Thursday, February 2, 2012

From Russia With Love

Dear Czech Republic,

Hasn't this been a simply deightful winter? The sun is shining, the ducks still paddle around the village ponds, and all of the hormonal, cigarette addicted teenie-boppers can still venture out until 5 in the morning with high heels and a pair of nylons on. It must be really nice to forget your gloves at home and still be able to wiggle them after 20 minutes outside.

I'm sorry to break the news, but you and all of your closest European neighbors are in the midst of receiving a little taste of what we in Russia like to call "I wish I could feel my nose, toes and rear end" cold. This is the kind of cold that will make you see sense in having a drink of something boozy right before heading outside, so you have a have a good laugh at why you made the non-sensical choice to live in a place that gets so ridiculously freezing.

Thought polar fleece was unfashionable? Fur? Wearing a hood, leg warmers, and multiple layers of hand coverings? Forget fashion, you cosmopolitan bourgeosis whiners. The gust of cold air we're blowing your way is going to require everything you have, and even then, don't plan on spending more than five minutes outside at a time. You'd better hope where you're walking, there's an open shop every 200 meters you can stop into and pretend to browse.

Now we know that you didn't choose to live in Siberia, and we promise this will only last a few weeks, but for the time being we appreciate your patience and acceptance as ice immediately forms when you accidentally spill tea on the sidewalk. Remember that film, The Day After Tomorrow, when the ice spreads immediately as the dooming cloud of cold covers the earth. We just wanted to give you the pleasure of experiencing it first hand.

So hang in there, crank up your heaters (we're sorry if you can't afford to), have a couple glasses of wine, and get used to feeling a little anti-social for a while, because the cold is here, and you're just going to have to deal with it. Suckers.

With love,
From Russia

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Hospital

A place of waiting.

It seems like Christmas really took the writing kick out of me. How irresponsible I've been! But let's let bygones be bygones, accept that January is always a "hit the ground running" kind of month, and boy, did I hit it.

I seemed to have hit it so hard that about two weeks ago, I was so excited to build a castle out of cardboard boxes with my afternoon class that I excitedly sliced a giant gash in my left hand with a boxcutter, with only about 30 minutes to quitting time. (Disappointing...)

My first reaction at seeing the inside of my body was, slap a hand on it! Stop the blood flow! I'm such a good first aid responder. But of course the second reaction was, PLEASE, oh please, don't let this require stitches. I've never been to the emergency room for stitches. The only time was actually in Taiwan, after my scooter accident. I had no idea how health care worked in this country, but going by the incredibly lax and...time consuming...procedures required by the government, I envisioned myself sitting in a giant Soviet waiting room, for hours and hours, wagging my bleeding hand at nurses who couldn't understand me.

My level headed co-teacher Zuzka broke the bad news. "You are going to the hospital." she said as she mopped the blood off the castle boxes (still hasn't been built!) and after someone shoved a few Skittles in my hand to calm me down, and getting a professional-looking butterfly bandage, I was driven to the largest hospital in Prague, Nemonice Krc. Effectively, this makes it the largest hospital in the Czech Republic. Very large.

If Czech is confusing in everyday words like "Good morning" (dobre rano) and "tomato" (rajcata), imagine the fabulous confusion of driving into this sprawling compound and having no idea what EMERGENCY ROOM looks like. It turns out all people needing immediate attention are required to drive, or walk, to the back of the hospital estate. I can't imagine how thrilling it would be to break a leg bone, take the bus to the hospital, and then have to hobble about half a mile to the ER.

And so, I entered into the world of health care without English. I have Czech healthcare, and so my total fees for services rendered totalled a whopping $1.50. Thrilling! If you're going to get cut, you might want to consider doing it here...

The hospital ward was entirely outdated, a sad shade a tan that was cracking at every edge, and the nurses were this kind of short, button-up shift that looks like an insane asylum dress. WITHOUT PANTS. It's cold here, I don't know how they do it.

It was in the moment that I sat down in the waiting chair that I felt very alone. I started to cry. The last thing I wanted to do was wait for 4 hours in this cold and moldy place. But what do you know, this is a place that apparently burns on efficiency and I was in and out in forty minutes, three stitches in the hand (and a lot of tears) later.
Just keep smiling, wherever you are, no matter what you did with a box cutter.

And today, after two more doctor's visits, I am proud to report that the old hand is unstitched and looking..a little freaky, but completely healthy. And I am happy to review Czech medical care as a little dingy, a little on the downside of fashion, but completely effective and cheap as chips.


Monday, December 19, 2011

There Was No Camera, but I Swear It Snowed.

There was no camera, but I swear it snowed.

Yesterday was a big day in the Czech Republic for two reasons, the first being the death of Vaclav Havel. Don't know about Vaclav Havel? He is one of the Czech Republic's singularly most important icons of the last 100 years, and possibly ever, in that case. Vaclav Havel dying yesterday was like John F. Kennedy dying in the 1960's, though Havel was 75 years old and had lived through a bit more of his potential.

The second big thing to happen yesterday was that it snowed. I left my house to walk the 30 minutes to downtown at 6:00 yesterday evening and was left gaping at the gorgeous flurry pouring out of the sky, landing on my pea coat and sticking, not melting. And I walked through the Christmas markets, sniffing cinnamon coated almonds and hot wine, and walked even farther past the glowing national museum, smiling enormously because snow is magical. Even if it is quite cold.

The two events collided when I hit Wenceslas Square, where an enormous group of people were gathered to the point of immobility on the sidewalks. Someone in the sea of people was belting the Czech national anthem into a microphone, and it was broadcasted all over the square. A larger than life Czech flag was being held up by hundreds of people in front of the giant Monument to Saint Wenceslas, which was covered in glowing candles.

(And we aren't talking a tiny cute town square. Wenceslas is so big that some lazy people take the metro from the top of the square to the bottom of it.)

The photo I wish I had taken. Note: snow.

It was snowing, and people were chanting "Long live Havel" in Czech, and some people were smiling and others were crying and there I was...with no camera...but living in history and loving every moment of it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Markets: Rain or Shine or Freezing Fog

10:20 AM and the sun is shining!

Every Saturday, I drag myself out of bed, throw on my giant wool sweater and fleece headband, and I walk down to the river. Well, I'm not going to lie. I walk until I see a tram headed in the right direction and take that for a few minutes. It shaves a bit of time off my journey and warms me up on the way.

Down at Karlovo Namesti, a few blocks from the Dancing House, is the Vyton farmers market. I went for the first time about two months ago, and on that particular day, there had been an early freeze and I went out of the house unprepared. I scored some swiss chard but when it came time for me to pay for it, I couldn't move my fingers enough to take the money out of my wallet. The vendor thought I was hilarious.

Carb overload.
***Side note: It has become cold enough on a daily basis that my little munchin students have expanded their clothing vocabulary extensively. Our call and response sounds like this: "OK! Put on your... JACKET and your... HAT and your... BOOTS  and your... SCARF and your... HAT and your... PANTS... and your... GLOVES!"

It's a little bit of Czech insanity that spring, summer, fall and winter, they persist in having an outdoor market by the river. I can only imagine how beautiful it's going to be in the spring, but when it's 0 degrees outside, doesn't it seem a little ridiculous that people would still want to buy their organic vegetables and fruit and meat outside?

It's crazy but I love it. And what makes this market different from other markets I've been to? Well, it's not as colorful or abundant as any market in Taiwan. They don't have hanging intestines on rusty carts. It's not quite as community driven as a market in Davis or Alameda, where you get your produce along with balloon animals, a rescued pet and campaign buttons.

And this is why I love traveling: because no matter where you go, the world bears so many similarities, but with appropriate and sometimes quirky regional differences.

So Czech markets:

1. People love to put their stuff in handmade wicker baskets.
2. There are at least 5 dried meat and dried fish stands.
And he died so happily...
3. The line for fresh butter and eggs always has about 20 people in it.
4. There is more bread than you and all the swans in the river could ever eat.
5. How about some hot wine with your morning shopping?
6. Gotta love those root vegetables.
7. This must be the best country ever for buying honey and all of its by-products.
8. Who doesn't love free samples of lard mixed with dried onions?
9. Where children eat enormous cakes for breakfast.
10. I love them.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

So What If The Tram Smells?

Czech's love transparent curtains. They especially love lacy transparent curtains that do nothing to insulate or add attractiveness to a room, but hey, the influence of Mother Russia times are still strong and I guess old habits die hard. 

Enough to get me off the warm tram!
So why did I wake up at 8:00 this morning, when I was well within my rights to have a lovely little sleep in  and simply laze around all day? Lacy, transparent curtains, and the bastard sun shining straight through the many tiny white holes. Oh well, I thought, at least the sun is out!

Because autumn is in full swing now, the sun in a rare commodity, and it is a foreign sun to me. It casts long shadows from the moment it rises, and teases everyone while it sits at an odd angle in the sky. It's saying "I know you want me to get above your head, but no way, Jose, I'm going to hang out down here where you feel like the whole day is late afternoon..." But lazy rising sun is better than no sun at all. 

And she beheld THIS!
I walked down to the restaurant where I'm occasionally lending a hand these days to find out my "shift" had been cancelled - no sweat off my back, because at least I was having a lovely walk, but I suddenly found myself awake and with nothing but time to do whatever I pleased. Ah, Saturday.

A tram roared by, the 22, so I gave a little chase and jumped on. Jeez Louise, it was smelly. I was warned about the cold weather and how it drives Prague's unfortunately homeless population onto the trams and into the metro, because they are delightfully heated. I just hope they are delightfully cleaned too, because it was pretty rank. Even so, I managed to ride about 5 stops until I was across the river in Prague 1 and somewhere I didn't recognize. 

Immediate reward: I look up the street and see the most beautiful fall trees I have come across since fall in Italy two years ago. I walk. Statues, beautiful trees, cobblestones, trees, leaves, it simply doesn't end. How is it that I've been here over two months and haven't visited Petrin Hill? 

Unbelievable leaves, believe it!
(I know why I don't go over to the other side of the river very often - because it just feels so foreign to me! Especially not at night, because heck, I don't want to have to freeze my hiney off waiting 30 minutes for a night tram at 2 in the morning. At least if I'm over the river, I can walk.)

The hill itself is steep, which is no problem for me today but I can imagine it being ridiculously slippery once the snow and sleet start coming in. And up, up, up I climbed, with a huge goofy grin on my face, realizing that I hadn't done this sooner because today was the day I was meant to be awed.
When I climbed high enough, WOOF, the day was clear and bright enough to see the whole city - my far away neighborhood and the spires of Namesti Miru and Zizkov Tower, I could see the National Theatre, and Letna Park, and of course, the castle. Everything was covered in a low lying mist. 

At this point I was hungry so I followed the tram tracks back to a 22 stop and merrily smiled all the way home. If only this story had a gory twist to it, but truly, it was just a beautiful fall day, and it deserves to be published. 

Yours truly, getting my Nordic style on.
Happy Halloween, all. (Except Czechs, who think its hilarious to see all the expats trolloping around in costumes.) 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Guessing Game

Home sweet home! I live in a garage!
Sunday is here and it's cold. Winter is coming fast and it is so satisfying to sit inside on my fake couch (made out of a twin bed, of course) and dream my Prague day away.

And hey, I deserve it: I had a busy week! Finally finding my groove - I found an African dance class, a Czech restaurant that lets me come in and work for free (lets me: hee hee hee!) once or twice a week, and a fabulous group of ladies that end up having wonderful things to do during the week. Thursday, I taught a couple of them how to make Chinese dumplings, and let me say, if they had been men, I would have had several marriage proposals. Just tooting my own horn, but baby, I'm really loving the kitchen still. 

Anyway, my favorite recovery for a long weekend of birthday parties and other lovely things is to A: make a giant bowl of garlic spinach, and B: take a walk. It's misty outside and darn cold, but I bought this fabulous giant synthetic sweater at a second hand store and it is just right for misty freezing day walks. My neighborhood is just fabulous for exploration. 

I decided to play a game to emphasize the point that Czech is ridiculously difficult. I'm working on it, slowly but surely, but even walking down the street I often screw up my face at things I'm reading. A big giant "What in the hell could that possibly be?" 

Here are the rules of the game: You cannot use translation to help you, only use your brilliant brain. Then, you must guess what the businesses are that I photographed on my walk down Korunni! Ready? Let's do it!

 Let's start with an easy one! Kavarna...kavarna...what could that possibly be?

Let's get tricky! This store sells exactly what now?

It's not as obvious as you think...they don't sell traffic...

And the last? These are everywhere. 

Write down your guesses and then hold you horses, I'll post the answers in my next blog! (And when will that be, like next month?) 

Possibly, but let's be optimistic!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

My First Love Affair

This is a blog with no photos. It is only a story about falling in love in Prague.

Pasha is a wild child who can't sit still and doesn't like to listen. He smiles over his shoulder at me just before he is about to do something ridiculously naughty. "I don't think so." I say to him, as he turns the bathroom tap on and off several times. "Are you kidding me?" is for picking up food off the floor and putting it in his mouth.

My little man comes to school in suspenders sometimes, he loves to play with them and they are an unfortunate distraction. But so handsome. "Yesh, please!" Pasha shouts when I give him more apples. He loves apples. Sometimes he loves them so much, he'll jump into my arms and plant a kiss on my eye, or chin, or ear. Sometimes he throws his shoes at me.

Nap time is especially hairy. Three year olds must sleep, but Pasha thinks he's 35. It was time for an intervention and I came into his nap room with a plan: wrangle him to sleep. He fought. He kicked at me, punched at me, and of course, screamed and cried like I was torturing him French-Algerian style. I held him like I was a swaddling cloth and bit my tongue, letting him go for it.

Thirty minutes later, I felt a head roll onto my shoulder. I looked down at my victory and fell madly in love with the little boy in my lap, his little devil eyelashes finally not fluttering, and listened to him snore his little snores.

I travelled halfway across the world to teach, to live, to learn, and to love. Ticking those boxes, every day.