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.