See ya next week for some pics from a Tour de France from years past...
What befits a travel & music blog more than a song about flyin' to the moon. Enjoy this 50th anniversary tribute to the Apollo moon landing!
See ya next week for some pics from a Tour de France from years past...
After autumn 1989’s street-protest-driven rejection of East Bloc Communism, which I’d viewed euphorically on CNN, and a sublime, sunny graduation on the University of Virginia’s colonnade lined Lawn the following May, I spent the summer of 1990 studying ESL pedagogy at Georgetown. The idea now was to go to Eastern-Central Europe to teach English, a language quickly rising in demand after forty years of pupils being force-fed Russian.
I considered the Baltics, thanks to a UVA dean and Rīga native who’d encouraged me through my toughest times in college. With a mind to repaying her kindness by teaching English in her home country, I phoned the Latvian legation, the unofficial, émigré-run “embassy” of a nation still under Soviet rule. The gentleman who answered described Stalin’s cynical annexation of the Baltic States, a move never recognized by the West, and his nation’s desire for independence. But he advised against going there: “Things are too unstable.”
Romania and Bulgaria were out for the same reason. I called the Yugoslav embassy – they didn’t need English teachers, I was told, as they’d been learning plenty of English rather than Russian ever since Tito broke with Stalin. A stark, blotchy red and white Solidarity poster in my Georgetown linguistics professor’s office reminded me of the struggle of the Polish shipyard workers and, indirectly, of John Paul II’s motivating role. So I considered going there or to East Germany, which was about to merge with the West.
But I’d never thought about Czechoslovakia until that July 4, sitting cross-legged on a friend’s picnic blanket amidst the crowd of 400,000 who’d come to hear the symphony on the Washington Mall. As blackness swallowed the last purple of twilight and the final cymbal crash of Sousa’s “Washington Post March” faded, the emcee announced that we had just received a special call. Václav Havel, phoning by satellite from Prague. His gravelly voice came over the P.A. system.
“I would like to congratulate you on your nation’s birthday,” he said, haltingly, in his strong central European accent. “Your country was a beacon of hope to those of us suffering behind the Iron Curtain. And so, I am honored to address you tonight as president of a free Czechoslovakia.”
The crowd bellowed in response, clapping their hands above their heads in a display of good-natured American boisterousness.
“Oh. Well, thank you.” He sounded a bit embarrassed. “You have been an inspiration to oppressed peoples everywhere. And now it is my privilege to introduce the next song, the final movement of the New World Symphony, which my compatriot Antonín Dvořák composed while living in your wonderful country.”
After another spasm of cheering, the conductor raised his baton. The low strings played two notes a half-tone apart, like the “Jaws” music; slowly at first, then gaining tempo and volume. Violins joined in with piercing glissandos, building the tension towards an explosion of brass and tympani. The music was soon accompanied by the boom of fireworks, whose red, white and blue streams – equally valid as U.S. or Czechoslovak colors – illuminated the Washington Monument behind the orchestra.
The display of American-Czechoslovak friendship made up my mind for me.
The next morning, I called the Czechoslovak embassy and learned of Education for Democracy. I applied as soon as I got the paperwork. I got the news of my acceptance in August, after I’d already signed a short-term contract with a language school near DC’s Dupont Circle. So I had to put off the move until mid-October.
A mere two weeks after arriving, I got to see Havel from a distance of 50 feet in the Slovak provincial capital to which I’d been assigned. It felt like destiny.
I related my experience of that Havel speech in a post last October. There are pictures from the event (though the text is mostly about the history that was being commemorated).
Five years ago today, I was standing on the street corner where Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, exactly a hundred years after it happened. I had hoped to be in France for today’s centenary of the Treaty of Versailles, by whose terms Germany made peace. Alas, time wouldn’t allow.
Perhaps I’ll get a chance to be present for the hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Saint-Germain, signed by the new Republic of German-Austria on September 10. Not likely, with the academic year in full swing. Or maybe the Treaty of Trianon (signed in another palace building in the Versailles complex), which established terms of peace with Hungary – and also dismembered that country. I’ve written about the problems with the post-WWI arrangements before… and I’ll have more to post about Trianon for next year’s anniversary.
But for today, I’ll just comment on Versailles. I really want to address one issue only – the idea that it was so unjust and humiliating that it made WWII inevitable. As much mischief as there was in the post-war arrangements, the oft-repeated complaint about onerous war reparations placed on Germany is exaggerated.
Reparations were in fact proportional to those that France was forced to pay Germany at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. And that peace treaty was signed in the very Hall of Mirrors where the 1919 treaty was signed. It was also the place where the Prussians declared the German Empire in 1871, having completed Bismarck’s ambitious program of filling out Germany’s borders. (Ironically some of that territory had been acquired from future ally Austria.)
Yes, there was some vengefulness in forcing German representatives to sign in the same place where France had been humiliated 48 years before. But should it be that surprising?
One thing I can’t explain is why they would choose the fifth anniversary of the assassination of the Austrian (not German!) Archduke. Hmm.
But yes, vengefulness tends to beget more vengefulness. Add to that the fact that the German public had been led to believe they were winning WWI right up until the end, and you can see how the “Stab-in-the-Back” myth led not only to militarism and nationalism, but also the scapegoating of “internal enemies.”
When will we humans ever learn?
I’ve written a lot in these pages about the aftermath of WWI. One of the figures most responsible for the emergence of Czechoslovakia was Milan Rastislav Štefánik, an astronomer, soldier, and world traveler. While I have mixed feelings about the breakup of Austria-Hungary, I cannot help but admire Štefánik for his diligent pursuit of knowledge, for his love of country, and his love for a woman.
He met a tragic fate 100 years ago on 4 May, leaving behind a fianceé, Italian Marchesa Giuliana Benzoni, when his plane crashed near Bratislava.
Štefánik was the son of a Slovak Lutheran pastor, who studied astronomy in Prague, then worked in France, including the observatory on Mont Blanc. He did research in far-flung destinations like Algiers, Tahiti, and Brazil. His notes, diary, and correspondence are full of descriptions of the cultures he encountered. When the First World War broke out, he joined the French army - an Entente power fighting against his native Austria-Hungary.
His loyalties were with the Slovak and Czech nations, rather than the Habsburg rulers. He'd had little choice but to get his early schooling in Hungarian, since policies of Magyarization left little room for other languages in the education system of the eastern part of the monarchy. He was one of those who saw his nation's best hope for self-realization in the formation of a republic of Czechs and Slovaks, where they would no longer be dominated by Hungarians and German-Austrians.
He was a pilot and, curiously, was the subject of the world's first medevac. He became seriously ill in Serbia and was flown to safety by pioneering French aviator Louis Paulhan. There's a statue of him in Paulhan, France, a sister city to Brezová pod Bradlom (more on that later) and to Košariská, Slovakia.
Štefánik rose to the rank of brigadier general in the French army and also became Minister of War in the government of Czechoslovak resistance abroad, which became recognized by the Entente as capable of setting up a successor state to the Habsburg Empire. In this capacity, he visited Russia and arranged to recruit Slovak and Czech prisoners of war - who had fought for Austria-Hungary, albeit with little enthusiasm; some had deserted - to form a fighting force that would join the effort against the Habsburg monarchy.
And thus the Czechoslovak Legions were born. They had actually been formed elsewhere in Europe, but those in Russia became the most legendary, thanks in part to the Bolshevik seizure of power. When Lenin's government made peace with the Central Powers, it was no longer in a position to support these troops who were now sworn enemies of imperial Austria and Germany. Attempts to disarm them failed, and they soon revolted, taking over most of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
When it was rumored - correctly - that these Legionaires were approaching the town where the last tsar, Nicholas II, was being held captive by the Bolsheviks, the decision was made to shoot the entire imperial family out of fear that the Legions would free them.
The Legions soon evacuated from Russia, taking the long route to the Pacific port of Vladivostok and returning to Europe by ship.
During his various political and diplomatic activities in Italy in autumn 1916, Štefánik met Giuliana Benzoni, an Italian aristocrat to whom he later became engaged. He visited her for the last time in Rome in late April 1919. After negotiations in Padua over the Italian military presence in Czechoslovakia, he flew from an airfield near Udine to Bratislava to visit his family, but one of the plane’s engines exploded during a landing attempt. The man who had done so much for his beloved Slovak nation, and could have done so much more, was dead at 38.
Štefánik’s grave is in Brezová pod Bradlom, an hour and a half northeast of Bratislava, a grey, stone, quasi-pyramidal structure with four obelisks surrounding the burial chamber. It stands atop a hill overlooking his nearby native village of Košariská, an exalted monument to a man of humble birth. I must admit it’s still on my bucket list; for various reasons I just haven’t managed to get there. Yet.
But I was privileged to be present at the unveiling of a plaque to Štefánik in Padua, Italy. I traveling as a member of the Slovak chorus Hron of Banská Bystrica. We’d just spent several days giving concerts and touring the Lake Garda region and were on the way to Croatia (both visits were carried out as part of exchanges with vocal ensembles in Italy and Croatia). So we stopped in Padua to sing Slovak patriotic songs as part of the ceremonies involving local dignitaries. It certainly gave me a stronger impression of Slovakia’s and Štefánik’s ties to Italy.
There are many reminders of his legacy. The Bratislava airport, planes, and military institutions bear his name. Last year, the Czech National Bank issued 10-crown notes with Štefánik’s image in commemoration of the centenary of Czechoslovakia’s birth, and Slovakia released 10-Euro silver coins for that anniversary. This year, Slovakia is minting 2-euro coins to mark the century since his death.
You can learn more about Štefánik on his Wikipedia page.
As I noted in a post two years ago, 25 March is the feast of St. Mark the Evangelist. As his remains are buried in Venice, he lends his name to a basilica and the city's most famous square. The winged lion atop the column in St. Mark's Square is also a symbol of the Gospel-writer. And there's a festival for his name day - see the link just above. I've copied the picture from that posting below, along with a second "Mark and St. Mark's."
This year I don't have much to add, but I would like to share another photo from that trip, this one of me in front of another St. Mark's - in Zagreb.
It was the second major leg of a choir bus trip that took us from Central Slovakia through Austria and down to the Trentino region, where we gave concerts in conjunction with a local choir. We also visited tourist destinations and dined and strolled on the shore of Lake Garda. We then visited Verona and sang at the unveiling of a plaque to Slovak hero M. R. Štefánik (more on that coming up for the 100th anniversary of his death on 4 May). We visited Venice and San Marino before heading to Croatia to for another choir exchange, where I had this picture made.
This St. Mark's is probably best known for its locally produced tiles with Zagreb's coat of arms (white castle on a red background), a nineteenth-century addition to a church that dates back to the fourteenth century.
I'll be posting more about that trip in the coming months.
On the night of March 23-24, 1919, Austrian Emperor Charles I took a train to Switzerland. It was to be a permanent exile. The stop at the border station of Feldkirch was to be the last time he would see his native land.
While Charles had stopped short of a formal abdication, he “signed a carefully worded statement granting the German-Austrian people the right to form a new state” and relinquished the reins of power (as I noted in a series of posts in November on the break-up of Austria-Hungary, beginning here). But he was eventually pressured to leave. Although he returned to Hungary twice to retake power there, he died in exile on the Portuguese island of Madeira in 1922, at the age of 34. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004.
His last moments in Austria are poignantly recorded in Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, a memoir of growing up in Austria-Hungary and witnessing its downfall, as well as seeing Europe plunged into two world wars. The author was returning from Switzerland and happened to be in that station of Feldkirch, Austria when the emperor was travelling the other direction. Some have doubted the factuality of this account, and it would have been quite a coincidence. Nonetheless, he captures the pathos of the moment.
A partial version of Zweig’s narrative of the scene is found on the English-language Wikipedia:
“Upon returning to Austria via the border station at Feldkirch an unforgettable experience stood before me. Even getting out I had noticed a strange unrest in the border guards and policemen. A bell tolled to signal the approach of a train. The policemen stood, all railway officials rushed out of their boxes. Slowly, majestically, the train rolled in, a special kind of train, a Salon train. The locomotive stopped. A motion was palpable through the ranks of those waiting, I still did not know why. Then I saw behind the mirror glass of the coach an erect Emperor Karl, the last Emperor of Austria and his black-clad wife, Empress Zita. I was startled: the last Emperor of Austria, heir to the Habsburg dynasty, which ruled the country for seven hundred years, was leaving his kingdom! As he had refused formally to abdicate, the republic had forced his departure. Now the high serious man stood at the window and saw for the last time the mountains, the houses, the people of his country.”
Zweig writes that upon seeing the banished Karl, memories of the previous emperor, Franz Joseph, came flooding back into his mind: so many of his public appearances, thousands of schoolchildren singing Haydn’s “Gott erhalte,” Austria-Hungary’s state hymn (which only later became the German national anthem), and various stately ceremonies.
The author continues, “It was only in this moment that the nearly thousand-year monarchy had truly come to an end. I knew that it was another Austria, another world, to which I was returning.”
I vaguely recall sitting in my train seat, staring out the window at the small Feldkirch station when I travelled from Vienna to Switzerland and Liechtenstein in the summer of 2000. I didn’t realize the significance of the location at the time. One of these days, I tell myself, I will make the journey again, perhaps step out in Feldkirch, and then continue to, say, Zurich. Then I’ll visit the ruins of the original Habsburg castle.
Other related travel sites:
Schloss Eckartsau in Lower Austria, where Karl spent his last four months as doubtful emperor.
Schloss Wartegg, on the Swiss edge of Lake Constance, Karl’s first place of exile.
This time 14 years ago, I got to take part in a ritual called the “drowning of Marzanna.” Since I’d taken a year of Polish language instruction (as a grad student in Ohio State’s Slavic Department), was singing in a Polish folk group, Lajkonik, and was a member of the Polish American Club of Columbus, it seemed only fitting, even though I have no Polish ancestry.
The name Marzanna comes from an old Slavic pagan goddess associated with death and winter. Although she lost that religious significance in Christian times, she became the center of a spring equinox celebration. In the Old Country, villagers would process out of town with a straw effigy and throw her in the nearest stream, sometimes after lighting her on fire.
The crowd that I joined in the tradition drove to the outskirts of Columbus, to Highbanks Metro Park. Rather than setting her ablaze and letting her drift downstream, we just dipped Marzanna in the Olentangy River, so as not to get her too wet, then threw her in a fireplace at a little clubhouse we rented.
The rest of the afternoon was spent drinking Polish beer, eating grilled sausages, and singing Polish folk tunes from a songbook of several hundred pages.
Although I lived in Slovakia for six years, and they have very similar traditions – which like most vary from region to region – I never got to take part in one of their “Morena” rituals. So thanks to the Polish American Club of Columbus for letting me experience this Slavic fest!
They’re doing it again this year on Saturday, March 23. See the current post on their website: http://www.poloniacolumbus.org/, and that of Ohio State's Polish Club, and if you're in the area, maybe you can join in. Wish I could be there!
Back in January, I marked the 50th anniversary of Czech student Jan Palach’s self-immolation in reaction to the Warsaw Pact invasion of August 1968. The impact of this protest has been far-reaching, as attested by the list of cultural references on his Wiki page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Palach#Posthumous_recognition), ranging from East European dissident poets to Salman Rushdie.
At the time, I failed to mention the film, called simply Jan Palach, directed by Robert Sedláček. It premiered last August 5 at the Uherské Hradiště Summer Film School, and was released in Czech cinemas on August 21, the anniversary of the invasion. It covers the title character’s life, including scenes from childhood, but mostly the time from the invasion until his death. Curiously, he took part in student work trips to Kazakhstan and Leningrad, and another to Paris in October 1968, after the invasion, something I just learned. Witnessing student protests in Paris led him to more radical actions, and upon returning to Czechoslovakia he marched in several demonstrations against Soviet occupation.
Since that January post, I've also learned that Charles University, which Palach had begun attending the previous autumn, unveiled a plaque/tile in his honor on the anniversary. It lies in the courtyard of the Carolinum, where thousands filed by his coffin in 1969. (Please see photos in the slideshow above.)
I also recently discovered vintage pics of events concerning Palach from the French magazine Paris Match. I’m reposting one of those pics, as well as providing links to video on the recent commemorations.
It has also come to my attention recently that Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland directed Burning Bush for HBO, but it has been criticized for lacking realism, as in this Czech commentary for British Letters (in Czech only, sorry), calling the film “incredibly weak.” The opinion is seconded by Miroslav Prokeš, who worked closely with Palach in 1968-69.
FOR FURTHER READING/VIEWING
Here is a review and trailer for the 2018 film.
You can find footage of the memorial march in Prague on this page. (Trust me - if I could have embedded it, I would have.)
And it’s not just Prague Palach has been remembered widely, like this exhibit in Spain.
Another good Czech source of info and images is http://www.janpalach.cz/, compiled by students at Prague's Charles University. Also, see the university's article on its commemoration.
And here is the Paris Match article.
This comes to us courtesy of Land of the Leopard National Park. It's in Primorsky Krai in Russia's Far East, not far from Vladivostok.
While these are tigers, the park is so named because it was created in 2012 as a merger of three refuges in order to save the Amur leopard, whose population had dwindled to 30. Its numbers are now back up to over 100.
Much of the territory is common habitat for the tigers and leopards.
He was born on “27. Jänner 1756,” as the plaque outside his birthplace on Salzburg’s Getreidegasse says, using an Austrian form of January.
I had the fortune to be there between just after Christmas in 1990. As I’d just spent my first two months in Czechoslovakia, my parents had come to meet me in Munich. From there I showed them around Central Europe, including my lodgings in Martin, Slovakia, finishing off with Bratislava and New Year’s Eve in Vienna.
The one-night stay in Salzburg included a concert of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” probably the composer’s most popular piece. Though I knew his work fairly well, this was the beginning of a relation with his music that was to go deeper during my years in Europe.
I sang his sumptuous “Ave Verum Corpus” with several choruses in the region – and have sung it with groups in the U.S. as well. The pinnacle of my Mozartiana was learning the bass part to his Requiem, which I was blessed to perform with the St. Cecilia Choir of St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral in East Slovakia’s Košice.
Please see the video of a rehearsal with that chorus below, as well as memorabilia including the 250th anniversary of his birth in Columbus, Ohio, part of the slideshow above.
Musical & Literary Wanderings of a Galloping Gypsy
Mark Eliot Nuckols is a travel writer from Silver Beach Virginia who is also a musician and teacher.