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Postcard from Prague

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In October, Jonathan and i did what we love to do most of all: took off for a new place to meet each other all over again. My brother Thom was studying in Prague for the semester and it was the perfect opportunity both to visit him and to explore a new crook of the world.

If you read my interview over on Viscera Stories, you’ll know that one of my favorite parts of travel is finding that the mundane is made new all over again. It’s also in that newness that i find myself meeting people i’ve known for years for the first time again. Seeing Thom, my younger-but-taller brother, expertly navigate a city in an entirely new language to him (Czech) and participating in his life as an adult was a real treasure.

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Old Town Square, all lit up at night. I loved the Astonomical Clock best, where on the hour the “Death” figure tolls the bell and the apostles process in the windows of the clock. It is, admittedly, mildly underwhelming; a Brit next to me blurted out: “Is that it? I’m off for a pint!”

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ALCHEMISTS

Jonathan and i had some days to wander about by ourselves while Thom had class. We tried to find a monastery, and wound up in a nunnery, which felt prophetic. Loreta, built like the one in Italy of the same name, to honor the alleged brithplace of Mary. [Don’t question the Italian distance from Nazareth]. We had the cloister to ourselves, and every chapel was dedicated to Mary or another woman saint. I wept. We finished the afternoon with the above view and a cup of tea and a long chat with our waitress where we taught her North Carolina English slang and she gently corrected our frenetic Czech attempts at ordering the cheese plate.

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PENTECOST LORETO PRAGUE BUILDINGS

Prague was also clearly a city reeling from communism; Thom was strict that we were not to speak on the trams, to stay quiet in restaurants. There was a joviality between friends, but not an openness to strangers. Religious iconography adorned almost every building, but then there were layers of grimey graffiti around the edges.

PRAGUE time eated

You cannot go to Prague and not at least walk to the Jewish Quarter – a once thriving part of the city, now full with ten times more more tourists and tombstones than Jewish inhabitants. Remnants of a not-so-long-ago genocide.

There are numerous famous sites to visit, but we decided our hearts could best handle a long time in one place, and i was most intrigued by the Spanish Synagogue.

jewish spanish synagogue

All the architecture and design is done in a style similar to Islamic art in Spain and Northern Africa – interlocking patterns, calligraphic Hebrew verses, and no images of people or prophets. All the descriptions were in Czech, but the piles of tefillin stripped from faces and mezuzah ripped from doors all now piled behind glass cases told the story well enough.

CHARLES BRIDGE

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Prague is often described as the new European hotspot; it’s extremely affordable (seriously, the amount of beer consumed for the pittance of pennies spent) and rich in a complicated history. On the one hand, there’s all the color and warmth of Central Europe and the Mediterranean, but on the other, there is the brooding undercurrent of Easter Europe’s communist history. It is a city coming to know itself all over again. Which is the epitome of traveling together, for me. My husband, my brother and i met between buildings of saints and sinners, over goulash and pizza, we met again for the first time and talked as old friends.

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Must-Do’s:

Have a beer in a local micro-brewery. Slash, have a beer with every meal. It’s cheaper than water.

Try goulash or, if you’re brave, point randomly at the Czech menu and smile. This game of mine has not always paid off (anchovies over cooked carrots in Spain – blech!) but in Prague i wound up with a potato-onion pancake with brie melted inside. Aaah-mazing.

Visit Loreto, the nunnery on a hill overlooking the city. Quiet, less touristy than the main squares, and very affordable. You do have to pay for a photography pass.

Pay for the pass to see the inside of the Saint Vitus Cathedral at the Castle. The stained glass is breathtaking.

Meander in the Jewish Quarter, but try to go when the crowds are lighter (early in the morning) to give the place the time it deserves. Don’t plan on doing anything fun after.

Walk across the Charles Bridge at sunset, when the vendors are closing up shop and the tourists dispersed. You’ll have time to look at the statues then, and the Vlatava river sparkles as the city lights splutter on.

Avoid: Wenceslas Square, if you can, unless it’s a date memorializing the Velvet Revolution. Otherwise, it’s an overpriced and overcrowded Times-Square-esque thoroughfare. Also, beware pickpockets and try not to talk on the trams.

Highly Recommend Miss Sophie’s Hostel for cleanliness, location, and unbelievably kind staff.



Serendipity and Serenades at the Eiffel Tower.

So when i wasn’t prowling about the Eiffel Tower looking for a hot dog, i was busy being rather bedazzled by the tower itself. There’s magic in Paris, i swear; perhaps the secret entrance to Beauxbatons lies beneath the Seine.

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Seeing the Eiffel Tower at all is striking and poetic and full of Aristocat-themed-music-making. Seeing the Eiffel Tower at night is unlike anything else; the gold against the purple night, the way it lights up and sparkles for ten minutes every hour, the glow it casts on the whole of the jardins surrounding it make me understand why so many artists and writers came to Paris and never left. It’s the music itself.

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Sparkling on the hour!

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Though initially disappointed to learn that the cables for the lift to the tippy-top were too frozen to function, the mid-atmospheric snow in the air at the second level made us quite content to look out at Sacre Coeur and L’Arc de Triomphe from our frozen perch. It was stunning; the whole of Paris reflected back at us like the lights on the tower itself. Even the Seine glowed. If you’re going to Paris, do everything you can to scale the Eiffel Tower at night. It may be knee-knocking, teeth-chattering freezing, but the view is transcendent.

Windswept!

Windswept!

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Making the climb back down!

Making the climb back down!

The Tower’s magic, though, was not bound in cables and floor and vistas for us, though. In some cosmic convergence, one of my very best friends from Mount Holyoke, Saran, was traveling through Paris at the same time as us. Neither one of us had functioning phones, so through spotty glimpses of wifi we’d managed to communicate online that we would meet at the Eiffel Tower sometime that night.

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My fingers were going numb, refreshing my inbox at the base of the Tower. J and i had scouted the lines, walked the perimeter, tried every cranny we could see to find Saran. Worry we were relying too much on chance in a city too big, i began to fret we wouldn’t find her at all.

Until someone shrieked my name from the other side of the tower.

There was a running and a leaping and a hugging and an OH MY G-D, PARIS-ing. I was so delighted to see her, and a mutual friend from Paris, all basking underneath the sparkling gold beams of the most famous French landmark. We walked, arm-in-arm, to a restaurant a few blocks up and had warm reminiscing and fast catching-up over French cuisine. Entrenched in a language and culture and place not my own, i was home in the hearts of people i love.

Blurry and beautiful because of what this means to me!

Blurry but beautiful because of what this means to me!

Just when you start to disbelieve in the magic that weaves Paris together, the rug is pulled out from under you all over again. I suppose that’s falling in love: being awash in passion, falling into a place of comfortable constancy, and, just when you start to get too comfortable or edgy from boredom, something happens to make you commit and believe all over again. 

Paris certainly lives up to its reputation in that way!

current jam: ‘little bird song’ ed sheeran.

best thing: these INCREDIBLE signs advocating for marriage equality at the supreme court yesterday.

inquiry: would anyone be interested in purchasing a (non-watermarked) print of the eiffel tower (or anything, really)?

Top 5 Things to Do in Amsterdam.

I’ve written about all of the things below in greater detail, but if you’re planning a trip to Amsterdam in the near future, these are the condensed top 5 things i would recommend doing! (See all my writing on Amsterdam here.)

1. Albert Cuyp Market. If you want to see a local side of town, this – the oldest street market in the Netherlands – is it. The market is exploding in stalls of things to try – everything from frites stands (mmm!) to lingerie shops. We took a full morning to peruse the selection and mostly ate our way through, devouring a powder-sugar-covered waffle at Wally’s Wafels and gorging ourselves on local olives. The prices are unparalleled for such gourmet food! (The market runs Monday – Saturday, 9 am – 5 pm).

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2. A Bike Tour. Really, i’m sure any company will do you just fine; Mike’s Bikes was great for the youthful, edgy side of Amsterdam (if a little heavy on the information about weed and prostitution for people not looking for that sort of entertainment) but if you want to get the lay of the land hop on a bike and go. It is the local way of getting around, after all!

shop cats make for the best bikes!

shop cats make for the best bikes!

3. The Van Gogh Museum. While the actual Van Gogh museum was undergoing renovations whilst we were in Amsterdam, the Hermitage Museum displayed the bulk of the collection in a special exhibit. Regardless of their housing, Van Gogh’s paintings come alive off the walls and force you to pay attention to their kinetic, vibrant energy. Though this is on the pricier end of Amsterdam museums, it is worth every cent!

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4. Dam Square. Though this is certainly the touristy center, there are so many great little shops to peak in (and wonderful people-watching!).  As a connoisseur of cheesy souvenirs, i loved shopping in Dam Square Souvenirs which is full of beautiful – if pricey – wooden shoes and other lovely Holland-themed merchandise. The best part, though, is the enormous yellow wooden shoe outside. Free mega-tourist-photo-op!

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5. Eat. Anything, really, but especially the bread, cheese, sausage, and frites! The Albert Cuyp Market is definitely the place to eat your way through, but don’t let your gastronomical exploits end there. Our favorite restaurant was van Kerkwijk, in Amsterdam Centruum. The menu is recited by the wait staff, who are warm and friendly folk, and it’s a selection abrim in quirky combinations (like steak slathered in strawberry sauce and goat cheese – shockingly good!). Another great place was right next to our hotel, the Café Onder de Ooievaar – the cheese and sausage plate made for a sumptuous late-night snack!

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Bon voyage!

Highly Honorable Mentions:

The Anne Frank House (it was a wee bit crowded for this claustrophobic, but still very powerful – book tickets online & try to go first thing in the morning, rather than in the afternoon!)

if you like my condensed travel reviews, you’d probably like my tripadvisor profile!

current jam: ‘shake it out’ florence + the machine.

best thing: magna carterrrrr!

 

Of Blossoms & Boats: Van Gogh at the Hermitage.

Refreshed from our wine-and-cheese induced sleep, Abby and i awoke in Amsterdam ready to brave the cold and wanting to explore. After a delicious breakfast at the hotel (have i mentioned the cappuccino machine?) we took a gander about the southern canal/De Pijp neighborhood, drinking in the quaint little bridges and houses stacked against each other.

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Some ten minutes away was our destination: The Hermitage Museum. Since the Van Gogh Museum is presently undergoing renovations, the bulk of their collection is temporarily housed here. I’d been waiting to see this exhibit really since my 12th-grade AP Art History class, when i’d first really studied Vincent.

It was sublime. Is there really any other word for visiting with Van Gogh’s work?

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Unfortunately, photography was strictly forbidden, so i have no photos to share of the actual exhibit. In some ways, i find restrictions like this liberating because it means i’m truly present with the art instead of constantly fiddling with the shutter speed on my Olympus.

Some of my favorite things we saw, though, were not the most famous members of the collection (like Wheat Field with Crows, though that was transcendent). There was a whole section devoted to Van Gogh’s study of Japanese prints, and his painted recreations of some of the prints in his own collection. To see how these pieces really shaped Van Gogh’s perspective as an artist in his formative years was really cool – especially the harsh angles and vibrant colors.

But lest we forget, the more famous works were also amazing to see. I hadn’t known that Almond Blossoms was painted for Vincent’s newborn nephew. Somehow, this idea that the blossoms were meant to celebrate new life made this work all the more endearing.

And the greens! Oh, the greens! I’ve always been enchanted by Bedroom at Arles­ and its quirky, incandescent spirit (my Art History teacher said once he always felt like the chairs were about to start dancing around the room). But it is even more lively in person – the dark patches outlining the bed and making up the floor are such rich tones of emerald that they illuminate the whole work. I was utterly intoxicated by the greens – the fishing boats at Saint-Marie series had me entranced.

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Bedroom in Arles, 1888.

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Almond Blossoms, 1890.

Fishing Boats at Sea, 1888. (I bought this one on a postcard!)

Fishing Boats at Sea, 1888. (I bought this one on a postcard!)

Some two hours later, we exited the gift shop (postcards in hand, of course) and made our way to Kerkestraat for the (aforewrittenabout) bike tour! Our afternoon was thus consumed by exquisite art and wheeling about town – what more could you want from a long weekend in Amsterdam, really?

That was really the bulk of our first day; the cold was too potent to spend too much time out with the sun going down. We returned to our new favorite bar/café, Onder de Ooivaar, for yet another round of wine and cheese. The next day promised a tour of the Anne Frank House, eating our way through the Albert Cuyp Market, and GIANT YELLOW wooden shoes!

current jam: ‘tout doucement’ feist.

best thing: ravioli.

of note: photos of van gogh’s paintings from here. 

Aimless in Amsterdam: An Arrival Gone Astray (And Other Alliterations)

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It was nearing 11 pm, the Amsterdam air was bitingly frigid, and we were hopelessly lost.

Having taken the advice of a tourist information man upon our arrival in the city, Abby and i had elected to take the Metro instead of the tram. We’d arrived, some five blocks away from our hotel, at a station i could only assume is pronounced “Wheee-sper Plain!”

We should have taken the tram.

I’d carefully traced my fingers around the contours of the map before we left. Studied the route from the main train station to our hotel. Yet somehow, in the darkness, all the streets didn’t seem to line up with our disoriented departure from the metro station. A lot of asking people on their bikes for directions ensued. The streets of Amsterdam are all well-lit, because everyone rides bikes until, you know, the wee hours of the morning. But lamps do little for the cold.

So while we were grateful for the lamps, our toes were going numb and our patience was wearing thin.

Resigned, we hailed a cab. Four euros and two blocks later, we were deposited at the elusive Hotel Prinsenhof.

Oh.

As frustrating as it was that we’d been so close and yet so lost, i definitely do not regret those four euros being spent on the security of being dropped off precisely where we needed to be!

A note tacked to the door of the small bed-and-breakfast style hotel told us to ask the bartender at the café adjacent to the hotel for our keys. From over the bar counter, he produced an envelope enclosing both our keys and vouchers for complimentary wine from the bar (score!). Eager to defrost from the sub-freezing temperatures, we made our way up the three most narrow flights of stairs i’d ever beheld before beholding our room.

A re-creation of Rembrant's "Night Watch" in the hotel's dining room!

A re-creation of Rembrant’s “Night Watch” in the hotel’s dining room!

For all the strife of finding the place, the Hotel Prinsenhof was worth all the wait. Our room overlooked the canal, the reflections of lamps and house-lights glittering in the water between docked boats. We’d learn the next day that the breakfast served was delicious and simple, made all the better by the cappuccino machine (accessible all day!).

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But for the night, there was a much-needed drink to be had and food to be found. The café, Onder de Ooivaar, turned out to have the most incredible cheese-and-sausage platter i have ever had. After what had been such a stressful night getting into the city, my first real bite of Holland was this incredible Gouda.

And just like that, i was in love with Amsterdam. The infamous “they” say the way to a girl’s heart is through her stomach (or whatever). I say it’s through cheese. Or wine. Or, you know, both in a picturesque European city glistening with stars in bike-lane lined canals.

The next day was going to be a packed one – a bike tour, the Van Gogh exhibit at the hermitage, and more eating (naturally) – but after our second glass of Spanish red and second platter of cheese, we were ready for much-needed sleep.

We awoke the next day to sounds of dinging bike bells and shopkeepers opening their tulip stalls, ready to see the splendor in a new, and warmer, light.

current jam: ‘same love’ macklemore + ryan lewis.

best thing: bagels and cream cheese.

Living in its Own History.

At orientation today, a series of photographs by former international students flashed across the introductory powerpoint. Each was accompanied by a quote about the photo – and all were something along the lines of “this encapsulates Edinburgh to me because…” One student, whose name i failed to jot down, commented that Edinburgh was a city “living in its own history.”

I find this to be tremendously true. Yesterday, in hot pursuit of an apple store (a pursuit that proved fruitless in the end), i made a gander down the main drags of town. Foregoing any desire to blend in (yet) i snapped photos every meter of the way.

There are all the quaint, tourist-y trappings of a Great Britain town; red phone booths, sprawling gothic churches and kirks, and plenty of weather that my orientation packet refers to as mingin‘ (meaning nasty, drab, and otherwise umbrella-and-overcoat-worthy).

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The Royal Mile!

The Royal Mile!

St. Giles Kirk, former pulpit of John Knox.

St. Giles Kirk, former pulpit of John Knox.

But my stroll along the Royal Mile also meant i encountered some distinctly Scottish fare: a bagpiper with a cap out for change, stores advertising haggis, and more tartan stalls than i could count. My meander took me down to Princes Street, where i eventually located a SIM card for my mobile and, naturally, a plethora of postcards. (I have to continually remind myself not to purchase souvenirs just yet, since i’ve got another five months to stock up on post cards and the like.)

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A view of Princes Street from the Royal Mile.

A view of Princes Street from the Royal Mile.

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I made sure to pass New College, where i’ll be taking my courses (starting tomorrow! Eep!). Making my way up to Queen Street, i continued to stumble across more of what i think the student was referencing in her photograph. The city, though draped in the enchantment of dark bricks and antiquity, is very much alive and growing. The letterbox (below) was just around the corner from a TGI Fridays – and from the restaurant, there was a stunning view of Edinburgh castle. Talk about juxtapositions!

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(New College is the double-spired building on the far left! And by New College, i mean Hogwarts...)

(New College is the double-spired building on the far left! And by New College, i mean Hogwarts…)

I wandered into St. John’s Episcopal church at the end of Princes Street, coming across nothing other than the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre. Naturally, i sat down for a chat with a lovely fellow and signed up for their newsletter and potential volunteering opportunities. (I’m sure most of you, dear readers, are utterly unsurprised by this!).

The rain was starting to snake down under my scarf, and it was due time i head back to my flat. With a few groceries freshly purchases tucked into my rucksack, i headed to my new home amidst a sunset Edinburgh. The sight was stunning – everything seems to really glow a bronze hue in the rare but beautiful sunshine here.

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It was really a magical day. I was glad to explore on my own for a while, too, as it helped clear my head and restore a sense of independence – all while figuring out what the streets i’d committed to memory from my maps looked like in actuality. And this actuality is a living history – and one i grow more and more ecstatic to be a petite part of every day.

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current jam: ‘grown ocean’ fleet foxes

best thing: facetime and a functioning mobile phone.

Radi-Aid: Hope for Us All.

To the chagrin of most members of my immediate family, i unapologetically break out the Christmas CD collection within 24 hours of downing turkey and potatoes on Thanksgiving. We’ve amassed quite the motley crew of musicians over the years – everything from a  “Christmas Classics” CD with a faded cartoon of Frosty the Snowman on the case to my most beloved alternative holiday music mixes that heavily feature music from the Jingle Spells Wizard Rock collection.

For the past two years, i’ve hosted an Alternative Christmas Music Radio Special on WMHC. It’s a treasured tradition and, though i don’t have a regular show anymore, i’m contemplating reinvigorating the radio voice one last time before the move to Scotland. I just can’t pass up the opportunity to play Steve Martin & Paul Simon’s brilliant Silver Bells on live radio.

But at the same time last year when i announced said radio special on this blog, i also had an axe to grind with Band Aid. The song “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” is potentially one of the most patronizing, condescending, otherizing, and frankly global-north-congratulating bad aid works of art out there. I get that when it was first recorded the intention to feed starving people was a good one (i tend to think wanting to help people is a universally good intention). But good intentions are not enough. As i said last year and say again, the song constructs a trope of AFRICA (as an entire continent) as impoverished, starving, miserable, and in desperate need of American/Global North/Western saviors. Needless to say, this song does not make its way onto any of my alternative Christmas music mixes.

However.

Band-Aid has met its match in the brilliant and satirical campaign entitled Radi-Aid: Africa for Norway. On November 16th, SAIH (The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund)* released this video to launch a campaign for all Africans to donate their radiators to save freezing Norwegians:

 

While the campaign’s actual aims are not, in fact, to collect and ship radiators the actual tenants of what SAIH are doing here are fabulous. According to the blog Africa is a Country, the campaign’s actual aims are as follows:

1. Fundraising should not be based on exploiting stereotypes.
2. We want better information about what is going on in the world, in schools, in TV and media.
3. Media: Show respect.
4. Aid must be based on real needs, not “good” intentions.

Additionally, Caitlin L. Chandler, a writer for AIAC, interviewed Anja Bakken Riise and Erik Schreiner Evans, the Vice-President and President of SAIH respectively.

From the interview, poking around their website, and cackling at the video on repeat, i have gleaned a real sense of hope. This satire doesn’t debase the idea of people wanting to help. Rather, i think it effectively uses humor to highlight the ridiculous narrative that so much of Christmas-season (and really, year-round) charity efforts spout. The video is calling for more accurate information and a nuanced understanding of global affairs. As Erik Schreiner Evans says in the interview,

“We also want to mess with the stereotypes people have. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it’s that they’re incomplete. Norway is, in fact, a relatively cold country. But I think most Norwegians would be rather frustrated if that was the only thing Norway was known for. I think a lot of people would agree that the same goes for most African countries.”

The video, without writing people’s good intentions off, invites us all to re-examine what stereotypes we hold. The video illuminates the need for people with purchasing power looking to use monetary or material donations as a force for change to critically examine where the money/goods they’re donating are going. “We” have to ask who the “we” are. In our donations, are “we” implying an other? Is there a dichotomy of “us” who are wealthy and “them” who are poor? How do we define such statuses of economic or mental or spiritual poverty and wealth? What tropes about the world do we hold as truth?

I, for one, am ecstatic about this campaign. I think it’s clever and using a universal human characteristic – laughter – to ask us all to question and dig deeper within our own assumptions.

And isn’t it the season for good cheer?

best thing: three miles at the gym.

* in cooperation with Operation Day’s Work and funded by The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) and The Norwegian Children and Youth Council (LNU) with music by Wathiq Hoosain, lyrics by Bretton Woods, and video by Ikind Productions.