Day off

Today is my day off.  Most people would be excited for a day off, and I am.  I’m excited in the same way that I am on Tuesday mornings and Thursday and Friday afternoons, not to mention on those mysterious jours fériés, national holidays.  Because I work 12 hours a week…in France.  The difference between ‘my day off’ and an average day is 2 or 3 hours of work.  No wonder I can’t help but giggle whenever a Republican throws the word ‘socialist’ around like it’s supposed to be a bad thing.  What other national government would hire a couple thousand foreigners to teach their native tongue, give them 6 weeks’ vacation in 7 months, and pay a decent stipend for working just a third of full time?

At a certain point, free time is less of a novelty and more of a burden.  I do have things I should be doing besides actually teaching, I swear.  But when you have 20 hours of free time a week, that starts to seem a lot better suited to learning Disney songs in French than writing an evaluation about a boy who likes to interrupt his classmates’ English with sexual remarks in French. (Je comprends le français, pourquoi tu dis ces choses??  I understand French, why do you say these things??)  So the actual work gets pushed back in favor of reading (optimistic), listening to French radio (slightly more believable), and slowly being sucked into my laptop to become one with the worldwide web (yeah, that’s about right).

On the other hand, this is the perfect kind of program for socializing.  We Gap assistants have really lucked out.  Gap is the largest city for miles around at a whopping 40,000 people.  There are 9 English assistants, 2 Italian assistants, 1 Spanish assistant, and at least 1 German assistant.  Not too shabby.

Plus, our Spanish compatriot is really a package deal.  I don’t think the assistants have gone one night hanging out without learning about yet another city where Juan has a friend.  He has a car and drove some of us to the nearby village of Embrun two weekends ago.  Three of us were sitting at a table at a café when we overheard Juan telling the Portuguese man the waiter had just introduced him to that they’ll ‘cross paths’ soon in Gap.  So that’s how it’s done, eh?

Also thanks to Juan and a French guy Juan introduced us to, 11 of us went on a hike outside of Gap this past Sunday.  I’m not sure we took the trail we meant to, but the important thing is we ended up back at the cars.  It was a beautiful day and great company.  My camera was at the bottom of my bookbag, so here are some photos I’m stealing from one of my hiking companions, Maddy.

   

My parents: "That's our daughter!"

Well, I’m going to find something to do with myself for the rest of my day off.  If you need any papers edited or French books translated or just some funny HuffPost links sent your way, I’m your girl.

MB

Chillin’ with the Habsburgs

Let’s talk ANTM—America’s Next Top Model, of course.  If Prague were an ANTM contestant, she’d be the edgy girl who, when it comes to makeover time, gets feminine, wavy extensions put in over the jet-black, spiky do she came in with (how will she overcome such a drastic change of identity???).

Vienna is the classic, aristocratic beauty.  Her cheekbones cut glass, her pores are so tiny they make you want to die, and she knows how to take a good photo from the first challenge…doesn’t everybody?  Okay, moving past the way-too-specific metaphor, Vienna is gorgeous.  Had it not come after Prague on the trip, I think I would’ve liked it even more, but whaddayagonnado?

We spent the first day in the center of Vienna, starting in Stephansplatz and making our way to the Hofburg Palace (Habsburg hangout #1), where we saw more cutlery (and chamber pots) than I ever really cared to see.  The audio tour through the Imperial Silver Collection really got me in touch with my aristocratic side.  “The 30-metre Milan Centerpiece is clearly superior to its predecessor, the Old French Centerpiece, in its gold carvings and pristine mirror plateaus.”  I recently considered buying a shirt that was dry clean only.

The ticket also included admission to the Sisi Museum, a more relaxed exhibit dedicated to the myth surrounding Elisabeth, the reclusive wife of Emperor Franz Josef whose popularity rose drastically after she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist.  This was my favorite part of the visit.  Elisabeth was a weird lady.  She was completely obsessed with her looks and weighed herself every day, adhering to crazy diets in order to stay below 103 pounds (She was 5’8”.  If that’s not shocking to you, don’t talk to me, you skinny bitch).

By the end of the visit, I felt pretty bad for Franz Josef.  After the Sisi Museum, we went through the royal apartments.  Franz Josef’s study proudly displays several portraits of his wife, including a big one right in front of the desk that served as the 19th century equivalent of desktop wallpaper.  Elisabeth’s study features an exercise machine of her own invention and a set of rings mounted in the doorway.  Right in the next room is the bathtub where she periodically sat for a full day while attendants washed her knee-length hair in a mixture of cognac and egg yolk.  Something just doesn’t add up here…

We rounded out the first day with a trip to the Leopold Museum, best known for its Egon Schiele collection.  Habsburgs in the morning, tortured Austrian expressionist in the afternoon.  Instead of trying to describe Schiele’s work, how about I just let it speak for itself?

      

I had never even heard of Schiele before this trip, but it turns out he did some incredible work, especially considering he died in 1918.

We spent the last full day in Vienna at Schloss Schonbrunn, the Habsburgs’ summer residence.  Just think Pride & Prejudice, but multiply Darcy’s mansion by about twenty.  Many of the gardens had already been dug up for winter, but we were just in time for beautiful fall color. It was a nice last day of an exhausting vacation, which came off surprisingly well (if I do say so myself).

       

Five lesser-known reasons to visit (and fall in love with) Prague

5. Their currency is seriously cool.

Although Prague is generally less expensive than other big-name European capital cities, it’s almost a shame to spend any money at all, unless it means discovering a banknote you haven’t yet seen!

The bills feature important figures in Czech history and culture.  At the time, I didn’t have the 5000 or 2000 notes, but they show, respectively, TG Masaryk, an incredible politician who, among many other accomplishments, defended a Jew in the Czech equivalent of the Dreyfus Affair, and Emma Destinova, one of the greatest opera singers of all time (and a woman…imagine!).  On the notes in the picture are a politician-historian; one of the most beloved Czech author(esse)s, Bozena Nemcova; a teacher, scientist, all-around smart guy; and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and the guy who gave Prague its most famous landmarks.

Finally, instead of stamping their coins with the floating heads of random presidents (seriously, Dwight Eisenhower?), Czech coins show awesome things like this:

4. The street musicians are actually really talented.

Based on a sample size of two (my research methods professor told me that’s sufficient), Prague street musicians are better than the average subway station accordionist.  I walked across the Charles Bridge on two different days and saw two great bands.  One was kind of jazzy, a sax, clarinet, trumpet deal.  The other was a little more honkytonk (wonder how you say that in Czech?) and featured a tuba, washboard, and vocalist, plus these superstars:

And yes, that is a cigarette in the trumpet player’s left hand.  So, maybe try to get to Prague before this guy’s lung capacity drops too low.

3. Prague looks good, even in the rain, or covered in graffiti, or drizzled with bechamel sauce (probably).

Some cities just can’t stand up to bad weather or the slightest bit of dirt.  Prague has all the beauty of Paris, but you don’t feel like you’ve seen it all before in a movie or on a postcard.  Passing from the historical sections of Prague into places like the bustling, commercial Wenceslas Square, I noticed the increased use of neon signs and a few more McDonalds, but the buildings were still more charming than the average high-rise in an American city.  Plus, when in doubt, just paint it in a pastel shade of green, pink, or yellow.

2. SmetanaMANIA

Anyone who’s known me for awhile knows that several coincidences led me to start rooting for the Green Bay Packers back in the third grade.  In the same way, in the 8th grade, Bedrich Smetana’s ‘Moldau’ became the first piece of classical music I ever bought on CD.  And though I knew Smetana was from Bohemia, I wasn’t expecting the widespread worship he still receives in Prague and probably in the Czech Republic in general.

As I said, it was coincidence that led me to this particular piece of music; I haven’t been listening to Beethoven’s piano concertos since I was eight or anything like that.  Smetana is (I think) not as well-known in the US as his compatriot, Antonin Dvorak.  In Prague, he’s hailed as the father of Czech music,and I, for one, couldn’t be happier.

This is from the Prague Municipal House, or city hall, famous for its Art Nouveau styling. Smetana and Dvorak are the farthest to the right.

1. It’s good to be reminded how hard some peoples have fought for their cultural identity.

Excuse me while I go all polisci major for a sec, but it was inspiring to see how proud Czechs are of their culture and history.  Now, I’m regrettably ill-versed in Central and Eastern European history, but even I picked up on the pride Czechs have in their country and their capital city after years of fighting and protesting to claim their own identity.  It would be hard not to notice–you see it in their currency, their municipal buildings, their street names.

This open, yet somehow unassuming pride is really refreshing.  While I don’t believe the stereotype that all French people are snobs, I do sometimes think they consider it a foregone conclusion–to the extent that it’s not worth reiterating–that French philosophers, artists, and writers have been indispensable to the development of Western culture.  Americans are stereotyped as not letting you forget their country’s more recent role in this development.  Maybe both groups are right, but the sincerity with which Czechs celebrate their own heroes is distinct and, for lack of a better word, totally cool.