Monday, October 25, 2010


Yes, it finally happened. I went there. Well, I've been there once before, but airports don't count...

A little background on the significance of Prague to me. When I was little, my dad got me a picture book called Golem by David Wisneiwski which told the legend of a giant guardian made from clay who had protected the Jewish ghetto in Prague back in the 1100's. The pictures are incredible, because they're actually photographs of exquisitely-detailed cut-paper artwork. I will never understand how the author does that. Well, the book is incredible, and always captured my imagination; especially the spindly silhouettes of Gothic architecture in the city.

Sometime down the road, I found out Prague still looks like that. So actually going there and walking those streets was definitely a when, not an if. Kind of sad to say, but maybe it was as good a reason as any, Prague was the reason I put the Czech Republic down on my country selection sheet back in December when I was applying for Rotary. (Strange to think that's almost a year ago now!)

I summarized to Tibor this visit to Prague's significance for me as we drove, and he said, "So, finally, thirteen years later!" My thoughts exactly.

We got up at four AM on Saturday (okay, that was just me--I need time to get ready!) and left at 5. Elena, one of Ruth's best friends, had stayed the night because she was coming with us.

And then we drove for five hours. It really didn't feel long at all to me. (I also wasn't the one driving.) I was excited also to get to see the Czech countryside; surprise, it looked like the Slovak countryside! The major difference was that the Czech Republic has none of the hills which really characterize Slovakia.... Okay, maybe different after all. It looked like western Slovakia, anyway. The fall colors were breathtaking; Fall is finally full-blown here! And I knew, with almost exclusively deciduous trees everywhere, it would be a show. Very beautiful. (I'll say it again: no reds; but the yellow-orange-brown spectrum is still really something to see.)

Czech towns, as far as I could see from the freeway, also looked just like Slovak towns. I know you'd probably expect that, seeing as they were the same country for a very long time, but for some reason I anticipated big differences across the border. Well, the signs all changed their languages...

I expected Brno to be awesome, but unfortunately there really wasn't anything to see from the freeway. Population-wise, Brno is the second-biggest city in the country. (Praha-Brno-Ostrava. In Slovakia, it's Bratislava-Kosice-Presov-Zilina/Nitra.)

We stopped for lunch somewhere in the Czech Republic, at this place which had goats out front. Yes, I remember places by the animals that are there. The goats were amazing. They were so quiet and sweet and didn't mind that I stroked them. They were so soft and beautiful (three black, one caramel with black markings). I felt so sad they had such a small pen with not much grass. So sad.

The sign said 20 km to Praha, it was 10:30 or so in the morning and I was really feeling the excitement, and then BAM! We hit Prague traffic. It was almost at a standstill. We had to inch along for the next half-hour or so. What do you expect...

Finally, we broke out of the congestion and drove into the heart of the red roofs before us. Not only was I completely excited, it was a very cool feeling that we had drove here. Like, wow, I'm in Prague and it's basically in my own country! On the radio, Enrique Iglesias' "I Like It" came on, and that pretty much summarized my feelings! (Please don't look up the lyrics and then reread this. I'm talking strictly the song title, here.)

We were staying with Michal, who is Erika's middle-aged son (also Tibor's good friend). He has a flat in the heart of the city. How wonderful is it that I can be welcome to a bed in the room of my host sister's grandma's friend's son's son? (Because Ruth, Elena, and I slept in the two sons' room--the boys are 18 and 23.) Michal was actually away on business most of the time-- I only met him for five minutes-- and his sons were both away for various reasons as well, so Olga, his wife, was our hostess.

Olga was a very nice woman (who looked exactly like Kate Bush!). Over tea and biscuits in the nook she told us how she was teaching herself English. Despite that we were in Prague, because Michal is Slovak I just assumed Olga was as well and didn't listen to her accent carefully. I found her harder to understand, but she and I had a short conversation, and then Tibor proudly proclaimed, "You see? She understands Czech too!" Ah ha. So that's what Olga had been speaking! I don't know why I didn't recognize it, because usually I do. Afterwards I certainly heard it.

They had such a beautiful flat! It had that rare grace of being both light and airy, and yet also warm and inviting, even in the depths of winter. I hope my future home has that someday.

We dropped off our stuff and then the four of us, along with Olga, set out for sightseeing! No time to waste.

We took a half-hour ride on an electric tram (they were everywhere) up to near Prague Castle. Well, I guess I could say it now rather than later... That kind of summarized Prague for me: Beautiful-- and way, way too many tourists everywhere. (Larissa told me recently it is the number 4 most visited city in Europe after London, Paris, Rome.) Sadly, it kind of spoiled the beauty for me. I definitely appreciated the exquisite architecture, and the fact that every single building was old and special; but the entire time I was elbow-to-elbow with a million other people also craning their necks to see the next Gothic building. Every place we went I heard English everywhere, along with a dozen other languages from all over the world.

Okay, despite this all, Prague castle was great. The weather was perfect for sightseeing and for picture-taking-- I can see how nicely the clear blue skies contrasted with the red roofs, now that I look back through the four hundred pictures I took.

Prague castle is actually where the president of the Czech Republic lives, and while there were uniformed guards who couldn't smile (just like at Buckingham Palace-- and all the obnoxious people trying to get them to move were there too), I'm sure there was much more important, hidden security around.

One archway past the castle was the cathedral... I think I can say that's the most intricately-detailed architecture I've ever seen! Every spire had another spire on top of it, and so on. The coolest gutters you'll ever see-- at the front, on one side of the door was an owl, and the other side a gargoyle. When it rains the water spouts out their mouths... Unless they've blocked them now for safety reasons, as I can imagine, because it looks like they would be spitting a lot of water, and it's at least twenty feet down from there... Look out below! That would hurt.

Through a few more courtyards, a short street, and two more archways, we emerged at what must be the very best view of the city. We waited our turn, and then got to lean out over the walls (chin-height at the highest, waist-high at the lowest) and see all of Prague. Now that was exciting for me! I could pick out all the buildings and bridges I knew so well from photos. It was different in that a) I was actually there seeing them; and b) it was a nice day. For some reason I've always imagined Prague under an oppressively overcast day. Don't worry-- I got that dream fulfilled on Sunday.

We drank in the view for a long time, and then we walked down several of the narrow cobblestone alleys Prague is so famous for, and went to a traditional little kircma. (For those who don't remember, "kircma"= place you drink. Basically a pub. I think the name also denotes "dive"; you wouldn't call a nice place a kircma.) As expected, it was a very smoky place with only a few tables-- everyone was sitting at the bar. We sat at a table with the coolest ashtray I've ever seen: a large ceramic polar bear (with red eyes!) leaning over a glacial pool (the latter = where you shake the ash into). I think ashtrays are generally supposed to be small and discreet, and that was neither.

Tibor and Olga took the alcohol-and-cappuccino approach, which is what most people do at kircma. Ruth, Elena, and I all got punch (I didn't know what to order, since the whole menu was alcoholic or coffee, so they recommended the punch, saying it was delicious and had a low alcohol content). The punch was hot, but not too hot (just the right temperature for me!), bright red, and came with a lemon to squeeze and then drop into it. I thought it was delicious.

Elena and Ruth came back from the bathroom (called WC --pronounced "kvetsie"), and then I went. I opened the little door, expecting to see a little closet, and was in for a big surprise... I was in a garden! Okay, I had the brief, ridiculous thought of "Do they seriously want people to use their garden?!", but then I thought further. I'm sure space in Prague, as in any beautiful city, is very dear, so this garden in a large, quiet courtyard was quite unexpected. I walked around for a bit, and then found the actual WC, which was in fact a tiny closet. That was an interesting experience, though, in opening doors! I'm glad Elena and Ruth didn't warn me, but let me discover it for myself.

Olga said goodbye to us after kircma, because she had other errands and things to do. We walked on. This is all a bit of a blur to me, because we went everywhere and took the electric trams and the underground subway countless times to different places around the city. I think we went next to a bridge near the famous Charles Bridge (Czech: Karluv most; Slovak: Karlov most). We admired the Charles Bridge from afar, and the river below us, and the city on both sides. As we went, Ruth told me the very sad story of Ceskoslovensko...

The way I'd read about the countries' split at the end of 1992 (officially on January 1, 1993), it had sounded like a "best for all involved," natural thing. As in, oh, the Czech Republic and Slovakia had never really merged into one country, but had been two countries forced to act as one. Plus, it was a hassle to have the capital, Prague, be so far away for people in, say, Slovakia. So it was a mutual decision, once they were free from Communism, to split.

Not what I heard from Ruth! "We were better as Ceskoslovensko. We were both stronger countries that way." According to her, two evil politicians got together and worked out this deal for themselves. One was Czech and one was Slovak, and they wanted the countries to split so they could be the respective presidents (as it happened) and get lots of money and power. The actual citizens didn't want the country to split. But--ta da! They did it. All according to plan. Ruth says the countries will probably never get back together again; not only is it too complicated, etc., she says the young people of the countries don't really like each other now. A lot of Slovaks I know don't consider Bratislava their capital, but Prague. And I've heard Czechs lament losing all the mountains (Slovensko's got them, Cesko doesn't). It seems very sad to me...not to mention just plain evil.

After we were over the bridge, we went to a place for lunch. It was in a smoky basement area and had a pirate theme for some reason--all the walls were cheaply painted with waves, and ghost ships, and one pirate. At Ruth's suggestion, I ordered the Czech national dish. (Oh! I should mention that now I do like the Slovak national dish, halusky. I had it again [actually at a Rotary meeting], and I really liked it.) It's knedl'a (my favorite!) with pork and sauerkraut. I think it's delicious. They certainly prepared it really well in that place! (Though, truth be told, the knedl'a slices were pretty stingy in size. Sort of sad.)

After lunch, we walked around some more, and then went to another kircma. Maybe I can't say "kircma," actually, because this was a top-of-the-line bar. It was huge. The room we were in had a wall that was just a giant TV screen. (The news was on.) The bar itself was made of light panels that changed colors in a pleasant, subtle way. Each table had its own (what I'll call) smart tap. These things were incredible. You held your glass up to the tap and pulled back the handle, and on the screen a price would immediately start ticking upwards, about 7 cents a second or something. Not only that, the smart tap had jukebox and table service options, among games and much more. I've never seen that before. (Then again, I've been in only one other bar in my entire life, at age 12 in Princeton, NJ; so who am I to say what's standard?)

Then we were off to the Charles Bridge. It's called Karluv Most in Czech, and Karlov Most in Slovak. (We took trams and the subway to so many, many places, I can't note here when we walked somewhere and when we took public transportation.) Yay! The highlight of Prague!

And...a billion and a half tourists. I heard English or German or Dutch or Chinese way more than I heard Czech. It was just a sea of people. But hey, I was one of them, and I snapped a million and a half photos of every little cobblestone from five different angles. (I took over 700 pictures in Praha alone.)

So, yes, it was extraordinarily pretty. There were caricature artists and people selling jewelry and postcards, all for what were no doubt extortionate sums, along the bridge; I saw one young beggar who had his head covered by his sweatshirt; I saw him later, not on the bridge, with his friend, and he looked like a very well-off con artist. Um-hmm.

From the bridge I could see little waterfalls in the river below. Once, a cloud of birds took to the sky, and I managed to capture it in my camera's lens. I didn't stop to look much at the individual statues, because they were too crowded and there are so many of them. Actually, this last week in Ethics class at school we passed around photos of statues on the bridge and had to guess what idea they represented (things like "paternity," "vanity," "fate").

We spent a very long time on the bridge, but afterwards we had to hurry, almost running, to get to the stare namestie, the square in the old town (that and the bridge are probably the most famous parts of Prague). We had to hurry because it was only a few minutes to the hour, and we wanted to see the ringing of the bells at the tower.

The square was packed and I held my bag tightly in front of me--city of pickpockets! There was the astrological clock above us, marked with names for all 365 days. I primed my camera. It began. A little skeleton figure rang a bell in his hand, a few figures came out very quickly on some revolving mechanism, and then the door shut and it was over! What?! "Yeah," Tibor said, "I've heard it's not supposed to be much." It couldn't have been more than thirty seconds. Oh well!

There in the main square was my favorite building in Prague. In all the pictures I've ever seen of the city and all that, I've always loved this one the most. It's a very sharply-spired, black-roofed Gothic church, rather ominous-looking; in the center is a large design in gold. We didn't go up close, but I took it in enough from afar.

Also in the square were little huts selling food; a lot of it were things cooked on wood; the huts' walls were basically just stacked firewood. There was also a very large, green-bronze sculpture. I would say statue, but I think of statues as being upright; this was more of a horizontal sprawl. Interesting.

We briefly looked inside another church that was on the square, and then we continued through the narrow alleys stuffed with souvenir shops.

We walked on, to the newer, trendier shopping parts of Praha (just as many tourists!) as it got darker. Tibor dropped Ruth, Elena, and I off at a large mall; we were going to go dress shopping for Stuzkova (Slovak Prom-equivalent), because there are only a few dress shops in Nitra, and Ruth and Elena were hoping to find dresses that the whole class wouldn't have. Unfortunately, after a lot of walking around, we found out the mall did not have such a shop. So, oh well.

It was 7:30 by that time, and time to make the long way home. It took at least an hour to get back--long tram rides! Olga was waiting at the apartment, and we chatted for a little while, but then we went out again for dinner.

I had vyprazany syr--my favorite--for dinner with kofola. We were all kind of tired and worn out and ready for bed. That came soon enough.

Next day! Sunday. Olga laid out a beautiful breakfast spread for us of yogurt, granola, rozky (rolls), parky (sausages), and tea. We took our time, and finally hit the streets at 10:30 or so.

We first went to yet another old Gothic church--I don't think it's very famous, but every building in Prague is worth looking at, you know. Sunday morning mass was starting, and Ruth, Elena, and I popped in quietly to take a look, and then ducked back out. The church was in a small, empty brick square. It also had the gargoyle-gutters above its door. I'd like to see those in the rain!

And then time for Wenceslas Square! Vasclavske Namestie, as Pimsleur Czech taught me to say many months ago.

This was where the Revolution took place. I'm talking about the Velvet Revolution in 1989 when Ceskoslovensko ousted Communism. As with most revolutions, it was given force primarily by the young people, the students. There in the square, people would hang out their balconies "ringing" their keys. The Revolution is really amazing. How do you overcome Communism without even one good ol' defenestration, Prague-style? (It's called "Velvet" because there was no violence, no casualties.)

The square is a long mall visually unobstructed except by its main feature, the very large stone statue of King Wenceslas on his horse. (The horse's tail is knotted up.) It hadn't rained on us, but it had rained the night before. The sky was gray--more how I picture Prague--and the ground was wet. When Ruth, Elena, and I took a picture together on the steps of the statue, you could see the puddles on the stone.

We also went to Starbucks there. There were so many Starbuckses in Prague! It was Ruth's first time having Starbucks since America, and she missed it dearly. (There is not a single Starbucks in Slovakia. Even in Bratislava.) Though I like Starbucks, I didn't feel the need to get a coffee. The nice warm smell of roasting beans was good enough!

(this is the point at which my computer restarted after the internet died. I had already finished the whole post. That really, really sucked.)

We walked on through the narrow alleys of souvenir shops, and this time did some shopping. I got a blue and saffron-colored Prague scarf--it looks like a tapestry. I wear it all the time and I really notice when I don't and am waiting for the bus in the poor neck.

We popped into the information center for Charles University there in Prague, one of Ruth's top choice schools she'll be applying too. Something amazing, and hard for me to believe, but it's true: tuition to all schools in Slovakia and the Czech Republic is entirely free, including for foreigners. What?! It's a good arrangement for the people in Slovensko and Cesko (well, mainly Slovensko--more Slovak students are going to Czech universities than the other way around), but why doesn't the whole world flock to Central Europe to get in on this? My only explanation is the language, I suppose. Not many people outside of Ceskoslovensko speak the languages. I will be one of the exceptions at year's end. :)

The day was cold, gray, and misty, and threatening rain. We'd seen everything you're supposed to see and had definitely walked the city. So we took the half-hour electric tram ride back to the apartment to wrap up our stay. Olga had warm tea waiting. I did all the dishes that had accumulated, and then we went out to lunch at a restaurant just around the block.

I had something similar to the Czech national dish again. So, something interesting to report about dining in Praha: Many months ago, when I watched Rick Steves: Prague and the Czech Republic, Rick had warned me about finishing off your drinks; he said they would immediately be refilled (without asking), and you would be charged! I didn't experience this, actually; though the waiters had an uncanny sense for the fullness of my glass (I would go unnoticed for fifteen minutes with one swig of Kofola left; when I finally took that last sip, they would instantly appear and whisk the cup away), they always asked me if I wanted another. However, something else regarding drinks, which I don't remember Rick talking about: When you would order drinks, the waiter would make tick marks on a slip of paper, which he would leave on the table and add to when things were refilled. At the end of the meal, he would write all the totals on the tab of paper and that was your bill. I'm not sure if this is exclusively a Prague thing, or if it's widespread in the Czech Republic, but it's definitely not the case in Slovakia.

Back at the apartment we got all our stuff together at last and said goodbye to our kind hostess. It was 1 o'clock or so and we were back on the road. The rain broke at last there, and aside from the beautiful Fall forests, the drive was pretty uneventful. We listened to Karel Gott, and Ruth somehow got stuck in the backseat behind the front seat. Hmm.

Something rather funny. We stopped for gas in a little town outside of Trnava (about halfway between Bratislava and Nitra). It was dark, it was rainy, it was cold. Ruth, Elena, and I got out to use the bathroom. Waiting for each other in the hallway outside the bathroom, we were looking at the two large, framed maps of Slovakia that were on the walls. The first was a topographical map under glass; looking closely, we realized above where Nitra was marked, someone had scribbled over the glass in red marker, so you couldn't read it. The other map had no glass over it. What?! This time, where Nitra was, the angry person had actually cut out the name with some sharp object, so all you could see was cardboard where the name had been. Furthermore, this thorough person had also scratched out "Nitra" below the map, where it was ranked by population with other Slovak cities. Obviously some psycho has it out for my beloved city.

We got home, it was 7 PM, and we dropped Elena off at her house on Zobor. For the events that followed, see one of my much older blog posts.

Whew! Finally done with that post! It was awful that several times huge chunks of it got deleted because the wi-fi died. According to the publishing program I've been working on this thing (off and on) since October 25th! Well at least it wasn't a full month... ;)

Much love!

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