Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bohemian Paradise

            I was somehow pulled into a half-brained scheme to take a bus from Prague to a small town called Turnov in Cesky Raj—otherwise known as Bohemian Paradise. If it sounds like a song by Queen, it’s because it almost is. Full of castles on mountaintops, cottages, and apple orchards, this region of Northern Bohemia inspired many Czech fairy tales about gnomes.

            Mishaps that my friends and I endured on this adventure included missing our bus, riding the train one stop too far, and having to hike to the mountain before hiking up the mountain. We took a long walk through the vacant streets of a few small, rural villages. I found it eerie that each charming cottage with a garden and apple orchard was enclosed by a barbed wire fence.

Near the little train stop where we began our hike, the branches of an apple tree hung over the side of a fence. As some of my fellow hikers devoured the apples and declared them the best they had ever tasted, I recalled the story of Snow White, which could have very well taken place in Cesky Raj.

            Our destination was Trosky Castle, a stone ruin on top of a mountain. We could see the two stone towers in the distance as we trudged on. At the foot of the mountain my friends and I stopped with rumbling stomachs at a cottage with crates of apples and tomatoes at the gate. We said our dobry dens to the people in the yard and were soon joined by an old woman who spoke only Czech. We smiled as she explained the history of Cesky Raj in her native tongue.

She disappeared into her cottage and produced two guinea pigs. I was soon holding a quivering rodent called Kleopatra who seemed ready to wet the sleeve of my jacket in terror. The woman led us into her yard where she kept a caged bird that could imitate the sounds other animals. The Czech woman demonstrated the bird’s ability to bark and meow as I ineffectively tried to pass off the panicking piggy. “She not wants me,” I stuttered in Czech, and the woman smiled and told us that she had eight more guinea pigs in the house.

Once the guinea pigs were safely indoors we decided to get moving while the sun was still out. My friends and I purchased a few apples to thank her as we left and snacked on them as we started up the mountain. Our path was muddy and slippery from recent storms. When we looked back we could see villages and patches of fields beyond the trees.

            When we finally reached the ruins, we entered through the gate of a tall stone wall. Much of Trosky Castle was crumbling and propped up with scaffolding. We climbed up the winding stairs to the top of the highest tower, from which you could look down upon miles of Bohemian forests, fields, and clusters of villages below.

          We left the castle feeling exhausted and hungry. We took a different trail to the bottom, walking down the rural roads past bales of hay and gypsy caravans that seemed to go on forever.

My friends and I stopped at the first pub we found and were startled to find the interior to be a sort of museum of communism. Imagine an Applebee’s, only much smaller, and rather than pictures of celebrities and the retired jerseys of local sports teams cluttering the walls there are framed photos of Stalin and genuine hammer-and-sickle jerseys tacked up instead. The four locals at the other table seemed amused by our presence.

The owner of the pub only spoke Czech and Russian. We told him we were from New York and he nearly burst a blood vessel. He didn’t understand me when I ordered water, but went straight to the tap when everyone else ordered a pivo. In the Czech Republic you get some strange looks when you order water because the beer is cheaper. The only item on the menu that any of us recognized was smazeny syr—a flat, rectangular mozzarella stick that far surpasses its American cousin in flavor.

            We watched him cooking in the kitchen with the door wide open. The man brought us plates of fried cheese and boiled potatoes with a side of tartar sauce. He gave anyone who was finished another rectangle of fried cheese. My friend Emily and I received bananas because Women Need Potassium.

            After we finished our meals we had a train to catch, so my friends and I said na schled to the Stalin-themed pub and made a dash for the nearby train station. We returned to Prague, where no one was surprised by tourists and many people spoke English. In Turnov and the villages we visited, the people didn’t expect visitors and they didn’t understand why it was necessary for me to photograph the molding on their windows. I felt like I saw a glimpse of Czech life and not version that was adapted to suit American tourists.

Click here to see more photos.

A Series of Flashbacks

There are several adventures I had during last semester that never were written about, and I intend to correct this crime immediately. The posts that will follow do not indicate that I am still in Europe, for I am not. I am, in fact, merely reminiscing.

This is why I didn't get the job.

Dear Sir/Madam:

As an undergraduate student at Purchase College, I am grateful to have the opportunity to use my creative writing experience towards your startup website — grateful to be considered for any job at all. I believe that I am an ideal candidate to create content for your upstarting website with a loving and prematurely arthritic hand. I hope to engage you with my copies, thrill you with my copies of copies, and deconstruct the flimsy cardboard structure of “the box” which imprisons the thoughts of many.

Not only am I a mere semester away from being a proud owner of a tastefully framed degree, but I am currently the proud owner of SKILLS and EXPERIENCE. I recently volunteered as the English language proofreader for the Prague-based theological journal Communio Viatorum, for which I worked with theologians to preserve the meaning of their translated works. I successfully undertook this responsibility with no knowledge of theology beyond what a saw in the movie Angels and Demons. Last spring I interned as a Learning Assistant for an American history class and was required to design PowerPoint review sessions gripping enough to almost hold the attention of one hundred students who did not want to be there.

I voluntarily authored the script of the Purim Dragball Masquerade, the lovechild of the Purchase College chapter of Hillel and GLBTU. Two of my short stories have been included in Purchase College’s annual literary magazine Italics Mine. I am accomplished in using the tools made available through Blogger and my personal blog is consistently read by several people.

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Brittany Shutts