The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Euroromance: Day 3: Like Fine Dresden

Today, I got to watch the sunrise over the city of Quedlinburg. The air here is mountain air: crisp, clear, with little moisture in it. As such, the sun rises with little of the fan fare it engages when rising in San Diego. There is an almost imperceptible glow, a small change in the light, and then “holy crap!” a huge red ball appears exactly where you least expect it. The gender neutral sun continued its rising in a very (and I’m stereotyping like mad here) German way: little fuss and all business—changing from red to orange to yellow to hot white. I finished packing, had another wonderful breakfast, and met my taxi to go to the train station.

The driver had the most amazing taxi ever. Everything was built into the car from the meter in the rear view mirror that was invisible until the end of the trip to the two way radio that muted the music in the stereo when he was being called. He spoke no English and that combined with my nein Deutsch created a situation where there was a lot of awkward smiling. That is until (like the Frames) I recognized Kool and the Gang playing on his radio. I spontaneously broke into song, and he and I became fast friends throwing back various lines to songs we enjoyed. Once again music has proven to be the ambassador between nations.

I had decided to go to Prague via Dresden and thus see another European city without actually having to stay there. The train ride to Dresden was uneventful with smatterings of excitement when I had to transfer trains. Though I’ve packed very well for the last minute panic I was in (I think). I did not pack exactly light, so I’ve gotten my workout pulling my roller up and down flights of stairs (like I’m some sort of Sisyphus) while schlepping my purse and carry-on satchel. But so far I’ve been successful in my transferring endeavors. Knock on wood.

Dresden is a city where the cutting edge new meets the ancient. Though not much survived the 1945 bombing, great measures have been taken to preserve what did; and the result of gorgeous, ancient palaces or churches blackened with aged soot contrasted with ultra new strip malls that are all glass and steel is both unnerving and not a little unpleasant. In my walk from the train station, I managed to make it all the way to the Elba, through the Old Town, without realizing it. It was like emerging from a jungle of gleaming strip malls (SALE! SALE! SALE!) into an oasis of carved sandstone and granite.

Because I was already less than impressed with Dresden, I decided I would do a quick walking tour of the city and then head back to the station to catch a train to Meissen (or Meiβen—I finally figured out that the beta was the symbol for the sound the double ss makes in German. For the longest time, I was wondering why everything had two names) as a short side trip before boarding my evening train for Prague. So I crossed the Elba and moved into the New Town (which is actually older in many parts than the old town because some of it survived the bombing). New Town (once you got through the promenade of strip mall stores—this seems to be a common thread here) seemed like the place where actual residents of the city lived. The part I saw was arty, covered in graffiti, and lined with cafes and smaller shops. The architecture here is nothing like that in Quedlinburg. I think I was a bit spoiled to have that little town be my first one to really see in this part of Europe. Dresden looks like any other major European city: plastered narrow buildings crammed together, narrow streets, lots of colors.

My destination goal was Kunsthof Passage, an art complex that was comprised of a series of themed courtyards enclosed by tall, merrily painted apartment buildings. On the way there, I passed by a fun skate shop and a group of lounging goth-punk Germans youths who had taken over the corner of the sidewalk.

I get a secret satisfaction when I see something so from the United States that I can actually feel I have some “street cred” with. It sort of takes away the constant feeling of displacement and inability to even request the simple things in the dominant language of the culture. This skate shop gave me that feeling. Even though I’ve never been a skater, I am from the place where skateboarding truly originated (and my little brother spent some time semipro skating) and no German from Dresden, no matter how well he can ollie, will be able to understand the culture like I do.

The group of punks were lively and fun. They lounged in the sun, drinking beer and listening to music, while animatedly talking about who know what in their clipped language (after hanging out in Germany and the Czech Republic, I’ve realized the fun of hearing a language that actually sounds like nothing but sounds and music. It makes me wonder what English sounds like to someone who’s hearing it for the first time. In order to get this feeling, you really do have to have absolutely no base in the language. Dutch wasn’t like this because so many English words come from the Dutch that listening to people speak it I feel a bit like Bill Bryson: that I can almost understand it). No one does punk like Germans can, and while their meticulous attire was a little incongruous with their carefree lolling on the pavement, the tableau seemed like the perfect thing to see in this big city.

I almost missed the Kunsthof Passage. But luckily I noticed the small red sign with a brown cow that hung over a doorway in a red façade building. The doorway led into a little hall that opened to the first courtyard. This space was truly fun and amazing. I find that more and more when I travel, I am greatly interested in how people create space in all cultures. What is similar, what is different, what the values are. Each cobblestone courtyard had a unifying color and various mediums to depict its theme. The initial courtyard was a soft butter yellow with red and white tile mosaics set into the sides of the building as well as some frescos. The images were stylized people, snakes, dragons, and various swirly designs. At ground level (for all of the courtyards), various little shops sold things made by local artisans like woven baskets, cards and papers, books, wine, and cafe fare. The rest of the floors of the buildings seemed to be apartments. The courtyards meandered through the buildings. In the animal courtyard, people sat on small bistro chairs, enjoying a beverage, while a fountain with a stone bison at its center gently burbled. A stone giraffe set into the soft green wall seemed about to pull the plaster right off the building with its large tongue. And everywhere you looked, you could find a hidden and surprising animal.

The element courtyard was my favorite. The walls were a rich, varying blue set off by aluminum pipes that ran up the building in fanciful if a little angular lines.

On my way out, I let myself indulge in a moment of envy for the people who lived in these buildings that overlook the courtyards. A few of them were out on their patios. Adding to the charm of the place, the patios were carpeted in soft green lawns of grass.

I resolved on my return trip to the train station that I would not miss the beauties of Old Town like I did on the way there, but first I needed to make a stop inspired by the punks on the street corner. I headed over to a nearby café called Katy’s Garage and purchased a cool hefeweizen for my walk. Katy’s Garage was in the guide book I had looked at and for a good reason. This quirky little place was essentially a small takeout window that faced a dirt courtyard created by corrugated fencing. An old car perched atop the roof of the kitchen and vintage record players were strewn amongst the tables in the courtyard. Every surface was brightly painted as if a mad mob of graffiti artists decided to do a drive by one night. I wish I could have stayed, but I had more town to see and a train to catch.

Often we don’t recognize our cultural norms as being so ingrained in us until we act against them. Drinking a bottle of beer while walking down the street was one of those norms. I felt scandalous. I kept expecting to hear an outraged German voice ordering me to put down my beer. But the only thing that happened was I got a delicious thrill from doing something “forbidden” and my thirst quenched on my long walk.

I booked it past the strip mall promenade made more bearable by the cool beer to the bridge over the Elba. Ere I saw Elba, I was struck by the skyline of Dresden across the river. What I hadn’t been able to notice when I was enmeshed in the labyrinth of big, bold stores full of advertising with lots of German exclamation points (again: SALE! SALE! SALE!) was the grandeur of Dresden’s old palace and cathedral and various other buildings (including the Zwinger. Zwing!). The north side of the river afforded me a view that showed me exactly why Dresden is such a stately city.

After picking out the buildings I wanted to walk by (the Zwinger and the Kreuzkirche), I quickly consulted my map and planned my route back to the train station that would take me by these things.

A quick side note about consulting maps and guide books in public. While I am a consummate reader and consult a bazillion guidebooks before I go to a new place and will bring said guidebooks with me, I hate hate hate having to look at them in a public place. I know I am not from these areas I travel to and that it is no sin to not know where you are going, but I feel like the act of taking out a book to orient yourself rather than interacting with a live person for help is very alienating. I don’t necessarily try to blend in to a new culture (e.g. I wore flip flops for most of my trip and nothing marks you as not being from around somewhere in Europe more than that) but I don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb either. Nor do I want to appear unwilling to engage in the culture by burying my nose in some Brit’s (i.e. Lonely Planet) idea of what to see in Germany or the CR or the Netherlands.

My route by the essential (to me) sights of Dresden seemed simple enough: walk by big, gorgeous buildings until I hit (of course) more strip mall and tram tracks. Turn and follow tram tracks until I come to Weisgasse (a street purported by those Brits to have awesome deep local restaurants and shops) then head south along it to the kirche, and then I would come to the (sigh) strip mall zone by the train station. And Voila! Trip to Meiβen would commence.

Big, old building seeing out of the way, I dutifully made my path follow the tracks. Ten minutes later, surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings and no Weisgasse in sight, I hid behind a car and pulled out my map. Apparently, the tram tracks had made a subtle split and I was now way (way) east of anything even resembling the tourist part of town. And while I do enjoy going deep local from time to time, it is mostly experience some charming little-known aspect of the locals’ lives. These buildings were anything but charming. Sighing, I now replanned my route, skipping Weisgasse and heading straight to the church. The time was getting tight to catch my side-trip train.

The Kreuzkirche was located on the corner of a big asphalt lot, right behind some major construction. Despite its less than pleasing situation, this church was everything an ancient European church is: in a word, awe-full. The simple, speckled, dark stone exterior encased an interior that was made to catch the light. The white textured walls caressed the light from simple leaded windows, creating spaces of soften edges bathed in white. Adding to the stark yet uplifting (because of course your eyes are drawn instantly up up up to the arched ceiling where the white light played in corners of the buttresses) atmosphere, were the partially unfinished stone columns (purposefully unfinished). In the light granite, there were carved flowers or designs that faded into uncut stone. It made me think of the unfinished soul. How our lives are spent in adding the details and form to what makes us distinctly us.

I could have spent hours in the cool light, but I needed to run to my train. And run I pretty much did. Dodging tourists left and right, I moved quickly down the (you guessed it—SALE! SALE! SALE!) strip mall corridor to the train station. But all of my speed (in flip flops no less) was to no avail. I missed the early train to Meiβen and all of the later trains wouldn’t give me enough time to really enjoy that little town before having to hurry back to catch the train to Prague. And frankly, I was hungry and over hurrying.

I decided I had enough time to walk back to Weisgasse in search of the cafes off the beaten (or strip mall) path. I figured I could catch some sun while eating and do a little reading for the day. I chose a small tapas café in a large courtyard that was positioned perfectly for late afternoon sun. I sat down and waited for the server to come over.

This is another thing that unnerves me in Europe: little to no host seating—you just sit wherever you want and then someone serves you. It's madness, I tell you. What's next? Dogs and cats living together? Mass hysteria! Crazy.

Fifteen minutes later and after four other parties had sat themselves nearby, I was helped. I ordered my beverage and some chips and salsa (I know. I know. But I love chips and salsa. Besides I was curious what (Spanish) salsa in Germany would look like). Fifteen minutes after that and after all of the other four tables had gotten their beverages and food, my beer arrived but no salsa. Once again feeling pressed for time (I had one last strip mall trek to do), I asked the server to bring me the bill as soon as possible. Fifteen minutes later (it seemed to be a trend), beer finished, and still no bill, I put my best guess for price in Euros on the table and left. No salsa.

This journey to the station was a little less frantic but still no leisurely stroll (thankfully all of the gleaming storefronts were emblazoned in my memory, so I didn’t have to look around to orient myself. I could have done this walk blind by now). Arriving at the station with three minutes to spare, I heard the announcement voice inform the travelers that the train to Prague was running 20 minutes late.

This welcomed news allowed me time to hit the little station grocery store where I stocked up on water, fresh orange juice, caprese salad, and (the best thing ever!) sautéed mushrooms and potatoes. These treasures became my picnic dinner on the train to Prague.

The Czech countryside along the tracks from Dresden was very picturesque. The Vltava of Prague empties into the Elba, and we followed the latter most of the way into Prague. I got to see little towns and little castles dotted along the Elba’s banks. I saw the sun set about an hour before I came into Prague. It was such a beautiful sight with the river flaming orange and the houses glowing a rosy pink.

I came into Prague after dark to the train station north of Hradcany (Holešovice zastávka). This is the one and only time this trip that I got a little nervous about traveling alone. This station is no joke: dirty, dingy, smells of human and food wastes, graffiti everywhere, and random train people (similar to bus or trolley people here in San Diego just Czech) sitting dejectedly on filthy benches near grime-covered windows. Luckily for me, I had spoken to two women in Dresden who were traveling here from Kansas City. One of the ladies used to live in Prague, so she knew how to get around and could speak Czech. These ladies were going to the same tram stop I was going to, so they let me tag along with them as they navigated the completely unintuitive route from train station to tram stop.

Once we got to the square in Malá Strana where the St. Nicholas Church was, they pointed me to the street of my apartment’s location, and we parted ways. Malá Strana is a far cry from the train station. Here there are charming and clean cobbled streets, various shops, restaurants and pubs. While at the station, the people looked tired and dejected, in the square here people laughed and joked and a general feeling of good cheer permeated the air.

I drug my luggage up the cobbled(!) street to my apartment, thanking God that I had unwittingly gotten a place so close to the tram track. These tiny roller wheels were not meant to roll on cobblestone.

My apartment is by the US embassy and a branch of the Prague police station, so I passed a couple of police officers as well as many tourists. Mike, the apartment guy, let me into the place. And I instantly fell in love with my home for the next three days.

The apartment is the large room at the top of an old house. The bottom floor is the David Restaurant, while the next floor is two other apartments, and then there’s me. The roof slants to either side, coming to a point in the center. The room is divided into three spaces by large wooden beams in the floor that you have to step over to get into the next space. The space you enter is the entry space that is connected to the bathroom and tiny kitchen. Next is the dining space. Followed by the sleeping, desk, lounge chair space. Everything was wood (beams, floor, furniture) and warm plaster. There is a large circular window in the far wall of the sleeping space (next to the bookshelves!) that centers the blue-green domes of the St. Nic church perfectly. Also, there are several other dormers that open to the sides of the space. Honestly, this apartment was probably the best find ever. The neighborhood was amazing and safe. And the apartment was absolutely gorgeous.

Oh my, oh Prague, indeed.


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