Monday July 01, 2019
Things I Learned On Vacation in Belgium and France
Our Lady stands.
- Motorized scooters are big in Paris even though nothing seems less Parisian
- Segways are big with tourists everywhere even though nothing seems less human
- From the traditional vantage point looking east, Notre Dame looks the same. We know it's not, but at least the exterior holds up
- There is actually a bigger and—dare I say it?—more beautiful Notre Dame in France: the one in Strasbourg, which was built between the 12th and 15th centuries. I thought I was done with European cathedrals from the Middle Ages until I saw that one; then my mouth just fell open.
- Spider-Man #3, with the introduction of Doc Ock, which cost 12 cents in the U.S., cost 9p in Britain. A comic shop south of Montemarte was selling this Brit pub, along with Tin Tin and a collection of Silver Age Marvel comics. I think the proprietor thought my French was better than it was, because he tore off on a story that was probably fascinating but with which I couldn't keep up. The gist: he bought the Marvel comics in NYC in the 1970s and ‘80s, when bookshops were everywhere, and man weren’t those the days? He was asking either 300€ for the Spidey (what was writen on the back of the plastic covering) or 1,000€ (what my shitty French thought he said). I was tempted
- The French version of “The Catcher in the Rye” is called “L‘attrape-coeur” (literally: “The Heart Catcher”), and the phrase “...and all that David Copperfield kind of crap” is translated as “...et toutes ces conneries a la David Copperfield.” One of those newstands/shops along the Seine was selling it, as well as Salilnger’s “Nine Stories” (“Nouvelles”). These I bought, but they were cheaper: 7€ for the deuce
- I could spend a lot of €s at those newstands/shops along the Seine; they have my stuff. I still regret passing on those Tour de France posters
- The only time I ever want to smoke is when I'm sitting alone at a small table at a Paris cafe watching the world go by. A cigarette feels de rigueur
- They‘ll use anything to sell anything: In this case, a photo of communist leader Che Guevara with a stogie to promote Father’s Day specials at a cigar and spirits shop in Brussels. I'd say Che is rolling over in his grave but, given the T-shirts and everything else, he's probably rolled out by now
- The train station in Antwerp should be declared an international treasure
- Is it a new fashion trend in Belgium for young women to wear men's dress shirts as dresses? I saw it a few times. Let me speak for all men in the world: We approve
- “Ghent” in Ghent is spelled “Gent.” Muscles from Brussels, Gent from Ghent. What does Antwerp get? Twerp? Seems unfair. Someone work on that
- Someone should publish a book about all the memorials in all the small towns throughout Europe to their WWI dead; I would be your first customer. They are heartbreaking
- Belgian breakfast cereals include Choco Clams and Honey Bubbles and Miel Pops Loops and Choco Cookies and “Cereal Flakes Met Pure Chocolade Au Chocolat Noir.” Really anything with chocolate
- It's hard to find pannekoeken in Ghent, which is a crime
- It's hard to find mussles in Ghent, which ditto
- Apparently the most stolen painting in the world is “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” 1432, by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, and one of its panels, taken in 1934, is still missing. The painting was a key component of the George Clooney movie “The Monuments Men,” which almost makes me want to watch it again, even though I found it pretty disappointing upon its release in 2014
- Is adoring a mystic lamb far removed from idolizing a golden calf? Just tossing out
- Artists in the Middle Ages couldn't paint babies for shit
- Museums are best when they intermingle centuries-old art with modern art, as at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent
- If you bike outside the cities in Belgium you‘re going to see lots of cows and horses
- If you’re biking to an artists colony outside Ghent, chances are you‘ll find exactly zero artists and lots of rich people. It’s really a rich people's colony
- Not many groups of humans are known as “colonies.” I can think of three: leper, nudist, artist. The first two, in a way, contain elements of the third
- Cheese, chocolate and bread from a convenience store and eaten on a park bench is a way better lunch for the bike-ride-weary than anything you might get in, say, an expensive restaurant in a rich people's colony
- Remember to take video as well as photos. Coming across that classic car parade in Eke, for example, would‘ve been a good moment for video, Erik
- Get off the beaten path in Bruges; go to the danker places with the locals
- If you’re biking east of Bruges, the restaurant to go to is Siphon, which is a few miles east of Damme (pronounced DAH-me). It's a fourth-generation family-run restaurant that is closed on weekends but was packed on a Monday afternoon around 1:30 with older folks dressed to the nines. Oh, and get the steak. I didn‘t, but I saw it arrive for someone else and goddamn
- Getting zero laughs when you pronounce your team “Damme (pronounced DAH-me) bums” doesn’t necessarily mean they didn't hear you
- Go left at Siphon, rather than right, if you want to make Sluis, Holland. We went right. Which was wrong. We never made Holland
- Asking directions when you‘re lost is better than relying on maps or GPS
- I have a good sense of direction on a grid but add diagonals and curved streets and I’m hopeless
- European sports fans watch the Super Bowl! I had no idea. When we mentioned we were from Seattle to some Germans in Ghent for the weekend, the first thing they said was: “Seahawks!” Then they talked up the Super Bowl, which they said they watch every year. Because sports
- But they don't watch baseball. Because boring. To them
- Europeans are still wearing Yankees caps. Someone needs to tell them that they‘re wearing the cap of the favorite team of Donald Trump. OK, I will
- Trump has replaced Pinnochio as the international symbol for lying. A Dutch magazine we saw in a Ghent laundromat used this cover line: “Iedereen liegt: De Trump in elk van ons,” which translates to “Everyone lies: The Trump in all of us”
- A clothes store window in Ghent displays not only dresses and outfits but tiny versions of same on dolls. Fun!
- My name can pass as Flemish
- Expect to be admonished by wait staff if you don’t finish your charcuterie in Strasbourg
- Expect to get a “Bien sur” shrug by wait staff when asked if the charcuterie and cheese plates come with bread: “Oui, c‘est France”
- No Michelin guides for France were made between 1940 and 1944, for obvious reasons
- In museums, sometimes the story is the crowds around the artwork rather than the artwork
- Henri Matisse visited Harlem in 1930 and became a fan of jazz
- A lot of people in the 21st century trust their lives to that grinding gears of 19th century technology that is the Eiffel Tower. I am among them
- In France, the Waldo of “Where’s Waldo” is called Charlie: “Ou Est Charlie?” He looks the same
- There are those who maintain and those who let things get run down. The Hotel Chopin in Paris is among the former, and is recommended; the Midnight Hotel in Paris is among the latter, and isn't
- No number of yellow-vest protesters is so worrisome as to prevent a line of 3-4 cops from turning to check out a stunning blonde walking by
- Vive le France et Belgique
Tuesday April 16, 2019
I first visited Europe in 2002 when I was 39, and Paris was one of the first cities I visited, and Notre-Dame was the first landmark my friend Joan I went to. It was my intro to the city. I wrote about it back then, thinking I would write more about the trip but never did.
Here's what I remember: Even though it was April, the line to go up the tower was long, so Joan and I spelled each other by checking out the inside of the cathedral. At one point, I chatted up a woman in line, who was pretty, from Sweden, and had a boyfriend. Two out of three. Joan, a platonic friend, had a Flat Stanley she was carting around Europe for a daughter's friend. This was the rest:
The early April sun was hot enough that we were grateful when the line reached the shade of the Cathedral, and, after several more pauses, we finally began to climb the stairwell, which, to my delight, was circular and cramped, with stone steps worn smooth, and with a slight indent in the middle from all the feet pounding up it over the centuries. Even better was emerging onto a walkway outside, 46 meters above the ground, called the chimeras gallery because of the famous stone gargoyles there watching over (or dismissing) the city. While construction on the cathedral had begun in 1163 and wasn't completed until 1245, the gargoyles weren't added until the 19th century, when, in the wake of Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the cathedral had been renovated by architects Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc. The latter designed the chimeras. A wire fence separated us from them, but we managed to take a few pictures of ourselves, and Flat Stanley, with these guys, surely what Viollet-le-Duc had in mind all along. The stryga, a winged demon with hands on face, is perhaps the most famous, but I was drawn to one creature gnawing the head off a smaller one. What truly astonished, though, was the view to the east, over the remainder of the cathedral. The immensity and detail were both astounding, and couldn't be captured by my sad point-and-shoot camera. The zoom couldn't zoom in far enough to capture the detail, and I couldn't stand back far enough to include the tower's immensity.
A huge fire, its plumes of smoke reminiscent of the twin towers on 9/11, tore through Notre-Dame yesterday, destroying the wood ceiling and spire; the remainder is “structurally sound,” according to reports. I'm half a world away, with no rights in this matter, as Roethke wrote, but felt nothing but sadness all day. Today, too. And tomorrow. On social media, people are posting happy pictures in front of the cathedral, and on top of it, and reminiscing, as I'm doing here. There's not much else to do.
Saturday August 18, 2018
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
I was walking around lower Manhattan last week, focusing on Chinatown, then decided to visit Trinity Church again. We'd been there in 2015 before “Hamilton” broke big—with me or the country—and I was curious if it felt any different. It didn‘t. Not much. There were a few more people hanging around, and a lot more reverence, and more coins left on the tombs of Alexander and Eliza. But that was about it on a hot, muggy Monday afternoon in early August.
This time I was particularly struck by the inscription on Hamilton’s marble tomb. It touts his career as a PATRIOT, SOLDIER and STATESMAN...
Whose TALENTS and VIRTUES will be admired
Long after this MARBLE shall have mouldered into DUST
Except between these two lines there's an ornamental flourish and the lines “Grateful Posterity,” so you don't initially connect the second line with the first. It reads like Hamilton is a patriot, soldier and statesman “whose talents and virtures will be admired.” I.e., one day. I.e., in the future. I.e., maybe after Lin-Manuel Miranda picks up Ron Chernow's biography for vacation reading, sees his father in the story, and music begins to form in his head.
Sunday August 12, 2018
All Mixed Up and Baked in a Beautiful Pie
Row AA, Seat 7
After Rehoboth, Patricia and I went up to New York for a few days and a few adventures. This was one of them.
We arrived Saturday afternoon, had dinner plans every evening, so the only chance for a Broadway show was a Sunday matinee. For a moment I considered a baseball game instead, but the Yankees were in Boston (getting their asses kicked), and the Mets were the Mets. I went Great White Way.
My nephew recommended the tkts app but P and I are old and had trouble making it work for us. More specifically: For the shows we wanted to see, the Times Square tkts booth wasn't available on the app. Other ones were: Brooklyn, etc. But we were staying near Union Square; we wanted Times Square.
The TS booth opened at 11 AM and last time we did this, January a few years ago, we wound up way back in line and got slim pickings. This time we arrived early: 9 AM. How early were we? There was no line yet, and no indication of where the line even began. There was just a lugubrious security guard in the glass booth, who looked at us, kind of shook his head, got up slowly, came to the door, and, somewhere between saddened and amused, let us know: “You guys are way too early. You can go get a good breakfast, take a walk around, and you‘d still be too early.” But he indicated the bench where the line began, and Patricia, who had blisters on her feet from a hike in Rehoboth, manned the position while I walked up to Central Park.
It was early but already getting hot and muggy. I wandered past a run, 5K or 10K, in the park. I walked past Trump Tower on 5th Avenue, shuddered, then walked past St. Patrick’s, Rockefeller Center. You can walk anywhere in New York and find something interesting or iconic. It's the best way to see the city. Then I picked up an iced coffee for Patricia and joined her on the bench. It was now 10 AM and the line was about 20 deep. We were at the front. We kept hearing the gossip from more seasoned theatergoers. We were leaning toward “The Band's Visit” but many were down on it. Others recommended “Come from Away” but when the booth finally opened, and we asked about it, only single seats were available. We asked about “Hello, Dolly!” but Bette Midler was off for the afternoon. So we went with “Waitress.” Mostly for this reason. I never even saw the film and I barely looked at the tickets. For some reason, I assumed we were in one of the balconies.
We weren‘t. We were in the front row. Way over to the left as you faced the stage, but front row. Right next to the stage. This close.
Those seats used to be mine.
The show was fine but “She Used to Be Mine” is the showstopper and it’s not close. Second-best song is way down there. Plus the story is kinda meh. It's good things happen to good people. It's the magic of baking. It's “Why is she putting up with this?” and then “Ah, at the 11th hour, she grows a spleen. OK.” Katharine McPhee played the lead, and she's got pipes, but is a little emotionally unavailable. Adam Shapiro as Ogie, and Erich Bergen as Dr. Pomatter, were audience faves. Mine was understudy Anastacia McCleskey as Becky. She fit into the scheme of things but also seemed like a real person. Some of the others weren‘t. Earl had no redeeming value whatsoever. He was a man’s dream: Every man looks good in comparison.
I still loved it. I love those snug Broadway theaters. And now I'll have an answer when someone asks me how close I got to the Broadway stage. Just a foot away.
Friday August 10, 2018
I took this shot a week ago on our last full day in Rehoboth Beach, Del., a few hours before they closed the beaches for thunderstorms. I know: You don't exactly see storm clouds brewing. Nor was it particularly dark when they closed the beaches. But it was raining hard in Lewes, lightning had struck (or flashed?) nearby, and so, though we were merely feeling a nice schpritz under otherwise sunny skies, everyone was herded off the sand and the beach umbrellas were folded. For a few hours anyway. We had one last go at the waves.
This was my first trip back to Rehoboth—my childhood vacation spot—since 2010, and I wrote about it enough back then. I don't have much to add. It's mostly the same. Funland's still fun. There's still only one mini-golf course, where, either in homage or warning, the animal remnants of the old circus-themed mini-golf course litter its fairways. Most of the customer service people are still from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus. Even one Asian girl I talked to turned out to be from Kazakhstan. The anti-immigrant “Tea-shirts” (see here and here) are oddly toned down in the Trump era—although one on offer depicted a silhouette of a soldier crouching and taking aim in front of an American flag, emblazoned with the words: THIS IS HOW AMERICANS TAKE A KNEE. Grotto Pizza and Kohr Bros. prospers. Gus & Gus still does its thing. The Whitson and Bob's Bikes are still there, as is Lingo's grocery store, where my comic collecting began in the summer of ‘73. The week still goes by too fast.
We stayed in a big house three long blocks from the ocean, on Sussex Avenue, and set up camp on the north part of the beach, past where the boardwalk ends. Early on it looked like we would get thunderstorms every day but Monday was our only non-beach day. Normally we’d show up about high noon—stupidly for folks wary of getting too much sun—and stayed until the lifeguards left at 5 PM. Then drinks and dinner. We often ate out. We went to Funland twice. You get prizes now at Skee-Ball. Was that always the way?
There were injuries. The second day, after the lifeguards left, Patricia and I went in one last time. I ran in, like the kids do, but the sand was uneven and I hit a dropoff and went down hard. For a day it hurt to walk, and I worried I'd sprained my ankle, but it wasn't that bad: just a bad bruise on the top of my foot. Patricia got it worse. She kept hiking in the mornings in the Gordon Pond Wildlife Area and wound up with blisters. The ocean helped there. The ocean taketh away and giveth.
I think that's what I'll mostly remember: the waves and the density of the water, looking like mercury in the late afternoon sun.
Saturday March 21, 2015
Welcome to New York, Ya Schnook
A week ago Saturday I landed at JFK Airport after our flight circled for 45 minutes. Visibility issues. We didn’t come out of the clouds until we were maybe 40 feet from the ground.
Last time I landed at JFK—a year ago—I had to wait around for more than an hour before my luggage showed up, so on this flight I didn’t check baggage. Did the overhead compartment thing that everybody does.
(Sidenote: I don’t really get the economics of airlines. Why should passengers have to pay to check bags, which seems to inconvenience no one but yourself, but get to carry on big honking things, which inconveniences everyone? It makes boarding take longer, exiting take longer, requires more work from flight attendants. Shouldn’t airlines be doing the opposite of what they do?)
Anyway I was practically whistling a tune as I was wheeling my luggage through JFK. Before I knew it I was outside, spotted the taxi cabs, and was heading in that direction when a voice interrupted my thoughts. “You want a cab?” I looked over. “Yeah,” I said. “Follow me,” he said. I assumed we would head toward the yellow cabs, but we went past them toward the parking lot. Were there cabs there, too? I wondered. But we didn’t stop at a yellow cab. We stopped at an SUV-type vehicle.
“This isn’t a cab,” I said.
“It is a cab,” he insisted.
“Seventy-nine dollars plus tunnel fee.”
I was thinking, “I thought Patricia said there was like a flat fee of $50 for cabfare from JFK.” But for some reason I let the momentum carry me along.
That could be the mantra (or lesson) of my life, by the way: For some reason I let the momentum carry me along.
To be honest, I didn’t fully realize what I’d done until we were in traffic. That’s when I looked around, noticed no meter, no official anything, and realized, “I just got into the car of a complete stranger at JFK Airport.”
The dude got me where I needed to go but for almost double what it should have cost me. I don’t know if he was a different branch of cabdriver or if I just got took like a schnook. I assume the latter. It was so disheartening it took me three days to share the story with Patricia.
Thursday September 04, 2014
SLIDESHOW: The Late, Great, 2014 Minnesota State Fair
SLIDESHOW: It's dollars to donuts (or french fries ... or pronto pups ... or all-you-can-drink milk ...) that our state fair/ Is the best state fair in our state. P and I slipped out of Washington last week to visit family in Minnesota and attend the Minnesota State Fair on Saturday. We wound up being part of a record-setting crowd that day: 252,092.
Why do I love the Minnesota State Fair so much, less so the Washington version? Is it nostalgia? Giant Slide? Pronto Pup? Root beer? I'm guessing nostalgia has a lot to do with it but the Minnesota version simply could be better.
One of my first stops. You call it corn dog; we call it pronto pup.
In the Agriculture Building, P and I were won over less by the corn art than by the artistry of old feedbags.
P and Jordy rock out to “Twist and Shout” at the Giant Singalong, a new (perhaps “Glee”-inspired?) addition. Cost? Nuttin.
You know the Paul Westerberg song “Skyway”? That kept playing in my head as we stood in line to board the Skyride. Except my version went “I'll take the Skyride/ High above the Twinkies being deep-fried ...” That's one thing I didn't get, by the way: something deep-fried. I wanted something really, really bad for me. Next time.
The best part of the Skyride was less the view than just getting away from the crowds for 60 seconds.
Yeah, these guys.
Here's the Giant Slide from the Skyride ...
... and here it is after my dismount.
P, who will go on any roller coaster in the world, the crazier the better, refused to enter this fairly sedate maze/treasure hunt. She says they scare her.
Milk is big in the Midwest.
The Dairy Building girls. Oh, and 1 boy. I recommend the chocolate malt.
We also saw one of the dairy queens being sculpted in butter.
Ye Old Mill is a ride in the dark in a rickety little boat that takes you past decades-old dioramas that don't make much sense anymore (leprechans; three little pigs). So it's appropriate that the Minnesota GOP (rebranded “Growth & Opportunity Party”) is right next door.
Just a reminder where all of those french fries go.
The Midway at 5 pm. Still packed. When are these people going to leave?
That's about the time we arrived at the Grandstand for Music-on-a-stick. The music? Eh. But it was nice to sit down for a while
The view from the Grandstand.
Whirly girly gig, who can stop this kid?
I mean this one. Ryan's 11th-hour attempt at winning stuffed animals came to naught. So did my attempts to win something for him. I did blast two of the three superheavy milk bottles down with a baseball, but the only consolation prize I got was the fact that the ticket taker/barker immediately shooed me away. As if I were a threat. In my mind it was a kind of victory.
Wednesday August 20, 2014
EuroTrip 2014: Where is The Third Man Museum?
We were only in Vienna two full days, and our last full day began poorly but ended well. After breakfast we started walking toward the Kunsthistorisches Museum but realized—again, standing by the Hofburg Palace—that it didn’t open for another hour. So what to do in the meantime? At this point it got a little “Marty”: “What do you wanna do?” “I don’t know, what do you wanna do?” P had done the research, knew what she wanted to see, I hadn’t and didn’t, and she was a little tired of leading the way. In the end, we decided to see something I wanted to see: Schreyvogelgasse 8. The doorway where Harry Lime first appears in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man.”
It took us to a part of town we hadn’t walked before—westish—where it felt less touristy. It felt like people were rushing to work rather than to museums. Along the way, P spotted a café with insane looking pastries, Café Central, but we’d just had breakfast so we simply made a mental note to return. We missed one block, then another, but eventually, clumsily, we found ourselves at the doorway. Was it the doorway? There was no plaque. It was just ... there.
P was also tired having her picture taken and never getting to take mine. So here she reversed it. Get in that doorway, she said. I obliged. I tried to do the Harry Lime look, the amused, amoral “Aren’t I clever?” look he gives Holly Martins after being discovered in the shadows. We tried once, twice, maybe 10 times. My eyes watered from the effort. That shit’s tough. Then we switched places and P didn’t try for the Lime look. She just owned the doorway. “One-take Patricia.”
Is there karmic serendipity in giving up what you want for what someone else wants? Early in their relationship, my sister left her job in D.C. to follow her then-boyfriend down to Atlanta, but got a better job as a result. A few years later, after they were married, she got an even better job offer in Detroit so he followed her there ... where he got a better job as a result. Something similar happened to us that morning. P went to the “Third Man” doorway for me, but found, half a block away, at Ludwig Reiter, the purse she’d been searching for all over Europe. The shop wasn’t open yet—when do the Viennese rise, anyway?—but she made a mental note to return. We left the area full of mental notes and digital photos.
We didn’t approach the doorway for the Kunsthistorisches Museum—across the plaza from yesterday’s Naturhistorisches Museum—until it was nearly 10:00, by which time a small line for tickets had formed. We got in it. And waited. And waited. And didn’t move. I got out of line to see what the hold-up was, and wound up conferring with another dude, a math professor from Brazil, both of us marveling at the remarkable inefficiency of the Austrians. Here we all were at the biggest art gallery in one of Europe’s biggest cities at the beginning of summer, and they had ... one ticket seller behind one glass booth? Really? In some ways it was comforting: a stereotype buster. Here was another: my guy from Brazil wasn’t particularly interested in the 2014 World Cup, which was still in its middle rounds at that point. Probably good for him in the long run, considering.
We spent several hours at the Kunsthistorische—P is all about the Dutch Masters—then had lunch, then split up again for the afternoon. She wanted to stay, I wanted to check out a museum to “The Third Man.”
My trip got muddled quickly. Most of the maps we had ended a few blocks south of the Ringstrasse, but the Third Man Museum was a few blocks south of that. Plus I got lost. Or misdirected. I convinced myself I was going in the wrong direction but wasn’t. I kept trodding over the same territory and felt the panic of missing out. P was seeing tons of art while I was wasting my time here! That panic of missing out, of not taking advantage of my surroundings, followed me, in varying degrees, throughout the vacation. To be honest, all vacations. It’s why it’s almost a relief when the vacation ends. You can get back to work and relax a bit.
To get to the Third Man Museum, I eventually realized, I had to cross over the Naschmarkt, with all of its goodies (“Patricia should really see this,” I thought), and the two busy streets on either side. Serendipitously, I wound up on Pressgasse, the street I needed to be on, and kept walking. A block later, after what seemed like hours walking around blind (it was probably a half hour at most), I finally spotted the museum on the corner of Pressgasse and Mühlgasse. It looked small and nondescript. It also didn’t look very busy. As I approached I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that was confirmed when I got close: “Closed.” The fuck? “Saturdays: 2-6 PM.” One day? It was only open one day? For four hours? Shouldn’t the guidebook have mentioned something like that? I rechecked it and found out it did—although it also mentioned Tuesdays. So instead of indulging in the bits and pieces of Carol Reed’s classic, I took a few pictures from the outside. In my head, I kept hearing Calloway’s dismissive advice to the idiot American abroad: Go home, Martins.
It took a while to find my way back to the Ringstrasse and the Kartnerstrasse, and once I did, and felt less tense (it was partly the hectic traffic outside the Ringstrasse), I wandered a bit, bought P macaroons at a small, snooty shop near our pension, then returned to our room and rested there for a moment. But there was no rest. The panic returned. In a day I wouldn’t be in Vienna! I was wasting my time! So I bounded out again—quickly, quickly—and visited Mozart’s residence on the other side of the Stephansdom. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great. Near the end, P phoned. She said she was on the other side of the Hofburg Palace and they weren’t letting anyone through because there were cops everywhere because Vladimir Putin was in town. Putin? I was missing out! I rushed over ... and found P on this side of the Hofburg Palace, on Kohlmarkt, not at all blocked off by the many cops there. She was just confused. She had a new purse with her, too, from Ludweig Reiter, which she loved, but less so the designer. He also made shoes and when she inquired if he had any in her size, size 11, his reaction was a dimissive laugh. “No,” he said, shaking his head, “we never have them in that size.”
For dinner, we went north, up the Rotenturmstrasse until we hit the Wien river, then along the river and up some steps to St. Rupert’s Church. This was a quiet area, and there seemed to be a few students around. Did I think that because of the name of the pub we stopped at for a drink? The Philosoph? It was the old Jewish section of town. It felt relaxing. For some reason, it’s a highlight in my memory. Sitting at the Philosoph, on Judengasse, enjoying a cold beer, an Ottakringer, in the magic-hour light before dinner. For a moment, I didn’t feel like I had to be anywhere else.
SLIDESHOW: WHERE IS THE THIRD MAN MUSEUM?
SLIDESHOW: In cultural terms, Vienna first meant John Irving to me, but increasingly it meant “The Third Man,” Carol Reed's classic, zippy, zithery, post-WWII noir from 1949. I still think it's one of the best movies ever made. And the first time you see the titular character? It was in this doorway at 8 Schreyvogelgasse.
This is the look Harry Lime (Orson Welles) gives his friend Holly Martins upon being discovered.
And this is my attempt. Probably my 10th attempt. I know: Go home, Martins.
P, touring Vienna but thinking of custom-made purses.
Outside the Kunsthistorisches Musuem.
And inside. First, P looks at the paintings within paintings ...
... then it's as if she's stepped into her own version.
Lunch at the Kunsthistorisches Musuem. It'll do.
On the way to The Third Man museum, I ran into my patron saint.
And here it is! Finally! After all this time!
But of course ... “Goodness, that's awkward.”
Mozart's house in Vienna, on the back side of Stephansdom.
We saw a bunch of these in Europe, sadly. Two hands, buddy.
Worst. Shakespeare. Ever.
Saw a bunch of these, too. Nice to know good American movies get over there along with the superheroes.
End of day thoughts.
Who could ask for anything more?
Friday August 01, 2014
Eurotrip 2014: Stephansdom, Ringstrasse, Naturhistorisches, Gasthaus
I’ll confess: This was the first trip I felt old. Not because I couldn’t walk the walk but because I couldn’t read the map. The guidebook maps in particular. I’d look at them, blink, pull the book away, try to adjust to the proper range. “Hey, they made this print too small. They need to ...” Then the other shoe. “Oh. Shit.” I went through the three stages of farsightedness: annoyance, realization, acceptance. Will scope out readers soon. Because carrying around two pairs of glasses just isn’t enough.
The Pension Neuer Markt, where we stayed in Vienna, and which always made me think of John Irving’s Pension Grillparzer—but without the bear and with a much better bathtub—offered, as had the Hotel Meteor in Prague, a breakfast buffet, in a cramped but elegant (but slightly frayed) dining area. We ate there every morning, and every morning when we returned to our room it had been cleaned. I assume, when we ordered coffee and they asked for our room number, that they relayed this information to the cleaning service, who went to work. However they did it, it felt efficient.
We were efficient on our first full day in Vienna. We shot the works at Stephansdom: bought the pass for the audioguide, catacombs, south tower, north tower and treasure. I did it all but the north tower, while P traded catacombs for art later in the day. How old is Stephansdom? Work began on it in 1304—or 188 years before Columbus sailed to America. Think about that. When Mozart was married at Stephansdom, when he lived a block away, it was already, at that time, nearly 500 years old.
After the audioguide tour and the south tower climb, fighting for space in the narrow stone stairs with hordes of kids on field trips, we ran into different versions of Wolfgang Amadeus selling opera tickets along the Stephansplatz. After our great experience at the Municipal House in Prague, we were interested in hearing music again, so I bought a pair of cheap tickets from a short, fat Mozart for about as much as it cost to shoot the works at Stephansdom. It was just money, right? Euros. Like play money. You just spend it. It’s there to be spent. The bill arrived recently. Oops.
Since we missed the #22 tram in Prague, P was interested in taking the Red City bus tour along the Ringstrasse to get a better overview of the city, which we did, meeting, along the way, a ticket seller from Spain, who admitted he wasn’t a big fan of German food. But the place across the street, he said, was good. We remembered the location more than the name: Plachutta: Gasthuas zur Oper.
We had no Wenceslases on this tour, just an audio guide, as we sat in the sun on the top deck of the bus. We didn’t stay long. Patricia, with a penchant for taxidermy, had us get off at the Naturhistorisches Museum, with its small elephant statue in front and a Noah’s Ark full of stuffed and mounted animals inside. The hallway was cavernous, the exhibits never-ending, Patricia in heaven. It was also fairly empty of tourists. Most people don’t go to Vienna for the taxidermy. But you could tell, 100 years ago, that this was the thing to do: to collect and preserve different and exotic species for display for the masses. Back then, the exotic was natural and from some far-flung place on the globe. Now it’s some two-dimensional phantasm, occasionally with 3-D glasses.. We also saw a good, frightening exhibit on “The Long Shadow of Chernobyl.”
After lunch at the museum, and the remainder of the Ringstrasse tour (there’s a Franz Grillparzer Street!), we wanted coffee, so stopped at the outdoor Mozart Café of the Sacher Hotel. P had talked all day about getting a Sachertorte, which, to my non-foodie ears, sounded like “soccer torte.” It was fine but not something to travel to Vienna for. Meanwhile, I wanted a simple iced coffee but wound up with some distinctly Viennese concoction. It rose up in the glass, impossibly white and fluffy, with various cookies stuck into it. If I must.
Traveling together as a couple is a bit of a test. You wake up together, eat together, plan together, walk together, visit the same things together, eat together again. For dinner one night, we sat down, looked over the menu, ordered, looked at each other. Silence. Finally I broke it. “So how was your day?” I asked. That’s why it’s always a good idea to split up every now and again, which we did that afternoon. P wanted to see the Durer exhibit at the Albertina, and I walked her there. Of course, us being us, we got lost. We walked as far as the Hofburg before she realized her mistake and backtracked. I stuck around there, though, basically kicking stones and taking pictures and going my own way.
Ten minutes later my phone rang—my first call in Europe! Patricia, of course. She said I just had to see the steps at the Albertina. Plus, right next to the Albertina, was a museum to film, which I needed to check out, too. So I walked over, saw Durer’s rabbit painted on the steps, entered the sedate Film Museum. But the name was a misnomer. It was basically a movie theater that showed art films in the evenings. The good news? On the way back to Stephansdom I saw a relief of Franz Grillparzer. See slideshow below.
It was a hot afternoon and so a tour of the catacombs at Stephansdom sounded like a good idea. An hour later, after spending time walking down cool stone steps in cool hallways and viewing the bones of the victims of centuries-old pestilence, I emerged into Stephansplatz, where P, waiting, was full of stories. Together we toured the Treasures section of St. Stephens, which included many reliquaries, of which P, a good, wayward Catholic girl, was a fan. For dinner, we followed the advice of our Spanish tour guide (the gasthaus near the Opera) and didn’t regret it. I regretted the opera a bit. It wasn’t the national opera, near the gasthaus, but a few blocks further south: “Mostly Mozart.” Crowded and kitschy. They let the tourists on stage, sitting there in their shorts, which P thought a bit gauche. Or at least linke. But the music was good. As in Prague, a lot of “Magic Flute.”
SLIDESHOW: Stephansdom in all its splendor. OK, some of its splendor. OK, just a bit of its splendor. It's impossible to catch all of it. It was built in 1304—or 188 years before Columbus sailed to America. By the time Mozart got married here, it was nearly 500 years old.
P: the good, wayward Catholic girl, forever lighting candles.
Climbing the south tower. We battled a lot of field trips along the way.
This was one of them. Stephansplatz, Stephansschmlatz. They made their own fun.
Our Mostly Mozart guy.
Biking in Vienna. A bit more civilized than in Seattle. It was actually warm this day, despite the look.
Ringstrasse from atop the Red City tour bus. We didn't stay long because ...
P had to see the Naturhistorisches Musuem. With friend outside.
Naturhistorisches Musuem. They could really tone down the splenor one time. To make the other museums feel better.
P and the birds. A better encounter than this one.
P meets the beetles.
Has anyone seen this Hans Hass film? More on the man here.
In the afternoon, P went here and was thrilled.
I saw this and was thrilled.
Stephansdom again from the Treasures room.
Checking out the triptychs.
Mostly Mozart: crowded and kitschy, but with a beat we could dance to. Glad we didn't go for the stage seats. *FIN*
Monday 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*
Wednesday July 16, 2014
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*
Thursday 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*