Formerly Blogless

True confessions of a girl who writes dirty books--and loves it!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Terezin


I just want to say a couple of things about this. Terezin, which I had only vaguely heard of before planning this trip, is a concentration camp outside of Prague. It was mostly used as a transport hub, a temporary stop before the inevitable trip to one of the death camps in the west. Terezin was a fortress town built in the 18th century, and it's oddly beautiful. Hitler used the town as part of his propaganda campaign; it was touted as the city he gave to the Jews, where they could govern themselves and live according to their traditions. Political prisoners were kept there, as well as prominent Jews--artists and writers and scientists. The Nazis encouraged them to produce art while they were there; plays and operas were written and performed. There are hundreds of drawings. It was all part of the propaganda. See how happy the Jews are? That Hitler, what a stand up guy. The Red Cross visited twice during the war, and gave favorable reports both times. Neither report mentions the overcrowded conditions, the starvation, the sickness. They only saw what Hitler wanted them to see. They only saw what they wanted to see.

The sick part is, I don't know if I can even blame them. What the Nazis were doing was so unthinkable, on a scale so extreme as to be incomprehensible. There's something so unbelievably cold and psychotic about the industrialization of murder, the mass extermination that was going on, I can't even wrap my mind around it. Terezin was about all I could honestly stand. I don't think I could manage Auschwitz or Dachau--I don't want to wrap my mind around it.

The experience of Terezin is indescribable, so I'm not even going to try. I'm just going to say that I think there should be a universal law, compelling every human being to visit a place like that, at least once. To remind us of what we're capable of doing to one another, and what we're capable of enduring.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Prague Blog (Part II)

Let's see, what else about Prague. Oh! Did you know it's where Don Giovanni was debuted, conducted by Mozart himself? Well, perhaps if you were playing close attention during the movie Amadeus, you did, but I confess, I wasn't, so I was surprised. Everything in Prague is Mozart this and Don Giovanni that. There are no fewer than three opera houses in Prague. This is a picture of the one that hosted the famous debut. Meg and I saw Turandot at the State Opera (somewhat clunky staging, but very competent sopranos; the tenor gave us some tense moments, but our box seats were lovely and unbelievably cheap for two girls used to the Met), but the National Theater is unquestionably the most impressive. It's right by the river, and has enormous statues of mythical figures crowded around the roof. I wish I had a picture, but I don't.

Prague specializes in wrapping gorgeous, intricate trappings around the goriest history imaginable. My personal favorite example is found in St. James Basilica, a small church with a huge, ornate pipe organ, a lovely frescoed ceiling, and a 400-year-old decomposing human forearm hanging from the wall. Yes. The story goes that a thief tried to steal the jewels from the statue of the Madonna, and the statue came to life and grabbed the thief by the arm, refusing to relinquish him. They had to cut his arm off to free him, and now that arm is on display, for the quiet contemplation of the worshippers at St. James. It looks exactly as you'd imagine something like that would look. Another good story revolves around the abortive attempt to make Jan Somebody Or Other the patron saint of Prague. This Jan was basically a nobody, but the Church tried to sell him as a saint on the basis of having found his body, dead, but with the tongue still alive and licking. I swear I'm not making this up. In spite of the fact that the Pope eventually admitted that Jan was a false martyr, he's still got a statue on the Charles Bridge, and his coffin is in St. Vitus's Cathedral, supported by six sterling silver winged cherubs. And guess what's on display with the coffin! That's right! The TONGUE! I hope this picture isn't so dark that you can't make it out. It's the pink bit in the center of the shield. Although modern sources say the pink bit is, most likely, a sliver of brain, not a tongue. Like that's any less grotesque.

Some less colorful (well, slightly) but still vital history took place in Prague. And I bet you know what I'm talking about! That's right. Defenestration! (Conscience dictates that I interject here that every time I hear that word, my brain does a sharp left turn and conjures up images of trees being felled. Defenestration, Louisa, not deforestation.) Prague was the site of more than one deliberate tossing of an important personage from an upper story window, and pictured here is the window in Old Prague Castle that started the Thirty Years War.
It's on the second floor, and apparently, the two Protestants who were pitched out didn't actually fall to their deaths. They landed in some ivy, and were basically okay, but righteously pissed off. Enough to start a war, in fact! Oh, those wacky Protestants.

I felt safe in Prague, in spite of warnings about pickpockets. We were never accosted or bothered, even by the roving packs of British lads in Prague Drinking Team t-shirts. The city is very walkable, and has an easy-to-use public transportation system. There is a ton to see and do, and all of it was different enough from anything I'd seen before in North America and western Europe to feel like a big adventure.

Plus, you know, grody decomposing body parts everywhere...

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Prague Blog (Part I)

Prague is beautiful, in a tired way. Something about how old the buildings are makes them even more impressive--there's definitely nothing plastic or Disney about the Old Prague Castle, or St. Vitus Cathedral. The medieval is squashed in with the baroque, and more recently, the vestiges of communism. The Czech Republic is essentially a post-Communist Kleptocracy (in the words of someone far funnier than me), and it was in Prague that I really had my first conversation with someone who grew up under communism. Her name was Pavla, and she was a tour guide we hired to take us out to Terezin, which will be the subject of its own, probably fairly depressing blog, so more on her later.

The weather was gorgeous, if slightly rainy, but even rain couldn't keep the hoards of German tourists in check. They were EVERYwhere, in enormous gaggles--the Charles Bridge was at a virtual standstill every time we walked down to it, except for once. That particular morning we got up early, and there was a cold misting rain in the air. The city wasn't quite awake yet, and none of the buskers or craftspeople were out on the bridge with their tables. It was just us, and the bridge, and the river. I touched the five-pointed brass cross embedded in the stone wall, to ensure my return to Prague. And I found my favorite statue, situated just beyond the edge of the bridge, so that you have to look over the wall to see him. Roland, the warrior, holding his magic sword, all shiny and gold, with a crouching wolf at his feet. The sword itself, the original, is said to be embedded in the stonework of the bridge, awaiting the city's most dire need. Hmmm...I wonder how I could possibly use that in a book?

Czech food is denigrated in guidebooks as being heavy and bland, but I didn't find that to be universally the case. Obviously, some dishes were better than others, and I think I had a pretty good idea of what I like to begin with. I'm not a dumpling person, for instance. Spaetzle either. Ew. But I do like roast duck, and sauerkraut, and potato pancakes. And I absolutely adore Czech hot chocolate. Everywhere we went, it was phenomenal. Like drinking melted brownie batter, all thick and rich and very dark. And as if that weren't enough, it was often served with whipped cream, and I'm not talking here about anything that got squirted out of a can. Other than that, we had apple strudel and honey cake (a sort of layered cake with honey, cream, and walnuts--some of my favorite things) at Cafe Carolina, which is in the house Jan Neruda lived in. Neruda is a Czech writer, who is, unfairly perhaps, probably most famous for inspiring the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to take his name. The best Czech meal we had was sort of nouveau Czech (if that makes any sense) at the restaurant halfway up Petrin hill, the tallest hill in Prague (so tall and steep that there's a funicular to get up it!), so there's a fantastic view. We walked everywhere, until we figured out the tram system, and then we took that.

Ok, that's enough for now. I think this will have to be continued tomorrow...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Home is Where You Have To Beat Blogger Into Submission

Finally! After a week of frustrated clicking and moaning, I have thrashed Blogger into the ground and forced it to allow me to record my precious thoughts about my trip to Europe, before they all leak out of my head. You wouldn't believe how annoyed I've been. I still don't know what was wrong--something about cookies? How could anything to do with cookies be bad? It's diabolical.

Anyway, Europe. So much fun. I figure, though, that you are all less interested in a play by play of every dusty cathedral and charming cafe I saw, than you are in my impressions of each place. This is not a travelblog--I will not be rating hotels or restaurants, although I reserve the right to give opinions on anything and everything that comes to mind. I'll go place by place, I think, which means first up is:

PRAGUE

Tune in tomorrow...