Lessons Learned: What ’caused’ the refugee Crisis in Europe.

1.  Greece’s economic Crisis

For at least 20 years, refugees from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East were arriving in Greece – and the rest of Europe didn’t have to deal with them.  The EU has a rule:  the first country where a refugee arrives is the country responsible for processing their asylum claim.  For years, Greek officials processed tens of thousands of asylum claims.  Some were allowed to stay, some were deported, some snuck off before a decision was made.  Once they were granted Asylum, they could legally move throughout Europe.

Because there’s a serious economic crisis in Greece preventing most new arrivals from finding work, as soon as migrants are processed, they travel to another EU country.
Also, in 2014, the new government strongly encouraged refugees to be ‘processed’ as quickly as possible.  Sometimes, that meant getting them paperwork asap, and sometimes that meant turning a blind eye while they passed through  Greece.  Either way, they started flooding into other European Countries.

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2.  Syrians are stressing the system – but they’re not the only ones

3 Million Syrians have left the country (over half of their population).  At a certain point, the refugee camps in Turkey just reached capacity and people had to move along.  Some could afford a boat trip to Greece.  But those who couldn’t afford that option began walking through Bulgaria to Serbia, which aren’t EU countries.  That means all of a sudden, millions of refugees began arriving in Austria and Hungary – which weren’t prepared to deal with them.

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What surprised me is that the Syrian Refugees alone aren’t the biggest issue. Iraq and Afghanistan combined are creating nearly as many refugees as Syria – and they’ve been stressing the EU’s refugee system for a decade now.  There wasn’t room for another crisis.  (The rest have all been emigrating to Europe for years, and the EU is basically prepared to handle them. )

3.  Smart Phone Technology

To say that smart phones have revolutionized travel is an understatement. 15 years ago, I needed to carry a lot of paper maps and guidebooks with me, and even then, I was always hoping to find someone who spoke English.  It took weeks for me to figure out how to work the local telephone system, and the trains were nearly impossible to understand. While studying in Spain, I took a 10 day trip throughout Europe, with money, a cell phone, and a US passport, and I was still lost half of the time.

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Now, we’re gliding through 11 countries with just our cell phone.  Google maps tells us how to get where we’re going, where to eat & sleep when we get there, and then we can text our family to let them know we’re safe.  With the internet, we knew when Delta grounded every flight in the world, and when Turkey had a coup, and when France had a terror attack (all of which happened while we were here).  We were able to alter our travel plans in response.
With the internet, people in war-torn countries knew exactly when Greece opened its northern border, and when Germany invited them to arrive.  They know when the trains are running through Bulgaria and when Hungary built the wall.  From their refugee camp in Turkey, they know when their parents have died in a bombing, and there’s no longer any reason to try to get back home.

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Refugees know that it’s a dangerous journey.  Hundreds die every month just on the 4-hour boat crossing.  But google maps and cell phones mean you can connect with your uncle in Germay, get updates from the police situation in Hungary, download maps of the highways in Bulgaria, wire money to your family back home, and translate words for your asylum application or social worker.  That little pocket computer is their lifeline.  Many of them don’t have useful shoes or water to drink, but the smart phone in their pocket made a dangerous journey a possibility.

4.  Germany’s Welcome Mat

German Chancellor Angela Merkell has a “We Can Do It” attitude about welcoming refugees.  Maybe it’s because the last international refugee crisis was caused by Germany during the Holocaust/ World War II, or maybe it’s because the German Economy desperately needs more workers and more babies, but Germany is willing to welcome many immigrants and refugees to live and work there.  (Sweden does, too).  When Greece said “we can’t do this alone anymore”  Germany stepped up and volunteered to help.  Unfortunately, the countries in between are either not EU countries or not interested in helping refugees.

Putting it all together

Economics, politics, wars, technology, and jobs –>  all combined, they create a perfect storm of people on the move.  No matter where they come from, or where they end up settling, refugees are desperate for new opportunities.  Countries have the choice to welcome and embrace them, or make life difficult for everyone.  How we respond is up to us.

 

 

 

 

 

Gods and Kings: Ancient Greece

 

The first Refugees in Greece came 2,000 years ago – as slaves or refugees left behind when Greek Soldiers took over a variety of people groups.  The ancient ruins of Athens shows us the world as the readers of the New Testament would have known it.  We even got to see one of the places St. Paul preached in the book of Acts!

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First- the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis.  This beautiful building was designed to be a temple to Greek Gods.  After the Byzantine Empire became Christian, it was ok for soldiers to destroy the Greek temples in the name of Christianity.  Not very polite, but nevertheless, a lot of destruction was caused.  today, they are re-constructing  it.

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What the City of Athens would have looked like in the 2nd Century AD – just after the writing of the New Testament, and before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.  The buildings on the hill in the center bottom of the city are the “Acropolis”.  Today, most of the city looks about the same!  A few major ancient buildings surrounded by millions of apartment buildings!

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The view of the city today from the top of the Acropolis.  The temple in the center right is the temple of Hephaestus.  Houses aren’t built on the Acropolis, bc it is a huge rocky hill.  In ancient times, they thought the Gods lived on Mt. Olympus but visited the priests on the Acropolis.  In Modern Times, even before excavating the Acropolis ruins, it just wasn’t practical to build in that area, which saved a lot of ancient ruins.

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MARS HILL!!  This is in the Bible.  It is the location of one of Paul’s most important gospel presentations at the time of his visit to Athens during his second missionary journey (Acts 17:16–34). It was where he addressed the religious idolatry of the Greeks who even had an altar to the “Unknown God.” Today, there’s a mega church in Michigan called “Mars Hill”, and that story is in a mural at St. Paul Lutheran Church & School in Ann Arbor, MI.

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This is me at the ancient Library – the oldest library in the world – reading all about it to David 🙂

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David at the modern Olympic Athletic Center – the “Spiros Louis” archway outside of the main Olympic Stadium used in 2004.

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The sunset on the Mediterranean Coast.  Beautiful.

 

 

What do Refugees really need?

Hint:  It might not be what you think.

You might be able to tell from this video that I am a little sunburned and my hair is a little long 🙂  At this point, we’ve been in Europe traveling for 6 weeks.  While we’re ready to be at home, we aren’t quite ready to leave the work here behind, either.

Thanks to the help of a friend, we connected with Bridges Ministry and Hellenic Ministry in Athens, Greece.  Here’s my short reflection on our time there with them.

Germany’s Welcome Mat

Refugees are now 2% of the population

Even though less than 30% of Germany’s population supports immigration, the government is unapologetic in its very welcoming policies.

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Why?  Germany needs immigrants.
1.  Europe’s last major humanitarian and refugee crisis was caused by Hitler’s policies in the 1930s and 40s.  No one has forgotten that.  By welcoming refugees during this crisis, Germany is hoping to change the narrative, and change perceptions.  “Many Germans think that their country should act particularly humanitarian given its war-time history”.
2.  Germany has the lowest birth rate in Europe.  By 2030, less than half of the population of the country will be of working age.  Without immigration, they will be unable to support baby-boomers in their retirement at the standard they have promised to them.

While the government is handling the crisis like a train schedule (using a complex formula to determine how many refugees are welcome in each town, and specifically explaining all the rules for receiving asylum), the average German isn’t sure how to welcome the refugees.  The exact reasons why they need immigrants are the reasons why it’s so difficult to authentically welcome them:  with a history of disliking foreigners, and a future so dependent on them, what is the balance and how do they integrate?

Sanctuary – the church is a safe place

Amidst all the political turmoil, there are very real stories of very real people who need help faster than the government can provide it.

We met with a man named Achile from Central African Republic.  We didn’t get his picture, and I’m not using his real name, because his case is sensitive.

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Achile left his home, wife, and two children three years ago.  He walked to the northern coast of Africa, took a boat to Europe, and then began walking.  He was arrested in Bulgaria and sent to a detention facility known for its human rights abuses, where he was routinely tortured, starved, etc.  Amnesty international took on his case and asked a Lutheran church in the town of Mainz, Germany to host him while they managed the legal paperwork.

Pastor Jens Martin (who hosted us in Mainz) agreed.

The church set up an apartment in their basement, and in exchange for maintenance and janitorial work, allowed Achile to live there for 8 months, and worked with his lawyers to help his case.  He was allowed to move his asylum case from Bulgaria to Germany, and now has moved out of the church.  He still lives and works in Mainz while he is waiting for Germany to respond to his request for asylum, which might take another year.

His biggest dream is for his family to live and worship together.

Unfortunately, there is only a 2% chance that his request for asylum will be approved by Germany.  They rarely approve African refugees.  Syrians are given priority, as they are coming from a ‘war zone’.  Even though CAR has been in a civil war since 2012, that is not internationally recognized as a humanitarian crisis (yet).

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We haven’t heard as much about Africa as we have about the middle east, but Nigera, Congo, Sudan, and CAR are all involved in serious civil wars, each creating millions of refugees.  Next summer I’ll be in Africa to learn more.  In the meantime, I am  hoping that the US and Europe can do more to welcome humanitarian refugees from these countries.

Please join  me in praying for Achile, and for the church in Mainz which so graciously hosted him.

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Germany!

Statistics are not a story

From the early stages of planning this adventure, I had been looking forward to spending time in Germany.  Knowing that the Lutheran Churches in Germany were significantly assisting in the refugee crisis, through evangelism,  humanitarian relief , and sanctuary, I was thrilled to meet with Lutheran pastors there.

The news about the European Refugee Crisis 2015 centered on Germany’s invitation to refugees.  Last year, the Prime Minister of Germany openly advertised that the country needed and wanted refugees – and that they would help them to find jobs, apartments, schools, and language training.

It worked.

The country of 80 million Germans welcomed more than 1 million refugees last year alone, and has pledged to take in up to half a million more annually for the foreseeable future.

I promise to tell you more about the situation there tomorrow.  But first, one of the best stories we heard.

 

Mainz – one town’s story

Thanks to a friend of a friend, I got to meet Pastor Jens Martin from Mainz, a town outside of Frankfurt.  This is his modern looking church building.

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This church happens a few blocks away from two Refugee Shelters set up by the government.  The national government has determined that the town of Mainz (about the size of Ann Arbor) can handle 3,000 refugees.  The local town has converted two old school buildings into refugee shelters.  The classrooms have been turned into social work offices, medical clinics, and apartments.  They’re using the former locker rooms as shared bathrooms and laundry facilities.  There are playgrounds for the kids and the cafeteria has been turned into a sitting lounge for the adults.  (there are very limited cooking facilities, and no shared or provided meals).

When we were there, it was summer vacation for kids and adults.  A local group was doing a joint German-refugee summer day camp to help kids connect with one another.  It was a huge success, run largely by German volunteers who are pro-immigration, and very popular with all the kids who were getting bored by this point in the summer 🙂

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Anita and her parents Shori and Omar.  

When we arrived with Pastor Jens, the social workers assigned us a bilingual (Farsi-German) tour guide to show us around.  But, he had only been there 3 days himself, and was struggling to answer our questions.  Almost immediately, Omar came up and hugged Pastor Jens.  He could only speak farsi, but the guide translated to german, and pastor Jens translated to English.  🙂  Very flexible

Turns out, Omar and his family had just visited Pastor Jens’ Lutheran church the Sunday before, and he was eager to show his new pastor around his home.  He was also willing to share his story with us.

Omar was a florist and delivery man in Iran.  Shori was unable to find work.  They are Christians, and were facing persecution in Iran.  Shori’s uncle lives in Hamburg, Germany, so when the country opened its borders last year, they decided to take their chance.  Shori really wants to be a nurse in Germany, and she will have a chance to do that – Germany really needs nurses, and immigrants do a lot of basic nursing in Europe.  (It’s hard for women to have jobs in Iran.)

Despite the opportunities available to them if they got to Germany, they were a lot of risks to consider.  They were unwilling to separate their family.  They were unwilling to risk their daughter’s life on a boat ride.  So they carried her and one suitcase for 15 days over 3,000 miles, using as many buses and trains as they could manage.

Since arriving in Germany 8 months ago, they’ve been transferred 4 times to 4 different camps/ shelters.  They are likely to receive official asylum in the country eventually, but they’re unable to work or take language classes until the paperwork comes through.  So they are very bored most days, trying to learn German via youtube videos and volunteer-led courses.

Each time the German government moves them, they walk to the closest church.
They are thrilled to raise their daughter in a country where she can live her faith.

If their asylum is approved, the government will provide them each with a basic social security payment (standard for all German residents) of about $300 per month per person, plus national health care, and a subsidized apartment.  Job training and English classes for the adults and public school for Anita are required also.  They are strongly encouraged to connect with the community – and being church members is the fastest way to do that.

Pastor Jens is baptizing at least 25 Farsi-speakers every year.  He isn’t even evangelizing in the camps – those are just the ones who are choosing to walk into his building and request asylum.

Their story is not the one we hear in the news.  The news is focused on Syrian refugees, and economic migrants, and young men traveling alone with no intention to integrate, and muslims who don’t wish to learn the language or culture of their host country.

This family was the kind that Germany must be thrilled to have. I hope that more of the stories are like theirs, and that more Germans are willing to look beyond the statistics to see the people whose lives are changed by radical hospitality.  

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned: Budapest

Refugees NOT welcome

Hungary doesn’t really want refugees there.  The current government is really making it difficult for refugees to stay – but they’re also not helping them to leave.  Unfortunately, that means a lot of people are stuck.  Thankfully, I got to spend time with the amazing people of Danube International Church, who are going out of their way to minister to refugees in Budapest in practical and spiritual ways.  Through them, I got to meet several refugees in Budapest and share their stories with you.

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Mateo’s family – Cuba 

Mateo was an IT engineer in Cuba, and his wife Angela was an international tax accountant.  Their daughter is 4 years old.  Angela’s father lives in the US, and they are hoping to join him. Believe it or not, the safest way to get their daughter out of Cuba was to buy tickets to Russia!  They flew to Russia and traveled through Eastern Europe to Hungary – just to be deported back to Cuba.  This time is their second try, and they are in a refugee shelter outside of Budapest; they’ve been there for about 8 months.  This fall, their daughter will start kindergarten in the shelter-camp, led by UNICEF volunteers.  They don’t want to stay in Hungary, because they want their daughter to learn English – and if she is in school in Hungary, she has to learn Hungarian.  They want to go to the states, but I think they’d be ok with Germany.  They seem to be nominal Catholics.  Basically, they reminded me of middle class North Americans – focused on their careers, but mainly focused on their daughter’s safety, security, and happiness.  They’re willing to do just about anything for her to have a better life.

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Mamood & Miriam – from Afghanistan

This young married couple just got their Hungarian papers the day we visited!  They are from a minority group in Afghanistan called “Hazara”.  The July 23, 2016 bombing targeted their ethnic group – it was the deadliest in the country since 2001.  According to Mamood, the Taliban really hates their ethnic group.  Both Mamood & Yasmin are only children, and most of their parents have died.  They decided to try for a better life 2 years ago when Yasmin got pregnant.  Unfortunately, she miscarried on the journey.  Mamood got all the way to Sweden, and was there for 7 months, but for some reason got deported.  During this time, Miriam delivered a stillborn baby.  When we visited, she was in her first trimester of her third pregnancy, and the doctors have ordered her on bed-rest.  Mamood’s papers mean that he is legally allowed to work in Hungary, and they are required to move out of the shelter-camp and into a house.  Thankfully, the local church has helped to secure both an apartment and a job – most Hungarians legally discriminate against the refugees, even those with legal papers.

Mamood & Miriam became Christians in the refugee camps.  Because of the Taliban’s hatred and discrimination of their family & ethnic group, they had become convinced that Islam is not a good religion.  But, as good Muslims, they had heard of Jesus as a good prophet. Thanks to the work of several pastors and missionaries throughout their journey, they were able to read a Bible in their language, and watch a movie about Jesus in their language, too.  Mamood is recently baptized.

Mamood’s English is very rough (he now needs to focus on learning Hungarian), but he wanted to tell me that his life has totally changed because of Jesus.  He does not think that all Muslims are bad – he has Muslim family.  But he thinks that God can work good things in the  midst of their horrible experiences.  He is full of hope and promise, and is convinced that he can work hard to support his wife and baby, and that God will take care of everything else.

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Darlene & Michelle – Democratic Republic of Congo

These two sisters are traveling companions, escaping a terrorist militant group similar to Boko Haram.  They stick together, to protect each other on the road.  (Which is a good idea – in Vienna, I learned that a significant number of female refugees are sexually exploited or assaulted on the journey, and often arrive in Europe pregnant, which makes it extra hard on them to find work, and extra timely for the EU country to process their paperwork.)

They were hairdressers and clothing shop owners in Congo.  They walked to Libya, took a boat to Italy, and somehow ended up in Hungary.  (they were a little sketchy on the details).

Unfortunately, despite significant terror attacks against the people of the Congo, it isn’t an internationally recognized war zone.  Which means, unfortunately, that these sisters might not get amnesty in Hungary.  They speak fluent French, and would like to work in France somewhere, but France isn’t taking many migrants.  In the meantime, they are volunteering in the clothing closet of the refugee shelter-camp, just for something to keep them busy all day, and hoping that the ‘work record’ will help their asylum case.

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Pakistan & Afghanistan

We got to visit a women’s and children’s shelter in Budapest.  Traditionally, this was designed for former prostitutes, Roma (“gypsies”), single pregnant women, and families escaping domestic violence.  It’s basically a shelter of last-resort to keep very vulnerable women and children off of the street.  Now, with the current refugee crisis, it’s mainly hosting refugee families without adult men.

You see, refugees do not receive any  help from the Hungarian government.  Once they receive asylum paperwork to stay, they are not allowed to live at refugee shelters, they are not allowed to collect any kind of food assistance or rent assistance.  But, they are also not given any help in finding a job or an apartment – and Hungarian citizens are legally allowed to discriminate against non-citizens, so it can take weeks or months to find a job or an apartment.  Once they are denied asylum, they are also kicked out of refugee shelters, but are given no assistance to leave.  Basically, either way, they’re completely penniless with no where to sleep and nothing to eat or wear.

Sounds like most of the single men either keep walking to another country or sleep on the streets/ metros/ train stations.  But a few of the women’s shelters take on the most desperate refugees.

The woman in the far left of the above photo has 4 children – 2 of which are nearly adults, and 1 which is studying in Europe.  She was threatened by an abusive husband (whether back in Pakistan or on the journey, I’m not sure), and somehow ended up in Hungary with 2 small children, no money, and no job.  Seriously desperate.

The woman in the far right of the above photo is from Afghanistan.  Her son (second from left) is an adult who speaks 5 languages and wants to study engineering.  He brought his mother from Afghanistan to protect her.  Unfortunately, she got very sick on the journey, and they think she has a blood clotting disorder which makes it impossible for her to work or travel.  He is hoping for a student visa to study in Hungary and take care of his mother.

What’s Next?

I don’t have the answers for the refugee crisis, and definitely no idea what else could be done in Budapest.  But I do know that if they want the refugees to leave, they have to help them do that.  The people I met don’t want to stay in Hungary – but they can’t leave.  They need papers and enough money for the next leg of the journey.  In the meantime, friends, prayer, and practical support is being offered by Christian missionaries in the area.  Please keep them all in your prayers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refugees NOT Welcome in Budapest

Lessons Learned from Hungary

Hungary is very opposed to helping any refugees enter their country.  They’ve been in the news for kicking refugee children, for warning refugees to stay away, and for actually building a fence along their entire border.  Last summer, they had up to 10,000 refugees per day crossing the border, and today they have only 30 per day (the minimum required by the EU). Most Hungarians are un-apologetic about their nationalism, and sometimes this sounds like racism or hatred.  Check out more in my video blog:

Tomorrow:  Stories from families I met in Budapest.  🙂

Go for the Gold!

As the Olympics began in Rio, David & I were trying to watch the opening ceremony in Frankfurt, Germany.

For the first time ever, Refugees will get to compete in the Olympics.
They had to be UN-recognized refugees, which means they don’t have a permanent “home country” for which to play in the Olympics.  They also had to meet the Olympic athletic standards specific to their individual sports.

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meet the refugees & read their stories here  

Some of the team are double-refugees:  they had already left one country as children, but as adults were abandoned by their coach in a country with no papers or money (read that story here)  43 athletes applied for the honor to be on the team, but only 10 were approved for the final cut.  They will compete under the title “Team Refugee Olympic Athletes”, and under the Olympic Flag.  They are from Syria, Iran, South Sudan, and the Congo.

One of the refugees is a Lutheran World Relief worker – who has been a part of Lutheran ministries in the new country of South Sudan, and who was encouraged to run by one of her teachers there!  (check out her story here)

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I wonder if any of them will win a medal?!

How many ways can we see Amsterdam?

Time for a break!

After nearly a month of travel, we arrived at our 8th Country:  The Netherlands!  Our time in Amsterdam was simply a week of fun.   In just 3 days, we were on planes, trains, boats, trams, and a scooter!

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Unfortunately, we didn’t get to do any refugee work in Amsterdam.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t immigrants and refugees there.  The Netherlands used to have colonies all over the world – including Indonesia, South Africa, and Suriname (in South America).  When those locations transitioned to independent countries, the people there were offered a chance to relocate to the Netherlands.  So today, the relatively small country is very diverse!

We ate at a “Suriname” restaurant in Chinatown.  Basically, it tasted like Chinese food!

We happened to visit during “Euro-Pride” festival.

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Basically, the weekend was full of tourist-fun:  shopping, eating, touring, photographing, etc.  One of the coolest things was a boat tour of the canals.  I really wanted to try something newly offered in Amsterdam:  A boat tour led by a recent refugee. (Check out the story I heard on NPR here.) But I couldn’t figure out how to join them.  Thankfully, there is a great you-tube experience for me and for all of you readers!  You can see the sights we did, and we can all learn from the refugees!

 

Prague

The European Capital you’ve never heard about

Have you ever been to Prague?  Know anyone who has?
Yeah, me neither.
But David was interested, so we went.
Good idea.

Most Americans visit western Europe, and we were the same.  Study abroad, vacation, or visiting relatives, we all know the top three:  Big Ben, Eiffel Tower, Sistine Chapel.  Maybe an Irish pub or a Swiss ski trip.  But Prague?

IMG_20160721_111200.jpg National Theatre, in Old Town square

Highly recommend it.

First:  it’s totally affordable.  We had our cheapest lodging and food there for the whole trip.  Public transit is reasonable, there are free or cheap things to do, and even shopping seemed do-able there!

DSC_1209.JPG View of the town from top of Petrin Hill

Second:  it’s got all the great stuff of a European capital.  Castle, Cathedral, outdoor parks, a dozen languages, pedestrian-only walkways through narrow cobblestone streets, you name it.  Most of the tourist places speak English, and the food is delicious without being too exotic – perfect for US travelers.

 

Astronomical clock – inside elevator and outside views

St. Mary before Tyn church – inside and outside

DSC_1197 John Lennon Wall

DSC_1226 View from St. Charles Bridge

DSC_1203 Monument to the victims of Communism

DSC_1221 The Dancing House(s)

DSC_1160.JPG St. Vitus Cathedral

Most of what we saw was free.  The tram to the top of Petrin Hill was included in our public transport pass.  The elevator up to the top of the Astronomical Tower was a few Euros.  If we had more time, we might have rented a paddleboat on the Charles River, paid for a tour of the castle or cathedral, or gone to the zoo.  But for a one-day speed tour, we had a great time!

My family’s legend is that a Czechoslovakian/ Hungarian princess (they were all the same country at that time) escaped from a threatening man and immigrated to the US with a band of ‘gypsies’ about a century ago.  Since her past history was very much buried at sea, we don’t know much more.  But I’m guessing this princess approves of our visit 🙂

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