Saturday, December 1, 2012

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

This weekend started off with dinner at a cute little restaurant called Malý buddha (Little Buddha) on Friday and a walk around Prague Castle at night. It just got cold here last week, and we even had a few snow flakes here and there. It is magical to be at the castle at night, and on Friday they were having some sort of a fancy ball or meeting, and everyone around looked very regal (which made me feel a little like a dirtball, but was quite romantic). We wandered around snapping pictures of St. Vitus all lit up until we were kicked out by the castle guards at closing time.

As Dita demonstrates, you have to get down to get the top of the cathedral in your picture.

We all ended up on the ground eventually

Photo cred to Miss Dita

Last night, December 1st, was the lighting of the tree at Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square). We got there early, and had to stand through an amusingly terrible 1+ hours of "entertainment" before they finally got around to lighting the tree. It was really very funny, but also a little painful to watch. After the lighting, we were caught up in a vast human tide, as thousands of people tried to leave the square all at once. I got separated from my friends when a huge human torrent swept between us and carried me off in another direction. It was both amusing and terrifying. I fear that people may have been injured in that crowd, and felt really sorry for all the children who were pummeled around and (I imagine) partially suffocated. If I am here next year at this time, I will definitely skip this event. The best part of the night was the tickets for free kielbasa we'd gotten from a friend. Something I wouldn't normally eat if it wasn't free, but very glad I did - delicious!

Staroměstské náměstí isn't the only area that's lit up as of last night. Václavské náměstí, as well as Prague's other major squares, are also all decked out for the holidays, and look really beautiful. There are Christmas markets everywhere, with good things to eat and cute things to buy. I went to one last week where I picked up some cute hand-made gifts and a bouquet of dried lavender to hang in my bedroom. Now it's time to get to work trying to squeeze in the time for some Christmas shopping and hand-making of my own over the next few weeks.

Hezké svátky! (Happy Holidays)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Breaking the Silence

I realize it has been about a month and a half since I last wrote on here. I also know that the last time I wrote, in October, I was writing about things I had done in August. I think it's fair to say I'm a little behind on the blogging. Part of this stems from my pesky perfectionism, my stubborn all-or-nothing approach to everything. Sometimes I feel like I have to have enough time to completely catch up on everything that's happened, and if I don't have that I may as well not write at all. While I don't think the situation through in those terms, when I look back I see it's the case nonetheless. 

In my defense, the first month and a half of this school year were insane. I didn't really have time to sleep, let alone write about it. Luckily, I've since settled into my hectic schedule, and now everything seems normal. I also had lots of snags on the road to a peaceful living situation, but that's also cooled down now, and I've gotten used to my new flat and flatmates. I live in the very center of Prague, right in the middle of the the three metro lines. It's both reduced my time travelling to the far reaches of the city for work, and helped me really get to know the center. I live in a late 19th century building painted mint green. It has a lot of character. I feel much more "a part of" Prague living here than I did out in the communist-era flat blocks of Prague 9. I live right off of Václavské náměstí, or Wenceslas Square. One end of the huge square is dominated by the National Museum, also the site of the self-immolation of Jan Palach after the 1968 Prague Spring. The square is populated by all kinds of shops, restaurants, and Art Nouveau hotel buildings. There is always something going on here, whether it's a protest, rally, market or festival.

A view down Václavské náměstí at night

The National Museum

Cool Art Nouveau hotel buildings


My bedroom

As I said, the first couple of months of the fall were hard. It's certainly not the first difficult period I've gone through since I moved here, but it may have been the hardest. It's as interesting when I look back over what I've written on here over the last year to see what I didn't write about as what I did. Sure, I wrote about the Bohemian flu, my struggles with my last flat, my crying fit in Assisi. But the (thankfully brief) periods of intense melancholy, loneliness and self-doubt often go undocumented. Part of the reason for this is that I would like my blog to be uplifting and not depressing. Also, I don't want the people I love to worry about me. Still, I feel like the periods of pain and subsequent breaking-through is really the most valuable part of my experience here. If you ask me while I am in the middle of one of these spells, I may tell you otherwise, because it is undoubtedly a hard and uncomfortable place to be, but once I've made it through to the other side I can invariably recognize the growth that came from it. 

I'm thankful today that I can see the great value of the trials that come up in my life. It's strange to say that I'm grateful for loneliness and insecurity, but how would I learn anything about myself if I never felt those things? I don't think the peace and contentment I feel would be so profound without its having been hard-fought for. I don't think the realization that I'm not alone would feel so real. I've had to rethink my attitude toward life, my habits, how I take care of myself. I've had to really look at the way I respond to situations, to start practicing restraint and discretion. I've learned a lot about living with other people, but even more about living with myself. 

It is becoming more and more clear to me that my moving to Europe and embarking on this journey was less about changing my location, about changing my surroundings and the outward details of my life, as it was about changing me, my inner life. In a way I knew that before I got on the plane. I knew I was on a spiritual quest. Still, I don't think I understood the process very well. My thoughts were that I would arrive here and everything would be magical and romantic, that everything would fall seamlessly into place. I didn't bargain on the high price of growth. I didn't bargain on heartache, anger, pain and doubt. But I can honestly say today that I am infinitely glad for the things I've found, and that I wouldn't change any of it, even if I could.

Showing the new teachers how to play "Duck, Duck, Goose" at training

With Marta, Lucie and Vojtěch in Český ráj in September

Franci came to visit at the end of September. I felt bad because he came right in the middle of my huge stress-out at the beginning of the school year, so I wasn’t the most relaxed host. Still, it was so nice to have him here and to show him some of “my” city. There are really so many things in Prague that I haven’t done and places I don’t go until I have someone to show around. I really enjoy doing it, and I always discover new things I hadn’t seen before. This autumn was full of beautiful sunsets, and there were some really gorgeous ones while Francesco was here.  

Looking down the Vltava

View from Prague Castle

 The spires of Týnský chrám (Týn Church)

Karlův most (Charles Bridge)

 Franci and me at Prague Castle

One of my favorite views - in front of the Rudolfinum in Jan Palach Square

Magical Autumn sunset

I spend my weekdays running around Prague to different schools and teaching kids. Some days it is frustrating, and it is always exhausting. But I have a lot of love for my kids, and there are a lot of times when I really enjoy it. In search of emotional balance, I have gradually incorporated meditation into my everyday routine. I started going to Ashtanga yoga classes again with some friends, and have been practicing at home between classes. On the weekends I often visit one of the farmer’s markets in Prague to buy fresh local food, and I make a nice big meal once or twice a week and use the leftovers for lunches on the other days. I don’t have much time for traveling right now, but I’m looking forward to my two-week break at Christmas, when I will be able to see my family and friends at home. I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since I’ve been in the United States. 

Where did this Czech kid get an OSU Buckeyes t-shirt? 
Or a Cincinnati Bears t-shirt, for that matter?
I don't know, but I'm impressed.

Just a picture from my travels around the city to various kindergartens.

This weekend is the lighting of the big Christmas tree in Old Town Square. I’ll go to see it with some friends - I’ve also been blessed with lots of amazing adult people in my life. I celebrated Thanksgiving in Podebrady with friends from work this year, and it was great. We had two turkeys, a duck (which was amazing), two types of stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, all the classics. I brought the bread and cranberry sauce. After dinner we (well, they - I am afraid of lighting them) set off fireworks by the river. Still, the best part of the holiday was video chatting with my family on Skype on Thanksgiving Day. We talked for 2 1/2 hours, which I still can’t believe. It seemed like only 20 minutes had gone by. It’s definitely time to spend some time at home.

Ryan checking the turkeys

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Italia Days 12-13: Firenze to Grosseto to Firenze to Milano to Praha!

My last full day in Italy was spent travelling with Francesco in his car to Southern Tuscany. We met two of his good friends, Lucia and Chiara, at a beach close to Grosseto. This beach was what I had been hoping for when I went to Tirrenia. The water was a deep blue-green. There was a gorgeous view of an old castle built into the rocky shore far down the beach, and it wasn't totally crowded. The weather was perfect. Francesco and I went for a long swim in the sea as soon as we arrived. We swam out far from the shore and floated on our backs, enjoying the feeling of being in the ocean. The sea was calm and soothing.

Lucia, Franci and I

Chiara, Lucia and I

Lucia and Chiara were really friendly, and after we swam and napped on the beach, we went to Lucia's place in a breathtaking little town, about a 40 minute drive through gorgeous countryside. There, we took showers and prepared for the trip back to Grosseto, where Francesco would drop me off at the train station. Lucia and Chiara would meet him there later to go to a music festival.

Unfortunately, things didn't go exactly as planned. We went the wrong way leaving Lucia's, and drove in the wrong direction for 20 minutes before we realized the mistake. After we turned around, there was barely enough time to make it to Grosseto in time to catch my train to Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where I would then transfer to another train to Milan. I had planned to take the last train of the day. If I didn't get there that evening, I would miss my train to Milan, and therefore miss my flight in the morning. When we ran into traffic, all hope of reaching Grosseto in time for the train was lost. The only solution was for Francesco to turn around and drive me in his car the 2 1/2 hours back to Florence, missing the music festival with Lucia and Chiara. It was frustrating and I felt really bad, but it was really a blessing in disguise. We had wonderful conversations and enjoyed a beautiful sunset drive through Tuscany.

Beautiful Tuscany

It was a warm goodbye I said to Francesco. I was sad to leave Italy, but I felt that I had made a friend who I would see again. As soon as Franci drove away, I found a seat on the floor of the train station to wait on my train, and opened my journal to write about my impressions. I wrote that this had been the best trip I have ever taken, and one of the best things I have ever done for myself. I would spend that night at a picnic table outside a McDonald's across from Milano Centrale, waiting to board the train to the airport at 5 AM. Reluctantly, I left Italia to return "home" to the Czech Republic, where many new challenges and experiences lie in wait.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Italia Days 10-11: Firenze

Wednesday was a late morning. Francesco's mama cooked a wonderful lunch for all of us (Franci, Claudio, Eva and I), and we ate together in the dining room. She prepared a traditional pasta dish with tomatoes, a yummy dish with fresh green beans, fried potatoes, and hamburger. There was also focaccia and bufalo. Of course the meal was followed by espresso, and also some fresh fruits. It was fabulous.

After lunch, Eva and I took the bus to the center. I went into the baptistry of the Duomo, the Battistero di San Giovanni, which is older and more famous than the church itself. Especially famous are the east doors designed by Ghiberti, which were given the name "Gates of Paradise" by Michelangelo. The original bronze doors are now stored in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, and copies stand in their place, but they are still beautiful to see. The inside of the Battistero is also extremely beautiful, and many famous people were baptized here, including Dante and many members of the Medici family.

Dome of the Battistero di San Giovanni

"Gates of Paradise" by Ghiberti

More shots of the Duomo - the baptistry casts its shadow on the facade

Next, Eva and I went to the market at San Lorenzo, where we wandered through the stalls. Eva was hunting for a pair of sandals, and found a nice pair at a shop on the square. I enjoyed looking, but my only purchase was a little leather bracelet - I purchased three of these during my trip in Italy, but managed to lose two of them before I even left the country! After we finished at the market, we walked through the square in front of Palazzo Vecchio and talked about the sculptures. Then we crossed the famous bridge Ponte Vecchio and walked to an excellent gelaterie where we ate some delicious gelato. I had some cookie and cheesecake gelato, while Eva got lemon cookie, which was so delicious I resolved to return the following day and order this flavor.

More street painting

Late afternoon on Ponte Vecchio

We walked with our gelato to Piazza Santo Spirito, another lively square where young people gather at night. Here we met Claudio and Franci and had aperativo. Then we wandered around for a while. We walked to Palazzo Pitti which is quite beautiful at night, then to another very nice square which apparently has a name which can also mean vagina in Italian. There, the others had gelato, while I had an espresso and a really delicious biscotti. After this we headed back to the house. Claudio and Francesco went out to a reggae party, but Eva I stayed in.

Francesco's house on "Cypress Hill"

The next morning, I got up very early and headed into the center to accomplish all the things that were left on my sightseeing list. First I went to the Opificio del Pietra Dure, which is a museum about the Florentine technique of working in semi-precious stone, in which tiny slivers of colored stones are used to create beautiful mosaic-like images. The results are similar to paintings except the colors aren't paint but thin inlaid pieces of semi-precious stone. This technique and the famous Florentine workshop have been operating for hundreds of years. I loved this museum, especially the upper level, which features a long wall completely covered in glass cases displaying carefully labelled specimens of semi-precious stones from around the world.

A landscape scene

The Four Arts: Music (top image is stone, bottom is the model painting)

Close-up of Music

The Four Arts: Painting

The Four Arts: Sculpture

The Four Arts: Architecture

The Pantheon

Close-up of the Pantheon - hard to believe it's stone!

Often this technique was used to decorate furniture, like this table

So many gorgeous stones!

Next, I visited the Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo, where the Medicis erected what basically amounts to a huge, elaborate funerary monument to their favorite people - themselves. It is quite imposing but also I think rather dreary with its heavy stone and drab color scheme. There is also a smaller sacristy which was designed by Michelangelo for two important Medicis. The tombs are guarded by allegorical sculptures of Dawn, Dusk, Day and Night, also by Michelangelo. In the bookshop at the Medici Chapel I bought a copy of Volume 1 of Vasari's Lives of Artists, with his famous biographies of Italian artists from Giotto to Da Vinci and Michelangelo. In fact my two souvenirs from Firenze are books. After I left the Medici Chapel, I found a little shop where they make handmade leather-bound books. I purchased a journal with a nice leather binding, which is stamped with the fleur-de-lis, a symbol of the city. The store and studio were all in one room, so you could see them at work actually making the books. The prices at this shop were very good; I think I paid more for the mass-produced simple black book that I am using as my current journal.

Pretty Florence street view: Duomo in the background

The shop where I bought my journal

The previous night in Piazzo Santo Spirito, the guys had pointed out a panini place that looked really great, so I made my way to the other side of the Arno to grab my lunch. The panini proved to be fantastic - I chose one with Parma ham, soft cheese, salad and sun-dried tomatoes. It was the perfect lunch, and was made even more perfect by a huge cup of gelato from the shop Eva and I had visited the night before. This time I had the lemon cookie and fruit pie flavors.

Piazza Santo Spirito

Beautiful views down the Arno

Basilica di Santa Croce

Not violent or anything...

Tombs of the big-wigs: Machiavelli




I visited Santa Croce next, but it was a hurried trip. I am sure I could have spent twice as much time here if I had had it. I did see the tombs of some super famous people - Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Dante, and Galileo are all buried here. I took pictures of all. After this, I raced over to the Duomo so I could climb to the top of the cupola. I had wanted to do this to get a close-up view of the frescoed ceiling of the dome, but it turned out that the main attraction was the view from the very top of the cupola. It offers a 360 degree view of Florence and the surrounding areas, and it was one of the most beautiful of many beautiful views from this trip.

A closer view of the fresco in the dome

 Satan is surrounded by pink; close-up, he looks like he jumped right out of the Alien movies.

Narrow climb to the top of the cupola

Awesome views from the top

After soaking up the views from the top of the Duomo and taking many pictures, I hurried down to the ground and headed from the Duomo to Porta Romana, which is one of the gates to the medieval city. On my way I crossed Ponte Vecchio once more, this time earlier in the day, so that the jeweler's shops were still open. This bridge was once home to the city's butchers, but they had a nasty habit of throwing their stinking meat scraps into the river. Legend has it that Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence from 1537-1574, grew tired of the stench and invited the jewelers to move onto the bridge in their place.

When I reached Porta Romana, I found Franci and Eva waiting for me. While we had originally planned on visiting Boboli Gardens, we changed our minds when we realized how much they charged for admission (for me, 10 euro), and opted instead to visit a smaller version nearby for free. We had fun watching and teasing the turtles in a fountain, and found a cool tree to take pictures in. After saying goodbye to the turtles, we went back to the house, where Francesco's mama again prepared a wonderful meal. I had a nice time visiting with Franci's dad before the meal; he is extremely nice and really interesting to talk to. For the meal, we had curry chicken, rice, vegetables, and homemade pizza. This was followed by fresh cantaloupe and espresso. I really find it impossible to express the feeling of peace and happiness I had spending the evening this way with such a great family in the most beautiful of surroundings.

Cute, curious turtles

Our super-cool tree