Really Far Above Cayuga’s Waters

The flight from Amsterdam to Detroit follows a northerly route and crosses land in Canada, well above Newfoundland and follows the St. Lawrenace Seaway, southwesterly, before it dips into New York State and takes a more directly westerly heading.  Since we left Amsterdam at 3:00 p.m. heading west, we were traveling into the sun and not losing too much time to its transit. For most of the flight, the surface below was obscured by clouds but when we reached Canada, some clearing give glimpses of rugged terrain in the northern parts of Canada–and lots to lakes and rivers.
Once heading nearly due west into a sunset, looking out the south side of the airplane, I easily recogized the Fingerlakes landscape.  The first clue was Oneida Lake, which contrasts to the Fingerlakes in running east/west.  It is also not shaped like a digit, more like a mashed foot.  I learned only recently that Oneida Lake covers the largest area of any lake in New York.  For my entire life in this area, I had assumed that Cayuaga’s 80 mile shoreline made it the largest lake, but Oneida’s shorter length, only 25 miles compared to Cayuga’s 40, is balanced with a greater width, 5 miles to Cayuga’s 2 at its widest.  From 30,000 feet Oneida’s substantial presence is clear, with the beginnings of the slender Fingerlakes in the distance.

Further west, the obvious name for the Fingerlakes is evident.  Cayuga and Seneca Lakes are the largest.  Immediately east of Cayuga (the lake with the large bulge toward its northern end) is Owasco Lake, and to its east is Skaneateles Lake, my favorite of all.  The very small one, farthest to the east, is Otisco.  To the west of Seneca, which dominates the wine-growing industry, are six more smaller lakes.

As I drove north out of Ithaca Tuesday morning, up the east side of the lake, the still bright and lustrous red and gold leaves made quite evident that fall here is a different order of magnitude more dramatica and more intense than what I saw on my recent excursion to central Europe.  But then I did not venture into any hilly or wooded area, so I will have to save any confirmation or denial of this speculation for another trip.

And for anyone not familiar with an overview of all the Fingerlakes, here’s a link to a satellite view. There’s a claim, debunked I gather, that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from satellite observations. What I am pleased to realize is that the Iroquois, without the benefit of a view from 300 miles above, experiencing the landscape more immediately and directly, clearly understood its range and contours.

Ich bin nicht ein Berliner.

But if I were, I’d opt for the area of the city once run by the former German Democratic Republic.  We chose a hotel for our initial stay in Berlin wanting to be close to Museum Island; that led us to Oranienburger Strasse which wikipedia reports is popular for its night life and clubs.  The same article also says the street is known for its legal prostitution, though I’ve seen no evidence of that.  But then, perhaps I haven’t been out at the right time of the evening. We liked the area, and when we returned for a few days before out flight out, we chose to stay nearby, this time a half block from Oranienburger Strasse.

We visited Cornell colleagues (both teach German) who keep an apartment in a charming West Berlin neighborhood lined with early 19th century apartment buildings.  Their area is quiet, low-keyed, residential. To be sure there are shopsand restaurants   nearby but the overall tone is defiantly residential.  Oranienburger is a bit shabby, areas are being rebuilt and refurbished, much of that work having begun after unification.  Around the remnants of the Wall are streets lined with dreary, functional living quarters, concrete blocks of apartments.  Even when the buildings have been updated in a more contremporary setting, the results are still plain and functional. 

 Nearby, we stumbled across what I can only say is a museum dedicated to individual idiosyncrasy: The Surreal Museum of Industrial Objects ( We walked into a room cluttered with castoff tools, bits of machines, abandoned toys. After a few minutes, the curator suddenly appeared and launched into his talk, explaining this hobbyhorse of his–presenting the detritus of industrial development in an unfamiliar setting. His goal, he claimed, was to make us think about the industrial past and the fragments that we had abandoned. While many objects were familiar, they were no longer commonplace. The room was filled, not with junk, though some might have seen it so, but with objects that were, once upon a time, crucial and important, or more prosaically, simply part of our daily life.

He played with the objects, juxtaposing the mundane with the profound; a photographer, he had camera relics and several industrial strength movie projectors. Most surprising were medical objects, an eerily familiar dentist X-Ray arm and an even more eerie iron lung. The curator was quite proud of that object, and he demanded that we estimate the longest time that a person had lived in an iron lung.  When Nancy and I guessed several years, he pounced: 60 years was the correct answer, and our ignorance simply proved his point about our unawares of the objects that surround us. He also filled us in on the person who had lived that long in the iron lung, a women who had gone on to earn a degree in psychology.

The curator was Russian (or former Russian), clearly someone who had found the openness and energy of this part of Berlin to his liking.  He also found, I suspect, cheap rent, since his museum was located in four or five rooms of the ground floor of an apartment building.  He left the front door open, with a bell on the counter, and would pop in and launch into his voluable accounts of objects abandoned and found.

We also found in this area of Berlin several small cafes and bars that also expressed their owner idiosyncrasies, places that were open and welcoming but also slightly off kilter.  A restaurant, Ruben and Carla, whose owners might have been Italian, and offered a pastrami sandwich on their menu. A cafe that called itself a “buchhandler” but had no books on display, only mismatched furniture and cushions, and a bar area called a cantina.

Central European Connections

I began this trip to Central Europe because of my family history, which I know only in its broadest outlines. When, as a child, I asked my mother about my grandparents’ background, she told me they were from Austria.  I knew they had come to the US from another country, that they didn’t speak English very well, or write it for that matter, and that they spoke German to each other and to most of their children.  I had learned enough about European cultures to realize that Austrians spoke German, so my mother’s observation led me to believe that part of my family background was Austrian.

Many years later, after I had actually travelled through Austria, I spoke with my grandmother about how much I had enjoyed Vienna.  Vienna, she let me know, had been very far from where she grew up, and the way she described the distance suggested that she and my grandfather were from some place much to the east of Vienna.  I knew enough of European geography to know that any place east of Vienna was not in what we now know as Austria. If I were to claim my grandparents ethnic identify, it could not be Austrian. What I figured out was simply that my grandparents had been citizens of some part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, before they immigrated to the U.S. I never learned more from my grandmother about her origins other than it was a small farming village.

Once I began cooking for myself, I researched some of the foods that my mother had made and learned quickly that the most basic family dishes I remembered, paprikas and goulash, heavily laced with paprika, were Hungarian, as was my favorite desert, “palascinta,” rolled, jam-filled crepes.  Stuffed cabbages and stuffed peppers were represented in the cuisines of many other countries in this part of the world.  My grandparents were not Magyars so I assumed they must have been influenced by that culture, an influence which extended into the many countries of central Europe. Piecing these bits of family information together gave me just the smallest glimpses of my grandparents’ background.  I cultivated an interest in Hungarian culture and the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and I planned some day to visit Budapest and revisit Vienna.

I did finally learn more specific information about the background of my parents.  My grandfather had written a memoir, late in his life, in German. An uncle managed to have it translated into English and presented copies to many in the family. I learned that my grandparents had grown up in a town named Erdevik in what is now Serbia. At the time he and my grandmother (and many other relatives and friends from the same area) left that part of the world and ended up in southeastern PA.  Erdrvik, before the breakup of the Empire after after WWI, was in Vojvodina, an area fought over by Hungarians and Turks throughout the 19th century. It was also a hotbed of Serbian nationalism.  In his stories of growing up there, my grandfather emphasized his Germanness and was not shy about emphasizing his sense of difference from the Serb polpulation.  

So, the real story was that by grandparents were born in an area that is now Serbia but they maintained a German identify in a contested multi-cultural state. As background for my trip I brought with me Between the Woods and the Water, vol. 2 of a 3 volume travel narrative by Patrick Leigh Fermor, tracing his walk from Holland to Constantinople in 1934. As he passes through Hungary and Rumania, he describes in intensely romantic and heroic language the fading Hungarian culture.  The empire had been disassembled in 1918, after WWI.  The ’30s were about to erupt; memories of a golden age would be irrevocably debunked.  Though museums would remain.  Fermor taught me that throughout this region were pockets of Germans, whole communities, some of whom had settled after the Thirty Years War and had retained their German culture, architecture, and language, while living among local cultures.  Ultimately, my grandparents’s story may just be another version of ethnic conflict and immigration.

Cuckoo Clocks, Ferris Wheels, and Vienna

Carol Reed’s The Third Man is one of my favorite movies.  My introduction to the idea of the movie came early because in the late ’50s my parents watched a weekly TV drama called The Third Man, starring Michael Rennie.  I remember almost nothing about the show except for the character’s name, Harry Lime.  The show drew upon commonplace detective themes, and if I am right in my few memories, Harry Lime was a kind of freelance detective, solving problems in the shadowy world of post WWII Europe.  I don’t even remember if the TV show used the haunting zither music that figures so prominently in the movie

I was surprised, therefore, when I first saw Reed’s movie since the original Harry Lime is no hero.  Played by Orsen Wells, he is a sinister, self-serving, amoral, duplicitious, and charming gangster making his way as a black marketeer in post war Vienna. I am confident that a mass-market TV show from the ’50s would not have made such a character into a lead. Reed, however, allows Wells to take control of the movie with his twisted justifications of corrupt behavior. Several scenes stand out: when he first appears, perhaps a third of the way into the movie, a slash of light from a second story window onto a dark street corner reveals Harry Lime smiling like a Cheshire cat before he quickly disappears.  At the end of the movie, now desperate to escape from the police, Lime runs and stumbles through the sewers below the Viennese streets.  Reed is being none too subtle.

My favorite scene occurs when Lime meets his friend Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotton) who has been led to believe that Lime is dead. Having realized by now that Lime is simply a vicious criminal, Martins struggles to understand Lime’s behavior.  Lime leads Martins onto a ferris wheel that takes them up over the roof tops of Vienna. As their gondola pauses at the top, Harry embarks on a history lesson, one that justifies his actions (selling adulterated black marker penicillin to hospitals). The forces of oppression and corruption in 15th century Florence produced some of the glories of the Renaissance. Four hundred years of democracy in Switzerland produced, Lime observes, the cuckoo clock. Lime has taken his side.

I was surprised to learn that the Ferris Wheel still goes around in a small amusement park, Sansouci, on the edge of central Vienna. And The Third Man plays weekly at a cinema in Vienna. We passed by the park late this afternoon on our way back to our hotel from an afternoon wandering around the exhibit rooms at the Belevdere museum. The gondolas in which Lime posits his historical analysis have been given another role in the park.  In the evenings, one can reserve a gondola for a candle lit dinner as the wheel slowly soars above Vienna.  Harry Lime would, I suspect, snicker.

I took a picture of the ferris wheel and passed on, foregoing the ride and dinner, preferring to remember Lime’s cynical grin to Martins.

And a reminder that the world is still struggling with the world view that Lime justifies.  Outside the park was a billboard making clear how Austria still struggles with its past and present.

But not to end on a down note, let me take you to the Belvedere Museum, once the home of Prince Eugen, one of the most successful military commanders of the Hapsburg dynasty. Completed in the early 18th century and admired as one of the wonders of its age.  Now it is  two museums separated by a park that is nearly a third of a mile long.  Today was the first rainy day we’ve had, with gray and lowering skies, so the colors were subdued.  Inside, the Gustav Klimt exhibit supplied all the gold and color one needed.

At the Louve, crowds gather in front of the Mona Lisa and people jostle to take selfies, often with phones on extended sticks. At the Belvedere, management has derailed that practice–no photographing–but has accommodated the urge to record one’s presence in the presence of a cultural icon.  Just off the gallery with the major Klimt portraits, esp. The Kiss, is a selfie station, a large reproduction of the painting for selfie close ups.


Autumn in Vienna

For my previous autumns, I would often watch the weather change, the leaves color and fall, the rains seep in while staring out my office window or while walking home in the evening light. This October I’ve watched fall arrive from train windows and while wandering through many city streets. On Halloween, Nancy and I took the U-Bahn to Schönbrunn Palace, a royal estate on the western fringes of Vienna.  Hapsburg emperors had settled on this salubrious site (Schönbrunn means “beautiful spring”) by the 16th. century and began building what would become a summer place, a relief, no doubt, from the steamy summers in Vienna.  Maria Theresa began construction on the current palace, a sprawling 1100 rooms.  I suspect one could have walzed from one drawing room to another for weeks on end.

We queued up for tickets to the royal apartments, but when we got to the head of the line, we learned that we would not be able to enter the palace for another hour and a half. Later reseearch clarified that the Schonbrunn is Vienna’s most popular attraction.  Bypassing any waiting, we walked around the front of the palace to the gardens behind. Gardeners had been busy digging up the flower beds that were spread out on the broad gravel plaza.  Lining the plaza were well manicured walkways, lined with groomed and well tended trees.  I’m not an arborist and can recognize only a few species of trees, but I knew these were neither maples nor ginkgoes.

The afternoon was clear and bright, filtering the light though intensely yellow leaves. In Rosenkranz and Guilderstern Are Dead, one of them says something like this: “Autumnal, nothing to do with leaves; it has to do with a certain brownness and the edges of our days.”  He was speaking from a certain bleakness, an awareness of impending doom. Our afternoon’s color was a burnished gold to brighten the afternoon.  We spent long enough enjoying our walk through the shaded lanes and decided to bypass a visit to the imperial quarters.

The park has off to one side a small TIergarten; in the park itself, pigeons, gulls, ducks, and crows abound.  At least I think there are crows. Certain birds had that crow-like hop, the strong beak, and the gimlet-eyed look.  They are not all black, however; their chests and backs are gray.  I welcome any orinthologist’s expert opinion.  The birds would not let me approach too closely, so enlarge the image for effect.

Later in the afternoon, back in the old center of of the city, we stopped in Bäuernhof, one of Vienna’s well-known cafes.

Mädchen mit Kaffee und Küchen:

Border Crossings

We left Budapest late Sunday morning, after a ride to the train station from an honest cab driver.  He didn’t speak English and had a hard time communicating that he could not change the large bill I was offering for the fare.  The Hungarian Florint is worth about .003 cents, so ATMs easily dispense 20,000 and 50,000 Florint notes, of a size that most coffee shops and small businesses try to refuse.  When we got out of the cab at the train station, I offered the driver a 10,000 Florint note, worth about $35.00; he kept shaking his head and holding out an empty cash purse.  I tried two 5000 Florint notes and got the same response.The language barrier was confused by my previous experience with a Budapest cab driver, on a trip from the station to the hotel, who had, in fact, charged 6000 Florints, which I assumed was the normal fare. When the cab driver and I finally understood each other, I realized that he wanted 1300 florints, about $5.00, for a ride that 4 days earlier had cost me about 6000 Florints, $21.  I had read earlier that many Budapest cabs scammed tourists,  and I entered the station appreciating the honest cabbie and feeling stupid about being duped by the earlier one.

In spite of the disruptions following the British vote to exit the European Union, the EU remains one of the most civilized cultural institutions, permitting very casual and open connections between countries. Traveling from one country to another is seamless. On all the trains we’ve taken, the only notice we received about moving into a new country was a message from Verizon on my iPhone, reminding me how my international service plan applied to a new country. No border crossings, no red and white barriers blocking a highway, no officious guards slowly leafing through a passport, while another, usually well-armed, watched with suspicion. The willingness of a country to allow strangers to enter and leave is the mark of a county that treats all people with respect. My Hungarian guide of a few days ago was deeply troubled by her government’s increasingly onerous attempts to control people (by which she understood refugees) coming across its southern borders.  

Those who are priviledged to look the right way are not threatened.  Though I must admit that on the train from Budapest a quatet of  police officers did spend about 5 minutes leafing though my passport.  From the conversation, I figured that 2 of the officers were experienced and 2 were novices.  My passport inspection was simply a training exercise, an example of how to look and talk to travelers.
Eventually, we crossed from Hungary to Austria, and I would have been hard pressed to say where one country ended and the next began.

Western Hungary:

Eastern Austria:

Heroes, Shoes, and Bullet Holes

Budapest abounds in statues of leaders and heroes on horseback. In the precincts of the Parliament, the statues commemorate both actual leaders and a romantic call to liberation and patriotism. Some of the fervor resulted from Hungary’s failed revolution of 1848, suppressed by the imperial armies of Russia and Austria. By the late 1860s Hungary joined with Austria in the Dual Monarchy, but it’s status was like that of a younger brother. Such a position could easily have led to a greater emphasis on military fervor. The Revolutionary moment passed and Hungary fully committed itself to the Austrian empire. For the first half of the 20th century, Hungary chose the wrong sides of history; such choices may well add to attempts to burnish of the past.

The statue of Count Andrassy, a major political figure in Hungary and then in the Dual Monarchy, guards the approaches to the Parliament building.

A few blocks away from the edifice to heroic service is a more humane, and more devastating monument to Hungary’s more recent past.  Along the Danube is an installation of shoes, set permanently onto the banks.

The shoes belonged to Jewish internees and prisoners, native Hungarians who were herded to the river bank in 1944 by Hungarian paramilitary, shot, and then dumped into the river.  While Hungary had a long history of anti-semitism and allied itself with Germany in WWII, it tried to back away from Hitler’s embrace when the course of the war was obvious.  In 1944, Hitler’s armies invaded Hungary, giving rise to a different form of patriotic fervor, this one devoted to perpetuating Hungary’s own holocaust. Coming so late in the war when the outcome was beyond doubt, such a gesture seems particularly brutal.

In front of the Parliament is another monument, but one that is less dramatic. This year marks the 60th anniversay of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union.  It was an event I think I remember from news headlines, but barely understood at the time.  The memorial first appears as a set of nondescript walls that mark an entrance into an underground space, much like entrances to the many parking garages in the city.  The side walls are punctured  with real or simulated bullet holes.

The underground space memorializes the men and women who took to the streets in a futile attempt to resist Soviet domination.  Videos display classic examples of urban guerrillas running after or away from tanks.  And the tanks are shooting.  I thought of the non-shooting tanks in Tiananmen Square, a more controlled authoritarian response, but one that still insured the suppression of inchoate desires for political liberty.  I am tempted to admire the 1956 rebellion, but I found the juxtaposition of the two different monuments unsettling.  Were the fighters in 1956 a different generation, or were they able to forget their own past?

Some Hungarians do remember. Several blocks away in a public park we came across an unusual stage of political theatre.  The German and Hungarian governments had recently collaborated to erect a statue honoring the Hunagarians who had been killed by the Germans in WWII.  To some Hungarians this monument is a white-washing of a particularly nasty moment, one that undercuts any pretense of heroic resistance to German occupation.  The counter-demonstrators have lined the street with an exhibit of shoes and suitcases suggesting other holocaust reminders.  They have set up a line of barbed wire, surely a deliberate reminder, for people to hang images, photos, statements to remind Hungarians that their past must be recognized, not glossed over.  

A small cluster of demonstrators is on site all day, and each day in the evening they stage an open discussion of what the monuments to heroism really mean.

Another side of Budapest on a spectucular fall day.

My friend Ray who taught for several years in Karkow and Budapest suggested that Nancy and I meet his friend Orsolya who lives in Buda.  While I am sure he hoped we would like each other, I also suspect he knew she would introduce us to a Budapest we might have missed.  Orsolya recommended a walk through the Jewish quarter. She belongs to an organization fighting to keep developers from tearing down buildings in the old ghetto to construct more modern and more tasteless structures.  She provided an astute perpspective on Hungarian antisemitism, especially the attempt to deny the culture’s complicity in destroying its Jewish population. 

After several hours walking and then over lunch, she impressed with with her absolute fluency in English. In spite of my attempts to avoid discussions of American politics, lunch conversation drifted into the presidential election. She made clear how stunned many Europeans were at Trump’s campaign. They are familiar with the rise of demagogues who can  authorize the most  basic assaults on human dignity and had hoped that the U.S. was beyond such behavior.  She also made clear how invested many Europeans are in this election.  Hungary’s own attempt to forge a policy of no immigrants seems too close to Trump’s wall.
After lunch, Nancy and I walked from the Jewish quarter through a very stylish main  street, Andrassy, which Orsolya assured us was Hungary’s attempt to mimic the Champs Elysee with a a broad tree shaded avenue lined with upscale shops.

And the opera house.

Along the river, we had already glimpsed several of the Viking Cruieses ships that anyone who watches Masterpiece Theatre will have seen.  This is simple another mode of transportion that Nancy and I have not taken.  The ships seem to dock for a few days, offload their passengers onto busses, and send them into the city. After a few days, they disappear.

Pest on the east bank catches the evening sun with an astounding intensity, amplified when the stone and stucco buildings turn golden.

The Hungarian Parliament buildings, which Orsolya made clear, reflected the attempt by Hungarians to imitate established practices in other countries (this time in Britain), also made the evening light magical.

Meandering around Budapest

Budapest originated as two cities divided by the Danube.  Buda is the original capital of Hungary on the west bank of the Danube.  Pest developed as a separate city on the east bank. By the end of the 19th century, the cities had been connected.  Unity evolved with the development of bridge building in the mid-19th century. The first permanent bridge across the river, the Chain Bridge, was completed in 1849, designed by an English architect. “Chain” refers to the large steel links that were joined to form the suspension structure.  Budapest has several more suspension bridges connecting its two parts.  The reputations of the twin cities suggest that Pest is now the more up to date, the more trendy place.  Pest, the site of many historic buildings, is more stolid.

One goes to Buda for the monuments, especially the old Castle and the Mathias Cathedral.  Since much of the early history of this part of Europe involved local peoples being driven back and forth by invading tribes–huns, mongols, tartars–it seems obvious that the early kings of Hungary, noting the broad plains of the Pest side of the river and the hilly terrain of Buda, opted for Buda as the site where they’d make their stand.  The bluffs above the Danube can provide a relatively safe haven from occasional intruders, though the Hungarians constantly had difficulty with the encroaching Turks.  The current castle, a more modern structure, occupies a site on which the first buildings went up in the 12th. century.  The heroic statue is simply one of many strewn about the castle and the city, reflecting a Hungarian obsession with marital prowess.

Where man builds, God expects his due and at the other end of Castle Hill, the church constructed its own monument to divine and eathly power.  The gothic church, officially the Churcy of Our Lady, takes it unofficial name “Matthias Church” from Matthias Corvinus, a 15th century King of Hungary and Bohemia and one of the most popular figures in Hungarian history.

The King, heroically imagined.

Most stunning, of course, is not the view of the monuments but the view to the city from the edge of the hillside with the river, the Chain Bridge, and the plain of Pest in the near distance.

After a long day’s walk around the Castle, church, and back across the river, and after dinner, we walked back to our hotel, which is just down the street from St. Stephen’s Basilica, lit for nightly appreciation.