Thursday, July 27, 2006

Kutna Hora

I went on another adventure with our tour guide Milos. Why? Because he says things like this: "this is a very beautiful area of Bohemia where many rich Czechs have their second homes. Oscar our bus driver has inherited not a regular house, but a cottage and many famous artists that you wouldn't know like the Czech equivalent of Elvis Presley, unfortunately, he's not very talented."

We started our tour of Kutna Hora at St. Barbara's cathedral (photos of this and more). This unique building has a roof like a sultan's tent, and was built by the same architect who built the Powder Tower in Prague, which according to Milos was built to face Kutna Hora. We weren't allowed to take photographs inside the cathedral, but I'll say that there is an interesting mixture of the sacred and the secular in the frescoes, which combine both working miners and crucifixes. Kutna Hora is a mining town, and the cathedral was designed with these workers in mind. There's also a statute of a miner in a prominent place.

It was inside this cathedral, that Milos told us the most interesting fact that I've learned on this trip. We were standing in front of the confessionals and he said that during the Communist Era (error) secret police would impersonate priests and allow parishioners to confess their sins to them. Then a few days later the police would come to arrest them. Milos claims that this is the reason that the Czech Republic has the highest rate of atheists in all of Europe, about 90%. This claim deserves more research and I will see if I can dig up anything else on this topic.

We walked from the cathedral to a palace, where weddings take place on the weekends. I was a disgusting tourist and snapped a shot of the groom after the ceremony, because I thought the Czech custom of the groom wearing a yoke like an oxen was priceless.

The Sedlec Ossuary with its 40,000 human bones was what I was waiting for and it did not disappoint. The bones were found when the chapel was built in the 14th century. I understand that most of these people died from the plague and the Hussite wars and that a monk built these pyramids in the 15th century. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


On Saturday last week, we were given the opportunity to take a bus trip to Terezin, a concentration camp and ghetto north of Prague. Terezin is unique among the concentration camps of WWII, in that an entire town was evacuated to create a ghetto for Jews from all over Europe. Some Jews remained in the walled-in town; others were transported out to the extermination concentration camps like Auschwitz. The Town also contains a prison, which was built 200 years ago as a fort. It housed political prisoners, or resistors to the Nazi movement, as well as Jews who did not obey the laws of the ghetto. Forty thousand Jews died in the prison, of starvation or disease. There were never any gas chambers in the Terezin prison.

Many of the photos that I took on Saturday are available here.

Our tour guide told us that 100 people were put into each bunk room, giving them only 45 cm each on the wooden beds. Originally the beds had mattresses, but they were quickly infected with fleas and were removed. The bunk rooms had no blankets and no heat with only one toilet and icy cold water. Each prisoner was given only one prison uniform. Dysentery, typhoid and TB were easily transmitted under these conditions.

Some of the smaller cells were used for Jews. In each of these rooms, 60 men stood upright, even when sleeping. If they lived more than 10 days, they were sent to Auschwitz anyway. The death rate for Jews was by far the highest among all of the prison population.

As an aside, cell one at Terezin housed Gavrilo Princip, the man who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and started WWI. He survived here four years and then died of TB.

Each prisoner had a five minute cold shower once a week, and then they had to walk back to their cells through the cold air in the winter. Their uniforms were disinfected with steam only, no detergent.

Terezin was used as a model camp for Red Cross demonstrations to show them hygiene conditions. When the Red Cross left Terezin, they were satisfied by the updates the Nazis made to the prison, such as the shaving room, things that the prisoners never got to use. The Nazis also filmed a propaganda film in Terezin called “A Spa Town, a Gift From Hitler to the Jews.”

The whole town of Terezin is surrounded by walls, and there are 70 Km of tunnels underground. We walked though one of them, which was reopened in 1971, from the cells to the execution wall. The tunnels were not part of the concentration camp. The last execution in Terezin took place on May 2, 1945, when 52 young people were shot.

I was stunned that people live in Terezin now where it seems that the karma is so contaminated. In 1942, the civil population of the town was evacuated and the whole town was turned into a concentration and transit camp for Jews first from Bohemia and then other parts of Central Europe. Altogether, 155,000 people passed through the camp.

The building that houses the museum was a boy’s home, where secret lessons were held by leading figures in academia, art and politics.

10,500 children were sent to Terezin, 400 died there and 7,500 were killed in extermination camps. The children’s memorial lists all the names that they have for the children who passed through Terezin. Drawings by children, who lived in the ghetto, are one of the most poignant exhibits in the museum.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Havel and Lustig

Western Michigan University, sponsors of the Prague Summer Program, presented former Czech Republic President Vaclev Havel and writer and Holocaust survivor Arnost Lustig with honorary doctorates the second night of our program. My friend Sue Mach has shared with me a few of the shots that she took the night of the ceremony. On the left, Havel and his translator shown during his acceptance speech. Havel joked that he has received over 48 honorary doctorates, so people must think that he is more interesting then he really is. He will be visiting Columbia University this fall and Untitled Theater Company #61 has organized a Havel Festival with 17 fully-staged productions in NYC to coincide with Havel's 70th birthday.

Lustig, shown below, did not use a translator, and instead spoke first in English and then in Czech. We wondered a few times whether he was saying the same things in Czech that he said in English, because we could hear laughing when he spoke in Czech. My Czech teacher Hana confirmed my suspicions when she told me that he said a few things to his native audience that he didn't share with the rest of us, such as "if you're not a Communist when you're 20 you have no heart, and if you're still a Communist when you're 30, you have no brain." Lustig was supposed to be one of the program's fiction instructors, but he had to back out, because he is fighting a serious illness.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

An Ascetic's Struggle in Prague

I’m not ashamed that, somehow over the last twenty years, I’ve become a secular ascetic of sorts. It happened gradually, I first gave up smoking my senior year of college, then saturated fat for the sake of Jim’s heart. Most recently, I said bye-bye to alcohol, but I still cling caffeine, only reluctantly doing without that drug when I was pregnant. I exercise as much as I can, cook with olive oil, take vitamins, ok many vitamins and follow good sleep hygiene. Since I live on the East Coast and hang out in yoga classes, I haven’t felt like that much of a freak, or struggled with temptations.

I was too smug to think that just by bringing bottles of fish oil, a yoga mat and a list of vegetarian restaurants, that I could seamlessly integrate my lifestyle with the Prague Summer Program.

The first hint of trouble came when I e-mailed my next door neighbor’s son James, who has been living here for over ten years. Which, I asked him was the best vegetarian restaurant, and who was the best yoga teacher? James graciously reminded me that maybe I might think that Prague was a little more like home than it really was. It’s only been 17 years since the Communists left. I knew that, but realized that I probably did come off as an ass. Why were those things so important to me and why were they the very first things that I asked James when I got here?

Two people in my writing class read essays about living big, or not worrying about living forever. Die young and leave a beautiful corpse. I thought about this a lot the last time I was in Europe. It’s hard not to, when so many people smoke and seem to eat many more pastries than we do in the States. Plus, I’m married to a fatalist, so I’ve heard all this before, no need to quit smoking, I’ll die when I’m sixty anyway. Love them while they last these heathens.

I don’t live like this, because I want to live forever, God no. I just feel better, less muscle ache from yoga, clearer head with no hangovers, steady blood sugar from whole grains. So, why am I sliding? How is it that 20-year olds can convince me to hang out in the bar after our readings and drink beer until the bar closes? Why am I eating chocolate croissants with lattes made from real milk (no soy!). Will I still fit through the door into yoga class when I get home?

I’m not that much of a pushover, so here’s the thing, it’s fun to talk to other writers, and when I do I get filled up with ideas that last long into the next day, make it into my journal and keep me from feeling hungry all day long like I do at home. I may have to rethink my boring resolve and dump the judgments that I’ve had of others wasting their time talking in bars. Maybe when I get home I’ll go out more and have more fun.

I'd love to hear what you think about this too. Send in a comment. You can use the link below.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Nuclear Power

I had to share this, after just writing about the nuclear power plant here in CZ:

Documents Show Cracks in UK Reactors as Blair Prepares to Push Nuclear Power

Cesky Krumlov

This past weekend, the program offered a trip to southern Bohemia and the town of Cesky Krumlov. Photos from the stops that we made on the way there and the city itself are posted here.

The highlight of the weekend tour was a concert in the Masquerade Hall of the Castle, where we heard Musica Bohemica performing Czech folk music. Everyone there was entranced by the joy the musicians were having, and we wouldn’t let them leave without three encores. Check them out. They remind me a little of Helicon, but their voices are as rich as any opera singers.

Along the way from Prague to Cesky Krumlov we passed countryside that looked a lot like the Hudson Valley, at least the rolling hayfields did. What’s different, are the stands of pine. Our tour guide said that 1/3 of the country is forested.

There are no shacks, strip malls, or anything else ugly, except for the largest nuclear power plant in the world. Right now it’s only running on two towers. Even though nuclear power terrifies me, it’s keeping the air quality here much cleaner than it used to be when the country relied much more on coal.

On the way back we stopped to see the National Museum of Photography, in Jindrichuv Hradec, where they were having an exhibit of the Czech tradition of nude photography. This was a great way to end the trip, because not only had I been spending the whole weekend taking photographs-no nudes unfortunately, but I did manage to catch a shot of a guy putting his pants back on after swimming in the river in Pisek—but, all of the photography students in the program were along on the trip, as was their instructor. I watched them when we made stops to see what they photographed. It was never the same thing as everyone else. They saw things that I would have easily passed right by and it made me realize that we’re all here trying to do the same things. Trying to see or say things in a way that isn’t ordinary even when the content is.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Prague-- First Impressions

I arrived early Saturday morning to my dorm, Masarykova kolej. It's rumored by the students that the building once housed the secret police during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. I believe this, since I can easily find my room when I take the stairs up five flights to the fifth floor, but I get lost for 20 minutes when I take the elevator. The hallways form a terror-inducing maze when one is in a hurry to use the bathroom after being out to dinner. I now take the stairs exclusively. When I arrived, I felt fortunate that I had followed many of the suggestions from the "One Bag" Web site. Not that I only brought one bag, but that I did pack light. Much lighter than I ever have for a one week vacation and I'm here for a month.

Now that we've been here for six days, things have settled down. We were all panicked during the first two days, when we found out that a fellow student's laptop was stolen, and then two more were stolen later in the week. Imagine coming here to write for a month and having your laptop stolen in the first few days. Each time I leave the room now, I lock my computer up in a drawer. We were even told to make sure we lock our rooms from the inside when we go to sleep, even though our suites have locks on the outside, because in past years thieves have stolen computers from people's rooms while they were sleeping.

My room is above a courtyard, which sits near the dorm pub. The first few days I had problems with noise coming up from below. Drunken laughter would erupt every five minutes or so and the anticipation of it kept me awake the first few nights, although I suspect the excitement and time change also contributed to my insomnia. I've been sleeping fine, since I made my way to Tesco, the department store to buy a small fan.

Our classes are in Charles University, which sits on one side of Jan Palach Square.

We meet for writing class M, W, and F mornings and Czech language class on T, Th. Everyone I've met is enthusiastic about the workshops and the language class. Our Czech instructor Hana is animated and adorable. We eat out three meals a day together and we always seem to have so much to talk about. It's thrilling to speak with people who have common frames of reference. Everyone has read Kafka and Kundera and together we share our amazement at how much of our experience seems to come right from a Kafka novel. He wasn't using his imagination as much as I thought he was. Certain things that we attempt to do seem to have absurd obstacles, for example, today we were at St. Vitus and I wanted to take pictures inside. When I walked in with my camera, the guard told me that I had to purchase a license (ticket) in order to take photographs. So, I walked back into the lobby to the ticket window and no one was there. I motioned to the guard and he looked inside the window and said. They'll be there in a few minutes. By this time a queue had formed behind me and no one behind me seemed to be concerned that we were waiting at an empty window.

I've posted photos that I've taken the last few days on a separate site. You can view them here.