Thursday, 22 April 2010

Jerry's Party Saved Me

Grayson and I decided that we had to go to Jerry's party. After all the complaining I have done about how unfriendly the Czech people are, there was no way I was going to pass up an invitation from my one and only Czech friend. Tim, Sue and Laura had gone to the National Theater to see the ballet and Dave was under the weather, so Grayson and I were on our own. We did our best to dress like rock-stars, but had VERY limited resources-I think we did OK. We took the tram to Jerry's apartment and found it pretty easily. The party was in full swing when we got there-it is a bit nerve-wracking showing up to a party full of strangers when you don't know if you'll be able to communicate with them-but everyone was friendly! There were people from Prague (in addition to the international friends) and everyone spoke English! Grayson and I held one girl hostage while we fired 3 months worth of questions at her. We talked to her for close to an hour-she probably hates Americans now. We danced and partied until far too late, meeting all kinds of exciting characters and hearing all manner of juicy stories. When it was time to go, we were standing on the street corner trying to figure out which tram to take and where the nearest tram stop was located. (Trams run constantly, but after midnight they are few and far between.) A car pulls up to us and rolls down the window-it was the girl we had just ridden with in the elevator and she was offering us a ride! These people aren't evil! We told her where we were staying and she said that it was no problem, on her way home. At 3 a.m., she seemed like the most generous person I had ever met. The drive was 10 minutes-it would have taken us an hour or more on the tram (if we didn't get lost). This was the first time we had been in a car in Prague and it felt luxurious. We thanked her so many times that she probably thought we were deranged.
The unfortunate part of our adventure was that we didn't get to meet any of these people until a week before we were due to leave. However, it was really fortunate that I did get to meet them because it gave me some new ideas about the Czech people. It is still my opinion that they are not a friendly group, and are not generally receptive to strangers. But it seems that once you have met someone who will vouch for you, they introduce you to all of their friends and welcome you with open arms. Basically they are really clique-y. If you've ever been a newcomer to Raleigh, (or maybe any new city), then you probably know what I'm talking about. The difference is that people in the south are outwardly friendly, but it can take a long time for them to accept you in to their "inner circle". Either way, it makes "making friends" challenging. Generally, I feel relieved to have come away with a positive experience-I was worried that I was going to harbor feelings of hatred for all of eternity, swearing never to set foot in the Czech Republic again. Thanks for saving me, Jerry.

Fun or Misery

My parents and sister left yesterday after having been here for a week. We did plenty of sightseeing and extraordinary amounts of eating. And of course we did another segway tour! (Not that I really gave anyone the option.) Our group consisted of Tim and Sue (parents), Laura (sister), Dave (husband), Grayson (classmate and friend), and myself. I had specifically asked for Jerry (our previous tour guide) because he was so friendly and full of great information. I think he was scheduled to have the weekend off, but agreed to meet us at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday. We got there and each person went through a trial run without any problems. However, Tim was going very slowly and wouldn't bend his arms and legs which made him look like a very tall robot. Regardless, we were ready for our tour. Before long, everyone was comfortable and we were zipping around Prague like pros. The segways are only allowed to go 10 kph in the city (their max speed is 20 kph) which isn't really fast enough once you get used to it (according to Tim, 10 kph is too fast). We stopped for beverages and fellowship for a bit, and I learned some interesting tidbits about my new friend Jerry:
1. He OWNS the segway tours place with two business partners (he's probably in his late 20's or early 30's) and the business is doing well.
2. He has a degree in Art History from the Sorbonne.
3. He plays the organ and organizes organ concerts in the community.
4. We heard him speak at least 4 languages.
5. He has written and published articles about art history.
All of this came up during our beverage break (because we grilled him-not because he was bragging).
So we were off on the rest of our journey. At one point we were zipping along and I realized that Tim and Sue were no longer behind us. We turned back and saw them at the other end of the, street-they had completely missed the turn and were on their way to being lost forever. Shortly after that, Dave was dismounted from his vehicle while trying to navigate through a tight construction area. He tried to hold on to the segway, but they are designed to right themselves. So when he went down, the segway jerked out of his hands and was standing up straight while Dave was sprawled on the ground-limbs akimbo. He wasn't hurt and it was hilarious.
I talked to Jerry while we traversed and he told me that he was having a party at his house later that night. Since his friends are spread throughout Europe, they choose one person's house to meet for a party once a year. There is a dress-up theme and drink theme-this year was 'rock-star' and gin and tonics. He invited us and gave me his number.
At this point we finished our tour with most of our egos in tact. Everyone had a great time, but Tim says that 'fun' is just too stressful for him to handle on a regular basis.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Segway-Where have you been all my life?

Jen and her parents came to visit this last week and it was SOOOO nice to see friends from home. We did lots of eating and sightseeing, but the best thing we did was the segway tour. Unfortunately we couldn't do it until after Mary Jane and Michael had gone back to Raleigh, so it was just Jen and me (plus 4 other strangers). First, our instructor, Jerry, had each of us do a trial run, one at a time. Everyone did great, no trouble. When it was my turn, I wobbled out of control, ran up the curb and fell off. Perfect. At that point I saw a sign for mojitos and was thinking that perhaps my afternoon would be better (and safer) spent on the restaurant porch with a cocktail. (Of course Jen got a video of me wrecking-it's probably on her facebook page.) Also, if you don't want to be the center of attention, a segway is not your best option. You look completely nerdy zipping around standing up wearing a helmet. That being said, segwaying is FANTASTIC! Jen and I have decided to go on segway tours in every city that has them. We had a 2 1/2 hr. tour where Jerry took us to see things we wouldn't have found on our own and gave us stories that may not be in the history books. Example: There is an old church that no longer has services. The reason: Years ago, the priest was an alcoholic and started selling the organ pipes one by one to pay for his cocktails. The organ no longer works. Jerry told us all kinds of juicy tidbits about Prague-I should have done the tour my first week here. The tour cost $75.00 which seemed steep initially, but I would pay it again in a minute-it was more than worth it. I can't wait to do the one in Raleigh-let me know if you want to join our segway team!

Istanbul-Final Chapter

When we weren't buying rugs and steaming ourselves in the hamam, we were walking. And walking and walking. We also took the ferry on two occasions- one to an island with castle ruins and the other to a small summer vacation island, both with more delicious food and tea, of course. We saw castles, mosques, churches and a beautiful underground cistern. All of these places were amazing, as you would imagine, but the three things that I keep thinking about were not nearly so grand: water, plumbing and strays. First, the water-you can't drink it-everyone drinks only bottled water. You can shower and wash clothes, but that's it. By the end of the week, I was really appreciating the water in the US, where we never have to worry about dysentery or weather we have enough bottled water to brush our teeth before bed (which is when you realize that you forgot to buy more). One morning, without thinking, I drank two cups from the faucet in the bathroom. As soon as I realized it, I panicked, but eventually realized that there wasn't alot I could do to change the situation, so I waited. Miraculously, nothing happened, but I was much more vigilant after that. Next, plumbing. Holy smokes. Every trip to the bathroom was a new adventure. You can't put ANYTHING in any toilet anywhere, ever-not even toilet paper. And it's not like you might want to sneak and do it because that may lead to having a very awkward conversation with someone who doesn't speak English about why you have not followed the rules and just destroyed their bathroom. Definitely not worth the risk. Now just think for a moment about putting all of the things you flush down the toilet into the garbage instead......not pretty or fragrant. However, there is an upside (can you believe it?). In the back of the toilet bowl near the top is a water-squirter that keeps you from having to use quite so much toilet paper. It's sort of like a toilet and a bidet in one, but the water is ice-cold. It will nearly make you jump right off the toilet if you aren't ready. Dave was so enamored that I think we may be getting all new toilets when we return to Raleigh.
Istanbul also has another kind of toilet (mostly older public toilets) which is a basin in the floor with a drain, no water. You squat over the basin (hopefully you remembered you're own toilet paper) and when you're done you fill a small plastic pitcher with water from a spigot to pour down the drain. This type of toilet really helps to improve balance, hand-eye co-ordination, fine motor skills and multi-tasking. All in all, making you a better person when you are finished.
Finally, strays. There are dogs and cats everywhere (alot more cats than dogs). Initially I was really concerned, so I asked the rug man and got an interesting answer. Instead of euthanizing healthy strays, in Istanbul they tag/microchip the dogs and let them go. (I don't think they do the cats.) All of the dogs looked healthy and none of them were aggressive. People seem to adopt them, almost as a neighborhood pet, looking after them and feeding them. They spend most of their days laying in the sun. All of the cats looked healthy, too. Not old, skinny or sick. If I understood correctly, they wait until they are sick to euthanize. I think they also spay/neuter the animals. The reason for this is that in the Muslim religion you are not supposed to hurt any living thing, even bugs. So basically the community takes care of the animals. It's a very different solution to the problem of strays.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Istanbul-Chapter 3

One of my favorite things that we did in Istanbul was going to the hamam, which is the Turkish bath. (For those of you that I have told about the Korean "Spa World" in D.C., this is similar.) First let me give you some background info. Turkey is 50% Muslim and part of the Muslim religion focuses on cleanliness-of person, mind, work, home, etc. So before the days of indoor plumbing, Muslims went to the hamam to get clean before going to the mosque. (Sidenote-there are washing areas outside of the mosques where Muslims sit to wash their hands, feet, and face before entering.
It was COLD outside and they were washing away. I'm guessing that it was cold water because barely any places in Turkey had warm water. I immediately thought that I would be far too much of a sissy to be Muslim.)
The hamam is a building that is at least 1000 years old. You walk in to a reception area, pay your money and they take you to a private changing room where you leave your items locked up. The women change in to a triangle bikini top (ill-fitting, zero coverage) and essentially boxer shorts made of madras. The guys get a large rectangle of madras to wrap around their waist. (Traditional hamams kept the men and women separate, but now some of them are co-ed because so many non-Muslims like to go.)
Once you've got on your madras and horrible wooden flip-flops that are a danger to yourself and others, you head in to the steam room, which is incredible. The entire room is light grey/
white stone. There is a giant circular altar that is about 15'-20' across and 3 1/2 ' high where everyone is laying and sweating. There are low sinks with hot and cold water and bowls so that you can pour water on yourself to adjust your temperature. One of the most interesting things is that there are gutters built into the stone floors so that all of the water is draining away from the room. The entire thing is an engineering miracle for being so old. Once you have become weary from the heat, the massage boys come in and direct you to a small open room with two stone slabs (still part of the steam room) where you receive a vigorous scrub and massage. They take exfoliation to a whole new level and cover you in a blanket of lovely smelling warm suds. When you've had your fill, you head to the drying room where they wrap you in towels (including your head-like the Queen of Sheba) and lead you to the resting room where you can enjoy beverages until you are ready to get changed and leave.
People! Why do so many countries have steam-room activity centers and not us (and the steam room at the YMCA doesn't count)! This place and the place in D.C.(which is Korean, not American) are like family/community gathering areas where everyone goes to hang out and relax. We need more of these-Americans are an uptight group of people, (self most definitely included) who would definitely benefit from these activities.
The uptightness (not a real word) of Americans was obvious when we saw another American couple, about our age, in the steam room. There were plenty of other people in the room who were enjoying themselves (including grandmas whose bikini tops were under alot of strain). But when this couple came in, they weren't quite sure what to do. Dave gave them some pointers (as you know, he loves to talk to strangers) and the guy seemed to jump right in. However, the female sat ram-rod straight with her towel wrapped tight and a scowl on her face. 30-45 minutes later she had not moved. She hadn't even loosened her towel and it was HOT! She had on the same outfit as the rest of us, so I can't imagine what the problem was. It must be fun being married to her.
So if I haven't told you about Spa World, google it. It's in Virginia just outside of D.C. and it is one of the most amazing places that I have been. You pay $30 and get to stay up to 24 hrs. It is a mecca of relaxation-go there if you are ever in the area.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Istanbul-Chapter 2 Cont.

Another driver takes us to the family restaurant, which is really nice. This family obviously knows a thing or two about business. They are staying open late for us and we are the only people there. The rug man orders INSANE amounts of food and alcohol for the three of us. They bring out the fish selection, (which is 10-20 whole fish) and ask us to choose which we would like and how we would like it prepared. We decide on a fish and the rug man suggests a method of preparation where they pack the fish in salt, bake it, bring it to the table, light it on fire and chip away the salt with a small hammer. It was incredible. This was after we had eaten the largest prawns I had ever seen, anchovy salad, vegetable salads, small fried fish, bread and probably alot more stuff that I don't remember. The rug man had been talking non-stop about himself and all of the money he makes in his business dealings (questionable), but had started to yawn and was visibly tired. But we MUST have desert and then he can take us to the disco! This man is a maniac! We already bought the rug! What more do you want from us-it's 1:00 a.m.! We opted not to go to the disco and took a cab back to the hotel. Buying a rug took us about 10 hrs.
We realized that this was just their mode of doing business-they take tourists around town and sell them rugs. But here's the interesting thing: we ran into the carpet man two more times and both times he invited us to do an activity. We ran into him on his way to the gym, and he invited us to come along. We ran into him near the store, and we HAD to go in and have some tea. These people are nothing if not hospitable-I loved Turkey. The Czech Republic could learn a thing or two from their Turkish neighbors.

Istanbul-Chapter 2

Our first full day in Istanbul started like this: Dave woke up early and went to investigate the city while I slept late (the only REAL way to start a vacation). He was walking around the park and met a Turkish man about our age, named Sabri. They started talking and Sabri told Dave that his family owned a rug store just around the corner. (I know, it sounds like the beginning of an international murder-mystery movie. Dave does not believe that you are not supposed to talk to strangers.) So Dave went with Sabri to the rug store and of course they had tea. Sabri wanted to tell Dave about the rugs, but Dave said that they should wait because I would want to hear about them too. Dave comes back to the hotel, we eat lunch and go back to the rug store to talk about rugs, or so we think. First, of course, we must have tea and conversation. The rug store is a huge operation and really nice-not a basement in a back alley. Sabri wants to know how we like Istanbul, what we've done so far (not much yet), and what are some of the things we want to do while we're there. He also has some suggestions of things we might enjoy that aren't quite so touristy. He says he'd love to show us a few of his favorite places. He has time right now, if we're not busy. Don't worry, we'll talk about rugs later and we shouldn't feel obligated to buy one. He's going to call the store driver and set it up.
Time out. Everything about who I am says RED FLAG. This man is way too nice. We don't know anything about him and he's ready to drop everything to take us sightseeing? Shouldn't he be working? We are definitely going to be kidnapped and sold into prostitution. However, I actually think that I might be over-reacting. This is a REALLY nice store with plenty of customers. Everyone speaks English. Nothing sketchy has happened-not even close. You can't build a reputable business in a touristy area by kidnapping all of your customers and selling them on the black market. Fine. I'm going to have to live outside my comfort zone today-that's why I married Dave.
The store driver picks us up and takes us to a beautiful mosque in a non-touristy part of town. Then we take a ride up the side of a mountain (in one of those ski-lift things that holds a bunch of people). At the top is a beautitul view of Istanbul and a restaurant that overlooks the city. (I wonder if he's going to push us off the mountain and leave us for dead?) We sit at an outdoor table and have tea and coffee. It's getting dark and cold, so we decide to head back. The driver picks us up and drops us off at the store. It's probably 7:00 and we started at 2:00. We must come in and enjoy a glass of wine while we talk about rugs. Are we hungry-maybe we need some snacks? Sabri introduces us to his boss (whose name I can't remember) and we drink wine and talk about rugs for the next 3 hrs. He has 3 helpers who bring out rugs of ALL varieties, beginning with an 18"x18" silk rug that costs $35,000. It takes 6 or 10 years to make (I can't remember). It's amazingly beautiful, but this man is barking up the wrong tree-we are SO far away from purchasing $35,000 rugs at this point in our lives! I try to explain this, but he's not interested (this man could sell swampwater to Floridians). He tells me that I must take off my shoes and socks and walk on the $35,000 rug. Telling this man 'no' is no longer an option-he never gets tired of the challenge of wearing you down. Fine. I walk on the rug.
Eventually, they start bringing out less expensive rugs, and Dave is having a blast. He is wheeling and dealing with the rug man. Now the rug man is telling me how beautiful and fantastic I am because he knows that Dave probably won't be buying a rug unless I'm on board. I don't really want a rug (although they are amazing) because we are on a grad-school budget. But now Dave AND the rug man are trying to sell me a carpet. "It will be a family heirloom!" Also, we are on our 2nd or 3rd bottle of wine (again, it doesn't matter if you say 'no' they fill your glass anyway) and my resolve is wearing thin. At this point I realize that we WILL be leaving with a carpet, so it might as well be one that I REALLY like.
We have purchased a rug, and assume that we are headed home, but we would be mistaken. Now we MUST join the rug man for dinner at his family's restaurant. Holy smokes. This day has not gone even REMOTELY like I thought it might when I woke up this morning. Cont.