Wednesday, December 30, 2009

So This is Christmas (Eve)

Christmas, the biggest holiday of the year. For me, it sure didn't feel like it. Scattered plastic x-mas trees strung up with tacky neon lights (tinsel's still in) combined with a lack of snow, tasteful light displays, or any real ornaments/decor made me miss the over-the-top extravaganza you find across America.

I heard x-mas music around Daegu, but unfortunately variety does not seem to be much of a Korean tradition. It was nothing but "All I want for Christmas is You" arranged to heavy pop beats and synthesizers. A close second (and so much worse) was Wham's "Last Christmas." Made me want to say the Lord's name in vain on his birthday. Sheesh. Please watch this YouTube video and imagine yourself slightly homesick in freezing cold Korea to understand (click link). I never thought I would want to put on one of those 24-hour holiday stations so badly.

Another Christmas display from the subway, a favored environment for the decor of any occasion.

Although more than 50% of Koreans consider themselves Christians, Christmas does not get the same It's October, put up the decorations!/presentpresentspresents/close down the schools for two weeks/eggnog in your eye treatment, so I had to work on Christmas Eve.

It wasn't so bad though. Spirits were up in anticipation of a Friday off. I brought a few bags of candy for the kids and used the holiday as a reason to bring in my camera. I had a great day and who-woulda-thunk-it, the kids were PUMPED for candy.

I wasn't the only one that brought gifts.

One of my students, Hyan Ea, gave me a wonderful cupcake frosted and candied to the 9's complete with a ribbon that read "I love you" all over it. She was so clearly embarrassed, but I still made her take this picture with me.

Mike, Sally, Chris, myself and Maria. I love this class (though sadly the 5th student Lucy was missing that day) so I had to get a picture. Note: "Feliz Navidad" on the board. I taught them a little holiday Spanish since I have yet to resist pronouncing Maria's name with the gusto of a flamenco dancer: "Oy, mi corazon, Mariiiiiia!"

I bribed Che Hong and Hong Ook in the hallway with some candy to take this picture. I originally gave Hong Ook the English name "Adam" the first class we had because there's a Jin Oo and the subtlety between oo and ook (it's a real mild k) was too much for me. It ended up taking about 5 minutes of laughing and yelling to get the lesson started that day...

This is my last class of the day on Mondays and Thursdays, and they are some of the more talkative students. Sometimes we just skip the pages in the book and try to have conversation for the 20 minutes. Unsurprisingly, the last class before Christmas ended up being one of those classes. They all love and play baseball, so that tends to be a topic. Feeling seasonal, I drew them a baseball Santa. We also talked about Korean celebration of Christmas and Christianity. Note my explanation of the average American's yearly church attendance as a fraction: "1/365=Jesus time."

That night, Mr. Lee and I went to his parents house for dinner. His family is Buddhist, so they don't celebrate Christmas. His sons still managed to con him into buying them presents though. When I got there, we exchanged gifts. The Lees got me a wonderful knit scarf. It's worked wonders against the Daegu cold (teens to 20s on many days).

It wasn't like my usual Christmas eve routine of going over Grandma and Grandpa's, but Grandma Lee did her best to make me feel comfortable, and of course, well fed.

The Christmas eve feast. I've really enjoyed all the Korean food I've tried. It's not just the food itself that I like, but also the way that it is a meal that shares plates and incorporates many side dishes with different flavors. On the left, the greens are used like pockets and you take some pork and add all kinds of sides, rolling it into bite-size Korean food bliss. There was the main pork boiling in the big black pot and fried pork with a special sauce to the right of that. The heaping pile of red is of course, kimchi, and in front of that is a dipping sauce with hot peppers and whole garlic cloves (yes, they are consumed whole and raw, it's intense but it's okay if everyone's doing it). Also present were little egg-cake things, bean sprouts, and a grass-salad with a teriyaki dressing.

I ate SO much. Grandma Lee kept worrying that I didn't have enough to eat and Grandpa Lee made me pick my chopsticks back up when at one point I put them down to take a breather. She also brought out rice, roast duck, and a special traditional Korean bean soup. Yum.

Mr. Lee and I
Mr. Lee's sons, Je Yun and Je Sun have lots of energy. It seems like he keeps up with them alright though.
We played a ball game, but I think I wound them up a bit too much...

The scarf turned out not to be the only gift I went home with. I had lots of praise to offer Grandma Lee's homemade kimchi, so she sent me home with what I estimated was a 10lb bag. When I got home, I split it up in smaller, more manageable baggies. Below, the last of the bag
I call it "The Christmas Kimchi Massacre."

It was a Merry Christmas eve...

Bonus picture from Mr. Lee's youngest son's birthday. I gave them my little American flag. Way cute, I know. God bless the USA.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My name is Keith. I am from USA

COOLish Foreign Language Institute. Keith, now teaching, can finally back up the URL of the blog. The following is a pieced-together post of notes I took the first 2 weeks. I just started week three. More to come.

I spent last week closely observing my predecessor Nathan. I paid extra close attention, because he's gone and I'm up there doing my thing now. The schedule was the first challenge.

There are seven classrooms, 6 of which I teach in over the course of the week. Mondays and Thursdays I teach mostly in rooms 1, 2, and 6; Tuesdays and Fridays in rooms 3, 4, and 5. On those days, I teach in hour-long blocks, 20 minutes in each classroom. On Wednesdays I have classroom 7 to myself and I teach six 50 minute lessons.

The day starts at 1:00pm, but with lunch and planning doesn't really get going until after 3. From there, it's straight out until 9. I put in just under 6 hours of teaching. If it sounds a little confusing, it is. It was very confusing to me, but there is a pattern to it.

Sometimes, the 20 minutes is not enough, other times it is too much. Depending on how much the Korean teacher wants me to cover, I may fly through everything in 10 minutes. That leaves 10 minutes to entertain young, rambunctious Korean students. Oy vey.

I am the only foreign teacher at COOLish, and it's a medium to small size school. Students range from 7 to 14 in age. There are 5 other native Korean teachers. My teaching curriculum is not my own, rather I work with the teachers and go over units as they teach them. Generally, the students have already been taught the grammar and vocabulary in Korean before I set foot in the classroom. This is different from the English teaching approach that was drilled into us in Prague, which has made for a bit of an adjustment as I carefully feel out what is appropriate in my role, not just as a new teacher, but also as a foreigner with different ideas about a lot of things.

My adjusting has gone very well overall, better than I could have expected. Mr. Lee and the teachers seem very open-minded and with smaller class sizes (1-7 students) I have a lot of flexibility as a teacher. I'm trying to think of creative ways to engage the students and get them to speak. I've found that a smile and a little physical comedy (verbal quips generally don't register with the elementary English-learner crowd) goes a long way. It's fun.

Ah, but the challenges. The day is a marathon, not a sprint. The breaks in the day are front loaded, making the stretch toward the end dizzying some nights. I've learned that I can't dance around every class and expect to have anything left after 7 or 8.

Korean names. My goodness, they are difficult for me. Half the students have English names that were assigned to them either by Nathan or the teacher before him when a Korean name just proved too difficult to pronounce. I came in with the mentality that as tempting as it would be to name my students after people back home, I would try to learn their real names. Here's a sampling:

Kim Eun Bi
Lee Bo Geum
Hong Sung Hun
Kim Hyung Jun
Sang Hyoung Kim
Je Wan Lee
Boo Kwan Shin
Hyan Jung Mi
Lee Yoo Seok
Pyo Se Young

These are all English phonetic adaptations since their names as they know them are in Korean character script. When I asked for spelling, there wasn't always a straightforward response. At first I could do little to ward off uproarious laughter when I read the roster. In an extreme example I've begun to call a student "Chew-bar" because its close to what I'm hearing when he and other classmates say his name. They think its funny.

The pronunciation issue continued into my introduction.

Me: "My name (pointing energetically toward the chest) is Keith. I am from Boston, USA."

(General chattering; apparent confusion)

Me: "Boston."

Korean teacher pipes in from the back of class: "[inaudible Korean]"

Students: "Ooooooooooooooh. Buss-stone!"

I say I'm from Boston thinking it best not to challenge my students too much with "Duxbury" and also to associate my home in the US with somewhere they have actually heard of.

Teaching is full of ups and downs. Each class has a personality of its own and it can really dictate how a lesson goes. Students can be wild and out of control or completely silent on the verge of falling asleep onto their desks. I could do somersaults and garner no reaction at all. Other classes are quiet but diligent. Of course, students also have very individual needs. Many classes have that one student that calls out all the answers. The challenge there is to involve the other students and make sure they also understand before moving on. It's not always easy.

Teaching and learning and teaching and learning. Borrowing from my 11th grade Spanish teacher Ms. Curtis: its un ciclo interminable, an interminable cycle.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

An yung ha say yu, Daegu!!!

The 4+ hour busride from Incheon to Daegu was surreal. I witnessed a neon lit- skyline unlike any I have seen before. Even the churches make use of LED technology. Lit crosses dot the tops of houses of worship all over the city here. They are almost as densely present as Mosques in Moslem cities (thinking back to Morocco). My director, Mr. Lee tells me that well over half of Koreans are Christians.
This is the best I could find online, I haven't taken many pictures. Most are actually red (sangre de Christo!). Welcome to the 21st century, Jesus.

I was able to catch some much needed z's on the bus in spacious reclining lazy-boy style seats (awesome). As we pulled into Daegu, I thought to myself "well done, we've covered a lot of ground today, followed my instructions and managed it all without a hitch." After Prague and other travel follies, I've come to anticipate trouble. In truth, I was not quite in the clear. No early celebrations for this guy.

I got off at the station with the remaining passengers and gathered up my mass of luggage underneath, trudging toward the street where taxis awaited. Mr. Lee told me to wait there and I had told him when my bus was scheduled to arrive. Turning down numerous rides, 15-20 minutes passed with no sign of Mr. Lee. Oh boy.

"Did I get off at the wrong stop?"

None of the cabbies seemed to speak English, so when I asked if this was Daegu main station, I got an answer in Korean. It was little use. I waited some more before a cabbie offered his cell phone.

"Great, I'll just call Mr. Lee to make sure."

As I dug through my pockets and bag for my print-out will all my numbers and info, I realized I didn't have it. I'm not positive, but my hunch is that I left it by the payphone at the airport. Well, mission accomplished, problem encountered. So it goes. [Come on people, where would we be without this blog suspense?]

Handing the phone back to the cabbie and thanking him for the service I was quite unable to take advantage of, I nervously gathered up my things and made my way through the rain soaked streets and sidewalks in search of power and an internet connection or the real Daegu main station. I toasted through my laptop battery during my layover in San Fran and had only enough to boot at the Incheon airport before it died.

My search only led down dead-end alleys and to crosswalks that never lit green. Eventually I resolved to try a well lit strip with shops and restaurants. I spotted a power outlet next to a table in a Korean restaurant of some kind. Following the example set down before me, I removed my shoes and dropped my stuff by the door in exactly the fashion you would expect a dogged Westerner that just arrived in a very foreign land after 30-some odd hours of travel.

It wasn't the type of place you would just stroll into and jack power from, so I felt obligated to order something. Completely unable to read the menu, I used the trusty pin-the-tail on the donkey selection method, landing on something cheap. 5,000Won ($4 and change). You can imagine my surprise when plate after plate of food came out. The grand finale was a big bowl that was literally boiling and bubbling. I felt a little overwhelmed, but not too overwhelmed to take a picture.
Figure 1. The first of hundreds of servings of kim-chi I'll eat. Without exaggeration, I've eaten it every single day since I got here. One week strong.

I soon managed to get an internet signal (bless the connectivity of Korea! it seems to me that they are light years ahead of Spain, the Czech Republic and most of the U.S.) and call Mr. Lee. I had no clue where I was, so I put the waitress on my little headset. Korean is an extremely jolting rhythmic and expressive language, so I was awe-struck and confused as to the particulars of the lengthy discussion that unfolded over my table as I stared down, not at all hungry, at my small feast. At last, she gave me a nod and handed back the headset. When I got on, Mr. Lee had hung up. So now we wait and hope.

It was just then, when it seemed I had finally reached my ultimate destination that the exhaustion of it all overcame me. I barely had the strength or awareness to operate my computer, so I put it away and attempt to preside over the food.

Mr. Lee soon arrived, and though I really didn't feel like one, we shared a bottle of beer. It was pretty refreshing.
Hite beer: Cool & Fresh. The Korean pop group "Big Bang" uh...throw a perfectly good pitcher of Hite? Korean advertising is a subject for another post. The visual innuendo in this one is a little much.

I sooned learned that I ordered the boiling pig spine soup. Yum. It was pretty good, kind of like rib soup and I as I had more, I realized I did actually need a little something to eat.

After finishing up, Mr. Lee drove me to the grocery store and bought me some staples to hold me over for a few days. It was the beginning of what has been, and will hopefully continue to be, a very warm accommodating relationship. Thanks Mr. Lee. We then made it to my apartment, I dropped my bags and collapsed. *Christopher Walken speak* I can't believe, ya' made it!

Mr. Lee gave me the next day off to collect myself a bit. It was much needed. That night, we went out to dinner at a Korean pork grill place.

It seemed like an endless meal. In Korea, all your sides are free (various grilled vegetables and pickled things and of course kim-chi), you only pay for the meat. Vegetarians rejoice! The server brings out everything raw and you sort of working together to cook it. "That one doesn't look quite done."

It was my first opportunity to learn some drinking manners from Mr. Lee. It is traditional for the younger person to pour for the elder using two hands, then receiving with two hands. It is rude for a glass to remain empty. It is also custom to drink together, never alone. Whenever Mr. Lee raised his glass I had to follow suit and take a drink. I quickly learned that big gulps were best. I'm definitely a frequent sipper and if I didn't change my approach, Mr. Lee would have drank me out of house and home, and I depend on those things from him...

I also learned the finer points of soju drinking, "the cheapest alcohol in all Korea" according to Mr. Lee. I'm not sure what it's distilled from (I guessed rice incorrectly) but it weighs in at 20% alcohol, 40 proof, so it's not total high-test. When Mr. Lee said it was cheap, I didn't know how cheap. I've seen it priced around 1,000Won (less than a dollar) for a bottle. That prices Caldwell's (Somerville, MA's $10 vodka) like it's Grey Goose. Shit's cheap! I find this simultaneously horrifying and glorious.

Soju! Budget alcoholism at it's best!

Mr. Lee and I talked about family, fishing, travel, golf and other things. He's big on golfing and he's thrilled that I want to go with him. He also wants to take me traveling around Korea. The companionship is strong and the positive vibes I got from our Skype interview have exceeded all my expectations. It really knocked down the stern-nosed Korean school boss stereotype I'd read about online. His warmth has made adjusting so much easier.

We went out again on Wednesday after school for a pitcher and some hot wings. The man knows how to please this guy. Chatting about school for a bit, we got back on travel and golf. He has three young boys and his wife won't let him go anywhere, but he thinks I could be his ticket to escaping dad duties temporarily. "But honey, it's for the good of the hagwon [school]!"

He helps me, I help him, go team.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Boston to San Francisco to Seoul to Daegu. 36 straight hours of fun!

3:45am wake-up.

On roughly 45 minutes of sleep, the ride from Duxbury into Boston was a quiet, somber one for Emma and I. We showed our tiredness.

5:00am. Arrival at Logan. After saying our goodbyes, I shuffled into United check-in struggling under my unreasonable quantity and bulk of luggage. I barely get in line before I feel my phone vibrating in my pocket. I have no hands, and ignore it at first, but it keeps buzzing away. I finally set some things down and see that it's Emma. I left my iPod in her car! No worse way to start off an epic traveling journey than to do so without any tunes. Leaving a few of my bags (to the dismay of Homeland Security), I went back out. The return was anything but easy, as at first Emma entered through the wrong airline door and I ran in the opposite direction of where she had parked, then ran the other way and found her car empty. We eventually found each other, crisis #1 averted.

5:15am. Checked in with United. Got asked by a dude helping people find the right desk if I really was taking all the stuff I was carrying and if I was aware of the existence of excessive baggage fees. Towards those traveling on a week-long domestic vacations, I would understand his comments. I didn't feel up for offering an explanation though. All he got was a "yeah, thanks." The lady behind the desk took an extra ten minutes triple checking to make sure that the ridiculous sum I was paying to bring my guitar was correct. I appreciated her persistence.

TSA security: A carousel of fun. I had my pockets empty, belt, shoes, and watch off lickity-split and was pleased to move through line quickly. Once I passed through the metal detector, my sense of smooth efficiency evaporated compliments of the woman monitoring the x-ray scanner.

"Bag check, lane one."


My backpack, laptop, and bucket o' trinkets were SEPARATELY flagged as items in need of further inspection. Shoeless and defeated I followed an officer into a glass room to the side. Let the shakedown commence.

I assured them I had no liquids, aerosols or machetes in my carry-on. They ended up re-scanning my backpack not once, not twice, but three times, each time removing another few items until it was pretty well half-emptied onto the table. By the time they let me go, it was 5:45. Gathering up my things, I noticed that my laptop was missing. In the midst of everything, I didn't notice that it was not returned.

Of course, the dude that had originally taken it was nowhere in sight, so I tried to describe him as I made my way back to the woman on the x-ray scanner, hoping she could help. As soon as I stepped onto a "line" that was really just a rug, I was yelled at by another guy that sternly told me that I had intruded on "his office." I'll knock next time, asshole.

I went back to the glass room and luckily found it in a bin on a chair.

5:53 I ran to the gate and found an employee waiting for me. I was last on and they pretty much closed the gate behind me.

6:15 As advertised in the captain's introductory remarks, the take-off was a bumpy one. South Korea, here I come.

San Francisco. Aside from a good Skype chat, a greasy breakfast burrito, and a large Anchor Steam ale, not much to say about my first encounter with the west coast. I'll be back.
Take-off: 1:30pm Pacific time (4:30pm Eastern). Twelve hour flight commence.

I took small cat naps here and there, re-read the Great Gasby (once again confirming the importance of re-reading classics with some distance from high school), and watched the second half of a movie starring Paul Giamatti as himself. I figured out that he somehow sold his soul to some Russians earlier in the movie and eventually traveled there to reclaim it from a soap opera star. I really should have seen the first half of the movie. Not for everyone, but I'm a Giamatti fan.

The flight route took us up the west coast, around Alaska and down past Siberia, and over Japan before we landed in Incheon International. The time is 6:45pm, Sunday. To add to the exhaustion of the travels alone, the local time clock effectively moved forward 14 hours on me. Yeesh.
The ultra-modern Incheon International Airport, constructed around 5 years ago.

My experience at Incheon was MUCH better than in Prague, I was able to withdraw cash without any issue, make a phone call to my director that I was to meet in Daegu, buy a bus ticket AND get on the right bus. Great success.

12:30am Monday, I arrive in Daegu. 10:30am Sunday morning for all you folks back home.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Life in the meantime/E-2 Visa, please

Well. It has been awhile since I've been on blogger.

Not a whole lot has happened since my last post, but my daily routine has changed. Overall, there's less Sportscenter and re-reading of the literary classics I thumbed through in high school. Why you ask? Well I got a job at Empire Wine & Spirits in Kingston.
An impossibly small logo. The best Google images could do.

I applied on a whim when I grabbed myself a 6-pack of 250th anniversary stout in recognition of Arthur Guinness Day. It turned out that they needed someone temporarily as one of the managers just had a baby girl named Isabel Sophia. Yeah I know, awww.

In addition to the knowledge I'm picking up about wine & spirits, an increasing disdain for the thievery of the MA state lotto, and the character show that collectively, the regulars put on, I get a 10% discount. Boosh. Main downside, I don't have a car, so I have to bike the 3 miles through the treacherous traffic of 53 and 3A made more unpleasant by inclimate weather. It's gettin' cold out there...

A few weeks ago, I sent all my documents to Winnie and Wonnie to begin the visa process (including my original diploma - just a piece of paper, right? Yeesh). They responded soon after with a confirmation number. Last week, I had my visa appointment and interview and today I finally picked it up.
Giving a thumbs up or kinda rubbing my chin with a huge hand? You decide.

The other day, I got my flight details. Looks like I'll be shipping out the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and I'm grateful for that. I have the opportunity for one last hurrah with the folks and family. Gobble gobble.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Position in Daegu City, South Korea

Who's tentatively employed? THIS GUY

After a few good weeks of searching and sending my resume across the world, Wonnie found a great opportunity for me in Daegu City.

Daegu City skyline.
Located in the southern inland region of the peninsula, Daegu City (alternatively spelled Taegu) is one of the largest metropolitan cities in the country and is located relatively close to the cities of Ulsan (where Barbara from my course is teaching) and Pusan (where I know few UMass grads are also teaching).

I interviewed with the director of the school, Hee Yong Lee, via Skype (I've provided a link for those that don't have it/never heard of it - it's your key to video chatting anytime anywhere FOR FREE). I learned about 10 minutes before the interview that Mr. Lee had read this blog. Oh boy.

Naturally, I was less-than-comfortable at the thought of the impressions a potential employer could get from reading. To my pleasant surprise, he was very easygoing, assuring me that nothing here at would prejudice me in consideration for the position. I was pleased to learn that he also has a penchant for the booze (he merely asked that I not drink too much on weekdays). He even threw in some jokes about my chops. Awesome.

I thought the interview went quite well, and I told Wonnie I was very interested. The next day, she got back to me with great news - my first job offer! She attached pictures of the school and the apartment that I would live in.

My contract does not begin until the beginning of December. Provided my visa is approved and they don't have second thoughts, from December 2009 to December 2010 I will be living, teaching, and rocking in Daegu City, South Korea. South Korea here we come!
Ah. Students hard at work. A welcome sight. Most of the students at the school are elementary English learners between the ages of 7 and 14.
The hallway.
The director with his adorable child.
The apartment.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Duxbury, Massachusetts

Here I sit in my dining room in Duxbury, plugging away on ESL websites. Last night, I had several shy Korean women calling to ask if I received their emails. They were a few of the recruiters that I've contacted in my job search. As I fill out more applications and send more emails, I expect to hear from more by the day. Mother says that I'm only doing this for the phone calls but I can assure you I'm not. While they are very friendly, the conversation is sometimes awkward and confusing since their English is good, but not great and there's not a whole lot to talk about.

Korean lady (oh so softly and thickly accented): "Hi this is _____ from ________. Can I speak to Keith?"
Me (at first): "Who?"
Korean lady: "_______ from Korea...South Korea."
Me (owing to the confusion feeling obligated to make small talk): "Oh right, this is Keith, how are you?"
Korean lady: "Er...gooood, how are you?"
Me : "Great....uh...what, er...yes?"
Korean lady: "Did you receive my email?"
Me: "Yes I did, thank you (totally lying, not at all sure which recruiter I'm talking to)"
Korean lady: "Do you have any questions?"
Me: "Not at the moment."
Korean lady: "Oh?"
Me: "Yeah, looks good."
Korean lady: "Well if you have any questions..."

And I think you get the gist. They seem to be pretty attentive and helpful so far. For most ESL jobs in Korea, recruiters have some involvement. Especially for an entry-level teacher without a base of contacts at schools in the country, they are the easiest route for finding a job, getting a visa and flying over. Periodically, they send along job postings and information as they find jobs that match your stated preferences. From there, you express interest or not and then they set up an interview with a director.

This all began when my friend Barbara from the TEFL course (who is in Korea already) put me in touch with her tag-team recruiters, Winnie and Wonnie. I'll let you make your own joke.

If there was any lingering uncertainty, South Korea is a definite go, so the question mark must go. Still not sure of a new title. I'm aiming for a late October/early November departure, so I do have some time.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

An ode to Czech beer, part two; Plzen.CZ

Likely one of my last Prague posts (still thinking of a proper Korean title, the question mark must go), I hope it goes down as a favorite.

If ever there were an opportunity, here it is. I think my enjoyment of beer is well known, and I should make it clear that it is not a matter of consumption, it is a matter of savory appreciation. Who else gets this excited about hops fields?

We had a beer tasting that lasted for a very long time mostly because Ryan stinks at drinking. Here are a few of the 16 beers we tried (don't worry, we shared):
Picture slightly out of focus. Czech beer just as I remember it.

Plzen, CZ

A mere hour bus ride southwest of Prague, Plzen is yet another Bohemian gem. Not nearly as picturesque as Cesky Krumlov, it has perhaps an even more appealing draw - The Pilsner Urquell Factory.

The sad reality is that there would have been no other reason to go to Plzen besides to make a Pilsner beer pilgrimage, but I am in the company of many that go, and I would have to say it would be worthwhile even for the casual beer drinker.

On first impression, the factory is more theme-park super-complex than production facility (minus the mascots). The tour only reinforced this.

Ryan and I file towards the bus for the first leg.
A brewery tour would never be complete without a peek at the bottling and canning process. It felt something like an episode of how its made...
The now-defunct water tower. Today, it remains as one of the several antique symbols of the Pilsner Urquell factory.
Antique copper vats. Like the water tower, they are no longer used in the brewing process.
The modern day brewing tanks. A complex series of pressurized pipes connect two copper vats and one of the steel vats. The wort (malt and water) are passed between the copper and steel vats during various stages of the brewing process. Later, the hops and yeast are added before fermentation takes place in huge towers adjoining the building. The production capacity of this facility is about 1,000,000 liters per day (that makes around 2,817,000 12-ounce beers, oh shoot).
The copper container that produced the very first batch of Pilsner Urquell.

Eventually our tour guide led us into the original tunnels below the brewery. It took 90 years to dig these cellars by hand and they remain only partially in use for the tour. As we made our way further and further underground, the temperature dropped to a cold, damp 50 degrees - ideal for brewing. This was a real contrast to the warm 80 it was outside.

The real treat of the entire trip - young Pilsner Urquell fermenting in the open air. Brewed exactly to all specifications of the original, this beer is a labor of love. Fermented in hand-made barrels, there are no mechanized pumps or technology at work, only experienced brew masters that see the process through by hand.


After fermentation for around 12 days, the young beer is transferred to these stacked casks to complete the aging. Single file, our group moved towards an old brew man with a little spigot connected to one of the casks. Out poured a slow stream of golden pilsner. It was captivating.

Ryan and I enjoy that sweet nectar. What is special about this beer in addition to the labors taken to recreate the original process is that it is both unfiltered and unpasteurized. As a result, once ready, it only keeps for 5 days. This makes it impossible to transport, as any change in temperature or disruption to the unfiltered yeast would spoil the brew. Therefore, you can only get it at the Pilsner factory.

The difference can really be tasted, as the flavor is more fresh, full and complete. Even as a light, bottom-fermented pilsner, there is real substance. I've said it before, beer is a delicate thing and none more than this.

One last shot of the famous gates before we set off.
Plzen is not only known for Pilsner. It also is home to the 3rd largest synagogue in the world. Who would have thought?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Last Day

It's hard to believe that today is my last day in Prague. It just happens to coincide with...


Still have more pictures and such to share, as Ryan and I took a day trip out to Plzen and the Pilsner Urquell factory. I'll probably put something together during my Prague-to-London-to-Boston travels. Hopefully things go better than Dublin-to-Prague...

See everyone soon...


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Art and the Antics of David Černý

David Černý is Czech modern art. If you see something around the city that strikes you as strange or amusing, chances are it's a Černý.

Above, one of his first famous works. The monument itself was built by the Russians during their presence to commemorate their 1968 invasion. In 1991, Černý and a group of artist buddies stormed the monument under the cover of night with buckets of pink paint. You see the result.

The Russians re-painted the monument to its original form only to have it re-painted pink soon after by members of Czech Parliament in response to enthusiastic public demand.

The "Hanging out" sculpture. He's been hanging for around 12 years now.

The Wencleslas equestrian statue in Wencleslas Square, one of the most recognizable monuments in Prague.
Černý has this displayed inside of a mall off of Wencelas Square. It kind of reminds me of Animal House...

The babies. Not sure what the deal is with these things, but they climb the TV tower a few blocks from my flat and it's bizarre. It's a trend with this guy.

The pissing dudes. The general rule for public urination is as follows: the further east you move in Europe, the fewer beers need be drank before a guy has no problem taking a very public leak. This is taken to be Černý's mockery of what I've already mentioned is a significant cultural practice.

Believe it or not, their hips actually move and spell out words. It's possible to send text messages to a special number and the dudes will start to write out your message with their endless stream. If this thing isn't ridiculous enough, the pool that they are standing in is shaped like the Czech Republic.

Any explanation needed?

Museum of Modern Art, Holesovice, Praha.

On my way to the museum, I passed a Czech guy struggling to get through an acoustic rendition of The Red Hot Chili Pepper's "Scar Tissue" that maybe, for comedic value, even my dad could appreciate. All that distinguished it from a traditional Czech folk song for me was the chorus: "with the birds I share this lonely view." For the birds alright.

Every six months, the seat of the EU Presidency shifts from one member state to another. The beginning of 2009 marked the first such opportunity for the Czech Republic since it joined during the 2004 EU enlargement. In celebration of the milestone, the Czech government commissioned Černý to put together a sculpture for display in Brussels. As you may have expected, controversy ensued.
Titled "Entropa, "each EU member state has its own crude caricature. Černý was commissioned to collaborate with artists from across Europe and for some time, it was thought that he was in fact doing so. Instead, he created false names, made fake CVs and websites, and composed the piece by himself with the help of two other friends. The elaborate only complicated the controversy and outrage when it was unveiled.

Germany, depicted as a series of autobahns. It's been suggested that their arrangement resembles a swastika. Yeesh.
Italy, a soccer match. To appreciate this one, video is needed.

Spain, a field of cement and construction.
For Poland, a group of priests raise the gay pride flag Iwo Jima style on a potato field. Crazy.
Romania. A Dracula theme park that periodically roars and blows smoke. Yeah, they weren't too impressed either...

Other countries (from Wikipedia):

Černý later expressed regrets about the way things played out. What one can get away with in Prague versus across Europe are two different things. A lot of people were pissed, the Czechs included, as Černý misled them about the nature of the project while accepting funds. He still ended up pouring a bunch of his own dough into it. Černý may be a nutjob, but I'm entertained.

Breaking news: the NYT World edition just did a piece on him yesterday...coincidence...