Hello all, for everyone new to this blog, please refer to the right side ‘Categories’ to find most easily the topics I’ve written on and articles I’ve done.

The Library Hours

The train from Budapest back to Prague had those compartments with 6 or so seats in them.  I rushed into the second economy section to find that most of the compartments had been filled with someone already.  This was unacceptable to the Lecia.  I found one that had trash heaped over the little table under the window, and no one wanted to sit next to an overturned yogurt dripping over the window seat.  I did.  Delighted at my fortune I closed the door quickly so no one would come in.  Shortly after my sigh of relief at being alone, a train attendant slammed open the door and with a flurry of gruff Hungarian words, practically pushed in a lanky fellow with thick-rimmed glasses and a strawberry-blonde ponytail.  Well fudge you up.

I looked up at him and flashed a closed-mouth, one-second, half-ass-polite smile, but he was too busy looking around at the trash in the compartment to see it.

I believe during the several hours we shared that compartment until he got off at Brno, we never made eye contact once.  Yet we both stole hurried glances at each other when the other wasn’t looking to try to take in the other person.  I believe we were both painfully aware of it.  At first this was awkward.  I had been unsettled at losing my sense of privacy, and he seemed to be equally socially retarded, judging by his ponytail, fanny-pack, and a book which I noticed had “dragon” somewhere in the title.

He began talking on the phone in French, very softly, and was also writing furiously for a while on graph paper, tearing out sheets and throwing them into a pile next to him.  He seemed intensely focused, or anxious.  Should I ask him something in French?  Should I start a conversation?  I thought about it for a while, but came to the conclusion that perhaps I would ruin something that we’d established by not acknowledging one another (I later realized we’d established our compartment to be a haven of some sort for shy travelers).  Besides, he didn’t look like the type of person who’d keep a conversation rolling, and I was okay with that.

As the hours began to wear on, he finished writing and I, in turn, pulled out my thick-rimmed glasses and notebook, tied my hair back into a bun, and began to write.  During this time he stared out the window, or opened his book for a bit before putting it down again.  He still seemed uncomfortable.

Slowly this began to wear off, and for me as well.  I wasn’t sure what was in the air, or the passing of hours, that melted both of our anxieties of being in each other’s company.  But first he slowly took off his shoes and then propped his feet up, in socks, on the seat across from him, and delved into his fantasy book.  I pulled out a bag of Hungarian cookies I’d bought from the deli the other night and began munching, crumbs falling all over my shirt and pants and seat.  I too pulled out my book, To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson.

At first I found it hard to focus.  I kept glancing out the window, then read a line, then back out the window again.  But he’d grown focused in his reading, I could tell.  I wanted that concentration.  I propped my feet up on the seat across from me, so that our legs were parallel to one another, and we faced each other behind our books.  I started reading.

The train was nearly silent — a beautiful aspect of the newer ones — when they stop and start, they do so peacefully, without jolts.  Afternoon settled into night as the train soundlessly traversed from Hungary into the spectacular Slovakian countryside.

In the compartment next to ours, we could hear the boisterous chatting between international travelers.  We were safe from the talking.

Inside our compartment, it felt like a library.

And I finally got into the book.  We spent several hours like that, reading, without a word.  And I believe that was our unspoken conversation, a bond created between two people passing each other in the world for a very short time, but able to understand an aspect of one another without speaking or making eye contact even once.  So much emphasis and value is placed on talking and the ability to talk well, to talk loud, and to talk a lot — about ourselves, about pop culture, politics, you name it — that we often forget the value in the wordless conversation.  In a way it’s like “reading in between the lines.”  It’s not the words themselves that are important; words are merely imperfect expressions for ideas.  There are other planes of communication and language that aren’t so straightforward.

An old Hungarian man joined us in our compartment at the stop, Nove Zamky. He smelled.  For a few stops, the compartment smelled like B.O. and Eastern Europe (Oh God).  When the old man got off the train, my companion slid the compartment door shut and our silence was restored; our homeostasis, our balance with one another, was recreated.

When we got to Brno, I watched that beautiful town with its old black church on a hill come to a still stop outside my window.  The slender traveler put his shoes back on, took his suitcase from the storage shelf, and left the train without a word, closing the door behind him.

The air changed when he left.  Shortly thereafter a gruff, fat, wheezing Czech man burst into my compartment and asked me if the seats were free.  Yeah.  I mean jo.  He had a long greyish-brown ponytail riding down his chubby back.  He read the same magazine for the next 3 hours, until we arrived in Prague, and although I finished my bag of cookies, my focus wasn’t as strong as it had been during the Library Hours.

“Prague never lets you go … this dear little mother has sharp claws.” – Franz Kafka

On NPR’s TED Radio Hour on The Future of Cities, physicist Geoffrey West mentions that all cities are the same — put quite simply, they are physical manifestations of human interaction.  New York City or Mumbai, scaled down, can be a San Francisco or a Chicago; which in turn when scaled down could be a Detroit or Cleveland.  He says that despite each city having its own unique culture and “feel,” they are related quite consistently (he’s working on a scientific model of cities) — all cities, all human networks, are governed by the same laws.

A friend of mine who lives here once said that people are very likely to get “captured” in Prague.  I thought the use of that word — “captured” — was an ideal way of describing the feeling of arriving in this place and simply… never leaving.  It’s not that you get “sucked into” this place, or you get “stuck” here, or that you “fall in love” with it per se.  But you get captured.  As though you accidentally entered a fairytale, and while wandering its pages, forgot where you originally came from.  A feeling of your life being suspended from a string.  You float in and get tangled, lightly, in the webs of Prague’s beauty.  You are caught by surprise–caught, encircled, enraptured, captured.

What is it about this place (what is it about any city) that creates that certain “feel”, that unique emotional pull?  Is it the architecture, the people?  The twisting, cobblestone streets, the smell of fresh bread, the wine-drinking lovers on the hills, the old crumbling communist statues (grass sprouting between sidewalk cracks in the parks), that particular tram bell ringing as it carries on along the rails?  Is it the way that Czech people have absolutely no sense of fashion whatsoever, the way the men wear mandals and ponytails here, or the women unmatching outfits?  Or perhaps the simplistic comfort such imagery evokes?

Is it perhaps the way the clouds hang over the city, as though the sky were a purple-grey blanket (Prague’s sky has such a specific color!) draped over the spires of those old churches?  Or the nightly summer rainfalls, that particular smell of cigarettes and stale beer when you pass an old man’s bar?

Trip to the high school in Hlinsko, and also the punk concert where 16-year-olds bought me shots of Becherovka

Life was simple in the small town of Hlinsko, Czech Republic. It seemed that way to the 15 students who climbed out of the Pilsner Urquell bus on a soft November morning, led by their boisterous International Reporting professor, who with her loud voice and bold comments broke the motionless state of the town upon her arrival every year. As she led the students to the gymnazium where they were to meet an English teacher and a selected number of Czech students, Professor D. strode with a wide, impressive gait, her horse-thick blonde hair spreading out like a cape behind her in the wind, her fur coat bristling, her striking red lipstick emphasizing her flamboyant air.

Although Professor D. had been living here for a decade, she was certainly not Czech—she was far from it. She spoke passable Czech, as a working journalist and foreign correspondent in the country, but behaved more like a New York editor for Vogue: direct, aggressive, sharp, yet scatter-brained. In a country of quiet, passive-aggressive women whose strength lay in an almost unnoticeable flame that burned under their well-kept outfits and hair, Professor D. stood out like an enormous, multi-colored, bizarre moth among a garden of tidy butterflies.

But this is what made the trip special: Professor D. had wanted to organize a trip unlike any other, where instead of visiting castles or pretty towns, she would take the students to the middle of nowhere to meet high schoolers who existed in what was barely a village. They would learn about the education system, drink and party with the students, and stay with their families for a night.

Professor D. liked to say that in the past, her students had learned more about the Czech people during the 24 hours spent in Hlinsko than they did during the entire semester.

A gymnazium is a type of high school for the “smart” Czech students, those who are on a path to university. In the Czech Republic, university is free if you get in—so gymnaziums aim to send all their students to this higher level of education. For those who did not make it to gymnazium but still want to go to university, there are private schools that cost money, but they provide poor education and are considered the “dumb” schools.

The NYU students arrived at the tiny gymnazium, which evoked memories of one student’s small Ukrainian Catholic grade school in Parma, Ohio, which had recently been closed down due to lack of enrollment. It had the smell of a tiny school, it seemed as though nothing had changed there since the 70s, and probably wouldn’t change any time soon. The students were led into a classroom where several tables had been lined up and plates of small cakes and snacks had been prepared. In the corner was a sink and counter where several Czech students greeted them, and then busily began to make coffee and tea for their American visitors.

Professor D., as always, had a connection. She was good friends with the English teacher here, who had for years collaborated with her to make this trip possible. The English teacher, L., was born and raised in Brno, had studied at Charles University, lived in the United States, and then moved to Hlinsko where she was perhaps one of the most forward-thinking teachers in this small town of 10,000 inhabitants. Surrounded by women who still found their place as housewives, and students who might not ever leave this place, L. made it her duty, her battle, to open their eyes to the rest of the world. It was easier said than done.

She had started with teaching English, and her talents as an instructor were apparent in the good language skills of her students who ranged between 15 and 19 years of age. They were all able to communicate with the Americans, certainly better than the Americans could imagine communicating with them in Czech.

L. moved on to organize school trips to different European countries, including England and Ireland. This year, she had written and directed a play based off a work by Kurt Vonnegut, which she hoped would be proof that her students were worth more than just the fact that they were notorious for underage drinking to past American visiting students.

A Show Performed in English

The Czech students performed their show entirely in English, with the exception of some monologues which were translated into Czech. L. said that most of the parents in Hlinsko wanted the show to be performed only in Czech, but they were also the same people who were annoyed at some of the controversial aspects of the play. L. had written it with bitterness against the conventions of small town life, pointing out the stupidity of close-minded people whose lives revolved around watching TV in their homes. This is not an accurate depiction of small town life here in Hlinsko, although it had its truthful moments. The show was hilarious, the students’ acting excellent, and the Americans did not stop smiling throughout the whole thing.

Some universal themes

Smoking hookah seemed to be quite popular among the high schoolers, and one of the host girls owned one in her room. She lived in a beautiful house that was about ten minutes away from Hlinsko in a neighboring village, a village that consisted of about 20 houses total. When driving there from school, the American student sat in the back seat next to the 9-year-old younger sister, and watched the countryside through the window as Czech music played on the radio. The little girl tapped the American on the shoulder to point out a horse farm as they passed it—she could only say “Hello” in English, nothing else—and the American was struck by the purity of the landscape, rolling hills, layers of beech trees, bumpy dirt roads, small houses with old Czech men smoking outside or pushing a wheelbarrow out of the messy backyard strewn with crooked fences and clotheslines. The houses in the village were scattered unevenly together, the sky was large and bare and silent, just as silent as everything else, and only about 15 cars a day drove by, the Czech girl told the American.

The Czech prepared a plate of cakes, a cup of coffee, a jar of nutella, and mango hookah for her guest in her room. She sifted through her Czech music, which was mostly punk and rock groups, showed her pictures of her friends on her wall, pointed out the posters of bands she’d seen at the music venue they were going to that night for the punk concert.

They smoked hookah together, blowing smoke rings in the orange-lit room, and discussed music.

“Czech punk concerts are nothing compared to Russian punk concerts”

Professor D. ensured L., who was worried that the Americans would be trampled to death during the show. “Trust me,” Professor D said. “You could fall asleep at a Czech punk show, they’re so mild. In Russia, people die at punk shows.”

Yet she still jokingly called the journalism students who decided to go to the punk show the “bad girls.” In the end they really were, they ended up returning to Prague with cuts and bruises, and one had even lost her voice. Their shoes were covered in pure black grime—a mixture of spit, grit, and dry beer that had accumulated on them during the beer-showered evening. But even the bad girls of j-school were nothing compared to the insanity of the Czech high schoolers, who enjoyed themselves to their fullest wild abandon, in a way that left the Americans wondering where their youth had gone.

The concert was at a venue often frequented by the Hlinsko high schoolers, in a village about a half hour away. When they arrived, the Czech girl led the American journalism student into the village, up a small hill to where there stood an old barrack that happened to be the music venue. Shady characters were already huddled around outside, but after spending time inside, the American discovered these characters were not “shady” as much as they were just weird. There were mohawks and dredlocks of all shapes and sizes, and some of the most bizarre punk-stoner-hippie outfit combinations, ultimately leaving the American in a state of confusion at her situation: middle of bumfuck, Czech Republic, at some weird punk venue with badly-drawn neon dragons all over the walls. And then the 16-year-olds began to buy rounds of beer and shots.

The drinking age is 18 in the Czech Republic, but as in most European countries, it does not matter. Several of the Czech students, already drunk, mentioned that they had received drinking tickets and were not supposed to be drinking. The validity of these so-called “drinking tickets”, however, remained questionable to the Americans, who were still unable to drink in the United States for another year. 17-year-old Iryna, bouncing around from one American to the other, twirling and spinning and dancing about like an uncontrollable, talkative top, said that she had to look out for the police, because she had gotten a drinking ticket recently. Upon leaving the show, she waved down the car of a “friend” and jumped in; “Come on guys!” she told the Americans. “This is my friend, he’s a police officer, but he’s off duty. He’s going to give us a ride to the pub.”

The punk show began and the crowd was immersed in a cloud of pure sweat and smoke, and everyone was drenched within minutes. Then one of the journalism girls shoved another journalism student into the mosh pit, which resulted in a near-death experience, but she was able to claw her way back up from the throbbing mass of sweat-balls by clinging to the jackets of two dudes. Then the journalism students found themselves facing the old punk stars, apparently a very popular Czech band, the bassist was wearing a gladiator helmet and was shirtless, a large Czech belly protruding into the spotlight. The other musicians had eyeballs as wide as golf balls, and stared out into the crowd like crazy people which only added to the absurdity of the event.

The bad girls of the journalism department continued to start fights with Czech dudes in the mosh pit, but as Professor D. had said, the show was mild. Beer flying, sweat dripping, they bounced around like atomic electrons, hair soaked through, pulling their pants up, clinging to each other and then shoving each other, jumping and leaping around like nutcases. The Czech high schoolers were right there alongside them.

Silent

As the Czech girl and her American guest walked back up the street in her village at 1am, the American was overcome with a sense of utter silence. If silence can be considered a sound, it was an overwhelming one, so heavy and pure that her head was filled with it. This was because the sky was like a bottomless vault of nothing above them, and the street had no lights, and the moon feels closer in the country. The wind was warm but free, uninhibited by buildings or cars, and every single house in the village was as still as in a black and white photograph. The American felt like she was walking through the landscape of a deep sleep, but for the Czech this was an every-day feeling. As they turned into the driveway of her house, the American turned back and looked up at the black silhouette of a large tree against the part of the sky that was illuminated with the silver moon. The tree enlarged as though it were breathing in and out, and one could feel its three dimensions. Every piece of matter in the countryside, from a speck of dirt to the scene of windy grasses, by simple fact that it was seen less, could hold more of the unknown, and this gave it much more value.

This piece was written for my International Reporting class in Prague, in
December 2010.

 

PRAGUE – Jiri Rathousky led me through a building which appeared to be frozen in time from the Soviet-era 80’s—tattered brown leather chairs encircling glass tables for a sitting room, kitschy plastic plants lining tired beige walls, an old man leafing through a typewritten directory at the front desk. The Department of Structure and Dynamics, an institute under the umbrella of the Czech Academy of Sciences, hadn’t changed much at all.

“These elevators are really terrible, sometimes they break down, so we’re hoping for new ones soon,” Rathousky said as the metal doors clamped shut on us in the 4 by 4 ft elevator box.

But on the 6th floor of this 30-year old building constructed under communist rule, Rathousky and a small staff of about 10 are laboring on breakthroughs in nanotechnology research, a sector which many believe may be the science of the future due to its huge potential to improve the environment, preserve monuments, and create efficiencies in the use of batteries and solar energy.

Rathousky’s Department of Structure and Dynamics in Catalysis is only one of the several small laboratories and initiatives that have cropped up in the Czech Republic in recent years. This country of only 10 million has become the only post-communist country to make it to the top of Western nanotechnology research, ranking alongside highly reputable labs in Germany, Switzerland, France, and Spain in the past 20 years.

“From an independent overview, given the relatively low input of funds from the government, the Czech Republic’s output in the nanotechnology sector is comparable to that of the Western countries,” said Dr. Martin Pumera, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “The quantity of funds and labs are limited, but the quality of work is remarkable.”

Nanotechnology is the study of materials less than 100 nanometers on the metric scale—about 80 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Although a broad topic consisting of a wide array of technologies, it involves the assembling of new materials from the bottom up, on a molecular scale, resulting in the creation of materials that often are not naturally or biologically possible. It is the manipulation and modeling of matter at this tiny level that allows scientists to achieve remarkable advancements in medicine and energy, such as the ability to repair tissue or destroy cancer cells on the nano level.

Rathousky’s 6th floor lab, recently renovated through an EU grant, is working on creating a new self-cleaning surface made of nano-materials that, when spread over old statues, can scour years of accumulated dirt without damaging the original surface. In this way, Rathousky plans to use nanotechnology to preserve the old monuments of Prague. Only nano particles are small enough to slip into surface pores and convert the original surface into a more durable facade.

“We are doing this because some preservation detergents are poisonous not only to the statue surfaces, but also to people and the environment,” Rathousky said. With nanotechnology, tiny particles called micells are able to dissolve the dirt upon contact without damage.

But why has this modest country become a star on the nanotechnology stage? The Czech Republic lags behind when it comes to scientific funding—countries such as France, Germany and the U.S. have all increased their scientific funding during the past year despite economic hardship, while small labs here are struggling and scientists are leaving the country to find better pay. Not to mention the economic climate has discouraged young Czechs from entering the scientific scene—while in the countries mentioned above, there is more of an emphasis on keeping the young people involved.

Czech scientists like Rathousky, though paid a low salary (about a fifth of the salary of a scientist in the U.S. — not much more than minimum wage), believe the Czechs have been successful in the sciences simply because there is more drive to do well.

“When you have a small country with small lab staffs, you have to work extra hard and be even more
motivated,” he said.

Another cause stems from decent improvement in domestic funding from the Czech government in the past ten years. According to the 2009 guidebook for State Supported Research & Development in the Czech Republic, CZK 9.67 billion in 1999 has increased to the current CZK 23 billion during the last 10 years–an increase of 238% in funds for development of sciences.

But the biggest factor is perhaps a matter of learning from others — something the little country has gotten the hang of — especially scientific success giants like Japan or the U.S.

“Through European outreaching and collaborations and access to EU money, we have really made huge leaps forward,” Rathousky said. “You still have to work hard to apply to EU grants, but it increases our competitiveness on the international scene.”

The most recent indicator of the Czech Republic’s success in attracting EU funding for nanotechnology research lies in the development of a tiny chip that can detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Along with 18 other Western European countries, the Czech Republic will receive 9 million Euros from the EU Commission. The Czech Republic is the only post-communist country on the list of leading participants.

Foreign investment has also played an enormous role in Czech science since the fall of communism. Vladimir Matolin, a physics professor at Charles University, calls it a “transfer of knowledge”—after 1989, foreign countries began to move their technologies and companies to the Czech Republic.

Although they continued to flourish there, Matolin says these “technologies were not created and developed here, but rather imported from other countries so they are not really our own.” In other words, in many of the sciences, the Czechs did not start their own research from scratch, but rather took advantage of the foreign companies who continued to do their own work on Czech soil.

The cheerleaders of the Czech nano scene, however, are limited. Others involved in scientific research believe that the nanotechnology scene is popular not because of its actual results, but because those who lobby for its funds are often skilled at making it seem more important than the other sciences, such as physics or chemistry.

“Many heads of nanotechnology research get involved in politics,” Matolin said. “They can influence the distribution of money from the ministry to certain science sectors by saying how important nanotechnology is. The average person doesn’t always understand what nanotechnology means, although it sounds new and exciting, and so those doing nanotechnology research get access to the money.”

Matolin, who worked as a scientist under Soviet rule, said that in order to have a sector funded during the regime, the head of the department or research project had to be in good political standing with the communist party. “It is similar” to the politics of funding sciences today, in which nanotechnology center heads often talk and sell their way into securing the funds, he said. And the ministry uses the “sexiness” of nanotechnology in the hopes of luring foreign investment.

While access to European money has improved science funding in the past two decades, many of the sciences continue to be underfunded, Matolin said. And although nanotechnology may be the most popular science in the Czech Republic, Jiri Rathousky’s 6th floor nano center still has a long way to go, to complete lab construction, organize equipment, and hire more scientists.

“One of the reasons why I left the Czech Republic for Singapore is because I couldn’t support my family there working as a scientist — I couldn’t pay rent,” Pumera said.  What the Czechs are lacking in funds, however, they are making up in hard work and quality of research.

“You really have to love science to work in the Czech Republic as a scientist,” Pumera said. “If you don’t love it, you don’t do it.”