Friday, December 18, 2009

My Kind of Town

Well, what can I say. I have fallen in love... with Prague. Snowflakes falling softly, violin street music floating through the air, cinnamon bread and warm mulled wine for sale at the Christmas Markets, cozy bookstores, majestic churches, holy synagogues, romantic bridges. Give me a minute. I'm tearing up. Seriously, I'm not exaggerating. I'm crying right now. Beauty does that to me. Two days in Prague were enough to convince me that, despite the expense of living there, I really need to apply to the Prague international school. I went to Prague with four of my friends, colleagues and fellow believers, who I dearly love.

On Monday morning, Stephen, Valbona and I headed out on a quick tour of Prague, while Amy and Travis went back to the airport to pick up luggage. The tour bus drove the three of us past the important buildings and then up to the Prague castle. The views from the castle were lovely. You could see all the red roofs spreading out through the city.

Our guide took us through the cathedral and we had a brief look into the palace (where in the Middle Ages, horses and knights would have tournaments). The tour was just an overview of Prague, so it didn't include all of the castle. Seriously, we could have spent all day on top of the hill. There were different museums to go to (like a toy museum and a design museum) and the Golden Street (where the jewelry stores are), but we were pressed for time.

The next stop was the astronomical clock. The clock made me think of my Uncle Ed who is a clockmaker in Sisters, Oregon. (Shameless family plug: if you are ever in the central Oregon region you absolutely must visit the clock shop, around noon. It's such a magical place. Uncle Ed's clocks are incredible works or arts which he builds from inside out.) Back to the Prague clock. Every hour, the twelve apostles pass by the top window. There are other statues surrounding the clock itself. We went back the next day, just to watch and listen again. I love simple pleasures.

We met back up with Travis and Amy just as a light dusting of snow began to fall. I kept looking at my coat sleeve where beautifully detailed snowflakes were gathering. We all headed back to the Christmas Market for mulled wine and "street treats."

Amy, Travis and I went to a small cafe and warmed up with more hot wine. Then, they went back to the hotel and I went on to the Mucha Museum. I really do like art nouveau. It's romantic and wispy. (Mucha died during Nazi interrogation). Then I went to a Kafka bookstore. I have never read anything by Kafka, but the few passages I did read made me feel like I had found another favorite author. Art in all forms makes me appreciate life. I walked around by myself for awhile, (It's very fun to be the mysterious solo traveler. Especially when cute Czech men come to talk to me. Too bad I only speak English.)and then met back up with Amy and Travis for dinner. I can't say I'm a huge fan of traditional Czech food. The dumplings were done well, but just weren't my favorite.

Tuesday, we started off with more snow (this time falling faster). Our plan was to wander to the Charles Bridge and then around the Jewish Quarter (called the "Pride of Prague" by our tour guide the day before).

There were so many charming alleyways and buildings. Prague makes me think of a fairytale. I want to live in a fairytale.

We passed by this church right before we came to Charles Bridge. I took a picture of it. Look carefully. Do you notice something unusual? Amy pointed it out to me...

Yep, there was an icicle hanging out of the gargoyle's mouth! In fact, the fire department came out to remove the icicle before it could drop on a passing tourist or motor vehicle.

And then, the bridge! The beautiful, beautiful, beautiful bridge. I am taking my husband (whoever he is) back to the Charles Bridge one day. I don't think you can possibly get the full effect of the romance unless you kiss the one you love on the bridge. This is why I encouraged my four friends to engage in some public displays of affection! (And why someday I'll go back).

After a stroll on the bridge, we found a restaurant to warm up in. Amy and I both had the French Onion soup. It had delicious croutons and goat cheese. I don't think I've ever had such a decedent French Onion soup.

My four friends walked with me to the Jewish Quarter. (They all are in Prague for a longer time, so they were savoring it, I was devouring it.) The Jewish Quarter leads you through amazing synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery. It's hard to process it all. My first stop was in the synagogue that displays the names of the Czech Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis. The names are written floor to ceiling, on two floors, in alphabetical order with the date of birth and the year of death. Then, there was an art display that is very difficult to see. A Jewish art teacher taught the children art while they were displaced. The art work managed to be saved, unlike the teacher and most of her children. God. Mankind is vicious. Each synagogue was a museum devoted to keeping the memories alive. I was lucky enough to be following a Rabbi and his student from synagogue to synagogue, so I learned more than I would have just by reading the signs. Basically, the Nazis required the Jews to catalog their religious relics, and then sent them off to their deaths. Only two of the eight people who worked on the "museum" managed to survive.

After this sobering experience, I rejoined my friends for dinner, then went to the Municipal House for a concert. (The Municipal House is the first picture on this post). We were expecting to enjoy the concert in the Great Hall. Imagine our surprise when we were instructed to go down to the Art Nouveau Hall. It was an intimate setting for some world class chamber music. And yes, I cried. Mozart, Vivaldi, the greats. During the concert, I was struck that I really do love the life God has given me.

I'm glad that I was able to share my first Prague adventure with friends with artistic souls. This is a city to come to for inspiration.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lights, Camera, Athens!

Tracey, Sarah and I flew to Athens on Friday afternoon. I happened to be sitting next to a young girl who is a missionary in Greece (she assumed that I was right out of college, God bless her!). Talking with her really made the time fly by. Only an hour and we were in Athens. Getting around was incredibly easy. The metro was super affordable and easy to manage. A lady at an information booth showed us the two lines to our hotel. The directions I got from said, "Go out of the Metro and you are at the hotel." Vague to say the least, but promising. Indeed, we went out of the metro and saw every hotel except Crystal City. Sarah, who has some conversational Greek, approached a man at a kiosk for directions. He started laughing and pointed over her shoulder. The directions on ought to read, "Go out of the metro. Walk 10 steps, turn right and you're there!"

We (the three of us) decided that it was of the utmost importance to squeeze in as much Greek food as possible over the course of a few days. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were our highest priorities. After checking into the hotel, we set out in search of our first meal. I LOVE Greek food. Olives, yogurt, grilled meat, pita bread...sigh. (I meant to buy a Greek cookbook before I left, but didn't. Silly me.) I really enjoyed the first restaurant we went to, although there was a pesky Brit who (we overheard most of his conversation) appeared to be cheating on his girlfriend with a Greek girl. Charming, oh so charming.

The three of us were walking in the shopping district after our first dinner. Almost simultaneously, Sarah and I screamed, "H&M!" at the top of our lungs. Seriously, you know you are in civilization when you are surrounded by good shopping! We made plans to shop 'til we dropped. All day Saturday was literally going into store after store after store. For all the time we spent in stores, I managed to just do damage at H&M. I kept reminding myself that I'll be home soon (where shopping is cheaper). Sarah and I were thrilled to be using our credit cards...

And this is Tracey after a long, long day of shopping...

Sunday was much like Saturday. We decided to explore the oldest flee market in Athens (or so the sign said). Sarah was on a hunt for boots and Tracey and I were keeping our eyes open for anything interesting. Well, we found interesting! We found what looked like an actual jewelers. I made the mistake of walking in. Actually, we all made that mistake. We were instantly greeted by a kindly gentleman who informed us that we were lucky enough to stumble into the "Embassy's" jewelery store. He had pictures with former first ladies, current ambassadors, and Greek dignitaries displayed around his shop. He, George, said that for us, he'd give us 30% off anything on the ground floor. His colleague entered and said, "No, no, for these girls give them 40% off all the silver." We had just a little bit of fun picking out beautiful jewelery to take home. All the while, the three of us were laughing and talking. George looked at us, a bit puzzled, and said, "No one ever smiles anymore, but you three have contagious smiles." Yep, that's us, at least when we are on vacation! George's colleague poured us ouzo after our transactions were complete. I heard it as "boozo" and was slightly confused. Anyhow, I really enjoy ouzo. Not surprising since I'm a black licorice fan!

After our second shopping adventure, we decided to do something educational and absolutely essential. My new friend from the plane had advised us to go to the Acropolis on Sunday, since it's free on that particular day. Of course, walking around looking at antiquity is amazing, but I felt a little under-educated. I know a lot about the Roman empire, but I think I slept through my Greek history. (This is an unusual feeling for me. Usually, I'm thanking my Westmont education and cheering the Liberal Arts).

Now we come to my other favorite part of my weekend in Athens. We walked out of the Acropolis straight to Areopagus (otherwise known as Mars Hill). This was the one place I was eager to experience. I couldn't wait to stand on the mound where one of the most breathtaking sermons was preached. My plan was to read Acts 17 on Mars Hill. "'In him we live and move and have our being.'"

So after two days of enjoying Athens, we flew back home to Tirana. I'm afraid I'm in holiday spirits and can't wait for Prague, then Santa Maria! I love traveling: the people you meet, the food you consume, the pretty things to look at (or buy), the ancient history, and often, the spiritual encounters.