Friday, December 29, 2006

Max is moving too

There seems to be an exodus over to Wordpress and I, ever the follower, have decided to join it. I haven't quite figured Wordpress out yet, but I'll get there, the same way I did with Blogger. Please visit me at my new home (and please update your link if you have one). See you over there.


Max's America

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A matter of time

Alcohol is going to be banned on all flights going into, out of or over The New Amerika and the United States of Europe. We are already clearly headed in that direction.

Remember the good old days of trans-Atlantic travel? You would leave LA, let’s say, early in the evening. Once the plane had reached cruising altitude, the service would begin. The waitresses would bring round the drinks trolley and you could have whatever you wanted and it was all free.

“I’d like a gin and tonic, please.”

“Here you are, miss. Why don’t I just give you two drinks now so you won’t have to wait for me to come round again.”

Then they would serve dinner, which always came with wine.

“Would you like red or white? Here, have two bottles – they’re only little.”

Then they would come round again with coffee and liqueurs.

“A brandy? Here, let me give you two, they’ll help you sleep.”

And then they would come round again and again, and whenever you pressed the “drinks, please” button. Or you could go to the galley and ask for something. You were never asked to return to your seat “for security reasons.”

Gradually things started to change. The waitresses got less generous. Sometimes wine was not offered with dinner so you had to ask for it. The practice of serving a digestif was completely forgotten. And then the American carriers started making you pay cash for booze – the ultimate incivility of air travel.

Drunk = unruly = security risk. Apparently.

And then today – one step too far. The Czechs are sensationalising the incident and calling it an attempted hijacking. The Russians are calling it what it more likely was – a drunk passenger raising a ruckus.

And the civil aviation authorities will eventually call it this: a reason to ban the booze. It’s only a matter of time.

The story of the incident in Czech and in English.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Cut and run

It is clear to me that American troops will not be leaving Iraq anytime in the near future. Time will show, unfortunately, that I was right when I said that a change in the balances of both houses of Congress would not make any material difference.

Dr Condoleezza Rice has just referred to the war in Iraq as an “investment” and has claimed that the cost in lives and dollars is “worth it”. I don’t agree. I would rather have Sam still alive. But I guess when you are in a position of power like Dr Rice, you can’t afford to be sentimental.

Sen. John McCain wants to raise troop levels in Iraq. It is likely that Sen. McCain will run for president in the 2008 elections.

Bush spoke this week of a necessity to increase the overall numbers of men and women in our armed forces.

“…this ideological war we’re in is going to last for a while, and...we’re going to need a military that’s capable of being able to sustain our efforts and help us achieve peace.”

But where are these greater numbers of bodies for our armed forces going to come from? Everyone knows that military recruitment is down and desertion rates have remained high. A draft would be unacceptable, but all of the mechanisms are in place.

Bush still thinks we can win the war in Iraq. He is still claiming that his horrible war that has got horribly out of hand is necessary to protect us from The Evil Terrorists.

Dr Rice claims that when Iraq “emerges as a country that is a stabilising factor, you will have a very different kind of Middle East.” I find it hard to believe that she actually believes that, but, then again, Dr Rice is an academic Sovietologist, not a practical Arabist.

A Jew and a Palestinian go for dinner in a Lebanese restaurant… The food was great and the conversation was challenging. Something we agreed on was that Middle Eastern culture is not the same as Western culture. As much as some people would like to think that we are all so much alike, we simply do not have the same values, morals or perspectives. Your average person in Iraq, for example, couldn’t give a shit about freedom and democracy. Neither is in his history, neither is in his tradition, neither is in his experience and neither fits into his culture.

And we agreed that you simply cannot impose democracy. That is a paradox.

Therefore the war in Iraq is pointless (aside from the oil, obviously). No matter what happens, Iraq is not going to emerge as a democracy and it is not going to stabilise anything. If The Amerika stays in Iraq, we will continue to be a catalyst for violence and we will be sending more of our own men and women to die pointless deaths. The claim that we need to improve the situation before we can leave, that we can’t “cut and run,” is crap. We are never going to be able to make it any better. The only way we can improve the situation in Iraq is by leaving – and the sooner the better.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Max loves the bureaucrats

An sms sent from Max’s phone Wednesday night at about 6.30:

“Just for your amusement, a report after the živnostenský úřad: if I had had a semi-automatic weapon in my hands, they’d all be dead. Luckily I had Kuba with me and he remained calm. I nearly cried. For real. We achieved neither success nor failure, just an ascent to a new and higher level of absurdity.”

I had gone to the Czech embassy in Bratislava on Monday to turn in an application for a new visa based on my trade licence (živnostenský list). The Czech Republic has a rule that you have to apply for a visa from outside the country. It’s perfectly logical that I should go from Prague to Bratislava to submit my paperwork because, you see, what they do in Bratislava once they are sure that my application is complete, is send it from Bratislava to Prague for processing. And then – get this – when my visa is ready, they will send everything from Prague back to Bratislava so that I can again travel from Prague to Bratislava to pick it up. That must make sense to someone.

I thought that things were finally looking fairly good. It had taken literally a year to get things straightened out with the trade licence office, the financial authority, the social insurance office and the health insurance people – all prerequisites for my visa. I went into work on Tuesday morning feeling pretty proud of myself.

There was some communication with the embassy in Bratislava on Tuesday – just a minor complication with my application that was all straightened out by Wednesday morning. But then on Wednesday at 16.22 I received a fateful email from the embassy informing me that the printed version of my trade licence I had submitted was over 180 days old and I would need to submit a new one.

It did not seem like a serious problem. Kuba had already been on the phone to the trade licence office in Prague 3 to find out what I would need to do and what documents I would need to show in order to change my registered address from Prague 5 to Prague 3. (Since I moved over a year ago, I thought it might be time to make it official.) Kuba had talked to a very nice lady who had said that it would be no problem at all. But suddenly it was an urgent mission, so we left our office at 5 o’clock to go to Prague 3.

I should not have gone. I am usually polite, but generally only when things go my way. I hate bureaucracy, I abhor having to jump through official hoops, and I have no patience for the stupid people that always work in government offices. But because we had gone by tram, Kuba couldn’t tell me to wait in the car.

All I wanted was to officially change my residential address, and I had the requisite notarised statement from my landlord. Then I wanted them to print me a new piece of paper so that I could send it to Bratislava. Easy, right?

The woman was perturbed that I did not currently have a valid residency permit in my passport. Kuba and I explained that I had submitted an application in Bratislava and they just wanted a more recent printout of my trade licence. The woman was perturbed that my trade licence had been issued without an expiration date. I explained that I had had permanent residency when I got it. The woman was perturbed that I had had permanent residency in the past, but didn’t have any residency at all now. I explained divorce. The woman didn’t understand, she didn’t know what to do. She wanted to cancel my trade licence that is good forever because I no longer had permanent residency. She went to talk to her colleague in the next room. The colleague didn’t know anything either.

I begged Jakub to make the woman see reason. Not that he hadn’t been trying.

We went back and forth and round and round and I was just getting angrier and angrier. And frustrated. I don’t hide my feelings well. At one point I just figured I was never going to get a visa or anything, and I threw my folders down onto the table. It was frustration, and not aimed at anyone, but the woman took it personally.

Kuba, bless him, remained calm and cool and smiley and friendly for the entire 30 minutes we were there. He had the presence of mind to ask about the woman’s supervisor. She had already left the office but would be in tomorrow so he left his card for her and took hers. Finally we left.

And as soon as we got outside, Kuba started swearing and he was as angry as I was and as disgusted by the woman’s stupidity and lack of sympathy and unwillingness to help us. I was surprised - he had been so perfect inside the office.

And nothing was solved today – the supervisor was no help at all. In fact, she seemed to be as totally clueless as her worker bees. Tomorrow we try a new strategy – appealing to Bratislava.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Max was away

Vianoční trh v Bratislavě

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

How the story ends

I woke up this morning just before 6 o’clock (not on purpose, obviously). I looked at my phone and immediately wondered what had gone wrong with the mission because the screen said “15 missed calls”. But I quickly determined that those calls were actually part of a different story, which I will not go into here.

About 10 minutes later, I received a text message from A.

He was so nice, did not even look at the money, and handed me the becherovka saying that he couldn’t take it! I am so happy and relieved. This was worth getting up so early! Radim & you especially have made my day!!

Radim was the conductor’s name.

As I later told A. in an email, I actually found it very satisfying to have achieved something in the “old” way. It may have been time-consuming, but then so is making bread by hand (also v satisfying).

And A. took the time to explain to me why she needed Kolja. I found it interesting, so here are A.’s words.

for the second year in a row i am teaching about communism and postcommunism in central&eastern europe to a group of american students on a semester-long exchange program - figuring that 1) students would die of boredom if i lectured at them at every single class, and 2) a picture (or many) is worth a thousand words, i put three films on the syllabus: man of marble (poland, soc-realism), kolja (czech republic, transitioning), & goodbye lenin (germany, nostalgia).

and no film shows late communism and the revolution into postcommunism better than "kolja"!!

And there you have it - a story with a happy ending.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Max's Monday Mission

A. had called me while I was in Paris, so I knew what I would have to do after work today. Sure enough, there was an email waiting for me this morning informing me that she had not been able to solve her problem in Kraków, and she would indeed need me to step in.

A. is a professor of sociology at the university in Kraków. She teaches Polish students in Polish and foreign students in English. For reasons unknown to me, she was planning on showing a Czech film to foreign students in a class tomorrow. On Friday, A. had discovered that her dvd of the film with subtitles in English was missing. She had another copy of the film, but it had only Polish subtitles. She searched high and low, calling every dvd place in Kraków, and even some in Warsaw, trying to locate a copy of the film with English subtitles. No one had it.

A. saw two options. The first was to watch the film with Polish subtitles and take it upon herself to provide simultaneous interpretation into English. The second was to have a dvd with English subtitles purchased in Prague and sent to her. The only friend in Prague A. felt she could ask to do such a thing was Max. As providing simultaneous interpretation would be difficult and exhausting, A. much preferred the second option.

As a result of our phone conversation on Friday, A. knew that I would not get back to Prague until very late on Sunday night, and I would only be able to do something on Monday. She formulated a plan, and sent it to me on a self-destructing tape – actually, in an e-mail. My mission, should I choose to accept it, was to purchase a dvd, take it to the overnight train that goes from Prague to Kraków, and entrust it to a conductor. A. would meet the train in Kraków, give the conductor some money for his trouble, and collect the dvd.

My first thought was that this was going to be a goddamn pain in the ass. My second thought was that I needed to look at it differently and treat it as an important mission that would actually be fun. I chose the second perspective.

I checked the train timetable on the internet at work. The train was departing Praha hlavní nádráží at 20.55, which gave me plenty of time. I talked to Kuba about my mission, to get a Czech opinion as to whether a conductor would accept the package. He said, “Well, 20 years ago for sure, but I don’t know about now. Take some booze for the conductor.” I spoke to Jono about it over email, and he suggested that perhaps if a conductor wouldn’t take it, a traveller would. All good advice.

Upon leaving work just after 18.00, I went straight to Bontonland, where I knew they would have the dvd I needed. They did. I made my purchase and then went to a supermarket where I bought a half-litre bottle of Becherovka. Then I went to Jáma to wait until it was time to go to the station.

I texted A. to inform her of my progress to that point. I took out the envelope I had brought with me, and wrote her name, the station, and her phone number on it. I drank a small beer, read my book, and talked to some people I knew. Then it was time to go for the only part of my mission that could possibly go awry. I made my way to the station.

I watched the departure board until the platform number came up. The train was not yet there, so I had to wait a few more minutes. The train pulled in at about 20.35, so I had loads of time before it would be leaving. I located a sleeping car that was going only to Kraków rather than on to Warsaw. There were two conductors standing outside. I didn’t know if what I was going to ask was kosher, so I would have preferred only one conductor, but I didn’t have a choice so I went for it.

I turned to the younger of the two conductors and told him that I had a request. I explained that I had a small package for a friend in Kraków and that she would be at the station and that it was just a dvd, as opposed to anything dodgy. I took the dvd out of the unsealed envelope to show him. His only question was if she would be giving him some money at the other end. I said that yes, she would give him some money. I also informed him that it was very important because she needed it for a class tomorrow. He agreed to take the package. I showed him that A.’s phone number was on the envelope just in case. He said, “In case she oversleeps?” I said that she would not, that she would certainly be at the station. He reminded me that the train would be getting into Kraków głowny at 5.47. I assured him that A. would be there.

And then I said that there was something else and took the bottle of Becherovka out of my bag. He asked if that was also for her, and I said that no, it was a gift for him to thank him for his trouble. He said that he couldn’t accept it. I said, well, please take it anyway. If you don’t want it, my friend will be happy to have it. I hoped by saying that that he would take it for himself. He then accepted the bottle, so I will find out tomorrow whether or not he eventually passed it on to A. I confirmed the number of his wagon with him and got his name.

The conductor took the package inside the train, I texted A. to give her the crucial information, and I left to go home, proud of a job well done.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Max is away
I am posting this early because I have to leave my house at 4 a.m. on Thursday to catch a 6 o'clock flight.
Happy birthday to me!