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.

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