Of Caves and Graves

Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.

Our first day in Prague, we’re able to leave our BnB on the sixth floor safely, though this might be the world’s oldest elevator. The building we’re staying in is swank, but somehow disjointed, with a giant stair case entrance, and huge stairwells with stained glass windows. We wander along the river. Building after building displays intricate beautiful stone work, reflecting the fashion of the early twentieth century. The Art Nouveau facades are peach, sage-green, ivory, and occasionally, Pepto-Bismol pink. Curlicues writhe around windows, tall doors are ornamented with knockers. The shops have signs in Czech; not until we reach the tourist part is there information in English. Unlike cities like Munich, there are no bikes or mopeds, but traffic doesn’t seem especially heavy. The Charles Bridge is predictably crowded; we save walking it for another day and continue on to the Old Town, Staré Město, where the city hall, currently undergoing renovation, glowers behind the scaffolding. Its tower is rusty-colored and has a Game of Thrones feel. Nearby, the ornate doors show lion’s heads. Looking carefully, I notice one of the lions has something in its mouth.

Lion's mouth

Right. Don’t get on the bad side of the ruling class.

Our culinary adventure starts when we pass a place called Terroir. I love the concept of terroir. Soil and weather conditions combine to give grapes from each locale a unique flavor. Later that concept by was broadened by locovores to apply to vegetables and fruits. Terroir repudiates the idea of industrialized factory farming. We have to take a look inside this place.

dinner in the cave

We choose to sit in the wine cellar, surrounded by many bottles of fine French vintage. This early in the evening, we’re the only ones there. It’s magical and private; the thick walls of this twelfth century walls enveloping us in silence and shadows. The atmosphere lets us concentrate on my tasty sea bass and exquisite wine. I get a Chardonnay from Burgundy that’s so creamy on my tongue, it seems to spread. The carrots are thin slivers of taste explosion, and pureed parsnips add a nutty sweetness. Even better, the editor spouse and I can hear each other without having to lean over and raise our voices. We spend a relaxed couple of hours chatting intermittently with the sommelier about French elections.

Europe’s largest ghetto was in Prague, and before World War 2, 55,000 Jews lived there. Exploring the ghetto is a fascinating experience. Instead of the twisty small streets and miserable dwellings, we see broad streets lines with shops, the houses the usual gorgeous Art Nouveau style. We visit four of the synagogues on the tour, all four of them very different. What unites them is that none seem to be used regularly for worship. I reread my Rick Steves travel guide, and now a few facts jump out at me. The ghetto was razed in 1897, and the original 220 buildings replaced by 83 buildings. This was a good time for Jews, who had thrived economically with the more tolerant conditions. In the Spanish Synagogue, there are vitrines displaying the industrialist tycoons, glassmakers, writers, and artists of the Belle Époque. The very first man whose photograph I study died in Terezin, the concentration camp. It makes me unbearably sad. He probably enjoyed his prosperous respectability, never dreaming what was in store.

Of those 55,000 Jews in Prague, 10,000 survived the Holocaust. Pinkas Synagogue is a reminder of that. The names engraved on the wall by hand, of each person who perished, is poignant. The tracery of letters, black and reddish, form a startlingly beautiful weave over the plain beige sturdy walls. A sacred atmosphere is created out of this web of memory, the monumental loss of life somehow elevated, not trivialized, in this list. There are only 1700 registered Jews in Prague now, according to Rick Steves. Do they live in the gorgeous buildings surrounding the synagogues? Perhaps not, because the houses of worship are no longer a place where the living congregate. They have turned into memorials.

Pinkus syn

The graveyard itself is massive, but more in bulk that in actual area. For more than 300 years, Jews were only allowed to bury their dead in this area, so bodies were buried on top of other bodies. Gravestones are crowded, or lean to the side, or have the only their tips poke out of the ground that’s covered them with successive interments. The stones, blackened with moss and lichen, reflect back the patterns on the mottled bark of the tall trees growing here and there. The stones seem to replicate the haphazard nature of personality; forced into community, there are some that lean together, huddled, supported by each other, while others seem to draw back into whatever space they can find in the crowded monuments of the dead. The area is bleached of life, except for the green of the leaves, and yet the emptiness and absence feels full. The passage of time, the idea of many lives, these abstruse concepts seem to vibrate in the air and make it heavy.

Graves

The Belle Époque was a period of gaiety, the Can Can in Paris, the beautiful women and flowers in Mucha’s paintings evoking the idea that style can obscure the dread that underlies so much of life. The grand gold and saffron colored houses still line the streets, offering high-end fashion, coffee, apartments for the well-off. Life goes on.

But we will not forget the graves.

 

Of Origins and Onerous Ascents

IMG_0490Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.

Oh, it really wasn’t that onerous. But it was hot, and the 500-meter ascent (a third of a mile) of the mountain of Mythen took place in little over an hour.

It’s summer, and time to explore Switzerland, the home of my fictional heroine, chemistry prodigy Peppa Mueller. Though Peppa is apolitical, she’s proud of her homeland, especially after further misadventures land her in the political chaos of Ireland and Northern Ireland during the height of the 1950s IRA campaign.

Switzerland officially began with a written agreement, a pact, between representatives of rural communities in 1291. Their names are recorded: Werner Stauffacher, Walter Fürst, and Arnold Von Melchtal. The country of Switzerland is called Schweiz in the native Swiss-German dialect, and the state that Werner Stauffacher came from was called Schwyz, so plainly, the country is named after that first kernel. Schwyz and the states from which the other men came were collectively known as “forest communities.” Each of the leaders brought ten men. We’re not talking a huge, well-equipped army here. I imagine a mostly illiterate group of clannish men, with pitchforks and scythes as weapons. Then, as now, the Swiss just wanted to be left alone to tend to their cows and fortunes.

Schwyz and the other two states, Uri, and Nidwalden, are tiny, even for Switzerland, which is itself the size of New Hampshire. They’re known as the inner part of Switzerland. Though the landscape is mountainous, the mountains pale in comparison to the western and southern parts of the country. “Big” Mythen, which I climbed, is 1811 meters, (almost 6000 feet), but in the western state of Graubünden many peaks are over 3000 meters. Mythen is composed of a big peak and a smaller one; the big one rises starkly out of the still wooded landscape, a tower of reddish rock. The ascent, built by a local man in 1864 for the sum of 3000 francs, consists of steps hewn into the rock. Since a few accidents took place, the ascent has been additionally secured with chain railings. It’s steep, but safe, though I wouldn’t recommend it in rain. The Swiss Alpine Club designates it as T3.

IMG_0498

Once at the top, there is, as always, food and libation to be had. The hospitality is not as warm as in a family-run establishment, but it’s cozy enough, and has the usual wine, local cheeses, and homemade fruit pie (Kuchen). The lowlands lie spread beneath, dotted over with the crystalline sapphire blue of various lakes.

View from Mythen

A brief rain squall drives us all inside, where I notice the heraldic emblems on each chair. Apparently, all the donors of the association that manages the restaurant have their own family crests. The surly little man running the place tells me that everyone has a family crest. His own family has been in the area since the sixteenth century.

Heraldic emblem on chairback
Heraldic emblem on chairback

I get ready to descend, noting that the bathrooms cost exactly one franc. Since I don’t have a coin of that denomination, I’m looking forward to reaching the thick old forest that surrounds the peak. After a lovely wander through pines and thickly mossed rocks, I head down to the town of Schwyz (in the state of Schwyz). A few examples of lovely architecture grace the old town.

Door, town of Schwyz
Door, town of Schwyz

Adaptation

Consider this: You’re raised by a former New York artist and a Swiss actress, who then converts full-heartedly to Hinduism. Your older half-sisters live in Brooklyn with their Jewish mother. Your older Swiss cousin absconds to Thailand, your younger Swiss cousin moves to Greece. You have no siblings or relatives nearby to show you the ropes as your tiny family moves all across the globe.

Now it is 1975 and you’re a bewildered teenager in the U.S.A. You do not know who Sonny and Cher are. You’re forbidden to wear blue jeans. Your schoolmates laugh at you often, and not from your own instigation.

You become an informal social anthropologist. You develop a life-long fascination with parsing cultural signifiers, including clothing styles, media preferences, and body language. Just the body language of a region can yield many observations: do people merely purse their lips when they are displeased, or will you get a tongue-lashing if you step in it? How long should you hold eye contact? What’s merely flirting, and what constitutes a blatant come-on that will get you in hot water?

And yet, the more you observe, the less you crave a full-scale adaptation. Certainly, you concede, a quick nod to cultural norms is indicated. You will not bare your midriff in a church, you will not laugh like a braying donkey with your Swiss friends, you will not be reserved and chilly on your vacation in Ireland. But the more you #travel, the less you care about fitting in. You have never fit in, you will never fit in; you could never squeeze all your multicultural experiences under one hat.

Local community thrives on continuity and provides security, but it exacts a price. You cannot reinvent yourself, you must plod through the steps of being who you are, there are expectations and webs that wind themselves around you.

Remain free.

The world is full of people like you: born one place and living in another. That is your community. Those who adapt, and adapt again, but remain true to what’s inside.

Dedicated to Hilarie B.

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