czech it out!

town 2

Despite my harried and stressful arrival in Nove Mesto, I settled in immediately and loved it there. The next morning I woke up and walked two blocks to find a grocery store – and was amazed that I could buy breakfast and snacks all for the price of, like, three dollars! It certainly was a pleasant shock after being in Norway and Sweden to be able to actually buy things.

One interesting part of this experience, though, was the fact that this was one of the first places I had been in a while where people didn’t speak English. I’d go so far as to say that I felt the most unconnected that I ever have – even when I was living in Morocco, at least I spoke French. It was somewhat disconcerting to walk around knowing that I couldn’t really talk to people: what if I needed something? What if I accidentally did something wrong? What if I got sick? I wouldn’t be able to explain myself.

townBut more than that, I felt like a typical tourist jerk. It seems so disrespectful to go to a foreign place without even trying to learn the language, and that’s exactly what I had done. I didn’t even take the time to look up how to say “hello” before I flew to Prague. I’m not sure why this was all so far from my mind, but I ended up feeling a bit embarrassed for myself. My instincts kicked in and my brain thought, “foreign language!” and I would sputter out little bits of Swedish, which of course did not help at all. In fact, even fewer people speak Swedish than speak Czech.

That first day held the mixed relays, so I grabbed my credentials and headed up to the venue before lunch so that I could get a feel for where things were and prepare myself for the races. I had only wandered a few blocks from my house, but it was enough to be teased by the little town’s cuteness: the main streets were nice, much nicer than my neighborhood. I wasn’t in the low-rent district, but the buildings were more modern. They lacked the romantic charm of “downtown” Nove Mesto.

my neighborhood

I could feel it, though. From my bedroom I could see the steeple of a nearby church – which turned out to be right next to the grocery store. I checked it out.

dodgy church

The next day there were no races, so I spent the morning walking around town (and found a bigger grocery store, where I tried to buy hot chocolate mix and ended up purchasing cocoa powder – d’oh! no congnates here!). Next to dingy-looking stores were some beautiful buildings, many painted pretty colors. There were also all sorts of unusual decorations, from carving (expected) to painting. A few buildings I passed had unusual decorations or writing painted right onto the outside, a tradition I haven’t seen many other places.

painted building hotel

painted building 1  painted building 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then there was the art. For being a small town, Nove Mesto was obviously proud; one building had a bust of what I can only assume was an illustrious former resident mounted over the doorway. There were metal sculptures and stone sculptures, both originals and copies. An art museum. A photography exhibit by an artist who had traveled all the way to the Himalayas to take photos, and then mounted them on a huge outdoor installation. A series of placards celebrating different dance and music events.

christPerhaps all of this is not a coincidence; Nove Mesto is the was where Jan Stursa resided, one of the fathers of modern Czech sculpture. And one of the most prominent pieces, besides the religious-themed ones, was a copy of his sculpture commemorating the sacrifices of soldiers. Based on a photograph of a battle in the Carpathian mountains, it was made into a memorial after World War I.

And standing in front of the sculpture, I thought a little bit about why the Czech Republic felt so foreign even though so many things were familiar. I later looked up some things about Czech history: they haven’t had it easy.

Take the mid-1700’s: the area was taken by Prussia, and then a famine starved off a tenth of the population.

The area then became part of the Austrian empire; people were serfs until the mid 1800’s, under absolute monarchy.

Czechs fought in World War I, and many died.

They then established their own country, Czechoslovakia, one of the few democracies of the time – excellent! But then the Nazis invaded. Democracy no more. Massacres, concentration camps, and genocide: estimates vary but I read one number that said as many as 2/3 of Czechs may have been killed. That seems impossible; I hope it is.

(Czechs returned the favor by murdering Germans after the war.)

Soon after that, Czechoslovakia became an Eastern bloc country. Communism, censorship, economy lagging, poverty.

Today, things are going well in the Czech Republic. But it’s amazing to stop and think for a moment about all that.

sacrifice

Despite all that history, I was surrounded by beauty. The most well-known sight in Nove Mesto is the central church, which is indeed amazing. The painting on the hotels and residences paled in comparison with how this cathedral was decorated.

painted church first

Scene after scene – all biblical, but interpreted locally. One thing I find fascinating is how religious imagery, which all comes from the same source, can really vary from culture to culture.

church tall photo  church side entrance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even the details were painstakingly intricate and thoughtful.

church side 1church side 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But, of course, I couldn’t loiter all day every day in the cute little town center. It was hi ho, hi ho, off to work we go up to the venue in the late morning, where I’d grab a delicious lunch in the media restaurant. The shuttle buses were mysterious – although I passed sign after sign advertising pickup and dropoff locations, I never seemed to find one when I wanted it. Perhaps that was because I arrived early and left late, much unlike the many thousands of fans, but in any case it was a 25 minute walk and since the weather wasn’t too cold, it was a nice way for me to relax. I brought my skis but hadn’t been able to find any trails near town, so that was my exercise for the day: walking with views of the Bohemian countryside.

walk 1

walk 2  walk 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

walk 4

I wish I could have stayed longer – and I wish I could have skied. Circumstances intervened. But I remember my aunt Liz saying that the Czech Republic was one of her favorite places to visit, because things were unspoiled and you could ski out along the hilltops or ridgelines and just look out. It would have been nice to have that experience – but I guess I’ll just have to go back.

friends to czech in on.

fromdaniela

After leaving Lillehammer – which was so hard to do! – I jet-setted my way to another, very different part of Europe: the Czech Republic.

I’d never been before, but I hope to go again. It was a great experience.

The occasion was biathlon World Championships, which is how I made my first trip to Ruhpolding, Germany, last year. I assumed that this year’s edition could not possibly be as awesome. Because I had crazy visa problems, I didn’t really plan the trip until the last minute. Arriving was a shitshow – I got to Prague at 8 p.m., then a two-hour drive to Nove Mesto, where some miscommunication with my very non-English-proficient landlord (who I nevertheless have to thank immensely for renting me a flat with two bedrooms for just 14 euros a night – thanks Jirka, you’re the best!) left me standing in the cold outside the door at 10 p.m. wondering whether I had been scammed and would be stranded in the middle of Eastern Europe with no friends. But it all worked out.

There were a few more hiccups, like a complete lack of transportation from the accreditation center to the venue, but hey, I hitched a ride with one of the Canadian wax techs. He was nice.

And the next day, I discovered that this trip, while different than the one to Ruhpolding, could be awesome in different ways.

The first race on the docket was the mixed relay, just like last year. I arrived at the media center, scoped things out, and half an hour before the race wandered into the stadium. And proceeded to be blown away.

start

As I wrote in a piece for FasterSkier after the race, that stadium knocked my socks off. I won’t repeat everything I said there, or include any of the quotes from various athletes I talked to, but suffice to say that I was not the only one impressed. Maybe it was a combination of things – a night race almost always feels more exciting, for instance. But the bright lights, the music, the nearly 20,000 people in the stands and 7,000-plus more on the trails, and their sheer enthusiasm – that place was rocking. Just standing in the center of the stadium gave me shivers and jolts of adrenaline.

It’s an exhilarating feeling to even be part of an event like that. I can’t imagine what it would be like to race and know that those cheers were for you. It’s easy to see how the Czech team was bolstered by the crowd into earning bronze in the race.

men

I’ll write more about the trip later, maybe, but as it turned out, this was exactly the kind of excitement I needed. The day that I traveled from Norway, my grandfather Pete had a stroke. Initially, things didn’t seem so bad – he was confused. But as I traveled I got increasingly alarming e-mails. He was in the hospital. There was fluid in his brain, which they were trying to get rid of. He was asleep and couldn’t wake up.

That first morning when I went to the media center, I arranged to skype with my dad and my uncle, who had flown to Atlanta. I wanted an update that told me more than the e-mails could. I felt disconnected (of course). Plus, I wanted to see their faces and cheer them up, perhaps with the story of how the organizing committee’s gift to journalists was six bottles of wine apiece, which I wondered what to do with. I should have known something was up when my uncle said, “we can skype right now!” It was 6:30 a.m. in the U.S.

That morning, as my dad was in the hospital room, my grandfather slipped away. Two days before, he had been a healthy, happy man – one embarking on a romance, actually. I was so happy for him. He was so happy. I had sent my congratulations and he had sent back a cheerful e-mail with a joke in it.

It was a lot to process, as I sat there in the media center on skype, knowing that the photographers sitting at the tables around me were listening to every word I said. I tried to speak softly not to disturb them, but I had to be loud enough for my dad to hear through the internet connection. The racket in the background made it even harder for me to wrap my head around what was going on.

Shortly after that I was in the media restaurant eating lunch (veal cheeks stewed in red wine; delicious, by the way; biathlon does some things very well, and feeding media for free is one of them) when an acquaintance I had met at last year’s championships approached me and sat down. He had been an athlete but retired at the end of Ruhpolding; he was now working as a commentator for Eurosport. The last night we were in Ruhpolding we had partied pretty hard together, along with the American team. He said something about that last night and I was incapable of responding. That’s just not where my head was. I must have looked like an idiot.

I didn’t want to impose on my friends that were racing, but I sent Susan an e-mail, and she was great. On Friday I spent the evening hanging out with her, Hannah, and Sara – all old teammates from Dartmouth who were racing. I’m not sure I was the most engaging person ever, but they were so great to entertain me and help make me feel better. Susan and I even ate dinner with Vincent Jay… I can’t believe that happened.

I’m now in transit back to the U.S. for my grandfather’s funeral, thinking about what to say at it. It was a strange last week, but besides the strangeness, maybe it was good that I was in Nove Mesto. After all, I did have friends there. For the women’s pursuit race, I went out on the course with Hannah to cheer and take pictures. Here’s her waving our beautiful flag as Susan races past – one of my favorite shots from the championships, even if it’s not the most clear or high-quality. I’m still figuring out how to shoot under the lights.

susanflag

This encompasses one of the amazing things about this trip. Hannah and I were talking about how amazing it is that we can send each other e-mails and say, hey, so I’ll see you in the Czech Republic, right? How often is it that friends with completely different lives can cross paths in such unusual locations? I got to see a new part of the world, and see my friends at the same time. It was Hannah’s first World Championships and it was cool to be there to watch. Her parents – friends and former “bosses” from my time at Craftsbury – were also there, as well as a friend and rower who is originally from the Czech Republic and sells their rowing oars there. Daniela took that top picture of our improbably little American cheering crew on Friday.

Between having my friends around and the amazing atmosphere of being in that stadium, it made everything else easier to deal with. When I got home at night, I’d think about Pete. But during the day, I was able to be off on an adventure. An awesome one.