Friday, December 31, 2010

En Route

We have arrived safely in JFK.

No problems with departing San Diego, or arriving here in New York.

The flight was uneventful and we are now in the Delta Sky Lounge for our six-hour layover.

[As I type this, I can hear my father in the background on his cell, giving directions to my aunt on how to find us in the lounge].

Time to get lunch. My next update will be at least a day from now after we arrive in Tel-Aviv

We were very fortunate in that we do not need to change terminals. My parents keep repeating the mantra that the distance between gates is inversely proportional to the amount of time you have to get between them.

Not much sign of the snowpacalypse: there are still mounds of snow laying about, but no problems getting to the terminal. They had us unload in a "parking area" and we took one of those shuttles from the plane to the terminal.

Meanwhile it is very grey and cold outside. It's one of those winter evenings where only the golden glimmers from the setting sun provide any distinctions between the grey snow ground and the grey clouded sky.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Last Night and Flying Home

For my last cafe in Budapest, I went to the restored Cafe New York in the New York Palace (named after the New York Life Insurance Co. that built it in the 1890s). The room looked gorgeous, but the items were a bit overpriced (like I was paying for all the gilt and marble with every mineral water). I decided to try the rigo jansci, which I've made myself. I have to say, I like my version better. This is supposed to be a light chocolate mousse, sandwiched between two thin slices of chocolate cake and then glazed in dark chocolate ganache. Their version was just a rather dry mousse with a scoop of chocolate ice cream on top.

Walking back to the pension the last time, I couldn't help think how much the neighborhood reminded me of the area of Jerusalem I lived when I was on the Fulbright: Emek Refaim (aka the Greek Colony). Similar sidewalks, stone fences, recessed buildings with green trees. Spend any time in Central Europe and you can see how much of it was brought to Israel by the immigrants.

At 4 am, my alarm went off to get ready for the pick up. The driver spoke no English (or German, French, Spanish, or Hebrew), so he couldn't confirm the price. It turned out to be a shuttle service rather than a taxi, so we me made several other pick ups. When we got to the airport, he walked me to the service counter, where they told me the cost was 2,800 forints, far less than a taxi would have cost.

I'd never been to Budapest Ferihegy airport before, and I hope to avoid it in the future. A massive mob of people in no particular queue waiting to check in luggage at the one of the few check in counters open at 5 am. The reason for the crowd is that they have at least half a dozen flights all scheduled between 7 and 7:15 am. I managed to find a clerk by the automated boarding machine dispensers who walked me through it. Since I had no check in luggage, I could bypass the mob and go straight to security. If I had had to check in a suitcase, however, I'm would have barely made my flight (I saw a couple from my shuttle board the plane in a hurry just before they closed the main cabin door).

The good news with my flights is that I had very short layovers: just under 2 hours in Brussels, just over 2 hours in Chicago. The bad news is both subsequent flights were oversold. At Brussels I was surprised to learn I needed to check in and thought they might bump me (they were offering $1000 travel vouchers at that point to fly out the next day); in Chicago, they called up half the plane to recheck in, but I made it through (only $300 vouchers there, though). No screaming toddlers these flights; mostly middle school and high school students on vacation. All together, about 24 hours from when I first woke up until I walked through my front door at home.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Last Day in Budapest

Last night we all went out for our last dinner together in Budapest. I had hoped to go to the newly restored Cafe New York, but it is more of a dessert place with few dinner options (it did look spectacular, though).

Instead we went to Pomo D'Oro, a restaurant near Gresham Palace recommended to us by Mick and Sarah, a couple of Oslo-based archaeologists staying in our pension. The waiters spoke English, Italian, and Hungarian and had a funny little shtick. They were pushing a cocktail and so we said "Why not." It had mint and some juice and a lot of vodka in it.

I had the fresh pea soup and I can say without a doubt that it was the best pea soup I've ever had. It was light, fresh, and full of taste, and in no way thick or grey. I've no idea how they did that.

For the main course I chose the lasagna. It too was excellent, though the portion size was too big. Why do restaurants always think I'm eating for two (or three)? Perhaps they expect everyone will share the meal in common.

At the end of the meal, we were joined by a college friend of Cherie who lives in Budapest. They went off for the remainder of the evening, and Annie and I walked down to the Danube and then across the Chain Bridge, which was all lit up (and covered in mosquitoes). Then it was back to the pension so they could finish packing.

Even though the sky was clear, around 11 pm, there was a tremendous downpour. All the humidity that had been building up all day washed down. Luckily it all cleared out soon enough.

Annie and Cherie left for the airport around 4:30 am (I managed to sleep through most of it). Instead of the helpful, friendly, and cheery Jasmina, this morning it was only Csilla setting up for breakfast. "How are you," I asked. "Not good." "What's wrong," I asked. "Pain. In soul. Private" she replied.

This morning I headed back to the Great Central Market to buy gifts for my niece and nephews and lunch more myself. Then it was up to the castle hill to see the special exhibition on Futurism at the Hungarian National Gallery. The exhibit was on the works of Fortunato Depero, and it brought many of his pieces from Italian collections to Hungary and then supplemented them with the works of Hungarian futurists and avant garde artists influenced by him. I particularly liked the works by Hugo Scheiber.

Afterwards I did a quick walk through the late 19th/early 20th century wing. It always amazes me how little the political and social turmoil of the 1930s and 40s is reflected in the art on display. Only three paintings in the entire wing deal with the rise of fascism and prejudice in Hungary, the systematic stripping away of rights, the enslavement and then the deportation and murder of the Jewish and Roma communities. Most of the paintings of the war period remind me of the light entertainment produced by German film companies during the war to distract the public from the pervasive "unpleasantness."

After I had my picnic beneath the statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy (the cross-dressing 17th century nobleman who built the Belvedere in Vienna) in front of Buda Castle and overlooking the Danube, I walked to Ruszwurm, the oldest sweetshop in Budapest (1827) for a lemonade made with mint and elderberry juice and a slice of ribzslitopfentorte (red currant-farmer's cheese cake). It has three layers: 1/2" biscuit cake on bottom, 2" of light farmer's cheese cake, with a thin 1/4" layer of red currants and glaze on top. It was all very tasty.

I walked down the hill past the Fisherman's Bastion to one of the Turkish-era spas on the Buda side. Built in 1570, the main pool is domed with small hexagonal glass tiles allowing light to seep in. There's one small beam of direct sunlight; the rest is diffused. I only spent two hours there as I still had so much to do today.

I headed over to the Pest side for a snack at Gerbeaud. I'm trying to fit in one last visit to all my favorites. I had the Eszterhazy slice with a glass of elderberry and raspberry lemonade. The cake and the drink were wonderful. Then I tried to book my taxi for tomorrow, but I couldn't do it over the internet, so I went back to the pension. Unfortunately, Csilla, Jasmina, AND Geza were all out, but I convinced the guy fixing the windows in one of the rooms to call for me and make the arrangements. If all goes as plans, I'll be picked up at 4:40 am for the 20 minute drive to the airport tomorrow morning.

After that, I raced out the door to try to get to the Holocaust Museum before they closed at 6 pm. I thought I made it in plenty of time when I walked up at 5 pm, only to find a handwritten sign saying that they decided to close early today. I decided to have dinner back at Bagolyvar. With the weather so much warmer, I was seated on the back patio, surrounded by greenery. I ordered the sour cherry soup again, but this time had the grilled fogash with garlic sauce and spinach pancake strips. It was very, very good. Now, I'm off to Cafe New York for one last dessert.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Humidity and Mosquitoes

The weather for most of this trip has been cool and overcast, but in Budapest, it's been overcast and humid, modulating between cool and warm. Because there has been so much recent rain, there are clouds of mosquitoes, so we have been forced to keep our windows closed at night (no bug screens).

Yesterday afternoon we did very little. After we got back together, we took a walk through the Jewish Quarter in the evening and ate at Carmel, a kosher (meat) restaurant. I started with the cold cherry soup, which was still tasty even without the sour cream. I ordered "beef Jewish style," which turned out to be flanken. After the meal we wandered through the remnants of the ghetto. The neighborhood had been mostly Jewish before the war, and between the Holocaust and then communism, many of the surviving Jews moved out. They were replaced by squatters, and so the neighborhood has a run-down feel to it.

This morning it looked clear and sunny, so I decided to wear shorts for the first time in nearly three weeks. We decided to go to Szetendre and left around 10:15 am. We had toyed with the idea of renting bikes and cycling there, but we weren't sure how to get the bikes across the Danube, since not all bridges are bikeable. In the end, it turned out to be a very good idea not to have ridden.

We walked to the main square and had lunch. My grilled perch was excellent. From there we browsed the shops on the main stream running towards the Danube. Tourism is way down. Each time I walked into a store it was as if a hemophiliac had shown up on the doorstep of a starving vampire. Our plan was to take the boat back to Budapest, but it turns out that 1) they've reduced their boat service to one a day; and 2) they have no boat service on Monday. Since our cycling plan was dependent on the boats, it worked out well that we didn't cycle.

In addition, now that the sun was out, it was both humid AND hot, and we still have mosquitoes everywhere, particularly on the bike trail along the Danube. While Cherie finished browsing, Annie and I had drinks in the square. I had a very nice lemonade with orange and mint, along with an Ischler cookie. By 3:15, we were ready to go back. We had hoped to go to the Gellert this afternoon, but we only got back to our pension by 5 pm, and the thermal pools at the Gellert close by 6 pm, so that was out. I am definitely going to the spa tomorrow; I can't come to this spa city and only visit one.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


The opera last night was an amazing experience. I think I had the best seats I've ever had for any performance. As I wrote yesterday, the only tickets left were in the highest price group; I bought a box seat because I wanted more leg room. The only seats better than mine were in the box next to mine on the right: the presidential box.

After you leave the elaborate foyer of the opera, one ascends a red carpeted marble stair case to the lobby. I was directed to the first floor boxes, and mine was on the middle. I wasn't sure how box seats work, but when I got in, I saw that there were three chairs in two rows, along with a movable love seat. Two of the first three chairs were occupied by an Italian-Hungarian couple; I took the third. The views of the theater were fantastic. Like the presidential box (which had nicer upholstered chairs), our box jutted out a meter or so beyond the curving row of boxes, so I had great views of everyone seated to my left, as well as my right. I also had a terrific view of the stage.

The interior of the theater is a riot of late 19th century cherub-encrusted columns, all coated in gold leaf, alternating with red plush walls and floors. A large, chandelier hung from an elaborate trompe l'oie ceiling. Most people were nicely dressed, though I spotted some shabby Americans (or Canadians) with shirt tails flapping out. I could see the cheap seats in the upper gallery where I sat the last time. The highest row goes for 400 ft (my seats went for 10,700 ft).

I was less impressed with the actual performance than the performance space. The orchestra was good and the music is lovely. The staging, however, varied from dull to bizarre. The set was a non-descript beige, vaguely Mediterranean plaza. Among the many extras, the director added a 1920s-era tourist group, along with a tour guide carrying an umbrella. They didn't have any dialogue, but they continually came through scenes photographing, even in Act II, set in a gypsy hideout in the mountains. The costuming was also dull, with the tourists all in beige, the town children in light pastel blue and pink, the townsmen in beige and black, and the gypsy girls all in nondescript floral skirts. The total effect was rather muddy.

Two of the singers were very, very good. The man who sang Don Jose, the romantic lead, was excellent, and the woman who sang the role of his fiancee, Marcaela, was wonderful. She only has two or three songs, but boy did she make the most of them. When she came out for her ovation, the cheers were deafening.

Far less impressive, but still ok, was the Carmen. She could belt out her numbers, but she lacked the flair and style of the Micaela. I'm no expert on opera (I don't know the difference between bel canto and coloratura), but I thought her only so-so. The audience seems to have agreed, since her applause was noticeably less than Micaela's or Don Jose's.

But the real problem was the man singing the part of Escamillo. His big number is "Toreadore" (google or youtube it, you'll recognize it immediately), but as he sang it, at least twice there were times where he sounded out of synch. Since it had been so long since I've heard it, I wasn't sure but when he was done, I thought I heard some boos from the boxes to my left. When he came out for his ovation at the intermission there were distinct and audible boos, the first time I've ever heard that in a theater before.

At the intermission I had some orange juice and a pastry and then went back to the box to read about the Italian and French world cup fiascos. People kept coming into our box to peer into the presidential box next door. I was so tired from so little sleep the night before I kept dropping off, but I perked up during the break and was wide awake for the final two acts.

Because the public transportation system in Budapest shuts down around 11:30 pm, I was concerned about making it back to my hotel in the Buda suburbs, but I had no problem. On the tram, I ran into another stag party group, this one from France. I've been surprised how many French and German, as well as British stag party groups I've seen in eastern Europe. Apparently, the British disease has spread to the continent. One can always spot them with their matching shirts and stupid disguises. The groom is always singled out for particular abuse. In this case, he was wearing a silly blonde page boy wig, while his mates wore matching brown/beige sweaters, padding for a pot belly, and large black mustaches.

Today, we went to Gundel for Sunday brunch. I made reservations because it had filled up quickly the last time, but I needn't have bothered. They have clearly been hurt by the recession, with half the restaurant empty. The dessert table was a third smaller, and I noticed that the eggs were now deviled as opposed to filled with fois gras. They still had rack of lamb, but instead of roast beef round, they now had beef ragout. Instead of cold melon soup, they had a fogash soup with dill (sort of like a very mild gefilte fish). It also seemed to me that their selection of cheeses had been more varied in the past. Still, I enjoyed the salads, cheeses, fruits, and main courses.

The dessert selection remained very good. I tried a chocolate mousse with sour cherry base, a very mild chestnut-pomegranate panna cotta, a chocolate Gundel cake, and a piece of cheese retesz (like a strudel) with vanilla sauce (these were all exceedingly small pieces). The coffee was delightful, and I did go back for a creme brulee, which we all split. We ate slowly to give our stomaches time to digest, spending almost 2.5 hours in the restaurant. Annie surprised me by picking up the check as a thank you for organizing the trip.

Afterwards, we walked through the park to try to find a flea market for Cherie. We eventually reached it as they were closing up shop. While Cherie tried on a dress, I found a book table, stocked with books with titles like Die Wehrmacht, Die Kriegsmarine, and Die Luftwaffe. He also had some Nazi-era weaponry that he was packing away (mostly large knives). I decided I had seen enough.

Right now, we're back in the heart of Pest, where Cherie is window shopping next door at Zara. It's hard to imagine we're going to eat dinner tonight, but I suppose in several more hours I might feel peckish again.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Art Nouveau and the Opera

Our hotel room is very nice but unfortunately, my bed is directly under the windows and they only have a thin screen covering. As a result, I woke up earlier than I wished. Since we took our towels to the spa yesterday, they were too wet to use this morning, so I simply went down for breakfast. There were fewer options than in past places we've stayed (e.g., no hard boiled eggs), but other than that, it was pretty much the same (rolls, butter, jam, cereal, tea, ham, cheese, etc.).

The weather today has been indecisive. It keeps threatening to drizzle, but it changes its mind just when it seems like it's actually going to start to drizzle. As a result, it's been rather cool and humid today.

I decided to spend the day going to places I've never visited before. I started off with the Great Central Market. It's right off the tram line when you cross the Danube and it's absolutely fantastic. Built out of bricks in a wild art nouveau style in the late 19th century, it has three floors of stalls and booths. I began with the ground level, full of green grocers, bakeries, and butcher shops. I was so full from breakfast I could only look longingly at the rows of tall, whip cream filled slices, but I did buy a sack of sour cherries and a small hallah for lunch. The butcher shops even stocked wing tips and feet, essential for good soup stock, but almost impossible to find in regular American supermarkets.

Upstairs were mostly stores with tourist items: matrushka dolls, porcelain, embroidery, and the like.I past one stand where men were smoking and drinking beer, so I checked my watch: I wasn't imagining it. It was only 9:15 am and they were drinking. At another stand, some men in their 70s or 80s were enjoying glasses of red wine. Most of the embroidery, if not all, looked to be machine made, and the fact is, I can't tell the difference.

The downstairs has the fish stalls and a grocery store.

From there, I headed up Andrassy ut. to the Hungarian State Opera. Tonight they are performing Bizet's Carmen, and after the fiascos in Vienna, I really didn't want to miss this. The lobby is stunning: arches, inlaid designs, marble pillars and chandeliers. I went to the window and was told that only the most expensive seats were left, and just a few in scattered places. My choice was the second row center or a box; I chose the box. Last time I saw the opera here I had almost no leg room. Luckily at that time I was seated on an aisle and could position my legs into the free space. I figure I'll have better luck in the box.

Yet even at the most expensive price level it came to only the equivalent of 41 euros; a similar quality ticket in LA would go for at least five times as much. One of my books says that the operas are usually performed in Hungarian, but the clerk said no, their policy was to sing in the language of composition, in this case French, and then post supertitles in Hungarian. I guess I'll be working on my French tonight.

I popped into a little market around the corner and picked up some cheese and water; the former to go with my bread, the latter to wash the cherries. I found a nice bench opposite a fountain in the theater district and ate a light lunch.

In fact, I've been losing weight on this trip, in part, I think, from eating light lunches. I haven't stepped on a scale in weeks, but I've lost at least half an inch off my waist (either that or my belt is stretching).

After lunch, I went back to the center of Pest and searched for the Boede Haz. This is dedicated to art nouveau and the pale green exterior has the classic undulating vines and curlicues one associates with the movement. The interior houses as eclectic, if sometimes odd, assortment of period furniture and objects. This is probably the only place I've ever gone with a large, art nouveau style mens room door.

While have a latte in the cafe I panicked when I realized that I couldn't find my watch. It wasn't in my bag or in my jacket and I feared I left it on the bench during lunch. Finally, I remembered that I had taken it off earlier when I checked my email in a cafe off Vaci ut. It isn't a valuable watch (just a cheap Timex with a very worn elastic band), but I find it comfortable as it's easy to take off. I raced back to the cafe and the clerk gave it to me.

From there I headed to the Hungarian National Museum. This is devoted to the history of Hungary from the Magyar conquest to the present. I wasn't really interested so much in the actual history but rather how that history is presented, and most importantly, who is included in it. The exhibits reminded me of many of the museums I had seen in Poland. Hungary was settled by the Hungarians, and no one else is really a part of their history. While Jews had lived in Hungary for many hundreds of years, the earliest mention in the museum is the inclusion of a painting of a Hungarian Jewish merchant published in London in the 18th century, as part of a large series of "types" that can be seen in Hungary (it also includes the only mention of the Roma in the entire museum).

The first actual textual reference isn't until later when in the museum adds, almost as an afterthought, that in the latter half of the 18th century there was a large Jewish community in the country. Jews only appear three more times in the museum: in a display of non-Catholic churches (a torah plate and two rimonim), in a reference to growing tension over Jewish assimilation, and finally in the brief references to the Holocaust.

The last is probably the most disturbing. Like the House of Terror across town, the Hungarian National Museum basically whitewashes the Nazi period, rehabilitating Admiral Horthy's authoritarian rule by tying it to the efforts by Hungarians to recover territories wrongfully taken by the victorious allies at the Treaty of the Trianon in 1920. Since only Nazi Germany and fascist Italy would help Hungary, they had "no choice" but to ally themselves with those countries, who, the museum texts state, put pressure on Hungary to adopt discriminatory anti-Jewish laws, but that the state refused to physically harm its Jews.

Of course, what goes unmentioned are the anti-Jewish laws adopted first in the 1920s, and the slave labor battalions created by the Hungarians for Jewish men during the war, where thousands of Jews perished under conditions created by the Hungarians. While the museum text notes that the roundup and deportation of Hungarian Jews occurred with the assistance of the Hungarian state, it claims Horthy managed to save the Jews of Budapest when in fact he only stopped the deportations after he mistakenly concluded that an allied bombardment of the city was in retaliation for the deportations. Oddly enough, while all other material in the museum is in Hungarian, with only occasional English subtitles, the map of the deportations and the description of whence and hence people were taken and sent is in German.

After leaving the museum, I headed back to the pension to shower and shave and change for dinner. I have my dress black tennies on, as well as my frayed chinos. I decided to have an early dinner at Gerbeaud and read the paper. I had a very nice smoked salmon sandwich on a long, whole wheat, seed-studded role, along with dill sauce and cucumbers. For dessert, I had a cafe latte and a Gerbeaud slice. This is a layered dessert. There are four thin layers of a dry, almost crispy cake, separated by layers of apricot jam with a small amount of crushed walnuts added. The whole thing is topped with a thick coating of dark chocolate. It was very good.

So now, feeling sated and rested, I'm ready for my opera box and a three and a half hour performance of Bizet, the first opera I ever saw (not counting "Invasion of the Glabolinks," an opera for children performed by the San Diego symphony, which I also saw in 4th grade). I also just received confirmation from Gundel for my reservation for three for brunch tomorrow at 11:30. I'm only going to eat a light breakfast to save room for the heavy, heavy lunch.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Spa Day in Budapest

9:15 am and we we`re out the door with a taxi to the train station. A short time later we were esconced in our seats to Budapest. We reserved places but the car was full of either Italian or Mexican teenagers, so we moved to a quieter car where we could spread out.

Unlike the train to Salzburg, the route to Budapest passes through mostly flat plains and fields, silver-leaved trees, yellow flowers and partly sunny skies. It looked warmer than Austria, and sure enough when we arrived, it was.

Last time I was here I had a lot of trouble using my atm card, but this time it worked with no problems whatsoever. The guidebook warned against using unlicensed hacks by the train station, but we had no choice as our hotel was well outside the center of town and we have an ungodly amount of luggage (my small carry case and bag couldn`t fit in the trunk of the Viennese taxi). I negotiated a fee of 5000 forint and hoped that meant I wasn`t being ripped off too much (he did keep muttering how much beyond the castle district our pension was after quoting me a rate to the castle district).

The pension is small and charming on a quiet side street. Our single room is on the first floor above ground with windows facing the street, with one double bed and a single (for me), and a en suite toilet and shower. No internet in the pension (just wifi, but I didn`t bring my laptop, so I`m typing this on the computer in the lobby of the Mercure Hotel - after buying a soda for the privilege, my first diet coke in three weeks).

There`s a tram that stops near our hotel, but we didn`t have tickets so we walked 10 minutes to the nearby square. Since it was already 2 pm, we stopped for lunch at self-service cafeteria. I made the mistake of getting the vegetable soup, which was awful, but at least the rice was inoffensive and the fried cauliflower was tasty.

To buy a single ticket for the tram, we could only use coins, which then had to be placed one at a time in a slot and then levered into place. After much ado, we managed to get three single use tickets and we were office to the metro where we got 72 hour passes (much simpler to use and acquire). After all the walking yesterday, we all wanted to go to a spa, so I suggested the Szeczenyi in the main city park.

They made things easier than the last time I was there. Then they scrawled the number on my wrist in chalk on the inside of my locker. Now, they gave me an electronic wrist-watch like device that was coded to my locker and which I carried on me. I changed into my trunks and went out to the pool.

What I love about this spa is the wonderful setting: a beautiful beaux arts palace with three large outdoor pools. The first pool is heated to 36 C and has people playing chess. The second pool in the middle is for laps and is tepid. The third pool is only 30 C and has two concentric circles in the middle. Every fifteen minutes they alternate. The middle circle has bubbles that come out of the seats, while the outer circle has powerful jets of water that create a whirlpool effect. Both are a lot of fun.

After about 45 minutes, I left the outdoor pools and went indoors. I started with the mineral water pools. They vary in temperature from a low of 30 (for people getting out of the sauna) to a high of 40. One had a distinct smell of sulpher. I spent a fair amount of time there, and then headed to the thermal pools. These also varied in temperature, and they also had steam rooms (varying in temperature from 40 to 60 C) and saunas (from 50 to 70 C). They also had two aroma therapy rooms, but I couldn`t tell what the aroma was supposed to be.

I hung out in this section for about two hours, moving from pool to pool and room to room. There is really a dramatic difference in the spa culture between the Czech Republic and Hungary. The latter is far more communal: no doctor`s prescriptions or medicinal treatments. Just everyone hanging out together. I prefer the Hungarian approach.

I left the spa around 6:45 pm and found Annie and Cherie waiting for me in the lobby. They were ready for dinner, so we walked to Bagolyvar, just two blocks away. We stopped by Gundel and I picked up a card to make reservations for Sunday Brunch. Dinner at Bagolyvar was as charming as I remember. Annie and I very much enjoyed our sour cherry soup starter, but this time they had a little walnut meringue floating in it. I've always had trouble figuring out the spices, but Annie recognized the clove.

They ordered a better main course than I (fish). My stuffed cabbage had far, far too much paprikash. We hoped to get dessert at Gerbeaud, but we needed to find an internet cafe first, so we`ll have to do that some other day. We finally found internet in a hotel populated entirely by Israelis and British stag tours.

If the weather is good, we may go bicycling tomorrow.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Hills Are Alive, With the Sounds of Tourists

Wednesday night, Annie and I had dinner at Cafe Nil, near the hotel. At first we thought it meant "nothing," but the middle eastern themed cuisine hinted to its proper translation: Nile.

Afterwards, we all went to Cafe Central in the Inner Stadt. Unfortunately, they are no longer open until midnight, but close at 10 pm (we suspect the economy). When we came in at 9:35, the maitre d´ warned us. Luckily, there were still some pastries in the case, and I had a raspberry yoguhrt torte, while Cherie had the strawberry slice. It was a trifle stale, but still tasty.

On Thursday, we got up at the (relatively) early hour of 8:45 am to make our train to Salzburg. One my problems with Vienna is that despite the culture, architecture, art, and cafes, the city itself can feel oppressive. Other than the parks along the Ring, there´s very little green in the city center. It was delightful to see the green fields and forests of lower and upper Austria from the train. We traveled besides small farms and past small towns. We occasionally saw deer that came out of the forests to graze in the fields.

As we neared Salzburg, we could begin to make out the northern and eastern range of the Alps in the far distance. This was the first time that I´ve been to Alps, so I was quite excited.

I had never been to Salzburg before, but Annie really loves The Sound of Music, a film I´ve never been able to sit through, so I had downloaded some information on places where the filmed particular scenes. We caught a bus to the Mirabelle Palace and Gardens, where Julie Andrews and the children sang "Do-Re-Me." We ate our lunch in the gardens (kosher salami from the Kosherland store in Vienna) and then snuck into the palace to see the marble hall.

Somewhere I had found a note online suggesting that if one had only a limited time in Salzburg and wanted to see Alps, to take the #25 bus to Untersberg. We decided to do so. One 30 minute and very crowded bus ride later, we reached the cable car, known as the "Untersbergbahn." The cable car takes 12 minutes to take people up to the top of an Alp (height: 1772 meters). The ride up was thrilling, with wonderful views of the Alps, Salzburg, and the region around it.

There´s a little alpine lodge above the cable car station on top, but they´re redoing the path, so it´s all torn up. Nonetheless, we made it inside. We all ordered cafe lattes, and after some negotiations, I had the small order of kaiserschmarren with home made apple sauce, while Cherie had the "hauskuchen," in this case, something described as a banana yoghurt torte on biscuit cake. It turned out to be a small mug, with white cake on the bottom, a mixture of yoghurt and banana in the middle and schlagobers (whipped cream) on top.

I was particularly excited to try kaiserschmarren, since I make this often at home (particularly during passover), and I wanted to finally try an authentic version. When the plate came, I was quite glad I ordered a small. I usually describe it as "scrambled pancakes," but that doesn´t really do it justice. It had rum-soaked raisins inside, and dusted with powdered sugar. Just before she plated it, I saw the cook pour on a liquour and I think flame it. It was golden rum. The thick, homemade apple sauce complemented it perfectly.

There was about a dozen people of retirement age but in very good shape at one of the other tables. As one came by I asked about them. She told me they were part of a Alpining association in Austria and had begun their hike in Berchtesgaden (or Berchtesgarden -- I couldn´t tell which she said) at 8 am that morning and had hiked 6.5 hours to get to Untersberg.

Afterwards, we walked up to an overlook with a statue dedicated to the Alpine brigade members who had fallen during the first and second world wars. We tried to avoid having it in any of our photos.

The air and the views were spectacular and there were paragliders looping over head. The hillsides were covered in small yellow and white wild flowers, with a few violet ones for contrast. We met a woman from Utah named LaDawn who had been on one of the Sound of Music Tours and was able to fill us in on where all the scenes were filmed.

We took the same cable car down and bus back to town, so she pointed out other ímportant film locations in route. We walked across the bridge into the Alt Stadt. While the others were shopping, I went to get some cash (our hotel in Vienna doesn´t take credit cards, and I was low). After I met back up, we went to a small garden cafe where we were able to try Salzburger Nockerl. I tried to make this once, but my version didn´t come out nearly as nice. It is very light like a souffle.

Then it was back on the train for the 2.5 hour journey back to Vienna. This morning, we´re off to our last stop: Budapest.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It´s About the Journey, not the Destination

I woke up feeling somewhat better today and went out and found a laundrette somewhat in the neighborhood. "Oh yes," said the somewhat prissy morning clerk, "there´s one very close to here. Just follow the tram tracks." 15 minutes later I reached the laundrette. I returned an hour and a half later with clean and mostly dry clothes.

After breakfast we headed to the Prater. Wonderful views of Vienna from the Riesenrad, and the weather was definitely improved over yesterday. We even saw a few brave souls in shorts determined to enjoy the first day of summer as summer.

From there we walked through the 2nd district, known as Leopoldstadt, searching for the kosher shop. We finally found it and did some shopping for tomorrow´s trip to Salzburg, and from there I found one of the earliest Jewish-specific Holocaust monuments in Vienna: the collection site for the deportation of Vienna´s Jews to the extermination camps (in a former Jewish school).

On my flight to Europe, the New York Times travel section had discussed changes in the 2nd district, recommending a restaurant. Unfortunately, we found that it wasn´t open for lunch. Instead we ate two blocks away at the Schöne Perle, a rather nice, large, open restaurant with large wooden tables and bright tall windows facing the street. I had a nice (if a rather undersalted) cream of vegetable soup and some penne with peperonata. Several people nearby ordered the Marillenknödel, but I thought that would be far too much food to order for my still fragile stomache.

After that we looked for a new, top-end fashion store, but it turned out to be rather too high end, so we walked across the Danube canal and alongside the canal to Kunsthauswien, a gallery devoted to the work of Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Hundertwasser´s work is somewhat similar to Gaudy, but with a strong ecological overlay. My Time Out Guide rather dismissively refers to his "dubious eco-art," though they justfiably praise the green garden cafe.

I raced to the Staatoper to buy standing room tickets for tonight´s performance of "La Forza del Destino," but not only was there a surprisingly long line for the tickets, but after waiting 25 minutes, I finally noticed the large sign in the front saying "only one ticket per person" (in my defense, I was quite far from the ticket window). I decided to go back and check with Annie and Cherie and we´ve decided to have a more leisurely evening, including buying our train tickets for tomorrow.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fashion and Rudeness

We spent yesterday evening walking around the Inner City. We started with the Stephansdom, arriving just in time for the start of the evening mass. The congregants were all clustered in the front, and the tourists stayed way in the back behind the gates. The church itself remained mostly empty.

As we walked around the outside of the church, Cherie was delighted to find there was an outlet of Zara here in Vienna, so we all went in to browse. I went up to the men´s section, but there were only two shirts that interested me, and I´m just not sure if I´m ready to embrace the return of epaulettes on men´s button down shirts.

One thing that was clear from watching people on the street is that the Viennese, in general, are far more fashionable than the Germans. One only ocassionally saw a person dressed in bright mossy-green pants with a red sweatshirt; instead, most were dressed nicely (if warmly) in dark pants and jackets. We tried to have dinner at Do & Co on Stephensplatz but they didn´t have seats until 9:45. We booked a table for Tuesday night, from 6:45 to 8:45. This is the first place in Europe I´ve ever heard of time limit on seating. In most places, the table is yours for the night.

Instead we walked around the corner to Reinthaler Beisl, a very traditional wood paneled, smokey Viennese restaurant. The name "beisl" oomes from Yiddish and means "little house." After making sure that there was a least one fish dish on the menu, we went in. I went with my "safe dish" - Schnitzel, while Annie and Cherie both had the fish. There were several "traditionally dressed" Austrians in our nook of the restaurant, with the kind of coats and shirts that strike me as Tyrolean. The food was very good, but I suggested we get dessert later.

We walked off the heavy meal, ending up by the Albertina where we ran into an Israeli tour group. The guide was explaining in Hebrew a set of statues in the square. Two large pieces had a marker (in German) explaining that on this site stood a house that was destroyed by bombardment in 1945 and where women, children and the elderly hiding in the basement were killed. The marker described this as a monument against fascism. The guide then pointed out a much smaller statue visible between and behind the bigger pieces. It was a dark stone figure of a hunched over figure scrubbing the pavement with barbed wire across his back. The stone came from Mauthausen and the figure was of a Jew forced to scrub the pavement after Kristallnacht. After the guide left, we couldn´t find any text describing this statue in the square.

This is one my problems with Austria. I love the art and food of Vienna, but I hate its absence of historical memory. During the Historkersstreit in Germany in the 1980s, Jürgen Habermas argued that it was important that the Holocaust remain front and center within German consciousness,so the victims "can come to our country and be able to breathe." In Vienna and Austria, there is very little public memory of the Holocaust or Austria´s critical role in it, and as a result, I´ve always had trouble breathing here.

We walked down the Graben, looking at the Pestsäule and then decided to go for dessert. We checked out Cafe Weinwurm, but the clientele just seemed a little odd, so I suggested Cafe Hawelka. My favorite cook book, Kaffeehaus, recommends their special dessert and this was also a favorite cafe of artists and writers.

It was too cold and drizzly to eat outside so we went in. The walls were wood panelled but covered in posters and drawings. The waiter told us we oould sit where we like, but the banquettes were all taken. We eventually found a free one behind a pillar, but after we sat down I noticed a small sign "reserviert" and sure enough the waiter told us we needed to move. We moved to a round table with chairs in the center, and the waiter came back to take our orders. We asked for a menu, but he explained there wasn´t any. We could get drinks or one of two desserts: fresh buchteln or cheese strudel. I came for the buchteln and I explained that they were like jelly donuts. "Jelly donuts!!" the waiter huffily interjected, "how can you call them that!" His eyebrows seemed to have a life of their own, one in which they suffered from hyperactivity disorder, constantly moving up and down, but not in synch. I ordered a milchkaffee and the buchteln, while Cherie got a hot chocolate.

A short while later, a group left one of the banquettes and we debated moving in to it. We decided to do so, but we got very angry and nasty looks from some people at the table behind us. I feared we had made a second faux pas, but later we saw another group do the same thing as us. Meanwhile, the people near us continued to glare and fume (literally, the smoke was unbelievable).

When I travel to foreign countries, I always act as if I´m a guest in someone else´s house. While it isn´t easy for me, I try to keep my voice down and be discrete and polite. I have never, however, felt the kind of hostility and rudeness that I did last night in Cafe Hawelka. Even when we left, as I was standing by the door waiting for Annie and Cherie to get their coats on, I made eye contact with a couple at a table. I smiled and said "guten abend;" they simply glared at me. I´m not sure why the regulars in the cafe were so rude, but I have three theories.

1) Without a doubt, when we sat down at the reserved table, we had "taken" the spot of a regular. I don´t think, however, this is sufficient explanation.

2) We were the only English speaking tourists in the cafe. Some of the hostility, therefore, might have been anti-Anglo Saxon.

3) But I think the most likely explanation is that the regulars feel that this is "their" cafe and that we were interlopers, coming in, clumsily messing things up, sitting in the wrong place, acting "inappropriately" and they wanted us gone.

That being said, the buchteln were wonderful. They´re not really jelly donuts. They are more like monkey bread with a hot plum (or prune) filling, dusted with powdered sugar. We devoured them greedily. After a while, though, the smoke in the cafe (I think ours was the only table where someone wasn´t lit) was too much for me, so I asked to leave. Annie wants to go back for more buchteln, but I´m not sure I can face the smoke and hostility again.

This morning, my digestive system decided to go on what I hope is only a 24-hour sit down strike. I tried to take it easier today. After breakfast, we headed to the Staatsoper to investigate Verdi´s La Forza del Destino. The only seats available are in the 100 plus Euro range, but we can also get standing room seats. Our plan is to watch as much as we are comfortable and to try to find empty seats at one of the intermissions. We can´t buy tickets until two hours before curtain Wednesday night.

We then went to the Upper Belvedere and toured the collection of Klimts, Schieles, and Kokoschkas. They changed the pictures on display from when I was here in 2006, with many of the German Expressionist paintings not being shown now.

We had a light lunch in the museum cafe and then it was a leisurely stroll to the gardens and then a several block walk to the Naschmarkt. Along the way we passed a large monument to Soviet troops killed in the liberation of the city in 1945.

The Naschmarkt has changed a lot since I was last here in 2006. It is far more middle eastern in both food options and workers. We stopped for coffee and dessert at Neni, and Cherie and I both ordered overly large chocolate mousse tortes. We met two of the waiters who turned out to be Viennese of Israeli descent. The whole cafe is family run and they told us that there are many Israelis in the market, but that most of them are Bukharin, and that as Sephardim, they are somewhat isolated.

I then went back to the hotel to nap, and this evening we went to a little cafe where I had a beef broth soup with cut up pancakes.

Tomorrow we go to Prater to ride the ferris wheel and see the Jewish quarter.

In Vienna

We had a liesurely trip to Vienna, arriving at the station well before our train. Changing krona into euros reminded me of Israel: standing in a long line for a clerk, who filled out papers and stamped them before giving me my money. I used up most of my extra krona by buying some Leonidas chocolates for Annie, Cherie, and myself.

While we reserved seats for the train, they didn´t give us one of the private compartments, like we had on our trip to Prague. There was a rather annoying American further up the car who chatted with his neighbors in a loud voice for most of the 4.5 hour journey.

I went to the dining car for lunch and spent an hour chatting with some Americans from Seattle who had been in Prague as part of a sea shanty singing festival.

Vienna is about as cold and grey as Prague. We´re hoping for good weather tomorrow. We hoped to go to the Staatsoper tonight to see La Juive, but they were virtually sold out (the only tickets left were in the 100 to 130 Euro range), so we´re going to head to Stephensplatz and walk around.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Krivoklat Castle

We rented a car for two days, so that we could drive to Terezin on Sunday, but since my colleague changed his plans, we now had that day free.

Around 11 am, we bundled into the car and headed off to visit Krivoklat Castle, near Prague. We took a slightly different route, beginning on the major highway, but then changing to small rural roads. Everything was fine until we reached the town of Beroun, on the Berounka river. As we drove we came across a sign post with several signs. On the top were two signs each bearing the names of towns not on our map, with arrows pointing in different directions. Beneath them were three signs for various destinations, including Krivoklat, but with no arrows. It was if they were saying, at the next fork in the road, one of them will lead to your destination, but we're not going to tell you which.

At first I thought, well, perhaps all these unarrowed destinations go with the arrow immediately above them, so let's go to the right. That turned out to be a small road that went through wooded hills. My guidebook, however, said that the road went along the Berounka River, so we turned around and tried the road to the left. As we passed by people walking, we would stop, I would roll down the window and say "Krivoklat???" pointing in the direction we were going.

Person 1: shrug.
Persons 2 and 3: we just moved here, we don't know
Person 4: don't know.
Person 5 (a man operating a snack stand): that way (the way we were driving).

With that confirmed, we continued down the road, watching many people rafting and kayaking on the Berounka. Eventually, we came across additional road signs directing us up away from the river. After passing a turn off to Nizbor Castle, we came to a fork in the road with no signs. Annie parked the car on the side and we waved down a passing car. "Krivoklat???" He pointed to the right.

The road became quite curvey, winding in out and out of forests and small little towns. Eventually we came around a bend and caught sight of the castle rising on a promentory out of the forest.

The castle is quite pretty. Originally a hunting lodge, it was first built into a castle in the 12th century, and then rebuilt several times since. I didn't know the food situation inside, so I got a hamburger at a stand just outside the castle. All I'll say is that it was marginally better than Polish hamburgers.

The only way to tour the castle is with a guided tour (in Czech), so we got tickets and then sat in the courtyard to watch the falconer who was working with falcons, hawks, owls and other birds of prey. She wore gloves, but here hands were red, calloused, and scarred. We also saw the wood working shop, the fletcher (who demonstrated a cross bow and pistol bow), and a smith whose main products for sale all seemed to involve s & m.

The tour was moderately interesting. They had little booklets for us in English to follow along. I didn't think the interior decorations were all that exciting, but it was fun to walk through the castle. Afterwards we got lunch in the courtyard. We all got corn on the cob, which was simultaneously cooked and frozen. I also got two nutella crepes. By 4:15, we were back on the road to Prague.

We took a quicker way back, via the road to Karlovy Vary. We missed the brewery town we passed the day before (I didn't mention, but they seemed to be having a "beer fest" on Saturday, with people parking 4 or 5 kilometers away. It's a big Czech brewery, but the name escapes me. We did, however, find out what the fields of climbing vines were: hops!

We decided not to try to find parking in the city center, but instead returned the car to the pension parking lot and then we walked to the Museum of Communism, near Wenceslas Square. This is a private, for profit museum that, while having some problems with historical presentation, does a pretty good job of covering the communist period of Czech history. The 15-minute film, however, always brings me to tears. It covers the period between 1969 and 1989, and the final song always reminds me of Hannah Senesh's poem, "Blessed is the Match."

I had to leave Annie and Cherie in the museum to meet my colleague Don for dinner at 7. He's taking a group of students through Germany, Czech Republic, and Poland, on a short-term study tour of the Holocaust. I had dinner with him and two of his students and heard about how their trip is going.

Afterwards, Don and I went to Prague hlavi nadrizi station so I could buy our tickets to Vienna and he could check on his overnight train to Poland. Then we went to the central bus station so he could get info on the bus to Terezin. They've completely remodeled the bus station. The old one resembled the old central bus station in Tel-Aviv. Concrete walls, dirty and cracked linoleum floors. Bus time tables hanging from every conceivable wall space, and a ticket booth behind partially opaque and cracked glass, staffed by someone who almost always had only a limited knowledge of languages other than Czech. The new station is bright, clean, airy, and with an information booth staffed by someone who spoke English. It was a delightful change from the past.

Today we have a 10:39 train to Vienna. At 4.5 hours, this is our longest train journey of the trip. I'm hoping that I will have time to pick up tickets for Halevy's La Juive at the Vienna Opera tonight.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Spa Day in Karlovy Vary

Friday night we went to dinner at the Alchemist Garden, a restaurant next to our pension. This is a lebanese-themed restaurant, and despite the coolness of the weather, we ate in the garden (Annie and Cherie sat next to the heater, I, enjoying the weather, sat as far away from it as I could get).

As it happened, there were two people dining there that we had met earlier in the day at the Kampa Museum: a mother from Los Angeles and her son who had just graduated high school. In an amazing coincidence, we discovered that her son and Cherie had not only both acted in the same summer acting program, but they had even appeared in a play together. In yet another coincidence, it turned out that the son would be attending Cherie's college in the fall.

After dinner we all walked to the refugee festival in Kampa Park, but at 10 pm, the music shuts down (by law).

On Saturday (yesterday), our rental car was dropped off for us a little after 9 am, and we made our way to Karlovy Vary. I HATE driving in foreign countries and Annie loves it, so it worked out quite well. I navigated the poorly marked streets and in no time at all we were on the main road to the spa town. The Czech countryside is gorgeous: very green with small hills and little patches of forests. Mostly it was fields and farmlands. Sometimes we passed large fields of wheat that in some cases were just beginning to change from green to golden; other times, we passed fields of another kind of grain (I think rye), that grew straight upright and had slightly bluish green stalks. Sometimes we past fields with climbing vines attached to poles, but we couldn't figure out what was growing there. We past at least one strawberry field where you could stop and pick your own.

Karlovy Vary is about 112 km west from Prague, and the area around there is far more hilly and forested. It took us slightly less than 2 hours to negotiate the roads, and after being nearly trapped in a pedestrian zone, we parked and walked. The town is like a multi-colored Victorian confection. Brightly colored buildings, delicate lace porticoes on the promenades and colonades, green parks with white gazeboes, and the river flowing through the middle. Most of the people carry little white ceramic cups with ceramic straws, in order to drink the hot mineral water without staining their teeth.

We stopped briefly at Lazne III, the public spa that I used in 2006. This is the one with two story corridors and communist-era service. After that we found the spa I used in 2007: Zamecky Lazne. I had tried repeatedly to find it on the web in order to book us, but I had not been able to find it. Luckily, we had no trouble coming as a walk in. I got the four-hour "Superior" spa treatment. jThis included a 40-minute classic full-body massage, one "major treatment," and two "minor treatments." For my major treatment I chose the "pearl bath," which is a tub with small little water jets that focus acupressure on different muscles of the body. For my minor treatments, I chose the Kneipp hydrotherapy and the electroaerosol inhalation.

Our spa visit was to start at 1 pm, but it was already 12:30 and we needed to have lunch before we went into the spa (they only have tea and water available inside), so we ran into the restaurant next door. There were no seats in front, so we went inside and found a free table. As I looked at the decor, I became more than a little uneasy: maps of the Sudetendeutschen, local maps of parts of "Sudetenland," lots of kitschy albums and pictures of Sudetenland musicians from the 1970s, lots of South German knick knacks. We were eating in a restaurant that catered to former Sudetenland Germans (most had been expelled in 1945 by Stalin). I ordered the schnitzel, which is my fall back choice when I'm not sure what else is safe. Annie thought about getting the dumpling, but I told her she dodged a bullet by getting the broccoli. Czech dumplings are not like kneydlach; they are large, heavy, white, beige-tasting things, sliced into hockey puck like shapes, drowned in brown gravy and then decorated with globs of sour cream. We all enjoyed (if you can call it that), a bizarre statue of a stuff fox smoking a pipe, with strange yellow wooden eggs hanging from his underside.

We made it back to the spa just after 1 and were introduced to the procedures. We each received a plush robe and towel and a wrist band that opened the door to our own changing room. The robe and towel appeared to be the same ones I received in 2007, the exact same ones. They had been washed to an inch of their plush little lives (sort of like the towels at our hotel, which serve the dual role of simultaneously drying and exfoliating). After we had changed with went in.

The main hall has a large tepid water pool. Annie and Cherie were surprised how cool it was, but I think it's part of the Czech spa tradition. The Czechs approach spas as medicinal; each procedure is prescribed and medicinal. A hot water pool is a specific treatment, not something general.

I started off with the Kneipp hydrotherapy. This is designed to stimulate blood flow in the feet and calves. There are two small pools adjacent to each other and connected by small steps. One one side the water is ice cold, on the other it's very hot. The Czech attendant explained to me that I spend one minute on the cold side and then thirty seconds on the hot side (Annie thinks I misunderstood and got the sides reversed).

As I walked into the cold side, I first thought: cold! Then, wow this really cold. Then, oh my God this really cold! How much longer? Twenty seconds. Ten seconds. Five seconds. Then up and quickly over to the hot side. Ouch! Hot! Hot! Hot!. How much longer? Fifteen seconds. Ten seconds. Five seconds. Quick over to the cold side. Ah. But then, ooh, this is cold!

By the third cycle it stopped hurting. The hot side was pleasantly warm, but after twenty five seconds it started feeling uncomfortable. Then it was over to the cold side where now my feet tingled and felt like they floated. The cold only started to become uncomfortable just before I went back to the hot side. At the start, I thought this would be the longest fifteen minutes of my life, but by the end, I was sorry to see it over.

I swam in the pool for a while, and then lay out on a lounge. They then called me over for my massage. I've only had a full-body massage once before (also in the Karlovy Vary), so I must admit I was more than a little anxious about it. In 2006, my masseuse was a large, middle-aged, stocky, plain Czech woman; yesterday, I got her matching husband. He started on my legs and it was going fine until he reached my knees. I'm very ticklish there and I started to laugh uncontrollably. Thankfully, this was the only problem. He was quite good and the massage felt like it was over in no time at all. In fact, I checked the time when I got out to make sure it was really 40 minutes (it was).

My next procedure was the electroaerosol inhalation. This is a cave-like room with rough stone walls and a mechanism spraying atomized particles of electrically charged mineral water into the air. The room was warm, but surprisingly not humid, with a very faint mineral scent.

My final procedure was the pearl bath. The first time I did it, in 2007, it really relaxed me, but not so much this time. I still enjoyed it, though.

We left at 5 pm, and went for some cafe und kuchen at the Grand Hotel Pupp. This is the finest hotel in Karolvy Vary, and, according to my guide book, believed by some to be the finest hotel in the Czech Republic. A British woman we met by our hotel the other day pronounced the name "poop," which caused us much amusement. Not wanting to say that I would like to go for a "poop" coffee, I called it the Grand Hotel Pupik (belly button in Yiddish).

The coffee house was gorgeous. Wood paneled with windows facing the river and town, elegant and well lit, with copies of various papers to read, including the International Herald Tribune. I ordered a chocolate coffee and a chocolate roulade. The cake came warm. It was a thin chocolate nut meringue, sort of like a dacquoise, but then coated in a deep, rich chocolate sauce (spiked with a kahlua-like liquour) and then rolled up and dusted with powdered sugar and some schlag (whipped cream).

Afterwards, we walked through the amazingly beautiful dining room and lobby. This hotel was the backdrop for the main hotel/casino in the recent Bond film Casino Royale, so if you've seen the film, you now know what Karlovy Vary looks like.

We drove back to Prague in the late afternoon, getting lost only once as we tried to find our way back to Mala Strana. We parked in the neighboring lot, but it very late (8:45 pm). My last meal was the schnitzel at 12:30, followed by the small slice of cake at 5 pm, so I was starving. After much discussion, I insisted we get something to eat in the neighborhood and at 9:30 we went to the Cafe de Paris one block away. I asked if they took credit cards (we don't have that much cash left) and the waiter said "we prefer not to." After confirming that they would take it despite their preference we sat down.

I ordered the entrecote with pommes frites and a glass of Czech red. The wine was lovely, though the side salad was very dijon mustardy. The waiter asked if I wanted my steak medium (apparently the default position among tourists to Prague), but I said no, "a pointe, s'il vous plait." It was perfect; very well cooked accompanied by a sauce Bernaise (tarragon).

Annie and Cherie got into a long conversation with the couple seated next to us in the restaurant. They had brought their adorable three-month old puppy Ferdo into the restaurant (it's not America after all) and we all enjoyed playing with it (he was very well behaved). However, the long wait for dinner followed by wine and a very heavy late meal just wiped me out. I found it very difficult to stay awake or concentrate, and the smoke started to give me a head ache. By midnight I was just ready to collapse, which is what I did a few minutes later after we got back to the hotel. I immediately fell asleep, and only woke up seven and a half hours later.

I'm not sure what we're doing today. Originally, I was supposed to meet a colleague in Terezin, but I found out yesterday that he's changed his plans and is going on Monday. We may drive out of town this morning after they get up, and then come back for a last afternoon in Prague. On Monday, we have our longest train ride: 4.5 hours to Vienna.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday at the Castle

I slept better last night; not waking up until 7 am (it felt like it was later). It was pouring rain, so no early morning walk today. I did some laundry in the sink instead.

Annie joined me for breakfast a little after 9, and around 10:30 we took a walk through the Kampa Park to the Charles River, and then past beautiful old buildings. We bought some cherries for our day trip tomorrow and then headed back to the pension to pick up Cherie. Annie and Cherie wanted to visit Prague Castle today, so we caught the noon tram there.

Our first stop was St. Vitus Cathedral. They named it that because it was the closest name to the pagan God of fertility whose site the cathedral occupies. The cathedral is all very, very gothic, though the stained-glass windows are very 1920s (sponsored by local banks, most of whom got product placement. The Mucha window is very nice, but the silver coated monstrosity to a 14-th century martyr can be summed up by two works "ungepotchke" and "halooshes."

Afterwards I had a snack and coffee near the old royal palace and then we walked out of the castle and toured the gardens on the Hradcany side. The views were fabulous and we walked down to Mala Strana. We eventually found a place near the Charles Bridge overlooking the canal and the bridge. Service, as we have often found in Prague, can be more than just rude. Things sometimes got tense with the waiter, but it all worked out in the end. So if you want a nice view of Charles Bridge, somewhat overpriced food, and rude service, try Cafe Marnice.

From there we went to the Kampa Museum, which was a lot of fun, and afterwards we enjoyed the beautiful park and the festival supporting refugees and refugee organizations. French stag party groups, Yiddish and Ukrainian folk singers, lots of people with dogs, and lots of Russian, Armenian, and Uzbekistan snack food for sale.

Now we're off to dinner at the mediterrean-style restaurant near our pension.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Symphony

When we arrived at the Rudolfinum Thursday night, we could see the crowd attending was elegantly dressed. I felt somewhat out of place in my frayed Dockers and black tennis shoes. We arrived early enough for Cherie to get a quick bite before the concert started.

The concert hall was gorgeous; a neo-classical paradise. The hall was somewhat smaller than I expected. It's like Israeli halls in that there is no middle aisle, but rather, you have to step over 15 people to get to the middle seats. Ours were in the sixth row, on the far left. They were wonderful. High over our heads (maybe six or seven stories) was an immense chandelier, and the upper balcony was rimmed with three story neo-classical columns. On the stage, behind the orchestra was a large organ with three story pipes and Paladian pediment.

The program was Offenbach. The first half featured selected areas from The Tales of Hoffmann, the same opera I saw in Berlin. This time, though, it was sung in German. The orcestra and the soloists were fantastic, particularly Marie Fajtova. Visibly pregant and in a tight, shimmering black dress and strikingly high heels, she brought down the house with "Song of Olympia" (the doll in Act 1). It was a far better performance than I had heard in Berlin.

At the Intermission, we all oohed and ahhed over the performances. I rushed out so as to be near the front of the line and bought us all glasses of prosecco. I don't know much about Offenbach, but I can hear a lot of similarities with Johan Strauss. Both have a strong waltz or dance element, though Offenbach generally comes across, at least to me, as somewhat "dreamier." There's a kind of wave-like quality to many of his melodies, as if one were lying on the deck of a boat that gently swayed to and fro.

In the second half, they did three selections from Orpheus in the Underworld, including the overture. I think we were all amazed to hear the "can-can" theme suddenly appear. The final selection was from La Belle Helene. In both the last two operas, the soloist I mentioned above appeared. It was clear that not only the audience but also the conductor, Ondrej Lenard, and the other musicians loved her. For the encore, all the soloists returned to the stage for a reprise of the "Can Can." As the audience started to clap in time, Lenard would turn around and direct us when to stop and when to start. It was very cute.

After the concert, we went out to eat. I thought the perfect conclusion would be a meal at the Municipal House cafe, with its ornate chandeliers and beaux artes facade. We had a lovely snack and then walked all the way back to the hotel.

The Jewish Museum

Between my allergies and the fact that my drapes don't close, I woke up far too early this morning (5 am). I tried falling asleep for an hour and then just got up. After showering, dressing, and futzing with the computer for 15 minutes, I decided to start walking.

I followed the tram tracks to Malostranska station, where I bought a day pass for myself and one for Annie and Cherie. Then I headed to the Rudolfinum across the river to get some information on tonight's show and the hours of the box office. Finally I ended up in Wenceslas Square, where I found a (temporarily) free internet in the basement of a large bookstore.

Around 8:30, I headed back to the pension to meet Annie and later Cherie for breakfast and find out what we were going to today. We decided to go to Josefov and tour the various synagogues there. We left at 10:30 am and started with the Pinkas, which records the names of over 77,000 Czech Jews murdered in the Holocaust. As we were walking through, I suddenly heard the prayer "El Ma'aleh Rachamim" faintly echoing through the sanctuary and I got very choked up. I'm not sure why it affected me so strongly, as this is the third time I've been in this synagogue. I don't remember hearing the music before, so perhaps it was the combination that pushed me over the edge.

After looking at the children's drawings from Teresienstadt, we walked through the old cemetery to the Hevrah Kadisha building. I love the set of paintings depicted the society's activities, from visiting the sick, to washing and burying the dead, to their annual banquet, but none of the pictures is available in reproduction. Very frustrating.

After a quick visit to the Klausen my blood sugar levels were starting to fall. It was already 12:30, but I was the only one really hungry. We went to a pizza/italian place on Siroka St., near Pariska. I ordered Spaghetti Bolognese and it was surprisingly good (just a tad too salty) and a latte machiatto.

We went back to the Alt-Neu Schul and Annie and I checked out the times of the various services on shabbat whil Cherie browsed the tchochke stands. The Alt-Neu Schul is the oldest continually used synagogue in Europe, dating back to 1270. The women's gallery is perpetually off limits to men: it's closed to tourists and only open for prayer services, but at those times, only women can go back to it. It's behind a very thick barrier and with thin, slanted windows.

The Spanish synagogue seemed more subdued to me than in the past, but I think that's because I've seen it in late afternoon, when the sun's rays turn it golden. Our final stop was the Maisels Synagogue, in order to see the Solomon Molcho relics. By that point it was close to 2:30 and we needed a place to sit and relax. I hoped to find a nice cafe in Ungelt, behind the Lady Before Tyn church, but we didn't see anything we liked and decided to return to Malastrana.

Before hand, though, we stopped at the Rudolfinum, supposedly the nicest-looking concert hall in Europe, to buy tickets to tonight's 7:30 pm performance of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, doing highlights from three operas by Offenbach. Our tickets were only 600 Czk each, the most expensive tickets in the house (6th row, seats 2,3, and 4 on the side), but that's under $30 per person. A similar seat in Disney Hall would sell for many times more.

With our tickets in hand, we returned to Malastrana. Cherie went back to nap, then Annie and I stopped at nearby cafe (something like Cukrakalimonada). She had a wonderful salad with mushrooms and nuts, while I had an elderberry drink with carbonated water and mint leaves and a plum pie. Both were excellent. We could hear music students from a nearby conservatory practicing the piano and horn, and both battled the loud jazz from the cafe. We both decided to come back againt later in the trip.

Just before we got to the hotel we saw that the gates to Kampa Park were open. Lots of shady benches, flowering star jasmine, people sleeping on the lawns, and dogs running about everywhere. After Annie went to rest, I walked through the park, finding the Kampa Museum (one of my favorites) and the Charles Bridge were only five minutes from our pension. It really is a lovely area of Prague.

One last thing: we have been amazingly fortunate in our weather here. Today was clear, sunny, and by late in the day, warm. Also, the tourist quotient has been lower than in my past visits (though I suppose it will inevitably rise as the weekedn, and the concommitant stag party tourist groups arrive.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Internet Problems

I am having a lot of problems with the internet in Prague. My hotel computer does not work most of the time, particularly regarding email. I got up early this morning (Thursday) and tried the internet in a book store, but not only is the keyboard screwy but it is not letting me access my webmail. If I do not reply to your email in the next few days please understand why.

The Green Vault and Prague

It was a little chilly last night, so instead of eating in the garden under the cherry tree, we ate inside but by the window. (After getting used to the German keyboard with the ys and zs reversed, it's a little hard to use a normal keyboard again). The portions were very big. I ordered the Saxon prix fixe and I got a huge bowl of potato and wurst soup, a giant plate of Sauerbraten, and three quarkcakes for dessert. It could have fed a family of four! Cherie's zucchini gratin also could have served four people. This was the first time all trip I felt like I ate too much.

We all slept well in our room, though one of the room light switches was elbow length by my bed and twice during the night I accidentally brushed up against it turning on the lights. After a leisurely breakfast we checked out of the hotel and put our luggage in storage. We made it to the Green Vault on time for our entrance. They have an airlock to pass through into the historic section, with only two people admitted at a time.

It was interesting (to me) to compare the Historic Green Vault with the New one I had toured twice before. Both are really the tchochka collection of the king of Saxony, but the new one was opened while they rebuilt and restored the historic vault that was so badly damaged during the bombardment.

I'm going to have to finish this post later.

[six hours later]

Sorry about that; my internet access has been a bit sketchy since Berlin. In Dresden, the only internet cafe I could find was 10 blocks from the hotel, run by Russians with only a single computer that wouldn't come on, and for which they charged twice the price. I also only had a few minutes to check my mail and post the blog entry, so I was very rushed. Here in Prague, the hotel has a computer, but just one for all the guests to share (and it's even slower than in Dresden), so I will post when I can find a spare moment.

Now where was I: The historic Green Vault. I bought timed tickets so I was finally able to get in. The first room was the Amber Room, full of bowls, dishes, boxes, and cabinets, all made from beautiful amber. Following that was the Ivory Room, containing elaborate items, mostly carved on a lathe. The next room was the White Silver Room, but most of the original silver was melted down for cash in 1772, so they also had fabulous ruby glass. The fourth room was the Gilded Silver Room, after which one came to the wide hall at the end. The original paintings in this room were lost during the war and have been replaced. Some of the walls had rock crystal goblets, others ostrich eggs with silver ostriches, some too with mother of pearl.

The next room is described by the audio guide as offering a respite: the rather plain and stark Coat of Arms room. Here you can see the damage done by the bombardment of February 1945. It is followed by the most dazzling room in the Vault: the Jewel Room, with its many diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. To one side of the room is an elaborate display by the court artisan Dinglinger, of small individuals coming to bear tribute (I think, I can't remember precisely). In the New Green Vault, there are several even more impressive collections of miniatures by the same artist, most famously, the Mughal Emperor's birthday. To the right of the door was a statue of an American Indian, with tattoos, bear a tier of emeralds. The last room of the tour is the bronze room with copies of French marble statues.

Now that I've seen both, I can see the stark differences between the two Green Vaults. The New Green Vault has more items, but there are so many that it can be overwhelming. The Historic Green Vault is more comprehensible and accessible. With the audio tour, I felt like I got more out of it.

After the tour we went back to the Schinkelwache across the street for a quick lunch. Spargle und Gnocchi Pfanne for me, salads for the ladies. Then back to the hotel, where the manager drove us (for free) to the station. We had a nice conversation in the car on the way where he told us how much he enjoyed California, particularly San Diego, but not so much Las Vegas. I wanted to ask about how he thought about the changes in Dresden since the fall of communism, but his constant turning his head to me while he drove made some nervous and so I stopped asking him questions. That did not, however, stop him from continuing to talk and look back. He said that Europeans who go to America get "nature shock" and that Americans in Europe get "culture shock."

We had no trouble getting to Prague, where I had arranged for our hotel to send a driver with a van to pick us, and our luggage, up. The hotel is in a quiet nook of Mala Strana, on the castle side of the city. The Dientzenhofer Hotel is named after the 16th century architect who designed it. We're on the first floor above ground with two rooms, one with a double bed and one with a single bed. The water heater looks like it was also built in the 16th century (I exaggerate, I'm sure it only dates from the communist period). The space is gorgeous and I'm hoping the beds live up to the location.

After we checked in, we walked to the Charles Bridge and then to dinner a U Grill Seminaristy. I've eaten there several times before and very much enjoyed my salmon appetizer, brandy flambeed steak, and apple strudel with ice cream dessert (and the .3 liters of beer), but the waiter was rather pushy, particularly when it came to the tip. I probably won't go back there again on this trip.

In order to walk off dinner, we crossed the Charles Bridge and headed to the Old City. I got turned around a bit, but we eventually found Wenceslas Square. The Square is a little dodgier than I remember, but we found our way to the Stare Mesto square, where they had a big screen tv set up to broadcast the South Africa - Uruguay World Cup match (Uruguay mopped the floor with South Africa). It was nearly 10 pm and we were getting tired, so we walked back across the Charles Bridge to Kampa Island and found our way to our hotel.

I'm not sure what we're doing in the morning.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dresden and the Elbe

We had two choices to get to Dresden this morning: 8:36 am and 10:36 am; we took the later train. I ordered a taxi the night before but forgot to specify that our group has a lot of luggage. By the time the trunk of the Prius was filled there was no room for my stuff, so my book bag went under my seat, and my small carry on sat on the seat between Annie and Cherie. We had a nice chat with the Turkish cab driver, who told us one way to tell whether we were in East or West Berlin was to look for trams. They´re only in East Berlin.

Because we bought our tickets that morning there were no assigned seats. The train carriage filled up quick and it was sometimes difficult negotiating the larger suitcases and backpacks through the aisles. Luckily we found three seats relatively close to each other for the journey. We reached Dresden without too much difficulty.

According to the hotel website, the hotel is located in Neustadt, only 300 meters from a tram stop that we could take direct from the train station, but when we arrived, we found a thoroughly beautiful, but residential neighborhood. I asked person after person without success until I went into one of the many clinics on the street and they told me how to get to the hotel. After a four-block walk over cobblestones down tree-lined streets that resembled Charlottenburg, we reached the hotel. We have the apartment in the back. It´s a stand alone structure with one bedroom (one double and one single), a foyer with a kitchenette, a small dining area, and a bathroom. It´s quite nice.

We threw our stuff down and raced back to the Altstadt to find out about the paddle boat steamships. By the time we finally reached the docks it was 2:30, and the last boat up the Elbe to the "Saxon Switzerland" had left an hour before (we would have had to take the earlier train to make it). I hoped that we could take a train to a later stop and then sail the rest of the way, but the clerk said that would be very, very difficult. With time running out I asked about the 1.5 hour round trip tour. There were still places available, but we hadn´t eaten since breakfast so I asked for a menu and then quickly passed to Annie and Cherie to make sure there was something they could eat.

There weren´t three seats together, but we weren´t too far apart. We had gorgeous views of the city from the river and of the estates and wineries near Dresden. Both Annie and I ordered the matjas herring plate, and it was terrific. I also had a 0.5 liter stout beer, which I split. For dessert, some fresh strawberries and vanilla ice cream. It was a terrific meal.

The steamboat ride was a lot of fun. Afterwards we walked through the rebuilt Altstadt, stopping for a drinks at the Schinkelwache near the Semperoper and Zwingerpalatz. It was lovely sitting in the shade (the sun had come back) with cold drinks, and beautiful views. A large group of Israelis, but we didn´t talk to the.

Afterwards, I walked them to the courtyard of the Zwinger and tried to sneak Annie into part of the Porcellan collection (at least she could see the part of it by the front door). There was a chamber quartet practicing near the Marmorsaal, so we sat and listened for a while. We then picked up our train tickets for tomorrow (with seat assignments!), arranged for a van to take us to the station tomorrow after we see the Grünes Gewölbe in late morning, and I´ve just e-mailed the pension in Prague to see if we can arrange a pick up. I couldn´t do it earlier until I knew when we would arrive.

Monday, June 14, 2010

I am a Philistine

Tonight (Monday, June 14) we celebrated my tenure by going out to dinner at Francucci´s on the Ku´damm ( ). Annie surprised me by ordering a bottle of prosecco and then insisting on picking up my share of the bill. The food was excellent and we strolled down the block afterwards to walk a little of our dinner off before the performance.

According to the official printed schedule, tonight´s performance of "Trust" at the Schaubühne ( was to have English surtitles. Unfortunately, they never appeared. Over an hour into the performance, I began to wonder if it was simply a very subtle parody of post-modern theater. I told Annie and Cherie that knowing German wouldn´t help them understand what we were seeing; in fact, it made it worse. Some of the monologues were simply too fast to be understood. Even the ones in English were incomprehensible and, in my opinion, pretentious. Six characters sitting on a couch, along with a man wearing only red briefs and a gorilla mask. One man: you left me when I was 14. One woman: who are you? Man: mamma. Woman (jumping back in shock): I´m not your mother; don´t call me that.

The dance numbers, some of which were interesting, were interspersed with long post-modern stream of consciousness monologues. The only thing missing was spraying the audience with blood (ala the Wien Aktionismuß). I kept thinking of the old SNL comedy routine Sprockets, with Michael Myers, only here on steroids:

We paid up our bill and are now packing for tomorrow´s trip to Dresden. We´re going to arrive too late to catch the 1:30 boat to Bad Schandau, but I´m hoping to meet the ship at Heidenau at 3:15 pm. That would still give us 3.5 hours on board before the boat reached Bad Schandau.


After a leisurely breakfast, we left for Wannsee, a woods and lake district in the Berlin suburbs that is a summer retreat for city residents. We took the bus to see the Wannsee Conference House, but didn´t go in. We read the story of the place on the plaque on the gate and then walked up the hill to the Max Liebermann villa (only 7 minutes walk away).

The weather has been very good today. We have alternating sun and clouds. When the sun is out, off comes my jacket, but when it clouds over it gets chilly. What I love most about the Liebermann Villa is the garden. Inside, we went briefly upstairs to see some of Liebermann´s paintings, but as it was 1pm, we decided to eat in the cafe. What they lack in selection (either quiche or crispy tomato and cheese-filled rolls that look like bunuelos), they make up for in setting. We took our plates to the veranda overlooking the back lawn and the Wannsee lake. We could see sailboats passing by and the weather was particularly lovely. After I had a slice of Schwartzwalder Kirschtorte (you can work it out), we walked down past the birch trees to the water´s edge. Lovely views of the lake and the villa behind us up the lawn.

Back at the villa, Annie and Cherie went back upstairs to look at the paintings, while I hung out in the reconstructed painter´s garden. Liebermann was an important German impressionist (perhaps the most important), but his work doesn´t really speak to me. I much prefer sitting in on a shady bench among the flowers and strawberries.

I had hoped to go to the Brücke Museum, one of my favorite in Germany, but it´s really complicated to get there from Wannsee (you have to back track then change trains twice and catch a bus) and I wanted to make sure that Annie and Cherie had time to rest before dinner and tonight´s dance performance. As it is, we only got back from Wannsee at 4 pm, and we´ll have to leave for dinner between 5 and 5:30 if we´re going to make an 8 pm curtain.

One thing that really struck me from the train, looking at the various suburban buildings, was how many things, both big and small, show up also in Israel. From something as simple as the shape of the house numbers to the hallway lights on timers, a lot of Germany was brought by Jews to Palestine/Israel.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tenure and Promotion!

I received the following e-mail from the chair of my department this morning announcing that I have received tenure and promotion to Associate Professor. This marks the end of a sixteen year journey.

In 1994, I gave up not just my job as an Associate Attorney at Arnold & Porter, but my career as a lawyer and my home in Dupont Circle. This was a leap of faith; the hope that despite all the odds, I would succeed in graduate school, get a Ph.D. and find work. I knew nothing about the job market in academia, nothing really about what one needed to do to get a degree and find a position; all I knew was that I really didn´t want to be an attorney any more.

Grad school took longer than I expected: four years to learn Hebrew, German, and French, and one year to do my research in Israel on the Fulbright. It took me another three and a half years to write my dissertation, in part because I was teaching part time at the CSUN, Moorpark Community College, and the institution formerly known as the University of Judaism.

I started formally applying for full-time jobs in 2001, and had a series of disastrous. Some of my least favorite interview questions: "What do you think of Susannah Heschel´s remark concerning the incompatibility of Wissenschaft and faith?" "You´re clearly a historian of ´German things,´ how comfortable would you be teaching in a religious studies department?" "I´m just thinking off the top of my head here, but have you seen any recent research into the X-Men?" and "You have heard of Ivan Marcus, haven´t you?" (I hadn´t at the time, as he works on medieval Jewish mysticism and my focus was on nineteenth-century Jewish historiography). Then there was the interview in the lobby of a hotel which included the homophobic rabbi of an orthodox synagogue in D.C., who had written more about the incompatibility of Judaism and homosexuality than any other orthodox rabbi, and who counted as a personal triumph his officiating at the marriage of a gay man and lesbian (both of whom I knew from Congregation Beth Mishpachah).

In 2004, I was so lucky to find this job, and yet I almost didn´t get it. The chair of the department had to negotiate with the administration to split it in two, so I could receive one of the positions. This was by far the best job opportunity I had seen in all the years of looking. Not only was it local, but it meant I would be assistant director of a Jewish Studies program.

I spent the next six years building up the program, creating new classes, raising money to establish a series of endowed student awards, and dealt with the Kevin MacDonald crisis. Last year I was warned that my amount of peer-reviewed publications were too low, so I pulled out all the stops and got two articles accepted for publication last year, one conditionally accepted, and one revised and rejected. I also wrote 75% of a book manuscript (though that project will need to be revised).

And now that leg of my life´s journey has come to an end. After sixteen years I have a permanent and prestigious job: a tenured, associate professor of History, chair of the Jewish Studies program, and holder of the Barbara and Ray Alpert Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies. After sixteen years of renting or living as faculty in residence, I now own a house (at least I hope I still do. I moved in just four days before I went on vacation, and I hope it´s still there when I get back), which I remodeled and improved.

Now on to the next chapter in my life.

The Pergamon, Kreuzberg, and Soccer Madness

Saturday night we decided to eat in the neighborhood and encouraged Cherie to pick the restaurant. She picked Schall & Rauch, a cafe/pension just two doors down (we had tried to eat there on our first night but the kitchen closed). This is "Spargel Saison" (asparagus season) in Germany, so they offered a "Spargel Karte." I ordered the white asparagus in a crepe with pumpkin and sunflower seeds, along with a starter of carrot-orange soup with pieces of smoked salmon. The soup was interesting, but not terribly exciting, but I enjoyed the asparagus crepe. The beer also went well with it.

Just as our soup came, we heard the American national anthem from the other room. America was facing off against England in the world cup. We asked if we could move our plates to an open table, and so we were able to watch the whole first half of the game while we ate. I´m not a terribly big sports fan, but I enjoy watching soccer. The last time there was the world cup (in 2006), I was also in Europe, and I saw a couple games in Poland. I think we were the only people in the cafe rooting for the Americans; the other diners didn´t seem to have a dog in the fight. Things didn´t look good when England scored so early in 1st half, and I have to say that but for the major fumble by the English goalie, the Americans would have lost the match. As it was, we fought them to a 1-1 tie. I´m not sure how that affects our standing to move to the next level within Group C.

The weather has definitely cooled off. On Saturday we wore jackets, but today (Sunday) I wore a long-sleeve shirt under my jacket.

The pension at which we are staying has definitely changed since the last time I was here 3 years ago. In addition to only accepting cash payment, their sunday brunch is greatly reduced. We left for the Pergamon a little before 11 and waited in line behind a group from Finland. We swapped stories about Finnish musical groups, which helped pass the time in the long line for tickets.

The Pergamon Altar never fails to impress me. The Germans may not have had a large colonial empire to fill their museums like the British and the French, so they had to make up for it by funding archaelogical digs and then taking back the biggest pieces they could find. After walking down the steps from the altar, the room darkened and I suddenly felt very light headed. I immediately sat down on the floor of the museum. It passed quickly, but it scared me a bit, so I decided to sit on a bench for a while. In no time at all I felt fully better.

From there we went to see the 3-story tall Market Gate from the hellenistic city of Miletus. There I met a group of Israelis. They were technical engineers from Nes Tziona, and their Histadrut sent them on a seminar program to Berlin to work/study with some aviation engineers. They tried to convince Annie to send Cherie to Israel and serve in the army.

After that we went to see the Ishtar Gate from the city of Babylon, along with about half a block of the walled road leading to it. I promised Kline I wouldn´t let Annie and Cherie leave without seeing some of the treasures of the Islamic collection. I took them upstairs to see the amazing wood-paneled 16th century Aleppo room, and then the Mshatta palace wall (from the 700s). Next to it was a small wooden coupala from the Alhambra palace in Spain.

By that point it was well past 1:30 pm and we were all getting hungry. I promised Cherie I would take her to Turkish Berlin, so we headed down to Kreuzberg where we found a Turkish pizza place. They ordered vegetarian so I chose one with a Turkish topping (they translated the Turkish name - which I don´t remember - as "knoblauchwurst").

It was a little after 3 pm when we got to the House at Checkpoint Charlie. The museum was founded by a private citizen and you can tell. The exhibits, while passionate, are not well organized, and the story of the wall and its context can be very hard to follow. This was one time where I really had to put on my teacher´s hat.

We only got back to the hotel after 5 pm, which didn´t leave me much time to shower and change for the opera. By the time I got to the bus stop, I realized I wouldn´t have time to eat dinner before the 7 pm curtain. I got to the Komische Oper in plenty of time. I forgot how cheap musical tickets are here. The government subsidizes the arts, so a mid-range ticket (18th row, middle, parkett level, just under the first balcony) ran only 22 Euros. Had Cherie come, she would have gotten a 25% student discount off that price. I did manage to get a large pretzel to eat from a street vendor to tide me over.

The opera was Tales of Hoffmann by Offenbach. I saw this opera performed by the students at the Cal State Long Beach opera program earlier this spring and really enjoyed it, so I looked forward to seeing it again since I already was familiar with the plot. From the outside, the Komische Oper has a very modern appearance, but inside, it is a baroque wonder with a large chandelier, elaborate and roccoco wall decorations, and plush seats. As I looked through the program I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they now have it arranged that the text of the opera now appears in either German or English on the back of the chair in front of you.

The couple next to me were from Lille, France. He was a professional opera singer (high baritone) and couldn´t wait to hear the performance. Next to his wife/girlfriend was a Taiwanese girl who kept apologizing to me when she got up. "I go to bathroom now. Please do not kill me." "Kein problem, no problem, it´s alright," I told her. At the Pause she told me that she had just come from Vienna where she saw an opera that bored her. "What was it called," I asked. "I don´t know," she answered. "It had two German names and I can´t remember German. I think it was by Tchaikovsky." I couldn´t figure out why she didn´t like it.

The opera was fantastic! The music is wonderful and the staging creative, with hanging lights either turning poisonous green during the climax of Act III as Antonia sings herself to death, or blood red in Act IV as Giulietta seduces Hoffmann to give her his reflection (following in the path of Schlemihl, who sold his shadow to her). In Act IV, the ceiling above the stage tilted violently back and forth, as if to reflect Hoffmann´s drunken depression.

At the Pause, I bought a lox sandwich with horseradish butter and a prosecco. I heard a woman yell out in excitement. She looked like a fashionably dressed woman in her early 50s, and she was gripping her iPod and sharing with everyone that Germany had scored two goals already in its world cup game with Australia. All over the lobby I could see Germans checking the scores of the match.

On the way home, I saw that Germany was winning 4-0. By the time I got off at Senefelderplatz to take the replacement bus, there were crowds honking and partying, celebrating Germany´s victory. The bus finally came but wouldn´t leave. The driver came on and said something like "mumble, mumble, mumble platz (place or seat or square), mumble, mumble, frei (free)." Some people got off. I figured he was saying that the bus was overcrowded, but a minute later he came back on and mumbled again. I got off and asked him if the bus was "kaput." He mumbled to me something about "Eberswalderstraße" and "fußball." I decided to walk.

By the time I got to Eberswalderstraße I could see what had happened. A huge crowd of young, mostly male, mostly drunk Germans had taken over the intersection, shutting down Schönhauser Allee. One man was up on top of one of the buses trying to lead the crowd in chears. As I crossed the intersection, another police car showed up, and the crowd began to buzz in anticipation.

I had a choice: this was probably a great opportunity to see how German police engaged in crowd control with a drunk mob of soccer revelers, or I could exercise "the better part of valor" and head back to the hotel. I chose the latter. I got back a little after 11 and was surprised that Annie and Cherie had managed to sleep through the honking, firecrackers, horns, and improvised fireworks, but perhaps they were tired from all the walking we did earlier today, and our rooms are in the back and are pretty quiet.

Tomorrow morning is laundry day.