Home : Travel : Berlin and Prague : One Section
I'm told the French say that when you visit a new place for a week you come home and write a book. When you visit for a month you come home and write an article. When you visit for a year you come home and have nothing to say. So, perhaps the important part of travel writing is to visit briefly.Rick Goodfellow, President, KLEF-FM (Anchorage, AK) (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Harold Chaves (email@example.com)
I've been living in Germany since almost ten years, and although you were here for only a short time I agree with most of your conclusions about the place. For example, I've still not fully adjusted to the shopping schedule here. This incoveniece is not a phenomenon only to Berlin. Where I live (Siegen), to my regret, one Saturday I did not nottice a sign at the entrance to a park house--that they close one hour after the official shop closing time of 2 o'clock--and not only did I have to wait an hour untill the attendant showed up (after finding a phone), but also had to pay a fine for his inconvenience (twenty times the cost of one park-hour!). The same story has been retold to me by another `spoiled' American compatriot.
You might receive mail from Germans saying that they should not be stereotyped: that if you've only seen one city it's not representative of all (West) Germany. From my home-base, however, I hear a different tune. Pretty much all the people I talk to try to give me the impression that what they think can be generalized to the whole of (W) Germany. To be more concrete I would like to take up the recent incedents concerning the Kurds from Turkey (a hot item of discussion these days). The unanimous feeling among (W) Germans is that they should be sent back to Turkey because some of them inconvenience travelers by sometimes blockading highways and setting themseleves afire (there are political tensions back home and Germany has a Turkish minority). The Autobahn is sacred to a lot of Germans no matter where. O.K., this might not be the point of view all Germans hold, but at least from most of them that don't whant to move.
As an aside, the above example brings out an interesting difference between German and American mind-sets: In 1980 the US received tens of thausands of Cubans through the Mariel boat-lift, and although there have been incidents of criminality from them--understandibly, since some were imprisoned or in mental hospitals before their departure-- I've not heard an American contemplate sending them back for misbehaving; that is, to threaten them with the conditions that got them to the US in the first place. Sadly, from what I can gather, this is the general consent regarding all of the Kurds here.
If one lingers long anogh in Germany, the topic of geography comes up. That we Americans are illiterate in such things. You've had to cope with it in your travel here, and your stay was even short. To illuminate the amount of geographycal knowledge the Germans possess I propose your asking the following question to anyone walking on the street (or for that matter at the university): What does the "hoch" in Hochdeutsch mean? Invariably, the answer will be some jumble about the QUALITY of the language being spoken. Sadly, the answer has more to do with, well, GEOGRAPHY. The northern part of Germany happens to be lower than the southern part (due to glaciers), and thus the qualifier.
I don't wish to close leaving the impression that things German are all bad: if that were the case I would not've stayed so long. I thing it's true of most European countries that the people are not so open as in the US. On the other hand one does get less phoneyness here. If one is lucky enough to become friends with somebody (it is hard anywhere), one has a good chance they stay so for the duration.
Your travel report made me laugh a lot. I laughed at being shown a mirror and recognizing "my fellowmen" (and myself). I laughed with a certain amount of typical German "Schadenfreude" at your descriptions of Berlin and its inhabitants (being a Bavarian from Munich, we are considered sort of like the Californians or Texans of Germany and have no great liking for the pretentious Prussians, though its no hatred, rather a form of humorized contempt).Mike Hoffmann (firstname.lastname@example.org)
But I also laughed at, what I perceived as an almost arrogantly displayed ignorance an un- willingness to really learn to know Germany and its people.
Or so I thought at first. It was only after rereading the entire article and reflecting on it a bit more, that much of what you write is (well, hopefully at least!) tongue-in-cheek to a certain degree - and much of it is sadly true. Maybe not to the extent that you maybe humorously exaggerate, but true nonetheless.
I myself have spent my childhood in the United States and have always considered myself to be a bit of a cultural hybrid. Even after all the years of living in Germany, I am also one of those who want to leave this country and emmigrate.
Things are not well here, not in Germany after reunification, not in Europe after the borders mostly fell.
I do not agree with all your report and find much of it written with a - probably understandable - bias. But I admit to the basic tenet being hauntingly and scaringly true.
"I lived and studyed in Germany for many years and there is perhaps nothing more characteristic of them than their anxiety, be it of foreigners, food, culture. The copying of architecture is the assimilation in stone of other cultures. Der Drang nach Vorne arises out of anxiety..."Francis Harvey (email@example.com)
"I spent about 11 years in (W) Berlin getting all my degrees in physics which turned out to be quite useless, but that is another story. I don't always agree with the german life style and I am in noway a defender for Germans. But I know them and their language very well. I think you have a strong negative bias towards Germans which is very understandable. But you do NOT have to insult them in your article. You said that they smell and implied that their cities are dirty. That is not true. I have been to a lot of countries as well, and Germany is second cleanest country just behind Switzerland and on par with Austria. Sometimes their subway smells because of homeless people. They just have a different system of controling the passengers, remember what "Schwarzfahrer" means? But I don't think that Germans in general smell bad, maybe just as bad as americans. I also found their attitude towards body to be much more natural than their american counterpart.Jim Xue (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Yes, there are Germans who are anti-German culture. I am not particularly inclinded to any including my own. But I don't know any Americans who are anti-American culture. Part of the reason is that Americans are very patriotic and most of them don't know any culture other than their own. The Germans are exactly the opposite."
"I enjoyed reading about your trip. I agree with much of what you write about Berlin and Prague. I like your two categories of Germans. It would be difficult for me to live there now.Axel Bichara (email@example.com)
It takes a long time to get to know and understand what is going on Berlin. Of course, most people are pretty boring Germans, but the breadth of what's going on is amazing when you get to know the city. Imagine coming to Boston for the first time for a week. It would be very difficult to learn about and appreciate the "Cambridge culture(s)." It's similar with Berlin. Keep digging, and you find more. This is of course the Berlin I left 7.5 years ago, but I have to believe that much of this has stayed despite the changes."
"The incidence of eccentricity has been on the increase since the mid-1960's," said Weeks. He puts it down to the liberalizing influence of the hippy generation and the increase in leisure time. "Britain and Holland have by far the greatest number of eccentrics in Europe. I estimate there is one eccentric for every 10,000 people in Britain. The figure for Europe as a whole is only half of that, and Germany has the fewest eccentrics of all."Dr. David Weeks, of Scotland's Royal Edinburgh Hospital, in The European (15 July 1994)
"I really enjoyed your description of these two great cities which I visited with my wife last March. Prague is the most beautiful city in Europe and I agree with your evaluation of Czech women. I have a standard test for assessing the average beautifulness of women in a given city: enter a random subway car and carefully look at each woman/girl and ask yourself how many could be top models in New York or Paris. My number for Prague is 20%, far ahead of second place Madrid (8%) or third place Rio (7%). Although most women in Prague look as good as Paulina Poriskowa (I also don't know how to spell her name) she is Polish, not Czech. Ivana Trump is Czech. An interesting story about Prague and Berlin is that the fall of the evil empire began in the West Germany embassy in Prague. It turns out that West Germany constitution provided for West German citizenship for every East German. In 1989 the easties could travel without any restriction to Prague and they came by the hundreds, with their Trabants, and nothing else. Since climbing the fence of Lobkovic Palace, the West German embassy on Mala Strana, was much easier than getting through the Berlin Wall, the beautiful gardens of this marvellous house became camping grounds for political refugees. I think of the narrow streets of baroque Mala Strana littered with abandoned Trabants and the embassy garden full of people demanding freedom, as the best image for the crumbling socialist system."Antonio C. Oliveira, Sao Paulo, Brazil (firstname.lastname@example.org)
"I was there in 1976, In fact, in Czechoslovakia (as it was at the time), I found myself in a three-way translationfest trying to help a Frenchman find his way via information from a Czech who spoke German (I was the monkey in the language middle) -- after which the Czech asked me where I was from and practically hugged and kissed me, he was so excited. I was particularly fascinated/horrified at the selective East German memory: we are Socialists; the Socialists were always against Hitler; therefore, we are blameless. And of course the information sheets about concentration camps extolled the fallen Socialist martyrs -- Jews and others rated no mention whatsoever."Naomi Lewin, Kentucky
"I thoroughly enjoyed reading your extremely long and interesting account. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Of course, you must know that such compliments from lawyers are to be assessed in context. When your alternative is reading the latest batch of CCH updates on amendments to SEC Regulations, that isn't saying much.Saul Fridman, Australia National University
I have not yet visited Eastern Europe, but by the sound of it wish I had while I was still single."
"Your account is rather one-sided and tourist-like and not very informational about how Berlin really is. I have grown up in that city and i can tell you that there are many other spots that visitor should rather visit. The anti Nazi comments are totally understandable. However one has to also look at Berlin under the occupation of the Allied forces. Berlin was until recently governed by all four forces... i guess you did not see the old German palace that was used by these forces. You also did not mention how Berlin was divided into parcels for the Allied forces. You should have gone to the Russian museum near the Tierpark that was still there in January 1994.... The atrocities of the Germans were nicely recorded in a rather macabre style... One walks into the museum ( the place where the Germans had to sign the capitulation with the Russians after they had signed the same with the other Allies the day or so before) and is welcomed by a statue of Lenin. The first couple of rooms have everything in Russian and German but after a couple of rooms it is only in Russian..... enough of that .....Markus Kruse (email@example.com)
Your account of Berlin should have been a little more objective! There are sites for everyone to enjoy.... such as all the art museums that this city has to offer. It is one of the best collections in the world, although by modern standards much of it has been stolen from ancient cultures (The British Museum is not setting an example). Furthermore, Berlin has to offer a life that you did not seem to have taken part in. The night life is exceptional and extremely varied. Berlin has no police hour so it can server refreshments all night long! To everyone's taste. Did you go to the site of the excavated SS prison rooms? Did you go to the British sector or French Army baraks??? Did you visit the parts of town where the Turkish culture is flourishing? Did you go to see the American baraks and army bases as well as highschool??? I think your judgment on Berlin has been very limited and one sided....... You are talking about how Berlin has been the center of Nazism; it is true; however, you also have to look at this country and point out its mistakes of the past.
Was Washington D.C. willingly given to the white intruders? How many atrocities has this country performed under the guise of liberty and equality. Every nation, especially the winning ones writes its own history as they see fit and one has to look at that very carefully.
"Philip's words about the German way of life are very true. If you can't believe that the only time you can buy things is during working hours then you should live here [in Germany]! I figured that the only way to surivive is to marry someone so that she can do all the shopping (yes, sex is important: German is more archaic than Britain, and generally, women should stay at home and keep house.Ewan Birney, living in Germany, email at Oxford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Your dismission of German culture is a little too quick though. The reason why Europeans find our American cousins painfully stupid is because in our eyes they are... One American questioned me about london...thinking it was Paris and commended me for me grasp of the english language (I'm a born and bred Brit). I've lived over in the US for some time as well, and what I've learnt is than you need alot of tolerance changing from a Eurpoean to an American culture (and vice-versa). Things are done differently in Europe. You cannot expect to ask people and get their real opinions here in the same way you can on the other side of the Atlantic...it seems very *naive* to think like that: this is a facet of European culture, a difference you have to accept when you get into a plane. I am not sure if either way is better...just different."
and more from Ewan...
"So, at the end of the day...thank God for the good old secular US of A!Ewan Birney (email@example.com)
In many ways your final sentiment has alot of truth: US is wonderfully opened minded (outrageously so for Europeans). I lived in Long Island for a year and felt so much at home that when I went back to London I was shocked at the snobbery and resement of my friends.
But there is a flip side. In Britain certainly there is no way to easily assimliate: you can't just stand up and say "I'm here, this is who I am". You have to work hard to earn other people's respect. I would fully agree that for some people, people ofa different race (especially when well advertised by having a different shade of skin or wearing a skull-cap) can never earn their respect, but they are not everybody, and hopefully there will be less.
When you have earned the respect it goes much deeper than the simple acceptance in the US. I illustrate that by a conversation I had with an American friend about Presidents. She was saying that the United States, consitutionally was the most secular and liberal country. Besides that fact that the UK doesn't even have a consitution in the formal sense I pointed out to her that the UK has had a woman and Jew leading the country in the last two centuries. Either a Jew or a woman would be unthinkable as a president. She was somewhat amazed, and I went on to say that at least in Notting Hill, the area of london that I live in the community is bizarre mixture of cockney's and West Indians (afro-carribean) that do enjoy some real mutual respect: not like the Bronx or Harlem where racial tension seems horribly rife. To illustrate there are many mixed marriages (or at least children from mixed couples).
I have always felt that the secularism of the US only goes so far: it is only words. Generally one side is little better than the other. I was shocked to hear that school children pledge allegiance to the American flag and that I was expected in some situations to call 40 year olds 'sir' (I'm in my twenties). America did not strike me as liberal but very conservative with a facade of liberalism concentrated in universities.
As I said in my previous comment, there are many differences between European and American culture and in my view they cannot be explain in little vignettes. But then, I'm British.
By the way, I would like nothing better than to live in Manhattan for five years. And I think that every American should at least get to Montreal if not a country outisde their continent before they are 21 (if only to sample decent beer before ending up on a diet of Bud and Miller light)."
It's interesting for me as a German to read about my own country from someone who has a different background. But I have mixed feelings about some parts of the text. For example the last part about the "family". I dislike this opinion. Look for example at the former Yugoslavia. When someone has this "family"-opinion, then the people there would not be part of the family and he would let them shoot. Another question from me to you is, why you wrote negatively about the fact, that talking about Nazis (and that time) is serious matter for Germans. It's difficult for Germans when everybody says them what they have done and how bad that was, to not be serious about it. Would you like Germans making jokes about that time (outside Germany)?Volker Zink (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Many points you disliked in Germany I dislike too (opening hours, smoking, ...), but the point which disturbed me most was that i read almost only negative things about Germany (Most true I must admit). But I could write a similar article about traveling in the US, also mentioning only negative facts (I could write instead of Berlin-Kreuzberg about the Bronx in NY, instead of WW II about slavery and the uprising of the coloured in LA, instead of the language of films in the cinema about silly movies from Hollywood, about weapons in schools, ... which are true, but don't give a correct picture of the US). Ok, maybe you didn't find any good points to mention, but i also think Berlin does not represents Germany, and that there are many things which are better in Germany than in the US (almost no private weapons [-> less use of them], more possibilites to flirt with girls (in the US you have to ask for a date, silly), having so much (different) cultures (Scandinavia, Egypt, France, ...) around (i think most germans have only to drive 2 hours to be in another country), better education for all (although not as good as it shoud be), ... ).
"Your comments about Germany can apply to my experiences in Holland and Italy. The Dutch in Rotterdam seemed like a more cosmopolitan version of the Germans you met, though Amsterdam feels much like San Francisco, the exception proving the rule.Don Stadler (email@example.com)
I'm currently working in Trento, Italy for a year. This is in the middle of the Dolomite's. Trento proper is mostly Italian, but the countryside surrounding is still largely Sud Tyrolean. Bolzano to the north is distinctly Tyrolean.
The Italians are different than the Germans, but I have heard similar attitudes about America and Americans from people all across Europe. In turn I have developed my own opinions.
1) Europeans seem complacent (even smug) to me. They appear to regard their mixed economy/welfare state(s) as the optimal form of government possible. They can't see the considerable downside to their taxation and social policies.
2) Many Europeans regard Americans as ignorant by definition. I have managed to surprise open-minded people here, but I fear that I cannot change some minds (nor am I inclined to try).
Perhaps both the US and Europe interpret the school statistics the wrong way. To me these measures are a paradox. North America supposedly has mediocre or worse schools and perhaps the world's most thriving class of knowledge workers. Not only the elites at MIT, the strength goes quite deep. It does not make sense unless you consider other factors. One thing I don't see over here are adult or continuing education programs. Oh there are some scattered programs, but not like in the US. Another thing I don't see is bookstore society. They have formidable bookstores in places like Amsterdam and Milano, but there is nothing like the Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Book Star chains in the US. Open till 11 or midnight, buy coffee and browse for hours in the huge selection.
Europeans regard our undergrad universities as mediocre, I see theirs as elitist. It seems to me that the American model where any reasonably literate American can attend a university if willing to pay the frequently low tuition is the proper model (though I would like to see more public support, perhaps free tuition like CCNY used to). Open access. Whereas over here if you blow it in HS that is it! No more chance I think. Excepting Great Britain which has some progressive institutions, notably Open University, the world's best distance learning program.
My theory is that Americans regard learning as a life-long process. Europeans seem to cram in most/all of their learning into the first X years before they begin work in earnest. Thus many Germans don't begin work until their 30's, as late as 35 sometimes.
Another theory I've heard is that no other country on earth rewards creative, lateral-thinking knowledge workers like the US, at all levels. Conversely, nowhere else will you fall so rapidly or land harder if you allow your skills to become obsolete. So there is both opportunity and incentive.
3) Given the supposed Green Ethic over here I've been surprised by the pollution here. My pet theory is that since so much industry is either owned by the government or inextricably tied in with government that it may be almost impossible for government to effectively regulate it. The distances are much smaller than in the States. We can afford to start new factories on green-field sites and shut down the old polluters. The final factor is that Europe doesn't generate jobs the way the US does. I recently read a calculation that North America's job base had grown 80% since 1960, whereas the growth in the EC was 5%. That would make a job a rare and difficult thing to find, with all the attendant political consequences.
4) Europeans like your Dutch ladies don't appreciate how grand and beautiful the US is. They kept telling me to go see the Rijksmuseum Koenig-Mueller in the middle of this "huge forest". The museum was very nice, but the *forest*! Well you could drive 10 minutes any direction from Durham, NC (my *base* city) and see a bigger forest! The Dutch idea of wildlife is a single carefully pruned line of trees!
On the other hand. I think many Europeans have a bit of an inferiority complex under the smugness. The Germans had their butts tanned twice this century by Americans, the second complete mit occupation! The French have had a very bad time since 1870. The First World War resulted in the killing or maiming of a full 60% of the male population under 40. In fact the French revival since WWII can be explained as much by the post WWI unmaimed generation maturing into adulthood as by anything else.
The Italians couldn't beat Haile Selasie, and the Spanish had their own encounter with us in 1898. The French are swiftly losing their claim to cultural pre-eminence to North America. And had to be saved twice this century. The Dutch lasted 3 days in WWII. I had to chum a Dutch friend out of a bit of self hate, pointing out that they have historically been better in peacetime than in war, but that when the sides were remotely even they did very well!
After three or four centuries on top the twentieth century has to have been very hard. Even the the Yankee comeuppance was delivered at the hands of the Japanese. So perhaps they need to despise us?"
I've read this story with mixed emotions. On one hand I agree with you on certain things you wrote about Germany, on the other hand I have to contradict and oppose against your point of view.Joern R. Preine (Joern.Preine@Informatik.Uni-Oldenburg.de)
It's sad but true that policemen in Germany behave rather idiotically. When there are demonstrations you can often see at least half as many policemen than demonstrants. But the police are just showing off. If it comes to real trouble they hide and wait until it's over :-).
It's not as if Germany were a state where the police are used to suppress the people and make sure nothing is said against those who rule the land, you are still free to say anything you want to and I'm not even sure if that's always good, for even Neonazis are allowed to walk through the streets shouting their slogans and showing their hostile attitude against foreigners.
Then there was your comment about the smell in German busses, S-Bahn and such. It's right that it smells awful on a hot day, but that's not because Germans fear water and soap!. It's just because there's no air conditioning and a small room where lots of people are crammed together and which is hot IS smelling bad no matter how much soap, eau de toilett (or whatever) the people in that room use.
It gets even worse when there are smokers and that's another point in your story that's sad but true. Smoking is not allowed in many places, but smokers here in Germany are very inconsiderate and don't care whether smoking is allowed or not. It can even go so far that they smoke at crowded places and burn holes into ones jacket. All this is true, but I doubt that smokers are so much more considerate in other countries.
... And if you didn't like Berlin I'm not surprised for IMHO it's neither a beautiful nor an interesting city and it certainly didn't improve during the past years. At least half the cities in Germany are far more beautiful and interesting than Berlin (and most of them are much older).
I guess Berlin can not stand a comparison to an American city. Most Americans I've talked to are by far to patriotic and for them everything is bigger, better and more beautiful in America and many of them said they are proud to be American. Patriotism and Nationalism are something I totally fail to understand. How could I say I'm proud to be German? I'm just born here. Being German is not my merit, it's nothing I can be proud of. I could as well have been born elsewhere. I don't want to say that all Americans are nationalists, but most of them are as well as most Germans are and most Italians and most people from France and so on. You can't get that out of people's head. If they'd care more for the things that are bad and wrong in their land instead of telling other nations just how good and superior their own nation is and how bad and inferior all other nations are, the world could be much better.
Another thing that I don't like about your story is that you always say "the Germans do this" and "the Germans do that". That seems as if there was some typical German and all Germans would behave alike. That's not true at all. Germany for ages consisted of different kingdoms and bishoprics and the people of one kingdom have been dif- ferent to those of another and in some respects that's still so today. Someone from Northern Germany is entirely different to someone from Bavaria and the languages are different, too. For me being from the north it's much more easy to understand someone from Holland (even though Dutch is a foreign language and I never learned it) than to understand someone who speaks Bavarian (which is considered being a German dialect). For me the Dutch language has much more in common with German than the Bavarian language has and not only the languages here in Germany are different, but also the cultures. As much as you like to have something like the typical German which you can accuse of being stubborn, unfriendly, hostile towards foreigners -- face the fact that there is no such thing as a typical German.
This is SUCH a typically American, utterly myopic view of Germany. After years of studying German culture, and years of living there, I've grown tired of German-bashing. I get it all the time--at academic gatherings ("German academics are so behind the times politically!"), in the German history section of bookstores (where every book on the shelves is about Hitler, WW II, Hitler, the Nazi regime and Hitler), and in casual conversation with anyone over here. This "tour" of Berlin is no exception. Sure, it's witty, cynical, jaded...more or less how I am, and the attitude of anyone who is a graduate student or above. But a number of criticisms which this tour targets solely at Germany really bother me.Lisa Slouffman (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The first thing I take issue with is the single-minded pursuit of the Nazi era in Berlin. You express surprise that the Germans try not to mention it. This is a legacy they've had to deal with all their lives. All tourists want to do is rub their noses in it; most Americans can barely stifle their curiosity, and are dying to see where the Jewish population was gassed, where the Gestapo headquarters were, where Hitler died. Certainly Hitler and the Holocaust were a dreadful phenomenon which should never be repeated. Yes, National Socialism probably could only have arisen in Germany. But should it come as a surprise that many people, especially those of younger generations, are tired of discussing it, and would prefer not to focus on it? There are so many other layers to German culture than National Socialism. This account fails to look for them. You seem to ridicule everything that has happened after the war--the entire social and political fabric of Germany today--as a bland postscript to the more exciting time between 1933 and 1945.
You ridicule Berlin for its lack of history, and oppressing copies of foreign monuments. I had many of the same complaints about Muenchen, where I lived for a year. Neither "the Chicago on the Spree" nor Muenchen can compare historically or architecturally to a city like Paris, that I will grant you. But there is plenty of history and originality in Germany if you try to look for it. Take cities like Wuerzburg, Heidelburg, Koeln or Luebeck. Dismissing Germans and Germany on the basis of Berlin, which in many cases is a crystallization of all the tensions in German culture, is the same mistake many Germans make when they base their ideas about the U.S. on a visit to New York City.
Many of the long string of complaints you raise about German culture are not unfounded. Stores do close at 6 p.m. most nights in Germany (although restaurants do stay open until at least 10 p.m.). German retailing is not particularly customer-oriented, for the reason that unions are concerned about protecting employee's rights. I certainly wasn't able, however, to buy a book in Switzerland after 6:30. You complain about crowds and exorbitant prices as a peculiarly German phenomenon, failing to realize that any European country is crowded and expensive (Britain comes to mind as the perfect example of the latter). You are appalled by the paucity of German supermarkets. I would claim that part of the charm of shopping in Germany (or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter) is in buying your bread at the bakery, your meat at the butcher, and your fruit and vegetables at the market. I really miss that when I come home to the U.S. Nevertheless, there are plenty of well-stocked supermarkets in Germany for those who want them. Not, perhaps, in downtown Berlin, but how many supermarkets are there in Manhattan? Also it might be pointed out that the variety of foods for purchase in a place like Bloomington, IN is rather limited. And to buy Indian ingredients in Chicago, I would have had to drive 45 minutes.
This tour of Berlin really touched a nerve in me--I apologize if this critique is harsh, but I don't think it's unfounded. I spent years in Germany trying to live down German stereotypes of Americans, mostly garnered from a visit to New York or Los Angeles and experience with American tourists and soldiers, not generally the most educated or culturally sensitive types on the planet. I came home and had to deal with American stereotypes of Germany, usually founded on World War II. To see someone attempting to present the Nazi tour of Berlin on the Internet really bothers me, because it only perpetuates stereotypes on both sides.
Andy Dingley (email@example.com)
I know Prague pretty well, and even Berlin. I'm a born-and-bred Brit who now insists on the label "European" (if national labels are to be inevitable), because I'm ashamed at how narrow minded the Little England mentality has become over the last decade. I can understand your dislike of regional narrow mindedness, and it's one reason why I love Prague so much myself. I used to think I knew Europe pretty well, having travelled through most of it in past years; even to the medieval heart of Romania. I was thus staggered when I realised that the Czech lands were still to me, "A far off country, of which we know little", until I finally visited them and discovered the richness of their life and culture. It was indeed a shock that this most civilised of cultures had been here all that time, ignored by Western Europe. Western Europeans have been told all about the East for the last fifty years; East Germans are just like West Germans, but without the humour; Poland is the country where you can have any colour you like, so long as it's grey; and Czechoslovakia ? You mean the funny little place that no-one could point to on a map, and where their national joke has wheels ?
I'm a European. I'm *used* to living in a place where every other building has been standing since before Columbus reset America's historical clock. Yet in Prague, even I was overawed by a sense of history. Wars have been fought through Bohemia, but seemingly not the sort of wars that razed town centres and left them unrecognisable. How many cities have a McDonalds that isn't made of plywood and sheetrock, but of a building that itself deserves half a page in a historically minded guidebook ?
Even the most modernist of Prague's buildings have their place in history. Where else did Cubism make it out of the art galleries and into buildings; three apartment blocks and a Cubist lamppost ? It's hard to describe a Cubist lamppost until you've seen it (it hides in a small corner by the equally well-hidden cathedral, just off Wenceslas), but once you have, there is no question that it's undoubtedly what a Cubist lamppost ought to look like. European architectural history is well documented - there is no question about the order of things, the canonical buildings of each movement being in Berlin, or Barcelona, or Amsterdam. So why is it, that when I finally did make it to Prague, I discovered that every major trend of the 20th century already had its archetype here, and usually five or ten years before its more famous copy. How could all this ingenuity have gone on, yet been ignored by the rest of Europe ?
To me, Prague's architecture is summed up by the Manes gallery. It's a small building, spanning a bridge onto an island in the Vltava. Imagine a clinically white and angular dentist's surgery, designed by the Bauhaus, yet adjoining it is a medieval water tower, complete with an onion dome. Only in Prague could two such different buildings have grown into each other naturally; in London one would be reduced to a few tastefully displayed stones in the foyer of an office block, in Paris they would both be sealed into the museum case of an antiseptic glass pyramid. Inside, the building has even more surprises for the design historian; when you can find the lightswitch for the bar (closed for the ubiquitous "technical reasons"), you discover a complete interior of chromed steel and black leather seats. It's all original, and it was all fitted out years before Marcel Breur turned the handlebars of his bike into a fetish object for every chair designer since. This is the sort of bar that any interior designer in Kensington or SoHo would die for, yet here it is; not neglected or unloved, just not anything to make a big fuss about.
The Czechs know what they have; they *know* why it's better to pick a philosopher or a playwright to lead them, rather than a self-promoting lawyer or career politician. They knew the value of Mozart long before the Austrians ever turned opera into cultural snobbery. If the rest of Europe continues to ignore them as a cartoon Ruritania, then that's our loss. If they, sadly, decide that a Mercedes parked outside the Hilton is a better goal in life than a Skoda outside the basement of the Adria Palace, then that could be their loss too.
Today I'm working in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio; an isolated suburb of a parochial town in a conservative state. In all my travelling, I've *never* felt so isolated from mainstream world culture. Cincinnati has such a reputation for conservatism that even friends in Aurora, Illinois (a place so iconically suburban that it became the centre of Wayne's World) like to joke about an art gallery that can rip Maplethorpe from its walls. I've been to the edge of Asia, where the local kids could still name the current Liverpool football team, but yesterday I managed to confuse an entire post office staff by asserting that there *wasn't* a zip code, or a state, for a letter that was going to England. I'm becoming seriously worried that the Earth is, indeed, flat. There is a large plain in the centre of mid-West America, and I'm certain that if you go past the edge of it, you don't reconnect with the rest of the world, you fall right off.
In a couple more weeks I fly back to my recently-married, and now soon-expecting, wife in Northern Ireland. As a recent finalist in the all-Ulster, home baking section of the Enniskillen show (I am *not* making this up !) my wife and I would seem to have every attribute that the local culture could value in a marriage. So why do we both yearn for Prague's sulphorous air ? What is it about a chance to live in a place where every stone has seen more history unfold before it than CNN could ever report on a million channels of low-calorie infotainment. For a Englishman, looking from the half-light of our own Imperial twilight, perhaps it's the chance to live in a country where things can get *better* each day.
[Note: Some of these contributions have been edited for spelling and grammar, but are otherwise as received.]