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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Trip to the Danube Bend

With just a few days left in Budapest, it was important to visit the Danube Bend just north of the city.  This is where many people escape city life to relax in summer cottages along the riverside.  Fortunately, Annamaria’s father has left her with such a place, so we were able to enjoy a picnic and learned how to make korozott (paprika flavored cheese spread).

Our first destination was Szentendre, an artsy town with lots of artsy shops and narrow streets.  There are some views of the river, but I was too busy seeking shade in alleyways and searching for gelato to find them. 

Then it was off to the Visegrad Royal Palace, which used to be the capital of Hungary long ago.  It was a very interesting exhibit of how kings and queens really did live, from the bedding to the stoves to the stone rooms.  King Matthias used to greet guests at the top of the stairs and jousting tournaments still continue there today.  Ironically, no one knew where it was for years, since it had been buried after an a earthquake.  Then one of the archaeologists–who had been searching for it for years–literally stumbled upon it one drunken night.

For dinner, we went to a Renaissance restuarant and ate like royalty!  I didn’t partake in the venison stew and duck, but I did put on a crown.  The walk by Dracula’s former prison tower was quit eery, much of what we hear of him is legend. 

The Danube Bend was blissful, even if it was another sweltering day.  The best part was walking through the gardens at Annamaria’s house to dip my feet in the Danube.  We got to meet two of her children, rock in the swing, and eat our weight in watermelon.  It felt like the quintessential summer celebration–with a Hungarian twist!  I’ll never forget her or her hospitality.

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Acquincum Ruins

Before there was Budapest, there was Buda and Pest.  And way before that was the Roman town of Acquincum.  I have never been one to be too interested in Roman ruins, so considering the temperature was hovering around 95 degrees with full sun above, it’s amazing I was able to take any pictures at all.  Fortunately there was an air-conditioned museum inside, where of course we weren’t allowed to take pictures.  Still, here is one factual thing for those interested: some of the ruins have been built up a bit to give visitors a better sense of what it looked like.  There’s a red brick line to show the border of what’s original and what’s been added on.

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St. Margaret Island

New York City has Central Park; Budapest has St. Margaret Island.

Being in the city is fun, except when it’s a scorching 100 degrees and there’s nothing but concrete all around.  So I decided to take my own lovely repsite on the island.  Renting a bike for an hour was just a few dollars–I found one with coaster brakes, a bell, and a fender bent about 45 degrees away from the tire.  Sweet!

It’s clear this is a popular date spot, given all the quiet pathways with little benches tucked between trees.  But there’s more to the island’s romance…young and old playing sports, rollerblading, and some very serious joggers.  There are lots of gardens and monuments to admire, plus a stunning view of the Danube and city on both sides.  There’s even ruins and an old nunnery to explore (hence the name).  It was easy to navigate and easy to get lost at the same time…

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