Posts Tagged With: politics

City of a hundred spires

We arrived in Prague after a 15-hour bus ride from Serbia, through Hungary, cutting through Slovakia, and finally up north through the Czech Republic. By the time we left the bus station it was midnight and the metro line had closed. So we took a cab. Usually this is highly discouraged in Prague (even though drivers use meters, they cheat). Thankfully, this time we weren’t cheated, and the driver took us quickly and directly to our hostel on Wenceslas Square.

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In the morning, we were up and at ’em at the wee hour of 11 am. We strolled toward the Old Town Square, stopping for a tredelnik, which was so delicious I wanted two. Then we stumbled down the cobblestone path and onto the square, right in front of the astronomical clock.

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Prague, nestled in the heart of Bohemian Czech Republic, is one of the oldest and most beautiful cities of Central Europe. About 1.3 million people live here now, and the city area was settled over two thousand years ago by Celts. Germans, then Slavs, roamed the area, making the land by the Vltava river. Modern Czechs, although now a distinct ethnic group, are descended from those western Slavs. The first fortress that would be eventually known as Prague Castle was already built around 800 AD. At the time, most of these people considered themselves Bohemes, hence the name Bohemia.

The city continued to grow, and by the 1300s had a prominent Jewish population, German population, several bridges, and churches. Unfortunately, the medieval dynasty pretty much died out. Only a princess, Elisabeth, was left. She married John of Luxembourg because he was very, very rich (and old and blind in one eye). They had a son in 1316 who became Charles IV. He became King of Bohemia and even the Holy Roman Emperor. Under him, Prague flourished. He founded the Carolina University, built the famous Charles Bridge, expanded St. Vitus Cathedral, and more.

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The famous Powder Tower was one of the original 13 city gates between Old Town and New Town, something Charles IV helped renovate. It was finished, however, until about 100 years after his death, when another king finished the decorations. It’s called the Powder Tower because in the 17th century they stored gunpowder there.

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Anyway, the Old Town Square used to be the marketplace in the 1400 and 1500s. Now a riotous clash of architecture with several spires towering over the cobblestones, the square is the iconic image of medieval Prague.

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The old city hall, as seen at night. It used to be a lot bigger, until Nazis accidentally blew up the right half of the church (thankfully, not where the clock is). It was also the site of Prague’s one-and-a-half defenestration in 1483 when rioters/protesters, fed up with the municipal government, threw seven aldermen and a portreeve out the window to their deaths. (Yes, I learned the word defenestration from this. Apparently when Czechs get really angry they throw people out of windows).

If you’re wondering where I’m getting all my information, it’s from a free walking tour and some of my own research.

And, finally, we came to the astronomical clock. The third oldest in the world and the only one still functioning, the Prague orloj was finished in 1410. Legend has it that the city councilors were so proud of the clock and so jealous that no one else create their own that they took the clockmaker out, got him drunk, and blinded him. In revenge, the clockmaker climbed the tower and jumped into the cogs, committing suicide and ensuring that they couldn’t have his precious invention. The clock didn’t work for another 100 years.

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The 26-second show is often rated the Second Most Disappointing Site in Europe (Mona Lisa being first), and according to 21st century expectations I suppose that’s true. But back in the 15th century, moving figures must’ve been amazing! The four figures on the bottom represent the four most respected trades during that period:  ruler, soldier, historian, or astronomer. Up above are the four things most despised in the 15th century: vanity (which, our guide pointed out, is ironic considering the number of selfies taken with this clock today), greed (helpfully depicted as a Jew), death as the skeleton, and lust/earthly pleasures (also helpfully depicted as a Turk). 15th century ain’t got nothing on stereotypes and cultural sensitivity.
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Across the square is Church of Our Lady before Tyn,with its uneven gothic towers. Although a church had stood there since the 11th century, this later Gothic style wasn’t built until the 14th century.

In the middle of the square is a statue to Jan Huss, commemorating the work he did in ushering in Protestantism and also the 25-year-long Hussite Wars, unfortunately. Huss was a pretty amazing guy, actually, a Catholic priest and a staunch critic of the hypocritical excesses of the church. I read some of his sermons in high school. His name, “Huss” means “goose,” and it’s where we get the phrase “his goose is cooked” because he was eventually burned at the stake in 1415, a martyr for the fledgling Protestant Reformation.
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Well, his death didn’t go over so well with the Czechs, who were loving this whole Bible-in-Bohemian and greedy-popes-profit-off-your-indulgences thing. There was the First Defenestration of Prague, which tossed several Catholic priests out a window in 1419, and then the wars.

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We strolled through what used to be the Jewish Quarter, or Josefov. For hundreds of years it was one of the worst parts of the city–poor, flooding in spring from the river, and cramped. But finally, when Jews were allowed to move outside the walls in the late 1800s, they did. Only the poorest stayed, and soon the criminal elements of the city moved in. The city government spent a lot of time and money cleaning up the area, building new stores and apartments around the turn of the 20th century, pushing the riffraff out. Now it’s the most expensive real estate in the country.

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Okay, so ignore the stupid grin on my face. This is the Rudolfinum, one of the countless concert halls in Prague and is home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (since 1946). You may have noticed that a lot of these buildings are old. And hardly damaged. That’s because Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia first, in 1938 (even before Poland). There’s a long, bitter history there, but the upside is that because the government surrendered, very little fighting or bombing happened. Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world due to that.

Which is where this great little story comes in. The Nazis, of course, took over all the big, beautiful buildings as military headquarters, including the Rudolfinum. The third in command, right after Himmler, was Reinard Heydrich (the guy who finalized the Final Solution). When he moved into the Rudolfinum, though, there was a problem. The building is lined with the statues of famous composers. It’s great, especially for art-loving Nazis, except that Felix Mendelssohn is up there, who was ethnically Jewish.  Well, that just wouldn’t do, not on a Nazi building! So Heydrich ordered two soldiers to go up there and take down Mendelssohn.

That night, they dutifully climbed up there, when they realized a problem: they didn’t know what Mendelssohn looked like! But, being problem-solving Germans who paid attention in Nazi history class, they found a solution. They measured every single nose up on that roof, knowing that the biggest nose had to be the Jewish composer. They found him, knocked him off, and were so proud of themselves that they arrived early the next morning to show off their success.

Heydrich took one look at the broken statue on the ground and flew into a rage. “What have you done to Wagner?” he demanded.

Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer. He was a strong anti-Semite during his day, and plenty of musicians hate him because he designed the modern orchestra pit they all despise.

That evening we went to watch The Magic Flute in the Estates Theatre. Our guide mentioned that if possible, we needed to go to a classical music event because they happen every night. The government apparently subsidizes the cost of tickets, so it’s pretty cheap to attend. We had to choose between Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons playing at the Klementinum and Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the last surviving theater he actually performed in. It’s just crazy to me that there’s so much music and culture in this city that amazing events only happen for one night.
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We picked The Magic Flute, my favorite opera. The Estates Theatre was the world premiere of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s most famous opera, in 1787. So obviously we had to go. We bought tickets day-of, so had some of the worst seats in the theater.

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The theater is rather small (though the stage is incredibly deep), and there’s the orchestra, two balconies, and three galleries. We sat in the top gallery, and yes, we had to lean forward and rest our chins on the railing to see the stage. I got a crick in my neck.

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See Jordan all the way at the top, near the chandelier, in blue? Yep.
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BUT we got student pricing, so we watched the whole opera in Prague at a historic theater that Mozart himself enjoyed for a grand total of 250 Czech crowns, or $13.81 USD. For the two of us! I KNOW! So those smiles on our faces are genuine.

And the soprano as Queen of the Night was amazing, and the overture made me feel like my heart would burst, and we’re still humming the arias days afterward. It was perfect.

Categories: Czech Republic | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Sites of Belgrade

Although most of our time in Belgrade was spent volunteering, we did squeeze out a few hours to get to know the city. Here are our three favorites, with a bonus.

  • The Tesla museum

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in a little Serb village. His family had a long tradition of intellectual pursuits, and his father was the village priest. 20170103_165646

Although Tesla spent most of his adult life in the US (because they were more open to inventions and progress than Europe), he spent his childhood in Serbia and his university years in Hungary and France. Although Tesla only spent three days in Belgrade, this is where his ashes are today.

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We got to watch alternating current experiments that went over my head but Jordan loved (he wants a Tesla battery so badly). I thought the museum was a little pricey considering how small it was (half was experiments, the other half his personal belongings).

  • The Belgrade Fortress

The Belgrade castle and fortress is surrounded by Kalemegdan Park. It comes from the Turkish word for “Town Field.” By the middle of the 19th century the fortress lost most of its military purpose, and the field became a park.

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Most of the fortress in now a part of the park as well, always open to the public. Originally built in 535 by the Byzantine Justinian I, legend says it covers the burial site of Attila the Hun. The Celts, then later Germanic tribes, lived in Serbia first, until the Romans took control. When the Hungarians controlled Serbia (for most of the Dark Ages to 1400s), they reinforced the fortress and built several towers.

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The Turks conquered Serbia and used the fortress for their own until 1867, when they left Europe for good. Now it’s a park and a military museum.

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A few of the towers make up the iconic skyline of Belgrade.

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20170113_153655We visited the ethnographic museum in about an hour and a half. It was right by our apartment, conveniently located at Studentski Trj. It was pretty cheap, only about three dollars per person, and we strolled through the different ethnic costumes downstairs. Upstairs were daily life exhibits of city life and rural like of the lower middle class Serbs, as well as the architecture of the local villages. Jordan and I were both surprised at the diversity within the Balkan region.

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Finally, during the war with Yugoslavia, NATO bombed parts of Belgrade and the greater Serbia. These bombs were mostly from American fighter jets, and although things were precisely targeted in 1999, there were still mistakes made (like the Chinese embassy). A few of the bombed military buildings have been left standing. I think it’s mostly due to Serbia being mostly broke and not having extra cash to demolish bombed out buildings, but it is a great reminder of what happened only 18 years ago.

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We never felt unwelcome in Serbia as Americans (thankfully), but there were a few awkward moments when people told me their strong feelings about Pres. Bill Clinton or mentioned how sudden fireworks never bother them because they remember how machine guns sound echoing through the city streets.

There are many other interesting sites in Belgrade, particularly on the nightlife front, and Belgrade a great city often overlooked by backpackers. If you get a chance, spend a few days in town. You’ll enjoy it!

Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

So you want to volunteer

If you’re interested in volunteering, like Jordan and I, there are lots of options in many countries.

In my research to choose an area to volunteer in, I picked up a lot of information that might help anyone looking into the same work. This list is by no means exhaustive, and needs change quickly and often. But here’s a list of resources to get you started:

General

Balkans

  • Project Hope is a worldwide organization but has its focus in the Balkan states. They accept volunteers
  • Hot Food Idomeni is the only group delivering hot food to the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia
  • Refugee Aid Miksaliste works mostly with the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia by providing charging centers, activity corners, and language workshops run by volunteers
  • Refugee Aid Serbia facilitates information, distributes clothing, and works closely with the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia.
  • Info Park is a hub of information for the refugees on the street and in the asylum centers. They pay for hostels for families, provide language classes, and more.
  • A great list for those interested in helping in Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and more.

Greece

  • Boat Rescue Foundation is a Dutch organization that not only helps pull life rafts to shore in the Greek islands but also helps work in the camps
  • Hot Food Idomeni also gives out hot food in northern Greece near the Macedonian border (hence the name “Idomeni”)
  • Northern Greece Volunteers is as exactly how the name descries – a coalition of volunteers in northern Greece. They are funded in part by Help Refugees.
  • A great list for those interested in helping in northern Greece.
  • Forgotten in Idomeni helps distribute food and more in Greece.
  • A site for coordinating volunteers and broadcasting needs in Greece.
  • EuroRelief works in camps and on the beach in Lesbos, Greece
  • Intervolve has international volunteers in Thessaloniki, Greece
  • Nurture Project International works with nurses, midwives, and lactation consultants to provide for women and babies in Greece.
  • Lighthouse Relief has volunteers in Lesbos and on mainland Greece.
  • Helping Hands works with families and unaccompanied minors in Athens, Greece.

Middle East

  • Relief and Reconciliation for Syria is a group in a village in Lebanon. They prefer volunteers that come in teams to create workshops or volunteers that can stay 3-6 months at a time.
  • Basmeh and Zeitooneh is a grassroots Lebanese organization, dedicated to serving Syrian refugees and vulnerable communities in Lebanon
  • Nurture Project International works with nurses, midwives, and lactation consultants to provide for women and babies in Iraq.
  • Information for volunteers to Turkey is excellent, though information hasn’t been updated in a few months.
  • Information Point for Turkey Volunteers often has calls for volunteers as well as good information to educate you before the trip.
  • Tarlabasi works with vulnerable ethnic minorities in Istanbul, Turkey. They take volunteers for longer period of time, but volunteer applications are on hold until Feb. 1, 2017.
  • A short list of small NGOs in Jordan that may accept volunteers

Central/Western Europe

  • A great list for those interested in helping in Calais, France (though recent changes in November 2016 may make some information here obsolete)
  • YWAM is taking volunteers in teams throughout Europe and requests that people commit to stay for at least three weeks.
  • Operation Mobalisation is a faith-based organization always taking teams of volunteers throughout Europe.
  • Care4Calais is a British/French organization working with refugees previously living in “the Jungle,” an unofficial refugee camp in Calais, France.
  • Secours Catholique, a branch of Caritas, works to distribute clothing to the refugees in Calais and Paris.
  • CalAid helps distribute clothing, give aid, and more to the refugees in France, UK, and Greece.
  • FranceAndBeyond has some good tips and suggestions if interested in volunteering at camps in France.

Other information

Interested in donating money instead? Go here for a great list. 

Categories: Lost in Translation, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Volunteering with refugees

Our first day we walked into the aid house, sidling past people smoking on the steps. Inside five or six families and about another thirty teenage boys milled around. Signs, labeled in English, designated “Youth Corner” and “Women’s Corner” and “Charging Center.” Other directions were pasted on the walls in Arabic and/or Serbian. A few staffers with either name tags or vests weaved between the crowd.

After a moment of looking around, I snagged an official-looking nurse and asked where volunteers were supposed to go.

“Upstairs, maybe,” she said in a French accent, pointing out the back door. She turned back to a refugee woman setting her backpack down in the middle of the hallway. “You can’t do that here,” she said, but the woman smiled an I-have-no-idea-what-you’re-saying-smile (I’ve used that smile on numerous occasions) and continued unpacking her bag.

So Jordan and I went out the back door, up some more stairs, and into a small warehouse. Boxes of clothing were piled high behind a counter. A crib covered in dust sat in a corner beside a car seat. We saw a small office with a woman inside. We knocked and entered.

She looked up and smiled.

“Hello,” I said uncertainly. “We’re volunteers. This is our first day.”

“Okay, then sign this volunteer contract and write down your contact information here.” She handed up as couple of pieces of paper. “There are about a thousand refugees in Belgrade, and most of them come here during the day. You can leave your bags here—the door is always locked or someone is here. It’s very safe, the refugees are good, but everyone once and a while someone will steal something. They’re interested in our bags—they don’t have backpacks to hold their things, so one of them might try to steal your bag.” She rattled off more information. “They don’t normally like their pictures taken. If you do, just ask first. It’s polite. But they love taking selfies with volunteers, so they might ask you to do that. The refugees live in the barracks down that way—“ she waved vaguely somewhere “—in very inhumane conditions. No showers, so we provide them here. A lot of the refugees have body lice and scabies. I’m not trying to scare you—you won’t get it. Just don’t hug them for very long or wear their clothes and you’ll be fine.”

“Is this the distribution center?” Jordan pointed to the counter with the boxes.

“Yes, but volunteers can’t distribute clothing anymore. A few weeks ago the government said we couldn’t do that anymore.” She led us back down into the first building, filled with people. “So we have fifteen different organizations all working here. The medical clinic’s in the back, we have a children’s room and a women’s corner hosted by UN Women.” She looked at us. “We have crafts and projects and workshops every day to keep people busy, and you can work there.”

“Oh, uh, okay.”

“We have French lessons, German lessons, English lessons, sometimes Spanish lessons—really whatever the volunteers want to do a workshop on.” She gestured around the main room, filled with people. “Adrianne, you can go to the women’s corner and come up with a craft activity. Jordan, you can go to the activity corner and just talk to the refugees.”

So I entered the corner, walled off by cardboard partitions. A blond Serbian girl, about my age, with multi-colored fingernails greeted me. “I think we’ll do collages today, cutting out pictures from magazines.” She showed me around the room. “We have a mirror, fingernail polish, hairbrush, lotions, just whatever for the women to rest with each other. Over there on that shelf are pads and tampons that they can ask for at any time, since they can’t get them anywhere else.”

There was a rather long, awkward silence until two girls entered. Both greeted the staffer then sat on a futon and pulled out their smartphones. One turned on some music, the other texted friends back in her home country.

Their English level was pretty low, but they communicated interest in knitting.

“Wow, you knit?” I asked, breaking the silence.

They smiled and nodded.

“I can’t. I tried when I was little. It ended up like a huge knot.” I gestured broadly, and they laughed.

Eventually the knitting needles and yarn came out, and after about thirty minutes of me not knowing what to do, I grabbed the needles and sat next to the older girl. “Teach me to knit.”

She laughed, like, oh, I’m over my head here, but proceeded to demonstrated how to hook one needle through the thread and bring it through. Eventually she handed it over to me and picked up the second pair of needles. We knitted together while I asked a few questions. The younger girl, who was 15, was content to play music off youtube and watch me fight with my yarn.

The staffer sat next to me as she organized the craft box, and I peppered her with questions.

“So how long do they stay here?”

She shrugged. “Months.”

“And they’re waiting on…papers?”

She nodded.

“And after they get their papers, where do they go?”

“They used to go to Hungary, but they closed their borders, so some go to Bulgaria or back down to Macedonia.”

I thought on that. “Do any settle here in Serbia?”

“A couple. Three or four work here now as interpreters, but that’s it.”

“So these papers aren’t work visas.”

“No.”

“Where do they want to go? Germany?”

“Germany, Sweden, Norway, those places.”

“Where do they get food?”

“We used to serve lunch here every day. We had everything. Well, not everything, but enough. But we had to shut it down because of the government. Now there’s lunch set up in the park near the barracks that they go to.”

“And that’s all the food they get?”

“Pretty much.”

I frowned. “There are a lot of boys here—more than I thought.”

She shrugged. “Not too many. The people come and go. This morning there’s boys. Most travel in families. I met a woman traveling alone once.”

My stomach rumbled, and I inquired about lunch protocol. She told me as a volunteer I could come and go as I pleased, so I stepped out to find Jordan. He sat nearby, in the middle of a chess game with one of the young men, and we agreed to go to lunch when he finished his game.

After lunch, when we returned, the place was even more crowded. Toddlers ran between peoples’ legs, chasing one another and hiding from their parents. Women joined their husbands at the center, seeking respite from the barracks.

I slipped back to the women’s corner and found it filled to the brim with teenage girls in the middle of an English lesson.

“A, B, C, D,” an Australian woman intoned, sitting cross-legged on the floor. She pointed to a makeshift poster she’d scribbled on probably a few minutes ago.

Girls from the ages of eight to thirty-three repeated after her, giggling and bright-eyed. The teenagers hung on the teacher’s every word, eager to challenge themselves with something.

I slipped in the back to sit next to the staffer. A girl, probably seven, picked at beads in a tin box, and I offered to help her make a bracelet. She grinned and nodded, pulling the sparkly beads out of the box.

“Shall we go on to jobs?” the Australian asked.

“Yes!”

“I want to be an engineer!” one girl blurted.

We laughed at her enthusiasm.

“And I want to be a dentist!” a teenager declared.

“You have beautiful teeth,” the Australian said. “What does everyone else want to be?”

Most picked doctor, while one girl said she wanted to be a swimmer, another a photographer.

“I have to finish the lesson now,” the Australian said. “I have to go.”

“Oh, no! Don’t stop!” the girls begged. “More English.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“Tomorrow?” they asked, looking between the Australian volunteer and the Serbian staffer.

“Not tomorrow. The women’s center will be closed for cleaning.” She shook her head.

“And I’m going to Bosnia for a week.” The Australian looked as disappointed as her eager students. She glanced at me. “Can you teach?”

“I’d love to.” I grinned. So she introduced me as I supplied my name and when we could gather again (Tuesday).

The girls gasped in delight. “Tuesday! More English.” The center was closing for the day, so they waved goodbye and slipped out into the main room.

The Australian and I properly met, and she explained that she was a social worker and had never taught English before two days ago.

“Any materials or curriculum I should follow?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I’m making it up as I go. You saw me draw that stick figure for body parts vocabulary in the middle of my lesson.”

I laughed. “Okay, I’ll just come up with something.”

“Yeah, I learned you just have to go for it. Come up with an idea and make it happen. The refugees are always willing to learn or be entertained or just listened to, and the staff is busy keeping the place running. We volunteers just have to do something and run with it, really.”

“Thank you, I’ll definitely do that then.”

By that time, it was 3 pm, when the volunteer shifts end. Most of the activity corners were being shut down, though people still crowded the center of the room. Staffers wiped down tables.

Jordan and I found one another and glanced uncertainly around the room. We weren’t exactly sure if we should go, if we should offer to clean, or what was expected of us. Staffers told us we didn’t have to clean and suggested we come back in the morning and ask what needed to be done.

So we went back upstairs, grabbed our bags and coats and walked back to our apartment. First day accomplished!

 

Categories: Lost in Translation, Serbia | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Budapest, pt 2

So we strolled down to the banks of the Duna river to see the iron shoe memorial.

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In 1944, members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross political party (basically Hungarian Nazis) and militia rounded up 60 Jews, brought them here, ordered them to take off their shoes, and shot them. The river carried away their bodies.

In 1941 Hungary had a population of roughly 825,000 Jews, though 100,000 were Christian. Because Hungary saw Judaism as a race as well as a religion, those Christians were still umped in with the rest. A far-right wing government after WWI restricted the freedoms of many Jews, even Hungarian Jews (Jews with Hungarian citizenship), but resisted deporting them until the middle of the war. To keep Nazi Germany happy, Hungary joined the axis powers and restricted Jewish freedoms even more. They forced young Jewish men to work in horrible conditions for war-related construction work. Many died. The government deported over 20,000 Jews north, where Nazis killed them. The government picked off their Jewish population little by little, usually going for those without Hungarian citizenship. (A good case can be made that this was intentionally slow-footed by the government leader Hrothy, who defied Hitler several times by slowing the deportation trains to Auschwitz). They also killed over 28,000 Hungarian Romani, something that decimated the European Romani but often gets lost in the bigger numbers and broad brushstrokes of WWII.

In 1944, however, Nazi Germany invaded, with help from the fascist, far-right-wing Arrow Cross political party. Under Nazi supervision, the new Hungarian government deported around 440,000 Jews to death camps. By 1945, the only Jewish population left relatively untouched was the 150,000-200,000 in Budapest. Of course, they had suffered losses along the way, as the iron shoes memorialize. The Arrow Cross killed over 3,000 people in Budapest, 800 of those were Jews.

Inside the iron shoes today are candles, dried flowers, and pebbles. In Jewish tradition when someone dies, loved ones leave a pebble on the gravestone to mark their love. The pebbles in the shoes are the nearest these people got to funerals.

We backtracked across Pest, heading for the Dohany Street Synagogue.

The second largest synagogue in the world (after the synagogue in NYC), Dohany is nestled in the Jewish quarter of the city. I was a bit surprised to round the corner and see a massive Moorish design, shaped like a church.

We paid to enter and arrived just in time for the English tour. It was quite short, and we stayed sitting in the pews because it was far too cold to be wandering around the gardens listening to a guide. The worship center of the synagogue wasn’t heated, but at least it was still warmer than being outside in the wind.

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Built in 1854-59, the architects had never designed a synagogue before. Because of that, the alcoves and balconies and even the lecterns on the side are designed for a catholic cathedral. Well, the Jews just took it in stride. Today they use the lecterns for camera crews if they’re doing a big event.

Of the 825,000 Jews in Hungary prior to WWII and the Holocaust, and by the end only a quarter remained, mostly in Budapest.

By 1945 Budapest had walled off the Jewish quarter, making it into a ghetto. Precious little got in or out, including food or dead bodies. The synagogue had a small courtyard built, and in the ’30s, they had talked about making it into a garden with a fountain and flowers and benches, but the Holocaust destroyed those plans.

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Almost 3,000 bodies are buried in mass graves in the courtyard today. Those that could be identified were later given headstones.

Around the corner is the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swede who, with the help of the Red Cross and a few other volunteers (like Carl Lutz), saved over 35,000 Hungarian Jews, sometimes even pulling them off trains headed for the concentration camps. Giorgio Perlasca posed as a Spanish diplomat and saved over 5,000 in just 45 days. Gennaro Verolino, a catholic bishop, saved over 30,000 by issuing false Vatican passports. Angelo Rotta was outspoken against Nazism and anti-Semeticism from the beginning and saved many Jews in Bulgaria, also. He saved around 15,000 Budapest Jews by issuing false papers of baptism and Vatican passports as well as sheltered Jews in safe houses. According to a Holocaust scholar, “of the hundred and fifty thousand Jews who had been in Budapest when the Germans arrived in March 1944, almost 120,000 survived to liberation – 69,000 from the Big Ghetto, 25,000 in the International Ghetto and a further 25,000 hiding out in Christian homes and religious institutes across the city.”

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Behind the metal tree are four red marble pillars with the names of the “Righteous Among Nations” inscribed on them. Further back are more memorials to Jews that died. All the pebbles moved me to tears.

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And I thought, “if I had lived then, would I have hidden Jews in my home?” It’s a little game I play with myself, imagining my reactions to historical events.

Obviously, the correct answer is “yes, gladly.” But then I imagined hiding them in closets, lying to soldiers, living every day with a death sentence over my head, and fear shot through me.

So I leaned in. The best way to play this game, I’ve learned, is to set it in a modern context. I’ve faced a lot of my hidden prejudices and biases this way. And I thought, what group in the United States is hard working, relatively integrated, but blamed for economic problems and ostracized as “the other” despite having a similar religious outlook? And the answer, at least for the first part of the 21st century, is Muslims, and perhaps Latinx.

And I asked myself, in the case that the government (or an occupying force) systematically rounds up Muslims or Latinx from my city and promises they’re just being sent to labor camps to keep us safe until the trouble is over, would I open my closet, my basement, my money to them?

Categories: Hungary | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Long layover: Old Town, Riga

Our flight from Moscow to Budapest had a long-layover: Latvia!

We arrived in Riga, the capital of the small Baltic country at about 10 at night, and had a plane at noon the next day. We knew we wouldn’t really be able to explore the city or culture much at all, so we settled for a hotel room in the Old Town of Riga.

Riga sits along the Daugava River. Old Town is small, easily walk-able, and sits just on the banks of the river. Riga was originally German, founded in 1201. Bishop Albert von Buxhoeveden built the city as a buttress for keeping Christendom safe from the heathens (these were the Balts, Slavs, and Finno-Ugric people). It thrived on the trade between the east and the west, and then Sweden took the city in 1621. Not long after, Russia grasped control and the city grew more. When Latvia became an independent nation after WWI (1918), the city developed it’s Latvian flavor. Of course, that didn’t last long, as the Soviets occupied the country in 1940 and WWII raged. After WWII Riga was bombed-out with two sizeable populations gone: Germans, back to Germany, and Jews, all murdered in the Holocaust.

Today, however, although the marks of the Soviet era can still be found (like apartment buildings in the suburbs), Riga is working hard to shed the remnants of the Iron Curtain and the bad connotations “Eastern Europe” can bring to mind. Part of the Eurozone, we paid for everything with Euros and had no trouble communicating with everyone in English.

At 10:45 that night Jordan and I lugged our bags from the airport to the edge of Old Town.

“Oh, look, Jordan! A Christmas tree!” I stopped in a cobblestoned square, dropping my bag into the snow.

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Jordan glanced around. “Wow, that’s a real tree! I’ve never seen one so tall.”

We took stock, surveying the town.

“It’s like a fairy tale with the clock tower rising up over the roofs.” I admired the picturesque scene around us.

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“That’s the Blackheads House you wanted to see.” Jordan pointed to an ornate, pink Gothic structure filling one side of the square. Built in 1344 as something of a fraternity house for the Blackheads guild of unmarried German merchants, it is everything wonderful you could imagine of the Baltics. Destroyed in 1941 and then bulldozed by the Soviets a few years later, the Blackheads House was rebuilt in 2001 for Riga’s 800th birthday. Catty-cornered to the Blackheads was the Museum of Occupations, obviously closed to late at night. I was disappointed to miss it.

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We strolled down winding cobblestone alleyways until we found out hostel. After dropping into bed, we awoke to the sun rising at about 8 am over Dom Laukums (Laukums Square) and the wooden shacks decorated in garlands and mistletoe for the Christmas Markets.

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Opposite us towered Riga Cathedral. Currently a Lutheran church, the building dates from 1211 as the Catholic diocese in the Baltic. It is the only landmark building to survive all of Riga’s disasters over the centuries, including WWII.

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Next, we walked past Riga Castle. Residence of the Latvian president, it was built in 1330. Obviously, it doesn’t look very castle-y nowadays, but we still thought it was cool.

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Old Town is a mish-mash of Gothic, Renaissance, Art Nouveau, and everything in between. This famous stretch of buildings is called “Three Brothers.” One is over 600 years old, the oldest home in town. Our guide book mentioned how small the upstairs windows were—in medieval times, Riga’s property taxes were based on window size.

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After meandering down a few alleys, watching the bakeries open and foot traffic begin to grow, we stopped by our next touristy-spot: the Swedish Gate. It was built in the city’s medieval walls in 1698 while Sweden ruled modern-day Latvia.

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By this point we were getting hungry, so we cut through the middle of Old Town and caught sight of Freedom Monument, just as the interior edge of the district. It was erected in 1935 and takes the space a statue of Russian Peter the Great used to occupy. It wasn’t torn down during Soviet times, but Latvians weren’t allowed to approach the monument.

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We found a quiet café behind the Blackheads house and picked a window to look out and see St. Peter’s Church. We couldn’t help ourselves—we splurged. We got an apple cider and two hot chocolates with our omelet and crepes.

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St. Peter’s Church’s steeple is even more iconic than Riga Cathedral’s. Built in a distinct Gothic style, people think it’s about 800 years old, one of the oldest religious buildings in the Baltic countries. In 1721 a fire destroyed the spire, although Russian Peter the Great personally rushed to help put out the blaze with locals. The spire was again destroyed in WWII and rebuilt again. Today it stands proudly, rising above the Old Town, an elegant monument to Riga’s history and fortitude.

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“I just love the Christmas trees. They’re real,” Jordan exclaimed. “I’ve never seen Christmas trees that big.”

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“I liked the Christmas Market, even though it was closed. Did you see the quaint wooden carousel?” It had mythical Latvian animals instead of painted horses.

We soaked in the atmosphere, reveling in a real European breakfast.

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By that time, we had to head to the airport. We passed by Ratslaukums and the Blackheads house again to take a better look at the statue of Roland. Although the statue’s only been around since the 1990s to replace the 1897 granite statue destroyed in WWII, he was the nephew of Charlemagne the Great and lived in the 8th century. An epic poem, The Song of Roland commemorates his battle against (and death) against the Basques, then got a taxi (only 10 euros!) and headed toward Budapest.

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As short as our time in Riga was, I felt like I got to appreciate the feel and architecture of the ancient city. And now I’m very interested in properly visiting all three Baltic countries.

 

 

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Russia’s political history

Our second day in Moscow was full of cultural museums. We hopped on the metro (practically a tourist attraction itself) and went to the new Gulag Museum.

Nestled in a quiet neighborhood a few miles from city center, the Gulag Museum documents the lives of Russians who had the ill luck to be on the wrong side of Stalin’s regime. Labor camps began around 1920 as a way to punish monarchists, White Army sympathizers, and anyone not interested in the Bolsheviks in power. The first was housed in a monastery in the northwestern part of Russia, near the sea. At first it was all very hush-hush, and then Stalin took power.

Today Russians are pretty evenly split on their opinions on Stalin—about 46% think he was a sadistic, evil man while about the same number think he was a good leader, albeit flawed. I personally think that if WWII (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War) hadn’t happened during Stalin, people would have a much more unified, negative opinion of him. To many he’s the man who protected the Motherland and beat the Nazis.

Interesting story: not only were Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany allies in the 30s, but Stalin and Hitler were friends (at least, Stalin thought so). When the call came, telling Stalin that the Nazis had invaded and attacked without a declaration of war, he felt so betrayed that he locked himself up in a rural retreat for three days, grieving, until his advisors pulled him out and said he had to address the people and get the counter-attack moving.

In the 30s, under Stalin, the Soviet government became more paranoid, always worried about “enemies of the state” and “foreign influence.” Government agents routinely stalked civilians, then approached them for “questioning.” Once the person was taken in the black car, they didn’t come back.

“My mother went white with shock,” a survivor recounted on a video. “She said, ‘she must have her coat!’ and the agents said, ‘that is not necessary, we are just going to talk and she will be back tonight.’ Well, was I grateful to my mother for the fur coat! During the winter I would tuck my hands and feet inside the coat, and that’s how I stayed alive for the years I was in the gulag.”

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We saw different doors used, heard recordings of the common sounds in a gulag, and saw old guard uniforms displayed. The most interesting parts, I think, were the survivors’ accounts streaming on tv screens throughout the museum.

Soviet prisoners would interrogate the suspects for hours or even days at a time. While they were held in cold, concrete prison cells, police would ransack their apartment to find proof they were American spies or disloyal to the party. One teenager had his poems used against him.

A woman said that during her sessions the interrogator would pause to use a phone, calling hospitals and clinics and doctors’ houses to search for penicillin. “My son is sick, he’ll die without the medicine,” he’d demand.

“Let the boy die, oh please, let the boy die,” she wished silently, sometimes bruised and bloody.

Finally, after days of interrogations (and sometimes torture), the guards would shove a piece of paper at them. “Sign this. It says you’re guilty of being disloyal to the party.”

One woman stood in complete shock, throwing the papers in the interrogator’s face. “I won’t sign it! I won’t! I’m not disloyal!” She said later that it hadn’t been on principle, but just in shock.”

Most were sentenced to 20 years of “corrective hard labor” and shipped far away. Russia opened mines, lumber companies, and railroad lines in far, remote corners of the country and forced millions of innocent people to work 13, 14 hours a day with little food. Often camps were over-populated and people had to share their twin beds with another prisoner. Shock therapy was used as a punishment, and mining was probably the worst labor camps. A few of the mines were in search of uranium, so of course their workers died frequently.

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As word of the gulags got out to the general public, the government released marketing in support of the camps, claiming it was a cost-effective way to pull the country into modernity. They showed photos of people working while smiling, of promises of extra rations for hard work, and how much money the government was saving. These newssheets also were distributed in the gulags—a nice bit of gaslighting on top of the cruel and inhumane conditions.

Stalin died in 1953, and thousands, perhaps millions, of people silently rejoiced even while their neighbors cried in sadness. The very next day some villages tore down their Stalin statues and some of the gulags opened the gates, the guards allowing the people to walk free. Over the next three years changes in the Soviet government reformed the system, creating more oversight and less harsh punishments.

Unfortunately, not all gulags closed. The last closed in the early 80s. The end of the museum was dedicated to the writers and artists that had been imprisoned. Poetry and moving passages from their books were displayed on the wall and the books sat on a nearby table.

“They always go after the intelligentsia, don’t they?” Jordan asked as we left the building. “Undesirables and tiny ethnic minorities, then the educated.”

“Yeah, it seems so.” We reflected on the different museums we’ve visited. “If you kill the intelligentsia, there are no professors warning the people about what’s going to happen next. No doctors to tell you how inhumane conditions are. No judges or lawyers to tell you how illegal something is. No religious scholars to tell you how unethical the regime is.” It’s what they did in Soviet Russia, Pinochet’s Chile, Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia, Eastern Europe and Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and Mao’s China.

Jordan looked at me. “Where to next? Something more cheerful, right?”

“Nope.” I shook my head. “Pogroms come next.”

“What?”

“We’re off to the Jewish Heritage and Cultural Center.”

“Pogroms?” Jordan cocked his head.

“Think Fiddler on the Roof.

“This isn’t going to be a happy day, is it?” Jordan pulled out the map and we started walking.

“Probably not,” I agreed.

It ended up being a bit happier than we expected—mainly because the Jewish Center’s exhibits were so well done. It definitely ranks up in the Top Five Museums we’ve been to.

After an 8-minute 4D movie on the beginnings of Judaism and Jewish culture, we wandered through exhibits beginning with and overview of the Jewish Diaspora and timeline—this was so helpful for me. I’d heard the terms Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, but was never quite sure what they meant. Primarily, they’re geographic terms. The Sephardic immigrated to Spain (and got hit with Ferdinand and Isabel’s Inquisition in the 15th century), the Ashkenazim immigrated to Eastern Europe, though mostly Poland. We even discovered a tiny sect of Jews in China! The museum mostly centered around the Ashkenazim.

As Jews moved across Europe to the west, Europe responded with strong anti-Semiticism. Many retreated back to Poland and surrounding countries, where they were more-or-less accepted into society in the 13th century. However, after the War of 1812 against Napoleon, Emperor Alexander I of Russia took control of the majority of modern-day Poland. Suddenly Russia had a pretty sizable Jewish population it didn’t know what to do with. Although the Ashkenazim had been considered more of a religious group rather than an ethnic group, that changed under Russia. They mostly tried to live as they always had, slightly separate on religious terms, but still involved in village business (towns with sizeable Jewish populations were called shetls, in a region the empire restricted Jews to, called “Pale of the Settlement”). However, laws were passed limiting their right to travel, abolishing their right to go to university, and more. Every so often a pogrom rolled through town. Soldiers encouraged anti-Jewish riots that usually ended with the destruction of Jewish property and the death of Jewish men. Restrictions grew tighter, and then suddenly Jewish boys were drafted into the military alongside Russian boys. In the later half of the 19th century there were all-Jewish platoons, Jewish military social groups, and more as the Jews struggled to retain their heritage while appeasing the ever-demanding empire.

By the turn of the 20th century Russia was spiraling downward. After WWI, which ravaged the Jewish homeland, anti-Semeticism exploded. Jewish reaction was varied—the older generation said that they had to keep their lifestyle, keep their heritage, and ignore the looting and burning (think Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof). The young villagers were tired of being poor, being looked-down on, and just wanted to make a living. A few looked to large cities, like Kiev (think Motel the tailor). And a few young people were revolutionaries, ready to bring political change across the empire, ready to protest and demand the right to attend university as full-fledged Russians (think Perchik). With much of Russia in an economic downturn after WWI, Russians were ready to blame anyone they could—anyone that appeared “other” and therefore suspect. Pogroms erupted again, more deadly than ever. With entire villages pushed out of their homes, a few emigrated west to Germany or Hungary, looking for land. The lucky emigrated to America.

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When the Bolsheviks took power, Lenin expressly invited the Jews to join their cause, while the White monarchists tended to favor anti-Semeticism. Eventually, Jews that hadn’t left joined the Socialist cause. It didn’t really protect them, and in 1938 the Nazis attacked Poland.

From there the museum widened it’s scope, showing the Great Patriotic War from a general Russian history view, not just the Jewish angle (we were quite grateful, as we had little frame of reference for special angles of history).

We worked with a Russian girl in Argentina, and she had explained to us that WWII is as just a big deal to Russians as it is to Americans, perhaps more so. “Plenty of Russians are still angry with Germany,” she told us. “It’s a deep, deep scar.”

And as we watched old newsreels, warning citizens of air raids and sieges and how not to freeze through winter, we understood.  massive amounts of Jews were murdered, their bodies thrown into rivers, or they were made to dig their own mass grave, crawl down into it, and wait for a bullet to the skull. And then there was the Siege of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), one of the bloodiest sieges in all of the war. The battle was waged for months house to house, street to street, while civilians ducked and tried to avoid tank shells. Few survived.

“The snow was red that winter,” a Russian veteran recounted.

“We had no heat. We had no food. We melted snow, and that’s how we stayed alive,” another survivor remembered. “I remember a little girl, my age, coming up to me one morning and saying, ‘I have good news!’ And I said, ‘what is it?’ and she said, ‘My mother died last night!’ And I remember staring at her saying, ‘that’s good news?’ ‘Yes,’ she told me. ‘Now I have double the bread rations.’” The man shook his head. “That’s how warped our minds became.”

Through sheer determination and massive amounts of civilian manpower, the Russians pushed against the Nazis and took back their Motherland. It was a fight for their very survival, in ways that it wasn’t for the U.S. or even England, and the memory runs deep, perhaps even deeper than Americans’ collective memories.

After the war, during Soviet Russia, Jews were finally allowed to be true citizens. All racial restrictions were lifted off them, but it came at a high price—Judaism, the Torah, and synagogues were all outlawed. A few Bible stories were preserved by being recounted as fables in books printed by rabbis and Christian priests together.

And today, while the Jews have retained their rights they received in the Soviet era, there is still some anti-Semeticism they must deal with.

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Jordan and I left the museum impressed with the sheer size and cutting edge exhibits. Videos played flawlessly, recording of folk music played whenever we walked past, and there were lots of interactive displays showing original 19th-century newspaper articles and government decrees. We highly recommend a visit to this museum.

Jordan and I had one last stop to make—the Novodevichy Convent. Hopping back on the metro, we crossed under the river and went south. Unfortunately, we arrived just as the massive clock tower chimed five o’clock, right when the museums closed. The complex is still a working convent, founded in 1524 by a Grand Prince of Moscow to celebrate taking Smolensk from Lithuania. According to the Lonely Plant guide, “From early on, the ‘New Maidens’ Convent’ was a place for women from noble families to retire—some more willingly than others.”

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Our time in Russia was over, and we had to catch a plane that night. Russia was amazing, beautiful, complex, and enigmatic as we expected it to be.

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Saint Petersburg (aka, More Lovely Buildings)

I’m still not over the beautiful buildings. Get used to it, because I’m going to be referencing them a lot. Sorry.

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Saint Petersburg is known for being a city of canals and bridges. The reason, as I’ve previously mentioned, is because this area near the Baltic Sea was originally marshland and swamp in the 1600s. Peter the Great founded Saint Petersburg in 1703 (you can tell by the name how humble of a guy he was). Boisterous, six-and-a-half feet tall, colorful, which a penchant for “oddities” and all things European, Peter became king of Russia when his older brother died in 1682. Peter was obsessed with Europe and the grand enlightenment age. He returned to Russia with new ideas, such as building beautiful baroque buildings, shaving off beards, wear trousers instead of tunics, create a navy, and create a culture of art and music that could rival even Vienna.

Unfortunately for him, Sweden had control of the Baltic Sea. Thus, the Great Northern War began and didn’t end for 21 years until Peter had wrested control of the land and Neva River and sea into Russian control.

During the war, the Peter and Paul fortress was built.

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Formerly a Swedish settlement on a small island, Peter turned the outpost into a military garrison and then eventually the cornerstone for his grand European city in 1703.

Unfortunately for Russian aristocracy, they weren’t excited about shedding their robes and beards. They especially weren’t excited about being forced to move up north and pay to cart all the stone from Moscow to the new city. Even worse, however, was the Swedish prisoners, Russian peasants, and any other criminals. Around 100,000 laborers died building his magnificent city due to harsh conditions and malnutrition.

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Today, the fortress houses multiples museums, former prison, and a cathedral.

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Inside the cathedral, all of Russia’s monarchs after Peter the Great are buried there, as well as a few stray cousins of the ruling Romanovs.

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Near the iconostatis are the graves of Peter the Great and his wife.

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Nearby, in the back, Nicholas II and his family were buried in 1998. After most of the family’s bodies were discovered in the 1970s, they were hidden by the Soviet regime. However, in 1998 a grand state funeral was given, and the relatives of the family attended._mg_2932

On our way out of the fortress we admired the cityscape.

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The Admiralty building, built in the early 19th century, overlooks the Alexander Gardens. It is still the head of the Russian navy.

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Just across the street is St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in the city. Turned into a museum after the Soviets took over, today tourists can go to the top of the tower and overlook the city.

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We weren’t able to go in because of the time we stopped by, but we enjoyed the view.

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We strolled along the canals and came across the Stroganov Palace, near one of the main streets in town. It was here that a chef prepared a beef, potatoes, and gravy dish that was a huge hit and became known as as Beef Stroganoff.

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Our last stop at the end of the day was the Kazan Cathedral. Its style is neoclassical, very different than the rest of the cathedrals we’d seen so far in Russia.

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And they’re setting up the Christmas tree! We were so happy to see it take shape. The cathedral was built from 1801-1811, just in time for the War of 1812 against Napoleon. Portraits of many war generals were displayed on the walls. Designed in part after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, it was closed by the Soviets and reopened as a museum to “Religion and Atheism.” We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, so we just strolled around and looked at the icons.

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After that, we had to grab our bags and jump on our last train headed to Moscow.

 

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Yekaterinburg and the Romanovs

I read a lot about the tragic end of the Romanov dynasty when I was a teenager–not sure exactly why, perhaps it was because the grand duchesses seemed so real, so accessible in the modern 20th century photos and the idea of Russian princesses always seemed magical.

Anyway, if you’re curious about how the Bolshevik uprising led to the 1917 revolution, then to the execution of the Romanov family, you can read more about it there.

Nicholas II and Alexandra, his German tsarina, had a love that destroyed the nation, as the books call it, and four lovely daughters and one hemophilic son. After Nicholas abdicated the throne in 1917 and the family was imprisoned at one of their palaces, the Bolsheviks didn’t really know what to do with them. The White Army, a faction of the military and government that was pro-monarchy, was fighting hard to free the Romanov family when they were shipped off to Yekaterinburg, a city on the edge of Siberia.

After several months there, the White Army advanced and was near taking back the land and the family. The Communist leaders panicked a bit, and in the middle of the night brought the family, their doctor, and a couple of servants down to the basement. There, a group of soldiers opened fire on them. Because the girls had sewn jewels into their underclothing (they knew a chance of escape was slight, and they wanted to be prepared. The girls also stayed dressed at all times because their mother, the empress, worried about what the soldiers might do to her daughters if caught showering), the princesses had to be bayoneted multiple times before dying. The bodies were dumped in a field near a mine shaft and not discovered until 1979. Two other bodies (probably Alexi and Maria) were discovered in 2007. This, unfortunately, is the sanitized version. It was utterly horrific.

The house where the Romanovs were imprisoned and killed was owned by a local engingeer, Nokolay Ipatyev, and the house became known as Dom Ipatyeva. During the Soviet period the house became a museum for atheism, but it was demolished in 1977 in fear it would attract monarchist sympathizers. For many years, it was just a vacant lot with a small wooden chapel to another Romanov, a nun, Grand Princess Yelizaveta Fyodorovna.

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Most of the Romanovs (except Alexi and Maria) were buried in a state funeral in 1998, then  canonized as martyrs and saints in the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000.

The Church of All Saints, more commonly known as Church upon the Blood, was built in 2000-2003.

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Out front are huge informal photos of the royal family, many shot on private cameras by friends or family members.

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In a back room was lots of photos and memorabilia, unfortunately all in Russian. I could recognize people’s faces in the photos (Nicholas II is pretty recognizable in his beard and military uniform), but that was about it.

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The church itself is dark, heavily incensed, and quiet–it’s a functioning church, not a museum. The Romanovs aren’t buried here, but in Moscow, where their ancestors were buried.

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A photo from one of the sides, to capture the blue sky.

Inside the Church upon the Blood (and in many Orthodox churches around the country) this image of the family is prominently displayed on several walls:

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The Great Wall

We piled into our tourist bus at 6:20 am, shivering in the cold and hoping the sun would rise soon.
“It’s snowing,” Jordan said, looking out the window. “I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s so cold, but it does mean the Wall will be beautiful.”

“As long as it’s not too windy,” I replied, burrowing close to him for comfort.

We had originally planned to take an off-the-beaten-path tour far from Beijing, where we could walk on restored and unrestored parts of the wall. But, because of the snow, the powers that be decided it was too dangerous, and off to Mutianyu we went.

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When Jordan and I had been researching this part in our whirlwind Beijing trip, we knew we didn’t want to go to Badaling. That’s the iconic place, but it’s filled with tourists all the time and is completely restored with handrails and more. Jordan wanted a more “authentic” experience at the Great Wall, and because of weather, we settled for Mutianyu. Recently restored, it’s a great place for families and less-adventurous hikers (like myself).

After two and a half hours, we arrived at the entrance ot the Wall. Our guide got us tickets and tried to convince everyone to take the cable car up the mountain to the wall. Jordan hates hidden costs and preferred to walk anyway, so he refused. “I am not paying $15 a person that they didn’t warn us about,” he told me, and set off for the stairs.

“We only have three hours. You may not make it to the wall,” our guide warned.

“Hike” has different meanings for Westerners and Asians. We’ve found that we either walk faster, have longer legs, or stop and take fewer photos, and so cut our hiking time down significantly. We’ve also discovered that while “hike” to us means a meandering dirt path with occasional slopes and steps, in China and Korea it means endless concrete stairs. Endless. Infinity. Forever. I just about died on the way up those stairs. I had to stop and wheeze around 6 times, while Jordan waited patiently for my heart rate to go back down.

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Still, we made it to the top in 40 minutes. And let me warn you before we go further: Jordan didn’t doctor these photos in any way. No snipping or tucking to get better angles or views. There just really weren’t many people at all.

Snow dotted the stairs, and we surveyed the mountains with all the amazement we could muster in the 25-degree-Fahrenheit weather. The Great Wall was never actually a continuous wall, though the full amount spans over 21,000 kilometers. It started as an earthen mound to block invading Chinese and Mongols about 2,000 years ago, and spans 17 provinces. Beijing, however, is the best access point to visit a section.
The “original” Wall began during the Qin dynasty around 225 BC under Emperor Qin Shihuang. Most of the workers were people from conquered tribes and other Chinese, forced to work for 10 years or until they died in a construction accident. Legend states that the bones of the dead workers were used as building materials. The Qin dynasty was harsh, as you can tell, and didn’t last long after that. The Han dynasty took over after that and continued work on the Wall off and on until about 220 AD. It wasn’t until a thousand years later, when the Mongols became a threat, that work on the wall resumed (and became more stone-and-mortar). The portion we saw was built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Emperor Yongle was also harsh. He was the same guy who forced all the middle- and ruling-class families to move from Nanking, the current capital, to Beijing. He also forced about two or three million people to build and rebuild the Wall, threatening to kill the workers’ families if they didn’t complete their conscription.

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The Wall actually didn’t do much good militarily, and never protected Beijing from Ghengis Khan or other Mongols. But it did work well as a road, which made trade easier, and the emergency beacon systems between towers did highlight military movement well.

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When the Qing dynasty took over in 1644 and the Mongols stopped being a threat, there wasn’t a reason to maintain the Wall, and it fell into disrepair.
This is Jordan yelling, “Look at all this space! There is no one here! No one!”

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In fact, its state worsened during WWII specifically, and Mao Zedong encouraged Chinese living near the Wall to use its blocks as building materials for their houses. Only in 1984 did the Chinese government order that parts of the Wall be restored.
We walked from the stairs’ entrance to the wall to the cable car entrance, just amazed by the lack of people. At tower 14, near the cable car, though, we saw lots of people slipping and sliding on the ice. We had to grab the wall and slide along the patches of ice, sidestepping other tourists falling on the faces or sliding on their bottoms to get along the Wall.

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I took the cable car down because I’m a wimp, and Jordan enjoyed the Wall for another 30 minutes before flying down the stairs and joining the tour group for lunch. We met several other tourists, mostly visiting China for a week or two, and then piled back in the bus to head back to Beijing. We had been warned by our friends that China can be pretty wild and completely alien to Westerners, but so far we thought Beijing and the surrounding areas really easy to navigate and much cleaner than expected. I think part of the reason is that it’s November, when few tourists roam around, and it’s Beijing, probably the most Western-friendly city on mainland China. If we went west to Xi’an or south to the Yellow Mountains, I’m sure it would be a different story. And that was it! The Great Wall far exceeded our expectation and we were thrilled to experience Beijing’s first snow of the season on the Wall.
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Morgan S Hazelwood

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