Travels postsThursday July 10, 2014
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*
Dreaming of the NY Yankees at the Pension Neuer Markt in Vienna
Me: And I had nightmares.
P: (yawning) About what?
Me: I dreamed the Yankees were in the postseason and were crushing the Oakland A's in the first round. They won the first two games and were winning the third game, 22-6.
P: (laughing) I usually have nightmares about monsters and mean people.
Me: So do I.
-- early morning conversation with Patricia about jetlag, etc., at the Pension Neuer Markt in Vienna, Austria last week.
I suppose my mistake, a week into our two-week trip to Europe (Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Geneva), was checking out the Major League Baseball standings the night before. In the first four days of our trip the Yankees had won four in a row, including a sweep of first-place Toronto, and were now in second place in the AL East and threatening, and my initial reaction was exasperration with the rest of the league. “Can't you guys do anything right in my absence?” So the nicest present when P and I returned home last night—besides, of course, Ward meeting us at the airport, and Jellybean greeting us at home—was the fact that, since the above conversation, the Yankees had gone 2-7 and are now a game below .500.
It's a bit incongruous dreaming about the New York Yankees in the middle of Europe, particularly during the early rounds of the World Cup; but, as I wrote 12 years ago, they're a difficult team to get away from.
I'm still too Minnesota Nice to take pictures of strangers without permission, so I didn't get any shots of the many Yankee-cap-wearing folks tromping around Europe. I probably saw about three dozen people doing that. But I did have a conversation with a guard at the “Treasures” section (reliquaries, mostly) at St. Stephens Cathedral in Vienna about her Yankees periphernalia. It was one of the last rooms, she was behind a desk, the place was as quiet as a church, and she was wearing a Yankees shirt. Fairly low cut. So I imagine my first attempts at a question, along with my subsequent hand gestures pointing to my own chest, didn't go over particularly well. Then I got to the point in English. “Why Yankees?” I asked. “Do you know the New York Yankees?” She smiled, laughed, and admitted she only got the shirt because she'd recently visited New York and that's what you do. Indeed. Witness my new HOLLAND shirt from the Amsterdam airport. Which, beyond the airport, we didn't even visit.
I just wonder how much money the Yankees get from all of this. Here's hoping for knock-offs.
Non-Yankee posts about Europe to follow.
Yankee caps for sale in Lausanne, Switzerland. Right next to caps reading OBEY and BULL.
SLIDESHOW: Patricia and Erik's New York Adventure
SLIDESHOW: In late January, Patricia and I spent a few days in New York—me for work—but it meant we took separate flights so I had a window seat on the way out. I know this shot is overused but ... It's me saying goodbye to the Cascade mountains ...
... and goodbye ...
And hello, gorgeous! (Click here for bigger version.)
Patricia arrived three days earlier, visiting her friend Karen while I prepped for the Boies/Olson interview, so she was there for the big snowstorm. I missed it by a day. My flight from Seattle to JFK, by the way, took 4.5 hours. Getting from JFK to midtown Manhattan? Two hours. It took an hour just to get my bag. Efficiency not a strong suit.
I love walking around New York because even the renovated buildings (St. Patrick's, above) are beautiful. But it was a bit cold for most walkabouts. I mean, I'm from Minnesota and it was cold.
Oh, Scribners. Whither us?
Even the Legos in New York are big. Don't get any ideas, Ryan.
Our first stop after the interview was MOMA. How many of these soups, btw, have been discontinued by Campbells? When was the last time they made Pepper Pot, for example?
I love this guy. He's got another hole in his rear, and I tried to get a photo of someone looking into it but most were wary of being so captured. As was I.
Love this as well: Jeff Koons' Pink Panther. That's Jayne Maynsfield holding Pink Panther. Or is Pink Panther holding her? And which of them is less real?
It's like an Edward Hopper painting of an Edward Hopper painting.
Over the weekend we stayed with friends on the upper east side, one of whom, Mirra Bank, has spent the last few years working on a documentary, “The Only Real Game,” about a province in India, Manipur, where baseball flourishes. Mirra had planned to visit the New York SABR convention in conjunction with her doc but worried we'd be bored. With SABR? And baseball? Bored? Don't think so.
And who was the guest speaker? Jane Leavy, one of my favorite baseball writers. We got to chat a bit, and, yes, I owned up to my hatred of the Yankees, so she signed my book, “For Erik: It's okay to hate the Yankees. I like you anyway.” She probably has to write that a lot. Her next project? Babe Ruth, possibly. I'm there.
SABR was Yankee country. You couldn't get away from it. It was actually kind of charming.
Not even on Broadway. Patricia and I saw “Wicked,” not “Bronx Bombers,” which hadn't officially opened yet. We liked “Wicked.”
Richard and Mirra recommended Bar Centrale for drinks after the show. I now pass on that recommendation. I also recommend i Trulli, an Italian restaurant, on East 27th.
The obligatory Times Square shot. Patricia's in the midst of getting a cab.
Our last full day when we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I recommend the audio guides. They tell you not only what the piece is but how and when it found its way to New York.
Batman, 2,000 B.C.?
Even the Met's listing of all its art is a kind of work of art.
The view from the upper east side. *FIN*