Sunday, May 27, 2007

28 years on

We interrupt the debriefing of the New Central Europe voyage for a brief trip down memory lane: I just realized that today is the 28th anniversary of my undergraduate graduation from Georgetown University. I don't remember too much about it, because everyone was packing Champagne, lots of Champagne, but I somehow remember the date. I also recall and will bring to everyone's attention the Pound poem that the GU President, Fr. Tim Healy, S.J., quoted in his valedictory to the class of l979:

"O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop
With the little bright boxes
piled up neatly on the shelves
And the loose fragrant cavendish
and the shag
and the bright Virginia
loose under the bright glass cases,
And a pair of scales not too greasy
And the whores dropping in for a word or two in passing,
for a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.

O God, O Venus, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop
Or install me in any profession
Save this damn'd profession of writing,
where one needs one's brains all of the time."

Fr. Healy closed by hoping that our years at Georgetown, "like Pound's 'damn'd profession of writing,' had so changed us that we would need our brains and know how to use them for all the rest of the time God had given us." I don't know whether I was changed to that extent, but I do know that nothing since has been as exacting, as difficult or downright Darwinian as that school by the Potomac. Georgetown did not kill me, so it must have made me a lot stronger.

What did your undergraduate experience do for/to you?

And this is La Dolce Vita?!

The long and short of Mollydog's first installment is: Happiness is Croatia in your rear view mirror! As she pointed out, they have a ways to go there on several levels before approaching the Slovenian post-Yugoslavia standard...

But back, back, back to Italia, the first stop on this voyage of discovery in the New Central Europe. The only trouble with the New Central Europe is that you can really only fly conveniently to Vienna or Budapest, and we wanted to end UP in Budapest, so we headed for Malpensa airport--which, if you go by the French, means "bad thought," not a good sign--and the city of Milan, which some people will know from the Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano cookies. The Italians call it Milano...they just have to add extra vowels to everything. Anyway, we boarded a very slow, ponderous bus for Central Station and were on our way east within a couple of hours.

Train stations, like shopping malls, tend to look the same. If you're jet-lagged, you tend to forget where you are from time to time. At Venezie station, though, there was no forgetting, because suddenly we were observing the close interaction between a young woman and her boyfriend across the train platform. With all the groping and face-sucking going on, you might've been tempted to yell, "get a room," but then the young woman lit a cigarette. From that time on, she took little face-sucking breaks to inhale deeply from the cigarette and blow some quality smoke in the direction of the stopped train. We really wondered which she preferred--her boyfriend or the cigarette!

Further on, a woman sitting across from us struck up a conversation in passable English. She wondered where we were going, and we told her--Slovenia. She made a face and asked how it was that we could skip Italy. We said we hadn't come to visit Italy. Undeterred, she launched into an Italian chamber-of-commerce spiel about how much history, architecture, culture, cuisine and delight could be found in Italy. Unthinkable to pass it by, even if you never intended to visit. We tried to explain our interest in the new, rather than the old, Europe, but she cut us off. "There's nothing to see in Slovenia," she concluded, dismissing us with a little wave of her hand. That was a blast from the always read about italian-slovenian animosity stemming from territorial disputes, and here it was in the flesh, undergirded by haughtiness and arrogance.

The Italy we glimpsed on our way to Slovenia wasn't the stuff of legend we had so often heard about at fact, we were nonplussed by it and wondered how we had missed the spirit of "La Dolce Vita" that is supposed to envelop you the moment you step onto Italiano soil...

Saga of the Stolen Wiener Schnitzel

So far, you’ve been given the officially sanctioned “brain box” (as The Economist has so graphically designated anyone with a PhD) travelogue account. Now a bit from the non-“brain box” reporter. Today you’ll read about an incident that even the most inclusive travel books won’t address. (And I dare say, even Rick Steves didn’t see this one coming.) And so begins the rather touching “Saga of the Stolen Wiener Schnitzel”. Where does one begin this tale of woe? How about in the middle of a Ljubljana street intersection where we both simultaneously spotted that glaring beacon in the sky? Well, actually it was a rather nondescript sign somewhat precariously perched on the ubiquitous signpost. But nonetheless, there it was for all to see. Zagreb – 135 Km! Perhaps being a bit less geographically challenged than the average American, we already saw the Croatian writing on the wall, or rather yet another stamp to be ceremoniously grafittied into our passports. (The fact that one of us possesses a passport that is desperately deficient in blank pages, a situation that required more than one border guard to frantically page through in hopes of finding a pristine spot suitable for his country’s official scribble, did little to deter us.) After all, we had already traveled at least 6,000 miles. What was another 135 kilometers? So off to the train station ticket counter, where we, rather skillfully I might add, navigated the train schedule (ok, so the agent quickly reverted to English), expertly handed over our Euros (ok, so we had a little trouble with the denominations of the coinage, but I swear we didn’t look like tourists who trustfully extend their coin-filled palms for the natives to take what they deem appropriate), and soon we were lollygagging our way into yet another country in hopes of seeing a few sites and partaking of the local cuisine for dinner. Yep, all was so perfectly planned. We’d be back in Ljubljana, none the worse for wear, by midnight to catch the 2 a.m. train to Budapest. After duly pilgrimaging to the shrine dedicated to that great humanitarian Croatian saint, Cardinal Stepinac (I’ll defer to the official chronicler here who can tell you the “rest of the story”), we plunked ourselves down at the nearest outdoor eatery to sample a bit of the Croatian culinary delights. And of course, that great European staple, the Wiener Schnitzel, was duly offered. Practically weaned on this pork (also available in veal, but my admittedly highly selective PETA conscious prevents me from indulging in such) delicacy, I naturally had to order this menu selection. And as usual, I was not disappointed. There it was in all its breaded and fried splendor, overhanging, as customary, the large dinner plate. (This reminds me of another great Schnitzel story, there are so many, but that’s another story. ) A gleaming mound of pommes frites completed this culinary ensemble. And try as I might, I was sated after consuming ½ (ok, ¾) of the presented portion. Setting our plates aside, we proceeded to relax in the Zagrebian splendor (ok, despite what I felt to be an almost obscene display of new BMW SUVs and the incarnation of a Sheraton Hotel, the city is shabby indeed and has a way to go before the EU will give it the nod). And then in our peripheral vision, we spotted her; a little, old, alcohol-fueled Croatian woman effortlessly meandering among the tables. No doubt identifying us as “easy” foreign targets (it was the shoes that gave us away every time), she proceeded to communicate to us in her native tongue. Lacking the linguistic skills to respond intelligently, we merely nodded and smiled in hopes of expediting her departure. These benign theatrical gestures did the trick. Within seconds she had hightailed off into the mean back alleys of Zagreb, but not before covertly snatching what remained of my Wiener Schnitzel. It all happened so quickly, before we knew it. We could only gasp at the sheer audacity of this culinary crime, committed in the broad Croatian daylight. (Well, ok, the sun was getting a bit low by dinnertime.) However, two little old, outwardly respectable, Croatian ladies (who had managed to scarf down their huge dinners with little fanfare as well, but unfortunately had to top off the meal with a few smokes) were clearly outraged and quickly summoned the waiter to complain of this unacceptable behavior. (Apparently, this was not, as we suspected, some quaint local custom.) In his broken English, the waiter inquired as to whether I had had enough dinner. In our perfect English, we quickly assured him, that I had indeed finished my meal and bore no grudge against his august eating establishment. Secure in the knowledge that he had not irreparably jeopardized Croatian-American diplomatic relations, he bowed slightly and returned to attend to his duties. Slightly shaken by the experience, we paid the bill and, somewhat self-righteously assuming a stiff upper lip (after all we had been victimized), tramped to the station to board the train back to Slovenia and further adventures abroad. Stay tuned for the next “unofficial” installment: “A Red Light Means Stop, Even in Slovenia” or “What Happens When a Volkswagen Encounters a Tour Bus on a One Lane Highway”.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Vertigo on Vrstic Pass

Sunday morning in Ljubljana and headed for the Croatian capital, Zagreb, for a quick walking tour this afternoon. Then it is on to budapest at 0200 tomorrow on the venezie express.

Yesterday, we joined thousands of other holidaymakers in heading for the Slovene Adriatic, specifically Piran, a lovely seacoast town with a venetian walled inner city area. We had never seen dubrovnik or any of the other towns and cities associated with Venetia and Lombardy, those consequential Italian states, so it was a real revelation. We were getting very international, communing with Italians(they used to own the place after all), Germans, French, Slovenes, Croats and the occasional Serbs even. it was all very cosmopolitan and certainly multilingual. we thought the Italians cut the widest swath with their beach clothing, or lack thereof, and demeanor.

The previous day was quite a milestone in my Europa driving education. We rented a car because we were unhappy with the train schedule, in fact getting to Kobarid/Caparetto would have been impossible if we had not gotten the auto. We did not have a great idea of distances, but we wanted to maximize our ability to see things, so we headed first for Lake Bled, the spectacular body of water with several small islands in it, one of which features a 14th century church. That was predictably impressive...all superlatives apply there. afterward, we decided in our wisdom that we would head for Kobarid, over the mountains in the Soca river valley. Our cheery rental agent had told us that it was a "little bit windy," as in winding, but that the mountain drive posed no major problems. The trip began with us nearly veering into Austria when the exit we were to take ended up closed, with no indication where the detour began. Once we backtracked and found our way, the Vrstic pass adventure began. This is basically a drive over and through the Slovene Julian alps, so we had visions of something like traversing the Sierra Nevadas at home. Alas, no comparison there at all. We found ourselves on a "road" narrower than the one that goes to pullman that had us doing hairpin turns every two or three minutes up the steepest incline i have ever experienced. That would have been challenging all by itself, but we were joined by bicyclists, walkers, suicidal german motorcylists and other vehicles, all competing for space on a road narrower than the one to Pullman from Walla Walla. It was, to put it mildly, hair-raising, and we were cursing the other roadsters in very unacademic language at each near- miss collision. it was not just scary, of course...when we did dare to look up from this "road," we beheld the most spectacular mountain scenery i had ever seen in my life. About halfway to the summit, we glimpsed a chapel built in memory of russian prisoners of war killed by an avalanche in l9l6 as they worked along this "road"...a very sobering and impressive sight. Stop the car, pull the brake tight, everybody out for photos! All along this drive, we struggled to imagine soldiers trying to schlep cannon, supplies and horses up this the car lurched and careened around every twist and turn, i found it all impossible to imagine.

Needless to say, we finally did make our way down off the pass to land in the soca valley, a most spectacular passage between two high sets of peaks, and the Kobarid museum, site of the crucial Caparetto struggle of l9l7. The museum was fully deserving of its reputation as one of the greatest in europe. But we felt the experience of the shock and awe drive over Vrstic was an incomparable and irreplaceable element of the is one thing to see the old pictures, inspect the weaponry and hear the testimonies, quite another to try to navigate their route, even with the most modern automotive technology. It gave us new and far deeper respect for the feats of the soldiers who fought on the eastern front of that awful conflict.

historical gotta be there!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sweet Slovenia

The travelers have arrived in Slovenia, after a long trip from pasco to salt lake city to atlanta to milan to venice to ljubljana yesterday. slovenia is a wonderful slice of europe, small, friendly and accommodating, and we walked most of it today. tomorrow we will drive to bohinj and bled, scene of spectacular waterfalls and lakes and a font of slovenian culture, after which we will head for kobarid and return to the world war once again, just a week or so after the last class. we also hope to hit the adriatic coast before leaving for budapest at 0200 monday morning. the survey of the new europe continues...once again, very much worth the effort for anyone interested in recent history. there is a lot to contemplate here, also a lot of fine wine to be consumed and kul'tchah to be imbibed. over and out, ciao!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Fond memories of the "Flying Hooligan"

It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since i was taking the measure one fine evening of Moscow at its best --in late May--and glimpsed an American-made small plane parked near St. Basil's Cathedral, just off Red Square. I couldn't really believe what I was seeing, so I crossed the Square for a closer look. A policeman moved menacingly toward me, so I made a simple, declarative statement. "That's an American airplane." The policeman looked daggers at me and said, "yes." I then asked, "what is it doing here?" He replied, without batting an eye, "they're making a movie." "Oh, okay," I said. Why not? What else would an American-made small aircraft be doing near the heart of Moscow? The Cold War was very much with us still, in spite of the Gorbachev-Reagan jetset summiteering all over the planet.

I returned to my hotel to learn the real story--not from the news, of course, but from friends affiliated with the American embassy. It seems a young man from Germany had rented a plane in Finland and lied to Finnish air controllers about his destination, which was not Sweden, but the USSR(!). He flew all the way from Helsinki to the bridge that connects one side of the Moscow river with the Kremlin, coming to a stop near St. Basil's, in a few hours. He encountered virtually no opposition, save some token surveillance from a MIG fighter when he crossed into Soviet air space. The most delicious irony of all was that he pulled off this sensational feat on, of all things, BORDER GUARD DAY. This is the day when the Soviet Union honored the men in green hats that rummage through your luggage at customs, who guard the Soviet borders with their faithful dogs, who do their best to keep citizens from doing a runner on the Motherland. I guess all the Guards were out partying 'til they puked, maybe, because no one was on duty to do anything about "the flying hooligan," as the police who arrested Mathias Rust termed him. He had a free pass almost all the way into the heart of Moscow!

Even though the press immediately went into high dudgeon at this outrage--not at the border guards, but against this successor of the German Fascist invaders--Gorbachev got, and took, the opportunity to fire several officials who were opposing his plans for reforming the Soviet Union. It was a good day for him in the end. It was also an endless source of amusement to Soviet citizens cynical about, or contemptuous of their government, mainly in Moscow. But I remember it best for the fact that in the end, Rust pulled a huge fast one, a prank for the ages, on a bunch of Soviet paperpushers who never had come close to knowing the meaning of the word "humiliation." For once, these awful people, these bureaucrats who only knew how to say no and obstruct and oppress people, stood before the world with egg all over their face.

In some ways, that's the greatest thing I've ever seen happen in the Twilight Zone/Black Hole of Europe. I smile every time I think about it, which is often. Long live Mathias Rust, the Flying Hooligan!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The women are coming!

There's a lot of talk in some circles about differences between the US and Europe. For example, Europeans tend to be more secular, more skeptical, easier about some of the culture war issues we see here, like gay rights. European people do not think it's such a big deal, whereas here in Oregon, we're going to have a petition drive to try to overturn legislation that grants domestic partners some of the rights that married couples have.

One thing that is very different about Europe, though, is the strict segregation of certain professions. For example, in Hungary, with a couple rare exceptions, you do not see waitresses in upscale restaurants. Only men are waiters in places like the legendary Gundel or Carpathia in Budapest. If you watch the Vienna Philharmonic on TV, you have noticed in the past that there were no women among the players. There hadn't been any, except maybe for the harpist, and it just wasn't done.

All this is changing, or at least being challenged seriously. A few years ago, a lone female broke through the gender barrier to become the first female waiter in Venice, and women suddenly appeared in the New Year's concert of the Vienna Philharmonic; now, a young Venetian woman has set her sights on becoming a gondolier, a member of the cadre of people who row people around the city, which is literally on the water. She hasn't had an easy time of it, but she hasn't given up yet, and chances are good she will break through eventually.

It's surprising to us, since we're used to the "no limits" approach to careers, but it's fun to watch from afar.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Happy Victory Day, l945-2007

Let me be the first to wish everyone Happy Victory Day--Den' pobedy in the Russian language. May 9 is the day on which all Russians mark the greatest achievement of their 20th century, the improbable and smashing victory against what they still call German Fascist invaders.

Those veterans still among us will wear their fruit salad on their civilian clothes and walk just a bit taller than usual. The St. Petersburg symphony orchestra will play the Shostakovich 7th symphony, in memory of the dead of the Leningrad blockade. Most likely, every TV channel will replay those immortal pictures of Zhukov galloping into Red Square on his white steed, amidst all those captured banners being hurled at the entrance to Lenin's tomb. And everyone else will be enjoying a long and leisurely May weekend, since that's what these Soviet-era holidays have turned into--the bank holiday/federal holiday/3-day-at-least weekend, a classic Hallmark card event. There's nothing quite like Moscow in May. I highly recommend it on May 9 or any other May day.

I just wish we had a different individual leading us in marking this momentous occasion.

Serious cognitive dissonance

We've all heard from time to time about radical Islam's ambiguous relationship with the west and its technology and culture. The BBC has unearthed a treasure of an example of this, on an Al-Aqsa children's program. Who knew that Mickey Mouse could be convinced to help Palestinian children resist "Zionist occupation?" I guess it wasn't enough to get the kids to brush their teeth or eat their veggies.

The only incident richer than this one recently involved the use of English and the Internet, both part and parcel of American life, by jihadis to communicate across countries and languages. English--the common language of jihad!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Hungarians heading for the Elysee Palace...

Hungarians everywhere are rejoicing in the victory of Nicholas Sarkozy, son of Hungarian immigrants, in the French Presidentlal election. I know that everybody I talked to a couple of weeks ago in New York was rooting strongly for the "home team," just as they do whenever and wherever Hungarian music is played. Hungarians are very tight and they stick together, no matter what. They even have their own HNN, Hungarian News Network, through which they manage to find out about any event within 200 miles of their location that involves Hungary.

I'm all for Hungarians anywhere. They're a great group. But I can't help wondering what implications Sarko's victory has for female candidates this year, namely the Segolene Royal of America, Hillary Clinton? I don't really know whether you can compare the two contests, but Royal was an attractive, competent candidate, which at least hints at trouble on the horizon for Mrs. Clinton in 2008.

Any thoughts?

HRH Prince Philip, the Puncturer of Protocol

I've said many times that I have a dirty little secret, very lowbrow and unacademic: I follow the British Royal family religiously, or almost. Anything royal in the newspapers or bookstores, I'm there--except, of course, for Princess Diana the Ditz. I have absolutely no interest in her.

It goes without saying that I would treasure an invitation to lunch or dinner or--best of all--a weekend at Windsor or Balmoral with the Queen. But it might be even more interesting to spend some with the Queen's husband, Prince Philip, because he seems to believe that his duty is to unstuff any stuffy, protocol-bound occasion. Here's a sampling of the Prince's work:

Chatting with a blind woman outside Exeter Cathedral in England, the Prince joked, "Do you know they now do eating dogs for the anorexic?"

On a visit with aborigines in New Zealand, HRH asked them if they still threw spears at one another.

Inspecting a DMV office in Scotland, Philip asked one examiner, "How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them past the test?!"

I don't know what it is about bad boys, crazy uncles, let-er-rip oldsters and damn-the-torpedoes professional outrages, but I'm drawn to them. I'll be scouring the papers for news of HRH's antics at the state dinner President Bush is giving for the royals early this week in Washington. Maybe the Prince has a tablecloth trick or two up his sleeve? We can only hope.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The past--prologue, maybe, but maybe not even past

Marjorie Ajemian Ahnert is a first-time author whose memoir of her mother, "A Knock at the Door," has been published to critical acclaim. She happily accepted an invitation to do a reading at a New York City Barnes and Noble, where authors generally get literate and appreciative audiences. Chances are excellent that whatever time of day you go in a B and N in New York, someone will be reading from his or her new book and taking questions. In any event, Ahnert had just begun her reading when HECKLERS rudely interrupted her and began shouting that there was no genocide, this was all lies--and they even had leaflets. It seems they believed she was insulting Turkishness, and they were not going to let her continue. Here is the full story, but the old rule is operative here: the past ain't past, for Armenians, Turks or Americanized versions thereof.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Vacation, all I ever wanted(?!)

Now that finals are over, it's time to contemplate that long-delayed hiatus from school, work and annoying family members. Oh, sorry, scratch that last item: the London Times suggests that the best thing you can do with dysfunctional or feuding families is take EVERYBODY on a BOATING vacation--you know, the kind where you can't get away from them. You can review the case for this somewhat unlikely option here

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Graduation or gladiation next Friday?

When I first heard of the upcoming outdoor graduation at WSUTC, I was happy to contemplate attending a ceremony on the banks of the beautiful river, rather than having to schlep over to a soulless conference facility. But yesterday, one of the publicans here at Blogside Inn brought up a troublesome question: what about the weather? I declared that I was certain there was a plan B, in case it turned bad. The publican said no, there IS no plan B--or rather, plan B is...BRING YOUR UMBRELLA.

I have a little smirk on my face as I remember all the Pendleton High School graduations plagued with terrible weather well into June. There was the mini-hurricane of June l970, for example, in which graduates were punished with gale-force winds, horizontal rains and freezing temperatures...they were chasing hats, sheet music, diplomas, and getting soaked. Pure pandemonium broke on that fateful evening, well before the first class speaker. The weather is known to be capricious around here, so I'm wondering about that plan B...what if it's the kind of day when umbrellas won't help you? I'll get my monkey suit ruined!!

Anyone interested in a bet on the weather for the Day? Will it be graduation from college or gladiation against the forces of Mother Nature??

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

A timely tape?

News reports this morning indicate that survivors of the Kent State University shootings, the anniversary of which we mark this week, have turned up a previously undiscovered audio tape on which an unidentified National Guard commander gives the order to fire on student protesters.

This is a very disturbing find, because previously it was believed that one or two National Guard soldiers panicked under verbal and physical assault by student protesters and fired, setting off one or two others nearby. In other words, the shootings were thought to be the product of confusion and chaos, not anything deliberate or pre-meditated. If law enforcement officials can identify the individual who gave the order, I think he should face charges of using excessive force, if not murder or manslaughter.

All this comes on the morning of the Vietnam war final exam...the tragedy of that misbegotten conflict continues.