Archive for May, 2012

Wiscon ho!

So, now that we’ve been back from Europe for nearly three whole days, it’s time to get on an airplane again: we’ll be leaving tomorrow for Wiscon. Yes, this is rather insane, but it’s one of my favorite conventions and also a chance to visit my father in Milwaukee.

I’ll be appearing on the following programming items:

Fri 9:00 – 10:15PM, Senate A: Coming Out as Queer, Coming Out as a Geek
David D. Levine, Rachel Kronick, Sara Linde, Roxanne Samer
Let’s look at some of the parallels between coming out as GLBT* and coming out as a geek. Some of us have come out both as geeks and as GLBT* people. How have we used our experiences in coming out one way to help our coming out the other way?

Sat 4:00 – 5:15PM, Senate B: Short Stories vs. Novels
David D. Levine, Benjamin Billman, Richard Chwedyk, Gwynne Garfinkle, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Victoria Janssen
Some writers claim they can only write short, others insist they can only go with longer works. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each form? Should you force yourself to try the length that doesn’t seem natural for you? What benefits are there to those who can successfully write both types of story? At one time, authors were told they needed three short story sales (of the pro variety) before they should try to sell a novel. Is this true? If short isn’t your form of choice, are you just screwed?

Sun 10:00 – 11:15AM, room 623: Writing the Singularity
David D. Levine, Ruthanna Emrys, James Frenkel, Lettie Prell, Talks-with-wind
How do we write stories about life when people are no longer human? What would your characters be like? What would their conflicts be? What would their needs (if any) be? Can you write an agglomerated personality? What about a personality that had never been a biological human? Writers already have difficulty keeping up with current technologies (cell phones, for example). Will writing become even harder as technological advances continue accelerating?

Sun 2:30 – 3:45PM, room 634: Theater Improv
David D. Levine, Emily Jones, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Elizabeth Stone, Elena Tabachnick
Fascinated by theater improv? Come learn and play! Beginners will learn basic improv skills; those with experience already know how much fun it is.

Mon 10:00 – 11:15AM, Conference 5: Newly Professional Older Writers: What Helps, What Hinders
Ada Milenkovic Brown, Wendy Bradley, David D. Levine, Catherine M. Schaff-Stump
Newly professional older writers face special challenges. You need to go to cons and workshops to move forward, but it can be emotionally draining to be constantly reminded that the other people your age are the wise women of the forest and the grand viziers, while you’re still the assistant pig keeper trying to figure out how to reforge the broken sword. Your peers, the young newly professional writers, can jump higher, work faster, stay up later, and drink harder than you can. And they can actually hear the conversations in the crowded bar rooms where most writer networking takes place. Let’s discuss what helps and hinders older new writers, and create a space for older new writers at WisCon to connect with each other.

Mon 11:30AM – 12:45PM, Capitol/Wisconsin: The SignOut
Come and sign your works, come and get things signed, come and hang out and wind down before you leave.

Last Day in Europe

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This will be a brief post because the wifi keeps going up and down (annoyingly, when it’s down there’s still signal but no data, so our phones insist on trying to use it instead of the 3G).

Out of yogurt at the apartment, we set out in search of breakfast. But though this is a pretty good neighborhood for restaurants, it’s more of a bar-and-club sort of a place than a breakfast place, and most of those we found were just bars that had baked goods and coffee in the morning. We settled for a croissant and coffee, but I think the lack of a proper breakfast put me out of sorts for the rest of the day.

Today is our last day in Europe, at least for this trip. We spent the day preparing for the trip home, mostly, sorting through papers and packing and going to Kaufhaus Galerie to buy another bag (yes, we did buy a lot of souvenirs). Kate also browsed in bookstores and bought a scarf and a few other things. I wrote and mailed a few last postcards, but mostly just lazed around the apartment in a traveled-too-much stupor.

Had currywurst (Curry 61 at Alexanderplatz was better) and doner kebab for first and second lunch. FYI, “kebab” means meat grilled over or near flame, “shish” means skewer, and “doner” means rotating, so when we Americans call skewers “kabobs” we’ve got it all wrong.

Today is our 21st wedding anniversary. I got Kate a tin of mints with a VW Beetle and the words “Er lauft und lauft und lauft…” (referencing an old VW ad we’d seen at the Glass Factory, it means “it runs and runs and runs…”) and a kid’s book about a sheep, both of which I’d spotted in one of the shops in the Hackesche Hofe. She got me a bar of chocolate with walnuts and marzipan.

We had an early dinner at a Japanese noodle place nearby, called Makoto. The Japanese staff speaking a mix of German and Japanese made my head ‘splode and Japanese phrases lying dormant in my head since 2007 come spilling out. “Eigo-de daijobu desu ka?” I said, and “toide-wa doku desu ka?” I had a Ramune, the lemon drink with the glass marble closure. Our ramen soup was really exceptionally good, and I don’t think I’m just saying that because this is the first time I’ve had Japanese food in a month. After that we wandered through the neighborhood for a bit. I could come back to Venice, Vienna, or Prague but I think I’ve “done” Berlin. It’s got a lot of keen stuff, but it’s just very hard to navigate and there’s a certain negative vibe — might be leftover Nazi and Communist engrams or something.

Cab tomorrow at 4:30 AM for a long, long travel day. And then home!

Pre-History, Ancient History, and History

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Focusing on the past, in various forms, in our last few days abroad. (And why else would an American come to Europe? Oh yeah, the food.)

The music in my head this week is a continuous loop of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel, “The Book” by Sheryl Crow (the one with “three days in Rome” in the chorus), and “DDR” by Tom Robinson. For obvious reasons.

Wednesday 5/16

After our usual breakfast (yogurt with muesli in the apartment, cafe au lait at the cafe downstairs) we took the S-Bahn to Nordbahnhof to see the exhibit on “ghost stations” there. We had a bit of trouble finding the exhibit, but it was well worth it. This has long been a fascinating detail to us of the division of Berlin. The East Germans closed off the station entrances completely, then built little police boxes on top, concealing stairs down to the security bunker inside the station (thus: bigger on the inside).

From there we took a long hike through very-much-under-construction streets to the Naturkunde museum, with giant dinosaur skeletons (and pseudo-augmented-reality goggles to put flesh on them), a keen exhibit on mammoths and elephants, and giant (2-3′) insect models from the 1930s. We are trying to focus on only the best stuff in each museum and then move on — we have a museum card so there’s no need to “get our money’s worth” and there’s a real danger of museum burnout. The museum’s neighborhood did not have a huge selection of restaurants. We settled on an Indian place, Swadi, and it was okay.

We traveled from the Naturkunde museum (which, by the way, was flattened in 1945 and not rebuilt until about 2006 — it still shows blast scars) to Berlin’s Museum Island, which is where the city’s greatest museums have been concentrated since the 1800s. We intended to hit the Neues Museum, then the Pergamon, but the first bridge we crossed took us right into the Pergamon and there was no way to get from there to the Neues without leaving the island so we visited that one first.

Here, as many other museums in Germany, we encountered a frustrating lack of signage, maps, and other directional information (the generic museum names, which translate to such things as “New Museum” and “Painting Gallery,” don’t help either) but OMG the STUFF!! The Pergamon has the largest single objects I have ever seen in a museum (for some value of “single object”), including the ceramic Ishtar Gate with its lions and dragons. What an astonishing statement of power! And the Neues Museum features the famous head of Nefertiti that you’ve seen so many times in photos. But these are only the most impressive and famous bits. Everywhere you go there are amazing historical artifacts. Even the museum itself is a fabulous artifact, with its frescoes and ornaments as well as its war damage on proud display.

That was a full day of museuming, so we walked home, stopping for gelato at Amorino, banh mi at CoCo, and a few groceries on the way. Back home, we ate our banh mi (which was quite good) and napped for an hour before our 9:00 PM appointment at the Reichstag. For, indeed, my Internet adventures on Tuesday had paid off and we were going to see the seat of the united German goverment.

The Reichstag was very cool, the dome of glass and mirrors and its spiral ramp quite impressive, offering great views of the city as the sun set. It was cold, though — the dome is open to the outside air. But still, this democratic institution governing unified Germany shows that things do sometimes get better, that there is cause for hope.

Also, we saw someone blowing giant bubbles in front of Brandenburger Tor.

Thursday 5/17

As we’ve done in several other cities, today Kate and I took a day apart. For my part I headed down to Alexanderplatz and walked from there to Checkpoint Charlie, stopping at several points along the way to visit a museum or smash a penny or two. I encountered a lot of construction — the Rathaus (city hall) was surrounded by dug-up earth and was apparently completely closed, though there was no signage indicating why. (Later we learned that today is Himmelfahrt, or Ascension Day, so the government and many businesses were closed.)

At the Marienkirche, the famous Dance of Death fresco was nearly invisible, but to me the figures of Death looked more like alien Greys. Even spookier, perhaps?

Spending more time than usual in highly-touristed areas, I encountered many slim women with headscarves who all approached with the same question: “Do you speak English?” Something about them put my guard up so I just shook my head and moved on. I suspect they were beggars and/or pickpockets.

I found myself at the entrance of the Altes Museum and decided to use my musem pass to pop in and see what they had. Turns out the person who sold us the pass forgot to change the stamp, stamping it with the previous date, and then corrected it in pen — which made it look as though I had altered my pass to make it valid for an extra day. The ticket clerk let me in anyway, but I decided I wouldn’t try using the pass again.

The Altes Museum specializes in Greek, Roman, and Etruscan statuary — more naked and half-naked marble people in one place than I’ve seen in a long time, including a beautiful rotunda with all the Greek gods and a truly stunning Athena. Also an amazing little mosaic, about two feet by three, composed of cubes of stone (in their natural colors!) about two millimeters square.

I had a walking lunch of bratwurst from a sidewalk vendor as I traveled, and noted that “Hallo” is the standard greeting in Berlin even when Germans meet Germans.

At Checkpoint Charlie, I found an informative wall display… behind which someone had set up “Charlie’s Beach,” a large area of sand with beach chairs, palm trees, and food and drink for sale. Didn’t work real well under overcast skies with temperatures in the fifties. There was lots of other tourist kitsch nearby, including a McDonalds. Annoying, but I’d rather have a McDonalds than Soviet and American tanks facing each other down across the German-German border. The name Charlie, by the way, represents the fact that it was the third checkpoint for Westerners traveling to East Berlin: Checkpoint Alpha was at the West German/East German border, Checkpoint Bravo at the East German/West Berlin border, and Checkpoint Charlie at the West Berlin/East Berlin border.

A couple of blocks from Checkpoint Charlie is an excellent, free exhibit called The Topography of Terror, located atop the ruins of the old Stasi headquarters. I took about two hours to read the whole chronological wall — about three Portland blocks long, with photos and text — chronicling the rise of the Nazis, WWII, and the beginning of the Cold War as seen in Berlin. This is the summary of 1930s-50s history I’d been needing for some time. The exhibit also includes some information about the Wall and considerable information about the Gestapo and Stasi, which I skipped due to lack of time and energy.

From there I headed home, with a brief stop at Potsdamer Platz to check out a large, festive flea market. Probably that too is for Himmelfahrt.

We had a lovely German dinner at a place near our apartment called Botzow-Privat, which looks as though it’s essentially unchanged since some time in the 1800s. Wiener schnitzel (not too big) with fried potatoes for me, kasespaetzele for Kate, apple strudel for dessert, yum. Soon we’ll be back home and eating more sensibly.

Even though the restaurant was only about five blocks from our apartment, we took a different route there and back and saw some nice little parks, alleys, and shops we had not seen in the five days we’ve been here. Also, as we approached our apartment building from a different direction, I saw that our apartment — which is quite narrow — is actually the full width of the building. Looks like they shoehorned a six-story apartment building onto a piece of land that formerly held, what, a little corner shop?

Tonight has been a quiet evening of blogging and sorting our stuff. Tomorrow will be largely dedicated to getting ready for the trip home (we leave at oh-dark-early Saturday morning).

Three Days in Berlin

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Sunday 5/13

Awoke in Dresden, had another fabulous Hildegard von Bingen breakfast, and had the hotel van take us to the train station. In the bathroom at the station, a guy in full plate armor came clanking out of the next stall, no shit swear to God. We bought baguettes at Crobag (Croissant + Baguette — ugly name, pretty good sandwiches) to eat on the train.

Then… Berlin!

The Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station) is huge, modern, multi-level, shiny, crowded — this is The Big City! We’re hearing a lot more languages and accents and seeing a lot more colors of people on the street than we did in any previous city, even Vienna. It took us a while to even get out of the station, what with fighting crowds everywhere, standing in line at the TI to buy transit passes, and stopping at a grocery store in the station for tomorrow’s breakfast (concerned that neighborhood stores might not be open on Sunday, though this didn’t prove to be a huge problem). We took a taxi to our hotel, actually an apartment (Apartmenthaus Karlito), picked up the key in the cafe downstairs, and moved in. It’s a nice little place, clean and bright, with a tub, kitchen, plenty of elbow room, but alas no laundry facilities.

Our first stop after getting settled was the Flomarkt am Mauerpark (Flea Market at the Berlin Wall Park), a Saturday-Sunday thing not too far from our apartment. It was a HUMUNGOUS flea market, like a 300-family rummage sale with food stands (we had a savory “pastry snail” from a busy Turkish vendor) and eight bouncy castles. It just went on and on and on. And they do this every weekend?

Overwhelmed, we walked toward the nearby U-Bahn (subway) station, which had been a “ghost” station before the Wall fell. This was one of the stations on the East side of the wall that West Berlin subway trains ran through without stopping. They were boarded up, guarded, and went completely unchanged from 1961 to 1989. But just before we got there we encountered the Ost-West Cafe (so called because it’s near the former Wall, also because it features Turkish and German cuisine) and decided to stop for coffee. It was really crowded, a good sign, and the food options looked good, so we ordered dinner: juicy chicken skewers with grilled potatoes and vegetables for me, tortellini in yogurt sauce and red lentil soup for Kate.

After dinner, we walked past the Berlin Wall Memorial (but did not have time to give it the attention it deserved) and into the station, which is now active but looks rather old-fashioned. Then back to the apartment for a quiet evening of plotting out our Berlin touristing and doing some wash in the sink. Oh the glamour.

Monday 5/14

Awake 8:00 (but both of us were awake for a while in the night – no more coffee after 2:00 PM for me!). We had yogurt with muesli and honey in the room for breakfast, then a very nice cafe au lait at the cafe downstairs (which is also the hotel front desk, to the extent we have one).

We’d had ambitious plans to start at the zoo, work eastward following Rick Steves’ touristing plan, and hit the Reischstag early before the crowds got too terrible. But as it was past 9:30 by the time we finished our coffee, this was clearly not going to work. Instead we took the U-Bahn to the Wall memorial we hadn’t had the energy for yesterday, then to the Underground Berlin tour office, planning to get tickets for the 1:00 tour. However, tickets for the 11:00 AM tour were available, so we jumped on that. Having an hour to kill before our tour, we spent the time at a nearby mall, getting cash from an ATM and browing in a bookstore and Real (a variety store rather like Target, where Kate bought a washcloth — for some reason, most hotels here do not provide washcloths).

Our Underground tour was most unlike the Underground tours we’ve taken in Seattle and Pendleton. This one was a tour of a WWII air raid shelter, one of the few still in existence, now fitted out as a museum. Our excellent tour guide gave a great overview of how the shelter was built and used as well as general information about life in Berlin during the war. He didn’t stint on difficult details, such as the fact that the shelters were built by slave labor and that every remaining male in the city was pressed into service (on pain of death if they refused) for the final defense of Berlin, thousands of old men and boys sacrificed in a battle that everyone knew was pointless. A very informative and interesting tour, if somewhat depressing.

We took the S-Bahn (light rail) one stop, then U-Bahn one stop to a restaurant called Zum Schusterjungen for a “DDR-style” lunch. It felt strange to take two trains just one stop each, but that would have been a 30-minute walk; this is a BIG city. Maybe it’s because we didn’t sleep well last night, but I feel like we’re kind of running on fumes here, and Berlin is not the town to take it easy. We ordered schnitzel with spargel (asparagus — it’s spargel season, it’s on every menu, we can’t evade it) for Kate, “farmer’s breakfast” (omelet with fried potatoes, onions, a bit of bacon) for me, quite nice. “Not much bacon in that omelet,” said Kate. “Well, you can’t go to a restaurant that offers East German cuisine and complain about the lack of meat…”

After lunch we headed to the famous Brandenberg Gate, taking a tram to Alexanderplatz, then bus to Brandenberg Tor. But at Alexanderplatz I noticed that we were right near the base of the big Fernsehturm (East Germany’s answer to the Space Needle) and went looking for the penny-smashing machine that was supposed to be there. We found two machines at the base of the tower, another at a souvenir shop nearby. It wasn’t easy to find our bus stop at sprawling Alexanderplatz, but eventually we found it and made our way to Brandenberg Tor. We knew it was an important historic site because we saw Mickey Mouse in a Jedi robe and many other costumed characters, mimes, street vendors, and other such individual enterpreneurs there to bilk the tourists.

The Reichstag was nearby, so we walked over to check out the line. Hey, the line isn’t too bad, let’s go in! Well, it turned out that the line was short because they have changed the system: you now have to make a reservation online beforehand (and it’s booked up for three days in advance, six weeks for a guided tour). I tried a couple of times from my phone, but the website kept erroring out.

We walked down Unter Den Linden, which was Berlin’s Broadway before the War, was entirely on the East side of the Wall under Communism, and is now busy and mostly under construction. Kate visited here in 1981, before the Wall fell, and says that at that time there was essentially no one here. We found another penny machine at a souvenir shop on Under Den Linden, but the one at Madame Tussaud’s was gone. The bookstore Berlin Story now has a 5 euro charge for its small museum and film, but we paid it for a chance to sit down. Not a bad little museum actually, but I didn’t really have the brain to appreciate it.

Kate and I may be the only people outside of Germany who have a fondness for the Trabant, East Germany’s cheap little two-stroke car. This is because we saw the movie Go Trabi Go! right before a trip to France during which we nicknamed our rented Peugot “Trabi.” So, even though we’d never before seen a Trabant in the flesh, we were thrilled that there was one in the museum that you could actually sit in. Man, what a piece of junk!

When I was a teenager I believed that the Communists were not as evil as they were portrayed, that it was simply a different economic system and that they were demonized by the US for propaganda purposes. After what I’ve seen in museums here and in Prague, I now believe that they really were that bad. Clearly there was a reason that so many people risked their lives (and often lost them) trying to escape.

While Kate was shopping in the Berlin Story bookstore I tried again to reserve a visit to the Reichstag, trying the German site since the English site seemed to be having consistent errors. I did get through to submit a request, and after several CAPTCHAs and web forms and an exchange of emails I managed to get a reservation for 9:00 PM Wednesday. It’s supposed to be quite something.

I also used the Time Out Berlin app on my phone (it’s free!) to locate a good restaurant nearby. “Cafe No!” is the one restaurant in a couple of blocks of monolithic government buildings, a character-filled little bistro that emphasizes wine but also has a few food offerings. Kate had Maultaschen (German ravioli, sort of) and I had Flammkuchen (German pizza, sort of) which seemed to be the house specialty, and oh heavens was it good. It would be hard not to be good with sour cream, bacon, and onions, but even so it was particularly fine, with a delicate thin crust and a smokey flavor. I balanced that out with a “vitamin schpritz”: freshly pressed carrot, apple, and orange juice with fizzy water, a twist of lemon, and honey, very nice.

After dinner, we were glad to find that the U2 subway ran straight from a stop very near the restaurant to a stop very near the hotel, so no long walks and no transfers, huzzah. We stopped at a corner market for some yogurt for breakfast, fell over for an hour or so, got up to write up some notes, then fell over again.

Tuesday 5/15

Awake 8:00-ish, yogurt for breakfast, out the door 9:00-ish. After the last few days of man’s inhumanity to man (Nazis or Communists, take your pick, Berlin has plenty of both) we wanted to look at some pretty pictures, so we headed to the neighborhood of Schloss Charlottenburg, about an hour away by transit, for a group of three museums nearby. Even with two iPhone apps to help, there were way too many transit options and we finally settled on a route that was perhaps less efficient than it might have been but involved fewer transfers than the others. Even so we had some difficulty finding the stop for our bus (I think we wound up taking a different bus than we’d planned because we happened to find ourselves at its stop).

One thing about Berlin: it’s an interesting mix of pre-War, post-War, and post-Reunification architecture. As we look around we have been really noticing the few 1800s and 1900s buildings, buildings of a type that are the vast majority in Vienna and Prague. Dresden was completely flattened in 1945 and has rebuilt only a few key buildings in the old style, so that it gives a generally newish appearance that feels very normal to an American. But Berlin has saved or reconstructed enough old buildings that you can’t help but realize that it’s an old city that has lost more than 90% of its architectural heritage. And there are construction cranes everywhere.

Our first museum today was the Scharf-Gerstenberg, focusing on the surrealists. It had fine examples of Klee, Ernst, Magritte, and Dali, also Hans Bellmer whom I’d never heard of before but whom I liked, and a sometimes-over-informative audio guide. In another area, the former stables of Schloss Charlottenburg, were proto-surrealist works by Goya and Piranesi and a huge Egyptian gateway. As the audio guide said, “what could be more surreal than a giant Ancient Egyptian monument in the middle of an art gallery?” but in fact the reason it’s here is that this building was the temporary home of the Egyptian Museum while it was being renovated, and though the renovations are complete there’s still no room in the new space for this huge piece. It will be moved to its final home when the Egyptian Museum’s fourth wing is finished, in 2025.

For lunch we had a simple sandwich and soup at a nearby bakery/cafe called Back Zeit or some such. Then we headed to the second museum, the Berggruen, which features Picasso, Cezanne, and Klee but was, alas, closed for renovations. So we headed to the third museum, the Brohan, with its fine collection of Art Nouveau (AKA Jugendstil) and Art Deco furniture, lamps, tea sets, and suchlike. I love this style so much, with both Nouveau and Deco combining natural and mechanical forms, and it’s a shame that it was only really in fashion for a decade or so.

By that point we had completely hit the wall, so we dragged ourselves back to the apartment and fell unconscious for about two hours. We have been touristing very, very hard for the past three and a half weeks, not to mention the emotional burden of all those Nazis and Communists, and we’re definitely getting kind of crispy around the edges. We rested in the apartment for the remainder of the afternoon, until it got kind of dinner-time-ish.

We walked a ways to the Hackesche Hofe, a collection of connected courtyards housing many delightful little shops, and browsed there for a while before deciding to head out in search of dinner. We investigated several restaurants, but we decided that what we really wanted was to eat what native Berliners eat, which is currywurst and doner kebap. Currywurst, at least the way we had it, is a curried sausage, cut up and drowned in a curry sauce, served with French fries (which are in turn drowned with ketchup and mayonnaise), and eaten with a little wooden fork, and it was disturbingly tasty. Doner kebap is kind of like gyros, but Turkish rather than Greek, served in a quarter-flatbread with a variety of sauces and condiments, and also very good in a not-good-for-you way. These are the local equivalent of the ubiquitous American burger-and-fries and we couldn’t possibly leave Berlin without having tried them. “I can really see the appeal,” says Kate.

It was beginning to rain then, so after a brief stop at a bakery for some bread for tomorrow’s breakfast we headed back to the apartment for a quiet evening.

Maybe we’ll take it a little easier tomorrow. (Ha.)

Now for the photos, though I haven’t been taking a lot of photos in Berlin (100 photos from Dresden and Berlin combined so far, vs. 500 in Prague and over 1000 in the Czech towns). With the streets so crowded there haven’t been a lot of good opportunities to haul out the camera and take a moment for the right shot. Also the light has generally been terrible. Also we’ve been spending a lot of time in museums and other spaces that don’t allow photography. Also most of Berlin, interesting though it is, is not terribly photogenic. Berlin is one of the most heavily graffiti’d places I’ve ever been. I don’t know if the graffiti on the Wall is a cause of this or a symptom of it, but there’s hardly a wall, bank machine, or lamp post that isn’t completely covered with scrawls (generally ugly and inartistic, to my eye) in marker and spray paint. Even the bathrooms of quite nice restaurants are a riot of graffiti. Still, I did find a few nice shots, so here they are.


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Our Dresden hotel, the Hotel Privat (AKA Das Hotel Nichtrauscher AKA The Non-Smoking Hotel) is lovely in every way except that it is a little further away from the city center than our previous hotels — a bit of a hike to the nearest tram stop, and that tram doesn’t connect directly to much of anything. But it has the best breakfast spread we’ve seen yet, including American-style bacon, 2 kinds of scrambled eggs, 3 kinds of sausage, lox, chocolate quark (yummy), and Hildegard von Bingen’s Dinkel-Habermus (hot spelt cereal) with a selection of toppings including flax seed, chestnut meal, and “bertram” (Anacyclus pyrethrum, AKA pellitory, Spanish chamomile, or Mount Atlas daisy — didn’t taste like much but it’s supposed to be good for you). Google Translate insists that Dinkel means “spelled” and had no idea what “bertram” was — it took quite a bit of web research to track that one down.

Perhaps because of our slightly-away-from-downtown location, perhaps because Dresden was bombed to bits in 1945 and remained in the loving lack-of-care of the Communists for over 40 years therafter, we’ve been seeing a lot more ratty-looking buildings here than elsewhere. I’ve been noticing that a particular feature of our neighborhood is the obviously-closed-for-many-years kiosk (you know, the kind that sells newspapers, cigarettes, and candy), which I suppose is an economic niche that just collapsed some time ago. On the other hand, there is tons of new construction and renovation going on.

Just about everything here, no matter how old it looks, was completely flattened in 1945 and rebuilt afterwards (in some cases quite recently). Dresden raises interesting questions of “what is ‘real,’ anyway?” and “if they could rebuild the Frauenkirche in four years, why did it take 50 years to finish the National Cathedral in Washington DC?” (I think the answer to the latter question may be “because they didn’t have to spend any time arguing about the design.”)

Our first stop today was the Residenz (the big castle complex of the princes of Saxony) and its famous Green Vault. We hadn’t known a lot about it going in, but everything we read assured us it was not to be missed, and the fact that the only admission was via timed tickets was confirmation of that. So we showed up a half-hour before the ticket booth opened, and waited as the mob of people awaiting tickets grew and grew. Because of our position at the head of the mob we got tickets to the first admission at 10:00.

Oh. My. Freaking. Gawd. What an amazing collection of Stuff. The Green Vault is the treasury of the Electors of Saxony, especially Augustus the Strong, who collected the absolute best and most valuable items from all over Europe for a couple hundred years. Highlights included an entire room of carved ivory objects (concentric spheres, chains, delicate twining columns, etc.), dozens of objects carved from rock crystal as fine and smooth and clear as blown glass, a pair of drinking vessels depicting the celestial and terrestrial globes that moved across the dining table under their own power (clockwork?), a huge allegorial bas-relief made entirely of semiprecious stones, cups and ewers assembled from translucent amber slices, sculptures of gold and silver built around ostrich eggs and nautilus shells, delightful miniature court scenes, and a room with millions of dollars in gems including a unique green diamond the size of a walnut. All of it definitely over the top, but most of it in something resembling good taste.

The treasury rooms themselves, the Historical Green Vault, are beautiful and valuable, and that’s the part of the exhibit that requires timed tickets (and no coats or bags, and passage through a double-doored airlock). After seeing all that, we stopped for lunch at the nearby Paulaner bierstube, offering Munich cuisine (weisswurst and schweinshaxen), then returned to see the rest of the Residenz. We saw the New Green Vault, which has fewer objects than the Historical but arranged in a modern museum-style display so you can see all sides of them, the Gallery of the Electors with portraits and busts of the princes of Saxony going back two hundred years, and the Turkish Room with armor and tents either looted from the Turks or designed to look like it.

The Residenz has an excellent collection and informative signage on the exhibits, crap directional signage, and no maps at all, either on paper or on the wall. This led to a long, frustrating search for the Fuerstenzug, a thing we had been told we really should see but which wasn’t on any of the signs and for which we got varying and confusing directions from various museum employees. Turned out it wasn’t part of the museum at all, but was outdoors on a long wall a couple blocks away. It was a gigantic (maybe one and a half football fields long) tile mural depicting a mounted procession of the Electors of Saxony, beginning in the 1500s and going up to about 1880, each in characteristic costume for their era and with a collection of hangers-on. I’m afraid it reminded me more than anything else of the opening sequence of “Peabody’s Improbable History,” but it was definitely worth the trip.

There was more to the Residenz, but by then we were pretty fed up with the difficulty of finding things within it, so we hit the bookstore and then headed off to Dresden’s Technical Museum. This museum, housed in a former camera factory, is mostly focused on the history of photographic, sound, and computer technology, especially those bits of it manufactured in Dresden. The photography and sound exhibits are nicely laid out and labeled (all in German), but the computer section was basically just a large room with hundreds of typewriters, calculators, and computers in roughly chronological order (nonetheless, I think I liked that part best). Okay, now I believe we’re in former East Germany. Almost all of the gadgets on display were from brands I’ve never heard of, some of them looking distinctly Soviet.

One of the coolest bits was the typewriter display, which included the Mercedes Addelektra, an electric-powered wide-carriage machine having a large receiver spool behind the device (obviously it was designed to type on a continuous roll), a separate numeric keyboard below the main one, and a bunch of little movable odometers ranged along the top of the keyboard. It looks to me as though you could set it up to automatically total the values you typed in each column. Kind of a primitive mechanical version of Excel. Another, extremely old, typewriter typed on the back of the paper, so you wouldn’t know what you’d typed until you were done with the page. In a recent episode of The Amazing Race, the racers had to transcribe some text on a manual typewriter, and part of the challenge was figuring out to type a lowercase L for the numeral 1. We laughed at Those Kids Today, but I must confess that some of those old machines would be just as daunting to me.

The museum also included a large display of computers from the Robotron company (it’s still in business), and the name made me snort every time I saw it. “In your struggle to save humanity, be careful to avoid electrodes in your path!” And at the top of the building, for some reason, was a six-story observation tower with a very cool spiral staircase and a view of the museum’s residential/industrial neighborhood.

We had a bit of a snack at the museum cafe, then headed back to our hotel for a nap, but we decided to stop for dinner at the place we changed trams. It was a hip, happenin’ neighborhood of mostly fast food and bars… there must be a university nearby. We wound up at Reise-Kneipe, a “travelers’ bar” with an international menu, where I had a “fruity cashew-lentil curry” and Kate an assortment of “international tapas,” both very nice. The only downside was that they left the door open; it’s been a chill, gray day, though at least the threatened rain never fell.

After dinner we walked to the nearby train station (the closest one to our hotel) in search of information about tomorrow’s train. We determined that this station does not have any trains to Berlin except very early in the morning, but we were able to buy tickets from the machine for a train tomorrow at a convenient time from the main train station. After that we went back to the hotel and fell over. Tomorrow, Berlin!

Two and a half days in Prague, half a day in Dresden

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Circumstances have militated against blogging for the last couple of days, so this will be a rather scattered catch-up post.

The other day at dinner we recognized the song that was playing, something in English, but couldn’t quite place the singer. I used the Shazam app on my phone to identify it: Andy Williams. For the entire rest of that dinner we were treated to Andy Williams covers of such entirely inappropriate sixties classics as “Killing Me Softly” and “Fire and Rain.” Kind of head-‘splodey.

We have seen a lot of castles in the last couple of weeks. You know the expression “good fences make good neighbors”? It’s the same with castles… or, perhaps, “bad neighbors make good castles.” This hunk of the world has been a border region, coveted by German-speaking and Czech-speaking peoples (with occasional incursions by the Turks, Swedes, and Russians) for many centuries, which means that every good defensive point has a castle built on top of it. If you like castles, I can recommend the Czech Republic as a place to visit. A lot of these castles have been used as locations for fantasy movies.

We toured the Museum of Communism, which was extremely informative if a bit depressing, then walked through Wenceslas Square where so many demonstrations took place in 1968 and 1989. Seeing those videos made me think about our 1960s demonstrations and the Occupy movement. The oppression those protests were against was mushier than the oppression the Czechs suffered, the protests less unified, the results more ambiguous. The Iraq War protests may have eventually led to Obama’s election, but the results of that election have not been as much as we (progressives) had hoped. Fundamentally, I think the difference is that the US is more diverse and decentralized in both good and bad ways.

At the Mucha Museum we learned about Alfonse Mucha, the greated Art Nouveau artist you’ve probably never heard of. A contemporary of Toulouse-Lautrec’s, Mucha produced some brilliant lithographs and advertising posters, particularly for Sarah Bernhardt, with a delightfully lively line and expressive faces. I liked his earlier funnier stuff, i.e. the commercial work he turned out in Paris and New York, more than the nationalistic stuff he did after he returned to his homeland and worked to develop the Czechosolvakian state. He even designed the money, as well as a fabulous window at St. Vitus Cathedral.

We visited the House of the Black Madonna, a cubist building, and I was surprised to find it appeared quite conventional to my eye. I suppose it may have been more of a shock at the time. Had coffee at the cafe there, along with a “cubist pastry” which looked rather more Escher than Picasso.

At the Communist Museum and also at some junk shops we stopped in, we bought some Communist-era pins, including one commemorating the Lunokhod-1 moon rover (it landed in 1970) and another from the Tesla lightbulb factory. This Tesla company was a major Czech electronics manufacturer during the Communist era; it was named after the inventor, not founded by him, but the pin is still a very cool thing to have. I also bought an old Czech identity document, like the ones in the Czech movie Identity Card (Obcansky Prukaz) that we saw in the Portland International Film Festival the other month.

Kate’s knee is much improved.

Our favorite restaurant in Prague was probably the Cafe Lounge (yes, that’s its name), where we had a dinner so lovely we came back for breakfast the next day. Also some of the best coffee we’ve had on this entire trip, and that’s saying something. They even made me a flat white, a coffee drink I haven’t seen since Australia! Other good meals were at Pizzeria Grosseto (Italian) and Noi (Thai). Most of the Czech restaurants we ate at in Prague were, unfortunately, not nearly as good. Or maybe we’re just getting a little burned out.

By the time we left Prague I knew and could use reliably the Czech words for yes, no, please, thank you, excuse me, and hello, though I never got a handle on the word for goodbye. I could read and recognize many more words on signs, including men, women, bakery, cafe, restaurant, exit, and danger, and sound out a lot of words that turned out to be cognates or near-cognates from English, French, or German. I could even pronounce words that would have seemed impossible before, such as zmrzlina (ice cream), and spot typos in signs. However, all of this was mere politeness on my part, as just about everyone we dealt with in Prague spoke English. I was not too surprised to get English from the clerks at the hotel and train station, but it was surprising to me how many waiters and waitresses had very good English. I guess there have been a lot of English and American tourists here since the fall of Communism, because it’s still pretty darn cheap.

At one point in our perambulations we came to a police checkpoint, where bored policemen were searching every car trunk and looking under each car with mirrors before allowing it to proceed. The cause turned out to be the American embassy, a block away, which made me sick to my stomach. This kind of oppression is more suitable to the Russians than the Americans, and the more we do it the more it is necessary. But even if I were President, I have to admit that once you’ve started this kind of pointless repressive “security” it’s difficult to stop. The improved public opinion that results from the relaxation of security will not appear for some time, producing a window during which security has been relaxed but public opinion is still low, making a security incident more likely. Kind of like starting medication for depression — there’s a window during which you’re still depressed, but now have enough energy to actually do things, creating a risk for suicide.

Prague’s Municipal House, a concert hall and civic center, is a beautiful Art Nouveau building, well worth a visit. The old part of the train station was also clearly beautiful in better days but is currently in very sad shape. I hope they get it fixed up soon.

We had reserved tickets to a play on Thursday night via the web, but when we went to pick them up we found that we were supposed to have picked them up within one week of ordering them and our reservation had been canceled. After a certain amount of kerfuffle (it’s not at all clear whether or not we actually paid for them in the first place) I finally wound up just buying two new tickets; the balcony (with the best view of the English supertitles) was sold out, but after consultation with her manager the box-office clerk sold me two orchestra seats with the seat number crossed off and “extra seat in balcony” hand-written in. And, indeed, that’s where we were seated, in two folding chairs at the end of the first row… though when the curtain went up the front row was almost completely empty and we and the one other couple there moved closer to the middle. Whatever.

The play, The Builders, was one we’d seen before, in Glasgow, and were looking forward to seeing again, albeit this time in Czech with English supertitles. At least that’s what we thought. However, as we entered the theatre we noted that the program book and posters all featured large splatters of blood, which didn’t suit the charming domestic comedy we remembered. As it turned out, what we got was a completely different play, a blood-splattered charming domestic comedy. Alice and Manfred, a normal though somewhat neurotic couple, are slowly driven mad by the illegal and dishonest Russian workers who are taking forever to renovate their house. The action escalates from hiding a body after an accidental death, to killing a worker in a quite legitimate fit of passion, to cold-blooded murder, to a gleeful killing spree… with lots of laughs, and the audience applauding the last few deaths quite vigorously. Much of the comedy was physical (including a very impressive swinging-from-the-chandelier bit) and although the supertitles were sometimes missing or out of sync with the action, together with the performances they were good enough for us to appreciate a lot of the verbal comedy as well. We enjoyed the performance greatly.

And so we bid farewell to the Czech Republic. I’ve enjoyed my time here but it will be good to get back to a place where I can kind of speak the language. We’ve been on the road for three weeks now, with one more week to go, and we’re tired but still enjoying ourselves.

Shared a second-class compartment on the train to Dresden with a Czech family, and got picked up by the van from our hotel as arranged by email the night before (though we had to call them to figure out where the van was waiting for us). Our room at the Hotel Privat (AKA Das Nichtraucher Hotel) is clean and tidy, a bit bigger than the one we had in Prague, and the Internet is free though it’s provided through a dongle that plugs in the electical socket rather than via wireless. Fortunately I can set up my Mac to rebroadcast the signal via wifi to our other devices.

Once we arrived and got our bearings, we asked at the front desk if they would call and make a reservation for a tour of Volkswagen’s “glass factory.” As it happened, there was an opening on the 5:00 English tour so we headed right there, with a stop on the way for a quick bite of sausage and bread.

The Volkswagen factory in downtown Dresden is the final assembly plant for the Phaeton, their most luxurious car. Every Phaeton is built to order, hand-assembled in a calm, quiet, and efficient factory with wood floors and indirect lighting for the employees’ comfort. Driverless carts shuttle parts and tools from place to place, and the assembly line consists of a sliding floor, which moves the car under assembly continuously and sedately from one station to the next. At other points in the process the car is gently picked up and carried from above by a monorail. I could describe it as the factory of the future, but it’s really more like the factory of the past, updated, because everything is done by hand. The whole thing, including the very impressive factory building itself and the guided tour we took, is marketing for Volkswagen but I enjoyed it a lot. Our tour guide, a German-speaking Texan from Pflugerville, was a hoot.

At the Texan’s suggestion, we took the tram a couple stops to Weissgasse, which turned out to be a kind of high-end food court right off the Altmarkt square — many restaurants all in one place, though outdoors and each of them independent. We chose the one that had the biggest crowd and had a very nice dinner, “fitness salad” of grilled turkey on grilled vegetables for me and a scampi tagliatelle for Kate. On our way to the tram stop after dinner we found ourselves in an American-style shopping mall, where Kate had fun browsing in a large book store.

You’d never guess that this entire town was basically reduced to rubble in 1945 and spent the time from then until 1989 under the Communist boot. About which more later, I’m sure.

Photos later.

Prague Castle

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For the first day or so after we arrived in Prague, I felt as though we had entered another country (probably Poland) and that we needed to use a different language or change money or something. But no, it’s still the Czech Republic. Though I still speak very little Czech, I can say yes, no, please, thank you, and hello, and I’m beginning to recognize many common words like danger, exit, menu, and potato. And, as is typical for me, my accent is much better than my vocabulary or comprehension. It really makes me cringe when I hear American voices right now, especially when they attempt to speak Czech.

Kate woke up way early this morning, so when I woke up she was rarin’ to go. After a quick hotel breakfast, we headed out to Prague Castle early so as to beat the crowds. Today is a holiday here, celebrating the liberation of Czechoslovakia from the Nazis, and we expected that would bring out the Czechs in droves, never mind the usual mobs of tourists.

Prague Castle is the castle that all those other castles we’ve visited so far were just training for. Imagine if Buckingham Palace also included Westminster Cathedral, Number Ten Downing Street, and Parliament, plus several other churches and administrative buildings. It’s an ancient fortress, the site of the holiest relics of Czech Christianity, and the current seat of government (though Vaclav Havel refused to live there when he was president). There are numerous museums, a couple of significant art galleries, and tons of restaurants and shops on the castle grounds, and four tram stops along its length. You might think it’s a long way down to the corner to get a packet of crisps, but that’s just peanuts to Prague Castle.

I’m glad we had those other castles and churches to warm up; they gave us the background and context of Christian and Czech history we needed to understand what we were seeing. We knew who Wenceslas was, both as a monarch and as a saint, and also have learned to recognize St. John of Nepomuk, who was thrown off a bridge in Prague and hence has a statue on just about every bridge in the country. St. Wenceslas’s remains are in St. Vitus’ Cathedral at the heart of the castle, as are St. John’s (in perhaps the gaudiest tomb I have ever seen). We understood why the enormous tiled stove in the Old Diet Chamber had no visible door for adding fuel (stoves in palaces are stoked by servants moving between the walls of the rooms) and who the Rozemberks and the Habsburgs were. We sought out and found the window from which the victims of the Second Defenestration of Prague were flung (a fall they survived, thanks to either the Hand of God or a fortuituously-placed pile of manure, depending on who you listen to).

But there is plenty of unique stuff here as well. We saw burial garments — actual clothes from the 14th century! — and King Ottokar’s scepter (which will make the heart of any reader of Tintin go pitter-pat), and a bookcase of land records from way, way back, and a creepy statue of Vanity (a rotting, skeletal figure in green stone, being eaten up by snakes and lizards) and a grand staircase with very wide steps which was used by horses entering the grand ballroom for tournaments (the same grand ballroom in which kings were crowned and Czech presidents inaugurated).

There’s more to Prague Castle than any two tourists, no matter how dedicated, can cover, and after seeing the steet of tiny houses — formerly peasants’ residences, now a mix of historical exhibits and souvenir shops, where Kafka lived for a time — we found ourselves at the far end from where we’d come in and decided to declare victory and pull out. After a long walk downhill, we found lunch at Hostinek U 3 Zlathych Trojek (Pub of the Three Golden… well I’m not sure what they were… ampersands, maybe), an unprepossessing establishment offering good solid Czech-style pub grub.

God knows how, but at that point we still had energy, so we hopped a tram to the funicular. This steep little train line runs up the hill to a big park overlooking the city, and was included in our transit passes. There was a line to get on, due to the many locals wanting to picnic or what-have-you in the park on the holiday, but it moved pretty quickly. This is, I believe, the only funicular railroad in the world with a stop in the middle. Each of the three stops was identified by a large sign, just like in the subway, which I’ve never before seen on a funicular (usally it’s pretty obvious whether you’re at the top or the bottom).

At the top of the funicular we found the Petrin Tower, a sort of miniature Eiffel Tower offering even better views of the city than the park itself. I climbed it, leaving Kate to rest her wounded knee on a bench. There was a smashed penny machine on the first level but, sadly, it was out of order. On the way to the top I began to sense a slight but disturbing sway, but the tower’s a hundred and twenty years old and hasn’t fallen once so I pressed on. The top level was crammed with teenagers, but I was able to snap a few photos and retreat without serious incident. Another of the park’s sites, the Mirror Maze, was also supposed to have a penny machine but the admission charge was in the vicinity of fifteen bucks and there didn’t seem to be a gift shop or any other part of the structure that could be accessed without pay. We walked partway down the hill, on a very pleasant tree-lined path, to the midpoint station, and after failing to get onto a couple of standing-room-only trams we finally managed to cram ourselves into one and got to the bottom.

Somehow we were still not too tired to tourist further, so we took another tram to the Charles Bridge, which could be seen from the tower to be heavily touristed but we wanted to know what the fuss was about. It turned out to be a pedestrian-only stone span, featuring many sketch artists, souvenir stands, and statues of saints (and a marker at the exact point where St. John of Nepomuk was martyred) and though there was a crowd it was a pleasant one. At the far end we found the Old Town Bridge Tower, with a great view, a film on the history of the bridge, an upper room with the original timbered ceiling and a small museum of objects of dubious authenticity, and no penny machine (there used to be one, the staff said, but it had broken down and been removed some time ago).

(How do you ask about a penny-smashing machine when there’s no word for it in the phrase book and gestures are ambiguous? You do a Google image search on your smart phone and show the clerk a picture of some smashed pennies. We paid a bunch up front for 8GB of data for our iPhones in Europe — expensive, but not as expensive as paying by the megabyte ad-hoc — and it’s been amazingly useful. A smart phone is a universal translator (Google Translate app and a couple of bilingual dictionary and phrasebook apps), a map of a strange city that’s labeled in English, covers the entire city including the obscure or untouristed bits, and has a blinking you-are-here dot (Google Maps app), a communication device with the rest of your party (we use text messages, much cheaper than voice calls), and an intelligent guide to the local transit systems (most cities have at least one free transit app, which provides routing advice, up-to-the-moment timetables, and often a map to the nearest transit stop) and restaurants (bigger cities have a variety of restaurant guide apps, some in English).)

Okay, now we were pooped. From the bridge we walked a few blocks to a restaurant that looked good in the guidebook but, as so often happens, failed to impress from the sidewalk. But on the way we passed the restaurant Rainer Maria Rilke, which had lots of positive reviews pasted in its window, and decided to stop there. My main dish, a spicy melange of beef, peppers, and mushrooms, was very good, though not as good as some of the meals I’ve had in Europe (which sets the bar pretty darn high); Kate’s trout was not quite so good. But the desserts, honey cake and apple strudel, redeemed the meal. It was probably the most expensive meal we’ve had in the Czech Republic, but at about $75 for the two of us it was not completely out of line and I don’t regret it.

And with that, and a stop at a convenience store on the way home to pick up kleenex and a few other necessities, we finally called it a day.

Museum of an Extinct Race

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Today was our first day in the Czech Republic without Monika, or as I put it “the day the training wheels came off.” However, most of the waiters and other service professionals here in the Big City speak at least some English and/or German so we haven’t had any serious difficulties.

There are as many people in this hotel as in some entire towns we visited with Monika. Breakfast was not of maximal quality but had a fabulous selection, including chocolate granola.

The first order of business today was to do laundry, and rather than run several cycles through the tiny sink and festoon the room with wet undies, we took the subway to one of Prague’s few laundromats, located in an American-style shopping mall in the city center. Unfortunately, there was only one working dryer. So rather than wait an hour and a half for our turn at it, we took our wet wash back to the hotel and festooned the room with wet undies.

By comparison with the charming little medieval and Renaissance towns where we’ve spent the last week, Prague is dirty, noisy, crowded, and dangerous. But it shares with Vienna a capital-of-empire vibe, a plethora of shops and restaurants, and endless stunning architecture none of which you have ever seen before (except perhaps in a movie, pretending to be someplace else).

Lunch was at Cafe Savoy, which taunted us with a menu in which the dishes were titled in French but described in Czech. However, we had a delicious (albeit somewhat expensive) lunch in exquisite surroundings.

After lunch we decided to hit the Jewish Museum, a loose-knit collection of sites in the former Jewish quarter. Most of the Jews were kicked out and the buildings torn down at the turn of the 20th century, but a handful of synagogues and an old cemetery remain. Even these survive to the present day only because the Nazis decided to keep them as a “museum of an extinct race.”

Our first stop was the Pinkas Synagogue, whose walls are covered with the names, dates, and towns of residence of 80,000 Bohemian and Moravian Jews killed by the Nazis. Eighty thousand names — three large rooms with every wall covered in quite small writing. Twenty thousand names more than the Vietnam War memorial wall in Washington DC. Most of them came from Prague. Most of them died in 1941 and 1942. Only 10,000 Jews returned to Prague after the war.

The Pinkas Synagogue was turned into a Holocaust memorial in the 1950s. After the Prague Spring in 1968, the Communists erased the names. Following the fall of communism, the eighty thousand names were again hand-written on the walls. It took four years.

Kate and I have suffered some tragedies recently — two close friends passed away unexpectedly earlier this year. If two deaths hurt this much… how could anyone possibly inflict this unimaginable level of pain?

Exhibits in other parts of the distributed Jewish Museum hint at how it happened. The Jews were never more than tolerated in Prague, their rights to live and work and marry always restricted and often curtailed. The Old Jewish Cemetery is crammed with stones, which hints at the bodies buried ten and twelve deep because the Jews were not permitted to bury their dead elsewhere. Documents on display in the beautiful Spanish Synagogue record how the Nazis required Jews to turn in their gramophones and skis, each properly packed and with a copy of Form C. The noose was tightened and tightened and tightened, and the illusion was maintained right up until the last minute that the Jews would be allowed to return home.

Looking at the many artifacts of Jewish life and religious practice on display, I realized that the prohibition against graven images means that most Jewish objects are decorated with Hebrew text and very little else. To the non-Jew, everything in Jew Town was opaque and mysterious, densely covered with unreadable, perhaps even mystical, symbols. This may be part of why they hated and feared their Jewish neighbors.

In the bathroom mirror of the restaurant where we had dinner I saw a face very much like some of the photographs of Czech Jews we’d seen in the museum (Sigmund Freud was one).

Two of my grandparents were born in the US, and the other two came here from Russia well before WWII. I don’t know of any relatives who died in the Holocaust, and I’m not a very observant Jew. But I think all of us, Jew and Gentile, black and white, gay and straight, need to remember that human beings did this to other human beings, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Finding dinner was a bit of a goat-rope. First we went to a restaurant right near the museum that sounded great, but it was not yet 6:00 and the menu only included some uninspiring sandwiches and salads. The next place we tried, a bit of a hike away, was smoky and unappealing. To get to the third place we walked all the way back to the first one and past it (though it was now after 6:00, we didn’t want to go back in), but the third place was not only a smoking zone, it looked closed. Fortunately our fourth choice, a Burmese/Thai/Indian place called Orange Moon, was right across the street, open, nonsmoking, and smelled good. Service was quick and friendly, prices reasonable, but, alas, the two Burmese dishes we ordered were merely okay.

Took a tram back to the hotel. Shortly before boarding, Kate’s knee went out on her (it has done this before) so she limped back to the room. I hope it’ll be better after a good night’s rest.

Most of the laundry is mostly dry. I hope it, too, will be better after a good night’s rest.

Menhirs, marionettes, and museums

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The light in the hall outside our room stopped working some time yesterday, meaning that we had to use a flashlight to get down the stairs to breakfast, but nobody seemed to notice. For this and other reasons, we thought we might be alone in the hotel but there were two middle-aged British ladies at breakfast, and they said a friend of theirs had tried to book and been told it was full. (?) Certainly there were many more rooms and tables than we saw people. Maybe they only staff up to a certain level out of season?

Bread rolls here are long and narrow (I keep thinking they’re bananas), rather hard, and tightly curled inside, like croissants though not so rich. If you get a hot dog from a street cart, they spit one of these rolls lengthwise on a 1″ diameter spike and then put the sausage in the hole. I broke a roll open at breakfast and suddenly felt the physicality of the old expression “to break bread with someone” for the first time…

“Letni” (summer), seen often on signs, seemed vaguely familiar and I couldn’t figure out why… until I realized it’s Intel spelled backwards.

For our first stop this morning, we visited a stone circle near the town of Holasovice. I thought it was fascinating until we discovered that it was built by hippy-dippy neo-pagan “psychotronic technicians” in 2008. Nuclear reactor cooling towers on the horizon provided an interesting contrast. Next we visited Holasovice itself, with its “Farmer’s Baroque” village green. This is what a typical village square would have looked like in the mid-1800s, with its fish pond, frogs, scale for carts, tiny church, and enormous maypole. (Okay, that last would only have been there in certain months of the early 1800s.)

Next we went to Prachatice, with its fancy-pants medieval town square (they had a lot of money and power back in the day — salt traders from Salzburg were required to stop here, by royal decree) and National Museum of Czech Puppets and Circus. There we saw a great collection of puppets both old and new (including a family puppet theatre with its own painted orchestra pit, a king and queen very reminiscent of the ones from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and many many devils) and quite a bit of historical circus and magicians’ equipment (including a life-sized wax mermaid who breathed).

We considered stopping for lunch in Prahatice, but pressed on to Pisek, where Monika inquired of a local as to what might be open on a Sunday and we were directed to U Reineru (The Reiners’). Their English menu had a sense of humor, including sections labeled “All Breaded Up and Fried in Oil” and “From a Bull or a Cow, or maybe from a Hog” (I’m pretty sure these were deliberate, not errors). I ordered the “Reiner Cutlet” because I figured that if they put the family name on it, it’s probably good. Also ordered spinach, because, hey look, a vegetable! Took forever to arrive, but it was good when it did: breaded fried pork cutlet with ham and cheese inside and more cheese on top. Num.

I realize that everything I’ve been eating in Europe is delicious because I’ve been allowing myself to order dishes prepared with copious quantities of The Miracle Ingredient. (“Fat! It makes everything taste better!”) God knows how much weight I’ll have gained by the time we get home (4-7 miles of walking every day will help, of course) but I’m confident I’ll be able to get back on the eating-right horse and get in shape fairly quickly. Well, after Wiscon, anyway.

Pisek has an excellent museum with an eclectic collection of regional history and prehistory, a Gothic hall with the original black tile floor, a lapidarium of local stones, and — for some unknown reason — an extensive collection of coffeemakers. It’s a good thing we had Monika because the text was all in Czech; also, she was able to give us some essential background info. We gave the museum a “quick canter,” as suggested by the Rough Guide, and it was well worth it.

Drove to Prague, said goodbye to Monika and Peter, and checked into Hotel Petr (room quite small, otherwise nice). Walked a couple blocks to the nearest Metro stop, where we bought transit passes and looked in a bookstore for a good restaurant guide, since we’d found no Prague restaurant app and Yelp doesn’t know about this place. (TripAdvisor has some info but the app is not very well designed.) The Time Out book we bought agreed with other info we’d seen that Bar Bar, an artsy bar and restaurant, was good, so we took the tram two stops to that. Cool artsy decor, nonsmoking area, menu with many vegetarian options, and in the men’s room I used a urinal identical to Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain,” the like of which I have never before seen in the wild. Kate had tagliatelle with zucchini, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, and capers; I had ratatouille with grilled polenta. Vegetables, yum.

After dinner we returned to the room to plan out our time in Prague. Tomorrow, I think, we will do laundry. Oh, the adventure.