So last week, I was still alive after midterms, fresh off of a mountain retreat with four days in Prague to recover, work, attempt to do some normal living and explore. It’s a weird mixture of exhaustion, exhilaration, productiveness and much-less-than-productiveness that I experience each week. Thankfully I’ve gotten some pretty solid nights of sleep so I’ve been in good spirits and health.
We’re rolling back on the motorway to Prague and for probably eight or nine kids in my program they’ll be seeing their parents in just a few hours. This past week and the few to come are looking like “parents weekend, Prague style”. I’m riding back and realizing that this is the last trip I have firmly planned. I’m riding back and realizing that it is halfway through April. What?
We look back always and say, Gosh how did that fly by so fast? And then despite all the warnings about just how quickly our time here will pass we expect that in fact it will feel much longer. And some days it does, but most days I am just surprised to wake up and find that another twenty-four hours are gone, gone, gone.
Though panic hasn’t set in, I’m starting to realize how numbered these days are! I stopped at the post office to mail off another set of postcards thinking to myself that I’d better send them off soon or I’ll get home before they do!
It has been nice to have other parents visiting in Prague. My roommate Casey’s parents invited us all to a square-dance run by a friend of her dad. Some fifteen of us students showed up to find a packed dance hall of locals. They graciously welcomed us, helped us through the dances, and put up with some of our less than stellar dancing. For a few hours I felt like I was a part of their community, and part of the larger Czech culture.
By the time Thursday rolled around the last thing I wanted to do was schoolwork so Madeleine and I took the tram to a local forest preserve called Divoka Sarka. Our stroll turned into a hike, and we welcomed the cool, fresh air. Sitting on a bench overlooking a pasture without the hum of cars or the city skyline reminded me of being at my grandparents’ farm. For many of these experiences I find a reference to “home”—I try not to spend too much time obsessing about home or what is happening there, but there are always those moments that just feel so much like a place or a memory.
Friday bus time! Off to Vienna we went! We pit-stopped in the small Bohemian town Telc that looked like the set of a Wes Andersen movie for a lunch break and arrived in Vienna around 4 pm.
How do I describe Vienna? (or at least the parts of Vienna that I saw): Beautiful. Polished. Purposefully imperial (even though the days of the Empire are long gone). Clean-cut. And quite aware of its own beauty—but who wouldn’t be when you boast some of the most prestigious buildings, are the site of politically lynch-pin events and decisions, and have been called “home” by Mozart, Beethoven, famous intellectuals, infamous politicians (surprisingly Hitler and Stalin both were in Vienna in the same years), and the like?
We explored the surface of the city center on Friday night as we toured the Hofburg Palace, the Opera, the various cathedrals including St. Stephen’s, and a number of palaces which pop up on what seemed like every other street.
A group of us visited the local wine festival celebrating the wine from one of Austria’s nine states before calling it a night to rest up for a big day of touring.
Saturday morning a local Austrian guide toured us around. This was the first time we had a local telling us the stories—I always find it entertaining to hear their interpretation of events and the city’s status in the world. Most places we’ve been the natives claim that their city is the center of European life. Walking the streets of Vienna it is quite clear that it is a city of culture—the street buskers were the best I’ve heard!
When our guided tour ended, we set off on our own. After a semi-successful stop at the Naschmarkt, we continued on to the Belvedere Palace and the adjacent gardens before making our way to the Imperial Treasury. Jewels, relics, mosaics, statues, swords, royal regalia, and relics lined the walls. I laughed at how many of these items came from other Kingdoms that are now completely independent countries. Though the Habsburg Empire may have reached its end, the Austrians are still holding on to that tradition!
After a break at the Hotel Le France (a very classy establishment might I add) it was back out into the city for a night walk and some street-food. The night reached its end sipping on wine in the hallway, reflecting on the day and finding myself very thankful that the showers in the hotel were so nice. It is after, the small things in life that count.
This morning was another early start, but not quite as ambitious as our Berlin sunrise bike-ride. Instead after another delicious hotel breakfast we navigated through the Vienna Marathon blockades to the chapel for Palm Sunday mass. The Viennese boys choir sang at the mass, which effectively turned it into a tourist attraction. Though it wasn’t necessarily the ideal setting for mass, these opportunities provide good perspective and appreciation for the many different ways beauty presents itself.
We cheered on the marathoners as we walked briskly back to the hotel, checked out, and then joined the group on the way to the Schonburg Palace. Though the temperature had dropped and we could feel a bit of spitting rain, the manicured green grounds and gilded palace tour made up for it! After all, we’ve gotten incredibly lucky with sunny, warm weather—my slightly sunburned face is proof.
People, places, or things: I think I’d say people. But if not people, then certainly the places they lived, made decisions, and did their work. More than a pretty palace, we walked through the rooms where great rulers and artists lived and visited. At the end of the day they, like us, struggled with the tensions of relationships and the everyday life things like what to eat and wear. It’s always a good reality check to actually walk the same floors and see the same buildings frequented by the great figures of history. Though their impact and power and responsibilities far surpass any I may ever possess, they were people too. So maybe Ghandi’s words about “[being] the change [we] want to see in the world” could be interpreted alternatively: Live your life well, you never know when you will be in a position to do great good or great harm for many people.
It’s back on the bus and I recall several absurd but perfectly normal events from this week:
You split a balsa (some type of sausage in a bun) from a questionable but enthusiastic street vendor who keeps saying “Balsa, six karate, Barrack Obama!” (or something that sounds like that). You then eat two scoops of gelato. Twice.
You stop at a weird amusement park/shopping center with dragons and mice (not real ones) and buy crackers and rice cakes and end up eating weird cheese puffs and the Czech/German version of cocoa puffs.
All of this when you’ve just walked through the rooms where the ruler of the Austrian Empire lived, where JFK visited with Kruschev, and where Mozart performed for the Empress at six years old.
And you watch people running a marathon and cheer them on and decide once again that you should do that one day. So start training now.
You wait in a metro station munching on peanuts while Zdenek runs to find tickets since our bus is blocked in by the marathon course.
You go to a raging wine festival and bounce along to German electronic music and end up sitting in a park sharing wine and swapping life stories and ignoring some drunk winos harassing you and walk away quite happy and affirmed to know you will never be that belligerent wino.
You sing as many Whitney Houston songs as you can think of in a town that looks like a movie set and you eat pancakes for lunch because it’s the best vegetarian option for a Friday. And because I’ll eat pancakes any time of day.
Speaking of breakfast: You stay in a swanky Hotel le France where the breakfast is what we call “the bomb” ie can it just be breakfast 24/7?
The bus gets pulled over by police for a random search. We swear we have no Russian, Ukrainians, or Crimeans aboard.
You get assigned roles in Carl’s imaginary kingdom (I was the librarian for anyone who cares to know) and listen to a playlist you made a couple years ago and bask in all it’s poppy summer glory.
You walk so much that your socks smell like a dead animal. You’re sitting in someone else’s room and finally realize that the stench is coming from your socks.
You look at the lance that everyone believed was the one that pierced Jesus’ side and that the Nazis stole and guarded during World War II. It was stolen multiple times across the years since it was obviously believed to possess great power. It turns out the lance was made centuries after Christ’s death; proof of the power of a myth.
What did I love most about Vienna? The lilac bushes. They are everywhere, bushes and bushes and bushes of lavender lilacs that smell like a cool summer night through an open window.
So from the Imperial Vienna we go, back to our own medieval Prague.
‘Til next time