An Expats Guide to Alternative Prague: Valentine’s Day

Alternative Prague, Date Night, Dating, Expats Guide, Hipster, Living abroad, Moving abroad, Valentines Day
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“Love sick”

Ok, to state the obvious: I’m back stateside. I left Prague in mid July, took a detour in Rochester, NY, then landed a job in Washington, DC. Today marks four months living in the nation’s capital, which is a new adventure of sorts. Time flies!

Although I don’t live in Prague anymore (How I miss it! My heart also pangs whenever I pay $7 for a beer), I curated this list a while ago. And what better a time to publish this than the eve of the most romantic date on the calendar? Although this could be used as any date night inspiration, it has one very specific Valentine component (see below), and I guarantee it will win over your hip lady (or lad) far better than a bouquet of roses with baby’s breath or (eek!) a teddy bear.

Here’s my list for a fool-proof, alternative yet still romantic, date night in Prague:

1. Visit St. Valentine’s shoulder blade at Vyšehrad

V Pevnosti 159/5b, 128 00 Praha 2

Gothic cathedral? Check. Obscure, alleged body part of Saint from the third century? Check. Ironic twist to Valentine’s Day? Check, check.

It’s no secret that Vyšehrad is my favorite destination in Prague. Not only is it my top picnic place, it boasts a gothic cemetery full of famous Czechs (Prague’s claim to the art world, Alphonse Mucha, and Karel Čapek, author, and you know, the guy who invented the word “robot.”) For only a few koruna you can tour the inside of the cathedral, marvel at its pink doors and stained glass windows, and meet a piece of St. Valentine. A tip: Be warned! Due to its teeny tiny size, lackluster presentation, and void of English labeling, the shoulder bone could be easily missed. But still…it’s a piece of Valentine with your valentine on St. Valentine’s.

2. Dinner at Dish

Římská 1196/29, 120 00 Praha 2

I’m obsessed, but with good reason. See here for my detailed explanation of my infatuation.

3. Absinthe & Craft Cocktails at Hemingway Bar

Karolíny Světlé 26, 110 00 Praha 1

Reminiscent of an American speak easy, Hemingway Bar is the perfect celebration of all things Ernest (the author who notoriously loved women and anything with rum, champagne or absinthe). Old-timey jazz drifts through the dim-lit bar as bartenders with slicked hair and suspenders serve up potent gimlets and fizzy libations. For Valentine’s Day, bubbles are best. But if you’re feeling frisky, this bar boasts an impressive variety of absinthe from around the world. Don’t you dare ask for the green stuff or to set it on a fire, though. The waiters are very vocal about the proper absinthe experience, which surprisingly includes neither.

4. Gelato at Puro

Na Hrobci 410/1, 128 00 Praha 2

What would Valentine’s day be without some sweets? The homemade gelato at Puro will satisfy both your sweet tooth and lust for unique flavor combinations. And, just like your date, the tastes range from  classic to  novel. Feeling adventurous? Flirt with the chocolate & lavender, cucumber & rosemary or my personal favorite, the carrot gelato. Bonus: Located right next to Naplavka, this is the perfect location for a late night stroll along the Vltava to see Prague Castle at night when it’s glowing, perched over the city.

Other ways to guarantee your Prague date night is romantic and original: pepper in some old school love poems (read aloud snippets from Whitman to Neruda), artisinal chocolates, and don’t ever underestimate the power of a homemade valentine.

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Worth the hype? You decide. St. Valentine’s shoulder blade at Vysehrad

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With my valentine, pre- Prague date night

Happy Valentine’s Day!

❤❤❤

 

 

 

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An Expats Guide to Alternative Prague: Choose your own hipster adventure

Alternative Prague, Choose your own adventure, Expats Guide, Hipster

Prague is saturated with medieval architecture, good beer, and expats teaching ESL. It has all the festivals, dining options, and cultural diversions one could want in a big city. But after a few months of living there, I realized something was missing.

Sure, they have some funkier restaurants or hang outs, but where were the thick framed glasses, the ironic tees, the vegan cafes? Unlike other European cities like London, Barcelona, Amsterdam–where alternative is almost mainstream–there seemed to a noticeable void in Prague. Finally I confronted the glaringly obvious question: where were all the hipsters?

Oh, they’re there. You just have to know where to look. I must admit, it took a bit of digging–and help from my more in-the-know Czech friends–but I’ve compiled a list of alternative happenings for expats who are looking for more than overpriced beer and clubbing in Wenceslas Square.

To simultaneously honor Prague, hipsters, and my life-long obsession with Goosebumps “choose your own adventure” books, I present you:

24 HOURS IN PRAGUE:

CHOOSE YOUR OWN HIPSTER ADVENTURE

MORNING

Breakfast at Ouky Douky

Janovského 1118/14, 170 00, Praha 7

Nestled in Prague 7, this bookstore/cafe is a perfect spot for a cozy breakfast. Founded by a fellow expat, this cafe was one of the original English book stores in Prague, and offers a wide variety of American breakfast foods (be still my heart, even the elusive filtered coffee!) served amongst cluttered book cases and charmingly mismatched furniture. It feels like your worldly uncle’s study–who just happens to really enjoy indie music. Settle down in a worn armchair and enjoy a large cup of filtered coffee (!), a savory pancake, and a good read.

Level of hip: Pickling your own ramps

OR

Coffee at Cafe Neustadt

Karlovo náměstí 23/1, 120 00, Praha 2

I think the self-profession on the cafe’s website really says it all: It’s an “oasis of superior coffee, cheesy ease, excellent music and civic disobedience right in the city center.” Conveniently located by Karlovo Náměstí, Cafe Neustadt is nestled in an ivy-laden courtyard in the new town hall building. Come for some morning coffee in the garden, or some pivo at night; any time of day this hip cafe is crowded and serving up good vibes. Its coolest feature? Modern art statues hang right above a stand-up piano in the corner of the courtyard, encouraging any casual Mozarts to sit down. Lastly, someone please tell me what “cheesy ease” means.

Level of hip: Back to back Wes Anderson flicks

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DAY-TIME ACTIVITY

Badminton in an old school, communist-style gym

Sokol Libeň, Zenklova 37/2, 180 00, Praha

Ever wonder what it was like to play basketball in the Soviet Bloc during the communist regime? The creaky, old Sokol Libeň is the closest you will ever get. Thanks to a tip from a Czech friend, I decided to check this gymnasium out one afternoon and was tickled with how wonderfully old school it is. It looked like it was untouched since the 60s and the entire building was eerily empty. The locker rooms reminded me of something out of a horror movie (think metal cages) and the gym (including a basketball court, badminton court, and gymnastics area) conjured up images of old communist Olympic propaganda posters I’d seen. I could only imagine how many short shorts and mullets had graced those squeaky, waxed floors.

Although empty when we visited, it’s wise to reserve your hour-slot in advance. Sometimes most desired times (before and after work) fill up two months ahead of time! (You can reserve a time on their website: http://www.sokol-liben.cz/badminton/)

A one hour time-slot will only set you back 130 Kc, not including racket and birdie rental. A tip for foreigners: brush up on your Czech, since chances are no one will speak English there. (Another tell-tale sign of how authentic it is)

Level of hip: Bon Iver’s lesser known stuff

Obsessed with the art deco windows

Obsessed with the art deco windows

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Farmer’s Market at Jiřího z Poděbrad

In front of Jiřího z Poděbrad Metro station, Praha 3

If you’re a foodie, you’ll be right at home at the Farmer’s Market located at the Jiřího z Poděbrad (or as expats call it, JZP) metro station. Situated right in front of the church which boasts the “largest clock face in Eastern Europe,” (what a claim to fame) this Farmer’s Market is my favorite in all of Prague. Wander the stalls selling everything from organic, local produce, traditional spices, homemade sausages and cheeses, and Moravian wines. I could spend an afternoon staring at the giant tubs of pickled goodies–stuffed pickled peppers, pickled cabbages and other anonymous pickled things. In the summer the market runs each Wednesday and Friday 8am-6pm and Saturdays from 8am-2pm. Bonus: around December and April, it gets a holiday makeover and turns into a Christmas and Easter market, respectively.

Level of hip: Finding a new ramen shop in that recently gentrified neighborhood

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Pickled goodies at the JZP Farmer’s Market

DINNER

Burgers at Dish

Římská 1196/29, 120 00, Praha 2

Dish serves up the best burger in town, hands down. (And trust me, I’ve tasted my fair share in Prague). Not only have they perfected the ideal burger-to-bun ratio (amazingly juicy beef on a slightly toasted, sweet sesame bun), but they do it all with a fun culinary twist. International flavors like kimchi, piri piri, and artisanal cheeses drape the quality beef and garnish the crispy, garlicy fries. My go-to? The Koza Nostra: a tender patty topped with a giant slab of gooey goats cheese, sun dried tomatoes, arugula and a fig mayonnaise. Perfectly paired with an elderflower gin and tonic, off of their hand-crafted G&T menu.

Level of hip: Taking up woodwork and/or carpentry as a new hobby

OR

Barbecue at U Kurelů

Chvalova 1119/1, 130 00, Praha 3

While most expats know and love the Tavern, not many are familiar with its low-key, barbecue-centered sister restaurant, U Kurelů. Beat the Tavern crowd and head over to U Kurelů for unique dishes like the barbecue Bahn-mi, live music, and a selection of Czech microbrews (all from small breweries across the country including Matuska, Permon, Zemsky, Malesov and Chotebor.)

Level of hip: Beard + flannel + ironic animal t-shirt

EARLY EVENING

Microbrews at Cafe Liberál

Heřmanova 6, 170 00, Praha 7

Just a general rule of thumb for alternative Prague: walk around Prague 7, and look for signs broadcasting Únětický  beer. Chances are, you’ll bump into a hip crowd. Cafe Liberál (just a few blocks down from my breakfast pick, Ouky Douky) is a perfect spot for early evening craft brews. Sip on a radler (my favorite; a summery mix of wheat beer and lemonade) and people watch. Hang out inside, and enjoy its minimalist interior, filled with creaky wooden chairs, art deco fixtures–the only decoration a collection of LPs leaning against the bare white walls. This is the spot to see and be seen.

Level of hip: Cold brewed, fair-trade coffee

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OR

Summer Cinema at Meet Factory

Ke Sklárně 3213/15, 150 00, Praha 5

Meet Factory is a cultural oasis of everything art in Prague. It’s a gallery space, live music venue, and cinema all in one. For a list of current exhibitions or events, visit their website: http://www.meetfactory.cz/en/

In the summer months Meet Factory hosts a summer cinema in the middle of the week (Tuesday or Wednesday nights) starting at 9:30pm. If mainstream blockbusters are your thing, look elsewhere. Each viewing shows two or three alternative films clumped loosely together by the evening’s theme, labeled cleverly after a weather term: from “bright” or “cloudy,” to “stormy” or “high pressure muse,” there’s a mood, and flick, for everyone. Bonus: no typical movie seats here, the giant pillows and beach recliners only add to the off-beat experience.

Level of hip: Quoting Jack Kerouac

LATE NIGHT

Stalin

Letenské sady, Praha 7

For a hip venue with a view that you can’t be beat, end the night at Stalin, a controversially named, brand new bar located just below the metronome in Letna. Besides its cheap beers, rotating DJs, and breath-taking view of Prague, this outside bar is steeped in history. The actual bar is located in the once graffiti riddled, abandoned building just under the former monument to Stalin that was erected in Letna during the 50s. Although the statue was destroyed years later, its reputation remains. In the 90s it transformed into an underground pirate radio station, and later was revamped into Prague’s first rock club. So. Hip. It. Hurts.

Level of hip: Man bun

OR

Vzorkovna

Bartolomějská 110, Praha 1

The true calling card of an exclusive bar is one that is difficult to find. Located right by Národní Divadlo, Vzorkovna is deceivingly hidden. Enter the doors into the unlit corridor, down two flights of stairs in complete darkness, led only by the sounds of clinking glasses. Enter the basement hang-out that is seemingly always bustling with an alternative crowd and live music. Seriously, I’ve been here on a Monday night and it’s still busy.

Expats and locals alike slide into the nooks and crannies of this no-frills bar, lit only by flickering candles. Únětický craft beer is served in what looks like re-purposed pickle jars, and the ash trays? Old tuna cans. Another hallmark of this hip bar is the presence of Street Fighter and other old school arcade games scattered throughout.

Don’t be alarmed if in your peripheral you see what looks like a friendly polar bear, slowly lumbering through the crowd. That’s just the bar’s unofficial mascot, a giant and amazingly chill Irish wolfhound, who endures the crowds and drunken petting throughout the night.

Level of hip: Taking Polaroids of your friends drinking PBR

So whatever adventure you choose, you are bound to see a new (and hip) side of the city, and have more fun than riding a tandem bike while sipping a kale smoothie or foraging for mushrooms with a waxed mustache or well, you get the point.

Happy trails.

 

sweet world map

Is it worth it? Reflections after 2 years abroad

Living abroad, Lost in Translation, Moving abroad, Teaching abroad, Travel

If you haven’t noticed, I like to make lists. My apartment is littered with post-its, my notebooks scribbled with to-do lists, grocery lists, to-buy lists, to-read lists, bucket lists. Lists help me mentally and visually keep things neat, clear, and orderly. When making major life decisions, I’m that person who makes the cliché pro vs. con list. I had to have an intervention with my neurotic self when I, sadly, started penning a list of lists to make. That’s when I knew I had to reel it in.

Each time I wrap up living abroad somewhere (studying abroad in Spain, teaching ESL in South Korea, now the Czech Republic) it’s a ritual for me to create three lists: things I’ll miss, things I won’t miss, things I’ve learned. It’s this time, my third venture living abroad and coming home again, that I’ve dug even a bit deeper. Since I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs, I recently set out to answer this question: is living and teaching abroad worth it? Here’s my list, and based on my oh-so-scientific-quantitative-list-data, you can draw the conclusion yourself.

Displaying photo.PNGCON: You’re constantly moving.

In the past five years since I’ve graduated, I haven’t lived in one location for more than a year and a half. That means countless hours of packing, mountains of cardboard boxes, and continuous shuttling from location to location (my parent’s home address acting as a glorified P.O. Box). The short-term leases have made it difficult to want to invest in decorations or furniture for the apartments, and I desperately want to have a tomato plant for more than one season.

PRO: You stream-line your life.

An unconscious side effect of constant moving is stream-lining my life. When you have to cram your entire life into merely two suitcases, you tend to quickly see what’s important and what’s not. That sweater I got on sale but never really fit just right? My old class notes and papers from college? Unnecessary. I realize how much stuff I don’t need and it’s liberating.

PRO: You get a clean slate.

While moving constantly means uprooting again and again, it does mean a fresh start. You have the chance to reinvent yourself. New friends, new trips, new adventures. While tiring sometimes, it’s stimulating and exciting.

Displaying photo.PNGCON: Inevitably, you get homesick.

More surprisingly, I found myself getting homesick about the weirdest things. During January in South Korea, I got homesick about the Super Bowl. This is bizarre for multiple reasons, mostly because I a. do not like football b.very rarely watch sports and c. could not care less about the Super Bowl. It was just the fact that something so major was going on at home, and no one was even acknowledging it where I was (Upon further reflection I’m pretty sure I was just missing the parties full of taco dip and chicken wings).

More reasonably, I always get a little homesick on the 4th of July or Thanksgiving. While many other countries celebrate Christmas and Easter, these holidays are uniquely American. Nothing is sadder than reporting to work on a “normal day” when your entire family across the world is gathering for a delicious meal and friendly chatter.

Displaying photo.PNGCON: You miss out on milestones at home.

While abroad, I’ve missed my grandpa’s funeral, the birth of my nephew, a good friend’s wedding. These are made bearable only by the fact that I’m creating so many new memories and personal milestones during my experience. Plus with today’s technology, there’s no excuse to be out of touch. Skype dates, WhatsApp, and Facebook updates have all aided in connecting with loved ones while in two seemingly different worlds.

PRO: You get a seriously fresh perspective.

Living in another country exposes you to a different way of life, and sometimes for the better. It took moving away from the U.S. to realize that wow, we work a lot. We really do eat aggressively sized portions. We pay an arm and a leg for health care and higher education. In Europe, I love how the concept of “holiday” isn’t just a luxury, it’s a right. For a standard job, Americans are allotted ten days of vacation a year. Ten. And maternity leave? A piddly 12 weeks. Compare that to the two years a Czech women gets (which even can be extended, with a few stipulations). Work/life balance takes on a new meaning in Europe, and it’s refreshing and inspiring.

But it’s not all criticism. Moving away has made me appreciate more about my homeland as well; I miss the concept of customer service, diversity, efficiency, and most importantly, filtered coffee.

Displaying photo.PNGCON: Some days, everything seems just a little more difficult.

When you live abroad, particularly in a country where the language isn’t your native tongue, every day hiccups can morph into frustrating, confusing endeavors. Simple things like changing a light bulb or explaining how you’d like your eggs cooked can even be a challenge (This might sound dramatic, but trust me, both have happened). Knowing your basic rights as a foreigner, applying for visas, filing for taxes, things that are difficult in your home country, are five times more tedious. You often feel dependent on others to translate or inform, which can make you feel helpless or frustrated.

I’ve also abandoned all hope of making small talk with the cashier at the grocery store or the waiter at the cafe. While not a deal breaker, it’s these small things that remind you that you are constantly living in a little foreigner bubble.

PRO: Travel!

In the cumulative two and a half years I’ve lived abroad, I’ve traveled to 26 countries on three continents. I rang in my 25th birthday in Sumatra, hiking a misty Indonesian rainforest to stand just inches away from a family of orangutans. I spent this Christmas in a tiny cottage in the English country side sipping tea by a roaring fire. I zip-lined through a jungle in Laos, bathed elephants in Thailand, walked the Great Wall of China. Teaching abroad has provided me the means (both money and accessibility) to take the type of trips I thought I’d have to wait until I was retired to take.

PRO: You gain legitimate life skills.

While you might be freaking out about the gap in your resume, there’s something to be said about flexing your ability to adapt, deal with ambiguity, and communicate effectively. Sometimes I think that if I can be stuck in a room full of 25 Czech three and four-year-olds, who know not a lick of English, all crying or screaming, and teach them how to speak in complete sentences, I can do a lot of things.

PRO: You learn about the world.

Travel has opened my eyes to not only different cultures, traditions, and languages, but to varied perspectives and philosophies. While this lesson in diversity is enormous–and key to mutual appreciation and respect–I have also learned just how universal some things really are. By working with children in three different countries, I’ve noticed how when you break it down, children are really all the same: innately innocent, curious, and funny.

One of my favorite recent memories comes from the week in kindergarten we were learning about space. Two especially bright six-year-olds inquired about animals traveling to space, and to their delight I told them that both a dog and a chimpanzee have made the voyage. Obviously we then had to google photos, which yielded as amazing results as you would think. After translating into Czech I told the boys the first chimpanzee sent into space was named “Ham,” or “šunka.” We genuinely laughed for a good five minutes. Some things, like naming your chimpanzee astronaut after a deli meat, are just universally funny.

PRO: You learn about yourself.

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I can honestly say that I have learned more about the world, myself, and what I want, than any experience I could have sitting in a classroom. I’ve also realized just how capable I am. Moving across the world by myself was scary. But not only did I survive, I thrived; I made amazing friends, unforgettable memories, and developed a new sense of independence, openness, and self-confidence.

PRO: You get some pretty cool stories.

Someone once told me that if you’re the most interesting person in the room, you’re doing it wrong. I’ll never forget one of my first nights in South Korea, sitting around a plastic picnic table outside of a 7-11, chatting with a group of foreigners in the muggy summer air, feeling secretively a bit nervous and self-conscious. Someone started going around the table asking about everyone’s travels. Where have they been? For how long? Proudly, I piped up that I had studied in Seville, Spain, and also skipped around Europe during my semester abroad (something that made me oh-so-worldly back on my college campus of 5,000 students in the fields of Upstate New York). The next girl casually mentioned she had just gotten back from a two month solo backpacking trip across Cambodia. I was out of my league. And while for a fleeting moment I felt upstaged and almost a bit juvenile, I realized that this quickly turned into intrigue and inspiration. The bar had been raised, and I liked it.

*If you are currently living abroad, or merely toying with the idea, check out this scene from the film Lost in Translation. To me, this scene is the most accurate portrayal of just how frustrating, weird, and funny living abroad can be: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXGXZiX0pCA

Different hair, same weirdly lustful gaze.

The Universal Dish

Dumplings, Poland, South Korea, Taiwan, Travel

Each culture has their own version: ravioli in Italy, gyoza in Japan, pierogi in Poland. Since they’re found all over the world, there’s no need for translation: dumplings are doughy, steaming, pockets of love. Dramatic enough? Nope. I can’t resist a dumpling, and I’m here to tell you why.

I recently came back from a trip to Krakow, Poland where I sampled some of the best pierogi I’ve ever tasted. I have to give credit to one of my friends, a fellow English teacher in Prague, who lived in Krakow while her dad was the American diplomat there. She spent a few years sampling the best, so it was safe to say she knows her pierogi. She directed my boyfriend and me to a hole-in-the-wall pierogi joint called Pierogarnia, just a short walk away from the city center.

When we entered the door, we felt as though we had walked into a Polish grandma’s tiny kitchen: it was cramp but cozy, big enough only to fit six stools and a counter. The air was filled with the smell of sweet onions, the walls were cluttered with decorative wooden spoons, various knickknacks and dusty Polish lace. The menu was a no-frills list of simply five different types of pierogi. The only condiment, a bottle of unidentifiable brown sauce (something similar to either soy or worcestershire I guessed?) teetered on a pile of browning Polish newspapers. We were in heaven.

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Wishing I had a Polish grandma to feed me pierogi when I’m sad.

We ordered the sampler plate (two of each pierogi), the combinations traditional yet perfected: cottage cheese and potato, spinach and cheese, cabbage and mushroom, potato and bacon, and our favorite– the most pure and un-fussed with–ground pork. Each doughy semi-circle was dripping with butter and topped with sweet sautéed onions. We scarfed the platter down so quickly, we were embarrassed. After a pause and a knowing look at each other, we decided to order another round. Twenty pierogi later, we waddled out so full and happy.

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The most delicious pierogi, piled unpretentiously on a styrofoam plate.

While I’ve recently delved into the variety of dumplings in Eastern Europe, the origin of my dumpling love can be traced back to my time living in Asia. Mark my words: Japan, Korea, and China all do a mean dumpling. One of my favorite tastes was when I dined at Din Tai Fung during my trip to Taipei, Taiwan with my friends in the spring of 2013. After seeing it featured on multiple travel shows, I made it my mission to hunt down the restaurant for a taste of their famous soup dumpling.

While the Polish dumpling is boiled then fried, the Taiwanese dumpling is steamed, creating a more tender, delicate outside. We feasted on a variety of dumplings at Din Tai Fung but the star was the soup dumpling. The cooks take broth and transform it in a cold gelatin, cut it into cubes, and wrap it in dough. As the dumpling steams, the gelatin melts, creating a liquid center of piping, golden broth.

Since you don’t want to burn your mouth with molten liquid, there’s an art to eating the soup dumpling (as the step-by-step card that was placed on our table hinted.) Once you poke the dumpling open with chopsticks, the liquid rushes out into your soup spoon. You then dip the entire pillow of dough and broth into a pool of soy sauce, black vinegar, ginger, and scallions. Safe to say, it was a spiritual experience.

Different hair, same weirdly lustful gaze.

Dinner at Din Tai Fung: different hair, same weird, lustful gaze.

Korean dumplings (mandu) also have a special place in my heart, as they were found everywhere, and consumed often, during my one year living in South Korea. They were frequently served as the children’s breakfast snack at my kindergarten (where I would quickly snatch up any remaining ones the children didn’t want) and I kept a bag of them in my freezer to throw into soups for a quick dinner. In Korea they had many varieties including kimchi, beef or pork.

When I moved back to the states, I was constantly trying to get my mandu fix. My mom stumbled upon a delicious pork mandu recipe, one that features a cool cooking method I’d never seen before. While the ingredients aren’t complicated, the technique is labor-intensive, so I only bust it out for special occasions. (The trickiest part is learning how to properly fold the wonton wrapper. For this, don’t underestimate the power of YouTube tutorials!) Here’s the recipe:

– 1 lb. ground pork

– 1/4 cup shredded carrot

– 3 minced scallions

– 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

– 1 egg, beaten

– 2 minced cloves of garlic

– sprinkle of chili flakes

– salt and pepper to taste

– package of wonton wrappers (I usually find these in the frozen section)

Combine all ingredients. Measure out 1-2 teaspoons of filling into wonton wrapper, fold. Heat up a skillet with 1/4 cup vegetable oil. Once hot, fry dumplings in oil for around 3-4 minutes, or until lightly brown. Add 1 ice cube (this is the cool part), and quickly lid the pan. Steam for 4 minutes. Serve simply with soy or your favorite dipping sauce.

(Due to this cooking technique, the bottom of the dumpling is crispy from the frying, while the top is soft and chewy from the steaming. It’s the best combination of textures!)

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Makin mandu

The finished product!

The finished product! (Don’t be fooled, I ate way more than three)

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5 Things to do in Amsterdam

5thingstodo, Amsterdam

Amsterdam gets a bad wrap. Maybe not a bad wrap so much as a reputation for being the European mecca of seedy underworld dealings–drugs, prostitutes, and naughty escapades. It’s the Vegas and Bangkok of Europe: anything goes. But this is my problem. With the risk of sounding cliche, Amsterdam is so much more.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Amsterdam four times–the first as a senior in High School on a Model U.N. school field trip (cuz I was kool), the last, just one month ago. It also helps that my sister and brother-in-law live there, too. They nest in a cozy Dutch apartment on the second floor of an impossibly skinny building, with impossibly vertical stairs, overlooking a bustling market street.

Don’t get me wrong, the weed cafes and red-light district are a novel and unique experience you can only get in Amsterdam. But beyond the crowds of tourists moving in a slow, dazed fog, Amsterdam is:

  • Hip: The food, music and fashion scene are on point; the hipsters and brunch spots could rival any Brooklyn neighborhood.
  • Beautiful: The canals! The tulips! The people!
  • Fluent: In English that is. The Dutch effortlessly switch between Dutch and English, and have an impressive overall English skill-set only rivaled by Scandinavian countries.
  • Progressive: The liberal laws and popular bicycle culture (the original “going green” movement) make it a leader for other countries around the world.
  • Incredibly livable: It has all the cultural draws of a booming metropolis, but with a population of only 779,808, it’s also approachable. It’s easy to cycle from one side of the city to the other in only 25 minutes.

So if you’re planning a trip to the tallest country in the world (average height for a man is 6′) and the land of the wooden shoe, here are my top picks:

1. See the city by bike (and boat)

In Holland biking isn’t just a way of transportation, it’s a lifestyle. For first-comers to Amsterdam, bike rush hour might be a shock. You can be overwhelmed by the massive herd of bikes, the dinging of bells, even the babies balancing on handlebars (!), as bikers commute to work.The rules go as follows: bikers have the right of way, be weary of walking in the bike lane, and don’t get hit by a tram. (Words of wisdom from my sister).

Although intimidating, renting a bike is a quintessential Dutch experience and a beautiful way to see the city. Bike rental shops are practically on every corner, and the cost for a day is perfectly reasonable. My one word of advice: to avoid embarrassment (trust me, I know), ease into the bike riding with a jaunt around a less-intense biking atmosphere, like Vondelpark. Work your way up to the busy intersections so you eventually feel comfortable navigating around loads of bikes, cars, trams, and stoned pedestrians.

For a different way to explore the city, skip the touristy glass-windowed boat tours and rent one yourself. While more of a splurge, if you have a small group of people the price for renting a private boat isn’t as steep as you’d think. We used Mokum boot rental company, which was 70 euro for 3 hours, and since we were four people, it was less than 20 euro per person. You can choose to rent based on hour increments, and you don’t even need a boating license. (All you need is euros and an ID). Grab a map of the canals, a basket of wine and snacks, and you’ll be a floating Dutch picnic. Bonus if it’s sun-bathing weather.

2. Frites in a cone!

A classic Dutch snack, the only thing that improves a paper cone full of steaming, crispy frites is the addition of Dutch sauces and toppings. My favorite?  The speciaal: frites with mayonnaise, raw onion, and curried ketchup. Another must-try is joppiesaus: a sweet, tangy, curried mayonnaise sauce.

3. Meet the famous ear

If you’re low on time, skip the Rijksmuseum for the Van Gogh Museum. Although smaller, its interior is modern and bright, and jam-packed with all of the famous Van Gogh’s a true fan would like to see (minus Starry Night). All the works are in chronological order, supplemented with fascinating anecdotes and insights on the tortured genius’ life. While Van Gogh happens to be my favorite artist, it’s even the perfect museum for the fair-weather art lover: it’s engaging, informative, and doable in under two hours.

4. Sip IPAs at the Brouwerij ‘t IJ Windmill Brewery

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t even have to leave the city center to marvel at an authentic Dutch windmill. What’s better than visiting one of the nation’s most famous icons? That fact that it’s a brewery. A brew-pub powered by the windmill (talk about sustainability), Brouwerij ‘t IJ serves some of the best IPAs in Amsterdam. Skip the tourist crowd at the Heineken brewery, and get the true Dutch experience (and better beer!) with the locals.

5. Visit the Anne Frank House

For anyone who sat through 7th grade English (or any English class in any grade ever), you probably read the Diary of Anne Frank. Based on that fact alone, you have to go. Honestly, even if you haven’t read it, you still have to go. Visiting the apartment and annex where Anne and her family were hidden during World War II is a very moving experience. While the annex area is actually void of furniture and quite empty, there are still plastered cut-outs and postcards on the wall from the time when Anne lived there. For me, seeing the bookcase–the entrance to the annex–gave me chills. While it’s a somber and heavy experience, it still tops my list of must-dos in Amsterdam. Tip: Since this is one of the most popular attractions, avoid the weekend’s long lines. Mondays are the least busy, and therefore best days to visit museums.

The joy a fresh cone of frites brings!

The joy a fresh cone of frites brings!

Brouwerij ' t IJ Brewery

Brouwerij ‘ t IJ Brewery

Miss Frank

Miss Frank

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Seester and I

Czech culinary inspirations (AKA how I just really, really like smoked paprika)

Czech Cuisine, Czech Republic

While Czech cuisine isn’t internationally renowned for being fancy (or let’s be honest, for having much of a reputation at all), I’ve nevertheless found myself inspired by some Czech flavors that they seem to have perfected.

To me, Czech cuisine is a gravy-covered mix of German and Hungarian, with a splash of Russian. It is hearty, rustic, and yummy. While a bowl of goulash for lunch might leave me comatose for an afternoon, on a chilly gray evening a platter of roasted duck, sticky potato dumplings and sweet red cabbage is just what you need to warm your cockles. I hesitate to call it “peasant food,” but it does, although delicious, have a sense of rustic simplicity that conjures up images of people eating it after a long day in the fields, or an old babushka urging you to eat a bowl to put some meat on your bones.

In my humble observation, I’ve realized that Czech flavor profiles rely heavily on the caraway seed–a spice full of anisey flavor that reminds me of one of Buffalo, New York’s signature dishes, beef on weck. (For those of you who have any idea what that means, it’s the seed found on the obligatory “weck” bun.) Other important components are garlic, onion, sour cream, and my personal favorite: paprika.

Smoked paprika, how I’ve come to appreciate and love you so! It seems everything, from the national dish of goulash, to even a simple sandwich comes sprinkled with the smoky red powder. While Hungary calls dibs on international acclaim for paprika (honorable mention to Spain and its pimentón), the Czech Republic gives it a run for its money.

Ever since I toted home a giant bag of smoked paprika from a farmer’s market, I seem to sprinkle the spice onto practically every dish I make. I’ve particularly fallen in love with the combination of tomatoes and paprika; it adds a sweet, smoky depth to stews, hashes, Mexican dishes and Indian curries.

Sometimes I have photo shoots for my paprika collection, NBD

Sometimes I have photo shoots of my paprika collection, NBD

Since I’m preaching, I wanted to share some of my favorite combinations and recipes, each where I tucked in a heaping tablespoon (or two) of paprika, to add earthiness and a burnt red tint:

Moroccan stew with couscous

(This recipe is a riff off of the One Pot Morroccan Stew recipe found at: http://www.halfbakedharvest.com/one-pot-moroccan-chicken-chickpeas-pistachio-couscous-goat-cheese/)

In a pot, sauté an onion, three large cloves of minced garlic, and a tablespoon of grated ginger in olive oil. Add two cans of chickpeas (drained and rinsed), three peeled and diced carrots, three chopped tomatoes, and a tablespoon of tomato paste. Next, add 2 tablespoons each of: smoked paprika, sweet paprika, and cumin. Add just a 1/2 teaspoon of chipotle powder and cayenne pepper. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover with chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then let simmer for 15-20 minutes.

In the meantime, cook the couscous. Once off the heat, toss in chopped parsley, chopped dates, and toasted almonds. Pour the stew over the couscous, finish with crumbled goat cheese and a squeeze of lemon.

Smoky homemade hummus

Combine the following in a food processor:

–  One can (rinsed and drained) chickpeas

–  Juice of half a lemon

–  Half a clove of minced garlic

– Heaping tablespoon of smoked paprika

– 2 tablespoons tahini

– 1/2 cup of olive oil

– salt and pepper to taste

Garnish with a generous glug of olive oil, crank of black pepper, and dusting of paprika. Serve with literally anything.

Sweet potato hash

Sauté up half an onion, two cloves of garlic, and 4 sweet potatoes in a tablespoon of olive oil. Add smoked paprika, sweet paprika, chipotle powder, salt, pepper, and a squirt of ketchup (unorthodox but so necessary!) Cook for around 25 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are tender. Top with a poached egg; garnish with crumbled bacon, cilantro, and hot sauce.

Can I also talk about how I’ve never really been into sausage until I moved to the Czech Republic? Something about the Czech klobása (a bright red pork sausage similar to Polish kielbasa) has turned me into a weird sausage monster. I’m not kidding. Found everywhere from restaurant menus to quaint road side stands, klobása is served grilled–until the crimson skin is crisped and cracking–with a dollop of spicy dijon mustard and freshly grated horseradish. Void of any frills, including a bun, it simply comes served with a thick slice of pečem pecen, a dense rye-like Czech bread.

The beloved klobása and its accoutrements

The beloved klobása and its accoutrements

A whole post on Czech food and no real shout outs for the dumpling, you say? Don’t worry, since the dumpling is practically the cornerstone of Czech cuisine, and comes in more forms that you can even imagine, I will dedicate an entire post to the beloved knedliky in the not-so-distant future.

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5 things to do in Copenhagen

5thingstodo, Copenhagen, Denmark, Travel, Traveltips

This October I met my mom in Copenhagen, Denmark for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday. While it was the rainiest weekend of all time, I was absolutely charmed by my first taste of Scandinavia. It was a tough contest (honorable mentions go to Tivoli, open faced sandwiches, and the Viking Museum), but here are my top tips of things to do in Copenhagen:

1. Eat a cinnamon roll at the oldest bakery in Copenhagen

This is just straight forward, delicious advice my sister gave me. Wander down the brick lined streets to find Sankt Peders Bageri, the oldest bakery in Copenhagen, famous for their sticky, traditional cinnamon rolls.

The weekend we were in Copenhagen happened to be one of the rainiest ever, transforming everything into a dreary, damp gray. When we finally found this tiny bakery, it glowed like an inviting golden beacon. It was the perfect place to escape the cold rain and indulge in a fresh-baked cinnamon roll (dripping with sweet, white icing) and a steaming cup of tea.

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2. Embrace the Hygge

Hygge is a Danish word that is just as hard to translate as it is to pronounce. When pressed to find an adequate translation, the closest in English is “coziness.” (This is often deemed too simplistic: whereas a sweater can be cozy, hygge often refers to an intangible feeling, not just the physical). A perfect example of hygge would be: friends gathered around tables cluttered with glowing candles and glasses of wine, catching up and laughing on a rainy evening. Someone even told me that a person can have hygge as well, as it is more of a sense of intimacy in an atmosphere or connection with a person.

While it may be hard to translate, two things are for sure: in Copenhagen, hygge is king. It also means candles. Lots of candles. Since we were in Copenhagen during a chilly October weekend, hygge was everywhere: from flickering candles in windows to crackling fires tucked in the corner of cafes. Even the tiny street hotdog vendor’s carts were decorated with the soft glow of dripping candles.

3. Pay homage to Hans

The Brothers Grimm usually steal all the fairy-tale glory, so this makes paying homage to Hans Christian Andersen even more important. The flamboyant Danish author penned many children’s classics, such as The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, and The Princess and the Pea. His legacy still lives on in Copenhagen; visitors can see his statue next to the Copenhagen City Hall, find his stories still sold in many shops, and even visit the famous Little Mermaid statue, a bronze mermaid sitting on a rock, woefully looking out onto the harbor.

My mom chilling with Hans

My mom chilling with Hans. Note his well-worn knee from the children who have sat on it throughout the years.

4. Dine in Christiania (and stay for the show)

If you’re looking for a combination of Amsterdam, Venice Beach, and a hippie commune, Christiania is the place for you. This neighborhood, which is technically an autonomous, self-governing borough called Freetown Christiania, is unlike any other, and wildly sticks out from the sleek, modern streets of other Copenhagen areas.

Once you enter the gates, you are overwhelmed by the colorful graffiti murals, crumbling communal houses, countless cannabis stands, and the signs cryptically forbidding you from taking any photos. The whole place has a gritty, weird type of charm.

Intrigued by the Danish hippie commune we had heard so much about, my mom and I set out to find a highly recommended restaurant, Spiseloppen (translated to “The Flea Eats”) in the heart of Christiania for dinner. The directions we were given were incredibly vague, making it exciting, like a bit of a treasure hunt: “Enter the gates, keep walking until you see a wildly empty warehouse, find the unlabeled door, head up the graffiti riddled stairs towards another unmarked door, and enter.” When we finally found our way and opened the rusty aluminum door, we were transported to a chic attic decorated with rustic wooden tables and glowing candles.

Our dinner was delicious, and afterwards we explored the neighborhood bustling with nighttime activities: we stumbled upon a giant guitar jam session in a smoky bar, numerous bonfires in the streets, and I even witnessed a man approach my 60 year-old mother with, “Ya want drugs? I got whatcha need. You want it, I got it.”

So much hygge and delicious vegetarian food at Spiseloppen

So much hygge and delicious vegetarian food at Spiseloppen

5. Hop over to Sweden

If you’re keen to experience another Scandinavian country, a jaunt over to Malmö, Sweden is a perfect pick, since it’s literally just a bridge away. Malmö is the third largest city in Sweden, sitting beside the Baltic Sea, cluttered with old stone buildings, and sleek, modern cafes. While you’ll be overwhelmed with the abundance of troll souvenirs (!), a hop over to the land of IKEA and ABBA is absolutely worth the trip.

If you’re feeling bold, do as the Swedes do and head to a traditional sauna. Roast until you’re ready, then splash into the icy sea to cool down. (Swedes believe the extreme difference in temperatures is good for health and circulation.)

Hello, Malmo

Hello, Malmo

Sweden was full of these guys.

Sweden was full of these guys.

...and the blondest people you've ever seen.

…and the blondest people you’ve ever seen.

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Heart & Seoul: A Temple Stay in South Korea

Myogaksa, Seoul, South Korea, TBT, Temple Stay

I’ve been meaning to start this blog for a while now, and since #TBT (throwback thursday) is a thing now on social media, I’m jumping on the band wagon. But for my blog. I can do that, right? (Basically I just want an excuse to share stories and photos from a little bit ago. Humor me.)

For my first ever TBT post, I’d like to revisit one of the coolest things I did while teaching ESL in South Korea.

Korean temple stay programs were first introduced in 1988, when Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics, as a way to offer foreign visitors a peek into Korean Buddhist culture. Since then temple stays have continued to be popular amongst tourists as they allow a chance for visitors–regardless of religious orientation–to spend a night at a Buddhist temple. Visitors learn about Buddhism and get the opportunity to participate in various Buddhist practices or ceremonies. Ever since I had heard of temple stays, it was high on my “to-do” list. Travis and I researched the various temple stay opportunities, and due to proximity (I lived in Chuncheon, a city just an hour north of Seoul) we decided to meet at Myogaksa temple for a weekend.

There are various reasons to actually attend a temple stay: it ranges anywhere from a deep, spiritual retreat to simply a cultural experience. My reason was a little bit in the middle.

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Myogaksa Temple

When Travis and I arrived at the temple, I was shocked by how calm and peaceful this spiritual haven was, considering it was nestled right in the heart of downtown Seoul. As you enter you’re greeted by a giant stone Buddha, surrounded by a wall of flickering candles.

We changed into our uniform for the weekend: the most comfortable moss green jumpsuit of all time, essentially a baggy set of pajama shirts and pants. We spent the next two days basically in silence (It’s typical temple stay protocol to sit, walk, and eat in silence. This is to encourage self-reflection and maintain a peaceful atmosphere. This was also a complete test of my discipline.) We made prayer beads, completed 100 prostrations–physically demanding yoga-like movements– meditated, attended various prayer ceremonies, went for walks outside to “connect with nature,” and at the end attended a traditional tea ceremony (one of my favorite parts!).

There were about ten other participants, and most were respectful and friendly–besides the loud German guy who decided it was appropriate to take selfies of himself doing prostrations, and heckle his girlfriend loudly into posing “cute” during quiet mediation. We went to bed when the sun set; women were separated from the men, and we were given simple mats to sleep on.

Prayer bead making time in my green jumpsuit

Prayer bead making time in my green jumpsuit

We were awoken right before sunrise, and we all huddled together in the cool dawn air waiting for our turn to ring the heavy, ancient-looking gong. I’m the first to admit that I’m not a morning person, and although I was tired and sore from the previous day’s prostrations, I couldn’t help but think what a beautiful moment it was. I imagine anyone would have a spiritual moment as they listen to the steady, deep ring of the gong, watching as the sun creeps over the skyline of Seoul.

I had heard tales of temple food being boring and bland (due to the belief that garlic, chiles and other strong seasonings invite bad “juju.” I’m not kidding), but this was not the case at Myogaksa. The food was all vegetarian, but seriously some of the most delicious Korean food I’ve ever had. We feasted on heaps of spicy kimchi, steaming white rice, crunchy pajeon (scallion pancake), tofu in sweet and sour sauces, and a buffet of fresh fruit and sticky rice cakes.

At the end of the experience we sat sipping small, steaming mugs of green tea. The head monk who had instructed us for the past two days lead a reflection discussion, encouraging us to chat freely and finally let down our hair. She also offered to “read” each one of us. I was very intrigued about the reading, seeing that we spoke very little, and barely said a word to the monk over the past two days. She explained that she can read energies and personalities simply by quiet observation, and she made mental notes about each of us. Her reading of me was amazingly concise and completely true.

Monk to me: You have great mind. Smart mind. (Shucks) One of the greatest in the room. (Go on!) You have great mind, but you have angry mind. You hold on to anger. You must learn to let it pass. Let it pass, then…it’s…OK.

She then turned to Travis.

Monk to Travis: Your mind…not so great. (!) But your mind is wise. You do not hold on to anger as much as Jennifer. For this, you are wise.

To this day, if we’re having a fight, I often remind Travis of the Monk’s words. It’s not his fault, his mind just isn’t as great as mine. (He always loves when I bring this up.) But then he usually retorts, “Angry mind. …Let it pass.”

I was incredibly pleased with my experience at Myogaksa temple; the entire weekend was the definition of peaceful. At the end we were all gifted with prayer beads, full bellies, and not-so-angry minds.

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Traditional tea ceremony

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We were asked to walk on these bumpy stones without shoes for…some deep Buddhist purpose I can’t quite remember.

The importance of names, a century-long feud over beer, and other Czech oddities*

Czech Republic, Oddities, Travel

* I hesitate to use the word “oddity” here, as it usually connotes something strange or negative, I just thought it was catchier than “things I find interesting about the Czech Republic.”

I’ve been living in the Czech Republic for 9 months now, and while some things have become quite common place, once in a while something strikes me as strange, funny, or just plain interesting. Of course all of these are quite subjective, but here’s my list of Czech quirks that have caught my attention:

1. Happy Name Day!

While people who have visited or lived in Europe might not find this shocking, the concept of “name days” are a completely new and lovely concept for me. Each day on the calendar is designated to one male and female name, and when it’s your name day, you, along with everyone else sharing your namesake, receive some small gifts or “happy name day” well wishes. Although it differs from country to country (my Croatian co-worker informed me that they celebrate name days, along with Poland, Bulgaria, and other Eastern European countries) in the Czech Republic it’s kind of like a much more low-key version of your birthday. The origin dates back to the calendar of Roman Catholic saints names, but has evolved since then. I personally think it’s a lovely idea; another reason throughout the year to cheers with all the other Jenny’s I know.

While name days aren’t exactly a big deal, the tradition of choosing a typical Czech name–usually one that corresponds with a name day–like Martina, Pavla, or Marketa, is still quite popular. (If I had a dime for every time I met someone named Martina!) In fact, many Czech friends have told me that if you would like to choose a “non traditional” name for your baby, it must first be approved by a special government office. (!)

2. A century-long feud over beer: Budweiser V. Budvar

To say beer is a big deal in the Czech Republic is an understatement. Since Czechs will be quick to remind you that they produce the best beer in the world and they consume the most beer per person in the world (according to several studies, beating out heavy weights like Germany, Russia, and Ireland) drinking a Pilsner Urquell maybe one of the most patriotic things you can do.

One thing you may not know about however is Czech contempt for American beer, and the bitter, 108-year feud over the Budweiser name. The Budweiser trademark dispute kicked off in 1907 between Czech company Budejovicky Budvar and Anheuser-Busch, a U.S. company (now part of AB InBev). Both companies wanted to exclusively sell their products under the Budweiser name, but have not been able to reach a satisfactory conclusion for more than a century. When the companies do not have exclusive rights to the Budweiser brand in a country, they must resort to using slightly altered names: AB Inbev sells its Budweiser as Bud in many European countries, while Budvar sells its lager as Czechvar in the U.S. In 1939 they reached a decision that would allow Anheuser-Busch sole rights to the name Budweiser in all American territories north of Panama. But as both companies continued to expand to new markets, more questions popped up. Long story short: The Budweiser dispute continues to this day.

Even the often controversial Czech President, Miloš Zeman, has been quoted saying: “We make good planes, cars…but most importantly don’t forget- Czech beer is the best in the world,” a few years ago at an international business summit. He continued to explain, “No American company that offers some filthy water instead of beer, can compete with us.”

Now them’s fighting words.

3. Beware the man with the badge!

Once a friend of mine was chatting with a group of Spanish tourists who had been visiting Prague for a few days, and when she asked them what they thought of Prague, they quickly gushed about the free public transportation; all the buses, trams, and metros were free! What a cool city! What a cheap trip! This was amazing for many reasons: A. This is not true. B. I totally understand why they thought this. (For the record, she corrected them, told them they were lucky they didn’t get caught by the “man with the badge” and then they all had a good laugh).

Anyone who has visited Prague might be struck by how lax the transit ticketing system is. It’s quite easy to saunter through any door on a public bus, jump onto a tram, or walk through the metro (there are no turn-style gates or anything! The New Yorker in me was appalled!) While there are yellow ticketing machines at metro stops and near trams, they aren’t entirely intuitive, and I can see how a confused tourist might simply walk past. While it may be easy to hitch a free ride, it doesn’t come without its risks.

When I first arrived in Prague I had heard tales of the men with badges prowling the metros, dressed all in black, with a fine-tuned ear for anyone speaking a foreign language. If you are caught without a ticket you are slapped with a hefty fine, sometimes up to 800 Kc. I heard tales of people without the money trying to make a run for it, only to be aggressively chased down and forced to the nearest ATM. The thing about the men with the badges is that sometimes they don’t make themselves clearly known. One minute you’re on the metro, listening to a podcast, thinking about what you’re going to do for lunch (typical day in my book) when a man –without making eye contact–subtly slides an open palm decorated in a small metal badge towards you. The first time I saw this I thought he was trying to sell me something shady, so I shook my head politely, declining his offer to buy a small, unidentifiable metal object. Through his persistence I finally got the message.

One fateful evening I myself was caught without a ticket by a stern Czech man with a gray mustache (I will never forget that scary gray mustache). He spoke no English and I cried a lot. After doling out the 800 Kc, and feeling really sorry for myself, I vowed to use my story as a warning for all clueless tourists from that point forward.

4. A 2 week spa holiday paid for by…the government!

Now I don’t have all the facts and figures down, but when I heard this from some Czech friends, I was obsessed. Throughout the Czech Republic you can find various “spa towns” that are known for their natural springs, each containing a different vitamin or mineral that will help specific ailments. For example, there is a spa town that concentrates on lung health. Many people with respiratory problems, such as asthma, would flock to this town to receive spa treatments and drink the special spring water, which is healthy for your lungs.

This in itself is wonderful to me, and reminiscent of those old-timey advertisements from the 1800s that promised “miracle water” in springs found in the forests of Upstate New York, or resort towns in the mountains where people could breathe “healthy” air. I was even more impressed that the government typically will pay for up to a 2-week stay at these spas, if you provide evidence from your doctor that it will benefit your health.

5. Christmas Eve carp in your bathtub

Most of the Czech holiday traditions that I’ve learned from my Czech students are incredibly superstitious, very specific, and kind of amazing. I will add another post completely dedicated to Czech holidays and other customs later, because there are so many I love.

In the Czech Republic, the 24th of December is actually a more important day than the 25th. This is the day you exchange presents, decorate your tree, and eat a traditional dinner of carp (many of my friends told me it’s best fried, served with potato salad). As a lowly bottom-dweller, carp isn’t typically a fish seen as a delicacy. Many Czechs buy the carp live at Christmas markets one or two days before they intend to eat it. To ensure they eat the freshest carp, they place the carp in water in the bathtub until it’s ready to be prepared on Christmas Eve.

It’s also tradition to take one fish scale from the Christmas carp and place it in your wallet. This will ensure you have good luck financially in the new year. (I know many people who actually do this!)

Other lovely Czech traditions include:

Providing thirsty expats with cheap, good quality beer. Yay beer.

Providing thirsty expats with cheap, good quality beer. Yay beer.

These colorful, adorable, hand-painted eggs found in markets around Easter

These colorful, adorable, hand-painted eggs found in markets around Easter

The arbirtary naming of Czech things after North American cultural references. My personal favorite: The Baywatch Platter

The arbitrary naming of Czech things after North American cultural references. My personal favorite: The Baywatch Platter

5 things to do in Venice

Italy, Travel, Venice

One of the (many) great things about living in Europe is the accessibility of travel. Want to skip over to Germany for a day? Sure. How about fly to Spain for the weekend? Si, si. (Well, that and the cheese. And bread. And wine. And beer.)

Travis and I have been lucky enough to scrape up a few pennies to take some pretty wonderful trips since we’ve moved to the Czech Republic. Embracing the ubiquitous and lovely European ideal that “holiday” is a right, not just a luxury, we jetted off to Venice for a 5 day trip in the beginning of August this year. Here are my (thrifty) tips of five things to do in Venice, Italy:

(And for the record, for many of you who have heard horror stories of “Venice smells bad!” or “Don’t do a gondola ride,” while some may be true, please don’t write it off as a tourist death trap. I personally think Venice is not over-rated, but in fact perfectly rated, and one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever seen.)

1. Get lost.
Since there isn’t too much to actually do in Venice, the main attraction is walking around and seeing the Venetian architecture, the canals, and the beautiful houses that seem to be sinking. The best afternoons were spent exploring narrow alleyways, stumbling upon kissing bridges and hidden cafes.

2. Sip a spritz.
My new obsession, these bubbly (and neon orange!) drinks can be found everywhere, splashed with Aperol and topped with an orange slice and green olive. Particularly well suited for an afternoon rest, they’re a perfect pick for when you can’t choose between wine or a cocktail. (Life is full of tough choices.)

3. Dine al fresco overlooking the canals.
We did this a time or two, and the result was both way cheaper and more delicious than some of the over-priced, lack-luster set menus you’ll find in restaurants everywhere. Since there are many grocery stores dotting the island, we decided to create our own picnic, and loaded up on fresh tomatoes, fresh bakery bread, salami, Italian cheeses, homemade pesto, and boxed wine (No judgement! Even boxed wine in Italy is good, I promise.) Even at a grocery store we bought great quality ingredients, and all for less than a sit down meal. We then sidled up to a canal and dined al fresco at sunset.

4. See the colorful houses of Burano.
Take the ferry to the nearby island of Burano. It’s hard to imagine it gets more beautiful or quaint than Venice, but Burano does it. Stroll the streets lined with brilliantly colored houses–what Burano’s famous for–and enjoy the island full of roaming cats and stalls selling dainty, ivory colored hand-made lace, Burano’s other claim to fame.

5. Buy your souvenirs at a grocery store.
This tip doesn’t sound very romantic, but it’s one of the best pieces of advice ever. Since I like getting foodie presents for my family and friends (anything consumable is the best), I avoid the specialty souvenir boutiques where they sell things like the smallest bottle of limoncello shaped like a boot for 7 euro. Instead, I buy a lot of my food gifts (homemade dried pastas, sun dried tomatoes, finishing salts, gourmet chocolates) at the grocery stores for cheaper than typical souvenir shops. I also stock up on free postcards and maps of cities that you find at tourist information booths; they pack light, are free, and can be used as decorations or mementos (I like to frame maps of places I’ve been).

Pick your poison: cappuccino for him, prosecco for her

Pick your poison: cappuccino for him, prosecco for her

My favorite moment of the day was early evening,  the perfect time to slip into a canal-side bar to sip a spritz and nibble small bites, Italy's version of tapas.

My favorite moment of the day was early evening, the perfect time to slip into a canal-side bar to sip a spritz and nibble small bites, Italy’s version of tapas.

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Venetian market gems

Venetian market gems

Burano

Burano

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