So I caught a plane from St. Pete to Prague. I realized as I sat there that it was the first plane ride I’d taken all on my own. I wound up in luck—a window seat with no one sitting in either of the other two seats in my row. I also got to watch the sun rise from above the clouds—quite an amazing experience. It was only a two hour flight and before I knew it I had landed in the third foreign country I’d seen in my life (not counting the airports in London and Helsinki).

I was glued to the window of my mini-bus taxi as we drove from the airport into town. Although there are still signs of the Soviet period, I knew immediately that I wasn’t in Russia anymore. Prague is definitely Central, not Eastern, Europe. I was in shock at the quaint beauty of some of the districts we passed through. Later that day, on a walking tour, I was breathless at the blue sky, the flowing (not frozen) river, the clean streets, the lack of people hurrying at light speed through the streets and metro stations. I said to our tour guide that first day, “I can’t understand why anyone who was born here would ever leave.” Yes, Prague is that gorgeous, but the “love at first sight” syndrome was definitely speaking as well. Regardless, I felt that a huge weight had been lifted off my chest arriving here. I don’t know if it had been the Russian culture or the mere stress of the morning’s travels, but something had had me down, and the air in Prague seemed an instant cure.

buildings in Prague

American Embassy

Some crazy architecture

View from the hill

Being back in a large group of Americans was also quite an experience. I didn’t think that being abroad had changed me that much, but it was almost immediately obvious that I was coming from a different place than the ones “fresh from the homeland.” The things that were new to me—a river free of ice, a sky free of clouds, shop people (who I thought were) more than willing to help—didn’t seem to impress the others so much. They were taken aback by the length and steepness of the metro escalators (I resisted the urge to say that I’d seen longer ones), the change in food, and (get this) the curtness of those same shop employees. I heard a lot of complaints about the scent of people on public transportation. The other Americans were amused by the fact that almost everyone here caries a plastic bag in addition to their purse or backpack. I was too busy staring at the metro cars with electronic signs giving info about the stations, and trying to recognize similarities between Russian and Czech, to tell them it was nothing new to me.

But the 24 who landed in this program—mostly Americans, but a Canadian, Irishman, and Englishman as well—were actually (for the most part) quite cultured and traveled. I didn’t feel at all that I was thrown into a group of “ugly American” tourists, but rather an interesting and diverse group of people looking to start a new chapter in their lives, whether it be for six months, a year, or a lifetime.

The program that I will have completed by late this afternoon is a four week INTENSIVE course on how to teach English as a foreign language. Basically, we had class every morning and then taught two afternoons a week. No better way to learn that to jump right in, right? It has been perhaps the most intensive academic experience of my life, and I think almost all the members of my class would say the same. We would usually be in school from about 10-6 and then have to come home to plan lessons, prepare materials for activities, or hold a private tutoring session with one of the students from the school. I feel that I have learned a lot, and the wheels are already turning as to how I can use this after I graduate.

Because of the intensity of the program, I have seen very little of Prague beyond that tour on the first day. All of us have been so exhausted on the weekends that we usually only got as far as a Laundromat or Internet café before heading back home again to work or relax. I did make it to the Prague Castle my first weekend here. That was a really exciting experience. I decided to go all by myself, just to explore. I set out with my map book and nothing else, and really enjoyed going at my own pace through the museums and churches. I spent the better part of an hour at St. Vitus Cathedral (see pictures below). Although I didn’t have a tour guide myself, through my guide book and the bits and pieces that I overheard from passing tourist groups, the cathedral had been a work in progress for the better part of 1000 years. Many religious and political leaders from much of Bohemian history are buried there, including St. Wenceslas, the region’s patron saint. He was killed at the hand of his brother, who later repented, has Wenceslas’s remains transferred to St. Vitus, and then became a saint himself. The cathedral is so huge that I couldn’t get a picture of the whole building from the ground. But here’s a few shots to give you an idea.

St. Vitus Cathedral

Also interesting from the Prague Castle—the Old Royal Palace. Besides being the place where Czech presidents are now sworn into office, it was in the southwest wing of this building that the 30 Years War began in 1618 when two Catholic governors were thrown out of a window by Protestant Bohemian nobles (known as the Prague Defenestration). It’s about the only event in Bohemian history that I remember learning about in class, so I thought I’d mention it. ?

On my own, I’ve been attending an English mass at the Church of Panna Maria Vítezná. As I’m bad with descriptions of these things, and I don’t know much about the religious history of the area, I’ll tell you what my “Prague: Directions” guidebook has to say (probably of most interest to my Catholic friends—Jeff R, ever heard of this thing?).

Surprisingly given its rather plain exterior, the church of Panna Maria Vítezná houses a high-kitsch wax effigy of the infant Jesus as a precocious three-year-old, enthroned in a glass case illuminated with strip-lights. Attributed with miraculous powers, the Bambino di Praga became an object of international pilgrimage and continues to attract visitors… He boasts a vast personal wardrobe of expensive swaddling clothes—approaching a hundred separate outfits at the last count—regularly changed by the Carmelite nuns.

Well, I don’t know about the “kitschiness” of the place, but it definitely boasts some wealth. And maybe the reason it’s always so cold in there is because they don’t want to melt the wax Jesus. I found it rather comical when the ushers passed the plates wearing ski hats and gloves. The only time I wish I had brought my hand warmers this trip was last Sunday morning, sitting in that church. But the people aren’t as cold as the walls. The congregation actually reminded me a bit of MPC back in Moscow. I wound up sitting with some guys from Nigeria my first day there. One of them introduced himself to me, and then asked me if I had ever even heard of Nigeria. I just sighed. Yes, I’ve heard of Nigeria. In fact, I knew many Nigerians back in Moscow, including the diplomat and his wife, whom I sang with in choir. But that aside, is it impossible that an American might know something about geography?

Alright (sorry President Durden, I like the one word spelling), take a little break. Volume 3 coming up.

My near two-week stay in St. Petersburg (actually, in ??????????, a suburb of the city) was most definitely a break after my final week of running around in Moscow, but don’t get me wrong. There was much going on, especially in the first half of the visit as we prepared for New Years. Here you’ll see me and the girls in the making of ??????? or ??????? (depending on if you’re from St. Petersburg or Moscow). It’s something I’ve never seen outside of Russia, but my dictionary translates it as aspic. Basically, you boil a wild pig, separate the meat from the fat and bones, and then use the fat and some gelatin to make it into this meat jello. I had tasted it in Moscow and decided it wasn’t for me, but as we picked the thing in order to separate the good from the bad, I snitched quite a lot of the meat. It was delicious, but very fattening. Oh, and for all of you that eat those baked goods called pig and elephant ears, I can testify to you that I’ve seen people eat a real pig’s ear. I wasn’t that adventurous, but I had no trouble picking up the snout for a picture.

I celebrated New Years in a home that the Nikolaevs (my host family) are currently building for their middle daughter, Ira. The week before New Years was a race as they tried to finish as much construction as possible on the house while making sure that both the new house and the apartment were decorated. And then, of course, there’s all the food to prepare. My host mom’s sister (Aunt Olia) and brother-in-law (Uncle Vitya) arrived on the 30th to help with the last minute preparations. I cannot count the number of salads we had. Remember that salads to a Russian are closer to potato salad than to a chef’s salad. The amount of ingredients that had to be chopped, diced, grated, and sliced was simply inconceivable. I can only take credit for marinating the raw salmon (which I had to do on my own as everyone else was working or building or decorating some place else), wrapping a few ??????? (pastries stuffed with cabbage), and mixing a bit of cake batter. In the end I did some decorating and arranging as well, but you don’t really want to mess with Russian women and their kitchens. As much as I offered to help, I knew that 9 times out of 10 I would be more helpful sitting in front of the TV than attempting to assist the chefs.

The party was a big success, though. Imagine about 8 different salads split between two dishes each…so that’s 16 bowls of salad. Then a huge plate of pastries. Four plates with different kinds of fish, fried chicken, and slices sausages. Two huge plates of fruit. Goose. And at least four dishes of the jello-meat. Then the New Years’ cake, made by my host mom, practically a professional baker. Then there were about 15 different sized jars of preserved cucumbers, cabbage, mushrooms, olives and who knows what else. I’m sure I’m forgetting some things, but you can look at the table and guess at the rest. There were twelve of us there that night; six of us returned the next night to eat; then we brought the rest of the left-overs home and ate it over the course of 3 or 4 days.

It was about 3 or 4 days after new years that my stomach finally said, “Jen, what the heck are you doing? You’re killing me here.” I decided to finish off my stay there eating only two small meals a day and avoiding sweets altogether. Oh wait, that only lasted for about two days. Then we had to get ready to celebrate Christmas. Grr. How was I supposed to say ‘no’ to Ira’s gorgeous ‘izba’ cake? (It was basically 10 long pastries stuffed with cherries stacked on top of each other to look like logs and then coated with a cream icing to hold it all together. ‘Izba’ is the name for a Russian peasant log house.) Yeah, my track record with diets is about 0-8973. Oh well. When in Rome…

Besides asking myself “to eat, or not to eat” during the second week there, I basically sat in front of the TV and vegged. One day I rolled into bed realizing that I had watched about 10 straight hours of TV, and that wasn’t counting the two and a half hours spent in the movie theater that morning. Can you believe it? I can’t. The last time I was that sedentary was probably two summers ago when I got the flue…actually, I probably moved more then—making an effort to reach for a tissue. I’m not complaining, though. I think (all in all) that I really needed that. Firstly because I was exhausted from the Moscow race (even though I do love that city very much). Second of all because I needed to be absolutely ready for Prague.

Greetings family, friends, and other faithful blog readers! After over a month of absence, I’ve finally made it back online. As you might guess, quite a bit has happened since my last, relaxing morning in an internet café off Nevskyy Prospect. As I’m not one for saying things short, sweet, and to the point, I’ve added 3 “catch-up” entries. So you can read them as time allows, as I don’t expect to get another entry up for two weeks or so. If you’re planning on doing it all in one sitting, go get a Coke and some popcorn, or cocoa and cookies; sit back, relax, and attempt to enjoy my experiences in St. Pete and Prague.

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