Venice: An Improbable Dream

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Let’s build a city here, they said. One of opulence and majestic size with unwieldy streets and meandering waterways interrupting our carefully planned squares. Let’s build mansions and churches of monumental size, all on a brackish, marshy lagoon.

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Marshy Isle in the Lagoon

Okay, that’s not exactly how the world’s most improbable city came to be. Venice was born out of desperation. Huns, and Visigoths fighting the Romans pushed the people out of their homes on the mainland, out of Padua, Aquileia, Treviso. These refugees hid in the marshy isles of what became the Venetian Lagoon and began to build a subsistence life as fishermen. Between the invasions, they would return to their home in the mainland, only to be pushed out again. The final assault on this part of the Roman Empire was by the Lombards, who permanently settled the area. The region today is still called Lombardy.

More and more people fled to the isles. Over time they moved from one of the smaller isles to where Venice is today, settling around Rialto and San Marco. Fishing was not going to sustain a growing population, and cut off from the dying Western Roman Empire, they used their strategic placement near the Adriatic to bond with the Byzantine Empire and to help prevent piracy. This led them to becoming merchants, and then bankers. As the money filtered in, so did the desire to spend it. The original soggy wooden buildings became beautiful stone houses, which evolved into the massive and beautifully designed mansions we still see crumbling today. To accomplish this they dredged the lagoon, shored up the banks, created canals, expanded the existing canals, and voilà! Venice. For hundreds of years the Republic of Venice ruled trade and the Mediterranean. Their form of government was so famous that the American “Founding Fathers” were inspired by their economics, even as the Republic was failing by this point. Dostoevsky says that St. Petersburg is the most “intentional city,” I would argue that Venice rivals that claim.

IMG_20171218_100549I think it is one of the most astonishing and intriguing cities I have ever been to. The mansions have a perfect mix of Mediterranean structure with neo-Moorish flare. The churches are magnificent, especially the pompous St. Mark’s Basilica. This cathedral, gleams like a bright jewel. The exterior is built in the fashion of the Byzantine’s ornate, princely style. With beautiful lead domes, a marble façade, an immeasurable amount of gold for the mosaics covering the interior, and reliquaries in the treasury, it must be one of the wealthiest churches in Christendom. All this bombast was stolen from what was then Constantinople and used to adorn their church that housed the body of the beloved St. Mark. The panels in the façade tell in glittering mosaic the amazing story of how two Venetian merchants illegally trading in Jerusalem rescued (a.k.a. stole) the body of St. Mark and gave him to the Doge of Venice. The overzealousness of the church left me cold. The beauty is undeniable and exciting, but if I were a parishioner I would feel like the church is the beloved of God, rather than me.

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Bridge of Sighs

Quintessential Venice: San Marco Square, the basilica, the shimmering pink Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs (an adorable but tragic passageway giving condemned men their last look at the sea), and the quaint Rialto bridge spanning the Grand Canal with its swarming passenger boats and gondolas. These are musts for a first visit to Venice. As is paying the pretty penny and taking a gondola ride. It is a fun and campy experience to watch the bored gondolier chatting with the boat next to you, while others belt out bits of opera. But the reason I recommend it is that you go down canals where there are no sidewalks, and it gets you out of the Grand Canal area so you can see a quieter side of Venice. Passing by buildings with water lines reveals just how much danger Venice is in, especially due to rising seas. Venice has always flooded and receded, but each time the city sinks a little more.

IMG_20171219_113525My favorite aspect of Venice is away from the over-crowded center. When you leave the main tourist areas the city is quiet; you can hear your own thoughts, and not get pushed around by eager shoppers or hawkers. It was my third visit to Venice, when I stayed four nights, that I discovered the “real” Venice; authentic neighborhoods with nary a visitor to be seen. I saw tiny markets selling fresh veggies, butchers, smoke curling from chimneys (it was December), laundry fluttering outside windows over the canals, and no signs pointing to Rialto or San Marco. I ate gnocchi and drank decent wine at a tiny local café. I walked for hours admiring each new twist and turn, often having to backtrack.

IMG_20171219_115625I was happy to see that Venice has places of respite from the tourists and crowds, a place where Venetians can live a normal daily life (if using a boat to get around constitutes “normal”). I am saddened that most visitors don’t get this view. They are either there for a day or an overnight stay, and are herded into expensive restaurants by the Grand Canal, and hurried along the path from Rialto to San Marco. Those are wonderful experiences in themselves; after all, a place is popular for a reason. But I have walked down alleys so tiny even I had to duck, others I had to back out of so the person coming my way can pass. I would burst out of these tunnels into squares that each had an exquisite well, no two I saw were the same. I once almost walked into a canal because it was a dead-end. It is a city of dead-ends, ending in gates, blank walls or canals. Each neighborhood has their own church because before Venice was in its current state it was a collection of isles. More than 400 bridges connect the city to itself. There are walled-in gardens and parks which add a little green to an otherwise nature deficit city.

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Support – Lorenzo Quinn

My favorite views of the city are the canals with the gondoliers, especially the ones further from the Grand Canal. These canals are the city’s bones. I read once that the solution to save Venice may be to fill in the canals and have pumps to keep the water out. Aside from the impracticality of such a plan, the spirit of Venice would be buried along with the waterways. The artist Lorenzo Quinn gave a modern voice to the ancient city with his provocative sculpture of giant hands appearing to prop up a 14th century mansion on the Grand Canal. Hopefully innovators will be able to answer this cry before it’s too late.

There really is no place like Venice, it is a city unto itself. Venice’s ephemerality haunts Venetians’ footsteps, yet they, and the city are resilient. It is absurd that it exists at all. I am moved by this city and so grateful to have been able to touch on it, and leave a little of my spirit with it.

 

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Ein Prosit!

Ein Prosit, ein Prosit
Der Gemütlichkeit
Ein Prosit, ein Prosit
Der Gemütlichkeit
OANS! ZWOA! DREI! G’SUFFA!

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My friend Angie (right) and Me

Every 20 or so minutes this anthem rings out from the band, gathering cheer as it reverberates around the tent, the crowd enthusiastically singing along with the musicians. The band is our guide to Gemütlichkeit, an all-encompassing sense of belonging, and coziness, allowing for the setting aside of daily troubles and the contentment of just being with companions and beer. This is the quintessential hoped for experience at an Oktoberfest. As the day wears on people become exuberant in their dancing on the benches and toasting with liters of beer as the noise in the tent creeps ever louder until it reaches a crescendo that never recedes. The beerhall food is delivered to the long tables on enormous trays and waiters in Lederhosen or Dirndls carry an impossible amount of giant beer mugs.

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“Traditional” German decor

Ryan and I have never braved the Munich fest, which started the whole tradition back in 1810, as a marriage party for the future King Ludwig I. Two centuries later you can find Octokerfests all over Germany, and even in other countries. This year we attended the Stuttgart Oktoberfest, and while it may not have the 7.2 million visitors that Munich gets, it has a decent showing of feisty beer swillers. We went with some of Ryan’s coworkers and we each had vouchers for 3 LITERS of beer and a chicken lunch. I am not a beer drinker, but I did my very best. I couldn’t make it through my first liter, while others had moved on to their second or even final one! I struggle each day to drink my 2 ½- 3 liters of water to stay properly hydrated, I cannot imagine actually guzzling 3 liters of beer!

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Beer bringing friends together

It was fun to watch the constrained rowdiness of a German fest. Everyone is in full party mode, laughing, splashing beer, roaring ever louder than the person next to them, yet the moment someone crosses the line, the handlers are on them. Somehow, the servers find the one person among the hoard who jumps from the bench to the table, and is shrilly whistled down. At the spring beer fest in Stuttgart years ago one man jumped from one table to another and was promptly taken outside. It is truly organized chaos. People are free to let go… as long as they remember the rules. At both of these fests I couldn’t help but think about if this was a fest in the U.S. there would be brawls and vomit everywhere. I prefer the fun joviality to the raucous violence that breaks out in other places.

I was enjoying myself immensely until about 3 hours in. After being elbowed in the back of the head, and then in the mid-back, I was done. The noise had become overwhelming and there was beer everywhere, and it just wasn’t fun anymore. We made our escape with some friends and walked a bit around the fair outside the tent. There were rides and game booths and little shops. We walked until we found a quiet wine booth, and then we drank wine and ate bretzeln and zwiebelkuchen (pretzels, and onion cake) until it was time for our train. For us, the Bierfest had turned into a mini- Weinfest.

I must say, the Bierfests are raucous and fun, but the Weinfests are where it’s at.

The First Principle – Affirming the Inherent Dignity and Worth of All People

This is a homily that I wrote for my Wiesbaden Unitarian Universalist Congregation. I decided to post it as a blog post because it begins to express a deep existential crisis I’ve been in for a year. Writing is healing.

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The UU first principle is dear to my heart, it is one of the reasons I joined UU. I was so tired of the idea that we are inherently sinners and that our worth can only be redeemed by the love of a god-man, and only if we believe in the correct doctrine. It was freeing to believe that everyone is inherently worthy. Yes, we all make mistakes and have the potential to make very bad, or even violent actions. But if we do so it is not because our very souls were damaged from the beginning. I think the affirmation of inherent worth and dignity of all people is the most encouraging and uplifting idea. There is a reason it is number 1, for all things after it work toward this concept.

But lately I have seen the practice of this idea separate itself from the theory. We are not perfect beings so there is always going to be a disconnect between belief and practice. But for me the gulf has been growing. I have become depressed because I have felt like this principle is failing all over the place. That it may not even matter if we hold this Truth or not. For me it really started with the campaign last year. As we approached the U.S. election I got more and more caught up in Facebook “discussions.” The hatred and name calling from friends and family members caught me off guard. Part of this pertains to the distance that social media gives. They’re not saying “to my face” their hateful thoughts. But they have no problem spewing it on my Facebook if I posted a comment or article they didn’t like. Strangers too would say what they feel. And then there are the “trolls” who get on and just try to provoke, whether they know you or not. And it certainly didn’t die down after the election. If anything, it intensified as people dug further into their entrenched views. It has gotten so ugly. It has been commented on a lot that all civility has gone out of political and social life. But it’s more than that to me. People, whether it’s social media influence or something else, are losing sight of each other’s humanity. They may not word it that way to themselves, but when you can write truly hateful and scary things, showing no compassion for another’s point of view, that is dehumanizing. And sometimes people are literally dehumanizing too, outright denying their personhood.

I have lost my head on Facebook too and gotten in fights with people or said nasty or sarcastic things in anger. But I realized I was falling prey to this and pulled back. I don’t want to hate someone because I know it eats me up but does nothing to them. So I started trying to think more compassionately again. But it is hard when people are behaving truly badly, online and in real life.

A few weeks ago I was deeply troubled by the rhetoric on Facebook. Even though I agreed with their sentiments and what they were saying about the actual issues, I felt offended and upset about the way they were saying that people are worthless, or don’t matter. It is what made me start thinking about that first principle. I started thinking about how humanity’s role models kept this idea in the forefront whether they were UU or not. That made me think that this is not unattainable, that we can learn to value people as we try to teach them a better way. Obviously, we don’t know what lurked in the hearts of people behind the scenes, but we do know that in the face of great evil and turmoil, Martin Luther King Jr. was able to say “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”  This has been quoted so often that it has almost become mundane, but its meaning is profound, and all religions promote this. Love first. And there was Jesus, who being arrested in the garden recognized the humanity of his attackers and healed the soldier’s ear when Peter cut it off, in an attempt to protect him. Like the famous aphorism says, “And eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” These examples are extreme, most of us will never be in these types of situations. So what can we do ourselves to uphold our 1st principle? I tried a while ago and now feel like I was misguided.

I’m sorry to go back to Facebook, it’s just a good example of how people are forgetting each other’s inherent worth and dignity. One day, after the tragic Charlottesville situation and Trump’s immoral denial of it, I made a post that some of you saw, calling for an end to the dehumanizing comments. I tried to say that we need to take action and address these serious issues in a productive way, and that sitting around calling people inhuman doesn’t change things. Well, a lot of people supported me, which made me feel good. All of them were UU. But there were two people, one whom I am very close to, who had a very different reaction. They are both women of color and they called me out for my privilege, my ability to sit around and call for compassion when “real things” are going on.

At first I was really mad. Especially at my dear friend. She knows that I am not racist but suddenly she was calling me an “ally” in quotes. She was saying that I was trying to tell people of color how they should behave and feel. That was not my intention at all, but I can see how it appeared that way, and felt chagrined. I also feel like people hear what they want to and that my timing was bad. Maybe if I had made my statement at a different moment she would have read my intentions better. So I questioned my motives. Was I wrong to write what I did? I’m not a civil rights leader or a religious figure, or even a scholar. Is it my place to try to get people to think differently? I still feel that my intentions were good, but maybe instead of being helpful or thought provoking, I was just naïve and provoking.

So again, I feel stuck. If we’re supposed to do more than just feel our first principle, how do we go about that? Obviously, my unintentional soapboxing was not the way to go. Instead of calling for compassion, I was unintentionally not showing compassion to people of color. People say “just live your daily life following UU principles.” But how do we do this when we’re facing bigots, politicians who are destroying social gains, people who don’t want to do anything to help refugees, or prevent further climate damage? How do we do it in a world that is once again facing a growing nationalism? How do we not hate people who do hateful or evil things? Are they just evil? I guess the heart of it is, how do we act on affirming inherent dignity and worth in people who seem to be doing their hardest to tear humanity apart? Or who hate us and what we stand for?

Recently, I had an experience with a person who embodied this struggle in a very real way. I was reminded that this principle has been around for millennia and from many sources. UUs did not invent it. We uphold it.

Some of you know that I spent 8 days in Bosnia & Hercegovina. I went to pay witness to some incredibly painful realities. I have been reading about the area for a while so intellectually I knew what I was in for. But my heart took a battering anyway. I felt shaken. How can this have happened again? I visited Srebrenica and went to the genocide memorial and museum. I walked through the cemetery for the Bosniaks who were murdered there. I looked at the horrific photos in the museum and watched an unbelievable documentary that was put together from tapes made by Serb soldiers as they were carrying out their genocide. It is the worst thing I have ever seen. I have struggled for a long time trying to understand what happened, and seeing this video made me feel even more depressed. It felt like the world was run by monsters. That there was no point in saying that humans beings have inherent worth and dignity, when so clearly the people in this video had given theirs up to some evil political idea. And they were trying to take away the humanity of the Bosniaks. I was truly doubting if I could even call myself UU.

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His book is available on Amazon.com

Then Hasan Hasanović, a Srebrenica survivor who now runs the genocide museum there, stepped into the room, and for an hour or more told us his story. It was as painful and unbelievable as the documentary. As his story was drawing to a close, most of us were in tears and visibly disturbed by what we had just seen and heard. It was a reminder and softened my heart a bit to see that others are horrified by this, we have worth and dignity because we recognize the suffering of others, that they were stripped of theirs, and we knew that was wrong, inherently.

Hasan continued on to talk about the aftermath. He lost many members of his family and friends and neighbors. Life will never be the same for him. Srebrenica will never be the same politically or socially. Yet he carries on. He educates in the hopes that this will never be repeated. And then, in the midst of my aching doubt, he said the most extraordinary thing. He said that for years he was stuck in his life, just floundering and filled with hate. One day someone at the museum asked him if he had General Mladic or any Serb soldier in front of him what would he do to him? His response floored me. He said, as if he knew what I had been struggling with,

“I looked at the questioner and had an epiphany. I suddenly knew I would do nothing to the soldier. He is a human being. I am a human being; I am not an animal. I would do nothing to him because he is a human being. I realized then that all that I thought was hate and was holding me back, was really fear and anguish.”

In this moment I felt the significance and urgency of the First Principle again. The First Principle is not only about those who are perpetrating evil. It is about ourselves. We strip ourselves of dignity when we put ourselves on the same level as those we are against. We wound our own selves in the deepest way when we succumb to hate. And it doesn’t change anything. Hasan has more chances of changing people’s minds and helping through his attempts at education, then if he spent the rest of his life hating. They took so much from Hasan and all survivors, but they didn’t succeed in taking his inherent worth and dignity, this he understood. The First Principle is not about saying that all things and all people are good and acceptable. Clearly this is not true, our world has always suffered from people who try to take our humanity and our lives. Clinging to and valuing the First Principle is what allows us to potentially make changes, and it protects our souls. If this man can recognize the inherent worth and dignity of an enemy, because he is human, well, he is way ahead of me. But he encourages me to keep trying and not to lose faith in humanity. He helped me understand that our rage and struggle to uphold the Principle also comes from fear and anguish about what is going on in the world, and in our own lives. The moment we do that, then there is nothing possible but chaos. The First Principle is everything, or there is nothing.

 

Mostar – The Jewel of Hercegovina

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I was sitting in a café overlooking the Neretva river and the famous Ottoman Mostar bridge, waiting for the jumper to stop strutting around and actually jump! He is not fearful, he stands on the rim of the 78 foot bridge waiting for the precise amount of money to fall into his fez before he takes his impressive leap. It is most likely not his first jump of the day. From the café, I could see his sun-kissed body pacing back and forth as his audience continued to grow. Below, fellow dive club members lazily waited in the little boat to rescue him if it should go wrong. But this guy is a “pro.” He knows how to tuck his legs swan like when he leaps, heading knee first into the water before suddenly swinging his legs around as he enters the freezing water below. The sound of him hitting the water is louder than you would think for the tiny splash he makes. This daredevil stunt looks (and is) dangerous. The water is only 15 feet deep at this spot, if you hit it wrong you would really be in trouble. While the stunt has become a way to hustle tourists for money and to impress them with their athletic dives, bridge jumping from Stari Most, is a 450 year old tradition. Tourists are allowed to do it too, if they partake of the diver’s training school. I wished I were brave enough to try, yet somehow I found myself still firmly in my seat drinking my Bosnian coffee, a thick muddy rich brew to be drunk at any time of the day, for any reason. Coffee is a way of life here. It is a process to make, and a ritual to drink.

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Stari Most was originally built by the Ottomans in 1566, and was the widest arch in the world at the time. It is 13 feet wide and nearly 100 feet long. It slopes gently upward until it meets the other side in a pinnacle at the top. I imagine the smooth white stone is treacherous when wet; thankfully, I only had to contend with it dry, and still my feet slipped. The bridge is connected on each side to stone square shaped guard towers which hover over the glacial teal river. The bridge leads you neatly over the fast flowing river and directly to the old town bazaar and mosques. The view is stunning from any of the myriad cafes on either side of the river. Hercegovina is a Mediterranean climate, and as such, the sun, at all times of the day, blurs angles into one in its intense glare. The only thing that keeps the purity of its color in Mostar’s midday is the brilliantly green river, sparkling like a jewel as it passes through the scorched white stone buildings and the hills behind them. And maybe the jumper’s ruby red speedo too! He’s still up there performing.

IMG_20170825_140845I have seen no architecture that is more pleasing to me than the Mediterranean-Ottoman style. Made up of implacable stone, or whitewashed wood, the houses are box-like with a straight arrangement of windows, often gently arched, or with decorative shutters. It is comforting to look at, maybe it’s the symmetry, or the softness of the angles, or the way they match the countryside around them. Mostar’s 36 mosques are perfection. Unadorned stonework with delicate minarets pointing skyward, the call to prayer resonating from them five times a day is enough to make the cats sunning themselves on the blazing cobblestones and the ducks in the river look toward Mecca. I find it centering and beautiful. I may not have the proper religious devotion, but I admire its consistency and regularity. I know it’s coming. I know they studied hard to get the plaintive call just so. I know it comes from a fervency of spirt that I don’t have. I got caught up in how much it fits this setting, this city. It is a primal call to prayer for Muslims, and for me a reminder of how blessed we all are to be here.

It is a reminder of the uneasy peace that has settled over BiH since the end of the war. How necessary religious freedom is for a society to function. I mean real religious freedom, not the freedom to force your religion onto someone else. Across from the Muslim side, Roman Catholic church bells ring out, and a giant cross monument tops a hill above the city. People live separately, but there are projects under way by UNESCO to educate and bring people together. And anyone can dive.

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The war is evident in ways beyond the segregated living (by choice, not law). I have seen people with missing legs. I have seen ruined buildings, and buildings still standing and even used, but riddled with pockmarks. I have read how UNESCO, and Luxembourg and the World Bank (and probably many others) painstakingly rebuilt Stari Most, her guard towers, and the old town. It had been cruelly destroyed in an effort to force the Bosniaks into an enclave and to demoralize everyone. It was painful for Bosniaks and Croats to see their beloved bridge decimated. However, today the bazaar is active, and the bridge has resumed its duty as symbol of Mostar. After all, “Mostar” means “bridge keeper.” I have seen toys and souvenirs made from bullet casings, and all kinds of war medals and pins for sale. The capitalization of war makes me immensely uncomfortable (I once saw a Pol Pot Khmer Rouge t-shirt in a pile of clothes I was sorting for charity). Even as my soul shudders, my intellect understands it. People here are very poor. 20 years after the war, BiH is still one of the poorest nations in Europe, with a very high unemployment rate. Tourists buy it, so they sell it. I can’t imagine what it feels like to sell cheap tchotchkes made from something that brought so much devastation upon their nation, their families, and personhood. But they are resilient people who are taking advantage of what they can to improve their prospects.

I learned a personal lesson from this. I still can’t figure out how I let it happen, but I completely dropped my guard. I was trying to get to the bridge early, hoping the sun wouldn’t be glaring down on the bridge (it was) so I could get a good picture. It was 8:30 in the morning and people were already crowding around the bridge and old town. I passed a man wearing a city guide nametag and he told me I could get a cheap tour with him. For some inexplicable reason, I went with him. I did. We walked to a couple of spots where he pointed to a mosque, and a small stone bridge that resembles Stari Most in miniature. He told me some interesting things about the city and the war, and he told me that he has children. When we came to our “last stop,” he held out his hand and said, “I want 100 marks.” A darkening descended around me that was almost cartoonish. It felt like an atmospheric change and I desperately wanted to put my face in my hands and either cry or laugh hysterically. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me! That I for absolutely no reason walked into this situation! I wasn’t even as mad at him as I should have been. I decided to placate him and gave him the damn marks. Then he said, “I want 50 more for tip.” When I started to shake my head no, his voice took on a desperate edge as he almost whined, “It’s for my children! There’s nothing after tourist season ends, nothing!” I tried to give him a 20 but then his voice hardened and turned flat. He wanted that 50. So I gave it to him. He then tried to get another 50 and despite the fear that was starting to grip me, I finally stood up for myself and said that I really couldn’t. I also needed money while here. I have never felt more stupid or more like a fraud in my life. He then kissed me three times on the cheek, pointed me to a restaurant that is open for breakfast and stalked off. I went to a different restaurant and ate my breakfast like a zombie. What if I had stood up for myself in the first place? What if he had been violent instead? How did I do this to myself? And the most unsettling part is that he was probably using truth to manipulate me. He probably really does have children. When the bulk of the tourists leave (which is soon), they probably really do have a hard time until the next season. I told myself he’d better use the money for good and that if I see him in town with a coffee or cigarette I would go kick him in the shins.

Was it stupidity or compassion that made me fall for the oldest tourist scam in the world? I had been thinking and feeling empathy for so long and so intensely about what everyone had been through. Now I felt shaken, like I had lost my credentials for solo travel. It’s embarrassing to write this, but I think it’s important for travelers to confess their vulnerabilities and mistakes too, so others can learn from them, and because it is part of traveling. I can’t be the only somewhat seasoned traveler to do something stupid like this.

Later that day I was watching and waiting for the man to jump. I was waiting for my food to arrive when a lovely family came in. One of the ladies turned to me and asked if I had a phone charger, I told her I didn’t. That my phone was dying too. She laughed a deep laugh and her eyes sparkled kindly. She told me that she is visiting home and that she comes as often as she can, though she lives in the U.S. After a few minutes of talking our food arrived and we focused on ourselves. We looked up at the bridge at the same time to finally see the man make his leap, and we laughed as the woman’s grandson clapped in delight and shouted “whee!” Then, as I was getting ready to leave, she came over to me with a tiny package, and said, “I want to make a gift to you from my country. So you’ll always have my country with you.” Inside was a small copper bracelet and ring, with a delicate floral design.

I marveled at how in one day I met two people who represented their country so fully, in completely different ways. The desperation of daily reality on the one hand, and the generosity of spirit on the other. These qualities go hand in hand all over the world, but are manifest in Bosnia & Hercegovina.

Fairytale Part 2: Broadening Our Horizons in Friendships – Living Abroad

Living in foreign countries has plenty of benefits. We get to experience different cultures, which is interesting, usually fun, and sometimes stressful. We get to explore beautiful places that inspire us and leave lasting impressions. We get to learn about the world from a different point of view. We have learned as much about ourselves and American culture as we have about others’.

10624064_756437987754664_757099045240407760_oThe downside to living abroad is we lack the cemented lifelong friendships that we see, and often envy, that people in our families have. My sister has friends that she has had since the 1st grade, she is 31. Her social life is like a sturdy pine tree. She is rooted in place, with branches of friends connecting her core group to her. Sometimes needles fall and drift away, but pinecones help the tree reproduce. The connections are deep. They are her support group, her entertainment and sometimes even considered family.

Ryan’s and my friend13731011_1431798633500562_8646709884280538620_oships are more like a garden with a variety of blooms. Each flower is unique in structure and color, some more fleeting, others perennial. Our longest friendship is only 3 years old. We don’t have the foundation that entrenched roots of a tree provide, but we have a bigger variety of personalities and backgrounds that we can learn about. Instead of a conifer forest, we have a wide meadow. Our travels have brought us in contact with some amazing and interesting people. But sometimes I feel lonely and wish there were someone to share inside jokes with, someone who remembers my childhood, who shared my good times and my bad. Sometimes I wish I were a tree.

In high school or college, we tend to hang out with a group whom we usually have a lot in common with. I was part of the drama club, Ryan the band. We hung out with “our own kind.” Well, when you move away, you become friends with the people who are “just there.” There is no history or memories with the people that you meet in each new location. This can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. I lost a friend I had made soon after moving to Germany. She couldn’t reach back into her experience and say, “Caitlin is a kind person, she would never deliberately hurt my feelings.” She wrote me off without even telling me. I only found out what went wrong a year and a half later. We didn’t have the rapport or the history to get us through our first challenge.

On the other hand, meeting the constant stream of incoming expats put us in contact with people that we would not have tried to be friends with in our previous lives. One lady we met was fashionable and trendy and loved to be the life of the party, the exact kind of person I would have been intimidated by in high school. Yet, she turned out to be as lovely inside as on the outside. And I influenced her too: she told me that she appreciated how much I like to read and that she now found herself reading more.  We missed her when she moved away. Our assumptions were challenged. Again and again our minds are broadened by opening ourselves up to all kinds of people that come across our path. Learning how to appreciate truly different points of views has deepened my ability to empathize. Learning that we don’t have to have things “in common,” or come from similar backgrounds to be friends is one of the most valuable lessons I have come across. We experience so much more when we recognize friendship in strangers and differences.

We have also formed deep bonds with people. Our first lasting friendship in Germany was an instant friend. From the moment we shook hands with him, we just fit. He is a true kindred spirit, I feel like we’re on the same plane of existence, although he is German, and I, American. We have traveled together, been there for each other, and drunk copious amounts of coffee. He is German, so he has helped us navigate a culture new to us. There will be heartbreak when we eventually have to move away.

I am experiencing a little of that now. Another special kindred spirit has recently moved back to the United States. She and I clicked on a level that I haven’t with another woman in years. We could talk for hours, again with copious amounts of coffee. We also traveled together, it was our greatest shared passion There is something precious about female friendships, a bond that goes deeper than other types. I even found myself calling her my best friend. But we knew it was transitory. Sometimes when we would say, “friends for life!” I would feel my heart crinkle, knowing that “life” is just a few years. She moved away at the beginning of this year. I feel real grief. We keep in touch through Facebook and Whatsapp phone calls, but it is different from the tangible experience of sitting together in the same room. I hold it in my heart that we will travel together again, but silently I fear it will not be so.

We have entered an emotionally dangerous mindset where we feel settled here in Germany. We have the most stable friendships that we have had in years. We are part of a church community that has provided enrichment and depth to our lives. We have found the patterns and rhythms of activities, dictated by the seasons. In winter, we do a lot of pub trivia. In spring and summer, we troll the seemingly infinite festivals. At Christmas, we explore the markets and warm our numb fingers and bodies with hot glüwein. We can’t imagine living anywhere else. But this is also not in our control. We are part of the contracting world. Just as our friends have moved away from us, one day it will be our turn to move away from our friends.

Knowing how transitory our relationships are here, we are quick to let people know how we feel. We can bond quickly, some prove to be real, others fade away. We have learned to appreciate that not all friendships need to be deep, sometimes surface level companions provide the fun and entertainment we need. Others have been deeply fulfilling. We have learned that attachments cause a necessary pain; to fully live abroad, we must risk the sadness and loneliness of losing friends, and we have learned to impress upon our hearts and minds the experiences that we have.

Sometimes I wish I were a tree. But if I were, I would never have blossomed in the gardens of tulips, roses, lilacs, daisies, and weeds. The plethora of scents, colors and shapes that have formed our lives in recent years are treasures. We accept that gardens take effort, but the payoff is gorgeous.

Fairytale

Disclaimer: I love living abroad. I love travel. They are my passion. Some of what will come next may sound like I am unappreciative, or complaining; I am neither. I am addressing some of the realities I have experienced from living life as an alien. I have been accused of the above sentiments, but my accusers misunderstand me. I would not give this life up for anything. But it is at times hard.

“An alien” is a harsh moniker, and yet it is true. Ryan and I are now living in our second location abroad. We lived on the island of Curaçao for nearly two and a half years. We enjoyed ourselves for the most part, but we never fit in. We did not speak Dutch, Papiamento, or Spanish. We did not have the slow, plodding Caribbean mindset, we were not Curaçaoan, in our minds or our hearts. No matter how much fun we had, or the friends that we made, we were aliens.

This is true in Germany too. We moved to Germany in December 2012. Our dreams turned to action with that move, for Europe is at our doorstep. We have traveled as much as we can afford to do, and then some. We are united in our love of travel. All our spare money is channeled this way. But we have also fallen in love with Germany itself, in a way we never did with Curaçao. We feel like we are nesting, we have recognized patterns and rhythms of the seasons. We have made friends and been active in a church. We have a real sense of belonging; and yet, it is often illusory: we are aliens. We stumble through Germany trying to speak German phrases here and there. We are on the outside looking in. We may appreciate the culture of being family and community oriented, dependable, efficient, and sophisticated, but we are only actors. Until we can master German (which means we must try), we will always be outsiders.

You may ask, why do we not know German? The most accurate answer is we are absolutely intimidated by the giant task. We have never learned another language. We have never looked at the world from the perspective of two or more languages. Pronunciation is so hard, grammar harder. A deep insecurity makes me shy away and convince myself that I “don’t really need it.” This is technically true; I get by. But I know if I can conquer my fear, my life in Germany, no matter how temporary, would be enriched. I will never “be German,” just like we were never Curaçaoan, but we could get close. The other reasons we do not prioritize language learning are more practical. The constant traveling means we’re never home through a whole semester. We need to set aside the desire to keep exploring other places so we can undertake the ultimate exploration of a whole people’s perspective. Absorbing their language will provide us with an understanding of culture we can never get otherwise.  If we do not do this, we will always be on the other side of the looking glass. I am trying to find the courage to delve into German, but I feel so cowardly. The one language immersion class I took was an utter failure, I couldn’t understand a single word being spoken, others were getting it, but it was like someone was speaking in… German. I ended up fleeing in tears and hiding in a bathroom stall. But that was four and a half years ago.

Languages aside, being an alien is hard. We are isolated from our families, and it takes time to make friends in our new home. And the friends we meet are transitory, they come and go, or we come and go. We have chosen to miss my nephew and nieces taking their first awkward steps, clumsily learning to read, proudly graduating from kindergarten, celebrating birthdays and Christmases, the list goes on. Ryan has missed his cousins growing into young adults, family gatherings at Thanksgiving, his sister settling into her new home; again, the list goes on. Friends and family have moved on. I wouldn’t say they have forgotten us, or don’t care, I am grateful for the talks and time I do get with them, but we are not urgently part of their lives. Milestones are where my heart aches the most. Milestones are what make us who we are, and missing these important steps in a person’s life makes intimacy almost impossible. The loneliness I sometimes feel makes me question our choices.

The mental space between us and those back at home is the most isolating part about living abroad. A lot of people don’t really care about where we have been. We’re just “always on vacation.” Often our way of life is not considered a valid lifestyle. However, when we go on a trip, we learn so much. We see how humanity is made up of people who live and think differently than we do, the value of what different cultures offer, the vitality of people who overcome oppression to recreate for themselves their own nations. We see landscapes that make it seem implausible that there may not be a god. These experiences have enriched our lives. Yet, when I talk to people stateside, they are mildly interested in if the Leaning Tower of Pisa really leans as dramatically as they have heard. I often feel like I am swallowing my soul. My perspective has been broadened, and no one seems to care.

 

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Berat at night

While these thoughts are painful, we have adjusted to them. It hurts a little bit less now. Our expectations have lessened. We feel more deeply than ever that we want this lifestyle to continue. We have discovered our true selves in the years we have been away. We have relied on each other for our deepest friendship, our bond is thorough and true. Our last trip together was in the beginning of May. We went to Berat, Albania, where we were challenged by a culture still emerging from the Communist malaise. Our assumptions about world religions were turned upside down (again), as we heard the Muslim call to prayer, followed shortly by church bells, and everywhere we looked people were just going about their lives peacefully. As we held hands and walked on the promenade under swaying palm trees, we realized that this was our 21st country we have visited together. A profound warmth emanated from within, spreading from my head to my toes. I felt such peace as I huddled closer to this man who is making our dreams come true. How lucky we are that our hearts meet in each of these countries. That we are united by the mind-altering adventure of experiencing what others have to say, if we’re willing to listen. And we are willing to listen. There is not a greater gift we can give to others, or receive in return. We have found the answers to our doubts about our choices. We have discovered the ultimate joy: this is our spirituality. This is our life.

North Wales – An Illusion of Seclusion

caitlin-wales-2016Celebrating the wedding of strangers in a barn, or cowshed as they call it, in Northern windswept Wales qualifies as a surreal experience. The intensely green hills are bejeweled with deep purple heather and bright mustard yellow gorse. Farmland dappled with sheep and cows extends from the hills right up against the cliffs, where they are forced to stop so they don’t fall into the sometimes indigo, sometimes gray, sea. The sun forces its way through the piling gray clouds, throwing spectacular shadows, and highlighting or darkening regions on a whim, or as if it can’t muster the strength to enlighten everything at once. This subtle, quiet landscape gives the illusion of seclusion, as if there is nothing else. It has produced people who are filled with kindness, stoicism and a marvelous sense of humor and distinctive full-throated laughs.

caitlin-wales-2016-2-of-8North Wales is like an island within an island, it is quite different than even other parts of Wales, let alone the rest of the U.K. Their primary language is Welsh. This is profound considering the English did their best to eradicate this original British language, along with their counterparts, the Irish and Scottish languages. Cornish has all but vanished. Many Southern Welsh do not speak Welsh at all, though it has been experiencing a revival. But in North Wales they speak Welsh as they always have because it is their language. I was moved by this because I have been in too many countries where language suppression was used to oppress entire populations. Stripping someone of their language and their religion disconnects them from their roots and makes them easier to control. And because of this some languages are irreparably lost, one of the greatest human tragedies. So much experience, perspective and wisdom is lost when a language dies.

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Stone building with pink roses near where we stayed

However, our visit to North Wales was about happiness and love, not oppression. My friend Kathy invited me to visit her Welsh family with her. Her mother was Welsh and had immigrated to the States after the War. Now Kathy was back to honor her cousins and to visit her mother’s grave and homeland. We were picked up from the train station by the grandparents of the bride, whom Kathy had never met before. We were taken to their house to wait until we could be moved to the farm run by the parents of the bride where we were spending our first night. The hospitality of the Welsh is overwhelming. We ate so much food for “lunch” that two and a half hours later I could only eat five bites of the gargantuan slice of lasagna we were served for dinner. Thankfully Kathy’s cousins understood that it was Welsh people who had picked us up from the train station, so therefore they were not offended when she and I both just could not eat again.
Lunch:

  • 3 finger sandwiches
  • Two spoonfulls of beet chutney (delicious by the way)
  • A slice of brown bread
  • Two pieces of cake
  • Bottomless tea (no caffeine in the afternoon is a joke here)

This was just the start of nearly a week of constant eating. Breakfasts consisted of lots of eggs and bacon and bread. Dinners overflowed our plates. The wedding feast beat them all.
Wedding lunch:

  • Three huge slices of roast
  • Four or five little potatoes
  • Steamed veggies
  • Yorkshire pudding (which for the uninitiated isn’t pudding at all, but pastry)
  • A pudding plate for dessert consisting of chocolate cake, a berry custard and a lemon curd
  • Flowing wine

Then, as if anyone could possibly be hungry later, there were two full pigs on a spit to make roast pork sandwiches. Needless to say, Kathy and I didn’t touch it, but they were demolished. I guess we’re amateurs.

caitlin-wales-2016-3-of-8I was nervous about attending a wedding of absolute strangers, but everyone welcomed me as if I too were part of the family. My contribution to the ceremony was helping to pick heather on the moor near the farm. The purple flowers are so vibrant and they spread so abundantly that it looks like someone stained the hilltops with spilled paint. I suspect they can be seen from space. It was thrilling to dodge the prickly spiky gorse to collect these lovely little flowers for a young bride. I have always read about the “heather on the Moors,” (thank you Brontës, more on them in a different post) and now I got to see their lonely majesty for myself.

 

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The ceremony was in a tiny stone chapel built at the turn of the last century, in the middle of nowhere. Amazingly, it is an active church and people from the invisible, but apparently nearby villages do attend regularly. The service was held in Welsh, but you didn’t need to understand the words to see the commitment that this couple was making to each other. It was interesting because they had their marriage certificate signed during the service, which makes sense, you’re not really married (civilly) until that is taken care of. The couple seemed modest or shy because there was no “kiss the bride” moment, which is usually anticipated in an American wedding. Apparently it is in a Welsh wedding too! But everyone should marry the way they feel the most comfortable. It was a sweet ceremony filled with lovely songs, some with old familiar hymn melodies, and an audience that seemed very content to be there. The wind and rain gods were friendly and allowed the sun prominence for most of the day, and for most of the reception, though the mist eventually conquered. It doesn’t make the landscape any less beautiful.

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What I admired most about this wedding was how it was so family oriented and very do-it-yourself. We picked flowers for the flower lady, the family veiled the barn with lovely sheer fabrics, the centerpieces were simple wood cuts with vases, and each person had a charming wood nameplate with our names inscribed on them. The church programs were homemade, and their simplicity was charming and elegant. But mostly, it was the way the whole family came together to make the preparations for the cowshed, the church and the making up of the bridesmaids. I’m sure it was stressful, all weddings are to some degree, but it didn’t feel like there was much strain. All in all, it was a very special experience. It was also neat to hear of how the couple are going to continue their family’s way of life and be farmers themselves.

The other ritual I partook in was somber, but just as beautiful. Kathy’s mother passed away on a family visit to Wales when she was only ten. Kathy and my mom were lifelong best friends, knowing each other from the age of 6, until my mom passed three years ago. The day after the wedding, Kathy’s second cousin by marriage drove us to the small quaint cemetery where her mom is buried. Her cousin Eleanor found the grave site immediately and we all set to pulling up the grass and moss and weeds that had covered up the pretty white stones that decorated it. Kathy focused on cleaning off the headstone, revealing the epitaph and the floral design on the sides.
As I weeded, trying to be careful with the bugs I was displacing, a quietness settled on all of us. We just worked. While we were beautifying this sad place, I felt again the powerful injustice of losing a mother when young. I was 29, she was 10, I felt cheated, yet I had my mom for so much longer. I began to feel transient, I felt like my mom was working through me to help her best friend clean up her mother’s resting place. I had become empty of myself and a vessel for my mother, I felt her love, her encouragement flowing through me, and it made me speechless. I am not good at quieting my ego, but at this time I was quiet. It felt like my mom’s rightful place to be with Kathy, and so she was there. I am sure this can be written off as over sentimentality about how I don’t have a grave to clean in dedication for my mom. But I prefer not to analyze it, and let the miracle remain.
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Afterward, we made our way to Caernarfon where we gawked at the massive 13th century castle built by Edward I of England, to, you guessed it, oppress the Britons. We ate, again you guessed it, a humongous lunch at the popular Black Boy inn, while speculating on what the terrible name could mean, and how it can only be named so due to its 16th century origin. Life had returned to normal, and soon after we resumed our trip around the UK.

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Caernarfon Castle

Thoughts on Croatia

Let me start with a blunt statement: I LOVE CROATIA. There are so many reasons it has become a trendy place for tourist in recent years. Its coastal beauty is astonishing with unbelievably clear water, olive trees and Mediterranean shrubs dotting the shore, and the ever present wheeling screeching sea birds. The resplendent sunshine blurs the lines of everything in sight, creating a scene of greens, brown, whites and blues that merge together until it seems impossible to separate them into the trees, rocky beaches, sea, sailboats and clouds that they are. The searing heat is intense and it creates a sense of tranquility. It is the only climate I have been in that quiets my mind, it’s too hot for anxieties, too hot for deep thoughts, too hot for thoughts.

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It has been ruled by many different people throughout its long history, which is reflected in its food, architectural and linguistic heritage. The cuisine is a wonderful mixture of Italian and Balkan, heavily focused on very fresh seafood (which is lost on me since I don’t eat seafood, but I’ve seen the joy it brings others) and gnocchi (potato pasta). The architecture is Mediterranean, Venetian, Byzantine and Roman. To my inexperienced ears, Croatian is a smooth sounding Slavic, with a lyrical intonation. It is absolutely lovely.

The original settlers, called Illyrians, had to defend themselves against the Greeks; eventually the Romans gained control, and then the Byzantines. Croats immigrated into the region in the 7th century. Over the next several centuries they experienced a succession of conquerors who settled and left their impressions upon the land and culture: Hungarians, Venetians, Hapsburgs and Ottomans. Even France had a shot at the coveted region: Napoleon temporarily seized control of it. Like so many countries in Europe in the late 19th century, the Balkan region, tired of Hapsburg and Ottoman interference, developed a Slavic nationalism. This led to Croat-Serb alliances, and after the horrors of WWI, the first Yugoslavia was born.

During WWII the Nazis invaded Croatia, ending any harmony that may have been there. Helping the Nazis carry out their programs of annihilation, the Utaše Croatian Liberation Movement, massacred and committed forced exiles and conversions against Serbs, Roma and Jews with brutal efficiency. This was a precursor for the horrors that would happen in the 90s with the break-up of the second Yugoslavia. Just as not all Germans were Nazis, not all Croatians supported the Utaše movement, and those resistant suffered greatly too. The resistance led to the visioning of a new Yugoslavia, and a federation of nation states consisting of Croatia, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia formed after the war. Ruled by the tight-fisted Tito, Communist Yugoslavia managed to maintain independence from the Soviet Union, but life was miserable for many many people. Money from all over the region went to Belgrade, where the government was, and other ethnicities and parts of the federation felt marginalized in the face of Serbian influence. After forty years of Communist rule, with a damaged economy and strained ethnic relationships, Yugoslavia fell apart in paroxysm of violence. The Dayton Accords in Paris in December of 1995 defined Croatia’s borders and was supposed to provide protection for Serb residents of Croatia; unfortunately tensions and strain exist to this day.

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It is a very complicated region of Europe. I’m not sure I understand it well myself and I try to keep an open mind. I am sorry if I made any inaccurate statements with this over simplified history. Out of respect for people who live there, I am trying to understand as much as I can about unimaginable circumstances. Talking to locals, especially young ones who don’t remember or weren’t around for the wars, exposed me to an interesting perspective. They recognize the devastation that happened only two decades ago, but they also look to the future. They want to move forward and live their own lives, not fester in the hate and resentments of older generations. There is a naiveté to this attitude, but maybe it is necessary in order to finally set aside the hatred and violence that has been passed down through many generations, through centuries. One of the deepest tragedies of the region is that the 20th century violence is only the most recent implementation of centuries of massacres, and control through violence and oppression. It carries on and on, and maybe it is this generation that can finally move forward, to a brighter present and future. One vital way the young people are making connections is through cultural crossovers; a lot of Croats eat and listen to Serbian food and music. Rather than thinking in negative terms like “cultural appropriation,” it can be interpreted as a bridge: finding value in similarities and differences with their neighbors. It’s a start.

My interest in this region, along with my love for Germany, somehow feels self-destructive, or naïve and self-indulgent. Somehow, I feel like a hypocrite sight-seeing in these places. I know that tourism helps countries economically, and that these regions offer much. They are more complex than their recent history. But while swimming in the waters of an Adriatic resort in Rovinj, I became overwhelmed by a sense of hypocrisy because of the fun that I was having, even knowing that hundreds of people have lost their lives in the Mediterranean, trying to escape to safety. Last year when I was walking the streets of ancient Zadar, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was somehow capitalizing on other people’s pain: their stories are interesting, their history “astonishing.” It has made me doubt my motives for travel. Are they voyeuristic? I certainly don’t mean them to be. But I am empathizing with people that I can in no way help, and with times that are in the past. The hurts are immense and they linger. I find them to be undeniable even in the face of great beauty, friendly people, and fun times. I don’t mean to disrespect people by “taking their burdens onto myself.” I know that is an illusion; I can never understand, never experience the depths of what people have known about the failings of humanity. But I hope that my sincere desire to recognize their burden means something. I felt so small, and intrusive, when I was having breakfast with my host in Zadar last year and on the news it showed police activity in Kosovo. He turned to me with unadulterated fear and cynicism on his face, and said, “It’s going to happen again.” I had nothing to say, and that was the moment I realized how useless I was. I couldn’t comfort him. I couldn’t laugh it off and say, “Don’t worry about it!” But this same man also showed compassion and understanding toward Serbians. He told me about the complexity of the situation and not to blame or demonize any group. That moment has stayed with me, and probably will forever.

But even with all of these conflicting feelings, I love Croatia. I will continue to explore this country. I will read what I can, and talk to people when I can. And I will swim in the sea.IMG_20160701_150255

Prague: City of Beauty and Contradictions

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A view of Prague’s old town

 

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The Astronomical Clock – c.a. 1410

I think that Prague is the most beautiful city I have been to. The Gothic spires throughout the Old Town, and the charming Astronomical Clock with its show at noon each day; the bombastic Baroque churches, which are too gaudy to contemplate further; the naturalistic and sparkling Art Nouveau; and the bizarre experimental Modernist Cubist buildings give a walker a chance to move through time. One extreme building is “Rondocubist,” and houses a bank. It’s exactly what it sounds like, rounded forms softening the blow of the characteristic sharp geometric planes and angles of the Cubism. Across the Vltava river from the Old Town is the ancient and sprawling Prague Castle which houses the government and museums. There are many parks and green spaces strewn across the city. There are plentiful cafes, galleries, garnet shops (be careful to go to

Caitlin Prague (3 of 7)
An example of “Rondocubist”

a certified jeweler so you don’t buy red glass), and breweries. Beer is a way of life in Prague, and it is very rich and flavorful compared to American style beer. It is also the home of the original Budweiser. The food is heavy Central European, your meats, breads, goulashes, but tasty. Prague has even become chic enough that it has some really good vegetarian and vegan restaurants, and a huge night life.

 

 

What is so beguiling about Prague is that it is so much more than its glittering façade. I find that its modernity and loveliness hide its tragedies. It is a city that has never fallen, never been rebuilt because of utter destruction, like so many other European capitals. But one must know Prague’s secrets; after all, a city never forgets. People may move forward, but they leave memories embedded in the very walls and streets of a place.

Preeminent Czech writer, Daniela Hodrova’s I See Prague delves into this. She takes us into the dreamscape that is Prague. Memory becomes fiction, becomes history, becomes myth. Foreigners view the sites with awe. But she knows about the defenestrations. She intuits the mysteries of the golem, and the all but disappeared, but yet somehow still present, Jewish quarter. She sees the Roma and their silent but ever-present plight. Or is it even a plight? Is that just our close-minded view of their ancient situation? They entered Europe a thousand years ago, leading a semi-nomadic life ever since. I see them almost everywhere I go.

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St. Wenceslas riding the dead horse

My city tours, and long walks have also opened up the secrets of Prague. The monuments to the victims of the brutal Communist regime pepper the city. They are often simplistic, but very moving. There is the disembodied hands displaying peace signs protruding from a spare plaque with the date 17.11.1989, symbolizing the student rebellion of the Velvet Revolution. Famous Prague provocateur, David Cerny’s sarcastic statue of St. Wenceslas riding an upside down dead horse is probably the greatest public art criticism of a government anywhere. In the beautiful Stare Mesto (old town) is a sculpture of Freud dangling from the roof of a building, contemplating if he should let go or not; another Cerny treat. (Cerny is also a benefactor, he created the Meat Factory studio for local artists to display their creations, furthering the importance of art’s place in the city.) These are just some examples of how citizens of Prague are constantly in the presence of their history and the cultural commentary about it.

My favorite public monument provides a real critical challenge: it is a massive red metronome on the hill in Letná Park overlooking the Vltava river and the city center. It is situated on the plinth that used to hold a massive statue of Stalin. Some people told me it deliberately means absolutely nothing, in reaction to the oppressive symbolism of the statue; others told me it shows the march of time and progress; still others said it represents the absurdity of Czech history; and finally, it could represent Prague’s immense musical contribution to the world. Wikipedia lists 144 composers born or trained in Czech lands! The most famous are Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, and of course, Mozart named a symphony after Prague. I suppose like a dangling Freud, there are an infinite amount of interpretations.

The most heartbreaking memorial is the one dedicated to Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself in protest to the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968. He was crying out against complacency. Czechoslovakia was becoming less repressive and more open. Artists and students were starting to breathe. But then the Soviets had enough and they brought their tanks and soldiers for a “friendly” visit, and ended the revitalization known as the “Prague Spring.” Richard Burton in Prague: A Cultural History discusses the Czech habit of living quietly and scuttling around instead of standing up for themselves. The easiest way to get through the many oppressive times of their history is to not fight back. This is what Palach was challenging people to leave behind. His impassioned sacrifice has touched the hearts of people, and every January there is a gathering (often broken up by police) on the anniversary of his self-immolation. There are usually flowers decorating it throughout the year. It is located in Wenceslas Square, near the steps of the National Museum, and up the street from the balcony where Vaclav Havel announced his presidency. Keeping with the theme of cultural enrichment, Havel was a poet and playwright of the absurdist genre, a great tactic to criticize the Communist government. After spending time in jail, he went on to uniquely become the president of two countries: first Czechoslovakia after Communism, and then, after the “Velvet Divorce,” when Slovakia split from Czech, the Czech Republic.

The “John Lennon Wall” is still another rebellious monument, this time rebelling against Communism and Prague police. In the 1980s someone painted a picture of John Lennon and some Beatles’ lyrics, and it took off. It became a massive symbol for the disaffected. All kinds of people wrote and painted on it as a sign of their frustration with their limited freedoms. The police would come and whitewash it, and the people would start over. I talked to a Czech woman who described how when she was young, she used her little sister as a look-out at 6:00 a.m. so she could inscribe her message. Eventually the police gave up and it became an unofficial official way to air grievances and provide hope. Now, anyone who knows me knows I do not like “street art.” But there are exceptions to every rule, and this wall is one of them. It is tasteful and the art stays on the wall, it doesn’t drift to nearby buildings, and it isn’t tagging. In a reversal of the Universe’s pattern, in early 2014 a group of artists whitewashed the wall and then painted “The Wall is Over” on it. I was enraged when I heard of this effrontery. The naiveté of these student artists! All of them were too young to know the significance of this wall. None of them suffered through the disappearances and silence of the Communist regime. They literally whitewashed history, and over people’s shared pained experiences. The wall is attached to the Knights of Malta church, and their bishop was so enraged he filed a law suit. But sure enough, Prague citizens have repainted the wall. More John Lennon, more Beatles’ lyrics, more hopeful paintings. Maybe the wall doesn’t hold the rage that it once did, but it is still a symbol of hope. And I hope it is also a warning about covering up history, which is always a dangerous precedent.

Caitlin Prague (7 of 7)
The John Lennon Wall

 

Rebellion runs deep in Prague’s veins, it was not started by Palach and Havel. In the 14th century, Jan Hus essentially began the Protestant Revolution, 100 years before Martin Luther (who was deeply influenced by Hus). There is a statue in the Old Town Square commemorating Hus and his sacrifice. He was executed in 1415 as a heretic. While European wide reform didn’t happen for many decades and a Thirty Years War later, to this day there is still a Hussite Church in Czech Republic.

Religion is complicated in Czech Republic. Most Czechs are atheists, a hold over from Communism and a devastating 20th century. Yet, there are churches everywhere, and some with the most outstanding Gothic architecture I have ever seen, pointy towers and all. St. Vitus Cathedral is a must see, it is highly meaningful to the people of Prague because its saint suffered painful martyrdom, and maybe their collective passivity was a way to prevent that fate for themselves at the hands of the Nazis and then Soviets? It took centuries to complete and is influenced by many cathedral styles throughout Europe. There is a beautiful Alphonse Mucha stained glass window that captures his Art Nouveau glory, while not looking out of place.

Caitlin Prague (6 of 7)
An example of an Infant Jesus outfit

While most Christians are protestants, there is still a Catholic community. One of the most interesting churches holds the imperiously dressed Infant Jesus of Prague statue. Dating from the 16th century from Spain, he is a little wooden statue covered with wax, and clothed in costly vestments. He has been fetishized to such an extent that he has had outfits donated from all over the world, in different cultural styles. In 1913 the Pope created the Confraternity of the Infant Jesus of Prague; and in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI delivered an ermine cape in recognition of his Apostolic visit. My tone may be a little sardonic here, but it is spiritually moving to see the emotion and devotion that people give to this little statue.

 

Caitlin Prague (4 of 7)
Prague’s Old New Synagogue, home of the Golem

Judaism also plays an important role in Prague. Over 90,000 Jews lived in Prague in the Jewish Ghetto, and about two-thirds perished in the Holocaust. The ghetto was dismantled in the late 19th century, and since the War the Jewish quarter has been assimilated into the city. Tragically, Communists also persecuted Jews. Today about 1600 Jewish people live in Prague, but their community is thriving again. The Jewish museum is housed in some synagogues in the Jewish quarter. It is a precious but viciously ironic collection. The Nazis collected Jewish artifacts from around Europe, and along with Prague’s treasures, they created this museum. They wanted to celebrate their success of annihilating a people. Thankfully the Nazis did not succeed in their evil plans, but they did leave behind a monument for the Jews who were able to return to Prague. Their tragic history pervades the otherwise cheery part of town, just one of Prague’s many contradictions.

I cannot recommend Prague enough, though if you have the chance, go during the shoulder or off season, as it can get extremely crowded in season. But don’t let the crowds get you down, Prague is fascinating and deserves the devotion it receives. For all of its heavy history, Prague has a youthful and happy feel to it, and I find it to be a very comfortable and welcoming city.

 

Caitlin Prague (1 of 7)
Prague’s Municipal building – An example of the city’s Art Nouveau history

3 Years in Germany

Three years in Germany. Three years in Europe. So much to see. I feel like I have done a lot, but there is an immensity to what I have not seen. These three years have been the most challenging and wonderful years of my life. My perceptions of Europe, America, and myself have been stretched and tried. After visiting hallowed and tragic places, understanding history has taken on a new urgency.

I have visited a lot of cities and museums and have discovered I have opinions about art and architecture. I love medieval Christian art, especially Byzantine or Byzantine- influenced art. I think Van Gogh’s works are deeply moving, while Picasso is just not my style. I like Baroque architecture, but not Baroque interiors. Muslim architecture and motifs, with their flowers and geometric shapes are stunning and provocative.

If we were eccentrically wealthy we would build a house in Ireland with spare Romanesque stone gables, Portuguese tile work, Gothic pointy windows, Romantic painted wooden ceilings, and Art Nouveau flourishes, and somewhere there would be an onion dome. Our garden would have Mediterranean olive trees, Dutch tulips, and Bulgarian roses, and in the lily pond we would have a replica of the Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen’s harbor.

These are the things I love. What you would not find in our estate is pieces of the hideous blocky functional Communist style, or strangely shaped modern skyscrapers, anything triangular, or any “street art.” Or cobblestones. But wait, aren’t cobblestones adorable? To the uninitiated, yes, cobbles are quaint. To my ankles? Cobbles are the devil!

My love for Europe is quite idealistic, I am aware. However, I am not insensitive to the struggles that the European Union is facing. What they have managed to do was create a functioning, burgeoning union after the travesties of the first half of the 20th century. But now weaknesses are being exploited as the pressures of economically struggling Southern Europe, Putin’s intimidation of the whole world over Ukraine and Syria, and the refugee crisis come to a head. I am fearful what it means for Europe that some countries are intensifying Nationalistic feelings and shutting their doors against those who need safety and a place to start anew, or even just to pass through. So my love is mixed with a lot of fear. As the year draws to a close it is hard to feel optimistic about 2016. I want to believe that the Union can hold strong against these challenges, because the alternative is truly scary.

28 countries in three years. So much more to see. So little time. Here is a taste:

Germany – half-timbered houses and Christmas markets, Rhine river castles, Riesling

Croatia- the sea organ and sun-kissed white stone towns, DIOCLETIAN’S PALACE

Bulgaria- rose oil and language preserving monasteries, Thracian ruins

Estonia – Seto ethnic group, Old Believers, gorgeous Tallinn

France- Cathedrals, medieval towns, rolling countryside, edgy port town Marseilles

Italy- Da Vinci, ROME, pasta, Venetian palaces and canals

U.K. – cosmopolitan London, Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland and so much more to be explored

Ireland – our dream homeland, crumbly castles everywhere, sheep

Latvia – Baltic castles and forest, making friends

Slovenia- the jewel Ljubljana, art and culture, overcoming Communism

Poland- tragic Auschwitz, pretty Krakow

Liechtenstein- Walking across a country

Luxembourg- Chocolate House, medieval city

Denmark- Hans Christen Andersen, Copenhagen- city of spires, palace gardens

Sweden- Sadly, only a day trip to Lund and its amazing cathedral and University

Hungary- Unbelievably beautiful Budapest

Slovakia- Quaint Bratislava, full of charm

Czech Republic- PRAGUE A miraculous city, full of opportunity, hopefully I will come away with my TEFL, the ossuary (bone church) of Kutná Hora

Belgium- sophisticated Brussels, beer, waffles, Spa

The Netherlands- Rural, flowers, Amsterdam (my least favorite city)

Portugal- Tiles, hot, Port Wine, shiny Lisbon, funky Porto, open people

Spain- Walking across Basque country, Santiago de Compostela, spare Templar churches, Mallorca- with almond and olive trees, stone villages

Iceland- Alien landscape, friendly people, terrible food, frigid temps

Malta- Sandstone colored, Neolithic wonderland, amazing food

Vatican City- the heart of Catholicism, former ruler of the world

Turkey- Istanbul, the heart of “east meets west,” Ottoman architecture, terracotta    seaside towns, Troy, sickness

Austria- postcard beautiful Alps, romantic times with Ryan

Switzerland- Expensive, chocolate, beauty, our dear friend lives there

 

I hope that 2016 will bring me many more opportunities to travel. My interest lies in Eastern Europe and the middle East, though the latter will have to wait some. 2016 is bringing new challenges. I may be teaching English during the spring and summer, and going back to school in the fall. We shall see. We shall see. But for now, I am grateful for our three year anniversary in Germany, the great friends we have made, the experiences we have had, and just Christmas marketing the hell out of the season!