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14 posts categorized "Culture"

06/05/2014

Ahoj from Prague!

written by Ashley Schulte

Exploring a new city exemplifies living in a state of exhilaration.  The city becomes your playground, your place to experience a culture other than your own. 

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Old Town Hall Tower  

 

You can get to know its essence by sitting quietly and observing the residents passing by, or you can try your hand at speaking the language and interacting with the locals.  Both of these are a form of immersion, and though sitting back while the city is full of life around you may seem at first glance to be a static activity, it is actually quite dynamic.

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Wenceslas Square 

By definition, “dynamic” refers to a person or process characterized by progress, energy, and/or new ideas, and an activity that may be passive in other contexts is engaging when in a previously unfamiliar land.

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You must be present in the moment while traveling as you observe your surroundings and take note of the differences between your home and this new area.  There are differences related to the senses, such as the scent of the air, the aesthetic layout of the blocks, the architectural style of the buildings, and the native tongue being used by the locals.
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St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle

 

On top of these variations, there are differences that do not stand out as quickly as the fragrance of a local market may.  How did history unfold on the very ground you’re standing on that led to the current moment? How did the groups of people inhabiting this area change over time, and what are the traditions and norms of the current population?

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Crosses marking where 27 Protestants were executed after the Battle of White Mountain in the 17th century

 

It is this requirement for constant engagement that has me viewing travel as a remedy. Experiencing a new culture softens a closed mind and expands an already open one.  Walking down the street in a foreign city brings with it a sense of magic whereas doing the same at home may seem like just another part of your routine. Traveling reminds you that the world is much bigger than the little bubble that you occupy on a daily basis, which brings with it a sense of comfort.  Travel is a remedy for a closed mind, for a routine, for the mundane.

 

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View of the city from Prague Castle 

 

I personally find myself feeling antsy if I stay in one place for too long, needing new experiences to nurture my mind. Though I’ve only been in Prague for a week, I feel accomplished knowing that I’ve made the most of each day. Here’s a rough outline of what I’ve been up to the last seven days:

 

5/26/14: Arrived in Prague after a 3-leg fight.  The airport is small, and I was easily able to find the CIEE staff who then had a cab take me to my flat. I have 3 other roommates- two ladies in the program with me, and one flat buddy who is a student at Charles University. After meeting the other girls, I put away some of my luggage and rested in the flat for a little bit. Our apartment is in a great location, and is beautifully designed.  I wasn’t expecting such a renovated apartment, and I can say with full confidence that this is a more than comfortable place to stay for the next few weeks. Once we were all feeling rejuvenated enough to walk around and fight our jet leg, our flat buddy took us around the city to explore. We became acquainted with the area around our apartment, walked through Old Town, and ended up at the John Lennon Wall.  This piece of ever-changing art is particularly interesting because people began tagging it during the Communist regime here in Prague. The graffiti covering its surface started as a resistance against the order, and people have been writing on it since the 1980’s.

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John Lennon Wall

 

5/27: During our first day of orientation, CIEE staff taught us about Czech customs and helped us understand the layout of the program. They have so many activities planned for us, including cooking lessons, trips to museums, cultural events such as seeing a ballet at the National Theater, and more. We went on a walk around the city after orientation with one of the flat buddies, and met at Petřínské Terasy, a restaurant, for a buffet-style dinner.

 

5/28: This was our last day of orientation, and we learned more about Czech history after going on a three-hour walk around Prague.  We were guided by one of the professors, and her knowledge really helped us picture historical events that usually seem to be too distant to understand. 

 

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Astronomical Clock Tower with my roommates, Casey and Emily

5/29:  Thursday was our first day of classes. I’m taking Psychoanalysis and Art and Survival Czech, both of which are extremely interesting. It’s remarkable how much more “at home” I feel in the city after taking just a few classes on the language! After our day at school, my roommates and I went to a department store to shop before getting dinner at The Louvre.  We originally chose this restaurant based on a dessert recommendation, but ended up enjoying food + drinks on top of a raspberry sundae.

5/30: After classes, the Psychoanalysis and Art students stayed in the student lounge to watch a screening of “The Witches Hammer,” a Czech film based on a book of the same title. This is preparing us for our trip to Moravia this weekend, where we will see Freud’s childhood home and the site of the 17th century witch trials. We went to a club called Lucerna later in the evening, and much to our delight, danced to 80’s and 90’s music until the early morning. I obviously had to get the traditional Czech treat of fried cheese on the way back to our flat.  I would try to put into words how delicious smažený sýr is, but will refrain from doing so because I will not be able to do it justice.

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Lucerna with my classmates and new friends Nikole and Anna :)

5/30: My roommates and I slept in to fight the never-ending jet lag battle, and went to the Communist Museum in the afternoon.  The pieces in the exhibit tie together the past with modern day Czech Republic, culminating in the film room.  The TV was playing a movie with powerful footage from protestors and cops during the communist regime up until 1989.  The film showed fighting on Wenceslas Square, and it was crazy to see how different the dynamic of this area was just a little over 20 years ago. This added to the balcony exhibit on communism in present-day North Korea to make for an overall heart-wrenching museum trip.  I feel like I learned a great deal on how communism affects a community, and the many parts of the museum helped put a real-life context to a subject that I’ve only read about in text books up until now. On our way out of the museum, we saw a brochure for an underground tour of Prague starting in 15 minutes, so we rushed over to the ticket sales booth to join in.  I love how it’s easy to be spontaneous here in the city- there is so much culture to experience, and there’s always something going on. The tour turned out to be fascinating, and we learned that the Old Town Hall used to house a prison in the cellar. Apparently people have weddings in the hall now, and the tour guide said that someone in one of his previous tours assured him that marriage was essentially the same as prison anyways.  Coincidentally, my dad made the same joke when I told him of the tour. I would say “great minds think alike,” but I don’t think that phrase really fits this situation :D We had planned on going home after the tour, but got caught up in the street entertainment in Old Town Square. There has been some form of art-whether it be music or some performance-every time I’ve been through the square so far!

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Postcard from Muzeum komunismu

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Musician performing on Old Town Square

6/1: On Sunday, I went with my roommates and flat buddy to Costa Coffee to study and do readings for our classes. It was a nice and relaxing, but still mentally stimulating, day :)

6/2: Woohoo- one whole week! On our way to lunch between classes, we discovered an entire wall of flowers going down one side of the park by our school.  What a gem to find! This stands in contrast to the cemetery that my roommates and I walk through every morning on the way to class (which, for the record, I find equally as interesting as the flower wall.) After classes, my roommates and I got Vietnamese takeout.  We have been super tired, and have needed a rest day after all of the walking and exploring we’ve been doing.

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Vyšehrad Cemetery

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Part of the flower wall

Well, that’s all for now. I apologize for the length of this blog- I shouldn’t have waited a whole week to make an update! I plan on posting every couple of days from now on. 

Na shledanou, friends :)

 

Franz Kafka Exhibition

written by Danielle Corcione

After staying in Prague for a week, I finally got to venture over the Charles Bridge to the Kafka Museum. In fact, the famous writer inspired me to come to Prague years ago. Through his morbid stories and recounts of living in the city, I learned about Czech culture and history. Although the museum was only two floors, there was undoubtedly more than I had ever known about the author. As Kafka pursued his literary career as an adult, he simultaneously worked at an insurance company. Eventually, he earned a prestigious and authorities position within the company under accident prevention division, a rather difficult department compared to the rest. The museum collected a series of letters to his employer about temporary sickness that prevented him from working, even for extended periods of time. He frequently felt overworked. It was this relentless exhaustion that influenced his writing.

 

Interestingly enough, his short story, A Hunger Artist, is more reality than fiction. During the late 1910s, Kafka starved himself from a crippling disease. Food would not ingest in his stomach. He admittedly did not have a desire to eat. On top of this, he was also a strict vegetarian. Kafka often joked that vegetarians never went hungry, because they were too busy eating their own flesh.

 

Like Kafka, I, too, am a vegetarian. Prior to my departure, I researched traditional Czech cuisine and figured it rather challenging to maintain a balanced diet. However, I have made it work so far. A couple days ago, I found a vegetarian place not too far away from my apartment, called Beas. It specializes in Indian cuisine. My goal this week is to explore and find more with restaurants vegetarian-friendly dishes!

 Ahoj!

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03/14/2014

Film Festival Frenzy

written by Molly Emmett (Whitman College)

I’ve always been interested in film festivals, but it seems that in the States I’d have to get tickets way ahead of time, or they’re really expensive or the festival is too far away for me to justify going. However, the stars aligned this month, and I’ve attended four films from two different film festivals in the past week–plus, there’s another festival (Febiofest) hitting the city at the end of March.

The first film I saw was part of Shockproof Film Fest, a kitschy horror film festival running at an awesome independent cinema called Aero in Žižkov, a hip Prague neighborhood (so I’ve been told–I’ll have to check it out some more). I’m surprised at myself for agreeing to attend a festival whose trailer actually made me feel nauseous because of the (campy) gore, but I was invited by my Tandem Partner (I help him practice English, he helps me practice Czech) and I figured, “when in Prague…” Anyway, it turned out really well. We saw a goofy 80s low-budget “horror” called Killer Klowns from Outer Space and it was just as ridiculous as you’d imagine. Quick synopsis: Alien-circus-tent/spaceship lands in small-town America and releases bloodthirsty “klowns” (aliens w/ clown-like appearance) who kill people by shooting them with popcorn guns or laser guns which trap them in pink cotton-candy. Teen love triangle (boy, girl + cop ex-boyfriend) saves the day by defeating the monstrous klown leader and exploding the ship as it takes off, but not before half the town has been turned into bloody cotton candy blobs. INSTANT CLASSIC. Highly recommended.  Read more here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095444/

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The other three films were part of a much more serious festival, called OneWorld (or Jeden Svět). One World is an international human rights documentary film festival which took place in multiple venues in Prague over the last week and a half and will travel to Brno next (as will Shockproof). One cool thing about the festival is that several of my professors incorporated attendance into their syllabi, so I got to attend all three films for free (tickets were inexpensive, but still). Another plus is that I got to visit two lovely cinemas (kina, kino singular)–Atlas, a more modern venue with a bar/cafe upstairs and two theaters below; and Lucerna, a historical location with a large bar/cafe in front and two theaters upstairs (plus the name is shared with the neighboring club). I don’t have pictures, but take my word, they’re fancy. And the films themselves were great. On Saturday night I saw Ukriane is Not a Brothel, a film about the Ukrainian group FEMEN made by Australian-Ukrainian director Kitty Green. On Monday evening I watched Czech director Radim Špaček’s Incoming!, which chronicled daily life of the members of the Czech Provincial Reconstruction team working in Logar, Afghanistan for five years. Finally, on Tuesday evening I saw Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer about three members of the Russian activist group Pussy Riot who were tried and sentenced to two years in jail for their feminist punk demonstrations in a candidly corrupt judicial system. The British film was made by directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, and Lerner answered questions after the viewing (as did Radim Špaček after his film).

I would recommend all three documentaries, but especially the last. For more info, check out the website: http://www.oneworld.cz/2014/ (I think this is the English version).

11/26/2013

Terezín

Written by Kathy Shield (Tufts University)

To write this post, I really have to start a few years ago: the last time I was in Prague. My grandparents brought our whole family here to explore the city they had been born in, to learn a bit of the family history, to visit Europe, and to have a fun family vacation. Although I was old enough to understand some of why we came, I think I missed a lot of the family history they wanted to share with us, and that is one of the many many reasons I decided to come to Prague.

When we were here, we went all over the city, visiting typical tourist spots, but also Babi’s high school and the house Deda was born in and the park they both played in. We also visited the Pinkas Synagogue, which is famous for the names written on the walls. Not just any names, but names of the 80,000 Czech Jews lost during the war. The Synagogue is dedicated to these people whose lives were lost. Some were lost in the sense that they were killed; some were lost in the sense that the last written record of them are the Nazi deportation lists these names are copied off of. I remember the wall of Prague Jews, the red last names and the gold stars separating families. And I remember Deda standing there, staring at the wall for what seemed like an eternity. I remember the single tear that rolled down his cheek before he hustled us out, saying we’d spent enough time with him showing us around the city, and that we deserved an ice cream.

My grandparents said that they’d always wanted to take the family to Prague and had just been waiting for all us grandkids to be old enough. Maybe that was true. But I can’t help but think that they knew they were reaching the end of their ability to travel across the ocean. They were old enough that crossing the city was a long, slow process, but they were determined to share some history with us. I respect them immensely for that. But I also realize that I witnessed something unique that day. Not just the tear, though it was the only tear I’ve ever seen on Deda’s face. But also that I got to see the last time my grandfather ever visited his mother and brother. Because, when there is no body to be buried, the closest thing family gets to a grave is the name written on the wall in memorandum.

Back to present day. My Jewish history class took a trip to Lidice and Terezin. Lidice is the town completely destroyed by the Nazis in revenge for the assassination by Czechs of SS Officer Heidrich. The Nazis killed every man, and sent every woman and child to concentration camps. They bombed and burned the town to the ground, and even dug up every body in the cemetery. Not a single Jew lived in the town. Terezin is the fortress town the Nazis turned into a Jewish ghetto/concentration camp/transport camp. Nearly every Czech Jew was sent through Terezin on his way to concentration and work camps.

Needless to say, it was an emotional day for everyone that went. Its hard to face the reality of what happened. Even when you know the facts, the emotion of actually being there always hits harder than you expect.

Ever since the aforementioned trip to the Pinkas Synagogue a few years ago, I’ve always looked for my grandfather’s immediate family’s names in lists of names. It doesn’t matter where I am. (even if the list has nothing to do with the Holocaust, I look at the names.) And, honestly, I’ve stopped expecting to see any names I know.

We were walking around a museum in Terezin, filled with stories and pictures the kids drew while they lived in the town. Parents and other adults did the best they could to make life in Terezin as normal as possible, giving children an education and the ability to express themselves and a soccer field to play on when they had the strength. I walked into another room, and am surrounded on all four sides by off-white walls covered in names and dates. The names of children sent to Terezin and their birthdates.

Like any other list, I scan for the names. Like any other list, I expect to see absolutely nothing.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Knocked the wind right out of me, and I literally doubled over. There it was, the name I’d been always looking for but desperately hoping to never see. I was sliding down the wall, gasping for breath, and I heard a comforting voice, but I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t care and I couldn’t think.

 

The next five minutes are a blur. I don’t know what anyone said, I don’t know what really happened. Then we were watching a propaganda movie filmed by the Nazis near the end of the war, as an attempt to convince the Allies that the camps were good for the Jews. There were young boys playing soccer, watering plants in the garden, reading books, playing cards.

May 31, 1928.

He was somewhere around 13, 14, 15 years old when he is in Terezin.

The Rabbi says children were sent at age 14 to Auschwitz; children under 16 were killed upon arrival. Was this his fate?

Young boys of that age were involved in producing plays and publishing magazines filled with poems and stories and drawings. Did he help with one of the many magazines we have seen over the course of the days, on walls of museums?

The able bodied were forced to do hard labor – digging trenches to redirect the river, building Nazi weaponry in underground mines, digging mass graves for their friends and family. Is this how he finished his life?

Thousands of men, women, and children never made it out of Terezin because of the deplorable living conditions and high disease rates?Did he die in his mother’s arms? His father’s? Did they die in his arms?

Did they ever see each other in Terezin?

A few hundred children survived. A tree stands in the Terezin cemetery where the descendants of these children meet annually. We don’t actually know what happened. Would I find distant relatives of mine there?

Since our trip to Terezin, our class has had the opportunity to listen to two Holocaust survivors. One, Pavel Stransky, defied fate multiple times and managed to survive for almost three years in Auschwitz. Both he and the artist Helga Weiss-Hošková went through Terezin. Both survivors had phenomenal stories. They were, quite simply, lucky to survive – neither could truly explain why or how it happened. It seemed, honestly, like neither had even managed to figure out why they had been allowed to live while their friends and family survived. And both told their stories as if it wasn’t something that had actually happened to them, as if they had no personal experience with it at all. I can only assume that they have put their emotions in a box, separate from their memories, in order to share their memories and stories with us.

And yet, somehow, I am hit by the emotion of it while they sit stoic. It is as if they have passed the emotion onwards, in order that the next generation may remember. In fact, Pavel explicitly said that his main job now, as a survivor, is to pass his story on to the next generation so that the stories and memories may live on forever in our collective memory. I only wish that my grandfather could have added his story too. I don’t even know if he knew the story himself; it is possible that he never found out at all.

And even if I do find out someday, I know there is no way to really understand what my family went through. The reality of the history of the Holocaust is incomprehensible, but I know that it is a part of my history that I know nothing about. I don’t know if I want to know, and that’s an issue I’m going to be struggling with for at least the next few months; maybe the rest of my life.