Sunday, June 25, 2006

Travelogue 141 – June 25
The Hrad

Slovakia is a country of mountains. In the valleys are beautiful villages and farms, and on the mountains are castles.

Like much of Eastern Europe, it was a battlezone for big neighbors and for small lords in times it was forgotten. Empires and warlords left behind a network of dark stone castles hanging onto cliffs and bluffs across the nation. They are warrior's castles, stout and inelegant, built for war and not for Disney sets.

Once the Austrians had firmly established their Pax Germana over the neighboring Slavs and Hungarians, Slovakia assumed its modern role of sleepy backwater and country cousins. The castles fell into disuse and disrepair. Most of them continue on in this state, their cold walls crumbling into the grass, their windows empty.

The Trencin castle is one of the jewels of the chain of ruins. It is larger than most, more dramatic, and has been tended by a devoted community.

Trenciansky Hrad (hrad is castle) sits immediately above the town on a high stone ridge that can only be approached from one direction. Every point on the compass affords a different, striking view of the castle. There are several circles of ancient wall – 'circles' being a misleading term, these walls hanging in odd sections along various cliffs, punctuated by small towers in various styles.

At the top is the tight complex of square buildings, the oldest bits being incomplete, dark and grassy stone walls; the youngest being rude nods to Renaissance style, red lines and embellishments among the cream and sets of windows jutting from high walls. The several major halls meet at odd angles, emblematic of the clash of eras they represent.

Construction apparently began in the 11th century. Major additions date to the 14th and 17th centuries. And there is the customary, botched restoration in the 19th. Lord and master in the 14th century was local bully Matus Cak, a colorful rebel against his Hungarian masters – and perhaps the last leader of the Slovaks. Check out his portrait in the museum.

The castle is visible for miles around. If it's not exactly the geographical center of the city, it is the heart. It was my good fortune eleven years ago to fall in with a group of young people whose lives revolved around the old hrad. They met there, rehearsed there, and often camped out. Most belonged to a group 'Wagus'. The name derives from an ancient version of the name of the local river, now called the Vah.

You see, in the aftermath of the fall of Communism, Slovakia has discovered herself in the mirror of history. Folk arts and a sort of medieval romanticism have become cottage industries here. Long-haired kids run through the woods in shifts of local fabrics and sing naive paeans to ancient spirits. Others congregate at the castles to re-enact medieval arts, rituals or war. I can well imagine one source of this romanticism when I consider Ethiopia's state-run TV: hours and hours of traditional dance and music and tedious tributes to cultural minutiae. Communist 'entertainment' was something similar.

(Qualifier: of course, these young romantics are still a small minority when compared to the kids who join the Western rat race gleefully, running off to Vienna or England, working in Slovakia for Western corporations, dropping out in good Western disaffection, succumbing to crime or drugs or punk fantasies of significant and ugly art....)

Wagus is a fencing group. They formed as the rust from the fallen Iron Curtain was still settling. Dusan was one of its founders and became guiding light to a generation of kids in Trencin. It began humbly enoug, with silly summer dramas based on local legends or common medieval tales, usually involving some sword play over a woman or wounded honor. But the shows became more sophisticated, and so did Dusan's ambitions. Not long after I left for America, I heard that Wagus had worked in battle scenes in some movie, and then another. They appeared in castle shows across Western Europe. Currently, Dusan's new group Normani stars all summer in Sedan, France, thrilling tourists with duels and jousting.

And so the memories of this town from my earlier sojourn are soaked in rather sentimental hues, as though they are glimpsed through stained glass or through a lady's sheer kerchief: folk songs around a campfire in the castle courtyard; running along the castle wall in bright afternoon sunlight with Zuzana, the blonde beauty with rosy lips and brilliant innocence in her pale blue eyes; talking all night in sleeping bags among high grass and sharp starlight; climbing the stairs of the tower with Daniela, the staircase a tight, curling tunnel; and of course the corny evening shows in high medieval costume that was designed and sewn by women in the group.

„The castle is our home,“ I recall Zuzana breathing with pure and sweet conviction. I believed it, as I would believe anything she uttered: 22 year-old maiden, always laughing.

She lives in Ottowa now with her two kids and Oskar, who never once gushed about the castle. They didn't return for their annual visit to Slovakia this year.

I jog along the Vah. The castle is always in view among the leaves of the riverside trees. The asphalt path is cracked. The grass is untidy. The river meanders; its banks don't follow straight lines like the Danube in Vienna does. With the breeze of my contentment, a veil of illusion parts or joins. One minute, the town is a lovely song and perfect. The next it's dirty, faded, and tired. If this is the spell of some Slavonic pseudo-Druids, I guess I don't mind so much.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Travelogue 140 – June 21
Daylight in the Mind

Happy Solstice to everyone! Stow the Catholic calendars and bank holidays. Give me a steamy longest day of the year beside a slow Slavic river.

The question current in my sun-addled mind is – what is my claim? To the first day of summer, to lazy rivers, to hippie sentiments like “Happy Solstice”? Maybe some claim to being a bona fide hippie, raised in California in the 60s and 70s.

And how about sweet homecomings in eastern Europe, whence forefathers fled their poverty in obscure times, following obscure pathways to the mines of Colorado? What´s my claim? I wouldn´t have thought it was a strong one, if the experience weren´t so strong. What´s the magic of this place?

I board my train at the Sudbahnhof in Vienna, traveling east. Doors unlock in the mind. Forgotten colors and scenes and scents are released. I have an hour in Bratislava before I catch another train north. It´s time enough for a quick foray into the town that I spent almost a year in, in the mid-nineties.

It´s funny, but I don´t believe the deepest hypnosis in Minnesota could have drawn out a picture of these first streets outside the station, though I walked them a hundred times eleven years ago. Here, one happy glance brings it all back. And more. Dozens of other streets sizzle to life, like a circuit board given a surge of juice. Faces light up. Buildings are floodlit in the mind; rooms come to life.

In the station, I grab a quick coffee and scan a Slovak newspaper. The words pulse with meaning. I´m understanding things I couldn´t have if I were staring at the same page in America.

And on it goes. Sitting in a crowded and sweaty cabin on the next train – bored student across from me, old man next to him, not so dissimilar from my dad, curious blue eyes taking me in – words appear unbidden into my mind, and I know them. It´s eerie, like movie cyborg learning. Without thinking about it, I know the fields, the stations, the hills. I rise from my seat as we approach the town, unprompted.

And here I am in Trenčin. (Have I been able to add the little, inverted caret over the c that makes it sound like ch? Please amend in your mind.) The castle stands on its Gibraltar high above the town, the steeply-peaked, wooden-shingled roof and the walls of the square central tower absorbing one more day of sunshine to add to more than 500 years of them. The castle is the heart and soul of this little town, and I´ll come back to it in another blog.

I stroll through the old town, the collection of pastel Austro-Hungarian confections that you will find all over south-eastern Europe, past the pink Hotel Tatra at the foot of the castle´s sheer rock. If you enter the hotel and climb to the mezzanine, you´ll find a window that opens onto the rock face. There you will see an inscription – “Victoriae!” – left by imperial Romans on a romp.

My first night I don´t spend in town. Daniela and I drive into the hills in her rumbling little Skoda. (Add a caret to make that “shkoda”. It should be pointed out that this is an old Czech brand and the name famously corresponds to an exclamation in Czech and Slovak that means “What a pity!” I can´t say which use of the word gave genesis to the other.)

Dušan (make that a sh, please) and his wife have bought a house in a village in the western hills, not too far from the Czech border. They bought it a week before leaving for France to work for the summer – more about that later – and left Daniela to check in on the place. Daniela has been cleaning the house, which is something of a wreck. Dušan was happy just to have land for his horses.

Beautiful land it is, a swath of poppy-sprinkled grasses overlooking hill after green hill that tumble down toward the wide valley where those slow, chugging trains travel between Trenčin and the capital.

We take a long, sunny walk along dirt lanes, between plum trees that must supply many a grandfather with slivovica, between apple trees and wild cherries, between currants red and black, among fields of grain, fallow fields, and haystacks. We pick huge strawberries from neglected gardens among wild onions. To Daniela´s delight, we discover wild strawberries, tiny and very red and very sweet.

It is spring´s last day. It feels like summer is months along and months to go. Lazily, we brush away the circling gnats, and it´s like we´re done with history. I never left.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Travelogue 139 – June 16
Eden with a Snarl

Michael lives in Floridsdorf, a working class neighborhood of Vienna, north and across the river from the 'zentrum'. It's made up of square buildings on quiet streets. Michael's is one of the few Floridsdorf buildings that survived Allied bombing. You can tell the survivors by the modest ornamental garlands and fasces in imitation of their grander brethren downtown. Casualties were replaced in the 50s and 60s, as you can tell by art deco plaques or lettering on the walls, often with sad little mod Socialist bas-reliefs of workers or geometrical mosaics of children with musical instruments -- mid-century notations for hope. Michael's family has lived in this flat for four generations.

I like it here because I can jog to the Danube, which is lined by miles of pedestrian pathways. Every morning, I run for an hour by banks of fragrant mown grass, by water as still as glass – let's say mildly rippled as medieval glass. The sun has been strong all week. Vienna is so preternaturally quiet that I feel lost in a strange new Eden.

In the city, the Danube is divided into two channels that they call the Old and New Danube. The land between is all parkland. North of the city are a string of wooded hills, many with slopes cultivated with grapes. Atop the highest hill is a church with green cupolas. It is here, Michael tells me, the attack is launched that breaks the Turkish seige of Vienna in the 17th century. The successful army is German, Pole, and Czech – all the people Austrians hate, he says.

For the first few days, all I see is idyllic parkland, Michael's nature circuit – birch forests; perfect and still fields of peas or corn; more vineyards; vistas of peaceful hills; dirt paths beside cattails and lily pads, where solo middle-aged men loiter naked among the bushes – until I wonder where the city I remember from years ago could be hidden.

Finally, I cajole him into taking me to the 'zentrum', where he guides me unenthusiastically around the premier sights – the Hapsburg palace, the opera house, Stephansdom, etc. Lustily, I drink in the architectural delights, nostalgic for empire – from the safety of my 21st century bourgeois comforts, of course. We stop by the Cafe Sperl, a specimen of imperial-era coffee house: high ceilings, mirrors, subdued luxury and an air of indolence; irritable baristas, fabulous torts, black coffee with orange liqueur.

It's nighttime. Michael leads me to quiet medieval streets near Stephansdom, to Mozart's old digs, now a museum. He tries his post office box key in the museum door, and it works. We skulk across the ground floor museum and into the high and narrow courtyard of the tenement where the composer rented and wrote. We climb a few stories in the darkness. Michael tsks loudly. "They've ruined it," he says. It does look a bit antiseptic. They've glassed in the open courtyard. I imagine a light winter rain falling past us, like into a well.

Everywhere we go, Michael's dog, Lenny, goes. He's a musclebound boy with some Rotweiler features. He has Rotweiler moods, growling and bristling suddenly, attacking dogs or lunging at people. No one seems fazed by these outbursts, nor by those of their own beasts. Dogs are prolific here, many with muzzles. They create a dissonant note in Eden, as do the naked men in the woods and the heavy metal monster graffiti everywhere. What would Sigmund say?

I'm sitting in a cafe on Prager Strasse, one of the larger, anonymous boulevards in Floridsdorf. I learn quickly that a 'cafe' is something different here. I peek into a few: slot machines, shelves of booze, full ashtrays. I walk into the 'Cafe Al Bundy' – could I make that up? -- and am caught in the stare of a sad and sagging barmaid who may have stood there since the Turks were at the gates. I escape. I settle for the Cafe Extravaganza, red and black pleather and American hip-hop, a slot machine in the back, a tattooed and heavily made-up Slovak girl in front, displaying a whole lot of summer-tanned flesh. I tell her I'm on my way to her homeland. She's as unimpressed as the tattooed and scantily-clad Slovak bartender that Pete was enamored of in London.

Well, whatever the soviet of liberated barmaids may think, tomorrow I board the train down river. Part that ghostly iron curtain ....

Monday, June 12, 2006

Travelogue 138 – June 12
Sultans of Play

It´s hot in London. The sun blazes and Londoners are both grateful and irritable. The truth is, they seem unsettled by the responsibilities that sustained sunshine imposes on them. On Sunday, there is a Cuban festival along the south bank of the Thames. We give it our best shot, wading into the tightly compressed crowds. I gather occasional impressions of activities Cuban: people with plates of rice and beans, wafts of Caribbean rhythms, stalls of arts and crafts, always several shoulder-lengths away. Our group suffers severe casualties: scowls and desperate dashes for open air, resistance to being pulled back, and finally disappearance. We make it to a decidedly un-Cuban pub to catch our breath. I make myself the last loss, escaping across the Blackfriars Bridge, eyes on St. Paul's.

The flags are out. Building faces are swathed in World Cup patriotism. That's not the Union Jack but the English flag: red cross on white.

Pete and I are working in his office Saturday morning, so we duck into a pub in nearby Mayfair to watch England's first match of the series, against Paraguay. All in all, it's not the experience it should be. Beckham gets a goal on a free kick four minutes in, but only after a defender deflects it. The rest is a lackluster performance by a bunch of soccer superstars. England's team is packed with names that even a soccer illiterate like myself can recognize.

The pub is comfortable. A gentle breeze from the open windows cools us. No one rises from his seat. Mayfair is quiet on weekends. All wrong. We should have been back in working class London, on our feet and crammed in among sweaty fans who are bawling in our ears. I feel cheated – as does all England by Beckham's band of pretty boys.

On Friday afternoon, we meet up with Neil, who has volunteered as a board member for Tesfa-UK. We meet him at his place of work, at Coram's Fields, which fortuitously is the grounds of what may be Britain's oldest charity, Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital.

Coram was a shipwright who, upon retiring to solid land in London, was horrified by the numbers of abandoned children in the city's streets. He determined to do something about it. It took him nearly twenty years, but he eventually raised the money to open his institution. The Hospital opened its doors in 1741.

The Hospital moved out in the 50s, but the neighborhood – near Bloomsbury-- voted that the land should stay devoted to children. It became the city's first public playground for children. No adult is allowed without a child.

Neil is a 'play professional'. He plays with children. He organizes after-school programs. He supervises other play people.

Here's the fun thing about Coram's history. Among his strongest boosters were famous London artists of the day, in particular William Hogarth and George Frideric Handel, both of whom contributed themselves.

Handel donated the proceeds from an annual performance of the Messiah in the Hospital's chapel. Hogarth donated art and persuaded friends to do the same, creating inside the Foundling Hospital Britain's first public art gallery – an experiment that led to the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. There is still a collection on the grounds, with works by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth, and others.

We stroll around the dusty central playground, between basketball and soccer; beside the famous colonnade where the boys were taught how to make rope for ships; by the petting zoo where the sheep need shearing. They pant and stare at us, alert with fear. Initially, this courtyard was something of a parade ground. Girls were trained to be maids, and boys were marched in preparation for the military.

Now I see ships. They ply the waters between England and Holland. I'm flying again, headed for the dark heart of Europe. It's a Ryan Air flight, which means the Ryan Air experience – democratic lines at check-in and the gate, the dash across the tarmac for the steps at front and back of the aircraft, no seat assignments, no service during the flight, and all for about $25 via the web.

I'm paying special attention to the conversation in the seats behind me, cheered by the rhythms of a language I haven't heard in years. Happily, I pick out forgotten words, some of which retain meaning in my memory.

In a couple hours, I touch down on new-old ground and look for familiar faces. My mission? More of my strange summer brew of peace and public relations, exile and creative administration, breathing a prayer to spirits of cohesion, "May the weave hold".

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Travelogue 137 - June 8
And Counting

The blog stutters but the days go on. If anything, they accelerate for lack of accounting.

I'm back - back on the web, back from America, back in England. Mississippi on the left bank, the River Avon on the right, and the Thames around the next bend.

Minnesota still pulses under the surface of my skin, a low summer count. Three, the beat of ducks' wings as they cross my path on the riverside promenade to skim along the water's surface, or the snap of baby robin bills in their nest in a high corner of Craig's porch. I'm around long enough to see them from egg to first fluttering and falling flight. And they're gone.

Two, bunnies zigzagging in night's blackness ahead of my bike's front wheel. You don't see them until you're on them. A raccoon watches from behind a tree, his front paws leaning against the trunk.

One, the sun is cocktail red under one long line of clouds parallel to the horizon. They are etched in orange and purple light, and the space between land and vapors is a Jupiter's band of turmoil. The air is redolent with cut grass.

Zero, cotton falls from the trees and swirls in glaring anti-gravity, congregating at day's end along the lawn's edge. Zero, I'm gone.

I stayed with Alison this time, a few blocks from the river in Northeast Minneapolis, ten minutes on the bicycle from any memory or any meeting. Memories and meetings - they gather densely, like the drifting cotton, drawn to summer sweat like mummy's gauze, bunding and stifling. Rest is air-conditioning at Alison's after a run, sinking into the white carpet that's brilliant in big window squares. I'm free. Noncommital clouds advance on listless breezes. The phone is silent. A breath: the foundation is a different day's rainbow. Ethiopia is a dream dissolving. I can just about glimpse my love in heaven. Her mantle is white noon. Zero, I'm gone.

There's an old woman next to me on the airplane. One of the 'Left Behind' series is on her lap. She stares with an addict's lack of focus. She has a way of interjecting the odd question into dead air. It's fortunate my book isn't too demanding. The sun never leaves us that night, receding below bloody clouds for a few hours and returning with a slow, blue dawn as we approach the waters of Europe.

“Gidde-gidde-gidde. … Baro.” Rocky is still a fixture in the Dinkytown Espresso Royale Café next to the University of Minnesota, resting deep in his habitual armchair, swaying slightly and chanting. Is it an Eritrean hymn? The question doesn't move me to ask. At the table next to him, Tunisian men play chess and shoot restless glaring glances at the rest of us. Around the room, wafers of silver light stand aslant. Young fashion monks meditate the digital illumination. Bam! The knight advances. “Gidde-gidde.” An old man with painted nails and long, stringy, bleach blonde hair rests a blank gaze on me. Chris, the manager banters with his bandmate as they prepare coffee drinks. “I'll tell you the episode I want to see: Kirk and the crew travel back in time and meet Depeche Mode.” “Baro,” Rocky sings. Zero, I'm gone.

Suddenly, we are beset by them, a tide of British mommies and their clean and pale and wide-eyed darlings. They rush the cookie table, where Pey and friends scramble for change. They swirl in clusters across the small gym room floor, arriving in eddies at my table. I feed myself again and again, demonstrating with reassuring smiles how Ethiopians eat their food - “with their hands.” Children are amazed. Moms avoid direct address. There's a dad; his face is tight with suspicion. Our video loops nearby. My kids introduce themselves over and over. “Abraham! Abraham! Biruktawit! Estipho!” Their letters are hung upon the walls. It's time I say something about them. I stand on a padded bench while a teacher shouts for attention. Slowly, he gets it, and it rotates upon me. The turning mass of hectic kids and harried parents stills. My comments vanish, and my eyelids grow heavy.

One, it starts again. Hot air balloons float overhead. From Pey's small back patio, you can see all of Bath - the Abbey, the rows of yellow limestone history, the glowing hills. You hear the roar of fire high above you. Red and yellow, they dangle up, against the direction of earth; they drift like jellyfish. You see the sudden flame. That's how they fly, kids: hot air.

Two, on we go.