THE SLOW TRAIN TO PRAGUE

By Paul

Travel is its own kind of universe, especially international travel. You tend to live in an enclosed cocoon of airlines, buses, and trains, each with its own rules and its own culture. And in the midst of it all, it’s easy to lose track of days and dates, as well as normal connections with the wider world through newspapers and commercial news programs, especially when these media come in languages unfamiliar to you.

I noticed all this again recently when my partner and I, and an old friend of ours, spent a couple of weeks traveling around various parts of Western and what used to be called Central Europe. Within this kind of travel universe, things take on a character and a vividness all their own. At least if you travel the way we do and are busy from morning to late afternoon visiting museums, strolling about in medieval cathedrals, and as much as possible just taking in the atmosphere of a city. Getting from place to place, too, presents its own logic and its own challenges, which is to say that occasionally the getting there may sometimes be even more interesting, and certainly more challenging, than when you arrive.

A case in point for us this time was the train between Salzburg and Prague. For better or for worse, we are what you might call major planners-in-advance. In other words, we had done our advanced computer-based research on all the possible ways of getting from city to city, and in the end we’d opted for making this particular trip by train. Once that was decided, we discovered that there was no direct service between the two cities. The choices available to us were: going first through Munich, or back to Vienna (where we had just been), or traveling via the much smaller town of Linz in northern Austria. Each option appeared to have its advantages, as well as its drawbacks, and in the end we picked Linz, simply because it seemed to offer the shortest and most direct route.

Or so we thought, anyway. Our first clue that things might not be as simple as they appeared surfaced when we actually got the tickets in the mail. There were no seat assignments on either train, that is, the one from Salzburg to Linz, or the train from Linz to Prague. That seemed odd, and it took us three or four attempts at asking various railway officials once we got there before we understood that what we had was an open ticket, and there were no seat assignments of any kind for anyone on these trains. It was first-come-first-served. The second clue we didn’t catch, and which we understood only later on in hindsight, was the printing of two unfamiliar Czech words on the ticket for the Linz-to-Prague leg of the trip. After failing at several attempts to research what these words might mean, we just decided we’d ignore what we couldn’t understand. Sometimes that’s a strategy that actually works just fine, but then sometimes it doesn’t.

Our train turned out to be an old one, with actual compartments in it that had doors that closed and windows that opened. In itself, this was quite nice. I kept expecting to see Hercule Poirot walking down the narrow aisle with those mincing little steps of his. Once settled in, I used my halting phrasebook Czech to ask the conductor if there was a dining car on the train. He looked at me strangely and replied, “ne jidlo.” I got that phrase immediately and knew it was going to be a long 5 hour trip, since he was telling me that there was no food available.

But that too was fine. We had some energy bars to share amongst us, and nobody dies of starvation anyway in 5 hours. So, we settled down to enjoy the gorgeous scenery, as we passed through northern Austria and into the southern part of the Czech Republic. Green, green hills, very few villages, but fields covered in yellow flowers that looked to us a lot like wild mustard, but which were, I later discovered, more likely rapeseed flowers, which are used in the production of canola oil. All in all, it was a lovely, rustic, tranquil scene with warm breezes blowing and the pungent scent of these yellow flowers wafting in. What better way, we all thought, to enjoy a trip to Prague?

It was, I think, just about that time when the conductor came by again. His brief message, though again entirely in Czech, was simple and clear even to us: we were to get off the train at the next station and get onto a bus. Really? But our ticket clearly said Prague on it, and didn’t that mean going all the way by train? So what was this unceremonious and unlooked for departure from our comfortable compartment all about? Before I could gather my wits and ask, the conductor had hurried off to the next car. The three of us huddled for a quick discussion, and I volunteered to trail after the conductor to try to get more information.

It’s not easy when you don’t speak the language of the country you’re visiting. In the best of all possible worlds, I had hoped that my Russian, as rusty as it was, might be of some use, but it turned out not to be a lot of help. Yes, there are cognates aplenty between Russian and Czech, but individual words aren’t of much assistance when you’re attempting to make sense of whole sentences. And the nearest Slavic cousins to Czech are Polish and Slovak. So, as it turned out, Russian in the Czech Republic was about as much help as French might be in Italy.

Still, I was able to make our concerns clear to the conductor. “Why are we to get off at the next station? Will the bus then take us to Prague?” I managed to get across.

“Ne, ne!” he replied, clearly a little annoyed at my apparent slowness in comprehending simple things. He then explained in, I have no doubt, very clear Czech what was to happen, but all I could do was mumble a probably incoherent “nerozumim,” – “I don’t understand!” At which point, our long-suffering conductor none too patiently took out a diagram he had obviously prepared earlier, which clearly showed what was to happen: we were to get off the train, get on a bus, and then this bus would take us on to the other train station, at which point we would board another train and be on our way to Prague once more. Why it was he hadn’t shown us this drawing in the first place still remains something of a mystery to me.

Upon arrival at the station a few moments later, the train ground to a jolting halt. This truly was the middle of nowhere. There was a station building, to be sure, old and yellow, but no town, no village, not even a couple of houses scattered here and there. The only other human being was an official-looking railway man standing on the track with a sour expression on his face, pointing us all toward the waiting bus.

It’s strange the ideas that go through your head at such times. I suddenly felt myself transported back in time and saw in my mind’s eye a group of tired, confused, and frightened Jews getting off a train at perhaps this very same nowhere train station, ordered onto buses with no explanation, with everyone hurrying to follow orders under the watchful eyes of dour, unsympathetic, and unsmiling officials. What was even more astounding was the discovery later on that the exact scenario had unfolded itself in the minds both of my partner and of our friend, Tom. I had to wonder then if this nondescript station in the middle of a field somehow still held on to frightened and frightening vibrations of horrors that had unfolded there seventy or more years ago.  I suppose I will never know, but it felt like more than a chilling coincidence.

We all struggled to carry our luggage across several sets of tracks, and were told to put the bags into a waiting van (not on the bus we were to take). Maybe still under the spell of that strange vision, we just followed orders, trusting to fate and hoping that we would somehow be reunited with our bags. In the meantime, the bus started up for the half-hour drive through an even more lovely countryside. At one point, we saw the luggage van veer off in another direction, making us even more uneasy. Soon enough, though, we arrived at the next train station. Our monolingual Czech conductor was waiting there for us, and he motioned for us all to get on the next train. Finally, people began to speak up and everyone protested that we weren’t going anywhere without our luggage. The conductor pointed to what might have been a luggage car connected to the train, and said something else in no doubt excellent Czech. Those of us who were not Czech simply stood there, looking puzzled.

To our relief, however, the van with our luggage in it did arrive soon thereafter, and the ancient gentleman who had driven it attempted to unload its contents. All of the passengers scrambled to help him, and to find their own bags and take them themselves onto the train. All the while, the conductor looked on impassively. I kept trying to imagine what might be going through his mind. I finally decided it must be something like this: “What’s wrong with these stupid foreigners? I just clearly explained to them that the luggage would be loaded onto the car for them. But no! They’ve got to get their own bags and lug them across the tracks to their own compartments!”

The rest of the trip unfolded uneventfully. Our train actually did arrive in Prague, more or less on time. Apparently, the train-bus-train shuffle we all went through was simply part of the regular routine. As it turned out, as well, the two Czech words we couldn’t understand printed on our tickets were the names of the two stations. All clearly laid out, at least for those who could understand.

Prague is well worth the visit, by the way, if you ever have the opportunity. The Charles Bridge, the St. Vitus Cathedral, many old churches and museums, the gorgeous old Jewish quarter filled with Art Nouveau architecture, the food, the genuine warmth and friendliness of the Czech people. All this made for a memorable visit.

One last thought, though, is that if you ever find yourself traveling from Salzburg to Prague, you may want to consider taking the longer, but probably more comfortable and ultimately more direct route through Munich or Vienna. I’m guessing that both of these are without bus connections. On the other hand, if you did that, you might also have to do without old-fashioned train compartments, the echo of Poirot walking down the aisle, or the haunting ghosts of frightened people crossing the tracks at a lonely way station, to say nothing of glimpses of the glorious Czech countryside, the intoxicating scent of thousands of yellow flowers, or the chance to stumble along using your phrasebook Czech. And after all, in the end, isn’t that the very reason why it’s so compelling and so interesting to travel to far off lands in the first place?

ST. PUTIN AND THE DRAGON

By Paul

Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen in Ukraine, but the world is right to feel very nervous about the possibilities.  In Russian iconography, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of images of St. George slaying the dragon and rescuing the princess.  (St.) Putin these days appears to consider himself the modern counterpart thereof, willing to go to battle against the western dragon to save the maiden princess of the east.

Just a day or two ago, I would have written that I see no way right now that Russia will willingly “give up” the Crimean peninsula.  Today, in fact, the local Crimean parliament has (no doubt with Putin’s blessing) voted to join Russia once again.  There are, to be sure, historical and geopolitical reasons that could be pointed to for this, mostly because Crimea was part of Russia for so long (and only “given over to Ukraine” in 1954), and because Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is stationed there.  On top of all this, Crimea has for decades been considered a kind of odd semi-autonomous republic, even under Ukrainian rule, and many (although by no means all) of the people who live there speak Russian and consider themselves Russian.

But the real looming question of the moment seems to be what to make of Vladimir Putin.  What are his goals?  What are his fears?  What propels him to act, and to act especially in ways that seem contrary to the usual pushes and pulls of western political calculations?

It has to be said that Russia itself has long been a mystery to the west.  Even during the time of the Czars, European rulers puzzled over what Russia would and would not do to support various political goals espoused by Europeans.  Russia, too, has wondered over the centuries what makes Europe tick, and now what it is that the United States wants.  In the end, I fear that we continue to miss each other’s intents, to say nothing of one another’s hopes and fears.

Russia has for centuries considered itself “exceptional.”  Even during the Middle Ages, and continuing now into the 21st century, it has seen itself as the mystical Orthodox leader of Christianity, the country with a “soul,” as opposed to the corrupt, secular, anti-religious west that chases after materialism and the things of the body.  When I was in Russia many years ago (this was in 1971, during the Soviet era), spending a summer there studying the language, I once witnessed a striking example of this.  An American friend of mine and I were walking into a library in Moscow to see if we could check out a book.  Two old women were standing nearby, the classic “babushkas” with headscarves and fat, rosy cheeks.  They looked at us with, I have to say, some level of disdain, and – obviously not thinking (or not caring) that we could understand them, one said to the other:  “Ah, these foreigners!  They are trying to steal our Russian soul!”

The concept of the Russian soul, so called, is not a thing to be taken lightly.  It is part and parcel both of this feeling of exceptionalism, and of the common belief among Russians that they have always been under some kind of attack by the west.  This attack has taken not only military form, to utterly devastating effect, both by Napoleon in the 19th century and by Hitler in the 20th, but intellectual and cultural forms, as well.  If you will indulge me, here is another story that illustrates the latter point.  The small group from SUNY New Paltz that I was part of that was spending the summer there studying Russian also spent a short time in Sochi, the city of recent Olympic fame, although forty or forty-five years ago it was a much sleepier summer resort.  Two young men, fellow students of mine from the group, decided one warm afternoon to go down to the Black Sea beach for a swim.  However, they made the mistake of wearing cut-off jeans to do so.  First of all, at the time no Russian man would dream of walking in the street in shorts, especially jagged-edged cut-off shorts.  People made fun of them as they walked to the beach. Some said, “If you can’t afford a pair of pants, WE’LL buy you some!”   And then, once they got to the beach, the police actually came and arrested these two young American students.  They were kept in jail for several hours, until our accompanying professor finally got them released.  However, shortly afterwards, the police came to our hotel, gathered all of us Americans together (a dozen or so of us), and gave us a very stern lecture.  With literal wagging finger, we were told in no uncertain terms: “We will not tolerate your corrupting our Russian youth with your western ways.  If ANYTHING like this happens again, you will all be summarily sent out of the country!” And all of this for wearing cut-off jeans!

So, we see that Russia has long considered itself a country under siege, sometimes for very good reason, and sometimes for not such good reason. But that mentality continues to be at work when Russians look at so many of the countries of the old Soviet Block (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia – now the Czech Republic and Slovakia, of course – Hungary, and let us not forget Ukraine) and see them “turning toward Europe.”  Most of these countries, with the exception of Ukraine, are now either part of the European Union, or have applied for such status, and some are also part of NATO.   This makes Russia extremely nervous and, given Russia’s history vis-à-vis Europe, maybe we ought to try to understand that from their perspective there may well be very good reason for this nervousness.  Now, Russia sees Ukraine, a country with profoundly deep ties to Russia, attempting to do the same thing.  Let us not forget that Ukraine was part of Russia (not just part of the Soviet Union) for many centuries, and the Russian Orthodox Church, that bastion of the Russian soul itself, was actually founded in Kiev.  There are many Russians living in Ukraine, and lots of Russian men have Ukrainian wives, and Ukrainian women have Russian husbands.  For Russia to contemplate Ukraine “going to the west,” against all of this history and all of these cultural and economic ties, is almost unthinkable.

I believe that it is time for everybody to step back and take several deep breaths.  First of all, Ukraine, for all of the totally legitimate reasons why it deposed its former highly corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, must try to remember these long-standing ties their country has with Russia, and not purposefully antagonize their powerful neighbor to the east.  The United States and Europe, for their part, too have to come to grips with these historical ties, as well as with these fears and aspirations felt by Russia, and make an attempt to realize that some of them – certainly in Russia’s eyes – may be legitimate.  Finally, Russia too has to give a little.  It must let go some of its anger towards and mistrust of the west, and see that the only way forward is through political and diplomatic channels.  You do not win the hearts and minds of people, whether they be Ukrainians, or Europeans, or Americans, through saber rattling, or military bluster, or worse, actual on-the-ground aggression.

Pres. Obama is in an extremely difficult spot right now.  The Republican saber-rattlers like John McCain and others are screaming at him to “do something.”  They are accusing him of being at the heart of the problem because he has somehow shown himself to be “weak” in international affairs.  How they get that is a mystery to me, and I believe it is enormously unfair to so accuse him.  But the President somehow has got to not anger these GOP hawks too much in such a way as to lose credibility at home, while making some attempt to understand Russia’s position, while supporting the very real and totally legitimate aspirations of the Ukrainian people, and also while getting the European Union behind him as they have never been before.

Maybe, now that I think of it, it is St. Obama we ought to be talking about, not St. Putin.   Or another way to put it, what is really needed is St. Obama, St. Putin, St. Hollande, St. Merkel, St. Cameron, and let us not forget Ukraine’s St. Yatsenyuk.   God knows, we’ll need all of them to slay this great and very dangerous dragon that threatens the very peace and stability of Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the rest of the world, too.

BONJOUR, MONSIEUR LE PRESIDENT

By Paul

France elected François Hollande president of the Republic this past weekend, replacing Nicolas Sarkozy, in a contest that pitted against each other two very different ways of addressing the financial crisis that has plagued Europe, and the rest of the world, for the past several years.  Sarkozy seemed to represent to the majority of French voters all that went wrong in the first place:  the indifference and arrogance of the powerful and the moneyed over the lives of everyday working people.  But Hollande, a Socialist in the classic French vein, has a Herculean task ahead of him.  He will have to come up with some kind of plan that calms everybody down a bit, including those who voted for him in the first place, those who voted for Sarkozy (still some 48% of the French electorate), the Germans, the rest of Europe, the Americans, the markets, and just about everybody else in the world, it would seem.  He’s going to be a busy man.

Greece, too, had something of a troubled weekend.  The results there were not quite as clear-cut as in France, but still things got pretty badly shaken up.  Given a parliamentary style of government, the winner of the majority of votes had three days to attempt to piece together a ruling coalition from among an enormously fractured and fractious bunch.  That didn’t work, and so now others are trying, although with very little hope of succeeding.  The Conservatives initially came up with the most votes, but even so that was a measly 20%.  Their archenemies, the Socialists did even worse, getting less than 14%, a paltry amount given the former popularity of both parties.  In the end, the basic message seems to have been the axiomatic: throw the bums out!  Unfortunately, some of the bums are probably still going to have to attempt to work together to solve very basic problems, along with a few other parties now thrown into the mix.  These others include the radical leftists (neo-communists?), who got over 16% of the vote, and those far-right anti-immigrant thugs, the so-called Golden Dawn Party, which came away with almost 7% of the vote.  Add to all this muddle one other very important, if rather stark, item, namely, that it could also be said that one of the big losers this past weekend in Greece was none other than the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her politics of European austerity.

But why should we even care very much what happens on the other side of the Atlantic?  Yes, of course, we all know that world markets are impossibly intermingled these days, and so from that point of view, if the thread breaks in Europe, the garment can quickly unravel in the United States, as well.  So, there is that to keep in mind.  And as a result, no one should be surprised that the markets have developed a serious case of the heebie-jeebbies.   But aside from these considerations of intertwined markets, the basic politics of the situation in Europe may not be all that different from what’s playing out right here in our own backyard.

It’s probably unfair and maybe even a little dangerous to make too many one-for-one comparisons between Europe and the U.S., but, well, I’ll go ahead and make a few all the same.   The first that occurs to me is the Sarkozy-Romney mix.  I don’t mean so much in terms of personality (Sarkozy appears to have something of an annoyed, and annoying, Napoleon complex, while Romney goes for a well-scrubbed and over-starched Mr. Clean look).  But each one champions the rich, and appears to be just fine with telling the rest of us to suck it up and act responsibly, the theory being that those tax breaks to the wealthy are somehow supposed to magically rescue the economy and create new jobs.  How has that approach worked so far, Monsieur Sarkozy? France is weakened and teetering economically, and the jobless rate is well over 10%. 

But still, let’s try to be fair about things.  The French debt is totally out of hand, and laws that govern how companies can hire – and fire – people are hopelessly out of whack.  Everybody is covered by a top-notch healthcare plan, toward which they pay very little at least in direct expenses, and come August, you will find très peu of the French still in Paris if you happen to visit, because they are all lounging  à la plage.  Their Greek counterparts were once able to boast similar amenities, but are now lucky to have a job of any kind, and even their once vaunted healthcare network is looking shakier and shakier.  On top of all that, both countries made a choice years ago to be part of a Euro zone, and so the threads that bind them together – for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer –are today far stronger than those which bind them to the rest of the world.    

But the choices, if not the answers, for all of us appear in fact to be coming clearer.  What really does any country do that finds itself overextended on the one hand, and underfunded on the other?   The same case can be made right now to an extent here in the United States, as well.  The reasons why this is happening depend on how you see things, that is, on your politics.  On the overextension side of the equation, it has to do either with giving out too many handouts to a bunch of laggards, or possibly with having decided to wage endless wars for questionable reasons, while on the underfunding side, it would be because we’re giving too much to the little guy who doesn’t pay his own way or pull himself up high enough by his own bootstraps, or because of years of unwarranted and unwise cuts to the wealthiest of Americans in the dubious name of “stimulating the economy” (again, depending on your politics).  These are all very familiar questions that we in this country have been grappling with for a long time, but they are beginning to sound all too familiar to our European cousins now, too. 

Which ought we to choose, the approaches of Sarkozy-Romney, or of Hollande-Obama?  Which will turn out to be the better choices to get us out of the ditch and back on to the road to prosperity?  Do we cut, cut, cut, that is, taxes and services, or stimulate, stimulate, stimulate, in hopes of jump starting the economy?  The French, and to a certain extent the Greeks, appear to be opting for the latter right now.  Here in the U.S. we chose something along these lines four years ago, and – again depending on your politics – it either has, or it has not, worked.

Personally, I’m still putting my money (literally, I guess) on Mr. Obama.  Just as if I were French, I no doubt would’ve voted for M. Hollande.  If I were Greek, I don’t know what I’d do, maybe just head for the hills and hide out for the next couple of years.  But what I really don’t get is the “all austerity, all the time” approach to economic crises.  Sure, we have to save, and we have to act – and to spend – responsibly.  No question, and no argument there.  But countries get “better” economically through robust growth and expansion, as well as through austerity, and nobody, “no body,” ever got fatter by dieting. 

It seems to me that what it will come down to in the end is some kind of a fair balance between the two extremes of austerity and stimulus.  That’s what I think M. Holland will have to try to do in France.  And that’s what Mr. Obama has attempted for the past four years, but that is not what M. Sarkozy has done, nor is it what Mr. Romney would do, if he could.  So, I’m with the French on this one – je suis avec les Français!    And OK, I’ll admit up front to being something of a Francophile.  But you don’t have to sit down every morning to croissants and café au lait in order to know that both sides have got to compromise in order for us to get out of the mess we’re in. 

So, finally, what I say is: vive la France, vivent les Etats-Unis, vive Monsieur Hollande, et vive Monsieur Obama.  Oh, and yes, God help them all, vivent les pauvres Grecs, as well.