The very best thing about the Franz Kafka Museum is the automated statue out in front of it, showing two naked men, peeing into a fountain shaped like the Czech Republic, spelling out famous Czech literary quotes with their “urine” (see video). Sadly, it’s all downhill from there. Kafka, as you may recall, wrote the one about the guy who turns into a giant cockroach. As Prague’s favorite literary son, he is everywhere, on tote bags, post cards, t-shirts, and ads for his museum. Before heading over there, I perused Lonely Planet’s review, which concluded, “Does [this museum] vividly portray the claustrophobic bureaucracy and atmosphere of brooding menace that characterized Kafka’s world? Or is it a load of pretentious bollocks? You decide.”
It didn’t take us long to cast our vote. We suffered through a ridiculously convoluted ticket purchasing procedure (claustrophobic bureaucracy!), viewed the handful of photos and letters surrounded by lots of black space (brooding menace!), and saw a grainy B&W film of old Prague, distorted with a ripple effect (existential angst!). Additional angst was provided by the fact that we spent the equivalent of $15 for the 15 minutes it took to tour the exhibits. We could hardly wait to get back outside into the pouring rain.
Coincidentally, a load of pretentions bollocks was precisely what we didn’t find at the Museum of Communism, an institution that deals soberly with an important subject without ever taking itself too seriously. When it opened, two large men from the museum dressed like KGB agents and followed tourists through the city streets, acting sinister (see video). When noticed, they handed the tourists a flier that read, “Experience How Life Was Under Communism,” and stood around talking with them about the museum’s theme: “Communism: The Dream, The Reality, The Nightmare.”
Exhibits show the rise of communism, the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Russian “liberation” of the region, and the years of repression, starvation, and indoctrination under communism. There’s a short film of the1989 student demonstrations that led to the Velvet Revolution and freedom. Even knowing the eventual outcome, it was harrowing to watch those young Czechs face down the riot troops advancing toward them swinging clubs. I was awed by the sheer courage it must have taken for those students to risk everything – their bodies, their freedom, their lives – to take their stand. It occurred to me that while I’ve spoken out for many causes over the years, I’ve never really risked much of anything – a little social ridicule, maybe; once the loss of a client – and I wondered what choices I would have made if I’d been a Czech student in 1989.
And then there’s the KGB Museum. Well, it’s not so much a museum, really, as a sort of recruitment outpost. A place to keep the flame alive. I’d visited their website, which proudly proclaims the exhibits include “things that belonged to the first persons of the Soviet state” and such must-sees as Lenin’s death mask and Trotsky’s murder weapon. “The bright part of the KGB museum is the photo exposition ‘Prague 1968 in the eyes of KGB officer.’” Yes, what could be more heartwarming than that?
The museum turned out to be a small storefront, whose dim entryway, festooned with KGB posters and curtains, seemed deserted when we arrived. Hearing a murmur of voices, we called out, and a very stern young man in battle fatigues with a bandaged arm emerged from behind a curtain. In answer to my question he barked, “Is open every day!” Turning on his heel, he disappeared again.
Rich and I scurried away, vowing never to return. Call me paranoid, but my basic survival instinct said we should just stay away from these people. I didn’t want to pay for the tour (a very capitalist $18 a person) by credit card, share my email address with them, or visit their Facebook page. Unfortunately, the museum was located almost directly across from our apartment, so Rich and I walked past it several times a day, with our jacket collars flipped up and our hats pulled down over our eyes, hoping to evade notice. In fact, for these few moments each day, our Prague experience became positively Kafkaesque.
“So when the Devil stamped his foot in rage, the force was so great that it left an actual footprint here in the entrance to the cathedral,” said Liz, who was showing us around Munich. It seems Beelzebub had seen the cathedral half built, and it struck him as a dark and gloomy place that would drive people away from God, so he told the architect, “If you don’t put any more windows in it, I’ll send my friends down at night to help, and you’ll finish the building in just 20 years.” Back in the 12th century that counted as lightning speed, and the architect, with dreams of glory in his head, quickly agreed. When the cathedral was finished, the Prince of Darkness returned to gloat, only to discover that there was plenty of light from a window – installed before the bargain was struck – behind the high altar. The church was already consecrated, so the Evil One could only rage helplessly in the foyer, leaving his footprint stamped in the stone floor.
Just ten miles outside of Munich, there’s another spot where the Devil left his footprint: the Dachau concentration camp, now a memorial park. Rich and I went there with a small tour, and as we gathered, one woman told me, “I’m here with four other women, but they thought Dachau would be too depressing for their last day of vacation, so they decided to go shopping instead.” Well yeah. I guess it would be more fun to spend the day buying cheap fake lederhosen and Oktoberfest t-shirts for the folks back home. But I suspect the real reason those women stayed away is that they were, like me, terrified of the place.
Those who designed the memorial, and our young American tour guide, Tom, made every effort to undercut the horror with a bland, matter-of-fact presentation of the facts. The first permanent concentration camp, Dachau was opened in 1933 and served as a prototype for all the Nazi camps that followed. It was designed as a work camp for political prisoners, mostly men, and more than 200,000 people from all over Europe were incarcerated there during its 12 years of operation. Towards the end of the tour, Tom took us to see the ovens and the first model gas chamber. But by the time we got there – in fact, from the moment we passed through the famous gate that said, with cruel irony, “Arbeit macht frie” (“Work makes you free”) – I mostly felt numb. I was walking around inside a Devil’s footprint that was so huge that my mind and heart could simply not take it all in.
After the tour, Rich and I went back to the neighborhood we were staying in, a mix of Persian restaurants, strip clubs, and soulless modern apartment blocks. As we sat over mast-o khiar, jujeh kabobs, and beer, I looked around at the other customers, most of whom were Iranian, many of them women in full purdah. Outside people of every race, culture, and lifestyle were strolling along the sidewalks; no doubt many of them were on their way to commit all sorts of acts that were forbidden under the Nazi code of conduct. And I felt my spirits begin to lift at the thought that sometimes you actually can beat the Devil.
I don’t know about you, but my earliest impressions of Italian culture were based on the famous spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp. You know, the one where Tramp’s friend Tony sets up a table in the alley, the two dogs eat pasta under the stars, and Tramp pushes the last meatball over to Lady with his nose. When I was five, this seemed the height of romance to me. A few nights ago, I found myself sitting at a table in an alley in Genova, Italy, eating pasta under the stars with Rich, and for a delightful moment, I felt that real life and this favorite movie memory were merging in perfect harmony. I was only sorry I hadn’t ordered meatballs, so I could push the last one over to Rich with my nose. (Rich has expressed tremendous gratitude that I didn’t attempt this, especially in public.)
Sophia Loren is a big fan of spaghetti
It’s no secret that we all carry around movie memories that deeply affect how we view the world. As we sat in that alley in Genova, drinking cheap wine on a sultry, moonlit night, Rich and I started talking about all the celluloid scenes that make up our images of Italian culture: The Godfather, Romeo and Juliet, Under the Tuscan Sun, La Dolce Vita, A Room with a View, Tea with Mussolini, The Italian Job, The Bourne Identity, Moonstruck, the Agony and the Ecstasy, Sophia Loren love triangles, Fellini’s surrealist fantasies, the lives of the saints the nuns showed us at school, and countless others. And out of a lifetime of movie memories, we choose the ones that strike a particular chord in us. For some, Italy is all about the high life in the Riviera; for others it might be art, or religion, or political power, or the warmth of being part of a family (even if it’s the kind of Family that makes you offers you can’t refuse).
And if we’re lucky, when we travel, we have moments that strike that chord in a deeply agreeable way.
"Juliet's balcony," added in 1936
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life,” Joseph Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth. “I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
As I write this, I am in Verona, which (as the town is very quick to remind you at every turn) was the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Today, we’ll probably see the famous “Juliet’s balcony.” Of course, this is no more Juliet’s real balcony than 221B Baker Street in London is the real home of Sherlock Homes because – and I think you can follow my logic here – they are both fictional characters. But thousands of people visit these places every year to have an experience that lets them connect their inner and outer lives in a way that sparks the rapture Joseph Campbell is talking about.
Francesca in le Gramole, Genoa
Part of the way I connect with Italy is, of course, the food. (Think of Clemenza, teaching young Michael Corleone how to make spaghetti sauce when the men “go to the mattresses.” Think of the pasta scene in Eat, Pray, Love. Need I go on?) The day after our Lady-and-the-Tramp dinner, Rich and I went to an olive oil tasting at a tiny, back street olioteca. Having lived nearly ten years in Seville, we were able to hold our own in a lively discussion of the rival merits of regional varieties, and pretty soon our hostess, Francesca, was fetching stools so we could sit for a more leisurely sampling, bringing out more kinds of olive oil she wanted us to try, and finally, with the air of one bestowing a magnificent treat, running to get her special, 25-year-old vinegar so she could drizzle it over slivers of Parmesan cheese. The flavors were wonderful, but the real pleasure was sharing them with someone who took such obvious delight in savoring life’s essentials.
Over the years and many miles we’ve traveled together, Rich and I have learned that the moments that really resonate with us are far more likely to come in little, back-street food shops and shabby trattorias than in five-star restaurants. These are the moments that make us who we are. As Sophia Loren once put it, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” Or in the words of Federico Fellini, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”
On Sunday, August 4, Rich and I strolled out the front door of our Seville apartment and over to the station with just a small roll-on suitcase each, a shared daypack, and our Eurail passes. We hopped a high-speed train, and five hours later we were on Spain’s east coast in the city of Barcelona. We’re going to be on the road a while, so if you lose track of where we are, just check this blog page's upper right corner or the top of my Start Here page.Our guide, Duncan
So we arrive in Barcelona, and the very next morning we find ourselves trying to help prevent a murder.
Perhaps I should back up a bit.
Checking into our little hotel in the old quarter, Rich and I noticed a sign offering a free city tour the next day. At the appointed hour (well, not more than 15 minutes late, which by Spanish standards represents an almost unseemly degree of punctuality) our guide arrived. An Irish architect thrown out of work by the economic crisis, Duncan had lived in Barcelona for years and provided our small group with a colorful account of the city’s history. Every few minutes, however, his stories were disrupted by blaring trucks, barking dogs, and once, a religious zealot who considered himself divinely appointed to explain to us just how far we had strayed from the path of righteousness. Finally Duncan led us away through some side streets to a small plaza. “We should be better here, “ he said. “It’s one of the quietest plazas in the city.”
The streets of Barcelona are full of surprises
And that’s when the screaming began.
Just around the corner out of sight, a man and a woman stood in the street yelling abuse at each other at the top of their lungs. Their fury escalated so rapidly that if handguns were legal in Spain, I just know the next sound would have been gunshots. When the woman’s shouts turned to fearful shrieks, Duncan ran around the corner. I didn’t hear his first words, but the man shouted, “I’ve been wanting to kill her for 25 years!” Thinking that maybe more witnesses might make the guy hesitate to commit mayhem – and of course curious to see what kind of street crazies we were dealing with – I went after him, and the rest of our little group followed. The perpetrators turned out to be an ordinary, well-dressed Spaniard of about 60 and his little, white-haired mother. She rejected Duncan’s repeated offers to call the police, and eventually the two went inside an apartment, where we could hear the verbal brawl continuing through the window directly over our heads. “Well, it’s usually a quiet plaza,” Duncan said. “I think we’ll find another spot to continue the tour...”
I know what you’re thinking: are the McCanns lucky or what? How often do you get this kind of drama on a city tour?
More often than you might think. In Mediterranean countries, life’s high and low points are often enacted in the public eye, especially during the dog days of August. When I’m in Barcelona, I often feel as if I’m in a Fellini movie, what with the fire juggler, the tightrope walker, the old opera singer, the wild street art, human statues, mimes, the marijuana museum, the outrageous tattoos.. Every street corner and café seems to offer up a small life drama: tattooed teens flirting shyly, harassed dads corralling toddlers, firebrands arguing politics over cheap beer, families gathering for leisurely meals at long tables, old couples sitting quietly in the twilight sipping their wine, mothers and sons threatening to kill each other...
Duncan’s route ended, inevitably, at a bar, and – brought closer by our small, shared adventure – many from our tour group sat for hours talking about the local culture, economy, art, politics… “This is why we travel,” Rich said, after we’d passed around our cards and kissed our new friends goodbye. “To learn about other cultures. And to think we got embroiled in a near-murderous domestic dispute on our very first day!” Obviously we can’t expect to be that lucky all the time. But we do feel the trip is off to a promising start.
Unpacking was "brutal" says Hilton
Paris Hilton just brought 19 suitcases with her for a month’s visit to Spain – providing yet more proof that she and I are not twins separated at birth.
Not only don’t I own enough clothing to fill 19 bags, I wouldn’t want to drag that much stuff around with me, even if I had a fawning entourage to do the heavy lifting. I like to travel light. Whatever I bring has to fit in one small, carry-on suitcase that’s just 54 x 34 x 19 cm (21 x 13 x 7.5 inches). But – and here’s where it gets tricky – I also like to be comfortable and, if possible, appear reasonably presentable in a wide variety of social settings and weather conditions. So as you can imagine (and regular readers of this blog know well) I’ve spent a fair amount of time considering exactly what I should pack for three months on the road.
If you’re ever packing for this kind of lengthy journey, let me offer you four pieces of advice.
Step 1. Lower your fashion standards. I’m willing to be seen in the same dress a dozen times in a month, pair the same sweater with every outfit, and wear nothing but practical, neutral-colored shoes. Those frilly silver sandals and my new hot pink sneakers are sitting it out in the closet.
Step 2. Be prepared to do laundry constantly. I’ll wash clothing in the sink a few times a week and clean individual garments (my one dress, for instance) as often as needed. When practical, I’ll send out clothes to the hotel’s laundry service or use a laundromat.
Step 3. Take only stuff you’re prepared to part with. By journey’s end, chances are some garments will have been lost, stolen, left behind, ruined by the hotel laundress, given away in a moment of tipsy bonhomie, and/or self-destructed under the strain of constant use. You’ll be heartily sick of them all, so you won’t miss them a bit. (Another good reason I’m not taking my favorite filly silver sandals.)
Step 4. Buying anything means throwing something else away. And that’s OK. (See Step 3.)
So what am I bringing? I just finished my test pack, and I was thrilled (and a bit relieved) that everything fit, including my chunky Joya walking shoes. The total weight is 10.3 kilos (22.7 pounds). I put in all of the following, minus the slacks, shirt, vest, and shoes I’m wearing on the train. Here’s my packing list:
2 pairs of slacks
2 pairs of light pants for yoga, beach
2 tank tops
1 long-sleeved t-shirt
2 collared shirts (one long- and one short-sleeved)
Socks & underwear for 5 days
Rain jacket, reversible (leopard & black)
Waterproof flip-flops for shower, beach
Flats for dressier moments
Cheap, fake wedding ring
Health & Grooming
Toiletries & personal care items
Spare glasses, reading glasses
Hard drive for backups
I’m pleased I managed to squash it all in, and have already earmarked a few items to throw under the bus if I spot a must-have t-shirt or scarf along the way.
Of course, when it comes to paring down to essentials, I still have a long way to go. Ryanair, the economy airline we often take between Seville and London en route to California, recently announced it’s thinking about charging for carry-on bags. Rich rather likes the idea, as he has long dreamed of going on a trip with nothing but a toothbrush and a passport, and he thinks this could be his chance. But I’m holding firm on the need for a suitcase. Because once you start classifying luggage as a billable travel extra, it’s just a short step to charging air passengers for wearing clothing on board. And if there’s one thing I’m definitely opposed to, it’s nude flying. It just doesn’t bare thinking about.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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