A celebration of Prague: my photo and Madeleine Albright’s words (from her book Prague Winter).
“On a hill in Prague there is a castle that has stood for a thousand years. From its windows one can see a forest of gilded cupolas and baroque towers, slate roofs and sacred spires. Visible too are the stone bridges spanning the broad and winding Vltava River as its waters flow northward at a leisurely pace. Through the centuries, the beauty of Prague has been enriched by the labor of artisans from a plethora of nationalities and creeds; it is a Czech city with a variety of accents, at its best in spring when the fragrant blossoms of the lindens burst forth, the forsythia turns gold, and the skies seem an impossible blue. The people, known for their diligence, resilience, and pragmatism, look forward each winter to when the days lengthen, the breezes soften, the trees regain their covering, and the river banks issue a silent summons to play.” Madeleine Albright, Prague Winter.
Rose Street, in Edinburgh’s New Town, is not particularly new. New Town dates back to the reign of George III, which is an era many of you know for the American Revolution. In comparison to the Old Town of Edinburgh–a snarl of alleys and ginnels, a mess of hills and ridges– this New Town is bold and orderly in layout.
But orderly facades are always facades, and architectural symmetry always belies the messier lives there housed. So consider New Town. The main streets (Queen Street, George Street, and Princes Street) are wide and regal. But tucked between are smaller streets– more like grand alleys– running through the blocks, like veins through flesh. And here lies Rose Street.
Today, Rose Street is a pedestrian road peppered with bakeries, pubs, restaurants, and shops, but it still retains a “back alley” aura. Not least because it has an outrageous number of pubs, and sometimes an outrageous number of people stumbling out of those pubs and weaving from wall to wall the length of the street. All told, it’s reputation is generally respectable, if just a bit sodden, these days. It’s cleaned up a bit from the red light reputation it had 60 years ago. In fact, it’s home to many more-than-reputable restaurants — 1780 being one I can heartily vouch for.
I bring up Rose Street today, because I stumbled on the lead photo for this post the other day– a photo I took of some street art , part of a series on Rose Street. It struck a chord, but I had no idea what the verses presented were all about. Today, I sleuthed about the internet to find that they represent bits of a poem by Scotsman George Mackay Brown, who, as it happens, used to drink in a bar named Milne’s, sat on the corner of a street named Rose, running like a vein through the arm of New Town.
Bottoms Up, dear George! Today I celebrate your poem, “Beachcomber,” and think about Edinburgh’s New Town, sat side by side with a very old town and perched on the edge of a cold North Sea, both harsh and beautiful.
Monday I found a boot –
Rust and salt leather.
I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.
Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed.
Wednesday a half can of Swedish spirits.
I tilted my head.
The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.
Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
A whale bone,
Wet feet and a loud cough.
Friday I held a seaman’s skull,
Sand spilling from it
The way time is told on kirkyard stones.
Saturday a barrel of sodden oranges.
A Spanish ship
Was wrecked last month at The Kame.
Sunday, for fear of the elders,
I sit on my bum.
What’s heaven? A sea chest with a thousand gold coins.
We try to be normal. We really do. But every straight line we draw canters just a little to the side–and so, in travel (as in everything else), our lives run a little diagonally.
This truth was on full display a few years ago in Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg:
The thing for Americans to do here, besides wander and take in the beauty, is to stage photos that resemble scenes from The Sound of Music. (The song, Do Re Mi was partly filmed here.) Ideally, these photos look a little like this:
This is the top gate at Mirabell. (Notice the fortress, Hohensalzburg, on the hill in the background–it’s really a fantastic shot of the gardens and the city behind.) We spent some time here. We took some photos here. But none looked like this.
What did they look like? Well, look to your right. This is my son, sleeping (while being serenaded by an accordion player) on those same steps at the Mirabell Gardens. Why is he sleeping, you ask? He’s tired from sightseeing, but especially from running through the gardens. Singing Do-Re-Mi? Oh no. No. This child was reinacting some “American Ninja in Salzburg” screenplay known only to him. My favorite scene from that movie, below. (Clearly the people around him are a little surprised and amused by the sight.)
I’ve been thinking about our quirky travels this past weekend while in Chicago with my daughter. In another year, she’ll be heading off to college. And my son, the masked ninja, begins high school in August. They’ve grown up fast, and our travel adventures with them are changing. I already miss the visits to “knight schools” and castles, the nativity plays we attended with dishtowels on their heads, and their absolute inability to stand still for photos.
Ein Konig und ein Hirte– a wise king and a shepherd at Ripon Cathedral some years ago (2008?)
Still, I imagine our “diagonal” travels will continue into the future. After all, they started before our children were born. In Turkey, we were just two people with little dog garnering stares as we drove by in an old Volvo wagon. On it’s own, that doesn’t sound so strange, but we stuck out like a sore thumb. In Turkey, it wasn’t unusual to count 7 people on a motorcycle and sidecar. So when we made our way through the streets– streets that might find two lanes stuffed with five “lanes,” including cars, giant trucks, mopeds, buses, and donkeys– our long wagon, carrying only two people and a tiny dog, was the thing outside of the norm. Why waste such a long vehicle on so few travelers? Why bother with a dog too small to herd sheep? And why crawl slowly through the melee of a Turkish traffic jam instead of throwing yourself into the mix full throttle while laying on the horn? Clearly, we were the nuts who didn’t understand the rules of the game.
When you travel, people always tell you to try to fit in– obey the customs, don’t be too awkward or too obvious. It’s safer and more respectful to conform to the norm as best you can.
They tell us to try to fit in, but who does that, honestly?
Sometimes you just have to embrace the diagonal. What else can you do?
Tonight, I’ll be tuning in for To Walk Invisible — the BBC drama about the Bronte sisters that is featuring on PBS Masterpiece. If your passing knowledge of the Bronte sisters is simply that they were successful writers, then you’ve missed a huge swath of their story– the entire furtive, formative swath. The part that was hard, ugly, and, literally, doomed . . . but literarily resilient. But then, could you have expected anything else from a family that lived on the atmospheric Yorkshire Moors and created such stories as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre?
I think you could not.
It might be smart for me to watch tonight’s show and then write this post about the Brontes– both to refresh my memory about their story and to comment on the show itself. But I’m at the computer now, and so I write. Also– before the show has the opportunity to retouch my memory of a trip to the Bronte Parsonage at Haworth– I’d like to tell you what I remember about my trip there, because it had quite an impact on me.
Confession: I was never a big Bronte fan. My sister was the impetus behind our trip to the Bronte’s home. I didn’t dislike the Brontes, I just hadn’t spent much time with them. I probably thought their brand of gothic fiction was more outdated than classic. I was wrong.
But I didn’t see that until I visited their home and learned more about their lives. The conventions of gothic had nothing on the actual lives of the Bronte sisters. Dark, atmospheric tales weren’t just a hook for catching a reader, they were faithful incarnations of the harsh realities of life in Haworth (and at the Bronte home).
Their mother and two sisters died young. Their brother died in young adulthood– of illness and addiction. Emily died four months after her brother; Anne died the next year; Charlotte died six years later (but still only 38 years old). Their father outlived them all, by many decades.
He was quite the exception for the village of Haworth. In the 1800’s, the village was a gloomy place and the average life expectancy was less than 30 years old. There was no real sewage system in Haworth. Sewage often ran in the streets and tainted the water supply. What water there was to start with– which wasn’t much and was of bad quality. Finally– just to add some grim to the grime– the overcrowded city cemetery, which grew more overcrowded each year and had very bad drainage, sat (still sits) at the top of the city hill, further poisoning the town. That is a recipe for death by death.
One more thing–possibly important if you are a Bronte– the village cemetery sits in front of the parsonage. Death on your doorstep: a fine thing to wake up to each morning.
So, if you were a Bronte sister, you grew up in a village where infant mortality was sky high and people of every age had a tough go of it. You lived at the edge of the wild and harsh Moors, quite a distance from any large, urban centers. Your prospects in Haworth were not so very good, your childhood playground was a cemetery, the wind howled, your preacher father married and buried a revolving door of friends and neighbors, and nothing in life was easy, not even a kettle of water for your tea.
No wonder your brother became an addict; no wonder your relatives passed young. No wonder your imagination turned to a rich inner world to pass your days . . . but a world of disquieting stories.
I’m sure tonight’s program will teach me a good many things about the Bronte family that I did not know. I am eager to learn. My first visit to Haworth was around 2006– so my memory is a little fuzzy on details, but not on the overall impression. I’d already been living in Yorkshire for a year, and loved the environs, so it’s not surprising that what struck me most about the Bronte home was the town, the general environs in which this family lived. It was the perfect setting for a gothic tale.
It was a grey, atmospheric day the first time I visited Haworth. The town was picturesque and compact. I remember winding up the cobbled street, passing a sweet shop, a tea room, a pub. Passing tourists. Seeing the tidy parsonage, and its dreary graveyard, at the top of the hill. All perfectly picturesque– especially as you stand at the crest of the hill and look down at the winding street of town, the stone shops and home fronts, and the rolling hills around it.
If you want to see a bit of what my eyes saw, here’s a short YouTube video that will give you a quick glance at Haworth and a view from the top of the town. ( Be warned–the narrator does drone on at the end of the video, “blah blah, polar bears, blah blah”– just ignore that bit. He also says “Withering” Heights, repeatedly– hard to ignore, but try.)
BUT– for all of the beauty, as the grey clouds swarmed the day of my first visit and the air ran chill, I gathered up all I had learned about life in Haworth in the 1800’s, and what I remembered of some of the haunting elements of the Bronte sisters’ tales, and I saw the town differently. I saw the graveyard at the pinnacle of the town, I saw the run off and sewage coursing through the streets below, I saw Branwell (the addled addict of a brother) watching death wash over the streets from the dark pub window. The town itself seemed a little Jekyll and Hyde to me.
Haworth seems like a tale well told, but hard-lived. An amazing place to visit, for certain.
I’ll leave you with two things, below. The first, a portrait that I saw in the parsonage– rather famous– which Branwell painted of the three sisters who survived him. I love (and loathe) it for the fact that Branwell had originally painted himself into the portrait, but (for what reason?) decided to erase himself out of it. It is no subtle erasure. What he leaves is worse than a gapping hole in the middle of the painting: it’s a spectral ghost of himself that (for me, at least) becomes almost more of a focal point than the remaining likenesses of his sisters! I suspect that this will in some ways ring true with the Bronte family story I watch tonight. The ghost of Branwell, the presence of death and despair in Haworth, is largely the energy that created the Bronte stories.
The second nugget I leave for you is a YouTube video that acts as a teaser for the production To Walk Invisible. Enjoy!
About this time last year, Katie and I flew off to London for the weekend to take in some theater, a London Fashion Weekend show, some good food, some history, and a shot of urban living.
Our first night in town, we’d seen the play “The End of Longing” on the West End. The play was pretty good, the stage sets were remarkable (both for their look and for their “rapid changeability”), and our meeting with Matthew Perry after the show went well– no matter what my daughter might tell you to the contrary. (Unless Matthew Perry is actually reading this, in which case, let me take a moment to apologize and say that I’ll try to be much cooler if I ever meet you again, please don’t feel the need to take out a restraining order against me. And, for the record, that person who called out your name before you approached me, thinking it was me, was actually someone standing behind me– and this is why I was totally unprepared for your approach and may have lost it a little. Seriously. I don’t usually blither . . . or shake–it was REALLY cold out too, and I was wearing a sleeveless coat in the middle of winter in London– not practical, but it was really cute, don’t you think? Anyway, Matthew, we got off on the wrong foot, you and me. I’m lots cooler than that. Sometimes. Anyway, embarrassing as it was, I really did mean it– you are great.)
Moving on. . .
Our second night in London required a strong drink to make me forget how I’d embarrassed myself on our first night in London. Katie wanted to go to a rooftop restaurant or bar and soak up a little urban chic. Good plan. But the chicest of the chic would have required reservations much in advance, so we looked for “in and out” bars that would fit the bill. One popped up with potential, and in an area of the city that we know well and has some great views. The rooftop bar at the Hilton Doubletree by the Tower of London.
It fit the bill well. The bar itself was chic enough, if not ultra swanky. The drinks and desserts we ordered while oogling the view were spot on– I went for a Moscow Mule, my favorite go-to, and something cheesecake derived (fuzzy memory, but I remember that the presentation was great).
We sat inside (it being February), but there is a very large and lovely outdoor terrace too, if you find yourself in London during warmer months.
The view as the sun dropped low and disappeared altogether was stunning. I did feel urban, and I did feel chic, as I sipped my Moscow Mule and looked out over the hustle and bustle of London. So much energy and atmosphere rolling out in the streets below and all along the Thames.
First, it’s the urban energy and the architectural artistry that quickens your pulse. But then . . . well, maybe it’s my wistful nature, or maybe it was the Moscow Mule, but I think maybe it’s a universal truth that you look out over a scene like this and you find yourself not just overlooking geography, but gazing at history rolled out before you like a red carpet just begging you to walk it.
The Tower of London alone could suck you into its stories, never to re-emerge in the present. (Because so many people who entered the Tower of London never did re-emerge. So many.) There alone you have 1000 years of history: a history that includes Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Guy Fawkes, and Sir Walter Raleigh. A history that includes the prisoner who escaped by dressing as a washer woman and walking out of the gates undeterred– a tale later immortalized by Mr. Toad in the Wind in the Willows. And a history that, despite it’s strong-arm nature, notes its own possibly precarious existence in the legend of the ravens. The flock of ravens that lives at the Tower, considered a menace by some, enjoys nearly sacred status by others. Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the Tower and the Monarchy will fall. This legend is taken seriously, if not somberly: the ravens have their own Yeoman Raven Keeper. (Brexit may be problematic, Parliament may be bickering, but rest assured that the Monarchy doesn’t plan to fall any time soon, and the Raven Keeper will see to that.)
If your gaze slides just west of the Tower and down the Thames, you’ll be strolling into Southwark. Into the history of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, past The George Inn, the oldest (or only) galleried Georgian pub remaining in London, and a favorite drinking spot of the ever-thirsty Charles Dickens. Here, if you are terribly bookish, or prone to the seductive ambiguity of twilight, or more than one Moscow Mule into the night (which I wasn’t), you might get so caught up in the teaming past-life of the London streets you are over-looking (that you might have, in a less wistful mood, entirely overlooked), in their teaming vapors of past-present-literary lives that, each and every one, ask to be explored and understood– well, you might just never re-emerge.
But we did. We drank in the view and wondered at the lights and lives we peered out over, if not into. Then we left our towering view above the Tower. We emerged energized, awe-spired, and feeling rather chic and smart. We emerged ready to tackle more of what our fabulous friend London could throw at us.
If only it had given me one more chance at making a good impression on Matthew Perry.