Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Prague: Present tense

Embracing the family car trip, we recently drove to Prague. With our car’s navigation device, we are emboldened, perhaps too much so. We plugged in our coordinates and took off. All went well until we ran into Europe’s August road renovation. Diverted from the main roads by the navi and without an actual map, we took the scenic route into Prague through fields and tiny villages. The scenic route took a couple hours longer and the kids had read all books and listened to all podcasts by the time we finally rolled into Prague. But it was worth the wait as soon as we drove across the river, taking in the views of the castle high above the city and the beautiful architecture all around.
The kids and I spent one day wandering around the city, walking up Petrin Hill and down into the castle. Though we had maps and plans, the walk was easy. We just followed the crowds of tourists. At the Prague Castle, the kids got excited by the fact that it was the biggest ancient castle in the world, according to Guinness Book of World Records, our favorite source. We took a nice tour of the castle, walking through some rooms from different time periods. The castle began around 980 as the walled Church of Our Lady.  The gothic Saint Vitus Cathedral, one of the central features of the castle, was only completed one hundred years ago. The castle and Prague were prominent throughout Europe’s history, as a center of the Holy Roman Empire (Charles IV) and also for the Hapsburg Monarchy. Favorite exhibits included Czech crown jewels and two thousand year old tapestries in which we could still see the graphic print on the fabric.
Just walking around Prague was exciting, seeing the different churches, towers and of course the bridges. The kids loved walking over the Charles Bridge, watching all the street performers. The kids, perhaps reflecting on all their musical instrument lessons, are adamant about giving spare change to street musicians. We had plenty of opportunity to give out Czech money and whatever Euro coins we had, while we tried to figure why some countries in the EU maintained their former currency. The kids were perplexed by the currency change counters, never having seen them before. We had forgotten them too. They were a staple in our former Eastern European life but only an airport thing in our part of Asia
The grungy currency exchange booths were about the only reminder of the Prague we used to know. Phil and I could not stop marveling about how much Prague had changed since we had last been there, about fifteen years ago. We had vague memories of certain streets and monuments but everything was spiffier and busier. Starbucks were everywhere (and actually a welcome surprise after the dearth of them in Munich) as were a number of American chain restaurants, which we were tempted by but stayed out of. The final indication that times have changed came on our drive home. We drove across the former border without a stop. There wasn’t even a person, just lots of empty looking buildings. Then we realized we had left our passports back at the hotel in Prague. We pulled over, called and had them sent via DHL. They arrived the next day. Unbelievable from the days of exit visas.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


One recent weekend, we took the train to Hamburg to see something new and experience the train. Trains are big here: the regular S-bahn, the regional trains and then the fast ICE train. We took the fast one and it was still a six hour train ride, heading north through rolling farmland. We weren’t sure how the kids would do on such a long trip but between reading and visiting the restaurant car, the time blew by. A little German boy saw us and came sat with us. Because he was so young, our kids felt brave with their German language and soon all were trying to communicate with him and mostly succeeding!
Despite temperatures slightly cooler than already cool Munich, Hamburg was a delight. Though it is Germany’s second largest city, there are only 1.8 million people living there. On the Elbe River and the North Sea, Hamburg is the second largest port in Europe and most of it was built up in the last 100 years.  Hamburg might be second in most rankings but we loved it. The water and the ships reminded us all of Hong Kong though at a much slower pace. Hamburg was destroyed in WWII Allied bombing raids with over 50,000 people dying inside the city. Just outside the city was a concentration camp where another 50,000 people died. Deported Jewish residents were noted throughout the city with bronze plaques on the sidewalk, saying who lived there, where they were sent and their birth and death dates. It was very sad to see these markers on a happy summer street.
Alongside its tragic past, Hamburg also has a musical past. Hamburg is the birthplace of Johanns Brahms and the town where the Beatles got their start in 1962. Currently, there is a new Elbe Philharmonic Hall under construction right on the water. There was a nice little exhibit detailing the construction of the new hall. We went through that and then walked out to see the new building a block away. The new hall has an interesting wave pattern on its outside walls that reminded us all of something from Harry Potter, perhaps a Ministry building.
Hamburg is also home to Miniature World, the world’s largest model train museum with over 12 kilometers of track winding through an old warehouse. It is hard to explain how interesting it was; the trains were only part of it. Around the trains scenes were set up; an outdoor rock concert, a protest, a fair. The kids were given a list of hidden details to find in the displays like Santa Claus coming out of a Porta-Potty. Royce found a chocolate factory that shot out tiny real chocolate bars.  Tori found some Alpine mountaineers while Adam found a DHL plane leaving the model airport for Hong Kong.
The neighbor hood we stayed in was very Berkeley-like with cafes, tie-dye, used bookstores, graffiti and street people. When first confronted by the street scene, Adam reached for my hand and asked if it was safe. We said yes, though we didn’t stop to figure out why police were at the cheese store we liked. Beyond the cheese, we liked was the relaxed feel of Hamburg. While walking around town, the kids strayed into the bike line. We urged them out of the bike line, like we do in Munich but surprisingly, the bikers bearing down on them just smiled and went past. Shocked, we relaxed for the first time in months.  We didn’t hang out in cafes but we did hang out in the bike lane.