Friday, 14 September 2007

Did you know it is the Jewish New Year? We didn’t until yesterday morning, when we arrived at the gates of the Jewish Quarter in Prague and found a sign declaring it was closed Thursday and Friday (it’s always closed Saturday because that’s the Jewish Sabbath). We peered through a gate at the cemetery, where headstones slant and lean higgledy-piggledy since the Jews in the ghetto had no room to bury their dead. That one little glimpse was sobering. We were disappointed that we couldn’t explore the old synagogue where names of families sent to concentration camps were written on the walls, and pictures children had drawn while imprisoned here were displayed, but maybe it would have been too much for our kids.

We headed back down the narrow, winding cobblestoned streets and went to plan B. Clay found an Internet café where he could catch up a little, and I headed out with a laundry bag slung over my shoulder and a book and map in one hand. The grandparents stayed back at the hotel, where the kids didn’t seem disappointed at all to have a morning all to themselves to play around. I walked and walked, looking for the Laundromat, and finally found the address and the bolted, graffiti’d door. The Laundromat had closed. I hiked back to the room, feeling a little conspicuous with my big, black, mesh bag of undies and pants stained with three days of walking.

 I noticed a man on one of the sidewalks, replacing a missing cobblestone. He had a big bucket full of different sizes of stones, and some concrete and sand. He was trying different stones, finding the right fit, and I was gratified to realize I had learned something on my little laundry adventure. I never even thought about what happened when a cobblestone came out, leaving a dangerous hole for tourists trooping down the sidewalks. And here was a man whose whole job was to find these holes throughout the city and treat them like a jigsaw puzzle, fixing them.

I arrived back at the hotel, dumped the laundry bag on the floor, and spent the next two hours washing and finding creative places to hang drippy clothes, stringing our towels across the room to protect the wood floors. Thanks be to God for towel warmers with lots of lots of lovely bars to hang socks and undies from. We have lucked out once again with our hotel, and our family is in a fabulous suite, two bedrooms and a couple of smaller rooms in between. Best of all, two bathrooms, and two towel warmers! Lots of laundry hanging and buffer space.

It is located on a quiet street just off a main drag. There are cobblestones galore here, and spires point to heaven everywhere you look. The first day we arrived in the afternoon and took a walk on the Charles Bridge, along with about 3,000 other tourists. Even though it was jammed, it was fun. Every few feet a stall was set up selling paintings or jewelry or marionettes. That’s the thing here, marionettes, you see them everywhere. I’ve always hated the way their strings get tangled the moment you bring them home and we’ve steered the kids away from them.

There were statues along the bridge at intervals, and we notice one that had an awful lot of tourists surrounding it. They were all touching one figure with their thumb, another with their palm, then smiling at the obligatory camera before stepping aside for the next person to complete their pilgrimage to this mysterious important statue. I rifled through my Rick Steve’s and discovered that this statue was of a sainted priest who refused to betray the queen’s confessions to him when her husband, the king, insisted he be told. So, the king tossed the faithful saint over the bridge. Legend says if you touch the statue and make a wish, you will have good luck. Peggy had to try and dutifully rubbed her thumb, her palm, and posed for the picture. She has a new saint, and a wish in the works.

Clay got up early the next morning, and took a walk to find the streets deserted, he said it was awesome. We plan to wake the kids up this morning early and go to the bridge before it gets crowded, to see the differences. Back to yesterday, after finally finishing the laundry and hanging it all to dry, we grabbed a quick picnic lunch at a Tesco (supermarket) and jumped on a tram to the giant castle complex. Inside we gawked at a giant gothic cathedral with tons of spires. Inside, colorful stained glass made patterns on the limestone columns. There were beautiful scenes carved from wood, an ornate coffin all covered in silver with silver angels hanging from four corners holding a giant velvet covering over it, and there was a door with seven locks (seven different people hold the keys) protecting the crown jewels. “But I thought the crown jewels were in London!” said Nate. We explained that each country has their own crown jewels, and Benji wanted to know where the United States crown jewels were. More explaining, the kids are learning a lot.

The castle was just a quick tour, with a lovely view of Prague over a balcony we had all to ourselves for a moment. We saw a room where two men were thrown out the window and the kids learned what defenestration means (a fancy word for throwing someone out the window!). It’s very interesting to go from Vienna, where the Catholic Hapsburgs ruled the land, including Prague, to the land of Jan Hus here in Prague. Jan Hus was an early church reformer whose followers led a revolt against those Hapsburgs of Austria. Statues of him are sprinkled about the city, he was killed as a heretic, and is treated as a hero. We’re getting both sides of the story as we travel from city to city.

After a quick trip through the doll and toy museum (we had thirty minutes before it closed) we made our way back down the castle hill. Dinner last night was in a tiny Czech restaurant. We had a wooden room all to ourselves, and played the dice game, farkle, while we waited for our meal. I find it’s handy to keep dice, paper and pencil in my purse for times like that, and I’m saving all the pictures the kids have drawn on the trip.

The sun is rising on the pink walls of the building across the street. I keep seeing it out of the corner of my eye and thinking there is a magnificent sunrise going on, then being disappointed when I look over and see that it’s just a painted wall. Time to rouse the kids for a trip to the bridge. We have one more day here before we head to Paris tomorrow morning, and I’ve got a plan . . .


Saturday, 15 September 2007

Our last day in Prague we tried to squeeze in all the bits and pieces of my list of things to do that hadn’t been done yet. After watching the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square do its thing on the hour, buying a small watercolor for Alayna on the Charles Bridge (we saw the painting our first day in Prague, and found the same artist our last day here, he seemed like a really nice guy), and climbing the Tower on the bridge, we took a boat ride on a small boat on the Vltava River. The guide let Nate drive the boat, showing him how to hold onto the handle to steer the rudder and gunning the engine when we needed a little boost. So Nate navigated us down the Vltava River, a big thrill for everyone involved. Kenneth, if you’re reading this, Nate said now he knows how to drive your boat, so watch out when we get back!

I have a few things about Nate that I keep forgetting to record. When we were vigorously buying clothes for this trip, I found the perfect pair of pants for Nate, and got two pair. They dry quickly, zip off at the knee, and are in dark colors that don’t show stains. Unfortunately, they are about two inches too long and are constantly being walked on, but I figured this small detail would right itself in a few short months when the inevitable growth spurt hit. Until then, I’d just roll them. Rolling them didn’t work too well, for the first month of the trip I would stop every half hour or so and stoop down to re-roll the silly pants. Nate could never get the knack, when he rolled them himself they always slipped down again. We finally wised up and safety-pinned them in the back, so the rolls stay up all day now.

I’ve noticed when washing things in the sink that I can never get Nate’s socks clean. I wash and scrub and rinse and scrub again, but there is an ever-present stain on his socks due to large amounts of time he spends off-roading it in dirt. Since he’s never walking, but skipping, jumping, hopping on one foot, sprinting, or dancing, I think the dirt just gets ground in to the very fiber of the sock, never to be removed. His socks are always a little crusty, even after washing them.

Nate often falls. All the way to the ground, spread eagle, face down. Usually it’s because he’s doing something goofy and not paying attention, or leaping to avoid a pedestrian he hadn’t noticed until the last minute. He never cries, he just pops back up with an amused little grin on his face. It’s funny to watch the reaction of people around us. Sometimes they look at us disapprovingly, as if we should be helping him up and making sure he’s okay. But he’s always okay, the boy is made of rubber. Sometimes the onlookers grin and shake their heads. These are the ones that have spent some time in close proximity to young boys.

Back to the busy day. After the boat ride we hiked around a park for a while, searching for the playscape our guide book promised us existed, but never finding it. We headed back through the city to find the church where the Infant of Prague is found. This is a tiny wax figure of baby Jesus that is so revered that people from all over the world send clothes to dress the baby Jesus up in. Upstairs in the church there is a museum with some of the most special gowns, including one made by Maria Theresa, a Hapsburg we became familiar with while in Vienna. There were gowns from Columbia and Vietnam and all over the world, and a sweet video showing nuns dressing the little figure. It was all a little strange, but sweet, too. This was a real church, with real worshippers kneeling in the pews, whispering prayers.

After the church, we hopped on a tram and went up the hill to an old monastery, where we saw two beautiful rooms filled with books. In one, the books were shelved two stories high, with wooden bookcases and an ornate balcony looking down on the lower level. There were also all sorts of interesting things in glass cases. Shells and butterflies and a Narwhal horn and an extinct Dodo bird. I think the monks must have studied these things to learn more about this world around them. It reminded me of a giant kindergarten classroom, full of centers where you can look and explore. There were also some illuminated manuscripts with beautiful lettering and pictures in the margins. Alayna tried her hand at creating an illuminated manuscript page at school a few years ago, and could identify with the difficulty of writing with a quill and not blobbing ink. The pictures were really beautiful. I love to think of the quiet rooms where these monks worked so carefully on these books.

We’ve noticed something interesting about Eastern Europe. When you go to a restaurant, the table is not set with napkins and silverware. Instead, they bring them to you in a basket or cup, and you pass them out to the table yourself. What’s strange is that they don’t seem to count out how many pieces of silverware are needed for the table, they just toss a bunch of stuff in there and hope it comes out right. If you order an appetizer, you don’t get enough plates for everyone. We had seven people with Peggy and Maurice with us, but we usually get just three or four plates when sharing an appetizer. Haven’t figured this one out yet.

Some of you will be amused to hear that Clay trimmed his own hair with his Leatherman pocketknife the other day. The hair around his ears is weird and curly and drives him crazy when it gets long. Back home he would get his hair cut as soon as it was getting long around his ears. He says he can now go another couple of weeks since he’s cut the hair around his ears with his pocketknife. I’ll be on the lookout for a hair salon in Paris, I’m sure he’ll be very coiffed and spiffy once I find one. I’ll be sure to take pictures.