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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Berlin to Amsterdam

And so to northern Europe, where we are blissfully out of the heat wave. In fact it’s raining in Amsterdam (though not as hard as in Bangladesh or Texas); we’re closer to London than we’ve been since Ireland. That was the last time we faced heavy rain. T. probably feels right at home.

Our last stops on this continent are not new to me, unlike almost everywhere we’ve been since leaving Wales. I loved Berlin when I backpacked around Germany nine years ago. It’s been sixteen years since I was in Amsterdam, on my way back from my first visit to Tanzania. It’ll be interesting to travel the other way this time.

This is T’s first visit to either city, so she’s taken the wheel, so to speak. (She’s missed steering since we gave the car away.) One thing that wasn’t there in its present form the last time I was in Berlin is the East Side Gallery. This is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, and many artists from different countries were invited to express themselves on it. 

This theme has proven popular.

Berlin is young for a European capital, about 800 years old. It’s not the most beautiful city, and most of its buildings aren’t original, what with the whole place being bombed to smithereens in the Second World War. In fact, Berlin and Germany have the distinction of being part of not one, but both horrific totalitarian systems of the twentieth century: Nazism and Soviet communism. Yet as you walk around seeing constant reminders of this history, you also feel the friendly vibe of Berlin today.

I get the impression that Germany is handling its history well. For example, there isn’t one Holocaust memorial. There are memorials to each of the groups the Nazis were hell bent on destroying: 
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe





There’s a memorial to the 500,000 Roma people who were killed by the Nazis. In the middle of a pond is a purple flower. Purple was the color used to identify “Gypsies” in the camps. There was a color for everybody and today’s Berlin has a memorial for everybody: another for the homosexuals, another for people with disabilities and the victims of medical abuse.


And they’re right in the center of Berlin, and free to visit. The German government puts a lot of money into making sure you can walk just down the street to these memorials from the Brandenburg Gate. You don’t have to go out of town to the nearest concentration camp, or even pay an admission fee.

One thing I noticed is that almost all our time was spent in the former East Berlin. Even the wall (actually walls, inner and outer, plus no-man’s-land) were in the Soviet sector, as that’s where they were built to keep people in. Of course the communist government of East Germany didn’t say that. According to them, the wall was an anti-fascist protection barrier.

Still, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and when Germany was reunited in the 1990s, there existed nostalgia for certain things that had been done in the East. One of these was Ampelmann, the busy little socialist worker crossing the street, that can be found on East Berlin traffic lights. The distinctive shape of the “go” and “stop” signs meant that even colorblind people could clearly distinguish them. Berliners love Ampelmann so much that all pedestrian lights being replaced now have to feature his image. Still, capitalism has the last laugh: Ampelmann souvenirs and tacky products are now sold in five shops across town!
Technically, a Berliner is a jelly doughnut. Here's one divided between east and west.
The most familiar site at what was once the Berlin Wall is Checkpoint Charlie, where foreigners were allowed to cross to and from the U.S. sector. Sadly, no part of the crossing is original, and it is now surrounded by McDonald’s and KFC (the ultimate triumph of capitalism again). One thing I can recommend is the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. I’ve never actually paid to go in, but you can get to the bathroom downstairs without doing so, and it’s free. Believe me, this is not to be taken for granted in Berlin.
T., currywurst, and a cool anti-racism T-shirt thrown in (background)
Good food is, though. The Friedrichshain neighborhood where we were staying (coincidentally, only a couple of blocks from where I stayed in 2008) is filled with Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese, and many other kinds of restaurants, although the ubiquitous currywurst is there too. 

We saw a lot of vegan cafes and it turns out Berlin is #1 in the world for those, as well as for Turkish people outside Turkey. In fact, it has turned out to be one of the most multicultural cities in the world. In a neat twist, today’s Berlin is one of the world’s gay and lesbian capitals, too. 

I learned some of these things from a great walking tour guide, but she also made me uncomfortable. Just the other day I wrote about how people’s fathers or grandfathers fought on one or the other side of World War II—well, as it happens this Australian woman is “half German,” and her grandfather was fourteen years old in Germany when war broke out. Guess what he ended up doing? After he was captured in France, and turned over to the Americans, he eventually made his way to Australia in 1954. She said he never talks about anything that happened before 1954, as if his life began with emigration to Australia.

No sooner had I learned this uncomfortable fact than she started telling us about all the companies that made compromises or even actively cooperated with the Nazis during World War II. For example, she told us Fanta drinks were Coca-Cola’s way of still making a profit in Nazi Germany, without actually associating their well known brand names with the country. That’s why Fanta was invented. And here we’ve been drinking Fanta all summer across Europe! Now I’m going to have to junk my Mercedes Benz, too.

We saw a lot about the Cold War on our tour, but there was no escaping memories of the Nazi period, either. One place that has no memorial (deliberately) is a parking lot behind some East Berlin apartment buildings, under which was once the “bunker” in which Mr. and Mrs. Hitler ended their lives. The family of Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, died here too. If you doubt that propaganda was effective, consider the words of Magda Goebbels in her own suicide note: 
“Our glorious idea is ruined and with it everything beautiful and marvelous that I have known in my life. The world that comes after the Führer and national socialism is not any longer worth living in and therefore I took the children with me.”

Imagine being so brainwashed that you’d take your own children’s lives rather than have them grow up in a world without National Socialism.

It’s hard to get away from this period of history. Few examples of architecture, however, remain from the Nazi period. One of the only exceptions is a massive building that housed the aviation authority (visitors to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics might have wondered why Germany, banned from having an air force, needed such a building). The East German government painted it with communist murals, so it now stands for not one, but two bad periods in Germany’s past. 

What to do with a building that represents things everyone hates? They made it the headquarters of the tax service. Nice to see a sense of humor at work here.


I've run out of time to write about Amsterdam, so that will have to wait for the next breathtaking installment. I will leave you, and Germany, with this final laugh at communism’s expense. East Berlin built the TV Tower so that those in the West would be awed by the sight of technology rising in the East. A flaw of the design, from the East’s perspective, is that at certain points in a sunny day, the sun’s light reflecting off the TV Tower creates a bright vertical cross. East Germany, like other Soviet satellite states, was officially atheistic, so the actual reaction in the West was laughter that they had inadvertently erected a Christian cross.


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Prague to Berlin

My idea had been to detour in Slovakia and maybe hike more hills. But after our week in Budapest we decided to go straight to Prague. Slovakia is therefore the New Brunswick of this particular journey; I only saw Bratislava from the train. Ah well, must leave something for next time.


It was great to be in a new city, and not only because it was Czech, and cooler! T. found beer for something like 25p a bottle in the supermarket, and promptly declared that she LOVED the Czech Republic. In case you didn’t know, Czechs are proud of their beer, which they have brewed for a thousand years, and that it’s cheaper than water.

If you want to be inspired, Prague is a great city to visit. We started at Wenceslas Square, where there were a film and posters commemorating Soviet tanks rolling in in 1969, but also permanent reminders of the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989. That was when Czech troops refused to fire on their own people to enforce the Soviet system, and it basically collapsed. After this peaceful revolution, Václav Havel, a writer who had been imprisoned as a dissident, became the president of a democratic Czechoslovakia. No bloodshed; can you believe that?



Then we walked to the Old Town Square, where the oldest astronomical clock in the world still operating can be seen with figures popping out of it on the hour. The show is a little underwhelming, but the clockwork is complicated, and to think it’s still working after six hundred years! 

Further along the square is a statue of Jan Hus, a reformer who translated the Bible into Czech (a heresy in the fifteenth century). We visited Bethlehem Chapel, where Hus preached in people’s native language. It’s a reconstruction (1950s), because the original was torn down by the Jesuits in the eighteenth century. Hus, whose academic and clerical career predated Luther’s by a hundred years, was burned at the stake.

At the Rudolfinum concert hall, where the baton was first lifted by composer Antonín Dvořák, we heard an amusing story about Reinhard Heydrich. That’s a phrase I never thought I’d write. Anyway, when Heydrich occupied the building as his headquarters after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, he ordered the statue of Felix Mendelssohn to be removed from the roof. No composer of Jewish origin was going to adorn Nazi HQ. Problem was, when the guys he’d given the orders to went up to the roof, they realized none of the composers’ statues were labeled. True to the stereotype they’d heard about Jews, they picked the statue with the biggest nose, and destroyed it.


You know where this is going, right? It wasn’t Mendelssohn at all, but Richard Wagner, the Nazis’ favorite composer.

Then we enjoyed Czech food (sour cream being one of my favorite food groups) at Café Slavia, a beautiful Art Deco place where Havel and associates used to hang out. As in other cities we’d visited, our walking tour guide had been a hit. He told us that in 1990 when the Rolling Stones performed a concert at Prague Castle, to celebrate the country’s opening to the West, he was seven years old. “I remember my parents crying,” he said, “and they don’t even like that kind of music.”
(“Maybe that was why they were crying,” T. said to me.)

Not to be deterred completely from climbing, I chose another day to walk up Petřín Hill in the center of Prague, then climb the stairs to the top of its tower—a similar tower to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but a fifth of its size. Thanks to being on top of the hill, though, the top of Petřín Tower is the same height as the Eiffel Tower.
View of Charles Bridge and Prague from the tower
Since we were in the Malá Strana, “Lesser Town,” we also checked out a couple of churches: St. Nicholas (Baroque) and the Church of Our Lady Victorious. The latter is famous for having a Spanish waxwork of Baby Jesus on the central altar, known as the Infant of Prague. Yeah, I don't get it either.

Our penultimate stop was a secluded wall opposite the French Embassy, known as the John Lennon Wall. After Lennon’s murder in 1980 someone painted his picture there and it became a place of pilgrimage (and graffiti) for young peace-loving Czechs.

Prague Castle is across the Charles Bridge, the iconic place that everyone in Prague wants to be. Actually it wasn’t too crowded the afternoon we crossed it. It’s a beautiful bridge with arches that withstood wheeled traffic for centuries, and statues of saints all along it. One of the amazing things about Prague is that unlike most European cities, it wasn’t heavily damaged in World War II, so these types of structures still exist. The center of Prague is home to over a thousand years of layered architectural styles, and the best preserved complex of Jewish monuments in Europe.

14th-century Gothic gravestones, Old Jewish Cemetery
The former Jewish ghetto was once several meters lower than the level we walk at today. That was so the Jews got flooded first. 
The Staronovou or “Old-New” Synagogue is the oldest working synagogue in Europe. It was “New” in 1270! On the site of the Old Synagogue sits the “Spanish” Synagogue, so called because of its beautiful Moorish interior. This was a Reform congregation and, before World War II, a center for Zionism. Many Jews in a more optimistic time felt that their future was as equal citizens in Europe; they were comfortable enough to install an organ and even use the German language in their synagogue. 

Interior, Spanish Synagogue


Onward and upward to Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. I’ve seen a lot of cathedrals, especially this summer, but this was one of my favorites. Even the fact that it’s named for the patron saint of actors, comedians, and dancers (and people with epilepsy; St. Vitus’s dance was named in a less enlightened time). There’s a fourteenth-century mosaic of the Last Judgment above the Golden Gate, art nouveau stained glass by Alfons Mucha, gargoyles, and my favorite, flying buttresses. 


In the Prague Castle complex one of the gems is the Lobkowicz Palace, a privately owned art collection. We went there to hear classical music, specifically my favorite piece from Bedřich Smetana’s My Country. It’s often called “The Moldau,” which is the German name of the river that flows through Prague, but obviously Czechs call it Vltava.

We stayed to look at the art, which has quite a remarkable history. It was stolen from the Lobkowicz family, for obvious reasons, first by the Nazis and then, as soon as the war was over, by the communists. Amazingly, the Lobkowicz descendants returned to Prague after 1989 and live there now. One of the most interesting items in their collection is a manuscript of Handel’s Messiah, annotated and arranged by none other than W. A. Mozart. 

Traveling around Europe all summer has brought us face to face with many centuries of history. The overwhelming impression, though, has been of World War II history—a period that is really quite recent. Both my grandfathers served in the Second World War, and logically, so must have the grandfathers (or fathers, depending on age) of many people we’ve seen all over Europe. Which side depends on where we are.

In a way, the whole time I’ve been circling back to Berlin, a city I first visited (and enjoyed) in 2008. From Spain, where Hitler’s ally Franco ruled until the 1970s, through France which was occupied and Italy which was Fascist, the annexed Austrian territories, Hungary which tried be on the Axis side without actually fighting for it (or killing Jews), to Czechoslovakia which was the first victim of Nazi invasion. Everywhere we’ve gone, there were reminders of ghettos, deportations, concentration camps. What happened to the Jews here, what happened to the inhabitants of Lidice there.

And now we’re in Berlin. Where it all started, with a democratically elected party that didn’t have much support at first, but took advantage of people’s fears through lies and misinformation, eventually upending the rule of law. Not that anything like that could ever happen again.

But here’s why Berlin is a good place to end up, after all that history: Today’s Germany is a democratic leader in Europe. Elections will be held here soon, but for right now, Chancellor Angela Merkel is still the leader of the free world. 

Which brings me to what we’ve been able to do these past three months. Since the end of May, we traveled from Ireland to Slovenia without having to change currency—the much-maligned euro. Whereas the first time I visited Europe, going to a new country meant piling up, say, lira by the thousands. No one has scanned or stamped my passport since I entered the continent.

In other words, Europe is working. No one’s saying it’s perfect—like a national health care system, you get out what you put in. But this is a continent that for almost all of its history was riven by endless wars: sectarian, city-state, imperial. In my own lifetime Europe had fascist dictatorships and communist states behind the Iron Curtain. Now I sit happily in what was East Berlin, having traveled freely through both.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Nazis and the immigrant dream: Lidice, August 2017

I thank my uncle, Bob Haisman, for permission to use his family’s story.

In Prague, the Czech capital, we found another of those great “free” (tips only) walking tours. Our guide recapped the sad story of Czechoslovakia in the Second World War. It started a year before war broke out, when, in the notorious “appeasement at Munich,” Britain and France gave the go-ahead for Hitler to annex part of Czechoslovakia (the made-up country comprising ancient Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia). True to form, he later took all of it. The German invasion led to the installation of Reinhard “The Butcher” Heydrich, whom even Hitler admired for his exceptional cruelty, as the man in charge of occupied Czechoslovakia.

Czechs assassinated Heydrich in 1942. But that is not the end of the story.

What happened next was not part of our Prague guide’s story. I know about it because of my uncle, who suggested we visit the village of Lidice, 22 km from Prague. Or rather, where the village used to be.

Hitler ordered that in revenge for Heydrich’s assassination, “Lidice will die.” It’s not clear why Lidice—the village was blamed for resisting and having connections with the assassins, who were trained in and parachuted in from Britain, but I haven’t read any evidence of this. Maybe it could have been any village in Bohemia, but it was this one, from which my uncle’s grandmother, Bessie, had emigrated before the First World War.

This is what happened in Lidice on the 10th of June 1942: Every man in the village was taken out and shot. “Men” included an 85-year-old, the priest, and any boy who was at least 15 years old. A couple of boys turned 15 later and the Nazis went back and shot them too.
Horák family farm, site of the execution of men and boys

Every woman in the village was sent to a concentration camp. The children were forcibly taken from their mothers and sent away. Most were gassed at Chelmno, some sent to Poland without anything but the clothes they were wearing. Some were forcibly Germanized and, if they survived the war, had forgotten Czech and their native country.

The Nazis killed every living thing—animals too. They chopped down the trees. They burned down the buildings, and blew up anything that was left. Then they dug up the graveyard and desecrated the remains of generations before.

At the end of the war 153 women and 17 children were all who returned to Lidice. Most of the children, and every man of the village, had been killed.

We took a bus to Lidice, or rather, to what was built after 1942. The area that was the village—dating back to the fourteenth century—is still empty. Empty, that is, except for a few stone ruins,
Memorial to the children of Lidice
and memorials. There’s a museum with pictures of what the old village looked like, pictures of the dead, documentation of what the Nazis did there. You can watch film of survivors. One woman, who’d been taken away by Germans, came back at the end of the war unable to communicate with her Czech-speaking mother, who died soon after. 

They still cry about what they can remember.

I can hardly imagine an uglier thing happening, yet it’s a beautiful memorial. It was a beautiful day. We walked through the meadow between the new village and the footprint of the old one; there were wildflowers and butterflies. I thought, Peasant children hundreds of years ago must have played in this meadow.

And I thought about Bessie.

Bessie was my uncle’s Grandma. That’s what he always called her, although biologically, she was actually his aunt. You see, she and her parents and brothers left Bohemia (then under the thumb of the German Kaiser) just before the First World War, as the family was afraid their sons would be called up. They knew a European war was coming and they didn’t want their children to die.

That’s not the end of the story, either. We’ve heard about Ellis Island and the American dream of immigrants who came through there; well, Bessie and her family really did. They ended up in Chicago because of some relative. Several U.S.-born children later, Bessie’s mother died, and her father, unable to cope with a combination of guilt feelings and alcohol, did not long outlive her. 

Suddenly Bessie, 15 years old, was responsible for seven children. Including the youngest—my uncle’s mother, Millie—whom she’d promised her dying mother to raise as her own daughter.

So add the stigma of “unwed teenage mother,” even though she wasn’t. In the winter of 1917, with her brother fighting in the American army back in Europe, Bessie went out with the children looking for a job. She found one with Western Electric, assembling telephones. The company offered child care. What a crazy socialist scheme!

Bessie worked while the youngest children were taken care of. Her English was nonexistent but thanks to her employer, she studied after work. She met and married a young Czech-American man, improved her English, and they raised the family together. Until Millie’s graduation from high school, she was never told that her mother and father were actually her older sister and her brother-in-law.

Bessie and her husband were my uncle’s grandparents. That’s how he always knew them. The family stories came from a diary Bessie kept, in Czech, translated orally by Millie. 

Memorial where the men and boys of Lidice were killed
The family were Americans now, but still couldn’t stay out of European wars. Those sons did fight in both the First World War and the Second, and became casualties, but on the American side. (Anyone who doubts the reality of acquired citizenship should take that in: Leaving your home country and going to fight in a world war, on behalf of your new country.)

Bessie made my uncle promise that someday, he would take her back to Lidice, the village where she was born and had such happy memories. Not an easy promise to make. Not only had Lidice been destroyed, but Czechoslovakia was no sooner liberated from the Nazis than Soviets took it over. If the Germans were bad, thought the family, the Russians were even worse!

Still, he promised. And in 1968 the “Prague Spring” happened. Czechoslovakia seemed to be opening up, for a communist state. My uncle graduated from college. He and his grandmother would go back and visit the homeland together.

But that trip never happened. On the 21st of August—exactly 49 years before our visit to Prague—Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, and the Prague Spring reforms were extinguished by force. All travel was canceled. The family was relieved. They feared the Soviets would never let Grandma return to America.

Grandma—Bessie—passed away in her sleep later that year. It was only afterwards that my uncle was finally able to come back and visit Lidice, for her. And it is his story that made us visit it, for him.

If Bessie and her family had not emigrated; if they had still lived in Lidice in 1942, as generations had before them…
Site of the original village of Lidice

I did not think I would ever live to see a day when “Nazis are bad” could provoke an argument. In the U.S.A. of all places. I have studied this history for most of my life and I know many people have not, but I can hardly imagine this state of ignorance. I would like to take each and every ignorant person and make them stand in Lidice and watch these films. Yet I wouldn’t want them in this place, because they would desecrate it. They can’t tell false from true and have no understanding.

I have no capacity left to wonder, as I so often have, what could make people—dozens if not hundreds of occupiers—destroy so much life in such a wanton way. I no longer care about the Nazis or their motivations. In a world where people have done such terrible things to other people (and animals and the trees in the field), I do not understand how any of us can be mean.

If you have trouble dealing with the meanness and ugliness in the country where you live, try thinking about an immigrant who has made it there. Like Dr. Barnett “Bob” Stross, a Pole of Jewish origin whose family settled in England. When he heard Hitler’s sentence “Lidice will die,” he started the campaign “Lidice shall live” in Stoke-on-Trent, where he was practicing medicine. It is thanks to the people of Stoke-on-Trent that the new village of Lidice and, ultimately, the largest rose garden in Europe were built. We are not talking about well-off people, but miners and pottery workers who donated their wages in the middle of the hardship of World War II. 

Art from the international children's art competition
Or think about Bessie. A peasant girl with superstitions who grew up to be an immigrant woman. Working hard, raising a family, learning a new language, becoming a new nationality. In a couple of generations her grandson was president of the Illinois Education Association. It used to be called the American dream.

Lidice Gallery
We get to write our own ending to this story.


Drawn by a U.S. child










Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Less Pest, more Buddha

I have more to say about our adventures in Austria and Hungary. And what adventures they were: from the moment we saw a monk with a backpack hop off a bus in Salzburg, Austria delighted us. When we got to Vienna, it was a Sunday afternoon, when most shops and stores are still closed. Luckily, our local bakery was not. Or our local Irish pub (there seems to be at least one of these in every city in Europe, if not the world).

I was going to say Hungary did not delight us, but it’s not fair to judge a country only by its capital city. Budapest did not delight us. Part of this was not Budapest’s fault: the first part of our visit was marred by illness, the second by yet another heat wave (nicknamed “Lucifer” according to one of our friends). And it’s not Budapest’s fault that we visited it right after Vienna and just before Prague—two cities we found absolutely delightful. Nonetheless, it goes in the “hard work” column, not the user-friendly one.

Austrian public transit was easy, logical, and cheap. Budapest public transit was difficult, complicated, and turned out to be extremely expensive. I won’t dwell on every episode lest it make me sound like an ugly American [sic]. Let’s just say, if you told me you were going to Budapest, I would recommend you stay in a nice hotel, only walk around the city centre, and leave within a few days.

Yet that’s not completely fair, because we’re not on that kind of trip. You only get a feel for a place by staying in cheap places, taking buses, or going some places that locals go. And as it turned out, my favorite place in Budapest was Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube, neither Buda nor Pest. It’s got only one road (no private cars allowed), it’s a lovely long park with fountains, and it has the Palatinus Strand, the largest outdoor water park in the city. Budapest is famous for thermal baths and the Palatinus has those, along with several pools. I could easily have spent twice as much time there.

Both cities have magnificent houses of worship. Vienna has the Stephansdom, where we sat in on the beginning of a service. 
Gothic stone pulpit (1515) in the nave, artist unknown
And Budapest has the Great Synagogue. It’s Conservative (not Orthodox) and, like many cathedrals in Europe, and mosques of course, it requires modest dress. I know this, but it was too hot to wear long trousers that day. The synagogue would happily have sold me a kind of smock thing, but it resembled the type of gown you wear when you are waiting for a hospital exam. I decided I didn’t need to approach the Ark of the Covenant, and just observed the synagogue’s interior from the entryway. The museum and memorials at the Great Synagogue don’t have the same restrictions as the inner sanctuary. 
Kipot (yarmulkes in Yiddish): mandatory head coverings for men. 3,000 forints: what a deal!
One thing we didn’t have the time to do from Budapest was a day trip, and that always adds interest to a city visit. From Vienna, we took a river cruise on the Danube, from Melk to Krems an der Donau. It wasn’t a cheap or locals’ thing to do, but we enjoyed the region, even its apricot schnapps. And we ended up spending more time in Krems than we’d intended. We found that elusive fixed-price lunch, which meant three courses. Many years ago, before I knew about veal, I tried that version of wiener schnitzel and didn’t like it that much; I tried a pork version this time and reluctantly concluded that it really isn’t for me. Luckily, the third course was baklava!

Then we started uphill to find the Krems train station. Distracted by the razor wire of a prison, which used to be a monastery, we hesitated at some railroad tracks that didn’t seem to be leading back to Vienna (or, for that matter, a platform). I asked a well dressed gentleman for help in English. 

He turned out to be the rector of Donau-Universität Krems, which is the building opposite the prison. Our new friend Friedrich was proud to show us around the largest continuing education university in Europe, and its historic building, which used to be a tobacco factory. Today we think of the tobacco industry as retrograde and wicked, but in its day, this company was progressive in the treatment of its mostly female work force, providing benefits such as child care. An unusual feature of the old factory is now the student film society. 

Friedrich succeeded in keeping us in Krems for longer, as well as directing us to the old town and back to our train to Vienna. I wish him and his mature students well.

Vienna also has a gorgeous museums quarter; its historic centre, the Innere Stadt, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I really wanted to visit the neoclassical Kunsthistoriches Museum, which has a wonderful Picture Gallery of Old Masters, native son Gustav Klimt’s painting in the staircase, and a pretentious café where one can browse newspapers. I picked up The New York Times and learned, among other things, that Tennessee is the #1 state for jobs created by foreign trade. Who’d a thunk it?

Sunset at the Schloß Schönbrunn
In the evening T. joined me for a concert in the Orangerie of Schloss Schönbrunn, the Hapsburgs’ summer palace. Another palace, another Unesco World Heritage site. As if all this beauty weren’t enough, we were treated to some wonderful music—mostly J. Strauss (the Blue Danube, even though it’s actually brown) and Mozart. 

I’m not a big cake person, but I must admit that apfelstrudel and coffee at the aforementioned local bakery was a pretty nice thing to check off the list. So was the Wiener Riesenrad, a giant Ferris wheel that’s been turning since 1897. 
View from inside the Riesenrad. Apparently Orson Welles rode this in The Third Man.
My conclusion about Vienna was that it was expensive, as expected, but easy. When I asked a Viennese person if she spoke English, she was most likely to reply “A little bit,” then speak it fluently. “A little bit” is the actual amount I speak other languages, as we have established; Austrians are just being modest.

We had high hopes as we climbed into our train compartment on a Belgrade-bound train, looking out the window at sunflower fields. Then we alighted at Budapest’s Keleti train station. Those of you who read the news may recall that not long ago, this station was making headlines during the Syrian refugee crisis. Hungary’s right-wing government has since cracked down on what it calls migrants, and built a wall on the border with Serbia and Croatia, but for a time Hungarian people were piling into the station with food, blankets, etc. Thousands of volunteers assisted refugees along the highways to Austria, as well.

The Hungarian language (Magyar) is unique outside Asia for reversing given names and surnames. The little bit of Hungarian history I learned was from the stops on the subway: our local station was Móricz Zsigmond (named after a major novelist in the tradition of Zola), and the central stop in the middle of town is Deák Ferenc (a reformist leader who worked out the Act of Compromise with Habsburg emperor Franz Josef). 

I once had a landlord with the first name Ferenc, which is how I recognized this reversal of the order of names. The most famous man with this name is Hungary’s most important composer, Liszt Ferenc—“Franz” Liszt. 
Liszt had one Austrian and one Hungarian parent and was born in a Hungarian village that is now part of Austria. Despite the limitations of his Hungarian, works such as Hungarian Rhapsodies were influenced by traditional Roma music, and he identified with the “Gypsy” people.

It was sobering to find that within walking distance of our place in the Buda Hills was a nuclear bunker. But of course there was. This was the middle of Europe in the middle of the Cold War. A country like Hungary takes atomic threats seriously. Separated from Austria by an electrified fence only a generation ago, it won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Will it?

Walls and nuclear threats aside, I enjoyed Hungarian food. Lángos, fried dough with cheese and sour cream, is the go-to snack, and I was excited to get some cabbage rolls (also topped with sour cream) that reminded me of my Grandma’s. It was with some trepidation that I ordered pork medallions “Budapest style” (goose liver on top), but even that was delicious. 

Maybe it was to do with having not felt well the first couple of days, when we were also staying at the cheapest hostel in town (it showed). In fact the lángos were what T. brought me for breakfast the first day I was feeling ill, with the memorable words “I’ve no idea what these are.” When I did feel good enough to venture up the hill, we discovered that the Buda side, where we were staying, is actually quite nice. The Citadella, a Hapsburg-era prison for insurrectionists that was obsolete by the time it was built, features great views over the river and the Pest side, as well as this Liberty monument.

She used to watch over statues of Soviet soldiers who died liberating Budapest in 1945, their names listed in Cyrillic letters. That all got junked after communism and the soldiers are now in Memento Park, a collection of thrown-away communist memorabilia displayed outside the city. We didn't visit. But it's a good idea for embarrassing statues.

There was more good food, and Hungarian wine, at a nearby terrace overlooking Buda. I had a fish called pike-perch from Lake Balaton. This was a splurge, but we’d been wasting so much money on the false economy of a cheap place we didn’t dare store food or cook in that, what the hey. Four generations of one family (speaking non-native English) sat at the next table, celebrating a new baby boy. T. said to me, “People all over the world hold a baby the same.”

In a Gellért-hegy café I heard the strains of a familiar song. Someone on the TV was singing “Fix me, Jesus, fix me,” like Jodie Manross used to sing:
“Fix me for my dying day
Fix me for my starry crown.”

All this must have mellowed me. The next day, we were in a Kentucky Fried Chicken which featured the life of Colonel Sanders in pictures all along the wall, captioned in Magyar. (It’s all about finding free toilets on this continent.) As is often the case, the men’s and women’s bathrooms were labeled only with words in a language I don’t know, not pictures. I picked the women’s door solely because I’d just seen a urinal through the other door when a man came out of it, but I could easily have made a mistake. Which is what I’m pretty sure the young man already in the women’s bathroom had done. But I don’t know him from Adam so I didn’t even blink. I just thought, Go for it, buddy. Be whomever you want to be.

Parliament, on the Pest side (left), always looks nice.