Delightful things, Monday, Feb. 2, 2020

In the spirit of this morning’s This American Life, some things that are delightful:

  1. Apparently, big cats are fans of perfume, and Calvin Klein’s Obsession is particularly popular.
  2. Oven spring, the magical phenomenon whereby a ball of flour and salt and water and yeast begins to resemble bread. I do not think I will ever pull a loaf of bread out of the oven without feeling vaguely like an alchemist.
  3. The tactile sensation of folding laundry while it is still warm.
  4. Watching snow fall when one does not have to go out into it.
  5. The teeny-tiny meow of small kittens.

The truth about Miss Ellsworth

A little fictional mini-vignette, to make up for the hard time I’ve been having posting.

Okay, so nobody believes me. That’s not my fault. Doesn’t mean I’m not telling the truth about Miss Ellsworth.

It was a great night for a dare. Perfect, really – with the moon all bright and full and turning the leaves on the ground all silvery except for the little pools of lamplight where the gold and the brown and the red still show through.

And the library’s always been one of my favorite places, anyway. I don’t know how it is that a place can be so big and so cozy all at once, but it’s the best place in town to be when you want somewhere to get out of the cold, or to sit and think, or maybe just to get out of the house when Dad’s in one of his moods.

At night sometimes you can see a light in the basement, or in the attic. Some of the other scouts say it’s ghosts. I’ve always figured Miss Ellsworth lived there.

So when Wally told me I was too chicken to sneak in that night…well.

It’s funny, really, how people stop noticing things once they get used to the way things are. All I had to do was settle in behind one of those great big dogs, or whatever they are, outside the front doors and wait. I watched as Mr. Johansen went home for the day, all tidy and brisk in that long tweed coat. I waited as Mrs. Ridley and Derek and whatever the new baby’s name is – was it Lewis? – headed off home to dinner, with Derek asking if they could do corned beef. They were the perfect distraction; I slipped inside just quickly enough that the baby’s fussing helped hide the sound of my shoes on the tile.

From there, all I had to do was duck past the front desk – no janitor, not just yet, not until everybody’s gone home – and down the EMPLOYEES ONLY stairs to the basement.

I’d never been down there, of course. It’s different from the rest of the library; darker, closer, a maze of boxes with labels I could read but not understand and sleek, unlabeled doors. Quieter, too – which seems crazy when you’re talking about a library, but it was, I promise it was. Heavy quiet. Spooky quiet. Quiet in a way that made it all feel a little like a dream.

That’s just it of course. Wally says of course it WAS a dream, that I must have fallen asleep somehow. That I couldn’t really have lost the stairs, that I couldn’t really have walked for hours and hours, until the beam of my flashlight started to fade right out.

I remember that awfully clearly for a dream though. How pale and yellow and flickery the beam was. How I could only just read through it the neat yellowed label on the box in the corner I was facing: 398.469 – Accession 01/17/87. Miss Ellsworth’s handwriting, all perfect, tidy circles and squares and…

And then there was a light up above me all of a sudden. Not an electric light, either; this one was orangey-yellow and flickering and all I could think was how much I wanted to get closer. I climbed up on the box without thinking about it, and then the one after that, and the one after that, and then there was a little window all of a sudden, and the little window looked in on a fine big room, and that seemed a little strange at the time, but I couldn’t really put my finger on why. I know now, of course. It was too big, much too big, so big I think you could have fit the whole first floor of the library inside.

But it was so pretty, you know? There were big leather chairs, and one of those rugs that looks like it ought to be a flying carpet really – maybe it was a flying carpet on vacation, I don’t know – and a grand fireplace that made you just want to stretch out in front of it like Wally’s cat Seamus and sleep for a week.

And the books. It was FULL of books. Shelves and piles and stacks and…buildings of books, old ones and new ones and big ones and small ones; huge leather books with gold lettering on them I couldn’t read, and at least one of those little paperbacks Mama reads, with the pretty ladies and the man without a shirt on the cover. (Always seems to be the same guy. I wonder why he never wears a shirt.)

I was just thinking how funny that paperback looked when I heard a door open, and Miss Ellsworth came in. Her hair was still up in that coppery knot at the back of her neck, but I guess she’d changed clothes for the night: a long white dress I’d never seen her in before, sort of sparkly in the firelight.

And…and then this is the part where everybody says I must’ve been dreaming. Miss Ellsworth walked over to the fireplace – I remember watching her dress sparkling in the light – and then…then she reached up and pulled out the long gold pin she uses to keep her hair up. There was all this shining coppery hair tumbling down everywhere – and as it did she…stretched.

Just like I do when I get up in the morning, arms straight out, all long and lean. But then she kept going. As I watched she seemed to get…longer, taller, broader, bigger: from under that long swirl of hair, still falling, there sprouted wings. The wings stretched up and out and OUT, and where there was hair there were shiny coppery scales.

And the stretch kept going. Kept going until her hands and feet had claws and a long sleek coppery tail was coiled around the base of one of those big leather chairs that suddenly didn’t seem so big any longer. Kept going until the face looking up at that ceiling grew long and coppery, too, framed by horns that swept and curled like music.

Then there was a sort of long slow rumbling breath out from deep inside her somewhere, and I knew what I was looking at.

Miss Ellsworth the librarian is a dragon.

And she knows I know.

I must have made a noise; shifted on the box or dropped my flashlight, or some damn thing. Darned thing, sorry. Mama says I shouldn’t talk like that.

But suddenly she was looking straight at me, and I knew she saw me.

Her eyes are green. Her real ones, I mean, not the ones she wears every day. Green like the forest in a fairy tale, too green to be real, so green I couldn’t look away, so green I couldn’t breathe.

And then it was morning, and I was on the long couch in the children’s reading room, and Mama was furious with me. And nobody believes me.

Bet they would if I were a boy.

Well. Maybe.

I still don’t know where my flashlight’s got to.

Day 7: Art and music, imperial-style

It’s a little hard to believe it’s been a week.

As it turns out the street outside our hotel seems to be pretty popular with young Viennese folk; late into the night we heard them drinking with quite a bit of enthusiasm.  You wouldn’t necessarily know it by morning, though.  When I woke up (far too early, in my opinion) it was just me and the fan and, eventually, the sedate rumbling of streetcars.

For the first time in my life I have taken advantage of a hotel’s laundry service, carefully layering clothes into a little pink bakery bag (they were out of whatever they normally use) and carefully presenting it to the fellow at the front desk.  10 euros, and we get clean clothes for the rest of the trip.  Trying not to feel too much like I am being a posh git, even as I carefully try to dress up slightly for reasons that will be evident later.

Our first stop today is the Kunsthistorisches Museum – very literally, the art history museum.   This beautiful building frames the Maria-Theresienplatz, facing its opposite number the natural history museum.  (The Venus of Willendorf, apparently, lives there, though we won’t have time to swing by for a visit unfortunately.)

The interior of the building is as grand as the outside; it looks as though the Habsburgs felt their art collection deserved a suitably grand setting.  I mean.  Look at these stairs:

The production values inside the exhibits are quite something, too.  Check out the staging on some of these:

Here is where I have to admit that we didn’t make it through the entire place.  Not that it’s not worth it, I’m sure…but there is quite a lot of Stuff on display.

I do not know what it is that drives imperial-type folks to hoard massive collections of art and sculpture and artifacts.  It’s certainly remarkable to see so much of it in one place.  It’s…also remarkable how often the audio tour seemed to mention that such and such an artifact had been sent back to its homeland in Place.  Perhaps there is a little guilt, after all the hoarding?

On the other hand, it is partly thanks to that hoarding that we’re able to see some of these things today.  Like all those stories of how the original glass/paintings/carpets/manuscripts/what have you only survived the war because some enterprising person hid them in a basement somewhere, perhaps in a crate marked “Salt Pork” or something.  (Not, obviously, a story we actually heard, though kind of an aggregate of many we heard on this trip.)

It’s simultaneously a bit romantic and a bit sad.  Intrepid archivists or concerned citizens or a desperate mayor; the idea that somewhere out there in an unassuming attic there might still linger someone’s masterwork, waiting to be brought back out for someone to love it again.

Interestingly, the museum seems to have some similarly conflicted ideas about itself.  Their special exhibition at the moment is “The Shape of Time,” which sounds rather like an episode of Doctor Who but is actually a sort of…statement of self-awareness.

What do I mean?  Well…As I’ve said, the museum has a pretty spectacular collection.  A roomful of Caravaggios.  Another that seems like it kind of contains every Breughel I can think of.  You very literally cannot turn around, it seems, without smacking into something famous you’ve seen in art history books, except that here it is real and displayed in grand, high-ceilinged galleries with thoughtfully-arranged benches where earnest art students cluster to hone their craft.  (And weary tourists like me jump at the chance to rest aching feet and take it all in while listening to the thoughtful English commentary.)

But here’s the thing: Almost none of what’s here is new.  The collection is grand and full of beautiful things, but crystallized at a point before the Impressionists were around to do their thing, before we began cultivating mixed media, before photography and Banksy and mashups.  And that’s sort of what’s behind “The Shape of Time.”  We view art differently based on its context – and context is what this exhibition’s about, pairing old art with new in ways that are as much about our experience of what is around the art as the art itself.

Here’s one pairing, for example: Rembrandt was apparently mightily fond of painting his son Titus.  In a dimly-lit gallery, one of these portraits hangs.  Turn right, and you have a work of video art by Fiona Tan – “Nellie,” in which Rembrandt’s daughter Cornelia lingers restlessly in a sticky, humid room, underscored by the vague, jungly drones of insects.  Titus looks sort of quietly heroic, gazing off into a bolder future; Cornelia writes a letter, gazes out a window, tosses uneasily in her sleep.   Somewhere hanging in the dimness between them one can feel the comment on gender roles.

Another dark room, another dark pairing: Steve McQueen points a video camera at a dying former racehorse, Running Thunder, the painful immediacy of the death of a lovely and powerful creature juxtaposed with what at first appears to be a fairly dull Brueghel vase of flowers.  But, as the curator informs us, the flowers shown here do not share a season; this painting would be literally impossible.  Celebration of life?  Celebration of transience?  How does it feel to observe inevitability and impossibility together?

A sculpture of lovers’ faces bent toward one another, close and affectionate, paired with Felix Gonzales-Torres’s “Perfect Lovers” – a set of two ordinary office clocks, set to the same time and left to run down.  Already their times are not quite the same; one of them will inevitably “die” first, leaving the other alone.  It’s a poignant image, made more so when you know that the artist paired these clocks while his own lover was dying of AIDS.  He was the one left alone, in the end, though he passed away not long after.

Around another corner, in another room, medieval saints weep chastely over the crucified Jesus, unaware they now share a room with the broad white plinth containing Ron Mueck’s “Dead Dad,” a scaled-down representation of the body of his own father that is both eerily lifelike and a real punch in the guts for anyone who has ever beheld the body of someone they once loved without a life in it.

A classical sculpture of Aphrodite, someone’s long-ago image of perfect beauty, is displayed next to Eleanor Antin’s “Carvings,” a series of photographs, one a day in several different views, as a strict near-starvation diet gradually brings her nearer to a more recent ideal.

It’s a really interesting exhibition; if I’ve piqued your curiosity, there’s some further detail available at the museum’s own site, in English.

The museum isn’t JUST its special exhibitions, of course – the regular galleries are, as I said, crammed to the gills with paintings you’ve probably seen in art history books and works by people whose names you know.  It was interesting to look at all those Rubens works together and think that once upon a time, someone built like me would’ve been considered smoking hot rather than constantly reminded how nasty I am for being a bigger girl.  It’s a bit liberating; I hope I can keep a little of that and bring it home with me.

By this time we’d seen…oh, maybe half the museum, and I seriously think we could have stayed all day, just taking everything in – but we did have places we needed to be, and so not without a little regret we turned in our audio guides and set forth for Schonbrunn Palace.

Schonbrunn was the Habsburg summer palace – it’s where folk like Maria Theresa and Franz Josef went when they wanted to hit the cottage, so to speak.  These days it’s right on one of the subway lines; you can literally hop off, cross the street, and be right there, taking in a first view of that casual summer flavor.

Well, all right, for certain varieties of “casual.”

Vienna is home to two Habsburg palaces, and I think in general if you were only going to tour one of them it would be the other – but this one had an interesting package deal that combined admission with dinner and a little concert.  Sure, why not?  So here we were, picking up our tickets at the Orangery, a little building off to one side of the entrance.

As it happens, our concert was not to be there today, but in the Grosse Gallerie; more on that a little later. Tickets in hand, we set off to tour the palace itself and its grounds.

And, you know, just a modest little summer place, right?

Honestly, there is something in Baroque style that drives it with remarkable swiftness toward self-parody. Did you know, for instance, that they have a real Roman ruin there?

…Because that is totally a legit Roman ruin and not just a mishmash of any old vaguely Romanesque thing we could find, right? Right?

Okay, okay, I snark. But it was just a bit hilarious how far over the top these gardens were. Kind of lovely, yes, but dang, imperial folks:

As with many a stately home in England, the grounds are both open to the public for warm-weather ambling about and monetized within an inch of their leafy raked-gravelled lives; everywhere near the entrance are industrious folks selling ice cream and offering rides on a trainlike vehicle that seemed popular with small people, and some of what seem like they ought to be the choice gardens one must pay to enter.

Still, it’s a pleasant place to go walking on a cool sunny Spring afternoon – even if the aforementioned gravel IS of a particularly evil vaguely triangular variety that insisted on creeping into my sandals and forming tiny, insidious caltrops. I wonder if Franz Josef ever took a break to wander here, taking a rare chance to think of roses and fountains instead of business. Perhaps he was too devoted to his calling for that? I suppose I’ll never know.

The interior of the palace is hot indeed, both from the crush of the ubiquitous tour groups and from the inconvenient fact that air conditioning had yet to be invented. (Central heating, though, after a fashion: many rooms sport Bavarian ceramic stoves of majestic proportions, stoked from behind by specially-tasked servants via a network of passages in the walls.)

Franz Josef and his wife Elisabeth had their own rooms, here – perhaps not so uncommon as we think, once, but here they feel like a sign of the vague dysfunction that seems to have haunted their marriage despite Sisi’s Princess-Diana public appeal. His rooms are stately, dark, even a bit Spartan by imperial standards; the iron bedstead and the prayer bench speak of a man devoted to his duty. The upright Emperor, I catch myself thinking. Responsibility to a fault, for all that those portraits of his wife speak of his love for her.

Anyone could arrange an audience with the empire’s foremost civil servant: you waited in a grand red room for your name to be called, you went in and spoke your piece, and then eventually the Emperor would incline his head, saying what a pleasure it had been, and the audience would be over.

I wonder very much what kinds of things they asked for. His people.

Sisi’s rooms, by contrast, are dainty and feminine in that lush Baroque way; here she would spend literal hours on her toilette, particularly her infamous mane of gorgeous dark hair. They face the rose garden outside; the breeze in the summer must have been heavenly. She was, they say, a truly legendary beauty; it seems a strange match for a man with such sober habits. But then, I suppose some of us do that – reach out to catch and hold a being whose presence we crave as much for the yawning gulf of difference between us as for any other trait.

The rest of the palace hearkens back to earlier eras still; you can still feel some of the influence of Maria Theresa here amid all the gilding and curlicues and baroque notions of chinoiserie. Even in architecture she is formidable. (I have a vague notion in my mind of her on a movie poster, with some wag laying a slogan at her feet: “Sixteen children. Zero fucks.”)

Eventually the time came for the evening’s entertainment to begin; we made for the little restaurant just left of the main entrance and found every table laid with white tablecloths and neatly-centred vases of flowers. Waiters stood by, a little unnervingly attentive. Time for dinner.

We ordered a glass of wine each and waited as other diners filed in. These dinner-and-concert packages are touristy affairs, but in Vienna this seems to mean something a bit different from what I normally imagine – well-heeled-looking folk largely of my mom’s generation, chatting in a mix of English and German about this and that with a hearty helping of folk speaking what sounded a bit like Russian mixed in. (For the second time in as many days I felt relieved about how dark my jeans were. Not properly dressy for a concert under many circumstances, but here, probably enough.)

Dinner is a prix fixe affair: soup, the Tafelspitz beloved of Franz Josef, and an apple strudel for dessert. All rather surprisingly tasty, and coupled with the chance to sit down for a while quite fortifying.

As the dessert plates and coffee cups were cleared, we made our way into the palace once more – and, unlike our tour this afternoon, nobody seemed to mind a quick photo or two without the flash on as we took our seats and watched for the orchestra to file in.

I mean. Look at that room.

The orchestra was small – just a handful of players, mainly strings – but they did quite well; an assortment of popular classics, mainly Mozart and Strauss (of course), mixed with some arias/art songs here and there. It wasn’t completely boilerplate, fortunately (no “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” which I would have thought an easy pitch down the middle), and at least everyone seemed to be having a good time. (The conductor got everyone in on the action by conducting the audience to clap along with a march right at the end, so there was at least a sense of good fun all round.)

Amusingly, the grounds hadn’t quite completely closed by the time the concert started – so early on I got to watch some surprised and delighted random folk outside, peering in through the slats of the blinds on the doors. By intermission, though, everyone had cleared out but the concert-goers, and we got to have a pleasant few minutes looking out over the Habsburg backyard.

(I still haven’t gotten the hang of night photography on this thing, sorry. Here’s us though!)

Eventually, though, the orchestra headed home and so did we; returning back to our hotel to find those same cute little pink bakery bags full of neatly-folded clean clothes. I still feel a bit like part of the problem…but I AM looking forward to clean clothes in Budapest.

Sounds like the Viennese enjoy their Saturday nights as much as we do. Ah well – I’m beat. Good night, partying Austrians; Vienna, I’ll see you tomorrow.

Oh – and here’s a random bonus snap of one of those cute street lights. These were installed as part of Eurovision, apparently, but everyone liked them so much they’ve kept them around.

Day 6: “City of music” would not be an exaggeration.

Looks like the weather intends to carry on being obliging here in Austria; it continues to be sunny and cool, which is fortunate as Europe continues to not go in that hard on air conditioning.

We opened today with a nice little breakfast in Hotel Kugel’s cute little dining area:

…and then set about working out the public transit. The hotel was kind enough to help arrange transit passes for us – and here we learned that rather than rely on TTC-style turnstiles or tap-on Presto-style cards, Vienna has elected to make all of its transit run on basically the honour system: you hop on to a vehicle or walk into a station, validate your ticket, and at any time a transit official may hop onto the train, ask to see said ticket, and you had better hope you’ve got it, lest you face a stiff fine of many Euros. A single validation was enough for our 72-hour passes, happily, so after that it was just a matter of finding the right vehicle.

Many of the transit stops have convenient little digital signboards near them showing the lines that serve that stop, when to expect the next vehicle on that line, and what direction it’s going in. (Some of them are also very near to parts of what seems to be an excellent cycling infrastructure, including bike sharing and little stations with air pumps and the like. Kara would love it.)

The fellow in the middle is one of a series of ads we saw around town featuring men proudly displaying various unfortunate sausages (tiny, horribly burnt, etc) with the slogan “Each sausage is perfect!…with the right beer.”

Anyway! Since we didn’t get to do our orientation last night, we did our best to make up for it by hopping on the “big red bus” sightseeing tour for a drive around the city with narration from the tour company. This was surprisingly pricey, considering; we’re fairly poor in Vienna, much as we were in Scotland. (As of today the exchange rate is something like half again the posted prices.)

The tour runs more or less around the Ringstrasse (with a diversion for the construction that prevented our tram-ride plan from happening) and then out to some areas we didn’t anticipate spending time during our stay, like the Prater amusement park.

Here are some notes I made along with a random selection of photos from the bus (please forgive odd angles and such):

  • Vienna’s famous cafe culture apparently came to the city via an enterprising sort of guy who was undercover as a Turk during the long-ago conflict between them and the Austrians. When they booted the Turks out the retreating army left all this coffee nobody wanted behind, and since he’d picked up the ins and outs of it he gladly took it…then opened a shop where the Viennese learned to drink it. The rest, as they say, is history.
  • A startling number of famous political folk lived here at the same time – including, at one point, Trotsky, Lenin, AND Hitler. I find myself wondering what might have happened if they’d all run into each other in a cafe somewhere. Awkward looks? Fisticuffs? Long philosophical arguments that went on until the police were called?
  • Like Prague, Vienna had a Jewish quarter up until World War II. This part of Vienna was known as the Matzoh Island, though if the bus commentary hadn’t called it out I have no idea whether you’d know when you entered it. Today it looks much like the rest of the city; drugstores and little shops, the same regulation white buildings.

  • Much of the city is of course a post WWII reconstruction, as the city was bombed out pretty hard during the fighting. Some relics of the war are still around, though, like the huge concrete flak towers built by the Nazis. One of them has now been converted into an aquarium, the Haus des Meeres. A happier use for it, certainly.
  • The sailor suits worn by the Vienna Boys’ Choir are meant to be an equalizer, so that the boys’ social class, etc., isn’t what’s on display. They still perform on Sunday mornings, at the Hofburg palace chapel.
  • The area around the Prater is a popular entertainment district, and has been for ages: long ago, this was where you went to go do the Vegas thing before there was a Vegas. These days, it seems to be more of a family spot; the famous Ferris wheel’s still running, and on a sunny day like this one it was crowded with people buying ice cream, milling about and generally enjoying the weather. (The Prater is also home to this amusing ATM.)

Vienna was, for a very very VERY long time, the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the marks of that are everywhere. If Prague is a city that in some ways seems to be struggling to define itself moving forward, Vienna is absolutely and completely aware of exactly what it is. The empire may be gone, and it may have been some time since the days of Mozart and Strauss, but the city does not feel faded – it has a kind of confident assurance of its character. One gets the sense that it is what it has always been, in its own mind – the seat of a particular flavour of “high” culture.

So it is that we remember that the emperor Franz Josef loved tafelspitz (boiled beef, which doesn’t sound all THAT appetizing but I guess you never know) and that the area around the Praterstern used to be a private hunting ground. It’s a train station now, bustling with commuters; I wonder how many of them think, as they head to the platform, of deer.

So it also is that we know that the Empress Elisabeth (or “Sisi,” as she is known everywhere) had a tattoo on her shoulder, of an anchor, usually covered by her dresses. Sisi seems to have been the Princess Diana of the Austro-Hungarian empire; her name is all over Vienna’s tourist zones, and romantic-looking portraits of her make a backdrop to ads on the subway. “Where Sisi would have shopped,” one says, in coy English.

We also heard that once upon a time Vienna had a film scene as robust as Toronto’s…until WWII. (Quite a lot of “…until WWII”. I suspect I’ll be seeing that a lot over the next few days.) At around that point a lot of the film scene here fled to…less-scary climes, like Hollywood’s. (Perhaps Max Steiner, composer for Gone with the Wind, was one of them; he was apparently born here.)

The Third Man was, of course, filmed here. I’ve never seen it, but apparently the fellow who played that famous soundtrack (Anton Karas?) became super famous as a result and absolutely hated it. I guess I would get pretty sick of being asked to play the same thing a billion times over, too.

But my earphones are already telling me about another kind of music: waltzes. We hear about how much the church hates the waltz when the dance became popular. All those ankles, tempting the heart of man to sin. Shameful!

Still, without the waltz would we have had Strauss as we know him? He composed his first when he was six, says the polite recorded lady-voice. Oh, and by the way, the Danube is almost never blue these days, she adds, though it lends its name to the tallest building in Austria, the Donau tower.

As I stare out at the river (sort of a greenish gray, today) she goes on to add that Vienna is very proud of its water. It flows down from the Alps – powerful enough to generate electricity – and is pure enough to need no filtration when at last it arrives. (I had noticed that the tap water seemed unusually tasty last night but assumed I was just thirsty. Can that really be it?)

As we return to our starting point we can make out the spires of St. Stephen’s Cathedral (the Stefansdom), and learn that apparently the biggest of the bells there is only rarely rung today. So powerful is the sound of it that its ring can actually affect the cathedral’s structure. (Oops. Perhaps sound engineering wasn’t advanced enough to have thought of that when the bell was made?)

As we hopped off the bus we headed once again for the Opera; it makes both a handy reference point and was the starting point for our next bit of exploring, this time on foot.  Just behind the Opera is the aptly-named Albertinaplatz, presumably so called for reasons that have to do with the Albertina museum’s rather dramatic presence at once side of the square.  It and Hotel Sacher make somewhat incongruous flanking elements for the “Monument against war and fascism.”

It’s an amusing coincidence (…or perhaps an amusing act of great deliberation) that many of the city’s bingo-card sights for first timers like us are concentrated in a particular zone of downtown that also happens to house some very high-end shopping. We passed, for example, a shop selling glass and crystal that I didn’t dare breathe in the direction of, much less enter, as the price of a single plate in one of the windows worked out to about, oh, 1/4 of my monthly income or so. (Worthy window-shopping opportunities though, even if some of those windows are of the “behold the majestic glory of this single handbag” variety.)

Some lovely flower stalls as well.

There’s an unassuming little church on one of the not-very-square squares in Vienna.  It’s a Capuchin church, one that like the convent in Prague is still run by folk of a religious order.  And like that convent, it houses a sight that may be of interest to the passer-by: the “Kaisergruft,” or the imperial burial vault.  Curious at what manner of intersection of the Gothic and the Baroque we might meet down there, we went in for a look.

Not all of the imperial bloodline are interred here.  And, indeed, not all of the people who ARE interred here is interred here; apparently some of their organs are likely to be in urns and such elsewhere in the city.  But their bones are here, and the resting places of said bones range from the modest…

…to the impressive…

…to the “Holy crap, is all that really….well, I guess you’re doing you, so go for it”:

That last one perhaps has an excuse for its drama: the bones in it belong to the legendary Empress Maria Theresa.  In Austria, Empress Elisabeth is to Princess Diana as Maria Theresa is to Queen Victoria, and it seems that just about everywhere in the city there are traces of her passing.  She’s one of the rare, lucky royals who seems to have had a love match; those sixteen (!!) children had to have come about somehow.  The caskets (is that the right word?) for her and her husband here in the crypt enhance the impression; the two of them look almost as though they were only just waking up in bed together on a lazy Sunday morning. 

It’s oddly sweet, especially after a relatively steady diet of Goth-ier elements in the various burial sites we’ve visited in Prague and elsewhere.

Sisi and her husband Franz Josef are here as well, and it seems that Sisi’s got a lot of fans, including this person who apparently felt themselves to be a kindred spirit:

Emerging once again into the afternoon, we paused for lunch at Konditorei Oberlaa, where we had our first encounter with the Viennese fondness for outdoor dining when the weather is fine (it’s almost as much of a Thing as patio culture is in Toronto.)  I’m not normally much of an eating outdoors sort of person, but it would have been lovely here had it not been for an unfortunate convergence of smokers and breezes.

I did absolutely have one of the best bits of cheesecake I have ever put in my mouth, though – and they had this rather charming chocolate Klimt:

(Now seems like a good time to mention that it’s apparently the anniversary of Klimt’s death this year, though it took us a good while to sort this out. There were a LOT of Klimt-themed elements in town, though.)

Anyway, with lunch concluded and a brief interlude to convert some dollars into Euros, we made our way past a fountain that apparently scandalized Maria Theresa once upon a time (because bare breasts, you know), and took a brief peek at the actual St. Stephen’s.  It feels a little crowded into its square somehow, though perhaps that was just a byproduct of the general festiveness of the square itself, full of street food and hawkers and at least one of those tiny little carnival rides that manage to look dangerous and whimsical at the same time.

Much of the cathedral is a reconstruction: as with so much else in the city, it was seriously, seriously bombed-out in World War II, though there are still some rather nice views to be had inside.

Back on the street again, we found ourselves ambling up another pleasant, broad avenue – past an early prototype of the now-ubiquitous pay toilets and up to a pretty extravagant example of the plague column:

Yeah.  That’s baroque AF.  Supposedly it was a model for other constructions of its type, with then-emperor Leopold begging Lady Faith (or anyone who would listen, one suspects) to save the city from the terrible disease.  When the plague eventually burnt itself out, grateful cities took to building monuments like this one.

Not far from here is another little church, this one called St. Peter’s – and though honestly I think one could be forgiven for having all these religious establishments blur together by now this one had a nice little surprise for us in the form of a free afternoon organ concert.  We settled in on the pews for a few moments to listen, and I snapped a photo or two:

I’m pretty sure that gent is St. John of Nepomuk, who we heard a lot about in Prague.

As if to prove that music is what Vienna is really all about, as we were leaving we heard music of a very different kind.  Investigation of the lively march revealed it was being played by these guys:

Who were they?  Why were they marching down the Graben on a sunny afternoon?  I honestly have no idea, but it was the second musical moment we blundered into today.

All of this was buildup to a more significant musical moment, though: an attempt to get in to see a show at the Opera house itself.  These can be outrageously expensive – something on the order of 150 Euros for tickets – but here’s a little something I didn’t know before doing my research for this trip: On the day of a performance, standing room tickets may be had for just 3-4 Euros.   On the downside, yes, you have to stand, and there’s a fair bit of waiting about beforehand – but on the upside, you get to see a performance from one of the legendary opera houses of the world for a mere six to eight Canadian dollars.  After reading up on what one needs to do to make this happen, we set out to give it a try for today’s show: L’elisir d’amore.

Tip number one: Show up early enough to secure a decent spot in line.  Around 4 we wandered by the Opera to see whether the line had started.  To my mild surprise, it had, with a couple who were clearly old hands: both perhaps in their seventies, they were well-supplied with folding chairs, food and reading material. (Seriously, bring a book or a handheld console or something; you’ll be there a while if you try this.)  Reasoning that this meant we’d better get on this, we resolved to have a late dinner after the show ended and settled in just behind them.  Third and fourth in line: not bad!

Not long after we staked our claim, the line began lengthening and we were treated to the interesting assortment of folks who go for this kind of thing.  A little crew of girls who reminded me quite a lot of the LA contingent from our food tour in Prague.  A fellow of Asian extraction with extravagant dreads.  An earnest, serious-looking kid with ginger hair, glasses and a German-language copy of (if I was translating correctly) Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.  A second Asian kid who had either the cultural ignorance or the extraordinary balls to cut in front of me in line (though after getting over my astonishment I opted not to raise a scene.  Fourth and fifth in line were equally good places.)

After a time, the outermost door opens, and the standing-room folk move in to take their place in the winding indoor queue…and then, more waiting.  Several times we watched an usher with the unenviable job of turning folk away for improper dress do so when someone turned up with torn jeans.  (Apparently, jeans in good repair are just fine in standing room, but ripped jeans and shorts that fall too far above the knee are less so.  My advice: dress up at least slightly if you can.  Dark jeans and a decent top/shoes will probably do just fine.)

At some point during all this waiting, we fell into conversation with the old pros in front of us.  They were a Dutch couple, and only the man spoke much English, but apparently they’ve been doing this for going on twenty years now, every time they’re in Vienna.  Like us, they’d opted for this show largely because they weren’t in much of a mood to watch people die horribly and have tragic things occur to them in song for several hours, though they did mention that apparently in act two there’s an aria that’s known for being especially fine.  (Future me: I think this is the one.)

They seemed quite pleased to pass on their accumulated wisdom, though, and were definitely big opera fans.  It was a slightly disjointed conversation thanks to the language barriers, but they were lovely; I wonder a little if they saw some of themselves in us.

Eventually the little ticket booth opens, and we could finally buy our actual tickets (this is about two hours before showtime, so around 5:30 pm or thereabouts.)  Tip #2: Have exact change for your ticket.  I’d heard that they can actually be real sticklers about this, but we’d carefully hoarded four 2-Euro coins, so this bit wasn’t a big deal.

Once you have your ticket in hand, you’re not quite done queueing yet.  Hurry to one of the doors for the kind of ticket you’ve bought.  This will be either “Gallery,” in which case you need to hurry upstairs, or “Parterre,” as in our case, which meant we had to hurry up slightly fewer stairs and, at the advice of our Dutch mentors, duck left instead of right.  After waiting here for a bit longer, the final rank of doors will open, and you can at long last claim your standing-room space.

Tip #3: Have something on hand to actually mark your space with.  Classically this will be a scarf; I brought the very lightest one I own to mark my own place.  (The Dutch couple had a clever little magnetic contraption that marked both their places out.  Like I said: old hands at this.)

That thing my scarf is tied around is a little screen that will show you the opera’s subtitles in English or German – but that’s still a while off.  Once your space is marked with whatever you’ve brought with you, you’re free to explore the Opera House itself.  It’s not as big as you’d think, not inside, though it’s every bit as grand as you might be imagining:

Also as you might be imagining, it’s stuffed to the brim with artwork depicting various muses, composers, and so on.  Naturally there was at least one we had to make a point of seeking out:

And then, after a bit more Baroque-flavored exploring, it was showtime.

I know the folks reading this may have some Opinions about opera, maybe not favorable.  Myself, I’ve always rather enjoyed it; here’s a world that’s so over the top that not only are people constantly bursting into song to express themselves and their feelings, they are doing it often for reasons that are totally crazy – plus, if you’re lucky, the music is rather beautiful.

I didn’t have any prior experience with this particular show, but it’s rather charming.  In a nutshell: We open somewhere in rural Italy, where a crew of harvesters sing about the merciless heat of the sun – and the even more merciless heat of love.  As they say: Happy is the harvester that can protect himself from it!

Then again, if one really could, shows like this wouldn’t be much fun.

Our Hero’s a simple country boy, and he’s got it bad, BIG time, for the lovely and intelligent girl who lives stage left.  She, on the other hand, doesn’t really seem to be all that into him – while not actively hostile or anything, she just…doesn’t seem to feel the urge to be tied down.  Cue the arrival of a rather ridiculously pompous soldier who’s mighty full of himself and is very into our heroine – and then, to touch off the whole romantic powder-keg, a con man so gleeful in his charlatanry it is a goddamn miracle the townsfolk are even slightly inclined to trust him.

Inspired by a recent reading of Tristan and Isolde (no, seriously), Our Hero begs the con artist, a Dr. Dulcamara, for a love potion.  Of course, there is one – for a steep fee; nobody has to know it’s just a good strong Bordeaux, right?  Drunkenness and various forms of hilarity ensue; by the time all’s said and done our heroine has realized she wasn’t nearly as indifferent as she thought, our hero has discovered some self-confidence (and come into an unexpected inheritance for good measure), and one way or another it all works out.

At one point during the second act, the Dutch lady suddenly got very excited, tapping me on the arm.  “Schon!  Sehr schon!” she murmured rapturously, and I realized this must be The Big One.

And…uh…yeah.  Yeah, it was.  I don’t know my modern opera singers, but this guy was amazing here; at least twice I realized suddenly that I’d gotten so involved in watching him I was forgetting to glance down for the libretto.  The spontaneous applause that broke out afterward was well-deserved.

I’ve seen Pavarotti doing Rigoletto on video before, with a little sidelong glance at the audience just before launching into “La donna e mobile” that says “Yeah, here it comes, you know you want it.”  (Appropriate, I guess, for an aria that is both one of the super stonking famous ones and also translates loosely into modern parlance as “Bitches be fickle, yo.”)  No swagger here, though; just a completely in-character if somewhat painful earnestness.

Once the third or fourth curtain call had wound down and the glitzily-dressed patrons were making for the exits (followed closely by the plebes like us), we wished the Dutch couple bon voyage and set forth in search of what was by then becoming a ridiculously late dinner.

Happily, there’s something of a tradition regarding this as well.  Remember the Albertinaplatz I mentioned earlier?  Well, on it is one of many, many little streetside establishments offering beer and various permutations of sausagey goodness – and one of the other things I read about while working out how to do this whole standing-room thing is that apparently it is the done thing to hit up a spot like this just after the show’s ended.  Mark was definitely into the idea:

Curry wurst for me, and for Mark a “Riesen hot dog” – an appropriately-sized baguette impaled on what seems to be a specially made implement to punch a just-right hole in the bread without actually splitting the crust except for a cut-off end.  Condiments go either into the hole or are loosely applied to the top, with the grilled sausage eventually punched in after them to make a mostly-mess-free takeout option.  (I keep wanting to call it “reise wurst” for “travel sausage.”)

Not fancy eats, but we certainly weren’t the only ones with that notion in mind:

And I was definitely happy to collapse onto a convenient curb and dig in before heading home for the night, humming to myself.  A crazy long day, but it’s hard to feel much regret about that when there was so much music in it.

Day 2: The Old Town, the New Town

After wandering around in it for not-quite-two days, Prague seems a little…schizophrenic? I’m not sure what word I really want, there, but let me try and explain.

The city is all layers, in all directions: Art Nouveau swirls nestle in next to Baroque curlicues, Gothic arches tower over it all…and then, right across the cobbled streets, McDonald’s. Poetic gardens and somber, brooding synagogues…right alongside clusters of loud, tacky shops aimed at tourists and establishments offering Thai massages. Spotlessly clean facades, well-maintained for the upcoming centennial celebrations, and also ubiquitous graffiti.

We opened our first full day here with breakfast at our hotel, then made our way to the Museum of Communism, a smallish but interesting exploration of the Czech Republic’s experiences with the philosophy and its proponents. In practice, it is a little bit more of a “Museum of Ways Communism Sucked” – if the descriptions of the exhibits and the little videos of personal stories are anything to go by, the Czechs suffered quite a lot under communism and were pretty damned happy to see the back of it. Take this thing, for example:

It took something like 7 years to build, acquired the nickname “the line for meat,” and when communism fell it was demolished so completely that nothing at all remains to be seen of it today.

Or take the example of the young students like Jan Palach, who were so infuriated at the return of communist control after what seemed like a veering toward a different way of life that they literally set themselves on fire.

This cross is something we found later, commemorating their deaths in Wenceslas Square.

There is quite a “fuck this shit” societal attitude that seems to underpin much of the thought about religion and politics here, and it’s things like this that give you a sense why.

The museum also displays some interesting propaganda, and gives a handful of Czech folks the chance to tell their stories of repression, smuggling, becoming stateless to study in Austria, etc.

There’s also a lot of unsurprisingly-rather-cross descriptions of how much Russia was held up as the ideal to follow, some of which seemed full of more barely-concealed rage than I normally expect from museum text. The souvenir shop, by contrast, is all black humor: a “we can do it!” proletarian lady is shown on the side of a coffee mug, with the slogan “Solidarity from your communist sisters! Who would have burned their bras if there had been any in the shops.”

Stop number two for today was the Old Town Hall, where for some centuries the city has conducted its urban business.

Our guide was a pleasant, white-haired fellow who spoke a dizzying array of languages, and who explained to us that although a number of features of the building are off display for renovations (like the famous astrological clock, which has been covered by a screen that shows a video of the little show on the hour. Probably just as well; there would be a LOT of angry tourists otherwise) there’s still plenty to see.

By law, once upon a time city halls like this one had to include a chapel, a dungeon, and a kind of courtroom: this is true of the one in Prague as well. Sadly most of what was in the chapel was out for restoration work, though the glass was lovely:

The mayor’s ceremonial rooms contain a variety of original and reconstructed architectural detail, though right at the very end of the war of course some jerks lobbed grenades into it and destroyed lots of cool interior details, like the original bell from the tower. You can still see the original “suffering Jesus” from the 1300s, though:

The mayoral chamber is also lined with crests. If one looks closely enough, they’re not heraldic representations of noble families though – they’re guild crests from the various occupations that kept the city running. A ship represents traders, crossed knives the butchers; hat-makers have a swirling starfish of ostrichlike feathers.

In a hallway just past this, a massive Sevres vase commemorates friendly relations between Prague and Paris:

Grander halls for formal pronouncements and the like eventually give way to one of the many winding staircases we ended up seeing today. This one took us into the lower levels of the Old Town Hall, where that third essential was: the dungeon.

It looks a bit more like a cellar these days, to be honest, but once upon a time this was a place of some terror, I suppose – particularly the “Purgatory” cell where they would throw people without food, water or light, sometimes for days at a time.

On our way out Mark casually happened to mention that he’d considered asking our guide about what it had been like under communism for him; I would have decked him for this, honestly, and told him so.

Here there followed an interlude wherein we attempted to locate a 3DS power supply, as we learned rather too late that North American power supplies won’t work with an adaptor. …Oops. We were unsuccessful, sadly, but had an interesting side trek out of the tourist areas and into a grittier area of the city. Looked a bit like the sketchier areas of Toronto, honestly, except the graffiti was unreadable and the streets were paved with approximately one gazillion stones about three inches square. (We had the opportunity to observe what I suppose are the Prague public works folk at work: a gang of fellows who were pretty obviously a road crew, hammering a number of these square stones into place to repair a broken pattern.)

We also stopped for a banh mi; it seems that Vietnamese folk are surprisingly common in Prague and the food is correspondingly so.

Next stop, the Municipal Hall. This is about the most boring name I can imagine for what Rick Steves calls “one of the best-preserved Art Nouveau interiors in Europe”; after having been there myself I can say that while I don’t know about the rest of Europe, it’s still a goddamn spectacular interior. Photography was, sadly, not allowed inside most of the building, so I’ll have to attach links or something to this later. (Later: Hey, here’s a virtual tour! Enjoy.)

I can still show you the outside, though:

So what the heck is this place anyway? It’s…well, a series of rooms, mostly: an array of salons, dance halls, and smaller rooms laid out in a rough triangle around a huge and beautiful concert hall. The “municipal” part is taken quite seriously, too – all of the rooms may be rented by the public for meetings, social functions, etc. Mainly it sees use as a concert hall these days; every time we passed this place on the way around town there seemed to be something going on.

On one side of the triangle are the “ladies’ rooms“: chambers with dainty decor, full of rounded shapes. Each of the rooms in the Municipal Hall has a dominant motif – once you have identified this, you can see it everywhere. Medallions on the ceilings, metal grate covers, light fixtures, upholstery. One room dedicated to folk art themes even uses its dominant shape for a fish tank: little bronze snails serve as the tiny fountain heads that once kept it filled with water.

On the other side are the “gentlemen’s rooms”: more vertical lines and structured shapes, and artwork more in keeping with…well, a cross between Art Nouveau allegory and van art: one room had huge and dynamic allegorical paintings of love, war and the death along one wall.

By far the most dramatic room, though, is at the point of the triangle: a round-ish room decorated entirely by one Alfons Mucha. It’s not all that large a space but even so it is spectacular: a reflection of his faith in the power of the Slavic folk if they but worked together, with the slogan “Through strength, freedom; through love, concord” in bright silver over one of the doors. From panels below the ceiling characters from Slavic folklore glower, smile enigmatically, or gaze into some point in the far distance; behind each a chosen saint or allegorical figure brandishes a symbol of theirs, also picked out in silver. In the dome overhead a falcon soars, surrounded by the figures of various folk in Slavic costume.

Mucha was apparently quite into Freemasonry, and the room is also apparently packed with hidden symbolism. I wasn’t equipped to identify all of those myself, but the room certainly does have an intensely mystical feel. Elaborate Art Nouveau drapes are stitched with aluminum thread, making them sparkly and doubtless more mysterious as well. (All that silver in the decor? Also aluminum.)

It’s a beautiful room, and I feel very sorry not to be able to take photographs to show you, but at least the tour hopefully has the hook-up for you (I cannot preview it on this device, sadly.)

The other important thing about the Mucha room is that it opens onto a balcony. There, some historic speeches have taken place; peering out through the glass doors it really feels like stepping onto a brightly lit stage. I can imagine how it must have looked with hundreds of people packed into the square below.

In the basement level of the Municipal House is a “Pilsner restaurant” and also the “American Bar”: we didn’t have time to stop at either, but I did get a snapshot or two, since they were allowed in the basement.

Our afternoon plan was to tour the Jewish Quarter. This is where Prague’s many, many Jews once had to live and work and is also home to the “Jewish museum in Prague,” a selection of synagogues that have been turned into exhibits on Jewish life, culture, and customs.

Some of the synagogues might be worth seeing just out of architectural interest – the Spanish synagogue, for instance, likely the most opulent of them:

Here we learned about the period of Jewish life between the World Wars, a time when it seemed for a while there like Jews might gain real social acceptance in this part of the world. …Unfortunately we all know that didn’t exactly go as hoped.

(Unrelated but fun: This cool Kafka statue is outside it.)

Indeed, at the next stop, the Maisel synagogue, we learned that apparently Hitler once planned to preserve the place as a museum of the extinct Jewish people. Ouch.

It has indeed become a museum, but instead it’s of the Jews of early Prague. Here I learned, for instance, that it seems Jews had been directed to mark themselves in some distinctive manner with a yellow somethingorother long before the yellow Star of David we’ve all seen in film and history books. (Once it was a distinctive yellow hat.)

We also were reminded that Prague is where the legend of the Golem that inspired the movie, etc, took place…and has been providing fodder for souvenirs of Prague for a good long time:

(One of the little shops outside a later synagogue even sold cinnamon-caramel Golem cookies.)

Perhaps the most dramatic point in our visit there, however, was the Pinkas synagogue. This is a relatively simple synagogue outside, but inside the entire interior has been first painted white and then inscribed with thousands on thousands of names birth dates, and dates of death if known: Czech Jews, most of whom were transported to Terezin and then killed.

Upstairs, a small but deeply heartbreaking little exhibition of children’s drawings from the Terezin camp: some 8000 kids were sent out there, but of that number only something like 250 survived. Some drawings are of the sort one sees at kitchen tables everywhere: horses and street scenes and the like. Some are incongruous: a rainbow arcing over a green field…in which armed soldiers herd deportees toward a train with their tiny suitcases in hand. Some are, frankly, rather hard to look at: shadowy half-formed creatures with names like “Fear” and “Darkness,” a vast table lined with empty chairs and a single child-sized figure looking on.

I…didn’t have the heart to take photographs in there, honestly; sorry, guys.

Outside is the Jewish cemetery, which was for centuries the only place in town where Jews could bury their dead. There are about 12,000 gravestones here, densely packed and at all angles like jagged teeth; take that number and just about quadruple it, though, and you’ve got something closer to the number of bodies actually buried here. Pebbles and small prayers are placed on the headstones of some notable folk, though as weathered as some of the stones are I’m not sure how one would know who was who.

The adjacent Klausen synagogue and its Ceremonial Hall house exhibits on Jewish customs (circumcision, marriage, etc) and death rites. I hadn’t heard before about the existence of “funeral societies” – groups of folk who ensure that the dead are buried with all appropriate rites and that nobody who is without relations is left without someone to care for them – but apparently they were a big deal. (They also held dinners, like social/service organizations I’ve seen back home. Sort of like a funeral-focused Rotary Club, I suppose?)

Our next stop was one of the local “ghost tours” – a bit cheesy perhaps, but this one actually turned out to be fairly charming. Our guide was a young French girl named Maelane who’s apparently been living in the city for about four years for school and was reluctant to go back; her obvious enthusiasm for the city was rather charming.

Things we heard about include:

  • The story of a young girl who was killed by a fiery chariot drawn by goats. This supposedly appears from time to time on the street outside what was found in 2002 to have been an alchemist’s laboratory. Poisonous gas and accompanying hallucinations for the onlookers, perhaps?
  • The tale of “The House of Death” – home to a young woman who may possibly hold the record for worst luck ever. Her infant son was kidnapped, her husband died of heartbreak, and she then found happiness again with a traveling artist many years her junior (no points for guessing that this guy does indeed turn out to be the long lost son.) As incest was a capital crime, her son was then executed while she watched, and she went on to hang about mournfully gazing out of her window until one day she wasn’t there any longer. Concerned locals going to look for her found that she had died of the Black Plague, just for good measure.
  • A haunted hospital, because you’ve gotta have one of those.
  • The story of a young girl whose father refused to let her marry the love of her life, a penniless knight. Dad chucked her into the convent of St. Agnes, but soon found that her lover had an irritating habit of turning up to climb over the wall for visits. Sword fighting ensued, and when the girl tried to intercede, her father killed them both in rage. Today the ghost of the young girl appears to couples in trouble. (Happy to report that we didn’t see her.)
  • The story of twelve nobles who were beheaded and had their heads put on pikes after the Prague Defenestration (that is, the time when some angry folk chucked some of the local leadership out a castle window by way of making their point. Unfortunately for them, the individuals survived, reportedly by landing in a giant pile of horseshit, and…well, executions ensued. The heads hung on pikes, in little cages, for many years, and supposedly their previous owners still have protective feelings toward their homeland. Every year on the summer solstice, they rise from their graves and make for the old town square, where they await the striking of the astrological clock. If it fails in any way, this will be a sign that dark times are coming for the country, and the ghosts will linger until they are confident that all is well. This does certainly raise some questions given that the clock will still be getting restored round about that time this year.
  • The story of the original clockmaker, who supposedly had his eyes put out after building it so that he would not be able to make anything so impressive for another city. Feeling understandably vengeful, he first cursed the clock so that anyone who made alterations to it would go mad or die before having an apprentice remove a key piece so that the clock failed to work afterward. Later, a local painter who wasn’t afraid of no ghost was hired to restore the astrological dial and made modifications to it. This didn’t seem to go well, as apparently he began losing his mind shortly thereafter, and his ghost supposedly wanders the district he most loved in the city.
  • The story of a wealthy local woman with a tendency to mistreat her servants who killed one in a fury when she stopped to pray at the sound of the church bells outside. The serving girl then haunted the woman until she eventually donated all her money to the church and moved into a convent herself.
  • We also heard at least one sad story from the more mundane world. A friend of our guide’s apparently lost her brother to the secret police when her dad tried to go west, planning to bring them with him. They never heard from their father, but both the mother and brother were taken in for questioning, and the brother died. Much later, after the Berlin Wall had fallen and records began to be unsealed, they learned that Dad had in fact written letters, dozens of them, at least one almost every week for years and years until at last he reasoned they must be dead. The family was quite surprised to learn he was still alive.

Here ‘s our guide, by the way:

After this it was after 8 pm local time, we set out to look for a dinner spot in our “taste of Prague” book; half out of curiosity and half out of convenience we ended up at what is apparently the only Mexican restaurant worth one’s while in the city.

I was impressed to see horchata on the menu; I almost never see that even in Canada – but all became clear when we fell to chatting with the waiter. Apparently the place is owned and run by Mexicans, and they feel that Prague is treating them well.

Our final stop for the evening (as it was after 10 PM at this point) was also from the Taste of Prague book: “Anonymous Shrink’s Office,” a local speakeasy bar.

You might think that’s the door, but it isn’t.

We had the place pretty much to ourselves, and chatted with the bartender, who presented us a series of Rorschach-like picture cards, each of which corresponded to a signature drink.

I selected something rather like a butterfly in rather lurid shades of red and purple, and ended up with a Manhattan-like beverage garnished with a slice of dried apple and something like a dried cherry; Mark selected something that suggested both plaid and Rorschach from Watchmen, and was served something that came in a flask filled to the brim with something white and smoky layered over the drink itself; the whole was poured over a massive block of ice in a rocks glass. It turned out to be a little more like an Old Fashioned.

We followed this up with a hit of slivovitz for me (so I could say I’d tried it) and an absinthe for Mark. They serve the real stuff in Prague, though it is now prepared in such a way that one would have to consume a truly terrifying amount to get anywhere NEAR high. Still, it looks lovely with the accoutrements.

By now well and truly exhausted, we headed back to the hotel to crash. Mark figures we walked something like 25 to 30 kilometres today, what with all the back and forth…and my feet were certainly feeling it.

Oh well. Good night, Prague – that was one packed day.

Outward bound

Well, that didn’t take long.

Usually it takes a little time to encounter some of the quirkier folks out there once I’ve left the house, but in this case things got interesting the moment we summoned a vehicle to take us to the airport.

Our driver was a smallish Sri Lankan fellow with some very eager conversational habits: almost immediately he wanted to know all sorts of things about the neighbourhood and comparing property values here in Toronto to those in Sri Lanka. (There was something here about how the Chinese are buying everything and investing just isn’t safe.)

Eventually he got round to asking us where we were heading. Telling him our flight was headed to Prague launched an extraordinary flurry of banter on everything from the deep corruption of the Balkans to the general scariness of Russia.

“I’m an expert on Russian history!” he told us. “They have the finest collection of art in all the world there.”

“You mean at the Hermitage?”

I can only describe the sound he made as a cackle. “Ha! That’s the place!” And he set about explaining how all the art is fake there, and how the REAL art is underground. (“You even get near it, they kill you! Hehehe!”)

Somewhere around this point he asked if we spoke Russian, and apparently he assumed I did. (I don’t THINK I look especially Russian, really…) I said no, but that I had a little German, and he went on to talk about training in Germany to cut diamonds before attempting to teach us a few words of Russian while simultaneously warning us not to use them, as it would make everyone hate us where we were going.

Er…noted, I suppose.

Some time later…

Layover time, in Poland. This is the Frederic Chopin international airport, so I guess it’s appropriate that there was someone playing the piano live as we made our way through the maze of glass and corrugated steel that will probably make up most of my memories of Warsaw for the foreseeable future.

The flight over was rather bumpier than I would have liked, but fortunately otherwise rather uneventful; Mark and I took in our first Hungarian film before attempting (more or less unsuccessfully) to get a tiny bit of sleep to help stave off the worst of the jet lag.

The movie in question was “The Fox-Fairy,” an unexpectedly charming and very weird little film about a lonely nurse who longs for nothing more than true love. Her problem: the ghost of a Japanese pop star (no, really) who haunts her apartment and appears to be mighty jealous if anyone else seems to be spending too much time with her. It was a really interesting mix of sweetness and humour that ranged from the absurd to the pitch-black, and apparently did well in Hungary not long ago.

While I am thinking of it, allow me to introduce our small travel companion:

The little fellow to the left of the sandwich is affectionately known as “Catbun” due to his resemblance to an Asian-style steamed bun. On our last international voyage he came along and appeared in a number of photographs, so we thought he’d come along this time too. Here he is pictured next to…well, the meal we ate most recently before getting off the plane. Breakfast, sort of, though as we landed it was lunchtime here in Poland, and this looked like a bit more of a lunch to me.

Still more time later

Whew! Okay, we have made it to Prague at last. Our hotel sent a driver to collect us; he spoke more Czech and German than English, but was a very pleasant gentleman who told us he’d been driving for the hotel for 25 years (!).

And it is a rather lovely hotel. Here’s our room, up at the top:

Undaunted, we set out to do an orientation walk during the Golden Hour…which means I have about a million photos to share, but for now we will need to be content with this one:

…ok, I lied, have a few more:

Dinner was at a place recommended in our Foodie Guide to Prague – “Next Door,” attached to a swank local hotel. I had wild boar tenderloin ragout with dark chocolate, cranberries and gnocchi (which might not sound like a combo that works but guys. GUYS. Holy shit) and Mark had braised beef in a creamy sauce with “bread dumplings,” something I shall have to try to reverse engineer sometime. (I will also have to try and reverse engineer the “Ham and cheese pate” because again. Holy shit. The waiter was kind enough to pass on that somehow egg and pickles (?) are involved…wonder if we could serve it at something.)

Today, the mission is straightforward: Get out there and see as much shit as possible. Currently fortifying myself at the hotel’s breakfast room. Here goes!

Mark says “you should post that picture from the restaurant at the end!” So here I am looking a bit skeptical about having my photo taken:

In which I revisit an old practice, and we see where it goes from there


Here we are and the old blog’s still running and everything.

It feels a bit strange, being back: like revisiting an old home. Somewhere you once lived, when you were someone else, someone you only sort of recognize.

But then, someone said, there will be trips and things, right? And you have this web space. And there are these clever little beasts called mobile phones now, and everything.

Ah. Wait. That was me.

This place could certainly use a tune-up…but that will have to wait. There are things that want doing, and so a simple minimalist theme, a brief tidy to try and set it in some sort of order before too many more of the things that want doing become too urgent to ignore.

Well then. Here we go. Let’s see what happens.

…For now, hello again.

A test of the system

This is a test post to see how well uploading images and the like works from a mobile device. Please enjoy these extremely unhealthy but delicious pierogies: