Roger Waters: The Wall Live – April 16, 2011 – O2 Arena – Prague, Czech Republic

My history with Pink Floyd’s epic album The Wall goes way back.  When I was young, my older brother had a huge classic movie poster hung on the one wall of his bedroom that was brown shag carpet.  That picture freaked me out and intrigued me at the same time.  I had never heard the music, but the poster conveyed the central battiness of it.

A few years later, while in junior high, I got grounded for a month for a particularly bumbling transgression.  However, like any good teenager, I chose to turn inward during that time and concentrate on my sullen state.  The Wall was the perfect soundtrack and Friday night probationary trips to the movie rental place yielded four back-to-back weekends of rentals of the VHS.

So, to say I know and am a fan of this album is to put it lightly.

Thankfully, Saturday night’s production of this seminal work lived up to my high standards of all things Wall.  Waters’ double themed night of a march to madness and the current onslaught of corporate and ideological dystopia meshed seamlessly as the stage prop wall was constructed across the width of O2 Arena.  The production itself was crisp and gaudy all at the same time. High-definition digital projections on the bricks of the wall were further emphasized by huge marionettes of the various antagonists of the story.  In the midst, Roger Waters stood dwarfed in the middle of the stage by the wall and the story he dreamed up some 30 years ago.  That said, his voice still managed to carry the tunes.

Waters chose to leave the music true to the original.  In fact, even sound effects that appear on the album and movie were interspersed in the production.  (The ambient, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” during “Nobody Home” gave this Floyd nerd goosebumps.)  And, to his credit, the singer hired to take Gilmour’s parts sounded very much like David Gilmour himself.  So there was no distraction other than the huge production going on right in front of the viewer.

The show was big, heavy-handed, preachy, twisted, ridiculous and an absolute feast for the eyes.  It was perfect.  The technology that Waters has employed in this production is enough to make even the most hardened cynic take notice.

So, while the $100 ticket price and tuneless drunken Russians behind me in Act 1 made me question my reasons for being there, “Run Like Hell” and the whole of Act 2 confirmed that The Wall continues to be unmatched on record and on stage.

Still in Prague (or) What are You Doing New Years?

Yep, we’re still here.  Went to the airport and came back home again this morning.  I loaded the bags into two (two!) taxis, rolling them through about an inch of snow.  The cars fishtailed their way to the airport, but we made it.  We got checked in (they didn’t even charge us for the extra bag) and made it to the gate and were doing hi-fives until about 5 minutes before we were supposed to start boarding.  Somebody passed us and said there would be a 5 hour delay.  Cinco horas, peeps.

Bye, bye connecting flight to Houston!

We called the airlines and they were characteristically clueless.  About another 20 minutes passed and they told everyone to go to a ticket counter – outside of the secured area.  As we went that way, we passed by a luggage carousel and saw our bags.  We loaded up and took another big van back home.  No sense in being stuck in Frankfurt with the other poor punters.

But we’re all taking this in stride.  With so many people in such terrible shape these days, even with some aborted attempts to get home, we are infinitely blessed.  We get to spend the lead-up to Christmas in a warm, semi-stocked house with an internet connection, Christmas music and each other.  Texas and family will wait.  It may not be the 25th or even the 1st but it’ll still feel like Christmas to us.

Heck, when you look at it that way, it’s Christmas already.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve done this before…

Wilco – September 28, 2010 – Divadlo Archa – Prague, Czech Republic

Before leaving the house to see Wilco, I played some of their tunes for Little NH while she finished up her M&M’s for dessert.  She’s a fan of “Wilco (the Song)” and was more than a little disappointed that she wasn’t going to get to see them in person.  I explained to her that the show would be too loud and it would go on way past her bed time.  She seemed to understand but took the opportunity to impart the following wisdom on her dad.  “Daddy,” she said, “If you hear something really loud, don’t get scared.  It’s just Rock ‘n Roll.”

How did my kid get to be so cool?  Anyhow, on to the show…

I’ve been a fan of Wilco ever since picking up A.M. at a used CD shop in college.  To me, they started out with the Replacements bar band ethic that I sorely missed after that band imploded.  Tweedy and a rotating band, save for John Stirratt, have gone through many styles since then.  The triptych of Being There, Summerteeth, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are as good of a run of albums as any band has ever had.   Their two most recent albums are listenable, but not quite as solid as these other efforts, to my ears at least.

But Tuesday night, Wilco put every style they have ever embraced into a seamless, fun, incredibly well-played set that clocked in over two hours.  The songs they played ran the gamut with John Stirratt’s “Just That Simple” plucked from A.M. as well as “Too Far Apart”.  The murder ballad, “Via Chicago” never sounded more disturbingly beautiful than on this night.  In fact, the Summerteeth songs sounded absolutely lush.  Much of this had to do with the quality of musicians on the stage.  Wilco has had the same lineup for two albums now and they have really figured out how to pull off the entire catalogue in a live setting.  Nels Cline added the necessary effects to the mix and wigged out on guitar when called for.  Glenn Kotche pounded the drums with mallets, sticks and brushes and really displayed why he is considered such a great drummer.

Jeff Tweedy glided through the songs effortlessly with his voice sounding younger than when I last saw Wilco six or eight years ago.  His delivery was perfect and his obvious good mood really helped propel the show.  Having seen him in some very bad moods at other shows in the past, it’s obvious that when Jeff’s happy, everybody’s happy.

Seeing these guys on stage, it’s obvious that they love their jobs.  It seems like there were about 50 different instruments on stage throughout the night.  Cool double neck guitars, vintage keyboards and road worn acoustic guitars that look awesome when the stage light hit them just right.  Of course, to hear Little NH explain it, it’s just Rock ‘n Roll.

The Cult – August 10, 2010 – Divadlo Archa – Prague, Czech Republic

I’ve seen The Cult live about five times in the last fifteen years and this was the best they’ve ever sounded.  The Astbury-Duffy team has looked a bit more fighting fit in previous outings but heck, they must be pushing 50 these days.  And let’s face it, none of us look like we did 15 years ago.  But enough of the image, The Cult was clearly in Prague to ROCK.

And rock they did.  For a lightning paced 90 minutes, the band tore through a set that included highlights from the majority of their albums (with special emphasis on Love and Electric) and even one new song.  It sounds trite, but they played this show like it could be their last.  Heck, maybe that’s because they thought it was.  Ever the showman, Ian Astbury riffed between songs about Western Europe liking cocaine and Eastern Europe liking poetry (punctuating the sentence with a sniff).   Shortly after that, he spoke of being in Czechoslovakia.  So, yeah, maybe he expected the StB to come kicking down the doors and have him thrown in the slammer for excessive fist-pumping rock shamanism or something.

Either way, the show was incredible.  The band was tight and for this body pushing 40, the length of the set was just about right.  My t-shirt was sweat-soaked by the end of the set, my throat is pretty raw this morning and my shoulder is sore from an hour-and-a-half of throwing my fist in the air with rock and roll horns raised.  I’d say everyone there was pretty blown away, too.  The roars from the crowd fed the band.  At one point after a particularly raucous reaction from the crowd, Astbury proclaimed, “I think we like it here.”

Welcome to Czechoslovakia, Mr. Astbury.

Refrigerator Pickles

If you want to make some pickles
Take your time make some brine
Put all those little things you love
In vinegar and wine
It ain’t Chinese algebra
It’s easily done
Why you can pickle anything
Pickling is fun

The Gourds – “Pickles”

I was in one of the Vietnamese-owned vegetable markets that litter the back streets of Prague last week and saw what appeared to be small cucumbers, just the right size to be pickled.  “I’d like to do that someday,” I thought.  Of course, I wasn’t about to start a canning operation in my small apartment, so, for the better part of a week, it remained in the “like to do but won’t” category.  Then, I stumbled on this post on Lifehacker.  It promised “Homemade Pickles in One Hour”.

I read the referenced recipes and thought about how I might go about getting “pickling spice” in this country.  If they had it, I wouldn’t be able to read it.  So, I decided to improvise my own brine.

I used about 8 of those cucumbers, sliced in quarters.  Then I used 1 cup of water, 2 cups of white wine vinegar, mustard seed, bay leaves, garlic, cumin and salt.  I boiled it for 2 minutes and then poured it over the cucumbers.  After leaving them to soak in the fridge over night, I had my first two spears this morning at around 9:30.  Yum.

Making pickles just moved into the “done” category.  Now, I’m itching to pickle some asparagus.

Paella Valenciana (En Praga)

As the rest of Prague was gearing up for the England v. US World Cup soccer match, I was gearing up for an entirely different challenge.  I was about to make paella, real paella, at home in my kitchen in Prague.  I had made several half-hearted attempts at paella in the past using everything from packaged “saffron” rice (in college) to slightly more authentic chicken and rice pilafs a few years back.  But I had never attempted a real, honest to goodness paella.  All of that was about to change.

However, to begin, I needed an inspirational drink.  Sangria was the perfect accompaniment.  Unlike paella, I have made sangria a million times before.  I’ve pretty much co-opted Fredericksburg Flash’s recipe that he’s been making since I was in diapers.  I have yet to taste better sangria in all the world.  Isn’t it interesting that a dentist from Nebraska holds the gold standard of sangria for pretty much everyone who has tasted it?  I say, why mess with perfection?

So, with fruit cut and the delicious purple nectar providing just the right motivation, I began making the paella.  Scampwalker and I had experienced Paella Valenciana in Valencia a little over a year ago.  I was thoroughly impressed and I sought to make the base of the dish as close to the original as possible.  However, because of my audience and geographic location, I was going to substitute a few ingredients.  I used peas instead of green beans, threw in some chicken breasts instead of all bone-in chicken (I kept some drumsticks in for myself), no chorizo (because the only stuff we can get here adds too much spice) and shrimp instead of some other shellfish.  I didn’t have access to any clams or mussels for this batch, either.  I did have lots of saffron, though and I was pretty sure that could overcome any other shortcoming.

Looking for online recipes, I took the first one I could find.  It was Alton Brown’s Paella recipe and it served as the base for my dish.  I’ve found Brown to be a pretty consistent cook and his recipe had all the things I needed to serve as the base for my escapade.  His recipe is pretty dense with instruction.  He also uses a wood fire.  I used the stove and a big, 15 inch Caphalon pan.  I varied cooking a bit and this is a rough guide to what I did to make the dish.

Paella Valenciana (En Praga)

1 can peeled, chopped tomatoes
9 cups low-sodium chicken broth (heated in microwave)
3 cups short or medium-grain rice
20 threads saffron
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons olive oil

4 chicken legs and seasoned with S&P
2 chicken breasts, cubed
and seasoned with S&P
1 red bell pepper, sliced thinly lengthwise
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups fresh green peas
15 Jumbo shrimp, peeled, tails on

Alton’s directions are much more thorough, but here are mine in a nutshell:

Heat oil on high.  Add chicken and cook 12 minutes.  Add peas, peppers, onions, garlic and cook 2-3 minutes.  Add tomatoes and cook until liquid is reduced, about 4 minutes.  Add rice, saffron, salt, paprika, rosemary and cook one minute – stirring the whole time.  Add 4 cups of heated broth.  Stir only until rice is covered in broth and then don’t stir it again until it’s finished.  Simmer on med-hi heat for 9 minutes.  Add peas.  Add another 4 cups of heated broth.  Simmer another 4 minutes.  Add shrimp on top.  Simmer 3 minutes.  With tongs, flip shrimp but don’t touch the rice!  Simmer 6 minutes or until liquid looks almost gone.

Turn off heat. Cover loosely with a lid and let sit 15 minutes.

The result was one of the best paellas I’ve ever had in my life.  Little NH gobbled it up like it was going out of style.  Mrs. NH, when quizzed, only lamented the lack of chorizo and mussels.  I agreed, but didn’t feel too bad about it as I shoveled delicious fork full after fork full into my mouth.

We finished off the meal with a couple glasses of slightly-chilled Oloroso Sherry.   The nutty, toffee sweetness was the perfect finish to a perfect meal.

As an American taking on a very non-American dish, I fared better than the US against England this evening.  Whereas the US footie team was luck to eke out a draw, my challenge in the kitchen produced a huge win.

Go West, Young Man

I’m a lucky man.  I sit in a nice hotel, sipping a beer, with a train ticket for a ride back home scheduled for just over 24 hours from now.  Granted, I won’t get there for another 36 hours after that but I’m still lucky.  Considering the week of volcanoes, earthquakes and flights that didn’t make it that has just passed – I’m doing alright.

It has been a pretty amazing 36 hours, or so.  My original flight was on until I was about 30 minutes from leaving for the airport.  After that, I called every rental car company in Ukraine and they either weren’t open, didn’t have cars, or wouldn’t rent one going to the Czech Republic.  So, I shifted plans and trotted over to the travel agency this afternoon with our (beloved) local contractor.  After about an hour in line and the requisite Eastern European cutting in line and deal making, I got a ticket.  $200.  Cash.  Sleeper car.  No transfers. 36 hours.  Now, you may understand why I’m one of the lucky ones.

With lines for train tickets in Western Europe stretching into 5 and 6 hours, my day was an easy one.  I’m a little bit apprehensive about the journey, but at least I have plans to go west.  I just hit the supermarket and bought water, crackers, granola, jamón serrano (!) and some pistachios.  I’m hoping they’ll have some booze on the train or maybe I’ll get a chance to get a flask of something tomorrow before departure.

I hope it all works out as planned.  If I’m lucky, I’ll arrive a somewhat young man.  What could possibly go wrong?

Vodka on Ice

It has been below freezing for several weeks now in the Czech Republic.  It is becoming demoralizing as the days progress and the forecast calls for highs in the 20’s and “snow flurries.”  My serotonin levels are bottoming out and the once snowy sidewalks have become a continuous network of cobble-stone and black-ice death traps as I make my way to the metro in the morning.  But as the old adage goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  For the purpose of this post, I’ve modified that to, “When Central European weather fronts give you freezing-ass temps and crusty piles snow, chill your vodka.”  Beat’s whining about it, doesn’t it?

Here’s the view from my living room on to my balcony:

Prague Snow

The family and I went to Stromovka Park last week for some sledding and snow fun.  The above is a picture of Little NH and me sledding down a small incline in the park.  It was a nice beginner speed, just about the speed of a jog.  After that Mrs. NH and Little NH did some bigger hills.  We made a snowman and had a blast.  It was one of the small upsides of this crazy, snowy, cold Prague winter.

A New Season in Prague

Tortilla Soup

Summer is long past here in the breadbasket of Central Europe. It has been cold and damp for what seems like months. It’s actually only been a couple weeks but the mood has changed around the NH household. My wife and I are observing the change by taking a little more time to crawl out from under the sheets in the morning and by spending much more time planning and preparing dinners. For those reasons alone, I accept the cold weather.  It allows me the chance to get really down and dirty  – in the kitchen.

As proof of this, here’s a sampling of what we’ve cooked over the past couple of weeks: Duck Empanadas, Tortilla Soup, Coconut Shrimp, Flammkuchen, Seared Foie Gras, French Onion soup, Mongolian Beef and Baked Ziti. Add on top of this the fact that we’ve been to a couple of really good restaurants on nights out of the kitchen and you end up with a really good reason to love the season.

The changes are also visible in my 2 and ½ year-old daughter. You can see her take note of the difference in the weather and surroundings outside. She’s interested in the leaves, is mastering putting on her gloves and upon my arrival after a trek from the metro,  she grasps my chilly fingertips and asks, “Was it cold, Daddy?”  (She’s less excited about the food, though. Duck empanadas and French Onion Soup for a 2-year-old? As she puts it, “No thank you, Daddy; I’m having pizza right now.”)

Winter often gets a bad rap from the NH side of the gene pool – and for good reason. In my book it pretty much ceases to be fun after December, save for the prospect of good snow for sledding and the opportunities to enjoy hot toddies in some cave-like Prague cellar bar. However, the lead-up to the full winter letdown is something to enjoy and savor.

Christmas is coming and with that, there are the Christmas markets in Europe. We’ll be hitting them with family this year and whenever those markets are concerned, the more the merrier. Then, there will be Christmas with the whole family – our first in five years (though, not everybody at once).

Inevitably, the January to February doldrums will hit. Of course, I hope to chase those blues away with the help of some new living room technology. Nothing like a fresh Windows 7 install to warm the spirit.

Happy fall, peeps, happy fall.

Cafe Savoy – Prague

Last week there was a midweek Czech holiday and the Mrs., Little NH and I decided to make a brunch/lunch of it at Prague’s Cafe Savoy.  If you’ve never been, Savoy is worth a visit.  It hardly feels like you’re in Prague.  It feels more like Paris or Vienna.  The service is great, the food is very refined and the atmosphere laid back yet, neat as a pin.  The cafe itself seems to have a sense of sophistication that manages to avoid out-and-out snobbery.  It turned out to be the perfect setting for an early afternoon epicurean adventure.

Pea SoupMrs. NH started out with the Fresh Pea Soup.  I had tasted hers the last time we ate there and I recalled being pretty impressed.  It was just as good this time.  Little dollops of mashed potatoes arrive in the bowl and the creamy, bright green soup was poured in afterward.  Fresh and tasty.

I decided to go a little heavier with my starter.  The Escargots à la Bourguignonne was my selection and provided excellent flavor and brunch conversation with my 2-year-old.

“What’s that daddy?” she asked.
“Snails.”
“Oooh, yum!”
“Want some?” I queried.
“Uh, no thanks.  I’m eating French fries right now.”

EscargotAnd that was that.  But I can’t blame her too much.  The fries were good.  Shoestring, golden and really crispy with just the right touch of greasiness to add a layer of decadence.  But back to the Escargots – I was amazed how good they were.  They were as good as any I’ve had anywhere – including France.  This fact just helped to add a layer of authenticity and otherworldliness to Savoy.

Next, there was the main course.  Mrs. NH decided to treat this as more of a brunch with a Mimosa and a Savoy Omlette with Gruyére.  It was one of the prettier omlettes I have ever seen.  The eggs were bright yellow and contrasted nicely with delicately dressed pile of greens on the side.  It was rich and full of flavor.

OmletteAgain, I decide eschew any brunch protocol and go in heavy with my main course.  I ordered up a dark, heady Kozel beer with a rustic Veal entrecôte á la Périgourdine which included truffle sauce and fresh spinach leaves on butter.  I told you I went in heavy.  It was a rich, bold, yet balanced meal that was the perfect complement to a cool fall day.  It certainly made the outing feel like a special occasion and gave me the same sort of pleasant lethargy that I used to get at Sunday brunch at the country club after church.

Truffle VealWe took our time through the meal and the attentive but not overbearing service was perfect.  I was a little worried when the bill came that all of this pleasure might come at a very high cost.  My fears were unfounded, however.  When I looked at the bill, it seemed just about right.  Not to mention, with all of the money we had saved in not actually driving to France for lunch, we’ll certainly be back to do it again.

Sarkozy Sees the Obvious, Obama Does Not

‘President Obama dreams of a world without weapons…but right in front of us two countries are doing the exact opposite,” Mr. Sarkozy said.

Yes, he was referring to Obama’s UN speech about a world without nukes from last week.  Of course, he could have been referring to the speech Obama gave in Prague this Spring.  It was the same dreamy rhetoric only, months earlier.

So, the question is, what took Sarko so long?

Dirty Mouse

mousetrapWe had a critter living on our balcony (or “terrace” as the folks here call it) up until last week.  I killed the little SOB.  It’s the second time we’ve had a rodent problem in this apartment and it’s really starting to tick me off.  There is so much construction in our Prague neighborhood that it’s absolutely no surprise that the furry little buggers are running for safer environs.  The problem is, they’re seriously harshing my mellow when it comes to sitting on the porch in the waning days of summer.

Still, in a town this old, I imagine we’re not getting the shortest straw when it comes to rodents.  But we have had our fair share.  A couple years back, I had the landlord come and plug up the drainpipes on my balcony after trapping about 6 or 8 of the beasts over a couple weeks.  The plug worked up until a few weeks ago.  I discovered the latest mouse when I was going out to grill after sundown one evening and saw him chomping on a scrap of food left over from my daughter’s outdoor dinner.  He skittered into the corner and proceeded to startle the heck out of me.  Within about 12 seconds the startle turned into anger and I set up 3 traps with peanut butter.

What followed was sheer torture.  After the traps were set up, I watched from the window overlooking the balcony as he proceeded to lick the peanut butter off two of the traps without setting them off.  As I stood and fumed while spelling out profanities under my breath (I could have nailed him with a BB gun), my wife explained to my daughter what was going on.  “There’s a dirty mouse on the porch,” she told Little NH in a effort to differentiate between the one on the porch and the ones in all of her books and on her videos.  It didn’t take long for the kiddo to sense that daddy was out for blood.  She really got the hint when we headed to the hardware store the next night and stocked up on three different types of traps.

There was a new, plastic, German-made trap that caught my eye.  It was pre-baited and looked like a good design.  You’d think the Germans could design a better mousetrap, no?  I think $10 for four of them might have been a waste, however.  After a couple days in the sun they seem to be much less sensitive – even with my extra bait for good measure.  The trap that got the job done was a terribly sensitive, hairpin-trigger, classic trap.  No more peanut butter.  I loaded it up with a Snickers bar chunk and made sure that it was securely stuck with caramel to the trigger portion so there would be no free meals.  It was so sensitive that I had to reset the thing about 5 times while setting it down.  Within a few hours after dusk, el ratón was dead.  I don’t think the flavor of the Snickers even registered in his tiny brain before the trap ended his life.

That was about two weeks ago.  I did a major cleaning and inspection of the porch and found no more signs of rodents.  Still, I have 5 traps out, just in case.  The landlord is doing a full survey of the building to try to figure out where they’re coming from.  (With the cooking smells emanating from some of the apartments and the international mix of some of the tenants, I would imagine that some of the rodents are from far off lands.  I’m just sayin’.)

It’s a good life lesson for the little one.  Still, whenever Stuart Little comes on, I have to admit that I feel the urge to grab a snickers and a very sensitve trap.