Category Archives: travel

Our Lady burning

Delighted to see that these chandeliers still exist!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notre Dame means so much to me that I used some of my photos of her as the theme for this blog. Like so many around the world, I was stricken and in tears during the fire on April 15. It turned out that things were not as bad as we feared, and at least this time it was an accident, not another willful act of destruction. But as I worked on writing about it, the church and other sites in Sri Lanka were bombed, with great loss of life, on Easter morning. I threw out what I had written before, and wrote this instead:

 

Our Lady burning

At Sacré-Coeur I felt nothing.
That gorgeous edifice towering on its hill,
seen from everywhere, unable to be unseen,
never moved me.
I read that it was made
to bring back the flock,
rekindle faith in the heart of France.
Imposed as it is imposing,
it floats above the city
without root, it seems to me.

Notre Dame is my place,
central, home to my soul,
“where God lives,” as a friend said,
and Saint Michel hovers nearby.
The power must have simmered there
long before those stones were cut.
From the depths it infuses them,
rises like sap through those square towers,
spirit soaring despite the attenuated tops.
Imperfect beloved, at times unwell,
she has been clothed with misplaced additions,
but her identity has endured, her significance,
through violation and neglect.

Here, it’s been a hard time that has not stopped.
On the same day there was a local burning;
a child dead, others hurt, homes lost.
A small building but great importance.
The week before, death after death,
other children, a strange paroxysm.
My friend murdered by someone close,
leaving her own children.
Our city reeling, impossible events,
then more impossible events.
And Our Lady burned, and it seemed
nothing could be counted upon.

But that was not enough,
because this is the world
and it has humans in it.
To add to the month of churches torched,
we must have bombs,
and now we use them on Easter,
and more children and more mothers
must be blown away.
because the founders of our faiths
never got through to us
and we think God only lives
in our own kind of house.

(In the book it says, “Jesus wept.”)

The humans inside the churches
have also killed, also violated.
Hearing of Notre Dame,
some said good riddance.
A man entered another cathedral
with gasoline.

 

Hope

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notre Dame burned, by accident, on 4/15/19. On Easter, 4/21/19, a church in Sri Lanka was bombed during the morning services. All this followed arson attacks on churches and a social service organization in the south of the US. Here are some things others had to say:

https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/4/15/1850518/-The-Barbarians-at-the-Gate-Rejoice-on-Daily-Kos-at-the-Death-of-Civilization

https://www.wired.com/story/the-notre-dame-fire-and-the-future-of-history/

https://johnpavlovitz.com/2019/04/15/notre-dame-reminds-us-that-we-belong-to-one-another/

https://www.thenation.com/article/notre-dame-fire-muslim-france-islamophobia/

https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/notre-dame-in-the-french-imagination
‘At moments of enormous and historic loss, one seeks, perhaps foolishly or with false reassurance, for some sense of continuity, including the continuities of disaster and renewal.’
‘…Still, the cathedral belongs to everyone, and everyone is rooting for its restoration. The French leftist and staunch atheist Jean-Luc Mélenchon wrote on Monday evening that, while he could not see the hand of God in the cathedral, nonetheless, “If it seems so powerful, it’s without doubt because human beings surpassed themselves in putting Notre-Dame in the world. Those who feel the emptiness of a universe deprived of meaning and the absurdity of the human condition see here the apotheosis of the spirit of thousands of women and men who worked over two centuries and eight hundred years.”’

http://www.sacre-coeur-montmartre.com/english/history-and-visit/article/the-origin-of-the-construction-of
(Sacré-Coeur will celebrate its 100th birthday this fall.)

And here are a few moments of heaven:
https://www.facebook.com/eleneguschdom/videos/vb.1579282359/10216830307341533/?type=3

 

Behind the cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In happier times

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Ope-rant

I was thinking of entitling this post “Peter Sellars Must Be Stopped,” but that sounded a bit too mean.  The man does deserve more respect than that.  It seems that people either love or hate his work; after seeing his most recent piece at the Santa Fe Opera, I’m tending toward the hate side, but I could perhaps be won over.  I will still state, firmly, that he needs a new hairdo, ASAP.

On July 29, my mother and I attended Sellars’ Santa Fe production of Vivaldi’s Griselda.  (Yes, it has taken me this long to write about it.)  It seems that the Santa Fe Opera, like Sellars, has been developing a reputation for innovative staging.  I’m all for innovation.  And I’m all for the Santa Fe Opera, one of the great jewels of the arts in New Mexico, especially since they stage Baroque operas, which I love and would have no opportunity to see otherwise.  However, much of the staging and costuming of the productions I’ve seen in the past few years has been somewhere in between weird and just plain ugly.  I’m generally OK with weird, though not weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, but I’d rather not have to spend hours looking at ugly.  I would like to see things go in a different direction, and I’m not alone.  Comments I heard at intermission during the performance of Griselda included “Terrible.  Just terrible.”  A walk through references to Sellars and this production on the Web reveals a general lack of enthusiasm.  I guess some of us are just not cool enough to understand.

So that you get more than just my own opinion, here is a well-written blog post that will give you some more pictures and a bit of background:  http://www.operawarhorses.com/2011/08/07/extreme-makeover-a-vivaldi-revivals-reveal-peter-sellars-griselda-at-santa-fe-opera-august-4-2011/

The opera was supposed to be set in contemporary New Mexico, we were told, and the king, Gualtiero, was supposed to represent a contemporary American politician.  Yet, the libretto reminds us numerous times that Gualtiero is the king of Tessaglia (Thessaly), and that’s where the action is taking place.  I suppose opera is all about suspension of disbelief, but perhaps that could be made just a little bit easier for the audience.  We also can’t picture Gualtiero as an American political figure if he’s constantly being referred to as the king and his wife as the queen.  Staging and costumes don’t change that.  I very much question whether it’s worthwhile to attempt to recast a story like this from the past into the 21st century.  Surely if the story makes points that are relevant in our time, it can make them just as well without modern costuming.  A truly great story is timeless anyway.  (The storyline of Griselda may or may not qualify as great, but it has remained popular through the centuries since Boccaccio included it in his Decameron.  Who knows why.)

If a director insists on a modern-looking production, why not make the costumes truly contemporary?  In Griselda, the king and his son wore color-blocked shirts and tall boots that made them look more like lawn jockeys than anything else, lacking only the cap and the little lantern.  I don’t think you’ll see a getup like that at the Roundhouse this year, nor among royalty anywhere in the world, and I don’t know what designer Dunya Ramicova had in mind.  Griselda herself wore a long gown that might possibly be seen around a New Mexican city at some evening event, but similarly failed to give a contemporary flavor.  Their teenage daughter was resplendent in a pink and white wedding-cake-like number that could suit a quinceanera nicely but wouldn’t be found on the streets in Santa Fe.  I don’t know what to say about the aristocrat Ottone’s motley outfit except that it might have been intended as a takeoff on hip-hop fashion; if so, it was far off the mark, but I couldn’t think of anything else it might have been related to.

In the final scene, the male characters came out in zoot suits, more or less, in vivid Easter egg colors.  This was the closest anything got to contemporary American street clothes.  I couldn’t figure out why these were not their default costumes throughout the opera.  The females, who might have been expected to change clothes, especially for a wedding, kept the same dresses they’d worn throughout, which I found incomprehensible.  Griselda was supposed to be dressed as a servant at that point, but this outfit consisted of a work apron over her “royal” gown from earlier in the show, rather than a humbler dress.  Costanza, the daughter, wore the same pink and white gown she’d worn all along– no special wedding gown.  If we’re going to shell out this kind of dough for the production overall, we could come up with a wedding dress for Costanza, couldn’t we?

Still, the costumes for Griselda were quite reasonable compared to some we’ve seen at the SFO.  More on that below.  Now, for the set decoration.  The entire set consisted of a mural entirely covering the back and sides of the stage, plus two small, plain chairs.  The mural was designed and executed by the street art-influenced Los Angeles painter Gronk (Glugio Nicandro), who has collaborated with Peter Sellars before.  It wasn’t pretty.  Not that it was supposed to be, but I found a lot of it actively ugly and difficult to enjoy staring at through the hours of the performance.  The colors seemed muddy and the forms awkward and tortured.  Here, have a peek for yourself:

 

 

 

 

(No, photography is not allowed in the theater, but technically I was standing outside the theatre, which is open on the sides, when I took this shot, so nobody should come after me.)

A strong positive point about Gronk’s mural is the fact that he painted every stroke himself, without assistance.  That’s a huge accomplishment, whether or not one enjoys the result.  Something else that impressed me positively was the way the mural changed with different lighting strategies through the evening, vaguely suggesting changes of scenery.  As the colors of the lighting changed, some forms would begin to stand out and others fade more into the background, as if the painting itself had morphed.  That was interesting.

I might have been able to handle the set and costumes for Griselda a bit more easily if I had not been for the lingering resentment from the last couple of SFO performances I’d seen.

First, before I complain any more, I’d better cut them a little slack.  One of the most amazing things about the Santa Fe Opera is the fact that they stage different operas on consecutive nights, meaning that they have to entirely clear out one set and put up another one with little time in between.  I’d love to learn about how they manage this bit of magic.*  I can’t even tell where they store the stuff in between– and there are often huge constructions that have to be put away someplace.  I’m sure this has a major influence on what they can and cannot use in their sets.

In 2008, my mother and I had the rapturous privilege of attending the SFO production of Handel’s Radamisto.  Do you remember the flocked wallpaper of a few decades ago, with medallion motifs, often on a metallic background?  Imagine those motifs blown up to 8 or 10 feet in diameter, a good deal larger than a human being.  Now imagine that they completely cover the back wall of the set.  And that they are black on bright red.  The singers practically disappeared against this loud, headache-inducing backdrop.  For the second half of the show, the same pattern was used, but it was a gentle sage green on silver, and that was ever so much better.

In Radamisto, the Middle Eastern-flavored costumes were mostly excellent and elegant, with one glaring exception.  Tigrane, who was not intended to be a comic character, was dressed in a ridiculous 20th– century outfit, apparently borrowed from some bad remake of Casablanca.**  A baggy shirt and vest, a fez, and Birkenstock-type sandals with socks!  At one point the singer removed the fez to reveal a bald head with an awful combover.  This was a female singer, mind you, and quite a competent one, Heidi Stober.  Neither the singer nor the character deserved this travesty, and the costume was painfully dissonant with the rest.

I’ll never forget the 2005 production of Mozart’s Lucio Silla.  The main item in the set consisted of a giant sculpture of a man’s head.  In the second act, a huge stuffed tiger shot full of arrows hung from the ceiling.  Whatever.  That was disturbing enough, but the costumes were the true horror.  You’ve seen typical 18th-century clothing, with its bustles and panniers to widen the women’s skirts.  Well, the costume designer applied this concept to both men’s and women’s costumes, to the 10th power, so that the women’s skirts must have been 8 feet wide.  The men’s were less extreme, but the bottoms of their coats were more or less what we’d expect a female character’s skirt to be like.  The person who was responsible for the horrors of both scenic and costume design was Paul Brown.  I wonder if there is a statute of limitations for such crimes?

At one climactic point in the story, the king, Lucio Silla himself, came out on stage alone for a big aria.  He was meant to be an impressive, muscular, alpha male sort of character.  The unfortunate singer strode out in a costume that consisted of a suit of armor on his upper body and something reminiscent of a wedding cake on his lower half.  The audience immediately broke into guffaws.  We couldn’t help it.  We shut ourselves up as soon as we could, but I felt so sorry for the poor guy!  I think singers should have a clause in their contract that says they can’t be forced to wear costumes that cause the audience to laugh at them.  Or else, if that happens, they should be allowed to sue for emotional pain and suffering.

Another source of both mirth and derision is the fact that the singers are often made to sing while contorting their bodies in the most gawdawful positions.  It was bad enough that Griselda had to warble away while lying on her back; the worst was when Costanza was made to crawl on her belly through the bulk of an aria.  In the elaborate pink and white gown, which I’d assume we would not want to ruin, especially since it was her only outfit!  I’d be fine with these gymnastics if they were actually appropriate to the action in the story, but they seemed to be imposed arbitrarily, which was what I think brought the caustic reactions from the audience.  It’s amazing that the singers can manage this nonsense so well– neither their tone nor their volume seemed to suffer– but the contortions seemed just plain silly.  Here, too, I think there should be a clause in the singers’ contracts that limits how ridiculous they can be made to appear.  Unless they themselves want to show their prowess at this musical extreme sport, which seems entirely possible.

But what about the musical qualities of the opera, you must be wondering.  It certainly was a treat to hear an opera by Vivaldi, who was a big success in that field in his time but now thought of mostly as an instrumental composer.  I have not the slightest complaint about the music itself.  Another treat: for the first time ever at the SFO, I could actually hear the theorbo (bass lute) instead of just seeing its neck sticking up from the pit and assuming that it was being played!  This was a different lutenist from the one I’d heard previously at the SFO, Richard Savino, and perhaps his instrument projected better.  Unfortunately, the baroque guitar, also played by Savino, was as inaudible as the theorbo has been in past productions, despite a valiant attempt at energetic strumming.  No noticeable problems with the orchestra in general.

But the singing, what about the singing, you are asking!  It ranged from good to superb, with the singers managing to transcend the silliness I’ve described above.  The cast consisted of the following, with the lowest voice being the tenor:

Gualtiero–  Paul Groves

Griselda–  Meredith Arwady

Ottone–  Amanda Majeski

Costanza–  Isabel Leonard

Roberto–   David Daniels

Corrado–  Yuri Minenko

Vivaldi’s technical demands on the singers were identical to Handel’s, as far as I could tell.

I was especially interested to hear David Daniels, one of the world’s top countertenors, and the lead in that 2008 production of Radamisto.  His voice seemed more trebly and had less depth and fullness than I remembered; later I read that he’d been ill early in the SFO season, and his understudy had been used, so perhaps he was still not at his best.  In any case, his musicality was tremendous, with exquisite phrasing and expressiveness.

The other countertenor, Yuri Minenko, had a relatively small role, and was adequate but didn’t particularly impress me.

Paul Groves seemed a little shaky in his opening aria, with a thin tone and some trouble keeping up the tempo on those long, twisting Baroque phrases, but later he hit his stride.  There was still a bit of smoke in the air from the huge fire that had been plaguing northern New Mexico, and when my own voice started to get hoarse, I wondered how the singers had managed through the worst of it.  It’s bad enough that they have to deal with high altitude and low oxygen.  It seemed possible that Groves was having some physical challenges.

Amanda Majeski was the one who had to appear in the strange perhaps-hip-hoppish costume, but her voice was incandescent and pure and transcended the unfortunate fashion statement.  I look forward to hearing her again.

Similar praise for Isabel Leonard, who was made to crawl on her belly throughout a major solo.  She displayed plenty of vocal athleticism to match, with a lovely tone, and seemed to me to have everything one could wish for in this role.

The role of Griselda herself is apparently an arduous one.  Meredith Arwady pulled it off admirably.  I overheard some idiot at intermission making a nasty joke about her ample size.  Yeah, bub, let’s see you fill a whole theater with your voice while lying on your back!

 

*I found a video that sheds a little light on this mystery:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxhucOeCw2s

**A review by Craig Smith in the Santa Fe New Mexican, which I found after writing this, described it this way:  “She maintained the part’s inherent dignity wonderfully, even though compromised by a wacky costume and character — and that was, ladies and gentlemen, as Groucho Marx in A Night in Casablanca, complete to fez, white suit, cigar, Groucho glasses and ‘stache, and paunch. Where the pair of Birkenstocks came from is anyone’s guess.

“It all stood out ever so tastefully against the luxurious outfits of the others. In fact, [Gideon] Davey’s costumes, aside from this get-me-to-the-asylum one, were gorgeous.”

About the crawling about on the floor, he wrote, “SFO won’t have to sweep the stage for weeks.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Trippy Journal Part IV: Paris

Lenore had complained about Charles de Gaulle airport long before we got there.  I hadn’t had any bad experiences there myself, but she’d had a nightmare time there the year she went to France as an exchange student.  I felt such a sense of elation, like a homecoming, as our plane approached Paris, that the airport itself was of no consequence to me.

After all those years of having panic attacks at the very thought of visiting Poland, I’d been surprised to find myself missing the place the moment I left.  My feelings for Paris, on the other hand, had been with me as long as I could remember.

I had spent almost all my study time on Polish and decided to wing it, language-wise, when I got to France.  I’d noticed that studying another language somehow seemed to turn on my French circuits and dredge up vocabulary I hadn’t used in years, so I felt that at least a few words would be there when I needed them.  I also had Lenore to rely on, with her greater conversational skills gained from classes as a French minor and her months of living in France as a high school student.  It was a relief for both of us to find ourselves in a country where we could read all the signs and have a pretty good idea of what was going on at any moment.

Things did turn out to be a little rocky at the airport, though.  It was a major hike to get from the gate where we landed (our luggage, magically, still accompanying us) to the area where we would catch the train into the city.  And once we got there, we discovered that the ticket kiosks wouldn’t take our American credit cards.  We had no euros as yet, still only Czech money and dollars, and there was no money-changing booth anywhere near.  There was a ticket booth manned by actual humans, however, and although it required a major wait in a line that wasn’t long at all but moved at a glacial pace, plus further struggles with our credit card, we eventually acquired tickets.  If you go into this situation, do find yourself some euros in the airport, whatever the price, before you head for the train station area.

Once we arrived at the Gare du Nord, I figured I’d be oriented and comfortable in getting around the city.  Pfff.  This huge train station, while it’s not too bad to get around, could still benefit from better signage and directions for those of us who are only passing through and don’t know the place well.  We still had something of a challenge finding a money-changing booth, and the fee was outrageous.  But when we finally managed to get to the Métro, I knew exactly where we were and where we were going.  We popped up into the light just half a block from our hotel.

I’d stayed at Hotel Chopin twice before, in 2002 and 2006, and Lenore had been there the first time too, with my mother and me.  It had always felt like home, and I couldn’t even think of staying anywhere else, especially since my husband and I had had a bad experience at a noisy place a few blocks away during part of the 2006 trip.  The hotel is an 1820s structure at the end of a section of Passage Jouffroy, off Boulevard Montmartre.  The passage is full of quirky shops, including one with the most horrifying campy jewelry I’d ever seen.

That’s just down the street from Chopin’s first Parisian apartment on Boulevard Poissonière.  If you’re not obsessed with him enough to recognize that already, the building is marked with a sign to let you know, which you can just barely see in the picture below.  Chopin had a top-floor walkup, but the place must have been a fun spot to live anyway.  The ground floor held an ice cream shop in his time, and now there’s a toy store.

Hotel Chopin has a wonderful staff, good breakfasts, comfortable though small rooms, and nearly everything you could want except a good WiFi connection.  Much as in Krakow, we were able to keep in touch to some extent by sticking to certain parts of the room, where we could often, but not always, pick up a signal from the Best Western nearby.  The hotel has a nook with its own computer for guests to use, but French keyboards are different from American ones (whereas the guest computer in Warsaw had been like ours, strangely enough), and it was slow going to type on it.  Cafés with WiFi in the area either were impossible to make a connection in, very expensive, or both, so they weren’t a good option.  We were too proud to try the McDonald’s down the street; that is, I might have gone for it, but to Lenore it was unconscionable.  One effect the Internet difficulties had was that I was sadly unable to catch the finals of the Chopin competition.

Here is Lenore writing under the gables of our room on the top floor.  We got to feeling awfully sympathetic toward people like the young Chopin who had to deal with all those stairs!  I have to admit we took the small, rickety lift a lot of the time.

There were a fair number of food choices in the neighborhood, though again, they tended to be relatively expensive.  Other areas, such as Boulevard Clichy, were grungier but offered more in the way of quick street foods one could grab, sandwiches, pizza, crèpes.  (On my first visit in 2002, I’d noticed that a sandwich was un panini.  In 2006 and 2010, it was un sandwich.)  We didn’t mind frequenting decent restaurants, but the large portion sizes were an issue.  What do Europeans have against taking home leftovers?  We were expected to each order a full meal, even an entire pizza apiece.  When we very politely asked if we could please split something that was obviously going to be far too large to have two, we were treated like criminals.  If restaurants want to do business this way, they could easily serve smaller portions.  I don’t object so much to the waste of money as the waste of food, which I find positively painful to witness.  I suppose what we should have done was bring along a bit of plastic wrap or foil and squirrel away leftovers that could be carried.  I would rather be gauche than be wasteful.

10/13

My first order of business was to head back to the Gare du Nord and buy a ticket for the Eurostar, the train that goes through the Chunnel.  Now, we had been on our share of trains, and I thought I knew what I was doing, but the Eurostar is completely different.  You don’t just buy a ticket and head for the train at the last minute.  Most significantly for me at that moment, the price changes dramatically depending on how far ahead you buy your ticket.  I hadn’t seen anything about that on the Eurostar website, and I was in for a real shock.  Those of you who are reading this for serious travel information, please take note!  I don’t even want to tell you what I had to pay to get a ticket for the next day.

Here’s what Gare du Nord looks like from the Eurostar ticketing area:

So why was I paying through the nose for a Eurostar ticket?  It had to do with the reason I had planned to be in Paris at this precise time: I was going to see two friends that I knew from the Piano World website but had never met in person.  We had hoped that either we could all go to Warsaw together or that we could at least rendezvous in Paris, but none of that had worked out.  Instead, Joe was coming from America to meet up with Mary-Rose at her home in southern England, and from there the two of them were going on to Majorca (another Chopin-related spot), where they had snagged a rare deal to stay for a week.  The only time I had a chance of seeing both of them was the day Joe’s plane arrived in London, which was to be October 14.

I had tremendously looked forward to a trip to the Louvre, and that was my next stop.  I thought a Wednesday afternoon in the off-season might have lighter crowds.  So much for that.  The place was packed, and there was hardly any place to sit and rest.  This got to be a huge problem for me because, perhaps due to all the hill and stair-climbing of the days in Prague, I developed the worst low back and hip pain of my entire life.  I was almost unable to walk, and one thing you have to do at the Louvre is walk.  A lot.  I was planning on visiting only a couple of limited areas that I wanted to concentrate on this time (I had been through the museum twice before, a quick run in 2002 and an extensive tour in 2006).  However, to get to those areas required hiking through what felt like kilometers of hallways.  Some of the elevators were out of order, too, so it was even more walking than usual.

So many stairs….

Finally approaching the 19th-century French paintings, I turned a corner and was surprised to find myself face to face with the famous Delacroix portrait of Chopin, an image I’d lived with for so many years.  The two friends were fittingly placed on the same wall.

In addition to the Chopin portrait, there were Ingres’ sketches for the chapel dedicated to the crown prince Ferdinand d’Orléans after his untimely death, and paintings by Paul Delaroche.  This collection of connections to three of Delfina Potocka’s significant others, all so close together, was enough to knock me off balance a little.  I developed more respect for Delaroche’s work, too, after seeing some formidable, very alive portraits he’d done.

10/14

I arrived at the Eurostar station in the morning without incident.  The procedures for boarding were at least as bad as at an airport, nothing remotely like the other train experiences we’d had.  In addition to airport-like baggage and personal security, we had to go through multiple stops with authority figures asking questions, and fill in multiple forms.  On the line that asked how long I was planning to stay in England, I wrote “7 hours.”  This caused the British woman in the customs booth to ask what I’d be doing.  “I’m having lunch with friends,” I told her.  She raised her eyebrows.  “That’s an expensive lunch!”  she exclaimed.  I nodded sadly.

The train had phenomenally uncomfortable and non-adjustable seats, and the advertised WiFi didn’t work for me, but other than that the trip through northern France was pleasant.  The Chunnel itself was just a dark tunnel, nothing to remark upon.  I didn’t feel oppressed or unnerved by it.

My destination was the station at Ebbsfleet, the closest station to Mary-Rose’s home.  I wasn’t expecting to be there very long, but accidents that closed tunnels and roads kept Mary-Rose and her partner Bob from getting to London on time to pick up Joe and thence from getting to Ebbsfleet to fetch me.  This was only the beginning of our mishaps that day.

Now, if you are stuck at Gare du Nord for a couple of hours, you have the possibility of shopping and having something decent to eat.  The Ebbsfleet station apparently aspires to be a major hub like that, but as of October 2010, it was very much a work in progress.  The amenities included exactly one small coffee shop, and nothing else whatsoever.  I had my netbook with me because I wanted to share my pictures from Poland, so in theory I had entertainment, but there again the purported free WiFi wasn’t working for me.  And the place was absolutely frigid.  The only comfort was hearing announcements in English– to the extent that one could make them out– you know how those PA systems tend to be.

At last, after about an hour and a half, I spotted a woman with a huge Airedale on a leash in the distance.  It was unmistakably Mary-Rose!  I don’t know when I was last so glad to see anybody.

It was all worth it to finally meet Mary-Rose (center below) and Joe (right) as something more than marks on my computer screen.

Mary-Rose had the idea of taking us to the second-oldest pub in England, the 13th-century George and Dragon in Speldhurst, Kent.   We were running late for our reservations, but they were able to accommodate us.

The interior was dark and cozy, and we appreciated the fire in the huge hearth.

There was an intriguing patio in the back with an odd, picturesque olive tree.

The highway gods must have been terribly displeased with us that day.  The traffic delays we’d started with didn’t get any better.  And after a full day of plane travel and virtually no sleep, then the lurching about and starting and stopping constantly on the narrow, twisting roads, Joe felt seriously ill and couldn’t take any more.  I was getting a bit woozy myself.  The impressively-sized dog, Butz, was astonishingly patient, but he’d had more than enough of lying draped over Mary-Rose’s lap hour after hour.  We ended up stopping at a beach, where the long-suffering Butz had a chance to run.  The equally long-suffering Bob is at the other end of the leash, and didn’t make it into this picture.  This took up more time, but getting out of the car was a great relief.

The sky is cloudy in the beach picture, but through most of our journey the weather was lovely, and I did get to see a great deal of the rolling green countryside and a number of little towns.  After we started off again in the car, I offered to do some energy work for Joe, which was easy since I was sitting right behind her and could put my hands on her shoulders.  It seemed to help, and she was able to nap for a while.

It soon became clear that there was no chance whatsoever of my making the last train of the day at Ebbsfleet.  We changed plans, and Mary-Rose and I attempted to catch a train to London at another station that would get me to the Eurostar there for the last departure.  After a great deal of desperate running around the station getting our tickets and finding out where to go, somehow we managed to miss the next train to London.  We were carefully reading the signs on both the platform and the trains, but they were misleading, and we still missed out– again, the garbled PA announcements didn’t help.  That was a crucial error.  Meanwhile, Joe, Bob and Butz were having no better luck getting home in the car; yet another accident-related traffic snarl kept them on the road hours longer than expected.  It was completely unbelievable.

We arrived at the station in London a good 10 or 15 minutes before the last Eurostar back to Paris left, and with any other kind of train, that would have been good enough, but in this case it didn’t matter.  There wasn’t enough time to get through security.  Although no one would have been terribly inconvenienced by waiting a few minutes, being that it was the last train of the day, there was no flexibility whatsoever.  “You should have gotten here earlier,” the agent at the desk commented unhelpfully.  A French woman who was trying to make it home went into absolute hysteria.  I didn’t react that way, but I was deeply enraged, more for her sake than for my own, and I don’t think I’ve gotten over it even yet.  The only bright spot was that the ticket counter was still going to be open for a few moments.  Mary-Rose and I dashed over there, and I reserved a seat on the very early first train of the next day.  Do not let this happen to you!

I could have really enjoyed the impressive St. Pancras Station under other circumstances.  The architecture is ornate, and there are all sorts of stores and amenities.  What mattered most to us right then was a Marks and Spencer’s where we could get truly delicious and fresh prepared meals to take along, and even more important, a kiosk where we could book a hotel nearby.

The hotel had very little to recommend it except for being better than spending the night freezing on the floor of the station, where they might not have let me stay anyway.  It was gigantic, and getting to our room required another long hike through hall after hall.  Then we found that the room they’d given us hadn’t been cleaned, and was strewn with items like wet towels.  We called the front desk and were told someone would come to fix up the room, but no one arrived.  We hiked all the way back to the desk, then a similar distance to another room, which was in much better shape.

All that left us with only four hours available for sleep.  We were too tired, and it was too late, to chat.  Knowing I’d have to be up at 4 a.m. and that I couldn’t entirely trust the alarm on my phone, I didn’t dare take a sleeping pill, and there is no way I can sleep naturally under such conditions, so I got literally not a second of sleep.  Fortunately Mary-Rose slept well, if not long enough, because she was going to have a demanding day ahead of her.  While lying there awake, I did learn a skill that I’m sure will be important in the future.  After a day in a vehicle of any kind, from car to boat, I’ve always felt as if I were still moving, rocking, swaying, vibrating, whatever was going on in the conveyance, and I’d never been able to get rid of that feeling before.  That night it was the worst ever, and I could not begin to relax even a little with the room seeming to spin and tilt around me.  Desperate to make it stop, I concentrated all my attention in my first and second chakras, grounding myself with all my might.  It worked!  The motion stopped completely and I was at least able to lie there in relative comfort.

The 4 a.m. wake-up time was necessary in order to get Mary-Rose to her plane, which was going to leave from London but not nearby, and to get me back to St. Pancras first.  Otherwise I could probably have taken a later train, which would have allowed me to sleep a bit with a fragment of Ambien, and we could both have awakened at a decent hour.  We managed to find a cab in the dark chill, and both of us got to where we needed to be.

Interestingly, despite my severe back pain the day before and the fact that I usually do poorly with long hours of sitting, especially under cramped conditions, I had hardly any pain at all during the ordeal in England.

10/15

I arrived back at Hotel Chopin without incident, but in zombie-like condition.  The day went mostly to waste.  Our maid typically came in pretty early, so I thought I’d wait to try to sleep until after she left, but of course she’d put herself on a different schedule for the day, and a couple of hours went by before I gave up waiting for her and settled down for a nap.  Lenore went exploring on her own, going to the Belleville neighborhood and having one of the better days of her trip.

That evening, Lenore and I set out again.  We wandered around the Latin Quarter, looking for a little Greek restaurant that Bob and I had enjoyed, which was run by an energetic older lady who reminded us of his mother and made us feel like family.  We didn’t find it until we’d already eaten at another Greek place, which had pigeons strolling through its colorful, open interior.  I tried to get pictures of the incongruous birds, but they eluded me.  Looking out the nearby door, I saw posters for some of the still-ubiquitous Chopin Year concerts.   After dinner we discovered the best gelato we’d ever experienced, at an Italian place called Amorino.

Our first attempt to visit Notre Dame was disappointing because the cathedral closed so early that we couldn’t go inside; we should have visited there before we ate.  (Sacré Coeur, in contrast, is open most of the night.)  However, our evening stroll around the grounds turned out to be among the loveliest and most relaxing moments of our voyage.  What a relief after the rigors of the day and night before.

The park behind the cathedral includes the most fun outdoor toy ever.  You sit on this disk, which has a nonslip rubbery surface, and shift your weight or crawl around to make it spin.  We didn’t want to stop playing with it, but when an actual child came along we got out of her way.

A strange sight awaited us on the nearby bridge, dozens of locks attached to the wire mesh of the railing.  There was nothing that explained the significance of this display.  I added a little piece of ribbon that I happened to have in my purse, wanting to be part of this enigmatic cultural expression.

We walked along the Seine after that, and got rained on fairly heavily.  That was the only substantial rain of the trip, and naturally, though we’d been carrying two umbrellas all over Europe, we managed to find ourselves without them.  It was nice anyway.

10/16

This evening I went to Square d’Orléans, where Chopin lived through much of the 1840s, close to the hour that my friend Rinaldi [my historical-fiction vampire character] might have been able to make an appearance.  Either they close it in the evenings, or they now keep it closed to the public all the time.  I had to be content with looking through the grillwork of the doors on Rue Taitbout, into the arch with the carved ceiling, which glowed with yellow-toned light.

It was a disappointment to have bothered to make the fairly long trip through a couple of Métro changes, then to be reduced to standing there staring like an idiot while the people who actually live there went in and out.  Well, I suppose peons like me never did get to hang out there– but my husband and I had walked around inside the square during our 2006 trip, and I had expected to be able to do that again.

The neighborhood doesn’t look at all impressive outside the Square, and one would never know what a lovely little enclave is tucked away there.

The earlier part of the day had been far more successful.  We slept too late to get the hotel breakfast—not surprising for me, I guess, after the completely sleepless night before.  We started off with pastry and coffee at Le Valentin, just down the passage, then took off for the Espace Dali in Montmartre.  Way up there.  Just getting out of the Métro at Abbesses involves climbing 90 steps (or waiting for the crowded elevator).  It said so on a warning sign.  Even the kids were huffing and puffing.  They put some nice murals on the wall so that as you wind your way up the stairway you have something inspiring to look at.

The good part about the 90 steps is that once you’ve done that you are well up the Butte Montmartre already.  (Lenore said, “Ah, the Métro, the happy womb of the city.”)  When we emerged, we found ourselves birthed into a flea market with fascinating vintage clothes and some of the worst plastic jewelry imaginable.   Lenore was overjoyed because she’d been dying to find a thrift shop.  We didn’t buy anything, though I would have bought that perfect, top-quality long blazer if it hadn’t been a size too small.

The Dali museum, reached by a good deal more climbing, was a real treat.  I hadn’t known Dali’s work at all well; now I have a great deal of respect for him, despite the incomprehensible qualities of so much of his work.

I didn’t enjoy or understand every piece by any means, but I was able to connect with a lot of it.  I was entranced by the little 3D viewers of some of his famous works in the gift shop, and bought one for me and three to give away.  They take you into little worlds that are delightful—or disturbing— to visit.

Lenore was on the lookout for the works of another artist, a sort of guerilla urban artist who calls himself Invader and who applies tile images of Space Invaders (remember them?) to buildings on the sly.  Get it?  He invades the spaces!  We found a number of his pieces, and it was fun to try to spot them.  Here’s one in Montmartre not far from the Dali museum.

You can find more of Invader’s work and that of some copycats at http://www.coolstuffinparis.com/space-invader-pixel-art-mosaics-1.php

Having struggled up all that way, we were just about at the level of Sacré Coeur, and didn’t have to do the daunting climb up the front steps that I remembered all too well from 2006.

By that time it was drizzling and chilly, and we were glad to get into the shelter of the basilica.  The whole place was clogged with people, but most were quiet and respectful while they were inside.  Outside was another story.  Some young black guys were doing tricks with soccer balls, and a young white guy was playing guitar and singing.

One way to get down from this high point is to take a picturesque staircase, lined with decorative lamps.  Years before I had found an evocative photo of this staircase on a rainy night, and I’d put it up on the wall of my bedroom to help keep my hopes alive that someday I would be able to visit Paris.  When I finally got there in 2002, I couldn’t find the spot.  Lenore figured it out later during her visit as an exchange student, and now the staircase is like an old friend to us.

On the way out of the church property in a different direction, going down stairs and ramps through a lush, vertical sort of park, I was accosted by some nice-looking teenagers who showed me a clipboard that said they represented a group that helped deaf-mutes like themselves.  They asked for a donation.  I took out a little money, and they insisted that the minimum was 5 euros.  Rather than accepting my smaller amount, they tried to shake me down, physically surrounding me and grabbing onto my arms.  I really could not believe this was happening.  When I told them off, they gestured that they were deaf.  I told them, adding equally clear gestures, that they understood my body language perfectly well and that they should not treat anyone that way.  I finally had to actually strike one girl’s arm to get her off of me.  I found this all extremely disturbing.  Lenore couldn’t understand why I was upset—she had simply told them no to begin with and they had left her alone.  Honestly, I find this behavior completely incomprehensible; if they acted pleasant and polite, people would most likely be happy to give them money.  They would have had a little bit from me, but as it was, they got nothing except someone screaming at them.  In what way was that worthwhile to them?

Despite its deeply historic site, its mind-boggling decorativeness, and the intentions of its builders to renew the spiritual life of the city, Sacré Coeur holds no spiritual power for me.  Judging by conversations I’ve had with others who have visited there, this is not an uncommon feeling.  There is nothing like the joy and peace I feel at Notre Dame.  But it sure is pretty.

10/17, the day of, as the folks at the Chopin competition put it, “the Death”:

Cold and damp today, with unremitting cloud cover.  We took the rather long walk to another of my favorite places in the world, the Museé de la Vie Romantique, which I’d visited twice before but absolutely had to see again.  It used to be the home of the painter Ary Scheffer, and rather like Square d’Orléans, it is reached by turning off an unimpressive street and going down a passageway, this one green with ivy.  In Scheffer’s (and Chopin’s) time, it was out in the country, outside Paris itself, and it still has a bucolic feel.

 

 

First we viewed a collection of 19th-century paintings in a building I hadn’t entered before, which had no connection to historical figures I cared about but were interesting in themselves.  Then we went into the main museum, which was Scheffer’s house and is dedicated to some of the leading lights of French Romanticism.

 

George Sand has more of a presence there than anyone else, with Chopin very much included as well.  Quite a few small personal items of theirs can be seen, along with plaster casts of his hand and her doll-like arm, which seem to be reaching toward each other in a disconcerting sort of way.  The museum also has a number of drawings and paintings by Mme Sand and her son, and a recreation of her salon at Nohant, with portraits of her ancestors and family members.  For some reason I feel extraordinarily comfortable in this place, as if among dear friends, and Lenore nearly had to drag me away.

We’d been looking forward to lunch in Scheffer’s garden, where I’d had the most wonderful tea and quiche on a previous visit.  Neither one was as impressive this time, but it was still a lovely setting.

 

 

 

Later I Métro’d over to Place Vendôme, the scene of The Death and still an upscale piece of real estate, having decided against a visit to the Père Lachaise cemetery this time (perhaps because it was so expected).

 

 

A group of early 20th-century cars was being unloaded in the middle of the place for some sort of show (perhaps related to a car show going on in another part of the city).  Strangely, they were dirty, looking like they’d been driven there rather than brought in an enclosed truck.  If you have enough resolution, perhaps you can see the ironic “FRED” sign on the awning at the back of the picture.  I don’t know what sort of business it marked, but other shops in the square sold things like expensive jewelry.

 

I’d been there before, and had found no impressions or emotions of any kind.  This time I looked up at the windows of #12, wondering again which room had been his bedroom at the end.  One of the windows drew me strongly.  Perhaps I was correct.  No way to know.  A plaque marks the apartment itself, though.

 

 

An interesting moment on the trip back: there is a shop that sells ballet slippers and tights, regular dance accoutrements, but will also make custom ballet flats in a choice of 250 leathers and fabrics.  They had a variety hanging in the window, bright as Easter eggs.  There was a sign explaining that Brigitte Bardot had once asked if they could make her some shoes as comfortable as her ballet slippers, and apparently they’ve been doing it ever since.  I would love to have this done for me, even at $200 or more, if they would be truly comfortable!  In theory I should be able to make them myself, but I doubt I’d attain that level of quality.

10/18

Looking online for parks, we found a huge one, the Bois de Vincennes.  Approaching the park, we passed a series of odd windows like this one, part of a sound wall paralleling the highway.

The park is huge and surrounds a lake—too big by far to call it a pond.  It was idyllic, with a classical-world style gazebo on an island, people fishing, broad lawns, a flock of geese, and at least a couple of swans.

Do you know what it didn’t have, despite being this huge place where people spend hours on end?  Restrooms!   Not even the simplest facility.  I can’t figure out what they’re thinking.  It makes no sense at all.  Many spots where people congregate in Paris are reasonably supplied.  We walked a lot further than we planned, making that issue all the worse, because the shape of the park was more complicated than we realized and the path we were on didn’t come out where we thought it would.  For a while we found ourselves trapped on the island.  Eventually we made our way out into civilization again, by which time I was in considerable distress.

A restaurant a few blocks away provided the needed equipment and a pleasant lunch.  Bizarrely, the view outside the front windows contained palm trees!  In northern Europe!  Definitely not yuccas or any other species from temperate climes– real live palm trees.  I don’t understand how that could be.  It looked like we had suddenly teleported to Nice.

Near the park is a government building that has something to do with immigration.  A protest was going on in front of the building, asking for better treatment for immigrant workers.  Like other protests we’d seen in this week of “industrial actions” (read strikes), it was entirely peaceful.  Just a bunch of young black men, mostly, holding banners and standing around eating sandwiches.  We’d been hearing of riots going on, but as far as we could tell, if there was anything like that at all it must have been limited, and it certainly had no effect on us.

At last we were able to get to Notre Dame when it was open to the public.  I think it is my absolute favorite place on earth.  As my piano teacher put it, it’s “where God lives.”  From the plaza in front of the cathedral, it looks like the whole mass of stone is going to take off into the heavens at any moment.  When one is inside, the mind and heart are swept upward into other realms.  If they’d let me, I’d live there myself.

The votive candles give one an opportunity to powerfully set intentions and good wishes for others.  The only trouble is that there’s nothing to use to light the candles, only the candles themselves, and trying to ignite one tealight with another is a tricky business that leads to some inevitably falling to the floor beneath these dramatic circular stands.

Who doesn’t love gargoyles?

And this chandelier is my favorite image from the whole trip.  It became my 2010 Christmas card.

We found it absolutely necessary to go back to the Italian gelato shop in the Latin Quarter, Amorino, for another fix.  I’ve had amazing gelato in my time, but this was beyond all others.  It was also helpful because I had developed a sore throat, and it was becoming clear that I had caught a cold, just as I’d done on my last trip to Europe.

10/19

I finally found a piano store in the neighborhood.  Actually, I’d seen it two days earlier, but it was Sunday then and the place was closed.  Of course I was nervous to go in and ask to play, especially since I knew I’d have trouble communicating, and I was by no means sure that I would remember any of the repertoire I’d memorized with the trip in mind.  I managed to say that I hadn’t played in three weeks and really wanted to, and the saleswoman told me that she could rent me a studio for the hour if I liked.  That didn’t seem quite like what I wanted, so I asked if I could just try one of the instruments in the shop.  They were all closed and I couldn’t tell which brands were which.  I picked the closest grand, which turned out to be a Schimmel.  It wasn’t much; the keys felt about two feet tall, and the touch was very resistant.  But it was so good to engage with it, nevertheless!   I played the 17/4 mazurka, fairly credibly, and did remember most of it.  I wasn’t lost.  If I’d taken a little time with it, I would have soon have had the whole thing back under my fingers.  That made me feel better in itself, and the physical pleasure of striking even such inadequate keys was profound.  I know with certainty that this is something I need.

With my nose continuing to run, I stopped at a pharmacy and accomplished the supreme linguistic feat of explaining that I had a cold and was both stuffed up and dripping, which got me a bottle of essential oil and camphor nasal spray.  It was hard to say if it was very helpful.  I was nervous of flying the next day, that’s for sure.

There was more to deal with than the physical illness, though.  Lenore and I both found that as the time to go home approached, we felt increasingly depressed and anxious.  This was true even though I was desperately missing my husband and so looking forward to seeing him again.  It had been worst about three days before we left.  She would be returning to difficulties and uncertainties in her living situation, and I, while I had no major upheavals to confront, had been feeling a bit burned out in my practice.  By the time we actually left, we had managed to adjust our attitudes to concentrate more on gratitude and less on grief.

No more sardine experiences on the Métro; we planned to take the bus to the airport.  You know, I had seen so many young guys on the trains that looked a lot like Fryderyk.  It was hard not to stare at them, or at least not to be too obvious about it.  His nose is common in Paris.  And I didn’t see a single face like his in Poland, even though I was in his home town.  I can only conclude that he looked like his French dad.  Sorry, Poland.

The “Roissybus” takes off from a spot near the Opéra.  It isn’t easy to see unless you know what you’re looking for.  We thought we had gotten ourselves there in plenty of time, but we could have used more.  A long line of people was already waiting, and many more joined us as we waited nervously, none too sure that the bus would actually show up.  (As I said, we were already unreasonably anxious!)  I don’t think everyone who was waiting managed to fit on the bus, but we did get on, and we got to the airport in good time.

The outbound experience of the CDG airport was more like what Lenore remembered, layers of redundant and seemingly idiotic security, though we weren’t trapped in a facility-less cul de sac for hours as she had been.  By that time I was calm and willing to do what they told me.  Lenore groused under her breath.

10/20

Flying with stuffiness wasn’t too bad in itself, it turned out, but it seemed that the transportation gods had not yet gotten over their wrath.  Our first flight was all nicely loaded and ready to go when we got word from the tower that we would be delayed for nearly an hour.  The transatlantic flight went smoothly, but then there were major issues at the Dulles airport in Washington, DC.  We had a long layover to begin with, and then it was announced that our flight to Albuquerque would be delayed due to mechanical problems.  After a while it became clear that the plane couldn’t be fixed that evening, and there was no choice but to wait for the last expected plane to come in, fuel it, and get us on that one.  It worked out, but we were beyond tired and a bit freaked out by the time we finally boarded.

Our three weeks in moist climates had included only one day of rain, but it was coming down hard in Albuquerque, and the wet was to continue for a few uncharacteristic days more.  The storm was heavy enough to give us some difficulty getting down through the clouds, but we landed safely– and completely unprepared to reenter our real lives.  I had allowed for a few more days off before I would have to go back to the office, and I needed every moment of that time.  I know people who have returned from places as far away as India completely fine and immediately functional, but between the time zone changes and the lack of sleep on the planes, I arrive in a state of utter uselessness and need a great deal of rest.

I have noticed that one is never the same after a major voyage like this.  When one embarks, it’s impossible to know in what ways oneself and one’s world will be completely different when one returns.  It’s a leap of faith.

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Trippy Journal Part III: Prague (Prague Blog?)

10/8-11/10

Writing the first part of this on the train from Kraków to Praha.  (I know it’s really called Praha, but as with Kraków, somehow it’s difficult to use the correct local name for Prague.)  The only direct train goes overnight, and we would have had to miss either an evening in the first or a night, already reserved, in the second.  We were able to get a midmorning train and change at Katowice.  The only difficulty was that, as I’ve mentioned, Poles are not big on signs.  Not that we were especially smart about finding our way at the Kraków station, I must admit, but still, they could have directed people a bit more efficiently.  We got the first train OK, but we’d been planning to get some decent coffee and breakfast items at the mall at the station, and we ran out of time because of running around trying to find the international counter and get our tickets.  Thank heaven the woman there spoke English well, because this train transaction was more complicated than the last.

The station at Katowice was relatively primitive, with paper schedule signs for arrivals and departures rather than electronic notices.   All the signs said that the train to Praha was leaving from platform 2, and Lenore also asked a young woman who spoke English about it, and was told the same.   Meanwhile, we made friends with a guy from India who was looking for the same train.  That turned out to be fortunate, because he was the first to start yelling that the train was actually at platform 1, and he made sure we heard.  A bunch of us raced down the 2 stairs and back up the 1 stairs, barely making it to the train.  I had to push the door back open while trying to muscle my suitcase across the gap and up onto the train floor.  Then we couldn’t find our seats, but a conductor came right along and helped us.

So this was an important lesson:  no matter what the signs say, and no matter what passengers say, ask a person who is in authority.  We had an easy couple of hours after that, though, with a compartment to ourselves, until the train filled standing-room-only with young Czechs.

We’d thought we could pick up some coffee and food at the Katowice station, but so much for that.  Very little was available, and we ended up with something that could only be called coffee by an extreme stretching of the definition.  We were able to get decent sandwiches, though, again managing to order entirely in Polish.  More good bread.  This was all we had to get us through the trip; the crowd in the aisles was such that it seemed near-impossible to reach the restaurant car.

A couple of those young Czechs were astoundingly talkative.  The woman sitting next to me talked absolutely nonstop for at least a couple of hours straight.  I was getting irritated, but at the same time, it was useful, because I had the opportunity to hear the rhythm of the language and get a sense of proper pronunciation, even though I understood essentially nothing.  I was relieved to hear that the stretching of vowels with accents was not nearly as extreme as it sounds on the Czech language course I have in this computer.

Here is the next important lesson: you need money for the restroom at the Prague main train station, and of course it has to be local money.  It’s not even possible for the attendant to take pity on you, because the stalls can’t be accessed without putting money in.  We had to frantically run back to the money-changing window and then back to the restroom.  Why these people want their customers having accidents in the lobby instead of providing for the most basic human needs is totally beyond me.  I hear that in some places charging for restrooms has been outlawed.  (France doesn’t appear to be doing this anymore, at least not in Paris; Polish restrooms had charges but some were voluntary.)

On the other hand, there wasn’t much opportunity to put any liquid into one’s system at the station, either.  There was supposed to be a coffee shop, which had a sign that looked like it must be open at some time, but it sure wasn’t then.  We were starting to feel jinxed when it came to coffee and food.  The station was beautiful, old, decrepit, peeling, and didn’t seem to have much of any working services.

We called our hotel to see if we could still get their shuttle service, and were told that it was too late, we would have had to book it ahead– which we hadn’t felt comfortable doing, not being absolutely sure of our arrival time.  The woman at the hotel offered to call us a cab, and I declined because there were taxis ranged all up and down the street outside the station.

What I didn’t know– and only read about later– was that these taxi drivers are crooks; that’s your next important lesson.  The hotel clerk said, “Don’t let them charge you more than 400 crowns.  There’s no reason you should have to pay more than that.”  I believed her and figured I could make sure that was the way it worked out.  I definitely should have let her call.  The ride ended up costing us 800 crowns.  I complained but felt there was nothing I could do about it.  I could not prove that we were taken on a longer ride than necessary, and frankly, the streets were so narrow and the traffic so difficult that I thought combat pay might be appropriate for this guy.

One of the buildings we passed was a Polish cultural center, which sported a poster advertising a Chopin 200 concert.  Couldn’t get away from him after all.

Our planned hotel, the Red Lion (Dum U Cerveneho Lva), is a historic property in Old Town– yet another Old Town.  Nerudová Street is San Francisco-steep and heads up toward the castle; the hotel is around the middle of the hill.  By the time we got there in the overpriced cab, scenery notwithstanding, I was not in the best mood.  We entered the picturesque lobby, where the woman who’d been on the phone apologetically explained that they had had a computer mixup and there was actually not a room for us.  You understand, I had just spoken with her about a half hour before, and I had e-mailed the night before and been told everything was fine.  I did not fly off the handle, and neither did Lenore, though I did very firmly state that this was not acceptable.  The hotel was ahead of us; they had already found us a room at another property owned by the same company, where there had been a cancellation.  It was right up the street.  We struggled up the hill with our bags.

The new hotel, the Golden Star (Zlatá Hvězda), may have been the best thing that happened to us on the whole trip.  For the moderate price of the Red Lion, we were treated to a luxurious suite that we could probably never have afforded otherwise.  It even had towel warmers, which turned out to be of great help, because I was able to wash my socks and underwear and use the warmers as drying racks.  We had only one bed, but it was large enough that we didn’t inconvenience each other at all.  An ethernet connection gave us a reliable internet connection at last.

The best and worst part of the Golden Star was its location on that steep hill.  The view was incredible, but somehow, even lying in bed, I felt as if the building were swaying and as if our room somehow hung cantilevered out over the street, which was not the case in the least.  I kept unsuccessfully trying to ground myself any way I could.  Normally, even in an upper story, I can find a way to feel the earth beneath me, but there I couldn’t, and I don’t know why.

It was a bit surprising to find that the hotels were so booked up in October.  I can’t conceive of what things must be like in July in this currently hot tourist spot.  The streets were positively choked with foreigners from all over.  The incredible popularity of Prague with folks from everywhere is a tremendous advantage for English speakers, because English is now a kind of lingua franca there.  In Warsaw and Kraków we found ourselves saying “dzień dobry” and “dziękuje” a zillion times a day, but in Prague there was no opportunity even to hear the pronunciations of the most basic greetings, let alone to practice saying them, because all the workers at the shops and restaurants spoke English to us all the time.

I had studied Czech a little bit, enough to be shocked at how unexpectedly different it was from Slovak (which was my grandmother’s language but I also don’t know), but it was very little indeed, and I would have been pretty hopeless if I’d had to use it.  I did find that often if I stared at signs and thought about how the words sounded, rather than how they looked, I could translate them using my tiny shreds of Polish and have some idea what was going on.  I was terribly pleased with myself.

Although Prague’s gorgeous Old Town buildings have been around for centuries, design and decor tended to be sleek and contemporary.  A good example was the Neruda restaurant, a little way down the hill of Nerudová Street, where we had our first dinner.  The food, the floral arrangements, and the furniture and lighting were all a delight to the eye– tasty food and quality beer, too.  (I can barely drink any beer myself, but had a few sips of Lenore’s, enough to tell it was good.)  It was tricky at first to get used to the Czech money, in which even a frugal lunch costs in the hundreds of crowns.  One crown (koruna) isn’t very much, but overall the prices were a good deal higher in dollar terms than those in Poland, so we soon learned to exercise caution.  There were no real grocery stores around, only small convenience stores with junk food, so we were mostly stuck with spending for restaurants.

Prague definitely lives up to its reputation for architectural beauty; everywhere you turn there is a gorgeous photo op.  After Warsaw and Kraków, though, we were somewhat jaded– “Oh, look, more old buildings….”  Lenore found a website with “100 Cool Things to Do in Prague,” and that led us to one of the most impressive places we saw on our journey, something that was not a marvel of architecture, but rather a monument to the human spirit.

It happened to be October 9, John Lennon’s birthday (would have been his 70th), when we found our way to the John Lennon Wall.  It’s nothing more than a wall covered in graffiti, but the feeling around it was like walking into a great cathedral, awe and respect.  Everyone was quiet and reverent.  Although Lennon’s murder was the direct inspiration for the memorial, the wall took on much more far-reaching significance as a place of protest against repression by the Communist regime and for peace and freedom of expression.  An explanation of its history and importance can be found here: www.prague.net/john-lennon-wall.  People are still adding to the layers of paint and writing; I scrawled in a few words myself.

I have no idea why there were yellow plastic penguins next to the Vltava River, but there they were.  I suppose that both they and the giant stone chair behind them were normal for the home city of Franz Kafka.  The Kafka museum was in our neighborhood, too, but we only poked our heads into the gift shop.

Near the river we found a cafe that included an outdoor space with a man grilling kolbasi (at least that’s how we spell the name of this sausage in Slovak).  It was served with light, caraway-free rye bread, the kind that is so common where my husband comes from in Pennsylvania, and that we can hardly ever find.  This snack was the most down-home experience of the whole trip.  A very Albuquerque-like experience was the Indian vegetarian restaurant down Nerudová Street– a type of food Lenore and I often indulge in, and very respectably done– though it was situated in an odd little basement spot.

We looked at a small museum, with a contemporary art display that Lenore was very interested to see and that I expected to hate, but then dived into with enthusiasm.  Check out Daniel Pešta’s work at www.danielpesta.com/galerie/index.php?lang=en.  It is intensely emotional, yet minimalist and finely crafted.

The Charles Bridge is a huge tourist attraction, lined with excellent stone sculptures on both sides and carpeted by the booths of trinket sellers and portrait artists.

On the other side of the river, another famous attraction is the Astronomical Clock.

A huge square includes a rather lumpy-looking central group sculpture.  I couldn’t figure out the subject.

Our favorite attraction in this area, though, was a man in his 70s or so singing what appeared to be the realest of real folk music, accompanying himself on a hurdy-gurdy.  I mean the Renaissance kind, not the organ-grinder-with-monkey kind.  It had a wonderfully sweet sound that made us want one for ourselves.  After all the tourist hoopla, it was so refreshing.  We really should have bought a CD (even gritty folk musicians have CDs now).  I knew I’d regret passing that up.  I suppose we were feeling a little financially stressed by that time.

The old Jewish Quarter is also considered a must-see, with a couple of venerable synagogues and a market of stalls selling crafts, but it is a rather small area and there doesn’t seem to be all that much to it, though it is pretty.

Our steady Internet connection made it possible to catch up a little bit with the Chopin competition, which was still in full swing and getting hotter by the day.  It turned out to be far more critically useful than that, though.  We had been figuring on taking the train through Germany to get to Paris, probably staying over in Frankfurt.  As we searched through the schedules, this began to look less and less practicable.  There were no good, direct routes east to west.  The best itinerary we could come up with involved spending about 14 hours in transit and changing trains at 4:30 am.  We had to leave the day after next, and we were starting to get concerned.  We asked the hotel desk clerk what people typically did to get west, and he said that there was no sense taking the train when it would take only a couple of hours to get to Paris by air.  By late that night, we had a flight booked, at a lower price than we would have paid for the train.  Hotel Chopin, in Paris, confirmed that they could accommodate us one night earlier than planned.

We had to get to the bottom of the hill, a goodly walk in itself, sometimes involving stairs, to find a subway, but from there it was easy to get to farther parts of town.  The only trouble was that the escalators are unbelievably steep and fast, really quite alarming.  I felt that I would be unable to handle them with my luggage, and we dropped the idea of getting to the airport that way.  It would also have required changing to a bus as well as taking the subway– more opportunities to get lost or miss a connection.

So we got a taxi, this one called by the hotel, to take us to the airport.  The ride was even more alarming than those escalators.  Perhaps the driver was desperately frustrated by the congested traffic in Old Town and couldn’t restrain himself from flooring the gas pedal when he was out of it, I don’t know.  After a while we were beginning to consider asking the driver to simply drop us off at the side of the road.  He would accelerate to what seemed like 90 mph for a few seconds, flying up to a few inches behind the next vehicle, then slam on the brakes.  It was the most bizarre car ride I’ve ever taken.  I don’t think that man is in the right profession.  At any rate, he was kind and polite to us, and didn’t charge a ridiculous amount, and we did get to the airport in one piece.

The airport was slightly confusing because there were so many windows for the small airline we’d booked, and the one we needed wasn’t open yet.  We had coffee and snacks (ah, decent coffee!) at a comfortable cafe while we waited.  The security procedures were refreshingly simpler than those at an American airport, though not all that different.  Soon we were on our way to Paris, the last stop on our voyage, feeling a great sense of relief and accomplishment.

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Trippy Journal Part II: Kraków

For some reason I find myself spelling Kraków properly, but writing the English version of Warsaw instead of its real name, Warszawa.  I don’t know why.  Sorry.

We hadn’t originally planned to go to Kraków on this trip, but we realized that we’d have time, and everyone recommended it.  Before we left, we had been thinking in terms of finding a hotel in Kraków when we got there.  That certainly sounds crazy now, but at the time, Lenore was insisting on having some spontaneity in our plans, and I was placating her on that.  I’d also had a negative experience with booking a Paris hotel sight-unseen on the last trip, so the idea of choosing a hotel on the spot didn’t sound so bad.  When I mentioned this to Ania, though, she reacted anxiously, saying that Kraków is popular with tourists all year and would be booked up, that hotels are far more expensive than we’d expect, and that she was going to find us a hostel right away, something affordable but decent.  She was very familiar with the city, and she quickly e-mailed me a list of possible hostels.  I chose Hostel Centrum because it had a two-bed room available in addition to the usual dorm-style hostel setup, making it more like a private hotel room.  The price of 177.6 PLN per night was definitely attractive, though far more than the dorm-type accommodation would have cost.

10/6-7/10

As I said, the train ride from Warsaw to Kraków was pleasant and relatively luxurious, and it only took a couple of hours to get to the Kraków Główny (main) station.  I was expecting a bright green grassy countryside, and wasn’t disappointed.

The train station disgorged us into a well-appointed shopping mall, where we were warm enough to enjoy a snack of good-quality gelato.  (There had been as much ice cream available in Warsaw as coffee, but we’d been too cold to care.)  The place was large, and it took a while to find the way out, but we didn’t mind window shopping on the way.  When we emerged from the mall, we found ourselves in the midst of a whimsical display of dozens of manikin-like figures, a fun introduction to the city.

It wasn’t hard to find a taxi to get us to the hostel, but it turned out that we could have easily walked the short distance if we’d understood where we were going.  Hostel Centrum is rather like a big apartment complex.  There is a very small lobby and office, and larger and smaller guest rooms ranged about, with a kitchen for each group of rooms.  As promised, the young, with-it-looking staff members spoke good English, and apparently other languages as well, though we didn’t have personal experience of that.

The hostel room was extremely spare and utterly style-free, but adequate.  There was a surprising amount of wasted space; the only furniture was the two twin beds and a small table, with two skinny lockers against one wall, in a bedroom of about 12 by 14 feet.  No rugs of any kind.  There was one small compartment for the toilet and one for the shower, off of another surprisingly large chamber outfitted with an extra sink and mirror.  The heat came from a wall unit in each of these two rooms, and when we arrived, neither was turned on.  We were already pretty well frozen, and our hearts sank when we entered the frigid room.  It seemed like those big spaces were never going to warm up, but eventually they did.

A full-size water heater hung from the ceiling, a little ominously, in the shower space.  At least we wouldn’t have to deal with the one thing that was wrong with the Harenda, the hot water supply going away late at night when I especially wanted to warm up with a hot shower.  However, the shower had an extreme water-saving device– it would only stay on for a minute or so, unless you pressed the control knob again, meaning that you had to do this over and over if you wanted to actually get clean.  This might be a good idea in the desert Southwest, but even here, I think it would be overkill.

We were looking forward to the promised laundry facilities, but unfortunately there was a washer but not a dryer.  The drying equipment consisted of a folding rack.  We felt that our clothes might not dry soon enough with the chilly temperature in the hall, so we didn’t try it.  The kitchen was reasonably equipped, though, and we very much appreciated having the possibility of making tea.  The again-promised free WiFi was more or less a reality, but we could only get a signal from our far-flung room by snugging up to the window ledge.  And we weren’t just Facebooking, folks– we needed that connection to study train schedules!

Our hostel was just a few blocks from Kraków’s main landmark, the Wawel Castle.  Kraków used to be the capital of Poland, and this huge edifice was the residence of the royals.  Now it houses the National Art Collection.  The castle and the hill upon which it stands dwarf everything else in the area.

Our first wander out of the hostel took us into streets lined with small shops and restaurants.  There were a few coffee shops to be had, and some ethnic food places, but neither the caffeine-intensive atmosphere of Warsaw nor the plethora of sushi bars was present.  We ended up at a Polish restaurant that looked comfortable.  It also had a large map of the old part of the city painted on the wall near us, with a “you are here,” which certainly didn’t hurt.

Potato pancakes were a prominent part of the menu, and I wondered if they’d be like what my family would make (but generally doesn’t anymore because they take forever and have a bajillion calories).  They were– crispy and perfect– except that they were smothered in a daunting amount of goulash, big chunks of pork, with a flower beautifully crafted from a red pepper on the side.  I stared, wondering what to do with this plate of one complete meal on top of another.  It turned out to be one of the most delicious things I’d ever tasted.  Lenore’s luck was not quite as good; she ordered pierogi, having had such a positive experience with them in Warsaw, but they were heavy, doughy, and bland, not as good as the humble ones we get frozen at home.

This did little to dispel our belief in the overall excellence of Polish food, though.  As in Warsaw, we were able to get extra-yummy bread, and a nearby grocery had a tremendous variety of it.  I was glad I had thought ahead and brought a cloth bag along, because there was no chance of getting a paper or plastic bag with our purchase.

Breakfast at the hostel was included, and was adequate but considerably less elegant than at the Harenda, no surprise there.  It consisted of a roll with jam and (eek) margarine, cornflakes and milk, and a little tin of chicken or ham pasztet, which I guess is the same as paté, but I don’t know because we never tried it.

As in Warsaw, churches abounded.

This brick style also showed up in Warsaw and Prague.

Kraków’s Old Town area has an unusual configuration; there is a central corridor, and it has only a few entrances.  Surrounding it is a park-like strip of green space, the Planty Garden Ring, with a broad sidewalk going through its middle.

You can get an idea of the layout and what the area has to offer at this site:  http://www.krakow-info.com/planKrak.htm.  The map there will also give you an impression of the overwhelming size of the Wawel and the hill it’s built upon.

Decorative horse-drawn carriages were everywhere, but we walked.  Here are some views of the middle of Old Town:

Of course it was impossible to get away from the Chopin Year celebrations, and one of the manifestations of that was a scattering of metal effigies of pianos.

Restaurants lined the streets and squares.  Many of them had outdoor sections with gas heaters, and attractively designed, harmonious furnishings and table settings.  However, as enticing as they looked, there were few takers on this chilly day.  Lenore felt that Kraków had a more working-class, down-to-earth feel than Warsaw did, but these sleek restaurants looked pretty upscale, or at least artsy.

The local women seemed to cope with the cold by wrapping themselves in fluffy, lacy scarves with all sorts of embellishments.  We were happy to go along with the fashion, and snapped up a ruffly, fringed crochet-like long scarf for each of us, mauve for Lenore and black for me, and a triangle of woolly heather grey with heavy silvery lace edging that became a warmer babushka to wrap over my hood and made me a great deal more comfortable.  My black scarf has become my very favorite thing to wear this fall.  I also added a pair of vivid purple leather gloves, bought from a street vendor that had a whole rainbow of gloves on racks.  They were warmer than the ones I’d brought, and I was glad to have them, though the weather was a bit warmer than it had been in Warsaw.  You can see from the pictures that the amazing sunny skies continued most of the time.

The fashions being shown in the shop windows were generally impressive.  I wouldn’t mind going to Kraków just to shop for clothes (and to snack on good bread).  Of course, the traditional Polish souvenir item is amber, and it is everywhere.  I looked at hundreds of pieces of jewelry, trying to decide on just the right pair of earrings.  I finally found them at the Sukiennice, the venerable Cloth Hall, which is lined with booths selling all sorts of touristy goodies.  What got me to fork over the złotych at last was a circular Chinese-looking design.  I look for the quintessential Polish item, and I pick something Chinese.  Go figure.

The Sukiennice is on the left.

I did get some idea of Polish jewelry design, and much of it was fascinating.  There was a tendency toward wildly huge earrings, though, many of which seemed unwieldy and unwearable to me.  Colors were mostly vivid and in-your-face.  Lenore bought a couple of pairs of disc earrings about 2 inches across, one with a peacock feather motif and one in incised wood.  She considered a pair made from dried, glazed real orange slices, but didn’t buy them when she had a chance, and regretted it later.  Just as well, if you ask me.  There were a lot of floral styles among these inexpensive pieces, including regular silk flowers put on findings, crocheted or sewn-fabric blossoms, and bright felts wound into layered circles or cut into petals.

Parts of the original fortifications of the city remain, though now they look quite peaceable.  We stopped for coffee and muffins next to this section.

Lenore objected to going to any chain restaurants, but Coffee Heaven was pretty good.

We were told that it was possible to spend days exploring the art collection at the Wawel, but our time was limited, so we toured only the outsides of the buildings on the hill.  That was a goodly hike in itself.  From the back, there were sweeping views of the river known in English as the Vistula, more properly the Wisła.

Ania tried to send us on another gastronomic mission, to find the restaurant that she said had the best pierogi in all of Poland, which was in the Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter.  We went off in that direction to look for dinner on the 7th, but I thought Lenore had brought Ania’s map, and she thought I had, and by the time we figured out that we were mapless, we were too far out to go back.  We had a nice stroll by the river, but the area was almost entirely residential, and we never did figure out where that restaurant could have been.  We did find a good one outside the Kazimierz, though, with a waiter who had lived in Chicago and was eager to chat about his experiences there, including the bits of Spanish he’d learned from a neighbor.  My dinner was odd but delicious, a wheel of camembert fried in a breadcrumb coating, so that it was crispy on the outside and melty on the inside, with a topping of cranberries.  Nothing remotely like a balanced meal, but for once in a lifetime, quite enjoyable– though truly terrifying to contemplate the calories.

Those calories were probably the most disturbing thing I encountered in Poland, and that was a pleasant surprise.  Until maybe a year and a half ago, I had panic attacks at the slightest thought of visiting Poland, and it was about the last place on the planet I wanted to go.  As far as I can tell, that came from a set of past-life issues.  I put in a lot of work on everything connected to those issues over the years, and one of the consequences was that the discomfort about that part of the world disappeared.  But I was still on the lookout for any sort of impressions or flashbacks, and half-expecting to have a meltdown of some kind.  The Blikle experience turned out to be the only thing even remotely like that.  Overall I felt quite comfortable in Poland.  Not exactly at home, perhaps, but comfortable.  When we moved on to the Czech Republic, I was saddened to leave.  I was glad to have my Krakowian scarves because it felt like I was still carrying a bit of Poland with me.  Very different from the feelings I’d expected to have.

Poland in general was not really what I had expected.  For one thing, a great many people seemed preternaturally good-looking.  I don’t know how to say this without insulting my friends and family, but Americans of Polish extraction, and Slavs in general, have not struck me as particularly pretty.  I always felt that we Slavs had gotten the short end of the genetic stick when it came to looks.  Apparently I was quite wrong in the case of native Poles.

Most people seemed stylish, as well.  Lenore thinks that Europeans are more stylish than Americans in general; it’s true that one did not see sagging pants or backwards baseball caps.  I felt a bit style-compromised because I could only bring what wardrobe I could carry in one suitcase, and with the necessity of wrapping up so much, that wasn’t being seen anyway.  It was hard to know what to do with my hair, since it had to be constantly crushed under hat, hood, and scarf.  It worked pretty well to pin it up in sections– looked pretty much the same after taking off all that fabric.

We asked at the hostel about getting a cab to the train station, and were told that we might want to walk there instead, which is what we did on the morning of 10/8.  It wasn’t a bad walk at all.  However, once we got to the station area, we were quite unable to figure out which building we were supposed to go into, and wandered around for a bit.  At last we realized that it was clearly marked with a large sign, which somehow we’d been unable to perceive!  We sped through the mall area again, now short for time, and found where we’d left the incoming trains.   There was only one small ticket window to be found, which seemed awfully strange for a main station.  When we finally got to the window after quite a while in line, we were told that this section was only for trains to nearby destinations, and that the international tickets were in another building.  By this time we were getting a bit concerned about making our train.

When we reached the right room of the right building, it still wasn’t easy to see the few international ticket windows– again, Poland seems to be a little deficient with signage– but at last we got to the right place.  The cashier, mercifully, spoke good English.  We would have been completely helpless to get tickets to Prague otherwise, as there were multiple times and itineraries to sort through.

The trip to Prague was considerably more challenging and less comfortable than the one between Warsaw and Kraków.  I’ll take that up next time.

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Trippy Journal Part I: Warsaw

While this is surely more detail than any of you want, I’m hoping it may be useful for someone somewhere who is making plans to visit Warsaw.  I wrote part of it on the dates indicated, and added more later.  Much later, I’m afraid; I’ve been sadly inefficient.

I’d like to give a public thank-you to Ania Robertson, Hania Stromberg, Thang Dinh, and Jeff Kallberg for their invaluable help with the Polish segment of our journey.

10/2/10

We had left Albuquerque in the late morning on 10/1, but through the magic of airline time travel, we arrived on 10/2, pretty much without incident.  It was a little difficult to get through finding how to get our LOT boarding pass at Toronto, which Continental hadn’t been able to supply when we started, but it all worked out.  The LOT plane was a little disconcerting because it was obviously old and frayed around the edges, but it did get us there.  The Polish airline food was miles better than the American equivalent, so we immediately believed what we had been told about Polish food being so good.  Our dinner included nice crispy potatoes and excellent crusty rolls.  (On the way back, United’s pathetically inedible, cardboard-like roll made a sad contrast.)  I was able to get a couple of hours of sleep with Ambien, so I was doing fairly well when we reached the ground.

Although I was accustomed to the idea, it still seemed amusing (and a little discomfiting) to land at the Fryderyk Chopin International Airport.  Our first challenge was to get the bus into Warsaw.  We knew it was bus 175, but we made the mistake of getting on without paying.  It turns out that you don’t pay the bus driver as in every other place we’d ever been, you have to get tickets at a ticket booth, and then you validate them with a little machine on the bus.  The first of a series of helpful Poles with good English skills explained this to us.  I wanted to be legitimate, so we got off at the next stop that had a ticket booth.  I had to jump in right away with a few words of Polish in order to buy the tickets, because the woman there was not one of the English speakers.  Fortunately, only a few words were required!

Ania had given me a detailed map telling me what to expect on the bus route and how to know when we’d reached our stop.  The trouble was that there was construction going on along the road and the bus route had been changed.  We were far past the right area when we realized we were lost.  We got off the bus to look for a map or, better yet, a taxi.  For some reason there was an utter lack of taxis, and we wandered around helplessly for a while, unable to find our location on the very limited map we had with us.  Lenore hadn’t been able to sleep on the plane, so she was a mess by that time, with strange red rings around her eyes.  I was concerned, most of all, with getting us someplace where she could rest.

Finally we went back to the stop where we’d left the bus, and I did my best to point to our destination on the map and ask the bus driver where we needed to be.  He was able to convey to me in German that it was way, way back someplace.  We took the next bus in the opposite direction, and I made a correct guess that the stop we wanted was “Centrum.”

After that it was simply a matter of hiking down Nowy Świat to Krakowskie Przedmiescie (say that three times fast), the main street down the middle of Old Town and, this year at least, Chopin Central.  Lenore was bothered by the sound the wheels of my rolling suitcase made on the uneven pavement; she’d brought a large backpack, and felt far superior.  My case got there just fine, though, thank you very much, and I didn’t have to constantly carry that weight on my back the way she did.

Hotel Harenda could not possibly have been more conveniently located for what we wanted to do.  I was so glad to have gotten the recommendation for it from Dr. Jeff.  Strangely enough, Ania used to have an office in the same building, which is why she was able to make me a map so easily.  The hotel rooms are sort of intertwined with the offices of psychiatrists, lawyers, and educational institutions.  Our room was on the second floor, not counting the staircase up to the front door of the hotel, giving us a relatively easy introduction to the immense amount of climbing we’d be doing for the next 19 days.

Stairs at the entrance of Hotel Harenda

The room itself had a small sleeping area with a strangely large bathroom.  It was old and quaint, with odd padded doors covered with leather-look vinyl.  Overall the impression was something like the 1930s.  We had asked for twin beds, and in a way we got them, but they were both set into the same frame and could not be separated.  Fortunately we didn’t have too much trouble with snoring!  Another unusual feature to the bed/s was the set of thick but narrow comforters, barely wide enough for one person.  They worked fine, though– and we really needed them, because the temperature was 40 degrees lower than the unseasonable heat we’d left in Albuquerque.

One of my first concerns was to let Bob know that we had arrived safely, and since I had my new netbook with me and the hotel had free WiFi, I wasn’t expecting any problems doing so.  Well, we couldn’t get online for anything.  We were forced to use the hotel’s one, old, slow computer in the lobby.  The only answer I was able to find for the failure of my netbook to connect was that the hotel’s router was on the elderly side and Windows 7 wasn’t compatible with it.  Windows strikes again!  The only connection we managed to find in the area was, sad to say, the KFC at the other end of the building.  We could pick up a weak signal from there while sitting in the coffee shop next door.  (We never actually entered the KFC, I hasten to add!)  The coffee shop itself also had WiFi, but somehow we could never get their password to work.  I suggest that if you are booking a hotel anywhere and WiFi is a priority for you, you should ask lots of questions about the hotel’s system.

I also discovered that the T-Mobile phone and plan I had bought purely because it was one of the very, very few options for service in Europe was, guess what, not working in Europe.  During a very expensive half-hour call on the hotel’s phone, I discovered that the problem was that my international service had never been set up, and got that taken care of, which was a surprisingly lengthy process.  I had talked with customer service a number of times back in the US, and each time, including the first, at the store when I picked out the phone, I had emphasized the fact that I needed this phone to use in Europe.  No one had ever bothered to tell me that I needed to have the service turned on.  Word to the wise.  After that, I had little trouble with the phone.  I used it mostly for cheaper methods of communication, texts and e-mails rather than voice, but T-Mobile still managed to soak me for about $200 for duration of the trip.  I could have put in a local SIM card and not paid international rates, but since this cell phone is my business phone, I thought I’d better not put my usual number out of commission.

Jeff had warned us about noise from the bar next door, and he wasn’t kidding.  On our first night there, the Saturday, the bass and drums pounded what felt like the whole building till 3 am.  We didn’t get a good impression of current European pop music from that or any other experience on the trip.  Not only was the music obnoxious in itself and horribly loud, it seemed like the same song over and over.  Never the slightest variation in the basic beat or the overall style.  Fortunately, this only happens on Saturdays.  The hotel staff was apologetic when I asked if they did that on other nights.

On that first evening, we wandered down Krakowskie Przedmiescie to Plac Zamkowy, that is, Castle Square, a broad plaza in front of a big pinkish building that used to be the actual castle but doesn’t look like the image of a castle one might have in one’s mind.  It turned out to be a happening place.  We encountered a group of drummers sitting on the steps, with an astonishingly skillful and pretty young fire-spinner performing in front of them.  Lenore said that this girl was the best she’s ever seen, and she hangs out with advanced hoopers and poi people and the like.

Our first meal in Warsaw was also outstanding.  In order to get fed, we had to work past our linguistic trepidation and go into a restaurant and talk with real human beings.  We chose a tiny, non-touristy-looking place that was run by a kindly-looking older couple.  Fortunately, they had English translations on the chalkboard menu outside, but we still had to speak up to order.  Lenore chose pierogi, with a variety of fillings, cabbage, meat, and potato, which came with a side of anemic-looking salad with iceberg lettuce and pale pink tomatoes– this seemed to be usual everywhere, and looked poor but tasted OK.  The pierogi dough was nice and light.  I had an ecstatically delicious bowl of clear, dazzlingly red barszcz czerwony (borscht, to most of you), with small meat-filled tortellini-type things floating in it.  I want more!

I would have liked some coffee at that point, too, but it was late and decaf was nonexistent most everywhere.  Caffeine, however, could be found all over the place.  Ania had told me that tea was far more popular than coffee in Poland, but it looks like that has changed since she lived in Warsaw.  Coffee shops are everywhere, on the order of two to a block.

Lenore hadn’t studied Polish at all, but I had coached her a bit on pronunciation, so she was able to manage a few words when necessary.  It turned out to be crucial that I had studied the language.  I can’t remotely say that I actually speak Polish, but the little skill that I had was a huge help, and I don’t know how we would have managed without it.  Yes, many people did speak English, and the hotel staff certainly had no problem with it, but English was by no means everywhere.  We did pass a few Americans and Brits on the streets, and there were a good number of Asians around, but even the majority of the tourists were Polish.

(I realized, at the end of the trip, that no one had stared uncomprehendingly at me or said “Huh?” when I tried to speak to them in either Polish or French.  My vocabulary may be tiny, but apparently my pronunciation is understandable.)

10/3

Breakfast was included at the Harenda, and was substantial.  The breakfast room was decorated in a style we came to see as typical, modern and spare with leather-look chairs and abstract art, with well-designed arrangements of silk orchids on the table.  And would you believe an espresso machine, so that we could make fresh, individual cups of coffee?  My only complaint was that the scrambled eggs were consistently undercooked, not to the degree that they were inedible, just not as good as they could have been.  More pale iceberg lettuce was included each morning, too.  (I’d seen salad at breakfast in Tokyo, but never otherwise.)  Yet, Ania says that salad is kind of a new thing around there.

Krakowskie Przedmiescie is dotted with churches, more than you’d think the neighborhood could ever need, mostly rococo, with gold-leafed gewgaws everywhere and carved white wooden clouds that look more like some kind of odd cream puffs, in my opinion.  (Sorry.  Gothic cathedrals for me, please!)  The architecture was similar in the whole set of churches, but I noticed with interest that each of the spaces felt different to me.  Some felt relaxed and like good places to settle down and pray or meditate, but a couple felt really disturbing.  I couldn’t put my finger on any specific reason.

The church that distressed me the most was Holy Cross, one of the tourist spots because it houses Chopin’s heart, which his sister had brought back from Paris in accordance with his wishes.  The hearts of some other illustrious citizens were also interred within the pillars of the church.  I do find the heart thing a bit creepy in itself, but that wasn’t the problem I experienced there.  The place just did not feel good to me.   However, since it has been partially destroyed by bombing and rebuilt without as many of the rococo curlicues, I liked it better visually than most of the churches in the area.  Perhaps somehow all the national trauma has stuck to it, I don’t know, or perhaps it is only the trauma that has befallen the building itself.  I may be offending Poles with these comments, and I don’t wish to do that, but truly, I felt that something was unpleasant there.

Holy Cross Church at night, from the square nearby, 10/2/10

Another church that was important on the Chopin Tour was a little further down the street.  I don’t think I ever processed the name properly, and I can’t remember it now, but it’s the one where young Fryc played the organ when he was a teenager.  I could so easily picture that.

At yet another church down the street, I don’t remember its name, Mass was just finishing up, and a bunch of ladies in folk dresses were carrying baskets of bread down the center aisle, trailing the priest and altar boys.  They were followed by a fairly large procession, including a marching band with a dozen or so teenage players in matching red jackets.  The whole group proceeded down through the weekend market stalls lining the street to a stage that had been set up at Plac Zamkowy, where there were speeches, songs, and lots more people in colorful costumes.  It turned out to be a festival in honor of bread.  Well, they do have really excellent bread, so I can’t argue with that idea!  The whole thing was a lot like festivals my husband used to take part in as a kid in New Castle, Pennsylvania, except that the band he played with was mainly Italian– his old band even wore similar red jackets, and in fact was called the Red Coat Band.

The commemorative stone benches we’d heard about were scattered along the sidewalk.  You press a button and you get a recording of a Chopin piece, while you read something about his life and how the location was connected with him.  However, if it’s true that in some places the white stripes of pedestrian crossings had been painted like keyboards, as we had read, none of those were around in Old Town.

We had brought plenty of warm clothes, at least so we thought, but the hood of my jacket snugged over my fabric hat wasn’t doing it for me.  I bought an inexpensive scarf in purple, black and silver, blending with the deep plum of my jacket, and tied it over the hood and the hat.  That worked well enough for the temperature, but fashion-wise, I felt mortified.  “Good grief,” I thought.  “I’m the only woman in Warsaw who’s wearing a babushka!”  Most of the Poles were going without hats at all, because they simply weren’t cold on this sunny fall day.  I consoled myself with the thought that the fringed scarf would add nicely to my collection of hip wraps for belly dancing.

After a cup of excellent coffee with chai-like spices this afternoon, I developed a severe, painful intestinal illness, and was starting to wonder if I was going to get to the sights and events I wanted to see, including the Chopin competition.  I had the sense that the illness was infectious, not caused by the coffee or other foods.  After doing some acupuncture for myself, gulping herbs, and resting as long as I could, I ventured out to find the Chopin museum at the NIFC (Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina), the National Institute for all things Chopin, which was also within a very reasonable walking distance of the Harenda.  I was grateful to be able to make it that far.

Naturally The Man Who Has Everything has to have his own museum too, and it has been designed with every possible technological bell and whistle and is endlessly complicated.  In fact, although we are nearing the end of the “Chopin Year,” not all the exhibits are finished.  One thing that’s not quite ready is a set of interactive books, which are meant to display different electronic pages of information as you turn their blank physical pages.  When I visited, each book contained only one e-page, and the display seemed like a lot of effort for not much effect.  However, the technology was impressive in itself.

One high-tech display that I thought was very effective involved an Erard grand (1856, I think) and three books, each containing one piece.  If you chose a book and set it on the desk of the piano, a recording of the piece would play, along with a video of the pianist’s hands projected on the wall above the instrument.  I enjoyed that one especially and spent a lot of time with it.

The trouble was that there were a great many other audio displays as well, and at any given time a lot of them were blaring at once.  The place was a cacophony of battling recordings of music and speech.  What could be less appropriate for a museum dedicated to Chopin?  Surely he would clap his hands over his ears and run!  There were also quite a few displays that included headphones, but they didn’t make up for the headache-inducing sound level.  Since I was feeling poorly, it was all the harder to handle.

One of the headphone-based exhibits had to do with those bogus letters to Delfina Potocka, and was naturally of special interest to me.  I had to wait for a woman to go through the whole thing in Polish before I could hear it in English; at least I was able to briefly glimpse the original text of that one and only extant (genuine) letter from Delfina to Fryderyk, something I’ve wondered about.  The exhibit explained the process researchers had gone through in analyzing Paulina Czernicka’s “copies,” showing the marked-up texts and charts they had used. Surprisingly, it said that there had been no firm conclusion about whether or not the letters are for real.  That’s certainly not my understanding.  (If you want to know more, I’ve written about this elsewhere and can give you that information.)

In the midst of the Delfina exhibit, there was a blank spot that was supposed to contain a letter case belonging to her, but instead had a card that said the item was out having some kind of conservation work done.  My one chance to see an artifact that had actually belonged to the countess, and it was gone.

The display that spoke to me most strongly was another simple everyday item: Chopin’s schedule book from 1848.  I would have liked to see the actual pages, but it was only possible to see the cover and the lining– black leather and royal purple cloth.  (In case we were wondering whether he really did like purple.)

I had wanted to buy a cast of Chopin’s hand— been wanting one for years.  I know they exist, have even seen one close up at a pianist’s house, but I have never found any for sale.  I was hoping to find that at the store across from the museum.  They had pencils, chocolates, T-shirts, notecards, books, teacups, calendars, and buttons.  No hands.  Also, just as well, no noses!  (I’d seen ceramic effigies of his nose online, but none showed up in real life.)  They had plenty of copies of the National Edition of his works, too, and I considered buying the mazurkas, as I’d been meaning to do, but I decided there was no point carrying the book around and getting it bent in my suitcase.

Chopin's last Pleyel piano

10/4

Lenore got the intestinal thing a couple of days after I did, but I was able to treat her right away, and she didn’t have it as severely.  While that went on, we were sadly unable to try the interesting-sounding foods that were all around us.  I didn’t eat at all for over 24 hours, didn’t dare to try it.  We bought bottled water, too, just in case; I didn’t think the hotel’s tap water was dangerous, but I didn’t like the taste, and it seemed better to avoid anything that might be irritating.  (Let me state for the record that I do NOT support the sale of unnecessary bottled water in general.)  We couldn’t figure out where to find water or groceries, but it turned out that there was a store right next to the hotel, clearly marked “sklep,” a word I knew.  It didn’t fit my preconceived image of “grocery store,” and I just didn’t see it at first.  Anyway, if you ever have to buy bottled water in Poland, try Kropla Beskidu brand– best-tasting water ever.  The niegazowana kind, that is.  I wasn’t crazy about any of the sparkling waters, which were very bitter as far as I was concerned.

While I was resting and trying to get myself together, Lenore ventured across the river by tram, looking for a more ordinary neighborhood where average people lived.  It was a major challenge, because the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse.  The high temperature for the day was in the low 40s, with around 40 mph winds.  It was like January in Albuquerque, only with an April windstorm.  If I had to be sick and stay in, that seemed like a good day for it.

I never got around to seeing an average neighborhood, but my walk to the Chopin competition that afternoon put me in the midst of rush hour with a bajillion businesslike pedestrians who were striding so quickly I felt I was going to get run over.  The cars were easier to avoid than the hordes of people.  I wondered if it was the caffeine.  As with everything else I was wanting to see, the concert hall was within a decent walking distance of our hotel, even for someone feeling as poorly as I was.  Fortunately, by evening the winds had died down considerably.

The lobby at the Sala Koncertowa

At the competition they did have models of Chopin’s left hand, but theirs were white plastic and about 2/3 size.  Not the real thing.  A woman standing next to me looked sadly at them and said, “Mała.”  I nodded and made a “teensy” sign with my thumb and index finger.  “Very small,” the woman agreed in English.  We both nodded and walked away.  It seemed senseless to me that someone had bothered to actually sculpt a miniature of his hand when it would have been so simple to make new casts of the original one.

In the lobby on the upper floor of the hall, near the souvenirs, there was another sculpture, a large bust of Chopin that I thought didn’t come out well.  It is mostly very accurate in recording the facts of his face, but somehow at the same time it totally fails to look like him.  If he had lived another ten years, perhaps he might have looked rather like that, but it’s hard to imagine him so stern and so heavy-featured.

I heard eight first-round contestants, and the sound of those phenomenal players, on ideally excellent pianos, in a hall that showed them to advantage, was incredible.  It seemed to me that I had never heard pianos sound so multilayered and rich.  I listen to a great deal of piano music, but this was revelatory even for my somewhat jaded ears.  I will write more about the competition itself separately.

The stage at the competition

10/5

Eating breakfast felt like a huge accomplishment this morning.  I managed a bit of yogurt and some toast.  No espresso.  Still sadly impossible to try coffee.

Sushi tonight.  I had half-joked that I intended to have Japanese food in Warsaw, just because I can generally digest that well, better than heavy, greasy meat dishes.  I knew that there was a sushi restaurant here, but I would never have guessed that there are hundreds! It seemed like practically every business that was not a coffee shop was a sushi place.  We went to Oto Sushi on Nowy Świat, a few blocks from our hotel, which seemed like it might have been part of a chain.  On that block there were “only” two sushi places.  The miso soup was a little different from what I’m used to, and Lenore’s Thai chicken soup was not up to her standards, but the vegetarian futo maki was fine.  It came with about a quarter cup of pickled ginger—a little odd.  Very  artistically arranged food, though, and the place was attractive and convincingly Japanese in a properly spare way.

Earlier we had gone to Blikle, a bakery/restaurant/deli sort of place that’s been there since 1869 and is much renowned.  Ania had told me that we MUST have a pastry there.  We had a very respectable chocolate éclair and some tea, and ended up discussing politics and world history.  For some reason I fell into a state of feeling what it was like to live right there under all the oppressive governments of the past, simmering helplessly.  It felt like I was sort of sinking down into the archeological layers of the local group memory.  Not a really dramatic experience, but interesting.  I guess it is pretty much how I feel in America these days too, not specifically because of the present government, but because of the persistent hegemony of huge corporations and ultraconservative forces.  Anyway, I could relate.

We passed an office that, like a number of others, had a sign that said “Kancelaria Adwokacka.”   I guessed that this was a lawyer’s office.  “Yeah,’ lawyer’ always sounds like ‘avocado,’” said Lenore.  “Mmm, lawyer….”

One of the last sights we saw in Warsaw was the Salonik Chopinów, the salon of what used to be the Chopins’ home when Fryderyk was a teenager, in the former Lyceum building, now housing the university’s art school.  Finding the building, just down the street from the hotel, was quite simple, as it was clearly marked and had one of those singing information benches in front of it.  Finding the actual salon was insanely difficult, and was just one example of what seemed to us to be a national tendency to avoid putting up signs.  We walked around and around the outside of the building looking for the right entry; there was a sign giving days and hours, but nothing telling us where we should actually go.  Finally we went in the only possible door, nowhere near the sign on the outside of the building, where there was a little information booth with an older man sitting in it, and still nothing written.  He was able to tell us in English to go up to the second floor.  (Doesn’t he get sick of having to tell people this?)    On the second floor, we still found ourselves wandering around randomly, with Lenore feeling entranced by the floridly creative atmosphere of the art studios and classrooms.

We soon went down the correct hallway, where at last the room was marked.  The woman attending the place, who must have been terribly bored, took our entry fees (only 3 PLN), asked us what language we spoke, and gave us appropriate information sheets.  We were left to look around on our own.  None of the original furnishings were available, but the room was reconstructed based on a drawing that was done at the time the family lived there.  You can see pictures here:  http://www.warsawtour.pl/en/tourist-attractions/chopin-family-drawing-room-salonik-chopinow-2521.html You can also see it in that video that was around on YouTube earlier this year promoting Warsaw tourism, the one that had a little boy representing Frycek running around the city, but I don’t know how to find that at the moment.

I was interested particularly in the photos of Fryderyk’s nieces and nephews; we never see anything about how the family continued into the future, which of course it did.  I also enjoyed looking out the windows and seeing what the young man must have seen himself.  There are very attractive views, including the black and gold gates of the university.  Except for the presence of cars and buses, I don’t think the streetscape has changed a whole lot.

On the wall just outside the salon was a painting of the former resident, shirtless, tattooed, and impossibly muscular.  Not sure what to think about it, except that it’s clear that his image is constantly being transmogrified into whatever Poles feel they need at the moment.

Next we took a bus out of Old Town to Łazienki Park, named for the fact that it used to contain the royal baths.  The park is large and green and peaceful, and it has a substantial body of water in the middle.   I was immediately enchanted.  Only a few paces inside the park, we encountered the most charming tiny red squirrels one could imagine, and since we virtually never see squirrels in Albuquerque, we especially enjoyed them.  They seemed totally unafraid of humans.  One little guy with a floppy ear kept coming close up to us.  We didn’t have anything edible to give him, but he seemed to keep hoping.

In the middle of the park is a palace, which now houses a restaurant.   That’s Lenore with her huge messenger bag.

There is a scenic bridge and a stone stairway that goes down to the water.  Flocks of pretty, pure white birds wheeled above us.  They were so small and delicate-looking that it took us a while to realize that they were gulls.  (Yes, I do realize that the birds in the picture below are pigeons!)

I was also comforted throughout our stay in Warsaw by the presence of a great many crows, a species I feel a strong connection with.  They’re common in Albuquerque, and they made me feel more at home.

We looked for the famous statue of Chopin, but although we walked pretty much the length and breadth of the park, we were never able to find it, and eventually we found ourselves too cold and tired to keep looking.  As I said, there is often a curious lack of signs in Warsaw, and this was no exception.  I have not been impressed with that statue, in terms of artistic value, from what I’ve seen in pictures, but I’m told that the feeling around it is wonderful and that we really missed something worthwhile.

The same lop-eared squirrel greeted us on the way out.

Warsaw had a general air of high energy and cheeriness, an optimistic feeling, not what Lenore and I thought it would be like.  At least in the Old Town area, with its touristy, festive atmosphere, there was nothing that suggested the country had struggled out from under communism and oppression so recently.  The sense of national PTSD that I’ve often remarked upon also seemed absent, or at least never came to my attention, though again there was that brief experience at Blikle.

Except for the night that I was so ill, I never felt the slightest connection with the man who was the original inspiration for the whole trip.  Since I had experienced him so intensely in France on both previous occasions, this was a huge surprise.  I had expected that it would be easy to connect with him in places that had been so important in his life.  Probably I shouldn’t have been so surprised, though.  The extreme degree of concentration on him that’s been going on this year in that area may feel oppressive, and likely embarrassing as well.  He may want to stay as far away as possible.

The next morning, the hotel called us a cab to get to the Warszawa Centralna train station, which was a whole lot simpler than our original bus trip into town.  We’d been able to find the train schedule online, including the name of the main station in Kraków, and fortunately this first experience of an Eastern European train was not too confusing.  I was able to buy the tickets easily with my tiny vocabulary (and a credit card).  We’d learned the names for platforms and tracks.  There were even reasonable signs directing us.  It did appear that we’d inadvertently bought first class tickets– I know I didn’t specify that, and I forgot to ask– or perhaps all the seats were the same.  One way or the other, we had a little enclosed section of seats to ourselves, and I didn’t mind a bit.  The ride to Kraków was scenic and completely pleasant.  It was to be the most comfortable and least stressful leg of our journey.

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