Thoughts about being a tourist in Prague

The long-awaited next post in my series about my lovely visit with Betty and her mom!

One of the things that the Baumans really enjoy doing on vacation is getting guided tours. This is not something that has traditionally been a part of my vacations in the past, but they’d had good experiences with tours on other vacations, and they were extremely generous in offering to treat me to joining them on these tours, so I was more than happy to join them. “Why not,” I thought to myself, “I probably walk past really important buildings every day and have no idea!”

On the Baumans’ first day in Prague we went on a free walking tour. Yup, it was completely free. Our guide, Colin, was fantastic. He was Scottish, he told good stories, and he spoke loudly enough that you didn’t have to be that kid following along right on his heels in order to hear what he was saying. (Don’t get me wrong – I would have done it if I had to.) Colin walked us around much of Prague’s Old and New Towns and the Jewish Quarter telling stories about Czech history, culture, politics, and giving lots of solid practical advice for newbies in Prague. He was a great, engaging guide, and it’s a tour I would recommend to anyone. I’ll be honest: I did actually know most of the things that he told us. He did, however, raise a point that I found thought-provoking: Overrated tourist attractions.

Colin “bragged” about the fact that a guidebook had awarded Prague one of the top three overrated tourist attractions in Europe: The astronomical clock on Old Town Square. I don’t know that that would necessarily be in my top three (London Bridge isn’t even REAL, people!), but he had a point. Thousands of people cram into a pretty small area and stand there waiting for 20-30 minutes in many cases to see…little mechanical guys walking past openings in a clock. More on that later. In any case, this got me thinking: what would guide books rank as the top tourist attractions in Prague, and how would that compare to my top sites in Prague? Luckily, I have a blog, so I can ponder these things and publish them on the internet.

Without actually pulling my guidebook out to look, I can be reasonably sure that the top three attractions in Prague would be (in some order): The Astronomical Clock, the Charles Bridge, and Prague Castle. We visited each of these sites last week (and I had visited all of them before), so let’s reflect:

1. The Astronomical Clock

I think I’ve posted about the clock before (the Wikipedia page looks familiar…), but I’ll go over the basics again. The clock was built in 1410 and is the oldest operational astronomical clock in the world. Even back then Prague was proud of their clock: Instead of thanking the man who built it with money or fame, they bludgeoned his eyes out so he could never make another one for another city. Charming! The clock face itself has different dials that identify that date and month (in both modern and ancient Czech time), zodiac signs, the position of the sun and moon, and other such data. The real attraction, though, is that every hour on the hour during the day, two little windows at the top of the clock open and the apostles parade by. While this is happening, figures representing vanity, greed, death, and pleasure (the four biggest fears in 1410) also move, and a cock “crows.”

Girls at clock

Photo credit: Betty/random stranger who we asked to take our picture

The pros: The thing was built in 1410. The fact that it still works is little short of a miracle. It survived many wars and innumerable tourists crowding around and in it for hundreds of years. Considering that at the time electricity, the internet, cars, and power tools were still centuries from being invented, the technology is pretty remarkable.

The cons: That said…it’s a clock. If you want to see the display and it’s not the middle of winter, you probably need to get there at least 10-15 minutes early to get a good spot under the clock, and then the “excitement” lasts for all of about 20 seconds. If you’re looking for Disney magic, you’ll probably be disappointed. Europe’s second most overrated tourist attraction it probably is not, but it’s definitely a bit over-hyped.

2. The Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge (or, if someone hadn’t mistranslated it years ago, Charles’ Bridge) is, like everything else called Charles in Prague, named after Charles IV, officially the most beloved figure in Czech history (http://www.ceskatelevize.cz/specialy/nejvetsicech/oprojektu_top100) (actually, technically he came in second, but that’s another story). This guy is like George Washington, FDR, and Abraham Lincoln all rolled into one Medieval package. Charles not only built this bridge, he founded Charles University (my host for this year and one of the oldest universities in the world), created much of the infrastructure for Prague, and was generally a good guy. There’s a random wall going up one of the hills in Prague. It’s not designed to separate properties, or keep people in or out: it’s a hunger wall. There was a famine and Charles wanted to help his people, so he commissioned this totally useless wall to create jobs.

Anyway, back to the bridge. It’s a bridge. A very old bridge with a lot of statues on it…but it’s really just a bridge. Until the nineteenth century it was one of the few bridges that crossed the Vltava river, which divides Prague…but today it’s one of many and most denizens of Prague give it (and its huddling masses of tourists) a wide berth. I do enjoy the occasional stroll across the bridge (if I can find a time when it isn’t crawling with souvenir stands, buskers, and Italians), but I actually enjoy the view of the bridge itself better from the landing outside the Smetana museum or from one of the neighboring bridges. That way one can enjoy the rather striking silhouette of the bridge without having to crowd surf.

The Bauman Girls on the Charles Bridge at night

The Bauman Girls on the Charles Bridge at night

The pros: It’s pretty and some of the statues are cool and old/supposedly bring you luck if you touch them.

The cons: Both the bridge and the areas immediately on either side of it are usually completely crawling with tourists and people whose lives revolve around tourists.

3. Prague Castle

You can’t come to Prague without seeing the Prague Castle. Literally. It’s visible from about half the city, easily the most striking silhouette on the Prague skyline. What’s known as “Prague Castle” is really a large complex of buildings that includes, in addition to the actual castle bits, St. Vitus’ Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, and The Golden Lane. In fact, the most prominent part of the “Castle” when seen from a distance is St. Vitus’ Cathedral.

This is one of those attractions that you really should see at least once. The two churches make it entirely worth it for me, and lots of people enjoy the Golden Lane, where servants and later alchemists associated with the castle lived throughout history, as well (although the tiny buildings mostly make me kind of claustrophobic). St. Vitus’ is really something of a fascinating tour through architectural history. It was commissioned by – guess who!? – Charles IV in 1344, but due to intervening wars and financial issues, the church wasn’t entirely complete until 1929. This means there are styles from about 600 years of history all combined in one building. It’s stunning from the outside, and also gorgeous from the inside, even if it is in a sort of over-the-top gothic style. It’s not a place where I feel particularly spiritually moved, but there is tons of glorious stained glass (including a fabulous window by Alfons Mucha – more on him later), an intricately-detailed carved relief of The Battle of White Mountain, and the hilariously overdone tomb of St. Jan of Nepomuk (think, Pimp my Grave, 14th Century Edition – it features more than a ton of silver!). St. George’s Basilica and Convent, on the other hand, is the polar opposite Romanesque predecessor to St. Vitus’. It’s small, intimate, peaceful, and maybe one of my favorite places in Prague.

That said, the castle part of the castle is pretty underwhelming. Unless you get an audioguide, there is almost no interpretation in the rooms (usually just one description), and most of the rooms are devoid of furniture. If I was a little kid expecting to see a castle and saw this, I would be decidedly irked.

The slightly less common view of St. Vitus' from the back

The slightly less common view of St. Vitus’ from the back

Pros: Gorgeous churches

Cons: Heaps of tourists and a princess-less castle.

So, now that I might have just burst your bubble about the “best” tourist attractions in Prague, where do I suggest you go?

1. The MuMuchacha Museum and/or Mucha’s Slav Epic

Alfons Mucha was an artist originally from Moravia who lived around the turn of the 20th century and is now probably the most famous Czech artist. He is perhaps best known for some of his more commercial works including posters for Sarah Bernhardt plays, and ads for various products (like champagne). His style is similar to what is known as Art Nouveau in France and Jugendstil in Vienna. I’m a sucker for this type of art and design – my neighborhood was designed during this period and I find the buildings and visual art completely enchanting. The small Mucha Museum a few blocks off of Wenceslas Square is a great introduction to his works: there are lots of examples of his posters and paintings, but it’s not overwhelming, and it includes a well-done video that describes his life and works in English.

If you really like this style and are also into Slavic History, Mucha’s Slav (or Slavonic) Epic is another favorite of mine. Now housed in the Veletržní Palace, this series of 20 gigantic paintings (he used sails because they didn’t make canvases that large) took Mucha decades and was his magnum opus. The pictures describe important events in the history of the Slavs, with a special emphasis on Czech history. It’s a beautiful and educational way to spend a few hours.

2. Go window shopping or antique-ing

For me, one of the best parts of Prague is experiencing the city. Wandering the Jewish Quarter poking in and out of antique shops or strolling up and down the streets of Malá Strana (the Lesser Quarter) is great fun for me. For one thing, the antique shops around town tend to have very interesting, historic items (souvenirs from the Grand Expositions of the 1890s, Hapsburg Era jewelry, neat old Jewish memorabilia) at reasonable prices. Practiced antiquers would probably be non-plussed, but I always enjoy looking for new “treasures,” regardless of their actual value. Another benefit to walking slowly through Malá Strana is the neat “signs” on many of the buildings. During the Renaissance, there were no street numbers, so buildings were identified by unique “signs” (sometimes hanging off the building, often directly on it) to differentiate from that other light green building on Nerudová Street. If you just look up, you can still see things like The Green Lobster, the Three Fiddles, and the Red Lamb.

3. Just walk!

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Gorgeous building down the street from my apartment

Ok, so this is only slightly different from no. 2, but I just love exploring Prague. Finding a new neighborhood and walking around it with a friend, stopping to look at neat old buildings or for a glass of wine or cup of coffee often turns up new delightful discoveries for me in Prague. If you stick to most of the guidebooks, you won’t ever leave the center of Prague, which is a real shame. Places like my neighborhood, Vinohrady, the neighboring district of Žižkov, and Letna, on the other side of the river offer a less touristy,

but no less beautiful view of Prague. The streets are full of gorgeous old buildings, beer gardens, and outdoor cafes that are easy to find if you take a minute to step away from the touristy bustle of downtown. In fact, one of the best parts of actually living in a city (not just visiting as a tourist) is finding these “off the beaten track” zones and discovering new places to visit and hang out. Cheesy? Maybe. True? Definitely.

Prague Spring and a new series of posts!

Greetings from beautiful, springy Prague!

The Žižkov Tower in front of beautiful blue skies

The Žižkov Tower in front of beautiful blue skies

In the past 10 days or so Spring has definitely sprung here. Two weeks ago, the trees were all completely bare. Now many of the trees are covered in vibrant green leaves or cheery flowers, there are shrubs blossoming all over, and everyone is out enjoying the sudden end to what I’m told is the longest, coldest winter Prague has had in 50 years or more. Finally!

I’m writing this from the terrace outside a favorite cafe of mine. Many of these terraces have sprung up over the past two weeks or so and most of them are full. Clearly, I’m not the only one here who has been going stir crazy! If you had asked me three weeks ago if I was ready to go home, I would have said, “I’ve really enjoyed my time here, but I’m ready.” Now I am utterly charmed by Prague and am starting to feel like it’s really going to be hard to leave when that day comes – and it’s coming up quickly!

Last week was an awesome week for more reasons than just that it was finally beautiful here. One of my college room mates, Betty, and her mom, Hillery, came to visit for the week from Boston! It was (sorry, John) one of the most fun weeks I’ve had so far in Prague! Of course, it helped that we were able to really enjoy walking from place to place instead of scurrying from building to building and carrying around heaps of scarves and jackets. We took two fabulous day trips, visited all of the major tourist sites in Prague, had two fascinating guided walking tours, ate a lot of delicious (and diverse) food, and really just enjoyed a girls’ week! I have so much to tell you about!

So here goes…

 

Just kidding! It’s WAY too much to describe all in one shot. Too much for me to write, too much for you to read. I think I’ve settled on four blog posts to sum up last week, organized more topically than chronologically. For today, I’ll just give you a quick chronological summary of our whirlwind week, and I’ll follow up with more detailed posts as the week goes on.

Saturday: After the Baumans arrived in the early afternoon, we visited Olšanský Cemetery and the Žižkov Tower (sort of), before dinner.

Sunday: Free walking tour of Prague. (Yup, free. And it was great.) Afterwards, we toured the castle complex and the toy museum, had a great dinner, and then took in a concert.

Monday: Walking tour of the Jewish quarter followed by lunch, and lots of poking in and out of shops around Old Town.

Tuesday: Day trip to Terezín concentration camp. Dinner back in Prague and a drinking tour of my neighborhood.

Wednesday: Day trip to Kutná Hora, a mining town about an hour from Prague.

Thursday: Sights in Malá Strana (the “Lesser Quarter” across the river under the castle), a visit to the Jubilee Synagogue, “Banquet Night” (a Bauman family tradition I have firmly embraced), and an evening walk around town.

Friday: More neighborhood wanderings before the Baumans’ afternoon departure.

As you can see, our schedule was not for the faint of heart! Several of these days were about 14 hours in length, with most of those hours being lots of walking. That said, all of these days were AWESOME, and I think we all agreed that we wouldn’t change a thing!

So, that is your teaser for the posts to come this week. As the week progresses, look for future posts on the most popular tourist attractions in Prague, Prague’s Jewish history and sites, the charming town of Kutná Hora, and reviews of a few new favorite watering holes around town.

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Betty and I on the Charles Bridge at night

Until then, unless you’re up with my relatives in Vermont where it is apparently still Winter, get outside and enjoy Spring!!

Happy (Belated) Easter!

Happy Easter, dear Readers!

In some ways, Easter here is rather similar to Easter in America. There are lots of brightly colored eggs, the grocery stores fill up with chocolate, pictures of cute duckies and lambs and bunnies are everywhere, and bright springy colors abound. That’s pretty much where the similarities end, though.

Easter is a much more important holiday in the Czech Republic than it is in America. As at Christmas, the biggest squares play host to Easter Markets. These markets are similar to the Christmas markets with delicious food, some

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The Easter Tree at the Naměsti Míru Easter Market

craft items, some kitschy souvenirs, and some holiday décor. For Easter, there were lots of ornately-decorated eggs. Most of them are hollowed-out real eggs hand-decorated with either geometric patterns or Easter scenes. They also have less fragile wooden eggs for sale, in addition to more familiar little chick and rabbit figurines. *Spoiler Alert!* There is no Easter Bunny.

A few weekends ago, there were two days of stunning sunny weather. Since winter is still in fairly full swing here, the sunny days make a big difference, so I decided to get out and walk to the Easter market at Naměsti Míru, which had been the site of my favorite Christmas market. The dominant feature of the market is a giant Easter tree decorated with eggs, chicks, and vibrant streamers. It was quite the sight! I enjoyed my langoš (fried flat bread topped with garlic, ketchup, and cheese – amazing!) and wandered the market, picking up a few little Easter decorations for my apartment and enjoying the sun.

The traditions for Easter itself are almost entirely different from those in America. The Czech Republic is not a particularly religious country, in general. Perhaps as a result of that, or perhaps just because it’s fun and traditional, many of the pagan traditions for Easter survive and continue to be practiced in varying forms today.

Examples of small pomlázky

Examples of small pomlázky

For one thing, Easter Sunday is mostly just a prep day for Easter Monday. People dye eggs, Babkas start cooking, but the main event takes place on Easter Monday. (Interestingly and tellingly, Easter Monday is a national holiday here, but Good Friday is not.) On Monday morning some combination of several things traditionally takes place. Boys arrive at the homes of girls they know or like (or, if it’s a small enough town, at every house in town). They bring with them a traditional willow whip called a pomlázka. In the most traditional iterations of this ritual, the boy whips the girl (playfully) and the girl gives him an egg. Today, that egg is more likely to be chocolate and/or, if the boy is really lucky (and hopefully of a certain age), a shot of slivovice (traditional plum brandy). Afterwards, she ties a ribbon to his pomlázka, and he goes off to the next stop to repeat the process. In addition or instead of this tradition, in some places, there is also the tradition of boys dowsing girls with water. These traditions are much more prevalent in the countryside and in smaller villages, but aspects of them are definitely preserved even in the largest cities.

Traditionally-decorated Easter eggs

Traditionally-decorated Easter eggs

These are all traditional rituals that stem from symbols of fertility and spring renewal. That said, for many foreigners not raised in this tradition (and I’m sure for many Czechs, too), it can be a bit hard to swallow, for obvious reasons. The reinforcement of gender roles, the encouragement of boys to beat girls (even playfully in good fun) is decidedly not in keeping with contemporary attitudes about gender equality and the way we treat women. As a fellow expat in Prague pointed out in a recent blog post, particularly in the wake of recent highly publicized acts of sexual violence against women, it’s hard to feel that it’s ok to send your kids to school where the boys will make whips to beat the girls and the girls will decorate eggs to give to the boys after their whipping.

That said, as another American living in the Czech Republic pointed out at a recent gathering of expats, it would be sad if these ancient traditions faded away. If you think about it, it’s remarkable that traditions like this still endure in modern culture in a form very similar to the way they were practiced hundreds of years ago. Over the weekend I saw a commercial for a Slovak soap opera that featured lots of pomlázky and women being dowsed from water bottles. These traditions are still very much alive, even in mainstream popular culture.

As someone who is living in Prague, but with a clear expiration date on my time here (that does not include raising children here), it’s easy for me to be charmed by these traditions without having to think too hard about them. I do wonder, though, how I would feel if I was going to be living here for a longer time and would have to grapple with raising children here. I hope I could find a way to foster an appreciation for tradition while still reaffirming more modern ideas about gender.

Anyway, enough with the deep thoughts. What did I do for Easter? Well, I was settling in for a quiet long weekend at home. I’d bought a whole chicken on sale at the grocery store and was looking forward to a nice little Easter feast and watching lots of the West Wing while eating Easter candy. Saturday afternoon as I bestirred myself to go meet a friend for lunch, I got a message from my uncle in Bratislava. “Hey Em,” it said, “we just realized it’s a holiday weekend. I know it’s last minute, but why don’t you hop on a train and come down for the rest of the weekend?” Those of you who know me know that I am one of the least spontaneous people in the world. Even simple weekend trips usually involve lots of planning and packing lists on my part. But the idea of sitting home along suddenly sounded lonely and the idea of going to Bratislava suddenly seemed like a great one! So I threw some things in my backpack, had a quick lunch with my friend, and then hopped on the 5:30 train to Bratislava!

Babka's Easter Feast (or, part of it)

Babka’s Easter Feast (or, part of it)

As always, it was a delightful weekend with lots of relaxing, thousands of calories of delicious food, and quality time with the family. Since the plan was so last minute, Babka didn’t know I was coming, and my aunt intentionally didn’t tell her to prevent her from adding a few more dishes to the already extensive Easter menu. It was really fun to surprise her when we showed up for Sunday Lunch: Special Easter Edition. So what did we eat? The better question would be, what didn’t we eat? In some ways this was almost a caricature of a Central European meal. I swear, there was pork stuffed with pork. And yes, I ate it. And yes, it was delicious. I took these pictures of the table before about half of the dishes had emerged, but you can already see pickles, salad (which nobody touched), soup, potato salad, a big plate of various types of pork products, and a relish platter of sorts with pickles, hard-boiled eggs, and sausages. After I took the picture, rice, dumplings, gravy, chicken legs, beef tongue, and a type of very thin flat bread (almost like a tortilla made of potato flour) emerged. Plus, of course, two types of strudel, several types of store-bought sweets, alcohols and coffee. Needless to say I was completely stuffed by the end.

Petr with the beef tongue

Uncle Petr with the beef tongue, having just put his surgery skills to good use peeling it

Sunday night, Paul, Elena, Liam, and I hit the plavarna (bath house) to swim off the feast (ok, let’s be real, I just sweated it all off in the hot tub), which was a great way to end the day. Monday we went back to Babka’s for round two (equally as delicious, equally as filling, equally as delightful) before I hopped on the late afternoon train back to Prague. I was not victim to any of the aforementioned Easter traditions, but we did see some boys walking through the neighborhood with pomlázky that told us (by the number of ribbons) that they’d had a successful morning. If all spontaneous travel is this fun, I might be convinced to become spontaneous!

Information about Czech Easter traditions came from the following sources:

Christian Falvey, “Czech Easter rituals and their ancient origins,” http://www.radio.cz/en/section/special/czech-easter-rituals-and-their-ancient-origins

Dana Shanberg, “Czech Easter (Velikonoce),” http://www.myczechrepublic.com/czech_culture/czech_holidays/easter/index.html

Gail Whitmore, “No Sweetie, You Can’t Hit Women and I Don’t Care If It’s Easter!” http://czech.ihollaback.org/no-sweetie-you-cant-hit-women-and-i-dont-care-if-its-easter/

Weekend Adventures

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Zofia came to visit me from Warsaw!

Having house guests is great. It’s always fun to see people, it forces me to clean my apartment, and it gets me doing things I wouldn’t normally do. Basically a win-win-win situation. This weekend my friend Zofia came to town from Warsaw. Zofia and I met each other two and a half years ago at a summer school in České Budějovice, a small city in Southern Bohemia. We hadn’t seen each other since, although we’d kept in touch via Facebook, so it was great to see each other and catch up.

What’s better than having house guests? Having house guests who know your city better than you do! Since Warsaw is (relatively) close to Prague, Zof had been here many times, not to mention living here while on Erasmus a few years ago, so we had lots of fun adventures, going places I’ve never been!

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Snowy creek at Divoká Šárka

She arrived Friday morning after taking an overnight bus from Warsaw. Clearly, caffeination was necessary. After we caught up a bit and re-energized, we headed out to Divoká Šárka. This was such a cool area. It’s basically in the Prague suburbs. I’d actually been past it several times because it’s on the bus route to the airport. I’d heard from friends that there was a nice hike there, but I’d never been, so I was excited to check it out. Even though we’d had some spring snow earlier in the week, Friday was gorgeous and sunny, so we had a nice (albeit muddy) walk around and up the hill at Divoká Šárka.

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Divoká Šárka

After our hike, we headed back into town and up to Vyšehrad. This is one of the oldest parts of Prague, where the founding story claims that Líbuše (basically the mother of the Czechs) stood and declared that a great city would be built. Now there are some old ruins there, a nice-looking (from the outside) church, and the cemetery where basically all famous historical Czechs are buried. I’d been there a few times right after I arrived in Prague, but it had been a while so I was glad to get back, particularly on such a great day, when the views of the city were particularly gorgeous. (So naturally, I didn’t take any pictures of them…)

Saturday, I had rehearsal in the morning, but I met up with Zofia after lunch and we had a nice walk around the old town. It was another beautiful sunny day, so we walked up to the castle and wandered back down through Malá Strana, taking pictures and enjoying the lovely weather. Zof is a big photographer, so it inspired me to take more pictures than I normally would.

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We found a random statue of Winston Churchill in Malá Strana!

In addition to our Prague wanderings, we also met up with a lot of Zofia’s friends from her stay in Prague. It was fun to meet other people who live here and see a few new pubs and cafes. Saturday evening we even spent some time with a Czech poet friend of Zof’s who didn’t really speak any English, so I spent the whole evening speaking Czech! That was a major accomplishment for me. Sure, it wasn’t great Czech and I didn’t talk that much, but put a beer or two in me and I’m a lot more willing to try. Too bad I can’t be in that state when needing to interact with archivists, librarians, scholars, etc…

All in all, it was a fun weekend of seeing an old friend, making new friends, and exploring (and revisiting) this awesome city!

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View of town from the Castle

Music in Prague: Part 2

So yesterday I sat down to write about my recent spate of musical activities, planning to smoosh them into one big post. After writing out the post, though, I realized it was a Post of Epic Proportions (and would be more so when placed into the narrow layout of my blog…I am rethinking the appearance of this blog…), so I divided it into two parts. Yesterday, you got Part 1, about my concert experiences. Today is opera day!

The proscenium at the National Theater, with its motto: Narod Sobě

The proscenium at the National Theater, with its motto: Narod Sobě

I’ve been to the opera twice this month. I know, it’s shameful that I’m here to study Czech opera and had been here 5 months before I saw a Czech opera, but now I’ve been and it is great! The first time I went I saw Dvořák’s Jakobín at the Narodní Divadlo (National Theater). There is so much in that last sentence to unpack! First of all, the National Theater is a REALLY big deal in Czech history. Not Czech music history – Czech history. When the Czechs were trying to form a Czech identity in the 19th century, they decided to build a grand opera house for the performance of Czech operas. (Of course, then they had to sponsor a contest to write Czech operas to perform there, but that’s another story…) The theater was so important that when the building burned down almost as soon as it opened, the Czech people raised the money for it all over again. Above the stage, the words “Narod Sobě” appear. “The nation for itself.” Pretty powerful stuff. I wish I could say at any point in history Americans would have been that dedicated to building an opera house, but I don’t think I could. It’s so much a part of cultural memory that it features prominently in a recent Pislner Urquell ad (which featured prominently in my Fulbright application…).

Anyway, it was cool enough that I was getting to see an opera in this really important Czech theater, but beyond that, it was the opera that got me started on this whole crazy journey in the first place. My first year of grad school my advisor led a seminar on Czech Nationalism and I wrote my paper about Jakobín. I started thinking, “Hm…that’s really interesting that his librettist was a woman. She also seems like kind of a firecracker. And her father was a really important politician…” and just under three years later, here I am!

The best part, is that Jakobín is not just an interesting cultural study…it’s actually a great show! There are some fun characters and some great music. The story is basically that these two strangers and their kids show up in a small Czech town. Everyone thinks that they’re Jakobins (read: foreign and dangerous) and the town Burgrave (whatever that is…some kind of bureaucrat…) is out to get them. Only it turns out that the guy is the long-disinherited son of the local nobleman and is back to make peace with his family. There’s also the story line about the local music teacher (a very Czech character trope) and his daughter who is in love with the chorus tenor, but who is loved by the Burgrave. Obviously there is hilarity, mistaken identity, and a lot of singing and it all ends happily ever after.

Needless to say, I had never seen this live before. Luckily for me, the entire show is available on Youtube, so I was able to watch it when I wrote my paper, but seeing it live was much better, for obvious reasons. Here’s one scene, in case anyone is interested. This is a scene in which the music teacher is leading a rehearsal of his new piece to be performed at a gala event for the Duke. It is simultaneously really gorgeous music and also sounds kind of like the opening lines of “Home on the Range.” That is not as much of a contradiction as you might think…

One interesting thing about the performance I saw is that it combines very modern elements with some more traditional ones. For example, the characters are all dressed in typical period costumes, but the general aesthetic of the set is based on the idea of the music teacher’s classroom, so there were a variety of impractically large chairs that served as movable set pieces that were used for lots of different things (you can sort of see this in the picture above). When I first realized it was a more modern production, I was worried that it might lose some of its old-school Czech charm, but as I watched I realized it didn’t and caused some interesting mulling about preserving tradition with updates. Watch JSTOR for an article on this sometime in the next 2-5 years…

The other opera I went to was, in many ways, completely different. The woman who interviewed me for Charles University’s iForum offered me an extra ticket to see Mozart’s Magic Flute with her at the Estates Theater as a thank you for doing the interview. Obviously I accepted!

Seeing Mozart in Prague might seem a little odd, but Prague and Mozart actually have very tight connections. Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered here in Prague in the late 18th century and Prague is (rightly) very proud of this. Don Giovanni is always a regular performance here. Plus, most of Amadeus was filmed in Prague. It was a surprise, though, to find out when I got to the theater that the performance would be in Czech! Ivana explained to me that this is a bit of a hold over from when most opera performances were done in the local language. I suppose this makes sense: the Czech language was suppressed for a loong time during Hapsburg Rule, so when they got the right to perform in Czech they wanted to do so! That said, it was a bit odd hearing pieces that I am quite familiar with in German sung in Czech. Particularly amusing was the duet between Papageno and Papagena. Those of you who are familiar with the opera know that this is mostly babbling and singing each others’ names. Those of you who are familiar with Czech know that when you’re talking to a person, grammatically a final “a” becomes “o.” Thus, Papageno is running around singing to… “Papageno.” Ok, operatic grammar rant over…

Interestingly, this was also a modern production. The aesthetic they were going to seemed to be Steampunk-Parachute Games. That is, the Three Ladies and the Queen of the Night were all wearing Steampunk-looking costumes and the major set piece was a diaphanous, brightly colored piece of fabric that the dancers controlled with pulleys on either side of the stage to move it around. It was kind of odd, but it also kind of worked. There was also a guy dressed in traditional Mozart garb who showed up to play a flute every time the eponymous instrument was supposed to appear on stage. While Wolfie played, the guy playing Tamino held a flute and waved it around meaningfully. Yeah, ok, that part was kind of weird.

Also kind of weird? The guy playing Monostatos (the evil sorcerer who holds Pamina captive) was in blackface. Somehow I had completely blocked this (super creepy) character from my mind. I think I’ve actually only seen The Magic Flute in its entirety one time and it was in Vienna in 2007 (not counting the all-marionette performance I saw in middle school). When I got home, I was trying to decide how this character is usually handled. It turns out I’m not the only one, since I found this illuminating article from 2008 talking about the issue, as well. That said, the fact that the character was in blackface in 2013 still struck me as kind of odd. Yes, the character is written that way and I am certainly not judging Mozart and Shickaneder for writing from their contemporary view points… but I feel like there might be a different way of handling this that both maintained the authenticity of the original piece and also updated to be slightly more PC in 2013.

That said, it was fun to see an opera I really enjoy live, done very differently than I’d seen it done before, and I’m really glad I was invited, because I doubt I would have motivated myself to go see that one on my own.

So that pretty much sums up my musical activities lately! I’m off to Bratislava this weekend for more family fun, so maybe you’ll get another Slovak post soon! Feel free to send requests, too. I don’t think too much of major note is coming up in my life that will merit its own post, so if you want to know something about expat life in Prague, just let me know!

Until next time…

 

Music in Prague: Part 1

Prague is a great musical city…obviously, I’m here studying music history! I’m embarrassed to say, though, that until fairly recently I hadn’t really been to very many performances here. There are always the excuses that I was tired after a long day of researching and didn’t feel like getting dressed up, yadda yadda, but they’re really just excuses. I’m here to study music and a big part of that is experiencing said music in its “natural habitat” so I’m glad I have finally gotten my act together and started going to things! I’d intended to write about each of these events in its own post, but clearly, that didn’t happen, so I have two posts for this week (stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow!), one about going to concerts and one about going to the opera.

Interestingly, my first big concert-going experience here was at John’s instigation. John is an electrical engineer who has a healthy respect for music, but most of the time it’s more of me dragging him to things, not the other way around. For whatever reason, while he was here he REALLY wanted to see the symphony. Luckily, during his visit the Czech Philharmonic was playing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, so we got tickets and went!

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The Rudolfinum, all decked out for the beginning of the season back in the fall

The Czech Phil plays in a really gorgeous building right on the river called the Rudolfinum. It’s actually directly across from the building of the university where my department is, so when it was still warm, I used to sit on a bench outside the Rudolfinum to eat my lunch many days. My favorite Rudolfinum story is from World War II. The top of the building is crowned with busts of famous composers. When the Nazis rolled in during the war, they decided that they certainly could not have Jewish composers glorified in that way, so they ordered the bust of Mendelssohn to be removed. Unfortunately, the guys tasked with this had clearly spent too much time in the Hitler Youth and not enough time in Music Appreciation…because they mistakenly decapitated Wagner, the famously anti-semitic composer who was Der Fürer’s Lieblingskomponist (favorite composer). Oops…

Anyway, the Czech Philharmonic still plays in this building and Wagner has been restored, so it’s all good. The hall is gorgeous, and actually really small. Both times I’ve been there I’ve been in the last row of the balcony and felt quite close to the performers, so that is great. What’s also great is how cheap the tickets are. John and I ordered ours online and they were in the neighborhood of $20 each. When I went the next week with my friend Laura, we actually took our student ID cards to the box office to get the student discount and paid about half that. Yes, it’s more than it would cost you to go see Argo, but considering it’s a world-class orchestra, that is dirt cheap. (Just as a comparison, a quick Google tells me that tickets to the New York Philharmonic start at $49, although they do have $13.50 student rush tickets for some performances.)

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Rudolfinium interior.

So I went to the orchestra two weeks in a row in January! The first time, John and I saw Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which was, of course, amazing. The only other time I’d seen it done live was in college when some friends and I went to see it done at Cornell. I remember being amazed then, too, but this was certainly a different caliber of performance. It was especially cool since, because of the way the chorus was positioned, we were at the same level as the singers, so it felt like this wall of sound was coming at us during the choral section. Very cool.

The next week, Laura and I went again because they were doing the Dvořák Cello Concerto. Also on the program were Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. I knew the Cello Concerto and knew that I loved it, but I also wound up really enjoying the Shostakovich. It was also neat because the guest conductor was a really young Polish guy who had a lot of energy and enthusiasm, so it was great fun to watch. All in all, both were (as expected) amazing concert experiences.

Museum of Music

Czech Museum of Music

Last week I went to a very different type of concert. This was a free concert of Dvořák piano music at the Czech Museum of Music to celebrate the release of a new Czech translation of a German book about Dvořák. I had just happened to stumble across the listing for the concert when I was on the Museum’s website for something else, and I’m so glad I did! For one thing, the Museum of Music is a really cool space. It’s a four-story building with a big atrium in the middle where the concerts take place, so that makes for a really interesting and picturesque (if chilly) concert space. This was also a very typical Czech concert experience: the pianist played two brief pieces, and then there was about an hour of speeches. That’s slightly more than one usually expects (it’s usually more like 20 minutes) but almost all of the concerts that I’ve attended or sung in here begin with lots of speechifying.

The great thing about this, is that one of the speeches was from Antonín Dvořák!! Ok, not THE Antonín Dvořák, but his grandson, Antonín Dvořák, III. He is a very cute older guy (in his 80s) and seemed very happy to be there. He was taking pictures of the concert and the other people there (and didn’t seem put out by the people shamelessly taking pictures of him…which I would have…but my camera was at home…). Also, he looks EXACTLY like his grandfather. It’s a little creepy. Sadly, he was about the 7th of 8 speeches, so by that time, my ability to process and understand the Czech was waning (and he was a little hard to understand because he’s in his 80s…), but it was still really neat to see him in person! It was also cool to hear some of Dvořák’s piano music, which is quite nice and rarely heard in America, with the exception of about two pieces.

Dvorak

AD, I

ADIII

AD, III

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The resemblance is uncanny, right?

So here ends part 1 of my musical experiences extravaganza. Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow!

An Interview with I-Forum

Greetings from snowy Prague! Just a quick update today to share the link to an interview I did with the Charles University I-Forum. I talk a good bit about my research, so I thought those of you who have been curious about what exactly it is that I’m doing (besides going to the movies and having (mis)adventures in the kitchen) might be interested.

http://iforumeng.cuni.cz/IFORUMENG-297.html

Look for a new post soon, detailing my Masopust adventures!

Going to the Movies!

So I have fallen off the wagon a bit lately with blogging. SORRY! I think part of the problem is that I started writing a blog post about our trip to Budapest, which was just sort of overwhelming. Also, this blog is supposed to be about Prague. So I’m tabling Budapest for some time later when I am feeling nostalgic and Wanderlustich and figured I should write about something that I actually feel like writing about!

Lately, one of my new favorite things to do in Prague is go to the movies. It has enough of the familiarity of going in America (not to mention larger-than-life-sized people speaking English on a big screen for a few hours), but has its own quirks, too.

I hadn’t actually been to the movies until Christmas time. To be fair, it would take me a long time to come up with the last movie I saw in the theater in the States. (Ok, actually I just did: it was that comedy about Southern Politics with Zack Galifinakis and Will Ferrell. But before that? No idea…) Back home, I really never go to the movies. It’s expensive and I find that very infrequently is there something out that I actually want to see badly enough that I can’t wait until it gets to the Redbox. John also has a (pretty sensible) policy that if seeing it on the big screen isn’t going to improve his experience, there’s really no reason to go to the theater.

ANYWAY, on our way back from Budapest we stopped back in Bratislava for a night and wound up going to see The Life of Pi (aka Pi a Jeho Život – “Pi and his Life”) with my aunt and uncle. This was my first European movie experience. In the next two weeks before John left, we went three more times in Prague and I went again last week! I think I’ve seen more of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture this year than I ever have before the Academy Awards! John and I saw Skyfall (yeah, I was really behind, especially considering it came out here before it did in the States), The Hobbit, and Les Miserables, and I went with two friends here to see Lincoln last week, all of which were excellent.

So what makes going to the movies in the Czech Republic different from going in the States? For one thing, the cinemas are almost always on more than one floor. This makes sense since buildings are closer together here and malls in this part of the world are usually not free-standing the way they are in America. It has just occurred to me that this is probably a function of being in an urban setting, rather than a European one, but whatever. You buy your ticket and then almost always have to go locate the escalator to get to the theater.

Another thing that’s different is that they assign seating. I was really confused the first time John and I went and the guy asked me if I wanted “high or low.” I kind of muttered “Um…it doesn’t matter?” and then realized he wanted to know if we wanted to be close to the screen or up further. So far I’ve only been to the movies at kind of off-peak times, so being in an assigned seat hasn’t really been a big deal, but I can see where that might be nice if it was a Friday night or the first weekend of a popular movie.

The other big difference, of course, is that most of what’s going on is subtitled. TV shows are generally dubbed here, but movies are almost always subtitled. Almost. John and I nearly wound up accidentally seeing a dubbed version of The Hobbit, which would have been weird. (There is something really disconcerting about seeing a familiar actor on screen and hearing a different voice come out of his or her mouth. Don’t believe me? Try watching Harry Potter or Friends dubbed. It’s FREAKY.) I actually really enjoy reading the subtitles. It can be quite educational for me; sometimes I read things and realize “Oh THAT’S what someone was saying to me.” Since, particularly in Prague, the language gets a bit sloppy and words often flow together, it can be really helpful to see what the words look like written down. I also like reading the subtitles and seeing if I can guess what the people on screen are actually going to say. Sometimes it’s easier than others. For example, reading about the American Civil War and American politics translated into Czech was pretty odd. The Czech Republic doesn’t have much in the way of racial diversity, so there isn’t much of a vocabulary for talking about race. It was pretty bluntly translated as “blacks” and “whites” the whole time. To be fair, that’s how the majority of Americans probably talk, but it was a little strange just seeing it written so bluntly that way. Not to mention that Czechs have a different grammatical case for when you’re addressing someone, so it’s pretty funny to see Lincoln talking to someone named Bob and look down and see the subtitles say “Bobe,…”

Another thing that is interesting for me about the movies here is that sometimes the titles are either untranslated or translated literally, but sometimes they are completely different! For example Skyfall and Lincoln were the same. Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was translated literally (Hobit: Neočekávaná cesta) as is Nespoutaný Django. But then there are some that are varying degrees of really different. I already mentioned Pi a jeho Život (Pi and his Life). That one is at least close. The new movie (which I’ve heard is a real winner…not) called Movie 43 in English turns into Mládeži nepřístupno (Adults Only) in Czech. The new sci-fi movie starring Kirsten Dunst is called Paralelní Světy (Parallel Worlds) here, but is Upside Down in English. I was also really curious about this movie Silver Linings Playbook that is getting so much attention in English. It turns out I’d seen preview for it multiple times here, but it is just called something totally different in Czech (and now I can’t remember what it is and it isn’t coming out for a month and a half here…). That one at least makes sense since both “silver lining” and “playbook” are sort of idiomatic. The others, I have no idea.

There also seems to be a pretty great variance in when movies come out here, as compared with the US. I assume that this is all to do with Hollywood studios. For example, we got Skyfall before America did, presumably because it came out in England first. I think Hobbit was the same both in America and here. A more artsy theater was showing Les Miserables (Bidnicí in Czech; that’s more or less a literal translation) the week of Christmas here (I think without subtitles), but it wasn’t officially released until early January. On the other end of the spectrum, Hitchcock just came out last week here, we didn’t get Lincoln until late January, and I’ll have to wait until mid- to late-March for both Silver Linings Playbook and Identity Theft.

You may be wondering about Czech movies by now. Yes, so far, I’ve only seen movies in English at the theater. (Can you really blame me? I don’t really want to spend $8 to kind of watch half a movie while being a bit lost for the other half…) There are Czech film companies that release Czech films. I did a post about Rebelové a few months ago, and Kolya from 1996 won the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Miloš Forman of Amadeus and People v. Larry Flynt fame is also Czech. That said, obviously the vast majority of big budget films come out of Hollywood, where there are not too many Czech speakers. I do see billboards and ads on the sides of buses and bus stops for Czech movies, but there is maybe one big one every two or three months, and after going to the movies 5 times, I’ve only seen one preview for a Czech movie (and I couldn’t really figure out what was going on…). I would definitely like to see more Czech movies, but it’s much nicer when I’m only disturbing people I know by nudging them and asking “Wait did he just say….,” so I’ll probably stick to watching Czech movies at home for now.

So that’s my newest hobby here. I’ve seen most of the movies that I was really excited about, though, so I’m not sure how often I’ll be going in the near future. Also, can we talk about Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters? Seriously?!

The Czech Presidential Election

I’m going to take a brief break from the travelogue to talk about what’s going on in the Czech Republic this weekend. Today is the last day of voting for the new Czech president. It’s been really neat to be here during an election year, just to see a little bit of how the election works in a different country. In particular, this is a very special election as it is the first time in the 20-year history of the country that the Czech people are directly electing a president. Before I go any further, I need to give the caveat that I really don’t know that much about modern Czech politics and I am not especially informed about either of these candidates. These are just my impressions of what is going on here, bolstered by a few good articles. Forgive any sweeping judgements, inaccuracies, or ignorance!

Ok, moving on. I’ve given a bit of Czech history here before, but just as a refresher, the Czech Republic officially separated from Slovakia January 1, 1993, during what was called the “Velvet Divorce.” The government of the Czech Republic consists of a bi-cameral (two houses, just like us) legislature, a prime minister (currently Petr Necas) who has legislative power and is basically the commander-in-chief, and a president, whose power is more symbolic. The president is important, though, because he often serves as the face of the Czech Republic abroad. He also has the power to appoint certain government positions.

Former Czech president Vacláv Havel

Former Czech president Vacláv Havel

So far, the Czech Republic has had two presidents. The first was Vacláv Havel. Havel, who died just over a year ago, was a playwright, dissident, and generally just good guy. He is a Czech national hero, and, in my opinion, gave a lot of weight to the office of the Czech president. His experience with theater continues to benefit Prague: he hired a lot of his lighting designer friends to illuminate important buildings around Prague, which I think makes the city almost prettier at night than it is during the day! He was, and remains, extremely popular here and was a really tough act to follow.

Havel was followed by another Vacláv: Vacláv Klaus. The two Vaclávs were pretty different and…well…not each others’ biggest fans. Unfortunately, Klaus is most famous for things that are not so positive. He is an outspoken (and fairly rude) opponent of the EU (of which the Czech Republic is a member, although they do not use the Euro), and openly denies global warming. Even more unfortunate for him, this hilarious video has 915,000+ hits on YouTube and is probably one of the things for which he is best known outside of the Czech Republic:

Until this year the Czech president had been elected by parliament, not in a direct election. Thanks, in large part, to allegations of corruption, it was decided that this year the Czechs would go to the polls for the first time to elect their own president. The general make up of the Czech political system is pretty different from America’s in that, instead of having two main parties, there are lots of smaller parties. Smaller parties usually wind up forming coalitions in Parliament so that there is a majority, but it means that running up to the first round of voting two weeks ago there were 9 main candidates. Perhaps most newsworthy among them (to the point that he made news in the States, apparently) was Vladimir Franz. Franz, a 53-year-old composer and professor just had a new opera premiered at the National Theater. Apparently many Czechs don’t actually know his name. They just call him “Avatar.” Why? Because he looks like this:

Vladimir Franz, aka "Avatar"

Vladimir Franz, aka “Avatar”

For better or for worse, Franz didn’t make it to the second round of voting which is going on right now. The top two candidates, who advanced to the final round of voting, are Karel Schwarzenberg and Miloš Zeman. Zeman is a former prime minister, known for being…well, rude. He also had some somewhat dubious connections to the communist party during the communist era. That said, he came out on top, narrowly edging Schwarzenberg in the first round of voting.

Schwarzenberg button

Schwarzenberg button

Schwarzenberg is commonly known as “the Prince” because his family was major nobility during the Hapsburg Empire and continues to be really wealthy. I was actually surprised when I learned that Zeman had won the first round, because I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, but, I suppose because of his personal wealth, Schwarzenberg’s face is plastered all over town. He hired (in)famous Czech artist David Černý to do the art for his campaign, which is based on a Sex Pistols album cover, and features Schwarzenberg with a hot pink mohawk. There are posters, stickers, and people wearing Schwarzenberg buttons all over town. (Full disclosure: I am one of those people.) He also hosted a concert featuring about 20 different bands at the square closest to my house, which apparently attracted 20,000 people. Schwarzenberg is current foreign minister of the Czech Republic and was buddy-buddy with Havel. Working against him, though, is the fact that he was in exile in Austria during communism, which means that he speaks sort of antiquated Czech, and his wife is Austrian and speaks little or no Czech. He also has a tendency to apparently fall asleep in public. (His campaign claims that he “closes his eyes in bright light.”)

People hope, though, that if he wins his huge personal wealth will keep him from being corrupted. That would be a Good Thing.

In any case, whether it’s because The Prince is dropping huge amounts of money on this campaign, because I live in a certain part of town, or because I’m young, I’m much more aware of Schwarzenberg than of Zeman. Obviously I can’t vote here, but I do think that Schwarzenberg seems (from my limited knowledge) like the better candidate, from what I do know. In any case, it’s been interesting and exciting to be here for the first direct election and I’ll be excited to update this post tomorrow with the winner!

In case you’re interested in more information, here are links to two articles that I’ve found to be useful in the last few weeks:

Dalibor Rohac in The Wall Street Journal 1/14/2013:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324235104578241172151530766.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

Dan Bilefsky in The New York Times 1/24/2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/25/world/europe/czech-prince-schwarzenberg-runs-a-punk-campaign.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1&

UPDATE, Jan. 26, 5:00 PM:

Aaand, the results are in. Zeman won, which is too bad. But life shall go on. Here’s a succinct BBC bit that gives a bit more information about Zeman:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21210495

 

Christmas in Slovakia

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite things about spending time in this part of the world is the chance to spend some good time with my family in Bratislava. It’s a city I probably never would have seen if I hadn’t had a familial connection and it’s just great to know that I have family nearby. It was especially nice to have family nearby since my parents had to leave before Christmas itself, so on Sunday the 23rd, John and I headed to the train station to make our way to Bratislava.

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John, having gotten over his utter disbelief that he doesn’t need a passport to go to Slovakia or Hungary, is ready to go!

Train travel in Europe is fantastic. To get to most places (particularly East of here) is reasonably inexpensive, comfortable, and quite easy. I’ve only rarely had any problems with the trains here. Unfortunately this trip was one of those times. Luckily it all worked out fine, but when we got to the train station here, it turned out our train, which should have taken us to Bratislava (and gone on to Budapest) was only going as far as Brno, and the Czech Rail folks weren’t being particularly forthcoming with details. Since I reasoned that halfway to Bratislava was better than nothing, we got on the train anyway and figured we’d get it all sorted eventually. We did. Eventually. It turns out that the train we were supposed to have taken was running 90 minutes late, so this train was just going to Brno. Nobody really told us that, other than to say that there “might” be another train in 90 minutes and that “maybe” there would be room for us. In any case, after about 2 hours in the Brno train station we were able to get a different train to Bratislava, which we had practically all to ourselves. Paul braved an ice storm to come collect us on the bus and we made our way cautiously back to their house, where we were greeted in the usual warm way: heaps of food!

My family in Bratislava celebrates an interesting mix of American and Slovak traditions for Christmas. In Slovakia it is traditional that the 24th is the big holiday and that after a big Christmas Eve dinner, Baby Jesus brings presents and they’re all opened on Christmas Eve night. When my cousins were little it seemed like a hassle to haul all of the presents across town and cruel to make them wait until the 25th to open all of their presents when everyone else was getting them on the 24th, so the McCullough family does the big event on Christmas Eve morning:

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Nivi’s bunny suit was by far the most exciting present of the morning. Won’t lie: I’m kind of jealous…

After the bonanza of present opening, my Aunt Elena headed to Babka’s to help out with preparations for the feast and we had most of the day to kill until dinner. Paul suggested a walk in the hills outside of Bratislava. Last time I was there it was idyllic with fall foliage. This time it was a Winter Wonderland! We slipped and slid our way through woods in which every twig was covered in ice – it was far more beautiful than my camera could really capture, but I tried

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Uncle Paul and I

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Walking in a Winter Wonderland…

That evening we went to Babka’s for a feast of epic proportions. The meal began with wafers and garlic dipped in honey. My aunt also went around dabbing a bit of honey on everyone’s forehead. There was something really magical about that – mostly candlelight and a big family around the table. (And then it was just funny to watch John repeatedly forget that he had honey on his forehead and wonder why his hand was suddenly sticky!) As was to be expected, Babka, Elena, and her brother Petr had prepared enough food to feed a small army: two kinds of soup, fish, two kinds of schnitzel, two kinds of potato salad, vegetables, sauerkraut, plus lots of nuts, Christmas sweets, and three kinds of strudel. Obviously we gorged ourselves and it was excellent! (I now regret that I was too busy stuffing my face to take any pictures…)

This was a Christmas celebration that was, in many ways, totally different from ones that I’ve had in the past, but I’m so glad it was! Not only was it great to experience something different, it was also nice that it wasn’t too comparable to the Christmas that I was missing back home. I was still surrounded by lots of love and it was wonderful.

John, Babka, and I

John, Babka, and I

Christmas day itself is something of a non-event in Slovakia. Technically there it’s “First Christmas.” We went back to Babka’s for “leftovers” for lunch, although, of course, it being Babka, there were a number of additions to what had already appeared the night before. And we gorged ourselves again. John, uninitiated to the ways of Babka’s, said “I’m not going to eat as much this time. It’s just lunch, right?” Paul and I just laughed.

After lunch, even though it was pretty cold and not especially nice out, Paul and Elena took us on a walking tour of the old town of Bratislava, since John had never been before. Bratislava is an interesting city in that it’s similar in age to Prague and Vienna, but considerably smaller. Despite being at the center of the Hapsburg empire for many years, it was only rarely the center of attention, which gives the city a very different vibe. I’m not sure how I would feel about it if

I was visiting just as a tourist, but with family to show us around I really enjoy it.

Walking around Bratislava

Walking around Bratislava

That night we went swimming! During the summer there is a lake in town that my family goes to several times a week. They’ve recently discovered that this can be replaced by an indoor bathing facility (a plavarna) in the winter. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – Elena had said that the boys could swim while we sat in the jacuzzi, so obviously I was on board…but we got there and it was so much more than a jacuzzi! In addition to the normal swimming pool, there was a whole room with some small, traditional jacuzzis, but also a much larger pool with jets throughout, each designed to massage a different area of your body, that rotate on and off. It was fantastic! I’d never experienced anything like this before and it was a great preview for what we would soon see in Budapest!

This was a great holiday. We are always so welcomed and so well cared for in Bratislava and it was great to find some new Christmas traditions. It was also a great jumping-off point for our next adventure: Budapest!

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