Thursday, January 31, 2008

Notarize this!

Our passports expire at the end of April, a fact that has been hanging over our heads for a few months. The passport process in Canada requires that you have two guarantors, in your country of residence, that have known you for at least two years. As we’ve only lived here for a year and a half (581 days, according to the tally marks I’m scratching into the wall) we have no one in France that qualifies.

This has nothing to do with my story, but it's very funny, and full of Montreal landmarks. Parental Advisory: Strong Language

It then fell upon us to find an third party guarantor to whom we could swear our identity, which could be, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, a judge, lawyer, mayor, police officer or notary. Believing that a lawyer or notary would be too expensive, we attempted to take advantage of what we hoped would be the “free” options – the city hall or the police.

I therefore popped into the mairie (city hall): They didn't understand the concept, said they couldn't do it, and moreover, I would have to get a lawyer or notary. That the marie, the place where one must go to legalize one’s wedding vows, didn’t understand the concept of a sworn oath, is somewhat disturbing to me.

I figured I’d at least try to get a price on a notary, and set off in search of an office. While doing so, I stumbled across a bunch of notaries-in-training on a smoke break from class; they were unable to direct me to an actual qualified notary – not even their instructors. One despairs for the future.

I then spotted a bunch of municipal cops loitering about on their smoke break (leading me to ponder if any business is conducted indoors in this country). They directed me to a large building near the canal, and told me to ask for the Commissariat.

The desk officer there, looking at our English language forms, insisted that there was no one present that could validate our identity. I tried to point that it stated right on our form that any police officer could, to which he said, growing red faced: “Non. We are done,” and turned his back. Given that “police officer” in French is” officier du police” I can see why he was confused.

Finally, we gave in and made an appointment with a notary. I should point out that the French take their notaries very seriously: when Lasalle discovered the head of the Mississpi and claimed the land for France, he had a notary on hand, in the wilds of interior North America, to certify his claim.

And here is where Canadian bureaucratic perversity meets French tradition. It was necessary, for reasons obscure to me, for the notary to signs our forms within a tiny little square, which was marked with a warning to not stray outside the lines. However, our notary had, over the course of his illustrious career, developed a signature worthy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I suspect, as a youth, he had practiced the bold, swooping strokes, dreaming of one day affixing it to a revolutionary manifesto, or a death warrant for the King.

Being a generous man, he was not about to disdain such a humble canvas as our application. He began his masterwork, starting outside the signature box, to an audible gasp of dismay from Amynah. We were not sure, given the vagaries of the post, that we’d be able to get new forms before we were forcibly ejected from the country. Our photos received the same treatment, being further vandalized by the loving application of an official seal.

We posted it all anyway, and I'm told that despite our notary's Baroque flourishes, the Embassy has contacted at least one of my Canadian referees. Perhaps they believe I normally have a gold circle on my face?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Holy crap!

Whoever lives in the apartment above mine just dropped their freaking laptop out the window. It landed on the store veranda below our apartment, so no one was hurt, but I can't imagine the computer's in good shape. How do you drop a laptop out the window?*

Non sequitur update: A selection of photos from the trip about which I've been yammering on about for the last two weeks are over yonder. Many were published here, but some are new.

*Amynah and I have so far managed to drop a placemat, a paring knife, and the lid to a teapot out our window, all inadvertently tossed in the process of shaking crumbs off of our tablecloth. I don't think that's what happened here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Leiping Leipzig

And why wouldn't they?

We stopped in Leipzig to visit our friend Stefan, who kindly showed us around town. The place had not suffered much in the war, but forty years of communist neglect had done a lot of damage to the former capital of Saxony’s historic buildings. Construction cranes and heaps of slag are all over the city, as they try to restore the place to its former glory, and centrally-planned brutalist slabs share space with idiosyncratic Beaux Arts wonders.

For the most part, the autocrats of the GDR had left the edifices of the Saxon bourgeoisie alone, to crumble of their own accord. One exception, Stefan explained with typical understatement, was the old university chapel: “They blew that up in the 1980s. This did not go unnoticed.”

The Stasi emblem - they weren't aiming for warm and cuddly.

There were protests, which was remarkable, given the state of fear people must have been living in. We got a taste of that in the Stasi museum, which memorializes the East German republic’s secret police methods. These ranged from the tragic, like mothers interrogated for the ideologically impure school essays of their children – to the absurd, like a camera hidden in a pillow strapped around the abdomen of a female agent to fake a pregnancy (“Ooo! I can feel it clicking!”) Another disguise kit included a hard helmet, prompting me to wonder if the agent was to infiltrate the Village People.

They were efficient, at least: these are confiscated "Western" musical cassettes, repurposed to record phone taps.

All joking aside, it was a chilling place, and the events it memorializes are not purely historical, by any means – more than one exhibit had photographs ripped from the walls by people that had recognized themselves or loved ones.

That said, we know how the story ends, and it ended here in Leipzig.

The St Nicholas church was the scene, starting in the 1980s, of a series of protests against the regime. Initially, these were demands for a better quality of life but over time bloomed into the mass movement that eventually overthrew the regime, disproving Stefan’s observation (quoting Goethe) that given a choice between injustice and disorder, Germans will always choose the former.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Prague rock

Frank Gehry's "Dancing Couple" building

We were pretty time-limited in Prague, given our last minute decision to go to Leipzig. While I quite liked Prague, in retrospect, reading over my notes, almost all of the sites we visited were quite grim.

We started with the Cathedral of St Vitus, which has a number of interesting sights – the tomb of St Wenceslas being one. In addition to his predilection for hiking in the snow, Good King Wenceslas was murdered by his brother, who then bolstered his political position by declared his sibling a martyr, which is not unlike murdering ones’ parents in order to garner the sympathy that comes from being an orphan.

Further down the aisle from King W was the tomb of St John Nepomuk, who was tortured, killed, and then thrown off the Charles Bridge into the Vltana River. When he was exhumed, years later, his tongue was found intact in his skull, which was taken as proof that he had not broken the seal of confession under torture. Later analysis proved the bit of meat to be his brain, thus lending historical credence to the admonishment to mind your tongue.

His tomb in the cathedral was constructed using two tonnes of silver, while his statue on the Charles Bridge is supposed to assure safe crossing to all who touch it. “Tortured to death and then thrown off a bridge” is not a life story I personally would associate with good luck, but I am perhaps too literal. Enough people do believe the story that the two bas-reliefs of John on his statue are polished from the grabby attentions of the faithful.

Ooooh! Shiny!

The castle itself had the usual assortment of grand halls (in which indoor jousting tournaments were held, for which I’m sure the Royal Janitor was grateful) and council rooms, out of which several Catholic advisors were thrown during a Protestant revolt, all three of whom survived a 15 meter fall and subsequent volley of musket fire. This too, was interpreted as divine intervention, leading me to ask, wouldn’t it have been easier for God have caused the windows to jam?

The castle also housed a torture chamber. Here, legend had it, a knight who had sided with a peasant uprising had been imprisoned. Supposedly, his boredom in incarceration drove him to learn the fiddle, from which he coaxed such beautiful music that the people of Prague would gather every night outside his window for an informal concert. This, our audio guide assured us, gave rise to the Czech expression “Necessity taught whatsisface to fiddle” (an equivalent to her having been the mother of invention).

Momma never told me there were going to be days like this

However, whoever made the audio guide did not consult with whomever have made the explanatory plaque, which stated that “necessity” was a euphemism for “torture” and “fiddle” a euphemism for “confessing,” just as a 30’s era gangster might “sing.”

On to the bridge – the Charles Bridge is supposed to be Prague’s distinguishing landmark, and it is quite a sight. It is lined on both sides by towering gothic saints placed there as part of a Jesuitical Counter Reformation propaganda effort, and who keep an eye on the throngs of tourists, musicians and souvenir hawkers.

One of the more elaborate statues shows a saint holding an open pair of manacles, on a pediment against which leans an affable looking Turk in a turban, who looms over a miniature prison in which two men plead for release as a snarling dog menaces them from outside.

This statue is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to current events is purely coincidental.

“I know this one,” I said, keen to prove my know-it-all credentials, based on my recollections of a hastily read passage from our guidebook. “This guy founded an order to ransom prisoners from the Turkish army, and he converted a lot of Turks and Jews in the process. The Turk there represents a convert.”

“Oh,” said Amynah, “Don’t you think he’s a jailer?”

“No, no” I said confidently, “Look how friendly he looks.”

“But he’s holding a whip behind his back,” she pointed out.

"In my other hand? What do you mean, what's in my other hand?"

“Oh,” I said, “Well, that one wasn't very sincere, was he?”

Monday, January 21, 2008

Soaking it in Hungary

Detail of Budapest's "Heroes Square" taken just before my camera died. I can't speak for the valour of the men memorialized there, but I can tell you that the "square" looked remarkably circular to me.

You know, it’s a good thing that pretty much nothing but a leaky toilet has occurred since I’ve come back, or I’d be seriously backed up on my blogging, with all this Eastern Europe stuff.

In any case, still in Hungary – Amynah and I have become, if not connaisseurs, at least enthusiasts of European baths (especially those don’t require nudity). Budapest is famous for theirs, and so, on New Years Eve, we made our way to the Szechenyi baths. These were due to close at 1 PM, late enough that we were able to make it in under the wire. We’d have had more time on New Year’s Day, but the idea of sharing a giant hot tub with a herd of terminally hung over Australian backpackers did not appeal.

It was packed – the line up to get in was enormous. Evidently Australian back packer phobia is a more widespread affliction than I had believed. We got in line together, but I was let into the changing area first. While waiting her turn, Amynah was asked by the change room attendant where she was from. “Canada,” she replied.

“Ah, Canada,” he replied, “You are very beautiful.”

Unaware of my wife’s budding romance, I had changed into my appropriately Euro Speedo* and was entering the pools. After the spas of Baden-Baden, Budapest’s showcase baths seemed a little shabby. The ceilings had been painted over, covering up what had doubtless been lovely artwork. Mildew lurked in the further corners of the ceiling, and even the floor tiles were a little worse for wear; when I went to take the compulsory pre-bath shower, the knob came off in my hand.

The general impression of insalubrity was reinforced by the first of the mineral baths. Emanating from a natural spring, the water was greenish with a slight odour of sulfur.

The outdoor baths. A sign told us to not stay in here longer than twenty minutes. Right.

However, all was forgiven when we got to the outdoor pools. I should mention that it was cold outside, with a light but persistent snow falling throughout the day. Steam was rising from the pool in thick clouds. Being outside in a swimsuit in such conditions is not pleasant, and so Amynah made a mad dash for the pool, getting into the water while I tried to navigate down the stairs. It took me five minutes after I got in to locate her through the fog.

Once ensconced in the pool, we were able to people watch. There was no shortage of tourists like us – mainly from Italy, as far as we could tell – but it seemed to us that most of the patrons were locals, many of whom were senior citizens, and of which a large proportion were men whose abdomens could comfortably accommodate a small car, the upholstery of which could be harvested from their backs. I felt like a minnow amongst some very hirsute whales. Many of these leviathans were occupying themselves along the sides of the pool by playing chess on special waterproof boards. No word if the little guys were called “prawns” in that version.

* One day soon, I promise I will explain this.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Buda-post

Széchenyi bridge, over the Danube

An end of week gift for you, my loyal reader(s). After Vienna, Amynah and I boarded a train for Budapest. We arrived just after lunch, and made a beeline for our hotel, which was located just on the outer edge of the Buda side of downtown.

Now, as friendly as the Hungarians had so far been, their language is a barbed wire fence encircling a concrete bunker shielding a cast iron safe in which is hid comprehensibility. There are no words we recognized, no Germanic nouns or Romance verbs that might provide an entry point into their sentences: hell, there are barely any vowels. Even a simple word like “service” gets four extra consonants in Hungarian, some of which look like they were put there for storage, in case some other word might need them.

Our ineptitude proved costly. After dropping our bags, we hopped on the subway to go back to the larger Pest side of town (the subway stop nearest our hotel was Moscow Station. How redolent of history is that?) On our arrival in the downtown station we were stopped by a large man with a nametag and an officious manner. He demanded our tickets. We produced them.

Yes, this could be any subway on Earth, but trust me, it's a Budapest subway, and key to the sad tale that follows

“Szk szk szk,” he said.

“?” replied Amynah and I, apologetically.

“You did not stamp this,” he said.

“We did,” we said, pointing out where we had validated the ticket on the tram.

“You rode subway. Where is ticket?”

We said we used the same ticket, at which point he said we couldn’t do that.

“Oh, ok,” I said.

“No. Is not ok,” he said.

“No, I mean I understand,” I said, to which he just grunted.

“You need one ticket for the tram, one ticket for subway,” he said.

“Ok,” I said, comprehending.

“NO! Is NOT ok!” he said, frustrated by my dimness. He flipped my ticket over to show me, cowering beneath the thorns and brambles of his own language, a few lines in English explaining exactly what he had just told us.

“I didn’t read that,” I said, (after all, why would I expect English on a Hungarian metro ticket?)

“Is no good,” he said; to which Amynah and I could only agree. We may well have stood there on the subway platform forever, paralyzed my the not-ok-ness of it all, had Amynah not roused him, asking “So now what?”

“Ah! Now you pay,” he said, energized, and pulling out a ticket book.

“Fine,” said Amynah agreeably, having learned that Ok was not a customary signal of compliance in these parts.

“Yes! A fine!” he said, with great relish, delighted to have finally been understood.

I managed to avoid collapsing in laughter at this point, thus saving the Canadian Embassy staff from ruining their holidays bailing me out of a Hungarian jail. The fine amounted to 40 Euros; our grouchy enforcer did mutter “sorry” to Amynah, a regret that pointedly did not include me.

Freedom monument overlooking the Danube. I'm not sure if this is commemorating the capitalist or communist varieties of freedom

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

How to fix a French toilet, in twelve easy steps

1) Note toilet is leaking. Ignore for two months.

2) Decide to replace stopper, go to grocery store (for where else would one go for one’s plumbing needs?)

3) Catch tram.

4) Realize you’ve caught the wrong tram.

5) Disembark, run 1 km to catch correct tram.

6) Discover the store does not sell the proper mechanism.

7) Purchase the wrong one anyway, in the hopes of being able to adapt it.

8) Return home, discover it can’t be adapted.

9) Remove rubber stopper from new mechanism, replace old one.

10) Discover that with the new stopper, the drip is now a torrent.

11) Return old stopper to old mechanism, reassemble toilet, vow to call a plumber.

12) Discover that toilet, possibly out of irritation, has stopped dripping of its own accord.

Who are you calling a Weiner?

For some reason, we so no plaque commemorating the Hitler announced the Anschluss from the balcony of the palace in 1938. I wonder why that is?

Ladies and gentlemen, may I finally present you with part one of my long promised account of our Eastern voyages. I’m going to post them more or less in order, and will, once I’ve boring you all with the text, throw up a page or two of photos. I may or may not duplicate those on Facebook later.

On to Vienna, where our wandering and underslept heroes are, having located an overpriced hotel, orienting themselves in the capital of the once-mighty Hapsburg Emipre.

We were located in the middle of the shopping district, from where we took a quick peak at the cathedral, lunch at Burger King (we were hungry!) and then down to the Imperial Palace quarter. There, we were accosted by one of the many be-robed classical music touts that prowl the tourist zone, hawking a concert of Vienna’s greatest hits by various ensembles catering to, well, people like us. Figuring we’d never get tickets to the real deal, we acquiesced to the overtures of a girl selling tickets for “The Imperial Orchestra” for the following night. When she gave us directions, she said “it’s just down this street here – you know, where the Burger King is.” Amynah and I looked at each other guiltily – did she know our secret shame?

We, and 500 other tourists showed up at the stroke of 8:11 or thereabouts the following night and settled ourselves into what we had been assured were the best seats in the section with the worst view. No matter – the hall was lovely, decorated with elaborate wood carvings apparently for Vienna’s well-to-do to dance under in the late 19th century, and almost well-insulated enough to block out the sounds of the parking garage Muzak blaring from across the street.

If half a successful music career is an imaginative band name, then I predict a bright future for the Imperial Orchestra. They’re not short on chutzpah, I can assure you; I wouldn’t have the brass to call a ten-piece ensemble an “orchestra,” nor would any entertainment featuring a ballet sequence performed in fuzzy bunny costumes strike me as deserving the name “Imperial.” It was good fun though.

The Imerperial Orchestra, performing with the Elmer Fudd Ballet. Note the bunny ears on the right.

During the days, with an embarrassment of Viennese riches on offer, ranging from Hapsburg palaces to the Museum of Modern Art, we elected to visit the Esperanto Museum. Our logic – and we were proven correct in this - was that we were highly unlikely to run into crowds of other tourists there.

Screw you buddy, I don't need a translator - I know Esperanto!

The “Museum” consisted of a single room in the Austrian national library dedicated to this and other made-up languages (including Klingon); the displays consisted largely of posters from the annual Esperanto conferences over the century. The most disturbing exhibit, by far, featured a recording of a woman’s breathy reading of Esperanto erotic poetry. I didn’t understand it, but I will admit I did get a funny feeling, what with all the words like “penetrato” and “ecstsasa.”

Following a mention of erotic poetry with a picture of giant globes is just asking for a bad joke, I know. I regret nothing!

In a similar spirit of universalism, and much more complete, was the museum of globes – featuring some giant numbers that mapped out the heavens, pocket globes, and one smaller number for children that included a handy pamphlet describing “The Peoples of the World” including both their Austrian and Tyrolean varieties, both of whom are apparently inclined by nature of their race to grow facial hair and smoke pipes. To this, based on my observations of Viennese women, I can only agree.

(I lie. Viennese women were all very attractive, and rarely smoked pipes).

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


I should have asked where this guy was going - it might have been a more effective way to send my mail

On almost every trip Amynah and have taken in Europe so far, we've made a point of sending postcards to our families. On this trip, we decided to broaden our epistilatory ambitions, and so brought along a list of about twenty addresses of friends and family to whom we intended to send New Year's Greetings.

We only sent a couple from Vienna, and so in Budapest we decided to send about a dozen. Unfortunately, after carefully addressing and composing each one and affixing sufficient postage, we were unable to locate a working postbox (how a box could be out of order is a riddle I will leave to any Magyars in my readership to answer). We were forced to board our train to Prague with a pocketful of posties.

I am a bit of a postal fundamentalist - I firmly believe that postcards lose a little bit of their magic when not sent from, and bearing the stamps of, their country of origin. And so, rather than re-stamp the postcards we already had from the Czech Republic or France, I took them back here. I have since entrusted them to a Hungarian in my French class, with instructions to mail them (I even supplied a pre-paid envelope) to his family so that they might post them for me. If this strikes you as crazy, you're not alone - Gabor wouldn't even make eye contact with me in class after I explained my plan.

On the postcard front: if you - whether you be a friend, acquaintance or random passerby of this corner of the 'net - want one from Strasbourg or our next trip, wherever it may be, let me know and I'll add you to our address list.

Note:Actual travel stories and photos will come soon. My Mom gave me a nice journal for Christmas, in which I kept a travel diary. Unfortunately, I also promised her I would send her the results, and am now having to transcribe 60 pages of my handwriting, the illegible nature of which was done no favours by being battered by the rough charms of Eastern European trains).

Monday, January 07, 2008

I'm Bach, baby!

Bach's statue in Leipzig, outside the church at which he spent the last 20 years of his career as cantor. He's buried on the altar: I would imagine this would be no small cause of performance anxiety for his successors.

Just returned from a three city tour that included, quite unexpectedly, four cities. Oh, what adventures we had! From enjoying Vienna's famous Elmer Fudd Ballet, to getting busted by the subway cops of Budapest, catching* the World Hockey Juniors in the Czech Republic, to admiring post-Communist piles of concrete in Leipzig, and freezing, freezing, freezing throughout.

Longer reports will follow after I catch up on my work, such as it is. Until then, I leave those of you in Canada who knew him with the assurance that Stefan is doing well, living in Leipzig and hopefully chastened enough by our scolding to be a bit better about responding to his email. Drop him a line!

* by "catching," I mean "missing entirely." Sorry!