Sunday, September 27, 2009

Prague, Budapest

I'm thinking about a phrase from my Skidmore notebooks, smth Lawrence Weschler had said: "Our brain secretes stories -- this is how we appropriate the world." Blogging about our trip, trying to describe what our experiences have been like, we're already constructing the first version of the story of our trip. The more we travel, the more aware we are about the construction of an interesting story at the moment that it unfolds. If we keep trying to follow the map straight from one sight to another, the story we're constructing is as straightforward as can be, simply "checking things off a map." The plot thickens the moment we put the map away and turn off the main street.

There's an art to making travel stories textured and complex. Sometimes it involves putting ourselves under unusual constraints (Howard Norman, for example, who followed the footsteps of a Japanese poet Basho -- that's hard core; or us, spending one night in London walking around from dusk till dawn). Sometimes it involves simply talking to people, asking questions, pursuing leads. The other day when we walked up to Frank Gehry's Dancing House in Prague, we saw a sign that said "Admission to the top is free if you buy cocktail of the day from cafe Celesete." So we walked into cafe Celesete and Dave asked the bartender: "What's the cocktail of the day?" The bartender got excited: "Watermelon! I invented it myself. Have you seen that movie, Get Shorty? With Danny DeVito? Danny DeVito's perfect in that. There's one scene where he orders a drink--it was not watermelon, but I was thinking of that movie and came up with this drink!" He proceeded to make the drink, throwing the mixing cup into the air a-la Tom Cruise and spilling half of it on his apron and the floor. Not because he was incompetent, simply flamboyant. We and another couple who happened to wander into the cafe at the same time watched him, mesmerized.

Equipped with the our drinks, the four of us rode the elevator to the top, 7th floor. The Dancing House consists of two parts, one roughly looking like a man with a spiky head, and the other is a woman with her skirt swinging. The guidebooks provide a nickname, Fred and Ginger. The elevator dropped us off at a white tablecloth restaurant still setting up for dinner from which we walked out on the terrace around Fred's head. The sun was shining. Vltava river spread before us, a castle on the opposite side, old town in front of us, Soviet apartment buildings towering on the horizon. There were boats on the Vltava, catamarans and wooden swans. We exchanged cameras with the other couple and took pictures of each other. The fancy drinks were quickly warming up our tongues. The other couple was from Sweden, he an architect, infatuated with Gehry, and she described herself as a farmer. The discount airlines are so cheap, that it costs them more to take a cab to downtown Prague from the airport than to fly from Stockholm. They flew in Friday night and were going back Sunday morning. They are both in their 50s, together only for 6 years. Her husband had died, and she has three adult children who inherited his pig farm. Two oldest children run the farm, and the third one, a 14-year old, stays at home with her. Her architect partner "makes the big bucks" and so buys the weekend trip tickets, and her job is to find a home for the teenager while they are away. Teenagers, when not properly looked after, can make very expensive damage. Their friends have a house in Seattle, and--we were one step away from exchanging emails with them, inviting them to visit, getting invited to visit Sweden. What stopped us? I don't know. The sun was getting low, and we had lots of other sights to see. We left, and they waved at us from the top of Fred's head.

Perhaps, I tend to think too much of the fleeting connections we make on the road. Other people's stories enrich my own, and I can't get enough of them. I write not so much because I have something to say but because of this constant compulsion to storytelling. The stories we hear on the road carry particular significance because travelers have to find the common language with each other fast, in a matter of minutes. At lunch at the beergarten and hotel where we stayed in Prague, U Medvidcu, we met two women traveling in Eastern Europe from Japan. Mother and daughter. They were sampling the local beer and were curious about the beer we were drinking. They were going to shop for some Czech crystal because it was good (although not as intricate as Hungarian) and seemed cheap. The daughter (about 22 years old) was interested in sampling the street food, something with chocolate and caramel that we looked for later but didn't find. Mother had been an exchange student at Stanford in 1979 when the band Chicago was still good; daughter had studied in Italy for a year. They live in central Japan -- they didn't mention the name of the city. The daughter's father is an American. They had already been to Budapest and further south in Croatia, so they advised us to take a boat tour on the Danube and/or take a boat instead of train from Budapest to Vienna. Also, to bargain with the tour guides. And when we're in Japan, we must try shōchū, the Japanese vodka.

Our first day in Budapest was packed with stories. The first thing we found on our walk through the town was a synagogue, and since it appeared closed, we sat down in a cafe in front of it. We ordered breakfast and Dave went to walk around the temple, to see when it was going to be open. Apparently, we were there on the day of Yom Kippur, and the synagogue was closed for the day. In front of it, Dave met a young woman who invited us to attend the services. She showed him the tree of life in the back of the building, closed in by a metal fence, and explained: antisemitism was rising again in the last few years in Hungary. Which was also why the building was surrounded by a dozen of security guards that day. Sandra was going home to have a traditional feast with her mother, and then was coming back later.

The young man working at a cafe across the street from the synagogue gave us our first lesson in Hungarian: how to say "thank you" -- köszönöm [køsønøm]. We saw him again later in the day, when we came back later in the day to attend the Yom Kippur services. Dave had a camera with him, which was apparently against the rules (silly, because every cell phone comes with a camera these days -- and everyone inside had a cell phone), so he went across the street to leave the camera at the cafe, and the young man was still working there. Apparently, he works 15 hour shifts 2-3 days a week. He has another job, tutoring students in math and physics, and another job building websites, and he is a student himself at two different universities, studying physics and computer security at the same time. He was asking Dave what was going on at the synagogue: he noticed that it was closed, but wasn't sure why, and when Dave tried to explain, he seemed surprised by the idea that Jews had special holidays.

At the synagogue, we also met Pam from Canada. She also had a camera with her, and had to follow Dave's lead to go across the street to the cafe, to leave her camera there. She was also doing a similar trip around Eastern and Central with a small group. They traveled by bus and train, and went to Krakow and Prague and also to a few different small villages and hiked in the Carpathian mountains. We talked to her about genealogy for some reason. Her family is originally from Poland and Lithuania, and she has a cousin who's really into genealogy, so he does all the research about that.

Dave gives more details on what we've actually seen & done in the last two days in Prague and Budapest.

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