An Extra Early Alarm

That first sliver of sun emerging from behind the buildings reminds me of the way it feels when you’re holding a newborn baby in your arms.  You wonder how such a tiny human can even exist when suddenly an illuminating smile spreads across their precious little face.  It’s that awe-inspiring sense of hope that I am overwhelmed by every time I witness the sun rising.  There’s a certain promise that accompanies it.  “See,” says the sun, “I am here and I always will be.  Even on those gloomy days, I’m just behind the clouds waiting to meet you again.”

I appreciate this promise since sometimes we have so many dreary days in a row I begin to question if sunlight itself has permanently retired to some other part of the world.  I really can’t complain however, considering I’m still in an insanely cool city and my friends/family in Michigan are suffering through a spring snow.  Although a bit over-ambitious, a goal of mind this semester is to watch the sunrise once per week.  I decided to strive for this many because I speculate I am maximizing my chances of seeing the most impressive display of colors.  I’m waiting for the perfect cloud-to-sky ratio to dazzle me beyond belief.

Naturally, there are times I miss my weekly rendezvous with the sun.  There have also been a few unlucky mornings that one large meddlesome cloud looms exactly where I wish it wouldn’t and obstructs the view completely.  Even on the overcast days, I am glad to have forced myself to roll out of bed at such an anomalous hour.  I am given the opportunity to join the bustling swarm of people hurrying to work during morning rush hour.  Dark eye circles and heavy lids occupy the faces of every individual traveling by metro around 6:00AM.  Once the doors open, the half-asleep crowd pours onto the platform and wills itself towards the escalator as one unified entity.  Despite being separate and unrelated, each passerby seems to share the same objective . . . to live, to get by every day.  We may be complete strangers who speak different languages, but this is where our humanness communicates without words.

On a less existential note . . . the experience has some fun and simple aspects as well.  I truly feel like a local when I’m handed a newspaper with a warm “dobrý den” (meaning “hello” or “good day” in Czech).  My journey to the sunrise typically ends on the Charles Bridge.  It’s an ideal location for watching the sun come up over one side of the city and cast a serene glow upon the other.  Being there at this hour also provides the benefit of a substantially smaller number of tourists which cover every inch of the cobblestone on nice days.  Below you can see some of the stunning views I’ve captured from the bridge.  Stay tuned!

Click on the images to enlarge them.

Darkness and Light

Opposites emphasize one another. Contrast refines prominence, allowing positive and negative moments to be felt more intensely.  It’s misery that provides joy with a purpose.  Darkness cannot be defined without talking about light.  Death brings meaning to life itself.  My weekend in Poland serves as a reminder that these worn out clichés do contain a great deal of truth.

The bus departed from Prague at midnight.  As we travelled through the night, I slept for 10, not hours, but minutes. On top of the fact that I’ve never been skilled in the art of bus-snoozing, my mind was alert with anticipation. I was about to be somewhere I’d read about countless times in history books; a place that receives over two million yearly visitors: the concentration camps of Auschwitz.

Being with a group from our program CIEE, we had the opportunity to begin our tour at 7:30AM before the gates opened to the public.  Stepping foot on to a property in which over one million human beings were murdered is a chilling experience.  The barrack walls whisper accounts of the horrors characterized by agonizing torture.  The leafless trees seem to droop with the sorrow of having witnessed such despair.  Massive piles of objects left behind put statistics into perspective, transforming the numbers into individual people that once lead normal lives.  There are dozens of victims’ suitcases, children’s shoes, and the most horrifying display . . . 2 tons of women’s hair.  Sites like these placed a knot in my throat and blurred my vision with lingering tears.  It became even more difficult to remain composed while Eva, our phenomenal guide for the weekend, revealed heart-wrenching true stories that took place within the grounds we stood upon.

As we re-entered the bus to head to Kraków, Eva instructed us to complete two tasks.  1) Call our loved ones to say ‘I love you’.  2) Eat some pierogi.  These steps were completed without hesitation.  After a few phone calls, I ventured into the town square with some friends to find a local restaurant.  We immediately adored the city’s colorful buildings and replenishing atmosphere.  Full of appreciation for our family and one another, we proceeded to fill our stomachs with delicious Polish cuisine.

The rest of the trip consisted of wonderful treks around the city.  We walked through the old Jewish quarters, saw unbelievably vibrant churches, and stopped for a coffee (or hot chocolate) break in a castle.  We also toured a salt mine in the Polish town of Wieliczka on our way home.  Don’t worry, the bacteria cannot live on the walls so licking is acceptable . . . Or at least that’s what we were told.  In the café 1,073 feet below the ground, we enjoyed our final pierogi of the weekend.

Traveling by Train

Trains have surpassed cars on my mental list “Favorite Modes of Transportation”.  Don’t get me wrong, I miss driving already and nothing beats scream-singing “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind with maximum volume.  But traveling by train opens the door to copious new possibilities.  The convenient public transportation in Prague quickly became something I appreciate and now this whole national train system has me completely won over.

A couple of friends and I bought last minute tickets to Kutná Hora, a little Czech city about an hour outside of Prague.  We were able to go for about 6 hours since none of us had Thursday classes and we quickly decided we are in favor of returning.  One of the most notable sites is Sedlec Ossuary commonly referred to as “The Bone Church”.  I knew some of its history prior to the visit including the fact that the bones of over 40,000 people are located there.

The eerily beautiful arrangements left me in greater awe than I had anticipated.  Hearing about a church that is decorate with human bones sounds kind of creepy, maybe a bit intriguing, and surely this is accurate.However, it was the brilliant artistry that turned up unexpectedly.  Each methodical placement drew me in and left me wondering about the story connected to each individual whose physical remnants were used to create such a masterpiece.

The splendor continued at St. Barbara’s Cathedral which flaunts large flying buttresses and vibrant stained glass.  The church demands attention as its striking enormity transcends the entire town.  I could have stood there for hours gazing up at the colors that filtered through the windows.  Each angle allowed the light to cascade through differently.  Be skeptical if you wish, but the church photos you see remain unedited.  We walked down the street to find more picturesque spots.  Each café had something valuable to offer such as pancakes or vinyl records.  With too much left unexplored, I plan on buying the $7.50 round trip ticket again.





Aimlessly Wandering

Passing a previously unnoticed quirky little shop or marveling at a building usually overlooked along a daily route are common occurrences here.  Regardless of location, everyone typically recalls the perplexity of discovering something cool only blocks away from home after having settled in weeks, months, or even years ago.  Yesterday alone, it happened to me three different times.

In a halfhearted effort to be fit, I forced myself to go on a run around the city.  It turned out to be a little bit of jogging accompanied by a lot of walking and meandering. Getting lost here does not seem scary, especially with the comfort of knowing that the Czech Republic has been named the sixth safest country in the world.  While attempting to understand the map, I glanced up from my phone screen to realize I was standing directly next to the perfect combination of a street fair and a farmer’s market.  Underneath one tent I saw an extremely delicious-looking arrangement of berries.  The fact that I only needed to fork over 28 czk (1.38 usd) made them seem that much more appealing.  Unfortunately, I had no cash so I left without tortuously walking further. I later found out that “Havel’s” is open every week day from 8:00-16:30 so I’ll surely return. Also, yes, they use 24-hour time here which I love since I believe it’s more practical.  To my pleasant surprise, I walked away realizing I was hardly half a mile from my apartment.

A similar moment of bewilderment came when I explored the cemetery directly next to our study center in Vyšehrad.  I had decided to leave early for class to slowly walk and soak in the (slightly-warm-when-the-brisk-wind-stops) sunshine.  Right before I arrived, I noticed a gate propped open and curiously peaked in.  The enormity of the cemetery baffled me, mostly because I had passed its large walls almost every day without knowing.  The uniquely alluring aspect is due to the piles of green leaves pouring over the massive graves.  The intricate stones and flowing nature had drawn me in so much I almost walked in late to my first class of the semester.

The sunny day turned turned into a moonlit evening by the time I headed home.  A friend revealed an alternate path home that included a mesmerizing view of Prague’s twinkling lights across the river.  Having been thrown for a third loop, I quite understood the lesson of my day . . . Getting lost has benefits and we should all do it bit more, even if it has to be on purpose.

Fun Fact: The CIEE study center, the cemetery, and the church are all located in Vyšehrad, a historic fort built in Prague around the 10th century.

Czech This Out

Nervousness seemed unable to find me as I finally reached Prague, Czech Republic, on the peaceful morning of January 30th.  This tranquility is likely connected to a few aspects of my arrival.  Minutes before the plane touched down, the sun ascended from the horizon and danced across the city.  The yellow-orange rays continued to provide me with reassurance as they radiated through the windows at the quiet airport’s baggage claim.

The initial impressions of beauty along with the anticipated profundity of spending time on a different continent for months caused the first couple of days to seem completely surreal.  Six days later, the fact that I am living in Prague remains incomprehensible.  I consider myself practically the opposite of a city-slicker and frankly never imagined I’d live among a population 37 times larger than that of Holland, MI.  Quaint shops, residential streets, and Lake Michigan have been replaced by tall buildings, the bustling metro, and Vltava River.

The rich history and impeccable architecture generate curiosity and wonder as I stumble around this enchanting place.  I have happily fallen into a handful of tourist traps without much regret.  Despite being warned about the overpriced ‘chimney cakes’ by our super-awesome Czech flat buddy, my flatmates and I found ourselves being asked whether we wanted ours with chocolate or ice cream.  Warm chocolate seemed the logical choice given the 40-degree weather.  After scarfing down some of the baked dough cylinders, the hours of exploring continued.  We discovered an old clock tower and trekked up to the top where we received a breath-taking view of Prague.

The change may sometimes feel overwhelming; however, the stellar people I’ve encountered make the transition fluid and exciting.  When in Prague wear comfortable shoes, grab an adventurous companion, and be prepared to be captivated by this lovable city.

View from airplane window during descent

Vltava River

Chimney cake filled with chocolate

Being touristy in Old Town Square

View of clock tower from the street

View from top of clock tower

Flatmates Jillian, Emma, Ariella, & Pankey (left to right)