Nondescript Feetures

Day Twenty Four – Wenceslas Square

Feet

Sitting patiently, staring passively at any passersby, the woman’s feet twitch every now and then, fascinating curious onlookers who want to take the time to watch a stranger’s feet be eaten alive.

The controversial practice popularized itself in the early 2000s in Europe and Asia, when spas imported these mainly middle-eastern native “doctor fish” (or garra rufa) to clear away dead skin cells on feet, leaving spa-goers’ legs fresh and smooth.

For about $11 USD, the public can pop into this Thai massage parlor and pay to have these toothless carp eat away the dead skin from the bottom of your feet.

Banned in most of Canada and parts of the U.S., these fish aren’t actually born craving dead human skin cells. Doctor fish survive on algae and other small marine life usually found on the edges of rocks in either fresh or salt water. When these fish are taken in to be a part of this luxurious spa treatment, they’re underfed, so when humans deign to put their feet in the tank, the dead skin serves as a perfect replacement for the ravenous aquarium inhabitants.

Another problem with the practice is the sanitary side of things. With traditional tools, they’re swapped out between clients, scissors being sanitized, that aforementioned dead skin being thrown away. Doctor fish aren’t nearly as disposable, which means any diseases or infections someone pays to have eaten away can easily be transferred to the next unlucky client.

Nevertheless, the novelty of the treatment draws tourists to any number of massage parlors around Prague, leaving them walking away with smooth surfaces and questionably clean interiors.

 

Water The Odds

Day Twenty Three – Malostranská Station

Water

The trickling of a water fountain is refreshing music to hear when walking the streets of Prague, especially as the sun climbs towards its apex on a summer day.

Coming from America, water is a free drink wherever you go, but finding free water in the Czech Republic is basically unheard of.  While tap water here is clean – if you don’t care about the strange looks you’d receive, you could walk into the bathroom of a restaurant, fill up a glass and be hydrated without worry – restaurants aren’t the type to give you a glass of tap water and call it good. Bottled water, either still or sparkling are the only offered options at restaurants, and it certainly doesn’t come free.

The interesting thing is that oftentimes, beer really is cheaper than water. At beer gardens this is certainly the case, and at restaurants the price is usually around 30 koruna for either (a little over a dollar), making the purchase of a beer that much easier to justify.

While fountains aren’t uncommon in Prague, this drinking/hand rinsing fountain outside the Malostranská station is a rare find around the city, and the hordes off tourists that flocked to this watering hole seemed inclined to agree.

Wherever you go in the city, bring a water bottle and fill up when you can, the waiters may not appreciate large bottles on your table but hydration is key, especially in a city with alcohol this cheap.

Terezín

Day Twenty Two – Terezín, Czech Republic

Doris

Walking through Terezín, everywhere Doris Schimmerlingová goes, she has a smile and a wave to give.

Born in Brno April 7th, 1926, Doris is one of the thousands of Jews that lived in Terezín, a concentration camp in the northern Czech Republic during World War II. Doris entered the camp the winter of 1942 when she was about 16 years-old and stayed there until the end of the war, where she served as a shepherd for the sheep and livestock just outside of town.

Doris spends her days giving tours of Terezín to tour groups, because she knows how important it is to get this history correct and make sure stories are heard. When asked how she came to the decision to go back through this place, Doris explains that her first time overhearing a tour guide talking about the camp, she didn’t recognize any of it. “I must’ve been in a different Terezín,” Doris recalls.

Terezín served as a transit camp for most Jews before heading east to even worse concentration camps, but it was a powerful tool for the Nazis. Early in the war, the Red Cross was allowed to go through the camp to see the conditions and the Nazis set it up to seem as though they had bequeathed a wonderful, thriving town to the thousands Jewish peoples they had uprooted and forced into overpopulation in a city they weren’t allowed to leave. Right.

This camp served as a weapon of propaganda for the Third Reich. No gas chambers are to be found here, although plans to implement one were being drawn up before the war ended, but with the overpopulation and inhumane conditions everyone was forced to live in during the years Terezín was active, thousands died here. Walking through the small town, it doesn’t matter how picturesque it may be, the taint of the atrocities committed here will never be forgotten or made up for.

Walking by a pair of German tourists, Doris struck up a conversation about biking with the two women, telling them about how she used to bike to the fields.

Doris was separated from her entire family over the years in Terezín. Her mother died in the camp, her brother was sent to Auschwitz (and survived), and her father was sent in one of the last transports to a concentration camp where he died.

The strength this woman has to have lived through everything she has is nearly incomprehensible. Not only did she spend her formative years in this camp, she lived through the communist regime the Czech Republic fell under right after the war, and has stayed standing through it all.

It would take thousands of words to do her story any kind of justice and explain every horror she has persevered through, but Doris has been through so many horrors no one should ever have to, and has a sunny disposition and want to impart knowledge and on everyone she encounters despite everything is humbling, admirable and heartrending.

History is studied so we as a human race can learn from the past, but history is also written by the winners: objective and often glossed over with a saccharine coating. Having the opportunity to listen to a first person account of such a dark history, raw and unfiltered is truly incomparable, and one of the most important understandings to grasp.

Cold Fronts

Day Twenty One – National Museum of Prague, Praha 7

Raft

Looking up at the massive art installation suspended from the ceiling, it’s hard not to feel anything other than small, for many reasons.

Ai Weiwei’s latest art piece is a 70 meter long piece with 258 figures inside a raft. Made of an inflatable material, “Law of the Journey” is meant to bring awareness to the refugee crisis. Weiwei uses his art to protest corruption and promote humanitarianism, and as his latest and largest work to date, Weiwei has outdone himself.

Lining a select few walls around the exhibit are pictures of Weiwei himself with refugees from camps he visited across the Mediterranean, as well as flat screens televisions mounted playing videos of boats full of refugees.

Below the raft are quotes from a variety of artists, all focused on humanitarianism and refugee experience. From Socrates claiming to be a citizen of the world before anything else, to Václav Havel talking about the folly of men, every quote relates to the refugee crisis and evokes a sense of frustration. There is still so much indifference towards this plight, and the fact that this is evidently not a new scenario to humanity is disheartening. Everyone needs help once in a while, and if anyone is strong enough to ask for it, it needs to be given.

Politically, this is an extraordinarily polarized time, seemingly worldwide. As of 2016, the UN had classified 13.5 million Syrians as “in need of humanitarian assistance” and what has the world done for them? Displaced in their own country, outside help nowhere in sight, and forced to go through treacherous and hazardous conditions just for the chance at escape, and certainly no guarantee of food, water or safety on the other side.

It seems to be reminiscent of Rwanda. As long as the injustice and horrors other people are facing are never directly addressed, no specific action has to be taken to do anything about it, and therefore no guilt if it’s out of sight and out of mind. But we’ve been through this before as a world a number of times, with World War II, Rwanda, any and every other war torn area with innocents caught in the crossfire.

This exhibit is an astoundingly powerful reminder and message, and the fact that it is at the front and main hall of this museum could be a good sign. Earth can’t afford to be this divided and indifferent and Weiwei’s art does an amazing job exhibiting that.

Museum

Hoppy Daze

Day Twenty – Pilsner Urquell Brewery, Pilsen

Pilsen

Overlooking the towering funnels, the tour guide allows time for the boiling alcohol to hit your senses. Pacing the top of the gallery, the scent of the hops and the heat from the kettles envelop you as the sound of hundreds of gallons of beer drowns out the tour guide’s well rehearsed explanation of the room.

Pilsner Urquell beer brewery opened in 1842. Located in Pilsen, a small town barely 60 miles outside of Prague, the brewery created a new type of beer. Named after the town itself,  Pilsner is a type of light lager that requires a three step process where the liquid is heated three times, adding a different ingredient each time.

Once the beer style took off, the brewery became a self-sustaining entity and quickly became the main economy of the area, even supporting the sleepy town with its own supply of water for the brewing process during a drought.

Nowadays, the brewery itself produces over 60,000 bottles an hour with under 30 workers sustaining the whole operation, and the town is nearly a living advertisement for the beer.

These kettles are where the hops are boiled into the beer, the last ingredient step of the three steps. Once you’ve seen your fill in this room, the tour guide descends into the dampened cellar where all the barrels are stored, where you have the chance to drink fresh, unpasteurized (or “green”) Pilsner Urquell.

 

 

Inner Tuba-ing

Day Nineteen – Palacký Square

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Writhing bodies fill the front two rows in front of the tents, bobbing along to the rhythm while lifting cups in the air and chanting with the lead singer, the scene is no different than what you’d see at a typical musical festival.

But hopping off the tram, you never really know what you’re going to find on the streets of Prague. This time, it was the brass-rap group Shizzle Orchestra, a group of ten teenagers performing at the Prague Street Art festival.

Saturday night was Museum Night in Prague, where all museums offer free admittance for one night, and this performance took place at a busy intersection at the height of the night.

Looking out over the crowd, it’s easy to see those passing by and stopping for a drink versus those that have been there the whole performance. The hazy eyes of some audience members compared to the curious eyes of onlookers slowing their walk between museums, everyone in the crowd is enjoying themselves.

At the heart of it everyone is there in appreciation for a good musical performance. Playing into audience members faces, encouraging the audience to chant along, the band and the crowd pulse together, feeding off of each others energies.

 

Handed Down

Day Eighteen – St. Nicholas Church

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Flickering candle light reflects against the altar of the church as a haunting hymn is sung by a performer in the middle of the aisle. The minor key of the song sounded like something off of a horror movie soundtrack, filling you with a sense of foreboding – or maybe only those not sold on religion.

Trepidatiously walking through the church, the song rung through the church as visitors flowed towards the middle of the church to tie strings ascending towards heaven and then towards the prayer candles distributed at the front of the church.

Understandably, the Czech Republic is wary of organized religion, and this reluctance  means that many churches across the country remain closed or only partially opened and sparsely used.

For one night a year, the entire Czech Republic opens every church across the country, filling the arched ceilings with light, performances from choirs and local musicians, and allows everyone to come and enjoy the buildings.

Some visitors took their time lighting these candles, assessing and picking through the area in search of a spot, watching the fire as it eats through the wick, lips moving through a silent dictum before leaving. Others placed the candles and walked away almost immediately, and some simply stood back and watched.

The wonderful thing about this night is that regardless of your beliefs, churches are beautiful to visit. Especially in Europe where the history of the land is so integrated with the church, these buildings are some of the most well-preserved buildings and ornate places to visit. Stained glass lit up by the afternoon sun is one of the prettiest sights to be seen, and the vaulted ceilings with the intricate carvings along walls, that’s a spiritual experience in and of itself.