Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Metro Stop: Staromestka

Final blog post for my Maymester abroad in Prague. Over the course of our trip, we were each assigned a metro stop to photograph and document.

I was assigned Staromestka. Within my photo story, I wanted to capture the ironic contrast between the area today as a luxury, high-end shopping district and it's historical purpose as a Jewish cultural center and ghetto.

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Photo Story: Cesky Krumlov

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One of my favorite excursions during my month abroad in the Czech Republic was a trip to the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov in southern Bohemia.

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Detail: When you visit Cesky Krumlov, enjoy a typical medieval meal at U Dwau Maryi (The Two Marys), consisting of family plates of smoked chicken wings, potato dumplings, latkes, and lentil salad.

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People: As you walk or even white water raft along the Vltava River, you will notice local artists with their easels set up along the river bank, painting the medieval skyline.

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Event: Continuing your walk throughout the town, the song of live music from local artists playing guitars and flutes will urge you to twirl about and join the "gypsy" dancers.

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Unique: Dancing in the streets will make you feel like a local, and may even be reminescent of medieval times, but do not forgot to embrace quirky tourist photo opportunities.

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Vantage Point: Ultimately, your visit in Cesky Krumlov will conclude and you will have to leave this fairytale castle town, but you can always take the memories of this place with you.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Point of View

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I have never used a wheelchair. Today, at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, I was invited to move through an art exhibit via wheelchair.

Entering the exhibit, my classmates and I approached the group of wheelchairs suspiciously. Was this part of the exhibit? If so...then we cannot touch them, for you cannot touch things in museums. A museum attendant provided clarification with broken english and hand gestures and eager head nods, signifying that the wheelchairs were there for our own personal use.

Thus, most of us adopted a wheelchair, and began to awkwardly maneuver about the exhibit. Titled "Disabled by Normality," the exhibition "attempts to reveal and problematize the terms normality and disability in the manner in which our notions of them affect the lives of all of us – they either limit us, or on the contrary give us an advantage."

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I always wanted to experience a wheelchair. Use it as an excuse to skip lines at amusement parks, or just two weeks ago, to jump in front of the crowd for a closer view of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. But as I tried to maneuver forward and backwards, and turn about corners in the museum, I realized the difficulty of being physically confined to a chair. I had selfishly desired a wheelchair before thinking of perks that it could provide or maybe even the attention, but I was wrong.

The exhibit was beautiful. Photos and paintings and their descriptions were all lowered to the eyesight level of one who is sitting in a wheelchair. Also moving about the space, you could no longer entirely distinguish between those who actually needed a wheelchair for mobility and those who were merely "testing" one out. Honestly, I am still contemplating the exhibit and my own short experience sitting in the wheelchair. As the purpose states, I believe that there may be both an advantage as well as disadvantage to "disability." And I think the best exhibits keep you thinking long after you leave the museum.

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Nighttiming

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With the rising summer temperatures here in Prague, trips to the Praha Zoo, Old Town Square, and Wenceslas can become insufferably hot. The night time offers a wonderful respite from the heat waves, and no destination seems to be more popular than the Beer Garden located in Letna Park.

Just last night, several of us ventured to the rich green space of Letna Park, just a mere five minutes walk from our apartments, to join the Darling family for a round of drinks and a dramatic view of Prague's night lights. Arriving a little late, I found every table occupied with various groups of friends all gathered to share plastic cups of beer and conversation.

Within the beer garden, there were also several other sights and scents to behold. A young girl, with her playmates, created a pyramid of used beer cups beneath a white pavilion. Her parents looked on as she constructed the tower higher and higher, and when she learned that I spoke English, she promised an even greater pyramid, rivaling those of Giza.

At our own table, a small speckled puppy made constant runs between our legs and then back to his owner. Meanwhile, Miriam enjoyed a kebab...or was it a wrap...or was it...some fried pastry filled with chunks of pork, that smelled delicious. Several aisles away, for live entertainment, a group of Asian men began to yell and shove and argue and fight and push one another. We dubbed their conversations with our own English phrases, "I am going to call my people..."

The beer is cold and it is cheap, for less than 40 crowns. The company can be really grand. The atmosphere is top. One can watch the sun set over the Prague Castle just around 9 PM, and then witness street lamps and tram lights reflect off of the Vltava River. Really, the Letna Beer Garden offers a wonderfully free, and cool night time view of the city of Prague that cannot be missed.

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Happening at the Zoo

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Simon and Garfunkel's At the Zoo kept replaying in my mind as we ventured out the Praha Zoo this morning. Our group grabbed a quick bite at Bohemia Bagel before taking the 17 tram to the 112 bus to reach our final destination, hoping to explore the zoo before the midday Prague heat descended upon the city.

Someone told me it's all happening at the zoo.
I do believe it, I do believe it's true.


The lovely thing about arriving at the zoo fairly early was that the animals were similarly taking advantage of the cooler morning air and therefore more mobile about their captivities and enclosures. The penguins eagerly sprang in and out of the water, and then we slowed as we approached a group of visitors crouching on the ground.

The monkeys stand for honesty.
Giraffes are insincere.
The elephants are kindly but they're dumb.


A group of mothers and children were hovered about a small monkey sitting with his feet and hands wrapped around the bars of the gate. Visitors hesitantly reached out to pet the monkey, who merely responded with kind, curious eyes. Being a group of documentary photographers, this was golden. We stayed in this spot, with our new monkey friend for a good 15 minutes or so.

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Zebras are reactionaries,
Anthelopes are missionaries.
Pidgeons plot in secrecy
And hamsters turn on frequently.


As we progressed through the park, we eventually took a midday break with ice cream and cool water in order to combat the coming heat. After a short respite, we stared at elephants and giraffes for a good hour, which, for some in our group, appear to serve as "spirit animals." Then we trudged along as the sun rose higher in the sky. So much for weather apps that promised cooler temperatures. Similar to our own spirits declining, the animals began to retreat themselves--whether to stables or man made caves or physical states of solitude...like sleep.

It's all happening at the zoo, in the morning, when the temperatures are cool and the animals are still curious to greet new faces.

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Terezín

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Yesterday, our group visited the small town of Terezín, about forty five minutes just north of Prague. The town developed first as a citadel in the late 18th century when the Habsburg Monarchy erected two fortresses along the Ohře River--the Small Fortress and the Large Fortress. Neither fortress really underwent direct siege, and the only attack occurred during the Austro-Prussian War.

During WWI, the fortress was used as a political prison camp. Then during WWII, Germans occupying the Czech Republic decided to the make use of the area yet again. The Nazi Gestapo adapted Terezín to serve as a Jewish Ghetto and concentration camp. The Nazi controlled camp stood from November 24, 1941 and May 9, 1945, and over the course of three years, 140,000 Jews were transferred to Theresienstadt--of which nearly 90,000 were deported to further camps. Roughly 33,000 died in Theresienstadt itself.

Doris Groszdenovicova, a survivor of Terezín, showed tremendous courage to return with our group to the small town and lead us down the same streets that she walked while a nineteen year old woman living in the ghetto. It was quite incredible to learn about her first hand experience living in the ghetto throughout the Holocaust, and then living throughout the Communist Era. Especially since she spoke English quite well, there was no translation or real language barrier, and so her emotions and memories connected with Terezín were clearly felt.

Our tour of Terezín concluded with a trip to the fortress, where we ventured into the living quarters that housed political prisoners. Up to 100 prisoners would be housed in a long, rectangular room that had housed 30 bunk beds. Next door, in a room half the size and with little natural light and no beds, upwards of sixty Jews would be crammed together. Our tour guide (Doris did not want to enter the fortress), shared gruesome details that made the experience all too real like how restroom pails, 1 for 60 men, would only be emptied once a week.

The trip to Terezín, while informative and valuable, proved to be very somber. Forced propaganda, a tale of how the Nazis fooled the Red Cross, and the living conditions of both the ghetto and the prison remind one of the tragedies that occurred in this place. I think it also takes visiting these locations to fully grasp the events of the past, to allow them to fully affect you and numb you, thereby preserving the experience and knowledge in your memory.



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Friday, June 21, 2013

Epic

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From 1910 to 1928, Czech painter Alfons Mucha, much accredited with the rise of art nouveau, began a new artistic season with the project of the Slav Epic. Over the course of eighteen years, Mucha created twenty large canvases that depict the history of Czechs and other Slavic people. The paintings spurned a new period of nationalism within the Czech Republic, and across all the Slavic people.

The idea came to Mucha after he was asked to design the interior of the Pavilion of Bosnia-Herzegovina for the Paris Exhibition of 1900. In preparation for the project, Mucha traveled throughout the Balkans in order to observe the history and customs of Southern Slavs that had once been annexed by Austria-Hungary. Prior to starting, Mucha also visited the United States in order to secure a benefactor for his ambitious project. In winter 1909, he finalled secured sponsorship from Chicago philanthropist Charles Richard Crane.

Mucha's twenty canvases depict notable, historical events that define the Czech people, and Slavic people as a whole. "The first canvas in the series, The Slavs in Their Original Homeland, was finished in 1912 and the entire series was completed in 1926 with the final canvas, The Apotheosis of the Slavs, which celebrates the triumphant victory of all the Slavs whose homelands in 1918 finally became their very own."

The Epic was presented to the city of Prague in 1928, on the 10th Anniversary of Czech's independence. Up until the past year or so, the works were displayed in chateau in the town of Moravský Krumlov in the South Moravian Region of the Czech Republic. Today, the twenty large canvases can be seen on display in the National Gallery in Prague. It is quite remarkable to see both Mucha's works of the art nouveau style, and then the contrast with these massive Slavic epics--done in a similar style, but altogether deeper.

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Josefov

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Yesterday, we spent the entire morning visiting various synagogues and Jewish museums that stand in what was once the Prague Jewish ghetto, today known as Josefov. The tour consisted of visits to the Old New Synagogue, the Spanish Synagogue, and the old Jewish cemetery.

Our tour guide revealed the history of Jews living in Prague since the early 9th century, and how the Medieval crusades contributed to the construction of Jewish ghettoes across Europe. In 1781, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II emancipated Jews with the Toleration Edict, and in 1850, the Jewish ghetto changed its name to Josefstadt or Joseph's City to reflect the benevolence of the emperor.

From 1893 and 1913, much of the ghetto was demolished in order to remodel the city of Prague, but several synagogues, museums, and the Jewish cemetery were left standing. During World War II, the Nazis planned to demolish the lasting remnants of the old Jewish quarter, but instead allowed several Jews within Prague to maintain the Jewish museum and create a collection of objects belonging to Jews forced to leave or escape Nazi occupation of Bohemia/Czech Republic. Our guide shared several possible rumors about the Nazi reasoning for allowing the Jewish museum to carry on, one being that they would have a museum commemorating an extinct race should they win the war.

The tour was very enlightening and clarified several misconceptions about Judaism such as the difference between the menorah and the chanukiah. The exhibits themselves were also very informative, and it is no surprise then that nearly 5000 tourists visit the Josefov each day.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Cool Nights

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Heat waves have officially hit Europe, especially the Czech Republic. The temperatures here are rivaling both Houston and Austin temperatures, and droplets of sweat are forming across my forehead as I hurriedly type this blog post from my air conditioner-less apartment here in Prague. I assumed, being from Houston, a notoriously humid, sweltering city, and also my several years as a lifeguard, that I would be accustomed to such heat. But I think the past several weeks of grayness and floods and frigid temperatures have unprepared me for this heat.

That is why night time becomes the most welcome hours of the day here in Prague. The temperature drops, walking around Prague becomes pleasant yet again, and the expressions that play on the faces of passerby grow more relieved and rejuvenated. I suppose that is why there are also more inhabitants in Town Square in the evening, more tourists choosing to frequent cafes with outdoor seating as the sun sets, and even city workers choosing to make repairs later in the day.

Yesterday evening, we walked about the city for several hours following a tour of Prague's art nouveau, cubist and modern architecture. As we returned home to blog before hitting up a jazz club later in the evening, I witnessed the men above make repairs to several of the city's tram tracks. The flame torch/welding torch threw beautiful sparks into the air that mirrored the oranges and reds of the setting sun over Wenceslas square. Waiting for the 24 or 14 tram to take us all home, everyone at the stop stepped a bit closer to the tracks in order to watch this light play against the evening darkness. Yes, night has become favorable here in Prague. Though, a mere week ago, I was begging for this heat. Prague, you never cease to surprise us.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mona Lisa

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Can you really visit Paris without stopping by the Louvre, without seeing the large glass pyramid, and without snapping a photo of the Mona Lisa? Apparently not. On Sunday, we got lost in the Louvre museum for a good three hours, until our feet ached and complained, and until Madison, Caitlin and I were lost and all separated by several centuries of art (Egyptian to the Greek art). The museum itself was very large and consists of three great halls, filled with numerous pieces of art. To say that I was surprised by the exhibits and the great works of Gericault and Jacques-Louis David would be an understatement. The whole thing was truly overwhelming.

The greatest shock however was the attention directed toward Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, by both tourists and the Louvre itself. Stopping at the information desk, they drew a path to the Mona Lisa on my map. "But I want to see Raft of the Medusa and Gericault," I proclaimed. Then within the Greek sculpture exhibit, I saw taped signs directing me to the Da Vinci painting. No, no, no, not yet. I wanted to proceed chronologically. I did not want to skip several centuries of significant art for one painting.

When I inevitably arrived at the Louvre's crown jewel, there was a spectacle to behold. Cellular phones, iPads, small digital cameras, and professional SLRs were all waving about in the air. The paparazzi had staked out a permanent spot in front of the 77 cm x 53 cm painting. I watched old women push past young children, and one family occupied the front until every family member had a solo portrait with Mona Lisa. It was ridiculous. And yet...I inched my way to the front, I took a terrible photo of the painting with my 30 mm lens (complete with light glare, and from a great distance away), and I also took a photo in front of the piece, being the tourist that I am. Still, the spectacle was ridiculous.

Especially considering how relatively little knowledge people possess about Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Many complained about the small size of the painting, while one of my friends visiting Paris with me simply assumed that the significance of the painting concerned the subject's smile---"it was unusual that he painted her with a smile because painted portraits of that time did not depict smiles" or something along those lines. But the Mona Lisa is so much more.

I wish I had my art history book with me here as I try to recall, but Da Vinci employed various shapes, and colors, and techniques in order to create "the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world." It is about more than just a smile. Da Vinci employed a pyramidal organization for composition, played with light and shadow to create various layers in the painting, the subject sits before an imaginary landscape, Da Vinci painted from an aerial perspective, and Mona Lisa's eyes gaze at you from every angle.

Today, the painting is protected by bulletproof glass. 8 million visitors of the Louvre each year stop by this image. They are "cultured" by witnessing a fine piece of art. But unless you purchase an audio guide from the museum to accompany your visit, or you happen to be an art historian, or carry with you a book or brochure, you do not really understand or grasp what it is that you are looking at. The Mona Lisa is so much more than a smile.

Locks of Love

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Cliché blog post title aside...about 42 million tourists flock to the city of Paris, the city of love, each year for a variety of reasons: for the extraordinary architecture as described in my last post, for the wonderfully rich French food, for boutiques that line boulevards and contribute to the city's fashionable reputation, and for the general romantic atmosphere of the city--from an evening in front of the Eiffel Tower to placing a padlock on a bridge and throwing the key into the Seine.

The love lock phenomena itself is worth noting. The trend began to garner attention and adoption in the early 2000s within Europe and throughout much of Asia. Today, love lock bridges appear throughout Asia (China, Japan, South Korea), in Russia, throughout Europe (France, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, UK), in Canada and Australia and Uruguay, and throughout the United States (Napa, San Diego, throughout Utah, and in Hawaii).

I feel as though the Paris love lock bridge has become the most well known. As you approach the bridge, the gold locks make the crossway glimmer in the sunlight. The bridge itself seems to be made of gold. Then as you cross the Seine, you can watch couples work together to pick a special place to attach their lock, they crouch together and work together to fasten the decorated padlock to the bridge, and then they take a photo, they preserve the moment.

I hope to one day to return to the lock bridge with my own lock, though that may sound incredibly cheesy. In the meantime however, I enjoyed watching the couples who had traveled from Germany, from the US, from Latin America in order to partake in this permanent gesture of love (which is probably safer than a tattoo). The particular couple photographed above I believe capture quite a bit of the essence of the the love lock bridge and Paris' reputation as a city of love. For these two men, maybe their love is not legally recognized in their hometown, maybe they cannot exchange rings in a church. But, their love is real nonetheless and they hope to symbolize that with a padlock.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Sculpted

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After traveling to Prague and then Vienna and now Paris, I have concluded that no city in the world compares with Paris in terms of architectural beauty. Prague, I applaud you for your castle and Charles Bridge. Vienna, your transportation system is supreme, the Albertina is my favorite museum, and I love the summer palaces and "beaches" along the Danube canal. But Paris!

From the Gothic feat of Notre Dame, complete with flying buttresses and several rose windows, to the stained glass of the Saint Chapelle, along with the Luxembourg Palace and gardens, and the Louvre museum; Paris exceeded my expectations. I once visited New York City and found it to be dirty and grey, and I assumed the same of Paris and all large, popular cities. Clearly, I was mistaken.

Our trip of Paris consisted mostly of walking about and just staring around in awe. At Notre Dame, I wished to spend hours studying the western facade---the horizontal frieze depicting kings, and then each portal beneath with figures lining the arches and holding sculptures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Then we ventured to Saint Chapelle, a favorite Gothic cathedral of mine since high school. Here, I cried as I looked up at the stained glass that lined the room.

Later, we visited the French Pantheon, which is inspired by both the Greek Parthenon and Roman Pantheon. Then I read some Les Miserables at the Luxembourg Palace and Gardens, then a exterior visit of the Musee de Louvre, and finally we ended the first night with a spectacular, albeit touristy, light show at the Eiffel Tower.

Sunday, we trekked up 674 steps to the second platform of the Eiffel Tower. Truly, more grand that I ever imagined, this structure is an incredible architectural feat of the late 19th century. Then we spent an afternoon at the Louvre. The museum itself, constructed sometime in the 12th century, was converted from a palace to it's present purpose. Within, great artworks by Gericault, Vermeer, Delacroix, and Michelangelo stand in large, ornate Baroque rooms. Ultimately, I was lost in the sights and architecture of Paris for the whole weekend and I must conclude that it was all a dream.

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Artist sketching the Winged Victory of Samothrace

Welcome to Paris

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Nothing says welcome to a new place quite like standing out. Similar to entering the wrong classroom during the middle of a lecture, or showing up late to a dinner party, entrances can occur seamlessly, or transpire horribly. For the most part, our arrival in Paris around 8 AM on Saturday was uneventful. We managed to apprehend the transportation system, purchase rail tickets, and set off for the Notre Dame in relatively little time. Then we hit the ground running (not literally), and immediately began our Parisian trip with a tour of the grand Notre Dame cathedral. We explored the stained glass and flying buttresses before we finally worked up an appetite. My two companions and I all agreed upon breakfast....crepes.

As it happened, we walked along searching for a cafe, when I saw a scene I wanted to photograph. Two members of the Paris police force were communicating with a man sitting on the curb. It seemed he was doing nothing wrong, merely sitting upon a purple suitcase with two small dogs for company. As I knelt down to take a photo, the man glared at me. Then he pointed at me. Then the police man and police woman glanced my direction. They beckoned me over. Everyone began to speak at me in French. Total language barrier. But from their tones, no one was too pleased. The man seemed to demand reparations for my photo, while the woman cop declared, "You have to ask for permission to take photos."

I stood dumbfounded. I barely knew how to move. My jaw probably just hung open. Do I pay the man for his photo? Do I delete the photo? Do I attempt to explain myself? The French man continued to point at me and tick off French sentences. Finally, the police man urged me to leave that place.

Prague had become comfortable, taking photos of strangers had become natural. Paris though, seemed as though it would be different. I was caught. All of my confidence in photography kind of disappeared for a moment. I ended up compensating for my fear by taking over 1700 photos over the weekend in Paris. 700 of which were crap, and overall, none of them really communicate anything. The trip served more as a tourist trip that anything. Thus, on that rather optimistic note, good morning and welcome to Paris.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Foreign Thrills

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Tourists. I am one, you are one, and there are quite a few of them here in Prague, in Cesky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic, in Paris where I sit writing this, and in all of Europe. We have chosen to flock to this place because it is new and offers thrills different from our hometowns--whether museums to visit, architecture to photograph, food to try, or women and men to admire. We battle language barriers, and crazy Euro prices, and airport security, and long lines for the Eiffel Tower all for a new experience. We want something different, we want the promises of the postcards, we want to take stories back home to our friends and family, and really we want something greater than the souvenir, we want the memories.

The photos are from Cesky Krumlov, where the old man fondles a seat chair. I think he was German, not that it matters, but I think he desires something that he hasn't had in awhile. As he posed for this photo, several of his tourist comrades stood around him laughing. He is the brave one, the jokester, the comical vagrant. I think as tourists, we also realize that we can sometimes get what we want, and what may usually be unattainable for us. As a photographer in a foreign place, I definitely am more adventurous with my shots. I will put a camera right up in someone's face because if they yell....well I don't understand. For the young-en's in our program, they have access to beer and wine and alcohol. We get what we want in a foreign country.

For the packs of Asian tourists that trek across Europe, their personal foreign thrill lies in technology and the photograph. They are rather comical, the peace sign pose is a real thing, and they mov in unique ways. Possessing the latest digital cameras or expensive SLR lenses, they hold the devices outstretched from their bodies. Their subjects pose solemnly or throwing up the peace sign or lean against a statue, attempting to be model like. I like them. The elders allow their faces to fully display expressions of awe. The younger ones seem to pose for fashion blogs.

Ultimately, you have to love and embrace the tourist. It's in every one of us. Often, I forget to remind myself that I am a photographer first and then the tourist. Nonetheless, the role of the tourist allows us to get away with breaking the rules, going after the things or the photographs or the thrills that we so desire, and allows us to fully witness these new places.

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Reader

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As stated for about the fifth blog post now, Cesky Krumlov is a town taken straight from a fairytale. After touring the castle on Thursday and then lunch at the Eggenberg brewery, several of us ventured to the Shakespeare bookstore. I felt just as Belle from Beauty and the Beast as I perused the bookshelves of this local Czech bookshop.

Then, my eyes passed over the section of Peguin Popular Classics...specifically Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. Though the shop only carried an abridged version, I felt like I needed to fully commit to my Beauty and the Beast vision. I purchased the book and then began to wander around Cesky Krumlov. The characters of Monsieur le Maire and Fantine and Eponine seemed right at home here in the Czech Republic as in the city of Paris.

Thus, a cheap weekend activities for you misers out there--just pick up a book. Become a reader. There truly is a mysterious appeal to sitting in a strange place, a coffeeshop or creperie or brewery or cafe set on the river, and then dive into a novel. Especially a classic. To invite the characters, who you meet for the first time, to experience this new place with you.

Les Mis has also been an excellent precursor to my weekend trip here in Paris. I am taking a break from the Hugo's pages just to finish this blog post. We will return to Prague this evening, and I am constantly impressed with these beautiful places and the opportunity to visit them all. Also the ability to slow down and be a photographer, a historian, a reader, and a traveler all at once.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Medieval Meal

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I have self-diagnosed myself as having a food phobia. Symptoms include throat tightening, increased anxiety, upset stomach, loss of appetite, and most likely tears. These symptoms are usually caused by exotic foods, unusual textures, unappreciated fats or grease or slime or juice or chewiness or BONES, or pressure from outside forces.

Sounds ridiculous right? Two summers ago, several girls that I mentor at an Austin area high school persuaded me to try a cherry tomato. Seemingly harmless to most, the cruel fruit with its grape-like texture, but sour tastes, and seeds hidden inside, instantly made my throat close so I could hardly swallow, and tears sprang to my eyes, and I loss my appetite until dessert finally came.

Given this account, it makes sense that traveling would be difficult and that I would very much dislike trying new foods. However, I have grown adventurous over the past few months, especially here in the Czech Republic. Supposedly your taste buds change every 7 years, so maybe this fear is a thing of the past.

On Wednesday, our first night in Cesky Krumlov, CET and Dennis arranged for our group to experience a medieval dining experience on the river. The portions were served family style and after a bowl of delicious soup (soup is a new favorite of mine), each table received a platter that featured chicken, a cut of pork, potato dumplings, boiled potatoes, a latke, and hash of some sorts. This medieval Czech cuisine was unknown, and I was definitely uncertain. But I cleared my plate, and my table cleared the platter. The rich and flavorful meal has easily taken its place amongst top meals I have had in my short lifetime of picky eating.

So word to the already wise, do not rule out Czech cuisine. Especially do not rule out medieval Czech cuisine. Especially in a medieval town. Thank you Cesky Krumlov for greater food appreciation, for cultural preservation and for bowls and bowls of soup.

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Cesky Krumlov

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Sometimes, when you are at the right place, at the right time, cliché though it may sound, you get the perfect shot. The beams of light and the contrast of the dark clouds against the peaking sunshine are not photoshopped. This is where I was two days ago. In a truly fairytale town. A medieval town with the second largest castle of the Czech Republic, with preserved buildings of the Renaissance style, with a moat filled with large, "menacing" brown bears, with a toy shop on every corner filled with wooden trinkets and cars, and with cobblestoned streets lining an overflowing river.

The town of Cesky Krumlov is among the most popular tourist destinations within the Czech Republic, but fortunately, the recent floods across Europe have dissuaded many tourists from venturing out of Prague or north from Vienna. This left the town's small streets devoid of obnoxious tourists and allowed for scenic overlooks to remain virtually unoccupied. The town became a little medieval playground for our group of photographers. One could walk for ten minutes or an hour and always end up back in the same place. I think we all fell in love.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Barley, Water & Hops

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Beer is huge here.

Beer is cheaper than water, than wine, than tea. Beer is present at every meal, and appears in large glass mugs, with a thick two inches of foam floating at the top.

On Wednesday, our group of Documentary Photographers departed from Prague for a getaway in the fairytale town of Cesky Krumlov. To break up the three hour drive however, we made a detour and pitstop in the town of Plzeň, home of Pilsner Urquell brewery.

We received a tour of the brewery and learned the history of Pilsner beer, the most prominent beer brand in the Czech Republic and much of Europe. The town of Plzen first began brewing beer in 1295, and by 1839, city officials created a city-owned brewery which would brew beer in the Bavarian style--bottom-fermenting yeasts in caves which improved the beer's clarity and shelf-life.

We explored the brewery--from the interactive levels and moving theatre & movie, to the chilly caves beneath the main building where the beer barrels are stored. Our student group was even treated to a beer tasting of un-pasteurized beer.

Despite all of this, I am still a child. Despite the interesting exhibits and the process to make Pilsner beer, I am not a fan. The taste of bitter still settles uneasily on my tongue, tastes bitter, and evokes a disgusted facial expression. Europe, you did your best, but I am still not a fan of your national drink. I highly advocate a trip to a brewery for each and every legal reader out there. In the meantime, I'll stick to water and white wine.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

All A Game

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We have entered our fourth week here in Prague and I think that almost everyone is starting to settle into some semblance of a routine--a favorite breakfast stop, figuring out the tram lines and metro stops, and frequent trips to the nearby Italian restaurants, Tesco, and the Beer Garten. We are turning into locals, tossing around Czech words more casually, and no longer phased by the stranger mannerisms that first caught us off guard here.

With the third week though, sights around us are becoming ordinary. Each day, I am taking less and less photos. Tourists have all begun to look the same. I feel as though my photo quality has even decreased. I just remind myself of what my pal Kelsey told me in regards to writing and other manners of artistic expression, when you start to criticize your work and find flaw in it, you are improving. Well I hope my photos are improving. Things are just becoming monotonous....four thousand photos in.

So several of us have created a few games that we play. Yesterday, on an architecture tour about town, we learned or became reacquainted with various styles from the medieval to modern period. The order goes: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and finally Rococo. As a history major and art history minor (brag brag brag), I was feeling good before the walking tour. Boy was I rusty. Too many indigenous art classes (Aztec and ancient Peruvian). I had completely forgotten about Renaissance art. But, after a quick refresher lesson, we began to play the guessing game as our tour guide, Professor Martin Krummholz, led us to prominent buildings around Prague. "That one is Renaissance because of the decorative details/graffiti" and "that one is Baroque because of the curvature of the windows..."

Today, we had another walking tour about Prague and learned of alchemy symbols, and then toured an alchemy museum. As we walked across Charles Bridge for the tenth time in order to reach the next tour stop, a classmate and I developed a new game..."shove your camera into the tourists' faces." We hoped to evoke yelling and curse words, lots of foreign profanity. Sadly, none. But interesting shots nonetheless.

So we've started to play games and get comfortable here. Over here, things are becoming familiar, and I feel as if though Prague has embraced us. We are being goofy now that the sun is out, and we are exploring the town on our own. We are calling Prague our home.

scarydennis

Monday, June 10, 2013

Escape to Vienna

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Why not swing by Vienna for the weekend? A mere four to five hours by bus or train, and that'll only cost you about 700 crowns or forty American dollars. If you take Student Agency buses, expect old episodes of Friends or relatively new Blockbuster releases like Harry Potter or Dark Knight Rises. Also, a bus attendant will provide you with yellow 90's headphones and a steaming beverage. But the best part--the view of the Czech countryside passing by just outside your window. Sit comfortably in your large, reclining black leather seat and watch as you cross an untainted section of Europe.

When you arrive in Vienna or Wien as the Austrians call it, you will get dropped off in Praterstern just beside Prater Park and an old amusement park. The Vienna transportation system is more straight forward than that in Prague, and once you arrive in the city, you can immediately jump over to popular Viennese tourist destinations like St. Stephen's Cathedral, the grand Opera House, the Albertina art museum, and famous summer palaces and gardens like Belvedere and Schönbrunn Palace.

For my 36 hours in Vienna, I trekked southward from Praternstern to West Banhof, from Volks Theater to Karlsplatz and then up to Schwedensplatz and biked along the Danube Canal. The beauty of Prague lies in the extraordinary Baroque buildings that line all the streets, but there are several key distinctions beween the city and Prague like Vienna's abundance of art museums, larger tourist population, increased modernity, and the use of the Euro.

I despise the Euro. I am very spoiled by the cheap eats and wines of Prague. But in Vienna, you can still get by without spending much by utilizing your student ID, visiting the multiple parks, and eatings lots of gelato.

So head to Vienna for a cultural experience and do not fall prey to the "Mozarts" lining the sidewalks attempting to sell you Opera or symphony tickets. Instead, visit Schönbrunn Palace (pictured above), promenade throughout the parks and past the Gloriette, and pretend you are royalty. Or spend 8 Euros at the Albertina and get lost in the works of Rembrandt, Reuben, Van Eyck, several Monet and Picasso works, and finally a large, provoking exhibit of the works of Helnwein.

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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Hues & Bones

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On Friday, our class ventured outside of the Prague city limits to the small town of Kutna Hora. Our full day adventure included a self-paced tour of several Gothic churches, a trip to a bone church, lunch at a delightful cafe that overlooked both a grand cathedral and the idyllic town, and finally, a trip deep into a silver mine--complete with dripping water, stalagmites, and cramped, close spaces. The silver mine was definitely not for the claustrophobic.

We visited two churches, one of the early Gothic period and one built during the late Gothic period. The first was built by a group of nuns and one can venture up into the upper levels of the churches skeleton and see remnants of Romanesque architecture--the wall are still thick in order to carry the weight of the ceiling, and stained glass windows are not heavily incorporated here.

In contrast, the second, grander Gothic cathedral has visible flying buttresses, an innovation during this period that allows for higher ceilings, thinner walls, and lighter elements in general in order to give the building a more ethereal atmosphere--light and closer to the heavens.

In contrast to both cathedrals however, the large surprise of the trip was visiting a bone church. Around 1400, a small Gothic church was built in the center of a cemetery in Kutna Hora, and included an ossuary to be used as mass graves were unearthed during the construction of the structure. In 1511, a half-blind monk was given orders to organize the bones of collected bodies. Then in 1870, woodcraver František Rint was to organize the bones of nearly 40,000 to 70,000 bodies, which led to the construction of the bone scuptures.

The macabre sight is rather morbid, but the Schwarzenberg family landowners, wanted to create a reminder of the impermanence of human life and inescapable death. I am still struck by the oddity of this church in comparison with classic Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, also with humankind's fascination with death. I saw more people visiting the Sedlec Ossuary (Bone Church) in Kutna Hora on Friday, and desiring to have their photos taken in front of stacks of bones, rather than marvel as the architectural innovations of a large Gothic Cathedral. Go figure.

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