And so it begins…

Actually, it began two days ago, first with a two-hour delay leaving Newark, a missed connection in Brussels and a reroute through Munich. But my suitcase didn’t take the same flights. More than 24 hours later, when the courier dropped it at my Airbnb, I could unpack, organize and start to really enjoy.

First stop this morning: The farmers’ market. It’s not the huge one by the Vlatava River, but that’s only Saturdays. Jiřák is three blocks away and open Wednesday through Saturday. And, yes, it has plenty of choices.

Markets like these require skills I needed to update — vocabulary and cultural both. I had to refresh my memory of food words, though of course some were easy. I recognized most of the vegetables: bright orange mrkev and young, green špenát and piles of brambory — all of which I bought.

I could smell the maso — the meat that was often garlicky sausage, smokey ham or various former creatures, hanging by their feet. No thanks. I passed on all of that.

Other stands had honey, bread, eggs, beer and wine. One cheese vendor offered tastes, so some of that, too, went in my bag.

Meanwhile, I fluctuated between using my probably mispronounced Czech words or just trying English or only using gestures. Generally, it was a mixture of all three, but I can always end a transaction with a fairly intelligible děkuji to be polite.

Then a pastry stand had savory tarts and quiches with the vegetariánský sign in front of them. Which to choose?! Into the bag went one with a golden top and obviously a bit of greens and something white. Just two more stops. The jahody were perfectly ripe and plump and needed to be on top. And the plants — probably for window boxes or gardens — were asking to come back to the apartment, too.

So now it’s lunchtime. The tart is fine, though I should have read the sign more carefully — or known the word for onion — because it’s a little strong, but still good, and I ate half of it. And the strawberries are as excellent as they look. The rest I’ll eat later and tomorrow, though, of course, the stands will be open then and I can go back and improve my vocabulary — and fill my refrigerator.

 

There’s something appropriate here. . .

When I started this blog in August 2013, I was preparing to take 10 Kent State students to Prague with another professor in the College of Communication and Information. Besides papers or multimedia projects, they all had to blog — they had scheduled times to post, we expected them to include visuals and links and to say something worth reading. ( And they did, by the way)

But I wanted to blog, too. I wanted an excuse to write. Heck, I wanted a requirement to write that would force me to fit it in my schedule. And so, on a day when I had far too many other things to do, I discovered this URL was available, figured out how to set up a simple site and started to write.

I learned a lot, too, and could share the frustrations of writer’s block, the oh-why-didn’t-I-take-a-photo-of-THAT??! remorse and all the issues the kids were having. It was a good experience.

Good enough so that I fired up the ol’ blog when I was lucky enough to be able to take in Prague for my sabbatical in Fall 2015.

Now I’m firing it up again as I head out Sunday for Prague for a month, teaching a three-week summer session at Anglo-American University. But when I read the last post, I saw I had never added the rest of the Top 10 Lessons Learned. In fact, I have only 10, 9, 8 and 7. But tonight I decided that’s appropriate for two reasons: Maybe I have more lessons to learn this time around. Plus some of those other six lessons were about people I met and worked with there. I just couldn’t make myself finish those thoughts about what I learned from them because I felt like that would end the connection. So, it’s appropriate I didn’t finish and can simply take up where I left off in 2015.

With that in mind, here are a few of the places I’m excited to revisit, but I’ll have plenty more new ones to add in the next month.

More lessons learned

Continuing with my Top 10 Lessons Learned during my sabbatical in Prague…

8. The Maytag Man doesn’t make foreign house calls. We’re spoiled in the U.S. — or maybe it’s just me. If the washer doesn’t work, I call the repairman, and he arrives pretty quickly. If my iPhone takes a dive, I go to the Genius Bar and let Apple Care supply a new one. Even Time Warner has an instant hot line. In other words, I’ve developed methods to avoid inconvenience. My mechanical world comes with fairly speedy and effective support.

Not always so in a foreign city.

The washer was dead when I moved into the apartment, but a new one arrived in less that a week. Although it was tiny — two pair of my jeans max in a load — it worked pretty well at first.

But increasingly it developed a Satanic Spin Cycle. The last six minutes it whirred and rattled itself across the bathroom floor. I was certain if I didn’t hold it in place, bracing my feet against the adjacent bidet and leaning all my weight on it, it would clatter across the floor until the hose disconnected from the wall and sprayed the  whole room.

WasherBy the time by son Skip came to visit and did a load of clothes (which might or might not have contained three or four pair of HIS jeans, several pair of socks, maybe three t-shirts), even HE couldn’t stop its forward movement. So he turned it off, mid-cycle, and then we saw the bolts in the back, one completely broken off and five others working their way out.

No Maytag man, but I called the AirBnB’s caretaker, a cheerful little guy barely taller than me. Ruslan spoke good English but with a sort of Bahasa-Indonesian-Czech accent that I couldn’t always follow. I wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do, though his tone when I told him was apologetic and comforting, so we dried Skip’s jeans without the spin cycle, and I tried to avoid anything messy for a while.

Ruslan appeared about three days later with another man — obviously a Czech repairman — accompanying him, loaded down with a tool belt and a hefty dented orange tool box. He couldn’t understand Ruslan very well either, but I didn’t need a translator when he looked at the back of the washer. Eye rolls work in any language.

I don’t think Ruslan admitted he had installed the washer himself, and thus he was the one who had omitted the white plastic caps that were to go over the head of each bolt. Apparently, when snapped in place, which the repairman then did, they stabilized the washer and prevented the unscrewing of the screws — or something like that.

All I knew was from then on, the machine simply purred and didn’t move even a half an inch across the floor.

7. Crowds are not necessarily everywhere. It may have seemed so at first. My “convenient” location meant I was two blocks from Charles Bridge and about five blocks from Old Town or Wenceslas Square, every one of those places elbow to elbow with tourists, squinting up at buildings and clutching their maps.

Sure, there was plenty to see in those places — historic buildings, the Astronomical Clock, Prague Castle, its courtyard packed with tourists craning their necks to check out the Spires of St. Vitas.

Crowd

But what if you hop the A line metro and go out by the Žižkov Television Tower to see a concert by Bassekou Koyate & Ngoni Ba? This Mali musical family shared mesmerizing songs with ngoni, ancient traditional lutes, and an array of percussion instruments that throbbed with the passion of their music. 

Bassekou Koyate & Ngoni BaThat venue — the early 20th century Palac Akropolis, has wood floors worn from the feet of almost 100 years of concert-goers, moving to beats as varied as the multinational and generally young artists who play there.

Or what if you turn down a side street away from the crowds? Behind Prague Castle is the less visited Summer Palace with its gardens and former moat. While Prague Castle’s courtyard may have literally hundreds of tour groups, less than three blocks away are empty cobblestone streets, a little further the Loreto Praha with its hourly carillon chimes and Rococo chapel with ornate cherubs, Restaurace U Zlaté Hrušky where soup of the day might be pear with delicate spices for 65 ($2.60) and candles on the tables make even a light lunch a relaxing event.

There’s a lesson to learn here: The fewer selfie sticks and fanny packs, the more you’ve found an authentic Prague.

 

Lessons learned

My sabbatical is over.

I’ll meet all my Kent State students for the first time this week, back in Franklin Hall, parking in my usual spot and watching black squirrels outside my window.

But it’s not like I’ve been on a semester-long vacation, as those outside higher education might think. That’s really not the case. The official explanation on Kent State’s website says:

The university permits a tenured faculty member who has completed at least seven years of full-time service to the university and has the rank of assistant professor or higher to be freed of instructional or official responsibilities and granted a faculty professional improvement leave (PIL) for the purposes of upgrading professional skills; acquiring new skills; or intellectual and professional development that will be of benefit to the individual and to the university.

Soon I have to submit a report of what I accomplished during my PIL and how the university and I benefited. It will be formal and official and cover what I was supposed to be doing. Yes, I pretty much did what I promised, but I also did a lot not on my “concise proposal of no more than 300 words.”

And all those other experiences probably offered more benefits than the official stuff. For that reason, here’s the start of a few more blog posts, this time about my quite varied Top 10 Personal “Lessons Learned.”

10. It’s impossible to capture everything photo-worthy in Prague.

Right in the middle of Wenceslas Square, Prague's best known shopping district, the Colonel smiles down and promises not only fried chicken but "4 světové chutě" (world flavors).

Right in the middle of Wenceslas Square, Prague’s best known shopping district, the Colonel smiles down and promises not only fried chicken but “4 světové chutě” (world flavors).

I snapped a lot during my two months there. Some I shot with the iPhone to capture a image for a future blog, like a series I planned to title (but never wrote)  “Things you should have just left in the U.S.” Those included McDonald’s, KFC and not one, but two Hooters Restaurant and Bar locations. Or sometimes a lovely window with bright red flowers or the reflection of a building on the canal would catch my eye as I walked to the bakery. Then I was glad I had my phone.

Because the Nikon 300S and Nikkor 18-200 zoom are heavy, an outing to shoot with the good equipment was usually planned. Those included two hours on Charles Bridge, once at dawn with my son and stepson — and a few dozen other early risers — and one with former journalism teacher, now mom and photographer Karen Barrett as we tried (and finally succeeded) to get just the right halos around street lights before our hands froze.

6:15 a.m. and Charles Bridge is full of tourists, waiting for the sun to creep over the buildings of Old Town. One must have been a tour group there for that very purpose, and they almost made a better image than the rising sun did.

6:15 a.m. and Charles Bridge is full of tourists, waiting for the sun to creep over the buildings of Old Town. That row with their tripods all set up must have been a tour group there for that very purpose, and they almost made a better image than the rising sun did.

When my days in Prague dwindled, I began snapping more and more shots. As I came around a corner, I had to capture the slant of the sun on that building, the old man sitting on a park bench, one more shot of an especially colorful stand at the farmers’ market. But then I realized there was no need for mild panic. The sights are there for other photographers and, perhaps, for me to capture another year.

9. Schengen is a timely and important concept. When I transferred planes in Brussels, the connection was tight, and the terminal was under construction and lacked its usual signage. The back of my United Airlines boarding pass indicated, if I was going to a Schengen country, I had to go to one terminal; if I was going to an international country, I had to go to a different terminal. Huh? It seemed to me from Brussels to Prague would be international. Yes?

No, it’s not. Luckily I found out in time and made my flight, but I later learned I’m not the only U.S. citizen who hadn’t heard of the Schengen Agreement. I soon heard lots about this understanding among members of the European Union. It allows EU citizens to cross borders with ease and eliminates border checks in many areas.

I hadn’t been in Prague two weeks before the refugee/migrant issue became a major topic of discussion and even protests. Some EU countries welcomed the Syrians and others fleeing their war-torn homelands. Others were not so sure. Definitely the open borders between EU nations were creating issues.

Now, four months later, the situation has worsened. As Austria ended Schengen movement and added border controls Jan. 18, 2016, headlines read “End of Schengen Would Destroy Euro, Warns EU’s Juncker” (Wall Street Journal) and “Austria Suspends Schengen, Warns EU is Threatened” (Newsweek).

And suddenly those in the U.S. are learning, as I did, this word means more than which terminal is the right one when flying between countries in Europe.

 

The few things I won’t miss

Yes, it’s a pretty short list, but here goes. After two months at home, I can truthfully say there are only four things in Prague I don’t miss:

This is the tiny slice of sky I could see if I leaned way out of my kitchen window. From the bedroom the view was similar.

This is the tiny slice of sky I could see if I leaned way out of my kitchen window. My other window — in the bedroom — was blocked by the back of the Bellevue Hotel.

4. Inability to see the sky. True, not all who live in Prague have an apartment like mine, but many do. Streets are often narrow and any building that’s several stories high blocks the light and view of rooms across from it.

In my rooms, scoping out the weather was a bit of a challenge, but even worse was the mood this created. When I arrived in the city in late August, days were long, and the sun shone until well into the evening.

Not so by the time I departed. Days had fewer than 10 hours of light, and the sun dipped behind the buildings on my street before 4 p.m. That’s a lot of darkness for a lot of months — today, according to Date and Time Info, barely eight hours of light. I may not have more hours in Stow, Ohio, but I do have a longer vista so I can see the sun until it sets.

3. Noise under my window at 2 a.m. When I studied the reviews of the AirBnB I finally rented, some former residents noted a bit of noise — nothing bad, though. Sigh. With the bedroom on the front of the apartment and its window one story up, every sound on Karoliny Svetle sounded like it was right next to my bed.

In August and most of September, it was too warm to leave the double glazed windows closed. Below me to the left was the Guga wine bar, to the right the very noisy Duende Bar and Restaurant, whose patrons sat on benches in the open windows, exhaling smoke into the street and above.

Across the cobblestones was Cafe-Pub Atmosphere, which must not have allowed smoking as groups of up to 10 would come outside periodically and stand right around the corner from the front door, under my window, and puff away, laughing and joking loudly. In all, 10 restaurants lined my block, plus, at the corner was the top-rated Hemingway Bar. It was a happening area, unless you happened to want to sleep before 3 a.m. And that’s when the garbage collectors began.

It's early yet. From my bedroom window soon the night life will be visible...and audible.

It’s early yet. From my bedroom window soon the night life will be visible…and audible.

2. Hand-held showers. Anyone who was with me on the Kent State Modern Media and Democracy trip in Summer 2013 knows my challenges — some of theirs, too — with the curtainless showers. See “Day 6: Towel Usage Apology” for that story.

Tub

Thus my choice of an apartment for two months in Prague included a deal-breaker provision: It had to have either a shower curtain or a shower door. I settled for the curtain, but it did have a  hand-held shower spray. Fancy Jacuzzi though it was, this tub still required me to hold the spray.

That means only using one hand to open a shampoo bottle, one hand to reach for and use a razor, one hand to suds from head to toe, while still keeping the spray within the confines of the curtains and the tub.

 

1. Smokers. Admittedly the air is much better than when I first visited the city in 1990. Then, standing in any line — inside the train station, waiting for a restaurant table, even sitting in any restaurant — was an assault on my lungs and nasal passages.

But things are continuing to change. In June 2015, the Czech government approved a draft bill to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Several of my students this fall at Anglo-American University wrote editorials in opposition — saying many eating places already banned smoking so let the non-smokers eat there. Finally the Czech Health Minister convinced the lower house to pass the bill in mid-December. The Prague Post quoted Svatopluk Němeček as saying, ““Let’s stop the practice of the elimination of one district town annually,” referring to the approximately 18,000 Czech citizens who die each year from the effects of smoking.

For the sake of the Czechs and their tourists, having both houses pass this bill would be a good thing. That might totally eliminate the thing I miss least in Prague.

 

Part III: The final things I will miss

WaterWheelNight

4. Prague at Night.  After the sun goes down, the crowds may be there but they fade into the shadows. Lamp posts cast shadows on cobblestones, statues of saints are black outlines on not-quite-so-black skies. Noise is muted on Charles Bridge as a lone violin replaces the accordions and the one-man-cymbal-and-drum band. Suddenly what was hustling and noisy is rather mystical.

Ducks3. Farmers’ markets. Yes, Kent has one, but it’s not as big, and it’s not as diverse. I will miss ladies in colorful aprons, making crepes and filling them with Nutella or caramel or savory tidbits like sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese (my favorite!). I will miss spring rolls, frying in big woks, and cider — hard or not — or burčák, that young first-grapes-of-the-season wine the locals make. I will miss huge crates of tomatoes and potatoes and kale. I will miss fresh eggs and lines to buy them stretching across the fronts of the next four stalls. I will miss the man who sells fowl — and always runs out of the ducks first. And I’ll miss the families with wagons and carts and shopping bags and baskets, filling up on groceries for the week to come while sipping a drink or feeding a toddler a kolache.

2. Constant recreating. Prague is old, no doubt about it. But it cherishes the history and tidies up the present. Sidewalks that are missing bricks one week are reset the next. Buildings are hosed down, repainted, refreshed. Historic buildings are frequently cloaked in scaffolding and net so workers can restore sections of them. The Loreta, a pilgrimage site with a cloister, stable and house said to be like that of Jesus’ mother, Mary, built in 1626, had workmen cleaning between tiles with tiny brushes no bigger than a child’s toothbrush.

1. The diversity of it all. People, languages, architecture, food — it is all somewhere in Prague. I will miss turning the corner to avoid seemingly hundreds of tourists in front of the Astronomical Clock in Old Town and finding myself on a quiet cobblestone street with only one elderly man walking along with a paper under his arm.

The class I taught had 18 students representing nine different countries. I will miss discussions about how media covers refugees (or should they be considered migrants?) with those from Belaruse, Russia, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, plus four exchange students from the U.S. Everyone had a different view, and each listened to the others respectfully.

I’ll miss the contrast between the Vyšehrad, home of the Bohemian king in the 11th century, now a quiet park with few tourists, and Prague Castle, a few miles away, packed with tour groups learning about the past and current rulers who have lived there. They couldn’t be more different, and they couldn’t be more telling of the variety this city offers.

The view from the wall remaining around part of Vyšehrad Citadel makes it clear why early rulers chose this spot for a castle.

The view from the wall remaining around part of Vyšehrad Citadel makes it clear why early rulers chose this spot for a castle.

 

 

Part II: More top things I will miss

PetrinWallTwo months is a long time to spend in another country. But Prague — along with pretty much everyone I met — was good to me. Numbers 10, 9 and 8 were posted yesterday. Now here are four more things I will miss now that I’m back in Ohio.

7. Walking everywhere. I’m not sure I could safely walk to my office in Franklin Hall if I wanted to. The Google map tells me it’s an hour and 22 minutes and experience warns me some of that is without sidewalks and up and down hills.

But the trek to Anglo-American University from my apartment was 13 minutes — a bit longer if I chose to battle the crowds and go across scenic Karlův most (Charles Bridge).

PetrinTowerBetter yet, as my Fitbit will attest, I walked almost everywhere — and that included, on a regular basis, Tesco for just about anything, the Post Office, the Bakeshop and all except one restaurant (Sakura sushi, a tram ride away). All this walking led to an average of almost 20,000 steps a day, with one mega day of 30,000+ steps that included Prague Castle, the Strahov Monastery and Petřín Hill (right) (130 meters above the river — and the funicular was being repaired). That meant a walk of almost 12 miles along cobblestone streets, through a basilica built in 920, peaking in on a library started in 1143, visiting a lookout built in 1892 to mimic the Eiffel Tower, then heading down a steep hill that ends at the Vlatava River.

6. Vetrnik. The Czech Republic may be known for Prague ham and terdlniki, both slowly browning on spits with tourists lined up to get them. But there are better delicacies, especially vetrnik. And the best, according to Taste of Prague, are the vetrnik at Cafe Savoy. It’s hard to describe just how exquisite these are: a choux pastry much like a delicate cream puff with vanilla cream, caramel-flavored whipped cream and a caramel glaze. Cafe Savoy is virtually at the foot of Petřín Hill so the vetrnik pictured below — the mini size because they also come about four times this big — were a much-deserved award for a day of walking.Vetrnik

5. Amazing Architecture. Why didn’t I ever take a college course in architecture, just so I could know the difference between Baroque and Gothic, Art Nouveau and Renaissance? The good news is Prague has them all, and, even though I couldn’t always identify their category, I could appreciate their beauty. The only problem — the shots become a photographic exercise in parallax with walls tilting in. But at least they do so gracefully. This is a random sampling of some that caught my eye — and the kinds of structures I don’t see in Kent, Ohio.