Saturday, October 27, 2007

Shopping in the Truppenübungsplatz

Shopping in the what? The Grafenwoehr “Troop Training Area (put the words together and you get the concise Truppenübungsplatz in German), or “US Military Base” as it’s more commonly called, is just a short, 2 1/2 hour drive across the border into neighboring Germany. So - we loaded up the car with the kids, the trusty DVD player, and a couple ice chests, and hit the road.

Let me just say - crossing borders in Europe is a wee bit less cumbersome than in the Middle East. We drove from the UAE to Oman a lot in the last few years, and most crossings went something like this... first, park the car in the 115 degree sun, and walk to a little hut on the side of the road. Once in the hut, convince the bored immigration official to stop yakking on his GSM phone, and give you the form that you need to fill out for each traveler. After filling out the form, wait for a pause in conversation again so he can stamp the thing with his rubber stamp. Walk back across to the booth on the other side of the road, give another bored guard your forms and passports. Watch as he pecks away at his keyboard to enter the stuff you’ve just written into the computer. Show him how to hold the form right side up. Get a little piece of paper stamped. Take this paper back to the car, where, by now, the kids are awake and ready to get out of the car... strap them back in, and drive across the border, handing your little stamped piece of paper (heaven forbid it gets lost somewhere along the way) to the final guard.

But... I digress... our crossing from the Czech Republic to Gemany? Pause at the crossing. Wave passports out the window. Proceed, picking up speed to join the Autobahn. Cool!

Several hours later, we crossed back out of Germany, and into the United States... kind of. Like many US military bases around the world, this one was a bit like a mid-sized US town, picked up, and then plopped down in Germany, complete with hospital, school, housing, gas stations, and most importantly to us... SHOPPING!

The recently opened commissary and PX (Post Exchange) boasts close to 100,000 square feet of retail space, restaurants, a barbershop and more. Best of all, you can SHOP IN ENGLISH! The kids weren't too interested in either the Taco Bell in the food court or the cheap grocery sales... but the face painting booth in the corner of the store was an instant hit! In no time, we had two full carts of groceries, a significantly lighter wallet, a (tired) butterfly dressed in a "SuperGirl" outfit, and a bunny, complete with balloon ears. What more could you want from a Saturday?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Date Night 3 - Cantina Restaurant

Date Night #3 - October 20, 2007
Temperature: High 44 °F / 6 °C, Low 32 °F / 0 °C
Location: Cantina Restaurant, Mala Strana

Tonight was one of those "rapidly planned" date nights. In other words, as our babysitter arrived, we were still discussing where we'd like to go. Mexican food sounded good, so we called up a friend and got the name and address of a good Mexican restaurant. A quick lookup on Google Maps pointed us in the right direction, and we headed downtown. It was a chilly night, but we liked the idea of free parking at the Embassy and a stroll down Ujezd to number 38. Nothing could be easier, right? Wrong!

Number 45... 41... 39... 37... eh? We checked the other side of the street - nothing there remotely Mexican looking! Number 38 was just not there! Visions of salsa still dancing on our brains, we hunted for a couple more minutes before deciding to head to the Funicular that runs up to the top of Petrin Park. The station looked deserted, and sure enough, we'd struck out twice in 10 minutes due to an annual maintenance closure. Imagine that - our most hastily-laid plans coming awry!

Walking down the hill back to Ujezd, we crossed the street and headed North back toward the Embassy... and found (you guessed it), the Cantina Restaurant, in all its glory, at number 38. Number 38, which was right across the street from Number 19 (of course). So - important lesson learned. Though the odd and even numbers are, in fact, sequential along the length of the street, the two sides are not necessarily in sync!

Restaurant found, we settled in at the bar ("rapid planning" also means no seats) and enjoyed a GREAT meal. Good food, at decent prices - and at the address it was supposed to be!

A quick stop for desert at Caffeteria Coffee in the shadow of Prague Castle, and we headed home for the night, mission accomplished!

First Frost

"It's gotta have four seasons" - something we said a lot a year ago in Muscat as we were looking at possibilities for our next post. With the first frost earlier this week, I think we've officially moved into our second season here in Prague! As with anything cold that's not in a freezer (or in a super-cooled indoor ski park), frost on the grass outside was a real novelty for Jad and Danna. So much so that they reacted in record time - pulling on boots, hats and coats and rushing out to see this new thing before it melted away!

Our Fall here in Prague is definitely beginning to feel a bit wintry - in fact, the forecast for this weekend calls for scattered snow showers - something we're all looking forward to seeing! It certainly calls for a few more layers of clothing on the morning bike commute to work! Fortunately, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I recently received a shipment of cold weather biking gear. Gussied up in gloves, polypropylene Long Johns, a long sleeve biking jersey, a rain coat, a wool hat under my helmet and set of black tights, I head out the door for my 25 minute ride to work each morning.

Cooler weather outside means even more fun inside - check out some of the new videos on the left side of our blog for dance moves, fancy headgear, wrestling Taytas, and more! (If you're getting the email update, head to our blog at or check our YouTube offerings directly at

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Pumpkins and Bunnies

We started what we hope to be a new fall family tradition this weekend - a trip out to the country to go pumpkin' huntin'! As you can see in the picture above, almost all of us were thrilled with the experience!

The little village of Bycoš lies just about 40 minutes away from our house - to the southeast of Prague (click here to see the route in Google Maps - if you click the KML icon above the map, you can do a "flyover" in Google Earth - cool!). What's in Bycoš? Farmer Jan Brotánek's Pumpkin Farm!

We got Czech license plates for our car just yesterday - perfect timing to head out to the country! All three car seats fit in, side by side (though just barely), so we bundled up, strapped in, and hit the road. A cool fall day under sunny skies set the perfect backdrop for this little farm, piled high with pumpkins, gourds and squash of just about every variety. Plus, there were BUNNIES! Maybe it's the weather... maybe the diet of pumpkins... whatever caused it, these bunnies were HUGE! More like little fluffy dogs with long ears than cute little rabbits!

Anyway, between the pumpkins, the bunnies, and a farmer's lunch of pumpkin soup, barbequed hot dogs and chicken, all chased down with hot mulled wine... a smashing (not pumpkins) great time was had by all! Now we just gotta carve em!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Lurking Valuables

OK - so this isn't really a sign as such... but I got a kick out of the convoluted English on the following notice, left in our mailbox today:
Dear shareholders and inhabitants of Mala Sarka area,

We would like to inform you about cases of breaking in cars, which are parked on the public roads or on drive to your property. Because of this reason, I would like to ask you for parking your cars in your garage. Nevertheless, if you decide to park your car outside, please, don't leave there any valuables, which could lurk on an attention and increase the danger of breaking into.

Thank you.
At least the notice was understandable! Both Erin and I have been a little surprised at how little English is spoken in the Czech Republic. Though we've lived overseas most of our lives, we've always been able to communicate in either English, or in the "native tongue" we grew up learning - Arabic for Erin or Sinhalese for me. Living in a country where our language skills are worse than your average 2 year old's has been painful. Shopping involves a dictionary and a lot of extra time... you know the box with a picture of a white liquid is probably milk, but what exactly is Trvanlivé Mléko Polotučné? (It's long life, half-fat 1.5% milk, in case you're wondering.)

Learning Czech is more than just memorizing vocabulary too... just when you think you've learned a word, you realize that the word changes, based how it's used in the sentence! Yep, to learn Czech properly, we're going to have to dig up that dusty high-school grammer to remind ourselves what nominative, genitive, dative, and the four other cases of Czech mean.

My goal? To someday be able to babble like a Czech two year old. Mleko? Mleka? Mlekou? They'll get the idea... I want milk - no matter whether I'm drinking it, jumping into it, using it for a recipe, hiding behind it or adding it to my coffee. Just like those "lurking valuables" - they'll understand what I'm after!

Word for the day? Say this three times really fast:


It means Ice Cream - a very important word to memorize! Oh - did I mention Czech uses some really neat consonant combinations? More on that later!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Date Night 2 - Old Town

Date Night #2 - September 30, 2007
Temperature: High 66/Low 44
Location: Old Town, Jewish Quarter & Mala Strana

Erin's Mom was still in town, so we headed off a little early to catch the last rays of a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Wanna follow our walk? Download this Google Earth file, which includes the route, waypoints, and pictures along the way.

Our starting point tonight was the heart of Prague - Staré Město (Staray Myesto) or the Old Town. Prague is a city steeped in music, and Staroměsteké Náměstí (Old Town Square) is no exception! Tonight though. instead of a soaring opera Aria or the lofty notes of Vivaldi though, the square hopped to the brassy notes of the four-piece Staroměsteké Dixieland Jazz Band! Their leader, topped in a Civil War bugler's cap, took breaks from his trumpet to belt out completely incomprehensible "scat" through a tin megaphone. It sounded authentic, no matter what language it was in!

Click here to read the rest of this post

The real star of the the Old Town Square though, is the famous Astronomical Clock. The clock, hung on the side of the Old Town Hall, draws a huge crowd every hour when the figures of eleven Apostles plus St. Paul parade by windows set just above the face. Surrounding the clock are the figures of Death, a Turk, Vanity and Greed. When the parade is finished, a cock crows, and the clock strikes the hour... and the throng goes about their merry way, buying crystal, drinking beer and listening to Dixieland Jazz!

We left Old Town, and after a quick coffee recharge at the Domeček Café tucked away down an alley off Dlouhá street (good coffee - great 80's music!), wandered north towards the Josefov - the Jewish Quarter. This is the domain of the Golem - a mythical clay protector of the Jewish population of Josefov. As we walked the winding alleyways bordering the Old Jewish Cemetery, we didn't spot the lumbering clay beast. We did, however, sniff out a cafe on the glitzy Parižska street selling gelato - (Italian for "YUM"). Sweet teeth satiated for now, we carried on up Prague's most exclusive shopping street, passing the glistening windows of Prada, Cartier, Fabergé and Burbery. Our next destination was Letná Park, sitting on a plateau above the river, just across the Čechuv Bridge.

The view from the granite pedestal overlooking the city is spectacular (see the panorama at the beginning of this post) - especially around sunset when the city takes on a golden glow. A statue of Stalin used to stand on this spot - it's now occupied by a huge metronome - which is reputedly not a whole lot more popular! The Vlatava river curves below us, dotted with barges and dinner cruise ships. Far off in the distance to our left, the Žižkov Television Tower rises like a spaceport, hundreds of meters above the town, its modernistic architecture a stark contrast to the ancient church spires dotting the city below it. Some people say the best view of Prague can be seen from the observation deck of the tower... precisely because you can't see the tower from there! To our right, the symmetrical arches of the Charles Bridge make their way across the river.

Having soaked enough of the view to last us the rest of the evening, we made our way back down to the river, and headed toward the familiar Mala Strana (lesser quarter) for dinner. These early fall evenings are ideal for sightseeing - and several tourists were doing just that - dangling from a hot air balloon!

Trying a "short cut", to Charles Bridge, we were cut off by a canal advertising some rather sharp-toothed inhabitants. We decided to play it safe and retrace our steps via land. Prague is a city that hold surprises around just about every corner. Tonight - we found what was probably the most... um... anatomically correct? fountain I've ever seen. Erin took a liking to one of the guys... good thing he was metal and rather rooted to the spot!

We finished up the evening with a traditional Czech dinner at the Baráčnická Rychta - a pub tucked away in a tiny alleyway just around the corner from the Embassy. Decoding the menu was a challenge - even with the English menu. We passed up such tantalizing options as "Leg of Fallow Deer on a Skewer", "Roasted Pork Neck in Three Colored Pepper", and even an entire section labeled "Seasoning Additives for Beer". I settled for the "Pork Knuckle" - a leg of pork, baked on the bone, surrounded with crisp pork crackling. It was delicious! So delicious that I could feel my cholesterol rising with each bite! Erin chose the much healther chicken schnitzel, deep fried in a golden batter, and we finished up apple pie a la mode and a plate of "Flipper to Blueberry" (a plate of blueberry-covered scones smothered in whipped cream). Total damage, including drinks? About $25. Eating out around here on a regular basis could definitely turn into a very unhealthy habit!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Mineral Water? Yuuuk?

"Dat not weal watur, Daddy", was Danna's first comment after a scrunched up face and a spitooie. Sure - people travel from all over to fill up their water bottles from the mineral springs of Poděbrady - a spa town not far out of Prague. The water, heavy in carbonic acid, magnesium and calcium, may indeed be good for what ails you... but it sure don't taste good, as both Jad and Danna will testify to.

We had actually caught the train to Poděbrady not for the water, but for the crystal glassware. Unfortunately, we forgot to remember that in any place other than the most touristy of tourist centers, the weekend is sacred here, and things are closed up tight.

Fortunately, falling leaves, a big park with lots of bushes to hide in, nekkid statues, and a gnome ringing his metallic mushroom every 15 minutes are much more fun than either yucky mineral water or glassware - particularly if you're under 5 years old. And a ride back home on the double-decker "City Elephant" train makes the trip just about perfect!

Click here for lots of pictures from this day trip amid the Fall colors of the Czech Republic!

Friday, October 5, 2007

Funny Signs 2

OK - this settles it. I guess I won't be swimming in these waters! We're guessing this must have been somebody's idea of a great practical joke... but they did have floods here not too many years ago. Who knows what might have washed in from the ocean?

We spotted this sign at the entrance to one of the canals leading out of the Vlatava river. The ducks don't seem to worried about the possibility of sharks, but wouldn't that make for an interesting story though? Killer sharks, roaming the canals of Prague?

Click the link below to see the picture in a little more context.

Doesn't look like the diners are too worried either. Maybe they throw their leftovers over the rail to the sharks!