Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Prague 2008: Day 6 (27 June)

We left the dorm at 10:30 to head to our weekend trip to Brno, in Moravia (another province in the Czech Republic). We stopped in the town of Tisnov to visit a cloister built in the 13th century. We only arrived at the cloister after an extremely long bus ride, but the whole country is gorgeous and wonderfully green. The cloister seemed attractively simple enough, but the Gothic arch that made the entrance to the church was amazingly intricate. Z led our tour, and he started stopping to seem like some random guy with lots of stories and started seeming more like our personal tour guide, history expert, and authority on architectural periods. Not to mention that he has a certain mother hen-type fondness for each and every one of us.

The name of the hotel in Brno was Hotel Myslivna, and our rooms seemed like palaces compared to the conditions in the dorms. Even the bathroom was nicer than the bathroom in the hotel in London. After some brief confusion where Alicia and I ended up in the room that was supposed to be Jana's (it didn't matter, though, since both rooms had two beds), we progressed to having a misunderstanding about where and when our group was going to meet for dinner. We had dinner at the hotel, ordering off the English menu rather than the Czech one. I ordered, and received, chicken on a salad consisting entirely of bell peppers, tomato, and cucumber. Some of the vegetarian girls ordered fried cheese and got omlettes, which they had to send back because there was ham in them. Apparently the positions of those items on the menu were either really close or they were switched. We got dessert, too, and I ordered something that was simply called "cheese dessert." If you know much of anything about me, you know I couldn't possibly pass up the possibility for cheese in a dessert. It turned out to be what was essentially a cheese mousse with a dressing of forest fruit (tiny, tart berries). The poor waiter, who was overworked and rather flustered from messing up the fried cheese, brought Alicia the wrong ice cream dessert.

We managed to pay for our dinner just in time to hop onto the bus and go into downtown Brno. We had about an hour to wander on our own before going back to the hotel that night. Alicia hung out downstairs for a while, and I enjoyed getting clean in the nice, shiny, clean hotel room bathtub.

A random view from the gas station where we stopped for a snack and potty break. We saw a lot of this gas station on all our weekend trips.

The outside of the cloister and its gorgeous arch/entrance way.

This was outside of the building, a representation of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Linden Tree, the Czech national tree. It was in full blossom, and it smelled so good.

My dinner at the hotel. The big poofy things are croutons.

My cheese dessert with a forest fruit dressing.

The plague column in the square in Brno. These things were everywhere!

Prague 2008: Day 5 (26 June)

Even though the dorms are so spartan, the beds were comfortable enough and we were tired enough to fall asleep fast. We met out front of the dorm (Komenskeho Kolej, in case you're wondering the name of the dorm) and took public transportation (with our handy-dandy student public transportation passes) to the building where we would have our classes. We passed a statue of Dvorak in front of the home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. We sat through orientation and a power point about all the things we would be doing on our various weekend trips. It was hot in the room, and most of us were still very tired, so almost everyone nodded off at least once or twice.

We were initially supposed to have free time for lunch, but apparently we hadn't eaten as much the night before as we were expected to, so the AIFS people saved the meat and bought more bread so that we could make sandwiches at the AIFS office. We also got our Fleet cards, which had the money for our meals, and were able to activate them. Most of us didn't understand the full procedure, though (read: we were napping), and didn't create a PIN then, so we weren't able to access our cards. Once we were done at the office, we got a little tour around town. We were shown Billa (a grocery store) and Tesco (a multi-level department store with a grocery store in the basement). We got a chance to shop some in Tesco, where Alicia and I bought a pan, two plates, two forks, a set of spatulas, and some dish soap. AIFS promised to refund us 200 czk (up to 200 czk, which isn't much) on purchases for the dorm. We were also shown where the university's computer lab is and had a new, 5-storey mall pointed out to us.

After the tour we were able to go back to the dorm, and we had the rest of the3 evening free. Alicia wanted to watch the semi-finals football game on the big screen in Old Town Square, so we decided to go to dinner right before that. I changed to my smaller purse, rather than my jumbo Target tote, and in the process left my public transportation pass in the tote back at the dorm. That was when the undercover police showed up and checked us for our passes, so I was fined 700 czk, which Colin payed for me, since I didn't have any money yet. I stopped at a bankomat to get some money before we ate at a Mexican restaurant that was far too expensive (and yes, I did pay Colin back that night).

We went back to the dorm so that I could get my pass, and then we attempted to find the game. Only thing is, everyone had a different idea of how to get there, so we arrived when there was three minutes left in the game. After not-seeing the game, most of the group wanted to go out, so we got lost looking for a pub that wasn't really crowded. We met some guys from Brazil who were looking for a hostel and became increasingly lost. A few of us bailed out early to head back to the dorm before we were absolutely lost. The rest of the group arrived back at the dorm an hour and a half later. They never did find a hostel for those guys.

From inside the gardens of a home next door to the stop where we got off the tram for school. This home was confiscated from the owner after the 30 years war because he had been making a profit off the war and everyone hated him.

Prague Castle behind the home. The castle was an orienteering mark for us the whole time we were in Prague.

The peacocks here were so loud, and sometimes it would seem like they were yelling at you.

A memorial to the period of Nazi occupation of then Czechoslovakia.

Charles Bridge, the view to our right as we walked across the Vltava to go to school. Life is rough.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Prague 2008: Day 4 (25 June)

Check out was fairly nice and quick. We didn't have too much difficulty at the airport, although security scrutinized my bags while they wre under the x-ray. Then we just had a couple of hours to wait before we could board our flight. - I almost forgot that we got to ride a double-decker bus to the airport. - Boarding for the flight opened late, but we all got on fairly easily. Most of the students fell asleep right away, but I only took a short nap before breakfast was served.

London was enough like the States to not really believe I was anywhere but home. Flying over Prague, I knew I was going somewhere completely different. How can you think you're still back home when every roof is either terra cotta or beautifully aged copper, or when there is a beautiful series of bridges across the same river (the Vltava)? Of course, it really hit that I was in a different country when we got off the plane and all the signs were in a different language.

After getting through customs, I was able to see where to go fairly easily because I could see all the people I'd met in London. Either way, I had this older guy with longish hair and big glasses ask me, "AIFS?" I didn't understand what he'd said until he repeated himself, and he led me to the rest of the group. We waited a minute for our bus to arrive, then on the bus they (Barbora, Zdenek, Jana, and Jana) told us everything we needed to know, giving us maps of the city and passes for the public transportation. We were dropped off at the dorms and were given time to unpack and unwind before going on a bus tour of the city.

The dorms presented the first round of culture shock. The beds are low to the ground, consisting of a pillow and a duvet. There is very little walking space between the beds, let alone in the "kitchen." The kitchene has a sink, a couple very cramped cabinets, a mini-fridge, and two hot plates. We were under the impression that there would be things for our kitchen, like plates, cutlery, maybe a pan or two. We found a total of ... three glasses. We were all supposed to be supplied with two towels each, apparently for use after a shower. These towels are roughly the size of a dish towel.

We unpacked, then headed downstairs to meet again for our tour. On our flight into Prague the pilot had warned us of the possibility of showers that evening. The rain started not long after we began our tour. As we were driven around hte city, "Z" (Zdenek) gave us a narrative about where we were and what the history was. We tried to pay attention, but between the change in time zones, the flying and accompanying early morning, the rain, and the sound of Z's voice, most of us fell asleep on the bus. After a while we all had to wake up, as we had arrived at our dinner location.

Dinner was at a brewery near the dorm. We all had to climb out of the bus and walk down the alley in the rain, but it was worth it. The food was set up buffet-like, and I ahve to admit that 1) I'd been wanting kolace, and 2) I probably had more kolace than I needed.

We walked back to the dorm, thankful that the rain had stopped. Alicia wanted to see the football (soccer) quarter-finals game, so we walked the streets looking for a bar with a TV. We ended up back at he monastary/brewery, but in a different part. Why? They had a sign that read "live music." We had fun trying to translate the menu before we realized that it was written in both English and Czech. A couple girls ordered beers, one ordered a glass of sherry (we were out supporting her, because one of her suitcases had been lost), a couple ordered "palacinka praha" - pancake with fruit, ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate syrup - and I found out that Europe doesn't let you order a glass of water to be sociable but avoid paying. Water in a restaurant comes in an extra-fancy glass bottle. The music at the brewery was great. Some of it was traditional, some was older, and at 11:00 pm the band played "Auld Lang Syne" to close up. Our waiter was capable of communicating in English, but he dealt with us amicably while we tried to order in Czech. As we left, we vowed that we had to come back to the brewery again.

A view from a street near the dorm

The front of the dorm, through the trees in the park just across the street

Me and my extra special fancy water that I had to pay for!

A glowy, pretty, blurry picture of the city at night

Prague 2008: Day 3 (24 June)

We had breakfast at the hotel before going off on a bus tour of London. We saw most of the major landmarks, including Big Ben, the House of Parlaiment, Westminster Abbey, Picadilly Circus, and Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard (both the foot soldiers and the mounted soldiers). We got day passes for the tube so that we could go back to some of those sites to take pictures. The tube was an amazing network of stations, but it was running slow because part of the Circle/District lines were unuseable because a person had been under one of the trains and that needed to be cleaned up. Still, we made it to the Tower of London and took a nice walk along the wharf, even though it was longer than we intended. We took a detour to King's Cross Station to take pictures at Platform 9 3/4. We would have taken pictures inside of "Gringotts," too, but we couldn't remember how to get to Australia House, which is where Gringotts was filmed. So we took a short nap at the hotel before buying pasties and eating them in a park near the hotel. We had an early night because we had to check out by 4:30am for our flight to Prague.

Buckingham Palace

Part of the gardens near the palace

King Richard the Lionheart

The Tower of London

Across the street from the Tower

Gratuitous touristy shot at Platform 9 3/4

Friday, July 4, 2008

Prague 2008: Day 1-2 (22-23 June)

Okay, so I've been able to have internet access for a few days, and yes, I know I'm just getting to my blog now. Don't worry, I'm behind with my hand-written travel log, too. Anywho, I'm gonna try to play catch-up, so here's the first day/entry (first day is really two days, because the transition was somewhere in the middle and there really wasn't any sleep).

An 8:55am flight doesn't sound terrible, does it? That is unless you live an hour away from the airport, like to guarantee you'll arrive early rather than late, and like to double-check your packing in the morning. Which all translated to my waking up 4-4:30am. Getting out of the house was easy enough, and things went smoothly. I have the post-9/11 security down pretty well. I had a brief teary/panicky moment when I hugged Mom goodbye, but that passed fairly quickly.

The flight that I had thought was non-stop to London actually stopped in Atlanta to change planes, despite it still being the same flight number. The first half was uneventful enough. I spent most of it playing on the DS Patrick loaned me (thank you!). When we landed in Atlanta we had a few minutes to hurry over to the second half of the flight. It's funny, but when I flew to Montana I was on three Canadair planes before I got to fly a 737, which felt huge by that point. On my way to London I got to fly on a 757 and a 767.

I sat in the very back row for both flights, but it was a window seat, so it was all good. My seatmate on the second flight was a very interesting young man. He has a Nigerian passport, a British accent, cousins in America, and lives with his sister and her boyfriend in England. He made a very friendly seatmate for the 9 hour flight to Gatwick. I played the DS some more, but I don't think it lasted quite 10 hours. I also managed to get in a couple of naps. Dinner was almost decent, "chicken" mixed with rice and smushed into a bowl. It came with a roll, too, but Addi (the seatmate) didn't trust it. Very thankful for my window seat, I enjoyed watching the light grow on the horizon. Breakfast was served about an hour before landing, and it was marginally better than dinner. The guy at customs/passports asked me three times how long I was staying in London and looked very put-out by the fact that he had to talk to me. I'm certain that if he asked me a fourth time how long I would be in London, I would have started second-guessing myself. I met my ride without too much trouble and rode to the hotel with several other AIFS girls I wouldn't see again, because they're in a different AIFS office.

My roommate in London was also my roommate in Prague, a 25-yr-old former SoCal resident by the name of Alicia. She moved with her Marine boyfriend to Vermont and is taking this trip while he is at school in Virginia. Poor Alicia had much more difficulty getting to the hotel than I did, and was supposed to room with one Alex, who turned out to be a guy rather than the girl that all his paperwork said he was. Since I had checked in after Alicia, the electronic keys were acting funky. Hers wouldn't work but mine would, so we went to the desk to figure that out. Then my key didn't work and Alicia's did. Later in the afternoon, a third girl showed up in our two-bed room. So we all went downstairs to figure that out and get the keys reconfigured again, since the third girl now had the only operating key for our room.

We wandered and found food (after I took a shower) before returning to the hotel that night for orientation and drinks with the rest of the AIFS Prague people. We followed a girl (Jessica) who had studied in London before on a very long walk from the hotel to Picadilly Circus in search of a good pub. Some of the group opted to take the tube back to the hotel, but Alicia stayed out with Jessica and one other girl, returnign only as I was getting ready to go to bed.

A really pretty church/yard not very far from the hotel. Alicia and I found it as we were wandering.

The Green Park in London. Apparently it has grown over what was a mass burial site during the plague. Therefore, because the plague is still active/alive where it's buried, there's no gardening in this park. It just grows the way it grows. We went through it on our long hike that first night in London.