Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Weekend Get-A-Way

Can I just say how amazing it is to live in a place where I can travel to amazing little hide-aways at the drop of the hat for the weekend? It's easy to get all worn down in the day to day living here, but the weekends can provide such amazing bliss. This was definitely one of those weekends.
Several months ago my friend Nicole had received an article from her dad about the little Medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. She was determined to see this jewel of a city, and was nice enough to include me in her plans. My friend Crystal, who lives in Sokolov about 45 minutes away, was also able to join us.
Rothenburg is only about 4 hours away by train, and the trip really flew by. I think that was due, in part, to all the transfers we had to make. The great company helped as well. In Germany we are able to buy a cheap train ticket that can cover up to 5 people, so it really cuts down on travel costs when you're able to drag more people along on these little expeditions.
We arrived in Rothenburg at about 6PM Friday evening. After making our way to our incredible hostel:

We were ready to take on the town with our cameras. At every turn there was another wonder to behold, and Crystal and I were more than happy to keep our digital cameras active. Nicole, with her good old classic film camera, had to be a bit more cautious about what she chose to capture, and was constantly exclaiming over all the wonders she couldn't possibly pass up!

This last picture is over a butcher's shop, and I had first seen it in the article Nicole showed me, so I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to take my own photo of it.
After wandering the city streets for a while, we passed through an archway in the ancient wall and found ourselves in a magnificent garden. I took about a bazillion photos here, but I'll keep my numbers down for now ;)

The views were really amazing, and we had no doubts in our mind about why this is one of the stops on the romantic road. We took in the sunset and headed back to the hostel to call it an evening.
After our evening of exploration we were ready to head to bed early so we could get up and go all day on Saturday. It's important to take advantage of every moment on these weekend excursions. Even I, who generally refuse to even look at my bed until after 12 on a Friday night, conceded to turn in early. Unfortunately, the two young American girls who were sharing our room had not yet learned ANYTHING about hostel etiquette. They were sitting at a little table in the room talking with the lights on until well after 12 despite the fact that everyone else in the room was trying to sleep, and there was a small room outside of the sleeping room where they could have gone. To make matters worse (as if the hard bed and lumpy little pillow weren't doing their best to keep me from sleeping) I was awakened by "Let's Get It On" at 5 AM. After the first line it was silenced until the returned ten minutes later, and every ten minutes after that until about 5:30 when the girls finally managed to get out of bed so they could bang chairs around and dig through the plastic bags they'd filled their backpacks with in order to make every moment as loud as possible. Just to make it all even more interesting and varied they said the word "like" incessantly. Good times with those little Americans to be sure. I had to fight the urge and give them a little piece of my more experienced traveling knowledge. Helpful tips like, "if you don't want everyone you stay with to HATE you, you might consider having everything ready to go the night before, etc." Grrr!
Needless to say, we were up and showered well before they started serving breakfast at 7AM. The breakfast was spectacular I must say. Were it not for the bad roommates, the hostel was truly terrific. Since they can't exactly refuse people just because they're annoying, we really can't make any complaints. Well except for the fact that I've now clearly entered old age and am no longer young enough for any sort of youth discount. Only Crystal got to enjoy the baby privileges. (sigh)
After stuffing ourselves on semmels with meat and cheese and/or chocolate and lovely lattes we headed out to take in the wall. The old city of Rothenburg is surrounded by this ancient wall that was built a considerably long time ago (can't find an exact reference as to when at the moment) and sections damaged during WWII have now been restored so you can walk most of the way around the town on the wall. The view was so incredible that I got downright snap happy. Here are a few shots so you can feel like you were there too!

Are you getting a feel yet for just how incredibly picturesque this place is? Honestly, I took over 200 photos in less than 48 hours. Pretty ridiculous if I do say so for myself. Anyone thinking of checking out all my pictures when I get home are in for a rather excruciatingly long treat! We spent the whole day just wandering around the city. It's the sort of place that I can't imagine real people living in. If I were to live some place like this I would fear that there would come a point where I would stop being in awe, and would take for granted just how beautiful and historic it all is. It's so easy to do that. But for these few days we were able to maintain the awe.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

For the sake of saying something

I don't know that I really have a whole lot to say just now. I just feel like I should post something. It's a nice day out today. I'm really thankful for that. I walked down by the river on my way to work today, checking out all the visiting birds and the newly budding trees. I think Spring really is doing it's best to take on Cheb. Slowly but surely. There was a man fishing with two poles, and I saw a pretty big fish jump, so there must be something decent out there. I watched the ducks lazing by the side of the river. I'm still keeping my eyes peeled for any sign of ducklings. There were mostly drakes out, so there is hope that somewhere, hopeful mother ducks are sitting on their eggs to protect them from whatever crazy weather might be thrown in their direction this time of year.
I walked up by the castle (it's always so fun to be able to say that!) and made my way past my hopeful future dwelling place and through the square. It was warm enough I had to take off my coat even. Yes, there is hope yet that there will be positive changes in the weather.
I'm in the office now. Oh the joy. Have some lessons that need planning, and a quarter of a can of coke I need to finish off, possibly with a Cadbury egg from Julie Sousa :) My dentist students about had a conniption fit when I told them I drink a can of soda every day. Sometimes more...They're sure my teeth are all going to rot out of my head. Reminds me of the dentist I had as a kid who wouldn't let his kids have any sugar on their cereal, and told Dad he should give up eating fruit! As if! So maybe coke isn't the healthiest choice, but I just love the burn as it runs down my throat, all cold and hot at the same time. And then there's that little kick that I keep telling myself the caffeine gives me.
Kelly, our leader from Prague, is in town today to sign our contracts for next year. It's pretty official by this point. As if it wasn't already before. I've got another year stretching out ahead of me, and it's hard not to spend most of my time wondering how things will be next year. I really want to take these days, one at a time, and enjoy them for the moments they are, rather than comparing them with how they might be different next year. Living in the moment is a whole lot harder than it sounds!

Friday, April 18, 2008

It's the weekend and I'll sigh if I want to.

With relief that is. It's been a long week. The first bit was normal, but Wednesday sort of threw things into an uproar. I'd just been having an excellent time helping Tammy enjoy the amazing clothing sale going on at my favorite Cheb store, Kenvelo, when we were first warned of a subbing job. Now let me just say, that I've done my fair share of subbing, and the thought of doing more wasn't exactly high on my to-do list. In fact, I'd told Tammy I wouldn't do it. But, as usual, when it came right down to it and Kate asked me, I said yes. I'm such a sucker.
I'd actually subbed for this class before, around Easter time and they were REALLY quiet. This time, I had two different students and one of them was quite the live wire. Oh the memories of Alaska. At least they talked a bit. And they didn't even seem to mind when I made them play Simon Says. Not always the biggest hit with 12 to 15 year olds, but it worked.
When I was done I had only an hour to make sure my evening classes were all in order, which meant I had no time to plan for Thursday. Generally I'm pretty good at planning a day in advance, so when Kate also informed me that she would be coming to observe my teaching on Friday, meaning I would need to plan both for Thursday and a Friday review all in one day I was a wee bit stressed. Especially because we also have our Czech class on Thursday. (sigh)
Needless to say Thursday was very long, and since I didn't sleep much last night I was a bit concerned about how my observation would go today. The students are at the point in the year where they're pretty much done with class. They're currently doing a book to prepare for a test, but it's almost exactly the same material as what we covered in the book they just finished, so the review can be painstaking at times. I mean, who wants to repeat the same information twice in one year? All the same, they managed to look alive and cooperative, and they even wrote things down when I asked them to (an activity that tends to draw groans and rolled eyes on other days) and in the end Kate told me it was a nearly flawless lesson! Pretty high praise coming from her to be certain.
So now I'm happy to announce that it is the weekend. I can stop thinking about classes for at least the next 48 hours, and just enjoy life.
One more point of interest, I learned today that my new teammate will be a girl named Laura Myers. So far all I know is that she is from Kansas and has a degree in English Education. Sounds promising thus far. I'm really looking forward to getting to know more about her. And on that note: Happy WEEKEND!!!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bring on the ducklings!

I have to admit I'm super excited about Spring. I can't wait to see new life peeking out from the ground and the tips of tree branches, small heads poking above the edge of the Stork's nest outside the school windows, and little ducklings following their mothers down to the river. It fills me with a thrill that I can't quite explain. The beauty of renewal. The freshness of beginnings. Not to mention my hope in the warmth of the sun.
At the same time, in the midst of all this burgeoning new life, I have also seen the sinister side of nature. This morning the sidewalk was littered with corpses, small bodies strewn in careless disarray. Some still wriggled with life, seeking solace from their hopeless exposure. Others had lost the will to live altogether. Bits and pieces curled helplessly, nearly unrecognizable. Those who had died first were smashed in places, the wounds swelling up in bulbous pustules, bloated and lumpy. I could scarce contain the urge to vomit as I did my best not to step on any of them. The macabre scene was not the way I wanted to begin my day. But such is a commonplace experience in Spring.
I couldn't help but ask myself why. Why would the surrender themselves to such hopelessness? Why forgo the pleasures of life and security within the confines of the soft earth for the harsh reality of death on the sidewalk? We generally associate Spring with life, but all around me I saw only death and dying.
How fortuitous that I am not a worm. But do I sometimes expose myself to things equally as harmful? Am I drawn by the cool temptation of the rain to entertain a life that will lead only to brutal ruin? A little food for thought as the temperatures rise...
But even in the midst of this darker side I'm still filled with the hope of something more. Something better by far. Despite the candy coated offerings of the world, there is good to be found. There is an abundance of joy in my heart as I look forward to Spring, and further still into summer.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

When it rains it pours

and I write a little more frequently. Our stellar weather has gone all April on me, and we've been having what I described to my class as "torrential downpours." Fortunately they've been fairly sparse. Rather like afternoons in Hong Kong, only a WHOLE lot colder. At least there hasn't been any more snow this week.
During a break in the clouds, Tammy and I went on a little outing with a few of our students today. When they got out of class they invited us to come along and try out the bumper cars with them. A small impromptu carnival has been set up in the parking lot, reminiscent of small town USA complete with Haunted House, spinning swings, and a Lion King ride with substitute animal characters that would look very out of place in a jungle.
The guys weren't sure if it would be open or not, given the weather and time of day, but they were certain that the prospect of making a few krowns would undoubtedly encourage them to start things up for us. Sure enough, the entire place was looking like a ghost town when we arrived. A large dark German Shepherd let us know that this was his turf we were trespassing on.
A man, in typical carnie attire, came over to us and said something in Czech - no surprises there. Henry convinced him that we were paying customers, and that it would be worth his while to let us go a couple of rounds. What fun! Having "invited" us, the Martin and Zbynek paid for the first round of rides, then Tammy and I turned the tables and offered to pay for the second. It was a total blast. I don't remember the last time I was in bumper cars, but I wouldn't mind hitting the place up again before they leave in a couple of weeks. There are some very exciting head on collisions, as well as some great side shots. I really do miss my car!
After two rounds we thanked the man for letting us take the cars for a spin, and headed back to the school. In all, it was a great little interlude before getting back to the work of the day, and before the Heavens burst forth with rain once more.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

And now for that bit about the shrubs...

Naomi and I had a couple of really nice days in Poland. On Saturday we got up bright and early and were fortunately able to negotiate a cheaper price with the hostel owner due to the lack of Crystal. He was very, very nice and I promised in my head to promote his hostel, so if you ever got to Krakow you should check out the Moon Hostel. It's not exactly right next door to the square, but it doesn't take much walking and the rooms were quite nice.
We wandered through a little market right next door and were able to get some breakfast pastries there. Had we wanted fruit, vegetables or fresh flowers we could also have acquired them there in abundance.
Our next order of the business for the day, after the settling of accounts, was to get back to the bus station and from there head out to Auschwitz. It was on the trek there, whilst being licked by the friendly miniature pincher "Freka" that I became acquainted with the shrubs of Poland. It's nearly epidemic I tell you. It seemed as though every yard was vying to be that which contained the most manicured shrubs possible. It's the land of Edward Scissor Hands dreams! I won't deny that the Czech's likewise fancy a shrub or two, but they've got nothing on Poland. In deference to Naomi, I will also mention their obsession with chickens. Every small plot of land that could be dubbed a farm was being traversed by feathery biddies. They were actually quite pretty for chickens.
Our time at Auschwitz, while not being the cheery sort of time in which you take lots of Hong Kong pose pictures, was definitely reflective. To think of the horror that took place within those fences, the suppressed dreams of the millions, the silenced footsteps that drudged with forced purpose...It's the sort of thing that quickly becomes to much to even contemplate. I did take a few photos, but more as a way to remind myself of the frightening reality of the darkness of the human soul, and the contrasting brilliance of those who strove to remain human, and to help their fellow human beings. Gravity is a good word for this place. It pulls you firmly to the ground. It roots you in the realization that your life is so, so easy.
We spent about three hours wandering around, looking into the haunted eyes of the murdered. There was the possibility to take a shuttle and see Birkenau as well, but we didn't have the will to take any more by that point, and were relieved to get back on the bus where we could once again be enthralled by the massive number of shrubs that over populated all the yards.
The evening was spent taking in the sights of Krakow itself. We had a great time in the beautiful town square, looking at the old buildings and wandering through the stalls of the Easter Market.

We wandered around until we were quite hungry and then found a little Kebab place. These places are popular throughout Europe, and we actually have several in Cheb, but this was the first time I'd tried one out. Except for the fact that spicy apparently doesn't mean much to these people, and cabbage is a popular vegetable to be combined with pretty much anything, it was quite good.

Did I mention that I was a little windblown by the end of the day? Um yeah.
We spent a goodly amount of time in a coffee shop before wandering back to our hostel. On the way there we saw at least 15 emergency vehicles speed by, sirens blaring. We never figured out what the big deal was all about, but were quite relieved when we found our way back to the hostel and didn't have to worry about any mass protest or whatnot.
Sunday, being Easter, we would have liked to have found a way to a church service. Instead we got snippets of about 50 Polish services. I have never seen so many monks and nuns wandering around the streets. They were all over the place. Quite a contrast to the lack thereof here in the Czech Republic. We spent a lot of time wandering about the Castle.

I really enjoyed all the swans that were floating around on the Vistula River. This photo made me think of a counting book for some reason.
From the castle we made our way to the Old Jewish Quarter. Krakow is one of the few cities that really didn't suffer any physical damage when the Nazi's took over so a lot of the old buildings are still as they were before the war.

The rest of the day we walked through the square, checked out as many churches as we could find, and spent more time in the market. I'll end with a few more photos from our wandering.

So I hope you enjoyed this small taste of Poland. What a blessing to be able to do some traveling and take in the wonders that Europe has to offer.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

When I think of Poland I think of shrubs...and chickens!

Yeah, yeah, I know. About time already. I don't have any exceptionally good excuses except for the fact that:
A.) I don't have internet and my house.
B.) The internet at school has been ridiculous as of late.
C.) There are days when I just don't have it in me.
D.) The sun is out, and I'd really rather be out in it, seeing as how there has been an obnoxious report that it could snow again on Thursday! Considering how much I was sweating when I walked in to work today I find that a little hard to believe, but I'd rather not waste all the sun time in the office all the same.

So now, the moment I know you've all been waiting for, a little recap on my last trip into the European wilds. First of all, a short discourse on the joys of public transport. I actually can appreciate it most of the time. The main issue being that I'm dependent on someone else's schedule. I can't just pick it all up and go when I want to. But for the most part it works out pretty well. It's fairly inexpensive, generally predictable, and it makes me spend most of my time walking which is good for the physique after all.
This trip, however, the travel arrangements were less than stellar. I wasn't overly thrilled by a 12 hour train ride to begin with. But with so few long weekends, and Naomi's desperate desire to make it to Poland, I decided I could make it through. So away we went, leaving our flat around 7 AM on Friday morning. We caught the train with no trouble, and headed away, across the snowy fields, past the adorable Czech cottages, feeling confident that, even with expected strangeness due to construction on the tracks, that we would have no trouble making it to Prague in time for the 2:06 train to Krakow.
Things were going well until we randomly stopped in the middle of one of those fields. Just stopped. No moving. And no reason. A minute or two later one of the porters came by and started rattling something off to us in Czech. They have the interesting habit of speaking as quickly as possible and not pausing for a breath, making it next to impossible, besides the blank stares, to inform them that we have no idea what in the who-ha they're talking about. Eventually she did pause, and we quickly rushed in with our "Ne Chesky. Anglitsky prosim?" This tends to freak them out a bit, and this time was no different. She closed our compartment and moved on to the next, where we heard her asking the people there if any of them spoke English. A moment or two later she returned with a guy who professed very little English ability, but who had no trouble explaining to us that the train had run out of electricity and we would have to wait a while until they could get it moving and then we would be transferred onto buses. We had expected the buses at some point, but not anywhere near this early.
So we sat and waited, hoping that the delay wouldn't set us back to far as we had no other way to get to Krakow. The bus started going about 20 minutes or so later, and we limped along to a small station where everyone poured out of the train and rushed to the solitary bus. There was then some rattling on in Czech. We understood enough to realize that it would be around an hour before the buses could get there, so we might as well try out the pub in the minuscule station. There being snow on the ground, Naomi and I decided to follow the rush into the miniature waiting room. We quickly found ourselves standing in the middle of a bunch of Czechs who had all managed to find space around the walls, leaving us to stand out with our backpacks and strange language. Fun. We had some entertainment while we waited at least. There was a long haired dachshund showing off his ability to chase a sock with a squeaky toy stuffed in it around the room, and a two year old intent on getting her hands on the crusty old hot dog and bun that had been neglected on the bench. Her mother kept trying to dissuade her, but any time she could wiggle a little bit closer without being noticed she'd let her hands inch toward the tantalizing sausage. Yummy.
After about 45 minutes we were finally back on the bus. We were beginning to worry a bit more about the likelihood of making it to Prague with enough time to buy our tickets, lunch, and Polish zloty.
Crystal had opted to come along via a bus from Karlovy Vary, and we were in contact with her through texts throughout the trials and trevales. She seemed to be coming along nicely, and planned to get into Prague around 1:30. We decided that whoever got there first would pick up the tickets and, time willing, rush to McDonalds for lunch. We rode the bus for a bit over an hour and then got back on the train in Plzen. Things were progressing nicely enough then. We went a different way than usual, which took a bit longer, but we arrived in Prague shortly after 1. We quickly got the tickets, and bought out one money changers zloty. We then hurried along to McDonalds where I purchased two big mac meals. We made our way back to the station, our hands freezing from carrying the food and sodas, and then sat down to eat and wait for Crystal. In the midst of watching a drug deal go down not five feet in front of us, Naomi was madly texting with Crystal who was having a bit of traffic trouble. She still had half an hour, and we were doing our best to remain optimistic. I mean, she had to make it. There was really no other option...
Well, apparently there was, because she didn't make it. It rather reminded me of the time I was going to try to meet up with my family to see the Romanov collection in Portland and after driving 80 through road construction all the way from Albany to Portland, I spotted their car once and then lost them and ended up eating alone at Wendy's and waiting hours for my sister to get home, only to finally give up all together and sadly go home. Crystal texted us about 5 minutes after we left the station from the platform. It was really quite tragic. As was our traveling situation...
The train leaving Prague was, well, packed is a nice way to put it. Naomi managed to get a seat, but I was stuck in the hallway, balancing my bag and Crystal's forlorn big mac meal. I did get a few minutes of seat time, but then the people who had booked those seats got on the train and we were banished to the hall once again. Only this time the ridiculous occupants had left their massive backpack and suitcase in the hallway, so I was forced to squeeze up against it whilst balancing even more of my stuff. I was less than impressed, and felt free to say so in English, not really caring if they understood or not. Seeing as how they were thoroughly engrossed in one another I rather think they didn't notice even if they spoke English.
Eventually after Ostrava, about 5 hours outside of Prague, the passengers thinned out. We got seats a bit before that, and ended up sitting down.
Well, now that I've gotten us to Krakow, I'm going to leave and go enjoy the pretty weather before the clouds take over. There is more to come. Never fear :p