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From Prague

By Sahand Rabbani

from Prague


I join many of you in your international travels on this sixth day of April. I urge you to regale us with your excursions about the world as your tales are likely far more interesting than what you are about to read (I am about to write). Indeed, even Word's Shift+F7 does not suffice to embellish a mundane day of travel that began with a quotidian ride on Marguerite's Clockwise B Line to the Palo Alto Transit Center. Whether in Europe's boot, the British Isles, the serpent of a nation that is South America's coast, or our very own United States, I am eager to learn of your distant goings-on. Please, impart upon us the vicarious thrill of travel, bridge this geographical gap, and delight us with your coveted company.

I am hours departed from San Francisco's airport on a plane whose next appointment with Earth is at Germany's bustling Frankfurt. There will I depart for Prague, heart of the Czech Republic and linchpin of Central Europe, a historical landmark among whose many claims to fame is the amusing Defenestration borne in defiance of Hapsburg rule. This is the birthplace of the renowned existentialist Franz Kafka. This is the nation whence came the nineteenth century composer Antonín Dvořák whose moderno-romantic New World Symphony has numbed my pain of weariness at many a late studious hour.

Thursday, early afternoon, had me at San Francisco airport's international terminal, where I entertained myself with the day's missed lectures. Here, I participated in a remarkable social phenomenon which has inspired me to lift my pen: As I rose to chase a boarding call to gate G100, I noticed an abandoned magazine on a nearby table. It was April 2's New Yorker, orphaned and eager to join its foster reader on an unexpected tour. As I closed on this lonely blue issue, I noticed an advertent rectangular tear on the magazine's cover. Indeed, the lithograph's bygone owner had amputated the addressed label, the subscriber's name. She had done this, undoubtedly, with the beneficent hope that another passenger would inherit the magazine's boon. This subtle, yet unmistakable, act of anonymous goodwill moved me to take this issue on a complementary visit to Europe. My adopted co-traveler, a modern-day, cosmopolitan Flat Stanley, entertained me through the first several hundred miles away from the Bay with a short story about an alcoholic schoolteacher, a fresh biographical ode to Einstein, and an exposition on the discourse between the Catholic Church and Islam. To the magazine's former owner I convey both gratitude and veneration, promising to make its riches, however belated, available to another citizen of the world. This nameless largess, friends, is what separates us from the animals.

Allow me to conclude this turgid piece with a preemptory elegy for a late slice of Ahi tuna. In the wake of my swift departure from Stanford, I left an uneaten slab of esculent sashimi grade Ahi tuna in the [indoor] refrigerator. As it stands now, this worthy has-been fish will expire on April 7. You, my friends who still tread Californian soil, can change this. Honor yourselves and this purple delicacy by incorporating it into a most intelligent being. Do so with alacrity, however, as this Cinderella of a meal will transform into a noisome brown rot when the clock turns Saturday's PM into Sunday's AM. If, until then, the tuna has not enjoyed the privilege of self-consciousness, then please deliver it to its black bag of a grave, preserving its paramount dignity.

The plane has passed the sun in its diametric traversal of the sky: Night has fallen on this Boeing 747. To the Good Men abroad: Bring us into your intriguing worlds. To the Good Men at home: Enjoy that hallowed "Fine Location" where the sun "settles," so often hailed by our Chili Peppers. Time will overcome the distance between us all, and we will soon enough bask in the complete synergy of the First Tier.

Ciao for now,


from Prague II: how to speak Czech and other lessons


In my second day in Prague, I have nearly mastered the language. It is not that different from our own. I will demonstrate this by translating a common English phrase, applying some simple rules. Suppose we would like to say "good from Carl" in Czech. First, we must change every second vowel into a consonant, usually one of "c," "k," "r," or "z." "Good from Carl" becomes "gord from Czrl." From here, we add a number of consonant clusters located strategically throughout the phrase to ensure that pronunciation is as difficult as possible: "gorchzydni frzoyms Czrliklvata." Now, we make the final changes by adding a mixture of accents to enhance the vowels and consonants alike. The complete and correct translation of "good from Carl" becomes "gořčhžydní fřzoymš Čzrlíklváta." Practically indistinguishable from the English version! The languages are so similar, in fact, that I can only tell them apart after applying a sophisticated metric. The Czech Likeness Index (CLI) is given by

CLI = (k ln μ + A) max(z-1,0)2

where k is the number of consonant clusters, μ is the average length of these consonant clusters, A is the number of accents, and z is the number of times the letter "z" appears in the word. The factor (z-1) drives up the CLI to account for the high frequency of the letter "z" in Czech words. One "z" is acceptably English, but any additional zs are not likely to appear in an English word (exceptions, of course, include borrowed words like "pizza"). To determine whether a word is Czech, we compare its CLI to the critical threshold, denoted by CLIC. If CLI > CLIC, the word is Czech; if CLI < CLIC, the word is English (or possibly another non-Czech language); if CLI = CLIC, the word is ambiguous and no further inferences can be made.

Indeed, the Czech people are a fascinating anthropological experience for more than their language. I have learned much about their ways. Namely, I have identified the distinguishing characteristics of the Czech Manly Man. He wears tattered jeans, a white T-shirt bearing a common meaningless English phrase, a leather jacket zipped only at the bottom with the collar popped, and a pair of aviator sun glasses with inordinately large lenses. I have also witnessed a number of variations on this theme. The Czech women are less homogeneous and any specific description would belie their diversity. I will say, however, that I saw one woman in the subway with a mouse in her hood. A mouse. It was playfully sniffing around her neck, obediently refraining from running about the car. It was perhaps the most well behaved mouse that I had ever seen.

Speaking of subways: public transportation is delightfully cheap. With 20 Czech koruna (95.56 cents by Thursday's exchange rate) I rode the bus from the airport to the town's periphery and the subway from there to the hotel. The hotel is the Hilton Prague, located right on the Vltava River (pronounced RIH-vur) and close to the center of town.

One should not presume, however, that the city is free of expensive touristic diversions. In fact, the main square teems with vendors selling quintessentially hackneyed souvenirs. Aside from the standard unimaginative shot glasses bearing the Czech flag, there is the popular "Czech me out!" T-shirts and other memorabilia.

For 40 koruna, however, I enjoyed a delicious midday cup of svařak, or mulled wine. This pleasant treat warmed me against the day's cool spring breeze. And with spring, of course, comes Easter, which is far more publicly celebrated in principally Catholic Europe than in the U.S. I have taken a liking to this svařak, and I intend to reproduce it—with the help of one Charles Shaw—upon my return to the Bay, where the Two-Buck Chuck flows like wine.

My parting words are few, and I leave it to you to ascertain their meaning:

Yůřnič ař at gořčhžydní manyáska.


from Prague III: a farewell to Galaxia


I write to you during my final night in Prague, or in the native Czech, Praha. It is hours after a delicious venison chateaubriand and a dioramic promenade across the beautifully adorned Karluv most (Charles Bridge, after the Hapsburg Charles IV) that crosses the Vltava River. Flanked by historic statues and street caricature artists, this sandstone brick pedestrian bridge sees from one end the elevated castle, site of the defenestration that ignited the Thirty Years' War in 1618, and from the other end a more modern Prague that is an anachronistic collage of centuries-old architecture and modern souvenir shops, banks, and bureaux de change. The bridge buzzes with a hodgepodge European languages, most of them not Czech. Tourists comprise the majority of the hordes that throng the cobblestone streets. The more enterprising visitors are found climbing to the higher points of the city that offer an unparalleled aerial view. Only from these summits beyond the river can the viewer simultaneously appreciate the diverse architecture that distinguishes Prague from its neighboring historic cities who have suffered destruction and renovation at the hands of our previous century's World Wars.

The previous two days were a comprehensive fifty-kilometer hike through the city's new and old. From the littered districte rouge where shop vitrines advertise "Erotic City" and Cannabis-branded vodka, we made our way through the [perhaps] financial district where modern firms are housed in their archaic shells. Then, we moved to a remarkable feat of civil engineering: Where land plummets hundreds of meters, a bridge crosses a valley, carrying cars on its top and the metro train in its belly. Below are a park and a colorful residential district. We wrap about the city and conclude in the town's commercial square. Fashion stores occupy the buildings behind hot dog stands and little shacks selling sugar-coated cylindrical pastries and mulled wine. These are local specialties, along with pork knuckles and the region's pride Urquell Pilsner beer. The name Pilsner is the Germanization of the Czech town of Plzen. Urquell, the paramount Pilsner according to the Czech, is sold at every street corner; cheaper than water per quantity, this beer, like most Pilsners, is severely wanting in flavor and character. (I would be admonished if I were to have said this among the locals.)

But the svařak is delicious. I have had my daily fix from a chic she-male, a Polythene Pam of sorts, who operates a modest hut in the town square. I have likened this kind young (wo)man to Galaxia, the amicable cross-dresser in the Adam Sandler movie Anger Management. (S)he makes a first appearance in the scene where the obnoxious character of Jack Nicholson asks Sandler's character to pull over in the car and sing "I Feel Pretty." At one point, Sandler's character is asked to invite Galaxia into the car from the street; (s)he pretends, in a German accent, to be "from a little Bavarian village." Though in Bohemia, not Bavaria, I have found my own Galaxia. Today, however, I did not enjoy the company of my beloved friend, and though the svařak I accepted from another kind young woman contained the same tangible ingredients, it lacked that suggestive wink that warmed me from the inside, like the wine itself, against the cool spring breeze.

And as such, it is with great reluctance that I bid my Galaxia farewell. Attempts to prolong my trip are frustrated by the busy Easter travel season. I have made good time of my stay in the Czech Republic. I now forfeit my koruna and recover my U.S. dollars from the pages of my passport who, with tomorrow's stamp, will permit my return journey to the looming eight weeks of pain.

With mulling spices and a suggestive wink,


Copyright © 2024 Sahand Rabbani
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