My Eastern Bloc Tour

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As most of you know, I was away for nearly two weeks on “vacation”. Typically, when I go photo 1somewhere new – – – even something minor, like walking into a new store – – I can typically write up some impressions I had about the place. One would think that a tour of Prague, Poland, and Berlin would evoke all kinds of prose. Strangely, virtually nothing came to mind, and I wasn’t even sure I could muster up a “post-travel” post.

A few folks asked me if I would write one, however, and I do have a few things to say, including one conclusion that surprised me. For those who don’t know me so well, an important preface is that I’m not that keen on traveling. I’m a notorious homebody, and the nuisance of planes, passports, and expensive hotels really isn’t my cup of tea. I’d rather just stay home with my dogs. But occasionally I am wrested lose from the snug of Palo Alto.

photo 2The trip began in Prague, which I was looking forward to since one of my favorite movies, Amadeus, was filmed there. Prague is indeed a remarkably beautiful city, and we stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, which is a converted monastery. The really cool thing about the Mandarin (besides being fairly swanky to start with) is that it seems like there isn’t a soul around for miles, even though you are just steps away from all the big attractions of the city.

Of course, careful readers of Slope will recall that my wife’s wallet was stolen in Prague, which dropped an H-bomb on the rest of the trip and gave me a permanent dislike of Prague, even though it was just one jackass who did the deed. It’s a real shame that an expensive trip through so much gorgeous territory would be spoiled by some jack-off ripping off a tourist. I’ve dreamed up may clever mechanisms since then which I’d love to produce and distribute to Prague tourists (they involve a fake wallet, a powerful battery, and electrodes).

Except for that, Prague was just fine, and we hit all the main attractions (the Charles bridge, the Prague Castle, Old Town Square, many cathedrals, etc.) As I promised myself, I managed to see some Amadeus locations as well, although the film was made deep in the bowels of the Cold War when things looked a lot less commercial.

I then rented a car and we drove to rural Poland – specifically, Polanica-Zdroj – which is a big touristphoto 3 destination for Poles. I greatly prefer the country to the city, so I felt much more at-ease in rural Poland (even though, as a mixed-race couple, my wife and I were getting a lot of curious, lengthy stares from the whiter-than-a-KKK meeting population of Poland). My son was attending a fencing camp there (where he remains to this day) in a nasty-ass, Soviet-style “camp” which looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since the Cuban missile crisis. Quite a change from the Mandarin Oriental.

After a few days, once we knew he was settled in, I took the balance of my family on the long drive to Berlin, which was entirely through Polish and German countryside (indeed, it seems about 90% of Europe is just forest, which is beautiful). I suppose Berlin was my favorite part, because it was a nice balance between rural (we were next to the Tiergarten) and city. We stayed at the Regent Berlin, which I read was considered one of the nicest hotels in the world. It struck me as funny, since the Regent was in what used to be Communist East Berlin. I really do wonder what it looked like back in the mid-80s when it was still under Soviet rule.

photo 5Perhaps my favorite site in Berlin, and perhaps for the whole trip, was the DDR Museum, which shows what life was like for ordinary citizens in East Berlin during the period of Soviet rule. I have a longstanding fascination with the Cold War (probably because I lived through it) and the reality of day-to-day existence under such insane conditions. Even as a child, I had an instinctive disgust at the Communist system, and its collapse was logical and glorious. The museum plainly shows the hypocrisy and senselessness of the entire Soviet experiment. I’m glad we’re able to stroll through a museum and smirk at its absurdity now that it’s dead, instead of knowing that, with the exception of North Korea and (to a less grotesque extent) Cuba are the only places living with this lunacy.

The most striking impression I had, however, was after I left Europe. When I got back to the Bay Area, and my insane taxi driver was blasting me back to my house at warp speed, I looked around and though………, this place is ugly. It was so plain and beige and dry. And, honestly, I’ve never had that feeling before, including those instances when I’ve returned from lengthy travel.

My desire to sell my house for a fortune and get the hell out of the Bay Area was renewed yet again. I guess I’m just a fan of rain and greenery, because, good God this place is ugly. The amusing thing is that when I saw my brother-in-law a few days later, who himself had just returned from Vancouver, he shared precisely the same sentiment with me. Maybe the drought in the state is turning it into something permanently gross. I feel sorry for the poor souls buying real estate and houses at these prices. They’ll never see that money again.

But I digress! In spite of the preceding thoughts, I’m glad to be back, particularly since I’ve got all my dogs, my computers, my screens, and my zippy Internet connection back. (The trip back home featured a trip almost up to the North Pole, which killed my WiFi connection for about 60% of the journey which, for me, was kinda like torture). I’m going to stay put here as long as I can. I’ve had enough, and anyway, I’ve got nine time zones of jet lag from which to recover!

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