merry christmas from the family

Warning, very long post! But there is a point of general interest at the end so you should read the whole thing! ūüėČ

My trip to Prague started out with my phone losing the Google Maps directions I had uploaded to help me get to my family’s hotel, so I had to wait on the steps of the Nicholas Church for half an hour for them to come get me. And my trip ended with me losing my phone somewhere between the hotel in Prague and my apartment in Dresden. But between those two sad, phone-related occasions, I had a fantastic time with everyone in Prague!

This is how much fun I had. But if you think that's out of hand, you should have seen these guys...

This is how much fun I had. But if you think that’s out of hand, you should have seen these guys…IMG_2013

It was definitely a non-traditional Christmas, but in true Lord form we played cards, got lost several times per day, took lots of pictures, and generally had a good time! And in keeping with Swaintek tradition, we did drink a good amount of whiskey and beer, though it was not Yuengling.

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Day 1 was Christmas Eve. We started off the day with a boat tour departing from the famous Charles Bridge. Somehow, the tour was in both English and Russian, which was somewhat amusing. Everyone got their first taste of Gl√ľhwein, included with the tour, but it really was not all that great.

After the tour, we walked over to Old Town, which houses the famous astronomical clock on the side of Town Hall, as well as the main Christmas market and several churches of different architectural styles. We shopped around at the Christmas market, enjoyed some Czech sausage and beer, and took photos in front of the giant, yet somehow incredibly sparse, Christmas tree in the center of the square.

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We also saw Wenceslas Square, which is basically a big shopping street and not all that exciting, yet some how we walked all the way over there several different times and managed to get lost almost every time!

After finding a restaurant for our Christmas Eve dinner and making reservations for later that evening, we headed back to our hotel where we played Password (Colleen and my dad are the family Password champs; once, many Christmases ago, they scored ten points when Colleen correctly guessed “pineapple” after only one clue, “tropical.”), opened a few Christmas gifts, and drank my superior homemade Gl√ľhwein.

Having had enough Czech food the previous evening, we enjoyed a delicious Italian meal in an adorable little restaurant apparently staffed by only 2 people that night!

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The next morning, we headed to Christmas Mass at the beautiful St. Thomas Church in the Lesser Town where we were staying. It was an English language Mass, and the priest appeared to be from New York! The rest of the family marveled at how cold the church was, but really it was quite comfortable for European standards… there were little heating vents on the back of every pew, which was a game changer.

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We ate lunch and made a quick stop in the other famous church in the neighborhood, Our Lady of Victory, which is better known as the home of the Infant of Prague.

My dad and I took a quick climb up to the castle, which was quite near our hotel, and I tried to show him the Senate gardens, my favorite attraction from my last trip to Prague, but it turns out they’re not open during the winter!

Later that evening, once it was dark, we climbed up to the top of the City Hall to enjoy beautiful, yet awkwardly crowded, views of the Old Town before descending again to catch the clock chiming 7! Every hour, the doors at the top of the clock open to reveal 12 circulating Apostles, while the skeleton figure on the clock dances to celebrate the passage of time and our impending deaths. Then a bugler appears at the top of the tower and plays for a few minutes! It’s pretty cool to see!¬†

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As we started to make our way to our dinner reservations, we attempted to find a souvenir shop we had browsed in the previous day, which led to us becoming hopelessly lost and all 5 of us thinking we were in a different location of the city, though we were all wrong. Eventually we made it back in time for our reservations at a steakhouse called “Cowboys,” of all things; it was really very delicious, which you maybe wouldn’t expect of a steakhouse in Prague!

The infamous Municipal House, which my dad tricked some of us into thinking was the National Theater, leading us to visualizing ourselves in the totally wrong part of town... ;)

The infamous Municipal House, which my dad tricked some of us into thinking was the National Theater, leading us to visualizing ourselves in the totally wrong part of town… ūüėČ

On the 26th, my mom and I made our way bright and early to Old Town to catch a tour about World War II in Prague. On the way there, we were almost knocked out by a low-flying swan on the Charles Bridge. I am not even joking. We were admiring the beautiful groups of swans skimming the river, when all of a sudden my mom saw something in her peripheral vision and luckily got me to duck when a huge, seemingly asthmatic swan flew inches over our heads! My life flashed before my eyes.

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Anyway, we got lost again on our way to the tour, which it turned out started right from where we had ended up the previous evening but hadn’t known where we were. The tour was definitely way overpriced; we learned some interesting facts about Prague and the Czech Republic during WWII, but since the 26th (St. Stephen’s Day) is a national holiday in Prague, a lot of the sites the tour would have normally seen were closed.

Shortly after our first tour ended, we met up with the rest of the family and our sweet tour guide who would be with us for the next 2 days! I am forgetting her name right now, but she’s a few years older than me and native to Prague. She showed us so many interesting things in the city and just knew so dang much about everything!

I love this shot from the Loretto Chapel

I love this shot from the Loretto Chapel

First stop was the Loretto Chapel, which was so much more amazing than I had expected! It was built around a copy of Mary’s house, the original of which was transported miraculously by angels from Nazareth to Loretto, Italy to save it from desecration. Built around that little shrine is a gorgeous courtyard and church, which house so many beautiful examples of sacred art! [I skipped this the first time I went to Prague because it had an entrance fee and I figured it would just be another church, but I was super wrong. You should go if you ever find yourself in Prague.]

This is Mary's house (or its replica). I really can't remember whether it had a special name...

This is Mary’s house (or its replica). I really can’t remember whether it had a special name…

Later that afternoon we spent all our time at the castle, which is up on a hill overlooking everything.The cathedral, St. Vitus, is part of the castle complex and is the huge gothic building that overtakes most of the castle skyline. It’s absolutely gorgeous inside!

We also saw the old castle building, as well as the very first Romanesque church built on site, and Golden Lane, a small strip of old (tiny) houses where working-class people from the castle complex used to live. Later on, Franz Kafka lived in one of the houses! Now there are a bunch of shops there, as well as an exhibit about armor and weapons through the ages.

After we had made it through everything at the castle, we were incredibly hungry and slowly becoming hangry (mostly me, but everyone else was slowly approaching this point) so we started the long and treacherous journey towards finding a restaurant that fulfilled everyone’s culinary desires, did not smell like smoke, and actually had room for 5 people. Eventually we found a place that would serve German-ish food (though our waitress was terrible and basically tried to fleece us… she brought the 3 of us who ordered beer LITERS of beer, though we noticed that everyone else around us had gotten regular, human sized beverages). Luckily, the Schnitzel and Apfelstrudel was good enough to make up for it!

Feeling good after a liter of beer (though, for the sake of accuracy, only Ryan was able to finish his)

Feeling good after a liter of beer (though, for the sake of accuracy, only Ryan was able to finish his)

The next day, the 27th, we went with our tour guide to Old Town, specifically the Jewish quarter. We saw several important demonstration sites during WWII and the time of Communism, which my mom and I had seen on our tour as well. We also saw several different synagogues — one of which has been turned into a Holocaust memorial of sorts, where the names of the thousands of murdered Jews are painted on the walls. The Spanish Synagogue was particularly beautiful… incredibly ornately decorated! And we saw the Old Jewish Cemetery, in which 12 layers (let’s call them “generations” instead… sounds less morbid and graphic) of deceased Jews from Prague are buried. The headstones all seem so randomly and haphazardly placed!

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We walked through Old Town Square again, seeing the big church on the edge, whose name I forget right now, which really was stunning, and we saw the neighborhood behind the square which dates back to medieval times. It was one of my favorite parts of town, I think.

One of the churches back there has a man’s shriveled hand hanging from the back wall, which supposedly belonged to a thief who tried to steal the gifts that people had bestowed on the statue of Mary. The statue grabbed his hand and wouldn’t let go, so they had to cut his hand off, and now his hand serves as a warning to anyone else who would steal from the church!

That’s not why this was my favorite part of town. It was just a really quaint area.

We made our way to Wenceslas Square, where we said goodbye to our sweet tour guide and hopped on the tram, which took us back up to the castle. The rest of the family went on a tour of the old palace of the Lobkowicz family, an old noble family of Bohemia. I was running out of steam at this point (go figure that I would be the first one to shut down… haha) so I headed back to the hotel and took a quick nap before dinner.

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We saw the Lennon Wall earlier in the week and I forgot to mention it! We didn’t sign it, but we did run into some fellow Longhorns! So we can pretend that their inscription of “Texas Forever – December 2013” was also ours.

We ate at the brewery/restaurant of the Strahov Monastery, just uphill from our hotel. We all agreed that it was the best combination of good food, fair prices, and good service of the whole week. Their beer was, unsurprisingly, the best part. We did have to eat outside (inside was too smoky and also full) so we enjoyed the brisk weather and unexpected fireworks from the patio.

The next day was Saturday, our last day in Prague. The boys went on a day trip to a surrounding town while the girls stayed in Prague, did a little shopping, and leisurely made our way around town to take more pictures and enjoy the scenery. When the boys returned, we played a few quick games of Spades, another family favorite game, before heading to a pizza restaurant I had scouted out earlier that week. I was really itching for some pizza, and the place we went was really great… just around the corner from the astronomical clock AND right down the street from the mystical souvenir shop we’d been looking for all week!

Overall, the week was wonderful! It was great to spend time with my family. They are pretty cool and make great sightseeing companions! I now feel like I’ve seen everything Prague has to offer… on to further adventures! This year, I will be traveling to Spain (Madrid and Salamanca) to see Daniel, Rome for the canonization of John Paul II (yay!), Amsterdam and other NW-European cities (Bruges? Paris? We’ll see) with my BFF Laura when she visits in May, possibly Greece for a conference, and hopefully Scandanavia with Felicitas–we both want to go so badly!!

Luckily my research SEEMS to be progressing enough that I should be able to travel this much! I have TWO appointments for interviews next week! I can’t believe it! Now I just have to be disciplined and actually work on my outlines…

I guess that brings me to one last topic…. I have been posting sporadically the past few weeks partly because I’ve been busy and partly because I’ve been incredibly burned out on blogging. When I do summon up the brainpower and energy to write a blog post, the things I find myself wanting to write about tend to be observations, attitudes, and experiences that I would rather internalize and keep to myself. I know that makes me a bad blogger! So for now I am switching to journaling for the day-to-day stuff… but don’t worry, I’ll continue to write blog posts about my travels!

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a few adventures

{maybe a few too many, given my current self-inflicted house arrest due to sickness. I blame the terrible gene pool recombinations that gifted me with misbehaving sinuses, but I’m doing some reading, drinking some tea, and finding some time to write; all good things and nothing much to complain about!}

Anyway. I’ve been out and about a bit the past week, first on a trip to the S√§chsische Schweiz with my host family.DSC03311The S√§chsiche Schweiz (or Saxon Switzerland) is a region just outside of Dresden known for striking hills and cliffs, and the Elbe River runs through it. The region extends into the Czech Republic (though the Czech region is known as the B√∂hmische Schweiz).

Our first stop was a trip to Festung K√∂nigsfeld, a former Saxon fortress. 200 years ago it was besieged by Napoleon’s army! But it’s way older than that, of course. We walked around the edges of the fortress walls, taking in a panorama of amazing views of the countryside! I was hoping the landscape would be a little more autumnal than it turned out to be, but there were some red and orange leaves to be seen.DSC03332Within the fortress, we got to see restored and/or museum-ized versions of many of its buildings. We saw the well (water collection is the most important aspect of life in an isolated community like a fortress!), which collects water from a remarkable depth: it took several minutes for the collection bucket to rise from the water level to us at the mouth of the well, and when the tour guide threw some water back down, it took 16 seconds to hit the bottom! We also saw the treasury, the church, the ammunition magazine, and the beer cellar (which would have held HUGE casks of beer: think several people high!)

A few centuries ago, beer would certainly have been safer than water direct from the well!

A few centuries ago, beer would certainly have been safer than water direct from the well!

After our adventure at K√∂nigstein, we headed to the Czech side of the border for some hiking! First, we stopped for lunch at a little touristy restaurant where I sampled Kn√∂del alongside my pork and gravy. Kn√∂del are “white bread dumplings” and they are just about as heavy and starchy as they sound. I guess I had to try ’em once, considering they’re a Czech staple, but I will probably not be eating them again ūüėČ I’ll stick with potatoes, please.

The trail we hiked was a series of cliffs and rock formations, starting with a stunning view of the valley:DSC03343

DSC03348We had a little key telling us the “names” of each rock formation, even though it seems they messed up the numbering somehow, since none of the rocks looked like they were supposed to, and the numbering didn’t match what was on the paper. We had fun trying to figure out how¬†that could possibly be “Hercules,” or “Elephant Leg” or whatever. It turns out if someone tells you a rock looks like something, you’ll be able to see it.DSC03358The next day, I set out for Prague with my roommate (as of next week!) and some of her friends. They were nice enough to let me tag along on their vacation. I was reminded of my trip to New Mexico/Colorado with my own BFFs back home. Good times, friends. Good times.

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Taken from the hood of a car thanks to auto-timer! As all good group photos are…

The first notable thing about this trip was how little it cost to get to and from. Most of us were students, and our student IDs could get us (for free) from Dresden to the German border. That was about half the trip already, so the remaining price wasn’t much at all!

On Saturday, we started off with a self-guided walking tour around the city. We hit all the landmarks: the castle overlooking the city, the cathedral, the Senate building and gardens, the famous Karlsbr√ľcke bridge, Old Town square bustling with tourists food vendors (whole pigs roasting on spits! Imagine it!), the Astronomical Clock in the Altstadt, so many old, majestic buildings and shops… there is just so much to see!! We walked around for hours.DSC03442

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DSC03415After a short rest at our hostel, some of us headed back out to the Altstadt to see a marching band parade! It was exactly what it sounds like. My roommate Agnes’ sister and dad are in a marching band back in their hometown, and this very weekend, many bands from around the region all participated in a parade around Prague! It was fun to experience such a fun and lively environment and hear some music.

We recovered from the afternoon in our hostel, writing and addressing postcards we’d bought along the way and drinking some beer, of course. We found a restaurant near the hostel and treated ourselves to some delicious Czech food. {because of my aversion to Kn√∂del, I opted for Prague sausage with potato pancakes.} As we digested our meal, we took a quick climb back up to the castle to view the city at night. Just as stunning, albeit more difficult to photograph.DSC03491We ended the night with drinks: more beer, of course, and a Czech plum liquor called Slavovitz. I was not a fan, but you have to try everything at least once, yes?

On Sunday, we had to check out of our hostel early, so we stashed our bags to pick them up later. {I learned my lesson this trip about overpacking. I brought way too much stuff! I know better now.}

Most of the group went to an art museum in the city; some went exploring in parts of the town we hadn’t seen yet; and I went to Mass at Our Lady of Victory Church, which is famous for the Infant Jesus of Prague. It was beautiful, yet under construction, so that kind of takes away from the beauty. I didn’t take any pictures inside, because Mass, but google it and you’ll see a better representation of its beauty than I got to!

Funny story: I was just sitting in the pew, minding my own business and waiting for Czech mass to finish (for some reason, despite the reported 10 AM start time, it went right up till noon when the English mass started) when the woman coordinating Mass came up to me, asked me if I would be staying for English Mass. When I said yes, she asked me if I’d like to read the first reading! Of course I said yes, but it was just the weirdest thing. The guy behind me (also American) read the second reading. We processed up together at the right time, coats and bags in tow to prevent theft by wandering tourists, and probably confused everyone with our American accents.¬†The whole thing was just hilarious to me; I would go to Mass in Prague and be needed to do a reading. Definitely a fun and unique story. (Sorry for the lead-up in the last post and the subsequent self-explanatory story. It turns out there wasn’t much to it.)

The whole group met up at 1, at which time we went on a little hike. Up to a tower on the hill overlooking Prague, which promised a panoramic view of the city.

{One funny thing about living in a foreign language, at least in my experience, is that making and/or discussing plans is especially challenging. My host dad was gone for a week on business and I had no idea where he was until after he got back, and not for a lack of people talking about it. You think you know exactly what is happening, so you don’t ask questions, but it turns out you’ve missed essential details without knowing it.}

So the whole time, when people had been discussing the plan for the afternoon, I thought we’d be doing the thing where you pay to go up to the top of the tower of the cathedral, or something. For such an activity, I was adequately dressed. But for a hike to the top of a hill and then further climbing of stairs, I was not equipped. My too-heavy-already winter jacket was too hot; my boots were definitely not of the hiking variety; I could totally have left my huge purse behind. But alas, we survive, and have pictures like these to show for our efforts:DSC03529After lunch, we made record time in getting ourselves to the main train station… it was a haul, and we made our train by six minutes. There were some tense moments on the way there, but it happened, and we made it back to Dresden.

Not before I had come down with something, unfortunately, so I spent Monday rehabilitating before heading to Berlin on Tuesday to see my dad. I probably should have stayed home and rested, but I already had my bus ticket, and when else will someone in my family be in Europe in the next 2 months, and I knew my fleece jacket and other goodies would also be waiting in dad’s hotel room. And so I went. Several minor snafus later (who opens an Astoria Hotel 10 minutes away from the Waldorf Astoria? You are facilitating frustration on the part of cab drivers and confused daughters everywhere), we found each other and commenced the party* in Berlin.

*In this instance, “party” constitutes drinking tea, eating necessary comfort food, getting lost on the way to the Brandenburg Gate, seeing 3 Berlin things, getting tired due to sickness/jetlag, and going to bed at 8 pm.

a second to breathe

Yesterday I was in Prague.

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What a crazy and wonderful weekend! I’d never been to Prague (unless you count sitting in the airport twice during layovers) and it did not disappoint. I drank lots of beer (including the original Budweiser),¬†made some new friends, got to see some beautiful (and old) buildings, and in a hilarious turn of events I even got to lector at Mass at Our Lady of Victory (the church famous for the Infant Jesus of Prague). But that’s a long story and I don’t have time to tell it right now

Because tomorrow I am going to Berlin!

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In the meantime I am resting and trying to kick a sinus infection. Wish me luck…¬†