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.

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 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.

There’s a part of me that really loves sitting in airports. Not the stress of just-at-the-weight-limit baggage, or the endless security lines (or security mob, if you’re at Fiumicino), or the person in front of you who doesn’t seem to understand that yes, that industrial-sized bottle of hair gel is, in fact, considered a liquid. What I love is the time between the security gate and my seat. Those couple of hours when you can walk around and observe, without speaking to anyone. You’re free to–even justified in–eating that giant Cinnabon and reading your book, and no one can interrupt you. (Can you tell that I do most of my traveling alone?) All around you people are rushing, talking, making connections, leaving loved ones, experiencing relief and anxiety and everything else imaginable, and for me, it’s calming. To me, the sounds of an airport are just background noise, signifying nothing.

It’s almost like Prague in the snow.

Prague is not a noisy city to begin with. There isn’t really traffic to speak of, the metro is underground, it doesn’t have an outdoor marketplace. But when it snows here, as it has been for the past week, the few sounds that you do hear are muffled. People’s footsteps, often loud on the cobblestones, are muted. Most of the cars are snowed in and untouched. And in the park at night, people walk hand-in-hand but do not speak as the snow falls heavy and silent, adding inch upon inch to the unshoveled paths.

During the day, the park is full of dogs romping through snow that comes almost up to their bellies, and children dragging old-fashioned wooden sleds up the gentle hills, waddling under layers and layers of winter clothing. People leave their houses despite the cold to take advantage of the deepest snow that Prague has seen in nearly twenty years.

Moving on toward the eventual destination of spring, which I look forward to, remembering the days when darkness fell well after nine o’clock, I’m nevertheless perfectly content to watch people stomping, plodding, running and whatever else through the snow, knowing that it’s only an interlude between other things.

I’m so, so tired. I’m two weeks behind on responding to anyone’s emails (sorry!), I’m behind on my book club book, I keep messing up the scarf I’m trying to knit, I’m just tired. But it’s not really a bad thing. Actually, the last two weeks have been pretty HPIM2260good.

1. I found peanut butter. Actually, I think what I should say is, I found Marks & Spencers. It’s so much cheaper here than it is in London. I nearly cried when I went in for the first time a couple of weekends ago. They have tea biscuits, and parmesan cheese, and smooth AND crunchy peanut butter. And I can afford all of those things.

2. I spent almost a week in London with my mom, and got to eat a lot of really good food and see this exhibit, which was great.  She also brought me 7 pounds of brown sugar, a bottle of vanilla extract, sea salt, two cans of pumpkin, and peanut butter M&Ms.

3. I found a dog!  I had her for one night, and I called her Sadie.  She was really sweet, but I knew I had to find her real owner.  I was walking her to the police station the morning after I found her, because they can scan her for a microchip, and we ran into her real owner.  He said that she had wandered away when she was in the park, and that they have two small kids, so I’m glad she’s back with her family.  But here she is curled up on my bed.HPIM2258

4. I also have a dog to dog-sit.  His name is Sparky, and we’re going to watch him when his owner has to work late nights and weekends and doesn’t want to leave him alone in the house.

5. I come home in 48 days.

Am I still frustrated here?  Perhaps.  But on to bigger and better things.  Well, more macabre things, anyway.

HPIM2257

Something that I regret about my time here so far is not traveling more in the Czech Republic.  There are a lot of beautiful smallHPIM2244 towns that I’d like to see, and I just haven’t gotten it together yet to leave Prague, except for one small side trip.  About an hour outside of Prague is a town called Kutna Hora, and Kutna Hora’s claim to fame is its ossuary.  In a small church behind Kutna Hora’s grand, gothic cathedral, the bones of at least 40,000 people have been used to decorate the walls.

The church came into being during the 14th century; it was built on a graveyard that had at one point been a mass dumping ground for victims of the plague, and when the church was constructed, the bones were taken from the graveyard to decorate the ossuary.  Supposedly the task of exhuming the bones and stacking them in the church was given to a half-blind HPIM2250monk who lived there.  In 1870, a woodcarver was hired to arrange the bones, which he apparently took to quite well.

The church is full of bone “statues.”  There are crests, patterns, and a huge chandelier, all made out of various human bones.  It’s not actually that weird to be in the church–I didn’t think so, anyway.  While it’s a reminder of a frightening time in human history, the skeletons weren’t from people who had been killed by the church or anything like that.  Now hundreds of tourists come every day to a small town that probably wouldn’t see any if the ossuary weren’t located there.

I wish I had gotten to see more of Kutna Hora itself.  Maybe I’ll try to make it a point to go back there some weekend.

My film class starts tomorrow–let’s hope it’s good.