Sunday, June 23, 2013

Final thoughts on Prague

I became very fond of Prague by the end of my three weeks there. The above photo was taken on the Charles Bridge. The city consistently surprised me (and not just through hot air balloons.) The prevalence of fascinating stories, second hand stores, interesting music venues, friendly acquaintances, and vegetarian restaurants was far superior to what I had expected. Having my boyfriend there as company during my last week in the Czech Republic was also a lovely change of pace.

The above image was taken in the cathedral near Prague Castle. I enjoyed the Tibetan restaurant affiliated with the monastery next to the castle more than the castle itself. If you go to enough European countries, all of the castles start to bleed together. (This may be a European royal lineage pun.)

These shoes hang next to the Prague metronome (that took the place of an enormous statue of Stalin) in the park in the northern part of town. The metronome is a little anticlimactic (but not in terms of elevation! Ha!) but the shoes were fantastic. They remind me of the film Big Fish, in that they are whimsical and indicative of a different era.

This cathedral was in Kutna Hora (the town.) For a non-Christian, I really enjoy visiting old churches. But only if I have enough time to just sit for a while and listen to their insides tick and thrum and whirl (and creak. Creek! If they are really compelling, that is. If they flow.)

Nonsequitur: Julian and I tried absinthe the French way: with water, and the Czech way: with fire. I prefer it with fire (like Robert Frost would.)

And of course, we frequented a number of beer gardens. Riegrovy Sady, above, turned out to be the best. I will certainly miss the view.

Another view that I will miss is that of the underground--we went on a ghost tour of the space under the town hall/astronomical clock, and while nothing particularly supernatural happened, it was beautiful. One of the rooms circa 1300 was completely unaltered, and full of candles for some sort of ceremony (or sacrifice, by the look of it.) While a lot of horrible things happened there (it was a prison for a number of centuries), it was a very peaceful way to spend an evening. And then we stumbled upon a fantastic bar near the Old Town, Al Capone's, and I tried my first (several) gin fizz(es.) And this was all following a Strauss/Mozart concert in the Municipal House by members of the Royal Orchestra, of course.

Prague: Highly Endorsed.

Friday, June 21, 2013

kutna hora(!) in the czech republic

Some centuries were better at taming Death than others:

Many tried tying a leash around Death's throat,

Others made Death the leash,

Several tried to sport a necklace of Death,

And others used Death to lash together escape routes--made rafts of it.

Kutna Hora Ossuary is a record of man attempting all of these things. These last several images are from the renovations being done on the upper level of the church.

I adored it. In the 18th century, all of the bones were removed, white-washed, and carefully returned to their places. Who does that? I imagine some poor Czech Tom Sawyer sitting in a courtyard somewhere, quietly perfecting the finish on this tragic pile of 40000 (previously) deteriorating bodies.

The world is an absurd place. Some days make that more apparent than others.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Dresden: oddly tranquil counterculture mecca

I was by far Dresden's least-tattooed resident last weekend. There was an international tattoo convention in Prague on Sunday, but alas, Julian and I missed it. He arrived late Saturday evening, and so I have been busy showing him the Czech sights (hence my delayed thoughts on Germany.) Dresden really is a lovely city. There is an immense park in the middle, and everyone seems to ride a bicycle--sometimes multiple people ride the same bicycle at the same time, even--and  I ate almost exclusively vegan food for less than $5 a meal. Everyone seemed extremely nice, though few people spoke English (or Italian, French, or Spanish, unfortunately for me.) Somewhat unsurprisingly, the fact that I barely speak a word of German ended up being a truly significant cultural disadvantage (more so than in Prague, I feel.)

An enormous free street music festival began on Friday night, and so I wandered around that for several hours. I find it really interesting that sometimes I feel the most lonely traveling by myself when things remind me the most of home, but are profoundly different in some significant way. Here, the fact that Dresden reminded me so eerily of parts of (an amalgamation of my favorite blocks in) Brooklyn, but that I could not easily communicate with anyone, was highly disconcerting. It might have just been coincidence, but I don't think that I heard English spoken casually once during my four-day visit. I wanted to connect with the locals, and I did have a couple of interesting conversations, but I just wish so immensely that I spoke all of the languages. All of them.

This is in Dresden. This photo exemplifies why I am a vegetarian. Look at what good friends they are! Look at the expression of sheer glee on that fish! They might even be singing!

I like this statue.

Throughout the weekend trip, I did a lot of reading (a reread of Slaughterhouse 5, specifically) and exploring. On Friday, I went to the German Hygiene Museum, which is a fascinating place. Each section of the museum describes a different element of the body/life cycle, and the exhibits as a whole have undergone a series of really interesting thematic shifts since its founding in the early 20th century (namely, transitions toward and away from eugenics.) Definitely worth a visit if you ever have the opportunity. There is a section displaying contemporary postmortem photographs... quite strange. I enjoyed it. I think it is truly remarkable that the brain can so easily pinpoint the muscular differences between someone who is sleeping, and someone who is dead. The two states should, in theory, look similar in an image where the context is ambiguous--but they do not. Something about the slack, and the eyes, and it's just very peculiar! And appropriate (that we know.)

Since my return to the Czech Republic, things have been moving at a rapid pace. Julian and I have knocked out an impressive percentage of the recommendations of my Czech (and/or well-traveled) friends, and plan to do more between now and Thursday, when we will catch a train to Vienna. Expect a combination of ghost stories, bone churches, and girly cocktail suggestions soon.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

between places

Preparing to travel was like building a small confetti cannon from scratch, and now I have launched it, and so I am frantically grasping at all of the colorful strips of paper as they tumble away. I know that I am diminishing the quality of the production, but I am terrified of seeing so many people and places and being left with eyes open and palms empty. I suppose that, to be fair, we seem to construct personal tragedies out of any material at our disposal--plane tickets, cocktails on rooftops, walks around the park. But these moments feel so unique and otherwise unattainable: like bits of language that I love the sound of and can't replicate, or progressions in an orchestral piece that I cannot gather quickly enough to notate.

The above is in Dresden. It's a funny place--beautiful, but almost accidentally. It's like Prague in that way. The things that are really lovely catch you by surprise: you walk around a corner (or look up) and realize that a tiny scab of architecture survived bombing, war, and modernization. The city eats itself and lives forever. (You can thank Barbara Kingsolver for that last bit.)

This is the Elbe. Still flooded, but some people (mermaids?) seem to prefer that.

And this is from the train window traveling back to Prague, to which I just returned. I need to give a respectable description of Dresden here, but this is just not the evening. This is an evening for old things, and solemn things, and Dresden is simply too newfangled.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Prague and a brief hiatus from Prague

(Yes, I realize you don't know what I'm talking about, because beauty vanished long ago. It vanished under the surface of the noise--the noise of words, the noise of cars, the noise of music--we live in constantly. It has been drowned like Atlantis. All that remains of it is the word, whose meaning becomes less intelligible with every passing year.)

One of the many reasons why reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Kundera on the Charles Bridge was an excellent idea was because of the absurdity of reading such an intimate feeling story in such a public place.

I suppose that I could have read it in VyŇ°ehrad cemetery, where there was no one and it would have felt eerily appropriate.

My favorite part was the cemetery plots that were long, human-sized flower boxes: full of roses and herbs growing in rich soil (presumably with a coffin somewhere deep beneath) and sometimes butterflies.

And now I am in Dresden, re-reading Slaughterhouse 5 and surrounded by people and sunshine and light and the fresh sheen of the new and slightly historically macabre. My hostel roommate is here to get an abortion, and cries all of the time.

German-Brooklyn (my new name for Dresden in my head) just provided me with the best vegan burger that I have ever eaten. It is full of kids playing soccer and graffiti and old ladies with purple hair and I am the least tattooed person here.

I met an elderly couple on the train from New Delhi who offered to show me all around northern India when I visit. They were carrying a number of Versace bags. They gave me lunch, which consisted of half of a stale pretzel, a long green chile, and a hardboiled egg.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Art everywhere!

“...but we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” ― Franz Kafka

I adore Kafka. The Kafka Museum here in Prague was one of the best exhibitions that I have ever visited. It was immersive, thought-provoking, and featured a quote about vegetarians by Franz (a vegetarian himself;  "vegetarians have it easy--they consume their own flesh.") The copy of A Hunger Artist that I bought in the shop is gorgeous (and the content is even better than that, because it is also hideous. It begins with trapeze!) I saw the Mucha exhibit yesterday (as you can see below), and that was also excellent... intricate soap boxes galore, advertisements for fairs that are the stuff of dreams, somehow Parisian and not-Parisian, the lines and shades and fonts(!). Afterward, I was inspired to purchase an art nouveau-inspired 1930s vintage piece which may or may not be the size of my entire backpack... whoops? If you need to find me at the train station, I'll be the one in the pale pink ballgown. It's Mucha's fault, really.

I had an interview today with the Southeast Coordinator at the NGO I am working with, and we had a riveting conversation about the situation in Myanmar and development opportunities in Thailand and Cambodia (among other things.) Great way to start a morning.

Completely unrelated: tonight, I tried home-brewed Slivovitz. Yesterday, I had absinthe ice cream. I think that I could sustain a vegetarian diet in Prague just fine?

As you can see, the graffiti in Prague is great. Czech Underground, you have my attention.

Prague's botanical gardens are simultaneously hosting three exhibitions on my three favorite components of gardens: insects (specifically beetles,) cacti and succulents, and carnivorous plants. They were selling shirts that showcase the digestive process of venus fly traps. (This will go excellently with my ballgown.) Seriously, what's not to love about Prague? The other night, I saw a jazz performance in an old mansion with frescoes peeling off of the walls... the double bassist was wearing a spectacular vest and was probably about seventy years old... my friends and I made up 1/4 of the audience. The performers made eye contact with me when they bowed.

This! Dilapidated houses juxtaposed with sculptures from a completely different era. Poseidon probably feels right at home in this weather, too.

You could spend a lifetime in this city and still not see everything.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Praha: History, Antiques, and Other Old Things (and People)

 I used to be immensely skeptical of walking tours. My thought was that I can walk, and tour, and that I do those things of my own accord. So why do I need to do it with a loud group of people wearing outlandish baseball caps/capris/city-themed fanny packs? But ever since last summer, I have been 110% pro-walking tour. The guides almost always know what they are talking about, can provide you with a fantastic understanding of a city's layout, and have cute Australian accents (yes, they are usually Australian. I don't think I have ever had a guide who was not Australian.) So, I did that today. Yesterday, I slept in and explored a random northern portion of the city and ate an enormous seaweed salad, but today was serious Czech business. Post-tour, I conquered Old Town on the map, went to a Czech beer tasting (should I be embarrassed that my favorite was grapefruit flavored?), and saw a selection of Mozart's best operatic arias performed at the last surviving theater in which he ever performed--the Narodni Divadlo. For only about thirty dollars, I had an entire row of the theater (about 10 rows from the stage) to myself. The below is a portion of the ceiling of the theatre--the boxes were just gorgeous. I couldn't capture them in a photo. It was like sitting inside of a hollow birthday cake. But a gilded, classy cake (not a stripper cake.)

Unrelated: the below are drink markers from the 1920s. I could not resist them. They can (and will) also be used as earrings. I particularly enjoy the chimney sweep.


At the Museum of Communism earlier today, the description of Karl Marx read, "the bohemian and an intellectual adventurer, who started his life career as a romantic poet with an inclination towards apocalyptic titanism." Somehow, that makes me feel like my proclivities are almost... immature in comparison?

Tomorrow, I am going to my favorite Czech coffee shop (among other places.) It is my favorite because the below woman lives across the street, and her face is excellent.

I sat in "the most haunted place in Prague" this afternoon for about 30 minutes--the Church of Saint James. I was the only one in the entire building, as far as I could tell. Well, except for the shriveled 400 year old human arm that was hanging above me, but that is really only about 1/15 of a person. Eventually, this absolutely ancient looking woman ran in, prayed, and then started to urgently try to tell me something. Not in a "Timmy has fallen in the well" sort of way, but rather of the "I have this piece of brilliant life advice based on about 100 years of experience and I would like to impart it upon you " variety. She could only speak Czech and German, and it was just about the most tragic moment you can imagine. Being in that solemn, quiet place and having this intense moment of complete inability to connect. I guess what I'm saying is that my next language (after Arabic and Russian) will be German.

And it will begin at the Franz Kafka Museum. Tomorrow. Hopefully I will not turn into a cockroach between now and then.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Praha: Episode Flood

Prague is full of moving things. Even the buildings seem to crumble as you watch them--it is as though the art nouveau peels off and reveals scars of grey/terra cotta/concrete. For the past several days, I have been laying groundwork. I have made some friends, learned my neighborhood, and bought groceries (500 g. of pasta here is about 30 cents, so that has been a boon.) I met this lovely Australian couple last night who shared their tempeh and assorted vegetables (thus saving me from a dinner of a carton of strawberries and cranberry cookies) and are biking across Europe, of which I was quite jealous. The evening ended with a group of rowdy twenty-somethings from my hostel at this hole-in-the-wall pool hall with gigantic grey chandeliers and immensely high ceilings and at least 20 full size tables. The homeless men shooting up heroin outside of the establishment on our way out ruined the mystique, slightly, but it was still a really fascinating place. 

I have made friends with one of the receptionists at the hostel, and so I am learning all about Czech politics. I am also learning about this from my work and interviews with the NGO, because if there is one thing that is obvious, it is that the municipal government doesn't give too much of a damn about education (mainly de-segregating it.) The (predominately Romani) children with whom I worked yesterday were fantastic. They were beginning to learn English (the boys all insisted that I call them "Snoop Dogg" and were really into discussing Tupac) and I learned some Czech (through charades and foosball.) I am consistently amazed at the friendliness and cleverness of youth ages 6-10. I am beginning to get the hang of the public transportation system, though unfortunately even most Czechs are at a bit of a loss with it due to the flooding... which is pretty bad, as these photos indicate. It puts a bit of a damper (ha) on my field research outside of Prague, at least for this week. We'll see if things dry out soon.

The array of second hand shops and antique stores throughout Prague is making me glad that I came here first, because otherwise I would already be substantially over-budget. My 10 kg backpack weight limit is keeping my window shopping in check (Czech!), though I did buy one small treasure from the 1920s for less than 20 USD. I will post a picture next time. It's a gem. I also made friends with the shopkeeper, who speaks 7 languages (we talked in Italian) and worked for some time as a wedding photographer in New York. One of the few times this week when the world has felt small.

Today, I am editing Czech-English to become English-English, and going to a jazz show. Also, there may be castles. The weather in Prague really just fluctuates between "rain with a chance of castles" and "castles with a chance of rain."

*Disclaimer: all photos posted on this blog will be completely unedited. While I do have one of my fancy cameras with me, I do not have any editing software. So I apologize in advance for the lack of surreal contrast and need for slight cropping etc etc etc. and if you want to see the finished products, you will need to look at my Facebook at the end of the summer. But this is how Prague *actually looks* (well, to me.)

Monday, June 3, 2013

adventure time part 2013

I tried to explore Geneva during my layover this afternoon, and took the wrong bus and ended up in France. Somehow, I always end up in France.

My commute to Prague took over 24 hours due to several delays and subsequent missed connections. While preferable to my  40 hour commute to Shanghai (which is an unpleasant story), the mall in Tokyo is better than the mall in Geneva (and has a movie theater,) and so this experience felt a little worse. Though, I will admit that the airline was showing Blancanieves, which I highly endorse. So much for my (only) relaxing day in Prague! I shouldn’t feel too bad, because appropriate descriptors of Prague right now include “soggy” and “possibly full of escaped wet zoo animals.”

I will be working with an NGO called People In Need for several weeks in Prague studying social inclusion and disaster relief systems. I am taking a brief hiatus midway through that to take a weekend trip up to Dresden! Then there will be more adventures until the end of August. Much of those adventures (if not all of them) involve learning. I will discuss them as they come along!

Also, Julian and I just moved out of our apartment over the weekend, so I really am a vagabond. A sleeping vagabond! Hooray!