Saturday, October 4, 2008

Go Blue!

With yet another day out, another story is finding its way through my fingers and keyboard to you. As the chant in the title indicates, it’s going to be about a game. No, wrong. It’s not just any “a” game. It’s the Game. From more than one reason. First, it is the Game because after all, I’m in Ann Arbor, the home of Michigan Wolverines, the place where Saturday home games are social events of the highest importance. Second, it’s the Game because today was also one day of the Homecoming week, that is a week of alumni coming back to say hi to their alma mater and naturally if it's Saturday, to watch the Game. And third, just because it was my very first game here.

Oh, I haven’t said what game yet. Of course, a football game. Now, particularly my Europe-based readers, when I say football, I mean a kind of sport which is for the majority of time not played by foot and which is never played with a ball (maybe it is a ball, but to my mind the concept of a ball has always indicated something round and sphere-like). Yes, I'm talking about American football. But anyway, it was my very first experience of this kind. And I’m not saying I didn’t like it. To my great surprise, I was willing and able to stand for the whole three and a half hours, watching the game and enjoying myself! Yes, I was! It was great fun, both the playing itself and the place with its atmosphere. In a sense I had a chance to enjoy the whole event with all its multiple layers even more profoundly than other students. After all, this hasn’t been the first game they have seen or attended and majority of them just naturally lacks the outsiders’ eyes. As an outsider, not so much a fan as a viewer, I could perceive both the game proper and the rituals surrounding it.

But let me start from the beginning. Today’s plan was clear: to get up and to get myself something maize (read: yellow) and/or blue to wear. Even despite my ignorance of the rules, I was dead sure I couldn’t go to the game in a red, or even worse, orange, t-shirt. Next step was to type “American football” in Wikipedia and study the rules hard. I succeeded with the former, was totally useless with the latter. That is, I have two new t-shirts yet still don’t have the clue what the real rules of American football actually are.

As far as the t-shirts go, people may point to the fact how much overweight American population is these days. This May be so, but when I was in the shop, contemplating if I wanted a t-shirt which had “Michigan” on it in this or that font, or which said “Go Blue” or any other of the tens and tens of other M-featuring designs, all the S and M sizes were hopelessly sold-out whereas stacks with all those L’s and L’s on the second power were still full. So much for the Americans’ dietary problems. What I liked the most, though, were the senior ladies and gentlemen carrying in their hands their t-shirts and other paraphernalia of the team apparel. Yes, football is taken seriously here. I’m not particularly sure if by “here” I mean Ann Arbor as usual or the whole of the USA, but this time the latter might be the case.

As for Wikipedia and the rules, never mind. I was to go with my flat-mate’s girlfriend who is an American, and thus, my European self thought, would surely know how to answer my all questions (she didn't, but I didn't mind in the least). Proudly sporting my maize t-shirt with a huge “Michigan” across the breast, I was ready for the experience. And so set out we did.

Our first destination was a tailgate party. If I was to have the experience of a football game, then with everything else belonging to it. We didn’t manage to find the place of the party. But then, with parties going on on each and every porch it’s not such a big wonder. One gets easily lost. As well as one gets quickly lost in all those huge crowds pouring in the direction of the Stadium. Attendance of today’s game? 109,750 people.

Well then, tailgate party, maybe next time. It was time to join the crowd and drift where everyone else was heading to; drift among the waves of blue and maze. But also among slightly, or sometimes not so slightly, intoxicated people. Yes, students seem to be the same all around the world.

I won’t pretend I wasn't astounded once I found myself finally at the Stadium. The place is huge! And it was sold out. Our seats, on which we were standing for the whole of the game, were in the students’ section, that is exactly where the atmosphere was the most charged.

My room-mate was right, I did understand the basics of the rules fairly quickly. This being mainly due to the fact that the game goes on for probably thirty seconds, is stopped, the teams re-group and start all over again. Playing for thirty seconds max, stopped, re-grouping. Played, stopped, re-grouped. On and on and on. After three and a half hours of watching this (the game having officially four fifteen-minute quarters), even people as little gifted iin sport as I am could understand the basics.

What was far more difficult to understand was the social rituals the students around me were so ardently performing. All the particular body movements accompanied by certain songs, cheers and/or gestures. My, that was complicated! My friend was constantly telling me that I should be able to grasp at least the fundamental “Go blue” part of being a fan. I did not. But how could I? My time was equally divided between grasping what was going on in front of me, pestering her with millions supplementary questions and taking pictures till my batteries went flat. I promise I’ll do better next time.

Oh, and a marching band! Each and every day on my way home from school I can seen

the band practicing on a near field. I’m still having some difficulties understanding how playing music and moving to and fro go together, but as I’ve seen today, it does work. I loved their performance the

best during the break when they were all over the field, joined by the forces of the alumni marching band, playing and marching at the same time, with the conductors standing high on step ladders, vigorously

waving their hands.

To sum it all up, I loved this typical American experience. Despite the body-shaking cold that settled in in the last quarter. Despite the fact that majority of the fans had left before the game ended because they deemed it hopeless. Despite the fact that Blue lost (again, one has to add). Despite the fact that it lasted three and a half hours. I enjoyed it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


This place has been rather neglected lately. I apologize and blame my lack of writing time on the abundance of reading time, so shamefully dominating my schedule. Time to take up the lost thread of narrative and move on. For today, I decided to be moving on the tones of music.

But before that, quite a few things have happened since my last post. One would say that even more than quite a few. Being unable to decided which I want to share with you – a lecture by Michael Moore, another by prof. Carby, or yet another by an incredibly beautiful human being, Eddie Daniels, or the fact that the weather was unspeakably lovely and not it’s beep beep beep cold – I am settling on music, on its charm and universality of its language.

Those who know me also know how fond I am of symphonic and chamber music. They also know that one of my biggest worries about the year-long US-stay was that I would miss the whole season of Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra. I know, silly silly me. As if they didn’t have orchestras here, right?

To make a long story short, I’m exposed to so much music as never before in my life. I’m not particularly sure if it is even healthy to attend a symphony orchestra concert and a chamber/solo instrument recital each single week, and to intersperse the time in between by listening to the same music on the ipod (or as one of my friends said: “Yes, you did a very American thing, buying an ipod, but you have European music on it, anyway, don’t you? Oh, by the way, could you recommend me some?” I was more than happy to point his attention to Dvorak’s and Elgar’s cello concertos). Well, I am yet to see the consequences of such an indulgence. The worst thing that can happen is a withdrawal symptom when there’s all of a sudden less music in my life, that it when the battery goes flat.

The most beautiful aspect about this music is that it speaks in a language which is truly universal. One can be illiterate, but once the orchestra starts playing Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, words are no longer needed; everybody understands. And that’s exactly what the orchestra did start to play. I have never heard this piece live so I was rather curious and full of expectations. After all, it was Dvorak, a Czech composer with so many ties to America. A Czech composer being performed on a stage in the country whose Muses inspired him to write the most beautiful pieces of his repertoire. Enjoying this particular Symphony was definitely a more complex experience than mere listening to the subtle tones of the Third Movement or the jubilant mood of the Fourth one. Speaking of the Third Movement, let me quote a program:

“For beguiling beauty and haunting enigma, nowhere in music is there a moment more captivating than the exquisite waltz in G minor which soars from the violins at the beginning of the third movement. It is as if the dance in triple time has just returned from heartache – barely but bravely – but with faith intact to whirl:

Thou, Ambrosial Waltz, when first the moon
Beheld thee twirling, to thy melting tune
Endearing, delightful Waltz – Muse of motion!”

(Lord Gordon Byron)

It was incredibly heartwarming to listen to this particular piece of music (who cares that the acustics in Michigan Theatre is only a far cry from the acustics in Hill Auditorium). But even more heartwarming was meeting a very nice lady, sitting next to me (with both our husbands out of town, as we put it), with whom I was for a coffee today and who I’m looking forward to meeting again soon. Which leads me back to what I’m saying in some of my previous posts. People are really nice over here. And when I say over here, I mean in Ann Arbor, in this liberal-minded sanctuary engulfed by the sea of conservatism of the rest of the state of Michigan.

There have been other concerts and recitals. Be that Beethoven’s Seventh performed by University Symphony Orchestra or Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony by University Philharmonia Orchestra, or oh-so-beautiful interpretation of Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Cello in C Major.

The only thing that struck me, and that falls into the category of differences from the title of the blog, is the anthem. One may ask, an anthem? And my answer would be, yes, my dear, an anthem. It happened so quickly that I really didn’t know what had hit me. At one moment the conductor was welcoming the audience, at another his baton was high in the air, the whole audience standing, the whole orchestra (yes orchestra, except for the cellos that is, as this would be close to impossible) was standing, and The Star-Spangled Banner was being sung all over the place. Now, that was a novelty to me. However, I have to admit, some people around me had really very nice singing voices. Afterwards I was told that this was a norm. With the high rate of my concert-attendance, I might as well learn the words from mere listening to them before my sojourn is out.

Oh, and have I mentioned that nearly all the University-based performances are free of charge? Not yet? Well yes, they are. No wonder that when my beloved ones ask me how I am over here, I have to answer them time and time again, I’m really good, thank you for asking.

And off to the VP debate I switch. Sarah Palin has just said that other countries in the world don’t care about global warming as much as The United States do. Ehm, I mean, excuse me? Someone should maybe explain to her that the word “much” is not quite a synonym of the word “little”. But this is getting me just too far from music. I promise to devote some of my next posts, apart from requested recycling policy, also to the election-craze. One almost wishes to be a sociology not a literature person now.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

On Missing

There are several areas in a human’s life where certain forms of missing happen. Take me today, for instance. I’ve managed to miss a turn, a glimpse at a map and a chance to get involved, all within one afternoon.

In my never-ceasing struggle to get incorporated into the Ann Arbor community as much as possible I decided to become a member of the local library – Ann Arbor District Library. Or did I want the membership because of the shelves upon shelves upon shelves of music and movies the library has to offer? Provided there’s Dvorak’s American Quartet no. 12 in F Major playing in my headphones at the moment, the latter seems the case.

But anyway. As I was walking down, that is in my case up, the street, not paying any particular attention to the surroundings, I missed my turn to the left. The walk which should take some ten minutes took me thus more than twenty.

The second missing followed shortly afterward. Upon emerging from the library, a proud holder of the library card carrying a bunch of Rostropovich’s CD’s in a bag, I simply let myself be overpowered by my infallible instinct and highly-developed sense of orientation, missing thus a glimpse at my now very worn-out map. Those who know me also know what I’m referring to. Yes, I ended up in a completely different part of the downtown. And at that point, had I missed yet another look at the map, I might have as well found myself in Ypsilanti, for all I know.

Having missed the said glimpse and losing thus my way, not such an uncommon thing with me, I’ve also missed my chance to get involved with one of four hundred plus student communities there are under U of M. Only too late did I come to the very heart of the Central Campus, the Diag, and saw that it was past four and all the communities’ representatives were unanimously packing their tables and leaving. Ok then, it will cost me a ride up to North Campus next week, but I will get involved. No more missed opportunities.

How many things does an ordinary person miss in his or her life? Do they regret them? Do they realize and admit them at all? A character in one of Chekhov’s short stories was obsessed with things missed. He even made a list of them to frustrate himself with. Yes, I was angry with all those missed turns, glimpses or chances today. But there’s no reason to cry over spilled milk. The missed things must remain just that. Missed things. They cannot turn to spoilers of one’s present.

Or even better, they should teach one something. I've learnt today to pay more attention to street signs, to the map and to social events around.

But then, there is also a different kind of missing. And this one cannot be stored for self-educational purposes. This missing is still with me no matter what. I’m missing my husband. I hope you’re fine, honey. As well as I hope that one day you're going to have a chance to read this.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Having praised the beauties of Ann Arbor, I think it’s time a few words were also said about the people over here. Where to start? To say that I’ve never encountered a nicer and more helpful bunch is a good way of introduction as we all as summing up.

Take for instance Saturday. Remember? That was the day when the big, err, lost, game was on. There were hardly any people in the streets. Yet, crossing at traffic lights, I was suddenly greeted and addressed by a stranded pedestrian. “Why aren’t you at the game?” “Because I’ve never realized there was going to be a game today. And besides, I’ve just arrived and I’m settling down a bit. How come you aren’t at the game?” “Oh, I’ve already had enough. So where are you heading to?” “Michigan League.” And so on and so forth. Before we reached the place he was heading to, I’d learnt that he liked hiking, had been to India for a year and was a vegetarian. Oh yeah, and he also invited me to his friends’ barbecue on Monday.

This is just a small demonstration of the ease with which people communicate over here. They might not have any intentions of becoming your friends but at the same time they will go out of their ways to show you that they really care about what you have to say and if you are having any difficulties, they are so willing to help.

Take today, for example. “Jana, you play the cello, right? And so how’s it going? Do you have the instrument yet?” “Hm. No?” “Ok, so I finish here at five and then I’ll take you to the rental office. Let me just check with them what their opening hours are.” And the result? There’s one brand new cello standing in the corner of my humbly equipped room. My supervisor’s assistant is indeed such a sweet lady! A mere side note: only upon hugging the instrument did I realize how much I’ve been missing the feel and sound of it.

To many of you the above described might seem completely ordinary, but coming from the very midst of grumbling Czech culture, one cannot but be pleasantly surprised.

But there’s no need to get fooled. There’s still a long way to go between such friendly help and real friendship. The point I’m trying to get across is that the beginnings of the said friendship are so much easier and more pleasant than any awkwardness experienced elsewhere.

I’m more than convinced that the awkwardness is bound to come. As well as the other negative aspects of social communication. But it’s so reassuring to know there are always going to be people around who will smile at you and if in need be help you.

I was setting up my bank account today. Although I was feeling as close to being an idiot as I could get, the lady was incredibly patient with me. Kept explaining and explaining and explaining. Explaining and answering. Even the most stupid questions like whether my check book would be sent to my Czech or American address. Stupid, I know. I’ve realized that the moment I said that. But still, I got my answer and a beautiful smile on top of that.

Before I finish my today’s apotheosis, let me draw a picture for you. This time it’s not the people who I’m depicting but the place again. Ann Arbor. Haze-less blue sky; it’s not a blue of an ocean or of a flower in the mountains. It’s a blue only layers upon layers of air can conjure up. Only now and then the blue thickness is interrupted by streaks of white clouds (“A day when you’re watching the sun in the sky / The clouds, so white, so slow, drifting by” – these are not my words and I sincerely hope that the person whose they are doesn’t mind me borrowing them, as they so much dovetail with what I’m writing about). The sun is shining, shining hot, burning, and the sky is breathtakingly beautiful.

There’s only one other element in the picture competing for the viewer’s attention. That is the land. The land covered in yellow grass. Although yellow is associated with decay, the scenery around doesn’t seem decaying to the viewer’s eyes. Her eyes are simply dazzled by the two colors, yellow and blue, so different yet in a complete harmony now, as if reaching to one another at the horizon. What would happen if they were to touch? If they were to blend, lose their selves and become one? They would give birth to green. Color of spring, of life. Yellow and blue are good colors. Nice colors. I’m happy to be at the university which has these two in its emblem. And in a town which abounds in them wherever one looks.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Pre-Labor-Day Days

Ann Arbor is indeed true to its name. I don’t know much about the Ann part, haven’t met that many people so far, but it definitely is an arbor. A beautiful forest already preparing itself for the upcoming fall. Leaves are slowly, yet steadily, turning yellow and brown and falling from the trees. Being crushed by hundreds and hundreds of students' feet running to and fro.

But let me start from the beginning. I was born. . . . No, not that beginning. I think I will start with the day I landed in Miami, Florida. The flight was good. Uninventive and rather boring, but still good. Only too late did I realize that the other two seats next to me were empty, as if inviting me to stretch on them. Which I did, like two hours before the landing, and immediately fell asleep.

Waiting in a line to have all my documentation properly revised and stamped, I was made to view “Welcome to America” program. In a loop. For four times. Smiley happy faces enhanced by the music of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Lovely. Cultural impacts immediately from the very beginning. At least they didn’t make me take my shoes off. This had already been taken care of by the British at Heathrow.

Afterwards, when it was finally my turn, the official from the Department of Home Security was evidently tired and didn’t pay much attention to what he was doing with all my documents. Although he winked at me in a friendly way, he also forgot to stamp one of my papers. I’m only to see what trouble will ensue from such negligence of duties.

Upon emerging from the airport building I was as if smacked in the face by suffocating heat. Heat and humidity. I tried to ascribe it to the small parking space full of cars and buses, all with their engines running. But no, not even all the traffic in Miami was able to produce such terrible climate. The weather was really hot. Hot and humid. Humid and hot. Whichever way you prefer. And more of it was still to come.

The ride from the airport was nothing special but for the fact that I was able to realize for the first time how much ugly Miami actually was. It was nothing but concrete, glass-and-metal buildings, no people in the streets but all the more huge cars on the roads. Huge cars of European or Asian makes manufactured specifically for the American market and thus twice as big as those visible on European roads. Talk about oil crisis.

The hotel was beautiful even despite the fact that I was woken up by my future roommate at 1 am (plane delayed at JFK). Her name is Maria and as well as the other Fulbrighters she is a sweet thing. Compassionate, willing to listen, willing to talk, willing to experience and share. I’m missing her already, though I’m secretly hoping for a trip to NY some time in November to see all those at Columbia University.

If I look aside all the talk about how great and liberal America is, the Orientation was a fantastic experience. Have you ever been in a room with people from, let’s say, four different countries? Well, multiply the number by ten and you’ll get the number of nationalities our moderate group consisted of. It’s incredible how much one can learn in three days, provided that he or she is exposed to such community. I’ve learnt something about Egyptian marriage rituals, about the history of Bangladesh, about dating patterns in New Zealand, about Japanese humility expressed through their very language, and about many others. But not only this. One can also learn a lot about themselves. About myself being a member of a Czech culture as well as about being a European. Nothing is as eye-opening as seeing your own culture through the prism of somebody else’s culture. Or through the way somebody else sees you and your culture.

Our days were spent in classes whereas the evenings were about dining out. Neither Miami nor Miami Beach appealed to me much. I don’t know. I guess all the positive things we’ve encountered were overruled by the constant changes of air-conditioned rooms (air-conditioned to such an extend that we had to wear sweaters, warm socks, or sweatshirts with hoods and yet we were still shivering with cold) and unbearable warm and humidity of the outdoors. It’s really a wonder none of us has fallen ill.

I was happy to leave Miami. The people, both the organizers and the participants, were such a thrill to meet! Beautiful in their diversity and openness. All of them. But still, Miami as a city was killing me. I can’t image anyone willingly living there.

And so on Friday I arrived in Ann Arbor. I was warned it was a cozy little town (of some a hundred thousand inhabitants) which I would love the instant I saw it. All those people telling me this were of course right. I only didn’t expect them to be so right. As I’ve said, Ann Arbor is unspeakably beautiful. With trees everywhere it may indeed remind one of an arbor. There are typical suburb houses (with adorable porches and verandahs) or apartment houses everywhere behind or along the trees.

When I arrived in the town, it was way past midnight, and yet the town was all party party party down here. All the porches and verandahs were crowded with students, be that grads or undergrads. House upon house, verandah upon verandah, around each of theme there were around twenty people, drinking, listening to music, enjoying themselves.

Only the other day did I learn that the reason for such a jubilation was a Saturday football match between U of M team and the team of Utah. Although I’ve been told that Michigan had a great team, eventually they lost. But this didn’t change a thing about the fact that from very early Saturday morning, the streets of Ann Arbor were filled with people of all colors and ages wearing yellow and blue T-shirts, sweat shirts, shorts or others, bearing the logo of their football team. I mean all of them. I was by far and large the only person not wearing something yellow-blue with a huge M across my breast. (Have to buy myself something, though.)

Before the commencement of the match, the fans' pouring crowds stopped the traffic. Though I have to admit that the streets were totally empty once the match started. The stadium, referred to as Big House, can house a hundred thousand people (biggest in the country). In the light of the entire city’s population, no wonder there was no one in the streets. Michigan lost. I wouldn't be able to tell but for the lack of parties afterwards.

If anyone wants to come over and visit me, there cannot be better time than that of the match. It’s indeed experiencing the American culture through and through. As I was told by a shop assistant in a hardware shop: “You arrived on the match day. Well, welcome to America!” Next weekend there’s another U of M home match. I hope it is enough time for me to grasp the rules, of both the game and the social event as such. You know what I mean, when to shout boo’s and when to cheer.

There’s nothing more and report, except for miniature details, like numerous squirrels in the streets, the beauties of campus buildings or willingness of people to help and to show you the manifold ways of incorporating into their culture. In this respect the grumbling Czechs have a lot to learn. And reciprocally, we could teach Americans something about dietary habits. No offense, but the food over here is terrible. I don’t know what I’m going to survive on. I’ve been here less than a week and already I’m craving for something at least remotely natural. But enough. No complaining. This may come later when I start to be home-sick and my work doesn't satisfy me. As for now I’m still in a honeymoon phase, enjoying the novelty around.

And last but not least, for those in knowing, some time in March a certain French-Japanese-American cellist is going to perform in Ann Arbor. Guess I should get a ticket soon. Yay!

Instead of an Introduction

Do you know the feeling when you are subject to too much new information and your whole body is as if bursting with it? As if you couldn't stand as much as another minute without telling anyone? Telling at least a small portion of it? A tiny detail? This or that?

Well, that's what happening to me right now. Each day I'm learning new things, trivial things as well as those of vital importance, and I'm only storing, storing them. Not knowing many people around yet, I decided to share some of my impressions with any online audience which can happen to stumble over my lines.