Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Watch what you say!

The more I study Spanish the more fun I have looking at the similarities and also the big differences between our two languages. Here are some of my favorites:

Embarazada - Now this word looks like it might mean embarassed, but boy is that far off. In Spanish it actually means pregnant! So, if you did something stupid and want to say how dumb you feel, you will feel even stupider if you say you're embarazada, because I guarantee that you don't want to say you're pregnant!

Molestar - This word looks quite a lot like moleste, which seems pretty harsh. You would use this term like 'no me molesta', which translates to don't moleste me. I hope that this is a phrase no one ever has to say in English, but in Spanish it just means 'don't bother me'. I wonder if the guy who made English just found this word and blew it out of proportion and made molest like we have today?

Nova - Everyone knows this one! Who doesn't like a nice Chevy Nova? Well, apparently the Spanish-speaking people! In Spanish, 'va' means go. So, when you put 'no' in front of it, it means 'no go' hahahah. Obviously it wasn't a big seller!

Tengo leche - This is a phrase I actually said before, not knowing the meaning. Tengo in Spanish means 'I have' and leche means 'milk'. So, I was talking to my flatmate and he was making dinner and asked if he could borrow some milk from me. I had just bought some and said yes, tengo leche. That seems regular right? Well, apparently not! Through laughs, he explained that you say 'I have milk' if you are breast-feeding, which I was obviously not doing. Oh my!

Hope you enjoyed these common mistakes! If you ever come to Spain, remember them!


Monday, January 25, 2010


Well, this past weekend, I tried something new - an intercambio. This is where I speak in Spanish with a spanish-speaking person and they speak in English - that way we both improve the languages we are learning! I did it with my roommate Karkour, who is from the south of Spain and it was great practice because we corrected each others mistakes. It seems like when you normally talk to people, in an attempt to be nice, they don't correct you, but this is exactly what I want! It was also good to work on my figures of speech and phrases that really sometimes make no sense unless you know how to use it. For example, one phrase to say something is messy is 'manga por hombro' which literally translates to 'a sleeve for a shoulder' which makes NO sense at all. Speaking with my friends that are learning Spanish like me, we can't pick up on these mistakes, so spending more time with real Spanish speakers will hopefully help me improve my skills. I am thinking about finding a few more Spanish people I know and doing intercambios, and who knows, maybe one day I will be fluent!

Hope you had a good weekend and your week is starting off great!


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Drumming the Day Away!

As you might remember from last year, January 20th is San Sebastián Day here. Last year it was quite a party and this year was the same, but this time around I looked into the history a little bit to figure out why I was having such a big party!

In 1597, a plague struck Donostia and the desperate townspeople prayed to Saint Sebastian to cure the illness. By some miracle, the plague ended and the people of the town promised to always honor the Saint on January 20th. During this time, Donostia was actually occupied by the French military and because at the time it was a walled city, the Basque and French lived side by side. Within the walls, there were only two fountains to get water from, Kanoletan and Koxkax, and to get water, you had to be either a Frenchman, a cook or a woman. As you can imagine, the lines became pretty long, and what do you do Basque people do when they are standing in a long line? Sing and make music. All they had were their water barrels and the chefs had their ladles, so there we have the music of Tamborrada! The French didn't appreciate the noise so much and would in turn play on their barrels, causing a sort of competition.

Nowadays the tradition lives on. At midnight on the night of the 19th, the izada takes place. This is the flag raising in the Plaza de la Constitución that is accompanied by Basque songs played on the drums. The majority of the stage are dressed in chef outfits and traditional Basque peasant dress and the rest wear costumes typical of the French army at the time. All of the songs, created by a Basque named Raimundo Sarriegui, are played at the ceremony and it seems every Basque person knows every word. The most important song is called the March of San Sebastián. For fun, to show you how incredibly different the Basque language is, I will show you some of the lyrics of this tune.

We are!
gu (e)re bai
We are here!
gu beti pozez, beti alai!
We are always happy, always cheerful!

Sebastian bat bada zeruan There is a Sebastian in the heavens
Donosti bat bakarra munduan
The only one San Sebastian in the world
hura da santua ta hau da herria
He is a Saint and this is his village
horra zer den gure Donostia! Here in our town of San Sebastian!

Gaurtandik gerora penak zokor
a From this day forward, all our worries go away
Festara! Dantzara!
It's time to party! It's time to dance!
rei oihu egitera gatoz Let's call all of the people of Donostia
Happy ones!
Inauteriak datoz
Come to the party!

Now, you can imagine that this is quite difficult to sing, but with every in the crowd singing and the drums pounding so hard you can feel it in your chest, you don't even care that you don't know the words. The party starts at midnight and for the next 24 hours, there is not a single moment that is not filled with drums. At some point during every second, there is a group parading around a neighborhood playing the songs of the day.

The most impressive drummers come out at noon the next day at the Tamborrada Infantil. More than 5,000 children, who have been practicing for months, line up and tocar los tambores - play the drums. The parade seems like a never-ending line of kids, each school wearing a different outfit, but playing united. My hat is off to the kids, who every year march for hours, last year in the rain, this year luckily with a sunny sky.

Shame as it is, I had to work on the 20th, because in Hondarribia it is not a festival day. Extremly tired from partying the night before til about 6:30am, I dragged myself to work and probably wasn't the most exciting teacher that day. Just when I thought I was too tired to do anything else, I decided I should finish the festival out the right way and go see the arriada, the flag-lowering. Just as big of a ceremony as the raising, I arrived early and got a place directly in front of the stage. As the clock struck 12, the entire Plaza was silent and after the ringing of the 12 bells, the music commenced with dancing, drumming, marching and of course the crowd singing! Even though I didn't know the words well, I knew some of them and knew when to clap my hands to the drum beats.
The chefs and French men of this performance all belonged to the Unión Artesana, one of the societies here in San Sebastian. Only men are allowed in these societies, and they were started as a way for men to experiment with gastronomy. To this day, Basque Country is know as one of the best eating places in thh world, and the Unión Artesana is the oldest cooking society in town. Dressed in thier chef outfits, they each carried a huge piece of cutlery, with which they pounded the stage floor to the beat of the music while parading around the stage. The French men, in full uniform, march around with their weapons and tools. The Basque women, who are family of the society members are allowed in on the party in their traditional costumes.

After Basque song after Basque song, I didn't want it to end, but after 30 minutes of drumming it did and I headed home, still hearing the songs in my head. Luckily I got a small encore as a troop of chefs was parading down the main street in my neighborhood and for one more time I got to clap along, sporting my own chef hat!

Muxu! (Kisses in Basque)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I'm kind of a Pesty girl! Budapest Part 2

Last I recall, I was telling you about a tasty goulash soup - typical Budapest! At this point in the day, we were in the Jewish Quarter, and figured that since we were there, we should drop by the Great Synagogue, an amazing structure built in the mid 1800s that created 'synagogue' style with its onion-shaped domes. The synagogue is the biggest in Europe and was the first synagogue that was built by Jews on Jewish-owned land. The interior was spectacular, and beat some of the churches I had seen on the trip, with massive chandeliers with white globes and stars everywhere! Underneath the synagogue was a museum, recounting the history of the synagogue and the major players. We learned about the construction of such a structure and how they financed it. It turns out that they actually didn't have enough money to cover the cost, so at the end, they sold seats in the pews. These high-priced seats were bought by either rich people or community groups. In the Jewish religion, however, they believe that everything is passed down through your mother. As a result, the majority of the seats on the main floor were owned by women, even though they couldn't even sit in them - they had to sit in the balcony! Each seat had a placard stating who owned the seat, and in the museum they display some of the previous placards, all of varying metals and fonts. My favorite part of the museum was the display they had of two Haggadahs, a Jewish religious text. One is red and was printed in Austria and shows the Great Synagogue of Budapest. The other is green with the a famous Israeli synagogue...but this one was printed in Budapest! I just thought it was funny that at the time of print, the Hungarians had one of the most famous synagogues and they didn't put it on their Haggadahs!

When we left the synagogue we were staring at the exterior when this old man approached us and asked us if we knew about the mini-synagogue. Of course, we didn't know about it, but then he started talking in German with Theresa and asked us if we would like to go see this mini-synagogue. Cautious as I am, I was a little slow to agree, but this man seemed nice and could actually communicate with one of us, and we figured we would be a bit adventurous and go with him. Grammy, I know you probably are having a small heart attack thinking of me walking around a strange city with a stranger, but I'm ok now hahah! Peter, as he called himself, said he was happy to show us around the Jewish Quarter, because although he isn't Jewish, it was his neighborhood and he loved talking about it. First we walked through the slushy streets to a huge block of houses. Seven buildings fill the block and through the center are walkways that connect every courtyard together. Sounds like a great community aspect, but when Budapest was occupied by the Nazis, it was also a great place to hold all of the Jews in one enclosed spot. During that time, more than 700,000 Jews were locked in there, with no where to go. One part of the wall was lower than the rest and on the other side lived a Catholic priest. Peter explained that one daring Jew escaped over the wall with the help of the priest, only to have them both killed upon finding them. Of these Jews, the majority were shipped off to Hungarian extermination camps, and others were taken to the river, told to take off their shoes and shot in the back of the head, falling straight into the river. A memorial now stands on the river bank to commemorate this horrible act - a statue of empty shoes facing the river.

On our walk, we passed an old German car - one that is referred to as a 'plastic bomb'. Manufactured in West Germany, people in the East had to live with these cars. Normally with an 18-year lead time, many families bought cars for their kids when they were born. Poorly made and very ugly, they are a symbol of how life was in the East.

After walking us past many more buildings that he liked in the Jewish Quarter, we arrived at the mini-synagogue, which was really just a regular operating synagogue filled with Hasidic Jews. By this time, I caught onto the fact that he was probably going to ask us for some money at the end of this tour, so I scrounged 1,300 Forint and by the time we were on the main road, we said he had to go. Sure enough he asked if we had anything to give him and he wasn't so please with our measly 1,300 Ft because it's only about 5€. Either way, he made 5€ and we got a local's view of the Jewish Quarter.

The funny thing for me with the money here was that not only was the exchange rate crazy - 1€ is about 250 Ft. So imagine, if you were to go and change your $1, you would get about 190 Ft! The other thing that I couldn't seem to adjust to is that they abbreviate their currency as Ft. To me, that is feet. Everything I saw, I kept thinking 'Why are they telling me how many feet this scarf is?' or something like that! I am conditioned to see Ft as feet hahaha - you can take the girl out of America but you can't take the American out of the girl!

With all my Ft knowledge, we decided to go look for my Christmas ornament. I have heard a lot about Hungarian porcelain - especially the brand Herend. Do you know it? Well, we happened to be staying right next to the store and walked in to browse a bit. I ended up falling in love with a necklace pendant, that I figured I could hang on my tree and pass down to my daughter or something in the future. This is how I justified spending...(drumroll please) 16,000 Ft on a Christmas ornament! I know you are probably trying to do the conversion math, but I will make it easy for you - it was about 60€ ($85), which is the most I am sure I will ever spend on a Christmas ornament! I hope it becomes a family heirloom! Either way, I had my heart set on it, and I knew at the end I would buy it. When I am 80, staring at my Christmas tree, I'm not going to care that I spent so much money on it, and instead will just remember what a great time I had in Budapest!

To pass the night, we walked towards the Parliament (the biggest building in Hungary) to get a close-up look. Sadly, the grounds were closed and we couldn't get very close so instead we headed to the Four Seasons Hotel. This art nouveau building is one of the most famous in Budapest and was originally called the Gresham Palace. Originally, Gresham Assurance, a British company, built it in 1907 as a space for luxury apartments and offices. During the war it was badly damaged and in 2004 it re-opened as a hotel. Peter had told us about it and said that we could just walk into to see the architecture, so we tried and it worked! With the piano playing in the background the hotel seemed like a dreamland to Theresa and I. The part above the elevator that shows the floor that the elevator is on was decorated with hearts, the curving iron above the doors formed gorgeous designs and most impressive of all was the ceiling, which arched above us!

After seeing that hotel we were sad to go back to our little apartment, but alas we had to! The next morning was sunny...well atleast for 2 hours. With the central market in mind, we headed south along the river and stopped into a small coffee house, which are famous in Budapest. Popular for their lavish decorations and array of desserts, Theresa and I warmed up with a coffee. We thought we ordered a regular coffee but when the tuxedoed waiter came out with our drinks, they were very small espressos. We couldn't help but laugh and finished them off much quicker than expected. Later in the trip we managed to order the correct coffees at Gerbeaud, one of the ritziest coffee shops in Budapest, and ordered accompanying cakes for our treat!

As we managed our way to the market, we passed a gorgeous building that until I was home, I didn't know what it was. Turns out it was the University Library and with its colored roof and dome seemed like a much more important building! This is one of the things I love the most about wandering in a city - you see gorgeous buildings and see interesting things going on that would never be on a tourist map.
Once at the Central Market, we watched the busy shoppers scurry around from the mezzanine, where Hungarian men of all shapes and sizes were feasting on tasty food. Theresa and I decided to try their sausage, which was a bit spicier than German sausage (as I said before with the paprika factor). Next we dabbled in Hungarian wine - from one of the 22 wine regions in the country. I got some tasty white wine called Olaszrizling (which I assume is something like a reisling, but am not sure) haha. Last on our list of Hungarian must-tries was the Langos!!! We had no idea what this was when we decided we were going to try it, but in our heads we thought it was something with lobster, because the Spanish word for lobster is langosta. Turns out, it was just deep-friend dough with powdered sugar. I am finding that deep-fried dough is quite a popular treat in Europe!

The next stop of our list was the massive basilica we saw from Castle Hill. Like all churches, it was amazingly gorgeous, but St. Stephen's Basilica has something special...a mummified hand! I swear it's true! The hand of St. Stephen was adding to this Basilica that is named after him as a tribute. He is considered to be the first consecrated king of the country and of course is of high esteem in this country. His shriveled hand is inside this intricate gold case. Kind of gross, but equally interesting, we opted to admire some art instead of a fist and headed to an Art Nouveau museum. Shame though, because this 'museum' was no such thing. Basically it was a store with all fake art nouveau pieces that were for sale. Big waste of 6€ but atleast the building was pretty!

Tired, we headed back to the apartment for a tasty carbonara and got comfy in our chairs and spent the night watching Hungarian TV. It turns out that the show 'How It's Made' really doesn't require you to have any knowledge of the language it is airing in, and we were encaptured at learning how to make a Rolls Royce, tractor tire and bacon. Hahaha, and you thought I had an exciting life!

With visions of bacon dancing in our heads, we woke up well for our last day. We started the morning out at the House of Terror. Located on Andrássy Boulevard, a gorgeous tree-lined street that is one of the most popular in the capital, the beautiful exterior is misleading. So named because it was once the Police Headquarters for the Nazis and then the Communists, this museum walked us through the horrendous years that Hungary endured with these two rulers. Named the 'House of Loyalty' by the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian army that was puppeted by the Nazis), it was very eerie to walk into a building that you know has served so many bad causes. The first floor taught us about how Hitler commandeered the Hungarian army and could see just how similar a Nazi and Arrow Cross uniform was. It was creepy to see the Nazi uniform, such a symbol of evil, right in front of my face. Directly after seeing the uniform the next room talks about the Gulag (a Soviet abbreviation that stands for the central administration that organized the labor camps). A carpeted room that shows a map of all of Hungary's work camps, in this room we watched countless videos from a few survivors, but mostly from wives who told of the horrible labor camps that their husbands were in. Forced to work endless days in freezing weather, a huge amount of the population was lost to these death camps. One wife recalled that her husband said he only got one piece of bread per week and barely any water. Besides being a Jew, you could be put into these camps if you were sentenced to 'corrective forced labor' by the military courts. With no right to fair trial or even evidence, many prisoners perished. The scariest thing we learned in this room was that from the large amount of prisoners-of-war taken out of Hungary, the last one just only returned home from Russia in 2000.
The museum went on to show daily life in the Communist era, and then how eventually the underground prison where people were tortured and executed. The last rooms pay tribute to those Hungarians who made it out alive and also those who weren't so lucky. One room has postcards from all ends of the earth, showing the many Hungarians who were not allowed to return to thier country and instead took up residence in places such as New York, Berlin, California and Amsterdam. A happy and a sad room at the same time, you can't help but smile thinking how lucky these people were to escape the camps and have the chance to start a new life, but at the same time, how horrible it must have been to not be able to go home. The last room is a room filled with small lights, representing all of those who died between 1945 and 1967, when occupied by the Reds. Opposite the lit room are the names of members of the Nazi party, Communist party and Hungarians who contributed to the deaths of so many innocent civilians. Actually, the museum doesn't use the word die in this tribute, but instead say who was 'murdered' and if you think about it, it's quite appropriate.

In a solemn mood, we headed off to our most anticipated part of the Budapest leg of the trip - the Spa! Named Széchenyi Baths, it is one of the biggest spas in Europe! Painted bright yellow, the interior consists of multiple heated baths, hot tubs and saunas. Water for the spas all come from the underground thermal springs that have been in use since 1879 when they were discovered. With marble columns the interior was very relaxing but didn't even come close to how cool the outside was! In the courtyard of this Neo-Baroque building sits three large pools, all different temperatures - but none below 74º. The first one we slipped into was the most famous for it's famous bathers. Before even coming to this bath, I knew of the famous 'chess-players', a group of men who play chess on a wall of the bath! Bath chess...there is a new Olympic sport for you! I was so tickled to see it and of course laughed out loud. We spent about 4 hours relaxing and the surreal thing was that on the concrete there was snow, and here we were in our bikinis in a swimming pool! The steam rising from the pool reminded us how warm the water was but as soon as you step out of that pool you freeze! Since it was our last night, we made no rush to leave early and were happy to lazily lay around in the indoor pools or chat in the outdoor pools, but when the dark came so did our hunger and we decided that our raisin fingers signaled our time to go!

For our last dinner, we went to a restaurant that Peter recommended. With typical Hungarian food, Theresa and I tried another Hungarian wine and then ordered two dishes and split them. One was a spicy chicken and croquettes that had a sauce that just melted in your mouth and the other was the popular chicken and dumplings with paprika sauce which had just the right amount of spice to make my tongue happy.

Relaxed and full, we spent our last night packing and recounting the last 10 days of whirlwind traveling! It was an amazing trip and one that I have enjoyed telling you through my blog. I hope you have liked it as well!


Monday, January 18, 2010

I'm kind of a Pesty girl! Budapest Part 1

To get a visual idea of Budapest, you first have to know that it is a city split over a river. One side named Buda and the other, Pest. Think of Longview and Kelso if it were one city. Only joined together in 1873, Buda is the older side of the city, and houses a huge castle that overlooks the flat plains of the Pest side and it's gorgeous buildings. Theresa and I managed to get our own apartment right in the center of town for only 20€ a night together! With Hungarian TV and a real Budapest apartment, we really got the feeling of the life there right from the first night.
After an 8-hour train ride from Prague, we still managed enough energy to go out and get a first impression of Budapest. Well, I guess coming in on the train, we had already established one, but the grafitti walls and drab buildings didn't do much to entice me, so we headed towards the most beautiful things in the city, starting with the Chain Bridge. Now, this bridge is pretty magnificent mostly because it was the first bridge to connect Buda with Pest in 1849. I guess before that they just took boats from side to side? Regardless of their previous city unity, the bridge is now a symbol of the city. From our vantage point, we had a perfect view of the Buda Hills and the Old Royal Palace glowing in the dark. At both ends of the bridge are two huge stone lions guarding the bridge. After the sculptor finished these decorations he was convinced he had forgotten to give them tongues and threw himself over this very bridge and drowned. Turns out, he did carve them. Whoops!
Since night was nearing we decided to save the trek across the bridge until the next day and instead started playing in the snow. In this entire trip (Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Bamberg, Prague and now Budapest) I had not had one single day of temperatures above freezing. We basically just gave up on trying to be warm and instead started throwing snowballs, making mini snowmen and eating snow (well, it was just me eating snow because for some reason I think it's delicious while most people thinks its really dirty and gross.)

The street we stayed on was called Vací Utca. Utca means street in Magyar. Speaking of Magyar, I think it was even more confusing than Czech! Now I am a big fan of eavesdropping and trying to guess people's languages, but Magyar seemed like a huge mix, which made it impossible to figure out. Some words sound English, while some are pronounced with a French accent and others with Italian innotation! Impossible! They say that there are 4 languages on the European continent that are not related to any other language on the continent. They are: Basque (yea, welcome to my every day life!), Gaelic, Finnish and Hungarian (or Magyar) as they call it. Getting back to Vací Utca, it is basically the shopping district of Budapest with streets full of all the popular chains. Casually placed between huge stores are gorgeous old buildings that seem out of place with thier impressive facades and grand features.

A quick Budapest history lesson will give you a visual idea of just how old these buildings are (or aren' decide). Founded in 1AD, Buda was ruled by the Romans, Bulgarians, Ottomans, Hapsburgs and finally in 1867 the Communist Party of Hungary ruled their own country. They ruled and development flourished until WWI, at which point Pest had become the main hub of the city. When Austria-Hungary lost the war, Hungary was declared an independent republic. In the process of becoming a country however, Hungary lost about 2/3 of it's land and inhabitants to neighboring countries. This new country was hit with even worse problems than land loss by the start of WWII. In the Battle of Budapest in 1944 and 1945, the city was badly damaged and most of the buildings and every bridge was destroyed. When the war ended though, power just transferred to the Soviets and remained until 1956, when the Hungarian Revolution finally won their own country back. It was only then that the majority of buildings were renovated and rebuilt. So, most of the buildings we were admiring we built a mere 60 years ago! Normally I am impressed with the extreme age of buildings in Europe, but Budapest has buildings that are younger than most American cities! As you walk around you see buildings that look like they were just blown up by a bomb and somewhat salvaged back together, but also you see goregous art nouveau buildings that were somehow spared from destruction in the wars. It is a construction contradiction that plays in your head as you gaze at your surroundings in this Eastern European capital.

Beautiful buildings and massive bridges aside, our most memorable part of the first night was our burners. Loaded with groceries for a feast, we stuck our huge old-fashioned key into the turn and were ready to start cooking! Turns out, these gas burners are quite fussy and after about 20 minutes of trying to figure it out we gave up and went to bed hungry. The next day we made a point to ask the hostel manager how to turn it on and it seems that each finniky burner needs to be held 'on' for about 5 minutes before you can let the switch and have it stay on. I guess thats what happens when you stay in an old building.

The next morning we got up bright and early and of course were greeted with snow. This time we made it across the Chain Bridge and at the other end boarded a funicular (basically an enclosed ski lift) that took us to the top of the Buda Hills. The views going up, although they only lasted for about 40 seconds, were fantastic, as we rose above the Chain Bridge with the St. Stephen's Basilica as the backdrop and the grand Parliament on the left. I think it is one of the most popular postcard scenes, but all of the postcards I saw showed it with a gorgeous blue sky. Our view was a bit more...gray. Grammy, this is the view that you have on your postcard that I warned I would probably put a similar photo of on the blog! Here it is! Isn't your postcard so much more picturesque?

Once at the end of our 40 seconds of excitement we were on the top of the Buda Hills, the oldest part of Buda. With foundations from 800 years ago, from the top of the hill you can see why the founders picked this as their location. With a view as far as you can see of the city, even farther had there not been clouds spitting out snow. The Buda Hills are no longer a walled city anymore and instead you can wander freely from one side to the other. We started on the site of the Old Royal Palace - a giant mansion that is now being used to display Hungarian works of art in the National Gallery. A rather drab, brown building, the Palace does boast a massive green dome that seems to bring the Gallery to life. Seeing as that it was about 10€ to get in and that I don't know any Hungarian painters, we passed on the museum entrance and instead meandered onto a different part of Buda Hills - the Old Part. While walking there we followed 3 janitors. Jolly men, they sang and kept changing walking positions the whole way, which comically seemed like they were in a musical and the brooms and mop buckets were their props.

The Old Part consists of little old shops, restaurants, an underground city of mazes, the Mattias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion. The most well-known is the Mattias Church. We saw it glowing on the hill the night before and up close you can obviously better appreciate the detail that went into the making of this 13th century cathedral. The thing that I thought gave the church it's character was the roof. Tiled with different colors, the geometric designs in multicolored shapes gave the roof a feeling of excitement, eventhough it was half covered in snow! Because the church didn't escape damaged in the wars, it now looks like a gothic church but actually has the floor plan from 700 years ago.

Directly in front of the church, two-storied and looking over the edge of the hill sat the Fisherman's Bastion. It sounds like you could buy a nice salmon there, but really it is a gorgeous terrace with 7 towers, representing the 7 different Hungarian tribes that settled in the area in 896. It is so named because it was built on the site of the old fish market and in 1895 was owned by the Fisherman's Guild, but really it has nothing to do with fish at all. The terrace, with its light-colored stone, sort of blended in with the flurrying snow all around but managed to provide a perfect view of the Pest side of town in all of its glory.

Conveniently in the Old Part there was a post office, which are pretty hard to come by in Budapest. In Prague, because I didn't assume the clerk spoke English, I made a fool out of myself by holding up my postcard, pointing to the spot for the stamps and said 'fiveeeeeeee, stampppppps (while circiling the spot for a stamp), to the UUUUSSSSAAA (while pointing to the address I had written). Basically I acted like the clerk wasn't going to know any English and she suprised me when she replied in perfect English with the price. I didn't make the same mistake again in Budapest, and instead just said 5 stamps to the USA please, and of course, she understood. Stupid Americans!
Stamps in hand, we caught the metro back to Pest and warmed ourselves up with the typical Hungarian dish - goulash soup. Now, I would explain it just as a beef stew with a little more spice, but maybe I missed something. We heard that Hungarian food is similar to that of food in Germany or Austria, but that it is a little more spicy. Hungarians pride themselves on paprika, a much-used spice and in the restaurant we visited they had it hanging off the walls, which made me feel like I was more in a Mexican restaurant with chili peppers hanging on the walls. Regardless, the soup warmed us up and we were on our way for more exploring!

Since it is getting late here, I am going to cut this one short tonight! I promise I will finish telling you all about Budapest soon!

Puszi! (Kiss in Magyar!)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dobrý Den from Prague! Part 2

After being in Prague for only half a day, we woke up in the morning with a vengeance to see as much as we could! We found a free English tour that started at 11am and took advantage of that! The tour started off in the Main Square by our hostel, and Starbucks in hand, we first learned about hundreds of years of Prague history in about 6 minutes. It went a little something like this: inhabited since 200BC by the Celts, Prague went from a small town to the seats of kings of Bohemia. By the 14th century, King Charles IV had a flourishing city but by the early 15th century King Wenceslas (yes, the guy from the Christmas carol) IV had a religious war on his hands - Protestants vs. Hussites. The Hapsburg dynasty soon took over and by the 20th century, Prague was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After WWI, Czechoslovakia was created and Prague named the capital city. But WWII came and from 1939 to 1942, Prague was an occupied city. When liberated, Prague then became part of the Soviet Union. In 1989, the Velvet Revolution took place and finally after many years, Prague became the capital of the new and current Czech Republic! Did you get it all?!

Our tour guide, a Welsh guy, told us this story while standing in front of the Old Town Hall. Well, I guess we were standing where the Old Town Hall used to be - because it as blown up at the end of WWII and is obviously not there anymore. This part of the rapid history lesson was my favorite because after years of occupation by the Nazis, the people of Prague saw that the Allies would soon be coming to liberate thier city and took it upon themselves, 30,000 strong, to show the despised Nazis a proper goodbye. Armed with kitchen utensils, garden tools, and anything they could get thier hands on, the citizens attacked the Nazis. Because of a confusion between USA and Russia about who was supposed to liberate Prague, what started as a quick attack turned into a few day ordeal, where somehow the militarily-untrained people of Prague held off 900,000 Nazis! During this process, the Germans, bombed the Town Hall, to let the people of Prague know that they were still a strong force and not to mess with them. But, the Allies came to the rescue and were credited with beating the 900,000 force, but the Prague people know it was they who managed the feat! So, the only building that was destroyed in WWII was the Old Town Hall. As a result, the rest of Prague still retains tons of history in its facades, lucky for us!

Our group of 30 made our way through the winding streets of the old town, passing the concert hall - Stravovské Divalodo. It was here where Mozart first performed Don Giovanni in 1787 and also the place where the Czech National Anthem was played for the first time when they became a country, only since 1993! Continuing down the road we stopped at the Powder Tower. Many of these dot the city, and are huge towers that used to hold the gun powder for Prague. This one was special because it's dark bricks and shiny gold adornments used to be part of the fortress wall that once surrounded the city. What I was wondering as he was telling us all this was that, if you were the enemy, wouldn't you just find all the towers and blow them up? I obviously don't possess too much military intelligence, but I kind of thought that was a no-brainer.

The road that starts at the Powder Tower is called Rybná and it was on this street that the Kings would start their after-coronation walk all the way through the town, across the river and to the castle. The road, meaning Crown Street, is now kind of a joke, as it is full of touristy shops that our guide said 'steal all your crowns' (the name of the currency in Czech Republic) haha. Along the street, we somehow ended up back by our hostel, to another church with a story. Listed as the city with the highest number of churches per square kilometer, Prague's skyline is dominated by the spires of the hundreds of churches. Legend has it, that in this church, one dark night, a nasty thief came to steal the gold necklace that hung around the statue of Mary. As he put his hand up to grab the necklace, the statue moved and grasped his arm! After considerable yelping, the priest came and the robber begged the priest to break Mary's hand so he could get his arm back. The priest, smartly, said 'if you tried to steal her necklace and she grabbed your arm, what do you think she will do to me if I try and cut off her arm?!'. Eventually, after trying every trick in the book, the priest had to cut off the arm...but not Mary's arm, the thief's arm! The thief vowed never to steal again, and his arm, now hangs by the door in the church to warn everyone against theft!

After that glorious story we headed to the Jewish area of town - named Josefov. Only a few blocks from our hostel was the Pinkas Synagogue, probably the most well-known synagogue in Prague, even though it is no longer active. Instead, it now houses the names of 80,000 names of Czech Jews from the Holocaust. Also on the walls of this solemn place are the drawings by many Czech children that were in the concentration camps. In the camps, the Nazis would record videos of children playing or learning to demonstrate that the work camps were not bad at all. Of course, during these filmings, life was horrible for them, and one Jewish art graduate decided to do something about it. She asked the children to draw what they were feeling, as a form of art therapy. When she was sent to the gas chambers, she hid two suitcases of drawings under the floor boards. Today, these drawings hang on the wall and for some of the children are the only thing that acknowledges that they ever existed. The saddest part of the drawings is that some of these poor children, locked up and awaiting death camps, actually drew happy families, when in actuality they were experiencing quite the opposite.

Another sad part of the Jewish Quarter is that during WWII it was walled off from the rest of the city. Of course, as time passes people die, and in the Jewish Quarter they ran out of space for corpses in the cemetery. Pleading with the people on the outisde to let them have more space for another cemetery, the Jews were told that the only space they would be given was inside those walls. Consequently, the Jewish cemeteries in this neighborhood are higher than the street because in some places, there are more than 12 levels of dead bodies buried one on top of the other.

Obviously times weren't just tough for the Jews in WWII, but in the 16th century in Prague, Jews were also being ostracized. One rabbi decided to help his people out. The folklore goes that he, with mud and a spell, created a superman that had the strength of 10 men named Golem, which means rock in Hebrew. Golem watched over the Jewish people during the week, helping and protecting in whatever way he could. However, the Golem because increasingly brutal, and awhile after he was created, he became violent and the Emperor begged the rabbi to deactivate this creature. Pleading and even offering to stop the persecution of Jews, the rabbi gave in. On the Golem's forehead was written a word - Emet, which in Hebrew means truth and reality. The rabbi rubbed off the first letter of the word, leaving met, which means death in Hebrew. After he was deactivated, Golem was placed in the attic of the synagogue and that if needed he will reactivate and protect his Jews. Supposedly a Nazi went up to the attic to stab this Golem and never returned...spooky! Either way, the attic is not open to the public hahaha.

Our tour then headed towards the Vltava River. On our way, we passed the Rudolfinum, the concert hall of Prague. Constructed in 1876, it now houses the philharmonic. The impressive building, with statues of musical greats lining the roof was particularly interesting during WWII. The Nazis, getting excited for Hitler's visit, figured out that one of the many statues was of a Jewish composer! Gasp! Of course, the Nazis wanted the statue destroyed because they knew Hitler wouldn't appreciate such a monument to Judaism. The roof did not provide them with any information and who was who though. Obviously if you make a building and put statues on the top, you don't leave plaques of who is who on the roof, because no one goes up there! So, the Nazis, intelligently decided to measure the noses of all of the statues. Jews have big noses right? When they found the statue with the longest nose, they pushed it off the roof and it smashed into smithereens on the ground. Hitler arrived with fanfare and later found out that the statue that was demolished was not a Jew at all, instead it was Hitler's favorite Austrian composer! Of course now the poor Austrian artist has been returned to his place on the roof.

The tour ended there and Theresa and I jumped into a cafe to warm our freezing toes and fingers and wrote our postcards. Once we had reached a suitable temperature we picked up where the tour finished and headed across the river. Taking a different route than the day before, we headed up the 100 steps to Castle Hill, the site of the oldest medieval castle in the world. Construction started on the castle in the 9th century and over the years just kept being added to and added to. Because of this, the architecture styles vary significantly. The most impressive and known building on the castle grounds is St. Vitus Cathedral (more on that later, because the next day we went to see it). We wandered around the grounds until it got dark, and as dusk was approaching we looked out over the city from the hill. Known as the Golden City, Prague derived this name from the fact that they used to put gold on the top of their buildings. When the sun shined, the roofs would sparkle beautifully. Covered in snow, we did not see any bedazzled roofs, but the red roof tiles did manage to peek out from their blankets of snow and create an impressive scene.

To warm up again, we this time got a Czech holiday treat called Trdlo. I never figured out how to pronounce it, and when I refer to it, I spell it out. I'm pretty sure more than once I said to Theresa, 'Let's go get some T-R-D-L-O. Regardless of how you say it, what really matters is that it was delicious! Dough is first rolled in a mix of sugar, vanilla and smashed almonds and then wrapped around some sort of metal rolling pin and cooked over a fire. The result is amazing and we made sure to have more on other occasions.

Trdlo in hand we headed towards the grocery store to pick up some food for dinner and of course some beer! Czech Republic is pretty famous for their beer - especially Pilsner, which I'm sure most of you boys know! Theresa and I knew we would try a Pilsner soon enough, so instead wanted to get some other Czech beers to test out. The aisle was full of beers brewed in the area, all of which I couldn't read, so we just picked the ones we thought were the best. I was oddly surprised to find bottles of Budweiser on the shelves. I mean, I know Budweiser is a good American brand, but it stands nothing against a Czech or German beer. I wonder who drinks it over here...

Our pasta dinner and beer set us up for a sleepy night and we woke up the next day on a mission: see the castle! When we got to the castle grounds, the lines were already enormously long. We bought our ticket and by spending 350 crowns (which sounds like a lot, but was only like 10€) we got an audio-guide which also served as a fast-pass sort of thing and let us enter any building without waiting in line. Well worth the money! First on the list was the church from before - St. Vitus Cathedral! Impressively huge, when we walked in, I was overwhelmed not only at the sheer size of it, but the intricacies of the windows and interior decorations. Built in 1344, the cathedral houses two organs - one from both the 16th and 19th centuries. The front part of the cathedral was built the 14th century and only later was the back part where we entered added in the 19th and 20th century. The stained glass windows that decorate the windows in the newest part of the cathedral were done Alfons Mucha - one of Prague's most famous artists. His art nouveau style turned into what is now called Mucha Style and is unlike any stained glass windows I had ever seen. As we rounded the nave of the church we came to the famed tomb of St. John of Nepomuk. I hope you are liking the stories, because here is another: John of Nepomuk was a priest working in Prague when a husband of a woman in his parish approached him and said 'I know my wife comes to confessional to you every week, and I want to know if she has admitted to cheating on me.' John said that was his wife said to him was between him, her and the Lord. The husband returned multiple times, each time more frustrated that the priest wouldn't tell. Finally he was so angry that he threw him off the Charles Bridge and he died. Later, he was dredged up and they found his tongue still intact! This was seen as a miracle and proof of his promise to the confessional and he was made a Saint and entombed in the cathedral. Current research shows that his 'tongue' was probably just remnants of his brain that slid down into his mouth, but I don't think they are going to be moving his ornate silver tomb out of the church anytime soon.

Next in the church was the Chapel of King Wenclesas. He is considered to be the only ever rightful heir to the crown, seeing as all other rulers of Bohemia gained the crown from winning a war or killing the King. Wenclesas was the son of a previous King and his chapel provides a tribute to the Czech's favorite leader. He was wrongfully killed when his power-greedy brother invited him over to his house. He was ambushed and his brother took the crown. Talk about sibling rivalry! Not only does the church pay homage to King Wenclesas, but also to his grandmother. Growing up, his grandma wanted him to be fully educated and as a strong Catholic. His mother did not appreciate her mother-in-law's advice and strangled her. The last chapel in the church shows his dear grandma being strangled with the scarf she was wearing. That's no way to treat a grammy!

After the church we headed to the next most popular place in the castle - the most visited street in all of Prague, Golden Lane. This multicolored street was once a fortification for the castle, and later on in the 16th century, houses were built in the the space between the towers. Originally goldsmiths rented the houses (hence the name Golden) for their work. After that, the street became more open to other workers and eventually Franz Kafka (probably the most famous Czech author) worked in number 22, a cute little blue house framed with white wooden strips. Impossible to get a good picture with the gazillion tourists, this is the best I could do for you guys! Imagine this but about 20 houses more, each a different color!

Last on our castle tour was the Old Royal Palace. With the audioguide and loads of reading inside, it seemed more like a boring history lesson and we didn't stay too long. One thing that really interested me though was the seat of the old throne. Off the main ballroom, which has been used as a jousting ring, market space, and a royal meeting place sits the Throne Room. The red velvet throne sits in the center of the room, surrounded by seats for who would have been his noblemen and the people of his court. The least interesting part of the building was a plaque stating who made the display case (which was just a glass box) that housed the copy of the Royal Crown. Honestly, does anyone care who made the glass box holding a crown? No. On that note, we left and headed to warm up with another coffee.

The problem with the Czech language I decided, is that it is way to hard. As I had been doing since I arrived on my first day, I would order a coffee, and then when she gave it to me, I would say 'it's my first day, how do you say thank you in Czech'. She would then say it to me, I would repeat it, and two seconds later the word had left my head. Shame. Warm, we jumped on a tram, which we though was going to a different neighborhood in town. It definitely went to a different neighborhood, just not the one we wanted. What should have been a 5-minute tram ride turned into a 40-minute adventure, and we finally made it to Mala Strana, the Lesser Town of Prague. Right below the castle, this part of town was dotted with gorgeous churches (I really wonder how many churches there are in this city!). Since it was dark we decided to come back the next day in the daylight and instead headed to a pub to drink the Pilsners we had been waiting for and then off to bed, another successful tourist day behind us.

For our last day, we had already seen most of the big sights, so we were excited to just wander and explore. We happened to be in the Main Square when the huge astrological clock began to strike 11. This clock is not only a clock but basically the coolest thing from the era it was built. In 1388 when it was made, there were no computers, no cell phones, no google maps, so this clock was the hit of the town! The contraption consists of two 'clocks'. The lower one has the coat of arms of Prague in the center. The next ring around are the zodiac signs, and next the farming months of the year. This constantly turning clock not only shows you what time it is, but also what zodiac time and what farming season you should be in. I couldn't see close enough, but I wonder if you tell March apart from maybe June or something by how ripe the berries are? On each side of the discs are two statues of angels and saints. The clock above it is even more complicated. The outer circle is of numbers 1-24 an old numbering style. Directly next are the same numbers but in Roman numerals. Inside of that is a circle that moves in time with the zodiac signs and has two hand for time...but not our time, the time of where the sun and the moon are! On each side of the clock are two statues, which symbolize what you shouldn't be doing to pass the time: the first statue is holding a mirror to his face, which symbolizes vanity; the second a man in hiding a bag of money in his jacket, showing off his greed; the third a skeleton, actually rings a bell on the hour and represents death; and the last is a dark-skinned person, meaning that at the time people were afraid of people from other lands and that to associate with one of them was bad. It impresses me now, so I imagine in the 14th century it was even more amazing. At the hour the clock strikes and two little doors above the huge clocks open and the 12 wooden apostles float by. Once the apostles make their appearances you hear a weak bird crow and then to the cheering of the crowd that has gathered under the clock, a man plays the trumpet from the top of the tower. If only every hour of my life were so exciting!

Next we headed to Mala Strana via the Charles Bridge. Finally we were seeing it in the daylight! Lined with 30 statues, we strolled along, gazing at the castle on the top of the hill and the bridge towers in front of us. Straight after the bridge we followed the curving road that was lined with pastel homes to St. Nicholas church. Goregous, like all of the rest, this church had an upstairs exhibition that allowed us to see it from a bird's eye view. The next church on the list was a hike, but worth it. Named the Loretto Church, it sits atop a hill near the castle. It is a huge pilgrimage spot because of its 27 Loretto bells that chime every hour. Home of the only remaining carillon (multiple bells hung in a tower), these bells were made in the 17th century by a Dutch bell maker. Planned nicely, we were there as it chimed. First the chime signals that it's the hour, then sounds the time. Lastly, and most impressivley, the bells play We Greet You a Thousand Times. As the bells chimed I couldn't help but smile and think about how I was in the City of a Hundred Spires.
Sadly though, we had to leave the city early the next morning, but every time I think about Prague I cannot be anything but 100% impressed. I think that I would rank Prague as one of my favorite cities in all of Europe so far. Every building, even nothing buildings, were beautiful to gaze at, the city was magical, like you had just walked into a movie set! I would love to go back when 1) I can remember how to say thank you and 2) when the average temperature isn't 30ºF like it was for January.

It was a long blog, but I truly loved this city wanted to cram in as much good stuff as I could! I hope you enjoyed! I hope you also like the photos that I put up on the side!