over the Old Town Square, Letna, and Vitkov.

You read that right. Vitkov.

Where we were standing.

Suddenly from directly above us, explosion after explosion pulsed through the air, the thick mass of people immediately swung their heads up as bits of paper and chunks of petrified powder made their way down.

The smoke was nearly impenetrable.

Fireworks launching off Vitkov

It’s hard to gauge when the official display ended, as people put down their own sets of rockets and lit them up. We left about an hour after, fatigued by the constant explosions, quite satisfied though with everything, a stranger’s bottle of champagne in my hand quickly being drained.

This would never have gone down in the US, I tell you what. Anyone remaining in America during Trump’s reign should do themselves a favor and visit a European country at New Years.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

5 weird Christmas facts you probably didn't know

At a Christmas Market in Prague
The Christmas season is here and about to round third base as it comes in to home this coming Sunday. People across the planet celebrate the day—or some day at least—celebrating the birth of Christ, while other people look on at all the strange things that have come to define the season. So, whether you’re possibly a Communist Chinese guy who has to ramp up his factory production to meet the 5-Christmas Season Plan, or you’re Pat’s grandma who is in charge of whipping up the egg nog, you’re going to be a part of Christmas somehow. The globalized economy demands it.

So for your entertainment, here are six things that maybe you didn’t know about Christmas. Or perhaps you thought were weird but you didn’t have the caffeine readily available to Wikipedia them yourself.

1. Star Wars

Along with trees, lights, and gifts, Disney has ensured that Star Wars is now a defining feature for the foreseeable future of the Christmas season. Last year, we got the introduction to the new trilogy, while this year we’ve got what has been introduced as a “Star Wars Story”, a fantastic fashion to milk the franchise for all that it’s worth. But like Hallmark and Coca-Cola, who can blame them? I’ll enjoy this milking process just as much as I love an ice cream cake, and I know you probably will too. Especially if Snope turns out to be Jar-Jar.

2. Christmas trees
A Christmas tree in Bamberg, Germany

Some people say that we have Christmas trees because Jesus died on a cross made of trees. Others say because He ate chocolate Easter bunnies on a mountain in Lebanon, a country famous for its cedars. Also there’s that rumor that it was an ancient pagan tradition.

Where there is some evidence that pagans did bring branches of firs into their homes to remind them of spring, there’s little evidence about bringing in entire trees, and the first documented whole-tree use of a fir around the solstice wasn’t until the 1500s, when a cut fir was paraded around to advertise for nativity plays.

The Soviets though were sure to detach all religious significance from the tree, Christian or not, and that remains so throughout post-Soviet states today, where they celebrate with a tree on New Years’ instead. Apparently, Lenin and friends didn’t like the idea of keeping around Christian tradition, so did pretty much the same thing the Christians did with the pagans: coopted most of their practices into their own new holidays and killed anyone who didn’t follow the line.

Success!

Now even Christians in Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and other formerly Christian states have trees and do the gift giving on New Years instead of Christmas. Fun fact, most Orthodox Christians don't celebrate Christmas until January 7th because they hate Catholics so much that they refuse to use a calendar designed by a pope.

3. Saint Nicholas
Saint Nicholas started his days in the Ancient Greek city of Patara in the 3rd century AD and became the Bishop of Myra—all on the southern coast of modern day Turkey.

He attended the Council of Nicaea, which was to decide the details of the newly legalized religion of Christianity. In overly simplified terms, the main contenders were Arius, fighting for a non-Trinitarian version of God, and Athanasius and his bunch, fighting for the One-In-Three-In-One idea. St. Nicholas was on Athanasius’s side and evidently got pissed about Arius’s blabbering, so he socked him a good one in the jaw. Some might say Paul would have handled the Sophists a bit better had he the Spirit of Old Saint Nick.

There isn’t much historically about Saint Nicholas giving out gifts, except one legend about an old man and his three, dowry-less daughters, who, without a dowry, would undoubtedly become prostitutes. Nicholas heard of this and threw a purse of gold coins into each girl’s room, saving them from a life of licentiousness. Others have him throwing purses at increasingly odd lists of random people, until one starts to wonder just where Nicholas was getting all this money.
St. Nicholas Island (Gemiler Island), where is the first tomb of St. Nicholas

In the 3rd and 4th century AD, all this saintliness usually had one marked for death, especially as Diocletian came to power, reversing all the blessings that Emperor Constantine had laid down on the Christians. Under Diocletian, Saint Nicholas would meet his end and evidence shows his first tomb was on the aptly named St. Nicholas Island—or modern day Gemiler Island—off the southern coast of Turkey. His bones were later moved to Myra and finally to Bari, Italy, where they rest today. Scientists have checked out the bones, declared them 4th century legits, and even used them to map out the face of Saint Nicholas.

4. Santa Clause

I’ve gotten into some weird arguments with Europeans over the years about Santa Clause. Some Europeans say they have Santa Clause, others say they don’t and have St. Nicholas instead. Yet others insist that they haven’t either, but rather the Father of Christmas. I’m here to tell all you Euros that they are all the same freaking guy!

The name Santa Clause comes from the Dutch of New Amsterdam (now New York, why they changed it...), who started using that spelling and name for their traditional Sinterklaas, or Sint-Nicolaas, which is Dutch for, you guessed it, Saint Nicholas. The main differences that Sinterklaas has with modern Santa Clause—and for that matter, most European iterations of Saint Nicholas have this difference—is that he walks around in a red and white bishop’s outfit.

Special for the Dutch, he also walks around with a little helper in blackface called Blackface Piet. The Dutch are a most racially sensitive group of fellows.

In Russian influenced territories, Santa Clause is traded in for the blue-donned Grandfather Frost. He’s jolly in every way that you’d expect a Russian frost demon to be, freezing to death evil lazy boyars and giving a breath of wintry aid to the hard-working peasants. After the Russian Revolution, he was re-educated and re-habilitated as a jolly old Red-coated man with a beautiful Russian girl on his arm, bringing kids gifts on New Years Day. 

5. Santa Clause’s helpers

In the United States, we believe that Santa Clause traded in his black-faced companion for a more politically correct army of midget elves, who slave away all-year around in a camp in the North Pole.

In Russia, I mentioned the insanely hot Russian babe named Snegurochka that Ded Moroz gets to hang out with, she’s something of a sexy Mrs. Clause found in the costume shops. Unfortunate for Ded Moroz, Snegurochka though was designated as his granddaughter by the Politburo.

Back up in Holland, there was our blackface friend, Zwarte Piet. Little Dutch children are told that Piet’s blackface comes from all the soot of the chimneys that gets on Piet’s face as he crawls down them, a slave to the Dutch white guy Sinterklaas, delivering presents and doing every bidding of the Dutch trader. Some historians say that Piet really is black because he represents two of Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who defected to Santa Clause after Ragnarok.

The Alpine peoples probably have the weirdest helper of Satan—cough—I mean Santa. There they have the Krampus. Krampus was an old pagan god of the Alps, with shaggy goat’s hair, goat’s feet, huge horns. Most saints traditionally have the power to enslave demons, just as Solomon and Jesus did in the Bible, and bend those accursed creatures to be servants of the light. Santa apparently did this with Krampus on one of his visits to Switzerland, and now Krampus has to wear a big bell around his waist so Santa always knows where this feisty and cunning servant is.

Krampus at a parade in Kaplice, Czech Republic

Am I missing any? What are your favorite Christmas traditions? Leave a comment below!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Did you make Santa's naughty list?

Nothing says Christmas like mulled wine with raisins and tangerines, laughing children, a 20-foot tall fir tree, a parade of woolly-haired demons, and a band thrashing to heavy metal. But that’s how the Czechs in Kaplice carry on the season, along with a few other villages across the Alpine and sub-Alpine lands.


Hanging with my pal Krampus

The tradition is not without historical precedent.

As Christianity spread throughout the region, Santa Claus--short for Saint Nicholas for my European friends who are confused about the jolly giant of Anglo lore--needed some help with his piling list of duties. Not only did he have to take care of his reindeer, manage his growing army of elven woodworkers, keep a list of naughty and good children, somehow balance a loving marriage, and hand out presents to all the various good kids of the world, he also had to start giving coal to the bad kids. Mama mia! he might have said. Though he was Greek and I’m not overly sure what those olive pickers are prone to saying when exasperated.




St. Nick leading his demon army

And then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say, “What if we enslaved us a pagan deity of the Alps? I hear those Austrians and Swiss are hardworking folk, their old gods should be as well.” So Santa, with a team of some forty elves, sought the woolen haired, goat horned old god named Krampus. Luckily for Santa, pagan gods are prone to heavy drinking and dancing. So he got together a few of Mrs. Claus’s single ladies and set them to work.

Before the night was through, Krampus was in chains with a giant bell hanging off his back.

Large bells on the back is an essential for the Krampus costume

But it wasn’t such a bad thing. He got to relax and drink mulled wine for most of the year at his nice cushy pad at the North Pole. And in December, especially December 6th, he gets to revisit his old haunts and torment young children and pretty ladies, slapping them with bundles of birch and generally terrifying them with any number of untold nightmares before Christmas.

The tradition continues

Nowadays, Krampus is still celebrated with a visit from a devilish figure in the company of Santa Clause to tease the children on Saint Nick’s Day, December 6th. Major Krampus parades are held in Kaplice, Czech Republic on the weekend after, and a few other towns in the mountains of Austria.



Demon Krampus giving the thumbs up to the good kids

We discovered this seemingly Satanic festival of the Krampus last year, reading through a local expat forum, and immediately decided that this was something we had to attend. This year we packed our bags, found the nearest hotel, and made for Kaplice.


Another Krampus saying hi to the kids

We arrived in Kaplice at about 4:00 pm. The parade would start at 6:00 pm, but already people were filling up all the available spots along the route barriers. It was really quite incredible and frustrating, though having some live music up on stage made waiting around a bit more tolerable. We immediately found a good position and staked it out. Like a good husband, I sent my wife back and forth to fetch me mulled wines as I strong armed people away from taking her spot.


Waiting for the parade. 4:00 and already all the good spots are taken
Maybe it says something about the Czech character, but I was surprised about how many children were out for what basically was a Gwar concert procession. But I thought that was pretty cool.

The parade begins

The parades star a long line of Krampus teams, each in thematic uniform, their own versions of the shaggy demigod, most being a bit overly demonic, as though they were using costumes that were recycled from Finnish death metal music videos. Indeed, the entire night was something right out of a death metal video.



Behemoth's biggest fan

The procession lasted for two hours. The Krampii ran up, shouted, jumped on the barriers, threw away the barriers, whipped people with birches, and poked children on their noses and waved at them. A couple of times a Krampus actually stole a child and carried them around the parade, but it was all in good fun. The only crying child I witnessed was when the parade was over. The two-year old girl next to me was pissed that there were no more walking nightmares treading the grounds.

My wife and I were a bit glad that it had ended, since our legs were red from all the whippings. If you're planning to attend, note where all the advertisement banners are hanging off the railings and stand behind one of those!


There were lots of smoke bombs and pyrotechnics throughout the show

Time to cry

After two hours, a huge fireworks show lit up the sky and then the after parties started up. But being married to a lovely wife, I had my own after party to attend to. So we made like Santa and left Kaplice for next year. 


Barrels of grog for the afterparty?


At the head of each "team" was a sign bearer

What's a Krampus without a flame thrower?

Some Krampii looked more like hellspawn than your average pagan god


Smoke and fire always adds to the atmosphere

Here's a bonus video, from one commenter below:




What do you think about the Krampus tradition? Leave a comment below.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

5 best Christmas markets in Europe

Main square in Rothenburg

It’s that time of year again. The days get shorter, the evenings darker, and the locals start lighting things up to have some glimmer of hope carry them through these Northern winters. Advent is here, which means all across Europe, Christmas markets have been set up, lights strung, and the Christmas season officially begun. Unlike in the United States, where we have a creeping Advent, one that seems to start the Christmas carols a day earlier each year, Europe is pretty well set in tradition. The fourth Sunday before Christmas heralds the new season, no matter what all the card and toy companies would like to have us believe. But what do these socialists know about holidays anyway? Don’t they know the true Christmas spirit is making a quick buck?

To answer that, yes they do. But they also know the value of keeping something special. This means you can up the price and do less work, because a rare thing is a wanted thing. And there’s nothing rarer than the Christmas souvenir, which unless you’re in Rothenburg, Germany at the year round Christmas shop—which is altogether a creepy place in July—then you have to wait until December to get your favorite candle powered silver spinny-thing or the right Christkindlsmarkt 2016 glass for your homemade mulled wine.

The best Christmas markets are in the Austrian and German sphere of influence. As you go West they get less magical and cozy and more Trump tower—which I suppose is a kind of magical place unto itself. The most common term for the Christmas Market is “Weihnmarkt” or “Advent Market”, and it’s a great place to bring the kids to look at all the beautiful Christmassy goings on while you get good and sloshed on some steaming hot red wine.

The following is a list of what I’ve found to be the top 5 Christmas markets.

1. Prague, Czech Republic
The Prague Old Town Market
Prague is consistently rated as having the number one Christmas market. Despite it being in the Czech Republic, the region has had a deluge of Germanic influences, being a part and partner of German territories for over a thousand years. Though the old town square is indeed dressed up in lights, a giant, orchestra blaring Christmas tree, and wood stalls everywhere, it’s not just the market itself that wins people over. Indeed, the whole city turns into a Christmas market, as stalls, trees, and lights are put up in just about every square in the city, making it entirely possible to traverse the entirety of the urban area with a fresh cup of svařak–the local word for hot wine, pronounced svajak–in hand at all times. It also brings in a lot of green and other colors, which is a much-needed thing, with all the trees barren and the sky always grey and overcast.

2. Nuremberg
Nuremberg market, approaching the old town square
Nuremberg has one of the largest Christkindlmarkts in the Continent (indeed, one of the only). It’s got the special name because a local dressed up as baby Jesus comes out to start it up, and nearly at all times there’s a brass band playing Christmas carols on the packed square. The square has a giant monumental fountain from the 13th century on it, and it looks like a Gothic spire went missing from a local church. Perhaps even from the grand Marienskirche that overlooks the site. Walking around the Marienskirche, there is a children’s market, complete with rides and more hot wine, and the market extends all the way up Marientorgraben to the train station, packed at all times with revelers and shoppers.

Our drink of choice here was the hot spiced apple cider, which for Americans, isn’t the dull powdered stuff you get at Safeway, but rather from actual fermented apples - a proper cider. I’m not even sure why Americans think apples come from paper packets of powder.

Think to reserve a hotel nearly six months out, or book a place in a nearby village. If you want to make a proper tour of Christmas markets and still be situated in a good-sized, not huge town, and still be in Bavaria and Franconia though, Nuremberg is a pretty good starting point, being pretty central to the region. It’s a direct train ride from all the airport cities – Munich, Frankfurt, and Berlin – and a direct, 3-hour bus ride from Prague.    

3. Rothenberg, Germany
The look like gingerbread houses in Rothenberg
Rothenberg at any time of year is a trip back in time, and during Christmas, it’s almost like a trip into Santa’s workshop. The place is well-known for being the center of sales and possibly production of souvenir Christmas ornaments, clocks, and spinning things year-round, with a shop right on the main square devoted to it all. During the Christmas season, the town gets decked out with boughs of holly, branches hanging down every window where there were once poinsettias, each house framed with large light bulbs wrapped in pine needles. If only there were some snow in the season any more, and this would be the perfect snow time getaway.

Rothenberg certainly doesn’t have the biggest Christmas market in Germany, especially since there is hardly much room in the tight, pedestrian streets of the old town – the main square even is one of the smallest in Europe. But it’s certainly one of the more romantic ones, especially with its giant, sagging Christmas tree standing before the town hall which seems to fill up half the square, while stalls of souvenirs and sausages cram the tiny alleys that spider-web out from the center.

Characteristic of its time-away-from-time atmosphere, nothing is modern in Rothenberg except for the rare taxi trolling through the crowds, bringing some lazy tourist to their hotel or picking them up. Don’t expect to pay for things with your credit card – except maybe your hotel room – and especially don’t expect anything to be on the Internet. Despite there being probably hundreds of hotels in the town, there are less than ten listed on Booking.com, and those are often booked up to a year in advance. But don’t worry, you can always just stay in a nearby village, which may even offer something much more romantic and much cheaper, and since the sun goes down at 4, there’s still plenty of time to enjoy the Christmas lights in Rothenberg and make it back to your hotel.

The drink of choice here is the Feuerzangenbowle. It’s a hot mulled wine, red and white, that is simply insanely delicious. Perhaps the best hot wine I’ve had in all my Christmas marketeering days–and I drink a lot! Meanwhile, the snack of choice is the Schneeball, which is a kind of cookie wrapped around itself until it comes to the size of the fist. I’m not overly impressed by the taste and it’s a real mess to eat, but you’ve got to try one when you’re in their hometown.

5. Bamberg, Germany
In the Bamberg main square
One of the best surprises of my travels has been the town of Bamberg. You don’t normally read about Bamberg on the main trails, usually the cities mentioned in the parts of Franconia are Rothenberg and Nuremberg. It’s a mistake though to miss out on the Bamberg Christmas market. Bamberg itself is a beautiful medieval town hugging closely the banks of the Regnitz River, pedestrian only bridges – from stone to steel – making an intricate lacework over the rushing waters. The Christmas market here is huge–almost the size of the one in Nuremberg–but the market also winds down the side streets, making it feel as warm and cozy as that of Rothenberg. It’s the best of both worlds really, and since it’s not on the primary tourist track the prices of souvenirs are quite competitive.

Given that this was the last town I visited on my last-year Christmas market tour, I can’t remember what I drank, but I do remember detoxing at some café near a donut shop. I was thinking fondly of donuts, since they’re hard to come by, they taste better than Schneeballen, and my stomach was still sick off eating too many of those doughy things. And then there was more wine, or punch, or something and oh, a guy dressed as Grandfather Frost!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

the best tour of Prague isn't actually a tour

The hordes of Chinese sweep past, followed by the Russians, the Americans, the British. Gobs of single-ethnicity armies positioning themselves for better sights, better shots, each led by some embittered Czech, or expat perhaps, holding an umbrella high in the air, waving it around in circles, marshalling them onward, onward, onward! And they follow, mindlessly, thoughtlessly, carelessly, those lagging behind scoped out by the derelicts and ne’er-do-wells, hiding in the corners and near the beer stands of Vaclav Square. Up Na Prikope, past, around, down Myslbek, or any other nameless alleyway, towering sentinels of Baroque and neo-Romanesque and gargoyles and angels leering down at the masses. In a group one can never be truly in the city, bound by the authorities of the tour leader. You can’t linger long, you can’t skip through what’s interesting, you're bound. 

There, behind the trdelnik stand, lurks a ne'er do well

You're bound by the umbrella. The Segway. The bicycle. There are naturally benefits to any tour, but the real adventurer, those like myself, mock such contrivances. I will not be hedged in. I will not be defeated in my conquering of the city. But I do hours of reading; reading tour guides, history books, Wikipedia, whatever I can do to discover the city in advance, though I still manage to miss a lot.

There is another way though.

A couple of months ago, someone sent me an email from the contact page on my main site. They were working for a new startup.

Old Town Square in Prague. Don't buy beer in a café here, but in the street.
Just in the same way a museum has an audioguide, they were working on developing audioguides for cities. What are cities but great big outdoor museums anyway?

And wouldn’t I like to write and record an audio tour for Prague?

Why not? 

One that let's people follow along at their own pace, stopping when they want to stop, lingering when they want to linger? And even they can stop and wander off midway through and pick it up the next day?

One of the best views in Prague, 360 degrees around.
The route I chose wasn’t anything edgy. Just the route that I would want, first coming in to Prague. The King’s Road. The old coronation trail that the Bohemian Kings followed down, from one end of old town, through the old main road, across the medieval bridge, and up to the Castle. And the Castle is not necessarily something easy to find. So, I spent some time researching the more notable things and then set to work.

The process initially took a long time. I had to first mark the places on a map to coordinate the GPS triggers, and then write about each place. Their editor would then add a few notes, or question for clarity. Then back to me and then finally, after another approval, it would be ready for my sweet and sultry voice to vibe it out on the ribbon of the mic.

And there you have it, the final product.

Charles' Bridge
Now you too can have a super cheap audio tour from yours truly, guiding you through the Prague old town, telling you where not to get beers, where you can buy the best trdelnik, and find one of the best views of the city. And it’s like I’m right here with you.

It’s a brilliant concept really, and after trying it myself, I’d have to admit that my tour is awesome and highly recommended by the most trustworthy of judges of my work. And you'll lose 30 pounds and get a million dollars in a month. I promise.

Now, when I have guests, instead of giving them a personal tour for the thirtieth time (for me, not them), I can just have them download this excellent piece of bohemian Bohemian guiding.

And it’s all available just below. Along with some other off-the-beaten track routes in Prague, and other tours in cities across the globe. Bonus points are that you don’t even have to be there to do the tour. Instead you can just listen to the whole thing from the comfort of your home like a true armchair adventurer. There's no shame in that.

Here it is:
And welcome to Prague. Or not. Maybe even welcome to your armchair. But either way, you should grab a beer and send a "na zdraviye" my way. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

A time to weep and a time for Birds!

http://www.blrtheatre.com/

There’s a man sleeping on the couch. A woman at the table writing, reading her narrative so the audience can understand what she’s thinking. She’s a bit mad, but then anyone in her situation would be--what, with the birds and all. The man sleeping suddenly wakes up, runs across the room and attempts to open the door.

But there are the sounds of birds outside. The sounds themselves aren’t menacing, but the reactions of the people make them terrifying. For the rest of the two hours, every caw and tweet becomes a cause to shiver.

“The Birds” was put on by Blood, Love, and Rhetoric last weekend at the underground Divadlo D21 in Vinohrady. As per usual, they haven’t failed to entertain. In their usual style of off-center tragedies, it’s one part melodrama and one part serious and the night we were there, Friday, it was properly pulled off.

The play centers around the same source material as the much more famous horror, “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock, which is a short story by Daphne du Maurier, set in a post-Blitz countryside. The birds have decided the Brits haven’t had enough of hell from the skies and have replaced the Luftwaffe as the cleansing chambermaids of the Isles.

Playwright Conor McPherson seems to have set the story somewhat after the one in Hitchcock’s movie. The time of raging violence has passed. Now people are held hostages in whatever shelter they can find. The birds come in at high tide and disappear at low tide, leaving some time to scavenge around and loot neighboring houses before their return. It seems a bit like life during war time.

Three strangers end up in an abandoned house, which gives it a bit of an Agatha Christie feel to it. A writer, Diane, is played by Angela Jane Kemp, who really fills the role with her almost natural creepiness. She’s able to pull off a weird Oedipus vibe that’s part motherly and part sexual, dominating over the ever-so-slightly mentally off Nat, played by Logan Hillier. Logan masterfully plays the alcoholic recovering from a nervous breakdown. The most surprising act though was the role of Julia, played by Victoria Hogan. Her weird and peppy, Bible-obsessed possibly-nymphomaniac—what Bible obsessed girls aren’t?—character makes her the perfectly insane balance to the much darker Diane, and the two have a bizarre tug-of-war over Logan’s character.

Strangely, the perhaps most normal character of the bunch is the lonely, drug-peddling farmer who lives next door, Tierney, played by Curt Matthew to the utter delight of the audience. When things have generally settled between the trio, Tierney comes in to add a bit of game-theory dementia to the plot. He promises Diane all the drugs, booze, and food she can handle if she’d just come and keep him company and riddles her with doubts of the other two.

The only problem I had with the presentation of the material I had was the set. Whereas at first, with the white walls and windows surrounding the audience, it seemed to draw you into the room with the actors like a black box might, the presence of too many bird decorations inside the rooms however detracted from the horror of the avian blood mongers. I feel as though it would have been better with no birds at all, rather than too many, allowing the sound to play the false antagonist of the plot. This is a small gripe to an otherwise good job.

Blood, Love, and Rhetoric ever manages a good show. They always choose a quirky play and have a good deal of silliness with a great deal of solemnity in their execution, nearly every time leaving you with a “huh?” factor, a feeling I always cherish. “The Birds”, directed by John Malafronte, was no exception. Check out their weekly Thursday night improv show at the Trick Bar in Malostranska Beseda, or check back at their website or facebook to see what they have next.

Monday, October 17, 2016

signal, a festival of light

St. Ludmila's
There are many ways to waste electricity. You can keep the lights on all night, you can keep the television on while you cook, you can run the heaters all day and night long. Or you can spray billions of watts into the air to make a cathedral pulse and glimmer or a Baroque building shatter as a snake comes bursting out. In Europe, it's clear there's no lack of the the enigmatic electron. In some countries around the Continent, they’re running so well on alternative energies that some months, they might even pay you to use energy. So the extra watt or thousand really isn't a big worry anymore. Maybe it was from this notion, this celebration of man's pioneering galvanism, that the Signal Festival was created, a truly modern blend of art and technology, on display to everyone.

The Signal Festival is one of Prague’s biggest festivals—and for a city of a thousand festivals, that says a lot. It goes on for four nights every October, sending blinding beams of light across buildings and up into the air. The first year we went, I remember there being a huge mat across a riverside park, and everywhere you’d step, it would light up in different patterns, and another one where you’d walk in front of a projector and, using some sort of quantum formula, it’d scatter your particles across the white screen beyond. These such exhibits are displayed all across the city, with each neighborhood seemingly at a contest to outdo the other.

Signal Festival began three years ago and has been such a success, with the streets literally overflowing with crowds all through the night, that I imagine it will be a mainstay in the festivities programming for centuries to come.

The hanging man of shooter's island
The usual hotspot of the festival is at Namesti Miru, where they do a complete video mapping of the 18th century, neo-Gothic St. Liudmila’s Church. The projection is played to some pulsing, heart-shaking, deep bass-blasting electronic music, and makes it appear that the church is at once breaking into pieces, spinning into some vortex, or launching off into outer-space. There’s usually a similar projection at the Old Town Square.

The projection though that really stole the show this year was Tigre’s mapping of a building near Kampa Park. 3D glasses were for purchase for a couple of euro, and the show included science fiction/fantasy creatures that literally jumped out of the windows and broke down the walls. It was a pretty awesome work of art and something that would be truly hard to find an imitation of anywhere. 


windmill
In other squares and neighborhoods, there were smaller species of displays, many seemingly without aim or purpose. But then, that's art for you, ars gratis artis. One was something like a reverse white tesseract, with random letters from random alphabets floating upwards. Another few were large balloon man. One had his neck snapped, as though he were hanging from a gallows, and the other was lying on the ground, possibly after the deceased were removed from the said gallows. Another was a tattered old windmill with patterns spinning to a deep electronic soundtrack. The musical theme was definitely something glitch with a touch of horror.

So if you’re planning on a trip to Prague, I’d recommend overlapping it with the Signal Festival. It’s an event that really takes this historic city into the next century.

And some videos: