Sunday, April 30, 2006
Friday, April 28, 2006
There seems to be a widespread consensus among Americans that Continental Europe has a certain thing—a certain, how shall we say, Je ne sais quoi—about fashion that Americans lack. In fact, it would seem the rest of the world lacks it, too. Up until our trip to Venice I was an unwitting subscriber to this view of Europeans as having a different and perhaps higher sense of fashion than the rest of the world. Now I am a witting subscriber.
Walking the streets of Venice was in a way like watching a fashion show. Instead of a catwalk there was a series of tight cobblestone streets; instead of a crowd of artsy journalists with flashbulbs there was just the flashy crowd. Like the tall thin strutting human mannequins that pace the model strip, Venetians were walking pieces of carefully crafted, carefully prepared artwork.
Perhaps that is overstating it, if only because “fashion,” by definition, cannot be too unique or individual. Like the fine arts, a composition of clothing that pushes certain boundaries or stretches others too far will be either scorned or ignored. There is only so much boundary-pushing in fashion; to put it another way, the places where boundaries can be broken are quite well defined and limited. So under such rules the Venetians displayed their skills at pushing certain boundaries and keeping well within others in a precise yet highly individualized dance of garment composition.
The rules seemed to be as follows:
1) Everyone must wear a pair of sunglasses. (This seems to make sense on the sunny Adriatic Sea until you’re in the narrow streets where the four-story buildings shade the sun on every side.) The bigger the lenses of the sunglasses the better, and a touch of metal or designer lettering on the sides is all the better. When not worn over the eyes these glasses are to be positioned atop the head.
2) Form-fitting is the order of the day. Not a whole lot of midriffs showing, or short sleeves on men. But even when layers are needed (to protect against the chill sea breeze), the sweater or jacket must fit closely to torso, shoulders, and arms. (Flared cuffs are an allowable exception.)
3) Designer names, logos, or lettering on clothes should be minimal and small. No large “Property of College Athletic Dept” letters here. No blaring Tommy Hilfiger emblems. Subtle, low-key, little indication of walking marketing projects.
4) Shoes should be form-fitting as well, with a minimum of laces or straps. No Chacos in this crowd! Most folks also tended to wear pointed toes whenever possible, to the point of inconvenience (an extra four inches of elfin shoe get stepped on more frequently in the ferry!).
5) Scarves are good.
6) Minimal jewelry—fashion expression should be accomplished in clothes rather than baubles.
Individuality could be found in textures: I saw jackets made of everything from leather to velvet to what could have been drapery material. The fringing of jackets and pants was also an arena for freedom of expression. Fur, leather tassels, and fabric ruffles might all be used to add a touch of flair to an otherwise conformist outfit. Colour was also an area of flexibility, but within bounds. Subtle colours seemed to rule the day rather than extreme or bright hues.
It is worth noting that we were tourists, walking at leisure around the city, gawking at buildings and stopping frequently in shops. As a result I was more likely to see Venetians who were able to do the same thing—in other words, those who could take the day off and wander the narrow streets. A glance at the guys who set up and took down the fish market, for instance, revealed that they wore the same kind of utilitarian garb as farmers, labourers, and fisherfolk all around the world: clothes that are tough, warm, and don’t mind getting dirty.
So matter how different the senses of fashion between the US and Europe might seem to be, one basic thing is the same: a greater concern for fashion arises when you have the wealth and leisure to be choosy.
I only mention this because while Krissy and Sara were out walking this morning, Geo and I figured out how to redeem the United States from its addiction to gasoline for automobiles. We're thinking about putting it together in some sort of published form. So keep your eye on the Economist, Time, Business Weekly, or . . . Wikipedia (search "Saving the World").
We haven't figured out how to redeem the US from its addiction to automobiles yet. Maybe that will come next.
Thursday, April 27, 2006
A book entitled "The Homiletic of All Believers," by one O. Wesley Allen (of Lexington Theological Seminary) has caught my attention. I read it early on in my initial research and it gave me great cause to ruminate. (Most of us could use to do a bit more ruminating, if only so that we can talk about it and say the word "ruminate" more often.) As a result, I have decided to write a review and response to this book. Perhaps it will end up in a journal somewhere someday (I entertain certain fancies), but even if not the work is proving to be good for me.
The students around me are working feverishly to finish off Masters' and PhD work; I do not take for granted my luxurious privilege of changing my topic if it doesn't work out well. Of course, if I were doing this under a mentor s/he would probably have set me straight about my earlier idea first thing. Such is independent research.
Monday, April 24, 2006
Most flavours of the Church are also good at worshipping with the heart. Aching and beautiful chords sing out from organs, guitars, and flutes, inspiring similar emotive strains from the voices of the congregation. Poetry in hymns and contemporary songs lift the passions of the Bride of Christ to soaring heights.
The Church, as I know her, is not quite so good at worshipping with the body.
My last class in Dunedin was entitled, "Worship and the Performing Arts." (It was taught, incidentally, by another American professor.) In this class we explored the matter of music, drama, and dance as elements of the Church's worship. I found the discussions quite illuminating and challenging, especially with so many people coming from Pacific Island cultures where the performing arts have a different role in everyday and sacred life than they do in mainstream American culture.
The assertion that most challenged me was this: If Jesus Christ redeems us in mind, heart, and body, then we ought also to worship with mind, heart, and body.
It is a tame assertion at first. But then I took an examining look at the work of worship in most congregations of which I have been a part. The only bodily worship we seem to do is stand (at times) and use our vocal cords. Now don't get me wrong: standing is a virtuous part of worship, and our vocal cords are certainly redeemed by the Spirit. But there are so many ways in which redemption of the body might be shown that are under-used.
Clapping is a basic one. In the Presbyterian stripe we're often a bit shy about clapping, but when you get a congregation going in a song they know well and clapping with the beat, joyous things happen. Not only do people en-joy the song more, but as a mass we exude a great joyous noise.
The same goes for dancing. No, we're not talking about club dancing or disco dancing. We're talking about the movement of arms, legs, and body in rhythmic fashion, following the lead of song or voice--and it must be done in a way that honours God and connects with others in the congregation. But I think we should dance. David did it before the ark on its way into Jerusalem, and I think we would benefit by reclaiming that mode of honouring God in the energetic movement of our bodies.
There is still much to be worked out for me--including the discernment of how the congregation to which I am called as pastor will embrace these ideas of "incarnational worship." But the work we did in this class has stuck with me. I hope it proves fruitful in the future.
So now we’re in
Saturday, April 22, 2006
So we watch a documentary on salt mines while spring rains fall and hopefully clean whatever pollens are attacking my sinuses out of the air.
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
It’s too early to say I’m training, but I’ll happily call it maintaining. There’s a great park area behind the school here and I’d been given directions for this loop that was supposed to be about 5km. So, armed with my music at low volume, I set out for a 45 minute walk in the park. I think I missed a turn somewhere along the way, too into my music and the running river next to the path I guess. So an hour and a half later found my way home and up the three flights of stairs to the apartment, happily worked out. It felt good to be working out again. Routines are welcome things!
Sunday, April 16, 2006
Relish or no, I started thinking about a retirement gift for Dad. I was going to round up the sibs (there are five of us from my dad’s two marriages) and see if we couldn’t coordinate giving him a trip to Europe and especially a trip down the Danube River, which has its headwaters in southern Germany and its mouth in the Black Sea. I know that he would have got a thrill out of such a trip—and after all he’d given me, I thought it was the least I could do as a son.
Then he died, and retirement took on a different kind of meaning. Now he has no worries about malpractice insurance or enjoying trips to Eastern Europe—no worries at all, in fact. And perhaps there is some way, in the next life, that he is enjoying the whole world in ways that are not possible in this life. Dad always did enjoy learning about the wide world.
And now I’m in Europe, in the very region I had wanted to send Dad as a retirement gift. It is a strange phenomenon, being in a place whose interest for me was really sparked by stories Dad told about his own travels. He talked about crossing into (then) East Germany in the 1960s, and crossing back by just waltzing across the DMZ of Checkpoint Charlie right before the tanks lined up to prevent further commerce. He remembered having the undeveloped film torn out of his camera by an East German police officer before he got to West Berlin. The developed roll was safely in his shoe. He reminisced about hitchhiking across North Africa, working as a translator of technical documents in Tunisia when he and his traveling companion needed money. He recalled trying to hitchhike on a Russian freighter setting sail from Libya and being rejected. When we were sorting through his memorabilia before we sold his house, I found piles of handwritten journals that look like they come from his medical school days and his days at the Sorbonne in Paris. “Ode to a Urinalysis Sample” is one gem that I happened to find—definitely med student material.
Now I’m wandering around Europe with Sara and seeing heaps of things that make me think of Dad. What’s more, they make me think, “Dad would really enjoy this,” and “Dad would really love to hear about this adventure.” If he were still alive we would stand in his kitchen in August and talk about crazy train experiences in Central Europe and swap stories about shady characters on the street asking if we needed to change money. Someone once told me that before your parents die you think about them only when you have to do so—and then it’s really for pragmatic purposes. After they die, this person said, you think about them every day. That has certainly been true for me since August 28 2005, and it has taken on a new dimension since arriving in Europe.
In Venice, as we wandered through the narrow cobblestone streets looking at sexy decrepit buildings and trying to follow a map with different names than the physical signs, we passed a violin shop. Now I have zero intrinsic interest in violins. I played one for all of six months in elementary school and promptly gave it up (which I now regret). But Dad learned when he was young and in the last five years was returning to it with a passion. Playing the violin was a great joy of his. I stood outside this violin maker in Venice, looking at the instruments hanging in the window, and had a sudden impulse to go in. I don’t know what I would have done inside, not speaking Italian and knowing nothing about violins. I guess I would have stood there and basked in the joy that I know Dad would have felt poking around the shop and learning about the names of violin parts in Italian.
I stood in that street and stared at the violins in the window. I think all I said to Sara was, “Look! A violin shop!” without going into the deep repercussions I felt at that moment. Of course, those repercussions probably couldn’t have had words at that point. I stood there in the sensation that I didn’t fully understand, then walked on with Sara into the next moment’s adventure. But I missed Dad right then.
It’s happening a lot here in Europe, and I think it’s a good thing even though I get a little choked up sometimes. (I think Paris may be particularly intense, although going to the Sorbonne is probably out of the question unless the students stop rioting.) I remember them telling us something in seminary or chaplaincy training about stages of grief or some such. Right now it’s just another day without Dad, and another day in Europe to boot! Can’t send postcards or letters (which he would actually read and write back, dinosaur that he was!) to him, can’t swap stories about Roman ruins or language blunders. I’ll have to enjoy Europe in his memory.
Yeah, I miss Dad.
Friday, April 14, 2006
We have been in Verona, Italy for a full afternoon and evening. Verona is a city of formidable size but significantly smaller than Venice, inland by about an hour and a half from the Adriatic Sea. We decided to come and see this famous backdrop for the story of Romeo and Juliet on our way back to Prague. It was an excellent choice (mostly on Sara’s part) for many reasons. Not the least of these reasons is some added perspective it gave us on service from Western Europeans.
We have experienced several graceful and helpful folks here in Verona, folks who give the lie to my earlier impression, which threatened to become etched in stone. For starters, the lady at the ticket office in the train station was very helpful in discerning the nuances of our train tickets. There was a woman on the bus into town who gleefully instructed me on the proper use of my bus pass (every city is a little different). The gentleman managing the desk at the Museum of Archaeology gracefully accepted our lack of Italian in helping us to find a bus back to the train station this afternoon. And the guy who owned the pizza parlour—who had respectable English himself—did not bat an eye at either our use of English or my fuddled attempts at Italian.
So there we are: a few folks who have gone out of their way to help us, and even done so with a smile. I shall soften my current understanding of the cultural divide between the Olde World and the New.
This someone carries joy for her, as the slight smile that plays across her impatient lips tells in the unmistakable language of happiness. This someone is important to her, as the precise strokes of make-up and flattering white blouse make clear. And this someone is about to arrive, as the yearning glances at the platform marquis declare.
A train draws into the station. Its long sleek silver lines sidle up to the hard concrete edge, daring to approach but not deigning to touch. The brakes hiss with loud satisfaction and the metal behemoth makes its final jolt to stop. Its cargo is a hundred passengers or more, eager to disembark into the city of Vienna. The young woman’s shuffle becomes more punctuated: now two steps out into view, then one back.
The wheeled leviathan disgorges its payload, dozens of click-clacking forms scurrying from the open doors. Bags are trundled, sacks are shouldered and duffles hefted for the rush to the station. Figures pass the young woman: coats, ties, dresses, scarves, shoes, heels, hats and shades go by framing faces that care not for a petite femme in waiting. Nor does she care for them; only her gossamer skirt responds to the breeze of their passing. But her glances become more urgent. The swaying fronds of hair bat across her bosom as she seeks the one, her someone on this train from Venice.
Then her smile breaks full across her snowy complexion and her beauty is revealed, sending the make-up and mascara to pale in the light of her natural spendour. She steps forward, confidently hesitant, waiting for her discovery to be made mutual.
He sees her, his own face weary no more with travel but rejuvenated by the meeting of hope. His shouldered burden is now light as he reaches out to take his gossamer love by the waist and draw her to himself. She wraps her arms around his neck and sinks her eyes deep into his just before their lips meet and all waiting, traveling, hoping and wondering are lost in a kiss that binds the two as one. They walk down the platform together with hands locked in the same bond of love.
So we’re standing in front of the pizza counter debating on if its worth the ATM fees to go get cash from a random bank or to keep walking and try to find a restaurant that would take the plastic. Finally we decide to take the chance and learn once and for all if BofA was going to be coming for our pinkie fingers in exchange for out-of-network and out-of-country cash.
So we step outside, I point across the street to the nearest bank I had seen- noting only the word “Bank” before and realizing had I paid attention to the entire sign it said “Deutsche Bank”.
So as Emrys went sprinting across the street, I stood on the corner, shaking my head that once again, God’s in the details!
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Not so Venice.
This two-millennia old city boasts a stunning network of canals that replace streets. The city is technically a tight little archipelago of islands with buildings and cobblestone walkways built right up to the edge of the water. Since the whole thing has been sinking since it was built, the stonework now descends into the water as if the masons had built everything up from under the sea.
There are no cars in Venice proper. There’s a huge parking structure on the northwest side of the island, and that’s it. Once you’re in Venice it’s into a boat or on your feet. You either ride a gondola, public ferry (vaporetti), or private boat down the canals or hoof it along tight sidewalks with four-storey buildings closing out the sky. The network of unplanned walks and bridges produces a maze that would make any rat cringe in fear and give any civil engineer a migraine. But if you’re a tourist with a digital camera, it’s a great place to wander and get lost.
But it’s old. And it’s not old in the way that your vintage 1965 Barracuda is old. It’s decrepit, falling apart, and sinking. The crazy thing is, that’s what makes Venice so sexy. In fact, walking by the large buildings that have just undergone serious facelifts, we noted that they stick out like sore thumbs. And the “feel” of Venice is just not there anymore. We want patches of walls where the brick peeks out from behind the stucco; we want marble statues that are stained black from aeons of rain; we want sidewalks that are just a little uneven (and may soon be crumbling at the edges); we want doorsteps covered in green moss and licked by the lapping waves. That’s Venice. That’s why people come here. That’s why we’re here.
And people will continue coming here. At least until 2306, when every room on every “ground” floor of every building will be submerged. Then perhaps it will become a destination for scuba divers.
But until then: Viva la olde and sexy! Viva la Venezia!
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
One thing is the cultural attitudes toward service in the United States and Europe.
In the United States we harbour an expectation—and cultivate it in our workplaces—that people fulfilling a professional function do so with a readiness to serve. We also expect that service comes with a positive if not outright bubbly demeanour. (If you’re having trouble accepting this blanket statement, think about the last time you received a cool attitude from your waiter or waitress. Those around the table made comments, didn’t they? “She must be having a bad day.” “He must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.” “I guess someone pissed in his cornflakes.”) We expect smiles and cheery service from those whom we are paying for their work.
Another way of putting it is that we live in “a tipping culture.”
This extends past professional settings, of course. We also prefer that when we meet people or interact with them on the street (even if they don’t know us yet) they will be pleasant, even smiling. If folks do not smile in casual encounters, we may wonder if something is wrong. We may feel slighted. We might make comments about urinating in breakfast cereals. We expect pleasantries to be offered, received, and reciprocated.
Not so in Western Europe.
Consummate with the fact that tipping is not regular course in Western Europe, there exists little readiness to serve with a cheerful demeanour. Even between those who do speak the same language (which we certainly do not), exchanges are rarely what we from the United States might call cordial. They are direct, efficient, and effective; but the expectation of friendliness seems to be something truly foreign here.
Perhaps we see it more because we’re generally in cities, where it has been long noted that casual cordiality is lacking in comparison to smaller communities. Perhaps we experience it more sharply because we are foreigners and therefore more sensitive to every nuance, especially the non-verbal nuances of communication. These may accentuate our experience, but they don’t explain away the differences. Italians even give their fellow Italians a cold shoulder as they pass the requested (and paid for) entrée over the counter. Germans and Austrians will be brusque with each other as they press to board a subway.
In the American idiom, Western Europeans are rude. At least that’s what we’d call it if a Western European was plunked down in, say, Western Colorado (or even L.A. for this matter) and sent to go about his business. We’d label him as rude. On the other hand, the Western Europeans would call us superficial: all that smiling and courtesy is certainly insincere in the majority of cases.
Whatever labels we might give the cultures on each side of The Pond, it gives me quite a cultural shock. It’s hard enough to try to navigate the metro, restaurants, and supermarkets of a foreign country when you don’t speak the language; add to the difficulty a culture that really sees no need to be of assistance to you and it makes for a rather daunting time. That’s not to point any fingers at the Western Europeans—I don’t know how an Austrian without a lick of English might experience the States. But the next time I meet one fumbling around in America perhaps I’ll have the grace to serve with good cheer.
By the way, I’ve tried to be explicit about Western Europe as opposed to Central Europe. My experience of Czech Republic and Poland was quite different. There, even when our language barrier and intricate needs (like buying train tickets for three complicated trips at once) frustrated communication, most folks seemed to be quite willing to help. Perhaps we were just blessed with a few gracious servant hearts. In any case, I for one will be glad to get back to Prague. At least there I know how to say Please and Thank you and can count to one hundred.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
After our first day of wandering around Venice we’ve decided that it’s a fun place to get lost. Firstly there are no cars on the island which is wonderful. A very laid back historical feel. Then is the fact that you are on one of many small islands. If you make it to a large body of water, you can find your way back to the train/bus that you need. Beautiful!
So we slept off the train fiasco this morning and got a late start into Venice. We had a couple of destination errands- bus schedules, VeniceCards and a good map. With that done we set off wandering. First stop was Rialto where we were in search of the marketplace and food. Müsli bars will only take you so far. We found a little café and left with warm paninis and ice cream for Emrys. Then to the marketplace, which was very neat. It was filled with leathers, crystal, glass work, fruits, veggies, tourist souvenir stuff – you name it!
From Rialto we headed down to Piazza de San Marco and took in tourists hand-feeding pigeons, stunning architecture, and the very ornate Basilica San Marco.
In between our stops we wandered the Calles that measure as little as 3 meters across and are surrounded by buildings hundreds of years old, all about 4 floors high. A few window boxes are filled with fresh flowers and signs of spring are around. Foot bridges cross the small canals and you can wander forever and never see the same corner twice. Marble steps down the front of a building descend into the canal, the lower steps covered in green algae and moss residue.
As we were leaving town, the still of evening was setting on the waters and reflections were outstanding. We’re off to enjoy a few more days in this enchanting town- where internet is somewhat limited – so signing off until later!
~sjt & et
Monday, April 10, 2006
Auschwitz is a ninety-minute bus ride from Krakow. There is a bus that leaves from the main Krakow station and runs several times a day, making it very easy to access the museum. Sara and I had train tickets to Vienna Sunday night and no plans for Sunday afternoon, so we thought taking a few hours at the Auschwitz museum would be good. On Saturday we purchased our bus tickets (at no small emotional cost, as the ticket agent did not speak English and seemed to have had a rough day of it before we got there). Sunday we showed up at the appointed time and boarded the bus in space D5 marked for Auschwitz.
Now before I continue let me remind you that this is Poland. Signs are written in Polish; towns are named in Polish. Polish is quite a different language from German, the language in which Auschwitz is named. (German is Germanic; Polish is Slavic, like Czech and Russian.) So when you’re in the Krakow bus station looking for the signs to the Auschwitz bus, you’re actually looking for “Oswiece” (pronounced OS-vee-ets-eh). Sure enough, the bus in parking spot D5 had “Oswiece” printed on the side. We hopped on board, waving good-bye to Geo and Krissy, waving our little white receipts at the bus driver.
Therein lay our mistake. Always ask the bus driver if his bus is destined for the place you want to end up.
Two and a half hours into our ninety-minute bus ride to Auschwitz the driver pulls over at a stop in the middle of Nowhere, Poland. The territory reminded me of what I’ve seen in films featuring Fargo, North Dakota, although without the snow. I ran up to the front of the bus and showed the driver my ticket, which clearly labeled our destination as “Oswiec Muzeum.” The driver scrunched up his face and shook his head. He didn’t speak any English, but he didn’t have to. He wasn’t going to the museum today—or perhaps any day for that matter.
So we get off the bus and catch the next bus back to Krakow. By God’s mercy alone the next bus was only ten minutes away. The earlier driver had written in definitive script “Krakow” on our receipt, as if to say, “You have to go back to Krakow to get to Auschwitz.” You can’t get there from here.
So we hopped on another bus and retraced our rubber tracks two and a half hours to Krakow.
(I might also add that in a fit of hydration I had acquired quite a payload in my bladder by the time we boarded the returning bus. I stood—not sat, mind you, for the ride was way too bumpy—in the bus for an hour before we reached a toilet stop. Never before have my kidneys hurt; never before have I actually thought up contingency plans for wetting myself in a vehicle of public transportation.)
When we arrived again in Krakow the Auschwitz Museum was closed and we had a train to catch. It looks like that experience will have to wait until our next trip to Krakow. (It has become one in a growing queue of things that will have to wait until “Next time.”)
By the way, I went back and checked: the bus was parked in the space that should have taken us to the Museum. Sadly for us, “Oswiec” is also a region of Poland near Krakow after which is named a bus company. The name on the side of the bus was the company name, not the destination. Lesson: always check with the driver (or conductor) to make sure the vehicle you’re boarding is the one you want. You never know how far away the next toilet will be.
You arrive in Europe and have heard all the romanticized stories about the rail system, the ease of use and the convenience. What they don’t tell you is that language barriers don’t always resolve themselves into being able to book the ideal trip.
So far we’ve done really well at going with the flow of the whitewater but man is it tiring. We got on a train last night after having been promised a “sleeper” for the 4 hour ride from 2am to 6am. Our sleeper was a version there of. The seats did in fact fold down so we could stretch out, but in 5 hours (because our train was late) our tickets were checked 3 times, and our passports checked once. Streamline, people! If the ticket says I’m not getting off until Vienna, who do you think is sleeping in here! Or at least trying to.
So we arrived in Vienna, low on sleep but still trying to make the most of our unexpected 8 hour layover. So we decided we’d try to catch a catnap in the station. We had finally made ourselves comfortable, me with my butt in one wrought iron chair and my legs over the armrest, feet resting on the next armrest, protectively stretched over a couple of our bags. Emrys had managed to prop himself on the backpack and was stretched on the tile floor. All was well, and we dozed for 15 minutes. Then enter the train station police, who get after Emrys for being on the floor and me for having my feet on the chair. Not a fan of the train station staff (even less a fan after the run in with the bathroom guard)! So we gave up on sleep at that point, pulled out the Frommer’s guide, grabbed public transit passes and headed out in search for breakfast and for Schönbrunn Palace. We found some hot grub and enjoyed a warm meal and then to the Palace.
The Palace was really amazing. We did the interior walking tour and unfortunately they don’t allow cameras so no pix to share. The details and ornamentation of the facility dated back hundreds of years and was truly stunning. We plan on skipping through there when the gardens, which are all under repair/replanting right now, promise to be spectacular once spring and summer arrive.
Now we sit at platform 16, staring at our train, waiting for them to let us on so hopefully we’ll have a compartment to ourselves and get some sleep.
Saturday, April 08, 2006
In search of breakfast we headed towards the main town square, found yummy hot drinks, and kept wandering. We strolled through the Cloth Marketplace that was originally the center of trade in Krakow in the15th century. Then we were off to check out the logistics of traveling to Auschwitz, about 70 km outside of Krakow. Since it was approaching 11:00 and we still hadn’t eaten, we headed for lunch at this great little pizza place on the Square that Krissy had scoped out on an earlier trip. It was wonderful. With full tummies we were off – we thought – for Auschwitz. But we missed the bus so we rearranged our plans. Emrys and I purchased our bus tickets to go out there tomorrow.
After the dissolution of Plan A, we went to Plan B: the Royal Way walking tour that winds through the historic district of the city. Armed with Krissy’s hero Rick Steves as our tour guide we started at the Barbican where you can see where the original guard tower (and dungeon) connected with the city wall. Then we wound through cobblestone streets, saw makeshift art galleries, street merchants and local flavors. From there we arrived back on the Main Market Square and toured through St. Mary’s Basilica , the grounds of Wawel Castle, down to the Dragon’s Den, on a golf cart tour through the Jewish Quarter and then back to scout dinner. After two strikes of “what, you don’t have a reservation?” we ended up at an Indian restaurant and enjoyed a lovely dinner – family style.
There are so many details that could be included but I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves (to be posted soon). The architecture and antiquity of the buildings amazes me. Standing in churches that have been places of worship for hundreds of years is humbling. Walking through town squares full of street performers is exhilarating. And all day of touring is exhausting! So I’m going to sign off for now.
"As long as they're not coming towards me," I replied, "It doesn't matter so much to me."
We retrieved the cash and went to sit down at a coffee shop where Geo and Krissy enjoyed some fine desserts, Starbucks style (no, it wasn't Starbucks, but it smelled like it in the place). Then we made the return journey to Platform 3, where our 9:26 train was to arrive in just a few minutes. (Missing the 9:26 train would mean waiting for the 9:45 train, and we were tired enough already.) Climbing the stairs to the platform revealed that the squadron of riot police, now accompanied by a second in similar get-up, stood at the ready on Platform 3.
"You remember what you said earlier?" said Geo.
The police checked us out with wary glances as we mounted the platform, but recognizing American garb (jeans, sandals, sneakers, large backpacks, and American English) they didn't say anything. We took our place in the middle of the platform, wondering aloud now for whom these police had come.
A train arrived on the opposite side of the platform. As it pulled up and squealed to a halt, the Policja stiffened and turned toward the slowing carriages. We four Americans inched away toward the opposite edge of the platform. The doors rolled open and a group of twenty or thirty young men piled out of the train into the midst of the police, who still stood, quiet but sharp and wary, with batons and shotguns at the ready.
They stopped a few of the disembarking passengers, their body language clearly investigative, serious, and almost defensive. The civilian men had countenances not unlike many freshman I've had to stop on the way back to the dorm from a raging party. Meanwhile, none of the young men is leaving the platform. They're just standing around. And many others are standing around as well, watching.
Then the police close their perimeter a little bit. The young men bunch up and some Polish is spoken in louder and more agressive tones. The air on the platform begins to electrify with tension. Our train has not yet arrived.
We are standing between two squads of riot police: behind the one that faces the group of young Poles and in front of the supporting squadron. As someone who doesn't understand a lick of Polish, I can testify that this is not an enjoyable position to occupy. There is a grave uncertainty that lingers in the air around riot police of any nation, but especially when they're carrying shotguns in a rather casual manner (barrels pointing up at a forty-five degree angle) and when you couldn't understand them if they said, "Everybody get down!"
Then the group of increasingly aggressive young men surged toward us. They pressed on the police in front of us, forcing the black armoured line to retreat and close the gap between them and their support, the gap in which we were standing.
"Maybe we should wait for the 9:45 train," says Geo.
Not a bad idea, if we could get off the platform. But that would mean pushing through a line of riot police who look very much against the idea of letting people through.
The young men surge again, yelling something in Polish. The police step back again. We're getting rather nervous at this point. I'm having thoughts of what tear gas feels like, recalling my "stop-drop-and-roll" training from elementary school, and struggling to remember how the rules of chivalry work for young men and their wives in such a situation: stand between beloved and rioters, or between beloved and stern-looking riot police? The four of us press up against a railing, the only firm anchor between these mobile lines of conflict. I'm starting to work out a path to the steps, but the police have doubled up so there's no chance.
Just then the police behind us signal Geo and make a path. Apparently the Policia figured out that we were a danger to no one but ourselves. So we yanked each other along through the black uniforms and armour and onto an open part of Platform 3, just as our train arrived. We jumped on it and into the relative safety of our compartment, away from the madness outside.
But you can't just leave a scene like that without wondering what was really going on (or what might happen). So Geo and I joined all the other boarded passengers at the window to look out and watch. We were two cars away, so our view wasn't very good, but the police held a sort of circular perimeter on the platform around this group of men. The train stayed put. Now we were freaked out and late.
As we looked on the group of young men started chanting something in Polish. The chant lasted about five rounds before the stolid complexion of the police drained it of energy. For fifteen more minutes we waited while some unknown process went on between the officials of the train and the police on Platform 3. Then, at last, as we resigned ourselves to mystery about the significance of this event in local Polish history, our train pulled away from Katowice. Trundling past the platform revealed only a small group of young men and two somewhat less interested squadrons of riot police watching the train roll out.
Then we were on our way to Krakow.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
We visited the Old Town Hall at Staroměstska Náměstí (Old Town Square) today. The principle structure, a clock tower (with horological clock face, astronomical clock face, and astrological clock face) which was constructed in the mid-1300s. That’s over 400 years before the culture that Ben Franklin would come to label as “American” even had its conception. The Hall was originally constructed by King John of Luxembourg in fulfillment of his agreement to set up a centre of governance for Prague in the centre of the city. I suspect that the creation of a town council was a radical (and, we might say now, progressive) step for a medieval king. As we walked up the spiral ramp inside the tower, we could reach out and touch the rough-hewn stones that the 14th-century masons mortared in place, now reinforced by poured concrete spars and inhabited by a very quiet lift. The top of the tower affords an expansive view over Prague; standing between the Gothic stone columns of the gallery I could imagine being a lookout over medieval Prague.
We spent the extra 50 Kronuč (crowns) to take the guided tour through the rest of the Town Hall. The place is replete with tapestries and artwork—including crumbling frescoes on the walls—that date from the Renaissance period. But the gem to me is the cellar. Descending down into the bowels of the building the décor changed drastically. The wooden floors were replaced by round river-stones mortared together into a roughly smooth plane under our feet. The paneled and painted walls gave way to jagged grey bricks and striated arches buttressing the ceiling. Now we were in the first building constructed on this site, dating to the 11th century. Sure, they had kitschy little dioramas set up in an attempt to produce an early-medieval kind of scene: a wooden table with candles on it, some halberds and pikes, and waterskins hanging from a catgut line. But the real mystique of the experience is realizing that we were standing on stones that had been laid more than 900 years before we set foot on them. That’s a long time! Walking down the two flights of stairs into the cellar was passing through 900 years of history. Apart from Anasazi ruins in the Southwest US, it’s hard to get that kind of telescopic encounter in America.
All this history comes at a price, though. On the front of the Town Hall is a bronze plaque (see photo in this entry) showing the names of twenty-seven Protestant leaders of Prague who were burned in Staroměstska Náměstí on 21 June 1621 by the Catholic Emperor. The same culture that produced the gorgeous Gothic architecture of the Old Town Square also perpetrated some heinous crimes. It’s true about all cultures, I suppose. As a foreigner walking in its midst, I find the history bound up in this location quite stunning.
When we first arrived in front of the Tower, there was a crowd assembled, standing still, in front of the astronomical clock. We wondered, “What’s everyone waiting for?” It seemed they all checked the face of the clock quite frequently. As it turned out, we had arrived at three minutes before four o’clock. The chimes were about to go off. Now, the top of the hour is nothing spectacular from a musical point of view; but when the hour is struck, two windows open in the side of the Tower and a series of twelve wooden statues, each imaging one of the twelve apostles, passes by the windows for people on the street to watch.
In classic medieval fashion, these twelve statues parade by above four statues depicting the powers against which the apostolic mission was to proceed: Vanity (a man holding a mirror), Greed (a man holding bags of money), Death (what else? A skeleton), and Lust (imaged by a Turk—I know, I know: neither PC nor really comprehensible to us today). Between the clocks and the effigies that present themselves every hour, an entire cosmology is worked out for the world—or at least Old Town Square—to see. Good stuff.
By the time we got finished with tower-climbing and square-wandering (there are myriad booths set up in preparation for Holy Week next week), we had run out of energy for the rest of our walk. We were intending to cross the Charles Bridge and go up to the Castle. (Our guide book assigned 90 minutes for this walk. We took three hours and only got a third of the way.) It’s alright. We’ve got many days ahead to see the bridge and the castle. We’ll need them—there’s a lot to soak up in Prague.
But your wallets and handbags are not safe.
There are signs on the doors of the subway trains that warn: “Beware of Pickpockets” in Czech and English. “Better Safe Than Sorry,” they read. No kidding. What’s a greater nightmare for a present-day traveling American than having credit cards and possibly passport lifted from a loose pocket? Nothing, I say. So even though we have no worries when it comes to kidnapping, being mugged or beaten, we’ve been paranoid about having our pockets picked. Geo and Krissy are staying on the other side of the city with a group of American students. Apparently quiet a few of them have lost wallets and the like to pickpockets already. Some of them are beginning to wonder when their turn will come.
One of the opening scenes from Oliver Twist tells the story of a band of thieves initiating the young into the art of pickpocketing. It is, after all, a fine art: the bump, the nudge, the deft fingers, the speedy getaway. It’s not everyone who can boast the ability to relieve an unsuspecting person of his wallet or her billfold and keep him from noticing until he has arrived at the restaurant and wants to pay. Granted, it’s a crime pure and simple, but it’s an unlawful art. Some of the stories we’ve heard include the picking of pockets inside coats and emptying pockets originally sealed by Velcro. Velcro!
So we keep a hand on our bags or in our pockets whenever we’re in the subway or the bus. You don’t know what a pickpocket will look like, so all you can do is be vigilant. There’s still something creepy about it, though; it makes you look at everyone with a suspicious eye. Especially those folks who seem to be sizing up everyone else in the bus. Just what are they looking for? The next victim?
I’ve got half a mind to concoct some pickpocket prevention scheme. Chain my wallet to my pocket? My wallet doesn’t have a metal ring. Keep my leg bent so that my pocket is too tight to get a finger in? Too uncomfortable. Glue my pockets shut? Too expensive down the road. Put a snake in my pocket? No—where do I find a snake that will stay there?
Maybe that’s why pickpocketing still goes on—there’s no good way to prevent it save for vigilance. So we’ll continue keeping our belongings under palm and zipper. Especially on Tram 22 (from Dejvicka Station to the Castle)—that’s where we’re told the most picking of pockets happens. ‘Cause that’s where the most tourists are at any given time. On second thought, maybe we shouldn’t take Tram 22 after all . . .
For someone who has lived in one linguistic sphere all of his life—as I had through high school—this story doesn’t have much oomph to it. But since I’ve walked into places where I don’t speak the dominant language—Montréal east of St Laurent, Portugal, Mexico, and now, Prague—the story of Babel has a good deal more meaning. Not to speak the same language is more than a grounding for antics like Rachel and Phoebe with the Italian guy on Friends. It is more than having difficulty finding what you want in the supermarket. Speaking different languages separates human beings at the very centre of their ability to express emotion, display logic, and enter into social culture. There is a very real sense in which we are what we speak, or are able to say, and what others understand us to say. The inability to speak the language of the social world in which one finds oneself is not only difficult, it is de-humanizing.
It’s not de-humanizing like scorn or contempt or making a people the focus of genocide. Crimes against humanity are also de-humanizing, but in a way that is intentionally evil. Not speaking the local language is de-humanizing in the sense that a full expression of who I am—and who I might be as part of this society—is impossible. I cannot have even a basic conversation with someone in Czech; this means that I cannot form a real relationship with someone who does not already speak English. We may be able to stumble around, repeating nouns and numbers or playing impromptu Pictionary until finally we realize we’re talking about the same thing. And that process can be quite entertaining and adventurous! But expression of the important things in life that are the real grounds for social relationship are impossible. It’s not just because I don’t have the vocabulary; since I don’t understand how to speak Czech, I don’t understand its thought-forms or symbols.
This is not to say it’s not fun wandering around Prague, seeing the sights, and taking in the rich panoply of sounds, smells, sights, textures, and yes, languages. This is great fun! But I am a stranger in a strange land. It’s not strange because they have weird trees that grow upside down or because they keep giraffes as pets or build entirely out of green cheese; it’s strange because I have no idea what these people are talking about. I don’t know what people laugh at or how they converse. We are statues to each other, occupying the same space by virtue of technology but unable to form a proper society. I am an outsider looking in.
Yahweh did a powerful thing in breaking up Babel. Language, when shared, makes all sorts of bonds possible. When language is fractured or unknown it makes all sorts of bonds impossible. Thus is the story of Acts chapter two, in which people of all nations are made able to understand each other, all the more powerful for its display of the Spirit’s power to bring humanity back together again.
If the afterlife is the kind of place where wishes come true, I think I'd like to speak Czech.
We didn’t try any trick remedies for jet lag on this trip (though we’ve heard so many). Perhaps beating the body into submission by staying awake from 03:00 through a whole day is the right approach. Perhaps I’ll try that tomorrow. If I do that I’ll certainly be ready to sleep a whole night through come sundown here. Of course, that would mean a very groggy trip to Krakow tomorrow—and I’m not sure I want to be groggy while trying to manage changing trains and navigating another country and another language. We’ll see.
Jet lag makes me think perhaps an extended trip to Europe would be made more pleasant by a journey on the Queen Elizabeth II instead of an airplane. Then one could enjoy the ocean breeze rather than the pressurized hot air of a 747; one could sit out on an open deck and lie down in a private bunk rather than sit propped in a sardine-seat; and one could let the time zones roll by, one per day, rather than trying to adjust to nine all at once. Maybe next time.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
After the train station adventure we decided to swing through a market to get some goods to call dinner. I’ve discovered that fruits and veggies in the produce department and fresh baked breads are the easiest to identify! So, guess what we’ve eaten for 2 days! Tonight we went for a grocery run with a bunch of folks from the Seminary here which was great! One of the gals has been here for some time and knows her way around the market like a pro. So when I needed cinnamon, she knew right where to go. What a blessing. So now, our fruit bowl runneth over and its time for fresh bread & veggie soup- with kidney beans. The picture was on the can.
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
After dinner we parted ways at the bus stop and Emrys & I came back to unpack. For the first time since the beginning of December, my clothes are in drawers & on hangers and the luggage is stowed away. It’s great! We crashed at local time only to be awake again at 3AM. Napped a bit longer and then it was time to get up and get stuff done. Krissy is coming to find us this morning to take a field trip to get bus passes for the local system and train tickets for our trips Friday and next week. So we’re off to get our bearings in Prague!
Monday, April 03, 2006
We left a forty five minutes late. No big deal right? Well the ticket agent informed us that if we didn’t hoof it at Heathrow and make our 3PM flight, the next flight wasn’t until 6PM and it’s full. So we’d be looking at an overnight at Heathrow- on jetlag. Yeah! But our friendly ticket agent, once realizing that I had planned prime seats for us in the back of the plane and deplaning a 747 can be a time consuming process, moved us forward to a row nearer the door. And in lieu of our situation and tight connection, gave us the whole row to ourselves. So we’re happily spread out over 4 seats!
So now we’re up in the air cruising along at 550 mph and as I go to reset my internal clock I realized that in London, its 5AM. Great! Its tomorrow morning and I haven’t closed my eyes yet. I’m in big trouble!
To sleep or not to sleep, that was the question. The debate was on once we were seated, do we take the sleeping pills and go right to sleep or wait for dinner. Once they said we’ only get a “light refreshment” before landing, I decided it was best to wait it out for dinner.
So I’ll have some dinner, stretch out over my extra seat, don my eye cover- compliments of British Airways, and rest up for the sprint through Heathrow. Boy am I glad London’s on our itinerary later this summer- I think it’s going to be a blur this time around!