Monday, March 30, 2009


Ahoj! It's been far too long since my last post, so I will try to post every day this week until Thursday (Friday through Sunday I will be in Vienna). I have been quite busy academically, socially and otherwise so fear not that I have been wasting my time.

Seeing as how very little of my actual stay in Prague has been recorded, I thought I would grace you with some descriptions of the sights I encounter daily. The above picture was taken as I was strolling across Mánesův most (bridge) on my way to class. The Vltava River courses through the city and separates Staré Město (Old Town) from Malá Strana (Lesser Quarter). This was a rare sunny day in Praha as the sun is usually shrouded by clouds that delight in sporadically dampening the populace. The mountains that encircle Bohemia plus the city's situation in a river basin conspire to trap moisture in the valley.

 From the bridge, directly behind me is Pražský hrad (Prague Castle). The spires you see are from Katedrála svatého Víta (St. Vitus Cathedral) which is located within the heart of the complex. The castle is closed until April 1st, at which point one can tour the estates, including the gardens and vineyard. Unfortunately, my camera is horrible with night photography, otherwise I would post a picture of it all lit up, its lights lambent on the waves of the Vltava.

Here you can see Mánesův most (foreground) from the vantage point of Letná, a park and biergarten that overlooks the city. The bridge behind it is Karlův most (Charles Bridge). Currently, it is being renovated for the upcoming tourist season so an unsightly white scaffold covers the end leading to Staré Město. The park was filled with people walking dogs and kids playing. Once Spring shifts into 2nd gear, I plan on spending much time here.

Taken from the same park, this picture shows Staré Město and to a lesser extent, Josefov (Jewish Quarter) and Nové Město (New Town). Far off in the distance, the twin spires of Vyšehrad, Prague's other castle, can be seen poking the sky, which had revealed its true colors by turning overcast in the span of the half-hour it took me to ascend the hill.

Another picture from the park, this time of Malá Strana. I live on this side of town. Its not as busy as Staré Město and less picturesque, but I appreciate how quaint and tourist-free it is. In fact, one of my favorite streets to walk down is on this side of town, which I will detail elaborately in my next post. The final picture I'll leave you with is of a miniature castle called Hanavský Pavilion, which is now an overpriced restaurant with an admittedly stunning view of the city from the edge of the park. Čau!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Kostnice Sedlec

A day-trip to Kutná Hora on Saturday was a great opportunity to see some of the Czech countryside. Muddy fields of grass with blobs of snow melting stretched along the highway. Swaths of woods dotted the landscape as we sped east from Praha. The van was quiet as the 9 AM departure time had ensured sleep-deprived passengers. Z (our Czech guide) rambled into the intercom about his experiences in the town. He's an ace fellow, 70 years chock-full of life, but he doesn't always know when to enjoy the silence. Nonetheless, we rolled into Kutná Hora around 10 and immediately made our way to the Sedlec ossuary (Kostnice Sedlec).

This is quite possibly the coolest thing I've ever seen. The bones from anywhere of 40,000 to 70,000 human skeletons were arranged into various works of art by František Rin, a Czech woodcarver and carpenter from the town of Ceska Skalice. He was commissioned by the House of Schwarzenberg to organize the bones exhumed from the Hřbitovní kostel Všech Svatých (Cemetery Church of All Saints) during the construction of the church. The bones belonged mostly to victims of the Black Death and the Hussite Wars. For reasons unknown, Rin commerated these victims and his sponsors with monstrances, giant goblets, a chandelier and the Schwarzenberg coat of arms. It was strangely peaceful in the chapel, not spooky or depressing, and I feel like what was crafted was done in a tone of reverence. This was one of the clinching factors in my decision to come to the Czech Republic and the satisfaction I felt upon exiting the chapel was immense.

From there, we saw the Church of St. Barbara which was under restoration. It was started in 1388 but because of dwindling revenue from the nearby silver mines combined with conflicting political factors, the Church was not completed until 1905. St. Barbara was the patron saint of miners and in a town like Kutna Hora, whose existence depended on the nearby silver mines, she was often and readily invoked. It is awe-inspiring to think that with only a few tools, building materials, and a creative drive fueled by spirituality that medieval people were able to construct these magnificent structures. Off in the distance, the Church of St. James' tower loomed against an overcast sky.

We stopped for lunch in a local diner and I had a modest meal of garlic soup (česneky polévka), potato pancakes (bramborák) and apple strudel (jablečný závin) with vanilla ice cream (Vanilková zmrzlina). Z ate with me and during the course of the meal we discussed places he had been and places I wanted to go. When he asked me why I came to the Czech Republic, I told him it was because I had never traveled abroad, that I had never met any Czechs and wanted to, that Praha had survived WWII almost unscathed, was in pristine condition and therefore of supreme interest to a History major, and that I wanted to challenge myself by studying in a foreign place with a strange language and rich culture. He thanked me for doing so, saying that he appreciated someone showing in an interest in his homeland, which was the most unexpected (and one the biggest) compliment(s) I've ever received.

After lunch, we toured the town square and surrounding streets. My camera's batteries died at this point but since I had managed to take a few photos (and since I had well-documented the ossuary) I wasn't too bummed. After roughly an hour, we piled back into the van and headed home. So ended one of my favorite excursions into the Czech countryside.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Solo Sojourn

Servus! That's Hungarian for "hello". This past weekend marked my first journey outside Prague that was not part of the AIFS program. Also, none of my comrades were able to join me so rather than miss out on a spectacular event, I decided to rough it and went by my lonesome.

Being an ardent bagpipe enthusiast, I love watching bagpipe videos from all over the globe on youTube. Some months ago, I found a video of a Croatian gajde player whose background was decorated with a variety of strange masks. I found that they belong to an ancient Hungarian tradition celebrating the onset of Spring (as well as the more modern spin of the expulsion of the Ottoman Turks) whereby the young men in the town don woolen garments, masks, and cattle bells and walk through the town creating a ruckus in an effort to scare away Winter/Turks. The carnival, called Busójárás (pronounced "boo-sho-yah-rahsh) is held in MohácsHungary every year six days before Ash Wednesday. Like many of the similar carnivals held around this time of years, the tradition has roots in pagan rituals that have managed to survive only in Europe's backwaters.

The first leg of my journey involved catching a bus to Budapest. After a grueling 6-hour ride, I arrived at the bus station. A friendly local named Istvan directed me to take the subway to the city center where I would surely find something to eat, see and do. Surely enough, upon ascension to the city streets, a flurry of lights, people and traffic greeted me on this bustling Friday night. I got some snacks and a flask of Unicum (a traditional Hungarian herbal liquor that tastes a bit like Jagermeister) and proceeded to wander about. I was taking a picture of the National Bank when I was accosted by a group of drunken girls who kidnapped me and took me to a nearby club called Macskafogó Zenés Kricsmi (I don't know how to say it or what it means). 

I cut rug for a few hours before slipping off to the bus station to catch a few Zs. I dozed for a few hours before catching a bus to Mohács. While overhearing people's conversations, it occurred to me how alien and unique the Hungarian language is. It's not an Indo-European language but Finno-Ugric, which means that aside from its distant cousin Finnish and a handful of Ugric languages spoken only by a few thousand people in western Siberia, it has no relation to any other language. In addition to the Finnish tendency to endlessly agglutinate prefixes and suffixes to a root word in order to determine case, gender, etc., Hungarian uses vowel harmony so that how one would attach, say, "on" to a word would depend on the number and arrangement of vowels in the previous words. According to the British embassy, Japanese is the hardest language to learn but Hungarian is the hardest language to translate. Fortunately, virtually every young Hungarian (even out in the sticks of Mohács) knows passable English and is willing to help a foreigner out.

I arrived in Mohács around 10 AM. The town was setting up for the festivities so I explored and took pictures of the town. It was very cute and reminded me of a Central European version of Eugene, OR. The locals were friendly enough and I felt welcome there. I napped on the Danube riverbank until evening before strolling through the carnival, inhaling the smells and listening to the folk music pouring through the streets. I had a falafel sandwich for dinner before watching the various parades and dances happening around town. Most of the adults were tipsy by sundown so they swayed where they stood, loitering under the festooned lights and joking with friends. The atmosphere was very family-friendly even though scary-looking Busós were clanking about everywhere.

Around 9 I went back to the bus station to sleep because every hotel and hostel in the town was booked. Unfortunately, it was locked at night so I went back into town. Outside a cafe I spoke with some young Hungarian men selling T-shirts who offered to let me sleep in their hostel 20km outside of town. Grateful, I accepted and left with them after they packed up their shop for the evening. We had some delicious Hungarian wine (tekaji, which you can find in most wine bars here) and cheeses before going to bed. They drove me back to Mohács that morning and I caught a bus back to Budapest. I took some photos of the city during my layover before catching another bus back to Prague. All in all, it was an amazing experience and though I got sick upon my return (due to poor sleeping and eating habits, I wager), I was glad I went but I think I've had my share of traveling to foreign countries alone (for now). Sorry, that was a long one but I hope you enjoyed it. Szia!

Monday, February 16, 2009

New Home

Ahoj! While Prague (Czech: Praha) has a gorgeous city center known as Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) in the heart of Praha 1 (the city is arranged into 10 municipalities), most of the population lives in the city's periphery or in the suburbs. Unfortunately, the outskirts are not nearly as scenic but they have their own charm nonetheless. I love the social realism of the Soviet architecture and get a real kick out of seeing the clunky high-rises painted in bright pastel colors. My guess is that the Czechs hate their appearance enough to try to liven them up but not enough to tear them down. 

My dormitory, the Komenskěho Kolej, is in the Hradčany district on the east side of town. I'm a stone's throw away from Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral and the Strahov Monastery. As you can see, my accommodations are modest but adequate. I'm quite glad to have a suite to myself because why I enjoy the company of my dorm mates, my lifestyle requires the tranquility that only solitude can provide.

A daily routine (at this point) consists of rising at around 8:30 to dine in the cafeteria. From there, I try to run errands and take advantage of the day before heading to class. Currently, I am only enrolled in only my Czech Intensive Language course, which lasts from 14:00 to 18:30. This would be a grueling stretch if not for how interactive the class is. The teacher constantly is drilling us and making us drill each other that spacing out is impossible. Fortunately, the time goes by much quicker than expected and it's hard to beat the satisfaction of walking out into the city and understanding more street signs and overheard conversations than when you had entered class earlier that afternoon. 

This is where I go for my classes, the Charles University Faculty of Arts building. While the campus is spread all throughout the city, the majority of my classes later in the semester will be held here. To it's left is the National Theater (Národní divadlo) which showcases some of the finest cultural events in Prague. I have yet to attend any of its performances but I will likely remedy that situation in the near future. 

As you can see, much of the architecture in Prague is sprouting naked statues and fancy adornments from every available point. You'll have to wait until my Czech Art and Architecture class begins for me to give you the finer details. Regardless, it sure is beautiful. Just like everything else - even the sidewalks. Case in point:

I almost feel guilty hawking loogies onto them. But since every Czech person and their mother smokes and tosses their butts on the ground, I feel my infractions pale in comparison. OK now that this post has progressed into banality, I feel like it is a good cutting off pointČau!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Brief Tutorial

     Dobrý den! That's probably the most common, formal way of greeting someone - it means "good day". Informally, there's "Ahoj", which you may recall hearing a pirate say at some point (note: Czechs pronounce their j's as y's). I'll mention a few phrases occasionally but don't worry, I won't bore you with a linguistics course. However, since I plan on writing things using the Czech alphabet, here are a few pointers. 

   A č is like a ch as in Charlie, a š is like a sh as in ship, a ž is like a like the s in pleasure or the j in Jacques, an ě is like ye as in yeti, and the ř has no real equivalent in English (or any other language) but the best way to approximate it is to roll an r and follow it quickly with a ž-sound made by pressing the tongue against the roof of your mouth. It's virtually impossible for any non-native speaker to do correctly, so usually you can substitute a rolled r ž instead. 

They can also place accent marks over the vowels to elongate them. For example, náměstí, which means "(town) square" is pronounced "nah-mye-stee". Of course, there are a billion subtle differences in pronunciation (a c is said like the ts in hats and so on) of the alphabet letters we share but that's not important. Czech is a beautiful language but there is no doubt that it can be headache to speak. I'll spare you the nightmarish grammar unless I find it culturally significant to reference. That being said, I'll shortly post more details about my living arrangements. Na shledanou!

Monday, February 9, 2009

First Impressions

Hello folks! So where to begin? I’ll guess I’ll start with the first impressions I had when we rolled into Plzen on 01/31/09. Plzen was the only Czech town liberated by the Americans at the close of WWII and looks like it hasn’t aged a day since then. Rubble and debris lay in the mud surrounding crumbling buildings, their facades rife with peeling paint and graffiti. Off in the distance, the synagogue’s twin spires poked through a smoky haze. We had lunch at the Pilsner-Urquell brewery at the outskirts of town.  This is probably the most renowned of the local beer companies and their green logo can be seen glimmering above the entrances of many bars and pubs. It’s good stuff but frankly I’m not much of a beer drinker so I have hard time comparing the quality to other Czech beers, although I’m sure my opinions will be more finely tuned at the close of my stay.

After a light lunch, we hopped back on the bus and made our way to Prague. I had fallen asleep as the bus was leaving Munich, so I went straight from seeing German billboards to Czech ones. My knowledge of German, rusty as it is, gave way to total bewilderment as I could only (barely) pronounce the Czech words I was seeing. Thus, I left behind Western Europe and all notions of familiarity as we headed into former Soviet territory. I love the sound of the Czech language, partly because it’s altogether different from any Romance language and partly because with out the context of comprehension, it sounds like musical gibberish. Reputedly, Czech is one of the hardest languages for non-native (and especially English) speakers to learn. Once I start my Czech Intensive language course, I’ll let you in on the particulars.

We rolled into Prague later that evening, and WOW, I was stunned at how beautiful the place was. It deserves the moniker of “city of a hundred spires” because in any direction you turn your head there are spires are poking holes in the sky. The place has an unspoiled age about it, a result of surviving both World Wars relatively intact. Though I only have London and Munich as reference points, Prague strikes me as the most quintessential European city, with its winding cobblestone roads, statues jutting out of the sides and tops of buildings, and the plethora of sophisticated culture at one’s fingertips. There’s more museums, galleries, shops, and restaurants than one could hope to visit in a year. I look forward to my time spent here. Crossing the Charles Bridge is a breathtaking view what with Prague Castle overlooking the city like a benevolent sovereign. Suffice to say, I feel at home here. That’s all for today.