20 December 2011

Truth and love

Some sights from the memorial set up for Vaclav Havel at Wenceslas Square. People began coming on Sunday evening and they continued to come in droves to place signs, light candles and pay their respects.

19 December 2011

You'll hate me when this gets stuck in your head

The Czech Republic, I am learning, has several Christmas traditions I hadn't heard of until this month. They eat carp and potato salad on Christmas Eve. They cut apples in half, with the core lying horizontally, and if you don't see a star formation inside the apple, you'll die. They place candles in water, and among the various options include whether you will stay put or leave, whether you'll be alone or with someone, or whether you'll die. Lots of Christmas traditions here include the possibility of dying, including the likelihood of jumping off a bridge upon hearing Mariah Carey's Christmas song one too many times.

18 December 2011

Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

Vaclav Havel was most comfortable penning plays, but he will forever be known as the man who led the overthrow of the Communist government in Czechoslovakia. He led the Velvet Revolution that ushered in a new era -- all without a single death despite the masses of people who protested in November 1989.

You will no doubt read or watch a ton of news stories about him, so I won't bother attempting to recount every detail of his life -- although, for the record, it went something like this: playwright, banned playwright, author of Charter 77, political leader, first post-Communist president of Czechoslovakia, first president of the Czech Republic. He died today at 75, in a nation that would be nowhere near what it is today without his bold efforts.

Update: This article from the Czech Position is worth the time -- for reaction, perspective, and a photo of the mass of people who gathered to light candles Sunday in Wenceslas Square. One local paper is apparently going to publish a 117-page special edition on Thursday.

13 December 2011

Not Prague, Part 9: Dresden

No place does Christmas quite like Europe, and no place in Europe does Christmas quite like Germany, which is why a 135-minute train ride to the Christmas market in Dresden seemed like the ideal way to spend a Saturday. This was an idea shared by -- and this is just a rough guess -- 77 million other people.

The city, set on fire by Allied bombers at the end of World War II, has recovered quite nicely. Despite being one of only two locations ever to have been removed from UNESCO's World Heritage list (thanks to the building of a four-lane bridge near the city center), tourists continue to visit for the stunning architecture, the shopping, and the Christmas market that has the reputation for being among the best in Germany.

Stalls served bratwurst and hot alcoholic drinks, the latter of which included a cup you could keep simply by not coming back to claim your 2.50 deposit. People crammed in narrow pathways to peruse the massive selection of nutcrackers, ornaments, dolls and other figurines. Children rode on merry-go-rounds and small trains. Adults gathered in a small lodge to listen to Christmas stories, and children sang carols on a stage.

08 December 2011

Angels, devils and poems

This is indeed a wonderful, festive time of year. In the United States, people are gathering to buy presents, sing carols, and, in the spirit of goodwill and even better taste, lay off a dozen employees three weeks before Christmas.

Here in the Czech Republic, traditional Christmas markets have popped up at some of the city's main sites -- Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square, Namesti Miru and Vysehrad to name four.

The market at Old Town Square.
The markets obviously are a tourist draw, but they lure a fair share of locals as well, particularly to the ones that aren't at Old Town or Wenceslas squares. But Old Town was the place to be on Monday night, which was the eve of St. Mikuláš (Nicholas) Day. There, I was joined by the Special Assistant to the Blogger, who helped me understand the Czech tradition of the evening. People dressed as St. Nicholas (apparently the precursor to Santa Claus), an angel and a devil would approach children and ask them to either sing a song or recite a poem. Successful kids received candy. Unsuccessful kids would be stuffed into a bag carried by the devil. The latter did not happen, at least while we were looking.