Sunday, November 18, 2018

A walk on the marginally wild side

Day 2 of my excellent adventure here in Czechia. I’m relieved to report that there is wi-fi in my room. It’s not what I would call high speed—more DSL than cable bandwidth—but at least it’s holding.


While I chose Prague for a couple of reasons, you’ll recall that one of the main goals was to just get out and get away. So I have no intention of engaging in non-stop go-seeing. With that in mind, I just did a bit of mooching about yesterday to acclimatize, so to speak.

One amazing thing about my hotel is the breakfast. Here are some highlights:

I have to say that this was quite a spread. Scrambled eggs, natch, and breakfast meats (although I’m mildly troubled to notice that it doesn’t seem to be the Czech custom to actually brown your bacon or sausage; they looked to have been steamed—I hope they were cooked through), but then all the special dietary items—gluten-free and diabetic.

(Thinking that latter is for the Viking Tours crowd. Who, BTW, absolutely flooded the breakfast room.) The beans in tomato sauce I’m thinking were for any Brits happening by.

But here’s the surprise: over at the station with juices, waters and the push-button espresso-cappuccino machine, a bottle of Czech sparkling wine.

It was okay; certainly better than anything I’ve tasted out of the Old Dominion.

Also, what looked like chocolate cake and chocolate brownies next to your usual pastries. That's the breakfast of champions.

Plus—and this escaped my attention until I’d already had the scrambled eggs and was just swanning about trying to get some photos of an interesting bas relief on the building across the street—a made-to-order omelet station.


Last year, my hotel in Québec City also came with breakfast, and I found that it was enough to keep me going all day without eating until time came for dinner. That’s my plan for here, too.

So, fortified for the day, I wandered off to see some walkable sights. In addition to the breakfast, a hotel amenity is a mobile phone assigned to the room. It’s fully functional, and they tell me I can make local and international calls for free. But, while preloaded with annoying ads (which no doubt pay for the service) it’s also equipped with internet capabilities, so I let Google Maps be my guide.

The driver who brought me to the hotel from the airport told me that every year, shops start jumping the gun on Christmas a little earlier. And here you see it on my way to the WorldFamousAstronomicalClock:

And here’s the WFAC:

While waiting for the apostles to trot by on the hour, I noticed not one but two Viking tour groups. What’s interesting is that they deliver their spiels via (probably) Bluetooth-enabled tech. The guide speaks in a normal voice into her headset mic; paying punters listen with receivers and ear pieces. That way the guides save their voices and there’s no danger of any freeloaders attaching themselves to the tour.

As an aside, a major economic driver of Prague appears to be guided tours. Here are just a few I saw in Old Square in a matter of about five minutes. All languages.

I scoped out what’s called the Jewish area; decades ago it would have been the ghetto. Everything closed for Shabbat, so I’ll return today. The Jewish district is one of the reasons I chose Prague. But by then my back was starting to yammer at me, so I repaired to the Art Deco Imperial Hotel, which is where the guy who cuts my hair stayed the last time he was in town. TBH, I didn’t see much Deco about it, although the restaurant was certainly tiled to within a millimeter of its life. But I sat in their tiny lounge-bar with a bottle of Mattoni sparkling water (quite nice) and a glass of some local red (a little more tannin than I like, but drinkable) to Think Thoughts.

The hotel does follow through with the Art Deco notion to some degree. A couple of design elements in the bar:

And in the ladies’ loo:

Plus—the background music was 30s and 40s, so there’s that.

That perked me up enough to get me through the walk back to the hotel. (Not my hip joints this time; my back. Jeez.) Happy to find the wi-fi on; if not running, at least a hopeful walking. A nice soak in the Euro tub with Japanese bath salts and then I realized that it’s Saturday night and I had no restaurant reservations.

Well, the concierge got me a table at a place within walking distance, on the seventh floor of a tower. They could “fit me in” at 1800, but that was okay, because I’d eaten nothing since brekkies. Rather unsurprisingly, “fit me in” equated to “we have no one here for the next 90 minutes”. But again—nothing ingested since 0900, so fine.

The Russian-novel-length menu, interestingly, was in English and German (although the actual names of the dishes were in Czech). I skipped over the pedestrian stuff and looked at the “Traditional Czech Cuisine” and havered between duck, venison and wild boar.

But look: you can get duck and even venison fairly easily in the New World. I had the latter in Québec. Half a duck roasted in honey sounded delish, but I didn’t think I could manage all of it. I asked the server about the wild boar, because I’ve never had it. (I wanted to ask if it was really wild, but I didn’t think her English could handle it.) She thought the venison, boar and something else were kind of alike, but I took her to be saying that the wild boar was not at all like domesticated pork. For one thing, red meat.

So, I went for broke. Wild boar, baby.

Here’s the menu description: “Marinated wild-boar sirloin baked on thyme with fresh blackberry sauce served with Old-Bohemian roasted potato mush lumps [yes, you read that right] and real boletuses tartar with forest herbs.” (The boletuses turned out to be akin to mushrooms, if you’re asking. I can’t speak to whether they were real or imaginary. But they were tasty.)

I started with a soup described as “Old-Bohemian mild cream of river crayfish served with crayfish meat, butter toast and sour cream.” Well—there was more cray than fish, if you get my drift, but it wasn’t bad. Viz:

Here’s the wild boar, before:

And after:

On the question of whether the boar was really wild, or some kind of farmed product, let me just note that that boar—wild or not—had a very nice life, because the meat was exceptionally tender.

On my server’s recommendation, I went with a half carafe of a Czech red, which turned out to be perfect for both the soup and the wild boar.

By the time I’d finished that boar, I thought, “Estoy satisfecha.” No room for dessert.

And so, tired but happy, I waddled back to the hotel.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Getting out of town; really

A few weeks ago the department operations person sent me an  email informing me that I was in danger of losing about 15 days of vacation. It’s company policy that you can’t carry over more than a certain number of hours of unused vacation into the new year; if you haven’t taken it, you lose it. They don’t even give you the pay.

Well, I’m not really in the mood to give this outfit fifteen free days, so I blocked off three weeks and started thinking how to use it. It would be way too easy for me to just stay at home all that time, at the end of which all I’d have to show for it would be two new tires on my car.

I’ve not taken a vacation since long before I took this job, so I’d been thinking about doing something, anyhow. But it’s hard for me to do that because I just don’t feel confident about the viability of my job. It was tenuous before, but now it’s clear that my manager is disinclined to restrain two colleagues who—without any supporting evidence—think they can do the job I was moved over to do: set up a sustainable business model that would keep this project on its feet.

I mean—if she’s happy to let them crash about the decks like untethered cannon, okay. But aside from the disrespect I face daily from them, I can’t help but think that sooner or later someone’s going to notice that they’re paying me to do something that these bozos are messing with. (Also, I do not fancy having to go along after them with a broom like the last guy in the elephants’ parade.)

So I don’t really think I’m going to be there very long, and I should be saving all my pennies for the day.

But see above about just spending all the time off at home. That’s not good, either.

So I hauled off and booked a trip to Prague, Berlin and Paris. I’ve never been to either Prague or Berlin, and Paris is always worth a return visit.

It started out okay, but has hit rather a snag here in Prague, where I arrived yesterday afternoon. There’s something wrong with the router serving the wi-fi in my room; it keeps throwing me off, and when it lets me on, it’s about half an arc. If fancied putting up with that crap, I’d have stayed home with Comcast.

I’ve had the concierge in and he claims their IT person is “working” on it—but the IT person is obviously a contracted company, and I don’t think anyone was particularly eager to work on Friday around dinner time.

As a German-born colleague of mine (one who actually knows what he’s doing and also knows enough to not mess with me) says: “Yeah…service in Europe has a WHOLE different meaning.”

This was my supper last night; too tired after the michegoss of Terminal 2F at CDG:

The hotel waiter insisted that Pilsner Urquell here [in Czechia] is different/better than the stuff that goes to the USA, which I have had. My verdict: no. (Don't get me wrong; it was fine. But it tastes exactly the way it does in the States.)

Here’s a pro tip, which I give you for nothing: never book into a hotel that’s hosting not one but two Viking Tour groups. I suspect that the hotel is not particularly fussed about not delivering wi-fi to my room as long as none of the besneakered seniors is having trouble with it in their rooms.

Well, I’ll see what it’s like through today. If it’s not fixed by midday, I’m going to agitate to be moved to a room where the router hasn’t crapped out.

I’ve got eyes on you, Art Nouveau Palace Hotel. Eyes. On. You.

Friday, November 16, 2018

"Your service is important to us; please wait..."

One of the major social and economic stimulus programs that were implemented after the Second World War was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill. It was the country’s way of saying thank you to veterans returning from the war by giving them access to academic and vocational education (through tuition payments and living expense allowances), low-cost mortgages and low-interest business loans.

The G.I. Bill (although not without its inequities) was one of the true wonders of the post-war world. For many vets, it was their ticket into the middle class for themselves and their children.

In 2008, Congress passed another bill, the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act, which was meant to update the G.I. Bill for the 21st Century, with a focus on college education. But perhaps that bill should have had some provision for also updating the Veterans Administration computer system, because monies that should have been paid to veterans pursuing higher education are not getting to them.

Because the 50-year-old computer system…broke. The VA rejigged the formulas for payment calculations, and the system couldn’t deal. There’s a lot of congressional and VA hand-flapping going on. But no solutions.

Great way to close out the week of Veterans Day, eh?

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Veterans' voices

As a New Military historian, I’m a big proponent of oral histories; they flesh out the statistics, government documents and other components of learned monographs. The Imperial War Museum in the UK has done an excellent job of interviewing survivors of the First and Second World Wars, which means we now have an invaluable repository of first-person accounts of experiences from men and women who have since died.

In the United States, we have…the Veterans’ Voices project from NPR’s StoryCorps.

I love listening to StoryCorps on Friday mornings—a couple of minutes of two people chatting about some aspect of their lives. A mother and son; two friends; survivors of a school shooting—it’s a microcosm of life. VeteransVoices is a subset of StoryCorps, focused on life filtered through military service.

One of my all-time favorites is the one from February this year (around Valentine’s Day): Vietnam vet Jerry Nadeau and WWII vet John Banvard, who were flying a little under the radar when eight years ago they moved as a couple into a veterans’ home in Chula Vista. It’s just wonderful.

On Veterans Day this year the Google Doodle connected to five #VeteransVoices stories. Turns out Google, YouTube and StoryCorps are teaming up to help expand the collection of veterans’ stories. You can download the #VeteransVoices app for iOS, Android and Kindle, and use the native prompts to guide you in your interview.

Here’s an example:

StoryCorps recordings are archived with the Library of Congress, where anyone can access them. That means that the stories of these vets are available to everyone. I hope that—as with the IWM’s archive—these interviews can help future generations understand the humanity of military services.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Faces in the sand

Here’s something else the Brits did to commemorate the centenary of the World War I Armistice: they created huge portraits on beaches up and down England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—portraits of people who’d left their home shores and never returned. It’s a brilliant concept, from Danny Boyle, the director/producer who brought Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting and Steve Jobs to the screen, and who orchestrated the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics.

You don’t need me to point out the powerful symbolism of faces carved into sand below the highwater mark, which will be washed away by the incoming tide. Once there, there’s no holding back the inexorable waves; the human features are doomed.

This was a project that drew in all kinds of people, engaging them in art, history and the environment in an extraordinary way, and it gets added to my collection of art installations that help us come to terms with grief and pain that would otherwise crush us.

Drone footage of one of the beaches:

You can find the list of the portraits and their beaches here. I don’t think you have to have known who they specifically were to feel the loss. I certainly didn’t.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

When there's trouble in the wind

The Brits do a tremendous job of honoring the sacrifices made in wars of the Twentieth Century. Not—generally—contemporaneously, or as a long-term thing; it wasn’t until the social welfare state emerged from the destruction of the Second World War that Britain’s veterans received help with jobs, housing and healthcare. (This of course shrinks during Tory governments.) But when it comes to putting on a ceremony to acknowledge those who gave their full measure of devotion, there’s nothing like having a Royal Family oversee the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph.

But around the country people also mark what’s known as Remembrance Sunday (which coincided this year, fortuitously, with the actual anniversary of Armistice), with ceremonies at village memorials (which started out listing the names of the dead from 1914-1918, but then had to add on those lost 1939-1945) and local churches. On Remembrance Sunday church bells are half-muffled in mourning, as in this ring from Remembrance Sunday six years ago:

And in some churches, in the minutes before 1100, the tenor is rung up, as in this clip from Exeter Cathedral:

At Holy Trinity Church in Cookham, Berkshire, my friend MLD and her fellow ringers take this on as a solemn duty. MLD tolled the tenor by herself for the fifteen minutes up to 1100, which is exhausting, being not only very heavy but for tolling you have to ring very slowly and hold the bell up—you see at Exeter they need three to do it. But she’s glad to take it on.

This year, being the centenary, Holy Trinity augmented its Remembrance service with some heartrending symbols. 

As in many other parishes and villages, people knitted poppies to be displayed—from John McCrae’s poem that begins, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses row on row.” HTC decorated the sanctuary with these:

In addition to the knitted ones, they displayed a poppy that was part of the gut-wrenching Blood-swept Lands and Seas of Red installation at the Tower of London from August to November 2014, commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of war. This was one of the nearly 900,000 ceramic poppies that filled the Tower’s moat like a gush of blood.

But the piece that I absolutely cannot view except through tears is the Perspex silhouette soldier “sitting” in the pew. There were five of these, each representing a man from the parish who left for war and never returned.

Had I been in that sanctuary in the presence of those ghosts, I’d have been unable to sing or follow the service.

(Photos taken by one of MLD’s fellow ringers, who I hope will not object to me appropriating them.)

I’ll leave you with one more brilliant evocation from our British brothers—a stellar Twitter thread capturing the universal truth about how we Anglo-Americans view our militaries, as voiced by Rudyard Kipling.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Gratitude Monday: Never forget

As you might imagine I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the centenary of the end of World War I. After all, mass conflicts of the first half of the Twentieth Century are my field, and I see so much of their influence—for good or ill—in our daily lives, even this far on.

And I’ve been thinking about the events of the past week—more mass shootings, catastrophic wildfires, midterm elections, somber commemorations of unbelievable destruction—all framed by the utter lack of leadership in our highest office, which is currently occupied by an ignorant, racist, pathetic buffoon who panders to (and feeds on) the absolute worst in us. And I wondered what I was going to be grateful for today.

But then—Saturday Night Live. Which I only watch via YouTube, in bits and pieces when prompted by Twitter. I knew of the controversy SNL regular Pete Davidson sparked a week ago with his on-air (and apparently approved by everyone in the show’s and network’s chain of command) comments about then-candidate Dan Crenshaw, who lost an eye amid other injuries sustained in an IED attack in Afghanistan six years ago.

Well, Davidson—unlike some in the public eye—manned up and apologized on air this past Saturday. “I’m a dick,” he admitted. And Crenshaw appeared next to him to accept the apology, do a little piss-taking and then—then he laid on a message that really gives me hope.

“But, seriously—there’s a lot of lessons to learn here. Not just that the left and right can still agree on some things but also this: Americans can forgive one another. We can remember what brings us together as a country and still see the good in each other.

“This is Veterans Day weekend, which means that it’s a good time for every American to connect with a veteran. Maybe say, ‘Thanks for your service.’ But I would actually encourage you to say something else. Tell a veteran ‘Never forget.’ When you say ‘never forget’ to a veteran, you are implying that, as an American, you are in it with them, not separated by some imaginary barrier between civilians and veterans, but connected together as grateful fellow Americans who will never forget the sacrifices made by veterans past and present. And never forget those we lost on 9/11; heroes like Pete’s father.

“So I’ll just say: Pete—never forget.”

Crenshaw and Davidson shook hands on that note.

I’m grateful for this display of grace by both of them—the smart-ass New York comedian who was enough of a mensch to apologize and the ex-SEAL Texas Republican congressman-elect who stepped out of his comfort zone to join the show, and for the teaching moment on how to express appreciation for sacrifices that others make—military, civilian, first responder, teacher—in the cause of the common good.

Crenshaw would probably be the first to note that he does not—cannot—speak for all veterans. But the ones I know would concur heartily in bagging the knee-jerk “thank you for your service”. “Never forget” draws us in, and draws us together.

And now is a good time for that.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

We will remember them

One hundred years ago today, representatives of the Second German Reich—their armies exhausted, their Kaiser abdicated, their people starving, their cities roiling with revolution—agreed to surrender terms dictated by Allied leaders. At 0500 in a railroad car in the Compiègne forest, they signed the Armistice, which went into effect six hours later.

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, guns fell silent across Europe, and after more than four years of total war, the nations stood in stunned relief.

World War I gave us chemical warfare (Germany first, then the rest to keep up with the Huns), genocide (Armenians, by Turks), aerial bombing of civilian targets (Germans on French and British cities), unrestricted (meaning: shooting at everything in the water) submarine warfare (Germany), introduction of tanks (Britain)—all the mod cons of Twentieth Century life. They’d be amplified by technological advancements in the next global conflagration, and then refined in the “smaller” wars of the past 60 years.

In my opinion, it was started and fought for reasons of empire—acquiring, defending, expanding what you had or thought you deserved to have. Military and political leaders were ignorant (woefully or willfully? I don’t know; maybe some of both) of what advances in technology were about to do to warfare, and they were criminally slow in realizing what was happening and what it was costing as the war wore on.

And after they’d all been in it for a couple of years, and had been depleting their treasuries, exhausting their citizens, consuming their resources, killing off their young men in their tens of thousands on a daily basis—well, a surreal stubbornness seemed to grip them all. Essentially, the argument was, “We’ve already spent this much and lost that much, now we have to stay in it until we win.”

Right up until almost the very end, the Germans were still marking out territories on maps of Western Europe that they intended to annex upon victory—parts of France, Belgium, Luxembourg to which a noble and martial people like the Teutons were entitled.

Meanwhile the French and Brits had a slightly tighter grasp on the geopolitical possibilities before them, and were secretly negotiating to carve up pieces of the Middle East which they expected the Ottomans were going to lose control of. They were haggling between themselves, you understand, not with any of the peoples who actually, you know, lived in those areas. Oh, yeah, they were making promises, to Arabs, to Jews, to Kurds; but those were measures of expediency and not agreements between gentlemen such as the ones they made among themselves. Meaning—not anything they really expected to have to honor.

And so many, many of those imperial chickens have been coming home to roost ever since those shots echoed through Sarajevo. World War I reverberated throughout the Twentieth Century. The wholesale slaughter not only killed off much of the ruling-class youth in the nations of Western Europe, it left the old men who held the reins of government throughout the 30s psychologically crippled and unable to screw their courage to the sticking point to check Hitler on the many occasions when a steadfast approach would have lessened the likelihood of the global conflagration that ensued.

But we’re even now feeling the effects of what was known at the time as the Great War. The nearly farcical assassination that started the war laid a pretty straight path to the collapse of the Russian government and the communist revolution. Along the way there was another imperial assassination, of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, the liquidation of millions of Soviet subjects and more than 70 years of totalitarian government and global hegemony.

The viciousness of the Allied victory, embodied in the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, set the stage for the next war. It wasn’t just the dismembering of the parvenu German empire or even the onerous reparations payments demanded of Germany. (The Prussians had extracted even more ruinous indemnities from France in 1870, when Wilhelm I was crowned Kaiser of Germany—in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Just think about that for a minute: talk about sticking it to your defeated foe...) It was that whole sanctimonious black/white good/evil package that went with that settlement. "Germany started it; the rest of us are victims." 

The Treaties of Saint-Germain (with Austria) and Trianon (Hungary) set loose the turbulent peoples of the Balkans. You’ll recall how that shook out in the 90s, with our Serbian comrades reviving the concept of eradicating entire ethnic groups like pest exterminators. Those actions required intervention by NATO and UN forces throughout the decade. And if they’re not actively committing acts of aggression against their neighbors at the moment, they will be doing so as soon as they think they can get away with it. This is not over.

The Treaties of Sèvres (1920) and Lausanne (1923) carved up the Ottoman empire along the lines that Britain and France had mapped out earlier in the war, picking up choice parcels of real estate in the Middle East. As with the Balkans, those arbitrary geographic divisions, ignorant or dismissive of ethnic, religious or other loyalties of the resident peoples, are still reverberating on the global stage.

Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon? Mes chers amisces poulets have been coming chez le roost for more than 90 years, with no signs of abatement in the merde being produced.

Well, by 1918, German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian empires were all shattered, although the Soviet Union pretty well replaced the last one. (And since the break-up of the Soviet empire in the 1990s, we see Putin attempting to rebuild the tsarist holdings. If I were a Finn, a Latvian, an Estonian or a Lithuanian, I’d look at Ukraine and be nervous.) The British empire’s death knell was struck as well; it didn’t survive the second war. And France—well, a steady retreat as well.

For the United States, it marked our emergence as a major player on the world stage. Despite our best efforts to turn back the clock in the 20s and 30s (possibly one of the reasons for blocking the memories of our 18 months’ involvement in the carnage) and pretend that those dissipated Euros’ problems were no concern of ours, by the time we got through World War I, Part 2 (1941-1945, for us), it was clear that there was no turning back.

For some reason, Americans pretty much blow off the First World War. Perhaps because mass media didn’t keep it roiling through society in the 20s and 30s the way it did World War II in the 50s. A few novels, a movie or two, and that’s it. By the time the Bonus Army marched on Washington to be routed by Douglas MacArthur on orders of Herbert Hoover (Republican presidents really don’t like being reminded of societal obligations or of the actual cost of wars) in 1932, it was safe to send in current soldiers with fixed bayonets to storm the camps of the veterans of that war.

But we still preferred to dismiss it from our collective memory. Aside from emulating Britain and France in retrieving remains of an unidentifiable soldier from the cemeteries of Northern France and interring them at the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington National Cemetery (Britain’s Unknown lies in Westminster Abbey; France’s beneath the Arc de Triomphe), we scurried back and declined to join the League of Nations. America first, eh?

Our involvement did have some positive effects on our society, however, although most people are unaware of the connection. In a pattern that was followed more fully in the second war, the US government had to call on all its citizens to mount the effort, even for that period of months. That included women and blacks. Turns out that once you’ve demanded that all your people step up to the plate for a total war, it’s hard to pat them on the shoulder and send them back to the kitchen or the rear of the bus forevermore.

The Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the vote, was ratified in 1920. Equal rights for African Americans took longer. But a major step forward came in 1948 when Harry S Truman, God bless him, issued Executive Order 9981, ordering the desegregation of US armed forces.

Truman had been an artillery captain with the American Expeditionary Force, serving in the Vosges in 1918.

This weekend in Europe, there are public and private commemorations of the Armistice that was signed in Compiègne 100 years ago. Yesterday, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron unveiled a memorial there; Pierre Trudeau paid tribute to Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly represented us at a ceremony at the Aisne-Marne US military cemetery near the battlefield of Belleau Wood; Commander Bone Spurs declined to venture out in the rain to honor the fallen. (Well, he is umbrella-challenged…)

It’s fortuitous that the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice falls on Remembrance Sunday in Britain. The Royals and Commonwealth dignitaries will lay wreaths at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. There are no longer any survivors from 1918, but veterans from World War II and subsequent wars will march (or be wheeled) past. There will be two minutes of silence precisely at 1100, and then half-muffled church bells around the country will toll for the fallen.

(Throughout the past four years, the Brits have done an amazing job of honoring the war that broke the back of their empire. Starting in August 2014, with the Lights Out campaign and the Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation at the Tower of London, it progressed to a poignant series of public and private commemorations of the centenary of the opening of the catastrophic Battle of the Somme in 2016 that included a performance art piece called We’re Here Because We’re Here of men in WWI uniforms appearing at train stations across the country just as they would have done on their way to Somme. And then there was the statue of the soldier sculpted from Flanders mud, who melted under rain at Trafalgar Square a hundred years on from the Battle of Passchendaele. Finally, for the past week there has been a light and sound installation in and around the Tower of 10,000 torches lit each night by the Warders, accompanied by a new choral work.)

Also today there will be a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe at which I hope to God that moral and physical coward 45 doesn’t shove any of the world leaders out of his way as he impatiently waits for his meeting with Putin. At least he’s not here desecrating Arlington.

Ah, well, perhaps I take these things too seriously. I’ve spent too much time walking the battlefields and graveyards of Northern France and Belgium internalizing the loss they represent. I can think of no more evocative musical piece to commemorate this centenary than “Flowers of the Forest,” the powerful centuries-old lament for Scots slain by Englishmen. But because Highland regiments formed the backbone of the British army in so many wars, it has been transmuted to a universal tune that accompanies the bodies of British soldiers home to their final rest.

It has had rather a workout in recent years, in Afghanistan and Iraq. But here it appears against the background of memorials to the losses of the Somme. And if for no other reason, renders me a sobbing wreck.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

We must remember them.

Friday, November 9, 2018

They start by breaking glass

The first part of November always gives me the shivers. It’s not just that we go off Daylight Saving Time, so it seems darker all of a sudden; or even that the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every couple of years is Election Day here. It’s that this is the time we must acknowledge dark deeds that have been done within living memory of our parents and grandparents.

Today is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On 9 November 1938, in “response” to the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a minor functionary in the German embassy in Paris, by a teen-aged Polish Jew, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels orchestrated “spontaneous” acts of outrage on Jewish homes, shops and synagogues throughout Germany.

More than 200 synagogues and thousands of homes and businesses were ransacked and torched throughout the Reich (which by then included Austria and most of Czechoslovakia), starting the night of the 9th and continuing through the next day. Efforts by municipal fire and police services to stop the conflagrations and violence were blocked by Nazi storm troopers. More than 90 Jews were murdered and 30,000 men and boys were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Hermann Goering, Oberbefehlshaber  Luftwaffe, Prussian minister of the interior (thus head of the largest police force in Germany) and chief Nazi clothes horse, berated Goebbels for mismanaging the affair—since despite countless millions in goods looted, not a pfennig had made its way into state coffers.

By way of placating Goering, Goebbels decreed that German Jews should pay an indemnity of 1 billion Reichsmarks “for causing the damage” that now littered communities throughout the Reich.

And he collected.

Kristallnacht doesn’t really convey the full horror of these events. Although the Nazis had been steadily closing in the walls on Jews according to the blueprint patently evident in Mein Kampf, and had even essayed a public boycott of Jewish businesses (unsuccessful, as it happens, so not repeated) shortly after taking power in 1933, this was the first instance where widespread violence and murder were unleashed on the community.

And this time they were successful. There were no substantial protests either internally or from the fraternity of nations. The Nazis had removed their gloves and revealed their brass knuckles—and no one cared. There were a few lackluster objections from here or there, but no official recognition (much less outrage) that this was a state act of collective violence against a group of people. Likewise no one seemed to connect the dots that there could be other groups on the murder list to be lined up after the Jews were eliminated.

Some decades ago, I was following the pilgrim’s route from Paris to Santiago de Compostela. I’d checked in to the Auberge de Jeunesse in Bordeaux and was riding my bicycle around the town. At one stop light a young man on a bicycle came up beside me—he must have recognized by the panniers that I wasn’t a local—and we struck up a conversation. He was also outfitted for distance—I think he was working the vendange (I ran into a lot of kids at hostels who were following the grape harvest around the country), but at this point I can’t really recall.

Anyhow, he was German and told me that he was heading over to the “main” synagogue (the Great Synagogue). Seems he’d never in his life (of probably 20 years) seen a Jewish temple, and thought he should do so. (My first thought was, “Okay, there’s a reason you’ve never seen a synagogue on the hoof—do you know what that is?” But I didn’t bring it up and neither did he.) He’d been by earlier but was told he should return in the afternoon. He invited me along.

Well, my only diary-entry for Bordeaux was going to be the Centre Jean Moulin (museum of the Résistance), so he and I cycled over to the shul. He was such a trusting soul he didn’t even lock his bike, just leaned it up against the wall.

He rang the bell and we were buzzed in; no one came to greet us, we just went in. I have to say I felt a little on edge—didn’t know whether he was going to pull a Molotov out of his jeans and finish off one of the ones the Nazis missed 35 years earlier. But in the end we just wandered around the sanctuary, unescorted, looking at the space so different from Christian churches.

Actually, at the time this was only the second temple I’d ever been in, so I wasn’t that much further along culturally speaking that my companion.

We could hear voices in other rooms, but no one ever did come out to check on us. After a while, we let ourselves out. He went on to find a place to camp for the night (the hostel’s couple of francs was more than he wanted to spend) and I headed off to the museum. (Which, BTW, had a terrific collection of propaganda posters. Some of them are still quite vivid in my mind.)

I wonder if he’s remembering his first visit to a synagogue on this anniversary, and how he had to travel hundreds of miles out of Germany to find it?

I also wonder if we’ve progressed since 1938—no one did much about the Serbian or Rwandan versions of Kristallnacht, did they?

A few years ago I wondered if we’ve progressed since 1979—would the keepers of a synagogue anywhere today buzz in someone to have unaccompanied free rein of the sanctuary? I found out in 2009 when I retraced the French part of my pilgrimage: you can’t get close to the Great Synagogue; it’s fenced off and I couldn’t even see where you might ring to get someone’s attention. Looking at that iron fence I thought, well, I guess 1979 was that brief window of lull in the storm—between the Nazi anti-Semites and the Islamists and National Front varieties of today.

Given recent events—of the past two years, say—in my own country, I think we have reason to fear that whatever progress we’ve made in the past 80 years is being eradicated. Anti-Semitism is on the rise at an exponential rate. (Following the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, the racist-in-chief famously counseled that if the shul had only had an armed guard stationed there, all would have been well. Just as Rethugs in NRA pockets advise that arming teachers—and/or students—is the way to prevent Parkland-like bloodbaths. I thought about the temple in Alexandria that my friend attends. During her bat mitzvah I noticed an armed, uniformed Fairfax County cop patrolling the entrance, and I asked her about it. She said there one there for all Shabbat services. We have already lost to the Nazis.)

We’re electing fascists to local, state and national office. Those officials are building concentration camps for asylum seekers, putting brown children in cages and adopting them out to white parents, inviting their supporters to commit acts of violence, breaking international treaties, throwing away environmental protections and engaging in corruption on a scale that would make the likes of Papa Doc and Idi Amin grow pale with envy. In short, Republicans at every level are feeling free to combine their two guiding principles of greed and cruelty into a unifying platform: making brutality a sustainable profit center. Goering and Goebbels are verklempt.

So, I still don’t know how much progress we’ve made since Kristallnacht. But perhaps it’s a start if we remember how it begins.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Light the way

Yesterday marked the first day of the Hindu festival of Diwali. Although there appear to be several legends associated with the tradition of Diwali, they mostly revolve around the triumph of righteousness over evil, of light over darkness. Thus it’s appropriate that the focus should be on lights—oil lamps, candles and (so I hear) neon lights among the nouveau riche. (Diwali marks the end of a month of prep; I’m told there’s been a lot of dancing at temples, and tonight big family meals with emphasis on Indian sweets.)

I learned about Diwali when I moved to the Valley They Call Silicon. Since I was struggling with driving back the dark, I glommed onto it like limpets on a rock. Last night I again massed candles to drive back all manner of dark things. Not only do I like the soft light that groups of candles give off, the very act of lighting them one at a time and nursing along some of the ones at the end of their life slows me down. It calms me down.

Filling a room with candle light takes time; you can’t flip a switch and move on to the next task on your to-do list. And if you’re lighting those floating jobbers, you have to be very focused on not disturbing the water, because then it dowses the flames and you have to wipe them off and start over again.

It’s like the count-breaths-to-21 methodology of meditation: if you lose count because your monkey mind is distracted, you have to begin again from one.

There are some days I never make it into double digits.

But there’s something about knowing how happy the moving lights will make me that enables me to persevere with candles. I light them, sit back and watch; and for at least a few minutes the world around me is peaceful and full of hope. Light prevails over darkness, love conquers fear, and good triumphs over evil.