The Spirit of Prague

Ivan Klíma wrote the following in The Spirit of Prague – For me, the material and spiritual centre of this city is an almost 700-year-old stone bridge connecting the west with the east. The Charles Bridge is an emblem of the city's situation in Europe, the two halves of which have been seeking each other out at the very least since the bridge's foundations were laid. The West and the East.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Visual Riches

How is it that one day can contain so much? I have experienced an embarrassment of visual riches. Friday the 4th was just one of those amazing days Europe offers travelers. Our class group went on a field trip to Konopiste castle in the day... led by our awesome, mellow, down to earth guide Zdenek, the group had a marvelous time. The weather was perfect (70, sunny, perhaps even a bit too warm in moments for our NW sensibilities). The castle is in the French style, with towers at the corners. It was last owned/occupied by Franz Ferdinand (whose assassination is often cited as the start of WWI), an avid hunter. It is estimated he killed 300,000 animals in his time (according to the guides, it would be about one per every hour he was alive!). 

We took the train, walked through the town of Benešov, and to the foot of the hill where we had a break (I got a doppio espresso), and then trudged up the hill. The castle, the inside tour (the armory was phenomenal), the outside gardens, all peppered with Zdenek sharing his knowledge of the history and his people. It's such a gift!

I feel blessed and fortunate to have such great people guide us, coordinate our learning, and offer such amazing trips as part of our package. As you can see from above, the students also had fun (and there were pheasants and peacocks all over the garden area!).

Upon returning, everyone was exhausted. But I still had a hunger...for more, and Prague didn't disappoint. It rarely does. I went to dinner at a lovely little French bistro (the leek soup was to die for, and the dessert!), and then decided to hop a tram up to the Prague castle area. I got there about 9pm on a Friday night, and was stunned.

How is it that I had this place practically to myself? It is hard to put in words. The first is my solitary approach to the castle. The second is St. Vitus Cathedral at night. Again, I had the place to myself! They say it's trite to call Prague magical... it's a cliche. But, the city does cast a spell at night, and I cannot help be entranced by what I stumble across regularly here.

On a side note, there was a guard at the end of that empty street. I smiled, nodded, and walked right through that tunnel as if I knew what I was doing. I assumed he would stop me if it was zakázaný (forbidden). And that second picture? The Cathedral? I took that leaning up against the wall of the office of the President of the Czech Republic. This castle that surrounds this cathedral has been the home to the leader of the Czech people for over 1000 years, and still is the office. Even the Nazi
Reichsprotektor (Reynhard Heydrich) had his office here (until his assassination by two Czech parachutists, a story I will revisit and a history I will explore in person while here).

Yes, it may be a cliche, but I hope this embarrassment of visual treats keeps casting its spell on me. As I sat there last night practically alone (others did arrive, but in such small numbers, a couple or two, a young woman taking pictures, etc), I thought I'd never get tired of looking at this place on a warm, Spring night. Despite the centuries of existence, I hope this place never gets old for me.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Dusk and Walking

My single favorite pastime here is walking. My favorite time to do this is at light fails, the lights come on around the city. The weather has been perfect the last few days. Clear skies allow this time to linger for a few extra minutes, as the shades of blue slowly cross the spectrum to black. It's at this time, Prague changes. The streets are less crowded. Even the Charles Bridge becomes walkable. I'm not sure where all the people or tourists go, and why they all seem to miss the best moment.

Prague at dusk adds a new layer to the city's character. Prague at night is a different character entirely. I simply love to walk as sunlight fades, and night Prague takes over. At dusk, I sense a new city coming into being. At night, I find myself stunned anew. Here is some evidence of the city changing.

The Charles Bridge as light creeps across the horizon (the first three). The Jewish Quarter. A church at Namesti Miru (my subway stop), and finally, a tree decorated for the coming Easter market and celebrations in Old Town Square with the Astronomical Clock Tower in the background.

Dusk. Night. It's a safe bet you will find me walking somewhere in the streets of Prague.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Classes Begin

Classes began this week. It's been a whirlwind. It's felt busy and hectic to me, but I can't imagine how it is for the students... still slightly dazed from their trip, from the sudden immersion into a new country, a new place to stay, a new group of people, and for most, this is their first time abroad. They finished finals, hopped on planes Thursday, arrived Friday. Then, they experienced a weekend that had to be a blur of events...followed by a long day of classes on Monday, two birthday celebrations in the group already, a long day of classes Tuesday that ended at the top of Petrin Tower and was followed by a long, leisurely walk back through the park, and more classes today.

I admire them. They are handling it extremely well. At their age, I would not have handled things as openly and positive as these young people. At their age, I was face first in platters of illegal substances, quitting jobs because I felt too good to go to work, and dropping out of college. At their age, I would have already either quit, woke up in a foreign jail, or punched a hole in the wall. These students are jumping in, fully, completely, openly. I admire them.

I have kept my classes pretty simple to start. I begin with checking in on their mental states, their sleep, eating habits, adjustments. We've done some light exercises, and a few readings. Mostly, though, I am bringing them along slowly. In Prague, less than a week in, the experience is doing my work for me. I was shown, and in turn, showed the students, this amazing little pekárna (bakery) near our classroom. CZK 18 for a little 3-4 bite sandwich on heavenly bread. This is less than a dollar (or right about a dollar). We've been twice already! It's hectic and busy in there, and difficult to order, but it's been a great, real live learning experience for all.

And then today, I found another one by accident. I wandered up another street, and saw this charming storefront. I stopped to look in. Another woman walking by stopped and did the same thing. The bakery countered beckoned with treats. She went in. I followed.

This place, called Jungmannovo pekařství, was grand. Today, for lunch, I got a ham and cheese croissant sandwich, a strawberry flavored water, and a piece of chocolate pudding cake dusted perfectly with powdered sugar all for CZK85 - less than $5 - and it was tasty! Jungmannovo pekařství. It's a long name and a place I will go back to, for sure.

Our classroom is in the middle of this raucous part of the city. Vodičkova and Lazarská. Tram lines, traffic, cobblestone streets, just so much noise and city energy. Yet, our classroom is tucked away, and in this lovely little courtyard back off the streets. It's quiet. There's a great little café with fantastic espresso in the courtyard. I was able to meet a few students there, just to do some individual check-ins. 

Yes, they are doing great coming together, but I can see issues coming. Nothing too serious, but with this many people thrown together, personalities will arise. Mediation will be necessary. Classes will continue. I have faith in these students, and even though conflicts will naturally come, I can see them working it out. I believe in them, and the power of this experience, this city, to overcome.

Sunday, March 30, 2014


So, the students have arrived and are here, safely... for the most part. We've had a few hiccups, a couple getting lost (but found). But most importantly, they are a terrific group. A wonderful lot. I think highly of each of them as individuals, and what they've done to come together as a group. This is not easy, but they have come together fast in surprising ways. As if the sheer foreignness that surrounds them is an adhesive – they are sticking together in these early days.

They've only been here a few days, but I am sure it feels longer to them. They have already done and seen so much! First dinner together as a group, and then their first full day was a day long Orientation session, a boat ride, and second night dining together. A long guided walking tour consumed their second full day on the ground, and the list goes on. I have occasionally offered to show them something, but also want to let them have experiences on their own. However, when I ask, "Do you want to see ______?" There is a resounding Yes!

This leads me to what I love about watching them. I'm most impressed by these young people and their sheer desire to open their eyes. In our worlds back home, open eyes (and minds) are rare. We are consumed by personal drama, rarely look up from our electronic devices, rarely engage with our surroundings, others, the variety of cultures that exists everywhere, even in the seemingly sterile suburbs or small towns of America.

Yet, here...there is a real hunger in them to not only see, but experience their surroundings in a way they just can't back home. This is a Study Abroad, and already, without a class, the learning curve is steep. It's not something that can be tested though, or measured... unless you placed a ruler next to their eyes as they walked down one of many lanes in Old or New Town. You can literally see it. Eyes open wider. It's visible. It's noticeable. It's wonderful.

One student said, "I can't stop smiling!" as she was walking down the street, hours after getting off the plane. I told her not to worry about. Smile. It is good. Smile as often as you want, as it allows the rest of your mind and body to fully take in the experience. Smile. All of them. At times, I've seen their smiles as big and wide as their eyes... they're soaking it in. I hope they keep smiling.


Most everything is better than advertised in the Mother of Cities – Prague. I don't think one can market, or properly speak to the experience of being here. Most everything is definitely better than advertised here in Prague, with one glaring exception:

I was so incredibly excited to see this in the grocery store! I mean, it says Delicate. It says Soft and Strong. It looks whiter. It looks softer. Oh, the pampered American bum vs European Sandpaper. So, in the grocery store (grocery shopping, shopping at the drogeries, is an entirely different experience and post waiting to happen), I was thrilled when I saw the Kleenex brand. And I thought, no it's not bad to want decent toilet paper. I have that right. I can immerse myself culturally in different ways. I don't need thin, coarse, TP that even when used to blow my nose takes a layer of skin with it.

And so with glee, I bought the above package. I believed the marketing. However, that puppy lies. It is not soft, or strong, or delicate. It perhaps is slightly softer, certainly whiter, but it remains just a finer grain of sandpaper.

My soft, delicate, white, American backside is not happy. And the person that put that puppy on this package needs to be taken out back and *&@#%#!   I know Golden Retriever puppy soft. And this, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is quite simply not.

Friday, March 28, 2014

My Apartment & The Curtains

When I moved into my apartment here in Vinohrady Praha 2, I was excited and blown away. It's huge, and like they promised, I have Wi-Fi (it could be better, but works most of the time), and laundry service! Not too shabby. The only problem I saw right away, was the bed. It's springy and loose and saggy... not a great bed. I can live with that, though.

And then I noticed something else... those giant beautiful windows that let in so much light are fantastic. See them? And the bad bed?
Well those windows are glorious, and beautiful, and it's a tree lined street that is just coming into bloom. Lovely. But, those curtains? I can see everything through them, and everyone can see right back into the bedroom. Clearly. I tested it. During the day and at night (worse at night – one can  make out more than just shapes in the bedroom!). Yet, I'm only here a short time... I can live with it, right? I can turn out the light and get undressed and it's no big deal.

So that's what I did the first night. Except there's a streetlight. A couple of them. Bright ones. And that curtain that doesn't curtain? It lets all the light in, too. I could read in bed with the lights off. I have sleep issues as it is... constant insomnia, fear of going to sleep, combined with a bigger desire to actually sleep. It was a brutally long night.

And so began the Great Curtain Chase of Praha, 2014.

It started at a mall. Yes, in this city of historic places, I was here less than a week and I was in a giant, multi-level shopping mall called Palladium. Tragic, I know. Except on a recent walking tour, the guide pointed out a building that back in the day (1300-1400's) was the first indoor shopping area in all of Central Europe, and could possibly be considered the first mall. Maybe it's not so tragic after all? However, the curtains in this mall were really expensive.

Of course, I ended up at the nicest store. Beautiful furniture, modern, classic, luxurious, just a great home design store. The curtains averaged $600. I thought this was not the best option, and so I mustered the courage to speak, and asked. "Promiňte, prosím. Mluvíte anglicky?" Surprisingly, the younger woman shook her head and pointed at the older woman. She nodded, and I explained. She showed me what they had, and I said, yes, they are lovely, but you know, only two months!  

She thought about it and waved her arms as she said, you need to go to *@^%#?  – as usual, I had no idea what she actually said, but I followed her, and she printed out the name of a store, along with the various addresses. I told her where I was staying, and she circled the two on my metro line. She said, "Yes, go to JYSK. You will find curtains for around $30." And she was right! 

I love this woman.

The next day I was on the Subway out to one of the last stops, where I followed my GPS a mile away from where I actually needed to be. I couldn't imagine that I was standing on the dot of my destination, yet I was in the middle of Communist style apartment towers with depressed landscaping and faded, peeling orange paint. Strangers were staring. I was the stranger. Where was this store? I circled and circled. I peeled left. I spun right. I ran out of time. I had to leave. I found my way back to the train station. And god damn it, JYSK is right next to where I came up from the subway. How did I miss it? I ran in, looked, but was already running late. But I saw enough. They did have cheap options. It took a second trip out there later that day, right before they closed, but I got curtains – both of them, for less than $18 total! 

These are also thin, but have a design, and combined with the other ones, work pretty good. I cannot read with the lights off. Due to the bad bed, I still have problems sleeping, but at least it's dark-ish, and at least I have some semblance of privacy. JYSK. That woman. Thank you. 

I should also mention, hanging curtains on windows this tall, when you are this short, without a ladder or anyone to help, is no easy feat. I balanced my tippy toes on a big stock pot on a layer of folded cardboard that sometimes moved a little, all on top of the windowsill. But they are hung, and somewhat ugly, and I'm proud. When I turn out the lights (yes I can still see things, but not as much), I think, crafty Kenny. Crafty. Boy got some moxie. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Turista, or Turistický: Part II

Reflections in brief; Reflections in the Vltava.

So, a man alone, walking along the street, is apparently not considered a Turista by most passersby. I have been asked directions multiple times, in multiple languages, by multiple types of people: large and small groups of senior citizens (they love me), young couples, families, etc. They all have one thing in common.

They clutch maps, and look desperately around for something they recognize.

They look too fast to really see anything, though. The panic of not knowing where one is in a foreign city. And then they see me, and they lunge. They say Excuse me and Where is... or Where are we... or Can you help us in a host of languages.

A man alone is no Turistický. But I am. And here's a photo of the Vltava River from one of many bridges.
And here is one of a dead end alley in Mala Strana at night. Yes, a Turistický would not know this was a dead end until at the end.
Yes... I am a Turistický indeed. And in this city, I find no shame in it.