29 February 2012

The second time is no harm

For the first 41 1/2 years of my life, I never attended an opera (unless you count The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, which I would rather not). This month, I've attended two, and I can't decide if this means I'm more mature, more open-minded, or just looking to bide time until the Red Sox start playing again.

Truth is, if there was ever a time for me to delve into the opera, doing so while living in Prague and visiting other places in central Europe is as good a time as any. Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic all boast state opera houses, and Prague in particular is a hotbed of classical music with world-class artists visiting from around the world.

So last Friday, I took the plunge by attending a performance of Carmen, which is also known as "The World's Only Famous French Opera" and "The Opera With The Music From The Bad News Bears." For those of you unfamiliar with the story, an officer falls in love with a gypsy, who in turn falls for a bullfighter, which leads to the dramatic climax where the officer is thrown out at home plate trying to score the tying run against the Yankees. And then everyone pours beer all over each other.

The venue was the Narodni Divadlo, or National Theater. This building took 13 years to build, and slightly more than two to rebuild; a fire destroyed the place two months after it opened in 1881, was ready for business again in November 1883, and has been open ever since. The gold lettering above the stage reads "NAROD SOBE" -- "The nation for itself," a motto used as a rallying cry while collecting enough money to rebuild the theater so quickly.

National Theater, right, as seen from Petrin Hill.

27 February 2012

Not Prague, Part 12: Return to Berlin

No stadium that I've been to has a more significant place in sports history than Berlin's Olympic Stadium. Completed by 2,600 workers for 500 companies and designed to be the stage where the Nazis would flaunt their Aryan might in the 1936 Olympics, American Jesse Owens stole the show by winning four gold medals.

(As a sidenote, the story about Hitler refusing to shake Owens' hand is true, but out of context. Hitler wanted to only shake the hands of German winners at the Games, and when he was told to congratulate all the winners or none of them, he chose the latter. In other words, he was a twat to everybody. But it's not as if Owens was treated much better in his own country, where Owens was honored with a reception in the Waldorf-Astoria but had to ride the freight elevator to get thereJesse, we love how you represented our country and stuck it to Adolf, now get away from our white people. Here, have a sip of our blacks-only champagne.)

So, anyway, the reason The Professor, He Who Still Cannot Beat Me At FIFA12 and I traveled to Berlin two weekends ago was to check out historic sights such as the Olympic Park, the UNESCO-endorsed Museum Island and the path where the Wall stood. And, you know, since we were heading that way anyway, we might as well have caught our first Bundesliga match, featuring local bumblers Hertha Berlin and defending champions Borussia Dortmund.

24 February 2012

The man is urinating. You may cross the street now.

Five years ago, at roughly 50 crosswalks throughout Prague, standard figurines of people crossing and not crossing the street were replaced by icons such as these:

Artwork by Ztohoven, taken from this story

17 February 2012

A rising problem

Czech males are better-endowed than men from every EU country other than France, but that doesn't mean they don't have their issues. According to this story from the Czech Position, the country's customs officials seized twice as many counterfeit erectile drugs in 2011 than they did in 2010.

These drugs, advertised to help men perform better behind closed doors, if you get my drift, instead can contain plain sugar or other drugs that are meant to treat other ailments. Therefore, anyone who took them may have suffered from an irregular heartbeat or allergies.

I can only assume that the perpetrators face stiff penalties.

16 February 2012

Not Prague, Part 11: Austria-Hungary

I spent last week in Vienna and Budapest, which means by the end of the holiday I had Culturally Significant and Gorgeous Old Building fatigue. I watched an opera, ice skated in front of the most stunning city hall I've ever seen, stayed up late on a Monday morning to watch a sporting event I've forgotten all about by now, and walked -- a lot. Most enjoyable was a stroll through a snowfall in Vienna around the Karl Renner Ring with its row of historic buildings, which includes the State Opera House, a building that, according to the Special Assistant to the Blogger, was initially ridiculed for resembling a train station. And now it's one of Vienna's top landmarks, even if it was only the second most beautiful opera house I saw last week.

Rathaus, or City Hall, in Vienna. For other views, plus shots of the massive ice skating
rink and route in front of it, check out my photo album (link below).
Last weekend marked my second visit to Vienna. I don't know if I'd call the city lively, but it certainly is full of history, being the seat of the former Habsburg Empire and the center of classical music. I can imagine the palaces and amusement park would also be a better venue in the spring. Regardless, I have photos of the rink, a Mozart statue through the snow, the interesting church at Karlsplatz, and other stuff here.

Then I hit Budapest. The city is divided into two sections: Buda and Pest. The banks of the Danube River, which divides the city, are designated as a World Heritage site, no doubt for many reasons, although providing this view of the Hungarian Parliament building is reason enough for me ...

... and this view from the Chain Bridge isn't shabby either ...

UNESCO mentions two other cultural landmarks in its World Heritage listing for Budapest: Andrassy Avenue, the tree-lined, fashionable street that has the world's second-oldest subway line running underneath it, and Buda Castle, which has retained its status despite Katy Perry's best efforts to deface it.

There are three photo albums on my Flickr site: the Buda side with the castle, Matthais Church and Fisherman's Bastion; the more bustling Pest side, with its churches, synagogues, Opera House, majestic buildings and the right hand of a patron saint; and a combined album with shots crossing the Danube and on Margaret Island, an oasis in the middle of the Danube. 

Up next: A return trip to Berlin, this time with The Professor and He Who Can't Beat Me at FIFA 12, to take in one of Europe's most vibrant cities and watch the Bundesliga champions play Hertha Berlin.

07 February 2012

Not Prague, Part 10: Return to Vienna (or: Our Opera House is Your House)

I attended an opera tonight. Whoever lives closest to my Mom, please knock on her door and make sure she can get back off the floor. As for the rest of you, I'll follow up by telling you what I wore: a blue hooded sweatshirt, jeans and hiking boots.

Such is life when one decides, at the last minute, to attend a show at the Vienna State Opera House, which offers standing-room tickets for every show starting about 80 minutes before the curtain rises. The Opera House runs shows from the fall to the end of spring, and it often produces a new opera every night. That, along with the accessibility of standing-room tickets, makes it a popular destination for tourists (actual opera lovers optional).

I had just completed a walk past some of Vienna's biggest, most audacious buildings when I realized I was standing at the Opera House. With no other plans for the veening, I figured I might as well see if there were tickets available. I met travelers from Seoul and Beijing, and we decided to go in together after we were finally let in out of the cold. We were directed down the hall where we found a very helful person with a handful of what looked like tickets. They were, in fact, programs for 90 Euro cents, and this being our first opera, we told ourselves, geez, these are pretty basic tickets. We eventually found the correct booth and bought standing-area seats, in the back facing the stage, for 4 Euros.

Our area featured a cross-section of sweatshirts, pullovers, suits and sweaters. Many of us had jeans on. (Those who bought reserved tickets were dressed more appropriately.) An usher handed us old white scarves to tie to the rail in front of us to mark our spots. In front of us was a small electronic screen that would show us the words, in English or German, that the performers would be singing. Before the show began, a female usher who had to be in her 20s stood in front of us and called out the etiquette: No whispering, no photos, no cell phones on, no leaving until one of the two 20-minute intermissions. And with a hush, the show began.

We watched Andrea Chenier, the story of a poet condemned to death during the French Revolution and his lover who chose to be executed with him rather than live without him. In other words, it was the second-saddest thing I saw this weekend.