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Today for the first time in Prague I saw a large group of children. They must have been in the ballpark of 8-10 years old, and there were about 20 of them. They were gathered outside at the tram stop with chaperones, on their way to a school sponsored field trip to somewhere else in Prague. It was fun to see a bunch of little people running around speaking in Czech and being silly: so far when someone says "young Czech people" I get the mental image of a 12 year old who looks like a model making out on the Metro with some nasty pimple-faced guy dressed as a skater, both of them taking huge drags of unfiltered cigarettes when they took a breathing break.
There's a reason I haven't seen that many kids around: I've been drunk. No, seriously, the real reason is much more unfortunate. Statistics say that in the Czech Republic there is 1 child per 4 families. That's right, the numbers are in the correct order. 1 child born per 4 married couples.
Marriage itself is also not a huge deal here. Weddings are almost always held on Thursdays so that everyone can go away for the weekend. One of my professors told us an anecdote about one of his students. One day she walks in and says "I can't make class this Thursday, I'm getting married." She had not previously mentioned a boyfriend, fiance, nothing. Further conversation lead to the revelation that her parents were not even coming to the wedding. "I wouldn't bring my parents to register my car," is a paraphrased quote from the bride to be regarding that issue.
And what of the children who are actually, well, produced? They start smoking cigarettes extremely young. Many of them turn to other drugs, sniffing glue being among the cheapest and most accessible options. A tremendous number (I think more than the US, not sure) have parents who no longer live together. And the Czech Republic doesn't even have the worst of it: a walk through Bucharest, the capital of new EU member Romania, paints and even starker picture.
A year ago, I knew the Czech Republic existed mainly because I knew all the lyrics to the Carmen Sandiego song. Now when I read articles predicting dire futures for Czech children, I can't help but feel heartbroken.
One of the kids on the tram was swung a little too close to an older woman sitting down when the tram came to an abrupt start. He solemnly gave her the most formal version of the Czech "excuse me." Hopefully that kid will not only keep his good manners as he gets older, he will also avoid the perils of growing up in Prague. If he stays off drugs and gets a good education, he might be able to survive in the economic chaos that will ensue in two years when the Czech Republic switches to the Euro.
One of the lessons of my twentieth year is that there are no quick fixes. Echoing in my head are the people of post-Communist Central Europe who have all learned at least one English colloquial phrase: "Damn straight."
Welcome to Cesky Krumlov, the cutest little European town you ever did see. UNESCO, the United Nations organization that protects important historical and natural sites, has the Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov in its list of protected places. Why? It's just so darn cute. Seriously. I think that's why. The place is the concept of "if you got it, flaunt it" in the form of a small town. Cobblestone roads, tall steeples, red roofs, vendors selling Christmas cookies and marionettes and mulled wine, the Vltava river running through - I half expected Rapunzel and Prince Charming to stick their heads out of two windows and sing in harmony with a flock of bluebirds.
We decided to spend 24 hours in Cesky Krumlov after repeatedly hearing that we shouldn't leave the Czech Republic without seeing it. Our hostel, which for some reason was named Hostel Skippy, was right on the Vltava, and it looked and felt like the inside of a cottage in the woods of New Hampshire or Vermont. A quaintly (sorry for the overuse of the word, but it fits) furnished private room was perfect for our one day, one night jaunt. Everything in the whole town is cute, quaint, and romantic. More than one comparison to the Truman Show was made.
There were tours and pub crawls and such available at the information center, but the four of us mostly just walked around. We went up to the castle on the top of the ridge (of COURSE there's a castle) and tried to see where they usually keep the famous bears, but I guess the bears have already gone into hibernation. I felt like going into hibernation too; I don't care if the politicians keep calling in Central Europe, because in the winter the weather feels pretty damn Eastern European.
At night we strolled around, and for the first time in a long time I conscious of not being in a city. When we got outside of the town center and street lights were sparse, we experienced actual pitch darkness. I realized I had not been in a truly rural area in a very long time, I was even reminded a little of Philmont where you can actually see the stars. A dinner of warm vegetarian chili and pita bread, a few glasses of mulled wine, and a harmonious gypsy band (bass, fiddle, clarinet, and accordion) were a great way to round out the evening. The bass player in the gypsy band had one of the best singing voices I'd heard in a very long time, he was able to effortlessly project over the din of ten or so simultaneous conversations in the pub we were in. In the morning, we reluctantly got out from under our warm covers and caught the bus home.
Apart from being quaint, the trip to Cesky Krumlov represented something else: barring unforeseen circumstances, it's probably the last trip I will take outside of Prague before I return to the United States. Traveling has been such an integral part of my experience here, it's weird to think that the next time I book a flight, train, bus, or hostel it'll be for a trip to Maine or Connecticut or Chicago, not some beautiful European city. I've learned a ton about how to get around, both on my own and in groups, and the Cesky Krumlov weekend serves as a sad but important bookend.
I have less than three more weeks in Prague. I've tried to avoid saying it, but there it is. We'll all see each other soon, and I just hope that it won't be long before the pain of leaving becomes an ache.
So, I realize that by not being abroad, I'm missing out on experiencing other cultures, drinking legally, partying, travelling über-cheap, etc. But by not being in America, you are missing THIS-- but don't worry, I'm so nice that I posted it on LJ so that you don't have to miss it anymore!
Anyway, kidding aside, I hope you are all having an awesome time in Europe (and the DR) and I miss you all! Oh, and Bridget... THANK YOU!!! You are amazing. So's the cake.
There's a little bit of me going every which way right now. It's not the best feeling.
I'm quite anxious about coming home. I want to stay, but I want to be home. It's getting very hard now that the one month mark is passed and counting down is easier than ever - last minute trips are being planned and assignments handed out so that we have enough to be graded on. My professors are giving us piteous looks - as though to say "I'm sorry but in these last few weeks it's really time to start cracking down".
I'm going to miss this city, it's definitely sunk it's claws into me.
But let's not dwell on leaving...
I was in Vienna this weekend to see Bridget and a Tool concert, and I had one of the best travel weekends of my life. The city was simply aglow with Christmas lights, and seeing the gorgeous Austrians strolling down the streets in their finest took me to another time and place out of kitschy old Hollywood film.
I loved seeing Klimt and Schiele too, and being able to talk about them with my art history professor today was a wonderful feeling. It's much different to discuss and study art in the place it was conceived and originally displayed, Van Gogh, Picasso, Dali, Klimt, Kupka, Mucha, Bilek, Preisler...I feel I can understand the context and inspiration behind their work when I see their cities and homes.
It was nice to see Bridget's program too, at least a bit of it. It's crazy to think we all left for these radically different programs, and we're scattered about the world doing unimaginable things with our lives.
I've got off for my column this week - but I guess I'll write it anyway because I found some great material this weekend.
So something happened. The power chord for my computer had a problem with it, so I couldn't really turn on my computer where I write my blog posts. I finally found a place in Prague that fixed the problem quickly and cheaply, but in the meantime I discovered how goddamn addicted I am to my computer. I had the shakes, I sweated uncontrollably, I even called out for my computer during the night. But now everything is fine: I am happily back on my computer, downloading TV, and eventually getting around to finishing my unfinished business of blogging about Berlin and Istanbul.
For now, some quick hits:
-Visitors gallore! Including some dear members of this blogging community! I'm sure they have some things to say about it. It was nice showing my city off a little bit, and even bringing people to places they might not have discovered themselves, like . . .
-BREAKDANCING BATTLE! It was at a hip-hop club called "Face 2 Face," and it was one of the coolest things I've seen on the trip. The breakers were fucking amazing, and who's to say I didn't even go up on the stage and strut a little of my own stuff. Dave was embarrassed for me. Sorry Dave.
-I saw a band called Balkan Beatbox last Tuesday. Their members Balkan, Israeli, Arab, and American, and their sound definitely reflects their varied origins. When they got up there, they shouted "THIS IS NOT A PERFORMANCE! THIS IS A PARTY!" So you can kinda figure that it was a blast. I'm gonna order some of their CDs and shit when I get back to the States.
-Apparently there's been some sort of election held recently? I wasn't aware. (Holler at Paul Hodes, Jim Webb, John Tester, Patrick Murphy, Deval Patrick, and the dozens of others, not to mention my main man Markos of DailyKos fame).
-I'm seeing the new James Bond movie tonight, but more importantly . . .
-I'm going to Madrid tomorrow! I'm getting more and more psyched as time goes on. I've never been to Spain, but I'm sure Dave will help me break my cherry.
(Written on October 21. Livejournal is not letting me post from my laptop for some reason, so events and statements might be a bit dated).
Prague is in the midst of the "Movies on Film, Film on Music" Festival (www.moffom.org), and there has been some really cool stuff going on. On Friday, my visiting parents and I attended a screening of the 1920's film "Der Golem" accompanied by live music performed by (wait for it) Klezmer hip-hop maestro So-Called.
"Der Golem" is a silent film which tells the famous legend of the Golem of Prague, a powerful clay man brought to life by a rabbi in Prague to defend the Jewish community. Whenever Madonna goes blah blah blah about the Kabballah, she's talking about magic that supposedly brings clay men to life, whether she knows it or not. Anyway, obviously this Golem goes beserk and they have to trick him into removing the scroll from this chest that gives him life. Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein" after visiting the Jewish cemetery in Prague and hearing the legend of the Golem, so you bet your sweet ass that there was a part where Golem meets a little girl and she gives him a flower.
The movie itself was not the most interesting part, even though it's not every day you see a film where Jews are depicted as wizards who wear tall hats oddly reminiscent of circumcised penises - I digress. So-Called provided a soundtrack of a fusion of hip-hop beats and distinctly Jewish/Klezmer musical phrases. The man himself used a mixer and turntables, and he was backed up by a standup bass, violin, piano, and two vocalists who provided hauntingly beautiful wordless melodies at various points in the film. The musicians got a standing ovation from a crowd of Americans and Czechs young and old.
Later that night was another important experience, albeit one I'm more familiar with. Some of our fellow CIEE students set up a Beirut/beer pong table in their apartment. Who won the first game? Doug and Stella, Jumbos at Large, beating the home team in what certainly is Tufts' most popular competitive sport. We lost in Sudden Death on the next game, but still: my first international Beirut win. Let's see, the movie/concert was about $7 and the beer was about $1 per bottle. All in all, a great night at little cost.
What's that? Excuse me? Oh, yes. I need to amend that last statement. You see, about an hour and 5 or 6 drinks after my first international Beirut win was my first international drunk dial. Turns out international calls are kind of expensive. Oh well. Still a net gain.
I'm flying to Turkey tomorrow. I'm meeting up with people in Kusadasi, but first I'm flying into Istanbul and taking a smaller plane to Izmir on the Aegean Coast. I'm kind of nervous about doing that first leg of the trip alone - making a connecting flight and rechecking luggage is stressful enough when I know the language. I'll make it though, I'm really psyched. I'll be there from 22.10 until 30.10, so get ready from some amazing pictures.