Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My stint in Eastern Europe, Part 1

Where to begin... luckily for this trip (and likewise updating this blog) I kept a journal, outlining the day's events and marking down interesting things. Since there is so much to tell I'm dividing it into manageable parts, but the general plot is this: Caitlin came from Portland to visit me for two weeks, the first of which was spent in Prague celebrating New Year's.

It started off a little sour in that, thanks to the wonderful weather the Northern Hemisphere has been enjoying this winter, Caitlin's plane was delayed and she arrived in Paris (where we would then fly to Prague) a day later than expected. All told it wasn't that bad of a set back as it could have been worse. The only day we had in Paris was pretty low-key; lunch at my favorite Chinese restaurant on Rue Cler, walking down the Champ de Mars towards the Eiffel Tower, and visiting the Christmas Market and ice rink set up in front of the Trocadero. Our plane left early the next morning, which for Caitlin meant heading back to the Charles de Gaulle airport barely 24 hours after landing. Unfortunate.

Despite the glacial temperatures our plane left on time, with the only point of interest being it was the first time I boarded an airplane by climbing stairs straight up from the tarmac itself. I felt like the president or something. After arriving at Praha International we took a taxi, relatively inexpensive and convenient considering we were carrying suitcases, to our hotel. I was a little skeptical as we entered the neighborhood of our pension, but when finally standing outside of our home base for the next week I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. Surrounded by communist apartments built in the functionalism style, this place was an oasis. The building itself was rather large with a sizable courtyard and tennis court. As I learned out from our very friendly hostess, Blanka, the building comprising the hotel is half newly constructed (after communism fell around 1989 and private businesses became legal), and half 1,000 year-old windmill. Pretty impressive.

We settled into our nice, cozy room with a large bathroom and view over the courtyard before deciding to head into town. I hesitated on booking a hotel outside of the city center because of the travel to and from but once again we could not have fared better (literally). The tram, a gift from organized communism, is a 2 minute walk from the hotel, a 20 minute or so ride into town, and only about $1 each way. Considering a hotel in the center was bout twice what we paid for ours, it was a great deal. Plus the trams started well before I even thought about getting up and ran as late as midnight. As we rambled into town and roamed through the streets I couldn't help but stare at this city. Prague is one of the most beautiful places I have been to, and that was in below-freezing temperatures. The Old Town Square is a perfect example of this, and, in my opinion, the best town square I've ever seen. It's just massive, surrounded by huge buildings, each one sporting an unique facade. You'd see Baroque, next to Neo-Renaissance, next to Gothic, next to Romanesque... and the list goes on. How something so amazing survived the second World War AND the oppression of Stalin I never came to understand. The crowds of people visiting the stalls at the still-open Christmas market and the soaring towers of nearby churches added to the grandiose of this town square. Had it not been freezing I think I could have easily spent a whole day there.

But hunger played a large factor in our walking swiftly through in order to find someplace to eat. We eventually found Pizenska Restaurace u Dvou Kocek (or, Restaurant of the Two Cats) and decided to try our luck. The food in Prague, really anywhere we went, was very good and pretty cheap. The fist lunch at the Two Cats I had roast beef, dumplings, and delicious sauerkraut, all for about $5. Plus a half liter of the original Pilsner Urquell for about $1.50. Being in France for so long, away from the beer heaven that is Portland, I missed a good beer. The restaurant itself was interesting too, a beer hall feel but on a smaller scale. There was even an accordion player! The Czech Republic hasn't yet caught up with the rest of the European Union in banning smoking inside restaurants, so it was smokey but not terrible. The meal was definitely a highlight of the day.

Making it back to the Old Town Square we checked out the sights, which were some churches (St. Nicholas and Tyn Church), the Old Town Hall with the Clock Tower, and eventually the Klementium, a centuries old library started by the Jesuits and now public. The tour was definitely worth it as it included a climb to the Astronomical Tower with great views of the city and the castle, all of which was lit up as night had fallen during the tour.

After the tour was over we asked our tour guide if there was a grocery store nearby so we could buy some food for dinner and she gave us directions to Tesco, which turned out to be an odd hybrid of a store, as if Macy's and Fred Meyer's had a lovechild. All in all it was a great stop because after such a hearty lunch we were content to have a light dinner. We ended up getting a bag of chips, two pre-made wraps, and three bottles of beer for about $8 total. I would like to point out that the wraps were the majority of the cost, and two of the bottles of beer were about 50 cents each... score. We did a lot of running around that day and it felt good to just come back to the hotel, eat, drink, and watch some German MTV knowing that the first day in Prague was a success.

One of my favorite parts of being in Prague was trying to figure out the Czech language. It's kind of fun to listen to, but I'm sure that's the linguistic in me talking. You can see in some of the pictures that we share the same alphabet but they add all the diuretics (the marks above the letters) to describe the unique sounds in the language. Czech even has a sound that appears in no other language on Earth (a mix between a rolled "r" and a "zh" sound as heard in "leisure"). I tried my hand at pronouncing a few words here and there but it's a notoriously difficult language for Westerners to get right. There are just so many consonants! A perfect example is the popular churro-esque desert called "trdlo." As if it's not enough that this word has four consonants in a row, the r's in Czech are rolled, like in Spanish. Yeah, go ahead, try it out loud... ... trdlo ... ...anyone giving you weird looks yet? Another word was, "dekjui," Czech for "thank you." We must have asked six different people how to pronounce it, getting six different pronunciations. Luckily for us, however, everybody there knows English (at least enough to get by) and German since their economy relies heavily on tourism. We tried to have fun with the language though and for the most part I think the Czechs appreciated it.

Whew, all that just for day one! I'll add some more after I massage this carpal tunnel syndrome out... can you even get that from typing?

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