When I signed up for a year of watching Regietheater productions of plays and operas, I knew I’d be using the word ‘challenging’ a lot. Trying to get inside the heads of German opera directors is no easy task. What I didn’t expect was that ‘challenging’ would also describe my culinary experiences, but that’s the best word for a dinner at Blindekuh (‘blind cow’) in Zürich. ‘Dining in the dark’ restaurants, where you eat your meal in total darkness, with the assistance of blind or partially sighted servers, have caught on across the world. But Blindekuh, run by the Blind-Liecht charity, is where it all started.
Opened in 1891, the building served as the national theatre, hosting both plays and opera, until 1925, when non-musical entertainment was moved elsewhere. There are seven busts at the top: Lessing, Goethe, Wagner, Mozart, Weber, Schiller, and Shakespeare.
I think it says something about Shakespeare’s global importance that he is the only playwright or composer included who did not come from a German-speaking country and write works in German.
Also, there are advertisements all over Zürich for a party in September to kick off the opera season. I wish I could attend.
I’m not usually big on tourist-y activities. My general modus operandi for travel is to figure out an opera and theatre schedule for all of my evenings, then search for interesting-looking things to fill the days. Those interesting-looking things often include a few museums, palaces, or cemeteries, but I don’t make a point of trying to hit every major attraction in a town.
But this vacation can’t be like that. For one, it’s August, so there isn’t much in the way of opera and theatre. Two, my sister is travelling with me. She’s never been to Europe before, so she’d like to see the major sights. Unfortunately, another consequence of this being August is that everyone is on holiday, so tourist attractions are all packed. That said, we muddled through the best we could in our first city: Paris.
Magda: ‘Who else was on your tour of Auschwitz? What nationalities?’
Ilana: ‘Israelis, Americans, Czechs, Spaniards, Australians, Poles, and Germans, I think.’
Magda: ‘Germans should be ashamed of themselves, visiting Auschwitz!’
Ilana: ‘Isn’t it actually more important for Germany and Germans to understand and remember the Holocaust and WWII? Shouldn’t they, rather than avoiding such sites, make an effort to visit them?’
Magda and I had to agree to disagree. My grandmother and I have had similar arguments about whether you can hold contemporary Germany (or even contemporary Germans) responsible for the country’s past. What determines national identity? Can a country be responsible for something it did historically, even when most of the individuals who were involved have died? How should Germany’s past shape its current policies and its citizens’ behavior?
I don’t know. I tend to be of the ‘clean slate’ view, but clearly there are many people who disagree.
One thing I love about Europe is the abundance of free tours. In Prague, I just stumbled upon people with signs and colorful umbrellas in the old town square. In Polish cities, freewalkingtour.com is the major player. I went on their tours in Warsaw and Krakow, and in both cases I felt like I got a great overview of the city. The guides threw in a lot of Polish history and (perhaps apocryphal) anecdotes that kept me very entertained. I’d definitely recommend a tour as one of your first activities in town—then you can see what looks most interesting and return to it later.
The Krakow tour begins at St. Mary’s Church in the market square.
The (very large) square is laid out geometrically, except this church is at an awkward angle to the rest of the buildings. Our guide explained that even more important than the plan for the square was the rule that churches face east. Every hour on the hour, a trumpeter (a member of the fire department, in fact) appears in the top windows of the left-hand tower and plays a tune four times, in the four directions. The tune is awkwardly cut off—supposedly, many years ago the town trumpeter saw enemies approaching and played to warn the town. Unfortunately, the enemies heard him, and a well-placed arrow killed him before he could finish the tune. Now the tune is traditionally cut off mid-note in his memory.
Łódź (pronounced ‘Woodj,’ and spelled ‘Lodz’ hereafter because I am lazy) is not an international tourist town. This became apparent the moment I stepped off the plane into an eerily empty airport. (I later determined that, at the moment, the airport only operates flights to and from Munich—one round trip per day, six days per week.) It manifests itself in other ways, too: even in supposed tourist attractions like museums, most of the signs are untranslated, and few residents above the age of 40 speak any languages except Polish and a little Russian.
My hosts (the parents of my former Polish au pair) were well over 40. I speak neither Polish nor Russian.
We muddled through with the help of a snazzy speech-to-text-to-text-to-speech translation app, which worked surprisingly well (even if I accidentally said my grandmother was raised by crocodiles). We sometimes managed to get human help too, though that could result in fun language optimization games. (‘Oh, your English isn’t very good? But you speak Italian? Well, I speak Italian too, but I’m not sure whether my Italian is better than your English. Let’s see…’)
Of course, word-for-word translation was not necessary for me to understand Polish hospitality. In every house I entered, regardless of my connection to the owners (or lack thereof) and the size of the house, I was steered to a dining room seat, handed a glass of sparkling water (after I refused the offer of coffee or tea), and pressed to eat a piece of homemade cake. Everyone seemed terrified of not being sufficiently accommodating during my visit. If I so much as lifted a plate to take it into the kitchen, it was snatched from my hand with what I assume were reassurances that it would be taken care of. If I mentioned I might want to go into Warsaw, the neighbor’s aunt’s friend was called for advice on good English-language tours. I felt very well taken care of, if occasionally a tad smothered.