Monday, August 25, 2008

Leaving on a Jet Plane

I flew home yesterday after spending one last day in Prague. The weather threatened to rain on me, but never actually did, so I got to enjoy my last 24 hours in Eastern Europe.

Also, in case this wasn't clear, Prague is not in Czechoslovakia, because Czechoslovakia no longer exists. What used to be Czechoslovakia is now two countries - The Czech Republic and Slovakia. The capital of the Czech Republic is Prague, and the capital of Slovakia is Bratislava. I didn't make it to Bratislava or Slovakia this summer (unless you count the train I took from Budapest to Prague that passed through Slovakia).

One of thing I noticed on my last day might be considered a “dark side” to Czech drinking culture. When I was leaving Olomouc yesterday to go to Prague (on their new fast train - the Pendolino), I saw three different men on three different occasions purchasing beer before 9 AM. One couldn’t have been older than 18. Then while I was waiting for the airport bus at 6:30 AM this morning I saw the three men in the picture buying beer at the kiosk behind them, probably while they were on their way to work:

But I still think that drinking and drunkenness aren’t as pronounced in the Czech Republic as in, for example, Russia or Poland, since beer isn’t as potent as vodka.

Something else new for me is vending machine beer:

You must swipe an ID to prove that you are at least 18 (the legal drinking age in the Czech Republic) to purchase the beer. My passport didn’t work in the machine, so I guess you have to have a Czech (or European) ID to make the machine happy.

Something that Alicia and I noticed earlier in the summer that differs from the US is the culture surrounding kids and families. In the US, it often seems like having kids requires you to turn your life inside out. At the very least, society seems to expect a certain number and type of changes. In contrast, Czech and other European families seem to go on living pretty much the same as they did before kids. They walk around town and run errands with their small children, go to gatherings with friends, take them on the buses, the trains, etc. and it’s all completely normal. Children’s presence in society is not an annoyance to adults, but instead a normal and perhaps even welcome addition. I think that’s cool. And, Christine, I’m glad you’ve been doing your part to bring this more European family style to the middle of the US.

Here are a few more pictures from my last day. This is the old Jewish cemetery in Josefov (through a small window, since the cemetery was closed):

And some other areas of the Old Town:

Well, this is my last blog. Thanks for reading! And thank you, Prague & Eastern Europe, for having me - it's been an adventure!

Friday, August 22, 2008

89 Days in Eastern Europe

Sunday will be my 89th day in Eastern Europe. Americans are allowed to travel in the EU with their passports (without a visa) for a maximum of 90 days. As you can see, I’m cutting it pretty close.

On one hand, I’m happy to go home, but, on the other hand, I’m also sad to leave Eastern Europe.

Some things I’m looking forward to in the US:

  • Seeing friends and family, of course!! (Well, I’ll see at least some of you!)
  • Oh, Geronimo, how I miss you too! (I hope my cat remembers who I am.)
  • Food & drink in Berkeley: Peet's coffee, Cheeseboard pizza, a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables (that include more than just cucumbers & tomatos!), Alvin’s dinner parties, Peet's coffee (oops, did I mention that already?)
  • Elevators and washing machines that do not frighten me

But I’ll definitely miss some things here in the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe:

  • Languages!! It is, after all, fun to practice the languages you are studying in situ.
  • Being able to travel just a couple of hours by train or bus to a different country that speaks a different language and has different customs, food, etc.
  • Beer. It is cheap & tasty. It is also easy to find drinking buddies.
  • Some food here is pretty good, though usually gluttonously so. The pierogies in Poland are delicious. So is the fried cheese here in the Czech Republic. On the other hand it will be nice to avoid the temptation of these culinary devils.
  • The fact that it is SO easy to meet new people when traveling & studying in the summer. Hostels and summer language school are great places to meet interesting people and make new friends.

I was in Kraków again last weekend. That was, sadly, my last weekend excursion of the summer. Going back gave me a better feel for the city. Now I really understand its appeal as the artsy and intellectual counterpart to the bustling and busy business center of Warsaw.

The only downer of the weekend was when I witnessed some callous tourist intentionally kick a pigeon in the Kraków town square. I know that pigeons can be annoying, but is annoying behavior deserving of abuse? I may have been particularly sensitive that evening, having spent the entire day touring a Nazi death camp, that is, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many people don't realize how close Auschwitz is to Kraków - one and a half hours by train. I guess that seeing cruelty to any living being was just too much for me to handle after that trip.

As a side note, you may have noticed that I decided to rename my blog. This may seem odd to you, since my travels end in less than two days, but I can't help it. I only came up with this name a couple of days ago. In any case, it's likely that "Abstrakkt" will travel again!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Summer language school is like elementary school

I seem to be running out of blog-writing energy. But that’s OK, because the summer is running out of days. I have less than two weeks left in Eastern Europe before heading back to the US.

The problem isn't that I have nothing to write about - I've visited a few new places and seen some interesting things. However, what I’ve been doing is rather specific to this region of the Czech Republic and, furthermore, my activities have started resembling elementary school field trips.

Let me give you a rundown of my schedule last weekend to elucidate this point:


Excursion 1) Left Olomouc early to go to Bouzov Castle (organized by summer school); this castle was completely rebuilt, i.e. fake – not original, thus had a Disneyland feel to it.

Excursion 2) Cheese factory (organized by summer school); the Olomouc region is (relatively) famous for manufacturing a particularly smelly cheese called Olomoucké tvarůžky. Lucky us got to tour the strange cheese museum. The terrible tour didn't even end with a cheese sample (perhaps this was for the best).

Excursion 3) Olomouc Zoo; this last-minute “excursion” with two other summer school students was the best trip of the day. The zoo impressed me – it was more like a zoo + a nature park, which turned out to be the perfect afternoon getaway. Here’s a picture of me failing to charm the goats in the petting zoo area:


Excursion 4) Kroměříž (an historic town in the neighboring county); this small town turned out to be bigger and more interesting than we had anticipated, thus requiring more schlepping around than expected (but was still fun).

After touring the palace, the flower gardens, and town square in Kroměříž, we returned to Olomouc just in time for the soccer game at the stadium right across the street from our dorm.

Excursion 5) Football (=soccer) game: Olomouc vs. Plzeň; The drunk and screaming Olomouc fans were almost more entertaining than the game itself; Olomouc won, which was also exciting.

After the game we went out to dinner.

Then I came home and fell asleep almost immediately.

Now I understand why schools organize these kind of trips for kids: because the kids are exhausted afterward and fall asleep easily, thus making parents happy.

Staying busy all weekend allowed me to avoid the news, which has been reporting some depressing events in this part of the world. On Friday there was a train accident in the Czech Republic, which had seven fatalities. The train crash was on the route from Krakow to Prague – the same route & the same night train that I took in late June when I first came to Prague. And as I'm sure you know, there is now a war between Russia & Georgia, an "accidental" war, according to the Financial Times.

Sorry for that downer. To end less seriously, look back at the picture of the petting zoo goats rejecting me on Saturday. That perks things up, eh?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Viennese coffees and cakes, oh my!

Vienna (Wien to the locals) is certainly a place of culinary pleasure, ecstasy if you will, and I didn't even scratch the surface of its wonders. Vienna is known for a few items in particular: coffee -- "Viennese coffee" features a large dollop of whipped cream immersed in strong coffee; a chocolate cake called Sachertorte; apple or ricotta strudel; and other sweet delights. I also discovered a tasty white wine - Grüner Veltliner, which Wikipedia just told me is also available in the Czech Republic... I'll have to look into this. Of course there's also Wiener schnitzel (Wiener because it's named after Wien), which I didn't get to try in Vienna, but it's no big loss because schnitzel is also popular here in the Czech Republic, just under a different name, smažený řízek (which is harder to pronounce than the German version, as is the case for almost everything in Czech). I also enjoyed the atmosphere of the cafes and konditoreis, or cake shops. The chain Aida is one of my favorites. It has a 50's soda shop feel to it.

Aside from food and drink there is plenty of history and culture to explore in Vienna. I was traveling with two Germans, which helped a bit, since they knew some of the history of the city and of course speak German, so it was like I had my own personal translators! In one and a half days I was able to see a lot of the main attractions. Since Vienna was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was, and still is, well-equipped with gorgeous palaces. In the middle of the city is the Hofburg Palace or winter residence of the monarchy:

A few kilometers outside the city center (about 6 metro stops, or 15 minutes away) is the Schloß Schönbrunn (Schönbrunn Palace) - the summer residence of the Hapsburgs:

However, my favorite part of the city is the more modern Museum Quartier. I only made it to the Modern Art Museum, but the museum cluster & courtyard is a hip place to hang out, whether or not you go inside the museums:

For my unedited collection of pictures, click here. There are a lot of duplicates, unnecessary shots of my feet, boring pictures of statues or insides of domes, etc. but if you have a burning desire to see more of Vienna, it might just be your lucky day. If not, please just skim through them for the interesting stuff. And thank you for not being annoyed. It's easier for me than creating two albums (one for you, one for the people I was traveling with).

Friday, August 1, 2008

The sleepy streets of Olomouc

It's Friday night and the streets of Olomouc are empty. But don't be fooled. The locals are out, but you have to look in the "hospody" or Czech taverns to find them. This is where Czechs gather - sometimes every night - for beer, food, more beer, and sometimes wine. Also, the streets may be emptier than usual because, as I've been told, Olomouc is particularly quiet in the summer. It's a college town and most of the students are gone.

Here's a relatively people-less street.

And here's a row of bars/restaurants where you can actually find some people. I was at the one on the end in front of the yellow building until about 3 am last night (this morning). It's part of my studies - I'm trying to immerse myself in Czech culture!

I could bend the truth a bit and tell you that I've been really busy in summer school - practicing Czech, studying hard, etc. But this program isn't so demanding (especially compared to Russian school at Middlebury), so I've been able to take it easy, for better or for worse. If you are on Facebook, you may have noticed pictures of me at the pool or the pub. These are my regular hangouts after class. But remember that they placed me in one of the advanced Czech classes so I am definitely learning something.

Most of the other students in the program are in Prague for the weekend, but a couple of us are headed to Vienna instead. An American I met in Riga is studying in Vienna for the summer and has graciously offered to let us stay with her, so I just had to pay for the slightly expensive, but relatively short train ride (~$30 and 3 hours from Olomouc, one way). You will probably be as surprised as I was a few weeks ago to discover that Vienna is actually further east than Prague, and so it is actually closer to Moravia (eastern Czech Republic, where Olomouc is located), than it is to Prague & Bohemia. Here's a map to prove it:

I'm eager to report back about the coffee, schnitzel and strudel in Vienna... OH, and about the culture and history and all that too!