Casa’s Blog

A Life Abroad

Don’t you wanna come with me? Don’t you wanna feel my bones on your bones? It’s only natural.

Last night I took a break from the tourist life and dealt with the effects of being a tourist of 3.5 months out of this year….I applied for jobs.  12 in all ranging from call centres in Clayton to Part Time Legal Clerk in the CBD to some year 11 student needing a chemistry tutor.  Most of them required a CV and Cover Letter, none of them I had “ready to go” but thanks to the Monash University job help ‘examples’ I was able to complete the process in just under 2 hours.  Efficient job applying if I say so myself and now I just have to hope that I get one of them so I can pay back the money I have borrowed ASAP.  I just feel weighed down when I owe vast sums of money 😦

After that I walked around the city some and found myself some dinner, all by myself (I went back to the Czech place Justin took me on Day 2 not being game enough to choose a random restaurant when they menu is in a foreign language.  I am able to order beer or “pivo” in Czech though :D).  After that it was an early night as I was just sooo tired.

Waking up refreshed after the most sleep I have had in a month or so I was heading off to Kutna Hora.   I managed to negate the metro and train stations brilliantly as well getting there without any fuss.  It helped I had all the Czech words of where and when I needed to go written down though.Kutna Hora is the city I had planned on going to yesterday until I couldn’t be bothered figuring out the train system, but I probably could’ve managed fine.  The reason people go to Kutna Hora is this church and Justin had told me I had to go.  It was the coolest church ever.  Seriously this is like a motorcycle gang with the Fonz and James Dean multiplied by the Rat Pack level of cool.  The Church is below:

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Okay, so where is the awesome?  Well “The Ossuary in Sedlec” is actually more well known for what is on the first floor than the rather mundane main chapel you see above.  It is the coolest church ever because it is entirely decorated with these things…

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That is right!  BONES! The remains of over 40,000 people have been used to decorate the Ossuary in Sedlec.  Originally the church was without this “decoration”when it was built in the 14th century.  The bones were added at the start of the 18th Century.  There are bone chandeliers, there are 4 MASSIVE piles of bones, bones forming a coat of arms, bones just adorning every wall and surface. It is just so strange.  Supposedly the use of bones is supposed to represent the relationship between mortals and god or something along those lines.  However, at no point in the explanations do they explain why use real bones.  You feel like you are just the only person in the room who is going “But they are bones?!!!!!” as everybody else sees it as a somewhat normal thing.  Definitely well worth the 40 crowns or whatever the cheap entry fee is.  This is something you definitely won’t see everyday.

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After the Church I went to the old Monastery Cathedral just up the road which you get in to with the same ticket.  It was okay,  a good old church, but nothing spectacular.  The Conventual Church of the Assumption of the Virgin as it is known was probably at the lower of churches I have seen in Europe, still better than any aussie one, but it also got hurt that I just been to the most spectacular church ever. I then explored the city and found a place to eat some lunch as I was starving and it had started to rain a little heavier.  I chose this little italian place and although the service was good and the beer was great…the food was probably the first “less than average” meal I have had in a while.  I got a risotto and it was definitely over cooked.  The Meal only cost 7 dollars so I can’t really complain to much.  However, I did take note that I have had such a great run with food in my travels. Also I took note that Gordon Ramsay would have  a fit with Czech cooking…your food is always served in a sea of chopped parsley and the menus are 10000 items long.

My last task in Kutna Hora was to do the Medieval Silver Mine tour. There are other things to do in the city, but this was the only one that really interested me.  It also had a good review from some of Justin’s friends.  Unfortunately when I got to the mine I had missed the only English tour (there are just two a day and the next one was a lot later so I am not counting it :P), so off I went on a Czech only tour with written pages of English to help me.  Luckily though we had 60% English speakers so eventually the group was split in to Czech and English and there was even an awesome English speaking Czech on the tour who was able to help the guide with the tour.  You start off covering how they dug the mines, got air in to the mines, etc.  Remember this is around 1500s so it was an amazing accomplishment.  Then you put on a hard hat, coat and grab a torch and climb down 165 steps to the start of the mine.  Inside the mine is basically like the caving you did in High School…cold, damp and cramped.  There were a few places were they stopped and told us some more information about the mine but there was also a bit of marching through the tiny passages of the mine.  It was pretty cool, but you wouldn’t want to be fat or tall as it gets 40cm wide in places and 120cm tall in other places…luckily not at the same time though and I can’t really complain about it being difficult to walk around as there were people older than my mother managing to do it.  The tour ends with how the silver was extracted from the ore, hammered in to sheets and eventually made in to coins.  There was a fair bit of information on the signs that I think you missed as I didn’t know Czech but in the end it was cool to see how they mined precious metals all those years ago.  The scary part though was when we all turned off the torches and they show the SEVERELY limited light that the miners had to work with.  Think about the level of light a glow in the solar system gives off when on the roof of a darkened child’s room and divide that by 10!

With that I took the small train to the main station (a time saving tip that Jo, one of Justin’s friends, gave me) and was able to wait just a few minutes for the next train to Praha hl.n.  The funny thing was that as I sat down in the empty 6 people compartment, a family of 3 people sat down with me.  They said hi.  They said hi because they were the same American tourists who I had sat in the carriage with on the way down in the morning.  Somewhat freaky coincidence…or they are stalking me 😛

June 20, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

We’re going on holiday. So why have you got an array of board games under your arm? What’s the point in going somewhere else, If you’re only going to do exactly what you would be doing at home?

Last night I went along with Justin to dinner at this Beer Garden place a few tram stops away.  I met a few more of his ex-pat mates who were cool people, the beer was good as always and the pork neck, potatoes and bacon that I had for dinner was amazingly tasty.  I ended up cleaning my plate and eating Juz’s leftovers.  The best part of the place though was the location.  It is on top of a hill (as most buildings are in Prague…it is a very up and down landscape like the best rollercoasters) which meant walking up to get there but the view was gorgeous, the setting among the trees just added to experience. It was the kind of place where the location was so good the beer could be Bud Light and the food inedible and you would still go…but the food and drink were great as well 😀  After stopping off in a few more bars to see a bit more of Prague life, eventually I was off to bed.

I had thought of going on a day trip to the “bone church town” as Justin was busy with work stuff all day/night but when I woke up I didn’t feel like I could be bothered to deal with the organisation of such a mini adventure today.  I decided to things around Prague then and high on my list of things to do was to do the Jewish Museum.  As  a whole I don’t know much about Judaism, with what I know picked up from pop culture references like the Nanny and Curb Your Enthusiasm.  I have a few jewish friends but they are the kind of jews who drive a car to maccas on the sabbath to get a bacon burger. Not the most orthodox jews.  I went to school in Caulfield, yet it was an Anglican school. You get the picture, so it sounded interesting to go the Jewish Museum which consists of about 6 different sites around the Old Jewish Quarter of Prague.  One ticket (which costs 200 Kc) gets you entry to all the different places.

Firstly I went Pinkas Synagogue which has been converted in to the Holocaust Memorial in Prague.  The reason I went there first?  Well it is because I had no map, didn’t check where all the things were before I left and I just bumped in to it first.  Inside the old synagogue has has the names of the 80,000 Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust written in inch high writing  all over the walls.  It covers each and every wall an the sheer mass of names is overwhelming.  It was the similar experience to seeing the Boston Holocaust Memorial which is big glass rectangular prisms that are covered with the ID numbers of the victims of the Holocaust…the numbers are written tiny and the the prisms are massive.  Both are very moving.  In the upper level there are displays of children’s art that was done in the nearest concentration camp.  I can’t explain how moving it is to see those pictures, particularly as you get way to used to seeing the artist’s name followed by a birthdate and death date and the deathdates are all in the same few years. I always find it hard to explain a “good” holocaust memorial to people as it is that situation where it is remembering such horrific events that it isn’t a fun experience, it is torture to go around them, but you have to go to them.  Once again it is a case of we can’t forget the horrors of the past.

Next door to the Holocaust Memorial is the old Jewish Cemetery.  It was the only cemetery that Jews could use when they were confined to live in the Jewish Quarter and so is packed with tombstones and different people’s remains.  It is actually elevated off the ground as they had to bury people on top of old graves eventually.  Leaving the  sadness of the holocaust and walking in to a cemetery is an interesting experience I must say.  What I did notice though is that throughout the museum, memorial and cemetery that tourists seemed to lack a level of respect you generally find in these places.  People were taking photos despite MANY signs saying no pictures or being told so by attendants.  People were running around, chatting loudly, laughing.  Maybe I am just a bit weird but I couldn’t let myself act like that in these kind of places.  It just seems disrespectful…incredibly disrespectful.  It is also strange that I rarely see such behaviour in Christian places of worship…

The rest of the museum buildings consisted of converted old synagogues that were dedicated to displays on different parts of jewish life and history.  Covered things were the Jewish ways of life from birth through to death, how jews deal with death and funerals and the history of Jews in the Czech Region.  As a layman when it comes to jews it was all pretty interesting finding out about how all the holidays and rituals work was interesting.  A lot of the displays even explained how this traditions came about, some didn’t though and that disappointed me a little.  I would love to know why the food rules are so strict, I assuming it is interpreting passages of the holy text but it wasn’t explained.  I did learn a lot that I never thought I would learn and the things I learnt through pop culture were put in to context.

To continue the religious theme for the day I stopped in to look around the Church of Our Lady before Tyn which is just off the old town square and it was another amazing building.  The Spanish Synagogue which has a very mosque-like vibe as a result of being built by jews with that architectural style was the most jaw dropping building of the day though.  The exterior may not be brilliant but the level of detail all over the walls and roof inside was amazing.  All the other synagogues weren’t as strongly decorated but the Spanish Synagogue may be close to my favourite building in Prague so far…

June 19, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Then raise the scarlet standard high. Within its shade we’ll live and die, Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, We’ll keep the red flag flying here.

After our trip to Brno yesterday, we went out to an Italian Restaurant just around the corner from Justin’s place for some italian food and beer. Well my Risotto was probably a bit more like fried rice than risotto…but it was good nonetheless.  We then stopped off at the “Mclaren’s” bar (Never read what the real name was)  just under just apartment for some more beer and so I could try a few Czech fruit shots.  They ranged from being very fruit tasting to tasting lyrics straight alcohol and from very aromatically fruity to, well, smelling like straight alcohol.  Although the place was a little smokey in true Czech style, I must say the idea of living above  a bar like How I Met Your Mother did have its appeals for me.

After a rather weird Obama based dream (I’m blaming the Czech spirits for that one) I was up and off on what I was calling my Communism Day. Of course the Czech Republic was behind the Iron Curtain, as Churchill phrased it, for a significant percentage of the last century and me being the political nerd would need to look in to that side of the country while I was here.  Also, my history interest focuses a lot on modern history, particularly World War Two, so I had set aside the day for the Communism Walking Tour as well as doing the Communism Museum (which ironically shares a building with a casino and a MacDonald’s…you could hear Lenin turning in his grave if he was actually in one!).

I had to grab a quick snack at Starbucks before starting the walking tour as I have obviously become quickly trained to eating the regular big meals they eat in the Czech Republic and was starving. It was strange seeing as Joey and I went through almost anorexic like eating in the USA with neither of us ever getting THAT hungry despite all the walking.  I obviously haven’t been fully changed from the person who did those two  though as I got myself an iced tea from Starbucks as well and that was a regular feature of our North American Adventure.  The walking tour also started just after the hour next to the Astronomical Clock so I got to see its performance although I must admit it was really lame.  The rest of the clock is great to look at and really interesting but the fact the clock’s performance is such a landmark for Prague tourists has me a little stumped.  I found it rather lame.

The guide for the 10 or so of us on the communism tour was Palov a 30 year old, baby faced Slovak who obviously had a great knowledge of the regions political history and a great grasp of the English Language.  However, the advertising for the tour turned out to be largely false.  To call it a communism tour is wrong because it covers a fair bit of the lead up to Communist rule and the effects after communist rule.  It is much more a tour that covers the areas modern political and cultural history – which was a plus.  It also ran for over 2 hours despite being advertised as a 90 minute tour, definitely not a bad thing as Palov was talking the entire time and there was a fair distance between the relatively few spots so 2 hours, he said, was the average time.  Probably the most significant thing though was that the walking tour basically showed you things you can’t see. What do I mean by that? Well most of the blantant signs of communism like hammer and sickles, statues and the like are long gone.  There are a few monuments, bullet damage repairs to the National Museum and of course the very communist buildings, but generally what we got on the tour was the information and personal anecdotes of our awesome guide.  You could imagine though that if you tour Iraq in 2030 you won’t be able to find many of the Saddam monuments still lining the streets so it was probably not expected that you would see much. He also had a variety of photographs so you could see what the places you are standing in now looked like before the capitalist transformation.  A striking contrast.  The tour is probably not as advertised, but all the little changes are defintely for the better.

Overall the discussion covered the history that led to Communism (World War 2, Hitler, Liberation by Red Soldiers, pre-WW2 Prosperity after the independence of Czechoslovakia, etc, etc),  life under the communist regime, the 68 attempted revolution and the Velvet successful revolution of the late 80s.  What was most interest was the analysis of how the 40 years of communism still affects the country to this day in very striking ways.  The fact that there are organised crime and foreign ownership issues as a result of the privatisation of all the nationalised things when Communism ended, filling the power void. The fact that Oranges hold a place in Czech christmas celebrations as a result of the fact they could only be obtained for a limited time, in limited amounts around christmas time in Prague under Communism.  The fact that there appears to be a big generational distinction between the youth and the older Czechs as there can be quite a lot of nostalgia about the communist times among the older people as it was all that they know. They still drink the bad coffee as it was what they grew up on for instances (The lack of quality in the goods produced as a result of no competition was a repeated point) and probably most significantly the Communist Party still gets about 20% of the vote.  Palov made the point that this is largely because of people remembering the benefits of communism such as the universal and free housing, healthcare, etc but not the costs associated with the overall system.  It is fair to say that my guide was probably anti-communism, but he did make an effort to give a wider picture and for that Iam grateful. He also was able to give me information about the current Czech Governmental issues that Justin had mentioned (but probably not cared enough to understand to the level I wanted to. I am the political one remember).

Probably the most important part of the tour in my opinion was at the end when we were shown the monument to the November 17 Peaceful Uprising which was a large part of the fall of Communism in Czech.  Not only was it great to hear the story of how it all unfolded at the location where it happened but the issues associated with the monument are interesting in themselves.  It is a modest monument and a rather small one at that.  It is on a part of the street that can be protected as it has been attacked by pro-communists and the general Czech feeling about the fall of communism appears to have lost its vigour in recent years, although after over 200 years since the American War of Independence that vigour is still there.  Palov’s point was that if you forget or never learn history you are bound to make the same mistakes.    A very good point.  It is interesting to hear him follow that statement with the fact that Czech history education at high school stops at the end of World War 2…

After the tour I then went to the communist museum, where the boards covered similar areas as the tour but in less depth.  However, it was a great (even if disorganised museum) as it was full of the artifacts of the times as well as reconstructed rooms varying from fatories to shops to Secret Police Interrogation Cells. There was also a really good video of some of the main events I had heard about all day.  Well worth the price of admission (although I did pay the discounted price as I had done the walking tour, I would say it is still worth it if you had to pay the extra 20 crowns haha).  It was not a perfect museum though as it was definitely of the “Communism=bad, Capitalism = good” frame of mind and the phrasing of the stories and history was written from this view point.  However, I think that although the weaknesses in Communism are fundamental and obvious, a lot of the negatives of the communist regime were associated a lot more with political extremism and unfettered political power than any particular ideological issues.  You see footage of how the Red Army dealt with political protesters in the late 80s and compare that with the footage of G8 protests and the like and there are definite similarities.  Facism and Communism, two sides of the political spectrum, have both caused dramatic issues in modern European history.  Although as a person with “center-ish” political views, what can you expect my conclusion to be? 😛

Also, I am periodically adding photos to old posts as I can while at Justin’s place.  At the moment I have done Bruges through Niagara Falls…have a look if you want to.

June 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why can’t I – walk on through. And not feel like – one is in hell. We don’t need no water let the motherf***er burn…

My time in Prague yesterday arvo probably wasn’t the most Czech experience one could have.  Matty and I ended up going to Fatboy’s (an aussie pub) and watching some of the 20/20 cricket before the rain came down to stop play.  Was definitely fun just watching the cricket, chatting and have a few beers, but hardly counts as immersing oneself in the culture of the place one is in.  I did a little better over dinner as we all went off to a Czech restaurant just around the corner from Juz’s place on Italska and I had a full on Czech Meal.  It was called the Czech Lovely Grub and consisted of 3 kinds of meat, 2 kinds of cabbage and 3 kinds of potato dumplings….it was a massive feed made even bigger by the fact that it was suggest I get a side as well with the others forgetting that my dinner came with the dumplings.  I must say though that I did  a damn good job at finishing off the meal though.  As I washed it down with good cheap Czech Beer (Beer is cheaper than basically anything else here…cheaper than coke or bottled water in some cases!), I was able to eat probably 90% of it.  Although I must admit that afterwards I felt near on exploding and probably should avoid eating such quantities regularly. The food was different to anything I had really had before but it was great, the dumplings were gorgeous and I could probably eat them for every meal of every day!

Even though I have hardly scratched the surface of Prague, today I was off in Brno touristing around with Matt.  Justin had to go to Brno for work and was taking the work car (luckily his colleague was driving).  As a result there were two spare seats in the back in the Skoda so Matt and I got a free trip down to what turned out to be a pretty interesting city.  As you leave the “Praha” city centre, you quickly encounter the countryside and communism in all it’s glory.  You start seeing all the large, apartment blocks iconic of Communist countries as well as forests of trees that just seem to go and go.  I was quite surprised that there was so many trees still around as in most parts of Europe most of the trees have been chopped down long ago.  I was even more surprised to find out how far Brno was from the border (just an hour or so more) as although it was just a less than two hour drive, the speed limit was 140km/hour in some places.  As I sleepily sat in the back of the car I couldn’t imagine that we had gone so far.

When we got dropped off in Brno, we found our way to the Information Center by a combination of good guesswork, luck and a dodgy map.  There we found an equally dodgy map but it outlined all the main attractions of the city (in English) and if Adelaide is called the City of Churches, clearly people have never been to Brno.  There were about a dozen famous churches listed but the main thing that caught our eye was the castle.  It was a bit hard to find, but eventually we made it in to the castle grounds and up the steep hill in to the entrance.  For just 90 Kc (student price) we got admission to all parts of the castle (The look out tower, the 5 permanent exhibitions of the Brno City Museum now housed in the castle and admission to the Casemates (which we had no idea what it was but turned out to be exploring the old rooms of the castle with a few rooms set up “as they would’ve been” a while ago).

Firstly we went up the tower and got a grand view of Brno which is a beautiful city.  Surrounded by purely green forrest you see a city that just appears to have quite a bit of character.  The most dominate building on the skyline is the Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral as it is on one of the many elevated parts of the city (it is very hilly) and is a mammoth building on top of that prime location.  However it was good to just be able to look down upon a city so different to the places I have grown up and known well.

The Museum part of the Castle was pretty good.  Far and away the best exhibition of the 5 was the one dedicated to the history of the castle from the time it went from palace to prison (1700s through 1940s).  It detailed not only how the buildings were utilised but also outlined the treatment of prisoners, torture used, recreated some of the cells and also had dedicated rooms on each of the different conflicts that lead to political prisoners being housed there from Italy, Poland and the like.  It gave me a greater insight in to the political history and development of this part of Europe as all the moving borders and conflict were well explained.  All the exhibits were in Czech but detailed English translations were provided in little books.  The other exhibits weren’t quite as good.  The one dedicated to objects from Brno’s past was good but the english assistance was very sparse so you couldn’t get the full value.  The collection of old artworks were also good, although as I am not a big fan of Art I am sure I missed a lot of the finer points. What did catch my eye was the ability of the painters to breathe life and personality in to the eyes and faces in the portraits they painted.  The final three exhibits on Modern art (I can’t enjoy it as much as other periods of art), a specific Czech painters exhibition (which just reminds us all to collect our children’s kindergarten work and sell it because people will buy anything) and on post 1920s architecture weren’t that interesting I must admit.

The Casemates were cool though.  Not only did you feel the freaky difference in temperature once you got in to lower parts of the castle – it literally dropped 10 degrees in a matter of steps as you left the sunny day outside -but it did a good job of giving you an idea of how horrible it would’ve been to be a prisoner there.  The lack of windows and natural lighting.  The vast amounts of people crammed in to the rooms.  It can’t have been a fun existence.  There was also parts of the Casemates that had been altered in the 1940s when the Nazi’s had used it as a Garrison which was interesting to me as World War 2 is one of my main historical points of interest.

We then strolled back in to the city, past some weird ‘hippy-like folk’ doing some weird form of tai chi/dance, in search of lunch.  We settled on this “African Resteraunt” in a secluded corner of the town. It may have been african but after a quick bit of two word english discussion we found ourselves ordering soup, schnitzel, potato salad and beer with cake for dessert…a very Czech lunch.  The price?  Just 89 Kc for the lunch and the beers again just a couple of bucks each.  It was a damn good food and I can’t believe we got a three course meal so cheaply.  I am definitely going to make the most of my eating and drinking time in the Czech Republic.

After lunch we had decided to check out the Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral before taking the train back to Prague. We had the option of staying until Justin left in the car after 5pm, but after being up at 5:30am to head down and walking around for a fare few hours we were probably done.  The Cathedral was amazing though.  I haven’t seen many of the main Cathedrals you must see but this one was gorgeous.  The decoration was intricate, beautiful, yet subtle.  Not close to “gawdy” which can happen some times in overly decorated churches.  It would definitely be up there with my favourite churches I have visited.  It was brilliant and to find it in Brno, a city most people probably wouldn’t go to in their travels I would think was great.  They even had very detailed English pamphlets to help us understand about the different things and tourist places get extra points in my book if they are accommodating of us non-native speakers.

It was now time to take the train.  Finding the station was easy.  Buying the tickets was easy, yet another case of us just saying the few czech words we knew and needed as well as a fair bit of bad sign language (What is interesting was today we seemed to encounter a lot of people, particularly at the museum, who didn’t seem to pick up we didn’t speak Czech.  Blank stares, us talking in English and saying English or the Czech word for English didn’t seem to help them cotton on for some reason.  I think I am able of picking up if someone has NO IDEA what I am talking about quite quickly).  What was hard though was finding the train.  Firstly the Prague trains didn’t have platforms listed and when they did platform two referred to two sides of the platform with different sections also marked.  Eventually we just asked enough guys who didn’t speak a word of english if the train was ours (this involved pointing at the ticket and shrugging the shoulders) until we found one off to Prague…not the station close to the apartment that we wanted but we got home in the end.

June 17, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I pack my suit in a bag. I’m all dressed up for Prague. I’m all dressed up with you, all dressed up for him too…

My travels  continue and I find myself in Prague.  I’ve come to realise that every 21 year old who travels Europe finds themselves in Prague, most of us International Students at Leeds will touch base here at least some time while we are away.  However for me, Prague is also the home of my brother Justin since last September.  Therefore Prague holds a little more significance and was one of the first listed places that I wanted to visit when planning my trip.  From all reports it is a great city, I get to catch up with my brother again…oh and the free accommodation is a plus 😛

I arrived in Prague yesterday at 6pm Prague time after once again changing timezones.  It was about midday for me as I hadn’t adjusted to leaving North America yet, but the fact I hadn’t slept much on the plane to Heathrow meant that I wasn’t too awake for ‘nighttime’. The British Airways flight to Prague was fine and definitely a lot better than the options of taking a slightly cheaper Ezyjet flight which would’ve meant changing airports (a costly and time expensive exercise in London) instead of just terminals, especially as the ease of flying on British Airways is a well received level of comfort when travelling for so much. In the end it cost about 10 quid more, but I got a lot more than 10 pounds worth of benefit.  The only down points of the flight were the 50+ american (and therefore loud) teenagers (and therefore annoying) who were on the plane with me on some sort choir trip and the fact that I had to wait over 30 minutes, after the first bag appeared, for my bag to eventually come on to the carousel.  Juz met me at the airport though so I didn’t have any worries dealing with the bus and metro or finding his place.  It is always good to see a friendly face after over 24 hours of travel and it was a relaxing thought that I now don’t have to deal with another airport for almost a month.

My first impressions of Prague were limited.  From the plane you don’t see much as the airport is a fair way out of the city.  All I could tell was that the country was very european (surprise surpise), but I do suppose that led me to think what Justin would’ve thought flying in to such a different looking place knowing that he was moving there.  It is definitely different from Australia.  After quickly settling in to Juz’s place and saying hi to Matt who is now living with Justin, we were off to what can only be described as an “ex-pats” restaurant for dinner – Banditos.  The food was pretty good, the beer was cheap as you find in Prague and I met one of Justin’s mates Angus. The night wasn’t that eventful but I was able to relax and recover from the non-stop two weeks of travel with Joey and 24 hours spent on a plane.

After a well needed sleep I was up this morning and off to another of the Sandeman’s Free (or “tips only”) Walking Tours.  I had done the Dublin one and it was good and this one came with Justin’s recommendation.  I haven’t planned out the things I want to do in Prague in much detail but a broad introductory tour of the city sounded like a good idea. Without a proper map, Matty was good enough to walk with me to the Old Town Square where the tour would depart from ensuring I made it there and didn’t get horribly lost in the maze of streets the go around Prague.  It was a nice and sunny, if not a little muggy, day too.

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The tour itself was really good.  Probably awesome when you consider that you have the option of doing it for completely free, although not tipping your guide would be a bit of a low act.  My guide was Mike – a tall, loud canadian who had a slightly weird accent from his time in Europe.  He was very informative and at all the variety of stops on the tour gave some great info, a few stories and even a couple of jokes.  Probably his weakness though was that he was not good at ensuring that the walk between stops was at all interesting.  By the end, besides gazing at the streets and sights of Prague, it became a bit of a quiet march from place to place.  Other walking tours I have been on have been better at having the flow continue.

The tour was a broad coverage of the city, the people and the history of Prague and wider Czech Republic.  I knew relatively little going in to it so the 10 minute summary of the history of the Czech people, a people who seem to have been continually overtaken throughout history, was well useful.  Along the walk we saw most of the main sights.  We saw a lot of the different Churches and synagogues, the Powder Tower, Old Town Square, the river with a great view of the Charles Bridge and Castle district, the Jewish Quarter (which hasn’t got much of the original buildings surviving…just the important ones), Wencelslas Square (which is definitely more a rectangle than square) and much more.  It was quite thorough.  A fair chunk of the tour was spent explaining the different architectural styles of the buildings of Prague which was good to see, but I must admit talking about architecture bores me a little…looking is fine but lets keep the discussion to a minimum.  I can enjoy just looking at the wonderful variety of buildings.   The lunch stop of the tour was at Bohemia Bagels which was good as I was getting at a little hungry and my hummus bagel with peppers and olives was gorgeous.  Only cost about 100 krona as well.

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So that is my introduction to Prague.  I have been able to see the surface of the city and like what I see.  I now just have to find out what I am doing for the rest of my days in Prague (that involves hitting the guidebooks), wash my clothes for the first time in too long and just get on with enjoying Europe again.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

It’s a damn cold night. Trying to figure out this life. Won’t you take me by the hand, Take me somewhere new. I don’t know who you are, But I Im with you, I’m with you…

I had an internal query about whether this deserved it’s own post.  It could’ve quite easily followed on from the last post where I was leaving Toronto, leaving the North American part of my trip and leaving Joey.  However, at least for myself I think it is time to reflect on the friends that I have made while I have been away for 6+ months.  I have the best, ace, most brilliant friends back in Australia (hey guys and gals!) but I also made some awesome friends while away.  Of the proper poms, I think I could probably count Ben, Ally, Rob and Joey as friends  (and maybe a few more…”friend” is such a weird term) and that is something I find pretty cool.  I am a little proud to have made those friends while away.  As I said goodbye to Joey, I couldn’t help but think that it marked a somewhat important point in my travels.  The friends I have made, I will be leaving behind.  I am not leaving them behind by choice, I am leaving them behind as it is almost time for my to go back “home” to Australia…I wish I didn’t have to leave ’em.  All of them are great people and especially after spending the last 2 weeks travelling in North America with Joey, with him 24/7, I am saddened by the fact that I don’t know for certain if I will see them again in the flesh.  I definitely want to catch up with Joey and the others more, but there is an uncertainty that leaves me questioning.

With Joey, over the last couple of weeks, I have been able to spend a great deal of time with a very cool person. This sounds  a little like I am praising him a little too much (and hopefully he never reads this and thus doesn’t get a big head haha), but he is a top guy.  He is smart, funny and  a good bloke.  Joey is great to chat to and like others I have met while away, like Rob, has helped me understand more about myself.  He is like me, but not.  We share similarities and we have differences.  When we were travelling there were things we did that we both REALLY wanted to do and then there were things we did that were probably not me but the experience helped me to expand myself and add a little variety to the experience.  We shared 80% of the same interests but cold help each other share the remaining 20%, so that we both gained a lot from the travelling over the past couple of weeks through compromise.  Good friends do that I think.  A friend that just lets you stay stagnant probably is someone who just builds your ego and you gain little from the relationship overall.

I left Australia in January hopeful that I would have some great times, some brilliant experiences and somewhat wishful that I would meet some good people.  In the end I can leave happy in the fact that I know I have made some top notch friends as well.  I wish they were coming back to Australia with me, but I know the realities of the situation I am.  At the very least I know that I have some friends I can keep in touch with via the internet who are great people.  Hopefully at least they also know that they now have a bed if, or whenever, they ever want to come to Australia.

June 15, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

So am I still waiting, For this world to stop hating. Cant find a good reason. Cant find hope to believe in!

We woke up in Toronto knowing that we had a long last day ahead of us. Well it was going to be a 36 hour day until both Joey and I had the chance to see a bed,  so that is a long day in anybody’s book.  We had a few ideas of what to do for the last hours in Toronto but in the end we ended up at the Royal Ontario Museum.  Joey and I had been at a variety of Museums, but one more wouldn’t hurt anybody.  When we were entering the museum we were somewhat disturbed by having to attach a green tag to ourselves…much like how you tag sheep. You would think a ticket would be enough to get in, but canadians are weird.  As it was a canadian museum it had some really good and interesting specifically canadian exhibits. For instance, there was a large percentage of the building dedicated to the inuit people (a race I knew little about). Also there was a detailed explanation of how come the Maple Leaf and Beaver became such important icons for the Canadian people, questions that us foreigners commonly ask.  By far Joe and I’s best part of the museum was the bat cave (Dunna dunna dunna dunna BATMAAAAN!!!!) where although the bats were dead, it was really cool.  We were able to spend most of the day at this museum, stay interested and the only bad bit was that when we were leaving we had to deal with a coat check attendant with way too much attitude.

Leaving Toronto was relatively easily. Although I accidentally had us waiting on  wrong street for the bus (I corrected the problem in time though), we got the bus to the YYZ (Pearson International) Airport.  It was interesting though that to speed up the process though the USA immigration (as we had to fly to JFK to get to London) was on the canadian side of the flight.  Before checking your bag you had all the forms and all the questions that you expect to deal with after you have dealt with a 13 hour flight.  Weird, but how smart is it?! We had a bit of a wait in Toronto Airport, even before the plane was delayed a 40 minutes,  so we went book shopping, chatted and I had a few beers.  The worst part of the flights ahead were that we seemed to get delayed on the tarmac so I got well used to waiting with my legs restricted by the chair in front of me.  Once we got to JFK, because of the delay, we didn’t have to wait long to board but the delay on the tarmac (again) was so bad that I almost watched half of a movie before the plane even took off.  (For the record, I won’t be telling you what movie I watched. They were the same movies on the way back to the UK as on the the way to the USA so I had a limited choice :P) I remember my shock when I looked over to Joey, saw that there were the ground lights of the airport out the window as the movie was reaching it’s climax and just let my jaw drop.

Besides the delays and the fair bit of turbulence, the flights were fine.  No screaming babies. There were babies, but they were surprisingly quiet.  We were able to watch some films/tv, sleep, read a bit more of my Obama book and just watch the cities, whether day or night, as we approached to land.  Once we landed in Heathrow and eventually collected our bags (they must’ve been the last ones off the plane) it was time to say goodbye to Joey (the last of my Leeds’ friends to say goodbye to) and to head off to Prague to catch up with Juz…

June 15, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Oh, Canada.Our home and native land, True patriot love, In all thy sons command…

Note to self: Stop reading other people’s blogs as it makes one very self concious about your own ramblings (Damn you Steve, UkCuz, etc)

P.S  I should’ve asked Steve how to Geek up my blog before I left Australia 😦

Okay so on with what will no doubt be a verbose account of most of my time in Toronto.  We arrived in Toronto pretty late at night.  It was about 8pm last night by the time we got to our Hilton Downtown hotel – a good hotel, way better than all the hostels but definitely not at the standard of the Hilton we were in at Niagara.  We were on the 11th floor (again…it is getting freaky) and although the bed had adjustable softness on the side, which is impressive, We still “only” had one room with both king sized beds in it and the view was of “just” the CN tower.

My initial thoughts about Toronto were that it was very Melbourne like.  Maybe it is because of the similar history of being English Colonies that are still part of the Commonwealth (Sup Queen Liz!), but the similarities were there to see.  The buildings were similar designs, there was a street very similar to Chapel St we walked down, the streets named similar things (King and Queen Sts for example) and hell they even had trams as well!  There were some obvious differences though, even to this untrained eye. Firstly the crossings made bird signals instead of clicking when it was time to cross (another case of “awh bless” for the canadians) and secondly there were signs for ABMs all over the place.  The ABM being an Automated Banking Machine…ATM to us Australians or Cashpoint to the English.

Although it was late when we arrived, as is Joey and my style we hit the ground running.  We strolled in to the now rainy streets of Toronto in search of a bar.  On the “Chapel Street” of Toronto we found the Rex Hotel, just opposite a condom shop (they still make me giggle haha).  The Rex was a Jazz club and for just $7 Canadian we were in and sipping Sleeman Beer and watching the Matthew Newton Quartet.  It was a good place, had many awards on the wall for “best jazz venue in Toronto” and was  good place to stumble across.  It was a respectful instead of quiet music bar if that helps you get the feel of the place.  The Matthew Newton were good, but probably better individuals than a band.  Too many solos, too little cohesion and just lacking something.  Good but high standards must be kept 😛

CN

This morning, as the sun was shining and not a cloud could be seen in the Toronto sky, we headed up the CN tower.  As this was the last of our ‘tall things’ and claimed to be the tallest structure in the world, with the highest observation deck we bought the all inclusive pass.  By the way, if anyone knows of an asian building that has overtaken CN please remind me as I am sure that it was no longer the tallest building but it was repeated constantly. “Le Tour Total” we did the 1st observation deck, the glass floor (which is freaky to stand on but I even had the guts to jump up and down to test it out haha), a movie in the Maple Leaf Cinema about the construction and design of the tour (they really love the Maple leaf here) as well as  the Himalamazon experience.  All of it was a great experience.  To stand up so high and lookm out for miles never gets old.  Especially going up another 30 odd stories to the skypod and realising that the 1st observation deck wasn’t THAT high is a thrill.  The one bit that didn’t quite connect was the Himalamazon thing which was basically a 4D ride about going through a futurist saw mill.  Once again we got sprayed and shaken around, it was fun, but somewhat random.  Toronto is a beautiful city from the skies though!

Glass

We then walked through Toronto to the Distillery district.  We had hoped to find, well, a distillery here or even an old one but no luck.  It has been turned in to an art/cafe place of town.  Great location for all that and the old distillery buildings were fun to walk around…but come one, at least give me some history about the original distillery.  The strolling continued past the Winter Garden Thearte and to the Eaton Centre – Toronto’s big shopping centre.  Joey was amazed at its size and the amount of shops on offer, although the quality of shops was somewhat lacking.  However, as a Melbournian who has grown up next to Chaddie all his life, it wasn’t that impressive.  Chadstone is MUCH bigger and a MUCH better place to shop. I have challenged Joey to find out for himself 😛

Our march through the streets of Toronto continued as we set about trying to find Fort York.  Originally this was a fort built on the original coastline to defend the city (Toronto formerly known as York).  However, much like Boston over the years landfill has changed the coastline and the Fort is now no where near the coast.  It is also really hard to find.  Especially with our badly scaled map, but in the end we did find it.  Quite a few of the old buildings still remain and some have been converted to interesting displays.  The artillery building was a fave of mine as it not only explained all the “old timey warfare” you see in movies, but had big guns and I am male after all (Despite what Christina says LOL).

After a stop at Tim Horton’s (okay it was our second one of the day…but those Strawberry Bloom donuts are GORGEOUS I TELL YA!), we were back in our hotel for some relaxing time to make the most of the Hilton facilities.  We were in the pool and spa for a bit, although I was more spa and Joey was more pool as I like to sit more than ‘do stuff’.  The idea of a law office in a big spa has come to mind for my future office I must admit hehe.  We then watched some bad TV (which is always fun) before heading out for dinner and some comedy.
After walking past a lot of “okay but not amazing” places to eat, we found Quotes.  Not only did this place have live jazz (which attracted joey), it was just a great little restaurant.  The menu was full of hilarious quotes.  They served everything we were craving (My Bison Burger was Delicious) and to our specifications.  It is just like a place was designed specifically for Joey and I to eat at while in Toronto.  Definitely recommended!  We then were off to Yuk Yuk’s, a well known comedy club in Toronto.  There were 3 comedians for the night with Peter Anthony headlining.  It was a good venue (the Gotham Comedy Club probably had a better room), but the crowd here was pretty big, definitely a young enthusiastic crowd and just the right fit for us.  The first two comedians were good, but not great 0ne must say.  They were funny, but probably a little older than the generation of 20 to 35 year olds that were in the room…unlike the headliner.  Peter Anthony, who supposedly is a well known new comedian in Canada, was brilliant.  None of his jokes bombed.  Some weren’t as funny as others, but it ranged from laughing  politely to crying you’re laughing so hard….he was that good.  He also was the right type of performer for the demographic of the room. Hell he even used “tag” as the punchline for a facebook bit and that kills with us facebook addicts AKA 20 to 30 year olds.

Okay, I am fast approaching Steve’s alleged 5000 words so I will stop now.  For the record though, this post didn’t even hit 1500 words 😉

June 13, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The summer sun, it blows my mind. Is falling down on all that I’ve ever known. Time will kiss the world goodbye. Falling down on all that I’ve ever known. Is all that I’ve ever known

I write this as I ride on the train to Toronto (it was originally handwritten as were the last two delayed posts).  The countryside of Canada flies by through the window and All American Rejects rings out through my iPod headphones.  All that I can think of though is that I can’t fathom the fact that I just “did” Niagara Falls.  That certainly wasn’t part of the plan when I left Australia in January.  It was part of the “when I am 60 years old plan”.  Unexpected but Ace.

I woke up this morning in my King Sized bed realising that i has been too long since I didn’t sleep in a dodgy small bed.  My back felt awesome and I was tucked up in only a corner of the bed…sleeping habits are obviously hard to break.  I also had a landmark dream last night…the first time I remember dreaming about my return home.  Okay, I lived next door to a multilevel Starbucks and most of my Leeds friends were also there but coming home is definitely on my mind.

As we rolled out of our beds. packed the room, checked out (easy task even though the intial bill had a mysterious parking charge on it) and had a Tim Horton’s breakfast (The Strawberry bloom is gorgeous!  Just gorgeous!), we knew today was going to be a day to remember.  Niagara Falls is after all hard to forget.

First on the to-do list was the Maid of the Mist or how it is known to me “The Niagara Falls boat from the Nanny.”  We took the second boat of the morning (which was good as the 1st was packed and ours had plenty of space) and the views/experience was amazing.  As the boat powers into the powerful force fo the falls you are drenched by the mist (luckily a souvenir poncho is provided) and as I attempted to see through soaked glasses you are just in awe at what nature has provided for you.  The boat goes past both waterfalls and you get a nice voice over telling you about the different falls and some interesting facts – the story of the 7 year old boy going over the Horseshoe falls is particularly good.  As you disembark the boat and realise that you now smell like the waterfalls (ie swampy), I think the one word you can only use to describe the waterfalls is Fierce!

Maid

Next on the list to do was teh Journey behind the falls where you put on another poncho, go down behind the Canadian-Horseshoe falls and stand on an observation deck a mere meters away from the power.  Not as good as the Maid, but that is an unfair standard to compare it to.  The view of millions of gallons of water flowing past the portals is breathtaking and worth the price of admission itself!  You also have a few new tidbits of information to learn and some awesome photo opportunities.  The Brilliant power of the falls just can’t be understood until you see it up close.

After a quick trip to a Zoltar Fortune Teller machine (think Tom Hanks in Big) as it took the last of my American dollar notes and a sundae in the Coca-Cola shop, we decided to do the Niagara’s Fury 4D experience…what is the 4th dimension?  Well it is water  as even the cinemas in Niagara Falls get you wet.  You do a 10 min 3D fil of Chip the student chipmunk learning about the Creation of the falls before the real fun begins.  You walk in to another room, grab on to the handle wearing another poncho and are sprayed and shaken and feel as if you have not only gone over the falls but seen them throughout their history.  I could imagine this is a well good thing for kids, a real winner with school groups as it is part education and part adventure ride…it certainly was a winner with me!

Okay so that is Niagara Falls done.  If I had to advise anyone about Niagara Falls I would pretty much recommend everything we did (except the cab ride haha).  There was a bit more to do in the area, none of which interested us and generally one or two days would definitely be enough to get the full experience.  Go on a weekend though and you see the falls illuminated and a fireworks show.  How come we got the fireworks on our Wednesday we still don’t know.  Maybe we are just awesome…or lucky..or both 😛  The Hilton was also a great hotel –  good price and location and most of all we had gorgeous views from the room.

Niagara Falls would be high on my must see list for anybody.  It is a bit out of the way of anything besides Toronto, but remember this is coming from the son of two geographers who has been made to see way too many crappy geographic landscapes in his time!

June 13, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

They’ve come to see you rise and fall, They’re only tearing down your walls, They’ve come to see you rise and fall, And I don’t wanna say you’ve lost control…

So the tain ride from NYC to Niagara Falls could’ve been worse.  Maybe it was because I went in with incredibyl low expectations for an 8 1/2 hour train ride but all in all it wasn’t too bad.  The 5 hour wait in New York City Penn Station or the 7 hour flight to JFK from London were both worse in my humble opinion.  Not only did we have a coach with what can only be described as almsot too much leg room if there is such a thing, but my combination of Obama’s book, iPod, SLeep and eating a packet of runts and eating Asian Trail Mix seemed to make the journey tollerable.  Although this mornign was somewhat overcast, we also got to have a look at some nice scenery – the side of New York State that most people don’t often see.

As we approached the Niagara Falls New York train station, I was surprised to see how many USA flags there were displayed so close to the border in people’s yards and windows.  Given their proximity to Canaga their patriotism seemed to multiply.  I was even more surprised when we stopped in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, got off using steps as there was no platform and were told this was our station.

Hmmm….

Okay, well the only thing we could do was take one of the waiting taxis that were lined up and make note to tell people that Niagara Falls train station isn’t near the falls.  Unfortunately, things weren’t simple.  Although our cabbie got us to our hotel (the awesome Hilton Niagara Fallsview…more on that later), I noticed just at the end of our journey that the meter wasn’t runnning.  At the end, the cabbie turned and said Us$38.  WHAT?!  He had paid a few dollars at the border bridge, but using the fare per mile calcuations that were displaced and even including the toll it was closer to US$15 to 20 than 40.  Discussions continued.  He claimed that it is a set fare. He told us that it is always $38 from the Amtrak station to here.  He gave me the phone to speak to his boss who wouldn’t discuss anything further than say $35 +2 = $38.

Okay, for starters I dispute his maths.  Secondly while all this was going on I was calmly (yes calmly) saying that if you are going to charge a set fare you have to display it.  At the very least he has to make us aware of it sometime before or even during the journey.  My basic understanding of contract law makes that point very clear.  Joey had gone off to check us in as the discussions continued and when I chatted about it with hotel staff their were surprised at the fare at first but eventually I found one person who knew about the set fare.  As the cabbie threatened to call the police, I was close to deciding to let him if he was so inclined.  As we were still waiting to complete check in, no time was being wasted.  I knew I was in the right fand he can’t just state a flat fare at the end of a journey without forewarning us to it.  The hotel staff security eventually came to help out and said that he had seem this before.  Unfortunately all the cops do when they show up is to call the cab company to check that the usual fare is $38.  At this point I couldn’t be bothered anymore.  It was just US$20 and although I was right and the principle of the matter irks me no end as I can imagine many more people getting in to the same position, without hope of police support…we paid the fare.  We did take note of his vehicle and driver details and if I get around to it I will report the issue to the appropriate Canadian body.

Regardles of the cab issue, the hotel is AMAZING.  Our brilliant room is really a suite, with two king sized beds in separate rooms, two TVs, marble bathroom with spa bath and oh yeah…a great view of the falls.  All for the price of what we have been paying for hostels in the other cities so far.  A damn good deal if you ask me .  Only pictures can do it justice and I will add them when  get the chance.

falls bed

Although the room/hotel was so awesome, the falls were why we were here and with about 24 hours in town we were quickly out gazing at their beauty.  The USA falls aren’t as good as Canada’s but both are tremendous and just gorgeous.  I don’t think film/TV does them justice.  They probably aren’t as tall as one would expect but they are amazingly powerful.  Even on the other side of the river watching them you get sprayed with the mist so it is like constant rain.  To amke the scenario even more amazing, a rainbow formed just as we were sitting back and taking it all in.

Rainbow

Most of the attractions were closting, so they will be tommorrow tasks.  We did however have time to pay the 50 cents and walk back to the USA side of the falls.  The idea of walking to another country/across a border was so strange to this Australian.  Let alone replying “a few hours” when asked by the border police “how long before you return to Canada” or “How long since you were in America?”.  The USA side of the falls is muche more parkland as opposed to the Canadian side whihc resembles a mini-Vegas.  The many squirells, trees and open grassland is testament to this.  You get to see the falls from a different angle, including standing on a bridge as they cascade just in front of you and water flows away from you, which is good.  The view from Canada is much more spectacular though.  In short, USA great…Canada Awesome (I’m talking about the falls, but it probably applies to other things as well haha).

Niagara

After that it was cocktails and dinenr at Ruby Tuesday’s, a quick spa, swim and sauna in the pool facilities (OMG my back has not been this good in at least 6 months) and off to bed.  Actually, just before we went to bed, the now illuminated waterfalls were bathed in the lights and sounds of fireworks.  It turns out that although advertised for weekends and public holidays, our normal Wednesday in Niagara Falls was cause for a fireworks display.  All we could do is sit back and relax and watch it unfold from our Hilton suite…Jealous much? 😛

June 12, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments