Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is it really being lost if you like it?

To earn credit for the field study, I had to write a five page paper that was some sort of reflection on the experience as a whole. Mine is mostly marginally coherent philosophical mumbo-jumbo about loss: of possessions, of location, of self, of nations. Maybe you'll enjoy my perspective? Or maybe not, but regardless, I hope you don't find it too painful. Double-spaced, Times New Roman font for your viewing pleasure. My apologies for any and all grammatical mistakes; I never actually proofread it. Oops.

Being lost in a foreign country is simultaneously one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences that traveling the globe has to offer. One wrong turn can force you out of your comfort zone in the blink of an eye. Sometimes, the maps simply do not accurately depict the city, and language barriers make asking for directions no small feat. The prospect of remaining permanently lost in a land you do not understand is daunting, and the fact that it is in fact an unrealistic scenario does not seem to ease the disquiet that comes with such a situation. Despite how unnerving going astray can be, I have discovered that it is one of the best ways to discover new places and new people. Part of the joy of travelling is expanding your horizons and breaking out of your comfort zone, and endeavor that frequently involves losing the map and losing yourself.

Being lost physically is clearly a more changing experience than mere wandering. This is because truly being lost involves losing not only your current location, but also your sense of self, your culture and the mindset that comes with both of those. Being lost takes you off the beaten path; it keeps you from following mule-trains of tourists trekking from one must-see historical site to another. It inherently opens your eyes and your mind to another culture and another way of life. It is interesting to consider, too, the fact that the countries we explored have all suffered an identity loss of their own. All but Austria were located behind the Iron Curtain after the close of World War II. Even Austria suffered greatly though, as the Hapsburg’s Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved after World War I, then taken over by Hitler’s Nazi Germany, occupied at the conclusion of World War II, and finally freed as an independent, neutral nation- albeit a significantly smaller and considerably less powerful one than four decades earlier- in 1955. Today’s Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia all underwent similar dramatic metamorphoses during the twentieth century, with the addition of the Soviet regime’s significant influence to consider. The loss of identity- personal, religious, national, or otherwise- is a common theme in all of their histories. However, as governments changed hands and people changed their minds, a string of revolutions have enabled these countries to find freedom and a renewed sense of self in this modern era. And that, perhaps, is the most valuable lesson, particularly when applied to one’s personal journey. It is the hardships that most dramatically shape ourselves, and it is only when we experience loss that we find ourselves seeking.

Český Krumlov was an excellent place to start such a search in my own expedition. While it was a completely new town, I was still familiar with the language, which made navigating far less complex. Additionally, it was small, cozy, even, which ensured that there were fewer alleys to inadvertently wander down. While looking for ice cream during the evening, we wandered in the rain for quite some time. We always knew where we were, but where we were in relation to the ice cream stand seemed to be a perpetual mystery. In the end, we finished the evening soaked to the bone without any ice cream, but it didn’t seem to matter. We were perfectly happy just exploring the new place we had found ourselves in- and trdelník proved to be an absolutely delicious replacement for gelato! By leaving the main town square and setting off, we encountered incredible views of the palace at night, and experienced beautiful café lights strung over the Vltava. Suddenly, the beautiful sight rising before our eyes made enduring the frigid deluge and the confusion of navigation worth it. Awestruck, we gained a new appreciation for the majesty of this medieval town. Somehow, when you discover something for yourself, it becomes far more beautiful.

Of course, all good things must end, and as you know, we next traveled to the stunning city of Wien, or Vienna. I found Vienna to be just as impressive as Český Krumlov, just in an entirely different way. While Český Krumlov was quaint and quiet, Vienna’s splendor is almost overpowering. It seems as if there are extraordinary architectural feats around every corner, each building more striking than the last. This does, however, contrast with the grittier area near our hostel. Still beautiful, to be sure, but perhaps a little less well-maintained over the years than other parts of the city. That being said, I feel as if exploring these parts of the city- parts that remain largely undiscovered by the casual tourist- is what really adds to the experience of the city. To truly get a feel for a place, you can’t just see the highlight reel. You have to see it all, and that is precisely what I set out to do. In Vienna, we did not get lost per se, but rather, engaged in what I’ll call directed meandering. With a specific destination in mind, we proceeded to wander with limited use of a map until we arrived. It was in this manner that we arrived at the Spanish Riding School. As an avid equestrian for well over a decade, this was a must-see for me while stopping in Vienna. Seeing a place that had been such a part of my childhood rise before my very eyes was indescribably moving. I could have stood there in awe for hours, but I realize that the place does not hold the same magic for others. So we reoriented ourselves, and proceeded to make our way back to the hostel following a route different from the one we used when leaving. It is, after all, a bit bland to see the exact same sights over and over when there are so many new, fascinating places just waiting to be discovered.

Next on the list of enchanting places to discover was the Hungarian capital, Budapest. The Hungarians have a long and dramatic history as conquerors, and being conquered left a deep impression on them. Much of the twentieth century composes a dark and grim record of cruel regimes. The House of Terror, a museum dedicated to the memory of the horrifying terror created by the Arrow Cross Party- the Hungarian Nazis- and the communist State Security Police, both of which had their headquarters in the building where the museum is located- 60 Andrassy Avenue. I have seen some incredible museums around the world, but this is one of the most moving I have ever been to. Something about actually following in the footsteps of those who invoked immeasurable fear, standing in the shadows of a building with such a chilling purpose shook me to the core. From the shocking brightness of the propaganda room to the dark damp of the basement prison cells, it was easy to feel a fraction of the emotional turmoil of the era. Even that was difficult to handle. When we finally emerged into the gray, rainy Budapest aftertoon, we were emotionally drained. As we walked down the street, we pulled out our maps in an effort to determine where we were- and where we were going. We paused on a busy corner, trying to orient ourselves, when an older woman approached us, asking “Are you girls lost? I speak some English.” We were blown away by her kindness and her offer to help, something that rarely happens, regardless of what country you are in. If you ask for directions, most people are willing to help, but it is indeed unusual to have someone come forward voluntarily. She helped point us in the right direction, which we greatly appreciated. To me, it was a valuable reminder that we are all lost and searching at one point or another. Helping a stranger find their way in this world doesn’t take much time or effort, just a bit of compassion and consideration- and that helping hand can go a long way. Later that evening, we had another lesson in consideration, this time with regards to the language barrier. I must say, the Hungarian language posed quite a challenge for us all. We were hesitant to speak out of fear that we would butcher the language and inadvertently offend someone. But then, while searching for dessert, we stumbled upon a delicious looking bakery- where the workers spoke no English. The set-up was confusing, but we muddled our way through, causing much vexation amongst the ladies running the place. After we had all retrieved our various cakes, I stepped up to another counter to ask for tea. Stone-faced, the woman on the other side prepared the tea, then, after muttering something in Magyar, set the mug in front of me. She was not rude, but she certainly wasn’t going out of her way to be friendly. Then, I thanked her, saying “Köszönöm!” She looked up, surprised, and suddenly her face broke into a wide smile as she laughed. All it took to change her demeanor was one word, and a smile. That too, is part of the value of being lost: learning to step outside the comfort of what you know- your language, your lifestyle- so that way you can embrace something new and different.

In Bratislava, I encountered an entirely different type of loss. Somewhere in the market, I inadvertently set down my camera and forgot it somewhere. Getting lost directionally or philosophically, I can handle, but this was unexpected. In my efforts to locate my missing camera, I set off on a journey across the town: through the market, restaurants, the information center, and even the magistrate’s office. My broken Czech was good enough to communicate my point in Slovakian- and when my language abilities ran out, there were people around me more than willing to help me continue my inquiry. The girl working in the magistrate’s office made several phone calls to various local police stations, and one of the girls working in the market gave us directions to several places that she felt we should check. Everyone I spoke to was sympathetic, and helped me along my journey. Did I find my camera? No. But I did gain a respect for the genuine kind, openhearted nature of these people. And that, perhaps, is just as valuable- if not more.

In the end, I’ve found that in loss, you inevitably gain. Loss shapes the identities of individuals, as well as their nations and culture. Getting lost is about more than merely being turned around. It comes down to reshaping your view of yourself, and of your world. Expanding your horizons is a priceless experience, but it’s something only you can do for yourself. Perhaps others can impose loss upon you by taking what you hold dear- your freedom, your religion, your individuality- but only you can choose what you fill that empty space with. You determine what you become: where you find yourself, and where you go.

Friday, June 25, 2010

My life is a whirlwind

I know, I know: it's been far too long and you've been dying to hear about all of my glorious adventures. Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, reuniting with Maddie back in Prague, meeting new friends who are here for the second session, this week has been crazy but extremely fun. Unfortunately, I've been extraordinarily sick, so bear with me here!

Vienna was, as I said earlier, absolutely incredible. On our first day there, Sunday, we took a tour of Schonbrunn, a Hapsburg summer cottage that was breathtaking. Afterwards, we checked into our hostel- very industrial, and not the nicest I've been in, but it was clean and comfortable, and that's all I really want anyway! After just a few minutes there, our group walked through Vienna to an area that was once a hospital- many, many years ago- but now is a park and part of a university there. There are also a few restaurants there. We had delicious soup and schnitzel as a late lunch, and then continued out our tour. We saw City Hall, the old Imperial Palace, Parliament, and St. Stephen's Cathedral, among other places. After that, we were free for the afternoon and evening. After taking a peek inside the cathedral, a group of us decided that we wanted to warm up and find a cafe somewhere to grab coffee/tea/hot chocolate. It was exactly what we needed! Vienna was chillier than we expected. Afterwards, we went back to the hostel. But en route, we stopped to buy postcards- and to visit the Spanish Riding School! I couldn't go to Vienna and miss that. I didn't get to see them training, because we weren't there at the right time, but just seeing the stables was phenomenal. I miss riding quite a lot, and to visit a place that has been such a part of my childhood love for the sport was priceless. We continued on back to the hostel, resting for about an our before gathering ourselves to head back out. At about eight fifteen, I went to dinner with a few other girls from the trip. We ate in a back corner of this delicious cafe. I had spinach and ricotta ravioli, and it was incredible. It was so fresh! Afterwards, we split a tropical ice cream sundae- a good decision, because it was enormous! There were four flavors of gelato and all sorts of tropical fruits in it... it was wonderful. We returned to the hostel by 10:45, and then hung out there for the evening. The next morning was slower, which was nice! We loaded up the bus, and then traveled to Belvedere Palace in the rain. After walking through the gardens, we headed to the monument that the Soviets erected after conquering the Nazis, and from there, we went to a theater and that Opera- both incredible buildings. Once there, we had some free time before meeting again for lunch. I went to the Jewish museum with one of the girls. Not what we expected, but I thought it was fascinating to learn about Jewish history outside the context of the Holocaust. After exploring a little more, we stopped at a cafe for a snack. I had a ricotta strudel- sounds a little odd, but it was delicious. Lunch was, once again, excellent. We ate at The Centimeter, and had vegetable soup, fried chicken, and these sliced potatoes in a honey mustard/vinegar sauce that were incredible, followed by an apple strudel that makes my mouth water just thinking about it! Once that was done, we were back on the bus and off to Budapest. Literally every one of us slept through that bus trip. We were exhausted already! After several hours of (very pleasant) sleeping, we were awoken because we were almost there, and we needed to learn some Hungarian before arriving.

Let me tell you about Magyar. It is more closely related to Finnish, and it is crazy. I have a fairly good ear for languages if I do say so myself. But this one? Could not get the swing of it. After two days, I was capable simply of nula (zero... if only because it's the same word in Czech), jo napoc (hello!) and köszönöm (thank you). Not much, but it was enough to help, because they really do appreciate it when you attempt to speak the language (they'll laugh at you first, but then they'll smile and be significantly friendlier... this is true most places, but even more so than in western Europe). After depositing out bags at the hotel, we regrouped and headed out for a late dinner. The sun was setting over the Danube as we set out, and it was positively spectacular. Budapest is a stunning city. I really didn't know what to expect, but it was incredible. Dinner was delicious- as per usual- and I had a fantastic time getting to know some of the new kids. Afterwards, we took a tour of the Buda Castle (Budapest was actually two cities back in the day- Buda and Pest, on opposing sides of the Danube). The castle itself was incredible, but even better were the views of the city! All the bridges are lit up at night, with round white bulbs dripping along their cables... the city is beautiful when the sun is shining, and even more so once it sets. We arrived back at the hotel late, and crashed- I certainly was thankful for the opportunity to sleep! The next morning, after an absolutely fantastic breakfast (a dramatic improvement over the bread and cheese from Vienna), we set out towards the baths. Let me remind you: the weather at this point was still terrible. In the fifties... and raining. Hard. We walked through the central street and several main squares until we reached the Heroes' Square, built in 1896 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the arrival of the Hungarians in the area. There are countless buildings and structures that were created in honor of this important year. One of the most notable? The Metro. One of the first in Europe, Budapest's system of underground transportation is surprisingly accessible and simple (purchasing tickets was not, but that's a different story). Of course, all the the cars they use have been replaced since 1896, but the system is nonetheless impressive. When we exited the Metro, we walked through a park, saw a few churches, and then lo and behold! We arrived at the baths! No, we did not cancel this expedition because of the weather, and though we felt a bit ridiculous gallivanting around in our bathing suits in such unfortunate conditions, the baths were surprisingly fun. The water was warm, and the rain had eased off. After spending a few hours exploring the hoards of pools spread throughout the complex, a group of us decided that we wanted to enjoy another aspect of Budapest (andddd put on some warm, dry clothes too). So we changed back into clothing appropriate for the environment, and set out across the city. We decided that we wanted to go to a museum called the House of Terror, which is literally one of the most incredible museums I have ever been to. Located inside the building that was home to the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis- the Arrow Cross Party- and their followers, the communist State Security Police, the museum documents the horrors that took place within those walls. It is both a living memorial to the victims, and a reminder of just how rapidly tyrannical governments can emerge. The combination of music and visual contrasts was incredibly moving. If you ever find yourself in Budapest, go to this museum. Afterwards, we wandered to this cute little cafe for lunch. I ordered something I had never heard of off the sandwich menu, and I got brie cheese with apples encrusted in walnuts with blueberry sauce. Unexpected? Yes. It was fantastic, too. We decided to head back to the hotel for a few minutes to drop off our wet towels and bathing suits and such, but were slightly turned around. When we paused at a street corner to sort ourselves out, a sweet Hungarian woman approached us, asking us- in delightfully comprehensible English- if we needed help. She pointed us in the right direction and we were soon back at the hotel (after struggling to purchase Metro tickets from a man who spoke no English whatsover, and who didn't have very much change either- something quite problematic when using a currency where 200 forints are equal to just one dollar). After lightening our bags, we set off towards the market, which was absolutely fantastic. SUCH a great place. Three stories of fresh food and all sorts of exciting souvenirs. The place was jam-packed with stall after stall of incredible things just waiting to be discovered. I purchased a thin leather bracelet with blue stones set into it. I was just delighted to find a bracelet that actually fit my wrist! My wrists are ridiculously tiny, and I hate bracelets that dangle and slide around- they just drive me crazy. I also purchased a thin black headband with all sorts of colorful beading. After spending an extremely long time happily wandering around, we decided we wanted gelato. It was delicious! Well, who am I kidding? Everything is delicious. Then, we went to tour St. Stephen's Basilica, and visit Parliament. Both absolutely stunning buildings. After walking back down the waterfront, we chowed down on some gyros for dinner. Some more exploring of the city as the sun went down, and then we decided we wanted desert. This, of course, entailed some wandering. Then we stumbled across this adorable little bakery chock full of tasty-looking treats! A cup of tea and a slice of Budapest cake- some sort of decadent chocolate and cream concoction- served me well, and then we went back to the hotel to settle in for the night.

The next morning, we set off for Bratislava, Slovakia. Driving into the city, my jaw literally fell to the ground, not at the overpowering beauty of the city, but because of the apartment complexes. Imagine the stereotypical Soviet-era apartment blocks. Plain, grey, concrete, rectangular buildings probably come to mind, right? One after the other? Yeah, that's exactly what was in front of me. I was surprised, I suppose because I've never seen such a uniform series of buildings present in front of me before. But before long, a familiar sight emerged on the horizon: yes, another castle! We toured the grounds of the beautiful Bratislava Castle, and from there realized that there was more to the city than grey blocks (phew!). The heart of the city is quite beautiful, much like Cesky Krumlov, in fact. The square, though small, is extremely beautiful, and is home to a lovely little market. Sadly, it was in this square- I believe- that I lost my beloved camera. Honestly, I'm not sure what happened to it, if I just set it down and forgot about it, I just don't know. I was crushed to discover that it was missing. I searched everywhere for it, and asked a slew of very helpful people all across the city, but nobody had seen it, and I knew chances were slim that I would ever be reunited with my camera. Because it wasn't actually stolen from my person, there wasn't anything the police could do. I did leave my number with a girl at the Information center in case someone turned it in, but alas, no luck. I was devastated, obviously, but I also refused to let the loss of a material possession ruin my trip or my impression of Slovakia. Quite frankly, it was my own fault that it went missing, and everyone who I talked to was indescribably kind and helpful. So I ate my pirogies for lunch (glorious. I do adore pirogies) and settled myself into the reality of my newfound life without the camera I was so accustomed to. I do, fortunately, have my smaller camera with me, and that will be more than sufficient for my journey. After lunch, we drove to the ruins of the castle Devin, which were spectacular. I love visiting ruins, and they seem to be everywhere in Europe, much to my excitement. We frolicked a bit, my friends convinced me to pose on a pillar as a gargoyle (which ended with very little bloodshed), we sang into the very deep well, and then we crashed on the bus back home- well, home-ish. But as one last surprise, Jan, our program director, suddenly emerged from the front of the bus with a string of paprika around his neck, toting these enormous loaves of bread. He sliced them for us, and we ate this delicious bread with Hungarian sausage. It was fantastic. It was at this point that I first started feeling run-down, but I really didn't think anything of it. Just a sore throat, no big deal.

Nearly as soon as we arrived in Prague, I headed back out with some girls to watch the game in Old Town Square, which was quite fun. When we came back, I scraped together a late dinner for us, making the most of the pasta that was hanging around our kitchen. The next morning, I took several people on an adventure to Tesco. I needed groceries anyway, and it was easy enough to bring people along with me to show them the ropes. After a few hours, I made it back to my apartment and enjoyed my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich in over two months. It was glorious. Plus, I had purchased the bread I used to make it for just eight crowns (that's less than fifty cents) and this was a loaf the size of a small child. It was a fantastic experience, made even better by the fact that just minutes later I received a call from my fabulous roommate from school, Maddie. She was about to head to Tesco- so of course I ran back there as fast as I could! I took her and her friends around the store, offering my infinite wisdom (haha... yeah right) free of charge. It was so great to see her! I went back to her dorm- sweet digs she's got there- and we made plans to meet as soon as possible, aka the next day. I had dinner with the new crew at a terrific cafe that was quite literally a hole in the wall. A popular student hangout, there was not so much as a sign out front. But the food was delicious, and the atmosphere pleasant.

On Friday, I had to wake up earlier than originally planned so that way I could pick up the paperwork necessary to renew my Metro pass. Unfortunately, renewing the pass was not as simple as our program directors professed it to be, because my old pass was issued as a Junior (under 19) pass rather than a Student one. Since I turned 19 last week, I needed a Student pass, but that meant I needed proof that I was actually a student. And my ISIC card wasn't good enough- I needed proof that I was a student here in the Czech Republic. Well, I certainly wasn't convincing anyone that I was a native with my broken Czech. Fortunately, I was able to get everything straightened out in time to meet up with the group for lunch (you know I love free food), and pick Maddie up first so she could come along with us! We tried the cauliflower pancakes- yes, it does sound a little strange, but they were fantastic. Sort of like latkas, just with cauliflower instead of potatoes. Afterwards, we spotted a sign for an international music festival of some sort, so we went to my apartment to check it out online. We figured out where it was, and then decided we wanted crepes first. Maddie opted for banana and nutella, and I picked apricot- both fantastic choices. The music festival was a ton of fun- a really enjoyable atmosphere. It rained for a little bit, but eventually the rain eased off, and we explored the islands a little bit. On another island, we found this spectacular children's park that was absolutely too much fun. Eventually, we wound up eating dinner at a sidewalk cafe near Wenceslas Square. The food was fabulous, and people-watching provided entertainment for an extensive period of time. After we finished eating, we stopped at a nearby store called Pylones. I had been inside this store in Berlin, and thoroughly regretted not purchasing a bicycle bell there. Well, guess who now owns a bell?! Next purchase: the bicycle. The store is fantastic: filled top to bottom with bright, unique goodies that just scream for you to purchase them. From there, we went to Old Town Square to watch the game.

Maddie and I obviously wanted to hang out again Saturday, and we did! I was feeling sicker at this point, but I still didn't think it was a huge deal. Besides, we had grand plans to go picnicking and cherry picking, and I was not about to let some little germs get in the way of that! Our directions to the tram we needed to catch failed us, but in our wanderings off the beaten path (I took us in a serpentine pattern across the area), we did discover a spectacular produce market. Since it was getting later, we decided to picnic right there: peanut butter and jelly, chips, and cookies in the grass- sheer perfection. It was wonderful! From there, we reoriented ourselves, and were soon on the tram we needed. The monastery we went to was stunning. Founded in 993, the architecture there is mostly Baroque. The ponds and orchards are beautiful, and it was just so peaceful! The cherries weren't ripe, as we were disappointed to discover, but nevertheless, we had a wonderful time exploring the area. For dinner, we went to Bohemia Bagel, which is sort of like Panera, except slightly nicer (and missing Missy and Morgan!). It's a major expat hangout, mostly because it's one of the few places in the region that you can find bagels.

Though I thought I would maybe be feeling better Sunday, when I woke up, I very rapidly discovered that this was not the case. A deep cough had joined my plethora of other symptoms, and I didn't go anywhere all day. Maddie- my hero- brought dinner to me, and we cooked pasta and ate delicious chocolate cake together. Monday, I had to rouse myself for class, and it did indeed take significant effort. Nevertheless, I think I will quite enjoy the class. I was exhausted after walking around town to purchase books, and promptly fell asleep for five hours. I roused myself to cook dinner, and then collapsed again. Tuesday wasn't much better- I just added one more class (and woke up early to purchase train tickets to Slovenia for this weekend!). Today was a little better- I think I'm finally making a turn for the better. Just in time!

A gargoyle at Devin
Not picking cherries.
At the United Island Music Festival
Being excited about Viennese apple strudel!
The Hungarian Metro
Budapest by night!
Some of the girls at the baths

Sunday, June 20, 2010

I rather like it here.

So I'm in love with yet another European city. Not much time to write, but I do have a few pictures. This is just a taste (honestly, you guys know me... I did not take just five photos here!). Vienna- Wein- is stunning. I don't ever want to leave. I wish I was here longer than just one night but alas, our time is short. We will have some more free time in the morning. Good thing! This place in phenomenal.Schönbrunn Palace- a "summer cottage"- and a view of Vienna
Part of the old Imperial Palace- now the National Library
Oh, just the stables at the Spanish Riding School. Nothing fancy or anything. Obviously I couldn't miss this stop (after how many hundreds of times I wanted The Miracle of the White Stallions?! Good grief!). I wish I could have seen them training, but the timing just didn't work out. Still, I was glad I could make a stop there!
Pretending to be a guard at the Imperial Palace... It was too good of an opportunity to pass up! You know you like my serious face. Also, it takes more than spikes to stop me. Even if I did hit my head on them...
I wish I could remember what this building was... but it as absolutely stunning. Vienna was gorgeous during the day, and even more incredible at night. Also, listening to a cellist play Con Te Partiro in a square on my way to dinner: major highlight. It was beautiful. Speaking of dinner... I'll fill you guys in on that another night. Right now, I need sleep! Good night, world.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Stepping back in time

Just a quick update from the beautiful town of Český Krumlov, in southern Bohemia. We're spending the night here before moving on to Vienna (Wien), Austria tomorrow morning. The weather here has been less than pleasant- cold and rainy all day long- but that simply can't dampen the striking setting that we've found ourselves in. A UNESCO World Heritage site, all of the buildings here in Český Krumlov are from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The castle that gives the town its name is absolutely stunning. It is incredibly well preserved, and imagining people from another era living here is easy enough to do, particularly because we arived during Slavnosti, the Five-Petaled Rose Celebrations that commemorate the Rosenburg family that once maintained control of the region. It's sort of like a Renaissance Fair, with the addition of a spectacular backdrop. The palace here is unbelievable. There are still bears guarding the moats, and it has been restored- when necessary- quite comprehensively. It was an interesting contrast to what we saw earlier in the day: Hrad Dívčí Kámen, or Maiden Stone Castle, which simply consists of ruins overlooking the Vltava River. I, personally, love ruins. In many cases, I almost prefer them (although seeing such a well preserved castle as Český Krumlov is a rare treat). Some people gripe about climbing so far- it was almost a mile hike, up steep and slippery rocks in the cold and rain- especially to just see crumbling piles of rocks. But as most of you know (cough- Kate), it takes more than distance, weather, and danger to deter me from such adventures! I loved it. We didn't stay long, because even I agreed that the weather was miserable. After we left the ruins, we ate a late lunch at a wonderful pizzeria here, toured the castle, and then were set free again. I have another scarf now- a plain dove gray that I know I'll get a lot of use out of, especially since it's light enough to wear with just a t-shirt on warmer days. We endured the rain to do some serious exploring, then came back to the hotel for a quick nap. Dinner was in the main square- garlic soup in a bread bowl for about $2.25. It was filling and delicious like no other. After watching some belly dancing, listening to music, and adventuring around some more, we caught the fire parade (yes, my inner pyro was quite pleased). We had planned to watch the fire show as well, and then stay out to watch fireworks, but we were all soaked to the bone and frigid. Instead, I'm watching them through my window right now. Not a bad way to end the day!The ruins from a distance
This town is jaw-dropping.
With friends on some very artsy steps- we got one of our new visiting professors to take this for us! She's very sweet, and will be teaching my Political Film and Novel of Europe class, which I'm very excited about!
With the castle and some of the town in the background
The Vltava at night
A juggler at the Fire Parade!

Friday, June 18, 2010

You have to end to begin.

Today was an interesting one. Not a particularly good one on the football/soccer front: the Germany game was rough at best, the US got robbed- but didn't play well in the first half either, and then England simply didn't hold their own playing against Algeria. In spite of it all, though, I still enjoy watching the games here. The atmosphere in just incredible, and I look forward to three more weeks of screaming at a screen in multiple languages while enduring bone-crushing agony, heartbreak, and other forms of emotional turmoil in the hopes that my team emerges victorious. Anyway, enough about the World Cup (for now). Back to my day. After a slow morning, I went to lunch with my wonderful roommates at the Italian place down the road. We've gotten to know one of the waiters there well, and despite the fact that he doesn't speak much English, it's always nice to have a familiar face! Afterwards, we headed to our photography final- we wanted to get there early so that we we could wrap it up and go to the game! And what a game it was.... it was agonizing! And to have our win torn away like that- oooh, that hurt. Afterwards, I ran by Tesco. I wanted some travel-sized soap and shampoo to take on my next adventure, and I wanted some granola bars too. I also grabbed a pastry for breakfast tomorrow morning! I also found a giant bottle of lemonade. I was thirsty, and two liters of lemonade was four crowns- as opposed to nine crowns for a third of a liter. So lemonade it is! And it was delicious. Once I came back, we hung out around our apartment until we met up with the new crew who came in today. The kids going on the field study showed up- five more will be coming next week, I believe. We were very excited about meeting them, and upon bursting out of our front gate and seeing a herd of kids our age gathered, I eagerly asked (in that characteristically enthusiastic fashion of mine) "Are you our new friends?!" which provoked great laughter. Icebreaker? Check. They seem like a lot of fun- I'm very excited about getting to know everybody! We ate dinner with the at the bar downstairs. More Czech food- some kind of meat, venison maybe, and fried potatoes... I think. I'm not sure. It was delicious, regardless. Cleaned my plate. I suppose I'm not a particularly picky eater, which is sort of surprising to me. I mean, I won't eat things with eyes still attached, and I prefer to avoid heads and limbs that still appear operational (with the exception of crab, obviously. But really, I enjoy nearly everything. I've gone almost six weeks now without a bad meal! Either food is better here, or maybe the food at Carolina Dining just isn't that spectacular. Hmm... maybe it's both. Anyway, we had a wonderful time meeting and greeting. We did have to say some goodbyes though, and that was very sad. We've made such wonderful friends here! Tomorrow morning, we leave for Cesky Krumlov. Then, we're off to Vienna, Budapest, and Bratislava. I can't wait to see all these new cities!

Photos for the day: my final photography portfolio. A focus on sunshine and natural lighting. You've probably seen all- or at least most- of them before, but here they are, compiled.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I Amsterdam... and I am nineteen too!

Every day, I find more reasons why I love Prague.
My beautiful and delicious birthday cake, which says something that we hope means "Happy birthday!" Apparently the workers and the bakery spoke very little English, but between their little bit of English and my friends' little bit of Czech, they managed to get this wonderful cake! I would consider that adventure a rousing success- I have such great friends!

No, I did not forget about you guys! I need to get better about this blogging business. My biggest problem? I take too many photos! And then I'm too much of a perfectionist to allow subpar, unedited photographs loose on the Internet. On top of that, it's exam week here in Prague! Not quite like exams back in the States, but still a bit stressful. I had exams in Czech and Art History, a six page paper, and a photographic portfolio. But now that's all wrapped up, and I'm going to be able to enjoy my next few days! But here I am today, with one giant update on my life.

On Friday morning, we left early for Amsterdam. Getting there was a little bit crazy: we took the Metro to catch a bus to get our plane. Once arriving at Eindhoven Airport- just outside of Amsterdam, since it was cheaper than Schiphol- we caught another bus to the train station (where we stopped for kebabs for lunch, since kebabs are delicious). Instead of taking the tram in Amsterdam, we just walked to our hostel, because it was fairly close. It was very nice! I preferred St. Christopher's in Berlin, but it was still a great place to stay. It was right near the Red Light District, and we all agreed that the next time we're in Amsterdam, we'd rather stay in another one of the main areas between Leidesplein and Rembrandstplein. It was only a fifteen minute walk, so it wasn't too far to walk, but that area was considerably classier and had better food. On the upside, though, our hostel was very close to some great shopping! By the end of our stay, we were very familiar with the city from all of our walking (and from all the time we got lost!). Amsterdam is a winding city, with lots of alleys that take you unexpected places. It's an absolutely stunning place. The canals are gorgeous, and it's surprisingly clean and safe. Yes, after dark, certain places have a sketchier feel. But honestly, I think that the general increased awareness in Amsterdam- both from visitors and from the Dutch living there- contributes greatly to safety there.

On Friday afternoon, we wandered around a little bit, and eventually grabbed dinner at this Chinese place called Wok to Walk. It is literally the greatest thing ever. I want to put one in Columbia (as well as a kebab stand, of course!). Basically, you choose your base (egg noodles, rice noodles, white rice, brown rice, etc etc), which comes with some vegetables, and sauce, and then you can add all sorts of tasty things like meat, peanuts, specific kinds of vegetables- the possibilities are endless. They cook the food in a giant wok right in front of you, and serve it in an very large orange Chinese box. I was so in love with this phenomenon that I ate dinner there Sunday night as well.

Several people went out that night, but I wasn't feeling up to it, so I headed back to the hostel. I was planning on a quiet night in when I met a girl in the lobby. She was getting directions to a variety of places around the city, and I just asked if I could join in- and that is how I met my Canadian friend Claire! We spent a few hours just exploring the city. None of the destinations on our map were really places we wanted to stop, but it was a very fun way to see a variety of places. Eventually, we started to get cold (it is quite chilly over here!) and we found this quiet little cafe and bakery to stop at. I had tea and a slice of some sort of chocolate peanut butter pie, and Claire had an apple strudel with her tea- both were delicious! The man working there was a very chatty expat from Iraq whose family owned the business. It was really cool getting to know someone who had lived in the area for so long. I had several experiences chatting with Dutch people- they are all incredibly friendly (and thankfully, most speak English!). What's interesting to me is that almost all of them are very clear that they do not do drugs. Marijuana, while technically not legal, is decriminalized, and "coffeeshops" are everywhere. Other drugs are also very easily accessible. This creates great profit for the government, from taxes on drug and food sales, but is really more part of the tourist culture than anything else. Interestingly enough, a very conservative government was recently instated, and by 2015, 95% of the windows that make the Red Light District so famous will be closed down. Seeing that whole aspect of the city was interesting, because it was so different, but also very sad. The women range in age from 18 to 83, and come in all shapes and sizes from all walks of life. Most, however, are not in fact Dutch. A lot of them are Eastern european girls who see it as a way to make a lot of money fairly quickly without needing any sort of education. People argue that it's part of the culture, that they choose this lifestyle, but I also feel like that can't possibly be entirely or universally true.

Beyond that aspect of Amsterdam. On Saturday morning, we grabbed some pastries and watched an international sand soccer competition! Afterwards, we headed to the Anne Frank House. The line was of an extremely intimidating length, but we braced ourselves and queued obediently- this was something we all wanted to do! And we left the house incredibly thankful that we did. It was a phenomenal experience- so indescribably moving. I got chills walking through there. Actually being in Anne's house... It gives the book so much more depth and meaning. Traveling Europe has made history very real for me. Suddenly you see everything coming to life, and you're no longer talking about facts and events but people and families and reality. It gives the world a very different perspective.

After that museum, I parted ways with the group and headed to the Rijksmuseum, one of Amsterdam's greatest art museums. I particularly enjoyed the way that it blended Dutch history with the artwork. It was absolutely fascinating. I'm so glad I went! And even better? Since I was 18, I got in for free! I spent a few very pleasant hours exploring the works there. Afterwards, I went to an international skateboarding competition called Amsterdam RampJam, which was a ton of fun! I (obviously) have a ton of respect for sports where crashing is just a reality of life- it happens, you get back up, and you keep on going. There were some really great skateboarders there, and I happily watched until the sun began to sink lower. I decided to meander my way back towards the hostel, since I hadn't been able to meet up with the group for dinner. The way I went was probably two or three times as long as the "right" way, but I was being stubborn and didn't want to use my map. Besides, I don't mind walking. After a detour for dinner (crepes with strawberries and tea), I made it back safe and sound... and then a friend called telling me that they were at a pub watching the USA vs England game- and how could I miss that?! So I headed over to hang out with them and their new Swiss friends that they had met earlier while touring the Heineken brewery. Fortunately, those guys speak English better than we speak French (that is to say, not at all. Scratch that, mon petit chouchou, I can count to fourteen, name my parents, and ask if you can speak French- not a particularly helpful question for me, come to think of it... Hmm. French is on the agenda, for the record. Between Belgium and my life plans, I'd like to know a smidge more than I do now!). But regardless, you'll be interested to know that despite all stereotypes, the Swiss are not neutral when it comes to football! They were pulling for England, but we forgave them, since they were quite a lot of fun to hang out with! England should have won that game anyway (but they didn't- ha!). We were more or less the only Americans there, but that's okay. There will probably be more of us at the game here in Prague tomorrow! Anyway, back to Amsterdam. We had a great night, made some awesome friends, and, while heading back, Ashley and I went entirely in the wrong direction, found the guys we had just left, and then stopped for some delicious pizza. When you're hungry, you're hungry. It tasted delicious.

Sunday morning, we slept in for a bit. Ashley, Jessalyn, and I found this adorable little cafe where we got a full English breakfast for a fairly reasonable price. It was so delicious. I love me some England! Of course, I had tea with my breakfast. I can't help myself. It was fantastic! Afterwards, Ashley and I took a free walking tour of the city, which proved to be very fascinating. Our tour guide was hilarious, as were the three Dutch kids who were along for the adventure, and it was a very enjoyable four hours. Afterwards, we headed towards a friend's hostel to meet up so we could grab food, when we heard voices calling our names behind us. We were puzzled- who knows us here in Amsterdam?! Lo and behold, it was our Swiss friends again! We were very excited to see them again! Later, Ashley and I met up with some other people from our program, as well as some other friends we met in Amsterdam. We ended up parting ways fairly quickly, and Ashley and I stumbled across a bead shop on our way to one of the main squares. I bought a bracelet for myself: thin brown cord that wraps around my wrist four times, with a white carved fish in the middle. Yes Mom, my rubber bands are finally off of my arm! We then continued to wander in the direction of food, when we found a cool looking clothing store that had some great sales. Guess who finally bought some more warm clothes?! Amsterdam was very cold, and Prague is Prague- you never know what you're going to get! But now, I have another sweatshirt, long sleeved shirt, and sweater. Hooray! We grabbed Wok to Walk on our way back to the hostel, which we promptly devoured with some very nice Americans backpacking around that we met in line. Once back at the hostel, we reorganized ourselves, and the girls headed down to Rembrantsplein to find a place to watch the Germany/Australia game. It was awesome! I really enjoyed it. We ended up meeting some British guys and going to a karaoke bar with them, which was quite the adventure. We knew we would have to leave our hostel by 6:30 the next morning, so we didn't stay very long. All in all, though, we had a wonderful time in Amsterdam.

We woke up early to catch a train to a bus to a plane to another bus to the Metro to home sweet home! It was a long day of traveling- eight hours- followed by class, yikes! But we made it! This week has been a little bit crazy, what with it being exam week (two exams, a six page paper, and a portfolio). But I have made some time for myself- between discovering a new sandwich stop near Tesco, exploring the Modern Art and Cubism museums (I love modern art. It's hands down my favorite... perhaps because it is so up to your own interpretation. It truly is what make it!), eating dinner- in Czech!- with my Czech language class, and enjoying football and the beautiful gardens of Prague, exam week isn't so bad! I survived, and made it to my birthday!

My friends surprised me with a cake and a little party before we left on our farewell cruise down the Vltava. It was so much fun- they totally fooled me!- but a little bittersweet, since most people are leaving tomorrow or Saturday. I am so thankful that I am staying two sessions. I can't imagine leaving now. I feel like I'm just settling in. There is so much that I want to see and do still! I have people to meet and places to go and food to eat (obviously a high priority of mine, in case you hadn't already noticed!). Breakfast today was- just so you know- a strawberry-orange tart with chocolate drizzled on it. It was glorious on so many levels. I adore this city, for so many reasons. It probably sounds strange to hear me call it home- but it just feels like that for me. Of course, "home" and "from" have always been sort of relative for me because of moving. I just really enjoy living here. I'm glad I have five more weeks!
Walking back from class along the river
At the Amsterdam RampJam competition!

It wouldn't be Holland if there weren't tulips!
The entrance to the Anne Frank House
I inadvertently stumbled into a "Free Iran" rally. Lots of shouting in Farsi.
Looking at the Rijksmuseum and the I amsterdam sign!
Orange was EVERYWHERE. The Dutch are very proud of their team. World Cup fever doesn't even begin to describe the environment! Hup Holland Hup!
The hooks are because Dutch staircases are so narrow and steep that you had to use a pulley system to move items to upper floors. The buildings lean forward over the street so that the items don't swing and hit the lower windows. It wasn't for many years until they started building longer hooks... And buildings that leans sideways are simply crooked, the result of building on land that isn't really land. Over fifty percent of the Netherlands is reclaimed land from the sea, which, as our tour guide put it, gives the Dutch a real says that "God created the world, but we created Holland!" They are very proud of their small and beautiful country!
Graffiti and bicycles outside of one of the houses where squatters live. The Dutch cycle everywhere! There are more bikes than people in Amsterdam- and there are over 750,000 people there! They pull over 25,000 bikes out of the canals each year, and it is estimated that over half of all bikes on the streets have been stolen at least once. Regardless, virtually everyone ends with a bike one way or another.
The hammock store: such a glorious find. I loved them all!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

This week in Prague...

A few more pictures from this weeks adventures!
Statues in the gardens at Prague Castle

At the bird exhibit... They had all kinds of hawks and falcons there too; it was pretty cool to see, although rather sad.
A fellow I rather liked. We might whilst exploring yet another art museum.
Oh, Prague.
Inside St. George's Basilica. A lot of my indoor photos from the churches/castle didn't come out very well because my hands were shaky that day. Oh well. So it goes.
The exterior of the Basilica.
Inside St. Vitus Cathedral

The exterior of the cathedral
Charles University botanical gardens

The Municipal House
The only cubist lamppost in the world.

Now, I have to go pack for Amsterdam!