Thursday, February 23, 2012

Living in Brittany

Background: France is divided into a bunch of administrative regions, of which Brittany (Bretagne in French) is one*. Each region is subdivided into departments. Brittany has four departments: Ille-et-Vilaine in the east, Côtes d'Armor in the north, Morbihan in the south, and Finistère, where Brest is located, in the west. (And let's not even get into the various unofficial cultural regions, which I'm only beginning to figure out. Just look how confusing it is: MAP.)

The Breton name for Finistère is Penn-ar-Bed, which means "the end of the earth". I don't know for sure, but that seems like a legitimate origin for the French name, too; in modern French the translation would be something like "Fin de la Terre", which is pretty similar. It actually sounds like it might even be a Frenchification** of the Latin.

In any case, in theory, Finistère (along with the western part of Côtes d'Armor) is where one is most likely to hear Breton spoken. I suppose it's a similar phenomenon to that in Ireland; the original Celtic language survived mainly in the westernmost regions because they were the ones furthest from the encroaching influence of what was to become the dominant language. That said, Breton is an endangered language, spoken by only a fraction of the population, most of whom are old. (The immersion and bilingual schools scattered throughout Brittany are not funded by the state, because French historically does not play well with other languages, and so they only reach a tiny percentage of children.) So in practice, I have never actually heard it used. I'm sure that's partly because I live in the city, where it's less likely than in rural areas, but I've never encountered it in my short forays into smaller towns, either. The exceptions, of course, are Breton words that have been adopted into French (names of traditional foods being the most obvious example) and Breton words used in the names of businesses and products. Place names are also commonly Breton, or at least Frenchified Breton, which makes them exceptionally difficult for me to figure out how to pronounce.

Sometimes in classes where I'm lucky enough to have the class roster in front of me, I study it while I'm waiting for students to complete some individual or group task without my interference. Sometimes I'm just trying to figure out who's who, but other times I'm studying the names themselves and trying to guess which are French and which are Breton. Classically French names are common: All of the Marions and Laurines and Elodies, the Valentins and Lucs and Cléments, leave no doubt. And sometimes the Breton names--Riwan, Aziliz, Killian, Nolwenn--are just as obvious. Others I'm less sure about. They sound like they could go either way. Last names can be especially difficult, but there are plenty of first names I still can't identify.

Then I start to wonder about the students with the Breton names. Do their siblings also have Breton names? Do their parents speak Breton, or did they just like the name? Do they themselves speak Breton? It's not likely. But... are they among those who still identify as Breton more than, or even instead of, French? That's more common than you might think. The people of Brittany are extremely proud of their heritage and their traditions (the Breton flag is everywhere), but more than that, there are people who claim Brittany is not France and aren't speaking figuratively or trying to make a point. "I've never been to France," they'll say. The "BZH LIBRE" graffiti I sometimes see would even suggest there is still a movement (how big, and how politically serious, I wouldn't know) for Breton independence.

When I think about it, that makes it seem a little strange that I don't have more of a sense of there being a culture clash here. The fact that I don't know which names are Breton and which are French, that I don't think twice about Brittany-specific targeted advertising, that a lack of bilingual signage strikes me as odd... it's just funny how normal things like that seem. I've spent very little time outside of Brittany, comparatively, and it occurs to me now that I don't really know what life in the rest of France is like. The differences must be so much more than drinking wine instead of cider and beer and eating white-flour crêpes instead of buckwheat. It must be more, even, then being away from the megaliths and the pervasiveness of fishing and sailing culture. They say, for example, that Brittany is by far the most Catholic part of France, and while I haven't seen much evidence that people are especially religious today, there are churches and abbeys and religious sculptures around every bend. Everything is named after St. Anne and St. Yves. Meanwhile, the region is full of festivals, festivals of all kinds, but especially ones celebrating traditional music and dance and storytelling, not to mention maritime traditions. Some of my students have told me they play traditional instruments, and often some of the street musicians at the Sunday market are playing Breton music. The market itself is a smorgasbord of local foods I take for granted that I imagine my friends elsewhere in France may have never seen. The libraries and bookstores have huge sections on Breton tales and proverbs and history. Every other car I see has a triskell sticker or one of a little cartoon person in Breton dress. Women carry shopping bags and men wear scarves that have the Breton flag on them--and here I thought putting your flag on everything was an American thing. Most people may not speak Breton, but it's printed everywhere.

I realize that no country's culture is uniform and that what it means to be French varies from region to region elsewhere. There are probably traditions everywhere that are region-specific. (They say the middle of the country, away from the influence of bordering nations, is the most "French".) But here, where some people still insist they are not French at all, where most of the population was bilingual until fifty years ago and many still wore traditional costumes up until WWII, there's truly a dual culture. Brittany remained very distinct from the rest of France until astonishingly recently, and it still shows. It shows in ways I think I must not even realize, since I have nothing to which to compare what I see here. And that's just really interesting to me.

I wonder what other ways my experience of France hasn't been typical...

* Not to be confused with the cultural region of Brittany or the historical duchy of Brittany, of which the modern administrative region only contains about 80%.
** That's a real word, I swear.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Saga of the Wallet, Continued

So, I wrote about how my wallet got stolen, and about the trauma I went through over the next couple of days trying to get everything sorted out, and about how my wallet was eventually returned to me, sans cash but otherwise intact.

Last Tuesday, I picked up my new bank card (for which I was charged a five euro replacement fee, by the way), and thought that was more or less the end of the saga, other than figuring out when and how to get my new American cards, which are currently in my parents' possession.

Then last Wednesday, I took a day trip to Quimper to visit the museums there. The first thing I did upon getting off the bus was walk across the street to an ATM to get some cash.

CODE INCORRECT. (Or whatever it says when that happens.)

I looked at it for a minute in astonishment. I was pretty darn sure I hadn't screwed it up. I tried again.


At that point I started to panic, realizing that my new card must also have a new PIN, even though no one at the bank had bothered to mention this to me. I hit "cancel" and got the card back. For a second I freaked out about the fact that I was no an hour from home with no access to money, before I remembered the bus home costs three euros and I definitely had at least that much on me.

Then I thought, "Wait a second, this is ridiculous." I put the card back in the machine and tried again.

I think I was hoping that the three strikes and out rule did not apply if you started over entirely, but obviously modern technology is too smart for that, and, predictably, the machine ate my card.

At that point I was seriously pissed off. I went inside the bank (which fortunately was a branch of the one that holds my account). I explained to the woman that the machine outside had taken my card, which was confusing to me because I had thought I was using the correct code. "That's strange," she said. No kidding. I gave her my passport so she could look up my account, and then explained that I had just gotten a replacement card, but that since no one had said anything to me about a new code, I had assumed it was still the same. (I left out the part about how they had specifically asked me the week before about whether the code had been lost along with the card, a question whose purpose I do not understand if they were going to change the code regardless of the answer.) She then explained that the new code would have been sent to me by mail, at which point I must have looked horrorstruck, because she said something like, "Does that not sound familiar?" I explained that I live at the school where I work and it's closed for the holiday. No mail. I think I then tried to reiterate the fact that NOBODY FREAKING TOLD ME I was going to have a new code in the first place.

She said she would go try to get my card out of the ATM, and then she could withdraw some cash for me if I wanted.

"There's no other way to get the code?"

"No. It can only be sent to your home address. It's for your security."

Seriously? I'm standing right in front of you in person, passport in hand (a passport which contains not just one, but two photos of me, I might add). What's more secure than that? Send me back to my own branch if you must, but surely that would at least be enough for them? I even understand if bank employees aren't allowed to access PINs, but the original letter was generated somehow and handled by some person, so there's got to be a way to print a new one and hand it to me.

Needless to say, that little discovery blighted my whole day. But more than that, I had plans for my vacation: At the very least, I was going to spend a couple more days in Paris, I was going to check out Saint Malo, and, most importantly, I was going to spend four days in Barcelona with my friends. I had put off buying tickets until I had my trip to Senegal sorted out, and then until I got my new bank card, but I had intended to go home from Quimper that very day and book my trains and flights and hostel. But try as I might, I couldn't think of any way to do any of that without using my bank card at all. Even if I went back to the bank and withdraw a huge sum of cash, that would still be all I had. If something happened to it, or I ran out, in a place where my bank doesn't exist, I'd be screwed. If I somehow found myself in a situation where I couldn't use cash, I'd be screwed. There is no way to use a French bank card without the code (except online, which would get me my plane tickets and maybe my hostel, if I was lucky--some hostels prefer cash--but nothing else). And of course, I didn't even have my American cards, which are a pain to use anyway, to back me up, so I couldn't even pay for my whole trip with a credit card to be paid off when I got back.

So, wallet thief, I hope that twelve euros + however much Czech kroner was really worth it, because you ruined the next three weeks of my life. I may not get another chance to go to Barcelona, which we'd been planning since last fall, and I certainly won't get another chance to go with these people.

It's not really so bad, in the end. I think I needed some time at home to work on stuff like powering through my TESOL course and looking for jobs for the summer and next year. I'm getting some reading done. I'm working on blog posts. I'm getting some hiking in (though transportation continues to be an issue), because what better time to explore my immediate surroundings than when I'm stuck here anyway, especially since I've so far proved to be insufficiently motivated to go out and do such things during my free time when I'm not on vacation. And of course, I'm saving a lot of money; there's nothing better than lack of easy access to money to keep one from spending it. But it still sucks, because the things I WOULD have done were things I won't have time to do otherwise. I'm not looking forward to hearing about what I missed in Barcelona, and I'm not looking forward to the inevitable questions about what I did during the holidays when I go back to work. (Some of the teachers already knew about Barcelona, which will make for especially awkward conversations.) I'm trying to be as productive as possible so I can feel like the time off wasn't wasted, but I'm not sure how well that's going to work for someone like me.

Especially since there are now only a little over two months left before this is over...

Holiday Travels, Part 9: The Empire Of The Dead

"Remembering you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose." – Steve Jobs

The entrance to the Paris Catacombs is right next to a busy intersection in the heart of the Montparnasse neighborhood. It's nothing, really--a sort of shack next to a small garden. Signs listing the entrance fees (in English as well as French) also warn of the number of steps to be climbed, and that the catacombs are not a place for children or the overly sensitive.

The lines are long, and people are ushered in in groups, with long pauses between. (As a nominal preservation measure, there are strict limits on the number of people allowed inside the catacombs at any one time.) When you finally enter the shack, signs on the wall describe the geology underlying Paris, and show you a diagram of the location of the catacombs relative to various other layers. There is a ticket booth at which to pay the entrance fee and retrieve a pamphlet (in an assortment of languages). Just to the right, so close to the counter it seems ridiculous to have a second employee checking tickets, is a narrow, winding staircase that leads down, down, down into the depths. The noise of the city vanishes almost at once. When you reach the bottom, you are deeper inside the earth than even the Métro.

The first spaces are relatively open and brightly lit, hung with photographs and diagrams and various texts describing the history of the catacombs. They were dug first as quarries, and were the source of the stones used to build some of the most famous buildings in Paris. Later they were hideouts, for outlaws and refugees alike. In the late eighteenth century, a section of them was modified and consecrated and became the final resting place of hundreds of thousands of dead Parisians, some of them already centuries old, who were systematically exhumed from various cemeteries and churchyards over the course of the next hundred years.

You must walk through some distance of empty catacombs before reaching the crypt. They are narrow limestone tunnels, dark and damp. The walls are rough, carved or painted or hung with small plaques here and there, left from the quarry and construction days or commemorating something about them. The floors are uneven, but in places without gravel they are worn smooth. Today the passages are dimly lit with small bulbs every few meters, which provide enough light to see the black stripe painted down the middle of the ceiling, left from the days of candlelit tourism when visitors needed some way to make sure they were on the right path. Nowadays the path is unmistakable--locked iron gates stand in the way of any possible wrong turn. They detract from the feel of the place a bit, but if you're careful and can manage to be alone in a stretch of tunnel for a moment, you can feel the silence and isolation almost as surely as if you really were alone--remarkable when you remember that just meters above your head, cars are whizzing down a street lined with high-rises and crowds of pedestrians.

There are a few interesting sights along the route. The marks of quarrying tools. A deep well, far below the path. Some ornate 3D carvings, reminiscent of sand castles, worked by a prisoner, that seem completely surreal and out of place. But the highlight of the visit is the ossuary. Past the silent human guards and several signs warning visitors to be respectful (this section of the catacombs is not merely a repository; it is hallowed ground), a monumental doorway guards the entrance to the crypt, and its inscription reads: "Stop! It is here the empire of the dead."

Before I go any further, a quick tangent is necessary. I remember writing something while I was in Ireland about how—as ridiculous as it sounded and as pompous and douchebaggy as it made me feel—I feared I might actually be getting bored of castles. Not, of course, that I think anyone could ever actually be bored of castles, because some things never get old (so to speak), just that they didn't seem to have quite as much impact as they did at first. One of the pitfalls of travel is that sometimes, the more impressive things one sees, the more it takes to seem impressive. I have seen a lot of amazing and beautiful things, and I haven't even come close to ceasing to appreciate them, but they don't always strike quite as hard as they used to. The tenth castle, the twentieth medieval church, just can't make a heart race quite as easily as the first unless there's something else that's special about it--a special personal connection, perhaps. It's sad, but it's true. I still love seeing new things, and I still marvel at beauty and history, but I'm a little jaded, all the same.

I told you all of that not to make myself sound like an asshole (although I'm aware that that's a side effect), but in order to tell you this and have it carry the appropriate weight: When I stepped through the doorway into the ossuary, what I saw stopped me in my tracks. I mean actually. There was a pause to allow my eyes to adjust, and as I realized what I was looking at, I changed at once from paused to simply frozen.

Perhaps I should also point out here that I am not squeamish about bones (quite the opposite, in fact), nor are they exotic to me. Not only have I seen plenty of them in exhibit contexts, I've handled them and studied them in excavation and laboratory contexts. In fact, if and when I go back to school for my Master's in archaeology, there is a pretty good chance that I may decide to specialize in the study of human remains. So it wasn't just the presence of the bones, or the fact of being in a burial place, that did it. It was something else.

I think it was the scale. Imagine several million people all in one place. More than in all but the biggest U.S. cities. Now imagine that all you have of them are their bones, stacked neatly along either side of a narrow path in piles taller than a man and several yards deep, stretching farther than the eye can see away into the darkness.

I'd heard the numbers--roughly this many people, in a space covering roughly six or seven city blocks--but I was completely unprepared for the sight of that many bones. It defies imagination, let alone comprehension.

But you do imagine. I did, at least. Every single one of those bones once belonged to a person, to someone who walked and talked and worked and laughed. Someone who, at some point in the past, had a home, and a family. Someone who ate, and cried, and loved and was loved by someone. Now all of them are anonymous, lying in pieces and stacked up with their neighbors like firewood somewhere in the bowels of one of the world's greatest cities.

Most of the bones that are visible are long bones and skulls. Sometimes ribs, here and there. The lack of pelvises puzzled me a bit, but everything else I assume has fallen down among the cracks or is lying in heaps somewhere out of sight behind the walls of arms and legs, if it hasn't already rotted away. Everything is very neat*, but no one is intact. It would be impossible ever to try to match up what pieces go together.

Sometimes they are arranged into shapes. A bulging column is set apart from the stacks lining the walls. The stacks are decorated with a cross made of tibiae here, a heart-shaped ring of skulls there.

And they just go on and on. If the catacombs seemed endless before you reached the ossuary, that's nothing compared to being with the bones. You can only see a short distance at a time, between the dim lights and the twists and turns of the passages, and always the space that you can see is entirely lined with bones, sometimes with more piles of bones stacked up in columns in the middle of wider areas. It's cold and damp and dark, and silent except for the voices and muffled footsteps of fellow tourists, and the water dripping from above. You keep moving forward, and the stacks of bones keep extending out of sight, and you pass a gate and see more bones beyond it, and you round a corner and the stacks of bones continue ahead of you just as they did behind. Ad infinitum. You're surrounded, constantly. Everywhere, there are more skulls staring at you. You have no choice but to look death in the face. You have nowhere to go but past more former people. You have no idea when it's going to end. You don't know how far you've walked. You forget how long you've been walking. Time is irrelevant here.

Some people apparently think it's scary. Adults whisper, and even college-age men speak in hushed tones. Girls of ten or twelve complain loudly and theatrically about being creeped out. Teenagers laugh and joke--disrespect, or just discomfort?

Those of us walking alone snap pictures, many more pictures than people traveling in groups, even though groups are more likely to have a flashlight or two to aid the process. Partly it's the same morbid curiosity that drew us there in the first place, but also, even the underworld is smaller through a camera lens.

And it is the underworld literally as well as figuratively--above, the City of Light bustles with life, and in the catacombs, the people who were once that life themselves languish in the dark and the stillness.

Counterpoint. Yin and yang. The circle of life.

An article about the catacombs by Ted Gup that appeared in Smithsonian magazine years ago (I believe it was sometime in the late '90s, I found it when sorting through stacks of old magazines before my parents moved last summer) ends with this paragraph: "There is a strange irony about the catacombs. The stones that were removed from the early quarries went to make the great buildings of Paris—the Louvre and Notre Dame... But those who built and created the majesty of modern Paris—generations of architects, laborers, shopkeepers, soldiers and peasants—were destined to lose their individual identities, reduced to a kind of human landfill. They would occupy the same dark cavities from which the stones of Paris had been removed. They and the stones had traded places... The city of Paris, City of Light, city of gourmands and lovers, of Notre Dame and the Louvre—this is their legacy and the grand monument that is their due."

I didn't think it was scary. Eerie, perhaps. Intense. Powerful. But not frightening.

I did find it profoundly sad--and also weirdly inspirational. Someday, sooner or later, we will all be no more than they, and we may be just as anonymous, just as forgotten. Who was it who called death the great equalizer? It's true. Not just because we all come to the same thing, but because it becomes very clear in a place like Paris's catacombs that we are all just parts of the same whole. There is no one thing that everyone in the catacombs has in common except for where they ended up--and the fact that they no longer have any other identity. But together, they become the past, the fabric of a city. They are us, or we are them, or it doesn't matter, in the end, who any of us is. It matters what we do, all of us together, to lead to the next phase of history, and the next. It matters what we contribute to what will be left behind when everyone living now is nameless and faceless.

There is no greater motivator than mortality.

And mortality is inescapable in the catacombs. If the bones themselves are not reminder enough, or if you possess either the ability to block them out or the inability to think of them as people, there are also written reminders. Before each new section of stacked remains is a sign bearing the name of their original burial place and the date that they were moved to the catacombs. Also, scattered throughout the ossuary are dozens and dozens of signs bearing quotes. There are too many to read them all, and some are in shadow anyway, unreadable without a flashlight or candle. Most are about death, some about life. Some are in French, some in Latin, some are religious and some secular, and they draw on everything from Bible passages to lines from Homer and Virgil to Enlightenment philosophers. They are perhaps a strange tribute given that the population of the catacombs was probably largely illiterate in life, but they certainly set the mood for today's visitors.

"God is not the author of death."
"Believe that each day is for you the last."
"Come people of the world, come into these silent abodes and your soul so calm with be struck by the voice that rises from their interior. It is here that the greatest of masters, the Tomb, has his school of truth."
"Happy is he who has always before his eyes the hour of his death, and who readies himself all his days to die."
"Fool that you are, why do you promise to live a long time, you who cannot count on a single day."

[Forgive my terrible translations.]

When you finally emerge, back up another long, winding set of stairs, daylight feels strange and you feel out of place on the street among the living. The careless bustle of the city just doesn't look the same as it did before. Maybe it won't. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

* In the parts that tourists see. In some of the off-limits parts of the catacombs, there really are just heaps of bones lying willy-nilly.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 8: Paris, Round 2

My scenic train ride from Prague to Berlin cheered me up a little after the disappointment of that morning. It really was very beautiful, though it got dark before we reached Berlin, so I hope the last part wasn't supposed to be the prettiest. Berlin has an epic, multi-level central train station, and although it still wasn't super exciting, it was a vast improvement over Wuppertal. My trip on the night train was also a vast improvement--there was only one other person in my compartment when I got on (for the record, it was a middle-aged man reading Twilight...), and it never did get full. I don't remember whether I slept or not, but either way it was a far less crappy night than the trip to Prague. I arrived back in Paris on the morning of the 28th, bought an enormous pain au chocolat, and went to meet my friend Thalia, who promptly whisked me off on the RER to the town where she lives on the outer rim of Paris's suburbs.

Étampe is cute, if small. The center has a small-village feel to it, and it has a charming little canal. The major downside to staying there was the fact that the town center is at the bottom of a monstrous hill, while the newer neighborhoods, including the one where Thalia's school is, are at the top. This proved especially challenging on the morning of the second day I was there, when I went out to find patches of ice everywhere. On the positive side, Étampe actually has old buildings, which continues to be a novelty for me. The highlights include several old churches, a half-timbered tavern building, a really interesting old stuccoed building with a courtyard that's now the public library, and, up on the hill overlooking the center, the remains of a rather oddly-shaped castle. It's almost clover-shaped, four round towers stuck together around a central point. I've never seen anything like it. Unfortunately, in December when I was there, it was "decorated" with "holiday" lights, and not even a little bit tastefully. (Among other issues, it was continually changing colors.)

After Thalia showed me around Étampe a bit, we headed back into the city to meet a friend of hers for dinner at what may well be the only taqueria in Paris, followed by drinks at a surprisingly inexpensive (read: prices comparable to anywhere outside of Paris) café, and then a wander that eventually took us to Notre Dame. I think that was the first time I'd seen the cathedral at night, and it's every bit as amazing as it is in photos. But then, I just never get tired of hanging around Notre Dame.

The next morning I got up early and went back into Paris by myself to go to the Musée National du Moyen Âge (formerly known as the Musée du Cluny). It was my first stop because I was super excited about it; it was one of the places I'd been dreaming of going since last summer when I first started seriously thinking about the fact that I was about to spend eight months of my life in France. Sadly, it turned out to be somewhat disappointing. Not that there weren't some really cool things there. The special exhibit at the time had a lot of illuminated manuscripts, for one thing. There was a scattering of nice tapestries and decorative art pieces. You can go into part of the ruined Roman baths below the museum, which was awesome, and some parts of the mansion the museum is housed in are more or less original. And of course, I got to see the famous Dame à la licorne tapestry series, which was probably the highlight of that day. They're hanging by themselves in a specially lit room, and I just sat there for a long time studying them. But everything else in the museum, which was a lot, was a bit of a letdown after all my excitement. It's a lot, a LOT of religious art and paraphernalia, and I'd really been expecting/hoping for more secular, everyday sorts of things. That's what I get for being an archaeologist instead of an art historian, I guess. But even so, the Art Museum of Philadelphia (yes, Philadelphia! on the other side of the Atlantic!) has a better collection of arms and armor. Just saying.

Thalia arrived around the time I was finishing up, and we got crêpes and then went to the Crypte Archéologique de Notre Dame. Don't be fooled by the name--it's not like a tomb. No bodies or bones. What it is is a jumble of ruins, with bits and pieces visible of all the layers that make up the heart of the city, from Roman walls to medieval streets to baroque gardens to a nineteenth-century orphanage. It's confusing, of course, and you can only walk around the excavated area, not through it or over it, so much of it is hard to see. There are models and diagrams every few feet to help you try to sort it out, and I still had to puzzle over some of it for a while. But it's fascinating, and it's all surrounded by too much historical exposition to read it all without spending hours there below Notre Dame. (I made it about halfway and then skimmed the rest. Thalia gave up before I did, or was spending less time than I was on trying to figure out the ruins; either way, she was waiting near the exit before I was done.) It was awesome.

Afterwards, we went to get in line to see the famous stained glass window at Saint-Chapelle. However, the line was absurd and I decided there were better things to do. Thalia and I split up, and I headed for Montparnasse and the entrance to the catacombs... but no dice. It was late afternoon by then, and I got there just fifteen minutes before the last entry of the day. The line was short, so I waited hopefully, but didn't make the cut. I retreated one metro stop to regroup with Thalia (at a chocolate shop) and we took a leisurely walk in the direction of the Musée d'Orsay, which stays open late on Thursday evenings. Thalia's route took us past Saint-Sulpice, which I hadn't seen before, so we stopped in for a look. Since it was getting close to dusk, it was quite dark inside, too dark to really appreciate some of the decoration, but it's still a neat church. And it has a plaque on the wall reminding visitors, in multiple languages, that The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction and much of what it says about Saint-Sulpice is pure speculation, if not just blatantly untrue. I'll admit that at this point it's been so long since I read The Da Vinci Code that I don't really remember the significance of Saint-Sulpice to the plot, but I still got a kick out of that.

Meanwhile, it seemed that many people had shared our plan to take advantage of Orsay's extended hours, and the line was exceptionally long. We decided to wait it out (there wasn't really anything better to do at that point in the evening) and got sandwiches to eat in line. I don't fully remember now, but I think it took us somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half to get in, which still left us a respectable amount of time*, long enough for both a thorough look at a special exhibit about English Romanticism during the time of Oscar Wilde and a quick pass through the crowded Impressionist gallery.

The special exhibit was great. I mean, it was art (and really interesting, sexy art, to boot) in historical and social context, and I think I've already said more than was necessary about my feelings on that particular subject. Part of what was so great, though, was that it wasn't just paintings, or even paintings and sculpture; there were also decorative arts and some photographs and even a fashion display, much to my delight. And there were Oscar Wilde quotes painted everywhere. I don't even remember now what I wanted to say about why I thought it was so well-done, but I really enjoyed it.

I also really enjoyed the Impressionist wing, though I'd like to go back another time, maybe early in the day when it's less crowded, and take more time with it. And of course, there are tons of other things in Orsay that I didn't get to see at all. For example, one of my very favorite paintings is Starry Night by Van Gogh. This is not the famous swirly Starry Night, but a darker, slightly more realistic-looking river scene--it's also called Starry Night Over The Rhone, to distinguish it from the other Starry Night. Anyway, after not seeing it at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I had looked it up and discovered it was in the possession of the Musée d'Orsay, at which point I got really excited about the prospect of seeing it in person the following week. And when Thalia and I finished the Oscar Wilde exhibit and didn't have much time before closing, I decided that what I wanted to do was make a pass through the Impressionist gallery and then come back the following day to look for the Van Gogh.

So here's why that didn't work.

I think my first mistake, other than getting worked up about it to the point of making a special trip to a museum to see one specific work of art (not really my style), was buying a postcard. I started my art postcard collection while I was in Ireland and have made a point of buying postcards only of works of art I have actually seen, with my own eyes, in person. (It really frustrates me when museum gift shops have postcards for sale of paintings that are not currently on display, or that passed through for a special exhibit at some point but are not actually in the museum's possession. I see them and think, Oh, I really like that! but can't buy the card because I can't actually see the piece in question.) My choices are otherwise kind of arbitrary, but that's the one thing they all have in common. And I bought a stack of postcards from the Musée d'Orsay that first night that included Starry Night preemptively, since I was determined to go back the following day to see it.

The next morning Thalia and I journeyed into Paris together a bit later than I had the day before, because that morning is when she took me to see the castle up close. Once in the city, we got crêpes for brunch and tried Saint-Chapelle again, but the line was even worse than the day before, so we went straight to Orsay, only to find that that line was also even worse than before. After a moment of "Well, what the hell do we do now?" I decided that I would go to the catacombs first, since I'd also planned to try that again that day, and come back to the museum later. A) It was open later, so hopefully I'd have a better shot at doing both in that order, and B) Maybe, if we were super lucky, there would be fewer people later. So I went back to Montparnasse, and waited for something like two hours in a line that circled almost all the way around the block, and I saw the catacombs. They will get their own post after this.

Late in the afternoon, I returned to the museum and got in line--a line every bit as absurd as it had been the night before. I was actually one of the last people to join said line, because even though the museum wasn't going to close for some time, it was apparently overcrowded and they stopped letting people line up right after I got there because they weren't intending to allow anyone else in. (There was actually a moment once Thalia got there when it seemed like they weren't going to let her join me, but then the same guy who initially yelled at her for ducking under the rope to cut in came back less than five minutes later and let her in without a word. Ah, France.) I don't think we waited any longer than we had the night before, but it was for even less time--only about half an hour from the time we made it past security until the time they were going to kick everyone out. We headed straight for the Post-Impressionist gallery and moved quickly past all of the other Van Goghs and Gauguins and Seurats. We circled the rooms twice. Starry NIght wasn't there. We tried a couple of other galleries nearby. It still wasn't there. We looked at the museum plan. There was no other logical place for it to be.

We looked at some other things, including a small exhibit about the Paris Opera, complete with a fantastic model of the building and a series of models of various sets, but I was feeling pretty resentful. I was afraid maybe I'd misread whatever had led me to believe it was in Paris in the first place, but there was the postcard and all the books and bags and other stuff in the gift shop with that painting on them. I was afraid maybe it was lurking somewhere else in the museum and we'd somehow missed it, but I couldn't imagine where else it might be. Thalia suggested that perhaps it was undergoing conservation work, but I didn't believe we wouldn't have seen something about that somewhere.

We split up right before leaving, because I wanted to at least go back and take one more look at the Van Goghs that were on display, since we'd rushed through before. On my way out again, I approached the guard to finally ask about Starry Night, because I couldn't stand leaving without at least knowing if it was indeed at least supposed to be there. I hadn't even finished the question before he said, "Yeah, it's in Hong Kong."

"It's in Hong Kong?!"



So, yes, the one time in my life I make a point of spending a considerable amount of time and energy on a quest to see one specific painting... that painting is, unbeknownst to me, on the other side of the planet. I waited in line not once, but twice, to see something that wasn't even there. And, though I didn't ask, I suspect it won't be back before I leave France.

So now my postcard is a lie...

* Considering the fact that we get in for free thanks to being legal residents under the age of 25. Paying full price, it might not have been worth it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 7: Churches and Bones

Something I somehow completely forgot to mention in my first post about Prague: I went to a Christmas mass at St. Nicholas Church.

The reason I'm stunned that I forgot to mention this is that religion was one of my primary motivations for spending Christmas in Prague in the first place. Granted, the trip didn't really quite turn out the way I expected in that regard (I'll get to that in a second), but still. I went for the churches, and I went to a church service, and then I didn't write about it. Derp.

I'm not going to use this blog to expound my personal beliefs about God or my relationship with religion in general; that's complicated and personal and I'm just not going to get into it here. What you need to know is that I grew up going to church, that I was very involved in my church as a teenager, before I went away to college, and that I consider my church to be a big part of my life. That church is a Moravian church. Never heard of Moravians as a religion? That's okay; no one from the U.S. has unless they're from my hometown or a handful of other enclaves, and there are no Moravians in France or Ireland that I'm aware of, and very few in Britain. We're a mainstream Protestant denomination that have a lot in common with Lutherans. The modern church was essentially born in southern Germany in the eighteenth century, but is descended from the followers of Jan Hus, an early [read: before Martin Luther] reformer in the Czech Republic. There's a giant statue of Hus in Old Town Square in Prague, and many of the old churches are places where he preached or that are otherwise somehow associated with him or his followers. (He was burned at the stake, and early Czech protestants were persecuted and forced underground, in case you were wondering.)

So, my interest in the Moravian church combined with my interest in history in general was a big part of what made me so determined to visit Prague. And it was specifically part of my determination to go at Christmastime. It was going to be the first time in ten years that I hadn't spent Christmas Eve at my church in my hometown, and I though I would be less homesick if I was at some Moravian church somewhere--and where better than the city where it all started six hundred years ago?

Well, that didn't quite work. Despite a concerted effort that started well in advance, I had an extremely difficult time finding any information about modern Moravian congregations in Prague. The one I did manage to locate (which even had an English-language website!) was located well outside the city centre and I didn't really have time to go hunting for it. So that's how I wound up at Christmas-morning mass at St. Nicholas, which is one of the elaborate historic churches around Old Town Square. So that was cool, even if it wasn't quite as familiar as I'd been hoping for.

St. Nicholas has been many things over the years; today, it's a Hussite church. I assumed that a Hussite service would be somewhat similar to a Moravian service, since they both stem from the same origins.


Obviously, I didn't understand much of anything being said, so I can't speak for the content of the mass (although the fact that it was called a mass was, in itself, a big difference). Things that stood out to me were the lack of a choir (though I'm not ruling out the possibility that that was because it was Christmas) and the fact that the person leading the service (pastor? priest? Since I don't speak Czech, I have no idea what the correct term is) actually did a lot of singing. Not just leading hymns, but actually singing the service, like a Jewish cantor. It was interesting. I can't remember ever encountering that at a Christian church before. I was also struck by the interior of the church itself; Moravians, historically, are very keen on having everything be plain and simple. St. Nicholas's Church is neither of those things. Its centerpiece is a massive, ornate glass chandelier hanging in the middle of the sanctuary. Everything else about it is equally ornate, from the moldings and stained glass windows, to the showy organ ornamented in gold to the giant paintings and even a crucifix (something you NEVER see in Protestant churches) hanging on the walls. I can only assume that most of that stuff is from St. Nicholas's days as a Catholic church.

Anyway, that was the real start to my surreal Christmas in Prague, and I enjoyed it, though it was strange and I felt out of place. I did, however, get extremely annoyed with all of the tourists coming in and out during the service. Some of them even had the nerve to take pictures, and others would go sit in a pew for a few minutes and then get up and leave again. It was disruptive and disrespectful, and I have no idea why it was permitted, not to mention how so many people could be that uncouth in the first place.

I was actually really stunned at the sheer number of tourists in Prague in the first place. My hostel wasn't full, but it was busy, and Old Town Square and other tourist attractions were packed every day with people speaking English and French and Spanish and German and Chinese. The tours I went on, even the one we did on Christmas Day, were all big groups and all ran into other tours with similar itineraries and similarly big groups. While I did encounter some students and some other young people who were conceivably in situations like my friends and me, working temporary jobs overseas, far from home, there were way more groups of young people around than I thought could possibly be accounted for by those two things, and also tons of couples and even families. I was just really surprised by how many people, especially roughly college-age people and people with young kids, apparently wanted to be away from home for Christmas.

The day after Christmas, Ali and Shayna and I all went on a day trip (well, afternoon trip) to Kutna Hora, a village in Moravia an hour or so away from Prague. Some of you already know where this is going, I bet. The big tourist attraction around Kutna Hora, and the first stop on the tour, is the Sedlec Ossuary, a small Gothic(?) chapel filled with bones. And when I say bones, I mean thousands of them. And when I say filled, I don't just mean in big piles, although there are several of those. I mean that after the chapel had been in use as a disorganized charnel house for many many years, somebody came along and said, "You know what would make this better? If I made decorations out of all these bones!" And he did. He made a chandelier, and a giant coat of arms, and some columns, and assorted other hanging arrangements for the walls, including his own initials. All out of human bones. It's strange and morbid and fascinating. Special display cases set aside from the bone decorations and the neat stacks of unused bones hold some bones, mostly skulls and mostly with very visible injuries, from people who fought in the Hussite Wars.

On the second floor of the chapel is a second chapel, this one totally normal, looking bright and modern and ready for worship. What.

Elsewhere in Kutna Hora, which is a cheerful little town full of brightly colored buildings lining winding cobblestone streets, is another impressive cathedral, recently restored, with more of those delightful Czech stained glass windows and wall paintings. There was a choir rehearsal in progress while we were there, and I wanted nothing more than to just stay and listen and look at all that art. There is also another big, old church in the center of Kutna Hora, but we weren't able to visit it because it's undergoing restoration work right now. Outside the cathedral, lining the walk down to the center of the village, are replicas of all of the sculptures on Charles Bridge in Prague. After you've passed them all, you reach the old silver mine, apparently much beloved by archaeologists, but sadly off limits to the public. In the center, in an ornate orange building called the Italian Court because of its architecture, is the old mint, now a museum. We went on a short tour, but I wasn't especially interested and don't remember very much about it now. (In the first room we were in, while the guide was telling us about the history of coin production in Kutna Hora, I was looking at a series of portraits of former heads of the mint and studying the changes in clothing and facial hair styles over the centuries, if that tells you anything about how much attention I was paying to the tour.) I do remember that there was a ridiculously tacky chapel somewhere in the mint, and I wish I could remember why.

Back in Prague that evening, Ali and Shayna and I hung around the market for a bit and then they took me across the river to show me the Lennon Wall, which is definitely one of my favorite things in Prague. It's just a wall near the river that's covered in ever-changing John Lennon-related graffiti. It was used as a method of anonymous resistance under the communist regime, which led to a lot of tension between authorities and students. People are still writing and drawing on it today, leaving all kinds of messages about love and peace (and grief for Lennon), many of them involving song lyrics. The night I was there, it had changed even in the two days since Ali and Shayna had first seen it. It's just really cool. What it stands for, and its place in political history, but also just as a way of bringing together so many people from so many different places who all share the same ideals. I think it's really similar to the peace wall in Belfast in that way. It reinforces the idea that there is something fundamentally good about humanity, something that's shared across cultures and languages and religions, and it gives me some small hope for the future.

We had dinner (I had Czech goulash, which is very traditional and thankfully not as full of paprika as Hungarian goulash) and some wonderfully cheap cocktails at a jazz club near the castle district, and hung around until the show started in the basement bar, but were unwilling to pay a cover charge higher than the cost of our dinner, so the evening ended there and we said our goodbyes, since I was leaving the following day.

The next morning I did have time to go back into the city centre to try to get some pictures of things I hadn't before. I did not manage, amid the confusing streets, to make my way back to the Jewish quarter where I'd been unable to take good pictures in the dark near the end of my tour on Christmas Eve, but I did go to see the statue of Wenceslas. The whole square around the statue was filled with thousands of red votive candles left as offerings in memory of Havel, along with some flowers and notes. It was a very visual testament to what I'd thus far only heard about the almost universal grief of the Czech people, and it was very moving.

I then returned to the Bethlehem Chapel (which I'd actually found on Christmas morning, but it had been closed at the time), which was one of the sites I was really determined to see, not because of anything that specific, but because it's associated with Jan Hus and it's called the Bethlehem Chapel, for crying out loud. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me until I got there and opened the door, you have to pay to actually enter the chapel. Now, even leaving aside my resentment at having to pay to enter a place of worship in the first place, I didn't have time for that. I had a train to catch and still had to get back across town to my hostel to retrieve my stuff before I went to the train station. I just wanted to step in and see the place for a minute. But no. (And for the record, getting there earlier wouldn't have helped, as it had only been open for a few minutes by the time I did get there.) So I left feeling pretty annoyed and disappointed about having missed out another one of the things I'd been most excited about.

Just one more reason to go back to Prague someday...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Adventures In Socialized Medicine

This is an attempted re-write of a post that was finished a week ago that Gmail lost. Like many re-writes, it's not as good as the first version, but it'll have to do.

So, the week before last, I had my first foray into the French healthcare system.

Not by choice, mind you. I'm overdue for some routine stuff that it would be wise to take care of here, and I've considered finding out how much of a new pair of glasses would be covered by social security, and at some point very soon I will need to find a doctor who can vaccinate me against yellow fever and prescribe some kind of malaria prophylaxis before my trip to Senegal in May. But it wasn't any of that. My little adventure that Friday was entirely involuntary.

Basically, what happened is this: I eat a lot of bread. I have a bad habit of holding a piece of bread in my left hand while I cut in half. I have long been aware that this is asking for trouble, but really, you don't usually need a whole lot of force behind your bread slicing. Unless its a French baguette, in which case you can potentially do some serious damage to whatever's behind the bread if the knife goes through easier than you expected. And last Friday, whatever was behind the bread happened to be my finger. And by "serious damage", I mean I think if I had somehow managed to do the same thing but with a chopping motion instead of a slicing one, I might actually have cut said finger off.

It actually didn't hurt that much, nor did it bleed much. I rinsed it off and looked at it for a minute, and tried to think of an alternative to getting stitches, because it really didn't seem that bad. But there was literally a hole in my hand, because the cut was on the joint where the finger joins the hand and the skin had kind of just pulled apart. So it was just sort of hanging open, and although I'm not well versed in the anatomy of what's between the bones and the outside and therefore don't really know exactly what I was looking at, I'm fairly sure I should not have been able to look at it. And I thought, "Crap. I can't put a band-aid on that, can I?"

I wrapped it in a paper towel and went next door to Miguel's room to ask if he knew whether the infirmary at the school could treat us as well as the students, in the hope that a trained nurse with first-aid supplies could work some magic that didn't involve the emergency room. He said yes. I said, "Okay, good, because I just cut my hand open." And because he's an incredibly nice guy, Miguel jumped up and came with me. Technically, the infirmary was not open for the afternoon until 2:30 (this was around 2), but when I told the nurse who came out to the waiting room that I'd cut myself, she decided they could take a look right away, and took me into the back room, where three nurses surrounded me asking lots of questions. I have a hard enough time following one conversation in French, let alone fielding multiple lines of questioning, and I've observed before that French women tend to converse like my sister's high school friends--all at once, and somehow everyone just magically understands everyone else. Anyway, I told them who I was and what happened, and showed them my hand, and all three of them kind of hovered over it saying, "Ohh... that's DEEP." One of them pulled me over to the sink and poured disinfectant all over it, and another one asked if there was anyone who could go with me to the hospital (to which I responded, "Uhhh...."), and then she went out to ask Miguel if he could take me to the hospital, while the other one wrapped my whole hand in an excessive amount of gauze.


Miguel did indeed go with me to the hospital, which was definitely above and beyond considering it wasn't REALLY an emergency, and was awesomely helpful and supportive the entire time. After a stupidly long bus ride and some effort to find the actual emergency department, we entered a very small, very quiet reception area where I showed my passport and the letter with my temporary social security number on it to a girl at the counter. She took my information and made copies of my documents and sent me to another window where I explained what happened to my hand, said I didn't have a doctor here, and declined to give an emergency contact number. (And also where Miguel, much to my entertainment and that of the woman behind the counter, got to explain who he was--my colleague, and my flatmate, but only my flatmate, definitely not my boyfriend.) And then she sent us to a cluster of chairs in the corner to wait, and that was that. No long complicated medical history with irrelevant questions no one knows the answer to. No insurance chaos. Not even any forms to fill out.

After a short wait, I was called into an office where I was asked some more detailed questions about my hand and whether my vaccinations were up to date, and then that guy took us to a different, bigger waiting room to wait for the actual doctor. We joked a bit about how the real reason everything seemed so relaxed was that people were just spaced out amongst a series of different waiting rooms, but seriously, I can't imagine an American city the size of Brest with an emergency room as calm and uncrowded as this one.

Side note: When the doctor called me back, Miguel initially came with us until I told him he didn't need to wait with me and he went back to the waiting room. That exchange happened in English, just because we're used to talking to each other in English, which prompted the doctor to ask me if I speak French. I said yes, then laughed and added, "Well, a little. Sometimes not very well." He then asked if we were Portuguese, which I thought was an interesting guess. Definitely not one I've gotten before. I said, "Oh, no, I'm American, and my friend is Colombian," at which point I think he was even more confused, but he let it go.

The next thing he asked me was whether the cut on my hand was deep. I said yes. (I was there for stitches, after all...) He said, "Oh. Well, we may have to move you to a different room, then. We're not set up to deal with deep wounds here." (I don't know.) I said, "Well, at the infirmary they told me it was pretty deep..." I didn't really know how deep was deep, so he decided he'd just look at it first and then decide. He asked me a bunch of questions, about what I'd done to my hand and also about medical conditions, allergies, etc.*, and, again, whether I was up to date on tetanus shots. Even with a minor language barrier, the interrogation only took a few minutes, and everything he asked me seemed more or less related to the situation, or at least generally important. (He did not, for example, ask for the date of my last period, or whether I've ever had [insert random unlikely disease here], or whether my mother's second cousin's brother-in-law died of heart disease.) I think I had to give a more unnecessarily thorough medical history to get a driver's license in the U.S., let alone be seen by a doctor.

Anyway, then he asked if the knife had "touché un osse", which I did not immediately understand. I gave him a blank look and said, "Touché quoi?" and he managed to come up with the English word "bone", which both impressed and embarrassed me, because duh. I of all people should recognize that word, especially in an obvious context. I told him I didn't think it was that deep, and he said if it was I'd need an x-ray. Great. Then he made me move my finger around, and tapped various places on my hand to make sure I could feel it, and then he finally unwrapped the gauze.

And he poked around the cut for a minute, and then said he was going to go get his colleague to come take a look at it.

To be fair, he was an intern, so it's really not all that surprising that he wanted a second opinion and his supervisor's okay before he did anything.

He came back a moment later with an overly cheerful orthopedic surgeon, who proceeded to make me explain again how I'd cut myself and then did some more extensive testing for nerve damage. Satisfied, he started talking [over me] to the intern. I didn't catch everything he said, but it went something like, "Blah blah blah, yes, it's superficial, blah blah... See, the vein runs along here, and the nerve along here, and we know they're both okay because she still feels everything and she still has blood in her fingertip, so blah blah blah you need to just make very superficial stitches, very shallow, just stay right above the vein..."

And the intern said, "Yes, that's what I'm going to try to do."

And I looked back and forth between them and said, "I understand enough to be a little afraid."

The surgeon laughed and said, "Oh, no, don't worry, it's really very superficial." Yeah, you're not the one who just heard the doctor say he's going to "try" not to stitch her vein.

He said some other stuff I didn't catch, and then, "But you're going to have a scar."

Well, yeah. There's a hole in my finger. I'm expecting some kind of scar.

So he left, and the intern numbed half my hand** and successfully put three stitches in my finger. It could have used four or five, but it was hard to get to, being between my fingers. Three actually took a while. He also didn't realize how long it was until he'd thought he was done and wiped away the blood, and then he said, "Oh, look, it extends all the way over here... Well, that part's very shallow, we'll just put a special bandage on it and it'll be fine." (And honestly, if all of it had looked like the part he didn't bother to stitch, I wouldn't have gone to the hospital in the first place.)

He sent a nurse in to do the dressing, and she also had to take some time to figure out how to go about doing it. "You know," she said, "if you were going to cut yourself, frankly you could have done it somewhere else. This is not a good place at all."

But she figured it out, and I retrieved Miguel from the waiting room and took my stack of papers (a list of dressing supplies and instructions to change it every two days, a completely unnecessary prescription for paracetamol, and the order to have the stitches taken out after fifteen days) back out to the front desk to get them stamped. The woman who'd checked me in stamped each of them without looking at it and dismissed me with a smile. "Do I have to pay anything?" I asked. Nope. They would send me a bill if there was anything to pay. (And when I told my friends later that night what had happened, another girl who's been to a French emergency room before said she thinks that's probably unlikely to happen. "They take the Hippocratic oath very seriously here," she said.)

The whole thing, from the time I cut myself to the time we arrived back at home, took about four hours. And since we didn't actually leave for the hospital until almost 2:45, which means we couldn't have gotten there until after 3, and we still had to take the bus back after all was said and done, total time spent at the hospital couldn't have been more than about two and a half hours, tops. I don't think that's bad at all considering that with an injury that minor, I could have waited longer than that just to be seen at a lot of American hospitals. (Hell, I've waited that long at my doctor's office before, with an appointment.) When was the last time you saw an American emergency room that wasn't crowded with crying babies and mentally ill drug addicts and people who just have the flu and could have gone to a regular doctor except that they don't have health insurance? Here, there were only a handful of patients around, and everything was calm and quiet. The staff weren't rushed or stressed out, and everyone was very nice to me and took the time to chat as well as the time to explain everything that was happening, despite the occasional language barrier issues. Even though everyone who saw me asked me to explain my hand, they didn't make me repeat anything else over and over again, nor were they constantly looking at my chart for information. And when was the last time you saw any medical professional in the U.S. and didn't have to fill out five pages of detailed questions about your medical history first? I can't remember one.*** All in all, aside from the fact that I'd hurt myself in the first place and was spending my Friday afternoon in the E.R., the whole experience was remarkably easy and stress-free. I've had worse experiences with regular doctors in the U.S--and I've always had health insurance.

Also, because I just need to reiterate this, all I had to do was show my ID and my social security number, and after that there was no mention of payment or insurance until I brought it up, and even then, I didn't have to pay for any of it. Not even with a temporary social security number, which I'd been under the impression meant I would have to pay for treatment up front and then get forms to be reimbursed for some of it later. It's just... taken care of. We complain about/mock all of the bureaucracy involved in doing anything in France, but this is an instance where dealing with that at the beginning really does make everything simple and streamlined later on. Everything is centralized, and it's all more or less the same for everyone. They put my number into the computer, took care of my hand, and sent me home. It was that simple. It didn't even matter that I hold a foreign passport and don't have a carte vitale yet; I'm in the system, so it's fine. The end. And even if I had had to pay, it wouldn't have been a big deal, because it would have cost a fraction of what the same stuff would have cost in the U.S.

The closest equivalent experience I have to this is my college health center, which is subsidized by the school so that most services are free or really cheap for students, and which usually wasn't very crowded because it's specifically for people on campus. Sort of a microcosmic comparison, and still not entirely the same. But it's all I've got.

Try explaining how health care and health insurance work in the U.S. to kids who grew up in a country that's had socialized medicine since the end of WWII. Try explaining why people in the U.S. are so opposed to changing the system. They'll look at you like you might as well be speaking Hebrew. It's unfathomable to them.

I had the first of two of those conversations so far about four days before this happened. I told them I don't understand it, either.

* That was fun. First, I told him I'd had my wisdom teeth out by pointing to my jaw, because I couldn't remember how to say "wisdom teeth" even though it's a direct translation. Then I realized I had no clue what was the French name of my one important medication allergy. #goodthingstoknow, especially since it's an unusual allergy to an extremely common medication. He seemed to understand when I gave him the name I know, though, so presumably it's pretty close.
** Having lidocaine injected into my hand hurt about fifty times more than actually cutting myself had. I almost wished he hadn't bothered and had just got on with it.
*** The most reasonable experience I can think of was the swine flu vaccination clinic I went to, which I think did manage to limit itself mostly to the relevant issues... but then again, it was a free shot, so there were no health insurance companies to deal with.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Lost [and Stolen] and Found

Important things I've lost since coming to France:

1. My Carte 12-25, the train discount card for young people. I bought it as soon as I arrived and promptly lost it later that day. It was fortunate that no one ever checked my ticket on the second train I was on on my way to Brest, because at that point I already didn't have the card and would have been fined for having a discounted ticket without it. I was eventually able to replace it for a fee of eight euros, which seems like extortion, given that the original cost forty-nine euros to begin with and literally all they had to do was look me up in the system and print out a new card, on plain old ticket paper. Whatever.

2. My Maya necklace. I bought it in Belize, and it was a carving of the hieroglyph for my birth "month" in the Maya calendar. Over the following two years I wore it on every trip I took, even just driving back and forth to college. I was wearing it when I got to France, and I vaguely recall putting it "somewhere safe" when I was unpacking, but I have no idea where it is now. I don't remember whether I wore it again after that--by the time I tried to find it for my hiking adventures, it was already missing. I'm still hoping it's hidden away somewhere in my room and I'll find it before I leave.

3. My Swiss army knife. It was my first pocketknife, and my only really good-quality one, and I'd had it for about eight years and carried it everywhere, so I was pretty fond of it. But more importantly, it was given to me by my grandfather, who I was also very fond of and who died when I was nineteen. Can't replace that. As with the necklace, I'm still holding out hope it will turn up somewhere unexpected, but unlike with the necklace, I do know where I last had it--and it was in a hotel room in Rennes.

And finally, most recently, 4: My wallet.

Except I'm about 99.9% sure I did not "lose" my wallet. I maintain that it was stolen from my coat pocket at the Spanish bar this past Saturday night. My pockets are deep, and the wallet fits them perfectly; it couldn't have just fallen out, and anyway, I and my friends looked all over the place when I realized it was gone, and it was actually gone. I also did not misplace it; when it wasn't in the pocket, it was in my hand or on the table in front of me, and I put it away before getting up. In fact, I put it away several times over the course of the evening (we may or may not have been at the same bar for six hours), so someone would have had plenty of opportunity to see that it was in my pocket. And, when I went to retrieve my coat at the end of the night, it had been moved, even though no one else had sat in my chair since I'd been up. (And for the record, I didn't move any farther away than the other side of the table at any point except to go to the bathroom, and even then my friends were still at the table. It was never actually out of our sight. We just missed whatever happened.)

I left my phone number with the barmen in case it turned up. My friends tried to make me feel better, and some of them offered to lend me money. I went home in tears, called to cancel my two bank cards and my credit card, and called my parents.

I didn't lose that much cash--I'd taken out twenty euros before going to the bar and spent about half of it before my wallet disappeared. But the cards were a pain in the ass, and I had no idea how to go about replacing my driver's license from here. I also lost the international SIM card for my phone, which still has credit on it and which the company will not replace for free. But more upsetting than all of that was the stuff I wasn't going to be able to replace at all--along with some no-big-deal stuff like my AAA card and my public library card from home, the wallet had contained my college and high school IDs, my immigration registration card from Ireland, and the rest of the Czech currency left from my trip. No amount of phone calls, no number of expensive minutes on hold, could get any of that stuff back.

I got up on Sunday morning and went to file a police report, and took the street the bar is on so that I could peer as inconspicuously as possible into as many garbage cans as possible, since the guys at the bar had told us that often people steal wallets, swipe the cash, and then dump the rest somewhere right outside. No dice.

Also no dice on the police report. Remember about France shutting down on Sundays? THAT INCLUDES THE LOCAL POLICE STATION. I KID YOU NOT.

Good news! In France, there are no non-emergency crimes on Sundays. Clearly, I and my wallet had achieved something noteworthy.

I walked back home severely annoyed. On the way I walked past my bank branch, where I had been planning to go first thing Monday morning to ask about a new card (I'd been able to cancel it over a hotline, but they told me had to get in touch with my branch to deal with the rest.), and double-checked the hours: CLOSED MONDAYS. Are you kidding me with this?

Bear in mind that at this point, I literally had no money, and no way of accessing money (other than to borrow it from someone). I was counting on getting to the bank as soon as possible to make an old-fashioned withdrawal as well as to deal with getting a new card as quickly as possible.

Monday morning, I set out to re-attempt the police report. I went into the station and approached the woman at the counter and told her I wanted to make a report that my wallet had been stolen. She said, "Have you asked at the town hall?" (There's a sort of central Lost And Found there where stuff like wallets are supposed to end up if someone turns them in.) I said no, and she said I should do that first. So I did, and of course it wasn't here. But by then I only had a couple of hours before I needed to be back for work, and I wasn't sure how long a police report would take. I also figured it was Monday morning, and everything had been closed since Saturday night, so it probably wouldn't hurt to wait another day, ask again at city hall, and then go back to the police if it still wasn't there. So that was that.

This morning I had class at eight, and after that I went straight to the bank, where someone confirmed that the card had been canceled and no one had tried to use it, had me sign some papers, and let me withdraw some money for the next few days until my new card arrives, hopefully at the end of this week but certainly by next week. (Assuming the bank employees don't go on strike the way they did last fall while I was waiting for my first card.) Then, this afternoon, I went back downtown and back to city hall.

Only this time, when the woman at the front desk put my name into the computer, she said, "Oh, yeah, the police sent that to us earlier. It had a student ID in it along with the bank cards?"

Someone actually found my wallet! And turned it in! A miracle!

The cash was gone*, of course, including the Czech kroner, which I'm still bummed about.** But everything else is there. I haven't lost my assorted IDs or my SIM card (or my Starbucks card!), and I don't have to deal with getting another driver's license, thank God. I mean, I'm still screwed in that I've already canceled the bank and credit cards and will have to wait for new ones anyway, but I'm relieved to have everything else back. I had completely given up hope after I didn't miraculous stumble upon it outside the bar on Sunday morning. And the driver's license was going to be the biggest pain, I think--plus, I like having that around, because if I am going to lose an ID, I'd rather it be my license than my passport.

Stuff like this has, weirdly, happened to me a lot over the years. Never my whole wallet, but lots of lost IDs and occasionally other important documents. I had kind of been assuming that having my whole wallet stolen was some kind of karmic payback for all the other times I've narrowly escaped losing various things.

Anyway, I guess everything is sorted out now, other than how and when I'm going to get my American cards, since they could only be mailed within the U.S. I'm not really sure what lesson I am supposed to have learned from all this, though. Miguel suggested that I stop carrying around important documents I don't need, but as I said above, I like having some kind of ID in case I need it, and I don't want to carry my passport around. I will stop carrying around all of the sentimental-value stuff that's not necessary anywhere, though. And I'll find a new home for the extra SIM card, though I'm a little afraid I'll then just forget it next time I travel. But as for the night the wallet was taken, I'm not really sure what I could have done differently, other than carry my money (and maybe ID) in my pants pocket with my phone and leave the wallet at home. Not leaving my coat even nominally unattended I guess is another option, but as I said, we were all right there the whole time. And everyone's coats and bags were just lying around; it could have happened to anyone. But no one else had anything taken that I know of, and I think someone would have noticed if someone was lurking around randomly going through everyone's pockets. I'm sure it had to be someone who'd seen that there was a wallet in my coat. At that point I'd have had to keep wearing the coat, or carry the wallet around with me all night, to keep them from being able to get it. If I hadn't had my wallet in my coat, I'd have been carrying a purse, and that could have been taken just as easily. I suppose it also would have been easier to keep with me, but again, everything was always in someone's sight, and other people had left their bags lying on or around the table, too. I didn't do anything that's not commonplace here, nor anything nearly as risky as things I've done in the past. I guess that doesn't mean I couldn't have been more vigilant, but still. People just suck. I could have guarded my stuff like a mastiff all night and then gotten mugged on my way home. Shit happens.

And it seems to keep happening to me. I'm almost afraid of what this weekend is going to bring, after the last three have gotten progressively worse, from annoying (spilling coffee on my computer and screwing up the keyboard) to downright sucky (cutting my hand--belated post forthcoming) to well, this. And one of the worst things about this was that it was otherwise an AWESOME weekend, one of the best I've had in Brest right up until one o'clock on Saturday night/Sunday morning when some jackass ruined it for about ten euros and change.

The upside: That it was, otherwise, a fantastic weekend, with going out on Friday followed by epic brunch on Saturday followed by tapas and shooters and generally fun and merriment at the Spanish bar Saturday night, and then coffee on Sunday afternoon and at least the start of the Super Bowl that night. (I only made it through the first quarter, since I'd been up all night the night before dealing with theft stuff, but at least a few others held out to the end, around 4 a.m. our time.) And also, that my friends are completely wonderful. I was so surrounded by love and kindness I didn't even mind that I cried in front of about twenty people, and that, my friends, is a special thing indeed.

* But not the coppers, which I find mildly amusing. They actually took the time to pull out all the coins that were worth more than 1 or 2 cents and left the small ones behind.
** I hope whoever took it had their day totally ruined when they tried to exchange it and discovered its face value was about five times its worth in euros.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Generic "My Life in Brest" Post

I'm finishing up the second-to-last week before yet another two weeks of vacances scolaires. I can't decide how I feel about a school system that takes this many breaks. While it's great for me, it kind of seems like it must create a rather disjointed learning experience for the students. I guess maybe it evens out because of the shorter summer break where they presumably forget less than American students do during our long summers. And I guess they do have longer school days and more work, so maybe they need more frequent breaks. It's hard to judge from where I'm standing, I suppose. I'm not ready for another break yet, personally--I haven't really made any plans or researched the plans I was hoping to make. It's been a busy five weeks since the New Year--my TESOL course, lots of lesson planning, catching up with friends, trying to catch up on blogging, trying without success to figure out my life after France--and I'm not sure how much time went by so quickly, but I am entirely sure I did not get done everything I was intending to get done by now.

This afternoon, I wished my tutee luck on his big English exam this weekend. It was actually our first meeting in several weeks, after he had initially told me he wanted to practice every week in January. I hope we didn't because he's been busy and not because he couldn't pay me--that thought didn't occur to me until today, and then it made me feel bad. I think he'll be okay, though. He still makes a lot of mistakes, but he really is very good at making himself understood. I spent most of our hour today saying, "Yeah, that was good," and reminding him not to stress out. Talking to him has been less immediately rewarding than some of my official classes, but only because there's less progress to be made. On the other hand, it's kind of a relief, for the same reason and also because he has so much motivation where so many of my high school students have none.

Meanwhile, winter seems to have finally struck. It's cold here again, after weeks of 50F days. It's still well above freezing in the daytime, but I'm at least back to bundling up in hats and gloves when I go out. It even snowed a little last night (!), though not enough to cover the ground and most of what there was had melted by the time I left my classroom at 11 am. I am certainly not complaining about a relatively warm and snow-free winter, but I am holding out hope of getting at least one good snowfall, mostly so that the assistants from warm climates who've hardly ever seen snow before can experience a proper snowball fight at least once in their lives.

Speaking of assistants, I don't think I've actually written much about the social aspect of life here, other than the interesting language mélange. There are several dozen language assistants in Brest, plus a few foreign lecteurs/lectrices (lecturers) at the university. (We also occasionally meet students who are studying abroad at the university, either through the lecteurs or because they hear us speaking English when we go out and introduce themselves.) This isn't uncommon for a city the size of Brest, and bigger cities might have even more language assistants, or assistants from an even greater variety of places. (We don't have any Arabic assistants, for example, and if there's a Russian assistant I haven't met him or her. We also don't have any English assistants from Australia or New Zealand or Canada, which I think is kind of strange.) However, based on what I have heard from the Internet, from friends in other places, and from friends here who also have friends in other places, I think it is uncommon for all of the assistants to get along as well as we do. It seems that in a lot of cities, the assistants are very clique-y. People find a few others they get along with and don't really interact much with the rest. They tend to divide along language lines, and to bunch up in twos and threes and fours and never really hang out with other assistants in the area.

In Brest this year, it's not like that at all. After a few big meet-and-greet parties at the beginning of the year, pretty much everyone knows everyone else, and that includes some assistants who live in the suburbs of Brest, or even farther away, and only come into the city now and then. We all get along, for the most part. Things have gotten cliquier over the course of the year, but not in an unfriendly way, just in a consolidating kind of way. You can't ALWAYS hang out in groups of twenty or thirty, after all. Even so, the people I consider to be "my group of friends" still numbers about ten or twelve regulars, and it's still very fluid. We are always inviting or running into other people.

I've already explained to several people that being an assistant, and in particular, being an assistant in Brest right now where everyone is friends with everyone else, is kind of like being in college all over again. There's a concentration of young people who all work during the day and have very little to do at night. We have a lot of disposable income, and alcohol is cheap. The difference between this and college is that we have even fewer immediate responsibilities than we did in school. All assistants talk about the amount of free time available to us, and it's true. We work so little it's ridiculous. So, yes, we party a lot here in Brest. We drink a lot; we go out a lot; there's often nothing to prevent us from doing it during the week as well as on weekends, because we no longer have "homework" other than maybe a few hours of lesson planning each week, and many of us have at least some days where we don't have to be at work until late morning or even afternoon.

But we do other, more wholesome things, too. We have regular soccer matches and multilingual poker nights. We go to the cinema--in French and in English--and on "field trips" to the music library and to the Sunday market. Sometimes we eat dinner together on bluesy Sundays, and sometimes we go out for crepes or eat brunch together after a night out. We celebrate birthdays, and we did Secret Santas before Christmas. We have a plethora of inside jokes. We sleep on each other's couches and floors, and we share everything from snack food to DVDs to lesson plans. We look out for each other. We travel together: There have already been group trips to St. Malo and Rennes, and during the vacation this month we are all going to Barcelona. We may even travel together in May after our work here is over (though I may have to miss some or all of that because of my trip to Senegal). All in all, it's rare for anyone--even a hermit like me--to go more than a couple of days without seeing the others. If someone is missing from a big event, the others bombard him or her with text messages to find out what's going on. We joke that it's creepy and cult-like, that we're all codependent, that friends who come to visit from elsewhere must think we're all crazy, but the fact is that even in a place like Brest, we aren't like this just because we're needy or desperate for companionship. It's because we truly like spending time together and we all feel comfortable with each other, and given that none of us CHOSE to be in Brest, how amazing is it that all just happened to end up here together? We might be friends now because we're all in Brest, but we all think we'd still have been friends if we'd met somewhere else.

This is why I say I've been so lucky to be placed in Brest, even if it is kind of a rough, boring place to live from which it's near-impossible to get anywhere else. I'm not outgoing enough to go anywhere with high hopes for socialization, and after my exceptionally lonely semester in Ireland, I was expecting to spend a lot of this year doing my own thing. Instead, I haven't gotten a lot of what I planned on doing done, but I have made more wonderful friends than I would have imagined in my wildest dreams. They come from all over the world and I hope we will always be able to visit each other and to meet up in our travels.

All right, I'm done being sappy [for now].

One other thing about living in Brest, before I move on to something more focused: Brest has not just one public library, or a public library with two or three branches like my hometown. No. It has a whole network of public libraries scattered throughout the city. They all have a little of everything, I think, but some of them specialize in a few things. Like, there's one library that has an especially good travel section, and another that's good for mystery novels, and another that has lots of foreign-language material, and another that keeps most of the regional special interest stuff like local history and books in Breton. I've been borrowing a lot of DVDs, trying to A) improve my language skills, and B) find something redeeming about French film*, and I'm sort of trying to get into bandes dessinées, although I'm not really sure where to start. There's also a "study library" that specializes in nonfiction and reference and documentary films and has WiFi and lots of space for people to work. And there's the "discothèque"**: the music library. Basically, it's a great big room full of CDs, and you can check out as many as you want at a time, up to whatever the limit is on the total number of things you're allowed to have checked out at once. (There's a three DVD limit.) It's awesome. AND, there's also a section of sheet music and scores, and an electronic keyboard with headphones that anyone can come in and play, first come first served. I haven't really taken much advantage of that last part yet, because the discothèque is kind of far from where I live and I often just have time to go exchange my CDs for new ones, but it's totally cool nonetheless.

Sadly, that's one of the most exciting things I can say about Brest. My tutee and I had a good laugh this afternoon about one of the questions he might be asked in his speaking exam: "Tell us about the most important building in your town." First of all, he lives in the suburbs, so we were like, "Hmm... Ikea?" I suggested he just pick something in Brest instead... and then we realized we still couldn't think of anything. We eventually decided he should talk about the castle.

* I'm sort of kidding. Actually, no, I'm not, I'm just being a little hyperbolic. I've found a handful of French movies I like, including some I'd seen before I came, but I think they're still in the minority of the total number of French films I've seen.
** language joke... but actually, that's what it's called

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 6: A Very UnChristmasy Christmas in Prague

[Not proofread yet. Apologies to early readers.]

So, I arrived at the central train station in Prague around 9:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve. The past eighteen hours or so had completely sucked, I was tired and stressed out, and I didn't speak any Czech. I had directions to my hostel, but first I wandered around the station for a long time, 1) looking for an ATM, 2) buying breakfast from a shop where the cashier looked extremely displeased about the large bill I was using for my very small purchase, not to mention my silence, and 3) trying to figure out how the &^%! to get out of the train station. When I eventually succeeded, I stood outside looking around, looking at my directions, and looking around again for a long time before figuring out that the directions were confusing, and in fact I needed to get on the metro inside the train station. So I went back down and spent a while looking for that. Then I spent a while staring at the old-fashioned (coins only, and you push a button next to the kind of ticket you want) ticket machines trying to figure out what I needed.

The metro was as old and shabby looking as its ticket machines promised. I emerged from it, two or three stops away, at a station where I could transfer to the tram for the rest of my ride to the hostel. I walked outside to find the tram and discovered that we were more or less under the highway. Everything in sight was dirty and run-down and made of concrete and covered in graffiti. Welcome to Eastern Europe.

The hostel, called Sir Toby's*, was a block away from the tram stop, in a newer neighborhood across the river from the city centre, a neighborhood with wide streets laid out in a grid pattern, boxy buildings with large windows, and a noticeable absence of both greenery and people. I had heard that this part of the city was sort of an artsy, up-and-coming area, popular with young people. It looked empty and quiet and, if not quite sketchy, then at least tired. It looked like what it is--a post-communist city in a recession. And it looked sad.

I was not in love. I was unimpressed and sleep-deprived and starting to wish I were in Bruges with my friends and all the canals and medievalyness.

My welcome at the hostel was encouraging. It was an old building, but an attractive one. The lobby was cozy and cheerful, with mismatched furniture and maps everywhere and wood paneled walls. The front desk attendant spoke to me in excellent English, which was a relief, and, after checking me in and giving me a map, patiently told me everything I could possibly need to know about the place without my having to ask any questions. I went down to lock my things up in the luggage room, and then sat in the adorable basement pub, where a handful of other guests were still eating breakfast, to drink the iced coffee I'd bought at the station and send emails to my dad and to Sam and Jimena to let them all know where I was. Encouraged, caffeinated, and determined that being in Prague must be better than getting there had been, I eventually worked up the energy to venture outside.

Side note: Outside was, and continued to be for the remainder of my stay, ridiculously freaking cold. Maybe I'm just spoiled, living in Brittany, because it rained while I was there, which obviously means it can't actually even have been below freezing, but there were times when it seemed like the coldest place I'd ever been (other than northern Ohio in January, which at this point still takes the prize). It was terrible. I think Christmas Day was the worst, but it was cold the whole time. And there wasn't even any snow to make up for it. I had been so sure that if there was anywhere I wanted to go where I could be sure of a white Christmas, Prague was it. I didn't even see frost.

Anyway, I decided to walk downtown, even though it promised to take quite a while. Not far from the hostel I passed a marketplace, which I assumed from the giant bull** statues on either side of the entrance was once a livestock market. Now it's just a typical food and stuff market, and it was pretty quiet at midday on Christmas Eve, but there were a few stalls open, so I wandered through and wound up buying a purse from an East Asian guy who seemed just as happy as I was to communicate in English instead of Czech.

I then walked along the river, and across the river, and beside the highway for a moment, and eventually found my way into the city centre, where I promptly lost all sense of where I was. (This became a recurring theme over the next couple of days.) I believe I have mentioned medieval street layouts a time or two. The heart of Prague is gloriously medieval and therefore impossible to navigate without a map (and sometimes even with one). It is a maze of narrow streets, almost none of which follow straight lines for more than a block or two at a time or begin and end at what would seem like logical places. "Blocks" are not rectangular, intersections are rarely at right angles, and the lines between "street" and "alley" and "walkway" are ill-defined at best. And you are surrounded by tall buildings at all times, which gives the sense of being an a kind of tunnel and also makes it completely impossible to see anything else around you. Even extremely tall landmarks only a few hundred meters away are blocked out by the row of four or five story houses right in front of you. You could be only just street over from your very prominent destination and never have a clue. It's a recipe for claustrophobia as much as for disorientation.

By sheer luck, or perhaps the fact that all roads lead eventually to the very heart of a city, I fairly quickly stumbled into Old Town Square, essentially THE center of Prague, in history and spirit if not in modern geography. There was a huge Christmas market there--complete with a stage and an giant chess set made of Christmas lights, along with the usual treats and souvenirs--and an astonishing crowd of people considering it was Christmas Eve in a country where that, rather than Christmas Day, is the big holiday.  Every single building around the square is gorgeous, so I wandered around gawking and taking pictures, then I wandered through the market and bought a sausage and some mulled wine, and then I wandered around taking more pictures until it was time for the afternoon's free walking tour.*** There is far too much in Prague for a three hour walking tour to cover it all, and it was already dark for the last third of it, so it was hard to see some stuff and impossible to take pictures, but all the same, we covered a lot. It didn't really help me to learn my way around, but I learned some really cool stories along the way. Some examples:

* This one's actually true: Part of Amadeus was filmed in the old opera in Prague because it basically hasn't changed since Mozart conducted there.
* The golem ( is a neat story in any version. In the one I heard on the tour, the rabbi was in the middle of the Sabbath prayer service when he was called out to deactivate the rampaging golem, and since you're not supposed to interrupt the prayers once you've started, and he had to to save people's lives, he started the service over again once the golem was taken care of. And to this day in that synagogue, the prayers are still said twice. Also, centuries later, a Nazi officer heard about the golem and boasted about going up to the attic of the synagogue where it was supposedly kept, and he went up and disappeared and was never heard from again. The Jewish Quarter is full of great stories, actually. And not all about the golem. There's a funny story about the name of the New Old Synagogue, for example, but I've forgotten what it was now. I'm sure it involved a mistranslation at some point. Also, the old Jewish cemetery was built up to make some absurd number of levels of graves, all stacked on top of one another, because the city wouldn't allow them to expand it outwards.
* One old church has a mummified arm hanging from the ceiling. (That part is true; the legend behind it I'm not sure about.) The story: There was once a statue of the Virgin wearing a beautiful jeweled necklace, and one night a thief came to try to steal the necklace, but when he touched it, the statue's arm grabbed his and wouldn't let go. When the priest came in the next morning, the thief confessed and begged him for help, but the only way the priest could see to free him was to cut off his arm. Once the arm was severed, the statue let go of it, and the priest kept it and hung it up as a warning to future thieves. (It would seem that the Czech Republic in general is totally okay with gore and death and the generally gruesome and morbid.)
* The maker of the famous astrological clock was blinded after he finished it, to ensure that no other city would ever have one like it. His revenge was to feel around and remove an essential part so that the clock would stop working. It took anywhere from months to a hundred years for someone else to figure out how to fix it, depending on who's telling the story.

There are plenty more where those came from. Prague is fascinating. It's also ridiculously beautiful. The buildings are all ornately decorated with sculpture and painted designs. Everything is brightly colored. There are statues everywhere you look. Even the sidewalks are beautiful--half of them have black and white mosaic designs, and I'm not sure I saw any two alike.

Anyway, by the time the tour was over, it was dark and drizzling and approaching dinner time, and a sensible person would have ended the day on a high note and gone home then. For no particular reason, I opted to walk back to the market in Old Town Square, and then discovered I didn't actually know where to get the tram back to the hostel. In the end I walked back to where we'd ended the tour and found the nearest tram stop, figuring as long as it was headed in the right direction I could figure it out. Then I discovered I didn't know where to obtain a ticket for the tram. There are not machines at every stop, or even most stops, which seems idiotic, and you can't buy them on the tram, and I hadn't had the foresight to buy any from the front desk at the hostel before I left. Not finding any at the stop where I was, I wandered across the nearest bridge to another stop to see if there were any machines there. There weren't, but I figured out there was a metro stop there, too, and went down there to buy a ticket. Then I came back out and waited for the tram. Several trams came by, but none that were going the direction I wanted. I waited. And waited and waited and waited. No tram. After almost an hour, I gave up and went back to the metro, and took it to the same place I'd gotten the tram (a different tram) that morning, which was a very roundabout way of doing things but seemed better than standing around in the cold or wandering around an unfamiliar city in the dark. I had to change metro lines, and had to wait a ridiculously long time for the second train. I hoped that the lack of public transportation in Prague was due to the holiday and not a constant thing.

So I eventually got to the other stop, and then I waited for that tram for a while. It didn't come either.

Eventually, I gave up and walked, following the tram line back to the route I'd taken when I walked that morning.

At that point, I was tired, and cold, and late for dinner (the hostel was providing a free Christmas dinner to all its guests, presumably at least in part because the city was shutting down for the night), and deeply frustrated. None of these were good things to feel on Christmas Eve, when I was also lonely and homesick to begin with. When I finally got back to the hostel and went down to the pub, it was insanely crowded, and I was not in the mood to socialize with strangers, so, unable to find a quiet corner to hole up in, I ended up taking a plate upstairs to my room and enjoying my chicken schnitzel and potato salad and chocolate cake in silence and self-pity.

Christmas Day was better. I went back to Old Town Square and the market first thing that morning and had a traditional Czech pastry rolled in cinnamons and almonds for breakfast. Around lunchtime I met up with Ali, the English assistant in Guingamp that I traveled from Paris with when we first arrived in France, and a friend of hers who's an assistant in the east of France, near Lyon. They introduced me to Bohemia Bagel, an English-speaking BAGEL SHOP in the middle of Prague. Apparently it's a big expat hangout, and how could it not be? Real live bagels, for crying out loud. While we were eating, we remembered it was Christmas. It didn't feel like Christmas for anyone. And it never did really feel like Christmas, even that night when I went back to the hostel and Skyped with my parents and sister. There just wasn't anything about it that's normally a part of Christmas for me. It was a good day, certainly, I just sort of feel like I skipped over Christmas entirely.

That afternoon we went on another walking tour, this time of the castle district. Ali and Shayna had gone on a tour with this company before I arrived in Prague but hadn't been able to see the castle because Vaclav Havel was lying in state at the time, so they'd been told they could come back another day to do that part. My tour the day before hadn't gone anywhere near the castle, so I tagged along as well. I should clarify here that Prague's "castle" is not what you're probably thinking based on the term. It's not medieval, and the only towers are on St. Vitus' Cathedral. Most of the castle complex is seventeenth or eighteenth century, I think. Some of it might be a bit earlier, but only a few small pieces of it are actually from the Middle Ages, so it doesn't look like what you usually think of as a castle. Kind of like Dublin Castle in that regard. It's very very pretty, though. Very big and elegant. And St. Vitus' Cathedral is amazing. It's definitely the biggest church in Prague; I don't know for sure if it's the biggest in the country, but it must be close. And it's stunning. Unfortunately, you have to pay to go beyond standing in the back near the doors, so I didn't get to see much of it. All the same, it was breathtaking. I think Czech cathedrals might be even prettier than French cathedrals. The architecture is fairly similar (at least to my untrained eye), but Czech churches are full of painted murals, and there's something about Czech stained glass that I think is more beautiful than French stained glass. It's more delicate, somehow. Less abstract.

Anyway, other highlights of the castle complex included the life-size straw nativity scene outside the cathedral, the assortment of guards in fuzzy hats who were trying not to smile, and (on a creepy note) the large sculptures of people murdering each other on either side of the entrance. I'm not sure what that was about. I assume there is symbolism involved that was lost on us, but to me it just looked violent and disturbing. But I say again, the Czech seem to be pretty nonchalant about the darker side of life.

After the tour, we walked around the castle district for a bit (absinthe ice cream, anyone?) and then had coffee in a nice café on the way back to the river, which we crossed on Charles Bridge. Charles Bridge is another of Prague's major landmarks. It's a very old, very wide pedestrian bridge lined on both sides with an assortment of sculptures. There are various stories about some of them, and a great deal of confusion about exactly which one you're supposed to touch for good luck, and exactly how you're supposed to touch it to make sure it is indeed good luck and not bad. It was kind of hard to fully appreciate some of the sculptures in the dark (let alone take pictures), but Prague is so beautiful at night it was hard to mind.

* Despite its less-than-ideal location, I would highly recommend Sir Toby's to other travelers. It's super nice, has everything you need (including cheap laundry facilities!), the staff are great and all some level of English-speaking, the pub is awesome and even serves food, and it seemed like a really good place for mingling. I only had brief conversations with some of my fellow guests, but there was a very social atmosphere and I saw some people really making new friends in the pub in the evenings. The other big downside besides location was that you have to pay for breakfast, and breakfast starts weirdly late, which was fine over the holidays but might have been irritating to me otherwise. That said, breakfast is very much worth the price and starting late means it's available until almost lunchtime, so if you are prone to sleeping in, you're still set.
** Definitely bulls. Definitely not steers.
*** Same company I went with in Dublin and Amsterdam. Not the best tour of the three by any means, but definitely worthwhile. Probably would have been more enjoyable if it hadn't been so bloody cold once it got dark (which was really early--like 4/4:30 p.m.).