Travels postsMonday July 21, 2014
Eurotrip 2014: Dekuju, Praha; Tag, Wien
It took me several days to finally remember the Czech for “thank you”: dekuju. The spelling threw me at first, I guess, but it stuck once I realized it was basically like Elmer Fudd saying “decree”: de-KWEE. Hehehehehehe. I also learned “Good morning” in Czech: Dobré ráno. That was it, though. I had an app I planned to use to learn more Czech but it kept crapping out on me. But those two words went a long way in the touristy circles I ran in, even as they were wholly unnecessary, since most folks spoke English. And German. And maybe Russian. Seriously, all of those “Speak English!” folks in the U.S.? They need to get out more. It’s less the number of languages people from other countries speak than the fact that you can go pretty much anywhere in the world and people will speak your language. English is doing just fine, dekuju.
P and I were reluctant to leave Prague yet arrived at the train station more than an hour early—even though the platform wouldn’t be announced until 20 minutes prior to departure. I didn’t know this. I always think earlier the better but here I felt like a rube. While we waited, P bought a coffee and I exchanged most of our korunas for euros. That was an oddity of our trip: We were visiting three countries in Europe, but two of them, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, weren’t on the euro. So we had a lot of exchanges. I spent a lot of times examining small coins. Was this a .... what was this?
Ten minutes before departure, our train platform was finally announced, and the huge, waiting crowd streamed through the tunnel—which includes a small bust of Woodrow Wilson, onetime hope of the world—and scrambled for a seat. We were less insistent since we bought tickets with assigned seats. Of course someone was in them. P spoke to him and the man apologized, moved his stuff, and sat in the seat in front of us. I was confused, though. How many seats were already bought? How could you tell? Were we even in the right place? Later in the trip—Vienna to Geneva—it happened again, but with a less polite deportee, but that time, an hour or so later, I found a conductor, who took a look at our tickets and declared, “You’re in the wrong car.” Wouldn’t be surprised if this was true during the Prague leg, too. Nothing more first-world than that, right? Declaring ownership of a spot you don’t own and booting folks from it. As they apologized for your mistake.
The car from Prague turned out to be the kid car. By which I mean the teenage car. Late teens? A group from ... Spain? I think they were on a second leg of a trip, because they were all tired, and several fell asleep sitting up, and one kid threw up. It was a source of great amusement for the others. Almost forced amusement, to be honest. One of the kids wore a T-shirt reading, I believe:
NO SOY YO
ES LA PERA
“Es la pera” or “Soy la pera” apparently means “I’m the pear,” which apparently means “I’m the shit.” But the rest? Anyone? Bueller?
Five hours later, after rattling past various rolling hills as well as a nuclear reactor in Brno, we arrived at the Wien-Miedling station. We walked down the stairs, took a left, and wound up blinking in the sun. I thought we’d see a train station, or at least a city, but we seemed in the sticks. Has we gotten off in the wrong spot? The Rough Guide to Vienna (also by Rob Humphreys) was a little sketchy on the subject, and I was ready to go back and turn right where we’d turned left, but P was anxious. So we just took a waiting cab to our hotel. Overpaid.
The pension kind of threw us, too. It wasn’t a hotel? With a lobby? It was just a door? We knew what pensions were but some assumptions are hard to break. Instead of a lobby, a heavy door led to a dark hallway, which led to an old-fashioned glass elevator, that you took to the third floor and the Pension Neuer Markt. It was a bit frayed around the edges but otherwise wasn’t bad. We got the key and I thanked the receptionist. Dekuju. I mean ... What is it again? Danke schoen. Thank you, Wayne Newton. Although, for me, in Vienna, I kept thinking of the “By Strauss” number in “An American in Paris.” Danke danke, bitte bitte.
Fifteen minutes to freshen up and then out into the blinding 4 pm sun. We walked a half block and ... boom. St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We laughed, it was so near and so beautiful. P wanted to go in right away but I counseled a walk around the city, saving the Cathedral for the next day. A block away, we tried to get a gelato at a busy store but were too frustrated by the disorganization. As we walked, P kept looking into shops for a new purse. That was her purchasing goal for the trip. Generally, though, she’d come out of the store, wrinkle her nose and shake her head. Not there. She would find what she wanted in a few days, and in the unlikeliest of places.
On Grabben, we had drinks at the outdoor café in front of the Pestsäule, a mercy column commissioned by Emperor Leopold I after the plague of 1679. It’s a statue that soars impossibly. It’s like a statue version of one of those supertall wedding cakes. Much of Vienna felt this way to me. Architecturally, it was impossibly white and fluffy. I wanted to scoop some of the icing off the buildings with my finger.
That night, the Rough Guide let us down—or time did. For dinner, Immervoll at 17 Weihburggasse sounded good, but when we got there, it wasn’t. We walked along: 13 ... 15 ... 19 .... What the--? A waiter at a nearby cafe told us it had moved a few blocks away—if the new one was even the same one. Instead, we ate at a quaint-looking but expensive restaurant run by an Asian dude. I had the weiner schnitzel. I was surprised when it arrived as deep-fried veal. I expected sausage. It was so-so. Maybe all weiner schnitzel is.
Heading out of Prague. This is probably about halfway to Vienna. P gently being rocked to sleep.
All the stuff you see out the train window from Praha to Wien: buildings ...
... decrepit train stations ...
... nuclear reactors ...
... and then, boom, Vienna. Stephansdom: Half a block from our pension.
Vienna ... or Vienna on Broadway? Only Neil Patrick Harris knows for sure.
The Pestsäule on Grabben. All the architecture in Vienna just goes up and up. Even statues to plagues.
P on Grabben, looking for a good new purse. She found it, but days later, and in the unlikeliest of places. *FIN*
Eurotrip 2014: Terezin
On our third full day in Prague we visited a concentration camp, Terezin, also known as Theresienstadt. I was vaguely familiar. At the Seattle International Film Festival this year I’d seen a documentary, “The Last of the Unjust,” written and directed by “Shoah” documentarian Claude Lanzmann, about Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Theresienstadt Jewish Council, who was condemned as a collaborator after the war. OK, I saw two-thirds of it. It’s nearly four hours long, and I made the mistake of seeing another SIFF movie beforehand. Plus my arms hurt (an ulnar nerve thing). Plus the air-conditioning wasn’t working at SIFF Uptown that night. It was like a cattle car in there. So with an hour left, in the doc, and already missing the thread of the story, I fled. The mostly older, mostly Jewish folks in the room, made of stronger stuff, kept going.
But that was the camp, Terezin, a kind of weigh station for Eastern European Jews before most were sent on to Auschwitz. It was called a “model ghetto.” The Nazis actually made a propaganda film about it: “Hitler Gives the Jews a Town.”
Since Terezin is 60 km from Prague, we went with a tour group—mostly creative writing students from Chicago—as well as the Darryl and Darryl of the Czech Republic: Our driver was named Wenceslas and our tour guide was also named Wenceslas. The driver was another of those meaty Czech men who looked like he could crush you with one hand but was surprisingly gentle in manner. The tour guide seemed like a partisan in the mountains from a century earlier, but with an umbrella rather than a rifle slung over his shoulder.
On the drive, he told us about the history of Terezin: how it started out as a garrison town built by the Hapsburgs in the 1780s to defend the northern border from the Prussians; how it never had to do this. He was straightforward, perfunctory. He had his routine and didn’t deviate much from it. I wondered, as I wondered with many of the middle-aged Czechs I met, where he’d been in 1968. Or 1989? What had he believed? What did he believe now? I remember being slightly startled by his angry tone when he discussed the 1938 Munich Agreement. “Right,” I thought, “that was about Czechoslovakia, wasn’t it?” One of those distant countries to me, his to him. And now we would see one of the consequences of that decision.
Upon entering the Malá pevnost (small fortress), we immediately lost both Wenceslases: the driver because he was the driver, the tour guide because he also spoke Italian, there was another Italian group there, and he had to service them. So he handed us off to a tour guide with a thick German accent, Klaus, I believe, who told us we would have to pay for photographs, and then we all walked through a sign reading “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”: “WORK SETS YOU FREE.” A message that wouldn’t seem out of place on FOX-News, I thought. I took a picture.
I assumed the tour would be wholly about World War II, but recent floods were constantly mentioned, while the fortress’ most famous prisoner, Gavrilo Princip, was the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb who assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand, which precipitated Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia, which started World War I. Princip was imprisoned there for several years until he died of tuberculosis in 1918. I asked if, all that time, all those years, he knew what he had wrought. If he’d heard about or read about the millions of lives lost on the battlefield. “He didn’t start World War I,” Klaus said quickly. “Oh, right,” I said. “Well, he was a cause, right? So ...” But we didn’t seem to connect on this, and anyway Klaus didn’t know. But I thought I needed to read up on my WWI history again.
It was an appropriately overcast day, and P had several low blood-sugar moments—her worst of the trip. It seemed no amount of protein bars could get her back up. That seemed appropriate, too: being with someone who was basically starving for sugar. At the end of the tour of the small fortress, we saw a bit of the “Hitler Gives ...” propaganda film, but through a 1960s lens, and then were reunited with our Wenceslases. We walked back past the gift shop. I forgot to pay for the photographs I took.
Next we went to the Ghetto Museum, then the Magdeburg Barracks, former seat of the Jewish Council, which has been turned into a museum featuring the work of the various Jewish artists who passed through Terezin. There was amazing stuff—both propaganda for the Nazis (“Hey, everything’s OK here!”) and art for themselves (“No, it’s not”)—but we were rushed through so fast one woman objected. “Hey, can we stay here a little longer?” We didn’t. That seemed appropriate, too. We weren’t fed, we had no say, we were rushed through everything. We visited another cemetery and then went back to Prague.
The rest of the day, P and I went to see a movie at a nearby cinema. A few Czech movies were playing, but without English subtitles, of course, so we opted for something big and stupid: “Godzilla.” Years ago I thought about writing a book, “Watching Movies in Other Countries,” and some part of me keeps a hand in that long moribund project; but I have to admit, the Czech experience didn’t really differ much from the U.S. one. You got specific seats rather than general admission. That’s about it. You could buy popcorn, M&Ms, Kit-Kats, Coke. They were called popcorn, M&Ms, Kit-Kats, Coke.
For dinner, we went to Lokal, a much-recommended pub serving Czech food and beers, and sat with two Brits—one a current solicitor, one a former solicitor—who were in town for the weekend to see a steam-engine train exhibit. They were polite but I think we overwhelmed them with our curiosity—desperate, as we were, to talk to someone besides ourselves. We also ordered after them but got served first. I don’t think that sat well. Then we went to a less crowded pub next door for another beer and the end of a World Cup match: Argentina/Iran. On the walk home, we stopped off at a big grocery chain, Billa, to look for more protein bars for Patricia. Tomorrow was travel day.
The road to Terezin, which is about 60 km outside of Prague. Wenceslas was driving. The other Wenceslas was talking. It was odd just seeing the road sign.
The Jewish cemetery outside the small fortress.
Tour guide Wenceslas warning everyone not to step on the grass like Patricia. Kidding. But note the umbrella. I plan to carry mine that way soon.
Work sets you free. As FOX-News tells us.
The small fortress at Terezin.
Another Jewish cemetery.
Where do you go after a concentration camp? How about to a stupid Hollywood movie? It will make everything better. *FIN*
EuroTrip 2014: A Day of Ripoffs
“This has been a day of ripoffs.”
That’s what I was thinking, sourly, before the chamber orchestra began to play Friday night.
We overdid Prague on the first day under blue skies, then redid some of it on the second day under cloudy skies. So it inevitably felt like a setback.
We visited the Stavovské divadlo (Estates Theater), where Mozart premiered “Don Giovanni,” and which is the only extant opera house where Mozart performed, but it was under renovation and shows wouldn’t begin again until we were in Vienna (ironically). We visited, with some difficulty, the Museum of Communism, which (again, ironically) is located above a McDonald’s on Na Príkope. According to the Rough Guide, it was started by an expat, and so has a bit of a chincey feel to it: the floorboards creak, the exhibits seem dusty, everything crowds in on you. P loved it. She felt the whole chinciness added to the experience. Then we walked down Na Príkope to Wenceslas Square (Václavské námestí), which was less square than superlong rectangle. More construction was being done there, while the beautiful 18th century buildings were now often standing next to the ugliest, nondescript Soviet-era buildings. Spasibo, Russia. Everywhere we saw ads for the Prague Hooters and the Prague Wax Museum, where, apparently, John Lennon was having a bed-in with a communist figure. The whole thing felt slightly unclean.
Late morning, we retraced our steps to Josefov, the old Jewish ghetto, but everything we visited seemed overpriced and underwhelming. The synagogue hardly compared to any of the cathedrals we’d visited, and the Old Jewish Cemetery was old but still a cemetery. Plus we had trouble finding it. (We had trouble finding everything.) Plus P had a low blood-sugar incident and we had to grab lunch at a nearby pub that was, again, overpriced and underwhelming. But I did buy a little Golem figure for a few bucks that I get a kick out of. Plus a book about the Prague Golem. So there was that. And anyway we would be hearing music that night: according to the program “Strauss, Mozart, Dvorak.” One wonders what Strauss did to get such billing.
It was at the Municipal House, a grand, early 20th century building next to the Powder Gate a half a block from where we were staying. At 5:45 PM, P and I, dressed to the nines (or maybe to the sevens), walked up the grand staircase and toward what I imagined was a giant opera hall. Along the way we passed a small room where chairs were being set up, and P remarked how so much was going on in this building. Then the hallway ended without a way to the hall. We backtracked. Eventually we realized—stupid tourists—that the small room where chairs were being set up? That was the concert hall. We sat in our seats, looked around, confused, and met the confused looks on other folks there. I felt gyped. I was worried we’d been ripped off again.
Then the musicians filed in, took their seats, chatted with each other. They were probably 10, 15 feet away from us. According to the program, most play for the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra. I fanned myself with the program and waited. Then they launched into the overture from “The Magic Flute.”
Within seconds, P gripped my leg with excitement. What they did in 75 minutes that night was probably old hat for them but truly stunning for us. What I’d discounted—the smallness of the room, the proximity to the players, the lack of grandeur—was exactly what you want. Classical musicians are too often hid from us—on recordings or in pits or lost amid a big orchestra—but here they were up close and individual. It may have been our best night on the trip.
At Prague's Museum komunismu (Musuem of Communism) above a McDonald's (of course) on Na prikope. One wonders how cheap these statues came. Cheap, but at such a price. The museum itself is a bit chincey, but that probably adds to the experience.
Museum of Communism: A photo of communist leader Klement Gottwald in fur cap, which, of course, reminded me of the first page of “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” (Read your Kundera, kids.)
Museum of Communism: A reproduction of a schoolroom. Czech would've come in handy here. Translation, anyone? Bueller?
Museum of Communism ad: It's less the blonde girl in the pigtails holding the pink balloon than whatever the hell is in that glass. Does anyone know what this soft drink is/was called? What precedes “OVONA”?
Wenceslas Square, where things happen. This is what was built under the Hapsburgs ...
... and this was what was built under the Soviets.
And this is what's arrived now. You're welcome.
P in front of the Stavovske divadlo, where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni: “... the only opera house left standing in which Mozart actually performed.” But we couldn't get in.
We had trouble locating the Old Jewish Ghetto, too. A WASP thing maybe?
Eventually we got there.
The Czech musicians who saved our day. *FIN*
EuroTrip 2014: Overwhelmed in Prague
You tend to overdo the first day. You’ve spent all that time prepping and planning and saving and traveling. And then it’s all there. How can you not go a little crazy?
The Rough Guide to Prague, which wasn’t all that rough, recommended taking the #22 tram for an overview of Old Town, etc., but we decided to walk it. And walk it. And walk it. And were overwhelmed. Prague is a beautiful city, and it was a beautiful day: blue skies and 60s and 70s.
I’m drawn not only to the old and Gothic but to the new and kitschy; to the pop cultural stuff. On our first day, for example, on Celetná, the touristy street between the Prasna brana (Powder Gate) and Staromestke namesti (the Old Town Square), I found myself staring in a shop window at rows and rows of nesting dolls. They were less the traditional ones than newer, pop cultural ones: singers and actors and athletes. Mostly athletes. Instead of the same figurine inside, each smaller doll would simply be another player on that team—whether that team was Manchester United or the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Yankees.
I was staring at the Yankees nesting dolls, of course, pissed off that they’d found me again on the other side of the world, when the salesman asked if I was interested. “You want?” he asked. I waved him off.
Me: I hate the Yankees.
He: What is your team?
Me: The Seattle Mariners. But you don't have them.
He: We can make.
Me: No no no no no.
He: [Pause] One ‘no’ is sufficient.
He said it matter-of-factly. The nesting dolls quickly became old hat—they were everywhere in Prague—but I never forgot that line. I should have bought something from him just for that.
Is there value in trodding the same path so many others have trod, and visiting the same sites millions of others have visited? Not much, probably, but it’s helpful to me anyway. Now when people mention Staromestske namesti or the Charles Bridge, I’ll have memories and images and feelings about them.
At Staromestske namesti, we arrived early, when the day still felt fresh and cool, and the square wasn’t yet overwhelmed with tourists like us. P was immediately attracted to the Tyn Church while I enjoyed simply being in the Square. I later realized that this was the place recounted at the beginning of Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” In February 1948, Slovak minister Vladimir Clementis put his fur cap on the head of Communist leader Klement Gottwald, who was giving a speech to a cheering throng. Kundera:
Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history, and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.
It’s one of the great openings of a modern novel. If I’d remembered that that was the square, I would have sought out the balcony. Instead, I took photos of the Hus monument, convinced myself that the astronomical clock was the Tyn Church, then was corrected by Patricia in time to see it in action. It was created in the 15th century by Master Hanus, who, according to Rough Guide author Rob Humphries, “was then blinded by the town councillors to make sure he couldn’t repeat the job for anyone else.” And you thought your Christmas bonus sucked.
I was less impressed with the Charles Bridge and its 31 statues, the No. 1 tourist attraction in Prague, simply because we arrived later in the day, noonish, when we were feeling peckish, and when the crowds were beginning to get overwhelming. I did a lot of dodging on the bridge. I also wondered over the plethora of caricature artists making a living there. Who visits a beautiful spot in a foreign city and decides to get a caricature of themselves or their children? Why bring home that souvenir?
We had the best french fries ever at a corner restaurant (whose name escapes me), sitting in the shade and trying to get our bearings, then hiked up to the other great tourist attraction in Prague, the Prazsky Hrad (Prague Castle), which, despite its name, was less castle than working community. We got overwhelmed by another cathedral (St. Vitus) and climb up one of its spires for a great view of the city. Throughout the trip, P was always about the quiet and majesty of the cathedral; I was always thinking, “Yeah, but can we climb up?”
After unsuccesfully trying to find the #22 tram for the trip down, we gave up and simply walked it, then headed over to the Kafka museum, which, being more form than content, impressed P, the graphic designer, and left me, the writer, a little cold. And sleepy. Plus there’s the incongruity of it all: the ignored writer, writing about the ignored, being celebrated so hugely nearly a century after his death. You got the feeling that if Kafka came back and saw what they were doing in his name, he would go mad.
Prague's medieval astronomical clock—the third oldest in the world and the only one still working.
A closer look.
A statue to Franz Kafka in the Old Jewish ghetto.
Just an ordinary street during our walk. Like Paris, it seems there are no wrong turns in Prague. (Although I managed to find them.)
The Charles Bridge.
A statue of St. Anne, Mary's mother, with Mary, Jesus, and winged friends: One of the 31 statues on the Charles Bridge.
Leaving the Charles Bridge and entering Malá Strana.
Best fries ever. Also the first of many Caprese salads for P.
P in the Church of St. Nicholas, before ascension to the Prazsky Hrad.
It must be dispiriting for American priests to visit European cathedrals. They must think, “Well, shit ...”
Walking toward the Prague Castle, with Prague in the background.
Our third cathedral/church of the day: St. Vitus. Each seemed to top the previous one.
I mean, just look at this.
EuroTrip 2014: Getting There
Money belts were not invented with the vanity of middle-aged men in mind. You spend all that time trying to work it off (not very successfully) only to put it back on (much more successfully) in the form of money and passports. Seems unfair. You also wonder how necessary the thing is. Is it really safer than keeping my credit card in my front pants pocket? Or am I just insulting everyone around me? Excuse me while I dig out this money from the belt I only wear in your country because I don't trust any of the folks around here. Ultimately I only used it when we traveled from one city to the next. The rest of the time it was stashed.
Our two-week-long trip started well: a nice conversation at SeaTac airport gate with two young French women returning from visiting relatives in the states. (Their father is American, so they have aunts, uncles and cousins in Florida, Oklahoma and Washington state.) Both women are in law school and enthusiastic about the U.S. When I asked what they liked about the U.S., they mentioned, in order of increasing enthusiasm, the people, the cities, and the junk food. They were apparently returning to France with bags and bags of Cheetos. Fromage, schmomage.
Big news for me? I actually slept on the flight to Amsterdam. For five hours. I never do this. The key seemed to be some combination of beers, ear plugs, those nightshade eye masks they pass out on KLM, and Xanax. Even so, at Schiphol airport, I wasn't exactly wide awake, and thus a bit insulted by a Ryan Reynolds L'Oreal ad reading, “LOOK SHARP, NOT TIRED.” Nice airport message, Green Lantern. Note to L'Oreal (as with Microsoft): It's probably not good if the involuntary response to your ad is: “Fuck you.”
P, who didn't sleep on the flight over, and who had a low-blood sugar moment at Schiphol, felt nauseous for the quicker flight from Amsterdam to Prague, but recovered quickly. She'd booked, through our hotel, a cab ride into town, so we had a guy waiting for us and holding a BRADBURY sign. His name was Josef, and he turned out to be typically Czech: charming, multilingual, and with a face that looked like he could've played a mob extra in “Eastern Promises.”
The ride into Prague's old town, Staré Mesto, was picturesque, and just kept getting better, until, half a block from our hotel, we drove by the Powder Gate or Prašná Brána—a 15th century gothic gateway to the city. It was early evening of what seemed like a long day, but was in fact (for us) about four in the morning, so we had that groggy, stupefied feel. After checking in, we wandered a few blocks before taking the concierge's advice on a restaurant, Hybernia, just across the street from the hotel. I had the kabob, which was good, but P was less impressed with her food. P, newly gluten-free and vegetarian, knew she would be in trouble.
Our greeting in Europe after a long, tired journey.
First night in Prague: P in front of the Prasna Brana.
Again with the Prasna Brana: I could never capture its magnificence.
The first dinner.
My first kabob and Pilsner Urquell ... which you can get at Trader Joe's. *Fin*