Saturday, June 30, 2012

Oh, Texas

This is not an Onion article.

Saturday roundup and ramble

Apparently, a Derecho hit DC last night. It was scary as hell, but I was lucky enough to lose power only momentarily. The lightning went on for ages. It was crazy.
Even before Adam Gopnik managed to piss me off again with another inane, rambling column--here's a fun game: come up with some obvious counterexamples to this statement--"Sports are about human character inasmuch, and only inasmuch, as they show that you can master anything with enough effort." Anyway, even before I read that, I was thinking about the man whose writing makes me cringe, because I was thinking about his appraisal of the late J.D. Salinger, which I commented on at the time:
In American writing, there are three perfect books, which seem to speak to every reader and condition: “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” Of the three, only “Catcher” defines an entire region of human experience: it is—in French and Dutch as much as in English—the handbook of the adolescent heart.
No, Mr. Gopnik: they speak to every (white) male reader, and define an entire region of the (white) male experience. Guy bonding, guy adolescence, guy coming of age. And there's a lot to be said for that, but don't try to pass it off as universal.
This came to mind as I was thinking about Nora Ephron, whose work spoke to me far more.
Great quote from another (non-Gopnik) part of "Talk of the Town". Disclaimer--I'm not taking a position on the first clause; I just love the second one (and believe that it applies universally): "Since doctors, on the whole, are more arrogant than other people, it’s important to do things that you suck at pretty frequently, just to be humbled.” --Med student Kate Benham
Why are American kids spoiled?
Last night I went out with a douchebag. The kind you read about on Date Lab--not all that himself, but takes it upon himself to talk condescendingly and disrespectfully of women ("I thought she would be taller/blonder/thinner/hotter"). The funny thing about this date was that it was a lot of fun; my last two dates were not douchebags, but those dates were not fun. This one ended with the guy talking asking me about which "Sex and the City" character I identified with, and upon my saying Miranda, his describing her as a frigid headcase and declaring that men universally like Charlotte (which I'd heard before). Yes, I know: men love Charlotte. She's so... proper, put together, feminine. Which is, as my mother has been happy to point out lately, not me. For one thing, I sure-as-hell leave the house without make-up, most of the time.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Nora Ephron's infinite wisdom

In honor of Slaughtergate, here are excerpts from Ms. Ephron's 1996 commencement speech at Wellesley, which she sums up with "Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim." Here's the part about "having it all":
This is the season when a clutch of successful women—who have it all —give speeches to women like you and say, to be perfectly honest, you can't have it all. Maybe young women don't wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you.
and this
Did I say it was hard? Yes, but let me say it again so that none of you can ever say the words, nobody said it was so hard. But it's also incredibly interesting. You are so lucky to have that life as an option.
Changing the subject just a bit,
Don't underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don't take it personally, but listen hard to what's going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: Get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn't serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you—whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.
to close with,
Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.
Do you miss her yet?

Thursday morning roundup

In a Moscow suburb, a microcosm of the toll of the country's endemic corruption. Presidential candidate who-said-it quiz. Wait, spammers have the audacity to complain about being sued? The anti-spam guy is my hero.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wednesday evening roundup

Practically every woman on the planet--particularly every woman who writes--is in mourning. Take Jennifer Weiner:
I am heartbroken that she's gone, that she won't be blogging her funny stories, or making more movies or publishing more essays. I only hope she had some inkling as to all of the women who grew up reading her and believing they could become writers because of the stories she told.
Even Jennifer Rubin sings her praises. I'll just stop linking now, but there's no shortage of links. We owe that woman the world.
The Fast and Furious scandal is not the scandal most media is portraying it to be. Stay away from high-protein, low-fat diets because they're bad for you.

Wednesday evening---just kidding, morning--roundup

I will really, truly miss Nora Ephron.
China's microblogger revolution.
The primary issue surrounding cooking oil theft is the impact on local business, but do take a minute to think about the fact that the refined product is used for livestock feed. Have you considered vegetarianism lately?
The Pentagon celebrates the end of DADT.
Oreos (which, by the way, are vegan) just became fabulous. Which is not to say that I recommend consuming them.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Things that make my head explode

A friend drew my attention to Science: it's a girl thing. It speaks for itself. People are entitled to their tastes and opinions, but they're not entitled to leaving negative reviews because of their own misguided expectations. I posted about this a few months ago in reference to restaurant reviews (remember? someone gave a restaurant a bad review because it hadn't opened yet). One of the ladies I roomed with in Prague owns a bar. She told us about how she warns people that the jalapeno bloody marys are no-$hit spicy, and yet there are people who insist they want them anyway only to change their minds and ask for their money back. With that example in mind, check out these Goldstar user reviews of the excellent "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You." My "favorite" was, "I went for the comedy, not the social commentary" Um, do you understand the concept of theater?? If you want entertainment without social commentary, stay home and turn on your TV. None of the negative reviewers had anything constructive to say; they mostly complained that the play made them think (which isn't what they were going for) or made them uncomfortable (no comment).

Monday, June 25, 2012

Monday evening roundup

Yeah, why does the "having it all" dilemma apply only to women? Insects are the future of meat consumption. And y'all know how I feel about seaweed. Why is "can vegans be athletes?" even a question? At least that post debunks the "complimentary protein" myth. Like Carolyn, I'm guilty of the "I get it because I've been there" trap. I'm sure I say things that sound one-uppy, and I've certainly recoiled at other people's one-upmanship when they were probably just trying to identify. This really came into focus post-breakup; a month later, when I was essentially "over it," I was talking to a friend who not so long ago had gone through a divorce. We talked about how the last thing you want to hear in the early days, when things are still raw (which for me lasted about a week) is about other people's similar experiences (or about how you'll be fine--you already know that, and it's not the point). The only right thing to say to someone going through it is, "I understand that this is a very difficult time for you," or some variation thereof. And yet, our well-meaning tendency is to say, "let me tell you when I went through the same thing." And the irony is that there's a time for that, because after that first week, tales of analogous situations were very appropriate and interesting. It made me feel a lot better to know that other (intelligent) women had found themselves in the same situation. Mind you, those tales work when they're presented in a "wow, that's so similar to what I went through," not in a "I can top that" tone. It's about "interesting that this is this a pattern," not "my case was worse!" It's natural to want to say to someone, "I hear you--and to illustrate that I hear you, I'm going to tell you about something similar that I already know about." Like Carolyn said, the reception is in the ear of the beholder: sometimes it's helpful, welcome; sometimes it just grates. It depends on the person and the timing. Some people may think being unable to gain weight is a great problem to have, but I wouldn't agree. Reading this--and I'm certainly not underweight--reminded me of when someone asked whether my mom was now telling me I was "too skinny." Fear not, I don't think mom thinks there's any such thing. I do. I mean, to each her own--and her own--concept of what works best for her. I wouldn't want to be rail thin, but I'm much happier with my appearance and with the way my clothes fit now than when I was twenty pounds heavier just a couple of years ago.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Budapest and Prague: pro/epilogue

I went into work on Friday--having returned stateside on Thursday afternoon--because I had to, for an external meeting. A coworker told me, hoping (correctly) that I wouldn’t be offended, that I looked like $hit. It was only natural; the trip kicked my ass. It was as exhausting as it was awesome. The number of stressful glitches were disproportionate to the trip's duration of not quite two weeks, but so was the number of miracles and other pleasant surprises. I wouldn’t change a thing.
The very first glitches came when my anticipated travel companions backed out (mom for health reasons, dad because he didn’t want to leave her alone, F. because we broke up). With each drop-out came, but also logistical complications, as I’d planned (and booked) the trip with their company in mind. You’ve read about my travels with my parents, so the "relief" part requires no elaboration; the "complications" part arose from having planned to take the night train from Budapest, the three of us sharing a couchette, to arrive in Prague the morning of the wedding. When my parents bailed on the trip, I bailed on the night train idea; I didn’t want to pay for a three-person couchette for myself, and I didn’t feel safe sharing one with random people, so I opted instead for an early-morning train that would get me to Prague just after noon the day of the wedding. I was cutting it close, but I wanted my two full days in Budapest, and (transnational) European trains are generally on time. F. was to get into Prague around the same time, and we’d head to the apartment we’d booked to clean up and then immediately to the wedding. When he dropped from the picture, Nina put me in touch with three friends of hers who were looking for an apartment for a few days—they’d get in Thursday (the day before I did) and leave on Monday morning—and suggested that I head straight to her place. The wedding would be in her garden. 
Before the trip, the new logistics were sorted and I managed to not really stress about the trip. I was too busy beforehand to give the it much thought, and I took the weekend before I left on Monday essentially practicing for the following weekend, i.e. drinking and partying. I was a little worried about a few things here and there, but had released them to the universe, if you will. At one of the pre-trip parties, I said something to a friend about not having packed yet. In response, she brought up a few things that hadn’t crossed my mind:
Friend: You haven’t met the people you'll be sharing the apartment with?
A.: No.
Friend: That doesn’t concern you at all?
A.: [Shrug.] They’re good friends of Nina’s. Besides, it’s just for a few days. I’ve shared rooms in youth hostels with total strangers for longer.
Friend: I know it might make you a little sad that the trip won’t be as planned, but it’s for the better.
A.: Oh, I know. It hit a few times as I looked over the directions Nina sent. I couldn’t help but think, “oh, yeah—he and I had planned on making our way there together. Oh, yeah, I remember that part of Prague from the last time I was there, he would have loved that bridge/view/neighborhood.” But then I realized I have no concept of what he would and wouldn’t have loved. He probably wouldn’t have given a $hit about any of it. The person I’d planned that trip with isn’t the person that he turned out to be. So yeah, I do think about how this trip, this wedding, will be a very different experience than I thought it would be a couple of months ago.
Friend: Oh, it’ll be okay to go stag.
A.: Oh, that hadn’t crossed my mind. I don’t care about that at all. I just meant that, it's been a mental adjustment.
Friend: It’s good that you’re still going. A lot of people would have canceled.
A.: Really? I was always going to go, hell or high water; it’s Nina’s wedding. Besides, you can have me shot if I ever turn down travel over a guy. Any guy. Actually, don’t have me shot—make my pathetic ass suffer. Find a painful way to put me out of my patheticness, if you ever see me back out of a trip because of a guy.
Friend: I mean, some people wouldn’t travel on their own.
A.: It’s true. I understand, in that I prefer to travel with other people—I’ve traveled alone and I’ve traveled with people, and it’s more fun with people—but I’d still rather go than not go.
My friend had more of a point than I’d realized. I meant what I said—drag me over some hot coals if I turn down a travel opportunity because some guy bailed on me—but I was a little anxious about feeling lonely for those few days before Prague. That had little to do with the absence of F.—he’d never planned on going to Budapest—but I’m human, so the breakup did affect me and what helped get me through those rough first weeks was that my friends really rallied. Also, it’s summer and people were having parties. Leaving for this trip entailed leaving a friendship-rich environment for a few days of navel-gazing (before rejoining another friendship-rich environment). I’m not normally one to turn down a few days of alone time—you may recall my balking at RM’s persistent concerns that I’d get lonely without him—but at the pre-trip moment, I wasn’t feeling the alone time. I admitted to myself that I didn’t feel like being alone, that alone was okay, but that I wanted this whole trip to be full of companionship. I thought of “The Easy Way,” Dar Williams’ great song partly inspired by an old break-up. There was one line in particular that rung true recently: “So here's what I took, I kept the wine and laughter.” But with the looming aloneness, the three lines that followed came to resonate as well:
So here's what I took:
I kept the wine and laughter
Until every path just grew up and ever after
Through the peaks and twisty canyons
I made many great companions
So it was that Monday, as I lined up for the bus to Dulles, the loneliness—or anticipation of loneliness—hit me. I hadn’t had time to feel it earlier that day; I’d gone to work (because I had to, but was able to leave on the earlier side because a friend graciously offered to finish what I’d come in to work on (working over the weekend wasn’t an issue; the delay was on the side of the people who didn’t get us stuff soon enough. But I digress)). I went home, cleaned, caulked the bathtub (yes, I had to do it then—I wanted the ten days for it to dry), finished packing, showed my wonderful neighbor how to give Gracie her pills, took a deep breath, and headed toward the metro and then the bus. I boarded the bus and headed toward the back, and as I positioned my bags by the seat, I looked up to see an old grad school friend smiling at me from a nearby seat. And that’s when I knew—when I really felt—that companionship would find me when I needed it.

“So here's what I took: I kept the wine and laughter.”
Oh, wine. The pre-trip training (drinking on roof decks) came in handy. When, in the course of the trip, there was insufficient vegan food to keep me going, wine served to make up the caloric deficit. [Disclosure: I did also have seafood a few times, even though these days my preference is to avoid it entirely. Had I been on my own, I could have stayed vegan, but at many of the restaurants we went to as a group, it was seafood or nothing. But I digress.]
The flight to Europe was rough going. I did have an aisle seat, albeit next to two obnoxious poster children for Aryan Youth. Before you accuse me of racism, let me point out that I have German friends. Just kidding (not about the friends, but about that being an absolution). Anyway, those of you who have come across German tourists or flown Lufthansa will understand when I say that these people think it’s their birthright to invade other people’s territory. Have they ever shoved you out of the way in a line, or at a tourist attraction? Reclined their seat so far in your face that you can see the back of their head? The girl next to me--perhaps the blondest in the world--not only took over the entire armrest, but proceeded to elbow her way into my seat. At one point, she pretzeled herself into her seat, shoving her feet into the space between me and my video screen (and at another point, right in my face). When her father stopped by, he shoved his arm directly in front of my face to adjust something on her video screen. Had I thought it, I would have weaponized the rock-hard “croissant” that was handed out for breakfast. It was much more suitable as a club than as a food, but I’d not thought to use it as either.
None of this bothered me as much as the fact the flight arrived just late enough to have me miss my connection and so spend an extra four hours in the crappiest airport in Europe rather than in one of its more beautiful cities. The FRA airport--at least the part I was in--was naturally devoid of vegetarian, much less vegan, fare. I was crabby for various reasons, and starvation was definitely a factor. Thankfully, European airlines serve food—and free alcohol—even on short trips, so I enjoyed a small Mediterranean salad (complete with beans and olives!) and a glass of wine on the way over. Doesn’t take a lot to win me over: food and wine will do it. More than that--or rather, before that--I kept coming back to the words of one of the flight attendants, who saw me looking dejected upon learning that I'd missed the connection. She said, "where ever you're going from here, it gets better." And so it was.


Budapest is far enough north that I enjoyed very long hours of summer daylight, and it was still light out in the evening when I got into Budapest, in spite of the delay. The rain had stopped and the only commuters in the metro system were stragglers. I came out at the East train station—I'd picked a hotel near it, since I’d take a very early train to Prague—and took a number to line up for a ticket. Being there, surrounded by backpackers, brought on a wave of nostalgia. It felt so natural, as if I’d been doing it all along, as if it hadn’t been over a decade since I regularly hung out at European train stations. A $38 ticket to Prague for Friday in-hand, I headed to the hotel to check in, and to a restaurant around the corner for a light dinner. The restaurant was pretty empty, so the meal—and generous glass of wine—came with a fascinating chat with the waiter. We talked about how Eastern Europe has changed since the transition, though not monolithically. He noted that Budapest is still far from the radar of many travelers. Americans tend to dream of London, Paris, and Rome, while Brits tend to gravitate toward dirt-cheap beer. Of which there happens to be plenty in Budapest, but Prague and the Balkans are more up their alley. I didn’t think to tell them that I could name a handful of coworkers who’d been there recently; one had loaned me his guidebook. When I headed back to work yesterday, I toted five books (three guide books, one phrase book, and a novel) and one map to return to three coworkers.
I hadn’t been to Budapest before, so I couldn’t speak to how it had or hadn’t changed. Prague has changed enormously since I was there in 1998, and I imagine that the Budapest of those years was even more different. It’s still has a very Eastern European feel to it. It reminded me quite a bit of St. Petersburg—stunning and somewhat decrepit at the same time. It’s hard to get a sense from the cosmopolitan capital the mood of the rest of the country, much less the atmosphere that brought about a super right-wing, nativist government. I can’t speak intelligently to the politics, so I won’t.
I probably can’t speak intelligently to the architecture, either, but I’ll try. Budapest is stunning, on both a large and small scale. By large scale, I mean that from any bridge connecting the two parts of the city, or from either bank of the river, or the Buda hills, the view—the skyline, for lack of a more precise term—is breathtaking. By small scale, I mean that when you turn a corner from any street—small streets, streets in unexotic parts of the city—you unexpectedly stumble upon a beautiful building or tower or balcony. The morning of my first full day in the city, I made my way to the Buda side for a guided tour that was included with the transit pass I’d bought. It was true, as my friend’s guidebook said, that this particular pass was a bad deal for transit—I’d bought it a few days before I read the book—but it was worth it, for me, for the tours. For those of you considering Budapest—and I highly recommend that you do—you can get by on single tickets if you can be bothered to buy single tickets every time (you can also get ten-ticket passes or other passes). Also, a pass will get you into the city from the airport—that trip and the handful of metro, bus, and tram rides I took over the three days probably came to about half the cost of the pass; adding in the discounts for the Synagogue and the Seycheni baths—the only two things I paid admission to—would probably get us to two-thirds. Of course, you can get by with the self-guided tours in the guidebook, but the first rule of making travel decisions is “know yourself,” and I knew I wouldn’t have the patience for that. You could also go on various free tours offered by random residents, but I was happy to have something more established to count on. So I made my way down one of the main boulevards, then through the Jewish quarter and Deak Ferenc Terrance, to the river, where the first breathtaking view opened up before me. As I walked across the bridge, the view shifted but remained grand and stunning. Once across, I wound around and up the hills to an even more breathtaking view of the Pest side. I took to finding the meeting place for the tour—a statue, by the cathedral—and it took all three maps I had on me to figure it out. Even once I found the cathedral, I was hard-pressed to find the group. There were several statues, and various tour groups congregating throughout the square around Castle Hill. “Deep breath,” I commanded myself. If you miss it, you miss it. You guide yourself. But I didn’t want to miss it. I wanted the history, and, I realized, the social aspect of the group tour. I continued to circle the square, eyeing the statues in search of this mysterious group. I didn’t know if there would be a sign, an umbrella, any sort of guidepost. Just as I was about to turn back, I noticed and approached a smallish group congregating around a young man. It was, indeed, the tour I was looking for. The tour made my morning. We walked around Buda, learning about Hungarian history and culture. The guide was interesting and well-informed, not just about historical matters but about the latest research about the origins of the Hungarian people and language. He presented various perspectives—for example, the versions still taught in Hungarian schools, as well as the versions supported by archeological and scientific studies conducted within the last year. I learned that, contrary to conventional linguistic wisdom, Hungarian is not at all related to Turkish or Finnish. Also, did you know that the pre-Catholic Magyar people believed in a monotheistic religion with striking similarities to Christianity, thousands of years before Christ?
The guide, L., talked about the transition from having to learn Russian in school to having to learn English. The Russian, being compulsory, went in one ear and out the other. It fell out of favor initially upon the transition, but came back in style as Hungarians found that it was good for business. There’s also some nostalgia—the waiter I’d spoken with the night before said the same—for the communist past. (At least some) people selectively remembered the positives, the financial security, for example.
L. and I got to talking about learning languages, and then about the common theme between Hungary’s pre-Christian faith and Zoroastrianism: the victory of lightness over dark. Jay would have called me the teacher’s pet, as he did in India, before we both turned against our tour guide. After the tour, I asked whether he’d be leading the Pest tour the next day, but alas, it would be another guide. We agreed it would have been interesting to chat more. I’d also chatted a bit with some of the other tourgoers, particularly a mother and daughter from Belgium. I recalled how much I loved that part of traveling: meeting, learning from people you meet on the street, on trains, in hostels or even hotels.
I left the tour to see if I could get into the Parliament building, which is supposed to be even grander on the inside. So grand that in actuality, one should line up at 7am to get tickets. Between the hassle and the expense, and the fact that I’ve seen my share of blinged-out spaces and preferred to spend my time outdoors, I let it go (same with the Opera building). I just walked around town, and then popped into a vegan restaurant (I $hit you not) for lunch. I spent the rest of the evening just walking around town, which was equally but differently beautiful with its night lighting.
I’d walked all day—morning to evening, with a brief respite at lunch—and my legs were urging me to get some rest. Back at the hotel, the loneliness hit from out of nowhere, almost the way hunger does. I remembered how my friend had appeared on the Dulles bus, just when I needed him to; how he introduced me to his (girl?)friend, whom he was accompanying there, and how wonderful it was to catch up with him and talk to her a bit; how I couldn’t have planned for them to be there had I thought of it. And so I comforted myself with the fact that companionship would come soon enough—just another day before I meet up with Nina, and her family, who are for all intents and purposes family to me, too.
I didn’t have to wait that long. I came to the Pest tour meeting point— right by Budapest’s first McDonald’s, which invoked very conflicting emotions, a symbol both of the beginning of the demise of communism in Eastern Europe, and of the worst of the food system. This time, I took a different set of small, beautiful streets and parks, equally full of little surprises at each turn, and soon after getting there was enthusiastically greeted by my Belgian co-tourists from the other day’s tour. Shortly thereafter, we were all greeted by L., who was informed after midnight that the designated tourguide had to cancel and asked whether he’d fill in. It was a larger group that day—the sky was clearer—and I was glad to be amid friendly faces, while simultaneously and cynically surprised that they were already that.
Where the Buda tour, focused around Castle Hill and its more distant history, the information shared during the Pest tour had more to do with the more recent past, though not exclusively. We started with the Basilica before walking to the Imre Nagy bridge and the Parliament. We took the tram along the river to near the shopping district and learned about the man who inspired the statue on the hill: a bishop sent by the Pope to convert the newly conquered people to Catholicism. One person, apparently, was not interested in what the bishop was selling, and so nailed him into a barrel and rolled it down the hill, into the river. The statue was an attempt at collective atonement, an admission that perhaps that course of action wasn’t necessary—that the bishop could have been turned away with words instead. After this tour, L. asked what I was up to. I said I’d go see the Great Synagogue and eventually work my way out to Sechyeni for a much-needed thermal bath. He asked if I’d be up for lunch before all that, to which I said I’d love to, but food’s complicated for me here, as I don’t eat meat. To which L. said, “nor do I; I don’t eat animal products at all.” Holy $hit: I befriended a local vegan, in Budapest. Hi-fives all around. He said he knew just the place to put together the ideal vegan picnic, and off we went, to a nearby organic food shop. I picked out a macrobiotic spinach pie, and L. got a different macro savory pastry, as well as some macro desserts to share. Over the next hour or two, we had the most interest conversation about a wide variety of topics: food, food politics, post-communist transition, resistance to change (on a personal and societal level). The last of those grew out of the other three, not just the last. We wondered why so many people persist with unhealthy food habits, even when they know they’re unhealthy. He was writing an article about change and resistance to change, and our conversation fed in some ideas. After the picnic, I explored the synagogue and garden, with its steel weeping willow memorial to Hungary’s Holocaust victims. Afterward, my legs insisted they’d had enough, and I went back to the hotel to rest for a few minutes just until I could move again. I was in the perfect state to hit the baths. They were amazing. I realized, enjoying the hot, healing water and the surrounding architecture, that I’ve been to too many scenic hot springs to deem these the most beautiful—there’s just no point comparing them—but these were the only ones in a cool building. I’d hot-springed in Iceland, Panama, Ecuador, Canada, West Virginia ;), and Washington State, usually surrounded by mountains and other natural scenery; this was my first ever hot spring amid statues and towers. After soaking for a bit, I headed out for a light dinner, this time to a vegetarian cafĂ© that had a few vegan offerings. I had a combinations of salads inside and took a veggie pie to go, to a nearby promenade full of sidewalk cafes and benches. The weather was perfect, the night was beautiful. I loved Budapest, but I was ready for Prague.

Trains, stations and celebrations

I left Budapest on a 5:25 AM train from Keleti East station—mercifully (and not accidentally) a five-minute walk from my hotel, scheduled to get in to Prague’s main train station just after noon. In spite of the relaxing Seycheni baths, I didn’t sleep well; I was concerned that my alarm wouldn’t go off, that I’d oversleep and miss the train, so I woke up every couple of hours until I finally got up around 4am. I tried to sleep on the train, but there were a lot of stops along the way—a lot of coming in and out. It was fascinating, particularly in consideration of how much had changed since I last took a train to Prague (that time, from Vienna). Well dressed Hungarians, then Slovaks, then Czechs, came in and out, often with stylish city gear, or just as often with camping equipment on their backs. The countryside through all three countries was attractive, clean, markedly middle-class looking. The ride was long and mostly sleepless, but scenic. The sunlight precluded me from capturing the very charming villages along the way, and the mountains and rivers also went by too fast for me to get a clear image. I had some nuts and some pieces of fruit--oh, and also a macrobiotic snack that L. had kindly given me for the road--to tide me over until I got to the city.
The train got into Prague’s main station at 12:18 on the dot. From there, I would—after disembarking and taking out some cash in korona—take a train or metro to a lesser train station, from which I could take a commuter-rail type train to the converted mill where Nina lived and where the wedding would be held. I could also apparently and more straightforwardly take a tram to the end of its line and walk 20 minutes, but I had all my stuff with me. Which is not a lot of stuff. If I’ve learned anything about traveling, it’s that you never know how much, how often you’ll be lugging everything you have, so never pack more than you can comfortably lug. Nonetheless, I had enough stuff on me to opt for the train. Nina had sent out a map, with directions/instructions for both options. She had arranged for local friends to meet out-of-towners at the metro platform within the train station, and perhaps also outside the train station, around 3pm. They would lead wedding guests to platform 3A—apparently not its own platform, but one at the ‘south’ side of platform 3. Harry Potter fans will appreciate the analogy to platform 9 ¾. The 3pm train would get wedding guests to the mill just after 3:30, in time to get situated for the ceremony at 4pm, but I had to get there earlier; I had to clean up and change. I had done my due diligence in reading the directions and attempting to google-map the area beforehand, but my due diligence was no match for the utter lack of signage, English-speaking, and overall clarity at the smaller station. When I told this story to my coworker on the way to our meeting, he said, “it was in Prague, right?" Implying, "how confusing could it be?" A fitting analogy came to mind: imagine you’re an out-of-towner in DC—you don’t speak English—and you’ve arrived in Union Station, but you need to make your way to a wedding at the Arboretum. That in and of itself made it plain, but I added, “also, you’ve been advised not to hail cabs from the street. If you must take a cab, arrange for them by phone. Only your phone doesn’t work. So you get from Union Station to that shady bus station on North Capital, and the first step on your mission is to find platform 9 ¾.” Also, you're low on sleep and food, those two key elements of perspective and sound judgment and decision making.
I got off the train from Prague main and looked for platform 3A. I even asked about it, pointing to it on the instruction sheet Nina had sent. People either didn't know where it was, or explained in Czech. Not that I expected them to explain in English, but they might have pointed or otherwise visually indicated it. I left the platform area and asked around in the underground lobby area. A lady at a kiosk said that one couldn't get to that neighborhood by train; best take a bus. I came outside and saw a bus with that neighborhood listed on it, so I jumped on board (same transfer ticket). Only after the bus took me far out of town did I realize I had to turn around. Near the end of the line, I saw a tram stop across from the bus stop, so I got off and took the steamy tram back to the train station. In the main vestibule, I saw a schedule that showed trains leaving from 3A--so I knew it did indeed exist--and deduced the destination of the train I should take. I went up to what I figured was platform 3--the platforms were not indicated, anywhere--and saw that destination listed, so I figured the train would come on either track. I wasn't sure which was south, but I would see it. These trains came every half-hour, and I'd just missed one. So I waited, and half an hour later, realized the train had come and gone without coming anywhere near where I was standing. It was late; it was time to call Nina.
I went back to the vestibule, found a kiosk, asked for a SIM card. The woman at the kiosk couldn't understand me. A man in the store asked what languages I spoke, and was able to translate from and to my Russian. I put the SIM card into my phone; it did not work. I went over to the pay phone and dropped in some coins, dialed both numbers. Neither worked (I was doing it incorrectly, but I had no idea what I was doing wrong. It had been a while since I'd used a pay phone in any country). It was past 2pm; I'd f*ed around for almost two hours, and I was running out of time. I would risk it and take a cab from the street; I'd point the driver to the address on the crumpled instruction sheet. Only in the process of messing with the phones, I'd lost the instruction sheet. Which meant I not only lost the phone numbers and the address, but the directions from the train stop to the mill.
I had a meltdown. But even in the midst of my meltdown, I took time to appreciate how fortunate I was to that neither my mother, nor F., was in my company, as initially planned. Some people are helpful, calming, practical; others are counterproductive, blaming, or both.
I pulled myself together and decided that my only hope was to catch other wedding guests transiting through this station--which everyone without a car would be doing. That meant that I'd have to clean up then and there. I paid the WC attendant, who was rapt in some very loud Czech TV--perhaps a soap opera or old movie, which sounded in the background as I took a birdbath in the sink, changed into my dress in a stall, and came back out to the mirror to do my hair and lipstick. I'd left off the eye makeup lest I was not done crying. I emerged from the WC looking even more out of place than before, but not bad, given my state of sleeplessness, foodlessness, and meltdown. I went to get another ticket--my hour and a half had expired on the previous one--and nearly had another meltdown as the woman in front of me took her very sweet time putting every single coin she had in the machine. She finally moved, I finally got my ticket. I thought I'd go down to the metro platform, since that was the least ambiguous meeting point for the wedding guests, but it was too chaotic down there, so for my sanity, I took a chance and went back up to platform 3.
I took a deep breath. I walked toward the end of the platform, where I saw, approached a well-dressed couple who Did Not Look Czech. I asked whether they were, by chance, heading to Nina and Jameson's wedding. The gentlemen shook his head. My heart sank. The lady said, "we are. We're Jameson's parents." I tried, but could not forestall, another meltdown (tears of joy, this time). Her husband just couldn't hear me, thought I'd said something in Czech, and shook his head to indicate that he didn't understand. I cried, laughed, apologized for the meltdown, explained my situation. They were kind, understanding, welcoming. It would be okay. I would make it to the wedding.
I couldn't appreciate this at the time, but it was to my advantage that I hadn't made it to the correct platform on my own. The reason I didn't see the train coming was because 3A was literally at the end of platform 3; the train pulled in, and pulled out back in the same direction it had come from. It didn't pass the main platforms. Not only that, but some of the trains were older models, without those buttons you hit to let the conductor know to stop at your stop. You had to tell the conductor--or in our case, show them the name of the stop. Jameson's parents knew this because their son had told them once he knew they were at the station and that they'd get an older train. We got on the train--a whole half-hour before most of the guests would get on theirs--and to the stop easily, and I followed J.'s parents to a narrow path in the woods. That path may have been drawn, indicated on the instruction sheet, but I never for the life of me would have recognized it. But I followed them down the path, to a beautiful, open space, and eventually saw the mill. There was a yard, with plots past which there were chairs set up for the ceremony. I saw Nina, and then Nina's mother. Hugs all around. They were so worried about me! What happened? I told them about my hours at the station, about being rescued by J.'s parents. It was so good to see them, to be there. Nina led me into the house and then said the most magical words of all: "A., there's hummus and felafel in the kitchen." I'd forgotten how hungry I was. Being there--amid family, essentially--and having food, I was whole again.
If you do a word search on "Nina" in this blog, you'll get a refresher on who she is, what she means to me. When people asked how long I'd known Nina, the only thing I could say was that as long as I'd been aware that there were people in the world outside my immediate family, I knew Nina. We grew up together. We referred to ourselves as cousins, because it seemed a more apt description of our relationship. At picture time after the wedding, she called me over for the family part, reiterating that I was, essentially, family. It wasn't entirely inaccurate; remember my mother's first husband (who is not my father)--the one who wouldn't get off the couch? He's Nina's mother's cousin. Nina's father and my mother have known each other since they were teenagers. I could go on, but you get the point. But I wasn't the only one, by far, who felt that Nina was family. After all, Friday was the wedding ceremony, followed by a reception; these events were "family-only," with a bigger celebration to follow the next day. And yet, Nina's guest list for Friday adhered to the non-biological definition of family. As other guests flowed in, were asked how they knew Nina, you heard a lot of "she's like a sister to me." One woman said it best: "everyone needs a Nina." At the celebration the following day, J.'s mother made a lovely speech, in which she talked about how when she was carrying J., she thought, not knowing he would be a boy, that it might be nice to have a girl, as she already had a boy. Of course, when he was born, she was happy to have the boy, but when he met Nina, she knew that it really all worked out: the boy had brought her the girl. One of the readings that N. and J. chose for their ceremony was, unbeknownst to them, also read at J.'s parents' wedding. It was, is worth repeating: "The Prophet" on Marriage Kahlil Gibran
Then Almira spoke again and said, And what of Marriage, master?
And he answered saying:
You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but each one of you be alone.
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
The vows were lovely, and the ceremony also included a singalong to the Pixies' "La La Love You", guided by Nina's niece. . Afterward, in perfect weather, we celebrated with a champagne toast, dinner, and cake. In addition to the veggie fare shown above, they served food freshly grilled in the brick oven in the yard. *** The wedding, reception were a blast. I met my roommates for the next few days, shared a cab with them back to the apartment. They warned me that the front door to the building--to which we'd been sent a magnetic circle key--was persnickety, and that they'd panicked the first day because they'd had trouble getting in, but they figured it out. The apartment was nice, but more importantly, was right in the heart of Prague. The next morning, I rolled out of bed and right into Old Town Square, by way of Franz Kafka plaza. It was so authentic that--this may also have been the influence of the $1 boxed wine--when I spied a cockroach in the bathroom, I hesitated for a minute before killing it. I really did think, "what if it's him??"
I (re)explored Prague on my own the next day and met up with my roommates mid-afternoon to get ready for the celebration. I liked them a lot, and, as close-knit as the three of them were, they welcomed me without pause. As we dressed for the wedding, I asked whether either of the ladies had brought a flat-iron. I felt the need to explain--the absurdity hitting me even as I spoke--that I'd long resisted getting a flat-iron, considering it a form of selling out to The Man, but that I came to see how it really was a quick fix for the mess that my hair could be. Yup, there I was, inkless government employee, justifying my embrace of the flat-iron to a tattoo-covered bar owner. Who embraced it long before I did, but, alas, had not brought one.
We cleaned up and came downstairs to meet up with a couple of their (and Nina's) friends also going to the celebration. We made our way to the metro--and not the nearest one--as my heel got caught in every other gap in the cobblestone. Jocelyn loaned me her flip-flops, which she'd stuck in her purse for the way back. The celebration was metro to tram to a walk down the hill. It hit us all the second that we got off the tram that this would be the scavenger hunt wedding. None of the week's activities would be found straightforwardly. We eventually figured out which way to turn once we got off the tram, and even found a series of sign-posts that said "wedding." Without each and every one of them, we would have doubted that we were in the right place.
We arrived at the celebration, in the beautiful terrace of a restaurant overlooking the valley. There was food, music, dancing, and even a belly dancer . The wedding favors were sparklers and temporary tattoos with the wedding theme. Mine hasn't come off yet, but I like to think that it helped me mesh with the comprehensively inked crowd. There was cake--one little girl was particularly anxious for it to be cut, and promptly snagged herself a piece the size of her head. Nina's Uncle Leo approached me and started telling me how glad he was to finally meet me, having heard so much about me. I didn't tell him he'd told me the same thing the day before, at the wedding. Then, he started telling me that the most acrimonious argument he'd ever had in his life, was with my mother (surprise, surprise). At that point, I did tell him that he'd told me that the day before. No, he said, he didn't. I told him what it was about. Was I that drunk, he asked? Uh-huh, I shrugged. Throughout both celebrations, Nina had to keep checking on "her Russians." You'd think they'd hold their liquor better by now, but there was so much flowing--I didn't know a place could keep tapping out so much alcohol--that her vigilance was warranted. I looked at Nina's niece and nephews and felt quite old all of the sudden. Here they were, with Nina and her friend, Sasha, and I'd diapered all of their asses! I said as much.
Nina: She diapered all of your asses! Except Sasha's.
Sasha: There's still time.
They all turned out to be very good kids, which did not surprise me at all, but I hadn't seen them in ages, in spite of having spent quite a bit of time with them when they were kids. Later, in Kutna Hora, Maria (the niece who led the singalong) and I would talk about Jonathan Safran Foer's books, all of which she's read (I've read one and keep meaning to read "Eating Animals," which she highly recommended). She told me about Russian Girl Problems--good lord, those people know my mother! Check out this one and let me know if it rings a bell from any recent blog posts. Where was this $hit when I was growing up? It would have helped me feel more normal. She also introduced me to the concept of White People Who Want to Be Japanese--she had a cool acronym for it--and started going off on "White" People Who Want to be Russian. I did not know this was a thing--I do know about plenty of Americans who think they're European--but she had examples. I babysat this kid, I tell you.
All the kids, big and small, were having a blast with the sparklers, and later the adults joined in. One eventually lit one within a paper lantern, which, naturally, caught on fire, but it was under control. I couldn't believe how much alcohol flowed in that place that night, which is probably not atypical. It just kept flowing.
It was 1 AM when we left the celebration to return to the apartment. I joined Stephen and Maria on the balcony for a nightcap (of very good boxed white wine, which we finished off). I really enjoyed getting to know them--and Jocelyn, as well, who had turned in as soon as we got in. Maria and I talked about food culture, about our respective upbringings around food--mine by parents who lived through the blockade of Leningrad, hers by a father whose family survived the Depression by eating their horse. Earlier that night--actually, probably the night of the ceremony--J. was telling me about how he gets Nina, gets her family, because he'd already lived in a Slavic country for years before he'd met her. The weird is that much more normal to him. And when that weird includes talking about the skin care benefits of urine, that says a lot.
The next morning, I--apparently, the organized one--woke up at 10:30 and reminded Maria, on the other coach in the same room, that Doug and Caitlin were meeting us outside in half an hour to head to brunch. She woke up, rallied the others, and we all got ready (but postponed the meeting time). It was a nice walk to the general vicinity of the brunch spot--what does it say that the last time I'd walked down Wenceslas Plaza, it was covered in "Ray of Light" posters--but don't forget, it was scavenger hunt wedding week, and we had to hunt for the actual place. Nina had drawn it as just outside the metro exit, but there were multiple exits to that metro, and Radost FX was not just across any of them. She helpfully indicated that it was diagonally across from KFC, but there are KFCs all over Prague--including one adjacent to our building, whose wifi I attempted, at times successfully, to leach off of from the lobby--so it was hardly a unique landmark. Jocelyn joked about how she needed a KFC app, if that's what everything would be oriented around. It reminded me of directions in Nicaragua, which, lacking addresses, were literally indicated by a phrase like, "two blocks from the chicken place." We eventually found it--we'd overshot it on the way over--but we were ever glad to be there. They had vegan brunch options! I think the whole thing may have actually been vegetarian. I wondered aloud whether it was too early to have a mimosa; Maria replied that I was asking the wrong crowd: they promptly ordered Bloody Marys.
After brunch, the group--an eclectic mix of Russians, mostly bearing visible evidence of their liquid lunch, and hipsters--left for the castle. I'd spent plenty of time at the castle, though I said I'd see if I could find them after stopping into the apartment. I hit the train station on the way, just to get a sense of where it was and how to get there, since one of the day trips later in the week would leave from there. I remember it being a bit hard to find from last time--we almost missed our train, in spite of having walked to and from it many times. That was mostly a function of the windy, confusing streets outside Old Town Square, near which we stayed last time as well.
I got back to the apartment, but couldn't get in. Passers-by saw me holding up the magnetic key and trying to open the door. I kept trying, to no avail. Finally, ten minutes later, the door buzzed and I was able to open it. I thought it was just me, and Stephen did say he had trouble the first time he tried it. I didn't give it much thought; I was able to get in the rest of the day, with not too much of a delay. But the next day--after my roommates had left town--I was once again stuck outside. Mercifully, another occupant of the building--a young woman who worked in the lawyer's office on the second floor and who'd seen me in the building the day before and so knew I was legit--came by. She couldn't get in either, but she called her office, and someone came down. She was told--and she translated for me--that the landlord knew that the receptor was broken and had called to have it fixed. They didn't know when. People had been propping the front door open, but others had been shutting it as they left. I'd spent the morning and early afternoon walking around--this is how I'd spent every morning and early afternoon before meeting up for whatever event--and on this especially hot day, was happy to chill in the apartment until it was time to go to Nina's dad's birthday dinner on the river. There, I'd ask her to call the apartment people and figure out what the deal was.
By dinner time, the weather was perfect, and the small island in the river where the restaurant was to be found was the exception to the scavenger hunt wedding week situation. Which was just as well, because I didn't need more than one logistical nightmare in a day. Nina dialed the apartment people for me, who called the landlord and called me back, and said that they'd make sure the door was propped continuously until the problem was fixed the next morning. After dinner, we took some rowboats and paddleboats--I was in a rowboat with Nina's mom, her brother, and J.'s brother--and rowed around the river. It was beautiful. Here are the lit-up National Theater and its statues, and the Dancing Building. I'll have more Prague-at-night pictures in the main Prague post. There will also be a post or two for the day trips to Karlstein and Kutna Hora.


With much of the logistical drama behind me, I turned to exploring Prague. I’d spent almost a week in the very different Prague of 1998. Fourteen years and two seasons later, I was surprised both at how much was familiar and how much had changed. As the world changed over that time frame, Prague changed with it and even more. That February, I did a lot of indoor activities--I think I hit every museum in the Castle, and some elsewhere. It was wonderful to explore the city in the summer and to get a feel for the parks and gardens, and other green spaces.
Man, when it came to transition, this part of Eastern Europe didn’t f* around. People all over Budapest and Prague were friendly. Not everyone, but more than what you’d expect for Eastern Europe. I mean, who’s ever heard of friendly Eastern Europeans? We are not a smiley people. In ’98, people were surly. That was authentic. Museum guards loved to yell at you—so much so that they’d find a reason. They yelled at a friend for turning her head so that her hair might shake too close to a painting, setting off the alarm.
There was sure as hell no vegetarian food to be had back then, and now there are more vegetarian restaurants in Prague than in DC, and the ones in Prague actually don’t suck. Back then, we’d stayed in a youth hostel and bought ingredients to cook with at Tesco. When I unwittingly passed that Tesco, I instantly recognized it, thought, “that was our Tesco!”
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the Prague of ’98 was sketchy, but it was most certainly still transitioning. We were kind of scared $hitless of it. Old train station dome, now a restaurant
Our arrival then wasn’t much less dramatic than my arrival last week. We got into the city the night that the Czech hockey team won the Olympic gold metal, beating out the Russian team. People from all over the country were in the capital, celebrating and drinking in the streets. That’s what we left the train station to see, and it was wild and scary for us. We’d come with a recommendation for a youth hostel, but all the hostels were full that night, so the tourist info people booked a hotel for us. We (broke students) were horrified—it was $40 a night for the three of us!
Oh, did I mention that we were warned before getting on the train that the conductors would try to scam us by asking for a surcharge, and we were to insist that no surcharge existed? It happened just as we were warned. And then, as the train pulled into the then-sketchy station, they made an announcement warning us to find real lodging, to avoid the people who would approach us and offer us a room in their home. It was depressing.
The tourist info people who booked our hotel also gave us directions to it: go around the corner and under the bridge, and take Tram 9. That sounded sketchy, but we had no choice. We passed the revelers and turned into a dark, unlit part of the city. We saw the ominous bridge. Weren’t we always warned about passing under bridges? Someone could jump down on you from atop. We had no choice but onward, so on we went, after stopping to take a breath and reminding each other to look up and be aware of our surroundings. All the sudden, J screamed. So I screamed. So M screamed. We screamed in turn for a few rounds, until it was clear that no one was jumping down on us from the bridge. We stopped screaming, asked each other why the other was screaming. M screamed because I screamed; I screamed because J screamed; J initially screamed out of relief: she saw Tram 9, and so knew that we were going the wrong way. Then she started screaming because we two were screaming. Oh, those were the days.
That once sketchy train station now rivals Victoria Station in style. It boasts, among other things, a Sephora and an organic food store, where I got some soy milk and could have gotten any variety of tofu, had I needed to, but at that point I discovered a multitude of vegetarian restaurants in the city. If there’s still a helpful tourist information office in the main train station, I didn’t find it; Prague attracts plenty of tourists these days without even trying—you can’t even get a free map of the city (luckily, I had one or two). Budapest, in contrast, goes out of its way to make itself tourist-friendly, with signs on every street corner and free maps at every turn. Maybe in another ten years, it won’t have to try, either.
I know this is a textbook obnoxious thing to say, but I’m so glad I got to know Prague in 1998, when, for example, the Charles Bridge was free of vendors (it’s now worse than the Great Wall) and Old Town Square owned its atmosphere. It was full of tourists even then, but it was free of Hundai-sponsored Eurocup screens. Old Town Square should feel eerie, dammit. It should not feel commercial or Disney-like.
It got better during the week. Nina's theory is that Prague gets fewer "international" tourists than European ones, who come for the weekend and go back on Sunday night. The city became less crowded, but stayed very hot. Nonetheless, all I did before and after meeting the group for our various get-togethers was walk around Prague. The nooks and crannies were just as rich as those in Budapest, with unique balconies, statues, and towers on just about every street grand buildings in every square and just plain neat-looking buildings everywhere. That's all small scale stuff; the city is also stunning on a large scale. Here's the dancing house by daylight--yes, I'm aware that some of you are not Gehry fans, but I think it's cool looking. While we're on cool shapes, check out the lighting in the vegetarian restaurant I went to for lunch one day. Here's the memorial to victims of communism Here's a view from inside a church in Old Town Square and one of the astronomical clock. And now for the avian photos: check out the pigeon on the statues on the Charles Bridge, the swans with the castle in the distance, and the peacock in the Senate gardens, which also boast ducks and owls, but I'll spare you those pictures. Here are some more views of the city at night:
One thing I didn't do in 1998 was visit any nearby towns. And so, I was excited about the day trips.