Thursday, July 20, 2017

Two hours by train from Vienna


The main reason I chose to take R&R in Vienna, Austria is its proximity to its Central European neighbors. That it's a kandlocked nation, Danube river notwithstanding, was another draw. As such, there's a snowball's chance in Hades that I'd go there for work. I flew from the great maritime nation of Greece, via The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, to the green fields of Austria. Now Vienna is an international city, not to just mean residents from across Europe, but from around the world. This distinguishment comes out late at evening, when it appears that the born citizens are at home, getting rested to conquer the world on the morrow. And the memory of the Hapsburg runs deep, with dedications of civic landmarks and learning to Franz Josef. The Hapsburgs are still around, though the British royalty get all the attention: 20 year old Ferdinand von Habsburg is better known as a Racecar driver.

I had the opportunity to visit Bratlislava in Slovakia and Brno in the Czech Republic.  Once subjected to communism, the old winding medieval streets are filled with life. I could only notice the preponderance of streetcars. Once shunned in North America, the quaint mode of transport has been a feature of Central European life since the Romantic age. Several new-builds have been exported to Washington,DC to restart streetcar service recently. The cathedrals in Bratislava and Brno are filled with choirs, organ music, and a congregation. On the street, the older men still wear hats. Named after Dvorak and Chopin, the eastbound trains to Prague pass a dystopia border town. One stop further, and my eyes were fixed on the old city of Brno. At the post office in Brno, I took my first ride in a paternoster. It's really a fancier version of a man lift, but the German invention has been abandoned in Western Europe for safety reasons. Two years ago, I had bought a quick phrase book for Central Europe. It was kind of prophetic that I would have the opportunity to visit. When it was time to fly home to D.C., I was in awe of the lands that once consisted an empire. My pockets had Euros, and coins from Turkey,  Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Denmark, where I had a layover on my return trip. The European hopper flight on Air Berlin was nothing to write home about, but the Scandinavian-accommodating legroom on the long-haul SAS flight was much appreciated. Meal service was the best I've had on a plane. Coffee, tea and water were abundant and available on demand; I like to think the charge for soda was a health incentive. Anyhow, I got my kroner's worth from the flight lounge in Copenhagen.

Someday, I will take the grand tour of Europe- London, Paris and Rome. But those pint-size cities of Central Europe have touched my heart.

Friday, July 7, 2017

When a Vacation Gets Busy

While I was at work, it was easy to say "I don't have enough time" to be worried about activism and protesting. Now on vacation, 'not having enough time' is my own problem, not one I could attribute to my boss or shortened days caused by time advances. At the same time, while at work I could shout as loud as I could off the gunwale of the ship, and no one would hear me. It was an eye-opening experience to trade a weak satellite connection for wifi and broadband; to use internet configured for me rather than one optimized for sending simple text emails. Yes, I did some of my recent blog posts through a satellite connection. I'd write ahead of time, and then wait for early morning to access blogger.com, when the absence of "higher priority" traffic allowed me a connection to the host website. I will be the first to tell you MSNBC clickbait, used as my ship's internet homepage, does not an informed citizen make.

When I was traveling for work, I sectioned attention to friends and family into a 20-minute phone call or a paragraph email, and a twice-weekly Facebook check. Otherwise, my afterhours were my own to plan and divvy. So when I got home at the beginning of the four-day Independence Day weekend, I was surprised by how much time went to 'family time'. A devotee to an art would tell his or her associated to "leave me alone". A dilettante like myself seeks to appease, placing others' desire for attention above attention to the craft.

For me, the 'staycation' does not work. I created, and am working through a punchlist of items that I couldn't readily complete overseas like tax adjustments, ordering books and videos, and making appointments, visiting Mr. Liedman, my coin dealer. Things I guess people do over lunch break, or late afternoon at work, for the lucky ones. So to get away, I take a 'real' vacation, like my week tramping around the old Austro-Hungarian empire of Central Europe (material for another blog post). I left the US on Inauguration Day (faster than a talking head celebrity), and arrived back after five months away. I was quickly reintroduced to American culture: upon arrival in the US, it appeared that half the border control agents took Friday afternoon off! This was only unusual to me since six full days of work a week is the norm on my ship, and seven days is normal too. Instead of "getting ready for the weekend" on Fridays, the anticipation was "getting ready for the overtime".

I feel like a have just a handgrip keeping me from obsolescence. Tinder, where women sort through virtual binders of men, and men do likewise, was the butt of jokes when I was in college just three years ago. Now I've read that online dating had replaced the 'bar scene' as a matchup forum. I landed at the airport alone in one's own city: In Washington, DC, the summer social calendar is light; and none more so than the week of July 4th. As the weeks away from the US turned to months, I needed to take the time reconnecting with friends. They said Mitt Romney was stuck in the 1950's; he missed the 1960's and ensuing cultural changes as a husband and a Mormon missionary. If I wanted to, I could become a virtual hermit on the ships, with a W2 wage statement and a portfolio ledger as my sole concerns in life. That is not the life for me.  To know that I will go out again, I vow to have all matters better organized for my next vacation!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Post Script: Temperance Fountains

In my last post, I neglected to mention the historical analogue between Confederate monuments and temperance fountains. Like many cities, DC has a temperance fountain located halfway between the US Capitol and the White House, placed so that tourists in the 1800s could have a drink of water instead of slipping into a saloon or a drink or few. In the 1920's, temperance turned to prohibition, and many of the fountains placed around the country were removed or demolished. They had become symbols of oppression. Fittingly, DC, with its historic reputation as a sober town back when people had faith in government, kept its fountain. It even outlasted the old local neighborhood's urban decay of the 1970's and 1980's, and eventual revitalization into a must-see area. Today, instead of being filled with empty cans of beer and malt liquor, the fountain again flows with water. In DC, there are still vestiges of sober conformity; a dating site recommends that a person who is a researcher by day and painter by night call himself an analyst, rather than an artist.  


Saturday, May 27, 2017

How to Remember Robert E. Lee



In the space of several weeks, New Orleans removed four monuments, even demolishing at least one. Such a sweeping action spearheaded by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, with consent of the City Council, generated less debate on the national scale than I expected. I was very surprised that the city had the authority to remove landmarks, as I thought that they would be protected by state, even federal law. The federal courts declined to interfere with this “local matter”, and the monuments were removed in the dark of night with less legal battle than removing an old tree. 

These monuments happened to commemorate Confederate leaders and events; and were erected during the heyday of Civil War veterans.  They were the South’s response to Grand Army Plaza and General Sherman statues.  In Norfolk, Virginia there is a Confederate memorial erected in 1951. At first glance I thought it was a bad symbol of massive resistance to civil rights, but upon closer reading I discovered that the memorial commemorated the last meeting of centenarian veterans. In some parts of the country and in some communities, the thought of Confederate statues generates revulsion. But living on the border of Virginia, I grew up around intentional and subtle memorials to the Confederacy, such as the Civil War battlefields, replete with reenactments, curio stores, Robert E Lee’s house on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, Lee-Jackson Day, and roads with high rise buildings named after Confederate generals. Recently, the Washington National Cathedral, part of the Episcopal Church, decided to alter a stained glass window that portrayed a small Confederate flag. That is their right, but it sparked debate in preservation-conscious Washington. Virginia has taken a keen interest in ensuring that the historic city of Alexandria, bordering Washington, keeps its memorials. It makes for unsavory news headlines in the age of clickbait. Around a city full of statues and monuments to controversial figures; several statues to the Confederacy is just ‘is’.  

Among the four demolished monuments was a wholly inappropriate memorial to the Battle of Liberty Place extolling the virtues of lawlessness. It was a low key-memorial and the first to be removed. As the Associated Press writes, it commemorates “A rebellion in 1874 by whites against a biracial Reconstruction-era government in New Orleans. An inscription extolling white supremacy was added in 1932”. This statue was devoted to racism; and had no redeeming artistic value, it was rightly demolished. The others commemorate Confederate leaders, which some find to symbolize racism. 

I looked at pictures of the condemned memorials in New Orleans. Several were grimy and looked to be neglected.  That was how Pennsylvania Station looked in 1963 when the “obsolete” Pennsylvania Station of 1908 was razed, to the horror of historians, the art community, and the educated public.  The airy atrium and iconic building, everything above street level, was replaced with the Madison Square Garden stadium and an office building, maximizing use of what was seen at the time as wasted real estate. What existed below street level, the utilitarian train tracks and platforms, was preserved. A small concession was made to preservationists, and the iconic eagles, which used to be on the train station’s facades, landed at college campuses and public places around New York City.

The fact that Pennsylvania Station was demolished proved to be a turning point on how our nation treated old but iconic buildings. It was a turning point , not a clean break, as we see in our churches.  Parishioners, many struggling immigrants from the Old World, put their pennies together to build great churches in our cities. Some churches have been sold or demolished, usually after a period of postponed maintenance, due to insufficient funds.  Other times, there was “wreckovation” that came with the “Spirit of Vatican 2”: While many parishes were able to accommodate the new mass without alterations; other church leaders jumped on a bandwagon and planned renovation  using  the vague motive of symbolism about moving forward in a new direction.  Similar attitudes prevailed in other denomiations as well. 

Then the Tridentine Mass returned after 20 years’ absence.  This is the old mass which the old Catholic parishes were built for. There is nothing more beautiful than the combination of ritual and place, the old mass being celebrated at the old altar, as it has been for a century or more, skipping one generation. In many neighborhoods with old parishes, gentrification is in full swing. The flavor of life of ethnic communities is being replaced by generic residents and bland chain outlets. In light of this, churches, statues and monuments create a sense of place; as they have been for the past centuries. 

What is a Washingtonian to judge how New Orleans wants to forget the unpleasant past? Folks visit New Orleans for the cultural difference, where preserving the past has less importance than enjoying the present. The people of New Orleans make the French Quarter what it is; the buildings are decoration.  Let the good times roll in the Big Easy.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Mid-Month Thoughts



I saw a story in the national news about a young woman who saved herself from doom as a lost motorist. Looking for a shortcut into the Grand Canyons, she followed her GPS into a large cattle ranch, and ran short of gasoline. Her Girl Scout skills got her out of this predicament, when a police helicopter spotted her stone sign. Reliance on technology without perspective- can be dangerous. 

Still going in and out of Dubai and am grateful to have gotten the important sites out of the way- the Burj Khalifah- the world’s tallest building. I had some questions, like why the global investors are supporting tremendous, speculative growth and construction in Dubai; changing a regional city into a global power. I found an answer: what is happening in Dubai is not unprecedented: New York and Chicago boomed a century ago, on the backs of immigrants.  I try to identify a lively American neighborhood- or Westerner town- in each of the big cities I spend time in. They have some of the comforts of familiarity and the fusion of two cultures. Something like the Chinatowns in American cities. Now Dubai is interesting to me because Western tastes, and expats, are so profuse throughout the city-state.

432 Park Avenue in New York City was recently completed with 104 residences. It’s remarkable since the condo building has the height of the World Trade Center, and the controversially bland exterior was apparently inspired by an art deco wastebasket. But, the views from inside are fantastic and the multimillion dollar condo units were bought up by the global elite, making the supertall building a financial success. The building has drawn social criticism for being the pinnacle of ostentatious wealth. Why this building among the hundred tallest skyscrapers in the world? In many cities the tallest buildings are office buildings. While these gaudy towers might be signs of corporate affluence and extravagance, a little bit of the wealth trickles down to support a white-collar middle class workforce, who fill the inner offices and cubicles. Even the most secluded of firms have secretaries. In other places, the tallest buildings are hotels, and size of these hotels require pricing at least some rooms for the upper-middle class masses. When the tallest buildings are luxury residences, it is hardly inspirational, demonstrating the extremes of inequality: the uber-wealthy owners and tenants who are waited on by low-income service sector workers. The middle class are kept outside the doors. In the ideal world, the most iconic buildings would be somewhat more egalitarian. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

Dubai, Today



When I got to Dubai, I thought I would be greeted by omniscient prayer calls from minarets, camel taxis, snake-tamers, pipists and belly dancers. This is not an Aladdin fantasy; indeed I had read stories of the Middle East from crewmembers onboard WWII Liberty Ships. In light of U-Boats roaming the North Sea, the Persian Gulf became the preferred route to bring supplies to the Soviet Union. And for decades after the war, the region was a quaint reminder of the past, with kings and the supremacy of religion; yet increasingly important on account of oil. 

Fast forward to the present day. The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is one, is a diversified economy, focusing on international trade. There were no snake charmers greeting me, although the gold souks are reminiscent of fabled Arabian opulence. The working class is Southeast Asia- Indians and Pakistanis- who drive the buses and make the food. Foreigners are welcome, and coming from around the world, they take middle-class jobs and practice their Westernized or Orientalized lifestyles. The local elite are not ashamed to mention that the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, was designed by an American firm. If there was a country to describe America’s grim future in the minds of American nationalists, it might be the UAE. Transnational globalists do world trade and go sightseeing in Dubai; there is a strong Islamic influence; a religion shared by the nation’s elite and much of the immigrant working class. And furthermore, foreigners not only ‘take’ working-class jobs, but middle-class ones as well. This fact makes me very interested in how the UAE- and other Persian Gulf States- are able to maintain a good standard of living for their own people. In the US and Southern/Eastern Europe, one primary concern of nationalists is well-paying jobs for born citizens. Yet halfway around the world, there are nations, steeped in Islamic culture, which welcome foreigners, to allow set-asides for things like alcohol and western feminist thought.  

I am familiar with the respect given on military bases to morning colors and evening retreat. Regular business stops, and so does traffic. I was ready to give this regard to prayer call, but by observing the regulars in Dubai, strict observance of the prayer call was not required.  The best prayer call I heard was inside the Dubai Mall, and few heeded its warning, as the ‘globalists’ continued dining and shopping while observant locals made their way to the prayer room.