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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Danube of two tales

It was the best of times, it was the Wurst…

Someone drew my attention recently to an article about the Chicago Dyke March. It appears that women with rainbow Star of David flags were excluded from the march in an enforcement of “anti-Zionist” conformity. The women said they always carried the flags because they were proud to be both Jewish and lesbian. They were experiencing anti-Semitism.

I can imagine how these women felt. I once carried an American flag in a Canadian Pride parade. Everyone was carrying the flag of the country they’d immigrated from, but mine was booed. It sucks to be held responsible for the actions of a government one may not even support.

On our travels through Europe, I’ve been partly on a quest to see its Jewish history. Not because my own heritage is Jewish—it isn’t—but because the history of the Jews, and how various countries have handled it, tells us a lot about a place. Jews, and anti-Semitism, have been part of this continent for many centuries. When I was at Europe’s largest centre of Jewish studies, I had colleagues from many of the countries we’ve visited this year: Poland, France, Italy, Hungary. These last two cities, both on the River Danube, have provided interesting contrasts.

Austria-Hungary was once an empire, and we’ve been traveling through it for a while now (it encompassed both Slovenia and Trieste). If Columbus was following us around through the first half of the summer, from Madrid to Genoa, Maria Theresa’s been following us since. The Hapsburg empress was born 300 years ago in Vienna, and they’re making quite a big deal out of it there. 

Statue of Maria Theresa at Museums quarter, Vienna
But in the twentieth century it all went wrong. First the Austro-Hungarian empire lost World War I, and then, in World War II, these countries were on the wrong side also. Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in the bloodless Anschluss. Hungary was invaded and occupied. Jews from both countries were deported to Auschwitz and killed. You might think this was inevitable once any country fell to Nazism, but it wasn’t; look up Bulgaria, a country almost unknown to Westerners, to see how tens of thousands of Jews could be saved when that was what their fellow citizens really wanted.

Vienna, a city of cafés and waltzes, had the first Jewish museum in the world. It still has one, but the Jewish history here seemed largely hidden to me. The mediaeval synagogue exists only in ruins beneath a current Jewish museum. Vienna was the home both of influential Jewish figures, like Sigmund Freud, and vicious anti-Semitism. The fact that the Anschluss happened without resistance from Austria made Austria part of Nazi Germany, rather than a victim of it. Yet after the war, many Austrians who had been only too willing to collaborate with the Nazis were pardoned, or received only light sentences for their war crimes. As recently as 1986-92, Austria elected a president, Kurt Waldheim, who’d been in the Wehrmacht in Yugoslavia and Greece. 

I found the conscience of Austria in one of Vienna’s great museums, the Albertina. Once guest apartments of the Hapsburgs, the Albertina now has a marvelous permanent collection (Monet to Picasso), but it was among the newly acquired works that I discovered a powerful series by an artist called Csaba Nemes—who was born in Hungary. Nemes drew what happened to many Austrians who were the real victims of Nazism.
The woman on the left is Rosa Grossmann, a communist resistance fighter who jumped from a 4th floor rather than betray her fellow combatants under torture. The man on the right is Rudolf R., who was arrested by the Gestapo for homosexuality and committed suicide.
Budapest is the capital of Nemes’s native Hungary. If the Jewish community in Vienna seemed hidden, exhibiting its museum mostly to fellow Jews, in Budapest it is very much on display. One of the major sights in Budapest is the Great Synagogue.

This is the largest Jewish house of worship in Europe, and the largest anywhere in the world outside New York City. It was built next to the house where Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, was born. During the ghetto period of World War II, many Jews died of hunger and cold right in the grounds of the Dohány Street Synagogue, and are buried there. There’s also a memorial to Nicholas Winton, and plaques naming the hundreds of Jews he personally saved from the Nazis.

But Hungary has also had its struggle with different versions of its history. In Budapest there is a memorial, constructed only in 2013, that depicts Hungary as an angel during World War II. The eagle, representing Nazi Germany, is snatching the life away from Hungary. 

 Our guide on this walking tour, who proudly told us she was born in “free Hungary” (i.e., post-communist), showed us that a string of protest signs has become a permanent part of this memorial. In many languages, people voice their disagreement with the image of Hungary as an angel. It is a powerful display. 
Perhaps unconsciously echoing a cry often used at protests, the guide said, “This is what democracy looks like. Both points of view are here.” 

Then she took us a short distance away, where the last remaining Soviet memorial in Budapest stands. Here is another partially true, but deeply misleading narrative: that the Soviets saved Hungary from the Nazis.
 Elsewhere in Hungary, symbols such as the red star and (here) hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union are banned. Just opposite this monument is the U.S. embassy.

And facing the opposite direction from both these Cold War superpowers is a statue of Imre Nagy, whose communist (but not Soviet-backed) government was brought down by Soviet invasion in 1956. The failure of this Hungarian revolution led to Nagy’s execution for treason. 
His statue looks towards the magnificent Parliament, the largest building in Hungary. It is symbolic of Hungary being its own country, now democratic, and not beholden to the Soviets or anyone else.

Before we crossed from the Pest side of the Danube to the Buda side, our guide showed us one more memorial. This haunting collection of sculpted shoes, at the edge of the river, honors Hungarian Jews who were shot there. Not by Germans, but by the Arrow Cross Party—Hungarian Nazis. Worse, these Jews were taken from safe houses in Pest, where they had been protected by the Swedish embassy.
I have more to write about our travels in Austria and Hungary, but I’ll leave it for another post. I’m still thinking about Vienna, Budapest, and the way history gets told in different strands of narrative. A Soviet monument that is left in place because it’s an important part of history. A Hungarian artist calling Austria to account for its own crimes. A contemporary sculpture and the protest that goes with it.

Nazi Germany was defeated more than seventy years ago, and Russia is no longer Soviet. But we are still dealing with what is really evil, and what democracy looks like.

This post is in memory of Heather Heyer, 32, killed on Saturday by a white supremacist terrorist in Virginia. She was a legal assistant, Bernie Sanders supporter, and civil rights champion. Her Facebook cover photo read: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The sound of music

Max Detweiler: “You know I have no political convictions. Can I help it if other people do?”
Georg von Trapp: “Oh yes, you can help it. You must help it.”
The Sound of Music (1965 film)

First, a correction: A reader wrote to say that the U.S. First Lady has moved into the White House. I don’t know if this is just temporary until their son resumes school, or what, but I agree it is important to fact check. While every writer has a point of view, that doesn’t excuse us from telling the truth, as accurately as we can see it. It’s a cop-out to tar all “the media” with one brush, as those who rant about “fake news” do. We are the media, these days, and have a vital role holding those in power to account.

Speaking of which, I bought another New York Times in Salzburg.

Before our travels, I was wondering what was the most camp thing I could possibly do anywhere in the world. Then I did a little research, and found that the YOHO hostel in Salzburg, Austria, screens The Sound of Music every single night in its lounge. I determined that when we got to Salzburg, I was going to be there. 

I don’t doubt that The Sound of Music is unrealistic; in fact I read and enjoyed Maria Trapp’s autobiography, which was a truer and, in some ways, more interesting story of the Trapp Family Singers. The book made an impression on me at the time because while I was reading it, I saw Maria Trapp’s obituary in the newspaper. (Yes, it was a reported fact.) So here’s The Sound of Music version of the rest of our time in Slovenia:
It’s festival season, which in Ljubljana meant there was music in the streets every night. One evening we were there, we just strolled down the riverside and came across a band in front of the statue of France Prešeren, the greatest Slovene poet. It was a large band of young people playing traditional music from various countries. There was a big string section (lots of fiddles), an electric guitarist, an oud soloist which made me think of the Jodie Manross Band, and just to remind us that we were in Central Europe, a tuba keeping time. Accordion and drums. I didn’t have my camera, but sometimes it’s nice just to soak up the experience.

Then the night before we left, I heard a couple of Canadian guys talking at the next table. T. started chatting with them—it turned out these young men from Ontario are playing baseball in France! They lamented the gap between their French and Parisians’, then said they were in Slovenia because (like everyone in Paris) they had the month of August off. We congratulated them on getting paid at least something to do what they love, plus travel to Europe—an opportunity many North Americans never have. 

We were having one last Cacao ice cream when we came across a local trio (at least I think they were Slovenian) playing Americana in a bar. The seating was al fresco, by the riverside, so we sat down and listened to quite a selection: country hymns, “The Gambler,” blues, “Wagon Wheel,” “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” They played “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and while T. had memories of England rugby matches at Twickenham, I remembered that it was a song of the Underground Railroad, for slaves escaping to freedom. They sang “Midnight Special,” a song about African-American prisoners in the South, which Leadbelly made famous. By the end of the night it was all I could do not to sing along “Meet me, Jesus, meet me in the middle of the air!”

But the most fun I had in Slovenia was still in Bled, of which Preseren wrote, “Nowhere in the world is there a more lovely place, than this paradise and its surroundings.”

Now the world contains two kinds of people: those who love The Sound of Music, and those who do not. Ours is a mixed marriage, so I was quite surprised when T. offered to come along on my pilgrimage in Salzburg. You see I once attended a singalong Sound of Music at the late, great Eglinton Theatre in Toronto. There used to be a lot of these old movie theatres used as performance spaces in Toronto, and this was a fun evening. People came in costume (the “bowing lady” who won third prize at the festival was a good one), and every word of every song was subtitled on screen—including the Latin chanted by the nuns. 

To the other half of humanity, this must sound like your notion of karaoke hell.

But before there were Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, or even Star Wars settings to attract tourists all over Europe, there was this Academy Award-winning Best Picture. And enough of the story is true to make me still relish the improbable tale of a singing family who said no to the Nazis, out of a conviction that was God’s will.
Festspielhäuser, built right into the Mönchsberg
 The Salzburg Festival, which in the film features the von Trapps as winners, has been running at this time of year since 1920. But unlike Ljubljana’s festivals, it’s not accessible unless you buy tickets months in advance. Instead, for the price of a beer we got an almost 3-hour movie. (The version they used to show on TV had so much dialogue and bits of songs hacked out of it, it’s no wonder the religious and political sensibilities were lost.) The beer was local, the friendly barman assured me, brewed according to Bavarian purity laws. That’s when it struck me how really close we were to Germany. Of course. There’s a reason the Nazis marched right in here in 1938.

The YOHO hostel was a friendly place as well as a bargain; had all their rooms not been taken, I’d have been happy to stay there. Although the movie plays every night at 8:00, the lounge was full, and at least one young person there said she’d never seen the movie before. I wondered what she’d make of its slow, silent opening shots (imagine grabbing an audience’s attention like that today). It has subtlety, by which I mean the romantic tension smolders rather than burns, and the audience has to bring some imagination to the show. A quaint way of filmmaking, but it must have worked, because she stayed to the final credits—along with those of us who could have sung along to every word.

I didn’t want a Sound of Music tour of Salzburg. I wanted to walk around and see the city, some of whose locations happen to have been used as settings because they are beautiful. I didn’t want to be on a tour bus with the soundtrack playing, but nonetheless it was playing, in my head the next day. The sight of the organ in the cathedral set it going again, even though Salzburg Dom is one of the most stunning cathedrals I’ve ever been in—and for reasons that have nothing to do with a film.
It didn't hurt that it was free (unlike Toledo) and not crowded (unlike Florence!)
View of the Festung Hohensalzburg and mountains
If you’re not on a hostel budget, you could try the Hotel Pitter, now a Crowne Plaza. Yes, another example of the hospitality industry coming through for me (the helpful English-speaking receptionist not only showed me where we were on my map, but gave me a better map). But I also discovered that the Pitter’s 6th-floor terrace restaurant has reasonably priced food plus great views over the city. Rather than pay to go up in the fortress, we got lunch, and with much nicer service than the Ljubljana “Skyscraper” could come up with. And, I discovered, those mountains really are the amazing blue-green they looked in the DeLuxe Color film.

The historic centre of Salzburg is beautiful around every corner
Fountain and gardens at Schloß Mirabell. Doesn't it just make you want to dance around to "Do Re Mi"?
And electric trolley buses whisked us around easily for a very low price. I’d expected Austria to be expensive after Slovenia, but transportation costs don’t even compare with London’s.

7th-century St. Peter's, whose cemetery looks familiar
Our last night in Salzburg we ate Styrian chicken and what T. said was the best burger she ever had, at the Raschhofer across the road from where we were staying. The waitress talked to us for so long she almost got in trouble with her boss. She’s Austrian, but her dad is from the U.S., and she spent her earliest years there. She was telling us about her dual citizenship and how she feels both Austrian and American. We told her about our travels and wished her good luck with hers.
Residenzbrunnen, where the horses spout water and Julie Andrews spouted about having confidence in everything
I loved Salzburg. It’s ecological, compact and beautiful. And of course, there’s the music.
Mozart was born here, too.

Nonnberg Abbey, 8th century. The oldest female monastery north of the Alps
One of my sponsors for the Kilimanjaro trek urged me to “climb every mountain.” I’m sure that’s what T. thinks we’re already doing!

Maria Kutschera was here.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Surrounded by Slovenia

Did you know that in Italy, every bathroom installed is required to have a bidet? This isn’t a detail I ever thought I’d miss. Then I saw Slovenian toilet paper.

Toilet paper reminds me of melaena, and melaena is almost Melania. I had forgotten, until a brochure at the Ljubljana tourist office eagerly reminded me, that the current U.S. First Lady is originally from Slovenia. Given that Melania doesn’t live in the White House or anywhere near Washington, D.C., she’s probably forgotten she’s the First Lady too. At least it's not my taxes paying for her second home.

To be fair to Melania, she is reported to speak six languages, which is five more than most American citizens (as she now is). I’ve been trying to find her birth certificate over here in Slovenia, but have been too busy enjoying the country! 

We got here by way of Trieste, a city that, while almost totally surrounded by Slovenia, is actually part of Italy.

Trieste is a good example of how national boundaries develop over time, and often arbitrarily. We tend to think of modern nation-states as sacred, but they aren’t ahistorical. The boundaries between England and Wales, or Switzerland and Italy, have not always been the same; and Trieste was part of the Roman, Holy Roman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires for most of its history. Even today, the “Italian unity” vaunted by its main piazza is not popular with everyone in town:
Which flag do we wrap ourselves in?
I started this post with toilets and I won't spend the rest of this paragraph on them, but as we’ve established, this is an important part of traveling. And I cannot speak highly enough of our experience so far in Europe, despite the occasional cash requirement or toilette à la turque (just look it up). In particular, the actual flushing effectiveness, which you’d think would be standard in today’s plumbing, puts certain facilities at “home” quite to shame. But that’s not the only thing I like about this continent: From Barcelona and all through Italy, women of all ages are riding motorbikes, making not the slightest concession in fashion, except to wear helmets. I will never get tired of that.

As if to emphasize that, at least historically, we were closer to Austria than Italy, a string quartet was playing outside our apartment in Trieste. The music seemed to drift in for hours, and it took me a while to figure out that it was coming from the courtyard across the street. It turned out every night to have live performances that we could hear. On the last night, I investigated and finally realised the space being used was a lavatoio. I am not sure exactly how to translate this, but it was a laundry where women used to wash linens in traditional basins. San Giacomo's is the last one in Trieste still in existence. 

Now a museum to the “soap industry,” it contained some striking pictures of what these washbasins used to look like in use. A spread from America’s Life magazine in the 1950s made Italian urban life look much, much longer ago. I couldn’t read the Italian, of course, but this museum reminded me a bit of John’s in Connemara—somebody’s old stuff idiosyncratically put together, a labor of love.
There’s no sign anymore of the lavatoio in Muggia, a seaside town just on the border with Slovenia. We got the boat here on impulse across the Gulf of Trieste. Beaches, I discovered in Trieste, are just sidewalks that people sunbathe on or climb off into the Adriatic Sea. It looked kind of fun, but there was something Yugoslav about it too, with the ugly freighters chugging past out of the harbor.

Chiesa Greco-Ortodossa di San Nicolò
Chiesa Serbo-Ortodossa di San Spiridone
All the countries we’ve been in since the U.K. are Roman Catholic, but Trieste has a Greek Orthodox Church, a Serbian Orthodox Church, and a synagogue all within walking distance. Despite official policy, it seems there was religious pluralism during the long reign of Empress Maria Theresa, the only female and last ruler of the Hapsburg dynasty.

Sinagoga, detail
Speaking of the Hapsburgs, they also ruled Slovenia. During the twentieth century the Slovenes were united with Croats and Serbs in Yugoslavia, which is why I never learned about this country in school, but for most of its history Slovenia was part of Austria or various earlier incarnations of that empire. The greatest mountain battle ever fought was here, during the First World War, between Italy (then on the side of the Allies) and Austria-Hungary. From 1915 to 1917 Italy tried eleven offensives, finally being driven back at the twelfth. The cost was 300,000 dead.

Today, Ljubljana is a gorgeous small capital with little sign of its Yugoslav past. Slovenia proudly claims to be the greenest, i.e. most ecological, country in Europe, and it looks it, with solar panels and green trees everywhere. I haven’t seen such care taken with separating recycling bins since I lived in Toronto. 

Our great experience started with our Airbnb host, who went above and beyond in offering to pick us up from the bus station! On the way here, he pointed out various things, including the local church, which is how we learned that “all” Slovenians (more like 58%) are Roman Catholic. T. said she was too, and he expressed surprise that there are Catholics in England, considering Henry! So that is how we ended up talking about Henry VIII on the drive into Ljubljana.

We were lucky enough to arrive on a Friday night, which meant the Open Kitchen was going on. Street food for sale in the cathedral square from all sorts of vendors, and you could pay a deposit and carry around a real wine glass. Imagine, trusting adults to drink out of glass and not break it! I was surprised how many different languages and accents I heard there, yet Ljubljana doesn’t feel overcrowded. 

It has a lot going for it, Slovenia. It’s inexpensive, under the radar yet easy to navigate, and English would appear to be the unofficial second language. I learned “Hi” and “Thank you,” of course, but I’ve rarely had to use my third emergency phrase, “Do you speak English?” Slovenians just do. They must know that Slovene, unlike French or Spanish, is not a language foreign visitors are likely to have learned.

The food is good. You can get hearty, Central European-type fare, but the real glory would seem to be the desserts. Kremna rezina, a cream cake traditionally served in Bled, was nice; Prekmurska gibanica was nicer. I can best describe the latter as a mixup of cheesecake, a kind of nut roll we used to get in Lakeside, Ohio, and warm baklava.

I thought walking up to Ljubljana Castle was overrated. You get better views from the top of Nebotičnik, “Skyscraper,” but don’t bother ordering at the terrace cafe—they didn’t have anything we wanted, even though it was listed on the menu! Just go up there and admire the 360-degree views. It’s only 12 stories, but when it was built in 1933, this Art Deco skyscraper was the tallest building in the Balkans.

But cruising the Ljubljanica River was fun, as was Šmarna Gora, “Mount Saint Mary.” Well, ask T. if the hike was fun. It was short, but hard; relentlessly uphill, and in such heat! As I’ve mentioned, I’m training to trek Mt. Kilimanjaro for the charity Oxfam (see sidebar). The preparations aren’t always easy, but the views of the Julian Alps were worth it.
View from Šmarna Gora

Slovenia itself just feels easy. Not just language and value for money, but how easily accessible Šmarna Gora is from Ljubljana; just hop on a bus like the locals. Another bus, a little further, and you’re in Bled, which is the picture postcard view of Slovenia.
Church of the Assumption, Lake Bled, with the Julian Alps in the background
It must be breathtaking at other times of year too. As it’s August and we’re having a heat wave, we walked the (relatively easy) 6 km around the lake, then plunged in! Again, just like the locals. 
Bled castle, above the public swimming area
Ljubljana is the most “backpacker” location I feel that we’ve been in so far. Many people here are obviously on vacation including Slovenians, but there’s no mistaking the many people carrying their possessions around, many in backpacks larger than ours. (They are younger.) I even bumped into one familiar-looking guy on the street. He had been on our bus from Trieste, so we had the where have you been, where are you going conversation. So refreshingly different from “Where are you from?” Or, worse, “What do you do?”

It’s a different world out here. Slovenia, the first new (to me) country on these travels. I love it!

P.S. We've had a lot of gelato in the past few weeks, but Cacao on the riverbank in Ljubljana is the best. In fact, their white peach ice cream is the best ice cream I've ever had in my life, except (maybe) the peach you used to be able to get on Lake Erie in Ohio, with pieces of real peach in it. I might go get some more!