Saturday, December 5, 2009


While loved ones on the other side of the big pond finished up last minute preparations for Thanksgiving festivities the next day, we put the finishing touches on our packing and got a few hours of sleep before heading out on the next big road trip. We left our house by 4 AM on Thursday, November 26th, Thanksgiving Day and drove toward Grafenwoehr, Germany where we had reservations to stay that night on the Army Base. On the 5-hour drive we slept, talked about what we're thankful for, about how this would be a different Thanksgiving than ever before, about who and what we missed on these particular days back in the States, and what we were expecting to experience in Prague. We certainly didn't expect to have the typical Thanksgiving "to-do." But we were wrong.

We arrived at the base a little before noon and made our first stop at the PX for a few little forgotten items. Culture shock. We walked in to a grand entry much like the foyer of a mall complete with a food court. And the main store? Eli said, "I feel like I'm in Walmart." LeRoy spoke with one of the employees and discovered they had a new dining facility on Base that was serving Thanksgiving Dinner that day. The restaurant was pay-as-you-arrive with an all-you-can-eat prime rib steak dinner with all the trimmings. So then we felt as though we were at Golden Corral. It was great! We loved it! I think I could handle that every few years or so!! Definitely a rare treat. And our room? Again, all the amenities that Americans get to enjoy! Complete with English-speaking television. All said, we thoroughly enjoyed our American experience -- on Thanksgiving Day, no less. Filled with gratitude for our American citizenship, thankful for the abundance in our lives... we set out the next day, eager to "get back to Europe."

This was our first view as we drove into Prague on Friday.

We would soon discover that Prague is filled to the brim with churches and cathedrals.

This is the narrow, cobblestoned street where our pension was located.

After visiting with the man who ran the pension, we set out to walk downtown -- about a mile. A mile was perfect because the children had some energy to burn and I had a million thoughts mulling through my brain from our conversation with the pension's purveyor. He had showed us "must-see" places on the map, pointed us in the right direction, gave us details about Prague's public transportation system (which we ended up not using), and told us stories about Prague's history. And it was the history of these people that caught my intrigue.
He went back to ancient Prague, when it was ruled by the Holy Roman Empire and the country was Catholic. Then along came Jan Hus (known as John Huss in Engish), around 1409 who adopted the teachings of John Wycliffe and became a major influence in spreading the Protestant movement. It wasn't long before Bohemia turned from the Catholic church and took on Protestant beliefs. Eventually, Hus was burned at the stake for heresy but the country remained predominantly Protestant for the next couple of centuries -- throughout Martin Luther's leadership more than a century later -- until the 30-years war when the Hapsburgs reigned.
It was during the 30-years war that Czechoslavakia became Catholic again under threat that to not be Catholic would mean persecution. "So," the man telling us the story, waved his hands helplessly in the air, "what choice did the people have but to convert to Catholic again?" He shrugged his shoulders, adding, "I mean, I guess that was fine, but people had to leave if they wouldn't be Catholic. Things were fairly peaceful again -- for a while." He paused, looked into our eyes as if trying to figure out how to make the next connection for us, and then, "But then came Communism and we were behind the Iron Curtain..." His expression is solid. Contemplating. "The people gave up. We are the most athiest country in Europe. It was too confusing. No one believes anymore."

There was a moment of uneasy silence before he waved his hand as though officially bringing the history lesson to a close. He shuffled the signed paperwork, folded our map and handed it to us. "Well! I suppose you would like to see your room so that you can go see the sights!" He reaches for a key with a palm-sized brass key-holder. But I stood there, not moving, the words, "No one believes anymore" running through my head -- my heart.

"What about you?" His flurry stopped abruptly before he broke into a wide, uncomfortable grin. I repeated my question, "What about you? Do you believe?"

"Well, there are a few things I think are personal and a person shouldn't talk about. One of them is a person's religion." I didn't flinch. He went on. "But I don't consider myself religious. And, besides," he waves away the invisible awkwardness, "I have nothing to hide... I'll tell people whatever they want to know about me." I waited. "My wife and I are believers. We're not Catholic but we're not associated with any one religion. But we believe in God."
Prague is famous for its Bohemian Crystal. Entering the stores felt a little like taking six bulls into a crystal shop.

Looking out on Wenceslas Square. A square that the people of Prague compare to Champs d'Elysees in Paris or Times Square in New York City.
Czechoslavakian men...

Standing in front of the bronze, equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas with the National Museum behind us. The Christmas song "Good King Wenceslas" takes on new meaning for us after learning this little piece of history.
We strolled down this famous square with a brief stop to rest and eat Italian Gelato, warm up with a cup of coffee, and eat some Tiramasu.
On our way we found Coffee Heaven -- a place we'd return to a few times over the next couple of days.

Walk down a narrow cobblestoned alleyway, (past the sex machine museum??? yeah, that invoked some interesting conversation and questions from the boys...), go under an ancient-looking gate, go around the corner with the Starbucks Cafe, and we were in the Old Town! Just in time to watch the famous Prague Astronomical Clock turn the hour.

We perused Old Town briefly and then moseyed back over to Coffee Heaven for a caramel macchiato before attending one of the many Black Theatres, a specialty of Prague. While at the cafe, Israel introduced herself and struck up a conversation with a couple sitting nearby. Pretty soon we were exchanging travel adventure histories and they were telling us about the countries where they visited when their children were young. They shared about how they were British but were now living and working in Saudi Arabia. How fun is that! We then exchanged e-mail addresses and meandered over to the Black Theatre together.
Waiting for the show to start.

The show was entertaining... with some serious insight into Eastern European culture... shocking. Intriguing as to what they call kid-friendly, family-oriented entertainment. Very sensual. We saw the show "Cats" and, well, think Broadway "Cats" except with black light, puppets, and human miming...

After the show we walked back to the pension, exhausted, happy, somewhat delirious from a whirlwind day. Me? I fell asleep pondering the gods of this world: power, money, sex. Every human ever created was and is wired to worship. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to see it all through God's perspective.
Breakfast the next morning was in a cellar-turned-cafe. Bread, butter, jam. Slices of salami or ham. Cheese. Coffee. Apple or orange juice.

And a couple games of Foosball while waiting for Mom and Dad to enjoy a second cup of coffee.

Israel and her Daddy strolling Prague. (Israel had managed to run, skip, climb, and jump so much on the walk that she was "way too hot" and had put her jacket in the backpack.)

Now, we had planned to be up the castle by noon so that we could watch the big foo-foo changing of the guard. We set out in plenty of time, but got distracted all along the way. So much so that by the time I checked with LeRoy as to the time, it was already 11:25 AM. The tourbook said that it was a one-hour walk from the point where we were standing to the castle. I looked at the children. "Is this really important to you guys? You still want to try to make it?" They all said yes. I said, "Okay, here's the deal: we have 35 minutes to get there." I pointed. "The castle is that direction."

I wish I could have video-taped this venture. There we were, Olson Children Zae, Zeke, and Israel skipping, leaping, weaving, dancing their way toward the castle with me running breathlessly on their heels, hoping, hoping LeRoy and Eli were right behind me. (I didn't dare look back for fear of taking my eyes off my kiddos for even a second.) Every so many meters, they'd stop and look to make sure I was with them. Them all smiles and rosy cheeks. Me, sweat dripping off the end of my nose, wishing that I'd trained for this. (Level 2, walking speed, "Hills" on the treadmill does not train one for this kind of fitness test!)

We made it. In 25 minutes. The children got a good spot to watch and take pictures. I proceeded to de-layer down to my t-shirt, looking and breathing like I'd just finished running a marathon. LeRoy had removed his coat and was somewhat winded, though not nearly in as bad of shape as me.

Here's the epiphany that me and LeRoy took away from this little experience: Tell our children the goal. Point them in the right direction. Then try to keep up.
The changing of the gaurd was quite a spectacle and we were glad we got to experience it.

Then lunch at this little cafe near the castle.

With an entire afternoon free to explore and amble through the Christmas Market.

Time to goof off...

...take in the sights...
(Can you see that tower standing above the landscape in the far left upper corner of the city in the picture? That's where our pension/hotel is. ...As in that's how far we walked... Needless to say, our children were pretty proud of themselves!)

Of course, now there was plenty of time to hold hands... kiss... enjoy the romance of the "City of a Thousand Spires..." walk along castle walls... looking for the Apple Struedel Shop that Samantha Brown talked about on the Travel Channel... to no avail... but finding the American Embassy instead...

...and the daily vocabulary word of the day...

On the famous Charles Bridge.

Lovely Prague from Charles Bridge.

From Charles Bridge, we headed over to the Jewish Quarter with the idea that we would visit the Jewish Cemetary. ...Except that everything was closed being that it was Saturday.
So we walked back to the Old Town and the Christmas Market...

where we sipped hot chocolates and lattes from Starbucks...

...while walking around the Market.

Our senses were tantalized by the aromas of bratwurst cooking on open flames, gluewein (hot wine), crepes loaded with Nutella, peculiar pastries that were round and hollow in the middle -- and though we can't remember now what they were called, we do remember how sweet and yummy they were! There were the usual artisans selling their wares... all beautiful. And this Czechoslavakian Bugler who approached us and told us something fantastic in Czech to which we just smiled and nodded and told him we didn't understand... to which he laughed and motioned for the children to stand around him so that I could get a picture.

Have I mentioned that I have four of the most fun travel buddies in the world!!

As we went in search of a warm, cozy place to sit and eat dinner we passed under the Powder Gate where the gaurd stopped us and offered his armor for the children to try on.

LeRoy found us an awesome Italian Restaurant that overlooked the Christmas Market going on toward the end of Wenceslas Square. The children all ordered pizza.

Of course, Zae ordered his without cheese. When they brought it, his face lit up, and he said, "No cheese! I think I'm going to cry!" This boy loves pizza, but seriously detests cheese... so if you want to win his heart...
It felt a little strange to have a bill totalling 1,205... Kc (crowns, that is).

Or to carry around bills ("banknotes") 100, 200, and 500 crowns.

We sat there for almost two hours and after eating and resting we asked the children, "Do you want to go back to the room or do you want to head back to Old Town and do more exploring?" The answer was unanimous -- Explore!

Explore, we did. Ambling through narrow alleys, people-watching in the square, listening to the language -- a language that sounds a little like water trickling over a stony creekbed. We took mental (and digital) pictures of the architecture, the full moon's light competing with the sparkling Christmas tree. Admiring the lovely wood carving of the Nativity. I wonder what others thought as they passed by this Nativity. Did they admire it, too? Did they notice? Did they shrug their shoulders in hopeless disbelief?

And then at last we made the trek back to the pension.

Once there, we showered, dressed in cozy pj's, and spent an hour or so playing UNO and laughing our silly heads off.
The next morning we left Prague fairly early, figuring we'd spend our last 600 Kc on breakfast somewhere along the way. And that's when we found a strip mall with an IKEA -- our very first ever visit to an IKEA. I suppose this might be somewhat akin to how a visitor from a third-world country would feel on their first-ever visit to a Super-Target? Maybe? We were giddy. The children all spoke in excited voices all at the same time to me... throughout the entire store. LeRoy should have just ditched us and either went way up ahead or waited in the van. We were seriously overstimulating... and taking forever to get through that store. But, seriously, Folks, we're just not the kind of family that frequents places like this. Even I was overwhelmed like a kid at Disneyland. And the cool thing? We didn't covet the stuff in the store. Our horizons -- our visions -- were simply expanded. (Is "simply expanded" an oxymoron?) Okay, we did admire the built-in espresso maker. Alot.

And now I know what the children mean when they say their dream is to someday have a bedroom "like the one I showed you at IKEA, Mom." (I really think they were incredibly impressed with the organization of each space! ...I was, too!)

Needless to say, my man was grumpy at us when we finally got to the exit. But we made it up to him by eating lunch at McDonald's! (Yes, he was back to his happy self after that little gesture of kindness.) ...and we still didn't use up all our Kc. It's sitting on our dresser in our bedroom.

The landscape between the border and Prague reminded us of the landscape in the Southwest part of Montana -- except with quiant villages and castle ruins here and there along the way.

Do we want to go back? Yes. Perhaps one day. I failed my mission of treasure-collecting crystal for a dear loved one (ugh. So sorry! You know who you are). We want to explore the Jewish Quarters. And I have more questions.


  1. Thank you for a richly descriptive trip to Prague. I love your travelogues.

    "Tell our children the goal. Point them in the right direction. Then try to keep up." I loved that too! I think I'll look for ways to apply that at work. Why be prescriptive when this approach is so much more effective and fun! :)

  2. Thank you so much for taking me along on your adventures! I love traveling with you. I get to see wonderful places but don't have to do the running!

  3. I am SO PROUD of you!!!

    And yes, I laughed out loud when I read that you, too went to the Jewish cemetery on Saturday. :-)

  4. Fun trip! What an adventure your family is having! Did you meet any Bubnas yet? :0)

  5. Wow, Sharon - I don't even know where to start! What an amazing trip. You somehow manage to make us all feel like we're along for the ride (minus the insanely expensive pizza bill). I thank you for that - it's nice to see the world from my computer screen if I can't do it myself! Blessings on your next adventure!