things i learned

While abroad in Paris, London, the Czech Republic, and Barcelona, I learned many things about cultures different from my own. Since I returned home to Texas, my family and friends have been asking me about my time in Europe. Is it true that Parisians walk around town with an armload of hot, fresh baguettes? (Yes, especially at lunchtime.) Was British beer the most delicious we had ever tasted? (Sadly, no. Washington State’s beer reigns supreme.) How did you get through the rural areas of the Czech Republic without knowing the language? (Luckily, we managed to find a couple of English speakers.) What color was the Barcelona beach water? (Mostly blue, with a tinge of green. And very, very clear.) Well, I have compiled a top-ten list of my most surprising discoveries:

  1. Certain Parisian stereotypes are absolutely true: Men and women, as a whole, are very skinny. However, I suspect it is due mostly to their chain-smoking and alcohol-imbibing habits, not their responsible diets. With all of those appetitite suppressants, how can they possibly eat dinner?
  2. To the French, the English phrase “I see you” translates to “I understand your innermost self.”
  3. French food can get boring. Shocking, but true. Any spice, especially anything hot, is used with extreme caution or not at all.
  4. Londoners are actually very nice people. (Apparently their reputation says otherwise?) Also, they are very tall people!
  5. In the Czech Republic, it is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to drink beer at as early as ten in the morning. Yes, even on a Sunday. (Before mass? After mass? Good question.)
  6. In Czech, there are about ten different meanings for the word prosím, including 1) Please, 2) Here you are, 3) You’re welcome, 4) What did you say?, 5) I’ll have… The list goes on (and on).
  7. Czech food mostly consists of meat and bread dumplings, not meat and potatoes. Maybe potatoes are more of a German thing?
  8. Catalan and Spanish are not at all the same language. Seth and I shared a hostel room in Barcelona with a couple of girls from Buenos Aires, and they admitted they could not understand a thing.
  9. Squid ink does not really taste like anything. It is jet black and kind of creepy looking, but it is actually very mild on the tongue.
  10. I want to live in Barcelona. I want to live there really, really badly.
Also! As an extra treat, I have finally uploaded photos from the rest of my trip. To see pictures from the Czech Republic, click here:
To see pictures from Barcelona, click here:

catching up

Because our friend Toine has been visiting for the past few days, I have not had the time to update on the rest of our Czech Republic trip. We spent the twenty-fourth in Brno and the twenty-fifth in Prague. Brno was not quite what I expected; it was very small and slightly confused. The city felt simultaneously urban and suburban, trash and clean, old and new. It juggled its old city image, with the former town wall, and its new city image, with its reformed Soviet housing and Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat Villa. It was a very strange city indeed.

On our last day in Prague, we shopped for souvenirs (scarves, Czech garnet, and the like), ate more traditional Czech food, and strolled around the Old Town again. It was a nice day. I bought my grandmother a 100 year-old rosary I found in an antique shop. Its beads are handmade, off-white, and beautifully imperfect. I thought the piece was just amazing, and I hope my grandma will love it.

For the past few days, Seth, Antonia, and I have been making the rounds, visiting all of our Paris bucket-list destinations. We stopped by the musée du quai Branly and a few other spots in the fifteenth arrondissement, the Marais (because I love it so much), Belleville, Parc de la Villette, a cute street of single-family homes in the nineteenth arrondissement, and Berthillion. I have really enjoyed taking it easy and savoring my last few moments in the city.

The three of us leave for Barcelona tomorrow. While I am super excited about our trip, I am quite sad to be leaving Paris. As annoyed as I grew with the French people and their language, I do adore this place. The other night, we went to the theater to see Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The movie (a love letter, really) was absolutely beautiful and heartwarming, and it felt extra special to watch it with a group of Parisians. Simply put, there is no other city like this in the world.

[photo: St. Agnes of Bohemia Convent, Prague]

hukvaldy + nový hrozenkov

After getting a good night’s rest in Hukvaldy, Seth and I awoke bright and early to visit the castle on top of the hill. Before beginning our mini-hike, we stopped at a kolache shop for a breakfast treat. This time, we decided to split a large prune kolache. We ate about half of our pizza-sized cake and started to walk. Although it is considered to be “in ruins,” the castle was in amazing shape. All five of its gates were still distinguishable, and nothing had been restored (at least, not too actively). We weaved in and out of the dark rooms and climbed the stairs to the watchtower. The view was absolutely breathtaking! We could see all of Hukvaldy, Horní Sklenov, and Dolní Sklenov. I definitely took advantage of the sweep panorama feature on my camera.

Feeling exhilarated, we hurried back to the hotel to pick up our things and head to Nový Hrozenkov, my grandfather’s family village. We walked at least ten kilometers to the train station—in the hot hot heat!—before finally arriving. It was a really painful experience, actually. We (read: Seth) decided to depart Hukvaldy from a station different from the one we arrived in, so we not only had to find it but we also had to make sure it was open. Surprise! It was blocked due to construction, so we had to walk to yet another train station. At this point, I was miserable and grumpy and hot and thirsty, and I just wanted to sit down and forget the whole thing! Anyway, despite my fair-weather enthusiasm, we eventually boarded the first of our four trains. Each ride lasted twenty to thirty minutes plus transfer time. Oh, and our last train was actually a bus because the tracks in that area were undergoing maintenance. Luckily, we made it to the village without any problems. You know, besides the excruciating hike, oh, and the whole we-had-no-place-to-stay bit. Yeah. We stopped by a couple of the hotels and campsites I had tried to communicate with via e-mail before arriving, but they were either closed or nonexistent. (No wonder they did not respond to my requests!) I started to panic. Fortunately, Seth thrives in high-pressure situations like these, and he was able to find someone who spoke English and ask her if there was a hotel nearby. (We had walked from the town of Hovězí to the town of Huslenky at this point.) She directed him to a restaurant across the street and said they would probably have “a room” available upstairs. While I waited outside with our things, Seth stepped into the restaurant. He spotted the waitress, pointed to some Czech phrases that I had written about rooms and numbers of people and lengths of time, and quickly secured us a room. Yes, we spent the night above a restaurant. No, it was not a restaurant-hotel. Yes, it was crazy cheap (five hundred koruna = less than thirty American dollars), and yes, it was actually pretty nice. Exhausted, we dragged our things into the bar and sat down for a pivo (beer). A nice man waved us over to sit with him, and I quickly learned that he had helped Seth to communicate with the waitress. He was a Czech policeman who spoke very broken English, Spanish, and Italian. He and his wife asked us about our journey, and we talked about our experiences thus far. It turned out he had lived and trained in Dallas for a month! He made a few “Walker, Texas Ranger” jokes and one insightful observation: Texans are to Oklahomans as Bohemians are to Moravians. The Czech cityfolk, specifically those of Prague, and the countryfolk feign superiority over one another, each claiming it is the heart of the real Czech Republic.

After our beer, Seth and I wandered around Huslenky. It was not long before we were hungry, so we walked back to the restaurant for dinner. (We were in the middle of nowhere. There were few dining options, and we kind of liked the idea of eating at the only town pub/restaurant.) The policeman and his wife were still there, so we sat with them and continued our conversation. He warned us against gypsies (He claimed he was not racist.), taught us about early Czech and Moravian history, and asked us questions about America. Once Seth and I had finished our meals of pork leg and liver, the policeman insisted on ordering us a round of vodka shots. Seriously. He argued that they would help us sleep. Oh, they did.

The next day, we visited Hovězí and Nový Hrozenkov. We spent most of our time looking around churches and cemeteries and admiring the scenery. (Although, I have to say, because these towns are located in the valley, they are not quite as beautiful as Hukvaldy.) After walking with our backpacks for a few hours, we stopped in a restaurant at the latter town for some old fashioned, country goulash. At seventy koruna a plate (about four American dollars), it was absolutely astounding. The beef had been stewed for hours, and the tomato sauce and dumplings were just right. We enjoyed being surrounded by the town workforce, who were sweaty and sunburned from toiling outside.

After a leisurely lunch, we hopped on a bus and two trains to Brno. My story will have to stop here for now, as Seth and I just returned to Paris and are pretty tired. I hope to finish everything up tomorrow.

prague: part two + hukvaldy

Yesterday, Seth and I spent our day visiting the lesser-frequented areas of Prague. We started our day by traveling north of Old Town Square. We could not believe we had been in the city for two days and had still not found a kolache shop. Fortunately, our hopes and dreams were answered. We walked into a promising bakery and were promptly greeted by the delicious Czech cakes. Here, kolache come in three sizes. The one we are familiar with in Texas is the medium size. (It seems most people here order a large and share it.) Seth and I bought a medium poppyseed, a medium apricot and cream cheese, and a medium strawberry and cream cheese. Czech kolaches have a lot more filling than their Texan counterparts.  They are shallower, less buttery, less sticky, and less sweet. While they were quite delicious, I have to say I think I might prefer the Texas kind. Just to be sure, though, I will need at least one more taste test.

After sampling the local goods, we were on our way. By this point, Seth and I had seen some of the city and we were going to see the country, so we wanted to see suburbia. We took the subway to the east side of town, where we found clusters of old Soviet housing projects. Since the Czech Republic gained independence in 1993, the local community has worked to modify the cinderblock structures into more friendly middle-class apartment complexes. Some of the buildings are now painted bright yellow, others gradients of red. They were truly interesting to see.

On the way back to the city, we decided to take the tram so we could view the scenery we missed along the way. We stopped at a pedestrian square about halfway into town just to have a look around. Then we hopped back on the streetcar and rode to the city center. We stumbled upon an old fanciful synagogue and a pre-Gothic church before ducking into a beer garden for a pint. For dinner, we ended up at an amazing underground restaurant. I ordered the goulash (very tasty), while Seth tried the trout. Both are traditional Czech dishes. The former consisted of wild boar in a sort of meaty, red pepper sauce with onions and bread dumplings. The latter was very lightly breaded, deep fried, and served whole. Seth and I decided to be extra adventurous and try the Moravian wine on the menu. It was really strange but quite delicious! Both the white and the red were very sweet, and the red was slightly carbonated so it was somewhat like sparkling grape juice. I can imagine an extremely unpleasant hangover if one accidentally overindulges.

This morning, we awoke bright and early to catch the first of three trains to Hukvaldy, Seth’s family’s village. Our first train to Hranice na Moravě was large; our second train to Studénka was of moderate size; and our third train to Příbor looked like a child’s toy. Because our second train ran late, we missed our connection to the third. Luckily, we spotted a beer garden and sipped a drink while we waited for another train. Eventually, we made it to Příbor. We stopped for lunch and waited out the rain before embarking on a ten-kilometer hike to Hukvaldy. When Seth and I finally got here, we were utterly exhausted. We set our stuff down at the hotel and went on a leisurely walk around the town. We spotted an old chapel, a kolache shop, a chicken coop, some livestock, fields full of beautiful yellow flowers, and adorable country houses. It is amazing to think that people have been living on this land for nearly a millennium. Tomorrow, we plan to visit the castle on the hill (ruins from the thirteenth century) before catching a train to Nový Hrozenkov. I had no idea how much travel this part of the trip was going to entail. I wish I had allotted an extra day!

prague: part one

Seth and I just had the most wonderful day in Prague. We started our morning by crossing the Charles Bridge to the west side of town. We walked up the hill, past rows of national embassies, before stumbling upon a surprisingly stunning view of the city. An older woman saw us gazing at the buildings below and asked us if we would like our picture taken. After she confirmed that it was no trouble, we agreed. She mentioned she was born and raised in the north of Prague but had been living in Holland since she was twenty-four years old. After a short chat, Seth and I walked ahead in search of an ATM and some lunch.

After assembling some cash, we settled upon a quiet Czech restaurant with a small, hidden terrace. As we looked onto Prague and sipped our Pilsners, the woman appeared! Once we noticed all of the other tables were filled, we offered her a spot at our table. Luckily, she accepted our invitation. Our newfound fairy Prague-mother told us about some of her favorite spots in the city and about her life before and after her move from Prague. When she was twenty-four, she was newly married. The Russians had become increasingly oppressive, so she and her husband left their homeland in search of work elsewhere. Without a job or any knowledge of the language, they packed their things and moved to Holland. Shortly after, the husband got a job with a university, and they were able to raise a family. They raised both of their children to speak Dutch, and they did not teach them any Czech. When i asked why not, she simply said, “What was the point? When you move someplace new, you have to assimilate as soon as possible. And who speaks Czech anyway? Only the people who live here [in the Czech Republic].” With that one thought, she answered so many questions I had had about my own grandparents. Why didn’t my mom know Czech? Why didn’t my family ever speak it? When I told the woman I had family from Moravia but I didn’t speak the language, she understood. It took her understanding for me to understand my own circumstances. Strange, isn’t it?

When Seth and I told the woman we had just graduated from architecture school, she was immediately excited. Both of her daughters are architects. (Well, one is a city planner, but still.) We told her we were looking for work in South America, and she was delighted. She understood all of our reasons, as she has heard from her daughters about the lack of work in Europe and The States. She wished us luck with our futures.

As much as I enjoyed our conversations about life and work, I also very much enjoyed my lunch. I ordered a traditional Czech dish called Svíčková, which consisted of braised beef, a sort of sweet gravy, cranberries, and whipped cream. Oh, and of course, bread dumplings were involved. As you might imagine, the dish was somewhat sweet but very hearty and filling. I have a feeling there will be many more meals of meat and bread in my future.

After lunch, Seth and I walked… everywhere. We shopped for gifts, and Seth bought me a beautiful antique garnet ring. (Bohemia is famous for its garnets.) Then, we walked west until we lost sight of all tourists and signs in English. We sat down at a restaurant for a beer (Seth) and a frappe (me) and rested our feet. After regaining some strength, we headed back into the city and walked along the old city walls. Thanks to our Fairy Prague-mother, we found ourselves in a beautiful park with amazing views. From the top, we could see both Old Town (where we are currently staying) and the communist cinderblock housing. We promised ourselves we would visit the latter tomorrow.

After weaving through the park, we made our way back to our hostel. Just nearby, we spotted an adorable beer garden. We stopped in for a beer each and a plate of traditional Czech cheese. The cheese was soaked in oil, vinegar, spices, and banana pepper. It may sound gross, but it complimented our Pilsners perfectly.

It was only ten when we left the beer garden, so we decided to stop into an Italian bar to listen to some jazz piano. It was quite romantic. (Italian bars, restaurants, and ice cream shops seem to be everywhere in Prague. There is even a Czech-Italian festival happening in the city sometime soon.)

Today was probably one of the best days of my life.

ahoj!

According to a nifty Survival Czech website I found, “ahoj” (pronounced ah-hoy) means both “hello” and “goodbye.” Just like “ciao!” in Italian.

Seth and I leave for the Czech Republic bright and early tomorrow morning. We are visiting Praha, a few small towns, and Brno. I am so incredibly excited! This journey kick-starts a very busy month, which consists of two trips, visits from Duncan and Antonia, a flight home, and a rigorous job search. Basically, this is the last month of my life that is completely planned. Everything after that is up in the air. Scary, right?

Oh yeah, and I am now officially a B.Arch. graduate. I wish I could have been there to walk across the stage alongside some of my best friends.

[photo courtesy of my dear studiomate Jon, who was actually present at the ceremony]

mých předků

I may not know how to pronounce mých předků, but I know what it means: my ancestors. For the past week or so, I have been conducting genealogical research on Seth’s mother’s father’s mother.  (Did you get that? That’s Seth’s great great grandmother, or one-eighth of his ancestral lineage.) Barbara Antonia Fajkus-Neuvar was likely the eighth child of Josef Fajkus and Barbora Mican-Fajkus. Although she was born in Victoria, Texas, her parents and five of her siblings were from Hukvaldy-Horní Sklenov, Bohemia. In 1890, her family emigrated to New York City and headed south to start a new life among the vast Texas farmlands. Bohemia (1198-1918) is one of three historical regions in the modern Czech Republic. (The other two are Moravia and Silesia.) Sounds simple, right? However, Bohemia ALSO refers to the entire Czech territory, including Moravia and Selesia. Unfortunately, this lack of distinction can be very confusing to the casual researcher. On United States census records, Czech immigrants often listed their origin as Bohemia, but it was unclear as to whether they meant the specific region or the generality. If the immigrants did not list Bohemia, they almost certainly listed their origin as Austria. (On Seth’s family’s records, Bohemia meant the entire Czech territory. Hukvaldy-Horní Sklenov is a village in Moravia.) That’s right. The Czech Republic (1992-present) did not exist when his family emigrated. Ah, but you knew that. Well, Czechoslovakia (1918-1992) did not exist either. BUT! Austria-Hungary (1867-1918) did. Like Seth, I too have family from the Czech Republic. In 1860, my mother’s mother’s family emigrated from Austria to New York City, then to Dubina, Texas. A generation and a half later, my mother’s father’s family emigrated from Austria-Hungary to Galveston, then to Dubina. Their specific origins were the villages of Trojanovice, Frýdek-Místek and Hovězí, Nový Hrozenkov in Moravia, respectively. Yes! Seth and I both have families from Moravia. And what do you know? If cars existed back then, it would have taken them just a little over an hour to visit each other. (Note the map!) Next month, we plan to visit all three villages in the far east of the Czech Republic, but we will travel by train and by foot, not by car. I cannot wait! [photo: Nový Hrozenkov]