Tuesday, September 29, 2009


September 26-28, 2009

Ali, Anneliese, and I went to Berlin for a long weekend and had an AMAZING time! We rushed to the train station after our Friday classes to catch our train, and when we boarded the train it was PACKED! We didn’t know we needed a reservation to get a seat in a cabin, so once the train arrived it was a free-for-all to find an open seat. Needless to say, we didn’t get seats together on the train, and I didn’t get a seat at all! I had to sit in the hallway! But after about 2 hours people began getting off the train, and for the last 2.5 hours of the ride, Ali, Anneliese and I had our own cabin, which was nice.

We got to Berlin, and after some struggle figuring out how to get to Mitte (the city center) where our hostel was, we finally made it. We stayed at Wombats, a youth hostel, and it was so much nicer than we excepted. The rooms were really clean and they gave us sheets for free, which is pretty uncommon in hostels. Charlie and Kinnon met us at the bar at the top of our hostel—they had been in Berlin for a few days at this point—and we made plans to go out. We found out that “Modeselektor”, a German house/electronic DJ duo which we like a lot was playing at a club in Berlin, so that was a great surprise! We went to WMF, the club where they were playing, and it was so cool. There were 3 floors with different DJs/bands playing on each floor and crazy lights all around. It was packed! It was really cool to get the Euro clubbing experience since there really isn’t anything of that magnitude in Praha. So we stayed at WMF until about 5 am partying and dancing the night away…

We made it back to the hostel around 5:30 and immediately crashed in bed. The next morning we woke up (feeling not so well) and made plans for the afternoon. We went on this great tour called the “Alternative Tour” which was so cool. It took us around the city and taught us about the alternative suc-culture which has flourished in the city since the fall of the Berlin wall. We learned a lot of interesting things and saw some really awesome street art. A lot of the tour taught us about graffiti, which was legal in Berlin until 2005 through a loophole in the government which said that if you find a building to be unaestheticlly pleasing, you have the right to “redecorate” it. So you could literally be caught by the police with spray-paint in your hand, and if you say you are “redecorating” you wouldn’t be breaking any law. However, the government eventually realized they were spending $30 million Euros a year removing graffiti from public buildings, so in 2005 this loophole was removed. However, graffiti is still insanely popular in Berlin, and Berlin has become a Mecca of sorts for graffiti artists around the world. There’s this one guy they call “Mister 6” who just spray-paints 6s around the city. It’s estimated that there are over 600,000 6s around the city!! What’s cool is that this graffiti is not vandalism- it is an art form, and many of the pieces have a very political message as well. In fact, the largest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall is now called the East Side Gallery, and it is divided up between artists where they can display their art as murals on the wall. It’s quite spectacular.

We also visited various squats around the city. When the Berlin Wall fell, many East Berlin residents left because they finally had the freedom to travel outside the wall. As a result, many buildings- both commercial and residential- were left empty. So, the government made an amnesty with the people saying that anyone could squat in these vacant buildings until someone claimed the land. Some groups of people even got leases on these buildings for super cheap—like $5 a year—until 2030 or later. So whole communities of like-minded people have set up squats at various locations around the city; there’s an artists’ squat, an anarchists’ squat, even a vegan lesbian squat! I’ve never seen anything like it before.

Another, more depressing, thing that we learned on the tour was this movement called “Media Spree” happening in Berlin. The River Spree runs through the city, and currently the river is lined with many public green spaces and a number of squats. These green spaces are really integral to the city, as it is some of the only land where city residents can enjoy nature and bring their children to play, and the squats are home to thousands of people as well. However, this “Media Spree” is a movement where all of the big-name media companies (Universal, Sony, MTV, O2, amongst others) have come together to form a huge conglomeration, and they are developing all the land along this river. This means that the public green space will be developed, and the squatters will be kicked out! There are also many “beach bars” (really just bars on the river with some sand to look like beach!) and other businesses that have become sort of institutions in the city that will have to close when the developing begins. One of these parks is called YAAM, or the Youth African Arts Market. We stopped by here and it was such a cool place, it is such a shame it is closing! It is right on the beach, and it serves as a public community center for Berlin. It was initially begun as a place for social workers to bring children in the system to play sports and have a wholesome community safe environment. They have giant tee-pees and huge stretches of sand to play in, and there are adults from various African countries grilling out and playing music and having fun. YAAM had such a positive, loving, and energetic atmosphere, and it is such a shame that it will be shut down because of Media Spree. It has been a safe haven in a city of tumult for about 30 years now, and it will be gone by the end of this year. And the worst part about it is that there is nothing we can do to save it.

On Sunday we did the New Europe Free Tour of Berlin (yay for free!), and lucked out and got the same tour guide that took us on the Alternative Tour. It was a great tour and I really learned a lot about the city. Jack (our tour guide) started the tour by making a really good point- Berlin as a city and government has many of the same problems as any 19-year old would have. It’s struggling with its new independence, still making lots of mistakes, and has things (in this case, buildings) popping up all over its face! And in a way, I think Prague is also kind of similar. Anyway, we started our tour at the Riechstag, which is the seat of the German Parliament. The original Riechstag was plowed down by Hitler and his army, and was rebuilt in 1990 after the fall of the wall. What is really cool is that they have built this spiraling glass dome above the Parliamentary chamber, and it is free for people to go up into this dome and look over the Parliamentary meetings. So, while Parliament is in session making laws and decisions, they have people looking down on them from above, symbolically reminding them that the people are above the government.

Next we went to the Holocaust memorial. I had heard a lot about this memorial and it has been a source of controversy within and outside Berlin since it was built. It was built in 2005 by Peter Gisman, a NYC architect. Basically what it is is hundreds of concrete pillars of different sizes in a grid. It’s interactive, and you can walk between the pillars like a maze. There are no names or symbols or anything on the memorial, so people can have their own interpretation. It’s built on some sort of hill, so the further you walk into the grid, the higher the pillars get until they are towering over your head, but on the surface they all appear to be relatively the same size. Also, the further you walk into, the colder and darker it gets because the pillars block all of the sun. So I really interpreted it as representing something that starts off small, but then snowballs and becomes a huge problem because people ignore it and just go about their everyday lives. It’s in the heart of the city, so people must walk by it every day. As a result, people must face the reality of the Holocaust every single day, and it forces you to remember it so that nothing like it can ever happen again.

What’s cool about Berlin is they have had some really dark times throughout history, and rather than ignore all of the horrible things that have happened there, they memorialize it though various monuments and pieces of art. The city by no means glorifies these times, but it forces citizens and tourists to recognize what has happened, pay respect to those who lost their lives and fought for freedom, and make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Another really cool memorial was the Nazi Book Burning Memorial. There was a movement of book burnings in 1933, when the Nazis burned any books that did not follow Nazi ideology. Humbolt University, in Berlin, fell victim to these book burnings. The Nazis burned over 20,000 books in their library, including original pieces by Martin Luther, and works by Einstein. To memorialize this event, an Israeli artist created a piece called “Library”; there is a hole in the ground, covered with plexi-glass, above the library where the burning took place. You can look through the glass down into a room that is empty, except for bookshelves. There are enough bookshelves to hold about 20,000 books—the number of books that were burned in 1933. The room is hermetically sealed so no one will ever be able to go back in there. These empty shelves in a room no one can enter represents the presence of absence, and is there to remind us that we’ve lost some treasures that we will never be able to get back. And for what?

So, how did they memorialize Hitler? The Germans tried to blow his bunker up, but as it was a bomb shelter, that wasn’t very effective. So, they put a dog park on the land over his bunker, which was where he hid out during his last few weeks and where he eventually killed himself. There is nothing that identifies the location of his bunker- the Germans chose to memorialize Hilter by allowing their dogs to defecate on his home and safe haven. I thought that was hilarious.

I also learned a lot about the history of the Berlin Wall, and the most interesting part—that it fell all by mistake… So, the Berlin Wall, was actually 2 walls. It started as just a barbed wire fence separating East and West Berlin but eventually that was made into a thicker, higher, fence, and then eventually 2 walls- interior and exterior. Between these walls was the “Death Strip” which was patrolled by soldiers with a shoot to kill policy. On top of the walls was sewage piping, which just so happens to be wide enough in diameter that a human cannot wrap his/her arms around it, so they just slide back down. 236 people died trying to cross this wall, but there were 20,000 successful attempts. And the whole reason the Berlin Wall fell in the first place was all by mistake—and I had no idea! Apparently a German political spokesperson Gunter Shabowski had the task of giving a press conference related to new rules/regulations about the Berlin wall. Well, needless today, he did not prepare himself for this speech and did not bother to read these new rules, so during the press conference, he made the mistake of announcing that the border would be open effective immediately! And that’s how the Berlin Wall fell…

Overall, I had an AMAZING weekend in Berlin. It is such a cool city with so many interesting bits of history that really defines it as a city and makes it unique. But what I loved about it the most is the way they use art to memorialize various aspects of its history…. whether it is an empty void of a room to remember the Nazi book burnings, or a neon sign of a never-ending rock-paper-scissors game to represent the clashes of neighborhoods, to the street art you see everywhere. This weekend in Berlin is one I’ll never forget, and I hope I will be able to visit it again!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

OK, so lots of updates:

Friday afternoon Charlie and Kinnon arrived in Prague. I was really excited to see them and had lots of exciting plans for us. It was kind of surreal though, hanging out in Prague, because we have gone to school together since the 6th grade, so going out together in a city half way across the world was cool. On Friday night we went to a really cool club called the Cross Club, and it was nuts. It looks like it came straight out of a Tim Burton movie- they had multiple levels with different DJs playing different kinds of music on each level, and the walls were covered with crazy moving mechanical things and the light fixtures moved and changed colors. I’ve never seen anything like it before, it was definitely the coolest club/bar I’ve ever been to. We stayed out until about 4 am and took the night tram back to my apartment. The night tram in Prague is like the drunk bus because it’s the only mode of public transportation from 12-5 am so everyone on it is rowdy and crazy and drunk and it’s a lot of fun. We got off the night tram near my house and got a bit turned around, and walked around for about 30 minutes until (thanks to Charlie’s iPhone) we found our way back. After making late-night quesadillas with the most delicious cheese (pepper cheddar) we all crashed so we could rest up for the adventure we had planned for Saturday.

Saturday at 2 we caught the bus to Orlik, a town in the countryside about an hour outside Prague. The ride was beautiful, and I really enjoyed getting to see another part of the country. Our mission: falling into the 4th dimension. There is the bridge in Orlik that is really high above a valley with a river at the bottom. And off this bridge you can “jump into the 4th dimension”. Essentially it’s bungee jumping, but they use 2 bungee cords, so you fall extra far as you are also jumping over a large valley. So it’s as if you’re “jumping into the 4th dimension”. We were all really stoked about doing this and have been talking about it for weeks. When we get to Orlik, we walk about 5 km to this bridge, only to find no one there. As it turns out, the company was closed for the season, so we couldn’t jump. There was another company somewhere in the forest, 15 km away, however. We thought it would be smart to check when the last bus returned to Prague before we embark on another journey to find this place. At this point it is 4:15 and we find out that the last bus to Prague is at 5:30. So, defeated, we turned around and head back to the bus station thinking at least we could go back to Prague and get ready to go out. Wrong. While it took us only an hour to get to Orlik, the ride back was not so easy. We had to take an 1.5 hour bus to Pisek, a town even further from Prague, stay in Pisek for 2 hours, and then take another 1.5 hour bus ride back to Prague. So we got back into Prague around 11, worn out and unmotivated to do much of anything.

On Sunday evening we we went to a hockey game and it was really fun. Sparta Praha v. Barolsav. The Czechs are so intense about hockey here! And they have cheerleaders who dance to really horrible 80s rock music, which I thought was hilarious. Not to mention the cheerleaders themselves are horrible and have less coordination than I do and it's just really funny to watch them. And the hockey isn't nearly as violent as it is in the US which I thought was interesting. It was kind of a bummer actually because in my opinion one of the best parts about hockey games is watching the players hit the sh** out of each other and slam each other up against the walls. There weren't fights and there were maybe 3 penalties the entire game. But still fun nonetheless.

I officially started my job on Monday and I love it! I teach 2 post-secondary classes of about 14 students in each class, and they are from the ages of 19-21. These classes are 3 hours a day (for them—I teach only half) and its an intensive English course. Basically these are students who didn’t get into university or didn’t want to go to university or dropped out of high school, and post-secondary classes are recognized by the Czech Ministry of Education as attending school so their parents can get the benefits of them being enrolled in school. I was kind of nervous about this at first because I thought that they would be unmotivated and not very smart, but actually they are great kids, very smart, and we have a lot of fun together. So I’m really enjoying teaching those classes and in October I begin teaching a few business English classes.

And I’m SUPER EXCITED because Monday’s classes are cancelled for some Czech holiday (St. Wenceslas Day or something like that) so tomorrow (Friday) Ali and Anneliese and I are going to Berlin for the weekend! And Charlie and Kinnon will be there too so we are going to have another great weekend together. I’m really excited because I haven’t had a chance to travel since I’ve been to Prague, and I hear so many great things about Berlin.

Well I must get back to lesson planning…

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The long awaited update...

So I’ve been really slack about updating my blog, and I apologize, but it just goes to show how little free time I had while taking the TEFL class.

I finished my class on Friday September 4 (with a Strong Pass, YAY) and also got the great news that I was hired at a language school here in Prague called IJV that I had interviewed with on Thursday. So that was really exciting, because it is a great school and a great company to work for.  They guide you through the whole process of applying for a visa, which is really confusing and complicated with a lot of bureaucratic BS, so that is really helpful.  What’s even better is they pay for their employees’ visas, which is even better news because the whole process is super expensive.  So I’m really excited about my new job, and my roommates Annelise and Ali got jobs there too so that’s great.

The TEFL course was really demanding and really difficult, but it was a great experience.  I learned so much about communication with others, and it was really helpful not only for learning how to teach (not to mention learning the English language!) but also for learning how to talk to people and how to communicate with people of all types.  But our teaches Trish and Terry were amazing, and I feel really prepared to begin working.  I got my class assignments on Friday, and I’ll be teaching 2 post-secondary classes which are for students 19-21 years old who want to take an intensive year of English for various reasons and it’s recognized by the Czech Government’s Ministry of Education.  I’ll also be teaching a few English classes at businesses around the city.  I don’t officially begin my contract until September 21, but I substitute a few classes this week for my friends that are “on holiday” in Italy and Austria (I’m jealous!!). 

I’ve gotten to do a few cool things on the weekends while taking the class.  We went paddleboating on the river one day, which was a lot of fun.  They rent out paddleboats for really cheap and you can take it on the Vltava.  You get such a beautiful view from the city, and we paddled down the river to a river beer garden and listened to a musician play some tunes on his guitar.  It was really cool. 

I also got to go see RADIOHEAD which was AWESOME.  One of the best shows I’ve ever seen, not to mention I got to see them in Prague which is so cool.  It was a great show, with a fantastic light show, and just an all-around surreal experience.  One thing that was different, but smart, was how they sold beer at the show.  They made you put a deposit on your cup, and you had to buy a new cup every time you bought a beer.  For example, to get a beer I had to pay 50 Kc for the cup and 40 Kc for the beer, so each time I had to pay 90 Kc.  However, there is a separate tent where you can sell your cups back, and you get all the money back for the cup that you deposited (all 50 Kc).  So that prevented people from littering, and saved a lot of trash because people didn’t want to waste 50 Kc (about $2.50) for every beer they bought.  So at the end of the night, the venue was so clean!!! I’ve never seen anything like that done in the US and it’s a great idea. 

On Tuesday I went to Kutna Hora.  It was so cool! It’s this little town outside of Prague- about an hour train ride.  They have this ossuary called Kostnice that is decorated with the remains of over 40,000 human bodies.  It’s pretty crazy, there are chandeliers made from entire skeletons, and all the walls are decorated with bones, and there are pyramids of bones everywhere.  It’s really eerie and creepy, but it’s so crazy because it doesn’t seem real.  I saw all the bones on the wall, but they are everywhere so it doesn’t really register that those are actual human bodies that are covering the walls and ceilings.  It’s unbelievable.    

I also had my first experience with trying to decipher a Czech hair bleaching kit.  So it’s been about 6 weeks since I’ve had my hair done, and my true colors are starting to show.  I haven’t officially started working and I’ve had to pay 3 months worth of rent in the past month with no income, so spending money on getting my hair done is my last priority at the moment.  So, one day after one of my classes I asked a student with great blonde hair what she used, and she wrote down the brand and name of the dye she used.  I went to the store to buy the bleach and there was an elderly woman with silver hair on the cover of the box.  I was really skeptical about using this, and figured my student must have given me the wrong name, so I went one step down which looked like what I wanted.  I don’t know what I was thinking, but I thought I knew best and that this would all work out.  So my roommate Anneliese (who is great) helped me do my hair, and it was quite a task trying to decipher the instructions on the box, which were all in Czech.  It was a leap of faith, but Anneliese did a great job, and I think we may need to do one more go-round, but I will remain a blonde! Yay!

The weather is starting to get a bit cooler, and I’m getting more and more nervous for the winter.  I am so unprepared! My feet are getting very cold in my Rainbows, and I’m finding myself wearing more and more layers each day.  Luckily, my mom made a great contact with an airline pilot who flies from Charleston to Prague (go Deb!).  She stuffed a bag full of hoodies and 20 boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, which could have been quite possibly the coolest thing a mom can do, and sent it along with Dan.  So for the time being I have my favorite hoodies, a couple more pairs of pants, and 20 boxes of Mac and Cheese, which has just been the icing on the cake for my life here in Prague.  Mac and Cheese is such a commodity here because they don’t sell it in stores, it’s been quite a struggle not having it for the past month. 

Life is great here, the only thing I think I could complain about is food restrictions.  I’m so used to going to the grocery store and being able to get anything I want to cook whatever I want.  They don’t have the majority of foods we have in the states.  For example, no cream of chicken or cream of mushroom.  The spaghetti sauce tastes like plaster.  I tried to make baked ziti the other day an had a near conniption trying to figure out which of the sealed packages was ricotta cheese and where I could find sour cream because I couldn’t understand any labels.  Hummus is virtually non-existant in this city.  I still can’t figure out how to turn my oven on.  There must be a quicker way to turn my stove on—it’s a gas stove and it’s really tempermental so usually I just hold it on light for 2 or 3 minutes until I trust it’s lit, and even then sometimes it isn’t.  But it all works out in the end, and if that’s my only complaint then I guess life’s pretty grand. 

I’ve discovered some new foods that have made up for the loss of much of the old foods that were staples in my former life in the States.  Number one is definitely the Donner Kebab.  It’s so delicious.  It’s like a gyro but better—it has lamb meat, cucumber, tomatoes, onions, and a yogurt tzaiki sauce, but the best part is that the pita is made out of this awesome bread that I can really only equate to Panini bread.  Its only 60 kc (about $3) and it’s so much food and sooooo good…. I even had one for breakfast the other day.  Number two awesomest food is the Fried Cheese Sandwich.  I mean, you can’t really beat that.  The Fried Cheese Sandwich is the “drunk food” of Prague, but I’m not gonna lie… I love it and I eat it sober.  It’s like a cheese patty that is deep fried and served on a bun.  I like it with mayo, some people put ketchup on it.  Sounds very good for you, huh? But it’s so delicious, I don’t know why it hasn’t made it to the states yet. 

They also make the cheese spread that they sell in grocery stores.  It comes in a little plastic tub and it’s a very yummy snack.  They have so much cheese of so many different kinds here, its like heaven.  Ali and I were exploring our neighborhood today and we stumbled upon a Cheese Shop.  It’s meant to be that there is a cheese shop within walking distance from my apartment. 

It was really cool exploring our neighborhood today.  Since I’ve been so busy with school, I haven’t had a chance to look around my ‘hood.  It’s really cool.  My friends and roommates and I joke that we live in “Praguelyn” because our neighborhood is like Brooklyn while Old Town Prague (Praguehattan) is like Manhattan.  But our area is awesome—there is a little theatre, lots of little restaurants and bars, a bowling ally, and a huuuuuge park.  And the park is sweet because there are lots of hills and it slopes down to the river and there are weeping willows and its really beautiful.  And people have their dogs everywhere just running around. 

Ok well it’s getting really late and I can barely keep my eyes open but I really wanted to write something since it’s been so long.  I promise to be better at writing more frequently!