Concept Czeching

(19/10/13)

So, why on earth was I in Prague in the middle of winter?  I’d booked a flight to Europe about six months beforehand, with the intention of going to the Ukraine to work for a year.  One visa problem after another, this had morphed into going to Russia, for which I had even more visa problems, meaning I couldn’t leave when I meant to.  I needed to up-qualify, I already had a flight, and it was more expensive to do my CELTA in Sydney than it was to go to Prague and spend a month travelling in Eastern Europe.  Work even agreed to give me two months off.  So, why not?

The CELTA is Cambridge’s ‘Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults’, and my goodness was it hard work.  It’s the hardest academic thing I’ve ever done by far: a lot of information, and a lot of work.  Naturally, that wasn’t helped by my perfectionism, and anything less than a Pass A (which <2% of people get) wouldn’t be good enough.  Nothing by halves.  So the usual day would entail getting up at 4am to start coursework, leaving the house at 8am for class, getting back at around 6pm, working til midnight, and doing it all over again.  I didn’t do myself any favours by initially failing two assignments by massively overthinking them, but in the end pulled it all together and got my A.  Despite being an incredibly naughty student and driving the teachers nuts.

I’ve already talked about Czech food adventures elsewhere, but should also mention Zdenek, the chef in the school‘s cafeteria.  What a strange, hyperactive, talented guy.  He was forever announcing that he was a helicopter (I think it’s just because he likes that word in English?), but my goodness was he a good chef.  Every single day he’d have a vegetarian option, and in the entire time he’s been at the school, he’s never ever cooked the same thing twice.  His wife would cook amazing cakes every day as well.  It was actually during this time that I went back to vegie, after being sick every time I ate meat, so I was pretty stoked to have so much awesome food being cooked for me!

Haha I think the only thing I really can talk about from this time was food, thanks to the constant studying. I’ll never forget emerging from my room at 3 in the morning to find Robert cooking pancakes (my first maple syrup experience), or talking with Robert, Jack and Katherine around the dinner table at ‘family meal time’.  I loved those kids, even when they drove me crazy (Rob).  Then there was class with other Laura, Diana from Lebanon, Peter (“Peter doesn’t care!”), Paul’s zillions of languages and inspiration to take on the Czech letter ř, and mucking about miming offensive gestures at each other in class with Katerina.  The students were great as well of course, and I’ll never forget Leta being aghast at my clothes every day and saying that “Laura, you are always summer wearing”.  <3

Source: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lkfsluvovm1qbwnb9o1_500.jpg

Letters home

Good morning guys!!!  Happy Monday!!!

I’m procrastinating my socks off—something, might I add, I’ve done remarkably well all weekend—I have 2 assignments and 2 lesson plans to do, so obviously sleeping has becoming an amazingly good time.  Tanya asked for a proper email last week, so congratulations, this has become my new form of procrastination!

I’ve been having a lot of very peculiar adventures, and a rather alarming number of them are based around supermarkets.  Where we are in Prague (by ‘we’ I mean both my CELTA school and me and my 3 flatmates), nobody really speaks English.  People over about 30yo speak some Russian on account of how it was required by the Soviets, and quite a few of the people in my class speak a bit of it – we’re having Russian night from this week so that we can all practice!.  However, people below that age usually speak just Czech, or maybe a touch of English.

Needless to say, in supermarkets everything’s in Czech.  And Czech people eat very differently to Australians (funnily enough), not to mention organising supermarkets differently!  Basically everything is bread, cured meat, and cheese.  On Friday about 8 of us went out to dinner, and I kid you not, my meal came with an entire block (wheel?) of Brie on top of it.  On the other hand, for starters I shared “devil toast” with one of the others on my course—from recollection, it was toast with tomato sauce, soy sauce, chilli, ham and cheese plus a few other random things—and that was bizarrely incredible.

ANYWAY my housemates and I have divided up cooking so that the others can get schoolwork done.  Last Monday was my first night doing it, and in a meal that usually consists of onion, capsicum, chorizo, tomato and butter beans, I had to swap the chorizo for a similar salami and butter beans for kidney beans.  So I was doing pretty well.  My housemates performed similarly well over the following days.  Today I was having a think about what I could do for dinner tonight and I figured it’s -15 outside, cured meat is easily available as is root vegetables—so I’ll do bangers and mash, that’ll be easy and I won’t have to do any weird food replacements.   WRONG.  It all started to go wrong in the supermarket, when I was trying to figure out how on earth to make gravy sans gravy powder (you can tell I don’t normally eat Brit food/food w gravy!).  In fact, I didn’t even know if there was gravy powder but peculiarly labelled, or in a different place, or if they even have gravy on stuff in the Czech Republic.  I was in the spices kind of aisle for nearly half an hour, trying to figure out whether I was looking at stock powders or not, when finally in desperation I accosted a Czech person saying “omg pleeeeeeeeeeeeease tell me you speak English!!!”.  It turns out she did, and so after a lot of miming and explaining we managed to come up with the closest thing possible.

Most of the meats, meanwhile, are in the deli, but the line was epic so I grabbed a packet of sausages – easy right?

I get home from the supermarket and open the sausages and actually don’t know if they’re already cooked or not.  I find my housemate Katherine and we’re trying to figure out whether what I have is in fact sausages, if they’ve already been pre-cooked, and oh—what’s this?  Are they individually wrapped in plastic??

We end up running a “controlled experiment”, boiling a couple, frying a couple, and decide that the weird plastic wrapping isn’t something that’s going to melt off.  Soooooo Katherine says that “I’ll help you finish peeling the sausages and then go and do my assignment”, and so we do.  Peel the sausages.  Wtf right?

Incredibly long story slightly-shorter-than-it-could-have-been, I’m presently eating mashed potato (that bit worked haha, phew!) with kind-of-sausages in watery-stock.  It’s pretty exotic.  I have a lot more empathy for immigrants to Australia—while I usually find going to foreign-language supermarkets really fun, when the language is different enough from your own (or even from Russian) that you can’t figure out what something is, it takes a loooooooooooong time to go shopping, is incredibly stressful, and you end up w funky food.

Haha okay so the above story is half what my assignment should be, so clearly I’m doing well.  So here’s another epic story for you:

For the 5ish days until Sunday last week, I was in Selva Val Gardena in Italy snowboarding.  Omg it was incredible.  500km of runs (I explored only a fraction, it was crazy!), partying w my friends, and I went to my debut game of ice hockey (at which I had my first mulled wine—incidentally, the first phrase I’ve learnt in Czech is “give me mulled wine please”.  Clearly a very useful phrase!).

I’m basically the worst snowboarder ever, because rather than being all “gangsta”, I talk about it like it’s some kind of far-gone hippy meditation-based cult, and furthermore go around the mountain being a little do-gooder (helping people with their stuff when they fall over, helping little kids in ski school get up again—habit!!).  This one day, I’d gone up the mountain still somewhat inebriated from the previous night (I didn’t notice the fact until that night, when I couldn’t remember getting ready in the morning or how I got up the hill!!) and so chilled out in one of the restaurants, eating epic Italian pasta and watching the snow.  Once I decided I’d recovered sufficiently, I went outside to discover a BIG F-OFF DOG outside.  (I googled “big f-off dog” and came up with this image—the dog in the pic could have been this one’s twin http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lkfsluvovm1qbwnb9o1_500.jpg).  It was so big that I decided not to go and pat it, because it looked like it would devour me whole.

I was milling around the same restaurant a few hours later as it was in the middle of a traverse, when I noticed that a little girl (~11yo) was by the dog, trying to get her glove out of its mouth.  I watched for a sec and then asked if she was okay.  She said no, so I ditched my board and went over to help.

So I grab the big f-off dog (seriously, only way to describe it) by the collar and get it to let go of the glove.  Then what does it do but twist its head around and the next thing you know, my entire forearm is in its mouth.  So my hand was just out one side of its mouth and just past my elbow was out the other side (massive, massive dog).  I’m a bit like…. ooooh shit (partially because I was concerned for my arm, partially because I was concerned for my snowboarding jacket) and then the dog jumps up on me, and the wretched thing is farrrr taller and heavier than I am.  So I’m trying to stay balanced with this huge dog against me and my arm up in the air in its mouth, and somehow wrestle myself free.  Then what does the dog do but run after the little girl and knocks her to the ground, so she’s fully under it.

After the experience I’d just had I was feeling somewhat ambivalent about going near the dog again, it was really scary.  Then I realised that I probably wasn’t going to let a little girl get mauled, so I went and grabbed the dog again, asking bystanders for some help (everybody could see what was going on and was giving us a 15-20 metre berth, despite our being in the middle of where they’d have to go) to absolutely no avail.  The little girl manages to walk away while I’ve got the dog, then I don’t even know how, I managed to get it off me and to stay still while I walked back to my board and got the hell out of there.  I can’t help but wonder where the girl’s parents were, not to mention the dog’s owner!!

So that was my scary dog story, and now I realise that I’ve probably taken up 15 minutes of your morning on two long-winded stories (so nothing unusual there then haha!), so I will get back to my assignment (which, to be fair, I could have finished by now) and update you on some other stuff some other time!!!

🙂 L

Bones, clocks and cream

(22/10/13)

After four of the most intensive weeks of my life (was it really only four weeks?!), the CELTA course was finally over, and we were free.  Freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

For reals?!
For reals?!

I was completely branaddled (‘brain addled’, for those who don’t speak Laura), but I only had accommodation for another couple of nights, so got straight on with it.  The day after finishing the course was spent wandering around central Prague.  Of course, I say ‘the day’, but what I really mean is ‘well after midday’.  I met Robert and Katherine for lunch at this incredible Afghan restaurant (their daal was the first I’d ever tried, and it blew my mind.  Or what was left of it, anyway), then walked up toward the old town.  Later on, I headed down toward the astrological clock like a good little tourist; and that’s pretty much all I did with my day, other than buy a gorgeous illustrated copy of some of Pushkin’s works in Russian.

Prague | Прага:

My mission for the next day was to head out to Kutna Hora, where one can find the Sedlec Ossuary.  I said farewell to my housemates, though I’d be seeing R the next day in Vienna.  Even now, 18 months later, I’m still looking forward to our next catch up: all we did was argue, but there was a lot of (fraternal!) love in there as well.  I’ll never forget leaving everyone on a night out to catch the last metro home, and him asking if I’d be alright before interrupting himself with “of course you will, you’re Australian!”.  That was a lovely wander actually: there’s few things I love so much as being in the middle of a foreign, unknown city in the middle of the night, with no idea where I am, no knowledge of the language, and a plan: it’s like complete freedom.  So I wandered through the other-world of midnight Prague, and eventually bumped into a German guy who spoke Russian and could give me directions home.

—annnnd we’re back.  Sedlec Ossuary is an absolute must-see if you’re in the Czech Republic, though Kutna Hora is also well worth the visit.  The Ossuary is, as the name suggests, a sort of underground bone cemetery.  The story goes that during the Crusades, someone brought back some holy soil from Mecca to Kutna Hora.  People wanted to be buried near the holy earth in order to increase their chances of going to heaven etc (or just covering their bases, given that they were presumably Christians), and the cemetery surrounding the church quickly started to overflow.  The bones were then all collected together, and later on, a purportedly blind monk uncovered them, cleaned them, and started to build things out of them.  Hm.  But imagine I said that in a way that wasn’t creepy.

After visiting the Ossuary and having adventures in a nearby café, I went for a wander around the rest of the town.  There’s a lot of very old churches and a cathedral to check out, and the centre of town is quite lovely as well: full of cobblestones and pastel houses as in Prague.  I also went to a ‘traditional’ Czech pub (Pivnice Dacicky), which was the freaking best thing ever.  Though I had just gone back to vegetarian, I couldn’t resist trying the specialty dish, svickova: my curiosity won out.  It’s tender beef, slow-roasted in cream, served with dumplings, cranberry sauce and whipped cream.  Freaking amazing.  (I later asked Zdenek, the chef from my CELTA course, to send me the recipe—it’s definitely on the to-do list!).

Kutna Hora | Кутна Хора:

That’s pretty much it for my month in the Czech Republic: next it was off to Vienna, to spend a couple of days with Robert and Paul.  Because that totally happened.

A Viennese Sojourn

(14/10/2013)

To start with, it probably bears mentioning that Australia and Austria are different places: apparently, that’s not widely understood.  Also, only one of them has kangaroos!  When travelling in Europe, anywhere non-English speaking that I go, it’s assumed that i’m actually Austrian.  I had a great number of conversations in Russia that went

Они: От-куда вы?Я: Из Австралий.

Они: Ага, из Австрий!

Я: Нет нет.  Австралий.  Как кенгуру да?

(Англусский for the win!)

Them: Where are you from?Me: From Australia.

Them: Ah, from Austria!

Me: No no.  Australia.  Like a kangaroo, yeah?

 

Anyway, let’s get back to pretending that i’m not writing this way after the fact.

I didn’t have much of a plan for where to go after the Czech Republic.  Beforehand, I knew fairly well (‘where’, if not ‘when’).  It was fly into London, visit Edwin on the way through, head to Germany for a concert, France for some snow, then Czech for my CELTA—but afterward, I didn’t have anywhere to be until Istanbul in late March for my flight back to Aus (which nearly didn’t happen—but that’s a different story).  So when Robert and Paul suggested I come and spend a few days with them in Vienna, I figured ‘why the hell not?’

Of course, then I got on the train in Prague.  And I love trains.  It was around five hours to get to Vienna, which wasn’t nearly long enough: after the stress-out that had been my CELTA, I wasn’t ready to return to the non-rocky real world yet.  So, when I got to Vienna, rather than call the two guys straight away, I went to the ticket window and bought myself an overnight ticket to Bucharest, Romania.  Fuck—how cool is Europe?  Then I called the guys and told them that I had a few hours before I had to leave, and we met up just by Cafe Central.

Cafe Central (das Café Central) is this big posh café in the centre of Vienna.  Think chandeliers, grand pianos, suits and heels; marble and cake racks.  Not to mention a fairly amazing menu.  That’s not even why it’s so awesome though, but rather the intellectual tradition associated with it.  It used to be a café where minds from around Europe would come: Trotsky and Lenin were regulars.  Add in Freud, Hitler, and Tito, and you can see how much of the 20th century was influenced or affected by the people who passed time in there.  It’s just crazy.  The decor and feel of the whole place is classical, and you can imagine it not having had changed in the last hundred years.  It’s like this weird time bubble, where so much has been brewed and happened, but hasn’t itself been affected at all.  Shivers.

Paul writes a guide to Vienna, so was full of facts about the city.  He and Robert also pointed out an incredibly hot Austrian man to me, because apparently my guy friends are awesome.  Or trying to kill me: the guy was far too good-looking for me to be able to process.  Robert feasted as usual, and I took on a Viennese coffee (which to be fair, is how I normally drink coffee), and a freaking strudel.  Take that, Austria!

More strudel than prude-l!
More strudel than prude-l!

Now that we were full of goodies, we went for an exceedingly brisk walk around central Vienna.  I cannot for the life of me remember any of the stories Paul told us, but here are the (blurry) results:

Then, it was on to Bucharest for adventures.

When in Rom…ania.

(11 Oct 2013)

After jumping on an impromptu train in Vienna, I found myself emerging bleary-eyed from București train station early the next morning.  The border crossing had gone as smoothly as ever (ie I ended up with the completely wrong dates stamped into my passport), but otherwise the train journey was fine.  Of course, once I got to the station, I had no idea where to go next.  I was clearly broad-casting ‘lost tourist’, and so a helpful Romanian man pointed me toward the information office.  It was a small room tucked to one side of the train station, and nobody spoke English.  Nor Russian.  Nor even French.  That didn’t stop them from asking where I was from though, and me from conveying ‘Australia’.  At which point one man lit up and asked ‘surfing?’, then proceeding to mime surfing all around the room.

We managed to find me a hostel, they gave me a map and some directions, and off I went.  Walking out of the station though, I had quite a shock.  It was a freaking mess.  International train stations in the area do normally have a lot of homeless people and pan-handlers of course, but after Vienna I wasn’t quite prepared for it.  There were taxi drivers and beggars swooping down upon me, because I really, really stood out.  As soon as I could, I ducked into an alleyway to dirty my suitcase and change my clothes to look less like a rich Westerner.  (‘Rich’ being a strictly comparative term!)  Then I ventured into the street once more to try and find my way to the hostel.

Walking, I was wracking my brain: had Bucharest been recently bombed?  I couldn’t understand how else the buildings and everything would look as they did.  The main road was a giant hole, for goodness’ sakes, with no real works apparent.  There were the remnants of smoky fires, and I saw dead stray dogs on the road for the first time since I was in Egypt in late 2008.  So yes, a smidge different to Austria.

21-P1010849

22-P1010852After a lot, and I mean a lot, of wrong directions, I found myself outside a slightly foreboding-looking fence.  I gathered myself, pressed the buzzer, and hey presto: it was indeed the hostel.  I was greeted by a lovely middle-aged Romanian woman named ~Milly (which I now find super-adorable, as it means sweet/cute in Russian).  We sat down and had a big chat.  She told me all about Romania and its economy: the average weekly wage was around 140 euro at the time, which as you can appreciate, is not a whole lot.  She also commented on my experiences trying to ask for directions: she said that now, people scurry about in their own little worlds, they’re insulated and unfriendly.  She said that she missed communism, that then, people were always friendly to one another, that they always tried to lend a hand.  She then said that sure, there were problems under the communist regime, but there are problems now as well: “under the Communists, we had lots of money and nothing to buy; now we can buy lots of things, but have no money”.

Post-tea, I dropped my things in the hostel room (which I was sharing with predominantly Romanian manual workers), and went for a bit of an explore.  I was quite nibbly, and on impulse went into a Turkish restaurant I found on what looked to me like a dodgy back-street, but was pretty much the centre of town.  I was quickly ushered upstairs, where the waiter brought me a seriously large meal, and then hung around for a chat.  So I talked to him and another Romanian guy, ‘Harry’ (least Romanian name?) for an hour or so.  As it turns out, Harry is also a sailor, and he spent some time in Australia working as a sailor.  What on earth are the odds that I’d meet someone else who’d sailed Australia in a Turkish restaurant in the Romanian capital?!  These two guys were quite young, and they had a substantially different take on communism.  They were quite angry–they said that it’s communism’s fault that their economy is screwed, that they’re so undeveloped and so far behind the rest of Europe: and Romanians really do see themselves as European.

I also learned why the city looked like it did.  It was pretty normal under Communist regimes for old buildings to be torn down and replaced with uniform apartments and buildings, and most of old Bucharest was knocked down.  The most beautiful buildings that remain are actually the classical marble monstrosities which house the parliament (presidency?) and so on: and apparently, it was the construction of these buildings that really drove the country deep into debt, helping to arouse the peoples’ anger against Ceausescu.  The end of communism in Romania was a bloody one, with shootings in the main street of Bucharest.  (All mistakes are my own–I haven’t fact-checked, and am writing from memory).

The next day, I announced to the new front desk lady that I wanted to go and see a castle.  She recommended Bran Castle, in Brașov, as a popular choice: after all, it’s the castle of Vlad the Impaler, origin of the Dracula myth.  Sold and sold.  I went back to the train station and caught a train out to Brașov, which as it turns out, was right back near the border of the country.  Some Romanian man came to talk to me during the trip despite my frostiest demeanour, saying that the people who look cold outside are always the warmest inside (!).  He asked me if I was scared to be a girl travelling by herself, and when I said no, he shook his head to himself.  He said that I must be very good at martial arts then, though probably a spy.  He then asked if I were a spy.  This is not an uncommon question of me, but surely everyone thinking I’m a spy would make me a particularly bad one?!

Anyway, Bran Castle isn’t in Brașov itself, and I had to catch a series of buses there.  Did I have any idea how?  No.  And I definitely, definitely, don’t speak Romanian.  It’s quite a bizarre language, actually: while it belongs to the Latin language family, unlike Italian/Spanish/French, I couldn’t make heads nor tails of it.  It’s most similar to Italian, but that wasn’t enough for me to guess.  ‘Pull’ in French is tirez, tirare in Italian, and trage in Romanian.  To add to difficulties, the numbers are very Slavic, and there are quite a few Slavic import words, so my poor brain was constantly trying to switch between French and Russian, until I completely gave up and walked around with headphones on instead.  Haha actually, I described the Romanian language as the results of a ‘linguistic gang-bang’ to JFord, and wrote a highly inappropriate story about it one day when procrastinating at work.  Because that’s apparently the kind of professional I am.

I managed to gather that I needed to catch two buses to the castle, and which the first of them was.  So after everybody had boarded, I jumped on, stood in the middle of the bus, grabbed everyone’s attention, and then called out “does anyone speak English?”.  Nobody did, but somehow an old man and I managed to figure out where I needed to go, and it was all fairly smooth sailing from there.

Bran’s castle itself was quite cool, with a very quaint outlook over the countryside.  It’s very, very Romanian, and really what you’d expect of any good (non-sparkly) vampire movie.  Also, if you haven’t hit ‘play’ on the youtube video up the top (Toccata and Fugue in D Minor), you should definitely do that now and think about vampires in Romania.  Yup.

Given that it took me four hours each way to the castle and back to Bucharest, I didn’t do much else with my day.  The next would be my final in the country (once I start moving, I don’t stop!), and I spent most of it wandering around Bucharest’s dodgy back-streets taking photos.  Apparently the reason there are so many tumble-down buildings is because after the fall of communism, it was declared that buildings would be returned to their original owners.  Of course, the country had been under communism for more than forty years at this point, and the original owners had died, moved on, or had multiple children.  Who owned the property?  Legal disputes in these cases are often still ongoing, and until they’re finalised, nobody is legally allowed to live there–so the city is full of falling-down, seemingly abandoned buildings.

I failed to catch any classical music in Bucharest unfortunately, thanks to my time spent variously wandering and seeing castles, and I also failed to try any traditional Romanian food.  On my final night, before catching the overnight train down to Sofia (<3), I tried one last time to get in to a nearby traditional Romanian restaurant, only to be turned away due to lack of space.  Before going in, I’d seen the same thing presumably happening to a guy by himself, and I found him waiting for me outside.  He was an Italian traveller who was devastated when I managed to pick exactly where in the US his accent was from haha, he thought his English was so international.  Anyway, I found myself as an Australian in a French restaurant with an Italian-American man in Romania, eating Russian food (my premiere borscht experience!).  Why hello there, globalisation!

Bucharest

Views from Vlad’s Castle (Bran Castle)