Thursday, June 28, 2007

Kutna Hora

Probably one of the longest and most fun days today. But I am getting tired, and need to be getting more sleep. I think I should probably go to bed right after this (though it is only 10:30) because I am getting a cold and I think it may be related to not getting enough sleep. Anyways, back to the story of my day.
Today we traveled to Kutná Hora, which is one of the bigger cities in the Czech Republic. It is also not a huge tourist attraction, so it was nice to see a city that wasn’t swarming with tourists. Our bus left at 8 in the morning, which is why I haven’t been getting enough sleep, and we drove south east for about 100 kilometers. Though driving was uneventful, it was fun to look out the window and watch as it changed from suburbs (for about a half an hour) into the actual countryside. Czech countryside, from what I have seen, seems to be similar to what would be seen while driving through upstate New York. Very pretty, somewhat interesting. But I was just tired, so I slept for a lot of the way/ listened to my little iPod shuffle. Most people on the bus were sleepy, so there wasn’t much interesting conversation.
The first stop in Kutná Hora was an old monastery. It was famous in medieval times because a monk once took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and found soil that was part of Christ’s grave and scattered the soil on the cemetery. Christians wanted to be buried in the soil because it was believed that Christ would more likely visit such a place after the second coming of Christ if it had more importance. (And it took a long time for Christ to get from place to place because he had to walk!) The real interesting part about the monastery was found in the inside. For some reason, I’m not positive why, they decided to make the interior decorations out of bones. I know my mom saw something similar in Portugal, but the sight in person is quite shocking. I had never seen anything quite like it; the altar, the goblets, the cross, the decorations, everything was made out of skulls, leg bones, jaw bones, etc. My favorite decoration (or should I say the one I found most interesting, everything was quite unnerving) was the chandelier centerpiece. It was mostly made out of skulls near the bottom, but as it got higher, the rows of skulls were connected by leg and arm bones. Finally, it was attached to the ceiling by strings that were decorated with jaw bones. It was crazy. I lit a candle, but since I’m not Catholic I wasn’t sure exactly who to pray for. So I prayed for one of the skulls, and I wonder if it’s spirit is somewhere in the afterlife and feels a small part of the world remembering his presence...
I’m not sure where they got the bones. I know they dug them up, but I’m not sure if it was the bones of the monks or the commoners or what. However, the sight was amazing. They said that the bones were dug up in the 15th or 16th century, but they are still in good condition. Nowadays, the monastery is pretty much just a sight for the morbidly curious as well as those interested in making B rated movies or having a very unique wedding! I wonder if Katie would have liked to get married surrounded by thousands of skeletons...
After the monastery, we went into the downtown area. The tour was kind of boring of the city. It was more of a lesson on historical progress and the creation of cities and the effect it had on the population and the idea of the individual. This was interesting, but it became very long. After looking at a couple of interesting buildings and a cathedral, we were allowed to get lunch. We found this really quaint restaurant that served traditional Czech meals (at a great price). The soup was delicious, and only 12 krona. Our waiter didn’t speak a word of English, and it was really fun to order off of the Czech menu; it helps that we are learning a lot about food in our Czech language class.
The most fun part at lunch was the tourists next to us. They also didn’t speak English, and for a while they were just staring at our food. Then my friend Emily said, “Hey, they are speaking Spanish!” Of course, I was really excited and broke into Spanish and was able to help the Spaniards order their food. They were really impressed with my Spanish ability (I was surprised I could still speak pretty well) and I was glad I could help translate the menu (from Czech to Spanish, pretty tricky). The only difficulty was that they used the vosotros form, a verb conjugation form that we didn’t worry about in throughout my Spanish classes. It is only used in Spain, and rather difficult when you only studied it for two years in high school. They also had a slight lisp; they were from south of Barcelona, really interesting. I never thought I would be speaking Spanish in a Czech restaurant with 4 elder hispanoblantes.
After lunch, we headed to the mines. Kutná Hora is known for it’s silver mine, which thrived for 400 years from about the 1200's to the 1700's. After the discovery of mine in South America (specifically Potosi) there was less attraction in the mining in Kutná Hora. The mines went as deep as 600 meters, which is about 2,000 feet. The silver mine was able to strengthen the economy of Kutná Hora and it vied against Prague as the capital of the Bohemia. There was a lot of importance about minting various coins, but most of that went over my head. I was too excited for the actual touring of the mines; we were going to enter the mines ourselves!

Our group put on white, frock-like garments, grabbed a flashlight and mining helmet, and headed down into the depths. Although we only went down 30 meters, it felt like we were in the heart of the earth. If we all turned off our flashlights, it was pitch black; the miners worked with hardly any light and mined for 6 hour shifts, only mining about one or two inches a shift. It seemed like very hard work, but it paid off. The mine was a little scary, and I couldn’t imagine being in it if I was a tad bit claustrophobic. At some points, the ceiling was only four feet high, and at others, it was so narrow that we had to walk sideways. We also had to crowd together, and could barely fit into a section overlooking an underground ravine. It was surreal, it was like living in another world. On the walls, limestone had grown throughout the years and it looked like some sort of beast had passed through. My friends and I joked, saying it was the great wheat beast that traveled through and left it’s slime. (We have an ongoing joke that wheat comes from the great wheat beast, various interpretations have arisen as to what it looks like. I will attach my picture. The wheat beast is our source of wheat, I mean if steak comes from a cow, then hamburger buns must come from some sort of animal, right?) Anyways, we weren’t allowed to take pictures, but it is an experience I won’t forget. I cannot imagine a life where everyday I had to descend into such great depths.
Our final leg of the tour was the St. Barbara Cathedral. St. Barbara was a martyr who died by being locked in a metal cage, so I guess the miners of the city were able to empathize with such a death and chose her for their patron saint. Interestingly, the cathedral was funded by the miners and not the church. With their increased wealth from the silver mines, they were able to create a lavish church that did not follow some of the patterns familiar to most churches. For example, St. Barbara is higher than the virgin Mary and Jesus on the outside entrance of the church; it seems a little sacrilege, but shows part of the cultural tradition. The inside was gigantic, and beautiful, but eventually all the Cathedrals you see seem to swirl in your mind, and I can’t remember any specific characteristics. There was a very nice organ, but other than that, it was another grand and beautiful church. Religion in the Czech Republic is very interesting, but this letter is getting quite long and I should leave that for another day. I also need to write about all my friends that I have met... but I should sleep!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Laundry in Prague

Today was very eventful. Well, not eventful, but exciting? Kind of... I guess I’ll let you judge it. Of course, I had Czech class in the morning as well as my political science course. I am really interested in my poli-sci course. The teacher is very into the subject, and we are focusing on Eastern Europe, which is one of my great passions right now. I’m not sure why, but I really want to see how post-Soviet states are able to deal with their transition to democracy and how their current political status corresponds to both their historical background and cultural tradition.
I’ve been feeling kind of sick today, so I thought maybe it was allergies. I’ve been sneezing and my throat is itchy, and I know there is some chlorine in the tap water (which is fine to drink) but I think I’m kind of allergic to chlorine. So I went to the drug store and bought some Zyrtec. Well, I asked “Mate antihistamine?” And they said yes, and I was surprised when she brought out some Zyrtec... I’m pretty sure that is a prescription medicine in the United States, but I just asked for it and she brought it out. In Czech, it is pronounced something like Zeertets (with a rolled r). I really love Czech. I’ve been able to say more and more things, and taking foreign languages while in the foreign country really adds on to the ability to learn. But that case system is still pretty darn hard. I hope I can figure it out.
I decided I needed to do laundry today. For some reason, there aren’t washing machines in the dorm room. I don’t know why. But there aren’t. Seems stupid, right? Well, I had to walk a couple of blocks to do my laundry and IT IS SO EXPENSIVE!! It was 20 dollars for my two loads. I wouldn’t be in such a bind, but it is hot here so your stuff gets smelly and you have to wash it. And I ran out of underwear; if there is one thing you need it is underwear. Well, I walked in and asked how the lady was in Czech, but all of a sudden she starts freaking out at me and my friend Liza. She is just like “a;lksfdlbka sdn; ajsjl;fda ;lkjk;ljasdfhkasdhsfnasdf koijpasdfuonasdfiasduifnk oijaewronjdfj oahsdfoih anej havsdnpipi0aepin lasdvlkbu nalsdpvunpadsfng” and we obviously don’t know enough Czech to know what’s going on. However, she kept saying the Czech words for 3 4 and 7. We were in the other night right before it closed, and I guess she told us that we needed to come in at 4 because it takes 3 hours and they close at 7. Obviously we missed that, because we came in today at 4:30. She calmed down though, but we were kind of scared for a second. Soon after, she became very nice as we continued to try and use Czech and paid her the 400 krona. Money seems to make anyone happy. I kept forgetting things in my laundry bag, and she started laughing at me in a friendly way. As I left, I forgot my sock in a bag so I ran back in and we had our laugh and she taught me the Czech word for sock. So, I either made a great friend, or all my clothes will be bleached as a means for revenge. I guess we will see in a half an hour... The nice thing about it is you don’t need to stay at the laundry mat. She washes it for you, and folds it afterwards. It better be great, because 20 dollars is expensive for laundry.
After the laundry mat, we went to the ATM. I took out some money, and they always give you big bills at the ATM. Now that is fine, but in Prague, they freak out if they have to break a 1000 krona bill, and are amazingly pissed if you give them a 2000. So we went to get it changed at the bank, and they were really nice. Once again, using a little Czech goes a long way; furthermore, the people of Prague won’t hate me.
But I’m tired. I think I should take a nap. Can’t wait to speak more Czech.

Czech Theater

Czech theater is very strange.... I was fortunate enough to be able to go to the National Theater yesterday (or národni divadlo) and was pleasantly surprised.
Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that I was fortunate, because the theater was only 30 Krona. That’s right. One dollar and fifty cents to see a matinee at the national theater. It was displayed as A Walk Worthwhile, an opera. We were expecting true opera, but it was not an opera. It was very similar to a musical, but with lines of music that were very unmelodic (think Wagner, but a little more musical) but the plot was completely different. It involved a couple who were getting a divorce, but their kid could inherit a million dollars, so they were thinking of getting back together but there were two guys who also wanted to get married to the woman so they could be part of the inheritance. It was magical and fantastical, and a really artsy show. I know some people didn’t like it, but I enjoyed it a lot. Also, it was amazing to see the inside of the national theater. The outside looks like a Louis Vuitton purse, and I was curious to see if the inside was interesting as well. It didn’t disappoint. It was gigantic, and very European if you know what I mean.
The applause after the show was a little ridiculous. I swear the curtain closed and reopened a good 20 times after the end of the show. People would not stop. It got annoying after a while. But they deserved the applause. I was expecting a low budget show, since we payed so little, but the show was fantastic. The voices were great, and the scenery was truly impressive. I could have gotten a seat in the front center for only 200 kronas. I kind of wish I would have done that.... I was near the back of the second Mezzanine, and there was a pillar in my line of sight, but it helped that I was so high up and could read the superscript. I wish I would have had my videotape and could have taped this crazy show...
The writers of the show, which wikipedia does not have any information on surprisingly, Jiri Suchy and Jiri Slitr, wrote the play in the sixties, but it seems to still be very popular in Prague. (Ps, Jiri has the hard r in it... fun name) I kind of want to go again, but I’m not sure how much other people liked it. Milos Forman was the director of the show. If the name sounds familiar, he is the Czech director who moved to the states and directed both Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ve never seen these movies, but I really want to now that I have seen how he put A Walk Worthwhile together. Oh, there is one more theater device that I loved! When we went through the door, there was an accordion player outside of the theater with his case open for money. I thought it seemed rather odd at such a popular theater (and boy do people dress up) but I forgot about it as soon as I entered the theater. However, he made a presence again on the stage! There was a homeless accordion player who was on and off the stage throughout the stage, and I think that said device was amazing.
Na shle!

Jewish Quarter

One of the more interesting parts in Prague is known as the Jewish quarter. Although the buildings are not the same as the ghetto in which the Jews were forced to live, there are still original synagogues and, of course, the famous Jewish cemetery. We toured the quarter today with the history professor. Throughout this summer, there will be tours of various historical parts of Prague, and this tour of the Jewish quarter was a great start.
Interestingly, I think I have visited two of the buildings we toured yesterday. The Spanish Synagogue had a very ornamental style and reminded me of the ornamentation found in Catholic Cathedrals. I had faint memories of visiting the synagogue and remembered that the women had to live on the second floor. I also remembered the Jewish cemetery. The gravestones all looked like crooked teeth coming out of the ground; the coffins are stacked underneath the gravestones as many as 10 thick; it seemed like an interesting way to continue using a full graveyard. It was also to look at which gravestones had stones on them; in the Jewish tradition, rocks are placed on gravestones rather than flowers to show that someone is still remembered.
It was, of course, also a very touching tour. We walked through a synagogue that displayed the paintings produced by children that were victims of the holocaust. Each painting had a story- from metaphors of escape and the end of the tragedy to paintings that just displayed children being children. At the end, I read the display, which described the plights of the children. Many were shipped to Auschwitz, while only a few escaped. With all this hope, their lives were destroyed before they even could experience the joys of adulthood because some psychopath believed that their race was inferior. The human race is capable of such great evil, it boggles my mind. Of course, there are also the amazing accomplishments we have achieved and the great good we have done. I don’t know... I want to learn more about the holocaust and visit some of the concentration camps nearby. We are thinking of visiting Krakow...

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Beer in the CR

An entry in this diary should be devoted to beer. This bev has thrived in Prague, and continues to be brewed in the Czech Republic with great success. As I mentioned before, beer is cheaper than water. And it kind of makes sense- the Czech people demand beer production and are already offset by the increase in prices from the times before the Berlin Wall. Our Paní Profesorka told us that the beer used to be about 4 kronos (which equals roughly 60 cents). When changes occurred during the Soviet Regime which increased prices to closer to 20 kronos, many Czechs felt there way of life would be destroyed.
Enjoying our big beers...

Obviously, this change hasn’t effected life here too drastically. Beer is still the liquid of choice, and continues to be quite cheap when compared to prices found in the United States. Of course, this mostly applies to domestic beers ,such as Staropramen, Budwar, and Pilsner, but bottled imports are less than prices found in the states.
Budwar is another interesting story. It is labeled on the streets as both Budwar (it’s Czech name) and Budwesier (it’s anglicized name). Currently, there are legal naming battles between Budwar and the Budweiser in the states over the use of this name. However, Czech beer seems to have the upper hand since their beer is older, but I wouldn’t expect the name to disappear in the states anytime soon.
The beer is stronger here... I think they are allowed to have a higher alcohol percentage than beers in the United States. Of course, sometimes this can have unnecessary accidental buzziness could occur. This can lead to some fun situations too, but probably not blog worthy.
I think that is all I have to say about beer right now; maybe I’ll write more when I know more.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Czech Adventure III

It’s raining on and off again today, but I am enjoying the weather. Right now, I am sitting in the windowsill of our apartment, looking out on the little Czech alley. I wish I had some espresso, I would feel really European.
Yesterday I went to the Mucha museum. My sister Sarah likes Mucha a lot, and I was interested in seeing more of his works. It was really cool, and his art is really interesting. It seemed that most of his works were used for posters and advertising, which, to me, is a very interesting medium. I also enjoyed the ink or paint which he used. There are a lot of metallic colors and very distinct lines. Most of his works were print-ads, but he also had some oils on canvas, which surprised me. During the second half of his artistic career (beginning of the 20th century) he was working on his Great Slav Epic. Although this epic wasn’t displayed, it really sparked my interest and I want to see this great work; it was completed in 20 panels and the total surface area covers a half of a square kilometer. I think it is displayed in Brno, so I want to visit and see the masterpiece. He also had a very interesting life, and it was interesting to see his life adjacent to his works.
I also did some grocery shopping; the few Czech words really helped me find food that I like. Czech is very interesting- if there are two words used to describe something, like ice-cream sandwich, the first word becomes an adjective. For example,
Ice cream is “zrmlzina” and sandwich is “sendvice”. To make zrmlzina an adjective, we add an “ove” (to match the neuter gender of sendvice). So ice-cream sandwich is “zrmlzinové sendvice” (or something like that). Knowing this rule really helps a lot when shopping for food!
Today I went shopping at a mall on the west bank of the Vltava. The mall was pretty big (no MOA, of course) and I bought a hilarious shirt at Terranova. It was weirdly translated:
...I don’t want to see Sheila
and her new boyfriend

Best shirt ever. It just is so random... I hope that there are Czech people that wear this shirt and have no idea what it is saying. The clothing stores are very similar to the states, except every once in a while you will see a unique botique that is very European. Terranova is one such store. We went to a carousel as well on the top floor of the mall and rode in the tea cup. That was a horrible idea. My friend Emily and I still feel sick to our stomachs even though it was about 2 hours ago; I think when you are older you can spin faster, and get sicker.
There is a musical festival occurring on the islands on the Vltava this weekend with various music styles. Some of the music is indie, some is folk music, and some is rock. Czech music is really interesting. Well, I guess it is pretty similar to live music you would hear in the States except the words are ridiculous. Our student guides told us that some bands don’t really make sense in Czech, they are just singing random words. Sounds like some bands in the states :-D
I went to a chain restaurant called Bohemian Bagel today that offered bagels, coffee, sandwiches, salads, etc. and it was very similar to coffee shops in the United States. It was weird, because I could be eating in the US, except the menus were in Czech. One huge difference in restaurants is water. You cannot order tap water, but only bottled water. It is expensive too. It is cheaper to drink beer than water. Beer is like 18 Kronos, less than a dollar, while a similar sized water would be like 25 Kronos.
I’m hungry again, I think I will grab some food, and more updates are sure to come!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Czech Adventures II

It’s raining really hard outside... luckily I have already had class, and don’t have to leave the room. It is a serious thunderstorm- Czech news stations said that the chance of rain was “100%”. Haha, is that even possible? I don’t think that news stations in the United States do that.
I’m kind of hungry. I’m trying to budget my resources, so I can have more money to travel. So I have been having smaller lunches. But I think it balances out with some of the dinners. There food can be pretty rich. I used to get dumplings when I was in Prague 7 years ago. However, I’m not sure if I really like them anymore. They are usually served with either beef or pork in a gravy like stew and sauerkraut. I like this sauce more now, but the dumplings are kind of gross. They are like half-cooked bread... not that cool.
I really want to go to the Ukranian or Romanian countryside. Taking a train through the “old country” would be an amazing time, wouldn’t it? I think I should only take one trip, because my goal is to learn Czech, so the more practice I have the better, right? I’m having less difficulty with the “ř”. It is still hard, but when I get the letter I am really excited.
I’m still amazed at the power of the Czech language. The second you speak in Czech, you are treated much more politely. They respect you for trying and realized that you are staying longer than a couple of days. I really get excited when I find a shopkeeper that doesn’t speak English because than I’m forced to speak Czech. I know I mentioned this earlier, but you also get deals on items. Not like you really need it. One really nice thing about staying in Prague is that the prices are much lower. For a dollar you get about 20 krowns. I’ll give you some examples of what I can buy with such little money:
1.5 liters of water at Tesco? 4 Krowns
2 liters of sparkling grapefruit juice at Tesco? 3 Krowns
A banana? (Or banan) 5 krowns
A loaf of bread? 10 krowns
T-shirt? 200 krowns (about 10 dollars)
I’m trying to limit my expenses to 200 krowns a day. So far, that looks plausible. They give us breakfast, and I have been buying ingredients for making lunch. Unfortunately, there isn’t a full kitchen (just a kitchenette) so I don’t have the capability to actually cook. With the cheap prices, it almost seems smarter to just go out to eat for dinner. You can get a full meal at about 4 dollars if you go to an average restaurace.
The storm actually just finished, and I think I might go to Tesco (the Wal-Mart of Prague, but full of European goods and a little classier) to buy some groceries.
NA SHLEDANOU! (good bye)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Czech Adventures I

I walked all around Prague today. It is amazing that I remember certain things since my first visit. For example, we walked across Charles Bridge and all of a sudden I remembered that the John Lennon memorial was nearby. We searched, and we found it. It was a little surreal. I wish David and Sarah were with me. I also remembered how to get to the astronomical clock randomly. It is crazy.
I love the Czech language. There are some letters that aren't found in English and they are really fun to pronounce. One letter is ridiculous. It is a combination of T a rolled R and a Zh sound (like the je in French). Whenever I manage to pronounce it, I am really excited.
Last night, we went to a restaraunt with the entire group. They served amazing food. I had a fresh mozarrella cheese and tomato salad for the appetizer, pheasant over gnochi for the main course, and a chocolate dessert. It was phenomenal. Of course, they also served us wine. Which they kept refilling (for free). So I got a little drunk....
Funny story, I was at this restaurace (how it's spelled in Czech) the other day, and ordered gnochi. I pronounced it correctly (the Italian way) and the waitress gave me a weird look. So I pointed it out on the menu and she said "Oh, it is called guh-know-chi" Our group tried not to laugh. But then again, I'm sure we mispronounce many words that originally came from another language. Spaghetti, for example, actually has an sh sound at the beginning in Italian. Weird.
Czech uses the case system. Which can be difficult. It is also really entertaining. My name, for example, changes depending on the situation. Mark in Czech is Marek. But when you say, "Hey, Mark!" as a friend, you would say, "Ahoj, Marku!" There are 8 cases I think, maybe 7, and we will learn them this semester as well as the past, future and present tense. I really love my Czech teacher. She makes the language super fun, and she is a great help.
The Czech people respond so positively when you use Czech. The second we say something in Czech, it becomes easier to do transactions. It is also cheaper. We went to a restaurant that we heard had great lunch specials. However, the waiters gave us the regular menu. They try to trick non-Czech speakers into buying more expensive entrees. We asked for the lunch menu and they gave it to us. It was in Czech, but we figured it out. We probably saved like 3 bucks.
I'm going to go see what my friends are up to for dinner. More will come later.