Thursday, April 30, 2009

Gargoyles and Impressionists

The next morning, fueled by pain aux chocolate (also known as Schococroissant or “A croissant with a bunch of chocolate in the middle”) and fantastic coffee, we set out for another symbol of Paris: Notre Dame.

The Cathedral has always been highly significant in my imagination. I honestly didn’t know anything about the cathedral in Cologne before I arrived on the banks of the Rhine, and arguably it’s the more impressive building, but there was a kind an excited anticipation fueling my progress to Notre Dame.

As a Catholic Midwesterner, I’ve always known the name Notre Dame University, and somehow always have known it shares a name with a big church in Paris. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is also one of the finest animated Disney movies they ever created (“The Lion King” is number one in my book, but I have this thing for animals, you see.). The Disney Hunchback drove me to read an abridged version of the novel (I thought it was the real thing and felt duped when I later found the Victor Hugo Classic is more than 200 pages). So, I was pretty pumped as music from the movie’s soundtrack looped through my brain. Finally we emerged from the Metro and saw the twin bell towers dominating the plaza before us.

The structure is has a kind of solidity that the Cologne Dom lacks. Perhaps because this entire Cathedral was built during the actual height of the Gothic, while the façade and bell towers of the Cologne Dom were completed in the 19th century and are a kind of loopy Neo-Gothic. Still beautiful to behold, but it’s not as ancient as Notre Dame. The gargoyles and saints leered down at us as we filed into the building from perches they'd clutched for six hudred years.

The stained glass and rose windows were capturing all the light of the clear spring morning, the shards of color falling on tourists and the faithful as everyone prepared for Holy Week. But Dad and I quickly left the solemnity of the cathedral’s interior for a higher power: We wanted to see Paris from the roof (I have a history of climbing churches).

The line seemed incredibly long and we weren’t quite sure if it would be worth the time. It was long, but it was worth the time. Fortunately, for most of the wait we were entertained by a street performer who made his change by sneaking up behind people while the crowd looked on. I was waiting for a protective husband or mother to sock him, but most people were too bewildered to become violent. Ultimately, there’s some comfort in that.

After hauling up a couple hundred stone stairs, we finally broke out onto the “bridge” that goes between the two towers. There we were able to meet and greet some of the more famous inhabitants of the cathedral:

After spending some time taking in the view with some pensive gargoyles and checking out the massive bell that only rings on special occasions (for fear of shaking the bricks to the ground), we went up to the next level top of one of the bell towers. The view was breath taking.

We then went all the way down the stairs accompanied by a little girl who sang, “We’re going down the stairs!” to the tune of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” for the entire descent. I couldn’t shake the song for a solid six hours. She was lucky she was so gersh dern cute.

Our next stop was the Musée de l'Orangerie or just “The Orangerie.” The museum houses a relatively small collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist work from a private collection. The centerpiece of the exhibit are Claude Monet’s “Nymphéas” or “Water Lillies.” There are eight canvases in the series, and each stretches 30 feet. They’re among Monet’s final canvases and were painted as he developed cataracts, his eyes forcing him to paint on a larger scale just so he could see what he was doing. The paintings were made exclusively for this museum. You enter one of the galleries and are literally surrounded by water lilies and natural light. Each canvas depicts a different time of day and slightly different arrangement of trees and lilies. Absolutely gorgeous, and almost too much to take in.

One of the massive galleries housing the massive canvases.
A detail from one of Monet's final works. Each of those flowers is about the size of a dinner plate.
All men who jump in rivers in Paris are in Seine.

On to the Orsay. Most people know about the Louvre, the museum that houses ancient to early 19th century art. The Louvre is an art history book come to life…to a point. Once you reached Impressionists, it cuts off and before 1986, you had to trek all over the city to get the rest of art’s modern history. Then the city took an abandoned railway station and installed the Musée d'Orsay. Name the great Frenchmen and you’ll find his work: Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Courbet, Pissaro, Manet. Throw in Van Gogh…again, overwhelming. The art seemed endless, but never monotonous. We also discovered new names and works. I’ll only give you a small sample here:
Paul Gauguin's "Arearea. Joyeusetes" (1892). Gauguin had a brainwave. What if I got out of Paris? What if I painted, you know, the rest of the world?
Olympia (1863) by Édouard Manet. Not an idealized nude. Thus a scandle. Manet loved it.

Georges Seurat (1891) The Circus. This is the guy that did that huge picture with the woman in a bustle and a monkey on a leash (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte). I didn't know he could get...trippy.

Don Quixote and the Dead Mule (1867) by Daumier. I've made it a new goal to see as many Penguin Classic book covers as I can. Check.

Nikolai Nikolaievitch Gay's Le calvaire (1880-ish). One of the more striking, excruciating crucifixion paintings I've ever seen.

We went on a day the museum was open late, and we stayed until closing time, slowly herded towards the door by the guards. After waving our arms for a couple hours, we flagged down a cab and had dinner at a slightly darker restaurant than we had visited the night before, Café Terrane. Our waiter seemed like he was born to serve, with perfectly groomed facial hair and just enough of a business-like demeanor to make you feel like he would never want to intrude and would only do so when it was absolutely essential. I enjoyed rabbit (only the second time I’ve eaten lagomorph) in mustard and crème sauce. I’ll admit that I spent a good chunk of the meal trying to figure out if I was eating dark chicken meat or rabbit. When I finally got to the bones I knew I was dealing with a mammal. Desert was a sampler of crème brulee, little slices of cake, and espresso. So good. So filling. So tired, and we had THE palace to visit the next day.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Frank Introduction

At 7 AM the next morning, I was furiously packing my backpack for the capital of Fance. By 8:30 I was at the Bonn train station and by 10:15 I was rocketing southwest towards Paris, the City of Lights. Thus begins a new adventure with a new travel party: My Parents.

It’s true they were here over Christmas, but who can resist the opportunity to visit their son on the Continent? What son could resist the opportunity to stay in a real hotel room (and see the folks, that was important as well)? It works for everybody.

It was especially exciting to visit Paris with Mom (no offense Dad). She grew up with a book called “This is Paris,” studied French in high school (after the Latin program died, go figure), and would generally be classed a second-class Francophile (an first class Anglophile). When I stepped onto the platform, my parents were waiting with hugs and confidence in navigating the Metro system. I like putting myself in charge of the map, but there was a kind of relief in letting them get me pointed in the right direction (despite their jet lag).

After dropping off my luggage at our lovely, Rick Steves recommended hotel, we dove into the city. We were literally one block away from Napoleon’s tomb, so it seemed like a good place to start. The final resting place of everyone’s favorite 19th century megalomaniac is located in Les Invalides, a complex that includes a French Military history museum, a military hospital, and copious war memorials.

The Dome at Les Invalides. Directly below the spire is a very little man.

Napoleon rests beneath massive St. Peter’s-esque dome interred in a monumental marble sarcophagus. Around him are friezes and sculptures depicting him as a Roman Emperor meting out justice and military victory. With all the bombast surrounding him, you would think Napoleon had some kind of…complex. To be fair, much of the decoration was added by his lackeys who bought into his grand vision for France.
Napoleon is in the dark box lower right. The dome arches up beyond the frame.

The rest of the complex was buzzing with activity as limousines carrying military commanders rolled past fascinated tourists. Our goal was to visit the stuffed bodies of Napoleon’s favorite horse and his dog, but, given the luck I seem to bring to every such excursion, the wing we wanted was closed. Satisfied we had seen the memorials of enough of France’s decorated heroes, we headed for the Rodin Museum.

As we crossed the street, trucks rolled by laden with pedestrian and vehicle barriers and clumps of riot police patrolled the pavement. If we played our cards right see a real French striking protesters’ march! But first there was sculpture to see. As we crossed the street I looked over my shoulder and saw it. Paris’s iconic focal point. The Eifel Tower. If I didn’t feel like I was in one of the great cities, a city that inspires art, literature, and revolution, seeing that steel spike shocked me into the moment. We would get there soon. First…
"The Kiss" Probably one of Rodin's most popular images which means he grew to hate it. Oh artists.

The Rodin Museum is a combination of a former hotel that was converted to house sculpture and a well-groomed, but not overly fussy garden where you can walk around bronze casts of the master’s work. The interior felt oddly lived in and threadbare. Chairs and display tables were smooth with use, and the mirrors needed a dose of polish and Windex. This created a comforting effect. You could take your time. You were a guest in this wonderful home. Of course, the electric work of Rodin was incredible to behold. He understood how to animate rock, plaster, and bronze, but beyond that, he understood how to draw the viewer into the story. You see The Thinker, and know he’s grappling with the implications of Hell (not where he left his keys). You see the terrified faces of the The Burghers of Calais and know they are facing death.
About to be executed for resisting the British during the Hundred Years War. They were let off at the last minute.

After the art we needed our first Parisian coffee experience. Then we caught a cab to the Eiffel Tower.

It’s huge. Please realize I am from Cincinnati, home of King’s Island where a 1/3 scale replica of the Eiffel Tower has dominated my idea of the perfect summer day. That replica is pretty big. The real article takes it to a whole new level. It’s also surprisingly beautiful. I heard the stories of angry Parisians who thought it was an eye-sore and assumed they had something to complain about. An Erector set gone massive is not necessarily going to spruce up the neighborhood. But those early detractors left off the elegant ornamentation that circles the base of the tower and runs all the way to the observation deck at the summit. I enjoyed the rare satisfaction of discovering an object I had seen in countless books, magazines, and movies could seem fresh and undiscovered.

Of course, that discovery could only go so far. The place wasn’t open. The workers were on strike and we were left to fume at the Geschlossen gods. As we walked along the park that leads out from the tower, Dad discovered a strange memorial that was erected in 1989. The capitals of Europe line a kind of mausoleum, and I posed with the engraved, then-capital of Germany: Bonn.

It was time for some fine Parisian cuisine, so we wandered through the city and down the Avenue Bosquet to the Rue de Champs de Mars. These streets encapsulated everything I expected from Paris. The chocolate shops were clustered with cafes, bakers and florists wedged themselves in between. I ate tartar and drank French wine. I fully expected to see an artists set up on a street corner documenting the scene, and was mildly disappointed with he didn’t appear.

After dinner we gathered in the hotel lobby for stories and pictures of my European roving, then collapsed into bed. My mom apologized for the “Old People Schedule,” but my body was trilled to get more than five hours of sleep for the first time in a week.

Wiener Wandering

(The Vienna photos. It's hard to take a bad shot in this town.)

You may recall I already visited Vienna once before with the Borths family and Carolyn. So, when I have an entire continent of exploring, why retrace my steps? Reason 1: Marty needed to see the city and we were pretty damn close in Prague. Reason 2: I wanted to visit Nick, a fellow graduate of St. X and Ohio State who’s doing a teaching Fulbright in Vienna. Reason 3 (and most important): Vienna demands a second go-round. It’s just that glorious a city.

The plan was to meet Nick at the Vienna train station or at his house. This would be awkward to time because his parents were also visiting for two weeks and we wanted to give them plenty of time to spend with their son. Nick wasn’t in the station. I couldn’t raise him on the cell phone or by text message. We were on the industrial outskirts of the city, and that just wouldn’t do. If you’re in Vienna, go to the pretty parts, so we did.

We buried ourselves in the pedestrian heart of the Old Town, eating Wiener Schnitzel (Wien is the German name for Vienna) and drinking excellent cocktails at American Bar, a place recommended by Miya back in Hamburg. The bar was designed in 1908 by one of the fathers of modern architecture, Adolf Loos, who believed ornate decoration was a sinful waste of worker’s sweat. The bar specializes in American-style cocktails, so I sipped an Old Fashioned, and Marty enjoyed a Smoky Martini while we tried to figure out how to track down Nick and discussed if our action-hero of a waiter would be able to save us from nuclear apocalypse.

St. Stephan's Cathedral at the center of the old town's pedestrian district.

We poked our heads into St. Stephan’s Cathedral in the center of the old town and discovered the shadowy interior was obstructed by a locked iron gate. Well, the only thing to do when you can’t visit the cathedral is grab some ice cream. With cones in hand we continued down the street and I literally ran into Nick. He, his family, and his girlfriend were just leaving dinner and were discussing how to contact me (apparently none of my text messages and only one voicemail message actually made it to his end of the line). If we had all just trusted to serendipity, much stress could have been avoided.

We walked Nick’s parents home then went to visit a few of Nick’s favorite Viennese bars. The first was a dive that usually features live music. They did this night, but the act was, to put it gently, awful. Two inebriated guitarists, one with a six string and the other with a twelve with only half the strings in tune, sang in unison, belting Dylan, Clapton, and Cash at the tops of their lungs. I’ve come to the conclusion that Rock and Roll is one of America’s great contributions to world culture. But, listening to these two, I wished the Austrians had never abandoned their accordions and Alphorns for the Blues. If they hadn't, my ears might still be functional. We moved on.

Next, discussion around a comfy table in squashy chairs at an English Bar. I wasn’t sure what “English Bar” entailed until I saw the walls were encrusted with dozens of book cases with hundreds of English language paperbacks and classics. In other words, my kind of bar. When we left, a two hour odyssey ensued as we waited for buses that didn’t arrive on time (have I mentioned I don’t like buses?), talked to lonely Indian men who wanted to know about plate tectonics, and ate Viennese sausage (or “Wieners” as we might say. Note on the Wiener: In this town they believe in the bun. Germans tend to just use a hand-sized roll to hold a much larger sausage. Here you are given a kind of baguette. The top is sliced off and a tunnel bored into the bread. The mustard and cheese go in along with the sausage, creating a self-contained, walkable, street food. Brilliance on – or in – a bun.). We finally got home in the wee hours of the morning, and didn’t earn ourselves very much sleep because we wanted to get to the Vienna Ring.

The epic and Neo-Classical Austrian Parliament building. That's Athena towering over Vienna.

For breakfast we ate massive, chocolate covered cream horns then explored the parliament building and the Natural History Museum. The Vienna NHM is famous as the home of Venus von Willendorf, a somewhat abstract and slightly pudgy limestone carving of a woman roughly 26,000 year old. She’s one of the oldest human forms ever discovered and was one of the first examples of Paleolithic art to be hauled out of the ground. In 1908 she created a sensation despite being faceless and footless.

In December I visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the architectural twin of the Naturhistorisches Museum. They sit facing each other across a manicured park, just off the main drag of Vienna. I knew the Kusthistorisches Museum (Historical Art Museum) was a piece of art in itself, a palace built in 1889 for the sole purpose of exalting art. I didn’t know the Natural History Museum had been designed with the same aesthetic. Canvas painting of exotic animals, people, and localities rimmed each artfully plastered gallery. My favorite touch came in the bone hall where casts and actual mounted fossils were surrounded by a chorus of Classical figures (nyads, dryads, and satyrs perhaps?) each bearing an extinct animals. One wrestled with an ancient sea-monster, the next with a pterodactyl, the next with a massive crustacean…I love the American Museum of Natural History, but they don’t have that kind of class.

On the left a figure tries to keep a grip on a Rhamphorhynchus. His buddy has his own prblems holding on to a Ichthyosaurus.
I love the kangaroo-posed Iguanodon, one of the oldest dinosaur names around.

Hopping into the Metro, we traveled out into the Viennese suburbs to explore Schönbrunn Palace with Nick and his family. The plot of land the palace commands was purchased in 1569 but the current royal residence wasn’t set up until 1696. Originally the designer wanted to make it bigger than its model, Versailles, but he had to deal with the budget and dialed things back. Rick Steves claims it’s the second-best palace in Europe behind Versailles, so that designer wasn’t far off his mark. We explored the palace’s parks, climbing behind a massive fountain and up to the Gloriette for a view of the palace and Vienna rolling away to the horizon. We discovered we really didn’t have time to do a full palace tour, or hit the zoo. The zoo is the oldest in existence. This fact was only revealed to me late in our exploration and there just wasn’t time to visit the pandas. That’s what next time is for.

After sitting on the lawn, sipping Easter-market punch, Marty and I waved good-bye to Nick and headed for the Vienna Opera house where we cued up for the best deal in Europe: three Euro tickets to the opera. Our legs were sore from three consecutive days on our feet, but we took standing-room seats at the center of the house for “Die tote Stadt” a 1920 opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that revolved around a husband who wouldn't’t allow his dead wife’s memory rest in peace. Heavy, operatic stuff. Note that this was our second opera in three days.

After the performance we met Nick at a Jazzland, a cellar-turned club that’s been around since 1972. The original plan was to meet Nick and his parents, but only Nick felt energetic enough to join us. After jockeying with other patrons to secure a spot with a decent view of the band, we settled in to groove to a great set that featured scat solos and all the trumpet I’ve been missing. Second Jazz club in four nights. Marty and I really are too cool to hang out with ourselves.

When the band wrapped up, so did the bar, so we rolled on to a place on the canal that Nick claimed, “you have to see.” The other patrons ranged from high schoolers trying to have a night on the town, to forty-year-old transvestites. There wasn’t a demographic missing or a character that wouldn’t find a home in a quirky sitcom, including a construction worker who just wanted to dance to the monotonous techno beats. Getting home went smoothly, but again we stayed out late and woke up early.

Our first stop was to the Votivkirche, a neo-Gothic structure built by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1879 in thanks to God for deflecting an assassins knife on the spot the church was erected. It’s huge, neo-Gothic, and once featured a massive stained-glass window that depicted the Emperor’s deliverance. The windows were bombed out during WWII and in ’64 the windows were replaced with less of a divine-right-of-kings kind of theme. There was also a devotional chapel featuring Our Lady of Guadalupe. The sign made it seem like this was the image that was discovered by Juan Diego in 1531. We were in awe, but our awe was misspent on a copy sent by the Mexican government in 1954 (the Empire of Mexico was ruled by an enlightened, but unlucky Hapsburg prince, Maximilian I for three years before he was killed by firing squad in 1867). Oh well.

After a brief detour to recover Marty’s passport from Nick’s apartment (it was so well hidden he had forgotten about it) we were on our way to the Belvedere Palace. The place was set up in 1716 as the residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, a brilliant general who beat the Ottomans, French, and Italians over the course of a fifty year career. Originally French, Louis XIV ditched Eugene because he wasn’t particularly attractive. Taking his brilliant mind east, he found the Austrians would give him a chance and they reaped the rewards. So did he and thence the palace.

Now the building houses an art collection that ranges from Medieval to 21st century stuff, but focuses on the work of the Vienna Secession, an association of artists who wanted to promote Austrian art at the turn of the 20th century. The first president was Gustav Klimt and the Belvedere has a bunch of his work, including the iconic “Kiss” and “Judith.” Personally, I thought the haunting, expressionist work of Egon Schiele was even more engrossing than Klimt. Marty left to catch his train and I continued to explore the Romantics and Impressionists until the lure of the gardens became too strong.

The flowers all seemed on the verge of leaping to colorful life. The daffodils and tulips were doing their best, but I knew if I walked through in one week, the place would be a gravel-lined riot of color. Again, next time.

Weaving through memorials and churches I said goodbye to one of the most beautiful cities I have ever explored, then set my feet in the direction of the Vienna airport. I had my last cup of Viennese coffee, eavesdropped on a Canadian businessman who was also in awe of the beauty of the city and flew to the Cologne/Bonn airport where Rheinisch rain greeted by arrival.
A church I discovered at the last minute called Karlskirche. Next time I'll go inside. Never act like you won't return to a spot. It stresses you out and might not be true. Witness this trip.

I huddled in the bus stop with my fellow Bonners and mentally listed what I needed to pack up because the next morning I would be catching the train to Paris!

Pretty photos of a pretty city.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Obama Czech-s out Prague

(The photo album that was attached to the previous entry. With the following context, the second half might make a little more sense)
A bridge not built by Charles that still gets the same job done (without all the fuss).

Fortunately Marty was able to rest a little better the second night and we took off for a walking tour of the city. Since our previous day had focused on the castle, we thought the rest of town should be given its due.
Charles Bridge with the requisite veneer of tourists.

Every hour this clock draws hundreds of tourists to watch the Apostles parade by. Every hour pickpockets descend, drawn by hundreds of tourists who watch the Apostles parade by.

We started at St. Nicholas Church, a flamboyant Jesuit Church that was slapped together in the 17th century when someone apparently had a little red marble and gold filigree to spare. The place was almost too much to take in and we scrutinized every chapel, saying “Hey” to Ignatius and Xavier.
Ignatius, warrior turned priest raised to heaven in pink and putti. I don't think that's how it went down (or up in this case).

The church (like many in the city) is often a venue for classical music performances. This would be an especially appropriate place to give a listen, as Mozart himself played the organ on a trip to Prague (his favorite European city because they loved his work during his lifetime, while the snobby Viennese kept him at arms length).
After wandering around the altar and chapels, we climbed a spiral staircase to examine a series of dark painting depicting The Passion. It was hard to make them out since the light was reflecting off the protective varnish on the canvas and the images were painted in muted tones. We heard the faint rumblings of a school group coming towards the stairs, so we tried to make a break for it. But it was too late.

A line of Italian students began trooping from the stairwell. We waited patiently at the top, but they kept coming and coming. We thought there was a break, made it to the next landing and were trapped by the mass of pubescent bodies ascending to the loft. It was endless. The second floor seemed impossibly strained. They giggled, they texted, they glowered. They kept coming. Finally, our legs ready to give out and we were able to get down.

This seems to be a standard mode of travel for the Italian tourist: massive tour groups. The Japanese have a reputation for following umbrellas and flags held aloft in foreign lands, but the Italians deserve to suffer under this stereotype as well. You never encounter a family of Italians on tour, or a small knot of students. There is always a hoard that seems so cumbersome, so overwhelmingly awkward that the surrounding scenery must recede deeply into the Italian tourist’s subconscious in an effort not to be trampled by his countrymen. Mary and I managed to escape unharmed.

Across the river past concert halls and churches we roved. In the middle of town we encountered a whooping mop of people clad in blue. They weren’t yelling in Czech, and they weren’t yelling in German. The lettering on their shirts hinted they were Greek. The shirts further revealed the rowdy group was in town for the International Volleyball Semi-Finals. I had forgotten to mark my calendar. I have never seen so many grown men so excited for volleyball (court volleyball, mind you, not beach).

Very excitable Greeks getting pumped for some serious Volleyball action. It was never clear who their competitor would be.

Czech Pizza or Langose. Good for the heart.

Stuffed with fried dough doused in cinnamon and sugar, then fried dough doused in garlic, ketchup, and cheese (seriously), we rolled on, vaguely searching for a classical music experience for the evening. We visited the Mucha Museum to learn about one of Prague’s favorite artists (He became famous for his poster illustrations, especially women, in four poster sets called “The Seasons,” “The Elements,” and “The Arts.” He also climbed aboard the Nationalistic bandwagon, leaving Paris to forge the Czech myth.). And Wenceslas Square to see the wide boulevard that bills itself as the “Time’s Square of Prague.” The National Museum loomed over us along with the State Opera.

Wenceslas's view of Prague's trendy restaurants, clubs, and shops.

The Good King leading his posse of patron saints.

We wandered to the old Jewish Quarter to see the tromping grounds of the original Golem. Of course we visited on a Saturday, so nothing was open for further exploration.

As we meandered back towards the center of town we discovered the theater where Mozart debuted “Don Giovanni.” It’s still performed regularly and we suddenly hankered for some Opera. Unfortunately an opera by a Brit we had never heard of was playing that night, and tickets were steep. We walked back across town to the State Opera. An hour later we were on the second balcony watching a wonderful performance of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (Note: That link takes you to a trailer for an English language version of the opera. We saw it in the original German and had the joy of ignoring the surcaps during dialogue scenes.)l The Queen of the Night hit all of her notes and received her due applause, and Papageno elicited the laughs his character requires (though the singer could have used a little more energy behind his performance). During intermission, Marty revealed this was his first opera experience, and it wasn’t a bad one to start off with (though my brother would have offered better commentary than I).
The State Opera House

After the show we went to the Golden Tiger to discuss music and women. The bar is an institution even through it closes at 11PM, making it a difficult place to spend a long evening. The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic took Clinton there for an authentic experience. We had brusque waiters and plenty of beer. I think we had the authentic experience, too.

Then it was time for bed. We resolved to wake up at 4AM so we could be at the gate at 5 and among the first to enter the square at 7. Unfortunately our roommates weren’t getting up quite that early. The light was on until 2 when Marty finally asked to have the thing turned off. This made the girl watching the Final Four upset even though her glowing laptop didn’t seem to suffer in the dark. I was able to get about four solid hours of sleep. Marty had two, but we were up and checking out at 4:30. Of course there wasn’t any food available, so we would be riding on the previous night’s dinner and beer until God knew when (1:30 PM as it would turn out).

We wound through the streets of Prague, meeting stumbling drunk Americans who where headed home from the bars, including Steve, a highly inebriated student at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Normally I would have made sure an Ohioan made it home safely, but I had a president to meet. I hope he had a good story to tell his mom when she asked if he saw Obama in Prague.

At 5, after getting slightly lost and finally crossing the river towards the castle, we arrived at the pedestrian entrance. A crowd of about 100 people had already blobbed in front of the gate. It seemed like the perfect recipe for a Who concert-level tragedy as more people filled in behind us. The Czech police looked worried.

Someone had decided there really only needed to be one entrance for both people and trucks so periodically through the morning semis and ambulances would need to move through the gate. We would crush towards the walls of our narrow alley trying to avoid tire treads. The inefficiency of the system was quickly pointed out by the crowd that seemed to be comprised solely of American expatriates. We stood and waited and eavesdropped on the groups around us including a clutch of Spring Breakers who had stayed out all night and thought they might as well stay up for Obama. A semi appeared and had to cut through a crowd that had swollen beyond sight. We crushed to the sides and I heard one of the Breakers utter a phrase you never want to hear in a packed crowd: “I think I’m gonna get sick.” “No. No, you can’t do that,” offered her supportive and suddenly very sober boyfriend. “I think I’m going to pass out,” replied her friend.

The vomit never came, but the black out sure did. Fortunately when you’re in a crowd packed so tightly you can’t move your arms (I found this out the hard way by raising my arms to take a picture of the crowd and getting them stuck above my head) you can faint and never hit the pavement. She came to, wedged between Marty and the sober boyfriend.

Then the police decided they should do something. They would insert traffic barriers. We crushed, we attempted movement. We questioned the significance of the barriers that were now dividing us. We received Czech in reply and expressions of overwhelmed bewilderment.

Then they wanted to move us back ten feet. With an exasperated American from the embassy and a small megaphone, the police alerted the first three rows of souls that we needed to scootch. The front tried to move back. The rear saw movement and crushed forward. I experienced life in a vacuum.

Seven finally appeared. The gate didn’t open. They announced people with tickets were allowed to enter. We got antsy. Finally we were able to cross the threshold into the square. We would be able to see the podium, though it would be tough to make out the details. Marty and I were jubilant, though we still had no idea when the man would speak. The rumor spread we were waiting for 10 AM. We had a while to wait. I wrote postcards and we listened to all the characters surrounding us. A Czech bluegrass band performed. We all perked up at 9.

There he was! He was on the Jumbotron! What was he doing? The guards were moving around. They ran up the American flag, and everyone disappeared. More waiting. More standing. At 10:20. He reappeared with a flurry of motion that brought a gargantuan Czech with an even more massive lens directly into my line of sight. I jostled and I listened.

I was jealous of my friends in Ohio throughout the campaign season. I had cut out of town in August, just when things were really getting interesting (this was pre-convention mind you). I didn’t hear any of the campaign rhetoric every Ohioan is owed as a loyal member of a massive swing state. But here I was in Prague listening to the President speak to 20,000 people in attendance and billions around the world, and what he said mattered. Instead of a standard stump speech, I heard policy. Live.

Only a few hours earlier, North Korea staged a dubious missile test. So, the president discussed nuclear disarmament both in the United States and in Russia. He also wants to use this disarmament as a means of pressuring rogue states to comply or face sanctions. I guess we’ll see if it works (if we actually get rid of nukes). Apparently the U.S. is coordinating an Anti-missile net from the Czech Republic, kind of a latter day Star Wars program. There were protesters present to remove the country from our national security policy. There was also a protester who advocated clean fuel for Green Peace. He climbed a lamp post and was arrested for telling the president to do something he’s already working on. Someone didn’t do their homework (though he did score a great view over the crowd).

Favorite quotes jotted in the notebook and confirmed by this link to the speech transcript:

“I know that a call to arms can stir the souls of men and women more than a call to lay them down. But that is why the voices for peace and progress must be raised together.”

“Those are the voices that still echo through the streets of Prague. Those are the ghosts of 1968. Those were the joyful sounds of the Velvet Revolution. Those were the Czechs who helped bring down a nuclear-armed empire without firing a shot.

Human destiny will be what we make of it. And here in Prague, let us honor our past by reaching for a better future. Let us bridge our divisions, build upon our hopes, accept our responsibility to leave this world more prosperous and more peaceful than we found it.”

Good stuff. Here's the New York Times coverage of the event. Now we needed to get out of town. We joined a mass of humanity that flowed down the hill from the castle, darting through the crowd (“Where did all these people come from?” asked a confused and hung-over student walking up to the castle, oblivious his Commander-in-Chief was boarding a helicopter somewhere overhead). We had a bus to catch for Vienna that left at 12:30. We could make it if we moved and didn’t stop for food. Our stomachs had given up on us hours ago.

With our gear on our backs we dove into the subway system. The map of the route isn’t posted on the platforms so I dove onto a train, knowing there would be one to examine there and, worst case scenario, we jump off at the next station. I thought Marty was behind me when I turned to say we were on the right train. The door shut and I watched Marty’s forlorn face glide from view.

I had been in charge of the map for most of the trip and wasn’t sure if he even knew where we were going. I caught the next train back. He wasn’t on the platform. I headed for the bus station, antsy and praying he would be there. Miraculously the two of us, exhausted and hungry, found each other outside the station with five minutes to go. We scampered for the bus, dancing anxiously by the ticket booth behind a skuzzy Czech guy who clearly had his question answered but wouldn’t leave the teller alone. Finally, “Two for Vienna, please.” “We’re sold out.” “When’s the next bus?” “Tomorrow.” Damn.

Next bus company, same story. Well, that’s why God gave us trains (the bus was significantly cheaper, though, and not much slower than rail). We went to the station only to discover we were at the wrong train station for trains bound for Vienna. Back into the subway. Finally at 1:15 we were buying tickets for a Vienna-bound train that would be departing at 1:30. We had just enough time to grab substance from a food stand and get to the track. I ordered a sandwich and was given a slice of bread with lettuce, tomato, and onion wrapped in plastic. As Marty ordered, I noticed the white and green mold creeping over the crust. I switched the sandwich with an unphased cashier. I bolted it down and dove onto the train. I was hungry, tired, and stressed, but ultimately happy. I had seen Obama, and I was headed for Vienna.


Marty Czechs out.

(The photos again.)