Category: Travel

Adventures and Misadventures.

TSOJ: Do Birds Still Sing at Dachau?

IMG_2391It had been a long hot day at Dachau and our tour was coming to an end. Our group had just walked through the crematorium and gas chambers and met our tour guide (James) by this statue. “I like this statue. There is something in the attitude of the guy that is defiant. His head is not bowed,” James said quietly.  “The prisoners were not allowed to put their hands in their pockets and I like that he has his hands in his pockets.” There were other tour groups and people who had traveled to Dachau on their own all around, but it was quiet, the kind of quiet that reveals that this place is not an ordinary place.  As I looked at the statue and took a picture, I heard an unseen bird singing in the trees. This song would normally go unnoticed. Usually the chatter of the world drowns out the inconsequential songs of birds, but at Dachau the song bird has its most attentive audience. For three hours I had not heard a single happy sound.  My mind drifted away from everything that I had seen that day and I began thinking of John Keats‘ poem Ode to a Nightingale, especially the first stanza where Keats discusses his personal anguish and the mysterious bird’s happy song.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

  But being too happy in thine happiness,—

  That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

  In some melodious plot

  Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

  Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

I had traveled to Keats’ house near Hampstead Heath in London many years ago and sat beneath the tree where it was said he was napping when he heard the nightingale singing. I walked through the stagnant house where Keats lived and wondered if he knew his life was almost over when he wrote those words. Historians believe Keats had contracted tuberculosis from his brother Tom who had died in December of the previous year. Did he see that his life’s arc was going to be so brief?

I thought of Keats’ headstone in Rome inscribed with the words, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” and how he died believing that his poetry would disappear and he would join the numberless members of the human race who have melted into this earth and are now unremembered. Keats’ poetry survived, and his life has been immortalized through those words,  but the millions of humans that were murdered during the Holocaust are now reduced to faded photographs and representative statues. The names of the six million European Jews who were murdered by the Nazis did have their “names writ in water.”

Dachau has a way of reminding that life is brief, that circumstances and fate are cruel, and that humans are both brave and savage.

I was not sure if I wanted to spend my final day in Europe at Dachau. I had been to a concentration camp near Hamburg (Neuengamme) several years before and understood that these memorials are not destinations to be visited as a check-off on my to-do list, but I had also come away from the visit at Nuengamme wishing I had someone there to explain what I was seeing.  Authorized guided tours of concentration camps are limited by the German government not because they want to cover up the crimes committed during the Holocaust, but because they only want qualified, educated people leading tours of these factories of death. There are a few English-speaking tours of Dachau each day and after reading a number of reviews on TripAdvisor, I decided to go with the “In Their Shoes” tour. It was a good choice.

The tour group (seven of us) met in the main train station in Munich just outside of a coffee shop. We had a quick meet and greet before hopping on the train to Dachau: There were two younger military guys from Michigan on leave from duty in Africa, and a family of three adult children and their mother from Portland. The train trip from Munich to Dachau is about 15 minutes and our group spent the time talking about where we had been during the summer. Our guide, James, began talking about the history of Dachau after we had transferred from the train to a bus. After a month in Europe, and seeing the bits and pieces of the puzzle that led to Hitler’s rise to power, I was reminded that these events did not just take place as words in a history book. The bus dropped us off near the entrance to the memorial and James did what any good guide does, he gave us a brief introduction to etiquette for the memorial and then guided us to the gates of the camp.

The camp gates, "Work will set you free."

The camp gates, “Work will set you free.”

My initial reaction to the gate was that it was much smaller than I thought it would be, in fact the entire camp was much smaller than I thought it would be. I suppose I thought the camp should be equal in size to the horror it caused, but this was not a cemetery where graves would mark the great numbers of people who were tortured and murdered here, it was a work camp where the Nazis mechanically tried to destroy several groups of humans. Dachau was the first concentration camp, a camp I had read about in books, heard about in history classes, and the camp that would become the model for the rest of the factories of death. It was not as large as Nuengamme (a camp I had not heard of until visiting) and I began to wonder why it was more “famous” than other camps that murdered just as many people but remain unknown to most Americans. If I were to say, “I went to Nuengamme,” to most people they would assume it was another city in Germany, but if I were to say, “I went to Dachau,” no one would think I went to the small town just outside of Munich. Why?

IMG_2351

American soldiers were the first to arrive at Dachau.

I believe there are two reasons why Dachau is fixed in our collective American memory: American soldiers arrived at the camp first, and one of the soldiers had a color movie camera that recorded what the Nazis left behind. The movie camera captured the train-loads of bodies, the medical facilities created to test the extremes of human survival, and the surviving humans who looked more like walking dead than living people. These shocking images have survived the 70 years between the end of WWII and today. These are the images of events we swear to never allow to happen again…but we all know genocides continue to plague the world.

James and a map of the concentration camps.

James and a map of the concentration camps.

I’m not sure how long the tour lasted. We saw the entire camp, the ovens, the gas chambers, the barbed wire fences and moat, the barracks, and the on-site prison. I took pictures, but even today, I don’t want to share them. It isn’t that I don’t want others to see what I saw, it is that I don’t think pictures can bring the reality of the place to life. Pictures dull the impact of the horror because it becomes too familiar, too ordinary.

The millions of people murdered deserve to be remembered, but their hopes, their dreams, and their lives were “writ in water.” There are too many of them to be remembered properly. It is too overwhelming and all the memorials in the world will not make up for what has been lost.

As I left Dachau I thought of the song bird sitting in the trees behind the statue. Keats argued that the bird is not truly happy, it does not know death, it does not know pain, and therefore the bird does not understand happiness even though humans associate its song with joy.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
         No hungry generations tread thee down;
Birds sing because that is what birds do. I don’t know what humans were designed to do because what we do makes no sense.

TSOJ: Bike Tour Of Munich, Free Shower Included

Munich, my final stop on The Summer of Jon, and the final bike tour of my glorious summer. By now I had terrifying bike tours (Prague), beautifully weird bike tours (Potsdam), bike tours where the guide was trying to lose the group (Vienna), and solo bike tours where I nearly rode into another country (Copenhagen), so when I arrived beneath the Old Town Hall near Marienplatz I was ready for whatever the day would bring. I was greeted by two guides: James and Busty. (I assume that is how Busty spells his name, I did not ask.) Before we left the greeting area I learned three facts: 1.The city name Munich (Munchen) literally means “by the monks.” 2. Barrel-makers were responsible for saving the city during the plague by doing a dance that is now celebrated every seven years. 3. Busty was born in Munich and then moved to New Zealand where he grew up.

All three of these facts interested me. The name of the city was mildly interesting, the barrel-maker dance was pretty cool, but Busty’s family history became a mystery that I resolved to unfold during the bike tour. To start with there are only 3 million Kiwis living in New Zealand, but everywhere I travel I run into Kiwis, so either no one is in New Zealand during the winter (summer in the Northern Hemisphere) or there are 30 million Kiwis and 27 million of them are traveling at any given moment.

Busty (green shirt), James (blue shirt), and Juliet (shiny right breast).

Busty (green shirt), James (blue shirt), and Juliet (shiny right breast).

We walked to the bike store, selected our bikes, Busty asked for someone to ride in the back, I volunteered because I was the only solo traveler on the tour and had “Ass Man” experience, and then Busty gave us a frightening introduction to riding bikes in Munich. The introduction boiled down to this, “Getting hit by a moving car is okay because the driver will be held responsible. You may die, but death is better than hitting a parked car. Hitting a parked car will be your fault and you will be held financially responsible.” Munich is home to BMW and everyone in Munich owns a black or silver car that costs 100,000,000 Euros. Busty said that a young lady scratched a parked car with her bike last week and ended up with a 12,000 Euro bill, this bit of information did scare me a little.

Once we took off on the tour my fears subsided because we traveled on bike paths most of the time and there were a few people on the tour that could only ride their bikes at a maximum speed of three mph.

Livin' the vida loca, taking pictures while riding is always against the rules, but when you are going at electric-scooter speed and there are no cars around...

Livin’ the vida loca, taking pictures while riding is always against the rules, but when you are going at electric-scooter speed and there are no million dollar cars around…

We spent a good chunk of the beginning part of the tour in the city core. The odd thing about Munich is that it looks really old, but much of the city’s old town was rebuilt after it was destroyed in WWII. Some German cities cleared the rubble and built shiny new cities (Frankfurt) and other cities cleared the rubble and rebuilt new versions of the old city. Munich went old school and Busty explained that much of that decision was based on how the people of Munich see themselves; the people of Munich consider themselves Bavarians more than Germans and they wanted to preserve their Bavarian heritage. This whole Bavarian thing is great for Munich, but it isn’t the most popular attitude to have in the rest of Germany. I equate it to how Americans feel about Texans. (That’s right, I’m messin’ with Texas.)

As we traveled around and Busty filled in the history of the city, I began to get pretty confused about who ruled what and when. This crash-course in European history started in Oslo for me and I was beginning to get everybody mixed up. Were the Bavarian rulers the same ones that ruled Austria? What about the dudes in Potsdam? Who was ruling Czechoslovakia? Eventually Busty got to a part of history that is easier to understand, or harder to understand depending on your perspective: Hitler.

I want to be careful not to sound to flippant here, but Hitler is a historical figure who cannot be confused with any other leader and therefore makes European history since WWII easier to understand. (If you read that last sentence and your mind said, “What about Barack Obama?” I want you to take a deep breath, turn off Fox News, remove the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag from your flag pole, find your happy place, and read a book.)

It is very difficult to understand how Hitler was able to rise to power. For most Americans this is the great mystery of German history. I am being sincere when I say that my little bike tour of Munich helped me finally put the final puzzle pieces together in my mind and understand Hitler’s rise to power.

Puzzle Piece #1: Standing in the Jewish Quarter in Prague, “The Jews were not allowed to live outside this area, and could not be buried in the other cemeteries. The city leaders would not give the Jews more land, so they had to bury people on top of each other. They always put 11 inches of soil between the bodies, but that is why the cemetery ground rises so high above the rest of the street.”

English: Old Jewish Cemetery. Josefov, Prague.

Prague’s Jewish Cemetery

Puzzle Piece #2: Next to the Jewish Memorial in Vienna, “Christians were not allowed to loan money, but the Jewish faith allowed money lending. When the city needed money they would invite the Jews to come live in the city, but as soon as they didn’t need money lending any longer, they kicked the Jews out.”

Vienna's Jewish Memorial.

Vienna’s Jewish Memorial.

Puzzle Piece #3: Standing next to the Plague column in Prague, “Rumors were spread that the Jews had poisoned the wells and that is why the plague was spreading.”

Puzzle Piece #4 and # 5 : Standing in Odeonsplatz in Munich, “Here is where Hitler was almost killed in 1923 during the Beer Hall Riots. He was thrown to the ground, and his body-guard jumped on top of him to protect him. The body-guard was shot four times. 16 Nazis were killed and four police officers died.”

“Hitler ran away, but was eventually captured and went to trial. The German government should have executed him for treason but they didn’t and they allowed him to defend himself at this trial which gave him the opportunity to defend his actions and spread his anti-Semitic message.”

Final Puzzle Piece: The alleyway behind Odeonsplatz: “Hitler had a memorial built of the Beer Hall Riots and everyone who walked by had to do a Nazi salute. People started to walk through this alley to avoid the memorial. Hitler put some of his SS men back here to take names of people who wouldn’t give the salute. Once he controlled the police, he could jail all of his opposition.”

Alleyway behind Odeonplatz.

Alleyway behind Odeonplatz.

Hitler’s rise to power wasn’t a popular movement of unavoidable events, but a series of near-misses combined with a historical hatred of the Jewish people. When Germany’s economy crashed and inflation exploded overnight (primarily because Germany was printing money to pay of WWI reparations ) Hitler was there to blame the Jews who had a history of money-lending. He was there to capitalize on the fears of the past, and to project a future where Germany would be the center of the world. He did not win a popular vote, he formed a coalition government. He consolidated his power by taking over the police force and eventually stifled all of his opposition. All of it made sense to me, not the result, but the actions leading into WWII. It is sad to understand that the human desire to survive often leads to the destruction of other humans.

After our Odeonplatz stop, a few of the wimps (the family from Scotland) in our group were hungry and wanted something to eat. It was 11 o’clock and our next stop was the third largest beer garden in the world, so I passed on the food option (Busty said we would be stopping at the largest beer garden in the world soon) and grabbed a liter of beer. Our group sat around a large table and sipped our beer in the shade.

Beer Garden stop #1.

Beer Garden stop #1.

After our refreshing break we hopped back on the bikes and headed out toward Munich’s Olympic Park. For anyone old enough to remember the 1972 Olympics the park is a destination filled with memories: The tragic deaths of the 11 Israeli Olympic team members still holds the park in its grip, but the ’72 Olympics also brought the world Olga Korbut, Mark Spitz, and a controversial Russian victory (cheaters never prosper) over the US in basketball.

The Olympic Park

The Olympic Park

The park is still used today (the X-games had just left town) but the grounds were almost empty as we rode through. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts and supernatural phenomenon but there was an odd aura surrounding the entire park. It could have been the emptiness of the place, or it might just have been the fact that clouds were now gathering in the sky.

It had been 30 years since the games were held in Munich, a city that had been destroyed 30 years earlier in WWII, and in those 60 years Germany had been conquered, divided, and reunited. The great arcs of history are sometimes pretty short arcs and he ability of humans to destroy in rebuild is incredible. It should frighten us and give us hope at the same time.  The great shame of these monstrous sporting stadiums and buildings is that the host countries have still not figured out how to use the Olympic facilities on a daily basis after the games are over.

Built for 1972, the design still appears modern today.

Built for 1972, the design still appears modern today.

Mark Spitz broke some records in this water. Well, I hope they changed the water by now.

Mark Spitz broke some records in this water…well, I’m sure they have added new water by now.

The one building that was still open to the public was the pool. For five Euros you can slip into the same pool that Mark Spitz swam in to win his collection of gold medals.

The building I wish I could have stood in is where they held the basketball tournament and the referees stole the gold medal from the US players. (This event drove me to win the gold medal back numerous times on my driveway basketball court. History may have awarded the Soviets the gold, but my imagination awarded me the gold many times.) The US team refused to accept the silver medals and I think the medals are still in bank vault waiting for Doug Collins to pick them up. The big shots at the Olympic Committee probably break the medals out to wear them at cocktail parties.

Near the Olympic Park is BMW World. I am not a car guy,this should be obvious because I write a blog, but even I got a little weak in the knees looking at all of the shiny cars.

BMW world.

BMW world.

I wonder if they take Icelandic Kroner s.

I wonder if they take Icelandic Kroner s.

BMW world is one of those places where someone like me realizes that there are people in the world who are far, far, far wealthier than I am, and I am not just talking about people who live in Norway. I don’t think I will ever own one of these cars, but I decided that sitting in a couple of them wouldn’t hurt anyone. Well, it hurt someone, because as soon as I stepped out of the cars some guy would come along and wipe the car down like I was carrying the Ebola virus.

I wandered upstairs and saw this:

A test drive track on the second floor of BMW world.

A test drive track on the second floor of BMW world.

This test track on the second floor is either the coolest thing I have ever seen, or it is the saddest waste of money I have ever seen. Why is it on the second floor? Because if it was on the first floor it would be boring and regular, put it on the second floor and suddenly the building becomes a hide-out for a James Bond villain. I don’t know what you have to buy to drive your car on the track, but sometimes you don’t even have to ask a question to know that answer is, “Don’t worry, Sir, you cannot afford it.”

After BMW World most of us, even the non-wimps, were getting a little hungry. Lucky for us the next stop was the world’s largest beer garden. We rode to the English Garden and located the Beer Garden. We found a table under the Chinese Tower and began munching on our food and sipping our beer. There was an ompa band playing and it felt very festive. Ten minutes later the festivities stopped and everyone was running for shelter as a “summer shower” began dumping on the English Garden. Since we were beneath the tower, we were not getting wet, but our bike tour was now looking a bit less fun. I didn’t really mind getting wet, maybe it was because I had two liters of beer, or maybe it was the fact that is was warm and being wet wasn’t a huge problem.

Busty said the rain would probably stop soon, so we waited and then when the rain abated, we grabbed our bikes and rode over to see the park surfers. On the way to the river it began pouring again. It was a Noah sized shower. I had a rain parka in my bag, but by the time I considered getting the parka, I was completely soaked and didn’t care.

A little rain never hurt anyone.

A little rain never hurt anyone.

The rest of our bike group was not quite as excited about riding the rest of the way through the rain and by the time we reached the surfers people were complaining. I announced that I was willing to sell my parka to the highest bidder, but had no takers. The rain did not appear to want to stop and Busty gave us the option of heading back a little early, or seeing one more thing that would extend our trip by 45 minutes. Of course we voted to head back early.

Surfing in the English Gardens.

Surfing in the English Gardens.

We rode through some pretty heavy rain and eventually ended up back at the office. Busty thanked us all for being good sports and I was awarded with this gem of a gift.

If you look at this picture in the mirror there is a secret message.

If you look at this picture in the mirror there is a secret message.

TSOJ: Munich–What to do? Let’s get lost.

Before arriving in Munich, I took an informal poll of people sitting in my train seat. I asked myself, “What should I see in Munich?” This was a difficult question to answer because I had done very little research on where to go and what to do once I arrived. This phenomenon occurred because I assumed  I would have plenty of time to plan along the way. Well, I probably did have time, but most of the time I wasn’t thinking about what to do in Munich, I was thinking about what I was going to do in the moment and since Munich was the final stop on TSOJ I figured I had plenty of time.  So as I traveled from Vienna to Munich, I began to think about what I should see. What I knew about Munich was that it is where Octoberfest takes place each year, it was also where the 1972 Munich Olympics took place, and I knew there was a big park where the world’s largest beer garden is located. Since it was not October (or even September, which is when Octoberfest really happens) or 1972, I had very little to plan. I did have a bike tour scheduled for my second day in Munich and since it was the “Deluxe tour” I decided that if there was something special to see in Munich I would ride by on my bike at some point. I then spent the next four hours planning how to get from the train station to my hotel…I still got lost.

Eventually I ended up at Hotel Bristol (Motto: We are not friendly, but your room is clean) and I set off to see the city center. The city center was just across a big convergence of streets and about three blocks away from my hotel. I did not want to cross the busy streets and knew I could use the underground entrance and exit to avoid them, so I went down the stairs, walked through the underground passage, and came up on the other side. Viola, all of my travel experience paid off and I was off to the downtown. I will now disclose a few embarrassing details: I somehow got turned around in the underground area. I know, it sounds impossible, but I did it.  I was heading east, but my brain told me I was traveling north. I walked within touching distance of the downtown area a couple of times before turning in the wrong direction. I only discovered how lost I was when I came upon a river and could no longer just keep walking.

I took out my map and tried to figure out where I was. There is only one big river in Munich, the Isar, and according to my brain there was no possible way I could have walked all the way there, so I was not just regular lost, I was big-time lost. I followed the river for a little while and enjoyed the walk. Lots of people were swimming in the river, riding bikes along the river, and enjoying the sunshine, so I got comfortable being lost and just strolled until I saw a sign for the Deutsches Museum. According to my brain, the Deutsches Museum was not anywhere close to my  location, but as it turned out reality won again.

This the the actual route I took to the center of town.

This the actual route I took to the center of town.

Now that I knew where I was it was much easier to use my map. I reoriented myself and eventually found my way to Marienplatz. Using maps is always easier when you know where you are. (Yes, you can quote me on the previous statement.)

Marienplatz is Munich's city center.

Marienplatz is Munich’s city center.

Since I was now exhausted and hungry I decided to see if there was a place to eat somewhere close. Rule number one learned from TSOJ: Don’t eat anyplace near a major tourist site. Rule number two, avoid blue umbrellas. Rule number three, if you are in Munich find a beer garden. Rule number four, if you are near a tourist site, beer gardens are okay.

Right near Marienplatz is a place called Viktualienmarkt. Viktualienmarkt is a little like Pike’s Street Market in Seattle and a beer garden.  In other words, food heaven for a weary traveler.

Viktualenmarkt.

Viktualenmarkt.

Viktualienmarkt's beer garden under the shady trees.

Viktualienmarkt’s beer garden under the shady trees.

If you have never been to a German beer garden here is a quick guide:

1. Go to the food line.

2. Order the most stereotypical German food you can imagine. In my case it is always brat, kraut, and potato salad.

3. Pay for your food with cash. CASH ONLY! Don’t slow the line down or you will get a lecture in German and that will feel like being yelled at.

4. Go to the beer line.

5. Grab the largest beer you can find, or if you want a lemon beer (radler) ask for it.

6. Pay for your beer.

7. Find a place to sit down. It is communal seating, so you just need to find an open location and then ask anyone nearby if it is open. Seats closest to the food and beer are usually reserved for people who want table service from a waiter/waitress. You can tell the difference between service seating and regular seating by the type of seat. Benches= no service.

8. Sit down and eat.

9. Be friendly and talk to your neighbors after informing them that you are an American and only speak one language.

10. Get another beer.

I ended up sitting next to a fountain with an older German gentleman. We spent most of the time talking about his daughter who was trying to get a Visa to study in San Francisco. He also gave me a great overview of what to see in his city saving me hours of research and effort.

After my dinner, I took the underground train back to my hotel so that I would not spend another two hours wandering Munich and mapped out how I would spend the final few days of TSOJ.

TSOJ: Final Thoughts on Vienna

Traveling is a disease that only has one cure, more traveling. While I enjoyed my time in Vienna I came away from Vienna knowing that three days were not enough to fully see the city, but here are a few observations about a city that I will have to return to on my next trip to Europe.

Liver paste for breakfast?

Liver paste for breakfast?

10. This product (Liver-spread) is by far the worst (wurst) thing I was offered for breakfast. After nearly a month in Europe I had adjusted to breakfast European style (cold meats, cheese, coffee, juice), but liver paste did not make it into my indifferent mouth. Why someone would eat something like this when they wake up is beyond all rational explanation.

9. Vienna’s outdoor music film festival is one of the best ways to spend an evening even if you don’t have a clue about opera. Actually, knowing a little about opera would probably help but it didn’t hurt me too much, other than not knowing what was going on and what was being sung I enjoyed the atmosphere and food. It is a great, non-threatening way to sample opera, like trying a food sample at Costco if you don’t like it you can just push on through without getting dressed up at all.

They let anyone see the opera, even idiots like me.

They let anyone see the opera, even idiots like me.

8. Vienna has the best plague column ever. I have not seen all the plague columns in Europe, but I find it hard to believe that any city has a better one than this:

Plague column or pile of stuff laying around the sculptor's backyard?

Plague column or pile of stuff from the sculptor’s backyard?

Topped with golden holy stuff.

Topped with golden holy stuff.

The original battle royale: angels and demons.

The original battle royale: angels and demons. Baby angel stabbing plague demon= awesomeness.

Most columns are actual columns, but Vienna was like, “You want a plague column? I’ll show you a plague column. Here’s a pile of stuff.” I’m sure other European cities were upset because it really isn’t a column as much as a pyramid of marble and gold, and I am sure there were howling protests at the annual plague column contests, but Vienna just told everybody else to bite it. Now since I am an American and did not suffer through the plague I wonder why all the cities built these monuments to thank God for killing off 1/3 of the population, but I won’t get too high and mighty since we have a statue of a fictional-hero boxer (Rocky) somewhere in Philadelphia.

7. People in Vienna like coffee, chocolate, and cigarettes. I had not seen a cigarette machine in years and felt a little twinge of nostalgia when I saw these guys sprinkled around town.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em. Enjoy freedom and cancer.

6. Vienna has the worst (wurst) manhole covers of any major European city. Come on, Vienna! Since you claim to have the best drinking water in the world you might want to take the manhole covers up a notch or two.

Be ashamed Vienna! I want to see some better manhole covers when I come back next time.

Be ashamed Vienna! I want to see some better manhole covers when I come back.

5. Are there lots of blind people in Vienna? This puzzled me because of these signs on the trams.

Seats for people with white arms, white babies, white gloves and glasses, and old Michael Jackson fans?

Seats for people with white arms, white babies, white gloves and glasses, and old Michael Jackson fans?

Are the old people and the blue people blind? Do I have to give up my seat to anyone with a cane?

Are the old people and the blue people blind? Do I have to give up my seat to anyone with a cane?

Many transportation systems have signs like this, but Vienna’s blue people confused me. Are they blind, or are they injured? If they are injured, then why the creepy John Denver glasses? The old lady’s hair is a concern also, but I am not sure why.

4. Public scales? I saw several public scales around town and wondered why they were there. Is there a problem with people being overweight in Vienna? If so, this seems like an odd way to solve the problem, but usually the scales were near fast food booths so maybe somebody was just trying to subconsciously nudge people to refrain. Remember, Vienna is where Freud lived.

You sure you want that schnitzel?

You sure you want that schnitzel?

3. Telephone booths? This was a little like seeing a T-Rex walking down the street. I actually saw a few people using the phones while I was wandering around town. I wasn’t sure if I had stepped into a wormhole and traveled back in time, but I did not see any Border’s Books or Blockbuster video stores, so I figured I must be in present day. The Viennese have done an excellent job of preserving the past and the phone booths must be just another relic they figure is worth keeping around.

Clark Kent should move to Vienna.

Clark Kent should move to Vienna.

2. Are you allowed to do anything in a Viennese city park? Usually there are a few rules for people to follow, but this is getting a bit out of control.

You can put ice cubes in large cups in this park, but that is it!

You can put ice cubes in large cups in this park, but that is it!

I’m not sure what happened in this park that caused the city fathers to put this sign up, but it looks like this park was a lawless Thunderdome of a place. No zebra-faced dogs! No jumping jacks and tossing heads around! Mr. Heat Miser is not allowed! No teepees! Don’t put your legs between balls! No water walking! Enjoy all the large ice cooled beverages you like.

1. Vienna is a fantastic city.

TSOJ: Vienna’s Belvedere

On my final day in Vienna I had some serious choices to make, had I been able to travel back in time and reorganize my trip I would have added a day to Vienna and taken a day away from Munich. (Not that Munich isn’t a great city, it just isn’t Vienna.) The number one item on my Vienna list was seeing Gustave Klimt‘s painting “The Kiss.” Just a few months before I arrived in Vienna the city was celebrating the 150th birthday of Klimt (why we celebrate dead people’s birthdays is beyond me, but I never complain when it means I get a day off of work.) The Belvedere had drawn together as many of Klimt’s paintings to celebrate his birthday as possible, but now that it was July the paintings had been returned to their owners and I would have to do with seeing a smaller collection of his paintings than I wanted, but when life takes away paintings to see, you have to make lemonade or something like that.

Klimt’s paintings are not only beautiful, they are also some of the most controversial works created in the 20th century. What makes the paintings controversial today isn’t what made them controversial in the early 1900s when they were created and the controversy is something that I am certain Austria would like to make disappear. It is estimated that the Nazis looted 20% of the art work in Europe and many of Klimt’s paintings were taken directly from the Jewish families who owned the paintings. (If you are interested in learning more about the Nazi’s attempt to steal all of Europe’s art watch The Rape of Europa it is a fantastic documentary about Hitler’s art obsession.) Many of these looted paintings ended up museums after the war and there were no efforts made to return the paintings to their rightful owners. It is shameful. A legal battle has been going on for well over 20 years for many of Klimt’s paintings and in 2011 a chunk of the paintings were returned to the families who originally owned them. Most of the returned paintings have now been auctioned off and have disappeared into somebody’s mansion (this makes me even less happy, but I suppose if I could earn a few hundred million dollars by selling something I would.)

The two paintings still owned by the Belvedere that I really wanted to see were The Kiss and Judith, so I headed off to the Belvedere thinking I would spend an hour or two looking at the Klimt paintings and then run downtown to see a few of the cathedrals in the city center, and then finish my final night in Vienna watching a chunk of Wagner’s Ring opera.

The Belvedere was once the summer residence for an Austrian general (Prince Eugene of Savoy). It must have been good to be a general in Austria because the two buildings and gardens forming the Belvedere are massive and beautiful.

That is the Upper Belvedere in the distance.

That is the Upper Belvedere in the distance.

A few of the fountains at the Belvedere.

One of the fountains at the Belvedere.

I have plants larger than this in my garden.

I have plants larger than this in my garden.

I had read that the upper Belvedere had the good paintings and that the lower portion of the Belvedere wasn’t worth seeing so I intended on just buying tickets to see the upper building. My plans changed once I started to talk to the man at the information desk. I told him that I was only interested in seeing the Klimt paintings and he told me that Judith was now down at the lower Belvedere. At first this seemed like a little bit of a scam to get tourists like me to buy tickets to both exhibits but after visiting both buildings I am happy that they strong-armed me into seeing both because the special exhibit Dekadenz was really interesting. (Of course neither exhibit allowed photography so you will have to take my word for it.)

The Klimt paintings (although limited in number) in the Upper Belvedere showed an amazing spectrum of work. Klimt’s early work surprised me the most. One of the paintings I was certain was a portrait by John Singer-Sargent when I saw it across the room was actually a portrait by Klimt. This has become my new measure of greatness when it comes to an artist, how much have they not only mastered one form, but how have they changed over time. Most of the great artists have not only pushed the form into new areas, but have also followed the flock at times showing their great skill as an artist. Picasso is the easiest example to use since his work spanned such a long period and he was never satisfied with cranking out the same old thing like other artists who found their groove and then just stayed there. Picasso’s early work could be mistaken for any of the great Spanish portrait artists but eventually he was minimizing everything in his paintings and rarely did a painting with much detail at all, so when someone sees a late Picasso and says, “I could do that,” I want to ask them if they really understand what he was doing, but being an art snob is only my part-time job.

The Kiss was as amazing as I hoped. Seeing a painting as familiar as The Kiss in real life is always a bit weird. Initially there

The Kiss 1907–1908. Oil on canvas. Österreichi...

Picture stolen from Wikipedia.

is the expected surprise at the size of the painting, maybe it is just me but I never seem to anticipate the size of the painting accurately. Either I think the painting will be larger than it is, or I think it will be smaller. I could relate my surprise at the size of paintings like the Mona Lisa, but let’s not get too off track. The Kiss was larger than I had anticipated, I would guess it was five feet by five feet. The room that contained the painting was completely black with a spotlight on The Kiss and one other painting at the other side of the room. The second painting was largely being ignored by the people in the room so I went over and kept it company for a few moments. It turned out the second painting was part of the Beethoven Frieze called: Praise to Joy, the God-descended (This kiss for the whole world). It was even larger than The Kiss and did not appear to be painted on canvas. There were deep grooves carved into the painting that could only be noticed by standing up close. Again, you will have to take my word for it since there was no photography allowed.

The next 15 minutes or so I did my best to take in The Kiss. I won’t bore you with my description of the painting because almost everyone knows what it looks like and there are probably people who know something about art who can do a better job of sounding knowledgeable.

The rest of the Upper Belvedere’s collection had some interesting paintings, but I had things to do and moved through pretty quickly. A few of Egon Schiele‘s paintings caught my attention long enough to slow my walk down, but for the most part I was out of the building and walking through the gardens like a race-walker on their day off.

Judith I

Judith I: also stolen from Wikipedia.

The Lower Belvedere’s exhibit Dekadenz was next. I really thought I would just zoom up to the Judith painting and then zip on out of the building and head off to look for food, but it ended up that the paintings and arrangement of the exhibit made me slow down and actually learn something. Dekadenz showed the connections and influence  of Romanticism on the symbolism of the Fin de siecle.  (Translation: The Romantic paintings of Gods and Goddesses reclining on clouds influenced the symbolic paintings that arrived around the turn of the century.) This connection was probably obvious to most people, but I had not noticed it before. The mystical world of the Romantics was just being retranslated for a new generation using the newer form of symbolism.

The Judith painting brings together many of Austria’s uncomfortable historical realities. The subject matter is biblical: Judith seduces the Assyrian general Holofernes in order to save her city. She gets old Holofernes drunk enough that he passes out and then gives him a close shave that removes his head from the rest of his body. In Klimt’s painting, the Judith character looks pleased with her work. Holofernes’s head is not the star of the show and Klimt seems to be indicating that sexy women are trouble for Assyrian generals (and maybe any guy who drinks too much.) The female model for Klimt was an Austrian Jew named Adele Bloch-Bauer who starred in a few of Klimt’s other paintings and died from meningitis in 1925. Her will indicated that she wished for her paintings to be donated to the Austrian state gallery upon her husband’s death. Enter WWII and the Nazis. Bloch-Bauer’s widowed husband fled to Switzerland to escape the Nazis leaving the paintings behind. The Nazis stole the paintings, changed the name of the paintings in order to remove the connections to the Jewish model and any Jewish history, and put them on display at the Belvedere. When Mr. Bloch-Bauer died in 1945 he willed the paintings to his nephew and nieces. Of course Austria liked the will that donated the paintings to Austria, and the family liked the will that passed the paintings on to the family. Eventually, 2006, the paintings were handed over to the nieces and nephew who sold them. Almost all of the paintings were purchased by anonymous buyers and have disappeared from public display so seeing any of the Klimt paintings where Bloch-Bauer was the model has become even more difficult. I would like to say that the paintings ended up with the right group, but I can’t. I doubt Mrs. Bloch-Bauer wished for the paintings to disappear into someone’s private collection, but I am certain that if she had survived the Nazi occupation and seen how Austria colluded with Germany she would not have donated her paintings to the nation who abandoned their Jewish citizens. History is never as clean as my old textbooks told me in 5th grade.

As I left the Belvedere I wondered what everyday Austrian’s felt about their history. In the United States we like to ignore our uncomfortable historical misdeeds and I get the feeling that Austria likes to do the same thing. I remember going to the battlefield of Little Big Horn in Montana where George Custer and his troops were killed by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. There were these little white headstones scattered around the battlefield where the white guys were killed, but there were no headstones for the Native Americans that were killed in the battle. Finally, in 2003 , the National Parks added a memorial for the Indians who died trying to protect their way of life. The battle took place in 1876 and it took us 125+ years to add a memorial to the people who were the real victims of the American Indian genocide, so I guess I should cut Austria some slack.

TSOJ: A Vienna Bike Tour with The Terminator

Before most bike tours start there is a tiny tutorial about how to use the bikes, the bike rules in the city, and how to avoid getting killed on the bike tour, but not with Walter (pronounced Valter for those of you who speak English properly.) Walter simply asked if we all had bikes, looked to see that we all had bikes, and then he began riding away from us assuming that we would follow. His assumption was half correct. About half of us followed, and the other half of the group had some difficulties turning around, hopping on their bikes, and beginning riding. It wasn’t long before a city block separated the two groups and I was a little concerned for the trailing pack, my job as “Ass Man” made me keenly aware of the difficulties of being in a trailing group. Sometimes traffic lights delay progress, sometimes it is a slow rider, and sometimes it is just fate, but usually the group leader is a little concerned about splitting the group and will slow down and wait, but not Walter/Valter, I never saw him turn around to check on the progress of the pack he just kept rolling forward like he had to be home for cable installation between 5:00 and 5:05.

Walter rode for another block or two and then stopped. He turned around, saw that half of the group was still missing, shook his head, wondered aloud why the people in the back were so far behind, and began talking about the opera house without waiting for the slow pokes. There were two distinctive attributes about Walter that I instantly loved: 1. He made fun of everything not Austrian. 2. He sounded exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger when he talked. “I am going to use a bad word now for you Americans, Socialism. That is vhy ve have the best drinking vater, the most livable city in the vorld, and if I have to go to the hospital I don’t pay anything.”  Walter did not just give America a bad time, Germany, France, England, and Russia would all get tossed under the bike tour’s wheels at some point along the way, but Walter did it with good humor and the type of boasting usually reserved for American Olympic teams.

Athena agrees that Vienna is a great looking city.

Athena agrees that Vienna is a great looking city.

When we rode by a large statue of Goethe I asked why we hadn’t stopped (mostly this question was poised so that I could show off that I knew how to pronounce Goethe’s name.) Walter did not skip a pedal push, “He’s German, nobody cares about him.”

The tour followed the ring circling Vienna’s old downtown area and before too long I realized that Vienna has the most beautiful buildings in the world. Each city has its own beauty (I am excluding Bakersfield from this observation) and spending time anywhere a visitor can find things to like about a city, but most cities are limited in what they can offer a visitor who is there for a short period of time.

My requirements for a perfect city to visit: 1. Great, easy to understand public transportation, 2. A city plan/map that is easy to understand, 3. Great museums, 4. Beautiful buildings, 5. Green spaces, 6. Temperate climate, 7. History, 8. Walkability, 9. Food, 10. Je ne sais quoi.  On a 0-5 scale most great cities will score in the high 30s and low 40s using my scientific scale. Take Paris for example: Transportation: 5, City Plan: 5, Great Museums: 5, Beautiful Buildings: 5, Green Spaces: 5, Temperate Climate: 4, History: 5, Walkability: 5, Food: 5, Je ne sais quoi: 5, for a grand total of 49. That is a pretty good score. London might end up with a 42 (city plan is terrible, and London is not really a walkable city unless you want black lung.) Bakersfield: 5 (great Mexican food, everything else is a zero.)

Anyway, as we rode around Vienna, I began to believe that Vienna might be a 50, and I am sure Walter would have agreed. Since Vienna was the center of the Hapsburg Dynasty it still has the structure of a world leader, but the importance of Austria as a global power has diminished and I have the feeling that this has allowed Vienna to relax and focus their monetary assets internally as opposed to trying to run an empire.

That is one big, two-headed Eagle.

That is one big, two-headed Eagle.

Green spaces in Vienna are abundant. Want to rent a rosebush in the royal garden? You can.

Green spaces in Vienna are abundant. Want to rent a rosebush in the royal garden? You can.

There is a large amusement park near the Danube river. I saw this thing in a James Bond movie once.

There is a large amusement park near the Danube river. I saw this thing in a James Bond movie once.

The food tent outside the Rathaus.

The food tent outside the Rathaus.

The center of European power for 800 years.

The center of European power for 800 years.

Some royal house or something.

Some royal house or something.

By far the best Plague column I saw during TSOJ.

By far the best Plague column I saw during TSOJ.

You don't see things like this in Bakersfield.

You don’t see things like this in Bakersfield.

The golden dome was designed by Klimt.

The golden dome was designed by Klimt.

Just another Vienna building.

Just another Vienna building.

Walter telling half the bike riders about the fountain.

Walter telling half the bike riders about the fountain.

Public housing Vienna style.

Public housing Vienna style.

All in all the bike tour took about two hours and Walter was able to make it to meet the cable man in time. I think he also mentioned a meeting he had with a couple beers, but in my opinion Walter earned those beers. He did not lose anyone on the tour, he entertained me, he did not tell any lies (as far as I can tell), and he did have a lot to say if you kept up with him.

 

TSOJ: Vienna Has Excellent Drinking Water, or Does It?

About 20 minutes into my walking tour of Vienna, I began to think that my tour guide was making stuff up. Not the big stuff about the Hapsburg Dynasty and their 800 years of rule, but the little stuff that only someone a PhD in Austrian History would know. The first “white” lie happened when we stepped into a courtyard in the Jewish section of town. (I have  a much better understanding of European Jewish history than when I left the USA and have learned why older cities have “Jewish Quarters” and how long the Jewish people have been mistreated, but this information will be held back for a later post.) Anyway, back to the “fibbing” tour guide. We were standing in Judenplatz looking that the Jewish Memorial to the 65,000 murdered Austrian Jews. Our guide was doing her best to walk the very narrow tightrope of acknowledging that Hitler was Austrian, that Austria did not do much resisting Germany when it came to WWII, and that “some people did bad things.” These “bad things” included systematically murdering people. I can understand not wanting to be a buzz kill and ruin people’s’ vacations with information like this, but it seemed to me that the guide was glossing over the horror of the Holocaust so I walked away from her mini-lecture to take some pictures of the memorial. She had mentioned that the builders had discovered the original footprint of the Jewish Synagogue in Vienna when building the memorial.  I noticed what appeared to be some long lines carved into the cobblestones of the plaza. To me they looked like the outline of an old building, like what you can see left of the Bastille in Paris if you know to look down instead of up at the little golden boy on the spire.

The Jewish Memorial in Vienna.

The Jewish Memorial in Vienna.

I deleted the picture of the grooves in the cobblestones thinking I had just taken another picture of the ground accidentally. Careful observation of this picture shows some of the pattern caused by "the weather."

I deleted the picture of the grooves in the cobblestones thinking I had just taken another picture of the ground accidentally. Careful observation of this picture shows some of the pattern caused by “the weather.”

I waited for the guide to finish her luke-warm acknowledgement of Austria having been involved in WWII and then I asked, “I noticed these lines carved into the cobblestones. Why are they here?”

“Oh, the weather does that.”

This was not the answer I expected. Actually, I believed it was what I will call a prevarication. The weather in Austria must behave differently than weather in my area because apparently the weather in Vienna includes cobblestone cutting lasers. I decided to let it go, but as you can tell since I am now writing about it, I really didn’t let it go. Everything the guide said from that point on (two and a half more hours) I viewed through the prism of what I still consider a lie.

List of “facts” I didn’t believe during the next 2.5 hours:

1. “Vienna has been ranked #1 since 2009 as the world’s most livable city.” Really? Four years in a row? Nope, not according to my Google search. In 2012, Melbourne, Australia (the place with kangaroos not the land-locked country in Central Europe) was ranked #1. Vienna was #2 and has consistently been ranked near the top, but the San Antonio Spurs would be the NBA champs if we allowed the second place team to claim the #1 status.  I will be the first to admit that some of rankings do have Vienna at #1 and that no American cities appear in the top ten, but that isn’t important. What is important is that I didn’t believe my tour guide.

The Austrian Parliament building, not to be confused with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic.

The Austrian Parliament building, not to be confused with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. The car in the foreground did not hold still for my panoramic picture.

2. “Vienna has the world’s best drinking water.” According to my Google research Vienna is ranked number five in this category. Greenwood, BC has better water than Vienna, but I will admit the drinking water in Vienna is abundant, and good. Vienna does what it can to perpetuate the myth of being the best by encouraging people to drink out of the tap as opposed to buying bottled water. This is a good thing, but it doesn’t make you number 1.

These water stations are sprinkled throughout the city to give access to Vienna's 5th best water in the world.

These water stations are sprinkled throughout the city to give access to Vienna’s 5th best water in the world.

3. “Vienna was once the world’s largest city.” Now I may have misheard this one, she may have claimed that Vienna was once Europe’s largest city, but either way, I don’t believe it. According to my research it might have been the 5th largest city at one point, but never #1. If my guide said, “Vienna was the world’s most important city in 1900,” I would have believed it. The Austrian Empire was big and important, but when it comes to population I don’t believe it was ever the largest city in the world.

4. “Freud drank coffee and invented psychotherapy in that café.” Okay, this one may be true, but I think he probably just drank coffee in the café and did his work at an office like everyone but Hemingway.

5. “Beethoven lived in 80 different apartments during his time in Vienna because he never paid his bills and was a bad tenant.” There is a good deal of truth to this one, but 80 is too high. Most experts on Beethoven’s living quarters (as if there are these people in the world) believe he lived in at least 27 documented locations with some estimates as high as 65. He was a terrible tenant and a bit of a jerk, so he did move a lot.

Beethoven slept here...and there, and there.

Beethoven slept here…and there, and there.

6. “St. Stephan’s cathedral had the tallest church spire in Europe.” Nope, never according to my Wikipedia research. It is the tallest in Austria, might have been the second tallest in Europe at one point, but never the tallest. These are the types of facts I would have swallowed if not for the “Austrian weather includes cobblestone cutting lasers” lie.

Things always look taller when you stand next to them. From France you can barely see this spire.

Things always look taller when you stand next to them. From France you can barely see this spire.

I suppose I should disclose at this point that Vienna was my favorite city to visit on this trip. It really is a wonderful place, it is organized, clean, full of history, and has excellent drinking water, but there are no lasers in the clouds.

TSOJ: A Night at the Opera…I put on pants for this?

I have never been to an Opera. I have never really wanted to go to the Opera because you have to dress up a lot more than I want to, and I really don’t know enough about the operas to enjoy them, but when I found out that I could attend an opera for free in Vienna I thought it might be time to give the grand old opera a try.

The big, big screen at the Vienna town hall.

The big, big screen at the Vienna town hall.

The opera I attended was by Verdi. Now I don’t know much about Verdi, but I do know that I have some of his stuff on my iPod for when I want music that is old and famous, it makes me seem a little more cultured than I am and I can pretend that I know something about Verdi by saying, “Verdi, ah yes, Verdi. I was listening to a Verdi aria today on my iPod.” I don’t even know if Verdi wrote arias, because the definition of an aria is unclear to me, but Verdi probably did and most people won’t call you on it if you sound confident. They might be thinking, “Did Verdi write an aria? I can’t think of one, but I don’t want to sound stupid, so I won’t ask.”

I figured at some point during the opera there would be an “aha” moment when I recognized the song and would be able to hum along with the crowd in that knowing way. This has happened to me at a couple of musicals I attended. One moment I watching the play and then next thing I know they are singing a song that I kind of know, and my brain goes, “Hey, this is that song I know. I can now mouth the words and act like I knew this song was in this musical.”

Vienna does this “bring culture to the masses” thing every night in July. It really is pretty cool. Seventeen restaurants have semi-permanent booths set up to serve food on real dishes with real silverware and drinks are served in real glasses, so it is pretty classy. They then have some concert or opera on a huge screen that is hanging from the neck of the town hall.

I heard this was a classy gathering so I wanted to make sure I made a good impression, so after a long day of roaming the streets of Vienna I went back to my hotel took a shower and put on pants, a button up shirt and shoes. I didn’t want to be the guy standing there dressed like a slob, I wasn’t but apparently the “let’s dress up” memo did not get to everyone attending the opera.  I suppose it is better to be overdressed for most occasions than underdressed, unless of course you are overdressed to participate in a sporting event. Wingtips don’t always provide the traction needed in a game of pick-up basketball, but most often it is better to be the best dressed as opposed to the worst dressed.

This is the outfit I wanted to wear.

This is the outfit I wanted to wear, not the dress, the shorts and sandals.

If your shirt and your hat match and your name isn't Duchess, it is time to change your hat.

If your shirt and your hat match and your name isn’t Duchess, it is time to change your hat.

Long pants...sometimes even long pants are a bad choice.

Acid washed pants and color treated hair? Time to take somebody’s man card.

These silk pants come from the David Carradine collection.

These silk pants come from the David Carradine collection.

Pink shorts, Red Stripe beer tank top, and Syl Stallone's mom all in one shot.

Pink shorts, Red Stripe beer tank top, and Syl Stallone’s mom all in one shot.

Black socks are not always a no-no.

Black socks are not always a no-no.

The challenge for Vienna is that there are a lot of people like me: Opera neophytes. So the vibe is more like a bar than an opera house, and I suppose this is why the Viennese come out to see Verdi on the big screen. This is one of those perfect culture traps that probably gets people into opera, but it is also one of those things that drives real opera fans crazy because there is a lot of noise in the crowd since everyone is drinking and eating well past dark.

Chicken and noodles: 7 Euros, not too bad.

Chicken and noodles: 7 Euros, not too bad.

The food booths are good and reasonably priced, but here are some tips for you noobs out there. 1. Never get a pretzel as big as your head. It seems like a good idea, but it isn’t. There isn’t anything more cliché than a guy walking around with a jumbo sized pretzel in one hand and a large beer in the other. It is like a little kid with a balloon and a oversized lollipop. 2. Eating standing up is okay, but sitting down is much better. 3. Everyone speaks English so don’t worry about limiting yourself to stuff that looks easy to order. 4. People in Europe eat much later than we do in North America, so try to eat around 8 PM. This might mean that you have to have a snack, but eating at 6 when everyone else is just arriving is a bit sad and then you will have to waste two hours waiting for the sun to go down and the opera to start.

Large cheese pretzel...maybe not such a good idea.

Large cheese pretzel…maybe not such a good idea.

On to the opera. At 9:30 this little lady came out to speak to the crowd, she was little because she was a long way from me and standing in front of a huge screen, so it was probably an optical illusion, but she might have been smaller than average. She spoke in German for a long time, about five minutes of German and then she did about 20 seconds of English. German and English are not that much different, so I knew I was losing something in the translation, but I found out the opera was named “Simon Bocanegro” which kind of, sort of rang a bell in my head. I was thinking that I might know some of the music, but then I realized that the reason the name range a bell was because there was some sports guy I knew named Carlos Bocanegro. I could not remember what sport Carlos played, so for 10 of the 20 seconds of the English translation I was trying to figure out what sport Carlos Bocanegro played. When I moved out of my brain and back into the real world I had missed most of what she said because she was now speaking Italian, I think. I went back to trying to figure out the Carlos/Simon Bocanegro problem and then finally resolved to look it up on the internet when I got back to my hotel, but my little brain still would not let it go so I distracted it by translating Bocanegro into English. Boca= Mouth, Negro= Black. Black mouth, hmmm, the opera is probably about some dental problems? or possibly it is more metaphoric and means that there is a character that has difficulty with swearing?

Let's get ready for some opera!

Let’s get ready for some opera!

Five minutes of that nimble brain activity put my mind to rest on the Carlos Bocanegro situation and I was then able to sit back and enjoy my first opera, or shall I say I was able to sit back and try to figure out what the hell was going on.

The big star of the opera was Placido Domingo, I think. I don’t really know who the star of the show was because after eight minutes I couldn’t tell what was going on.

Here are the problems I had with the production: It was in Italian, I have enough trouble figuring out English lyrics. Everything I know about the Italian language can be boiled down to watching Life is Beautiful a bunch of times.
Everyone was dressed the same. The two main guys had the same hair cut, were about the same size, and could have been twins.

So here is what happened in Simon Bocanegro: Sailors pulled some ropes, eventually one guy started singing loudly in bursts, there was some kind of confrontation between the twins guys, one of the guys draws a sword and they sing, the other dude bows down. Assumptions I am making at this point: One of these guys is named Simon. One of them is Placido Domingo. Some of this will start to make sense soon.
Then a body wrapped in a shroud gets dragged onto the stage, things are looking up. I might like Opera. This scene is never resolved in the first 45 minutes of the opera, which is apparently the attention span I have for an opera that I don’t understand. The guys sing about the dead person, I assume, I really don’t know if they were singing about the price of peas is Persia, and then the curtain closes. The crowd claps politely, and I wonder if now is a good time to leave my first opera.
The scene changes to some lady singing to another lady who NEVER sings. (Again, this is an observation based on the first 45 minutes of the opera.) I found the second, non-singing role to be confusing. It is an opera, shouldn’t everyone sing? My second thought was that maybe there is a chance for me to get into opera since I could sit there and not sing. Singing lady number one finished her little bursts of song, and  I assume that one of the guys from the first scene will show up and a love interest will be sprouted. Boy am I wrong, instead of one of the signing sailors some really fat guy appears and starts singing to the lady. Are they in love? Who is this guy? What is going on? This is 45 minutes into the Opera. I have done everything I can to give the impression that I am cultured: I sat with my legs crossed at the knees. I sat forward.  I put my hands on my crossed knees. I put my hand up to my chin…none of these physical attempts at body posturing worked, so instead of pretending to understand what was going on I took a moonlit walk in Vienna and tried to remember who Carlos Bocanegro was.

TSOJ: Final Thoughts on Prague

My visit in Prague was cut short by a flu/Ebola virus/black plague/monkey pox ailment, but I did have a few observations about Prague before I was put down for the count by a disease that would have killed an ordinary person.

IMG_1871

Someday I will learn how to keep my fingers out of the pictures.

9. Don’t ever, ever, ever, eat in a restaurant where the head waiter walks away from the dining area and shoots a “snot rocket” into a potted plant.

8. There is something about Prague residents and their dogs. I saw many dogs along the way, but the people of Prague take their dogs everywhere: Trains, buses, underground stations, supermarkets, restaurants…everywhere. Most of these dogs were not the little baby dogs I now see so many women carrying around like children in the US, but real life-sized dogs that could pick up one of those baby dogs and snap its head off. I began to wonder if the dogs were a hold over from the years of Soviet occupation where the streets were patrolled by soldiers and their dogs. I don’t know, but I never stepped in a pile of dog poo, which is more than I can say about some European cities; I’m talking to you, Paris.

7. Men’s fashion in Prague is a mix of hillbilly and Soviet Bloc circa 1985. I don’t know if the poorly dressed men were from Prague or if they were visitors from other lands where mirrors don’t exist, but I do know that the men in Prague have the fashion sense of an average 8th grade boy. I am certainly no fashion icon, I have the yellow shoes to prove it, but I know acid washed jeans and mullets are no longer setting any trends.

6. Fashionable women in Prague are expected to have blonde hair and wear a pink top made of some silky fabric.

5. David Černý is a fantastic artist. Rarely have I been more intrigued by a living artist. This guy has done some amazing, thought-provoking things in his time. His work says more about the Czech attitude toward power and the world than an entire book on Czech history could.

The Pissing Men. That is a map of the Czech Republic they are standing in. Their hips, Anthony Wieners, and hands move to spell out words in the water below.

The Pissing Men. That is a map of the Czech Republic they are standing in. Their hips, Anthony Wieners, and hands move to spell out words in the water below.

4. The Czech attitude toward life is a mix of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Stoicism. I really believe that oppression has created a unique attitude toward life that is not optimistic but at the same time is not pessimistic. I did not see anyone in Prague laughing and yet the whole city seems to be holding in a belly laugh as they poke fun at the powers that exist around them. On the hillside overlooking the city there once stood a huge statue of Stalin. This was replaced by a statue of Michael Jackson…yep, Michael Jackson. Now, in the same location is a huge metronome that was built to show the passing of time…the metronome no longer works and is stuck like an old man trying to touch his toes. One would think that repairing a statue like this would be important to the people of Prague, but it isn’t, I guess they figure time marches on whether we measure it or not.

Typical of the Czech attitude toward life: the men's urinals in an expensive mall.

Typical of the Czech attitude toward life: the men’s urinals in an expensive mall.

The Metronome stands where Stalin and the King of Pop once stood.

The Metronome stands where Stalin and the King of Pop once stood.

If Ray Manzarak dies do you still expect him to show up in August?

If Ray Manzarek dies do you still expect him to show up in August?

3. Things that don’t make sense to me are not necessarily wrong, they are just different. I hate having to turn my key over when leaving a hotel, but in Prague my hotel key was this bulky thing with a rubber ring around it. I really thought the whole thing was pretty dumb until I discovered it all made sense.

This is a big stupid key. Why is it so big and stupid?

This is a big stupid key. Why is it so big and stupid?

Why is there this dumb rubber thing around it?

Why is there this dumb rubber thing around it?

Oh, I see. When I lock my door from the inside the rubber thing protects my door. Oh, I will never leave me key in the room and lock myself out this way...this is smart.

Oh, I see. When I lock my door from the inside the rubber thing protects my door. Oh, I will never leave me key in the room and lock myself out this way…this is smart.

2. If you are going to visit Prague get a map and a compass. I finally realized while in Prague why I get lost so often when traveling: There are no natural landmarks that I can see to let me know where I am. Where I live you can always see a mountain or the ocean or something that lets you know where you are. In most of these old cities you can’t see anything beyond the block you are standing on and none of the streets are straight for more than two blocks so good luck looking down the avenue to see where you are going.

Which tower is that? What direction am I facing? Why am I so lost again?

Which tower is that? What direction am I facing? Why am I so lost again?

1. Prague is an affordable city. Beer is a dollar. A meal can still be eaten at a restaurant for ten bucks and hotels are inexpensive. If you are on a budget Prague is a great place to stay.

TSOJ: Prague–Aussies, Bike Rides and Dealing with Being Sick

Twenty minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive from Hamburg I knew there was going to be a problem. Piles and piles of young backpackers with Eurail Passes were already crowding the platform. This was not good. I did not have a reserved seat and there were many, many more people than there were going to be seats, but I figured since I was traveling solo it would be easier for me to find a seat than most. When the train pulled up and a few people exited, the mob climbed aboard the train like we were attacking a castle fortress. My plan was to look on a car near the back and if nothing opened up, jump off the train and head toward the front looking for a less crowded car. Most of the kids were clustered around the middle of where the train would arrive and I wanted to avoid that mess if at all possible. I jumped on the trailing car, looked for a moment, almost all the seats were reserved, I jumped off the train and kept going until I could hop directly onto a car. I jumped, moved my way around a few folks, looking for any seat that did not have a reserved marker near the window, it did not look good, but suddenly I noticed an open spot that everyone was passing right by. I looked closely and asked the old man next to the open seat if it was taken. He moved his bag and I sat down. I scored a reasonable seat, and began to enjoy my new found home. There was no space to put my bag anywhere so I did my best to shove it under the seat.

"Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!"

“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!”

I relaxed and for about 10 minutes, enjoyed my luck, then…I heard Aussies. I like Aussies. Aussies are great. Australians are fun to be with, informal, open, and generally great company. There is one caveat to enjoying Aussies…groups of Aussies fall back on their prison boat past. Groups of any nationality can be annoying because mob mentality is real. I can be a very quiet and reserved person, but put me in a foreign land with a handful of my countrymen and suddenly I’m every American stereotype in the Book of Stereotypes (available at Amazon in the Reference Section.) These 10, young (between 20-25, I figured) Aussie blokes (not gentlemen) were loud, obnoxious, and had only seven seats. They talked loudly about their sexual encounters, their drunken exploits, and their embarrassing moments. (I doubt the train ride from Berlin to Prague will become part of their repertoire because they were suffering under the impression that English is a strange tribal language only spoken by a few surviving people. If you speak only English, assume people near you will understand what you are saying and act accordingly. Just because you don’t understand them doesn’t mean they don’t understand you.) There was a young lady stuck in the corner with her reserved seat amidst the sea of “AUSSIE, AUSSIE, AUSSIE!” I felt terrible for her. She sat there the whole trip. It was a long five hour ride.

Hmm...Which ticket do I want? Do not pick the wrong one, because they check tickets in Prague's underground.

Hmm…Which ticket do I want? Do not pick the wrong one, because they check tickets in Prague’s underground.

When I arrived in Prague I took the underground (one of the easiest systems to understand as long as you know how to buy a ticket) to my hotel and was pleased to find out that I was no longer staying in a total dive. I had to work out a problem with my bike tour for the next day so I went back to the center of the city and talked to the bike shop owner. I was the only person who had reserved the full-day tour. (What? People don’t want to spend 7 hours on a bike?) He refunded 200 CK and I decided to do a morning tour and an evening tour, it was a good choice and I got ten bucks back. I took my new-found wealth and had dinner. I went to bed wondering if I had a scratchy throat or if I was catching something.

In the morning I knew I was coming down with a cold, so I did all the right things to prevent the cold from getting worse: took six hours worth of bike rides, drank three beers, and stayed out well past midnight. In my defense the evening bike tour finished around 11 and I had not eaten since I purchased very bad sandwich from a store the size of a walk-in closet next to my underground stop, so when our group asked if I wanted to join them for dinner I accepted. (For the record a sandwich that is labeled as “Mexican Flavored” does not mean the same thing in Prague as it does in the US.)

The first bike tour was centered around the historic downtown. I ate an entire bag of Halls fruit flavored throat lozenges during the ride so I was taking in something nutritional. The actual bike ride was very informative, but I don’t remember much about it, my mind was preoccupied with: 1. Not being killed by a car, 2. Not being killed by a fix object, 3. Not crashing into a pedestrian, 4. Not crashing and getting a bad case of road rash, 5. Wondering if anyone had died on this tour, 6. Wondering if it was a fever I was feeling or the heat of the day, 7. Thinking about what I was going to do if I got really sick, 8. Wondering if the bike company had ever been sued by Americans who had lost their ability to reproduce because of the cobblestones, 9. Wondering whether I should have a beer during lunch, 10. Thinking about whether I should go to bed or do the second tour later in the day.

How do you want to die on the bike tour? Car crash, Trolley, Wall?

How do you want to die on the bike tour? Car crash, Trolly, Wall? Oh, that is one of the Opera houses in the background.

The Astrological Clock. The builder of the clock was blinded after construction was completed so he could not make another.

The Astrological Clock. The builder of the clock was blinded after construction was completed so he could not make another.

Jan Hus was the leader of a reform movement against the Catholic church. Things did not go his way.

Jan Hus was the leader of a reform movement against the Catholic church. Things did not go his way.

The Art Nuevo architecture in the city was amazing.

The Art Nuevo architecture in the city was amazing.

When the tour was finished I had three hours to rest up for the next tour. I thought I would walk back to my hotel, take a two hour nap and be fresh as a daisy for the second tour. This was a good plan, unfortunately I got lost, really lost. How lost, you ask? Lost enough that I ended up walking through what I will call a “needle park” filled with homeless people and prostitutes. Lost enough that by the time I found my hotel I had enough time to take a 30 minute nap. 30 minute naps are like getting a bite of dessert, you pretend it is enough but it isn’t. I was not a fresh daisy when I started back to the bike shop, I was a wilted avalanche lily. Along the way I picked up more lozenges, the bad Mexican chicken sandwich, and an orange juice. I did my best enjoy my tour. It was beautiful and strenuous. We climbed hills, looked at the panoramas and took pictures. We were a small group: an American dude from Tennessee, an older couple from Israel, an Aussie lady, our guide from Mexico, and a younger Aussie guy who wore a shirt that read, “Pull the trigger Bitch!” I’m not sure where you get a shirt like that, but maybe there are “Misogynist R Us” stores in Australia. When I heard Tennessee and “Pull the Trigger” guy talking about signing up to do a Prague tour where you get to shoot machine guns I decided to spend most of my time talking to the Aussie lady and our guide. The climb to the top of the ridge was okay, but it was difficult for the older couple and for Tennessee since he had just lit his second cigarette of the tour. This was not what I will call good planning. Having a smoke in Prague is perfectly okay, but smoking while riding is questionable, toss into the equation that you are going uphill and that the smoke you are blowing out is coming right back into your face and you have made a series of bad choices, but Tennessee would become the touchstone of bad choices on our tour in my opinion.

(This paragraph is dedicated to the things Tennessee said during the tour: “I want to retire in Chechnya.” “I am the bad things that happen in Chechnya.” “I work security.” “I haven’t fired a AK in at least a month.” “That’s why I’m still single.” “That sounded like a 45 being shot.” “That usually scares the women away.” “I like your shirt.” “Let’s go fire some guns tomorrow.” “I’m an adrenaline junky.” “I doubt I’ll ever get married.”)

The rest breaks did give us lots of time to wait and gave me the chance to shove lozenge after lozenge into my pie hole. Prague from the hillside, looking across the river was beautiful. From where we stood on the ridge, the downtown area looked untouched since 1700. Prague is a strikingly beautiful city covered in two inches of historical grime. The Charles Bridge, the two remaining city towers, the Old Town Square, the Jewish quarter, and the organically-grown twisting cobblestone streets cannot be described without taking another 2,000 words, but let me just sum it up by saying, Prague is lovely.

The Vltava River cuts through Prague.

The Vltava River cuts through Prague.

Prague looking good from here.

Prague looking good from here.

Pretending to feel fine.

Pretending to feel fine.

Prague's castle/cathedral.

Prague’s castle/cathedral.

Look at me, I feel great.

Look at me, I feel great.

I almost crashed once on the ride down the hill, there were lots of switchbacks and I tried to cut one to sharp and nearly ended up gathering a collection of small rocks under my skin, but my half-asleep-cat-like reflexes saved me at the last moment. We took a longer break waiting for the older couple on the way down the hill and this is where I made a mistake in judgment. “The Pull the Trigger” dude asked the Aussie lady if she wanted to have dinner after the tour, she looked at me and said, “Dinner sounds good, let’s all go.” Now I took this as, “I don’t want to be alone with this guy, please come along so that I don’t end up being a story told loudly on a train some day.” I said that I could do a short meal, what I should have said was, “I don’t feel well, I think I need to get some sleep. You kids have a good time.” Anyway, this is how I ended up eating dinner at 11:30 in the evening in a smoke filled restaurant in Prague pretending;I was having a good time. (The term “smoke filled” is really redundant when it comes to Prague restaurants, but for those of you who have not been there it might not be apparent.)

If I were at home, I would have taken some NyQuil, drank ten gallons of OJ, and taken a hot bath. Instead I drank a liter of beer, ate some little pieces of mystery meat and spinach (not fresh tasty spinach, but frozen and reheated), and then I took a shower before hitting the old hay. I slept for about four hours before the sun was up.

Here is the great thing about being sick on vacation, you spend very little money. I ate nothing all day, watched Django Unchained again, watched Inglorious Bastards, watched No Country for Old Men, and moved in and out of consciousness for about 12 hours. I killed the cold by drowning it in sweat. My room on the top floor was a combination sauna/heat collector for the rest of the guests downstairs. For some mysterious reason my AC was not working, I turned the little knob toward the number 15 but nothing happened. It was the only hotel on my entire trip that had the luxury of cooling air, but it was not working. Had I been in a coherent state of mind I would have called downstairs and asked why my room was 115 degrees, but instead I thought about writing a short note about how I had died in Prague from the Black Plague. “Dear Loved Ones, I’m sorry I died during TSOJ. Thanks for letting me go. I had fun until I died in Prague. Love, Jon…PS. Isn’t it odd that Prague and Plague are almost the same word…”

I found out as I was checking out the next day that if you want the AC on you have to request it downstairs. This is good information to have after you leave.

Anyway, around 5PM I started to think that I could sneak out and see the Mucha Museum that I very much wanted to see. I got up, showered, and went outside and decided to eat something instead. Choosing to eat verses going to a museum is something I never do, so this was a real moment of weakness for me, but in the end I decided that I will have to return to Prague and see what I missed.

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