The Sisters Epic

My sisters, the tourists
One potential contributing factor to any culture shock upon re-entry is the fact that everything and everyone has changed.  Day-to-day changes seem stark when you have 365 of them (or more or less) to catch up on.  This is one reason that my sisters' visit last week was a great blessing.  The three sisters were in country 10 days to visit me as well as to have a great Czech tour.  As I looked forward to the trip in the various weeks and months leading up to it, my brain overflowed with ideas of where I could take them--cities, towns, restaurants, museums, coffeehouses, and more overflowed in a 14-page document I developed.  Of course, not all places could be visited without my sisters being hospitalized in the endeavor, yet our days together were full and long and (hopefully) enjoyable for all.

The three sisters arrived in Prague hungry, tired, yet with good attitudes at around 1:30 PM.  For those jet-lag students out there, this is a difficult time.  You (ideally) should wait until the evening of your new local time to sleep, and to arrive at mid-day is killer.  So, with the help of a friend and her van, my sisters' and my belongings were taken to her home, and our first of two days in Prague began.  Despite the 100% chance, it did not rain, and we started our journey with a patio lunch at Vyšehrad, a tenth century castle remodeled in the following centuries.  Now the castle is a ruin, but walls are still present as well as St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral, an old rotunda, and a cemetery bearing such famous personalities as the composers Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana.  My beloved Czech author Karel Čapek is also buried there.  We then continued through Prague, peaking out of the muzeum metro stop  long enough to say "hi' to Sv. Vaclav in Wenceslas Square before running over to Old Town Square.  There we "dined" on palačinky (crepes) and trdelník.  The crepes can be served with salty or sweet fillings.  We then ran over to náměstí republíky and the adjoining mall to get some coffee (decaff) before heading in for the night.

The sisters were troopers, and both them and the sun were ready for another Prague day.  We began in the Senate's gardens and then meandered up to Prague castle.  It was just before noon, and we managed to join the throng gathered to watch the changing of the guard.  I was amused by the spectre of it all.  Then we meandered the complex, noting Gothic Sv. Vít Cathedral as well as Sv. Jiři--the oldest building in the castle complex.  Some successful shopping at Manufaktura also took place before going for lunch at Pivovarský Dům, a microbrewery with some excellent Czech food.  Beer, dumplings, cabbage, and meat made up the fair, which energized us for our journey to the Jewish quarter, Charles Bridge, John Lennon's Wall, and no further.  We had to reenergize with ice cream at that point before taking the funicular up Petřín Hill.  There gardens gave way to trees which gave way to a path downhill, past the magical cavern, and straight to a restaurant with a city view. (The pricing of the restaurant on Petřín is surprisingly reasonable.)

In the castle at Děčín
The next morning was an early one as we lugged our bags to the main station to catch a train to Děčín.  This city is in the northwest of the country.  It was chosen for it's proximity to "Czech Switzerland" as well a for being the last Czech city en route to Dresden.  Having not had the proximity/time to explore much of Bohemia, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to go see one of the Czech Republic's natural wonders.  It was here that my tour guide skills were temporarily sapped, and a major flop in the local transportation led me (and my sisters) towards the wrong end of town.  In short, we lost time and didn't make it out to Czech Switzerland to hike.  In retrospect, and by providence, this is the best thing that could have happened.  First of all, the weather wasn't exactly charming all day.  Secondly, the planned hike would have been way too demanding for my jet-lagged sisters who are more accustomed to level planes than mountains.  Instead, we went to the city's castle (what Czech city is complete without a castle?).  There was a fair going on and it was the perfect opportunity to buy souvenirs and try some Czech-Slovak treats.  Slovak string cheese, halušky (potato noodles, cheese), trdelník, klobasa (sausage), and candied nuts were on the list.  The candied nuts were definitely a favourite, and became a refrain on the retreat.

Coffee at the hotel in Děčín
When the rain hit, first we crowded under the stage awning, then we went in the castle for a tour (in Czech) of a few rooms.  Back at the hotel, the culinary experience continued with some fried cheese.  We tried hermelín (brie), niva (blue cheese), and the classic eidam (edam).  It was an opportunity to finally commit some cheese names to memory.  The next morning we left our hostel for Prague, where we went to an international Baptist church and then met a friend of mine for pizza at a nearby pizzeria.  I spoiled my sisters by taking them to Ostrava via Student Agency, and then our five days not in Ostrava began.

The weather was untrustworthy all week.  After teaching Monday, I met my sisters at the train station, having made an alternative plan should we decide to abandon our trip to Olomouc due to the weather.  They, however, were energetically and decisively still willing to try it out.  So we returned to one of my favourite Czech cities.  Though overcast, it didn't rain.  En route, I texted my random Czech friend in the city (who doesn't speak a lick of English), and she met us at the train station.  She brought us to a cafe for coffee and cake and then to a haberdashery for buttons, yarn, and the like.  I finally learned the name of this kind of shop, galanterie.  As an artist and a knitter, it's a bit embarrassing that I just learned it.

The time was playful and pedestrian.  I told the sisters of the 7 city fountains, and they determined to locate them all and take photos with each.  Though we had done plenty of self-taken group photos, they agreed that these photos should be taken by someone else--leaving me the task of awkwardly asking strangers to take photos (not my strong-suit in any language).  The highlight was when we inadvertently entered a construction site and I asked some workers to take the photo.  I was a little slow to the understanding of their saying we were forbidden to be there rather than they were unwilling to take our photo.  Also in Olomouc my sisters saw their first stolpersteine, and I saw more that I hadn't previously located. Other Olomouc highlights included running to see the astronomical clock go off--when in reality it only goes off once or twice a day--and trying the famous stinky cheese with Faith and nearly vomiting.

Tuesday was a public holiday, and we declared it castle day.  We went to Hradec Nad Moravicí after much debate (at least within myself), Opava, and the chateau at Radun.  We toured the white castle at Hradec Nad Moravicí as well as the red wall/gate that stands before it.  I played "translator"--tossing extra details I caught on the tour to my sisters.  The sun finally peaked out after our tour of the white castle.  Then we "picnicked" in the courtyard of the castle before walking around to the tour featured in the video below.

Not to neglect any potential castles/chateaux, we went back to Opava and on to Radun, where we enjoyed the still environment around that chateau.  Having ample time before the bus into Opava, we went to a pub for some supper.  The waiter came over and promptly sighed "Jesus and Mary" when he heard our English.  I appeased him with some Czech, and since they only served pizza, we enjoyed that with our drinks.

Happy sisters at Hradec Nad Moravicí
The fountain and trubka in Štramberk

When I had been making a potential agenda, Wednesday was a tricky day for me to figure.  It was the day of my week when I would finish teaching the earliest.  As such, it seemed a shame to stay in Ostrava.  However, we would be going to the theatre for an opera that night, and it seemed unrealistic to take a train anywhere and have time to get into our "smart dress." I finally accepted a colleague's offer to take us somewhere by car.  So after class, I met my competent sisters at a centrally located bus/tram stop and we went to meet Hanka.  She took us to the legendary Štramberk and then to Hukvaldy.  Štramberk is known for its timbered houses as well as for it's castle tower (trubka) and it's "ears."  These ears are gingerbread-like pastries formed in curls like ears.  They commemmorate a battle in which the Swedish were defeated.  The victors then discovered bags of human ears that the soldiers were required to cut from their victims to prove their victories.  We had a nice lunch in their quaint square, then toured the trubka before heading to Hukvaldy.

řepky fields in yellow
You may recall mention of Hukvaldy before.  I hiked there in January and then biked there on the first of May.  This time, I finally got to see (with my sisters) the main feature of Hukvaldy--it's castle ruin.  You must hike up a hill to get to it.  It's a bit of a doozy, but it's completely worth it.  I think all of my sisters and I agreed it felt the most "castle-like" with it's big stones, parapets, and trebuchet.  The clear day afforded a great view of the countryside and the řepky fields in their yellow glory (the plant used to make canola oil).  Wednesday was a warm day, and we were disappointed by our inability to track down some ice cream.  So once back into Ostrava, we got some from a stand before using my office at the conservatory for our dressing room.  A quaint dinner was had at La Petite Conversation (a favourite little French cafe) before I rushed my sisters over to the theatre.  Romeo a Julie was performed in French with Czech subtitles--but my sisters and I were able to understand.  Moreover, despite our full schedule, I don't think anyone fell asleep.
By the time Thursday came around, my sisters realized I hadn't yet showed them Ostrava, so they saw the main square in the morning before coming to some classes with me.  The students really took to my sisters and were full of energy.  After class, my sisters shot a bow of one of my students before we went to prep my flat for a gathering with colleagues.  After everyone had departed, we decided to make our way back to the centre to buy some specific souvenirs.  We went to the dreaded new mall--but it was nearly deserted and the trip was a success.  I then brought them to Dobrou Čajovna for some extra spiced chai.  Friday morning we went over to the part of Ostrava that has a high concentration of the Socialist Realist style.  In particular it was the area that the Communists in power had wanted to make the new city centre.  Then we made it to the city centre where I rushed them to the city town hall before running away to the conservatory myself.  They joined me soon after for further lessons with students.  These students were a bit more shy, but they still cooperated and seemed to enjoy the novelty of the lesson.

An afternoon at the zoo turned to a trip to nearby Bohumín to meet with one of my dearest friends here.  Really, a trip to the Czech Republic wouldn't have been complete without their introduction.  Jana was a gracious host, taking a slow pace and full of patience.  It was a welcome change from my whirlwind pace that constantly had us on or off some form of transport.  We had a relaxed coffee and then lounged by a lake before meeting her husband at a pizzeria.  She called the pizzas "huge-ish" but in all reality, they were bigger than Texas.  We enjoyed the time and she was gracious enough to drive us back to Ostrava, where we had a packing party.  Though our last night, it couldn't be our last excitement.  On the train back to Prague, I distributed some toy dinosaurs I'd been sent for my birthday.  My sisters took to photographing them in somewhat convincing positions in relation to the scenery outside--something they continued in London.

Overall, the trip was energizing for me, as I had some extra diversion and the opportunity to see some new sites.  Simultaneously, it was a bit strange to be around people so often and to speak so much English and Czech within one week.  I realized I still have a ways to go before I'm qualified to be a proper tour guide, but I hope my sisters have forgiven my stressful and ungracious moments and instead will treasure moments of running for trains, taking dinosaur photos, entering construction sites, eating disgusting cheese, and--of course--taking pictures "for Chad."


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