Wednesday, December 31, 2008

British Library

On Sunday one of our stops was the British Library. The British Library is the world's second largest research library after only The Library of Congress. It may not sound like much fun walking around a library, but the British Library actually has a number of very famous works in a museum-style display. We saw, for instance, original editions of William Shakespeare's First Folio and Isaac Newton's Principia, pages from Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks, a Gutenberg Bible, and Magna Carta. (As an aside, here's an interesting bit of trivia... The title page of Shakespeare's First Folio at right features one of only two depictions of W.S. that are widely believed to be authentic.)

Matt standing in front of a statue of Newton outside the British Library

Arrival in London and The British Museum

We arrived in London on Saturday morning via one of London's five (5!) international airports. After dropping our stuff at our hostel and risking mad cow disease with a hamburger lunch, we were off to the British Museum. The British Museum houses an awesome collection of artifacts from around the world. At right is the Great Court at the British Museum, which is beautiful, though when you visit in real life there are about 500 times as many people.

Among the many artifacts we saw were the Rosetta Stone (among an already fantastic collection of Egyptian artifacts) and the Elgin Marbles (a collection of Greek sculptures, many of which originated on the Parthenon). The Rosetta Stone, you probably remember, features the same passage written in three languages - two Egyptian scripts and Greek. The French discovered it in Egypt in 1799 after Napoleon's conquest the year before and it ended up in British hands shortly after they defeated the French in Alexandria in 1801. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802. I'll leave the history of the Elgin Marbles to you, but do want to mention that there's a long-time, still-ongoing dispute between Britain and Greece about the Elgin Marbles. (The conclusion is this: the British have them, so that means they're winning.)

New Year's Eve in London

We'll be ringing in the New Year with the big fireworks show here in London tonight. Based on last year's show (see video below), I think it's going to be a blast!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Britain and the USA

In honor of our trip to London, here's the opening credits to the HBO show "Little Britain USA," which discusses the many historical links between Britain and America.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Eve

For Christmas Eve went over to a friend from Frisbee's house for dinner. We got to enjoy a traditional Romanian dish of stuffed cabbage leaves and learn how to make our own warm Christmas wine.
Matt intently playing "Even Flow" on a home-rigged Guitar Hero.Laura not quite getting it.

After dinner we played Kolonisten - my new favorite game (stroop wafels to the first person that can find the English version for me). It was an interesting combination of Monopoly, Risk, and a lot of strategy. I really enjoy playing board games, but have a hard time controlling my competitiveness - and of course, I won.

Christmas Day 2

Today we bundled up in our new long underwear (courtesy of Anna) and headed out for a midday picnic at Delft Midden.

Making my new favorite drink - Prosecco and fresh juice from the Albert Heijn - like a fancy mimosa. This juice happens to be the special "Feest Dagen" flavor of raspberries (64), apples (9), lime (1), and mint. Since it a seasonal flavor (and my favorite), I bought 4 bottles on Wednesday at 35% off and we are trying to drink them before leaving for London tomorrow. Needless to say, we are definitely getting our vitamins this week!

The smaller canals are starting to freeze; they have a very thin layer of ice floating at the top. While no one officially declares the canals safe to skate on, the general rule is 3 inches (10 centimeters) of frozen ice. The locals say they won't freeze this year, but I still keep hoping. (Mom, you might want to check and make sure your health insurance covers international spills in case they are frozen when you get here.)

We brought all of our stale bread and loaf ends to feed to the ducks, who are usually over anxious to gobble it up. Today instead we were greeted by a pair of hissing swans, who wanted nothing to do with our bread. In addition, they chase away the few coots that were interested in eating our bread. We brought our bread back home with us...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Spion van Oranje

Laura and I went to a movie last week and one of the previews was for a Dutch movie entitled Spion van Oranje ("Spy of Orange"). I thought it was entertaining (I'm immediately reminded of Austin Powers) so I've posted a You Tube clip below. There's a better, all Dutch trailer on the official webpage. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Time

There is no standing in line at 4am the day after Thanksgiving for the best bargain of the season. There is no jolly ole St. Nick to listen to your list of wishes. There is no frantic fury of gift buying on the eve of Christmas. There are no parking attendants in Santa suits directing scores of SUVs, driven by harried shoppers, into over crowded mall parking garages.

But it's Christmas time here just the same. The subtle hints of the season popping up everywhere from market squares to the grocery stores. My favorite signs of the season are:
  • With the coming of holiday meals, the grocery store has an entire line of "Feest Dagen" foods. Extra dark chocolate spread for crepes and toast, special kaas stengels, rich soups, candied breads, flavored brie, and Christmas tree shaped chicken nuggets are just a few of the treasures that have shown up in the gorcery store over the past few weeks. The Christmas meal must be a fancy affair over here, because there are also wonderful prepared horderves, amuses, stuffed/spiced/marinated meats, and even fancy cauliflower! The best time to buy all this food is the morning of Christmas Eve, when almost all of it is going 35% off (because the grocery stores actually closes from Christmas Day 1 & 2).
  • Almost every town square is transformed into an outdoor ice skating rink! Hopefully, weather permitting, this is where we will be on Christmas day - skating in the park with warm Christmas wine. Don't worry mom, the rink aren't schedule to close until after you visit!
  • The streets of town are lit up with Christmas lights. In Delft there is a party in the town square called Lichtjesavond, where they light the Christmas tree for the first time. It was a lovely evening with music from the Delft symphony, dancers, torch bearers, and a small Christmas market.
I am sure next year I will be in line again at 4am the day after Thanksgiving, but it has been nice to have a low key holiday this year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Frisbee Update

A few weekends ago we played our first day of indoor competition in Arhem, Netherlands. Instead of playing weekly matches like in intramurals back home, the teams play 4 games on one Sunday a month. This helps save travel costs and time, with teams all over the country coming together to play each month.

The indoor game is definitely different. While Matt is more concerned with field space, blades, and new shoes, it's circle time and shower time that concerns me.

Circle time really isn't my thing. I remember with horror my first fireside at a sisterhood retreat, where I think I lost hours of my life, pulling the hem out of my jeans, while listening to wonders of sisterhood. As a bored graduate student, I remember wondering why I cared what my classmates favorite movies were or wanted to share my most embarrassing moments. So it is no surprise that circle time in Frisbee did not excite me either.

While in Frisbee circle time is generally quick, it is not painless. After the first game, sure let's circle up, alternating team members from both teams, and put our arms around each other to recap the game. The game recap generally consists of :

Losing Captain:"Thank you for this game. It was very spirited. I think it was a good match, you just found a way to win at the end."

Winning Captain: "It was very fun to play you. You played well and with spirit. It was a good match."

By game three I don't want your sweaty arms any where near me, I don't want you touching my sweaty back, and I have already heard the talk twice. After game four, let's just say I'm not breathing through my mouth because of my physical exertion and it's a good thing shower time is coming up.

Oh, right - shower time. Did I mention there are no shower stalls or curtains in the locker room? It's just one big room! When choosing a shower I use the opposite strategy of parking Inge (next to newest, sleekest, shiniest bike so she doesn't look worth the trouble to steal).

Friday, December 19, 2008

Here and There...

I know I haven't written in a while, but it's hard to type with mittens on. It's cold here and, frankly, nothing exciting enough has happen to entice me to take off my mittens. Maybe someone could convince my apartment building caretaker to raise the maximum temperature in our apartment.

We have been here for almost four months now. It is starting to feel like home (rather a home conducted in subtitles).However, there are some things I don't think I will ever get use to over here.

If you ever come to visit, undoubtedly the first night you will be woken up several times to loud explosions. Okay, maybe jet lag will save you the first night, but the second night nonetheless expect a broken sleep. No this is not because we live in a war zone, although sometimes I think that. It is because fireworks are just illegal enough to be cool over here, but not illegal enough to actually stop anyone from setting them off. For some reasons fireworks are not saved for special occasions, but rather are appropriate and fun for any time of day or night, 365 days a year. And we are not talking about wimpy fireworks you would let your grade-schooler set-off in the backyard, these are loud monstrosities that make it above low-rise (5-6 story) apartment buildings to light up the neighborhood. Come visit - everyday is a party! Next Week we'll let you how the New Year's Eve fireworks in London compare the our own nightly neighborhood show.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dutch PhD Defense Ceremony

I watched my first Dutch PhD defense ceremony last week, and it is very different from the US version. Below you'll find a detailed comparison, which will probably only be interesting to my UF friends ... especially the part about the defense here only being an hour.

Well before the PhD defense at TU Delft, a candidate has their dissertation approved (I presume by the whole committee) and then (at TU Delft anyway) must have a certain number of copies professionally printed/bound. Committee members, friends, relatives, and complete strangers are furnished with copies. In the US, the dissertation is only pre-approved by the committee chairman and committee members are furnished with [not professionally] printed copies.

At TU Delft, all PhD defenses take place in a single room of the Aula Congresscentrum. This is an ongoing irritant of PhD candidates, because it means that in order to get their over-scheduled committee members in a rarely-available room at the same time, they may well have to schedule their defense ceremony as far out as 6 months. In the US, we hold the PhD defense in whatever meeting room happens to be open and probably don't schedule it more than a month ahead of time (except in special circumstances).

The room itself is nice but not extravagant, with dark wooden walls and carpet. There's a center podium for the candidate that is flanked by tables (with microphones) for the committee members. There's also room for an audience, as the ceremony is public. The [male] candidate wears a tuxedo. In the US, the [male] candidate would probably be wearing a button-down shirt, tie, and slacks at minimum and possibly a suit.

In the US, the dissertation defense is opened with a public presentation about the thesis topic (usually 1/2-1 hour), in which committee members are expected to be present. In the Netherlands, the public presentation is strictly 30 minutes and for the convenience of onlookers only - it is not even attended by the committee. I think it is OK for the audience to ask questions afterward if there is time before the committee arrives. In the US, the audience is encouraged to ask questions and the committee may well jump in too.

The committee is led into the room at precisely the scheduled time by the pedel (master of ceremony), who marches them to the middle of the room and beats a [very ornate] stick (whose name escapes me) on the floor. All must rise. The full professors on the committee wear gowns and hats while the lesser professors wear suits. This part of the ceremony - the questioning - is precisely one hour long (while in the US it can last as long as the committee sees fit). It is completely public in the Netherlands, while in the US it is usually private.

The professors take their seats and the pedel marches back out of the room. The rector magnificus (moderator) opens up the defense and the committee members start asking questions in turn. This is an important point - they may only speak in turn after being recognized by the rector magnificus. This means that the exchange is only between the candidate and a single committee member at a time and no other committee members may participate in the discussion. Each committee member is allotted a certain amount of time and they must relinquish the floor when prompted by the rector magnificus, if not before. Once they have relinquished the floor, they may not ask any further questions. This is wildly different from the US version, where the committee usually attempts to ask questions in turn ... which lasts for about 10 seconds. A question from one member will inevitably prompt a question from another, and the discussion will jump all over the room, sometimes even with the candidate virtually excluded as committee members get excited about a particular topic.

When time runs out, the pedel marches back into the room, beats the stick on the floor, and yells "Hora est!" - paying no mind to if someone is in the middle of a sentence - and the questioning is over. The committee then goes off to a special room (where I think they have drinks) for 10-15 minutes to reach a decision about the candidate. In the US, the defense ends at the committee's behest and then the candidate has to go away while they make a decision.

When the decision is made, the committee marches back out and awards the candidate with the diploma (or at last some highly coveted object that I must assume was a diploma since they were speaking Dutch) if they passed. As in the US, it is very rare and embarrassing for someone to have to do their PhD defense again. However, the meaning of "pass" in the two countries is quite a bit different. In the Netherlands, when a candidate passes, they are truly done with their PhD responsibilities. But in the US, a candidate "passes" with a list of thesis corrections that have to be made, and then the final thesis must still be submitted to the university, who may well complain about formatting. Depending on how quickly the candidate wants to make the corrections and what deadlines are approaching, it could be months before a passed candidate is truly "finished" in the US.

Finally, the defense ceremony in the Netherlands ends with the committee chair giving a public congratulations that will probably include a funny or embarrassing anecdote (again, this was in Dutch). Then the ceremony is adjourned and everyone usually goes to have drinks nearby.

So in the end, the Dutch PhD defense ceremony is very much a ceremony, while the US version is more of a presentation/discussion with absolutely no pomp and ceremony. I don't want to judge too hastily, but I would tend to think a US PhD candidate would gladly wear tails if they knew their committee could only bludgeon them for an hour.

One other note: Due to the professional printing (and presumably better graphics standards), the average Dutch dissertation tends to LOOK about 1000 times better than its American counterpart. Every time I pull an American dissertation off the internet, I'm blown away by how terrible they look - so to flip through a Dutch dissertation that doesn't consist entirely of double spaced Times New Roman and pictures drawn exclusively in MS Word is a welcome change. (I suspect my less anal-retentive colleagues are rolling their eyes, but I'm sure there are some that understand.)


Friday, December 12, 2008

Do I look like a cash register to you?

Europe is filled with mom and pop stores. They don't take credit cards (and many times not debit cards either) and checks are apparently a remnant from the stone age. I get it. I make sure I go to the ATM before I go shopping, to the market, or out to eat. But here's the funny thing (read: annoying, makes me not want to participate in your economy thing):

The ATM dispenses €50 bills. I want €200 - I get four €50s; I want €50 - I get one €50. The only way I know how to trick the ATM machine into giving me €10s or €20s is to complete multiple, individual €20 transactions. And, honey, you know how SLOW (like slower than trying to get a real person on the phone when calling the bank) the ATMs are here.

Therefore, since the ATMs dispense €50 bills, this is the conversation I don't want to have when buying my groceries:

Clerk: "Your total is €36.20."

Me: Hands her a €50.

Clerk: "Do you have change? Maybe two €20s?"

Me: "No."

Clerk: Sighs, sighs again, and slowly counts out my change.

Although this transaction might just take the cake:

Clerk: "Your total for the tape is €3.90"

Me: Hands her a €5.

Clerk: "Do you have change?"

Me: "No."

Seriously people! You have a cash register in front of you designed for the exact purpose of taking someone's money and providing them with change. Do you expect me to walk around with the perfect combination of coins and bills for any transaction I might want to make?

And, if you are going to post a sign like this one (from the line outside the Notre Dame in Paris), put it at the start of the line - not near the end, where I can conveniently view it after I have stood in line for half an hour with €50s.

The anticipated scowl from the clerk literally acts as a shopping deterrent. I would rather go an extra day without shampoo and buy it with my weekly groceries than face the clerk without exact change. One of these days, the fury will be unleashed: "I'm sorry, I was under the mistaken impression that you actually wanted my money."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Parting Shots of Prague

All good things must come to end and so we leave our Prague adventure with a few parting shots.

Giraffe Beer

After the concert at the Estates Theater, we stopped by a bar to get a drink before turning in for the night. I selected a bar/brewery, that in addition to the traditional light and dark Czech beers, also brewed specialty brews.

Since Pivovarský dům was listed under the bars category in the guide book, we expected - well- a bar. It is really more a restaurant & brewery. Since we felt bad about taking up a table during prime Saturday dinner time, we added dessert to our drink order of a Banana and a Vanilla beer. When our crepes with beer jam and fruit-filled dumplings arrived at the table, we were very glad we had decided to have dessert. While the banana beer Matt had sampled in Brussels was probably a one glass wonder, this brewery's banana beer could have been sipped on all night. The vanilla beer just called for a ice cream float to be made with it (Stubbie's style).

As we enjoyed our desserts, we noticed the next table over enjoying a "giraffe" beer. If the half-liter glasses beer is served in over here isn't enough for you, skip the pitcher and go straight to the "giraffe". The "giraffe" beer is a FOUR liter container of beer with its own spout that is meant to be shared among a table.
We enjoyed the food and drink so much we came back the next day for a sampler of all eight of their beers (light, dark, coffee, sour cherry, banana, nettle, vanilla, & wheat) and a traditional Czech lunch. What can we say - when you find something you like, enjoy it!

Concerts & Opera

In addition to cheap food and beer, Prague has plenty of venues offering concerts, plays, ballets, and operas tickets for less than the cost of a movie rental. I pick the two most magnificent venues I could find online and bought tickets for what was playing there.

On Saturday night I booked 100Kc tickets for a Geniuses of Prague Concert at the Estates Theater. The beautiful and regal theater is where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni starring himself as the conductor and is the only theater left standing where Mozart preformed. The performance turned out to be children singing famous songs from Czech masters, but it was wonderful nonetheless.

On Sunday night we attend the opera "The Barter Bride" by Bedřich Smetana at the National Theater. The opera was in Czech, however, they provided German and English subtitles on board above the stage. It was my first opera and I enjoyed the experience very much.

Both buildings we works of art themselves and added to the performances.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Peace & Freedom

After dining on superb cabbage soup with turkey meat, cornflake-coated fried codfish, and cheese and sun-dried tomato stuffed chicken at Bar Bar, we trekked to two of Prague's alternative sites.

With "Imagine" and "Love's All You Need" cued up one our iPod, we stopped to pause and read the messages for peace and freedom on the John Lennon graffiti wall. Our next mission was visit a few of the controversial sculptures by Czech art David Černý. His most famous act was probably painting a Soviet tank pink- while it was an active war monument. He was briefly arrested for the stunt and the tank was repainted green. Later Parliament repainted the tank pink and moved it to a museum. However, the city is still filled with his unusual sculptures. You might also want to check out his most recent sculpture that has been banned from exhibits.

The sculpture Piss is located in the courtyard of the Franz Kafka museum. The pool the men are peeing into is actually in the shape of the Czech Republic. Their body parts are animated and they "write" words and phrases of peace and freedom. Apparently you can send a text message to a number and the sculptures will "write" your message. Marriage proposal idea - anyone?
The second sculpture, Quo Vadis, is located in the courtyard of the German Embassy. The name means "Where are you going?" and the sculpture premiered on the eve of the joining of the German currencies after reunification.
It is a good thing this sculpture wasn't located in the courtyard of the US Embassy - because then all of about a dozen people would get to enjoy it. Speaking of the US Embassy, we stopped by to check it out since it was down the street from the German Embassy. While it was not barricaded in and the road in front of it rerouted, it did have an interesting feature. If you want to drive on the road past the US Embassy be prepared to stop your car, present identification, open the the trunk and hood for inspection, and have the underneath searched for bombs. I am sure all the neighbors love this - but hey, I guess you don't have to worry much about petty crime.

Prague Take Two

Day two in Prague started very early in the morning- 4:30 am early. Not because we wanted to see the Charles Bridge before it filled with tourists, see the sun come up over the castle, or visit any early morning fish market, but rather because we had the worst hostel roommates ever. I know people are going to stay up later or wake-up earlier than us in every place we go and do some strange things, but there are some common rules of hostel etiquette and they broke every single on of them.

Rising for the second time just past 8, we headed out to explore the architecture of Prague. Having become enamored with Art Nouveau architecture last week in Brussels, I was excited to see countless Art Nouveau buildings in Prague. The Municipal Building and Hotel Paris are two wonderful, classic examples of Art Nouveau; everything in the buildings was designed to be practical, beautiful, and harmonious. The stained-glass windows are definitely one of my favorite features. I imagine the €150 a night stay in the Hotel Paris would be worth the splurge just to stay in the glamor of the building.Next we went to visit a building of the extreme opposite, a cubist building. Gone where the curved lines, metal & glass structures, and floral motifs - the building was an example of geometry and minimalism.

Prague has done a wonderful job of blending their immensely varied architecture, so that no building seems out of place or draws attention to itself. After that, it was over the river and down the street to the wonderful lunch spot we found the day before.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mikulas Day

After the movie, we grabbed a cup of warm medovina (or mead) and wandered through the Christmas Markets in Wencelas Square. The atmosphere was cheery and festive and the square was decorated with trees, lights, and nativities, but for a moment you might think it was Halloween- except all the costumes were the same.It was Mikulas Day in Prague - a holiday similar to Sinterklaas with a few notable differences. Mikulas, the Czech word for St. Nicholas, is celebrated on the eve of December 6th in many eastern European countries.

Teenagers, dressed as St. Nicholas, angels, and devils, travel in packs to young children and ask them if they have been bad or good this year. The good ones sing a song and are rewarded with small treats and candy from St. Nicholas and the angels. The bad ones, well they have a fate worse than Spain for year. According the Czech Republic tourism website, bad children are sacked by the devils and taken straight to hell for the year. I don't know about you, but I think as a child I would have rather stayed home and forgone the candy than wonder the streets and worry if I had not cleaned my room up enough and therefore was going to get sacked. Especially with teenagers making the decision - we all know what great judges of characters they are (insert story from your own adolescence here).

While observing the holiday activities, we enjoyed roasted chestnuts and trdlo - a sweet, roasted bread.


I may not walk around with "Edward Cullen is my boyfriend" t-shirts, own all the Twilight Flair on Facebook, or want to take a pilgrimage to Forks, Washington - but don't let that fool you into thinking I am any less obsessed with Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga than the average 15 year-old girl.

Thanks to Carolina L., I discovered these books just weeks before moving overseas. I read all four 500+ page books in the last two weeks we were in Gainesville - between helping with Theta recruitment, packing, saying goodbye, etc. Everything else was pushed aside once the first sentence had been read.

While the movie release date was November 21st in the US, I was devastated to find out it wasn't coming out over here until January. So I did what any logical Twilight fan would do - I looked to see when it was coming out in France, Belgium, Germany, etc. I soon discovered the earliest release date in a country where I could find cheap plane/train tickets was the Czech Republic. And so our trip to Prague was born.

On our first afternoon in Prague we headed to the movie theater to buy our tickets for Stimivani - which fortunately was showing in English with Czech subtitles. (I'll have to be honest and say I would have still gone to see it even if it was in Czech with no subtitles.) Loving the Harry Potter books but hating the movies made me worried about how I would feel about the Twilight movie. I was pleasently surprised; even Matt enjoyed the movie. It was different enought from the book to be engaging while still capturing the feel and allure from the original story. (Although I don't think Bella's father could have been casted more poorly.)

I think it was fitting we saw Twilight in Prague - it is considered the birthplace of vampires by many horror films, has dug-up vampire graves in the city, and is the setting for many vampire movies.

Long Awaited Lunch

By the time we finished the castle, it was past 3 o'clock and our stomachs were reminding us all the nourishment we had taken in that day were poor cups of cappuccino from the airport lounge. After consulting the guidebook and reading up on the budget options in the neighborhood, we headed to Restaurant Bar Bar in the Mala Strana area.

The restaurant was hidden below the streets of Mala Strana in an artistically decorated cellar. We perused the menu to find we could enjoy and gourmet meal and beer for less than a sandwich from a sidewalk vendor in the Netherlands. We were in!

We started the meal with 30 Kc (€1) half-liter Czech Beer - Staropramen. I enjoyed the half dark/half light variety, while Matt sipped on the light version. Everyone is right - Czech beer just may be the best (and cheapest) beer in Europe. It was crisp, clean, and smooth - perfect for an afternoon break from site seeing.

Our lunch was probably the best food we have eaten since arriving in Europe. Matt enjoyed salmon with a pesto and sun-dried tomato sauce and I feasted on a Parma ham wrapped pork loin with an apple and plum sauce. Amazing. There were even quarter slices of fresh pineapple on the plates as garnish.

Even more amazing was our bill was less than €15! We enjoyed it so much we came back the next day for the 120Kc (€5) lunch menu consisting of soup, an entree, and a drink. The cornflake-crusted fried codfish I had the next day was hands down the best fried fish I have ever had!

If you visit Prague this is a can't miss lunch spot. Go early in your trip because you might want to visit it twice!

Monday, December 8, 2008


After checking into our hostel, we headed off to Prague's main site - the Pražský hrad. It might just be the biggest ancient castle and seemed more like a walled-city. The interior of many of the buildings have beautiful, ornate Gothic vaulting and ribbing, including the Old Royal Palace.Apparently it used to be acceptable to sentence someone to being throw out the window, or defenestration, in Prague in the Middle Ages. The Old Royal Palace is where the Second Defenestration of Prague occurred, although the councilors' lives where saved when they landed on a pile of dung.

While the castle buildings varied widely in their architectural styles, most of the building were early, middle, or late Gothic in origin. Contrasting this was the St. George Basilica, which is probably the best example of preserved example of Romanesque architecture in Prague. Golden Lane provided a view into 16th century cottages , originally built to house the sharp shooters of the castle guards. Over the years the cottages have also been lived in by goldsmiths, squatters, and artists. Kafka even lived here for a short period of time (in #22). Today they house shops hawking tourists souvenirs. The view of the castle at night from the Charles Bridge is spectacular.


On Friday we arrived in Prague, the city of a 1000 spires, where the streets are paved with gold. Err...umm...cobblestones - of all shapes, sizes, designs, and dimensions. What's a few blisters and sore feet, when the travel guides promise the best beer in Europe, cheap food, and a great introduction to Eastern Europe?Prague did not disappoint - and we will share how we ate our way through the capital of the Czech Republic, discovered €5 operas, fell in love with Moorish inspired architecture, and found the smoothest (and cheapest) beer in Europe.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

More on Sinterklaas

Thanks to the anonymous poster for pointing out "Six to Eight Black Men" by David Sedaris and for my mom for finding the relevant links. The story is a funny recap of the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas from an American point of view. You can also listen to David Sedaris himself read the story (Part 2, Part 3).

Now just wait until you hear the Czech version when we return from Prague...

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Visit from Sinterklaas!

Since Sinterklaas knew we would be in Prague on the 5th & 6th, he came a few days early. When we got home from Frisbee on Thursday night we found our shoes filled with traditional Sinterklaas treats! Since we don't have a chimney, he must have crawled through our radiator with his bag of treats. Don't worry, he and his horse were well fed for their trouble since carrots were abundantly stuffed in the shoes (due to them being on sale this week at the Albert Heijn - marketing, anyone?).

MMM! Chocolate Letters, Chocolate Covered Pepernoten, & Almond Pastry Letters

(This is not a holiday where you can wait until the last minute to purchase food & supplies. I mean, how would you explain to your son John that Sinterklaas got him the letter "O" instead of "J"? I bought my letters back in October to make sure I got the correct Dark Chocolate letters.)

Happy Sinterklaas!

In recent weeks, Albert Heijn (our grocery store) began decorating their cash registers with cardboard cut-outs that a reasonable but uniformed foreigner might easily mistake for Somali pirates. But they weren't Somali pirates - though that would be exciting - they were Zwarte Pieten ("Black Petes").

A pirate, a Somali pirate, and Black Pete

Black Pete(s) is(are) the sidekick(s) of Sinterklaas, which as a reasonable but uniformed American I might declare the Dutch version of Santa Claus. In reality the opposite is true. Since Sinterklaas is dropping off presents this evening, now is as good a time as any to compare the legends of Santa Claus and Sinterklaas.

Santa ClausSinterklaas
Brings children presents on the eve of December 25thBrings children presents on the eve of December 5th
Leaves the presents in children's stockingsLeaves the presents in children's [wooden] shoes
Has a white beard and dresses in a red suitHas a white beard and dresses in a red bishop's dress
Has a belly that shakes like a bowl fully of jellyNot so much
Arrives in America via a flying sled from the North PoleArrives in The Netherlands/Belgium via a boat from Spain
Is assisted by an army of elves Is assisted by an army of Zwarte Pieten
Gives naughty children a lump of coalTakes naughty children back with him to Spain
Who wins the Google Fight?

You might think that it sounds silly for a jolly old man bearing presents to come from Spain, but does it really make more sense for him to come from the North Pole?

Watch Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten arrive and stock the local Albert Heijn with delicious pepernoten.

(And finally, because I know you're wondering: Yes, the roles of the Zwarte Pieten are always played by white people in black face. If this bothers you, then you are probably not Dutch.)