Archive for July, 2010

Nighttime Prague

We have had many long days filled with sightseeing and lectures, so it’s always nice to relax in the evenings.  These pictures are from two nights.

First there was the Municipal House, where we saw a concert titled, “The Best of Mozart and Strauss.”  Added bonus: there was some dancing and singing to accompany the musicians.  However, with less than a quarter of the seats filled for an amateur quality performance, it was clear that this event was strictly for tourists.  Alas, if only we had been able to come a little earlier when all the theatres and operas were still open.  Still, it was fun to see the building–and I really did see much of it considering Michele and I tried to leave early and spent a considerable amount of time lost in the basement.

Eating out with the group is always an adventure as well because the Czech standard for table service is a fun Communist relic.  Fortunately, at Maitrea, the food was both vegetarian and prompt.  Yay!  The atmosphere was perfect, too, perhaps because of the Feng Shui or maybe because of the water feature by our table.  I’d like to recommend the lime pie to anyone thinking of visiting…

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The Sights of Vysehrad

I’ve now officially been away from home for 38 days and my attention to detail is waning.  My apologies for the lack of description for these pictures…our tour guide’s English was choppy and I don’t have much to say about them.  Let me tell you instead about all the little things that make the Czech Republic special:

There are switches/sensors on the lights to save energy, which is admirable except when it only detects motion after you’ve walked past the area you need lit.

Stairs are always marked in yellow when they are first or last.

Every cashier has a little tray for giving back change–they won’t hand it to you.

When eating out, you will be charged for each slice of bread you eat in the basket, so best to keep track or risk an overcharge.  (Do they then bring out the left over bread for another group?)

All maintenance/road crew/construction workers have matching overalls that seem to be color-coded by the type of worker you are.  They’re snazzy.

Your silverware and napkins will come out after your food in a restaurant–but the waiter won’t count them, so you may have to ask for more.  Or perhaps you will get a cup full of knives when served soup…

Even when speaking English, our hosts will constantly ask, “Okay?” or “MmmmHmmm?” after everything they say.  You must nod confirmation or they think you don’t understand them and stop talking completely.

Nothing teaches you more about your country than leaving it…

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Hanging Around Praha Castle

One thing I am starting to value is how our tour guide for the city, Prof. Scripnik, is taking us off the beaten path for our walks.  Prague is a beautiful city, and apparently everyone else knows it too.  Think NYC Times Square at noon–walking through the Old Town Square or Charles Bridge area is tourist madness and not for the faint of heart.

So, in our quest to stay away from the hoardes, we were lead through hiking paths and sharply inclined alleyways up to Prague Castle.  The reward for all the exercise is the view of the nicely manicured lawns, gardens, and other important buildings.  I know they are all important because I’ve been told they are, but not why they are important, so my apologies for vague labels on the photos.  When you’ve been staring at cathedrals and castles for the last four weeks, they all start to look alike anyway.

My favorite place to be so far is Namesty Republiky for many reasons, including: I know where it is and how to get there, I can pronounce it, there’s a mall and supermarket there, and finally, there are a lot of beautiful buildings there to reflect the setting sun.  I’m hoping to find more places like it soon…stay tuned.

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Dobre Rano, Praha!

Our first full day in Prague brought cooler temperatures and rain.  Again, it’s either feast or famine with the weather here, so I may just have to break down and buy an umbrella.  And to think last week it was sweltering…

We started a little walking tour around our hotel area, which is in the first district and the heart of it all.  It is a nice hotel, used only by department of education folks and I appreciate the locked entrance all the more considering just how touristy it is here.  I am looking forward to being able to get out of this area for shopping, but it can’t be beat for the sights.

Dobre Rano means “good morning.”  I will probably remember this in both Czech (and Hungarian) because of these yummy yogurt breakfast bars…

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The Moravian Karst

I’ve been told that no trip to CR would be complete without a visit to the caves in Southern Moravia.  Having never been to Carlsbad Caverns or anything cavey before, I didn’t really know what to expect beyond some vague memories in my elementary textbooks of stalactites and stalagmites.  Turns out there’s more to see than confusing vocabulary…

Let me admit that the pictures of the inside caves are not my own, but ones I found on Google because we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside.  It’s not my fault that the pictures don’t do it justice at all, so here’s a big reason why you should go there yourself.  We started by taking a mini-train (very Key West) to the entrance.  Once inside, the temperature dropped to 40 degrees F, which felt pretty darn cold after being outside in the 90 degree sunshine.  (Side note–it’s either feast or famine here when it comes to weather!)

Our guide did a great job of explaining the names of the formations, most of which are simply called what they look like (angel wings, crocodile, snowy tree, etc).  What I wasn’t  expecting were the politically incorrect ones, but racism is a subtle presense everywhere in the CR.

After walking through the caves, we ended up at the bottom by the lake.  The best way to describe it is to think of that moment in Wizard of Oz when everything is suddenly in color–we exited the dark, drippy tunnels and–POOF!–we came out in another world.  As I mentioned, you must try it yourself and experience the wonder and awe of feeling so small. 

We toured the remainder of the caves by boat.  On a funny note, we were told to duck while drifting past some very low overhangs.  As obedient American tourists, we did, but our 6-foot-4 Fulbright guide, Martin never did.  He left the caves unscathed, while my friend Gail (maybe 5-foot-3) managed to bump her head on the wall. 

Then Martin Number One, who is not so tall but also a Fulbright guide, told us in his characteristic style, “The climb to the top is not long and not hard at all.”  So you can guess the rest of the story here.  Still, it was quite worth it to see the view from the top.  Plus I finally was able to buy a little stuffed mole, (Krtecek), for my pictures in CR.  He’s quite the sensation over here–and very cute.

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Girl Scout Camp

In an effort for us to see “real, live children,” Martin and Martin arranged for us to visit a summer camp where a troop of Girl Scouts were staying for a few weeks.  There was a flag ceremony, mess kits, uniforms, and even a latrine…oh the nostalgia!  My mother will be very proud to know that I can still recite the Girl Scout Promise, although I am still working on the Czech version. 

After a quick tour, we were offered soup and potatoes, which of course I had to eat on the ground while sitting criss-cross-applesauce.  Then it was time for a quick song, “We’ll Always Be Together” from Grease sung by campers in hippie costumes.  Priceless. 

The theme for their unit this year: Stargate Sg-1.  Who knew?

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The Lichtenstein Family Summer Chateau

For everyone who has ever wished that they could have a summer house, I offer these suggestions for decorating your “cottage…”

On a more serious note, the Lichtenstein family enjoyed this home for many years, but even though the Communists used it to store horses, it was the Czech law that gave it to the state for use as a museum.  They’ve been just a tiny dot on the European map ever since. 

Note the spiral staircase, carved from a single oak tree.  Impressive.  Also fascinating is the minaret, which has nothing to do with a family affiliation with Muslim religion…but simply a wish to impress the neighbors with the novelty of it all.  The 302 steps to the top offer a wonderful view of what used to be their kingdom.

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Zakladni and Materska Schools

Here’s what all my colleagues are going to ask when I get back, “So what’s the difference between the Central European and American schools?”  If you’re one of them, you can read ahead or choose to wait until I can tell you in person…

What’s most interesting to me are the similarities.  The teachers are very proud of their students and try very hard to make the atmosphere welcoming for all.  There’s a LOT of student artwork on the walls–real, creative artwork instead of cookie-cutter crafts.  The buildings have some areas that need repair, yet not quite enough money to do it all.  The principal was excited about a new teacher evaluation system which relies more on observation than student data.

Yet in an attempt to show us their best, there are some issues which seem to be avoided in conversation, particularly the principles we hold dear in American education: an equitable education for all.  Public kindergartens are crowded and attendance is not mandatory until age 6, which means many children will not receive the three years their well-off peers will have.  This means that they will have less options for attending primary school–where principals and psychologists select the brightest kids and reserve the right to deny entrance to children who might cause “problems.”

It is the Roma/Gypsy population and special education students who are at an extreme disadvantage–they are often segregated into “special/practical” schools at age 7–thus sealing their fate as non-university bound students.  Sadly, the reality is few Czechs are concerned about this.  So while I wandered amidst the cheery decorations I couldn’t help but wonder about the children who are in the other schools…more to come.

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Ahoj Brno!

The end of Budapest marked the beginning of my time in the Czech Republic (don’t call it Czechoslovakia–it’s quite the faux paux I’m afraid!)  We’re starting our time here in Brno, which is the second largest city after Prague, of course.  Immediately I am surprised by how different it is from Hungary, although there are many things that seem similar, too.  But tell the Czechs that–that’s also a faux paux.

After a four hour train ride from Budapest, we met Martin 1 and Martin 2–our guides for this week.  Fortunately for us, they were eager to help with all our luggage.  Our bags have grown significantly since we first step foot here…but they were gracious about carrying everything, even if I did hear Martin 1 mutter something about getting a private bus for Prague.

Highlights so far include the food (much more my style!) and the similarity between Czech and Russian (I can understand a few words!)  More to come about the schools soon…

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Szia, Budapest!

All good things must come to an end, but why did Budapest have to end so quickly?  It was time to say our good-byes as we sailed down the Danube with many of the people who had made our trip such a wonderful experience.  Lots of food, lots of sunshine, and lots of smiles (and tears) all around. 

Budapest is a really fun city: beautiful old buildings and modern city life all nestled into one.  But the pictures will never tell the whole story, which is that the Hungarians are incredibly proud of their history.  Having never won a war, having fought for and losing independence over and over again, the scars of Trianon and the Holocaust–these are the sadnesses the Magyars hold close.  If outsiders stereotype Hungarians as pessimistic, it is because they haven’t dug deep enough.  It was the warmth, generosity, and national pride that really shines through. 

One thing is for certain–it is not my teachers I am leaving, but a new family.  Huba, Annamaria, Andrea: thank you!  You are the reason why this experience is indeed life-changing.  By the way, Szia means hello and good-bye, so I will indeed be back.

And now off to the Czech Republic–you have a lot to live up to!

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