Just got home from a week in Berlin, Dresden and Prague (selected pictures here); all an educational counterpoint to the more typical London/Rome/Paris that comes first in most grand tours. What did I learn?
Berlin and Dresden show scars from the war that manifest themselves architecturally, psychically, and culturally in the food, fashion, language and rituals of the street. It's striking to walk Jewish quarters of all three cities emptied of Jews by the holocaust. It's equally striking to note that protestants and Catholics are separated by country borders with the memory of why still fresh in the minds of citizens, despite reasons that are 500+ years old. If you want to learn about war and its aftermath, visit here and watch and listen closely.
Prague is Florence on tourist steroids, but with narrower streets.
Czech restaurants know how to turn a table.
On our trip to Europe in 2002 we got about 1.3 Euros to the dollar. This week it hovered around 0.6 Euros to the dollar - an all time low. Even the Czech crown reached an all time high against the dollar when we were there, promptly dropping a few points after we'd exchanged as many euros/dollars as we were going to. If you want to give your kids a lesson in international monetary exchange, visit Europe when the dollar sucks. My 16 year old was converting the 15.80 Czk to the dollar in split seconds.
When I was a teenager the common street lore was that Levi's jeans could be sold behind the iron curtain for $100 a pair. Now that the iron curtain is down they cost $150. Chuck Taylor tennis shoes that I paid $12 for as a 13 year old cost over $100 on Wenceslas Square.
Fortunately however the cultural hegemony of the west is incomplete: good beer is cheaper than water in Czech restaurants; trains/streetcars/metros are incredibly cheap and follow precise, reliable timetables; and tasty pork knuckles are the cheapest menu item everywhere we go. Even mini-marts have beer that's cheaper than Pepsi. Meanwhile back home in Pennsylvania it's still illegal for one person in one trip to one store to buy three six packs of beer, assuming of course you can find a place to sell it to you.
Learning Czech isn't as hard as it looks.
There is indeed something to the Czech spirit, which I felt most in the museum of communism off Wenceslas Square where film of the 1968 and 1989 protests gave a sense of what it was like to live with no liberty and, perish the thought, no internet. By contrast the Tibetan protests happening this week show how hard it has become to control information.
Despite the 18 years since the fall of the iron curtain there is still a stark contrast between the east and west, most evident in the architecture but also in the day to day lives of the older and younger generations.
Prague/Vienna/Budapest seem to have a New York/Boston/Philadelphia thing going on. Don't make comparisons without knowing the allegiance of the person you're talking to. It could get ugly if you presume Vienna strudel is better than Prague's. (It was explained to me that Vienna just stole it from Prague anyway, like many other things the Hapsburg dynasty mooched.)
And lastly, it can get damn cold in Europe in March. Note to self: it's always easier to take clothes off than to put clothes on that you didn't pack.