Four months ago, I began writing to you, a voice full of energy, excitement and, as much as I didn't want to admit it, anxiety for what was to come. I tried to keep an open mind, leaving my entire self open to any adventures and misadventures that might await me in that great European abyss.
What a difference a semester makes, huh?
Who am I today? I learned more about myself in the past four months than I did in the previous twenty one years. I traveled to seven different countries, learned a completely new and, let's face it, unpractical language (ale to mám rad, a ty?), and raised my alcohol tolerance about sevenfold (finally!). I learned patience, because when someone doesn't speak English very well, it takes a while for them to tell fantastic jokes ("you may, when you can"). I discovered what Hannibal Lecter always talked about as the maze of the mind, and I spent a lot of time exploring mine and becoming comfortable doing that. I passed all my classes, even when the mornings were tough sometimes (...a lot of times...). In other words, I finally started to understand what my dad always told me: life is too short to take too seriously.
And another thing - I learned what friendship is all about (again). These past months, without someone in my life like Dan, I honestly don't know what I would have done (which is probably why I panicked so much when I thought I had killed him). Our last Tuesday night together, Dan yelled over the din of Nebe 80s night to ask me for some cash to buy a drink. Without hesitating, I immediately pulled out my wallet and gave it to him, and when I looked up, he was looking at me with loving eyes and said "you know Evan, you're such a good friend." I said, "we're not doing this right now" and went back to the girls I had been talking to. So, thanks Dan. You're the best friend a guy could ever have, and you have been for as long as I've known you. My life is better with you in it.
My plane ride home was long (and eventful - my day began with finding out my flight from Prague to London had been canceled), but the hours sitting next to my new Welsh friend Pete served as a fantastic transition back into life at home. I don't feel sad leaving Prague. I've been looking forward to this summer and this last year of college for ages, and I'm still excited to make it happen. What's more, in a way, I never left. And Prague never left me, and never will (and I'm not just talking about the jet lag).
Now, I'm flying high over a landscape I haven't seen in a while: the infinite, beautifully desolate desert of the American West. You know, I live in a vast, great country, and I'm proud to say I do. I love being able to talk about my country, my language, my culture to people who've never seen or experienced it. But if there's one thing traveling teaches you it's that right now, all over the world, things are happening. In a Croatian communist housing project, my friend Tonči is waking up, turning on his Queen music videos for the thousandth time, and wondering how to tell his girlfriend he quit his job. Tomaš is sitting in his armchair, marking the timecodes where there's narration in the latest documentary he's producing, while Zuzana whips up another babovka and Jonaš edits his website. My Austrian friend Andrea is finishing her internship in Prague and getting ready to move back to Austria. And someone, somewhere, is almost definitely putting his or her pants on, one leg at a time. Think about that - really think about it!
The whole time, this blog was a safe haven for me, a place where I could always go at the end of the day and know I could say something and people would listen (all four of you). In times of need, times when I really needed to just gush about something to people who knew me (or just knew how to speak English), it kept me sane. And if you've been reading this whole time (or if you spent five hours over the past two days reading every post, like Mike Kane), you've probably learned more about me than you ever wanted to know. So, I owe you a big thanks for participating in this massive interactive media project of mine, and I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, tell me with a comment or an email. If you didn't, you might like this better.
The song is over, the moment is passed and forgotten about, and I am the better for it. Now I have to figure out how to reassemble my bed in LA. Na shledanou, my friends.
Wednesday, May 23
Saturday, May 19
There are just no words to sum up my trip to Croatia, so I won't try (there are, however, over 250 pictures that might do the trick at least partly). I was alone for so long, I met so many people, I saw my second bar brawl in the past week, and I had countless adventures involving random Croatians, Queen music videos, and bottles of whiskey. And I kept track of it all in my little brown book.
I'm not really sure how to go about this...do you want to hear details of every day? Send me your feedback, friends.
Generally though, I can say a few things. Firstly, reading On the Road was a good, but dangerous choice. It gave me inspiration to break some boundaries and just talk to people, which is good, but it also made me crave those epic adventures worthy of writing in an entire novel, which can be illegal if the atmosphere is right. Everyone I met became a character in my modern version of that book. And that's what it could have been, too. I wish I had had the time to be able to just kind of float around - there were two instances when people offered for me to just go along with them on their travels, and I would have loved to have done it, but knew I couldn't. Instead, I just made the most of what I had.
A lot of fantastic things happened. I felt freedom, real freedom, for the first time. I learned why backpackers and travelers become smarter, better people. I suddenly realized I understood my sister, a world traveler for years, a lot better. I chased the experiences that might make me feel worthy of getting older.
Now I'm just trying to grapple with the headache I'm getting thinking about this being my last night in this little nook of a library, writing to all of you on this blog. My trip back from the airport took me past the best sights in the city, and all that nostalgia I was hinting at last week became less of a hint and more of a smack in the face from a guy with a ring on. I am overwhelmed with the amount of familiarity I have with a place I had never dreamed of seeing only a year or so ago.
Tonight, I've also had to systematically say goodbye to everyone in the Jančařík family, which has brought tears to my eyes (and will likely bring many more once I get home tomorrow). It was hugs for Vaclav (after we set off the fireworks he bought to honor the occasion) and for Jonas (who skipped a day of a class field trip to be here and see me again. Then a final "dobrou noc" to Zuzana, who reminded me to take some cake if I got hungry. And then another handshake from Tomas. Hugging is an American thing I think. But everyone deserved them.
I have never, ever, met any people so giving, so friendly, so welcoming, so selfless, and so wonderful as the four members of this family. For the past four months, I've done nothing but eat their food, use their electricity and water, and not clean my room well enough. In return, I've been given fantastic conversation, wonderful trips all around this beautiful country, and my own true family across the ocean from the one I grew up with. I owe most everything I've done, learned, and experienced to them.
For a while now, I've been planning some final posts that might serve as a good way to sum up the whole trip, but I think I'll do those from Northbrook tomorrow night, when I'm sure I'll be in a terribly Czech-sick mood and will want to write about such things and drink copious Czech beer.
Saturday, May 12
What better way to end our time here than to go to 80s and 90s night at Lucerna? There was a different feeling in the air this time. In a way, it's the first night we've hung out together by choice and not because we're studying here together. After our graduation, all of us are just some people who know each other in Prague.
I was getting cabin fever staying at the house so long, so I decided to head towards our first bar a bit early and just wander around the city at night a bit. I walked back up to Vyšehrad for the last time and looked out over the city, lit up in all different shades of orange and yellow. I really can't get enough of it.
About thirty of us packed into this neighborhood bar near the dorms, claustrophobically clutching drinks and attempting to have conversations with our friends while standing less than six inches from their faces. With the night trams already functioning, we knew we had to get to our final destination soon enough.
We made a fantastic choice. Lucerna was as sketchy as it's ever been, and we did nothing but bask in it. Which do you like better: the fat guy on the stage drenched in sweat lip-syncing to every song while rubbing himself suggestively, or the old guy with white hair trying to dance with all the girls in our program? I like the fat guy myself. Oh, and don't worry, the tears that I said didn't happen earlier in the day? Yeah, they started, in full force. You just can't stop girls from turning on the waterworks.
The place closes down at 3:30, and as the music turned off and the lights came on, someone had a brilliant idea: let's sing the national anthem! Picture this: a hundred Americans singing the Star-Spangled Banner as people from what seemed like nearly every other country on Earth yelled obscenities at them and gave them the finger. It rained beer, we were all drenched in it.
I'm not really sure when the brawl started.
Behind me, one particularly vocal guy started tussling physically with a girl. And just as I heard "and the hoooooome ooooooff theeeeee braaaaaaavvvveee!" I see the blur of Dave Turner's body leap off the stage and deck some guy. By the time he had made contact, the pile had already formed, punches were being thrown, and in general, America was defending her pride. (Don't worry mom, I kept my distance. America doesn't need me to defend her.)
In typical fashion, the US prevailed. Outside, cooling off in the night air, our sole casualty, a huge guy from Madison named Jason who had a bloody lip ("you should've seen the other guy"), broke out the victory cigars. We loitered there for a few minutes, in the middle of Wenceslas Square, when somebody noticed it was getting light out toward the East. There was only one place we all wanted to be.
The walk began. North, through Wenceslas Sqaure, past the street where we found club Meloun, and into Old Town square, where the dawn gave an incredible backdrop to the Tyn church. There, we hung a left and trekked West, down the coronation path where new kings walked centuries ago, until we finally reached the Charles Bridge.
I couldn't help but say it. For seven hundred years, people have been standing on that bridge and watching sunrises. And you can see why (well, no you can't since I didn't have my damn camera).
Woke up this afternoon and joined some folks at Radost F/X for brunch, then followed them back to Wenceslas for some shopping. I didn't need anything, I just needed to be out in this city again. When my exhaustion overtook me, I retired back to the house and finished preparations for my trip.
Tomorrow morning I'm gone for my last five days of RnR. But it's not over yet, so I won't even pretend this is the last post. If I find internet anywhere, I can assure you you'll hear from me next week. If not, I'll be writing in the journal Sally gave me four months ago, and I'll post some thoughts in retrospect. I'll miss you all.
Friday, May 11
That sinking feeling in your stomach when suddenly you realize the general feeling you have about the things that happen around you is about to change. I don't know if this happens to anyone else, but for some reason, no matter how hard I try not to feel it, this always happens to me. And I don't think it's the change that bothers me so much, but rather the lack of routine that comes in the transition periods (I am a massive creature of habit). So when I woke up from my nap with my heart pounding (as I've been doing the past few days for some reason) and thought about the fact that I don't have to go to class any more...it just hit me. I'm gone.
It was that feeling combined with this sudden longing for people around me to keep me sane, not thinking about ridiculous things like that. Dan leaves today for Budapest, so I feel like I've sort of finally lost that safety net I've taken advantage of this entire semester. Which is why it was nice to leave my room and start talking to Zuzana and Tomaš again. In an unfortunate twist of fate, Jonaš left this afternoon for a trip with his school, and might not be back here next week when I spend my last night in Prague. So I may never see him again.
But let's face it, I probably will. More on that in a bit.
Today goes down in history as one of the more interesting days of my life. I slept very little last night (it was as big a night as expected), but managed to get up, shower, and dress well (if I may say so) for our graduation ceremony. The debate was relatively interesting, and I got to give a speech at the end announcing the winner, which was pretty well-received. Of course the amazing part of this was looking out at all my new friends and realizing that all of them were having ridiculously foggy mornings themselves...
We progressed to another hall for the distribution of diplomas (a painful process. They called everyone's names. It took an hour. We were starving). Then it was time for the highlight of the day, a lunch cruise down the Vltava for two hours. It really was a perfect way to end this whole thing, forcing all of us to just be in one place for two hours, and to make it a place that lends itself to reflection and all that mushy stuff.
No one cried. We were all smiles. The boat took us under the Charles bridge, past the castle, through a lock, past Vyšehrad, and back again, and the whole time we all just munched on free food, talked, and took pictures. The one up there might prove to be one of my favorites of all time - Jon managed to wrangle up our entire Czech class (minus a few) and get us to pose with Dana and Bara, our teacher from the intensive course. We all just look so happy.
Afterwards, against my better judgment because I was exhausted, I went with a small group up to Letna Park, a place I haven't visited yet, to find a beer garden. It was a nice walk, and we whiled away an hour, just chatting in the soft breeze with the entire city we've all come to call home gazing back at us from over the river. It's so fun to get onto a hill here, because the entire city center is so flat that you can see it like it's a map. There's Florenc, where I missed the bus. And Old Town square. Beyond that, Charles Square, where Dan lives. Of course you can't miss the TV Tower, and its companion, the Žižka monument. And off in the distance, the center of it all for us, the two towers of Vyšehrad looking back with, believe it or not, seemingly proud eyes.
When I came here, I never thought it would be this way. I didn't expect this kind of a connection to this place. But this old crone has claws.
Tomorrow I'm packing up everything and enjoying the city one last time. Stephanie's still here, so I'll be hanging out with her too probably. For the first time I'm starting to see how much I'll miss this place.
At every fast-food stand in the city of Prague, you can almost definitely get three things: a big sausage, smaženy syr (fried cheese), and bramborák (Czech potato pancakes). What's great about cooking these at home is that it's a ridiculously easy recipe (all the ingredients are to taste) that's good for parties, because A) it goes great with any alcohol, especially Czech beer, and B) everyone can help tweak the recipe to make it suit their tastes. Here's the basic way we've made it this semester.
2kg potatoes (grated)
1 head garlic, pressed
1 Tbsp Salt
Pepper to taste
A bunch of marjoram
1 cup middle grade flour
Sunflower oil (enough to cover the pancakes you’re making)
OPTIONAL: breadcrumbs, or anything else you want
Put everything in a bowl and mix it up. If resulting mixture is too watery, add more flour (potatoes start to sweat when you add salt).
Take big scoops of the mixture and put it in the oil, spreading it out into a pancake. Let it fry until the sides turn brown, then flip. Remember: your first piece is a test, so try it and adjust the ingredients. Serve it hot, and eat it with your hands.
Thursday, May 10
In the phases of coping with loss, everyone in my program is entrenched in the first: denial. Stories of the previous night's exploits have turned into simple accounts of the number of times people have had to say "we're not talking about that right now." Any reflection between people is done in a jovial spirit, laughing about how tough a day tomorrow should be for some people.
I'm not one to normally cry at these things, and if there's one thing you know from reading this blog, it's that I never really developed those true inseparable friendships we all love so much (with a few exceptions of course, but I'll see those select few again soon enough). Tomorrow's graduation ceremony, which includes a debate that I was chosen to judge, should be fun.
Alas, I'm getting ahead of myself. Today was my last day of classes, and I of course went to the final meeting of my Contemporary Culture class because it's great and I love the professor. After class, she and I were talking about the subject of my paper and she (a Fulbright scholar) encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright to study here in Prague. It sounded strangely enticing. Get paid to come back here and go to school?
Afterwards, Steph and I had what could be the last of our infamous lunches together. I'll miss the conversations. For dessert, we shared sweet knedliky (they wrap the dough around fruit). Mmmmm.
Tonight should be fun; it's our last night at one of our favorite clubs, Radost FX, and everyone from my program and Dan's will be there. With no class for anyone to think about tomorrow, I can only assume it will be a night to remember.
Our recipe today comes from the cabinets of apparently every Czech college student. Before, I think I talked about how a lot of Czech cuisine is food from other countries, just "Czech-ified," and here's your perfect example. I wanted to know how to make this because unlike the pasta I make (using sauce from a jar), this stuff tastes great reheated (we made enough for an army last night, or as Tomaš said, enough for his lunch for the next five days).
For about 700g of pasta:
1 big yellow Onion (diced)
Sunflower oil (or olive oil)
5 cloves garlic (diced, but chunky)
280g tomato paste
Lots and lots of eidam cheese (or parm) (grated)
OPTIONAL: rosemary, oregano, basil, or any other spices you want
Dice up the onions and garlic and sauté them in the oil until the onion is transparent (or “pink” as they say here). Add about 5 knife-fuls of sweet paprika, a pinch of sharp paprika, and a little pepper. Sauté it a bit longer, but not too hot (so you don’t burn the paprika). Add the tomato paste and an equal serving of water and leave the whole thing to boil, covered, stirring every so often.
Pour it over hot pasta, and serve it with a lot of cheese on top.
Wednesday, May 9
That's what I am now. Scary, huh? Seems like only yesterday I was just moving into school and thinking about studying abroad somewhere, who knows where. Well here I am.
Yesterday was a day for studying. Went to class in the morning and presented my paper, then had lunch and came home and had lunch again (mmm lunch) and sat down with Zuzana to gather up those recipes.
I spent the rest of the day studying for the Art and Architecture test today, which I really didn't need to do, but oh well. I also downloaded the pilot for Heroes which, as expected, is a good show but is certainly no Lost.
Last night Dan and I had an experience that I think does justice to the kind of attitude I've developed here. He was playing in another poker tourney (he didn't win, I didn't play), and on our way back from the casino we couldn't help but hear a group of girls speking English to each other, trying to navigate their way through Prague. With a smile, we turned and nearly in unison said "where are you trying to go?" "You speak English!!"
After we got over that initial shock, it turned out it didn't matter where they were going because they decided to go with us. And that's how Dan and I found ourselves in the hotel room of a girl we had just met waiting as she grabbed her coat so we and the rest of them could head over to a bar down the street. As it turns out, this was a great group of girls of all ages (all in college, don't worry), and we had a great time dancing the night away with them.
Didn't do much today except take those two tests. When I was finished I sent an SMS to my mom saying "yay! I'm done!" and immediately wasn't sure if I meant it. I just can't get over how interesting this feeling is. I was talking to my dad just a few minutes ago (it's his birthday!) and explained what's going on: I'm so excited to get back to the US (and I am) because I have an amazing year ahead of me. And here, in Prague, I've developed a lifestyle that's so different from any I've had before, one where I ::GASP:: don't have to be doing something every second of every day (I've become a master at just disappearing into my own mind in a crowd of people speaking Czech). In a way, I'm leading two lives right now.
And on top of that there's the whole "it's possibly my last year of schooling" issue. You know, there are so many things in our lives that we're so excited to end, so many points in the future that we're so excited to get to, and when we get there we truly are elated. It makes you (or maybe just me) think differently about endings, about changes, and about the context where we create and live our identities.
I haven't mentioned yet, I'm almost finished with Brave New World Revisited and I started to think about what I should read in my last week in Europe, while I hike around Croatia (I booked all my hostels and hotels the other night, by the way). I was going to open it up to all of you to suggest it to me, but then I realized there was really only one book that was appropriate for the time.
So next week I'll be alone for five days reading On the Road. My mind will be clear, my eyes will be filled with beautiful sites, and my skin will be warm in the sun.
But first I've got two more days in the best city in Europe.
started writing @ 6:09 PM
What on earth would svíčková be without knedliky? These are just about as typical Czech cuisine as you can get, often considered the defining aspect of all the food here. They come in lots of varieties (salty: bread and potato, sweet: any fruit in the middle and a lot of sugar), so you never really get bored. With the svíčková I posted before, you use these delicious bundles of joy to sop up the extra sauce once you've finished the meat. Dobrou chuť!
1/3 L rough flour (look for Vondra flour in the US)
1 egg yolk
pinch of salt
200mL warm or hot water
1 old rohlik (really white bread)
Put flour in a big bowl, creating a reservoir in the center. Sprinkle yeast on the edges of the hole. Add egg yolk and salt to the middle of the hole, making sure not to touch the salt to the yeast. Pour in water and stir with a wooden spoon until it becomes a dough (it’s finished when the surface is smooth and it doesn’t stick to the edges of the bowl, and you see small holes when you stir (ie, yeast is working)…you can add flour while you’re mixing if you’re worried). Leave bowl in a warm place covered with a clean blanket for 45-60min (it’s done when you can push it and it makes a dent that immediately disappears).
Cut rohlik into cubes and mix it into the now risen dough. Leave in a warm place for another 45-60min.
Cut it into two long loaves. Start water boiling with a little salt, leaving the dough covered by a blanket until the water boils. Once water boils, carefully sink the loaves into it, making sure they don’t touch the sides and burn. When water returns to a boil, cover the pot. Boil them for a total of 20 minutes, turning halfway. Then, remove from water and cut one in the middle to check if it’s done (if not, boil it some more). Poke the now-cut loaf to deflate it a little, cut into pieces and serve immediately.
With my days dwindling here, I thought it might be the right time to finally reveal some of my favorite Czech recipes. Yesterday, Zuzana and I sat down and worked out my favorite (and JC's), known here just as svíčková (sirloin). So if you're in the mood for some česky kuchyne, here's all you need. Just a warning, these are the kinds of recipes that get passed down through the generations in families, and everyone's is different. So feel free to experiment.
For 5 people…
1kg-1.5kg sirloin beef (or other cut)
2 cans – Special canned pickled vegetables (with carrots, parsley, and celery, green paprika, onion, leeks…NOT tomato or red paprika)
whipping cream – can be 13% (use 250mL) or 30% (use 200mL)
2 Tblsp middle grade flour
Spices – Juniper, allspice, laurel, salt/pepper
PREPARE THE MEAT
OPTIONAL: Broil bacon in baking pan, then put the meat on top and bake it until the surface is gray.
Put meat into big baking pan, pour two bottles of canned veggies (spiced with juniper, allspice/pimento, laurel, salt/pepper) and some water so meat is half submerged. Bake with a lid on at highest temperature for 4 hours or until beef is soft, covering with the sauce around it every so often. Don’t burn the vegetables or they’ll be bitter.
When meat is finished, remove from sauce. Mix remaining veggie/water in the pot with an electric mixer until veggies are a paste. In a separate bowl, mix cream with flour. Over a flame, add cream/flour mixture to the vegetables and stir with electric mixer until boiling, being careful not to burn the cream. If mixture gets too thick, add milk. Increase thickness until you think it’s done.
OPTIONAL: pour the sauce all over your body and rub it on yourself while quietly chanting "I'm a knedlik...."
Like in the picture up there, make two small cuts of the beef and cover it with sauce. Serve it with wild berry jam on the side, and maybe some whipped cream. Garnish with lemon if you want.
Monday, May 7
Pictures are finally up from Berlin!!
Saturday night ended up being a quiet one, which was fine with me - I watched Super Size Me.
Sunday we visited the ruins of the castle Landštejn, a HUGE Romanesque castle that used to look over the border into Austria (the border isn't there any more). We finished our trip with a breeze through another town with another awesome, huge castle, the name of which escapes me now because it was really long. Jonaš and I had a smaženy syr for lunch, and we were on our way back to Praha.
Last night was fun too. Dan had gotten wind of a poker tournament happening at a casino in the middle of town, so to celebrate my almost-doneness I decided to accompany him to what could very well be a fantastic tourney. I'm trying to spend as much time with Dan as I can in my last week here, making every moment of our long-wished-for time to live in the same city after high school.
Three tables filled with Americans, Czechs, Swedes, and others competed for a prize pool that ended up being 50,000CZK! That means third place out of this pool of about 28 people got 10,000CZK ($500). Dan and I were in this for the long haul.
And we both played the best games we think we ever have. My personal favorite moments were when we got to go head-to-head with our self-declared arch nemesis, a huge Czech guy sitting across the table from us who we could tell was the type who liked to bully people around with his huge chip stack. Dan and he had a big hand, which Dan cleaned him out on. The first time he and I met, I flopped a flush and called his huge bet for the win and he threw his cards down in disgust!
That win gave me a really nice chip stack going into the final table, which Dan and I were elated to find we had qualified for. Third place suddenly didn't seem so far off, and that's all we were aiming for in this crowd of gambling addicts (many of them were playing online with their laptops while they played the real-life game at the same time...). I won another huge hand against Fatty McCzech (pocket queens against his ace worked out for me even after he paired the ace on the flop. I yelled at the queen on the river, and he laughed it off, mocking me to his friends and saying to me "you're very happy!"). With the group down to seven, things got more dramatic as the blinds increased. Dan was eliminated in seventh place. I held on, dodging a few bullets...and picked up fifth.
So my 1000CZK entrance fee didn't win me anything, but I did play poker for four hours and came away with some great stories. My head hurt.
Today I had my final Czech language oral exam, where I talked to my teacher for twenty minutes in Czech. Yes, twenty minutes. I rule. Which leaves me with only the end of one paper and two tests before I'm completely done for the semester.
I'm excited to be done with the work, but what a bittersweet feeling it is to know that as soon as the work is done, I have only two more full days in Prague. I was eating lunch today with Stephanie at the American expat coffeehouse The Globe, when I looked out the window and suddenly actually iterated what I've been thinking for so long. "I have to come back here," I said. And there's no way I can't. Leaving now is like leaving right in the middle of developing something. Going home will honestly feel, at first, like a vacation before I just come back here. Is that how it's supposed to be?