Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Wagnerian Opera

Rivulets of sweat drips down your brow, there's barely time to catch you breath but you daren't stop. Your heart is beating a mile a second, pumping blood so hard through your engorged arteries that you can barely hear your thoughts. Feet thumping relentlessly on the ground, all you can do is run as the drumbeats of your dreaded enemy's army marches ever closer. 

You're not trembling at the penultimate scene of almost every adventure movie you've ever seen though. Above you, there are no dastardly villains twirling their oily mustaches as they didactically recount every punishment they will soon gleefully inflict upon your helpless self.

No, that blasted Wagnerian opera you just sat through is coming from the alarmingly gargantuan gym speakers. And the only seemingly heartless monster hounding you is the cute physical trainer yelling irritatingly encouraging catchphrases across the din of screaming Valkyries. Fortunately his sculpted pecs are perky enough that the sudden monstrous urge to viciously maim him with a barbell subsides.

I blame the music.

Despite being quite the garrulous sort, there are times when I prefer the sound of silence. Tense moments in the operating theatre, bibliophilic reverence in the library / bookstore - and yes, lifting weights at the gym.

Unlike most, I am not a fan of music in the gym. Don't get me wrong, I fully understand the important role that music plays in workout motivation - and I do play the occasional upbeat pop track while sprinting a mile on the treadmill.

But my gym plays only two kinds of music. Usually it's the dreadful thumpa thumpa techno club hits sounds that makes me feel involuntarily buried in a recurring feng tau 揈头 disco nightmare! Judging by the club kids that come by in the evening, I don't blame the gym for trying to build a familiar environment for them.

Worse though is the terrifyingly devilish Wagnerian opera sound - by way of Hans Zimmer - that makes me feel like I'm being hunted down by a cacophonous band of raucous Vikings - armed with their ear-splitting howls of fury. There's nothing more I wish to do but willingly surrender but I don't know by what irrational terms these screeching demons are persecuting me!

Egads! They play such infernal music in the place you call... gym? 

And by ye Gods, the resounding volume. I bet even the Norse Gods can hear it crystal clear in their halls of Asgard.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Sick Buffalo

Scorpios are naturally suspicious creatures.

And surprisingly contrary! Rather than be doubtful about the scruffy miscreants around, it's the slick, shiny paragons that bother me more. The closer they are to approaching a marble pedestal, the more leery I am of the incomparable nonpareil in question. No one's ever that perfect after all, not even plaster saints.

Which is how all my cagey senses came alive when a friend resurfaced after several years of disappearance raving madly about his new Thai paramour. From the way he summed her up almost reverently, I imagined a magnificent apsara had drifted down from the mighty heavens to grace us with her magnificent presence!

Friend : She's the best thing that ever happened to me!
Paul : How about a picture?
Friend : Sure, look at her! Isn't she beautiful?
Paul : Sure she is. 
Friend : Check out all her pics on facebook!
Paul : Sure does have a lot! It's all of her only! Doesn't she have any friends? 
Friend : I'm sure she has! Just no pics together I guess. Maybe she just doesn't put it up. 
Paul : Isn't she supposed to live with her family? 
Friend : Camera-shy relatives?
Paul : Her supposedly hi-so relatives are camera-shy?
Friend : Well it happens. 
Paul : And her profile has nothing prior to last year? 
Friend : Maybe she was shy. 

Usually I'd be all clapping congratulatory when it comes to new romances - but the only thing that came to my mind at that moment was the legendary sick buffalo story. Unfortunately that cautionary tale happens all too often in Thailand. Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. Boy returns to home country.

And then the sob stories begin, starting with the inevitable sick buffalo story. 'Tee rak, my family buffalo fall sick. So cannot work. My family no money. No money to buy food.' Or an improved variation thereof. Sometimes it's a college loan unpaid. Or even an ailing parent. Regardless of the tragicomic reason, some immediate monetary help would be kindly appreciated, khop khun ka.

Hard to say no when some of them invariably look like this. I mean, wouldn't you help his sick buffalo? 

Or khop khun krap - since these days, even lovelorn homosexuals get similar treatment from their native toyboys. Even forewarned and forearmed, the most hardened cynics still fall hopelessly for the unequalled charms of these irresistibly charming conmen.

Yes, I am quite the hopeless cynic as well - though I hope for my friend's sake that my sneaking suspicions are wholly unfounded! So I purposely held back when he asked for my opinion, just hemmed and hawwed, made a brief comment on her far-too-obvious prettiness. Let us all believe that her intentions are pure, her heart is secure and her wallet isn't being filled up with his hard-earned savings. Please let there be a happy ending for this particular fairy tale.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Second Slap

Even amongst my uninitiated friends, the Slap of Shame has become quite the legend. Timed to coincide with any overly emotional boo hoo crap, it usually shocks the unfortunately near-senseless victims into painful reality. Honing the skills at work with my patented soft tap of wakefulness does seem to toughen up my shocking soberslaps so it works like a sobering charm.

With most of my friends currently happily involved and few sobmelodramas, there hasn't been much use for the Slap of Shame. Well at least till recently.

You see, one of my friends spends way, way too much time at work. For someone in my line, working too hard is quite usual - but you'd rarely find us doing it more than we should. Saving lives are one thing. Staying over just because is definitely not done.

But overworking seems to be par for the course for our Zealous Zoe. Doesn't surprise anyone to find this lean, mean working machine toiling away at the office without any overtime allowance on Sunday mornings. Staying late past dinnertime finishing up paperwork on weekdays is a usual thing for our dedicated salarywoman Zealous Zoe. Even having the entire building gradually shut down around her, leaving her tiny cubicle the only one spookily lit on the entire darkened empty floor, doesn't give Zoe enough incentive to leave her place at work.

Wouldn't surprise me if she has a battery-charged lamp ( along with several candles and energy bars ) at the ready just to work past midnight.

Zoe : This has to stop. 
Paul : What? Our thoughts on how to prank you when you work till midnight all alone in the empty office building? 
Zoe : Yes, that has to stop. But I'm talking about my pace at work. 
Paul : Oh?
Zoe : I might be overworked. 
Paul : Might? 
Zoe : Okay, I am overworked. 
Paul : From your own volition. 
Zoe : Yes. 
Paul : Finally. You haven't seen sunlight in weeks. Well at least not from outside. 
Zoe : Promise me you'll make me leave work on Fridays at least. 
Paul : Oh?
Zoe : Promise!
Paul : Oh, why stop there? Let's make it really interesting.

Gives me a good enough reason to bring back the Slap. All in the interest of loyal friendship, I swear. Obviously worked till near mental exhaustion, poor Zoe capitulated far too easily to my demands without giving it too much thought. No doubt our little workaholic has forgotten that my legen... wait for it... dary slaps have the sheer power to almost bring back the dead.

Zoe : Maybe I should just type out one last e-mail.
Paul : Well if you really have to.
Zoe : You're being awfully nice.
Paul : It's almost 745.
Zoe : You just want to lay the smackdown, dontcha.
Paul : Got that right, sista. 

So come 1945 H on Fridays, I will spend my time stalking her office with my heated palm all ready.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Oh Josefov!

With the increasingly restive religious conservatives in the country perpetually painting the Jews as the unseen bogeymen, is it any wonder that the number of existing Jews here probably number in the low hundreds? If there are even that many! Though the unfortunate Jewry here erroneously get the blame for almost every existing problem in the country from rising inflation to economic troubles, very few Malaysians have ever laid eyes on any of these presumed troublemakers.

Even some of my sadly anti-Semitic colleagues who bear such ill-placed rancor against them don't actually know very much about them!

Colleague : We hate the Jews. 
Paul : Why?
Colleague : Because of Israel.
Paul : And?
Colleague : And the Jewish conspiracy
Paul : And?
Colleague : Our book tells us to hate them.
Paul : Have you actually met any of them?
Colleague : No. But I still hate them.
Paul : Good to see that you actually gave some deliberation to that. 
Colleague : What?

The heedless animosity can be quite palpable.

Closing the door on mindless prejudice

Obviously the endless indoctrination by our state-sanctioned media has produced some alarming effects so it doesn't surprise me that the few Jews left here in the country have remained relatively discreet for fear of reprisals. But I'm far less convinced. Hate is a strong word - and to arbitrarily hate a community without even knowing anything about them seems preposterous to say the very least.

In fact I've never even set foot in a known synagogue here in the country. Last one we had was the one sole synagogue in Nagore Road, Penang - and even that closed down several decades back due to a lack of quorum.

So you can imagine how intrigued I was to be in Prague, one of the oldest and most well-known cities in Europe with a previously thriving community of Jews. One that gave birth to the infamous artificial man made out of clay called the Golem - reportedly created by a Rabbi Loew in the late 16th century to protect the quarter from anti-Semitic attacks.

So we took a lovely autumn morning to join the tour around the historical Jewish quarter in Prague, otherwise known as Josefov, bringing us around the beautiful art nouveau buildings there now - built after the modernization of the ancient quarter - with the few synagogues left standing. Even without the tour repeatedly drumming it into our heads, it was quite obvious that the Holocaust - and the subsequent relocation of many of the Jewry - had decimated what was left of the quarter.

However not all is lost since I did manage to spy several Jewish boys in kippahs hurrying down the streets with stuffed bookbags in tow.

Obviously it's for good reason that the Jews are known for their sharp business acumen! Souvenir shops abound in that area as well - with far more convivial shopkeepers which made such a lovely change from the usual dour Czechs - which is why I came home with a rabbi marionette, a Jewish themed nesting doll and even a shiny new menorah!

Monday, October 06, 2014

City of Music

One thing quintessentially Prague for us would be getting all dressed up in suits and ties, then racing across the length of a medieval stone bridge under the austere, almost judgemental gaze of marble saints towards the Gothic church in the Old Town for a chamber music concert. As we raced across the cobblestoned streets, no doubt several gawping tourists must have thought that we were headed to play in the concert ourselves!

Dammit why does the church seem so far away!

Nearby Vienna might lay claim to the term City of Music but Prague is surely a strong contender for that distinction as well. Concerts, musical revivals, ballets, plays etc are staged all over the city, a handful in churches barely a stone's throw away from each other. With so many cultural programmes on offer in Prague, how could we possibly not participate? From a chamber music concert to a pipe organ recital and even to a ballet, we did it all.

Even watched a marionette puppet theatre playing Don Giovanni with its shockingly horrific ending!

So shockingly cultured we were!

Though of course I did struggle to remain awake through several renditions of Mozart, Dvorak and Handel. There's only so much classical music I can take in endless repetition before I require some enlivening intoxicants to counter the inevitable soporific effects. Fortunately the evening concerts were invariably held in breathtakingly beautiful churches with soaring vaulted ceilings painted with delicate frescoes. Really hard to nod off amongst the wooden pews with dozens of plaster saints on their pedestals above glaring down in obvious outrage!

Fortunately I had the ballet to perk me up especially with the more lively Tchaikovsky providing the score to the quintessential ballet Swan Lake. For those who didn't know, Charming Calvin is a closeted devotee of the dance - literally watching everything from the flashy Dancing with the Stars reality series to the more classical ballet movements.

The Swan Lake? 

From the boys above, I would infinitely prefer a lap dance instead but that's something else entirely. Much to Charming Calvin's surprise, I managed to stay somewhat awake throughout the entire ballet - even after consuming a delicious supper of cakes and confits in the art nouveau magnificence that is the Municipal House.

Calvin : At least you're not snoring through the show this time!
Paul : I don't snore!
Calvin : That's what you think. 
Paul : Well, this is far more thrilling. Always preferred Tchaikovsky to the rest. 
Calvin : I'm glad! I like ballets. 
Paul : And don't forget the dancers!
Calvin : The dancers?
Paul : Check out Siegfried's ass. Really pert. 

That unwarranted revelation didn't exactly increase his enjoyment of the show. But really. Male ballet dancers. Hot asses. All those jumps and jetés obviously help.

Of course we saw the more traditional hetero-normative version of Swan Lake - but here's Matthew Bourne's more edgy, alternative reworking for comparison. Thankfully we had the more optimistic happy ending otherwise I would have probably thrown a hissy fit worthy of furious flock of sullen swans.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Principles of Prague

"Prague won't let you go, the little mother has claws." 

An ominous phrase Franz Kafka once penned about the uneasy relationship with the city of his birth. Not exactly the glowing review of a city you'd expect from a renowned local - so I did have some initial misgivings when we randomly picked Prague to visit. Practically hidden from view in the impenetrable eastern bloc of Communism all throughout my school life, I knew but little of the Czech Republic - or Czechoslovakia as it was known then! Didn't know very much about the city of Prague either - other than three very peculiar yet oddly salient facts, that the city had given birth to Kafka, Mucha and the Golem.

And though a brief run-through of all the kitschy touristy places would doubtlessly confirm that fact with dozens of souvenirs touting those familiar names, the beautiful city of Prague can lay claim to so much more than that.

A symphony in stone they call it - and how very true that is!

The view out the window

Just the view from my hotel window - right next to the visually stunning Charles Bridge spanning the width of the Vltava River - is enough to reveal a picturesque scene of towering spires and spiralling turrets straight out of a beautiful handpainted storybook, each pastel-coloured building block enhancing the next to form an unforgettable vista of breathtaking beauty. Spared hideous large-scale destruction during World War II unlike other less fortunate European cities, the city's largely medieval core remains thankfully intact. Narrow cobblestoned alleyways tempt the intrepid visitor down the most remarkable examples of architecture ever seen, literally a living textbook of building styles throughout the centuries.

Baroque. Gothic. Art Nouveau. Even up to the avant garde deconstructivist design of the Dancing House by Vlado Milunic and Frank Gehry.

The Golden City of a Hundred Spires indeed! Honestly if I could, I would have carted back half the amazingly intricate doors I'd seen - and let's not forget the framing statues around the doors. Honestly didn't do very much on the first day we arrived apart from oohing and aahing over the beautiful buildings, along with darting in and out of stores.

Funny things is you would expect having such architectural beauty surrounding them all would lead to some ecstatically jolly local merchants dancing maniacally on the cobbled streets - which is unfortunately very, very far from the truth. Couple Germanic reserve with some Slavic dourness and you'd get a bit closer! Perhaps that is what Kafka initially meant about the claws since the storekeepers all seem remarkably glum despite garnering booming business.

Which leads to the most unusual shopping experiences I've had.

Paul : The gemstones are lovely. 
Shopkeeper : Garnets. 
Paul : Could I see more examples? 
Shopkeeper : You can. 
Paul : Are there bigger stones? 
Shopkeeper : There are.
Paul : Maybe teamed with some gold?
Shopkeeper : Yes. 
Paul : Well, are you going to show me? 

Lest you mistake their monosyllabic grumpiness for misinterpretation, most of the locals actually speak English very well, mind you. There's just a curious lack of salesmanship for the lack of a better word.