Friday, September 9, 2011

And the World Keeps on Turning

No matter what happens the world just keeps spinning. Like the changing seasons in the weather or the changing seasons of life you can be rest assured that whatever period of life you are going through in this moment will probably re-circulate in one fashion or another. I still haven't decided if this is a good thing or a bad thing because, like hair, time never seems to do what you want it to do. When you are at work, the DMV, or watching the last 35 seconds of a close football game, time seems to stand still, but the moment you are hanging out with good friends, swimming in the Meditteranean, or reading a good book, time seems to just slip through your fingers. What is interesting is that regardless of your perception of the speed of time, it is, in fact, a constant rate. One thing you can be sure about time is that it keeps going...and going...and going...but unlike the energizer battery it actually doesn't ever actually run out - even after you are gone.

I.A. "Grandy" Butler

On Wednesday afternoon I recieved the news that my grandfather had passed away. It came as no real surprise since, for the past 15 years my parents have noted before every major holiday "this could be his last". However, despite all of these warnings, Grandy, as he is known in my family, kept chugging away. At the ripe age of 100 years old the man seemed like he was going to outlive us all.

Most grandparents hold a specific role in a family - they are the givers of wisdom, the spoilers who sneak you chocolate for breakfast, the horrible gift givers that make you think to youself "how on earth am I going to write a thank you letter for this?", or the just plain crazy, confused, immobile, deaf elderly you happen to be related to. Regardless, they are family who played a vital role in your existance whom you should be forever grateful.

I am not only greatful for my grandfather's role in my life but I am blessed beyond measure by the relationship I was fortunate enough to have with him. Unlike most grandparents who come around once or twice a year around the holidays, my grandparents lived in the house directly behind my childhood home. So over the 25 1/4 years of my life I had close and personal relationships with my grandparents and I have shared many countless memories with them. Grandy was different than most grandfathers. He was no ordinary grandfather. He was an extra-ordinary grandfather who had a fascenating life.

My grandfather was born and raised on a Kentucky farm in 1910. After experiencing life on a farm through the dust bowl and Great Depression, Grandy was one of the most frugile people I have ever met in my life. Despite his unfortunate hording tendencies he actually invented quite useful gadgets from ordinary objects. To this day I have no idea how, by using a tuna can, wood rod, string, and a couple other pieces of junk, and an old can opener he invented a lightblub changer for the chandelier at his church. The way his brain solved problems was...something else. If you are ever so fortunate enough to visit my parent's house you will notice quite quickly and probably by surprise that all of the furniture in the kitchen is on wheels. Yep, even the dining table. "Why?" you ask? Because it prevents the wood floor from getting scratched, of course. I have to admit that a dining table that will shoot across the room with the slightest touch is exceedingly inconvenient, however, challenging my grandfather's ideas always proved to be even more inconvenient.

When I was a kid Grandy would do the coolest things for us grandkids. Before I was born he had build a cabin in Nederland, about 40 minutes west of Boulder in the mountains. Situated right beside Boulder Creek, the cabin had a wonderful hill...perfect for sledding in the wintertime. Often we would spend Christmas at the cabin with the family, aunts, uncles, and cousins included. For the weeks leading up to our arrival Grandy would go up to the cabin to get things prepared - which always included a state of the art luge run that wrapped around the wood shed and down the steep hill stopping just before the creek (which was always frozen). He would build up banked turns by watering down the snow and basically creating an ice track for the sleds. But with any construction process like this one it needed to be tested before the kids he would send down my 70 year old grandmother to test the run. Wherever my grandmother would spill out over the edges would be where my grandfather would make repairs and reinforcements. Needless to say, his (and her) dedication was to an extreme.

Grandy also is the second oldest man in the world to complete a marathon. A month before his 93rd birthday my grandfather walked 26.2 miles of the streets of Denver. He got special permission from the race authorities and began his walk at 2:00 in the morning so he would have plenty of time to complete the race before the streets were opened for regular traffic. Reporters had gotten wind of the story as my grandfather was training and even put him in the news. After the race was finished he had dozons of people coming up to him, congratulating him, and telling him how he was the inspiration for why they decided to run the race. While his athletic adventure has yet to inspire me into action maybe now that he is gone I will actually pick up running. Maybe. (Just being honest).

As I mentioned, Grandy lived to be 100 years old. With great age comes great wisdom, and with great wisdom comes unscensored blatant honest opinions...even when unsolicited. Take, for example, the time in 2005 when I introduced my grandfather to my new boyfriend, whom I was very excited about at the time. After hearing that John Doe was extremely outdoorsy, athletic, and loved climbing mountains, Grandy got a splendid idea in his head - Mr. Doe should meet my cousin, Anya. Of course John would have to "abandon present company" but as Rebecca is "opposed to altitude" her cousin Anya would prove to be a more suitable fit for his interests (oh, you bet I remember those direct quotes). I was relieved to hear that my boyfriend felt confident in his choice to stick with with me, but nonetheless I called my mom in tears when I got home. However un-funny it was at the time, six years of healing and the fact that John Doe is now married to a granola bar makes the story one for the memories.

Along with his strong opinions about things came strong advice about things. You couldn't have a decently long conversation with the man without getting lectured on drinking 8 glasses of water a day. He always had crazy ideas about how to stay healthy (which, when you live to be 100, gives you the right to broadcast any habits that lead to a seemingly invincible lifestyle). Unfortunately, his well intentioned advice was also supplimented with a ridiculous approach of completing these things. For example, Grandy thought that my mom needed to exercise more at home (not knowing that my mom is actually extremely fit from her morning jaunts around the neighborhood). To my mom's utter astonishment my grandfather had found a fantastic stairstepper that he thought should go right out on my parent's balcony. No doubt he found the stairstepper on the side of the road after being discarded for various unknown malfunctions. It took my mom weeks to persuade the exercise equipmement from taking place on her property. Another story involves my grandfather for years lecturing us grandkids about the harmful rays of the sun and how we should always wear sunscreen to prevent skin damage. Last summer he read an article, probably in Reader's Digest no doubt, about the benefits of Vitamin D for absorbing calcium and how the sun is a leading source for the D. My mother was shocked to find my grandfather in his backyard (not a private back yard by any means), sunbathing in his skivies! It took a couple harsh conversations about the appropriate sunbathing attire for public view before Grandy abandoned the venture alltogether.

I have to say that out of all the people I have known in the world, my grandfather lived his last years to the fullest. He loved traveling and after my grandmother's death in 2008 he wasted no time at all and began traveling the world again. On his 98th birthday he swam with dolphins - in the Virgin Islands. His 99th birthday he spent building a self-sustaining farm in Nicaragua with my aunt and uncle. On his 100th birthday he was at home in Boulder, Colorado and then shortly after packed his bags and took a week long road trip (for the third time) to Nicaragua again before returning to Boulder three months later. If you don't believe me (or even if you do), check out this video:

While these are all funny stories and anecdotes that give a glimpse into the life of my grandfather, no words will ever describe what he means to me or the impact that he has had on my life. The world might keep turning and my grief will subside, but there will not be a day that goes by that I will not do something that reminds me of him. I will miss him greatly and love him always.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

When in Rome

When in Rome:

1. Take Sarah Lembke
2. Throw three coins in the Trevi Fountain
3. Ladies - Wear a dress. Every day.
4. Get a tour to skip the lines at the Colosseum and the Vatican
5. Do the Spanish Steps Pub Crawl

Two weeks ago Sarah Lembke, my new bff, and I hitched a plane to Rome, Italy. When we arrived we had no plans, no reservations, and most importantly no children to look after. It was the perfect way to end my au pair year. Sarah was a good sport with my travel style so when we got to Rome we had to find somewhere to stay. Once we found a place (I highly recomment Hostel Beautiful to anyone who wants to travel to Rome) we freshened up, put on our cute dresses, and started to adventure Rome.

What is great about Rome is that the sites are relatively close in relation to one another making it easy just to walk around. No matter where you look you see something that is thousands of years old which almost forces you to throw your plans out the window and just see where the city takes you. Sarah and I just had a map from the information desk and an idea of what we wanted to see but once we started walking we ended up on getting side tracked at just about every corner. On the way to the Trevi Fountain, for example, we stopped for lunch, ended up stumbling onto rubbles from ancient Rome, and then wound up in front of the Colosseum.

The Colosseum

Ancient Rome

By the time we finally got to the Trevi Fountain it was already dark. As it was a highly touristic area we had a great time wandering the streets, popping into various stores (looking for shoes of course), and people watching.

The Trevi Fountain

Sarah found an artist painting on the side of the street so we stopped to watch and admire his work. In Rome it is difficult to find any artists or souvenirs that are authentic, but after talking to the artist for about 30 minutes about his life as an artist in Rome, we knew without a doubt that his artwork was original. For the past 12 years Piazza Steffano had painted on that street corner while watching coppiers and scammers rip off tourists right across the street. He said that original painters are hard to come across in Rome nowdays since foreigners selling copies and replicas for much cheaper have become more and more common. We watched Piazza paint a picture of the Colosseum from memory since he was born and raised in Rome (he even had the papers to prove it) and had painted it thousands of times before. Sarah picked out the most beautiful of his watercolors, and for a mere 30 Euros has not only a gorgeous souvenir, but a memory of a conversation with a nice old Roman painter.

After purchasing the art, Sarah and I kept wandering the streets, taking pictures, until we yet again, accidentally stumbled upon another Roman treasure: the Pantheon. Even though the building was built over 2,000 years ago the it still stands today with the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. They say that the Pantheon is such a masterpiece that the structual engineering inspires people to become architechts. As an interior designer I was amazed to see the raw construction methods that are visible due to the fact that the marble was all stripped off for the construction of the Vatican.

When Sarah and I finally made it back to the hostel we were disappointed to find that someone else had reserved a bed in our room. As there is only one key per room, whoever is first in the room is the keeper of the key. We were told that "Roger" was already in the room and that he would let us in. We went upstairs to sleep for the night...only Roger wouldn't open the locked door to our room. After knocking, pounding, asking, then near yelling for entrance to our room, a foggy eyed, annoyed guy finally came to the door. We apologized for waking him up and went inside. Then we realized that the room and bathroom were trashed and there were two people crammed sleeping in the same twin-sized bed together. The next night they went to bed at 8pm. I always find it interesting the people you meet while traveling and they were the strangest roommates I have ever had in a hostel.

The next morning Sarah and I slept in a bit (it is vacation after all) and didn't have anything to do until 1pm when I had scheduled my tour of the Vatican and St. Peter's Bascilica. We decided that instead of walking all the way to the Vatican that we would take a try at the public transportation. I would like to welcome you to the good new/bad news portion of the blog. Line 64 is the bus that runs from the main train station to the Vatican and is known for pickpocketing. The good news is that I did not get pickpocketed. The bad news is that the bus was so crowded people could barely move and the old salt and pepper haired man standing behind got arroused and decided to take advantage of the situation and pleasure himself on me. I have to admit that it took me a minute to realize since I was being bumped and jabbed by everyone else standing around me. It wasn't until the woman sitting by me told me what was going on that I realized what it was that was jabbing me from behind. Luckily I was able to snag the next available seat and notified all other women standing around the man of the situation until the man was embarassed enough to just get off the bus. After being defiled, we finally made it to the Vatican.

I seriously cannot describe the Vatican. All I can say is that I am super glad I took a tour but I would like to go again without a tour so I could spend time on the things I really enjoyed and skip over other things I did not find as interesting. My advice is that if you have never been before - do the tour. It is beyond worth it! Even though pictures never do justice, here is a teaser to get you interested enough to put this on you list of things to do before you die:

St. Peter's Bascilica

After walking around the Vatican and St. Peter's Bascilica all day our feet were about to fall off and our stomachs were growling louder than the crowds were talking. We decided to head home to freshen up and then go back to the Trevi Fountain area for dinner. Of course on the way we stopped for Gilatto and threw a few coins in the fountain. Sarah has hopes of falling in love, while I went all in with hopes of getting married. Then we picked our restaurant based on the prices...and cute waiters and after sharing two pastas and a bottle of wine we felt up for adventure. The next thing we knew, we found ourselves at a bar immediately making friends with the bar tenders, getting free shots and discounted drinks. After one too many and making a couple priceless videos we went back to the hostel to catch some Z's before the next day.

1 Coin: Return to Rome / 2 Coins: Fall in Love / 3 Coins: Get Married

On Sunday morning we slept in since we had no set plans of what we wanted to do. We decided to go to the Colosseum and while looking for a reasonable tour to go on we took a short photo op with the Gladiator men standing outside. While I thought 5 Euro was a bit steep, I have to say that the pictures and memories were 100% worth it. Eventually we ended up booking a tour that included skipping the line and an extended tour of the Ancient Roman Ruins. I have to say that even though we got a great discount on the tour (only 25 Euro), we unfortunately got stuck with a large group and guide that was difficult to understand (the risk you take I suppose). Regardless we got to see the Colosseum, which was pretty spectacular and made us want to go home and watch Gladiator.

Sarah's Gladiator Moment

After spending a couple hours in the Colosseum we had mustered up quite the appetite for some lunch so instead of catching the tour of the ruins directly after the tour of the Colosseum we decided to take a lunch break. After replenishing our nutrients we headed back to the entrance of the gardens to discover that the next tour had left without us. While frantically wondering what we were going to do we were approached by a couple of very attractive english speaking boys promoting the Spanish Steps Bar Crawl. We got the flyer and then resumed our search of how to get into the gardens, as our departed tour guide had our tickets. Luckily we came across a couple nice guides from another tour company that said we could tag along to their tour. And off we went.

Ancient Rome

The tour of the gardens was quite amazing and am still having a hard time wrapping my head around the empire that Rome once was. I was also saddend to hear that one of the reasons the ruins look so crumbled and destroyed today is because all of the marble siding and statues that once decorated the area was all pinched to build the Vatican, ensuring that the Vatican would be as wealthy as it is today (a little too scheisty if you ask me).

By this point Sarah and I were practically limping from doing nothing but walking for the previous three days, but still had enough energy to make the best of our time in Rome, which meant only one thing - We were going to the Bar Crawl. Quickly we headed home, showered, changed clothes, and caught the metro to the Spanish Steps to meet fellow crawlers. For 25 Euro we got unlimited free drinks until 10pm, a free game of beer pong (in which we named our team the Pro Fessionals), and discounted drinks and two free shots at the next two bars. You can only imagine what happened...We made a lot of new friends!

The next morning was quite a doozey. We slept in (for somewhat obvious reasons) but had to wake up to catch our flight back to Switzerland. We took a bus to the airport...only to realize that we had 5 minutes before the gate closed for our flight. Honestly, I don't think I have ever run so fast in my life. Sarah and I managed to run to another terminal, go to the check-in desk, through security, and to our gate (which happened to be on the far end of the terminal) in 5 minutes. I have no idea how many people we mowed down on the way, but we made our flight just barely. I swear never to repeat that kind of addrenaline rush again. Ever.

But Rome? Oh, I would definitely do Rome again.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Weekend I Bushwacked and Trespassed France

German, French, and Swiss Flags
A couple weekends ago I set out on another lone weekend adventure on a mission to see the Vitra Design Museum, one of the leading interior design companies in the world. Famous for their flawless construction of classic modern chairs, the designs of legends like Charles and Ray Eames and Mies van der Rohe are displayed,  honored, and even built in buildings designed by famous architects such as Frank Gehry and Antonio Citterio at the Design Museum. For a design guru like me "paradise" would be an understatement. So off to Germany I went to have a design experience of a lifetime. Check out the slideshow of the museum!

I have to admit that after I walked through the design museum and into the gift shop I was like a kid at the candy store. I bought a coffee table book for someday when I am lucky enough to have a coffee table, a keychain, a pair of shoes, and a model of the Panton Chair, my favorite of all classic chairs. I may have spent about 150 Euro on it all, but I think everything was beyond worth it. And for the record, those shoes are so comfortable!

The day after I went to the Vitra Design Museum I had another mission: walk from Switzerland to Germany to France and back to Switzerland. Not many people can say they have walked to three European countries in a day, but luckily for me Basel is a city that is right on the border of Switzerland, Germany and France so it was all possible. The whole journey would have taken about two hours...if it weren't for the fact that I am prone to mistakes and "whoops" moments along the way. This journey was no different.

Walking to Germany was no hassle. It took about 15 minutes and along the way I was able to make a short video greeting while in all three countries at once:

(I apologize that you can't actually see the flags and that I lie about not telling you exactly where I am because that is exactly what I am doing. The next time I make a video I promise to be more accurate.)

After making the video I crossed over into Germany and as it began to rain I decided there was no better use of my time than to go into a local bar and have some German beer. Once the rain stopped I resumed my mission and walked across the bridge into France.

For the next stage in my three country trek my thinking was that my best chance of making it back to Switzerland through France without getting lost was just to walk along the Rein river along the French border until I came to a bridge taking me back to Switzerland. Brilliant! ....Or so I thought.

In hindsight, maybe I should have done a little more research or looked closer at a map to plan my route, but that is just not my travel style. I figure that I am a start enough woman to just figure it out along the way. Well, this time my sense of adventure and lack of information actually got me into a dicey situation. The long the road I had been walking eventually had been reduced to this little path...and then into a giant dead end into a huge thorn bush. I was in flip flops so I couldn't really whack my way through the bush and I was already about a 45 minute walk down the coast of France and far to determined and stubborn to fail my mission. I was so close to the Swiss border I knew there had to be something I could do. I have wiggled out of difficult situations before, so why would this be any different?

So I crawled my way through a hole in a fence...

Into an oil yard.


The first clue that there had to be a way out through the fence was that the hole was already there, so it wasn't like I was the first person to have done this. With the evidence of blatent tresspassing on my hands I decided to tuck my hands in my pockets and walk around like I owned the place until I found my way back to quickly as possible...without getting arrested. Eventually I stumbled upon a security center and, with no other options or ideas of how to get myself out of my predicament, I poked my head inside and simply asked "Excuse me, how do I get back to Basel?" All three security guards just stared at me with confused expressions and in slow motion pointed in the direction where I should go. I smiled cheerily, thanked them, and then walked faster than I have ever walked in my life to get the heck outta France.

Once I was on Neutral land again I spent the rest of the day giggling to myself about how ridiculous my day had been and how I should never do something like that again. But I am definitely glad to have the memories!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Swiss Independence Day

Yesterday marked the 720th birthday of Switzerland. Whenever I bragged about the age of Switzerland (as if a country gets better with age like a fine wine), I always received the same two questions: What year did Switzerland declare independence and who did Switzerland become independent from? So let me take this opportunity to share a little fun facts about the birth of this grand country (and to set the story straight because I told some accidental lies yesterday).

First of all, if you can do simple subtraction, Switzerland became its own country in 1291. To be honest, after reading multiple Wikipedia sites, I am more confused as ever about the actual start of Switzerland. After the death of Rudolf I of Germany (but really he worked for the Romans) the three Cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden signed the Federal Charter of 1291 basically founding the Confederacy. Around this time comes the cool story. Some people claim that it is only a legend, but it is entertaining nonetheless.

Wilhelm Tell.

You may recognize the name from The William Tell Overature, the common horse racing tune we all know so well today. Well I bet you didn't know the guy was Swiss! So here it goes. Basically there was this horrible Austrian man named Gessler who had reign of the Cantons of Uri and Schwyz. He raised a poll in the middle of the Altdorf square, put his hat on top and made people bow before it. Wilhelm Tell, an expert marksman, wouldn't bow before it so Gessler had him arrested. As punishment Tell was forced to shoot an arrow at an apple placed on his own son's head otherwise both would be executed. If Tell successfully shot the apple off his son's head he was promised freedom. On November 18, 1307, Tell successfully shot the apple off his son's head with his crossbow. Gessler, who had noticed the Tell had taken two arrows out of his quiver (yep, googled that term), asked Tell why. Tell replied that if he had killed his son he was going to immediately kill Gessler. Clearly this angered Gessler who had Tell bound once again to be taken to the castle dungeon in Küssnacht (not the town I live in). On the way, a huge storm broke out on the Lake Luzern and the feared soldiers asked Tell to steer the boat, in which Tell took the opportunity to escape. He quickly swam ashore and as Gessler passed by on land to meet the boat, Tell assasinated him with his bow and arrow. His defiance sparked a revolution that led to the formation of the Old Swiss Confedaracy, which also included the Cantons of Glarus and Zug as well as the city states Zurich, Luzern, and Bern. Thus Switzerland is now Switzerland and we can all celebrate now.

(I hope my story was informative though I really don't understand how the Austrians and the Romans actually fit into this whole schindigg.)

Ever since I was a kid my family has celebrated Swiss Independence Day. Every year I get to celebrate a holiday that no one else I know celebrates, I get to set off fireworks (a luxury my mom won't agree upon on the 4th of July), eat delicious bratwurst, and for the following week I get to eat pie for breakfast. Great is an understatement. Over the course of the past 10 years after meeting a few more Swiss people and visiting the country a couple times, I have been told on numorous occasions that, from the sound of it, my family celebrates Swiss Independence better than Swiss people actually living in Switzerland do. I merely brushed it off thinking that these people were just being humble as always. So as the 1st of August 2011 neared and my opportunity to experience the holiday in its originiating country got closer and closer, my excitement grew exponentially. Maybe I set my expectations too high or maybe I should have actually believed the feedback, but I have to admit: My family does Swiss Independence Day better than Switzerland.

First of all, no one even knew what festivites there were other than scattered fireworks that evening. So with no plans during the day and the fact that I am known to be lazy on a day off, I didn't leave my bedroom until 6pm. Finally I got my act together and went into the city to meet up with some friends. I even went all the way to the other side of the lake to watch the fireworks, which was cool, but nothing out of the ordinary from your average firework show.

Saraya, Ayana, and Me

While I had an absolute delightful time wandering around Zürich with some of my favorite ladies, eating a delicious dinner (Kebob is FAR from Swiss, but sooo delicious), and watching fireworks on the lake, I can't help but feel a little homesick over missing the festivities back Boulder, Colorado. I wonder if I just miss the unusual-ness of being Swiss since it is my everyday life now, but somehow "being Swiss" just isn't the same without my family and you can see for yourself why:

Left: Dad, Second Cousin, Aunt

Mom, 100 Year Old Grandfather, Aunt

It seems as though I have learned that in life there are some things that just can't replace family. I love you all!
(Special thanks to my cousin, Anya, who provided these pictures)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Eleven Months and Counting...

It is amazing how much can happen in a year and how quickly the time passes. One year ago today I packed my car and left Los Angeles beginning my adventure of moving abroad. Eleven months ago I landed in Switzerland. Today, I am two weeks away from packing again to begin the path towards returning home. I feel confident about the choice to end this stage of my life but it is still bitter sweet.

While living with another family and working as an Au Pair has made living in Switzerland possible I cannot wait to return to working as an interior designer and having my independence back. But of course that also means that I won't be able to hop a mere 12 minute train ride to Zürich and venture the thousand year old streets. I can't hop on a train and find myself in Italy 3 hours later. I can't adventure Europe on a whim.

I have no idea what will happen when I return to Los Angeles in November (as I have no certain job yet) but I have certainty that the next three months are going to be some of the most exciting months of my life. As you may have noticed on the right sidebar I have added quite a few countdowns to various adventures that I am persuing over the next three months. Here is the official breakdown:

On August 11 my current Au Pair job is officially over. I pack my bags and move everything to my aunt's house across the lake...but not for long!

From August 12-15 I am Rome, Italy adventuring, touring the Vatican, hanging out with Michelangelo, and fighting with the Gladiators in the Colosseum.

On August 16 I move in with another family (neighbors of my current host family) to work as an Au Pair for them for two weeks.

On August 29 I meet up with a certain Michael (refer to December 2 blog about Starbucks. Turns out he is basically the coolest person I know) to go to Greece for a week! We are going to Athens for two days and then are headed to Santorini to do whatever we want until we fly back to Zürich on September 5.

From September 5-26 I will be living with my aunt in Adliswil while hopefully getting plenty of babysitting jobs to save up some money and hopefully travel to Paris.

On September 27 I hop on a plane bound for the USA. Fortunately, I was able to use frequent flyer miles to book my flight back to Denver. Unfortunately, I fly from Zürich to JFK to Columbus, Ohio to Chicago to Denver. Yeah...tackling the USA one hour flights at a time.

Once I am home in Boulder I have some time to relax...and by relax I mean pack all of my worldly belongings into Abby (my 2005 Honda Civic EX which is way better than a certain 2007 Honda Civic SI) and drive to Los Angeles on October 1-2. FINALLY I will be back at my permanent home...

But not really because three days later I fly to New Zealand on October 5 for three weeks to visit my sister and brother-in-law! I was lucky to purchase a ticket on Virgin Australia that actually gives me a 12 hour layover in Brisbane, Australia which is plenty of time to hang out and see the city for a day! I haven't seen my sister in almost two years and hanging out with her in Dunedin, helping her work on her new house, and making some small adventures around the south island is going to be beyond awesome. Besides, when I start working in the corporate world again I can kiss three week vacations goodbye forever (silly USA two week vacation allowances).

On October 28 I fly back to Los Angeles where I will remain indefinitely until an earthquake or God tells me otherwise.

Looking into the short future there are still a lot of unknowns, but I don't really need to worry about them because I know that God already has a plan for me (Jeremiah 29:11). Besides, I have enough on my plate for the next three months to keep me busy until then!

So cheers to the last year and the next three months because although I didn't actually live the lifestyle of the rich and famous it sure feels that way sometimes. :)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Czech Me Out - I went to Prague!

(I apologize for the tardiness)

Two weeks ago my parents arrived in Switzerland - just in time to hop a plane to Prague, Czech Republic. After living in Switzerland for 10 months (queue the gasps of astonishment) and traveling with a variety of types of people and sometimes even alone, it is interesting to see the differences in the ways certain people travel. For example, my host family makes spontaneous day trips but ultimately seeks relaxation with a splash of adventure here and there. When I travel alone I book a train ticket and figure all the rest out when I get there, including my accommodations. My parents, on the other hand, plan and research months in advance spending hours reading about the history and sites before even stepping out of their living room. When we got to Prague wherever we ventured my mother, tour guide in hand, was able to share some very interesting tidbits along the way. Unbeknownst to me Prague actually has a fascinating history so this blog will be a little more focused on what I learned about the things we saw than other travel blogs I have written in the past.

Prague from the Old Town Hall Tower
First, I would like to set the tone of the trip with a funny story about the immediate 5 minutes after getting off the plane in Prague. I have been looking to buy a new perfume for some time now and I finally got a great suggestion from a friend of a rare perfume that has gotten rave reviews. Well, being a rare perfume it is also an expensive perfume, so duty free was my best opportunity to hopefully find and purchase this new scent. I was beyond lucky to find a bottle in the duty free shop. Unfortunately, the currency of Czech Crona means nothing to me so I simply asked my dad what the exchange rate was. He said, "How much is it?" I told him, "1,659 Crona," to which he replied, "Great, now divide that by 13."

Thanks Dad, but if I could divide 1,659 by 13 in my head I would be an architect, not an interior designer.

Old Town Hall
Anyways, we arrived in Prague on a Wednesday morning and after the help of a nice Albanian man living in the area we found our way to the city center and then to our hotel. Prague is divided into four distinct quadrants: Old Town, New Town, The Little Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter. Seeing as we stayed in Old Town, we ventured there first. We stayed at Hotel Josef, which was a swanky mondern hotel about a five minute walk from Old Town Square.

Old Town Square is famous for lots of buildings but most known for the old astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall. Built in 1490, the clock does not show the time, but actually the supposed orbits of the sun and moon around the earth (idiots).

The next thing that we went to see was the Old Jewish Quarter. In the Middle Ages all of the Jews in Prague were confined to live in one enclosed ghetto of the city. In the 16th century all of the Jews were required to wear yellow circles as a mark of shame. It wasn't until 1850 that the area was officially incorporated as a part of Prague. Almost all of it was torn down for lack of sanitation reasons, but a few significant buildings were protected.

The Pinkas Synagogue is probably one of the most tragically moving buildings I have ever been inside. The synagogue serves as a memorial for the Jewish Czechoslovak citizens that were imprisioned in various concentration camps and later transported to Nazi extermination camps. The names of almost 80,000 people are alphabetically inscribed on the walls along with the date of birth and last known date that they were seen alive in Prague. Upstairs there was an exhibit of drawings made by the children at the Terezin concentration camp. (I respected the no photography rule in the synagogue so you should look at the pictures on google images. It is worth seeing.)

After wandering through the synagogue we made our way outside to the Jewish cemetary that was the only permitted burial ground for Jews for over 300 years. Because of the lack of space some of the people had to be burried on top of each other (sometimes 12 layers deep). Additionally, it has close to 12,000 gravestones crammed into the small yard. While walking through the gravestones it was hard not to notice the small coins, stones, candles, and folded up notes that people left on the gravestones as prayers for the lives lost during the holocaust and those burried in the graveyard.

We visited three other synagogues all housing the world's largest and most important collection of Jewish artifacts. After an afternoon filled with nothing but tragic Jewish history we stopped at a restaurant for a much needed beer and then after dinner turned in for the night for our next adventure.

In the morning we were on a mission to see the Prague castle and the Charles Bridge. The Charles Bridge connects the Old Town with the Little Quarter and functions today as a pedestrian street lined with statues and sale booths with art and jewelry.

The Charles Bridge
Each statue on the bridge is different and depicts mostly kings and royalty along with pivital Biblical figures and stories. The one that I found to be the most moving was the statue of the cricifixion (but interestingly enough, not for obvious reasons). For about 200 years this was the only statue on the bridge. The guilded Christ dates back to 1629 and the Hebrew words "Holy Holy Holy Lord" were paid for by a Jew as punishment for blasphemy (pictured below on the left). To make a Jew pay for the golden Christian words I found beyond tragic.

We crossed the Charles Bridge and headed up to the Prague Castle just in time for the big changing of the guards at noon. The whole thing lasted about 20 minutes and included a little instrumental part which made standing in the hot sun a little more bearable. Once inside the castle walls we headed off to explore St. Vitus' Cathedral, the Royal Palace, and the Golden Lane.

The Changing of the Guards at the Prague Castle
St. Vitus' Cathedral is one of the more impressive of the many impressive buildings in Prague. The church began construction in 1344 but wasn't completed until the 19th and 20th centuries. (I know that construction always runs behind schedule, but I find 7 centuries to be a bit ridiculous). The exterior I thought was a little more impressive than the interior because of the unusual spires (the pointy things on top of the towers with the spikes for those not architecturally savvy). The interior was a little less interesting especially due to "technical problems" that closed the tour of the crypt and St. Wenceslas Chapel. (Please tell me, what possible "technical problems" could there be on a 667 year old building?)

The Crests of the clerks who worked here from 1561-1774
Next we went and saw the Royal Palace. Built in the 11th century, the palace held such events as the public market, balls, and even indoor jousting. It also functioned as the location where the law was enforced. One of my favorite stories about the castle, although grim, is the Defenestration. For those of you unfamiliar with the word, in German, "fenster" is the word for "window." It shouldn't take you too long to figure out what it means when someone is "de-windowed," but here is the story: In 1618 more than 100 Protestant nobles marched into the palace to protest against the succession of the throne to some duke (I am sure you care about his name even less than I do). The two Catholic Governers appointed by the intolerant duke were then confronted and thrown out of the east window along with their secretaries. Falling about 50 ft. they survived the fall by landing in a huge pile of horse poop below. The event signaled the begin of the 30 Years War and the survival of the people was thought to be intervention of angels. (In reading about the various sites around Prague, it is amazing how many people were thrown out of windows, and off buildings and bridges).

The Window
The Fall

After my guilty chuckle over the people that got "de-windowed" (it's ok to laugh because they survived, right?), we headed through some more windy streets before coming to the Golden Lane. This street is along the outer castle wall where small cottages were built into the wall in the late 16th century for the castle's guards and gunners. Today some have been restored to show what the homes may have looked like while other cottages are used as souvenir shops.

After venturing through all there was to see in the castle (including me dragging my mom down to the dungeon to see medieval torture divices), we decided to meander our way back towards the Charles Bridge to find some authentic Czech food. I ordered rabbit and practically licked my plate clean (my apologies to Peter Rabbit and Cottontail). We wandered through the streets, checked out some classic tourist shops so I could purchase a beer mug for my growing collection, and then headed off to bed.

Friday was our last day in Prague before our early evening flight back to Zürich. We decided to check out all the cathedrals in Old Town that we had skipped before, including climbing to the top of the Old Town Hall tower to see Prague from above. We were also lucky enough to watch all the people below gather to watch the clock chime noon and hear the trumpet player play his song. It turns out that I am "that tourist" who got so far in his way that he actually had to ask me to move. After my utter embarassment we headed off to see St. Wenceslas Square, which was like any over popularized tourist location in a large city. Designer stores, tourist shops, banks, and of course, McDonalds.

We may or may not have eaten lunch at McDonalds, but I cannot disclose any further information. Ok, I had the Big Mac...and a McFlurry (with Toblerone chocolate!).

People gathered to watch the clock

Me in the Old Town Hall Tower (in the background: Church of Our Lady before Tyn)
Our trip had come to an end and, thanks to my Mommy and Daddy, I learned more about the history of Prague than I have learned about the history of any other city I have visited in Europe combined. While it may not be completely my style to rock the Eyewitness Travel book everywhere I go, I am grateful for the experience I had traveling with two of the world's most wonderful people. Without them I wouldn't be the woman I am today, nor have the strength or means to live abroad for an entire year. I love you Mommy and Daddy!!