Wednesday, December 31, 2008

From a cafe in Florence

Just a really short note to end off December and the year of 2008. I just left the Academie where I saw The David. I have to say it was a pretty definitive moment. The trip has been pretty much amazing, and I definitely have to type up so much information about the past few days. There will be long blogs to come, let there be no doubt.
I hope that anyone out there reading this will be blessed as they sign out on the past year and enter in to the next. well, I only have three minutes left and promised someone else a moment so I have to go. Arrivederci.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Train Strikes Are NOT my Friend...

Subtitle: Getting to Budapest (or going on an adventure that even David might qualify as there were occasionally life threatening moments...)

Traveling in Europe is one of the many benefits to living the life of a transient drifter. Last year, for instance, I managed to get around to 7 different countries. While it's not hard to hit that many states when living there, it's pretty impressive to see that many countries, complete with really different cultures and languages. (Granted some states seem to have those as well...) Anyhow, the Christmas holiday is one of the few times when I have extended days off and can actually get some traveling in. Naturally this means I booked up every possible moment to do so.
It's also really handy knowing people living in other countries. After the amazing Scandinavian trip last year, which I knew would be impossible to top, I decided to go a hopefully less expensive route this year, visiting fellow ESI teachers in Central (or more appropriately Eastern - but shhh don't tell them that's where they are) Europe. First stop on the trip: Budapest, Hungary.
Before heading out to Budapest, our wise leader Kelly had informed me that there were train strikes going on, which potentially meant some difficulty traveling by train in the country. We weren't sure if it would mean anything for trains originating outside the country, but we proceeded with some caution nevertheless. Laura and I headed out around 9 on Saturday morning for the Cheb railway station. Things went smoothly enough there. They took my money and handed me back tickets emblazoned with the destination of Budapest. So far everything looked perfect. We had an hour or so before departure, so we went back to Winfield so Laura could get some coffee from the dispenser in a lovely little plastic cup, and we could sit in a clean and safe place - quite unlike the train station - until it was time to go. Our trip to Prague was uneventful, and I quickly checked the departure board once we arrived. Things were still looking great, so we sighed with relief and headed to McDonalds for little taste of home at Christmas time. :)
After lunch we returned to the station only to have a moment of unrest in our travel weary spirits. While the correct departure time, and a long list of cities, were still listed on the board, the big bold name of Budapest was darkened. Hmmm...not so reassuring. We decided to walk to the platform to see if there was possibly just a glitch on the big board. However, when we arrived at the platform Budapest was still missing. We hurried to the information booth where we then waited a good ten minutes before I could point to my tickets and ask if the train at platform 2 was headed for Budapest. The woman scarcely even deigned to look at me and merely nodded and said, "yes, to Budapest."
I did my best to be reassured, and despite the fact that the messages over the loudspeakers that ran in Czech, German, and English all said the list of other cities and not Budapest, we decided to just get on and go as far as we could and then see what we could see. After all, we'd already paid for the tickets. There wasn't much else we could do.
There were a lot of reserved seats so we didn't get to actually sit next to each other, but we did at least have seats, and she was only one row in front of me so it was all good. I managed to catch up in my journal, every now and then sneaking glances at the computer screen of the guy next to me who was watching Babylon 5. Interesting. He was clearly watching it in English as well, but he was either Czech or Slovak and just ignored me the whole long trip.
My tickets were checked once and nothing special was mentioned, so I decided to just go with the flow, hoping against hope that things would somehow sort of magically work out. We heard some muttering in some language we knew nothing of in which the name of Budapest was mentioned, but we still couldn't do anything about it, so we just waited.
After passing Bratislava the train cleared out a lot and I moved up next to Laura. Around then a new ticket guy passed through and we I showed him our tickets he quickly said, "This train no Budapest. Get off at border, take a taxi." Um, excuse me, what? This message was relayed the a couple sitting in front of us, and they were equally concerned. They were from Berlin and had been on this train for a LONG time without anyone informing them of the situation. Not cool. Fortunately they had a computer so they pulled it out and we checked to see how far it was to Budapest from the border, and tried to figure out just how much this was likely to cost us. It wasn't exactly early in the day either, so finding some alternate form of transport wasn't looking very likely. The couple was super nice though, and they were willing to work with us to find some way to get to our final destination.
Shortly before we arrived at the border town the Babylon 5 boy decided he could speak English and told us that a taxi was going to be really expensive (Really?) and that we could probably walk twenty minutes across the border and find a bus there. Nice idea if we had any idea where we were at to begin with.
Once we exited the station there was naturally a long line of taxis awaiting us. The German guy, we never got his name but Laura and I decided to call him Kurt, just for kicks as it sounds like a good German name to us, talked to a driver who told him that it would be 60 Euros or for 4 people 50. We decided that 12 Euros apiece (about $15 or so) wouldn't really be that much to pay in order to actually get where we were going. So we went for it and tossed our stuff in the back of his little car and crammed ourselves in.
He started off right away, and then asked for exactly where we wanted to go. We let the couple dictate that, and they gave him a paper with the address of their hotel. He read the paper whilst driving on the wrong side of the road, then, once satisfied, zoomed along even faster. Things seemed okay, when suddenly he veered off the main road and began zooming through a residential district. My initial thought was that he was going to dump us out somewhere on a dark street and inform us that this was Budapest and demand his 50 Euros. After several minutes of bouncing through massive water filled potholes, 80s rock blasting in the background, he slowed down and pulled up next to a parked car. "Kurt" quickly made a comment about him making us change cars, thinking maybe this guy couldn't cross the border. We had thoughts of drug deals, or human trafficking. As the guy got out and walked to the other vehicle I suggested that they might be planning to shoot us all and take what money they could find. I assured them that they would be pretty sad upon discovery that we're just poor teachers and really don't have any money. A couple minutes later he got back in carrying something. I said that as long as it wasn't a gun, all was well, and soon we were jetting off again to the sounds of "I kissed a girl and I liked it," pumping from the speakers.
We were soon back on a main road which made me feel a bit more secure. However the way the man drove there wasn't much to lend to our feelings of well being. He refused to stay behind anyone, and would pass as soon as he saw the slightest break in the oncoming traffic. Let me inform you all that those breaks weren't often significant enough to warrant such a decision. I sang along to "Feliz Navidad" hoping to ease some of Laura's white knuckled tension.
When we got into city traffic I thought things might get better, but on the contrary, he proved to be one of my least favorite types of driver. He would be sneaking past a car on the left, getting as close to the car in front of us as possible, and as soon as his hood had barely inched in front of the car on the left, he'd tear into that lane at an angle, whipping around the other astonished drivers. Fortunately I don't think we ran anyone completely off the road, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
At long last (although not as long as it no doubt should have been!) we pulled up in front of the German's hotel. The driver was quick to inform "Kurt" that he'd gotten us there in record time. This no doubt was meant to inspire a tip. It did not.
That harrowing experience completed, we went to a bank so Laura could pay her part of the taxi ride and we bid our wonderful German helpers a Merry Christmas Adieu. I texted Joanna to let her know what metro station we were at, and then the wait began.
Tired, and possibly verging on cranky, we went into the metro station to wait. And wait. Oh yeah, and wait some more. Budapest is not exactly Cheb. Just a wee bit bigger after all. And wait we did. As a blue funk began to settle upon us, I was inspired by a sign in the completely incomprehensible Hungarian language, and I informed Laura that she needed to get out of her "fogadunk." This proclamation was greeted by uproarious laughter, which helped to hold us together as we watched one side of the wall come down, signaling that the metro's run was soon to be completed.
In the last line of people to emerge, we saw the small figure of Joanna and were overjoyed. The relief that we had been rescued, however, was short lived as she informed us that normal transport was done for the day, and not knowing this part of the city very well, we were going to have to walk briskly in order to catch the night bus. This brisk walk turned out to be a marathon past at least four massive bridges. All the while Joanna apologized for the hassle, and did her best to keep us motivated to press on at our quickened pace due to the fact that the bus only runs once every half hour. We nearly lost her to a speeding car at one street crossing. We imagined calling Kelly, desperate and alone in the middle of a city of which we knew nothing, informing her that, not only was Joanna dead, but we had no idea where we were or how to contact anyone else. Not the most reassuring prospect. To our great relief on MANY levels, Joanna was not harmed, and we continued at our break neck pace along the Danube.
After several street crossings, and entry into a construction zone, Joanna pointed to a bridge still a quarter of a mile or so away (and at last that long) and told us we had ten minutes to get across said bridge. All Laura could manage to do was ask "Across it?" with obvious distress. Joanna merely confirmed her meaning, and continued along. We had to go up some stairs to even reach the bridge. Naturally these stairs had a re-bar gate across them. I climbed over, Laura took off her back pack and went through. We got up them as quickly as possible only to be confronted by a second gate. We were really not impressed by this point. Lack of food, dehydration, and general exhaustion were the names of the game at this point.
Joanna continued to cheerlead us over the street and across the span of the really long bridge. The view would have been amazing were we not so focused on the fact that there was still a line waiting for the bus, which meant we had a moment or two yet to get there before we would have to stand around waiting for half an hour.
Much to our great relief we did, in fact, catch the bus. It was crowded standing room only, but we knew that we at least wouldn't have to walk much more. We did still have a crazy street to dodge cars across, and a deserted street to walk along, but when we saw the welcoming lights of the Bazish (not sure how to spell that at all) we were nothing but relieved.
Once safely installed in our little room, we laughed like crazy about our fogadunks, and went soundly to sleep despite the rock like quality of the bed.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Somebody's Hero

I'm finished with classes for the year and that is a very restful thought. Not that I'll really be resting a whole lot during the holiday. More like traveling all over the place and probably pulling my hair out a little bit. But you know I love it.
This past week attendance was pretty low. Like everywhere else that Christmas is celebrated, this time of year is really busy for people. The Czechs tend to spend hours and hours making their intricate Christmas cookies, not to mention all the other things to attend to like shopping and all of that good stuff. Classes are less strenuous anyway, as we mostly pull out the Christmas activities and just play a lot of games and do speaking exercises.
I really enjoy it when I have a chance to parter up with someone in a class and can really listen to what they have to say. Sometimes they get really intimidated when I suggest that I can be their partner, and would prefer to just be in a group of three, but I do what I can. I learned most of the Czech Christmas traditions last year, but it's still interesting to listen to them talking about things like cutting an apple in half to see the Christmas star (apparently there's something to do with luck in that as well, but I don't know exactly what) or saving a scale from the Christmas carp to keep in their wallet for the next year in the hopes that it will bring them financial security. Last night I only had couple of students in my first class so we were able to really talk about the traditions and I'm considering trying the shoe throwing one. The idea is that you stand near a doorway and throw a shoe backwards at it. If the shoe goes through it means you'll be getting married, if not, you'll be home for another year...hmmm...
On Wednesday I had one evening class student! That meant an hour and a half of just keeping conversation going. Fortunately it was my upper intermediate class, so it wasn't like pulling teeth the way it would have been with a lower level class. I ended up having a really interesting conversation with Petr. He told me about trips he has taken to Cuba and to Kenya and how, while he enjoys travel every now and then, he is happiest when he is at home. He is very content to stick nearby and enjoy the nature and the sports activities available here. After saying all of this he told me that I'm a little bit of a hero to him. As he described it, I think curiosity might have been a better term, but he was going on about how hard it is for him to imagine living the wandering life that I've been on for so many years now.
I'm not really sure I could connect the word hero with myself. I certainly don't look at it that way. If anything, "aimless" seems more appropriate at times. Even "escapist" comes to mind. It's not that there's exactly anything I can think of that I'm trying to escape, but my inability to make roots often leads me to think there must be something that I'm avoiding. Or searching for...
Anyhow, it was just interesting to be called a hero. And I really enjoyed the chance to have a real conversation. I actually had quite a few conversations last night at pub night. Of course as the night gets later and more drinks are consumed it's hard to really catch the content of what they're saying. There was one guy who was so far gone, and yet so insistent that we talk about Animal Farm by George Orwell. But I really couldn't make sense of what he was trying to say. He's hard enough to understand when he's sober! But it was still nice to hang out with all the students and chat with them all night.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Beginning to look a lot like Christmas

I have to say it really is shocking to me how Christmas suddenly snuck up on me. For some reason it seems to have arrived really quickly. I thought I was doing okay for time, and then realized that it was already too late for me to send packages that would arrive to the states before the actual holiday. Now we're down to one week to the Christmas party, and then the holiday will be upon me.
The snow showed up out of nowhere too. Yesterday on my way in to work there were a few random flakes falling and by the time I got to work they were absolutely huge. It snowed on and off yesterday, leaving us with a fluffy glaze all over everything. I didn't get pictures of it, but the manger scene is looking very festive with it's covering of snow. Here's a shot of it pre-snow last week.

I'm really quite impressed that they have real sheep, but must confess I feel really bad for them as they're just sleeping in that little house all night long. It can't be more than 4' square if even that. They don't seem overly perturbed, but I don't think I'd be too thrilled by those dimensions.
The little market in Cheb continues to run in front of the sheep pen. There are about a dozen little huts set up, and they rotate their goods on a daily basis. I keep walking through to check things out, but have managed not to spend much money there. It's just nice to have around. Makes everything feel a bit more festive.
So this entry isn't really going to be about a whole lot. It's the end of another week, and I just felt like I should post something as Christmas is so rapidly approaching. Laura has been sick all week. I feel really bad for her. Fortunately she works at a well staffed school, and was therefore able to stay home and get the rest she needs to get healthy.
I'm going to close this tonight with some pictures I took on my walk back from work this evening. Cheb really can be pretty spectacular every now and again. Good to remember that.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Quick trip to Nurnberg

So Sunday I ventured back to Nurnberg. Must admit that after the last insane trip I took there with Crystal a year ago, it was a bit anticlimactic. I mean, there was no breakneck race in a BMW, no running into friends from Slovakia, and no random chatty Italian on the train ride home, but it was still a great day with friends.
This time I went with Laura, Jonathan and Roshani. It was our first trip as a trio out of the country, which naturally meant there was a lot of excitement.

I really enjoyed getting "Ausgang" into the picture to prove we were actually in Germany :)
Once there we got hot drinks in exciting little boot cups. In the end, I don't think you can really see much of the cups, but I got the fun photo all the same :)

The weather wasn't nearly as beautiful as last year, but the temperature was a lot better. I didn't feel like my hands and feet were totally going to fall off so that was great :) We wandered down to the market and enjoyed the sights and sounds that Nurnberg has to offer. Once again I took photos of Santa and his dog playing the accordion. We also saw four or five other sets of musical performers in the streets. It was fun to have the sounds of Christmas in the air, mixed with the smells of warm wine, freshly baked bread, and other delicacies of the season.
Of course my favorite part is always looking at the displays of beautiful ornaments. A lot of them aren't the sort of thing I'd ever buy, or even generally think look nice, but when they're all on display together they truly look amazing.

After wandering around for a while we took a break for lunch. The place we ate was like a medieval hall, complete with axes on the walls, and some medieval characters having lunch at a table nearby. I didn't get any pictures of them, but I did enjoy the table decorations.
By the time we were finished with lunch the sun was really going down. It doesn't take long for that to happen these days after all. We went back out and wandered through the shops a bit more. I got a few more nice pictures of the booths and the massive crowds that had amassed by that point.

The one and only thing about the day that remained the same as last year was...Starbucks! After a long afternoon wandering in the cold, we were welcomed by the familiar warmth and comforting smells of America in a cafe. While I often find myself feeling a need to stand out from American culture on the whole, I really can't deny that, deep down, I really am American. The very fact that I find so much overwhelming happiness from a cup of coffee just demonstrates the fact. So here are Laura and I, toasting the memory of a long ago cup of joe with Crystal :) Naz dravi!

Friday, December 5, 2008

A bit remiss...

Despite the fact that the internet now seems to be working quite nicely, I've still managed not to post much this past week. No real good excuse. Just didn't happen.
It was kind of a long week. Strange how a week can be long, and yet still seem to have vanished in no time. I think the main reason it felt long was that I didn't have much time to just sit. Or at least not without a purpose. Whether journaling, or researching British History for the 3 hour crash course on the subject Jonathan and I threw together for today, there were few moments when I could just breathe and feel done.
But now, joy of all joys, the weekend has come. It's Friday afternoon (well it looks like evening as the sun has really set even though it's only 4:30) and I feel the beauty of having the pressure off. At least to some extent.
It's hard to believe how quickly Christmas is rushing at me. It's pretty much exploded all over my flat. I started putting up what few decorations I have right after our Thanksgiving retreat, and last Friday when I had the day off I covered nearly every spare inch of window space with window clings. The shower didn't escape the decorating frenzy either. Now in the dimness of sleep filled eyes I can blurrily watch snowflakes falling around a Christmas tree through the steam. It's really great. I've found that the best way to get through the holidays far from the ones I love is to create the look of the season and then keep excessively busy. If I don't have time to even think then I can't get too homesick.
There are only two weeks of classes left and then I'll hopefully be off on a traveling frenzy in order to keep thoughts of my family at home at bay.
Today is St Mikolas day once again, but I haven't yet seen any angels or demons wandering around the streets. I'm heading out in another hour or so with my friend Roshani to take in what little Cheb has in the way of night life, so maybe I'll see some then. For now, that's pretty much it.