A Scottish Paradise

When we applied for a WWOOFing position on the Isle of Eigg (pronounced “egg”) in Scotland, the host replied that it was too wet and there wasn’t work for two people. After poking around the internet a bit more and looking at photos of the place, we found out that they had a camping area at their croft. It looked so amazing that we wrote back and told them we were coming anyway, as campers instead of wwoofers!

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles…and Buses…and Ferries

Before we could enjoy the beautiful Isle of Eigg, we had to get there, which didn’t turn out to be easy. Our journey required us to take a plane, a bus, a train, and a ferry.  In the end, it took us the better part of two days to get there from Ireland. I’ll let our travel itinerary speak for itself:

The journey to get to the island ended up being almost as beautiful as the island itself. Our bus route followed a highway that clung to the banks of the breathtaking Loch Lomond, just as the sun was setting. The mountains and deep water were drenched in violet and gold, and it was easy to see why the place is so famous.

After an overnight stop in Fort William, we got up bright and early to hop on a tiny train (just 2 cars!) to Mallaig, where we were to catch our ferry. The train followed the West Highland Line, which is famed as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. Numerous films have used it as a setting, including several of the Harry Potter movies. The train ride totally lived up to all the hype, and we spent most of it with our necks craning to catch every possible view of the rugged Scottish Highlands.

Sea Legs

We arrived in Mallaig right on schedule, and walked the few blocks over to the pier where we were to catch the ferry. We were so excited to get on the ferry that we probably looked nearly as silly to the islanders as someone freaking out about a tractor in Iowa.

Although the sea was smooth and the sky was clear, I staggered around the ferry like a drunk person—clearly I do not possess “sea legs!” The ferry ride lasted for 2 ½ hours, and Sarah and I had to lay flat on some of the seats for much of that time to relieve the feelings of seasickness that kept creeping up. I can’t imagine what the ride must be like when conditions aren’t so good!

By this point, the remoteness of the island was really starting to set in. A few other passengers on the ferry were travelers like us, but most of them were from Eigg or one of the other Small Isles that the ferry served, and all of those people seemed to know each other. It was just early proof of what we would soon see: the small, tight-knit community of these islands.

Mingling with the Locals

Sue and Neill were the owners of the Cleadale Bothy, which was to be our home on Eigg (more on that later). They showed us around their croft, and invited us to a bonfire that they were attending that night. Even though we were exhausted from our long journey, we agreed to go—and it turned out we were in for a great night!

We piled into the backseat with Sue and Neill’s son Struan and Rosie the dog. After a quick interruption while Sue and Neill fixed a pothole in the one-lane road, we were on our way. We chatted a bit with Struan about his boarding school on the mainland, and asked if there were bonfires every weekend on the island. Neill chuckled and told us that it was only once a year…it was Bonfire Night! All over the UK people burn bonfires with effigies of Guy Fawkes to commemorate his unsuccessful attempt to blow up Parliament.

Despite the dark origins of the holiday, it was a fun and festive occasion. We gathered around a HUGE bonfire, oohed and aaahed over a DIY fireworks display, and watched clouds roil around the full moon.

When the fire had burned down, we transferred inside to the “tea room,” which turned out to be the coffee shop/restaurant/bar/meeting hall/hang out spot for the island. Mingling has never been one of my gifts, and we found ourselves thrown headlong into an advanced-level mingling situation. With the island’s small population of around 100 souls, everyone present knew each other like a big family. Couple that with the fact that we were adjusting to their accents and missed about 40% of what they said, and we soon ended up as the wallflowers of the party. We made a strategic move to install ourselves near the drink fridge, so that people would be forced to talk to us when they came by. We managed a few short conversations, but I think we were so tired and looked so bewildered that people quickly lost interest in us.

Even though I had to experience a relapse of my middle-school social anxiety, it ended up being a fun evening and one of the more memorable experiences of our trip. It was a great opportunity for observation, and to get a sense of the people who lived on the island. I was surprised to see how many young people there were. Most small communities I’m familiar with have something of a problem with brain drain, when young educated people leave for larger communities with more opportunities. I had expected to find a similar situation on Eigg, but as an outsider looking in I couldn’t find any obvious evidence of this. There were plenty of young people around, including young families with little children, and the group there struck me as vibrant and full of vitality. They are living very much in the 21st century, with progressive politics, the first fully self-sufficient renewable energy grid in Europe, and—on some of them—a downright cool fashion sense.

Home Sweet Bothy

With no more social engagements, the rest of our long, dark, northern nights were spent in the cozy bothy—a sort of one-room stone cabin that leaned up into the hillside. There was no heat and no hot water, but we had a wood burning stove and a kettle. We became unashamed members of the 100-hour-no-shower club, which didn’t matter so much when there were only dogs and cows around to judge us for our greasy hair.

Out our front door was a knockout view of the jagged Isle of Rum jutting up out of the Atlantic, and at our back were cliffs and waterfalls. It was a pretty incredible setting to wake up to in the morning, and at night we had some of the clearest views of the stars that I’ve ever seen.

To see what we did with our days on Eigg, take a looksee at the photos. We went a little paparazzi on the island, so there are a lot! Coming up soon: a post from Sarah about her favorite thing we did in Glasgow!


The Emerald Isle

After months of living with a language barrier, Sarah and I were excited to be headed to an English-speaking country at last. When we arrived in Ireland, we realized we’d been missing more than the language. People in Central Europe and France had seemed quite reserved to us, so when we arrived in Ireland and were greeted with big smiles and chit chat about the weather, it felt a bit like a homecoming. Iowa Nice meets Irish Nice!

Dublin, City of Literature (and Guinness)

First stop on our Ireland visit was Dublin, which was named a UNESCO City of Literature—4th in the world, just after Iowa City, Iowa—an honor that designates cities as literary hubs involved in publishing, education, and cultural events. As a confirmed book worm, I was eager to explore a city that has played such a role in the world of literature. Plaques with literary quotations line the sidewalks, literary tours, walks, and readings are plentiful, independent bookstores abound, there was an exhibit at the National Gallery devoted to poetry…and to top it all off, the local beer (Guinness) has the taste of coffee!

I went to a reading one afternoon at Sweney’s Pharmacy, which features as a setting in James Joyce’s Ulysses. The pharmacy is run by volunteers and now sells books and soap instead of medicines, and has been made over into a sort of shrine to James Joyce. A small group of tourists and locals trickled in, and we got comfortable with some cushions, tea, and our copies of Joyce’s Dubliners. In circle style, everyone took turns reading a page. My American accent stuck out like a sore thumb next to all the posh-sounding European voices, but it was fun to participate in a reading instead of just sitting around listening. We stuck around to chat for a bit afterwards, and then everyone trickled away again to continue their day.

An Irish Halloween

Besides Dublin’s literary heritage, Sarah and I were also excited to celebrate Halloween in its country of birth (yes, that’s how far behind we are in blogging!). Though I usually think of Halloween as an American tradition, it originates in Ireland. It began more than 2,000 years ago as the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which marks the end of the old Celtic Year and the beginning of the New Year. The Celts believed that on Samhain, the border between our world and the next became blurred. They wore costumes and lit sacred bonfires to ward off ghosts that might cause harm to them or their crops and winter supplies. Long story short, the Catholic church eventually got involved and All Hallow’s Eve (the night before All Saint’s Day) was combined with the traditional celebration of Samhain. Halloween enjoyed limited popularity in America’s early days (all those hardcore Protestants weren’t that into fun and games, I guess), but with the massive influx of Irish fleeing the potato famine in the mid-1800s, the holiday became more popular on our side of the pond…so that’s your history lesson for this post!

Sarah and I spent the day of Halloween perusing Dublin’s many charity shops and thrift stores for costumes. We had a lot of fun and ended up stocking up on basic everyday clothes instead—mainland Europe had been a bit lacking in the thrift store department, and we were starting to feel a little threadbare. In the end, we bought some face paint instead of costumes. Sarah painted a candy skull, and I did a classic scary skeleton.

Halloween in Dublin was a lot like Halloween in Iowa City—except bigger and better! Everyone was dressed in costumes, roaming the streets. Most costumes were scary, rather than the funny/sexy themes you usually see in the US. Everyone was in a festive mood, and lots of people called out to compliment our make-up, or even asked to take photos with us. We made a bit of a scene in one bar when Whitney Houston came on, attracting attention with our passionate lip-synching (special thanks to Celine Dion for teaching us how to really sell a song).

We returned to our hostel at 3:00 am, satisfied with our Big Night Out and certain that we would no longer be the chill (a.k.a. boring) ones first to bed in our room. Alas, Dublin is something of a mecca for college partiers, who proved more dedicated than us. We still found an empty room. Our roommates finally stumbled their way back in around 5, 7, and 8am…guess I’m not as young as I used to be.

County Meath

Our next stop was to be Galway for a few days, but we were loving Dublin so much that we decided to stick around. We ended up going to little Mornington, in County Meath (just up the coast from Dublin). We wanted to pay a visit to Bernadette, a longtime friend of our Aunt Linda. Bernadette and Linda were pen pals as kids, and Linda came to Ireland for a summer to visit Bernadette. We had heard a lot about her through the years and wanted to finally put a face to the name!

After about a month of hostel hopping, it was truly lovely to stay with Bernadette and her family in their cozy home. We drank coffee by the fireplace and chatted with Bernadette and her kids, hung out with Nala “McBarker,” put in a long overdue load of laundry, and gobbled up a delicious full Irish breakfast cooked specially for us by Bernadette’s husband Jim.

Our relaxing time in friendly Dublin and cozy Mornington had us well rejuvenated for our next adventure—a trek to the Isle of Eigg, a tiny, remote island off the coast of Scotland. Come back soon to hear that tale, but in the meantime check out our pictures to see more of what we did in Dublin and Meath!


Je ne vous comprends pas

After nearly two months of travel in Danish-, Czech-, and German-speaking territory, Sarah and I were finally set to arrive in France. I speak French! So the language barrier was about to get a lot smaller…or was it?


The First Taste of France

Anyone who speaks a second language will know that for a long time, it feels clumsy and awkward, and you can never say exactly what you mean to say. With every sentence, you have to negotiate the gaps in your vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. You have to translate your fully formed English thought into a language that you only partially know, and it’s exhausting.

But if you’re patient and you use that language enough, one day something will click. When I studied abroad in Lyon (in the southeast of France, near the Alps) in the summer of 2009, French finally clicked in my mind. I could just think my thoughts in French and then say them. Much simpler.

During my next few years of college, I continued taking French classes that allowed me to use the language with purpose. My French didn’t get much better during that time, but I was able to maintain it. It was easy to work at it, because I was excited to be able to express myself in another language. It was something I’d always wanted to do, but had never been sure I could accomplish.

Back for More

During my study abroad summer, I met Alix, a girl that lived next door to my host family. She was a few years younger than me, but we hit it off right away and became pen pals when I came back home. She had the brilliant idea to do a little exchange. I would host her to come to the US for a month, and she would host me to come back to France.

Alix came to visit me in 2010, and then in 2012, after lots of work and saving, it was my turn to head back to France, this time without the security blanket of a study abroad program. No teachers to explain things to me. No Americans to hang out with if I was feeling shy. And no English.


“Keh-TEE,” the French-Speaking Me

During that month, French started to settle into my body in a way that it never had before. The French syllables that had felt so clumsy in my mouth began to flow more naturally. People still teased me now and then about my American accent, and I still made plenty of grammar mistakes, but I could understand and be understood without too much effort. I started to think my thoughts in French, even in my alone moments. It went so deep that when I remembered conversations with English speaking friends and family, they played out in French in my mind.

As I started to get more and more comfortable with speaking French, a new me started to emerge. “Keh-TEE,” as the French pronounce my name, was still me but somehow different from me. Her facial expressions and gestures were different, and she was more comfortable with herself somehow. I think that since I was an American in France and didn’t have much hope of fitting in, I just accepted the fact that I was different and didn’t dwell on it. It was very liberating.

Back Again

Once we set off on our most recent voyage in Europe, I knew that we would probably be making a stop in France, hopefully to see Alix. I hadn’t practiced my French much in the two years since I’d been there, but I figured it would be a great chance to brush up and step into my “Keh-TEE” personality for just a little while. Making our travel arrangements was a lot easier, since I was roughly familiar with the geography and transport companies in France. Being able to read French didn’t hurt, either.

We flew from Munich, Germany, to Paris, France, and a feeling of excitement came over me as we got on the plane. The flight attendants were French! The intercom announcements were in French! We weren’t going to be those-jerks-who-don’t-speak-German anymore! I’d be that-American-trying-to-speak-French instead. Still not the most sympathetic character, but an improvement nonetheless.

When we got off the plane in Paris, we got stuck in a little bubble of German passengers on the way to baggage claim. They were chatting all around us as we waited for our packs. I had become strangely attuned to the sounds of German, so I had trouble filtering them out as I was trying to flip my brain over into French.

“Je ne vous comprends pas”

With our bags safely in hand, we trekked through the airport to the train terminal. The German bubble popped and at last we were firmly planted in French-speaking territory. My first challenge was to collect our train tickets. I made a beeline for the ticket machine, but it didn’t work. I looked around for a ticketing office, but didn’t see one. There was an info booth, so I took a deep breath and stepped into line.

As I waited, I went through the familiar ritual of making a mental script of the conversation I was about to have. I thought about what I would say and what the attendant would probably reply, pausing to dredge up some words from deep in my memory bank.

When it was my turn, I approached the window, put on a bright American smile, and said, as clearly as I could muster, “Can you tell me where to collect my train tickets?”

The surly boy behind the glass looked at me like a crazy person and said, “At the ticket machine,” as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. I was prepared for this possibility, and told him that I’d already tried the machine, and it was only for buying tickets. I’d already paid for mine and just needed to collect it from a different machine, or maybe a ticketing office. He gave me that what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about look again and said indignantly, “Je ne vous comprends pas.”—I don’t understand you. He shrugged his shoulders as though he hoped I would just go away.

My face fell, and an uncharacteristic wave of anger welled up in me. This was definitely off script. I wanted to tell him that he was being rude, that that was a rude thing to say to someone who was clearly trying very hard to communicate. But I was muted and couldn’t find the words to express myself. I dropped the nice American girl act and brandished my iPod in front of him, showing him my train ticket reservation on the screen. “I don’t know how else to explain it to you,” I said in half-broken French. “The ticket machines are only for buying tickets. I bought my ticket online. It’s already paid for. My train is leaving in 20 minutes, and I just need to find where to collect my ticket.”

“But you have your ticket right there, on your mobile,” he said, clearly exasperated with me.

“No, this is not my ticket. This is my reservation number. It’s not a ticket. I have to use this number to collect my ticket, which is what I’m trying to ask you about.” I had to restrain myself from stomping my foot. Just when I was about to give up, understanding dawned on his face, and he said, “Oh. It’s just right through those doors.”

I rolled my eyes at him and left in a huff, not even bothering to say thank you. In my mind, I knew that the info boy was being ridiculous, that that exchange was not necessarily due to my lack of French, but to his lack of knowledge about the train station. But in my heart, I felt Keh-TEE withering away, and knew that she didn’t really exist at the moment. I was shaken by that first French conversation, and off on a bit of a bad note.

I did get to speak a bit of French during our time in France, but it was much different now that I was just a tourist passing through. Most people would switch to English as soon as they heard my accent. Alix explained to me that they were trying to be polite, that they thought I was making a great effort to speak French. It was true, I was making a great effort. That was the part that stung a bit, like seeing an old friend that used to be so close to you, that you aren’t sure how to talk to anymore.

Not All Bad

Even though I had a rough time with the French language, it was still fun to be in France again. Alix lives in Nantes, in the northeast corner of France near the Atlantic coast, and it was cool to see a different region than I had visited before. I was also glad to be able to show Sarah a bit of the country that had such an influence in my growing-up process. But the next time I go to France, I’ll be more prepared. Hopefully Keh-TEE will make an appearance then.

I’ll let the photos do the talking about what we did during our time in Nantes and Paris!`

Halfway Home

On the day that marked the halfway point of our trip, we sat down in a Dublin pub and talked about our experiences so far.

Katie: We’ve been on the road for almost two and a half months, and as of today we’re halfway through. Hard to believe. How’s it going so far?

Sarah: You know, it’s going really good. It’s been amazing. We’ve had some major ups and some major downs. We’ve seen a lot, done a lot—it’s crazy that we’re only halfway, because we’ve been zooming around so much that it seems like we should be more than halfway. But I’m feeling good. I’m feeling really good to be in Ireland, and up next, the UK. It’s very a big relief since we got here.

K: Definitely.

S: The language barrier was really intense, and it’s just, always there, no matter what. You can’t—like just the most basic little things become a struggle when you don’t speak the same language.

K: Yeah, just things like doing laundry, or ordering food at a restaurant.

S: Or just buying something  from any kind of store is always like ugh, a thing.

K: It turns into a thing, that’s the thing.

S: Everything you do.

K: Yeah. You can’t really take anything for granted.

S: Nope. Reading street signs, trying to navigate during rush hour with all of your luggage…Public transportation is amazing, but yet, there’s all these different options, like are you gonna be in Zone 1, 2, or 3? OK, well there’s no map telling me where the zones are, so I don’t know [which metro ticket to buy].

K: Like in Berlin?

S: Just everywhere. You know, it’s…

K: It’s stressful. And just right when you get to know one system, it’s time to pick up and move somewhere else.

S: Yeah, the second you get the hang of one place, it’s time to leave, so you’re right back in the, not knowing where you’re going…It’s really exhausting in a way. But we’ve seen and done some really, really cool things.

K: So what are some of your highlights so far?

S: So far…Our Savior’s Church in Copenhagen, climbing to the very top of that was epic.

K: With Ida? That was fun!

S: Fun and, I’m not scared of heights, but I was shaking.

K: I was terrified!

S: It was intense. Um, I loved Berlin. Berlin was a really cool city, had a really cool vibe to it.

K: Yeah, I loved Berlin. I think it has a really interesting history and a really interesting outlook on the present and the future.

S: Yes. Staying with Sue and Tom [in Prague] was also very fun because, at that point, that was the very first people, like American people…

K: Yeah, an American family.

S: That we had been able to talk to since we left…so that was really nice to stay with them.

K: And they were really helpful and told us a lot of good tips and advice about Prague and the Czech Republic.

S: Yeah, and they made us feel right at home, and it was so nice to have our own space, and all of that. And I think Dublin, you know. It’s just a great city, it feels really small and yet, there’s lots going on, and people here are so nice.

K: I’ll never forget when we got off the plane.

S: Yeah, me either.

K: The flight attendants were just smiling, and saying “Welcome!” And I was like, this feels good.

S: Yeah, after being in central Europe where everyone’s very very reserved. Not cold, but not friendly.

K: Not very warm. Not like what we’re used to in Iowa. I think if you get know them, they probably are, but as strangers…

S: Yeah, definitely.

K: Do you have any regrets or things that you wish you had known before we came?

S: Um…I guess with any big trip, I wish I had known what I was actually going to use, and just packing-wise I would do it differently. By the time you get halfway through you’re a pro and you know exactly what bag would have been perfect, but you’re kind of using the one you have, but I think that goes with any trip. I wish I would’ve picked up some more German before we came.

K: That would have been so helpful. I spent a lot of time trying to learn phrases in Danish, but they never stuck in my head and I feel like that time would’ve been better spent trying to learn German. We were with English speakers in Denmark, but pretty much on our own in German-speaking territory. So going forward from here, with our next 2 months, what do you think is in store, what are you excited for?

S: I’m super pumped for the Isle, in Scotland. I only call it “the Isle” because I don’t know how to pronounce what it’s actually called…so I’m really excited for the Isle, because we’re going to be basically camping, and it’s gonna be awesome. I’m really really excited just to get to Gaunts [House, where we’ll be WWOOFing again], because we’ll finally be able to be in one place for more than a week—we haven’t stayed anywhere for more than a week.

K: Since we left the orchard, yeah.

S: So it’ll be amazing to be able to just like, actually unpack my bag and get comfortable somewhere.

K: It’ll be really nice there too, because a lot our trip will have been behind us, so we won’t have to be planning. Whereas I feel like when we were at the orchard…

S: All we did was plan.

K: All we did was plan and apply for other WWOOFing positions and figure out travel routes and all these kinda things. So it’ll be nice to be able to just be there and then not have all of our backpacker homework to do.

S: Yeah, it’s going to be so nice. I’m just looking forward to that.

K: I feel good about it. I think Christmas in Copenhagen will be good. It’ll be hard to be away, but I’m excited to see some of their Christmas traditions, to be with a lovely Danish family.

S: I feel like once we get to Christmas though, it’s less than two weeks then from when we’ll be home, so we’ll be really excited to get home, it’s gonna be less like missing everyone and more just excited because it’s gonna be really close at that point.

K: Have you been homesick at all?

S: Yeah, I was at first. It was really hard, but at this point it’s just kind of like, I weirdly feel like we’ve been doing this forever, and in Dublin especially I just feel really at home here.

K: Yeah, it’s really homey.

S: Just really comfortable here, whereas in other places I haven’t really felt comfortable. Like, in other cities, I don’t know the language, so there’s always that level of, you know, you don’t always feel safe, necessarily. If something were to come up, you can’t communicate with people, whereas here, it’s just…sometimes I can’t understand a word they’re saying, but they can understand me. And it’s not that big of a city where I feel overwhelmed, versus Paris, which was a tad overwhelming—it was really cool, but a tad overwhelming—so here, it’s just kind of slower paced.

K: I think too, number one having an English speaking country after all this time feels just amazing and comfortable, and I also think that there’s a big Irish influence on American culture, so there are a lot of things that are familiar here, that kind of came from Ireland. Like this pub that we’re sitting in now just looks like Donnely’s in the Ped Mall in Iowa City, it just seems really homey and cozy.

S: I will say though, that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to having to look the other way when I cross the street!

K: Nope! Probably never!

Magical Music Marathon and…Salzburg?

Music City

Refreshed and rejuvenated after our time in Třeboň, Sarah and I arrived in Vienna ready to hit. it. hard. And hit it we did—our classical music marathon began just hours after our check-in at the hostel. Night one got off to a beautiful start with the National Madrigal Choir of Romania at St. Stephen’s Cathedral (or Stephensdom, if that suits your fancy). Despite having the word “madrigal” in their name, they were quite a versatile ensemble, performing everything from medieval plainchant to a wild post-war piece that involved howling, shouting, and a giant chime. Sarah’s reaction: “It was like they were possessed…but in a good way if that’s possible? It was funny. It was weird.”

For the rest of our days in Vienna, we settled into a nice routine—walking and exploring during the day, a veggie dinner at Asia Box To Go (cheap generalized Asian food next to our hostel), followed by a concert in the evening. Vienna boasts over 15,000 music events per year, so there was an overwhelming array of options to choose from. We had to side-step more than a few flyer-pushers and scalpers in powdered wigs. Our small budget and lack of advance planning nixed anything from the Philharmonic or the three opera houses, but we did score some standing-room tickets at the Musikverein for our last night. After throwing a few elbows to secure a half-decent spot behind the barricade (don’t even get me started…), we enjoyed a straightforward (costume-free) performance of Beethoven’s genteel 1st Symphony and a pair of Mozart keyboard duets.

In Search of Beethoven

Vienna is plastered with various Mozart-themed attractions, but I decided to skip the crowds in favor of a quiet visit to the Beethoven Pasqualatihaus, where Ludwig van Beethoven lived and composed several symphonies and Fidelio, his only opera. Apart from a plaque and a few small posters on the outside of the building, it looks just like any other residence in Vienna, and I felt like a bit of a trespasser when I poked my head through the front door into the deserted courtyard. A little paper sign told me to head up to the 4th floor (5th to you Americans), so up I went on the winding stone staircase.

After my climb, I peeked around another door and found myself in an airy, sun-drenched apartment overlooking the University of Vienna. There were just a few well-chosen personal items, portraits, and manuscripts, which left plenty time and brain-space to just soak in my surroundings. I eavesdropped on a pair of Beethoven buffs, paced from window to window, and listened to a few excerpts from Fidelio and Symphony no. 7 piped through an old pair of headphones…dream come true for my middle-school self!

Sick in Salzburg

The hills are alive! With the sound of…sneezes.

Unfortunately there’s not much to say about our time in Salzburg, because we both got sick. Slept, laid in bed, sat by the river. That’s pretty much it. Oh—and got judged real hard by our go-getting English roommate, who waltzed in one night and asked us, “Have you not left the room today?” in her BBC accent. No Carrie, we didn’t leave the room. None of your beeswax, OK?

Take a look gander at the photos, and come back soon for a little frolic in France!

Praha (part 2)!

Prague Fog

Sarah and I decided we wanted to take an early morning walk in the beautiful city of Prague, to be able to see the streets of the old town area (without the hordes of tourists) by the light of the rising sun. We set our alarms for bright and early at 6:15 one morning, ate breakfast in the dark, and set off to see the sunrise. What we got was even better—a thick fog hovered just above the ground, the perfect melancholy backdrop for a walk across the famous Charles Bridge.

We were aiming for Prague Castle as our final destination, but our wanderings took us up to the Strahov Monastery instead. We arrived at the top of the hill just in time to see the sun burn away the fog for a beautiful view of the city below.

An Iowa Water Nymph turned Czech Opera

After our long walk through the city, Sarah and I had a relaxing afternoon and then got as dolled up as two stinky backpackers can and went to the Národní divadlo (National Theatre) for a real treat: Dvorak’s beloved Czech opera Rusalka, which has some plot similarities with Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” It was a lovely theatre and a beautifully staged opera—Sarah said that she was surprised at how much she enjoyed it! Opera sometimes has a stuffy reputation, but this one still felt fresh, and the music, dance, and sets were striking. It was also fun to have an occasion to wear the dress I’ve been dragging across Europe.

Rusalka even has an Iowa connection! Dvorak lived for 3 years in the United States, and spent part of that time in Spillville, Iowa, where there was a Czech-speaking Moravian community. While there, he saw a girl bathing nude in the Turkey River, presumably peeped on her for awhile…and that gave him the inspiration to write the opera. Creepy but cool, I guess?

A Surprise Peek at 1968

During our first few days in Prague, we were noticing some renovations at an intersection near Sue and Tom’s apartment. On our way back from the opera, we saw some workers putting up barriers to close off the street. Being an Iowa girl, my first thought was, “ugh, road construction.” But in the morning as we walked by, we saw that there were some tents and trailers and…an army tank! We realized that there was a movie being filmed! The whole street was made over to look like it did during the Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague in 1968.
We stopped for part of an afternoon to watch the filming process, which was interesting on a couple of levels. For one thing, it was just plain fun to see the workings of a movie set. It was also striking to step back in time a little bit and imagine what the people here experienced during those days. It has been interesting to see the different legacies of Communism in eastern Germany and the Czech Republic—those times are very much in recent living memory, not as far in the past as I always felt them to be.



PRAHA! (Part 1)

We thought we’d never make it there, but after a long and hectic travel day, we arrived after dark in Prague. Our Uncle Nick’s cousin Sue and her husband Tom were going to let us pay them a visit and then stay in their apartment for a few days while they took a trip to Germany. Sue gave us a warm welcome at the train station and walked us through Wenceslas Square to her family’s apartment just behind the National Museum of Prague. We dumped our packs and Sue treated us to a lovely dinner, complete with potato cakes and sekt, a sweet sparkling wine that’s only available for a few weeks in the fall.

Tom joined us for a beer at the restaurant after bringing their daughter Maia home from hockey practice, and we got acquainted with our 3rd currency here in Europe—Ceský Koruna (Czech crowns)! Sue taught us a few survival words in Czech and Tom showed us a very tricky Czech tongue-twister: “Strč prst skrz krk.” It means, “stick your finger through your neck.” A bit nonsensical, but grammatically possible nonetheless!

The next morning, we walked with Sue to pick up Maia from school, and Sue gave us a walking tour of Staré Mesto, the Old Town of Prague. She helped us get oriented to the geography of the city (which was really nice after being vaguely lost most of the time in Berlin), gave us a few insider tips, and pointed out some things we should go and have a look at.

The next day, the Barendregts left for Germany, and Sarah and I spent the day wandering around their lovely neighborhood, called Vinohrady. I picked up a pair of shoes at a thrift shop in the neighborhood…Czech women must have small feet, because I ended up having to buy a men’s pair! Sarah and I found an international bookstore and picked up some reading materials. There are also several lovely parks, lots of beautiful fall foliage, and a very strange TV tower (check out the photos, you’ll see!).

Stay tuned for Praha Part 2!


A Day at the Market

When I found out that I was The Chosen One to go work a market with Anders, I was slightly skeptical at first.  It was to be an all-day affair, loading up the car at 7:30am and not returning home until after 6pm that night.  I love a good farmer’s market as much as the next guy, but it involved skipping my afternoon free time (and mushroom hunting) which I’ve become quite attached to.

The morning of the market, I got up just as the sun was rising to fix some breakfast and get ready.  Anders and I loaded up the car and trailer with fruit and apple juice.  I was so sleepy, and there was a dense fog hovering just above the ground that made me want to crawl right back into bed.  But when we arrived at the “market,” I found a full-blown festival!  More specifically, a farmer’s market/flea market/Renaissance-festival-but-with-vikings, all rolled into one.  It took place at Kongskilde Friluftsgard, a nature center about an hour north of Kysøko.  I took some time to wander away from the booth and explore the market, viking village, and nature areas nearby.  I even stumbled upon a beach!

Back at the booth, Anders was quite the salesman.  He was drawing a lot of customers in to taste samples of his famous apple juice.  I picked up a few words in Danish that ended up coming in handy when Anders needed to take a break.  I managed to sell about 4 kg of pears, 3 apples, and several bottles apple juice in his absence. There was a lot of pantomiming involved.  A few people laughed at my pronunciation of “æblemost” (apple juice).  From what I could gather, I was saying apple + something-that-wasn’t-juice.

It’s been great to find so many English speakers so far on this trip, but it was fun to have the chance to be out of my element for a change.  It turned out to be a good day, and I still got to hang out in the forest that evening!  Win-win!