Long Study Tour Part 2 – Prague

Yes, I know I am a little late. The problem with having a week of from school every two weeks is that during those two weeks there has to be a lot of school jammed in. It wasn’t really that bad but I also had some other things that I wanted to do. And I probably just got lazy. Anyway. Here we are now, ready to dive into Prague.
Admittedly, I have never been to the Czech Republic any time other than the Fall, but I would suggest that if you go, you go then. Because it is hard to imagine it being any more beautiful than at that time. The road from Dresden, Germany, to Prague, Czech Republic, used to be called the worlds longest brothel. A highway lined with worn down women in front of dilapidated houses. I don’t know if this is true anymore (we were told it wasn’t) because instead we took more of a country route – and I am glad we did. The hills, occassionally interrupted by flat, reminded me of home, but compared to the shades of brown found in Central Washington the Czech Republic looked like a rainbow. A rainbow made of different greens, reds, yellows, and oranges. It would be possible to drive up a hill surrounded by green and yellow, forcing you to believe that those colors along with the light blue above are the only colors on earth, and then suddenly find yourself at the top overlooking a valley so full of red and orange that it looks like the forest is up in flames. It was a beautiful drive.

Coming into Prague was not as promising. It looked like any other European city, though maybe a little dirtier than some. However, we kept driving, right by an overpass, and turned onto a street and things changed. Shops and restaurants filled with people contrasted with the industrial look we had just passed. This street was close to the old town and also where our hotel was. After a few days in Berlin and a 45-ish minute commute to the center of the city this was a welcome change.

We had about an hour and a half before we left for dinner so I quickly dropped off my suitcase and ran out to see what I could of the city. We were close to everything. A short walk down our street led to a large square. From here I could see spires in the distance, their main buildings hidden by the intricate architecture of the buildings between me and them. I decided to head for those spires. The winding streets seemed to be pure Europe as I had always imagined it’s cities. The small shops hidden in courtyards separated by the tiny passageways off the main walking streets were ideal. The constant flow of statues  seemed right in place, maybe this was helped by the fact that posters for classical musical concerts outnumbered “popular” music at least 3 to 1. Where there weren’t any concerts advertised there were just jazz clubs. There was at least the hint of music everywhere. Finally I made it past the shops filled with beautiful watercolor painting, matryoshka dolls, gaudily colorful scarves, and Bohemian Crystal into a beautiful square. At this moment Prague was perfect. Nevermind that I had just been followed by two different people trying to exchange money with me and passed by three more. That was just part of the experience. And besides, if it ended in this square then who cared.

That night we walked a different direction street full of expensive American and Western European brands housed in modern buildings on our way to dinner at U Fleku Brewery and Restaurant. That was a contrast, though a designed one. The building itself felt like an old castle or countryhome and we were serenaded by an old man on accordion accompanied by a husky man on tuba while we enjoyed our goulash and heavy dumplings. the meal was great and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. On the way out we had to wait for the line of people stopping at the gift shop.

The next day began with our one trip outside of the older city area and into the business (read less toursity) area as we visited T-Mobile Czech Republic. It went well but I did much more exciting things that need to be talked about instead so I will move on. After an incredibly cheap and delicious doner kebab lunch (finally cheap food in Europe) we were on our way to a meeting with a representative of the Czech Brewer’s Association at Staropramen Brewery. This meeting was more interesting if just for the fact that the presenter was the president of the Czech Brewers Association and had previously had the equivalent role prior to the Velvet Revolution and separation from the Soviet Union. Think of that. You would essentially have to learn the ideas of Western Economics as the the state was simultaneously moving in that direction. Something else we learned, and one student learned very directly, is that the Czech Republic does not like to consider themselves part of the Soviet Union. Instead they prefer to think of themselves as being occupied by it. I already knew that people from this area considered themselves Central European despite what Westerners thought, but I had no idea about the Soviet Union part. That is, I had no idea until one of us asked a question about the differences between business in the Soviet Union and now and the presenter slowly moved towards him repeating the words “Soviet Times” before answering the question. There was nothing menacing in his answer, it was just a simple correction, though a correction that I had never thought about before.

Once we left this presentation it was back to one of my favorite things about Prague – the escalators. That might sound incredibly seen these escalators. The metro in Prague seems very deep, but instead of splitting the escalator into two separate pieces which you have to get off of and switch they just kept it going all the way down to the bottom. When I say they are long I don’t think you understand. When I say deep I mean the possible equivalent of 6, 7, or 8 stories below ground. You must be thinking “wow, Riley, that must have taken forever!” No. The escalators also moved incredibly fast. Fast like you had to simultaneously put two feet on the stairs as you entered or else half of your body might be carried down while have of you remained at the top. The whole process took two minutes from top to bottom. I am sure there are some safety regulations in the US, but we were certainly not in the US here. And that was great.

That night was another reminder that we were no in the US, though it was unnoticed by almost everyone but me. At the bar that some of us found that night I discovered that my soda water, coke, or even water was more expensive than beer. No wonder this country consumes more beer than almost any other European country – the soda prices could drive you to drink (Ha!).

The next morning we started off our day with a visit to the Danish Export Council. The most interesting thing here, at least for me, was hearing about someones experience moving from Denmark to the Czech Republic for work. I don’t know if I would be able to do that, but this meeting forced me to think about that question. After that we wandered around. We went to the Lennon wall (I heard Lenin so I was a little disappointed  and along my favorite part of the city – St. Charles Bridge. The view from here is beautiful. Since we were all in our business attire someone had the bright idea of a Linkedin profile picture photoshoot. So that’s what we did. I’m not embarrassed.

Our final academic visit was with LEGO. Just so you know, most LEGOs are produced in the Czech Republic. That is why we met up there.

That night we had dinner at a French restaurant and while the food wasn’t amazing and the service was terrible, this is the one meal that I am going to remember. We sat down and were immediately asked what we wanted. I assumed it was an enthusiastic waiter, which was a good thing  but we did not have any drink menus so we asked for some and got one. One for all 30 of us. He was back in about two minutes and we repeated our request for some menus which was me with a heavy sigh and two more menus. 3 for the 30 of us. Eventually this was repeated enough times that everyone was able to look. We now had a waiter and a waitress. The water was taking orders asking “beer, white, red” while the waitresses was waiting for the student to choose which beer, which white, or which red. About halfway down the table someone realized the discrepancy and asked for clarification. The waiter stopped for a moment before throwing up his arms and storming off. From my seat I could see him tear up the orders that he had taken and throw them at the waitresses and thump up the stairs yelling something that I interpreted as “!@#&*# – I go for beer now!” Whether that beer was for those who ordered them or himself I am not sure but based on his smile as he returned and the length of time that he was gone I have my guess. I don’t know about everyone else but I thought it was hilarious.

This was our last night in Prague. It was a fun night and I like to think that everyone made the most of it. I know that I had fun. And everyone survived, so that was good. I learned that one of my favorite things about Prague is the St. Charles Bridge at night. Seeing the other bridges lit along the river, the Prague Castle on the hill lit up, even the white ghost-like birds illuminated as the swooped in and out of the lights illuminating the buildings from below. Prague does do a great job of highlighting their city with light. Of course they have to since there is little there that isn’t tourist related.

Everything was aimed at tourists. The signs were all in English. English was spoken by everyone. There were more postcards than anywhere I had ever seen. Those concerts I mentioned earlier were not for the people who lived there. The people of Prague could not afford the smallest item in many of the shops. I even learned to hate the the pretty prints that could be found in every shop precisely because they could be found in every shop. They were not paintings but computer images designed to look like watercolors and mass produced. They were artificial, like much of Prague.

Don’t get me wrong, Prague is probably the most beautiful city that I have seen in my life. But it was beautiful because it was made to be beautiful. the lighting directed you hat to see at night and therefore directed you away from certain areas. It was beautiful but by the end of our time I was ready to move on to something less artificial. ready to move on back to the countryside that we drove through to get here.

at Staropramen brewery

Lennon Wall

DLL #8

Sorry! = Undskyld!

As in “I’m sorry that I’ve not written for three weeks!”

It has been way too long, but time flies when you are abroad. I promise that I have gathered quite a few experiences worthy of sharing so hopefully you won’t think this a total waste.

I am going to start by finishing that post about the second half of my first travel week in Prague. That is coming out before I sleep tonight if it kills me (Don’t worry, it wont. It shouldn’t actually be that hard.)

Long Study Tour Part 1 – Berlin

I’ve decided that I need to split my study tour into two posts. Or it might be better to say a minimum of two posts. There was just so much that happened during these six days. Since Berlin is where we went first that’s where we will start.

My study tour experience started with me waking up around 5:30 AM on Sunday.  I guess that might be inaccurate; my study tour experience might have started when I went to sleep around one or two the evening before after procrastinating on packing. I include that in the study tour experience because getting hardly any sleep was a consistent theme throughout the tour. Looking at those on the bus with me early on Sunday morning it seemed safe to say that I wasn’t the only one starting off the trip with a sleep deficit. To our credit I don’t think a single one of us complained about being tired until we were on our way back to Copenhagen six days later. How could you when there was so much to do?
After a bus/ferry/bus ride totaling about six hours we arrived in Berlin. From the outside the hostel looked like most of the other buildings that we had seen as we entered the city. It was big, rectangular, and gray. Next to it were a few buildings that were big, rectangular, and gray. And across the wide street was a bigger building that was rectangular and gray. Welcome to Berlin. That isn’t fair. Berlin is more than bland blocks of concrete, though at the time I didn’t know it.

Our first order of business after unpacking was to go on a tour of the Berlin underground bunkers. The problem was getting there. A group of nearly thirty of us wandered around the subway looking for our tour. Eventually we found it. Two guys in black t-shirts standing in front of a dark green door built into a wall tiled the color of key lime pie right across from an escalator between the bottom and middle floors of the subway. Behind that door is one of the bunkers that was used as a shelter for the people of Berlin during World War Two. I could go into all sorts of history right now but I wont. You can look up some information on WWII yourself. The tour itself was interesting. I was a little confused by the tour guide. What he was saying was perfectly clear, instead I was confused by him. He appeared to be in his mid-20’s, transitioned from English that was free of the stereotypical German accent to German very easily, and he was Israeli. The Israel thing was the confusing part. Our whole group seemed more than a little surprised. It seems strange to find an Israeli in Berlin, and even stranger for him to be working in a museum dedicated to the lives of the families of the men who would have at one time killed him and his family on sight. I admit that I am not an expert on Israel, or the Nazi’s, or anything relating to them. Maybe my lack of knowledge is confusing me, but I am pretty sure that was unexpected. I found the situation extremely interesting. Apparently it is less interesting to anyone living in Germany, because the Israeli population is growing rapidly along with the middle eastern and communities and other groups that the group that once held power there would hate. Anyway, the tour itself was fine. It was stuffy and hot and made me feel tired afterwards. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live there for a night or more.

After the tour we booked it over to our restaurant, and, after getting lost a few times, we arrived. DIS treats us well on study tours. Anyway, being in Europe we didn’t leave the restaurant until around 10 or a little later, at which point we were on our own for the evening. Unfortunately we knew nothing about the city or its layout and our hostel was at least two trains away. Berlin can be a big and confusing place when you don’t know what you’re doing.

In the end we all made it back to our beds in time to drag ourselves out of them for them for our only full day in Berlin. By 9:30 we sneaking glimpses over our shoulders at remnants of the Berlin Wall as we were being hurried into the headquarters of Deutsche Bahn. Our meeting in this glass covered building was in a large conference room high above Berlin. It was hard to focus on the presentation when you could turn your head slightly and see the whole city. Somehow I managed. The presentation on the corporate strategy was interesting and I knew that I would have time after to explore the city from this vantage point once we were done.

From here on the day became much more interesting. We passed the Wall remnants on our way to the next stop – Brauhaus Mitte. Yes, the restaurant was located in a mall, from my seat I could see a walkway with cheap stores as well as a McDonalds, and yes the Bavarian flag decorations did seem a little cheesy, but the pork leg and potatoes were both delicious so I completely forgot everything else. Apparently our professor had really wanted us to have this traditional Oktoberfest meal and I am glad he did.

Do you know what doesn’t sound like a good idea after eating a leg of pork ? Movement. Do you know what we did right after we ate? Went on a bike tour. Despite what a lot of us had imagined, it worked out almost perfectly. The pace was slow and we had some movement to help us digest. It’s a good thing I didn’t feel terrible during this tour because that might have ruined one of my favorite tour experiences of the whole week. The weather was absolutely perfect, the biking aspect was relaxing, I got to fulfill a lifelong dream of biking through a major city in a suit, and we learned quite a bit. Again, I won’t go through and give you a tour of Berlin but I will write a few things. First, Berlin does have beautiful buildings. Before I mentioned the gray blocks that I saw, well, that was not in the center. The center has the same beautiful architecture as any old European metropolis, though nearly all of it is a replica and less than 60 years old. That might be the most interesting thing. All of this was destroyed at some point and rebuilt. Luckily Hitler knew that the city would be bombed so he had statues removed from churches and concert halls and hidden in the countryside or submerged in lakes. At least he managed to do something right. Second, Berlin is building a castle. They are attempting to rebuild the old royal residence on Museum Island. It would cost an immense amount of money. Even more when you consider that Berlin is heavily in debt at the moment. Our tour guide hated the idea and let us known it pretty clearly. If someone who relies on beauty and tourism for his livelihood dislikes this idea so strongly, then I wonder what everyone else besides the politicians must think. Finally, the Berlin wall was a letdown. Yes, the tall blank barrier can still give you chills if you take the time to think of the stories associated with it. If you think of all of the lives affected over the course of the 28 years that it stood there. But it can be nearly impossible to do that at the wall itself. There are  people everywhere getting their passport stamped with an East Berlin Visa by some teenager in a fake uniform, buying food from “Snackpoint Charlie” or the “Cold War” ice cream shop, and avoiding the men standing on the street selling replica Soviet paraphernalia. The magic of the wall doesn’t seem to exist here. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I am simply to removed to understand. It doesn’t affect me enough to make feel. But when I see something like this, I certainly feel something. I guess things change. Sometimes rapidly and for the better after decades of wait, and sometimes gradually until the reason for the change is left behind. I can however appreciate the extreme capitalism that has taken over the area that used to be the East Berlin side of Checkpoint Charlie. That is pretty ironic.

After the bike tour, while I was still sorting through my first interaction with the wall at Checkpoint Charlie a group of us were headed to the Wall. We were going to another area, the East Side Gallery, the largest stretch still standing. I was headed to the area that I had imagined when I thought of the Berlin Wall. After all, this is the area where artists created a memorial to freedom in 1990, not even a year after the wall fell. These were people exhibiting their new-found voices on a wall that had held them or others in for years. This was an outpouring of emotion and pent-up frustration in the form of pain on concrete. People came afterwards, not just to see this, but to experience it, to write their message of freedom on the wall. It doesn’t feel like that now. The 1990’s originals were damaged by all of the graffiti and many were re-painted or simply painted over by new artists within the past few years. You can’t see the messages that people wrote for their dead loved ones after the wall came down, you can’t see the exultations of freedom scribbled across the wall, you can’t see any emotion. Now what you see is a penis drawn on an angel, or an accusation of racism, or a “Paul wuz here Spring Break 2011!!!” That kind of thing. I’m not saying this wasn’t present on the wall before, I’m sure it was, but It seems more present than I had imagined. There was nothing really inspiring about the wall unless you want to say that we have moved so far forward that the wall is no longer even a symbol, but just a wall. Yea, I’m an optimist, let’s go with that.

For dinner I had the obligatory sausage and the best pretzel of my life. I have nothing else to say and I wouldn’t have mentioned it at all but it was something very German and therefore important enough to share. Plus it was my first experience with a stereotypical semi-rude, semi-incompetent, European waiter at an outdoor cafe. Overall the meal was exactly what I had been waiting for in Europe.

After enjoying dinner and the company I lucked into an experience. Son, one of the other students, had done some research on Berlin before we went and decided that he wanted to go to the German government building, the Reichstag. It’s an incredible building made even more magnificent by the enormous glass dome on top of it. I happened to be online while he was looking into it and asked if I wanted to go. I looked at a picture and of course agreed right away. Being the seat of the government you can no longer just walk in, you have to schedule a time and provide a name and birthdate for anyone who wants to enter. Son took care of all of that for us and we received our clearance via email after the bike tour Monday afternoon. That night, at 9 PM, the four of us who had registered were inside an enormous glass dome overlooking the city of Berlin. I admit that the view wasn’t perfect; Berlin doesn’t have the most dramatic skyline, and it lacks the illuminated castles and cathedrals that make touristy Europe so beautiful. But the architecture itself was interesting and the view was still impressive. Among the sites was the Brandenburg Gate lit up in the night . Seeing that I could only imagine what it must have looked like from my point of view even just 25 years ago. At that time I would have been on the border between East and West Berlin and the gate would have been illuminated not by spotlights – but by searchlights. How things change.

The city reflects this change in almost everything. The government offices next to the Reichstag are designed so that the side of each office is a window which can be seen into from the park. The Reichstag dome where I was standing was made entirely of glass and mirrors so that, while in session, any citizen or tourist can look down and see what their government is up to. The bred mistrust can be seen by the attitude of outsiders as well. The French embassy in Berlin next to the Brandenburg Gate looks nearly identical to a bunker complete with slots for guns in case the statue of Victoria, goddess of Victory, decides to stop staring at the French from her perch atop the Gate and take action again.

By 9:00 AM Tuesday, just  41 hours after we arrived, we were essentially done with Berlin. At this time we were on the bus, in business attire, with our luggage packed below us headed for Air Berlin, our final business visit in Germany. Air Berlin wasn’t exactly in the heart of the city, which is why I can say that we were basically done with Berlin at this point. After seeing seat and lounge mock-ups that Air Berlin was implementing followed by a brief presentation and lunch we were on our way to Prague.

I was excited, but if I had known what I know now, I would have been even more so.