As soon as I rested a bit I got a week pass for local transportation (metro, tram, funicular and bus) and started off. Praha is golden and glittery! Certainly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. They are still in the process of fixing up buildings left unattended during the Communist years. I watched workmen from my window repairing houses, putting new terra cotta tiles on roofs and new plaster siding on another building. Nancy Effinger, a friend from Jackson, Wyo. who is living in Praha for one year, met me for lunch and showed me how to get around the city, and we walked together to the Charles Bridge (in Czech called Karlov Most) built during the 14th century by Charles IV. It was great because we could see all the beautiful golden buildings on both sides of the Vltava River (also called Moldau), and the many statues lined up along both sides of the bridge--one of which is a statue of Saint Elizabeth! We then walked to the Church of Our Lady Victorious to see the Infant of Prague, a tiny, doll-like statue of Christ as a child (only with nail holes in his hands), dressed in beautiful robes and crown, and went to the museum in the church which held all the various vestments for the different church seasons that this little statue wears. Most interesting. This is not in most of the guidebooks, and I'd probably not have found it if Nancy hadn't shown me, but a neighbor had asked me to find out about it, and I'm glad I went.
Back on the other side of the river, after a tram ride where a woman kept trying to push me out of the way (more on this later), I went to see the wonderful art-nouveau Municipal House and the recently- restored Astronomical Clock with its many moving figures. On the way back to the hotel, I found the Big Ben English bookstore and bought Milan Kundera's brilliant book, The Joke. I was still finishing up the book Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl, which is about one woman's visit to Prague, and she often mentioned Kundera's book. I'd read several books by him, but not this one. I was right to pick it up. It was great, and so very informative about the Communist days in Praha.
That evening, as I was walking along Wenceslas Square, the main square of downtown, I saw an American Express office and decided I should stop in and cash some traveler's checks. I waited in line, got up to the cashier and said, "I'd like to cash some American travelers' checks," and went to pull them out of my purse. They were gone--so was one of my green pens! I explained my loss to the cashier and he asked if I had my receipts. I said, yes but they were back in my hotel. Since it was nearly closing time for them, I waited until the next morning to bring the receipts in. Just as the commercials tell you, there was no problem. I filled out the paperwork, they made a call to London, who in turn called Jackson State Bank where I'd purchased the checks, and they gave me new checks on the spot. Whew! I tried to explain to the agent about the woman who kept pushing me on the tram earlier, and that I was convinced that was when they were taken, but he didn't seem interested in how I lost them. This incident was, however, the only negative experience of my entire trip.
Next day I bought my train ticket to Krakow and made a reservation in 1st class, which was recommended, and I had no problem whatsoever with language or understanding times, etc. I also booked an all-day tour -- for the next day -- to Cesky Kumlov in the south of the Czech (pronounced "Chesky") Republic, near the Austrian border, to see the medieval village.
That night I went to Bertramka, a W.A. Mozart museum which is the former villa of one of Mozart's friends, and is the place where in 1790 he completed his opera Don Giovanni. I found the museum by a means of metro, tram and lots of walking, but it was most definitely worth it. Many of Mozart's original manuscripts were there and the place is considered one of the few remaining places where Mozart lived and found peace. They also hold concerts there in the evenings, so I bought a ticket and stuck around. I'm so very glad I did. I waited in the beautiful gardens surrounding the villa, where the lawns had tiny white daisies and buttercups instead of dandelions, and I listened to the birds sing in anticipation of the music to come. What I heard was possibly the best string quartet in the world. Certainly the best I've ever heard! Each and every member of the quartet was a star and a personality on his own, but all the 20-year olds played with such perfect precision and expression that they seemed to be one person.
Cepicky on 1st violin was dark-skinned and dark-haired. He was the leader of the group and the least animated, but equally as talented. Schulmeister on 2nd violin was fair-complected and definitely the most vibrant and accomplished "second fiddle" I've ever heard. He would raise straight up off his chair when the music called for it. Zigmund on viola was also dark, but had large blue eyes. He looked Greek. He felt the music so intimately that it was like he was making love to the viola. Also Kasprik on cello (who was by the way adorable) played with such feeling and facial expression. You could see by his raised eyebrows and tilted head when the musical "question" was being played, and then the closed eyes and bowed head signaled the music's "answer." I felt bathed by the music in my front row center seat. The entire performance of Mozart's String Quartet in F Major; F. X. Richter's Quarter in C Major; and Beethoven's String Quartet in E Flat Major, was flawless from the first perfectly timed and pitched note to the last. The music was so rich in melody and feeling that I became swept away on the emotion, especially during the Richter. The Presto movement of the Beethoven was a feat of precision and endurance. All four musicians were perspiring by the end. For an encore, they played Smetana's Polka, which seemed fitting. On the way home, I felt enormous gratitude for the musicians and composers--their huge commitment of time and talent to their music.
On the way to Cesky Krumlov the next day, I learned that my name in Czech is pronounced "Aliska". I saw fields of red poppies ala Monet and Renoir, and learned about the book, The Good Master which I want to read. It was written in the town of Bodjevice where they have a brewery called "Budweiser." I was told that Czech's drink 160 liters of beer per person a year -- the highest in the world. Next is Germany--130 liters per year and 3rd is Denmark. They have been making Budweiser beer here for 700 years--obviously longer than Anheuser Busch, and they had a problem when Busch started calling his beer by the same name. Consequently, they have managed to keep Bud out of Germany, Austria and Czech Republic, and Busch has done the same, keeping their Budweiser out of the U.S.
The trip was very worthwhile, especially getting out of the big city and into a small village in what used to be called Bohemia. I was reminded that my children's paternal grandmother, Lillian Kuchera, was from here. No wonder I keep seeing people who look like my grandchildren. The best part of the Cesky Krumlov castle was the ballroom of which every wall, floor to ceiling was painted by a Viennese painter in 180 days, in 1748. It depicted people in masks and colorful harlequin clothes laughing, and having a "ball." The walls had been recently washed with soap and water, and were brilliantly bright and alive with action. I could almost hear the laughter and music of the bygone days.
On my last day before I left on the train for Krakow, I went up to Hradcany castle and St. Vitus cathedral. I walked 287 steps up the tower of the church and could see all over Praha--a wonderful sight-- as was the church itself. The biggest treats were the bright red stained glass window of Christ in flames with the Holy Spirit overhead--extraordinary--and the carved silver sarcophagus of St. Vitus with the exquisite silver hands of God holding a cross with Christ on it. That evening I attended a concert in a Romanesque church nearby of organ, soprano and trumpet. Nice music, especially the excellent Passacaglia in C Minor by J.S. Bach on the all-wood organ. There was also music of Purcell, Handel, Beethoven, Vejvanovsky and Mozart.
I missed my connection in Prelov and they gave me new connections, but I lose out on my 1st class seat--no 1st class on the train they put me on. At Ostrava. a large industrial town near the border, I see lots of rail cars loaded with coal and ore -- looks like shiny, silvery rock --iron? I also see a large, high tower that says, in English, "Union Bank." Hmmm?? Kundera writes about this town in his book, The Joke. It was where Ludvik was sent to work in the mines by the Communists.
Because of the first train being late, I also now have to change trains again--this time in Katovice, Poland. This gives me a chance to sit and observe the Poles as I wait. I'm very excited to be in Poland at last -- a lifelong dream. I notice that no women my age wear pants, only very young women. Some of the young girls wear very skimpy outfits--midriffs and short, short skirts. I have see a few "skinheads," who proudly proclaim themselves to be such by insignias on their jackets or tatoos. They do the "heil Hitler" sign to each other, and they all smoke! They are also literally skinheads--no hair.
From Katovice to Krakow, I have a new seatmate--a Canadian who works in Algiers and is on holiday. He lives in Calgary and works as an electrical engineer. He had also been in Prague and commented on how environmentally conscious the country was. I had noticed that also. All the toilet paper is stamped, "recycled paper," and the lights in hallways, parking lots, etc. come on only by motion sensor, rather than being on all the time. He had lived in Saudi Arabia for two years, so we had a lot to talk about. We even talked about philosophical and spiritual things (it was a very slooow train). He is very concerned about the waste of energy in the world, especially in the U.S. and Canada.
Backpack on my back, I literally walked across the street from the train station to the Hotel Polonia in Krakow. Everything was closed when I got in at 6:30 p.m. so no chance to change dollars into zlotys. I showered, washed out a few things, unpacked, read a little about Poland, and went to bed.
My first task the next day, after changing money, was to buy my train ticket for June 12 to Rotterdam--it took me exactly one hour. First of all the lady tried to talk me out of getting 1st class tickets, but because I was going to be on the train overnight, I wanted a compartment by myself. She was very nice and accommodating, but it was clear the old bureaucracies of the Communist era are still alive and well. It takes three people to do one job, and no one cares about service. They work two hours, and then get a half-hour rest, regardless of whether they are in the middle of a transaction or not. It was the same thing in the bank changing money copious copies, all with carbon paper, and after all the copies were signed, they give you a token and send you to another part of the bank (with another line to wait in) and the token gets you the zlotys. Same thing buying stamps at the post office. You stand in one line after the other, then when you have your stamps, they direct you outside the building to a "red" box to mail your cards. (By the way, the woman who waited on me in the bank looked just like my friend Sarah Scott, and the woman who sold me the train ticket looked exactly like Billie Jo!).
After taking care of all that business, I walked under the busy street in front of the hotel (first I have to walk a block away from the underpass to cross the street, then walk back on the other side to get to the underpass -- which I did continually during my week in Krakow), and then I walked into the park. The park -- called Planty Gardens -- was created out of the space formally occupied by the old wall (some remnants of which still remain) dating back to 1307 and encircles the entire portion of "old" Krakow. Florian's Gate and an effigy of St. Florian, shown in full armor like a crusader, is still intact at the beginning of the park. I walked around the square, went into St. Marias church for a short look, then to a pizza place advertising "air conditioning" for dinner. While waiting for my pizza, I noticed a group of young boys--about 6 of them--who could have walked right out of Teton Middle School. They looked, dressed (tennis shoes, baggy shorts and large T-shirts) and acted exactly like young teens here in the U.S. The only difference I could see was their language. They were clean and well-behaved. Most people here are, except for the gypsies who hound you for money (I'm told the gypsies are Romanian).
On the way back to the hotel after walking for several hours, I decided to have an ice cream cone. As I passed through the park, there was a space on a bench in the shade, taken up only by an empty beer bottle laying on its side. I started to move the bottle aside and sit down, but the man sitting next to the bottle began to angrily shout (in Polish, of course) and wave his hands and motioned me to go away. I went to another bench, ate my ice cream and rested a bit. Then, as I walked out of the park, the man was still sitting there with his beer bottle taking up a spot in the shade. Odd? I nodded my head and smiled at the man as I passed.
That night, it thundered and lightninged and finally rained. I heard a great commotion with sirens and lights, then I smelled smoke. Fire engines raced down the busy street under by room window, and I waited to be evacuated. Nothing happened, so I went back to sleep.
The next day I went outside the city a ways to the Wielicza Salt Mines with a driver named Kazimierez (I called him Kaz). The mines, declared by UNESCO to be one of the 12 wonders of the world, date from 1044 and have, carved into the walls of the underground tunnels, chapels, museums and many fascinating sculptures--all carved from salt. I walked down 54 stories of stairs and started a tour guided by an English-speaking (with a heavy Polish accent of course) guide. I met a man from the UK named Don--my age exactly--he also retired last year. He was charming, and we stuck close together for the whole two- hour trip. Interestingly, he had taken a tour to Auschwitz the day before, and he compared what the U.S. did in Vietnam to the atrocities the Germans performed in Eastern Europe--not as many, he said, but unjustified killing all the same. (I opted not to go to Auschwitz.) Don also told me that only about 7% of Americans own passports--seems incredible. The main room of the mines dating to 1600's, is 180-foot long chamber, lighted by five salt crystal chandeliers with many impressive, magnificent, luminous statues.
Up early the next day, I took off again with Kaz to Czestochowa (pronounced Chestohova) home of the Black Madonna supposed to have been painted by St. Luke on lumber from Joseph's carpentry shop??? All the way up--about 2-1/2 hours--Kaz was pointing out buildings. He pointed to a prison and said that he was there one year for political reasons under Stalin. I asked him about the years under Communism, as opposed to the democracy they have now, and he said "much better now, but it's hard to make the changes." It is impossible for us to realize or even imagine the lack of freedom--personal freedom--that they suffered. No freedom of speech, of travel, but I see so many men hanging around, obviously unemployed, that I know the change to democracy is hard. Food is cheap, but so is beer and vodka. Nearly everyone smokes here and Marlboro/Camel signs are prolific, as are Coca Cola, Ford, MacDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, Shell Oil and Snickers, but most printed words are "zneckcy" types--lots of z's and k's and cy's.
Kaz pointed out the Ojcow Park Narodowy (national park) as we passed and said we would come back through the park. Again, I saw many mines, coal and iron, and large steel mills going on for several miles. This is why countries like Germany and Russia keep wanted to have Poland be theirs. Now at least, they trade with these countries. So sad that it takes us such a long time to learn.
My luck at Czestocowa couldn't have been better. Kaz left me on my own and I headed toward the Jasna Gora monastery, home of the most revered icon in Poland. The site ranks with Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela as a pilgrimage destination, and every year five million devotees flock to it. But today was a special day. It was a first communion service for about 50 children--little girls around 12 years old, dressed like miniature brides in white gowns and veils, and little boys dressed in suits (but wearing tennis shoes, I noticed. The girls had on little dressy white sandals with medium heels). They all looked just like my grandchildren--I could see no difference in their looks or actions. I walked in with the children and continued to the front of the church with them. I was directly in front of the Black Madonna for the whole 2-hour ceremony. The children were wonderful, all singing the mass and being so reverent. Mary and child were extraordinary looking, but she has three scars on her right cheek. I asked a nun about the scars afterward, and she said the icon dates from the 1400's (not painted by St. Luke then is it?) and was damaged during a war by a sword. The Madonna is hauntingly beautiful not black-faced, but dark-skinned. I walked up the tower, visited the museum and found my way back to Kaz's car.
We indeed did go through the national park on the way home. Big Jurassic era rocks jutting up white and massive throughout. It was a narrow, winding road, but Kaz didn't slow down a bit. He took off at one point down a two-tracked, gravel road in through the trees that opened up to some fields. Then he took off across the fields--no road at all--and pulled into the trees, where there was a small wooden cabin. He tried to explain to me that the cabin is an historical landmark of some kind, and marks a clean, clear spring. Then he got out of the car and took his « empty quart bottle of Coke with him. He was gone a long time. I just stayed patiently in the car. He returned with his Coke bottle full of water, icy cold and clear. He smiled and asked if I wanted to get some, but I opted not.
The next day was a church holiday. Because Krakow was Pope John Paul's (then Cardinal Karol Wojtyta) diocese , I am told that everyone is expected to attend church and observe the feast days. I went to the Jewish Quarter, which is today nearly empty, then walked toward the castle. Just as I was nearing it, a parade started (my luck never ceases to amaze me). I had the first space along the sidewalk, and again a front row "seat." First came women dressed in Polish costumes--flowered skirts and embroidered vests--who carried banners and pictures of Mary (many of which were pictures of the Black Madonna). Then came nuns by the hundreds--literally--dressed in groups of brown, dark blue, black and white, in all stages of novitiate. The best of all was a group of little girls about 6 to 8 in age, all dressed alike in long white gowns and holding a white ribbon attached to a large banner of the infant Christ (carried by a man). The nuns all sang, accompanied by what I thought at first was a marching band coming around the corner, but what turned out to be a loudspeaker attached by a long wire to a battery system about 100 yards away and both carried by young men who walked slowly along the side. Next came priests in robes and last of all monks in plain brown robes.
Looking for the restaurant where I made reservations for that night's dinner, I wandered into a church holding mass. It was full of flowers, golden statues and people. I listened to the choir and organ and cantor as they had communion. Fewer than 10% of the people took communion, but I did see afterwards people saying confessions to the priest in a little booth. ( I also saw this at Czestocowa.)
My dinner at the Chlopskie Jadlo authentic Polish restaurant (recommended to me by Stacy Waterman-Hoey, as were the Hotel Polonia and the Expres pension in Prague) was wonderful. When you walk inside, it looks like you've walked into a barn--all old wood and logs. They bring you slabs of dark bread, a type of cream cheese with parsley and a cup of lard yes, lard. I ordered the house special which was cold borsch (beet soup with hard-boiled egg in it) and a potato/onion/cabbage/bacon mash wrapped in a large cabbage leaf and fried. I could only eat 1/3 of it. But the best part of the evening was the music. A woman with a lusty alto voice, accompanied by a guitar and accordion, sang bawdy folk songs, love songs and some sing-a-long family favorites. An adorable little boy about 2 years old, enjoyed the music so much he just couldn't stay away.
All the way walking back to the hotel along the wall-turned-garden path, I watched the Polish people--families, single strollers with their dogs, lovers, children roller blading, a drunk or two, young people laughing and playing--no different that what you would see in any large city.
On the train from Krakow to Warsaw I met two women from Tel Aviv-- Vera, 69, who was showing Annette, her 20 year old granddaughter, the land of her birth. Vera left Poland in 1946. She said she had survived the holocaust by pretending to be Catholic, and had studied Catholicism thoroughly to learn all about it. What memories she must have. But she didn't seem to want to talk about the old days much. What she wanted to tell me was about Israel today: 6 million people, with more coming all the time. Too many, she said, mostly coming from Russia. She spoke about the problems with the Arabs, and the problems in the kibbutz's. She said their kibbutz program was so efficient it caused prices of food goods to drop, thus causing wages to go down. Vera was so impressed that I was traveling alone, and when I told her that I traveled a lot and mentioned being in Antarctica, they both wanted to know all about that. They said they had never met anyone who had been in Antarctica. They asked so many questions -- how I got the job? (it still amazes me that I got a job there!), who I worked for, what I did. We talked a long time, and then I told Vera that she and I could travel together -- she could interpret all the languages (she speaks 8 languages fluently) and I could say "YES" to all the opportunities that came our way.
I had time in Warsaw to wander around, then the train to Berlin took off right on time. l watched Polish people working in the fields as whole families, women in their kerchiefs, men and children, bent over at the waist raking up the hay and piling it onto horse-drawn carts. It seemed that every house had a farm with a scarecrow in the garden- -lots of agriculture land and forests. I saw many people on bicycles in the villages, women pedaling with babies or toddlers in a basket on the front, and old people moving around on bikes also. Again, each village has a church with one or two steeples. As the train moved and swayed, moaned and groaned into Germany, I noticed a stark difference between Germany and Poland. Much more machinery in the much-larger fields, bigger cars on the roads, nicer houses more planned layouts. By the time I got to Berlin it was dark and raining. It seemed appropriate that I would enter this "shadow-sided" city with everything looking dark and shining from the rain.
After a good night's sleep on the train between Berlin and Rotterdam, I arrived to be greeted by my friends, Ed and Will Algra. I was very excited to see Ed again (who I had met when I was in Venice in 1996) and to meet his wife, Will, both of whom I had been corresponding with for two years. She recognized me first, even though she had only seen pictures of me. We hugged and greeted and expressed our amazement that we were all actually together, then gathered my things and were off in their car to their home in Bleiswijk.
I liked Will from the first minute. She is intelligent and friendly, and made me feel comfortable immediately in their lovely home. Ed and I had begun our correspondence after we met in Venice where he and his musician cousin, John Englisch, were researching a seldom- performed opera by Verdi about the Venetian Doge Foscari. The succeeding flow of letters about music, art, books, family and our lives gradually began to include letters from Will also. We had many long talks about this extraordinary friendship during my 10 days in Holland. I told them that I had kept every letter and publication they had ever sent me, and with a big smile, Ed went to retrieve the notebook he had compiled of my letters to them.
Will has put together an extensive catalog system in notebooks of every artist she knows about. Her information includes newspaper articles, museum programs, postcards and hand-written notes by her about the particular artist. I'm not sure exactly how many she has, but it must be in the hundreds--the collection occupies much of her downstairs room. Ed has books, books, books on art, music, computers, physics--rooms of books. I sleep in an upstairs room with many of the books on art and it's all I can do to keep from browsing through all of them.
The first day, they take me to meet their daughter Lisette and her husband, Rud, who live in Oude Ade in an old restored farmhouse. They laughed about finally meeting Ed's "girlfriend from America." We had a wonderful visit and also a tour of their neighbor's cheese factory, then visited a sculpture garden gallery on the way home. We were still getting to know each other at this time, but it happened quickly, and I soon felt that I truly belonged there with them.
The next morning we took off for Amsterdam to see John Englisch, who plays jazz and classical piano with a small group on Sundays at the Grand Hotel. It was a lovely, hotel with a beautiful dessert buffet! After John finished his job, we all went to hear a Swedish choir in the Oude Kirk (old church)--oldest in Holland. Their music was wonderful, especially the Kodaly Vocalis (a song without words.) Next we walked through the red light district with all the girls in windows (we couldn't find a taxi) to the Pianola museum. Fascinating! They had original piano rolls by Bartok and Scott Joplin and others-- many pianos and musicians who played them by employing pedals and levers to alter the dynamics and rhythms. Then we walked back to Ed's car and drove over to John's house, where I got to meet his wife, Loes, and two of his teenage children. Loes fixed an Indian curry dinner while John played the piano and I sang.
When we got back to the Algra's home that evening, I had a heart-to- heart talk with Ed, because he won't let me pay for anything. I explained to him that, if I was going to be there for another week, I had to feel that I could pay my own way. He argued that I had spent so much money coming to see them on the train from Poland, that he didn't feel right having me pay for anything. So we compromised, and I insisted on taking them out to dinner one evening. We sat around talking that evening and they told me the story of their lives, how they had met when they were young and staying, by chance, in the same boarding house in The Hague. It was a beautiful story of innocent, young love -- now in their 60's, they still exhibit that same love.
Over the next few days, we listen to music of Liszt, Faure, Scott Joplin and Bessie Smith, Will plays Bach, Buxtehude and Franck on her all-wood pipe organ, and we watch a wonderful TV special on the famous Russian pianist, Stanislas Richter. Then on the third day, we leave for a full day at the Kr"ller-M"ller museum in a national park near the center of Holland -- a superb sculpture garden and extensive works of Van Gogh and other artists. After seeing half of the museum, we went out into the gardens for a lunch that Will had packed, then go back and finish seeing the museum. It was a wonderful day of art. Ed and Will both are very knowledgeable about so many artists I don't know. Of course, many were familiar, Seurat, Sisley, Signac, and Renoir, but I had never seen the work of Charley Toorop (a distinguished woman artist whose work I fell in love with, and read about in their books when I returned home) or Paul Gabriel, who paints windmills and landscapes of Holland.
Ed and I took a long bicycle ride the next day along the canals near their home. We passed very close to four windmills which people live in, saw loons, herons, rabbits and baby ducks--every scene was a picture. We rode 10 miles in a little over an hour. While we were gone, Will had cooked a typical Friesian dinner (the area of the Netherlands where she was born) of brown beans, onion gravy, salad, potatoes, pickles and onions, followed by delicious ice cream with strawberries and bananas.
The next day Ed and I went by ourselves on the train to Dordrecht to a museum exhibit of Paul Gabriel and Ary Scheffer. I love Gabriel's windmills, and Scheffer had some portraits (one of Chopin) that were outstanding. After the museum we did a tour of the 16th century Great Church in Dordrecht. We had a great English-speaking guide. The church was famous for holding a national synod, at the insistence of James I of England, during the Reformation where binding decisions were made as to the religion in the Republic. Most then Catholic churches were stripped of their golden statues and other adornments, and became the austere Calvinist churches they remain today. (I was to find this also to be true in many churches of Hungary when I got there. )
During my remaining days in Bleiswijk, we listened to and discussed the music of Peggy Lee and George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald singing Duke Ellington songs, Sweelinck played by Jacques Oortmerssen, their friend and Will's organ teacher, and Kodaly; visited their son Guido and his girlfriend, Diep (a Vietnamese name pronounced "Gyp") who cooked a delicious Vietnamese dinner; visited their daughter Marisca and her friend in their home; attended a thrilling water, sound and light show with Marisca; attended an organ concert with John Englisch (after hearing him play for the Scapino Ballet), at St. Laurens church in Rotterdam (where afterward we were invited to climb up the stairs to see the magnificent, beautifully designed organ and pipes up close); and we truly enjoyed our time together. In fact, by the time I left Holland, I was already missing them all. Ed and Will went with me to Utrecht to catch my train to Budapest, and while we were waiting there, I looked out and to my amazement saw John! He too had come to Utrecht to see me off, and he gave me a gift of a CD from the organ concert we heard, signed by John and Loes and also autographed by the organist. Such lovely, gracious people. I'm so very lucky to call them my friends.
On the long train ride (again, overnight) to Budapest, I read all the information Ed copied for me from Guido's Grove's dictionary about Zoltan Kodaly, Bela Bartok and Franz Liszt in preparation for my classes in music in Hungary, and thought about the weeks past and the weeks ahead. (My train from Vienna to Budapest was called the "Bela Bartok"--how nice!)
(My time in Budapest was much different from the rest of my trip, because I met up with an Elderhostel group to attend the classes on Hungarian music.) I arrived one day before the Elderhostlers, so had time to check out public transportation. My roommate arrived the next day with the rest of the group--Lillian Kaplen from Somers, NY. She was a great roommate, because she spoke Hungarian, and we got along great.
Our first day took us to the famous Gellert Spa dating back to Roman times, but completely and elegantly remodeled with an art nouveau hotel adjoining. To get to the spa we crossed the Danube (they say "Duna") to the Buda side -- we are staying on the Pest side. There are many bridges across the Danube, and the one we cross today is the Elizabeth Bridge named for the wife of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, who was much beloved by the Hungarians, because of her affinity for them during their several hundred years of occupation. (Elizabeth, by the way, is written Erzebet, prounounced "air-sheh-bet" in Hungarian.)
The Hungarian language is unique in the world, and holds almost no similarity to any other language -- in fact Hungary is often referred to as a "linguistic island." This has to do with where the Magyar (Hungarian) people came from, and the language has had much to do with understanding the history of the people. Magyars (which literally means "speaking-man") came from Asia near the Ural Mountains. From as far back as 4000 BC they began slowly moving toward the Carpathian Basin and finally settled there in 896 AD. The original language appeared only as cuneiform symbols and it was only in 1200 AD that the first written Hungarian language was established with the famous funeral oration. To understand the language (which often sounds like Mongolian, Korean or even Japanese), it is important to remember a few basis rules: 1st - the accent is always on the first syllable. This makes conversation a little easy to hear because you always know where a new word starts, but if the people are speaking loudly and quickly, it can sound to us like arguing. 2nd - there are 41 letters in the Hungarian alphabet, 14 of which are vowels with various marks above them. These marks indicate the length of the vowel. 3rd - there is no difference between masculine and feminine words -- even words for "he" and "she" are the same common word. 4th -- and probably most important, the language is very fluid and flexible. Prefixes and suffixes are added to words to change and improve their meanings, making the language one of the most efficient in some peoples views.
That evening we had a welcome dinner at Borkatakoma (meaning wine cellar) where wonderful Hungarian folk music and dances were performed. I had a chance to talk to some of the musicians and dancers because we were sitting right in front of the stage. Flashing eyes, colorful ethnic costumes, men slapping their boots and clicking their heels and snapping their whips, plus the music of violin, viola, bass and cymbalom (a stringed instrument hit with small padded hammers) made the entire performance quite exciting.
We had a tour of the entire city, both Buda and Pest, the next day including stops at Hero Square and St. Stephan's summer palace which are both located in the city park. I was struck by the statue of the scribe writing the first Hungarian written text in Latin--the funeral text. It was sculpted to be anonymous with the face of the scribe hidden by a monk's robe and hood.
Before our visit to the ancient Roman city of Aquincum, we had a class (all our classes were two hours in length and most employed various multimedia) on Archeological Findings in Hungary by Dr. Alice Choyke. We learned that bones and tools have been found in the basin dating to 500,000 BC, and small, carved statues (such as Astarte) have been found dating to 30,000 BC. From 5-6000 BC there were Neolithic farming hamlets in the area--long houses. Primitive Celts lived in the basin around 300 BC and in 100 AD the Romans came and took over the entire area on the Buda side of the river. They named the Danube the "Linus" or line-between civilization (Buda side) and the uncivilized Pest side. Aquincum was a nearly completely excavated ruin that showed houses, baths, market places and road systems. Most interesting to me at the site was the only 1st century Roman music organ operated by water pressure which can still be played today. The organ has little "keys" and tiny pipes. Quite a thing to see. They did not play it, but played a recording of someone playing upon it. (There is only one other such ancient instrument in the world which is now in Greece, but it is considered too badly damaged to reconstruct.)
That evening a few of us took the tram up Buda Hill to ornately- painted St. Mattias Church to hear an organ concert. They also had an Australian choir who sang hymns in English. The next day was Sunday, and Lillian went with me to mass at St. Mattias where we again got to hear the choir and organ. (The next Friday, I reciprocated and went with Lillian to the Jewish synagogue services--a learning experience and great exchange for both of us.)
Following our class titled the "Origin of the Hungarian People" by Dr. Attila Pok, Institute of History, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, we had a tour of the Hungarian National Museum. Most all the classes and field trips were scheduled this way, which made for an extremely rich and stimulating educational experience. The impressive main entrance to the museum is flanked by huge Corinthian columns. It was built (as were many of the cities buildings, I learned) between 1830's and 40's to be ready to celebrate the Hungarian independence movement against Austrian-Habsburg domination. My favorites in the museum were a classic portrait of Liszt, his piano and the Hungarian Holy Crown of St. Stephan (no king was considered a real king unless he was crowned with this particular crown) with its bent cross on top.
A bit of Hungarian history: It's interesting to note that a lot of what is known about the history of Hungary has been traced linguistically. It is truly through this way that we know of the Ural Mountain/Mongolian connection to the Magyar peoples. Dr. Pok said something very intriguing in his lecture--that most written theories of history are politically motivated--how true! There was that major push into the Carpathian Basin by Arpad and his group of horsemen in 896 AD, but this was not the first wave--some Magyars had been there as much as 200 years before. At this time, the basin was divided into several distinct parts: Pannonia, west of the Danube; Ducia, southeast, where Transylvania came to be (now part of Romania); Moravia, the northern Slavic part; and Serbia/Croatia, the southern part. Hungarians are blamed for separating the northern Slavic peoples (Czechs, Slovaks, and Moravians) from the southern Slavic peoples (Serbs, Croats, etc.). The big unifying action bringing Hungary into nationhood happened in the year 1000 AD under King (also called Saint) Stephan. Stephan identified with the Roman Catholic church and rebels were no longer revered.
The Turks conquered the area soon after and ruled over Hungary until 1466. (The bells of Budapest still toll at noon everyday in commemoration of the defeat of the Turks.) It is believed that one of the reasons the Turks lasted so long is the indecisiveness of the noble landowners--the old East/West mentality. (Recall the Romans called the West or Buda side civilized and the East--Pest side-- uncivilized.) When the Turks were finally defeated, it was only with the help of Hungary's western neighbors the Austrian Habsburgs. So then, the Austrians ruled over Hungary for nearly 400 years, until 1918 when President Woodrow Wilson, at the end of WWI, divided up Hungary in his 14-point declaration. It was then that the northern portion of Hungary became Czechoslovakia, the southwestern part became Yugoslavia, the western part which was already Austria was given a border, and the part known as Transylvania (but considered part of Hungary) was given to Romania. Hungary was reduced in size by two-thirds! Ever since the end of WWI, Hungary has wanted to regain their old territories. This is why they allied with Germany in 1940.
During WWII, 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed, leaving only about 100,000 alive, and many of those left. There are many who believe that the Hungarians didn't do enough to try and help these people -- they didn't have a resistance movement like France and Holland did -- but the then leader copped out at the war crimes trials by saying that, if he hadn't cooperated with the Nazis, all 700,000 would have been killed, because it was the Nazi regime's plan to hold up the Jewish quarter of Budapest as a memorial to an "extinct race." After WWII, when the Soviets took over, many of the Hungarians had a somewhat better life, but it was an artificial one. They could not own property and many people, especially the intellectuals rebelled. Little by little the people became unhappy with the Russian control, and finally in 1989, a peaceful changeover took place. We were told that only about a dozen people know exactly how this changeover took place and what was decided, but since then free elections have taken place. Today the current Prime Minister, Victor Orban, is only 35.
All that history is important to understand, if you are to know the Hungarian people, the language, and most critical to me, their music.
The next evening, a small group of us went to hear the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble who presented an exciting dance, orchestra and choral performance of costume, music and dances from the various regions of the country. The singing was an extraordinary sound--a high-pitched, wide-mouthed, oriental sound. The dancing was amazing, but only the men dance with passion and kicks -- the women are much more sedate and do sort of an accompanying dance to the men. It was wonderful--like a Hungarian Riverdance!
The next day, Lillian and I took off on our own. I bought my return ticket to Praha for July 11, we did some shopping, then took the metro back to Hero Square to visit the fine arts museum and have lunch at Gundel's--the best restaurant in Budapest supposedly, and owned by the Hungarian owner of Caf‚ de Artiste in New York. Great food, beautifully presented (and expensive -- my lunch was $30 US). After lunch, Lillian and I went looking for a bathroom and found one upstairs, but then came back down the front stairs and found ourselves locked in. We could see the fancily-dressed doorman in front of the glass door, but he motioned that he didn't have a key. Finally, he went around and found someone to let us out. We laughed when we said we could have starved to death in Gundel's!!
That night we had a lecture on Hungarian economics, which was appropriate after our day on the town. And the next morning another lecture on Hungarian law, prepared us for our trip to Parliament. The Parliament building is one of the most eyecatching landmarks on Budapest's landscape. It was built between 1884 and 1902 in a neo- gothic style, decorated in gold, frescoes, and statues. The statues were especially interesting, because they were painted to be very lifelike. They represented many famous people, such as Arpad and Stephan, but also walks of life of the peasants, such as milkwomen, sowers, merchants, etc.
After our trip to Parliament, we were given the wonderful opportunity to visit a family in their home. Each person was assigned a small group--ours had five--and our family consisted of Peter and Elisabeth Weber and their 11-year old son, Victor (who was actually not home because he was away in Poland visiting his grandparents). We arrived at the Weber's home by a series of metro, bus and walking, assisted by Elisabeth. Peter is a Major in the Hungarian Army--a very intense, unhappy man--who complained about his job of 20 years, and looks forward to the time when Hungary can be officially part of NATO. Elisabeth is a librarian in a school library. She showed us an English language paperback book, Year of Grace, which was literally in shreds. She said that she loved the book so much and read it, even though the book was in pieces. They served us juice, snacks and delicious chocolate ice cream, and took us on a tour of their upscale apartment--complete with all the modern appliances anyone could want, even a computer in their son's room.
After a lecture on the "Relationship Between Church and Society," the next day taught by Presbyterian minister, Dr. Zoltan Bona, we went out for a tour of the Jewish Synagogue and St. Stephen Basilica. The synagogue--2nd largest in the world--only Temple Emmanuel in New York is bigger--was impressive. There was also a museum attached to the synagogue which had a lot of old minoras and other artifacts, and a wonderful wooden statue of a Jew with half his beard cut off (something that the Nazis did to humiliate the people.) The look on the face of that man will haunt me forever. During the lecture we were told the heartwarming story of how a few unknown Catholic priests came to the synagogue at the height of the war and took the Torah scrolls for safekeeping. After the war was over, they anonymously returned them to their proper place. Next we were taken outside to see the "Tree of Life," a huge, silver upside-down tree made to represent an inverted minora with 600,000 silver leaves each inscribed with a name of one of the Hungarian Jews killed in WWII. Quite a stunning memorial.
After all that, Lillian and I took off on our own again for a little adventure. We wandered along the Danube, had cappuccino at the Hyatt Hotel (good pit stop) and then walked down Vaci Utca (the prime shopping street, sort of like Rodeo Drive) until we found Fatal's-- another restaurant recommended to me by Stacey Waterman-Hoey. It couldn't have been better underground, rustic and served delicious, authentic Hungarian food in pots and pans. I had a large mixed green salad that I'd been craving and crispy duck with cabbage noodles. (Lillian gave me the recipe for the noodles: Shred a head of cabbage, then salt it and let stand in a colander about 1 hour. Then squeeze excess water out and brown in oil slowly until cooked. Season with paprika. Cook "bow-tie" type noodles and drain. Add a little more oil, mix and serve. Yummy!)
Finally the music classes begin--what I came for and had been waiting for. First was a class by Dr. Denes Legany on Ferenc (Franz) Liszt (1811-1886). Dr. Legany began by singing an ancient (dated back 1000 years to Mongolian folk music) oriental folk song called "The Peacock," the theme upon which Kodaly later wrote a choral work. The melody was not in a major or minor scale but rather based on a pentatonic scale. Liszt believed that no chord could sound absolutely foreign to a given key, however far removed it might seem. Liszt was greatly influenced by Hungarian folk music and wrote many pieces emulating the "verbunkos" soldier/ recruiting songs and the csardas (folk dances). Liszt's life also influenced his music. He never married, but had two longstanding relationships with married women-- the Countess Marie d'Agoult, who gave him three children, one of whom was the daughter, Cosima, who herself caused a great scandal by leaving her husband Hans von Bulow for Richard Wagner--and Princess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein, who tried in vain to have her marriage annulled in order to marry Liszt.
However, Liszt himself was a profoundly religious man--a monk--who considered himself, "a mixture of gipsy and Franciscan." His own pathos and religious zeal are probably most apparent in his quote, "The only reason I don't commit suicide is because it's a sin -- otherwise, I would do it." At the Liszt museum that afternoon, I saw the altar before which he prayed, as well as his desk with a piano keyboard in the center front drawer, his many pianos (including a piano belonging to Beethoven which had been given to Liszt), paintings of his family and himself and many of his original manuscripts. After our tour of the museum, we were treated to a concert with soprano and piano solos of Schubert, Schumann and of course, Liszt.
That evening we went by bus out of town to a botanical gardens and heard an outdoor concert by the Hungarian Virtuosi Orchestra with two solo violins. They played music of Boccherini, Rossini, and concertos for two violins by both Bach and Vivaldi. They also added as encores, the "Pizzicato Polka" and Brahms' Hungarian Rhapsody #5. Another beautiful evening of exquisite classical music amongst the trees and flowers.
The Bartok lecture and concert were both held at his last known thoroughly modern home, now a museum, in Budapest, located on the Buda side up a steep hill surrounded by large, fine homes and set in the trees. Outside, a wonderful bronze statue of the thinly gaunt Bela Bartok (1881-1945) stands surveying the neighborhood. Upon entering the house, one is greeted by Bartok's words, "I am going to serve only one aim: the weal of the Hungarian nation and country." The lower floor of the home is a concert hall capable of holding up to 90 people. Besides his Bosendorfer piano, desk and many original manuscripts, the museum also holds the cylinder-type recording device that Bartok and Kodaly used when traveling throughout Hungary, Slovakia and Romania collecting the folk music of the country people. Bartok was a trained musician, educated at the Conservatory in Budapest, but his close ties with the land never left him. As a result of the two musicians 16,000 recordings, Bartok decided to break away from the confines of tonality. He drew on ancient modes and on the pentatonic scale. He also used an augmented fourth--the interval of the tritone known since the middle ages as the "devil of music" became his distinguishing mark, and the basis of his harmonies. It is said by some that Bartok, not Schoenberg, is the true revolutionary of 20th century music. After his lecture, Dr. Legeny played 18 folk songs on Bartok's piano, then proceeded to present a full concert of Liszt, Faure (the beautiful Fantasie for Flute and Piano, accompanied by outstanding flutist, Aleta Vorec), and a piece called "Transylvanian Lament" by Bartok and Kodaly. All this sitting in Bartok's own concert hall--can you imagine such a thrill?
The trip to the Kodaly Institute required a bus trip of several hours to Kecskemet. We had a lecture by Mrs. Ida (prounced E-da) Erdei on Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) and the "Kodaly Method" of music. Like Bartok, Kodaly was a good student. A graduate of the Liszt Academe of Music, he also studied composition, Greek and Latin. Kodaly believed that every child should be taught to read and write music on a daily basis, beginning at age seven. One of his sayings that I love is, "It is the bounden duty of the talented to cultivate their talent to the highest degree, to be of as much use as possible to their fellow men." He wrote mostly choral music, which was his main love, but also several pieces for the piano, violin and at least one opera--"Hary Janos." Kodaly's first choral work, "The Peacock Variations" was composed in 1906, but he wasn't allowed to publish the music or perform it because the words said, "...the people flew on the city hall to make the people free." It wasn't until 1939 when the Amsterdam Orchestra and Chorus finally performed the piece that Kodaly, at 57 years of age, was able to hear it. Due to his extensive research with Bartok, Kodaly formed the International Folk Music Society, and wrote several publications on Hungarian musicology. During the way, he and his wife took the initiative (unlike most Hungarian gentiles) to save several of his Jewish friends from persecution and also wrote several revolutionary songs. As a result, Mr. and Mrs. Kodaly had to see refuge themselves in the cellar of a Budapest convent and later in the opera house. (Our lecturer, Mrs. Erdei, cleared up one big issue for me and some others--the difference between Hungarian folk music and gypsy music. Gypsy music, she said, has its roots in Middle Eastern music --brought in by the Turks-- while Hungarian music has its roots in the orient.)
Before we left Kecskemet, we visited Opusztaszer National Park, an outdoor ethnographic museum (similar to Williamsburg, Virginia) and panorama/diorama three dimensional circular painting depicting Arpad's invasion of 896 AD.
Our final days in Budapest were spent at the Danube Bend visiting castles and museums (including the extraordinary Margit Kovacs ceramic museum in Szentendre). Our farewell dinner was at the Marble Bride in Obuda (old Buda) where we had a lovely private room that looked like an 18th century drawing room. We were given diplomas and each person spoke about their own personal highlights. I sang the song, "Memory," from "Cats" as my farewell to everyone.
On the train from Budapest to Prague, I was joined by a group of young people from Romania on their way to a Christian youth conference. They told me of how very poor and discriminated against the Romanians are in Europe. It's really obvious, given the history of divide and conquer, of why there is still a lot of strife in that part of the world. One stop before Prague, another man joined our car. He spoke to the young men in English and said he was also going to Prague. After the eager young people left the car to queue up near the door, I asked the man what a taxi ride from the train station to the center of town should cost. He told me that Prague's taxis were notorious for ripping people off and that what I should do is take the metro. I reminded him that it was after 7 p.m. on a Saturday night and the metro ticket booths would be closed. The man looked into my eyes and asked, "Do you want me to help you?" I said, that would be nice. So when the train arrived in the east station, I followed him as he walked through the station to a newspaper stand. "You can buy a metro ticket here," he said. After I purchased the ticket, he said to follow him again. I began to walk out of the kiosk with my change in my hand, and the man stopped me, exasperated, and said, "Lady, put your money away." After I got my change back into my purse, I followed him to the big metro display map on the wall, where he showed me how to change metro trains and arrive right in front of my hotel. I thanked him and then noticed for the first time that he looked exactly like Rex, my first husband (an angel, I believe.)
Home again, and it feels so good. But what I learned (as you can see) will remain with me forever.
A.J.Oxton, OA, OO, OAE, k1oIq
Back to Oso
Back to ajo
Copyright © 2003, A.J.Oxton, The Cat Drag'd Inn