Mishaps

ø

You may think I’ve
been having nothing but fun and this is just like the most perfect trip
ever or something.  Well it has certainly been a journey I will
never forget, and overall an overwhelmingly positive experience. 
However, you should know there have been a few mishaps.  I hope I
haven’t been posting too many lists lately, because here’s another one
that those of you who are into schadenfreude will particularly
enjoy.  These are the major mishaps I have had on this trip, in
order of severity.

1. Before I left, I lost my passport.  Trip delayed by one day.  Set me back some money.

2. Had a lingering cold that finally ended up ruining about one day as I slept it off.  I’m fine now though.

3. After a trip to the Coliseum (where Sara got separated from us
amidst a truly stunning crowd of tourists) and an hour and a half at
the Roman Forum, four independent thinkers in a taxi together trying to
figure out what to do next.   You do the math.

4. In Bavaria, I had too much beer too fast.  Two liter-sized
mugs’ worth in about an hour.  Again, you can do the math. 

5. Peter the Austrian, the talkative fellow that I mentioned before who
was my bunkmate on the sleeper car from Vienna to Rome, snored like a
chainsaw and when he took his shoes off the odor filled the room. 
And the top bunk was hot.  Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much.

6. We hired a car to take us to Mogielnica (where our grandfather was
born) on the way to Warsaw.  The whole trip was supposed to take
four hours or less, not including the time spent stopped in
Mogielnica.  By the time we got to Warsaw, we had already been in
that uncomfortable van for 5 hours.  So we rushed through our
visit.  This turned a what would have been sad experience into a
something of a bitter one, considering that I had dreamed of visiting
it since childhood.  However, this ranks sixth on the list of
mishaps because we were able to go back the next day.

Gonzo Websurfing

ø

Gonzo websurfing is when you find a wifi network that someone has set up, and use it to surf the web without even knowing whose network it is.  Like right now, for example!  “ArNoLd,” who ever you are, thank you.   

I have never heard the term “gonzo” used in this way before, but I was inspired by its use to describe Hunter S. Thompson’s style of underground journalism

UPDATE:  Upon reflection, I think “guerilla internet” or “guerilla surfing” is more accurate.  I don’t like the war connotation, but “gonzo” connotes being rushed or unedited, which has little or nothing to do with using a random wifi network.

UPDATE 2:  Jill notes that there is already another war-based metaphor in use for this practice:  “war driving,” although some say that this only refers to finding and logging free wifi access points.



Poland

ø

We have been in Poland
since Monday and it is mixed.  Krakow is unbelievably charming, so
much so that I am very pleasantly surprised even though I had already
heard how great it is here.  But it is also very sad.  This
place had 70,000 Jews in 1939 and only a few dozen now.  In fact,
there are now only a couple thousand Jews in the whole country. 
My Bubbie (grandmother) hated this place and was never interested in
returning.  And of course Auschwitz, which we visited today, is only an hour away.

Krakow is a beautiful city that’s
over a thousand years old.  It is hard to explain how picturesque
and quaint it is.  There’s a town square with a market hall in the
middle and the obligatory huge, breathtakingly ornate cathedral. 
Cobblestones, the clippity-clop of horse-drawn carriages (for tourists,
but still…), the crooked streets, a castle – it’s like a fairy tale
town.  It’s also small and easy to get around in.  And it’s
pretty cheap.  

And the people are really nice! 
If you are ever in Krakow, I suggest you make sure and stay at the
Hotel Sienacki.  Charming rooms, excellent restaurant, and
fantastic staff.  (And high-speed internet access in each room!)

But as I said, it’s also a terribly sad place.  There is an entire neighborhood called Kazimierz just
outside of the old town that used to be the Jewish neighborhood. 
There are like six or seven synagogues in a 3-block radius, one of
which is the oldest standing Jewish structure in Poland.  
Only one of these is functioning, the tiny 500-year-old Remuh synagogue
(not the oldest one though).  


Last night we went to a Jewish
restaurant in this district, which in recent years has become the
biggest Jewish tourist destination outside Israel.  (Bigger even
than Zabar’s or Katz’s!)  The place felt like something
manufactured especially for tourists – and I’m pretty sure, not by
Jewish folk.  For example, they had matzo in the basket with the
bread that they brought to the table.  (I never thought matzo
could be blander than what we get back in the states, but I was
wrong.)  And when the klezmer band started up, the proprietress
fired up a menorah.  What?  

None of this was offensive to me — it just wasn’t authentic, and it underscored how few Jews remain in Poland.  

The “Jewish music” band was also a
mixed bag.  They were Poles, not Jews.  The singer was an
opera singer, and he sang “Hava Negila” and other chestnuts standing
rigid in a deep bass voice.  No soul, man.  None. 
Again, this wasn’t offensive to me in the least – but it felt weird and
sad to have my people’s music fed back to me by another nationality
because all of my own people, who should have been playing that music,
had been murdered.  

But you know, the violinist was
great, and played with real joy.  Overall, the music wasn’t
bad.  It turns out there are many klezmer bands in Krakow, all of
them Polish.  These aren’t all for tourists.  There is some
appreciation for Jewish culture in this place at this time.  In
the face of all this sadness, that’s something. 

All of this is complicated by our visit today to
Auschwitz.  It’s difficult to describe.  Massive. 
Grotesque.  I’m sure it hasn’t hit me yet, actually.  At this
point, the best description I can come up with is that it was
horrifying to the point of incomprehensibility.  
There’s
a lot to say about this, and fascism, and Germany, and anti-Semitism. 
I hope to post about these things within the next few days. 


Snapshots of Rome

ø

Two women in very
fashionable business dress on a motor scooter.  The one not
driving was talking to the other one at a stop light and gesticulating
with her hands, even though the other one (in front) couldn’t even see
her.

Every single person on a motor
scooter or motorcycle wears a helmet without exception, but no taxi
driver ever wears his or her seat belt.  I’m sure the helmets are because of a law.

The taxi dispatchers called out the
numbers and locations in a way that took the normal inflection of
Italian speech – often lampooned in the U.S., think “we’re-a going-a
to-a the store-a” – and exaggerated it just a little bit, making a
beautiful, entrancing, rhythmic, sing-song chant.  It was so great
that Sara and I actually recorded it.

Fashion.  The stereotypes are
true, Romans are really into dressing fashionably.  It was
amazing.  High heels, cleavage, low-low-I MEAN LOW-rise
jeans.  And the Italian women wear this eye makeup that accentuates
their already beautiful, dark eyes.  Smoldering.  Oh yeah,
and there were plenty of extremely well-dressed men but who cares about
them.  

Romans standing at the caf

One Night in Bavaria

ø

It all started on a
Thursday afternoon in Germany.  I had just taken the train from
Berlin to Regensburg, and Melanie, her new guy Kilian, and her friend
Christina picked me up from the station.  We walked around
Regensburg the rest of the afternoon – what a great old town. 
There is a beautiful, huge, Gothic cathedral there and lots of great
medieval streets and squares.  We had dinner in one such square,
and then decided to go to a festival that they were having that night
in Regensburg.  The festival was just like a state fair in the
U.S., except cleaner and with better lighting.  

There was one big difference
though:  the fair had all these massive beer tents.  We
walked into one of them and it was like stepping into this great
Bavarian anthropological case study.  Imagine at least a thousand
Bavarian people in a massive tent, all sitting at picnic tables
drinking really tasty, really strong beer out of HUGE one-liter
mugs.  The waitresses wore the traditional Bavarian dresses called
diendls, which made them look just like the St. Pauli girl.  And
there was this cheesy German band there that is sort of a local party
band — everyone in southern Germany knows them.  They were
singing both traditional German songs and pop songs.  But it
wasn’t just the waitresses – lots of the women wore diendls also, and
there were lots of men in lederhosen, the traditional leather pants
from that area.  I’m telling you, it was like some kind of
German-stereotype fantasyland that Melanie and her friends had put
together just for me!  And no other Americans to be found!

We found ourselves a table in middle
of the revelry and ordered ourselves a few mas’s, (mas = 1 liter mug of
beer).  The band would play a few traditional songs and a few pop
songs – lots of 80s numbers – and everyone sang along.  

There were lots of toasts. 
Funny, I don’t remember what most of them were, although I do remember
that we made friends with the folks next to us, which of course
necessitated many more toasts.  I really like the way the Germans
do toasts.  You say “Proust” (rhymes with “roost”), clink your
flagon, tap it on the table (to calm the sloshing after all that
clinking), and drink.  Except they have this great rule: 
when you knock glass with someone, you have to look them in the eye or
you are condemned to seven years of bad sex.  It totally changes
the character of a toast, making it more personal and just… a lot
better, even in the middle of really chaotic revelry such as this.

Anyway, before we knew it, everyone
was standing, dancing, and even jumping on the picnic benches and
singing along at the top of their lungs.  Beer sloshing around,
lots of it going down the hatch.  Good times.  We took a few
good pictures.  We took a lot of blurry pictures.  Oh, and
remember the song from about 1983 by Nena, called “99 Red
Balloons”?  Well, when the band started playing this one, the
place went freaking crazy.

I had 2 Mas’s in about an hour… which I was regretting later.  But overall, it was SO MUCH FUN.

Rome & Going Radio Silent

ø

Sorry for the lack of
posts recently.   (Not that anyone is reading this anyway,
but all 2 of you who are…)   Basically I have just been too
busy sightseeing to post anything.  And there’s the laziness.
 

Anyway, Rome was great.  Dad,
Sara, Marie, and I arrived on Wednesday morning, and just left today
(Monday afternoon.)  We had some great meals, mostly at trattorias
and family restaurants.  (Is there a difference?)  Lots of
pasta, zuppe, and in general traditional Italian food, even spaghetti
and meatballs.  It was pretty fun.  

We saw all the major sights,
too:  the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, the Roman Forum, and
the Coliseum.  The Sistine Chapel was amazing and I think the 2000
restoration really did a lot for it.  The colors were brighter and
more vibrant, and in general Michelangelo’s painting “The Last
Judgment” is everything it’s cracked up to be.  It was just
breathtaking, and as our tour book put it, arguably the greatest single
achievement in Western art.  The painting includes hundreds of
figures, and some of the facial expressions are really
interesting.  But it was their bodies that made the work so
fascinating – the work is a celebration of the human form, a frenzy of
twisting, turning, lunging, stretching, soaring, shrieking, straining
bodies.  Out of all the figures painted, not one of them was
standing or sitting straight.  They were all twisting, turning, or
straining in some way.  Unbelievable.

Here’s a copy of the painting.



Other highlights, which I will post
about later, include Notte Bianca and our trip to the main Roman
synagogue to observe the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

UPDATE:  The link didn’t work with IE, but it did with Mozilla.  I changed the link.  It should work now.


Stasi Museum Pt. 2

ø

DISCLAIMER:  This
is a long post.  Hopefully it’s not too self-indulgent and
rambling, but I’m not making any guarantees.

So last Monday, Mel and I went to the
Stasi Museum.  Basically they turned the office suite of the heads
of the Stasi into a museum; it is but a few rooms in a massive
complex.  People can go to a different part of the complex and
request their Stasi files!

Speaking of Stasi files, I was
shocked by the breadth and depth of the East German surveillance
apparatus.  They had 40 million files in a country of 16.8 million
– and 6 million people were considered “suspects.”  The Stasi
itself grew steadily until the fall of communism, so that by 1989 they
had 190,000 employees – and 15,000 informers in the West.

They would do stuff like wipe
prisoners’ groins to get a really strong scent, and then keep the cloth
in a jar for years and years, ready at any time to give to a hound and
track you down.  And they invented a special microphone that is
mounted on a radiator and then listens through the pipes to everything
that’s said four floors up.   Every long distance call was
tapped, and when special keywords were uttered, the call was
automatically recorded.

As we saw specimens of this stuff and
toured what was basically the de facto government of East Germany, the
horror of the regime began to sink in.  (At the same time, though,
it was kind of comical – the whole place was vintage 1960s d

“The Locals”

ø

It seems like a no-brainer to say that you haven’t really
visited a place if you don’t have at least 2 or 3 nice, long conversations with
someone who is from the place you are visiting. 
But I think it happens fairly often. 
There was a danger of this in Vienna — traveling alone I get much more introverted
than when I have a companion, and I nearly went a whole day without having a
conversation with anyone.  But by the end
of my visit I ended up having a bunch of interesting ones. 

There was the hipster in the subway station who had just
been to a Johnny Cash tribute concert (which I had attempted to attend but been
way too late, and which he said was pretty lame considering that the singers
couldn’t shake their Austrian accents – think “I Valk De Line”).  We started to get into some really
interesting stuff – what makes Austrians Austrian and all that – but I had to
get off the train.

There was Mali, the warm and articulate host of the
Judenplatz Museum, who told me all about the Jewish community in Vienna and why
she thought they were worse than the Germans. 

Then there is my bunkmate Peter on the sleeper car from
Vienna to Rome.  We talked for a long
time about the Austrian national character, history, and some politics.  (I’m telling you, ALL the Europeans dislike
Bush.  They think rationally over here.) 

The conversation turned to World War II, as it seems all
conversations about history and politics eventually do on this continent.  Peter’s father was sent to the Russian
front.  Peter’s grandfather was secretly
a Nazi, had been injured in WWI also fighting the Russians, died in a Russian
camp after he came down from the hills where all the people in their town in
Austria were hiding from the occupying Russians.  He wanted to see what they had done to his
house.  Peter’s mother, 16 at the time,
had barely escaped being raped by a Russian soldier when her 9-year-old cousin
stood in the soldier’s path and would not move.

Could even the ugly American pass for Viennese?

ø

I finally found free
wireless internet access in Vienna!  Where else but the
MuseumsQuartier, a cluster of modern art museums.  In the middle
of the cluster, there are a bunch of cafes.  So I’m sitting here
at 7:22pm under a pink sky with a glass of red wine next to me and
dinner on the way, still very happy from the Third Man walking tour I just took!  Young Viennese are all around me drinking
coffee and wine, talking, and smoking.  And I am doing the same.

But the answer to the question above,
I think, is still “no” since I am the only one here with a
laptop.  Now if I had a cell phone, maybe I could pass…

Trufflers

ø

Apparently, walking around Vienna at night alone makes me a “mark” not for muggings, but for wily women.

The first lady approached me speaking rapidly in German and put out her
hand to shake.  Trying not to be rude (maybe I am a mark after
all), I “shook” her hand.  But then she wouldn’t let go.  I
pried my hand loose and excused myself.

The next night, I passed a guy and two girls walking down
Mariahilferstrasse in the same direction as me.  The guy was
clowning around a bit and waved to me.  I nodded and walked
on.  He then tried to get my attention but I tried to ignore him.
They definitely didn’t look dangerous, just… I didn’t want to be bothered.  Finally,
he became impossible to ignore, and I turned around.  He came up
to me and said something I couldn’t understand.  Then one of the
girls walked up to me and began to totally grind against me.  I
was like, thanks, but I saw this in the Munich train station 20 years
ago when a lady “bumped into” Dad and went for his privates and his
back pocket at the same time.  My hand went to my back pocket and
sure enough, a few seconds later there was her hand on mine.  “You
want to go disco?” she asked.  No thanks, I am going to sleep.