Notes from a Vacation
My wife and I just returned from Belgium and Prague, where we took a wonderful vacation. I’m not going to pretend that a few days in the home of the European Parliament or a few more days in a former Soviet bloc country-come-tourist trap gives me some special insight into these cultures. This is especially true given that there are plenty of American ex-pats who are far better suited to do so.
Still, if you travel with your eyes, your ears, and (perhaps most importantly) your liver open, you can learn a lot more about the world around you (if not necessarily the specific culture you visit) than you will sitting on some packed tour bus giving you a sanitized and stock explanation of a bunch of old monuments and buildings. This counts double if you are keeping your ears open in a local pub rather than a tourist-trap restaurant filled with other American tourists.
Anyways, some little tidbits that our loyal readers may (or, more likely, may not) find interesting:
– Though by no means the purpose of this trip or this post, this latest trip has just reinforced my longstanding belief that the differences between Europe and the US are pretty minimal. The notion of Europe as a socialist hell-hole continues to befuddle me – a befuddlement that seems to be backed by, you know, actual data.
– I wound up (briefly, I jump to add) talking politics over beers at various times with two Belgians, an Australian electrician, and a Slovak. It is difficult to underestimate just how much the torture issue, Guantanamo Bay, and the notion that international norms don’t apply to US foreign policy or the GWOT have undermined American moral standing. Indeed, the whole combination of these issues was the very first thing that came up the second I indicated in the slightest that I was unafraid of discussing politics. Also – it’s worth remembering that one need not be part of a country’s cultural elite to take severe umbrage at the notion of a foreign power telling your country what to do, which is exactly how these folks perceived US foreign policy in recent years.
– If there is a more beautiful city than central Prague, I haven’t seen it. If there is a more ugly form of architecture than Communist-era brutalism, I likewise haven’t seen it.
– This picture says a thousand words:
It’s a plaque in St. Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle. You’ll note that part of it has been completely erased. That part is the name of Tomas Masaryk (more here), founder and first democratically-elected President of Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire in WWI. The Communists deemed him a non-person and erased virtually any mention of him from the public arena.
Anyhow, if you’re ever in Prague, I can’t recommend enough that you hire Martina Gregorcova as a personal guide. For the equivalent of about $30 an hour, she’ll take you around town in this magnificent relic of Communism, Salvador the Trabant, with a chassis made almost entirely out of fiberglass and an engine that requires you to pop the hood and pour oil in to the tank to fill up with gas:
Martina is easily the funniest, most free-spirited, and most openly opinionated guide I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve encountered a number. To call her a unique individual would be an understatement. If you want an unvarnished, unsanitized view of Prague as opposed to the stock and sanitized view promoted by the big tour companies with their mammoth buses, you couldn’t do much better than to drop Martina a line.
– Finally, a giant sign in Brussels National Airport promoting the upcoming EU Parliament elections asked the question “How Much Airport Security Is Too Much?” The odds of a government-sponsored sign asking this question appearing prominently anytime soon in a US airport? Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath. Nonetheless, Europe is clearly an emblem of totalitarian socialism.