Sat 4 Feb 2006
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
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.