A Travellerspoint blog

Intensive Czech and an Incredible Opera

Dobrý den (Good day!)

My boyfriend wrote me saying, “How are you supposed to be a communications major when you haven't posted a journal entry in 10 days????” Well here’s your answer: Intensive Czech Class.

Czech from 9:30-2:30 is pretty brutal. The language one of the most difficult for native English speakers to learn, but I can deal with that. It’s just the fact that we’re in the same class for 5 hours that kills me. And then, we have mandatory logistical things we need to take care of, like getting our Charles University student IDs and going to the Ministry of the Interior to officially change our addresses. Not to mention homework and studying, and of course the occasional shut-eye.

Our teacher, Petra, is really great. She is young and always answers our questions even if they don’t have to do with the language. She is always open to helping out and truly wants us to do well. I think if I didn’t have a teacher like her, I wouldn’t even be interested in learning Czech.

Even though the class is hard, it is really nice to be able to get around the city, order food, ask where something is, and have a basic conversation with a local. It has turned my experience of being a foreigner and tourist into a deeper, more meaningful local experience. And it can only go up from here.

Friday night we went to the National Theatre to see Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata, an Italian opera subtitled in Czech and English. The movie Moulin Rouge! is loosely based off this opera which follows the life of a deathly ill prostitute who falls in love, only to be rejected by her lovers family. I’m usually skeptical about operas since they can be so hit or miss, but this performance was incredible. The voices were all stunning, and the set and costumes were so elegant and spectacular. Plus, the atmosphere of a beautiful 1800’s theatre certainly helped.

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The stage

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All fancy

I’m done with Intensive Czech now, and have passed! A’s on both quizzes and a B+ on the final! I’ll start to update the blog more often now that I have some time on my hands.

Classes started today too. I’ll give them a week and then write about them. I’m continuing Czech and taking Anthropology of Czech Culture and Society, Czech Cinema, Media Impact in Central Europe, and Contemporary Culture: Alternative Lifestyles.

Na shledanou! (See you later!)

Posted by srussell912 13:01 Comments (0)

SPARTA PRAHA OLE OLE OLE

The Czech Republic's number 2 sport

Note: Pics to come when I get decent internet

If I lived in Europe, maybe I too would be an insane soccer fan. After screaming unknown Czech words in the rowdy section of a sold out European elimination game, I finally understand why people love soccer.

Well, maybe I don’t understand that quite yet, but I certainly fell in love with the atmosphere.

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Sparta Praha Super Fans

Don’t worry: Praha won 2-0 to eliminate Dutch Rotterdam in the European League!

About 20 of us went with one Czech student, Radek. We took the metro to the stadium and though the stations were filled with dark red, white and blue, the fans seemed pretty relaxed. As we walked towards the stadium however, more and more people joined us on the sidewalk. Riot police paced back and forth keeping an eye on the crowds. A helicopter hung suspended in the sky. Fans began cheering and singing in the streets, and our adrenaline started rising. As we made our way towards the entrance, Radek told us that if it gets to crazy in there for anyone, we can always leave. We walked into the entrance to face a gigantic line of cheering Czechs. At one point, everyone bent low to the ground, and started cheering until we jumped up and moshed to a chant. Our names and birthdays were printed on the tickets and ID’s would be checked at the door. We also received a pat down. Alcohol was not allowed in or even sold in the stadium because in previous years fans were out of control.

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The line into the stadium

Once we made it into the stadium, I wolfed down a hot dog and climbed over chairs into the rowdy section. It is a field level section, netted in so nothing can be thrown onto the field. Two super fans stood on a stand with an unnecessary loudspeaker. Rowdy is an understatement. These Czechs were CRAZY. Almost all of them had painted faces or bodies, wore Sparta jerseys, scarves, hats, and shorts, waved flags, and did not stop cheering throughout the entire game. There were a few smoke bombs that went off, and at one point, every male’s shirt came off as well. Someone stole flags from the Rotterdam and hung them up on the netting. The wave was started multiple times and crashed over the whole stadium.

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Flags

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Smoke bomb and crazy fan

I knew that the Americans weren’t that interested in the game. I like watching soccer, but I was more into the cheering and crazy fandom than the specifics of who had the ball. At times, I was convinced the entire rowdy section was just in it to participate in the chanting and singing until mid-cheer, the entire section would stop, angered and screaming at a bad call and whistling at the refs. Each and every one of them were hardcore true fans.

Five of us and Radek stayed until the very end and watched Sparta celebrate their win, sliding on the ground toward the rowdy section ‘thanking us’, and walk on all fours in a line, as well as some other odd traditions. The game was an absolute blast. It was insane and full of passion. That being said, soccer is the number 2 most popular sport in the Czech Republic.

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Odd traditions

I can’t wait until the most popular sport begins – HOCKEY!
(Insert angry rant about the impending NHL lockout here.)

After the game, five of us decided to get away from the crazy sports pubs and rabid fans. We just wanted a small pub that we could relax at. Christina, Paul, Kevin, another Kevin, and I made our way past the touristy areas and decided to wander the streets to find a local pub. It began to rain but we pushed on, knowing that something had to be waiting just around the corner. The skies opened. We were instantly soaking wet, all the way through. But we knew something had to be waiting just around the corner.

THREE HOURS LATER

Nothing was open, nothing looked good, and we were completely lost in the middle of nowhere soaking wet and no sign of a change in weather. We thought we knew where we were but finally found an open hotel that gave us a map and pointed out where we were. We were on the outskirts of town, walking into the suburbs. However, we were close to a metro stop that could take us to a pub we knew. When we finally got there, it had just closed. Soaking wet and exhausted, we gave up and headed back to Christina and my apartment, grabbing one beer each at a street meat stand. It was 1am.

While it was an awful loss of direction in the pouring rain, we got our exercise, bonded, and definitely know our way around the metro and streets on the outskirts of town. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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Soaking wet but headed home!

Posted by srussell912 13:04 Comments (1)

Orientation in Praha

Note 1: I was with my parents in Prague for five days before orientation began. I’ll add in pictures and snippets from our time too!

I am quite happy orientation is done and over with. All the participants of CIEE arrived last Monday into a hectic week-long whirlwind of meeting people, remembering names, learning rules, and navigating the city. I have three great roommates, Petra (Czech student), Christina (USC), and Hilary (Georgetown). We spent our first night in a beautiful hotel before hauling our suitcases along the cobblestone to our apartments. We are on the top floor (we have an elevator!!) of a yellow apartment building in Vysehrad, a block from the Charles river and a ten minute hike through the giant 14th century wall up to the top of the hill where our study center sits amongst a gothic church, monastery, and gardens. We are lucky enough to have one of the biggest apartments: two floors, a giant living room, and balcony overlooking the city and Prague Castle.

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View from our balcony

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View from the top of Vysehrad, where I go to school.

We were split into different groups each day during orientation. Half the groups would spend the morning at the study center learning about rules, Czech culture, emergency procedures… what is expected from any orientation. In the afternoon, they would go on a walking tour of the city. The other half would do the opposite. By the end of the week, the majority of people I spoke to, including myself, were completely burnt out with orientation. Here’s why:

1. Rules and regulations are boring, but it’s understandable why we spent the amount of time we did going over them.
2. I understand that CIEE wanted us to get used to navigating the city by 4 means of transportation (foot, bus, tram, metro), a mass of 60 Americans will never individually learn anything. Except for maybe the one person who is leading us.

It seems like we did the same thing each day, and I honestly still could not tell you where the post office is. Part of learning a city is navigating it on your own or in a small group of people. Essentially we were lemmings, following one after another, chatting, and not at all paying attention to streets or landmarks. I would have much rather gone to the touristy sights, museums, or just gotten lost with my friends.

(Spoiler alert: the next blog post will feature me getting lost with my friends.)

So I guess the mass of confused Americans wasn’t for me. Trust me, it wasn’t for the local Czech community either. Before I left, I had heard that Czech’s are often more reserved, individualistic, and quiet. There is definitely a difference between a quiet tram ride with Czechs deep in their own thoughts than when 60 American students cram into that tram, chatting, laughing loudly, and falling over when the brakes are hit. While I immerse myself in Czech culture, I’m finding out more and more about my own.

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Some of us Americans in Wenceslas Square

Posted by srussell912 13:00 Comments (1)

Auschwitz – Birkenau

The rest of this page should be left blank. There are no words to truly describe my feelings and thoughts visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau. Words do not do justice to over 1.1 million Jews, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, POWs, and handicapped people that were brutally experimented on, tortured, and murdered.

I felt physically and mentally nervous as my parents and I drove parallel to the train tracks, winding into the hills outside Krakow. Even through everything I had learned from my parents, in Hebrew school, and Holocaust museums did not prepare me for seeing two death camps in person. I couldn’t breathe when I saw the gates. They are terrifying, looming over train tracks and barbed wire fences, gates to the deepest of hell. I felt the most on edge than I have ever felt. My feelings would be heaven to victims. I was uncomfortable taking pictures, so the ones you see here are the work of my dad.

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Looking back at the tracks and main gate from inside Birkenau

Instead of being shocked by the hard wooden barracks where men, women, and children would weakly attempt climb in and sleep, I was shocked and overwhelmed of the stench of these buildings. I walked through one barrack and could not stand the stench. It was like a mix of rotting wood, mold, and what I assume fear and death smell like. It brought tears to my eyes and made me gag. I cannot begin to imagine calling that ‘home’.

We had brought along snacks and water to get us through the hot day. Though my mom forced me to drink, none of us could eat. Not only was my stomach nauseous, I was going through bouts of tears and I felt helpless as a mere tourist so many years later.

At the end of the railroad tracks, between the two demolished crematoriums, stood a large, ash colored memorial to the victims. It looked like a pile of square boulders set together in a more striking Stonehenge. Plaques in ten different languages told visitors to always remember. Stones and yahrzeit candles covered the end of the tracks and the memorial.

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Memorial plaque in Hebrew

Always remember. Always remember. These words have been repeated to me since I attended preschool. Not ‘never forget’. Always remember. Remember from the heroic stories of the Jewish resistance, the children’s hopeful drawings, and the teachings from one generation to the next. Remember the strength of your people and the faith they had in each other. Always remember. Teach those words to your children and continue to fight against all genocide. So maybe I was wrong at first. Words create a different kind of justice. They give justice to every man, woman, and children that lost their lives but will always be remembered.

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Posted by srussell912 00:39 Comments (0)

The Old Country

Krakow, Poland

Before we even arrived in Poland, we were offered free beer. After missing our connecting flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Krakow due to plane issues in DC, we waited in anticipation and exhaustion at the airport and made sure we ate something, expecting nothing on the quick jump to Poland. We should have waited. Instead of offering the usual complimentary water or soda on the plane, we were offered an entire bottle of traditional German beer, your choice of soda, and two different sandwich halves. We were full and content, but probably not a satisfied as the drunk stag party in the back of the plane who were having a blast cheers-ing every person who went to the bathroom.

We arrived in Krakow later than expected but still had time enough to enjoy dinner and an early bedtime to catch up on sleep. We went to a typical Polish restaurant, complete with wooden benches and tables with fur as cushioning, low candle lighting, and dried herbs hanging on the walls. The Polish cuisine was wonderful – herring in oil, meat and potato dumplings, and of course sausage and pork. They also have a beer and fruit juice drink. The beer with ginger is especially good! We went to bed stuffed and happy.

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Polish Food: 2 bites and you're full.

The next day we met my dad’s friend Sylvia. She is originally from a small town in the country, but attended university and lives in Krakow. She took us on a walking tour to the oldest university in Krakow, Jagiellonian, which was founded in 1364. It is an urban campus with multiple buildings and beautiful gardens.

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Main university courtyard

We then walked to Wawel Royal Castle, passing shops advertising amber and ceramic products, which Krakow is famous for. The biggest Polish castle sits around a garden on top of a hill rising above the winding Vistula River. The hill was settled in the 4th century and a the castle was built in the 11th century, with major revisions and expansions by the command of Casimir III the Great in the 14th century. It was the home of Polish royals until 1609 when the capital of Poland was moved from Krakow to Warsaw. The view from the castle is spectacular, overlooking the entire city and small mountains beyond. There is also a cathedral situated within the castle walls with incredible statues and detailed architecture.

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Castle walls: Try to scale that.

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Inside the walls: Cathedral behind us.

My favorite part was descending into the Dragon’s cave underneath the castle. A dark, winding staircase took us into a beautiful open limestone cave where a dragon once lived, terrorizing the new town of Krakow. Legend says the dragon’s would only be satisfied if it ate its favorite meal, a young girl, preferably a virgin. The town eventually ran short of virgin girls, except King Krakus’ daughter Wanda. The King was desperate and offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who could defeat the dragon. Knights came from distant lands but were killed. One day, a cobbler’s son stuffed a lamb with sulphur and set it outside of the cave. The dragon ate the lamb and became so thirsty it drank up half of the Vistula River, swelled, and exploded.

FUN FACT OF THE DAY: There is a statue of the dragon outside the cave that breathes real fire a few times an hour, or on command if you text a certain number.

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Wawel Dragon: Don't worry Krakow, the kids will save you!!

Because I had to wait until I arrived in Prague to write this blog, the rest of the days in Krakow ran together a bit, so these are the highlights!

We visited the Jewish quarter, full of Kosher restaurants and synagogues. The Jewish museum in the Old Synagogue which featured Torahs, seder plates, yads, and other Jewish artifacts that are older than America. We had a drink at the Singer restaurant, named after the sewing machines that were once manufactured in Krakow. The tables were all original sewing tables, complete with the machines and foot pedal. We visited the Old Cemetary, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Krakow. During World War II, the Nazi’s destroyed the cemetery and used it as a dump. It was only during the restoration of the quarter that people collected the broken headstones and created a breathtaking memorial wall around the cemetery. We then took a tour across the river to the grounds of the WWII Jewish Ghetto where one original wall stands amongst high rise apartments. This little bit of my personal history, as a Polish Jew, was very emotional. The wall was a deathly gray shaped purposely like Jewish headstones. A few minutes away sits the Schindler factory, with pictures in the windows of the Jews that were saved by Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust. It was the last stop on our tour, leaving me thankful and hopeful that people witnessing any genocide will continue Schindler’s legacy.

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Singer restaurant: Watch out for sewing needles in your cake!

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The Old Synagogue

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The Old Cemetary Wall: Broken Headstones

As always, we had to do some shopping. The main square is situated in the Old Town, a few blocks away from Wawel Castle. It is the largest medieval square in Europe surrounded by a couple Gothic churches and the 14th century Town Hall Tower adorned with marble lions guarding the entrance. In the middle of the square is the Cloth Hall, once an international trade center and now a more touristy market. However, underneath the Cloth Hall is a museum and current excavation of the 14th century grounds. Layers of cobblestone, dirt, and wood roads are visible as well as artifacts and bones from the many centuries the Cloth Hall and square have been used. Outside of the cloth hall, the square is dotted with stands selling fried cheese, jewelry, ceramics, candy, and more. There was a folk festival while we were in town and actors and musicians wearing traditional Polish clothes performed outside the Town Hall Tower.

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Old Town Square: Cloth Hall on the left, Town Hall Tower on the right.

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Polish Folk Music

Krakow was an incredible experience. Compared to the large, urban, and westernized cities I’ve visited in Europe, it was small with a unique character that I had never experienced before. Though my great grandparents town was demolished in WWII, it was incredible to see the culture that they grew up in and a city that they probably traveled to. It felt very relaxed and homey, and I would absolutely love to go back for a longer period of time.

P.S. – Yes, we did visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. I’ll be writing a separate blog post about my experience because this one is already giant.

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Chocolate Town Hall Tower: 3 feet of heaven.

Posted by srussell912 14:20 Comments (0)

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