Saturday, June 27, 2009

An American in Prague

I've started becoming a bit homesick for all things American, even American things I don't particularly care for, like Wal-Mart.  Little did I know that I would find enough America in a place like Prague to cure that part of my homesickness.

I stayed at the Andel's Hotel, which was nice, reasonably priced and centrally located to take the Metro and trams.  I also later learned that it was located right by a large mall.  A real American'esque mall (something I had yet to see in Europe), complete with Sephora and H&M and a food court and movie theatre. I'm a little ashamed to admit the rush of excitement I had upon learning this, but instead of denying myself, I jumped right in and headed over.  There wasn't anything magical about it, but it was somehow comforting and familiar.  Just in case you are wondering, I didn't buy anything while I was there.

At the mall was Tesco, their version of Wal-Mart.  As I went down the aisles, which were marked overhead with what was on each one, just like at Wal-Mart, one thing I noticed was that many Czech words were English words with a "y" on the end, which I found funny.  For example, chips are chipsy, crackers are crackery and liquor is likery (spelled different but phonetically the same).

I also discovered that I could watch NBC News at the hotel.  I mentioned in a previous blog that I hadn't been following the news or watching a lot of TV, but I did both in Prague.  The news started at 6:30 Eastern, so 12:30 am in Prague, and I would stay up to watch.  One night I caught a bit of Conan.  I understand he officially took over Leno's spot since I've been gone, and I could tell a difference.  I usually like Conan, but what I saw (part of his monologue) seemed different - awkward and almost forced.  

Yes, I tore myself away from the mall long enough to see the major sites to see in Prague - Wenceslas Square, the Charles Bridge, the Mala Strana neighborhood, Old Town Square and the astronomical clock.  I tried to go to Prague Castle one day, but as I was walking toward it from the Metro it started storming, so I had to go back.  The storm didn't let up for several hours, and that was my last day there.  Thankfully that was the only day it stormed, though it did rain everyday.  It was also chilly, and I was wishing I had my Ireland clothes with me again that I had shipped back from London in my first wave of clothes shipments.  The people in Prague were so nice, and everyone I met spoke English.  I loved Prague - it was a beautiful city and is definitely in the top five places I've been so far in Europe.     

A random fact about Prague: The escalators in the Metro are TALL.  One of the tallest escalators in the world is said to be in Prague.  They are also super fast, which is a little scary considering how tall they are and how far you would have to fall. 

I went to the Depeche Mode concert on Thursday, my last night in Prague.  The concert was at Eden Stadium, the city's new soccer stadium.  Everything on the ground was general admission, and the stands where I was sitting were almost all covered with an awning, which turned out to be great because it rained off and on all night.  The rain didn't stop what seemed like half the crowd from going down to the general admission area - it was packed.  Depeche Mode played for a little over two hours, nearly all the songs I wanted to hear and put on an awesome show.  I included a short video excerpt below of "Enjoy the Silence" - enjoy! 

Earlier in the day, Honey had emailed me that Farrah Fawcett had passed away. Considering I had heard about Ed McMahon the night before (NBC News), I emailed her back and said:  "Bad things happen in threes.  Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett.  I bet there will be another big name celebrity in the next week or so." So sure enough, when I got back to the hotel that night I had an email from Honey that said: "#3 - Michael Jackson."  I couldn't believe it and turned on NBC News and sure enough they were just reporting it.  After NBC news ended, I flipped over to the BBC, and I couldn't believe how shoddy the reporting was.  It was such a train wreck, though, that I couldn't stop watching for fear I might miss something highly entertaining such as one of these snippets:

BBC Anchor to President of Michael Jackson fan club: "He was known to be a very tall man and have a firm handshake."  (Really, is this the best you've got?)

President of Michael Jackson fan club:  "No actually he was quite short.  I'm 5'10", and when we met I noticed he was quite a bit shorter than me."  (And while he didn't comment on it, who thinks MJ had a firm handshake?  Not me!)

* * *

BBC:  "He liked to play with monkeys and climb trees." (Hmmm... maybe so, but he just passed away.  Give the guy some dignity!  Ok, yeah, never mind, it's Michael Jackson...)

* * *

BBC:  "What the Spice Girls were to the 90s, Michael Jackson was to the 80s."  (Oh now, come on.  That is just ludicrous.)

Other than the reporting, I haven't heard too much about his death over here, though I did hear someone blaring "Wanna Be Starting Something" today and I saw a record shop window hanging a Michael Jackson display. Personally, I was a bit shaken up by his death, which sounds funny even for me to say considering that as a person I think he was creepy.  But Thriller was the first album I really took an interest in when I was 8 years old.  The first concert I ever saw was Michael Jackson in 1984 at Neyland Stadium.  And of course any time I hear Billie Jean I have to get up and dance!  

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Angels & Demons

Originally I only planned to stay in Rome three days. But when I did my Rome research the travel guides said to allot as many days as possible to see all there is to see. Also thinking that too much moving around on this trip might wear me out and it would be nice to have another home base for awhile, I upped my time from three days to 10.  I should have stuck with the original plan.

I love big cities.  Charming big cities.  In my opinion, Rome doesn't hold much charm.  The people aren't particularly nice (where's a friendly Parisian when you need one?), the buildings aren't beautiful (impressive, yes; beautiful, no), the Tiber River is not a good (or clean) place to go sit by the water for the afternoon, there weren't any art museums I particularly wanted to see and I didn't stumble upon a really good park.  Rome reminds me a lot of the way that I felt about Athens, Greece when I was there last May - probably the first big city I'd ever been to that I didn't really like and while I appreciated it for what it was, it just wasn't my thing.

My saving grace while I have been in Rome was the book Angels & Demons.  I was told to read it before I got to Rome, and I finished it while I was in Venice. (Very entertaining and a fast read by the way.)  For those of you who haven't read the book or seen the movie (I'm waiting to see the movie until I get back to the States), it takes place in roughly a 24 hour period of time across Rome. There is a map in the front of the book that shows all the major landmarks that the main characters visit.  I spent a few days going to the sites in the book, which are broken down as Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

Earth is inside the Chigi Chapel of the Santa Maria del Popolo.  Unfortunately the church was closed the day I visited, so I walked around the Piazza del Popolo.

Air is at the base of the obelisk in Saint Peter's Square.

Fire is Bernini's statue of Saint Teresa in Ecstasy inside the Santa Maria Della Vittoria.

Water is Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers on Piazza Navona.

In addition to the Angels & Demons sites, I also saw the other must-see sites in Rome: the Pantheon and Piazza del Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine, the Forum, the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel (though I did go to Saint Peter's Square, I did not go in Saint Peter's Basilica - the line was so long and didn't appear to be moving, and it was out in the sun on one of the 90+ degree days), the Spanish Steps and Piazza de Spagna (and the designer boutiques nearby).  

I'm one of those strange people that doesn't love ice cream.  Well, there is one exception... Anyway, ice cream, or gelato is huge in Italy.  Gelaterias are everywhere.  Forget 32 flavors. Some Italian gelaterias boast as many as 100. (Yesterday I saw a flavor called "English Soup" - this couldn't have been good.)  It would be odd to walk down the street and not pass several people eating gelato.  So despite my aforesaid thoughts on ice cream, I was intrigued and tried kiwi, mango and coconut, which I liked in that order.  I also discovered icees (as you will know from my previous blog, I've been craving ice), specifically lemon icees, which I found to be better than any gelato I've had.

I rented an apartment in an area of Rome called Trastevere, which is located south of Vatican City on the west bank of the Tiber river.  It is a very nice area that is known to have maintained its original character, especially with its narrow, cobblestone streets (apparently much of the cobblestone streets elsewhere in Rome are being paved because the vibration from cars driving over them have been leading to cracks in the foundation of historic sites in the city).  The apartment itself I am renting is huge - three times the size of the other places I've stayed - and very nicely decorated except...  The guy that owns the place is obviously highly eccentric and narcissistic, and he has pictures of himself, by himself, hanging up all over the apartment.  One in particular is hanging in the bathroom, and as you will see why below, it disturbs me every time I take a shower.

Maneuvering around Rome is harder than most cities I've visited.  As opposed to, for example, Paris' Metro where there are 16 lines (so virtually a Metro stop anywhere you turn), in Rome there are only two lines - A and B. Apparently the reason there are so few lines is because as they have attempted to dig additional lines under the city they run into archaeological finds, which obviously slows down the process.  In order for me to get to a Metro stop from my apartment, it was about a 30 minute process of walking plus a bus ride.  Once to the Metro, though, most of the sites I wanted to see were easy to get to and just a brief walk from a Metro stop.

I knew there would be places on this trip that I loved and places I didn't particularly care for, and unfortunately I have to place Rome in the latter category. A large part of it is my disinterest in the history of the Roman Empire, and because I knew that going in, I should have ignored the travel guides and stuck with my gut to stay only three days.  Regardless, I'm still glad I saw what I did but will be very happy to move on to Prague tomorrow!