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.