prague spring, prague summer, budapest for a day
Well, back from Europe a few days early owing to family issues, gives me a chance to pick up sooner than anticipated. At least we got to see Prague . . . or the part that wasn't covered by wall-to-wall tourists, anyway. Having visited Europe mostly in the off-season--and in countries where I know at least some of the language--it's easy to forget what the midsummer rush in the larger tourist centers is like. After a point we stopped bothering even with the perfunctory dobry den and just asked for the large beers which is apparently what most people come for, anyway. Budapest, where we wound up spending all of one day, has a wholly unpronounceable language in any event, so that one's competitive disadvantage is correspondingly reduced; on the other hand any city where bathhouses are a central tourist attraction can't be all bad.
For a Jew, a visit to Eastern Europe is depressing but also eye-opening, as so much of contemporary Jewish culture is essentially East European in origin. This is true of superficial items like food, but also of national culture and attitudes. I always thought, for example, that the Zionist narrative--we were weak, they abused us, now we are strong and people will begin to realize how special we are--was unique to the Jews. But everyone in Eastern Europe has more or less the same story; even the bad guys--the Germans and Russians--are pretty much the same in most countries. This is especially true in Hungary, which was after all the birthplace of Theodore Herzl, and has made rather a specialty of (mostly losing) wars against Turks, Russians, and anyone else who happened to come along. (The Hungarians also deported a rather large number of Jews during the war, although only after the German occupation, which arguably makes them no worse than the Italians and better than the Vichy French.) Maybe the long line of Israelis at the Budapest airport, and in the old Jewish quarter of Prague, had someting to do with this.
My personal highlight was the Museum of Communism in Prague, which my wife picked out of a long guidebook and was one of the few places where one actually heard Czech being spoken in the central city. In addition to historical displays and clever reworkings of Soviet-era propaganda posters--our favorite was a Russian babushka doll refitted with sharp teeth and vicious eyes--the museum showed a movie retelling the sad history from the 1948 coup to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Like a bad dream, the whole thing played out before you: the economic privation, the Prague Spring, the 1968 invasion, Charter 77, the police setting upon peaceful demonstrators right up until the end, events that seemed ages ago now but which we of a certain age can remember as if they were yesterday. When the film ended, the audience (mostly Czech) filed out without saying a word. I looked up and noticed that I was crying. It was the only time in the city that we didn't feel at all like tourists.