Sunday, May 3, 2009

London II

The next day we woke at noon for the soccer match at around 3:30. We went to the local grocery store and then headed to a friend's flat where we had some cheese and drank some drinks. After about an hour we got on the Tube to head over to the stadium. It was only a few stops but by the time we reached our destination the entire train was full of Fulham supporters. The vast majority of the train disembarked on a very small platform and we began walking with the crowd.

Every expectation I had of match day was fulfilled. All the local pubs were packed and roads were closed as crowds of people headed toward the stadium. Mounted police stood in large numbers to the side of the roads and loomed over the crowd. We went into a pub and the atmosphere was great. The entire place was packed and everyone was excited for the match. I grabbed a beer and took in the scenery before heading to the stadium. We got to the stadium, entered and found our seats. The seats that Alex's friend, Emily, had gotten were amazing. We were facing Fulham's home goal and were three rows back. Because the stands are slightly recessed below the field we were maybe two or three feet above field level. It was incredible, we were right in the action and so close. It also helped that the weather was sunny and fantastic.

The match started pretty slowly but Fulham managed to score midway through the half. The entire crowd erupted in celebration and I was pretty excited myself. Slightly before half time I went to grab a beer but was told that they didn't start selling beer until after the half. This didn't make much sense to me. At sporting events in the States they only sell beer at the beginning of the game. It was pretty strange.

The second half was pretty slow as well with Fulham holding Stoke City to a draw. With the match over we headed home and stopped in a restaurant for some real fish and chips. They were darn tasty and I'm glad I had the chance to try some.

Tired from the day, we all took a nap and woke up around 9 or 10. Because Alex's roommate didn't approve of a boy staying with her I was sleeping in her friend Steph's room down the hall. Steph decided to stay in so Alex and I went back to Diana's apartment to pregame and then go to a club in Camden. Once we were suitably pregamed we headed over to Camden only to find all the bars full because of some pub crawl. None of the bouncers would let us in so we bought some more drinks and then went to a kebab stand. I didn't order a kebab but talked to some disgusting, dirty, drunk british woman whose bra strap kept falling down.

The lady was filthy and also a bitch. She was doing a Fulham chant so I joined in and she noticed and decided to talk to me. This was a mistake. She started to tell me how Americans know nothing about 'soccer' (which she said derisively). I told her I liked 'football' and she asked what club I liked. Knowing that lots of people don't like Chelsea I told her that I didn't want to but eventually she forced it out of me. She wasn't too happy and got even more upset when I told her that Frank Lampard was a cutie. Apparently, Frankie used to play for some other club and when he transferred to Chelsea he said something about wanting to score on his home club. According to this woman that made Frank Lampard a bastard. I was starting to think that this lady was going to fight me when her friend got sick of hearing her flirt/yell at me and left. Two minutes later the lady realized this and took off, but not before giving me a lovely kiss goodbye. I made sure to wash my cheek afterwards.

With no club to go to we just headed back to Diana's and started drinking again. After an hour or so we decided to get on the roof. This was a great decision.

Diana was nicely situation in downtown London and her roof had a great view of the London Eye and other nice sights. We sat on the roof for an hour, took in the scenery and had some drinks. It was a great experience. By the time we got back inside it was 5 in the morning so Alex and I spent the night there and went home in the morning.

My flight left Sunday night at around 8 but that still meant I had most of the day to do stuff. Our first stop was the British Museum.

The British Museum was huge and if you took the time to examine everything you would be there for weeks. Instead, Alex and I checked out the highlights and then just perused the rest of the collection. The coolest thing they had by far was the Rosetta Stone. They also had some neat Samurai armor, cool Muslim artifacts (including a massive jade turtle) and ancient artifacts.

Getting out of the British Museum, we went back to Camden from the night before and hit up Camden Market. Camden market is a big hodge podge and shops and food stands with a counter-cultural aspect to it. I grabbed some Nigerian food (the first I have ever had) and then we went shopping. There were great record shops with some great old albums in them but I figured it would be too hard to get them home so I held back. As we walked around there was some cool dude just blasting funky tunes from these huge speakers. He was selling these funk CD's that looked like he burned them on his computer and then made a cheap label for them. But, I had some money to spend so I asked him what he recommended. He suggested "All Funked Up 2: More Seriously Funky Grooves" and I decided it was a good investment.

We walked through the rest of the market and then headed back to Alex's. I packed up my things and headed to the bus stop to take my ride back the Airport. My flight back to Prague was uneventful and I got back around midnight.

My trip to London was really enjoyable. I had the most time there out of my trips and I was glad for it. The city is very big and I was glad I had the extra time to see what I wanted. The football match was also a nice cherry on top. And, even though I was tired of traveling, London was a perfect place to finish because it felt so much like home. The stores had Doritos, sandwich shops were everywhere, you could get Dr. Pepper, etc. (they don't have those things in Prague). 

Before I applied to study abroad I initially wanted to go to London. I eventually decided against it and went with Prague but part of the reason why I visited Alex was to see what my experience would have been like. In essence, I wanted to see if I made the wrong choice. I loved London but I think that I made the right choice going with Prague. 

Saturday, May 2, 2009

London I

My recent trip visiting Alex Rush in London was the last trip I will take before my program ends. The trip itself ended three straight weekends out of Prague (Berlin, Copenhagen) and by this time I was pretty tired of traveling. That is not to say I didn't want to go to London, but I didn't have any clean clothes, had schoolwork due and was generally tired. 

My flight was scheduled to leave at 7:40 on Thursday morning which meant that I had to get up at 5 to make it to the airport. It was the earliest I have woken up since I've been here and it was an interesting experience. I took the metro/bus to the airport and saw a lot of interesting Czechs along the way. The check-in process at the airport was relatively painless and I found my gate easily. 

This was also the first time I had ridden a budget airline. It seems strange but a lot of budget airlines do not fly from Prague so I've had to fly Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines. For this trip I was using SkyEurope and was interested to see how it compared to the other airlines. I was really pleasantly surprised. The leg room was very small and the flight was very full but the staff was friendly, the plane was on time and everything went smoothly. Strangely, though, when I landed in London and Prague most of the plane erupted in celebratory applause. This not only annoyed me because I'm not a fan of pointless, inappropriate applause, but it was just plain bizarre. Why were they clapping? Was it because we landed safely? I can't see any reason to applaud the pilot for doing correctly what he should easily do 99.9% of the time. His job is to land planes. The fact that we need to applaud his successful completion of that task asks uninvited questions about his competence. 

Either way, I did land safely in London and took a long bus ride into London from Luton airport which is way in the middle of nowhere. As I got on my bus the driver had "I Can't Explain" by The Who playing and my iPod shuffle strangely gave me a ton of Oasis, Beatles and The Who.

Immediately after boarding the bus I already became aware of one of the things I liked most about London. The ability to communicate with people. In the airport I was easily able to ask anybody for directions, talk to store clerks, etc. I haven't fully been able to do that since I left the states and it was strange to able to understand the language again. Later on in the trip, I saw a huge crowd of people and was able to ask a police officer what was going on (you could never do this in Prague) and the officer told me Miley Cyrus was making an appearance. Sadly, I didn't get to see her.

I got off the bus and Alex was right there waiting for me. At this point, because of the time change it was about an hour before noon and we had the whole day ahead of us. She took me to her dorm which was called the IHS (International Students House). Alex has a Chinese roommate who she doesn't get along with but the place is nice and British. The halls have these appliances recessed into the walls that look like dishwashers. They're automatic trouser presses! The instructions say something like, "now you can have your trousers neatly pressed any time of day." The bathrooms have antique plumbing fixtures that are dated 1920 and some of the shower rooms just have a big giant bathtub. I don't think anyone uses it.

We started with a walking tour and headed over to Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, The London Eye and then Trafalgar Square. I was being cheap so we didn't go into any of the buildings but it was very interesting to see such famous buildings all in such close proximity to each other. 

By this time Alex and I were feeling a bit peckish so we headed over to SoHo for some Dim Sum. We went to a nice restaurant and when the cart came over we got some chicken feet and dumplings. Apparently, there were many other carts with non-dumpling type food but by the time we realized it we had already ordered a ton a dumplings. They were still tasty though. I also was able to get tap water which was a first. I started to toy with the idea of staying hydrated in London.

We took a walk through SoHo and Alex told me we could go in any stores I wanted. We passed all sorts of nifty stores but nothing really struck me until we passed a Border's. I apologized to Alex and asked if we could go in so I could get some books. Compared to Czech book stores where the English reading section is confined to 3 small cases it was a dream come true. I picked up 3 books for the rest of the semester in Prague and we went on our way.

We went over to Piccadilly Circus and then hit up Regent's Park, a nice park right near Alex's dorm. We grabbed some alcohol and a sandwich and the got ready to go out. Because the ISH isn't conducive for pregaming we went over to a flat where Diana Rojas is staying. We drank and talked of memories past and then headed to some club that was pretty nice. The cover was pretty stiff but they had house music downstairs and it was really crowded. I had some tasty Guinness, and, even though it wasn't Ireland it was closer than Prague. We headed back pretty early and I had a $7.50 kebab.

The next day we woke up a little late and headed to Borough Market. One of the reasons why I love Alex is her love of food. I'm a fan of food myself but Alex Rush helps bring me to the next level. Borough Market is a massive food market and we wandered the area for an hour just eating tasty free samples and browsing. We finally decided on getting a salt beef sandwich which was pretty much corned beef on a big roll with your choice of sauces. Finished with Borough Market we headed out to do some more sightseeing. 

We walked down to the London Bridge and got a great view of the financial district. I saw the famous pointy building and told me they call it the Gherkin. We walked over London Bridge and had a great view the Thames and the Tower of London. The Tower itself was really nice but expensive to go in so we just saw the outside. I did get to see Traitor's Gate so I was happy about that. Making our way over to St. Paul's Cathedral we saw some big police hubbub and then walked to the Millennium Bridge. The Tate Modern Gallery was right there but we decided to go to a better museum, the Imperial War Museum.

The War Museum, for me, was something I had to see. And it's free of charge! In the front of the building they have two huge ships guns mounted into the concrete, something Charlie would like. In the main atrium they have tanks, a Sopwith Camel, a V2, a Polaris Missile, a P-51, a Spitfire, a German 88 and various other artillery pieces. It was great! We toured the exhibits on World War I and II which included a 'Trench Experience' and 'Blitz Experience'. After getting Blitzed, as Alex called it, we saw some more of the exhibits. 

The two coolest things they had were:

They had these little telephones that played interviews with soldiers about their combat experiences. They had one World War I RAF pilot describe dogfighting and an average combat mission. Another really good one had a sailor tell his account of his ship sinking in the Battle of Jutland.

The Enfield Rifle given to T.E. Lawrence by Prince Feisal during the Arab Revolt. I didn't even really notice it at first. I was looking at the exhibit on the Arab Revolt and saw the robes Lawrence worse and a bust of him, but then noticed the rifle. Last semester I wrote my 208 paper on Lawrence so I knew that Lawrence etched his initials and the date on the rifle 4.12.1916. The initials were right there above the trigger. Interestingly, the rifle was captured by the Turks at Galipoli and therefore ironically returned to the British who were now Allies to the Arabs. Very cool to see in person.

We also checked out an exhibit on the SOE (Special Operations Executive) and MI6. Both were super cool and they had a video on Operation Nimrod where the SAS stormed the Iranian Embassy in London when it was taken over by terrorists in 1980.

After the Museum we headed over to Red Brick Lane and got Indian food. The entire street is full of restaurants and the owners sit outside and try to get you to come on. You have to haggle and we got a free bottle of wine and 10% off so I guess it was a good deal. The food was delicious.

We went right from the restaurant to a bar and I managed to get a Dr. Pepper at a store on the way. We hung out at the bar for a while and it was very old. Apparently, it was where one of Jack the Ripper's last prostitute victims hung out before she was killed. We called it an early night and went home because we had the Fulham v Stoke City match the next day.

(I need to make lunch so this is gonna be a two parter)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


(I'm on a writing roll right now and I think this journal entry will be good.)

My roommate Jiří (hereafter it will be spelled Jiri) moved out today. I can't really explain how I feel about it but I think it's notable that my dreams last night were plagued with fear and anxiousness. One dream had me back at home, at College Park. I was back in familiar environments but felt alone and sad; like I was just in Prague the day before and that it had been taken away from me. As I woke up the fear only subsided a little, I still felt at home. It was only after I thought for a bit that I realized I was still in Prague; something that has become very much like home to me.

All through today I have been restless. Since the night's dreams and Jiri's departure I have felt a sudden urgency to do all the things I still want to do here. Even though I have about a month left the urgency was strong I felt that I almost couldn't be in class. I've calmed down a bit, but the still remains.

I'm sitting here now, writing, trying to figure out why I have this feeling--or more importantly-- why Jiri leaving has caused it. I've looked back at our relationship and I really can't make much sense of it.

When I first got here he was pleasant enough and despite being pretty different we got along fine. We kept to ourselves and were equally considerate to each other. Jiri was really into mountain climbing and would be gone most of the day and some of the evenings. While a lot of people in the dorm thought Jiri was creepy, he was always very nice and normal to me. I chalked it up to a cultural difference. Maybe something was lost in translation; I don't know. His English isn't very good and when he asked to borrow For Whom the Bell Tolls I thought he wasn't reading it but apparently has been struggling to understand it.

At the beginning of the program he came out with us a few nights but after one trip home on the weekend he said that he quit drinking for personal reasons. Apparently, something very sad had happened that made him not want to drink anymore. Then, a few weeks later he was having a beer in his room. Thereafter I offered him a beer on a few occasions and he gladly took it.

While we got along well during the weeks he was rarely here over the weekends. He always told me that his home town was beautiful and that he wanted to be there on the weekends and climb. On the few occasions he was in Prague I was usually traveling so we rarely had weekends together. He also made a habit of leaving for long periods of time. The university system is different here and when his classes ended he picked up and left for a good two weeks. I had no idea where he was but figured he was off climbing somewhere. He finally came back one random night saying that he had been climbing somewhere in Europe. 

Things gradually returned slightly to normal other than a few strange incidents where he weirdly pushed food on me. On day, he came back with a bunch of half eaten sandwiches that he had gotten at a conference or something. When I said I wasn't hungry he told me I wasn't allowed to be malnourished here so I ate them. When I asked what one paste was made of he looked sad and asked if I didn't like it. It tasted fine and I wasn't that interested so I ate it anyway. There was a similar incident with some baked goods made by his mom and I ate those too.

When he returned from his trip he also seemed to have a change of heart about being a terrible Czech buddy and told me that suddenly we were going to do things together; that I was going kayaking with him and that we was going to organize a skydiving excursion. CIEE didn't allow him to go forward with the skydiving proposal and he was pretty mad. Maybe this made him decide to go back to being a Czech buddy; I don't know. Either way, he was always a lot more friendly with me after that and we would ask each other how the other's day was and exchange other random pleasantries.

After only a few weeks Jiri said his classes we over again and that he'd be gone climbing. He left once again and since that point he hasn't been at the dorm for more than two or three days at a time. At one point he mentioned that he was going to be in New York but I was still going to be here so we couldn't meet up. During his prolonged absences I heard random rumors from people that his sister was sick or whatnot. I lived more or less alone for a good while, by now accepting the fact that I had a crazy roommate who was never there and enjoying the de facto single I was given.

The last two Jiri experiences went like this:

One random Monday night Jiri comes back after saying he'll return on Sunday. He comes back and goes right to bed. The next day at around 4 pm he comes into the room telling me it's too nice to stay in Prague and that he's leaving to climb.

After being gone for a few days Jiri returns for a brief period then leaves again. The very next day he is suddenly back and he tells me that he is leaving for good the next day. That was yesterday. 

Today, Jiri woke up early, packed all of his things and left. We said goodbye and I wished him a happy time in New York and he said that he hoped I enjoyed the rest of my time in Prague. 

I'm sitting here in room, like I said before, typing, and the room feels so empty. Before, when Jiri was gone his things were still here and I at least felt like I had a roommate. Now, half the room is empty and I guess I'm finally hit with the reality that the program is ending. Jiri, who was never really a major factor in my time here, has had a greater effect than I originally thought. 

I also find it strange that he left in such a hurry. He left a pair of hiking boots, a hat and some towels here. Was his sister really sick in New York? Maybe, but then again he has always been a bit mysterious about his goings on. The suddenness of all this happening certainly hasn't helped either. I'm writing this partly to come to grips with everything that's going on and to put everything in perspective. 

I thought about it today and realized that I don't think I even have a picture of Jiri yet alone a picture of us together. I was a bit sad about this a first but then I figured that this was more or less appropriate for someone who was such a mystery for the entire time I knew him. We used to joke about Jiri being a mystery but it has finally hit me that he really is quite an enigma. But despite that--maybe because I don't want to leave Prague and that's what he symbolizes--I'm still sitting here missing him a little more than I thought I would.

Monday, April 27, 2009


It's been a while since I've updated the blog because I've been so busy. The last three weeks I have been traveling. This means that I spend three days in Prague going to class and four days flying, touring and generally being exhausted. I recently got back from London and will be spending the rest of my time in Prague. I'm really looking forward to this because I have been out of the city on weekends for the better part of a month. The weather in Prague is really nice right now and I have a significant list of things I still want to do. The only real snag in the plan is that finals and papers are piling up. It will be somewhat of a balancing act but I look forward to making the most of my remaining time here. But first, Copenhagen.

The usual travel plan consists of leaving Prague on a Thursday evening, some time after my single Thursday class. I have one sort of layover or another and then eventually arrive at my destination sometime that night, go out, etc. Copenhagen was no exception, but this was my first trip alone. Prior to this trip, aside from my flight to Prague, I had always traveled with at least one other person, and technically, this trip wasn't completely alone either because I rode with Sam to Vienna. We decided to meet up at a given time and take a cab to the airport. Sam was at a beer garden and I was in the dorm so I decided to call the cab. When it came time to go outside there were two cabs parked and Sam arrived. We realized that we both called cabs so we picked the nicer looking one and lied to the guy. As we got in the one cab they started to get suspicious and asked us questions. It wasn't good but we managed to get out alive. Later, on the cab ride to airport, my phone rang off the hook with the cab company calling me. I guess I can't call any cabs anymore.

When we got to the airport we we checked in quickly and and got on our plane to Vienna. The flight wasn't long at all and we took the trip on a turboprop plane. The model of plane was called a Dash 7 and I had recently bought the Wilco Album, A.M. with a song titled Dash 8 on it. Apparently, Jeff Tweedy took lots of flights on Dash 7's back in his Uncle Tupelo days and didn't really like the plane. It's a nice song but I didn't have the same sentiment. The flight was fine and when we arrived in Vienna I said goodbye to Sam and took off toward my gate. I said earlier that this was more or less my first time traveling alone in Europe and here it took hold. I love traveling alone. While I enjoy the company of others, traveling, for as long as I can remember has always been a hassle. You have to make sure everyone is on time and that everything is packed and in order. Every person added to the trip adds another variable that can go wrong. Moreover, it gives you time to think and contemplate things. It's a very introspective experience. I need to do more traveling alone, if only en route to meeting with friends.

After the small layover in Vienna I got on the flight to Copenhagen and arrived on time. Josh met me at the airport, I grabbed a road beer, and we hit the town. Josh lives about 20 minutes outside of Copenhagen by train so we decided to head right out and check my bag in the coat check at the bar. We sat in a park for a while and then went to a bar called Ko(o)lerbar, or some such Danish nonsense. They had all you can drink beer in these little mugs. I had Tuborg which is the second most popular/famous? beer in Denmark. I was a little tired from the day so we took the last train back to Josh's neighborhood. The train stops running around midnight. Either way, we had a busy day of sightseeing the next day.

Josh had class the next morning so I slept in and eventually took the train in to meet him in the city. I arrived a little early and did some exploration on my own. People from Denmark are beautiful and the city was very nice. It wasn't nearly as urban as I had imagined but was still quite metropolitan. The avenue I walked down was full of boutiques and designer shops. Meeting up with Josh, we headed to a must-see sight; Christiania. Started by squatters in an old army base, Christiania is basically an anarchist haven. People there live in squalor as a sort of commune. The area maintains its status as independent from that of the city of Copenhagen and there is a thriving marijuana business inside. You can walk from street to street and see vendors selling pieces, lighters, pipes, weed and hash. It was completely ridiculous and a truly interesting experience.

At this point we were hungry ( I hadn't eaten all day) so we went looking for a restaurant. Denmark is a very expensive country and we eventually decided on a fairly nice restaurant that was apparently fairly traditional. Josh told me that herring is a very traditional Danish food so I ordered that. Another Danish food is smorbrod. This is essentially an open sandwich with toppings piled high on one piece of bread. Apparently I ordered the herring smorbrod and got three pieces of bread and herring with dill, curry and horseradish. By this point in my European trip I had eaten very little good fish and the herring was simply incredible. The fish was tender and flavorful and the sauces were all great. It was probably one of the best meals I had abroad.

We then began our tour and headed to the Queen's residence, the house of Parliament and my personal favorite, the Little Mermaid. H. C. Andersen is probably the most beloved person from Denmark and the Little Mermaid statue was the only thing I knew about Copenhagen before going there. Hands down, best single experience I've ever had in my life. The Little Mermaid was a little out of the way so we took a walk back into town and took the train back to Josh's to prepare for the night out. 

Back at Josh's dorm we talked of memories past and cooked up some pasta and asparagus. Josh had a single room decorated in a very Ikea-esque style. There was a spherical paper lamp at the center of the room and in order to work the shower you had to divert the water from the sink with a knob. He lives in a Collegium (sp?) which is subsidized housing for students. Apparently, a lot of people know this and squat there saying that they are students. Even so, it's fairly nice and I can definitely see the appeal of squatting. 

We met up with Josh's friends: Brad, who I had met earlier in the day, Danielle, who I knew from her visit to Prague, and Carly, a very nice girl who goes to Goucher in Towson. We drank a little at Josh's place and then headed into the city. We traveled to a few bars throughout the night and danced, drank and hung out. Josh was hit on by a 17 year old at one point and I tried Fisk, the traditional Danish liquor. To describe Fisk I need to diverge and tell a quick story.

Freshman year of college I took a spur of the moment road trip to Salisbury to visit Jeff Lunnen with Rachael Kessler. When we got there Jeff only had Kool-Aid and cheap vodka. To make the vodka taste better Jeff mixed up some devilish concoction that consisted of vodka, kool-aid, tons of sugar and maybe some other ingredients. One mix, flavored with cherry tasted like robotussin. This we dubbed ghetto robotussin. The other, flavored with blue something, tasted like hynotiq. This we dubbed ghetto hypnotiq. Both were surprisingly delicious.

Now, Fisk is red in color and has an herbal, minty taste to it. In short, it is very similar to alcoholic robotussin; a flavor I have a soft spot for.

We attempted to play foosball but never got around to it, I found myself a cool Carlsberg glass and then we headed back to Josh's neighborhood on the night bus because at this point the train had stopped running. I had been forewarned that the night bus was bumpy, 45 minutes long and a big hassle, but there was no other option and I wanted to get the full Copenhagen experience anyway. I stamped my metro pass twice as instructed and sat down for the ride. Around 30 minutes into the ride and at around 3:30 a.m. some ticket inspectors made a surprise inspection of the bus. Coming on like the gestapo, everyone got quiet and started forking over their passes. I had little reason to worry because my pass was stamped correctly and waited my turn. As Josh and his friends showed their monthly passes I handed the inspector my card but he suddenly told me it wasn't enough.

Over the next 25 minutes I was grilled and asked about my social security number, passport, student identification number and other various things. Apparently, I did not stamp my pass the correct number of times and Josh was unaware of the correct amount for the night bus. Suddenly another inspector showed up and they began questioning me and then talking to each other in Danish. As they filled out a citation I was asked what my name was, if I had any more names, if Christopher John Gessner was my full name and once more if I had any more names. Finally, I think they were unable to get any sort of viable information out of me so they ended up just giving me a warning. With the ordeal over we finally got back to Albertslund and went to bed slightly before sunrise.
The next day we woke up late and headed to the Carlsberg brewery. After visiting the Pilsner brewery I was sweet on brewery tours so I wanted to hit up Carlsberg. We found the brewery which was very pretty and elephant themed. But, when we did the tour itself it was quite boring and self guided. Not to say it was awful, but the Pilsner tour was far superior and the best part of the Carlsberg tour was the two free beers at the end. 

After the tour we headed on to Tivoli. Tivoli is a large theme park in the very center of Copenhagen and is one of the oldest theme parks in the world. Accordingly, it is fairly small and antiquated. There are more parks, gardens and amphitheaters than rides but I was fine with this. We went of a few rides including a roller coaster, a spinning pirate ship, a straight drop and this thing that spins you around and busts your balls. The gardens in the park were beautiful as were the fountains. The center of the park is filled with large light fixtures hanging overhead and I regretted not being able to see the park lit up at night; I'm sure it's beautiful.

In addition to the rides we did the H. C. Andersen fun house, a few more roller coasters, the tea cups and my personal favorite, the cars. Exhausted, we headed back to Albertslund for a nap before the night's adventures. Because my flight was at 7:40 in the morning we decided to go out and stay out until the morning whereupon I would go catch my plane.

We decided to go to a ritzy club called Rust which was fine with me because I had 500 Kroner I needed to spend. We drank a little at Josh's and then caught the last train into the city around midnight. We grabbed a beer at 7-11 and headed to a bar around the street because we were told that we couldn't get into Rust until 2 because of some special event. We ended up at a laundromat/bar which was pretty weird. I was bored there so I drank a good bit and got pretty drunk. 

By the time we reached Rust there was a very long line so I sobered up. The only problem was that it was cold, I had a large travel bag with me and we ended up waiting for about an hour. As tensions got high some Frenchman behind us spat gum in Carly's hair. I have no idea why he did this and when I pushed him he suddenly forgot how to speak English and acted like he had done nothing wrong. I hate the French.

We finally into Rust though and it was amazing. The club had several floors and a live DJ spinning. The guy was really good and the dance floor was packed. We got out and danced for a good while, periodically taking breaks to drink Fisk, beers, water or go to the smoking room. After a solid few hours of dancing the scene began to wind down and the bar finally closed at 5. With some time before my flight we went to McDonald's and then Josh and co. decided to go with me to the airport because their train was not yet running. We got to the airport and by this time I was feeling the effects of 8 hours of sleep over 60 some hours. I had had a good amount of caffeine but eaten no real food and my stomach was reminding me of that fact. I periodically had horrible stomach cramps but continued to pound coffee in my body for fear of missing my flight. By the time I cleared security it was around 6:45 and my flight boarded at 7:20. I found my gate and noticed that there was no waiting area only a damned hallway. At this point I was too tired to care and I collapsed in the middle of the Copenhagen airport and played the Smashing Pumpkins full volume to try to stay awake. The sight of me must have been ridiculous. I reeked of smoke from the night's activities, my hair was disheveled, my eyes were glazed over and I was too lazy to shut my mouth and start breathing through my nose.

Somehow I made it to boarding and collapsed in my seat. The next thing I knew two people were sitting next to me and the flight attendant was asking me about a drink. I chugged a water while the pilot pointed out Berlin on the right side. I looked out and saw an amazing view. Tiergarten was right below and the Brandenburg gate and Berliner Dome were plainly visible. It was awesome especially since I had been there one week earlier. 

The rest of the journey was unremarkable and I arrived in Prague at around 11. The weather in Prague was beautiful as usual and it made the bus ride much more tolerable. I finally got off at Albertov at around 12:30 and strolled home in the gorgeous Sunday weather. I was strangely not tired upon my arrival considering I had gone over 2 days with very little sleep. My stomach was still killing me though so I eventually passed out in anticipation for Czech class the next day.

Copenhagen was certainly my most epic trip so far in terms of traveling but it was also very enjoyable. Like all of my trips it was a blast and it was good to see Josh again. By that time I was missing lots of things from home and it was good to commiserate and discuss the things we would do when we got back to College Park.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009


The trip to Berlin, like a lot of trips here, was put together pretty shoddily. A lot of people originally planned to go somewhere for the entirety of Easter weekend. The Monday after Easter was the only class day we have off for the entire program and it certainly made sense to go somewhere nice for the weekend, but as we learned more about Czech culture and the festivities that take place during easter it became more and more enticing to say. As Easter approached I was still debating whether I should travel or not when a I noticed a sign gracing the CIEE study center cork board early one morning. It read: "All classes for Thursday, April 9 are cancelled. Enjoy your Easter!", or something to that effect. With an extra day, the decision was pretty easy. I would travel somewhere close for 3 days and make it back for most of Sunday and Easter Monday.

The idea of going to Berlin had been thrown around and there was a general consensus among those not already traveling that we should head there. After all, it was close and supposed to be an amazing city. Not only had people in the program told me this but Josh and Allison both highly recommended it. In the days leading up to the trip people debated whether they would go or not and the final group was eventually decided upon. Ben was going to meet up with some friends from high school and Allison, David and myself would go, stay in a different hostel and hang out with Ben when we could.

When Thursday rolled around we packed our bags and caught a 10:40 train to Berlin. The train ride was pretty unremarkable save the fact that I had an expensive, yet terrible, smaženy sýr from the dining car. When we arrived at the Haputbahnhof we took a short train ride to our hostel; the Three Little Pigs Hostel. 

I got yelled at for talking loudly about this at the train station in Berlin but the fonts on all of the metro stops were very 'nazi-esque' as I put. Understandably, that shouldn't be said in Berlin but the fonts just screamed national socialism. If I was the Berlin public transit authority I would choose a different font, perhaps Comic Sans.

The hostel was surprisingly nice and had good accommodations. We checked in with ease and had to man at the front desk recommend a good place to get a beer. The guy gave us a map and planned out a route through Potsdamer Platz, the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and Tiergarden. The first stop was Potsdamer Platz, a site that used to be right on the Berlin Wall but has recently become a very commercial center signifying reunited Germany. Immediately I noticed that fantastic modern architecture all around the area.

Leaving Potsdamer Platz we headed over to the Brandenburg gate and stopped at a Holocaust memorial along the way. The Brandenburg gate was incredibly impressive as was the square on the inside of the gate. Here, we wandered into a building looking for an ATM but found a massive modern art fish construction. Next, we headed into Tiergarden looking for a beer garden but found nothing so we ate some food at a little cafeteria instead. I had a sausage and some delicious potatoes with a tasty weizenbier that reminded me of the ski trip I took earlier in the program. 

After our meal we began exploring the park and found a memorial for the Red Army and the Victory Arch (read: Column). We explored the park for a bit longer and then headed back to the hostel for a nap.

Until this point Ben had been with Allison, David and Me because his friends weren't arriving until 9 and we were just going to meet them at the hostel and then head out. If only it was so easy. Trying to meet Ben's friends at the hostel, we arrived at Wombat (the name of the hostel) and Ben began talking with the lady to see about his reservation while we enjoyed some beverages. Suddenly we hear Ben shouting. (I am paraphrasing)

Ben: (loudly) Fuck! What the fuck? Fuck!
Us: Ben, what the hell is going on.
Ben: (still shouting) I'm in the wrong fucking hostel. Fuck!

Apparently, Ben did not have a reservation at Wombat. He had a reservation in a hostel on the opposite side of town where his friends already were. After getting directions from the flustered receptionist we left for the correct hostel by this time miserably behind schedule. At this point I want to explain that Berlin is a sprawling city. While most of the sights in Prague are centrally located, to see anything good in Berlin you have to take a considerable trip by taxi or metro. So, about an hour of navigating the Berlin public transit system later, we arrived at Ben's real hostel. By this time his friends had already left and I was charged with asking the hostel receptionist where we should go. The man was a nice Australian who recommended a good techno club and explained how to get there on the map. 45 minutes later we got off the metro and walked to the club.

The club was called Lido and was situated in the famous club district of Kreuzberg (Bloc Party has a song named after it). The club was supposed to have a good DJ start spinning at 2 and we were there around 1. As we walked in it looked as though some act had just finished on stage so we ordered some beers and waited for 2 to come around. At some indeterminate time the DJ started spinning but I couldn't really discern it from the earlier house music. After a little dancing we decided it was time to go (it had been a long day) and hiked back to our hostel. This would be the last time we used public transport at the end of the night.

The next day the three of us woke up to a text from Ben saying that he lost his wallet on his cab ride home. We grabbed the all-you-can-eat breakfast from the hostel (it wasn't all that bad) and called Ben. Luckily he hadn't lost his passport or phone and was calling the cab company to see about his wallet albeit not from his phone because that was out of minutes. While Ben was calling we agreed to go rent bikes for the day and have Ben meet up with us later.

The hostel receptionist recommended a place nearby and we got three sweet rides from Checkpoint Charlie Bike Rentals. As the name implies, the rental place was right next to Checkpoint Charlie so we rode over and saw the famous Berlin locale. 

To effectively describe all that I saw and felt in the next 4 hours would be impossible. During the bike tour I went from liking Berlin to loving it. The weather was gorgeous and I saw parts of the city I never would have seen if I had just walked. Moreover, the city was incredibly bike accessible and, because the city was so large, bikes were the perfect way to get around. We say the Berliner Dome, rode down to Alexanderplatz and the TV tower, hung out in a park, rode along side the Spree, rode through tiny neighborhoods and then rode from the Berliner Dome up the street and through the Brandenburg gate. It was an amazing experience. Tragically, Ben was unable to rent a bike because he didn't have an ID. 

After the bike ride we had a delicious lunch/dinner at a small restaurant where the service was impeccable. We had another good nap and then got ready for the night. The plan was to pre-game near our hostel and then take a train to meet Ben in the bar district. The hostel didn't really have a nice place to drink so we ended up sitting with a few cocktails on a park bench near our metro stop. In College Park, sitting in the middle of a poorly lit park would be terrifying but in Berlin we just saw some nice people walking their dogs.

We made it to the bar district, I had my first Beck's and then we went from crowded bar to crowded bar. We finally ended up at some club with a three euro cover and a terrible DJ. This guy played the WORST euro metal and mixed in some Red Hot Chili Pepper and Rage. I danced when I deemed it appropriate and then we headed out. Right outside of the club they were selling grilled steak sandwiches. It was pretty cheap, I was hungry and it smelled good so I had one.

On the way back we ran into a hookah bar so we stopped in for a quick session. This hookah was amazing. It had real coals on the top and pulled fantastically. The best part was that when I went to pay, it only cost 4 euros. As we left the at around 4 am it was abundantly clear that no one wanted to take metro back so we grabbed a cab and got home in about 5 minutes. It was certainly worth it.

The next day we got up a little later and Ben came and met us at our hostel. We went out in search of food but had a little trouble finding a suitable restaurant. After a 30 minute walk across Berlin we settled for this nice outdoor restaurant that was staffed by only 2 incredibly overworked women. Two hours later we had finally eaten and paid and were ready to hit the town. Ben recommended a cool biergarten that he visited yesterday so we decided to go there.

The metro ride to the biergarten wasn't bad and Ben took us by the East Side Gallery, a large portion of the Berlin Wall that is covered with graffiti. When we finally got to the biergarten it wasn't quite what I expected. Right as we walked in there was a skate park, basketball court and lots of Rastafarians. Towards the back was a sandy beach right along the river with volleyball, foosball and a little cabana-like bar.

We grabbed a few beers and sat down in a little boat and started talking to some Germans. Some high school kid, Alex, decided to hang out with us for the rest of the afternoon. He was nice but really like the American girls. Either way, it was interesting to talk to him and told us about the biergarten. It was called Yaam, originally founded by students as a hang out spot and later some Rastafarians moved in. It remained a student hang out but now characters like 'Lyon' (pronounced like Lion, not the city in France) grill potatoes and corn for you. 

The highlight of Yaam was the Dju Dju beer. Early in the day our German friend Alex recommended one and I tried to order one. Asking for a Dju Dju the bartender asked me what flavor I wanted. This confused me because I wasn't aware beers came in flavors such as banana and passion fruit. I got scared and just ordered a Beck's. Later, Alex told us they were beers from Africa so I decided to get a banana Dju Dju. This beer was amazing. It was the tastiest Ghanaian  banana flavored beer I have ever had. The mango and palm varieties were equally delicious and we all drank quite a few. I think we were a bit of a joke to the Germans for liking them so much though. At one point I was singing their praises and some guys started laughing at me. Later, when I was ordered my 5th Dju Dju the bartender asked me if I was going to try them all. I'm still trying to figure out what the issue was. Perhaps you're supposed to enjoy your Dju Dju in moderation.

As the sun started to set with left weird German Alex and went back to the hostel. David and I decided to take a nap while Allison had a dinner date. Waking up, David and I went looking for a doner kebab (a Berlin invention). We got out of the hostel at 11:05 and soon realized that almost all kebab stands closed at 11. We started walking through Potsdamer Platz and on to the Brandenburg Gate. We went through the gate and headed down the long thoroughfare, past the Berliner Dome and all the way to the Alexanderplatz TV tower where we finally found some kebabs, albeit an hour and a half later. 

It must have been fate though because the guy at the kebab stand was awesome. The beers were only 3 euro for a half liter and as we ordered he pointed to his personal pewter stein and let us try beer from his personal stash. He showed us his little keg in the back and then talked with us for a little while. While we ate we tried to call Allison but were having some issues. The phone system in Berlin was a little touch and go with most dialed calls not connecting and a prerecorded message telling you that the number you dialed was not assigned. We eventually got in touch though and decided to meet at the same bar district as the night before. 

Again, we went into a few crowded bars before finding a nice quiet one with good prices and settled in. We drank a little and I talked to Ben's friends Heider? and David about what I should do in London. We just sat and relaxed before leaving and taking a cab home fairly early.

The next morning we woke up at 7 and checked out of the hostel. We took a metro to the train station and got on board our train. The car we were in had pull down seats so I slept for the entire ride. It was a fantastic train ride. We arrived in Prague around one with the sun shining, the weather nice and a great Easter Sunday ahead of us.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Plzen II

The next day of Plzen consisted of going to the town square and climbing to the top of the cathedral tower. From the top we could see over all of Plzen, and had great views of the large synagogue, the Skoda factory and the Pilsner Brewery. After taking a few pictures we climbed back down and walked over to the Pilsner Brewery. Like I said in the previous entry, the brewery is absolutely massive and covers much of Plzen. Eva apparently does some moonlighting at the Brewery so she served as our tour guide. 

At our first stop we learned that Pilsner Urquell is owned by SAB (South African Breweries) Miller, which means that Pilsner Urquell and delicious Miller High Life are made by the same company. A PU (Pilsner Urquell) bus came and picked us up and took us to the brand new bottling and packaging plant. This sucker cost some ridiculous amount of money and apparently was one of the most state of the art bottling plants in all of Europe. While the plant was interesting, you could only view it from a catwalk overhead. The best part of bottling plant was seeing a PU fire truck. I asked why they had PU fire trucks and Eva replied:

Because this is a factory, you need fire trucks.

Makes sense. They were awesome.

The next stop was the actual brewery. First, we watched a video that made me really want to drink a beer. Then, we learned what goes into beer and saw hops and barley that goes into PU. At the next stop we learned how the beer is brewed and saw beer being brewed in copper pots. The tour up to this point was fine but everyone had one question: When can we drink the beer?

Eva took us down into the basement where PU was originally stored. When beer is made, yeast is added last to the mixture and then the beer must sit while the yeast takes the sugar and creates alcohol and carbon dioxide. Today, this is done in storage tanks but was originally done in the basement of the brewery. The basement consists of miles of tunnels all hand dug. After a quick tour of the basement we arrived at a small room full of large barrels, presumably full of beer. Some tables had been set up and an old man was positioned at a tap coming out of one of the barrels. We all lined up, were handed a souvenir mug and got a tasty glass of unpasteurized, unfiltered Pilsner Urquell. Apparently, you can only get this type of beer on the factory tour and it was delicious. 

We went to get refills but Eva was a little worried. Apparently, CIEE has a rule that you cannot be served alcohol on any school trips. But, because the brewery tour was educational a 'beer tasting' was allowed; you just weren't allowed to get drunk. We tried our best to break this rule by getting as much pure pilsner as possible.

After the brewery tour we had some lunch and headed to Točník castle. Točník was built by King Wenceslas IV as a fortress and home between Plzen and Prague. The castle was perched on a hill and, after a night of drinking, no one was too eager to hike up this hill and spend the afternoon in the hot sun. Getting off the bus, I looked around the surrounding town and it was pretty small. The landscape mostly consisted of fields, woods and small houses. As Eva explained, this was more or less what the Bohemian countryside looks like. Moreover, when the weather gets nice most Czechs spend their weekends hiking or camping around castles like Točník. We hiked to the castle and it really was incredible. Looking at the bare structure I couldn't help but think that the meager building was incredibly luxurious in its time. I tried to put myself in the shoes of Wenceslas IV but it was hard to imagine what his world was like.

Historical sites are generally different in Europe than in the United States. Once you pay admission you are pretty much allowed to wander freely and there is little security. For example, the castle was perched on a large hill with steep cliffs on most sides. Still, no guardrails or staff were around to make sure that people didn't fall or ruin the castle from the 14th century. At one point, we simply climbed up a castle wall to an inaccessible point of the wall and enjoyed the view.   

After we finished with the castle we climbed back down the hill and laid in a huge field, enjoying the warm weather. The weekend of the Plzen trip was one of the first weekends of gorgeous weather and it hugely affected how I enjoyed the trip. Seeing the Bohemian countryside in bloom was fantastic. Eva even mentioned how glad she was that we all got to see how Czechs spend their weekends during the warm months. It was a surprisingly cultural trip, considering I went mainly because of the brewery tour.

We finally made it back to Prague around 4 and I was shocked. Prior to that time, weekends in Prague had always been a little crowded but in that one week it seemed like the city exploded. The Vltava was filled with paddle boats and the sun was just setting over Prague Castle. Even after a great weekend in Plzen I was not only impressed with Prague's beauty but was happy to be back; forgetting how much I missed Prague being gone only one day. 

The bus had some issues parking because we weren't allowed anywhere near the Hilton, where President Obama was staying. The police and security presence outside the hotel was incredible. Finally, we took a nice tram home in the warm weather.

Note: Since Plzen the weather has been consistently good here. Throughout the winter the weather was cold but what really surprised me was the cloud cover. 75% of the days here had NO sunshine. I had the hope that when spring came the sun would come out but assumed that it was just wishful thinking. After all, I couldn't see how warm weather could cause the sun to shine. In any case the weather has surpassed all of my expectations and it is gorgeous here. I don't understand the drastic change but am wholly enjoying the amazing weather.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Plzen I

Note: This entry should probably be in one part but I'm getting tired of writing so I'm separating it into two parts.

CIEE, my program, has two different types of trips you can take outside of Prague. The first type, optional trips, cost extra and go to cities outside of the Czech Republic such as Vienna, Berlin and Krakow. The ski trip and trip to Krakow I took were optional trips. The second type, mandatory trips, go to different cities in the Czech Republic and are generally more academic in nature. The CIEE policy states that you have to attend 2 mandatory trips (there is a total of 3 dates). Most trips are day trips, but last weekend the mandatory trips were all overnight. We were given several destinations to choose from ranging from Česky Krumlov, a historic city, to Plzen, a city full of beer. I opted for Plzen.

Plzen, as you may know is the home of the Pilsner Urquell brewery. Pilsner Urquell is the most famous Czech beer while Gambrinus, also made at the Plzen brewery, is the most imbibed Czech beer. I decided to go to Plzen for several reasons. Not only did it offer a tour of the Pilsner brewery, which I fantasized to be a mix between Willy Wonka and getting drunk, but it was only one night while the rest of the trips were two night stays.

The bus for Plzen left at 8:40 in the morning, but, as is common with CIEE, we didn't leave until 45 minutes later. The trip had 18 kids on it and we all crammed into this tiny Mercedes-Benz short bus. The thing was cramped but it was only an hour and a half drive each way.

The first stop was a glass factory on the way to Plzen. The official itinerary said glass 'factory', but it was quite the misnomer. I would probably go with glass room or glass shack. The 'factory' was in a very small town and consisted of one room for production and another to sell the glass. Upon arrival, we walked right into the production area and watched three men in flip flops and dirty t-shirts wield long, metal poles make glass flowers. Barely acknowledging us, the glass workers would put the glass in the stove and work it with various tools into these pretty glass flowers. While we watched, our tour guide, Eva (the same one from Krakow), explained how cheap Chinese glass was destroying the rich Bohemian heritage of glass making. 

Because Eva was a spokesperson for the glass 'factory', and because business was no so good, we were told at every available opportunity to buy the glass. This started when we received our itineraries. Under the glass 'factory' stop it read something like, "Please buy glass at the gift shop!!!!!" On the trip there, Eva made sure to tell us what a great deal the prices were. The prodding worked and I ended up buying some nice things from the shop.

Getting back on the bus, we had a 45 minute ride to Plzen. Entering the city we drove past the Pilsner Brewery which was absolutely massive. The town of Plzen originally had a royal charter permitting it to brew beer and the brewery sort of spread itself out across the city. We entered the city center which was larger than I expected and pretty quaint. Our hotel was on a main road in the city with a little park right outside. The hotel itself was really nice and very old. You could fit a car through all of the doors and the reception desk looked like it hadn't changed since 1920. It made you feel like you were staying there in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

We grabbed some lunch and went on a small tour of the city. Plzen used to have a very large Jewish population and actually has the third largest synagogue in the world. We visited the synagogue first and it was really interesting. Apparently, prior to World War II, the synagogue housed the large Jewish population in Plzen and was very beautiful. But, following the deportation of Plzen Jews to concentration camps the synagogue was used to store Jewish possessions by the Nazis. After the war, services resumed until the communist coup in 1948 when they were once again banned. Services were resumed intermittently throughout communism until they eventually stopped for good some time in the 1970s. During this time the synagogue fell into a state of disrepair because no money was allowed to be spent on repairs of upkeep. Finally, in 1989, the synagogue reopened but by then the Jewish population in Plzen had seriously dwindled. Since then, the building has been partially repaired but because so few jews are left in Plzen no services actually take place there. The synagogue is now used for tours, concerts and art exhibitions. 

Leaving the larger synagogue we went to the original synagogue of Plzen which was also under restoration. Here we learned that none of the Jews in Plzen actually go to services or are really religious. So, when they want to do something, they need to call a rabbi from Prague (one of the two in the Czech Republic), but the rabbi is very conservative so it makes things kind of awkward.

After the synagogue tours we went to the Patton Museum. The only city liberated by the US in World War II, Plzen had the unique treat during communism of  celebrating American liberation while the citizens of Prague had to attend mandatory parades celebrating the Russians. The museum was pretty tiny and lame but it was nice to see some World War II weapons and historical artifacts. 

The Patton Museum concluded the guided tour and we were then free to roam about Plzen. We went to an Easter market in the town square and then headed over to a restaurant and beer museum where you can get unfiltered beer. According to Eva, this beer had not been filtered to take the yeast out of it and as a result is cloudier and better tasting. It is taken to the restaurant every day from the brewery across the river. 

Finished with our, beers we headed out, had dinner and I had an early night.