I drive home to Vienna like someone possessed. I can see only the road, the road signs, the gas stations. I’m blind to everything else. Luckily, besides a little hang-up with the Croatian border police regarding my cabbages, everything goes off without a hitch. For the first time in the whole trip, I take the Autobahn, and delight in its monotony. I listen to the radio. When German replaces Hungarian, I turn it off again.
Within a week of returning, the trees are completely bare. It begins to rain, then snow. Across the city, the hammering of workers setting up the Christmas markets can be heard. They are hanging lights from the lindens on the Ringstraße.
For the first few days back, I try to see Vienna with the same objectivity as all the other places I’ve visited but I’m unsuccessful. I cannot forget that I know this city. I know by the heaviness of the air and the sounds of the trams and the garish colour of the trash bins and hundred other little things.
A man returning after years of absence would have known, with his eyes shut, that he was in that ancient capital and imperial city, Vienna. Cities can be recognized by their pace just as people can by their walk, writes Robert Musil in ‘The Man Without Qualities.’
Like all big cities, he continues, it consisted of irregularity, change, sliding forward, not keeping in step, collisions of things and affairs, and fathomless points of silence in between, of paved ways and wilderness, of one great rhythmic throb and the perpetual discord and dislocation of all opposing rhythms, and as a whole resembled a seething, bubbling fluid in a vessel consisting of the solid material of buildings, laws, regulations, and historical traditions.
At some point, I was as new to this city as I was to Mostar, Warsaw, Prague. I chose it for a home, but could have easily chosen someplace else. I came once as a tourist, spent a few days walking around and decided it was good enough. A few months later, I arrived by bus with a suitcase, moved into a moldy little apartment, found work, and that was that.
I remember a friend coming to visit that summer from Stockholm. Vienna just won’t let you forget that you’re in the capital of a great empire, will it? He said. Another friend disagreed. I think it’s almost provincial here, she said. Both were right. That’s the charm of Vienna. Yes, it’s inconsistent, vain, and pretentious. But never so much so that it becomes repulsive. It can laugh about itself. And as much as I curse it, I always come running back.
Knowing I will write this last article, I take walks through the city. I walk from Ottakring, where I live, to the city center. Like always, the Ringstraße with it’s jumbled historicism gleams like someone has scrubbed it with soap. I eat at a Würstelstand outside of the school where I learned my first words of German. I pass the Musikverein, where I used to buy standing-area tickets for Prokofiev and Brahms. I pass the Burgtheatre, where the intelligentsia yawn and smoke cigarettes just as they did a hundred years ago. I say hello to my favourite waiter at Cafe Sperl, who has no time to talk, but remembers that I like to read the New York Times and brings it over to my table. On a rare sunny day, I walk up to the surrounding hills and look out over the city, at Prater and the Danube, which will continue on to Bratislava, Budapest, and empty into the Black Sea. I pass my old apartment that looked over the train tracks of the Westbahnhof. As always, it is lit up red from a brothel downstairs. Crows fight over garbage along the tracks. Windows of trains are lit up in the dark, even after they have emptied themselves of passengers.
Well intentioned friends in Vienna ask me about my journey, but I am unable to come up with anything remotely clever or interesting to say about it. ‘Berührend’ (touching), I say, ‘anstrengend’ (challenging), ‘wunderschön’ (beautiful). They nod. We move on.
Life, too, moves on with frightening speed. I have to drive twice a week to the Wienerwald to collect sticks for the wood stove in my apartment, otherwise I’ll freeze. My ear, ringing since Warsaw, keeps me up at night and I begin a series of absurd self-concocted treatments. I sign contracts, fill out forms, get the flu. I take the car to a mechanic. I pay another parking fine. I make cabbage soup. Life returns to normal.
At the end of November, I call up a friend. Help, I say, the weather is so bleak. Everyone’s so miserable. Wouldn’t it be nice to be back on the road again?
I drive inland again, past the border and through Bosnia and Herzegovina’s faded little seaside town, Neum. The limestone hills, grey shrubs, and burnt, black trees of Herzegovina replace the blue sea, olive trees, oleander bushes, and Aleppo pines of the coast. The openness and quiet is a relief. It reminds me of driving through the desert.
After three hours or so, I meet up with the Neretva River, whose deep, abundant green comes as a shock. I follow it through the outer suburbs of Mostar, to my hotel, the Park Villa (much less glamorous than it sounds). I leave the car there and trace the river back by foot, past the old mosque, through the shopping district, to the Mostar Bridge, which arches impossibly high over the banks of the Neretva, like an an animal stretching its back. The old stone bridge, built by the Ottomans in 1566, destroyed in 1994, and rebuilt in 2004, connects the two halves of an increasingly polarised city. It reaches from the Bosniak ‘side’ to the Croat one. I don’t realise or recognise this while I’m there though. It’s only later, in Banja Luka, when a melancholy Serb veteran describes Mostar as a face ‘split in two’.
Even in late October, the bridge is full of visitors, who make their way across with tiny, tentative steps. I, too, am so concentrated on my feet that I barely register that I’m crossing the bridge at all. I prefer to look at it from a distance. The next day, I sit down on the river bank below and watch Croat teenagers leap from a nearby springboard and a group of Bosniak school children pick their noses and scratch sticks into the mud.
I am very touched by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić‘s book, ‘The Balkan Express’ (purchased by accident in Dubrovnik), especially her essay about the Mostar bridge’s destruction during the Bosnian war. Written immediately after the bridge’s collapse, it speaks of an immense collective sadness, a void, something more unimaginable than death itself. I wish I could ask her for her thoughts on its reconstruction: What it meant for the broken country then, and what it means for the divided country now. Perhaps one day I’ll have the chance.
I have three photos of Mostar in front of me. One is a postcard, a sepia-coloured photo printed on poor, cardboard-like paper. It is dated September 1953, when my father sent it to us on his first visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the centre of the photo is the Old Bridge— all postcards of Mostar have that bridge on them, of course— and a part of the old city. ‘I think of you as I walk over this beautiful bridge,’ he wrote to my mother and me in Rijeka, Croatia. I can imagine him walking there on a warm autumn day. Coming to the middle, to the place where young boys used to jump into the river to prove their courage, he must have leaned over the stone railing and looked into the Neretva below, quick and silent as a snake. He must have stopped there, overwhelmed by the elegance of the stone construction. When his hands touched the bridge, he must have felt its smoothness and warmth, as if he had touched skin instead of stone. It was as if the bridge had a life of its own, a soul given to it by the people who had crossed it in its almost four hundred years of existence. It was erected in 1566 during the Turkish Empire and, the story goes, the stones were stuck together with mortar that had been mixed with the whites of eggs. Serbs and Turks, Croats and Jews, Greeks and Albanians, Austrians and Hungarians, Catholics, Orthodox, Bogumils and Muslims— all had stopped at the same spot, rested on the same stone. I was four when he wrote that postcard, and I know that he was certain that one day I would see and touch the Mostar bridge, too.
My father was wrong. I did not make it. I foolishly thought the bridge would be there forever. So I never went to Mostar, never walked from one bank of the river to the other. The bridge that saw so many wars, survived so many years, no longer exists. It collapsed in a second on November 9th. All I have to remember it by are these three photos: before, during and after. And I wonder what my father, dead for years now, would have said if he had seen this other photo, the last before the bridge was destroyed. Would he recognise it, ragged and pitiful as an old beggar, with a makeshift wooden roof, black automobile tires and sandbags piled in a futile effort to protect it from the occasional shelling that had started with the war?
When the bridge collapsed, it was Tuesday morning. A pleasant, sunny day, much like the one when my father visited Mostar. The town is only about seventy miles from the Adriatic Sea, so winter comes rather late. The bridge had been shelled since Monday afternoon. People who saw it say its collapse did not last long: at 10:30 A.M. the bridge just fell. As I look at the second picture, I try to imagine the sound of the Old Bridge falling down. A bridge like that doesn’t just disappear; its collapse must have sounded like a swift, powerful earthquake, the kind that people in Mostar have never heard before. Or maybe it sounded like an old tree splitting in two— a hollow crack surrounded by a long silence. Whatever the sound, the river swallowed it in a single morsel. A while later, it was as if the bridge had never existed.
The third photo of Mostar is one I cut out of a newspaper and carry around with me. It is in colour and, paradoxically, the most beautiful of the three that I have. The sun shines over the rooftops of the old city, painting the stone houses white. The slightly swollen river, a rich, deep green, rubs along its banks like a lazy, satiated animal. Absent from this beauty, however, is the bridge. There’s the beginning of its long stone arch, but if that portion were only ten feet shorter, there would be no trace of the structure at all. Only the sheer logic of the place, a feeling that a bridge belongs there, over the river, between two halves of a medieval town, tells us that something is missing. It’s been a little more than two weeks, and I’m still surprised when I look at this photo. When I remember what is no longer there, I feel a spasm in my stomach, a knot in my throat. I feel death lurking in its absence.
I’ve heard that the people in Mostar, even adults, cried when they saw the bridge had fallen. I believe the reports, for I have seen people who are not from Mostar cry as well. An elderly journalist. A lawyer. A singer, who wept for the first time since the war started. Not so long ago the newspapers published photos of a massacre in the Bosnian Muslim village of Stupni Dol. One picture showed a middle-aged woman with a long dark knife cut along her throat. I don’t remember anyone crying over that photo or others like it. And I ask myself: Why do I feel more pain looking at the image of the destroyed bridge than the image of the woman? Perhaps it is because I see my own mortality in the collapse of the bridge, not in the death of the woman. We expect people to die. We count on our own lives to end. The destruction of a monument to civilization is something else. The bridge, in all its beauty and grace, was built to outlive us, it was an attempt to grasp eternity. Because it was the product of both individual creativity and collective experience, it transcended our individual destiny. A dead woman is one of us— but the bridge is all of us, forever.
The Josip-Broz-Tito Club
In a bullet-riddled building in a side alley of Mostar, I stumble upon the Josip-Broz-Tito Club. Unable to hold back my curiosity, I step inside with the pretense of searching for a coffee shop.
Four men sit in the half-dark, murmuring to one another. They are spread into the four corners of the room, one man in each. A fifth moves between them, getting up occasionally to shuffle to the back room. Through a cloud of cigarette smoke I see a huge red tapestry with Tito’s profile: his rounded forehead, his slightly hooked nose, his small, curved lips. Next to it, on the wall, a calendar with all the special holidays marked with a red star: March 8th, May 1st, November 7th. The men fall silent when I enter.
‘Dobar dan, do you have coffee here?’ I ask with an idiotic smile.
The fifth man gestures to a seat near the window, pushes an ashtray towards me, and disappears into the back room. He comes back with a hot cup of Nescafe. The other four study me for a moment from their corners. Then they resume their conversation as if I wasn’t there. I study the tablecloth.
Every once and awhile the man closest to me turns in his seat towards me, and I expect him to say something, but he looks past me, into the street. His eyes are wide. They do not look at anything in particular, they just stare. They have both the frightenedness of a boy and the calm of an old man who has become accustomed to being frightened. I find it difficult to look at them.
It’s on us, the fifth man says, as I get out my wallet to pay.
The sky becomes dark blue and the street becomes black. The beggars along the Brace Fejica get up from their places and sit together on a bench, talking, laughing and crying. The air is not exactly cold, but the smell of autumn rises from the river to linger with the smell of roasting meat and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. A nightclub plays Avril Lavigne. The Karadoz Beg Mosque sings the Koran. Pious men move in its direction and slip off their shoes at its door. I wall back to the Park Villa, slip off my shoes, and sleep for a long, long time.
On the dashboard of my car is a cardboard icon of a saint purchased at an Orthodox monastery next to a half eaten pomegranate, parking tickets, and a modest pile of zlotys, forinths, marks, euros and kuna. In the trunk of my car are fifteen cabbages from a roadside stand, fifteen rolls of film in a plastic container, and a mountain of my laundry, washed here and there along the way. The car is covered in an inch of dust, even though I’ve washed it twice. On the dirty bumper, two Montenegran boys have scraped 200€. They tell me with kind smiles that that’s what my car would be worth in the Balkans. They ask why I don’t have a German car instead (they are much more popular here).
The car sags. I sag. Six weeks of hotel rooms, mechanics, border crossings, bazaars, restaurants, invitations, stray dogs, hand gestures, steep mountain roads, gas stations, graveyards and monuments have taken their toll. I try to reassure myself that it’s okay to feel both lucky and grateful for my trip and at the same time, exhausted and ready to go home.
A weeks before, in Poland, I found a book in the library of the house where I was staying titled ‘CENTURY’. The width of its spine was easily that of my outstretched hand. Before I had even opened it, the construction of the book itself seemed a marvel. I carried it (with both hands) to my bed and spent two nights flipping through it in amazement and horror. It was a collection of 20th century photography unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The only question I could ask by the time I got to the last page was the following: How is it possible that so much happened in one little century?
I’ve asked a similar question (perhaps less consciously formulated) in every little village and in every ancient city I’ve visited on this trip. Except in the case of the cities and villages the weight of history was not limited to the twentieth century, but rather, stretched itself to include the nineteenth, fifteenth, sometimes the eleventh, tenth. Everything that played out in the twentieth: despotism, occupation, beauty, progress, recession, revolution, optimism, misery, and resilience seems contained in every century, every stone, every hotel room, border crossing, every face and gesture. That’s what makes me sag.
But I mind this much less than I expected. I think of Milan Kundera, who writes:
‘The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become… the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?’
The stones of the old town gleam at night as if they were wet, even though it hasn’t rained in weeks. The limestone cobblestones of the Straca, the main street of the Old Town, are the colour of milk, and slippery. The Straca is trodded upon by so many feet that the city of Dubrovnik has to come along once and awhile and ‘rough up’ the stones to prevent any serious accidents. I narrowly avoid three in the three days I’m there.
I have to be honest that Dubrovnik makes me a little sad. First I hesitated to write this, but upon reflection decided that I would, because this scholarship is not only about encouraging interest in World Heritage but also about the importance of preservation. Preservation, for me, is twofold: there’s the preservation of the site itself, but also the preservation of a quality of life for local people. That means cultural infrastructure, affordability, community. If the people visiting World Heritage sites make it impossible for the people living close to and maintaining those sites to remain in their cities, it seems like a case of very misplaced priorities.
In 2016, UNESCO threatened to take away Dubrovnik’s World Heritage status if the visitor numbers weren’t somehow capped, as it’s medieval Old Town was at risk of damage and wear. Measures were taken, numbers were somewhat reduced, but critical problems remain. And, at least in my opinion, these tensions hang in the air.
I’d be a hypocrite to point my finger at people visiting Dubrovnik when I too visited. I could have done my research, but I didn’t. I arrived completely oblivious about the reality of over-tourism here. I take it as a good reminder for myself to have a bit more awareness of where and how I travel and move past a ‘the world is my oyster’ mentality (For four euros an oyster, one might consider a burek instead anyway).
It goes without saying that tourism is an important part of Dubrovnik’s economy and recovery after the pandemic and that the solution is definitely not to stop visiting Dubrovnik altogether. I don’t know what the solution is. I just know that there’s something obscene about the opening of Dubrovnik’s ‘Very First All Christmas Store’ when locals complain about having no places to meet. And there’s something that feels absurd about a tourist in a Winter Is Coming shirt staying in a vacation rental close to the imaginary ‘King’s Landing’ in a real neighborhood where locals have been priced out. According to Responsible Travel, who also have some interesting tips for how to respectfully visit Dubrovnik, 5000 people lived in the Old Town in 1991, compared to around 1500 today.
I’m not immune to Dubrovnik’s charms. The sea smells wonderful. The medieval city center is remarkable. At the pier, well fed cats sit at the feet of old fisherwomen catching mackerel. I could sit there for days. The few locals that you actually meet are kind. But these things strengthen my resolve to say the above, not the opposite.
Anyone who wishes to know what I got up to in Budapest, need only follow the trail of my parking fines. They lead from Józsefváros in Pest, to Bikás park, to the scenic cliffs in Buda that look over the city, the slow ships on the river Danube, and the dark plains beyond.
Parking fines come in what resembles a dog waste-bag, tucked affectionately under the windshield wiper. Once you get one, you begin to see them everywhere. When you see a car with a pile of six or seven, you can’t help but wince in solidarity.
Why did I end up with so many parking fines, you might ask? Why not just pay for a ticket like everyone else? I need only show you Budapest’s parking machines with instructions solely in Hungarian, looking like relics from the Communist times and you will understand my desperation. In the five minutes it takes to find, examine and stand gaping at the machine, a green bag will have already landed on the windshield.
Kertész and Van der Meer
I visit the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center hoping to see Capa’s famous picture of the dying Spanish Loyalist, a photograph which has haunted me since I first saw it in a textbook as a child. Unfortunately, the Capa exhibit is under renovation, but there’s an exhibition of André Kertész’ photographs of rural Hungary on, and it’s wonderful. Also very moving are Hans van der Meer’s photographs of Budapest in the 1980s.
The Buda Castle
Like K in Kafka’s Castle, I have a hell of a time entering. From Gellert Park, I step into a shiny elevator on the west side. Up on the first landing, the door opens on a disorienting scene: People in suits scurry around, vacuuming, sweeping, and hauling large crates of the brightest, largest oranges I’ve ever seen. They barely notice when they crash into each other or into me. The sun sinking in the sky and lighting up the stones only seems to make them run faster.
When I slip away and try to take the stairs up to the next landing, I meet a stout security guard with his legs spread out on the steps. He tells me something angrily in Hungarian and motions with his nose back down to the first landing. When I try to take a kind of ramp, a police woman appears imposingly at the top, shaking her head solemnly. An orange rolls down the ramp and past my feet.
My third and last attempt to get into the Buda Castle is a small elevator, tucked around the corner, which takes me up to the next landing with a jolt. When I exit, I am alone in a stone courtyard, empty except for six or seven huge French flags flapping in the wind. I jog my memory but cannot remember the Budapest ever being occupied by the French. The Ottomans, yes. The Habsburgs, yes. The Soviets, yes. But the French?
Eventually I hear footsteps, and a film crew passes by wheeling a massive crane. Someone appears in the upper windows and slowly begins lowering the French flags, which drop into a pile on the stones.
Inside the Buda Castle is the Hungarian National Gallery. It’s there that I see ‘The Visitation’ in an exhibition about medieval Hungarian altarpieces. Painted in 1506, ‘The Visitation’ shows the figures of Mary and St. Elizabeth surrounded by irises, strawberries, and peonies. The sky behind them is red, as if someone had pulled a curtain over the sun. The picture is beautiful and disorienting, containing both (what I, with albeit little art history knowledge) think of as Japanese and Art Nouveau elements (look at the Iris!). I stand and look at this picture for at least ten minutes before I read that it that it was taken from the Church of St. Catherine in Banská Štiavnica, where we rattled on the doors but couldn’t enter.
The other painting that leaves a comparably deep impression on me is Sandor Trauner’s ‘Picture 1’ from 1929. It’s empty darkness is as comfortable, full and disturbing as a László Krasznahorkaibook or a Béla Tarr film. I carry both paintings with me in my mind as I exit the beautiful Buda Castle.
A few streets in Józsefváros, where I’m staying, are being torn up and redone. When Friday evening comes, the street becomes still, and tools and materials are left here and there, waiting for Monday. When Monday comes, the workers return, and with them, the noise. After sitting for ten minutes in Józsefváros, a thin layer of dust has accumulated on my head and I look and feel as useless as a jack hammer on a Sunday afternoon.
From the window, I watch construction workers who gaze at iridescent green beetles on the sidewalk. I watch the shadows of yellow honey-locust trees on the walls. I watch the ticketing officer on his rounds. He slips green bags under the cars with a mournful expression (he doesn’t look nearly as mean as I imagined). I watch old women with shopping bags swinging, propelling them forward, youths who trip over their legs, and middle-aged men who drag their feet as if they weighed a million tons. I watch fights between lovers and neighbours passing objects through windows. At night the street-lamps grow so dim that it’s hard to see anything at all.
October sun streams into Budapest Keleti, the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen. I stand amongst a mass of people under the arrivals board. We fidget in anticipation of whoever is coming or perhaps our own going. The station is quiet, and somehow provincial: people run over the tracks and slip between standing trains. The train from Munich finally arrives and A gets off, pale as a ghost. He has the flu. We decide to spend two extra days in Józsefváros, to let him rest. It’s the weekend, so I don’t have to worry about parking fines.
On Monday we decide to take off. Only, the car won’t start. The battery is dead. after receiving detailed instructions from a mechanic friend on the phone, I get into the drivers seat and A pushes the car (this can’t be very good for someone with the flu) down the street. A few bystanders join him in pushing. Second gear! Second gear! They all shout at me. I am screaming. I shift into second, the car starts with a cough, and we glide out of Budapest and head south.
I arrive in Slovakia sooner than anticipated. I had hoped to stop a few times in the Tatras and admire the changing colors, but everything is covered in fog, and getting out of the car means standing in a cold drizzle. It’s impossible to know if the sheep hillsides are white or grey or black, so caked are they in mud. They enter the fog again quickly, as if forced out against their will.
I meet a friend of mine from Vienna at the station in Zvolen, and after making three involuntary circles around Zvolen’s city center, we drive up the mountain to Kralova.
In Kralova, the animal population far outnumbers the human ones. Among its animal citizens: cows with large, wet eyes, sheep that sniff at the car, cats that scratch at the window at night, and horses that growl like dogs and pace at fences. Among its human citizens; a few old shepards, a small family, and our next door neighbors (friendly but preoccupied). They tend to their cows and shake apple trees full of dark, shiny apples. A black dog with a red cast hops after each falling apple and tries to catch it in her mouth.
On Saturday we make our way slowly down the mountain, which has been cut up by the rain and covered in flattened, speckled frogs. Banska Stiavinica, a medieval mining town, is a Heritage Site. We venture deep into the earth in Kaiser Franz Joseph’s mine. Then we find a little white windowless restaurant where we eat halusky and cabbage soup and flip through Slovak tabloid magazines. Look at this, I say, pointing to the cover.
I arrive in Kráľová sooner than expected. I had hoped to stop a few times in the Tatras (the mountain range separating Poland from Slovakia), but everything is covered in fog, and getting out of the car means standing in a cold drizzle. It’s impossible to know if the sheep that emerge from this fog are white or grey or black, so caked are they in mud. They enter the fog again quickly, as if they had been forced out against their will.
I meet a friend of mine from Vienna at the station in Zvolen, and together we drive up the mountain, park the car, and walk up a steep, muddy road to a little cabin we’ve rented. We spend a weekend there sitting by the fire, walking in the surrounding hills, and collecting rose hips for rose hip soup. I catch up on washing and sleep. I read too many articles about Putin and the war and try to wash them from my mind with some of Milan Šimečka’s beautiful recollections of home and everyday life in “Letters from Prison.”
In Král’ová, the animal population far outnumbers the human one. Among its animal citizens: cows with big, wet eyes, sheep that sniff at the car, cats that scratch on the windows at night, and horses that growl like dogs and pace the fences. Among it’s human citizens: a few old shepards, a small family, and our next door neighbours, who are friendly but preoccupied. They tend to their cows and shake apple trees full of dark, shiny apples. A black dog with a red cast hops after each falling apple and tries to catch it in his mouth.
On Saturday we make our way slowly down the mountain, which has been cut up by the rain and is covered with flattened , speckled frogs. We drive towards Banská Štiavnica, an ancient mining town built in a crater of an ancient volcano. We visit the well-preserved old new castles (built in the 13th and 16th centuries) and walk through the steep, crowded cemeteries on its ridge, which are covered in flowers unlike anywhere I’ve ever seen (John Berger writes about Slovakia’s special relationship to the dead as captured by Markéta Luskačova in his essay ‘Christ of the Peasants’). Down in the valley we find a little white windowless restaurant where we eat halušky and cabbage soup and flip through Slovak tabloid magazines.
After our late lunch, we decide to visit the Kalvária, a little red shrine on a hill that we spotted from the New Castle. The way up is a Via Crusis: a series of stations telling the story of the crucifixion. In this case, the stations are little cheerful yellow huts with wooden reliefs inside, only most of them have been moved to the museum and replaced with cardboard cut-outs due to vandalism after the nationalisation of the Kalvária in 1950. Standing in front of a damp, two dimensional cut-out of Jesus carrying his cross, I cannot help thinking of the flattened frogs on the mountain road and I’m filled with pity for human and animal suffering alike.
The Kalvária is clearly cared for by the community: its walls have been freshly painted, there are apparently masses held there from time to time, and visitors, even on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The white steps up to the shrine have been washed by the rain and look brand new. My friend and I stand on them for awhile and look down at the darkening city, where lights are coming on one by one and where chimneys billow wood smoke, which blows to the west.
Built in the 18th century, the Kalvária is young by Banská Štiavnica‘s standards. The hill, however, is old, and I’m sure that long before anything existed on it, people have climbed it to gaze upon the same surrounding hills and imagine a fortune in silver. I think of a poem by Walter de la Mare:
Slowly, silently, now the moon Walks the night in her silver shoon; This way, and that, she peers, and sees Silver fruit upon silver trees…
On our way home through the hills, we drive by an abandoned black mineshaft and some empty mining settlements, and decide to park the car and take a look at them. We realise quickly that they aren’t empty at all— that Roma families live in them. There are children playing around the mine shaft and rolling down the road on bicycles. When they see us, they run behind the columns of the house. One of the youngest boys, tiny and wearing a red sweater, steps forward and calls out to us first in Slovakian, then, when he realises that we’re foreigners, Romani. Whatever he says make the others giggle. The columns seem to shake with laughter. The whole building is at a tilt, and seems to sink into the mud before our eyes. The windows are mostly dark, and it seems as though a pair of eyes peers out from every one.
Kazimierz is a district in the south of Krakow, pressed between a bend of the river Vistula. Poles and Jews have lived peacefully together in Kazimierz for centuries, until the war, when the Jews were sent across the river to the ghetto.
Standing at the Vistula and gazing across at the other riverbank, my mind drifts for some reason to a moment in Andrei Platonov‘s novel ‘The Foundation Pit’. It’s the early days of the Soviet Union, construction for a giant proletarian house is underway, and the Kulaks, wealthy land-owning peasants and, are being rounded up and put on a river raft:
“Fa-are we-ell, parasites!” Zhachev shouted down the river.
“Far-are we-ell!” responded the kulaks sailing off to the sea.
It’s a different tragedy and a different (in Platonov’s case symbolic, imaginary) river, but the same disastrous twentieth century.
On a positive note, there are signs of real Jewish cultural life returning to Kazimierz. Real cultural life, with all its prerequisites of tolerance, safety, past, and future. Yes, Kazimierz is tin menorahs, Zydki figures, and cheap trinkets sold on the curb. But Kazimierz is also a publishing house (publishing Jewish literature in Polish), a bookstore, live music, a kosher Israeli restaurant, a community center and places of prayer.
My hotel is in the attic of an old Mikvah, a ritual bathhouse and I sleep there like a stone. The breakfast room doubles as a place for the publishing house to hold meetings and for klezmer musicians to tune their instruments before they play for the dinner guests. Obscure Jewish celebrities beam down at me from picture frames. The table is already set: herring and onions, plums, cake, boiled eggs, mackerel, cream cheese, jam, toast, and coffee.
As I take my place and begin my ritual of making sandwiches to slip in my coat pockets (I really have no appetite in the morning), a Orthodox man comes in, teetering under the weight of multiple black suitcases and a hat box. He sits down at an empty table across from me, calls the waitress over, and asks her anything is kosher. She shakes her head. He lets out a small sigh, checks his watch, and orders an espresso, two glasses of slivovitz and a bowl of plums, which he drinks and eats with slow luxuriousness.
St. Mary’s Basilica
Across from the main market square in the Old Town is St. Mary’s Basilica (completed in 1347). Entering it, you feel as though you’ve stepped inside some bodily organ, so rich and red are the walls. Gilded ribbons run up the walls like little veins to a vaulted ceiling, the blue of Polish pottery, and covered with stars.
Every hour, the Hejnał Mariacki is played by a trumpeter up in one of St. Mary’s two towers. It’s a sad, plain kind of bugle call that warbles over the market square and then suddenly dies out— a nod to a 13th century trumpeter shot in the throat mid-song.
Inside St. Mary’s it’s warm and quiet. People talk in hushed, solemn voices. When they pray, they only move their lips. Every once and awhile, when the door swings open to let someone in or out, it’s possible to hear music from the market square and the hoofbeats of horses. It smells of damp wood, recent rain, and ammonia from the horses lined up nearby. Some of their drivers have fallen asleep on their carriages.
The man with the plums and the slivovitz gets stuck in rush hour traffic, misses his flight to New York and decides to stay in Kazimierz for another night.
Over slivovitz and coffee, he tells me about his life. He tells me about his grandparents from a tiny village in Hungary who made their own slivovitz; who came to New York without a word of English and without having ever seen a banana (and bit into them, peel and all). He tells me about living next to ‘the Projects’: how he used to fear the people there —who supposedly flip kippahs off— but doesn’t anymore. Nobody from the Projects have ever flipped his kippah off, he says, and what’s more, they are all actually nice. They all take care of one another now, he says: if some criminal is on the loose, Orthodox families will fling open the windows and shout “Get him!” in Yiddish. And a group of neighbours will gather and trail whoever is causing trouble until the police finally arrive.
We go on talking from afternoon until evening, when the restaurant suddenly fills up for dinner. The old waiter lights a candle on our table and gives a polite little cough to remind us that we are taking one of his spots. My friend takes the hint and asks if I’m hungry. I say, well, a little. He smiles, picks up the menu and proceeds to order around half of it: potato latkes, thin red borscht, matzah ball soup, helzel, cholent, chicken livers, cabbage rolls, charoset — and more slivovitz.
Shall I bring over two plates, so it’s easier to share, sir? The waiter asks.
I assume it’s not kosher?
No, says the waiter.
Then no thanks, it’s all for the lady.
The waiter’s eyes widen. My eyes widen. I protest, but my friend says he’s feeling generous, he enjoys the company, and besides, if he can’t eat anything while he’s here, he’d at least like to see the food of the old country— the food his grandparents ate in their little Hungarian village.
I soon learn that my friend is himself the owner of a restaurant and fanatical about food to a degree that I’ve only read about (perhaps in M.F.K Fisher stories.) The restrictions of his religion only serve strengthen this fanaticism by adding an element of mystery to things. His descriptions of fois gras and oysters, things he’s never tried and probably never will, are so beautiful, that they make my very real experiences of fois gras and oysters, seem pale and unreal, as if I ate them in a fog. Or as if I were one of Plato’s cave-dwellers, eating only shadows.
Every time a new dish arrives, he cuts into it with a fork and knife, listens to the sound it makes (a crunch or a squelch or a hiss), breathes in its aroma, and nods his approval. He seems impressed by the quality and authenticity of the dishes. The only thing that causes him to shake his head is the garnish on each plate:
Do you have any idea how much this would cost at a kosher supermarket? He asks me.
No, of course not, I say.
Well, according to the FDA, the average head of lettuce touches sixty insects. One insect, one sin, so you do the math! And well, can you imagine how painstaking it is for a poor Rabbi to go through and check a little lettuce for insects? A garnish is just a waste if you ask me. And look, you’re not even eating it!
His phone rings, and he gets up from the table to take a business call in Yiddish. I take this opportunity to ask the waiter for take away boxes, since there’s no chance of fitting everything in my coat pockets. When he returns I thank him for the meal. He thanks me for listening. It is a profoundly strange and beautiful evening.
On Wednesday afternoon, I walk to the southernmost part of Kazimierz, where the Skalka Monastery sits on the banks of the Vistula. I want to visit the tomb of Czesław Miłosz, one of my favourite poets (this is my favourite poem of his about Krakow).
The courtyard of the monastery is empty, save for a woman napping on a bench, and a group of schoolchildren with chins in their hands. A bored looking ticket attendant collects my three zlotys and gives me a postcard that reads ‘Hello from the Skalka Monastery!’ I don’t need to go looking for Miłosz’ tomb: it’s the first one to the left.
I stand next to it for a few minutes trying to think about something meaningful, but as usual when I’m near the dead, my mind can’t seem to span the massive distance between us and prefers to think about my parking ticket, which is set to expire in an hour.
Somewhere above my head, I hear a drum set, and the squeak of saxophones. Thankful for the interruption, I walk upstairs (past the attendant and the children) to the church, where a dress rehearsal for a Catholic-rock musical is taking place. A priest in a long white robe plays the saxophone, while another, dressed up like a thug, raps in Polish. Between stanzas a choir sings with gusto.
I take a seat in a back pew and watch for awhile. The rest of the pews areempty. It’s only me, the sound technician, the director, and a drunk woman who is dancing in the aisle. Outside it begins to rain again, first just a little, then a lot.
The Temple Synagogue
Outside the temple synagogue in Kazimierz, three Orthodox men crowd around a smartphone. A fourth man paces nearby, reading a holy book, and mouthing the words to himself. All four have plastic caps stretched over their hats to protect them from the rain, which has let up for a few minutes but will surely start again.
A taxi pulls up, and they file in, ducking their heads carefully to avoid hitting their hats on the rim of the car. The fourth trails after them. He doesn’t take his eyes off his book. They drive away, bouncing over the cobblestones.
My second hotel room in Krakow faces the Plac Nowy, a market square in Kazimierz. Unable to sleep for some reason, I lie awake the whole night, listening to the sounds of the square, which swells and empties according to its own natural laws.
Around two, students leave the bar underneath the hotel and fill the square. They laugh and shout in young, happy voices. At three it becomes quiet— quieter than the Polish countryside. At four, some drunkards arrive, argue, make up, and sing. Then, around five, silence again, broken up only occasionally by the screech of a bird.
At six, I move over to the window and watch the sky begin to lighten, and the construction workers drink coffee at the little kiosk. At seven, they are replaced by old men with woolen caps and long faces, who sit on benches and watch the street vendors laying out their wares (menorahs, books, communist pins, old coins).
It must have rained sometime in the night because the pavement is wet and the rooftops shimmer.
Although I didn’t plan to stop in Prague, I did. And since it has World Heritage status and that’s, well, why I’m here on this road trip in the first place, I thought I’d go take a look. I arrived in the evening, and set out by foot in the direction of the Charles Bridge.
Only, just as I arrived and looked down at the Vlatava, there came a sheet of sideways rain so powerful and unexpected that I thought it was the foam of the Vlatava itself. The city emptied, as if someone had pulled a drain. The rain that came down was orange, like the roofs, the facades, and the streetlights.
Consequently, I couldn’t see a thing. So as far as World Heritage goes, I have nothing to report. What I can tell you, however, is that there is a little restaurant on Na Bojišti street that serves roast duck with caraway seeds, bread dumplings and soft red cabbage that tastes wonderful when you’ve just come in from the rain. And down the street, there is a hotel, the Tivoli, which has seen better days but is nonetheless bright and warm. There you can sit in bed and watch Czech television dramas until sleep finally comes.
My hosts in Elbančice, Marcel and Katarina, are mad about collecting mushrooms. Every spare inch of their house is filled with mushrooms laid out in various stages of cleaning or drying. The green of the Billiard table is barely visible beneath all the mushrooms: chanterelles, oysters, porcini. Baking sheets are propped up precariously on the wood stove and the chairs, so that you have to tip toe everywhere. The cats are hissed at whenever they come too near.
When I meet Katarina out in the forest in her red raincoat, she gives me a guilty smile.
‘I promised I’d be quick today,’ she says. ‘Yesterday I was out in the forest for the whole afternoon. Marcel was mad.’
She’s got it bad. Even as we talk, her eyes move over the ground. She knows exactly where to look. Hřib Smrkový like the roots of silver birches, Liška Obecná prefer ditches. There is no need to be secretive about it, there’s more than enough to go around.
Like all addicts, she is quick to point out anyone who’s got it worse. She tells me about cars that she sees which are positively sagging with mushrooms. Cars so full that their driver is no longer visible. She holds each mushroom to my nose so I can smell it’s delicate perfume.
When I wake up in the morning, the wood stove in the corner of my room has gone out, and sun shines into the room through the small window. Beyond the fields, red pines bow deeply with every gust of wind. The clouds move quickly. Rain falls for a few minutes at a time, then stops again. When I go downstairs, I find a bowl of mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes and butter on the table.
I make breakfast, drink a cup of coffee and walk down to the old Jewish cemetery. Many trees have grown into and around the graves. On the edges of the cemetery, near the low walls, wild strawberries grow. Between the graves, mushrooms.
I leave for my trip a few weeks later than planned, just as the weather takes a turn for the worse. In Munich, driving rain. As I head east, it clears, but remains grey. Every car on the Autobahn overtakes me.
Near Deggendorf the road takes a sharp turn and begins to head steeply up the mountain. I look for a place to park and take one last look down at Germany, but there’s too much fog.
Želená Ruda is the Czech border town. Hand painted signs advertise cigarettes. There are two gas stations and two casinos. There are four nail salons with pink, blinking signs, and blue wood smoke rising from muddy houses. To the left and right of the only street, shacks are propped up like theater sets. Outside of them ornaments, bird houses and woven baskets dangle. From the car it’s impossible to see into the shacks but given the amount of stuff out on the street, it’s easy to imagine that inside they are empty. Their owners sit outside, as immobile as their wares, wrapped from head to toe against the damp cold.
I drive through Harmanice, past wet fields ringed with birches. The road follows the black, narrow Otava river through Střelské Hoštice, Předotice, Zvíkovské Podhradi. Towns pass by in an instant and are gone forever. Apple trees heavy with fruit line the roads. Apples roll into the street and under my tires.
I stop to eat in Jistebnice. It’s evening now, and Jistebnice is tiny and all dark, except for the bluish light of a bank machine, and the small yellow windows of a tavern. A group of teenagers lean against a wall near my car. One of them sees my foreign license plate, and asks with a smile, what the hell I’m doing in Jistebnice. I’m on vacation, I say. Sorry, he says, my English very few. I ask him what he recommends at the tavern and he tells me to order the fish.
The tavern is a small room with six tables and an unlit fireplace in the corner. Five tables are full. People shout and laugh and play cards. Children swing between the tables and run behind the bar. I sit down and order a small beer and fish. The waitress laughs and tenderly tells me that at this tavern they serve only fish, so I’ll have to be more specific. She leaves me a menu, all in Czech, and fetches her son to translate. When I’ve finished my meal, fried trout with potato salad and mayonnaise, I leave. Voices and laughter follow me out into the street, then the door swings shut and they are gone. The teenagers have left and the night is cold and quiet. I drive through the dark, and turn on the radio to keep from nodding off. The sky is as black as the Otava. No moon, no stars.