Monday, December 31, 2007

"I turned myself to face me, but I never caught a glimpse."

It's hard to know what your life is about while you're living it. It's kind of like trying to view your own butt in the mirror -- impossible, unless your ass is huge, in which case you have a whole different set of problems.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Mr. Odney's Holiday Message

Have a wonderful holiday and Happy New Year!

Ho, ho, ho.



PS: The newest installment of the Mr. Odney Holdiay Mix will be coming soon. If you don't know about it, ask.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Shameless Plug, or Getting Medieval on Your Ass

This Wednesday, after a two-week blitzkrieg rehearsal process, the Folger Theatre opens "The Second Shepherd's Play." It's a wonderfully unique Christmas show that dates from at least the 1500s, making it one of the oldest known comedies in English.

It's been freshly adapted for the Folger by the fantastic director, Mary Hall Surface, and includes period music from the Folger Consort, in addition to singing, dancing, puppetry...and sheep.

The show also represents the long-awaited return to the stage of the lovely and uber-talented Holly Twyford.

I play Mak, a clueless but loveable villain, who gets involved with some unusual business involving said sheep (Hey, it's a family show!).

Favorite Line: "Ye shall get many a thwang."

The Folger has recently posted some interesting podcasts about the show and its history, which includes snippets from one of our early rehearsals (You can hear me in all, but mostly on no. 3.)

The show runs from Dec. 12-30, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. There are no shows on Monday. For more on tickets, go here. You won't be disappointed.

If you come, please stop and say hi afterwards.

So endeth the shameless plug. Mickle thanks.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Welcome Political Development

A famous quote that is sometimes attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, but more often to Winston Churchill, says: “If you are not a liberal at 20, you have no heart.” “If you are not a conservative at 40, you have no brains.”

By that calculus, I guess I haven't grown up much. Reading this piece in the Washington Post on Sunday, I was reminded that Ron Paul was the first person I voted for when I was 18, in the 1988 election that ushered in the Bush Dynasty. I don't know how enamored I am of Ron Paul. I don't agree with everything he says, but I find him to be an honorable politician -- a rarity in Washington, those two words going together -- and moreover, I like what he stands for. At a time of enormous disconnect and disaffection in American politics, where everyone hates the powers that be but we seem unable to rid ourselves of a miserable choice between two nincompoops, I like the idea that libertarianism is catching.

Besides, it represents the rare time that I was actually ahead of a trend.

Also, Dave Barry likes it. So how bad can it be?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

It's Picture Time, Kids!

Okay, I'm finally getting the hang of blogger, and in addition to cleaning up some links, I've gone back through the travel posts and added pictures, which I think brings a little something extra to the whole deal.

If you're interested, there's more where that came from here.

I think the video files were too large, so only a few showed up. If, for any reason, you are interested in copies of those, just e-mail me. There's some pretty cool ones of breakdancing in Budapest and the old women who tried to sell me embroidery in Dubrovnik and some sobering ones from Auschwitz.

The first picture on the link is from Plitvice. If you click on it, and go to the bottom left of the next page, there's a link that says "Browse All Albums." That will take you to all of the albums from the trip, which are broken down by city.

I think I will continue with this blog, but for the sake of cutting down on the amount of e-mail in this world, I am going to stop the e-mail function for the travel group after this post. If you want to keep up with the blog, just do what everyone else does and go here.

It may be spotty in the next month because I'm just starting lightning-fast rehearsals for The Second Shepherd's Play, followed by 24 shows in three weeks, in addition to my day job. After that....I'll need another vacation.




PS: If any of you have trouble with the comment function on the blog -- it's tricky and tempermental, I've been told -- please e-mail me.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Let Us Take a Moment to Praise Rick Steves

"Do you have Christmas in France? Christmas. Christmas!"
--Ricky's Mother, "Better Off Dead"

Well, I'm already back to reality and its discontents, and only got done blogging half the trip. Blogging seems to be moving at about half the speed of life, but I guess that's good. Real life is, after all, more important.

Still, there were some final observations and encounters I wanted to share, and I hope you will forgive the hodge-podge, truncated nature of this final travel post, which I'd like to get out before this stuff starts falling down the memory hole.

First off, no account of my adventures abroad would be complete without a nod to Rick Steves, who often felt like a third companion on the trip. Steves is the creator of a popular guidebook on Europe, in addition to the informative, but unfortunately-named PBS show "Europe Through the Back Door." The book promises to help you "experience the culture like a local." Of course, that's impossible. I lived in the UK for five months as a student, and while I can tell you for certain that I thought its theater is the best on the planet while its cuisine is the worst, or that its people will approach you with a cautious reserve until they get to know you and then become friends for life, or that calling the Prime Minister a "twit" in the House of Commons on a weekly basis is OK, but talking loudly on the Tube is considered rude, I'd be hard pressed to explain why all of these things are true. Heck, I've lived in the U.S. my entire life, and I feel I'm just beginning to understand it and all its contradictions. Also, there are so many places I've never seen. For a good part of my life, I didn't think North Dakota really existed, until I was forced to spend a week in Grand Forks.

But I digress. Understanding a people or a culture is nearly a lifelong task. But experiencing those things as a local might is a different kettle of fish, and here Steves, with vivid descriptions and lots of good humor, was invaluable. His guidebook to Eastern Europe introduced me to the magical Plitvice Lakes in Croatia (more on this later), and to the quirky studio of Joze Plecnik in Ljubljana, who designed much of his home city in addition to sites in Prague and Rome, and whose home makes interesting use of light and curved spaces, in addition to showcasing his one-of-a kind inventions. Steves goes on at length about about Plecnik and his influence, yet his studio, which admittedly keeps very odd hours, is missing from local tourist maps. Steves is full of practical advice as well, such as avoiding the "no neck thugs" who run the cab stands at the train stations in most of the large cities we visited, or the value of the "Budapest Card," which in addition to covering all of our public transportation in that city, got us huge discounts at the baths and many of the museums.

So I relied a lot on Rick Steves. Before leaving, I did research on the Internet, in addition to reading guides like Lonely Planet (vast, but superficial) or the Rough Guide (encyclopedic, but hardly user friendly), but Steves was the only guide who was essential on our journeys. It got to the point that Laura and I were referring to him by his first name, as in, "Do you have Rick?" or "It's time to put Rick away now." He saved me countless times (getting through the baths in Budapest) and only steered me wrong once (the Hotel Anna in Prague, with its frosty showers, although I am willing to accept that we were the victims of unfortunate circumstance.)

So, here's a shout out to Rick Steves. Bless your pointy head!

One of Steves’ recommendations was the city of Krakow, which he calls "the next Prague." He urges people to visit now, "just as the tourist infrastructure ramps up, but before it’s swamped with crowds." Sadly, however, of all the places in Eastern Europe that got short shrift on my blitzkrieg tour, Krakow was the most maligned.

I enjoyed the plucky, underdog spirit of the people I encountered there. I loved the Communist-era "Milk Bars," old-style cafeterias where I could get a full dinner of stuffed cabbage and pirogies for 9 zlotys (roughly $3). Because of my desire to see Auschwitz, however, I only really got to spend one day in this dreamy city, something the spunky proprietor of the Pensionjat Trecius rightfully gave me grief about.

"So, did you enjoy your one day tour of Krakow?" she asked with a playful mix of teasing and wounded pride. There wasn't much I could say other than to answer, truthfully, that I wanted to come back.

She was another person who offered perspectives on life after Communism -- although her views differed widely from those of Adam and Rudolph. As a business owner, she didn't express much in the way of nostalgia, remembering bitterly how the Soviets would print massive sums of money to jumpstart the economy, which, in addition to dampening the desire to work better or harder, made it next to impossible to know what various goods and services were worth from day to day -- a clear liability in the business world. "This was a false system," she said, although her co-proprietor said that democracy had brought with it a different set of troubles. He told me that he wants to expand his hotel and open a restaurant in the basement, but that his plans have been held up due to "red tape" and new laws restricting building in the Old Town. It's the kind of frustration many American small business owners would sympathize with.

A random observation: Many of the cities I've visited have their roots in the Middle Ages. Despite their differences, many of them have similar city plans -- a castle high on a hill or a cliff wall, offering protection, and a river dividing the town, allowing for easy commerce. The river areas were common meeting places for trade and open-air produce markets. In many cities, they have retained those functions, but have expanded into giant public spaces, typically closed off to traffic. Whether intentional or not, this set-up has the effect of saving the most serene and picturesque parts of town for aimless strolling, usually on old cobblestone streets, away from the din of buses or cars. It tends to underscore a more peaceful way of life than I'm used to...and it’s these daydreamy public spaces that I always associate with Europe. That pace of life is emphasized in other ways as well. All but the most high-class American restaurants tend to be pretty capitalist: Eat your meal and get out; the more people who can be crammed in, the better. In Eastern Europe -- moreso even than the Western European countries I'd been to -- the meal was something that was supposed to be savored and lingered over. Waiters seemed to actually get insulted if we asked for the check too soon, for example, if we were on our way to a show or a train to another city. The attitude seems to be: “What's the hurry? Stay a while.” The typical dinner in Eastern Europe is meant to last at least two hours. I could get used to that.

By the time I made it to Croatia, I was beginning to feel more comfortable with the transportation system in this part of the world. Nonetheless, this is where all of my careful planning and whirlwind logistics broke down: I was set to arrive in Zagreb at 10 p.m., and leave for Dubrovnik at 5:50 the next morning. I had planned to spend a cranky, uncomfortable night at the airport. But when my flight arrived early, and customs took 2 minutes instead of an expected two hours, I decided to splurge for a hotel. After visiting the information desk, I walked out of the airport at night, luggage in tow (by the way: whoever decided to put wheels on suitcases should receive a knighthood, the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize), across a dark city park and arrived at a local pub, Ivac, where I had a luxurious 5 and half hours of sleep in a room above the establishment with a real bed.

The rest of the trip almost felt like a vacation from my vacation, further from the dark history of the recent past and devoted more to simple scenic beauty and just ambling about.

Dubrovnik felt like a living fairy tale: Perched on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea, the city has retained its medieval stone walls. I spent hours climbing this scenic mile, with the sea on one side and waves of red-tiled roofs on the other, with the occasional church, shrine or orange grove along the way. It felt like a combination of things I experienced on my recent trip to Italy, a cross between Venice and the Cinque Terre on the West coast, with its wonderful hike between the 5 towns.

There's also the Stradun, Dubrovnik's main promenade, with Old World shops and several interesting museums. The street here is made with a polished stone that shimmers hypnotically when it rains. There wasn't much of that, however. I just took it all in and I sailed to one of the nearby islands and got a view of the fortress from the sea, or napped on the rocky beach at sunset, with its brilliant hues of purple, orange and gold.

In Dubrovnik, I decided to stay in a soba, or a room in a private home, a form of vacation lodging that is fairly common in Europe (especially in the East) but almost unheard of in the States. Using a handy Web site, I was able to see and price out my place long before I visited. For less than any hotel in the area, I essentially had an apartment, complete with refrigerator and stove. It was decorated with Croatian rugs and needlework, with pictures of Catholic saints on the walls. The bedroom had a skylight that offered a great view of the Old Town's walls. It was, by far, the nicest place I stayed in during the trip. And Stefjan, one of the owners, was extremely friendly, to the point of driving me to the airport at the sacrum of dawn, when finding a cab would have been rather difficult.

But even here, the recent history of war and ethnic conflict was never too far away. At the Pile Gate, the entrance to the Old Town, there is a huge map showing where each of the many bombs fell during the country's recent war with Yugoslavia. Aside from a few pockmarks and the bright, new tiles on the roofs of many of the buildings, however, there is almost no trace of what happened here just over a decade ago, when over two-thirds of Dubrovnik's buildings were damaged and 30,000 people had to flee their homes.

Incidentally, the first shots of that war were fired in the Plitvice Lakes National Park, the next stop on my itinerary. In fact, the war's first casualty was a park policeman, Josip Jovic. As in Dubrovnik, it is hard to reconcile the paradise-on-earth you see in front of you with a place that not long ago was the middle of a war zone. While it is well traveled among Europeans, Plitvice (pronounced PLEET-veet-seh) is virtually unknown to Americans. It feels like a mixture of Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. The park has 16 lakes, strung together by waterfalls and wooden plank walks. The grass is lush, the water strangely clear, and the place is filled with a thin mist and countless cascades.

In some places, the plank walks -- which look like fishing docks -- go right over a small waterfall or take you to the middle of a large one. As I walked through this virtually empty park -- tourist season had ended the month before -- I was struck by how often I noted the lack of guard-rails or warning signs. It struck me, on this trip that offered a meditation on various ideas of freedom (the lack of it, the fight for it, the uses of it) how easily my interior monologue took on the shrill voice of a tort lawyer: "This is a lawsuit waiting to happen." It is hard to separate ourselves from the cultural influences we take for granted, those things that have become so prevalent in our society that we don't even think about them. It then occurred to me that while guard rails might be nice, they'd take away from the beauty of this pristine place, keeping the visitor at more of a distance. One of the things that made this place so interesting was those plank walks that took you right over and under and through the natural beauty of the park.

It is easy to see how some European directors saw in Plitvice a feint echo of the early American West. I remember Adam, our guide in Budapest, telling us how he grew up on German "westerns" that were filmed here, like Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure in Silver Lake), complete with German-speaking Native Americans.

When you travel alone, it is easy to get lost in your own daydreams. Thinking I was alone at one point during my tour of Plitvice, I climbed on top of a stack of wood to get a better view of the park's largest waterfall. Taking in the dull roar of the water into turquoise pools and a layer of mist above, I absentmindedly broke into a song I hadn't thought of since the 80's -- the Hamm's beer jingle
From the land of sky blue waters.
From the land of sky blue waters.
Hamms, the beer refreshing
Hamms, the beer refreshing

When I finished, I turned around, and was more than a little embarrassed to find a couple of Korean tourists with their cameras trained on me.

"You took pictures?" I asked.

The man shook his head no.

"Video," said the woman with him.

Well, I can only hope it doesn't end up on the Internet.

I was feeling a bit lonely on the bus ride back to Zagreb, eager to share some of my thoughts about the park. Aside from a smattering of Croatians, however, the only other people on the bus were backpackers from Germany. Unfortunately, my German is terribly spotty -- worse than that, actually. For some reason, I can remember how to say "My dog has no nose" (Mein Hund hat keine Nase), which is really not a great entrée into any kind of discussion. I also can say, "Gehe dahin ubler in deine dreckige hole." (Be gone, Evil One, go back to your filthy lair!) Again, not a conversation starter.

Aside from that, I remember random words of no real general use: Waschbar (raccoon), Kartoffel (potato) and Kopf (head).

About an hour away from the park, I had this thought: Do they have Mr. Potato Head in Germany, and is he called Herr Kartoffelkopf?

But I didn't even know how to ask this rather ridiculous question in German. It occurred to me that it was more likely that these backpackers' English would be far better than my German, but then again, what was I going to ask them: "Do they have Mr. Potato Head in Germany, and is he called Herr Kartoffelkopf?” This would have branded me irrevocably as a Gigantic American Tourist Boob, and for the sake of my personal pride and and our rapidly declining international relations, I thought the better of it.

Still, it got me thinking about another aspect of travel that we Americans take for granted: In even the most remote locations, we can typically count on someone with at least a rudimentary knowledge of our language, if not outright fluency. But this isn't true for the Croatian, Czech, Polish, even German speakers of the world. Due to the accident of being part of what once was the largest colony in an Empire on which the sun was never supposed to set, we can expect to travel safe in the knowledge that English is the international language.

So, a few days later, when I took a taxi from Ljubljana to nearby Lake Bled, I was able to enjoy a conversation in English with the affable driver. And whereas it took me about 10 minutes to pronounce "Vrsic" (Vree-shick), the name of a Slovenian mountain pass in the Julian Alps, I followed along as the driver told me excitedly about his recent foray into refereeing an international ping-pong competition for the handicapped in a town near Vrsic. ("In Vree-shick, we have the games for the tables tennis with the people in the chairs with the wheels -- and I judge!")

He told me that the Slovenian president was a journalist, a national hero who was known for exposing a blacklist of dissenters that existing during the former Communist era. He told me of his time in the Yugoslav Army and, pointing to a high peak in the Julian Alps, said, "Climbing this mountain was a big test of endurance for soldiers. We call it witch's teat."

"So you climbed the witch's teat?" I asked.


Speaking of boobs, in Bled I was reminded that they are not unique to America. Here's a story I will remember the next time someone goes on about how reactionary and ignorant we are in the States. In the middle of Lake Bled, there is a beautiful island with a church that you can get to by taking a pletna boat, a flat-bottomed craft powered by a single standing oarsman. On the pletna boat, I was joined by an attractive Italian couple, who were very nice. They asked me to take a picture of them. And they returned the favor. He told me he was an architect, but was currently serving as a political representative from a town near Venice. On the way back, the subject turned to politics. I was, of course, prepared for the fact that George Bush is hugely unpopular, as is our protracted war with Iraq. But I was not remotely prepared for his highly unusual theory of why we were at war.

"Oil?" I asked.

"Well, yes," he said. "But I also think it is because George Bush is Jewish."

I stared at him for a few seconds, hoping that a punch line was forthcoming. But none came. He told me that George Bush always defends Israel, that he was a member of the Skull and Bones Society that secretly controls everything in America, and that since the Jews also control everything, George Bush must be Jewish. I have to admit, there was a certain insane logic to it, if accepted on its own terms, but I felt the need for further questioning.

"You know, he talks to Jesus," I said. "Before going to war in Iraq, he spoke to Jesus. It's not a very Jewish thing to do."

"Well yes," he said. "But behind the scenes, away from the public, I think he is a Jew."

When I told him I was Jewish, he was quick to explain that he had nothing against Jews, but couldn't help noting that they were disproportionately represented in the upper echelons of business. I had had a conversation like this before, in Turkey a decade ago, with a young student on a bus who asked me innocently. "Is it true that you control everything?" I answered, "If that were true, would I be on a bus like this, sitting next to you?" He reflected for a while, smiled and said, "This is a beautiful thought."

But this wasn't someone who was indoctrinated in a Muslim religious school. This was an educated Italian, from just outside one of that country's most cosmopolitan cities, and a politician to boot. His comments seemed less innocent for that reason, and for the reason that so much of my trip provided evidence of what even passive ignorance of this sort can lead to.

When we left the boat, he shook my hand and said, "Tell George Bush to go home."
I replied, "When I see him, I'll tell him in Hebrew."

Some more random thoughts: I know I have had some fun with the issue of paying to use the bathrooms in Eastern Europe, but the fact is, these restrooms are always clean, something you can not always count on in the States. In fact, the infrastructure in Eastern Europe is much more suited toward the casual traveler. For example, a 3 hour bus-ride typically costs about $5. A cross country train-ride can cost just over $30, but will have comfortable seats and will at least include some interesting scenery. A ride from Washington to New York with Amtrak, by contrast, is likely to cost at least $140 and is bound to be overbooked and crowded, with the scenery pretty much consisting of New Jersey.

A final random thought: Just about any town in the world that caters to tourists will have at least one street performer in native garb playing the pan flute. One of my favorite recent books, a collection by British cartoonist Andy Riley called "Great Lies to Tell Small Kids," suggests that pan flute players throughout the world are secretly deployed from a central base in the Andes Mountains.

Ljubljana (Lyoo-byawn-yah), where I spent the final days of my tour, is a college town, and it has the laid-back, youthful energy of a place like Madison or Austin. I saw at least 6 women over 50 with dyed magenta or blue hair, the kind that American women in their 20's get weird looks for in the workplace. Once again, there is a huge public area, closed to traffic, where the Triple Bridge crosses the river, just below, once again, a castle high on a cliff. But this area felt much more sophisticated and modern than the Old Towns of the other cities I visited, filled with quirky bars and cafes and stylishly dressed students. It was relatively free of tourists and the kinds of businesses that cater exclusively to them. I spent a lot of time hanging around a local produce market, where the president of Slovenia himself is known to shop for the perfect melon.

Before I left, I finally purchased a pelt.

It is hard to wrap up my reactions to such a wonderful vacation, in which I saw so much so quickly, and was given so much to ponder and enjoy. It will now recede into my memories, some of which are encapsulated in photos, which I'll try to share with everyone soon. I don't know if I'll have the time or the energy to continue this blog, but I'd like to. We'll see. In any case, it's been great sharing with everyone, and getting your comments, public and private. Thank you. I wanted to particularly thank some people who made my trip more enjoyable: Gerri and Jack, Mom and Bob, Lois and, of course, the wonderful Laura.

Until next time,


Friday, November 9, 2007


I heard the name Auschwitz not long after arriving by train in Krakow. A man touting a local ˝Jewish tour˝ approached me outside the station and said: ˝Come. We see Auschwitz. Birkenau. See the Jewish Quarter. Schindler´s factory. Just 150 zlotyś˝

Schindler was a reference to Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazi death camps, and whose story formed the basis of Steven Spielberg's movie ˝Schindler´s List.˝ Auschwitz (Oswiecim in Polish) was, of course, the headquarters of the Nazi extermination camps during World War II, where at least 1 million of the 6 million Jews, most of them from Hungary and Poland, but some from as far away as Norway and Greece, perished from 1942 to 1945.

And here, very soon after setting foot in Krakow, I was confronted with the problem of visiting this terrible place: Like the nearly empty Jewish quarter in Prague with its synagogues turned into museums, or the synagogue Laura and I saw in Pest (also devoid of congregants, also a museum), or the Klezmer music concerts played in Krakow (by musicians who are almost entirely non-Jewish), it felt Auschwitz had the potential to be just another stop in some kind of antiseptic tour of long-forgotten relics, like a macabre Jewish Disneyland where you toured the barracks and the ruins of the crematoria before returning to your hotel and talked of plans for dinner.

I talked a little about this with my new friend Rudoplh, the Hungarian accountant, on the long train ride from Budapest. I had told him about the House of Terror, the former Gestapo and Soviet interrorgation center turned into a museum that Laura and I had visited the previous day.

˝I've seen this building,˝ he says. ˝But I can´t go in there. It is too painful.˝

It suddenly occured to me that I would be visiting Auschwitz the very next day, and wondered whether the cummulative effect of seeing all this horrible history all at once would be desensitizing. It is a problem, really, with the ambitious nature of my whole trip. Unlike Europeans, who typically get 5 weeks of vacation a year, or the crazy Aussies or Kiwis one meets travelling, who sometimes have been on the road for years, the typical American who visits Europe, if he or she goes at all, goes for two weeks. There was so much I wanted to do and see. But it occured to me that maybe it was all a little too much. There were people I knew, many of them Europeans, who told me my intinerary was crazy (˝This trip is crazy,˝ said Michal, a Slovakian who lives in my house, who nonethless urged me to add his home country to my travels.) Even now, as I look at my passport, which was blank last month, and now has close to a dozen stamps from 5 countries, I think its kind of dizzying.

˝I´m going to Auschwitz tomorrow,˝ I told Rudolph.

He seemed thoughtful for a second, and then said, ˝Well, I won´t be going.˝ He told me that he had a lot of ˝sympathy˝ for the Jews, and that such a visit would, once again, be ˝too painful.˝

So, why visit Auschitz? Why visit a concentration camp on your vacation? This wonderful book I´m now reading, and was reading on the bus on the way to Oswiecim, provided an answer. The book, ˝The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million,˝ is something I picked up on a lark in the weeks before leaving for Europe. By Daniel Mendelsohn, ˝The Lost˝ is about the family of his great uncle Schmiel (Samuel), his wife, and their four daughters, who he heard about growing up, but never met, because they perished in and around Belechow, Poland during the Holocaust. Using archival records, and interviews with survivors from as far away as Australia and Sweden, Mendelsohn tells the story of the Holocaust by trying to reconstruct, as best as possible, the lives and final days of these 6 members of his extended family. It was just an intuition, but I thought that reading it would add something to the trip. The book, which I can´t recommend highly enough, is one of the best works of non-fiction I´ve ever read: exceptionally well-written, extremely moving, and more than occassionally profound, it's a great book, and not just if you happen to have an interest in the Holocaust, per se, or Jewish history in general. The book, more than anything, is about families, and the secrets they keep. It is also, at its root, a detective story, one that I´m eagerly paging through now, even though, of course, the ending is never in doubt.

Anyhow, Mendelsohn asks this same question early in his book: Why visit Auschwitz? His answer is twofold: First, to pay respects to the dead, and second, because the whole place amounts to one giant piece of evidence, an answer to all those who have said, and who continue to say, that the Holocaust was not as bad as reported or, even worse, never happened at all.

And, certainly, those motives were among mine as well. But why did I, particularly, want to visit? I have no known relatives who perished there, or anyplace during the Holocaust, as most of my extended family on both sides, from the Ukraine and Macedonia, Greece and Poland, had left those places not long after the onset of World War I. Moreover, I am an atheist, having not practiced the religion I was born into since shortly after my Bar Mitzvah on May 28, 1983.

So, what are my personal reasons? Aside from what Mendelsohn said, the biggest reason I can think of is that Auschwitz, and the Holocaust, seemed unreal to me. I don´t mean that in the same sense that the Holocaust revisionists do: I´ve never doubted the historical truth of what happened there, or that it was as unimaginable as people say it was -- the record is thorough and incontrovertible. But it's because of that word: unimaginable. If you're an American-raised Jew, like me, you've seen Auschwitz in films in civics class (three different times that I can remember), in Sunday school (twice), in countless documentaries like ˝The World at War,˝ narrated by Lawrence Olivier, which I remember my father watching a lot when I was very young, and numerous movies from ˝Sophie's Choice˝ to ˝Schindler´s List.˝ It was simply too big, to removed from my experience, too far away to comprehend. Now that I was in Eastern Europe, I wanted to go and experience this place as something real.

Of course, my thinking was naive. How can I, who considers deprivation not having a hot shower in the morning or not getting e-mails returned in a timely fashion, possibly relate to the unspeakable and unprecedented horrors of the people who were sent here and, with very few exceptions, died here? There was no way.

But I wanted to at least try to bridge that gap between my experience and imagination. I needed to see it. I wanted to get a sense of the scale of the place and hopefully, leave there with a more visceral awareness than I had previously.

When you enter the town of Oswiecim, past farms, and pubs, auto-dealerships and old, run-down Communist-era apartment blocks, there is almost no visual reminder of that town´s place in history. In fact, eveything looks quite normal, if not altogether modern, until you pass through the parking lot, across the carefully manicured lawns, into the museum and out the back door. There, in front of you, set against guard towers and barbed wire, are the cruel words you have seen so many times before: ˝Arbeit Macht Frei,˝ German for ˝Work brings freedom.˝ As our earnest young guide soon told us: ˝Soon after their arrival here, inmates of the camp learned that the only way out was through the chimneys.˝

The Polish guardians of Auschwitz have taken great pains to preserve the site as it was when it was liberated by the Ukranian First Army in 1945, or more appropriately, what it might have looked like months before the Nazis knew the end was inevitable. The crematoria, where the bodies of the gassed were burned after their gold teeth and hair were extracted, were largely destroyed by the Nazis, who feared the reaction of the international community if the full extent of their crimes were exposed. The crematoria lay in rubble, but most of the barracks, privies, guard halls, the house of the commandant, the prisons and most of one of the gas chambers remain intact, with their original German inscriptions on the outside.

But aside from the upkeep, and the inevitable warehousing of certain items of evidence (the hair, the luggage, the artificial limbs, that heartbreaking mountain of shoes, including the tiny shoes of small children), the place is appropriately solemn and unembellished, fitting for what is, in the end, a gigantic cemetary, albeit one without any graves or headstones.

Once again, you are faced with numbers of dead that are too large for the mind to grasp. Just to offer a sense of scale, there are 55,000 names of American soldiers on the Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC. There are more than 77,000 names of Czech Jews in Pinkhas Synagogue in Prague. At Auschwitz, as its former commandant, Rudolph Hoess testfied in Nuremburg, 9,000 Jews, almost entirely from Hungary, were gassed in a single day during a period of peak activity in 1944.

Auschwitz is actually composed of two camps, Auschwitz I, which housed 20,000 prisoners and the camp´s first experimental gas chamber, and Birkenau, which had room for 100,000 prisoners and many more gas chambers and crematoria. The Nazis turned to the use of Zyklon B gas to kill the Jews when it became evident that the mass shootings and burials that were occuring in places like the Ukraine, Poland and Latvia were hurting troop morale and causing many to have nervous breakdowns.

Auschwitz I is smaller than you think, and the compactness raises questions. For example, the early experimental gas chamber, which we were asked to pass through silently, out of respect for the dead, is just a narrow road across the street from the SS officer´s mess. Those officers were close enough to hear the screams of the dying. The house of Commandant Hoess, where he and his wife lived and outside of which his children played, is less than a football field away. After the war, and according to the wishes of the survivors, Hoess was hanged just outside the building that housed the first gas chamber and crematoria. The gallows remains.

There was the alley where countless summary executions were held, and where, according to survivors, the courtyard filled with blood, and the prisons, from which no one left alive. Some of the barracks have been devoted to exhibits showing the remains of Nazi plunder. Something I had never realized before was the extent to which the extermination of the Jews served two functions: the first, and more well known, was Hitler´s twisted vision of racial purity; but the second was the use of the valuables, jewelry and money -- not to mention hair and gold and silver teeth -- to finance the war effort. If nothing else, my visit to Auschwitz brought home to me how different the Holocaust was from other genocides, which have occured throughout history and continue today. Typically, such incidents are spontaneous acts of savagery and brutality. The Nazis, while doubtless savage and brutal, married their bloodlust to a cruel intelligence that encompassed high-technology, tremendous efficiency and an intricate bureaucracy to keep the machinery of death moving. Learning from past mistakes, the Nazis avoided mass panic by telling people as they entered the cattle cars that they were headed for resettlement in the East. Men going into the first gas chambers were mollified with false promises of work that awaited them when they were done, as they were told, disinfecting in the showers.

There were the suitcases with familiar Jewish names chalked on, last names shared by friends and people I went to school with. There were names like ˝Kafka, Prague˝ and ˝Frank, Amsterdam˝ (neither of them who we think they are) that also rang a familiar bell. One of two times I broke down during my visit -- and this has happened to me at the Holocaust Museum in DC as well -- was seeing the endless array of victim´s shoes. I don´t know why the shoes get to me that way, why they have the power to tug at my emotions after seeing and hearing so many examples of human cruelty and deprivation, but they get to me every time.

The reason that Auschwitz I seems small is that most of the represenations of the camps we have are really of Birkenau, the much larger camp, just a short bus ride away. Birkenau is the camp with the huge guard tower and the dual rail tracks that trail off into the horizon, the end point in a trip to nowhere. Here are the remains of the crematoria and barracks that stretch as far as the eye can see. The barracks we saw was the other time I broke down. The place had a musty, sawdust odor and as I saw the cramped, wooden bunks, where people slept three in a row, often on their sides to make room, I listened as our guide described how those on the bottom bunks, starved and subject to a host of diseases, were food for rats that scurried the floors below. No one wanted the bottom bunks. It was too much to comprehend.

Interestingly, just as we entered Birkenau, there was a huge and moving Catholic procession in honor of the anniversay of the death of St. Maksymillian Kolbe, whose story I knew little of before going to Auschwitz. Kolbe was a political prisoner at Auschwitz, rounded up in the early arrests of priests and the intelligensia who the Nazis thought might be a threat to their rule. Kolbe was a priest at a church in Krakow, the same church, incidentally, where decades later Karl Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, served as archbishop (I would visit that Church, and sit in Wojtyla's favorite pew the next day.) Kolbe, who had expressed some anti-Semitic sentiment in newspaper columns before the war, experienced a profound redemption during his interment in the camp.

When a prisoner tried to escape from Kolbe´s block, the Nazis punished the remaining inmates by selecting 10 of them to put in the Starvation Cell until they died. After the selection, Kolbe offered to replace a man who expressed concern about who would care for his family. The Nazis agreed.

The men were placed in Starvation Cell 18, which I saw. Two weeks later, when the door was opened, only Kolbe had survived. The story spread throughout the camp, and Kolbe became an inspiration. To squelch the hope he had given to other inmates, Kolbe was executed by lethal injection. However, the man Kolbe saved is said to have survived the Holocaust.

The unexpected procession in honor of Kolbe, with prayer and chanting, added poignancy to the occasion and was, for me, a reminder that Auschwitz was not merely a Jewish story.

At the end of our tour, our guide, a young Pole who is studying at the university in Krakow and clearly took his job very seriously, said that we should honor the dead by remembering what we saw and that ˝human life is precious.˝

The next day, my final one in Krakow, I spent in the Old Town. I could have gone to the Jewish Quarter or to a Klezmer concert, but I just didn´t feel right about it. I needed time to process what I had seen and heard, and wanted to get away from the terrible history of that period for a spell.

But it was hard to escape. As I climbed Wawel Hill, I saw the old castle of Kazimierz the Great. Kazimierz, whose name was also given to the Jewish ghetto here, was, according to my guidebook, an enlightened ruler in the 14th century who encouraged Jews to come to Poland and granted them special priveleges -- often related to banking and trade -- at a time when other countries were deporting and scapegoating their Jews.

Something about the story sounded familiar. And when I went on the Internet later that day, I discovered the source, once again a Hollywood movie, ˝Schindler´s List.˝ If you´ve seen the movie, you won´t have forgotten this chilling monologue by SS Kommandant Amon Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes, before the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto:

Today is history. Today will be remembered. Years from now the young will ask with wonder about this day. Today is history and you are part of it. Six hundred years ago when elsewhere they were footing the blame for the Black Death, Kazimerz the Great, so called, told the Jews they could come to Krakow. They came. They trundled their belongings into the city. They settled. They took hold. They prospered in business, science, education, the arts. With nothing they came and with nothing they flourished. For six centuries there has been a Jewish Krakow. Think about it....By this evening those six centuries will be a rumour. They never happened. Today is history.

A rumour. At least in terms of Krakow, and most other major European cities that once had thriving Jewish populations, his words were prescient. So, I didn´t want to go to another empty Jewish quarter, with its synagogues turned into museums for tourists, or to a Klezmer concert with non-Jewish musicians because the Jews are largely vanished from this city, or to anything that is a cold reminder of the impossible abstraction of the Six Million. I tried to cling to what I had seen the day before on an overcast day with chilling rain. I tried to remember that each one of those six million is a story, rich and complex and vital, and that during a horrible decade in the middle of the last century, those stories were lost.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

"Eez good for you!"

"All Aboard. Night train."
-- James Brown, the hardest working man in show business

Laura and I boarded the night train from Prague to Budapest at 11:30 p.m. We had a first-class cabin in a sleeper car, which sounds a lot better than it is. The Orient Express it wasn't. The outside of the car was sprayed with grafitti and the cabin was a tiny room, which Laura compared to a prison cell, with two bunk beds.

We'd been walking around in a daze most of the night. I guess I'm getting old, but the endless walking was starting to take its toll. We complained of assorted aches and pains and instead of the usual restaurant meal, we grabbed some sandwiches,pastries and Fantas from a Czech supermarket and decided to have a late-night feast in our bunks. At that point, just sitting down felt like a luxury, and we both felt extremely grateful. It was kind of like camp, except that twice during the night -- at 3:30 and 5:00 in the morning -- gruff customs officers woke us to check our passports.

This is all to say that we were more than ready upon arriving in Budapest to partake in the city's signature form of entertainment: the baths. There are more than 200 hot springs underneath the city, the reason for its more than 2 dozen baths. And thus far, it's been my favorite part of the far.

On our first day in town, we had done probably the most ambitious stroll yet, a fantastic tour of a huge swath of the sprawling city -- up hills, through subways and parks -- with Absolute Walking Tours. But like I said, at the end, we were ready to unwind.

They don't make it easy. Getting into the baths is rather byzantine. You pay for either a bath ticket or a swimming pool ticket, although both allow you to do the same things (swim and bathe), but enter from different locations. Towels require a deposit that you get back after handing your towel to a clerk, who hands you another piece of paper that you give to a cashier. You can also rent a suit using the same process, which is why any Hungarian bath is bound to have the largest assemblage of human beings on the planet who shouldn't be wearing Speedo but are nonetheless (Yours truly packed his suit. The international community does not need to see me in Speedo.) And you can pay for a locker in a gender segregated room or for a shared cabin. And if you want a massage, that's another ticket, given to a different cashier. And...wait for it...if you leave before THREE HOURS is up, you get some of your money back....if you hand the right piece of paper to the cashier. All of this makes one of the more relaxing and fun activities I can think of feel a little bit like a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

But, like I said, it was worth it. We went to the Gellert Baths, part of a 19th century hotel. The Art Noveau columns in the swimming pool and elaborate green,blue, and brown mosaics on the walls above the hotter pools make it all seem very decadent and Roman. Our guide from Absolute Tours compared it to "swimming in a theater." You proceed from the swimming pool, where water pours out from the mouths of stone lions, to a series of progessively hotter pools, until the final one, which is heated to 104 degrees. Laura commented that it was one of the most international settings she's been in, and she's lived all over. You hear bits and pieces of conversations in Hungarian, Italian, French, Spanish, even Hebrew. It is not uncommon to see people reading the newspaper or playing chess in the pool.

After spending a good half hour getting all pruney in the hottest pool, I noticed with a mixture of fear and excitement that there was another room we had yet to enter. Once inside, I noticed a very small pool that looked like a jacuzzi, save for the fact that no one was in it. I soon found out why: The water was frigid, probably 50 degrees. I hesitated for a while, until this white-haired woman, who couldn't have been younger than 70, jumped right in after counting to three in French. Once again, I followed...and the woman turned to me and said, this time in English, "Son of a bitch!"

The sensation of going back and forth from the hottest to the coldest pools did wonders for my aching muscles. Laura favorably described it to being subtly pricked with a bunch of tiny needles all over your body. That sounded a little too harsh for me. But it's hard to describe exactly what it did feel like. It felt diving into a pit of koosh balls. It was a very unfamiliar, but pleasant sensation.

Let me go back to the tour for a second. It was very good. Unlike the other cities I'm visiting, Budapest is simply huge, without a single convenient Old Town consolidating the historical sights. As opposed to Krakow and Prague, which have several hundred thousand people, Budapest is a city of millions. So, if nothing else, the Absolute Standard Walk was essential in terms of getting our bearings in this sprawling place and helping acclimate ourselves to the city's subway and cable-car system (One of the best legacies of the Communist era, in all the cities I've visited thus far, is their cheap tram systems. I think it's a lovely way to travel. I don't think it's a coincidence that my two favorite cities in the U.S. -- San Francisco and New Orleans -- both have cable cars.)

But public transportation was just a practical matter. The tour worked because the two guides did not just rattle off a lot of names and dates, but tried to make sense of their city and engage the group on a personal level. In fact, everyone we met in Budapest was exceedingly friendly. For example, when Laura and I arrived at the Hotel Astra just before 9 a.m., after our journey on the night train, the folks at the desk fed us breakfast and allowed us to check in early and shower.

When you look around the faded Communist infrastructure of the city, or learn how poor most of the country is, you wonder how its people can be so mellow and cheerful. It must be the baths.

Anyhow, our tour guides were wonderful. Adam, in particular, a tall lanky Hungarian, was quite fun. He told Laura and I that he was eager to visit the American West, having grown up on German Westerns that were filmed in Croatia's Plitvice Lakes National Park (and where, incidentally, I'll be traveling this Thursday).

"Where can I see Indians?" he asked.

He also shared with us that a lot of Hungarians had a kind of nostalgia for the Communist days. He said then, at least people had job security. He told us that his parents were having trouble paying for their mortgage and their children's school, things that were taken for granted before. "Everything is about money now," he said. He compared the Communist system to a giant lawnmower that made everyone the same and then said something that just stopped me in my tracks: "If you were OK being like everyone else, Communism wasn't so bad. If you wanted to be in an individual, it was not so good."

"In other words," Laura told me, "You wouldn't have done well."

We saw the changing of the guard at Heroes Square, the great Opera House, and climbed many stairs to the castle grounds and St. Stephen's Cathedral, where we had a wonderful view across the Danube of the old Parliament building, much too big now that Hungary is no longer the seat of a vast empire.

We passed a statue of a dark, hooded figure known only as Anonymous, who left Hungarians the record of their founding by the seven hill tribes, led by Arpod...or was it Lothar?

Touching the pen of Anonymous, known as such because we don't know his name, is supposed to give special luck to writers. That was a no brainer for me and yet another tourist photo opportunity.

That night, we had dinner at Tabini Terasz on the Buda side of the river, and I had the best food thus far in the trip: My taste of Laura's veal paprikash. Afterwards, we dashed off to a Hungarian folk music and dance concert, something Laura was very keen to do. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical, my view of regional folk music looking something like this:

But I was pleasantly surprised. It was the music of Bela Bartok, inspired by Hungarian folk traditions -- or was it the other way around? Anyhow, it was spectacular, a weird mixture of Irish step-dancing, German oom-pah, pah slap-dancing, Bulgarian singing and ballet...but with a cowboy spirit -- very competitive and raucous. Laura and I enthusiastically leaped to our feet during the several curtain calls (Personally, I could get used to four, which seems to be the Eastern European standard.)

Our next day, we trekked to the outskirts of the city to see Statue Park, the idea of an ingenious entrepreneur who decided to save in a single place all those ugly, over-size statues of Lenin, Marx and happy workers and soldiers that littered the city before the the Soviet's quiet retreat 2 decades ago. I couldn't help think of it as a garden of fallen idols, in a way. It was weird to see those once larger-than life statues dwarfed by even larger capitalist billboards for perfume and shampoo. I also couldn't help notice that this was the only place in the city where they didn't charge to use the bathroom. If nothing else, I suppose, the fall of Communism has brought with it a recognition of our inalienable right to pee for free.

Laura posed in the front seat of a Trabant, a Soviet era junk car known for continually breaking down, and we watched a creepy black-and-white film made by the KGB to train Hungarian agents on how to spy on their countrymen, which made us both think of the great German movie that came out last year, "The Lives of Others," about the last days of the Stasi, the infamous East German intelligence agency.

We spent the bulk of the day at the Great Market Hall in Pest, a cavernous three floor building where local merchants sell everything from sausage and paprika (everything in Hungary is made with it,it seems) to hand-made wooden chess sets and embroidered scarves and, yes, even fur pelts. This bazaar, unlike any I've been in, is in keeping with the mellow, friendly spirit of the city. The merchants will explain to you how something works or how it's made, but if you move on, there's no attempt at a hard-sell. They just say thank you and goodbye. I didn't get a pelt, but Laura surprised me by buying me one of the Transylvanian chess sets I coveted.

On our last day in the city, we returned to the Gellert Hotel for a final chance to take the waters. This time, I was determined to get the full experience and add a massage to the bill. When we discussed it earlier, Laura was less than enthusiastic about this option. "I'm afraid some giant Eastern European lady is gonna start pounding me," she said. "Eez good for you!" she said with a Slavic accent, a comment I asked her to repeat several times on the trip because it made me giggle so much. So Laura skipped this part, but encouraged me to go ahead.

When I reached the massage area, I was no longer sure this was going to be so good. In addition to a long wait, the first masseuse to emerge was this bald, beefy Hungarian man who wore two large gloves that looked like welding mitts. But it turned out to be fairly gentle -- stop your giggling at home -- and added to the overall relaxation experience.

Our afternoon couldn't have been more different. We went from the baths to the House of Terror. The House of Terror is an amazing museum -- probably the best I've ever experienced -- devoted to the country's "double occupation."

This building was used as a Gestapo headquarters by the Nazi-affiliated Arrow-Cross party during World War II. After the war, and with a low threshold for irony, the country's Communist ˝liberators˝ used it as an intelligence-gathering and interrogation center. Our guide at Absolute Tours chillingly said of the building: "Many people disappeared here."

Outside, votive candles burned beneath the pictures of those who entered the building and never came out. Because of it's location and use, the museum had a powerful "you are there" quality to it. Like the Holocaust Museum in DC, it also was highly interactive, but unlike that museum, was conceptual in addition to being historical. For example, in order to evoke the lean days of the 1950's, when lard on bread was often dinner, bricks meant to look like blocks of lard formed a labryinth of winding corridors in one room. In another room, which once housed the building's voluminous intelligence files, facsimiles of real reports lined the floors, walls and chairs. Proceeding to the lower depths of the building, there were exhibits that needed no embellishment: the torture rooms, with low-hanging wires and electrodes. One cell contained a noose. Another had an open faucet against the wall, which interrogators used to simulate drowning. It was hard not to be overcome with a sense of shame that our own country has adopted methods once used by such brutal regimes.

The exhibit made a persuasive case that the Nazis and the Soviets were flip sides of the same coin. To underscore that point, a video simulated an Arrow Cross agent after the war quickly changing his clothes and adopting the uniform of a Russian solider. It was extremely powerful.

Sadly, that was Laura's last experience on the trip. Because she has less vacation time than me, we'd always planned to say goodbye in Budapest. Still, it was hard. She made the trip much more fun and exciting, and I'll miss her. Eez not so good.

That night, I boarded yet another night train, this time for Krakow, where I shared a spacious second-class compartment with a Hungarian my age named Rudolph. He's an accountant and a marathon runner who was on his way to Poland to take a job with Shell Oil. He offered me some home-made pastry and peppered me with English vocabulary words from the book he was reading, Hardy's "Jude the Obscure." This was one of those events that convinces me that if God does exist, he has a wicked sense of humor. "Jude the Obscure" was one of those books I could never get through in school, and had to rely on Cliffs' Notes to pass muster. So I was of little help to the poor man.

"What is mischty?" he asked.


"Do you know what is blackpot?" he asked.

"Um, can't help you there. Sorry."

He then switched to accounting terms, and I actually felt on surer footing here.

"What is pilfer?"

"Pilfer is when I take money from your pocket."

"What is embezzlement?"

"Well, let's say your my employer. You give me some money, but I spend some of it for myself. That's embezzlement."

"You seem to know a lot about this," he said, and then started to crack up. I guess I'd walked right in to that one, playing straight man to a Hungarian accountant.

After arriving in Krakow, I made my way across a large square to the Pesonjat Trecius, a lovely hotel above a non-descript store front. On the way -- I swear I'm not making this up -- three different people asked me for directions in Polish. I was feeling a little tired after the 11 hour train trip, complete with 6 passport checks (we only passed through 3 countries, so I don't know where the heck the other three people came from), and though there is at least a remote geneological connection to Poland, I was beginning to wonder whether something had happened during my sleep. First, a Hungarian stumps me on English vocabulary words. Then, people start asking me for directions in Polish. How did I become the answer man all of the sudden?

Still, it made me wonder if it wasn't a good time to buy Lotto tickets.

Go ahead: Ask me a question, any question.

The answers are:

The Council of Trent
The Hoot-Smalley Tariff

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (and Buses)

Note: Sorry it´s been a while. First, there´s been some good real life that got in the way of blogging. And some mishaps, described below, that prevented me, despite my best intentions. Most recently, the problems have been technical. The keyboard is completely different in this part of the world, filled with Teutonic symbols like Ö, and Ő and even Ü. And then, when I´d do something wrong, I´d get error messages in Hungarian, a language even more incomprehensible than Czech, which alerted me to the fact that I´d messed up, but not exactly how. Anyway, we´ve been having a really GÖÖD time.

And now back to our story...

When you travel on a budget, everything doesn´t always go according to plan. Sometimes that´s good and sometimes that´s bad. Good was when the furnicular broke in Prague and Laura and I were forced to take the long way to the castle, through some picturesque woods on a sunny fall day. Bad was when we couldn´t find the bus station Monday morning, couldn´t speak to anyone who might be able to help us, nearly missed it, and yours truly had to ride about two hours sitting on the inside steps on the middle of the bus.

You do see some interesting things from that vantage point, though: At one town, a girl came on carrying a pet rat in a bright pink cage.

Anyway, the arrival in Cesky Krumlov was worth the discomfort. Can I say something more about the weather? I realize that I´m going on and on about it, and should probably just shut up, but here´s the deal: When I read the extended weather forecast for this part of the world before I left, it showed nothing but rain for, like, the next 2,000 years. So our unbelievable record of sun these past few days has been nothing short of remarkable.

This helps in places like Cesky Krumlov that just ooze Old World charm. Though I have never been to Germany, it looks like I imagine some of Germany´s castle-dominated towns like Heidelberg and Rothenberg might look like: high on a hill, with narrow cobblestone streets, and an impressive castle built into the rock above. Add to that the gurgling Vltava river, which bisects the town, and some friendly locals, and it´s a really relaxing place to just amble.

The place looks like Prague´s Old Town, but on a much smaller scale. And the resemblance to Germany makes sense: Many German-speaking people moved here when it was part of the Austrian Hapsburg empire, and it was easy for Hitler to later claim the region -- then known as the Sudetenland -- as rightfully part of Germany. The annexation of the Sudentenland was one of the first land-grabs that ultimately erupted into World War II. After the war, a sort of ethnic-cleansing took place, and many German-speaking people whose families had been here for generations were forced to move to Germany. The town remained virtually empty and untouched during the Communist years, with the exception of a buildup of grit, giving a kind of lost-in-time, faded-over fairytale quality to the place. With its newfound prosperity, the town has again opened up to tourists, and has been used as a backdrop in several movies, most recently ˝The Illusionist.˝

The Pension Mysi Dira, where we stayed, was right on the water. We could hear the peaceful running of the river at night, and a set of picture windows opened up onto it and a view of a huge cathedral and forest below.

Aside from strolling and window shopping, the big draw was the castle, which amongst other notable things, has the oldest fully operational Baroque Theater in the world and a functioning bear pit where a family of three lives year-round -- bears, that is.

At one point, Laura turned to me and said,˝My kids would think it was so cool that we saw a castle with a live bear pit.˝

˝Forget the kids,˝ I said. ˝I think it´s really cool.

The theater, where original works by Mozart were performed, still has its original special-effect machines and set-change devices. Our guide spun a huge wooden wheel to show us how they created the effects of wind and galloping horses, and scraped his feet on a metal grate to simulate the sound of thunder. Backstage, we saw the elaborate system of ropes and pulleys that allowed a series of 8 stage hands to move huge backrops in a matter of seconds.

But mostly, we ambled. An observation: No matter where you go in the world, any town that draws a reasonable share of tourists will have at least one shop that sells hand-made soap.


Another happy accident -- Laura wanted to go to a confectionary shop for some sweets. We both asked for hot chocalate, and got something wonderfully unexpected: a cup of gooey melted chocalate that we had to eat with a spoon. It was richer than chocalate mousse, decadent and amazing.

But since accident karma seems to come in pairs, lest there be an imbalance in the force, I would be remiss if I didn´t tell you about our ride back to Prague.

The tourist office in Cesky Krumlov listed a departure time for the bus of 6:30 p.m. It never came. As we huddled in the evening chill, we waited as the listed 7:15 bus also never came. When a bus finally arrived in the Prague entry lane, Laura used her language skills (she speaks Russian, a sister language) to learn from the driver that the last bus to Prague had come and gone hours before. She defiantly pointed to the schedule, and the driver dismissed her with a wave as the luggage assistant chuckled to herself. We had reserved a room in Prague for the night, and had already paid for a tour in the morning, so we were anxious to return. I knew there was also a train to Prague, and we quickly raced down the hill to flag a taxi, where we found an extremely helpful driver. This guy was a savior. After checking times on his cell phone, he told us that the last train would be leaving in 30 minutes from Cesky Budejovice, some 25 km. away. He drove, in the rain, like a man on a mission, quickly darting through winding, hilly roads as a light rain began to pour.

Once we arrived, he helped carry our luggage into the station and, perhaps sympathizing with our predicament, spoke to the ticket lady in Czech on our behalf. He turned out to be wrong: the train actually arrived at that time, but wouldn´t depart for another hour. But the hassles weren´t over there. Laura searched for a bathroom. The ticket lady told her it had closed an hour earlier. Almost all public restrooms in this part of the world have an attendant who charges a fee for admission. As in the musical ˝Urinetown,˝ you have to pay to pee. And that means that you´re at the mercy of the attendant. That person had, alas, gone home.

Thus, we were both somewhat surly when we arrived after midnight at the Hotel Anna, on the outskirts of Prague´s red light district. When the shower offered nothing but frigid cold water the next morning, I nearly had an Ugly American incident.

A final word on karma: The next day, back at Prague´s Old Town Square, I was doing some shopping when I suddenly found myself surrounded by a throng of Hare Krishnas, singing in Czech. I guess the Hare Krishnas, like hand-made soap stores, are always with us.

Another addendum: I have gotten a few comments (privately) about the Sex Machines Museum in Old Town Square. I swear I was joking about the wooden vibrator! But to show that truth is stranger than blogging, that same night as my encounter with the Hare Krishnas, I found a brochure for the Sex Machines Museum that showed, on page two, a picture of a vibrator, an early German invention made of, yes, wood and metal, looking rather uncomfortably like a flour mixer.


The day after our adventure in Ceskzy Krumlov was devoted to a tour of Prague´s Jewish quarter, known as Josevov.

The incredibly-useful Rick Steve´s Guide to Eastern Europe describes Josevov as ˝the most interesting collection of Jewish sites in Europe.˝ While the Nazis decimated Jewish communities in Poland and elsewhere, Prague´s Jews were allowed to collect and archive their treasures. The archivists were ultimately killed in concentration camps but their work survives...part of which was ultimately planned as Hitler´s ˝Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race.˝

Our guide was an affable elderly elf of a man, who spoke quietly and sometimes to just one person in the group, checking off names and dates from thousands of years of history in a way that was often more dizzyzing than illuminating. But he´d obviously been around for a while, and could speak humorously, and movingly, about the lives of Jews and other Czechs under Nazism and Communism. Of Communism, he said: ˝It was like elaborate theater. We pretended to work, and the State pretended to pay us.˝

Of the lives of Jews during World War II and after, he said it was ˝like living on the edge of knife.˝ He related the story of his friend Hannah, whose family had lived in Terezinstadt, the show-camp outside of Prague where Jews and others were interned before going to more deadly camps like Dachau and Auschwitz. Her father was a carpenter. One day, one of the main buildings in the camp collapsed in a bad storm, and the Nazis ordered carpenters to set about rebuilding it. Almost all of the carpenters, now wise to the Nazi´s plans, refused. They were sent to Auschwitz and gassed. Hannah´s father alone agreed...but because he was the only carpenter left, the job took over a year. ˝By that time,˝ the guide said. ˝the war was over. His decision saved his life, and the life of his family.˝

Terezinstadt, incidentally, played a role in prolonging the extent of the Holocaust. It was there the Nazis sent the International Red Cross on a carefully controlled, and pre-planned inspection. The Red Cross´ positive report of that inspection is used to this day by deniers as proof that the Holocaust never happened.

If any further evidence were necessary to contradict such claims, however, it is this place, these formerly functioning synagogues once filled with vital people, talking excitedly and loudly, no doubt interrupting each turned into museums for the tourists. They could no longer function as places of worship because their congregations had been decimated. The names of the victims line the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue, along with the dates of their transport and execution. The names were kept meticulously by Jews whom the Nazis had appointed as overseers of the ghetto, and who made an illicit copy to keep as eventual proof of what had been done under the regime.

It is next to impossible for the brain to accept the magnitude of such numbers like 77,000 killed, close to 3,000 of them children. In such circumstances, you try to hone in on something familiar, to help bring home and make sense of the vastness of such a tragedy. We saw the names of Madeleine Albright´s grandfather and Franz Kafka´s sister. Then Laura showed me the names of Marta and Janna Braunsteinova, Prague Jews who were killed in 1944. They are not even remote relatives -- my father´s extended family came from the Ukraine and had a different name -- but the similarity nonetheless had the effect of making that endless array of names and dates very real: It could have been you or someone you knew.

Architecturally, the best site of the Jewish Quarter is the Sephardic Spanish Synagogue, built in an almost Moorish style of elaborate patterns of five-pointed stars set against a huge dome. But the most evocative is the Old Jewish Cemetary, it´s 12,000 gravestones a reminder that for 300 years, this was the only burial ground allowed for Prague´s Jews. Because of the space, and the Jewish belief that the body should not be moved once buried, the tombs were piled atop each other, making the tombstones crooked and the cemetary a small plateau. One of those buried here is Reb Levi, famous scholar and mystic who is said to have created a golem, a Frankenstein-like creature that can be summoned and commanded at will. Like many people in this part of the planet, our guide had no problem accepting the truth of such stories or that Levi´s gravestone is a powerful guidepost to the spirit world. It is said that if you make a wish there, Levi will make it come true.

I didn´t understand everything our guide said about human beings ˝not being too far removed from the primordial forest˝ or Prague containing ˝outposts of positive energy˝ that our brains have become too complicated to comprehend. Nonetheless, I made a wish to myself and left a coin on Levi´s tomb.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Optimists in the City of Sharp Claws

"Prague never lets you go... this dear little mother has sharp claws." -- Franz Kafka, real Czech writer of"The Metamorphisis," in which a man slowly turns into a cockroach

"There are moments when optimists should be shot." --Jara Cimrman, fictional Czech hero, who beat Kafka, Vaclav Havel, Martina Navratilova and every other national figure in a poll to find the "Greatest Czech of All Time," and would have won handily if not for the formality that he does not, in fact, exist


It is now Monday morning, and I finally have a little time to write after spending two amazing days with Laura in Prague. It is quiet at the Pension u Medvidku, the hotel where we're staying, a medieval shell built atop a bustling brewery in this country that arguably makes the best beer in the world. In a way, the place combines some of the contradictions that make this country so fascinating and unique. It is, first of all, a very old place. The door to our room is bright red with the gold, starry emblem of some long-forgotten noble family on it. It is a huge door, with an ancient metal key, and closes with the cavernous thud of a bank vault -- you half expect Bach's "Tocatta in Fugue" to play whenever you open it a crack. The hotel is also a raucous business, one of the many entrepreuneral enterprises that exploded two decades ago when the Czech Republic exiled its Communists landlords and, seemingly overnight, started welcoming back the tourists.

You could accurately describe the city as Kafka-esque, filled with hovering old buildings and narrow streets that are just barely lit at night. But with the Communists gone, the only hidden menaces are ones of the imagination. There is almost no violent crime here. It was oddly comforting last night when Laura and I, trekking to a restaurant high on a dimly-lit cobblestone lane in the shadow of Prague Castle, smelled the unmistakable odor of pot smoke...coming from the local police barracks.

Because it is one of the few capitals of Europe to escape the bombing of World War II, and because it now is bursting with energy after the fall of Communism, there is this delicious mix of old and new here. It was one of the Eastern-bloc countries to most quickly embrace the West, but it is stubbornly clinging to its own uniqueness...or, more accurately, it is rediscovering it.

It is, to my way of thinking, refreshingly free of so much of the health consciousness and litigiousness we take for granted in the U.S. For example, the escalator leading down into the subway is the fastest I've ever seen -- getting on reminded me of the opening credits to "The Jetson's" where George races off the treadmill and into the wall. I nearly endured a similar fate. When we climbed the 400 winding steps up Petrin Tower, a 200 foot-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower that stands high above the city, it was hard not to notice that there was hardly anything, aside from a thin metal rail, seperating you from the elements -- no glass, no safety bars, no nothing. It's the kind of thing you'd never see in America. Fear of lawsuits alone would prevent it. (Those of you who know me well know that I have a long and tortured history with going on vacation and periodically forgetting that I have a terrible fear of heights. It happened climbing the pyramids at night. It happened in the hot air balloon in Charlotsville -- we do not need to revisit those regrettable incidents. Of course, it happened again, this time early in the trip. I was white-knuckling the hand-rail at about foot 150 when I stopped for a moment of vertigo, and it was only the nonchalant voices of small children giggling above me that led me to swallow my fear and go on. Well, that and the people grumbling in foreign languages behind me. But I digress...) It was well worth it. We were rewarded, upon reaching the top, with a breathtaking panoramic view of the Old City in all its resplendent fall color.

And everyone smokes here. They smoke in the hotel, the coffee houses, the restaurants. It seems like there are two sections: smoking and black-lung. The Czechs, it seems, had enough of Big Brother under the Soviets, and the attitude now is appropriately laissez-faire.

A final note. Despite shaking off the yoke of Communist tyranny, the Czechs have yet to embrace vowels. That's why the language gives you words like krk (neck), zmrzlina (ice-cream) or even a vowel-less sentence, "Strč prst skrz krk." (Put your finger down your throat--just imagine singing "Behind Blue Eyes" in Czech.) There’s a joke about a Czech man going to see an optometrist. The optometrist points at the letters p r c h l n k v d on his board and asks the man if he can read them. “Read them?” exclaims the Czech. “I know him!” Anyhow, it is not one of the easiest languages to follow or adopt. Parisians, I'm told, are willing to forgo some of their snobbery toward Americans if we at least make an attempt to speak their language. Not so in Prague. Those times I've attempted to speak in Czech have met me with looks of pity and concern -- and occassionally disdain--and are soon followed by answers in perfect English.

Anyhow, back to the story. We arrived in Prague after a night at the Ibis Hotel near Heathrow Airport in London. That came after two unusually stressful and sleep-deprived weeks for me in Washington and a seven-hour flight that, as usual for me, was a form of medieval torture. When you're 6'4, it is very hard to keep your psychological tray table in its upright and locked position when you have a foot of leg room, and the person in front of you is a fidgety recliner.

So we more than a little groggy in the cab en route from Prague Airport to our hotel. Along the way, we passed a lot of grey, depressing urban sprawl, a sign that it will take some time before the stain of Communism is fully erased from this country. After unpacking, we quickly made our way along the banks of Vltava River, past the 14th century Charles Bridge, into the Old Town Square. The square is flanked by the centuries old St. Nicholas and Tyn Churches, a statue to Jan Hus, one of the first protestants who was burned at the stake a century before Martin Luther preached, and the Astronimical Clock, which marks the hour with a crowd-drawing tableua: First, Death tips his hourglass and pulls the cord, ringing the bell; then the windows open and the 12 apostles parade by, acknowledging the gang of onlookers; then a slightly-choked rooster crows. The hour is past.

We perused a store that sold elaborately-carved and painted marionettes, walked around an exhibit of art made with chocalate, and passed a bustling outdoor market that sold everything from figs and chess sets to scarves and large fur pelts (I became obsessed with the notion of not leaving Prague without a pelt). We also idled by the Museum of Sex Machines. I swear, I am not making this up. Though it certainly fired my imagination --"See the first vibrator...made of wood!" I envisioned -- Laura drew the line and said no.

We ate dinner at the Klub Architektu, a wonderful place in a medieval cellar. Most Czech restaurants do not have private tables, and this turned out to be a delightful thing. We shared our meal with a very funny and engaging couple from Stratford-on-Avon, both teachers and musicians. The food here has been unbelievable. It's big on meat -- wild game like rabbit, boar and venison. Laura and I both had lamb braised with raisins and wild mushrooms in a sweet wine sauce, which I downed with an amazing Slovak beer.

From there, we indulged in the local theatre speciality--"Black Light Theatre." It sounded pretty cool, relying on the use of ultraviolet black light to create intricate optical illusions combined with a lot of movement (think Synetic Theater in Washington) and a dash of Theater of the Absurd. There are easily 30 Black Light Theaters in Prague, and we went to one of the most recommended, The Image, which showed a "Best of" retrospective Saturday night. Sadly, it turned out to be mostly a dissapointment, combining two art forms I despise: Benny Hill-style slapstick humor and interpretive dance. It was like an illicit marriage of the worst of high- and low-brow entertainment. Laura didn't like it either. It might have been the performance we saw. And it might have been just us. But the audience went bezerk afterwards --I don't know if I've ever seen that many curtain calls. My perception of the performance was somewhat altered by the fact that into the third routine, my body crashed from exhaustion. I kept dozing and waking up, and fell into one of those half-asleep, half awake fugue states where the action on staged merged into my subconcious and the hurried events of the past two a way that could be described as Kafka-esque. It was odd...and I wasn't unhappy to leave.

We had been warned to expect cold weather and lots of rain, and that's why we were pleasantly surprised to wake up Sunday to a beautifully sunny fall day. Being Czech Independence Day, we walked the streets to the intermittent sounds of fireworks and marching music. We passed a powerful memorial, erected in 2002, that served as a reminder of what independence means to this just-recently emancipated country. Called the Monument to Victims of Communism Who Survived, it depicts a series of sculptures that represent how people atrophied under the totalitarian regime: they do not die, but slowly disappear, one limb at time, until the final sculpture at the top of the hill is nothing but a rotted shell.

A happy accident -- the furnicular to the top of the aformentioned Petrin Hill was closed--- meant Laura and I spent two hours (Did I mention it was a spectacular fall day?) walking through a forest lined with fruit trees, with views of palaces and churches everywhere, to the top of the hill. Lots of pictures were taken. (There is no USB port at this computer, so that part will have to wait...until later, if not until I come home. But trust me: It was breathtaking.) At the bottom of the tower is a hysterical exhibit in honor of the fictional Cimrman, who is a great example of the offbeat sense of humor here. Wiseman, inventor, and "autodidact gynecologist," he is known for creating a host of useless objects and for never getting credited for his ideas ("You can't just have two sisters," he told Chekov. "How about three?")

We walked down the cobble-stoned Nerudova Street, where wealthy families are still identified by elaborate murals over their dooors--two violins for an instrument-maker, a set of scales for a lawyer. We climbed the hill to Prague Castle to the sounds of music: classical, choral and, at the top, Czech folk music. Inside the castle grounds, we spent the bulk of our time in St. Vitus Cathedral, a powerful symbol in this largely Roman Catholic country. In addition to some of the first Hapsburg kings, St. Wenceslas (as in the Christmas carol of the Good King) is buried here. In fact, Czech Kings were crowned right in front of Wenceslas' tomb in a chapel with precious jewels as big as paving stones set into the wall. There was also a masterful stained glass window designed by Art Noveau/Art Deco artist Alfons Mucha.

After spending a half hour at the Toy and Barbie Museum, which traced the evolution of European toys from wooden Noah's Ark pieces and scary Aryan child dolls to the perhaps even scarier Barbie, we went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. This splurge came courtesy of my mom and Bob, who gave the splurge funds as a Christmas/Chanukkah present, and my goodness, it was memorable. After passing the police precinct with the pot smoke, we went to the Restaurace David. To set the ambience: You have to buzz even to get in. It's a quiet candlelit place with Czech art on the walls. It's a place where the waitors meticulously remove and add silverware after every course -- the Czech equivalent, I guess, of the guy who cleans the crumbs off your table, both practices that make me feel like I've done something wrong somehow. We sat near a trio of friendly Italians. Laura, who looked amazing in a fancy black dress, had a Czech meal of wild boar and potato pancakes with blueberries. I had a more international dish of venisson with cranberries. The waiter was friendly, and brought out a patte appetizer and, at the end, a dessert port in a huge glass with a one-foot stem -- both compliments of the chef. Even though the restaurant is too expensive for the average Czech, by American standards it is only mid-range. It was, nonetheless, one of the most memorable evenings we've had together. So thanks, Mom and Bob!

And with that, I'll leave you. Tomorrow we're off to the small town of Cesky Krumlov, about three hours south.

Until later....