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]

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.