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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

After great pain, a formal feeling comes

After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372)

After great pain, a formal feeling comes – 
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs – 
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’ 
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’? 

The Feet, mechanical, go round – 
A Wooden way 
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought – 
Regardless grown, 
A Quartz contentment, like a stone – 

This is the Hour of Lead – 
Remembered, if outlived, 
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow – 
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

So, I trekked Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest mountain in Africa. I booked an eight-day trek to give me the best chance at acclimatization, as well as the opportunity to enjoy quieter trails and a greater variety of scenery. My goal was to enjoy each day of the trek and to attempt the summit.

I did appreciate each of the eight days, and I did try to summit. I gave it everything I had left. When I turned around at 5,200 meters (it’s 5,895 m at the actual peak), it was my decision, and I walked down under my own power. Can’t do better than that.

There were a lot of things that could have gone wrong and didn’t. I never had any digestive or other irregularities that might have put me off my stride. I didn’t twist an ankle or knee or get a bad blister. I can’t say the altitude didn’t affect me—every physical activity was harder work up there—but I never had dizziness, or nausea, or shortness of breath per se. The only headaches I got responded to ibuprofen, which I’ve read is a simpler alternative to acetazolamide. (Many people take this medicine against acute mountain sickness, but it’s not actually licensed for that—it’s for kidney disease. I’m not judging others but I didn’t want to take a performance-enhancing drug.)

And the weather was good. Dry, and not too windy. I slept remarkably well in a tent night after night. I went into summit night physically exhausted but in a good mental place. We had a few hours to sleep, and I actually did. I had good mountain songs playing and when we started up for the final ascent, they were in my head continually. 

If any of these other factors had forced me to abandon my trek, I would have felt like I didn’t have a chance; but I had every chance. For three consecutive days we climbed to a higher altitude, then descended lower to sleep—which is good for acclimatization. My blood had time to thicken and my body to adjust to the lower air pressure and hence, difficulty in getting oxygen. Having said all that, just getting out of the tent at high camps was enough to make my heart pound and for me to feel out of breath, so altitude can’t have helped.

I can’t say I met my goal of enjoying every day. I enjoyed the first four days, each of which was through a different climatic zone, with different fauna and especially flora. Day 5 started feeling like really hard work. We had to walk, in parts “scramble,” up the Barranco Wall, and it took about two hours. Some people really got a kick out of this rock climbing part, but for me it was just exhausting. Even arriving at the top of the wall was only a temporary victory, as we then had a rocky descent, followed by another rocky ascent, before we reached camp.

At the top of the Barranco Wall. It was not about to get easier.
I know it seems obvious, since Kilimanjaro is a mountain, but the hours and hours of uphill climbing were just relentless. I said to my teammates during the trek that after reading so many warnings about the altitude—how fitness doesn’t make a difference, only the altitude—I had possibly underestimated just what hard work the whole thing would be. That many hours of hiking, day after day after day, would have worn me out at a much lower elevation. And almost none of it was just one foot in front of the other, pole pole as they say. It was rough and uneven; it was up and down. Unless I paused to take a picture, I had to constantly keep my eyes on my feet, otherwise I would surely have fallen or injured myself. It feels like a miracle that I never did. (Well, I fell once, but then so did everybody else.)

Day 6 was “only” three hours—our trek split the day before summit night into two days, which was supposed to help. I found Day 6 exhausting too. Relentless uphill climbing, and my legs felt like Jell-O by the end. I remember thinking, before crawling into my sleeping bag for the odd hour of sleep, that I didn’t think I had enough left in the tank for the summit. But of course, I had to try.
Kibo, the youngest and highest peak of Kilimanjaro, from camp 5

So what actually happened on summit night? We started at Barafu Camp, which at 4,662 m is higher than Mt. Elbert, the highest of the Rocky Mountains. The very beginning of what was estimated to be a seven-hour ascent (followed by as many hours of descent) was more %$#! rock climbing. This was why I doubted I had enough left, but I knew if I could just make it over the rocks it would get more gradual. And, unlike on Day 5 when I’d felt like cussing out the assistant guide, Estomi (“Tommy”), I was determined not to be pushed to keep up with the group. If the head guide needed to split the group into slow and slower, then so be it.

Which he soon did. Two of us were slower. Soon I got slower still. Soon it was just me and Tommy, my favorite, plus one of the porters who was accompanying the summit party (to carry bags and, if necessary, a person down the mountain). The porter was lovely. He kept patting me on the back and calling me “Mama Simba,” though I didn’t feel very lioness-like at the time. When I finally turned around, he said "See you later" and seemed genuinely sorry.

It got to the point that I would shuffle along for two or three steps, then just lean on my trekking poles trying to catch my breath. Tommy asked if I was sick but I said I was only tired. Eventually, I said that I could probably keep up this ridiculous pace for hours (and still not get to the top and just have to descend from even higher, though I didn’t say that to him). What I was worried about, though, was that I would get cold. I was layered up really well and toasty—in fact there was a security layer I never took out of my backpack—but all that was predicated on my moving up the mountain, pole pole. No matter how warmly you’re dressed, if you spend much time gasping on a windy ridge, you’re going to get cold.

Tommy tried everything. He took my backpack from me, gave me my water, encouraged me to eat something. It was funny because the day before, when in his abrupt way he’d said “Go, Jacqui,” I was ready to tell him to eff off. I really think he was just pointing out a gap in the traffic, not rushing me, but I was starting to lose my enjoyment at that point, and focused my irritation on this taciturn guide. Now, I was destined to spend the whole night with him.

He was reluctant to make a decision, so got the head guide on the radio. I explained that I didn’t think I could make it and in the meantime, was afraid of getting cold. I was told that Tommy would carry me down. Like hell he would! He accompanied me all the way back down the rocky descent, and occasionally took my arm to ensure I didn’t wipe out, but for the most part he just walked ahead of me, and I stayed on my poor feet by myself. (Which reminds me of yet another thing that went perfectly: My boots were gold. My feet, and everything else, were tired, but my boots never let me down.)

At the time I had no concept of the hour or how high I’d climbed. Later I realized that I’d ascended 600 vertical meters, or almost halfway. That makes it sound possible, but another 600 vertical meters was not possible—not at that pace, not on the same day, and not with a 13-km descent to go after almost no further rest. The wonder, to me, is that so many people actually do complete this.

Tommy rolled me into my tent at 5:00 in the morning. I had been high on the mountain for five hours. Later I found out that the other “slower” hiker had been forced to descend a couple hours after I did, with hypothermia. She was fine, but my instincts had been right.
Tommy and me, down at the final camp. Is that a smile on his dour face?!

Would I have had any more left if I hadn’t been hiking with such a strong group? Possibly. But if my overall pace had been slower, that would have meant more hours on my feet each day. It also would have meant getting into camp too late in the afternoon for a hot cooked lunch, and having to eat a cold packed lunch on the trail instead. I tend to think that would’ve canceled out any advantage.

I’ll have more to write about the overall experience later, and more pictures to share. Right now I’m still processing, because to be honest, I usually finish what I set out to do. But maybe in the past I’ve avoided trying things that I wasn’t sure I could accomplish.

What I want to leave you with is this video of our crew. It took 31 porters, 4 guides, and 1 chef to get us up the mountain, and without them we’d never have made it to the first night’s camp, let alone the top.

These men (ours were all men) do this for a living. They carry more than we do, they wear less, and they do it routinely. They couldn’t have done more to make our “job” easier—welcomed us into camp every afternoon, dusted off our boots, served us tea. And somehow they still had energy left to sing and dance. “Kilimanjaro, slowly slowly—no problem.”

It was nice of them, but I think I prefer the kind of camping where we put up our own tent—then have a campfire. And maybe some bourbon. And I can’t tell you the pleasure I had getting rid of that damn duffel bag.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Women on the edge

It didn’t occur to me immediately that what is most different about Tanzanian roads isn’t their surface, or the fact that some drivers don’t use, or have, lights. It’s that there are no traffic lights or stop signs. Anywhere. Once in a while there is a big junction with a roundabout and usually a clock tower. Every turn, and every pedestrian crossing, requires waiting for a gap.

Or forcing your way in. Which brings me to the “discreet” part of traveling again. In our home countries, we would not hesitate to introduce each other as “my partner”; here, people say “friend” and we don’t correct them. The rationale is that it’s none of their business, but of course it’s no one’s business in the West, either. There’s a double standard for countries like this, where there is no uncloseted gay or lesbian scene.

It sucks for gay people who actually live here, but I rationalize that our coming out would not help them. The belief of Africans who are homophobic is that queerness is a wicked Western import that Africa would not know otherwise. 

I think this is one instance where it must be harder for a couple of gay guys traveling together than for women. The legacy of colonial-era laws in many countries still makes male homosexuality illegal. With us, though, a man will just marvel at our different culture wherein we travel without our husbands. Or, as another man asked me, “How many children do you have?” It would never occur to him that none could be the answer.

All this is benign enough and I hate, as much as any woman who does not have a husband, the ruse of inventing one. But I’ve done it rather than be harassed by some guy. To paraphrase the late Betty Berzon, do I care about having a more honest relationship with this person? No, I just want him to go away!

It takes a couple of days to get the hang of a new place and how differently people approach us here. If someone in a European city started talking to me and walking along with me, I would treat him with suspicion. There would have to be a good reason for me not to get rid of him; otherwise I’d suspect it was a scam. Then there’s the other factor, with which any woman traveler can identify: If you’re a woman and have spent any time on your own in cities, anywhere in the world, you react to men differently, for your own safety. It’s no comment on individual men, or to say that men in general are likely to be predators. It’s just not a chance a woman can take. Asymmetrical, but there it is.

In Tanzania, anyone who engages with us and is persistent is always a man. Having said that, most men, and all women, do not do this, but are simply being friendly. Unlike in Western cities, most people greet each other on the street here—and then carry on their business. Tanzanians are hardworking people. They might call out from their shop for us to have a look at something, but they’re not going to leave their stall behind and follow us down the street!

So, we’ve learned to say no, firmly—to a few persistent guys. We’ve also walked along and chatted to a few, like Michael, who is a porter on Kilimanjaro and training to be a guide. Michael didn’t try to sell us anything or get us to go to his cousin’s shop or follow us past where we all were going. He just chatted with me about Kilimanjaro, in an encouraging and friendly way. He asked which company I’m going with and when I told him, he said that they’re good, and treat their porters and guides (as well as clients) well.

John echoed this, and I hope they don’t say that about everyone, because it’s one of the reasons I chose this company. John is our friend down the street. We see him every time we walk that direction (only during the day). He’s a porter too—and an artist, who tried to get me to look at his paintings. I explained that I didn’t need any paintings as I’m not adding any more to my backpack. “So, you don’t want to support local?” 

“I didn’t say that, John; I said I don’t need any paintings, thank you!”

This seems to work. We’re a lot more comfortable with guys like John now. As I mentioned, 90% of the people we’ve said hi to on the street don’t put any pressure on us at all, and 100% mean us no harm. Everybody’s just trying to make a buck. Even the other night, when we finished at a restaurant and asked the woman there to please get us a taxi (because the advice is not to walk around Arusha after dark). I’m sure the guy who showed up was just her brother or friend; he certainly wasn’t an official taxi driver, and didn’t know where anything was, even though we’re only staying a few minutes away. T. had to direct him at every point—and then he still had the nerve to ask for double what we knew the price was. (He didn’t get it). Oh well, at least one of us got to sit in the passenger seat for a change.

What I mean by that is our adventure in the Monduli Mountains on Tuesday, when our guide's brother mysteriously sat in the passenger seat the entire day. (Supposedly he was catching a ride back to the guide's village.) I would love to have time to write about that, and the wonderful day we had with award-winning Tengeru Cultural Tourism, run by the magnificently named Mama Gladness. But I'm heading up Kilimanjaro tomorrow and have final packing to do. T.'s blog can fill you in.

When we left Arusha, headed back to Moshi for the next week's adventures, we ran into John again. (We see him every time we pass that part of the road.) He ran up and hugged each of us like an old friend. Didn't ask us for anything. It's nice to feel like we know people in town.

If you ever get a chance to visit Tanzania and you possibly can, take a few extra days and spend them in Arusha. Check out one of Mama Gladness's projects in the community and meet some local people, most of whom have never seen the wildlife in their own national parks. Don't get me wrong--a safari is the trip of a lifetime--but just flying into the country and staying in a hotel isn't really seeing it. I'm glad I finally got to do both.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Mzungu in Arusha

According to the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, mzungu is a term used by Bantu language speakers for people of European ancestry. Interestingly, its 18th-century origin is in reference to Europeans who were always traveling the world; literally it means “someone who roams around” or “wanderer.” I like it. We are, after all, travelers roaming around the world, and besides, there’s nothing like arriving in sub-Saharan Africa to remind me that I'm white.

Arusha is the title of my first novel (2010 Lambda Literary Award finalist; check it out!) The climactic scenes are set here in Tanzania, and ever since I first visited in 2001, I’ve always wanted to come back. To trek Mount Kilimanjaro, sure, but also to see the country again, do a bit more independent exploring this time. East Africa is still the most different place I’ve ever been.

First of all, there’s the white thing. As many of us have learned, it is possible (though not desirable) to live for many years as a white person in a white-majority country and not ever really think about it. I don’t want to digress into an earnest race relations discussion that is probably beyond me, but surely one of the traumas the U.S.A. is currently undergoing has to do with it becoming a white-minority country. Not that I, or indeed many white Americans, think that there’s anything wrong with that at all, but perhaps it is this that makes some people finally realize that their race/color has affected their lives—something I suspect non-white people learn much earlier. I defer to an African-American friend who once told me, “My being black has made a profound difference in my life. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t.”

So drop this white person into a place where 99% of the population is black African, and I feel like a neon sign. Not to mention I’m obviously a visitor, someone with enough money to travel from another continent, and therefore, by the standards of most Tanzanians, a wealthy person. Kids feel free to just ask the mzungu for money, without any preamble. They aren’t beggars. They’re going about their business, herding goats or whatever, and think, Why not give it a shot?

The first person who called us mzungu, though, was one of the lovely hotel receptionists in Moshi, our first stop. We thought she was saying that, because we were mzungu, touts would constantly distract us at the bus station, so she was going to get us a car there for 3,000 Tanzanian shillings. We thought this was odd because we’d just walked to the bus station the day before and it was very nearby. Then her colleague explained that she wanted to escort us personally to the bus station, “because”—she hesitated a second—“you’re white.” She said it almost apologetically, the way you might tell a friend in the ladies’ room that her dress is stuffed into the back of her pantyhose.

“Well,” I said, “can’t do much about that. Although if I’m not careful in the African sun, I’ll be pink soon.” She laughed as if this were original.

So our friend from the hotel walked us to the station, found a bus going to Arusha, and made sure there were two seats on it and that we got in them. It was for this 81-km journey that we paid only TZS3,000. Which is about a dollar and half. By “bus,” I mean a Coaster bus, which seats 30 people. The way it works is you climb aboard and people try to sell you things through the window (unless you shut it). When every seat is full, the bus leaves. There are perhaps 50 a day on this route. Once you’re in the seat, you can’t really move, but it’s not that uncomfortable for a short journey, I thought. (I was very glad to have locked my duffel bag, i.e. for the Kilimanjaro trek, up at the hotel for my return to Moshi. No way would it have gotten on the Coaster—our backpacks were on our laps!)

You might notice that we are all standing on the side of the road in T’s picture. That’s because, somewhere past the turnoff to Kilimanjaro airport on the Moshi-Arusha road, the driver stopped the bus. We hadn’t noticed anything wrong, but after he stopped, smoke began coming out, and we deduced that we should all leave the bus. What happens in these situations, apparently, is that the driver flags down subsequent buses and they take one or two passengers or whomever will fit, until all his passengers are taken care of.

Problem was, the vehicles that did stop all stopped in different places, so we weren’t sure where on the side of the road to stand. I passed up a rather large lady who obviously couldn’t move as fast, but when the next bus arrived, there she was in front of me. She actually patted me and giggled as she boarded the bus, the way a tennis player raises her hand after creaming her opponent with the ball.

Needless to say, we were the only two mzungu, and the last people to get a ride! But it all worked out. A nice car stopped and the bus driver arranged with this gentleman, who had a large cross dangling from his rearview mirror, to give us a ride into Arusha. Our ride then switched on video screens in the back seat so we could watch music videos! Did I mention it was a really nice car? Take that, Tanzanian lady!

The cross gave me some assurance that we weren’t about to be dismembered, although I’m not sure how seriously to take Christian symbolism around here. Seemingly every bus and dalla-dalla, and many shops, are adorned with pictures of Jesus or Mary and slogans like PRAISE THE LORD (or, occasionally, CHELSEA FOOTBALL CLUB). Our bus was called the Lion of Judah; evidently Ras Tafari was not as good at taking care of vehicles. My favorite of these talismanic names, so far, has to be the El Shaddai Agro & General Supply Store.

Our driver was friendly and lives in Arusha. He was on his way from Dar es Salaam, which is a long drive. I should mention that the road between Moshi and Arusha is an excellent road by Tanzanian standards, smooth and paved. And the prospect of such a road excites drivers so much that constant speed bumps have had to be put in, to deter speeding. After malaria and AIDS, road accidents are the most common cause of death in Tanzania. Well, we did ask our hotel friend if the little buses were safe!

We wondered, but didn’t ask, how our driver had such a nice car (one of the nicest I’ve ridden in anywhere). He said he worked for the government—turns out he is a soldier. He even dropped us at a hotel, not that we were staying there, but it was at the end of the road where we were staying, so we figured we could walk to our Airbnb (it being daylight).

We could, but the road is a total mess. All dirt, with a deep ditch dug in the middle of it. They’re putting in drainage for some swish new building that’s going up. Arusha, like Moshi only on a much grander scale, is a city of contrasts: really nice places behind gates and fences, to keep out kids who would steal your laundry. Sad, but that’s the way it is.

My conclusion is that you get what you pay for on a Coaster bus. Still, we can’t say we were ripped off. We rode with the locals, who seemed at once from a different world and yet familiar: most of them were on their mobile phones just like passengers in Europe. We celebrated with really good coffee in town (the slopes of Kilimanjaro grow the best in the world) and some Swahili food. Nyama choma with grilled bananas and salad. It was better than it sounds. 

I love TanZANia, as the locals pronounce it. I love how friendly people are. Yes, some of the street sellers can get a little aggressive, following us around, but it's not dangerous; it's a different way of life. Like bartering. It's not my culture to be told the price of a thing and then argue it down. But if I hadn't been raised in North America, I'm sure compulsory "tipping," as practiced there, would feel alien and wrong to me too. It's not a tip if you're making up for an employer's crappy wage!

Still, I'll be tipping on Kilimanjaro, even though I'm assured my trek organizer pays its guides and porters fairly. I'm not going to protest the system by cheating some hardworking Tanzanians. Just don't expect me to buy any beads.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Amsterdam to Moshi

We’ve arrived on our second continent, Africa. I haven’t really had time to let that sink in yet, so here I’ll say a proper goodbye to Europe.

On Tuesday we made our way across the side of Germany I hadn’t yet traveled in to Amsterdam. As I mentioned in my last post, borders seem pretty much nonexistent around here. The only way I knew we were in the Netherlands is because, instead of announcements in German and then an abbreviated English version, the train announcer started using Dutch, then German, then English in full. Just showing off. Then the conductor came through looking at our tickets, even though we’d already shown them to a conductor in Germany. In English, she cheerfully proclaimed, “We’re in Holland; we’re gonna do it again.”

If Germany is easy for an English speaker to get around in, Holland is ridiculous. In Berlin we had the interesting and somewhat nerve-wracking experience of getting haircuts, while the one hairdresser who did speak English helped translate for the one who didn’t. (Look at the pictures to guess whose didn’t understand.)
Cruising the canals

Gay Pride tram 
Dutch people, however, just seem to speak English all the time, even when nobody asked them to. I know how to say “thank you” in Dutch, but I’ve never gotten the chance. The Dutch are also famous for being tolerant, perhaps to a fault. It was in Amsterdam that the first memorial to gays and lesbians killed by the Nazis, the Homomonument, was erected in 1987. It stands right next to the Anne Frank Huis, where the young Dutch diarist, her family, and other Jews hid for years.

But we didn’t do any Holocaust history in this city. Instead, we learned about the history of the Dutch "golden age," and how Amsterdam was built as a city of merchants. Like Jewish history, Dutch history is short on kings and wars. I admit it was a little weird to hear our walking tour guide say “we” in regard to the Dutch, even when he was talking about centuries ago (swapping a string of beads for Manhattan, say, or trading slaves). I don’t think a German would say it that way.

"Hidden" (in plain sight) church--the way the Dutch tolerated congregations other than Reformed back in the day

Rather than “coffeeshops” or the Red Light alleys cheek by jowl with churches, official and “hidden,” the biggest adventure we had in Amsterdam involved a little stuffed duck. If you’ve seen any of my albums on Facebook you may recall the duck who’s been featured in a photograph everywhere we have been. Well, he was all set up for his shot at the canal, but no sooner had T. let go of him than a gust of wind came, and he blew into the water! (She maintains that he made a break for it.)
The first thing we discovered is that he floats, like a real duck. We couldn’t reach him, however, even though T. resourcefully borrowed a hooked pole that a boatman was using. Then a boat came by. She called to the boatman and he answered, in an American accent, “What are we looking for?” With the help of a passenger who fished the duck out of the water, he was restored to us. I’d been sure that we’d have to leave him in Europe and this shot of him on the Singelgracht would be the last.

This episode lasted quite a while, during which a moorhen came along and spent some time trying to get to mate with the duck. So he ended up having quite an eventful time, getting in not just a swim, but a date!
Reunited in Moshi, Tanzania

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.