Sunday, December 26, 2010

Occupational Fantasy, Part Two

I am standing in a quiet, empty metro station when I feel a stranger’s hand on my shoulder. I turn and see a man in a long trench coat with wild snakes of hair and suppose that he is either homeless or a wizard. He says that he is a cubist furniture designer and that I will be his apprentice. He will teach me to upholster cubist furniture and restore antique cubist furniture to its former condition, and when he has taught me all that there is to know about cubist furniture I will be the greatest maker of cubist furniture in the world. I say okay. The metro appears and he pulls me inside with great haste. We go to his cubist furniture studio where I choose appropriately coordinating fabrics for each grain of wood. The cubist furniture master tells me that we will have to work quickly through the cubist furniture curriculum because of those who would have me fail. His rival cubist furniture designers have spies everywhere, behind the cubist wardrobe and under the cubist bed. In just a couple of weeks I learn the appropriate skills of a cubist furniture designer and open my own shop where my cubist chaise lounges are purchased by wealthy collectors from all over the world. After a long day of upholstering, I have time to write stories.

Occupational Fantasy, Part One

I am educated by a wealthy patron who sees in me the potential to become a scholar or a corrupt official in the local government. I am sent away and boarded in another city where I become worldly, cultured, and fluent in Greek. When I return to my patron he is boundlessly impressed by my Greek and the witticisms that I produce at his dinner table to amuse ladies in powdered wigs. He insists that I come to dinner every Tuesday and recite sonnets and essays I effortlessly compose when I am not shadowing a controversial, bearded philosopher who thinks of me as his own son and frequently clutches me to his own breast. My patron commissions me to write comedies for his amusement, and in my free time I write stories.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Little Mother With Claws

“Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother has sharp claws.” Franz Kafka

My flight home was scheduled for December 18th, but Prague would not let me go.

My friend N. and I arrived at the airport, all packed and ready to return to the US. I checked my baggage, spent my last crowns on a souvenir beer mug for my dad’s shelf, and waited in the terminal for a plane that never came. Eleven-thirty came around and there was no information on the ticker, but it did promise more information at one or so. At one, the ticker insisted that it would give us more information at three. The airline’s website insisted that we got on the plane and that we landed safely in London. After several hours in an airport pub trying to stay awake with some overpriced beverages, we all found out that the flight had been cancelled.

The first thing I had to do was pick up my luggage. My Barney purple suitcase was immediately visible but my black duffle was nowhere to be seen. The belt went round and round, but it was empty. I talked to a woman at the luggage desk. “Just sit down and wait. There will be more baggage coming.” So N. and I sat down and waited. No luggage came onto the belt and then the belt shut off completely. I went back to the woman at the luggage desk. “I’ll call them and have them turn the belt back on,” she said. “But there’s nothing on the belt!” I said. She insisted that it was probably stuck inside of the machine and told me to sit down and wait. The belt came back on and no new luggage appeared. I went to the woman at the luggage desk again and she gave me some forms. I suspected that my bag caught a plane to Heathrow Airport  by itself.

The next ten hours were spent in line. This mind-numbing wait would have been entirely unbearable if I hadn’t accidentally adopted a stray child who named me “Penguin.” For ten hours, Vicky and I shuffled up and down the floor, played “Touch Brittany’s camera lens,” and pretended the electronic ticket machines were TVs full of penguins. My childrearing services were paid for in yogurt which promoted my intestinal regularity. Vicky led me around by the hand, announcing to the other students that I was her friend and that no one else was her friend. “What about N.? Isn’t N. your friend, too?” “No,” she said, finishing off my Subway sandwich. She reluctantly left before me with her real mom and twenty of my Czech crowns jingling in her tiny backpack.

The other students and I got a direct flight booked from Prague to JFK, but we had to wait for two days in a hotel. The airline paid for our rooms and our meals at the hotel. I was all ready to get back to New York, see everyone at home, and sleep with a cat at my feet, but when I looked out the window it seemed an awful lot like the Devicka metro stop. I picked up the lost black suitcase that was discovered in another terminal entirely and spent the rest of the day sleeping. N. distracted himself by choosing our seats on the Delta airlines website.

On Monday, N. and I went to the airport again, checked the luggage again, and waited in line again. Most of the other students were put on standby because the flight was overbooked, but since N. reserved seats we had a guaranteed ride home. After that, the only obstacle in my path from Prague to New York was security, and security made sure that I got a little more waiting in before I took off. Before I went through security, I was told that I had been randomly selected for a special search and that if I waited in the seating area an employee would soon assist me. Two hours later, someone woke me up to escort me and the other randomly selected passengers to a special section of airport security, just in time for the plane to board. “We can’t miss the plane in security, right?” someone asked me. Ahead of us, a punk rocker covered in metal chains was walking back and forth through the metal detector.

Luckily I didn’t miss the plane going through security. As I took my seat, the pilot came on over the loudspeaker and greeted us. “I have some bad news,” he said. “I’ve been told that we lost our timeslot. We were scheduled to leave by a certain time, and now another plane is using our runway. I never imagined anything like this could happen. In all my years as a pilot, nothing like this has ever happened to me. I don’t know how long we’re going to have to wait.” After spending sixteen hours waiting in the airport, losing a suitcase, and becoming a mother I felt like I could endure anything.

And then the stomach virus set in. Not because of the movement of the plane or the quality of the plane food, but because it was the most inconvenient time possible. After an uncomfortable nine hour flight, I arrived at JFK green in the face, but happy to be in a land that doesn’t fall to pieces under the weight of four inches of snow.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dresden, Part Two: The Hygiene Museum

A few hours before my bus home, my new Australian friends and I went to the Hygiene Museum. We bought our tickets and went downstairs to the sparkling white bathrooms. After we wondered how to get to the museum itself, but then it occurred to us that we were already at the first exhibit. In fact, we were part of the first exhibit.

Then we realized there was another floor or two. The museum was used by the Nazis as a tool to display eugenics propaganda during World War II. I suspect that “Hygiene” in German refers to the human body in general, because they weren’t displaying different kinds of toothpaste and anti-fungal creams. There were exhibitions of terrifying dentist chairs with enlightening German explanations of why they strap down your head, nauseating plaster models of various autoimmune diseases, and human figures with visible internal organs.

There were many times when a comprehensive explanation would have been very welcome. At one station I strapped lab goggles full of honey cones over my eyes and asked myself, “Does this simulate life in a beehive?” Nearby you could weave your body into a contorting pair of stilts or find out what it is like to write wearing a lumpy glove. We strapped enormous brushes to our feet and skated around the room with our beehive goggles and wondered if we were just helping the museum save money on maintenance work.

On retrospect it is clear that the skates were meant to simulate brushfoot, a crippling disorder for which modernity has provided us with an invaluable vaccination. Remember when they used to send people with brushfoot to live on an island?

One of the most interesting rooms was devoted to human sexuality. It was there that I first discovered that I am not sexually attracted to the scent of beavers. There was a video game that simulated sex using Mexicans with names like Pedro and Maria and awkward metaphors involving mountain climbing. I was perplexed by a marble statue of a nude woman reclining that was accompanied by a smaller model. The smaller model had a sign with a hand that indicated that I should touch it. I did, but nothing happened.

The hygiene museum concluded predictably with a room full of old hairbrushes, and I left noticing that I was so bewitched that I had not given myself quite enough time to catch my bus home to Prague.

You can read about my other Dresden adventures here.

Dresden, Part One: Coffee and Cake Town

I went to Dresden because a well-traveled friend said that if she could live anywhere in Europe, she would live in Dresden. Also, I wanted proof that it still existed. “You can’t possibly be referring to the Dresden that was completely decimated by British bombs in World War II. Isn’t it just ruins?” I wondered. She asked what made me think it was just a pile of rubble. “Kurt Vonnegut,” I responded.

I am happy to report that the bus did not drop me off at a pile of ruins and a vitamin syrup factory, but in a fully functional city with buildings in their vertical positions. After getting myself lost in my customary way, I eventually came to my hostel, Lollis Homestay, which seemed to have a bolted gate and a sign that directed me to go through it and take a right. I was rather annoyed that they hadn’t emailed me about how I would have to break the chains with my teeth before I could sleep there. (I eventually got in through an entrance on another street that I hadn’t noticed before, and I stayed in an all-female room full of Orlando Bloom posters and middle school lockers.)

With my duffle bag slung over my bruising shoulder, I decided to explore the New Town. I wandered aimlessly into an alley called “Kunsthofpassage.” I discovered a courtyard of modern architecture. A bright yellow building seemed to have little ribbons peeling off of it. Across from it a blue building was covered in a marble track system of metal pipes that turned into a fountain at the bottom. One building had a stone giraffe lifting its head to some monkeys dangling from the wicker balconies. Inside of the buildings were some very colorful craft shops. Neustadt won my heart after all.

The next day I went to a flea market. I’ve never seen so many creepy naked dolls in one place. If I had been on a search for wooden trees and German language books, I would have been in luck.
The Old Town was next on my agenda, but it got dark quickly after I arrived. This part of the city looked gloomy in the gray weather. The buildings were reconstructed after nineteen eighty-nine and many of them are still black from the bombing. The Church of Our Lady, which was completely decimated, was built with a mixture of black and white bricks. The rest of the architecture is looks new and clean, and the Communist buildings look rather bleak as always, but some of them are painted in rainbow pastels to make up for it. Dresden has done a lot of work putting itself together in the past twenty years.

I spent a good part of the evening searching for a public restroom. I was eventually directed to a mall, but when I finally spotted the restroom sign hanging from the ceiling, its arrow cruelly pointed me into a café.

The Germans call Dresden a cake and coffee city because it’s more relaxed than Berlin or Munich and people laze around eating cake and drinking coffee. This is a culture that I adapted to with remarkable ease. The first night I had a cake that was filled with cream and had a raspberry jelly on its crust. Some Germans at the hostel informed me that the cake was actually Dutch. Naturally, I had to give it another go. The next night I walked into a café and asked the woman at the counter what her favorite cake was. She mumbled something in German about not understanding, so for the next ten or fifteen minutes I tried to mime my question to her with elaborate gestures to avoid making the decision myself. Eventually she gave me a cake with some sort of coffee mousse inside. I ate it with hot chocolate and it was very un-Dresdenly of me.

That night I went out for cake with two new friends from Australia. I vowed to eat no more cake that day, but I did have a little bite of lava cake. After the café we moved onto a club where I coolly sipped my fizzy water until I was too tired to socialize. On my last day in Dresden, we also spent some time eating cake in other cafes. I’m noticing some predictable patterns in this trip, mostly involving cake.

After all that cake nonsense, we hit up the Hygiene Museum...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cesky Krumlov "Solo" Adventure

Since there isn’t anything particularly interesting to say about Halloween in Prague, I shall backtrack to my trip to Cesky Krumlov using as many initials in place of names as I possibly can. I set off alone, but in spite of this I found myself perpetually in pleasant company.

Cesky Krumlov is three hours away from Prague. During the journey, I spoke in Czech with another student and writer who was going to a town along the way. We reveled in our shared devotion to chocolate and bright colors.

When I arrived, I got off at the wrong stop and spent a long time taking my frustration out on the map which clearly had every street mislabeled. It turned out that I was just in the wrong side of town entirely, so I took the scenic root down the highway to my hostel, Krumlov House. It was a charming hostel fresh out of a Lord of the Rings, complete with a dragon on the door. The kitchen was well-stocked with ingredients and spices, but I only used it to make tea, toast bread, and heat up some baked pumpkin.

I had lunch on the bank of the Vltava, covered in blankets, at a vegetarian restaurant called Laibon. I became friends with the owner and went back to have tea a few times during my stay.

My first evening was spent attempting to get my fill of hedge mazes and French and English gardens in the area of the castle. The anxiety of travelling alone in a new place hit me that night in the form of a rather uncomfortable stomach ache.

The next morning I had breakfast with a woman from Jordan—we will call her S. for the sake of being mysterious and Kafkaesque. Many things were closed that morning and we ended up having grilled cheese at a café. I find that anything that we would normally have for lunch in the United States is fair game for a Czech breakfast.

We walked through the winding cobblestone streets of pastel houses. A Thai man asked S. to take a picture of him with the town in the background, and he asked if I was her daughter. Before S. had to return to Prague, we had a lunch of apple strudel with whipped cream. A swarm of bees descended upon us and forced us eat the strudel very quickly.

That night, while walking through the square, I ran into M. from my dormitory and his mother. I had no idea they were planning to make a stop in Cesky Krumlov and it was a pleasant coincidence. They invited me to dinner with them, and I brought them to Laibon when the restaurant that was recommended to them was full.

They could only stay for a little while. After they left the entire costuming crew for a German historical film about Mozart’s best friend squeezed into my table. They advised me as to how to perfect my Marie Antoinette hairstyle. It became too busy for me to have tea with the owner again so gave the costuming crew some elbow room.

That night I met a woman from China—L.—and together we went with M. to a bar with a live gypsy band. I was incredibly excited because in both Prague and Budapest there were supposed to be gypsy bands and I had not come across one yet, although in Budapest there was a steel drum player. M. began talking to two women from Taiwan who were leaving for Prague the next day. We gave them our contact information so that we could show them around Prague, but neither of us heard from them. (Although two days later, I did get a call from someone who seemed to only speak Mandarin.)

On my last morning, I walked through a park near the hostel with L. and I took my last pictures of Cesky Krumlov. I didn’t think it was possible to meet so many marvelous people in one place. I think travelling alone was the key to my trip going so well. I wasn’t attached to any group of people which allowed me to go where I pleased and meet new people. I may have used my “approachable, trusting white girl” appearance to my advantage.

I’m planning my next trip now. I don’t know the details yet, but it might be to Dresden and it might be on my birthday.

Friday, October 15, 2010

How Prague Will Make Me Gain One Thousand Pounds

My Czech-English tandem partner—I’ll call her M. for the sake of privacy and mysteriousness—brought me to a Czech restaurant to eat a typical Czech lunch: Three dumplings the size of baseballs filled with strawberry jelly with strawberries, syrup, chocolate sauce, powdered sugar, and several mountains of whipped cream covering every inch of a rather large plate. The meal was so large that neither of us could push ourselves to eat a third dumpling. 

While we practiced our Czech, I asked her how to say “candy” and related stories of delicious Hungarian pastries filled with a sweet ricotta-like cheese and slices of peach. Lately I’ve been compulsively turning the conversation to food—food that I’ve eaten, food that I want to eat, food that I want to make. Right now my focus is on pumpkins. With a pumpkin sitting on my counter, looking delicious, how can I possibly refrain from daydreaming about a whole week of eating pumpkin soup, raw pumpkin (it tastes like carrot, only better), stuffed pumpkin, baked pumpkin (it tastes like carrot, only better). M. said, “You’re rather skinny for someone who likes food so much.” “Not for long,” I answered with my mouth full of whipped creamy goodness.

This morning I went down to the breakfast room of Komenskeho and discovered that, in the night, all of the fresh oranges and peaches had magically transformed into chocolate cake with a layer of creamy mousse, all of the yogurt had become pudding, and all of the cereal had become Coco Puffs. “Is this all for me? Am I dreaming?” thought I, making my usual cucumber sandwich. Who am I kidding? I went right for the cake. I prudently cut it in half and proceeded to eat both halves. The Komenskeho staff has always graced the buffet with danishes and doughnuts, but things are getting increasingly out of hand. I suspect that they may be fattening us up to roast us for an upcoming holiday feast.

I rode my sugar high to a gallery with my dorm mother and some friends. After an hour or so of looking at Andy Warhol and Rene Magritte and having security guards mock my name in Czech, I met the rest of the group in the gallery’s restaurant. Every establishment in Prague comes complete with its own dining establishment so that you’re never more than ten feet away from your next diabetic shock. I asked if there were any vegetarian meals, and the woman pointed me to a smaller version of the fruit dumplings from before. These were more like ravioli than baseballs, little pockets of fruit jam or sweet cheese covered in cream and chocolate and almonds. My friend and I split an enormous plate and finished every one.

Tonight I’m editing some scholarly documents that have been translated into English, and I may have absentmindedly consumed half of my groceries.  I cringe with every bite of leftover pasta and musli, imagining the staff of the Ruzyne Airport rolling me through the terminal like Violet Beauregard and strapping me to the tail of the airplane. Then I say to myself: Tomorrow I will exercise.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Country that Remembered Vegetables

I’m starting a new routine. Every Tuesday, I get up at eight in the morning, eat a cucumber sandwich in the breakfast room, and set out with my grocery bag. I make the long commute by tram, metro, and tram again to Kubanske Namesti where I follow a long chain of old people off the tram. The old people and I slowly migrate across the street to the park to the farmer’s market.

As I enter the marketplace, I see fruits and vegetables stacked in crates and sausages behind glass. The Czech specialties seem to be potatoes and plums, and apples are everywhere now that they’re in season. My mind is blown when I see a green cauliflower with bizarre alien projections. (My research has led me to discover that it is a Veronica cauliflower. Here it is, in all of his psychedelic glory.)

A man selling honey elaborates on the different kinds of honey and I nod and say “dobre” as though I understand what he’s saying. The only jar of honey I’m certain of says “flower” in Czech on the front, so I splurge for a delicious topping for my giant tub of yogurt. The vendor gives me a glass of “most.” I assume it’s cider because it tastes like cider, but if it has some alcohol content I can’t taste the difference.

I’m looking for a pumpkin that I can lift. There are pumpkin like squashes and various gourds to choose from, but the only pumpkins I find are the size of horses and would be an inconvenience to others on the tram. I find a good sized, pumpkin-like specimen that is half green and half orange. I ask a nearby woman with a pumpkin, “Jite?” (You eat?) She confirms that it is food.

With a small pumpkin in my bag and carbohydrates on the brain I get a loaf of bread at random and a few small rolls. My final splurge is a box of raspberries. I figure they’re so out of season that I may never have the opportunity to put them in my Czech yogurt.

This pescetarian paradise has a stand where you can purchase vegetarian Indian food, one for chocolate truffles, and fried fish fresh from the Vltava (which is a fantastic tongue twister). The pastries and cookies are innumerable and the choices that one makes between them are heart-wrenching.

Cuban cigars are available for those who actually go to farmer’s markets for that sort of thing. One can even buy a jar of chocolate honey cream, which Aztec priests used as a lubricant when removing the organs of their victims. I would want some to spread on my toast.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Plsen: Land of Beer

Yesterday some friends and I took a trip to Plsen, a city famous for its beer. We booked the bus tickets at the last minute and accumulated a rather large group of interested people, which turned out very badly for us. The night before, when we were purchasing our bus tickets, we decided we would take a ten o’clock student bus and on the way back we would take the six-thirty Phil Collins bus home. (Spoiler: Phil Collins wasn’t there.)

I’m afraid there are no pictures to accompany this story because I deleted them all by accident. It was just the cherry on top as far as disasters go.

Sunday morning I was in the breakfast room, ready to go, and I called my friend to see if she had purchased a ticket yet. It turned out that I forgot to tell her that we were taking a bus at ten, and she thought that we were taking the bus at noon. Besides not having a ticket, she was just getting up. I was rather angry with myself and decided to quickly buy her ticket online and print it in our dorm mother’s office so she could get ready quickly.

I did not notice until later that, in my haste, I took out my ticket to make sure that I was putting my friend on the right bus and I left it on my desk. I also did not notice that I only bought her return ticket. Once everyone had printed their tickets and was ready to go, catching our bus did not seem plausible. We boarded a tram that seemed to be driven by a student driver. It was caught behind another tram which was probably also driven by a student driver. At one point we slowed down so much that we came to a complete stop in the middle of the track. Meanwhile, the crazy Czech drivers cross the tracks at their leisure.

By the time we got to the metro we had a less than a half hour to get there. The clock struck ten before we even reached the station, and we all resigned ourselves to the fact that we would have to buy new tickets. I felt terrible because if I had just told my friend what time we were leaving we might have made our train. On the bright side, it didn’t matter that I bought her only a return ticket by accident. It also didn’t matter that I seemed to have lost my ticket to Plsen. However, I had also lost my ticket back. The man at the ticket window informed me that the only bus back that hadn’t been filled was at nine at night, hours after my friends would already be gone. I seemed to have no choice but to buy it. We tried looking up my ticket number on a friend’s smart phone, but the man at the counter would not accept it.

After everything that could possibly go wrong did, we made it to Plsen and toured the famous brewery. We watched a video about how “Plsen is made from three gifts of the Czech nature: WATER, BARLEY, and HOP.” The theatre reminded me of a universal studios ride. We stood on moving risers, and I never figured out why it was necessary for them to constantly rotate just slightly to the right. The film was very surreal, with music from Tom and Jerry, historical beer related footage, and a man burning in a fire on the left screen.

At the end of the tour, we descended underground to a special vault of unpasteurized Pilsner that they keep just so tourists don’t get hypothermic wandering the cellar looking for it. We got a lesson in the proper way to taste beer and I discovered that I still don’t like it. Based on the factory tour, I think it might be the hops. Some of my friends tasted ground up hops and it was so terrible that they went back for more malt pellets just to get rid of the taste. I suppose there’s a reason that hops doesn’t seem to be used for anything else.

Moving on to more delicious things, I had the best meal that I had in the Czech Republic so far at a pub in Plsen. I ordered grilled vegetables that were soaked in some delicious combination of butter or oil and wine and baguette. And who calls the Czech Republic “the country that forgot vegetables?” I’ve only accidentally eaten meat once, and it was in some Laughing Cow cheese of all places.

It all worked out in the end and I was able to get on my original Phil Collins bus and refund my nine o’clock ticket. My friends were incredibly disappointed to find that not only was Phil Collins not on the bus, but that the ride had nothing to do with Phil Collins whatsoever. Phil Collins was just the bus’s name. I wonder if the Michael Jackson bus would have been better.

It always comforts me to think that when everything goes wrong and all of the pictures are accidentally deleted, at least it will make an amusing story later.

Kolej Komenskeho

To catch up on things that I want to write about that I haven’t gotten to write about yet, I’m going to take you for a ride in a textual time machine where my posts are in reverse chronological order. I’m onto my second illness now, so I have all the time in the world to backtrack.

I’ll begin with my dorm, because that is where I am at this very moment.

Kolej Komenskeho is a residence hall in Praha 6, a short walk away from Prague Castle and other marvelous things, like Tibetan food. Like Purchase, it appears to be under indefinite construction. I was told that the dormitory is a repurposed hospital, and I suspect that our bathroom is haunted by a kidney stone patient from the nineteen sixties.

Our hallway consists of suits with two dorm rooms and a common kitchen. The kitchen has a hotplate that I’m a little afraid to use and a small refrigerator.

I have two suitemates, but I have no roommate. Consequently, I began using the empty side of the room for storage. My suitemates stripped the bedding and all that is left is a sheet, which I have covered in pamphlets because I have no idea what to do with all of them. The empty bed seemed as good as any other place. The desk has a stack of unused towels, a bar of soap, and some Jehovah Witness literature that I’ve been meaning to dispose of.

Until today my side of the room was even more of a disaster. I’d kick off my shoes into the middle of the room rather than returning them to the wardrobe. My desk became covered in used tissues and chocolate wrappers. I had unwashed dishes caked with yogurt strewn about. I have a friend who also has a double room to himself, and he warned me that a Czech student would probably move in soon. I planned to clean the room this weekend, before classes start.

After class today, I saw that there was a crowd standing in the lobby, looking very similar to my ECES group when we were first moving in. I quite nearly had a heart attack. I imagined my roommate, unlocking the door just minutes before, discovering that all she has for bedding is a blanket of brochures and a used towel. She cringes looking at my crusty dishes and my piles of clothes. As she goes to set her bag down she stumbles over a renegade sandal and imagines what a monstrous roommate cruel fate must have dealt her. Just then, my roommate would glance over at the pamphlets on the desk in horror and think, “She going to try to convert me!”
Perhaps I had a roommate after all, and she already came and left. I supposed she promptly marched to the lobby and demanded a single room.

Just in case I’m assigned another roommate, I have cleaned off the bed and desk and tidied my own side up as well. Part of me hopes that I do scare away any potential roommates. I know it would be a good experience to live with a Czech student and have ample chances to mluvim cesky, but I do so love living alone.
There were a few things that shocked me when I first moved in. First of all, the bathroom. I was alarmed to find that there was merely a sink and a shower and immediately thought it might be some error in the dorm’s construction. For a moment I considered going to the repairs book and recording paint chips and a lack of toilet. I discovered that there was a separate room for the toilet behind the door to the suite. The second stage of shock came when I realized that it was clearly a Victorian toilet, the likes of which I have only seen in museums. One flushes it by pulling a long string, much like one raises one’s Venetian blinds.

I should add that the Czechs have a passion for trying to reinvent the toilet. I have seen toilets that you flush by pulling a knob and toilets that you flush by pushing a button. They no longer surprise me. Also, Czech toilet paper is the equivalent of our brown paper towels.

Another thing that shocked me was the lack drawers. Whereas in Purchase we would have a dresser and a closet or wardrobe, at Komenskeho we have a wardrobe and a lot of shelving. I have all of my clothes neatly folded on the shelves, and I keep my socks and underwear in my desk drawers with my writing utensils.

My favorite part of my room, besides the fact that I’m the only one in it, is the windowsill. It stretches from one end of the room to the other. I climb up on it and read in the window by sunlight. It makes me feel like a literate feline, basking in the sunlight and enjoying contemporary Czech fiction.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Intense Czech

After two days of my Czech intensive course, I am certain my professor is Bernadette Peters’ grandmother. If I’m going to spend nearly five hours a day with any professor, I would want it to be Jitka. Everything is dramatic with her. We must smile broadly as we say dobry den, get angry when we ask were the beer is, and never wish a Czech “Dobry rano” on the tram because they are grumpy in the morning and they will kick you. When we perform even the smallest feat of pronunciation correctly, she says,"Gooooooood" in the manner of the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

Czechs are strange people, Jitka explains. You will never hear a Czech say she has money and you will never hear her say she has time. If you ask her how she is, she will thank you and tell you things are terrible, or perhaps so-so. You will never hear her say that things are excellent because something terrible might happen tomorrow. A Czech will use the moment as an opportunity to complain about how he has no money or time. If there is one thing Czechs love to do, it’s complain.

Some invaluable phrases I’ve learned from Jitka:

Cas je penize. (Time is money.)
To je zivot. (That’s life.)
To je skoda. (What a pity.)

Skoda is also a popular car manufacturer based in the Czech Republic, and the brand name of the car is Pity, which is all part of the Czech passion for complaining.

Czechs also love beer, says Jitka. You may come to Prague and see cheap beer, but it is not good for diet. That is why many Czech men have large bellies. For them, five beers in a day is nothing. But beer is more expensive now, it used to be two crowns. Then, fifteen beers in a day was nothing for them. If you come to Prague and drink cheap beer and eat cheap food, it is not good for diet. It is disaster.

The more I’m in Prague, the more I realize that I need to learn more Czech. I want to be able to ask for specific types of rolls at cafes, I want to know what the creepy Czech waiters that hit on me at the cafe today were saying. I want to make witty comebacks.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


(Note: I wrote this last night and fell asleep in the process. I thought I would finish it up and post it anyways, since I have nothing better to do.)

I’ve been a sick little girl. The last meal I ate was yesterday afternoon on my trip to Kutna Hora: a slice of pizza and a crepe. Then I came home and my stomach began its mutiny. I spent my first full day without an itinerary napping my sour stomach away and feasting on the occasional roll. My one excursion, to acquire rolls and multivitamin juice, concluded when I was pounced upon by a Jehovah’s Witness with a briefcase full of Good News who immediately sensed that I was a New Yorker. I need to stop wearing running shoes about town.

Since I am stuck inside, with no wish to be converted and too weak to venture beyond the streets that surround my dorm, I have decided to do laundry. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I got the key from our building’s concierge. She had to help me find the door because our laundry room’s hallway had no lighting. She also needed to unlock the door when I could not feel where to put the key. Inside I was delighted to discover that the buttons were all in Czech and I could not figure out immediately which machines were washers and which ones were dryers.

I flipped helplessly and deliriously through the booklet of directions. All of the English was poor, the symbols were indecipherable. The automatic setting was called Baumwolle, and that was on the machine with the English subtitles.

The concierge came in, sensing my distress. She helped me choose a temperature in Celsius and a type of fabric. She asked what setting I prefered, explaining, “Baumwolle is natural fabric, it is too hot for synthetic fabric.”

“What does baumwolle mean?”

“It is English. It is… baumwoole,” she explained. She pointed to the corresponding word on the machine without Czech subtitles. It was a word that looked like baumwolle, but Czech. I pushed the mysterious button and hoped for the best.

When I opened the detergent compartment, someone had left a speckled pile of detergent behind. The concierge explained that it was called “baumwolle.” Actually, she brought a teaspoon and scooped it into the other side of the compartment for me. After that, the machine worked perfectly for me, but I was still uncertain how to use it without aid. I suppose I’m going to need to fetch the concierge for every load of laundry for the next three months.

I looked up “baumwolle” on Google when I got back to my dorm room. It means cotton, but in German.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Field Trip

I arrived in Prague and moved into my dormitory/repurposed hospital, Kolej Komenskeho, on Monday, greeted by a surge of yellow from every wall. Last night I finally got working internet. More has occurred than I could reasonably fit into a single blog, so I’ll just stick to today’s events. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get to my student ID crisis, my unpleasant encounter with the Czech police, and how I learned that Czech men beat women with sticks once a year. If you want to see some pictures before I reveal the stories behind them, click here.
I should explain that during our welcome week we go on tours and field trips and stress out over registering with the Czech police. My field trip for today was to the Voyna Memorial, a former concentration camp and “educational institution” for enemies of communist Czechoslovakia. The camp was in a rural area just one nap on a bus away from Prague. It is buried in the woods and no one who lived in the villages outside of the camp knew for certain what was there.
Our guide told us that all work camps were the same, right down to the sign reading “Work Will Make You Free.” They are all based on the model of the gulag.

The work part of this particular work camp was mining uranium. Political prisoners were given tools without any training and a quota. The uranium would be shipped off to Russia for nuclear weapons research, and to this day the Czechs can never know if the uranium they purchase was originally from their own mines. The camp’s mine has since been closed off.

The rows of rotting wooden barracks have, for the most part, been replaced with solid concrete replicas and a watchtower has been built to give visitors a good view. One barracks is left intact and the hospital still contains the authentic beds and equipment. A nauseating odor emits from the hospital, some combination of sterility, age, and bleach.

Our group entered a tight underground barracks that could hold as many as forty people at a time in complete darkness. The ceiling was only a few inches above my head and the asphalt was partially melted. Prisoners would dip their fingers in asphalt and write messages on the walls. I left the barracks feeling stuffy from whatever had been inside and nauseated by bad smells and general sadness.
On a lighter note:

Now that we all feel a little uplifted, I will continue.
Our bus stopped a small town called Pribram for lunch. We all left for two hours with a map of recommended restaurants. My friend and I searched for a vegetarian restaurant on the map, but it turned out to be a mere fruit stand. With nothing else nearby, we choose a hotel restaurant with sparkling chandeliers and floral upholstered chairs. We took our seats, noticing that Chumbawumba was playing in the background.
The music in Czech restaurants, shops, and other public areas baffles me. Often I hear things I haven’t heard in three or four years, like Hey There Delilah, or music that just seems out of place, like Lady Gaga in a classy restaurant.
The waitress insisted on speaking English with us, to my dismay. I ordered trout with almonds and rice. When my dish arrived, I received a whole trout, from head to tail, still full of thin, iridescent bones. The chef had placed a green pea in the fish’s eye, as though it would feel less personal.

As I was pulling long white strands of fish bones from my teeth in my socially clumsy manner, a group of girls from our tour group were trying to explain to the waiter that they wanted some tap water. They flipped through their phrase books to find the right words, explaining that they wanted water from the sink. A look of understanding eventually spread across the man’s face and he went to the bar.
I’ve ordered water at every restaurant I’ve been to so far, which appears strange when the beer is always cheaper and more abundant. The water comes in a stout glass bottle labeled “Bonaqua” or “Bellavoda” which the waiter will kindly pour into a glass for me. The restaurants here do not seem to have tap water as an option, but they always have beer on tap.
When the waiter arrived at the girls’ table, he set down a bowl of tap water. A slice of lemon floated on top.
After lunch, my friend and I went to an ice cream stand, where we noticed the prices were incredibly low. I asked, in Czech, for a small strawberry ice cream. I received what one might call a baby cone in the United States, with about a teaspoon’s worth of ice cream. (Maybe this is my distorted American sense of portion sizes speaking?)

My friend and I returned with the tips of our cones in hand, just in time to take the tour bus to the castle at Breznice. The castle is one of the oldest in the Czech Republic, and comes complete with a moat, mini hedge mazes, and gardens of symmetrical topiaries.

Inside of the castle we found an African game hunter’s personal paradise. The first room was covered with all shapes, sizes, and species of antler, mounted in rows on the walls. We put slippers over our shoes and skated from room to room to protect the antique wood finish.

Inside we viewed many paintings of the houses inhabitants over hundreds of years. Our group was standing in a room full of paintings of men, many of whom had eye patches. The young castle tour guide, clumsy with English, would point to a man explain that the nobleman lived in the castle at during the eighteenth century. Then he would point to the man next to him and say, “There is his wife.” Our ECES tour guide said that the women weren’t very attractive, and the castle tour guide answered, “You haven’t seen anything yet.” This occurred at least once in every room that contained portraits.
We came to a room that had other taxidermy animals and bamboo furniture. Our ECES guide said that she tried to book the castle months ago and was originally turned down because the staff was vacuuming the zebras. We’re lucky that the zebra vacuuming was finished in time for our visit.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I have about two and a half weeks before I leave for Prague, so I’m trying to focus on the important things that absolutely need to be done before I leave, such as refurbishing antique furniture. The furniture in question—two dressers, a headboard, and a matching mirror—is not necessarily antique. My mother acquired these pieces at a garage sale over the weekend for an unusually low price. They are going to replace the rickety wicker set that my cats have been using for a scratching post for the past fifteen years.

The pieces seem to be oak, and they are probably not actually antique. I noticed nearly the same set in Home Décor Magazine under the title “Inspired by Paris Flea Market Finds” and surrounded by several dozen Eiffel Towers of assorted sizes.

On Monday, my sister and I tackled the smaller set of drawers and we began to realize why the pieces were so inexpensive. We attacked the splotches of sticky goop in the top drawer with lemon juice on an old sponge. I was going to use an actual lemon, but my mom berated me for cleaning with an expensive citrus fruit. I used a bottle of Nature’s Nectar 100% Lemon Juice from Concentrate, which Mom insisted was the same thing anyways.

Since the lemon juice is far less precious than the lemons themselves, I made sure to use as much of the juice as possible and cleaned the entire dresser with it, as well as the mirror and headboard. If there was anything sticky, I avoided it early on.

After the lemon bath, there seemed to be several infinitely impossible problems to tackle. Cleaning the top of the dresser, I noticed the name “BOB” carved into the wood. I was annoyed that it could not have been a more imaginative name. A name more appropriate for furniture that seems to be inspired by Art Nouveau would have sufficed. I think “ALGERNON,” for instance, is a charming name. There’s something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence.

A few inches away I discovered “STEVE.” I could find only one place where the varnish was somewhat intact. It looks as if there was a table runner at some point protecting the wood from such crude adolescents as BOB and STEVE. The condition of the long dresser causes me to suspect that it was left outdoors for a while, but that the table runner was left in place.

I can think of no methods for removing the names that don’t involve destroying the wood or burning the dresser to the ground. The chips in the wood and the rusted pulls I can take, but the names make me feel as though I’m locked in a room with a bunch of insider jokes that I’m not allowed in on.

My sister and I took out the drawers. When she set one of the lemon-soaked sponges onto the unfinished wood inside of the drawer-crevice, it instantly turned black in the dust, which was at least an inch high. We broke out Venus, my pink vacuum cleaner for my dorm room. My sister vacuumed the drawers while I lemoned up the mirror. Every once and I while she would start screaming “Spiders! Spiders!” or “There’s cobwebs in the drawer! They’re black! Why are they black?!?” Then I would take over until the spiderly remains were careening down Venus’ rubber tube.

We were about to start vacuuming the inside of the dresser when my sister pointed out some paper in the top drawer-crevice. “Is it a forgotten private manuscript?!?” I cried, diving into the drawer-crevice for the stack of loose-leaf. I have been reading Either/Or by Soren Kierkegaard, which unfairly raised my hopes. Unfortunately, the yellowing lined pages did not contain a philosophical correspondence between BOB and STEVE. I was disappointed to find them all blank.

My sister had to vacuum the inside of the dresser because the sound of the brush attachment on unfinished wood, for me, is like nails on a chalkboard or a screaming kitten. I did need to assist with the removal of a spider, the species of which may have become extinct since the last time the drawer was removed about a hundred years ago.

I polished all of the rusted pulls with a paste of vinegar, salt, and flour. When I got the paste on the wood, I promptly wiped it with a wet sponge. After a few hours of this tedious work, I realized that the wet sponge was just spreading it around. I wiped it thoroughly with a second wet sponge. This time, it looked as though I destroyed the varnish. The catastrophe was much like the time Spongebob and Patrick got white paint on Mr. Krabs’s first dollar.

I had about a day’s worth of anxiety that I ruined new old furniture. Last night at about ten I was unable to bear the suspense and I wiped the dresser with a polish that was essentially homemade salad dressing. This seems to have done the trick. The only thing left to do now is get the smell out of the drawers. Baking soda and vinegar don’t seem to be doing the trick. I’m worried that the smell is mothballs, in which case all the plastic in the world will decompose before the smell dissipates.

Today I intend to tackle the taller dresser in a similar manner. I’m on the lookout for new species of spiders and a carving of “BOB+STEVE 4EVER.”

Friday, August 13, 2010


It has been a decadent week and my body will never be the same. It all started when I made chocolate chip zucchini cookies and at them as appetizers, snacks, desserts, and the occasional breakfast. Guilt never dared pierce me as I ate them, because these cookies were made with a vegetable and favorable sugar substitutes like honey and maple syrup. Therefore, I can eat as many of them as I want. 

Today two of my friends visited me. I brought them to the Chocolate Mill for the food group that traditionally follows a meal of macaroni and cheese: chocolate. Here I ate half of a double chocolate brownie and half of a German chocolate cake. What makes German chocolate different from other chocolate, I imagine you asking? My initial thought was that it must have some sort of beer hidden in the creamy frosting and possibly ground pork. After some scholarly research on Wikipedia, I was astonished and scandalized to discover that German chocolate is not even German. It’s named after someone called Samuel German, a man who likes pecans and coconut and impersonating countries while baking. I wonder if the Germans know.
I hope my illusions of Black Forest Cake are never shattered in a similar manner.
For dessert, we made ice cream. One of my aforementioned friends is a recreational pastry chef and Food Network connoisseur, and while she is residing in my basement I have every intention exploiting her skills. We chose a recipe for honey ice cream, which turned out to be rather vague once we began to follow the directions. It called for two kinds of cream using a strange British dialect that I found impenetrable despite my fluency in the language of Jane Austen.
After spending about a half hour watching my sister try to whip the half-and-half with a hand mixer to no avail, we tried it with the heavy cream instead. We weren’t certain where the half-and-half was supposed to come into play, so we poured it into the honey that was simmering on the stove. Other recipes in the same book advised the reader to “add several handfuls of flour and, whatever you do, don’t add chives."
Somehow the ice cream turned out to be a success, and one that neither of us felt like eating because of  heartburn and painful spasms. I, myself, only had a few spoonfuls and I didn’t even dip my finger into it more than ten times.

Tomorrow, I am leaving my oven-mistress a bag of flour, a muffin tin, and a few pounds of zucchini so that she might bake me bite-sized chocolate cupcakes while I’m at work slaving over a hot cash register. Then we’ll probably eat some ice cream.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Unnatural Happenings in My Backyard

I believe this is the quickest I’ve ever followed one post with another. I’m sitting cross-legged at my writing desk in a thunderstorm. My hand is cramping and I would really like a snack, but I feel compelled to relate the following story.

Yesterday I saw a creature pollinating our petunias that initially appeared to be a hummingbird, but on closer inspection resembled a bumblebee. It had transparent wings with a brown border and a long curly “nose” like a butterfly. Rather than black and white stripes it was yellow with one large, brown stripe. I suspected it to be the lovechild of a hummingbird and a bumblebee, the result of a tryst forbidden by Mother Nature.

Later, chasing a plastic back across the lawn, I stumbled upon a second alien creature in the shade of the woods. I saw a patch of completely white flowers. They looked like wilted rosebuds sucked dry by a vegetarian vampire, a cross between a crocus and a fungus.

After I recovered from the shock of all of the disparate organisms breeding in my yard, I wrote an e-mail to my friend, an authority on matters of plant and animal identification, asking what they were and if I should fear them.

Before she could respond, my curiosity lead me to Google. First, I searched, “Strange hummingbird and bumblebee like insect.” I found this page. The seemingly anomalous insect turned out to be a Snowberry Clearwing Hummingbird Moth. Then I searched “Strange white and transparent flower,” and I got this page. The plant is called Indian pipe. It has no chlorophyll and feeds off of the delicious fungus on the dead leaves. It is also known as Ice-Plant, Ghost-Plant, Corpse-Plant, Plant-of-Death, Ominous-White-Plant, and many other suitable titles.

Later, my friend responded to my e-mail and confirmed my search results. My conclusion is that Google is the boy scout of the twenty-first century.

Another Word for Bird

Let there be an outdoor deck with beige planks hot from sun exposure in the shadow of a white house surrounded by woods. Then let it be populated with potted annuals, a hibiscus, and a prehistoric canna extending a red bloom approximately two feet above my head.  Furnish this outdoor living space with stylish weatherproof furniture from Target’s Patio and Garden department, and do not omit the fountain of Buddha that ceases to spurt water whenever the sun descends behind a billowing cumulus cloud.
Then, if you will, paint me a black wicker couch with faded, orange cushions and a glass topped table. Let this table be strewn with white index cards, smudged with the dark ink of a Pentel click pen which sits atop a striped notebook, a Czech/English Dictionary, and a copy of Casanova’s autobiography stacked one upon the other. On the table, paint me a floral tea cup in Christmas colors, filled with water because at home I only take beverages in teacups. Paint me a black and white cat lounging on an orange cushion and, beside the couch, a Venus flytrap photosynthesizing. (In ten minute intervals, so as to prevent a brush fire.)
Somewhere between the cat and the flytrap you may sketch me onto the couch however you’d like, because I prefer to be mysterious. Perhaps I am holding an index card with the Czech word for “purple,” attempting all seven syllables without breaking to take my inhaler. Perhaps I am distracted by a small black dog of German descent which is yipping and begging at my feet. Begging for what? Knowledge, I assume.
This is a reasonably clear picture of how I’ve been spending my free time. I have one month left to work on my Czech language skills, and I have encountered sources suggesting that I use pneumonics to easily remember new words. I decided I would make index cards with the Czech word and a picture to help me remember it.
Going through the flashcards after the fact, I realize that some are more confusing than helpful. The word for “purple” (cervenofialovy) is accompanied by a sketch of an eggplant, but every time I see it I have to think about what it’s supposed to be. I don’t know why eggplants were the first thing to come to mind that day when I thought about purple, but it will probably never happen again.
I used birds as the pictures on at least five of the cards. I paired the word for “yellow” (zluty) with a rubber duck, but when I come across the card and see the picture, I think, “Bird.” I thought of peacocks when I was drawing a picture to accompany the word for “blue” (modry). When I see peacock on the card, I think of neither blue nor peacocks. I think: “Bird.” In my mind there are several words that mean “bird,” but none of them actually mean “bird.”

I have a similar problem with my “May” card, which depicts a inscrutable sketch of the Mayflower, steered into Plymouth Rock by a stick figure pilgrim. I see the card, and I think: “Boat.” For morning I scribbled a cranky looking cartoon of a man drinking coffee, but the coffee looks like beer and he looks like an angry drunk. I’m not worried that I will confuse it with the word “beer,” because even the shakiest beginner knows that one.

I drew a teapot on my card for “tea” (Caj, pronounced “chai,” oddly enough. Do I see evidence of the Indo-European language branch?). The teapot slowly morphed into an elephant while I was drawing it, and now that card just confuses me altogether.