Monday, June 28, 2010

Brno-Tuřany Airport

When I heard about Brno-Tuřany Airport, the image that I created in my head was a single runway running through the middle of nowhere land. Well, I was WRONG. The airport was very modern looking with a silver capsule like building.

According to the wiki, the airport was actually built back in 1950's. During the communist era, the airport was used by the air force, but it is now owened by the government for the civilian use. Most of the flights from the airport are charters except a very few scheduled flights going to Prague, London, and Moscow.

And, during the summer time, there are a whole bunch of charter flights going to some of the popular vacation destinations like Greece, Tunisia, Bulgaria, Spain, or Egypt. I wouldn't mind taking a charter flight if I don't have to travel with our cat gG, but the chance that would happen is probably zero :(

On Sunday, June 13th, Ko-chan left from the airport to London and finally to Mexico by stopping in SF and LA en route. It was good to have you, Ko-chan!  Come back soon--.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Prague Day 2 (Part 2): Strolling around Jewish Quarter

We chose Jewish Quarter for our evening stroll. Jewish Quarter, known as Josefov, or formerly known as Jewish Ghetto, is located north of Old Town. It dates back to the 13th century when the Jewish community in Prague was ordered to vacate their homes and settle in this area.

The area is now very polished with lots of beautiful buildings, shops, and cafes, but it used to be crowded with insanitary houses and narrow streets. It was also chosen to be the place all the Jews were gathered before they were sent off to the concentration camp by the Nazis during WWII. The peace in the air suddenly felt heavy when I read that in my guidebook.

The record shows there was the worst pogroms in 1389, and approximately 1,500 Jews were massacred on Easter Sunday. Over the centuries, the area became more crowded with Jews as they were not allowed to live anywhere else. And, towards the end of the 16th century, when the Jewish Mayor, Mordecai Maisel, became the Minister of Finance and thus a very wealthy man, he invested money to help developing the "ghetto."

Then during the late 18th century, Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor emancipated Jews. He renamed the area "Josefstadt" (Joseph's City), which is the origin of "Josefov." And shortly after that, during 1893 and 1913, the quarter was demolished as a part of initiative to model the city like Paris, which left only six synagogues, the old cemetery, and the Old Jewish Town Hall, which you can still see now in the Jewish Quarter.

One of the synagougues in the quarter called Old-New Synagougue (picture on the left) was built back in 1270 and said to be the oldest synagougue in Europe.

Most of the synagougues were closed by the time we went there, but we found out it was what's called "Museum Night" in Prague, and all the museums, churches, synagougues had their special exhibitions and events. We got the brochure and decided to go into the Frants Kafka Cafe in the quarter to take a look at the brochure.

The one we were interested in was supposed to be held at a synagougue, but later we found out it was not open until very late, so we decided to just go to the Old Town Hall to take a peak at Prague view from the top.

Before doing so, we went into this restaurant called "U Golema" to have dinner. We weren't expecting too much after the bad experience from last night at the touristy restaurant in Old Town, but this restaurant was excellent! My favorite garlic soup was amazing, and so are the main dishes. If you ever go to Prague, check this restaurant out. If you want to learn more about the legendary story about "Golem", see here.

Being happy with the good food, we headed to the Old Town Hall. Inside the hall was unexpectedly modernized. There is a spiral staircase going up to the top of the tower, and in the middle of it, the glass case elevator runs up and down. My hubby and I took the elevator (^^), while Ko-chan ran up the stairs. The result - the elevator won :)

The view from the tower top was just beautiful. It was already past 9pm, and the sky was adding a shade of dark blue. The yellow city lights illuminated here and there which gave the perfect contrast to the dark blue sky. Lovely evening in Prague!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Prague Day 2 (Part 1): Strolling around Prague Castle

It was again a beautiful day in Prague. Less humid and less hot (whew!). Since we walked around the old town section of Prague yesterday, we decided to head towards the Prague Castle by crossing the famous Charles Bridge. We were staying right between the old town and new town, so the walk made more sense than the tram approach.

Charles Bridge is a stone bridge built in the later 14th century to early 15th century during the era of King Charles IV. It crosses the river Vltava (Moldau), and it was the most important connection between the Old Town and Prague Castle until 1841.  The bridge which is approx. 520m in length and 10m in width is totally closed off for pedestrians only, and you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the Prague Castle side of Prague along the bridge.  A part of the bridge was under construction, which interfered with appreciating the total beauty of the bridge and view, but it was still a great place to be. I was wondering how many people have crossed the bridge over the last hundreds of years and enjoyed the view of the castle from the bridge.

Crossing the bridge which was full of tourists and souvenir shops, we arrived in an area with lots of cute houses with bright orange brick roofs.  I just loved the sight of them.  I felt like time slipped back into the medieval era with witches, magics, buffoons, dragons, and all that - yep, had rather surreal feelings.  I was for a sec in the wold of children's book that I used to read when I was a little kid. :-)

From the bridge to the castle is not a short walk.  You actually have to walk up the hills for a while. Found Starbucks(!!... have to say it has been more than 6 months since I last had Starbucks coffee) on the way to the castle and got ourselves some coffee and continued our walk.  By then the sun was higher and the humidity was increasing again, and the cold Ice Latte felt so good.

There are lots of lovely looking shops and cafes along the streets up to the castle.  Enjoying the sight of pavement, bright flowers, cute little shops, and people sipping outside enjoying the coffee and sun, it ironically reminded me of the busy life I had back in Tokyo and LA.  Life can be much more relaxed, if you choose it to be so.

The final hill to the castle was rather steep, but the sight from the hilltop was gorgeous with an array of orange brick roofs and greens here and there. We were there just in time for the ceremony, but we could already see that the entrance to the castle was amazingly crowded with the tourists wanting to see the ceremony.  After a while, we realized that it was not worth while being there, as all we could see was the mass of people holding up the cameras to take videos and pictures. 

We found a side path to the castle and went in. Prague Castle is one of the biggest castles in the world. Construction began in the middle of the 9th century, and it continued to expand throughout the years, and thus the castle buildings represent virtually every architectural style of the last millennium from Romanesque, Gothic, to Baroque.

Once you go through the second courtyard, you will be astonished at the magnificent sight of St. Vitus's Cathedral. It definitely has a big "WOW" effect. The building used to be a simple looking Rotunda when it was first built around 925, just like lots of churches were back then. Then during time of the King Charles IV, it was turned into Gothic style by two architects. 

The first one was a Frenchman Matthias of Arras from Avignon. Matthias designed the overall layout of the building with French Gothic style: a triple-naved basilica with flying buttresses (which is beautiful!!), short transept, five-bayed choir and decagon apse with ambulatory and radiating chapels. After he died, the second one, Peter Parler, at that time only 23-years old, took over the work. 

Parler worked according to the plans left by his predecessor at first, but once he finished all that Matthias left unfinished, he started to apply his own ideas. Parler, unlike Matthias, was also trained as sculptor and woodcarver. He treated architecture as sculpture, and thus came up with very innovative designs throughout the cathedral. The famous one is called Parler's vaults or net-vaults which have double diagonal ribs that span the width of the choir-bay. The crossing pairs of ribs create a net-like construction which considerably strengthens the vault as well as a dynamic zigzag pattern down the length of the cathedral.  Unfortunately the line to the cathedral was unbelievably looong, and we didn't get to go inside to see the vaults. Maybe next time.

We walked around the cathedral and decided to head to the Strahov Monastery instead of exploring further into the castle, which was all crowded with the trourists (I guess summer is not the time to visit Prague). Starhov Monastery was okay. The part of the library was under construction and wasn't exactly what I expected.  I also got sick by the time I got there, and just wanted to head to the hotel to rest and to feed gG.  We took a tram back to the hotel and took a quick rest before heading back to town in the evening.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Prague Day 1: Old Town Square and Old Town Hall

Prague was hot and humid beyond my imagination even after 5pm. Occasionally a truck with a sprinkler device would drive by and sprey some water on the street. I know that's what people do to reduce the heat in the air, but with the humidity in the air, additional water particles didn't seem to help me that much.

The old town part of Prague is not that big. We thought it would be easy to find the square, but again we had to stop occasionally to check our map. After walking through several winding streets packed with tourists from all over the world, we finally came to the square. There was some kind of event sponsored by Hyundai with loud music and shops all around. It wasn't exactly the expected sight of old and beautiful Prague center, but we took a seat at a cafe and treated ourselves to some beer, which seemed to just evaporate with sweat and humidity.

The sight of Church of Our Lady before Týn against a huge blue advertising mast of Hyundai semi saddened me, but it was also a realization of us living in the 21st centry of capitalism with its massive advertisements and campaigns.

We finished our beer and walked towards the Old Town Hall, which was established in 1338 after the agreement of King John of Luxemburg to set up a town council. A part of the chapel was reconstructed after being destroyed by the Nazis during the WWII.

The most popular part of the tower is the Orloj, Town Hall Clock, which consists of three components: 1) the astronomical dial which is based on the Ptolemaic theory representing the position of the sun and moon around the earth and displaying various astronomical details; 2) "The Walk of the Apostles" which is a clockwork hourly show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures; and 3) a calendar dial with medallions representing the months.

The mechanical clock and astronomical dial were said to be made by a clock maker, Mikuláš of Kadaň, and a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Charles University, Jan Šindel in 1410, but later when the clock was repaired by another clock master in 1552, the report mentioned another clockmaster's name Jan Růže (a.k.a Hanuš) as a person who made the clock.

One legend said that Hanuš was blinded by the order of the Prague Councillors, as the clock he made became way so popular that other cities tried to hire him. He continued to be a clock master of Orloj even after he was blinded. It said that when he deceased the clock stopped working.

The clock is definitely a work of art. It is not only beautiful to look at, the exquisiteness of astronomical dial is just breathtaking. If you are interested in learning more about this amazing clock, go to this page.

We left the square behind and headed to the Powder Tower, which was originally built in 1475 and was used to be one of the entrance way to the castle. This is the place the foreign ministers and nobilities were welcomed, and they were led to the castle by a drum and fife band or soldiers. It must had been some kind of sights. By the time we got to the Powder Tower, it was already past 9pm, but as you can see the sky was still bright and the air was still very moist and hot. We walked towards the hotel and found a very touristy restaurant near the Wenceslas Square which the famous Velvet Revolution took place in 1989.

We got two Czech traditional dishes and shared among three of us. They were not bad, but the place was definitely targeting the tourists, and unfortunately we felt rather ripped off.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ko-chan's visit & Prague Day 1

It's been a while since I wrote the last blog entry.  Things had been a bit crazy around me. Firstly I have been engaged in a short consulting work, and Ko-chan, the younger son of my hubby, came and visited us for... a couple of days.  In fact, we didn't know exactly when he was going to show up here.  Apparently he couldn't contact us as he was hitchhiking all the way from Amsterdam! 

Come to think about it, I hitchhiked quite a bit at college, but it was a much safer world back then. Glad Ko-chan made it through by getting rides from good people. He then made me realize that we tend to create a boundary towards others as we get older. When I was younger, I was definitely much more open towards relationships, talking with strangers wherever I went even thought I knew I would never meet them again (back then, we didn't have what's called email, IM, or social network ^^).  Now, how many times would I speak to the strangers?

Anyway, he showed up on Thursday evening around 8:15pm.  We had a good chat on our balcony (yep, finally our new balcony set was in good use) until VERY late. But, we had a lot to catch up.  My hubby for sure was happy to have the opportunity to talk with him.

Next day, we were supposed to leave for Prague around 10am (well, the original plan was based on the assumption that Ko-chan would get here on Wed instead of Thur), but we decided delay that a bit. We rented a car and started our journey to Prague by firstly stopping at a pet store to buy gG's food ^^;   Yes, he always comes along with us these days.  I remember the first time I took him to a drive (back in Calif).  He was not happy at all back then.  Nowadays, he is very relaxed in the back seat.

We got to Prague really smoothly.  No heavy traffic, and the GPS helped us find our way to our hotel.  It was around 3pm already, and my hubby who had been working almost 24/7 (and just got back from Berlin) needed a nap before doing anything, so we all rested for a while and decided to head out to an evening stroll to explore a part of Prague.

The plan was to head to the Old Town Square, which is the center of old town, but we ended up heading towards Vltava River - you must know why if you have been to Prague. The streets are not at all going straight! 

It was rather humid and hot which reminded me of a summer weather in Japan, but we enjoyed the view of the Prague castle along the river before heading towards the Old Twon Square, which I will write in my next entry.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Wooden deck table

This past weekend was just gorgeous with lots of sunshine. We decided to build a wooden deck table which we purchased 2 weeks ago and which had been sitting in our entrance hallway for a while.

As we started to put the legs together, we realized one of the pieces had a defect. Consequently, we had to make a tram trip to Bauhaus, which is a mega store just like Lowe's and Homedepot in the US, to exchange the piece.  The little trip was fun hanging out with my hubby, eating lunch at a little restaurant in a grocery store called Interspar, and browsing the plants in Bauhaus.

Got back with a right piece and started to build a table. It took us about 45 mins, which was a lot longer than we thought it would be (mainly because we had to redo a part of it).  Anyway, we were finally done, and the table looked so good on our small deck.  We just couldn't resist trying it out with a chilled glass of beer! After a nice workout (well, building a furniture is a workout), cold beer tasted real good - especially sitting at the table we just built! gG joined us with a glass of fresh water :)  And, with a nice buzz we got under the sun, three of us all took a great nap. What a great way to spend your late Sunday afternoon!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Beautiful Brno evening with fireworks

Finally!!  The sun came out late afternoon on Friday, June 4th.  We had been stuck under thick grey sky since late April, and it felt almost strange to see a bright sun in the sky.  And, the balcony chairs that we bought 2 weeks ago finally found some use in the evening.  We sat outside with a glass of white Moravian wine and enjoyed the view of the beautiful town of Brno from our balcony.  The sky was midnight blue, and the town lights looked like bright orange stars dropped from the sky  - it sort of reminded me of the painting by Van Gogh's "Starry Night." 

We sat there and talked over wine for a while, and to our surprise all of a sudden the fireworks started.  Earlier that evening, we were wondering why there were so many policemen around the park behind the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul when we walked by.  Now we knew it was for the fireworks.  We had a perfect view of the fireworks right next to the cathedral towers from our balcony.  Of course gG got scared by the huge bang-bang noise, and he escaped to one of the bathrooms. Poor gG... :(

It was just a wonderful night. And I realized there was a beautiful upside-down miniture Brno town inside my wine glass :)

Here is a video of the fireworks.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Janáček (ヤナーチェック)

Janáček is a famous Czech composer that everyone knows. And, he became even more popular among the younger generations in Japan and Asia because of the recent novel called "1Q84" by my favorite author Haruki Murakami. In the novel, Janáček's Sinfonietta is mentioned several times.

Anyway, as I was walking down the street with Jana, she pointed one of the buildings and told me it was the Janáček Theater. I didn't know about it of course and got interested in it immediately. So I decided to do a bit of research about the connection between Janáček and Brno.

Janáček was born in a town called Hukvaldy (close to Ostrava), in the middle of Moravian land. As you may know, Czech Republic consists of three regions; Bohemia in the west, Moravia in the south-east, and Czech Silesia in the north-east. I will write more about it some other time, but basically Brno is a part of Moravia as well as the town where Janáček was born.

Janáček came to Brno in 1865, at the age of 11. He was enrolled as a ward of the foundation of the Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno, the same abbey to which Mendel belonged and where he conducted his experiments on peas between 1856 and 1863!! Maybe Mendel heard Janáček's singing back then (Janáček was a choirboy and played the organ occasionally).

In 1874, Janáček enrolled in an organ school in Prague. After graduating, he returned to Brno and started a career as a music teacher at Brno's Teachers Institute. There, he taught his future wife Zdenka Schulzová. He moved to Germany in 1879 and studied piano, organ, and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory for approx. half a year. He eventually left the conservatory with disappointment. He returned to Brno and married his former student Zdenka in 1881, at the age of 27.

According to this site, he and his wife had their first child, Olga in 1882. Their second child, a son, Vladimír was only two when he died of meningitis in 1890. During the first decade of the 20th century, Janáček choral church music such as Otčenáš (Our Father, 1901), Constitutes (1903) and Ave Maria (1904). Around that time, Janáček took his daughter Olga to St. Petersburg, where she studied Russian. But, only 3 months later, she got sick and returned to Brno. She was weakened day by day, and Janáček expressed his painful feelings for his daughter in a new opera Jenůfa. The suffering of his daughter was depicted as Jenůfa's suffering, and he himself cast his love towards his daughter to the other character in the opera Kostelnička.

Olga unfortunately died the following year in 1903. Janáček dedicated Jenůfa to her memory. The opera was performed in Brno in 1904 with success. Janáček decided to take it to the more influential Prague opera, but Jenůfa was refused there by the director of the National Theatre in Prague, Karel Kovařovic, whom Janáček had a dispute before and has had a bad relationship with since then. In fact, Jenůfa was never performed in Prague opera until 1916 under Kovařovic’s own orchestration. The Prague premiere brought Janáček a huge success.

However, at the same time, he started to have an affair with Gabriela Horvátová, who played Kostelnička in the Prague premiere of Jenůfa. The incident led his wife Zdenka to an attempted suicide and their informal divorce. This site shares Zdenka's side of story from the book called "My Life with Janáček," which gives you more perspectives about their relationship and Janáček's personality. In my observation, Janáček was just an innocent old-kid who completely went blind with a very aggressive and forthcoming actress.

Eventually the affair ended, but in 1917 when Janáček visited Luhačovice spa, he meets Kamila Urválková, a 26 year old woman married to an antique dealer from Písek who was 38 years younger than Janáček. It was the beginning of his lifelong, inspirational and unrequited passion towards Kamila. According to wiki, he sent 730 letters to her!

Janáček was inspired by her to create the lead characters of three of his operas; Katya in "Katya Kabanová" (the first played in Brno on 23 November 1921), the vixen in "The Cunning Little Vixen" (premiere performance on 6 November 1924 in Brno), and Emilia Marty in "The Makropulos Affair" (world premier in Brno on December 18, 1926 - 2 years before Janáček's death).

Also, she was the inspiration for other works such as "The Diary of One Who Disappeared" (premiered at the Reduta Theatre in Brno on 18 April, 1921),  "The Glagolitic Mass" (first performance in Brno on 5 December, 1927 - 1 year before Janáček's death), his "Sinfonietta" (first performance in Prague on 26 June, 1926 ) and the "String Quartet No. 2" with the subtitle "Intimate letters" was created in 1928, which has been referred to as Janáček's "manifesto on love." The first performance took place on 11 September 1928, a month after Janáček's death.

Kamila didn't seem to either accept or neglect Janáček. They continued their relationship without consummating it, and it said that Kamila was with Janáček when he died on August 12, 1928.

Most of his 730 letters were kept, and Janáček scholar Svatava Přibáňová published them as "Hádanka života: dopisy Leoše Janáčka Kamile Stösslové", which was translated into English by John Tyrrell and published as "Intimate Letters: Leoš Janáček to Kamila Stösslová" in 1994. You can also read some story behind Janáček's obsession to Kamila here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Applying for Czech health insurance

Prior to receiving the Czech visa, you have to have health insurance in the amount of at least 30,000 EUR covering the entire Schengen area.  My hubby got employee-based health insurance from his company, and we were assuming that I, his wife, would be covered by his insurance.  But, the assumption was totally wrong.  Here in Czech, even if the husband is covered by an employment-based insurance, his wife would not be.  And especially being a foreigner here, you have to apply for special health insurance for foreigners as indicated by the embassy.

Jana (again! Thank you Jana!) helped me with finding the right insurance, and even came along with me to the insurance company for me to apply, as no one in the Brno branch could speak English when I called them :( 

The application process was very simple.  You just fill out the application with your passport number and all that.  The surprising thing was that you have to pay the amount for the duration you sign up for all in advance and in cash.  In my case, since my hubby's visa is somehow valid only until Nov of this year, I decided to sign up for the shortest duration, which is 6 months.  The insurance is much cheaper compared to the US (of course!), but still paying for 6 months of insurance all at once was rather surprising to me.  Anyway, it will take a month to process my application, and I should have my health insurance by July 2!

I was wondering how health insurance works for Czech citizens. If you are a Czech person, I heard you can go through certain administrative procedures and can get health insurance covered by the state.  Meaning, there is no one in Czech Republic who doesn't have health insurance. Same in Japan. This is so much better than the US!