Postcard from Prague I

There's no doubt that my very favorite job perk is the travel. But while these trips can seem pretty lovely and leisurely from the photos, the exhausting part is that we meet every morning at 7 am and then spend much of the day in large, dark (and in this case, hot!) session rooms, wander the exhibit halls to read posters, and then return the hotel to work on our conference summaries and interpret the data. Dinner can go on until 10:30 or 11:00 pm, as the Europeans have a different pace of dinner service than us Americans. When we return to our hotel rooms it's to catch up on all the emails from everyone back at the office, to bed by midnight or some nights 2 am. It makes you wish we maybe weren't such a well-connected society.

At least the World AIDS Conference does have its sense of fun and shock, like mosaics made of condoms - meant to destigmatize condom use. (That's me and a co-worker.) Click to enlarge and see all the details of the condom display, including inflated condoms attached to a long air pipe. After wrapping up our conference in Vienna, another coworker and I gathered our remaining energy for a side trip to Prague.

With the pace of my week, I was first of all so happy to see the luxurious and comfy bed in my room at the Buddha Bar Hotel. But no rest for the weary, since we were signed up for a 6 hour walking tour the following morning! (If I only had a weekend in Prague, I was going to make the most of it!)

I was most delighted to share my travel plans with my Grandma, who grew up in Slovakia until she was about 18 and immigrated to America. In talking about my trip with her, Grandma mentioned she'd stayed in Prague just before coming to the U.S. while waiting for her paperwork to be in order. This is the closest I've come to my father's side of the family's "motherland" and knowing that my 18-year-old grandmother might have walked the same streets was cause for reflection.

Not to worry, Grandma told me, everyone speaks English and it's very safe. (Despite her advice being about 75 years old, it was true.)

Even before our tour, our self-directed wanderings showed us that the streets of Prague were just full of charm and details to take in. Every street is cobblestone, with a sometimes vague definition of where you walk and where the cars drive, so we learned to listen for traffic before stopping to take a picture. Street cleaning crews rove constantly scrubbing and brushing, keeping everything painstakingly clean.

The buildings are ornate and it's hard to tell which ones are notable from your guidbook (something happened here) versus just notable in their design. Folding to the Nazis early might have spared Prague a lot of damage from bombing in WWII.

I liked the Art Nouveau architecture a lot, and there was so much of it! Since our hotel was close to the Old Town Square, we found ourselves here often, sometimes just to have a beer in a cafe and people watch. . Note the brand name of Budvar, a Czech original brand from the 1780s, stolen by an American beermaker and remade as Budweiser

Postcard from Vienna

The challenge of being in a wonderful European city for work is that most of your time is really about work. To get around to the conference we commuted on Vienna's convenient (but unfortunately poorly air-conditioned) subway. The signage for the priority seating was amusing and creative. There's an old man on the right; what we figured to be a disabled veteran; and a pregnant lady showing a little belly on the far left. The Viennese art of pictorial language was present later on the street crossing for the blind. I giggled saying "Nur Fur" a few times to myself. (The device makes a ticking noise to tell people when to cross.)The time left to see Vienna and pick up chocolate for the coworkers who were helping me back home fell between conference sessions and at night.

St. Stephen's Cathedral is a central tourist magnet. We stopped a couple times at cafe and sweet shop, Demel.
After seeing everyone in cafes enjoying this orange drink during the afternoon hours, we ordered a few ourselves. I'm pretty sure it's an apricot wine spritzer. Since Vienna was far more hot and humid than I'd expected, we usually ended up at a gelato place every night, eyeing the many tasty flavors. (It's also why my hair is in a ponytail in nearly every photo. Ugh, so hot! Such weak air conditioning every where!) Nutella was my favorite gelato flavor, but blood orange was also a nice post-dinner palate cleanser. I tried Vienna's signature dessert, the sachertorte (the chocolate cake seen here) but the gelato was far better. It must have been the walking and climbing of subway stairs that brought me home at the same weight I'd left, because my gelato intake had me expecting a different result. I brought home some eight mosquito bites, the result of outdoor dinners. I didn't expect that, but it reminds me of the wisdom of always traveling with some Cortizone-10 for itch relief.

Vienna, AT LAST

If only I'd known when I wrote my last post that the adventures ahead of me would put my arrival to Vienna a good 10 hours later than anticipated! The portfolio of boarding passes I acquired may tell the tale. There was an hour-long lightening storm on the tarmac in D.C. and a lot of running around the Frankfurt airport for two missed connecting flights. Four fellow travelers fell into the same siutation with me. There were moments where I felt like we were traversing the airport like contestants in The Amazing Race. I paired with another woman traveling for business. At one point we competitively eyed the leisure travelers in line ahead of us and considered we could probably just get on the phone with our respective Corporate Travel offices and get to a United agent first. (Hey, they'd totally ditched us in the Lufthansa line earlier.)

I did finally landed in Vienna that night. As I parted ways with my new buddy she mentioned being glad to travel with someone who didn't let the events become overly dramatic. I agreed and noted I liked her priority to get a Diet Coke as soon as we'd finally arrived at a gate where we knew we'd be getting on a plane to our final destination.

In Vienna, a really wonderful view from my hotel window greeted me. St. Stephen's Cathedral is on the left. I spent the last week at a conference, with some snatches of tourism in between, but even then it was hard to get away from the conference. Note the AIDS ribbon on one of the sights. Me in front of the Opera House. I'll share more soon, but two first impressions:
1. There are a lot of horse-drawn carriages in Vienna. After sharing with my coworkers that this was once my summer job nary a horse went by without their jokingly suggesting we catch a ride, which meant that joke got a little old. 2. There is a lot of graffiti. My romantic visions of the Danube were pretty scarred by the view from the subway, where you could see the river lined by concrete walls and lots of vandalism.
Tonight I'm falling asleep in Prague, and can't wait for tomorrow's city tour, finishing with what I hope will be a boat ride that restores my impressions of European rivers.

Cooling My Heels (Already) in D.C.

I was ready to be off like a flash to Europe, but it's the United Red Carpet lounge, watching what I believe is Shrek 2, that is my back drop today.

It began with a two hour delay at O'Hare, to land at 5:39 at Washhington Dulles with the desperate hope of maybe there being some possibility of making my 5:40 pm flight to Vienna. Which I did! Hustling onto tram and shuttle, racing up escalators to see if my running feet could be faster than the Austrian Airways mechanic who was apparently trying to address a mechanical delay. I made it, brushing past the tsk-tsk tone of the gate agent who said "You are very lucky," from her pursed lips.

Sweaty and frazzled I took my seat, read a little, marked my preferred breakfast selections on the menu...and was advised that our flight was cancelled. Thank you United Airlines for forseeing this issue, and giving me a place on a new flight via Frankfurt, even before I raced over to the Austrian Airways gate. I nearly laughed out loud when the United Customer Service Rep said, "Now, in case your Austrian flight doesn't go tonight, let me make sure you have *protection*." It sounded like he might have handed me a condom, but instead I have a new ticket. So I'm cooling my heels in D.C.

It gives me the moment to tell you about our weekend hanging out with Jason's siblings, Courtney and Randy, and their respective significant others Lorenzo and Amber. Jason coordinated the visit around this year's Pitchfork Music Festival, where we heard Modest Mouse and Broken Social Scene Friday night. (I am miffed that tonight Sleigh Bells performs, and here I am in an airport!) I have a few photos, but they are trapped on my camera.

But I went on my trip with a still-full belly from our AMAZING dinner at Hot Chocoloate in Bucktown. (A discovery from mother-in-law Nancy's gift of a Chicago Food Tasting Tour. My profile picture on this blog is me at Hot Chocolate last summer.) It's a "save room for dessert" kind of place, as the name suggests, but that's very hard with tasty appetizers like soft pretzels with fontina cheese dip and mussels cooked in PBR. The family all ordered the steak which was reported to be "the best steak I've had in my whole life." I enjoyed the seared ahi tuna salad - steak of the sea, if you will. Head chef Mindy Segal was having drinks at the bar with a friend the whole time we were there - it's always cool to see the chef at their restaurant, and you have to think that probably ups the level on service when she's there keeping an eye on things. Hopefully Mindy heard us losing our minds (and sometimes quibbling) over the delights from the kitchen. The restaurant even treated us to a free bonus dessert of warm donuts and hot chocolate dipping sauce. YUM. YUM. YUM. Bad cell phone photo - the lighting in the restaurant is very low, as if it's an age limit enforced by light bulb wattage. If you can't read the menu, you're too old to be here.

I have to go back, and this will definitely go on the list for a treat with future out of town guests. So who can please come visit next???


It's time to be off to Vienna and Prague. Just one week. I'll try to post a few pictures.

A friend has given me his "Learn German in One Week" book and cd, which I'm hoping can also be accomplished in one plane ride. Plan B is to rely on the advice that "everyone speaks English" which I hear from many people...even Grandma, who hasn't been to Prague in about seventy years. I do know "Ein Bier bitte, schnell" which means "A beer please, quickly!" And of course there's "Gesundheit!"

But to be frank, I didn't even know that German was the language of Austria until a couple months ago. I'm looking forward to learning even more about Eastern Europe.

Worth Repeating: Go to the Funeral

Today I attended a funeral that marked the very sad conclusion of the struggle of a friend and co-worker's wife's struggle against cancer.

My co-workers and I found ourselves in the strange new setting of sitting in church aisles next to each other; wearing black dresses, suits and ties; teary eyed; sharing packets of tissues; holding hands during the Our Father. There were moments where I was lost in the selfish memories of being there myself, for my own parents. Memories came back of things I'd totally forgotten. It was hard. Very hard.

The night before I drove to the viewing with a co-worker who also lost her mother and we talked about how amazing it was when were in mourning to see how many, many, people came to the funerals for our parents. People you'd worked with maybe for a matter of months who sent the most sincere and thoughtful cards. Others who you hadn't spoken to in years, reaching out to take your hand at the funeral home.

The experience reminded me of the reflection from NPR's This I Believe series, with its advice to always go to the funeral. (I've blogged it before, but it bears repeating.)

I believe in always going to the funeral. My father taught me that.

The first time he said it directly to me, I was 16 and trying to get out of going to calling hours for Miss Emerson, my old fifth grade math teacher. I did not want to go. My father was unequivocal. “Dee,” he said, “you’re going. Always go to the funeral. Do it for the family.”

So my dad waited outside while I went in. It was worse than I thought it would be: I was the only kid there. When the condolence line deposited me in front of Miss Emerson’s shell-shocked parents, I stammered out, “Sorry about all this,” and stalked away. But, for that deeply weird expression of sympathy delivered 20 years ago, Miss Emerson’s mother still remembers my name and always says hello with tearing eyes.

That was the first time I went un-chaperoned, but my parents had been taking us kids to funerals and calling hours as a matter of course for years. By the time I was 16, I had been to five or six funerals. I remember two things from the funeral circuit: bottomless dishes of free mints and my father saying on the ride home, “You can’t come in without going out, kids. Always go to the funeral.”

Sounds simple — when someone dies, get in your car and go to calling hours or the funeral. That, I can do. But I think a personal philosophy of going to funerals means more than that.

“Always go to the funeral” means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.

In going to funerals, I’ve come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity.

On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.

Photo from the LIFE photo archive.

The Best Easter Accessory!

Since mom Juliet has given permission, I wanted to share the Easter accessory that far outpaced the headband this year: niece, June.Isn't she the cutest?
Her adorable dress was made by Juliet. Here's another super sweet photo, with a better look at another dress handmade by mom. Crafty mommies can find the pattern here. Beautiful work, sis!
Now watch this become a June tribute blog. You have to see her at the beach.

Life Lesson Addendum: Sunglasses, Not a Headband

No sooner had I lauded the perfect wonderfulness of lots of sunglasses, I was reminded that there is a time and place for everything.

Looking across the conference room (at a coworker who I do like a lot, and who was dressed really nicely today) I thought, "It's nearly 2 pm. We're indoors. In a room with the blinds drawn. She hasn't been outside since 8:30 am this morning. Why are her sunglasses on top of her head?"

It's the sunglasses as headband thing.

If you need a headband, get a headband. Sunglasses as a substitute just doesn't work.

And there are so many very nice headbands, that aren't awfully Hillary-in-the-1990s either.
Nautical spirit from Forever 21

Skinny sequins from J. Crew

Hot pink from Marc Jacobs and Zappos.

See, even I sported a headband for a bit of panache at Easter. (That's niece June who I've chopped out of the photo. If you saw her, she'd totally steal the show in this photo. Plus I haven't really asked her mom about promoting June on the worldwide web.)One of the many, from Urban Outfitters.

Life Lesson: Sunglasses, Never Enough

A few years ago I just got fed up with never being able to find my sunglasses. It was Claire-before-contact-lenses, so my sunglasses were prescription. And of course, never where I thought I'd last left them.

Now that I'm wearing contact lenses and released from the monopoly of having just one pair of too expensive sunglasses, I decided that I can't have too many sunglasses.

I like the cheap, plastic kind that are always available at Marshall's in droves this time of year. When they are cheap I can also get the silly, frivolous kinds. Lots of different kinds. There's always a pair that's easy to grab, another to leave in the car, and one pair to just have bouncing around the bottom of my gym bag. I have a pink pair, and another that my friend calls my "C.H.I.P.s" glasses.They are cooler than these.

999 Friends

No sooner did I express my ambivalence for Facebook, than a friend declares the milestone of reaching 1,000 friends. I then felt that she was not at all my friend. I was just feeding her numbers. How do you even get to 1,000?

I have 106 friends, and I feel like even then I should be doing some weeding in the garden. I was immediately tempted to knock my "friend"'s number down to 999 by taking a principled stance. She'd never figure out it was me!

I didn't do it.

More Facebook nonsense on (although a little bit more, um, colorful, sometimes.)

Reminds me of another thing I don't like: people who have conversations that could be done privately over public wires on Facebook. Pick up the phone, text them! I don't need to know you're looking forward to your baby coming home tonight. Ick.

Friending Failbook

I'm still not sure about Facebook. And then something odd inevitably happens, like my dentist wanting to "friend" me that just reinforces my suspicion. Or not being able to reach my friend on the phone to ask for a ride home while stranded due to a train delay, but then see her comment on my facebook status, (lamenting my situation) five minutes later. (Allison! :) reminds me that there are far odder and funnier Facebook moments. While its mission statement might purport to connect us with our old friends, Facebook does also offers more irony and humor.
Watching my cousin and uncle debate politics is also funny. That and the photos of niece June, keep me coming back to Facebook.
Which reminds me, I need to update my profile photo!

Random Bits of the Last Week

Hooking up my camera to the computer offers the chance to tell you a little of my last week or so.

Rooftop at Wrigley
for an afternoon game. Which reminded me I still had photos on the camera from another game we went to when a coworker was giving away bleacher seats. Both views are pretty good, but sadly they were both losing games...both against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Power washing the deck this weekend. A real freshman homeowner effort. Our zeal for the amazing results outpaced our skill, so there were some funny lines and missed spots we noticed later...after returning the power washer to the hardware store. Finding matching (with the room and each other) lamps at Marshall's, helps me strive for that hotel look in the bedroom. They say matching bedsides conveys "swank hotel" style. Jason says, "Too many pillows!"

And a surprise gift, from the pillow-hating husband. The design critique is forgiven, and I even weeded a pillow off of our couch downstairs as a gesture after Jason surprised me with Hello Kitty Champagne!!!! What event could be possibly good enough to celebrate with this bottle? Kawaii, neh? Thank you, Jason!

Little Kid You

A small shout out for Jason and his recently published "Buckeye Battle Cry" Ohio State football annual. Jason was this year's editor, with a staff of writers completing many, many articles on this year's Buckeye prospects. It's a side project to his blog. Get yours at newsstands now! (Or just email me if you're somewhere outside of Ohio and wish you had a copy.)

In addition to my being very proud of him, the other night I asked Jason, "So, how proud would 'you as a little boy' be of 'you' today? What would little kid Jason think about your being an Ohio State sportswriter?" He thought for a minute and agreed, "I think he'd say it's pretty cool."

This led to a longer conversation the next night, of what little kid him and little kid me would think of where we are today.

Would little kid Claire believe that I'd moved to Chicago? Adult Jason guessed that little kid Jason would love riding the train to work everyday, and be impressed that he figured out computers pretty much on his own. Little kid Claire would find it kind of crazy that I get to travel for work nearly as much as my Dad did, and have an office all my own. She might be surprised about the husband who's such a sports fan, but the writer bit would delight her as much as it delights me today.

So, what would 'little kid you' think of adult 'you' now?

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