Friday, February 26, 2010

Berlin - Day Two

Well day two is completed, and certainly it was an active day. Getting to bed early the night before certainly helped me get my day started around 8:00 in the morning, with a walk through the Tiegarten area of West Berlin toward the Victory statue on my way toward the Brandenburg Gate, the only original gate still in existence and a symbol of Cold War Berlin. This last remaining city gate was not originally set in place for the purpose of dividing West and East Berlin, but the Soviets staked their claim to it during the Cold War as a east/west divide and today it is as magnificent as I pictured it. My walk was about an hour and forty minutes or so in total, followed by a four-hour walking tour led by the "Original Berlin Walks" tour. It did cost me 12 Euros, or around $16. Though I could have gone on the free tour, this sounded more up my alley - no pub crawl advertised in their brochure, college history majors or masters students giving a big word of approval per testimonials, and the people they advertised seemed less "ra-ra" and more intrigued about the historical walking tour we were on. That is why I came to Berlin originally. It was splendid indeed. Arja led the tour, providing a dry sense of humor in conjunction with an astounding ability to tell an array of Germanic stories from Berlin meaning "swamp" to the 30 years war to France's Napoleon warring against the Germans and Russians to Prussian leader Otto Von Bismarck to the Third Reich overshooting itself and fighting a losing two-front war much like WW1 Germany to the reparations leading to Hitler to Cold War Berlin and the fortress that was the Berlin Wall to the current state of German affairs where Berlin is basically bankrupt and the government spends too much money without having the resources to do so. Sounds like California and San Francisco to a T.

The remnants of the wall are tall, probably about 12-18 feet per cement slab. In 1961, after a total of 55,000 Soviet soldiers laid barbwire dividing Berlin in one night - yes, one night -, the Berlin Wall was built. Walking around and seeing pictures as well as the slabs themselves, it was interesting to note that it was the West Berliners considered free. However, they were the folks locked inside a small area because Berlin itself was smack in the middle of East Germany. For over a year, the Americans kept the West Berlin locals alive with food drops via the Berlin Airlift during Marshall Plan era economics. Funny to hear about the crazy escape attempts to West Berlin considering they were the ones in a much smaller, confined physical space. Of course after seeing the area's of Hitler's bunker where he committed suicide and noticing the so-called "elite" complex where Soviet-supported diplomats stayed, it certainly made you wonder what the common-folk dwellings looked like. Arja, our tour guide, made note of the substandard quality of East German living compared to those in the West. She noted that the East is where the young people are, and I asked her why that was given that West Berlin is certainly a pleasant place to live given my hotel's proximity and my extensive walking through the region. She was matter-of-fact, stating "the cost." That is the place where the new development is, where the cost was half the price (though closing slowly) and West Berlin, like a Pacific Heights or Russian Hill or even a Marina District in San Francisco, was an expensive, developed area.

There is so much history to Berlin that it is hard to even start describing it. My walk through the Topography of Terror did not even get finished because the exhibit was so detailed and extensive in its description of the development of the Gestapo and SS during Hitler's reign. The names of Himmler and Goebbel became more clear and the power Hitler gave these men was astounding. Learning about the suicides of Hitler, Eva Brown, Goebbel and his six children along with his wife gave me chills down my spine. He didn't want his children growing up in a world without Hitler and the Germans ruling it? I know it is deeper than just that, but it certainly explained the largest chunk of it as it is usually described - just appalling. The descriptions of political prisoners captured and sent to detention in concentration camps followed by the Jews being executed at will while also being forced to assist the German war machine during WW2 left me not so much shaken since I knew a lot of this information before but more interested in grasping more detail. Certainly the additional museums and reading that I'll engage in will help this cause hopefully.

During my walking tour of the various Berlin sites, I was able to also meet a couple from the UK who's names are Derry and Jane. Both were at least 50 or a bit over with experience traveling and a nice, kind sense of humor and conversation to boot. We talked about adventures in Europe, through the U.S. desert, and the current state of UK political affairs. He has lived in London for 21 years and has grown slowly tired of the city due to the what he calls the increasing "nanny-state" that is becoming the UK. Sound familiar? Sure does to me, given many Americans think Obama or the U.S. Senate will have answers to everything now that he is president and all. I got sucked into it too, and of course like 98% of politicians, little seems to get done. But so it goes. Point it, they were a lovely pair and I have a new friend in London to stay with if I need to lay my head down in the city for a few nights. Both Derry and Jane as well as another couple who went by Ed and Johanna, a Norwegian and a Brit who were about my age or slightly older, enjoyed hearing about my journey from California to Prague to Berlin. I did not give all specifics because I didn't want to bore them or myself, but they thought it was pretty cool to go to Europe in the winter to check out some great cities - especially alone. Ed and Johanna seemed a bit shocked by it though they thought it was awesome, but my man Derry understood very well indeed. He in fact had never been to Prague and in fact I don't think any of the four individuals have. Certainly not for almost 7 weeks.

All in all, it was a grand day to be a tourist. It was around 50 degrees Farenheit and very comfortable, my feet were a bit tired after spending over 9 hours on them walking on the flat and at times snow-slicked surfaces of Berlin, and I took the S-Bahn metro back to my hotel in West Berlin in a neighborhood away from the heavy tourist crowd where it is quiet and the local Thai restaurant proved once again that Berlin has a great array of fantastic restaurants it seems that hit my stomach just right. I certainly must say the sweet Thai waitress did not joke around after I told her to make my spicy dish very spicy. It was spicy, my lips burned, my nose ran, and it was damn delightful. And in addition, the lovely 27-30 year old woman down at the hotel reception desk provided me with the International Herald Tribune free-of-charge though I was going to pay her the 3 Euros newsstand rate. It was yesterday's paper, and she said I could take it to the restaurant but just to bring it back once I'm done. I thought, "Hey, I'm in and you kick ass." Boy what a little thing like that can do to just make a man a little more chipper about his meal. I was dying for a little news to read during my meal, and there is nothing quite like a damn fine meal served by a sweet waitress in a neighborhood-type environment while reading about Toyota's recent screw-ups, General Robert Gates ripping the NATO allies for an increasing lack of military support, Europe still reeling from the recession with a whole hell of a lot of help from the Greeks and Spanish, a proposed nuclear waste site in Assco (spelling?), Spain where the population is 1,600 and the country unemployment rate is at 20%, the French airline workers striking again (what else is freakin' new?), and the recent increasing strength of the U.S. dollar during a time when Americans are increasingly less confident with unemployment rates still very high while the Europeans are just that much worse off.

Whether or not Europe is worse off than the U.S. these days, Berlin is off to an awesome start and now I will be reading the Berlin wikipedia page again, reading about the ten best Berlin Cold War and Third Reich books (separate categories of course), along with a little and some CNN and BBC television. Tomorrow is a new day.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The train trek to Berlin - day one

Well, I am in Berlin at the old Adrema Hotel. It is a nice place, the room is small but very comfortably cozy. Though it is on a road, the double-pane windows help even if I can hear the hourly clock go off and the occasional siren. I guess I could pay 10 Euros more for a quieter room, but we shall see how evening #1 goes. The trip to Berlin certainly drew some interesting observations on my end. Just after entering Germany, one could hear the language change. The spelling changed, and it was off to a new country. Going toward Dresden, the former Allied bombing zone circa 1943-1945, I could see a change in the people in the sense that there was conversation, an air of confidence. Not arrogance, but genuine happiness it seemed. Being in Prague for the last 7 weeks or so, I notice that the people are very stoic, very guarded it seems with their emotions. The Germans have a reputation of having initial formality but also a sense of service and kindness. The Czechs are the opposite, where they want to stay out of your way (though not in a negative way, they just don't want to anger the customer by being too involved so they say) but lack emotion. Even in my brief 4 hours in Berlin, I notice how the women have shown more instances of emotion and positivity than the more naturally beautiful Czech women. Don't get me wrong, it is too early to judge one country's ladies topping another's, but it is nice to see a lady smile for cryin' out loud. Also, I knew of the heavy Turkish and Middle Eastern population in Germany, Berlin certainly included. Let me tell you, it is true. My hotel is in the Tiegarten district a couple miles from the heavy center of Mitte and I've seen more Middle-Eastern faces than I'd seen my entire 7 weeks in Prague. Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit, but it is interesting how 97% of the people in Prague are white whereas back in the U.S. it is probably no more than 45-50%. An African or Middle-Eastern dude stick out a bit more in the Czech Republic than in the U.S.A. and Germany too.

The other thing that has stood out thus far is the food in Berlin - unbelievable selection of grub. I ask the dude at the front desk if there is any good food in the area for we are near some blocks with a lot of restaurants and he recommended a Thai place. I thought, "Great, right up my alley." But then I see an Indian place that is relatively crowded for a Wednesday night, a nice looking pizza joint, the Thai place, a Carribean soul food spot that I am definitely gonna visit while here because it smelled and looked delicious, and then I came across a place I could not pass up - that is right, a Vietnamese spot that served some delicious pho. And it was good to, but it also cost me more than every meal I got in Prague because unfortunately, in Germany the prices get Westernized to the fullest. And being on the Euro, my dollar does not go as far as the Czech Koruna. Too bad, I enjoyed having $1.30 pints of beer, $3 gyros, $7 gulash, and cheap fruits, veggies, cheese, bread, and salami from the stores. Sometimes a good thing has to end briefly. However, the access to the good food and array of places to shop for coffee or food was a nice site to see. Certainly Berlin is more modern in that sense than Prague. Though Prague is a beautiful city that has access to much more than it has in the past, one can still sense the development of the city still occurring from an economic perspective compared to a juggernaut like Berlin. I felt like I was back home in a way with the access to such great food, nice service with a smile, and people expressing positive emotions rather than getting a sense of the locals "just surviving", which I have heard is common amongst the Czechs. We shall see how the rest of the trip goes, so far so good and on another note, I walked over 2 miles with a backpack and small suitcase to get to my hotel. Screw the cab, got to save my money somehow. Had to get some exercise and burn some beer and salami calories I've accumulated. Can't wait for the ensuing days, tomorrow is a new day.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

TEFL Certified

Well, class is over!! I got my certification, I passed the course without any special credential aka “Strong Pass” or with distinguishment, but I busted my friggin’ ass and got ‘er done. It was such a fun time unwinding with my fellow classmates over champagne, beers, and of course Caroline’s vodka and Nebraska’s sangria. I woke up at about 12:30 to sore dancing legs (until about 3 am, more 80s and early 90s pop jams – Bonjovi “Living on a Prayer” being the ultimate fist pump song of the night), the need to fill my ‘frig, and wondering how the next couple weeks will turn out during the search for work.

I think about being in Prague, wondering how long I’ll stay, whether I want to live in a Spanish-speaking country so I can learn the language (for I will probably never learn Czech unless I am here for years and/or I marry a Czech woman), or whether the U.S. calls me back. I don’t miss home in the sense of being “home-sick”, but being away I realize how much the U.S. is home and how important a common language is. Just being able to communicate in English back home is something I took for granted so much because everyone speaks it in the U.S. Being in Prague, I kind of walk on eggshells not knowing if someone knows the language or not for my Czech is just God-awful. I know that if all else fails with teaching, I am going to apply for a couple Deloitte Mergers and Acquisition openings in Prague. I am qualified and sounds intriguing – why not?

Prague itself is a place of architectural beauty with the lovely Vltava River, providing an exquisite divide of the city. My evening at JazzDocks on the Vltava River was one with a great deal of philosophical inquiry, tasty beer, solid wine, and beautiful music played by Limbo. My buddy Christian and I were reminiscing about stories from back home a bit and thanking our lucky stars for being able to have the opportunity to be young and enjoy such a historical city that many feel is like the Paris of the late 20th/21st century. The cloudy skies, lack of sun, chilly temps (breaking 35F is a warm day, which there haven’t been many of), and icy streets do make me miss the “chilly” 55-60 degree winter days in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. However, I have yet to spend time in a place that appreciates the cheesiest of cheesy 80s ballads and awful early-90s pop music. There is something to appreciate about this even if I’m dying to go to a bar with some soul/funk or mid-90s hip-hop. At some point I will get classy and enjoy a classical music concert or opera, but it is fun to dance to some tunes out here and the Prague locals enjoy it wholeheartedly as well.

I am looking forward to the next couple days where I have no class nor damn lesson plans to prepare. My sleep schedule will hopefully become a bit more normal now and the next step is to apply, apply, and apply. For the next day and a half though, it will be a hockey game, perhaps the Kafka museum, a good cup of Joe, and the Super Bowl. I might be out of America, but America still lives in me and the Super Bowl is a must baby – and it should be a doozy. I am happy for the Saints and I got to respect and appreciate the greatness of Peyton and the Colts. Let the best man win.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Friday Night Dance Party - Praha 5

Ah yes, Friday night in Prague. The group and I are heading onto the metro toward Praha 5 - the Andel stop on the good 'ol yellow line to be exact. We embark on a journey to "Futurum" for some 1980s and early 90s pop music fun. You think you like the 80s? Come to Prague - Scorpions, Foreigner, in concert. 1980s music videos being projected at the very first bar - yes, the first bar - I go to in Prague. Friday night, they bump the daylights out of the tunes AND they play the music videos for all the songs. Though this is called a pub apparently with a dance floor, this is more like a club with a small pub room on the side. And boy was I more than happen to just cut a rug. The music selection - ah yes, I get to listen to "Bad", "Do You Remember the Time", "Ice, Ice Baby", "Can't Touch This", famous "Grease" songs, "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and yes....the epic moment of the night for me - "Gangsta's Paradise." Holy crap, when that came on I was loving life. I know, the song was played out. I realize Michelle Pfeifer was in the movie and it was hokey. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I love the song. I sang every damn word and danced to it and for more unintentional comedic moments I flashed up some West Coast signs on not one, but both hands. In Prague, District 5...this happened Friday night. Not that I love most of the music (though Coolio, U2, and Michael were epic for sure), but the sheer love that the locals have for this stuff just made me pump my fist so many freakin' times. We were at this place for about 4 hours. And if it were not for being in a pretty big group that was unsure of how to get back to where we were staying, I would have stayed 'till 4 minimum. The beer was cheap (25kc...or $1.35 per pint), tasty, the group of folks I was with from my program were fantastic as always, and the ladies of Prague....DY-NO-MITE. The dudes can't dance for sure, and most girls do not dance a ton better I must say. And this is no assessment of my dance moves at all for they are most likely awkward and filled with the white-man syndrome equating to no rhythm. But the ladies just have a unique look, and it is one that I enjoy very much. Even if it is just browsing, it is delightful indeed. Can I have a night like this again where I can relish in some awesome dancing to pop music? Absolutely. My next dance endeavor, to find the hip-hop club where they play Bay Area cuts from the likes of 4-tay, the Luniz, and Too Short. I think if I heard "Gettin' It" in Prague, I'd be complete. I don't know what can top that, but I'm sure I'll find out something more over the top soon enough.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Getting Out of Uncomfortable Zone

Certainly it has been a cultural experience this whole Prague trek. Not knowing the native tongue is quite nerve-wracking and gives me newfound respect (though I never really was disrespectful to be fair) for those who learn a second language like English back home. Everything from being alone in public, and even more so going into a local bar or restaurant alone, has caused me to turnaround a few times.

Being with a group of Americans and Canadians who feel the same way is so nice it is not even funny. I never thought I'd say that at the start of this trip, but the fact we can share the uncertainties of this culture together and work our way towards a comfort zone together is refreshing. Me and two other students got local Czech cell phones with the assumption that we will be here for at least a year.

Tonight, however, I basically said screw it. I am going to go out myself in my 'hood and reclaim a bit of independence. I brought my Lonely Planet book out with me on my walk through Praha 9 (my neighborhood in Prague) and found a couple restaurants. The first two, I walked in and walked out because I was not sure that one had food and the other was quite divey. I was not ready for a total dive yet, but I did find another place where I walked downstairs upon entering and I gathered myself and asked if they spoke English (in Czech of course). The bartender spoke a little, the cook spoke none. But they helped me order, I used a few Czech words myself, and ordered a grilled pork steak and grilled potato pieces with mushrooms and a tasty sour cream spread on top. It was quite good. And washed down with a Pilsner Urquell of course. I was proud of myself that I learned how to say excellent, "do you speak English", and said goodbye to a Czech person for the first time in their native tongue.

The adventure continues tomorrow. My third lesson teaching the native Czechs - this being through my course. The folks so far are generally very friendly, and my experience at the restaurant tonight made me feel better about not knowing the Czech language as long as I try a couple phrases myself in their tongue. More good tidbits later. Take care everyone.

- John

Monday, January 11, 2010

Prague (or London actually) - Day 1

Well I don't even know where to start. Do I explain the flight from SFO to London, where I got a little dusty after hugging my dad knowing I was getting on a plane without knowledge as to when I'd be back in the good 'ol USA? Luckily my dustiness subsided and I was engulfed with excitement upon walking through you know what song rang through my dome after my borderline full cavity search? Domino baby, "Getto Jam." ( ) Please watch the clip, "Here we go, here we go..." That part of the song was ringing in my head and I had that strut where I felt so fucking good about heading out and venturing to Europe. Perhaps a bit unusual, but this is what I planned on doing - head to Prague and see where the road takes me, so "here we go here we go."

But knowing there was a 2 1/2 hour delay, I chilled out for awhile and starting reading "The Book of Basketball," which Nick Homyak so kindly provided as a gift upon my departure. I had a Greek family sitting across from me who were heading to Athens via Heathrow London. The son Orpheus was a real cool guy and we started talking about San Francisco and Napa/Sonoma. His curiosity about SF made me feel blessed to have lived in such a great place as long as I had, knowing full well how so many people appreciate its beauty, the romantic elements, and sheer weather heaven.

And then of course there was the 10+ hour flight. It was a smooth ride, chillin' with the retired Jennifer to my right and Nick from the U.S. Navy to my left, who resided from Concord. Jennifer and I loved talking about the weather, Churchill, the need to stretch our legs, the economy, American tourist sites in California, New York, and the Carolinas, and of course Europe and the journey I am on. My man Nick from the Navy is based in Rome, and both of us became victims of flight cancellations in Heathrow. Nick, heading to Rome, and myself of course going to Prague, we joined each other through the epic long lines of Heathrow to re-book our flights in departures Zone E followed by Zone G. Zone G? Hotel reservations of course. Nick was a cool dude, kind of reserved but very friendly and we tagged along until we went to our respective hotel buses. Good talks about European cities to visit since he'd been to 15 countries, American football chat. Good water cooler talk. And I enjoy that for sure. And in the Zone G line is where Cathy came into play. Don't worry, no funny business...I did think about it though. I CAN'T LIE (Homyak knows this bold quote and who it comes from)!!! And we happened to stay at the same hotel...and dammit she was one friendly, woman (yes, she was 35) next door type gal from Calgary that put the k in kindness and the s in sweet. And she had a sweet, wholesome face and great hair. We both had things to take care of before the next day unfortunately, so no date.

What did I have to take care of? Well first, letting mom know I was alive because Sue would get anxious if she did not know her boy was safe and sound. You only have one mom in this world, and I am going to make damn sure I don't make her too nervous unless I can't avoid it. The TEFL people in Prague who set up a pickup at the airport? Yeah, that flight got cancelled and will be rescheduled for 7:05 the next morning. Thus, gotta let the Czech posse know the deal. Then of course, the unexpected of having TWO...yes two credit cards blocked due to "high security activity" because I tried to purchase Skype credits on a Holiday Inn network. Fucking A, it only cost me $65 in collect calls (two credit cards and the Prague folks) based on bank statement appearances because my phone line did not dial out for international call and the understaffed dudes at the Holiday Inn decided to not pick up my calls to assist in calling out for me (at my expense though of course). So many people had to check in due to flight cancellations and the understaffed folks could not pick up calls. Londoners are not prepared for snow, which may seem weird, but let me tell you....they say talking smack to the home team's fans "would not fly in Philly" if it were done in Philly. And this so called hazardous weather would not cancel flights in O'Hare. Come on London!!! Get your shit together man!!!

I'll provide more goods later, including the morning flight, Prague's airport (weird place), and the arrival in Prague. Just think of it as Rocky, Tony, and Pauly arriving to Russia in Rocky 4.

And I am serious, this is the first thing I thought when I landed on the ground. More details later. Peace out folks.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Nerves Gradually Unleashing - Prague time of Departure is 5 days.

My how close the departure date is coming. Five days. Writing those first two sentences makes me feel a bit more relaxed already. It is just insane how after all this time waiting and now it is smack in my face - only five more days until this new journey begins. I do not know what will unfold. I am currently in the most ambiguous stage of my life, unsure as to what the future holds and slowly accepting the circumstances.

Though goals change frequently, at this stage I figure I will need two years in Europe perhaps to get my fill. First of course I need to attain a job in Prague or another European city to help fulfill such aspirations. Ultimately, however, it is about taking one step at a time. "What About Bob" baby-steps as Dr. Marvin would say. First, get to Prague. Lay my bags down, sleep it off perhaps. Pray that I have a good roommate during my course. Expect the unexpected - literally. Absorb the coursework as much as possible. Make new friends, even if it is just one person. Play basketball, find a gym to play. Absorb the culture, meet locals. Immediately start inquiring about and seeking work to sustain my desire to stay longer than my 90-day tourist visa. Fight through work permit hassle/hell. Think methodically, stay even keel. It may be difficult to attain given the newness of the situation, but never forget that what does not kill you makes you stronger. I firmly believe it to be true. And always take responsibility for your own actions, be your own personal leader, and keep your humility.

The words above are what has been floating in my head the last 45 minutes. Anxious about the unknown already. Let the adventure unfold.