Saturday, April 27, 2013

Cooking with Angela

Step 1: Go to the Holešovice market and get yourself some delicious produce.

Step 2: Add some blood oranges and rosemary to a 2-liter bottle of water and leave it to infuse. Soak your bulgur.

Step 3: Wash and chop your veggies and fruit.

Step 4: Make a yummy salad dressing by mixing organic 100% apple and currant puree, kefir and balsamic vinegar.

The bottle in the middle is the finished dressing

Step 5: Put it all together. Spinach, arugula, radish, cucumber, red onion and fresh strawberries. Tossed in apple-currant-kefir vinaigrette and topped with grilled chicken, shredded cheese and almonds. Served with pita bread from the Halal shop next door.

Yummy Spring Salad

Did I mention it's spring? Time for flowers and sunshine, drying my clothes on the line and taking naps in the park. It's good to be alive.

Look, short sleeves!

Pretty trees

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Now that it's been seven months since my trip to Kraków last September, I figured I would go ahead and write about it. Perhaps it's not fresh in my memory, but I'd at least like to document it here in some way, and to share the pictures I took.

The trip got off to an interesting start when I almost didn't board my bus. I was at the bus station waiting, but I didn't see my bus anywhere. It got to about three minutes before we were scheduled to leave, and I still couldn't figure out what was going on. Finally, I took my ticket over to a man who was in charge of one of the buses and showed it to him, hoping he could tell me where I was supposed to be. I'm lucky I did, because that was my bus, and it was about to leave! I hadn't recognized it because all the information about the destination was in cyrillic. It must have been stopping in Kraków en route to Russia or the Ukraine. 

Once safely on board, I did what I do best on road trips - fall asleep. I would awaken for the intermittent stops at isolated petrol stations. Apparently in the rural areas of the Czech Republic and Poland, petrol station parking lots double as bus stations. Sometimes a new passenger would board or a few would disembark. On my return trip, I had to switch buses at one of these lonely stations.

I slept through most of the trip, but it got dramatic toward the end of the journey when an epileptic man had a fit on the bus. He started convulsing, and hit his head on the window a few times. It was pretty scary. He was getting sick everywhere too. It started to smell terrible, and I was relieved when we rolled into Kraków and I was able to escape the confines of the bus. As I remember it was a sunny late afternoon. I set off to find my hostel.

Sunset view out the window at my hostel

Pretty Polish złoty

After I dropped my bags off in my room I wandered around for a little while, but it was already getting dark by then. I wandered into the Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz, which was close by my hostel. The architecture in Kraków is not terribly different from Prague, but the city definitely has its own feel. Especially Kazimierz, which is now a very artsy area with many popular restaurants, clubs and art galleries. It has a grungy sort of atmosphere about it, which my tour guide of the area a couple of days later suggested was no accident; he said the area prides itself on this aesthetic. 

The first night, after grabbing something to eat and walking around for a while I went back to the hostel and worked on my Italy blog before going to sleep. I also perused the tourist information available at the hostel and found some information about a free walking tour of the Old Town, which sounded like a good idea. I decided I would do that first thing the next day, and I went to bed. I can't remember the name of the guy who slept in the bed next to me at the hostel - he was friendly and was from England. Other than that, all I can remember is that he talks in his sleep. A lot. It was pretty amusing. 

I woke up the next day and headed to the Historic Center for the tour, which was meeting in front of St. Mary's Church. We waited for about ten minutes for the group to assemble, then we were split into two groups, each with our own guide, and we headed out to see the old portion of the city. The guy who slept next to me at the hostel was also on my tour, so we had a chance to chat a bit while we walked around. Our tour guide was Maciek. He was funny and knew a ton of stuff about the city - apparently, in order to be a tour guide in Poland you have to have a license, and in order to get your license you have to pass a ridiculously difficult test. These regulations are left over from Communism, but they ensured that both the tour guides I had in Kraków really knew their stuff.

St. Mary's Church

I read that Kraków's Market Square is the largest medieval square in Europe. I wasn't particularly struck by its size, but more by its beauty. While the Czechs certainly have a habit of painting their buildings interesting colors, they normally fall into the pastel range, while the buildings in Kraków are painted in a range of tones that are both bright and earthy. My eyes were caught by the mossy greens, mustard yellows, and burnt oranges all around the square. 

Kraków was originally a fortified city, surrounded by a wall with 46 towers, seven huge gates, and a moat.  Today, most of the walls and gates have been destroyed, and the moats were filled with soil and turned into gardens which ring the old city center. One of the fortified outposts that originally stood guard over the city remains, and it is known as the Kraków barbican. It lies near the beginning of The Royal Road, which cuts straight through the Old Town. The Royal Road was the coronation route taken by royalty from St. Florian's church to the castle, Wawel.

We weaved our way from the barbican back through Market Square and toward the hill where the castle lies overlooking the city and the Vistula river. On our way, we stopped to see the window where the Polish Pope John Paul II would look out and address the people when he stayed in Kraków. We also saw the Collegium Maius, the "oldest building of learning" in Poland. We heard an awful story about all of the college professors being sent to concentration camps during the Nazi regime as part of their what they referred to as "Sonderaktion Krakau"

The tour ended at the castle, dominated by Wawel Cathedral, which looks like a collection of chapels from a bunch of different cathedrals from different places and times, all cut off and assembled together. Also interesting is the legend of the Wawel Chakra. According to I know not precisely who, there is a place on Wawel hill which is one of the world's strongest sources of energy on Earth. Just as there are seven chakras in the human body, there are seven of these chakra centers around the globe - Rome, Jerusalem and Delhi are also frequently claimed as chakra sites. As the chakra idea has all sorts of occult and mystical connotations, this idea has been discouraged by the Catholic Church. The chapel that lies directly over the chakra is not open to the public, and the courtyard outside is gated and locked. You won't see any signs or blurbs about it on the grounds. The closest one can come to the chakra is a wall on the other side of the courtyard, which has been worn smooth and darkened by the friction of the faithful over the years.

After the tour ended, Maciek, the tour guide, asked me if I wanted to get some lunch. Seeing as how I had no plans and plenty of time, I accepted. We had lunch at a little restaurant down by the Market Square, and then I went back to the hostel and had a nice nap. Later on, I met back up with Maciek and we walked around Kazimierz. I got a zapiekanka, a fabulous Polish grilled baguette sandwich. I managed to get some of it in my mouth, and it was delicious. Kraków is home to the factory of Oskar Schindler, and many of the scenes from the movie Schindler's List were filmed there. When I told Maciek I had read the book but I hadn't seen the movie, he told me I had to watch it immediately. We headed to his apartment to watch the film, but on the way we randomly crossed path with an old friend of his, Eva, who he hadn't seen for years. She owns some apartments in the city that she rents out to tourists and visitors. She told Maciek a couple of her current tenants were looking for a tour guide for the next day, so he made arrangements to show them around the next day.

Facefull of zapiekanka

My screening of Schindler's List prepared me for the next day's tour of the Jewish Quarter, the Ghetto and Schindler's factory. Schindler's factory is now a museum. It reminds me very much of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. After I finished touring, I joined Maciek, who had been guiding other people around the city all day. We joined his friend Eva and her tenants, Trapp and Sefi, for dinner. Trapp and Sefi were really interesting people. Sefi is the son of Polish immigrants to Israel. It was his first trip to Poland, and he had brought his friend Trapp who is an American but lives and works in Singapore. They were really funny and cool to talk to. Also, they make a ton of money and insisted on paying for everything - and I mean everything - everywhere we went they seemed to order "one of everything". Certainly a bit of a change from the frugal travel dining I am accustomed to. That night, we ate at a traditionally Polish restaurant. I had pierogi, and there was of course some obligatory pork knuckle to sample. 

This stairway was in one of the famous scenes of Schindler's List

Ghetto Wall

The next day I mostly spent wandering around with nowhere in particular to go (one of my favorite things to do in an unknown city). I popped in and out of the many of the city's second hand stores, which are far superior to Prague's in quantity, quality and price. I found some nice bargains. Later in the day I went to see the interior of St. Mary's Cathedral. Even after the dozens of cathedrals I had toured in Italy a couple of weeks before, I found that St. Mary's was totally different than any I had seen before. The style is very distinct. I managed to snap a couple of clandestine pictures before I was "caught" be one of the employees. To be fair, I didn't realize I needed a special badge to take pictures.

Again that evening we met Eva, Trapp and Sefi for dinner. This time we went to a little restaurant with Polish and French food. I had roasted duck, which was delicious. We also had one of every appetizer on the menu. We took our time and talked a lot. Sefi had decided that he wanted to move from Israel to Kraków. I don't know if he actually did it, but he seemed very enchanted by the place and inspired by the idea. 

Pretty church I found on one of my walks

The next day I had to catch my bus back to Prague. Before I left, I returned to the square in Kazimierz with the zapiekanka stands, and indulged in another of the foot-long sandwiches. This time I got one with spicy chicken and corn. Yum. I wandered around the city a little more, taking my time getting to the bus station. The ride back to Prague was uneventful. As we drove through tiny Polish towns and villages on our way back to the Czech/Polish border, I noticed that their cemeteries are extremely beautiful. They are all laden with brightly colored flowers and meticulously tended. They made for a nice last view of Poland as I headed back to Prague to begin the new school year.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mental Mountains

As I mentioned in my last post, I had a meditation retreat planned for Easter weekend in Mnichovo Hradiště. On Friday, Dita, Miša and I took a bus from Prague to the little town in Bohemian Paradise (Český ráj, which I wrote about in several posts last year). I knew that the retreat was going to be held in an old monastery, but I didn't have any idea what the monastery would be like. From the bus stop we followed our small printed-off map, weaving our way through the streets toward a large group of buildings on a hill that looked promising. We walked along the walls of the huge complex, past several locked gates. I was beginning to wonder whether we were in the right place.

A church on the way to the monastery

Approaching the monastery on Friday

St. Anne's Chapel

Finally, we came to the end of the walls and saw a picturesque chapel with some buildings behind it. My first reaction was "it doesn't look inhabited"! It almost seemed like it was too old and cool to be the place we were headed for. Lo and behold, we made our way to the back of the chapel and found an open gate with a few cars. We walked up some stairs under an arch with the building's date, 1830, carved above it. There was a creepy man-ish thing made of papier-mâché there to greet us. Later I learned it was Vodník - an evil water spirit from Czech fairy tales. Miša told us a crazy story where he kidnaps a woman, impregnates her and later kills their baby. Very Czech.


The monastery is so - I don't really like the word quaint, but it's the only one I know to describe it. It has running water, showers and electricity, but in many ways the place seems untouched by the past one and a half centuries. The floors and ceilings are built from heavy planks and beams of dark wood and the walls from brick and plaster. All the hardware is old and rustic. It's really a beautiful place, perfect for quiet contemplation. And we would have plenty of quiet - the standard for these meditation retreats is to maintain "noble silence" - meaning that from Friday after the opening talk, we weren't to speak to each other (or anyone else) until after the closing talk on Monday. The teacher could speak, of course, but we remained silent.

The monastery

Chateau Mnichovo Hradiště

It's really a different experience, being totally silent for several days. You get a chance to really see how your mind works, how quickly it jumps from one thing to the next and chases after stories. This is the point, of course. What was really interesting for me was being silently aware of the whole process of my mind turning a small problem I had into an elaborately complicated debacle which was bound to have me deported from the country. I observed this happening, realizing the whole time that it was pretty insane and paranoid and totally self-created, but still almost believing it.

Let me explain. I transfer money from my bank account in the Czech Republic to my bank account in Ohio each month, for which I have been using a website called XE trade. I make an international payment  in Czech Koruna to XE trade's bank account in the UK, and they EFT the money to my US bank account in US dollars. Up until last month it had worked perfectly. Usually I would make the payment with my online banking, and about four days later it would be in my US bank account. This time, however, I waited for about four days, and I still hadn't gotten the confirmation email that XE trade had received my payment. This was strange, as I usually received the email in one to two days. I called XE trade, and they confirmed that they hadn't received the money. I had a statement from my bank showing that it had been taken from my account, but that didn't change the fact that they hadn't received it. It was a problem. So Friday before we left for the retreat, I went to my bank and explained the problem. They said they had to initiate an "investigation" with the banking department to trace the funds. Now I had three days to wait - and three (silent, uninterrupted) days to think - about what the explanation might be.

Now, the most plausible answer, the one which I logically assumed to be true, was that there was some mistake or misinformation somewhere along the line. The funds would eventually be located, and everything would be resolved. This was, in fact, exactly what happened in the end. HOWEVER, the story that I fabricated while I sat and walked through hours of silent meditation, was that the foreign police had discovered that:

A). I don't actually live at the address listed on my identity card (I never changed my address after moving in September because it's not really necessary, would cost me $125, and I don't know if I could obtain the necessary document from the owner of my building) 


B). I receive money for working for companies and/or individuals in addition to the one I have legal permission to work for (which pretty much every foreigner I know does)

As a consequence of the resultant investigation into my finances and movements, the police had blocked my international payment. Subsequently, there would be a seizure of the funds in my bank account, and I would be brought in for questioning and summarily deported. 

Yes, I know this sounds paranoid. It is. I could even acknowledge this to myself at the time. Still, part of me believed it. Part of me is still a little nervous it might be true even though I have already sorted out the problem, which was a mistake on the part of a correspondent bank between my Czech bank and XE trade's bank in the UK. I have every rational reason to believe that the foreign police don't much care where I am or what I'm doing right now. Most likely they have other, more important problems to think about. It's really interesting what my brain does sometimes. 

This is an extreme example of a basic thought pattern I've had since childhood, which goes like this: "I wonder what [he/she/they] think about me. They probably think I'm [great/pathetic/pretty/ugly/dumb/a genius]". This initial thought is followed by an extended period of agonizing analysis of what [he/she/they] think, the reasons why [he/she/they] think this, and whether such opinion is [justified/unjustified/positive/negative/changeable/permanent]. You get the idea. We all know the common sense answer: [He/she/they] probably aren't thinking about me at all. At least not one iota as often as I'm thinking about me. Whoever [he/she/they] are, they're probably not thinking about me because they spend most of their time thinking about themselves, much like I do. This is the human condition. Recognizing thought patterns like this and starting to train the mind, through practice, to behave differently is one of the goals of meditation. Meditating is not necessarily fun, but it has real, meaningful results.

That is how I spent my Easter weekend. 

And it was beautiful and good. 

I spent hours in walking meditation up and down these rows of trees

We had hoped St. Anne's Chapel would be open on Monday so we could go inside. 
It wasn't, but I did notice a hole in the old wooden door and bent down to peek through it.
It was the most exciting hole I have ever looked through.

On the bus ride back to Prague Dita was looking through some of the pictures she'd taken of the area and our walk back through town to the bus stop. She had taken several pictures of Miša and I walking ahead with our packs (mostly filled with blankets and pillows), which I will include here.

"It looks like we were going mountain climbing or something," she said.

"We were climbing mental mountains," I replied. 

Pretty cheesy, but sometimes we need a little cheese - especially when we haven't spoken for a few days.