Friday, February 27, 2009

Old Poland

As the Poles will bitterly tell you, Poland's historical borders are not its present ones. Almost half of historical Poland now belongs to Belarus and Ukraine. Lwów, an ancient Polish city, is now known as L'viv, and firmly in the hands of Ukraine. Wilno is now the capital of Lithuania. It's true that Poland gained a great deal of German land, like Gdansk (Danzig), Szczenin (Stettin) and Wroclaw (Breslau), but, to many, the historical land of the Poles now lies within foreign borders.
It's a shame, for me, really. Traveling to Belarus is kind of a pain in the ass. I do desire to go to these places (Wilno should be no problem though) but seem to be blocked by the need for visas.


I've asked a number of Poles whether or not they'll get back places like Lwow and Wilno, but almost all seem resigned that they'll no longer be in Polish hands. Mostly becuase they think that Germany would want back Stettin and Breslau, which I don't think Poland would be too keen to give up.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Frozen

The winter of 2006 was an intensely cold one for Europe. In Poland, it was a harsh, biting winter. There wasn't tons of snow on the ground, but the air must have been steady around 10º or so.
Part of the beach at Gdynia
Part of the beach at Gdynia.

In Gdynia, something had happened that had not been seen for a very long time: the harbor froze over. It was rather unreal to see a vast stretch of ice and snow reaching out into the sea. At the edges, the waves undulated, covered not in foam, but in blocks of ice. The ocean water slowly turned into water with ice floes, until it too turned into the consistency of slush and then into solid ice. The beach, upon which I would lay in the summer, was a frozen block of sand with wisps of snow being blown about in sidewinding trails. We walked a little ways from the beach, out onto the ice. It wasn't smooth and glossy, the way pond ice is, but lumped up, mixed with snow that formed huge drifts, almost as if the waves had froze just as they had crested.
K's mother (who is a dear) said she had only seen the harbor frozen once before in her lifetime, and that was years back.
The frozen harbor Gdynia
The frozen harbor.

It's an experience to walk out onto the sea. Well, it's always a life experience to see any some great body of water. My brother said that seeing the Dead Sea was just something that was a life experience. Seeing, let alone walking on, the Baltic was kind of like that for me (actually, I didn't walk on the Baltic, and didn't actually see the open Baltic Sea until the summer, last year, on my trip to Gdynia and Hel.)
The churning, frozen water Gdynia
The churning, frozen water.

The Importance of Learning Polish

When I first started learning Polish, it was on a whim.  I didn't really expect big things from it, but it has become the single most important thing that I've learned.  While in Germany, I was  able to get out a few mangled sentences to the Poles there and their hearts melted.
Now, years later, I still struggle with Polish but everyday I am more and more thankful that I picked it up.

Here is an article, which I found immensely entertaining, about some fellows in Ireland (the Police) who ought to have had a few Polish lessons themselves.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

First Impressions

Well, before I started writing, I woke up today and sat down to my computer.  As I was typing I noticed that my computer, a Macbook Pro, was rather unstable on my desk.  At first I thought that there was something under it, like a pen or another random thing, so I lifted it up to see.  My fucking battery was warped all to shit!!!  No wonder the thing couldn't stay unplugged for five minutes—despite being fully charged— before shutting down.  A new one is going to run me $130 or so (and my computer is only about thirty months old!)

Anyway, this is a tale of my very first visit to Poland all those years ago.
Actually, it's a tale about the first three minutes of me getting off the bus (for the first time) in Warsaw.)

So, K had picked me up from the Airport (this was before T2 (heh, heh, great movie) opened up.)  We rode the bus on the extremely gray day to Srodmiescie and then took a tram to K's apartment block.  It's such a wondrous feeling arriving in a foreign land such as this for the first time.  I was carrying a huge frame backpack, per usual, and I exited the tram carrying it in my hands.  I started to struggle to get it onto my back when a fellow came up and started to help me.  Well, he helped me get it on and then refused to let me go, giving me great big hugs while chatting some words off in Polish (this was when I first started learning Polish; I didn't know what the hell he was saying.)  K told him I was an American and could not understand Polish.  That made him ever more jolly and drove him to hug me even more while welcoming me to Poland and wishing me a good trip.  I got the dubious pleasure of smelling his fermenting breath, which he was expending to K, talking to her about beer.  She handed him a five Zloty coin and he thanked her profusely then hugged me some more before wandering off.  K went on about how that's not really a usual thing to happen, which is a shame really.  I could have used a few more hugs.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cell Phone Matters

Here's an odd story:

I rarely use my cell phone and am very discriminatory to whom I give it out.  One fine day, this passing Sunday, the day after Valentine's Day, I got two messages from a number I didn't recognize.  The first read:
Nie boje się (I am not afraid)
The second one read:
Jeszcze zobaczymy
kurwa
(We shall see, Whore (or fuck!))
Now, this is a little unsettling.  Not only have I never met this person (presumably) but why is s/he calling me a whore?  I wrote back, diplomatically:
What the fuck?!
Kto to jest?
(Who is this?)
Whoever it was disregarded my inquisitions and said (the following day):
Teraz nie moge pisać
(I can't write right now)
OK, so s/he can't write right now; I'll play the waiting game.  I was rewarded several hours later with:
Ewelina do mnie wczoraj pisałaś dlatego nie mogłem
(Ewelina, you wrote to me yesterday, that's why I couldn't)
This was getting really bizarre.  I found out he's a 'he' and lacks grammar so his message isn't exactly clear to comprehend.  Am I Ewelina?  I replied:
OK.
Ale, kto jestes?
Czy znam cie?
Jak sie nazywa?
(But, who are you?  Do I know you?  What is your name?)
Sane questions, right?  Well, they were disregarded and he sent:
Cześć síostra ty wczoraj do mnie pisałaś na telefon wieczorem dlatego nie pisałem
(Hi, sister.  You wrote to me yesterday on the telephone, in the evening, there for I didn't write.)
This is fucking weïrd.  I happened to run out of money on my phone, so I couldn't reply.  This guy kept on sending me messages:
Jesteś jeszcze na mnie zła kochanie
(You are still mad at me, Love)
And:
Kochanie odpisz
michał
(Love, write back.
Michal)
Well!!!  His name is Michal.  He hasn't sent me anymore messages, but I still think it's awfully strange.

Lessons in Humility

As a student of Polish and a teacher of English, I am faced very often with dealing with the issue of getting over one's own shyness while speaking a language.  At the beginning of every semester of classes, I give my opening spiel about how the students ought to get over any sense of shyness and just be comfortable speaking.
I usually say something akin to:
"Look, please don't hold back while speaking, just make an effort.  I swear I won't laugh at you or judge you; I'm just here to help you.  Don't worry about making mistakes.  Native speakers of English make mistakes all the time!  Shakespeare: the greatest English writer and the greatest writer of English, couldn't even spell his own name consistently.  So please, do your best and try your hardest."
It sounds noble but I rarely actually follow it myself.  I don't mean that I laugh at the students and call them morons—at least I don't do it to their faces. (JOKE!!!)  I mean that I am very shy about speaking Polish, especially with a Polish person.

It's been said that one learns a language best while drunk, because it takes away inhibitions and makes one not afraid to make mistakes.  I personally find this to be true, but I have trouble remembering what mistakes I made and what I actually said in general.
Now, here's a story:
When asking someone how to say something, I usually don't remember it very well.  So, if asking, "How do you say 'girl'?" and someone replied "dziewczyna", I would have trouble remembering "dziewczyna."
I was in Germany and had some tsuika (Romanian moonshine made from plums.)  I was getting 'festive' and asked a Pole next to me how one should say cheers.  She said, "na zdrowie."  To which I meant to reply, "I'll ask you again." (in Polish)  but instead said, "Zapamietam Cie zawsze."  She laughed and said, "Do you know what you just said?"  I looked sheepish and said, "What?"
"You just said 'I'll remember you forever!'"  We had a laugh and I quickly said, "Uh, I meant: Zapytam Cie znowu."

Again and again I am faced with a language barrier that seems to insurmountable for me.  I'm not one of those people who can conquer a language easily and confidently (I got straight Cs in Polish, and I did actually try.)  There are plenty of times I end up looking foolish when a person asks me a simple question and I do something totally unrelated to it.  (Once, a security guard asked me to write down my last name and I wrote, "Hey, it's me!  Come on down!"  He gave me the queerest look and repeated the question several times.)
I'm not exactly confident in my abilities (there are uncountable episodes, in which I have embarrassed myself trying to speak/understand Polish) and I'm not very comfortable carrying on a conversation.  Flaws I'd like to work on.

No matter how well you think you know a language (even your native one) someone or something is going to come along and show you something you'll never understand.  Why people enjoy James Joyce is that thing for me.
And so, even though I get paid to coax people along and to be comfortable with the Mother Tongue, I understand where they are coming from, and have been there too many friggan times myself.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Last Post: See Below

Boy, did I get some nasty responses about the following post: Myths about Poland or whatever (I forget the name of it now.)

Some people felt that I was slandering Poland, being overly arrogant American, being a "damn Yankee", and not actually being in touch with Poland.

Does anyone who reads this possess  ANY critical thinking at all?

I mean, come on!

Number 1)  This myth was directed to moronic people who had no contact with Poles, Polish culture, or any real knowledge about Poland.  Case in point:  When I returned from my first stay in Poland, my mother asked me what it was like.  Remember, she grew up with Eastern Europe being portrayed as the Iron Curtain and stuff.  She said, "I always thought of Poland as long lines of bent over old women carrying large bags with nothing in them."
I was trying to alleviate this sense that Poland is some depressing wasteland, of which Lenin would approve.

Number 2)  Many others have posted this myth and have agreed with me.  I'm not saying that Polish girls are ugly, or that they're cretins from some hideous morass.  I was saying that I think, in my opinion, that they aren't all drop-dead gorgeous girls.  In fact, many of them look like they could come from any other Caucasian ethnicity.  I did propagate the myth that Russians are beautiful, which was given to me by my Polish students and male friends.  I regret the error.  Polish girls rule!

Number 3)  I wrote this one because of several things.  Mostly it was because I saw another one of these lists, but it was titled "What to expect from a Polish girlfriend."  Number eight or something (I don't care which one it was) was "She's smarter than you."  It then went on about how this girl is somehow smarter than everyone else (by the education system, I guess.)  I just wanted to say, "No, she won't be smarter than you, and you won't be smarter than she."

 I cannot tell you how many times I meet Poles who have never been to America nor met an American and yet they think we're all fucking idiots (they say this to my face.  NO JOKE!!!)  Most of them point to movies and say that they get their perceptions about Americans being morons from these movies.  Does it matter that most of the best (by international rankings (as in, rankings don't by persons/groups outside of North America)) Universities are in the US?  (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, CalTec, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Carnegie-Mellon)  Here's a list made by a university in China.
I swear, I have had conversation after conversation with many different Poles from many different backgrounds, both professionals and students and factory workers, and all have commented about how they think that Americans in general are, in a word, stupid.

I was miffed by how many people adhere to the view that people from the US are dumber than those that aren't.  (Hey, the majority of Brits believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real person.  Most Polish people don't know the capital of Canada, the second-largest nation in the world.  (Hint: it's Ottawa, not Toronto.))

I wasn't saying that Poles are stupid.  I was (for the love of God and all that is Holy) just saying that they were as smart (or stupid, if you see the glass half-empty) as Americans, Brits, Swedes, Germans, Japanese, Ecuadorians, Nigerians (hey, they scam money from morons in the US, they've got to be smart!) and any other nationality.


Oh, and use your minds while reading for Fuck's sake!!!!!

Some Misconceptions

Now, there are innumerable blogs that create the "Top Ten Myths of Poland" lists.  This one is slightly different: it only has three.

1.  Poland is a Poor Country of Concrete Flats.
Only slightly true, but changing fast.  Poland has yet to be totally sucked down by the current economic fiasco, and they're throwing up skyscrapers and modern buildings at a breakneck pace.

2.  Polish Girls Are All Pretty.
There are plenty of butterfaces in Poland.  If you really want the hotties, look further east to Ukraine and Russia.  That's not to say that there aren't beautiful girls in Poland, there are, but there are plenty of not-so-pretty ones either.

3.  They're Smarter Than We.
They're not.  They just aren't smarter.  In fact, they're actually just as dumb as Americans.  
(This topic actually gets me going, but I'll rant and rave on a different post.)
That's not to say that Polish people are retarded, which they aren't, I'm just saying that they (I should actually refer to Poles here, I'm more of referring to Europeans in general) are just as smart/stupid as anyone else in the world.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Movies

Poland is somewhat behind the curve in terms of box office releases. They're catching up now, with major blockbusters being released on the same date in Poland as they are in the US, but for many films they still lag behind. One such effect is that on the flight over to Poland, I can watch a film before it is even shown in theaters in Poland. Happy-Go-Lucky was one such film, and I got the pleasure of seeing all the posters up around Warsaw advertising its release.
It used to be really bad a few years ago. I remember visiting the theater and seeing posters for movies that were "coming soon", yet had already been released on DVD in the States months before. These days, most films are released simultaneously around the globe (Poland included.)

Suburbia

The cities in Poland are quite different for the cities in the US.  The most striking difference is where the edge of the cities begin.  Most cities in the States have an urban center, then spread out into neighborhoods in the surrounding area, then into some huge, vast plane of suburbs.  Let me state this once (I'll probably state it a few more times.)  Suburbia is my definition of damnation.  Row after row of identical houses that lack any distinction, warmth, or soul.  Block stores and hideous strip malls blight the landscape and suck away any beauty that the land once held.  Endless miles of parking lots stretch into the distance, a sea of blacktop with an armada of automobiles.  This is not a good place.
Warsaw is slightly different.  There's the urban center and it spreads away to neighborhoods, which are mostly residential.  These neighborhoods are mostly blocks of apartments, but there are some places where there are houses and no high rises.  While there exist gigantic box stores like Tesco and Leclerc, most monstrous stores are safely integrated into the malls.
When I was teaching in Bialoleka, I was surprised at how quickly the city gave way to semi-countryside and farms.  To the south, the city abruptly ends at Kabaty, but continues sporadically on the other side.  To my shame, I've never really been to the far north or Warsaw, but I hear tell that it also ends pretty much in the same way at Kabaty.
There are outposts of urbanization beyond the main limits of the city.  OS. Patio is mostly just houses and is always growing: a neo-suburbia.  But these places have a little more integrity than the postage stamp yards and the endless rows of mcmansions, each with an SUV parked in the driveway.  There's no mass exodus (white flight) from the urban centers to the suburban havens.  To my knowledge, gated communities have not made their presence felt, nor has the strip mall reared its hideous head.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Flights

I used to have quite a bit of luck while traveling.  Now, I consider myself lucky if I reach my destination intact.
I used to love flying in planes, but now that I do so several times a year, I dread it.  I now enjoy waiting in the airport more than sitting in a cramped, crowded plane full of the dredges of humanity.  Say what you will but for me, it's the destination, not the journey.

It seems that I'm always next to the fattest person on the plane, and he never has a tightly sealed asshole.  My time next to these farting lumps of crap makes my air travel almost unbearable.

I flew to Poland for spring break once, leaving on Friday after classes and taking the bus to Boston.  The day before, it was a clear, sunny day, but now it turned into a gigantic blizzard that delayed the bus almost an hour.  I was to fly Northwest Airlines, and when I reached Logan almost all the flights were cancelled save for this one.  We were told that the plane was flying into Boston, and if it could land, then the flight would continue as scheduled.  The plane did not land and the flight was cancelled.  The ticket counter was mobbed with people and I was told that the earliest flight was on the following Monday.  I snapped at them, asking if any other airline would be able to connect me and they promptly bought me a ticket for a Swiss International Airlines flight on Sunday, arriving on Monday.
Oh, but that's not all.  On my return journey, my flight from Warsaw to Amsterdam was delayed.  I barely made my connection, from Amsterdam to Boston, but Northwest Airlines lost (with whom I flew back to the States), lost my luggage and left it in Amsterdam.  I got it back a few days later, but Customs had searched my bag (and repacked it quite shoddily) and removed two half-liter bottles of vodka.  Since it's legal for a non-US citizen to bring a liter of alcohol into the US, what are they doing removing a liter of alcohol from a citizen's baggage?  I called up NWA, who told me that I had a case and should call the TSA.  The guy on the other end told me flat out that I was probably not going to see either my Zubrowka or Wyborowa ever again.

A winter jaunt to Poland ended up quite similar.  I flew out on Air France, with a connection in Paris.  I had a nine-hour layover, which is plenty of time to go and explore Paris.  And explore Paris I did.
Paris is many people's favorite cities.  Now, I've only been there twice, and I won't deny that it has it's charm, it's culture, it's utter beauty and inspiring sites, it's history, gardens, restaurants, theaters, museums, churches, bridges, porn shops.  Paris is a city that everyone should visit within his or her lifetime; it's just too much to pass up.
The subway line from the airport to Paris proper is eight Euros one-way (and I thought public transportation was over priced here!)  I took the metro in and saw what I could.  Most of what I saw is in my Cheburashka post.  I didn't have tons and tons of time, because I still had a flight to take to Poland.  Plus, it was Christmas Eve.  I had heard that Paris is beautiful at Christmastime, and it is, but it kind of looked the same as it had when I was there six years earlier.  It was a clear, sunny day, and I got to watch the sunrise.  It was rather warm and all I needed to wear was a polar fleece.
I digress.  My tale about Paris is something for another time.  I should bring up that I arrived in Paris with about three hours of sleep in the last two days (no joke.)  So I had my fun in Paris, got back on the metro and went back to Charles De Gaulle.  I passed customs, and went to find my gate (remember, this was a connection flight so I didn't have to check in.)  Suddenly, after about a half-hour of being in the airport, the screen said my flight was cancelled!!!  Can you believe that shit?!  I went to the Air France desk, along with the other members of the flight, and was told by the lady at the desk that "the pilot didn't show up.  He was sick or on vacation, she didn't know."  I was fuming by this time, but she gave me a lunch voucher to use at the airport and a hotel voucher, which came with a dinner and breakfast voucher.  She told us that the next flight tomorrow would be at nine a.m. and that our baggage would be on the plane and meet us in Warsaw.
We (the stiffed travelers) waited outside on the curb for three hours for the shuttle to take us to our hotel.  Three hours.  Every so often a shuttle bus for a different hotel (or set of hotels) would come by and stop; we'd run up and ask them if they were going to our hotel.  Of course they would say no.  It didn't take long for us to ask, "Are you going within walking distance of the hotel?"  They would again reply that they weren't.  Finally, thankfully the shuttle bus arrived and spirited us to our destination.  I saw in anger and rage that our hotel was RIGHT NEXT to allllll the other hotels, to which these other shuttles were going.
We all got our rooms and I collapsed into bed at around 6:30, missing dinner, which started at 7:30.  I still regret not being able to get my full amount from that voucher.  I did use my breakfast voucher, and the breakfast was actually quite good (being a continental breakfast.)
Our flight to Poland was fine, but the assholes left my baggage back in Paris.  They couldn't even put it on the place after more than twenty-four hours.  It was Christmas Day at this time, but they did deliver my baggage to my door the very next day.

There are many tales such as these.  I can't recall every fat, disgusting person, next to whom I've had to sit (I tell about that horrific Russian lady in one of my first posts.)  I hope one day to rekindle my love of the actual activity of traveling from one place to another, but until then, I'm stuck in economy class.  I'm doomed to loose my luggage and circulation in my legs.
I actually like airplane food.  (It's the last thing I enjoy.)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Polish Food: Smalec

At first description, smalec (small-lets) seems to be one of the most repulsive foods imaginable. It's bacon grease (yes, bacon grease) with seasonings and onions, and used as a spread. It is, however, quite delicious. My first encounter with it was at the Folk Gospoda restaurant. Smalec was served as an free appetizer and my gracious host, K, insisted on me trying it, "I really want you to try this. It's one of my favorites."
By the way, Folk Gospoda is a pretty cool restaurant in Warsaw. They sell beer in giant mugs and five-liter graduated cylinders, plus the food is pretty good and they have live music. The tables are all picnic tables and the decor is common with many other traditional restaurants, in that it's supposed to be like a peasant's house.
Anyway, the smalec came with a basket of bread. It sat there in the bowl, looking like a collection of gray vomit, waiting for me to try it. Regardless of how it looked, it tasted really good!!! The piggy taste of normal bacon grease was absent, and all that was left was a savory flavor that was quite enjoyable. The texture is more akin to hummus than butter or shortening like Crisco. The cholesterol content must be off the charts (i.e. don't eat this stuff every day. Crack it out only for occasions.)
NOTE: I had no alcohol when I ate this meal, but apparently smalec and beer go along together well. Next time I encounter it (as I surely will) I'll probably update this post with my most professional opinion.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Side Note: Prague: Prague


Cities like London, Paris and Rome are often cited as the most beautiful cities in Europe (or in their own minds: the world.) Prague is able to elevate itself above these by still retaining its mystique. It has modern amenities, swarms of youths, and an influx of attention, but this old imperial capital still calls back to history with its architecture.
The Old Town Square from the Prague Astronomical Clock
The Old Town Square from the Prague Astronomical Clock.

The Opera House where Mozart's Don Giovanni was first performed
The Opera House where Mozart's Don Giovanni was first performed.

The Powder Tower at night with a full moon
The Powder Tower at night with a full moon.

One thing was a mind-boggling amount of tour groups. Tours from France, Russia, Germany, and England. Tour guides strode about hold aloft various objects like umbrellas, rods with colorful balls or small figurines perched on top.
There is tons of history in Prague, from the Thirty Years War (and before) to Franz Kafka (a house where he lived is there on the Old Town Square. There's a delightful little restaurant underneath it called U Minuty, which I guess is also the name of the house itself.) There's also much more, but I'm just giving you an idea.
Prague from the Astronomical Clock
Prague from the Astronomical Clock.

The day I arrived, New Years Eve, was a very sunny day. It was perfect for discovering a new city. The day I left was an extended day, and I was frantically trying to escape the city.
The Charles Bridge (Karluv Most) is a central sight in the city. It serves as the main pedestrian link between the two halves of Prague. It's adorned by many fantastic statues and has plenty of entertainment, from street musicians to caricature artists. Most disappear at night, but that didn't stop some American neo-bohemian to sit below the bridge tower, strumming a six-string and repeating the end of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" over and over. "How I wish… How I wish you were here…" Artisans and hawkers also line the sides of the bridge.
The National Museum is a grand sight. It stands, imposingly, over Wenceslas Square. It's interior is rich and majestic. The entrance hall feels more like a theater than a museum (they actually have classical music concerts in it sometimes.) As for the actual museum collection, don't bother. It's rather dry and boring. Go visit some other natural history museums for their exhibits; visit this one for the structure itself.
Wenceslas Square from the New Yorker store, looking up at the National Museum
Wenceslas Square from the New Yorker store, looking up at the National Museum.

Prague is also home to an exciting-looking sex toy museum as well as a pretty decent torture device museum. (As I say: The torture device of today is the sex toy of tomorrow.) I say "exciting-looking" because I've never actually been in it, but the entrance was pretty interesting. The torture museum, near the Charles Bridge, was pretty interesting and pretty extensive.
One museum, which is a must, is the Museum of Communism. It's above a big McDonald's, and it mixes humor and history. Much of the exhibits are tongue-in- cheek, but that doesn't mean the museum doesn't mean business: it does. I wish I could actually compare it to the Museum of Communism in Warsaw (in the Palac Kultury i Nauki), but I haven't actually been to that one yet. When I have, I'll certainly tell all.
The Museum of Communism deals mostly with communism in Czechoslovakia (primarily the Prague Spring), with a little bit about it's Eastern Bloc neighbors. It's pretty damning of communism in general by making points to show how oppressive the regime was as a satellite state.
Stalin Quote
Museum of Communism
And some people still believe in Communism.

Cafe Ebel, which has several locations throughout Prague, is a terrific coffee spot. The 'Jumbo Lattes' are just that: enough coffee to bathe a small elephant. (Seriously, they're fucking huge.) Breakfast there was good, cheap, and fast.
Restaurace Achát was pretty good with a pleasant atmosphere and the expected traditional Czech dishes.
The Prague Castle, which is apparently the largest ancient castle in the world, is, as all castles should be, magnificent. It sits atop a hill, and overlooks all of the Old City in Prague. From the Charles Bridge, one runs into St. Nicholas Church (be careful, there's another St. Nicholas in Prague in the Old Town Square, but I believe it's a Hussite church.) Inside, it's as you would expect: beautiful. There is, however, much to explore. Not just within the castle and the St. Vitius Cathedral, which has a very rewarding view from it's spire, but also further back where not many tourists go.
The Monument in front of St. Nicholas
The Monument in front of St. Nicholas.

views of the Prague Castle
views of the Prague Castle
Different views of the Prague Castle.

The Stahov Monastery is pretty nice. I didn't notice tons of tourists walking about, so I don't think it's a main attraction of Prague. The Loreta and Loretanske Namesti, are both worthy places and not too far from the Prague Castle. The Loretta is a must-see. It holds a wonderful treasury (I don't think pictures were allowed to be taken) and a nice cloister-esque courtyard. I visited it when it was rather drizzly and dreary, but they seemed to be devoid of most tourists.

The Old Town Square in Prague is pretty much what you would think it is, central to the whole city. There's a gigantic statue to Jan Huss, and for the time I was there, a large Christmas Market (Weihnachtmarkt in German.) They sell all sorts of crafts and food (winter food: candied nuts, sausages, mulled wine.) In the summer, I'm sure it's full of restaurants' patios and such. Famous sites like the Astronomical Clock and Kafka's house are there.
St. Nicholas at night, with the Weihnachstmarkt
St. Nicholas at night, with the Weihnachstmarkt.

I had read about the Vysehrad, which promised to be impressive. I walked along the river towards the south, running into several sights such as the modernistic "Fred and Ginger", the Prague National Theater, and the Emauzy Monastery. Emauzy actually is in a rather seedy neighborhood, quite to my surprise.
Fred and Ginger
Fred and Ginger.

mauzry
Emauzry.

My first attempt to visit the Vysehrad ended after I walked along the Vltava for a ways and decided to turn back. My second, and successful, visit occurred rather late at night while waiting for my bus.
I was supposed to leave on the fourth of January, at midnight. I packed up all my stuff; I checked out of the hostel and went to the seedy bus station. The bus was supposed to leave at midnight (how convenient is that?) But I waited and waited and waited some more. It never came! I asked another bus driver if I could get on her bus, but she said no and told me to wait for my own. Finally, I just gave up and went back to the hostel, where that old guy was still awake. The next evening, I did the same thing. I left my baggage at the hostel and went out into the city for one last time. I decided to actually walk all the way to Vysehrad.
The walk along the river was quite nice. It's true that it borders a busy road with cars ripping by, but during the sunset it can be quite peaceful (almost romantic—but by this time I was alone.) The setting sun shimmers off the Vltava, and it's winter (yet it was warm) so there aren't crowds of couples walking hand-in-hand.
I finally made it to Vysehrad. It's hard to miss, being a fortress on a hill, but it's not clearly marked out. The Prague Castle has signs everywhere pointing the way to it in both Czech and English, I can't remember a single one for the Vysehrad. It's a up a long flight of stairs, and one is immediately rewarded with a view over Prague.
It was quite dark, so my impression of Vysehrad is that it's mostly parks and ramparts. There were a scattering for people going about for evening strolls. At the center, there's the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which pretty much dominates over the whole thing. St. Peter and St. Paul has beautiful, colorful doorways with mosaics above them. They seem a little odd on a gothic church, but compliment it well. I spent a while wandering around on the ramparts. If I had, had more time (I had to take a bus later) and had gotten there in the daylight, I would probably have more to say.
I walked back to the center of the city and spent the rest of the time at one of the Cafe Ebels. This time, when I went to the bus station, I caught the bus for another long ride to Karlsruhe.
St. Peter and St. Paul
St. Peter and St. Paul. I took this while lying down in the parking lot.

A gate to the Vysehrad
A gate to the Vysehrad. There is some famous gate there, and I thought this was it, but it wasn't.

he Prague Castle from Vysehrad  One can see the double-spire of Emauzry
The Prague Castle from Vysehrad. One can see the double-spire of Emauzy.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Side Note: Prague: New Years

New Years was like one giant party (with its center in Vaclavske Square) and everyone was invited.  There were tons of fireworks, but they weren't set off by city officials, but rather by revelers.  The blare of sirens was constant, and sparkling wine was flowing aplenty.  It was one of the most fun and memorable times in my life.  I actually met someone from Mass there, I think he was teaching English in Prague.

There were twelve beds in the room, which was actually rather small.  I didn't get chummy with any of the roommates, but apparently several of them were friends (I think they were from Italy.)  Two lesbians came in late in the evening on New Years Eve and went straight to bed.  The water for the showers was a little colder than lukewarm, which didn't make for a thrilling shower.

After a quick nap after my long bus ride, I hit the streets of Prague.  A large stage was set up in Vaclavske Square and things were beginning to look festive.  A group of dancers were dancing (including numbers like the Can-Can) on stage, warding off the chilly air with tight sweat pants.  The weather wasn't freezing (there was no snow) but there was a nippiness to it.
video video
Dancers on the stage in Prague.

There was an Albert supermarket on Vaclavske Square, where we were able to purchase a bottle of sparkling wine to pop at midnight.  This was of not really necessary, since every kiosk was selling either Sekt or Prosecco; although, the prices were far higher.  Fireworks were more common than booze, but I wasn't able to get my paws on any of them.

These people are out of control when it comes to partying for New Years.  I've never seen anything like it!  Groups of people firing off roman candles, people dancing and singing, explosions in the street.   It was a grand 'ol time, and everyone seemed to be friends.  It wasn't just young hooligans who were partying and causing a ruckus, there were tons of older people out on the streets enjoying themselves in the same way.
video video video
Various clips of fireworks.

Walking about, I tried to make kissy lips at every passing female.  I think about nine or so women took me up on my offer (the number gets higher every time I tell the story.  I say women because they ranged from late teens to women over sixty.)
Along the way, we met groups of people.  Some were from Russia, some were from the US, and all were friendly.  We talked, laughed and chatted, then parted ways.
We made our way up to the stage, threading through the crowds, buying another bottle of wine, draining it and refilling it from a group of people we met, and found a lady with the softest coat ever.  We ran our hands all over the coat, delighted by its silky quality.  She just laughed and probably enjoyed all the attention.
The luxurious coat
The luxurious coat.

To get past the stage we had to give up our empty bottle (no bottles of alcohol were allowed.)  We circled around the back of it, near the National Museum, and went back again.  By this time, the crowd was beginning to thin and the amount of fireworks was petering out a bit.  We made our way to Old Town Square but most everyone was gone from there and all that was left was trash (there was no snow, but it looked like a blizzard of garbage came through.)  The next morning, the streets were sparkling clean.

A Side Note: Prague

Prague is one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring cities I've ever seen. It's old city is gigantic, covering both sides of the river. It's a city where one can easily imagine the times of old.
I was fortunate enough to spend New Years 2006-2007 in Prague. I was living in Karlsruhe, Germany at the time and wanted a little adventure. A classmate, who had been to Prague for New Years the previous year, found out my plans and suggested the Hostel AZ, but warned that I ought to book a room soon because the beds filled up fast. AZ was full, but their sister hostel, Aldivia, wasn't. I booked a bed in the dorm and got my bus ticket: KA-PR.
Now, my bus left Karlsruhe at around six, and I was thinking it would roll into Prague around 11:00 PM that same night or midnight, on what would be New Years Eve. I was extremely close to missing the bus (the bus driver said, "Arrive one minute later and you would not be on here.") I got a seat to myself and settled in for a nice ride to Prague. There were stops in Stuttgart, in München at the Allianz Stadium (we stopped for a pee break there. The bathrooms were a ways away from the bus station) and and the Czech border (pre-Schengen) for ninety minutes because some loaf forget his passport.
Eleven hours after departing Karlsruhe we rolled into Prague, not at the Hauptbahnhof (which I was expecting) but in some bus station in the seediest part of the city. Getting off the bus in the very early morning, being very dark, and trying to find my way to the train station, of which I had no idea where it was, was going to be a challenge. Luckily, a homeless looking fellow also got off the bus and started to talk to me. I tried to tell him I was trying to go to the train station, and he pointed in some direction. I walked a little ways down the street, and was thinking, "You… are… fucked." The man, who turned out to be rather nice, suggested that I come with him. He too was going in the direction. Not knowing anything better to do, I agreed.
This guy kept on repeating how he had been up for three days straight. He was heading home after spending a lot of time in Frankfurt or something like that, I kind of forget. Anyway, he wasn't staying in Prague, but going even further south. We went into the subway, which had no turnstiles, and caught the next train. The subway in Prague is the best I have ever ridden, hands down. We took one stop, walked up to the train station where we parted ways, but not before the inevitable asking of money (I think I gave him five Euros. Hey, he kept his word and lead me to the Hauptbahnhof and hadn't tried to rob me of all my possessions.)
I finally made my way to the hostel, which is right in the middle of the city. There was a fussy old man there, who didn't speak any English but apparently understood Polish (not that he had learned Polish, but that the languages are so similar that he understood.) I collapsed on my bed while dawn was beginning to break on New Years Eve.