Sunday, April 27, 2008

The H-Block

While I was waiting for my students to arrive to play soccer this afternoon, I was observing the wonderful communist housing units. In front of me stood a row of twelve large H-blocks. I call them H-blocks because simply they look like H's. An example of the H-block from Petrzalka is at right. For those who do not know, Petrzalka is something like a suburb of Bratislava. It is not a suburb in the sense of American Suburbia. It is nearly the opposite of what we normally think of as a suburb. Though, like an American suburb, the housing is all the same.

One of the major complaints against communism is that making everything the same creates a bland life. Nevertheless, the beauty of the H-block is that they are versatile. Like Legos, you can build upon them, creating them to be the exact size that you want them to be. The dimensions of a base H-block is something like 100 by 100 by 100. If you want a larger building, you just add another H-block to it. That my friends is diversity.
Still think communist housing is bland? The H-block is versatile in color as well. Collect all sixteen. In any given row of H-blocks, you can find a dozen different colored H-blocks. This afternoon I noticed light green, peach, pink, light blue, yellow, and grey H-blocks. That my friends is diversity.
Though I love poking fun at the H-blocks, I try to remember their purpose: housing a large number of people at a relatively low price but still lasting for many years. In the United States, how much different are our houses? You either have the front door to the right of the house or to the left. You either have the garage attached to the house and to the left or the right, have it detached, or have no garage.
I have oversimplified our housing in the United States as I have with that in Bratislava.
I imagine we want unique houses and buildings to represent our unique natures. We acknowledge that we all are different from one another. If I lived under communism, I would have been dying to show myself and my life different from others in whatever way possible. Nevertheless, we are no more the uniqueness of the houses than we are the clothes we wear.
Though I wish all of Bratislava was as beautiful as Old Town, I still enjoy looking at a lovely row of differently colored and shaped, sometimes tagged, H-blocks.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Bratislava for Everyone

This weekend is public-free weekend. Museums, buses, and the zoo is all free for everyone.

I spent Saturday walking around the Bratislava Zoo. The zoo is rather pathetic. The animals aren't cared for very well. The cages are small and uninteresting. I felt bad for the monkeys, my favorite animals to watch, because they had few fun things to play with. They could run up a little branch and back down and then go into their little man-made cave, but that was it. I suppose I enjoy monkeys and apes so much because they remind me of me. One of the monkeys was even eating the kind of green apples that I like to eat. Cool monkeys.

One of the highlights of the afternoon was watching a little kid poop in a portable potty trainer in the middle of a crowd. We were watching some people dance a Folk dance and in the middle of the crowd, these parents pull out a plastic bag and a little toilet seat. I couldn't believe it. In the middle of a hundred people. Who does that? The parents could have easily taken their kid off the path a little for the kid to do his business. It is a regular thing here to see a kid peeing on a tree next to the sidewalk. Absolutely crazy.

That's all for now.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Much Anticipated Story of the Metro Mess

Last Thursday evening, after leaving Wencelsas Square in Prague, my parents and I entered the Metro. Metro systems are rather helpful because they greatly improve transportation. However, as one can imagine, downsides exist as well.

The time was around 5 p.m. The Metro was crowded. I was standing in front of the door. My mother was standing a few people away from my father. My father was around four other men. All of a sudden, my dad says, "Someone just took my wallet." The wallet was in his front pocket and someone just reached it. Those theives are good at what they do. Not knowing what to do, I just look at the other men around him. How can we know which one took it? "Someone just took my wallet," my dad said again.

"Well, I don't know what to do, dad," I responded. In my training, they never taught us how to react in situations like these. None of us really knew what to do. What was there to do? How could we accuse anyone? First, we didn't speak the same language. Second, once the wallet is in someone else's possession, how can anyone get it back? Surely, they would not give it back.

Puzzled, the doors of the Metro opened, and the pickpocketer surely walked out of the doors, as we did as well.

While my parents talking about the situation, I merely said, "Well, let's find a phone booth and cancel the credit cards." Fortunately, my mom had the numbers for the credit card companies and we used my credit card to call these companies. However, eventually the phone booth stopped letting us use my credit card to make calls. Remembering that a key to the hostel was also in the wallet, we quickly traveled to hostel to change keys. The owner of the hostel was very considerate. He let us use a computer to send a few e-mails out to family to help us with the situation.

Also in the wallet was his driver's license. We worried that he might need two forms of identification to board the plane. Soon we discovered that a passport that was all that was necessary.

Around 7:30, we decided we should file a police report, just in case the wallet might turn out. Who would have thought we'd end up in a police station in Prague? Fortuntely, a woman at the police station spoke English and helped us in the process. Nevertheless, filing the police report took an hour and a half.

While in the police station, I decided I didn't even care about the dollars and crowns; it was just money. It was the process that we had to go through. We spent the whole evening cancelling credit cards and reassuring ourselves that they could get back to the United States.

A stolen wallet can surely ruin a trip. My parents were entirely vulnerable; they had no money, no credit cards, in a country where they couldn't speak the language, 6000 miles from home. The problem of no money or credit cards posed a problem when they missed their flight in Amsterdam because their flight was delayed. They had to spend the night in Amsterdam with hardly a dollar in their pocket. Fortunately, the airline gave them vouchers for a hotel and for dinner.

My parents reacted rather calmly considering the situation. What do you do when everything you've relied upon - your money, your credit cards, your identification - is gone? You still have have another day and night still left in the city. You haven't seen your son in seven months? What do you do? How do you react?

You can curse the city and the people within it. You can replay the moment over and over again, wondering what you should have done. You can guilt the other person. These are usually ways we react - whenever are wallet is stolen or whether it's raining outside.

With another day still ahead of us, I decided the only thing to do was admit that it happened and move on. Prague is more than pickpocketers. The city can be a beautiful city and likewise with the trip if we want it to be. There are worse things in the city than pickpocketers. We only need to open our eyes to find something wrong with a place or a person.

I decided that it can rain cats and dogs. We can get lost in the city. We can manage to not find our way to anything we want to see. We can run out of money. We can book the hostel for the wrong night (as I did in Siena with my brother). Pickpocketers can steal my dad's wallet, mine, and my mother's purse. But, they cannot pickpocket my day or my trip. These are things that none can take from me; only I can take it from myself.

I leave you with a picture of my parents who did not let a stolen wallet steal their trip.

Positive Points of Prague Part Two

Last Friday in Prague, my parents and I took the tram to the Prague Castle, which from end to end is a half a mile. When inside the castle, you forget you are inside the castle walls. St. Vitus Cathedral is the most noteworthy building inside the castle walls. The church is so nice that you have to wonder, "Who actually goes to this church on Sundays?" We also went through the History of the Prague Castle Museum. The history lesson was rather helpful.

Leaving the castle, we walked across Charles Bridge, a pedestrian only bridge that has a few dozen statues along the side of it. The bridge would be a nice place to hang out except there are scores of street vendors and hundreds of people walking across it or just sitting on the statues.

Hungry from a long morning full of many long walks uphills, we found a Czech restaurant where my parents experienced Svickova, a popular Czech meal that consists of bread dumplings and roast beef. The bread dumplings are absolutely glorious. They are usually about palm-sized and usually made from potatoes.

After lunch, we went to the old Jewish part of the town. We bought tickets to six sites, including five synagogues and a cemetery. The synagogues featured history lessons on Judaism in Prague and Jewish traditions. The cemetery, not bigger than a football field, is said to held hundreds of thousands of corpses. Most notable of all is Rabbi Low whom is said to have created a golum that nearly terrorized Prague.

The next site we saw was the Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Hall. Everyone about has a heart attack whenever they see the Astronomical Clock. At every hour, a statue of a skelton rings a bell and then statues of the twelve disciples rotate through two small doors that open. I'll admit that it's pretty neat, but neat is as far as I would go. People act like they can finally die after seeing the little statues do their thing.

The last site we saw was the giant metronome. Across one of the bridges and above a hill stands a giant metronome. I wish I would have counted the tempo of it. What is most interesting about the metronome is that a statue of Stalin used to stand where the metronome now stands. The statue of Stalin was quite symbolic: Stalin was always watching you.

Speaking of the time under communism, some of my students taught me the phrase "čest prace" (pronounced: Chest Prats-eh), which means something like "Honor or glory to work." Apparently instead of saying, "Dobry Den" (good day) to people on the streets, people were supposed to say "čest prace." I then wondered how many people said this phrase the day after the Velvet Revolution.

Anyway, Saturday morning, we went to the Prague airport where my parents left. I stayed in Prague for most of the day, traveling to Terezin, a small town outside of Prague where Czech Jews were taken during World War II.

Stay tuned for the Metro Mess! Besides the Metro Mess, the trip was absolutely fantastic. Great sites, great times.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Positive Points of Prague Day One

Thursday and Friday last week, my parents and I traveled to Prague. This is the happy Prague blog.

I took Thursday and Friday off from school, so we left Thursday morning on a four-hour train ride to the Czech Republic. We arrived around noon and we found our hostel. Though the hostel was a little off the beaten path, it was probably the best place I've stayed at. We had two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen for a very affordable price. The people at the hostel were very helpful in finding places as well.

After putting our bags down, I called my friend Michael who goes to school in Prague and we went out to lunch. Michael recommended that I try the beef tartar, a meal that consists of raw meat. Though it does not sound appealing, I was rather pleased with the meal. It tasted like Wendy's, something I haven't had too long of a time.

After lunch, we went looking for Bethlehem Chapel, where Jan Hus preached. We found the chapel but it was closed for the day. We saw it the next day. The church was quite simple - no fancy altars or sculptures. However, it had a nice history of Jan Hus, though it deglected to say what Hus actually preached that got him burned at the stake.

Because it was after five, when nearly everything closes, we made our way to Wenceslas Square, the biggest square in Prague where protests during the Prague Spring of 1968 and the overthrow of Communism took place. We saw the place where a Charles University student burned himself in 1968 protesting against the Communist regime.

Stay tuned for Day Two and the much awaited Metro Mess.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Back to School

Tuesday was bring a parent-to-school day, so I brought two.

Having parents in school was quite interesting. My students' enthusiasm about meeting my parents ranged from extreme apathy (is apathy gradable?) to utter joy.

The picture on the right captured my absent-mindedness in the classroom. I tend to not remember my trains of thought and what I actually want to do with a class on a given day. When my parents first arrived at school, they said they thought I was organized. I would say scatterbrained would be a better word to describe me and easy to get off track.

My parents shared a word or two about their occupations and about life in the United States. Afterward, the class asked them a variety of questions such as "what was Professor Lichtenberger like as a child?"
Each of my classes had a grammar quiz, so I made my parents take some of the quizzes as well. My parents did fairly well; however, my mother didn't do so well on relative pronouns. I haven't yet taught her like she should be taught.
As my parents were leaving the school, two of the students ran up to my dad and said, "Are you the professor's father?" These students were not mine. I've been told I'm fairly popular with the first years (too bad my own students don't love me that much). So these students were quite excited to meet my parents.
To get my parents' thoughts on the school and the students, you'll have to ask them. I can say they were impressed with the students' ability and desire to speak English. They're smart kids. They must have a good teacher. Hint. Hint.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A Trip to Vienna

After church Sunday, my parents and I took a train to Vienna, Austria. They hadn't been on a train since they were children.

We arrived in the early afternoon in beautiful Vienna and made our way to the Belvedere. We did not go inside the musuems, but we walked around the gardens and admired the beauty of the statues. The Belvedere was some prince's summer home. My response was, "I wish I had a regular home half that nice."

St. Stephensdom, the biggest church in Vienna. My dad's amazement of the size of the church was surpassed only by his amazement of the beauty of the inside.

After seeing a dozen churches this big, I began to notice small details about the church. The thing that caught my eye was two flat screen televisions. I wondered, "What are flat screen TVs doing in a 14th century church?" They seem so out of place. I understand that some people cannot see the priest from where they are sitting because a column blocks their view; however, flat screens? Seriously.

After Stephensdom, we walked to Karlskirche, Karl's Church. Though this church was smaller, it captivated our interest more. Not only were there fewer people in the church, but also we could get closer to everything, even take the lift to the church's tower overlooking the city. The lift and walk up to the top of the tower scared my mother half to death. We could hardly get her up the stairs. Every creak she heard, she thought the stairs were going to collapse.

The church featured a museum with relics from years past. My dad found a few things he would like for his anniversary present from the church. I believe this picture will be the best way to show what he would like. The hat and red shoes are absolutely necessary. My dad needs some "gear" as some of my friends might say.
That's all for Vienna. More to come later.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Parents Arrive!

My parents took a plane flying out of Detroit Thursday evening, flew into Amsterdam, and finally landing in Vienna. I was waiting for them at the Arrivals section of the airport after school Friday.

We took a bus from the Vienna airport to Bratislava. Upon arriving, we struggled to find their hotel.

Their hotel sits upon a hill above the city. We had to hurry to make it for the 6 p.m. check-in time. Tired from hardly sleeping, my parents could hardly walk up the hill while I lugged their suitcases, one in each hand, having to slow down to wait for them.

That evening, there was a chili cook off, which our stomachs benefited from. The next morning we walked around the Old Town and had lunch with one of my friends at Verne's, one of my favorite restaurants. Fortunately, my dad shared my sentiments about chicken pancakes - they are probably the best plate in the city.

After lunch, the three of us took a bus to the Devin castle. Devin is a town about 30 kilometers outside Bratislava. One of my first Sundays was spent exploring the Devin castle and the area. The castle mesmerized my parents. My mom kept asking, "Where is the moat? I thought castles had moats." I asked where she got that idea from. I believe her response was Cinderella, or some other old film with a castle with a moat.

That evening, we went to Slovak Pub, a restaurant renown for its terrible service. Strangely, the service was above average. We ordered Kapustnica (cabbage soup) and then three plates of traditional Slovak foods - Halusky, Fried Cheese, and, one of my favorites, Chicken, Ham and Cream Sauce. Okay, so the latter isn't traditional; however, it is traditionally most excellent.
More will be posted later. Stay tuned!