Monday, January 26, 2015

a tangerine welcome

We arrived late in the night in Tangier. That was a bit unfortunate, since it was one day less we could see the city, but then it was one day more we got to see Barcelona, so as with most unfortunate things, there was a fortunate side. We landed at near 10:00 at night, and the passport line was quite slow going. There was one guy, a fairly modern looking fellow - that is to say, in pants, coat, and scarf - who was holding five passports. For some reason, his large family of women, composed of four large women and a baby, all sat past the passport control, tending to the baby. All of them but the mother wore a hijab, or headscarf, in the traditional Islamic fashion. My wife wondered about this, why a seemingly modern man would have his women in hijab, but I wondered if he even played a part in that at all. Unfortunately, Occam's Razor is not always so sharp and can often make a mess of things.

When finally we got up to the window, they looked at my wife's passport. For some reason it wasn't scanning on their passport machine. They looked at it closely, as though they were confused about the very existence of my wife's country, Georgia, and not quite understanding that indeed, it was a real country that existed apart from the United States. A bit understandable, since we handed the official our passports together.

After scratching his head for the fifth time, the official raised his finger and called another man over - a skinny guy with a mustache messily jutting out to the sky, waxed as though trying to imitate a Salvador Dali photograph. He took the passport and tried to scan it in as well and again it didn't work. "Sil vous plait," he said and he motioned us to where the large family was sitting. We took their seats, as now the passport check area was empty and nearly abandoned. "French? Spanish?" he said.

"English?" we replied in unison.

He grunted and frowned. "No," he said. "Uh, five minut." He left us and went to a back office, my wife's passport in his hands. Then he returned, much passed his five minut limit. The emptiness of the airport resounding with the echoes of the clicking of his shoes as he walked across the polished floor. "This visa, good, this passport, no good," he kept repeating, as though the extra time he spent in the backroom was spent rehearsing his new English phrase. "Ah, your passport?" he said to me and taking my American documents in his hand. "This passport good."

"But your embassy in Czech Republic gave me the visa," my wife explained.

"Visa good. Passport bad." Again his rehearsed phrase. He seemed proud of getting it nearly correct, as he was smiling as he said it. "Maybe you stay in Morocco three month, oui?"

"Ah, no," we answered. Maybe this was a form of strange Moroccan humor.

He then brought us over to the passport computers to show us his problem. He first put mine on the scanner. It read the numbers without a problem and brought up my information. Then he put in my wife's and put her country as Spain - which is where we flew from.

"No, I'm from Georgia. Not Spain. Georgia. Gee-ooorr-giiii-a."

As he re-conducted the search, I whispered to her ear. "Probably earlier they searched your passport as though you were an American." I laughed. It never gets old to me that people are constantly mistaking the country for the state, even when it's written on internationally recognized legal documents. If only the old president had insisted on his country being called Sakartvelo, which is how it's known in Georgian, this wouldn't be a problem. But unfortunately, American sports - and thus states - are often more well known than global politics, even by passport control officials.

The official laughed again and made one of his jokes that was more scary than funny. "Uh, maybe you want stay in Morocco for year?" He was holding my wife's passport, though now his hands were shaking. Was he nervous now?

"Look, is there a problem with the passport?" I asked, starting to lose my patience.

"No, no problem," he said, but not saying anything or doing anything more.

"So," I said.

"No problem, yes. Maybe Morocco for year, oui?" he said, still smiling and nodding his head.

"If there's no problem, can we have the passport and go to our hotel?"

"Oh, yes, yes, no problem."

"Passport?"

He handed the passport back to my wife and led us through customs. Then asked, "Do you need a taxi? Do you need me to take you to the hotel?"

"No, just tell us where the taxis are and how much to pay."

There is a sign posted with the standard night and day prices to different locations across town. He looked at it and told us it should be 150 dirham, since the night price for the medina was 150. We left the airport to the taxi cue, which was composed of a line of light blue taxis that were all the same make and model of a 1970s Mercedes, the car which Lada modeled their Jiguli after, so they looked quite familiar to me. It was like a flash back to Georgia, the country.

"Who's next?" I asked the group of huddled taxi drivers. One came up to me.

In French then Spanish - the language we settled on - he asked where I was going.

"Hotel Continental."

"Okay."

"How much?" - it's important to always negotiate ahead when dealing with third world taxi drivers.

"300."

"Um, the board inside says 150." I've had the same problem in Tbilisi, where the taxi drivers are always trying to get more than the legal amount. And again, the same problem, where the drivers were working in some sort of guild or bargaining unit, as none of the other drivers offered me the correct price and they all backed the guy I was dealing with.

"150," I repeated. "The sign, 150."

He gave off some explanation - my Spanish isn't nearly good enough to know what he said and my patience at this point wasn't enough to care - as to why the sign was wrong. "250," he said.

I sighed.

"Okay, I make you deal, 225, last price," he said. It was clear now that he wasn't going to budge, as we went back and forth a few more times and he wasn't moving. And seeing that it was night and there were no other cars or people there than this rank of taxis and these drivers who had halted from their card game to look at us, it really seemed that the last price should be taken.

"Fine."

The airport is some distance from the city and probably well worth the 25 dollar drive that it cost, especially at midnight when no one else was near and the streets of Tangier were possibly dangerous. Not having been there, I could give no real assessment except going with the guidebooks that claimed it was dangerous. As the taxi drove, he passed a few nicely developed resort areas and a luxury golf course until finally he arrived at the medina, circling around it, appearing like a walled fortress to our right and the Straight of Gibraltar on our left, glowing cruise boats floating in the distance. And then our hotel, which was hanging over the wall, looking out across the bay and harbor to the other side of Tangier. Then the taxi took a narrow, winding road into the medina, and another narrow road going inside.

"At night time, you can't walk around the medina. It's too dangerous, you should only walk during the day." Is what I understood from his Spanish. Likewise, he could have said, "At night time it's the only time you can drive because there're too many people during the day." I wasn't really sure which he was saying, but after we parked, I assumed it was the latter.

The entrance of the Hotel Continental
He dropped us off in the parking lot of the Hotel Continental. A guy from outside came up to us. "Hey guys, you want something to drink? Some tea or coffee? My cafe is right there."

I looked at the time. It was near one o'clock in the morning. "Maybe tomorrow. Do you have shisha? Some nargile?"

"No shisha man, but I've got hashish. You want to smoke? Come on man, my cafe is right here. And I live in that blue house above it. You want to smoke, just tell me."

"We've got to check in, maybe tomorrow, for now we're a bit tired."

"Yeah, no problem man, just let me know. Come by tomorrow."

View of the parking lot from our room

We left our Tangerine greeter in the parking lot and went inside the hotel. To say the place is magnificent is perhaps an understatement. The entire place is tip top with traditional Moroccan decor, wood and tile patterns everywhere that could fit. It was a scene from a grand hotel from fifty years or more ago, back when hotels were built with character and feeling, alien to this time period of mass production and IKEA. The place also smelled of the 1950s, a musky sort of we-used-to-smoke-lots-of-cigars-here-but-now-it’s-non-a-smoking-establishment smell. And indeed they have. The Hotel Continental is the oldest hotel in Tangier, and has historically been one of the most important, with people from Winston Churchill to Jack Kerouac staying there. Now it was but an old pale ghost of its former glory, but still a beautiful architectural wonder.

The clerk brought us to our room without a problem and then, without even waiting for a tip - something from my experience in Egypt I had assumed was impossible for Arabs - left us alone. The room continued in the architectural magnificence, with the wood work on the corners and the ceiling and tiles across the floor. The bed was also nicely crafted and there was gramophone in the corner, to add to the character - having no needle, the thing didn't actually work. The living area had some quite old and in bad taste couch and arm chairs, but that wasn't really anything to complain about, especially when the curtains were pulled back to reveal a balcony looking out across the harbor. For 40 dollars, we couldn't have imagine a better place, and it probably was my favorite hotel in all of our travel through Morocco.  

View from the room

Our room

Inside the Hotel Continental

Inside the Hotel Continental

Monday, January 19, 2015

Soviet Jesus and the Gulag work brigade

Sagrada Familia
In the end, we decided that it was impossible to visit Barcelona and not go inside the Sagrada Familia. At first, I was ambivalent - I'm cheaper than most and at 15 euros, I'm even willing to pass up an entry into Heaven - assuming a corporation has bought it and turned it into a private enterprise these days. Some corporate sponsors I'm expecting to see are Starbucks, H&M and Home Depot, maybe a few banks, and in order to get to the more premium parts of Heaven, you've got to pay for the more premium tickets, because as we know, service and quality ain't free folks. Expect St. Peter with a bar code reader; he makes no exceptions when it comes to the mercy of the direct deposit - no less than two a month or your access will be barred. You'll be left sipping your chai tea latte at a grey, run-down has been mom and pop 70s diner over there on Purgatory Street, full of all the people not quite exciting enough to be sent to the Inferno.

However, with two votes a yes and only me being ambivalent, I quickly became ready to enter the eccentric cathedral, always willing to loosen the strings of my money bags when other people are involved - for at least if the experience sucks I can blame someone else for losing my money. Purchasethe tickets online and pair the tickets with the entry to the Gaudi House Museum over at Park Guell. Buy this ticket even before seeing the park, though it's best to see the park first, as it was something of his architectural playground where he perfected the techniques he would use in the church.

The Sagrada Familia was designed principally by Antoni Gaudi, from whom we get the term in English "gaudy", which means grossly out of place or extravagant, a meaning that ideally describes his projects scattered across Barcelona like a strong cayenne pepper seasoning on Cajun jambalaya. Gaudi was the 19th/20th centuries' foremost modernist architect, using the new artistic themes of art nouveau and melding them with influences of nature - creating truly bizarre, unique, functional and beautiful places, a convergence of art and architecture that seems to have been lost in today's warehouse chic world. One of his favorite artistic touches was the mosaic - a truly Spanish art - from which he often used recycled materials.

Gaudi took over the Sagrada Familia project in 1886, and though he was the chief architect, he continued on other projects as well, in some ways perhaps to experiment with various techniques and ideas that he had in store for the church. The church was originally conceived as a standard Gothic style church, but when Gaudi inherited it he decided to make it a true landmark and statement of the art nouveau movement. 

Much of his plans were lost during the Spanish Civil War and much of what we see today is actually the work of later architects somewhat inspired by Gaudi. His plans have been recovered though, and now there's been a longstanding debate as to whether to redo much of the work in order to follow his plans faithfully, or continue accordingly. Of course, if they scrap what they've done, it would also mean that there would be no way to meet the latest construction deadline of 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death. Interestingly, if technology from Gaudi's time were only used, the completion date wouldn't be for few hundred more years. Gaudi mentioned as to why construction was taking such a long time, he replied, "My Client is in no hurry."

Sagrada Familia rear facade
The facade of the church is - like most Gothic churches - covered in an array of sculptures. But unlike most Gothic churches, the sculptures appear as though they are hanging from the walls of a cave, as though they themselves were stalagmites and stalactites of an enormous entry to a mysterious subterranean complex. The sculptures have been added over the one hundred plus year period of construction, so they have a slight variance of style, but all of most of them seem to follow the harsh lines and angles of the early avant-garde movement, as though to show us a Soviet Jesus, who plans for the salvation of our souls in five year schedules.

Soviet Jesus and his Gulag work brigade
Though the exterior is tremendous and amazing to behold in person - indeed, no picture can truly capture the beauty of the work - it's the interior that's the real beauty. Inside, immense white columns reach up hundreds of meters, as though they were meant to hold the sky. Each column is shaped as an angular tree, with branches coming out to aid in the support of the cieling far above. Everything inside the church is white - not just the columns - but color is added by the huge stain glass windows on either side. Each array of glass follows a particular color, so that the colors beam in, coloring the columns and the ground below, almost in the same way how in a forest the sun beams in its light through the leaves of the trees above, except instead of just being a brilliant yellow, this sun is bright red or blue or green, creating such a rich ephemeral play of colors that I've only seen in animated films.

The organs resemble bishop mitres

The yellow windows of the Sagrada

The ceiling of the Sagrada Familia

Red windows of the Sagrada Familia
Is it worth the 15 euros? Absolutely. I would probably even go again, paying the same amount. I guess if that's all St. Peter were charging to his celestial Disneyland, then it'd be worth it. Not that I'm looking forward to paying for 10 dollar coffee brewed with overcooked beans and served in paper cups for the rest of eternity.  



Monday, January 12, 2015

drinking coffee from a paper cup

The second day of Barcelona still consisted of our gang of four staying at the hobbit-sized Pension Miami - whose location was excellent - not premium - decor was charming, and size was miniature, run by friendly and considerate enough employees who dealt with us despite our despairing level of Spanish. 

A clean restaurant kitchen
Day 2 was a full day. We started off with breakfast at a Spanish McDonald's type place, all the while with me complaining about drinking coffee from a paper cup. "But it's clean," my wife insisted. "But you've never had to work fast food. Sometimes those places that look a little dirty on the outside are a lot cleaner than fast food. But anyways, there is no cleanliness in restaurants as it is, my friend Joseph has taught me that enough."

Next stop was Park Guell, which was an old Catalan noble family who had hired none other than Anthony Gaudi to design the property around his house. Gaudi built pavilions for events, a viaduct for walking, some statues, and some houses, including his own. Half the property - which is now a garden - was planned to be a subdivision of houses designed by the eccentric architect, but they never got around to starting the construction. After Franco took power, the place was turned into a park and Guell's home into a school, while Gaudi's house was turned into a museum.  

No fitness required!
Park Guell is easily reached from Placa Catalunya on the L3 metro line, getting off at the Vallcarca stop - don't listen to tourist guide books, they lie, the other stop has a lot of uphill walking. The metro in Barcelona - though the general plan of the metro is about as confusing as quantum mechanics - is fairly easy to use, since each station and line is fairly simple. Leaving the metro at Vallcarca, it's pretty easy to follow the signage to the Park. The signage takes one to a series of outdoor escalators that go right up the mountainside, making the ascent easy enough for even our fattest of friends.

At the top, one is confronted with going up the hill to the place of three crosses, or going downhill to the actual park. We decided to go up the hill, see the amazing overlook, then descend along the viaduct that winds down to the pavillions. The viaduct itself looks something like a mix between a prehistoric construction and the remnants of dinosaur fossils, built with crawling and sprawling vegetation in mind, perfectly moulded to the sides of the hill. The viaduct utilizes the Catenary arch that Gaudi was famous for perfecting, which only increases the appearance and feeling that your walking through a graveyard of giant lizards, especially with how the viaduct winds its way down the hill like the route a snake might take.

The view from the three crosses

On top of the viaduct
A "leaning" Catenary arch below a viaduct
The viaduct ends at the pavillion, where also is located the official entrance to the park. Tickets are 7 euros and can be purchased online, or about a 100 meter walk away from this spot. It's probably best to buy it online, and then you can also buy the Gaudi House and Sagrada Familia ticket bundle and hit all of this stuff without waiting, if you're your good with your timing. The tickets operate on a time band basis, meaning the park sells a certain amount of tickets for a certain period of time, so that the crowds are never too large and you never really have to wait in line, especially if you purchased your tickets previously online. It's actually quite a brilliant system.

The paid area of the park includes as I said, the pavilion, a walk around the school and the backside of the entrance. It's probably actually not worth the 7 euros, since most of that can be seen from the outside almost as easily, and you can take your Facebook picture in front of the gates without actually paying admission. Besides all that, the viaducts are really the most impressive Gaudi-designed part.

View of the pavilions from the free area
View of the pavilions from the paid area

The porter's house
From there, we took about a thirty minute walk to the Sagrada Familia, the great cathedral designed by Gaudi - a tour of Barcelona really is mostly just a tour of Gaudi's work, as the city itself was a canvass for the architect.

After one look at the line, we decided to look online for tickets, and found that the next available time bands wouldn't be until the next day around noon. This meant that even those people waiting in line for hours wouldn't be able to get in that day. So again, best to book online. At the moment, we decided not to go, since it was 15 euros just to walk around inside. 

Houses on the "Block of Discord", Casa Batllo and Casa Amatller
Instead we decided to go walk down the Passeig de Gracia and see the rest of Gaudi's buildings, in what they call the Block of Discord (in Catalan, Illa de la Discordia, or Bone of Discord), because of all the out of place buildings designed by various modernist architects of various ideas. Most of the buildings have a 5 or so euro charge to enter, where you get to see one or two rooms. At Casa Batllo though - the one designed by Gaudi - you can walk around most of the house, and though it's empty of the furniture (which Gaudi also designed), you at least get to see the basics of his interior design ideas. More on that later.

Last up for the day was the Maritime Museum of Barcelona, which looks far cooler on its pamphlet than it actually is - which is unfortunately all too often the case with touristic sites, the longer I travel, the more I wonder if I should just leave things in the grandeur of my imagination than being let down by the great weight of reality and universal insignificance. What I was imagining was that the shipyard-converted-to-museum would have a bunch of massive 17th century frigates on display that you could walk around on and pretend your a pirate or fighting with pirates - I'll here admit that my mind never matured past the age of 12. But as we started walking around the Drassanes in the south part of Raval, I realized that there weren't any buildings there large enough to contain my dreams.

Be sure to take a look inside!
Outside had a little wooden submarine reminiscent of the Beatles song. You can't go inside, but you can look in the windows and see what's going on inside. In the museum, there is a large royal barge, but you can't go on it, you can only admire the view of the body of the vessel from below. Then there's a large collection of various types of small fishing boats and a section about cruise liners and pirates that has some pictures and lots and lots of reading. It took me a really long time to get through this part, because I end up trying to read everything no matter how not actually interesting the information is - don't get me wrong, the section on defending Barcelona from the dreaded Berber pirate Barbarossa was actually quite awesome.  

Also included is a small shipping vessel that's sitting out in the marina near the marina shopping mall. You get to go inside and all, but if you've been on a boat before, it's not that terribly interesting, except to take pictures at the wheel. For all of that it's 7 euros. To me it's worth it, but then I'm a fan of history museums, from the life of quixotic writers to the maritime adventures of temporarily independant ports. But if you're only going to be excited by swinging on the ropes of the riggings - something I would have enjoyed a bit more - better to find a ropes' course somewhere. The past is dead, and reliving the past seems to be left to Renaissance Faires and Dungeons and Dragons.

  

Monday, January 5, 2015

On quick greetings and the economics of restaurants

At the end of December, our honeymoon was finally due. We had traveled all across Bohemia for weekends away from the bustle of our new city life in Prague, but we hadn't yet had a trip where our sole focus of attention would be each other and where we could cement together our new marital bond. It was my wife's dream to go to Morocco - and also to go to see Barcelona and a flamenco show - so it was with an easy glance at flight patterns that we decided that we could do both. And to boot, we could also include a short visit with one of her best friends - the mutual friend who had original brought us together in that now defunct smokey Tbilisi bar, Amarcord, where the walls were covered with strange colorful paintings that were coated in a slightly grey nicotine ash and the tables were made from Soviet era sewing machines, which is now an apparently chic thing to do in Tbilisi bars.

After a careful study of the price variations of dates and cities, and some discussion with my wife, we had agreed that we would go to Barcelona for nights days, then fly to Tangers, travel to Chefchouan, then to Fes, spend New Years in Fes, and fly back to Barcelona for another two nights. On the first leg of the trip, we would see my wife's best friend and husband, who stay at the same hotel we would be in.

While walking along a nearly empty sidewalk, headed to the Sagrada Familia, my wife's friend Salome noted, "We all make good travel companions. It's hard to find an agreement with who you're traveling with. Sometimes a person wants to walk everywhere and see as much as possible - like us - other people just want to shop, and others want to eat and drink." As she was saying this, I was imagining sitting down for a cup of coffee and watching people out the window hurry by with their time-dependent consistency, a hobby I had formed and loved since the days of my wandering Europe with no aim or vision or schedule - possibly the freest time of my life. Salome was right, there needs to be consistency on how people travel to make a good trip. I tried best to suit my companions' needs, also wanting to see as much of Barcelona as I could, though I preferred my snails' coffee drinking, wine sipping pace.

A street in the Raval district
We found our hotel with ease. There is a bus that costs 5 pounds 40 one way, or 11 pounds 20 two ways, from terminals 1 and 2 of the Barcelona airport to the city center, with stops at Placa de Espanya and Universitat, ending at Placa de Catalunya, which is the aortic heart of Barcelona, the primary arteries of Passeig de Gracia and Las Ramblas both stemming out of that plaza's ventricles. Our hotel was called Pension Miami, located in the Raval district, about a 5 minute walk from Placa de Catalunya and 2 minutes from Universitat, right behind the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art. The rooms are tiny, but with nice touches of character, like carefully carved woodwork making a kind of mantel over the otherwise Spartan bed. The room isn't much bigger than the bed, the bathroom follows suit, and the Russian couple staying next door could easily be heard with every entry and exit, and one could take pleasure in their snoring while using the toilet with the window to the bathroom's sunwell open. Our bedroom window opened to another sunwell, so we had no view of the street - which after visiting Spain with my parents earlier in the year, I discovered was a wonderful thing. The Spanish don't start their partying until around 11 and finish up at 7 in the morning, every day of the week, and since typical Spanish bars are about the size of that Pension Miami hotel room, most of the partying happens on the street.

In the Gothic quarter
As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we met Salome and her husband Avto, and immediately went out for a walk through the Gothic district. The Gothic district - so-called because of the Germanic influence on the cathedrals of the area - is a tightly packed district of narrow winding corridors and tall, five story buildings. Many corridors can't fit even two or three people shoulder-to-shoulder, so that much of the area is pedestrian only by default. A walk through this large area can show you how people have been living in Europe for centuries, and because of how large the district is, more successfully than any other district in perhaps any other place on the Continent.

It was good seeing Salome again, both because she's a smart woman who's nice to talk to and because of the joy her company brings to my wife. It was a pity that we were in such a rush everywhere, with such a short time for each other and for the city, and we had to balance the time like a man might balance his illegitimate lovers - our spending time exploring the city almost felt like cheating on each other. But we take what we are given and sought to enjoy our march through those Catalonian alleyways.

First up was dinner, and while in Spain, I wasn't going to miss paella - a rice based dish of various sea creatures - which I had fallen in love with while traveling with my seafood-faring parents. This was my one culinary requirement. And we passed one restaurant serving it - indeed, as we'd later see, there are plenty of restaurants serving it - with a guy standing outside, inviting people in. We opted against it. Salome's reasoning for her negative vote, "Restaurants that need someone on the street to convince people to come in can't be good."

Walking along La Rambla
In Spain though, this is the standard regime. It might be something carried on down from their Moroccan heritage, since the Arabs seem to have the same habit about getting people inside, since certainly nowhere else in Europe has this annoying habit of trying to invite people to come in - except maybe in certain, tourist heavy places. Outside of every restaurant stands a "tout", telling you about how delicious their food is, offering discounts, and often blocking your way with their menus and bodies so that you'd quit walking and come inside. Of course, for most people, this has the effect of frightening them off - like in my companions' case, and it would in my case too had I not seen the practice before.

We ended up at a restaurant on La Rambla. I'm convinced that every restaurant on La Rambla is exactly the same and with somewhat poor quality. "But there are a lot of people in them," Salome protested my rambling on La Rambla while we waited for our food.

"Here's something I especially learned in Prague," I said. "Often the most touristic restaurants are the worst. This is because of what they have to compete on. You can compete on location, atmosphere, food quality, service, and probably a few other things. Touristic restaurants are competing on location and often atmosphere. Because they have the location, they know that the thousands of tourists in Barcelona every weekend are going to see their restaurant and come inside to eat, because it's easy, and they see other people in there - other tourists like them - and assume that because other people are there, it must be a decent enough place. But then, because the restaurant knows this, they don't really have to invest on the quality of the food or necessarily the service.

"Every real estate agent will tell you that value is made from 'location, location, location', and for the lazy, uninspired restaurateur, this is absolutely true. They need the location, and the steep prices the location brings, to raise up profits, rather than a strong reputation for quality service and amazing food.

"Better then, I think, the restaurants that aren't located in the primary thoroughfares. Maybe you'll get an occasional restaurant competing on food quality in a touristic location, but then they'll easily get famous being touted on Tripadvisor or Lonely Planet, they'll up their prices or down their quality to make more money. But if you can find something just outside of super easy reach - like being on La Rambla - and preferably not having been on Lonely Planet for too long, then you'll find a restaurant that might be competing on food quality."

The food that night was plain, the paella uninspiring. And to be sure on our return path through Barcelona when we again ate at a paella place on La Rambla, I found the paella equally dull as my wife found her pizza pretty flavorless. This only confirmed my suspicions about the economics of restaurants.

Monday, December 15, 2014

you are not from the castle

My first exposure to Kafka was like anyone else’s, a reading of “Metamorphosis” in high school. When you’re that young, it’s truly impossible to get a full grasp of the meaning of most stories - lacking the life experience, it can be hard to relate with something someone much older and more experienced has written. Of course, it’s main themes of alienation and loneliness can probably be pretty relatable for most teens; there’s still something more to the prose, however. A teenager has a couple of years of loneliness - an adult can have decades of loneliness, and that kind of dark decay of the soul is much more profound than you can truly appreciate when young. Of course, a teenager always thinks he alone can understand such a vast sorrow, but that’s not so.

To brush up on this understanding, and to see why a good friend of mine hated the Prague writer so much, I had purchased a copy of one of his collections of short stories and was determined to read it. This was back when I lived in Denver, with that constant level of fear and alienation I was feeling from my own culture building up inside of me. It wasn’t so much that I was in truth alienated, but maybe it was that I was at a point of life that if I wasn’t alienated, then there must have been something mediocre about me, and hence the fear. What greater and worst thing is there in life than to be mediocre? And when you look at all the greats of history, most have accomplished so much by the age that I was, in my mid-twenties, and there I was with a mediocre desk job, a mediocre salary, mediocre stories, a mediocre life. And there I was reading the Collected Works while sitting alone on my toilet, while Augustus Caesar meowed outside, clawing underneath the door, trying to save me from the depths of whatever renal attack he imagined the great porcelain toilet monster was letting me have. What else could all that noise be? he must have been wondering with great fear. If the God dies, then where will the mana come from?

Last Sunday, I went to the Kafka Museum, here in Prague. At the time of reading the greater hull of Kafka’s works while sitting on my toilet back in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver, I had no design to ever live in Prague. I didn’t even want to visit the city, as it was already overused and outdone by hipsters throughout the town - “I’ve been to Prague, it’s so out there, on the border of civilization, and amazing and artistic.” Right, not really - I’ve been to the places on the border of civilization, and in those regards, Prague is quaint. You can quote me on that when talking to hometown hipsters.

The Kafka Museum is in a building where in all likelihood Franz Kafka never set a foot. The Mala Strana of his time was dilapidated and run down, smelling of fish and sewage and overrun by gypsies and fortune tellers. That’s not to say that scene was beneath Kafka, as he lived over in the Jewish ghetto or roundabout for most of his life, just swap the fish for some freshly butchered dead kosher products and it was roughly pretty similar dirt stained walls and caking of grime leftover from the greater days of the since fallen Holy Roman Empire. It was at that time, one of the principal cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though most of the newer construction, factories and development were taking place outside of the center. As this was before the advent of the airplane, tourism was slight, nothing like in today’s record numbers of Russians fleeing Vlad the Great’s ever tightening grip for a last and possible final breath of fresh freedom. Indeed, Prague was having its own problems back then, with the German, Czech and Jewish populations all about equal and all three equally discontent with each other. The Germans and Czechs were seeking out their own national identities - the Germans already as the elite of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and of those who built up the city, and the Czechs seeking out the strength of their own identity - the first period in history where Czech was even spoken openly on the streets of Prague. The third ethnic group at large in Prague were the Jews, most of whom spoke German, and whose identity would often waver in-between the other two groups. That was the Prague that Kafka was born into, completely different from the Czech utopia now, where you’re more likely to here a hodge-podge of Slavic languages and English than anything German.

"The Piss" by David Cerny
The entry of the museum is just off of Charles’ Bridge, in a small square hidden from the main tourist walks by a gate. In the small square is a symbol exhibition of modern Czech art, a fountain by the much acclaimed Czech artist, David Cerny. It’s called "The Piss" and is composed of two male statues with rotating pelvises and dipping peters, pissing into a pool made in the shape of the country. You can write a message and send it in, and the male pair will piss out the message, like children writing their names in the snow.

The museum tickets (200 crowns, or about 10 USD) are bought in the gift shop, which is the door to the left of the statues, while the museum itself is on the right. You enter in, the large angry lady - there is no museum in the Czech Republic complete without a large angry lady - sends you upstairs. The first floor of the museum if full of the finer details of Kafka’s life - basically edited prints from wikipedia displayed in a slightly more visually appealing manner. By the end of this reading tour - of course, what can you expect from a museum about an author - you’re pretty tired and ready for a beer. But then there’s a staircase down and alas, another floor!

The stairs are appealing though, boosting you with some additional strength, and besides, there's no other way to exit. A dark, red light is cast outward from underneath each step, making it seem like your descending into the fires of Kafka’s self-prescribed madness. Down at the bottom, there’s an angled mirror, with a quote in German from Kafka, probably something like “There is nothing besides a spiritual world; what we call the world of the senses is the Evil in the spiritual world, and what we call Evil is only the necessity of a moment in our eternal evolution.” Then you turn and you’re in a hall of file cabinets, never ending file cabinets, as the hall turns and turns and seems endless, symbolizing the bureaucratic hell that haunted Kafka, and influenced his writings towards misanthropy and loneliness. There is nothing that shoves your face into the compost heap of human existence quite like being a single cog - no, a bolt - in a giant organization, nothing that shows you how meaningless you are, when your own existence can be forgotten and subsumed by your lesser qualified coworkers. “You are not of the castle, you are not of the village. You are nothing.”

Then, a video display about the Castle, weird cardboard cutout scenes from Prague, quotes to belittle your existence and lots of smoke and mirrors. Then next room a dark fortress or prison, past the windows another video showing a man’s back being opened with a scalpel, peeling away the skin in various directions.

And then, like a Czech movie, you're standing outside, everything’s over but nothing has ended, and you scratch your head and try to figure out the meaning of what you just went through. But now you’re back standing in front of the pissing men, and all the meaninglessness is just about too much to handle.

Thanks God you're in Prague and there’s a lot of fantastic beer.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Polizei Folgen!

The police welcomed us to Germany. Still unsure of what it was like to drive on the autobahn, I decided to keep my speed down, so I stayed slow behind one car. But as other cars began to pass us, and I realized that my slow speed was a bit unnecessary and that I should just pass the guy, something like Christmas lights lit up in the back of his dark, tinted window. "POLIZEI" it read momentarily, and then, "FOLGEN". The two words kept replacing each other like they were vying for the goverment seat of Belgium.

"What the hell does that mean?" I asked my wife, whose German is no less than five hundred times better than mine. My German is limited to sausages, beer, and porn, with the notable exception of the ever useful phrase, "My nose is a gigantic flamethrower".

"Police follow," she said. 

"What police? I don't see any police," I said, somewhat confused, looking around. Was that brown car with the sign a police car? It didn't look like anything special. It turned off the highway and we kept going. "Huh, well, that was that. Maybe it was just some friendly anarchist warning us about police ahead or something?" Sure that sounds weird, but Germany has no shortage of weird people, and it's quite full of anarchists and Marxists and other authority hating types.

A few minutes we were in peace, left to ourselves to ponder the meaning of this sign. And then the brown VW sped past us, moved in front and slowed down, flashing it's sign at us like a man in a brown trenchcoat in a New York subway. "Are you sure that's not in the imperative?" I asked, ever concerned about proper grammar.

"I don't know, it just says 'police follow'."

"Not 'follow the police'? Are you sure?"

"Yes, that would be -" she said what that would be.

"Well, maybe we're supposed to follow them."

We followed them to the side of the road. My wife was about to get out of the car, but I stopped her. "No, no, you should never get out of your car. For one, if these aren't really police, then you wouldn't be able to drive away quickly. You never know who They are." They takes a capital here, since They could be connected to any network of conspiracies. And I've been reading too much Gravity's Rainbow as of late.

Both of the men got out of their unmarked car and both were carrying sidearms, though neither were in uniform - unless one were to consider their back to the 80s dress as a kind of uniform. He came up to the window and showed his identification, which looked about as official as my diplomatic identification, which is to say, it looked quite fake - a piece of paper printed off an office computer and quickly laminated by a foggy eyed intern who forgot his glasses. 

"Can I help you?" I asked.

"Police. You speak English?"

"Yessir," I confirmed in the politest way possible. This was not the time for bad German accents and cliche WWII jokes - "Jawohl mein Herr!" It's an unfortunate problem for Germans, that Nazi jokes will ever be present upon them, and no doubt some stodgy magazine editor is refusing WWII stories these days because Nazi Germans are so cliche. Just when will we see a brown haired, Jewish vegetarian Nazi?

This officer was blond haired and blue eyed, but that's where his relation to the master race ended. His English was passable, requesting ID from us. We handed our computer printout diplomatic IDs over and I gave him my Colorado driver's license - the only thing that looked official in this exchange. He went back to his car with his partner and they sat for a while, apparently making phone calls. His partner, dressed in a denim black jacket and denim blue jeans, came back to our window and said to us, "Um, your ids, maybe um, you um, yes. Passports?"

"Those are our IDs, we can use them as passports."

"Passport nein?"

"Nein. She speaks German, go for it."

And then he said no less than 100 words in German, which my wife translated as, "He says we should have brought our passports." He was either a wordy guy or he was saying something more.

My wife was bugging me with the "What's the worst that can happen" game, which is unfortunately the only part of my imagination that really can function. Seeing that she needed reassurance, I quickly suppressed my suspicion that these were not cops, but actually part of some underground, S&M Baudermeinhoff group bent on terrorising the countryside by kidnapping foreign nationals, bringing them to dank cellars, and putting large things where they don't belong, then selling the videos of all this on the Internet. Or maybe they were cops and would decide to arrest us, be convinced we were al'Qaeda spies, hand us over to the CIA where we would get tortured until we confessed to being members and then thrown into Gitmo for 30 years.

"He'll make some calls," I said. "Worst that can happen is that we have to go back to Prague and get our passports and we'll have to go to some country police station and prove our identity. And I guess we can forget about Nuremberg." That's good. Don't tell her what was really The Worst That Can Happen. We don't need any hysterical women around here.

About thirty minutes later, the first officer came back. "I just never see these passports. You no reissen passport?"

"No, just those diplomatic IDs."

"Okay, I, um."

"It's okay, she speaks German."

Happy, he started speaking long words in German. Something about waffels and schtaffels and fluegenfleiffels. My wife kept nodding and smiling and saying "Ja, ja, ja." 

"So what did he say?"

"He said we should have brought our passports," she said. "And he's calling an office to verify the ID."

"What an idiot," I said. "We're on the Czech border, he pulls over a car clearly marked for a diplomat, and we give him diplomatic IDs and he still doesn't get it?" Seeing now his intelligence, The Worst That Can Happen scenarios playing through my had started getting a bit more reasonable. To me, these do possible sado-masochist anal terrorists had started more resembling the guys in this video:



He came back with the IDs. "Okay, no problem. But you are two diplomats getting away from Prague to hook up?" he asked in German, translated by my wife. It was good I didn't speak German, since my answer would have been laced with sarcasm, "Yes officer, absolutely, we're just riding off to hook up. You know, like married couples do."

Later, I looked up "Polizei Folgen" on Bing translate. It says, "Police impact." Or in Hulk speak, "Police SMASH!" I'll remember that next time I see the sign. 

One last thing I might add: It's true that the autobahn has no speed limit. And it's fun.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Prague: a first (and second) glance

Much to my new bride's rejoice, we didn't take our honeymoon immediately. I was still with my parents and there was still much to do. We had scheduled the marriage on a date that would suit best my parents and they were due for a trip to Spain in September, one which I would join them on. But first, we would spend a week with my new bride in Prague, showing my folks around the city. So it was an awkward few nights with my love, where we huddled in each others arms - cough - with my parents in the next room. It was like a real Georgian marriage, which of course, wasn't precisely what we wanted, but the time for a Western style marriage would come later. For now, my mom was there and could cook and clean, like we know all proper mothers do.

But the cooking and cleaning came at a price and the price was to show them around the city. Prague, at first glance, is a medieval metropolis. It's crammed with all sorts of architectural novelties, the kind of which American cities have tried to copy for thousands of years. The one thing it truly lacks in comparison to American cities is boxy warehouse style looking buildings and roads that make remote sense - though they are certainly working on the former. Most annoying in the road design here is that one way roads often change direction and often several times. It makes drunk driving - an American national pastime, as how else can you get to the bars and get back home? - nearly impossible. This scheme, I theorize, is because the Czech powers that be want us to get out of our cars and walk - something most American politicians lose elections over. Make places nicer to walk and public transit easier and more comfortable to use, they say, and people will gladly leave their cars. Frankly, I'm convinced, but then I'm an easy target when it comes to public transit and pedestrianism.

Common sight in American restaurants
At second glance, the tourist mecca section of Prague is actually quite small. Small as a city is concerned, large as a beer-themed Disneyland is concerned. But then, where I've been living, Tbilisi, there is only a micro-sized touristic section, and in most American cities where I've lived, the touristic section is usually over-run by homeless people and self-righteous people brandishing assault rifles at Chipotle to prove their right to bear arms. "No, son, the white people with automatic rifles are just expressing their right to have automatic rifles in public places. No, son, they're not like the Wendy's guy, or the movie theatre guy. Yes, son, if they say okay, you can play with their rifles, why not?" Not the nicest of scenes, but that's part of why I moved.

Staromestska and Our Lady on the Tyne church
The first touristic site one must see in Prague is the old town square, or Staromestska, and the Little Square, or Maly Namesti. This spot I of course showed my parents to, and I've also met several of my parents' friends on. I actually think more of my parents friends have visited me in this city than my own friends, but I digress. Staromestska has looked about the same for just 200 years, when they completed the final tower on Our Lady of the Tyne church, a perfect example of architecture we imagine to be medieval but is actually from the 1700s, which is pretty late. Kind of a post-Gothic, neo-classical hodge podge of awesome, with several pointy peaks jutting from the roofs of the towers. Also found is the astronomic clock tower, which on the hour every hour opens up, with little figurines that appear from opened doors and then they disappear. It's really not all that interesting, but the Russian tourists are in awe every time because I guess they don't have such ancient technology in Moscow.

Maly Namesti, or Little Square
There are tons of restaurants and sidewalk cafes scattered throughout the two squares, and they should all be avoided at all costs, since the food is en par with American prices, but with standard European portions. And typically it's the most tasteless food in Prague, since those restaurants are all about location and none about quality. There are a couple of glowing exceptions, like the Mexican restaurant, Las Adelitas, found down a passage connected to Maly Namesti, and also a coffee shop down an adjoining passage. Outside of that, avoid these restaurants at all cost, and instead please yourself with a sidewalk beer or cinnamon covered pastry called a trdelnik. Lucky for my fellow beer drinkers, toilets in the restaurants tend to cost less than they do on the square. However, unlike in America, where if you pay for the toilet you get serviced by some smiling black dude in a blue suit and probably you’re in a strip bar surrounded by naked Ukrainian ladies brought to the U.S. on dreams that probably didn’t include strip bars, in Prague neither is likely the case - at least, here, no one working in bathrooms are likely to be smiling.


Other places we visited were all aptly named places, with possibly less imagination than the aforementioned Disney parks have, though their parks are based off the real thing, which is Prague. I'm talking about such places as the Castle, the Bridge, the River, and the Old Restaurant (which here is creative, since it’s only about 20 years old). Anyways, no one in history has ever accused Slavs of being creative with their naming of public places, at least not like Germans. In Moscow, we get such places as Building Named After Lenin and Red Square (in old Slavic, Pretty Square), in Prague we get the Castle and the Little Square, in Warsaw the Tower That Is Also a Science Museum, and in Germany, Neuhoffschtenschteincraginbaum. See who has the cooler names? But never mind that, because at least the Soviet camps had more clever names, like Camp Stone and Camp Snow. There are no places with names like Fist of the First Men and the Summer Islands in real life, so you can give up now, my fellow RPG gamers.