By Griff Jones, Whitman College
February 23, 2014
I’ll try and keep this short, but I realize I haven’t given too many updates about Prague recently. In fact, for quite a while… I apologize, and I hope to be a bit more on top of it in the future!
Man, this is going back far, but I want to talk about it: about three weeks ago now we had a guided tour of a smaller town an hour and a half outside of Prague called Kutna Hora. While there we walked around it’s ancient medieval streets, visited a cathedral, and went to a place called the Sedlec Ossuary, otherwise known as the bone church. It has tens of thousands of humans represented in their femurs and skulls, all artfully arranged in a macabre yet hauntingly beautiful way. I actually touched a human skull. You’d think there would be some weight, some depth to such an action, but it was primarily cold. That’s not entirely honest; it was pretty eerie and felt somehow taboo. But it was also so irresistibly compelling. There aren’t many, if any, other opportunities to do that in life. God I sound creepy right now. But I think it has something to do with abjection; we’re simultaneously repulsed and attracted by things that are so deeply engrained as wrong, supposedly. I don’t find that to be true with most things, but maybe that’s what was at work when I decided to touch it. Also, when I say touch, I literally just put my finger on it for a split second. So nothing creepy. Anyway, moving on!
The timeline is so muddled from being so busy, but at some point, me, Andie, and John went on a night adventure to Petrin Tower, the Eiffel Tower replica on top of Petrin Hill. We ended up walking down through the park since the view of Prague at night was so exquisite. Another night we went to the ballet Swan Lake at the National theater, Narodni Divadlo. It was my first professional ballet. I can certainly acknowledge and appreciate talet and skill, which I did, but I think ballet may take some getting used to. But it was fun to dress up with everyone!
Gosh, sorry this is such an abbreviated version. A couple weekends ago we went hiking at Sarka preserve, at the very end of one of the tram lines. It was a really beautiful hilly, wooded area, with large exposed rock outcrops. It was so ridiculously rejuvenating to go hiking and breathe some fresh wilderness air. I needed that after so much city life. I love city life, but it’s not for me in the long run, I can tell you that now. At least big cities far from the outdoors. But it’s so nice being here right now and truly getting to experience it for the first time.
We also got out of the city a bit last weekend. We went to the outskirts for a tour of Barrandov Film Studios with the program. The film Amadeus was shot there, as well as on location in Prague. We got to tour their costume department in addition to seeing the sound stages and some behind the scenes buildings as well, such as the film developing lab where our own films will be developed at the end of the program. There was also an entire outdoor set for St Peters Square in Rome for the European version of the Borgias. It was actually so crazy impressive and looked and felt so real. It was a very cool experience, but having been to the Warner Bros studio tour this summer it was sort of hard to compare having seen such a top notch rich studio. Barrandov is very clearly leftover from Soviet Rule, with big, imposing modernist buildings. It felt very serious.
The next day was the best cultural experience to date. We went to Masopust, the Czech pre-lent celebration equivalent to Carneval or Mardi Gras, in a village just outside the city. It felt so medieval, with people in crazy, elaborate, quirky costumes milling about. There were beers, sausages, potato pancakes, and so much other mouthwatering food being made all over the square. There were so many dogs (tangent time! Czech dogs are said to be more like people than most dogs, and they are by far the smartest, best behaved animals I’ve ever encountered. Teachers bring their dogs to class, dogs walk unleashed everywhere, and they never ever misbehave. It’s incredible and I have no idea how they do it.). I was there with some of my group, our Czech buddy (who, like many, is actually Slovakian) and his new girlfriend, who he met through our group actually, and the girls who she’s the buddy for, also in CIEE, though in the journalism program. Sorry, that was the worst sentence I’ve ever written probably. I’m keeping it though. Anyways, a few of us bought masks to fit in better and get a souvenir. There were performances, and then, all of the sudden, the entire place started emptying out. Part of the celebration is actually moving from village to village as one huge mass, where everyone gets to be part of the parade. It was just unbelievably cool to be a part of. It was so authentically Czech, and the atmosphere was impossible to describe besides maybe joyous. Everyone was just enjoying themselves, and there was a lot of drinking going on. Perhaps the most memorable part though was when a girl whose costume somehow made her appear to be riding an ostrich quite convincingly approached us (no, I was not drinking heavily, it was a weird and very well done costume.). She came up to us, and in Czech-accented English said: “Since yesterday was Valentine’s Day, you should give a heart to someone!” She opened her hand and there was an actual heart in it, though what creature it belonged to I couldn’t say. Then: “Or maybe you would like a bigger one! It’s good luck!” Out of her costume came a plastic cup that, sure enough, had a slightly larger but no less real heart. Needless to say, we did not accept her offer and she galavanted off on her ostrich. It’s going to be hard to beat the feeling and authenticity of Masopust, honestly, but it made me even more excited to explore Czech culture. That said, Berlin made me realize how much touristy stuff we’ve yet to do in Prague. I haven’t even been to a museum yet! That’s absolutely going to change soon. I know I can’t do everything, but I can sure try to do as much as possible! Obviously I’m still taking care of myself, but my motto while here has become “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” I don’t want to waste a moment.
Speaking of sleep, I sure don’t get a lot on weekends! Don’t worry, my concerned adult readers, I’m not going crazy! But I have had a couple noteworthy adventures, particularly one night when I ended up with a group of young adults from Vienna and went to the 5-Story Club, “the largest club in Central Europe!” While the experience was surreal, hilarious, and thoroughly entertaining, the club wasn’t great and I left after only a short visit. Another night I wound up in a club that’s in a boat on the Vltava, appropriately named Boat Club. It was much more authentic and local, and the river at night was very peaceful and beautiful. I do love adventures.
Classes are also going incredibly well. We’ve had two weeks now, and I love them all. The core classes are very practical and engaging, and provide an excellent supplement to my education at Whitman. The electives are really fun. In Script Analysis, we watch a movie one week and the next watch it again with the teacher’s commentary, and he’s super funny and insightful. Plus we get to watch some awesome, classic movies, and a fair amount of Czech movies! I haven’t had a Realm of Montage class yet as they’ve both been cancelled, which is a bit unnerving, but our professor is also our editing professor, whose class is one of the better core classes. Honestly though, most of the classes feel like carbon copies; editing, directing, screenwriting.. We basically just watch short movies and clips and analyze them in a pretty general way that doesn’t seem to apply super directly to the specific discipline being taught. They’re all fun, but it’s not always the most applicable lesson to what we’re going to end up doing. Sound also follows that format, but our professor is absolutely hilarious and on point, and is an excellent teacher. He doesn’t have a problem with specificity like the other classes. Plus he plays awesome clips… Acting is sort of hit or miss, and we’ve done some really good and not so good exercises with it. Our film language teacher is quite roundabout, but actually an incredible storyteller. Cinematography is pure information, and lots of it. Screenwriting is actually pretty great, and our professor is really really cool. We’re working on our stories now, and we pitch them this Friday to the school’s faculty. I’m in a group co-directing with my friend Beth, and my friend Katie is the director of photography. We’re working very well together thus far, and we’re really excited about our idea! I won’t give away what our story is, but if it passes the pitch, I’ll give a hint. Oh, and the final class I’m taking is Introduction to Producing, which is a super practical, business and creative approach to producing. Sounds kind of boring by that description.. But actually, after one class I think it’s already my favorite. The prof is HILARIOUS yet deadpan, teaches really straightforwardly, and is constantly throwing in life advice to his lessons. Also, he gave us a scenario where his “best way” to approach a situation ended up dancing on the tables drunk. So he’s pretty cool. Oh, and also really professional and experienced! People have actually used his final project, an entire plan for a movie that can be real or fake, to procure funding for (documentary) projects they wanted to make and made them. So that’s actually really really exciting that it’s so real-world and practical. It’s going to be invaluable I think. Oh, also, he told us totally seriously that you need to account for bribes for shooting in third world countries but can’t put it in the budget, otherwise you can’t get anything done. So that was an interesting tidbit!
In my free time I’ve been running up Petrin and going to the gym (rarely, let’s be honest..), and watching a lot of movies to attempt to better participate in conversations with my friends, who are all so much better versed in directors and movies of all sorts than I. So I’ve seen three Coen Brothers films since I’ve been here, as well as Nymphomaniac, the new (and my first) Lars Von Trier movie. It was very thought provoking, and no doubt provided tons of deep conversation (not that I’ll ever talk to anyone not my own age about it, given the nature it’s title suggests..). Which I really do enjoy participating in, so it’s actually pretty nice to have this peer pressure push to finally watch all the movies I know I should watch. I’m going to try and watch all the best picture nominees in the next few weeks, though I’m really not that far off already. There’s so much to do! Life is busy! Life is great!
I’ve also realized why people love Prague, I think! I mean, it’s cheap and easy to get around, yes, but why do people think it’s the most beautiful city in Europe? My hypothesis is that it’s because it’s totally medieval. Until my trip to Berlin I had no point of comparison, but I see now: if most European cities are like Berlin in this regard, then they don’t have so entirely ancient buildings and streets. Prague is seriously almost all that way, so it really does feel so old and authentic. Which it is, as it was largely untouched in the war. I guess I knew that, but only with a point of comparison did I fully comprehend what made it so much prettier (arguably). Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m generalizing, or maybe that should have been obvious all along, but that’s just a recent insight I had while in the “medieval” part of Berlin. I guess further exploration of European cities will yield more explanations. (For some reason that seriously pulled me out of the here and now just now and I had a huge “Whoa. I’m in Europe for the first time ever. This is amazing and hard to believe” moment…)
Well, I think that brings us up to date!