Sunday, October 27, 2013


So, this has been a huge weekend for me.  I bought a new printer so that I can print off the first copy of the book I’ve written that I’ve been working on for ten years off and on. However, I forgot to check the price of ink cartridges before buying it, and of course I chose one of the most expensive ones to replace. I really have a knack for picking out the most expensive things. It’ll all work out, I suppose. I may learn how to refill ink myself. The other thing is that I celebrate 34 years of continuous breathing tomorrow. And what better birthday dinner than the food from the Czech Republic?

The first thing I got started on was the kolaches. A kolache is like a sweet roll with a well in it filled with a variety of fillings. There are a couple different kinds, both savory versions using meats and cheeses as well as fruit-filled ones.  I’m making the fruit versions today, and I let my kids each choose a flavor, so we’re making apricot, cherry, and pear kolaches. (The pear ones aren’t something that I gathered is traditionally authentic, but since I did find some pear preserves at the store that I ABSOLUTELY had to have, I’m hoping it’ll be good.) To start off with, we made the dough, and the kids got to learn how to make lemon zest. This dough needs a ton of resting time: the first rest is 2-3 hours. I pushed it back to 1 ½ -2 hours. After a second kneading, it rested for another hour.  Then I cut my dough in half and made two balls, letting it rest for 10-15 minutes. Now it’s time to actually do something. I rolled out the dough to where it’s about a ½” – ¾” thick and used a large cup to cut out the circles. I was able to make 15 of them, which is good if I have three flavors. I let it rest for another half-hour (although the recipe called for an hour). Now comes the fun part: with my thumb, I made a well in the middle. I took store-bought honey-flavored cream cheese and spread it in the bottom of the well.  Then I put a nice sized dollop of preserves on top. I  made an egg wash and brushed the tops of each kolache. Then I made what’s called posipka, which is sugar, flour, cinnamon and butter that has been cut into it. The posipka is then sprinkled on top of each pastry.  It only bakes for about 12-14 minutes (or until golden).  My husband said it tastes like it came from a professional bakery. I tried one of the cherry ones, and it tasted like a mini cherry pie.  The cream cheese and fruit preserves combination somewhat remind me of how I like my scones. But what I like about these is that because the filling is sweet, the sweetness in the pastry itself is subdued.  If both are sweet, then it’s too much.  These were the perfect combination.  I absolutely love these!! And they must be good: my husband has had four already.

Kolaches, from left to right: cherry, apricot, pear
For the meal, I made what’s considered the national dish: Vepro-Knedlo-Zelo.  It’s roast pork, dumplings, and red cabbage sauerkraut. I started with the roast, because it takes the longest time.  I put the roast in my casserole dish and sprinkled diced onions on and around it as well as sprinkled some sea salt and caraway seeds on top. I had never had caraway seeds on anything other than bread, so I was really interested to see how it meshed with the pork.  Then I put water in the dish so that it covered about a quarter of the way up the roast. Then I put it in the oven and forgot about it for two hours. I liked the caraway taste on it. I thought it blended well and gave it a somewhat earthy overtone to the slow-cooked pork. 

Roast pork with salt, onions, and caraway seeds. The flavor was incredible!
Once it came out, I took a cup of the drippings and used it in lieu of water in making pork gravy.  I didn’t do anything fancy here; I just used a package of no-MSG pork gravy from Meijer.  But it was still tasty. 

The next part of this was to make the sauerkraut.  I normally associate this as being made with green cabbage, but this recipe calls for red cabbage.  I actually sautéed some diced onions in the pot first and then added my shredded cabbage in the pot along with a cup of water and some salt. I let it cook for about a half hour, then I drained what water was left, added 3 Tablespoons each of white wine vinegar and sugar and mixed well. The recipe called to throw just a tad of flour in the pot and stir, letting it cook down for about 10-15 more minutes. The flavor was phenomenal. I loved the mix of sweet and sour.  The kids weren’t so much fans of it, but my husband and I thought it was the best stuff on earth. (Besides the kolaches.)

My daughter asks, "Why do they call it red cabbage when it's purple?" 
Lastly, I made the dumplings. Now here was yet another lesson in how what I’m making is not how the recipe is making me think it SHOULD look.  I just couldn’t get my dough to set up for the dumplings. I mixed my water, milk, eggs, and salt together and added the flour, and then I added my croutons too.  (I actually made my own croutons by tearing up some cheap hamburger buns and toasting it in the oven while I was making the roast.) But it just wasn’t coming together and I already used the last of my flour. The recipe made me think that it should be almost elastic like bread dough, form it into an oblong loaf and cut it with a string before placing them in boiling water. (My husband even made me a device to cut it, using random pieces of metal from old projects and upholstery thread.  He’s so ingenious.) So, what I did was just take my sticky dough and drop it into the boiling water as is.  It still tasted very good along with the rest of the meal, and even better with the gravy on it.

One of the best comfort meals ever. AND one of the best birthday meals ever.
And I can’t forget the drink I’ve been enjoying all weekend: Pilsner Urquell.  The Czech city of Plzen is home to pilsner beers, and it’s their national drink.  I myself am a fan of pilsners; I’ve bought Pilsner Urquell several times. Pilsners tend to have a lighter flavor, but depending of the country, it can vary. I think where I live, we have more access to German, Dutch, and Belgian pilsners, with this one as the only Czech beer available. I suppose if I lived in an area with more Czech and Slavic populations, I might have more choices. 

Kinda sad there's only one more of these in my refrigerator. 
I loved everything about this meal, from the six hours it took to make the kolaches to the strange-looking dumplings I made.  For a country that I’ve been somewhat interested in for years, it certainly didn’t disappoint me, and in fact, I’m fascinated with it now. I think I can add Prague to my list of cities to retire to.  Yesterday I spent many hours catching up on Dvorak, and I just got notice from my library that “Letters to Olga” by Václav Havel is being held for me. And I also must note that this is the last country that starts with C. It’s like the ending of a good chapter.  I’ve had a lot of good food from C countries.  But I’m looking forward to the D countries (there are only five).  So, here’s to endings and beginnings and happy birthdays.

Up next: Democratic Republic of the Congo


When I was 15 years old, I bought a $3 CD of Antonín Dvorák. I was fascinated with the “From the New World” Symphony (Symphony No. 9 in E-minor), especially movements II and IV – the second movement may be far more famous, but the opening notes of the fourth movement sounds like the beginning of the Jaws theme.  I was completely enthralled with rich harmonies and coloration of the “Slavonic Dances” and his “Serenade for Strings in E-major.” Whenever I listen to the “Serenade for Strings in E-major,” I always wonder if Leonard Bernstein didn’t use parts of this as inspiration when he was writing Candide.  I spent many a moody teenage brooding sessions with this Dvorak CD.  Even now as I’m listening to the fourth movement of the “New World” on Spotify, I feel like I went back in time twenty years – like I should be lying on my bed with my Sony Discman, shaking my fist at the world, and escaping into the music.

 The lands that became the Czech Republic produced some very influential classical composers and music teachers. I’ve already mentioned my favorite Dvorak, but two other composers are Bedrich Smetana and Leos Janácek.  Bedrich Smetana is most famous for his opera The Bartered Bride and for his symphonic cycle Má vlast.  One of the most famous pieces out of Má vlast often goes by the German name of “Die Moldau” (which is the German name for the River Vltava – the longest river running through the Czech Republic). The kids' show The Little Einsteins have an episode where they used the main theme from this song (it comes in about 1:30 in). 

Leos Janácek is another famous composer who I’m afraid I’m not as familiar with, although some of his pieces are fairly familiar, such as his Sinfonietta.   There are times in listening to this that I wonder if Stephen Sondheim drew inspiration from this. A few motifs remind me of Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along. He’s also pretty famous for The Glaolitic Mass, Taras Bulba, and his first opera Jenufa.

And I’ll go ahead and give a mention to Carl Czerny: the guy who drove me nuts when I was in college. Czerny was born and raised in Bohemia but later moved to Austria when he was 10.  He was a composer and a pianist and was quite accomplished at a young age, but he generally didn’t think he was all that. He turned more to writing and pedagogy (a fancy word meaning he developed piano techniques and teaching methods). I have one of his etude study books, and I suppose if I were to have taken it more seriously, I would probably be a far better pianist than I am. (To reprieve myself, I did go back a few years ago and start again. I made it to etude #20 out of a hundred and something.)

Outside of classical music, polka is a very common style of traditional music. Even though most people associate polka with Poland, but it originated in Bohemia. And actually one traditional piece became known as the famous Beer Barrel Polka (interestingly enough, it’s played during the 7th Inning Stretch of the Milwaukee Brewers games and during halftime of Milkwaukee Bucks games). Most of the large polka areas are in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Cleveland.  Its influences spread far outside of the borders of the Czech Republic, reaching and influencing the music of Mexico. There were many Czechs who immigrated to Texas and brought their music with them. Their style of polka is part of the basis of Mexican musical styles known as Norteño and Tejano. This video is of Canada's polka king Walter Ostanek. I'm pretty sure this wasn't recorded yesterday. 

Of course with polka comes polka dancing. Of course they also had their folk songs and folk dances, mostly about the coming of spring or the harvest season. There were also dances for the conscription of young boys (sending them off to war).  Some of the instruments used in this type of traditional music and dance were the violin and double bass, the bagpipes, the dulcimer, and the trumpet. Ballet has also long had an important status in the dance world of the Czech Republic since the early 1700s.  Several different dance schools popped up around Prague and other cities across the lands. Because of their location in Europe, they were closely attentive to the arts movements in both Germany and France.

The Czech Republic is a hodge-podge of various styles of modern music. Some of the ones I came across that I like include punk, rock, and hip-hop.  I found this band called Pipes and Pints, a Celtic punk band singing in English.  Irish and Celtic music has a moderately large following for some reason. I love Irish punk, so naturally I enjoyed their music. A few other punk and ska bands I found include Visaci Zamek and Prague Ska Company. 

There was even a reggae group I found called Svihadlo. I thought the sound was more reminiscent to African reggae as opposed to Caribbean reggae, but I really don’t have much to support it other than a “feeling.”  But I did like what I heard.

One hip-hop group I found that I really liked was Prago Union. At first, I was 50/50 on my feelings toward them, but the more I listened to it, it grew on me. The styles vary a bit, some songs almost have a 1990s hip-hop feel, and some almost have a jazz-hip-hop feel to it (which I’m a huge fan of). However, just as soon as I formed the opinion that I do like it, I realized that it’s not available from my library or on iTunes. Lovely.  I wanted the album just for this one song. At least there’s Spotify. 

Up next: the food

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Czechs are renowned for their glass-making art and their crystal.  I’ve been a huge fan of art glass ever since I saw a Dale Chihuly exhibit when I was in college (although he studied more of an Italian and French style art glass, I think.).  Art glass, made in the original way, is heated and then mouth-blown using a special tool and then decorated by hand. While the earliest glass-blowing techniques were developed in Egypt and spread throughout the Mediterranean, the Syrians invented the glass-blowing tube that helped to revolutionize this art.  Part of the reason why art glass is so popular in central Europe is because of the natural raw materials, especially in the form of quartz veins along the Lusatian Mountains. Small pieces of this type of glass have been found in ruins dating back to medieval days. During the 17th century, glass artists began developing a type of extremely clear, high-quality glass called crystal, which is shaped and cut by using special rotating copper wheels. With the creation and production of crystal chandeliers during the 18th century, business boomed, but then lagged behind when glassmakers didn’t quite adhere to growing trends elsewhere. Through different trends and styles of engraving, inlays, and painting, Czech art glass is still loved and a popular exhibit in art museums all over the worlds.

One of the most well-known painters is Alphonse Mucha. His artistic styles gained international notability at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, and his style soon became known as Art Nouveau. A lot of his art can be seen in postage stamps, banknotes, and ad posters for various shops and theatres and such.  One of his legacies is a set of large paintings that depict Czech and Slavic history known as The Slav Epic. It was a series of 20 paintings that he bestowed upon the city of Prague as a gift to the city he loved.  When the Germans entered into Czechoslovakia, he was among the first to be rounded up and interrogated. During this long interrogation, he contracted pneumonia, and although he was released, it took a toll on his lungs.  He eventually died of an infection in his lung during the summer of 1939.    

For the most part, Czech literature is written in Czech. For this reason, Prague native Franz Kafka (who is fluent in Czech) is not included in the Czech canon of literature since he wrote in the German language.  The earliest pieces of Czech literature were mostly liturgical in nature, and mostly written in Old Church Slavonic using the Glagolitic alphabet (that Saints Cyril and Methodius developed).  Of course Latin was also widely used in religious matters as well, later changing over to Czech or German after the Middle Ages. During the Baroque period, Catholic poetry and prose were pretty much the best-sellers out there. Hagiographies were very popular during these times as well. (I had to look up hagiography: it’s a biography written about a saint and the miracles they did.)

The 18th and 19th centuries were changing times in Czech literature. Classicism became the most noted genre, especially in the German and Austrian style, and the sciences also began to be explored. Historical accounts were being documented, and grammars were being nailed down and standardized. Several writers were also making efforts in another field: drama (which generally mimicked what the Germans were already doing).  While they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, emerging authors were exploring new paths, incorporating philosophical themes and the current hot genres for that time. Among these authors were Božena Němcová, Karel Mácha, and Jan Neruda (the namesake of where Chilean poet Pablo Neruda chose his pen name). 

Jan Neruda
The 20th century brought about an array of avant-garde writing with topics delving into women’s rights, anarchy, expressionism, social commentary, and other literary movements and liberal topics.  Drama, poetry, and prose all fell into these various movements.  During the Communist years, much of this literature turned to ideals such as freedom and democracy and actually still circulated somewhat freely.  However, as censorship began to take its ugly hold, most of these authors fled abroad. Their works began to be read less and less in Czechoslovakia, but gained a different readership as it was translated into other languages. One of these poets and playwrights is none other than Václav Havel. I first heard of him on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell a few years ago when Havel had passed away. He was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. The author of over 20 plays and numerous non-fiction works, he was ranked fourth in a 2005 poll by Prospect magazine of the world’s top 100 intellectuals.  Because he was a dissident during the Communist years, he was imprisoned, and during those years, he wrote many letters to his wife Olga. Years later, these letters were compiled in a book called Letters to Olga,” which I’ve requested from the library. It’s said that this book is one that author Salmon Rushdie always carries with him, so I can’t wait until my book comes in. 

Up next: music and dance

Monday, October 21, 2013


New Year’s Day / Restoration Day of the Independence Czech State (January 1):  Most Czechs like to close their year or bring in the new year – depending on how you look at it – with the usual ways that other countries do it.  Elaborate parties held in bars, clubs, and restaurants are very popular, and many of these places have special New Year’s specials on prices and dishes on their menu.  Some people who prefer not to spend their evening in the hustle and bustle of the bar crowd may opt for saner activities such as theatre performances or the opera. There is also a lot of live music and concerts taking place but many of these sell out quickly, so people have to buy tickets well in advance.  But regardless, most adults adhere to the tradition of toasting champagne at the stroke of midnight, followed by fireworks and other pyrotechnic reverie. It also happens to be Restoration Day, the day that Czechoslovakia separated into Czech Republic and Slovakia (also sometimes referred to as the Velvet Divorce).

Easter Monday (varies): Easter is always celebrated for two days in the Czech Republic: both Sunday and Monday. During the Communist years of Czechoslovakia, the holiday was relegated to being a holiday about spring. And even in the post-Communist era, and in respect to the fact that most Czechs aren’t that religious, it took a while for the Christian-based traditions to slowly return.  One tradition you’ll find is highly-decorated, hand-painted Easter eggs.  Another tradition is to take pussywillow and braid them together to form a whip. The boys would go caroling on Easter Monday and symbolically whip the girls on their legs (and possibly may also throw a little water on them as well – another tradition in certain areas). Yeah, I’m sure the girls just really looked forward to this. It used to be that farmer’s wives would use the whip to whip not only the livestock but also everyone else in the house. (Something tells me, this tradition actually lasted for far more days than just these two.)

Labor Day (May 1):  The Czech Republic celebrates Labor Day on the customary day for many of the world’s countries. Of course, most people have this day off of work, and government offices and schools are closed for the day.  Many cities will hold parades, and politicians always feel compelled to give speeches regarding the state of labor at that time. Just yesterday in The Prague Post (“The Czech Republic’s English-language Newspaper”), there was an article about how the Czech Republic is the third-worst European country when it comes to slavery (just after Albania and Montenegro).  It not only mentioned foreign workers who have had their papers taken away and only working for food and accommodation, but also the number of Czechs who are taken to other countries and forced to work under similar conditions. 

Liberation Day (May 8):  This holiday marks the end of the European involvement in WWII in 1945 (also known as VE Day).  Most of the traditions on this day are memorial services, headed by various government leaders. The president heads one of the largest memorial services in Prague.

Saints Cyril and Methodius Day (July 5): Saints Cyril and Methodius were two monks who were often attributed as creating the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets (the same alphabet used by Russian and other languages).  In many of the Slavic countries, these two are commemorated as national saints.  The holiday was originally on March 9, but Pope Pius IX moved the date to July 5.

Jan Hus Day (July 6): Jan Hus was a religious reformer living before Calvin or Luther. He had a lot of problems with the Catholic Church at the time, aligning his ideas against the Church’s regarding ecclesiology (a theological term meaning the origin of Christianity in relationship to Jesus, salvation, its leadership, etc.), the Eucharist (also known as Holy Communion), and other topics. Obviously the church doesn’t like dissidents, and after a trial, he was burned at the stake in 1415. Jan Hus wasn’t just a theologian and martyr: he also introduced some important additions to the written Czech language in the form of diacritic marks. The hacek and accent marks over certain letters reformed the language into what we are familiar with today.

St. Wenceslas Day (September 28): Wenceslas I (also spelled Wenceslaus) was the Duke of Bohemia; and yes, it’s the same Wenceslas as in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” His younger brother assassinated him in 935, stemming from an argument between the two and later took the role as Duke himself. Many towns and cities will hold street festivals in honor of St. Wenceslas, which include food, drink, games for kids, cultural displays, and many restaurants will have a special St. Wenceslas Day menu.  Museums and galleries may also open their doors to allow people to come visit for free. 

Independent Czechoslovak State Day (October 28):  This is the day that the state of Czechoslovakia was created in 1918.  (61 years later, I was born on this day.) The creation of the country of Czechoslovakia was created out of the end of WWI, with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  It would also find solidarity at the end of WWII when they banded together to oppose the German occupancy. However, this day isn’t really celebrated with the vigor of other independence days. Czechs mostly spend this day relaxing in their own ways with no parades or large festivities. A few politicians may make a speech here and there, mostly about the importance of looking back and remembering their history and their future together. 

Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day (November 17):  There are two major events that took place which poses as the basis for this holiday.  The first is the student demonstration against the Nazi occupation in 1939, and the second are the 1989 demonstrations that acted as the beginning of the Velvet Revolution.  Because both of these demonstrations were student-led, this day is sometimes referred to as World Students Day, which stresses the importance of non-violent political change. 

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (December 24-25):  Gifts are often placed under the Christmas tree that is brought in and set up during the afternoon of Christmas Eve.  They’re opened later that evening – which really cuts down on the amount of time to be poked and prodded and peeked at.  At the end of Christmas dinner, usually consisting of roasted carp and fish soup (which is odd that the food of choice is seafood, given this is a landlocked country), a bell is rung, signifying that it’s time to open presents. And of course it wouldn’t be Christmas without its array of sweet treats. Another tradition is that they like to make predictions for the coming year using different traditions based in superstition, such as a girl throwing her shoes over her shoulder and if it points towards the door, it means she’ll get married soon.  Since most Czech people are non-religious, its original Christian meanings are often generally substituted for generosity and good will. 

St. Stephen’s Day (December 26): Often referred to as the Second Day of Christmas. It’s a Christian feast day in honor of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  In the carol “Good King Wenceslas,” the lyrics speak of how he trudged through the rough winter weather to give alms to peasants on this day. (The familiar melody for this carol incidentally is from a 13th-century Finnish songbook and the lyrics are about spring. Some of these songs/poems are also found in the poetry used in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, one of my all-time favorite works.)

Up next: art and literature

Saturday, October 19, 2013


After I graduated from college a little over a decade ago, I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my bachelor’s degree in general music (non-teaching) and a minor in linguistics and English and Teaching English as a Second Language (although the last two were undeclared). I found this program – I forget the name now – where I could travel to one of three European cities to take a 4-6 week course that taught how to teach ESL and then they’d place you in a school somewhere to teach English. Since I was fresh out of college, I wasn’t able to come up with the money required for housing, tuition, and airfare to get to Europe. But when I was thinking about it, I wanted to do the program in Prague, Czech Republic. I was so serious about it, in fact, that I bought myself a book on learning Czech (I still have it on my shelf). I really do love the Slavic languages – I may start learning Czech next, right after I master Portuguese and Spanish. And as a music major, one of my all-time favorite composers is Antonin Dvorak, a Czech.

The Czech Republic lies in central Europe, surrounded by Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Austria.  The country itself is landlocked, but several major river systems and their tributaries meander their way through the country: the Elbe, Vltava, Ohre, Danube, Morava, Thaya, and Oder. These rivers either drain into the North Sea, Black Sea, or Baltic Sea. Rolling hills, forests, and farmland cover most of the countryside.  The climate is generally temperate with hot, rainy summers and cold, snowy winters – not unlike most of the Midwest United States.

The area now known as the Czech Republic once was the independent states of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia.  I’ve often used the term “bohemian,” meaning someone (especially artists, musicians, writers, etc) who live unconventionally.  (Actually, the term was originally French, in reference to the Romani people who they thought were from Bohemia. Some may have been, but many of the Romani or Roma people were from Romania and Bulgaria and other areas. The English term “gypsy” was from a belief that these tribes originated in Egypt, from a Middle English word “gypcian.”) The famous Duke of Bohemia, Wenceslaus I, is the subject of the Christmas carol “Good King Winceslaus.”  He was murdered by his brother in 935 AD after an argument and subsequently overtook the title.  The Black Death which took its toll on Europe during the mid-1300s, completely devastated Bohemia; some estimates say 10% of the population perished in this horrific outbreak. 

During the 1500s, it fell under the Hapsburg Empire, and later the Austrian Empire, and then Austria-Hungary. After WWI, these states together became Czechoslovakia (which is how I learned it growing up).  During WWII, Germany invaded Bohemia and Moravia and turned it into a protectorate.  The Nazis were brutal to the Czechs, killing many and shipping other out to kill them in other countries.  So it was natural that there was an anti-Nazi resistance towards their occupation.  Even after WWII ended, Czechoslovakia remained a Communist state until 1989.  The term “Velvet Revolution” is often used when describing the non-violent transition from a single-party state to a democracy.  Four years later, Czechoslovakia itself will be no more, but as the separate countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, also separating peacefully. Since then, the Czech Republic has enjoyed a growing economy and high quality of life.

Sitting on the Vltava River, the capital city is Prague (called Praha in Czech), a city of around 2 million people if you count the larger metro area.  Prague is known for its architecture – from Gothic to modern – and especially for its cathedrals (one of its nicknames was “City of a Hundred Spires.”) Prague is not only the center of government, but also a center for the arts: from music and theatre to art and literature.  

Prague Castle
The Czech Republic is highly developed and has a high-income economy.  In comparison with other post-Communist states, the Czech Republic is one of the more stable ones today.  Its infrastructure is vastly improved with airports, railways, and extensively paved roadway systems. They also enjoy having one of the fastest Internet speeds and have the largest number of Wi-Fi subscribers in the EU (one more reason I should retire to live in Prague). The Czech Republic has long been a hot bed for scientific research.  Some of the more famous Czech scientists include such celebrities as Gregor Mendel (“father of modern genetics,” the only part of high school Biology that truly interested me), Jakub Krystov Rad (inventor of sugar cubes), Jan Jansky (discovered the classification of blood types), Josef & Karel Capek (invented the word “robot” – not exactly scientific for coining a word, but I’m including it), and Otto Wichterle & Draholav Lim (inventors of the modern contact lens – I thank them everyday).  Tourism is pretty important as well – the country in general has a fairly low crime rate. Castles (they have over 2000 of them!), cathedrals, museums, theatres, puppet festivals, and beer festivals are all pretty popular destinations. 

The official and most widely spoken language is Czech, a West-Slavic language. Before the 20th century, it was known as Bohemian in English. It’s closely related to and mutually intelligible with other Slavic languages. Actually, there’s a variety of Czech spoken in Texas which I had no idea existed, but apparently there were a lot of Czechs who immigrated there during the late 1800s.  However, there are a lot of other languages that are officially listed a minority languages: Slovak, German, Polish, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Greek, Hungarian, Romani, Russian, Rusyn, Serbian, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese.  The vast majority of Czechs describes themselves as indifferent to religion, or just simply believes in a spiritual or life force outside of any kind of organized religion.  Of the remaining religious folk, the more people adhere to Catholicism while a smaller percentage is Protestant.

This country is surprising, and I’m in awe of what I didn’t know. For instance, 90% of Czechs graduate from high school, compared with only about 75% of Americans (and even the highest ranking state, Vermont, only graduated 85%) And I’m embarrassed to say that’s a 40-year peak for us.  Unfortunately, Czechs also have the second-highest death rate for cancer in the EU – but on the plus side, the Czech Republic has the most hospital beds per inhabitant in the EU.  Czechs also have a serious passion for mushroom hunting. I know a few who do this, but I never have gone mushroom hunting myself. I would have no idea what I’m looking for. I do know that I’m looking forward to making kolaches. There’s a place on the north side of Indianapolis called Kolache Factory, but I never went inside because I didn’t know what a kolache was. Now, I’m waiting to go after I make my own. I’m very excited about writing on the Czech Republic, the world’s largest consumers of beer.  I end this post as I grab me another cold one from the fridge.

Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, October 13, 2013


I had been looking forward to this meal for several days now.  Whether anyone else cared or not, I knew I had something to look forward to this weekend. And I was really hoping this would go well since our cat Algeria ran out the door, and we haven’t seen her since. And of course my eight-year-old daughter is sincerely heartbroken about this. Our other cat Morocco is an introvert like my husband and I, so she’s not quite the playful, frisky cat the kids want her to be. She’s the type that’ll stare at a wall for hours. But I’m sure I can make them feel better with food. It always works with me, and my kids are merely a slow genetic leak.

The bread I made today was called Koulouri-Cypriot Village Bread, or as my husband calls it, Bread With Rocks, Sticks, Pinecones, and Other Debris.  The dough starts out with flour, salt, olive oil, ground anise seed, water, and a yeast mixture.  It’s kneaded until it becomes a sticky dough and is formed into a ball.  It needs to rest for about an hour. After kneading it one more time, I put all of the seeds – sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and caraway seeds – into a bowl with a little water.  I took my dough ball and rolled it around in the seeds and let it sit for another 45 minutes. After laying it on some parchment paper (I was surprised I even had some left), I put it in the oven for 30 minutes. It came out smelling wonderful and the black and white seeds on the golden bread looked amazing. And what’s better is the taste. The crust pulled away from the inside of the bread, and it was best when it was fresh out of the oven and steam rose out of it a bit after cutting it. I did forget to score the bread before baking, but no worries. Even my husband ate a piece and acknowledged that debris-laden bread isn’t all that bad, and can even be – what’s the word? – tasty. Seeds are actually very good for you, so I’m counting this a health food.

Picture perfect. Well, for a bread covered with rocks and sticks and debris. 

 The next dish I made was called Village Salad. It’s a simple salad filled to the brim with vegetables and flavors that can be served throughout the year (but probably best in summer. This is October, and it’s still in the upper 70s during the day).  I used chopped cherry tomatoes, sliced baby cucumbers, a little bit of onion, a half of a green bell pepper, feta cheese, some black olives, and I added a few capers that weren’t mentioned in the recipe but should have in my opinion. I gave it a good shake and topped with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, fresh oregano leaves, and lemon zest.  The lemon zest is what did it – it completely changed it flavor and brought out the bright notes in it and cut the acidity of the olives and vinegar. Who knew what a little lemon zest could do? 

All of my favorites. My finicky four-year-old picked out all of the feta cheese and left the rest. 
The main dish is called Afelia, or Cypriot Braised Pork.  To braise a piece of meat means to lightly pan fry it and then slowly stew the meat.  My guess is that by pan-frying the outsides, it helps to lock in the natural juices on the inside, allowing you to create a very tender piece of meat. The recipe called for pork belly, but I used boneless pork ribs instead, cut into small pieces. I placed it into a large bowl, covered it in merlot wine, added crushed coriander seeds, and a couple of bay leaves, and let it marinate for about an hour. Then I took the meat out and pan-fried it in a skillet. Afterwards, I added the marinade back into the skillet and added a little bit of cinnamon, and some salt and pepper and let simmer for about an hour (although the recipe just said 40 minutes). My daughter called it “purple pork” because it looked purple after marinating and simmering in the wine. When it was done, it was so tender, it practically melted in your mouth. The red wine was discreet and the sweet spices counterbalanced the dryness of the wine. I thought it was simply divine. 

And the best part? I still have half the bottle of wine left! 
And to go with this is a recipe I found for Cypriot rice pilaf.  Unlike the rice pilaf that I was familiar with, apparently in Cyprus, a popular recipe calls to use vermicelli in it. However, the recipe I found wasn’t exactly complete, and I had to fill in the blanks (like most of the quantities).  First I started cooking the vermicelli pasta, and after it was done, I drained the water and added some minced garlic.  Then you’ll need to half a cup and a quarter of chicken stock (because I only added a cup, and it wasn’t quite enough), a little turmeric, and some minced onion. I also added a small can of peas and carrots.  Once everything’s been stirred up and heated together, I added ¾ cup of uncooked rice and let simmer for 15 minutes.  Because I didn’t have enough stock, the bottom got a little scorched and was a little thick, but otherwise, it was really good. Once I tweak the recipe a bit, I think it could be awesome.

At least I know MY rice pilaf doesn't have MSG in it. 
The food was excellent. Definitely a do-again.  And each dish was fairly simple to make, yet each was packed full of flavor.  These would be the perfect dish to make for your next get-together, holiday, or dinner party.  Although I have to keep reminding myself that not everyone has the same discerning tastes that I do which is often disappointing. And I struggle with this.  I either need to learn to deal with them or get better friends. (Haha.) But one person who loved the food and ate the entire plate was my daughter. I suppose maybe having her helping me in the kitchen helped to take a load off of her mind about that cat.  Food is powerful: it brings people together, it separates you from the people who have dull taste buds, it makes you feel better inside and out.

Awesome meal. Now about that half bottle of wine...

Up next: Czech Republic

Saturday, October 12, 2013


The early days of Cypriot music was influenced by French musicians and the music they brought to the island.  It was actually a cultural capital for a short while during the Middle Ages. Both secular and sacred polyphonic music was popular during this time. Later during the Renaissance period, there was a move to keep up with other current musical trends throughout Europe by introducing Cyprus to contrapuntal music. While under the Byzantine Empire, musical notation had its own reformation. However, it was one that was based on the early Greek notation and developed into something far more complicated that only few scholars knew how to read it correctly. 

Traditional folk music has many similarities to the music of Greece but also borrows styles and instruments from Turkey as well.  Violins are very common as well as the lute (for Greek-Cypriots) and the ud (for Turkish-Cypriots).  Other popular instruments found in folk music are the accordion, various percussion instruments, and the penny whistle.  It tends to be composed using modal scales, based off of different Arabic modes and musical styles. Greek-Cypriot music is also closely related to the music of the Aegean Islands.

Most folk music has a corresponding dance of the same name. Some of the more common dances are the thetatsia (or tatsia), syrtos (a type of line dance where the dancers hold hands in a curved line), and zeibeikiko.  The sousta is performed with violins, lyres, and mandolins. Originally danced as a marital dance in Greek, it still retains its elements of eroticism and courtship and is danced with pairs of women and men opposite of each other.  The karsilama is a suite of four dances (which is different from Greece and Turkey) performed in the standard 9/8 time signature. Some variations do have different time signatures, and the dances are different for men than women. 

From the late 1970s, metal rock has taken hold of the Cypriot music scene. Now, I’m not a huge fan of metal, but I do like some of the old 80s metal bands if there’s a solid vocalist with a clear melody 95% of the time. I found a band called Winter’s Verge that I like pretty well.  Ok, I have their album Tales of Tragedy in my Spotify playlist, and I have to admit, I’ve had some of their songs stuck in my head.  What I like is not only the hard power rock feel, but I’m always a sucker for when bands use strings in rock. It automatically gives it that goth sound and complementary cool points. In some ways, it reminds me of old Metallica from the 1990s or my husband suggested that at times, it’s reminiscent of Megadeth or Judas Priest. This song is one of my favorite ones off this album (and reminds me a little of Staind.) I’ve been debating on whether or not to buy the album off iTunes. I’m supposed to be buying theatre tickets this weekend.  I might have to buy both.

And not surprising, the rap and hip-hop scene is Cyprus is also alive and thriving.  It sort of depends on the artist, but I’ve found some artists rapping in English and some in Greek.  One artist that I found on Spotify was Lyrical Eye – I only found a few songs and most of those were collaborations and sung in English.  The style is fairly mainstream American in style.  The other one that I found was called DNA – Dimiourgoi Neas Antilipsis.  Rapped in Greek, their style does have some elements of Greek-influenced music with the use of lutes mixed with Western turntables and drum beat.  I like this artist better, but only because I love the fusion of these two different cultural elements.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Cyprus’ location in the Mediterranean led to many cultures having its influences on Cypriot art. Art from the age of Antiquity is mostly relegated to pieces of pottery and jugs and ceramics.  These early styles were more typical of the Middle East. 

Then came the Greeks.  Their influence oversaw many areas of art from architecture to religious paintings.  However, more architecture influence came from French Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles. Since Rome, and Italy on a whole, was a major cultural center of the arts during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, their influence spread across wherever the Roman Empire did. With the coming of the British, their resources and opportunities of education grew as well. Many Cypriot artists studied art in London, learning new styles and bringing it back to the island.

While Greece is well-known for its ancient sculptures – and Cyprus certainly had its fair share of sculpture in the Greek style – the more popular art form is figurative painting. Art galleries and art museums are popular all throughout the island. Some notable artists are Arestís Stasí (painter and sculptor who also specializes in the restoration of antiquities, especially ancient sculptures) and Telemachos Kanthos (regarded as the Father of Modern Cypriot Painting, painted mostly the hills and rural scenes, most famous for his scenes portraying the emotion felt from the displaced people after the Turkish Invasion of 1974). 
by Telemachos Kanthos
Cypriot literature is mostly written in Greek, but also in Turkish, English, and even French. One of the first major pieces composed was an epic poem called Cypria back in the 7th century BC; it’s generally attributed to Stasinus.  During the Biblical times, the apostles Barnabus and Paul preached on the island, and Cyprus played a role in the book of the Bible, Acts of the Apostles. A group of laws collectively called the Assizes of Jerusalem were written in the local language and translated into French and later into Italian.  Much of Shakespeare’s Othello takes place in Cyprus during the time it was ruled by Venice. 

Modern Cypriot literature contains a lot of folk poetry as well as novels.  Some of the prominent writers from Cyprus are Kyriakos Charalambides (poet and essayist, one of the most renowned living poet, highly acclaimed), Vasilis Michaelides (often thought of as a national poet, notable as with others for writing in the Greek Cypriot dialect). One of the most notable Turkish-Cypriot author is Neşe Yaşın, whose 2002 novel Secret History of Sad Girls was banned in Northern Cyprus and Turkey (and she even received threats for it). She's an activist for peace and is active in politics. With all of this unrest about her book, I tried to Google this but couldn’t really find anything on this book. I have this interest in books that generally tick people off.

Up next: music and literature