I’ve been thinking about this blog post for the last few months as I’ve been living my life in Prague. And I’m finally ready to post the first installment. Here is part one of the things that I love (and not-so-love) about Prague! All the pictures are mine unless otherwise stated.
Prague is ancient. I live in a city that was founded in the 8th century. Legend says that a Czech Duchess named Libuše came out on a rocky cliff high above the Vltava River and prophesied: “I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.” On this site she ordered the building of a castle and a town called Prague.
2. Prague has a castle. Yes, I actually live in a city that has a castle. Here’s something interesting, though. In all the pictures of Prague castle, you’ll see the spires of the Saint Vitus Cathedral, which many people assume is the castle. The castle itself is the complex surrounding the cathedral. It is the largest ancient castle complex in the world, occupying an area of nearly 70,000 square meters.
3. The Charles Bridge, one of the most popular tourist sites in Prague, was built in 1357. King Charles the Fourth laid the first foundation stone. It is for pedestrians only, and has 30 baroque and gothic style statues along it. It has survived various floods and mishaps for over six hundred years. At the height of the tourist season, you can barely cross it because there are so many people. Touching the statue of Jan Hus is supposed to bring you good luck, even though the poor fellow was martyred by burning at the stake.
4. Prague has amazing architecture. The old city has characteristic orange tiles on the roofs. Check out this picture taken from Riegrovy Sady (an amazing park only ten minutes from where I live in Vinohrady…)
And in the inner portion of the city, many of the city apartment blocks look absolutely incredible. Just walking down my street (Korunni), I can see apartment buildings like this.
5. The insides of these buildings are even more incredible. Check out this concert hall at the Klementium. Mozart himself played here.
Of course, there are some kinda crazy things to be found inside the buildings as well. This is a statue of King Wenceslas riding a dead horse at the Palac Lucerna.
And for part of the not-love list…
When I first arrived and was driven to my apartment, I began to think that I was living in a sketchy part of town. Until I realized that there is graffiti everywhere. People are constantly painting over it or cleaning it off, but there are some buildings where it just remains. Buildings are tagged, and so are the trams, retaining walls, bus shelters, metros. This is just one example of the graffiti you can see everywhere in Prague.
2. Look down! It’s hard to appreciate the beautiful architecture of the buildings when you constantly have to watch where you are walking. Sidewalks are sometimes in disrepair, with small paving stones missing. Even if the sidewalk itself is fine, there are a gazillion dogs in this city, and owners don’t always clean up after them. You really have to watch out for dog poop on the sidewalk. I’m so busy watching where I’m going that I often have to remind myself to look up and enjoy the view.
I have many more things on my love (and not-love) list, so watch out for my next blog post in a week or so!
I gotta say, though. I’m loving my life in Prague. Every once in a while I stop and remind myself that I’m actually living here, in the middle of the Czech Republic.
What do you think? Would you come and visit Prague? Have you visited Prague in the past? Share your thoughts and comments!
In hindsight, what happened the weekend before last was all my fault. One of my core values is serenity. So in my morning meditation on Friday, January 22, I asked the universe for opportunities to strengthen my serenity.
The universe answered. And it affected not only me, but my poor roommates as well. (Sorry Erin and Marin!)
First, some context.
For the most part, the winter here in Prague has been incredibly mild. It rains more than it snows, which drives me crazy. But no matter how cold it gets (or doesn’t get), it’s not like I have to actually deal with it. I have a cozy apartment, warm clothes, a winter jacket that I hardly ever have to wear, and all the other first-world amenities.
One of the coldest days of the winter so far was Friday, January 22, when it dipped down to -12 degrees C, with a biting wind. (I can hear my fellow Canadians laughing and saying ‘that’s not cold’, but just bear with me…)
That was also the day our heating went out.
The heating stopped in entire apartment building; every radiator went down, and with it, our hot water. Gone. We notified our landlord, but he didn’t really know what to say, other than to be patient. We can’t talk to our neighbours, as we don’t speak Czech. All we could do was huddle in every blanket we owned and wait out the long, dark night, hoping and praying that the heat would be on in the morning.
Snow began to fall. We’re talking major dumping, snow falling so thick and fast it was like out of a fairy tale.
I slept that night with my toque on (that’s a hat or beanie for my American friends), and tried to keep my nose warm. It felt like I was camping in the Waterton mountains in September. But worse. Colder.
There was no reprieve come morning, and life had to go on. So I went to my English lesson, taught grammar and then had my wonderful Czech students promise to make phone calls on my behalf to the landlord or heating company or whatever else was needed. My roomies and I went to IKEA, and I honestly could have believed I was back home in Calgary – it looks exactly like every other IKEA on the planet, except for the Czech language, of course. I managed to stop my spending spree at 800 Kc ($45 CAD). We ate Swedish Meatballs at the restaurant as well and stayed warm.
When we got back to our apartment that Saturday afternoon, we were overjoyed to discover that the heat had returned. We gave great thanks for this sudden blessing, and vowed not to take heat and hot water for granted.
Serenity was maintained.
Sunday came. We were doing laundry, when all of a sudden, the dirty laundry water starts backing up into our bathtub.
(I just had to ask the universe for a lesson in serenity, didn’t I?)
Our bathtub already had a major draining issue – it drained very slowly during, and after, a shower. So up it went in the tub, up and up, and Erin was starting to worry that it would overflow. It didn’t overflow the tub, but we opened the nearby hall closet to get cleaning supplies and noticed that it was somehow flowing through the wall and into this hall closet!
Another call to our landlord, and he vowed to come right away. We began mopping. And mopping.
In the five hour odyssey that followed, I had plenty of opportunities to practice my serenity. I kept saying that everything was going to be okay. We couldn’t be blamed for water damage to the closet, or to the hall rug, or to the apartment below us. We were just doing laundry.
Our landlord came, armed with several bottles of industrial strength drain cleaning chemicals and a plunger. And we mopped, and mopped, for the water kept draining into the hall closet.
Finally the water stopped draining into the hall closet, and all the chemicals went down the pipe and stayed there, and we had instructions to continue to plunge into the night.
Our trials and tribulations came out all right in the end, though. The next morning we checked the drain and found that all our poor drainage issues were gone! We did a trial load of dirty towels in the laundry, and everything went well there, too. Blessings in disguise, I suppose, because it is sure nice to shower without the dirty water slopping up to your ankles.
Day two of a lesson in serenity. I was pleased with how I kept my cool and met each situation exactly as it came.
But remember the title of this blog post. Bad things tend to happen in threes…
So two days later, our water was shut off. We think they were trying to warn people in our apartment building that they were fixing something after the great heating and no hot water fiasco, but, again, we don’t speak Czech. (I should really start learning more of the language…) In light of everything else, this really wasn’t a big deal. So we had no water.
But, we hadn’t been storing any water in the house at all. So we had nothing to brush our teeth in, or drink, or cook with, for hours. And when the water finally came back, it ran brown as coffee for a time, then just rusty coloured for an even longer time (as in another hour or so), and five or so hours after the water was shut off, we had access to it again.
Looking back, I’m glad I can write this blog post with a smile, because these were definitely lessons in serenity. How else can you practice your values without the events and situations of real life that force you to actually practice what you preach? Sure, it might be easy to be serene at a monastery, or in the mountains, or out walking or running a beautiful path. But to be serene even when dirty laundry water is leaking into a hall closet and the house smells of chemicals and you wonder if all the plunger work you are doing is actually effective… this is a true test of serenity.
So thank you, universe. But I think I’m good now, for a while. No more tests, please.
This blog post could just be pictures and stories and a recitation of places I went and feelings I felt when I was in Romania last week.
But it won’t be.
Because Romania means too much to me. And some of you don’t know why.
And though it’s hard to be vulnerable, and to share the why of it, I think it’s important. It’s part of my warrior’s path, to be raw, and open, and vulnerable, even if it’s scary to put it up here for the world to see.
So here goes.
There are times in your life when everything that is old and familiar suddenly stops, and everything new and scary begins. It is a death and a rebirth, and I believe we can have several of them throughout a lifetime. This is why I identify so strongly with the phoenix, which passes through fire before it is reborn. (I’m currently on my fifth life, here in Prague.)
My first death and rebirth took place when I went to Romania at 21 years old, in 1998. It was the beginning of my second life.
I was sent there as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. My job was to preach the gospel and support the growth of the Church in the new country. My first apartment was in the city of Bacau, and it was there I got sick.
And stayed sick, for the remainder of my mission. In fact, for the remainder of my life. I’ve been in pain every day since then. But don’t worry – it’s much better now than it used to be. It’s just background noise for the most part now, with an occasional flare-up. I would need an entire blog post to talk about the necessity of pain and how it has enriched my life, so I’ll save that for later.
Why tell you all of this? To set the stage for why it was so hard, yet so necessary, to return to Romania, even these 17 years later.
You see, I didn’t get to complete my missionary service. My health deteriorated to the point where I had to be sent home early. I was given only a few days notice. Leaving so suddenly, and for such a hard reason, left an emotional wound that has been there ever since.
Not only that, I have since left the Church. I am no longer a member. I respect the Church and appreciate what it does for my family, but it is no longer part of my path.
So the prospect of returning to a place of such raw emotion, with such still open wounds, knowing I have left behind the very institution that had been my entire life while I was there, was daunting.
My dad told me to just go. I’m here in Prague, Romania is relatively close, I don’t have a job yet, but I still have some funds, so I should just go.
So I went. I booked my flights, got some hotels, and I went. And I went by myself. It was very important for me to be alone for this first trip back to Romania. I knew I could have some issues to work through. I knew how raw and open those wounds were.
I left Prague on December 28, and flew through Vienna. When I arrived in Bucuresti, I got a cab and made my way to Old Town. I hardly recognized anything along the way, though I was incredibly pleased to realize I could read the street signs and billboards. My Romanian hadn’t left me completely.
I got to Old Town and realized that I had never been there as a missionary, so it was also unfamiliar. But then one of the greatest blessings of my return to Romania manifested itself, and that was the language.
It flooded back. It was like some sort of osmosis, with all the Romanian people around me speaking and thinking in Romanian, and by my second day in the country, I was almost conversational again. I could understand far more than I could speak, and yet I could speak! It was wonderful.
That first night I went to a restaurant and ordered a traditional Romanian meal of sarmale and mamaliga (sour cabbage rolls and polenta). It was so delicious I actually got all welly in the eyes. It was even better than I remembered. Isn’t it amazing how food can give us such strong memories?
Over the next few days in Bucuresti, I walked my legs off. I wanted to see everything, to see if I could remember it from 17 years ago. I walked from the university all the way down to Piata Sudului, taking all day to do it. When I saw Casa Poporului (now known as the Parliament building), I got all welly again. That, I remembered. It’s rather imposing, as you can see below.
It was a cold, windy and rainy day, so I made multiple stops for coffee throughout the day. I also had to use some public toilet facilities, which were questionable to say the least.
Then I started walking the paths of Parcul Tineretului, and I started to remember more. This is close to where I used to live, off Soseaua Oltenitiei in Sector 4 of Bucuresti. It was there in the park that I realized that Romania had truly been the beginning of my second life, and that my Romanian experience was incredibly rooted in my identity as a Mormon missionary.
It was a strong marker for how far I feel I have come in the intervening years. Shedding my Mormon identity meant I had to construct a new one, and one that I chose for myself. These last ten years, in particular, have been a constant path to self-discovery and awareness. I am happier, and more fearless, than I have ever been.
What a wonderful realization to have while in the park! Here’s a picture of Tineretului.
Onward I went, stopping at the cemeteries. The first was the cemetery for the Heroes of the Revolution (in December of 1989, their communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu, was overthrown in the revolution), and the next was the Orthodox and Catholic cemeteries.
And even though I had lived in this area for five months, it still wasn’t all that familiar to me. I did recognize the metro station (Constantin Brancoveanu), and then my old apartment building. I remember how I used to look down on the little play area from our balcony. From the very next street over I could hear roosters crowing in the morning, but on this trip I didn’t hear any roosters. I kept walking, because a bit further on was Piata Sudului, where we had done all our grocery shopping in the outdoor markets. I had a huge smile on my face as I recognized the piata, especially the place where we had eaten really good shawarma.
The rest of my time in Bucuresti was quite nice. I met up with an old friend who I hadn’t seen since leaving Romania 17 years ago, and what a blessing to have it seem as if no time had gone by whatsoever! Mihaela and I had tea in an awesome café and caught up on lots of years of experiences. The next two days I went to a bunch of restaurants, worked on my writing in my hotel room, drank Romanian beer (not quite as good as Czech beer), and generally enjoyed myself.
Then it was off to Constanta! On New Years Eve I left Bucuresti and took a train for 2.5 hours to Constanta, which is a port city on the edge of the Black Sea. I was very deliberate in choosing to go on New Years Eve, because I happened to be living in Constanta exactly 17 years ago for New Years of 1998/1999. The train ride was a bit anxiety inducing, as was checking into the hotel, but then I went for a walk, going straight to the Black Sea. And it was as large and noisy and beautiful as I remembered (and empty, because it was a cold winter day).
I made plans to go to Revellion (the New Years party) in Old Town of Constanta. So I waited until nearly 11:00 pm at night and then got a cab and went, by myself, to Old Town. Down in Ovid’s square they had a stage for a band, and thousands of people were all outside with me, cheering for the band (who were singing in Romanian, yeah!) and waiting for the countdown to midnight.
The fireworks at midnight were amazing. They must have gone on for at least ten minutes, up over the square and over the Black Sea. Everyone around me was kissing and laughing, though the crowd actually wasn’t very loud. At that moment I made a vow that I would be here again for New Years 17 years from now, in 2032. Which sounds light-years away, but isn’t, really.
That’s also the night my phone died. Dead died, as in caput, finis, totalled. It made for a rather anxious morning the next day when I tried to chat with phone support (which didn’t work, either). For a moment I was afraid. Here I was, phoneless, in a really foreign country. After an hour spent calming myself, I finally just left it in the hands of the gods, and asked for an actual map made of paper when I left the hotel to go sightseeing that day.
Again, I spent hours roaming the city of Constanta, stopping for a cappuccino every time my legs got too cold to continue. I was only in Constanta for three months when I was last here, so the city was even more unfamiliar than Bucuresti was. I eventually found the street where I had lived, but I couldn’t pinpoint the actual apartment building. Everything had changed so much. Oh, well. I kept roaming, and saw the Opera Building where I once saw La Boheme, and old ruins from the ancient Roman empire.
My last day in Constanta I spent a few more hours outside doing a free walking tour with a delightful woman named Diana. She told me all sorts of interesting things about the city as we meandered through the back streets of Old Town. I learned why some buildings seemed abandoned and ready to collapse (had to do with town bureaucracy), why there were so few street dogs, and where all the beggars had gone (all the homeless Gypsies had been forcibly relocated to a container slum outside of Constanta).
On January 3, I left Constanta for Ploiesti. This is a city about 45 minutes north of Bucuresti, and was the last city I had lived in as a missionary before coming home. It was a last minute decision to include Ploiesti on this particular trip to Romania, and I’m very glad I did.
I took the train from Constanta to Bucuresti, and then transferred trains to Ploiesti. I walked from the train station to my hotel in Ploiesti as well, as it was sunny out, even if it was still cold. After getting situated at the hotel, and still being without a phone, I asked for a map of the city, but they didn’t have one available at the front desk. Okay. No map. No phone. I can still do this.
I walked one block, and then stopped in amazement. There was my apartment building. I remembered it as clear as day. It was across from the post office and Piata Central. That one traffic light, it used to play ‘I’m a little teapot’ as the walk signal. I turned around and walked without hesitation the four blocks to the Church building in Ploiesti. I remembered exactly where I had once been caught in a rainstorm on the way home from church. I got to the church building and recognized it, too.
How heart-warming it was to finally have such confirmation that I had been here! I had lived here, and my brain didn’t forget all of it entirely. I walked to the Piata where we did our grocery shopping, and remembered how the awnings looked over the stalls. I once got a marriage proposal there, by an old man who had brown icicles for teeth (I turned him down). I stopped by the little outdoor fair and had a hot wine (vin fiert) while just breathing in the fact that I was so happy. So happy to remember so much.
The next morning I was back on the train to Bucuresti and checked in to my final hotel for my last night in Romania. My friend Shannon had let me know that there was an incredible bookstore in Old Town Bucuresti, so I went to see that. It had also started snowing, which meant a beautiful outdoor scene.
My last day was one of the best. I checked out of the hotel, left my backpack with them, and then went to meet up with Mihaela again. We went back to her mother’s apartment, where her niece was also staying with them. I had to use all the Romanian I could use (though Mihaela translated for me as necessary) to converse with her mom and her niece. Her mom is just as lovely and sweet as I remembered. We played card and board games with the niece (she was a delightful eight years old), and then had lunch together. Her mom made us carrot and apple salad for the first course, ciorba (sour soup) for the second, sarmale cu mamaliga (cabbage rolls and polenta) for the third course, and orez cu lapte (rice pudding) for dessert. Oh my god, it was amazing. The company, and the food.
It was a perfect ending for my time in Romania. They walked me back to the metro, and then it was time to start my journey home to Prague. A cab to the airport, waiting in the airport for the flight, getting all anxious about my short layover in Vienna, running through the airport in Vienna to make my connection (I had to get through passport control and through another security checkpoint), only to find that my last flight home to Prague had been cancelled. So I got a hotel voucher and stayed overnight in the airport hotel in Vienna.
It was beautiful to finally get home, to Prague. To come up the sidewalk to my apartment building on Sobotecka, and see the park across the way. To look up at the beautiful buildings, with their carvings and their iron-wrought balconies and their muted shades of colour. To feel like I was actually coming home.
I am incredibly grateful I had the opportunity (and the courage) to go back to Romania. It was a hard trip. Not much of it was very easy at all. I had a lot of feelings to process, and a lot of memories to sift through. It was all worth it, though.
I feel that I have put Romania back inside me. For so many years I always said I was going to go back someday. Back then it was just this dream, and part of an open wound. It’s not a dream anymore. I have made it reality. The wound is still open, but that’s okay. I think Romania is meant to be my sore spot, my little piece of rawness. The mirror I use to reflect how far in life I have come. It will always be precious to me, and beloved for its roughness, its hardness.
How grateful I am for all of life’s strange meanderings, which bring me to moments of hardship and beauty. Thank you, Romania.
This post is dedicated to Bibi Bobeanu. You were loved far more than you realized. I waited too long to see you, my friend, so I’ll see you in the next life. Te pup.
Now that my TEFL certification course is done, I finally have time to devote to my life again. It seems everything was put on hold while I dealt with the general insanity of the course. I wouldn’t change a minute of it, though – I learned a lot about TEFL, but I also learned a lot about myself.
A growth mindset was certainly essential during my four weeks of training. I walked into that course knowing nothing about current teaching methodologies for English as a Foreign Language, and I walked out perfectly capable of preparing and delivering a level-appropriate English lesson plan within thirty minutes. (So thank you, Long Arm of TEFL, but I still hate you.)
The days were long (regularly ten to twelve hours). The classes were interesting, but often intense. I had to study up on my English grammar. Seriously, do any of you know what a mixed 1/3 conditional is? We use it in our daily language, but so few of us know it by name. Just like the Future Continuous tense, or how modals and phrasal verbs work. The methodology itself was intriguing: we were taught the ESA structure: Engage, Study, and Activate. We were to engage our students with relevant and interesting topics, study the new lexis or grammar points, and then activate the new knowledge with scenarios from real life. Students were encouraged to speak as much English as possible, and we would provide on-the-spot error correction.
When I first began to plan my lessons using the ESA structure, each lesson plan took me between two to four hours. There were activities to plan, pictures to find and print, photocopies to make, and a capricious Internet to deal with. But I knew I could do it. And I did. Got my lesson planning time down to thirty minutes for Long Arm, didn’t I?
Even more important, I enjoyed myself. I enjoyed my classmates – such wonderful people, from all over the US, Canada, and Europe. On my birthday they made me a homemade card and had nearly twenty people sign it, brought me chocolate cake for my lunch, bought me a little plant to take home, and generally told me how young I looked for my almost forty years. I had to teach that night, and my Czech students also gave me birthday wishes.
Isn’t it amazing how you can be loved and supported, even half a world away from all the people who had always had the job of loving and supporting you?
So yes, I’m learning about myself. And I’m learning about trust. How I can trust myself, yes, but how I can also let go and trust the universe. I came to Prague with only a vague idea of what might happen here, only a glimpse of what the future may hold. But I still came. I trusted myself, and I trusted the universe to support me.
Trust is the foundation of all courage. To be brave, or bold, we need to step out of our comfort zones. We need to take a step into the darkness and trust that the earth will still be under our feet. When all other lights go out, we need to trust in the light that exists inside each of us. And if by chance we walk for a time alone, at least there is always that one light, the one inside us.
You see, when it’s dark out, that’s when all our little lights can truly shine. It’s just like looking up into the midnight sky and seeing the wash of the Milky Way. Some things can only be seen when you are in the thick of the shadow, and the dark. This darkness can live inside us, right next to our light, and that’s okay, too. We can’t just wish the darkness away, or sweep shadows under a rug.
I am so glad I trusted myself, those moments when I questioned my work at Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures. I questioned the wisdom of leaving a good salary and a great team, all for some undefined future that could barely be glimpsed or seen. But I knew I wanted an adventure, and trusted myself to create it.
So the next time you think about courage and bravery, perhaps also think about trust. You may trust others, but do you trust yourself?
Try it sometime. It’s scary, but it’s also awesome.
Oh, and I got an A minus in my course. Boo. Yah.
Now I just have to find a job, but I’m not too worried about that. The universe will support me in this, too.
Edited to add a huge shout-out to The Language House in Prague, and my equally huge thanks to Chris Westergaard, Nica Latto, Chris Foxwell, Andrea Baylis, Adrienne Kirby, and all the other trainers and observers who got me through the course.
It’s day two in Prague, and I’m still a bit jet-lagged.
As I was being driven to my apartment yesterday, I noticed the greenery and the changing fall colours of the trees. It was snowing when I left home, so the temperature of 15 degrees was quite balmy and enjoyable. Many roads are cobblestone, and the sidewalks made of small square bricks. The buildings are tall and ornate, with different shades of yellow, ochre, taupe and so on. Our apartment is just a street away from a corner store, called “Billa”. You weigh and then tag your own fruits and vegetables with a sticker, and then mistakenly buy tripe soup for supper, which you don’t eat after tasting it. The bread and smokey cheese and red pepper is better. Safer.
The apartment is old, but spacious. Reminds me quite a bit of my apartments in Romania. I’m sharing it with Erin, from Australia, and Marin, from Phoenix. We have Lilly as well for a few more days before she moves to her own place.
The apartment is fully furnished, with all the appliances we need. It’s funny to have the bathroom be separated into two rooms: one with the toilet, and the other with the washing machine and the shower. We don’t have a dryer – clothes are dried on racks.
I’ll get used to formatting this blog soon enough, I hope. Until then, enjoy this final picture, of a cemetery I saw today. Because of course I went to a cemetery the first chance I got. I love cemeteries! I could spend hours in this one – and I really need to find out what “Rodina” means in Czech. Wait, how about I google it? Okay, it’s a family name, and it was extremely popular in the portion of the cemetery I saw. Lots of tombstones with Rodina on it.