Thursday, May 29, 2008

Český Ráj

R, B and I went to Český Ráj for a day of hiking last weekend. Český Ráj is an area about 100 km north of Prague that is known for its rock formations and hiking. The literal translation means "Czech Paradise".

The most surprising thing about the last statement is not the literal translation, it's the fact that the name "Český Ráj" has not been used by one of the local brothels or adult themed stores. It seems like the perfect name for one of these establishments. If you have ever been to Prague, you know that sex shops litter the town. If one corner doesn't have a brothel on it, then it probably has an "Erotic City" video store on it. Two stories about this...

(1) The Czechs refer to the brothels/whore houses as "night clubs". Which is interesting because in the States that phrase has a totally different meaning. I remember I was out with a friend once when I first moved here and we asked the waitress what some of the popular night clubs were around the restaurant. We asked this in the totally innocent, American version of the question. Now that I know of the hidden meaning, I would expect her to roll her eyes and be kind of disgusted at the query. Nope, she answered the question without batting an eye. She even drew a map. I guess it is not uncommon for American tourists to ask the waitress where the closest whore house is. I can't imagine going into a TGI Fridays back home and asking that question.

(2) A couple of weeks ago I rode my bike to this castle about 40 km outside of Prague. There is an extremely small village outside of the castle. It consists of mostly restaurants and tourist shops. Less than 500 people live in this town. But, wouldn't you know it, one of the only stores in town was an "Erotic City". Even I was a bit shocked by that one.

Woah - that was quite a tangent from the purpose of this original post. Let me get back on the trail....

So we rented a car on Sunday morning and drove up to Český Ráj. As I mentioned above, Český Ráj is a region and not really a single destination. So we just headed out to the general area and hope for the best. We were looking for the incredible rock formations that we had heard about. R even tried to tell me that they formed parts of Lord of the Rings here. I called her bluff on that one since the entire trilogy was filmed in New Zealand. But, she read this fact on the Internet, so it must be true.

Since we didn't really have a destination in mind, we just drove up to a hotel we read about online. This hotel was centrally located and many different trails converged at this spot. We had about 6 different trails from which to choose. We were looking for a sign that said "Incredible Rock Formations" but couldn't find one. In fact, all of the signs were in Czech so we couldn't read much of anything.

I'm not totally Czech illiterate. I would say my vocabulary runs about 100 words deep. Put it this way, my understanding of Czech is about equivalent to B's understanding of English. And one thing I do know that in Czech the word "hrad" means "Castle". And who doesn't want to see a castle. So we picked the trail that said "Trosky Hrad" and made our way out. (For the record, I don't think B knows what the word castle means in English. So I've got him there. Then again, I have no idea what the words for "Peanut Butter" are in Czech, so maybe I'm not so much smarter than him after all)

The trail to the castle was good. A solid "good". Not spectacular, not great, but nothing wrong with it at all. The castle at the end was also OK. Not great. You get a little castle spoiled living in the Czech Republic. I've probably seen a a dozen in the last year alone. Unless Rapunzel sticks her head out the window and lets me climb up her hair, I'm not going to get all that excited.

Unfortunately, the trail to the castle managed to bypass some of the incredible rock formations. There was also a surprising lack of "Erotic City" stores. We did walk by some rock formations, but most of them would fall in the "credible" category - not the "incredible" category. We picked the wrong trail at the beginning.

We'll return to Český Ráj in search of the elusive Incredible Rock Formations. It's a very easy drive from Prague and perfect for a day trip. Next time we'll do some more research before we go and pick the perfect trail in advance. And, who knows, this trail may even have an "Erotic City" or two on it. Stay tuned...

Monday, May 26, 2008

Ghosts in Prague

My housekeeper Pavla sees ghosts. She sees them in her office across the hall, she sees them wandering around the hallway and she even sees them while she's cleaning my apartment. Her daughter Dada also has the "power" to see ghosts - but no one else in her family does.

Most of the ghosts are rather friendly. However, on Friday apparently a mean ghost was seen wandering around the hall. Pavla was lighting candles to get the evil spirit out. This freaked out Mirka - the office manager who works with Pavla. Right after Pavla told her the reason behind her furious candle lighting, the door slammed shut then the window did. Apparently there was no wind when this happened. Mirka was so scared that she made my tough, guard dog Bauer sit with her while she worked to keep the ghosts away.

Now, I'm not a big believer in ghosts. And, by not a big believer, I mean that I don't believe in ghosts at all. So right about now you are probably waiting for me to tell you my own ghost story from this weekend. You couldn't be more wrong. This just in - GHOSTS DON'T EXIST.

But, this whole experience has got me thinking about ghosts some more. I asked the ladies across the hall what the ghosts look like and how they could tell a good ghost from an evil ghost. Apparently the ghosts look like people, but just a bit more blurry/transparent. The nice ghosts have a white tint while the evil ghosts have a dark tint. Isn't that convenient. They are fully clothed.

If you swore to me you saw a ghost I could maybe, possibly, sort of believe you if the ghost had some amorphous, metaphysical shape. But why would a ghost look like a human? And how does a ghost decide what clothes to wear? And don't tell me that they are wearing the same clothes that they had on when they die, because that doesn't make any sense other than it is the easy answer.

I'm assuming that ghosts don't have a clothing budget, so can they just pick any top designer clothes that they want? Do they get to change their outfits over time or once they pick an outfit are they set with it for all of eternity? If you get a new, high-end outfit whenever you want, being a ghost can be kind of fun. But it would really suck if you had to, uh, live in the same outfit forever. It takes me a solid 3 minutes just to pick out a shirt to wear for work. And that only lasts 8 hours. Can you imagine the stress involved of picking an outfit for your eternal damnation?

Another thing I'm worried about lately is the language the ghost will speak. I'm hoping the ghost that is in my apartment with me while I am typing this blog speaks at least a bit of English. If I'm laying in bed at night and I hear a voice screaming "GET OUT" - I'm probably going to leave the apartment. But if the ghost only speaks Czech, I'll have no idea what if he is saying. I'd hate to vacate the apartment in the middle of the night when all the ghost was trying to tell me was that he was hungry.

Through this whole experience, there are 3 possible conclusions you can draw:

(1) Ghosts really do exist and they live among us
(2) My housekeeper is lying through her teeth
(3) My housekeeper is fucking nuts.

That's it. There is no possible fourth option. Of the three options, I'm not sure which one is the worse case.

Obviously, I don't want #1 to be true. The thought of having ghosts around the apartment is just freaky. I spend half of may day just waiting for the perfect opportunity when no one is around so I can get a good, solid nose pick in. If ghosts are watching me 24x7, I'll never be able to pick my nose in peace again.

If #2 is true, then what else is Pavla lying about? Should I really believe her when she says that she uses Windex to clean my apartment? Maybe she just bought one bottle of Windex 5 years ago and has been filling it with water ever since. That goes against every housekeeper code of ethics known to man.

Finally, I don't want #3 to be true either. If she really is crazy, who knows how deep this crazy runs. Maybe one day she'll stab me when I get home from work. Maybe she'll get confused one day and walk my shirt but iron my dog. That can't be good. Or, even worse, mix a white load of wash with colors. Crazy. Crazy, I tell you.

I honestly don't know which is worse. If you excuse me, I'm going to pour a glass of wine, put some cheesy love song on the radio, start making some pottery and see if I get seduced by a spirit.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

D-Day Beaches in Normandy, France

R and I flew to Paris on Tuesday morning to meet up with R's college friends (and, I might add, avid Living In Prague blog readers) Amy and Nicole. But I'm not going to talk about that trip. I'll let R blog all about her adventures in Paris at another time. This post is dedicated to my jaunt to the Normandy region of France.

The trip to Normandy was distinct for a couple of reasons. First off, this was the first vacation I have ever taken by myself - assuming you don't count my visit to the Hedonism resort if Jamaica after college. (And I don't count that because (a) I checked in under the pseudonym Johnny Ironnutz and (b) my virgin eyes were so traumatized after the first hour that I spent the rest of the week locked in the hotel room with the window shades drawn tight.) I have some friends that don't mind traveling by themselves and do it on a regular basis. That's great and I respect them for it. But, frankly, it's not my preferred way to travel. Two factors make me a bad solo traveler: I'm naturally shy and I love to read. So put me in a cafe with a book in my hand and I'm all set. I don't have to talk to another person all day except to tell the waiter "una birra". (This is another bad habit I have. Whenever I'm speaking to someone whose native language is not English, I tend to blurt out phrases in Italian. I have no idea why I do this. This is not only insulting to the French but, given my butchering of la bella lingua, also to the Italians)

The second item that made this trip distinct was the amount of studying I did beforehand. It brought back memories of my nerdy college years. Why did I study so much? Well, I wasn't going to Normandy just to look at the sites and drink some wine. The impetus for the trip was to visit the D-Day beaches on the coast of Normandy and the respective World War II memorials. If I was going to see where the actual battles took place, I figured I should learn as much s possible going in. So, learn I did. I read a 600 page book dedicated entirely to D-Day. I watched all 10 episodes of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers within a 4 week span. I studied maps of the region and found out the strategic significance of the various landing spots. In short, I spent the last month ingesting every piece of WWII knowledge I could get my hands on.

On Thursday morning, I took a train from Paris to the town of Caen and immediately made my way to the Caen War Memorial. I browsed the displays for about 2 hours and then watched possibly the worst 30 minute film on WWII ever made. It was full of propaganda. From my extensive reading before hand, I knew that many of the scenes depicted on screen where complete bullshit.

For example, one scene in the film shows a D-Day landing boat pull up to the beach, go full throttle with the engine to make it about 5 meters on shore, the lieutenant jumps out, points in a direction and then the soldiers jump out on to dry land full of energy with their guns raised, ready to fight. If that was real footage, they must have found the one single boat of the day for which that happened.

In reality, the boats had a very difficult time making it close to shore. The first waves were dodging rough seas, mines and enemy sniper fire. The latter waves had to get through all of the debris, shrapnel and dead bodies floating in the sea. In most cases, the men were violently sea sick from their journey across the Channel. When the boats failed to make it to shore, they had to jump in waist deep water or higher and use whatever energy they had left to get to shore. No easy task given their dehydration, the 50-80 pounds of equipment strapped to their backs and, oh yeah, sniper fire coming from all directions. Those that did make it to shore in one piece usually collapsed from utter exhaustion and the feeling of "Yes - I made it! Oh Fuck! Now what?".

After the bad taste that the War Memorial left in my mouth, I was hoping that the beaches wouldn't disappoint. They didn't. I was picked up by my tour guide at 2:00 and headed out to see where the real battles took place. (Note: I took a guided tour bus on Thursday and then, on Friday, rented a bike and visited a few of the places we missed. I'm just going to list all of the details regardless of what day they occurred. I really enjoyed the solo bike tour. However, after riding 80km without proper bike shorts, let's just say no one would confuse me with Johnny Ironnutz.)

- Gold Beach: The attack on Gold beach was primarily lead by the Brits. The most impressive thing about this beach was not the attack itself, but the engineering effort that took place after it. Within 3 days of the landing, the Allies had a fully functional port set up in the town of Arromanches. They initially sunk old ships to help control the rough seas and then laid down an elaborate system of docks. In order to do so, they had to drag 7000 ton slabs of concrete all the way across the channel. They also had a system of ramps to get the trucks with supplies on and off. Apparently, the technology used for these ramps was about a decade ahead of its time and was able to stay afloat with the changing tide waters. Now, here comes the really sad part. Less than 10 days after the port was completed a monster storm hit Normandy and destroyed the whole thing (I guess they needed to be 20 years ahead of their time). Locals said it was the worst storm they had seen in 50+ years. Today, you can still see the concrete slabs that defined the perimeter of the port, but that is about it.

On the cliffs above Gold beach, they still have the remains of a German bunker with a heavy artillery gun intact. These bunkers were built to last. The walls and top were four feet thick of solid concrete. The base was even deeper to ensure a side blast wouldn't sink the whole thing. You could see bullet holes and sections taken away by bomb blasts but, for the most part, these bunkers held throughout the day. The one thing I realized is how scary it would have been to be a German officer in these bunkers. Your range of vision was severely reduced and you could only see straight ahead. As the Allied infantry made it up the shore and got within distance of the bunkers, the soldiers inside were sitting ducks.

- Omaha Beach: Omaha beach is the most famous of the D-Day beaches for all the wrong reasons; it was where the vast majority of the American casualties took place. And, looking at the landscape, I can totally understand why. During low tide the beach stretches across flat for about 400 meters. At the edge of the beach, there is a big cliff that reaches about 60-70 meters high. This is where the German guns were located. So, the American troops were coming in on boats with absolutely no cover facing an enemy in the perfect firing position. For the German gunners, it would have literally been like a video game. I hate to use the expression when talking about human lives but it is true. The Germans were in an elevated position and could take out the troops as they approached the shore. It would be a very easy shot and there was nothing to stop them. To put this in perspective, this is where the first scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan supposedly took place (it was actually filmed in Ireland).

It wasn't supposed to be this easy for the Germans. The initial plan was to have US planes bomb the shit out of the beach before the infantry came ashore. In the day before the attach, one general was showing his team the photographs of the beach and said "Don't waste too much time memorizing these photos. By the time you arrive on the beach, it will be full of craters and potholes due to our bombing. And, don't use the steeple of this church as a landmark. The church will be a pile of bricks while your still 10 kilometers off shore"

Unfortunately, the bombing effort completely missed its target. Nothing hit the German troops stationed to guard Omaha beach. When the American troops got close to shore, the first thing they saw was the church steeple standing proudly right where it was in the pictures. I can't even imagine the thoughts that were going through their heads as they walked into this death trap.

Eventually, as you are well aware, the Americans took over Omaha beach. But it was a costly victory. Over 2000 Allied soldiers lost their lives on this attack. Most of those occurred in the first waves of the attack. The true number of men killed on D-Day is not known and can only be estimated.

- Pointe du Hoc: Pointe du Hoc was a very strategic point during the D-Day battles. It was situated in an elevated position between Omaha and Utah beaches. This was very bad because the Germans had artillery guns on the top of Pointe du Hoc that could reach both beaches. The Allies needed to take this and disable the guns - so they sent their best troops. The Germans also knew this so they had their well trained units defending this area. However, unlike the other destinations, Pointe du Hoc did not have much of a beach to speak of. As soon as the soldiers came ashore they were forced to scale a 100 foot plus cliff to reach the destination. It was nearly an impossible mission. 225 soldiers left for Pointe du Hoc. Only 90 made it out alive.

In the more than 60 years that have followed D-Day, the authorities that be have decided to leave Pointe du Hoc unchanged. Therefore, you can still see the craters from the bombing that took place. It reminded me of the moon - if the moon had grass. The most impressive crater was due to bomb that made a direct hit on a bunker containing dynamite and ammunition. They say it was the greatest fireworks exhibit every displayed. The crater is probably 20-30 meters in diameter and another 7-8 meters deep. The remains of the German bunker are still there and they believe German bodies are buried underneath several hundred tons of concrete.

- Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial: What a site to behold. Over American 9000 soldiers that lost their lives in Normandy battles are buried there. These were not just D-Day casualties, but anyone who died in the next 100 days or so within the Normandy region. The cross shaped tombstones are perfectly aligned in row after row. The youngest person buried there was 16 at the time of death. The median age was only 21. All died for their country in one of the most ambitious/noble/scary operations ever undertaken. The families of the deceased were given the choice to have the body flown back home to be buried close to loved ones or to remain in Normandy and be buried with their brothers in arms. About 60% choose to go back home; the rest stayed here. I can understand and respect either decision.

While I was walking through the tombstones, a few things stood out. (1) Soldiers were buried together regardless of rank, race, religion, etc. (2) Jewish soldiers were buried with a star of David instead of a cross. However, only 100 or so stars are present. It is believed that many Jews lied about their religion. Given the culture at the time, they were afraid of what would happen if the Germans captured a Jewish POW. (3) Several graves don't have a name, just the phrase "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God" (4) I found one soldier who died on D-Day that was in the 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. This is the same Division that was immortalized in Band of Brothers. Seeing this brought things a little closer to home. Although I don't know a veteran that fought in Normandy, I feel like I followed this Division around for the last 4 weeks and knew what they went through. I can only imagine what happened to this guy.

There is not too much else I can say about the D-Day beaches. I think every American, Brit and Canadian should visit if given the chance. Sometimes we take our freedom for granted. I know that I certainly do. But I did nothing to earn this freedom. It was just handed to me partly because of the actions that took place on June 6, 1944 on the Western coast of France. And for that, I am forever greatful.

OK, before I get a little too sappy here, let's talk about the rest of the trip. I must admit that I was a little WWII'ed out by the end of day two. It's a lot to take in. But I wasn't going to sit around my hotel room and mope, so I saw some other sites. To name a few: Mont St. Michel, a really cool 1000 year old tapestry that depicts the Battle of Hastings, and a Memorial to reporters killed in their line of work. The last place was especially interesting to me because my organization is full of people who risk their lives every day in the hopes of spreading freedom and democracy. Sadly, several of my former colleagues at RFE/RL are no longer with us and now have their names listed in this memorial.

On a much lighter note, I want to end this post by clarifying one thing. Evidently some people read this blog and don't know when I am joking. For the record, I have NEVER been to a hedonism camp. Nor have I ever wrapped a Playboy in a brown paper bag so I could read it on a plane. I say all of these things in jest. For future reference, if you read something that makes me sound outlandishly awesome, then assume it is true. If you read something that makes me sound like an outlandish idiot, assume it is false.