Sunday, February 24, 2013

Second Impressions of Vienna

So, I did get some time to wander around in Vienna and see that there is a pretty big difference between Vienna and Prague. This is of course revolutionary information I'm sure.
There isn't quite as much graffiti. There is not a complete lack of graffiti, just not as much. It seems that the graffiti artists try to take at least a little more time with it as well.

And then there is of course the temporary graffiti afforded by a prolonged snowfall. The snow started falling Saturday evening during my visit and it was still going strong when I left Sunday evening. It made the city quite pretty. It also made the city quite cold, as did the wind. Prague is not as windy and so it doesn't feel as cold as Vienna despite the two cities being pretty close in temperature.

Vienna is a whole lot bigger than Prague. It is a lot more spread out and I think just generally a larger city as far as population is concerned. I'll have to check Wikipedia to be sure. Even though it is a larger city the public transportation is pretty easy to figure out and use effectively. I never had any moments where I was completely lost and had no clue how to get to where I wanted to go.

Another part of being bigger is that the monuments seem to be a lot bigger. Giant statues of people on horses and such dot the area around the city center. Like this statue of some guy outside the National Library.

Over on the right side of the photo is the Vienna City Hall. It's a pretty impressive building and the one behind the coolest skating rink I've ever seen that I talked about in my last post. Then there is this giant statue of another guy on a horse in front of the Albertina art museum.

While the statue of the guy on the horse is pretty impressive I was much more taken with the metal and glass domes behind it. I would love to have a flat with such an impressive architectural feature and you can even tell there is some sort of room about the lighted area of the dome on the left, cool.

I must say, there is a more diverse mix of architectural styles in Vienna than is Prague. That is not to say that there is no diversity in Prague, there is just more of it in Vienna. For example this old U-Bahn entrance.

There is also this thing called the Hundertwasser House, which is a block of flats designed by an artist. I stopped by but I wasn't very happy with the photos I took so I just stuck that link back there. It was interesting to see for sure and maybe when I go back I will get a tour of it. From the reading it doesn't look like a place I would want to live in, but it was still interesting to see. Here's hoping I get better photos next time.

Another pretty cool architectural discovery I made I found while wandering around. I saw these imposing towers and they led me to a park. I'm not really sure if they count as architectural features, but I'm going to say they do. Limited expertise be damned.

These are Flacktum or flack towers. Definitely not something you're going to see in the states, as far as I know. Sure there are old gun emplacements from WWII, mostly on the west coast and they are generally hard to find or recognize because they have been destroyed. The closest thing I remember to these is the canon emplacement on Compo Beach I use to play on as a child. I imagine, judging from the graffiti, that there is substantially more broken glass around these Flacktum than the guns at Compo. 
These give quite a different feeling than a Civil War battlefield or even the canons at Compo. These give a much more impending feeling of recency. I could even imagine, as I wandered through the desolate snow-covered park, this massive expanse of land protected from citizens by Nazi sentries to keep these towers safe as deadly weapons for protection against an allied bomber strike. It was morbid and peaceful at the same time. But all you had to do was turn around to see that this was a beautiful park now enjoyed by many.

I doubt very much that in 1940 whatever that a woman would be allowed to stop and read her book while she walked her baby through this park. 

The other buildings you can't miss in Vienna are the churches. They are pretty much every where. That is not to say that there isn't a church on every corner in Prague, there is. For the most part though, in Prague, the churches match the surrounding architecture and don't really stick out quite so much. You'd be hard pressed to find something like St. Rupert's Church in Prague. 

I was just walking along in a fairly modern part of the city, near Swedenplatz, and BOOM there was the oldest church in the city. You can see it sticks out from the surrounding buildings and some of the other buildings are really quite close. 

I was walking around another corner and stumbled upon St. Mary on the Strand

The other difference is that there is a pretty conscious effort to restore the churches. Granted most of them have some sort of insane fire in their history and have been in a constant state of construction for something like 800 years, but what I noticed what that they were doing a lot of work to clean them now. I suppose 800 years of soot and dirt adds up. Actually, I don't suppose it. I know it after seeing the difference between the cleaned parts of the churches and the parts the workers have yet to get to.

As you can see, the Votive Church looks pretty good all cleaned up. They still have work to do and it looks like this particular phase of the operation is brought to you by Mazda. I personally think it's pretty smart to sell space on the protective covering as a bilboard. I mean shoot, you're looking at the advertisement now. 

Some churches are a bit newer and don't need a thorough cleaning just yet, like St. Charles' Church.

Still, it is nice to imagine an army of Viennese craftsmen packing what I like to think are specialized electric tooth brushes attacking a church coated with nearly 1000 years of schmutz and making it look like new. Like they are doing to St. Stephen's Cathedral in the center of the city. 

You can still see some of the dirt that needs cleaning. You can also see all the carriages  they seemed like a popular way to get around. I imagine if you've seen the film Amadeus too many times you could really be into riding in one of these. If that is your bag, there are usually a few dozen lined up at Stephensplatz to accommodate you.

This is the only church I went inside, kind of. So I can't tell you if they have restored the "new church" smell also. I didn't even really go inside St. Stephen's I climbed the bell tower to check out the view. I'm a sucker for a good climb up a bell tower. And St. Stephen's didn't disappoint. It was of course achieved by marching up an incredibly small circular staircase for something like 300 feet, like every other ancient bell tower. There must have been a lot of dizzy priests.

At least this one had an alcove were people could pass each other. There was even a bell chamber you could stop in before going all the way to the top. The bell chamber was very handy for allowing annoying, drunken German-speaking teenagers to get far ahead of you.

There were even quite a few windows where you could check your progress on the march up. This one displays two things I finding more and more common. If there is something you can put a padlock on to profess your undying love to someone people will most likely do that. And the other thing, if you can toss some coin someplace people will do that too. You can even see some Czech Koruna in this photo. I spotted at least one 2Kc piece, which is essentially worthless in a place where they use the Euro.

But the view was worth the hike. This photo allows you to see the varied building styles in Stephensplatz.

So there you have it, other than my description of the Fool's Tower. I can't wait to get back and see some more of the city. It really is quite large. I also hope it is a bit warmer next time. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Wien Berufung

Last weekend, February 7-10, I got to go to Vienna, or Wien as it is called in Austria and anywhere else where they speak German. My mission is to complete some steps to secure my visa. The description of this process requires another post, so be looking for that soon.
A round trip bus ticket costs €35 from Prague. That is a pretty sweet deal and the trip takes about 4.5 hours. It was scheduled for longer, but we got in a tad early.
I have to say traveling on the bus was quite nice. We're not talking Greyhound at all here. Greyhounds do not have a stewardess, wifi and free hot chocolate. The seating is however, smaller than on most airplanes and that was a little awkward. Fortunately on the trip to Wien the seat next to me was empty. I do not foresee myself being so lucky on the return trip. I, and I assume most people, booked a later bus back to Prague on a Sunday evening. It makes sense, head out to Vienna for the weekend, party it up, and cruise back to Prague on a later bus then roll into bed and wake up for work Monday morning.
I must admit the Czech countryside, which happens to be most of the country, is strikingly similar to the US. As you plow through it (sorry I had to leave this pun in) there are fields waiting to be planted, some of which have had a disk run on them lately, deer stands (I am told the "deer stands" are for hunting boar rather than deer) and grain elevators. Granted I only saw one grain elevator and two deer stands, but it was a lot like driving through the Texas hill country. There was an obvious lack of irrigation equipment and maybe they do something else, but I assure you I didn't see a single center-pivot rig.
There are even forests. Those of course look closer to what you will find in Tennessee rather than Texas. I think I even saw some stands of aspen trees, which I've never seen in Tennessee. I'm not sure on the aspens, I was under the impression altitude determines where they can grow. I could be wrong.
Really, I should have stuck a camera to the window and snapped a few photos of the majestic Czech farmland and the only grain elevator I've ever seen that doesn't bear the marks of a drunken, gun-toting rural populace.You have to love a drunken, gun-toting rural populace. I do. I wish I'd had grain elevators to shoot at from the back of my buddy's pickup truck as we sped up or down a holler drunk at 3 a.m. As it was we merely had road signs and hillsides for target practice, and maybe the odd rail car filled with coal. Please keep in mind I'm not advocating irresponsible firearm use, but boys will be boys; especially boys who live up things called "hollers."
Diversion aside, I will be that person next time I'm cruising through the Czech countryside and take some photos. I promise. I did take a few photos as the coach, as my British friends call it, neared the Austrian border.
I took this in a town called Mikulov. It's a castle. I know, it's a shock to find a castle in the Czech Republic. Clearly this photo does nothing to show the wonderful agricultural countryside.
So after one out-the-bus-window photo and I went back to watching Full Metal Jacket and on into Wien.
When we arrived in Wien I was a little surprised at where we stopped.
When we left Prague it was from a large bus depot, next to a train depot. There were platforms and a building where you could buy tickets and all sorts of stuff. It was even really nice. Only one skeezy-looking girl came up to me and tried to sell me a bottle of Hugo Boss cologne I assume she stole from a store. Everyone else was just waiting for the bus. No one even asked me for change.
When we arrived in Wien we basically pulled over to the side of the road near a metro stop and were let off near a stick with a sign on it, which I'm pretty sure I can find again on Sunday. Either way, I made it and the metro was close so I was able to get anywhere in town really easily. But hey, there was a giant Ferris wheel nearby. The bus depot in Prague didn't have one of those.
So then it was on into the city, to my hostel and then to make a dry run finding the embassy before I had to do it early in the morning. Turns out I picked the right hostel location, it's on the same street just a few blocks from the Czech embassy. There is even a tram that goes those few blocks. It would take me less than 30 minutes to walk or 15 minutes by tram. Not bad.
Then I wandered around a bit. Really, so far other than everything being in German, the city looks a lot like Prague. I'm sure my opinion will change tomorrow once I get to really see it. They do however have the coolest public skating rink I have ever seen in my life.
And as a parting gift a photo of a tiny part of the skating rink. I don't even know where exactly it is or what the building behind it is. I'll find out. All I know is that it's on the Ring Straße.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Wandering Reveals Hidden Treasures

The other day I had some spare time, so I went for a bit of a wander. I ended up at the castle, it's difficult not to. The castle dominates the city so I am frequently drawn there. It's on a big hill, and overlooks practically everything how could it not dominate the city? Plus it takes less than thirty minutes to walk there.

So I made it to the castle in time to watch the daily changing of the guard. The one with all the pomp and circumstance. They change the castle guard every hour, but once a day at noon they have a regular ceremony in one of the courtyards for it. There is music and marching, the whole bit. There will be more on that in the future.

After the changing of the guard I walked into another courtyard in the castle with a good view of St. Vitus and took a 360 degree panoramic photo. Then I gave it my squish treatment and quite liked it.

This one is sort of Escher meets Dali. I particularly like the treatment the Skoda car on the right got.

Then I made my way away from the castle and figured I just head home and maybe make lunch. I passed my favorite street musician. He was playing some Gypsy Kings songs and leaning against the guitar statue this time. You might recognize him from an earlier post. I don't care, I'll give him plenty of play here.

Then a little further down the steps I saw a particularly ballsy pigeon. Granted most of the pigeons here are either ballsy or just lazy, I'm not sure which. They really don't like to fly unless they have to. I think this one was planning to dive bomb some tourists. I took a photo. Why not.

See, I'm pretty sure you can see his little pigeon brain plotting something sinister. Or at least as sinister as a pigeon can get. Maybe he is debating pooping on some tourists. Either way, it was a fun photo to take.

So, as I walked back to the Charles Bridge I decided to explore the area around the bridge and see what I could see. That is when I discovered something pretty profound.
It has taken a little while to sort out even a few words for this, so I will begin with a photo and let the words in later. 

At first I just saw the helmet on the stone and wandered closer to see what it was about. It is surrounded by chains to keep people out and then I read the plague. To me this is pretty profound. For all the things I have heard about Czech people being selfish and rude this proves that is an exception. Maybe it's Prague that makes people that way. They are like New Yorkers maybe. No one in the states would ever say, "yep all Americans are like New Yorkers." Even then New Yorkers aren't bad people, they just have things to do.

I've been thinking about what logical reasons exist for a 911 memorial in Prague and then I have to stop myself. There is no logical reason for this. This is about compassion and solidarity. It's not some grandios copper gift we can stick in a harbor and look at every day. Many Americans will never see this. 

This is more impressive than any kind of condolence card, because of the fact that most Americans will never even know it exists. This is a simple statement in a quiet place. In fact I gather thousands of people walk past this memorial every day and never even know it is there. It is very close the the Charles Bridge. You can look of the bridge and see it if you know what you are looking for. 

I think I put the pin in the right place. Either way, I'm pretty close. 

As I was looking at the memorial and taking photos of it a few people saw I was interested in something and when they walked closer and saw what it was they just kept on walking. I am willing to bet my right arm they were not Americans. It's fine they kept walking. We usually don't think of 911 as something the rest of the world needs to be concerned about, at least I don't anyway. It is a personal thing for us and I don't really think most Americans care what the rest of the world thinks about it.

Had this memorial been some sort of political message, I'm sure there would be more fanfare surrounding it. If the Czech Republic had wanted to say, "look at us, we love America. 911 sucked." I'm sure they would have done it in some other way. 

To me this memorial is the equivalent of when you tell a friend you are having trouble with something and that person says a prayer for you without telling you about it. It is noble and you'll never have any idea about it. To me that exactly what this memorial is about; it is a prayer, said in silent, for 343 people you never knew. Not because you're supposed to. Not because someone told you to do it, but because you care and it's the right thing to do.

This simple, quiet gesture has endeared the Czech people to me. This makes up for all the lousy mustard on earth.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Chief Expat Complaint

I've been busy and have not had much time to dedicate to writing or thinking of topics to write about. Finally, I decided on one.

Since I've been here I have discovered that there is a very large expat community in Prague. I knew there were expats, but it is a pretty large number. I don't just mean Americans hiding out from the political strife at home, or for whatever other reason they are here, there are people from all over the world. I've met Russians, Italians, Spaniards, Brits, Romanians and a surprising number of Slovakians. It's pretty great to be able to interact with people from such varied backgrounds. You can put people from six different states together and it is great, but there are a lot of things that will be the same. The conversation is completely different. For one, you won't have to explain yourself as much. I'm not complaining about that, I actually enjoy explaining myself to people who don't know about culture, or perceived lack of it, in the states.

The one complaint I hear over and over from the expats here is that they don't like the food. At first I didn't really think too much of it, but I started to see that, yeah maybe the food isn't so great.
I think what I notice most, having lived in the southwest for so long, is the lack of anything spicy or hot. Czechs just don't like spicy food. I used to joke a lot about British food being devoid of spice and flavor, and traditional English food is pretty bland from what I hear. But our friends on that little ancestral island have taken a keen liking to curry in the past few years and there is for sure some spicy curry. I still tease my English friends about not liking spicy food, but it's really not so true anymore.
I've eaten a few jalapeños since I've been here and they have, quite frankly, been a pretty poor excuse for spicy. They all looked like jalapeños, but really that was about it. As far as anything remotely resembling green chilie goes -- I'm out of luck.

I am told there are a few good Indian restaurants and I might look for some curry. I'm also told of a mythical Thai restaurant with some very hot cuisine. Of course an English person told me about this, so I will have to see for myself.

I will say the variety of meat you can get at a restaurant is impressive. The other night I was at a mede hall with some friends and the menu had duck, rabbit, pheasant, beef, chicken and pork. They might have had a few other things, but that is all I can remember. You would be hard pressed to find a place in the states that had all those things and did cost at least $100 per person to eat there. The other interesting thing is that there is tartar far more frequently than you will find it in the US. And it is pretty cheap. I think the last time I had some tartar I paid 100kcc for my whole meal.

Not bad, some DYI tartar. I liked it.

Then there are of course all the usual fast-food joints. I've been to Burger King maybe twice. SURPRISE! It tastes like Burger King. I even broke with my strict rules and ate at MacDonalds. My reason for this was to have the famous Royal With Cheese, thank you Quinten Tarantino. Guess what?? It was horrible, but it did come with popcorn shrimp which as you can imagine were aweful.

There it is, right in the middle, the famous Royal. The small, closed, box on the right contains shrimp, yuck.

It also turns out KFC is pretty big over here. Who knew. I haven't been there yet. There is no Taco Bell, so my runs for the border either entail an actual border or the "non stop" burrito place around the corner from my flat. It's not a terrible burrito and it's "non stop" which means it's open 24 hours.

The problem doesn't really stop at restaurants though. Quite frankly with the cost of really good beer so low a not-amazing meal doesn't really tick me off. The mede hall I went to the other night, I had duck. It was ok, but it was overcooked and dry, but I had four beers for like $8 so some slightly dry duck isn't a huge deal. Of course I'll eat pretty much anything that won't kill me and not really mind. Anything but eggplant or squash and even then I'll try it from time to time just to make sure it still repulses me.

That isn't to say there are zero good restaurants in Prague. There are in fact some very good, very reasonable restaurants. It just takes a little looking to find them. The great thing is you really remember a good place to eat.

No, things at the grocery store aren't really a whole lot better. The bread isn't really that great. Granted I don't often buy bread from the store, bite into it and say, "wow, this bread is amazing." Bread is after all, for me mostly a device for holding meat and cheese together while I eat a sandwich. They have this thing called a Rholik, I'm pretty sure it translated to "bullet." They are kind of like little baguettes, but not as good. I'm convinced they are baked and left to sit for at least two days to harden and then sold. I really don't mind them, they just aren't good for much in my book. If you like hard, dry bread in miniature baguette form a rholik might be for you.

Then there is the cheese. Or so it is called. You can go to the store and see a vast array of cheese for sale. It all looks different, except for the fact that it is pretty much all white. It all tastes the same. It's a bit rubbery and pretty bland and when it melts it stretches out like crazy. I suppose it is like flat string cheese, but more boring. Sometimes there are holes in it, like swiss cheese. It tastes the same as the variety without holes. So, I've located a  British food import store with some various types of sharper cheddar that are pretty good. Yes, I realize I just admitted to resorting to British food to get a bit of flavor.

On bacon. In the US bacon is a religion. I have often heard it referred to as "meat candy." It is. Canadians and Brits think they know what bacon is, but they are using the complete wrong side of the pig. And they cure it differently. Those basically make hard ham. Here in the Czech Republic I usually buy Salina Anglicky. I'm pretty sure this translates to American bacon. It's pretty close but almost all of it is deli shaved thin. I was at a store today that had slab bacon for sale and I might have to get some at some point so I can have a slice or two at the proper thickness. The slab bacon was also named Salina Anglicky. 

I really like mustard. Maybe I didn't give enough emphasis. I REALLY like mustard. The spicier the better. It's not so good here, but Germany is close so there is hope. I'll survive. If not a friend has told me it is easy to make your own mustard. We'll see.

And now for the most confusing thing I never thought would confound me. Eggs. Granted, anyone who know me knows I've only been eating eggs for a few years. Heck, I still don't know all the names for the ways to prepare them. There's over something, sunny-side hard or something like that. Really, I don't know. The first time I had juevos rancheros the person asked me how I liked my eggs and I could only reply, "what are my options?" I've started cooking my own eggs and I'm getting better at it. I can scramble them up pretty good, and make an ok omelet. Here is the rub about eggs when you buy them at the store: You can buy them in packages of 6, 10, 15 or 30. The reason this bothers me is this: If you have half a carton of eggs and that has 6 eggs in it, why the hell on God's green earth is a full carton of eggs 10? It only makes sense to have a full carton consist of precisely double a half a carton. Then you run in to problems like this: I use 3 eggs to make an omelet. If I make three omelets I have one egg left over, it's a bit frustrating. It might make me strange.

For all the bad things about the food I will have to say this. Czechs know their way around a pig. There is pork everywhere and they can prepare it very well. The delicacy here is pork knee. I haven't had one yet but I will.