Monday, May 31, 2010

Quiet day.

Nothing too exciting on the home front today, world. Sleeping in, cleaning, laundry (operating a Czech washing machine is no small feat), consuming our milk before it expired. It was a lazy start to a nice day. I had photography from 4-8, and I left around 2:30 with my roommates for a late lunch. We found a little restaurant near school, and I- yep, you guessed it- enjoyed it immensely. Spinach soup and jacket potatoes (for some reason, they chose to use the British phrase for baked potatoes- although they were really just little potatoes, halved) with red onions and sheep cheese. The waiter originally gave us our menu in Czech, which I'm sure we would have managed, but when he realized we were speaking English, he brought us one we could understand. That was just fine by me! The service was very good, and I feel like it's a place we can definitely come back to. Class was pleasant enough. He critiqued our first assignment, and it was really interesting to hear his perspective. He liked all of my photographs (hooray!), and I was glad to find out that even my least favorite photo wasn't bad. We had to have four photos: two focused on depth of field, and two focused on motion, with an overall theme of first impressions of Prague. The ones I chose were the graffiti shot from May 26th, the guy in the band jumping and the people walking through Old Town Square from May 25th, and another picture that didn't end up on my blog... I'll pop that up here at the end. My least favorite was the one of people walking. I can't explain it, but I feel like it just lacked a certain spark. It had movement, to be sure, but what it was missing was feeling, perhaps. My teacher agreed, saying he didn't dislike it, but that I was far better than that, which made me smile. Class dragged on for awhile after that. It was interesting, but I would rather learn about technique in conjunction with seeing the effects produced. We see all of these incredible photographs- abstract art, and images that just draw you in- but when it comes to replicating those styles, we're on our own. I don't mind this too much, because I enjoy experimentation, but at the same time, a few hints would be nice. Oh well. One of these days, I'm going to go off on my own and have a little photography adventure. I need a creative outlet. I have to say, though, I think this week's project will be good for that. It's an interesting concept: we take one object (an egg, for example) and present it four different ways. He outlined them, but honestly, I'm in no mental state to convey that sort of thing right now. I'll explain later.
I've been thinking a lot lately, about church and friends and being away from home and things like that. I have a lot to say, but I sort of feel like my brain is mush right now. Must be the conglomeration of German and Czech floating around in my head (proof that I really am crazy, if anyone still needed it)... oh, and the giant knot that has blossomed in my back might be playing a role too. I don't want to ramble incoherently, because I feel like I might actually have something valuable to say, and that might get lost in translation. Maybe tomorrow!
Czech word of the day: rhododendrons go by the same name here too! Also, I saw another group of foreign exchange students very excitedly discussing ananas in the grocery store, and it made me smile. I'm glad other people enjoy that word just as much as I do!
My depth of field shot for my photography assignment
Spinach soup for lunch, yum! It was so pretty that I just had to take a picture.

The church on top of the hill in Mikulov

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A missed opportunity.

A statue in the main square of Mikulov

With reference to today's title: A missed opportunity to attempt to illegally immigrate to Slovakia and/or Austria, that is. It probably wouldn't have been the greatest decision, given the fact that we are (legally) going there in a few weeks, but still- it would've been cool to say we did! And it probably wouldn't have been that difficult, given the fact that we were less than 10 km from both borders during the field trip to Moravia. Even without sneaking into foreign lands though, it was an incredible trip, and I am so glad that I decided to go! Originally, I wasn't going to, but it turned out to be an awesome choice. First on our stop after leaving Prague: Moravsky Krumlov, and the Alfons Mucha museum there. He is more or less the father of the Art Nouveau movement, and while there is a museum dedicated to him in Prague, Moravsky Krumlov is home to his Slav Epic: a series of twenty enormous paintings that chronicle the history of the Slavic people (click here to see the entire series and read more). His works were positively incredible- the detail was astounding, as were the facial expressions: you could feel the emotions emanating from the paintings. It almost seemed as if you could step into them. Below is the group of us who went on the trip together: one professor, Geiger (who is sort of like a TA, except he doesn't teach any specific courses- but he knows the history, speaks Czech, and has plenty of connections- definitely somebody good to have around!), and six students. We managed to get a picture with a painting because Geiger is good friends with one of the girls who runs the museum!After we finished our tour there, we headed to Mikulov, a small town near the Austrian border, for lunch and a short break. Very helpfully, the restaurant we went to offered the menu in two languages: Czech and German. German is on my list of languages to conquer in the near future (but the again, I need to get this Czech business down, refresh my Spanish, and pick up some Russian and French too.. so we'll see about that). After lunch (I had garlic soup and fried cauliflower), I climbed the town's hill with the girls. It was no Tor, but it was still fairly imposing and afforded a beautiful view of Mikulov and the surrounding valley. Best part? Making it down the hill and rewarding ourselves with ice cream. For just 10 koruna- fifty cents- you can get a cone that is just the right size. I opted for the apricot flavor-meruňka- and it was glorious. I feel like every day, my vocabularly grows a little more- I can also say chocolate, vanilla, tea, and salsa curry (but that's another story...).
Before long, we were back in the van and on our way to Strážnice and Bzenec. Originally, we planned on touring an outdoor museum of sorts in Strážnice, but it was closed by the time we got there. We decided to return in the morning, and just headed on to Bzenec. After dropping our belongings off at our hotel (which turned out to be beautiful- an incredible surprise given the fact that we thought we would be staying either in a hostel or a wine cellar), we picked up the wineman and toured his vineyards. The sun was sinking low over the Carpathians as we walked through the narrow paths, learning about the grapes and how they were processed. It was fascinating to hear about, but even better was being able to see the owner's pride in his work. You could just tell that he was passionate about his wine, and- despite his stoicism- was pleased to share. After seeing the fields, he walked us to his wine "cellar," which was actually an airy second story room in his house. The group tasted twelve different wines- and by tasted, I mean that by the end of the night, all bottles were empty- and to eat, we had sausage, followed by salami (which, for the record, there seems to be no standard for here- you never know what exactly you are going to get), cheese, grapes, and bread. We didn't get back to our hotel until nearly two am- and we started eating at eight or so! It was a lot of fun, although I felt a little bad because I can't drink, and that makes things awkward sometimes. First, because in this culture, it can be rude not to drink, and I never want to offend my host, but secondly, since alcohol flows so freely here, being the one who doesn't drink is very visible. People are always noticing and asking, and it can be a weird situation to explain. People are curious, but summing up the details of my life succinctly is no small feat. Sometimes, I feel like it would be easier to just wear a sign that says "Brain Damaged: Doesn't Drink" in a herd of languages. Oh well. I am who I am.
We dragged ourselves out of bed in the morning and grabbed breakfast from a local grocery. We spent an hour or so taking a tour of the museum in Strážnice- which was a collection of homes, some original and some reconstructed, from the 17th century on. It was really cool! Afterwards, we took an hour long canal ride, which was a very relaxing way to spend some time. Then, we began our return trip to Prague. It took about four hours, and let me tell you- the roads to Prague are not the least bit smooth. Just when you start to doze off, you find yourself jolted awake. Thank goodness for my iPod! I was able to spend those hours rockin' out to some excellent music (you would expect nothing less than excellent, I know). We had a quick stop for lunch at McDonald's... So not a fan, even if it is a little better here. They are crazy here though! No real organizational system at all... Mostly, it's just a bunch of people pushing to the front. Kind of overwhelming. I haven't had McDonald's in years, and for good reason. When you have to eat though, you have to eat. I did have a chocolate shake though... For me, that is the one item that serves as both celebratory and conciliatory, depending on the situation. It's not often that I want one (probably a good thing...) but when I have one, it just feels like everything's good. And it is! I'm in the Czech Republic, and I've survived my first week! Of course, I inadvertently picked the wrong sauce for my chicken nuggets, but hey, these things happen. And, incidentally, kari/salsa curry doesn't actually taste as strange as it sounds. I kind of liked it. Go figure.
We made good time back to Prague, and I've spent the afternoon relaxing, and then split a pizza with Jeri, one of the girls upstairs, for dinner. Not sure what exactly is on the agenda for tomorrow. Museums are free the first Monday of each month, so we might head to the National Museum. We'll see. Photography class is tomorrow afternoon.
Oh, and more good news! I've booked a bus trip and a hostel with some friends for this weekend- I'm going to Berlin! It's a night bus, which should be great, and it's far cheaper than train or plane! It's a bit slower, but that's not really a big deal at all, since we're traveling overnight anyway. I'm incredibly excited! I don't speak any German! Well- I can count, and say hello, and I know a nursery rhyme. Maybe a few other phrases. So let me amend that: I don't speak any practical German. But I hardly speak any practical Czech, so no big deal. I'm sure it'll work out just fine. Doesn't it always?
Overlooking Mikulov
The girls on top of the hill, in front of the church. Gotta love the self-timer! The hike wasn't too bad- but it would be a little far to climb to church regularly!
The wineman in all his glory (slash stealth photography at its finest)
Overlooking even more of the vineyard- it was enormous!
The little village... did you know that the thatched roofs lasted an average of twenty years?
I just found this picture too amusing not to share... The irony of it just made me smile- a kayak, a swing set, and a very old boat sitting on the grass. The "yacht club" was, for the record, on the other side of the path.
A shot from our canal boat ride

Friday, May 28, 2010

Something about the weather just seemed fitting.

Birds flying over one of Mělník's rivers- you can see the elaborate lock over towards the bottom left. Mělník is one of the biggest river ports in the Czech Republic.

Once again, I found myself soaked in history. Nearly suffocated by it at some points, if I may be entirely honest. Today, our group took a field trip to Terezín, also known as Theresienstadt, and Mělník. What caught my eye first was the fact that the Czech countryside looks breathtakingly similar to the English countryside- right down to the surprise of a castle edging out of the horizon and those violently yellow grapeseed fields. There were far fewer farm animals, and most buildings had red roofs, but the similarity was quite striking. We drove for nearly an hour until we reached Terezín. Originally built as a military fortess in 1780, it had no purpose by the time of its completion. From then on, it was used to house prisoners. During World War II, the town was transformed into a Jewish ghetto, while the fortress itself was where various others were kept- mostly political prisoners, with a few prisoners of war and some Jews who caused trouble elsewhere. Terezín was the town shown off by the Nazis as a model city. Art, theater, music, writing, and other cultural events were permitted and showcased. However, much of the city was an illusion. The contrast between reality and the vision of reality presented to outsiders was stark. Much of this is visible in the art presented in one of the museums we toured. Artists were generally under orders to create propaganda for the Nazis, though quite frequently they created their own works as well. Most were charged with creating "propaganda of horror" and were quickly sent to other camps, where nearly all died. Their art, however, lives on, perpetuating the truth of life in Terezín. Few works used colors; those that did employed only muted shades. Many figures lacked faces. They were simply anonymous Jews- simultaneously everyone in the city and nobody at all. In several works, the living's heads were already skulls. Death was a common motif, as was general horror. The works were not shy about pointing out the differences between what they were told to see and what was actually before their eyes.
After walking around town, we headed to the fortress itself. Though this was no extermination camp, thousands died while imprisoned in Terezín. I soon found myself marveling not at how many died- those numbers are simply incomprehensible, with at least 33,000 dead and 88,000 deported to Auschwitz and other camps- but at the few who somehow managed to survive. They were crammed in tiny cells with far too many people. Food was meager, excrement was everywhere, and disease spread like wildfire. How anyone lived through the Terezín is beyond me. Appalling, atrocious, horrific- these words don't even begin to describe the conditions. The tour was fascinating and incredibly interesting, and set against the pristine Czech landscape, it was almost difficult to believe. I could understand why Red Cross workers thought that everything might very well be okay- between the landscape and the thorough illusions that the Nazis created (right down to building large, spacious bathrooms that were never even used), it makes sense. But then, you remember that someone died where you are standing. Another step, another body. It was overwhelming.
As we left Terezín, clouds gathered and it began to rain- gently at first, and then it increased in intensity. By the time we arrived in Mělník (pronounced myel-neek, FYI), it had stopped, and we were set free for lunch. I opted for fish and chips... Hey, I was craving a bit of England. Regrettably, fish and chips here consists of fish sticks and actual chips- not fries, like I expected. Nevertheless, it was quite good (delicious, even!). The chips were freshly made, and the fish was tasty too... or maybe I was just ravenous because it was 3:30 in the afternoon. Hmm... either way, I was happy, so it all works out. During lunch, Mělník was shaken to its foundation with an incredible thunderstorm, but fortunately, the rain eased just as we finished our meal. After that, it was off to a local winery for wine-tasting! Not something I can do, but it was still really cool to see the machinery that they use to create the wine. It was a neat experience. Before we knew it, we were back in Prague.
Tomorrow, I leave at 7:30 for a trip to Moravia. I'll be venturing to the southeastern tip of the Czech Republic. Don't worry though, I'll be back Sunday- with a plethora of pictures, I'm sure!

Paintings on the ceiling of the secret synagogue we visited- so well hidden that it wasn't rediscovered until the 1990's.
What remains of the railroad tracks that were such a central part of life in Terezín- bringing people in, and sending them away.
Barbed wire along the wall of a building in Terezín
The graveyard that you see as you approach the camp itself (the part considered to be the Small Fortress). Both a cross and a Star of David are present because the camp housed a variety of prisoners.
"Arbeit macht frei"- work makes you free, found above the gateway to most concentration camps.
Bunks in the camp that housed far too many people... this room nearly felt spacious and airy, until you envisioned it with six hundred people and several centimeters of waste on the floor.
One of the sinks
The solitary cells were tiny and pitch black. The window open here was usually shut, leaving the prisoner in utter darkness.
This bathroom at the camp was constructed purely for show. It was large, clean, spacious, and never used.
The tunnel system inside the fortress walls was incredible. We only walked down the main passageway- it would be far too easy to get lost in there and never come out!
A memorial statue in behind the walls of what is considered to be the Small Fortress (the part that was actually the camp). The entire city comprises the fortress as a whole.
A griffin (here considered to be an eagle, a lion, and a donkey) sitting on a wine cask. Tradition says that after two glasses, you can fly like an eagle. Four glasses, and you have strength like a lion. Six? You behave like a donkey.
Rain coming in.
The church in Mělník
A door and ivy

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Czech language knows no rules!

Things that make me happy: eating cheap pastries for breakfast, visiting art museums, going to convents, seeing history come alive, touring foreign cities, election season (they are tomorrow!, mexican food, photography, having conversations entirely in Czech, making dinner without harming anyone (including myself), watching Glee with friends, drinking English tea... I could go on and on, but this more or less sums up my day.
I had my Art & Architecture class this morning, and after reading about Romanesque and Gothic painting and sculpture, we went out to see it for ourselves. First, we went back to Old Town's town hall to take a tour- something we weren't able to do earlier this week. Hearing about all of the history within this building was incredible. It's even more astounding to think that this 14th century building has withstood so much. Parts of it were destroyed during the Second World War, but for the most part, it remains largely intact. After our tour, we went to visit the Convent of St. Agnes. Something about it reminded me of Tinturn Abbey. It's hard to explain, really, but I think it had to do with the fact that despite the fact that the church was so empty- no furniture, no art, no pews, no altars, no ornate carvings- there was still something very filled about it, something to be revered. It was a really need experience. Today, the convent is used as an extension of the Czech National Gallery, primarily housing the permanent Medieval Gothic Art exhibit. To be so close to such breathtaking works of art was incredible. What was really amazing to me is the simple fact that so many of these works are beautifully preserved. Very few of the paintings had any damage- we're talking 12th-16th century works here- and while some of the older statues were missing appendages, a surprising number remained whole. After our tour finished, we parted ways with our professor and found a Mexican restaurant, Bandito's, that came highly recommended. Finding it was a little difficult, but not a big deal, because the weather was beautiful, and what's a bit more walking in the scheme of things? I don't particularly mind. Besides, it was delicious. At this point, you're probably taking that sort of statement with a grain of salt; I seem to say that everything is delicious. Let me remind you of two things: first, I am not particularly difficult to please and I have a tendency to think that just about anything is great, and second, it really IS all delicious. It doesn't matter whether I'm eating a gyro on the run from a sketchy street vendor or sitting down at a nicer restaurant- I haven't been displeased with a single meal on this entire trip! Maybe I just tend to pick good items on the menu, or maybe I would dive into anything they set in front of me (well... maybe not anything. I have my limits. But it would be part of the fun!). We headed back to the apartment for a bit before our language class, which, admittedly, I was a little concerned about. No English?! I hardly consider my Czech good enough to make it through a two-hour class. Somehow, though, it all seemed to work out. We have a really wonderful professor, Lenka, who keeps the class light and fun. Czech is a crazy language- there are a whole slew of ways to pluralize word, nouns have 10-15 cases... really, it's nuts. But for now, we're just working on the basics. I'm learning fast (or so I like to think...), and being immersed in the language helps with that significantly! I put my language skills to the test when we stopped by Tesco to pick up some groceries after class. That adventure was a rousing success, as I've really started to get the hang of grocery shopping. Sometimes, it gets a little risky. You don't always know what you're getting (for example, one of my friends inadvertently purchased salsa instead of spaghetti sauce the other night). These things happen- you live, you laugh, you learn. It all works out in the end. While checking out, I managed to entirely avoid English while talking to the cashier (hooray!). It wasn't much of a conversation, but it was a conversation nonetheless. I tend to be fairly quiet in public places, because (obviously) I don't like to draw attention to the fact that I am a foreigner and, as one of our program leaders said "It's pretty easy to tell who isn't from this country, by the way you dress and the way you act... and the way you don't speak Czech." Amusing, yes, but very true. I can generally blend in- until I open my mouth, that is. Thank you, moving around my entire life, for teaching me how to assimilate. I greatly enjoy people watching and picking out people from various countries. It certainly makes lengthy tram and metro rides go by quickly! Upon our return, I made spinach and ricotta tortellini for dinner! Sounds like I put a lot of work into it, but that's a lie. I boiled water (and cheated a bit with that, because we have a water heater- sort of like a giant electric teapot- so I boiled it in that, and then poured it into a pot on the stove) and set my pasta in it for five minutes, but hey, somehow I managed not to injure myself, or anyone else for that matter. And it was- of course- delicious! If that's not a momentous achievement for me, then I don't know what is. My cooking skills may be notorious, but that's not always a good thing! I was quiet pleased. After watching Glee with my roommates and some friends, I enjoyed a good cup of tea. All is well (:
Tomorrow, we leave the apartments at 8:25 for a group field trip to Terezín and Mělník. I also- at the last minute- decided to go on another, optional overnight field trip to Moravia this weekend. It should be fun! I had something philosophical to say tonight, but my brain really isn't functioning appropriately at this point. So it goes. I better go and get some sleep- there are more adventures to be had in the morning, but I won't be having any adventures if my body calls it quits on me... that would be no fun whatsoever.
Part of the Town Hall that was rebuilt in the 1940's after the Nazis destroyed a significant bit of the chapel.
An all-purpose room- I do remember it was used as a courthouse at times, although I can't recall what else
This is also part of the chapel- please note the Gothic arch (hey, look who's learning something!)

Remnants of the original wall paintings in one of the four houses that comprise the Town Hall
Once upon a time, this little room was a street!
Saint... Somebody. I don't remember anymore- oops!
Mosaic work- it tells the history of Prague
Again, more mosaics. With a horse- what else would you expect?!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

So this is who we are.

Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit.” -Frank BormanOverlooking Prague from the city hall tower in New Town (new being sort of relative, seeing as it was established in the 1400's by Emperor Charles IV- the same Charles/Karl that virtually everything is named for) . We had to climb up a billion flights of very steep steps to get up there, but it was worth it... the view was spectacular! Besides, I love feeling like I earned my lunch!
The windows through which the usually peacefully Czechs defenestrated the officials they were displeased with. I was very excited 1) that I could identify this as the location where defenestration occurred and 2) that I actually got to see this. We'll be seeing the other defenestration point- where the officials landed in horse manure- later on this summer.
Some flowers in the garden at Charles (Karlova) University
One of the garden paths. I could see myself working on homework or just hanging out here. Tonight, though, I did my homework at the table in our apartment, which works just fine too. Czech, I shall master you! Or, at least, I will valiantly attempt to conquer this language that is tongue-twisting and positively ludicrous. Tomorrow in class, we won't be able to speak English at all. Oh dear, this could get interesting...
An alleyway we passed while walking through campus. Jan, our program director, took the group on a tour of campus and New Town this morning. We were running late, but I'm so glad we made it! It was very cool to see a different part of town. I want to keep exploring! After our tour finished, we ate lunch at a local bar that is the the sister bar to the one below our apartments. It had been recommended to us by several people, including Jan and Lucy, one of the bartenders downstairs. It was delicious! I had the most wonderful potato soup, followed by fruit dumplings that were probably more of a dessert than lunch. That's really okay with me though, I thought they were great!
Graffiti is virtually everywhere in Prague. As someone with a bizarre affection for graffiti, particularly the artsy kind, rather than the destructive kind, I obviously really enjoy it. This bit reads something to the effect of "The chains may be gone, but we are still caged." It's from an anti-fascism group, I believe but I thought the words were pretty cool.
And for those of you who noticed, I decided to change my little picture on the left. This is a shot from the "secret passageway" into the garden at Glastonbury Abbey. Oh, England... good times.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

This is my kind of school.

Today has been fantastic! Two more classes today- art & architecture in the morning, and then Czech language later on. Both are fascinating, which I just love. Besides, they include lots of field trips- who can resist that?! This morning, we had class for about an hour an a half before taking a twenty minute break (which I used to buy some very cheap and very delicious pastries). We regrouped, and went to see the Prague Library (hooray!), Town Hall, Old Town Square, The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, the Church of St. James, Old Town Hall, and several places in between. After we finished our stroll, I grabbed lunch with some friends: smoked ham from a street vendor. While we ate, we listened to some really awesome music being played right near us. It was really cool! After going on a mission to exchange money, we headed back to the apartment to relax before class later. I am incredibly excited about learning to speak Czech. While some people speak English, most do not, particularly those who are older and those who are Czech. I look forward to being able to understand what the old woman who stabbed me in the kneecap with her umbrella said so disapprovingly. One day! Next class, we will be speaking entirely in Czech- no English. Oh dear! This is going to get interesting. After class, we ventured back to Tesco, which is sort of like the Czech version of Target. We needed a few more supplies. This time, it felt a lot less overwhelming. It was actually really interesting to see the ways that brands change their packaging for different cultures, and to see how many similarities there are. Across the street from Tesco was this delicious gyro place called Pigy, and it made for an excellent dinner (and cheap too!). I'm sure we'll be back. A bunch of my friends headed out tonight to go watch the USA vs Czech football game tonight at a local bar, but seeing as it doesn't even start until 2 am our time, I decided to pass. It would be fun... but I am exhausted! Besides, with the World Cup coming up, there will be plenty of opportunities to watch games here!
Overlooking Prague and The Church of Our Lady before Týn from the Tower at the old City Hall.
Intersection of architecture... the way history meets over here just fascinates me.
One of the guys from the all-percussion band playing at the festival in Old Town Square this afternoon. They had a very cool sound, and they were extremely spontaneous. Plus, they played "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid- how do you beat that?!
You know how I am.... always finding horses.
The infinite book tunnel at the Prague Library (yes, I found it! and it's free!)
Stained glass at the library.
Street shot, Old Town Square
(Probably) illicit photography inside the Church of St. James- my professor told us we could take pictures since there weren't guards! This place was incredible. Gold everywhere... there wasn't room for anything else inside this church! Very overwhelming after the English cathedrals, most of which were whitewashed during the Victorian age
Kate, this organ shot is for you. It was phenomenal. Pretty sure I'm going to go to a concert there at some point this summer.
The outside of City Hall, home to the Astronomical Clock, which is just out of this picture. Thats the tower we climbed!