Monday, October 24, 2011

Bratislava & Budapest

Budapest  Day 1 –Memories

It’s been over 20 years since we were last in Budapest, in the days when it lay behind the Iron Curtain. My most vivid memory is a swim in the Gellert baths, warm spa water, pool surrounded by pillars and stern, women guardians insisting on us wearing a shower caps. It’s now a classy hotel and although I can afford to stay there, I wouldn’t want to. We’re in the Bohem Art Hotel, ‘boutique’ as they say, much better than those big chains with their dumbed-down, corporate décor.  It’s colourful and quirky – free coffee in the afternoons, free WIFI. Any hotel that does not offer free WIFI in this day and age is clearly run by cretins.
Last time there were no bill boards, no adverts, few modern cars and lots of grand but crumbling buildings. We bussed it out to Eger, the home of Bulls’ Blood, the wine that supposedly fortified the locals in their fight against the Turks. We can remember eating gloriously as the exchange rate was so favourable and the gypsy musicians in the restaurants. This was BC – before children.
Dinner the first evening at the Trattoria Tuscano (I know Italian in Hungary). Off the beaten track but cosy and excellent food and wine. Tuscan bread soup, truffle pasta, butterfish and wild boar stew, with a Levinto red.
Budapest  Day 2 – History of Hungary
Next morning a short walk to the huge fresh produce market. They had an excellent set of cabinets showing dozens of species of mushrooms and an office where you could get them identified. Poisoning is clearly a worry! I’m a bit of a schroom freak, sow as in my element. Then round to the Museum of Applied Arts, not to see the applied arts but the Secessionist building in which they’re housed. It’s a truly strange mixture of almost Rococo panels, green/orange roof and Gaudi like features. To be frank, it doesn’t work but you’ve got to admire their sense of adventure – this was before turn of the century i.e. 19th century.
Then to the Hungarian National Museum, which is a huge neo-Classical affair. Hungary lies landlocked between the East and Western Europe and has been subjected to control from both sides. The Romans occupied west of the Danube but the Huns came from the East. After the schism in the Catholic church in 1054 between East and West, Hungary aligned itself with the west. The Mongols invaded in 1241/42 killing an estimated 50% of the population, after which castles were built by the dozen and when they came back in 1286, Hungary could successfully defend itself. The Ottomans took complete control of the country in 1526 but by 1718 the whole of Hungary was finally freed from Ottoman rule. In 1825 reforms were put in place but the country was under Hapsburg control, eventually siding with the Germans in the First World War. Siding again with the Germans in the Second World War, they became a Soviet satellite post war. The 1956 uprising put Nagy in power, but the soviets responded in 1958 by invading and executing Nagy. Then, in 1989, the wall fell, and that era came to an end with Soviet troops leaving in 1990-91. Hungary joined the EU in 2004.
So it has see-sawed between east and west, being subjected to sometimes savage control by outside powers. All of this is told well in the Museum and you come away with this sense of struggle against outside forces that has at last resulted in stability within the European Union. It’s easy to scoff at the EU but the history of Hungary is a testament to its necessary existence.
Over the bridge for lunch at Marcello’s where I had cold Blackberry soup, much better than the cold, milky Cherry soup I had in the Gay Hussars in London.  Then up to the Castle in the late afternoon sun, where a fine trio were playing jazz and classical music in the lookout café, and back down to the river, over the Chain Bridge, built by Adam Clark, who was also a Scot, from Edinburgh. There’s some fine architecture here, from Secessionist surprises to more predictable neo-Classical and Baroque beauties.
Excellent evening meal at Sercli on Veres Palne. Gulash soup, duck salad, lamb in Hungarian ratatouille and cherry and poppy seed strudel.
Budapest Day 3 – House of Terror
Left our luggage in the Nugyati station then walked to the Parliament building, which was closed. It was October 23rd, the day of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 (the year I was born) so closed. The Soviets invaded on 4 November. It’s this 20th century history I wanted to explore.
The House of terror is no entertainment venue but the actual name given to the building which housed both the Nazi and Soviet secret police. It had been highly recommended. In the atrium there’s a soviet tank and on the walls pictures of the hundreds of people who dies at the hands of the Nazis and Communists. It’s dark, foreboding and tells the story of oppression without pulling any punches. Both the Nazi and Soviet invasions are shown in short film clips then room by room you get the apparatus of suppression. The Nazi rooms are black and grey, showing how the Arrowcross became the Hungarian Gestapo and SS. The Jews were ghettoised and murdered, most being sent to Auschwitz. Both excelled in propaganda through uniforms, badges and symbols. Both had their concentration camps and gulags. Both selected racial groups for selective punishment and extermination. Both used this one building to try, imprison, torture and execute their enemies. The Soviet rooms are red and show the car with the red sofa in the back. But it’s the soviet expulsion of thousands to the Gulags that is the most harrowing, with interviews of the few that survived and the widows of those who never returned. In another room some women who had been imprisoned in Budapest were shown meeting their woman guard. It was harrowing.
This, like the Kafka Museum in Prague is exemplary in its use of light and sound to convey atmosphere and context. It gives you more than facts and knowledge taking you into the realm of understanding and feeling. It’s hard not to be moved by the suffering.
Just a few facts, however, are telling:
300,000 Hungarian citizens were captured, deported and lost their lives in the Gulags
There’s a cell like an upright coffin which had lights at eye level to keep you blinded
A cell where you couldn’t stand-up
A water cell where you had to sit in cold water
A torture cell with pliars, electric shock equipment
A gallows
The last Soviet soldier left in 1991
The last Hungarian prisoner of war was returned in 2000
Back in Bratislava
The railway station is a bit run down but we took a tram into town and had a good wander before heading off to Budapest. We’ll be here in a couple of days. Feels like more of a large than a city, but the centre has a relaxed feel.
Back in Bratislava to another Art Hotel (Art Hotel William) – huge room in centre of town. Walk round to the wonderful Blue Church. Decorates with what looks like blue icing and little mosaics. Then up to the Castle, which was a little austere – and closed! The museum was not worth visiting. As Gil said – I’ve got better stuff on my mantelpiece.
We flew here to see Callum fight in the England Tae Kwon Do team at the European Championships. It was odd seeing him in his England track suit with the word England emblazoned across his back. We’re both Scottish and the only remnant of nationalism I have is sports nationalism. But he’s done himself proud after training and competing solidly for 9 years. He got to the quarter finals, which as great for his first outing in the England team. Julia Cross coached him (she’s the most successful competitor ever in ITF TaeKwonDo). She also happens to be Scottish!
Pizza Mizza’s a find. Excellent thin crust pizza and good pastas. Tram back to town past some pretty grim housing. And this is a country that’s helping to bail out Greece!
Final dinner in Mestiansky Pivovar, who brew their own (tasty) beer and serve a fine gulash. A brace of beers each and home to the excellent Art Hotel Willem. Post-Soviet, stag parties have arrived here - sex clubs, shooting Kalashnikovs in the forest, cheap bars.
Final word of praise for eastern European, actually European, public transport. We took trains, buses, trams, trolleybuses and metro trains – all were cheap, comfortable and on time. Only 16 Euros return from Bratislava to Budapest.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Prague through Kafka's eyes

Prague means Kafka to me so when I got an invitation to speak there I couldn’t wait for it to come around. Kafka was, indeed, the subject of my talk, characterising contemporary education as a Kafkaesque experience, turning our children into little Josef Ks through a relentless, irrelevant, bureaucratic and accusatory process, that turns the great majority into seeing themselves as failures. I based my talk on The Trial where Josef K finds himself arrested for a crime that the authorities refuse to reveal. He is then subjected to a process (German title is Der Prozess) of accusation and trials without ever knowing what he has done wrong.
Last time I was here was over 25 years ago, and although grand, it was tawdry, run down and poor. This was well before the wall came down, the Velvet Revolution and Havel, when it was still a communist state. Above all, I remember the terrible food.
What a difference. The entire city has been restored to its late 19th and early 20th century glory, exactly the time Kafka grew up here. I’ve always been ill at ease with 20th century English literature (I exclude Irish & American literature from that definition), disappointed by Forster, Maugham, Waugh, and more recently Amis, Barnes and MacEwan. I agree with our local Brighton academic, Gabriel Josipovici, who sees this modern crop as “prep-school show offs” who have an abundance of cynicism but lack depth. I think this comes from my preference for German over English philosophy. Give me Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Popper and Wittgenstein over Russell, Ayer and any number of second-rate Oxbridge commentators.

Through Kafka’s eyes
So we set off to see the city through Kafka’s eyes, starting with the Kafka Museum. I know this sounds a little trite but it was a revelation and helped me get my bearings. Designed as an ‘experience’ it dispensed with dry exposition and objects, to immerse you in his world, the world of late 19th C, early 20th C Prague. Kafka was born, educated, worked, wrote and was buried in Prague, that “dear little mother with claws”. Born a German speaking Jew, but fluent in Czech, into a German dominated city where the majority was Czech, he was in a maelstrom of political and cultural tensions. The museum creates an atmosphere of angst with fractured sounds and images. Rooms reflect the theme, such as the office with its filing cabinets, containing his thoughts on the tyranny of the ‘office’. It was a story well told and set me up for my walking tour of Kafka’s Prague. Kafka was a walker and his diaries are full of long walks in the city. You can see his entire world in a day’s walk.

Franz Kafka Square
On the north east corner of the main square stands the house in which he was born in 1883. Well, actually, only the portal of the original two-storey house, on the edge of the Jewish ghetto, remains. It’s now the Café Kafka, a Neo-Baroque block with a plaque on the wall put up in 1965, when Czechoslovakia was still in a communist state. The tanks rolled in in 1968 after the failed Czech Spring.
Kafka was born into a strange cultural mix, speaking German and Czech, educated in German, brought up as Jew, right in the centre of a city right in the centre of Europe, a Europe that was to live up to his dystopian visions. It is difficult to read his work without thinking of its prophetic qualities in terms of the totalitarian nightmares of fascism and communism. The fact that he steers clear of ideology makes it all the more human and powerful.

The Sixt House
His next house lies on the south-west corner. The young Kafka was always on the move, renting one house after another, as his father Hermann was an upwardly mobile shopkeeper.  Modern literary critics, textual purists, who dismiss biographical influences and detail, would ridicule this, but the famous letter Kafka wrote to his father, but never read by him, is something  every father and son should read. Kafka felt oppressed by his father, a crushing influence that merely intensified the young Kafka’s need to escape through his imagination. The square is much as Kafka would have seen it, minus the visitors and stag party louts (all English). There’s an Irish and English pub at the north east corner, where they all congregate, too scared to sample the really wonderful Czech pubs that Prague has to offer.

Minute House
The, just off the south east corner of the square, along from the famous clock, is the house he moved to when he was six, where all three of his sisters were born. They lived on the first floor and he’d walk across the square every day to his school in Masna Street. The current sgraffiti was painted over at this time and the ground floor not open as it is today.

Primary School Masna Street
This is still a school, but Kafka hated school, seeing the educational process as a “dagger ready to stab you front, side and back”. This was another major tension in his life, as German schools competed against Czech schools.

Secondary School Kinski Palace
His final four years were spent on the second floor of the front wing of the Kinski Palace. His father’s store was on the ground floor of the same building, now the Kafka bookshop. Although we walked this entire route, Prague’s a city of trams and it’s still by far the best way to get around. We got our bearings on the 22 which slices diagonally across the city then swings round the back of the castle and out to the suburbs past the Brahe and Kepler statue. This came as a surprise, as I had no idea that Tycho Brahe’s was based in Prague, and that Kepler came here to work with him in the early 17th century. Einstein was a later academic star in this city.

House of the Three Magi
In 1892 the Kafkas moved to the second floor of another house, again on the south east side of the square. His father’s shop moved to the premises below their flat. There’s a picture of Kafka with a mongrel dog at this time, one ear down, the other up staring into the camera, taken in 1907. I love this image as the staid face of the young Kafka is in stark contrast to the dog, which seems to show more inner life. I mention this, as after Metamorphosis, My Life as a Dog is my favourite Kafka short story, written from the viewpoint of a dog. The dogs only see other dogs, not humans, and at one point he sees the famous flying dogs who hover about four feet off the ground and fly slowly and horizontally, occasionally coming back to the ground. These are, of course, dogs carried around by their owners under their arms. If that’s not the imagination of a genius, what is!

Café Savoy, Café Louvre, Café Arco 
Kafka was a diligent student and bureaucrat, but it was his social life that fed his intellect. University, where he studied law, was a trial, as he felt they fed his “intellect with sawdust”. However, one of his favourite watering holes was the Café Louvre. Not for the first time did a coffee house fuel the growth of an intellect. I’ve written about this before
Kafka was indifferent to Judaism when young but became curious as he got older. But it was Yiddish Theatre rather than Jewish theology that attracted his admiration, especially in the Café Savoy. Kafka academics have written extensively on this influence in his work.
Long established in the Muslim world, they became the focus for debate and business. Late 17th century coffee shops charged a penny a cup and were called ‘penny universities’, as they were such powerful places of cross-disciplinary debate. By 1739, 551 coffee shops were open in London, many hives of intellectual and business activity. Edward Lloyd’s coffee shop became Lloyds of London. Jonathon’s Coffee House in 1698 listed stock prices, which eventually became the London Stock Exchange. Similarly in New York, a coffee house became the New York Stock Exchange. More recently Starbucks, and there are plenty in Prague, picked up on the laptop types offering free wifi.
Prague is still a city of bars and cafes. One curious phenomenon is the absinthe bars. The Czech Republic is the only country still producing absinthe. But it’s the beer that’s the star. We had a dark beer in U Feluku that had none of that hoppy heaviness of stout. It was delicious. Then there’s the Pilsners. The draft beer is top class and cheap. In fact we felt no need to drink wine, as the beer was so good.

German Business Academy
Kafka studied insurance here, which kick started his career.  He was bound for a career he despised, but even this was to provide the dark backdrop for some of the most remarkable pieces of literature ever written, The Trial, The Castle, Amerika and The Judgement.  “The office is not a stupid institution, it is rooted more in the fantastic than the stupid” he claimed, but work became his demon. Arguably it was the bureaucracy of the state and workplace that drove him to write his best work.

Workers’ Accident Insurance Company
Now a hotel, serving Kafka Cocktails, this was Kafka’s workplace until his retirement. As he progressed over the years, he moved from the top to first floor. Perhaps having a job was a necessary condition for his art. Would we really have works such as In the Penal Colony and The Castle, without his career in the office?  It’s another very attractive Neo-Baroque building. One of the joys of walking around Prague is the architecture, entire streets of grand baroque churches, Neo-Baroque, Art Deco and Classical buildings. Look up, above the cars, at any time and you’re back a hundred years. But it’s not just the form. The buildings are covered in statuary, frescoes and signs which all adds style. Oddly, Peter Drucker, the management guru, attributes the invention of the hard hat to Kafka.

Civilian Swimming Pool
Kafka loved to swim and this pool by the river, now a restaurant and nightclub, was a favourite. The Moldau river bends like the Tiber in Rome, and just like Rome, the Cathedral St Vitus, like St Peter’s, stand on the west side, with the main city tucked into the East bend. But Prague has its own unique masterpiece, the Charles Bridge. We walked over this early in the morning before the crowds, past the brass religious plaques and darkened statues. Then up to the castle and gothic Cathedral.

Franz Kafka Monument
In this area, this eccentric bronze statue was erected in 2003 on the anniversary of Kafka’s 120th birthday. Kafka has been cast as a Marxist, Anarchist, Modernist, Existentialist, Freudian, even Magic Realist writer. In truth he is none of these. Totally unique. I always think that a sign of his worth is the fact that no English book group would ever recommend any of his texts. He deals with ideas that are beyond the social commentary of English writers, to much bigger political and philosophical themes.

The Oppelt House
Back to the north east side of the main square and the house the Kafka family lived in, on the top floor (no longer exists due to damage in 1945).

Bilkova Street
It was here Kafka started to work on his masterpiece The Trial. Not far from here is the Rudolfinum. We booked tickets for an evening concert here, as Prague is the home of Dvorak. What a way to start an evening. We took the 18 tram from the Hotel in the early evening sun, walked across the river, had a drink in the concert hall bar then listened to a superb Quintet who played Vivaldi and Dvorak. Then out into the dark for dinner at a restaurant we had picked out earlier in the day. Completely magical, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

House of the Golden Pike
Although late September, the sun shone intensely on the apartment Kafka inhabited (the one with the balcony). The light and view was to his liking but the noise of the lift and other inhabitants annoyed him. Today this is a beautiful area, and my favourite part of the city. There’s some great restaurants, including Al Dente with its seats in the sun, freshly baked bread in a brown paper bag and lots of little touches, like stamping the dolci menu on the tablecloth. Al this shows how much the proprietor cares. The food and service were flawless.
One curious series of incidents was the man in the white Roller. While eating in Al Dente, a white Rolls Royce floated by with a tiny bald man at the wheel. He slowed down to peer at us. About an hour later, when we left the restaurant we came across the car again, this time parked on a zebra crossing with a policeman taking pictures of it using a tiny camera. We saw him emerge and the usual argy-bargy started with the policeman. Later that night we came back to the same area to eat at the Kolkovna restaurant and he was there again, touching up women at the bar in the restaurant. Every city, I suppose, has its asshole(s). In fact, anyone driving  Rolls Royce is, I suppose, by definition an asshole.
As we’re at the Kolkovna, a word of praise for its excellent Moldavian food. The Goulash soup and Moldavian Sparrows with white and red cabbage were superb. This is filling food. In fact the table next to us, with four portly, smoking Germans had a special dish, where huge lumps of meat were hung from skewers then covered in flaming liquid. Beer cellar food is pretty good but a challenge of you have a light appetite. What is great is the atmosphere. People drink in these restaurants so they’re loud and chatty.

Little Cottage in Golden Lane
This takes you across the river and up to a lane near St Vitus, a gothic church with delicate flying buttresses, which nevertheless, lacks grace from the outside. This is a great area to walk around early evening after the crowds have gone. It was here he wrote A Country Doctor and found this little hovel, where he stayed with his sister and wrote in comparative isolation
Schonborn Palace
It was here Kafka became ill with tuberculosis. He died in 1924, aged 40 and was buried in the New Jewish Cemetery. Most of his writing had yet to be published,something he did not want to happen. We have Max Brod to thank for denying him his final wishes and giving us some of the greatest ever works of literature. His sisters died at the hands of the Nazis, Ottla in Auschwitz. Brod left with a suitcase of Kafka’s writing on the last train out of Prague before the Nazis entered the city. But this was not the end of the story.
Only last year more writings were found but the case is embroiled in a Kafkaesque legal case reminiscent of The Trial. Brod’s secretary got hold of some of his manuscripts and the whole thing has descended into a nasty, selfish, legal war in Israel. It’s a disgrace and great disservice to Kafka.