Berlin – Part 1

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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!)

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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!

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Legends & Lore in Prague

Published June 1, 2009 in The Rapid City Journal

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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RCJ Column #3 Of Moors and Men

(published May 24, 2009 in the Rapid City Journal)

“[T]o the Pennine man, the moors are as sacred in their nakedness as the prairies are to the American… their very bareness seems to answer to something in his nature.”

Village of Burnsall and ancient bridge over River Wharfe

Village of Burnsall and ancient bridge over River Wharfe

Well, something not requiring a bison, apparently.

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We’re in the Yorkshire Dales, (the Pennines), another bucolic, overly scenic English landscape – in the north of the country.  If you come in May, as we did, pack your woolies for you will assuredly be cold.  Don’t let the occasionally sunny, springy, lamb-dotted Dales fool you; this is also the land of stark heathered moors, gale force winds, dark manor houses and diabolical characters such as Heathcliff.  (You remember the Bronte sisters and their novels:  “Wuthering Heights”, “Jane Eyre” and “Is It Always This Wet and Windswept Here?”)  We’re staying in the tiny, nearly perpendicular village of Haworth:  a charming town if you like grey.  It’s home to the Bronte Parsonage, where the family enjoyed the lifestyles of the mid-1800’s.   Between the ever-blowing wind, the piercing cold and the nearly vertical, cobbled streets, I understand why those sisters stayed at home near the fire and penned endless tales.

The village of Haworth

The village of Haworth

This countryside is awash in ruined abbeys and haunted castles.  Their ghostly silhouettes, shrouded in fog, tell stories of religious rebellions and monks run amok.  Well, actually, there’s usually a very chatty guide at each ruin and he will tell you those stories and more and make murder, mayhem and deprivation sound quite charming.

Fountains Abbey - worth $4M at time of its dissolution

Fountains Abbey - worth $4M at time of its dissolution

Leading you to believe, for instance, that bathing only 4 times per year, having your blood let to the point of unconsciousness and eating the same 2 foods for weeks at a time could be character building, if not downright fun!  Being taken prisoner and kept in one of these lonely fortresses could be the highlight of one’s year  (See: Mary, Queen of Scots.)

Speaking of chatty guides, we love the English; they’re delightful to converse with, their regional accents are lyrical although, at times, confounding; the ‘stiff-upper-lip’ stereotype rings true but is undercut with a mischievous torrent of humor.  How else to explain villages with names like Blubberhouses, Gigglesworth, Roger Studley (we’d like to know more about him!) and Dirt Pot.  Not to mention menu items such as Bubble and Squeak, or Bangers and Mash. (And despite what you’ve heard, English food is seriously delicious.  Our bathroom scale tells us so.)   Next week:  On to the continent!

(added note:  we were intrigued by the two-storey ‘necessarium’ at Fountains Abbey.  We’ll leave it up to you to determine what that building housed!)

The water gardens at Fountains Abbey

The water gardens at Fountains Abbey

The moors of Wuthering Heights

The moors of Wuthering Heights

The River Nepp in the beautiful village of Knareborough

The River Nepp in the beautiful village of Knareborough

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RCJ Columns #2 – The Cotswolds

(published May 17, 2009 in the Rapid City Journal)

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We’ve rented a cottage in The Cotswolds, the gentlelest range of green hills upon which ever grazed a lamb.  It’s hard to let spring showers hamper life in a daily fairy tale – our little abode is known as “Chesil Mews” (the name alone drips charm) and is in the centre (sic) of Chipping Campden, a medieval market town.  Through an ancient door between Smith’s, the local butcher, and the Malvern Strollers Shop (no, not baby buggies – hikers!), our cottage snuggles just behind the high street of the village, nestled among lilacs and ivy but nowhere near reality.

Villages in The Cotswolds are built of the local limestone – a buttery, honey- colored stone that has “the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering upon them” (JB Priestly).

Chipping Campden as seen from Dove Hill - site of the 'shin-kicking Olimpiks'

Chipping Campden as seen from Dove Hill - site of the 'shin-kicking Olimpiks'

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The majestic stone for St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was quarried here and you can’t trip over a sheep without standing awestruck at some wisteria covered, thatch-roofed pile (as buildings are affectionately known in the UK) that makes you want to immediately sell all your worldly goods and settle yourself into one of these cozy, golden cottages.  If you don’t see us in the Black Hills this fall, you’ll know where to find us – keeping the fireplace stoked and the teakettle burbling.

Trying to blend into a tiny English village is challenging (those darn flat vowels give us away every time we open our mouths); and while the community is very hospitable, outsiders are kept at a bit of a distance.  Nonetheless, we felt very much at home our first evening here as we settled into the Lygon Arms pub for a ‘pint and a pie’ while a large and rather boisterous group of cowboys and Indians (in full regalia) piled in after us.  We, amused, mentioned that we were from South Dakota and that we really DO have cowboys and native Americans there.  Our invitation to the costumed birthday party to visit and experience ‘the real thing’ was met with enthusiasm (and many English-accented cheers).  Cheers!

Note:  The finest collection of cottages, follies and manor homes can be rented through Rural Retreats.  www.ruralretreats.co.uk.  Just paging through their website is the stuff of dreams.

Wells Cathedral - most beautiful of the Cotswolds churches

Wells Cathedral - most beautiful of the Cotswolds churches

An idyllic reverie strangely named "Upper Slaughter"

An idyllic reverie strangely named "Upper Slaughter"

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RCJ Columns #1 – London Shopping

(published May 10 in the Rapid City Journal)

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Being seasoned travelers, the first thing we do in London (after the obligatory hotel check-in, money exchange, and adoration of the English accent) is head to the shops.  If you want a report on Big Ben, Parliament, The Queen or Gordon Blair, you’ll have to come to England and write one yourself; our highlights are the trio of Oxford, Jermyn and Bond Streets – the holy trinity of London shopping.

We head first to Geo. F. Trumper & Sons, spouse’s favorite men’s grooming emporium.  The shop is the size of an American closet, yet there are 6 sales clerks ready to attend to the gentleman’s every stray hair or colorful odor.  The English upper class can be readily found here, identifiable by their hounds, their carefully tousled “just back from the hunt” hair and their attitude of “please do get out of my way, unimportant person”.  It’s very crowded.

Next, we trot over to Fortnum & Mason, which is to food and unnecessary personal accessories what WalMart is to discounts.  It’s like going to your favorite grocery store and finding that they’ve opened a Saks Fifth Avenue in aisle 7.  The store, unchanged since the days of Alexander the Great, has suddenly decided to remodel (although ‘sudden’ in England implies a decade of passing time).  The results are roomier and much less jumbled, but there is no longer the ever present mass of humanity feverishly snatching up jars of Rose Petal Jam, forcing you to think they’ll run out before you get yours (even though you’ve never eaten it before and find it a very strange idea)

And then there’s Harrod’s.  The Temple of Wretched Excess.  If you don’t need it and can’t afford it, you’ll find it at Harrod’s.  We visit the hallowed memorial to Princess Di and Dodi Fayed.  We titter outside the ‘luxury restrooms’, where for a mere $2.00 you can use the loo (don’t forget to tip the attendant) and we stand slack-jawed in front of displays of fresh fruit where bananas are $14.00 per pound and an apple can be had for $5.00.  Fruit salad or a bank bailout, anyone?

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A Day In The Life (in Prague)

Top floor is ours

Top floor is ours

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Karlova Universita Law School

Karlova Universita Law School

Hotel Intercontinental

Hotel Intercontinental

Parizski Boulevard

Parizski Boulevard

The shortcut

The shortcut

Our Front Door

Our Front Door

Our foyer

Our foyer

Off to the store

Off to the store

Polish Girl Heaven

Polish Girl Heaven

I thought I would walk you through a typical day for us while in Prague.  Since Roger is teaching 4 days a week, a routine has begun to evolve.  (If your IQ is above 50, this will move a little slowly.)

We leave our pink building,turn right and are instantly in Old Town Square, where we’ve turned tourism into a full body contact sport – it’s the only way to get through the masses who have assembled to watch the astrological clock strike the hour.  (It is pretty spectacular – the clock was installed in 1470 and has been putting on the hourly show since then!  All twelve apostles make an appearance through two doors while a bell-ringing skeleton slowly rotates an hourglass in his bony hands while a turk bearing a money bag shakes his head ‘no’ to indicate it’s not his time to go yet. Then a cock crows three times and all is silent.) The square tends to be the province of pickpockets and, just yesterday, while we were watching the clock (okay, sometimes we  can’t resist either) someone undid the clasp on my watch!  Fortunately, it doesn’t just fall off, but this made us heighten our consciousness when we’re in the huge crowds in the square.  From there, we walk about five minutes towards the River Vltava (we still can’t pronounce it!)  and part ways at Roger’s law school, Charles University, – which is right across the street from my gym (which is in the Hotel Interncontinental).  After working out  (and teaching), we have to choose between walking home via Parizska(Paris) Blvd (lined with trees, outdoor cafes and designer shops)  or the shortcut that runs past the New Old Synagogue ( you  have to fight through smaller groups of tourists here.  Everyone wants to see the Jewish cemetery (which is humbling) and the attic where the Golem reportedly sleeps.)  We reach our front door, are buzzed in by the porter and, after ascending 3 short stairways, come to ‘our’ foyer and then take the 3 CRAZY, tilting, flights up to our flat.  Back down a few minutes later, heading in the other direction, to go to Tesco for bread.  And my story ends there, in Polish Girl Heaven!

One more note about the astrological clock – the clock is an earth centric design, since it was built before it was realized that the sun was the center of our solar system.  It has a gear with 365 teeth on it, so it advances one gear every 24 hours – making it a calendar year long.  You can see in the picture that there are two big clock faces – one has the 12 symbols of astrology on it and the other has 365 saint’s names  – corresponding to the day of the year on which their feast day falls.  This was before the invention of leap year!  (It’s a good thing Master Hanus, the genius inventor of the clock, didn’t know about that OR about daylight savings time!  I haven’t found an explanation of how those two issues are handled now.)

Also, you’ll notice how narrow the street looks in the photo “going to the store”.  Pedestrians share these streets with cars!  And the cars do not slow down!  You quickly learn to hug the nearest building and suck in anything on your body that protrudes for fear of losing it permanently!  So, while this seems incredibly unfriendly to pedestrians, at the same time, the streets are slightly raised at every ‘official’ crosswalk so that you don’t have to step down from the curb – you just continue on your merry way.  The cars, however, have to drive up and down steps (actual steps!) to navigate these crosswalks – so I suppose it all evens out.  The Czech also have instituted some pretty stringent fines for doing things like letting your dog run off leash OR throwing your gum on the ground!  You can expect to pay $150. if the police catch you carelessly disposing of your gum (or your dog).

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“Suburban” London

(This is a column that I wrote that hadn’t seen the light of publication… til now.)

Much of London is undiscovered.  Not in the “Send in the explorers!” sense, but in the “tourists rarely go there” sense.  After seeing Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard and rubbing elbows (literally) with thousands of your fellow tourists, you may find yourself longing for less populous environs.  That’s when you head to the London ‘suburb’ (it was in the 1600’s) of Clerkenwell.

Clerkenwell is home to the Clerk’s Well (London pre-plumbing, clearly) where, in the Middle Ages, clerks performed annual mystery plays based on biblical themes.  Infuriating the Actor’s Union, surely.  The wells, in outlying London, were gathering places even when some office workers weren’t re-enacting the Great Flood.  From the 1500’s, radicals gravitated to Clerkenwell Green until, in the 20th century, the duo of Stalin and Lenin could be found meeting at a nearby pub.  Discussing a passion play of another sort, entirely, I assume.

Clerkenwell Green is also where Dicken’s characters Fagin and the Artful Dodger teach Oliver to pickpocket.  A short walk from the Green is Charles Dicken’s home, where your pocket is picked by a kindly volunteer manning the entrance.  But the price of admission is worth it, even if you’re not a fan of Dickens’ work.  His house remains much as it was during the later years of his life and it’s fascinating to read his correspondence and peek into the closets of one of Britain’s literary giants.

Before you head back into town, make a short detour to Clink Street, the original site of the first prison to detain women.  It’s also the origin of the phrase “in the clink”.  In 1760, the prison was described as a ‘very dismal hole where debtors are sometimes confined’ as opposed to the luxury prisons of today where many creditors should be held.

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This is a “recent” suburban remodel.  Completed in 1899.

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(Let’s Do the) Time Warp (again)

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This blog will now step out of the time/space continuum.  Due to the lack of internet service for 2 1/2 weeks in England, I fear I’ll never catch up with myself, so I’m jumping to Prague as of today and hope to fill in ‘missing England’ as I can.  So… Prague.  Flying in from London, I was struck by how GREEN it is in the Czech Republic.  (Perhaps I should just settle down and admit that spring is green in this hemisphere and  get over it.)  We settled into our new apartment – we’re here for a month while Rog teaches International Arbitration at Charles (Karlova) University. The location is perfect:  just off the Old Square (which, in this country, is REALLY old) and within walking distance of school.  For the voyeurs among you, here are a few shots of the apartment (sans people, sorry!)  It’s quite a hike to our front door – we’re on the top floor of an 18th century building (can you say ‘no elevator’?) and the multiple staircases were modeled on a State Fair fun house.  My favorite aspect of  one of the staircases is that, at the steepest point,  the individual steps, instead of being flat like a normal stairstep, actually slope downward.  The tiniest slip of the foot and you will find yourself quickly deposited 3 floors down.  Sober is the only way to meet the challenge of the stairs.

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Prague is in the middle of  its annual music festival, “Prague Spring”,  and strains of classical music and jazz can be heard in any church, park, concert hall or  tavern all day, every day.  Since new music scares us, we attended a concert this evening of the Greatest Hits of Vivaldi and Mozart and the Greatest Hit of Pachelbel.  The concert hall, poetically named The Municipal Hall, (can you say ‘past communist control’?) is a gargantuan space, full of delicate putti, faded murals and seating for thousands.  You’ll notice the definitive nod to capitalism in the photo – please note the back of the concert stage – the artful and subtle acknowledgement of their corporate sponsors is something we should consider doing in our sports and ball parks (if there was a committe meeting that allowed this, I wish I’d been there!)  So, now we’ve attended the requisite festival concert and can go back to watching the BBC in our apartment.

River Vltava from the Palace Gardens

River Vltava from the Palace Gardens

The famous Charles Bridge is in the middle - dating from 1400

The famous Charles Bridge is in the middle - dating from 1400

St. Nicholas On The Square - where ND State U choir sang

St. Nicholas On The Square - where ND State U choir sang

Rog is convinced that the Eiffel Tower is peaking over the hill.  The hill is in Prague.

Rog is convinced that the Eiffel Tower is peeking over the hill. The hill is in Prague.

This sculpture is outside the gym.  I know how he feels.

This sculpture is outside the gym. I know how he feels.

St. Vitus Cathedral.  We found no statues of him dancing.

St. Vitus Cathedral. We found no statues of him dancing.

Gates of the Palace.  Very welcoming, except for the swords and clubs.

Gates of the Palace. Very welcoming, except for the swords and clubs.

Back-breaking building supports.

Back-breaking building supports.

Signs in English.. there aren't many and this may be why!

Signs in English.. there aren't many and this may be why!

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Abusing Roger In And Around London

You teach International Law WHERE, again??

You teach International Law where, again?

Those poor, young law students have no idea what lies ahead!

Watch out, unsuspecting international law students!

Well, this is just a pretty picture of the Tower of London Bridge.  But we know that others have been abused there.

No, Roger is NOT being abused in this photo – it’s just a pretty picture of Tower Bridge, but we DO know that many others have been abused here in the past.

Great architecture in London is all in (or on) your head.

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Shopping in London

Candy counter at Fortnum & Mason.  Shouldn't ALL candy counters look like this?

Candy counter at Fortnum & Mason. Shouldn't ALL candy counters look like this?

Harrod's, the Granddaddy of them all.

Harrod's, the Granddaddy of them all.

That’s enough shopping for now.  Once you’ve ‘done’ Fortnum & Mason and Harrod’s, you never need to shop again.  Even if you need food.  Your life is complete.

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