Saturday, May 31, 2008

When you're alone in Prague...

March 27, 2008

Perhaps I had seen one too many Bourne movies, but there was something about Prague that made me feel like a spy—the towering spires, the majestic squares, the beautiful Czech women, and various Eastern European languages that I grew up associating with Global Thermal Nuclear War…

Whatever it was, my head was filled with thoughts of intrigue and danger and I decided to allow my inner Bond-girl to run free with a trip to the local gun range. Plus, I was quickly tiring of watching countless couples drool over themselves while I chowed down on my bratwurst and hot wine from the sidelines--although I can't say I didn't enjoy it.

The gun range was situated in Prague 6, a little ways out of town. As the directions on their web site were in Czech, I was left to fend for myself, but figured I’d get close enough and figure it out from there.

I had been walking back and forth down the same road for the last 40 minutes and had found a veterinary school, a college registration office, and two non-English speaking Czech men who had sent me in opposite directions when I asked about the gun range, which is called Magnum or Střelnice, by its Czech name.

After finally asking a woman and getting a correct answer, I was soon on my way down a gravel road, past an abandoned looking house, several dilapidated fences, and about five black feral cats that stared at me with bright yellow eyes as I walked by. I was just beginning to wonder if I was still on the right path when the sound of automatic weapons floated towards me.

The building was plain and communist like except for the plastic tables and umbrellas on the makeshift patio. As I walked up I was joined by a group of middle-aged Czech men all with various firearms slung across their shoulders. We waited together outside the front door and were buzzed in. The woman who greeted us sensed immediately that I didn’t belong.

This was Alena, we had spoken on the phone earlier. She leads me into a smallish dining room that consisted of doily-like curtains, a small bar, and a wood stove. She doesn’t speak much English, so with hand gestures she tells me to sit and returns a couple minutes later with a clipboard and a highlighter in hand.

Ah…the menu! I peruse it curiously…
-Pump-action shotgun
-.357 magnum
-.44 magnum
-.22 sniper

And then there it was—the semi-automatic Russian made Kalashnikov also known as an AK47 (AK for Avtomat Kalashnikova, 47, as in circa 1947).

Arms dealers the world over have sold the AK47 to countless militias and it is the weapon of choice for many foreign armies based on its extreme tolerance to adverse conditions and ease of use—it was originally designed for Russian soldiers serving in the Artic who would need to operate the weapon while wearing heavy gloves. With an estimated 90 million AK47s having been manufactured in the last 50+ years, it is the most widely distributed assault rifle in the world, but outlawed for civilian use in most Western countries, including the U.S. until the ban expired in 2004. Although some states, such as California, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Massachusetts have specific restrictions. It weighs roughly 10lbs, has an effective range of 300-400 meters, and a “lifespan” between 20 to 40 years depending on the conditions it has been used under. It’s chilling to think that this weapon will last longer than my digital SLR, my computer, most likely my car, and countless other gadgets in my possession. Not to mention the fact that in the poorest and most war torn countries in the world you can purchase one for less than a tank of gas. And, now, here it was in front of me, providing some afternoon diversion, quietly waiting to see whether I had any aptitude for shooting a different kind of mechanical device.

I slowly pulled off the cap of the highlighter, made my mark, and handed the clipboard back to Alena. She looked at my selection with a smiling, knowing nod of approval and I followed her to the next room to meet my instructor, Tom.

I was fiddling with my camera gear as he began to explain how to load the bullets and I realized quickly that with his accent if I didn’t stop and really pay attention I might miss some valuable detail. His English was limited like Alena’s, but we covered the basics—don’t point the gun at him, only at the targets; load the bullets one at a time in the magazine; click the magazine cartridge into place; pull the side lever toward you in a quick fluid motion; hold the gun so your shoulder takes the brunt of the recoil; check your sights; and then Tom says quietly, “Very gently, so softly, pull the trigger.”

--if you see black (safari users), double click inside the frame to start the movie--

Somewhere Over Germany

May 30, 2008

I’m on a plane on my way to London and, somehow, I always spend my travel days completely exhausted. Whether it’s staying up late trying to figure out how all my belongings will fit into 2 bags or partying like a rock star until the sun comes up, it never fails—I end up on a plane, train, bus, car, boat, etc. completely wiped.

Just three days ago I was on Mykonos with Karina and Juice. The three of us traveled around Italy and Greece for two weeks and all manner of hilarity and craziness ensued. We laughed our asses off, danced our asses off, and drank like sailors.

I think I’ll have to just pick and choose singular events to write about as trying to summarize everything would be too much. So! here begins the part of the blog that will no longer be chronological as I fill in some of the gaps from the last couple months…

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Return to the Hut

May 29, 2008

Oh god…there’s something definitely living underneath Huong’s old bed. And to think I scoffed at her when she used to think she was getting chewed on at night. But, today I saw them…at least fifty tiny black carcasses in a mound in the corner. I had to stop investigating as I had no desire to see who my new roommate was and if I don’t actually see it perhaps I will still be able to sleep at night.

The latest update with Mr. Vardakas is that him and Poppy have split up for good. Apparently she moved out right around the same time Huong and I left the hut.

“I wish I had never met that woman,” he spat out the words bitterly. “She’s with an Albanian now. I told her to get out. She’s a son of a bitch!”

I tried to make sympathetic noises.

“So, I told her get out and I slapped her,” he said matter-of-factly. “She deserved it, she’s a bitch.”

Alright, then—sympathy time over. Must-leave-now before he does something else to piss me off.

As I’m backing out as quickly as possible from the conversation so as to avoid any additional details about their altercation, sex life, or racial slurs against Albanians, his bitterness evaporates and he gives me the once over.

“Oh, you look sexy,” he says with a wink and a smile. “Do you want to go out on the boat tomorrow?”

I start to throw up a little in my mouth.

“Why don’t you stay here with me?” he suggests.

I laugh. “I’m taken!” I shout enthusiastically and begin to walk up the stairs to the roof, acutely aware that he’s probably trying to look up my dress. So maybe it was a lie, but there is some truth to it–-I AM taken, I’m totally committed to myself!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sponge Bath Fas

May 12, 2008

I’m on the night train to Florence and my couchette-mates are two American girls and an older French woman named Monique. The light streaming through the window gives the cabin a golden glow as the sun sinks into the horizon. There’s something very special about traveling by train, perhaps it’s just nostalgia or the fact that I always think better as I watch the countryside speed by.

After six weeks in Paris and especially the last few days filled with trips to the park, concerts, patanque, goodbye drinks, and goodbye dinners, I feel much like I did upon leaving Seattle—sad to go, excited about my next destination, and in desperate need of sensory deprivation, not to mention a little detox.

I’m also immensely happy that for the next week I won’t have to travel across town to take a shower, although I have to admit, it’s made for a very interesting experience and I realize more than ever that I’m so fortunate to have such generous friends. In the last 6 weeks, I’ve slept in 7 different apartments and showered in almost as many places—hmm…perhaps more if you include the semi-sponge bath I did in Starbucks. Yeah, so don’t knock the Starbucks—they’ve got the cleanest bathrooms in all of Paris!

I got into the habit of just carrying bathroom toiletries around with me as my first lesson in Paris was: never turn down an opportunity to take a shower. The second was: French is a very difficult language, especially if you’ve studied a language like Italian, where you normally pronounce everything.

This past Friday marked the completion of a 5-week super intensive French language program that pretty much sucked my brain dry—in a good way. My day typically started at 7:30am, as the courses were held Monday through Friday, 9am to 6:15pm, with a variety of different professors. The courses were conducted completely in French and we were forbidden to use any English, even to each other. Some of the professors focus solely on working with beginners, others teach a theatre class once a week, there are also a variety of workshops that cover written exercises, audio drills, supervised study hours, and group exercises that focus on oral proficiency. I was pretty skeptical at first, but overall was pretty impressed with the level of professionalism that’s devoted to teaching and it’s pretty surprising how much I’ve learned in such a short time. Plus, it’s damn satisfying to be able to have small talk with Monique in French and then switch to Italian when the conductor comes by, so what if I speak like a toddler.

The classes were made up of students from all over the world and of varying age ranges. The largest nationality represented in my class was Swedish, but there were also Spaniards, Italians, Mexicans, Germans, Brazilians, Portuguese, Chileans, Dutch, British, Australians, Americans, Turkish, and a surprising amount of Koreans. If you’re traveling alone it’s a great way to meet people, as you automatically have something in common with everyone there: learning French.

I'm incredibly excited about seeing Karina and Juice as well as Capt Lew & Nick in Italy and being in Florence again after four years. I've never returned from Italy unchanged so it will be interesting to see what this trip brings. Already the conductor has checked in on us for the 8th italia!