Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A few random thoughts.

1. I LOVE traveling by night train. I’m not really sure why – perhaps it’s the fact that I’m lulled to sleep so easily by the gentle rocking of the carriage as it speeds across the tracks; maybe it’s the idea that I feel like I have SO much room (at least compared to airline travel!); maybe it’s the fact that I’m a dork who loves to watch the scenery (for the few minutes I’m awake, at least) and imagine epic movies being made there. Whatever the case, I love it. There are downsides of course: the ticket-checker likes to come by at the most inopportune moments (when I’m itching my hiney, for example), unexpectedly flipping open the door and yelling what I presume to mean “tickets, please” in another language. Then there’s the whole “sharing a compartment with complete and utter strangers” thing, and the fact that I’m just a couple inches too long to lay out on the couchettes. But in spite of all this, I LOVE traveling by train. I love falling asleep in the middle of nowhere and waking up in a new country. I love opening my eyes and having no idea which part of Europe I’m in now. It’s a constant surprise – what will I see when I draw the curtains? (As I write this, I was just dive-bombed by a pillow thrown by a person sleeping on the upper bunk. That jolted me awake more than any can of Mountain Dew ever could.) Long story short: I love overnight trains. Now if only I can figure out how to barricade myself from the raining debris…

2. For a long while, I’ve believed that Eastern European men have the BEST moustaches. I’m a particularly astute moustache observer as I find hairy faces beyond captivating. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, persay, but I DO enjoy peering closely and seeing what I can find hiding in the dense facial forest (is that Nutella?!). American moustaches are disappointingly well-groomed; true Colonel Sanders and Clark Gables are few and far between. Not so in Eastern Europe. Here, men have an astounding and seemingly limitless imagination when it comes to shaping facial hair. Just going to class each morning, I encounter two or three masterpieces – the dude in the butcher shop, did he model for a townsperson in “Beauty and the Beast”? The man on the metro, does his moustache do that curly French-chef-shape naturally? And my god, that man is a dead-ringer for Colonel Mustard! Life in Eastern Europe is always an adventure.

3. Bikes are dangerous. No, more than dangerous – DEADLY. You step in front of one and you’re a goner. Sometimes I wonder if bikers are secretly sadists, delighting in every second of the predator-prey game they play with the pedestrians. Honestly, do they stay hidden until the last second on PURPOSE?! Are they aiming for me?! I’m telling you, bikers (in the bicycle sense of the word) are menacing people. BEWARE.

4. My new favorite food is Belgian waffles. No, not the American, breakfast-y kind. I’m talking BELGIAN waffles, the kind they make in Belgium, the kind that induce foodgasm from the first bite. Imagine a donut – the best donut you’ve ever tasted, with just the right amount of sweetness, firm on the outside but warm and soft within. Now imagine taking the first bite of said donut – glorious, yes? Now multiply that happy feeling times 10million, and you will begin to experience the miracle known as the Belgian waffle.

5. I love my family more than anything in the entire world. (You were expecting something else, something more Stef-level flippant and silly, now weren’t you?) But seriously. I am so blessed to be a part of the “happy family” pentagon. Mom, Dad, Sam, and Kristi – I love you more than words can say.

On May 27, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and one of Hitler’s closest friends, was assassinated in Prague. In retribution, Hitler ordered the small Czech mining village of Lidice to be liquidated on the false charge that it had aided the assassins. On June 10, 1942, the Nazis entered Lidice and rounded up the population. All 172 men and boys over age 16 in the village were immediately executed, while the women were deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp where most died before the end of the war. 8 children were selected for re-education in German families, and the rest (over 100) were gassed to death at Chelmno Concentration Camp.

Having rid the village of its inhabitants, the Nazis then destroyed the village itself, first setting all buildings on fire and then razing them to the ground with explosives. Finally, they exhumed the town cemetery and liquidated even THOSE inhabitants of Lidice. By the time they left, what had been a full-fledged village only days before was now no more than an empty field.

Today, the site houses a memorial, museum, monuments, the common grave of the Lidice men, and a "Park of Peace and Friendship" where thousands of rose-bushes from various parts of the world are planted. I visited the site alone, catching the public bus towards Kladno from the Dejvicka stop. Half an hour later, I was stepping out of the bus in the middle of nowhere. The bus stop sign read “Lidice” but it could just as easily have read “Uninhabited Czech Countryside.” I chose a direction to walk, and thank goodness the gods were on my side that day, because within minutes I could see what looked like a memorial off on the horizon. It was the Lidice memorial – much smaller than I had anticipated, but the memorial all the same.

The air was deathly still – as far as the eye could see, nothing moved. I saw no car, no other human, no signs of life besides an inappropriately bright and cheery “Coca-Cola” sign in front of the memorial, pointing toward some vending machines. I veered left and entered the museum, finding a long woman behind the counter reading a book. (I wonder how long it had been since she’d seen another human – perhaps she is like the Knight Templar in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” doomed to a life of eternal solitude broken on the rare occasion that a random person enters her lair. But I digress.) She shook off her dust and welcomed me, ushering me into a room for a private screening of a documentary on Lidice that told the story of the town and showed footage of the town’s demolition (filmed in disgustingly precise detail by the Nazis).

From there, I went into the museum and saw a slew of artifacts – the door from the church (all that survived after it was burned to the ground), letters from the children written during the first days of their imprisonment begging distant families members for food and warm clothing, and perhaps most disturbingly, a picture of all the schoolchildren, taken just days before the Nazis entered the town to exact revenge. The museum had video after video of interviews – with the few Ravensbrück survivors, with the children chosen to be “re-educated” in Germany, and with the historians who brought the tragic history of Lidice to light. It was a chilling yet terrifically well-done museum.

I exited the building and entered the grounds of the memorial, following a winding footpath that led from the town’s lone remains (the foundation of the church and a wall of the school building) to the mass grave for the men murdered that fateful day in 1942, and then from a statue honoring the innocent Lidice children who fell victim to this terror to a memorial rose garden. All in all, it was a touching, heartbreaking, yet enthralling taste of history. I can’t do justice to the experience in words, but perhaps these pictures can help:

Memorial to the Lidice children.

The empty field where Lidice used to stand (the structure at the top of the hill is the memorial).

Before Czechoslovakia split into two separate countries (the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic) in 1993, Bratislava was just another big city. Today, it’s the capital of Slovakia, a bustling metropolis that serves as the center of the country’s political affairs. Bordered by Hungary to the south and Austria to the west, it is Slovakia’s largest city and one of the country’s main tourist destinations. I arrived with little to no clue as to what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised. The city is small and easily walk-able, but still refreshingly modern and clean. There’s not much to see, but I spent the day wandering aimlessly and enjoyed every minute of it.

My favorite street.

The most adorable statue in Eastern Europe.

I followed a crowd into this church hoping to look around, never expecting that they would shut the doors behind me and start mass in Slovak! Amazingly, I knew what was going on 99% of the time even though I didn't speak a word of the language. Thanks for preparing me for this day, Holy Cross!


Considered one of the most beautiful medieval cities in all of Central Europe, Český Krumlov is a poet’s dream. Nestled in the middle of the Czech countryside, built into a bend of the Vltava River, and cradled under the shadow of a towering castle, the town seems to be straight out of a fairy tale; I half expected to see Belle and the townspeople pour out the front doors and start singing. The town is renowned for its beauty, and that’s a well-deserved accolade, especially in spring when the flowers are blooming and the land is green as far as the eye can see. I ventured there in winter, however – a less “picturesque” time to visit, perhaps, but I wanted to avoid the hordes of tourists and experience the beauty of the town on my own. Here are some of my favorite snapshots from that day:

Sunday, March 7, 2010



I was warned not to expect too much from Budapest. Rebuilt from practically nothing after it was demolished in Allied bombing runs during WWII, it supposedly lacked the “old time charm” of Prague and the historical grandeur of more famous European capitals back west. I arrived with low expectations, anticipating a fun but otherwise unmemorable weekend. I was BLOWN AWAY by what I found.

The trip began on a semi-unpleasant note with a 3:30am blaring alarm, a 5am metro, and an early departure on the 6:30am Student Agency bus to Budapest via Brno, Bratislava, and Györ. My seatmate was a middle-aged Czech woman who smelled of burnt toast and kept her legs spread like a trucker the whole ride. We’d barely exchanged a “dobré rano” when I fell asleep, not to awaken til our first stop in good ol’ Brno. Here transpired the most awkward and (in retrospect) entertaining part of the entire bus ride. We shall call it “That Time Stef Really Had to Pee.” Intrigued? Read on.

This bus was equipped with a W.C. and as we were stopped, I figured I should take advantage of the lack of movement and use the facilities. I had the door half closed behind me when I heard a noise. “AHEM.” I peered out the door and found the bus attendant staring back at me, his hand holding the door, preventing it from closing. “AHEM,” he repeated. “Can I help you?”

An odd question. “No thanks, I think I’m all set!” I replied, puzzled, and went to close the door, but he didn’t let go.

“Can I HELP you?!” he repeated, more slowly and louder as though I was having trouble making out his words.

I feel so confused, but I smile – maybe he’s kidding with me? “I’m just – you know – going to the bathroom!” I’m speaking in my sing-songy, “the world is marshmallows and butterflies and rainbows,” voice, trying to turn it into a joke, but he’s not amused. As I try to keep my smile from morphing into a look of terror, he stares me down, not blinking. He says nothing – he just GLARES. Finger by finger he peels his hand from the bathroom door and gives me one last long look of suspicion before snapping around and walking away. I’m so weirded out that I can’t even GO anymore. I hurry back to my seat and spend the rest of the 6 hour bus ride sitting on my foot and avoiding his glances.

By the time we arrive in Budapest at 1:15pm, I am beyond ready to get OFF the bus. The next half hour or so goes by in a blue – we exchange our Czech crowns for Hungarian forints, purchase 3-day transportation passes, and somehow navigate from the bus station through the metro and down Budapest’s windy and insufficiently labeled streets to the Aboriginal Hostel. From the outside, it looks as crumbly and run-down as I was afraid it would be. Inside, however, it’s warm and cozy: there’s a common room with couches and a TV and free tea, and our room is ridiculously large. The bathroom has a HEATED towel rack (genius!) and the water is 100% potable – what more could a girl ask for?

The receptionist is an American from D.C. named Candace and she is a total sweetheart, giving us free maps and drawing all over them to orient us to the city. She’s taking a couple years off from her studies at American University to travel the world – for the past 4 months she’s been living in Budapest and by summer, she’ll be living in a small village in Spain teaching English. Quite the life!

In no time we were back on the metro heading toward the city center looking a wee bit less touristy with our oversized backpacks safely stowed back in the hostel. Our plan was to hit the Museum of Ethnography to get a taste of traditional Hungarian life before a traditional Hungarian dinner, but from the moment we stepped out of the metro stop into the sunlight, our plans went out the window. Totally unexpectedly we’d arrived just across the street from one of Budapest’s most stunning architectural wonders: Parliament. A towering, somewhat foreboding but simultaneously striking building, Parliament lies directly alongside the River Danube. Moving out from Parliament’s shadow, we got our first glimpse of the river bank. I stopped dead in my tracks – it was BEAUTIFUL. I snapped picture after picture, each angle more stunning than the one before. We strolled along the bank and it was like I was in one of those pictures in a calendar. Everything was still and serene and just so – well – photo-worthy! Plenty of couples must have felt the same way because every way we turned we found another pair holding hands or smooching or – in the case of one older couple that must’ve thought they were safely hidden among the bank’s rocks – full on making out. That last couple was actually rather creepy, but the REST of the scene was breathtaking.

We continued to meander along the Danube, taking our time because the sun was starting to set and we wanted to watch. We passed a piece of art called “Shoes on the River Danube.” It’s as simple as it sounds: cast-iron shoes of all kinds – heels, boots, children’s sandals – lined up ownerless along the river. This is a tribute to the hundreds of Hungarians shot and killed by the Nazis as the liberating Soviets were invading the city. To think that they almost survived the war, that they even heard the sound of liberating gunfire, only to die at Nazi hands like thousands of their friends and family members in the preceding years of deportation and terrorism… it’s heartbreaking.

Just beyond the "Shoes on the River Danube" lay the world’s first suspension bridge, named the “Chain Bridge.” The science geek within wanted desperately to appreciate this engineering wonder, but alas – I just don’t have a smidgeon of affinity for bridges. We crossed the bridge (and oh! what a bridge it was!... no, I can’t even fake it) and found ourselves at the bottom of the steep hill leading to Buda Castle. Rather than pay to ride the funicular to the top, we decided to brave the stairs, and up we went. And up. AND up. Before long we were huffing and puffing (and blowing houses down?), but it was all worth it because at the top we were rewarded with an incredible view. By now the sun had set and only the very last glimmers of sunlight fell upon the city. The lights were beginning to come on and the traffic was picking up over the Chain Bridge as Hungarians rushed home from another work day. Imagine passing these sights every day – how long until you stop noticing the beauty? I know I’m already falling into that trap in Prague, seeing the castle from my classroom window and failing to register the magic of the moment because now it feels everyday and ordinary. I need to make sure I appreciate the beauty of where I am EVERY DAY or soon it will ALL become “ordinary.”

From there the beauty continued. We walked all around the Castle, from the ruins in back to the library within. We ventured further into town eventually stumbling upon St. Matthias Church (supposedly beautiful, but it was under construction so there was very little to see), and Fisherman’s Bastion, a stunning almost mosque-like building that gave us another great vantage point over the city. By now all the lights were on and Parliament and the Chain Bridge were bathed in light. They looked even more magical now than during the day.

Finally the exhaustion caught up with us and we decided to head back to the hostel and call it a day. On the way we stopped at a little Hungarian restaurant called “Háry” (yes, pronounced “hairy”) for dinner. At first the place was a wee bit disconcerting – it was practically deserted and the walls were decorated with hunting tools – traps, weapons, mounted heads, etc. But the food was amazing, especially the meat. It was very… fresh (*shudder*).

The next morning we woke up to the smell of fresh waffles. Turns out they were lukewarm and kinda nasty, but I was able to feast on bread and Nutella, so I was a happy camper.

We had originally planned to tour the Soviet Statue Park that morning but upon learning that it was far on the outskirts of town and the entrance fee was ridiculously expensive, it was back to the drawing board. We’d never actually made it to a museum yesterday, so today we headed first thing for the Hungarian National Museum just down the street. We ended up spending almost 3 hours there, but I have to say that I wasn’t impressed. The museum focused mainly on ancient history – the development of the land, the early ruling dynasties, etc. – but as I’m more a fan of post-19th century history, it just really wasn’t my thing. I loved the few dresses they had displayed from way-back-when (why don’t we dress like that anymore, seriously?!) but sadly that was only a small part of the museum. The rooms progressed chronologically so I got more and more excited as we approached the 20th century, but when we finally arrived I was majorly disappointed. While the majority of a floor was dedicated to ancient history, the 20th century got only 2 rooms – and not even large rooms at that. To give you an example of how much they glossed over history, hear this: there was a total of ONE sentence in the entire museum about the Holocaust. ONE sentence about the event that practically wiped out Hungary’s entire Jewish population. Despicable.

Luckily the rest of the day was way better. We transferred to the new hostel (“HomePlus Hostel”) where 9 of us would bunk together in one dorm room. The owners – Andrew and Adrienna – were INCREDIBLE; they took care of us like we were their own kids. They sent us to a Hungarian fast food restaurant for lunch, and the food was oddly delectable. Lots of meat and soup as usual, and all of it yummy. We stayed there for a while just hanging out to avoid the rain. As it turns out, I was the only one to bring an umbrella, and man! do I wish I’d just used a raincoat. See, I didn’t realize this at the time, but umbrellas are DANGEROUS. Somehow or another I accidentally poked myself in the eye with an umbrella spoke. Actually, “poked” is an understatement; I STABBED myself in the eye. It hurt but I didn’t realize quite how bad it was til someone pointed out that my eye was bright red. I looked to the right and someone else discovered why: I had a puncture wound in my eye. It was like someone had shot me with a baby pistol. I’m fine now, but that was by far one of the most unusual injuries I’ve ever sustained.

One-eyed and now terrified of my umbrella, I ventured out with the gang across town to some more famous sights: Heroes’ Square, Vajdahunjad Castle (a reconstruction of a Transylvanian castle), and the Széchenyi Baths. Some people stayed to take a dip, but the rest of us returned to the hostel to meet late-comer Adrian (he took the train while the rest of us took the bus) and hit a pizza place for dinner. I was adventurous and ordered a traditional Hungarian pizza: garlic cream sauce, paprika chicken, cheese, and vegetables. It was so incredible that I devoured the entire thing. A few hours later, satiated and bored with the Olympic Games on TV, we passed out.

Saturday morning we woke up bright and early to head to Budapest’s famous flea market. I was expecting something similar to Deerfield’s Farmer’s Market. NOT AT ALL. We stepped through the doors and found ourselves in a cavernous hall filled to the brim with vendors selling everything from vegetables to WWI-era gas masks. There were 3 entire floors awaiting our perusal so we set off to meander the rows and oogle the oddities we found. The first floor was almost exclusively foodstuffs: fruits, vegetables, fresh-baked bread, paprika, paprika, and more paprika, and meat so fresh that the carcasses were hanging out awaiting customers to point at the desired body part. (Ew!) The second floor was more varied: rows upon rows of traditional Hungarian folk costumes, too many bad, punny t-shirts to count, and a huge selection of Soviet-style hats (I took pictures for you, Ian, rather than buy one and run the risk of you ACTUALLY wearing it in public... you know you would :P). The basement was fairly nondescript: less crowded and with far fewer vendors than the floors above, we spent only a couple minutes down here before reemerging into the sunlit hall. Pretty much everyone left the flea market with a souvenir; my favorite was Allie's traditional Hungarian cap which she proceeded to wear for the rest of the trip. Walt and Jake came in a close second for their matching Hungarian soccer jackets, but only because they looked so ridiculous strolling around town MATCHING.

From the flea market we ventured to what turned out to be by far the most thought-provoking and chilling visit of the entire trip. The place was "The Terror House," a museum chronicling the bloody and horrific detainment and punishment tactics used by the Nazi and Soviet regimes. The museum is housed in the actual building used by the Secret Police of both regimes to intern, interrogate, and execute "enemies of the state." The exhibits are downright disturbing, and appropriately so considering the horrors that took place in this very building. Upon entering the museum, the first sight to greet my eyes was a wall covered with pictures of faces -- the last recorded images of the hundreds of prisoners killed while imprisoned here.

Room by room, the horrors continued. I was particularly affected by the real video footage of the events described. There were also videos of the survivors - those who had experienced the brutality of imprisonment and lived to tell the tale. They spoke of fellow prisoners doomed to die; of the back-breaking labor and meager provisions; and of laying on the cold stone floors of their cells and hearing the screams and sobs of their neighbors.

These videos were merely a taste of the horrors awaiting us further on in the exhibit. In the basement we saw the prison as it was in its heyday, with operational cells, torture rooms, and even gallows. We were allowed to enter the cells, some normal but most created with the intention of inflicting psychological torture every minute of every day. One room was only 3 feet high so the prisoner could never stand up straight; another was body-sized, like an upright coffin, that kept the prisoner in one, claustrophobia-inducing position for days on end; finally, one was perpetually filled ankle-deep with water, so any time the prisoner sat or lay down he was soaked. Prisoners stayed in these cells for extended periods, isolated from the world and human contact. Over time the confinement and the torture worked their magic and the prisoners - whether guilty or innocent - were driven to confession. Few lived to see the light of day; those not killed by the torture were more often than not sent to the gallows. The museum's final room does something I've never seen before: it lists the victimizers, those responsible for the evils seen here. Along with names, there are pictures and years of birth/death. Many have only one date listed; never convicted for their participation in the Nazi and/or Soviet crimes, they live among the innocent Hungarian populace, guilty but free, to this very day. Unbelievable.

After a quick pit stop at a Turkish restaurant to refuel, we continued the day by climbing to the top of the Citadel for another gorgeous view of the city. We returned to the hostel for a quick rest and before long found ourselves out yet again. This time it was just Allie, Chris, Diego, Adrian, and I, and we were on our way to the famous Széchenyi Baths.

The people who had gone to the Baths yesterday had absolutely loved the experience, so I was excited. It got off to a rather rough start: almost immediately after the boys and girls separated to get changed, Allie slipped on the wet stairs and sprained her left ankle. At this point I was practically blind (I was wearing glasses instead of contacts so as not to further irritate my poor eyeball, amd because the baths were so steamy, I had stored my glasses with my clothes in a locker) so we were not the best pair. I tried to help her walk but couldn't see where to go; sh tried to direct us but obviously couldn't do so physically. Somehow we made it outside to the steaming waters with no further injuries to ourselves or others, and it was GLORIOUS. Apparently it was crowded but everything was a hazy blur to me; it was as though I was in my own Olympic-sized hot tub with not a care in the world. I sat and soaked in the warmth; I played in the whirlpool created by the jet streams; I passed under waterfalls (sometimes unintentionally -- it's hard being blind!). We spent almost 3 hours in the water and by the time we left my skin was hilariously prune-y. I could've stayed all night but the club billed as the "largest in Europe" (I feel like they all say that!) awaited us, so after drying off we met up with the rest of the group and hit the town.

Tonight's destination was a club called "Studio" and I can say with absolutely certainty that it was the CRAZIEST club that I've ever been to. Even the line to get in was crazy. Let me clarify: by "line" I mean clumping mass of pushing and shoving, drunk loonies all clamoring to get through the door, and by "crazy," I mean out-of-control, sometimes painful and quite often scary. Thank goodness Diego was there -- I swear he was the only thing keeping me from getting squashed to smithereens. At one point I was trying to hold on to Kate when the crowd surged forward; I lost her hand and felt my arm twist so hard that I was afriad it would break. We all got through okay but I'm not joking when I say it felt like we were in line for lifeboats on the Titanic, there was so much desperation and urgency. It was truly scary.

Inside, the mood changed from scary-crazy to a more "I love life; let's DANCE!" kind of crazy -- MUCH more my style. The music was pounding and the dance floor full; suspended from the ceiling were girls dressed as angels on swings and boys dressed as sexy devils dancing on high platforms. The DJ was complimented by an entire wall of dancing girls set up Hollywood-Squares style, and throughout the night even more entertainment came out: bodybuilders, strippers (or as close as you can get without being officially naked), even acrobats and men twirling on fabric strips hanging from the ceiling. We danced and danced all night long - it was crazy fun. :)

The next day - our last in Budapest - we slept til almost noon, absolutely worn out from the night before. We ate at McDonald's (why are European fast food places so much classier than American ones?!), said goodbye to our wonderful hostel "parents," and - giant backpacks in tow - ventured to the largest synagogue in Europe (2nd in the world to one in New York). The Dohany Synagogue surprised me in that it looked so much like a church -- it even had an organ! It was beautiful and outside was another touching memorial to the Jewish Holocaust victims.

Suddenly, our adventure was at its end. We boarded the 4:15pm bus to Prague and almost 7.5 hours later arrived back at the Masarykova Kolej. I'd call this - our first independent trip in Europe - a wonderful success.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


“A Taste of Daily Life”

It’s odd how quickly I’ve fallen into a routine here. I go to class, I run errands, I do my homework; it’s like any usual college existence except for – you know – the whole being in a foreign country thing. One thing that’s different is that for the first time I have to buy and cook my own meals and lemme tell you, that’s quite the adventure in and of itself. It astonishes me how spoiled I was at home by the tastiness of Mom’s cooking and the variety of food at the ND dining hall. I arrived in Prague fully aware that I had zero cooking skills and a full semester of cooking awaiting me, but I was blissfully optimistic. I mean, I’m a stud at a couple tried and true gourmet recipes – toaster waffles and peanut butter sandwiches are my real specialties – so how hard could other recipes really be?

I start this tale at the grocery store, where the meal preparation truly begins. Luckily I’m a stud in the produce department (thank you for honing my fruit fondling skills, Mom!) but when I arrive in the normal aisles, I’m ridiculously befuddled. Why is there an entire aisle of cheese and not a smidgeon of it familiar? What kind of meat is the kind labeled “meat”? What do you mean I have to weigh my own fruit or risk angering an entire checkout line of impatient Czechs? Why is there so much Nutella out to tempt us recovering addicts? And perhaps most importantly – where the hell is the toilet paper?! I get to the checkout line only to discover yet another confusion. No bags?! But no, that can’t be right; I know my rights, I deserve my paper or plastic! But alas, grocery stores here charge per bag, so the majority of people simply stuff their groceries into giant backpacks or duffel bags.

As long as I’ve weighed my fruit properly, the remainder of the grocery experience is rather calm. My items are rung up, I pay, I pack my groceries in the plastic bags I’ve learned to always carry with me, and as I turn to go, the checkout lady looks me straight in the eyes and barks “Nashledanou!” I freeze in place and run through the transaction in my head – I don’t think I forgot anything, so why is she yelling at me? I smile timidly back, my hands spread in a helpless “what did I do?!” gesture. She glares even more intently at me and repeats: “Nashledanou!” Why do I not speak Czech, what is she saying, am I in trouble, will she call the police, will I grow old and decrepit in a crumbling Czech prison til I waste away and DIE?! I end up lowering my head and stepping away, and when she suddenly redirects her attention to the next person in line, I bolt. I’m all the way back at my dorm, my heart beating at 300mph from the sprint, when it dawns on me. “Nashledanou” is the formal Czech word for “goodbye.” Whoops!

The cooking that ensues is a bore so I won’t go into it, but let me take this moment to proclaim to one and all that yours truly is defying all odds and slowly but surely learning to COOK! So far all I can make is eggs, chicken, and pasta, but I’ve also got a handle on Ramen noodles and a mean peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich. I don’t usually like to brag but, well… I’m kind of a cooking stud.

When I’m not suffering the trials and tribulations of cooking, I’m usually exercising my young mind at class. As I already earned 3 credits from the two week intensive Czech language course, I’m only taking four classes right now: Contemporary Czech Literature, Forensic Psychology, Reading Prague (a class that’s part history, part literature), and by far the most snore-inducing of them all: Romanticism and National Identity in Central Europe. My favorite is probably “Reading Prague” because a) even though it’s a 3 hour class, we only spend the first 90 minutes in lecture; the second half we venture out into the city to look at important architectural and historical sites, and b) because the teacher is full of the random facts that I love. For example, did you know that the King Charles for whom practically everything in this city is named was an avid collector of religious relics INCLUDING – I kid you not – Mary Magdalene’s left boob?!

Next on my list is probably “Contemporary Czech Literature,” but that’s only because the teacher is absolutely precious. She’s an older British woman with a blatant dorky side that she totally embraces, and she’s even got the adorable name to match: Bernie Higgins. Now doesn’t that just sound like a huggable, loveable character? I wish I could get away with calling her “Aunt Bernie,” but unfortunately she might find that just a bit too fast, too soon.

“Forensic Psychology” is an intriguing subject, but three hours of straight lecture with a teacher with a soft, lulling voice who says “umm” more often than real words would strain even the most dedicated student’s interest. At least it’s better than “Romanticism,” a course so abysmal it almost defies description. The class is a mix of philosophy and directionless ponderings interspersed with one student’s insistent and long-winded contributions. Sounds like a real winner, huh? All in all, this semester looks like it’ll be far easier than most – not because there’s a significant change in amount of coursework, but rather because I have so much more free time here! At school I’m always go-go-going rehearsing for one show or another, busy beyond imagination but loving every second of it. Here, every evening is completely, 100% free, and oddly enough, it just makes me miss being busy; I really miss doing shows! I don’t know if anyone from PEMCo or FTT is reading this (I don’t actually know if anyone PERIOD is reading this) but I miss you guys. :)

Luckily, excessive free time is a problem easily remedied. I absolutely love living in a huge city like Prague because there’s just always something to DO. The clubbing scene is incredible, and I’ve still only tested a handful of Prague’s dance clubs. What I love most, though, are the world-class (but still cheap!) cultural offerings. I told you about my experience at the Philharmonic Orchestra and in a couple weeks I’ll be seeing an opera, too, but what has absolutely blown me away beyond reckoning is the ballet scene. Last week I went with AIFS to see “Romeo and Juliet” and WOW. I knew Eastern Europe was famous for its ballet – Russia is, at least—but I still wasn’t prepared for just how incredible the performance would be. This show had entirely original choreography, more West Side Story than traditional, classical ballet. It took the story and transported it to the 1940s complete with guns and cars, altering the story here and there but still creating a work as much a masterpieces as the original Shakespeare play. From the moment the curtain opened to the moment Juliet died in her beloved Romeo’s embrace, finally in death able to make the connection forbidden in life, I was riveted. I wish I could capture the absolute beauty of the work in words, but I know nothing I say can do it justice. All I’ll say is that the talent and passion I witnessed here passed magnificence and approached magic – it ranked up there with “Othello” (by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago) and “Dracula” (by the Milwaukee Ballet) as one of the best balletic performances I’ve ever witnessed.

While “Romeo and Juliet” was incredibly modernized, the next ballet I saw – “Swan Lake” - was classical through and through. It wasn’t nearly so emotionally compelling but it was still technically impeccable. One dancer in particular stuck out above the rest – he played the court jester and he reminded me so much of Calvin Kitten from the Joffrey Ballet. His jumps reached mind-blowing heights but looked utterly effortless, plus his fouette solo was one of the longest and most impressive I’ve seen. The ballerina dancing Odette/Odile also blew me away not only because she was able to embody swan-like characteristics without compromising her perfect form, but also because her anguish in the closing act was so sincere and touching. I think that finally enough time has passed since my days of ballet that I can truly appreciate the art without being jealous it’s not me up there on stage, and that makes the shows all the more incredible. I’m so blessed to be here!

Sunday, February 21

It’s a bitterly cold day in the Czech Republic, but weather.com promises it’ll start to warm up within the week. For some this is glorious news; I’ve practically forgotten what the ground looks like without snow. Others are less enthusiastic, namely the sledding crew (Allie, Jake, Ian, and Chris) who just recently acquired sleds and have been zooming down Petrín Hill almost daily. The way I see it, why slide down a snowy hill when you can ZIP down an ICY metal tube, only one bad turn away from imminent death?! And that, my dear friends, is why I organized a trip to Prague’s bobsledding course.

We headed out about 2pm on Sunday taking a slew of metro lines and buses to get to our destination in the outermost parts of the city. When we finally arrived, we could see the course stretched out down the hill before us and, being the excitable kook I am, I headed straight for the ticket office. Soon I found myself on a “bobsled” (more like a single-rider, open-top version of a REAL bobsled, but still) and speeding off down the course. It started off quite slow, to the point that I was able to pull out my camera and start recording my ride. But by the time I hit “record” the speed had picked up. Suddenly I was whizzing along the course, my hair flying behind me. I was going crazy fast, so fast that on most turns I was convinced I’d explode off the track. Somehow I held on to the camera and thank goodness I did because the resulting recording ROCKS! Take a look:

Within minutes the ride was over. My hair was windswept and my eyes tearing from the wind, but I was downright giddy from the adrenaline rush, giggling and cheering for my friends as they took their turns on the course. Later I learned that there’d been a hand-brake on the bobsled and signs in Czech warning to use it before certain turns. Guess that explains why I felt so out of control at points! At least I stayed on my bobsled – apparently Walt tipped out of his on a turn. He was a bit bruised but otherwise fine… I have a feeling he wishes he knew about the brake, too.

There was a tiny pub beside the course and that’s where we went to warm up after riding. I felt so happy and so brave (a little less so when minutes later I saw 8-year-olds zipping down the course, but still!). It was an incredible afternoon.

The adventure continued that night when Diego and I ventured off to the infamously ugly TV Tower and rode to the top. Even though the dark made it more difficult to take pictures, the view was absolutely beautiful. The viewing platform was practically empty and looking out over the sparkling lights of the city, I felt like I was floating on a cloud. So beautiful!

We returned to the dorm just in time for the Czech Republic vs. Russia Olympic hockey game. It seemed that the entire population of the dorm was crammed into the student pub in the basement to watch the game, and it was a rowdy bunch. Everyone got so into the game, especially the Czech students, that I couldn’t help but get into it, too. (And that’s saying a LOT, as anyone in my Notre Dame football seating group will tell you.)

The game ended late and with a loss, much to the joy of one random Russian exchange student and the drunken depression of a whole roomful of real and adopted Czechs. Tomorrow classes would start, and as much as we’d like to hang out all night, it was time to rest up before the mental ardor of tomorrow.