Monday, August 9, 2010

Final Day

OK. Now we’re at the end of our adventure. Plane leaves in 24 hours from the Amsterdam airport, so we will enjoy our final night here. This has been a wonderful city to visit as the conclusion to our long European travels. It is a very beautiful place, built along a system of canals with buildings packed side by side to make the most efficient use of the available land. In fact, this entire city seems very efficient itself, with a huge amount of locals and tourists alike zipping through the streets on bikes, creating a seemingly unending flow of traffic when combined with cars, motorbikes, and trams. It is also a very open culture here, as Saturday we witnessed the yearly Gay Pride parade which takes place on boats through the canals. This was a glorious spectacle of all-things-gay, and the city was packed with people lined along every canal to watch. Although it rained off and on throughout, no one really cared, and one giant party commenced. There was a genuine feeling of acceptance and tolerance in the air, and it was an excellent moment for cultural observation. This is something that we would not see very often in most American cities, but maybe we should. Amsterdam has a very visible gay population, and they are not afraid to walk around and be counted. We thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of the Gay Pride parade, and we are glad that so many people are able to come together for a celebration of humanity, and we were definitely glad to be a part of it. On another note, we visited the Van Gogh and Little Hermitage museums yesterday. The Little Hermitage is an extension of the same museum we saw back in Russia, and they had an excellent exhibit from the Hermitage collection detailing modern art from Matisse to Malevich, including the infamous Black Square painting, which appropriately concluded the exhibition. The Van Gogh museum was cool, but very packed with people. There is more to say, but we are going to wander around Amsterdam for another day. Love to everyone, and we will see you soon!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Leaving Prague

OK, here's an update for anyone who's still checking our blog! It's been a wonderful, long month here in Czech Republic, but we will be departing today for Amsterdam in about 7 hours... It is impossible to describe in words how rewarding this visit has been for us. We have met so many great Czech people who were completely willing to help us immerse ourselves in Czech culture, allowing us to explore this country in a way that many tourists will never experience. Needless to say, we are fascinated by this small country in the same ways that Czechs are fascinated with the enormity of our country. We have formed some really great friendships, establishing connections for both us and Czechs, who we hope will come visit so we can share with them a little bit of the American experience. It's also been wonderful to spend some time with Vojta and Zuzka, who really made this month possible for us. Although we are sad to depart from new and old friends, we are excited to be returning home soon. It is extremely tiring to spend over two months away from your country (and cats!), where the native languages are unfamiliar (but beautiful to the ears), eating local cuisines which are heavily focused on beer, meat, and fried stuff, traveling without a car, and the list goes on. So, while we will say goodbye to Petra and Honza, I'm sure we are all somewhat relieved to have the end of it. I am so grateful to both of them for sharing their home with strangers for over one month, completely willing to make said strangers friends and guide us through many nuances of their culture, understanding our inability to speak their language (which is so, so difficult) and offering us a perspective unique to this country.
I won't spend much time describing events here which have gone unblogged, as there is too much to say and we would rather just tell you in person. As Katie finished up with her school program, John went for a five day trip through northern Bohemia with two delightful friends of Petra's, Robert and Hana. We took their car (courtesy of Robert's job with Lego), and headed into the Krkonoše Mountains (translates as Giant Mountains) to do some hiking into the highest parts of Czech Republic. This included a summit of Sněžka, the highest peak in the country. During this hike, we traced the border with Poland, crossing in and out between Czech and Polish lands multiple times during the ascent. We spent the week camping and hiking, eventually migrating southward to Český ráj, or the Bohemian Paradise. Here we walked among massive sandstone formations and slept in the ruins of some fortress from the 15th or 16th century. On Friday, we drove to Honza's cottage in the beautiful town of Slapy, which is about 35 km south of Prague. Here, we commenced a four-day party attended by many of our Czech friends and some new ones. It was a great weekend, but very tiring as there was much drinking, eating, and swimming. It was a wonderful way to close our visit in Czech Republic and say goodbye to everyone we have met here. Our last two days in Prague were eventful, and we concluded with a final dinner with Petra and Honza at Ambiente, a Brazilian-style steakhouse where delicious meat is served in unlimited quantities right to your plate. Mmmmmmmmmm. We ate until we could barely move, and it was beautiful. We spent our last day traveling to see a few key sights which we had neglected to visit during the month. This included the tour of Prague Castle, the ringing of the Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square, and Kafka's grave, which was a must-see for us. All in all, we can't think of anything that we missed here, and it has been a wonderful experience which should influence us for the rest of our lives. On to Amsterdam, then homeward bound.

Monday, July 26, 2010

It Almost Feels Silly to Write a Blog...

because Prague is so fantastic that my attempts to describe it seem futile. I can't emphasize this enough...If you are in the position to travel, come to this city. The sights, sounds, and beer are beyond description. The only issue I'm having at this point is the lack of vegetation. Czech people are particular about their beer, but when it comes to food, they're less diligent. If you enjoy fry-o-lated arts, as Anthony Bourdain calls them, then this city is the place for you. I can't count the number of mornings I've woken up with a brick in my stomach, a tumor of fried cheese or fatty pork lodged deep within in me. So it goes. Do as the Prague-ers do, I suppose. The hilarious part about the cuisine here is that each plate comes with a "salad" which consists of a single leaf of lettuce, two cucumber rounds, two wedges of tomato, and two bell pepper strips. If you need more veggies, you're a pansy!

I apologize in advance for the nature of this post. My brain is a piece of fried schnitzel after the amount of writing and reading I have executed during my course work. Each week, I do triple the grad school load for both my fiction workshop and the Czech lit course. The lit class is particularly tricky because I have been designated the unofficial "leader" of the class. Seriously, it's a conversation between myself, the professor, and one or two other people, should they actually show up. I know what you're thinking, "Katie, you love talking! What are you complaining about!" However, the responsibility weighs on me, particularly on the days when I rise at 6am to complete homework that I fell asleep during the night before. It's a marathon. I've been learning so much, though, both about the art of fiction from Stu Dybek and also in regard to Czech literature, which is inextricably bound to the nation's history. This is such a unique and enriching experience. I am one lucky gal.

This past Friday, I participated in a student reading. My work was well-received. I read a humorous non-fiction story about a slumber party that I went to in middle school. An unnamed individual got Taco Bell Mild Sauce poured in her butt crack. When I read the piece, a few people cried, they were laughing so hard. It was a really cool moment.

This past weekend, John and I went on a group tour of Cesky Krumlov, a nearby village through which the river Vltava runs. It was picturesque and serene, a lovely excursion. We also visited a local brewery. Additionally, we saw some great art from Egon Schiele, as well as a powerful installation piece in the local synagogue. If I weren't a few beers in, having been up since 6:30 this morning, then I would explain. We got some great pictures, and I'll tell you all about the history when we get back...

I'm fading. My apologies. To keep you in the know, though, John is traveling in Northern Bohemia with some wonderful Czech friends, Hana and Robert, who we met through Petra and Honza. They'll be climbing the highest peak in Czech Republic tomorrow! (approx. 6,000 ft.) I'm busy finishing up my school work and spending some quality pub time with our gracious roommates. This is my last week of school, and once I'm finished, we're headed out to Honza's summer cottage for some "vacation." It will be so nice to kick back after the intensity of my school program. In case you don't know, we have opted to skip Berlin in order to spend this time in the country with our Czech friends. We've built some great relationships with some of the locals here and feel it would be a richer experience to spend time with them in their true element, hence the excursion to the cottage. We'll be swimming, grilling meats, and drinking beer. I can't wait. Only one lit analysis paper stands in my way!

I'm sorry I haven't offered more play-by-play detail, but the experiences are blending as of now. All of you will hear more than you want to hear upon our return. Love to everyone! See you soon!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hello to all friends and family! Here’s a little more blog action from Praha. Sorry we have neglected for the past weeks, but it’s been busy times and very, very hot. First point of introduction to our stay here: it’s been about 90 degrees straight for the past 2 weeks. On the day we arrived here in Czech Republic, our cold/rainy weather streak ended abruptly, and the heat wave descended here in Europe, just as it has in most places it seems. This is roughly 10-15 degrees above normal temperature for Prague, and no one is very happy about it. There is virtually no air conditioning here in Czech Republic, or Europe, so people just hunker down and deal with it. Refrigeration and cooling are different business here, and they probably save huge amounts on electricity and energy usage just from this difference. Nevertheless, we are doing very well and bearing the heat with everyone else.

Since her program started, Katie has been very busy with schoolwork, doing lots of reading and writing in order to fit an entire semester’s credit into one short month! Her classes meet Monday, Wednesday, Friday, from about 9:30 to 5:00 in the afternoon. On top of this, there are various readings and lectures which she must attend at least 3 or 4 times per week. So, she is in the scholastic mode and spending much of her time reading and writing. This leaves John with a great deal of free time, which is spent sleeping, walking around, reading (working through the giant novel Infinite Jest right now…), and drinking beer. I am taking full advantage of the everyday experience here in Prague, blending in more as a solitary local than an obvious American tourist. Our living situation is in a beautiful residential area of Prague called Bubenec, about 25 minutes walk from the city center and situated between two huge parks. As many tourists spend most of their time in historic center of the city, this area is much less crowded and has a very laid-back feel to it.

We are loving our roommates Petra and Honza. They are very open-minded, easy-going people, and it has been huge fun for us to get to know them and learn what we can from them concerning Czech culture and life here in Prague. They have introduced us to several of their friends, and it is truly a great experience to sit in a pub with Czech people who are completely willing to share with us and practice their English. The Czech language is extremely difficult for us to speak, especially as my lips and tongue are simply unable to form many of the letters and vowels; however, it is still a pleasure to listen to the locals as they speak, even comprehending next to nothing. Whereas English is extremely guttural and spoken from the throat, Czech and other Slavic languages are formed with the lips and tongue. Therein lies the main problem for me, as I have always had difficulty with such linguistic techniques.

Some stuff we have been doing… One of the first things we visited was the museum dedicated to the life and work of Franz Kafka. The museum was very cool, paying homage to the surreal and somber nature of Kafka’s work. Kafka has become one of Prague’s main tourist attractions, with many foreign literature aficionados visiting the city where the author spent his life. I won’t go into a long digression on his life and works, but I highly recommend that anyone reading this should familiarize themselves with Kafka at once. He is one of the most important writers of the early modern period, and one of the greats in terms of existentialist philosophy, which really makes sense. The Czechs have a different take on Kafka though, who was Jewish (not Czech) and wrote in German (the official language of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that ruled Bohemia until 1918). His work was also banned by Nazi and Communist authorities until the 1980s. As a result of this, there is nothing distinctly Czech in his work, which distances him from the national canon of Czech literature. This is not to say that Czechs never read it, but are more intrigued by the way that so many foreigners flock to Prague to see all the Kafka stuff. OK, enough on Kafka, the museum was great.

My parents, Margie and David, arrived in Prague on July 6 after a short visit in Munich, and stayed until July 12. It was great to see some family over here in Europe after over a month, and we had a very lovely visit. While Katie still had responsibilities for class, we still took advantage of this time to see a lot of the sights in Prague. Although we were battling the oppressive heat the entire time, which necessitated frequent stops and beer breaks, we had a chance to visit some cool stuff. We walked around a lot (as per usual), checking out Prague Castle, Vyšehrad (we took a walking tour with Katie’s literature professor and thoroughly enjoyed gaining an excellent cultural perspective on this area of Prague’s mythical origin), the Jewish Museum (this encompassed 6-7 synagogues in the Old Jewish town of downtown Prague and was very enlightening toward the history of Jewry in Prague), the Alfons Mucha Museum, Municipal House, and the Petrin Tower (a miniature version of the Eiffel Tower built in 1891 which actually stands 3 meters higher in altitude than the real thing). Mom and David were staying downtown east of the Old Town, so they had an excellent spot to explore the historic center. It was nice to wander with them and show them around the city. I think they had a good time, but are glad to be back in Indiana to bear the heat wave with some AC.

Another funny story: On our first or second evening in Prague, we went out for a walk with Petra through the Stromovka park to have some beers and talk. As we walked into the park, we could hear faint music in the distance, which on first impressions sounded like Green Day. I dismissed this at first, but as we walked deeper into the park, the music became clearer and clearer, and we double-checked ourselves thinking how random it would be to stumble upon a Green Day concert here in Prague. After downing a beer and getting even closer to the noise, we realized that it was in fact Green Day, so we sat outside and listened to the final hour or so of the concert. It was over 10 years since I saw these guys in concert, back when I was in sixth grade and they were still good, so it was a pretty funny experience for us to be sitting there listening to the Billie-Joe, the lead singer, croon out a medley of pop tunes from the 70s and 80s such as “Shout.” That band has come a long way from their punk origins, and might be the poster picture for selling out in terms of contemporary popular music. It was fun to hear, but I wouldn’t pay to go in… However, the rendition of their hit “American Idiot” was perhaps proper for the setting.

There’s much more to say, but that should be a good update for now. I hope everyone is safe, and we will try to update a little more frequently for this last month of our trip. This weekend we are taking a trip out to the city of Hradec Králové for a little R ‘n R at the home of our friends Vojta and Zuzka. We plan on some beers, relaxation, and an excellent Indian meal prepared for us by Vojta, an accomplished cooker in Indian cuisine (just one of his many talents).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Shit on, but Loving Prague Anyway

Greetings family and friends! Sorry for the excessive delay!

Prague is glorious and I am extremely busy. Completing a semester's worth of credits in one month is pretty demanding. Lots of reading and writing, events, lunches, sightseeing tours, beer drinking, etc... This is probably the best the place we've ever been. Great people, great food, beautiful sights, oh, and did I mention the beer?

Anyway, I'm just making a quick stop in the computer lab before going out for lunch with Shana and Daniel, so I'll have to be brief. We just had a Q & A with Holocaust survivor and author Arnost Lustig. Inspiring. Heartbreaking. Even hilarious, at times. It was truly an important and unique experience. A few days ago we heard a talk by another famous Czech literary figure, Ivan Klima. He was a leading force in the samizdat movement during the Communist regime. This means that, during Communism, he and his friends found loopholes to subvert censorship through self-publishing. He is an amazing, important man.

We've seen a lot of sights, walked the town with Margie and David (so much fun!), and spent some great evenings out with our Czech hosts. My workshop with Stu Dybek is fantastic, by the way. He's an amazing teacher, and tells wonderful stories about his life and connections to the writers' community. I feel very fortunate to be one of the few students participating in his summer class. I'm learning a lot!

About the shit, it came from a bird, and it landed on my head, right in the middle of my ponytail. This was yesterday. I think it was punishment for eating in a very touristy bagel shop at lunch. I couldn't resist the triple decker turkey club. You know how I get about sandwiches. Anyway, this was a pigeon deuce of epic proportions, not your run-of-the-mill, liquid white splatter. This thing had some weight to it. And texture. And aroma. It was so funny that I never got time to be upset. John was quite amused. We took a snapshot of the stinky load for a keepsake. Worse things have happened, and it's hard to be upset in this city. We're having the time of our lives.

Miss all of you! Much love! I have to run. I see beer and fried food in my near future...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In Prague...Finally!

Greetings and sorry for the delay!

We have finally arrived in Prague and are already in love with this old, beautiful, easy-going city. After a long travel day from Russia, (one 6-hr train ride from St. Petersburg, a 3-hr layover in Helsinki, complete with another attractive sunburn, a 2-hr flight to Frankfurt, and 1-hr flight to Prague...whew!) we made it to our home sweet home for the next month. Our hosts are wonderful, gracious people, named Petra and Honza, who have provided an excellent room for us to stay in. We have a huge window, table and chairs, and comfortable sleeping quarters. The apartment is well-located, in a quiet neighborhood outside of the center, smack dab between two enormous, green parks. I bet you can guess the best part about parks in Prague. You've been reading the blog... That's right! They have beer! There are several pubs in each of the parks near us, and on our first day in the city, Honza us to one of them. You order beer ("pivo") from a little stand, then drink it at picnic tables that overlook the entire city. It was an amazing welcome to this wonderful European gem. I wouldn't be surprised if this ended up being the best place we've ever traveled. The beer is cold and delicious, the people are nice, what more could you want?

Petra and Honza have also been very hospitable when showing us around the area. Our second night here, Petra took us to one of the oldest bars in Prague to meet some of her friends. They were so friendly, generous, and eager to practice their English. Petra was explaining to us that Czech people really enjoy speaking English with Americans because, apparently, we're very patient with their sometimes broken sentences and thick accents. I, for one, appreciate any foreign situation in which I can use my native tongue and be accepted, even welcomed for it. I would extend the gratitude the other way. Regardless, it's great talking with young Czechs who enjoy speaking English. It's been a lovely time so far.

The general ambience in Prague is open and laid-back. The country itself bears the semblance of a young nation, despite the age of Bohemia and the city itself. This atmosphere is the result of the overthrow of Communism which occurred in 1989 with the Velvet Revolution. Czechs are a people who relish and appreciate their freedom because the presence of very real oppression is fresh in the collective memory. Even Petra, in her early thirties, remembers quite vividly how different things were under Communist rule. Her father was even demoted at his job for listening to a particularly outspoken Czech folk singer years ago. We really have no idea what this type of legacy entails in the U.S. We're lucky for the freedoms we have always had, and should appreciate them on a daily basis. The result of such awareness in Czech Republic is a very laissez-faire social attitude. It's hard to describe this difference; it's more of a feeling that appears in high relief after visiting a place such as Russia, which seems like the third world. There is a vibrancy and joie de vivre in this city that is refreshing and invigorating for us, weary travelers at this point.

About the delay in the blog... We haven't been able to get wireless to work on my laptop here, so I'm borrowing Honza's. I will try to update in the future as much as necessary, but I'm going to be getting pretty busy once school starts on the 4th. Maybe I'll get John to take up a bit more responsibility with the writing. However, if anything exciting happens, I'll be sure to post it up. Just know that we're safe, happy, and really enjoying ourselves. Love to everyone!

Friday, June 25, 2010

White Nights Are the Best Nights

Hello again from Russia!

Wednesday night was, without a doubt, the best time we've had so far on our trip. We experienced the white nights first hand, which involved a pretty late outing, but it was worth it. Each evening in St. Petersburg, the draw bridges must be lifted so that large boats and barges may pass through. The lifting of the bridges, during white nights, is quite the social event for locals and tourists alike. The setting for this occurrence is so whimsical and ethereal, like being in another dimension. To be specific, we ventured out from our hostel at 1:30am, and when we reached one of the main bridges on Nevsky Prospect (the major drag here in S.P.), the bridge was already up. Drunken boat captains were recruiting passengers for their mystical nighttime cruises. Hippies blowing and dancing with fire drew a crowd on the banks of the Neva. Exhausted adolescents crippled by too much beer and too high heels staggered in the streets. It was lovely, exuberant madness. We even saw a man dressed like Darth Vader. Anything was possible.

We sipped on some canned Gin & Tonics, available at any convenience store, and watched the boats pass through the open bridge. Around 2:30am, the sun finally set, casting a pink glow over the whole city, setting fire to the gentle ripples on the river's surface. White lights outlined the edges of the bridge, setting it apart from the pastels on the horizon. The scene was breathtakingly beautiful. This was truly a unique experience that I will always cherish. We sat on a ledge, talking politics with our Czech companions, drinking until the sunset morphed into sunrise. To be sure, full darkness never settles here. In a preternatural sequence of moments, what you've been witnessing as the setting of the sun suddenly becomes its ascent. I don't know many places on earth where this simultaneous phenomenon occurs. We were stunned.

After a couple of hours at the river, we decided to head back to our hostel. We happened upon a 24-hour Subway on the way. It was 3:30am, and we were hungry. The restaurant was crowded and filthy. The meat was mysterious and watery, and the bread undercooked. I braved the restroom which was as frightening as any horrific moment in the Communist revolution (see the lower appendix entitled "A Word on Russian Water Closets"), and John cursed the employees because they were out of sweet onion sauce. Then he had a beer. It was a memorable meal.

As you might infer, we were forced to sleep in the next morning. Once we finally rolled out, we hopped on the metro, got out at the bus station, then rode out to one of the famed tsarist summer homes, this one entitled Peterhof Palace. This site is best known for its elaborate fountains and location adjacent to the Baltic Sea. We admired some lovely architecture, marveled at the fountains, walked out to the sea through the royal gardens, ate some hot dogs, then headed back to the city. We didn't visit the inside of the palace because of the fees we already had to pay to get onto the grounds alone, hence the lack of historical perspective and artistic musings here. You can't walk five feet in this city without paying for something (once again, see the lower appendix on restrooms). Each building in this complex called for a separate ticket, aside from the rubles we shelled out just to get through the gates. It's ridiculous. Regardless, we had a fun, if frugal, time.

That evening, we dined on Russian fast food at Teremok -- a chain specializing in the Russian favorite, bliny. Bliny are a lot like crepes, but better. This restaurant had dozens of possible fillings from caviar to cabbage to caramel apple. They also served up all the traditional Russian soups, including a delicious borscht which I had to exchange my initial soup for. The cold vegetable soup that I ordered seemed harmless enough. Vojta translated it (there was no English menu to speak of) as a cold vegetable soup made with beer, garnished with sour cream. Sounds great. The girl at the counter retrieved a bowl of raw veggies from the kitchen, plopped in a generous amount of sour cream, then, to my horror, filled the bowl to the top directly from the beer tap. That was the "broth." It wasn't even regular beer, it was this strange, low alcohol, yeast drink served at most fast food restaurants in Russia. Imagine a cross between Bud Light and grape soda...extra yeasty. I took a few bites of the soup, that was also garnished with super hot horseradish mustard, then had to wave the white flag. It was the weirdest, and probably most disgusting thing I have ever eaten. I don't want to hear any crap from any of you until you've tried it, either. It was traumatizing.

A Word on Russian Water Closets
1) You aren't allowed to flush your TP. You have to put it in a little trash can next to the shitter. Eeeew.
2) In public places, you always have to pay to use the potty. I learned quickly to lower my water intake. At night, after a few beers, a dark alley will suffice.
3) The hand dryers never work. Don't even bother trying.
4) Cleanliness standards are slightly lower than those in the
U.S. This is a euphemism.

Today, we awoke to thunderstorms, so we stayed in bed until the sun came out. Great idea. Once out, we walked a few kilometers to the Dostoevsky museum, located in the flat where the author wrote The Brothers Karamazov, and eventually passed away from a chronic lung disease. We took an audio guide to lecture us through the few rooms of the apartment, a great investment. We learned so much about Dostoevsky's life; that he was well loved and respected by Russians during his lifetime, was a dedicated father and proponent of family life, and a tireless advocate for the well-being of his fellow man. The tour was incredibly informative, and quite moving, at times. John was thrilled to find such a reward after plowing through both Brothers and Crime and Punishment before our trip. After this excellent excursion, we walked to the cemetery where Dostoevsky is buried, along with his wife and stenographer. John was the only one who went in. The rest of us didn't want to pay. I'm sure it was great.

Near the cemetery is the complex housing the Alexandre Nevsky monastery. Inside is a beautiful graveyard and gardens, along with another lovely Orthodox cathedral. We quietly entered the church during the saying of the liturgy, a very bizarre type of religious service. One monk recites scripture quickly, like a trance-inducing, singsong incantation. The faithful respond by crossing themselves at appropriate times and rocking back and forth. During the invocation, a hidden choir of monks chimes in with eerie, musical callbacks. Throughout the church, set to this soundtrack, old women, heads covered, walked from icon to icon, kneeling to the floor and touching their foreheads to the cold stone. They then rose and kissed the objects of worship, Jesus's feet, the Virgin's cheek, the soil of Jerusalem. Their lips moved rapidly in desperate prayer. It was very emotional. We felt much like intruders, so made our rounds, then exited into the sunshine. Again, a unique, unforgettable experience.

After some quick dinner from a street vendor (schwarma good), we caught a tour boat and experienced the city via canal. We were too lazy to search for a tour in English (few and more expensive), so we settled for a Russian narrator. Despite the communication gap, it was a lovely ride. Can you guess what we did while we're right! Beer! It was a great evening trip and a must-do for tourists in S.P. We had a wonderful time. Now we're back at the hostel, resting up for a big day at the Russian museum tomorrow. It's our last day in Russia tomorrow, so we hope to make the most of it. Love to everyone at home!

Interjection from Kochancz:
OK, it's been awhile since I've said much on this blog. Katie pretty much sums up my opinions, and I'm quite content to let her speak for me. However, I feel like some of our readers might be interested in hearing a little something from me at this point. Our trip in
Russia has been fascinating, as Katie has aptly described. In America, we often don't think other cultures too much. We have our own problems, and it is usually enough to worry about our individual stuff from day to day. Culturally speaking, Russia is at the far end of the world for us, an exotic place that was our traditional enemy for so long, and in many respects, a place which we are unable, or unwilling, to understand. Katie has illustrated most of what I'm trying to convey here, so I won't repeat too much. I am very thankful to Vojta and Zuzka for extending an invitation to travel here. Without any knowledge of the Russian language or the Cyrillic alphabet, it would be next to impossible for us to travel here. Vojta has been our mouth, and we really appreciate his effort and proficiency with the Russian language. I find it intimidating to order even a hot dog here without his help.... That being said, the place is wonderful, and the Russians find it interesting and amusing to see Americans traveling through their land. Some Siberian guys told us that we should tell all of our friends to come, and there is nothing to be afraid of. I agree, but we still must be aware of the differences. All in all, we have come to a place where most Americans avoid for historical and communications (some come for short periods on cruises and tours, but it is infinitely easier to visit Western Europe), and it has been an extremely rewarding and informative visit for us. The geographic aspects of the visit have been very cool, as we are farther north than the major Alaskan cities (but the climate is much milder). We are both very happy to have come here, but it will be very welcome to arrive in Prague and settle down for the month.

Side note on Dostoevsky:
OK, I have turned into a bit of a Dostoevsky nerd in the past year. I've plowed through two of his major novels, and I must say, this was one of the best literary choices that I have ever made.
Saint Petersburg features prominently in Dostoevsky's works, especially two that I have read, Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground. Here, the city becomes the setting for major existential drama, the place where humanity functions on both its and basest levels. The landscape allows for some horrifying acts, but also becomes the ultimate outlet for humanity and religion. Although Dostoevsky has been criticized for using religion as the end-all-be-all for the existential problems of the human condition, here you can begin to see how he formulated these ideas. Placing this in perspective with the history of Russian politics and society (Dostoevsky himself was condemned to execution before being pardoned at the moment of his death and sentenced to several years of hard labor in Siberia...), the author possessed an amazing view on humanity and the relationships that we share. He ultimately suggested an alternate path for the Russian people, one not based on revolution, which he figured would ultimately lead to totalitarianism and repression (and he was right), but one where people would relate through good ole' peace, love, and understanding. I'm risking a basic ramble here, so I will conclude. Don't be daunted by the page counts in Dostoevsky's novels. He offered something which writers today won't contend with. The major tragedy is that his vision was unfinished. He died before he could complete the second half of The Brothers Karamazov, and had visions for several more novels in mind. I found immense pleasure standing in his old house today, or standing before his bones in the cemetery, even though it cost me 200 Roubles... The books are basic in the canon of literature, and visiting the locus of this literature has been one of the most rewarding of pilgrimages.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Long Nights Call for Long Beers


More from Russia!

We’ve finally jumped into our sight-seeing after a long recovery from the grueling overnight bus ride. It’s lucky for us that we’re traveling with our Czech friends Vojta and Zuzka. They are much more familiar with the culture here in Eastern Europe and Vojta speaks enough Russian to survive. I can’t really begin to list all of the minor differences that make this place so strange. It would be hard to explain without sounding xenophobic or culturally elitist. It’s just unfamiliar, and the inability to communicate whatsoever is a new sensation.

Yesterday, we got off to a pretty late start, relatively speaking. The “white nights” here are really perfect for John and me because we like to stay up late and sleep in. That lifestyle works out well here. To explain, right now it’s 11:30pm and still daylight. Very cool. Later this evening we might go out and watch the opening of the bridges. Here in St. Petersburg, there is a network of canals, and at certain times of night, they draw them up to allow large boats to pass through. It’s supposed to be pretty cool. And we can drink beer while watching it! Hooray!

Back to the sights. We started off yesterday with a visit to the Kazan Cathedral, an impressive church whose architecture represents the fusion of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, a combination that Tsar Paul, commissioner of the church, saw as a sort of “super-Christianity.” The interior is dark, cavernous, and decorated in the Baroque style – lots of colorful, veined marble, gold, and elaborate carvings. The mood inside this place of worship was very somber. Through the center of the church, people formed a long line, waiting to kneel before and pray to an icon of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Most of the women wore head coverings, and each of the faithful appeared deep in thought, choosing his or her prayer carefully. You would know a Russian icon if you saw one – paintings, usually of Mary and Baby Jesus, composed in a Pre-Renaissance style, without a sense of spatial perspective, often inlaid with gold and rich pigments. In Russian Christian traditions, touching, kissing, and praying to these icons is an important ritual. We purchased a small replica of an icon, a little shiny Jesus, at the church gift shop. This visit was very interesting because of the architecture and mood of the cathedral, and also because we were able to see the church-goers in action.

When we exited the cathedral, the rain had begun. It rained. And rained. And rained. And then it got cold. Then colder. Then colder still. It was the worst weather we’ve had so far. We had the brilliant idea to visit St. Petersburg’s main museum, Hermitage, to get out of the rain. We couldn’t have been more wrong. We arrived at Hermitage, a magnificent palace painted mint green and white, situated in a huge open square. There was a very long line. We guessed it would take up maybe 45 minutes to get in. It rained the whole time we waited, and when we finally reached the gate, we found that yet another line formed inside, twice as long as the one we had already waited in! This was when the really bad rain started. I think Zuzka almost died of hypothermia. Our friends aren’t really art fanatics, so I started to feel pretty bad that they were enduring all the shittiness just so John and I could up our Caravaggio count by one (There were also other things we wanted to see…). Eventually, they got fed up, and left us there. After two hours of waiting in the cold and rain, we finally made it in. Then we had to wait in another line for tickets!

Pardon my language, but there is only one word for this whole situation – clusterfuck. It was the most inefficient thing I’ve ever seen. We were also pretty upset because by the time we got in, the museum was only going to be open for another hour and a half. We tore that place up! We collided with small children, elbowed through tour groups, and took the stairs two at a time. This was the most crowded museum I have ever been to. Around every corner lurked a guided tour, blocking the view of important, famous works that we needed to check off our list. We got extremely frustrated and started standing in front of the groups, pretending not to notice them. John got scolded by a saucy Italian lady leading a group of Asians. “Excuse me, sir! Can’t you see there’s an excursion here!” she said. “Yes,” John said, then continued looking at the tiny da Vinci painting that was about as interesting as a dog turd, in retrospect. “Do you understand?!” she said. “It’s an excursion!!” John finally caved, and stepped out of the way. It was infuriating, trying to look at paintings when groups of twenty-five to thirty people were crowded around every single one. The most upsetting part about this museum is that you can pay extra if you want to take pictures, otherwise you are forbidden. Included in the price for photography is permission to use a flash. Fragile paintings, like those by da Vinci, can become ruined over time when exposed to flash photography. I guess whoever is in charge of the Hermitage doesn’t really care. I’ve never been to another museum housing such treasures that permits flash photography. It was shocking.

Anyway, bitching aside, Hermitage is indeed one of the most important museums in all the world. The depository itself, in this case, is just as beautiful as the art work. The former palace boasts astounding, elaborate architecture and some of the most beautiful interiors that I’ve ever seen. I wish we could have had more time there. Nevertheless, we saw our Caravaggio, along with some unique works by Rembrandt and Rubens. The modern-contemporary galleries were also fantastic. We saw a whole roomful of Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings, which are some of my favorites. There were also a handful of works from Matisse’s Orientalist period – very interesting. The modern German section was displaced by works on loan from the Picasso museum in Paris, a real bummer. I was looking forward to those paintings, and I’ve seen enough Picasso to last me several lifetimes. All in all, Hermitage was a hectic, but satisfying experience.

After the museum, we reconvened with our friends for some authentic Russian food. We dined in a small restaurant decorated to look like the inside of a cottage – dim lighting, rustic wood tables, knickknacks and scenes from fairy tales painted on the walls. We had borscht, a traditional Russian beef and cabbage soup, another sour pork soup, the name of which escapes me, and also some hearty dumplings filled with potato and mushroom or pork and beef. We had been freezing all day, so this meal was unbelievably comforting, and certainly more delicious than most of the overpriced fare we had in France. Oh, and there was beer. More Baltika 7.

Today, finally, we had beautiful weather. It was sunny and pleasant all day, perfect for walking around the city. The sun is brighter, for lack of a better word, here, and today ir was encircled by a rainbow all afternoon. It was so beautiful. We started our day with a walk to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This is one of those sweet, quintessentially Russian churches that looks like stacked cupcakes. You’re probably familiar with St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. This one is very similar, and completely dazzling. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go inside, but the exterior was completely breathtaking. Nearby, we visited a souvenir market where we picked up some gifts for family and friends.

After the church, we walked to St. Petersburg’s point of origin, Zayachy Island or The Fortress of St. Peter and Paul. This island is the site where Peter the Great first founded the city, after seizing the area from Sweden. There are multiple buildings on this island, most of which were closed today because it was Wednesday, whatever that means. We were able to visit the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, notable because it is the burial site for several famous Russian leaders such as Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, and the last family of tsars, the Romonovs, who were murdered in 1918. The circumstances surrounding their execution are sad and interesting. It was several decades before their remains were actually located, and the bones were only moved to the Cathedral, despite some contention from the church, in 1998. The inside of this cathedral is also typically Baroque, however, there are floor-to-ceiling windows that let in enormous shafts of light, illuminating the whole space. This church is characterized by lightness, where many other churches of this same style are weighty and imposing. It is a truly lovely space.

We left the island and took a walk down to the river. We got in some incredible people watching down there due to the astounding number of weddings and proms taking place this evening. Since all of us are newlyweds, it was fun to watch the other couples having their photos taken near the water. One Russian wedding tradition that we observed involved drinking a glass of Champagne, then breaking the glasses together. This left a precarious mess for the young prom-goers to tread over. The dresses on the young girls were pretty interesting, and everyone was wearing pantyhose, even with open-toed shoes. Zuzka informed me that this is customary among Eastern European women. She and I had more fun that we should have, making comments on all the fashion statements. It was a great way to spend the evening. Oh, and we were drinking beer, again.

After the people-watching fest, we took dinner at a really great Georgian restaurant. The cuisine is a fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking – lots of skewered meats, spicy stews, and a homemade bread called levash. I had a cold, summer dish of poached salmon in cilantro and garlic puree, along with a Greek style salad with the creamiest, most flavorful feta cheese I have ever had. John had pork skewers, potatoes, and chicken soup. We also had some Georgian wine (a lot like Pinot Noir)…and more beer! Could you guess? Now we’re back at the hostel, chatting with our Ukrainian roommates, two very nice girls who plan to become teachers of English. This makes it easy for us! We’re having a great time and we hope for more sunshine ahead, despite the fact that I got a little fried today. (My sunscreen got confiscated at the London airport. It was my fault. We haven’t found any more yet. It’s so expensive!) We might visit a place outside the city tomorrow, if the weather holds out. We miss all of you and hope things are well. Much love!