Czechmate: Adventures in the Czech Republic

Have you ever been to the Czech Republic? If not, I highly recommend that you go: it was everything I hoped for and more.

Two weeks ago, I started a journey with three assistant friends (Frankie, Jameson, Peter) to this country to the north for Easter Break. One week in the Czech Republic — three nights in Prague, and three nights in Cesky Krumlov. Prague, of course, was an obvious destination choice, being the capital and all. But Cesky Krumlov was recommended by the former assistant here in Bad Aussee, and I’m glad I listened to her.

My friends and I had heard a number of travel myths about the Czech Republic, and I’m here to tell you: they are true.

1. Prague is beautiful. The hostel we stayed at was slightly outside the Old Town of Prague, however the walk wasn’t bad at all. After we made it in to the Old Town, the architecture and sights bombarded me on all sides. “Eastern Europe” definitely feels different than “Western Europe,” and I like it. Additionally, we were there the week before Easter, so there was a huge Easter Market in the main square, and the people were out and about and excited. The atmosphere reminded me very much of the Christmas Markets in Austria. Although Prague is such a huge tourist destination, the amount of English I heard astounded me.

Now, if Prague is beautiful, I’m not sure what adjective I should use to describe Cesky Krumlov, a town in the Southern Bohemian region of the Czech Republic. The city looked as if it was taken right out of a fairytale, and I could have stared at the pink, cupcake-like castle tower all day. The Vltava River winds its way lazily through the town and definitely adds to the chill, hippy and — dare I say– Bohemian atmosphere of the town. Prague impressed me, but I’ll never forget Cesky Krumlov and the hostel built right in the town’s walls, the cobblestone streets, the sun shining on the river, the bears guarding the castle, the freshly fried potato chips in the town square and the beer. Ooh, the beer. (But we’ll get to that later.)

2. The Czech Republic is cheap. Being part of “Eastern Europe,” my friends and I had heard how cheap the country is. I believed such myths, but they rang more true than I possibly could have imagined. One night, the 4 of us got 19 beers for €30… that’s €1,50 per beer! In Austria, one beer is about €3,50. I believe that’s all I have to say about that.

3. Czech beer is delicious. Compared to American beer, or piss-water-drank-from-a-sock as I describe it to my Austrian students, Austrian beer is amazing. There are no light versions of beer and it all tastes crisp, refreshing and full of flavor, (the slogan of one Styrian beer, Gösser, is “Gut, besser, Gösser”… good, better, Gösser.). Beer, in Austria, is my drink of choice. My friends and I had heard that our neighbor to the north had some good beer, so we were eager to try it out. And one sip of that delicious Czech nectar, and we knew our beer drinking in Austria was ruined. The hostel in Prague served a unpasturized, local made brew. It was a dark amber color and very sweet. Pilsner-Urquell, which is apparently available in the States but I had never had, is a pilsner with a buttery taste.  And in Cesky Krumlov, we went straight to the source: the Eggenberg brewery (the name sounds very Austrian, no?). I got the dark brew, and it had a carmelly smooth taste which I very much enjoyed. Not to mention, the beer at the brewery was only 20 Crowns for a half liter…. which is less than €1.

The trip, in all, was awesome. I know that word is a bit cliché, but it’s true. The company, the country, the cities, the hostels, the beer (the beer!)… it was all fantastic. The four of us got along so well and we were always laughing and chatting. I couldn’t have asked for a better Spring Break. My only regret is not having spent more time, and sooner, in Eastern Europe.

In the basement, aka Party Central, of Hostel Marabou in Prague.
Crazy huge monument up on a hill that you can see from anywhere in Prague.
Easter Market in Old Town Prague
My crazy travel buddies
At St. Charles Bridge… (stolen from Jameson)
The cupcake-like castle in Cesky Krumlov (stolen from Peter)
At the top of the castle tower (stolen from Peter)
At the top of the castle tower pt. II (stolen from Peter)
A moat of bears! (stolen from Jameson)
Just bein’ cool in Cesky Krumlov (stolen from Peter)
Our fave place in Cesky Krumlov
Jameson and I pretending to be rhinos on Peter’s birthday (stolen from Peter)
Playing scenarios on Peter’s birthday… not sure what this is. (stolen from Peter, there are a lot more of these on Facebook…)

So, that was my Easter Break. Very enjoyable!

And for those of you who do not know, last Thursday, I got confirmed to stay for a second year teaching English in Austria! Next year, however, I’ll be in Graz, the second largest city in Austria and the capital of Steiermark (Styria), the best state in Austria. So I’m pretty pumped. A lot of American friends are staying on for a second year, including the two guys who went to the Czech Republic. Next year should include a lot more jokes. =)

Anyway, hope all are well.
Cheers,
Alaina

A Very Styrian St. Patrick’s Day

Yesterday, as you all know, was St. Patrick’s Day. I had two classes yesterday, and only two students were wearing green! A little sad, but oh well. I told the students they could pinch those who were not wearing green, and I ended up with the whole class PUNCHing each other, so I had to put a quick end to that. As you can imagine, St. Patrick’s Day is not a very big holiday here in the middle of Austria, but I found a way to celebrate.

First, I scoured the grocery stores for Guinness — no luck. But, inspiration struck and I instead purchased normal Gösser beer and some food coloring — Voilà! my very own homemade green beer. Of course, I needed the other Irish staple, potatoes, in my celebration, so I picked up a bag of potato chips. Ha Ha.

My St. Patrick’s Day “meal”
Maize + blue = green!

Zandra, an English assistant from a few years ago who settled down here in BA, invited me over to her house for some whiskey before we headed to Salzhaus, the local, and only, disco. She had Bushmills, and it reminded me of friends from home. At Salzhaus, there was a St. Patrick’s Day celebration of sorts — Guinness, whiskey, lots of my students and Irish music. I had dug up some green eyeliner, and we gave everyone a shamrock on their cheek. Zandra gave the bartender green food coloring, so everyone was getting green beer last night! Also, Zandra had convinced the Austrians that the Irish wear potato necklaces on St. Patrick’s Day, ha ha! We all had legumes around our necks…

Mmm, I love Guinness!
Salzhaus celebration
Woooo, St. Patrick’s Day!
Someone got a little inappropriate with the green eyeliner…

The students had brought a big Irish flag with them to the bar, and today it was hanging in their classroom.

Yesterday was my first time really drinking whiskey, and I must say I like it. Never could I drink straight vodka or rum, but straight Irish whiskey is actually quiet tasty. I also had an Irish whiskey highball, which is ginger ale and Irish whiskey, but last night’s drink also had muddled lime and lemon in it. Very delicious! However, the whiskey did give me a pretty bad hangover headache…

Also today, I was in my first class and noticed that something stank like poo. I thought nothing of it, maybe a smell had gotten in the class from outside. I went to my next class and sat down to read an article with them. I again noticed the smell. I thought, “It must be me that smells…” I then looked down at my shoe and saw DOG POOP all over it! I pulled my foot up to my nose to check, and, indeed, it was poo. The students found this absolutely hilarious and laughed as I put the shoe in the hallway. Took a while to get the class back in order after that one.

I’m going to Graz this weekend — looking forward to getting out of Bad Aussee and seeing some friends. I’m getting quite excited to go home — I really miss my family and friends from home. Not long now!

Cheers,
Alaina

Skiing in Schladming and A Love Letter to my Teapot

This weekend was a blast. After skiing in Austria for the first time over the Semester Break two weeks ago, I knew I needed to get back on the slopes. And quick. So this past weekend, I ventured to Schladming, home of another English assistant, Frankie, and an awesome skiing/boarding town to boot, (downhill mountain biking town in the summer).

Jordan and I conquered the mountains Planai and Hauser Kaibling. We drank its milkshake.

If you have no idea what that last sentence means, please refer to this Youtube video… FYI, Daniel Day-Lewis is an effing genius.

Jordan and I on the lift up…
No, I am not very, very scared to go down this mountain. I swear.

Anyway,  on to the main topic of this post… my teapot.

I’m teaching English in Austria. It’s awesome. Not only am I getting the cultural exchange of living in a foreign country, but about half of my fellow employees are British. So I look at my time here as a double exchange — there are so many more differences between Americans and Brits than I ever thought possible. Each weekend, we learn new words (fanny, trackie bums, slag, fag, mate, trousers, soz, chips/crisps… I could go on) and new pronunciations (vit-a-mins, or-e-gan-o, ba-sil… not sure how to write those pronunciations out, but they are funny). But I think, perhaps, the most lasting change through my weekend run-ins with the Brits may very well be my new tea drinking habit.

In the States, I live off coffee. I make a travel mug full in the morning and bring it to class/work and stop by Starbucks or Espresso Royale on my way back home, or study there for a few hours. Not many mornings went by without some steaming hot caffeine. However, now, after a few nasty hangovers were cured by the wonder that is English Breakfast Tea or Earl Grey with a dash of milk, I am a devotee to the stuff.

My only problem was, one cup at a time was definitely not enough. I would make a cup, then move to the couch to enjoy some television, Internet or a book, then all too soon realize that I wanted more. The solution to this problem was obvious: I dreadfully needed a teapot. As luck would have it, my grandma, dad and I passed a little tea shop in Salzburg, and I saw the perfect pot; a wonderfully calming blue color and could fit about a liter of tea. Since this purchase, my tea drinking has gone up exponentially, and I couldn’t be more grateful! Gone are the days when I had to run back and forth from living room to kitchen with each measly cup. I can now relax on my pathetic excuse of a sofa (that’s another story) and savor an entire pot of tea, which is more than enough… at least for an hour or so.

So, to the Brits in my life — thank you converting me to tea. And to my grandmother — thank you for the most useful present I have received, probably ever. Well, besides my iPod.

Are you a tea or coffee person? Drink it by the cup or the gallon? With sugar or milk? Or are you hardcore and take your coffee/tea black?

Cheers,
Alaina

Budapest: A River Runs Through It

Last weekend, I traveled the 7.5 hours from Bad Aussee, Austria to Budapest, Hungary. It was my first time in Eastern Europe, and I went alone. Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive at first. And when I arrived, it didn’t get any better. The Budapest train station was a hectic mess! I had never been so overwhelmed in my life. I clutched my guidebook like a lifeline. I converted 100 Euro to 25,000 Hungarian Forints. I nearly let the newspaper woman keep 4,000 of my Forints after I bought a bus ticket from her. I passed the entrance to the hostel twice. But in the end, I made it in one piece to the hostel kitchen, where I drank a much-needed tea with the owner.

It was nearly 6 pm by the time I arrived and the owner and I were the only people in the hostel. I didn’t feel like venturing out again on my own, so I waited until the other hostlers arrived back to make plans for the evening. Turns out, there was a group of 5 very simpático Spaniards, who invited me out with them for the night. We tried out some of the bars around town, but none of them were a smashing success. I bought a muffin at the 24-hour grocery store (!!! Something that doesn’t exist in Austria !!!) for 184 Forints, or 7 Euro cents. I poured myself into bed around 4 am.

I awoke to see the skies filled with rain clouds. No good. Still, I went out on a mission to find breakfast and have a day full of sightseeing. Well, long story short, I got very lost. I went back to the hostel (which I could still find), defeated, to reorient myself, or orientate for the first time. On the second try, I found the breakfast place quite easily and laughed at myself for having turned right instead of left.

After that, I checked out the Great Market, a huge indoor market. The stench of raw meat and fish, earthy smell of vegetables and succulent aroma of citrus fruit overloaded my senses. There was so much fresh food that I wondered how it could all be sold. Ever. I saw some creepy things, most creepy of which was a pig head, with his eye just staring at you. But I also saw some beautiful things. Over the murmur of Hungarian shoppers, I heard English all around me and saw tourists of all nationalities.

Despite the rain, I attempted to venture to the Buda side (hostel is on the Pest side). I crossed the Duna River (or the Danube River, which is much wider in Budapest) on the “Green” Bridge, and felt the bridge quiver with every tram that traversed it. The Buda side is much calmer and more residential. It reminds me of München or Wien, whereas Pest is more like Paris, with grand buildings, wide streets and always on the go.

Well, the rain just wouldn’t stop and had soaked my shoes, so I resolved to head back to the hostel and promised myself that Saturday I would see much more, rain or shine. I walked along the Duna and crossed back on the “White” Bridge. At the hostel, I tried to dry off and warm up with some tea. I took a nap that day, and when I woke, I went out to dinner with the Spaniards. We decided to have a night in and I would teach them how to play Kings. Needless to say, it was a really good night.

Saturday, it was raining when I woke up and I was upset. But, went out I did. I stopped by the Great Market and got a pastry, and by the time I got out, the sun was shining! I walked up the Duna to the Parlament building, which is huge! It was a long, but beautiful, walk (filled with other tourists). I walked along back roads to find my way to the main drag, Andrássy Utca (“Utca” means “street” in Hungarian). I was going to try out a restaurant Jordan recommended to me, Menza, but it was packed and I couldn’t get a table. I went instead to the Terror Museum, dedicated to the Nazi and Communist regimes that controlled Hungary, the spying that happened during those times and the citizens who fought back. It’s actually located the old headquarters of the secret police. Disturbing, moving and interesting.

From there, I walked toward the city center to the opera house and took a tour. So beautiful! They often compared it to the Viennese opera house, which I thought was funny. Ran into the Spanish people there. It was getting late, but I wanted to make it out to Heroes Square at the end of the Andrássy Utca, so I set off. I made it there at dusk, and it was truly gorgeous. Though there were some tourists, there were also many Hungarians as well, just enjoying the evening. I made the nearly 1 hour walk back to the hostel and was very, very tired so I decided not to go out that night.

The next day, Sunday, I woke up early, packed and caught my train at 11:10 am. The change in the train station from Thursday night to Sunday morning was astonishing. There was no one trying to get me to take their taxi, change money, stay at their hostel, no one checked my ticket – it was a pleasant change.

It was a perfect weekend. The city is awesome. It is cosmopolitan, but laid-back, grandiose, but small. I had no problem getting around using English – I had the feeling that people could understand me at all times (like, when I was at the bar, speaking English to the Spaniards). English was everywhere and also there was a surprising amount of German. For example, a menu would be written in Hungarian, then English and finally German.

Alas, a weekend was not long enough. I could have stayed until at least Tuesday and still enjoyed every second. I plan to go back over Easter Break (and hit the baths!) and continue even further into Eastern Europe. Can’t wait!

Have you been to Budapest? Hungary? Anywhere in Eastern Europe? What did you think?

Cheers,
Alaina

Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere, angel.

So the stars have aligned and I have been granted a glorious 5-day weekend! Sometimes, I seriously wish that I had applied to stay in Bad Aussee next year because I NEVER WORK. It’s amazing. But, oh well. I know I’ll have more fun in Graz anyway.

As I said: 5-day weekend. Today, I’m going shopping in Liezen with Frankie (the closest shopping center, 50 minutes away). They have an H&M there! And I need to get some stuff.

Then…. tomorrow….. I am leaving at 8:10 am for BUDAPEST! I haven’t been anywhere outside of Austria/Germany in a long time, so I’m excited! Plus, everyone keeps telling me that Budapest is amazingly awesome, so this is perfect! I got some recommendations from people who had been there before (Andrew, Jordan), so I’m staying at an awesome hostel (The Loft Hostel) and know some great places to eat and stuff to do. And, I’m traveling alone, which is something I like to do but haven’t done lately. I’m arriving back around 8 pm on Sunday. SO EXCITED!

So, hopefully my wanderlust will be satisfied, at least for now.

Will post exciting details of weekend upon return!

Cheers,
Alaina