June 30, 2009

A City In The Heart Of Europe.

"I see a majestic city, whose glory will reach the stars!"

Such was the prophecy of Libuše, a beautiful woman of royal blood, who married a humble ploughman, Premyšl. According to the legends, she had visions of a glorious "golden" city and her dynasty ended up ruling Prague from the castle of Vyšehrad.

Everyone who has once visited this city will tell you that it holds a certain magic; one that will allure and capture you like no other metropolis.

My father was born there. He studied at Charles University, where he met my mother. Today both my parents live outside Prague, where they moved about three years ago. I never lived in the city myself, only briefly in its vicinity when I was a child. But I have spend almost all of my childhood summers here, until the age of twelve. They were spend in company of my grandparents and the rest of the family on my fathers side.

I knew already as a child that this was a special place. I read its tales with excitement and fascination and have always been intrigued by the "city of hundred spires". Positioned truly in the heart of Europe, it has played major roles in its history. And indeed history can be sensed everywhere. It is almost as if the city is an aged book; the old cobbled streets are lines in stories that will take you back into the time of knights and kings, into wars and to the time of peace, when the city flourished and its powerful rulers gave rise to the magnificent castles, bridges, churches and cathedrals that are its trademark to this day.

It would take me days and days to list all the sights, packed with tales of history, describing the rise and fall of the capital of small kingdoms and even empires throughout the times. Instead I decided to post a collage of pictures depicting the main historical places which I visited on my recent trip. I have seen them all, numerous times before. Yet, they seem always new to me. Each visit is different than the previous one, as I am different as well. Each time I see something new. This time I saw everything once again fresh and unexplored through the eyes of the Irishman. Unlike during other visits, on this occasion I tried to look up, at the old houses and the striking architecture and the multitude of "house signs"; small ornate pictures illustrating a particular spot, aiding greatly in recognition of places in the -often illiterate- past.

What makes the city unique is the picturesque downtown, that stretches from the castle, which towers over the river Vltava (Moldau) and continues spreading over both river banks, which are connected by the legendary Charles Bridge. This creates almost a theater backdrop, appearing at times unreal. Very romantic at night, when the historical buildings become illuminated, one can feel the past and the present combine in a fairytale like setting.

Today, the city I remember from my childhood doesn't exist. Progress, as always, brings changes. I refuse to contemplate to what extend these changes bring benefits or not. The optimist in me will at all times think that change is the only constant in life. One can either choose to be assimilated by it, or to embrace it and realize that time will never stand still, only in ones memories.

June 29, 2009

The Beauty Of Train Travel.

I have previously disclosed that I am a nervous flier. Correction; I used to be. These days I do not ever travel by planes. As a young girl I would board a plane and hated every minute of the flight; as an adult I refuse to fly. This makes traveling slightly complicated and cumbersome in some instances.

However, this post is not about the fear of flying, but about the first part of my recent trip, which I spend with the Irishman and my parents in Prague. I intend to dedicate the next five posts to my trip, which was wonderfully interesting, exciting and absolutely memorable, spend in a company of people that I love the most.

As much as I hate flying, I do love trains. Train travel is highly developed in Europe and the net of well organized and efficient tracks covers the whole of the continent. Crossing borders is easy and at times pretty uneventful. It is first after another voice speaking a new language comes streaming from the PA system that one realizes that a new state has been entered.

There is not a city, small or large that is not accessible by rail. In some instances, trains even board ferries and large ships to cross seas and there are impressive tunnels and bridges build all through Europe that will carry trains through mountains, and to islands across wide sounds. One of the best organized trains systems can be found in Germany (DB). The country owns a multitude of modern, high speed trains which travel with the average speed of 200km/h (125miles/h). And I am sure everyone is familiar with the TGV in France, which can take you from Paris to London in a mere duration of 4h. This is one example of many that shows that trains can in some cases travel faster then planes. Furthermore, the big advantage of train travel is that one is transported from the center of one city directly to the center of another city, cutting back on "to and from airport" travel, which can sometimes take hours.

I again traveled to Prague by train, as I have done a few times previously, where I was to spend a day with my parents, before meeting up with the Irishman.

I took a total of three trains and it took me about 15h to reach my destination. One of the many disadvantages of traveling alone by train is the fact that at all times I have to carry and guard my luggage. I am a high maintenance woman and a vacation of 14 days means tons of clothes and shoes to bring with me, plus the occasional gift for friends and family. Needles to say, I was pretty tired once I arrived.

However, except for the heavy luggage, train travel is a pleasure in every way. I love European train stations, which are organized and beautiful, bustling with travelers, holding a certain aura of adventure. Some are very old and preserved, with majestic waiting halls, while others are small and country like.

My first train brought me to Hamburg in north Germany. It was a gloomy, cold and rainy morning. The next stop was Berlin, one of the most beautiful and large train stations I have seen. Although I have spend a day in the city once some 20 years ago, I decided right then and there that I would love to return here for an extended period of time. Perhaps for a week, preferably with the Irishman who is fluent in German. I think the city is worth a visit on all accounts.

Finally, I boarded a Czech train, which would take me to Prague within 6h. That was the best part of the trip. The train was almost empty and I loved watching the passing landscape, while listening to the monotonous sound of the wheels against the tracks below. The clouds that have been following me the whole day slowly dispersed during the trip, revealing a magnificent sunset. The images captured me and inspired me to make a short movie clip below.

The train from Berlin to Prague travels through one of the most beautiful natural areas, particularly at the German-Czech border, where the tracks follow the river "Labe"(Elbe). It is difficult to take good pictures from a moving train, but I hope the few ones here can illustrate the beauty that can be found in this part of Europe.
As always, please click to enlarge.

June 28, 2009

A Taste Of The Tropics.

Scandinavian summers are short and elusive. This far up north, we live for the sunshine and can be found frolicing in it as soon as the first rays shine down on us in the early spring.

The climate here can be described as one long autumn season. The Gulf Stream keeps the climate temperate and very even and stable throughout the year. The winters are long, dark, windy but relatively mild and the summers are short, rainy, full of light but cold.
However, once in a while exceptions will defy the rule. In the winter, we can get hit by heavy snowstorms, which can cause traffic havoc and will confine us in our homes. Likewise, comes July, there can be weeks - and if we are lucky - months of very warm weather, once the wind blows from the right direction bringing hot and dry air and allowing the high pressure settle in over Scandinavia.
Such is the weather right at this moment. The air is still and hot, the sun is strong and everything is vibrant and alive. People as well. It is amazing what a change in the mental state of the mind good weather can bring. Combined with the light nights, this is the summer of my dreams. The only cloud on my blue skies is the realization that it is Sunday and I have to go back to work tomorrow; how unfair life can be at times. Additionally, this heat makes me lazy and at this point some of my plants are in need of trimming and pruning. As I sit on my terrace in the shade of the perfumed Honeysuckle and Jasmine writing this, I am already making excuses for why the gardening can wait until perhaps next week.

I also know, that in the evening my house will turn into a furnace, due to the large windows facing west. They act as the glass of a green house and comes evening, the temperatures inside rises at times to about 40C (104F), making it feel like a desert. Air-condition systems are not common in Denmark and the only relief is to open all the windows, hoping for a draft. However, I do not mind. While I sit inside in the early part of the night, and sweat profusely watching yet another magnificent sunset, I savor every minute, as I know that in a few months, this will all be a distant dream. I will be sitting in the same spot, submerged in darkness, covered with five blankets (at least) still freezing, while watching the cold city lights below.

Now back to my weekly clematis updates. Changes are less obvious with each week as the plant is now growing less and all its energy is spend on forming flowers. There are plenty of buds at this point, so lets hope they will all turn into lovely blue flowers in a few weeks. The honeysuckle is also unusually rich and majestic this year, hiding most of the clematis at this point.

As the changes are less pronounced, I decided to post a picture of the same spot as it looked some months ago, just to illustrate the big change the summer season brings each year.

June 27, 2009

Scented Garden.

Every time I travel during the summer months, I become very anxious about one thing - leaving my garden behind. Strange but true.
My garden is my meditation spot and I tend to it from the moment the first bulbs sprout in the very early spring until late autumn, when the time to plant spring bulbs arrives. In fact, as I have mentioned before, the very first thing I do every morning, no matter the season, right after hugging Batcat, is to look out of my large windows onto my terrace. I love all my plants and I follow them through out the year, through all their changes and transformations. I strongly feel that no one can really understand how to tend to them as well as I do. Which is probably most likely true.
This year was no exception. As soon as I arrived back fro my trip, the first thing I did was to rush outside to inspect all my plants. This time around, I left my house, Batcat and my garden in the care of good friends/co-workers and upon my return I was anything but disappointed. The garden did not only survive, it has become luscious and green and some of the plants have grown beyond recognition.

I have two shrubs or bushes, lining my terrace, which fill the warm summer air with heavenly aroma. One of them is Caprifolium, better known in English as Honeysuckle and the other one I am sorry but I fail to identify, as it came with the house. I have been told it is a type of Jasmine as it blooms with very fragrant, white, rose-like flowers in June. Honeysuckle usually blooms twice, once in June and a second time in late August-September. It is usually the last plant that still have flowers in the end of the summer season.

This year both plants are simply magnificent. The Honeysuckle is covered with scented blossoms to the bursting point and the Jasmine perfumes the air like never before.
Sitting underneath these shrubs during a sunny summer day or on a warm summer evening is just one of many simple pleasures that clearly defines the core of happiness in my book.

June 26, 2009

Past The "Night Of Magic".

I guess a better title would be "I am back, do you still remember me?", but I decided to dedicate my first post after my absence to the Midsummer celebration. Not to worry, I intend to fully summarize my wonderful vacation in a few posts in the near future.

Although they say that '...time flies when you are having fun...', I feel as though I have been gone for weeks and weeks, due to all that I have experienced and seen. I will do my very best to visit all your wonderful blogs, catching up on all the lovely posts that I have missed, but forgive me if it will take me a short while to do so.

I traveled back by train on the the 24th of June, which is the Day of St John and therefore missed the annual St John's Eve celebration, taking place the evening before. This is the Danish variant of the summer solstice or Midsummer observance.
It is a special time here in Scandinavia, celebrated slightly differently in each of its countries. In Sweden where I grew up, this was the second major annual holiday, right after Christmas. In Denmark, on the evening before St John's Day, everyone burns bonfires on beaches, a celebration that has its origins in the time of the Vikings.

In the Slovak folklore, where my roots lie, the night of St John was the night of magic. Slightly linked to similar traditions as the Scandinavian, people believed that certain secret portals were opened and creatures could cross into our world, thus one would burn fires for protection. Furthermore, there was the tale of the golden fern. This was a magical fern which would bloom exactly at midnight on St Johns Night and anyone who would pick it right then could become invisible and see all the treasures of the earth. Likewise, people would be (and some still are to this day) picking healing plants as they were attributed special potency around Midsummer. Placing nine different flowers under the pillow on St Johns Night would guarantee any dreams dreamed on that night to come true.

I like all the traditions linked to the celebration of the sun and its wonderfully healing powers. In some way, I find it amusing and to some degree comforting that despite all the technology and the speed and innovation, with which our lives progress so very relentlessly forward, most of us still like the idea of celebrating that which is magical, symbolically or otherwise.
Personally, I love Midsummer. But even more I endlessly enjoy the anticipation of the longest day of the year. As soon as it passes, it leaves me with a trace of a bittersweet realization that even though the summer has just begun, the days are slowly getting shorter again.

The below pictures were taken on the other side of midnight on the night of St John. I tried to illustrate the natural wonder that is the Scandinavian Midsummer Night Sky, by taking photographs of the simultaneous sunset and sunrise. As seen on pictures captured much better by others in Denmark, the sky did appear truly magical, as on that night the eastern part was covered by "iridescent clouds", illuminated by the setting/rising sun in an unusual way. This phenomenon is only possible to experience during summer months, when the sun is positioned about 5-13° below the horizon in the late night hours and illuminates extremely distant clouds situated some 80km above the earth in exceptionally cold surroundings (down to -100°C).
This set of pictures oncludes my "White Nights Countdown", as they have officially culminated and the day has already become 1 minute shorter (please click to enlarge).

June 07, 2009

"Travel Fever".

I do not know if this term exists in the English language, but it definitely exists in my native tongue. "Travel Fever" describes that fluttering, thrilling feeling in the pit of the stomach, often linked with excitement and expectations of an imminent journey. It usually occurs a few days prior to the beginning of the travel and intensifies in strength, until it culminates at the time of departure.
I am currently suffering from this pleasant condition and nothing around me seems the same. Tomorrow is the big packing day followed by boarding a train, or several trains and meeting up with the handsome Irishman, to spend wonderful days in one of the most beautiful cities in the heart of Europe.

This means that today is my last post for the next twenty days. I am going to miss you all and I hope you will not forget me while I am gone.

But before I leave you, here is the traditional weekly update on my lavish clematis. Perhaps the next time I post a picture, there might be some flowers. Considering it will survive my absence, that is.

Have wonderful June my friends and as Arnold would say; "I'll be back".

June 06, 2009

The Time Of Roses...

I love roses. Right now, all my rosebushes are blooming. The roses that grow on my terrace, came with the house and to begin with, I wanted to get rid of them. Not because they were not beautiful or difficult to care for, but because they were (and still are) every year attacked by some sort of bug. I have tried everything to fight this pest, all kinds of chemicals available on the market, but nothing helps. It is nothing visible, the only thing I see is flowers and leaves that become ragged on the edges, as if eaten. Someone told me recently, that it is indeed some sort of vermin that lives in the ground and comes up in the night to feast on the beautiful plant and there is nothing one can do about it. Short of getting rid of the rose.

Today I have accepted that I have only a short time each year to lavish in the beauty of the roses. This incredibly resilient plant is as beautiful and fragile, as it is strong and dangerous, with all its thorns. It blooms almost all year around; the top picture depicts flowers that I picked one year in early December.
I admire the rose and I would love to resemble it; lovely to look at, but dangerous to the touch. A treat for the eyes, yet to be approached with care. So strong, coming back each year with stunning beauty. Bringing happiness to anyone who gazes at it, signifying love and ethereal beauty.

If I had to pick one flower or plant that I resemble, it is definitely not a rose. At the best I am an orchid; I am sensitive and require a lot of care, attention and love. I pose no threat to anyone; what you see is what you get. And I will only thrive if cared for properly; if ignored or neglected, I will die.

But I would much rather be a rose.

June 05, 2009

Night Sky In June.

We are now approaching the summer solstice, which will take place on the 21st June, in about two weeks. In Scandinavia, the period in late June is centered around the Midsummer celebration, a pagan tradition welcoming the Midnight Sun.
To me reaching the solstice is a bit of a bittersweet finale in the season of light, as I know that from that point on, days will get shorter again.

Nevertheless, the next two weeks are signified by the culmination of white nights. The night is now truly absent and the sunset slowly turns into sunrise, a phenomenon that will never cease to amaze me.

June 04, 2009

Unique Stemware Set.

I have said that I love beer, but I have to admit that when I want to serve something fancy for my guests, I always buy good sparkling wine, or every now and then; champagne.

On special occasions I love to serve the effervescent wine in somewhat unique glasses. These beautiful flutes are designed for those summer cocktail parties outside. I received the set as a birthday gift from my parents and I find the stemware incredibly charming and fun. The glasses lack the foot and are originally designed for opulent parties held on beaches, where guests can stick the bare stems in the sand. The colour variety is not just an entertaining detail, but it also aids in recognition of one's own drink.

I do not have any sand on my patio, but everyone always enjoys drinking from these fancy colorful flutes, as they turn even even a small party into a lavish celebration.

June 03, 2009

My "Hurricane Radio".

I have a lot of objects in my home. Lots of stuff, as one would say. I guess I have developed affection for my possessions. Mostly this comes from the fact that I have moved around so much, I try relentlessly to hold onto objects as they make me feel safe.

Do you ever look around your home and see familiar objects around you and immediately feel waves of recollections streaming back? Almost everything in my house has a memory linked to it.

So does my hurricane radio.

I have experienced two hurricanes in my life and none of these experiences is something I want to relive again. The first one was hurricane Marilyn in 1995, while vacationing in the US Virgin Island. I was literally in the eye of the storm and have described this extensively in a previous post.
The second one was barely a year after in North Carolina. Although it was not a direct hit at that time, as I lived inland, it was still a very unsettling experience. In the autumn of 1996, the east coast was devastated by hurricane Fran. I lived in a second story (and the upper most) apartment and spend most of the night hugging my cat while sitting in the bathtub. The storm was strong and I felt at all times that the roof above me would be lifted by the strong winds and disappear. Most likely, the winds were never strong enough so far inland to do that, but I guess after living through one devastating storm, one gains respect for Mother Nature and its fury.

As with every storm of this kind, or any natural catastrophe for that matter, the worst is the aftermath.
Nothing is ordinary. There is no power, sometimes no water and everything comes to a stand still. The stores are closed and there is a state of emergency declared, with curfews implemented. It feels like being part of a war zone.

I will never forget the drive to work the following morning, seeing all the fallen trees and damages and collapsed power lines.
I also recall to this day my drive to the only open store in the area, the nearby K-Mart. We were let in one by one, given flashlights and let literally loose into the dark isles. All one could hear was the eerie silence, interrupted only by voices in the distance and dripping water from damage pipelines. I went there that day as I realized that it was terrible to be without power, but even more devastating to be without any communication. No radio, no TV. I wanted something that was powered by batteries so my mission that day was to purchase a battery driven portable radio. As luck would have it, I found one right away without needing to venture too far into the store. It was almost as if finding a treasure.

To this day the radio still works and use it every summer on my terrace. It works both on batteries and power, but I have never ever used it plugged. Considering that the power is different here, I most likely never will.

June 02, 2009

The Avocado.

Some of you commented on the avocado in my summer lunch and that got me thinking about my first encounter with this interesting fruit.
I was born and spend the first thirteen years of my life in the communist Czechoslovakia, a country that doesn’t even exist anymore.Growing up in the former communist bloc meant almost at all times to be deprived of something. I recall, that having fresh vegetables or fruit was a rarity and one would have to spend many hours standing in line at a vegetable market for anything that was worth purchasing. Those who had their own piece of land were lucky enough to grow their own vegetables, but we, who grew up in the concrete ghettos, had to rely on what the stores offered.

Therefore, I was not familiar with that many different types of vegetables or fruit for that matter, upon our immigration to the west. I will never forget how amazing it was to us the immigrants to be walking around in the western supermarkets. There were fruits and vegetables that I have never seen before in my life.
One of these was avocado. When I tasted the fruit for the first time, it was the most interesting culinary experience then. I remember the overwhelming, unusual, fleshy and fatty taste of the green pulp. I have to admit the taste and the consistency of the fruit was anything but pleasant. To me it tasted odd, not like anything I would recognize. Just strange. I got it at a friend’s house and they served it to me straight as it was. As with anything new, it would have been much better served included in a salad or with additional side dish.

This was almost 30 year ago and today I know, that avocados are not just delicious, but very nutritious as well. They contain the good fat and are loaded with vitamins and minerals.
Nowadays, avocado is one my absolutely favourite fruits. I love it served in any way with anything.

But the best way I know is to eat it just the way I ate it for the first time, with a spoon, completely on its own.

June 01, 2009

Hello Summer!

Yes, it has arrived with all its splendor and beauty! We have had three days of absolute summer; sunny, warm, wind still. Perfect to spend it outside, or on a beach. I live in a port city and close to pristine beaches within 20 minutes drive. This early in the summer the sea might still be cold, but refreshing enough for a dip.
Today is a holiday in Denmark and most likely in other parts of Europe, it is the religious observance of Pentecost.

When I was a child, growing up in the former Czechoslovakia, the 1st of June meant a completely different celebration; it was Children's Day. I recall it very well, as we would receive small gifts from our parents. Furthermore, June was the last month of school and meant a countdown to summer break.

Happy Summer everyone!