Thursday, November 30, 2006

Birthday & Farewell Celebrations

Well, I am about to finish my work here in Prague, and to celebrate my birthday and my farewell, my boss and a few IAESTE members took me out for dinner and a few drinks.
However, I was quite sad at first, since I wandered the city alone for sometime before I learned where to meet up. There is nothing like the feeling of, well, loneliness. Carrying a heavy shopping bag in hand, I wandered aimlessly the lovely streets of Prague in the brisk evening air, watching all the amazed and distracted tourists in small groups busily hustling along segregated by languages, and there was I, finally, sitting by myself, too far from home to drop off my bags and relax, and thus forced to remain in centrum waiting to learn the location of a warm and cozy café. Realizing I was starting to become anguished, I decided to walk to a place where I would assimilate, such a place I find a local grocery market where a single person is never alone with all the gastronomic delights waiting to please one's stomach. As always when I am waiting and then decide to pass the by in some manner, I received the call inviting me to dine at a nearby café.

Dinner consisted of cheese gnocchi and beer, and Janca suggested a round of Becherovka, the green bottle in the picture, which is a Czech herbal bitter liqueur, also know as "medicine" here by many former communists. It was a lovely shot, smooth and chilled, and welcomingly cleansed my palette. As a birthday/departing gesture, I was given the typical Czech sugar wafers, a bottle of Becherockva, and a large bar of Studentksá chocolate, which I was informed, is good for students to eat while studying for increased energy (After a later discussion this Alberto, apparently, his knows of students in Italy who always study with chocolate in hand as well).
Speaking of Alberto, I meat him, his Belgium colleague, Hendrik, Roman and his Ukrainian friend, Lena, for a little birthday dinner at my favorite restaurant café in Prague, Lenka Hlava. I enjoyed my company over red lentil soup, a glass of house red, and vegetarian risotto. Det var kosleg.
Afterwards, we walked through Centrum and were granted a glimpse of the "Lighting of the Christmas Tree," as shown in the picture. The Old Town square is so beautiful at night, when all the cathedrals and historical buildings are light up. The golden circles in the picture of Alberto and me make up the medieval astronomical clock which acts as a primitive planetarium, displaying the current state of the universe, and dates back to 1410. The astronomical dial has a background that represents the standing Earth and sky, and surrounding it operate four main moving components: the zodiacal ring, an outer rotating ring, an icon representing the Sun, and an icon representing the Moon. Quite impressive!

We then nestled ourselves in a little, neat literary-themed, Czech café with Czech poems and phases written on the walls. We probably were the only Expats there since the entrance with its humble, brown, wooden door, lost in the grandeur of Old Town Prague, is easily passed by a busy tourist. First the first time in Europe this trip, I was able to recharge with a Macchiato Latté.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Thanksgiving in Europe
Well, my friend Karel and I were lucky enough to be invited to Thanksgiving dinner by an American girl whose parents are Czech and is living here in Prague for a year to improve her Czech. I was in charge of vegetables and my friend Karel, dessert, so before dinner we did some shopping at the local market. Our shopping list included broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, Czech beer, mineral water, and fresh raspberry cake for dessert.

The event was quite an international dinner since the guests included a man from San Francisco, a girl from New York, me from Ohio, a man from the UK, a girl from Ireland, my Czech friend, the host who is from Pennsylvania, her father who is Czech but living in Hungary and his wife’s son and daughter from Slovakia. We had a cozy time, enjoying the light conversation and warm food. We had all the staples such as stuffing (brought from the UK), turkey, cornbread, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes and gravy. Afterwards, coffee and cake was accompanied with a little Expat-style humor of translating a Russian-English phrasebook.
Pictured, Karel and Susy's step-brother take their shot at breaking the wishbone after enjoying their first Thanksgiving.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Underage Drinking on Campus

In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is strength and in water there is bacteria. -Unknown

This morning when I arrived at work, I found several students and professors in my laboratory enjoying the science of brewing technology. It was such a culture shock to see students, most likely under the age of 21, drinking on university grounds and the professors encouraging them to taste and develop a palette for beer. Sadly, I arrived a little too late to join in on the lecture and tasting :-P

Monday, October 23, 2006

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
Today in lab, I was given the task to optimize the concentration of MgCl2 used in the Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) we are using to identify various bacteria in a waste water treatment system and various food processes. My results showed that the reaction is independent of the concentration of MgCl2, and my boss was pleased with the results. The one aspect from the gel that needs further investigation is the streaking of the third DNA sample, which probably means that the DNA was excessively fragmented.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a molecular biology technique for enzymatically replicating DNA without using a living organism, such as E. coli or yeast. Like amplification using living organisms, the technique allows a small amount of the DNA molecule to be amplified exponentially. However, because it is an in vitro technique, it can be performed without restrictions on the form of DNA and it can be extensively modified to perform a wide array of genetic manipulations. (
Karlštejn Castle

This past weekend, I organized a little tour to Karlstjen Castle which is just outside of Prague by train. I was running a little late to meet everyone at the train station, but it worked out well since we took a later train which allowed Javier from Peru time to meet us. The more the merrier! After enjoying a nice espresso in the historic train station, we took a very modern train with two levels to the town of Karlstjen. Once there, my friend Karel, who lives nearby, met us and lead us to a quaint and charming village nestled under the magnificent Karlstjen Castle. Before taking a tour of the castle, Karel took us for a hike through the forest to a nice authentic Czech pub where all enjoyed a traditional Czech meal.

After the meal, we hiked up to the Karlstejn Castle, which is one of the most beautiful castles in the Czech Republic and sits well up on a hill overlooking the Berounka river. The castle is a High Gothic castle, dating from the 14th century, and was founded by Czech King and Roman Emperor Charles IV as a repository of imperial crown jewels and sacred remains, especially Charles's collection of holy relics and the coronation jewels of the Roman Empire. Since this castle was meant to be Karel IV’s summer residence, he ordered the very beautiful Chapel of the Holy Gross to be built within the walls of the Great Tower, which we did not tour though.

One aspect I liked about the castle was Charles IV’s throne room, where he placed his throne between to windows so that his guests could not see his facial expressions, but the light from the windows allowed him to clearly see those of his guests. Charles IV was a very intelligent man who is credited with issuing a Golden Bull to establish Charles University, one of the oldest universities in Europe and one of the leading universities in Central and Eastern Europe. The university has a very intriguing history for those interested and understanding the importance of history.

Here is a picture of Graham enjoying a little mediaeval expereince.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Reflections from the Past

I just remembered that I uploaded my old website I created while living in Norway (a blog before blogs existed) which has a photo gallery of my previous travels to Prague. It may be of some interest to a few. The link can be found here.
A Czech Vampire

This afternoon I was invited to give a short presentation about myself and my internship here in Prague during a recruiting event for the local IAESTE committee. Beforehand, a student found the courage to practice his English and speak with me. As soon as he started speaking, I saw his sharp, vampire-like teeth covered in a dark, gritty film, I recalled the many men in Norway who chewed tobacco which often covered their teeth in a gritty dark film. And so, the student began by telling me a joke about three vampires, and I almost laughed out loud for just noticing his own vampire-like teeth covered in what I thought could be dried blood.
Thinking to myelf that maybe this guy has a fetish for vampires, my mind once again raced back to my days traveling in London with my family and learning about Count Dracula and his kingdom in Eastern Europe. Then I thought, maybe the Czech Republic was where the real Dracula lived. Sadly however, Count Dracular, the fictional character in the Dracula novel, was inspired by one of the best-known figures of the Romanian history, Vlad Dracula, nicknamed Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler) , who was a ruler of Wallachia (1456-1462) (See above picture).

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

My Internship In Prague

A little bit about my professional life here in Prague. I work for Insititute of Chemical of Tecnhnology Prague which is the biggest educational institution of its kind in Central Europe. It combines progressive fields of study and a good international repute, allowing every student to get in touch with advanced technologies and make use of foreign student exchanges.

I work under the Faculty of Food and Biochemical Technology within the Department of Fermentation Chemistry and Bioengineering in the subprogram of Biotechnology. Biotechnology embraces scientific, research and application processes based on the use of a combined knowledge of biological, engineering and economic disciplines in all areas of science, research and practice, and of technological realization based on specific qualities of plant, animal and microbial cells.

My current project is developing a rapid and inexpensive method to identify and discriminate various bacteria in a water treatment system. Below is one of my first PCR-amplified rDNA fingerprints using Gel Electrophoresis. I am quite excited to learn some various molecular biology laboratory techniques as I may need to use them for my senior design project in a few months.
The Joys of Living in a New Culture...

Well, I have been in Prague for a few weeks now, and it has been such a neat, yet challenging, experience. Each day I learn a new skill at work, a new trick to survive in another culture, and a little more about myself. Looking back the past few days, I realized how my needs and values have changed from just a few years ago. It must be the years I have added to my age that I now want the “comfort and warmth” of life familiar. It is not, at least not yet, a feeling of homesickness, but I do realize the benefits of being able to communicate and express oneself, both verbally and physically.

Not being able to communicate is such a huge obstacle that many do not realize unless in the situation itself. For example, the other day I was in need of pair of shoes, and so I found a nice pair on sale at the local market. After waiting in a lengthy line to pay, I smiled to the middle-aged cashier, who of course did not speak English, and handed her my credit card to pay. Well, when I signed the receipt she become angry and took my credit card and would not give it back. She tried to explain something to me, waving her hands in the air above her neck muscles tense with excitement, but to me she was speaking Greek. So I became nervous, somehow knowing I did something wrong, as all the hurried eyes behind me, still waiting in line, fell upon me in a look of disgust. In my mind, I could hear the people saying patriotically to themselves, “Learn Czech, you’re in the Czech Republic.” After a few drops of sweat and the help of the next cashier, I signed my named again on the receipt just as it is printed on my credit card, “SEE ID.”

I could feel the connection in my brain, when I gained the knowledge to avoid this situation again by changing my name to “SEE ID.” Thus, now all the stores in the Czech Republic know me by “SEE ID,” though I confess, I rather liked my birth name. Well, I also learned another survival trick from this little event that lasted maybe 5 minutes chronologically but 5 hours psychology. This trick is to always pay at a cashier who is under the age of 30 and is more likely to speak English if needed. So, I learned two small, but useful skills to maneuver here in Prague, but at a cost of course. The shoes were on sale, more than 50% off, but they rang up at full price, and the money I lost from not speaking up was well worth the time to leave the scene and hide.

Monday, July 24, 2006

A Lesson in Czech History

Well, I thought it would be a good idea to provide a Central European map and background info for the many people who have either not heard of magical city of Prague or have no idea where the Czech Republic is located. Considered the heart of Europe, the Czech Republic is nestled between the East and West, boarder by Poland and Germany to the North and Slovakia and Austria to the South.

Following the First World War, the closely related Czechs and Slovaks of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire merged to form Czechoslovakia. During the interwar years, the new country's leaders were frequently preoccupied with meeting the demands of other ethnic minorities within the republic, most notably the Sudeten Germans and the Ruthenians (Ukrainians). After World War II, a truncated Czechoslovakia fell within the Soviet sphere of influence. In 1968, an invasion by Warsaw Pact troops ended the efforts of the country's leaders to liberalize Communist party rule and create "socialism with a human face." Anti-Soviet demonstrations the following year ushered in a period of harsh repression. With the collapse of Soviet authority in 1989, Czechoslovakia regained its freedom through a peaceful "Velvet Revolution."

Non-violent protesters are "fighting with flowers" against armored policemen

On 1 January 1993, the country underwent a "velvet divorce" into its two national components, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. (Source: CIA - The World Factbook)