Munching through Madrid

Spring Break in the Czech Republic comes much earlier than it does in the States. My “Spring Break” fell on the last week of February, but some of my friends had as early as the first week of the month off.

Fortunately, my school told me early on about all my days off for the year, so I began to plan what I wanted to do for Spring Break back in November. My only two requirements were somewhere A) warm and B) cheap. So, for the next week, I religiously stalked SkyScanner to find possible destinations.

For those who don’t know, SkyScanner is a website that takes all the flights out there and gives you your cheapest options. They have a fun feature where you type “Everywhere” for your destination and “Whole Month” for your timeframe so that you can not only see what countries are cheapest to fly to, but also play with the dates to get your cheapest flight possible. For example, if I wanted to search for a place to go to in April right now, I could get roundtrip tickets to Denmark and Hungary for $30.

I now list “Skyscanner” as one of my favorite free time activities.

Anyway.

I decided to let SkyScanner decide where I would go for Spring Break and it did not fail to find me a result that fulfilled my requirements.

Hello, Madrid.

Not long after I booked my flight and hostel, my friends, Stevie and Bethany, decided to join me before moving on to Portugal.

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First sight right off the bus- Palacio de Cibeles

Getting to Madrid went smoothly. After a 3-hour flight, we took a pubic shuttle to the city center. We then walked to our hostels (we were staying at separate ones) to drop off our bags before going on a Free Walking Tour of the city.

The hostel I stayed at, 2060 The Newton Hostel, was amazing- so far the best hostel I’ve stayed in in Europe. The hostel provided nightly activities to get backpackers talking to one another, had a spa and rooftop view, gave out free churros, coffee, and tea for breakfast, and featured a number of cool artwork and quotes throughout.

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The ‘theme’ of the hostel is that the end of the world is in 2060… better party it up until then!

We had reserved Free Walking Tour spots with a company that asked for everyone to meet up at Plaza del Callao. Us being us, we got to the plaza extra early and watched dance and art performers as we waited.

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We became so caught up in the performances that we failed to notice that the tour guide assistant had showed up to check people in for the tour. Unfortunately, one of the tour guides was sick and the company could not accept everyone. Since we were not within the first 30 people to check-in (even though we were at the plaza first), we were not able to go on the tour.

Instead, we asked the very harassed tour guide assistant- charged with the responsibility of turning away 30 annoyed people- where we should go for some sights and tapas. She suggested the Malasaña neighborhood, which was the area I had been most excited to visit in Madrid after my coworker had told me it was a must-see place.

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Libro’s para un Mundo Mejor in Malasaña- not only a cool storefront- but also a unique bookstore from within

Malasaña is the ‘hipster’ neighborhood of Madrid. It is filled with bright colors, trendy cafés and quirky street art.

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It also has some good backdrops for photo ops. Just saying.

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Next, we strolled on over to Calle de la Cava Baja in the La Latina neighborhood.

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This street, filled with quintessential Spanish architecture, is quiet during the day, but comes alive at night as people eagerly come out for a wide variety of tapas.

Awwww tapas… small dishes advertising the best of what Spain has to offer. The fact that they are sometimes served for free with a drink purchase makes them all the more delicious and likely to end up in my belly. Between the three of us, we split a cheese board, bread and olives, grilled veggies, and meat skewers.

That night, we then found another tapas bar that gave us free breadsticks, slices of meat, and tortilla de patatas with our glasses of wine.

I literally spent my 3 days in Madrid munching on tapas (and churros, courtesy of my hostel).

The next day, we joined a Free Walking Tour that was organized through my hostel. For those that don’t know, a lot of European cities provide Free Walking Tours to visitors. A guide takes you to a number of sights and provides you with a brief history of each place. At the end, the guide asks for donations and you simply give what you think is appropriate. It’s a pretty nice system.

Our tour guide ended up not being Spanish, but South African. He had visited Madrid because it was the cheapest option at the time on SkyScanner (he and I share the same hobby), fell in love with the city, and moved there.

He was a very enthusiastic guide and took us to many of the sights I had researched prior. However, he was able to give more insight on each place.

First we went to the Puerta del Sol (“Sun Gate”). This is the the most famous plaza in Madrid and is literally the heart of Spain- there’s even a plaque there that you can stand on that declares it to be the dead center point of the country.

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Famous bear statue- if you rub the bear’s tail- you’re supposed to get an instant upgrade in your love life.

Next, we stopped by Plaza De Isabel II:

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Queen Isabel II was very fond of the arts and had this theater built. If you are under 30, you can get last minute tickets for performances up to 90% off.

After, we went to Palacio Real (the Royal Palace). The inside costs money, so we just stuck to the exterior and gardens:

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The front entrance for royal processions. You can tell that the Royals weren’t staying there at the time of our visit because only 1 flag was up.

Right across from the palace stood the Almudena Cathedral:

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The side facing the Royal Palace

This church took a very long time to construct, simply because the government kept using the allotted money for its construction elsewhere. As a result, the cathedral contains architectural elements from many different time periods.

Since one of the entrances faces the Royal Palace, it was purposely made to be less magnificent than the other sides so that it wouldn’t upstage the beauty of the Royal Palace (I still thought it was pretty though…)

Our tour guide also took us to look at what is certifiably “the oldest restaurant in the world still continuously open”- Restaurante Sobrino de Botín

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Opened since 1725

A man is posted out front to prevent anyone without a reservation from even walking inside.

The Walking Tour then ended at Plaza Mayor- known for its history of bloody executions and past bullfights:

IMG-5946 Side story- the statue of the horse once had a firecracker accidentally blown at it. It created a hole and out came a bunch of old bones.

People speculated that they might be the bones of people once executed at the Plaza- until they realized that they were bird bones. Apparently, there was a little hole in the horse’s mouth that birds kept flying down and then getting stuck in. The horse’s stomach had literally become a bird graveyard. Obviously, they sealed the horse’s mouth as they made repairs to its stomach.

By the end of the tour, we were hungry and asked our tour guide for a recommendation of a paella place to eat at. He did one better and actually took us right to a place that made fresh and custom-made paella (usually paella is made for everyone and then just reheated over and over till it’s gone). Our tour guide then decided to join us for lunch and we all talked travel destinations and politics (it’s okay to discuss politics at the table when you’re not in America) as we ate through our tapas and paella.

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Paella at Rosi la Loca

Before leaving, our tour guide also gave us one last recommendation- to head over to the rooftop bar of Círculo de Bellas Artes for some of the best views of Madrid. I was a bit surprised that he recommended this view as it was listed everywhere on the internet as a must-do in Madrid. I had just figured that this was an overrated place.

But, I was proven very wrong.

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From right outside Círculo de Bellas Artes, you can also get the iconic ground shot of Gran Via

The entrance fee and drinks were reasonably priced too. We spent the rest of the day soaking in some much-needed vitamin D.

As the sun started to descend, we then made it a mission to get to Cuartel de la Montaña Park for sunset. This park has an Egyptian temple in it.

Yes, you read that right.

The Templo de Debod was originally constructed by the Nile in Egypt. It was dismantled and donated to Madrid in order to save it from floods following the construction of a dam.

The temple consists of 2 archways and a small main building. It’s all laid-out over a pond of water, creating a beautiful reflection at sundown.

Unfortunately, when we went, the pond had been completely drained.

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Aww well. It was still nice to see and just gives me another excuse of why I need to make it back to Madrid someday.

Instead, we walked to the park’s edge that overlooks a whole area of Madrid. There were people everywhere just plopped down and enjoying the view and warm weather. So, we decided to sit down and join them.

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Finally, we ended the night with a trip to Chocolatería San Ginés. This is a 24/7 café that primarily sells churros with thick melted chocolate. It’s a very popular place to go and is the oldest Chocolatería in Madrid. Stevie, Bethany, and I split 6 churros between us and a cup of melted chocolate. However, I saw a lot of people splitting churros and getting a cup of chocolate for each person at the table. They would then just drink the leftover chocolate. Perhaps a bit unnecessary.

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However, I really can’t talk too much on the topic as I’m a chocoholic myself and did not let our remaining chocolate go to waste.

I would love to say that the next day I “started fresh” and had a healthy and nutritious breakfast. But really, we visited La Mallorquina– the oldest bakery in Madrid (yes, another oldie place).

IMG-5901 The place was crowded with people, claustrophoblically-so. However, the smells were tantalizing and everything was super cheap.

I got a chocolate pastry for breakfast and was promptly placed on a sugar high for the next few hours.

Luckily, the rest of the day was a lot more relaxed. We walked to El Retiro Park, where we passed La Puerta da Alcalá:

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We then spent a fair amount of time relaxing by the park’s large lake. People were rowing boats, but we preferred our view from the monument’s steps.

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We also went to the Palacio da Cristal (the Glass Palace):

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It was an absolute beautiful and breathing structure to gaze at and walk in. It even had some quirkiness to it as well:

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Shhhhh!

After some shopping on the Gran Via, we then headed over to Mercado de San Miguel. While not the Glass Palace, this indoor food vendor market had a pretty exterior that allowed you to glimpse all the tapas and goodies from within.

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Mercado de San Miguel offered all the tapas that Madrid (as well as other parts of Spain) is known for. You can pick and choose as you go at a cheap cost.

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Tapas for days

It was the perfect dinner as Stevie and Bethany’s flight to Portugal took off later that night and they wanted something light to go.

Unfortunately for me, my flight back to Prague took off very early the next morning. Good thing the shuttle to the airport runs at all hours! And as an extra bonus, I got to walk through Madrid at the “dead of night,” which turns out is not so dead as Madrid is known for a wild night life. Guess that’s another excuse as to why I need to go back to Madrid 😉

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How to Use Public Transportation in the Czech Republic

It’s bit of a departure from my usual content, yet I think it’s worth dedicating a practical post on how to navigate the public transportation system in the Czech Republic. Why? Because you’ll most certainly rely on trams, buses, trains, and the metro to get around conveniently if you live in the Czech Republic. Planning to just visit Prague (Hint hint, family and friends)? There’s still a good chance you’ll use public transportation, especially in rainy or cold weather when walking might not be the most desirable option.

The Czech Republic is known for many things… beer, castles, dogs, Baguette Boulevard… and a very intricate transportation network that easily gets you where you need to go. And at a very inexpensive price.

Since I personally live in Prague, I’ll talk mostly about moving through the city. However, I’ll touch upon areas outside of Prague as well.

***Note: I converted prices from Czech Koruna to US dollars for this post at a time when 1 CZK = $.044. Please bear in mind that the prices in USD may change slightly, depending upon the current exchange rate.

For those who plan to live in Prague for an extended period of time…

You will most likely buy a pass that will give you unlimited access to all trams, metros, buses (and even a ferry ride and gondola lift!) within Prague. A yearly pass costs 3,650 CZK (roughly $161.92). That’s less than 50 cents a day. Definitely worth it.

If living in Prague, but working outside of the city, you will also need to buy an additional bus or train pass for the zone you work in. These vary in price, depending on the length of time you buy your ticket for and what zone you’re working in.

For instance, I take 3 forms of transportation during my 1-hour commute to and from work each day: a tram, metro, and bus. My year pass covers my tram and metro rides as they are both within Prague. However, the bus I take goes outside of Prague and into Zone 1. I need to show my second pass to my bus driver each day in order to get on this bus. For me, this second pass costs 760 CZK ($33.72) for 3 months of unlimited use.

For those who plan to live out of Prague for an extended period of time…

As long as you’re not commuting into the city every day, it will probably be more economically sound to buy bus/train tickets when going into the city and then buying daily tickets or 3-day passes once in the city (see below).

For those who plan to visit Prague

You will need to buy short-term tickets if you plan to use any forms of public transportation. You have 4 ticket options:

-A ticket valid for 30 minutes for 24 CZK ($1.06)

-A ticket valid for 90 minutes for 32 CZK ($1.42)

-A ticket valid for 24 hours for 110 CZK ($4.88)

-A ticket valid for 3 days for 310 CZK ($13.75)

Ticket machines are most commonly found in the metros, but are also scattered throughout the city as well. Be careful- while some machines accept card, most still only accept coins. The machines are only good for 30/90 minute and 24 hour tickets. If you need a 3-day ticket, you need to purchase it at a newsstand.

Your ticket will only become effective after validating your ticket at the yellow box scanner on/by your mode of transportation (not at the time of purchase!).

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Once validated (you’ll know because you’ll see a time stamp), you can use an unlimited amount of transportation (bus, tram, and/or metro) within your allotted amount of time.

DO NOT go on transportation without a ticket! There are inspectors that do random searches. You will know that they are legit when they show you this:

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If you are caught without a ticket, you will be charged 800 CZK ($35.49) on the spot.

THE METRO

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Metros are located throughout all of Prague and run from 5am- 12 midnight. They are a great option to take if you don’t want to wait on a tram/bus in the cold or rain. Plus, some metro stations have some pretty cool art to stare at and free metro newspapers to read (a great way to practice your Czech) as you wait.

The ‘journey’ to get down into the metro can also be a bit of fun: some stations have super long and steep escalators. With posters that are tilted at an angle, the ride up and down messes with your perception and becomes a bit trippy. For the first few weeks of taking the metro, I felt like Alice about to fall down/up a rabbit hole.

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Fun fact- the longest escalator in the EU is at the Náměstí Míru metro stop on the A Line. Without walking up/down the steps, it took 2:20 minutes to ride.

Oh, and one more important thing about the metro escalators- ALWAYS stay on the right hand side unless if you are passing. If not, prepare to encounter some very angry Czech people.

There are 3 metro lines: Green (the A Line), Yellow (the B Line), and Red (the C line). The metro runs pretty frequently- especially during rush-hour in the mornings and evenings. On the weekends, the metro runs less frequently. All Lines overlap towards the center of Prague, making the metro a possible way to get to almost anywhere in the city.

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For those planning to live in Prague- deciding to live close to a metro opens up your possibilities of places to live within the city as it can make commuting to work much more manageable!

TRAMS

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Like the metros, trams go throughout all of Prague and most stations have more than 1 tram passing through, which means connecting from one tram to another is very easy and manageable.

If you’re not sure where to find a tram stop, just follow the tracks (from the sidewalk, please) and keep an eye out for a red post. This red post will list all the trams that stop at the station, as well as the times and how long it will take you to get from Point A to Point B. The tram station you are at will be underlined and all tram stops that come after will be listed in order under your stop. If you see it above, you are at the wrong stop; go across the street to the tram stop that moves in the opposite direction.

Like the metro, trams run frequent during the week and less frequent during the weekend.

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Sample Tram Timetable

Not all trams run after a certain time of night (and remember- the metro stops running at midnight). If you plan to be out late, be prepared to use the Night Trams. These operate the same way Day Trams do- only your ride may be longer and you might have to switch trams a bit more often. Night Tram numbers are shaded in black on the red posts at the tram stations.

BUSES

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Buses are a bit less common to use as they mostly operate outside the city center or actually go outside of the city. However, similar to trams, they follow a particular route and timetable that can be viewed at a post at the bus stop. Some trams and buses even share the same stop.

Like trams, there are both Day and Night Buses.

Three important buses/shuttles to know about are Numbers 100, 119, and 191. These buses will take you to and from the airport and drop off/pick up at Metro Lines A or B. A super cheap and easy alternative to getting a Taxi to/from the airport.

As mentioned above, you may also take a bus to work or to see other parts of the Czech Republic. Reminder- buses that go out of Prague requires a special pass or a ticket that can be bought on the spot from the bus driver.

TRAINS

Trains are used to get in and out of Prague. While some of my fellow CIEE participants use trains to commute to/from work, I have only used the main train station (Hlavní Nádraží) to visit different towns in the Czech Republic and to travel outside the country. Tickets to different towns/countries can be bought online or in person.

 

So, how can you successfully travel from Point A to Point B without memorizing all metro/tram/bus/train schedules?

Easy!

Download the PID Lítačka app to your phone and simply type in your starting point and final destination. The app will do the rest and tell you what forms of transportation to take, when, and where. Six months in Prague and I still use this app when checking out new places.

And, of course, I need to recommend my favorite way of getting around- walking! Prague is a very walking-friendly city. Particularly if you want to see Prague’s main attractions. Plus, you never know what you may stumble upon during your walks…

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And finally I will end this post with some general ‘words of wisdom’ (AKA- common sense). Be respectful of the Czech Republic’s transportation system. It is for public use, meaning you should behave accordingly: keep your voice down, give up your seat for elderly people, small children, and pregnant mothers, and allow people to get off of the transport before going on yourself. In other words, be courteous of others and enjoy your ride 😉

 

Season’s Greetings from Italy Part 3: Rome and Vatican City

The train from Napoli to Rome ended up being a bit more eventful than our previous rides had been.

Early on, we heard thudding noises that sounded as if they were coming directly from under our compartment floor. As nobody really reacted to the noise and the train kept going, we quickly disregarded it as a sound that old trains make.

Twenty minutes later, the smell of burning rubber started to fill our compartment. Again, nobody did anything and I attributed it to the industrial area that we were passing through. About 15 minutes after this though, I was drawn away from my Netflix movie by the sounds of panicked voices.

Smoke had begun to fill our compartment. We looked at one another uneasily and all of a sudden, everyone shot up and started grabbing their things and pushing past each other to get to the joint compartment. One woman started hysterically screaming “Go! Go! Go!” in Italian. For a moment, I was terrified that our train was about to catch fire. Eventually though, we got through several compartments and the smoke became less and less dense. The train made an early stop at a platform and had us get off and reenter at the front of the train.

As Kelsey’s boyfriend knows Italian, he was able to fill us in on what had happened; that sound we had heard had been something getting caught in our compartment’s wheels. The wheels had stopped turning and had been pulled along the tracks. Hence the burning rubber smell and smoke.

Problem was, they couldn’t figure out how to get the wheels to start turning again. And so, we sat in an unmoving train and we were about 1.5 hours late arriving into Rome.

The main issue with this was that we had booked Skip the Line Tickets to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum for that day. After dropping off our stuff and grabbing a late lunch, we rushed on over to the Colosseum ticket booth. Unfortunately, we were told that we would not be able to get into the Colosseum and would have to instead come the following morning. Luckily, we were still able to go and check out the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum.

Thanks again to Latin class, I knew a little bit about Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum before going.

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The Roman Forum viewed from Palatine Hill

Palatine Hill is the most famous and centrally-located of Rome’s seven hills. By climbing up, you get an amazing view of the Roman Forum ruins. Legend has it, Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome) were raised by a wolf on this hill. Empire Augustus also built his palace on Palatine, as well as a temple for the god of light, Apollo.

Meanwhile, the Roman Forum was the heart of Rome. Originally an open marketplace, it became the site for elections, speeches, trials, and social/political debates.

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Roman Forum Ruin

Since we could not go to the Colosseum on Day 1 in Rome, we ended up having a bit more time than we expected. And so, we decided to make good use of it and check out some of Rome’s free attractions.

First, we went to the Trevi Fountain, which as PACKED with people.

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With the number of bodies pressed against each other and the constant jostling, we did not stay long.

We then passed by the Monument of Victor Emmanuel II and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This white marble structure commemorates the first King of Italy, as well as all the soldiers who lost their lives in WWI.

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We then went to the Pantheon, the ancient Roman temple/now church:

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What I loved about the Pantheon was that it seemed to pop out of nowhere; a large ancient structure set smack-dab in the middle of an otherwise very modern-looking piazza.

At this point, I was very satisfied with how the day had played out (minus the train fiasco). Olivia and I were ready to get to our accommodations and rest up for the next day.

But here is where our day took another ‘climatic’ turn. Really, I blame myself.

Back in November when we were booking our accommodations, I found a place called the Camping Village Roma. It had cute bungalows and was decently priced (AKA- the cheapest option available in a sea of ridiculously-priced accommodations). The reviews were good and according to many people, it was pretty easy to get there from the center of Rome.

Perhaps I should have considered the fact that most of the people staying at this camp ground were probably interested in CAMPING and not going to the city center each day. They were also more than likely Italian and therefore either had their own means of transportation or knew how to correctly navigate Rome’s public transportation system.

Our “journey” to these camping grounds started out easy enough- take the metro to blah-blah-blah station. Check.

From here, take a bus to the camping ground. Okay… but where was the bus and when did it come? Not wanting to look like total idiots, we decided to just walk to the grounds because- hey, we were practically champs with all the walking we had been doing in the past week. And a 30 minute walk didn’t seem bad. Stop for dinner halfway through and that’s only two 15 minute walks. Piece of a tiramisu cake.

Right.

Somehow, this walk ended up lasting way more than what GoogleMaps had promised. And even though we had our map set to the walking directions, our navigator still told us to cross the road when there was nowhere to cross and to walk along the highway.

Fortunately (?), Thailand had prepared me well for questionable and possibly unsafe situations like this. And so, having to use our cell phones as flashlights to avoid getting run over in the dark didn’t even faze me. Really, I was more anxious the whole time that Olivia would never trust me to book accommodations again.

Eventually we made it to the camping grounds, which was actually a cute place. We had a few more issues once there- lights not turning on, receiving the wrong key card, phones not working … at this point, the receptionist told me that “tonight was not my night,” took pity on me, and sent a security guard with me to help solve all our problems.

But no worries, the next day (New Years Eve) ended up being a lot better. We sucked up our pride and had a taxi take us to the metro to get back to Rome’s center. There, we met up with Kelsey and her boyfriend to be the first few people in line to view the Colosseum.

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Last year, I spent the last sunrise of 2017 sitting in a wicker chair on a Thai beach. For 2018, I wanted to pick a just-as-memorable place. Thank you, Colosseum, for helping me achieve that goal.

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Turns out, our train trouble the other day had been a blessing in disguise; since we could not make it the previous day, we now had the opportunity to see the Colosseum without almost any people inside. This meant we could do laps around the perimeter in the morning sun with clear views of the center and without bumping into people.

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I enjoyed every second of it, even the chilly weather.

Next we took a short taxi ride to a whole new country.

Vatican City

So really, I visited 2 countries this holiday season. A 2-for-1 deal.

With only 110 acres and a population of a mere 1,000 people, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world.

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Welcome to Vatican City

Knowing that the wait time to get into Vatican City is ridiculous, we bought Skip-the-Line tickets in advance. However, what we really needed was to buy Skip-the-Line tickets to the Skip-the-Line lines because even with priority entrance, we still had to wait in line for 2 hours. It’s a good thing we we had gotten into the Colosseum without any waiting, or else we all may have been in a pretty snappy mood at this point.

Fun fact- from what we were later told, the most busy day at Vatican City is apparently the last day of the year… Oops.

Eventually, we made it through and got to see the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel.

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As you got closer and closer to the Sistine Chapel, everyone got shepherd together and you were forced to keep moving forward.

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There was so much to see in each room though. My favorite thing to do was just to look at the ceiling and see how the designs morphed from 2D images to 3D.

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It was good neck training for the Sistine Chapel, where all you wanted to do was look up. Unfortunately, no pictures of the Sistine Chapel (no photography was allowed). Guess you’ll just have to go and check it out yourself!

Unfortunately, we ran out of time to visit St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Guess that means I need to go back too.

We then crossed back over into Italy and then went to Kelsey’s hotel to get ready for New Years Eve.

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We first went to Trastevere, a bohemian area known for its shops, restaurants, and pubs. Afterwards, we were planning to head back towards the Colosseum to see the fireworks there. However, we noticed a little dance party going on in one of the streets and decided to just stay there to ring in the New Years.

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Although the fireworks started to go off 30 seconds early (someone clearly wasn’t looking at their watch), dancing in an alleyway with friends, strangers, and good music was the perfect way to end 2018.

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The next day, Olivia and I tackled the rest of our Rome “To-Do” List. We went to the Spanish Steps to take in Rome from above and chill (as customary to do on the Spanish Steps).

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As we relaxed, a New Years Day celebration and a crowd began to form beneath us, complete with an orchestra and singer.

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After enjoying this, we found a place that made fresh pasta and took some to go so that we could eat pasta in the park.

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Villa Borghese Park

And, because it was our last full day in Italy (and also because they taste amazing), Olivia and I once again got gelatos. The only difficult part there was deciding which flavors to pick…

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Chocolate and peanuts for the win

We then sat down to eat them at Piazza del Poploo where again- unbeknown to us- a New Year Day celebration/parade broke out.

To end our day, we visited Piazza Navona, which is one of Rome’s most popular piazzas where you can view multiple statuesque water fountains. There was a fair going on, so the place was crowded with booths, balloons, and another merry-go-round. Olivia and I walked around the piazza and even stopped to watch a puppet show (no shame).

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After, we headed back to the Trevi Fountain (it was still packed, by the way) to say goodbye to Rome and throw coins into the fountain. Talk about being extra and making wishes for 2019 in style 😉

The next day, we left sunny Italy and took our flight back to the Prague. When we arrived, it was snowing. Vacation over. And yet, even though I loved Italy, I was happy to be back home.

Throughout the course of our 10 days in Italy, we walked over 90 miles, ate more pizzas that I wish to count, were exposed to much needed vitamin D, and made memories that will stick with me for many years. Thank you 2018 and cheers to 2019.

Season’s Greetings from Italy Part 2: Napoli and Pompeii

I won’t lie. I did not experience ‘love at first sight’ in Napoli as I did with Florence (and later Rome). In fact, I wasn’t too fond of Napoli at all in the beginning. Napoli, known as “Naples” to most Americans, is a coastal city facing the Tyrrhenian Sea. Because it’s near water, the city experiences milder weather in winter than other regions in Italy. As I prefer hot to cold any day, I assumed that I would love Napoli right away.

However, the amount of trash, broken-down vehicles, poverty, and urban-y vibe I got from Napoli initially had me doubt how much I’d like the city. Apparently, the garbage disposal company in Napoli sometimes goes on strike and refuses to collect trash. With the winter wind blowing, this creates quite the mess. In fact, I started comparing Napoli to the streets of Bangkok.

To be fair to Napoli though, I had just come from Florence- a small, artsy city that had to keep up appearances for the sake of tourists. Napoli, however, is a larger city with much less people that come to visit. Additionally, I had booked our Airbnb a good 45-minute walk from the city center. This meant that we were located in a more residential and less up-kept area.

On the bright side though, this meant that we experienced a more authentic view of the city. In fact, once I looked past the trash, I started to notice some more endearing sights:

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People chatted with friends in the streets; laundry was hung from one building to another; cooking food could be smelled when passing an open kitchen window. On one street, I watched as a lady from a third floor balcony placed money in a basket and lowered it with a rope to street level. A man then came by, took out the money, replaced it with 2 loaves of bread, and yelled “Grazie!” back up at the woman.

While we are on the topic of yelling, let me just state for the record that (from what I saw) the stereotype of Italians is true- they are a loud and expressive people. They shout at one another, play loud music, and gesture wildly. Several times, I witnessed people yelling and moving with their hands in exaggerated motions; I was pretty certain that I was about to see someone get slapped. But nope, the next second those perceived angry signals were followed by a lot of smiling and belly-laughing.

As a rather reserved person, I don’t think I could live with true Italians for a long period of time (I am part Italian, mind you…)

Anyway. Although our Airbnb was located a bit far from the city center, we still ended up loving it. The owner, Ralph, decorated the place with his own art and the apartment definitely gave off homey vibes. Perfect because we had been staying at a 20-person dorm hostel in Florence. Plus, Kelsey’s boyfriend met up with us in Napoli, so we had enough space for him to stay with us as well.

Since our train from Florence was so early, we had the entire day to explore Napoli. First, we visited Castel Sant’Elmo:

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You can get a tour of the castle, but I was playing my favorite game where I try to be as cheap as possible- pictures from the outside sufficed.

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Next, we took a walk through what we collectively agreed to be the most ‘bougie’ mall we’d ever seen. And yet, not bougie enough for there not to be a McDonald’s…

After, we started walking to the coastline. We passed by the Teatro San Carlo- the world’s oldest opera house- and then the Royal Palace at Piazza del Plebiscito.

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The Royal Palace

At this point, we were pretty close to the Lungomare. As someone who grew up by and loves the beach, I practically skipped/ran the rest of the way to see the seafront views. This coastline, however, was even more beautiful to me as you could see Mt. Vesuvius (the volcano that destroyed the ancient city of Pompeii) in the distance. Unfortunately, pictures could not capture just how large this mountain loomed.

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Mt. Vesuvius

After staring/drooling at this view for an extended period of time, we then walked 10 minutes down the Lungomare to visit Castel dell’Ovo:

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I liked visiting this castle a bit more than the Castel Sant’Elmo because it was free to walk through (and free is me), jutted out into the water, and gave a perfect view from its high walls of the sun setting.

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As the Czech Republic is a landlocked country, this was my first time being by a large body of water since August. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed the sea.

By this time, we were ready for some dinner! Now, while Napoli might not be known as much for its historical art, its historical food is its claim to fame. In fact, Napoli is the birthplace of the pizza. Admittedly, I am not a pizza person. Pizza (at least back in the United States) is usually too greasy for my liking. However, I was not about to pass up on pizza from the original source.

Initially, we had planned to go to Pizzeria da Michele. This stone-oven restaurant has been serving the first two traditional pizzas (Margherita and Marinara) since 1870 and was made famous from its appearance in Julia Robert’s Eat, Pray, Love.

Unfortunately, many people consider this a ‘To Do’ on there Napoli Bucket List. This meant that the outside line crowd looked like this:

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Nope. Sorry. I could not. This was the day that our step count clocked in around 31,000 steps and I had no energy to wait in a crowd for 2 hours+.

But hey, this was Napoli. The original pizza must be in every restaurant, right?

Well, yes… but unfortunately, restaurants don’t often open in Italy until at least 7pm. After searching high and low (no exaggeration here- Napoli is hilly!), we found a place that was serving and I ordered my Margherita pizza. And this is what came out:

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Ummmm…what?

Turns out, this restaurant specialized in Pizza Frittas that were nicknamed “Mt. Vesuvius” due to the hot air that erupted when you pierced into these bad boys. Did not exactly reach “the expectation,” but it was still pretty darn good. And honestly, I was too tired and hungry to care at this point. Plus, I was excited for the next day where we would be taking a day trip to…

Pompeii

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Pardon my nerdy-ness for a bit, but going to Pompeii was one of the things I was most excited for for this trip. Thanks to 4 years of Latin in high school, I was pretty familiar with the story of Pompeii:

In 79 A.D, Mt. Vesuvius erupted, killing people in the nearby Roman city of Pompeii (and Herculaneum) and burying their bodies in layers of ash. In the 19th century, archaeologists discovered human cavities in the ash where the bodies had decomposed. By pouring in plaster, the archaeologists were able to form casts to show what the people of Pompeii did in their last moments.

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Pompeii is about 45 minutes from Napoli. Since Kelsey’s boyfriend has an International Driver’s License, we were able to rent a car and drive there.

Fair warning: the line to get into Pompeii can be long- plan to get there early! Fortunately, the ruins expand out, so even with a crowd, you have the chance to explore Pompeii without feeling like someone is hot on your heels the whole time. Which is important because you could spend all day at Pompeii. Heck, you could spend several.

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For me, the coolest part was being able to see how these ancient people lived; thanks to the preservation from the ash, you were literally peeking into these peoples’ past lives.

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Stepping stones for crossing the street so that pedestrians wouldn’t get their feet wet

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Bath time

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Hmmmmm, I’m not too sure if a pizza restaurant- literally at the center of the ruins- was in Pompeii’s past life though…

It was a very long day of ruin-exploring. Luckily, it was sunny and the temperature warmed up throughout the day. At one point, we found a grassy area- probably once an old court yard- and just laid down to relax and take in the ruins.

Although I may be a biased nerd, I definitely recommend visiting Pompeii and/or Herculaneum if you’re in Napoli. It’s a bit of an eerie experience, but will make you appreciate how fragile we are- especially when placed beside an active volcano.

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That night, I finally got my first taste of a traditional Napoli pizza. Recommended by our Airbnb host, we went to a restaurant outside the touristy area that served authentic food. The food was so good that we went back the following night for more pizza and eggplant parmesan:

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La Smorfia
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Behold- the Margherita pizza

The traditional stone-oven pizzas are Marinara (tomato sauce and garlic cloves) and Margherita (tomato sauce, a sprinkle of cheese, and basil). And that’s it. No super fancy toppings or stuffed crusts. When you order a pizza, you each get your own individual pie that you’re supposed to cut into with a fork and knife. And, thanks to the lack of grease and the basic ingredients, I did not feel sick or guilty about eating a whole pie. I’m going to miss Italian pizza…

The last day in Napoli was spent looking through stores and eating more food. I tried one more Napolitano delicacy- the sfogliatelle. If you are in Napoli, you MUST try this dessert (you’ll see it everywhere!)

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This pastry has crisp, flaky layers and is filled with a citrusy ricotta. Move over cannoli.(Just kidding though, there’s enough love for both of them).

And with that, we were finished with Napoli! Stay tuned, next up- Rome!

Season’s Greetings from Italy Part 1: Florence

While teaching in Thailand, I only had 4 days off for the holiday season (Buddhist country = no days off for Christmas). Travel, therefore, was kept within the country. This year, however, I had a total of 17 days off. Meaning that traveling outside the Czech Republic was not only a desire, but an obligation as well.

And where to go for those days off?

Somewhere to escape the cold and overcast skies obviously!

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Hello Italy.

For this trip, my friends Kelsey, Olivia, and I had 3 primary destinations- Florence, Napoli, and Rome- with day trips to Pompeii and the Vatican City as well. We planned our trip for 10 days and 9 nights; 3 nights in each city.

Needless to say, a lot of walking, eating, and “Ciao’s” ensued.

We left for Italy early morning on Christmas Eve. Our plane landed in Rome, but our first destination was actually Florence. To get there, we took a 3-hour scenic train ride.

Florence

As you may recall from your high school history class, Florence is the birthplace of the 14th-17th century Renaissance; a new age of thinking marked by drastic change in the social and political climate, as well as in the arts, literature and science. What happened in this tiny city soon spread to the rest Italy and then throughout the world.

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By the time we got off our train, night had already fallen. This however, was not disappointing as it made my first impression of Florence even more magical; the whole city was lit up for Christmas. Thanks to the narrow roads and alleys, each pathway had its own type of Christmas lights strung up between buildings. Each time we turned down a cobblestoned street, I was welcomed by a new series of lights and decorations.

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As it was Christmas Eve and the middle of winter, Florence was significantly less crowded than usual. And so, after a dinner of polenta and chicken liver (I know- sounds disgusting, but was it really delicious) we set out to take advantage of the empty streets.

First, we found ourselves at Piazza della Signoria, which has the famous statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa, as well as a replica of Michelangelo’s David. The piazza also has an outside hall filled with many other statues to remind you just how old Florence is. Add in the street performer who was playing the theme song to Game of Thrones, and you felt like you were living in a different time period.

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Funny enough, right outside the hall you can see an H&M clothing store. Not sure that I liked the instant transport back to present day…but whatever. It is what it is.

Next, we stumbled upon the Duomo. With Florence’s narrow streets, I didn’t even see the Duomo as we approached. It literally popped up out of nowhere and left my mouth gaped open as I stared at the large and majestic cathedral and dome.

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We also found Florence’s carousel in Piazza della Repubblica:

unnamed-9Not going to lie, I was a little more excited to see the merry-go-round than a 26-year old has any right to be. But hey, it was Christmas Eve. I was allowed to revert back to childhood, right?

The next day, we got an intense workout by walking up and down two large and steep hills to get to Piazzale Michelangelo and see a panoramic and stunning view of Florence. I counted my blessings that we were in Florence in winter; let’s just say no jacket was required by the time we got to the top of this mini-mountain. And, since it was off-season, we didn’t have to fight too hard to find a spot for pictures by the railing.

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As I have said in previous blog posts, I’m a firm believer in that the best way to come to know and appreciate a city is to take time to just walk around aimlessly and enjoy the sights you stumble upon. And of course, hit up the main sights that you don’t find later on 😉

And so, as we were searching for a good lunch spot, we unintentionally came upon La Basilica di Santa Croce. This church contains the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Gentile, Rossini, as well as Dante’s empty tomb (Dante was exiled from Florence and was therefore never actually buried here).

unnamed-8Being teachers on a budget and partially starving at the time, we didn’t actually go inside… but it was still cool to gaze at the church for a bit.

We also saw and walked through the Ponte Vecchio:

unnamed-10 (1)One of Florence’s most famous landmarks, I was a bit surprised to see how small this bridge really was. To be honest, I enjoyed the Ponte Vecchio a lot more from the next bridge over; the bridge itself is lined with expensive jewelry stores and crowded with people. Not to mention, you can’t enjoy the bridge’s artistic mash of “storebacks” from the inside.

Exhausted from a full day’s walk, we then plopped ourselves down in front of the Pitti Palace to enjoy the last of the day’s sunshine and listen to Christmas music played by a trio of violinists.

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That night, we took a quick peek inside Santi Michele e Gaetano church. I’m not a religious person, but it was Christmas Day and a beautiful church.

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We then walked around in search of dinner. As we were checking out the menu at the front of a restaurant, a waiter came out and offered us glasses of prosecco free of charge- even if we decided to not then eat at the restaurant. Well, we couldn’t turn down that offer, could we?

Of course, we did decide to eat at this restaurant and were soon treated to discounted bottles of wine, in addition to an extra bottle of wine, shots, and two desserts- all free of charge. Turns out, our waiter had developed a crush on Olivia and was showering us with food and drink. Merry Christmas to us! He even left this “secret message” for Olivia when delivering us cheesecake:

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We’ll give him a pass on the spelling

The next day, the three of us woke up early to go to the Accademia Gallery and check out this naked guy:

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Michelangelo’s David

Since it was the morning after Christmas, Florence was still a bit deserted. And so, we were some of the first people in the museum and got to see the David before any crowds formed.

After, we spent the majority of the day picnicking in Le Cascine Park and then grabbing dinner at the Mercato Centrale Firenze.

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Mercato Centrale Firenze- A Foodie’s dream food court

And with that, I crossed everything off my list of “Florence’s Must Do’s.” I’m sure we could have found more things to do in Florence, but I was now content to hop on a train and move on to our next destination- Napoli.

It’s Christmas Time in (and out of) the City

Similar to the United States, it’s been “Christmas Time” in the Czech Republic for the last month and a half now. True, there’s not the same level of craziness as you come by in the States- houses aren’t decorated roof-to-basement in lights and there’s not as big of a “shop till you drop” atmosphere here. However, signs of the approaching holiday comes out earlier in the Czech Republic as there’s no “roadblock” (aka- Thanksgiving) keeping the Christmas spirit at bay until mid/end of November.

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No complaints here though. As someone who relishes the holidays, I’ve enjoyed the decorated malls and shops, Czech hot chocolate, and the Christmas tree stand that has popped up across the street from my flat.

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Czech hot chocolate is a delicious and dangerous concoction- with more chocolate than liquid, it’s like drinking chocolate fondue. Again, no complaints.

But let’s rewind back to the start of the holiday season (for Americans, anyway). Obviously, Thanksgiving is not celebrated in the Czech Republic. (Interestingly enough, Black Friday is…). Rather than ignoring Thanksgiving, though, I took this as an opportunity to discuss America’s history of Thanksgiving and current traditions with my students. And of course, introduce food-related vocabulary. I had my students ‘research’ foods typically eaten on Thanksgiving and create their own “Thanksgiving Menus.” It was funny to answer questions about stuffing and pumpkin soup.

Note for future lesson planning- talking about food is always a good idea.

After teaching about Thanksgiving all week, I was properly hungry for a Thanksgiving feast. Fortunately for me, I was blessed with 2 Thanksgiving dinners- a vegan one with my friends on Thursday night and a traditional Thanksgiving one thrown by our CIEE coordinators that Friday.

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CIEE Staff and Teachers

The following Saturday (December 1st), a few of my CIEE friends and I got together to go to the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Old Town Square. A Christmas market place had been constructed in the square and vendors were selling drinks, snacks and crafts. The place was a little too packed for my liking, but with hot apple cider and mulled wine in hand, we endured. And, of course, it was worth it once the Christmas tree was lit.

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Another thing that has popped up all around Prague are Christmas markets. Most of the markets sell the same things, but it’s still nice to visit them to “get into the Christmas spirit” and pick up some traditional Czech food.

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Christmas market at Náměstí Míru

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Christmas market at Anděl

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Christmas market at Prague Castle

In addition to Christmas markets around Prague, my school had a Christmas Market where students baked food and sold handmade crafts to teachers and parents. Some of my students even constructed a “vending machine” that released muffins.

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All of a sudden, all my students knew enough English to ask me to visit their booths and buy something from them. Fortunately/unfortunately, I was able to use the fact that I’m a teacher to explain why I can’t buy something from all of them. I did buy a candle though and splurged on some sushi that my students were assembling and wrapping (not exactly Czech or Christmas-y, but who can say no to sushi?)

As with Thanksgiving, I have also been having English conversations with my 4th and 5th grade students about Christmas. I’ve had them tell me about Czech Christmas traditions and compare them to American Christmas traditions. Here’s what I’ve learned from my students:

  1. Santa does not visit the Czech Republic. Instead, children get and open their presents from Ježíšek (baby Jesus) on December 24th.
  2. A traditional Czech Christmas dinner consists of carp fish and potato salad and kánočka (a braided sweet bread) and cukroví (sugar cookies) for dessert.
  3. Some families buy their carp fish alive and keep it for a day or two in their bathtubs. This is an older tradition though and some of my students didn’t even know what I was talking about when I asked.
  4. Originating from a Pagan belief, people are not supposed to eat meat on Christmas Eve until dinner time. To keep kids from snitching, they are told that if they wait to eat meat, they might see a “Golden Pig.”
  5. Some people hollow out walnuts and make a boat with the shell. They then light a candle in it and put it in water to see how it floats. How your walnut boat fares determines what the next year will bring you.
  6. Some families heat chunks of lead and then quickly place the metal liquid in water. You then are supposed to predict your future by examining the design that is made after the metal re-hardens.
  7. Some families cut apples in half horizontally. If the core makes a star, you have good luck. If it makes a cross, you’re in bad luck.

To see what these Czech traditions and more look like, check out my favorite Czech YouTuber: The Honest Guide

With my first grade students, I did a letter exchange with one of my teacher friend’s classes back in the United States. My students got super excited at the idea of exchanging letters with American children and had fun drawing Christmas pictures (we can’t really write in English yet in 1st grade). They also thought the English names of the students they were assigned to were hilarious. Fortunately, we got the Christmas letters from my teacher friend just this week. We read the letters to my students and they went crazy to hear phrases they could understand (“My favorite color is…” ; “I am _____ years old”).

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Some of my students posing with their American Christmas cards.

Another way I got into the Christmas spirit this year was by taking a day trip to Český Krumlov.

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Český Krumlov

Located 2 hours south of Prague, Český Krumlov is a picturesque town taken directly from a storybook. So much so, that it is actually a Unesco World Heritage Site. While high season is during the summer, I wanted to go during December to see the village decorated like a holiday Christmas card.

Two fellow CIEE participants, Elisabeth and Keenan, accompanied me for this trip. We left Prague early on Saturday morning by bus and arrived in Český Krumlov at 10am. Luckily, the entire town in easily accessible by foot. And I wouldn’t recommend visiting any other way- Český Krumlov’s cobblestoned streets are meant to be viewed and admired.

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While I think the town would have looked especially cute with a fresh layer of snow on the ground, I was thankful that we didn’t get any while there- I’m not one who enjoys walking on snowy/slippery roads. The beginning of the day was actually sunny:

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However, the Czech Republic is known for overcast skies in the fall/winter and sure enough, by noon, the gray clouds began moving in.

As it was off-season, some of the main sights were closed for winter (giving me an excuse to go back and visit later next year). This, however, was a good thing because I didn’t feel any sense of urgency to explore and visit everything in one day.

In fact, after grabbing some coffee in a café, Elisabeth, Keenan, and I spent most of the day walking around on foot.

We visited some shops:

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The number of puppets was plentiful

Checked out the small, but beautiful Church of St Vitus:

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And also stumbled upon yet another Christmas Market in the Town Square where the three of us split a large serving of freshly made fries and potato wedges.

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Next, we headed up to the Castle Tower where, after climbing many steps, you are rewarded with 360 degree views of Český Krumlov.

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Český Krumlov cut into two by the Vltava River

We then headed over to Český Krumlov’s Renaissance castle. Unfortunately, the inside of the castle is closed during winter months. However, we were still able to check out the castle grounds, which gives you even more great views of the town.

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Again, while Český Krumlov might be ideal to visit in the summer, it was still well worth the visit in winter to get in the Christmas mood.

For Christmas and New Year’s this year, I will be in Italy. My next blog post will be all about my adventures there. In the meantime, I hope everyone has an amazing Christmas/New Years. See you in 2019!

Birthday Travels Year II- Amsterdam

I have to say, I’ve been very spoiled during the month of October for the last two years. Last year, I woke up on my birthday in a resort on one of the most beautiful islands in Thailand (Railay Beach). This year, I spent my 26th in Amsterdam with my sister, Jac, and her boyfriend, Michael.

While the weather and sights were at the opposite end of the spectrum this year, my birthday was once again absolutely amazing and full of unique experiences.

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Admittedly, the start of the weekend was a bit rocky from my own doing; since I am a rather cheap person, I decided to take an overnight bus from Prague to Amsterdam right from school. At the time of booking online, it seemed like a good idea- I could save some money and I was used to taking overnight buses in Thailand.

However, I failed to take into account that I would be stuck in my teacher’s clothing for a 14-hour solo bus ride. With no leg room. Without any Wifi (read- without Netflix). And with a chatty person sitting next to me. And I forgot to bring a book. It was a verrrrryyyyy long night.

At 5:30am the next morning, the bus dropped us sleep-deprived people off at a random bus station on the outskirts of Amsterdam. With no WiFi, I had no clue what to do from here. Thankfully, I had become friends with my chatty neighbor, Raj, on the bus at this point and just followed him to figure out how to get to the center of town.

Unfortunately, to get to said center, I had to wait outside in a long line for a transportation pass from the only functioning ticket machine. I immediately lost the feeling of my toes, ears, and nose from the blasts of icy wind. However, I did meet another new friend, Olia, from the Ukraine.

After navigating the underground (incorrectly- we were supposed to take the train instead of the metro), we made it to the Amsterdam Centraal Station. Which, by the way, is a gorgeous building for the amount of chaos that goes through here on the daily:

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We arrived here before dawn though, so it was pitch black and all of Amsterdam was still sleeping.

Olia was just visiting Amsterdam for the day, but she was nice enough to keep me company as she waited for stores to open up and I waited for my sister’s plane to arrive. We talked about traveling (obviously) and how people from different cultures regard each other. Meeting two new people from totally different backgrounds, yet with similar mindsets, was a nice way to begin my birthday.

Around noon, my sister and I finally found each other (it was rather difficult as the station was large and we both had limited WiFi access). After figuring out how to stow away our luggage and grabbing a bite to eat, we were ready to explore Amsterdam!

In my opinion, the best way to see a new city is just to walk around and take in the surrounding sights.

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Very easy to do in Amsterdam with its intricate network of canals, cookie-cutter brick houses, cheese museums, bikers, and people enjoying the benefits of legal “coffeeshops” everywhere.

We did, however, sign up for an hour boat tour of the canals. IMG_3345

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Totally recommend doing. For me, it was a way to learn some history and see the city from a new perspective (literally). For Michael, this was a way to catch up on his zzzzz’s. To each their own.

Afterwards, we hauled our belongings to our Airbnb and I was finally able to change out of my teaching clothes. Later that night, we ate at a very traditional Dutch place for dinner. No pictures though because we were too hangry at that point.

The next day, we went to the Rijksmuseum to view some art and check out the library:

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We then stumbled upon this famous sign:

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People were clambering all over the letters and I half expected (maybe hoped?) to see someone fall. You could just feel the tension as everyone not-so-subtly tried to push people out of their photo backgrounds.

After stopping at an open market and replenishing with street food, we then headed over to the Van Gogh Museum.

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Now, my favorite Van Gogh painting is Starry Night (I know, very unoriginal). I was looking forward to seeing the painting and picking up socks with the Starry Night design on them, which would inevitably be at the gift shop. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve wanted these socks for years. Perfect time to get them!

Well, as it turns out, the Starry Night painting is not in the Van Gogh Museum. In fact, it’s not even in Van Gogh’s home country. Rather, it’s all the way in… the MoMA in New York City. No socks for me.

Cool. So I was 3 hours away from this painting for most of my life… too bad I live 4,000 some miles away now…

We didn’t stay out late while in Amsterdam. Mostly because the temperatures dropped very low at night and the wind was that piercing cold that you associate with the dead of winter. In a way, this was okay because on Day 3 we woke up early for the part of Amsterdam that I was looking forward to the most:

A visit to the Anne Frank house.

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The Anne Frank House

Like many people, I have read The Diary of Anne Frank. In fact, I’ve read her diary multiple times. Each time I’ve read it, I imagined the Secret Annex to look a certain way. Walking through it for real then was a mind-numbing experience. The rooms were much more dark and small than I had imagined. To see all the artifacts- from Anne’s playing marbles to her photographs still hung on her walls- was chilling.

Visiting the Anne Frank house was probably the most meaningful part of the trip for me.

After, the 3 of us had breakfast at a pancake house nearby (none of us got pancakes though) and then walked over to the cheese museum where I had my second breakfast of free cheese samples. It was heaven.

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Seriously, if you are in Amsterdam, do NOT miss going to a cheese museum.

After, the rest of the day was spent walking along the canals, drinking at cafés, shopping, and going to the flower market:

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The Christmas decorations come out even before Halloween in Amsterdam

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This is how these Dutch people stay fit after eating all that cheese

Before returning to Prague though, I had to do one more thing that you simply have to do when in the Netherlands- eat a Dutch Pancake.

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Mind you, this was a big Dutch Pancake on a big plate

I blame the lighting for why this doesn’t look as appetizing as it was delicious.

And, like every good trip, it comes to an end too soon. The next morning, I took a 1.5 hour flight back to Prague.

Please note for a future reference:

Bus ride + 14 hours = miserable Deanna     Plane ride + 1.5 hours = happy Deanna

The next day, Jac and Michael flew into Prague too so that I could show them my neck of the woods for a few days.

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Thanks for the amazing birthday weekend, guys!

D-enna in Vienna

Time for another long overdue post! This time on last month’s trip to Austria. More specifically, Vienna.

Admittedly, I did not know much about Austria prior to the trip. Nor did I do a whole lot of research beforehand. The only visualization I had of the country was Julie Andrews singing “The Hills Are Alive” in the Sound of Music. And the setting for that movie wasn’t even in Vienna.

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Not a green rolling hill in sight

What I did know about Vienna was that it was a mere 4.5 hour train ride from Prague. Perfect for my first weekend trip outside the Czech Republic.

That Friday, I met my friends (Olivia, Stevie, and Kelsey) at the train station directly from school. Everything went smoothly enough- we boarded on time and enjoyed snacks and movies as our train moved along the countryside. As someone who never takes trains (especially along the countryside), I felt a little like I was on the Hogwarts Express.

We arrived in Vienna late in the evening and immediately wanted to get to our hostel to put our stuff down and get some sleep. Problem was, our train stop ended up not being where we thought it was. And so, instead of a 5 minute walk to our hostel, we were closer to an hour’s walk. After wandering around trying (and failing) to figure out the metro/train stops, we caved and called an Uber to take us to our place. Awww well.

Our hostel ended up being a pretty nice place with a location that placed us between all the sites we wanted to see in the next three days. Since there were 4 of us, we got a room all to ourselves.

Day 1 started with Vienna’s well-known coffee and breakfast at a Austrian café where our waiter actually ended up being Czech. And here I could have used my limited Czech as opposed to my severely limited German the whole time…

After, we took a 30 minute walk on over to the Saturday morning flea market.

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The flea market was huge! Unlike the Saturday morning market I’m used  to in the Czech Republic, this market was loaded with antiques, clothes, paintings, jewelry, and knick-knacks. Towards the end, the flea market converted into a food market, where slices of dried mango and falafel were generously given out for free.

Next, we walked over to the Danube River for a 1-hour cruise that we had booked online. After much backtracking along the river (the struggles of traveling in a foreign country with poor English instructions), we finally found our boat. However, we got a very strange look from the man in charge of giving us our tickets. Turns out, we had accidentally booked tickets for a cruise in October 2019. So, we were a year early for our cruise. Oops. After some pleading and nervous laughter, we got the man to smile and he allowed us on for the day’s cruise.

The anxiety of missing our boat (while at the same time being too early for it) quickly dissipated as we settled into prime seats at the front of the boat and soaked in the sun (it was a warm day for October).

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The tour may have been in German, but we still got to enjoy the nature views, as well as graffiti done by local artists.

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After the cruise, we stopped for a scoop (or two) of ice cream and then set out for a long walk to the Belvedere art museum.

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In case you haven’t caught on yet, the theme of our trip was walking long distances.

From the street entrance, the Belvedere appears nothing special- just a simple courtyard. Walk through the first building and into the next open area though and you are treated to a spacious private garden.

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The Belvedere has a range of art that spans over several centuries. Perhaps one of the most popular pieces featured there is Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. 

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After a few hours of walking around the Belvedere, it was time for more walking! This time to an Italian restaurant to enjoy an outside meal across the street from this sight:

IMG_3015 After carb-loading, we regained enough energy to then check out some of Vienna’s nightlife.

Day 2 began with another yummy breakfast, this time at a vegan place called Deli Bluem (definitely recommended if visiting Vienna). We then walked on over to the Leopold Museum to check out more art work. I was excited to see Klimt’s Death and Life here, a painting I have always been fascinated by:

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As this is not an art blog, I’ll spare you my analytical thoughts about the painting 🙂

At the Leopold, we said goodbye to Kelsey, who had to go back to school on Monday. Olivia, Stevie and I then headed to the quirky Hundertwasserhaus. Along the way though, our past day and a half of walking finally caught up to us and we decided to lay out in a park where I may or may not have dozed off for a bit.

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Tanning time

Eventually, we did make it to the Hundertwasserhaus, which was the attraction I wanted to see the most in Vienna.

IMG_3044The Hundertwasserhaus is a bright expressionist landmark that stands out from the many white imperial-style buildings throughout Vienna. The building consists of actual apartments and offices with trees and bushes randomly jutting out. It also has a café attached to it, where I was able to try Vienna’s famous apfelstrudel (apple strudel) and sachertorte (chocolate torte).

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Next, we went to Prater Park to ride the ferris wheel and get a view of the whole city.

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The ferris wheel carts were a little too crowded for my liking, but still worth checking out.

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We finished the day by eating at an Asian restaurant and walking another 1.5 hours to get back to our hostel (we were determined to keep our anti-public transportation streak going).

Day 3- After breakfast at another café we decided to head to one of Vienna’s most popular attractions: the Schönbrunn Palace. Since we were leaving Vienna that day, we didn’t actually have time to tour inside the palace. Rather, we just circled around to the back of the building and into the gardens.

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By far, the Schönbrunn Palace was my favorite part of my trip. We climbed up the garden hill that not only overlooked the palace, but also all of Vienna.

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It was another beautiful day with the weather being warm, but not sweating hot. We laid out right on the hill and all I kept thinking was how fortunate I was to experience this on what otherwise would be a typical Monday morning back home. It was the perfect way to end our trip.

The best piece of advice I could give to anyone wanting to visit Vienna is to simply walk everywhere you want to go. Over the course of 2.5 days, we walked 30 miles. Totally worth it with all the sights we stumbled upon:

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Thanks for the memories, Vienna!

Bones, Bones, More Bones… and Bobsledding

A few weeks back, there was a national holiday in the Czech Republic. This meant that all schools were closed on Friday! Wanting to take advantage of our long weekend, my friend, Hailey and I decided to take a train ride to Kutná Hora.

Kutná Hora is a common day trip for people who want an escape from Prague. The town is most (in)famous for Sedlec Ossuary- which is more commonly referred to as “The Bone Church.”

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Short history lesson: In the 1278, Henry the abbot was sent on a mission to the Holy Land. He returned with a jar of earth from the location where Jesus Christ was crucified in Jerusalem. He supposedly spread this dirt all over the cemetery. Soon, people throughout Europe began requesting that they and their dead relatives be buried there.

Fast-forward to Europe’s Black Plague. Sick and dying people from all around travelled to Sedlec so that they can be buried there. As you can imagine, the cemetery soon became packed with bodies.

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In the 1400s, the ossuary was constructed to hold dug-up skeletons. However, it wasn’t until 1870 that Frantisek Rint, a Czech woodcarver, was hired to arrange the bones in a more pleasing manner. Rint went above and beyond as he used the skeletons of 40,000 people to create art.

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Such as this skeleton chandelier

IMG_2636 Admittedly, Sedlec Ossuary was the main reason Hailey and I went to Kutná Hora. After a 30 minute walk from the train station, we arrived at a small church at the edge of town. After walking around the cemetery and waiting in line for a bit, we entered the church and were soon surrounded by 600+ year-old skeletons.

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My brain really had trouble processing that these were real human remains.

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A unique way to leave a signature…

After visiting the bone church, we really didn’t have concrete plans for the rest of the day. We strolled back to the main part of town, grabbed pizza for lunch, and walked the streets. The town itself was very cute and reminded me of something from a fairytale.

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Online, I had found that Kuntá Hora had a small chocolate museum that gave out free samples of interesting-flavored chocolate bars. So me being me, I had to visit.

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And very small it was. We walked into the ‘museum’ which was just big enough to fit 3 people. After a 2 minute circle around the museum, we were ready to try out some chocolate (I sampled some very tasty goat milk chocolate)!

And of course, chocolate just puts me in the mood for…

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more chocolate 🙂

Next, we headed to St. Barbara’s Cathedral.

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Another brief history lesson: Kutná Hora was originally a silver miner’s town and place of much wealth in the Czech Republic. Therefore, it seemed fitting that a church be built to honor St. Barbara- a patron saint of miners. Construction of the church began in 1388 and still has not been completed today.

IMG_2719This huge cathedral is one of the most famous Gothic churches in Central Europe and is a UNESCO world heritage site.

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And rightfully so. With it’s spacious halls and detailed designs, it’s a place that people of all religions can appreciate.

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Shhhh! It’s actually wooded angels painted to look like gold

After a day of checking out historic sights (and chocolate), Hailey and I decided to end our day by doing something a bit more quirky- bobsledding!

Turns out, there is a small amusement park with a bobsledding course at just the edge of town. You get to go on two courses that takes you through the woods and gives you a view of the town for a cheap price. Not to mention, the chance to act like a kid for 15 minutes 🙂

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After, we grabbed some drinks and sat on a patio to simply relax and enjoy the warm weather.

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Unfortunately, I killed a bit of the tranquil vibe when I realized that our train to get back to Prague was not just around the corner, but rather a 30+ minute walk across town. Cue fast-paced walking and illegal (?) jaywalking to make it to the correct train station in time. Luckily, our train ended up being 5 minutes late, so we were able to make it on time.

Overall, Kutná Hora was a great place to explore without an overkill of tourists. I got my fill of creepy bones, chocolate, and bobsledding all in one day 🙂

1 Month Czech-In

Sorry, couldn’t resist the corny pun title…

Anyway, it’s hard for me to believe, but I’ve been living in the Czech Republic for a month now. Orientation seems like forever ago and I’m already into Week 4 of teaching.

But before we talk about school, let’s talk about where I’m living.

If I may say so myself, the apartment my roommates and I found in Prague is pretty sweet. It’s located close to the center of everything, but far enough away from the crazy touristy areas. A tram and metro stop are situated literally at our doorstep. Very convenient for the rainy and snowy weather to come. We’re also right alongside the Vltava River. This means…

-We’re super close to the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market:

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-I can have my morning coffee with swans:

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-I’m a short walk from dinner on the river:

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-I’m not too far from Prague’s famous Charles Bridge:

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I recommend visiting early in the morning though, to avoid the crowds

-Or the Instagram-famous Dancing House:

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The Dancing House has a rooftop café/bar with 360 views

-Views of Prague Castle:

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-Riverside concerts:

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-And paddle boating!

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Yeah, I’m pretty happy with the location. The apartment we’re in consists of 2 bedrooms. However, we converted the living room into my bedroom. This means that an expensive 2-person apartment becomes a bit cheaper and doable split between 3 people.

Since I’m saving up money to travel to other countries, I haven’t been doing as much traveling as I did in Thailand. Instead, I’ve been tutoring through VIPKID, checking out local events and exploring the streets for the quirkiness that is Prague.

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So switching topics to work… I am teaching grades 1-5 at Da Vinci School, a school about an hour’s commute outside of Prague. Since CIEE only offers part time work in the Czech Republic, I don’t have to go to school on Mondays and I arrive late or leave early on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (to earn enough to live in Prague, I use my time off to tutor either online or in person).

I absolutely love my school! The philosophy of the school is very liberal. Students are given choices and can even opt out of completing assignments if they don’t feel up to it. While this could result in chaos, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that my students haven’t abused this freedom and are often willing to participate in my classes. The school is also significantly more relaxed than schools back in the U.S. Students can be left unattended in classrooms, teachers are called by their first names, there’s no dress code (for teachers or students), and there’s less political correctness in general. The day before the students arrived, the teachers even had a “new teacher initiation” where everyone drank champagne out in the school gardens.

And don’t even get me started on the food and drinks. Students and teachers can have unlimited breakfast, coffee/tea, snacks, and lunch for 30 czk ($1.38) a day. At lunch, salad and a homemade soup are always provided. Main courses have ranged from enchiladas to broiled fish and roasted potatoes. I’m in heaven.

The school itself is even architecturally different than typical schools:

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See more pictures and a virtual tour of my school here!

There’s a maximum of 18 students per grade (the school is from kindergarten to 13th grade), so class sizes are small. Since classes are split for language class, I only teach a maximum of 9 students at a time. This is a far cry from the 45 kindergarteners I was in charge of in Thailand. Needless to say, managing classes have been pretty easy for me.

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Practicing numbers, colors, and alphabet words with my 2nd graders

The tricky part is coming up with activities that all students can participate in. My students’ English abilities range from only knowing how to say “hello” to being bilingual and completely fluent. Differentiated instruction is key here.

For grades 1-3, I have a co-worker in the room with me to ensure that students understand what I am saying. For 4th and 5th grade, I am by myself with the students. Each teaching block in 1.5 hours, which, admittedly, is sometimes a difficult amount of time to plan for.

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“Brain Breaks” to switch up the monotony is essential. My favorites so far have been English Jenga and a Boy v. Girl Categories game

Overall, I am very happy with my school and working situation. I think it’s going to be a good year.