Monday, May 23, 2016

Slavic Peregrinations

My next stop as I stomped around Central Europe was Roznava. I imbibed in the Slovak countryside that is like the Microsoft XP wallpaper, endless rolling hills of verdant green. Roznava is a small town in Eastern Slovakia that isn't used to tourists. A tall brown guy with a camera was a subject of attention everywhere I went. Maybe if they started receiving bus loads of Chinese tourists, their curiosity will be diminished. I jest. Those cute villages cradled in gorgeous valleys are best left in the time capsule they are in.

One thing I noticed was that every home my host took me, I was offered Slivovika, a Slovakian spirit. It doesn't have to be 5 o'clock anywhere for Slovaks to drink. I guess this is the source of the high spirits of the Slovak people. Apparently they drink spirits to kill bacteria in their systems. Given the amount they drink, either they have superbugs in their tummies or they are just plain hypochondriacs. Another peculiarity of Eastern Slovakia - Gypsy villages. These are pretty much clean slums. The Gypsy people have a culture, language and society of their own. And they are known to have originated from North India. Though their language is very different from Hindi, the only North Indian language I know. I tried speaking Hindi to one guy, and he just stared at me. Maybe I just spoke really bad Hindi. What a strange parallel society to exist in the heart of Europe.

Moving on to Krakow, a quick stop in Poland to get another country checked of the list of countries I have visited. It is the relatively undiscovered Prague of the East. Emphasis on the term relatively. It has a lovely old town with numerous magnificent Gothic churches. And for once there were people praying! Most of European churches have turned into museums of art and architecture. So it was a pleasant surprise to see people of ages showing some form of piety.

But as I stepped out of a church and I got accosted by a pretty lady trying to make conversation with me. Now in my 29 years of existence, I have concluded that I will never attract a hot girl based on my looks. It's not that I suffer from low self esteem (read this blog URL), but facts are facts. How did I become attractive suddenly? So naturally this lady's overtures made me suspicious. She said she would get me free drinks at a gentleman's club. I asked her if I looked gentle, given my 5 o'clock shadow from last week. Besides, I wasn't thirsty. The problem with puns is that they are completely ineffective when English is not the first language of the audience/victim. And I don't think she was interested in my jokes anyways. She moved on to her next target and I was left wondering about the contrast of churches and strip clubs in the heart of Krakow.

A must visit in Krakow is the Schindler Factory museum. WWII brought out the best and the worst of the human soul. There was brutality and horrors beyond words. And there was sacrifice from people who went above and beyond the call to help someone else, sometimes at the risk of their own lives. You read about stories of hope and resilience of the human spirit. And finally it is a lesson in history. One mustn't forget that these events transpired less than a lifetime ago. And history repeats itself for those who forget.

If any city could be a melody, it would have to be Prague. The seamless blend of architectural styles surrounded by spires in all directions results in a delightful harmony. It is easily the most beautiful city I have been to so far. Prague is simply stunning. There's something magical at every turn as you stroll through the medieval streets of the old town and over the Charles Bridge towards the Castle. Thank you WWII leaders for not bombing the crap out of it.

Charles bridge is probably the most famous sight in Prague. Every time I walked across, I was awestruck by the views in both directions. The panoramas never ceased to amaze me. Agreed that it is so crowded that they almost have foot traffic lanes with pull outs for photo ops. I wouldn't blame you if you thought for a brief moment that you were on a subway train in Tokyo. But go there at 7am (or earlier) for an experience to savor. The quiet of the morning augments the eminence of the spires and arches looming over the horizon. Now who wakes up that early when on vacation? Well, if the offspring of a peasant wants a royal experience, you gotta do what needs to be done. The other famous attraction in Prague is the clock. At first I was, well, whelmed. Not over or under. It seemed nice and fancy, but not deserving the throngs of tourists who gather faithfully every hour, like clockwork. Later, after reading about the details of the clock, I was definitely overwhelmed. I encourage you to read up before you go see it so that you are not left thinking that staring at the clock was a waste of time. Give it a second glance and the minute details will manifest themselves.

If all that sight seeing has made you thirsty, grab a Czech beer. Oh yes, pilsners and lagers. Enough with the pale ales that have infested the American beer scene. Czech beers are refreshing, delicious, potent and cheap. They love their beers so much that once my coffee was served in a beer glass. And with the foam at the top, it looked like a porter. A delightful place to enjoy a cold one and feel like a million dollars (for $4) is at the bar on the roof of U Prince. It's a hidden gem overlooking the main square. Best time is after 5pm as the best views are to the east.

Time for a little general rant. Why do people feed pigeons? I don't want to be a party pooper here. But I'd rather poop on this party figuratively than be pooped on literally. Let's keep these flying rodents away please. They are menace to the outdoor spaces and monuments. See those ugly nets hanging everywhere, that's to scare the pigeons. And while on rant mode, what do smokers think when they drop cigarette butts all over the place? Do they think that when they stamp it out, it just magically disappears? Cigarette butts are one of the major polluters of the oceans as well. I wish I could tell smokers that dealing with their smoke was enough. Now if they could clean up after they are done, it would be a breath of fresh air.

Shout out to the Dorcakovas in Roznava and Vieroslava&Marek in Prague for hosting me.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Into the heart of Europe

I continued my peregrinations through central Europe as I trundled in a 'fast train' along the Danube to arrive in Bratislava, a neat city that maintains a quiet charm without trying too hard to compete with Vienna. In the current age of the Internet, Facebook and selfies, much of the world has been discovered. 'Hidden treasure' is quickly becoming an oxymoron. Bratislava is a compromise by being partly hidden and partly a treasure.
Low costs, prevalence of English, a lot of history centered around the old town and friendly people make it one of the more complete off beat destinations. Also it has the 'where?' factor if you want to be the guy who talks about obscure destinations rather than London, Paris and Rome.

My first experience of the city was a Spring Festival that had a live bad playing. Attending a concert in a language I don't understand was a novel experience. Though the lead singer did give the standard instructions in English. "Put your hands in the air." Or, "make some noise." And every time he yelled Bratislava, you shout "yeah!!!". It's quite simple really. Music is a universal language after all. And so are blond jokes apparently. I was told that blond jokes are quite common in Slovakia. Though I'm not sure how they are funny if half the population is blond.

While in Bratislava, I'd like to file another incident another the 'Stranger Kindness' section. I was at the ticket machine at a bus stop when I realized that I didn't have any coins to use in the machine. So I approached this pretty lady to ask for change. Instead she bought me the ticket! Before I could thank her, bus 205 arrived and the lady was gone. I was left, ticket in hand, pondering the kindness of people. I realized that you can experience the kindness of others only when you are in need. You have to be in a vulnerable place so as to be open to receive. And for me, learning to receive teaches me to give because the next time you are in a position to give, you will be able to empathize with the one who is receiving. I hope to be able to pay this kindness forward some time during my travels.

Another top 25 destination in Europe according to Lonely Planet is Vienna, the former capital of the powerful Hapsburg empire. Vienna is famous for palaces, coffee houses and classical music. I did enjoy lingering around a coffee shop one afternoon as I read the New York times. Was it in places like these where intellectuals met to philosophize and argue about life? Are we missing out on something with the demise of idle conversations in coffee shops and pubs? Now we just abuse each other on the comments section of various websites. With this depressing thought, I headed into the warm sun bathed streets. As I wandered the streets idly, I was approached by a lady who asked me if I'd put on headphones and dance to some EDM for 30 seconds on the streets of Vienna. I gathered through a mix of German and English that they were making a promotional video for some music festival. I got a lot of bemused/admiring stares from passers by. And maybe if I got my moves right, I'll have my 5 seconds of fame in Austria.

Another must do in Vienna is to attend a classical music performance. I attended part of an Opera in the famous Vienna Opera House. Don't be put off by the cost or formal clothing you'd expect at a fancy opera. You can get standing room tickets for 4 euros and you can be in t-shirt and jeans. Thanks to Americans for always saving the day by dressing in casuals and helping me blend in. The Opera was a spectacular performance. The music was beautiful, the stage play elaborate and the ambiance majestic. It was totally worth the aching feet and exposure to strange German singing. I think German is best suited for heavy metal. The Opera gives a taste of the life of the Viennese high society.

Heading off the beaten path, I arrived in Ruzomberok, beautifully nestled among the Tatra and Fatra mountains. While the town itself is a drab affair, the surrounding mountains more than make up for the eye sore that is the Soviet style box buildings. The hiking was wonderful with gorgeous views of the mountains and tiny villages in the valleys. But the highlight was a geography class at a local middle school. I was the guest speaker for the day and had to talk about India. Props to me that no one fell asleep. After all, I wouldn't blame you if you had mistaken my TA classes at UMN for sleep therapy sessions. And I even had an autograph session with the kids after the class. I guess being the only foreign tourist (ever?) in the town made me a celebrity. I should have practiced writing my name legibly. Or maybe they might assume that I wrote my name in some exotic Indian language. I hope the kids learned something that morning. But for me, having an audience of wide eyed kids definitely made my day.

A couple of things that I have realized on my travels so far. First, learn at least two words in the language of the play you are visiting. Hello and thank you. This is especially true in smaller countries because it shows that you care about their culture. In every country I have visited, this has helped me get friendlier service and a smile on many occasions. Some languages are harder than others. But two words, even in Hungarian, shouldn't tax your mental faculties too much.

Second, how to balance photography with experiences. Photography is a lot about timing and patience with light, composition, angle, etc. But I have learned not to get carried away and not to make it the sole purpose of my journey. Maybe someday I'll be a photographer. But today, I'm a traveler. So I take a picture or two and put my camera away. After the picture, don't move on. Linger. Look. Imagine. So many people point, shoot and leave. I say point, shoot and stay. And I try to ensure that my days are not planned around photography, but rather around experiences and people. Europe is a beautiful continent and you don't need to try too hard to get great pictures. And for those who've asked, I use a Canon SX50 camera. It's nothing fancy, but gets the job done

Thanks to Andrea for hosting me in Bratislava and Pavol for hosting me in Ruzomberok.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Meandering East

Slovenia, where's that? I certainly had no idea where it was until I read an article on the BBC website extolling the beauty of Bled. One look at the picture and I was sold. I had to go there. And more than two years later I was there.

I arrived in Ljubljana on a sunny spring afternoon. Don't worry, the spelling looks a lot more difficult than the pronunciation. And the locals were genuinely happy when I uttered the only Slovene word I learned. The historic part of town is set along the river as it snakes around a bluff. There was something beautiful about the city that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Maybe it was the neat red roofed buildings along the river, maybe it was the intimate small town feel, maybe it was the friendly people. Or maybe it was just the peace that comes when you leave the chaos of Rome behind. A short little hike up to the castle gave expansive vistas of the city and beyond. That was followed by a drink at a cafe by the river listening to some 80s pop music. Ljubljana is a great place for your 'bring-back-the-80s' band.

Next day was a trip to Bled, the town that my heart bled for from thousands of miles away. It is picture perfect. A castle set on a cliff high up above the lake against a backdrop of snowy mountains. A church on an island in the lake breaks the monotony of the delicate emerald waters. Tiny boats milling around the island complete the picture. I'd say a trip to the castle, a boat ride to the island and a hike around the lake make for a perfect day. You get the feeling that Slovenia exudes a sense of optimism as it looks to the future after a tumultuous recent past.

The lovely Slovenian countryside and the small town feel of Ljubljana made me want to shift the focus of this trip from big cities to small towns. Guide books tend to overemphasize cities. The cities have a lot of highlights, no doubt. And on a short trip, you get the maximum bang for your buck. But they can leave me tired and jaded after a few days. And occasionally the cosmopolitan feel means uniformity and repetition across different destinations. I'd wanna mix things up a little by trying a few offbeat destinations. Maybe Slovakia in a few days might have something to offer on that front.

There was one last stop in Italy, the beguiling and romantic Venice. The city is beautiful and exhilarating. It is the best city to get lost in. Firstly, you can't end up too far from your hotel as you are surrounded by water. And more importantly you can discover the seductive charm in the hidden treasures of small bridges, gondolas on narrow canals, ornate churches, peaceful piazzas and time worn buildings. There are no cars and bikes and so your mindless zig zag meanderings will not endanger your life. As you get lost you wonder about the future of the city. It is sinking into the sea. It is dying as a city and is slowly turning into a hybrid of a museum and Disney land. Almost everyone you see is a tourist or connected with the tourism trade.
And even those people are day commuters. Venice is a must see before it is too late. This glitzy jewel of yore is slowly fading and sinking as time takes its toll.

Venice has a vibrant classical music scene with many churches being turned into concert venues practically every night. I had the good fortune of attending a free concert in an old stone church one evening. The beautiful singing coupled with the ambiance of delicate lighting in a baroque church and beautiful acoustics made for a memorable performance. Another highlight of Venice is the Cathedral. Initially it gives an impression of a cave with it's dim interiors. But let your eyes adjust and you'll find the beauty in the details. Thousands of square feet of mosaic adorn the roof and walls. A mix of Byzantine, Venetian and Islamic styles make for a unique canvas of medieval art. 

Next stop, Budapest. My first stop in Europe without the Euro. Florints are hard to use given that everything is in the hundreds and thousands. It requires pulling out your rusty and dusty arithmetic skills. And the language is incomprehensible comprising of sounds that I've never heard before. Hungarian is very different from the neighboring Slavic languages and is very difficult to learn. Also, the people seem to smile a lot less here. Not that they are hostile, they are just cold. I believe it is a remnant of the communist era. Another remnant of the communist era, monotone audio guides. I took a boat cruise up and down the Danube one evening to soak in the beautifully lit bridges and castles of Budapest.
The narrator used the same monotone to talk about a king being put in a barrel of snakes and thrown into the river and about Hungarians enjoying summer pastimes along the Danube. I couldn't stop laughing even though some of the events narrated were quite tragic.

While Slovenia could be considered a former commie state, it was not the true red Soviet communism. Hence, I consider this as my first stop behind the Iron Curtain. Though some of Rick Steve's podcasts make it seem like communism is at times remembered fondly, the realty is different. Conversations with a couple of people led me to believe that communist Hungary was a terrible place to live in. A trip to the museum 'House of Terrors' confirmed this notion. I'm now even more grateful for democracy, despite our struggles with dirty politics. I will always cherish freedom of speech and lame jokes. May I always be able to make fun of Trump's hair. I wonder why we have lost interest in our democracies. Maybe it is because we have never seen the horrors of dictatorships as we were lucky to be born in a free society. And what makes it harder to accept is that in Budapest the brutal and corrupt communist officers were never prosecuted after the fall of communism. They are actually living among the people they persecuted. I believe Hungary is trying to move on with life in the hope that the past will be forgiven, if not forgotten. I'm not entirely sure if that's the way forward. May God give them the strength to overcome the horrific events of the past.

Thanks to the Balint Nagy SJ for arranging my stay with the Jesuits in Budapest.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

A walk down the Renaissance Italy

Next up, Florence. The birthplace of Renaissance. Now, I don't really understand art. But I thought the statues were 'marbelous' and I wouldn't take them for 'granite'. I did get an inferiority complex looking at some of the male statues and it was not a good inferiority complex. It was fun looking at paintings and making up descriptions. "Do you need a duck?" Or "are those pants tight?" Or "that horse stinks." As I
wandered around gazing at the magnificent Churches and art, the socialist in me wondered if the workers were happy. Did they have a just wage? Where did the money come from? Could the money have been used to alleviate poverty? After all Florence was a republic. Did the citizens want these things? But for now I'm grateful for the incredible beauty in the art that has survived to date. There were and are some really talented people who created masterpieces that will be appreciated for generations to come.

My travels took me further south to Assisi, the pilgrimage town. The birthplace of St Francis. It is a very photogenic old town with cobblestone streets and alleys set on a hill overlooking a verdant countryside. Walking around the town and the surrounding countryside really fills you with a sense of peace that St Francis always talked about. A narrow country road through green fields lined with some spring blooms was a perfect place for an evening stroll. Assisi may not be a top destination in Italy, but it definitely is on my 'will be back' list. I hear the rest of Umbria has a similar vibe, perfect for small town hopping.

And then onto Rome, the eternal city. I'd say the eternally crowded city. Trevi fountain looked like a 24x7 free concert venue. And the only music to be heard was the sound of running water and chatter in a hundred languages. It was quite the sight to see people trying out their throwing arms in an effort to toss a coin into the fountain from a hundred ft away. I'm sure that people up front got tonked a few times. I was tempted to do the same because when in Rome, do as the Romans. But then these morons were not Romans. Plus it would also mean throwing away money, which really is not my thing. Rome is definitely a must see for Roman history buffs. The Pantheon is quite a feat of engineering for a 2000 year old structure.
Though some of the Roman history artifacts like the Colosseum didn't make for happy imaginations. I concluded that I wouldn't very well in a bloodthirsty era and culture. How could two humans fighting to death be a form of entertainment? The Colosseum itself is quite an impressive structure and deserves a wander around for at least an hour.

The Vatican is a must visit for Catholic peeps. The Pope gives an audience to his fan base on Wednesdays. It is one giant rally. Pro tip, find a seat near the barricades as the Pope may drive through near there. It's quite the experience to be part of this massive and joyful audience. And then there is St Peter's Basilica which is truly magnificent. It's enormous and ornate, but not tacky. Michelangelo and the rest have delivered a masterpiece. You can truly feel the transcendent in the beauty around you, despite the mob scene. The geometry and symmetry, the paintings and sculptures deliver a complete all around experience. Finally, you can top it off with a visit to the Vatican museum. Make sure that you save some mental bandwidth for the Sistine Chapel that comes about three quarters of the way through. Michelangelo was truly a genius. The incredible imagination of theology and the final painting itself makes the Last Judgement worth all the hype. Prepare to have your expectations met and surpassed.

A few more observations on Italian chaos. At Sunday Mass during communion, there was none of the pew by pew business. It was a mad dash, first come first serve event. As though the priests might run out of communion.
And my airbnb host was this old Italian lady who didn't speak English. When I pointed out that the internet wasn't working, she got so animated, that I wanted to hug her and and tell her that everything would be alright. Every time she exclaimed 'mamma mia' I couldn't stop laughing. The more she had trouble communicating with me, the louder she got. I felt that if I got the accent right, spoke really loudly, threw in a few mamma mia's and gestured wildly with my hands, I'd be speaking Italian. What a wonderfully chaotic country. A look at the parking habits of Romans will leave you thinking that Rome is a giant puzzle for all ages. Even German Shepherd dogs look undisciplined here. How did the Germans and Italians get along during WWII?

Another stray thought. How do we treat hawkers? Do we ignore, do we tell them to leave us alone or do we smile and keep walking? I once dined at a cafe and when I was done decided to join one of the waiters in trying to get people to come in. I asked him if he gets depressed with the continuous rejection and how we should treat hawkers. He told me he doesn't take things to heart, but would like people to either ignore him or just smile. He hopes that people wouldn't give him a stink eye if they are not interested. So from here on, I'm gonna smile and keep walking. It'll cost me nothing.

A shout out to Fr Tony Sholander SJ for free accommodation with the Jesuits in Rome.