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8 posts from September 2012


L’Shana Tovah from Praha

By Sarah Russell, Indiana University

Early this week I celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  It is one of the holiest days in Judaism next to Yom Kippur, which is next week.  Two friends and I went to evening services in the Jewish Community Center synagogue in the center of the Jewish Quarter.  It was a small service in English and Hebrew led by the Rabbi who teaches Judaism classes at my program.  There were students as well as adults in attendance.  The room was small but ornate, with a high ceiling and gold decorated archways leading down to a beautiful, delicate ark. 

JCC Synagogue


The service was exactly like home.  Wherever you go in the world, you can count on Jewish services to be similar, if not the same.  While the tunes of prayers may be slightly altered, every word is Hebrew and recognizable to someone who has been High Holiday services before.  It was the first time I wasn’t slightly confused about the language or where I was, or if I was acting in accordance with the culture around me.  It was home.


One part of the service, Tashlikh, was quite different from home.  At this part, each member goes to a flowing body of water and throws bread crumbs into the water.  This represents “casting away your sins to the depths of the sea”.  We threw our bread into the Vltava, the river running through Prague.  It was, in the simplest of terms, epic.

  Old New Synagogue

Before the program, my parents and I did a tour of the Jewish Quarter.  There are many synagogues, most of which have been turned into different museums depicting eras of Jewish life in Prague.  The most astounding and jaw dropping was the Pinkas Synagogue.  Every wall is covered by tiny writing which looks like some form of modern art.  However, when you look closely, you see thousands of names belonging to Czech Holocaust victims.  The names of extinct towns are scattered throughout the names.  I was in awe walking through the hallways.

  Pinkas Synagogue

The most beautiful is the Spanish synagogue.  It was incredibly ornate and detailed with gold and multi colored walls, columns, and windows.  The lamp was even in the shape of a Star of David.  It was beautiful, but compared to the simplicity of most synagogues in the world, it seemed somewhat out of place.

The oldest synagogue is the Old-New Synagogue, from 1270.  Services are still held during Shabbat and holidays.  It is said that the body of the legendary Golem of Prague is in the attic of this synagogue.  The Golem was supposedly created by Rabbi Loeb in the late 16th century.  It is said the Rabbi used Kabbalah to create a creature out of clay that would protect the Prague Jews from anti-Semitic attacks.  However, as the creature grew, he turned violent and killed at will.  Rabbi Loeb destroyed the Golem, but spared its body if it was needed again.

Spanish Synagogue

I may not be that religious, but I certainly love being Jewish.  I can find a Jewish home almost anywhere in the world and feel comfortable and welcome.

Intensive Czech and Incredible Opera

By Sarah Russell, Indiana University

Dobrý den (Good day!)

My boyfriend wrote me saying, “How are you supposed to be a communications major when you haven't posted a journal entry in 10 days????”  Well here’s your answer:  Intensive Czech Class.

Czech from 9:30-2:30 is pretty brutal.  The language one of the most difficult for native English speakers to learn, but I can deal with that.  It’s just the fact that we’re in the same class for 5 hours that kills me.  And then, we have mandatory logistical things we need to take care of, like getting our Charles University student IDs and going to the Ministry of the Interior to officially change our addresses.  Not to mention homework and studying, and of course the occasional shut-eye.


Our teacher, Petra, is really great.  She is young and always answers our questions even if they don’t have to do with the language.  She is always open to helping out and truly wants us to do well.  I think if I didn’t have a teacher like her, I wouldn’t even be interested in learning Czech.

Even though the class is hard, it is really nice to be able to get around the city, order food, ask where something is, and have a basic conversation with a local.  It has turned my experience of being a foreigner and tourist into a deeper, more meaningful local experience.  And it can only go up from here.

Friday night we went to the National Theatre to see Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata, an Italian opera subtitled in Czech and English.  The movie Moulin Rouge! is loosely based off this opera which follows the life of a deathly ill prostitute who falls in love, only to be rejected by her lovers family.  I’m usually skeptical about operas since they can be so hit or miss, but this performance was incredible.  The voices were all stunning, and the set and costumes were so elegant and spectacular.  Plus, the atmosphere of a beautiful 1800’s theatre certainly helped.

Opera 2


Na shledanou! (See you later!)


Hiking through the Bohemian Paradise

By Sarah Russell, Indiana University

Český ráj, literally translated to Bohemian Paradise, is a protected area about 2 hours north of Prague by train. A group of Americans, Czechs, and one Slovak hiked around 7 miles into the woods, across fields, and through tiny towns to reach the ruins of the Frýdštejn Castle.


The hike was beautiful. We were in the foothills of the mountains that border the Czech Republic, a rocky terrain with farmland splotched between forests and cliffs. To get to the start of the trail, we hiked up a steep road which seemed endless. However, my energy was renewed when about halfway up, we saw a local farmer on the road. I will always regret not taking a picture with him. Why was this Czech farmer so special?

He was wearing an Ovechkin shirt, a player from my hometown hockey team, the Washington Capitals!!!!

I did a triple-take before yelling ‘go Ovechkin’ and having a wonderful hockey moment with him. Back to the hike. While most of the trail was in the forest, we took a couple detours to step out on the edge of the rock cliffs to look at the view. In the distance on another hill, there looked to be two smokestacks. It was in fact, the ruins of another giant castle. We took the opportunity to free climb up what can only be referred to as the Czech Pride Rock. We wandered past an archway and stone obelisk that could have come from the set of Pan’s Labrynth. We also made it to what is thought to be the site of the first Czech settlement. Carved in the rock is the name Jan Hus, one of the most famous Czech historical figures. We finally made it to the castle, constructed sometime in the 14th century atop a giant rock. Not much is known about the castle, but it is preserved quite well.


We were able to explore the different levels of rooms, and climb to the top of the tower to look across the valley. Afterwards, we went to a small town and had the best of local Czech food and drink, stuffing ourselves with extra fruit dumplings of course. It was wonderful to get out of the city for a day and see a completely different part of the country.


Fruit and Fashion

By Sarah Russell, Indiana University

Last Thursday I took a break from the hectic world of Intensive Czech and went to one of the Czech buddies apartments to learn how to make a traditional Czech dish – Fruit Dumplings.  I didn’t eat for the rest of the day.

Dumplings are probably the most popular traditional Czech food.  One kind just looks like sliced white bread but is doughy and delicious.  The other kind are balls of dough stuffed with anything: potatoes, meat, or fruit.  You would think the fruit dumplings would be considered a dessert, but these are in fact a main meal.  And rightly so, because even three small dumplings are enough to fill a stomach for hours.

  Fruit Dumplings2

We made ours with strawberries and plums.  The dough is made from butter, flour, an egg, and soft curd (the solid part of cottage cheese).  The dough is molded around the fruit and boiled for ten minutes.  As a final touch, chocolate powder, sour cream, and a mix of shredded hard curd and powdered sugar is sprinkled on top.  These dumplings are to die for. 

Fruit dumplings

Friday I went with our program to tour Prague Castle and see the changing of the guard.  In the square before the entrance to the castle, a giant white tent was set up with red carpets and nice Mercedes lined up in front.  It turns out the tent is a runway – Prague Fashion Weekend had started that day. 

Fashion Show

In any other city I wouldn’t dream of even being able to sit second row at a major fashion show, let alone walk right in and immediately be able to afford a ticket.  For a measly $12, three friends and I watched as Czecho-Slovak models swaggered down the runway in clothes that could pay for my college tuition.  The atmosphere was incredible, everyone in the audience was dressed their best and photographers snapped pictures constantly.  I’m not enthralled by fashion at all, but this was definitely one of the cooler things I’ve witnessed.

On the way home, we stopped into the Wallenstein Gardens, in the back of the Wallenstein Palace which houses the Czech Senate.  There happened to be a concert going on, complete with free food. The gardens are beautifully manicured and lush, with ponds, fountains, and sculptures in between the rows of trees and gardens.  Peacocks roam free, harassed by tourists.  There is a camouflaged cage in the back of the garden that houses several snoozing great owls.  Further back, there is a grey wall that looks like the inside of a cave.  However, if you look closely you can see human faces and animals sculpted into the wall.  It is stark against the green of the garden, but makes the atmosphere uniquely Czech.  A perfect end to a wonderful day.





Bohemian Paradise

By Sara Shaughnessy, Hamilton College

I’ve been trying to think of a first sentence for this blog post for the past week. Where do I even start? The craziness of finding out your hotel roommate during orientation, learning to take the Metro, or attempting to uncover the mystery within the aisles of Tesco and Albert? Everything that has occurred during the past few weeks spins in my mind as I try to come up with words to describe my first experience in Prague. I suppose I will start with my most recent excursion this past Sunday, a 10 mile hiking trip with Martin and about 20 other students from the CIEE program to trails and fields of countryside, a much needed escape from our busy lives in Prague.


We began early Sunday morning (well 8:45 am, but that’s still impressive, right?) and ventured two hours from Prague into the natural protected lands of the Czech Republic, otherwise known as “Bohemian Paradise.” With a steep incline to begin the hike, we were all in need of hydration and a break when we reached the top of the very large hill. At the top, we gazed over rolling hills, wooden fences holding fields with cows, and apple trees which featured fresh, juicy apples that Martin assured us we could pluck from the tree and eat. Let me tell you, these apples were a refreshing reminder that natural, delicious fruit exists outside of the packaged fruit in Prague grocery stores (although JZP does have an excellent farmer’s market on Wednesdays, with apples that rival the apples we ate on the hike). After the snack, we continued on through woodsy trails and to an abandoned castle on the side of the mountain. With each step I climbed towards the landing at the top, the steps cracked as I gazed down through the holes between each one with heightening fear. Luckily, the view from the top was breathtaking and entirely worth each flinch and moment of second-guessing my decision to go up.


 Hunter and Blair at the top of the castle

We arrived at the end of the trails around 4, and after few breaks but plenty of uphills, most of us were in need of a good meal. While I have had my share of traditional Czech meals since I’ve lived in Prague, nothing could have prepared me for this pub. The menu was only in Czech, and our Czech buddy with us had to translate every single word (we could decipher a few words from our days of intensive Czech, but not quite enough). I ended up with a plate of breaded chicken, potatoes, and a piece of lettuce topped with a tomato. Apparently at traditional Czech restaurants they just don’t include vegetables in their meals, which did not go over well with Danielle, the vegetarian of the group, though she did find a dish that worked for her. For dessert, the table split 3 servings (the hike clearly increased our appetite) of fruit dumplings, which the group deemed “the best food I have tasted yet in Prague.” The meal was an experience, but I think I’ll be seeking out other types of food besides traditional Czech during my stay in Prague. Luckily, we have plenty of various cuisines to choose from!


Two hours later, I arrived back at Hlavni Nadrazi with my friends, exhausted and ready for a long, hot shower. My legs ached, but in a good way. The experience of breathing in the fresh country air for those hours, stumbling on random rocks and snapping photos with friends and people I hadn’t met yet made the need to take Advil today completely okay.



By Sarah Russell, Indiana University

If I lived in Europe, maybe I too would be an insane soccer fan.  After screaming unknown Czech words in the rowdy section of a sold out European elimination game, I finally understand why people love soccer.

Well, maybe I don’t understand that quite yet, but I certainly fell in love with the atmosphere. 

Don’t worry: Sparta Praha won 2-0 to eliminate Dutch Rotterdam in the European League!

About 20 of us went with one Czech student, Radek.  We took the metro to the stadium and though the stations were filled with dark red, white and blue, the fans seemed pretty relaxed.  As we walked towards the stadium however, more and more people joined us on the sidewalk.  Riot police paced back and forth keeping an eye on the crowds.  A helicopter hung suspended in the sky.  Fans began cheering and singing in the streets, and our adrenaline started rising.  As we made our way towards the entrance, Radek told us that if it gets to crazy in there for anyone, we can always leave.  We walked into the entrance to face a gigantic line of cheering Czechs.  At one point, everyone bent low to the ground, and started cheering until we jumped up and moshed to a chant.  Our names and birthdays were printed on the tickets and ID’s would be checked at the door.  We also received a pat down.  Alcohol was not allowed in or even sold in the stadium because in previous years fans were out of control.

Once we made it into the stadium, I wolfed down a hot dog and climbed over chairs into the rowdy section.  It is a field level section, netted in so nothing can be thrown onto the field.  Two super fans stood on a stand with an unnecessary loudspeaker.  Rowdy is an understatement.  These Czechs were CRAZY.  Almost all of them had painted faces or bodies, wore Sparta jerseys, scarves, hats, and shorts, waved flags, and did not stop cheering throughout the entire game.  There were a few smoke bombs that went off, and at one point, every male’s shirt came off as well.  Someone stole flags from the Rotterdam and hung them up on the netting.  The wave was started multiple times and crashed over the whole stadium.

I knew that the Americans weren’t that interested in the game.  I like watching soccer, but I was more into the cheering and crazy fandom than the specifics of who had the ball.  At times, I was convinced the entire rowdy section was just in it to participate in the chanting and singing until mid-cheer, the entire section would stop, angered and screaming at a bad call and whistling at the refs.  Each and every one of them were hardcore true fans.

Five of us and Radek stayed until the very end and watched Sparta celebrate their win, sliding on the ground toward the rowdy section ‘thanking us’, and walk on all fours in a line, as well as some other odd traditions.  The game was an absolute blast.  It was insane and full of passion.  That being said, soccer is the number 2 most popular sport in the Czech Republic.

I can’t wait until the most popular sport begins – HOCKEY!

  CIEE at the game

Odd winning ritual

Soccer Flags

Orientation in Praha

By Sarah Russell, Indiana University

Though I learned a ton about Czech culture and Prague, I am quite happy orientation is done and over with.  All the participants of CIEE arrived last Monday into a hectic week-long whirlwind of meeting people, remembering names, learning rules, and navigating the city. I have three great roommates, Petra (Czech student), Christina (USC), and Hilary (Georgetown). We spent our first night in a beautiful hotel before hauling our suitcases along the cobblestone to our apartments.  We are on the top floor (we have an elevator!!) of a yellow apartment building in Vysehrad, a block from the Charles river and a ten minute hike through the giant fortress wall up to the top of the hill where our study center sits amongst a gothic church, monastery, and gardens.  We are lucky enough to have one of the biggest apartments: two floors, a giant living room, and balcony overlooking the city and Prague Castle.


We were split into different groups each day during orientation.  Half the groups would spend the morning at the study center learning about rules, Czech culture, emergency procedures… what is expected from any orientation.  In the afternoon, they would go on a walking tour of the city.  The other half would do the opposite.  By the end of the week, the majority of people I spoke to, including myself, were a bit burnt out with orientation.  Rules and regulations are boring, but it’s understandable why we spent the amount of time we did going over them.  However, one hundred American students navigating Prague by 4 means of transportation (foot, bus, tram, metro) is just a loud, confused but excited mess.


Though I may not have been paying attention to the exact street where the post office is located, and I may not know by heart the tram system, it was a perfect time to get to know the people I will be living, studying, and travelling with this semester.  I can’t wait to explore more of the city with a smaller, calmer group of my peers. 


So I guess the mass of confused Americans wasn’t for me.  Trust me, it wasn’t for the local Czech community either.  Before I left, I had heard that Czech’s are often more reserved, individualistic, and quiet.  There is definitely a difference between a quiet tram ride with Czechs deep in their own thoughts than when 60 American students cram into that tram, chatting, laughing loudly, and falling over when the brakes are hit.  While I immerse myself in Czech culture, I’m finding out more and more about my own.

CIEE at Wenceslas Square

  View from top of Vysehrad


View of Castle from Balcony

Auschwitz – Birkenau

By Sarah Russell, Indiana University

The rest of this page should be left blank. There are no words to truly describe my feelings and thoughts visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau. Words do not do justice to over 1.1 million Jews, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, POWs, and handicapped people that were brutally experimented on, tortured, and murdered. I felt physically and mentally nervous as we drove parallel to the train tracks, winding into the hills outside Krakow. Even through everything I had learned from my parents, in Hebrew school, and Holocaust museums did not prepare me for seeing two death camps in person. I couldn’t breathe when I saw the gates. They are terrifying, looming over train tracks and barbed wire fences, gates to the deepest of hell. I felt the most on edge than I have ever felt. My feelings would be heaven to victims. Instead of being shocked by the hard wooden barracks where men, women, and children would weakly attempt climb in and sleep, I was shocked and overwhelmed of the stench of these buildings. I walked through one barrack and could not stand the stench. It was like a mix of rotting wood, mold, and what I assume fear and death smell like. It brought tears to my eyes and made me gag. I cannot begin to imagine calling that ‘home’. We had brought along snacks and water to get us through the hot day. Though I forced myself to drink, none of us could eat. Not only was my stomach nauseous, I was going through bouts of tears and I felt helpless as a mere tourist so many years later. At the end of the railroad tracks, between the two demolished crematoriums, stood a large, ash colored memorial to the victims. It looked like a pile of square boulders set together in a more striking Stonehenge. Plaques in ten different languages told visitors to always remember. Stones and yahrzeit candles covered the end of the tracks and the memorial. Always remember. Always remember. These words have been repeated to me since I attended preschool. Not ‘never forget’. Always remember. Remember from the heroic stories of the Jewish resistance, the children’s hopeful drawings, and the teachings from one generation to the next. Remember the strength of your people and the faith they had in each other. Always remember. Teach those words to your children and continue to fight against genocide of any kind. So maybe I was wrong at first. Words create a different kind of justice. They give justice to every man, woman, and children that lost their lives but will always be remembered.


Israeli flag