Monday, July 16, 2012

Prague: Europe Vs America

Yesterday at this time, the Chicago Passport Control stamped my passport, and I walked back into the United States. Last time I returned to the United States, I pronounced English words according to Czech pronunciation rules and was baffled by the light switches (the Czech light switches are little boxes, not actual switches). Here's what I've noticed this time. The first and the last are things I like about returning to America; the middle ones are things that frustrate me about America.

Air conditioning is wonderful.
In Europe, A/C is a rare find. In the mountains, summers are rainy and cold, so a warm blanket is more important than A/C (I spent the last week in the mountains, two blankets on my bed at night.) In the cities, summers are hot but short, and so Europeans open their windows and wear a lot of dresses. 

I, however, am a wimpy American. As Czech people turned out the lights and comfortably went to bed under huge blankets even in 80 and 90 degree weather, I stripped off the sheet, piled the comforter at the foot of the bed so it didn't even touch my toes, and sprawled out in an attempt to be cool. It didn't work that well. I moved lower in the house where I stayed, from the top floor to the first floor and finally to the basement. 

Then yesterday, I arrived home in the middle of a 90-degree heatwave. My home was warm and directly in the sun, not shaded by any trees. And I turned on the A/C and slept off some jet lag in perfect cool, underneath a sheet. Yes, I am thankful for my air conditioning. 

Americans are big.
And I'm not talking about weight. 

My last day in the Czech Republic, I traveled from a tiny skiing village in the northeastern tip all the way to Prague, crossing more than 2/3 of the country, in approximately 3 hours. During that time, I passed through one large town (Pardubice) and at least three smaller towns (at least 10,000 inhabitants). I also crossed two rivers and went through a small mountain range. 

The next day, I landed in the States. Like my trip to Prague, my trip home from the airport also took three hours. But instead of passing through several towns, across two rivers, and through a mountain range, I passed through cornfields. And more cornfields. And more cornfields. And an occasional podunk town of 500 people. Woot.

The same holds true with the cities. My town in the US has perhaps 50,000 inhabitants; by car, it takes 20-30 minutes to cross, depending on traffic. In Europe, it takes 20-30 minutes to cross a city of 100,000 people. With all the space we have in this country, we build out not up: Few buildings (especially houses) are more than two stories high, every business and store has a lawn and a huge parking lot, and a large house holds a family of two or three. In Europe, they put their cities on a diet. American space just looks large to me, now that I'm back.

Americans love their little comforts.
Last night, I walked into my apartment and immediately noticed how soft and squishy the carpet was, a welcome relief after twenty hours and more of travel. The thing is, I'd never thought of my carpet as particularly nice before. If anything, my carpet is not particularly nice: Though serviceable enough, its light blue colour is bleached in a few spots, and it's short and a tad rough, not soft and downy. 

Floors in Europe, though, are considerably less luxurious. Many homes use tile or wood throughout the house. Even when there is carpet, there is rarely thick carpet or even a carpet pad: European carpets are thin and brown and quite plain: Imagine the kind of carpet you'd find in a city county office or a library from the early 70s, take away the pad underneath the carpet, and voila! You have just imagined a European carpet.

Amazingly (or not; sarcasm alert), Europeans live happy and fulfilled lives without thick, soft carpet. Even I didn't notice the difference in carpet until I returned last night. I think the carpet is just part of a larger feature of American culture: We Americans go out of our way whenever we can to make ourselves more excessively comfortable. Europeans like to be comfortable too, but the "comfort bar" is set a little lower there, perhaps because they, unlike us, have people still living from the wars and from the Communist era who know what it means to be truly uncomfortable and unhappy. Hint: It's not thin carpet.

Americans are loud.
What I wanted most when I left the airport yesterday was a big dish of ice cream: I'd been suffering from a sore throat the entire ride home, with water and juice hard to come by unless the stewardess showed up, and ice cream is so delicious on a sore throat. 

So, we stopped at the first oasis on the toll road and toodled inside to the local Baskin Robbins. I stood up at the glass case and contemplated the 31 flavours (peanut butter ice cream? chocolate? vanilla?). Then out of the blue, a man beside me bawled something to his girlfriend. He was standing close enough that I and his girlfriend could have heard a loud whisper, but his near-yell startled me and probably half the oasis as well. Today, I walked into the mall with two guys fifty feet behind me. In tones that carried across half the parking lot, they assured each other how hungry they were and how they had skipped breakfast this morning. 

Europeans are more likely, though not always, to adjust their voice for whoever is around them. (There are exceptions: Sports and music are two of them.) In the Metro, for instance, it would be impossible to make out someone's conversation from opposite sides of the same car, let alone from fifty feet away. Europeans believe that Americans are "loud"; it's one of the first stereotypes that they list. It's true. We are. 

Don't take English for granted.
About a week before I left the Czech Republic, I had to travel by train to a town two hours from Prague. My train was delayed, and then at the very first stop, every traveler got booted off the train for what was (to me) an incomprehensible reason: The conductor came on and spoke some Czech, and the only two words I recognized were "bus" and "stop". Everyone got off, and so I followed them off and then . . . stood in the middle of a train station with an overstuffed backpack at my feet, like a lost puppy. 

I tried to ask about a new train, but the ticket lady spoke no English and no German, and I spoke no Czech. We spoke our native language s l o w l y. We gestured at each other. We wrote stuff down. We cupped our hands behind our ears. We tried one-word sentences. I finally got a new ticket and information on when the next train left, but I have a feeling I didn't need the  new ticket. And I still don't know why the train stopped in the first place. 

When I arrived in America yesterday, I changed out my Czech crowns: The woman behind the counter spoke perfect English; there was no guessing. I stopped and picked up water at McDonalds. Again, perfect English. Great communication. It was wonderful. 

The fact that the people around you speak the same language is a beautiful thing: Enjoy it! 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Prague Week 4: Paris

Paris is always a good idea. ~ Sabrina
France had never been high on my priority list of European countries to visit: I reached Rome and London long before I even decided to go to France. Returning this summer, though, I wanted to visit someplace new and was inspired to see the City of Light. So, I arranged for lodging with a friend of a friend, bought a plane ticket from Prague to Paris and ordered a handy Rick Steves travel book. 

From the top of the Eiffel Tower, the city stretches almost as far as the eye can see, radiating outwards in all directions. Had I spent a month there, I would still be discovering new things about the city. I had three days. So, I made the most of it and saw as much as I could. Here is what I discovered:

The Effects of History
Probably I learned in high school that Paris was originally a tribal city, then conquered by the Romans. I forgot this, however, and so it was a surprise to me to reach Paris and continually discover Roman ruins tucked away in the museums. In one of the churches (St Pierre de Montmartre), Roman columns are used to support the structure. Near the Latin Quarter, an entire museum is built around an old Roman bath, its ceilings stretching upwards nearly two stories. Perhaps most interesting, Notre Dame sits atop a crypt with ruins from the Roman period, from the medieval period and even from the 1700 and 1800s. Ruins were mixed into ruins: Unlike today, the builders did not completely sweep away the old buildings but instead built on top of old ruins and sometimes simply used the old ruins in the new building. 
St Pierre-Montmartre
This mixture of ruins, spanning more than two thousand years, suggested visibly the integration of history. Today, divided from the past except as we encounter it in museums, we like to think that we are independent of history; we are less racist and more democratic than our ancestors and are free from their old sins. But the ruins of Paris suggest that it is perhaps more difficult to shake off the influence of our ancestors. The Parisian buildings were, quite literally, influenced by the buildings and decisions of past years: The avenue to the old Notre Dame church became a hospital and then a tourist attraction; the Roman baths became a medieval cellar, and so one age influenced the next. In the same way, the Parisians themselves, like anyone else, were shaped by the people who lived before them: We do not live in isolation, as a series of individual houses built on clean new ground, but in the great city of history, one house built on top of and influenced by the one in the age before it. 
A Roman bath; the street to Notre Dame once led on top of the bath.
The history of Paris also taught another lesson. Among the tourist attractions I visited, the Conciergerie was a surprisingly interesting one. I visited this prison simply because it was open, and the church next door which I had intended to see was closed for lunch. The Conciergerie began life as a medieval palace for the French kings; it was transformed into a holding cell for political prisoners, including Marie Antoinette, on their way to the guillotine; it finally oversaw the fall of Robespierre himself. Probably the French kings thought they were invincible in the splendour of their palace. The French Revolution leaders probably thought they were equally invincible, having toppled the monarchy and established a new government. Then they started killing each other, and a few years later, Napoleon came along. If the Conciergerie demonstrates anything, it is this: What we do in this world is temporary; very few human actions endure for all the ages.
Conciergerie; the old dining room of French nobility
Even what does endure for the ages is sometimes of no significance at all. Among the collection in the Louvre are ancient cuneiform tablets from Sumeria and Babylon. Some of these are important: the tablet that is the oldest announces a military victory. Some, however, are utterly unimportant: they give orders for managing the city latrines. The Roman ruins are also unimportant. A "Roman ruin" sounds exotic and fascinating, until you realize that what you're looking at is essentially a Roman toilet. Imagine a historian coming a thousand years from now and discovering our civilization. Although we might expect our technological advances (computers and tablets) and our drive for charity to be highlighted in museums and history textbooks, future generations would be just as likely to showcase the porcelain toilet in your bathroom or your grocery list. 

The hole is a Roman toilet.

Cuneiform tablets giving directions about the latrines
Art in Paris

I am not an art museum person. Some people can spend an entire day in an art museum, wandering slowly from painting to painting and feeling the emotional rush with each new artwork. This is not me. Excessive artwork is, to me, redundant: Hey, look! Another painting! And another! And another! And . . . 

So I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Paris's great art museums, the Orsay and the Louvre. If I were to describe everything for you, I would sound like a bad art history professor. So, I'll just touch on one item that I particularly enjoyed: the Oriental art.

In the Orsay, one room was devoted to "Oriental" art: not Chinese art, but French paintings of Northern Africa and the Middle East. The painters included people such as these:
  • Gustave Guillaumet, who painted Arabs praying in the desert, surrounded by their brown peaked tents, and the mummified skeleton of a camel lost in the Sahara desert
  • Leon Belly, who painted almost exclusively Arab subjects
  • Etienne Dinet, who painted this picture of a loving Arab couple. The Internet reproduction does not do it justice; in real life, the stars sparkle. 
The "Oriental" art was interesting because it represented the changing culture of the mid-1800s. In the 1800s, Europe was taking its first steps towards becoming a global society, something it had not been since the Roman era. The paintings, all set in otherworldly places, reflected this expanding interest.

What's Next
My last project before leaving for home is English camp. I have training from July 4-July 6, then English camp from July 7-July 14. "English camp" is a popular way here in the Czech Republic to reach out to the Czechs practically, giving them a chance to improve their English and perhaps one of the few chances they ever have to hear and learn about the Bible. I then fly home early in the morning of July 15. I do not expect to have Internet (or at least not easy access) after July 4, so likely you will not hear from me until I return Stateside.

Here are a few prayer requests for my last week and a half on this side of the pond:
  • meaningful, enjoyable English camp lessons: I am in charge of teaching six lessons to lower-intermediate English camp students. I have lessons prepared, but please pray that they will run smoothly and that the students will find them interesting.
  • good relationships at camp: I am not a camp person. I love living alone, not living with a hundred people for seven days and participating in endless activities and staying up late. Although I believe in the value of English camp, I'm worried that its busy schedule and close contact with people will turn me into a grouch. Pray for patience and a little bit of quiet time in the day (also sleep. I like sleep.)
  • smooth travels: Camp is somewhere in the Czech boondocks. I leave the Czech boondocks on July 14, then take 3-4 trains back to Prague to arrive in the late afternoon right before a very early flight Stateside. Please pray that I will make all the connections smoothly and that I will not be stranded at a whistle-stop station where no one speaks English.