Thursday, November 19, 2015

That Girl and Her Sister in Prague

That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs From Across the Pond

The most charming thing about Prague is the Astronomical Clock located in Old Town Square. We arrive about twenty minutes to five and find a place amid the crowd that has also gathered to watch the top of the hour event.

After Berlin, Prague is a bit of a shock. A new country, a new language, a new metro system, a new currency. I fold the bills and drop the coins in my wallet and check the currency exchange application I’ve downloaded to my phone. The exchange rate is 24 Czech Korunas to one US dollar. A cup of coffee costs 40 or 50 crowns, lunches and dinners total several hundreds of crowns. As I count out the money, I feel both extravagant and profligate.

Prague is cleaner than Berlin. There is significantly less graffiti, and the cityscape set up next to the river does indeed showcase Prague’s many spires. The people here are more open, willing to look you in the eye. Although Prague is very much a tourist location, every eye to eye encounter does not signify an asking for money as is so often the case in Berlin, Lima, Madrid, Rome. In that sense, Prague feels much friendlier.

My muscles ache from our two day strenuous walking tour of the city and I sit down with my back to a pillar.
Jesse sits beside me.

Yesterday, we ascend a bell tower and see Prague with all its beautiful spires laid out before us like a precious toy city. Then we climb up Petřín Hill to visit the Lookout Tower, a 60 meter tal iron tower, which (according to the Map of Prague and City Guide that we found in our apartment) was erected as part of the General Land Centennial Exhibition of 1891 as a smaller copy of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. An online review of the Tower said something like: You may not think that 60 meters is very impressive, very significant, but you will change your opinion when you reach the top.

The tower, which rises up about six stories tall (a measurement I understand more easily than meters), is impressive especially from its location at the top of the Hill which rises to an impressive 1043 feet of its own. Our opinion is definitely changed as we go up the 299 steps and see even more of the city than from the bell
tower we had only just been up. The structure seems to shake, to shiver with the activity of people going up and down the stairs, or with the pushing of the wind, it is hard to tell. I have my view at the top with one hand on the railing, and then we both descend with the rapid intent of getting out of the thick of the crowds.

Prague is definitely a tourist location.

While we are there on the Hill, we also visit the Mirror Maze.

Before we had left the States, I’d read out loud to Jesse that the Mirror Maze is “a place that makes hundreds of Praguers laugh every day!” And we'd been charmed by that. From the comfort of our basement apartment here in Prague, we read more reviews online to refresh our limited knowledge. One visitor exclaimed that it was the, “worst mirror maze ever!!!!!!!” which makes us all the more intent on visiting it ourselves. There, at the Maze, we laugh and are completely charmed. But then again, we don't have that many mirror mazes in our lives to judge this one by, so who are we to say if it's the best or the worst?

Once we leave Petřín Hill, we make our way over to Prague Castle. It's a city within the city; massive, impressive, huge. We visit the Royal Gardens and then go back to Prague Castle to purchase tickets for a classical ensemble concert being performed that night which Jesse had seen and said, "I think we should do it."

The ladies selling the tickets wait patiently as I dig around to try and find the right amount to pay. I’m trying to calculate exchange rates at the same time as I am adding together the cost of the two tickets. I fail dismally at the mathematics and hand over one thousand too many korunas. The lady who takes it from me hands it quickly back and says, “You must be careful, very very careful.” I tell her thank you. And thank you again. Then sheepishly put the 1000 CZK bill back in my wallet. I’m too walk-tired to be properly embarrassed. But I am grateful for her honesty and chiding kindness.

On our arrival, we had asked the lady who handed us over the keys to our basement apartment how to pronounce "thank you" in Czech. It’s spelled "Děkuji", and the Internet says it's pronounced something along the lines of "Dya-koo-yee". She had rattled off a series of sounds and the closest we could get was "d-qwee". Later, Jesse masters "Nemluvím česky" which means "I don't speak Czech." And I keep practicing "thank you" and "hello". With the thick words and unfamiliar sounds in our mouths, at times we wish we could just go back to Berlin where at least we could ask for scrambled eggs. But, like so many other places, the world now caters to English and if we can’t speak three words in Czech then chances are we’ll find someone who can speak English. And if that language fails, there's always hand signals and pointing. Here, now, the ladies speak English to us and eventually we walk away with our tickets in hand.

After that, we even find time to visit the Church of Our Lady Victorious (home of a creepy wax statuette called the Child of Prague which was donated by Polyxena of Lobkowicz in 1628—and which unfortunately, means nothing to me or Jesse who missed that part of our history lessons) and cross the famous Charles Bridge which is jampacked with people also there to walk across the famous Charles Bridge, and artists, and vendors, and street performers. We make it back to the cathedral where the concert is being performed and listen in delight as the music fills the barrel vaulted, high ceilinged apse.

We are grateful for the chance to sit, close our eyes, and listen. We've probably walked seven hours or more just this day alone and most of it up stairs. Jesse is in stair heaven and I am trying to calculate miles in my head by the tightness of my leg muscles.

Today, before we make it to Old Town Square to watch the wooden apostles parade across the Astronomical Clock, we take the Metro several stops away and go to Olšany Cemetery where we walk down the cracked paved paths with the arms of the comforting trees arching over our heads. Here, among the dead, we find peace that we hadn't experienced yesterday in the crowded bustle of the living, of the tourists. Olšany Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Prague with over two million people buried within its walls. We walk the many paths, and I keep an eye on our direction, knowing full well we could easily get lost here. The monuments rise up around us, pieces of art set in among the plots and trees. The cemetery was built in haste in 1680 to accommodate the many dead by the plague who needed to be buried rapidly and away from the still living. It was used again in 1787 when the plague returned and Emperor Joseph II banned the use of the city for burials. Even today, there might be room still for more who would like to rest in peace here among these trees, within these walls.

When we’ve paid our respects to time and nature, we head over to the train station to buy tickets for the next day’s daytrip to Kutná Hora where the Sedlec Ossuary is located, and to purchase our tickets from Bad WildBad, Germany to Bordeaux, France. We hadn't been able to get that leg online before we left as we had with our other tickets. The clerk from the Deutsche Bahn office who helps us, types in the information I give her and then with wide eyes and a, “Ooofh, oh, ooofh,” tells us that it's very expensive and with many transfers. We had already known this would be the case and are not taken aback. We tell her it's okay, but she looks up from her work and says, “Are you sure you need to go there?”

With our tickets purchased and our next day’s daytrip set up, we make our way to Old Town and sit with our backs against a pillar to wait for five o'clock.

As the minutes tick closer to the hour, I stand up. A minute later, Jesse does as well. The hand moves. And then the show begins. Death rings out the beat while the apostles showcase themselves, one after the other, in front of the two wooden windows that have opened. When they have all passed by, the golden rooster, roosting above it all, stretches out his wings and crows.

Jesse and I laugh out loud.

“He's just like one of the fluffies!” Jesse says with delight. The fluffies being the chickens raised as broilers at the ranch where we worked over the summer--who in their fast growth tried so hard to be grownup roosters, crowing wholeheartedly with their adolescent voices cracking like teenage boys’ around the cock-a-doodle-do.

I am also delighted by the Astronomical Clock, by the bell ringing Death, by the apostles, by the golden fluffy. I wish it were already six o'clock so that we could watch it all over again. But we have a show to attend. We head off around the corner, to find the theater where we will watch Mozart's Don Giovanni Opera performed by puppets.

That show, performed by puppets, laughed at by child tourists, grownups, and us (Praguers or not), is the second most charming thing about Prague, and is a story for another time.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

That Girl and Her Sister in Berlin

That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs from Across the Pond

The struggle I’m having is deciding which stories to tell and which stories to let sit like photographs in my memory’s album. For there are a myriad of stories from when (in this so recent past) my sister Jesse and I traveled together for six weeks, covering seven countries (if you count the Moscow airport – six countries if you don’t), stopping off in fifteen different cities or towns, and traveling by train through many more than that. As we went along, we learned to look over our shoulders for each other as we walked the metro tunnels from line to line, as we crossed streets, worked our way through crowds, and made our way up towers and hills and down streets. That’s the buddy system. That’s looking out for the other one. As the days went by, we learned the little things that we each love; Jesse has a thing for stairs, I have one for bell towers. Those two loves went really well together. I like my coffee and wine, she likes her desserts. So sitting at cafes served us both. We also learned to appreciate each other’s individual areas of expertise. Jesse is a pro at reading maps and figuring out the metro systems, I’m adept at reading human behavior and body language. We’re two sides of a coin and we work well together.

Our first stop is Berlin.

We stay a full week. The longest of any other place we go. After a summer at the ranch tending animals and listening to the nightly owls, a city of 3.5 million people feels overwhelming and packed. The roar of cars, the crammed metros, the streets full of humans crossing from one side to the other, the steady stream of bikes, the noise of sirens, and the dirty streets, the walls covered in graffiti both artistic and disruptive press in on us. However, we adjust quickly and Berlin soon feels like home. That’s the kind of place that Berlin is: a home for the homeless, the newest melting pot, diverse, a place to reinvent oneself the way David Bowie did in the 1970s and the way so many artists do today, a place of welcome and redemption. For Berlin has a hard past. But Berlin is resilient.

My friend Pontus flies over from Sweden and spends a few days with us. Together we visit the Berlin wall and Checkpoint Charlie. The places are touristed out and have an amusement park feel. Everyone wants their pictures taken with the men dressed like American soldiers. Everyone wants to get that perfect selfie to post to all their social media sites to prove they were there—to add to their travel books like notches on a belt. Jesse and I get the first taste of what it’s like to be a part of that tourist pack. We don’t like it, but how do we differentiate ourselves from “tourists” when we also are touring? Is it possible to be a guest rather than a tourist? Is there a difference? Jesse talks about the “eyes that see” and how the viewing can degrade the art, disrupt the meaning of a thing, a place. “How do you view something correctly?” I ask. She doesn’t know. Neither do I. As we go from place to place we try to view with respect. To see the art and the history and even the residual pain that’s there. Sometimes the pain is transformed into something beautiful like the Berlin wall remnant which has been decorated with art from artists from all over the world. Yet even that art is marred by disrespectful punks who put their graffiti tags over the genuine artwork. This marring bothers me and Pontus especially. People are amazing and horrible all at the same time.

This becomes even more apparent when we take a day trip over to Sachsenhausen, the site of one of the many Nazi concentration camps. We make our way from the train station through the town, the streets lined with trees and settled in with cozy homes, and over to the museum walking slowly in the perfect autumn air. The clouds are puffy with friendliness and the sky behind them is bright blue. It seems impossible that this idyllic place could ever have been anything other than this. But then we arrive. We walk past the tall walls and under the shadow of the watch tower. We head over to one of the bunkers and walk through rooms where people suffered and died. Where people hurt others and took away their humanity. It’s one thing to read about human testing and the horrors of war, but it’s another to walk along the pathway where men were forced to test the durability of shoes that didn’t fit and walk for hours and hours on end until they collapsed or didn’t, and then were made to walk in another pair day after day after day—without relief and without rest. We read about the men and children who were injected with hepatitis or given drugs to keep them awake for days on end in order to develop a tonic to help soldiers have the upper hand in battle. We read about all those who were sterilized or castrated for being non German, non Aryan, different. I read the stories and swallow back tears. How can humans inflict so much pain on other humans? How could anyone have thought this testing, this killing was justified or right?

But so many did.

A few summers ago I participated in a human testing study at the University of Oregon. I had tubes put down my nose and throat, a shunt in one of my arteries, and an IV in one arm. It was a full day of testing and it was uncomfortable, unpleasant. But I was being paid and at any moment I could have said, “Stop” and they would have unhooked me and let me go. I remember thinking at that time that there were humans tested on who never had that choice. And then, with that in my mind I almost burst into tears in that chair where I sat being tested.

Now, at this camp, knowing that people were tortured and killed for “science” for the “good of mankind” for sadistic pleasure, I’m once again moved to tears. “Everyone should have to come here and see this,” I say to Pontus, to Jesse. And yet, I know that wouldn’t change the world. It wouldn’t stop the wars. It wouldn’t cause the power hungry to rethink their greed. But it would be nice if it did. It would be nice if all that suffering from the past put an end to all future suffering. It would be nice.

Sachsenhausen is a sobering place. That history should not be forgotten and it’s a credit to Germany that she doesn’t brush this under a proverbial rug. At Sachsenhausen the past is laid bare in all its horror and honesty. It is an attempt to keep that same horror from happening ever again. Maybe it works to some extent.

We take the train back to Berlin somber and silent, each of us filled with our own thoughts, trying to make sense of the emotions.

Then we pocket away the pain and find smiles and laughter again. We take the metro all over Berlin visiting grand buildings like Norman Foster’s glass domed Reichstag and the Radio Tower that Jesse and I call the Space Tower. In the early evening, we say our goodbyes and Pontus heads back to Sweden. Jesse and I climb up our first bell tower and see Berlin from a beautiful height.  

Ah, Berlin. There are too many stories to tell. How can I ever choose the right ones?

For there are stories to be told about and from the Olympic Stadium, from our incredible time at Teufelsberg—the old U.S. listening post hidden up on a hill in the Grunewald forest, from seeing Nefertiti at the Neues Museum, from hearing a lunch time concert at the Berlin Philharmonic Concert House, from attending a book reading and concert at the Curious Fox bookstore.

We stop off to eat at a Turkish restaurant on our last day and the waiter asks us where we’re from. We tell him and his face lights up. “You’re welcome here,” he says. He brings us Turkish tea and baklava as a gift. He’s also found his home in Berlin and he’s willing to share it with us. There is room here for all.

Berlin is every big city; New York, Madrid, Stockholm, Milan. It’s street performers and beggars. It’s constant movement. It’s welcoming. It’s home. It’s the past of pain and the nearness of Sachsenhausen, both transformative and honest. But it’s most of all redemptive.

It’s the little café where we have breakfast every morning. I tell the café lady (with new German words I’ve only just memorized and badly pronounce) that it’s our last day there and she makes the appropriate sad sounds. And then she brings us a goodbye gift, a bowl of potato salad.

We leave before dawn and as the train rolls away, I feel a twinge of homesickness for a place I’ve only just met and for all the stories I’ll never be able to tell.