I regress: Saxony (the most southern province of former East Germany) and Bohemia (the western half of the Czech republic) were my next destinations on my January European tour after Berlin. Apart from being great destinations in central Europe, somewhat distant relatives who’d visited Arizona a few years ago and friends from Middlebury awaited me in both (and, not to mention, were offering housing).

Nepperwitz town signNepperwitz. The evening of January 9, I was received at the Leipzig Hauptbanhof (main train station) with wide open arms by my relatives Dieter and Eveline (avid readers of the Bablefish translator version of this blog!).

After the first of many very nice meals out, we drove back to Nepperwitz about an hour away, where we celebrated my coming with a bottle of wine and picture taking next to the Christmas tree they’d left up especially for my coming. So sweet! We established that my great grandma (my mom’s mom’s mom) is Dieter’s grandmother’s sister, whatever that exactly makes me to him (apart from an even too well-received guest!), and looked at each others photos, and made great use of English and Russian as semi-common languages. Dieter has the vocabulary down pretty darn good, although Eveline gets him on the high-level grammar corrections. I got the exclamations down: “Super!” “Ja ja,” “Das ist gut” (it’s good), “Danke!” (thanks), “Moment” (hold on), among others….

My room was their second-floor loft with a nice sitting area, fireplace, and comfy fold-out bed. Actually, their house, in general, was amazing–nice decorations, comfortably spacious, and sauna included. Dieter shared the story of how a big flood in 2002 wiped out their just completed construction of the house (a new one that added on to their existing property, which now houses his business, Uhlig-Präsente). After the months of  toil, and general inconvenience of living in a different town and commuting to his own house to rebuild with help from friends and neighbors, they finished what stands now, which is quite impressive, to boot.

In between our day-trips (below), I got the Nepperwitz experience. It’s a town of 152 inhabitants, was first mentioned in a manuscript from 1421, and is home to a 15th century Gothic church (Catholic), information courtesy of Wikipedia, Die freie Enzyklopädie. We walked around the town, got a tour of the Nepperwitz church, ran into some town friends on the streets, and met their neighbors who run a pony-ride and kids’ petting farm. Dieter showed me around his business, for which he’s drawn thousands of vignettes for printing on anything from beer steins, plaques, or tableware, to T-shirts and tie clips. He graciously gave me a few things, including a silver spoon with a Leipzig illustration on it from the year I was born. Thanks again, Dieter!

Looking out the big window of my room across the snow-covered fields (they hadn’t had this much snow for years–I must have brought it from the East…), catching up on some emails, spacing out to Germany’s version of American Idol or German MTV with awesome retro disco videos (see below), saunaing, or just having good conversation made up the a perfect, slow-pace part of my generally high-paced vacation.

Our nights together, after an always delicious dinner (I added hare and duck to my palette’s repertoire, accompanied by great German-style lunches and dinners with meats and sausages, salads, cabbage dishes, and more), we usually sat and talked around the fireplace and TV with good local beers or wines. One night they broke out their fruit-and-rum concoction they make every summer, which tasted great alone, added to champagne, or atop ice cream. They’re both great people, and I’m happy to be able to say that I know them well now as family. Thanks again, Dieter and Eveline for everything in Nepperwitz and elsewhere!

(Hover over the pictures for descriptions.)

Nepperwitz from the street

Nepperwitz home kitchen

Wurzen. For lunch one day, Dieter and I drove to Wurzen, the nearest town about twenty minutes towards Leipzig. After getting stuck in the un-plowed snow a few times in their little Mercedes, we’d seen just about all of the great little town center, and had a good lunch at a Chinese restaurant, the manager of which is a member of Dieter’s business association.

Leipzig. As largest city in Saxony and former home to the German national courts, Leipzig, which was first mentioned in a document from the eleventh century, grew out of the cosmopolitanism and wealth that came as a result of its central location along continental trade routes. Saxony’s residents take pride in the academic and cultural center that Leipzig is, with its housing the German National Library (which holds every work ever published in German), multiple universities, along with churches and buildings that served as the workplaces of Bach and Goethe. The oldest continuing trade fair is also held in the city, and Dieter has displayed his work multiple times.

I learned a lot of this on the first tour Dieter and Eveline gave me, wandering around the city, occasionally stopping in at shops, pausing for a Saxon bratwurst on the main square, or grabbing a coffee at one of the oldest coffee-selling cafés in the world (now complete with a museum, including the “Coffee Cantata” that Bach wrote). The multiple history/city-guide pamphlets and booklets that my hosts insisted they give me were also a great help in getting my Saxon history down pat. Other sights (on the same and different days) included:

  • Thomaskirche (Church of St. Thomas), where Bach spent a portion of his composing career and directed the still-extant boys choir, Tomanerchor.
  • A shopping center, formerly used as a world trade market, Catholic church, Protestant church, and performance hall. It features a pair of statues featuring Goethe in scenes from his Faust.
  • The Church of St. Nicholas, the Monday peace prayers of which began the nationwide 1989 movement for the reunification of Germany.
  • The old and new world trade fairgrounds, neighbored by a small Russian Orthodox (onion-domed, of course) church.
  • A cylindrical, old, Soviet manufacturing building converted into the exhibition place for the Assisi 360 Panorama museum, which features rotating science-art displays from Professor Assisi. The current exhibit was “Amazonia”, with really great biology exhibits around a central ring, inside of which you stand a huge 360 panorama digital photo painting of the rainforest, with music, light changes, the whole shebang.
  • The Battle of the Nations monument (Völkerschlachtdenkmal), the largest tower-monument in Europe, which commemorates one of the earlier defeats of Napoleon. We paid for the elevator ride halfway to the top, and then took the steps the rest of the way before we caught our breaths to take in the view of the city of a half-million.

Eveline commutes to Leipzig most days of the week to her work as vice-president of a vocational school for people recovering from sometimes work-related injuries or handicaps. She invited me for a tour (to “make lookie-lookie” in the words of her husband) on one of my last days. As an education student who doesn’t necessarily want to become a high school teacher straight away after college (I don’t count myself worthy of the responsibility, in all seriousness), visiting Eveline’s work and seeing how the government-funded, but independently operated company works was a great “externship”-type experience in the field.

Keeping with tradition of never being able to escape the Soviet influence that grabbed a hold of my life about 3 years ago, the tour also included a peek into a underground bunker, now used for storage, from which telephone tapping was conducted during the time of the GDR. The campus was formerly a military training academy, but has since been updated with state-of-the art facilities for training of engineers, beauticians, techies, and others.

In Leipzig’s center, I was again taken as in Berlin with how the modern and classical, gothic, &c. are completely not mutually exclusive, and how I felt I was getting the best of the new and old at once. I agree with the New York Times’ ranking it as a top place to go, though I know it’s only fair to add that it takes two darn good tour guides to show off a city at its best.

Dresden. Using up a whole day of their specially planned-for-me vacations, Dieter and Eveline took me on a day-trip to Dresden, an hour-and-a-half-long drive east from Nepperwitz.

If Leipzig claims the title of intellectual culture capital of Saxony, then Dresden gets the history award. Perhaps best known for the ruthless fire-bombing of its citizens (and architecture) near the end of the second world war, it’s formative role in the political history of the region is equally important, giving special note to the city’s heyday under the reign of August II the Strong at the turn of the eighteenth century.

We parked along the River Elbe on the main platz, around which the Saxon State Opera and Hofkirche are situated at the southern end of the longest continuously standing stone bridge in Europe. Since it was it was a colder and sunless day, and the points of interest of the city are fairly spread-out, we took a double-decked tour bus.

The itinerary and audio headset covered the royal residence, huge castle-mansions, the world’s only hygiene museum, the kilometers-long royal groves, the world’s first cable cars and longest tram trains, a “transparent” (glass) Volkswagen repair factory, a famous milk products shop, monuments to kings, and plenty more.

After the tour, we had a really nice schnitzel lunch along a neat alley bedecked with left-over Christmas lights and pit-fires on café patios. We walked a bit more, easily finding the famous Dresden Frauenkirche, the dome of which caved in as a result of the fire-bombing but has since been restored. A bit of shopping, an espresso, and we were on our way back home to Nepperwitz.

On the 19th, I returned to Dresden on a train after a little sad, very thankful “Auf wiedersehen” with Dieter and Eveline. This time, though, I was there for a 20-minute train transfer on my way to the Czech Republic…

(Sorry for the poor picture quality… it was cloudy.)

Prague. It still boggles my mind a little bit that literally as soon as we passed a specific point, i.e. the line drawn on the map, the language of train stations, advertisements, and literally everything else changed from German to Czech. It gives a lot of credence to the idea that “Europe is the continent of fine distinctions.”

Along with the crossing of the border comes another lurch in the mind (not quite to the point of being in the stomach), again realizing that it’s another language that you don’t know, wondering if English is spoken. Again, my time in Prague proved that in any big city in Europe, you’re just about 99% okay if you speak English.

To celebrate my border crossing (no passport check inside the Schengen zone, as Ashley told me later), I bought an overpriced Czech beer from the concessions cart guy. In our fifteen second conversation, I learned he was from Hungary but lived in Slovakia now when he wasn’t working on the train and was happy to see an American outside his own country. Indeed.

I got into the Hlavní nádraží (“main” translates almost exactly from Russian, the “station” part is assumed from the fact I was at a train station…) around 4 p.m. and found the hostel I’d reserved a bed in for the night the next street over. I hung out in the common room on the Internet and making small talk with a girl from Japan and two guys (from Spain and Mexico). The guys had bought too much spaghetti and sauce ingredients, so they invited us two to dinner. Cost of day one: 0 crowns (Czech currency, about 18 to the dollar).

The next morning, Ash met me at the station to bring me to Marek’s apartment (her boyfriend, who I met when he came to Midd around Halloween ’08… good times), located on a square named with some derivation of the root for “fire” for various fire- or firefighter-related events. Or something like that.

That’s not the important part: it’s a sweet apartment in your typical European building (inner courtyard included) overlooking this square with a big clock directly across the square from their window, just up a steep, narrow cobblestone street from the Parliament complex (i.e. a huge castle), including the St. Vitus Cathedral, which took four centuries to complete.

Marek and Ashley, after (and while) quibbling over who’s the better tour guide, gave me an educational and entertaining tour of the main points: the Cathedral (begun under King Charles, on whom Ashley suspects Marek of having a man-crush), the walls with cannon balls still stuck in them from [historical event here], the being-gutted-lamb house from the time before they had house numbers, what is graffito, what is baroque, what is not graffito, what is not baroque, the wanna be Buckingham palace guards that hide in their huts when it snows, the Charles Bridge, Charles University, their friend named Charles (not), the Astronomical Tower (tells you what time it is and what your child’s zodiac sign will be if you’re looking at it while giving birth!), theatres, opera houses, museums, squares… “Europe,” basically. So great.

In the rest of our time in Prague (Ashley and I left for a 36-hour trip to her ex-host family a few hours south of Prague, below), Ash and I caught up wandering around, passing interesting sights along the way, most of which were great to look at, significant 800 years ago, interesting to hear about, and over-photographed. So I didn’t worry about my camera or taking notes, basically.

We stayed in and made spaghetti one night to watch a movie (RocknRolla), had the leftovers another day, ate at one of their favorite restaurant-bars one day, grabbed a snack at a bar holding its seasonal pig-slaying festival (chops, feet, and blood for sale!), and helped me identify my favorite Czech beers.

On our last night, Ash and I came back from a day of wandering, sipping our mulled wine (heated wine plus sugar) as a violinist lulled the sun to sleep (ok, so the violinist was earlier in the day, but it was still pretty classic…). We stopped at the apartment to pick up Marek and head off to a club called Limonadovy Joe (pronounced yoh-eh). The club is themed on an actually entertaining 60’s Czech parody of prohibition à la Western by the same name. There’s a song (video above) called “Arizona,” for which all Czechs know my home state, upon which Marek’s and my friendship is partially founded. It was a cool place, the steak was really good, the beer was too, and a good enough band started, too, just as we had to be leaving for me to catch my bus to Berlin. A big thanks to Marek and Ash for hosting me in the Czech Rep, too.

Outside of Jindřichův Hradec. Ash and I took two trains to get to Jindřichův Hradec, outside of which Ash spent a gap year before Middlebury, learning Czech from scratch. We wandered around the city’s castle (see Google Image Search… I wasn’t in a camera mood. Oops!) and town center and then stopped in the tourism office so I could get a postcard or two.

We spent a while in a bar (“The Dada Club”) with Ashley’s favorite beer, the bartender (who had been labeled a “political pedophile” by the Soviets for signing a civil rights manifesto called “Charter 77”), and an Argentinian ex-pat (who lived most of his life in Amsterdam and been living in this random Czech town for four years with his girlfriend training cell phone repairmen, and still not managed to pick up more Czech than how to order at a bar). There was also a headrest above the urinal to assist those having difficulty standing, apparently. A nice touch.

After a short bus ride a bit more southward, we were welcomed in to her host family’s house for a family dinner and nice company. Ashley was a good translator, but apparently the mom, who doesn’t speak English, understood most of what I was saying, and I could pick up snippets of the Czech, thanks to the Russian thing.

The next day, her ex-host sister invited Ashley and me to her high school to sit in on their English class. We were all expecting something slightly more interactive, but the teacher had just got back from an absence and was trying to catch up on material, but it was still interesting to see how high school is still high school in apparently most of the Northern Hemisphere… After that, we went home and Ashley and I walked around her old hometown, went back for a late lunch, more chat, and a quick dinner before catching the train back to Prague.

JH cat

Exit strategy. Even the facts of my January 22-23 aren’t that interesting…

  • Midnight – 4:30 a.m.: trying to sleep on a bus ride Prague-Dresden-Berlin.
  • 4:30 a.m. – 6:00 a.m.: trying to sleep at a Berlin bus stop.
  • 6:00 a.m.: Bahn to airport bus stop.
  • 6:30 a.m.: Airport bus stop to airport.
  • 7:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.: airport café hopping (with all my bags, now full of purchases and souvenirs) in order to not outstay my welcome for having purchased a coffee, a bottle of water, or a croissant.
  • 10:00 a.m.: finally being able to check my bags.
  • 10:30: being told I couldn’t bring my peanut butter (it’s a liquid) out of the country on a plane.
  • 12:00 p.m. Leaving to Moscow.
  • 5:30 p.m. (Moscow time): Arriving to Moscow. More waiting.
  • 6:30 Getting on train from airport to metro station.
  • 7:30: Squeezing onto the metro (with all my bags at Moscow rush-hour).
  • 8:30: Straggling in to the “Chocolate Hostel” off Tverskaya.
  • 9:00: (YAY!) Meeting Sophie for a dinner at Yolki-Polki before we both left Moscow.
  • The next day: Getting back on the train for the 78-hour ride back through the taiga to Irkutsk.
  1. Bill Mahoney says:

    Casey, I just love reading your recaps of what you ahve been seeing and doing! God Bless you!

  2. JAMAHONEY says:

    Casey, you are the best story teller. I love reading them!

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