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.