Saturday, December 1, 2007

It's the Christmas season!

I am actually really glad that I procrastinated all my travelling until late in the semester because everything is Christmas-ed up now. It's beautiful.

Anyway, Andy, Roman, and I started off the day with brunch at Bohemia Bagel, a diner-style restaurant opened by some American guy in Prague. I had scrambled eggs with spinach, tomato, and cream cheese, plus hash browns and bacon. We all also got mulled wine, which is a European Christmas tradition. Depending on where you get it, it can range from simply wine that is hot, to hot wine with a dash of cinnamon and a squirt of citrus. At Bohemia Bagel, it is amazing.

After that rather filling meal, we walked through Old Town to the castle district, which is where the old castle used to be (obviously) and is also home to St. Vitus Cathedral. This cathedral is a lot like Notre Dame (i.e. they're both very gothic in style), and we climbed up the tower, which took a horrendously long time. Seriously, it was hard. For some reason, the climb up the Arc de Triomphe was much less challenging; I don't know what their respective heights are, but I don't think they're that different. I think it has more to do with the incline of the steps or something. Anyway, the view at the top really is spectacular, so if you don't have cardiovascular problems and you're under 40, you should definitely make the trek. Oh also, it was pretty hazardous, since the tower is just one very narrow spiral staircase, so unlike the Arc de Triomphe, you have people going up and coming down in very limited space.

Tip: Try not to die or collapse on this staircase, especially since any kind of domino effect would kill many other innocent victims. Also, if you are prone to dizziness, watch the wall, not your feet.

Once we finished with the cathedral, we went over to a nearby monastery, which was nice, but I didn't find it anything special. We then wandered around the area and happened upon the Hunger Wall, which was put up during the Cold War. Then we walked over to Prague's mini-Eiffel Tower. I thought that was bizarre. At the café there, I got grog, which is hot rum with sugar. It sounds gross, but it's actually very good. We took the funicular down the hill, which was not that exciting, but still mildly cool.

I had KFC for dinner, because for whatever reason, I really like KFC, especially in foreign countries. It's odd, I will admit.

After all the touring, Roman went home, and I went to stay with some other friends for the night, which was great, because it was a Christmas-themed night at Megan's, which meant hot chocolate, cutting paper snowflakes, and baking cookies.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Praha 1

So what was fated to happen eventually, given my procrastination and always being late, finally did. Check-in for my flight closed 8 minutes before I got to the airport. I haven't learned my lesson though, because I still got on the plane.

I got into Prague around 6:30pm, so we went over to Roman's dorm to drop off my stuff and make some dinner. While eating, we watched an episode of "Yes, Minister," which I'd never seen before. It's not bad, but I think it would be funnier if I were British, the way Harold and Kumar is funnier if you're Asian (though I encourage everyone to watch it, Asian or not). We then attempted to go to Cross Club, which is this crazy venue that has mechanical things all around - along the walls, on the tables, hanging from the ceilings, on the way in - it's crazy. They were charging some kind of cover for some random band though, so we left.

This was on the way into the bar.

This is the National Museum, at one end of Wenceslas Square.

Afterwards, we walked through Wenceslas Square (which is really a boulevard lined with shops) and New Town to Old Town Square, near which we landed at a jazz club/bar and met up with Roman's friend Andy. It was cave-like, like a lot of French bars. That must be a European thing. Alcohol is very cheap in Prague. Cheaper than water. After a few drinks, the three of us walked up a hill to the Metronome where a monument to Stalin used to stand. It's basically a large red pointer that ticks during the day, and there's a pretty good view of Prague there.

This is clearly taken at night-time, so you'll have to take my word for it.

On the way back, I got my first smažený sýr, which is a deep-fried patty of cheese covered in mayonnaise or ketchup (or both) on a bun. It's quite possibly the best thing ever. If you like trucker food (like me), you would love it.

The following are just two random Prague things:

Yes, that's 3-person chess. I have no idea how that works.

Um. Yeah.

There's a lot of German in Prague, and everyone speaks English, so even after having gone to Prague, I still don't know how to say "Hello" or "Thank you." While this is mildly embarassing, I also don't care that much, because the practical use of Czech in my daily life is, well, none.

Tip: If you are like me and are always late to places, including the airport, don't bring any luggage you'd have to check in. I think this is what saved me.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Church and other London things

Rick Steves told me to go to St. Martin-in-the-Fields because they have free concerts sometimes, and there happened to be one that day, so I heeded my good friend's advice. It was beautiful (but not St.-Paul’s-beautiful, where I went for evensong service), and though the pianist was so-so, the sax player was absolutely amazing. I think they said she had won some sort of national award. It was very clear why. Then I had soup and pudding downstairs in the basement of the church, which sounds creepy, but is actually quite nice.

Graham and I went to Harrod's, where he forced me to walk through Christmas World just once, which is just as well, otherwise we would’ve been there all day. It was amazing though. It really was like a world of Christmas, and by Christmas, I mean things you can spend money on to decorate your home and have no other practical use whatsoever that people like me love. I'm pretty sure I also saw a sign for fossils. So if you're looking to acquire one (or anything else, ever), go to Harrod's.

When we were walking along the street, Graham decides to inform me, without any prompting whatsoever, “By the way, Chinatown’s that way.” Not 30 seconds later, someone comes up to me and asks me where Chinatown is. What are the freaking chances? We found it pretty hilarious that I was immediately assumed to be the more reliable one of us to dispense this information.

We had dinner at YO! Sushi, where they have the plates on the conveyor belt, and the color bowl corresponds to the price of the item. It was quite good, and the gimmick was fun.

On Sunday, we went to Church. The name is ironic. Church is a dance hall that is open from 1-4 on Sundays where you can buy beer in packs of three, which they give you in a plastic bag that most churchgoers tie to their belt loop. There’s a comedian and strippers and there are screens on either side of the stage where cameramen zoom in on the cleavage of random girls in the crowd. (In case you were wondering, Church is run by Aussies, Kiwis, and South Africans. I know; now it all makes sense.)

Tip: If you go to Church, do not raise your hand when the stripper asks for volunteers. It will not be a fun and sexy time for you.

Later at night, we go to a house party that a bunch of people from Colgate are attending. We get there somewhat early, such that when we walk into the room, there is only one person there. Don’t worry though, she knows how to have a good time all on her own. She looks kind of like Amy Winehouse and is rather scantily clad, but your eye goes immediately to the 4-foot inflatable penis that she is, I would say, riding. Just let that image sink in for a bit. The best part? The next morning, when I was waiting for my bus to go to Luton Airport at the crack of dawn, that very same girl is waiting at the bus stop. Seriously, what are the chances? I think London is trying to make my head explode.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Upon Seeing England for the First Time

First impressions:
I heard more French than English on the streets of London. Of course, I was in very touristy areas, but still, I thought to myself once every ten minutes, "Didn't I just leave Paris?"

Also, you'd have to be an idiot to get run over in London. The pedestrian lights are just as well-marked as everywhere else, but they have really convenient "push for green" things that say "WAIT" and every single crosswalk says either "LOOK LEFT" or "LOOK RIGHT." Legend has it that Churchill nearly got killed by a taxi when he was in the States because he looked the wrong way, so he mandated that those words be painted on every single road.

Lastly, I know London is supposed to be the worst place ever for any kind of non-foreign cuisine. I must say that was completely not my experience. I think this is evidence that the food gods know how much I appreciate their miracles and so they smiled upon me. While I was there, I ate:

Cream of Vegetable Soup and Apple Crumble with custard from St. Martin-in-the-Fields
Crayfish sandwich from Pret
Fish and Chips from The York
Aubergines and Chicken Firecracker Rice from Yo! Sushi
Chicken Pad Thai and Beef Curry from... some Thai place near the British Museum
Po'Pei moules/frites, a Belgian waffle, and some of Graham's chocolate cheesecake from Belgo

Granted, two of those things are not white people food, but everything that was still tasted good. The only thing I had to alter was the soup, to which I added a packet each of salt and pepper. Good food in England does not only exist, but isn't all that difficult to find. Or, again, perhaps the gods just like me better.

Food aside, I saw the following:
Buckingham Palace (glimpsed Changing of the Guards)
St. James Park (on my way to the tube)
St. Martin-in-the-Fields
Horse guards
Parliament/Big Ben/Parliament Square
Westminster Abbey (actually toured inside)
Downing Street
St. Paul's Cathedral
Tower of London
Piccadilly Circus/Leicester Square
British Museum

That makes it seem a lot more productive than I actually was, I think, since most of the places I just kind of walked around; I didn't go inside and do the whole tour since London is freaking expensive.

I'll do the brief ones today:

Buckingham Palace I just kind of walked around, and only a quarter of the way at that. The changing of the guards is like watching a very well-practiced, very formally dressed marching band. Not riveting. My bus from Luton airport happens to stop on Buckingham Palace Road at about 11:30, which is when it starts, so I just trekked over for a peek. I would definitely NOT wait the 3.5 hours or something to get a front row view. Totally not worth it.

St. James Park is nice, but I was just walking along the edge of it to get to the tube, as I was still carrying my suitcase.

Horse guards and Cenotaph are worth walking by, but they're not really "sights." You just take a look and go, "Oh, that's nice," and keep moving.

Parliament wasn't open to the public last Friday, so I couldn't go in and watch them debate, which was disappointing, but oh well. Here's a picture of Big Ben though.

10 Downing Street is gated off, for obvious reasons, so there's not much to see.

Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square are good to walk through at night, since that's when they're liveliest. Unless you're there for a show though, a stroll through will do the trick. (It's sort of like Times Square, if that helps.)

The Tower of London is very expensive to get into, so I didn't go. But here's a picture of it, and the bridge, too.

Tip: Definitely get the day travelcard for the tube and bus system. One trip is £4 and a travelcard is £5.10. You do the math. (They're not idiots; they're giving an incentive not to buy a single ride.)

Tip: All London airports aren't that close to the city, so flying into Luton actually isn't that much worse than Heathrow. In other words, if it will save you money, do it. Just remember to book your tickets early and calculate transportation costs from the airport to the city (whether it's Luton or not).

Tip: Everything seems cheaper in London because the pound is so strong that all the prices seem really low. Remember that they're not. The wine however, really is that cheap.