I’ve been traveling but really don’t want to rub it in too much for all you working/studying-stiffs in the US or to my Turkish colleagues that don’t get a winter break and have to go into the office even without classes. I’m very blessed to get to travel. So I’ve spent some time in central Europe and wanted to share some of my experiences.
1. Go to Poland, “Stay Forever, Then Leave”
It does not seem to matter where you go or quite what you do, everyone loves Poland, even mid-winter. When I was in Berlin, I asked at my hostel what was the cheapest way to go to Poland, the guy working there was from Poland and proceeded to plan out buses and trains to cover 6 days around Poland. He said the cheapest way was through a city named Poznan. Very specifically he told me to only spend one night in Poznan and then head to the next city.
The next morning I took the Polski bus (that kindly waited several minutes for me, since you can only book online). Once in Poznan, I ended up entirely lost. I met several old women who would very kindly chatter at me in Polish about how far away I was from where I wanted to go. But even wandering around with my pack was great in Poland. I ended up walking into a hotel/squash court where the receptionist and I struggled to understand each other but she was intensely kind and helpful. She ended up calling me a cab as I dripped dark, muddy snow on her perfectly white floor.
I showed up by cab to a beautiful Old Town, pedestrian streets and the Frolic Goats hostel (named after two goats that escaped being slaughtered to frolic in the town hall) as it was starting to get dark. I checked in, met the three Asians in my room (how does that happen?…in Poland) and went out to dinner with the one from Taiwan. The next morning I wanted to see the city and broke the Berlin rule and asked to stay another night. The guy at the Frolic Goats said, “sure you can stay, you’re going somewhere else in Poland, right?”
The day was great, Poles seem to have no love of Poznan, but every foreigner I met loved the little place. When I checked out the same guy said, “Finally.” My day was highlighted by acting like I knew what I was doing and walking past security into the middle of a movie set. It was the filming of a historic scene of ice skating on a frozen lake in front of a beautiful church with quite the number of guys on horses.
I went to Warsaw after that and stayed in my favorite hostel of all time, the Oki Doki, where Serbian Bojan is the spirit of the place. My room had 10 foot ceilings and was covered in newspaper with a type writer set on the desk. Bojan took a group out to see the Jewish parts of the city (i.e. the out of the way parts of the ghetto wall that still stand from WWII). The Oki Doki also held a hot chocolate outing, pub quiz, and free spaghetti night while I was there. Full marks.
The old town of Warsaw has been spectacularly rebuilt since World War II. And Christmas was still here! I went to the Museum of Caricature. I also ended up at a fortress/prison that had an intensely interesting set of exhibits about Soviet era re-locating of people including the sending of Poles to the -stans and the pictures to prove it. That place was creepy though since I doubt a thing has been changed since it was a prison.
Poland’s got to be the friendliest, least assuming, humble country ever. They’re awesome because they have no clue that they’re awesome. And I still need to go back to see Krakow because it’s supposed to be the best part. I managed to meet up with the guy from Taiwan I met in Poznan again in Warsaw. His advice, “Go to Krakow, stay forever, then leave.”
2. Attend An Opera in Budapest
The Budapest Opera House looks like it belongs in a movie about the 19th century. It’s regal with stacked opera boxes. It costs $10 to tour the place mid-day, but through a little careful price checking, it only costs $2.50 to go to an opera. You get bad seats, but it’s actually a lot more fun than I thought it would be. Dresden and I went and saw the Flying Dutchman. In German. With Hungarian subtitles. So it took a little patience. But it was a modernist take with hilarious t-shirts (all the sailors and women had their love’s face printed on their shirt) and glow-in-the-dark boots. Both seeing the opera house and hearing the orchestra were independently worth the price of admission.
3. Operate an Air Raid Siren from World War II (Hospital in the Rock) – Budapest, Hungary
Budapest is actually the connection of two cities separated by a river. 1. Buda atop a hill with a crazy-historied castle and old town. 2. Pest with its culture and more vibrant atmosphere. Beneath Buda is a series of caves that were transformed into a bunker-hospital during WWII. During the Cold War it was then turned into a nuclear bomb shelter, complete with top-secret refilling of the gas tanks (a “water flowering truck”). I toured the “Hospital in the Rock” and during the tour they take you everywhere. Near the end of it they explained the air raid sirens that punctuated Budapest’s life during World War II and the year long siege of the city, then occupied by Nazis, by the USSR. As an exhibit they show you two leftover hand operated air raid sirens. But instead of the normal, “Don’t Touch” signs, the tour guide asked, “Do you want to try?” Heck yes.
Fun fact: Sugár in Hungarian means radiation.
3. Swim in a Thermal Lake (Lake Heviz, Hungary)
Three hours outside of Budapest is a Hungarian resort town that few non-German or non-Hungarian speakers every make it to. It’s an entire thermal lake with a resort in the center. The lake itself is just barely warm enough to swim in…with snow around the outside. There’s a resort in the center of the lake that has indoor pools and Soviet style water message (six water jets at different levels that a tone tells you when to shift between). The water itself is supposed to treat Rheumatism along with a host of other illnesses, so the clientele is older. When Dresden and I checked into the resort (for the “steep” price of $9 for 3 hours), “student” was a very unusual confusing word. Partly the lack of young people, partly the near absence of English speakers. However, since the water is seen as medical treatment, there are a ridiculous number of very proper Hungarian old women, wearing make-up and ridiculous floaties or water wings, and wearing them very seriously.
4. Attend Mass in Prague
After wandering around old town, seeing Lennon’s Wall and John Hus’ church (a guy who tried to Reform the Catholic Church a hundred and fifty years before the Reformation), I wandered into the back streets and a small cathedral. As I sat there I heard an organ playing in a small chapel connected to the main cathedral. A third of the population of the Czech Republic is Atheist but the Catholic church I wandered into at 11am was alive, spirited, with a good mix of young and old. The organ was being played by a lively, 60-something man with one leg that was not at full capacity. The singing was being led by a joyous older woman with a strong voice and a commanding helpfulness. She found me a place in the Czech hymnal, not that having the words to Czech songs really helps me sing them… Such life and spirit in that chapel.
5. Visit Dresden with Dresden
While traveling with Dresden, we made both of our first trips to the town of Dresden. As an Elizabeth I’m use to my name being pretty common, especially amongst European cities. Most cities give me a street, maybe a square, Budapest even gave me a pretty ugly bridge. But seeing your name ever.y.where was a fun phenomenon to witness. Dresden, the city, is famous for the allies fire-bombing it during World War II. But the old city has made a comeback, the biggest cathedral is still getting its finishing touches. There’s also a cool artsy part of the city with a building whose gutters make music when it rains (first place I’ve traveled where I wish it would rain). There’s also a huge war history museum north of the main part of the city that fascinated both Dresden and I. It’s one of the few museums I’ve been in where it’s closed and I haven’t wanted to leave because I’m learning an intense amount. I got to re-ignite the IB love for Bismarck and learn about war and language. There was an interesting thread that ran through everything about World War II, this concept that WWI wasn’t lost militarily and that over-confidence by the Germans led to World War II. Strong dose of guilt.
6. Stop By the Bone Chapel in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
A chandelier that includes one of each bone in the human body. The bones of at least 40,000 people. Human bones making the Schwarzenberg coat of arms. The wood-carver’s signature in bones, the one who “organized” it all. It was also just above freezing in the chapel and Erzurum cold outside. Enough said.
7. Play Around at the Music House in Vienna
I went back to Vienna, I really love that city. Every street is so pretty. And the Schonbrunn Palace gardens are just as gorgeous covered in snow as when they’re covered in flowers. This was my first time to go to the Music House in Vienna though and it’s perhaps my favorite museum of all time. A four-floor, multimedia extravaganza that teaches you about everything from how you hear to letting you mix and distort 6 out of 100’s of sounds at a time. I also got to conduct a version of the Viennese Philharmonic that actually kicks you out if you’re bad. It also told the real stories of people I think of as stodgy composers, but perhaps that’s just cause I learned about them in Elementary school. They’ve also got a program that uses Mozart’s Name Game algorithm to instantly make a song out of your name. The whole place is pretty sweet.
Alright friends, that’s what I’ve got. For those of you hungar(y)-ing after posts that counts as 7 blogs, right?