Sunday, December 21, 2008

That's all folks

I'm back stateside. No more blog this year. Probably no more blog for a while, since I'm going to try to make some real progress on my dissertation this coming semester/year, and travel isn't so conducive to writing (though I've learned that I'm able to simultaneously travel & research!)

My last blog was actually my last "real" trip blog. What I did after that day of interviews was pack, sleep, and go to the airport. I continued to use some Czech on the trip home - with the passport control agent for about 5 seconds, then a few short exchanges with the woman sitting next to me on the plane (I hope I gave her the correct information to write on her customs declaration form... I'm not sure it's such a good idea for me to be giving advice in Czech to a foreigner on how to fill those things out since I can barely fill them out for myself).

A few last pictures of Prague are in order. Here is the Christmas market in the center of Old Town, in the Old Town Square:

And what better way to end than with gilded swan faucets from the Cafe Imperial women's restroom?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Back (and forth) in Prague

I had a marathon-session of interviewing today. Figuratively and also sort of literally, since I had to go from one end of central Prague to the other and back to meet with people this afternoon/evening. All of my contacts fell into place today and the appointments were back to back in various (and not always adjacent) parts of the city. I met mainly with students from Charles University here in Prague, plus one other Czech guy from the website (I found him in the section for language exchanges or tandems; you see, I recorded an interview with him, then he got to practice his English with me for an hour).

I originally intended to pay the students from Charles University. That’s how I thought I had recruited five students – by enticing them with cash. The contacts were through my summer school teacher, who I had been e-mailing back and forth with about my research for a few weeks. In the end, I thought she had gotten volunteers for me by telling them I would pay 100 crowns (about $5) for an interview. However, after the first two people refused the money in a slightly shocked manner, I stopped trying to pay. So… I used the money to buy Christmas presents for my nieces instead.

My grand total is 26 interviews. This may not seem like much, but it’s a beautiful, precious, glorious number to me… that is, considering both my low expectations for the research and my low estimation of my fieldwork skills. And I’m pleased that I was able to record Czechs of widely varying ages and levels of education, in addition to finding people from opposite ends of the Czech Republic. And now I have a much better idea of how to recruit research participants, as well as how I would go about organizing this kind of research in the future. In short, a successful pilot research trip.

Since all of these interviews were scheduled for today, I was able to do things aside from “work” yesterday. I’m proud to report that I finally made it to the opera. It was the very same opera - Don Giovanni - that premiered in Prague in 1787. It was even in the very same theater - the Estates Theater - where it premiered. I was not disappointed with Mozart's work. My entertainment was largely facilitated by the subtitles (or rather, supertitles, since they were above the stage) in English and Czech (since it was sung in the original Italian).

This is the outside of the Stavovské Divadlo, the Estates Theater:

Here’s my view of the stage when I was leaning back in my seat:

When I leaned forward, I could see the orchestra pit:

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The world is coming to an end?

I thought I would come to the Czech Republic and get a quick dose of an idyllic Christmas season, which of course includes some snow. I got Christmas markets, trees, some generic Christmas cheer, I suppose, but no snow. Actually, I think I did see snow once – off in the countryside from the window of a bus. It rained in Brno last week. But no snow. Not in any of the places that I’ve been.

My mom just sent me pictures from Las Vegas, and believe it or not, it’s snowing there. It’s not snowing in Prague. But it’s snowing in the desert. There can be no other explanation: the world is coming to an end.

It’s not my only experience with “opposites” this week. Over the weekend I was in Olomouc, which is the town where I studied over the summer. The quaint, quiet, practically people-less, historic town in the center of Moravia. (My pictures from the summer can attest to this.) This is the town where the summer school students seemed like the only patrons of the local bars; the same patrons who closed the bars down… at the wee hour of (ahem) 11 pm.

So you can imagine that it came as quite a shock to me to see the Christmas market in the town square full of people (who were not summer school students, you know, because it’s December).

I was even more shocked to find bars full of native Czech speakers (and, again, not just summer school students). But the biggest shock of all was to find myself stumbling out of a packed club around 5 AM. The sleepy little Olomouc I met over the summer has certainly woken up for the winter. Isn’t this reverse hibernation? Is this allowed?

(These were my hosts for the weekend: on the left is a fellow Berkeley grad student who also studied in Olomouc over the summer and on the right is his Slovak/Hungarian boyfriend.)

The rest of my weekend involved a mix of the odd & unbelievable in forms I never would have expected from Olomouc. This is turning out to be a theme with me & the Czech republic. Once I think I’ve got some aspect of it figured out – the language, the people, the history – something happens to make me realize I understand nothing at all. Well, Olomouc, I’m sorry I underestimated you.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Moravian hospitality

I arrived in Brno on Tuesday. Brno is in the eastern half of the Czech Republic, called Moravia (in contrast to the western half, called Bohemia). It is the second biggest city in the Czech Republic, but this doesn’t mean that it’s all that big. I'm really a fan of Brno. It's big enough so that there are things to do and see, but not so big that it's unmanageable. It's also less touristy and international than Prague, which means that it feels more Czech. My new friend, Aleš, from Masaryk University was extremely helpful and showed me around the university, library, etc. on Tuesday and Wednesday, then I met with some other students from the university to do my dialect recordings (and also just to get to know some more people who study in Brno).

Just like Prague, Germany, etc. there is a Christmas market in the main square of Brno. Here are some pictures:

The market goes on well into the night, as late as 10 pm. In this picture, some young girls were dancing on a stage in the market. It may be hard to tell in the picture, but they are wearing devil costumes. It's all part of the Christmas tradition here, which I don't quite understand (even after I had someone explain it to me).

Here are some things for sale (mugs):

Then on Thursday I traveled to Suchov, the village where my friend Rachael's grandfather (Vincent) has ancestors. The village is very close to the Czech-Slovak border, and the dialects people speak there are quite different from standard Czech. The dialects can also be quite different from each other. They told me that sometimes villages 5 kilometers apart will have completely different styles of speech. Here's Suchov with respect to Brno (roughly 2 hours by train + bus southeast of Brno):

View Larger Map

To get to the village I took a train to a nearby town called Veselí nad Moravou, then transferred to a bus, since there is no train station in Suchov. I was quite proud of myself for quickly locating the right bus stop for the bus to Suchov (as was indicated on the bus schedule posted at the bus stop). Then an older Czech woman randomly asked me where I was going. I said, "Suchov," and she pointed to a nearby bus stop with a bus that people were already boarding. I said, probably with some exasperation, "but the Suchov bus is supposed to stop here." She shrugged her shoulders and said that Suchov was posted on the bus so I should ask the driver. It turned out she was completely right. I don't really even know why she asked me where I was going in the first place. All I can think is that she was my guardian angel.

About 20 minutes later I arrived in Suchov. The entire village (home to roughly 500 residents) is on this one road:

Jana Svrčková, who is not actually related to Vincent, but rather the wife of his relative (the son of a cousin?), was my host. She was just like my host Marie in Chodov - extremely welcoming. I only stayed there for about one day, which I later realized was not quite enough time to really meet people and learn about the place. Unfortunately, I didn't even get to meet Jarek Svrček, Jana's husband. Their children - 16 and 17 years old - were a little too caught up in their own existence (as is the case with teenagers everywhere) to be interested in the strange, semi-Czech speaking American that had come to visit (though of course they were nice to me).

The most fun was probably when we went to the town's only pub (which apparently fills up with young Suchovians on the weekends - it's a shame I was there on a Thursday!). Here's a picture of Jana, her cousin Helena, and Helena's boyfriend Roman:

This is Jan Zemčik from an old Suchov family. His accent was so thick I could barely understand a word he spoke!

For more pictures of Suchov and Brno click here.

As appears to be the case with all Czech mothers and grandmothers, Jana would not let me leave without gifts and provisions. These included homemade Slivovice (liquor made from plums that's stronger than vodka), a book about the history of Suchov, a bottle of water, and snacks.

Who's up for a taste of some homemade Czech alcohol when I get back to the States?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

From Regensburg to Passau to Regensburg to Prague to Brno

If you’re confused by my heading, well so am I. Or at least I’m in a bit of a whirlwind from all this train & bus travel in the last few days.

First of all, on Sunday I went to Passau (also in Bavaria, about an hour by train from Regensburg) to see a summer school friend who studies there (a German who also studies Czech). Then I went back to Regensburg for the night. Then the next morning I left for Prague. I was actually supposed to make one more stop (in Plzen, Czech Republic) to meet with some other summer school friends, but it didn’t pan out (probably for the best, judging by my schedule!). I stayed in Prague last night, then I arrived in Brno around noon today. I am in Brno for a few days, thankfully!

The only place I’ve managed to take pictures in the last few days is Passau. Here are some of my favorites:

I realized that at some point I have to explain to those of you reading my blog what exactly it is that I’m doing here in the Czech Republic (besides drinking beer).

Well, I wrote a proposal back in February to undertake some pilot research on Czech dialects related to my dissertation topic. At that time, the topic of my dissertation was still rather cursory, thus so was my proposal for this research trip. As a matter of fact, I wrote the proposal the night before it was due with absolutely no expectation of getting the grant. Well, I got it, and so I am here now, doing some research that is rather peripherally related to my dissertation.

What I proposed to do was come to the Czech Republic to get recordings of speakers of different Czech dialects. I’m not just recording random speech, but rather I’m having them describe some children’s pictures to get them to speak using certain grammatical constructions. This is all with the ultimate goal of testing the frequency and range of usage of these constructions in Czech across different dialects and different demographic groups.

It turns out that it’s really hard to do field research. It’s difficult on two levels, actually. First, it’s time consuming to recruit participants. It rarely takes just ten minutes to do a ten-minute interview. First there’s some small talk. Then you try to get to know one another, even if just a little bit. Then there are the questions about why I speak (some) Czech, and why I am studying Slavic languages in general. And usually after doing the recording you end up going out to get a beer or lunch or dinner with the person. A ten-minute interview really requires making a new friend. I’m not saying that any of this is bad, it’s just not exactly what I expected and takes a lot of time.

The second level of difficulty is in the research itself. The original hypothesis of what I could investigate was rather sketchy to begin with, and this makes it difficult to carry out the research because I’m not quite getting the information I expected to get, even though I’m finding out other things that are equally as interesting. I guess this is why there is such a thing as pilot research – because as experimental researchers we need to figure out how exactly to investigate different topics, including what does and doesn’t work for obtaining the desired information. In my previous research I’ve worked almost exclusively with historical data or non-verbal written communication, so this kind of experimental work is a real eye-opening experience for me.

Having written all of this, I must say that this “pilot research” has been interesting and fun in unexpected ways. I am speaking A LOT of Czech with "real" Czechs, as opposed to other students of the language (as was the case over the summer). At the conference in Regensburg I met a graduate student who studies here in Brno. We met today and he showed me around the department a bit, and also the library. Tomorrow I am going to listen to him give a lecture on phonology in Czech (I’ve never been to a lecture for real Czech university students).

Overall, I’m quite impressed with how helpful and friendly he and other Czechs I’ve met have been. On that note, I think I’ll end this long blog entry! ☺

Saturday, December 6, 2008

It’s Christmas time in Bavaria

I’ve been immersed in Slavic diachronic syntax for two days (don’t bother asking, it’s just what I do), so I haven’t had much time to explore the quaint and historic Bavarian town of Regensburg.

But it doesn't take much exploring to notice the abundance of Christmas cheer. I really think that the Germans might even have us Americans beat in this respect. Here are photos of medieval streets with Christmas decorations and a Christmas market.

For me, being in Germany is a lot like being at home -- that is, besides the language, and the food, and the currency, and a few other things… but otherwise, yep, just like home! What I mean, I guess, is that in crossing the border between the Czech Republic and Germany (especially into what used to be capitalist West Germany), the change is stark. The houses look somehow more livable, there’s not the same relics of Soviet anti-charm, and people are just plain friendlier. I am, of course, in Bavaria, which many Germans claim isn’t real Germany, but its own entity entirely. Either way, Eastern Europe stops abruptly at the German border.

The downside to all this prosperity is that Germany is more expensive, and, well, a bit more boring than the Czech Republic. I like it here, don’t get me wrong; in fact I have welcomed the respite from an intense trip to the Czech Republic (though, admittedly, it only recently became intense ;). But it’s nice to study Czech and Russian, where there’s more foreign-ness in the culture from my perspective as an American.

As a side note, I was just on the New York Times web site and did a double take at the side bar of advertisements… which were in German. I mean, I know that Google automatically registers your IP address and knows which country you are in and so adjusts accordingly (which is quite irritating, actually, in countries where I don’t speak the language!), but I never noticed ads on an American newspaper site being linked that way… the amazing and spooky world of the internet, sigh.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

My new Czech family

For the last two and a half days I was visiting with Czech relatives. Not my Czech relatives, mind you, but rather my friend Rachael’s distant Czech relatives. You see, a month or so ago Rachael’s grandfather Vincent gave me contact information for their relatives that live in the Czech Republic. So before leaving California I sent them letters saying that I would be in the Czech Republic and that I’d like to visit them. Most of them live in a village in the far southeast, near Slovakia, called Suchov. But the Navratilovs live in the far west of the Czech Republic – close to Germany – in a town called Chodov (pronounced roughly: HOE-dove; dove as in dove into the water, not the bird), and that’s where I’ve been.

Chodov is very close (~25 minutes by bus) to the posh tourist resort Karlovy Vary, which interestingly enough has been overrun by Russians in the last ten years. Chodov itself is anything but posh, though it has a cute town square and church.

Most of Chodov’s 15-20,000 residents live in large soviet apartment buildings called paneláky, including the Navratilov family. Here are some paneláky:

Marie Navratilova and her granddaughter Sylva met me at the train station around 3 pm on Tuesday and took me back to their apartment, where I was immersed in Czech for no less than 8 hours. I was sitting in roughly this position for almost the whole time while I met and chatted with (=listened to... mostly!) different family members who stopped by. Marie is on the left, I’m in the middle (obviously) and Sylva is on the right.

I was repeatedly fed (with no chance of turning anything down!) everything from fried chicken – that’s right, not just an American treat! – to open-faced sandwiches and cookies. The food was all very Czech, very Slavic, so not quite like it is at home. There’s a lot more butter, more fried food, more mayonnaise. But it’s good in its own way!

I’m not sure if all the family members stopped by just to see the American (me!) or whether they always stop by, but they were all interested in talking to me, even though I speak slow and broken Czech and sometimes understand very little of the conversation, especially when they spoke quickly or used slang. I had to explain repeatedly that no, I was not a relative, but rather an old friend of Vincent’s granddaughter. Despite not being related, they all treated me like family!

I was proud of myself for following the conversations most of the night, and realized that family-style immersion would be the way to really learn the language fluently. The grandmother, Marie or Maruška, especially enjoyed talking to me. After she convinced (coerced…) me into staying another night, I realized that she must have really enjoyed the new company, or else enjoyed the novelty of speaking Czech with a foreigner whose speech she could correct and who she could tell stories to. And I’m a great listener in Czech, because I can’t speak very well, so that probably made it all the more fun for her! She wanted me to stay even longer, but I had to leave for my conference in Germany, so it was not possible.

The day after I arrived (Wednesday) I went to Karlovy Vary (the neighboring posh resort town) with Marie and her oldest daughter Pavla (Marie also has twins – Sylva, the mother of younger Sylva, and a son whose name I cannot remember). We first went to the glass factory Moser in Karlovy Vary, where older Sylva works. Unfortunately, Sylva was not there because she had to go to the doctor from injuring her finger on the job (as far as I understood), but her friend (boyfriend?) Radik was working and got us a tour for free. I even got to go up in the work area and blow glass. Here’s proof – I’m in the middle (doing a terrible job ☺) and Radik is on the right.

Then we went to the main promenade of Karlovy Vary, which has a series of hot springs (prameny), which are supposed to be good for your health to drink. Marie made sure I tried each one of the springs. Here are Pavla and Marie at the largest spring.

Karlovy Vary is quite a pretty town, and though photos don't really capture it I have to show you at least a few (for even more pictures, click here):

Marie and Pavla absolutely would not let me pay for anything all day, from the bus ticket to food to the little souvenir cup for tasting the hot spring water. I was glad that I at least brought a gift for them when I arrived so I wasn’t a complete freeloader!! Being with Marie was reminiscent of spending time with my own grandmother – constantly feeding me, giving me small presents, talking to me about her past, her youth, her hometown, worrying about me traveling alone and talking to me a lot in general. It was nice to get a dose of the Slavic grandmother treatment since I haven’t had my own for almost ten years now.

I left this morning for Regensburg, Germany where I’m attending a linguistics conference all weekend. But don’t worry, my Czech “family” adventures are not over. I’m planning to go to the village Suchov in the far southeast to visit my other non-relatives. The Navratilovs’ called and told them I was coming. They are expecting me next Wednesday. I’ll let you know how it goes!