Sunday, March 20, 2016

Czech Your Pillage: Central Europe under Siege

Once burned, twice shy.  Twenty times burned, Central Europe.  Between Ottomans, Swedes, Napoleon, Hapsburgs, non-Nazi Germans, Nazi Germans, and Communists, Central Europe has the habit of being burned to the ground by most any marauder.

To discourage this cycle of destruction, medieval city planners turned to a new model: find a hill, build a castle on it, and keep your important stuff in the castle.

We prepare to storm the castle.

Aside from walls, which came standard, the particular defense mechanisms varied from castle to castle.  In Cesky Krumlov, the royals filled the moat with bears.  (Incidentally, I have an idea for a Revenant sequel.)  In Prague, castle dwellers pushed people out of windows, an approach which led to the 1618 Defenestration of Prague, my new favorite historical event.  In Salzburg, the castle had a giant mechanical organ which could blast only one chord and was presumably used to annoy invaders or summon Von Trapps.

Today, the castles have more passive(-aggressive) defenses.  Many have been declared UNESCO Heritage Sites, so before you attack them, you have to fill out the requisite paperwork.  In Vienna, the Schloss Schonbrunn deters potential siegers with an educational playground where a sign advertises/threatens “If you can do math with your feet, you’ll have fun.”  And in Salzburg, the Schloss Hellbrunn has a battery of “joke fountains” that work thusly: the guide invites you to look at a music box; the guide pulls a lever; the music box shoots you with a jet of water.  Replace “music box” with lion, flying hat, and lawn furniture, and you’ve seen the remainder of the tour.

Schloss Schonbrunn.  Careful, it's educational.

In contrast to the castles, the villages below were seen as disposable, a necessary sacrifice to those who maraud.  As such, valuables were stored offsite.  For example, the statues on the Charles Bridge in Prague are merely reproductions; the originals are in that warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Even museums don’t necessarily contain valuables.  Consider the Deutsche Museum.

As a child, when my parents asked me to clean my room, I would instead put labels upon the messy heaps (“Legos, circa 1987”) and claim they were exhibits.  With the Deutsches Museum, Munich has taken the same approach.  They stack their used industrial equipment in display cases, slap on incredibly technical descriptions (“Turbofan engines are turbojet engines characterized by the fact that part of the air entering the first compressor stages flows through an annular bypass duct and leaves the engine without combustion through the exhaust nozzle”), and call it a day.

Left to fend for themselves, the villages and cities have developed defenses for keeping would-be marauders at bay.  First, they rely on the power of distraction.  You can’t pillage if you’re too busy doing touristy crap.  As such, in every Central European city, you will find three things: a mirror maze, a torture museum, and a tower that looks like the handle of a lightsaber.  To these, each city adds its regional specialty:

Towers abound.

Munich, of course, has the Glockenspiel.  This is basically the Small World ride with arthritis: figurines in a giant cuckoo clock lurch around celebrating the end of the Black Plague.  To supplement this display, every seven years, Munich invites cooper dancers to come “dance away the plague,” an approach to public health that only Jenny McCarthy could love.  (As it turns out, the cooper dancer fund would have been better spent on walls, for in 1632, Sweden conquered the undefended city.)

Prague, in contrast, has the Strahov Library where beautiful leather volumes line the halls as far and as high as the eye can see.  I cannot overstate the effect.  If Belle saw this library, she would drop the Beast like so many petals on a magical rose.  But Sweden, of course, invaded Prague, pillaged Strahov, and took many of the books.  Now whenever the Swedish ambassador visits Prague, he gives back one or two books, and Prague pretends everything’s cool.

Ooh, books.

An aside on Sweden: in 2016, “Swedish army” sounds like a punchline (cf. Why did the chicken cross the road? / Swedish army), but once they meant business.  In addition to the city of Munich and the books of Prague, the Swedes conquered (and kept) two-thirds of Denmark.  Luckily, they’ve mellowed out in the intervening centuries, and Ikea has since replaced the army as Sweden’s most terrifying export.

Not to be outdone by books or clocks, Salzburg offers three forms of distraction: Mozart (who was born there), The Sound of Music (which was filmed there), and marionettes (for which there is no justification).  All of these come together in the Salzburg Marionette Theatre.  My travel mates and I bought tickets to an all-marionette performance of The Sound of Music, mostly so we could see marionette Maria put on her own marionette show of “The Lonely Goatherd.”  (It’s marionettes all the way down.)  However, the theatre bait-and-switched us to The Magic Flute, whereupon we were forcibly cultured.  (Fun fact: the lyrics in the Queen of the Night’s aria translate roughly to “Go sta-a-a-a-ab him with a knife.”)

This is exactly what Mozart intended.

In its attempts to distract modern invaders, however, Central Europe sometimes misses the mark.  In Munich, bars advertise “American table dancing.”  Unless I’ve been sitting at the wrong tables all my life, this is not a thing.  And Vienna, figuring that Times Square is a place we like (as opposed to a place we have to go because all the subways stop there), has fashioned the area outside the State Opera into its own Times Square complete with costumed figures.  True, they’re Mozarts instead of Cookie Monsters, but they still try to sell you CDs.

As another line of defense, Central Europe attempts to incapacitate its visitors by means of food.  The standard cuisine is sausage and beer, and the standard portion size is you-shall-never-walk-again.  In Munich, in a futile attempt to eat healthily, I ordered a “wurst salad.”  The result: a salad where every leaf was a slice of salami.  As a concession to one’s arteries, a sprig of lettuce had been plopped on top.  At the Augustinerbrau beer gardens in Salzburg, libations were served by the stein, where stein is German for “bucket with a handle on the side.”  Suffice it to say, by the time we reached the Czech Republic, I was delighted to see something other than sausage and beer on the menu: a poppy seed dumpling.  Eagerly, I ordered it, and less eagerly, I received it.  The dish was literally a pile of poppy seeds.  Imagine Zabar’s after the bagel Rapture.

German salad: it's the wurst.

If invaders aren’t sufficiently waylaid by sights or food, Central Europe has ensured that they won’t be able to get around, at least in a manner than permits their continued survival.

Like the Swedish army, we started out on foot.  However, we soon noticed a few oddities.  First, no one in Central Europe jaywalked.  No one.  It didn’t matter whether the road was empty or the street was abandoned; if the sign didn’t say “Walk,” people did not walk.  Second, the walk signs are designed to kill Americans.  The flashing red hand with a countdown number means not “You can walk for X more seconds,” but rather “Wait X seconds before you start walking.”  A flashing walking-guy means less “Consider increasing your pace” than “In two seconds, a car will run you down.”

Duly terrified, we switched from foot to bus.  This was short-lived, and almost so were we.  One of the drivers read while speeding down the highway.  The other, also while driving, showed us pictures of cars he’d like to buy, children he’d already had, and the artwork of said children.  This approach to driving explains why you don’t see jaywalkers in Central Europe.  They all died.

Finally, we settled with train.  Beautiful, punctual, and not-deraily, Central Europe’s train system puts Amtrak to shame.  However, as we would learn, it’s filled with brigands.  During the trip to Graz, an older gentleman bumped into our seat and proceeded to apologize.  What we didn’t know: while he was apologizing, his accomplice purloined my travel mates’ bag.  It was textbook smash-and-grab, and it could have been prevented if only we’d taken the standard precautionary measures.  Namely, when an old person approaches, punch them.

Somehow our bags were stolen.

Given its methods of distracting, waylaying, and otherwise maiming, you may think that Central Europe is overreacting to potential siegers.  But then you see who’s sieging:

In a restaurant in Budapest, I met a fellow American tourist who explained he was a “bit of a troublemaker” at Bob Jones University.  In fact, he kissed many women there, and one of these women has since “rejected Christ, married (whispered) a black man, and moved into a high rise in Chicago.”  He seemed most upset about the Chicago part.

But Central Europe faces an invader that’s worse than tourists: touring musicals.  In addition to the Grease (“The #1 Party Musical!”), signs advertise Gladiator: A Giga Musical and, more disturbingly, Mozart das Musical.  The latter depicts the title character in a man-on-the-front-of-a-romance-novel shirt complete with plunging neckline and frilly sleeves.  Passion in his eyes, sexy Amadeus reaches toward the camera as if to say, “Help me, Peter Shaffer, you are my only hope.”

I'd go.

With all these invasions past and present, Central Europe’s siege mentality is to be expected.  However, it’s been applied with ill effect to a more recent event: the Syrian refugee crisis.

As one might expect, cities’ willingness to accept refugees is inversely proportional to the chance that refugees will actually go there.  Salzburg declares “Refugees are Welcome Here,” and the sign is in English so that tourists can acknowledge Salzburg’s generous offer.  The only catches: (i) Salzburg is on the opposite side of the country from where the refugees are trying to enter, and (ii) the refugees are trying to get to Germany, not Austria.  It would be like Greenland putting up a sign that said “Hondurans Welcome!”


In Central Europe, most of the refugees are stalled in Hungary, and the country has made zero-effort (in fact, negative-effort) to accommodate them.   When crossing from Austria to Hungary, which you’re allowed to do if you look not-Arab, the shift in borders is clear: you transfer from a sleek electric train to a Soviet-era diesel one, whereupon a large Hungarian woman sits next to you and sobs for an hour.  Outside the train, policemen watch over clusters of refugees sitting cross-legged on the platform.  Other people may enter the train, but the police ensure that the refugees stay outside.

Eventually we arrived in Keleti, Budapest’s main train station.  Throughout the terminal, a tent city has sprung up, as well as NGO-run support stations where water is distributed, clothing swapped, and smartphones charged.  The presence of smartphones surprised me.  From press coverage, I expected the refugees to be impoverished.  Looking closer, though, I noticed that the tents were up-scale brands like Northface, and the people in the tents were fashionably dressed and impeccably groomed. The Syrians in this train station weren’t coming for economic opportunity; they were fleeing for their lives.  But will the surrounding countries accommodate them?

Keleti Railway Station

After centuries of invasion by anyone with a cannon and a dream, Central Europe has prepared a bevy of defenses.  These range from the physical (e.g. castles, wurst salad) to the emotional (e.g. xenophobia), and they’re certainly understandable.   However, while “fear of invasion” is an apt lens through which to view tourists, Nazis, or ABBA, it’s a horrible way of regarding refugees.  They don’t need defenses raised against them; rather, they need defending, and by geographic lot, that task has fallen to the Central Europeans.  May they all be as enthusiastic as that sign in Salzburg.

Metaphorically speaking, I hope there are enough seats at Mozart das Musical for everyone.

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