Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Return to Prague: You can’t step in the same river twice.

Tyn Church overlooking Old Town Square

I fell in love with Prague in 1989; at the time, I was expecting a beautiful city with a rich, well-preserved architectural heritage, but I wasn’t prepared for the astonishing beauty of Prague.

This was near the end of the Communist regime but neither we, nor most of the residents of Prague, knew we were on the cusp of radical change. Rick and I were there in July of ’89 and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in November of ’89. In July ’89, Prague was still hardline communist. You couldn’t buy a foreign language newspaper--except for the Stalinist British Morning Call. The French and Italian communist papers were deemed too liberal to be sold in Czechoslovakia. It was no doubt a good experience for someone like me, who actually briefly flirted with support for Communism, to get a sense of what it was like to actually live under real existing socialism/ communism.

At that time Americans were segregated in ugly hotels on the outskirts of Prague and the food in the restaurants was truly horrible. Now there are good hotels and restaurants and we had no trouble getting the international New York Times. Among the restaurants that I highly recommend:

Cantinetta Fiorentina
Fred and Ginger’s

Clearly life is much better for the citizens of Prague and I’m happy for them. However, for me, the magic was gone. Gorgeous Old Town Square was as packed with people as NYC’s Times Square during the holiday season. It was really difficult to cross the Charles Bridge because of the crush of people and the gauntlet of souvenir shops. We found ourselves avoiding the places we loved and lingered at in 1989.

The Charles Bridge as I remember it--without tourists

Like the Poles in Krakow, the Czechs have realized the tourist potential of the old Jewish Quarter which in 1989 was shabby and neglected, with very few tourists. In 2015 the Jewish Quarter is beautifully restored and packed with tourists, cafes, restaurants, trendy shops. The money generated by the tourists is no doubt responsible for the restoration and for the very moving memorial dedicated to the 80,000 Czech Jews who were killed by the Nazis.

Maisel Synogogue

Memorial to Holocaust Victims, Pinkas Synagogue

I was very happy to revisit Prague, but Rick and I both don't think we will be back. Prague no longer has a hold over my imagination. I returned to Santiago de Chile after many decades and had the same reaction. You really can’t step in the same river twice.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

DRESDEN: The Germany Diaries, Part IV

In every trip there is always something we wish we had done differently. This time we wished we had given more time to Dresden. Much of Dresden was destroyed during World War II but its historic baroque architecture has been beautifully restored. Dresden has a wealth of museums to rival Berlin’s and deserves a week rather than the two days we gave it.

If we ever get back to Dresden, we’ll try to stay in the same charming, centrally located hotel, Buelow Residenz. It's connected to its far more expensive sister hotel the Buelow Palace which housed a 2 star Michelin restaurant and much less expensive but quite good bistro. One consequence of widening income inequality is that the Michelin star restaurants have become much more expensive than the average restaurant. When we travelled a lot in France during our working years we usually managed to fit in one Michelin star restaurant. Now we don’t even try.

I also recommend Restaurant Daniel, a kind of German equivalent of French Nouvelle Cuisine—much lighter than traditional German fare with an emphasis on vegetarian dishes.

Despite our limited time in Dresden, we did manage to fit in the Dresden Opera’s production of the Flying Dutchman. I’m no Wagner fan and wasn’t sure I wanted to do this, but Rick assured me that Dutchman is one of Wagner’s more accessible operas and the Dresden opera house one of Europe’s most beautiful, so we decided to get tickets.

I’m glad we did but it didn’t change my feelings about Wagner. Sure, there was some thrilling music, impressive stagecraft and very good singers, but it was such a ridiculous story. Granted the plots of beloved Verdi operas are also ridiculous, but I’ll put up with that because I love Verdi so much. I have a lot less tolerance for Wagner’s absurd plots.
Dresden's Rococco Opera House

Outside the opera house there was a demonstration organized by the members of the anti-immigrant group Pegida who gather every Monday to protest what they consider Germany’s too liberal immigration policies. They were a very sedate crowd; the expressions on their faces were nothing like the hate–contorted faces of photos I’ve seen of anti-immigration, Tea Party demonstrators in the US.

However in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris the demonstrations have changed dramatically. On November 16 around 8,000 people carrying gigantic crosses joined the Pegida movement for a rally in Dresden, protesting Angela Merkel's decision to allow up to one million migrants into Germany.

Sure glad we weren’t in Dresden for this and happy to live in a city where although there is anti-immigrant sentiment, I can’t imagine anything like the November 16 Dresden rally in Philadelphia.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Return to Berlin: The Germany Diaries, Part III

Prenzlauerberg, Berlin

Since we had seen most of the top tier attractions on our first trip to Berlin, we had time to explore some of Berlin’s neighborhoods such as the former East Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauerberg. It reminded me of Greenwich Village about 40-50 years ago.

While wandering around Prenzlauerberg, we stumbled on a fascinating museum, Museum in der Kulturbrauerei, about daily life in the former GDR. What I found most fascinating was the government’s attempts to foster group think – what they saw as socialist solidarity. Workers were organized in brigades and were expected to keep tabs on each other informing on those seen as slackers. They were expected to socialize with those in their brigade and even vacation together. Each apartment building had someone charged with keeping detailed records of those who visited residents’ apartments. Of course I knew about the omnipresent Stasi but the details of daily life made it more chilling, more soul-destroying than I had realized.

The Germans are honest about their troubled past and all the history museums we’ve visited in Germany reflect this. In addition to the GDR museum we went to the German History Museum which is worth far more time than we gave it. In addition to the compelling exhibits, the building has architectural interest with an annex for special exhibits designed by I. M. Pei.

Annex to German History Museum designed by I. M. Pei

There were two museums we visited last time and planned to return to. Sadly, one was closed for restoration--the Neue Nationalgalerie with a very impressive 20th century art collection housed in a building designed by Mies Vander Rohe. One of my all time favorite museums was thankfully open--the the Gemäldegalerie with its astonishing collection of European painting from the 13th to 18th century beautifully displayed.

Maybe I do want to go back to Berlin one last time.