Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spring Brings Visitors

Hungarian for the day: Van tavasz, bossznak a madárok! "Spring is here, the birds are...." well they're having their fun.

This year the Easter Bunny brought me two visitors, which was pretty much the best Easter present I could hope for. Early the Saturday before Easter I found myself on train from Budapest to Prague where I was to meet Alina and Josh, who had just arrived that afternoon from the States. After meeting in the crowded Old Town Square we went back to our rented flat so I could drop off my stuff before setting out to get started on our sightseeing. I stayed in Prague with them from Saturday until early the next Tuesday morning and we filled our time there with the traditional Prague sightseeing type activities: walking through the historic streets, taking in the beautiful architecture, and sampling a bit of the city's high culture and more than a bit of its world-famous beer.

Josh and Alina smile for the camera with Prague's Castle Hill in the background across the Vltava River.

Easter morning we started our sightseeing with a walk around Prague's Jewish Quarter. Prague was taken early by the Nazi's and Hitler's plan was to leave only a few of the city's Jewish holy places standing. These last standing buildings would act as his "Museum of an extinct race."

Seeking some more lighthearted fun we crossed the famous Charles Bridge and hiked up to the top of Castle Hill. Here Alina pauses for a photo shoot of what is probably a much better picture than this. The thing is, it being my third time in Prague and Josh being the devoted photographer that he is (complete with high-tech camera, stick to anything tri-pod, and swanky photo editing software), I was a real slacker about tacking pictures. I'm sure Josh and Alina will be sending me their photos soon *hint*

Looking up towards the Castle from Charles Bridge. This complex of buildings has been the nerve center of Czech political live since the 9th century and has been the home to the kings of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire, and the leaders of Czechoslovokia and the modern Czech Republic. It's also a good place to get defenestrated.

St Vitus Cathedral, located at the heart of the castle complex, dates back to 1344.

Eventually we found ourselves near one of my very favorite sites in Prague, the Mucha Museum. Alphonse Mucha is perhaps the Czech nation's most famous artist. He was a pioneer of the Art Nouveau movement and used his art as a tool to bring attention to the oppression of the Czechs and other Slavs under the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

After the art we went to Prague's Museum of Communism, hilariously situated above a McDonald's and next to a casino. That bit of dark humor set the tone for the museum, which did a remarkable job of conveying the devastating effects of the Communist era while keeping a humorous tone. The gift shop sold faux propaganda postcards with clever slogans like "You couldn't buy detergent but you could get your brain washed!" "It was a time of happy, shiny people - the shiniest being in the uranium mines!" and "The Communist women would have burned their bras too if there had been any in the stores." I bought one with a picture of the infamous kiss between Soviet Premier Brezhnev and the leader of East Germany Honecker's famous French kiss that read "If he slipped you tongue you really knew you were going places."

Prague's famous Old Town Hall Clock, one of the world's most celebrated astronomical clocks, is said by local legend to be tied to the city's well-being. Apparently if the clock is neglected the city will suffer great misfortune.

Langos! After a night of sampling Prague's fine beers we did a bit of sleeping in before making our way to Old Town Square and purchasing what may be the universe's best hangover food. Langos is a Hungarian food that has become popular in all of Hungary's neighbors, probably because of its inherent health benefits. It's deep fried dough slathered with your choice of toppings. My favorite combination, a huge amount of garlic topped with sour cream and cheese, is the standard in Hungary. Josh's face says it all, it's seriously good.

The Old Town Square was packed with festival tents and decorations for the Easter Holiday. Easter is celebrated similarly in Eastern and Central Europe as it is in America with a few extra traditions. In Hungary boys go from house to house spraying girls' hair with perfume in exchange for money, colored eggs, and sweets. In the Czech Republic the ritual is a little less enjoyable for the ladies, they get whipped and are expected to give gifts. Apparently these traditions date back to pagan fertility rituals.

We spent all afternoon that day in the theater. We got relatively cheap and yet very good seats to see Swan Lake. Having studied in Russia I saw this play a few times, and I am happy to report that this performance was up to muster. Indeed the main ballerina was perhaps the most convincing swan lady I've ever seen. Above Al, who was also on our trip, tries to get closer to some of the pretty ladies decorating the opulent theater. Check out his blog soon as I'm sure Alina will be updating with his time here in Europe.

After our afternoon at the theater we used the rest of the day's light to cross the river and climb up a hill for the views. Here the castle overlooks the rest of the "City of 100 spires." We were also searching for Prague's museum to history's greatest Czech citizen, a fictional character with the befitting Eastern European dark humor who was said to have remarked "I'm such an atheist I'm terrified of what God will do to me." Unfortunately the museum was closed but Alina and Josh did make it after I left Prague and they reported that it was awesome.

After a very nice stay in Prague I had to get up early on Tuesday morning to temporarily part from my friends and go back to work. They spent another day in Prague before heading to Vienna to spend a few days sightseeing while I was back in Szentes teaching. On my way back to Szentes from Prague I had an afternoon-long wait between trains in Bratislava and I took the opportunity to walk around. I can't say I really know anything about the city but I did take a few pictures of the quaint little city as winter's last little bit of snow fell:

The castle overlooking Bratislava is much like Bratislava itself - cute and modest.

I grabbed a quick lunch in a little cafe and when I came out winter was attempting one final snowstorm.

After a few days apart as I taught my little angels and Alina and Josh took in Vienna, we met up again on Friday night in Budapest. It was pretty late when we arrived in Budapest so we really just found our couchsurfers and went to get some dinner. Our couchsurfers were a group of Californian students spending a year abroad studying in Budapest. It was really cool to meet them and I'm sure I'll be seeing more of them in the future. That night we grabbed food at a kebab place and then climbed the Castle Hill for Alina and Josh's first tastes of palinka and stunning views that I did not catch because I forgot to bring my camera. Refer to previous posts.

I took two of my personal days (that I didn't even know I was entitled too...) to have a long weekend in Budapest to show Josh and Alina my favorite city. We spent the days busily sightseeing and generally hung out with the Californians by night. One of the strange highlights of the trip was a huge potluck dinner that Saturday night at one of the other kids in the Californians' study abroad group. It turned out to be a huge party of mainly Americans, on top of that I ran into another SOL volunteer on the streets and invited her along with us to the party. It was the first time I'd been around more than two Americans at a time since August and now I get what people say about us: we are loud. Along with that, however, is that we are exceptionally open. It was a nice time and after so much Hungarian distance it was reassuring to meet somebody and get warm vibes instantly over and over again all night. Some other Budapest highlights include:

A photo exhibit in Freedom Square called "100 faces of Transylvania." Transylvania, part of Romania since after the First World War, was part of Hungary for hundreds of years and is indeed in many ways the Hungarian heartland (or was). Today many ethnic Hungarians still live there and this exhibition focused on the dynamic ethnic mix and beautiful scenery of Transylvania. This just strengthened my resolve to get down there sooner than later.

Also new for me was the Museum of Ethnography, housed in a stunning building near Parliament:

One of the museums many musical instruments, this one apparently typical of the area around Szentes.

After a few days of hard sightseeing, my weary travelers took a map in resplendently beautiful springtime Margaret Island and decided to go home Monday night instead of Tuesday.

The island park is certainly one of Budapest's coolest features.

After covering so much ground so quickly Alina and Josh were pretty worn out, as was I. We spent all day Tuesday relaxing and taking the Arrested Development challenge. Devotees may remember that Alina and I took a Waffle House challenge during our roadtrip (stopping at every Waffle House and eating a waffle each on a day long drive through South and North Carolina...we almost died). Why we always end of doing this sort of thing I cannot understand. We did, however, manage to succeed in the Arrested Development challenge, finishing every episode of the show and even surviving an Arrested Development drinking game. Score!

Wednesday I went off to face my most difficult day of the week - 7 classes and no breaks - while the travelers relaxed a bit more. That evening we walked around for a few hours, had dinner in my favorite restaurant in Szentes, and met my friend Kalman (once English private student but now partner in English-Hungarian language exchange) to bowl. I had never been to the bowling alley in Szentes before but it was actually really nice, though small. Of course I didn't have my camera on me (theme of the post) but suffice to say it was a very done-up cosmic bowling theme in the basement of Chicago, Szentes' American-themed restaurant/bar. For the next two days I brought Alina and Josh in to school with me. It was a big success and my students really enjoyed meeting them and were surprisingly brave with the strangers. Alina and I have a penpal arrangement going on between two of our classes so some of the classes they visited were spent helping the students write responses to letters Alina brought over from her class.

Alina works with some of my ninth grade students respond to pen pal letters from her students.

After school on Friday we caught a bus to a neighboring town to spend the day with my colleague Kata and her family. We met Kata and she treated us to a very traditional Hungarian lunch (fried meat for Josh and I as Alina, the vegetarian, once again endured vegetables from out of the freezer and fried cheese). After lunch we went to the little museum of communism in the town. This is a unique little museum, cousin of the much bigger House of Terror in Budapest, that documents how communism affected a small town and its denizens. Kata helped us enjoy it as nothing was in English, and I think we all took something away from it.

The museum included an exhibit dedicated to one of my favorite art forms: Socialist Realism!!

After the museum we went with Kata to pick her kids up from daycare and then spent the day with them at the playground and then back at her house. They are cute kids who always call me "Bacsi" which means Uncle. It's pretty helpful for me to be around them as far as language skills go (they are roughly at my level). It's also just fun to be around creatures with so much energy.

Kata's son displays the most serious little face I've ever seen on a three year old as he expertly pilots his jeep around the yard.

That evening we returned to Szentes and went to Taylor's for a night of hanging out. The next day we were up early for a day in Szeged before heading back up to Budapest to stay with the Californians so that Alina and Josh could get a very early ride to the airport and then back to Virginia. Their visit was great fun and indeed after their departure life in Szentes seemed a little more drab than usual. At least it's beautiful springtime with summer break approaching more and more quickly. I hope you're all enjoying the season. Sziasztok!