Monday, December 28, 2009

Sometimes I think Sittin' On Trains...

I just counted the stack of tickets on my table and I have at least forty train tickets. This does not count round-trip tickets, tickets that didn't end up on my table, international train tickets, or metro/tram tickets. This means that I have ridden the train well over forty times in three months. So, I spend a lot of my time doing this.

About 2/3 of the trains I have taken are exactly like this. Big, red seats in compartments. The outside is green. There tends to be graffiti. But I love them. I love compartments in all their Hogwarts-Express-esque glory. Sometimes, there is even a woman who comes around with a snack cart.

A lot of the time, I get my own compartment. But if I don't, it's just as well. I find that trains make me fairly outgoing. Since they are also often home to young English and American kids backpacking across Europe, I also tend to find people to talk to on trains. "I can't help but notice you're speaking English," is our code for "Please talk to me!" Also, I tend to find a lot of nuns on the train. Why do I love sharing a compartment with nuns so much? I've become an old hat at watching the train as it gets to the platform to see which car is most likely to have an empty compartment or a compartment with a nun. I love the walk up-and-down the car to find the best compartment.

I love the views I get from the train. While I agree with William Pene du Bois that there is no better way to see the world than in a hot air balloon, trains are much more practical. I remember riding all the way from Penn Station to Plattsburgh this spring and how I saw parts of New York that I had never seen before (and also witnessed firsthand the epic failure that is American infrastructure). But I'm enjoying my train travel here as a way to see more of the Czech Republic.

Usually, I am just riding to and from Prague. But, I have now also taken the train to Dresden in Germany and twice to Bratislava in Slovakia. The latter destination provided me with a much bigger picture of the Czech Republic. There are mountains and fields and everything in between!

I also love that in Europe, trains are also so practical. You see freight trains carrying automobiles, milk trains, and best of all--post trains. I was waiting for my 1AM train to Bratislava and I saw a post train pass me in the snow. I imagined the train full of cards and presents going to brighten spirits all around the country on Christmas and suddenly, waiting wasn't so bad.

I also got to experience the first snow (October 15th!) on a train to Prague. I grant you that we did not have accumulation until last week, it was still beautiful!

One of the best parts of the train to and from Prague? As long as you get the usual one, you can stick your head out the window!

There is no better feeling in the world than sticking your head out of a train window!

Though, you have to be careful, there are poles that come mighty close to your face.

Not all of the trains I've ridden have been the big red bench compartment trains. Some of them are a bit swankier--particularly the longer rides. Sometimes, you can catch a train that is coming from a longer journey and get a nice seat for the 50 minute ride to Prague. This was my train home from Bratislava. It originated in Budapest and would take you to Berlin via Bratislava and Prague. It's insane to me that you can go that many places on one train. They're wonderful, wonderful things.

Note the light, temperature, and Muzak controls! Classy! Though, sometimes I end up in a train without compartments and have to ride in a big room with everyone. Not my favorite. I've also ended up on a commuter train that was like I imagine a 19th century LIRR train to be like... in not a good way.

On my way home from Bratislava, I got to see the snow all over the countryside! Unfortunately, nice train meant no sticking my head out the window.

But I could on this one. This was my ride to Bratislava the first time (3 trains, 7 hours... never again). I got to watch the sunrise through the snowfall on this train. That was, I admit, pretty amazing.

I was looking at apps the other day and there are a frightening number of mac apps for syncing your model trains. I thought Goodness gracious! Who cares about trains that much!?
As it turns out, I do, but I would prefer to be on one, not play with it. Don't even get me started on the glory of my Kilometres Book! 2000 km for 1 crown a kilometer. It is glorious.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Naděje, Láska, a Vánoce

On Tuesday, Jess and I met up to do some Christmas shopping before she heads home for three weeks (what shall I do without her?!). Somehow, we ended up on a walking tour of landmarks near Old Town Square--because I usually don't do touristy things, this was kind of nice. First, we stopped at the John Lennon Wall

The wall has been used since 1980 as an homage to the Beatles. The graffiti is mostly positive--of the peace and love persuasion. A lot of it is also Beatles lyrics.

I believe the story is that when John Lennon died, students painted his portrait on this wall. It became a place for the students to write about hope and freedom under communism. It gets painted over every so often, but the graffiti just keeps coming. Imagine how many layers of hope and love cover John Lennon's face! I think it would make him happy.

After we crossed the Charles Bridge, we came to this canal. It seems that many cities have a place like this. When you find your One True Love, you carve your names into the lock, attach it to the rail, and throw the key into the canal. Some day, I will have a lock on this canal.

So that covers hope and love... now for Christmas! I give Jess full credit for this batch of photos. My hands were too cold to keep taking pictures so I just gave her the camera.

Approaching Old Town Square, again, to wander the Christmas markets.

They have a lot of old fashioned handcrafts at this market, which is really nice compared to Kolín's market! Also, mead! Omnomnom!

There are so many sweets to try in Central Europe during Christmas, how will I ever make it? I still haven't tried Trdelnik, which is delicious looking fried dough with nuts and spices.

The nut stands remind me of Christmas in New York so much! But they are not as hot and fresh as in New York. However, I think the fact that they come from a wooden stall surrounded by so much magic balances that out.

View of the Christmas market from the center.

Oh and what's that, folk dancing? Yes, this is a magical, magical place.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An Adventure

Last Saturday, I went on an adventure with my friend Eva to Dresden, Germany. It was my first time in Germany and, as always, I expected entering a new country to be like going to another world. I think, though, that once you have lived in Asia, anything in Europe is all kind of the same. As we crossed the border on the train, we noticed the different frames of the houses and decided we must be in Germany. Aside from using Euros and speaking German, it was not too different from the Czech Republic.

Which is to say, it's beautiful and charming--and alive with Christmas spirit. Like in Prague, there are Christmas markets everywhere--selling handmade goods, Christmas treats, and warm drinks. Though, as you can see, there's also a fair amount of kitsch.

We walked through the markets and explored Dresden--and somehow ended up in this neighborhood. I'm not sure what this market was, but it was closed for the weekend. The neighborhood was the kind of place with "retro" photo booths and ridiculous second-hand shops. It would have been heaven to a 15-year-old Colleen, but, I agreed with Eva that when it got dark, we should probably leave.

So we went back to the markets and got mulled wine to warm up. I couldn't catch it in photos, but it was lightly snowing all day. I, again, wanted to use Jess' statement that we live in a magical, magical world. How could I ever leave a place where you can buy mulled wine on the street and drink it wherever you like?

Or a place where you can go on a Ferris wheel at Christmas time! At the end of one market, there was a large Ferris wheel from which you could see the skyline of Dresden. After a few glasses of mulled wine, we were ready to go up.

It was a breath-taking view! The whole city was lit up and twinkling in the snow!

Before we headed back to the train, we got some chocolate-covered apples (no caramel, alas!) and scoured the big market for star-shaped lamps, which we did eventually find. All and all, it was a perfect Christmas adventure.

Tomorrow (hopefully), I am headed to Bratislava, for one of the many trips necessary to secure my visa. So, Germany is officially added to my list of "countries visited" and soon Slovakia will follow suit!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Saint Barbora Day and Saint Mikuláš Day

Last Friday, 4 Dec., was Saint Barbora's Day. I came in to work to find this branch in a cup of water. I, honestly, didn't think to ask about it. Later on in the day, my co-worker asked me, "Do you know what this is for?"
"Uh, no?" I replied.
"Today is Saint Barbora's Day and in the old days it was a tradition that you cut a branch from a tree and if it--"
"Yes, if it buds by Christmas, you will be married in the next year."

I looked at the branch and then paused for a second.
"Wait, this branch is for me? Everyone else is married!"
"Yes, and the children are too young. So it is your branch. If you have many boyfriends, you cut one branch for each of them and put a tag on it. Jana said she doesn't know how many you have so maybe we should cut a lot."
Jana walked into the conversation at this point.
"Oh yes, it is your branch. If it buds, we need to know will it be a Czech or an American."
"Well, we could always cut another one and put flags on each," I suggested jokingly. Yet, when I came back on Monday, there was a second little branch in the cup. So, I added the flags. The odds are stacked against the American branch but, what can I say? If I marry a Czech, I can get citizenship!

Today, a four-year-old student of mine was decorating my branch and when it was too heavily laden with decorations, Jana and I feared it might break. She explained to him, "This branch needs to bud so that Colleen can marry a nice, handsome Czech boy."
"Like me?" he asked.

I love my job.

Yesterday, I went to a small Christmas pageant with my students. Part of the Christmas season here is, which I alluded to last time, Sv. Mikuláš Day. On 5 Dec., the Czechs go all out for Sv. Mikuláš. He is kind of Saint Nicholas and has many similarities to Santa Claus. On 5 Dec., he comes to your house with an angel and a devil. If you are a good child, you sing a song and the angel gives you some kind of treat--candy or a gift. If you are a bad child, the devil puts you in a sack and takes you to hell. Sv. Mikuláš wears a tall pointy hat with a cross and carries a book with the names of good and bad children (a bit classier than Santa Claus' list). There are some differences in the portrayal of the devil and angel than in American iconography. The angel doesn't always have a halo, often just a star on her forehead. The devil is not a red beast, he's usually black with red horns. He may or may not have cloven hooves. He has a tail (more like an animal's than a devil's) and chains. He wears dirty clothes. I think it's actually more frightening than the less-believable American devil.

What is truly crazy is that parents actually pay people to come to their houses and scare the be-Jesus out of their children. I've heard tales of my friends peeing themselves as small children when the devil came to their door with Sv. Mikuláš and the angel. But when you're an adult, it's a wonderful holiday! It's an excuse to dress up (which I did!) and something you can hold over children's heads. "Be good! Don't you know who is coming this weekend?!" Getting taken to hell or getting coal in your stocking, which is a more effective threat?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Can We Just Take a Minute

About a week and a half ago, Jess (above) and I were walking to get dinner in I.P. Pavlova and we saw something magical in Naměsti Miru. There was a Christmas tree and little stalls, with people mulling about in their winter coats. "Can we please take a detour to see what that is?" she asked. When we got closer, we found ourselves in a small Christmas market, which fill many of the squares in the Czech Republic (and as I am to understand, much of Europe) from the end of November until Christmas. The little wooden stalls harked back to a time before plasma screen advertisements covered every inch of a city. They sold mulled wine, Christmas ornaments, handcrafts, and all the things that would make one think of Christmas in a fairy tale world. It was like stepping into the world I imagined Hanzel and Gretel grew up in.
"Can we just take a minute to appreciate the fact that we live in a magical fairy tale land?" asked Jess.
"Yes, yes we can." I replied.

Little did I know that this small market was just the beginning.

While I spent actual Thanksgiving having a small wine-and-chicken dinner party with Czech friends, I spent Friday having a gluttonous feast with expats of all stripes and colors. Jess cooked a turkey (with my assistance via Skype) and we took turns carving the bird. I was quite proud of my carving skills, even if I did hack it to bits. I got the turkey off the carcass, that's what counts! I also brought a very well-received apple pie that I managed to bake in my oven without temperature control. It was certainly no Heaney family Thanksgiving, but we went around the room and said what we were thankful for, and on actual Thanksgiving, we toasted with cherry liquor, so I felt sufficiently at home.

On Saturday, the first day of advent, the holiday season kicked off in earnest. We went to watch the tree lighting in Old Town Square. Luckily, we entered through the least packed street, but it was still a zoo. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The tree in New York cannot begin to compare to Prague's Christmas tree. When it has a castle-like cathedral as a backdrop, what can you expect?

You can see the stalls all set up in this gigantic Christmas market. After the crowds dissipated, we wandered around the market and got some hot chocolate. I look forward to spending every weekend this way until Christmas! This place can only get more magical. On Saturday, I will enjoy my first Saint Mikulaš celebration, dressed as an angel, and look forward to reporting back all of the day's ridiculous events. I'll give this as a teaser: In America, you wait until you die for the devil to take your soul to hell, but in the Czech Republic, they like to nip it in the bud and take you straight away to hell as a misbehaving tot. Or so you are led to believe.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

17 Listopadu

I've been trying to write more than post photos in this blog, but I think that Tuesday warrants a photo-heavy post. Tuesday, the 17th of November, was the 20th anniversary of the student marches that led to the end of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. On that day 20 years ago, about 30,000 students took to the streets of Prague in a march that was sanctioned by the government because it was officially honoring a student who had been killed by the Nazis fifty years earlier. The protest turned rebellious and the state police assaulted the students, but they just continued to march.

On Tuesday, I met my friend Erin in Wenceslas Square where we saw the beginnings of the day's festivities. Czech flags were everywhere.

We walked to Albertov, the starting place of the 1989 march and where we would listen to (albeit without any understanding) speakers talk about democracy. When we got there an hour before the speakers would begin, there was no one there. We were a bit wary that this might not be as big of a deal as we had been hoping. As we neared 3:00, more and more people came.

This is the "Sweet! We aren't the only people here anymore!" pose.

They came with their flags and their signs, most of which I could not even begin to read. Many of them had to do with the unpopularity of the current Czech president, Vaclav Klaus. It reminded me of all the peace rallies I used to go to in high school, how many variations of "impeach Bush" I had seen. But growing up in a country that celebrated the 200th anniversary of being rebellious crusaders for liberty and democracy before I was even born, it is strange to imagine that in my own lifetime, the country I currently think of as home was not a place where one could even hold such a sign.

After the speakers, we followed the path that the students took in 1989. On the way, we saw performances of all kinds on the street corners.

The march took over two hours as we walked from Albertov to Narodni.

I felt like quite an outsider here. What have I done to earn my place in this crowd? Thanks to America's fear of teaching students anything about communism, I barely even know anything about the history. But this march wasn't just about honoring the people who helped spur democracy in the Czech Republic, it was also about bringing democracy and freedom to other parts of the world where people still live in fear of their government. And hey, that's something I can get behind.

Along the route, we saw many people sticking their heads out their windows to watch the march.

But by far the best was guy-without-a-shirt-wearing-a-gold-chain. That is the sign of freedom: being able to watch a march from your own flat topless if you want.

At first, we thought this was a group of police actually attacking marchers. Then, we realized that they were re-enacting the events of 1989. Way to be cool and scary at the same time, in true Czech fashion. Nevertheless, there were lots of riot police on hand just in case things got a little too spirited, but they wore friendly yellow vests instead of helmets!

One of the biggest symbols of the Velvet Revolution was the jingling of keys by students to represent unlocking the doors to freedom. The whole march, we could hear the gentle jingling of keys in the background.

And so, we rang ours too. Keys have always held such symbolism in my life. I worked as a locksmith's assistant one summer and learned so much about them and their history. I wear a key, that I found in a drawer in my dad's house, around my neck so that I always have home close to my heart. But now, I will never touch one without a momentary thought of how students, people my age and younger, used them to peacefully change the world.