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Published: October 21st 2021
Dresden was/is the capital of Saxony.
The more I think about traveling, the more its purpose unravels in my mind. I spend a day sitting in airports and airplanes. I struggle with foreign languages, customs, and railroad schedules. I overeat. I cast my eyes on yet another castle or cathedral, then come home with photos and stories to make my friends jealous, even though they often have seen the same castles and cathedrals. So I don't know if travel has a purpose or not, but here are a few observations from my recent tour through parts of eastern Europe. Travel makes you feel dumber.
I had this revelation strolling around Zwinger Palace in Dresden. Built in the Eighteenth Century by the king of Saxony, the palace was grand and beautiful with labs where astronomers built super-accurate clocks. Saxony was just one of many kingdoms that dotted the landscape of eastern Europe. I use to consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about history, but I knew next to nothing about these places and their histories. The world is more fragile than we realize.
I had this revelation looking at the Dresden cathedral. Lighter-colored bricks were used during its restoration so that visitors could tell the difference between the
The darker bricks were all that remained after the allied fire bombing.
original and the rebuilt parts. The cathedral was almost all white. This solid stone edifice anchored the everyday world for generation after generation and then, in one terrible night, it and all of the other buildings in the city were gone.
I thought of the world's fragility again when I saw a plague column in a little town outside of Prague. After a plague subsided, many towns and cities in Europe built plague columns to memorialize their dead. Of course, I thought of our own plague and how quickly it upended every corner of our planet. Maybe we need a COVID column. Travel is more uncertain than it used to be.
I didn't use to be nervous about flying, but now I am. I don't worry about plane crashes. I worry about late or canceled flights. I worry about missed connections. I worry about missing the fine print on my ticket that says I can only carry what I have in my pockets as luggage. I worry about the plane turning back because the passenger sitting next to me has a psychotic episode. (This almost happened on my 13½-hour return flight from Istanbul. Fortunately, the jackass was restrained
Plague Column in Kutna Hora
A COVID tower might not be a bad idea once this damned thing is over.
by the crew and tossed in the back of the plane.)
COVID adds an extra layer of uncertainty to travel. Each country has its own rules about who can enter. The rules are pages-long and written in legalistic prose by someone with a marginal grasp of English. Two weeks of quarantine is required for all visitors. There are no exemptions. People who have been immunized by an approved vaccine may be exempt. (See footnote A.71.6 for the chemical formulas of approved vaccines.) An entry application must be filled at most 72 hours before arrival. If approved, the traveler will be sent a QR code needed to board the plane. If not approved, the traveler may use his or her plane ticket as toilet paper. Anyone entering the US must take an approved COVID test at most 72 hours before departure. (See footnote B.93.a2 for the chemical formulas of approved tests.) US citizens who test positive for COVID should seek new lives in their host country. Travel makes you see things the way babies do.
I had this revelation crossing Bavaria by train. A small boy in the seat behind me was peppering his mother
Advert above a closed shop in rural Czechia.
with questions and observations about what he saw out the window. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but I gathered from the mother's laughter that it was pretty funny. I was reminded of my own granddaughters when they were babies. The world was new to them. Everyday objects—a clump of cat hair, an electrical outlet, a loose carpet thread--were astonishing. Like the boy behind me, I too was fascinated by the weeds growing alongside the tracks, the backsides of factories, and the graffitied boxcars. These things would be invisible to me at home. Travel by train isn't as romantic as we imagine.
It was about 11 PM when I arrived from Istanbul at Berlin's new airport. Cay doesn't have a car so I had to take the city train to Berlin's Hauptbahnhof where I'd need to transfer to another train to get to his neighborhood. Late at night the Hauptbahnhof can be a little intimidating. It's cavernous and sparsely populated. There are three stories, each with dozens of platforms. The shrill anxious sounds of conductors' whistles echoed through the space. A platoon of police in black riot gear marched past me. A gang of drunk skinheads stared
traveling by train
Cay and I were the only adults unaccompanied by children on this train ride through Dresden's city park.
as I walked by. The eerie bay of a muzzled German Shepherd sent chills down my back
We (my friend Cay and I) traveled by train. Trains are super cheap in eastern Europe. With my senior discount, the cost of a train ticket from Prague to Brno (130 miles) is about $3! And just as I imagined, there were those golden moments when I would be sitting at my little fold-out table with a cappuccino and my journal watching the European countryside roll by. But the sway and rhythm of the train is like a sleeping pill. A moment later I would fall into a deep drooling sleep and miss everything until awakened by a conductor shouting at me in an incomprehensible language. After a stupidly long minute, I would realize that he was asking to see my ticket.
Each country has its own official app for buying train tickets. I have the apps for Germany, Austria, and Czechia. Any of them could be used to buy the ticket I needed from Salzburg to Munich. I was on my own, but after Cay's training I was confident. I compared prices on each app and ended up using the
Church tastefully decorated with human remains in Kutna Hora.
German one. There are flex tickets that can be used on any train. These are slightly more expensive than buying a ticket for a particular train. I wasn't that confident, so I splurged and bought the flex ticket. At the train station I noticed that the express train hadn't left yet. I could hop on it and arrive in Munich 30 minutes ahead of schedule. This would give me extra time to figure out where to catch my connecting train to Ingolstadt. At the Austrian border the conductor arrived at my seat checking for tickets at the same time the German police arrived checking for passports. My ticket was no good for express trains, the conductor explained in German. The police were wearing black combat uniforms and carried automatic weapons. They were excited because my Turkish seatmate didn't have a passport. People were staring at all of the commotion we were causing. The conductor fined me 12 Euros and the police arrested my seatmate. I later learned that I too could've been arrested for traveling with the wrong ticket. I resolved to never leave home again.. No one in Bratislava knows how to make a martini
. Thanks to me
Found this sad Jesus sitting at the back of the upper floor in a cathedral in Kutna Hora.
they do now. In every bar we went to I had to explain how to make a martini using sign language. I yelped to signal the flummoxed bartender to stop adding vermouth. Olives were beyond his comprehension, but by pointing at a lemon and making peeling gestures I sometimes managed to get a slab of lemon peel shaped like Texas. Christianity is weird
. I spent a good chunk of my quarantine listening to podcasts about religion. I'm not superstitious, just curious about the role religion plays in shaping society. I was particularly fascinated with the evolution of early Christianity from the teachings of a wandering rabbi into increasingly far-fetched ideas of heavenly beings battling subterranean demons so that the dead can rise up like zombies and walk the earth again. At times it makes Scientology seem tame.
The Sedlec Ossuary is a chapel about an hour by train from Prague. In the early Sixteenth Century someone got the great idea of decorating it by artistically piling up the bones of 70,000 people. These were the victims of plagues and religious wars, so there was no shortage of bones. I guess the idea was to serve as a reminder
In the center a raven made from human bones plucks out the eye of a skull thought to belong to a Saracen warrior.
to worshippers that this too would be their fate and so they should devote their lives to prayer. To me the opposite conclusion seemed more obvious, that they should devote their lives to partying.
I wanted to visit the chapel ever since a late friend posted photos of it on Facebook. I too wanted to decorate my Facebook feed with such pictures, but I was severely disappointed when the girl at the ticket counter warned me that taking photos was strictly prohibited. I suppose the idea was that taking pictures disrespected the dead, but using their bones as decor didn't. So, to hell with the rule I told myself, I came all this way for photos and so when no one was looking I took a few quick snapshots. I would spend the rest of the trip worrying that perhaps the ban on photography was for my benefit and not the dead; that maybe there was some sort of curse on photo-takers like me and my late friend.
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