Prague - Czech it Out!

Trip Start Aug 29, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Czech Republic  , Bohemia,
Friday, September 20, 2013

Ok, before delving into an entirely new subject matter I must first publish some corrections to the last blog update. Firstly, Alaska Airlines apparently does offer free beer and wine on their domestic flights in the USA, so the bit about not getting anything to eat or drink on their flights was not true.  Secondly, I erroneously confused Brooklyn and the Bronx at one point; being a non-native New Yorker I apologize for this mix-up since the two places are obviously quite different (and far apart from each other).  And finally, there is a certain super-cute Bernese Mountain Dog living in New York named Obie whose feelings were apparently hurt because he didn't feature in the latest blog (although he was definitely an important part of the trip).  Thus, his photograph is published here, with his dad Bill. 

Speaking of dogs, I was sitting next to a dog named Jack on my flight from JFK (New York) to Zürich, Switzerland.  Ordinarily the situation in and of itself would not have been a problem.  I like dogs; I’m a veterinarian, after all.  The problem was that Jack came with an owner, and she was not the most pleasant person to sit next to for 7 hours.  If I only I could learn to lie effectively (and convincingly) and tell people I am actually a librarian (vs. a veterinarian), things might be easier sometimes.  I am now intimately familiar with Jack’s entire life history, from the moment he was adopted at the shelter, as well as his entire medical history and that of his predecessor in the family.  I am fairly sure I even know his veterinarian in Los Angeles.  Jack was apparently also quite sensitive (or his owner was) and I was told that getting up to go to the bathroom would disturb the dog, so could I please minimize my need to leave my seat (I was at the window).  Well, even if Jack could manage to not urinate for over 7 hours, I was unable to exercise the same degree of bladder control and eventually had to get up, causing Jack’s owner to roll her eyes at the inconvenience.  When we finally landed in Zürich we had to wait for every single other person to get off the plane before this woman would get up and get all of Jack’s things "organized" so I could get out of my seat.  Fabulous.  Good thing I wasn’t in a rush. 

When I left New York it was 92 degrees Fahrenheit (33 C), sunny and humid; when we landed in Zürich it was 53 degrees Fahrenheit (12 C), cloudy and humid (aka – raining).  Apparently although the Swiss were organized enough to avoid any and all turbulence on the flight, they were unable to organize good weather for our arrival.  Fortunately I had packed appropriately and extracted my warm jacket from my suitcase.  I then went from the airport directly to the train station and took the train to Basel.  For those of you who are unaware of the importance of the Swiss city of Basel in the realm of the pygmy hippopotamus, I will now explain.  For each endangered wildlife species kept in captivity in zoos around the world, there is something called the Studbook.  Despite its name, the Studbook does not contain a list of all available eligible bachelors of said species, nor is it like for endangered animals.  Rather, it is a list of every single animal of that species ever kept in captivity anywhere on the planet since the time when record-keeping started, with data on who is related to whom and where each animal is born, if it is transferred to another facility, and when/where it eventually dies.  For example, the cheetah Studbook is based at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, and is updated continuously by eager CCF volunteers (these volunteers quickly lose a degree of enthusiasm when they discover what a tedious task it is to keep the records updated).

Basel Zoo published the first edition of the pygmy hippo Studbook in 1975 (the year I was born!), and have kept impeccable records ever since (would you expect anything less?  These are the Swiss we are talking about).  So my plan was to read all of the original pygmy hippo necropsy records from the beginning of time (some dated back to the 1960’s) and look at different causes of disease, illness, and death to see if there are any patterns, etc.  Sounds absolutely fascinating, doesn’t it?  Well, it was for me, but I do admit I am a giant nerd and a bit of a hippo freak. 

The Basel Zoo is quite a nice place, tucked away right in the heart of the city.  Despite being significantly smaller than the Bronx Zoo, their animal collection was definitely “better” – they not only have pygmy hippos but also common (large) hippos as well as cheetahs and African wild dogs, two of my other favorite animals.  And yes, Tracy, they had snow leopards, too!  I stayed in the zoo Gasthaus, from which I could hear the lions roaring at night as if we were somewhere in the wilds of Africa.  There were two young college students staying in the Gasthaus as well and they were quite frightened by the lions roaring.  I assured them that if the wild lions in Botswana had walked right by my tent without ripping it open and eating me, these zoo lions were very unlikely to escape their enclosure, break into our building, and eat us for dinner. 

I only had a very small amount of time to actually see the zoo, as I had to read over 200 necropsy reports and make a spreadsheet to organize all the data (in two days).  The majority of these reports were in German or English, which was of course no problem, but many of them were in other languages as well as they come from zoos all over the world.  I was able to wade my way through the French and Spanish reports, and miraculously due to the extreme similarity of medical terminology in many languages, I was also able to figure out the main point in the Dutch, Polish, Czech and Bahasa Malay reports.   The only one that had me completely stumped was the report from Russia, since I cannot read the Cyrillic alphabet at all.  Fortunately I would soon be visiting a friend in the Czech Republic who speaks Russian fluently, so I was all set!  However, Tom is not a medically oriented person, so he had to enlist some of his friends back in Russian to help with the terminology, and we soon had half of Moscow assigned to the task of translating “Agata” the pygmy hippo’s tale of woe.

After a short but productive visit to Basel my friend Peter picked me up and we drove to Zug, where I was staying for a few days with some old family friends, Hans and Dagmar, who have known my parents since before I was even born.  Peter is from Prague but lives with his wife and their three angelic children in Zürich.  I say angelic because I don’t think I have ever seen kids with blonder hair in my life, it’s like they have glowing whitish gold halos on their heads.  Peter, on the other hand, had a black eye from a recent bicycling accident, so he was looking less angelic that day.  It was still great to catch up with him, since I haven’t seen him since I attended his wedding in the Czech Republic in 2006. 

After being dropped off in Zug I was treated to a lovely traditional Swiss meal by Hans and Dagmar.  We had meat fondue, where you cook your pieces of beef or lamb in boiling hot oil on the end of a skewer and you eat it with all kinds of amazing dipping sauces and salads.  It was super-yummy, and we sat outside on their balcony overlooking the mountains (which we couldn’t see the tops of due to continuously cloudy weather) and enjoying a nice glass of red wine.  The next day was Sunday and we took a trip around the Zugersee (Zug Lake) to admire the beautiful Swiss countryside and idyllic villages with half-timbered houses lining the waterfront.  We were quite lucky with the weather, it was even sunny for a few hours, and we sat by the water drinking Aperol (a type of champagne cocktail) and enjoying the gorgeous views.  That evening Dagmar prepared Spätzle, another traditional southern German and Swiss food item, and it was delicious!

It was so nice to be back in Europe after such a long absence (my last trip to Germany was in 2006), and to enjoy all the little things that make this part of the world my home.  Ok, Switzerland isn’t exactly the same as Germany, but it’s very similar in many respects, and they have such amazing breads, cheeses, and chocolate!  But the Swiss-German dialect?  Forget it!  They sound like they are yodeling and coughing up a giant wad of snot at the same time; I can barely understand a quarter of what they are saying.  Fortunately they all speak “regular” German as well so if I stare at them blankly they generally repeat what they have said in a more comprehensible manner. 

On Monday Sept 16th I flew from Zürich to Prague to attend the World Veterinary Congress (WVC).  Our Swiss Airlines aircraft looked a lot like it was left over from the Second World War, which isn’t actually possible since the Swiss didn’t participate in WWII.  I sat next to an American woman (she fortunately did not have a dog with her) who was on a business trip.  She was coming from San Francisco (where it was apparently much warmer than in Switzerland) and was wearing a very short, sleeveless sundress and flip-flops.  When the flight attendants brought us our refreshments (on our short 45-minute flight we only received water and/or juice), she immediately spilled her juice all over her dress.  After getting over the initial shock that it wasn’t me who spilled something and furthermore that this spillage was in no way my fault, I quickly started to help her clean up the sticky juice.  While I was bending forward to wipe juice off the floor, the person in front of me decided to recline their seat and literally smashed into my skull with such a loud thud that people turned to look.  Ouch!  The woman then started reading me her Prague guidebook and telling me all about these amazing things I should go see.  I thanked her kindly and felt it inappropriate to then tell her that this was already my 10th trip to Prague. 

Two years ago I was at the WVC in Cape Town, and I won a drawing for free registration at this conference, so it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up (registration fees are around US $1000 for the week-long event).  Even more fortuitous is that I have a good friend in Prague, Tomas, so I didn’t even have to worry about a hotel.  Hotel Pecha (that’s Tom’s last name) was really five-star quality, with a full breakfast service every morning and Becherovka (a traditional Czech liqueur) aperitif in the evenings. The first day of the conference I attended the Opening Ceremony where they gave us sparkling wine at 10:00am and we listed to a series of interesting presentation and watched some films about the veterinary profession in the Czech Republic.  There was even a real dog in the ceremony; when he walked across the stage almost every single person took out their smart phone and started taking pictures of him.  Leave it to a bunch of veterinarians to find the dog the most picture-worthy part of the two-hour long ceremony! 

I would not be surprised if there was someone from every country on earth in attendance at this conference.  There were at least a few thousand people there, and everyone’s country of origin was printed on their name badge so it was fascinating to see people from literally everywhere; Algeria to Iceland, Angola to India, Argentina to Indonesia; Libya to Lebanon; Bolivia to Bulgaria.  I think you get the point.  Although such conferences generally do a good job of making me feel lost in a sea of people who are smarter, more accomplished, and more experienced than I am, seeing all the amazing things veterinarians do to help animals all over the planet also makes me very proud of my profession.  The Conference Center in Prague is also in a great location overlooking the beautiful red roofs of the old city and Prague Castle in the distance.  The only bad thing was that it rained pretty much every day and was ridiculously cold for September, but luckily the conference was held indoors.

In the evenings Tom and I would head into downtown and find various entertaining things to do.  One night we ate dinner at a place with a “caveman” theme; there were saber-tooth tiger skins on the walls, and there was even wooly mammoth on the menu (cryopreserved for millions of years and then reheated over the open fire with a touch of garlic).  A different night at a traditional Czech restaurant I was served a mountain of salad and a giant portion of risotto, enough to feed a wooly mammoth.  Another night we went to an Indian restaurant which had some kind of funny new-age lighting at the tables that made your food appear to take on all kinds of interesting colors.  At one point Tom’s chicken looked bright neon orange and the cucumber sauce took on the appearance of ectoplasm from Ghostbusters.  And finally there was dinner at the “Seven Cockroaches,” a medieval themed restaurant near Prague Castle, where an extremely large group of people was having some kind of party in the basement (where I am sure there are plenty of cockroaches, but fortunately we didn’t see any of them).  It was a bit like a clown car, but in this case it was the great party-goer dispenser that produced a never-ending torrent of (somewhat drunken) people streaming from the basement.  Tom and I debated joining them but ended up deciding against it when the drumming on the tables and boisterous singing drowned out our conversation.

One evening we went to an exhibition called the “Invisible Man,” where one learns a bit about what it’s like to be blind.  I am sure there is a politically correct term I should be using here, like “sight-challenged” or something, but I think blind means being able to see absolutely nothing, and that’s what we experienced.  There is a display area where you get to see all the different accouterments available to make the lives of blind people easier, and then you go on a tour with a blind guide.  On the tour you go through an entire household and then through a garden and a market, and finally out on the 'street’ and to a bar, where the guide serves you a drink.  You can order a variety of things; how on earth does the guide know that he’s giving you the drink you asked for, as he can’t see, either?  And drinking without being able to see what you’re doing – more challenging than it sounds.  It’s all set up in total and complete darkness, so you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face; you have to feel your way around and try hard not to walk into someone else or into a piece of furniture or a wall.  It was a very strange, interesting, and “eye-opening” experience – at the risk of making a pun in very poor taste.  It really gave you an idea of what it would be like to live your life being without being able to see anything; it changes your perceptions completely.  At no point do they let you actually see where you are or what the areas look like; you just get led out of the exhibition into the lobby. 

On Friday afternoon I went to the Prague Zoo, which is located just outside the city in a beautiful park.  It rained almost every day I was in the Czech Republic, and Friday was no exception, but at least it was sunny part of the time.  The zoo is huge, and you can walk for kilometers with stunning views out over the river and the city in the distance.  In 2002 there was major flooding on the Vlatava River (and all over Europe) and it damaged a large part of the zoo; unfortunately several animals even drowned and they had to euthanize many more.  In May of this year there was less severe flooding, but it did affect the zoo again (no animal losses this time) and now they are relocating the lower-lying parts of the zoo to other areas.  But despite the water damage and the construction, it is a very nice zoo with lovely exhibits, including a giant (some might say elephantine) elephant enclosure, and a large fenced open meadow where the giraffe and sable antelope wander around with sheep grazing in the background (the sheep are outside of the zoo).  They have a hippo house, too, and last year the hippo family (Maruška and Slavek) had a baby; his name is Valaček and it means “little barrel” which is cutest hippo name ever!  They don’t have pygmy hippos at Prague Zoo, but they did have two lovely cheetahs that were enjoying a bit of afternoon sunshine, in between hissing at the visitors. 

Friday evening we took the tram back downtown and enjoyed a moonlit walk over the famous Charles Bridge (which crosses the Vlatava River).  It was one of the few non-rainy evenings during my week in the Czech Republic, and it happened to be full moon, so it was quite beautiful.  Along the way we found a bakery that specialized in gingerbread and marzipan creations, and they even had a little marzipan hippopotamus!  Of course I purchased it and am now tasked with transporting it back to Australia without squishing it.  I am considering Czech-ing myself into a rehab center when I get back to Perth; my hippopotamus problem (obsession, some might say?) might be getting a bit out of control.

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