The Big Mac and Little Mac costs of living in Prague

by the Night Writer

Tiger Lilly’s research into the cost of living in Prague was pretty spot on. You can get by pretty affordably here. But as my new barber friend said the other day, “The cost of living is low, but the cost of goods is high.” That is, his experience is that while food, drink and rent are relatively low, the cost of clothes, tools, equipment, computers, etc. can be very expensive.

The ever-useful Czech Ex-Pat website featured an interesting economic comparison sheet, developed by The Economist website, comparing the relative costs of obtaining a Big Mac in more than 40 countries (the Big Mac was chosen because it is almost universally available and is consistent in size and ingredients across all locations). According to the index, the CR is in the lower third of countries, paying $2.98 for the two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun. The most expensive is Switzerland at $6.44; the least expensive is Venezuela, .66. (You might not be able to find toilet paper in Venezuela, but you can get a Big Mac – and save the wrapper.) The complementary “Little Mac” index compares the price of iPad minis around the globe; the Czech price is about 9% lower than the global average.

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Take-away food from a stall is very reasonable. A large slab of pizza will go for little more than a dollar and change (USD) and a half-liter of beer (and everyone sells beer) goes for about the same, and restaurants typically feature entrees that are less than $10. One of our first nights in Prague we went to an Italian restaurant; I’d had a big lunch but was a little hungry. I saw pizza on the menu for about $8 and assumed that that was probably a small or “personal” pizza, and thought that felt about like what I was looking for.Turns out that pepperoni pizza was 14″ – no way I was going to be able to finish it (and it was very tasty) and we didn’t have a refrigerator in our hotel in order to bring home leftovers. It was such a waste! Bars and restaurants, btw, seem to be the main industry in town. In our neighborhood there are at least 3 on every block, and they offer a lot of variety in cuisine.

Wages are also relatively low, though. The average monthly income in the CR is a little around $1,100 at current exchange rates. I also get the sense from talking to my barber that it’s normal for people to have multiple part-time jobs. Tiger Lilly has been looking for jobs, and there aren’t any full-time ones advertised (the “full-time” work mentioned by the school where she earned her TEFL certification turned out to be 22 hours, and some teacher said they often didn’t get that). She has seen part-time positions suited to her skills and experience that pay about $12/hour before tax. If she lands one of these, she’ll be able to meet her expenses for the most part. She found a large, private room with wonderful views in an apartment near Wenceslas Square for about $350 a month, which is low for the area, so she’s feeling blessed.

Not needing a car is a big cost-savings for most folks. The city is compact enough to be well-served with public transit that gets you close to anywhere you want to go. (A standard 75-minute bus/tram/metro pass costs about a buck; you can get a 24-hour pass for less than $5; a month-long pass runs you $28. When we were in London in 2006, day-long Tube passes for 4 people cost me $40).

Clothing is not as affordable as the food; a pair of jeans can be 30 Euros (the CR currency is the crown, or koruna, but bigger ticket items are often priced in both the euro and the koruna). Second hand clothing shops, called SROs, are very common and import their goods from other western European countries – so don’t expect the Czechs to be cutting edge in fashion.

Actually, living here reminds me a lot of being in college. Food and drink are plentiful and affordable, everyone does a couple of part-time things for work, wears older clothes and few people drive. Tiger Lilly earned her B.A. mostly through self-study via College Plus, with some classes at a local community college. She received a comprehensive education, but not much of the so-called “college experience”. By moving to Prague she’ll get that “experience” – and it won’t cost us over $100,000 to do so!

An American Barber in Prague

by the Night Writer

After nearly 60 days without a haircut I was beginning to look a bit like a shrubbery. I didn’t know if I needed a barber or a topiarist, but I didn’t know how to find either in Prague. Fortunately, at the Men’s Bible Fellowship Saturday morning I was told to call Kraig Casebier, aka, “American Barber in Prague.” Barbering has become a bit of a lost art in Europe, even more so than in America, and Kraig has been busy since he came here five years ago.

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God has opened some amazing doors for Kraig, and he has barbered “heads” of State, well known Czech actors, and international businessmen as well as serving locals and ex-pats here. He’s also the “go-to” stylist for a local movie production company and has been featured in Czech magazines. He’s about to launch a series of YouTube shows of him interviewing well-known and interesting clients as he cuts their hair.

Fortunately I was able to find  an opening in his calendar and I got in to see him today. He’s  just recently moved to a new location – a manly, garden-level, cave in Prague 5. The walls are brick and his chairs are leather, including a 1941 barber chair. He’s in the process of filling the place with Americana, and as we discussed what we were going to do with my mop he cued up some Bob Seger on the mini-Wurlitzer jukebox. He has plans to do whiskey-tastings and to refurbish a room in his new shop to host “guys’ night out” events.

We had a great chat while he cut my hair. He told me about living in Prague as an ex-pat and gave me some useful tips to pass on to my daughter, and we roamed over a number of other topics, finding that we were simpatico on many things (which is the true sign and gift of a great barber). I had an excellent time and hope to follow his barbering adventures on Facebook and YouTube.

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Kraig suggested a closer cut on the sides for me, which was a good modification to my “usual”. (“A little off the top” describes my photo composition skills, not the  haircut I received.)

The new place is still awaiting some American fixtures and comfy touches. Kraig also apologized for dressing informally today; typically he wears a vest and tie (and yes, he did play "Santa" this last Christmas).

The new place is still awaiting some American fixtures and comfy touches. Kraig also apologized for dressing informally today; typically he wears a vest and tie (and yes, he did play “Santa” this last Christmas).

Worldviewing

by the Night Writer

I saw a reference to “the Siege of Turin” the other day and it made me curious so I did a little research. The first challenge I faced was determining just which Siege of Turin I was looking for – the one when the Italians of the Piedmont allied with Spain against the French, or the one when the Italians allied with the Austrians and Prussians against France and Spain? In those moments, all the castles, ruins and battlements I’ve been seeing over the past six weeks, and all the recurring family names – Lombards, Savoys, Medicis, Habsburgs, Bourbons and more – suddenly coalesced into a clearer understanding of Europe for my American brain, an understanding that was obvious enough, but still somewhat elusive.

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I have been trying to picture myself living in a Europe of past centuries, viewing the artifacts and architecture of nearly incessant hostilities and gamesmanship (driving through Austria there is another fortress on top of a hill every 3-4 kilometers) as power and influence waxed and waned throughout different regions . History and geography are literally stacked in heaps all around me, and in my fresh moment of clarity I began wondering what effect this living history might have on me if I were a European today. What does it do to one’s cultural sensibilities and view of the past and the future when there is a national memory of your neighbors camped outside your city walls, either bombarding you or trying to starve you out? It’s simply not something Americans have had to think about much. True, we had a Civil War, and fought natives for territory, and contended with European armies and navies, but the possibility of England landing a force on our shores and torching Washington, D.C. is almost unimaginable to us now. I wonder just how unimaginable – or imaginable – a similar episode might be for an Italian, a Belgian, a Pole?

For that matter, what connection might you feel to a country or a leader here? When I looked up the history of Trieste during our visit I discovered that the city has, by turns, been French, German, Austro-Hungarian, Slovenian and Italian. In a history of changing alliances, borders and affiliations, would you be loyal to a distant capital or to your region? Would you be an Umbrian or Piedmontese in Italy? Swear allegiance to Galicia or Catalonia rather than to Spain and Madrid?  The “United States” is a something that’s been “normal” for Americans for some 240 years; we don’t think of Ohio invading Pennsylvania for its oil, or Wisconsin conquering Minnesota and making it illegal for anyone to be a Vikings fan. At least we haven’t since 1865, anyway, though there are still family stories of survival in the Civil War handed down in my family.

In Europe you don’t have to go back to the Siege of Turin or the “War of Spanish Succession”; within the last 100 years you’ve seen two world wars in which the Christian nations of the continent were at each other’s throats. In the Czech Republic, there are people alive today who well remember what it was like to live under both the Nazis and the Russian Communists, and who have seen tanks and machine guns in their streets. In Turin and Gratz, ancient tunnels under the city were still used as shelters from Allied bombs in WW2.

Is the EU now a natural and enlightened entity of common purposes across the nearly invisible borders of its member states, embraced by all, or is the connection more superficial? While we have had some conversations with “locals” in our travels, the language barrier challenges both revelation and nuance. Our Hungarian driver and tour guides were adamantly opposed to any possibility of the Communists returning, and nearly as outspoken about the influx of Muslim migrants. Our driver said that their greatest fear, though, is nationalism – more so among their neighbors, but also within their own country. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Oban, has been popular with the citizens for his tough, “strong man” talk, but our driver said there is great concern that he has lately been making overtures toward an apparent alliance with Vladimir Putin. In the Czech Republic I have read similar things about the Czech president, Milos Zeman. Both Oban and Zeman are vocal critics of the EUs embrace of migrants (both countries have all but closed their borders to refugees), and even countries such as Germany and Sweden which have welcomed more than a million refugees are showing strong internal dissent and resistance to the practice.

It can be a slow process of sorting your assumptions from your observations and trying to line up a new working model. We tend to think of Europe as staid and monolithic (at least in its politics). “Old” doesn’t mean “settled” though. The ancient conflicts here drove many emigrants to the United States. I’m not so sure that the underlying dynamics are that far removed. Making assumptions here is kind of like planting a garden here; it can be nice and even lovely – but don’t be surprised if someone comes tramping through it when you least expect.

Trieste and Miramare

by the Night Writer

Our Christmas plans took us to the Gulf of Trieste and the eastern shores of the Adriatic. The warm but foggy weather persisted, making it comfortable for walking around but limiting the views and rendering the scenery a little dull, though you could tell how spectacular it would be in season. It was during our time in Trieste that we drove down to Pula in Croatia. Closer to “home”, however, were the beautiful gardens and castle of Miramare.

Following yonder star... We were blessed with a hazy sunset on Christmas Day in our apartment near Trieste.

Following yonder star…
We were blessed with a hazy sunset on Christmas Day in our apartment overlooking the Adriatic near Trieste.

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We drove to Trieste on Dec. 24 and knew we weren’t likely to find grocery stores or restaurants open on Christmas day so we picked up some food for our Christmas dinner, and the Reverend Mother and Tiger Lilly rolled, sliced and presented our feast: roast beef, salami, brie and Gorgonzola cheese, hummus, pretzel bread, almond toast, apples and kiwi. Just right.

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This village is close to the border of Slovenia and Croatia. We drove through it; most of the streets would barely qualify as driveways but it was interesting to get a glimpse of life here. Old, old stone houses and buildings looming over narrow cobblestone alleys, looking like the 16th century – except for satellite dishes stuck on the sides of some of the buildings. We didn’t see any signs of dragons, or hear any Thu’um, which was kind of disappointing but probably safer.

Dragon signs might be elusive, but it’s easier to find signs of House of Habsburg in the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Spain and even Italy. Emperors, Dukes, Archdukes and countless princes and barons fill the family histories, which no doubt made for interesting Christmas letters: “Greetings, all – it’s been a busy year. Otto annexed Bohemia and little Max had his hands full with the Basques, but we’re all looking forward to the next family reunion so we can arrange a couple more weddings – goodness, the kids grow up so fast!”

One Habsburg, the Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian (younger brother of Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria) came to Trieste, Italy after circumnavigating the globe and being appointed head of the Imperial Navy, and built a beautiful castle overlooking the Adriatic, Castello Miramare. Principally built between 1856 and 1860, the castle still wasn’t completely finished before duty called and Ferdinand accepted Napoloen III’s request to become Emperor of Mexico where he was ultimately captured and executed in the Mexican Revolution by Benito Juarez’s Republican forces, even though Maximillian was a progressive reformer who had instituted many populist policies. (I don’t mean to sound disrespectful to a fascinating man with an interesting life, but there’s so much intertwined history with threads leading in different directions that a slap-dash fly-by is the best I can do for the purposes of keeping this travelogue manageable.) The story of Maximillian and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium, is both romantic and tragic; it appears that constructing Miramare was truly a labor of love, with many features to delight his wife. Maximillian was only in his mid-30s when he died, and his wife – busy on the continent trying to raise funds and troops for his support at the time – suffered a nervous breakdown and lived the rest of her life in seclusion.

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Maximillian loved the sea, so it was fitting that he built his castle on the coast, and ordered exotic plants to be cultivated on the rocky grounds creating a distinctive park and garden.

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Miramare has its own boat landing, viewed here from one of the castle windows.

Miramare has its own boat landing, viewed here from one of the castle windows.

On the misty day that we were there, the landing was reminiscent of Tolkein's "Gray Havens".

On the misty day that we were there, the landing made me think of Tolkein’s “Gray Havens”.

I seem to be collect interesting shots of my wife and daughter near water.

I seem to collect interesting shots of my wife and daughter near water.

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This is more like Maxfield Parrish than Maximillian.

I manage to get into a couple of photos from time to time.

I manage to get into a couple of photos from time to time.

On the town in Turin

by the Night Writer

We didn’t get to see Turin (Torino) at its best as the week we were there it was pretty overcast and drizzly. Still, you can see the “old bones”, so to speak, of the history and culture here. The one-time capital of Italy under the Savoys, Turin is chock-full of churches, towers, museums and galleries, both above and below ground (see the earlier post about the Pietro Micca museum). One of the neatest things, though, is just to get out in the city on a Sunday afternoon where it seems everyone is on the Via Roma, Via Garabaldi and Via Po like middle-aged teens at the (outdoor) Mall.

Turin is also where we stayed in the 3 bedroom penthouse apartment – the nicest of all the places we stayed (and we’ve stayed in some nice ones). The apartment was through the Home-Swap organization we joined prior to the trip, and not an Airbnb location. The woman who owns the apartment is a book translator and in addition to an elevator that came right to the apartment’s foyer, a Nespresso machine, two bathrooms with showers, the place was full of shelves and stacks of books. We never met the owner, but we felt as if we knew her! The master bath also had a balcony that was high enough for us to see multiple fireworks displays across the city on New Years’s Eve.

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This is the Piazza Vittorio at the end of the Via Po, framing the Chiesa Gran Madre di Dio just across the River Po. The Via Po is is one of the four main streets in Turin (Torino) and leads from the Piazza Castello (the central square of Turin) down to the river. The Via Po features covered colonnades on both sides of the street all the way to the Vittorio; shops, restaurants and bookstores line both colonnades.

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The Garden and Fountain of the Angels at the Piazza Solferino in Turin. It wasn’t a particularly good day to stroll in a garden or past fountains.

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Duke Ferdinand of Savoy, in the Piazza Solferino. It’s not the greatest photo or most compelling image, but I liked the way the colors played off of each other.

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Getting below the surface at the Pietro Micca Museum

by the Night Writer

When you’re in a place such as Turin the number of things to see can be overwhelming. I came across this rather quirky sounding attraction, though, and I’m really glad we decided to check it out. It’s the Museum of Pietro Micca, the hero of the 1706 siege of Turin by France.

This isn’t your typical war-story, though. In this case, the most significant fighting took place underground, in the tunnels the French sappers dug to try to go under the Turin citadel, and in the tunnels dug by the Piedmont miners and brick-layers to thwart them. The defenders were also adept at digging out to where the French artillery pieces were set up to bombard the walls. They would dig out to the guns, finding their directions by using pebbles on drum-heads that bounced as the cannons and mortars fired: if the pebbles bounced right, the gun was to your left; if they bounced left, the gun was to your right; if they bounced straight up you tunneled a little closer set a couple of kegs in the ground under the emplacement, partially collapsed the tunnel to direct the blast in the proper direction, lit the fuse – and ran! The ensuing explosion would blow the artillery-men, the cannon, and their own powder sky-high. Besides the damage, it was also a form of psychological warfare because the gunners had no warning that they were about to become human cannonballs themselves. If you didn’t fire your cannon then the defenders couldn’t find you – but then what good is a cannon?

Anyway, lots of tunnels and counter-tunnels were dug by miners and brick-layers. One night, the French infiltrated the main tunnel network and were about to break through into the tunnels that would take them right inside the citadel. Pietro Micca barricaded the tunnel door, and as the French started to break it down, set a short fuse under 30 kegs of powder – killing the French, collapsing the tunnel and, unfortunately, resulting in his own demise. Before the French could recoup, the Piedmont’s Austrian and Prussian allies attacked the French rear and drove them off, a key battle in Italy’s ultimate independence.

What’s neat about the museum is that this isn’t a walk-through of exhibit halls looking at cannons and old uniforms. Instead, you go down into the tunnels themselves (there are approximately 9 kilometers of tunnels in the network, but the tour just takes through a few hundred meters worth). You see the structures, the excavated chamber that Micca blew up, and receive an interesting education from the all-volunteer guides who are dedicated to preserving this site, their history, and the memory of Pietro Micca.

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The ground is very solid in this region, and the tunnels – more than 300 years old, are well preserved. The bricks extending into the tunnels along the sides served two purposes. One was as a support as the tunnel arches were put in; the second was to use as a guide (since there was little illumination) as you made your way around the network.

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The tunnels aren’t as claustrophobic as you might think. My hair only brushed the top of the tunnels on one occasion; so most folks can walk easily along (the floors are also in good shape). The wall lights aren’t original, of course, but most illumination is done with the guide’s big flashlight and the flashlight issued to the volunteer who agrees to bring up the back of the line (which was Tiger Lilly in our group).

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The tours can take about a dozen people at a time. The day we were there was exceptionally busy because most of the other museums in town were closed. There were multiple tours going on simultaneously in different parts of the tunnels and exhibits.

Tiger Lilly has an important question to ask you

by the Night Writer

Well, entertained or not, I’m continuing to play catch-up with the travelogue. Today’s photos are of Pula, Croatia.

We had heard that Croatia was beautiful and worth a drive. The Reverend Mother had read that Pula was a great place to visit, with lots of Roman ruins, and it was even further south than Trieste, so we thought the weather could be decent. The only problem is that you have to drive across Slovenia to get to Croatia and I’ve heard that the Slovenes like to shake you down as you’re leaving the country by saying the highway vignette (a windshield tab that covers highway tolls) you purchased from an authorized vendor is counterfeit (and heaven help you if you didn’t buy one – it could be a €150-300 fine on the spot). We did have a small problem at the Slovenia-Croatia border: Tiger Lilly had left her passport in her backpack, and her backpack in our apartment in Trieste. So we turned around and made another attempt the next day. This time the papers were in order (as was our vignette). You pass through the Slovenian guards, drive 10 feet and do it all over again with the Croatian ones. (When they’re not busy, the Slovene guards and Croat guards sit in their glass booths and make rude gestures at each other. Kind of like Packers fans and Vikings fans.)

I can’t really tell you if Croatia is beautiful or not. That’s because the entire Istia Peninsula was socked in with fog as we drove to Pula and back. It was so thick that when we crossed a bridge we couldn’t tell if the bridge spanned water or fields, except by looking on the graphic on the GPS screen.  Fortunately, the fog lifted as we hit the Pula city limits (and returned at the city limits as we were leaving). The day was still overcast, but the temperature was comfortable and the city is a great mix of (really) old and new. It’s on the Adriatic coast has a very mild climate year round (summer highs are in the 80s F and it doesn’t often drop below freezing in the winter). Making a circuit of the sights on foot only covers about 3 kilometers, so it’s a very manageable day trip if you’re in the neighborhood.

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One of the cool things in town is that the historical sites are right next to everyday businesses and streets. You can be driving along, thinking, billboard, billboard, auto repair…Arena!

Pula - Arena ext 2

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Greetings from Graz (or, “leggo of my Eggenberg”)

by the Night Writer

After grazing our way around the Budejovice square it was time for Graz, Austria (pronounced “Grahts”). We turned south and headed into the Alps on our way to the capital city of Styria. Graz is only a few hundred meters above sea level, but you have to go up, over and through some mountains before you can get there. Gratz is in a basin, protected by the mountains, so it’s weather is influenced more by the Mediterranean than the colder and windier capital, Vienna. It’s much more temperate, which is good news for the college students: the city is home to six universities, in case you’re interested in studying abroad.

The warm weather followed us, so we didn’t have to contend with any snow as we navigated the mountains. We did go through some pretty long tunnels, though, which really messed with our GPS. It would lose the signal and give us instructions such as “turn left in 100 meters” – which really wouldn’t have been a very healthy thing to do since the end of the tunnel was still a couple of kilometers ahead. No doubt the tunnels made for a faster and safer trip than driving over the mountains, but they do tend to limit your view, which is too bad since we saw some pretty dramatic things when there were only clouds over our heads.

Alpine sunset.

Alpine sunset.

Graz is a relatively simple place to get around in. Essentially all public transit options run through the train station (the Haptbahnhof) and city center (Hauptplatz). The main square is very compact compared to Prague Old Town Square or the Budejovice square, but was jammed with vendors and Christmas Markets. Overlooking the square is the Schloßberg, a rocky hill that commands the area. We were told that the Schloßberg is very worth seeing, and my vestigial German vocabulary told me that “Schloß” means “Castle” so we spent some time looking for a castle. It turns out the castle no longer exists. It was such an impregnable fortress that even Napoleon couldn’t defeat it. Napoleon did manage to defeat the Austrians, though, without taking the castle – but demanded that the Austrians destroy the castle as part of the surrender terms (Treaty of Schönbrunn). The town itself paid a ransom to Napoleon to preserve the clock tower (the symbol of the town) and the bell tower. The grounds were later turned into a public park and it is a magnificent location for concerts and events, with a great view of the city. Graz clock tower

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There are a few ways to get up to the Schloßberg; you can buy a ticket on the funicular, or a ticket to use the lift, or you can climb the 390 stairs on the side of the rock. (None of these options were available to Napoleon).

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Uphill all the way – our experiences in Cesky Krumlov and Ceske Budejovice

by the Night Writer

We’ve been on the move pretty much since Dec. 20. We ended our month-long residency in the 5th floor apartment in Prague and started to take little bites of Europe as we made our way, ultimately, to Turin, Italy where we are now and will remain for a few days before starting back to Prague for the rest of our adventure. With our travel schedule and varying degrees of internet access it’s been difficult to keep the blog updated, but I’ve definitely been taking lots of photos, and it’s time to work through the backlog. Today’s account features to Czech cities: Cesky Krumlov and Ceske Budojovice.

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Ice on Fire

by the Night Writer

Patience/Nikita.

Patience/Nikita.

I like hats, but most hats don’t like me. That is, most hats aren’t a good look with my over-large jug. Broad-brim fedoras work well; and I can get by with a flat cabbie-cap, but ball caps, stocking caps, Panamas, Trilbys, pork-pies – all pretty much end up looking like a wart on a pumpkin when I put them on. One of our first days in Prague, though, I saw an older guy wearing a boiled-wool hat like the one above, and I immediately thought that that style could work for me – and keep my ears warm. It took awhile to find one (I don’t know what the style is called) but I found this one in a Christmas Market in Prague, and they even had one my size. I scouted around another day or two to find the jaunty red pin like I had imagined in my mind’s eye.

Both of my daughters, however, have heads for hats; just about anything they put on looks good – even my over-sized ones. This hat is no exception. When I said I’d bought a new hat, Tiger Lilly gave an “Oh, Lord” roll of the eyes. When she saw it, though, she said, “Hey!” and put it on, and it looked so good on her that I almost didn’t want to wear it again. You can see what I mean in the photo, taken at the Prague bus station as we waited for our ride to Ceske Budejovice. When she posed for this on a gray day, the surroundings and the history I’ve felt here in the Czech Republic suddenly reminded of the old Elton John song, “Nikita”, from 1985. It’s actually a fairly mediocre video – not to mention that it gave people the impression that Nikita is a woman’s name (not the case in Russia), but it’s evocative of the last stages of the Cold War. The weather has actually been warmer than usual here, but if I have to war with the cold this winter, I’m ready.

(As a side note, the “Nikita” in the video is Anya Major, who was the of the famous Apple “1984” ad.)