A Time to Remember

If you read my last blog post, you might remember that I left it on quite a somber note by mentioning that our next field trip was to Auschwitz – Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp during WWII. Now after seeing it in person, I feel the need to share my experience with others.

We arrived outside of the gates of Auschwitz around noon. The sky was dark and gray with a slight drizzle, an unfortunate but fitting way to begin our tour where millions of people lost their lives. Many of those people walked through the very gate that I walked through on Saturday. As they walked through, they read the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei” meaning “work will set you free.” It provided a false hope that freedom could be attained if the prisoners worked themselves to exhaustion. Immediately inside the gate, I already had an eerie feeling, looking at all of the buildings lined up in perfect rows. In the first building we entered, I was surprised to find the same quote that I had used in my last blog:
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It was a good reminder of why I was there and why it’s so important to know exactly what happened in history during that time. Our tour guide walked us through the building, explaining the photos on the walls that were taken when the Jews and other victims entered the death camp. I distinctly remember one picture she pointed out where the prisoners were “selected” into two different lines. She told us to notice how there didn’t seem to be any indication of panic in the photo because the Germans lied to them about where they were going. They had no idea that while one group was sent to their new living spaces, the rest were sent to the gas chambers where they perished.

After seeing several pictures of the victims entering the death camp, what we saw next was an image I will never be able to get out of my head. To honor the lives that were lost, we were asked not to take photos for this part of the tour. Behind a glass wall in a large room of the building sat 2 tons of human hair. Some pieces were wadded up while others were still in braids. Imagine seeing that much hair and knowing that each little strand belonged to a human life. What was even more shocking was that it was only a small fraction of the hair cut by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Once the Soviet Union began liberating the concentration camps, the Nazis were able to burn most of the evidence. While the rest of the camp was difficult to take in and process, seeing the 2 tons of human hair was an image I will never forget.

We continued on through the building and saw more belongings of the victims. Among 20170513_133234these belongings were hairbrushes, pots, pans, shoes, and glasses. I had the same sunken feeling from seeing the hair when I saw the massive pile of shoes. Our tour guide reminded us that it wasn’t just a pile of shoes. Each shoe represented a human life that was taken far too soon, 20170513_132934and without reason. Right as I was about to leave the room, there on the bottom of the pile sat a little red shoe that once belonged to a little girl. I instantly imagined the scenario where the little girl may have asked her mom why she had to give up her shoes – being an innocent soul without any idea of what was going to happen. I felt myself holding back tears as I walked out of the room.

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In the next building, we saw what the living conditions were like for the victims. From when the camp first came into existence, the victims mostly slept crammed together on 20170513_133933piles of hay. Later on the Nazis provided thin mattresses. At the beginning, toilets were holes in the ground outside. Eventually they created a bathroom with better toilets. Prisoners were only allowed to use the toilet once in the morning and once at night. In the main hallway of the building there were photographs of some of the victims who died at Auschwitz. Along with their photograph was their date of 20170513_134144birth, the day they arrived at the camp, and the day they died. From what I could see, the longest anyone survived in the camp was approximately 2 years. However most died within 3 months of entering the camp.

As we walked on to the next building, our tour guide informed us of the unethical experiments that took place at Auschwitz, mostly by Dr. Josef Mengele. Many of the test subjects died due to the experiments performed on them. The next building we entered was used for prisoners of war and individuals who were defiant against the Nazi authorities. Because of the horrifying conditions of this building, we were asked not to take pictures. The first floor included the offices of the gestapo (German police) and rooms filled with bunkbeds for the prisoners. In the basement there were separate stalls made of brick about 3×3 feet each. As a method of torture, victims were forced to stand in the stalls overnight and then return to work each morning. After living in the basement for a few days, the victims were led outside to the execution wall where they were lined up and shot to death. Today many flowers and other gifts line the wall in remembrance of the lives lost.

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We walked on to the other side of the camp towards the gas chamber. Not far from the gas chamber, behind a wall of trees sat the home of the Nazi Officer who was in charge 20170513_140658of the camp. Our tour guide told us that his wife often referred to her home as “paradise” because she received many of the items that belonged to the victims. After the liberation, the officer was found guilty and a separate gallows was created on the grounds of the camp just for him. His last views were of his home and the gas chamber.

The last stop for our first tour was the gas chamber. We were asked to 20170513_140958stay silent inside, in remembrance of the lives lost in the chamber. The ceiling of the chamber created the illusion of a shower. However in a small window above, the Nazis infiltrated the chamber with Zyklon B gas and killed thousands of victims. From the gas room, other prisoners were forc20170513_141026ed to pick up the bodies and put them into the crematorium to be burned. As we walked out of the chamber and ended the first tour, my heart and mind were overwhelmed. It gave me a numb feeling, trying to comprehend everything I just saw.20170513_141251

We took a short break before meeting up with our tour guide at Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Upon entry, we walked on the platform alongside the train tracks. In the middle of the tracks sat a cattle car. Approximately up to 80 victims were crammed into a single car, traveling many miles from all over Europe. Upon arrival, majority of the victims were sent directly to the chambers on either side of the tracks behind a wall of trees. We followed the same path towards the chambers to see what was left of them. In an attempt to hide the evidence, the Nazis destroyed a good portion of Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Despite their attempt, you can still manage to see the layout of the chambers, from the gas room to the crematorium.

After seeing one of the chambers, we headed up the opposite side of the tracks to some other buildings. During our walk, I noticed how rough the ground was with sharp rocks poking up in different directions. I couldn’t even imagine being a working prisoner at the camp and not having shoes to walk around in. Even with the shoes I had on, I felt every rock beneath my feet.

Our guide led us to one of the buildings on the edge of the camp. We peered inside the windows and saw what looked like a bunch of unsanitary porta-potties lined up in a long row. These were the toilets used by the prisoners. We walked on to the next building where we saw the living conditions of the prisoners who awaited their unfortunate deaths. Inside the building, there were 3 levels of wooden planks. The victims were expected to cram together and sleep on the bare wood without clothes or blankets.

Our final stop of the tour was the top of the tallest lookout tower. From there, we could see the entire camp. The remains mostly consisted of brick chimneys because the Nazis burned the wooden buildings before the liberation. As I looked over the desolated camp before me, I couldn’t help but wonder how humankind could have been capable of allowing this to happen. I would like to think that most people believe in love and kindness. But the major flaw in the mind of a Nazi was seeing the Jews and other victims as nothing more than cattle. In no way were their lives seen as valuable. It’s an idea I learned from one of my psychology classes. Discrimination often arises because the minority is seen as the equivalant to mere objects and nothing more. If only the Nazi authorities would have attributed value to the innocent victims, so many lives could have spared.

On that cold, rainy day, I was reminded that humankind is flawed. We steal, we cheat, we lie, we harm others, and the list goes on. Yet the positive thing is that we can learn from their immorality and create a better tomorrow for one another. We are all capable of choosing how we treat others. My hope is that we can learn from that moment in history and choose to show love and kindness to all lives we come in contact with, regardless of our differences.

Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.” – Anne Frank

 

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The Goodbye Trip

It’s hard to believe this trip of a lifetime is about to end. It seems like only yesterday we were moving into our dorms in Olomouc and just getting to know the people in our group. Three months really do fly by when you’re living the life most people only dream about. For our final week together, our group of 24 students and 4 professors ventured off to explore Bohemia, the eastern region of the Czech Republic.

 

Our first stop was in a tiny Czech town called Litomysl. While it had similar attributes of a traditional Czech town, such as the town center with a column and a church, Litomysl had a small-town charm that made it unique. Our hostel was located next to the castle in what used to be an old brewery. After we left our luggage at the hostel, our professors led us on a short walk to the town center. This town center was unique because it was a long street rather than a large square like most Czech towns. While it seems like a great place to find a lot of food options, we mostly only found shops and a small supermarket. For lunch, we really had to search around the outside of the town center to find a good restaurant.

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After lunch, we reunited with the whole group to tour the church and the castle. The church was unique in that it had many restorations due to the constant fires that occurred throughout the years. We walked to the very top of the church tower to get a great view of the town. The castle was similar to other Czech castles in that it was adorned with Bohemian crystal chandeliers and extravagant furniture. For the afternoon, a group of us sat in the grass in a park, relaxed, and had an interesting conversation about Shia Labouf. The best part of the day, however, was when we sat on the edge of a wall with an amazing view of the sunset behind the Litomysl rooftops. My group is full of jokesters who make me laugh so hard, my stomach hurts. If I would have laughed any harder, I may have fallen off the ledge! Don’t worry mom and dad, I didn’t fall 😉.

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While there was not much more to do in such a small town, I was sad our time in Litomysl came to an end the next morning when we all hopped on the bus for the next town. That feeling quickly faded when I realized the next towns would have a unique charm all their own! Before arriving in the next town of Kutna Hora, our bus made a few stops so we could see some important historical landmarks. Not knowing what the first stop would be, I was excited to see beautifully mowed green space and a creek through the window of the bus. However, when I learned where we were, I was overcome with grief. We had arrived at the site where the small town of Lazaky used to be. During WWII, Lazaky was completely obliterated along with its inhabitants by the Nazis for the rebellious assassination of Officer Heidrich. Many of the assassination conspirators took refuge in Lazaky to hide from the Nazis. Some of them even committed suicide in an effort to protect the small town. But to no avail, the Nazis believed the whole town should suffer. In remembrance, memorials were placed in the area, along with a single cross on the top of the hill. After taking a silent walk to the top of the hill, our group returned to the bus to continue our journey.

 

 

Our next stop was at a church outside of Kutna Hora. This wasn’t just any old church. Inside, we were surprised to find millions of HUMAN bones adorning the walls and ceiling of the chapel. In the center, there was a large chandelier made of human bones, all strategically placed to form the structure. A neat pile of bones sat in the four corners of the chapel. Because death was such a daily occurrence in the old times, especially with outbreak of the Plague, bones had to be dug up from the ground to make room in the cemetery. One of the architects for the church believed it was best to use the bones to decorate the church. The purpose of this was to provide a place for people to morn the dead and also be reminded of their own mortality. While it was definitely creepy and disgusting, I enjoyed looking at each bone and trying to name it, based on what I learned in my anatomy courses. Evidently, I have some reviewing to do!

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Plot Twist! I Actually Study While Abroad

The social media of a student abroad has become somewhat misleading as it only shows the highlights that the student experiences. From photos of the Swiss Alps to the canals of Venice, it seems like I’m living the life of luxury, with no responsibilities to worry about. But of course, no one wants to see an Instagram post about pages of written History notes or chicken scratches of the Czech language. So in the words of Ashton Kutcher, you all have been “Punk’d”! I actually have to put the “study” in “study abroad!” Don’t get me wrong, studying here in Europe is much more exciting than any of my classes in the United States. Academic responsibilities for my program consist of many field trips, along with Czech language and history classes.

 

If you’ve kept up with my other blog posts, you already know a little bit about my Czech language class. I think all of my classmates can agree that it’s something we all dread. Our professor likes to push us to the point where we’re all sitting on the edge of our seats, hoping she doesn’t call on us for an answer. While the class is intimidating, I have successfully learned numbers, pronouns, restaurant dialogue, and other common phrases in Czech. It doesn’t have the beauty of Italian or Spanish, but I actually enjoy figuring out the pronunciation of Czech words. Last week my class and I gave a presentation about Nebraska to Czech students and our Czech professors. Reluctantly, I volunteered to say our introduction in Czech. Judging from their giggles and applause, I assume I did alright! Turns out I’m learning something after all!

 

Aside from our Czech class on Mondays and Thursdays, I also attend history lectures Monday thru Friday. Our professors, Martin and Jan, give the majority of our history lectures. Jan’s class is centered around the broad history of Europe, all the way from the Holy Roman Empire to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. He adds a special emphasis on the evolution of the Czech people and their culture. Martin’s class primarily focuses on the Holocaust and the centuries of discrimination towards the Jewish population. When I learned about WWII in high school I always wondered “why the Jews? And what possessed the Nazis to commit the worst genocide in history?” We always talked about what happened, but never why it happened. While many questions are still left unanswered, I finally understand the series of events and beliefs that eventually led to the Holocaust. What I find most interesting is how normal men and women of the Nazi regime were able to commit such horrific crimes against humanity, yet most of them were considered to be psychologically healthy. Much of it has to do with the misrepresentation of the Jews through propaganda and having authority figures with totalitarian power.

 

To some, these history classes may seem boring. But in Europe, we actually get to see these places where history has been made. It gives you a whole new perspective that can’t be attained in a classroom with a marker board and PowerPoint presentation. One thing that attracted me to this program was the immense amount of field trips to the historical sites of Europe. Our first field trip was a weekend trip to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, and Dresden, Germany. In Prague, we visited the Prague castle where King Charles IV reigned as both the King of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Emperor. Dresden was remarkable to see as it was the site of a WWII bombing by the Allies. Significant buildings like the Dresden Frauenkirche church were obliterated during the bombings but were eventually restored from the debris.
Our next field trip was to Vienna, Austria and Venice, Italy. Vienna had a lot of historical significance, considering it was the center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the home to many famous musicians. While we there, we visited one of the most prestigious art museums of Europe, containing hundreds of paintings from the renaissance period. In Venice, we visited the beautiful San Marc Cathedral and the Duke’s Palace.
Our most recent field trip was to Krakow, Poland last weekend. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually liked the city, despite its dark history. In 1943, the Nazis liquidated the Jewish Ghetto and thousands of Jews were transferred to the nearby concentration camp of Auschwitz where majority of them died. Our hostel was located in the Jewish ghetto, but you wouldn’t be able to tell now because we were surrounded by lively restaurants and pubs. On Saturday we visited Schindler’s Factory, which was mostly a museum explaining the events in Krakow during WWII. Last week we watched Schindler’s List in class to gain a better understanding of Oskar Schindler and his efforts to save the lives of hundreds of Jews. While it was sad learning about the history of Krakow during WWII, it was nice to experience a culture that seemed to have restored itself after its hardship. The highlight of the trip was getting to lick salt off the walls of the salt mine!
I am not looking forward to our next field trip as it will be a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. People say it can be emotionally draining and its something that will stick with you in your mind for a very long time. Although it will be difficult to see the aftermath of such a dark place, I believe it’s important for all to realize the horrific events that took place under the power of Adolf Hitler. I think George Santayana said it best:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Interactions with the Locals

I have officially been in Olomouc, Czech Republic for 6 weeks. Throughout those weeks, I have done my best to assimilate to the culture and improve my interactions with the locals. My experience here has been unlike anything I expected. Before starting the program, I heard that Czech people love beer, so I just assumed that most people here were social. Little did I know that it’s quite the opposite! As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts, Czech people are way more reserved and keep to themselves in public settings. While I’ve enjoyed my time here in Olomouc, most of my social interactions involve people in my class and the other foreign students rather than Czech people.

Majority of my interactions with Czech people have been in restaurants and cafes. In our Czech language class, we are finally learning restaurant dialogue. I can already tell that the waiters and waitresses appreciate our efforts to communicate with them in their language. Occasionally they will laugh at our “American accent”, but at least we’re trying! Service in restaurants is quite different from what I am used to in the United States. Usually people in the U.S. are overly cheery when asking what you want to eat, but here it seems like most waiters could care less. This became more apparent when I visited Naples, Italy and received the best service in all of Europe. In Naples, the waiters were much more patient and willing to translate the menu for us. Returning to Olomouc after spring break was bittersweet, as I preferred the people from the other countries but also appreciated the familiarity of this little Czech town.

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Pizza in Naples with Castle Nuovo in background

While my interactions with strangers haven’t been the most positive, the Czech people I have had the pleasure to meet are actually quite nice! If you have kept up with my other posts, you know how much we appreciate our “Mother Tereza.” She has been helpful in so many ways during our stay in Olomouc, especially when the majority of my class became infected with the “second Black Plague” and she took us all to see the doctor. When Tereza isn’t taking care of her cat or working on her Ph.D., she finds things for us to do on the weekends. We are grateful for her positive impact on our stay here in Olomouc. We will miss her just as much as she will miss us!

Another Czech person we have come to know is Karel. We happened to come across his bar late one night and have been frequent customers ever since! Although the bar has some other name that we can’t pronounce, we deemed it “Karel’s Bar” because of his great hospitality. We quickly learned that he’s a very successful magician who likes to bartend on the side. When he’s not serving us our favorite glass of pivo (beer) or vino (wine), he will amaze us with his multitude of magic tricks. You can always expect a good time at Karel’s Bar!

Judging from my experiences, I have concluded that despite their apparent impartiality towards strangers, Czech people are friendly once they are willing to open up. The Czech Republic isn’t a place where you’ll receive a random smile from a stranger or the “one-fingered wave” as you pass the oncoming vehicle. However, if you are in need of help to find a doctor or need a friend to have a beer with, you are almost sure to find someone here in Olomouc!

Unfortunately I don’t have any new pictures from the Czech Republic, but here are some from my weekend in Switzerland!

Field Trip & Spring Break Part I: VanSkiver visits Venice and Vienna

It has now been 2 weeks since my last blog post and so much has happened since then. I am not sure how I will be able to sum up everything that I have experienced within those two weeks, but I’ll make sure to give you the highlights!

Our week long “field trip” started on Monday, April 10th on a bus ride towards Vienna, Austria. I had an interesting start to my day because I decided to wake up early to buy a suitcase instead of using a dufflebag. Why I didn’t think of it sooner is beyond me! The supermarket opened at 8 am, and there I was, shuffling in with the first crowd to find a suitcase. I picked one out, paid for it, ran clear back to my dorm, packed my stuff, and was on the bus by the time it was ready to leave at 9 am. Even though it was stressful, I call that a success! Words of wisdom: make sure you have the appropriate luggage before embarking on a 2-week-long trip!

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When we arrived in Vienna, Martin, our professor, led us to the old part of the city where many museums and other important buildings were located. By this point after such a long bus ride, we were all wanting to grab a bite to eat. So naturally, as Martin tends to do, he let us roam free from the city center and told us “good luck getting back to the hostel!” (Vienna was easy to navigate, but just wait until you hear about Venice!) After a hefty plate of wiener-schnitzel, a traditional Viennese dish, my friends and I enjoyed a nice stroll through the parks, admiring the flowers and greenery.

On our way back to the hostel, we talked about how cool it would be to see an opera since a lot of famous composers performed in Vienna – including Amadeus Mozart and Johann Strauss. Ironically, a man dressed in traditional clothing from the 18th century approached us with a flyer for an opera. He told us the prices for admission and we turned him down since it was quite expensive. But then he went on to say, “but for 18033000_10155266988167612_4620726123730594545_nstudents, I have a special price!” That’s when I started to think, okay this must be a scam. Seeing the cheaper price, we walked away to converse. We decided it wasn’t worth it, so we turned him down once again. Right as we were about to say goodbye, he lowered the price even further and gave us better seats! In my mind I knew it was too good to be true, but since we were only in Vienna for one more night and the tickets were cheap, we decided to do it. After talking with Martin, we figured it was probably a scam so we kept our expectations super low. At the entrance to the opera, they made us check our coats for 3 euros – obviously another way for this tourist trap to make more money. We entered the room, hoping for a concert hall but instead we were seated in a small room with chairs lined up in rows. Finally the performance began with a grand total of 7 musicians, 2 ballet dancers, and 1 opera singer. They played 6 songs from Mozart and 6 songs from Strauss. In the end, I concluded that the performance was very well done but the venue could have been better. My next words of wisdom: if you suspect a tourist trap, it probably is one. If you get suckered in, at least bargain with the guy to lower the price!

Venice

On Wednesday, we said goodbye to Vienna and took a long 6-hour bus ride to Venice, Italy. It might sound awful to be on a bus for that long, but the views of the mountains made it all worth it! When we arrived, one of the first things I did was I got my hands on some good Italian gelato. I think the food, in general, was what I most excited for about Italy, and it didn’t disappoint!18010478_10155267024597612_8868009982493602341_n

For our first full day in Venice, Martin led us across many bridges and alleyways to San Marco square. While we were there, we were granted entrance to Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica. After that, Martin once again let us roam free to explore the city. Oh my, is it easy to get lost in Venice! There are so many bridges, canals, and 18057061_10155267033462612_6750902204189590391_nalleyways that if you stray away from the main landmarks and streets, it can be difficult to find your way around. Fortunately however, Venice is one great big island, so if you find yourself swimming in the sea, you know you’ve gone too far. Even though my parents didn’t like the fact that I got lost (sorry mom and dad!), it was actually one of the coolest things about Venice. With every turn, I was in awe of the scenery: bridges arching over the sea-green canals, surrounded by tall pastel-colored buildings with flowers hanging from the balconies. It’s all so simple, yet completely breathtaking. While most of Venice felt like sunshine and rainbows, I could have done it without the huge crowds of tourists and street vendors. That was another reason why getting off the beaten path was fun.

18056793_10155267167607612_7354603880747966808_nFor the next day, we went way off the beaten path to the nearby island of Burano. I would have to describe it as a “little Venice,” but with a small-town feel. We had a lot of fun taking pictures by the brightly colored buildings and exploring the shops that lined the canals. We ate some more gelato, found a park on the edge of the island, and sat in the grass to admire the serenity of this little town.

Words of wisdom for Venice: don’t be afraid to get lost or even go to a completely different island. It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of the busy streets, but finding time to slow down and enjoy the hidden treasures is definitely worth it!

So there you have it – the coolest field trip I have ever been on. I hope you enjoyed my little “words of wisdom” and will find them helpful if you ever decide to visit these two beautiful cities – which I highly recommend!

Be on the lookout for Part II of this blog where I’ll talk more about my spring break excursions!

Ciao!

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The Best of Budapest

If I asked you to list off 5 popular European cities off the top of your head, what would they be? Paris? London? Rome? What about Budapest? It seems like Budapest is a city that often gets overlooked, and after this weekend, I can’t quite understand why. I know I have yet to see many more European cities, but Budapest has set the bar remarkably high.

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On bridge, overlooking Danube

On Saturday morning, we ventured out of our hostel to see what the city had to offer. Our hostel was on the Pest side, so we had to cross over to the Buda side for the major sites (Fun fact that I just learned: Buda and Pest were two separate cities until they combined later in the 19th century to form Budapest). As we crossed the Danube River, we had an excellent view of both sides of the city, with the Parliament Building on one side and the hills and Budapest castle on the other. Little did we know at the time that the views were going to get even better! We walked along the river and took more pictures with the Parliament Building before heading deeper into Buda.

Finally we came upon the Fisherman’s Bastion, a tall fortress-like structure with

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Matthias Church

seven towers that resemble the ones from Cinderella’s castle. We climbed to the top of the towers to get a breathtaking view of the city with the river. Right behind the Fisherman’s Bastion sits Matthias Church. Out of the churches we have seen so far, this one was the most unique. The arrangement of the orange and turquoise ceramic tiles on the roof, along with the intricately painted walls in the inside, make it unlike any other church I’ve seen.

After the church, we continued further along the river where we found the Budapest Castle. While it was a beautiful building, with turquoise domes and statues surrounded by lush gardens, I was expecting something more medieval. I think when I hear the word “castle”, I immediately picture something from a Disney movie. I’m starting to realize that castles here don’t quite fit my archetype!

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Budapest Castle

For the rest of the afternoon, we spent a few hours at the thermal baths, which have become a popular tourist destination in Budapest. The one we went to had 5 different baths, ranging in temperatures from 16 to 42 degrees celsius, and a sauna. The baths were very relaxing after a long day of walking. We had fun jumping from bath to bath, getting super hot in one and then jumping back into the coldest one for a refreshing cool down.

We worked up quite the appetite with our busy day, so our next stop was a traditional Hungarian restaurant. I appreciated the restaurant not only for the food and atmosphere, but also for the clever name, “Hung(a)ry?” I’m glad the Hungarians like to make jokes. Their only bad joke was the currency. We had a rough time figuring out the “huffs” when we had to pay our bill altogether (Europeans hate when you pay separately). I can’t wait for our field trip and spring break when we’re in the EuroZone for 2 whole weeks! It makes dealing with money a whole lot easier.

After dinner, we hurried to pick up our tickets for a wine cruise on the Danube River. Hands down, that was one of the most exciting things I’ve done so far while being in Europe. And no, it wasn’t just for the wine! 😉 We were seated at a table in the inside of the boat around 19:00 when the sun was just about to set. Throughout our 2 hour cruise, we were given 7 Hungarian wines to try along with

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View of Budapest from the boat

complimentary breadsticks. About halfway through, we decided to check out the top of the boat. By this time, the sun had set and we had an amazing view of the city on both sides of the river, with all of the buildings lit up. I can’t even begin to explain the feeling I had, right then and there, breathing in the fresh air and taking it all in. How did I get so lucky to see this amazing world we have? I am beyond grateful for getting the chance to do something most people only dream about. It was a moment I will never forget and I hope I will continue to feel this way with the more places I see. After awhile, we went back to our seats and enjoyed a lovely performance by a string quartet. They came right up to our table and played a pleasant classical tune. I felt so fancy and sophisticated, like I was in a scene from the Titanic!

Sadly the cruise couldn’t last forever, so we headed back to our hostel. We took the long way, admiring the lights of the city reflecting on the river, knowing we had to get up early the next morning to catch a bus back to Olomouc. It was also in this moment that another thought occurred to me. These places we are seeing are beyond anything I could every imagine, but what makes the experiences so wonderful are the people I get to share it with. There were just seven of us girls on this weekend excursion, most of us not knowing one another before this whole trip began. Now after our trip to Budapest, I can honestly say these are some of the best people I’ve met and I’m so glad I can call each one of them a friend. I can’t wait for the many more adventures we’ll have together!

Cheers to Budapest!

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My new crew 🙂

Cultural Comparisons

Now that I have been in the Czech Republic for 3 full weeks, there are many cultural differences that have been brought to my attention. Czech people behave much differently than Americans, enjoy different foods, and have different beliefs from most people in Nebraska.

One of the first things I noticed when I walked onto a tram for the first time was how reserved most Czech people are. We are by far the loudest people around, even when we’re just having casual conversations with one another. I was also told that Americans have a much wider smile than Europeans overall. It makes me a little homesick when I realize how friendly and open people are back in Nebraska. The Czech Republic isn’t a place where you go cruising down the road and give the passing car the “one-fingered wave.” However, I have found that once you strike up a conversation with a Czech person, most of the time they are very nice and friendly.

One factor that may contribute to this feeling of detachment from others could be the recent liberation from the communist regime in 1989. In one of our history classes, we learned how most people in the Czech Republic feel easily victimized because of their rough history with both Nazi and communist control. I can understand where it would be difficult to trust others when the place you call “home” used to be so unstable. This may explain why the majority of Czech people do not support today’s refugee crisis.

As I have been learning more about the Czech culture through my surroundings, it was interesting to hear about what life was like during the communist regime. One of our professors talked about his experience as a student during this time. He explained how hard it was to purchase a simple used car or take a vacation to a nearby country. He also mentioned how much propaganda was present in the school system, and most students were easily manipulated. Despite this hardship, you could tell how passionate and proud he was when he talked about the student protests that eventually led to the liberation from the Soviet Union. To this day, he still celebrates the day when the last of the Soviet soldiers left Olomouc. Fortunately, the Czech Republic is starting to improve as an established democracy. This is reflected in the way the younger generations behave, in which they are much less reserved than the older generations.

As for the beliefs in the Czech Republic, most people report themselves as agnostic, which is much different from our heavy Christian population in Nebraska. The decline of Christianity can be linked back to the beginning of World War I, in addition to the occupation of Nazi and Soviet forces later in the 20th century. Again, it is interesting to see how so much of their recent history has impacted their culture. Although the census reports such a low percentage of Christians, one of our Czech professors said this may be underreported because people like to keep their beliefs to themselves. We have visited many Catholic churches from the 13th and 14th centuries that are still in use and I have also seen crucifixes in multiple restaurants and shops.

Another cultural characteristic that is quite different from the United States is their type of food and drink. While Olomouc seems to have a little bit of everything, from Italian pasta to Mexican food, you can still find traditional Czech food almost anywhere. They eat a lot more chicken, pork, and duck, which is usually paired with dumplings. They offer hamburgers in some places, but I must say I’m already excited for a high-quality Nebraska burger when I get home! While in Prague, we discovered a delicious pastry filled with ice-cream called a trdelník. You can top it with Nutella, strawberries, and whipped cream. And then 20 minutes later, you can get your daily dose of gelato. (I may have to hit the gym when I get home after all of this!).

In addition to the yummy food, the Czechs LOVE their pivo (meaning “beer” in Czech). It is, after all, much cheaper than still water (as opposed to sparkling, which is gross by the way). It is common to order a pivo with a meal and then again in the evening with friends as a social outing. Even Erasmus, the foreign exchange program, arranges many events that involve pivo. It is much different from our culture where the legal drinking age is 21 and alcohol is highly discouraged. But no need to worry about my liver, my actual drink of choice is káva (meaning coffee). Since there is no Starbucks in sight, I am getting used to the simple lattes and cappuccinos that are made in the local cafes. They are much less sugary and most places don’t offer additional flavorings like caramel or vanilla. You also pay for more foam than liquid, but you get a pretty design on top so I can’t complain too much.

Despite these differences, Czech people and Americans share a similar taste in music. It’s almost funny to me that only a small portion of the population can speak English, but yet almost everywhere you go, people are playing our music from back home! I noticed this even when I was in Ireland that Europeans still really like American music from the late 90s and early 2000s.

The fashion here is also very similar to how we dress in America. It’s mostly casual, with jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers. I was prepared to dress way nicer since I was told that Americans always look like slobs. But I actually feel like I fit in here! However, I might have to prepare myself to dress a little nicer when we visit Vienna and Venice next week.

Sorry, this may have been a longer post than intended, but I applaud you for making it this far. There is just so much that goes into Czech culture and I have enjoyed linking it back to what we have learned in our history classes. Until next time, that is all! Enjoy these pictures from my lovely weekend in Znojmo, Czech Republic!

Say What?!

Dobrý den!

In my last blog, I touched a little bit on the language barrier we are faced with here in the Czech Republic. Now that we are two weeks in, I can already say that I am starting to get comfortable with the language barrier and even see it as an exciting challenge to overcome. I don’t expect to speak fluent Czech by the time I leave, but I hope I will be able to recognize more Czech words and improve my communication with the locals.

Fortunately, our Czech language class here at Palacký University will help us improve our communication skills. Classes seem a bit intimidating because our professor likes to ask us questions in Czech and will not hesitate to call on us individually to give an answer. This motivates me to study and gets me more comfortable with the language. During the first week, we mainly focused on pronunciation. Now I am able to read words on menus, buildings, posters, etc., but have no clue what they mean. Currently we are working on meaning of words and dialogue. We shall see how quickly I can expand my Czech vocabulary!

The language itself is nothing like I’ve ever heard before. There are many accents that we are not used to that make it sound like a much richer language. For example “ch” actually makes a throaty “h” sound. But if that sounds difficult, try seeing “ř” and actually making a “z/tri” sound. The area we live in in Olomouc is called “Neředin”, so I have been trying to master this “ř” sound. It might come in handy if I get lost and need help finding my way home (sorry Mom and Dad, it could happen!).

Other than getting lost, knowing the language comes in handy when ordering food and understanding the locals. Hearing the language is much more difficult outside of class because it seems like they are talking a million miles per hour. I understand “hello, goodbye, thank you, and please” when the locals are talking to us, but that’s about it! On Wednesday we attended a hockey game where the die-hard Olomouc fans were constantly cheering in Czech. The only word I caught onto was “Olomouc!”. Last week on our field trip to Prague, I noticed there was much more English in the city. While this may seem counterproductive to our learning, I thought it was helpful to see the translations side-by-side.

Our exposure to Czech language was temporarily shut off when we took a field trip to Dresden, Germany. I was tempted to say “dobrý den!” to say hello and “dĕkuji” for thank you, but had to remind myself that we were not in the Czech Republic anymore. It’s crazy to think we entered a completely different country just within a two-hour train ride. In Nebraska, that’s about the distance from my home in Sutherland to my school in Kearney! Off the topic of Czech language, I thoroughly enjoyed Dresden and learning about its history. Below are a few pictures to show off my time in Prague and Dresden this past weekend.

Čau for now!