It seems like time has moved so quickly since January.  I feel like I just arrived, when in fact I’m leaving Prague in less than seven weeks.  I graduated just over a year ago.  I have friends still at Grinnell who will graduate in a few days, and it breaks my heart to think of what they’ve been through in the last few weeks.  Two instances of hate crimes that targeted women, the queer community, students of color and students with disabilities occurred; many of my friends still on campus are active and proud members of these groups.  To know that they have been targeted (and not for the first time–I’m thinking of another specific group of incidents that occurred my junior year involving the queer community and its allies) makes me furious.  These are people who go about their lives, being who they are, and even that simple fact makes some members of our community–whether on campus or off–think they have the right to harass them.  It’s a cowardly thing to do, and displays nothing but ignorance and intolerance.

The Grinnell community is also mourning the loss of a student who died in an accident at a track meet.  I did not know him personally, but again, I have several friends who did.  To add the loss of a friend on top of everything else that has gone on, as well as the stress, relief and confusion of graduation, seems even more unfair than it would be under normal circumstances.  I wish that I could be there as support or comfort, but right now I am thousands of miles away and selfishly absorbed with my own thoughts on leaving a place that I’ve made a life.  To whoever is reading this that isn’t a Grinnellian, please keep them in your thoughts.

Leaving Grinnell for Prague was much harder than leaving Prague for Chicago will be, but I am still slightly saddened by the idea.  I take a long time to settle in places–I always have.  I think it took me about six months to really be comfortable here in Prague, and now just a few months later I’m getting ready to pack up and leave.  The weather here has been rainy for the last two weeks, but before that the cherry blossoms bloomed, the weather was beautiful, and I had a hard time remembering why I had decided to leave in July rather than October or November, when the skies are perpetually grey.

Being abroad for a year has been hard–I think that anyone you asked would say the same, especially if you do it alone.  But there are advantages to that as well.  I have learned to spend more time on my own and to do the things that I want to do, regardless of whether or not I have someone to do them with.   That’s certainly not to say, though, that my favorite moments here haven’t been ones like paddleboating on the Vlatava on a late Saturday afternoon.

It seems unfair for me to be living this life right now, when so many people I know are hurting.  It’s a privileged year, and I’m well aware of that.  I may never again have this kind of unencumbered opportunity; someday there may be a person (or more likely an animal) that depends on me, there may be a job that I can’t just walk away from to travel.  I think if I were to stay in Prague any longer, my life here would be one that I couldn’t walk away from so easily.  It will be hard enough to stretch the ties I’ve made here across the ocean; my friends from home will tell you that I do not excel at long-distance communication.

But I think about my own graduation and how lost I felt for weeks after that, and I think about how, somehow, I’ve managed to stay in touch, however infrequently, with the people who matter to me.  I think that when all is said and done, both I and my friends who are graduating this week will be able to remember the parts of these places that we loved.  There were hard parts, perhaps even devastating parts, and those should be remembered too.  I hope, though, that we will be able to remember the people we cared about rather than the things that hurt us.

Lots of love to the Grinnell class of 2010 and the school in general.  I’m thinking about you.

I’m having a hard time starting this post.  I know that I need to write it before I forget the details of my trip to Italy and Corsica, but I’m sick and exhausted and just want to lay around and watch movies.  Bear with me.

Heidi and I dragged ourselves out of bed at 3:30 in the morning to catch our 6 am flight to Bergamo.  The worst part of taking such an early flight is not waking up, but trying to fall asleep and thinking, “If I fall asleep now, I’ll get four hours…if I fall asleep now, I’ll get three and a half hours…” Luckily, Bergamo is beautiful in the early morning.

We traveled all day to reach Cinque Terre, but it was worth it.  Cinque Terre is a group of five towns on the western coast of Italy, and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.  The houses come down right to the edge of the cliffs, which drop off into the kind of blue water that you imagine seeing on desert islands.

The next day we hiked through all five towns, through the vineyards and along the cliffs, stopping in each town to eat.  The specialty of the region is pesto, and Heidi and I did our best to put a dent in their supply.

The next day we got up early again to meet Alexis and take the ferry to Corsica.  Corsica, at first, seemed like a disaster.  We arrived around noon on Easter Sunday.  We didn’t know how to get to our hotel, which was in a town 20 km away, and there were no trains or buses running.  Eventually, we managed to find a taxi to drive us along a terrible winding road during a rainstorm, worried every moment that the car would just go over the edge.  Because Corsica is mountainous, we were also in the middle of a huge, dark cloud.  When we arrived at the hotel, though, things started to look up.

The place we were staying was owned by a man who owned hundreds of acres of vineyards and made his own wine.  Because we were the only guests in the hotel he gave us a lot of free wine and talked to us in a mix of broken French (mine) and decent Italian (his, Heidi’s and Alexis’s).  I realized while I was there just how much of my French I’ve lost.  To be fair, I only took one year, but tenses, verbs and vocabulary have all gone out the window and what remains has become mixed in with my ten years of Spanish to form some sort of barely-comprehensible hybrid.  “Est-ce que nous vamos a la restaurante?”  I mean, we got there in the end.

The town, St. Florent, was on the northern end of Corsica.  It’s a beautiful resort town full of small cafes and fancy clothing stores.  Because the coast was about 6 km away from our hotel and we had no car, we hitchhiked there and back each day.  Apparently hitchiking (“faire du auto-stop”) is pretty common there, and the people who picked us up weren’t creepy, but mostly older couples who always wanted to know if we were on vacation and where we were from.  The day we were at the beach was a bit colder and windier than we would have liked, but the water and landscape were stunning nonetheless.

From Corsica we made our way to Rome.  Slowly.  Bus to ferry to taxi to train.  When we arrived at our hostel at 10:30 pm, we found out that they had double-booked us.  We were shuttled across town to the Freestyle Hostel, where there was supposed to be a room ready.  Nope.  They took us to an apartment behind the hostel.  The apartment was dark, dirty, and–inexplicably–there was a man sitting on the couch outside of the bedrooms, sleeping.  In short, do not stay at the Freestyle Hostel in Rome.

But anyway, Rome is wonderful.  It has been wonderful every time I’ve been.  I forgot, though, just how exhausting it is.  Every street is crowded, everyone is yelling and every tourist is staring somewhere about fifteen feet off the ground and not paying attention to where they’re going.

My favorite part of Rome is Trastevere, where we ate dinner.  It’s quieter than the rest of the city, more of a neighborhood.  At night its back streets and alleys are all lit up with bars and restaurants and people talking and laughing.  It’s the good parts of Rome with few(er) tourists.

The trip was wonderful, but what I came away with most of all is that I could never live in Italy.  Extended vacationing and eating, yes.  But for living, it’s too unorganized and chaotic for me.  I think I would be much better suited to somewhere like Germany.  Maybe that’s a good thing, though, because it means that Italy will never get old for me.  I’ll always experience it in small enough increments that I will be left wanting to come back, which of course I already do.

P.S.–As always, the rest of my pictures are at kunkelle.smugmug.com

There was always something that struck me as odd about Prague that I couldn’t put my finger on until I visited Berlin: it’s how Prague deals with history.  The tourist attractions here all deal with Prague in its glory days.  The castle, the Astronomical Clock, St Nicholas.  All of these places are reminders of when Prague was the center of developed world.  But so much other history has taken place here.  Prague was deeply affected by both World War II and Communism, but those things are rarely discussed.  Aside from the kitschy Museum of Communism, there is little in the way of tourist attractions.  The attitude seems to be that it’s better to not talk about it than to relive it every day.

Not so in Berlin.  Berlin is a city that has continued to develop and rebuild, but still remains intimately tied to its past.  Because of Germany’s involvement in World War II and the rise of Nazism, the country has taken the position that the horrors of the past must be examined and kept in the public mind if we are to prevent them from happening again.  When my dad and I were there, we took two tours: a Third Reich tour and a Cold War tour.  It was hard to believe that a city as lively and beautiful as Berlin once played a part in the deaths of so many people.  I took a lot of pictures while I was there, and this is going to be a long post because I want to explain the significance of some of them.  Some of it is frightening and a little graphic, but I think it’s important to know.

Our tour began at the museum to commemorate the German resistance to Hitler.  The statue in the courtyard represents the men who were executed after attempting to kill Hitler with a suitcase bomb (as was surprisingly well-portrayed by Tom Cruise in Valkyrie).  The plot failed, of course, and within hours several of the men were taken out to this courtyard and shot.  The statue is placed approximately where the men stood, while the large wooden plank is where the executioners would have been.

Several thousand people were ultimately executed by Hitler in relation to this particular assassination attempt, not all of whom were actually involved.  For many of those officers who were involved, though, Hitler had a more horrific fate tham death by firing squad.  The statue is naked to represent those men who were hanged by piano wire; they were able to stand up on their toes, and as their legs cramped they let their weight down on the wire, strangling themselves.  He ordered that they all be naked from the waist down.

Of course, the largest targeted group during the Holocaust was the Jews.  The memorial in Berlin stretches out across a city block.  It’s made of huge stone tablets that grow taller and taller as you walk into the center, until you’re unable to see your way out.  It’s loosely based on the Jewish tradition of leaving pebbles at gravesites.

There are still reminders all over the city of the destruction caused during World War II; as the location of Hitler’s bunker and headquarters, it was targted by the Allies for bombing near the end of the war.  The city chose to leave the remains of this church standing as a reminder of what had happened.

There are subtler reminders as well, like this office building still riddled with bullet holes.

At the end of World War II, the Soviets claimed large portions of Germany as well as the eastern part of Berlin.  West Berlin, though controlled by the Americans, British and French, was still surrounded on all sides by the Soviets.  At first, citizens of Berlin could pass freely between the two sides of the city.  Then, one night, the order was given to run large spools of barbed wire down the dividing line between the two halves, as well as around the border between West Berlin and the rest of Soviet Germany.  Within a few hours, the first incarnation of the Berlin Wall was up.  Over the next few years, it was gradually solidified until it became the wall we’re familiar with.  Seeing it now, though, it still doesn’t look that intimidating.  You can’t imagine why people couldn’t just figure out a way of getting over it.

But there were guard towers armed with snipers who were under orders to shoot to kill; their weapons were regularly inspected for accuracy and anyone who didn’t have a “reasonable” explanation for why they hadn’t succeeded in killing an escapee was severely punished.  There were guard dogs and anti-tank precautions, as well as search lights and barrier fences.  Most importantly, though, there were informants.  Our guide told us about his friend who had grown up in East Germany.  He made plans to escape and told only two people: his sister and his best friend.  His best friend was an informant, and the boy spent several days being interrogated and tortured.  It was impossible to know who to trust.

It’s strange to walk through the city and pass over the dividing line between East and West, knowing that twenty-five years ago it would have been impossible.  In spite of it’s sad history, or maybe partly because of it, I loved the city.  It’s a young city–most people we saw seemed to be in their twenties and thirties.  It’s full of restaurants and art galleries and a feeling that the past can coexist with the present and future; they can respect and honor what came before while still moving forward.

The insistance on bearing witness, though, is something I think will be invaluable for us in the future.  It was frightening to hear the explanation of just how Hitler came to power.  The economic recessions and the need to find a visible scapegoat for anything and everything hit a little too close to home in light of the past ten years of American politics.  It’s hard to believe that an entire country could become wrapped up in something so hateful, and yet it happened.  Of course there were good people–there are always good people–who tried to stop it, who gave their lives trying to prevent it, but at the time it wasn’t enough.  I can only hope that we don’t find that to be the case again.

There are a lot of ways in my life that I’m lucky, from the obvious to the mundane.  I’m lucky to have gone to a good school, to have great friends, and to have had multiple opportunities to study and travel abroad and see many of the places I’ve always dreamed of.  Most of that luck, though, stems from one thing: my parents.  I think that of everything I have in my life, I’m luckiest to have the parents that I do.  Both my mother and father have always supported me and encouraged me in every way, no matter what the decision.  You want to leave a Big Name University?  Do it.  Travel to Asia alone at the age of nineteen?  Why not?  Of course you can spend the next three years in the cornfields of Iowa!  I know that there are many, many people who can’t say the same thing.

I’m also lucky that my parents are financially secure enough to have both been able to come visit me during my year here in Prague.  Again, this is something that many people don’t have the opportunity to do, especially now.  I wrote many months ago about my trip to London with my mother, which was full of walking, food, and served to quell some of my homesickness.  My recent visit from my father had many of the same elements, but with a different setting.  We spent several days in Prague and travelled to Berlin for the weekend.  I’m going to split up our time into two posts, because while I enjoyed both, the subject matter and history of Berlin are much more serious than the less-Nazi-filled time in Prague.

My father is the first visitor I’ve really been able to show around Prague after having lived here for a significant period of time.  When Thomas visited in the summer I was just settling in and getting to know the city, and when another friend from Grinnell was in town a few weeks ago I had to work, leaving him to his own devices during the day, although I was able to make time to introduce him to good Czech food (lucky for him he’s not a vegetarian) and a frustrating round of trivia at the Prague Tiki Lounge.

Much like my trip to London, my father’s trip to Prague consisted mainly of walking.  We walked around Old Town, we walked around the castle, and we walked past my office, where he took a picture of me in front of my law firm’s nameplate.  Because I’m extremely professional like that.  We also played “how many old and famous things can you fit in one picture?”  A lot, as it turns out.

It had been a long time since I had taken my camera around Prague, and I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to use my fancy new camera at night.  Prague after dark is almost surreally beautiful, like something sketched out by a Disney animator.  Everything glows around the river, and the castle up on the hill could be right out of a fairy tale.  I think most cities are beautiful at night, but Prague seems especially suited to the dark.  Even the Charles Bridge, usually unbearable because of the number of meandering tourists, is transfixing.

Having my father here made me appreciate Prague again.  The arrival of spring and the excuse to walk across the city, cameras in hand, made his visit both welcome and therapeutic.  Though I wrote before of my love of the snow and Prague winter, I can’t say that I lament the warm weather and being able to keep my windows open again.

I wish he could have stayed for another day or two, but I think that’s always the case.  I’m sure when I move back home I’ll forget my incredible luck all to quickly as I become bogged down with day-to-day chores and the routine of seeing my family again.  Hopefully I’ll be able to remind myself.

A large part of the reason why I travel anywhere is food.  When I get somewhere, the first thing I want to do is eat.  Prague is not an ideal destination for this–as a vegetarian, I’m mainly limited to the already-mentioned fried cheese.  While it’s good, it’s not something to eat every day.  If I was going to move somewhere else, it would have to be somewhere with good food.  One of my favorite memories from Italy is a meal I had in Rome.  Bruschetta, pasta with olive oil, cheese and pepper, and prosecco.  Erica, Allison and I ate around ten our first night at a tiny restaurant in Trastevere, down a winding back street dotted with glowing bars and bicycles locked up for the night.  From Thailand, I remember the tiny coconut milk cakes that you could buy in the markets.  They were so hot when you got them that you would invariably burn your tongue, but it was worth it.  Sometimes they were sweet, sometimes dotted with chives or sweet corn.  If I ever saw those at home, I would camp out in front of the restaurant.  Sadly, I don’t think they’ve ever made it outside of the realm of street food.

France, though…I don’t know where to begin with France.  Any country that values both their cheese and their desserts so highly deserves to be at the top of the list.  A few weeks ago, Heidi and I spent roughly 40 hours in Paris, and I would estimate that about three-quarters of that time was spent eating or staring at food.  And so, without further adieu (wordplay!), here are some pictures of food in France, plus one of the Eiffel Tower.  It’s Paris, after all.

Beautiful purple artichokes

Hot chocolate (somewhat oddly named L’Africain) from Angelina

Macarons in chocolate, caramel, strawberry and pistachio

Bread at a boulangerie

Fresh bread, five types of cheese, and wine made by Maud’s uncle

I’ve put up some more of my pictures from traveling at http://www.kunkelle.smugmug.com.  You know, in case you’re bored.

I go back and forth so much about my feelings for Prague.  There are days, like the days when I get yelled at by the tram driver for leaning against the wrong part of the tram or when I get lectured by a woman outside of my apartment for putting my garbage in the wrong can, that I can’t wait to come home.  But there are other days, long January days spent inside with friends and movies and voyages across the city for real Vietnamese food, that I am happy with the life I’ve made here.  My feelings are fickle, and I never know when I wake up how I will feel about the city by the time I go to bed that night.

Traveling does not make this any easier to determine.  When I leave Prague for somewhere else, I am reminded of all of the things that I miss about being in a larger city–the restaurants, the diversity, the sheer amount of space.  But then again, as Jack Donaghy knows, there’s always something to be said for the vacation effect.

Whatever the case may be, I’ve been lucky enough to do some traveling lately, beginning with visiting Tara in Munich.  Sometimes traveling isn’t all about tourism, and that’s what Munich was like for me.  Rather than making it our mission to go to museums and historical sites, we walked around the city, ate a lot of food, and talked.  And even though we were in Germany, this turned out to be a huge point in Prague’s favor–I love the friends I’ve made here.

For a point in Munich’s favor, though, we had the open-air markets.  I think Prague might be the only city in Europe that doesn’t have one of these.  The produce in Prague is, let’s face it, a little sad, especially when compared to the incredible colors and variety of even this small market in Munich.  The Czech Republic is totally lacking in dragonfruit, as far as I know.

And in the neutral category we have winter river surfing.  To each his own, but this doesn’t make me any more or less enamored of a city, although it was pretty great to watch.

I have five months left until my visa expires and I have to come home, and that’s a very strange thing to think about.  To reach the point when I’m counting down the days left rather than calculating how long I’ve been here makes the time seem to slip away that much faster.  Though Prague may not be a city that I’m meant to spend the rest of my life in, there are certainly things that I’m going to miss.  A lot.

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