Insert Czech Pun Here

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
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Trip End Nov 28, 2006


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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Brian and Cissy Said:

Well after a successful day of detox in Munich, we were finally ready to head over to Prague in a luxurious four-person sleeper car on the overnight train. Or not. Not only did we get stuck in a six-person sleeper car (with some guy that had a pretty bad snoring problem), but we also had the conductor from hell attending our car.

The fun started when Cissy dropped her passport in the crack between her bed and the wall of the train car. After some inspection of the surrounding area, we decided that without a flashlight, recovery of the passport would be extremely difficult. We proceeded to ask the large, rather burley and old conductor for a flashlight. He screamed back, "I do not have screwdriver" and walked away. Ok, now one could argue that there was a language barrier; however, the fact that he actually responded to us in broken English citing a screwdriver led us to believe perhaps he just misunderstood us. After asking a second time for a flashlight and explaining that the passport had been dropped under the bed area, he proceeded to scream at the top of his lungs:

"THAT IS NOT MY PROBLEM! I AM NOT ENGINEER! I AM CONDUCTOR! I NO HAVE SCREWDRIVER!"

As he was screaming this time, he lifted his right leg and began kicking and stomping on Cissy's bed. Have you ever had one of those moments where anything and everything was absolutely hysterical? This was on of those. After attempting to communicate our dilemma one last time to the conductor, he did what is defined by Wikipedia as a Diving Double Foot Stomp:
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_wrestling_aerial_techniques#Diving_double_foot_stomp)

It was like Hulk Hogan leaping off the top rope in Wrestle Mania III. At this point, the entire bed became dislodged from the wall and we were easily able to recover the passport.

Once the train was underway, our two new roomies settled into their top bunks; however, we still had some big questions regarding overnight train etiquette. After all, we had never shared a sleeper with someone, so we knew there were certainly some do's and don'ts (For example, if wearing boxer shorts is it socially acceptable for one to remove their pants when sleeping?). To answer these questions, we resorted to the time tested communication method used throughout elementary, middle, and high schools around the world. We passed little notes back and forth between our various bunks. After Alli successfully answered all of our questions, we all settled in for what would best be described as a bad night's sleep (and FYI, it turns out that it is NOT acceptable to remove your pants when sleeping in a shared car).

We arrived in Prague sleepy but alert, and proceeded to negotiate with a local gentleman for a place for us to stay and a ride from the train station. There were early signs of an illness beginning to affect the two of us; however, we didn't let this keep us down (The illness would later be diagnosed by Chad as a weak strain of Black Death that eventually affected the entire group). Being in Prague made us realize how much we had taken for granted that the Euro was such a similar currency to the dollar. In Prague, we found ourselves in constant need of a calculator just to figure out how much anything was. Our days in Prague were relatively calm compared to the madness that had occurred in Munich. Chad would pick out a daily walking tour from his Rick Steves book, and Alli would narrate. We were even savvy enough travelers at this point to successfully thwart a pick pocketing attempt by some local hoodlums while we were walking back from the old town one day.

On our final day, we decided to scout out a good absinthe bar so that both of us could get a taste of the "green stuff" that Chad had been raving about. Much to our surprise, we found a great absinthe bar where we were able to enjoy the green stuff the way it was meant to be served...cold (not hot, as most of the places in Prague served it). Our absinthe experience was complimented by a Czech acoustical guitarist that was playing Metallica and Eric Clapton cover songs. After getting giddy on the green stuff, we went in search of one thing... a way to watch the Gator game on the laptop, or even better, on TV. We knew there was internet at McDonalds, but they closed at 11 and that's not exactly the most exciting place to watch a football game. We searched high and low, wide and far, and when we finally arrived at the Irish pub that touted the ability to view "American Football" only to find that the only American sports they could tune into that night was the NY Yankees, we realized that we must make due with text-message updates from various friends and family on Chad and Alli's phone (thanks to all that supplied updates!). And with that, our adventures with Chad and Alli came to a close.

She Said:

We were so proud of ourselves for planning ahead and buying our train tickets to Prague on our first day in Munich. The ticket agent, Arnold Schwarzenegger's look-a-like, promised us we would be the only four beds in the train car. He lied.

Upon entering the train, we were attacked by a conductor who took his job way too seriously and forcefully instructed us to our room. There were six beds in the room; the other two passengers were on their top bunks already with their luggage stored. Chad and I threw our packs on the middle beds, and between the four of us, somehow we fit Brian and Cissy's huge suitcases in the confined space remaining. When we finished complaining about how we got screwed, we began to settle in for the night. That is until Cissy dropped her passport behind the bed. She needed a flashlight to see it and made the mistake of asking the conductor if he had one. Talk about a language barrier - somehow, he thought she asked for a hammer, and despite two attempts to clarify, he ended up kicking her bed screaming, "I am not stupid, I am a conductor". There really was nothing we could do at that point but laugh, hysterically.

We finally retrieved the passport and double-locked the door for fear of this crazy man. We all fell asleep without any further ordeals and were only awoken once for a passport check. Unfortunately, after being woken up, that is when I began to hear my upstairs bunkmate snoring. It was like a bad deja vu from the Balkan Express; I can't catch a freakin' break on these overnight trains! Brian thought it was hilarious; I was ready to cry. I actually kicked his bed a few times in an attempt to rouse him long enough to fall back asleep myself; however, this only made the snoring louder. So, once again, I pulled out the iPod and prayed for "Songs of the Orient" to put me back to sleep. Eventually, it worked, and I was able to get a few hours before arriving to Prague.

We arrived a little after 8 a.m. and were immediately approached by a man looking to fill his apartment. Although hesitant since we were four people, he offered us a pretty low price and a free ride to the city center, so we agreed to look. The place was fine; there was one bedroom and a loft with another two beds. Since Cissy and Brian were only going to be there two nights, they agreed to stay. They both began to feel sick the day before, so we decided to do some "light" touring followed by siestas. Clearly, Oktoberfest had taken its toll!

The first thing I noticed about Prague was the amazing historic architecture. Everywhere I looked was another amazing fašade, church, or bell tower. This is a place where I did come with expectations, and my first impressions lived up to them. The old town square single-handedly had the best variety of ornate facades, Baroque and Gothic churches, historic monuments, and by far, the coolest astronomical clock I have ever seen. Like the Glockenspiel Tower, there is a brief show at the top of every hour, but this time, there is more than just dancing figures. The clock in and of itself is complex and nearly impossible to tell time on. There are revolving disks, celestial symbols, and moving hands, which all tell different versions of time. There are four statues representing the 15th century outlook on time, including a face of Death who tips his hourglass and rings the bell on the hour to remind us that "our time may soon run out". When the bell rings, the window on top opens up and the twelve apostles parade by, looking out over the huge crowd that routinely awaits their performance, until, finally, the rooster crows.

As we walked around, I began to notice a side of Prague that makes some locals say the city has lost a little of its charm. The increasing commercialism is evident and cannot be avoided with tons of H&M stores, McDonalds, and KFC chains at almost every turn. We even read of a hot dog vendor sitting on top of twenty seven inlaid crosses in front of the Town Hall. This symbolic representation of an execution of twenty seven common folk ended Czech independence for 300 years, and most people have no idea its there as they load up their wieners. This modern, urban, big-city feel disappointed me a bit, as I was expecting a smaller, medieval town with more authenticity. I guess you can't keep a place like this away from Mickey D's too long, and we were, in essence part of the tourism boom!

Nonetheless, we found a traditional Czech restaurant for lunch, where we enjoyed hot beef stew and other varied local dishes. We opted for an informal stroll towards the apartment for brief siestas and showers. During this walk, we spotted two shady guys walking very close to us and whispering to each other. We were all very aware of them, and each put a hand on our purses and/or wallets. We later learned that Brian saw them scheming on how best to pick our pockets from a reflection in a store-front window. Once they realized we were onto them, they quickly walked the other way.

This brings me to another point of contention that I feel like we were warned about more so in places like Rome and Budapest. There is a definite level of seediness in Prague, with more panhandlers, wierdos, and con artists than I have seen anywhere else. We were told to scrutinize every restaurant bill as waiters have a way of "padding the bill" with items you can't read. We read to avoid giving large bills, never loose sight of our credit cards, and always count our change. Albeit, these are good tips to remember in any major city with a lot of tourism, but it was pretty evident from the first day, and I was surprised by how obvious it was. And by the way, if you plan on really scrutinizing the bill correctly, you better bring a calculator and know the conversion rates. You've never seen four people struggle with math like we did after every single meal!

Thoroughly refreshed, we headed out for dinner and drinks, all of us trying to shake off Oktoberfest remnants (i.e. sickness). Prague's architecture at night was just as aesthetic as it was during the day, but what was really cool was seeing all those amazing buildings that we were taking pictures of during the day, lit up and essentially deserted. We had a little taste of sushi (until we checked the prices), and stuck to drinking sake before finding a really cool bar with a live jazz band. We had one more nightcap in the main square to enjoy the ambiance, and decided we needed a good night sleep (well, some of us old married people went home, some other party animals checked out the club scene).

The next day was Cissy and Brian's last day in Europe. Although, neither of them felt stellar, they were troopers and sustained a pretty full day of touring. We started out with bagels and coffee, and then headed for the Charles Bridge. Although filled with many tourists (like us), this bridge, built in the 1300's, provided an enjoyable walk filled with open air market-like vendors, musicians, panoramic views of Prague, artists, and a 1683 statue of a Czech saint bringing people from all over to touch the inscription for one wish to come true (FYI, if ever you go to Prague and touch the statue, do not touch the dog, it's bad luck!).

On the other side of the bridge, we stumbled upon an amazing photography exhibit nestled in the Little Quarter. We spent a lot of time at this wonderful exhibit with some of the most amazing aerial photos from all over the world. It was thought-provoking and artistic, and the best part was that it was free, outside in the fresh air, and right in the heart of the town for everyone to enjoy. We found a water mill-view restaurant at the edge of the bridge and enjoyed some hot soup and tea as the clouds moved in and the temperature continued to drop. As we began our walk back over another bridge, we stumbled upon the Lennon Wall. This wall was erected when John Lennon was killed in 1980 as a memorial, but ironically, was painted over numerous times by the police under the Lenin-like Communist rule. When the Czech Republic was liberated in 1989, it became permanent, and stands today as a place that gives people hope and helps them "imagine" a day void of tension and danger.

Next stop, Absinthe Time. Chad had to share this experience with someone else, since I can't even get a sip of the stuff down without gagging. So, we went for happy hour at an absinthe bar where they each enjoyed some local absinthe, and I had an Irish coffee. We ended up staying later than we planned (shocker, right?), but hurried home in the rain to change quickly and grab the computer, the gator game was about to begin! I need to give Cissy some credit here for her patience. We went to four or five different bars, like three or four different restaurants, and even stopped in the middle of busy streets with the computer open trying to find a WIFI signal in an attempt to hear the game. Clearly, I am tolerant, as I am also a Gator fan who enjoys football, but more important, I am very indulgent of my fanatic husband who lives for the Gators. I mean, there was an Alligator at my wedding for heavens sake! But, this was their last night in Europe, and although I think we were all partied out, I know she was relieved that we finally picked a bar and enjoyed one more beer and some great conversation, settling for text messages with scores from members of my family.

After Cissy and Brian left, Chad and I decided to stay three more days in Prague. We took advantage of cheaper accommodations to catch our breath a bit before changing destinations. Plus, there was still much of Prague we hadn't seen yet. But as quickly as we planned the day, Chad began to feel sick. We had a late breakfast and came right back to the apartment for a day full of intermittent naps, computer work, and whatever English TV we could find (mostly CNN, Animal Planet, National Geographic, and of course, MTV). These were the hangover, rainy Sundays we used to love in New York, and it was actually nice to do absolutely nothing for almost the whole day. When we started to get stir crazy in the apartment, we went to a recommended restaurant and had some great Thai food with two huge pots of hot tea to warm us. With a full rest day, alcohol-free, I was hoping he would feel better the next day. I was also fighting the same sickness, so we went to bed loaded up on Airborne, Vitamin C, and tea.

Really wanting to see more of Prague, we got up the next day and began a few short guided walks around different areas of the city and a tour of the Jewish Quarter. In case you'd heard (as we initially hadn't, but my family had), the Jewish quarter was on high terror alert due to an incident that occurred in Oslo a few days prior, which rippled into threats made to Prague's synagogues during the high holidays. We asked locals to fill us in before we went and did some research online. We decided that we would not avoid this historic area in fear, as that is something I refused to do after 9/11, but would take extra caution as needed and certainly be acutely aware of our surroundings. We noticed an increased amount of security; however, it didn't seem excessive to us compared to other Jewish quarters we've been to in Eastern Europe, or even NYC monuments for that matter.

There are only a couple of thousand Jews living in Prague today, compared to 120,000 in 1939 (only 10,000 survived the Holocaust). The neighborhood is like many others, scenic and architecturally beautiful, but unless you seek out the six synagogues, you really can't tell it's a Jewish neighborhood. We did seek them all out and explored the vastly different and ornate exteriors of each one. One was Neo-Gothic, one was Moorish-style, all were hundreds of years old, and all but one are used as museums, memorials, and/or exhibit spaces. The only active synagogue, where we toured the interior, is the oldest synagogue in Central Europe, built in 1270. We poked our head through a street- level window, which was part of a gate enclosing the Old Jewish Cemetery, and I couldn't believe how many graves there were in such a small space. We read that there are approximately 12,000 tombstones piled on top of each other, each with numerous stones placed on top of them, many appearing crooked (this is explained by the fact that from 1439 to 1787 this was the only burial ground allowed for the Jews of Prague, and once buried, Jews do not believe that a body should be moved).

As Chad began to feel feverish, we headed home for nice long siestas. He woke up feeling worse, so I put on my nurse hat (no, not nurse Ratchett), and headed out to get dinner and "sick" supplies. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to find restaurants with to-go menus, and there are no 24-hour pharmacies anywhere. So, four stops later, I got some chicken for dinner, bought some tea packets from another restaurant, found some fruit somewhere else (Chad only seems to like fruit when he is sick), and drinks elsewhere (no Gatorade in sight). Thank goodness for the kitchenette where we could boil some water and eat in. We stayed home for the night, and once again, learned about the mating habits of crocodiles on National Geographic!

Our last day in Prague, we explored some new areas and saw some interesting Art Nouveau buildings. Since neither of us felt great, we spent the majority of the day in the apartment. We had some dinner and packed up for an early departure the next morning. Although I do feel like we covered a lot and saw many different areas of Prague, this is another place for me that deserves further exploration. Although I wasn't as wooed as I thought I might be, I was impressed enough to want to come back to take a closer look at what else Prague has to offer and what lies beneath the recent tourism boom.

He Said:

Prague has been so popular for the last ten years that all of the hype pointed directly to a letdown. Though I think that might be a bit harsh, there was definitely something missing that I expected to exist. Was it beautiful? Yes. Was there a youthful exuberance? Yes. Is it home to a lively expat scene? Yes. Was it cheap? Yes. Did it have an animated arts and literature scene? Yes. Did we enjoy live music? Yes. Did we find some interesting bars? Yes. But did the sum of its parts add up to be greater than the whole? No, and that's what I was hoping would happen.

The first thing you see in the Old Town Square is its collection of architecture. Actually, that's the second thing you see. It's really hard to enjoy the surroundings when you're getting knocked by competing tour groups, and even in mid-October, the place was overrun with multilingual herds following a series of raised umbrellas and bright-colored flags. We were told that many locals don't like what has become of Prague, and I could see why. People come to observe and discover a place, and then they trample over the very history they are supposedly there to learn. We watched as sightseer after sightseer waltzed right over 27 tiled crosses placed on the sidewalk to memorialize a group of Protestants executed for standing up against the Catholic Church. Until recently, it was commonplace to walk around this patch of hallowed ground.

The square, though, is truly magnificent and has a collection of buildings unrivaled on our trip thus far. Its four sides are like massive walls in an open-air museum, and its series of facades are like masterpiece canvases from a myriad of different periods. The Baroque Church of St. Nicholas, the Art Nouveau leading down Paris Street toward the Jewish Quarter, the National Gallery's rococo palace, and the Gothic Tyn Church are all surrounded by colorful fronts of less notoriety, but add just as much to the flavor of the square as their more famous neighbors. Every single building is stunning, and this is what makes the Old Town Square so jaw-dropping.

As we began to explore other areas, we quickly discovered that the beauty of Prague's buildings isn't regulated just to the Old Town Square. Even though all four of us were feeling under the weather - still recovering from Oktoberfest, I suppose - we allowed ourselves time to just walk and get lost. We headed over the river and enjoyed some live music on the bridge. We stumbled upon a thought-provoking photo exhibit describing man's impact on the environment using a series of aerial photographs (www.yannarthusbertrand.org). We had lunch next to the only surviving water mill in Prague. And then we spent some time at the John Lennon Wall, which was a clandestinely creative outlet during communist times that still collects messages of peace today.

We wound up at Absinthe Time, where surprisingly enough, it was absinthe time. I wanted to introduce Brian and Cissy to the wonderful world of green, and we were happily surprised to find a place that served absinthe the proper way - with a perforated spoon, a sugar cube, and a fountain. The Czechs were basically the only people who didn't ban absinthe when other European countries were taking it off the shelves, so when it recently became legal again, they had a head start in the business of selling it. Unfortunately that didn't exactly translate to quality in production, so we weeded through the Absinthe Time menu until we found a brand that had been recommended to me as not being "Czech swill" and sampled a glass of every variety they made. I think Brian and Cissy were surprised by the feeling they got from only half of a glass, and they began laughing incessantly. We joked about the inefficiency of Czech currency denominations, we listened to a talented guitar player sing Eric Clapton songs with an accent, and we took random photos of absinthe paraphernalia after deciding to have "just one more glass."

The next day, Brian and Cissy left, and Alli and I were pretty bummed. We'd had so much fun during our week of traveling revelry that their instant absence was like stepping inside after walking for a week in the middle of a windstorm. Cyclone Cissy and Hurricane Holyfield certainly left their mark, and after they headed for the airport, I was ready to call in the Red Cross to get rid of the ensuing headache and relentless cough that seemed to be taking hold.

I did manage to hide my fever from Alli for a few hours, and we journeyed down more of Prague's streets learning its rebellious history, from Jan Hus who was burned alive for preaching against the Catholic Church before Martin Luther was even born, to Jan Palach who willingly burned himself alive in protest of the communist regime. We toured the Jewish Quarter's synagogues, which were sandwiched between some of the most amazing Art Nouveau facades I have ever seen. We saw the famous Dancing Buildings, dubbed "Fred and Wilma" by American architecture students. And we made a discovery about the aspects of edginess in Prague.

First of all, as I mentioned, the people seemed a bit jaded toward the tourist industry. They weren't rude, but I got the feeling that they weren't overtly friendly, either. It was apathy. But there was also a different kind of edginess that I began to notice, a seediness. Sometimes this can add to a city's charm, as I feel it does in New York (what's the East Village, for instance, without all the piercing shops), but in Prague, it didn't have the same effect. Maybe it's because I wasn't expecting it, maybe it's because a tattoo parlor seems out of place in a 600-year-old building, or maybe it's because there seemed to be too much seediness for such a small city. Nonetheless, in Prague, it seemed out of place.

By the time we got home, Alli was on to my sickness, or maybe had I started whining. It was probably both. Nonetheless, I spent a lot of time in bed watching the National Geographic channel, as that was about all we got in English worth watching. As a result, I felt like our time in Prague was as much about what we didn't get to see as what we did. We missed the Franz Kafka Museum, the views from the castle, the Communism Museum, the Black Light Theater, and a museum about a person I call the Czech Seinfeld who is noted in guidebooks as the guy who did nothing and invented nothing. That's the one I'm most disappointed to have missed, especially since we spent two days in Prague with Holyfield, the biggest Seinfeld fan on the planet.

Somehow, despite the sudden recurrence of Bubonic Plague in Central Europe, all four of us did manage to cross the Charles Bridge, a famous pedestrian-only crossing of the Vltava River. Before we began, we learned of the bridge's history and landmarks, which included a statue of a Czech saint on the opposite end that people rub for good luck. According to legend, you're allowed only one wish in your entire life, so you'd better make it count.

On the way across the bridge, I was thinking about what I was going to wish for when I was pelted by bird shit. It was reminiscent of the "magic loogie" episode on Seinfeld, which was based on the single-bullet theory of the Kennedy assassination. This piece of shit had many of those same properties - Cissy was Kennedy, and I was playing the part of governor. The shit glob grazed her head, ricocheted off my right arm, and landed on my right shoe - a truly amazing feat of physics. And what's even more astounding is that none of us saw the bird. Perhaps there were two birds. We will never know.

Regardless, getting hit with bird shit is supposedly lucky, and I was in the middle of wish making. The stakes had been raised. I thought about that night's Gator game against LSU. I thought about my desire for a final resolution to the question of whether the train conductor said 'screwdriver' or 'hammer' during his feature-length tirade. And I thought about the increasing quantity of gray facial hair I've noticed since growing in my goatee.

After waiting in line behind a Japanese tour group, every one of which was rubbing the brass dog that is supposedly unlucky to rub, I stepped up to the plaque and made my wish. Mostly I was thinking about the end of our trip looming in the distance and the decisions that have to be made once we get to that point. Here's to bird shit, and here's to making it count...

They Said:

Please check back with the Prague blog for additional pictures that we will add later...
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