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.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Grandma Summer

At last, Grandma Summer is coming to a close. At least, that's what the weather predictions say, and I"m not about to argue with the gloves and scarf I wore last night. But how unusual, how fortunate, that from the moment I stepped off the plane on August 18th, until yesterday, October 7th, the Czech Republic has experienced a belated sunny season that has drawn everyone outside, allowing me to fall in love a little harder.

Everyone knows that the proper term for "long summer heat in the middle of Fall" is "Indian Summer," but let's get real, there aren't many Indians in Europe. (American Indians. There are plenty of real Indians, or else I wouldn't have had delicious eggplant curry last weekend.) Whatever you call it, I experienced it the same.

What do you do in Prague when it's unexpectedly nice? And trust me, no one really expected it.

Wake up and smile.

It's too dark on weekdays to see the sun in the mornings, but on the weekends, there is nothing better than rolling over and looking out the window to see the top of the centuries old buildings across my street, and bright blue sky above them. Doesn't that just set the mood?

Go for a run/walk.

Who can argue with that sky?
Sadly, I think we are nearing the end of the run/walk period with the return of the rain this week, because the sidewalks are old, beautiful, and ridiculously slippery - coaster sized shiny interlocking rocks. I can't wait until the day I bite it when I'm in a hurry, probably wearing heels. The logistics of the run/walk: pick a direction, any direction, and go. Run until you want to stop, walk until you feel lazy, and chances are, I'll see 50 different new things I promise I'll come back to.

Most may be in the shape of pubs...

But I did encounter a super drunk couple at 10AM sitting down on the escalator of the metro and, not realizing they had no intention of ever standing up, I ended up in an escalator doggy pile of pissy Czech's and confused foreigners. Just shake it off, it's Grandma Summer!

Go to the park and read, like everyone else.

I didn't read books in Taiwan because I worked all day and I didn't want to come home and burden my poor brain in my apartment, which was my movie-watching sanctuary. But when it's 70 and sunny, and my favorite park, Riegrovy Sady, has about 10 different views of Prague that would blow your mind, I am drawn like a fly to a buzzing death trap. Almost finished with my second book. The other day, two men with guitars sat near me and I got an incidental serenade. Life is so good, I suppose.

Drink beer, of course, but do it outside.

I'm sad to see the sun go for one big reason: I can't go to beer garden's anymore, or sit in outdoor patios. ANd when we're all driven indoors, that's when the smoker's lung starts to develop, and the smoker's hair, and clothes, and skin. Czech's are about 20 years behind in the fact that smoking is going out of fashion, especially because you can die. And it smells bad. Come on, people. I'm trying to meet gorgeous European men and I smell like an tabacco wildfire.

Sunset - my stairwell.
Thank goodness for Maider Sorasu, who taught me in Spain that the best policy is to immediately remove clothes upon entering home and hang it up away from everything else. And give it a few days. Damn the autumn and my smelly wardrobe.

Watch the sun set from anywhere.

Yes, the sun still sets all year round. But when you can watch it go down while wearing a tanktop and sitting with a group of friends on a hilltop, that's magic.

This being said, I think Fall is going to be an excellent season.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Home Sweet European Apartment

What my window sees. 
My delightfully curious sister just skyped me : "hows prague"

And my answer:

"great, the rain stopped
and my roommates are great
and the cat is currently playing on my bed."

Isn't it amazing how things turn around in our favor, just when we think that some freakishly large and evil puppet master in the sky is about to *Job us a little more?

Well, the clouds parted and between them was a three bedroom apartment on Sazavska Street in Prague. I had been so incredibly desperate when I saw the apartment that when I was offered the place, I could hardly remember enough to describe. I remembered feeling comfortable, and crossed my fingers that was enough, and that I hadn't overlooked gross amounts of mold or a gaping hole in the floor or some weird habits like toe picking or having no heaters.

My intuition couldn't have been better. Armed with three of my girlfriends, each with one of my bags in tow, and with the help of my new male roommate, we managed to haul everything up three flights of stairs (because really, who needs an elevator?) and into my new home. Hallelujah!

The pretty picture: high ceilings, a cosy living room, an adorable kitchen with herbs growing on the windowsill and an mural on the door. New water heater, giant bathtub, and of course, a room of my own, which in reality is enormous and almost more space than I can fill with two suitcases full of me. After a few hours of slowly pushing furniture around and finally unloading, I begin to feel like the life I intended to have here is finally worth having.

Did I mention there's a cat, and the front door to the building is opened with a brass skeleton key?

Like my co-worker Lauren so brazenly exclaimed, "Way to go, Caitlin. 17th time is the charm!"

Mattress sweet mattress (work in progress)

My very own keys!
*Job meaning that unfortunate guy from El Biblio who was punished for no reason and still gained infamy in his own book within a book.

Don't you wish your stairway was old like mine?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Burčák: God Bless Underaged Grapes

It's September and you know what that means: it's burčák season.

Of course it is. It's only the best autumn tradition in Europe, if not the world, and burčák is specific only to the Czech Republic. No idea what it is?

Neither did I, until yesterday. Across a crowded room on Friday night, I had heard a voice say "" and it was enough to peak my curiosity, especially when I woke up only to see that it was yet another gorgeous day. I realize it is uncommon for the sun to be a daily player at this point in the year, but I think I brought the San Francisco Indian Summer here with me.

And so what did this sunny autumn day bring? It brought first harvest wine, or "burr-chack", to the beautiful parks around Prague. It's an easy day to manage. Find a beautiful park. Find the huge crowds of people. Stand in line for five minutes. Pay $1 for glass of baby wine. Drink. Smile.

Burčák is neither wine, nor spirit, not juice, or bubbly water, but if you could turn on your imagination palate for a minute, it is a combination of all of them. The grapes are pressed before beginning any meaningful fermentation and so you're left with a fabulous, thick-ish, Lambrusco-esque, sweet but fragrant and always unique, drink. Sometimes, red, sometimes white, but this isn't really the truth. It's yellows and pinks and personalities you've never seen out of a keg. Is the picture becoming clearer?

The best is how most people purchase it. Because it is young, it doesn't keep well. So buy it now, buy it in large quantities, and promise that you will drink it in the next two days. (This is not difficult. Half an hour is more reasonable.) So you pull up to a vendor booth, or any average wine shop on the street that advertises it, and you get the wine out of keg, poured into 1.5 liter soda bottles. Classy, practical, delicious, and once again, only here.

Yours truly, living the high life. 
It made for a particularly colorful day. On top of the happy drinking, there were extravagant outdoor performances and drums and harps (with nymphs and soldiers and fair maidens and an elephant. In the park.) There were scores of food booths with the most amazing non-Asian foods.

Have I mentioned how much I miss Taiwanese food? But Saturday made up for it. Czech food is quickly growing on me. Potato pancakes, grilled onions and ham, topped with saurkraut...all made on the back of a hot 10 gallon drum.

And of course, good company and general merriment of everyone around us. That's why I came here. I thought it might be beautiful, and full of good alcohol, and what the heck, it delivers every day.

Happy Vinobrani!

Have I mentioned, I move into my flat on Tuesday!

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I got a visa to Cuba.
I got a visa to Taiwan.

What the hell is wrong with the European Union and their Soviet Union style visa application process?

I've been in contact for about 4-5 months with a woman here in Prague who works for a company called EasyVisa. This is hilarious. EasyVisa must be some sort of sick joke that the owners came up with over some beers. Let's tell everyone how easy it is! HAHAHAHA!

I sent all of my documents to Prague in June, as asked, to get the ball rolling. Normal. Police report, college degree, passport photos, the whole shebang. I thought I was old hat, but of course, the world is full of surprises! This part was easy.

Arriving in the Czech Republic was when the easy ended. I learned that I would have to pay for myself to travel to (first Slovakia, then Berlin, and finally Vienna - the appointments kept changing for no obvious reason to me) - THREE times, during the week, during work. 10 hours total on the bus or train each time. I would have to go without assistance and face the scary Viennese consulate employees, who would go on to reject my long term visa application due to lack of a proper stamp on a Taiwanese document.

My first trip, last Tuesday, was a trek upon treks. Luckily I had two co-workers with me to soften the blow, unfortunately one of them dealt with the difficulties of the day by having a few too many Czech/Austrian beers and coupled with wearing high heels, made walking around a good combination of funny and uncomfortable.

And so it turns out, I am swinging in the sad, cold balance of post-communist bureaucracy that somehow doesn't deem me a safe person to work in the Czech Republic. I wonder if they found out about my parking tickets from high school...

The Silver Lining:

The Czech Embassy in Vienna is right next to Schonnbrunn Palace, which is gorgeous and free to roam around. I have never seen a more beautiful outdoor garden! And in the hour we spent sitting in the park, I couldn't help think, where else but Europe can you show up to a giant garden, hundreds of years old, and sit and talk about your favorite TV shows?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Welcome to Prague: The Househunting Game

Jedna, dve, tre.

This could very well be my neighborhood.
Breathe in, breathe out, and welcome to the new and improved tales of Caitlin. Coming to you live from the kitchen table of her very own housesitting apartment? Wait, why don't you have your own apartment? 

Let me level with you: I have been looking for apartments for months. Some days in Taiwan, I would feel so optimistic about my upcoming move that I would email people about flats I knew would be available far too soon. As soon as I landed, my top priority was to get a cell phone, so I could get a leg up on all the other househunting losers who couldn't call flatmates to set up viewing appointments.

Off I went, text message to text message, running up, down and sideways across the city. 4:00 here, catch a tram, 4:45 there. The major benefit of this was I got to see the city, fast, and I got to learn the public transportation, fast. But more on this later.

Apartment shopping is a rite of passage. I've never had the privilege of being invited into people's homes, cleaner than usual, and being able to fantasize about living there, even for a short while. Apartment #1 and 2 were I could not imagine myself here, not even for a second. Apartments #3 and 4 I saw were if I really had to, I could hide myself in my room, which is the only place I could be, because there is no living room. 

My second day had too much success. I saw four places that were equally impressive. Jaw dropping old neighborhoods, large living rooms, clean bathrooms, friendly people. I had the cream of the crop of Prague apartments, and I chose one with a gorgeous view of the city.

And then it fell through. The landlord was a shady fellow that I wanted nothing to do with. After being promised a move in for two weeks, I finally said, "Thank you very much, but no freaking way."

This brings me to my red plastic chair in Podoli, a Prague district by the river, a 30 minute stroll from the center. (Although truthfully, there are like 4 centers, and it's really easier to tell someone where to meet you by specifying tram stop or metro. "I'll see you at Namesti Miru at 7:00!" "Let's drink beers at Karlovo Namesti at 22:00.")

I have transcended to the 24 hour clock.

This place has been generously gifted to me, at the most appropriate time, by a couple I met on Couchsurfing, who are enjoying themselves in Albania for two weeks. Therefore, I have time to gather my thoughts and begin again.
Just a stroll up the Vlatava

And what a place to begin again, over and over!

What is so great about Prague? A little over two weeks of opinions tells me, everything.
It's the collision of the best qualities of European cities.

Buildings as beautiful as Paris or the old quarters of Barcelona.
A river to rival the Rhine, cutting the city into two easily accessible parts.
Cobblestones like Lisbon, and small enough to walk all over the damn thing (city).
Diversity of food like London.
The best public transport I have ever seen. Trams are the bomb.

So even though the apartment game beat me down a bit, all I need to do is walk outside and see something beautiful. Watch an outdoor movie at a gorgeous park with a view of a castle. (Riegrovy Sady is the Mission Park of Prague.) Listen to live music at a beer garden. Watch a hip hop show at a man-made beach.

Welcome to Prague, people.