The Broad is Back!

July 2, 2007

On the road again–via bus

Filed under: American culture,New Broads,travel — by maggiec @ 5:26 pm

I’ve been furiously grading papers for the end of spring term, so even though I’ve been making lots of observations, I’ve no time to write them down.

But this week I have inadvertently given myself much fodder for the blog. I had been in Tennessee visiting my mother, and I have to be in Schenectady, NY for a summer job. Because I have two large suitcases, no car and little money, I decided to take Greyhound bus from TN to NY. What an education!

I regularly took the bus when I was in college, but that was mostly trips under four hours. This trip is 25 hours in total. I’m on the final leg, NYC’s Port Authority to Albany, right now. I’ve discovered a very different group of people on this bus. For New York City residents, many of whom don’t own cars, the bus is an easy way to get upstate. My fellow passengers are a collection of students and business people, as well as vacationers, I’d guess. The relative wealth is palpable.

But on the two earlier legs of my journey, the lack of wealth was what was palpable. I only saw one other person with a laptop computer, and I pegged him as a student. I never took mine out of my bag. Not only did I not want to call attention to it, there was no room to do so. The bus was packed at all times. I found that pretty surprising.

I don’t know anyone who travels by bus, therefor, bus travel must be uncommon. Stupid assumption, I know.

As travel companions, my fellow bus riders were a very nice group of people, unfailingly polite and friendly. But I realize we just come from very different worlds. All of my middle class buttons about health and nutrition were being pushed. It was killing me seeing women smoking around their babies and giving the little kids HiC drink and PopTarts for breakfast. Or even worse, orange soda and Doritos. I admit that I used to let standards slip when traveling with my young son, but I would make sure I had pure juice for him to drink and fresh fruit or raisins. As a teacher, I know the difference good nutrition makes for children. As much as I love sugar and sweets, I know that pure sugar and artificial flavors and colors are pretty much poison for developing brains.

But better nutrition costs more money, and my guess is that the money wasn’t there. And if money wasn’t the issue, the stops we made for food didn’t really offer the healthiest choices. This morning for breakfast, for instance, we had the choice of Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizza or a little shop that offered varieties of soda, juice drinks, cakes, pastries, chips and cereal bars. I’m feeling a little queasy remembering it. I got milk, but I really had to struggle to find something else I would, or could, eat. My days of pizza breakfasts are sadly far in the past!

Then there was the waiting. As much as I complain about airports, and I do complain about them, let me tell you, they are lovely compared to most bus stations I’ve been in on this trip. Most were dingy looking, smelly, understaffed and crowded. Buses are all open seating, so people line up incredibly early for boarding. In Richmond, Virginia, I stood on line for over an hour just waiting. And what amazed me was how patient the people were, or was that docile? I can not imagine the complaints I’d be listening to if people in airports had to stand at the gate for over an hour before boarding time. No, at airport gates there are chairs and clean carpets and delicious food stalls.

When I was waiting to transfer planes in Chicago a few weeks ago, I was grumpy because I couldn’t find something I wanted to eat. There was a McDonald’s, a Chili’s grill, a Greek diner-type food stand, a bakery/coffee stand and some snack stalls with chips, soda and candy. Am I spoiled? At the bus station there was a coffee stand and a food stand selling soda, ice cream and candy. At inflated prices, I might add. Most of my fellow travelers, veterans of the long-haul bus circuit, I’d guess, had coolers of food with them. Luckily I had brought drinks, fruit, some nuts and some granola bars. Mom offered to make me some sandwiches, but I said no as I had too much to carry. Dumb move. I was thinking of mom’s sandwiches after a while! Next time I know better.

I thought at least I could get some work done on the bus, but then I realized that I couldn’t use the laptop. That was ok, I still had a book. Oops, motion sickness, something that only bothers me in cars, and oh yeah, buses. In the 20 years since I’ve taken the bus, I’d forgotten that. So mostly I slept and listened to a recorded book I’d put on my Mp3. And I was one of the few people with an Mp3 on the trip. Most people had CD players or nothing. One man I traveled with from Tennessee to NY who was going on to Massachusetts had no music, no book, no newspaper even. He just talked to whoever sat next to him or slept. I ended up sleeping a lot, which was good for me and made the trip go faster.

I did talk to one seat mate, a young man of 17 about to go to basic training for the Navy. He was from Johnson City, TN and was returning to a trip to visit his cousin in Nashville. The only other big city he’d been in had been Washington, DC, which he hadn’t liked. He said the people there were mean. When he learned I was from Sweden, sort of, he had a million questions. When he learned I’ve lived in four countries and my son is fluent in three languages because he went to school in those languages, he was envious because he’d only left Tennessee once in his life. I told him my son would envy him his stability. He replied, “Is he crazy? Any time he wants to trade places, I’m ready.” He’s right, of course. My son would be crazy to trade the opportunities and experiences he’s had.

As uncomfortable as parts of it were, I am not ruling out traveling by bus again. It was much cheaper than flying and even cheaper than driving myself. It was certainly the greenest way I could have covered over 1000 miles of road. And now I know what to expect.

It was great to see a side of America I am losing touch with, if I ever was in touch with it. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself because I’m so broke. Last week’s trip was a real eye opener into just how lucky I am.

June 14, 2007

Leaving on a jet plane

Filed under: ex-pats,New Broads,travel — by maggiec @ 2:38 pm

Pop songs from the 60s, the period of my early childhood, have long provided a sound track for my life. I find phrases popping through my head at the oddest times. And right now it’s Peter, Paul and Mary I am hearing in the background music of my life.

As I write this, I am literally sitting on a jet plane, and like the singer of that song, I don’t know when I’ll be back again. Well, not for a while perhaps. I’m on the flight to my new life.

Now before I muse further on that new life, a word about airports. In those Internet questionnaires on “learn more about your friends” that ask about your least favorite place on earth, I always, always answer “airports”. They are ghastly places, where time goes into a warp tunnel. And now thanks to new security measures, they are uncomfortable and expensive time warp tunnels.

And is it me, or are most major American airports interchangeable? Transferring at Chicago’s O’Hare today, I all of a sudden couldn’t remember if I was in Chicago or Newark. At least when I’m traveling in Europe or Asia, the language clues me into where I am. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it certainly adds to the sense of dislocation and unreality. The sense of being lost.

I know that airports, as annoying as they are, have made it possible for me to live the life I live. I am losing one day to travel—dirty bathrooms shared with 100 other people, screwed up meal times, bad food—but when it’s all over it is only one day. Only a hundred year ago, that one miserable day would have been closer to one month of miserable days, no bathrooms, sometimes sketchy meal times, and bad food. So in some respects, I’m incredibly spoiled. And like all spoiled people, the more I have, the more I want. But if it weren’t for these little anterooms to hell, I couldn’t be an ex-pat. But enough moaning. On to the changes.

In the days leading up to this flight, I have been trying to figure out how I feel about it. Sometimes the word terrified comes to mind, but on reflection, I don’t think that’s it. I’m not really sure that this emotion I’m feeling is fear.

This is certainly a new experience. Every other time I’ve made a change, I’ve been going into the almost totally unknown. Now I’m going into something I know, but I don’t know. It’s been so many long years, and as Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “You can’t go home again.” The downside of being an English scholar is that my brain is jammed to overflowing with literary allusions that sometimes scare me.

Trepidation might be the nearest description for what I’m feeling. Will I be able to make the transition back? One story that ex-pats hear over and over again is the one about the American who went back to the States only to have to leave again. The fit was too uncomfortable. I do wonder if this will happen to me. And this isn’t just idle speculation on my part.

Once, back in the days when I was writing “A Broad Abroad,” a friend wrote to me and said “The America you remember isn’t here anymore. It’s an America of the past.” Sometimes when I’m visiting, I see that so clearly. Change is inevitable, of course, but not all change is to my tastes. And as I tell people who ask how I feel right now, sometimes it’s easier to be a fish out of water in a place where people expect you to not fit in. But in the US, people expect me to follow the program, to do what is expected. And from what I hear, being different, dissenting from the mainstream, is a frowned upon quality nowadays.

I wonder if this isn’t being overstated. It’s not that I don’t believe what I hear people saying. It’s more that I want to see it for myself, to make my own judgments.

So I guess on that account, this really is the start of something new, perhaps an adventure.

June 4, 2007

Dipping into the past–visiting Prague

Filed under: Prague,travel — by maggiec @ 1:05 pm

People keep asking me where the posts are. Well, they are in my head, where they will stay until I get a few free minutes. This is a hectic time for college teachers–finals, finals, finals. Grading ad nauseum.

But while preparing to move files to an external hard disk, I found a short, rather geeky narrative I did about a visit to Prague in 2001.  Today I found the picture files, so I will add some of them as well.  The rest you can find at my Flickr site.The Beauty of Prague

Not my best piece of writing, but something to make a post with!

Originally written in May 2001

Since lots of people have asked about our trip to Prague, I thought that I’d write out a generic description of things for you all.

As many know, we traveled by night train from Munich. That meant that we had to get to Munich first. We left Geneva for Zurich, a 3-hour trip. There we got the train to Munich, a 5-hour trip, and it was there that we finally boarded the night train to Prague, a 10-hour trip, which we attempted to sleep through, and we would have had a shot at it if it weren’t for the Czech and German border patrols.

Now this may sound like a lot of train time, but it’s not bad at all when you have music, books, books on tape, a Gameboy, snacks, and a dining car for dinner. The train is also relaxing since you can sit and have leg room, unlike airplanes, and you don’t have to worry about the driving.

Anyway, taking the night train got us into the Prague train station at a little after 8 in the morning. Our plan was to get breakfast someplace outside the train station and then check into the hotel. With Sören as navigator, off we went. Good plan, though we couldn’t find anyplace serving breakfast! The Prague train station and its surrounding area made pre-Guiliani Port Authority look good. Too bad the building itself is such a beautiful Art Nouveau place. I wanted to look around, but it was no place to be lingering.

Turns out that the hotel was about a 20-minute walk from the train station. Since Prague was heavily booked for the Pentecost weekend, we were in a French chain, Manotel, with all the amenities of a business-class hotel-breakfast buffet, pool, sauna, jacuzzi, exercise room. Usually we stay at non-chains, so this was a different type of place for us. They also let us check in before nine! Heaven! We dropped our bags and ate a hearty breakfast at the hotel then went out for an explore. We only walked around about an hour or so as we had booked an afternoon bus tour of the city.

The tour was spartan, but informative, and it was nice to be shuttled around in order to orient ourselves to the city. The only real stop of the tour was the Prague Castle, a collection of palaces in an enclosed courtyard. These were given a uniform façade in the 18th century, and since our tour didn’t go inside, we missed the Renaissance elements. The castle also includes the Cathedral of St. Vitus and St. George’s Convent. To see inside all of these places would have taken more than a weekend. Many of the palaces are now art museums, so I guess I will just have to go back. Some of the palaces are government offices and include the offices of President Vaclav Havel.

We did get inside part of the Cathedral and saw the St. Wenceslas Chapel with its saint’s grave, Gothic frescoes and walls covered with semi-precious stones and gilding. It was very beautiful. A favorite part of the Cathedral was a stained glass window dedicated to SS Cyril and Methodius done by Alphonse Mucha. Now Mucha has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and I always thought he was French. Ha! He was Czech! The things ya learn traveling.

The exterior of the Cathedral was stunning, especially the 14th century Cathedral entrance. The cathedral was started as a rotunda in the 10th century, expanded to a basilica in the 11th century, made into a Gothic cathedral in the 14th century and has a number of 19th and 20th century additions to increase its size and grandeur. The façade of the cathedral has a 14th century fresco of the Last Judgement. Gorgeous. (No, I don’t memorize this stuff. I have the Eyewitness Travel Guide to Prague in front of me.)

Another great feature of the Castle was the views it afforded of Prague. It’s built on a hill, in good defensive form, so we got some lovely shots of the surroundings.

After the tour, Matt and Sören decided to avail themselves of the pool and sauna, but I hit the Mucha Museum, a wonderful collection not only of his graphics work but his oils. It also outlined his fervent nationalism. When Czechoslovakia became a country after WWI, he was so thrilled that he designed the money, the stamps, the medals, and had a hand in designing the magnificent Municipal House. Mucha was then a world-famous artist, so this was a great service. The museum also had a brief film about his life and career. It was sad that this fervent nationalist lived to see the Nazis invade Czechoslovakia. Indeed, they called him in for questioning since he was both famous and a nationalist. This broke his health and he died shortly thereafter, at least being spared full-blown WWII.

Next day I was off again in the morning since I have a taste for churches and walking not matched by my spouse and offspring. Thank God for pools, eh?

Of course I had to visit the Church of Our Lady Victorious, home of the famous Infant of Prague. It’s a small Baroque church with a special chapel for the Infant. He’s small–that was my initial reaction, but in good counter-reformation style, He’s surrounding by angels, cherubim, gilt, silver, you name it. He is a wax effigy, presented to the Carmelites in the church in 1628. I don’t know what it was, but there was definitely “something” in the air around Him. I prayed for everyone there, and had one of those moments of awe that are so miraculous to feel nowadays. It was something I won’t be forgetting.

I had joked about it before I got to Prague, not really knowing much about the Infant except it was something prominent in Polish-American homes (Poland being next to the Czech Republic), but that didn’t last long! There was a sense of something sacred in that little church.

After that experience I made my way over to the High Baroque Church of St. Nicholas. Whew! It was like gorging on a kilo of truffles visiting that place-gilding, copper, faux marble statues three times larger than life. It’s beautiful in its own way, but not to my tastes. That counter-reformation showing off isn’t my style. Prague churches seem to be heavy on it, though. Still, I recommend a stop.

A little story-after I left the church, I strolled around the neighborhood, looked in some shops and then crossed the Charles Bridge over the River Vltava and headed to a shop that had been recommended by a friend. I get there, chose some things, went to get my wallet-it’s gone! Panic! The only place I’d had my wallet open was in St. Nicholas, but there’s lots of warnings out about thieves. So I rushed back to St. Nicholas–a 15 minute walk if not futzing–panicking on the way–my money, my Amex, my permit for Swiss residence, my license. Oy! I get to the church and someone had handed it in to the desk with everything intact! I guess all that church visiting and praying paid off.

So, after my little adventure I walked back to the hotel to meet up with the guys, just soaking up the beauty of Prague.

That afternoon we all strolled through the oldest part of Prague, with its astrological clock. On the hour, Death strikes a bell and the windows above the clock open and the 11 apostles and St. Paul walk past. Then at the final bell, a cock crows and it’s another hour’s wait. More beautiful frescoed buildings, statues, just took much to take in, really.

From there we strolled over to the old Jewish Quarter. We looked in at the old Jewish cemeteries but didn’t go in. In the 1920s-30s the old Jewish ghetto was razed and the most gorgeous Art Nouveau apartment buildings were put up in their place. I fell in love. I could move there in a minute, loving the style as I do. All I could do was ogle and take pictures. If I didn’t have to deal with yet another language, I’d move there in a minute! I couldn’t believe how well kept they were, either. Next stop was the gorgeous Municipal House–Mucha’s Art Nouveau treasure. I could be a happy woman in Prague!An apartment building in the Jewish Quarter

The next day we did something a little different. We took a bus tour out of the city about an hour to a place called Terezin. It had been built as an imperial fort and prison, but it became infamous as a concentration camp and Gestapo prison after the Nazi invasion. Sören told me about it–the Nazis used it as a dupe in some propaganda for the International Red Cross.

The Gates of TerezinOff we went early Sunday morning. Sören and I expected it to be evil with an oppressive atmosphere, but except for a slight shiver and raised arm hairs when we went in, it was basically a neutral place. It was sad hearing the stories and seeing the place–imagining the suffering–but the evil went with the people who perpetrated it. The entire complex is now a memorial to the people who were there as prisoners. So many were sent to the death camps, many more just died. Few made it out.

We toured the Gestapo prison–a scary enough place–and then went to the concentration camp side. A school from when it was a town was made into the barracks for boys 10-15. This has been turned into a memorial museum mainly about the children who were killed, but including some information on the adults as well. It was a sad history lesson for Matt, but one I’m very glad he experienced.

Then we drove through the town on the bus and went to the cemetery and crematorium. At the beginning, the Jews were buried, but then there were too many. Terezin was never an extermination camp, but the death rate due to hunger, cold, disease and trauma was horrible. It was chilling to hear about it, but the cemetery itself has many memorials put in after the war and it’s in the middle of a beautiful, peaceful meadow. The only noise we heard was birdsong, really. There’s also a small section of cemetery for Soviet soldiers.

I know I spent a lot of time there praying–for the dead but for the living as well, so that we may stop our senseless killing of one another. I don’t think we learned anything during WWII and its aftermath–name a continent where we’re not killing senselessly. Even my native country, while not actively maintaining a war on our continent, has an appalling murder rate, a legal death penalty and a careless attitude towards life. The cemetery itself was oddly not a sad place, but the thoughts it made me have about humans’ inhumanity to humans made me sad.

It was a sobering trip and not a usual holiday stop, but I’m glad we made it. Our tour guide was a former teacher. Her father was Jewish and he lost both of his parents in Auschwitz. He was able to escape to Palestine where he joined the British Army and fought with them for the duration. She didn’t mention this until the trip back, and then only in a quiet conversation, but it lent authenticity to her presentation.

Well, that’s the highlights of Prague. One final word about the food–it’s heavy! Pork, duck and dumplings prominently featured! And of course, beer. The beer is good-the food is good, as well, but not for those on diets! Between the three of us over the weekend we had duck with dumplings, goulash with dumplings, fried chicken and chips, wiener schnitzel (spelling anyone?), steak with plum sauce (delish), lots of pickled red cabbage and apple struedel. Thank goodness we walked a lot! I don’t think I could eat like that for long, though. I felt leaden. I did have a delicious local white wine at dinner one night. It was unlike anything Swiss or German–very light and dry. Too bad one never sees Czech wine in the local shops.

So, that was it–our three days in Prague. I heartily recommend you visiting! And I can’t wait to go back.

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