Sunday, July 27, 2008

Strč prst skrz krk

"Strč prst skrz krk" is a real sentence in Czech. Wikipedia (yes - it has its own Wikipedia entry, but then doesn't everything nowadays?) translates it as "stick your finger through your neck." It's probably the most famous Czech tongue twister because, as you may have noticed, it doesn't contain a single vowel. Yeah, Czech is a rather hard language to learn. In addition to its lack of preoccupation with vowels, it has some other sounds that are rather difficult to pronounce, like the ř, which requires you to pronounce a rolled "r" and a "zh" at the same time ("zh" sounds like the "g" in mirage).

As far as Czech culture is concerned, I've found Moravians to be extremely nice and I have multiple examples to prove it. For example, I went to the grocery store after class last week, forgetting that I only had about 50 crowns on me (a little over $3). My total came to 88 crowns and as I reached in my wallet I realized that I did not have enough to cover my purchase. I confessed to the cashier that I did not have enough money and was ready to just turn around and run out of the shop, but without even blinking she asked me what I really wanted and proceeded to help me sort through my items: granola, a pear, a banana, bread, and a cucumber to determine what exactly I could afford with what turned out to be 59 crowns. Afterward I apologized profusely to the woman who had been waiting behind me, and she responded with something along the lines of "there's nothing to apologize for." What could have been quite embarrassing actually turned out to be quite a pleasant experience.

My next nice Moravian story occurred as I was headed back to Brno this weekend for a concert in the launderette (yes, you read this correctly and I will say more about it below). From the dorm I had to take a local bus & a trolleybus to get to the intercity bus station. On the bus I was studying the town map because I was having a little trouble figuring out where to transfer to the trolleybus. An older woman on the bus saw me poring over my map and asked if I needed help. I asked her how to get to the train station, and she told me to come with her and she would show me the right trolleybus to transfer to. As she showed me the stop, I realized that I had told her train station when I really needed the bus station so I corrected myself and she led me - cane and all - to the other side of the street where I needed to be. She even translated the tram number into German for me (despite the fact that I don't speak German, though I did catch sieben). As she was walking away she stopped, turned around, walked back toward me, pulled two small apples out of her bag and gave them to me for my trip.

Now it gets embarrassing. Shortly after arriving in Brno I had to use a payphone to call the friends I was staying with, at which time I realized that I did not have my wallet! I wasn't even worried about losing money so much as my passport, not to mention credit cards, ATM card, etc. I was frantic because I really didn't know where I had left/lost it - on the bus from Olomouc? At McDonalds? (I used the McDonalds bathroom after arriving.) Since the bus was long gone, my best bet at that point was to check McDonalds. I raced back over there and as I was about to ask the girl working at the cash register if a missing wallet had turned up, a young Czech man walked up to me and asked me if I had lost my passport (in English). I thank my lucky stars that he and his friend had found my wallet and that they waited in McDonalds to return it to me. Everything was still in it as I had left it. The crazy part is that I didn't even buy anything at McDonalds (I try to never buy anything there; I only use the bathroom), but had just briefly sat at a table to dig something out of my bag and in the process had left my wallet on a table. Yes mom, I guess I do live a charmed life.

Since we're on the topic of embarrassing things I did last week, I might as well add something unrelated to nice Moravians or Czech culture. As I was shifting furniture around in my dorm room in Olomouc, I accidentally ripped the plug to my computer out of the wall and one of the prongs remained stuck in the socket. I was very annoyed and decided to try to dislodge it so that I could try to put it back together somehow. So without thinking I grabbed metal tweezers and attempted to dislodge the prong. You can imagine what happened next. Yes, it's true - I electrocuted myself. A sharp current ran through my right arm and then I yelled and dropped the tweezers and it was over. Maybe I fried my brain a little and that's why I almost lost my passport in Brno.

I'm beginning to think that maybe you guys shouldn't be letting me travel alone. Or maybe I've just been traveling for too long and now I am getting sloppy.

Last but not least, the concert in the launderette. Well, that's all there really is to say. The expats who own a laundry have a band with some local gypsy children (I'm completely serious) and they had a small concert at their shop today. They played well and it was very entertaining. But then, my expectations were pretty low since it was a concert in a laundromat.

Who knew a Dutch guy could sing "Billie Jean" so well. (They had some of their own songs too.)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Cities in the Czech Republic that aren’t Prague

I have now been to three non-Prague cities in the Czech Republic: Plzeň, Brno, and Olomouc. You may remember that the main reason I've been traveling this summer is the month and a half of “free time” I had between the conference I attended in Tartu, Estonia (at the end of May) and summer school, which I just started this week in the town Olomouc in the Czech Republic.

Here’s a map of the Czech Republic again. Plzeň is southwest of Prague. Brno & Olomouc are much further east – in Moravia. Brno is the second biggest city in the Czech Republic after Prague, and Olomouc is well known for having a historical and prestigious university (where I have summer school!).

Before coming to Olomouc, I spent a few days in Brno. It’s a fun town. I met some locals… well sort of locals. Actually I met a few expats from western Europe, an American student, and a handful of Czechs. The expats own a launderette in Brno and after I washed my clothes, they showed me some Brno night life. It was a good time… until the next day when I was quite hung over. But Brno is pretty and if I hadn’t been so hung over I’m sure I could have seen all the main sights in a day.

I stopped drinking for a day or two when I came to Olomouc last Sunday for Czech summer school at Palacky University. Even though I don’t know Czech very well (yet!) they placed me in an advanced class (Russian helps me do well on Czech grammar tests… Russian unfortunately doesn’t help me much with speaking Czech!).

This is the sign for the main square in Olomouc. It means something like 'upper square' & not what you might be thinking!

I quite like visiting smaller Czech cities after my time in Prague. Though Prague is fun to explore, the summer tourists were really starting to get on my nerves. Here in Olomouc I have a purpose again (as a student and not just a traveler) and am finally seeing more of Czech - not tourist - culture and life.

I’m slowly easing into summer school mode. We have about four hours of morning classes, but (thankfully!) not too much homework. There are a lot of cultural lectures after classes on topics such as Czech history, film, literature, etc. I haven’t fully explored the city yet because of summer school, so I don’t have too many pictures yet. But you can catch a glimpse of me in the following clip from the Czech Tuesday night news. They came to our class and interviewed a couple of us – one American (not me - I managed to avoid being interviewed), a Norwegian girl and a Bulgarian girl. In the clip you can also see my teacher (the man with glasses) and I'm sitting behind him on the left side of the screen. I’m in a few other shots too - look for the brown short-sleeved shirt.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Czechs say beer is food, and I do too!

For Alicia’s blog, please scroll down to the next entry - thanks!

I have so much and so little to say at the same time. I took it easy the last week I spent in Prague (+ one overnight visit to Plzeň, the birthplace of Pilsener – thank you Plzeň!). However, I’ve collected some interesting stories about strange hostel people and had some adventures related to the everyday (though still exciting to me) world of food & drink in the Czech Republic.

Regarding hostel residents, I’ll just say that whether is a reliable source or not, I’m 120% ready to believe what it says about Brits in Prague. That is, “more than half of all fights reported to Prague police in 2005 involved people from the UK!" I got about 3 hours of sleep the night before last thanks to a "gang" of them staying in my hostel room. Oh well, Czech beer cures all ails (didn’t you know?). The British are also notorious for having their stag or bachelor parties in Prague. I witnessed one where a group of guys were dressed as a male police officers, except for the groom-to-be who was dressed as female police officer. Here’s a picture of a pub, but not with the fake British police guys, just some regular Czechs.

The same night that I saw the stag party (last Saturday), I unfortunately also saw what happens when you’re caught without a valid metro ticket. You see, the system in Prague (as well as in Berlin & Budapest) is sort of an honor system, because you have to validate your ticket in a little yellow box when entering the metro (or tram or bus), but there is no machine or person actually controlling who enters the metro. I often bought a 24-hour ticket, which I would validate once to "activate" it, but then I usually wouldn’t even take it out again during the next 24 hours of metro travel. A couple of people from the hostel apparently did not understand the validation system and thought that just buying the ticket was enough to make them legitimate metro passengers (it is not). Occasionally metro police stop people at exits to check their tickets, and this happened to us on Saturday night. Two of them had tickets, but had not validated them, which as it states on the ticket (in Czech & English) is basically the same as not having a ticket. Anyway, they were fined 700 crowns each (~$47). This sucked to see, obviously, but at least it was not as scary as being stopped by the Militia in Moscow.

The rest of my week was spent eating, drinking, some sleeping, and also taking Czech language lessons for an hour a day (see! I wasn’t completely unproductive!). I’ve gotten so serious about Czech beer that I even made a special trip to Plzeň (again, the birthplace of Pilsener beer), to go to the Pilsener Urquell brewery. Well, I also went there to get out of Prague for a bit, but in the end it was really just a beer excursion. I can’t remember much since they kept feeding me beer all day, so please wait until I upload the pictures for more details.

I also went on a strudel excursion in Prague, which was no less of an adventure than my trip to Plzeň. You see, a couple of months ago I downloaded a Travel Channel show about Prague on iTunes (I don’t recommend the show, the host is irritating), but it did lead me to an amazing strudel place in a practically untouristed part of the city. The attraction is not just the deliciousness of the strudel, but also the sheer size of it. See below – it was as big as my forearm! Mmm… warm apple strudel. That’s a legitimate activity & meal for a day, yes?

Here’s the strudel stand – practically hidden in a residential neighborhood:

And here’s the strudel, pre-consumption:

Here it is again after the first bite:

And here’s what was left of the strudel after my first attempt at eating it (pretty impressive, eh?):

Now I’m in Brno (check the map). It’s in Moravia – the eastern half of the Czech Republic. Prague is in Bohemia, the western half. And yes, this is the same Bohemia that gave birth to the English word bohemian. OED says "ORIGIN: mid 19th cent.: from French bohémien ‘gypsy’ (because gypsies were thought to come from Bohemia, or because they perhaps entered the West through Bohemia)." Plzeň is also in Bohemia.

On Sunday I start summer school in Olomouc, which is in Moravia, not Bohemia. More on Moravia later.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Eastern Europe: the real story
Guest blog by Alicia

Bad news: my feet hurt days one through 14. At times the pain made me nauseous and once I felt the lights going out on me. The low point was when I cried in a Budapest metro station. Julia said it best, what I really needed was the air sandal.

Good news: Julia and I are dreamy travel partners. We made very good use of the term “party machen!” [NB: machen is German for 'to make', we were basically bastardizing German for our own amusement! - JM.] without annoying each other and at the same time we’d find ourselves singing “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie…” in front of a romantic view. We were always hungry and tired together.

We also struggled with languages together (Julia mostly with English). The standout mistake was when I ordered “one father, please” (ein Vater, bitte) at a German pretzel stand instead of water (Wasser).

Prague: is smaller than any European city I know. It has an older population and a quiet, conservative culture. Most importantly, their language is absurd. Just crazy. Vowels are apparently very expensive. I’m certain this is a Czech word: Pnlzrdemtcs. You can make your own word, too. Try it. But, Prague is beautiful! There aren’t many places in the States where you’ll find yourselves sitting in a Shakespearean courtyard in the summertime, talking as late into the night as you like, without mosquitoes. Or watching the European football finals alone in a private room of a Greek restaurant being served like V.I.P.!

Highlight: On our way back to Prague, on a train from Budapest, we met real life Praguer, Tomas(h). He took us for a walking tour around Old Town Square, after which we went to a restaurant with his friends. While Julia got to know Tomas(h) better, I had the pleasure of talking with his pal Pawel. Pawel is from an eastern Czech village with a population of 1,200. No, I didn’t leave out any zeros. He is so proud of the fact that he has a Civil Engineering degree, is a “Senior” “Project” “Manager” at his firm and has to wear a suit. He plans to work in Prague until he is 40 or 50 years-old and then return to his village retired with more money than God. He was so sweet and it was so refreshing to meet someone as easily pleased with the world as he is. I miss Pawel.

Berlin: Julia and I arrived by train to Berlin late on a Friday night and were like giddy little school girls once we realized we could drink beer everywhere! The town was festive because Germany had made it to the football championship and everyone was drinking beers in the U-Bahn, in the streets. It felt really good.

We saw Fidelio (Beethoven’s only opera) at the Staatsoper which, apparently, is very difficult to perform. Julia and I were duly impressed. The opera culture in Berlin is different from that of the States. For one, the orchestra pit was hoppin’! It looked like a jam band was down there because the musicians were so physical. The crowd was much more casual and comfortable, yet very interested. There were furrowed brows, excited whispers and people slouching as far forward in their seats as possible.

Julia and me, proof that I really was really there (our reflection in the column at the Reichstag or German Legislature):

Highlight: Waiting at a bus stop at 2AM, beers in hand, on our way to a club, I saw a lone man with a fanny pack stomping toward us. He was picking things up off the street and throwing them back down. He then went over to a fence, grabbed it with both hands and very angrily shook it with his entire body! (Coincidentally, this is exactly how Jane Goodall describes alpha male chimpanzees’ behavior when showing their strength and power: dragging logs, shaking trees, throwing rocks…). As he came closer he yelled something in German at us, when that didn’t work he tried Russian: Pivo! This means beer and is the lone Slavic word Julia taught me that I remember. I shook my bottle upside down letting him know I was empty. But Julia kept sipping on what was left of hers. A foot away from Julia, fanny pack and all, fresh from fence-shaking, he says to her “Pivo?!” I couldn’t believe my ears when she said nein to this guy. To this alpha male she would not give her backwash beer! I was nervous because it was late and not many cars or people were passing by, so I put the neck of my empty beer bottle in my sweaty, shaky palm so I could use it club-like on his face if I had to. Instead, his posture crumbled and he said in a whiny voice, like he was starving: Pivvoooo? She looked him straight in the eye and said nein again, then took another drink. Defeated, he looked at the bus map and asked if we knew how to get to where he was going. He then skipped over to the other side of the street to catch his bus while Julia finished her beer. Oh, how I miss Julia.

I could go on about Berlin, but to keep it short I’ll say this: it’s amazing, and you never feel far from the wall or forget for a second where you are. It’s a liberal, safe, friendly place and I had a few discussions with myself about the possibility of living there some day.

Budapest: is a beautiful, beautiful city. The Hungarian people have done a fine, fine job of maintaining and organizing their history. This is quite a feat considering it’s a less than peaceful history. Yet, Budapest has some of the most amazing, well-maintained museums I’ve ever seen. Helping already good matters, our hostel was as centrally located as a hostel can get (thanks, Andrea!).

The Plague Column outside of Matthias church:

Highlight: Julia and I went to two different baths. The first being the outdoor Szechenyi Baths which are surrounded by the most beautiful buildings. One of the pools had foot-massage jets, body-massage bubble jets, AND a circular track thing with a current inside that pulls you round and round. Getting in and out of the circular current was difficult and, therefore, funny. I felt like I was seven years-old.

We also went to the indoor Gellert Baths. For 20 USD, you get access to a women’s side: two thermal pools, a eucalyptus infused steam room and an ice bath which you can’t be in for more than 10 seconds or you’ll die. The unisex (?) section had a beautiful sparkling pool with bubble jets and lion head statues along the edge spouting water so that you could sit underneath for a fabulous shoulder massage. Our skin never looked better; we were literally glowing walking out of the baths.

In conclusion, there really is nothing like leaving your own continent for two weeks to really bounce you back. I’m hoping Julia and I can do it again, and this time, in much less than seven years. Click here for my personal gallery. [NB: towards the end there are pictures with actual people ;) - JM.]

Party Machen!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Different views of Prague

Prague is replete with beautiful views of… Prague. The city is surrounded by hills (mountains) and from both above & below there are gorgueous views of Prague’s center, the Vltava river, Prague Castle, etc. etc. Here's the Old Town Square & Týn Church from the top of the Old Town Hall:

One of these views is from my current (and second) Prague residence, a dormitory on Petřin hill. Though the views from Petřin, the funicular ride to get here, and the rose gardens nearby are all great, the dorm itself is a bit depressing. What’s getting me down isn’t so much the dorm’s bare minumum Soviet style or the lack of a social area to meet people (aided by my minimal Czech language skills to meet people), as it is the lack of wireless internet. Like I said, the view & funicular ride are great, but all this makes it a pain to get to other parts of town (read: cafes with free WiFi).

The dorms are near the Eiffel tower-like structure sticking out from the top of the hill (Petřin tower):

And my dorm is the last in this row of depressing buildings:

Anyway, I’m moving to a new location tomorrow, at which point I’ll have resided in three neighborhoods of Prague.

My first hostel - Hostel u Melounu (Hostel at the Melon), where Alicia and I stayed before, was a cute little place with a courtyard (which was perfect, except for 50% of the time when it was raining). But I couldn’t get a reservation there after Alicia left and so moved up to Petřin hill on the recommendation of a Czech guy we met on the train back from Budapest. This place is super cheap and I have a private room, but, well… I already told you about its disadvantages.

We went out with the Czech guy from the train (Tomáš) and his friends the night before Alicia left, which was interesting (as it is always interesting to meet locals). We learned that Czechs have a quiet culture and don't really appreciate loud tourists who come to Prague without much knowledge of its history, language etc. I haven't heard from Tomáš since we went out that night, so perhaps we overwhelmed him with our loud, post-beer drinking, American tourist nature. It's like the Budapest shrug, I may never know.

Despite my perhaps bland presentation, Prague really is a nice place to visit. The beer is free flowing (Czechs reportedly drink the most beer per capita in the world), and Moravian wine is free-flowing too. The people are in general friendly (and not just the tourists, who seem to make up 1 in 3 of its July population). Perhaps why I’m having a bit of trouble putting together sparkling prose about the city is because there has been dreary weather for a few days (though today was nice), and I’ve also lost my traveling partner, Alicia, so I’m getting used to backpacking/traveling alone again.

More pictures of me and Alicia and our travels should be coming soon (at least they have been promised!) For now check out my Prague gallery. Also stay tuned as I attempt to get pictures of certain "actor" types requested by blog readers. However, I must point out that getting pictures of random men on the street is a lot easier to demand than to deliver. I don't think it's so easy to get a good picture of a person without him knowing. Yesterday I tried to take a picture of a group of what I thought were Czechs, which led to 1) them seeing me trying to take the picture and 2) me discovering they were not in fact Czech, but rather British. In other words, be patient!

Oh, and last, but not least - here is a map of the Czech Republic for reference:

Saturday, July 5, 2008

My guidebook hates me, but Budapest is GREAT!

There were minor battles with my Let’s Go Eastern Europe guidebook earlier in the summer. For example, it told me that my hostel in Vilnius was located in the center of town, only to find out that the hostel was actually located very close to the bus station where I had arrived (this, of course, was after lugging my suitcase & backpack through Vilnius’ winding cobblestone streets). But in Budapest, war has broken out with the guidebook. The Budapest section must have been written by someone who was high, or drunk, or both. It lists restaurants at grossly incorrect addresses, has the tourist information centers marked on streets that I have confirmed are not home to anything tourist-friendly, and other annoying inaccuracies.

Crappy tourist book aside, we are really enjoying Budapest. Our hostel is cute and fun and centrally located. We have indulged in the extravagant Széchenyi public baths (even prettier on the inside!):

…taken the funicular to the castle district on the Buda side of the city (Buda & Pest used to be separate towns on either side of the Danube but they merged to form one city):

…eaten some tasty Hungarian food (highlights for me were cold sour cherry soup, garlicky potatoes, and crepes; Alicia liked the goulash), and more. There’s also plenty of architecture to admire here. One of my favorite buildings houses the Hungarian Parliament:

Any linguistic knowledge that may have aided me in other countries is useless here in Budapest. Hungarian is a difficult language, unrelated to most other languages in Europe, and though the people are in general nice, there are some interesting behaviors that we've found difficult to interpret. For example, on more than one occasion we've asked questions and gotten a weird, disinterested shrug as a response. E.g. at the liquor store: “Do you have any cold wine?” // Response: weird shrug. Or at the metro station: “Do I need to purchase another metro ticket or is this one valid for a transfer?” // Response: weird shrug. If only I spoke some Hungarian I could perhaps uncover the mystery of the shrug.

On a more serious note, today there is a gay pride parade in town, which has apparently been crashed (vandalized?) by gay-bashers. I heard this from other hostel guests, but suspected as much when I saw a long line of police cars with sirens zooming past an hour or so ago. I may try to see what is going on from afar, but I’m a bit wary since Budapest isn’t known to be a gay-friendly city like Berlin (for example), and I don’t want to get caught in the middle of any hate crimes.

Lastly, I discovered that Barack is potable in Budapest. For fans, here’s proof:

This is no gimmick! It's really a local liquor! Barack means peach in Hungarian.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

From Prague to Berlin

Upon arriving in Berlin it’s clear that we’re no longer in Eastern Europe. Despite the fact that Berlin is practically due north of Prague and thus not any further west, and despite the additional fact that a large part of Berlin and all of its surrounding area was formerly Eastern Germany, it’s still clear to me that we’re now in the West.

That’s not to say that Berlin isn’t an interesting and unique place, which it is. Pieces of the former wall decorate the city center, which seems to complement, rather than contrast with shiny modern buildings that have sprung up since 1989.

This is also the first city that I’ve been to, in which I really feel that its history has played a part in my own. The fall of the Berlin wall and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union were probably the first major global events that I remember living through. It’s somehow both eerie and satisfying to be in such a place.

Since Alicia and I have been in Berlin we’ve been doing some fun things besides visiting museums and Berlin wall monuments. We arrived around midnight on Friday after a gorgeous train ride along the Elbe from Prague to Germany; who knew Bohemia - the western part of the Czech Republic – and the Dresden area of Germany were so beautiful!? We went to the opera – Beethoven’s Fidelio - the next night for a taste of Berlin high culture...

...and last night we watched the European championship football (=soccer) game for some non-high culture. Germany played Spain in the final game and, unfortunately, Germany lost 0-1, but it was still interesting to see the fans and the city during such a big game. (Like the World Cup, the European Championship is played only every four years.)

Our Berlin luck ran out when we tried to go out to a club after the game, which turned out to be closed, but because it was so hidden kept us wandering and guessing before we were fully cognizant of the fact that it was, in fact, closed. Today I’m recovering from a night of beer-drinking, football-watching, and club-wandering adventures.

But we’ve really had more good luck than bad. We are lucky enough to not have to stay in a hostel since a friend from Berkeley (Alvin’s boyfriend Ryan) is studying here in Berlin at the Goethe Institute, and so we’ve had a nice, centrally located apartment to crash in. This is especially helpful, since the dollar is currently VERY weak against the Euro.

Also, I’m not ignoring Prague, but rather feel that I can’t do it blog justice yet. But don’t worry, I’m returning there and will try to render it to you in all its glory soon! For now, here’s some pics of Berlin.