Saturday, June 15, 2013


Lucerne's bustling train station.
Travel prompts so many questions. Sadly, most go unanswered. Still, they linger. More than a week after our return from short stays in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic I’m still pondering several.

Is Switzerland so wealthy because it is neutral? And how much of that has to do with its landlocked, mountainous geography? The US House Armed Services Committee recently approved $638.4 billion in defense spending for next year. Imagine how that money could be used here if we weren’t militarily engaged around the globe? (Syria is just our most recent adventure) What if we were small, land-locked and barricaded by mountains? I like the old bumper sticker that asks us to imagine what it would be like to adequately fund our schools and to be forced to have bake sales to pay for missiles (and tanks, guns, spooks and aircraft carriers etc.) I think they’ve answered that question in Switzerland.

After visiting more Catholic cathedrals than I can count, some dating back six or more centuries, I wonder how these astonishing, soaring structures have contributed to the survival of the hide-bound institutional church. How do they shape the spiritual life of the Catholic faithful? The energy that went into building these colossal structures is palpable. (For the moment, put aside the cost and the over-the-top glorification of revered, but none-the-less human religious leaders) These landmarks inspire outer faith and devotion, but do they invite unity with the inner spirit?

American pop culture is prominent and much celebrated in the countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain. Today’s commerce still pays tribute to Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Charlie Chaplin  There’s a retrospective of Marilyn Monroe photographs in Prague. Wynton Marsalis and Bobbie “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” McFerrin will perform this summer. What role did American pop stars play in the underground culture in Communist Hungary and Czechoslovakia? Why are these icons still being celebrated today?

It is hard to fathom the changes the Czechs have seen in the past 100 years. They began
Memorial to 1969 Czech martyrs.
the last century as part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1918, after World War I, the Republic of Czechoslovakia was created but survived as a democracy a mere 20 years. Hitler and the Nazis overran and occupied the young nation. At the end of World War II Czechoslovakia became a restless Soviet satellite state. It was invaded by the Warsaw Pact in 1968. Finally, in 1989, when the Soviet bloc collapsed, it re-emerged as a democracy, and in 1993 the Czech Republic came into being, separate from the Slovak Republic. Whew! How might those changes influence the way the Czechs see the world today? Do they live for the moment? How do they see their futures? 

Finally, because I still have a lingering fascination with cars, I took photos of a few on this trip. Two vintage Jaguar sedans, a customized VW bug, a tricked out Morris Mini and what I think is a Soviet Lada. One of the Jaguars was being used to chauffeur a wedding couple. It was parked outside Prague’s Cathedral where it became a backdrop for the photographed smooching couple. I admired the Mini while Diane looked at scarves in a nearby store. The wondrous and pampered VW was parked near the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. The drab little Lada was not far from one of Prague's baroque concert halls. Drab and forgotten — the boxy conveyance seemed abandoned by history.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013


“U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) Monday called self-professed National Security Agency surveillance plans leaker Edward Snowden a traitor.” UPI

“House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) left little doubt Tuesday as to how he thinks NSA leaker Edward Snowden should be dealt with: as an enemy of the state.“He’s a traitor,” Boehner said on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America.’” Washington Post

In case you’ve just returned from Mars, Snowden, an employee of a private security contractor hired by your government, revealed that said government has established a vast cellphone and Internet surveillance program that indiscriminately gathers data about your communication and mine.

Note: both Feinstein and Boehner are sworn to uphold the Constitution, and both knew about and approved the surveillance program.

The Fourth Amendment of that very same Constitution reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Before moving on, you might want to reread that....

So here's the obvious question: Just who is betraying their oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the nation?

Edward Snowden?

Or the esteemed Speaker and the chairwoman the of the Senate Intelligence (sic) Committee.

The answer, fellow freedom-loving Americans, is as obvious as it is dangerous.

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A Titanic moment on the Danube

The Legend aground with its rescuing tug nearby.

If you are on a boat, a scraping-crunching sound that sends shimmers through the vessel isn’t something you want to hear.

But that’s what woke me from sleep at a little after 3 a.m. on Tuesday, May 28, on the Viking Legend river boat as it made its way between Linz and Melk, stops along the way to Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest.

I opened my eyes in time to see the TV in our small cabin flickered on and then off. Then quiet ensued and, ever the optimist, I fell back to sleep only to wake at 5 a.m. as is my custom. I wandered down the corridor to the foyer to get coffee.

I as immediately met by the concierge who instructed me to go back to my room and stay there until further word. He added the vague, unsettling comment that there had been a “problem.” Just then three officials dressed in dark blue uniforms adorned with illegible name tags and patches entered stage left.

So I went back to our cabin, which now seemed more like a cage. I stared out the window to find the shore about 20 feet away from the boat. I screwed up my courage to defy authority and popped up a nearby stairwell to peep over the upper deck, which had been cordoned off. A large tugboat was circling the Legend, seemingly looking for the best angle of approach.

The Legend, which is 443 feet long (one football field plus half of another),  was stalled cross-wise in the Danube channel, blocking it to all river  traffic.

Because most of the 189 passengers were presumably asleep, or were supposed to be asleep, no public address announcement was made. That was a sign that my worst “Titanic” fears were unfounded. We were not slowly sinking into the waters of the Danube.

By 6:30, the Legend was moving again, and all seemed normal—  until the big boat did a u-turn in the middle of the river and sidled up to a seawall landing in a small village that wasn’t part of itinerary. We would come to know Sarmingstein, Austria, better in the next two days. Vienna it wasn’t.

At breakfast, our program director informed us that the Captain would let us know more details as they become available. Meanwhile, until the authorities (those guys in blue uniforms) were satisfied that the boat was safe to carry passengers, we would be visiting the schedule tourist sites by bus (four buses, actually.). So we were bundled off to the Melk Abbey on a 45-minute commute.

Turns out that Viking also runs a bus line to supplement its boats and to take passengers on side trips. They also come in handy if a boat runs aground.

As long as the boat remained tied up in at the seawall, immobile, we could sleep on it. But until the authorities deemed the Legend safe, there would be not traveling aboard it.

The next day, the Captain, who spoke no English, informed the assembled passengers that a sensor had gone “kaput.” He even brandished a foot-long piece of sensor before assertively putting it aside.

The manager of the “hotel” (which is what the boat really is, a hotel adrift) joked, “Well there it is, ladies and gentlemen, ‘sensor kaput.’”

We were told that because of the failed sensor the electricity went out, which shut off the engines, which led the loss of steering, which resulted in the grounding.

But was this what really happened? The question spiced dinner-table conversations for the rest of the trip. Yes, the sensor was replaced and we actually cruised the river for one final night, arriving in Budapest late but by boat, not bus.

The table-top speculation was that human error was the culprit. Did someone fall asleep at the wheel? The sequence of hearing the loud crunch and then the TV flickering seemed at odds with the official explanation. And if the steering went out because of a failed sensor, how did we manage to get to Sarmingstein? Significantly, the tug didn’t push us there and the Legend somehow managed that 180 turn to dock at the little town.

Meanwhile, we might well wonder what those uniformed inspectors had to say in their official report. The incident did rate an item on the web site

At the end of the voyage, Viking asked us to evaluate “our experience.” If the evaluations were anything like ours (and I’m sure they were) they were frank in their disappointment.

One day after returning home, we received an e-mail from Viking expressing apologies and offering us $1000 each off a future Viking cruise.

We are considering our options, but taking another cruise isn’t at the top of the list.

P.S. Legend’s problems weren’t over after we left (we took the train to Prague—that’s another story)  All that rain resulted in flooding in Central Europe and high water on the Danube. The Legend wasn’t expected to return up river soon because the water level made bridge clearance too low for the boat to pass underneath.

“Nature kaput!” as the captain might say.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Our globally warmed (and wet) vacation

Prague's Kafka Museum as river gauge.

We’re back from a 20-day vacation, of sorts, in Europe.

Our expectations were largely the vision presented on Viking Excursions’ “Downton Abbey” promos. You may know the scene. It’s a birds-eye view of a long, elegant riverboat churning down the Danube through verdant valleys past ancient castles under clear skies.

Inspired by that vision and the reams of brochures we’ve received from Viking over the years, we signed on, at considerable expense. We bracketed the cruise with visits to Lucerne, Switzerland; Salzburg, Austria, and Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. The seven-day cruise, which began in Passau (of which more later) would also take us to Linz, Melk, Vienna, Bratislava and finally Budapest.
A cafe's riverside umbrellas underwater.

The reality trip that unfolded was good, bad and generally wet.

The rains defined the majority of our time. If there is a single symbol for our journey, it is the umbrella. With the rain came the flooding. Mercifully, we avoided the worst of it. The highest water seemed to trail us by three days to a week. The floods are still in the news as I write this, four days after returning to Portland.

When we visited a high-and-dry Passau, for instance, the guide of our walking tour pointed out marks on the side of City Hall showing water levels of past floods. How could the river rise to such levels, we wondered. The dates went back to the 16th Century. Within a week waters of  the Danube and the two other rivers that converge at Passau, would be above the highest mark. This month, Passau suffered a 500-year flood. The astonishing 16th Century mark was well under water.

Only twice did high water alter our plans. We took the train from Budapest (which was still unflooded at the time) to Prague. About 50 miles from the Czech capital we were stopped in our tracks (literally) by high water at a station. After a three-hour delay, the train backed up 20 or so miles and was rerouted. What was to be a seven-hour trip turned into a 13-hour detoured journey. We arrived weary and worn at our Prague hotel at 2 a.m.

The other change was relatively minor. Because of high water, Prague’s famed Charles Bridge was closed to all traffic. (In 1890, floods had swept away part of the 14th Century bridge) Each of the three days we were in Prague, we would walk to the Vltava River to see how high it had risen. The authorities had put up metal, interlocking dikes and positioned pumps. The best mark of the water level was the Kafka Museum (see photo), which sits along the river bank. The words “Kafka Museum” are written in large letters on the river wall next to the museum. When we arrived, the water underlined the words. On day two, only the very tops of the letters were visible. On our final day, the river had receded enough so that the the upper two-thirds could be seen.
Pedestrians were undeterred by mini-dikes at the ready.

Using the museum as a flood gauge was in its own way Kafka-esque.

To our joy, the sun came out for those final two days in Prague and revealed the city in its full and ornate glory.

Meanwhile, as I write, Budapest is experiencing floods. Just how badly is hard to determine. You have to walk to the river to find out.

Travelers beware: In this Global Warming era of “extreme weather events” journeys take on special unpredictable challenges. Consider them partial retribution for the carbon footprint we leave in getting to these far-away places.

There’s something to be said for staying put. Leaving well enough alone...leaving the PLANET well enough alone....

Next: Visions of the Titanic or things that go CRUNCH in the night....

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