Friday, June 28, 2013

The Study Part of Studying Abroad

Contrary to how it seems in the blog, I did actually participate in the study part of studying abroad. My previous semester at USC had been a little rougher than usual since I was getting my final writing requirement out of the way, so the program's already relaxed classes and work load did not take up much time. In addition, all my classes were being taken for credit, so all I had to do was pass. Despite the lack of my usual, grade-driven motivation, I did get some valuable education from the classes I took.

Nation, Power, and Money--Seduction and Propaganda
This class was by far my favorite. Our professor was teaching CIEE students for the first time, and was really eager to keep us all interested. It was a 3 hour class on Monday evenings, but every class had a really interesting topic--from Nazi and Communist propaganda, Czech women in advertising, ostolgia (how Czechs look back on the Communist times with rose colored glasses and miss it), to racism and the Roma population (wrote my final paper on this). Not only was the readings and lectures the most interesting of my classes, but we also had great events. One class we went to a Czech newspaper publication house and interviewed the editor (translated by our teacher). But the best class was our "Communist feast." In honor of our ostolgia topic, our teacher brought all the meats, candy, cookie, cheeses, and drinks (non alcoholic) from his communist childhood. It was a ton of fun trying all the food, including kofola-the Czech version of Coke that they are die hard fans of-and traditional spa cookies which remain one of my biggest obsessions. The coolest part of the whole experience was reminder that everywhere we went, we were walking with people who had lived through communism, experienced revolution, and adjusting to democracy. That in itself is one of the most amazing things about living in Prague and learning about Czech culture and history--it is still really relevant today.
Art and Architecture
My next favorite class was this art history course. It was very simple (except the final took me a little by surprise), but I felt like I learned the basics of architecture (and some art) which was a necessity to truly appreciate my trips around Europe. Not only did it give me base to understand what I was looking at, but our teacher also had a 2 hour tour of places in Prague that had the architecture we were learning at. Because of this class I went to places I may not have gone before, and this class was one of the best decisions I made. Lucky for me, USC suggested this class so I was lucky enough to get in since no one on the waitlist stood a chance. Some places our field trips took us: inside the walls of and around Vysherad, astronomical clock, Church of our Savior in Mala Strana with the wax baby Jesus, Troja Castle, Prague City Museum, and Strahov Monastery. I also went to the mandatory day trip at Sychrov, Dlaskův statek and Valdštějn. It wasn't my favorite trip (Kunta Hora was much more interesting), but it was a pretty area with a nice hike at the end, and our free lunch at a swanky hotel blew us away.

Central European Politics
I was taking this class for my major. It gave a good history about all the Central European countries (Czech R, Hungary, Poland, Austria, and Slovakia), although I really wished there was more of a focus on current events. When we were there, Czechs just elected a controversial new president and their old president Klaus just was charged for high treason because of an amnesty act he pushed through. Hungary changed their constitution for the worse and was being condemned by the entire EU (I actually wrote my final paper on this). While the class was very educational, it was our teacher who was fascinating. Not in the way he lectured, but because you could just tell he was one of the more intelligent people you will meet in your life.
Czech National Identity
This was by far my least favorite class. I did learn a lot of Czech history, heroes, and political figures, but the teacher was fairly condescending and a hard grader. He wasn't interesting, but we did have two out classes. One to the National Gallery to see Mucha's Slavic epic--an actually really cool art exhibit from a really famous Czech artist. Each painting was huge, and probably over 10 feet high. And two, to Bethleham's Chapel--the only church built by Communists and used as a subtle (or not so subtle) propaganda tool. We also went on an awful field trip to Most. The city known for it's ugly landscape and pollution which was cold and not pleasant. There was one great thing I got out of this class however. For our final paper we had to interview two Czechs about our topic. I wrote about Czech women's national identity and the fight for women's rights in the country. I was really lucky that a representative from Forum 50% agreed to speak to me, and it was one of the most interesting conversations I had with a Czech. She explained her ideas on the history of women's rights and where they are today, and why she is passionate about it. She was really nice and helpful, and I was really lucky that I was able to have that experience.
Czech language
I knew I wanted to study abroad in a country that spoke another language other than English before I even knew where I wanted to go. Once I realized how much I liked Russian, I realized I wanted to continue learning a Slavic language and Prague became my obvious choice. A LOT of people in the program hated this class. But, I actually enjoyed it (as much as you can enjoy an early morning class), and felt that I had a pretty decent understanding of Czech by the end of the semester. The program started off with a two week intensive Czech course with 5 hours a day 5 days a week, so we definitely dived head first into learning the language. Luckily I never really needed to study because there were a lot of grammatical similarities between Czech and Russian. It was enjoyable and definitely cemented my random interest in Slavic languages.
By far one of the best decisions I made studying abroad was volunteering at Skolka Pisnika. I taught their kindergarteners English with another girl in my program, and although at times it was overwhelming it was an amazing and adorable experience. They were really cute and excited, and overall I know they made my experience with the Czech culture much richer. Plus I got to pick and hang out with my favorites (little Amalka and Matias!). A nice bonus? Two bottles of Becherovka as a thank you! 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Frolicking in Prague

Living in Prague for a semester means it would be impossible to blog about every little thing I did. I don't have pictures to show the little bakery underneath our apartment that I did my best to not eat at everyday, the view on my walk to school, the random restaurants I ate at and loved, or every fun activity I did. But I want to remember as much as I can, so I thought I would do a quick collection of some fun things I did throughout the semester that haven't fit into any other blog post (PS if you want to see all my Praha activities check out some of my past posts):
  • Swan lake at the National Theatre. While I also went to the opera Madam Butterfly, I quickly realized I am not a fan of opera at all, but did love the ballet. You win some, you lose some in the game of having high culture. The Nardoni Divadlo (National Theatre) is one of the most beautiful buildings in Prague, and a source of pride for Czechs. While the outside is under reconstruction, the interior was stunning. You walked through the amazing theatre and sit in your red velvet and gold seat and wish you were in a floor length gown. It was one of my favorite memories in Prague

  • On one of the first sunny days in Prague, my friend Morgan and I started to work on our Prague bucket list by going up to the Petrin look out tower. On a side note, I created a pretty expansive bucket list in April, and while I didn't get everything done (I had to remind myself that wasn't physically possible), I was happy with how much I checked off that list. Beer garden, paddle boating, Prague Zoo, Futbol game, Gardens, etc. The Petrin tower is supposed to be technically as tall as the Eiffel tower, but the Czechs cheated by putting it on top of a huge hill. It has some great views of Prague, and we made sure to bring our cameras.

  • Speaking of Petrin hill, I made it up there again to visit the mirror maze with my roommate Kerri and friend Diana. I had read about it in one of my travel books and put it on my to do list. It was really small and cheap, but ended up being a ton of fun.
  • Memorial for the Victims of Communism.

  • I already mentioned the Easter fair in my post about visitors in Prague, but it was the common hangout place for the three weeks it was here. My roommate and I tried tons of food (chocolate covered fruit, kolbasas, chicken and veggie kebabs, crepes, tredlniks, and beer), and shopped. I bought a sterling silver ring for 300 krowns, and still have not gone one day without wearing it.

  • And I wish I could sum up all my going out experiences, and put it on paper blogger. But I'll always remember staying out to 5am at Karlovy Lazne, Retro Wednesdays, Radost Thursdays, underground bars, the random art gallery bar 5 stories up with a paper sign, beer, becherovka, and vodka with limes.

Plus much, much more.

Vienna, Austria

My weekend trip to Vienna was really relaxed and pleasant. The trip was planned by my study abroad program, and I signed up for it at the beginning of the semester without knowing who else would be going on it. It was the same weekend as Munich's Springfest so very few people in the program actually came. So I was happy when I learned that my friend Taylor, one of the girls I was going to go to Italy with that Wednesday, signed up as well. Since it was basically just the two of us (although we did hang out with a few other girls throughout the trip), it was a very peaceful weekend. It was a nice break to have a laid back, sight seeing trip around the city. The fact that the weather was perfect around 70 also helped create the relaxed atmosphere.

Some of the sights we saw:

First, we drove for 3.5 hours through the Moravian countryside (one of the three areas of the Czech Republic--Prague is in Bohemia). It was absolutely beautiful and green with rolling hills, small towns, and wineries. It immediately made me wish I had spent more time exploring the Czech Republic, and discovering little towns like the ones we passed through. I've made up my mind the next time I come to the Czech Republic, I'm spending a day trip wine tasting somewhere in Moravia.

The first sight in Vienna (and my favorite) was Hundertwasser architecture. His designs are supposed to work with nature instead of against it, so the buildings have trees around them and aren't geometrical. Another cool thing is that they're all functional--people actually live or use all his creations.

Our program provided us with a walking tour of Vienna, starting at St. Stephan's Cathedral. The church was very pretty and the colored paper on the windows had a beautiful affect on the lighting. The really cool part though was the carved symbol on the outside from a secret society during World War II that was for Austrian resistance.

The tour also took us through some gardens and parks around central Vienna. Since I had pictured Austria to be a very "nature" city, I was happy to walk around and see it in spring time. The grass was really green, and you could actually smell the flowers when you walked by them. That and the fact that I was warm enough to wear a sundress put me in a great mood.

Saturday morning, the bus drove us up a beautiful residential area with gorgeous homes and vineyards. The area was apparently known for wine tasting, and it looked very swanky and homey at the same time. Once we reached the top, we looked out over Vienna before going on a quick walk down one of the side roads. We peeked at some of the houses and grabbed a few pictures before heading back.

Saturdays in Vienna means that there is a huge flea market and food market from early morning to late afternoon. We looked around and bartered for some jewelry--sadly I would loose all my purchases later that day. Even though it was only 10 euros, I was pretty bummed I lost them.

Welwidier was the winter palace of the Habsburg empire. While we didn't go inside, our group wandered around the gardens for a little bit. It was pretty, but I had higher expectations for the palace, that I'm sure would have been more met if we went inside.

Sunday's visit to the Schonbrunn Palace was amazing. It was the summer palace of the Hapsburgs and was like a mini version of Versailles. From the rose gardens, hedge maze, to the expansive greenery and fountains, the outside was gorgeous and exactly what I expected from Austria. We also received an audio tour that was very interesting, and focused on Cici of the Hapsburgs--the queen that was considered to be one of the most beautiful women of her time. She was fascinating, and I loved seeing the rooms of the palace and learning more about her.

Our last sight seeing stop was at the museum Albertina. I was excited because I got to see art by Degas and Monet which was something I had been looking forward to. The museum also had a large Max Ernst exhibit, and while it's not necessarily my favorite style, there were definitely some interesting pieces. Finally the last exhibit was another favorite, the museum was featuring the photos of a California photographer. I was so excited to see pictures from Santa Monica and Irvine all over the room. It was definitely a nice reminder of what I was going home to in a few weeks.

My blog post wouldn't be complete without mentioning some of the food I ate along with all my sightseeing:

A fancy tapas dinner with small servings of risotto, hamburger, and another small food item. Dinner was followed by a special chocolate cake that is famous in Vienna. It was good and tasted really light, but I missed my favorite part of the cake (frosting).

Café meals included chicken schnitzel that was delicious and trying some Viennese coffee.

Vienna was very beautiful, and I'm happy I got the chance to go when the weather was nice out. I would love to eventually visit Salzburg in Austria as well and get another chance to see spectacular Austrian nature.