Monday, November 29, 2010

Still Wonderful

While the weather has oscillated back and forth between glorious and dismal, the flooding has been a nuisance, the hotel’s internet worked less than 12 hours during our four-day stay, and the cost of meals has consistently been budget breaking, Venice is still wonderful.  I think it is impossible not to love this city. 

On Friday, once the tide started to recede, Josh and I went out to explore the city.  First we went to the distinctive stone Rialto Bridge.  Built in 1588, not only was it an amazing engineering feat, until 1850 it was the only bridge that crossed the Grand Canal.  Even during this rainy, off-season, day - the area is packed with tourists.  During high tide, they put miles and miles of 12” high, 3-4 feet wide, platforms down the center of the narrow streets.  The locals, with knee high rubber boots, splash along at ground level, and the tourists, mostly without boots, creep along on top of these platforms and hop off here and there to check out the shopping.  The markets around Rialto are really a mishmash of cheesy souvenir shops and cool little boutiques.  There are many, many mask shops and Josh and I spent some time speaking with a traditional mask maker who had been to Minnesota.  He had visited our fair state to make masks for Circus Juventas in St. Paul.  We also spent some time in a great little bead store, Perle e Dintorni, which was raved about on tripadvisor reviews.  In route back to our hotel, Josh sampled the gelato from the shop in our neighborhood. 

After a brief rest at the hotel, we went to dinner at Terrazza del Casin dei Nobili, a classic little canal side restaurant just down the street from our hotel.  It is clearly off-season, and only one other party came in while we were having dinner.  Josh had a steak and I had fish soup – both a welcome break from all the pizza we had been eating. 

Saturday morning we awoke to bright sunshine.  A water taxi picked us up right outside our pensione and whisked us across the lagoon to the island of Murano.  Bouncing across the choppy water, under the clear blue sky, with the lavish palaces and other remnants of what was once the world’s richest city lining the horizon, was one of those “pinch me so I know I am not dreaming” moments.

Murano is known for its glass factories.  Almost all of them offer free 20-minute tours.  The one we toured, the Mazzega Glass Factory, specialized in making chandeliers and had been in the same family for over 400 years.  After the tour we leisurely walked through the nine retail showrooms, and two small gift shops.  I bought Josh a pair of Murano glass cuff-links, we explored a number of other glass shops, then caught vaporetti #42 back to the main island. 

The view from the bridge in Murano.
After taking care of some business at the train station (booking our overnight train from Rome to Paris for the middle of December) we decided to enjoy the sunshine for as long as we could and set out for St. Mark’s Square.  This is often listed as the number one sight to see in Venice.  I was interested in seeing St. Mark’s Basilica just because of its size and Eastern (Byzantine) style architecture.  Only a few thousand other people had the same idea for this sunny afternoon, and, without thinking, we arrived amid the throngs right during high tide.  Before we realized it – we were standing ankle deep in water, shoes and socks getting soaked and with few easy ways to escape the crowds.  Once you are wet, you are wet – so I decided to take a photo of Josh in front of the Basilica and then try to find our way to higher, dryer land.  We had wanted to find Café Florian, supposedly the most famous Venetian café and the first place in all of Europe to serve coffee – but I just couldn’t attempt to read the itty-bitty print on my map while standing ankle-deep in cold water and, in the end, we just made our way back to the penisone in search of dry shoes and socks.

After brief chat with the front desk, it was clear that there would be no working Internet at the hotel until sometime after we checked out on Monday.  We also knew all the listed Internet cafés are closed on Sunday, so we set out to find the closest Internet café that was still open.  After completely overshooting the square with the Internet spot, we stumbled on to a very fun flea market with all sorts of treasures we could never fit in our suitcases but nonetheless were fun to look at.  Since it was getting dark, we asked a “looks likely to speak some English” suspect for directions, backtracked the way we arrived and found our teeny-tiny combination Internet spot Toy Store.  (There was no “café” element at all, that is why it was called an Internet “hotspot.”) The entire space was about ten feet wide and 12 feet deep and packed with Legos and Playmobile.  Along one wall were four computers.  For two Euros you got 30 minutes of Internet time.  I paid my two Euros, sent off my last blog, uploaded my most recent photos to facebook and was out of time.  By then it was completely dark, but thankfully Josh has a really good sense of direction and navigated us back to our familiar neighborhood.

Sunday morning the weather pendulum had swung back to dismal with “Heavy rainfall” predicted for much of the day.  In spite of the bleak forecast, we set out early with only two items on our agenda - the Jewish ghetto in Venice, and the DaVinci “Machine” exhibit. 

The Jewish Ghetto was really interesting, aided in part by our very articulate tour guide.  There were Jews in the Venetian Republic as far back as the first century of the “common era.”  As the number and importance of the Jews in the area increased, up to almost 5,000 by 16th Century, the Republic decided they needed to “organize” their presence and designated an area of the city where the Jews were required to live.  It was in the area where the ancient foundries had been located.  The Venetian word for “foundry” is “geto”, pronounced with a soft “g” like “gelato.”  Many of the Ashkenazi immigrants had come from Germany and could not easily pronounce the soft “g.” They pronounced it with a hard “g” – leading to the pronunciation we now associate with the word “ghetto.” 

Because space was so precious they build six-story tenement style apartments and built their synagogues on top of these buildings.  There were five synagogues in this area and we were able to tour three of them.  From the outside of the building the average person would not know it is the location of a synagogue.  The Jews of the region could easily spot a synagogue because they knew to look for a top floor with five windows in a row.  The five windows were code for the five books of the Torah. 
The five windows indicate it is a synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto in Venice.

There were large gates on the only two bridges in and out of the Jewish Ghetto and they were locked at midnight every night.  The only Jews allowed to leave the Ghetto during the night time hours were the physicians, being called to treat wealthy Venetians.  Our guide told us the current Jewish population is only about 250 and only two of the synagogues are still active.  In spite of the small population, there is a vitality these days in this area.  There are numerous kosher restaurants, many small art galleries and a steady stream of tourists in and out of the museum.  I loved the art work I saw everywhere.

One random fun fact we discovered while on this journey and digging into family history was that Bob’s great grandmother (and Josh’s great, great grandmother) was Italian.  She married a man from the Austrian province of Galicia, so their immigration papers listed them as “Austrian.”  We also discovered that Bob’s great uncle (Josh’s great, great uncle) Max Zweifach, was a hard core gangster on the Lower East Side of New York.  You can read all about him at, the Internet Index of Tough Jews.

After a quick lunch, we splish-splashed our way to the Church of San Barnaba to see the “Exhibit of Interactive Machines reproduced from Leonardo da Vinci’s codices.” Josh is a big da Vinci fan, so this exhibit was right up his alley.  Each display had copy of da Vinci’s original drawings, and a model of the realized machine.  There were 60 models of machines ranging from bicycles to multi-cannon war ships.  I promised Josh I would buy him a book about da Vinci’s machines once we were back in States. 
The bicycle at the da Vinci Machine Museum.

Tomorrow we will be leaving Venice and heading to Ravenna for a few days.  I am incredibly glad we spent this time in Venice and would strongly encourage anyone who has visiting this city on their “bucket list” not to wait too long.  Sadly, Venice is a city that is “dying.” The population of Venice is half what it was 30 years ago, and is losing about 1,000 residents a year.  It is simply too expensive for people to live here.  Travel guru, Rick Steves, writes,  “Even the most hopeful city planners worry that in a few decades, Venice will not be a city at all, but a museum, a cultural theme park, a decaying Disneyland.”

However, for my last day in Venice, I would prefer to hold on to the image painted by Joseph Brodsky, and quoted by Rachel Donadio, in the travel section of the New York Times today.  “In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china tea set were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-gray sky,” Brodsky wrote. “You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, peal-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.”

And for these two travelers, Venice/ Venezia, has been a damp but wonderful place to spend four days in November.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Acqua Alta

We are basically trapped in our pensione until about 2:30 today due to acqua alta - in other words, flooding.  Simply put Venice is sinking, the water is rising, and most days from late October until end of winter, as the tide rolls in, the areas around the canal flood.  Yesterday was bright and sunny, and while we considered buying rain boots, we just tiptoed through the flooded areas and by about 3:30 the tide had gone out and the flooding abated. 
However, today is a steady rain and the water outside the hotel is already ankle deep.  It is an hour and half until high tide, and I expect the water will be even higher by then.  In retrospect, we should have bought the boots. 
The internet is also down, so I figure it a good time to catch everyone up on our adventures of the past few days even though I have know idea when I will be able to post this. 
On Wednesday evening we negotiated the U-bahn, with suitcases and backpacks and made our way to the Wien Westbahnhof.  (Vienna’s West Train Station).  It was a small station, and, as usual, we had arrived ridiculously early since I always expect to get lost in route to any unfamiliar location.  We bought dinner (pizza for Josh, and a sandwich for me) and found a bench where we could sit and read until we could board our train.  We had booked a sleeping car since we would be traveling all night to get to Venice.  We were very pleasantly surprised by the sleeping car.  We booked a double, but we were placed in a triple.  There were three Murphy style bunk beds, and table with two bags for each of us.  One contained a cup of water, soap and a towel, the other a bottle of water, a bottle of white wine, an apple and a kit-kat bar.  Josh decided he wanted the very tiptop bunk – and settled into his crow’s nest for the journey.  I was happy to have the lowest bunk.  While there is something very comforting and conducive to sleeping much of the time on a train, there were a number jarring stops and starts that prevented me from getting a very sound night of sleep. 
We arrived in Venice about 9:00 AM, bought our vaporetti (water bus) three-day passes, and waiting for the #2 vaporetti to the area of our hotel.  We were herded on to a very crowed vaporetti, which fortunately got much less crowded after the first few stops.  We were riding along comfortably, taking in the views of the canal until Josh got an absolutely alarmed look on his face and said “Sh%#!!!” To which I said “What?” And he answered “I left my passport on the train!” A kind, middle-aged Italian man over heard us and said, “Don’t worry, that happens all the time.  Just go to the police and explain what happened.  You lose your money – that is bad.  You lose your passport?  They replace it.”  I tried to maintain a calm “this will make a great story one day” sort of attitude, but nonetheless felt the blood vessels in my head start to constrict.  We decided to get to the hotel, drop off our luggage and head back to the train station.  Fortunately our room was available, so we left our bags and caught a vaporetti back to the train station.  Once we found the “client assistance” office we explained the situation to the receptionist.  She took a small notebook out of her pocket, looked up a handwritten phone number and made a call.  After explaining the purpose of her call in rapid-fire Italian, she paused – then her face brightened and she winked at us.  I told Josh I thought that was a positive sign.  She then hung up and said his passport was at the Police station next to train #1.  We found the police station, got the passport and then felt a bit giddy with relief.  We decided to explore the neighborhood around the train station, had a little lunch, then, once again, boarded vaporetti #2 in the direction of the hotel.  By now, the city was really waking up, the gondolas were out on the canal and we were able to enjoy the sights along the canal.  I also realized I was completely exhausted, and once we returned to the hotel, welcomed an afternoon nap. 

Late in the afternoon, we set off across the Accademia Bridge and wandered the narrow streets almost all the way to the Rialto bridge area.  We stopped for dinner, and since we were in Italy, stopped for gelato in route back to the hotel.  By early evening the temperature had dropped to the point you could see your breath – and we almost froze walking back to the hotel eating our gelato. 

As per our pattern, I spent the evening reading guidebooks and trying to come up with a plan to make the most of our days in Venice.  This morning we awoke to steady rain and acqua alta.  We decided to have a quiet day at the hotel until after high tide.  The skies are getting a bit brighter, and the rain is letting up but the water is still topping the ankles of those passing by.  High tide is still forty-five minutes from now, so for now, I think we stay warm and dry in our cozy pensione a little longer.   

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I am an academic – there is no getting around that one.  I tend to research things pretty seriously before diving straight in.  Overall, this has served us quite well – but we certainly have encountered a number of things that run counter to conventional wisdom and travel guidebooks.  We spent three weeks in Sweden, and were pleasantly surprised by the reasonable and manageable prices there.  We spent two weeks in Eastern Europe and were repeatedly shocked by the outrageously expensive costs there.  In Sweden, having ready access to laundry facilities at the folk school, our friends’ home and the hostel, spoiled us.  During our week in Prague we just washed things in the bathroom sink because we couldn’t find anywhere close to our hotel to do laundry, and couldn’t find anyone to ask.  In Slovakia, the person at the front desk did some Internet research for us, and while she could not find anything like a laundromat, she did find a place in the neighborhood where you could drop laundry off to be washed.  Unfortunately, they charged per item.  Our small load of laundry ended up costing us 40 Euros, or about $54.  Needless to say, here in Vienna, we are back to running our bathroom sink laundry service.
I didn’t have a lot of preconceived ideas about Vienna.  To be honest, going to Vienna was never really high on my “to-see” list.  We ended up here more out of convenience than burning desire.  However, after spending two weeks in Eastern Europe and reading so much about the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Hapsburg Empire), I was intrigued to see the city that once ruled such a giant kingdom.  The evidence of its elegant past is everywhere.  And while I thoroughly enjoyed wandering through the lavish Imperial Apartments and looking at the gorgeous clothing and jewels in the Imperial Treasury, I have become a little numb to all the gothic grandeur.  (Though I have to admit part of me still expects to see the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz, whenever I look up at Gothic spires.)
While there were times in both the Prague and in Košice, where Josh and I had to walk an incredibly long distance to find a restaurant or a grocery store that was open, we knew right away we would rarely be hungry in Vienna.  While restaurants here are plentiful, and there seem to be grocery stores on every block, I have to say Josh and I are becoming connoisseurs of street food.  Würstelstands are abundant and they offer far more than hotdogs.  Josh has become a fan of the mustard horseradish mixture the serve with some of the “dogs.”
Josh also discovered “gelato” here in Vienna.  Yesterday he ordered a large gelato with four different scoops of four different flavors.  Today, in spite of a darn cold wind, he ordered a large gelato with two scoops of what he thought was “cookies and cream” and two scoops of “nutella.”  He enjoyed the nutella scoops, but he was less thrilled when he got to the two scoops of “mohn” and discovered that what he thought were cookie bits were, in fact, poppy seeds.  While I would most likely not select “poppy seed” as a gelato flavor – I was happy to finish off what Josh rejected.  He will have many more opportunities to refine his gelato preferences in the weeks ahead.  Tomorrow evening we will catch the night train to Venice, Italy.  I believe pasta will replace turkey on our Thanksgiving menu this year, but thankfulness will in abundance.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Leaving Košice

I am sitting in the Košice International Airport waiting to check in for our return flight to Prague.  The name implies something far grander than it is.  There are two gates – one for arrivals and one for departures.  We arrived about two hours early in case there were complications.  Other than a few employees we are the only ones in the airport.  The Slovakia version of “Who’s got Talent” called “Talent Mania” is playing on the television by the café.  I am thinking of all the random and quirky moments of our trip so far that I do not want to forget. 
For example, the Segway tours in Prague.  Two enterprising university graduates were trying to come up with business concept.  Tourism is big in Prague.  You see bus tours as well as walking tours all through the city.  These two entrepreneurs decided to add wheels to the walking tours and started a business called Prague on Segway.   During the first few days we were in Prague we would see these groups of middle-aged tourists all with matching white helmets riding their Segways through the streets and plazas of Prague, following their Segway riding tour guide like ducklings following a mother duck.  Unfortunately every time I wrangled my camera to catch a photo – they were gone. 
I have also been surprised/curious at the pink/orange hair color that seems ever present on so many women in Slovakia.  I am not speaking of teen-age trendy punk girls, but women from middle-age to quite elderly who lighten their dark hair to almost neon hues of pink and orange.  Baffling.
Yesterday we discovered a great little Internet café/bar in Košice called the Technik Cafe.  It had only been open a week, was designed all in black and white, and sported the tag line “technically impossible.” While our hotel claimed to have Wi-Fi through out, it really only worked in the lobby and even there was too slow to anything beyond send an e-mail or post a facebook status update.  So Josh and I packed up our laptops and headed to the Technik Café so I could upload photographs and he could attend his on-line advisory.  (Josh is going to school on-line and has “virtual homeroom” each day at the equivalent to 9:00AM in St. Peter.) So late yesterday afternoon (4:00Pm in Košice, 9:00 AM in St. Peter) Josh and I parked ourselves there (he with a coke and me with a glass of wine) to do a little work.  After about an hour the waitress came by and asked if I would like another glass of wine.  I pondered for a minute, but knowing that one glass is my limit answered "Ah . . . no."  A few minutes later she brought me a second glass of wine.  It took a minute to register before remembering that  "Ano" is Yes, and "Ne" is no in both Czech and Slovak.  So it was a two glasses of wine day for me.  
Frances Mayes is perhaps my most favorite travel writer.  In the introduction to her book, A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller, she writes, “The urge to travel feels magnetic.  Two of my favorite words are linked: departure time.  And travel wets the emotions, turns upside down the memory bank, and the golden coins scatter.”
The golden coins of my memory bank continue to take me by surprise.  As mentioned above, the only place we could get Internet in our Košice hotel was in the lobby.  Fortunately there were rest rooms right off the lobby, so each time I needed a bathroom I did not need to trudge up two flights up steps to our room.  Here is the odd golden coin part of that.  There was some kind of perfumey air freshener in the women’s bathroom off the lobby that smells just like my Aunt Ollie!  It just knocked me over when ever I went in there and flooded me with memories of this colorful relative. (She was my father’s older sister who ran away as a teen-ager and joined the vaudeville circuit.)  This morning while waiting for the taxi to take us to airport, being an experienced traveler, I made one last trip to the bathroom.  My Aunt Ollie died in 1986, but there she was again captured in that fragrance, and I welled up with tears.  As Mayes pointed out – travel wets the emotions.  
(Imagine the strange fake French accented voice on the SpongeBob cartoon saying “Five hours later” . . .)
The flight to Prague was uneventful, luggage arrived and after about a fifteen-minute wait our taxi driver appeared to whisk us over to the main train terminal to catch our train to Vienna.  There was only an hour and fifty minutes between scheduled plane arrival and train departure, but we decided to count on everything working like clockwork, as we wanted to arrive in Vienna this evening and have a leisurely day on Sunday since it is Josh’s 14th birthday.  Josh was famished when we reached the train station and we managed to scrape our last Czech coins together to have enough to buy him burger at Burger King.  (His first, and I hope only, American junk food in Europe.) He wolfed his burger down and we took up residence in front of the large display board that showed the number of the departure platform for each train.  Finally, less than 20 minutes before departure a number “two” appeared next to the name Wien Praterstern.  The fit looking seniors next to us took off in the direction of the platforms and we followed.  After a rather frantic sprint down to the far, far end of the train, we found our car and hopped on.
That is where Josh made the heartbreaking discovery that unlike the trains in Sweden, this old train did NOT have outlets!  Four hours without a screen to entertain him! 
Unlike Josh, I love riding the trains in Europe.  I can just relax, read, or snooze a little.  I had hoped he would enjoy the experience also.   So far train travel seems to be something he at best tolerates.  Four days in Vienna (or Wien, as they say here) and we are off to Italy.  Which is probably why Frances Mayes keeps popping into my head.  So I will sign off with a few more of her words.
“The need to travel is a mysterious force.  A desire to go runs through me equally with an intense desire to stay at home.  An equal and opposite thermodynamic principle.  When I travel, I think of home and what it means.  At home I’m dreaming of catching trains at night in the gray light of Old Europe, or pushing-open shutters to see Florence awaken.  The balance just slightly tips in the direction of the airport.”
Or for me – the train station.
(12 hours later . . . )
Good Morning from Wien (Vienna) and Happy 14th Birthday to my traveling companion, Josh!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


I spent this morning in my grandmother’s village with my third cousin, Anna Mikulakova.  I had never met Anna before today, and I arrived on her doorstep unannounced.  My cousin, Jeff (okay, first cousin once removed – but let’s not get picky) had met Anna over fifteen years ago, during his military career when stationed in Europe.  Jeff had given me a name, address and old telephone number – but the telephone number no longer worked.  So this morning I arrived in Chmelova with my son and a translator and just went looking for her house. 
I need to back up a bit here.  Like so many Americans I am ethnically a mix of two very different cultures.  My mother is 100% Norwegian.  The Scandinavian side of my family has been in the United States for quite some time.  My great grandfather, Ole Peter Ruh, fought in the Civil war.  And my uncle, Lyle, and his wife still live on the farm that has been in our family since the time of the Civil War.  I can go to the cemetery down the road from the farm and find my grandparents, great grandparents, and perhaps even another generation of relatives graves all located there.  My roots feel very, very deep on that side of the family.
The other side of my family – my “Rusinko” side is Carpatho-Rusyn, and it was only my paternal grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. in 1894.  When I was little I thought my dad and his family were Russian because they went to St. Mary’s Russian Orthodox Church.  It took a long time to sort out that they were “Rusyn” not “Russian.”
Rusyns (sometimes called Carpatho-Rusyns because their villages are located in the Carpathian Mountains) are one of the many ethnic groups of Slovakia, along with Slovaks, Hungarians, Germans, and Romanies (Gypsies).  Rusyns are eastern Slavs, which means that their history, culture, and language are rooted in the medieval Kievan Rus' kingdom, whereas Slovaks are western Slavs.  Slovaks and Rusyns have lived together for nearly 1000 years but each maintain their own language and culture.
Part of what makes this all so confusing is the fact that Rusyns have never had their own country.  Given current political borders there are Rusyn villages Slovakia, Ukraine and Poland.  When my grandparents left their respective communities their villages were all under the umbrella of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Which brings us back to this morning.  Anna, her daughter Martina, and a few grandchildren were working in the yard.  After getting over the surprise of having yet another American relative stumble in unannounced (above mentioned cousin Jeff had done something similar the first time) she welcomed us with open arms and invited us into her home.  Over coffee she brought out the family tree information she been collecting ever since she first meeting my cousin.  Here is part of what I discovered.  Alexander Birosh and Paraskieva Boris (our great, great grandparents) had two sons, one named Michal and one named Jan.  Michal was my great grandfather, and Jan was Anna’s great grandfather.  Michal and his wife, Anna Tarasar had seven children, one was my grandmother, Tereza.  Jan and his wife, Maria Hudan, had five children, one of whom was Andrej, Anna’s grandfather.  I could go on, but I think I have made my case for why we are third cousins.  
My third cousin, Anna, her husband, daughter, Josh and me.

The church where my grandmother was baptized.  This is the view from the back, but I like how you can see the mountains

Chmelova is an incredibly beautiful town.  I just liked this photo of Josh, by a small stream that runs through the town.

My cousin Anna's home.

Before this morning, I did not even know my grandmother’s parents’ names.  There was so much about my father’s family I did not really understand.  I knew only bits and pieces – that my grandparents’ marriage had been “arranged,” that my grandfather worked in the coal mines in Pennsylvania and that was very hard on my grandmother, that my great-great uncles were bootleggers during prohibition and helped my grandparents move from Pennsylvania to Minneapolis, that they were very poor and they had twelve children and two died very young.   My grandfather died long before I was born, and my grandmother died when I was only five years old.  Ten of their children lived long into adulthood but now they are all gone too. Like so many others, by the time I was old enough to become really curious about my ancestry there was no longer anyone to answer the questions.  
I cannot describe the pull I felt to come to this area.  I know my dad dreamed of visiting the villages his parents left or as he always referred to it “the old country.”   During the short window when he perhaps could have afforded to travel here, the area was locked down under communist rule.  By the time of the Velvet Revolution (Twenty-one years ago today) he was too old, and not confident or in strong enough health to make such a journey.
I don’t remember the exact line, but there is a part at the end of the book The Joy-Luck Club by Amy Tan, where the American born daughter travels to China to meet her half sisters and says something about bringing them the hopes and dreams of her mother.  During this whole time in Eastern Europe I have felt I was carrying the hopes and dreams of my father.  I am perhaps filled with more questions than answers, but it is clear to me the world has just gotten a little smaller as my family has grown a little bigger. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Life Lessons

Today was our last day in Prague.  We found ourselves wandering back through the areas that had become familiar and taking in the sights and sounds one last time. 
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I find myself repeating certain lessons in my classes that are the exact lessons I need to learn myself.  Often when a general education student begins a ballet or modern technique class they feel as if they just landed on Mars.  The protocol and rules are all foreign.  At the end of the semester students often respond by telling me they were very afraid to take a dance class and in the end they were surprised by how much they enjoyed it.  I always tell them to remember this and apply it to other circumstances in their lives.  I encourage them not to be afraid of new situations because, just like taking a dance class, new and uncomfortable situations can transition into enjoyable and rewarding experiences.

I think you know where this is going.  Josh and are just getting comfortable in Prague, and I am feeling my anxiety rising about the next stages of our journey.  I have most of our travels sketched out and reservations for places to stay in most of the locations.  Even though we are not going there for almost three weeks, for some reason Rome is terrifying me.  I need to remind myself that the first 36 hours in Prague were very unsettling but we fairly quickly figured out the lay of the land and established a rhythm for our time here.
more puppets



Which brings me to another oft-repeated lesson.  A number of years ago author and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams spoke on campus.  I have been a fan of hers ever since I lived in Salt Lake City in the mid 80’s and we traveled in similar left wing for Utah circles.  She talked about a letter she received from an elderly mentor of hers when she graduated from college.  The handwritten letter said, “Don’t worry about what you will do next.  If you take one step with all the knowledge you have, there is usually just enough light shining to show you the next step.”  (Right now all of my current or former students reading this are rolling their eyes and thinking “Here she goes again with the light on the path story.”) By now you realize I am, once again, giving myself a pep talk. 

We do have enough light on the path for the next steps.  We are getting pretty good at negotiating new airports and train stations, converting currencies, and, perhaps our most valuable skill, picking out people in a crowd who are most likely to speak English.

In Sweden many of the faces in the crowd reminded me of Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Olaf College, Bethlehem and Christiana Lutheran churches – my Scandinavian-Lutheran Motherland.

The faces in Prague are more like those from Northeast (“Nordest”) Minneapolis – we have clearly crossed over to the Fatherland.  From Prague we are heading into Eastern Slovakia.  We will be staying in Kosice, the second largest city in Slovakia.  My paternal grandparents left northeast Slovakia in the 1890”s.  Of course, it wasn’t Slovakia then – it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Ethnically they were Rusyn and lived in two small adjacent villages in the Carpathian Mountains.  Right now the light is shining on the path in the direction of those two little villages, and with the same positive self-help talk as the little train that kept saying “I think I can, I think I can,” that is where we are headed next.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Yesterday and part of this morning we spent in The Jewish Quarter (Josefov) of Prague.  Like much of Prague there is a long history here.  As the Nazis set out to decimate the Jewish communities throughout Europe, the Jews in Prague were allowed to collect and archive the religious and historic items they treasured.  Overall, their work survived – they did not. 
Mordecai Maisel, a wealthy banker who often lent large sums of money to Emperor Rudolph II, built the Maisel Synagogue (Maiselova Synagóga) as a private place to worship in 1592.  The original building was mostly destroyed in a fire in 1689 and a new one was built in its place.  During WWII this is where the Jewish treasures were warehoused.  It is now a museum.  It is filled with richly embroidered curtains from ancient synagogues, Silver Torah Crowns dating back to the Renaissance, plates, candle sticks, letters – the treasures of over one thousand years of Jewish history in Bohemia and Moravia. 

The Pinkas Synagogue (Pinkasova Synagóga) was an active site of worship for more than 400 years.  It is now a memorial to the 77,297 Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust.  The walls are covered with the handwritten names of all 77,297 who died.  When the communists took over Prague, they closed the synagogue and “erased” everything.  In 1989, after the Velvet Revolution, all the names were re-written on the walls.  Near the ceiling you can see little bits of the original writing.  As you walk through this space you hear a recording of a voice reading the names alternating with the voice of a cantor singing Psalms.  While there were other visitors to this site, at this time of year it was not busy at all.  The voice of the cantor resonated in the space and it really felt like a sacred place.  I have tears now just remembering. 

Upstairs is the Terezin Children’s Art Exhibit.  I need to spend more time reading about Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the remarkable artist and art teacher who taught art classes to the children of the Terezin Concentration camp.  We had considered taking a day trip to Terezin, but I decided I did not have the emotional reserve to do that at this time. 

Just outside the Pinkas Synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery.  From 1439 – 1787 this was the only burial ground allowed to Jews of Prague.  12,000 tombstones are crammed into a relatively small space.  As the ground has settled the tombstones have pitched and swayed making it more sculptural than orderly.  Throughout the cemetery there are pebbles placed on tombstones and wedged under those pebbles are scraps of papers containing prayers.  The headstone of Rabbi Loew (Löw), containing many pebbles and scraps of paper, was clearly being the most visited grave in the cemetery.

From the cemetery we went to the Old-New Synagogue (Staronová Synagóga). 
For more than 700 years this has been the most important synagogue and the central building in Josefov.  Built in 1270, it’s the oldest surviving synagogue in Eastern Europe. 

 The rungs for the Golem to get to the Rafters.

For Josh and me, visiting the Old-New Synagogue, and talking about Rabbi Löw and the Golem, was a fitting way to transition out of the grief-filled space of the Pinkas Synagogue.  Rabbi Löw, was a scholar, philosophical writer, and director of a Talmudic school in the late 16th Century.  He was also thought to have magical powers.  As legend has it, he created a figure, the Golem, from clay and then brought it to life by placing a magical stone tablet in its mouth.  Rabbi Löw wanted the Golem to help defend the Prague ghetto from pogroms.  There are multiple versions of this legend, but in many the Golem got increasingly violent, and the Rabbi had to remove the tablet and hide him in the rafters of the Old-New Synagogue. 

My colleague at Gustavus, Elizabeth Baer has studied and written extensively about the Golem legend. Before we left, she told us a wonderful story.  Apparently so many people have asked the guides at the Old-New Synagogue how the Golem got up to the rafters, they finally put ladder-like rungs on an outside wall, so they had something to point to when tourists asked.

I have few photos to share from this experience because most of the locations did not allow photos.  I also have no witty quips or one-liners.  When I teach my classes on the role of story in our lives I frequently draw on the work created by StoryCorps.  If you are an NPR listener – you are familiar with this project.  One of the basic tenets of StoryCorps is “that we all want to know our lives mattered and we won’t ever be forgotten.”  The treasures that were archived and protected from the Nazis, the thousands of names that were handwritten, and re-written on the walls and the topsy-turvy tombstones packed side by side are all engraved in my memory.  They will not be forgotten.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Blue Skies and Puppets

When Josh and I left for our travels I was quite adamant that we could each have one wheelie suitcase and a backpack and that was it!  In Sweden the thought of my suitcase being any heavier was enough to resist the temptation of shopping.  I have tried to limit my purchases to personal care items (shampoo and deodorant being the two things I forgot to pack) and postcards to send to my mom.  But geez or geez, the marketplaces in Prague are so tempting! 
You have to understand I come from a long line of serious shoppers. Okay, not so long – but my mom clearly passed on the shopping gene to me and my sister and from all evidence all five nieces inherited the gene also.  There are also some pretty strong shopping genes in those members of the family with a Y chromosome – but that is another story.

As I walked through the shops and outdoor markets in Old Town today I felt my resolve wavering.  I love the marionette puppets that are sold everywhere in Old Town.  I have loved marionette puppets ever since my dad bought me a Pelham Puppet Gretel when I was about five years old.   But today I managed to just look and take a few photos.  

In spite of the forecast for light rain all day, the clouds disappeared and the blue sky emerged.  The view from the Old Town side of the Charles Bridge was picture postcard beautiful.  Any of my students can tell you that I am constantly encouraging them to live in the present moment.  I am sure I repeat this advice so many times because I am really lecturing myself.  It is easy for my mind to drift to the weeks ahead and think about what details I have not yet arranged.  It is also easy for my mind to drift back to St. Peter and wonder, and worry, about everything and everyone at home.  However, on this day, under these glorious blue skies, both body and mind were taking in the sights and sounds of Prague.
I am in Eastern Europe so time to quote an Eastern European.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “Own only what you can carry with you; know language, know countries, know people.  Let your memory be your travel bag.”  Even sticking to those rules – my travel bag is overflowing.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Reluctant Tourist

I love spending time in different parts of the world (or even different parts of the U.S.) but I am not very good at being a tourist.  I am content to find a good grocery store, coffee shop, and bookstore – and just hang out.  All that said, it does not make sense to be in one of the most remarkable cities in Europe and not visit a few landmarks. 
Our arrival from Stockholm was uneventful except for the pea-soup fog.  I am sure the pilot landed strictly by instruments because we could not see the ground until seconds before we landed.  The Prague airport is a very manageable airport and we quickly got our luggage, moved into the main exit area and located our pre-arranged taxi driver.  As we sped along to our hotel the fog slowly lifted and was replaced by a steady drizzle.  We are staying in a simple but lovely hotel owned by family friends of my friend, Dominika.  The hotel (Hotel Sanssouci) is located a short distance out of the central part of the city in a residential area. 
Today’s task was to figure out the public transportation system and visit one landmark.  Prague has one of the most amazing and efficient public transportation systems I have ever seen.  Still it is a little intimidating.  Armed with our 5-day passes (good on buses, trams and the metro) we ventured out to see Prague Castle. 
The actual city of Prague is such a complex mix.  While it is true that Prague is one of the few central European capitols to have escaped the bombs of the 20th Century wars, the last part of that century (Soviet rule) was devastating.   Riding the tram through the city you see both sides of that equation.  Examples of incredible architecture, some dating back to the 10th Century, and an abundance of graffiti covered walls of crumbling buildings.  Yet there seems to be an invincible optimism in the abundance repair going on all over the city. 
Our visit to the Prague Castle made me, once again, refine my definition of “old.”   Prince Bořivoj founded the castle in the 9th Century because of its commanding position high above the Vltava River.  The buildings enclosed by the castle walls include a palace, three churches and a monastery.  We spent the majority of our time in St. Vitus’s Cathedral.  Walking through this cathedral takes you through a thousand years of history.  There are a whole series of side chapels that contain everything from religious artifacts, saintly relics, Renaissance paintings and royal tombs.  We were on a self-guided tour with handy audio-devices that looked like over-sized cell phones.  I took a number of photographs but unfortunately cannot remember which chapel or saintly relic is featured in the photo without the help of my audio-guide.  The only one I completely remember is the magnificent silver tomb of St. John Nepomuk (1736) who was drowned in the Vltava river on the orders of Wenceslaus, King of the Romans and King of Bohemia. 
Stained Glass by Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) Art Nouveau artist

Tomb of St. John Nepomuk (1736)

St. Vitus Cathedral (I could not move far enough back (because of castle walls) to take a photograph that fit the whole Cathedral in the picture!

Changing of the guards in front of Castle
After catching the changing of the guards, we tucked into a small café and each had a lunch of “beef goulash in bread boat.”  From there we went in search of a grocery store, picked up a few provisions for dinner and masterfully negotiated the tram system back to our hotel.  Tomorrow we are heading for Town Hall and the Astronomical Clock.  Perhaps we will also find just the right coffee shop or maybe a book store. . .   

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Tremendous Thing

Hej from Stockholm!  Josh and I arrived in Stockholm yesterday and are spending a fairly quiet day catching up unfinished business, and preparing for the next stage of our journey. 
The last evening in Mora area we spent at Anna’s home in Färnäs with a number of friends from the Folk School.  There are two men named Kjell in this story and that can be confusing – so I will identify one as Tall Kjell (even though both are tall) and one as Geologist Kjell, which is the academic area of the other Kjell.  Geologist Kjell and his wife, Agneta, are neighbors of Anna and her partner, Tall Kjell.  Geologist Kjell and Agneta are also owners of the beautiful barn, which plays a key role in this story. 
Kjell and Agneta's barn
 The last week I was in Mora, I went with Geologist Kjell and Kerstin, a friend /colleague from the folk school, to see an exhibit of bags and purses made of repurposed fabrics by students in the design program at the Folk School.  The bags were clever and creative, and epitomized what I think of as that combination of artistic and sensible that characterizes Swedish design.  The exhibit was in a large second hand store, so, of course, we had to take a look around.  From a bin of old prints and paintings, Geologist Kjell pulled out a print of a famous Anders Zorn painting, titled Cabbage Margit, and said, “We live in Margit’s house.”  As it turns out “Margit” was one of Zorn’s favorite models and she grew up in Färnäs.  She was married and had a number of children.  At one time, her husband went to the United States to pan for gold, leaving her to care for the farm and the family.  He actually found some!  He used that gold to launch a gold trading business and did quite well.  He returned to Färnäs, a fairly wealthy man and set out to build the biggest and finest barn in Färnäs.  Margit’s house stayed in the family for a number of years, and also sat empty for a number of years.  Geologist Kjell and Agneta bought the property (a house made up of two connected houses – one from 1837 and one from 1905) about six years ago.  They have been lovingly restoring both the house and the barn these past years.  One small treasure they found in the barn was a post card addressed to Margit, inviting her to Anders Zorn’s 50th Birthday party.  On my last evening in Dalarna (the province in central Sweden) I was thrilled to be able to see their beautiful home – Margit’s house.  Agneta had been working at home that day and had fires burning in the multiple wood stoves.  Besides being beautiful, it just felt so cozy.   It was too cold and dark to tour the barn, but looking forward to that will be but one of the many reasons I need to return to Sweden in the not too distant future.
Cabbage Margit

The post card inviting Margit to Zorn's birthday.

Margit's childhood bed, which was brought to her adult home.
 We returned to Anna’s house, and Tall Kjell whipped up one of his super nutritious delicious apple-beet-ginger juice drinks.  So Anna, Tall Kjell, Kerstin and Elizabeth (colleagues from the Folk School), Geologist Kjell, Agneta and I sat down to a final evening feast of fine food, wine and stories.  Josh and Isak, ate their dinner over video games and Simpsons.  It was the perfect closure to the first stage of the journey.  A weeper by nature, I could not say goodbye to any of these people without opening a floodgate.  I could simply say, “I will see you again,” and mean it with all my heart.
Tall Kjell, and me - with a glass of apple-beet-ginger juice.

Kerstin, Elizabeth, Geologist Kjell and Agneta

Bright and early the next morning, Anna drove us to the train station, and we set off for Göteborg (Gothenberg), Sweden.  This trip took about seven and a half hours and involved changing trains twice.  All went very smoothly but switching trains in Katrineholm involved going down a flight of steps across the short tunnel under the tracks, and up another flight of stairs to catch a train on another platform in less than ten minutes.  Travel guide writer, Rick Steves says there are two kinds of travelers: Those who pack light, and those who wish they had.  While I tried very conscientiously to be the first kind, those steps in the Katrineholm train station confirmed for me that I was firmly in the second category.  
We had a few hours to spend in Göteborg before our friend Mark could pick us up so we put our bags in a locker at the train station and set out to see a bit of the city.  The central train station is close to a huge indoor shopping mall, and not far from the Harbor.  There was snowboard “grinding” competition set up right in front of the Opera House by the Harbor, and lots and lots of activity on the streets.  There seemed to be a large number of police patrolling the area.  We were amused that the police cars were Volvos (of course) and the police vans were VW vans.  We later found out there had been a bomb threat in the area and two people arrested! 
VW police vans
At our agreed upon time, our host, Mark appeared and we set off to his house.  Mark, who also happens to be a geologist, was a colleague of mine at Gustavus for 17 years.  During a semester he spent at the Mora Folk School in about 1990, he met and fell in love with a beautiful Swedish woman named, Carina, whom he later married and began a new chapter in his life.  They have lived in Sweden now for about ten years and have a dynamic and talented eight-year-old daughter named Ellen.  Mark teaches at the University of Göteborg and, in addition to being a scientist, is an accomplished musician.  (He plays “vibes” or vibraphone.) Perhaps more significantly for Josh, he is a huge lover of music and has a music collection (both vinyl and CD) which kept Josh entertained and in awe for the four days we spent with Mark and Carina.  
We spent a day seeing a small sampling of the sights of Göteborg, time at the Universeum (which is like a combination of the Science Museum, a Zoo and Underwater World), and the second day, when the rain and wind curtailed our trip out to nearby islands, we opted for a tour of the Volvo factory.  But the very best moments were the times spent at home  - eating banana pancakes for breakfast, homemade Swedish meatballs for dinner, playing Yatzy, playing with Twisty and Cartman (their dog and cat, respectively) and listening to an impromptu jam with Ellen on flute and Mark on piano.  
Josh selecting his new Volvo - orange, of course.

Mark and Ellen jamming together
 I don’t know if there are words that express how wonderful it is when individuals make your feel completely at home when you are, in fact, far, far away from home.   As the brilliant E.B. White once said, "You have been my friends. That in itself is a tremendous thing."  A tremendous thing, indeed.

Twisty (the dog) Ellen, Mark and Carina.

Yesterday, we once again boarded a train and headed to a new city. We arrived in Stockholm just before 5:00 PM, found our way to the subway (the T-bana) and then followed our Internet directions to the hostel where we would stay for a few days.  The steps out of the subway station confirmed for me, once again, I had not packed lightly enough, and I was a bit grouchy as we dragged our suitcase the “five minute walk” from the subway station to the hostel through the already dark streets of Stockholm.  As we settled into our very small room, pulled the Murphy bunk beds from the wall, and searched out the W.C. a long way down the hall, I remember thinking “I am too old for this.”  The last time I stayed in a hostel was the summer of ’74, I was 19 years old and backpacking through Norway.  However, dinner and glass of wine improved my attitude immensely.  That evening, Josh discovered the best internet connection was to be had in the small café at the hostel, and settled in.
Today, we slept relatively late, ate breakfast at the hostel and set off to explore the city.  We walked to Gamla Stan, the old town in Stockholm.  There are buildings there from the 1300’s but most of the buildings are from the 1700 and 1800’s.  While the tiny twisting streets and old buildings are lovely, it is mostly souvenir stores and other tourist kitsch.  Tomorrow, we plan to connect with our friend, Anton, who was an international student at Gustavus last fall. 
On the train to Stockholm, I felt a little anxious like this was really the beginning of the “adventure.”  We will have far fewer friendly and familiar faces waiting for us in the cities that are next on our itinerary.  Yet I am comforted by the fact we have so many wonderful memories to support us when the road ahead gets a little bumpy. 
In his book, Confucius Lives Next Door, T.R. Reid quotes the wise old sage as stating, “Isn’t it a pleasure to have an old friend visit from afar?”  I only hope I have the opportunity to return the kindness that has been shown to me these last weeks, and experience the pleasure of having these friends, old and new, visit me when I am back in my hometown.  To all of them I can only say, tack så mycket – thank you so much.