The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Euroromance: Day 6: Crossing a Continent

What I thought was going to be one of the biggest wastes of a day—traveling to my next destination—turned out to be a truly enjoyable day.

Those who know me, know that I hate road trips. I really hate traveling in general. To me the point is not the trip but the destination. Why would I spend hours or days traveling to a place when I could just get there quickly (aka flying) and spend all that extra time getting to know my fixed location.

Combined with my impatience is my unavoidable car-associated narcolepsy. When I am in a moving car for over thirty minutes, I will fall asleep. Whether I am the one driving or not. This habit has pissed off many a fellow road-tripper as well as has endangered my life many times. So now I spend the extra money and fly pretty much everywhere I need to go in the U.S. that isn’t within a few hours’ driving distance.

I figured train travel would be the same. It’s a moving vehicle, right? And I get whole rows of seats to stretch out on instead of the one cramped seat of the car (oh, and if that seat has a steering wheel in front of it, its even more uncomfortable and cramped). Of course I was going to sleep the day away and wake up in Amsterdam refreshed and unconscious of the continent I’d crossed.

That determined, I found a compartment in the first class (my Eurorail pass was first class. I highly recommend that choice. Almost the entire time I traveled by train, I had an entire compartment to myself) car of the train in the Prague station and proceeded to make it my own in order to deter my fellow travelers from joining me (suitcase across the door, coat on the hook, books strewn at random, flip flops off and smiley face toes proudly displayed (Euros hate bare feet, I’ve learned)). I had a 5- or 6-hour ride to my transfer in Berlin, so I pulled out my pillow, snuggled across three seats, and promptly fell asleep.

Then something happened.

I woke up.

And then,

I didn’t want to go back to sleep. Instead, I wanted to look out the window, enjoy the Czech and later German scenery. I wanted to write. I wanted to engage with the world I was seeing and the trip I’d had so far.

I thought about my time in Germany and the CR. I pulled out my Amsterdam travel book and looked at the Dutch language guide in the back. I practiced saying “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” in Dutch. I then said these things (and the piddly number of other words and phrases I’d picked up) in Czech and German. It is very difficult to do three different countries with three different languages in one trip. Your mind is constantly trying to reshape itself around the new symbol paradigms just as your lips and tongue are twisting and sliding over unfamiliar sounds and word shapes. To compound that problem, I have absolutely no base in Czech or German (Dutch is closer to English). So this trip was not like traveling to Spain or France (or even Italy), where I could have faked my way through language 101.

As I entered Germany, I began to see the ubiquitous windmills that dot the countryside. It seems that the Germans love alternative energy as much as they love exclamation points and excessive consonants (I am not joking about the consonants. They seem to need to put an extra “t” or whatever in everything. Even Czech words, which suffer from no dearth of consonants in and of themselves, got a few extra ones in for good measure. And then words like “greek” that only need three, get—like—17 (“Griechisch”: or 7)).

The tiny houses I’d seen on my way to Quedlinburg began to appear again. About the size of a medium-sized shed, these little “play” houses mobbed along the tracks. Each had a yard (that was often bigger than the house) with meticulously maintained gardens and lawns. At times, I saw people sitting out on tiny bistro tables enjoying the sunny day, looking so much like toy figures glued to the board of a model railroad set (“look, Ma, that one has a tiny PBR in his hand!”). I couldn’t figure out these little places. It was obvious that a thriving community was going through its day-to-day here, but set against the backdrop of the more expected, larger European houses, these tiny cottages just didn’t make sense. Was this Europe’s equivalent to a trailer park? And why clustered so close to the train tracks? Were they squatters on the railway’s easement property? Ultimately, I let it go and allowed that in Europe, as far as I could tell, if residences were ordered in Starbucks sizes, they would only come in two versions: short and venti.

All too soon, I arrived at the Berlin Station. I had about two hours before my next long train ride into the Netherlands, so I wandered the station looking for a market like the awesome one I found in Dresden, so that I could duplicate my picnic feast.

The day outside of the station was surprising warm. As I walked past the open main entrance, I was hit with a blast of heat that beckoned me to enter that huge city. But I resisted the urge to exit the (too)cool station and continued my search amid the songs and shouts of drunken futball fans (apparently there was a big match that day).

Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof is indeed a wonder. A huge edifice made of glass and steel that cuts a grid across the sky. I kept thinking “way rad” throughout my meanderings around and up its floors (incidentally, I’ve learned that “rad” means “bicycle” in German, so now I know that everything is “bicycle” to me. A good preparation for the Dutch transportation obsession, I guess).

On my wanders, I passed a couple of men with shaved heads, dressed entirely in white. A younger man and an older one. They became prime people watching fodder as I attempted to guess their story and their relationship. They obviously deeply cared for each other, evidenced by their intense embraces. But these embraces were punctuated by the younger man’s pulling away (though the older one kept a firm grip on the lad’s hand that the young man never tried to release). There seemed to be some sort of discussion going on that the older man didn’t like at all and the younger was trying to end with frequent shoulder shrugs and gesticulations with his free hand. I imagined they could be father and son with the son’s desiring to leave for the war (okay a little melodramatic) or school or a girl and the father’s reluctance to let go. Or they could be lovers. And the younger one is trying to end the relationship because he wants to live life a little before settling down.

I never did resolve their story. I left them in a tearful embrace and attended to more urgent (for me, at least) matters at hand: the search for a WC (oh yeah, that I’ve been calling in my head “water cooler” the whole trip) and that market.

I did indeed find both: a pay-by-use WC and a store that sold reasonably proper items for my picnic. I then headed to my track to wait for my train, journeying down the length of the platform to the one sunny spot. As I rolled up the legs of my pants, slipped off my flip flops, and stripped down to my tank top to welcome the warm embrace of the sun, I noticed that I was alone in my worship of that golden orb. It seems that unlike the Irish (who strip down to their skivvies as soon as the temperature reaches 70 degrees F), Germans (and Czechs) maintain a staunch denial of the climbing mercury, fastening their coats even tighter, scarves firmly in place, defiantly bundled up (“It’s still March, dammit!”) despite the audacity of the blazing sun.

In addition to impromptu sunbathing, I also learned the second of my favorite German words (the first being “abschicken”): abfahrt (departure).

My train arrived, and I again found an empty car and set up my picnic. I’ve learned a few things about myself on this trip, three of them being I don’t like Budweiser (Budvar) in any country, European me doesn’t comb her hair—ever (hey, in my defense, it seems that no one here combs their hair or has ever heard of a straightener), and—as I opened one of the monk beers from Prague—I can drink warm beer . . . and like it.

As I feasted on bread, goat cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, maiche, and warm beer, I contemplated the increasing cloud cover. It looked like my good weather vacation karma might be at an end.

I am not lying when I say I have the best weather karma on vacation, ever. You want to go on vacation with me. It will guarantee that you have sun pretty much the whole time. No. Matter. Where. You. Go. Examples:

1. Vacation in Ireland for two weeks: we had 80 degree F weather with not a cloud in the sky the whole time. The radio stations were calling it a heat wave and drought, encouraging people to drink more beer to combat dehydration (you have to love that). People were lolling around in their underwear. This weather lasted my entire time there. The day before I arrived and day after I left: rain, cold.

2. Vacations (many) in Seattle for varying number of days: sunny, in the 70’s, with a light mist in the mornings. I have to keep reminding myself when I am there that this is abnormal weather for this part of the North West or I’d move there for the farmer’s market alone.

3. Vacations (again, more than one) in San Francisco (at various times during the year): we’d have the famous marine layer in the morning and after the sun set, but the day in between was like a fuzzy, warm, gentle lamb. The chill of the marine layer was more of a treat for me to see because it acts like a living, breathing thing—clawing over the bay and through the buildings—than actual bad weather.

4. (and to bring us up to date) Vacation in Northern Europe in March: sun, sun, sun, warm, warm, warm.

I rest my case.

Now that I’m done bragging, back to my karma ending with grey, angry clouds arriving. The closer I drew to the Netherlands, the more upset the day seemed to get. I wondered, as I read in the ever-deepening blue light, if I’d actually get serious use of that awesome wool coat I had brought.

You know you’re in the Netherland by a) the train change (so cute, rust corduroy seats and green walls) and b) the flatness of the terrain. Sean Condon says that in Amsterdam, you can see a man in Belgium standing on a step ladder waving, and I believe him. It makes sense. When you literally create your country out of thin water, there isn’t much time to make frivolous stuff like hills or mountains. In fact, it seems like the Dutch were so busy reclaiming land that they didn’t even have time to design a flag: they just took the French flag and turned it on its side.

Also, you know you are in the Netherlands by a new (Dutch) conductor coming in to check your ticket. This man looked exactly what I thought the quintessential Dutch man would look like: tall, willowy, narrow face with a tiny pinch of the nose exactly where the bridge of eye glasses would sit, sparkling blue eyes, and a winning smile. He said good evening in Dutch, and I responded with my newly learned reply. Spotting my wine bottle and glass, he made a joke about giving him a glass too. We both chuckled, me more so with pleasure that I had just gotten a joke in another language (I ignored the fact that the specific understanding of the wording he used was hazy and focused on the joy of communicated meaning.).

And then he said, “Mumbly kueky bloo blah?” To which I panicked and responded with a distinctly English (and American English at that), “huh?” Realizing I didn’t understand him, he restated in perfect English, “Where is your final stop?”

I answered, and he left the compartment. It was only as I was watching his receding form weave its way down the length of the car that I realized, he didn’t know that I had gotten his joke. He thought I didn’t understand and that I was just laughing because he was laughing. Suddenly, I couldn’t sit still. Someone thought my bright moment was actually one of uncomfortable ignorance. My skin crawled, my hands shook, my feet twitched. It was literally all I could do to keep myself from running out of my compartment, finding the conductor, and explaining that I really did get his joke.

Sooner than I was ready for, I arrived—full circle—back at Centraal Station. What a truly amazing and surprisingly perfect experience. I’ve decided that I love train travel. It’s like watching TV, but it’s the world going by and not some canned and planned situation.

With a few mishaps (like taking the tram the wrong way—luckily the tram lady let me ride for free to the next stop where I got off, paid to take a tram back to the station, was ordered to get off again, five minutes later reboarded same tram, bought new ticket, and was on my way to the Spui and my hotel), I hauled my bags across more cobbled streets (again, a few more wrong turns) to my hotel.

As I sipped my Dutch beer in one of the many ubiquitous brown bars (chosen at random post hotel check-in), I thought, I’ve finally arrived! I’m in Amsterdam!


Friday, April 24, 2009

another brief interlude

And no, I'm not just trying to buy time while I write up more travel stuff . . . as far as you know.

Yesterday, I went with two wonderful friends to SDMA's Culture and Cocktails event.

Apparently, the dress I wore was a magic dress. No less than four people (three of them men) actually sought me out to complement me on the dress. And two of them complemented me twice in the evening. And then some vodka representative wanted to take a picture of the three of us (though I'm willing to allow that the photographing event could have occurred because my friends are H.O.T.T. and not because of the dress).

This dress happens to be about 10 or 11 years old. I'm amazed that these people thought it was worthy of remark.

I'm secretly convinced that they could see my underwear lines.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

a brief interlude in my travel recount

So, I am training for a marathon. Not only is this my first marathon ever, it is also the first time I've seriously run in almost 11 years (because of foot injury) and am running for myself and not for a cross-country team member boyfriend. So this is no joke.

But somehow isn't as bad as I thought it would be. An interesting dichotomy.

I am still having trouble with the distances. The problems aren't being winded or tired but just straight up being in pain (foot and many other places) which happens, I'm told, regardless if you have a prior injury or not (in fact, I've been informed that this training can give you new injuries) or just straight up being bored. So I am always looking for a way to quit.

That said, I was running about a 10k today and had the following conversation with myself.

Me: Just run to the end of the block, then you can walk.

me [relieved]: Oh yes. Thank you. . . .

me: Wait a second. You are just saying that. You won't really let me stop. You'll trick me into keeping running.

Me: No. this is isn't a trick. You can really stop . . . if you want to.

me: See. It's that "if you want to" crap you always pull. Of course I want to. I didn't want to run in the first place. But you made me. Now you are going to guilt me if I quit and walk.

Me: I won't guilt you. You are amazing for even being out here and running in the first place. Here you go: end of the block. But wait! Isn't this a great song! Why don't you just run to the end of the next block and listen to the song.

me: Yeah! I love this song too! Okay, the next block. But then I am walking.

Me: Or you could keep running to the end of the song . . .

me: I could. This beat is awesome. WAIT A MINUTE! You just tricked me into running farther.

Me [smarmy little smirk on my internal face]: I did? Wow. Look you're almost home now. Why don't you just run it out?

me: You always do this to me. It's not fair. What about what I want? I am hurting here.

Me: But look how tough you are. Here, stop. You did it. Now aren't you proud of yourself.

me: Stop patronizing me. You're a jerk. But you are right, I am awesome for running all that way.

And that, with a few variations from time to time, is pretty much what goes on in my head for the duration of the run. Oddly enough, I told this to my roommate, and she confessed that she too talks to herself when she runs. But rather than cajoling herself into running farther, she berates herself for being weak and wanting to stop: "You weak bitch--keep running, pansy-ass."

It must be a West Coast/East Coast difference.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Euroromance: Day 5: Everyone loves a Kutna Hora

Today was the day, I resolved. Today I would actually do the things I’d promised myself I’d do on this vacation. Namely, run in the stupid cold and then see some historical places.

So I actually (gasp!) set an alarm. And then I actually (gasp! gasp!) got up when it went off. And then I actually left to run without showering first (gasp!^3). But before running, I started a pot of coffee brewing (I had stopped yesterday during my rambles and bought ground coffee (which may or may have not been embarrassingly from Starbucks (and which I may or may not be regretting that I am admitting this sad fact)) and tulips for my apartment).

With my reward for running in the stupid cold percolating, I set out to do an easy forty-five minutes that would take me (finally) across the bridge and through old town and the Jewish quarter.

Did I mention that it was stupid cold?

The first thing I need to clarify is that running on cobblestones is no joke. Especially running on cobblestones when my bad foot is already protesting the last few days’ walking activities. I have mad respect for those women who wear stiletto heels on these streets as if it were nothing. I must have looked like some sort of gimpy hunchback recently escaped from the nearby cathedral with my askew gait and sloooooooow pace. But I did it. And after a few minutes (read: 25) of running, I settled into something that actually resembled a run. I moved through the streets of Old Town, ever toward the main square and the astrological clock, trying to time my arrival with the 7am hour change. I got there with 5 minutes to spare and congratulated myself that unlike the throngs of tourists who would arrive later in the day, I would gaze upward, mouth agape, in the discreet solitude of the early morning.

But apparently, 7am isn’t a real hour change. Much to the amusement of the men setting up the Easter fair in the middle of the square, I stood, growing ever colder, staring at the clock. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Come on little skeleton, do something. But the skeleton would have none of it, and apparently the apostles weren’t about to emerge in the stupid cold. So I returned to my run (this time mostly to just get warm again) and the bridge to watch the sunrise.

I have determined in this weird air here, that watching the sunrise and sunset directly is not as amazing as watching its effects on the landscape in the opposite direction. In this case, I faced west towards the castle and Malá Strana. At first the buildings and roofs began to gleam a faint pinkish-orange. This glow intensified and was punctuated by sharp glints of silver where the sun hit the skylights and windows. The blue hills began to shift, still ever hazy but the haze morphing from blue to green to red. The scribbled shapes of skeleton trees became more and more distinct as the sky continued to lighten.

I may love this city.

And there was coffee waiting when I got home!

Today was my day trip day. I had decided to take a short train ride to the towns of Sedlec and Kutná Hora. The attraction of these towns is the infamous bone church. A structure decorated entirely with the bones of over 40,000 people (the current arrangement is very new--from 1870. But the bones are much much older, some dating back to the mid 14th Century). You have to love Europe and its awesome sense of macabre.

After spending a full day in the Czech Republic, I was more comfortable with navigating public transportation (and I didn’t have my huge suitcase). Taking the metro to the main station was a snap. As was finding my train to Kutná Hora. The ossuary was a bit of a walk from the station but it was cool to see what a tiny Czech town looks like.

I made it to the church just as two tour buses disgorged their load of American tourists. I quickly moved into the building so as to a) not be associated with this boisterous group and b) be able to see a few minutes of the church before the locusts descended. I was joined by über-cool backpacker couple who also wanted to beat the crowd. We paid our entrance fees (damn it! I forgot my student id!) and descended into the cool ossuary.

Über-cool backpacker couple was all business (I can imagine their having a brief where they synchronized their watches, allotting 7 minutes for this site before moving on to the next historical place: “we’ll get there exactly at 1301. The tour buses arrive at 1303. We will have two minutes for pictures while simultaneously listening to the tour guides dispense information. We can fill in whatever gaps we have by reading the information card and be out of there by 1308. Move out!”). They took a series of flurried pictures then crouched in the corner, intently reading the yellow information card before shouldering their packs and leaving. It did literally take about 7 minutes.

Despite the fluster of the backpacker couple and the bluster of the tour group, the ossuary was truly like nothing I’ve seen before. In the four corners of the main room, pyramids of sculls and other bones were stacked in layers. The center of the ossuary was dominated by a large “chandelier” comprised of (yup) bones. The walls had decorations created out of artful arrangement of certain bones: jaw bones formed the shape of flowers, a grouping of pelvic bones made a halo around a skull, smaller bones formed words. There was even a coat of arms that featured a rook eating the eyes out of a Turkish soldier (done all in bones naturally). Honestly, I have no cultural meme for this expression of faith. To openly display the dead to point to the kingdom of God (according to the yellow information card) is just something that isn’t done in California or anywhere in the US really. To be able to acknowledge death as a necessary and normal function of life is more foreign than the Czech language. To consider death as starkly beautiful. . . that is something I need to think about.

Of course the lighting in the chapel was also something to write about. The air in the ossuary was so cold I could see my breath and the bone-white light seemed to soak up the cold. It thinned and spread over everything like a sheen of ice.

The warm air outside after the bone-cold interior of the chapel was like being enveloped in a thick blanket. Combined with the more socially “normal” treatment of death in the cemetery surrounding the chapel, it was like the part of my psyche that had been exposed in the chapel was being re-enshrouded in comfortable familiarity. The church is surrounded by tombstones of various ages. Some dating back to the 1800’s; others, much, much newer. Many had been erected in 1945. These stones varied in size and style though many featured photographs of the interred. Keeping with this culture’s willingness to confront death, most of the graves were well-kept and had flowers or various trinkets on them. The maintenance made it obvious that these dead were still active in their families’ lives if only in memory.

The sound of the emerging tour group, drove me from the cemetery and to the larger town of Kutná Hora. About a 20 minute walk from the church, Kutná Hora is a gorgeous town. Set in the hills about a river valley, its cobbled streets and plastered houses meander and flow up and down the terrain.

In my zest to avoid the crowds, I stumbled on to the old church. It is an imposing structure, all heavy stone with none of the fanciful Gothic touches that grace the palace further up the hill. As such, it gives the feeling of being firmly grounded. Forever placed in its spot, unmovable, unshakable, protective. In contrast to the palace’s flying buttress—dripping with curlicues and spires, calling the eye and spirit to fly up—the church, though immense and tall, squats. Reminding its people that life on earth isn’t just fancy frivolity but about enduring faithfulness.

Tucked down a small street beside the church, I found one of the things that makes traveling truly amazing: the perfect place to eat and while away the afternoon.

Supposedly built on the site of a skin flint’s house (who walled his daughter up in the cellar so that he wouldn’t have to pay a dowry for her marriage), V Rutharrdce is situated on the side of a hill with a view of the river valley below and the castle above. In the distance, the hills across the valley recede into the blue distance, the silhouetted skeleton trees softening the line between hill and deep blue sky.

Today was the perfect day for sitting outside. After discretely losing some clothing layers, I found myself, feet up on the back patio, in a sundress and flipflops. To those of you who claimed I would not be able to sit in the sun and read this vacation goes one big giant HA! This day was sunny, warm—almost hot—and I read the shit out of it.

The back patio is a little walled garden. To the east, the grounded stone church oversaw the kitchen’s outdoor grills. The castle perched to the west, just visible over the stone wall and through a curtain of about-to-flower trees. The bistro tables were old-fashioned sewing machine stands complete with working wheels. The service was casual and friendly. Both servers wore Birkenstocks with socks and used any free moment to steal not-so-covert kisses from each other. Neither of the servers spoke English well, but their grasp of my language was much better than my grasp of theirs. Between us, I managed to order a pils, the soup “at the chef’s whim,” and a pork dish. The food, I think, was the most traditional Czech food I’d had so far: pig, potatoes, mushrooms, and root vegetables. And it was fresh and freaking amazing. It was like the Czech version of Texas barbeque but without the sauces and heavy nastiness (sorry y’all).

In the distance, I could hear the laughter of roving tourists, but here it was only me and some under-aged locals, sipping beer and smoking like chimneys while they texted people a few tables away. We were in a sanctuary of easy camaraderie. Two men near me spoke in low voices as they unlaced their heavy work boots and gratefully drained their pils. A small family finished their lunch, and dad took the tiny pre-toddler (just on the verge of walking) on a tour of the garden as the family dog followed while the mom finished her voda (water) and shouldered their groceries for the trip home. The most animated of the under-aged smokers/drinkers (a small girl with dark bobbed hair that had a shock of amber/red dyed in, skinny black jeans, tight shirt, and a cell phone that cried “dookie” (from South Park, I think) when it signaled a text had arrived) wandered around the restaurant, calling to the servers, giving kisses to various other diners, and flipping off another table when she found their text to her not to her liking.

I could have sat there for many more hours, but unfortunately—the story of my life, it seems, I had a train to catch . . .

On my way to the train, I meandered up to the castle. From the top of the hill, I could see over the town and the valley. A picturesque scene of blue hills, jumbles of trees, red-tiled roofed houses with brightly-colored facades, gardens, stone streets, and off in the distance . . . smoking factory towers. Indeed, we’re still seeing aspects of the Soviet Union.

Realizing, I’d taken in the view a smidge too long, I began another hurried movement to the train station. It’s amazing the muscles you work in your legs when you are speed walking in flip flops. Tendons tightened, muscles in my shins tore, calves bulged as I grimly double-timed it down the street. I arrived at the train station in time to see the train I needed pulling away from the station. With a sigh and an hour to kill before the next train, I walked back into Sedlec. The last site to see was a cathedral that used to be a part of a convent. The church was, in a word, cold but otherwise unremarkable. It was very spare and empty. Seeming like the space of the church was designed to merely showcase the few church artifacts that they had. Cold concrete interspersed with the warm wood of an “authentic baroque confessional.” The remarkable thing, the thing which I think is worthy of remark, about this site is that the convent’s been taken over by Philip Morris. So the beautiful grounds and main living quarters of the nuns were off limits. Possibly because the evil cancer merchant empire is afraid that tourists will discover their latest campaign to market cancer stick to infants.

Or maybe they’re as annoyed by the buses of tourists as I am.

After getting back to Prague (a trip that included an inexplicable train change in Kolin for a train that was 20 minutes late), I decided I needed a break and some hard core tourist watching. So I walked up from the train station to the main square in Old Town, Staroměstské náměstí. On the way, I got to see the huge Jewish synagogue. Very brightly colored.

Once in the square, I quickly determined the best seats for people watching and sun. I did have to do some mad table work. Namely, I claimed a table in the area that was prime viewing turf but wasn’t an A-grade table. Then, after establishing my presence by ordering a beer, I intended to quickly shift to a table front and center of the action once the occupants had moved. Positioned perfectly, nonchalantly eying the family at MY table as the wife/mother insisted she finish her wine while husband/dad not-so-patiently dealt with over it children, my mad skillz became apparent to one and all as I outmaneuvered a tourist couple for the prime table. The female component of the interloper couple was about to mouth to wife/mother “are you leaving?” as I gracefully slid into the open seat, spilling nary a drop of beer. The female nicely conceded defeat with a shrug and a smile, and the couple took a table in a less desirable place.

Now, in the perfect spot, I let mad people watching commence. The best part about people watching in Europe is that the tourists are from all over—not just Arizona. And frankly, Prague has to be one of the best places to people watch. I played many little games with myself like guess who’s from the US or how short can that skirt get. As well as just soaking up the general atmosphere of joviality. At one point two little “Russian” divas appeared, dejected and tired with their token “Prague Drinking Team” shirts (I kid you not, everyone had these. I don’t understand that. It’s not like Prague is PB with the overt “drink yourself stupid” credo). They trudged aimlessly around the square before plopping in the stoop of a closed business, apparently waiting for an end-of-day-shopping rescue. At another point, I saw two boys stroll by. One in a “Save the Ales” shirt and the other in a pot-leaf printed hoodie. Convinced I’d just seen some fellow NorCal-ers. I may or may not have leapt from my table, hunted them out of the crowd, and asked where they were from. Confused by my US accent, they replied (in perfect English, I might add) that they were from Slovakia. Nothing daunted, I began to grill them about the shirt, convinced the wearer had gotten it from the North Coast Brewing Company in NorCal. Nope. They got it in England. Apparently, saving the ales is a worldwide value.

The sun had just started sinking behind the buildings in the square when I decided to take myself to Karlovy Most. The bridge is indeed an impressive affair. Studded with large, aging statues on both sides along its length, Karlovy Most’s sturdy stone construction gives it a sense of permanence. None of that whimsical baroque/Gothic flimflam for this bridge. The Charles is firmly grounded, straddling the sides of the Vltava with great aplomb. Tourists do indeed throng it though the two times I crossed is (one being very early and the other after sunset), the crowd was either non-existent or easily navigated. It was a slight disappointment that both ends of the bridge were under repair, so the statues in these areas were veiled behind a mesh of scaffolding.

Honestly, I wasn’t completely taken with this bridge. The guide books’ accolades of its beauty and the amount of statues gracing its sides left me feeling much like a tourist does after seeing the Alamo: sure it’s great, but . . . I thought it’d be much bigger. Unlike the bridge south of it, I did not feel like the Karlovy Most was Most Legit (a joke that sadly continued to play out in my heard over and over this trip (actually the bridge is called most Legii)).

But whatever, who am I to judge the significance of a bridge that has endured not only religious conflict (a battle between protestants and Catholics played out on its stones) but also the Velvet Revolution?

No one at all.

After a brief respite in my apartment, I headed up to the Strahov monastery (Strahovsky klaster) for some home brew. Yesterday, I began my pilgrimage to this lauded place but ended up calling it off on account of the lateness of the evening. But tonight, my last night in Prague, no matter how tired, no matter how much I’d packed into the day, I was determined to pay my respects to this bastion of faith and brew.

Again, the light of the monastery called to me, but this time it beckoned, not distracted. I headed toward the blue-green light and the brew from heaven. Or at least brewed by those interested in bringing heaven to earth.

The interior of the monastery grounds at night was composed of an insinuating blue and green and white light. The brewery overlooked the color-soaked square. I sat at a table as close to the color spectacle as I could, forcing myself to sit in the ever creeping cold in order to view the light. Next to me was a table of two men. One a backpacker, the other an overtly self-styled “native” of Prague. I eavesdropped on their jovial conversation while I waited for a server to acknowledge my need for a brew. Noticing my not so subtle interested in their conversation, the “native” graciously spoke to me as they left, telling me that though the service might be lacking here, the pivo (beer) and jídlo (food) was beyond expectations. I became determined to wait things out.

And then I was rewarded. With an amber brew of exceptional quality it could almost make me cry. Almost.

The brewery makes two brews at a time: light and dark. Both are exceptional. Both are the best I’ve had in this part of Europe so far. But really the amber is the one that was truly from some other dimension. Sweet yet not cloying. The perfect amount of amber color combined with a sharpness of hops. Oh yes, my friend, this truly was the brew of God.

Since this was my last night in Prague, I couldn’t just call it quits after a religious experience. I had to visit the other two pubs of my affection.

I ended the night with a brew at both Vu U Zavěšenýho Kafe and St.Nic’s before retiring to get some much needed rest before my train day on the morrow.

Tomorrow I cross a continent. . .


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Euroromance: Day 4: Oh My, Oh Prague

The Czech Republic is a country where ano means yes.

There are things I think I can’t do when I am on vacation (or actually in all of my adult life) and have to tell myself that it’s okay to do them. That the taboo is only in my mind. That I am an adult and can make my own decisions. Once I get good at allowing myself these things, I feel incredibly liberated. Eating things from a minibar is one of those things. Another is sleeping in.

But I am on a vacation. I am allowed to rest and, more importantly, sleep in. So despite my big plans of sunrise on Karlovy Most and perhaps a morning run and definitely a stop somewhere for coffee, I found myself rolling over when the sun started turning the buildings pink with dawn and the birds started their birdsong that sounded like the perfect distillation of all birdsong that has ever been chirped, trilled, chirruped, and tweeted and going back to sleep.

The only downside to that action was when I finally woke up to full day, feeling rested, coffee hadn’t suddenly magically appeared. Still, I spent a leisurely morning in my apartment, emailing family and reading. When my hunger and coffee craving finally got the best of me, I ventured out into my neighborhood.

When I get to a new city, I like to orient myself. Get a feel of the neighborhood. Learn a small section well before branching out. So I took myself to breakfast (or more accurately, lunch) on the river in Malá Strana. The restaurant is next to the Kafka museum (something I didn’t intend to see but I liked the sculptures out front), and its outdoor dining was right on the water. There I enjoyed sun (because, yes, it was indeed sunny—which resulted in clothing drama because I soon had to strip the layers I put on before leaving the house when I thought it was going to be cold) and watched people cross Karlovy Most. The Jewish quarter and Old Town were spread out across the river and behind me on the hill, the Prague castle loomed. A perfect setting to my first real exposure to this city.

This restaurant was by no means authentic Czech; it was like any other upperscale museum restaurant: good food, good staff, but not too original. I had a cup of the tom kai gai (told you) and a cup of the potato soup and duck spring rolls that apparently were missing the duck. These treats were joined by espresso and a Pilsner Urquell (apparently the original pilsner from the town of Plzeň). After an hour of just relaxing, soaking up the Prague sun, watching the boats move around the river, and covert map checking, I set out with bulging purse full of sweater, scarf, and beanie to learn Malá Strana better and perhaps see the castle.

Prague is a mix of fairly contemporary places and the very old and quaint. It lacks the gleam and shine of consumerheaven Dresden. Sure there are a lot of shops where you can easily spend your koruna, but they are nestled in old buildings with residences and official offices and situated on narrow streets that meander at whim. So you get the feeling of old Europe rather than long boulevards of shop shop shop.

Because I really didn’t have much of a plan today, I inevitably got lost trying to find the Wallenstein Gardens. But in losing my direction, I got to find fun urban elements that again offer the contrasts in textures and composition that I love. Graffiti is everywhere in Prague. And some is actually quite good. While wandering around the areas a little north and east of the castle, I found little wooded paths and walls equally covered in ivy and art. Eventually, I found the garden and marveled at the large grotto wall—looking so much like drip sand art--and owl aviary.

With much more meandering, I then headed back to the apartment for a quick stop before heading up to the castle. It was during this stop that I discovered my sweater had decided to abandon me for some unknown location in Prague. Apparently, it didn’t like the walking schedule I kept. Because my cool weather cover choices are that sweater or a heavy (and awesome) wool coat—and because I freaking love that sweater (I’m not kidding, love with a passion that borders on idolatry)—I wearily set out to retrace my steps in the hopes that maybe my sweater had just stopped in for a quick pint somewhere and was waiting for me.

There is nothing more depressing than retracing your path in a new city when all you really want to do is find new stuff. Especially when retracing your steps means you also have to look down at the street rather than up at your surroundings. I learned the cobblestones of Prague very well in the next hour and a half.

Plus, when you are looking for something you lost and are secretly convinced that someone has already picked it up, you begin to regard others with suspicion. Was that girl, rooting around in her backpack, actually hiding my sweater at the bottom? Was that grey item draped over a woman’s purse my sweater? Did that man have it wrapped around his head? My sweater was everywhere and nowhere. At one point I may or may have not actually broken into a run when I thought I saw it on a woman’s arm.

Sadly, my sweater has decided it will live in Prague. I’m mostly sad because if it had asked me, I probably would have stayed with it.

It was now 1630 (see how European I can be!). I figured I should actually see some other historical site in Prague besides the gardens. So I bought myself a travel beer and off to the castle I went. Fortuitously, I arrived at the castle at the exact perfect time. I got to see the changing of the guard while I finished my beer on the plaza that overlooks all of Prague and the river. The light from the setting sun turned the stones of St. Vitus Cathedral into warm gold. And the gargoyles—the fantastic gargoyles!—whose blackened faces seemed to still seek out the heat from the sinking sun. These were all wonderful.

But the most amazing thing happened when I entered the cathedral. The setting sun had just started to move down the rose window, and the entire building was suffused in pink, purple, and red light. As the sun continued to move through the stained glasses, the light shifted and changed, dancing along the columns, playing hide and seek along the nave, and skipping across the floor. To the consternation of picture-seeking tourists, I stood in the center of the light, letting it move over me until the last rays of the sun came through the window.

I then followed the creeping light out of the cathedral and onto the terrace gardens where I got to finish the sunset, watching the disappearing sun give the city a goodnight kiss of light.

Food was again in order. I resumed my wanderings in search of a good place to sit and eat and watch the world go by. The only problem is that I have a secret fear that while I might find a good place, I will miss the best place because I didn’t look enough. So no matter how tired and how hungry I get, I will keep walking until I literally cannot go any farther, and then I take the next place which may not even be a good place. Traveling with a partner keeps this trait in check because usually my companion will get fed up with my “let’s just look around one more block” and will choose one of the good options we’ve already passed. However, if I am alone, this trait runs rampant. Growing hungrier and more tired by the second, I despondently roamed the streets of southern Malá Strana for about an hour, convinced that the best place was just around the corner before collapsing in a chair at a corner café on a busy street two blocks from my apartment. And as usual, this place was not necessarily a good place (the beer was standard and the goulash resembled an odd thick gravy with fatty pieces of mystery meat) but the people watching on the busy street was exactly what I needed after my long day of walking.

From goulash, I moved on to pizza and nightlife because I heard that you can’t come to Prague without trying the pizza. There is a little basement bar just down the street from my apartment called the St. Nicholas Café. Here, the muted light turns the walls a rich warm copper and the nonsmoking section offers many table choices in sharp contrast to the packed and boisterous smoking section. I have determined that smoking and nonsmoking sections are a big fat joke in Prague where the token fan that is supposed to be blowing the smoke away is turned off and the windows are tightly shut. It is the equivalent of sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving: you are still covered in smoke but you don’t get to interact with any of the fun grownups. But still, the quiet corner table I chose was perfect for covert people watching. The waitress was a petit attractive girl whose mother never got around to telling her that a gel-filled mullet is not a flattering hairstyle. She brought me a gambrinus and vegetarian pizza (incidentally, there was only one guy making pizzas. The poor dude was chopping and baking nonstop). The gambrinus was the perfect beer for this bar. Its warm red color seemed to have resulted from soaking up the light from the walls. It had a faint fruity flavor without being a sweet beer.

There was live music playing—Mayday, comprised of a Jesus-looking lead and scrungy older man on guitar. Their set list was Seattle circa “Singles” era: Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Stone Temple Pilots, Stone Temple Pilots, and a token Red Hot Chili Peppers. For “Under the Bridge,” they broke out the tambourine and gave us real authentic Czech music.

It was on the whole pretty good. When the band began playing, a man at the bar spontaneously broke into dance. I couldn’t help myself from laughing and to my chagrin, he heard me. I think he might have been the owner or manager of the bar. He kept going behind the bar and seemed to know everyone there.

Because I love the nightlife (and it was only 10pm), I settled my tab (apparently the only thing you can do cheaply in Prague now is drink: my beers were the equivalent of 50 cents while my pizza was the equivalent of $10) and moved on in search of a new pub experience if not of sunrise. My goal was the Vu U Zavěšenýho Kafe that is on the main road (Nerudova) up the hill toward the castle and monastery and a very short walk from my apartment. As usual, I walked right past it because I was too struck by the ethereal white glow and blue-green spires of the monastery against the dark night sky. But my backtracking afforded me a view of the Prague lights across the river, so the extra time was well worth it.

The “kafe” is a tiny little space, thick with cigarette smoke and the whimsical and irreverent art of Kuba Krejci, a local artist. The dominating piece is a large mural of a debauched dinner party that was a drunken parody of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” As one of my friends would say, this place was indeed deep local. Everyone seemed to know each other, and my entrance was received with an askance gaze. The walls of the bar are covered with framed black and white group photos taken on the street outside at different times. Many of the faces were the same and were sitting live in Technicolor next me at the bar. Also featured in photos was a portly Scottie dog (featured on the website. Read their site. I love the concept of the hanging cup of coffee) that exited the bar with his owner a few minutes after I arrived. Pretzels—no doubt soot covered—hung on a rack on the worn raw wood bar and ceramic ashtrays shaped like a polar bear about to plunge to an arctic pool were evenly spaced down its length. In addition to the beverages on sale at the establishment (it’s very European to have both alcohol and an espresso machine behind the bar), there were about ten different brands of cigarettes for sale and stacks of foreign currency pinned in rows along a shelf (an awesome picture of their bar is on their site). Also, where I was sitting, there was a drawer that contained a mac laptop where apparently customers (I am trying to interpret a sign I couldn’t read) can access the internet.

Here the beer tally was kept exactly how the guide books promised: tic marks on a tiny slip of paper. And the bartender would pour another beer when you finished the one you had without asking (luckily for me, I drink beer slowly or that could be dangerous). I stayed until the pub closed (not too hard to do since it closed at midnight), fighting the urge to flee the stifling and acrid smoky air because the social atmosphere was just so much fun. I loved the sound of Czech being spoken in loud voices (again: sound and music) and the apparent, easy camaraderie of the people there.

A warm ending to a good day.

Photos (and videos):

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Euroromance: Day 3: Like Fine Dresden

Today, I got to watch the sunrise over the city of Quedlinburg. The air here is mountain air: crisp, clear, with little moisture in it. As such, the sun rises with little of the fan fare it engages when rising in San Diego. There is an almost imperceptible glow, a small change in the light, and then “holy crap!” a huge red ball appears exactly where you least expect it. The gender neutral sun continued its rising in a very (and I’m stereotyping like mad here) German way: little fuss and all business—changing from red to orange to yellow to hot white. I finished packing, had another wonderful breakfast, and met my taxi to go to the train station.

The driver had the most amazing taxi ever. Everything was built into the car from the meter in the rear view mirror that was invisible until the end of the trip to the two way radio that muted the music in the stereo when he was being called. He spoke no English and that combined with my nein Deutsch created a situation where there was a lot of awkward smiling. That is until (like the Frames) I recognized Kool and the Gang playing on his radio. I spontaneously broke into song, and he and I became fast friends throwing back various lines to songs we enjoyed. Once again music has proven to be the ambassador between nations.

I had decided to go to Prague via Dresden and thus see another European city without actually having to stay there. The train ride to Dresden was uneventful with smatterings of excitement when I had to transfer trains. Though I’ve packed very well for the last minute panic I was in (I think). I did not pack exactly light, so I’ve gotten my workout pulling my roller up and down flights of stairs (like I’m some sort of Sisyphus) while schlepping my purse and carry-on satchel. But so far I’ve been successful in my transferring endeavors. Knock on wood.

Dresden is a city where the cutting edge new meets the ancient. Though not much survived the 1945 bombing, great measures have been taken to preserve what did; and the result of gorgeous, ancient palaces or churches blackened with aged soot contrasted with ultra new strip malls that are all glass and steel is both unnerving and not a little unpleasant. In my walk from the train station, I managed to make it all the way to the Elba, through the Old Town, without realizing it. It was like emerging from a jungle of gleaming strip malls (SALE! SALE! SALE!) into an oasis of carved sandstone and granite.

Because I was already less than impressed with Dresden, I decided I would do a quick walking tour of the city and then head back to the station to catch a train to Meissen (or Meiβen—I finally figured out that the beta was the symbol for the sound the double ss makes in German. For the longest time, I was wondering why everything had two names) as a short side trip before boarding my evening train for Prague. So I crossed the Elba and moved into the New Town (which is actually older in many parts than the old town because some of it survived the bombing). New Town (once you got through the promenade of strip mall stores—this seems to be a common thread here) seemed like the place where actual residents of the city lived. The part I saw was arty, covered in graffiti, and lined with cafes and smaller shops. The architecture here is nothing like that in Quedlinburg. I think I was a bit spoiled to have that little town be my first one to really see in this part of Europe. Dresden looks like any other major European city: plastered narrow buildings crammed together, narrow streets, lots of colors.

My destination goal was Kunsthof Passage, an art complex that was comprised of a series of themed courtyards enclosed by tall, merrily painted apartment buildings. On the way there, I passed by a fun skate shop and a group of lounging goth-punk Germans youths who had taken over the corner of the sidewalk.

I get a secret satisfaction when I see something so from the United States that I can actually feel I have some “street cred” with. It sort of takes away the constant feeling of displacement and inability to even request the simple things in the dominant language of the culture. This skate shop gave me that feeling. Even though I’ve never been a skater, I am from the place where skateboarding truly originated (and my little brother spent some time semipro skating) and no German from Dresden, no matter how well he can ollie, will be able to understand the culture like I do.

The group of punks were lively and fun. They lounged in the sun, drinking beer and listening to music, while animatedly talking about who know what in their clipped language (after hanging out in Germany and the Czech Republic, I’ve realized the fun of hearing a language that actually sounds like nothing but sounds and music. It makes me wonder what English sounds like to someone who’s hearing it for the first time. In order to get this feeling, you really do have to have absolutely no base in the language. Dutch wasn’t like this because so many English words come from the Dutch that listening to people speak it I feel a bit like Bill Bryson: that I can almost understand it). No one does punk like Germans can, and while their meticulous attire was a little incongruous with their carefree lolling on the pavement, the tableau seemed like the perfect thing to see in this big city.

I almost missed the Kunsthof Passage. But luckily I noticed the small red sign with a brown cow that hung over a doorway in a red façade building. The doorway led into a little hall that opened to the first courtyard. This space was truly fun and amazing. I find that more and more when I travel, I am greatly interested in how people create space in all cultures. What is similar, what is different, what the values are. Each cobblestone courtyard had a unifying color and various mediums to depict its theme. The initial courtyard was a soft butter yellow with red and white tile mosaics set into the sides of the building as well as some frescos. The images were stylized people, snakes, dragons, and various swirly designs. At ground level (for all of the courtyards), various little shops sold things made by local artisans like woven baskets, cards and papers, books, wine, and cafe fare. The rest of the floors of the buildings seemed to be apartments. The courtyards meandered through the buildings. In the animal courtyard, people sat on small bistro chairs, enjoying a beverage, while a fountain with a stone bison at its center gently burbled. A stone giraffe set into the soft green wall seemed about to pull the plaster right off the building with its large tongue. And everywhere you looked, you could find a hidden and surprising animal.

The element courtyard was my favorite. The walls were a rich, varying blue set off by aluminum pipes that ran up the building in fanciful if a little angular lines.

On my way out, I let myself indulge in a moment of envy for the people who lived in these buildings that overlook the courtyards. A few of them were out on their patios. Adding to the charm of the place, the patios were carpeted in soft green lawns of grass.

I resolved on my return trip to the train station that I would not miss the beauties of Old Town like I did on the way there, but first I needed to make a stop inspired by the punks on the street corner. I headed over to a nearby café called Katy’s Garage and purchased a cool hefeweizen for my walk. Katy’s Garage was in the guide book I had looked at and for a good reason. This quirky little place was essentially a small takeout window that faced a dirt courtyard created by corrugated fencing. An old car perched atop the roof of the kitchen and vintage record players were strewn amongst the tables in the courtyard. Every surface was brightly painted as if a mad mob of graffiti artists decided to do a drive by one night. I wish I could have stayed, but I had more town to see and a train to catch.

Often we don’t recognize our cultural norms as being so ingrained in us until we act against them. Drinking a bottle of beer while walking down the street was one of those norms. I felt scandalous. I kept expecting to hear an outraged German voice ordering me to put down my beer. But the only thing that happened was I got a delicious thrill from doing something “forbidden” and my thirst quenched on my long walk.

I booked it past the strip mall promenade made more bearable by the cool beer to the bridge over the Elba. Ere I saw Elba, I was struck by the skyline of Dresden across the river. What I hadn’t been able to notice when I was enmeshed in the labyrinth of big, bold stores full of advertising with lots of German exclamation points (again: SALE! SALE! SALE!) was the grandeur of Dresden’s old palace and cathedral and various other buildings (including the Zwinger. Zwing!). The north side of the river afforded me a view that showed me exactly why Dresden is such a stately city.

After picking out the buildings I wanted to walk by (the Zwinger and the Kreuzkirche), I quickly consulted my map and planned my route back to the train station that would take me by these things.

A quick side note about consulting maps and guide books in public. While I am a consummate reader and consult a bazillion guidebooks before I go to a new place and will bring said guidebooks with me, I hate hate hate having to look at them in a public place. I know I am not from these areas I travel to and that it is no sin to not know where you are going, but I feel like the act of taking out a book to orient yourself rather than interacting with a live person for help is very alienating. I don’t necessarily try to blend in to a new culture (e.g. I wore flip flops for most of my trip and nothing marks you as not being from around somewhere in Europe more than that) but I don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb either. Nor do I want to appear unwilling to engage in the culture by burying my nose in some Brit’s (i.e. Lonely Planet) idea of what to see in Germany or the CR or the Netherlands.

My route by the essential (to me) sights of Dresden seemed simple enough: walk by big, gorgeous buildings until I hit (of course) more strip mall and tram tracks. Turn and follow tram tracks until I come to Weisgasse (a street purported by those Brits to have awesome deep local restaurants and shops) then head south along it to the kirche, and then I would come to the (sigh) strip mall zone by the train station. And Voila! Trip to Meiβen would commence.

Big, old building seeing out of the way, I dutifully made my path follow the tracks. Ten minutes later, surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings and no Weisgasse in sight, I hid behind a car and pulled out my map. Apparently, the tram tracks had made a subtle split and I was now way (way) east of anything even resembling the tourist part of town. And while I do enjoy going deep local from time to time, it is mostly experience some charming little-known aspect of the locals’ lives. These buildings were anything but charming. Sighing, I now replanned my route, skipping Weisgasse and heading straight to the church. The time was getting tight to catch my side-trip train.

The Kreuzkirche was located on the corner of a big asphalt lot, right behind some major construction. Despite its less than pleasing situation, this church was everything an ancient European church is: in a word, awe-full. The simple, speckled, dark stone exterior encased an interior that was made to catch the light. The white textured walls caressed the light from simple leaded windows, creating spaces of soften edges bathed in white. Adding to the stark yet uplifting (because of course your eyes are drawn instantly up up up to the arched ceiling where the white light played in corners of the buttresses) atmosphere, were the partially unfinished stone columns (purposefully unfinished). In the light granite, there were carved flowers or designs that faded into uncut stone. It made me think of the unfinished soul. How our lives are spent in adding the details and form to what makes us distinctly us.

I could have spent hours in the cool light, but I needed to run to my train. And run I pretty much did. Dodging tourists left and right, I moved quickly down the (you guessed it—SALE! SALE! SALE!) strip mall corridor to the train station. But all of my speed (in flip flops no less) was to no avail. I missed the early train to Meiβen and all of the later trains wouldn’t give me enough time to really enjoy that little town before having to hurry back to catch the train to Prague. And frankly, I was hungry and over hurrying.

I decided I had enough time to walk back to Weisgasse in search of the cafes off the beaten (or strip mall) path. I figured I could catch some sun while eating and do a little reading for the day. I chose a small tapas café in a large courtyard that was positioned perfectly for late afternoon sun. I sat down and waited for the server to come over.

This is another thing that unnerves me in Europe: little to no host seating—you just sit wherever you want and then someone serves you. It's madness, I tell you. What's next? Dogs and cats living together? Mass hysteria! Crazy.

Fifteen minutes later and after four other parties had sat themselves nearby, I was helped. I ordered my beverage and some chips and salsa (I know. I know. But I love chips and salsa. Besides I was curious what (Spanish) salsa in Germany would look like). Fifteen minutes after that and after all of the other four tables had gotten their beverages and food, my beer arrived but no salsa. Once again feeling pressed for time (I had one last strip mall trek to do), I asked the server to bring me the bill as soon as possible. Fifteen minutes later (it seemed to be a trend), beer finished, and still no bill, I put my best guess for price in Euros on the table and left. No salsa.

This journey to the station was a little less frantic but still no leisurely stroll (thankfully all of the gleaming storefronts were emblazoned in my memory, so I didn’t have to look around to orient myself. I could have done this walk blind by now). Arriving at the station with three minutes to spare, I heard the announcement voice inform the travelers that the train to Prague was running 20 minutes late.

This welcomed news allowed me time to hit the little station grocery store where I stocked up on water, fresh orange juice, caprese salad, and (the best thing ever!) sautéed mushrooms and potatoes. These treasures became my picnic dinner on the train to Prague.

The Czech countryside along the tracks from Dresden was very picturesque. The Vltava of Prague empties into the Elba, and we followed the latter most of the way into Prague. I got to see little towns and little castles dotted along the Elba’s banks. I saw the sun set about an hour before I came into Prague. It was such a beautiful sight with the river flaming orange and the houses glowing a rosy pink.

I came into Prague after dark to the train station north of Hradcany (Holešovice zastávka). This is the one and only time this trip that I got a little nervous about traveling alone. This station is no joke: dirty, dingy, smells of human and food wastes, graffiti everywhere, and random train people (similar to bus or trolley people here in San Diego just Czech) sitting dejectedly on filthy benches near grime-covered windows. Luckily for me, I had spoken to two women in Dresden who were traveling here from Kansas City. One of the ladies used to live in Prague, so she knew how to get around and could speak Czech. These ladies were going to the same tram stop I was going to, so they let me tag along with them as they navigated the completely unintuitive route from train station to tram stop.

Once we got to the square in Malá Strana where the St. Nicholas Church was, they pointed me to the street of my apartment’s location, and we parted ways. Malá Strana is a far cry from the train station. Here there are charming and clean cobbled streets, various shops, restaurants and pubs. While at the station, the people looked tired and dejected, in the square here people laughed and joked and a general feeling of good cheer permeated the air.

I drug my luggage up the cobbled(!) street to my apartment, thanking God that I had unwittingly gotten a place so close to the tram track. These tiny roller wheels were not meant to roll on cobblestone.

My apartment is by the US embassy and a branch of the Prague police station, so I passed a couple of police officers as well as many tourists. Mike, the apartment guy, let me into the place. And I instantly fell in love with my home for the next three days.

The apartment is the large room at the top of an old house. The bottom floor is the David Restaurant, while the next floor is two other apartments, and then there’s me. The roof slants to either side, coming to a point in the center. The room is divided into three spaces by large wooden beams in the floor that you have to step over to get into the next space. The space you enter is the entry space that is connected to the bathroom and tiny kitchen. Next is the dining space. Followed by the sleeping, desk, lounge chair space. Everything was wood (beams, floor, furniture) and warm plaster. There is a large circular window in the far wall of the sleeping space (next to the bookshelves!) that centers the blue-green domes of the St. Nic church perfectly. Also, there are several other dormers that open to the sides of the space. Honestly, this apartment was probably the best find ever. The neighborhood was amazing and safe. And the apartment was absolutely gorgeous.

Oh my, oh Prague, indeed.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Euroromance: Day 2: Romancing the Quedlinburg

Today was spent recovering from my hard-core travel day(s). I slept late and woke to the soft glow of the morning sun through my immense bedroom windows. Spurred by a raging desire for coffee, I headed downstairs to the breakfast room where the hotel Zum Markgrafen serves a lovely free breakfast.

In my no German and the serving girl’s little English, I begged to have my food taken up to my room with not one but two (two!) pitchers of coffee. She asked me something intelligible and indicated with a head nod that she’d take the coffee tray up to my room while I followed later with my breakfast selections. Having no idea what she said, I blithely nodded and continued to select my food.

A few minutes later, I went back up to my room. There was no one and more importantly no coffee there. What the hell had happened? What had I agreed to? I stood around for about a minute, unsure if I should go back downstairs and search for the serving girl who had apparently vanished with my coffee or if I should just wait and see. About that time, I heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Apparently, I had told the girl my room was at the top of the building (4 flights up). She gracefully accepted my apologies and left me to my breakfast.

About the food, so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of foods I’ve encountered here. Hearing that I was about the enter the mayonnaise belt of the culinary world, I’d resigned myself to living off of bread and beer for most of this trip. However, already in Amsterdam, I’d purchased a picnic feast of basil, tomatoes, goat cheese, and bread for the train. And now with this breakfast, I was dining on fresh fruit (kiwi, plum, nectarine, orange, pineapple), cheese and tomatoes (the tomatoes here are amazing. I can’t figure out how they get out of season fruit here that is so good), salami, and bread. So good. So far my only issue with Europe is the lack of readily available flat water in bottles. They love flavored water and sparkling water, but flat water, no way.

After breakfast and shower (have I mentioned that I am in love with this shower?), I walked over to the tower next to my hotel. For 1 euro, you can walk to the top and experience breathtaking views of the city and the surrounding countryside. After depositing my euro in the coin slot, I pushed and pulled on the turnstile to no avail. As I was about to try again with my second euro, I noticed the bike chain around the top of the turnstile. Apparently, the tower was closed today.

Slightly daunted, I headed into the town to find the internet and experience the German walled city. The hotel I found that offered internet had to have been on the cutting edge of computer equipment . . . in the early 90’s. I was graciously shown to a desk where resided what had to be an ancient 386 IBM. After much consternation and searching on my hands and knees around the computer tower, I found the USB port and commenced to access my email. However, if the computer was ancient, it had been upgraded more recently than the accompanying mouse. The emailing session I envisioned taking about 15 minutes stretched to 45 as I again and again moved and jiggled the mouse to get the cursor on a tiny icon—only to have it leap off again. It became a game of cat and mouse (almost literally). The cursor wildly leaping around the screen as I tried to make it go where I wanted it to and then just. stay. put. Adding to the stress was the gentleman behind me waiting his turn to use the computer.

With time pressing, I hurriedly sent out emails, becoming best friends with the backspace key as I tried to type by touch with my QWERTY knowledge on a keyboard set up for the German language. “you’s” became “zou’s” at an appalling rate. But I did learn that “abschicken” means “send” in German internet speak.

Emailing accomplished, I exited into the sunshine to finally begin embracing my vacation.

First on my agenda was to get an understanding of the town itself. Quedlinburg is an ancient city whose walls date back to 950AD. The town was initially Roman, and you can see that in the cobbled streets with high curbs and house design. I was struck by the structural similarity to Hercalaneum in Italy (one of the two towns that was destroyed by Vesuvius that is open to tourists). To sum up Quedlinburg in a word it would have to be texture. While all of similar shape design, the houses are a cacophony of building materials used to fill in the timbers of the frame. Some used raw brick, others stone, still others a plaster façade painted in varying bright colors. Around every corner a surprise in composition and color and texture awaited. Also, none of the walls of the houses were true. Some leaned over the street while others leaned away, giving the viewer a sense of pleasant organic surroundings as if these buildings weren’t built at all but had sprung up overnight like the dark mushrooms found in the Hartz mountains.

Quedlinburg is almost entirely supported by tourism. It is an UNESCO heritage site, and most of the structures within the city walls and around the main castle are protected. However, this city appears to be popular with only German tourists. While there were many out-of-towners here and many services that cater to them, the only English I heard was that spoken by me and by those who answered me.

That said, it is very frustrating to be operating in a language system that I have absolutely no base. Give me a Latin country and I’ll muddle along with the best of them. But when the word for excuse me is “entschuldigung,” how the heck am I to guess that? At least beer (bier) is universal here.

After exploring the tiny downtown, I headed back to the main square that is dominated by the Rathaus or townhall. There, taking advantage of the warm sun, cafes had set out patio furniture and were encouraging guests to partake of their meals and beverages in the golden warmth. I chose one of these cafes and positioned myself in the sun to enjoy a dark German brau and a little people watching.

My next destination was the actual old castle just outside the city walls. This is the oldest structure in the town and is situated very castle-like on top of a hill. Though there was massive construction going on that prevented me from making a thorough tour of the castle, the views from the grounds of Quedlinburg and the surrounding mountains, blue with distance, made the trek well worth it. From my vantage point, I could even see the Brocken, which is the witches' mountain (talk about obsession with witches, this area way has it) and is featured in Goethe’s Faust. I love the old walls of the castle and church, a mix of multicolored mortared stones with natural rock bursting through the walls.

My appetite spurred by the trek to and from the castle, it needed satiation through the most German way possible: kartoffel! So where did I go? Das kartoffel haus of course! Again with dark Deutsch bier, I enjoyed potatoes and oxtail soup and, ummm, potatoes over nasty creamy mushroom sauce. Mushroom sauce aside, the potatoes were, in a word, divine. Good kartoffel needs good local brew to follow. I walked to the whole other side of town to the Ludde Brau microbrewery (Ludda!). The high vaulted ceilings bulstered by curvaceous iron trusses were perfectly complemented by the light from the setting sun coming through the large high windows. While sipping my dark then later a light beer (the brewery only makes two beers: light and dark—a common trend here, I was soon to learn), I played with my newest acquisition: a German cell phone that would enable me to make very expensive calls back to the states to check on my son.

Because while on vacation what you do is eat, I moved from potatoes to brew pub to dining establishment. My goal of finding a place for dinner proved harder to attain than I initially thought. My first choice for dinner was the Ratskeller located in the (you guessed it) cellar of the Rathaus. While the establishment was all that I assumed a cellar restaurant in Germany would be, the musty fried smell drove me in search of another dining venue. The hotel Theophano (of 386 IBM fame) had a restaurant/wine cellar in it. After learning of its new location (aka a site not in the hotel), I gratefully ensconced myself by an alcove that emitted gleaming candlelight from a many-tiered, iron candle stand. As I sipped my flat water, I listen to the live piano music. This restaurant must be the equivalent of fine dining in Quedlinburg. Very sparse space entirely made of whitened brick arches. White table cloths set off against orange chairs and candles flickering on every flat surface and in every alcove. The food wasn’t remarkable. Some things got lost in translation: namely the scallops were actually shrimp. But the live music was fun and it was good to sit in an environment that was very quiet (with the exception of a man waiting for his girlfriend to get off work, I was the only guest) and serene.

At the end of my meal, the piano player came over and asked if I were English or American. When I responded the latter, he eagerly offered in very broken English, “You like 'Old Man River'? I play for you.” I tried to say no that I’d prefer the Beethoven and the Christmas music he’d been playing earlier, but he would have none of it. An American must be graced with campy “American” music, damn it. He then proceeded to play a medley of the cheesiest camp songs ever. From “Old Susanna” to “Old Man River” to “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” (not sure how this got labeled “American”). Embarrassingly, I knew almost all of them. He finished his number with “Auld Lang Syne” (again: American?). I dutifully applauded his efforts at bridging a cultural gap and asked the server for my coat.

Then, as near as I can figure out, the waiting gentleman asked the piano player who wrote “Auld Lang Syne.” The piano player seemed to not know, so I butted in and offered Robert Burns. However, either I misunderstood the question or they just didn’t hear my English. The final exchange went something like this:

Piano man to me: mumbly kartoffel achtung bitte schnell?
I replied: ummm, sorry. Nein Deutsch.
Piano man, shrugging, turning his back to me, and addressing waiting man: mumbly danke haus keller strasse.

My coat had arrived, so I bid them all “guten abend” and returned to my hotel where I packed and got ready for my second train journey on the morrow.

At this time the next day, I would be in Prague!

Pictures from travel day and Quedlinburg:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Euroromance: Day 1: They Can Take My Luggage, But They Can Never Take My Freedom

As the day of my departure drew near, I started preparations for my extended time away from home and my son. I began finishing up my experiments, getting my son excited about his time at Nani’s house, and not packing.

As the days flew by, my work load decreased, my son grew more and more expectant, and I still didn’t pack.

Finally, I brought my research to a point where I could stop for three weeks and flew with my son to Reno to leave him with his Nani and Papi. After a couple of days in Reno with family, I returned, childless, to San Diego.

Work: done.
Child: done.

And still not packed for Europe.

You see, I suffer from an inability to pack and (later when I’ve returned from my trip) unpack in a timely manner. I don’t have a problem laying out potential clothing for the trip (in fact, I’d been sleeping in a corner of my bed for weeks because all of my potential clothing choices were neatly piled over the majority of said bed), but I do have a problem with committing to the final few. As one of my friends once nicely noted, I don’t like choosing things—I want both and all. I fear bringing too few items of clothing for my needs and bringing too many clothes all at the same time. I also fear forgetting the perfect thing I will want to wear (which sort of I did). So I wait to pack.

And wait.

And wait.

Until it is 9pm on the evening before I leave for Europe at 5am.

Then I just start throwing random articles of clothing into my bag. Tanks, pants, skirts, shoes, 25 pairs of underwear, 15 pairs of socks. Whatever can fit goes in. Until I’m left with a bulging bag that I have to sit on to get zipped shut.

Further comes the stress of choosing what to bring in my carry-on. Of course the essentials go in like toothbrush and deodorant, but what always stymies me is what books should I bring and of those lucky ones chosen, which ones should I a) put in checked luggage and b) put in my carry-on. The determination of the answer to this question is no small feat. I must assess hours before the fact, what book moods I could possibly be in for an extended (in this case 14-hour) travel period (the time I won’t have access to my checked luggage) and what book moods I might visit during my entire trip. Further, if the checked luggage gets lost (which has happened to me twice—once internationally and once domestically), I must ensure that the books chosen as carry-ons can get me through my reading needs until I can reach a bookstore and supplement my reading material.

All of this deliberation makes me think of the Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. In that book, Macon Leary (the travel-writer protagonist) tells his readership that one only needs a single, solitary book for traveling purposes. That one must never overestimate the free time for reading one might have while traveling. But I argue that Macon misses the point of bringing books on a trip altogether. It’s not to amass a load of read books that you then have to drag around from place to place or release into the uncertain wild; it’s to have a delicious variety of material that you can either sip from at your leisure or gulp down in delightful eyefuls. The point of bringing books on a trip is not to finish them but to read. And to read often and variously.

With that mentality, I ended up packing 9 books, 4 magazines, and 5 poetry collections as well as miscellaneous science papers to read. Of those, 5 of the books, 2 magazines, and 3 poetry collections made it into my carry-on. Add this load to my computer, and you did not get a light bag.

Finally, in the early morning darkness, I frantically tossed in a few scarves and a rubber duck as toppers for the carry-on. The scarves for obvious reasons. The duck, well, I think the reason is obvious: he was to be my travel companion. My Amelie gnome, if you will. Plus he is a cool science duck that I got from a vendor at my lab. I thought his Einstein hair and white beaker would endear me to one and all for its intelligent quirkiness (Instead, he may have just made me laughable. But I couldn’t understand what they were saying, so who cares, right?)

Later, as I dragged my over-stuffed bags down the sidewalk to the terminal in San Diego, I wondered if I would regret my packing practices.

But soon, those thoughts left my head as I checked said big bag, moved through security with smaller (yet oddly heavier) bag, and went in vain search of my preflight beer (Why wouldn’t they be serving booze at 7am? It’s an airport. I know the Silver Fox and Waterfront are serving beers then.). Happily, Detroit’s airport bar was up and running, and I was able (along with my duck) to get a Yay!-I’m-Going-To-Europe brew and a few cheesy pictures.

My plan for this initial part of my trip was to wisely use one of the five days of travel allotted for on my Eurorail pass by traveling the shit out of it. I was to land in Amsterdam around 730am, go through all the travel logistics, head into the town for a few hours, then hop a train bound for Quedlinburg (a tiny German town roughly midway (and I do mean roughly) between Amsterdam and Prague). All told, about 30 hours of travel.

I’m not sure what possessed me.

Getting to Detroit was a breeze. As was getting on the plane to Amsterdam. There was a couple a little in front of me in line who quite obviously had been using and abusing the airport bar. They reeled and guffawed, dressed in brightly colored, variously textured, oddly retro, intentionally mismatched clothing like parrots that had somehow gotten lost on their migratory trip from Mexico and couldn’t figure out how the hell they got to such a cold miserable place like Motown. The woman had Raggedy Ann red hair while the man’s was Pauly Shore circa Encino Man. Both flitted from conversation to conversation with other passengers in line with intense good cheer. I hoped against hope that they would be seated near me on the giant Boeing 747 to provide me with people watching fun.

Be careful what you wish for . . . they were seated in the row directly in front of mine. And while the woman passed out before the plane even took off. The man still desperately fished his surroundings for someone to talk to. I was included in the catch until I put on my headphones and immersed myself in not one but two books (HA! Macon Leary! HA!).

Once in Amsterdam, I secured my bags in a locker at Centraal Station and headed into the town for a few hours of travel respite.

This time in Amsterdam marked the only time I actually ventured into the main tourist sections. And let me tell you, at 830 in the morning, the red light district leaves a lot to be desired. Besides the street cleaners and the smell of stale urine, I was pretty much alone. The sex workers must have been trying to catch up on some much-needed sleep. I did see what must be the resident insomniac, or maybe she was just burning the morning oil. Squat, overweight, in ill-fitting bra and panties, she puffed on a cigarette in the crisp morning air as if it were the one thing in life that could still pleasure her.

I eventually made it to Dam Square for a rest, espresso, Leffe, and more reading. Followed by a short walk through canal-split streets and a trip to a market for train picnic essentials (something that was going to be a trend in my travels by rail): beer, water, tomatoes, bread, basil, and goat cheese.

Sadly, the rest of this section of my trip was a hazy blur of fatigue. I pretty much hit a wall and was done. I couldn’t really sleep, and in my train inexperience, I had planned a route that required multiple transfers. With each successive move to a new train, my luggage seemed to gain 10lbs.

Fortunately, the Deutsch Bahn employees are incredibly helpful. They totally worked with my English and helped me figure out transfers and such.

The countryside was gorgeous. It reminded me a lot of the North East. Lots of green, skeleton trees, and (once I got into Germany—the Netherlands are flat flat flat) small, blue hills. And huge green fields with cows and deer and sheep and horses.

I got into Quedlinburg station after dark. Luckily, in such a small town, the station was clean and safe, and the place to find a taxi was right next to the single platform. I didn’t see much of the town on the very short ride to my hotel because of the darkness, but I did get to see some of the old walls that surround the city (Quedlinburg used to be an ancient, Roman walled city). My hotel used to be a private residence that was designed to look like a castle, so it had spires and rooms with high ceilings and huge windows.

Honestly, it was absolutely gorgeous, but I had only one thought in mind: the shower. I am the kind of person who has to shower every morning or I don’t feel right. In fact, I will shower before I work out and then shower again (it doesn’t matter if I’ve showered the night before, the sleeping negates the effect). I don’t camp unless I have access either to the campsite shower or a solar shower. I have stood under an ice-cold stream and lathered up because I can’t bear to face the day without clean hair and body. What can I say? I am hygienic.

So, 30+ hours without bathing is a little rough for me. But that shower. Oh that shower. Hot, amazing water. Sparkly, bubbly soap. It might have been the best thing that has happened to me ever. Ever.

And it might be one of my top 5 highlights from my trip.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

One More Thing Today

Happy Easter.

Euroromance: Prelude

So, I've recently returned from a trip abroad as they say in those black and white movies where men wear top hats and women, evening gowns.

It was unbelievable.

It was romantic.

It was a trip with . . . myself.

Yes, myself. I totally pulled an Eat, Pray, Love move and took a vacation with myself to find myself. Though in all actuality she wussed out and took a friend for part of her trip. I'm way more hard core.

It's not a big deal. Just how I roll.

Besides that text that is over read by many woman I do not care to know, my inspiration for this trip was threefold.

1. Ever since my husband left for his six-month pleasure cruise with the pirates, I have been the sole caregiver for my son. Meaning, I am in nonstop mommytakecareofme mode. Which is, in a word, exhausting. Or depleting. Or insanity inducing (okay that last one was two words). So I needed some time where I only needed to care for three people: me, myself, and I.

2. Added to the constant care my son needs, my work in the lab had also begun to ramp up. I was working 7 days a week, running multiple experiments at a time. Now, while that might not sound so bad to those nonexistent scientist readers of my blog who are also in grad school, combine that increased work schedule with number 1 and you get a woman who is literally getting no time to herself. I knew that son out of the picture wasn't enough. I would just increase my working hours, so I would have to go somewhere where work couldn't find me.

3. I impulse bought a plane ticket to Amsterdam without thinking it through all the way (reasons 1 and 2 were post-ticket buying rational).

As soon as the screen with "purchase confirmed" flashed on my computer, I knew I was in trouble. This impulse buy was not something I could return without consequences. And it wasn't something I'd even hinted at to the primary (and sole) breadwinner of the family. This impulse buy could prove to very costly in emotional upheaval as well as monetary loss.

So I did what any sane person does who doesn't make any money and relies solely on the kindness of a sugar daddy and has just purchased a flight for a 10-day vacation in Europe, I shared the news with my roommate, and we had a good 15-minute excited squeal over it. Then I emailed my husband (aka the breadwinner) a hurried nopauseforbreath email that went something like this:

hi, i justboughtatickettoamsterdambutdon'tworryitwascheapandicanrefunditifihavetowithouttoomuchofapenaltyandmymomwilltakeoursonsohe'llbefine.
what do you think? icanalwaystakeitback.

Five minutes after I hit send, my phone rang.

Breadwinner (bw): So, you bought a ticket to Amsterdam? You've never even mentioned that you wanted to go to Amsterdam.

me: Yes. I've always wanted to go to Amsterdam. I've read a million books about it. Besides it wasn't that expensive. Did I mention it was cheap? I can try to take it back. Did I say cheap?

bw: You did mention that. Ummm, I guess if that's what you want to do then go.

[awkward silence]

me: Okay, then, I'll go. If it's okay with you.

bw: Sure. I guess.

me: I'll be careful.

[awkward silence. then "I've got to go's," then hanging up]

me [to my roommate]: I think he's upset.

[phone rings again]

bw: You know, I think we ended that phone call badly. I am bummed because I really just want to be able to take this trip with you instead of being a non-scientist in an adventure with pirates! but really, I think you should go. It will be great.

[moment of sweetness and light all around]

And that, good people, is my sugar daddy. How about a round of applause for all of that superhuman goodness?

So that was it. I had just taken the first step in taking time off from constant care giving and in getting truly away from work.

I then, transitioned into massive planning mode for a trip that would rekindle the fires of romance for that person I should love most in the world: me.

Gentle reader, stay tuned for further details . . .