Monthly Archives: July 2014

Calamity

If you’re reading “Adventures and Images” for the first time, welcome!  Because the first 4 installments tell a chronological story, you may want to read the other three posts first. There is a link to each prior post at the bottom left.  Most of the posts I’ve written so far tell the story of our 3 week journey this summer to Budapest, Prague and Paris. Most are generously populated with my photography.  The brief story that follows is an exception.

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You’ll recall in the first post from Budapest that the European trip was built around a week long class in street photography where I would study and shoot with Valerie Jardin in Paris. I packed a nearly new camera my dad had given me as a present, which would be the camera I would use for the course.  (A mirrorless Fujifilm X-Pro 1.)  I brought a new camera bag my instructor recommended, and a fabulous lens I had just purchased for the class. In addition, I brought along a small Canon S95 “point and shoot” for times outside of class where I wanted the smallest camera hanging from my belt.

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Fujifilm X Pro 1

The night before leaving Budapest for Prague, I packed the camera and camera bag into a roll aboard suitcase for the train trip the next morning. A taxi took us to the train station, and we waited with the bags until a porter helped us onto the train.  All the bags went directly over our seats.  We never left the seats at the same time, and the bags were never out of sight — not for a second.  I did take the roll aboard down briefly to retrieve an article, then put it right back overhead.

When we arrived in Prague, Lorn was napping while I was unpacking.  I opened the roll aboard, and the camera case, the camera and lens were all gone.  In disbelief, I searched the apartment dozens of times.  I contacted the manager at our apartment in Budapest, convinced I must have taken out the camera bag sometime before we left.  No one had been in the apartment after our departure.  I offered to wire him money to ship my belongings overnight, and another 50 euros for his trouble. He agreed.

The following day he e-mailed me and asked if I’d hidden the bag somewhere.  It wasn’t in the apartment.   Lorn and I verbally retraced every step from Budapest to Prague.  The bags never left our sight!  I vacillated from hysteria to neurotic anxiety.  There was an element of denial for the first day or so.  I still believed I had somehow unpacked the camera and absent mindedly put it somewhere in the Prague apartment, but that turned out to be wishful thinking.

What would I do? I couldn’t possibly do street photography with a point and shoot camera — it isn’t fast enough: you’d miss half the shots. I returned to the train station and was told,   “That train went to Berlin.  If you left something on that train, you’ll never see it again.”

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Train Station, Budapest

I searched trusted photography  sites and considered buying a camera in Prague.  Too little selection; nothing I really wanted.  I researched camera stores in Paris.  There were 7 camera stores in  two blocks located twenty minutes walking distance from our apartment.  Maybe some would have a rental department.  It was the best option — rent a camera for a week and the problem is solved.

Our plane from Prague was scheduled to arrive at 11:30 on Saturday morning. Stores would undoubtedly close at 5:00.  How long would the taxi take from the airport to the apartment? I purposely didn’t look at my watch once during the hour long bumper to bumper crawl into Paris. When we finally arrived, we walked as fast as we could. Arriving at the right place at 2:00, I was thrilled to learn they were open till 7:00.  My class began the following day, Sunday at 1:00 p.m.

Two  of the stores had rental departments, but both were closed on Saturday. Damn. Next option: buy a used camera — lots of stores sold them.  They weren’t much less expensive than buying new, so I finally settled on buying a Nikon D3300 — a new model which had very  favorable reviews, but would be easy to learn because I own a similar Nikon I use for canine photography.

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Nikon D 3300

 

I explained my dilemma to Stephane, the store owner, who was quite sympathetic.  He warned me that the Nikon wouldn’t have a valid warranty in North America (only in Europe) and that the VAT (value added tax) was $135, but he would give me a self addressed envelope I could mail from the airport after the forms were validated, and he would refund the tax to my credit card the very next day.   So I would spend a hefty sum for a new camera I only needed for a week, and I couldn’t expect to sell it because there was no valid warranty in North America.  Well, at least I would get the VAT back.

You may be thinking, “How did Eric post all those pictures from Budapest and Prague without a camera?”  I took all of them with my little Canon point and shoot, which does a pretty decent job.I’ll let you be the judge of the quality of the images I took with the Nikon in Paris, which will be the subject of the next installment of “Adventures and Images.”

Jumping ahead to our return to Oregon, I waited a week for the refund to post to my VISA card, but none appeared. I e-mailed Stephane to ask why I hadn’t been credited with the VAT refund, but in spite of the fact that I knew 3 people in the store had read my e-mail, there was no reply to my inquiry.  I contested $135 of the sale with VISA, and they credited the amount to my card, explaining the merchant had 45 days to dispute my claim.

Stephane later wrote to apologize, explaining he had missed the message in the midst of a change in store location. I still have the Nikon (I really like it), and replaced the Fujifilm Camera with its successor model XT 1.

Oh,  about the Prague police.  I decided I should make a police report of the theft, in case insurance would cover some of the loss.  Despite there being no other “customer” (or criminal) in the police station at 6:15 a.m., it took three hours for them to write a report and issue a case number. The policeman at the station accused me of fabricating the entire story.  (Homeowners’ insurance did not cover the loss — the deductible was too high.)

I’m pleased that although I was certainly anxious and upset about the turn of events, it never came close to ruining the trip, and I never lost a night’s sleep.  The camera was replaceable.  It was a “thing.”  We had our health. We weren’t hurt.  And we loved our travels in Europe.

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Letter from Czech Police: Your case is closed.
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“Paying it forward.” One last thought from Prague.

Before I jump into the story of the trauma in Europe…and before we land at Charles DeGaulle airport, I want to tell you a story about a woman named Carol.  She’s a very nice lady with “very big hair” whom I see frequently at breakfast at a fine pancake house in Salem Oregon, where I eat regularly with my 94 year old dad.  About a year ago we had completed our breakfast and the bill wasn’t on the table, so I asked our server for it. “Oh, it’s taken care of,” she said.  Puzzled, I wondered about Governor Kitzhaber, who was the only person I recognized in the restaurant that morning.   But how could he have known that dad and I both voted for him?

It turned out Carol had paid for our breakfast — a woman I’d never spoken with.  The next time I saw her I thanked her for the breakfast, I learned she has been a hairdresser in the same nursing home for THIRTY YEARS.  “There’s so much bad news in the world,” she explained, “I feel like I need to do something good every week. So I buy someone’s coffee behind me in the line at Starbucks, or someone’s breakfast.  Your dad seemed like a neat guy, so that week it was you two.”  She said she believed deeply in the philosophy of “paying it forward.”    Since Carol taught me that valuable lesson, I’ve occasionally participated in the same soul serving exercise.

While on a crowded tram in Prague last month, I saw a teen age boy with a cast on his leg board the trolley, with nowhere to sit. He appeared physically uncomfortable  A very sophisticated and well dressed middle aged woman saw him, and motioned him to take her seat.  I had some tram tickets I knew I couldn’t use, so just before I got off the tram I walked up to her, handing her the tickets.  She appeared startled and confused.  I pointed to the boy’s leg, then to my heart, smiled and said “thank you” in English.  I quickly disembarked from the trolley.  I hope she will remember the day.   I know I will.

 

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Adventures in Prague

We took a lovely 7 hour train ride from Budapest to Praha (Prague), a city many folks on previous European travels insisted we visit.   The most famous spot in town is the Charles Bridge.  It’s peaceful at 8 a.m., but bustling with artists, musicians and tourists for the rest of the day.

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Charles Bridge
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Musicians on Charles Bridge

In my last blog from Budapest, I mentioned we had accidentally discovered a gallery of fantasy art by a single artist which included a bust which Lorn really liked.  I purchased it for his birthday, and he toted this heavy sculpture around Europe in his carry-on bag.

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Art from Budapest

What is referred to as the Jewish Museum is actually a complex of synagogues, museums and a one square block cemetery with 100,000 people buried ten layers deep.  Located in the heart of the ghetto, the grave sites date to the 1300s. Jews couldn’t live or die outside its boundaries.

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Jewish Cemetery

 

 

One of the highlights of the Jewish museum was the Spanish Synagogue. Built in 1868, not only was it the most beautiful of the structures we visited, but a place where we were treated to an evening  concert by a chamber orchestra, featuring music of Gershwin, Bernstein and Vivaldi!

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Spanish Synagogue

 

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Ceiling, Spanish Synagogue
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Jerusalem Synagogue, around the corner from our apartment. Art Nouveau style.

No visit to Prague would be complete without a visit to the Prague Castle, the official residence and office of the President of the Czech Republic.  Dating back to the ninth century, the castle has been a seat of power for kings of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Emperor.  Guinness  lists Prague Castle as the largest ancient castle in the world.  Overlooking Prague on a high hill, it’s a must see for tourists.

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the City, as seen from Prague Castle

St. Vitus Cathedral is the dominant structure at the top of the Castle complex. Construction began in 1344.

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St. Vitus exterior
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Nave

To me, the most impressive room in the Cathedral was the Chapel of St. Wenceslas, where the relics of the saint are kept. The room was built by Peter Parler between 1344 and 1364 and has a ribbed vault. The lower part of the walls are wonderfully decorated with over 1300 semi-precious stones and paintings about the Passion of Christ dating from the original decoration of the chapel in 1372–1373. The upper part of the walls have paintings about the life of St Wenceslas, created  between 1506 and 1509. In the middle of the wall there is a Gothic statue of St. Wenceslas created by Jindrich Parler (Peter’s nephew) in 1373. The Chapel is not open to the public, but it can be easily viewed from the doorways.

I followed Rick Steves’ advice and went in the mid afternoon, and had all the time I wanted to view this unbelievably beautiful room unobstructed. A small door with seven locks in the south-western corner of the chapel leads to the Crown Chamber containing the Czech crown jewels, which are displayed to the public only once every  eight years.  This was in contrast to the heavily guarded but accessible crown jewels of Hungary, which we saw during a tour of the parliament the previous week.

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St Wenceslas Chapel

Our first day in Prague we toured the city with Marcus, proprietor of “The Naked Tour Guide” (he was clothed).   Other than a night time walk on the hill overlooking the city, his only recommendation at the Castle was a museum called Lobkowicz Palace  https://www.facebook.com/TheLobkowiczCollections

A 1 hour audio guide is narrated by William Lobkowicz, a nobleman raised in Boston during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, who returned to Prague in 1990 to claim his family’s vast holdings of land, 10 palaces and art dating back nearly 1000 years. His ancestors were patrons to both Beethoven and Mozart, and the castle palace houses the original manuscript for Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, which is dedicated to Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowicz, who is also recognized in Joseph Haydn’s “Lobkowicz Quartets.”  Lorn and I both agreed it was the finest and most enjoyable museum we have ever visited.  If you’re ever in Prague, don’t miss it!

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Dogs belonging to William Lobkowicz’ mother, who was an avid lover of animals

As I was leaving the Castle on my second day’s visit, I noticed a crowd of people around a surprising statue of a naked adolescent boy.  I thought it remarkable that people would gather under the boy’s crotch and stroke it, but when I looked online, I saw it was a Prague tradition which allegedly brings good luck!  The statue was built in the early 1900s, which I found remarkable for the time.

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“Lucky” boy statue

Rick Steves and our apartment manager both recommended a venue called “Le Louvre,” a restaurant over 100 years old on the second floor of a downtown building.  It was a delightful and inexpensive place for breakfast or lunch.  Below are my photo and one taken of the same room in about 1910.

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Le Louvre, June, 2014
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Le Louvre, 100 years ago
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Lunch at Le Louvre

Like Budapest, Prague is a very walkable city.  Thanks to “Airbnb,” we were able to find relatively inexpensive apartments in the heart of town — perfect for our needs.  The Prague apartment was an elegant place with high ceilings and beautiful furniture.  Although it was 90 degrees on our last 3 days in the city, the un-air conditioned apartment retained the night’s coolness when we closed it up each morning before venturing out.   We were never uncomfortable inside.

Last year we made a return trip to Vienna, and who wouldn’t want to spend a night at the Vienna Opera?  I’ll tell you the answer:  people who don’t want to spend $300 for a ticket!  Before leaving for Prague, we decided to snag much more affordable tickets to the opera there, and we sure weren’t disappointed.  Rigoletto was my first opera, and I loved every minute.  The opera house was just a five minute walk from our apartment, even closer than the historic downtown area.

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Czech National Opera

It was difficult to decide which was more breathtaking — the performance or the venue!  Before we left for the performance, I read that the opera house is a “coats and tails” kind of place during the Christmas holidays, but the online posts said they never kick anyone out — I was lucky.

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Box seats to our right, but our 6th row center seats were better!
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Wow!
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It’s us — really!
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Mural /graffiti honoring John Lennon

As we ponder the death of a single man whose impact on our world remains, I think the time is appropriate for some serious reflection at what we saw on an excursion to Terezin, a small village one hour from Prague.  You may know it as “Theresienstadt,” which is the German spelling of the infamous Nazi ghetto. We expected a dreary, somber place, but that isn’t what we found.   Much of the city is preserved as a museum to honor the tens of thousands who were murdered there, but it is most well known as a place the Germans used to propagandize their treatment of Jews as humane.  They turned it into an alleged “model city” for Jews and actually fooled a delegation of the international Red Cross into believing them, despite the fact that the delegation didn’t privately interview a single Jew.

When we disembarked from the bus from Prague, we entered a museum in which I saw this inscription and photograph, which made me cry.

 

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And here is the poem Frantisek Bass wrote at Terezin.

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The women’s barracks.

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Just as it looked in 1941.

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In the women’s barracks, a museum was dedicated to the art created by prisoners, much of it hidden, and discovered after the war.  Few of the artists survived.  I was especially impressed by this depiction of life in the ghetto.

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A hidden ghetto synagogue, preserved to this day.  A single room under an apartment.

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A wonderful serendipity coincidence.  The night before our trip to Terezin, we watched a documentary on the Jewish Theater in Terezin during the ghetto years.  A significant portion was conducted in an interview with a lovely gentleman who survived, and upon our entry to the museum, Lorn saw him leading a group of 4 tourists through the town.  I stopped him and told him I had just seen him in a movie.  It was great to meet him!

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Terezin survivor and movie star!

 

 

To lighten things a bit — three current colorful residents of Terezin.  I didn’t understand their response (in Czech) to my request for a portrait, but I left pretty fast…

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In my first blog (our week in Budapest), I concluded there had been some mishap and significant trials between Budapest and Prague.  I told you I would discuss the problem in this post.  For now, suffice it to say that I had to secure the services of the police, and it started with this fellow, who directed me to the police station, only a block from where he stood.  Then why did it take me 45 minutes to find it?  And why did I have to spend 3 hours there beginning at 6:15 the following morning?

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the friendly policeman, but the beginning of a minor nightmare.

To be continued……..

 

It was Paris

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June 1-21, 2014.   Our first trip to Europe alone…without someone else taking responsibility for everything — meals, travel from point to point, baggage, airport transfers, local guides — you name it.  I’ve been a fan of street photography for several years, and 2014 presented just the opportunity I’d been looking for — a professionally led class in a beautiful, exciting city — Paris!

Our teacher was to be Valerie Jardin, a Parisian living in Minnesota who has become a familiar name in the world of street photography.  Eight other students hailed from places like Chicago, Ottawa, Indianapolis, San Francisco and Tel Aviv.

My father (now 94), introduced me to photography when I was 10.  An accomplished black and white photographer, he developed images in his own darkroom. I remember taking my first class when I was 13, and I’ve always been an avid amateur who loves sharing vacation and travel photos with friends.

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Most amateurs shoot landscapes, flowers, and the occasional portrait.  But my interest in beautiful scenery was overshadowed by an experience I had in 2011 while my partner Lorn and I were cruising the Saone River in southern France.  We were in the town of Arles, coincidentally at a time when Roma (“gypsy”) people were converging on the town from all over Europe and western Asia — a regular spring ritual/festival.  The day we arrived in the town square, we were privileged to observe the pagentry, colors and festive costumes of celebrants from a dozen countries.   Every sense I had was alive, and I shot hundreds of pictures, none more memorable than this portrait of Romas at a wedding. (click on the image to enlarge)

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I follow several street photographers’ blogs and Facebook pages, and for the past three years I’ve been looking for just the right street photography class in a perfect location.  On our previous trips to Europe, fellow travelers would often ask whether we’d visited Prague, and when we said we hadn’t, expressed surprise, telling us “You must visit Prague.”  So we decided that our next trip to Europe we’d return to Budapest (a city we’d previously visited only briefly) and spend time in Prague.  And so it was, we decided to spend a week each in 3 cities: Budapest, Prague and Paris.

BUDAPEST

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A dear Hungarian friend in Nelson, New Zealand piqued our interest in the two cities straddling the Danube (formerly known as Buda and Pest) many years ago, and we regretted she wasn’t with us.  We engaged a guide whom we first met on our 2011 trip.  Gabor Bur (pictured with his partner at  dinner) is a professor of history at the university, and an expert on the history of Jews in Hungary, so he was a wonderful guide to the city.

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You might think it odd to spend hours trekking to and through a cemetery on the city’s outskirts, but Gabor thought it important enough for us to visit the burial place of 300,000  Jews, many reburied  following the Holocaust.  550,000 of Hungary’s 825,000 Jews were murdered.  For reasons I’ll discuss later, the only cemetery image I can share is that of an art nouveau mausoleum in a place where poets, artists and intellectuals’ remains are everywhere.

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Hungary was one of the last countries in Europe to have its Jewish population moved east to the crematoria.  One of the most well publicized atrocities occurred on the banks of the Danube, where Hungarian members of the Arrow Cross (a pro Nazi faction) lined men, women and children up on the edge of the Danube, tied them together with rope or shoelace and shot every third one, avoiding waste of precious ammunition so that 2 would drown and one die from gunshot.  80,000 died during the 1944 siege of the Arrow Cross. A memorial was erected to the victims on the Pest bank of the river, where the murders were committed.

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We rented apartments in each of our destinations, and all were located right in the heart of the city — walking distance from most all the desirable attractions.  When a destination was too far to walk, we took a tram or a subway, and we found them easy to navigate and pay for.  Of the 3 countries we visited, only France uses the Euro for currency, so we came prepared with Euros, Hungarian forints and Czech korunas (crowns).

On our first trip to Budapest I was disappointed not to be able to visit the Parliament, which I consider one of the most beautiful buildings in the western world.  So we purchased tickets online before leaving the States, and it was a delightful tour of a magnificent structure.

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On our first full day in Budapest we walked through the Great Market, marveling at the  wide variety of fresh foods, especially European cheeses. Lorn made arrangements for us to visit a maze called Claustrophilia, where you are locked in 2 rooms, presented with difficult clues and challenged to find your way out in an hour.  He persuaded me to come along, and it turned out not to be as frightening as I’d feared.  (I didn’t take him up on his generous offer to repeat the experience in Prague.)

We visited a magnificent exhibition of Toulouse Lautrec posters at  an art museum.  Lorn discovered a delicious eastern European Jewish dessert called flodni — a pastry with walnuts, apples and poppy seeds.  On an expedition to find more flodni on a subsequent evening, he discovered a gallery of fantasy art and purchased a rather heavy sculpted head of an African woman, which he successfully toted through Europe and plans to hang on our living room wall.  It was the only time we had to visit an ATM for unplanned extra cash.

One morning we took the tram to Margaret Island, a tranquil place filled with parks and sports arenas in the middle of the Danube.  It was the only place in Budapest where I can say I don’t think I saw another tourist.  It was a place for fun, relaxation and glee.  We rented bicycles and enjoyed the place like we were locals.

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The Unitarian Universalist Church, where I’ve belonged since I was 15, has important historical roots in Hungary.  Rural Transylvania (now in Romania) has dozens of Unitarian Churches, and their members are ethnic Hungarians.  Early this year I made contact with the minister of the Unitarian Church in Budapest, the Rev. Joseph Kazouni.  We had the good fortune to spend an evening with Joseph, the church president Katrina and her husband Zoltan.

 

 

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img_0107img_0118After six fun and relaxing days in Budapest, we packed our bags and called a taxi to take us to the train station for the 7 hour trip to Prague, which would be our home for the second week of our adventure.  On the day we left, a minor calamity ensued, and I will begin at that point in the second installment of our June adventure.