Tuesday, June 21, 2011

post 21 june

Clearly the longest day of the year is an excellent time to get caught up with my blog… Happy summer solstice, all! I celebrated with friends, empanadas, Indian food, potato salad, lots of cherries, and Bananagrams!

So, back in Ukraine. Being back in Ukraine means a few things:

1. I need to remember to turn around when I hear a car even vaguely behind me, even if I’m walking on a sidewalk.
2. I’m in time to take advantage of peak strawberry and cherry seasons.
3. I was out of Ukraine!

In the most excellent purely-for-pleasure vacation in recent memory, I met up with my sister and spent a little over a week traveling with her through Budapest, Vienna and Prague. Lovely!

Yes, I did get back about a week ago, but really—if I had started to type up a blog entry right when I got back, I probably would have listed every single detail about what we did, where we went, and, most importantly, what we ate. Here, with the benefit of a week of reflection, I’m able to offer you the highlights.

Since this blog is mainly focused on my time in Ukraine, though, I’ve decided just to add a few trip pictures here, then give you the links to my Facebook albums. So many pictures!! [Click HERE for Budapest pictures, HERE for Vienna pictures, and HERE for Prague pictures!]

The first site on our admittedly and pleasantly vague itinerary was Budapest. I took the train from Lviv, Angelica flew in, from, well, America, and we met at our very own super amazing apartment. Because Angelica made all of the arrangements for our hostels, with some consultation, I was mostly unaware of where we’d be staying. In Budapest, it turned out that we had an apartment right beside St. Stephen’s Basilica, one of the most recognizable and central sights in the city. Plus, it had window seats! Stellar! Highly recommended—Pal’s Hostel—should you find yourself in this lovely city.

During our time in Budapest, our priorities were to go on a walking tour and maybe to the baths. Pretty do-able, and, in fact, we accomplished both of these items. On our first evening, we went out for gelato and a little stroll, which ended up ranging all over Pest, across the Chain Bridge and up through Buda. The free walking tour we took the next day led us basically along this same track, but with lots more information. We had an excellent pair of guides, who told us that…
- the municipal concert hall was built with bad acoustics for some reason, so is now used for rock concerts and raves.
- the giant statue of Victory overlooking the river was put there by Communist “liberators”, and when Communism ended in Budapest, the statue was symbolically cleansed: she was wrapped in white, dabbled in red, and uncovered after three days.
- the first statue in the city after the fall of Communism was the Little Princess, modeled for by a young boy.
- staying one night in the Presidential suite at the fanciest hotel in town costs the annual salary of an average Hungarian.
- St. Stephen’s isn’t technically a basilica, but a visiting pope declared, “What a nice basilica!” and no one disagreed.
- the top spire of St. Stephen’s is exactly as high as the top point on the Parliament building—equality of church and state!
- a popular evening event is the silent rave held in a park near the Parliament building—no music is audible to passers-by, but all participants have their own headphones!

… and plenty more. That tour was very well done, and recommended!
Some of the highlights in Budapest include: afternoons and evenings of music, parts of various folk and modern festivals enjoyed by hundreds of very chill folks drinking up and dancing and having a lovely time; gelato at a place that shapes your scoops into rose petals; bagels and iced coffee drinks; the central market, a big market hall with souvenirs, produce, and lunch options; the largest synagogue in the country, with beautiful windows, a distinctive willow sculpture/ memorial, and a memorial courtyard crowded with names of those who were in the Jewish ghetto; hummus and falafel; Tex-Mex; fish pedicures [which we did not get, and Angelica seems to regret missing out on]; and, of course, the baths.

The baths deserve their own separate paragraph. Budapest is known for the quality of its water, apparently, and even water at public fountains is safe to drink. There are a variety of spas and pools throughout the area, including those with play areas for kids or fancy therapeutic treatment centers. We chose Szechenyi Baths, mainly for the range of options it offered, but probably also because its buildings are all painted a distinctive mustard yellow that reminded us of Hanover Shoe Farms’ barns… Not from Adams/ York Counties in Pennsylvania? Never mind. Anyway, this experience was pretty extensive, starting with magic magnetic watch-like wristbands to be used to lock and unlock our lockers. Out into the central area, we found three main pools, one for laps and two for vague water enjoyment. The waterfalls, bubble columns, and “lazy river” features were a big hit with Angelica. I was more impressed with the smaller, warmer pools located inside. The hottest of these was too hot to get into, but most of them were very pleasantly warm, about 38 degrees Celsius. Afterward, I decided to try the sauna, which was really hot, and opted out of the super-cold after-dip pool. There was a really nice atmosphere there, with people lounging all about, and everyone behaving nicely. On reflection, I don’t think there were many children there, but whatever the reason, it was pretty quiet and enjoyable.
After a few days in Budapest, we boarded the RailJet [okay, it seemed really futuristic to me, but maybe it’s just simply modern…] to Vienna. There, we also had our own private apartment, not too far from the train station, and we started our exploration with a big shopping street that we eventually decided to call “Earring Street.” Everything was there—H&M, Starbucks, McDonalds, Claire’s… even a free water fountain! We discovered the MQ, the Museum Quarter’s very cool complex made up of multiple museums and home to various events, festivals, performances, and artists in residence. I was very favorably impressed by this concept and site, as well as by their giant bright-colored artsy lounge chairs.

The two goals set out by Angelica for her time in Vienna were to have schnitzel and apple strudel, and these were both successfully accomplished. The schnitzel was chicken, and it was served at an Indian restaurant, but it was in Vienna, so I’d imagine it was pretty authentic. To match her apple strudel, I had Sacher torte, a chocolate cake glazed in apricot jam and then sealed with dark chocolate, named for the Hotel Sacher in Vienna. Authentic and tasty. Plus, in Vienna, each coffee was always served on a small silver platter with a glass of water. Stellar idea.
Other highlights of Vienna included: Stefansdome, St. Stephens’ in the middle of the city; the Hapsburg Palace grounds; more gelato; spinach pizza; ring trams around the central district of the city; earrings; a folk music singalong; the MQ bookstore, featuring [at least to me] the seemingly definitive book on IKEA as well as a small children’s style book with a dinosaur on the cover titled All My Friends are Dead.

To me, the best part of Vienna, though, were the Hunterwasser House and Museum. Hunterwasser was a really cool artist and architect with lots of philosophical notions, such as the value of balancing nature in close integration with buildings, the importance of the spiral as an image of life and death, and the belief that “The straight line does not belong to man”, meaning that only God is perfect and man ought to avoid any pretense toward such perfection. The Hunterwasser House is a regular building—regular in that people live there—but looks like a display exhibit in some sort of giant gallery. The colors and shapes are whimsical, the straight lines are few, and the trees and greenery are right in the middle of it all. Because people live in the building, it’s not open to tours, but there are plenty of videos and photos for sale, as well as a complete museum just down the street. Where the house façade includes a whole range of colors, the museum faces the street mainly in black and white, but includes the same childish and fanciful design. In fact, Hunterwasser designed several sites in the city, including the incineration plant, as well as at numerous locations around the world. I really enjoyed the chance to see such color and nature and philosophy integrated into an already beautiful, Old World city.

Our final destination was Prague, and it took a slightly longer train trip to get there… maybe because we weren’t traveling by RailJet! After getting a bit turned around on our way to the hostel, we finally arrived and were met by an enthusiastic older woman. She immediately had suggestions for everything we were to do, drew dots and squiggles and wrote in additional information on our map, and made us tea, all before showing us to our rooms. There, we had a separate upstairs suite, almost a loft style, under big, beautiful skylights.
On our first evening, we made a cursory excursion into the city center, taking lots of nighttime pictures of the big church on the square—the one that looks like the Disney castle—and the clock tower. We had Italian for dinner—again, pleasantly!—and I found myself ordering spaghetti. At home in the US, I’ve never ordered spaghetti—it’s something so simple that you ought to just make it at home and spend your dinner-out credit on something more exotic. The just-right sauce and fresh basil on this spaghetti, though, were nothing like anything I’ve had in Ukraine, and I was pleased with my choice.

We started our official exploration of Prague with another free walking tour, in which we learned…
- defenestration (throwing someone out of a window) was surprisingly popular in the history of Prague, occurring at least four notable times.
- the astronomical clock is extremely hard to read, even after an explanation.
- on the hill overlooking the river, where the world’s largest statue of Stalin used to stand [apparently the same size as Jesus in Rio], there is now a giant metronome, representing the fluctuating positives and negatives in the history of the city and country.
- in one church, where the monks weren’t very good at handling money legally, apparently, a two-towered design was scrapped halfway through the building process when it was determined that there was only enough money to build one tower
- in the same church, there’s a legend: In the front of the church, there’s a beautiful statue of Mary, holding the body of Jesus in her arms. Many years ago, people would bring Mary gifts in hopes of her intercession on their behalf in various matters. At one time, a priceless pearl necklace was given to Mary as an offering. A thief entering the church saw the necklace and decided to steal it. He reached out for it, but, having it in his hand, found that he could not move: the statue of Mary had grabbed his wrist to stop him from taking the necklace. He screamed and yelled and could not free himself. Finally, the monks heard him and came running. They were amazed at the miracle, but could do nothing to free the man. Finally, the thief’s hand had to be cut off in order to free him from the statue’s grip. Today, that withered hand is hanging high on a back wall of the church as a warning to future thieves.
- somewhere nearby there are beer baths, a kind of themed spa.
- on the Charles Bridge, there’s a stature of a particular saint with five stars above his head, and here’s his story: This priest was the queen’s confessor, and when the king demanded to know his wife’s secrets, the priest refused to betray the sanctity of confession. The priest was tortured, but still would not tell. Finally, the king had the priest thrown off of the bridge and into the river, where he drowned. As he went under the water, five stars appeared in the water, a sign, and this martyrdom made him the patron saint of womens’ secrets.
- there’s a “Little Venice” on the castle side of the river, although the term “Devil’s Channel” was also used, and seems much less flattering.
- the Prague Castle is made up of many different styles of architecture, as everyone who was there seems to have wanted to leave his or her mark.
- the President of the Czech Republic works in the castle. Maybe he once stole a pen at a document signing, or maybe the pen was a gift. Only YouTube knows.

- the large gothic church that is the most recognizable part of the castle was built over a period of 500 years! In the façade of the church, the last part finished, both the king who ordered the start of building as well as the suit-and-tie architects who finally finished the work can be seen.
- there was only one source of water in the castle in ancient times, and it was a very well-guarded well… only a little tampering could have caused a great deal of trouble for the residents, and the country.
- one of the more eccentric Hapsburgs spent much of his time and fortune in collecting art, mainly Mona Lisas, in the hope that eventually he would acquire the real thing. In what may well have been a tour guide-added touch, he was scrutinizing these Mona Lisas when someone presented him with a document that he signed without reading. In a country where religion was fiercely divisive, he apparently unconsciously signed allowing religious freedom for all.

In Prague, we also lunched and sipped at a brewery in a monastery, enjoyed the pleasures of Bohemia Bagels (with real Philly cream cheese!), took in the memorial to victims of Communism, rode the funicular, watched the changing of the guard at the castle, shopped, watched the astronomical clock at the top of the hour, took a coffee cruise on the river, and went to a beer tasting. Oddly enough, our brewmeister turned out to be a girl named Nicole from near Chicago. The whole group gathered for the 5 pm tasting that day turned out to be just Angelica and I, and so we had a casual and fun time. Plus, Nicole recommended a place nearby that served fried cheese, her favorite food in Prague, and so we followed our tasting with a cheese steak—like, a steak of cheese. It was delicious. We also tried trdelnik, a cinnamon-sugar pastry made by rolling dough around a wood or metal cylinder and then cooking it to golden crispy chewiness. Unusual and tasty.

Needless to say, I was sad to see Angelica go on Saturday morning, but my train was not until Saturday night, so I spent the rest of the day wandering through the city and picking up a few more bagels for the road. I also saw a street market, the metronome up close, the royal gardens behind the castle, and the Dancing House, a building that looks like, well, it’s dancing. Plus, I managed to get a kilo of lentils to bring back to Ukraine! There was no peanut butter to be found in the grocery store I stopped in on the way out of town, but hey, lentils!

So, there’s that! A wonderful trip, lots of pictures, lots of things to think about on the long way back. I do love Ukraine, and I love the work I do here, but it was really nice to get away and to not have to think about any of the many things I ought to be doing. Spending time with my sister was especially excellent, as it’s been a really long time since we’ve spent more than a day or two together. Special thanks to her and her husband for their birthday present to me—they paid for all of our hostels on the trip! Thanks to our parents, too, who donated to the travel fund—being a Peace Corps Volunteer does not mean making money!

A few days in Lutsk, a meeting last weekend in Kyiv [pretty good for a meeting, and a great night out in the middle of it with smart and intriguing people], English club, editing of students’ masters’ theses, lots of work, interviewing students for MASCOT, and, in a few more days, off to Crimea for ten days of work at a camp there! Go go go!

Still, my blog’s updated, now, so what more could I ask for?

[It’s a rhetorical question; no one needs to answer…!]

Happy solstice!