Sunday, September 27, 2015

refugees welcome?

Protest against refugees
 My friend and I were headed to the Art Alive festival in the center of Prague. But as we left our neighborhood and rounded out the forever under renovation and forever closed National Museum – perhaps it stands as some sort of artistic metaphor for the Czech nation and is meant to never be complete – we came upon a loud and vibrant crowd. Indeed, rarely are Czechs excited about much, but here finally they were standing together and full of energy, the energy of unwavering patriotism as they stood proudly beneath their Czech flags, listening to speeches about the greatness of the Czech nation. And of course, good for them, it’s good to be proud, especially when they’ve got such a beautiful country to be proud about. Until we figured out the real message at bay. This country is not welcome to immigrants. Of course, the specific message was aimed at those migrants coming from refugee camps and war torn countries, who, without any legal way to apply for asylum thanks to the Dublin rule, decided to make the trek of hundreds of miles by foot, half-starved, dying of thirst, braving sea, desert and storm. Masses of strangers coming, bringing Lord-knows-what, but they would not dilute this proud nation.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

9 Things Only Tourists Do in Prague

view from naplavka
View from Naplavka

There’s no doubt that Prague has one of the most beautiful old towns in Europe and perhaps the world. It’s easy to get lost in the winding alleys and narrow cobblestone streets of the City of a Hundred Spires. It’s also easy to forget that there’s a lot more to experience beyondStaroměstská and Malá Strana, including some of the city’s best restaurants and museums. Though Czechs are extraordinarily proud of their historical monuments, most locals have a hard time finding any decent restaurants and cafés in the Old Town, since all the proprietors know that all the tourists will stay within its boundaries and can be ripped off by excruciating degrees. In fact, unless a local works there, they tend to avoid the Old Town like it’s quarantined. There can be good deals for business lunches in the Old Town though, so you’ll occasionally see locals dining there.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

the pissing boys of Europe

Little Man Pee, Belgium
Every great European city has its overrated tourist trap. There in some often otherwise undisturbed corner of the town, lies something picturesque, something unique, something with a dubious story behind it that often involved either an unnamed and unrequited lover or a murder or - more often than not - both. Around the trap is a revel of tourists - usually only Americans and Russians are stupid enough saps to crowd around and take endless numbers of selfies of some such useless place, but there are also the occasional crowds of tour groups from the Orient to crowd in and show people back home that this, indeed, is where someone he’s never heard of met someone else he’s also never heard of and perhaps had a duel with her father and was shot, and then for a hundred years people walked by it, feeling the ghost and then erected a monument to put it at ease. Now certainly the star-crossed ghosts of lovers are quite relaxed and drinking their heavenly ambrosia - the Dom Perignon of ambrosia, mind you, seeing as to their profits - knowing that thousands of people are buying keychains, coffee cups, and decorative plates in their honor.

In my first travels in Europe some five years ago, I had started in Scandinavia and through the Baltics. There I had managed to miss whatever monuments of idiocy they had - though I can’t recall if they even had one. Maybe there was some Viking statue or Valkyrie that I missed, but regardless, my first trap I had come to was the Pissing Boy in Belgium.

In Dutch, the Pissing Boy is called Menneken Pis, or “Little Man Pee.” When I first entered the old town square of Brussels, I saw huge posters of various colors in Andy Warhol style of Little Man Pee plastered over the towering Brabant Gothic walls, the enormous bell tower spearing into the sky as though it itself were the fountain of piss coming from the “Little Man”. My hostess - Belgian herself - swore to me that I just had to see the original, as it’s Brussels' - no, Belgium’s - number one tourist spot. I readied myself for a real treat, it must be a pretty impressive and possibly huge statue of a baby peeing. “Little Man” must have been some sort of 16th century hipster irony going on, and it was actually a golem of a baby, ready to crush the beautiful, picturesque setting of downtown Brussels.

We made our way down the main street, crowded with tour groups and businessmen alike. I had to dodge them all, Nutella covered waffle in my hand, spinning between a Japanese group here and some Russians there, biting my waffle whenever I had the balance and the room. And finally, when my waffle was gone, we were there at Brussel’s number one site. This is a 1,000 year old city, so it must have been an impressive site indeed!

“Where is it?” I asked my host. There was no towering baby, ready to crush me with his horse-like fire hydrant action of fountain urine. I couldn’t see any baby, actually.

“It’s over there!” she said excitedly.


“Past that Chinese group!” she called out.

“Oh, I think I see it,” I said. If I still had a waffle, I would have dropped it. I’ve remembered this moment perfectly, five years later, knowing now that most “must-see tourist sites” throughout Europe are basically another well dressed pissing boy, which is now in my own vernacular, simply a "pissing boy". The thing was life size - that is to say, the size of a recently toilet trained baby - standing next to a wall, peeing into a pool. I imagine that there once was a problem with sanitation in medieval Belgium and Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Elder decided to design such an instruction on how Belgians should use the loo. “Hold it like this boy, fellows, and now shake it, but no more than three shakes or you’re guilty of mortal sin and must confess to your priest immediately!”

What’s even more of a let down to find a statue of a pissing boy is merely a statue of a pissing boy is to find out that that pissing boy standing there, isn’t even the 17th century original! It’s a copy! The original is kept in that building with all the Andy Warhol pissing boy copies! Who’s to know which is the original indeed, it must be something of a Where’s Waldo in there, every one of them not quite the original. And why did they replace that one? Because apparently, the little bugger of a statue is so popular, that people have a tendency to snatch him up and bring him home! And this population of people stealing statues of pissing babies are worried about immigrants! Ha! I’d be more worried about rampant statue pedophilia if I were you, oh great European stock!

Of course, there is some history here. That pissing boy might possibly have been one Julianske, who in the 14th century during siege of a nameless foreign power (there were many in the 14th century), saw some explosives rigged up with the fuse lit. In a grand gesture, he decided to urinate from the walls, towards the opposing army, and his urine fell down upon the fuse, thus rendering the explosives useless and saving the city. Leave it to Belgians to be saved by some pissing 3 year old. Then again, that story might have been made up after the statue was, perhaps in the 18th century, with someone praying that the statue that attracted all these dirty Italians and Slavs from far away must have had more meaning than this!

Fast forward now. I’ve been to lots of cities, seen lots of uselessly idiotic touristic destinations, and now have a short list of two more, only because this text is getting a bit long (my real list of the pissing boys of Europe is one longer than the boy can piss!).

Capello's house
Next up, Juliet’s balcony in Verona. Previous to a hundred years ago, there was no “Juliet’s balcony” in all of Verona. But the wealthy Italian dell Capello family was a clever bunch. Noting how there were swarms of tourists outside of their house every day, mistakenly associating “Capello” with “Capulet”, instead of shouting at them “Dio dannato you cazzone, why not go fanculo out of here!” they saw a ripe business opportunity. They built a balcony in their garden, a statue of a golden-breasted Juliet, and then opened their gates, charging entry for all those fair young maidens wanting to take pictures from the balcony and they told people if they rubbed Juliet's tits, then they'd have years of good luck in the sack - just like Juliet did! With the incoming money, they were able to buy several Vespa scooters, sent their own daughter to Harvard, and bought a chain of Italian restaurants in New Jersey so eager were all of those figlio de puttanas to part with their money. 

The Orloj and Our Lady before the Tyn
Finally, but not least, is the clocktower here in my new home city of Prague. There is no argument that the Orloj, as it’s locally called, is one of the most notable and finest examples of Gothic architecture. And the square itself is one of the most beautiful in Europe, with the two spires of the Church of Our Lady before the Tyn towering high up, which are themselves an architectural gem, being of a weird mix of neo-Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The Orloj in itself isn’t the “tourist trap” in question, as it is truly a magnificent piece of work. It’s the clock that is the trap. At the hour, many of the miniature figures shake an arm or a leg, and a window opens revealing each of the Apostles, blessing the onlookers below. Now, I realize that in the 15th century, this was an achievement of engineering, and from noticing all the Russians who are constantly clustered around it, must also be pretty impressive for those growing up in Krushchevki as well, since anything working on schedule and not with a remont sign hanging up must have been considered a miracle 30 years ago. But impressive is it not, unless you consider all the busy pickpockets running around, making their due as people mindlessly stare up and are enraptured by a puppet show that a 3 year old boy could manage while he was pissing.

When I first saw the display, I asked my then Czech host, “So, it’s over now? Or is there more going to happen?”

“No, that’s all. Fantastic is not it?!”

Fantastic indeed.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

a grey city, a colorful city

Tbilisi's one exception from the car
Coming back to Tbilisi is for me always a strange feeling. Even with the free bottle of wine handed out at passport control, I still feel like a stranger or perhaps like an old acquaintance - a person you hadn't had time to call for some time, not that it was your fault, you had lots of things on your plate, but you're not quite sure how the other person feels about your absence of contact. But then, they didn't call you either, so you think there wouldn't be any hard feelings. But like that friend, I want to see Tbilisi doing well, growing, and succeeding. Riding through the city in a car or a marshrutka though is depressing. You see all the worst and terrible parts of the city and with a first-person-shooter view of the traffic and you become convinced that your friend is in trouble. 


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

escape to country castles

Orlik Castle
There's not much room for comfort these days in Prague. Every spare inch of shade is taken by someone in yearning for a cooler place. The bars and restaurants are sweltering, unless you find some multinational corporation like Costa or Starbucks that took the expense to put in some air conditioning. All the old white trash "herna" bars that were always stocked with air coolers were shut down in a popularly suspected anti-money laundering action and nobody's house has anything remotely resembling a reasonable air conditioning system. This wouldn't be a problem in normal years, but this past week - as the BBC reported - was the hottest week in Prague's history. Ever.

Monday, August 10, 2015

from the bayou to the Castle

Dr. John on stage
Dr. John rattled the white keys with such an intensity there seemed to be like a Hurricane rolling through the stage. With an impeccable sense of rhythm and a style for flourishes, Dr. John rocked on. If you haven't heard of Dr. John, you've missed a life long career of weird voodoo antics, amazing piano playing, and some psychedlic jazz blues rock that not even the highest of Deadheads could ever reach. It's all the hoodoo magic that does it, and to convince you, the doctor always puts a skull on the piano and dresses in the most flamboyant of Cajun styles - purple suits, gator skin boots and black hats lined with gator teeth.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

a Tale of Two Strudels

Kavarna Adria
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of industry, it was the age of waste, it was the age of wealth unheard of, it was the age of the basest poverty, it was the age of really amazing strudel, and it was the age of abominatory things made from apple. I have tasted the delicacy that is strudel across many a land - and by delicacy I mean some sugary apple slop plopped between two sheets of dough and baked on high. Really, not an overly delicate thing, kind of hard to mess up. Strudel was always a basic desert for me, nothing to get a craving for, until venturing into Kavarna Adria on Jungmannova Street. And then I realized what truly I had been missing, what the ideal of strudel and its heretofore introduction of the reality meeting said ideal. Upon walking into Kavarna Adria, I had left the cave of what I had known to be strudel, and emerged a changed man, a strudeled man.