Archive | June, 2009

L’incidente

It was definitely too good to last.  Despite mysterious international electricity suppliers, confounding network connections and Google in five different languages; my laptop soldiered through and allowed me to record our two month adventure without too much interruption – until the fateful evening in Cortona.  (And I’m pretty sure this is just the universe paying me back for asking a ‘gentleman’ at dinner if he was hard of hearing and asking him to tone down the volume.  Sigh.  I’ll never learn.  (Was EVERYONE in the restaurant annoyed?  Yes.  Was I the only one to speak up?  Yes.  Did everyone avoid me like the plague afterward?  Yes.  Did my laptop die that same evening?  Yes.  Surely an instance of cause and effect.)

 

We’ll be on our way to Paris on Tuesday, where I’m hoping to find a dedicated Apple store to find out whether my hard drive (with my 1064 photos from this trip along with a daily diary) will be salvageable.  I’m trying not to despair nor to be driven to drink (no one has yet offered to drive, however ‘drink’ is within easy walking distance here in Florence.)

 

All is not lost;  Rog has this little ‘pretend’ laptop that I’m using right now.  Perhaps it will even allow me to upload some photos, although I’m not convinced it’s that sophisticated.  (Typically, I returned to the hotel to explore the compatability of my camera and Roger’s laptop.  Predictably, he is currently roaming the streets of Florence with my camera in his pocket.  I’m sure he doesn’t realize it.  That’s the way we roll.)

 

In any case, Happy Anniversary to us – 12 years today (6/21).  Since we took our wedding party and guests to a rehearsal dinner at Café Luciano in Chicago the night before our wedding, we sought out the restaurant in Florence most like Café Luciano for dinner last night.  It was wonderful – especially since I was finally able to try some Ribollita and home-made pasta with truffles.  Ottimo!!

 

Ciao, tutti!

P.S.  We’re now in Paris where the Apple service department told me that my computer might not be recoverable.  I’m going to go throw myself in the Seine in a little while.  Right after I stop at the nearest patisserie.

Continue Reading · Comments { 2 }

Rolling Down the River (the Danube River, that is!)

This column was published in the Rapid City Journal on June 14, 2009

Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna 

 

Three capitols, three currencies, three languages, three days.   Don’t try this by yourself unless you’re a multilingual math whiz with a lead foot.   Each city deserves a much longer visit, but in our attempt to recreate “The Grand Tour” itineraries of Byron, Boswell, Twain and others, we realized we had to step up the pace. So, here’s a quick rundown of three grand destinations.DSC01506

 

 Budapest, one of the loveliest and liveliest of East (or Central – we’ve argued about this for hours) European cities is my new favorite.  Divided by the graceful Danube, Buda and Pest try to outdo each other in architecture and culture – with Pest being the more modern of the two.  Scenes not to be missed are:  St. Stephen’s Basilica with his 1000 year old clenched and mummified hand; Heroes Square with its severe stone tributes to mounted conquerors that will inspire you to behave for years to come; the lush and exotic Turkish Baths where you can play a game of floating chess while coming clean and the funicular to Buda castle – a ride that’s about as long and exciting as a trip up a stepladder.  Eat at BOB for the best veal paprikash on the planet.  And take the river cruise.

The most beautiful Turkish Baths in all of Budapest

The most beautiful Turkish Baths in all of Budapest

The dance troupe from Moscow pauses before their performance

The dance troupe from Moscow pauses before their performance

 

 

 

You’d have to go out of your way to miss Bratislava if you’re traveling from Budapest to Vienna and my advice is: don’t.  An afternoon in this welcoming, accessible capitol feels like time spent with a dear and funny friend.  Around town on a Saturday, young dance troupes and musicians from Poland, Russia and all regions of the Slovak Republic perform on a makeshift stage in front of the American Embassy.  Spontaneous a capella song breaks out in front of a jumping tavern by handsome young men lifting steins of beer (the professionalism of the singers makes me suspect the University men’s chorus).  Newly married couples stroll the winding lanes and pose for pictures surrounded by little girls with plaited hair and matching ribbons. Playful sculptures and street performers make leisurely Saturday crowds pause and laugh.  We were charmed and a little infatuated.  We will see Bratislava again.

Lastly, enchanting Vienna.  Full disclosure:  we’ve spent time in Vienna in the past, so please don’t think we’re shirking our Austro-Hungarian responsibilities.  This trip, we finally score tickets to see the Vienna Boys Choir on its home turf. The King’s Chapel is small and sold out; the crowds are early and aggressive.  Eagerly clutching our 5 Euro tickets (if you’re rolling in dough, you can spend up to 60 Euros) we ascend to the 2nd floor gallery, having been warned that we won’t be able to see the choir, but we would hear them (and could watch them on a large video screen).  Interestingly, no matter how much you pay, (or plead), you won’t see the Vienna Boys Choir at all until Mass is over.  First of all, the choir is larded with men (whose big, resonant voices nearly drown out the angelic sopranos), and second, they sing in the back of the chapel on a balcony SO elevated that oxygen masks drop from the ceiling in the event of emergency.  You would have to be a contortionist with a spyglass to see them.  After Mass, the boys do descend from their aerie and sing one short burst of a song at the altar, but that’s it.  (We still couldn’t see them, but other tourists gave NFL-worthy performances of pushing reserved seat holders aside for a glimpse.) Other highlights: the Imperial Palace and Ecclesiastical Treasures (those Hapsburgs were upscale pack rats), the Parliament building, the Opera, the Strauss memorial and the Sacher Torte, served at the Hotel Sacher since 1832.  I’m no food critic, but even 177-year-old torte shouldn’t be that dry.   Ask for extra whipped cream.    Next week:  Krakow!

The Austrian National Museum of Art in Vienna

The Austrian National Museum of Art in Vienna

 

Two of the boys in the Vienna Boys' Choir

Two of the boys in the Vienna Boys' Choir

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note:  The Vienna Boys Choir sings at the 9:15 AM Mass nearly every Sunday at the King’s Chapel in the Imperial Palace.  Reservations are recommended.  Be prepared – the service is celebrated in German and Latin and lasts over 2 hours. The boys are available for photos in the courtyard, so everyone ultimately gets to see them.  Afterward, rush to the nearest Wurstlstand and buy a Leberkase sandwich

Continue Reading · Comments { 2 }

Prague Impressions

We’ve wandered around Prague for the last four weeks and have come to love the city.  The hidden passageways, the ancient libraries, outdoor cafes tucked into every nook and cranny combine to make this a city of intriguing charm.  A typical four day tour wouldn’t truly reveal this city; Prague requires a bit of work and we’re thankful we had the time to do it.  Riding the tram (streetcar) from one end of the city to the other; walking in leafy neighborhoods to see how the locals live, exploring the relics in nearly every bombastic church and following the lure of music coming from a hidden courtyard are memories that we’ll long cherish.  The guidebooks recommend rising at dawn and seeing the Charles Bridge before it’s overrun with tourists; we roused ourselves in the middle of the night this week and were amply rewarded by an experience that is now our favorite Prague memory.  Here are some random shots taken in the last few weeks:

DSC01760

DSC02014

DSC02017

DSC02024

DSC02030

DSC02034

DSC02038

DSC02040

DSC02041

DSC02078

Continue Reading · Comments { 1 }

Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

There’s no easy way to write about this experience.  It overwhelms.  It is beyond comprehension.  The quiet, now, at these camps, muffles the howling.  The howling of the universe, of mankind, in reaction to this now sacred ground and its never to be forgotten past.  We walked in silence; speaking seemed trifling; meaningless.  We arrived early, before the buses and the crowds and had these camps and their dead to ourselves.  Life changed, today.

The first sight of Auschwitz, as you approach from the town of Oswiecim

The first sight of Auschwitz, as you approach from the town of Oswiecim

 
The band played at this site as 'prisoners' debarked from the trains.

The band played at this site as 'prisoners' debarked from the trains.

 
Just a few of the "Blocks" in Auschwitz - the older of the two camps.  The Germans learned at this camp; they used the information gathered here to build and run Birkenau

Just a few of the "Blocks" in Auschwitz - the older of the two camps.

 
A bunkroom where Polish political prisoners first slept.  Crowded and unheated, but with a semblance of a mattress.

A bunkroom where Polish political prisoners first slept. Crowded and unheated, but with a semblance of a mattress.

 
Rows and rows of toilets filled one room

Rows and rows of toilets filled one room

 
Four to six workers shared each 'bunk'

Four to six workers shared each 'bunk'

 
The 'sorting' symbols used in the camps

The 'sorting' symbols used in the camps

 
Another view of the Auschwitz Blocks

Another view of the Auschwitz Blocks

 
Birkenau, where the Nazis perfected their technique.  Mostly in ruins.

Birkenau, where the Nazis perfected their technique.

 
The interior of a Birkenau block

The interior of a Birkenau block

 
Latrines at the back of that same Birkenau block

Latrines at the back of that same Birkenau block

 
A block with bunks still standing

A block with bunks still standing

 
The hastily destroyed Birkenau Crematorium II

The hastily destroyed Birkenau Crematorium IIThe end of the line. Literally. The tracks stopped at the location of the three crematoria in Birkenau

 

For more evocative and thought-provoking photos of these two concentration camps, visit the website at Remember.org.

Continue Reading · Comments { 0 }

One Day in Krakow

On the Rynak Glowny square in Krakow

On the Rynak Glowny square in Krakow

We’re in Krakow!!  And we’re still FREEZING!!  We have had exactly two days of warm weather since we got to Europe 5 weeks ago… I haven’t dragged a single piece of summer clothing out of my suitcase yet… and, to add to the fun, it’s raining.  Despite that, our timing is wonderful – today happens to be the City of Krakow Festival.

The Cock Fraternity parades into the Basilica

The Cock Fraternity parades into the Basilica

Our first clue that something special was happening was when a procession of men in 17th c. burgher costumers paraded into the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin for Mass.  We joined in behind them and the Archbishop – he was the celebrant along with a host of cute-as-a-button Polish priests.

The Procession in the interior of the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin

The Procession in the interior of the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin

During the offertory, a soprano offered a soul stirring Panis Angelicus and an Ave Maria – I lost myself in a fantasy about my grandmother hearing these same hymns sung in this church in the 1800s and this reverie continued – until the moment I went to the Archbishop for communion and put my hands out, saying “Amen” and waiting for the host.  The bishop looked at me archly (sorry, couldn’t resist) , I looked at him, and suddenly realized no one takes communion in their hands here.  Awkward moment for your me, but the Archbishop took precedence; we recovered and I’m pretty sure he didn’t excommunicate me (although I don’t speak or understand Polish, so he could have.)

Now, I’ve done a bit of research.  The ‘burghers’ are the Cock Fraternity (I kid you not.)  They dress in 17th century Polish costumes and are a shooting association dating from the middle ages.  (Which will explain quite a bit as you continue to read).  After Mass, the ‘burghers’ processed out of church and one gentleman, the magnifico for sure, was wearing an enormous silver chicken around his neck on a chain.  I asked Roger if he noticed the chicken and he said “it couldn’t have been a chicken, it was probably the Polish royal eagle’, (I’d never seen such a chicken-looking eagle).  Later, during a very formal ceremony in the town square, Old magnifico very solemnly removed the giant necklace from his neck and draped it over the neck of the NEW magnifico, and at that moment it couldn’t be mistaken. It was a chicken.  A big, old, silver chicken.  On a chain.  Now around his neck.

Please note the chicken on the new King's chest

Please note the chicken on the new King's chest

(And he was very proud – just as I imagine an American man in the same situation would be.  It’s hard to count how many ceremonies we have in the US where the ceremonial chicken jewelry is passed from one generation to the next.)  (I have since learned that this ceremony is entitled “The Enthronement of the Cock King”; it takes place annually at the City Festival and honors the marksman who won the yearly shooting contest.  Which also explained the constant discharge of rifles and cannons during the ceremony which upset the horses, made women scream (get over it!) and young children cry.  A very noisy and colorful ceremony, all way round.)

There is a legend in Krakow that Smok, the dragon, lived under Wawel Castle (the coronation site of all Polish kings).

The present day Smok the Dragon

The present day Smok the Dragon

He used to make do eating children, cattle and lame knights, until one day, a clever peasant boy fed him a sheep full of sulphur that exploded in his stomach.  To quench the burning, the dragon drank half of the Wistla (Vistula) River and blew up.  As part of ‘City of Krakow Festival, there is a parade in which a Brave Knight riding a unicorn attempts to slay Smok the dragon (there are many, many Smoks in the parade.  Grade school age children make and enter their own Smoks in a competition; the best are in the parade and one is declared the winner.  It was quite a specatacle  – the dragons were SO cleverly designed; each one more beautiful, animated and complicated than the one before.  Unfortunately, it was raining pretty hard, the dragons were getting wet and it was nearly impossible to take any photos.

Part of the festival requires that all the children who come to view the parade dress as knights and princesses.

One of the tiniest of the princesses

One of the tiniest of the princesses

It was like being in a Lilliputian middle ages.  After the parade, the rain let up a bit and eight Polish paratroopers parachuted (almost) into the square (again, making us marvel over how powerless the lawyers must be in ALL of these countries!!!

Paratrooper descending INTO the crowd.  Literally.

Paratrooper descending INTO the crowd. Literally.

Two of the paratroopers dropped into the crowd as they landed and one’s parachute fell onto a big group of people – fortunately, no one’s cigarette ignited the fabric!)  It would have been a little more fun (and more photogenic) if the sun had been shining and the temperature was above freezing (yes, I’m exaggerating – it was in the low 50’s); but it was a delightfully intriguing and amusing day.

In our ramblings, we came upon the arrival of guests at a VIP wedding (and it tugged at our hearts a bit because the wedding party arrived via horse drawn carriage and it reminded us SO MUCH of our wedding!)  This buggy procession, however, had a police escort!  It could have been a movie set – everyone in attendance was beautiful.  I’m wondering how the beautiful, happy couple felt about all the lumpy tourists who are now bound to appear in their wedding photos!

The beautiful wedding couple in the beautiful buggy

The beautiful wedding couple in the beautiful buggy

One unforgettable tradition that happens every hour on the town square in Krakow is the playing of the ‘Hejnal Mariaki’.   Legend has it that during a Tatar raid in 1241, a watchman in the Basilica tower saw the enemy approaching and trumpeted a warning to the town.  His alarm was cut short by an arrow that pierced his throat.  To this day, the ‘Hejnal’ is played by a lone trumpeter, high up in the church tower.  His haunting melody ends abruptly at the exact moment the original watchman was slain.  It’s a sad, thrilling, celebration of courage and mortality played for a minute every hour.

The Basilica of the Blessed Virgin. The Hejnal is played from the top of the left tower.

The Basilica of the Blessed Virgin. The Hejnal is played from the top of the left tower.

Click here to listen to the Krakow Signal (The melody was lovelier as it echoed through the square.  Rog recorded it on his iphone and I’m going to try to upload that.  This ‘official’ recording is not very good.)

When we arrived here last night, we were nearly crushed in the streets by groups of reveling young men – mostly English, it appeared.  We were trying to puzzle out the cause of their appearance in Krakow until we heard that there are world cup qualifying soccer tournaments going on this weekend.  We expect there to be even more partying tonight because four games were played today and there will be losers and winner aplenty.

The drive from Prague to Krakow was interesting, if you like driving and stories of highways. First of all…GPS! Thank God for GPS!!  It weaves easily through the tiniest, twisting, web of streets in all of the ancient city centers we’ve visited so far.    For reasons we’re still puzzling over, GPS took us 2 hours north of Prague and into Poland to hook up with the one highway in this general part of the world (instead of due east, which is where Krakow lies in relation to Prague).  We went up and over the Sudeten mountains – (highest elevations are about 4000 feet) visiting Czech AND Polish ski resorts.  Not exactly Gstaad or Vail, but still… The roads and the scenery were very similar to the lower elevations in the Rockies in Colorado, but a bit greener.

The countryside in Poland near Katowice

The countryside in Poland near Katowice

After two hours, we finally hooked up with the highway in a flatter part of Poland (which looked, to us, like southern Minnesota and Wisconsin: green, rolling, fertile farmland).  Traffic was flying – it was worse than the Autobahn in Germany because it didn’t feel as safe.  Drivers left so little room when they changed lanes, we were convinced we were going to get sideswiped more than once.  It was not a relaxing ride. It was just fast.  Soon after we got on the road, we saw a sign that said “Gas. 5km & 148 km”.  We weren’t really sure how to interpret that (was this one manufacturer’s advert?  Or an official highway sign?  It didn’t look like much), so we stopped at the station that was only 5km away.  These are not your usual highway gas stops.  The sign directs you to the nearest village’s gas station, a dreary affair with a pump or two and the requisite mongrel.  Entrepreneurial men show up early each day, commandeer the keys to the restrooms, and then spend the day charging tourists to enter two filthy toilets!  (They’re not about to clean them and they have no relationship with the gas station, so the station owner doesn’t clean it either.  Great system.)   We filled the tank and got back on the road to find 2 hours later that, indeed, the next gas station was 148km away!!!  There were occasional WCs and parking areas, but no gas (and I wish we’d known about the highway WCs – they were free!  Let that be a lesson to you next time you’re driving through Poland.)   We were astounded!  And, even though this highway wasn’t a toll road, there were very few exits –so buying gas when we did was a lucky choice!

Time for a short break to complain about something.  All the countries that we’re visiting are members of the European Union.  That’s a good thing for them.  However, with the exception of Germany and Austria, none of the countries have adopted the Euro for their currency.  We’ve been trying to sort out monopoly money in four different countries with different exchange rates and now we’re just generally confused.  Even Roger’s currency converter is tired. The Euro is so easy; this just seems like stubbornness.  Oops, my American arrogance is showing!  Sorry, little Central and Eastern European countries/economic powerhouses.  Oh, there it goes again.

One final note:  Polish television.  We turned on the TV late last night and found an American movie playing.  This was quite exciting because, aside from Star Trek in Berlin, the only ‘media’ English we’ve heard for weeks now has been BBC World News or CNN news.  Very tiring and repetitive, if you’re looking for a mindless break.  So we tucked ourselves into our little Polish beds

Luxury Polish hotel room

Luxury Polish hotel room

(Polish hotels tickle me… picture staying at your elderly aunt’s house – the one who hasn’t bought furniture since the depression.  Even the lamps (and their luminance) are original.  And dealing with anything other than single beds is too much trouble for Polish hotels.  You can either have a room with ‘single, single beds’ or a room with ‘two single beds pushed together’ as a ‘pretend’ double) to watch. And laugh.   The movie was dubbed into Polish (good for the Polish – although it meant we couldn’t understand a word). However, the dubbing was done by only one actor – in this case, a male.  We watched Kate Winslet and Vanessa Redgrave perform emotional scenes in their one, husky male voice.  It was perfect!

Rynak Glowny square in central Krakow

Rynak Glowny square in central Krakow

Cloth Hall, the historic center of the town square, was a medieval market.  Now it sells mostly handcrafted souveniers

Cloth Hall, the historic center of the town square, was a medieval market. Now it sells mostly handcrafted souveniers

17th century costumes and cell phones.  A curious mix.

17th century costumes and cell phones. A curious mix.

Courageous knight and his unicorn prepared for battle with Smok

Courageous knight and his unicorn prepared for battle with Smok

Wawel Castle, site of all Polish coronations.  Also the lair of Smok.

Wawel Castle, site of all Polish coronations. Also the lair of Smok.

Continue Reading · Comments { 0 }

Berlin

This column was published in the Rapid City Journal on June 7, 2009.  There’s a fair amount of repetition in this and the two Berlin musings that follow.  Photos can be found in the following ‘Berlin’ posting.

 

Berlin is 200 miles and several light years away from Prague.  Where Prague is twisted streets and baroque architecture, a city untouched by 20th century warfare, Berlin is a city of wide boulevards, expansive platz and a small handful of iconic pre-war buildings thanks to the allied forces and some unremitting, much-needed, bombing.   Seeing the reconstructed Reichstag (German Parliament) before you for the very first time is an emotional experience because of its many filmic images – both horrific and peaceable. 

The city rings with history while it sheds tears for its many victims.  A somber and moving Holocaust memorial is sited near five of the many crosses marking the lives and places of death of those killed while crossing a ‘checkpoint’ to try to live in freedom in the West. In the space of a few acres are the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, remains of the Wall, Hitler’s final bunker and a host of other significant markers in Western history (along with (yay!)  the American Embassy).  It was impossible to remain unmoved by these images and tears came easily as we pondered the appalling capabilities of mankind.

But all is not gravity and sadness in this great city.  The weekend we spent there, Berliners turned out in force to celebrate 20 years of reunification and 60 years of the ‘new’ Germany.  Mugs of delicious German beer flowed freely, music and song filled every public square, and don’t even get me started about the sausages.  Except for this:  you would think that after centuries of making and eating sausage, the Germans would have invented something like our hot dog bun for their sausage sandwiches.  But, no.  We tried not to giggle every time we saw a reveler wrestling with a foot long sausage sticking out of both ends of a small, round bun.  

Maybe I just hadn’t paid close enough attention to the tradition of generous quantities of food sticking out of every conveyance and accepted it as German tradition.  At dinner, an order of Weinerschnitzel overlapped the dinner plate under it by some 6 inches on each side.  An order of spergel (or white asparagus, for it is the season) was mounded 6 inches high and spluttering in a sea of hollandaise. 

Food is big in Germany and a favorite Berlin memory involved a purchase made at a movie concession stand the night we saw Star Trek. Looking forward to a tub of popcorn and a mug of soda (yes, just like home – except that you can choose between sweet and salty popcorn), we ordered the ‘medium’ size, to share. We obviously didn’t see the warning on the menu board:  “Wheelbarrow NOT provided”.  The ‘tub’ was literally that – I bathed in one as a baby.  And we could barely lift the cola; the slippery barrel required two hands and the nerve to hold the icy drink close to your chest for additional support – a gallon of liquid in a paper ‘cup’.  We sloshed to our reserved seats (German efficiency!) and dove in. Whether or not we finished these treats will be left to your imagination.  Live long and prosper!  

Note:  Did you think for just a second that we spoke fluent German and were seeing the movie in translation?  I hate to disappoint, but you can easily and thankfully find American movies in their original English in most major European cities –  a blessing if you just can’t endure another opera, concert, ballet or six hour dinner.

Continue Reading · Comments { 0 }

Berlin – Part 2

It’s Saturday night in Berlin and we just saw Star Trek!  Admittedly, I’m an armchair trekkie, but even Roger thought it was an excellent film.

The Helmut Jahn designed Sony Center - site of the Star Trek cinema

The Helmut Jahn designed Sony Center - site of the Star Trek cinema

Aside from the film’s general ‘wonderfulness’, we ONLY want to see movies in German theaters from now on!  Since we were seeing the original English version (instead of the dubbed German), it was showing in one of the ‘smaller’ theaters.  Yes, it only seated about 2000 people.  And, like the theater, the seats were HUGE and cushy and they had ‘sofa’ type seats where you could sit together without benefit of an armrest and get so cozy!!  To top it off, all seats are reserved so you can buy your tickets in advance for even the hottest movie and then stroll in right at show time without worrying if you’ll need a neck brace afterward.  After the previews, a girl came around and sold ice cream while some moviegoers ducked out to the concession stand and returned with bottles of beer.  Speaking of the concession stand, we decided we’d have some popcorn instead of dinner – so we were looking at the options (you know – usual stuff – a small popcorn and a drink combo for one price, a bigger popcorn and a drink for a slightly increased price and then the biggie, etc.)  We ordered the middle size to share and, seriously,  they brought us a tub of popcorn that was as big as a household cleaning bucket.  Seriously. You could have bathed a baby in it.  So, then we were rightfully scared about the size of the diet cola.  I’m not exaggerating when I say it was so big you could barely hold it in two hands!!!  It was like a slippery melon. It had to be more than a half gallon. We didn’t know whether to laugh and act like we KNEW we’d look like gluttons or to sheepishly duck into the theater and hope no one noticed (we were the only ones who ordered the ‘medium’ sized that we could see).  (But, of course, we finished the popcorn.  You have a choice – salty or sweet and we love the sweet popcorn they serve in European theaters.  It’s like our kettle corn, just not as greasy).  Next time, we’re going to bring a wheelbarrow and order the large.  Unbelievably (to me, at least), my husband just had to have a pretzel too.  So… he put it around his neck (I’m not kidding) because we couldn’t carry everything to our seats using only our hands.

Actually the escapism offered by Star Trek was a light-hearted end to an emotional day.  First thing in the morning, we walked to Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie (and Roger) with the Soviet soldier photo above the street.

Checkpoint Charlie (and Roger) with the Soviet soldier photo above the street.

and the long section of the Berlin Wall that is still standing.  Berliners have done an exemplary job of explaining the wall (if it can be explained) with photos and text that commemorate the dead (no one knows how many people died trying to escape, but it’s suggested it was above 250;  East German soldiers were decorated every time they killed a ‘runner’).  I cried at the wall – was no other way to respond to it.  We Americans take our freedom for granted and this memorial made me realize how vigilant we must be.

The largest preserved section of the Berlin Wall

The largest preserved section of the Berlin Wall

Our timing was good and we happily found ourselves here on the weekend of Berlin’s celebration of 60 years of democracy (West Berlin) and 20 years of unification – there were street fairs, lively bands and politicians (from all over the world) engaging in public debate and discussion – the last being something I don’t recall seeing in America at our festivals.  The center for the festival was the Brandenburg Gate – that iconic symbol of Berlin – (Napolean AND Hitler marched through this gate.  Not together, obviously. Although that would have been an interesting smack-down).  As an American, I was proud to see the American Embassy, huge congratulatory banners flowing down the walls of the building, right next to the gate.  What a position of honor for us!   Hearts swelling, we gladly joined in the celebration of freedom!

Me, celebrating freedom under the Brandenburg Gate

Me, celebrating freedom under the Brandenburg Gate

In the midst of all this merriment, we unwittingly stumbled on the site  of Hitler’s underground bunker (it’s believed to be the site; understandably, Berlin doesn’t want to memorialize the place of his suicide) – his final ‘home’.  There is a signboard with a diagram of the bunker’s layout and a suggestion that it was near where we were standing.  Also near to where we were standing was the memorial to Berlin’s Jews;

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial

the irony of these two sites being so close to each other is fitting. There were 160,000 Jews in Berlin when Hitler took power; at the end of WWII they were completely gone.  (This number seems small compared to the 6 million who perished throughout Europe – the memorial honors all of the lost.)   This city rockets your emotions – the tragedy of its history and the atrocities it fed throughout the rest of the world feel so immediate. We had to force ourselves to rejoin the 21st century and continue to learn and reflect.

When you see photos of the Berlin devastation of WWII and compare it to how the city looks today, it’s nearly impossible to comprehend how much change has happened and how much has been lost.

This photo, on the Wall memorial, perfectly depicts the conflicting images

This photo, on the Wall memorial, perfectly depicts the conflicting images

Over 80% of the city suffered damage and much of it was irreversible!  (And did you know that it was the German women who cleaned the place up so the rebuilding could begin??  Along the Berlin wall memorial were detailed pictures of groups of women passing rubble down a human conveyor line – although the claim was that this work wasn’t voluntarily done, I’ll bet those women were more than happy to get in that mess and start cleaning it up!  I know the feeling.)  Some buildings have been rebuilt to exactly resemble their fallen originals and some have been adapted – you’ll see centuries-old architecture on the first two floors and then a modern, but very well blended, addition on the top two or three floors.  The historic buildings that more or less survived intact stop you in your tracks:  the Reichstag (where there are still bullet holes),

The Reichstag.  Beautiful.... and terrible.

The Reichstag. Beautiful.... and terrible.

the Berlin Cathedral, St. Hedwig’s Church, a number of museums.  If those buildings define what the city must have looked like before the 1940s, you mourn anew.  The new buildings (all done by architect superstars) give Chicago some serious competition as the city that defines great, late 20th and early 21st century architecture.

Germany’s acknowledgement of it’s checkered past can be found everywhere – The 150 kilometer path of the wall (150!!!!) is marked by brass bricks in the road; the place at the University where the books were burned has a particularly moving memorial of empty bookshelves in a bare room set into the earth that you view from above; crosses with the names of East Germans who died trying to escape to freedom in the west can be found every place there was a checkpoint.

A former checkpoint on the River Spree.  7 deaths marked just yards from the Reichstag

A former checkpoint on the River Spree. 7 deaths marked just yards from the Reichstag

I was shocked to realize that the wall ran just FEET from the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate;  what a slap in the face this must have felt like to all Berlin.  You can walk and think and learn.  Thankfully, there are permanent markers placed throughout the city written in German and English that help explain what you’re looking at and WHY you’re looking at it.  The depth of analysis and understanding these signboards exhibited was cause for hope for all freedom loving peoples.

Here’s another reason I like Berlin (and those who know me will understand this immediately!) – everyone walks on the right!!!  And if the crosswalk sign says “Don’t Walk”, no one moves!!  In fact, today, we were waiting to cross a street near the Brandenburg and there were tons of police and military around guarding the politicos and Rog started to cross when the traffic cleared.  The nearest policeman stuck his RIFLE out to stop him and said “Nein!” – as in “What’s the matter, dumbpkof – can’t you read???”  An unsettling moment for my hubby, to be sure!  (Okay, that’s not what I liked – but the walking on the right was most refreshing!!  As long as you stayed on your side of the sidewalk, you could proceed unimpeded!  You’ve got to love the Germans for that!!) (PS – we found out today why there were SO many police around – the German parliament was electing their President on Saturday at the Reichstag – exactly where this happened!)

(Don’t forget – when I’m finally elected Queen, we’ll ALL be walking on the right – and woe to you if your shoes are out of alignment!!)(But, I plan to be a benevolent queen and will be providing a weekly pail of pierogi to all of my subjects.)

The Berlin Cathedral.  Imagine what the city USED to look like before WWII.

The Berlin Cathedral. Imagine what the city USED to look like before WWII.

I thought I would include a few random photos – I’m still aghast that I’ve reached this age unaware of the beauty of Berlin past and present.

The Gendarmenmarkt, the most beautiful square in Berlin (where a soldier used to be able to procure ANYTHING he needed)

The Gendarmenmarkt, the most beautiful square in Berlin (where a soldier used to be able to procure ANYTHING he needed)

A group of masked puppeteers controlled "Orange Man', who was quite friendly and would join you at your table for lunch.

A group of masked puppeteers controlled "Orange Man', who was quite friendly and would join you at your table for lunch.

The famous cake selection at Opernhaus Cafe

The famous cake selection at Opernhaus Cafe

A quite moment at Schloss Charlottenburg, summer residence of the wife of Elector Friedrich III

A quiet moment at Schloss Charlottenburg, summer residence of the wife of Elector Friedrich III

 "Hollow tooth"; the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.  Destroyed in 1943, the ruins were left standing as a reminder of the horrors of war

"Hollow tooth"; the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Destroyed in 1943, the ruins were left standing as a reminder of the horrors of war

The 1936 Olympic Stadium, an example of Fascist architecture.  Jesse Owens ran here while Hitler watched

The 1936 Olympic Stadium, an example of Fascist architecture. Jesse Owens ran here while Hitler watched

No, not Berlin. Meissen. Charming, known for porcelain. Virtually untouched by the war.

No, not Berlin. Meissen. Charming, known for porcelain. Virtually untouched by the war.

Continue Reading · Comments { 0 }

Berlin – Part 1

DSC01355

The drive from Prague to Berlin was pretty spectacular – we drove through the foothills of the Carpathians, the mountains that my ancestors saw from their Polish village;  they are intensely green and reminded me a bit of the Black Hills. Interestingly enough, the deep, grass green of the Czech Republic instantly changed to a yellow green as soon as we were through the hills and into Germany.  A totally different color!! (I wish I were a better botanist and could tell you why.)  The green in the Czech Republic was reminiscent of the lush green of England.  It’s an image I won’t soon forget (but was unable to capture on camera.  Every shot had that “I am a completely uninteresting landscape; too distant to be comprehensible” look to it.

We realized we were driving through what was once East Germany and we kept looking for architectural evidence of years of Soviet rule.  We found it in the endless apartment blocks of Dresden and the hulking, abandoned buildings in East Berlin.  Near the outskirts of town (but in West Berlin) is Templehof, the now abandoned airport whose terminal was at one time the second largest building in the world.  It was enlarged by Albert Speer, under Hitler’s orders, and was described by a British critic as “the mother of all airports”.  Berlin is a city of tunnels (more on this later) and there are five levels of tunnels under Templehof – all of which were used for the manufacture of Nazi war machines prior to and during WWII.  When the Soviets took the airport in the Battle of Berlin in 1945 and began clearing the tunnels, so many Soviet soldiers lost their lives due to booby-traps that the bottom 3 tunnels were flooded and remain so to this day, still full of unexploded ordinance. The Nazi commander of the airport had been ordered to destroy the building if defeat was imminent, he chose to end his life instead.  Beginning in 1948, Templehof was used for the Berlin airlift – an attempt to keep the people of West Berlin fed, clothed and fueled.  The Soviets would harass the pilots flying in the 3 open air corridors; consequently 39 British and 31 American pilots died in what is called the ‘greatest feat of aviation history’.  Now, there is one lonely plane sitting on the tarmac under the massive canopy of the terminal (a first for airports – passengers were able to debark without facing the elements) –a building so heavy with history that you are awestruck and haunted by the sight.

Driving further into Berlin, the roads are lined with a multitude of utilitarian, concrete block apartment buildings, most of which are occupied and many of which have been ‘renovated’ by the application of garish paint in geometric patterns.  Between the ‘decoration’ and the ever present graffiti (which is EVERYWHERE in central Europe) the depressing aspect of these homes has not improved.

If you drive into Berlin with no knowledge of history, you’ll be puzzled and then amused (depending upon how claustrophobic you are) by the number of tunnels that are incorporated into the highway system.  Then, if you pursue the subject, you’ll learn that Berlin is riddled with tunnels; there is an entire hub and spoke construct of tunnels under the entire city.  Now, many tunnels are used for the underground train (U Bahn) and the highways.  Construction started in the late 1800’s, mostly to relieve traffic congestion!  Hitler expanded the tunnels – the network is vast and many have been closed or destroyed completely (Hitler’s personal bunker, for instance).  There is an underground tour  (only offered twice a month, and we missed it) where a diesel locomotive pulls you through 36 kilometers of tunnel and lets you access places like the 7 storey tall (all underground) bunker used during WWII.

The Germans are clearly into tunnels (sorry, bad pun). On our way into town we drove through 7 or 8 tunnels, some of them several miles long!!  One of the highway tunnels runs right under central Berlin – we made a wrong turn a block from our hotel and ended up back out in the suburbs once we emerged into the sunlight again. Additionally, Berlin underground is riddled with 400 kilometers of pneumatic mail tubes and 12 dedicated express tubes – before the war, the tubes delivered some 8 million pieces of mail a year using pressurized air; it was the largest pneumatic operation of its kind (and was ultimately stopped because of technology – fax machines were much more efficient).  I love the idea of letters zipping around underground – making sure they got to the correct destination must have been an interesting challenge.  (Please note:  the pictures of the tunnels were omitted.  They were all black.  No, seriously, we had our hands full aboveground and never made it into any of the tunnels (except the highways – and you all know what a highway tunnel looks like.  Next trip!)

DSC01420

After nearly two weeks in Prague it was refreshing to enter Germany – We’ve been gone a month now and homesickness does tend to set in after the initial thrill of travel wears off.  Germany’s refreshing because it feels most like the US.  Things are clean and they work and people are happy –I believe you can feel the difference in the national temperament.  Sadly, the residents of Prague do not seem optimistic or cheerful to me(the majority of them work in the service industries and I have to wonder if they’re sick of tourists and our silly ways!)  In Germany, you get the feeling that they’re actually happy to see you.

Our hotel in Berlin is right near Potsdamer Platz – the place of the last, huge conflagration in WWII – and, now, it’s a city within a city –  the area is teeming with outdoor cafes, cinemas, stores, live theater and people, people and more people –and they’re not all tourists –the locals fill the area when they’re out for a day and night of fun. Our first order of business was to find a German-English dictionary because, at lunch, we realized we couldn’t puzzle out any key words on the menu.  (I ended up having tofu because it was the only word I recognized – but it was delicious!)

The SONY Center is right across the street from Potsdamer Platz – it’s Sony’s HQ in Europe although the center itself is the social hub of the city.  Restaurants, movies, fountains, sculptures – in a dazzling open air atrium inside an architectural gem designed by Helmut Jahn.

The ceiling of the Sony Center atrium; the color changes continuously

The ceiling of the Sony Center atrium; the color changes continuously

The Berlin Senate stipulated that Sony had to preserve the ‘breakfast room’ and the ‘emperor’s hall’ of the Grand Hotel Esplanade, which had escaped destruction during WWII.  So, to accommodate, in 1996 the rooms were moved – all 1300 tons of them were shifted nearly 300 feet to fit into Herr Jahn’s design.  The effect is daring, startling and functional – the last thing you expect to see incorporated into this 21st century design is a 1920’s room where Emperor Wilhelm used to wile away his evenings.

Can't keep me away from those Sony stores!

Can't keep me away from those Sony stores!

Continue Reading · Comments { 1 }

Legends & Lore in Prague

Published June 1, 2009 in The Rapid City Journal

DSC01229

Prague-nosis:  the state of being hypnotized by the beautiful city of Prague.

DSC01305

Straddling the broad Vltava River, ‘modern’ Prague is built atop a Romanesque city that regularly flooded.  These vaulted ceilinged structures form the basements of the dazzling gothic and baroque architecture that sprang up beginning in the 13th century.  (‘Modern’ being a relative term to the Czech people.) Every building either drips with fondant-like ornamentation or massive and muscular supporting corbels. Renaissance sculpture featuring angels, devils, saints and statesmen will assault your eye at every turn (in a good way!)

Prague is also a city of colorful legends. At historic Charles Bridge (serving the public since 1400) the sword of St. Wenceslas is secreted.  During a great crisis, it’s said the Saint will ride his steed to the bridge, uncover the sword, brandish it overhead and call for the decapitation of Prague’s enemies – at which time, their noggins will miraculously fall off.   Which had me wondering if he was so busy preparing for the Feast of Stephen that he somehow missed the Nazi invasion of 1939.   AND the Soviet occupation of 1958.   Let’s hope he’s more alert in the future.

DSC01273

Charles bridge itself is rife with lore. Thirty statues of saints line the sides, with the most famous being St. John of Nepomuk, patron saint of Czechs. Bad King Wenceslas IV (yes, Good King Wenceslas I gets all the positive press) stuffed Father John in armor and tossed him off the bridge for not sharing the Queen’s confession.  Sounds like a trust issue to me.

DSC01235

Picturesque Old Town Square, lined with sidewalk cafes and galleries, is dominated by an astrological clock tower that harbors its own legend. The genius creator, Master Hanus, built a mechanical clock in which, every hour, the twelve apostles appear in two doorways while a bell-tolling skeleton rotates an hourglass, a cock crows and various other characters move about. This performance has drawn crowds since 1570 (the clock was installed in 1470 and suffered technical difficulties for 80 years – just like my laptop).  The 1490 Prague town council was so fearful that Master Hanus would be commissioned to build another clock in a competing city that they had him blinded.  In despair, he laid waste to the clock’s innards – causing a near century of disruption.  Just like the development of daylight savings time.

DSC01436

But the final, and perhaps most unbelievable event involves tripping into St. Nicholas on The Square Church on a sunny Wednesday afternoon and finding the North Dakota State University concert choir filling the cavernous space with the music of angels.  (That’s the church interior, left.)  Legendary!

Next:  Berlin!

Note:  The photo, below, is the National Museum – a photogenic pile if ever there was one.  The Museum used to sit at the very top of Wenceslas Square – an enormous venue for festivals and gatherings in Prague.  The Soviets decided they didn’t like the possibilities of this square, so they constructed a major highway directly in front of the museum – making it  inaccessible from the square itself.  (There are now pedestrian tunnels, but the highway remains!)

The National Museum

The National Museum

Continue Reading · Comments { 0 }