Day Trippin’ (And Other Aspects of Life Abroad)

The summer is nearly over, and with class and other important matters coming up, it seems this blog had been pushed to the side. But it’s important that I finish my story, as this was a semester worth remembering.

This blog post will be a collection of all the day trips and trips within the Czech Republic, as well as the trip to Vienna. Also, I’ll cover other aspects of my time abroad that I never got to, such as Nations2Nations and classes

Kutna Hora

This was the first of our excursions, and if it wasn’t the creepiest, it was certainly the coldest. It was also my first taste of life in small town Czech Republic and my first trip outside of Prague. The highlight of the town is the Sedlec Ossuary, a chapel filled with almost 70,000 skulls and bones decorating the chapel. These skulls formed the chandeliers and lined the walls. It was a creepy, yet fascinating place, bone chilling in more ways than one. We then walked across the medieval town which was covered in snow, and filled with fountains and statues, where we also ate a traditional Czech meal of soup and potatoes. The cathedral and castle were also an impressive sight. Although the frigid air led an eerie quality to the chapel of bones, overall it was so unbearably cold it was almost hard to function. But it was great taste of what was in store the rest of the semester, and that there is more to the Czech Republic than just Prague.

Terezin

This was one of the more somber day trips we went on. Terezin is a very bleak, depressing town with a medieval fortress that was most recently used as a concentration camp during World War II. Even apart from the actual concentration camp the town seemed to be such a sad, lonely place. Part of the town was used as a ghetto and the other was used as a  concentration camp. We toured through the tunnels that were used long before World War II, and saw the horrific conditions the Jews and other prisoners here suffered through. Although tens of thousands of people died here it was not technically an extermination camp, and the prisoners here would be sent from here to their demise at other camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. It was made by the Nazis to be a “model” concentration camp for the Red Cross, which meant that to prevent overcrowding and improve the conditions many people were sent off to Auschwitz. A propaganda film was even made here, but after the film was made most of those involved were sent to their deaths.

We also saw the cell of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which in turn started World War I. When you think about it, this one man started World War I, and the effects of this terrible war also helped to cause World War II, which changed the world forever. This may be a stretch, but I couldn’t help but think of how the actions of this one man completely changed history.

Coming to Terezin was not exactly an uplifting experience, but I think that when you come to learn about a place, you have to discover the evil as well as the good. And that evil is certainly present at Terezin.

Spa Towns

(picture courtesy of Lauren Boyer)

The trip to the spa towns was interesting because these towns seem to be the hotspot for old people from across the country. On the first day, we stayed in Marianske Lazne, a very picturesque town where we sampled the various spring waters, which tasted like a mixture of salt and metal, but the over eighty crowd couldn’t get enough of this stuff. We then split up into two groups, and I was once again the only male in my group, to go to one of the many spas in Marianske Lazne. The spas were fun, and it was nice to swim and relax in various hot tubs and steam baths, and an area where the water switched from frigid to extremely hot. The spas in Marianske Lazne really could not compare to the spas in Budapest, but one thing that these spas had that the spas at Budapest did not, was a wide variety of naked people. Although the majority at least had a speedo or bikini, there were people both young and old who went au naturel.

I first realized this when walking into the steamy sauna. I knew there were a few people behind me, but after having a conversation inside the sauna for several minutes they got up and it was revealed that the people behind me had been nude all along.

Another uncomfortable situation was when I walked into a steam room filled with the rest of my program, but the only place to sit down was right next to a nudist. It may have been a little awkward at first to see all these random naked people but after awhile it didn’t seem to be a big deal. It’s definitely true that Europeans are more comfortable with nudity than Americans, as everyone in my all-American ISA group insisted on keeping their suits on.

Compared to most other places in Europe, the nightlife in Marianske Lazne seemed a little quiet. There seemed to be only one bar/ restaurant and apparently a disco filled with old Russians.  That disco sounded perfect to me but for some reason nobody else wanted to go. So we had a fun night out at some bar where I drank absinthe for the second time ever, and I have to say that although it ‘s a terrible drink, it is a little more tolerable if you set a spoonful of sugar on fire, as recommended. It does however give the impression that you’re cooking meth, but mixing this sugar does make this terrible drink go down easier.

The next day we went to another spa town: Karlovy Vary. This was a town completely overrun by Russian tourists, with most of the signs in Cyrillic. It’s also famous for the Grandhotel Pupp, pronounced like “poop”, where James Bond played poker in Casino Royale. We then took some sort of tram up the side of the mountain, where we found an observation tower, and what could have been the world’s smallest zoo. It was basically like a pig, a sheep, and a llama, but still they advertized it as a zoo. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the Henry Doorly Zoo, but to me, a zoo should have more than three farm animals.

The tour of the Becherovka factory was next. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, Becherovka is a Czech liquor that tastes sort of like cinnamon. Anyways, it came with plenty of free samples.  By mid-afternoon it was time to go home (aka back to Prague) Although Karlovy Vary is a nice town, it was not one of my favorite destinations, which could have been partly because the weather was so bad, and also because I ran into some seriously terrible customer service here, which is saying something if you’re in the Czech Republic. Wonderful country, not so wonderful service. It may not have been my favorite trip, but it was certainly an eye opening experience.

Vienna and Moravia

Our journey to Vienna began with a stop at a group of caves in the Czech Republic called the Punkva caves, where we first toured through massive caverns filled with stalactites and stalagmites. This was my first experience touring through caves and it was even cooler than The Kingdoms of the Night at the Henry Doorly Zoo. While exploring these caves walked out to see we were at the bottom of a giant crevice, complete with a waterfall, and we could see out all the way to the forest. Adding to this mood was opera music which made the whole thing much more dramatic. We then kept walking until we came to an underground river, where we all crammed into boats and rafted through a labyrinth of watery passageways. It reminded me of the scene in Hercules where they raft through the river in Hades, with dead souls swimming beneath them. It was an unreal experience, unlike anything else I’ve done, and I would recommend it to anyone traveling to the Czech Republic.

(This picture might look familiar, Emily Redstone. Hope this is okay, I didn’t have any pics from the caves)

Afterwards we stopped at Olomouc, a moderately attractive Czech town that didn’t have a whole lot of attractions. While Daniella and Lucie, our coordinators, were talking to us, two drunken teenagers, one dressed as a nun and one dressed in the Borat swimsuit (if you don’t know what that is, google it….or maybe not) came up to us and started drunkenly hitting on Daniela and Lucie. Anyways, there was basically nothing to do in the town that we knew of so we ended up playing putt-putt, and then going out to the bars, where we realized to our delight that if we thought drinks in Prague was cheap, Oloumoc was even better.

The next day we were headed to the land of Freud and Mozart: Vienna. We were introduced to a city filled with museums, cafes, and imperial palaces, a city that felt more formal than Prague. We saw the Hofburg Palace, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and the very impressive Schonbrunn Palace, which was much like Versailles and was surrounded by hedge mazes and gardens.

I’ll talk more about Vienna later considering this was my first of two times going to this city, but I’ll just provide a short summary here. We had a dinner at an all-you-can eat Chinese buffet. It may not have been very Austrian, but I ate more plates of food than I thought possible. Later was a night out at a nearby club within walking distance from our hotel/hostel. The next day we went to a museum in the Hofburg Palace, which was interesting by the end but the beginning was basically a tour of the Hapsburg’s silverware collection, which was a little dull to say the least. However, Vienna is a great city and I’m glad I got the chance to see it again later in the semester.

Nations2Nations

This was the weekly Tuesday night party held at a different club each week where we would get down and boogie with students from all over Europe. It was a chance to meet new people, drink too much, and go to Art and Architecture the next morning hungover after two hours of sleep. And looking back on it, they were a reminder of just how carefree our days in Prague were, and how much I miss going clubbing on a weekly basis. And when discussing our time abroad with fellow ISA’ers, it was inevitable that Nations2Nations would come up somewhere in our conversation.

Also, “We Found Love” by Rihanna is played EVERYWHERE.

Classes

As far as workload goes, this was a much lighter workload than most other semesters. I know most people reading this probably don’t want to read too much about my classes so I’ll be as brief as possible.

Our semester started off with two weeks of Czech language class to prepare us for living in the Czech Republic. The Czech language is a Slavic language closely related to both Polish and Slovak, as well as a distant cousin of Russian. I was completely unfamiliar with the language starting off, and all I could recognize was that this language has a lot of consonants. Also, some words are ridiculously hard to pronounce. I still can’t really say the word for four, which is spelled like “ctyri.” So I wouldn’t exactly say I excelled in this class, and right now I can really only remember a few phrases, but knowing just a little bit of Czech came in handy plenty of times.

After the first two weeks we started our regular classes. I took a class on the Czech author Franz Kafka, where I learned that this guy had serious issues with his father, and was extremely pessimistic about life. His works are known for being dreamlike and disorienting, with characters in hopeless situations. Franz Kafka is the most famous author in the Czech Republic and a major part of their culture. Our professor seemed to be a lot like Franz Kafka in a lot of ways, and seemed to be very interested in our social lives, and would always tell us some of his best dating moves. He was also seemed to be particularly fascinated by Jorge, a friend of mine and another student in our program, who he described as “exotic”

Czech Film History was a class where we learned about…..the history of Czech film, as the title implies. It was interesting to see that Czechoslovakia, which became the Czech Republic, has been very influential in film, especially with the Czech New Wave. This class was harder than I expected but I did get to see some good films, as well as some bad films. My favorite Czech movie will always be Run, Waiter, Run, followed by Identity Card.

Art and Architecture of Prague may have been my favorite class, despite the struggles with Nations2Nations the night before. We would spend half the class going over architecture slideshows before going on walks around the city and touring museums. It made me appreciate the beauty of Prague even more than before, and the entertaining antics of our crazy professor made it even better. You never knew what he was going to say or do next.

We actually went through three different teachers for Communism and Religion, before finally having an American professor for the last two-thirds of the semester. It was a lot like a philosophy class and although it could drag on from time to time, I definitely learned alot.

Well this post has been much longer than I expected, but I promise you that you won’t have to wait another month to see another post from me. And I will definitely cover this more later on, but I just wanted to say this quickly. If you ever are faced with the opportunity to do something like I did, something adventurous, or something you never thought that you could do, take that opportunity. I swear you won’t regret it.