Last night was the first night of Pesach! I spent Wednesday scrubbing my kitchen and oven, and I gave away all my chametz, so I was very prepared. My synagogue held a first-night Seder, and of course I attended. My mom asked me to report back on what was different, but the answer is really: not much. We went through all the prescribed steps. We (well, the children) walked around the room to “cross the red sea”. We opened the door to call for Elijah. We even sang some songs in English (like the song about the four children to the tune of “Clementine”). The rabbi actually gave me a surprise solo—he asked me to sing “My Favorite Things” with the lyrics re-written for Pesach. It went over well.
In traditional fashion, I got pretty drunk on my four full glasses of wine. (I had a bottle to myself, and I finished it.) But I learned that I possess two very important life skills. First, I can still carry on decent conversations in English, German, Italian, and Spanish after a bottle of wine. (We have a very international community at Beth Shalom.) Second, even when I am drunk, I can remember and sing all of Chad Gadya without getting tongue-tied. No one else was singing Chad Gadya, so it ended up being a second, unsolicited solo, but at that point I was too tipsy to care.
After five days in Budapest, I find it hard to decide what I most associate with it. It’s different from almost any other major city I’ve visited. Part of the problem is that the city is big—Buda and Pest are each rather sprawling, so put them together, and you have a lot of city. But it’s a lot of awesome city. The architecture is varied, though in bad repair. The Jewish community is vibrant. The food is delicious and cheap. The nightlife revolves around super-hipster bars in crumbling old buildings. The flea markets are a dream come true. So I guess I’ll just give up any hope of putting this in a logical order, and instead try to talk about everything.
Beautiful buildings and views
Budapest is gorgeous, and the two halves are gorgeous in different ways. Buda is full of hills, with the white Matthias Church (with a very colorful roof) and the surrounding Fisherman’s Bastion sitting atop one of them. Pest is flat, but it has St. Stephen’s Basilica, the extraordinarily intricate Parliament building, and City Park (with a castle). Of course, both sides have lovely views of the Danube, and the famous chain bridge connects them.
Even the less photo-worthy areas are fascinating. Pest features a wide range of architectural styles, with neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance banks and churches mixed in with Art Nouveau villas. (There are all the ugly Soviet-era buildings, too, but you can try to ignore them.) Many are in desperate need of repair, but I suppose that’s the natural consequence of your government being broke. Continue reading Budapest, city of everything→
I spent the last week travelling with my fellow Fulbrighter, Vicky. We devoted most of our vacation to Budapest (a blog post is on the way!), but we stopped over in Bratislava for a few days. Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, feels very small. Our tour guide told us that during the Soviet era, they essentially chose between Prague and Bratislava: one would be thoroughly modernised, while the other would be historically preserved. Bratislava got the short end of the stick (at least in terms of post-Soviet tourist revenue), so most of the old town was destroyed. Everything important in the city proper—the castle, the major museums, the prettiest buildings—can easily be seen in a day.
To start, the castle. We made the mistake of going inside. Don’t do it! There’s very little of interest there. But the outside is pretty, thanks to a recent rennovation project. And the views from the hill are fabulous. Also, there’s a playground!
This is what the castle looked like for nearly 200 years, since a fire in 1811. Rennovation was only just completed, in 2009 (photo: National Museum)
The Bratislava Castle
It turns out selfies are not the best way to show how good the view is, but you can see old town behind us. The Danube is out of view, but also very pretty from this elevation
The castle rennovation included some great night-time illumination
No castle visit would be complete without a silly attempt to mimic a statue
There’s also a playground in front of the castle!
Playgrounds at castles are the best kind of playgrounds
The city is very proud of its castle! This was just hanging over one of the main streets
This is part of my trilogy of posts about the Fulbright Berlin Seminar. See the first post for an introduction. This post is about the conference itself, including the socializing that happened around it.
After we arrived and checked into our hotels on Sunday, the conference offered us tours of Berlin. I chose one that focused on immigration and Islam. We visited the gorgeous Sehitlik Mosque, where a Muslim guide pointed out the architectural highlights and answered our questions about both the building and the religion. It was fascinating not only to hear her talk about Islam in Germany today, but also to see the wide range of my peers’ levels of knowledge about Islam. I was not very knowledgable, and I learned about core tenets of the religion and also about cool features of mosques. (I was especially intrigued by the niche that reflects sound back to the congregation so that the imam can face Mecca when he prays and still be heard by the people behind him.)
After a welcome dinner with far too much food and wine, we woke up on Monday morning for topic-based discussion panels. I was tasked with moderating the performing arts panel, where scholars who were researching (or simply attending a lot of) theater, opera, music, and dance shared their views. We talked about direction, funding, the experience of being a performer, the past and future of various media, and much more. The conversation was a bit all over the place (my fault, I suppose, given that I was supposed to be moderating), but often intriguing. One Italian scholar lives with an experimental theater company that brings art into public and private spaces as intimate as donated rooms in people’s homes!
As a thank-you for moderating, I was presented with the following mug. Look closely—you’ll spot a funny Germanism.
The best holiday of the year began last night. It’s not the best-known Jewish holiday, but it’s the one where everyone dresses up in costumes, reads a story in the silliest manner possible, eats lots of delicious cookies, and gets drunk: Purim!
The Beth Shalom community is fairly family-oriented, so we didn’t follow that final requirement, but we had a great party all the same. It began with the reading of the Megillah. American-style Purim Spiels (with, say, Beatles music or Broadway showtunes) aren’t a thing here—I got blank looks when I asked about it—but the reading was still fairly dramatized, with a few Hebrew songs thrown in. It was in German, but we pretended to be reading the Hebrew scroll. (The cantor sang the beginning and the end, and we had to do the rolling and unrolling.)
I grew up in a wonderful house run by two adorable cats. But last year in Cambridge and this year in Munich, I’ve been catless. It’s becoming difficult to live this way, so I did what any sensible Münchner would do: I visited Katzentempel.
As the name implies, this is a cats’ temple. Its feline owners have allowed some large tables and chairs in deference to their human guests, but that seems to be an afterthought. Large studio portraits of the cats-in-residence serve as decoration, along with other cat-themed artwork. Tunnels, cardboard boxes, and elevated walkways line the walls. Cat figurines and mugs sit on shelves as souvenirs for purchase. And of course cats wander to and fro, jumping onto counters, chairs, and laps—sometimes allowing visitors to pet them, but often simply posing gracefully and accepting distant admiration.
The cats’ people can cook (reasonably priced) human food pretty well, too: my freshly baked bread with hummus and jam was delicious, as was the rhubarb nectar I ordered to drink. But let’s be honest: Who cares? The chance to indulge in cat worship is the main reason to visit Katzentempel. It’s also conveniently near the university, so I’ll definitely be back the next time my current catlessness becomes too burdensome.
I don’t like beer or loud parties, so what could be worse than Oktoberfest? At least, that was what I thought when I insisted I would not attend. My fellow Munich Fulbrighters managed to convince me that it was a crime not to visit at least once, though, so I donned a discount dirndl and braved the crowds. As it turned out, there’s a lot to enjoy at the Wies’n, even if you don’t want to drink any beer.
I attended with Eric (another Fulbrighter) and his visiting friend Julia. (In a funny coincidence, it turns out Julia is a Gates-Cambridge Scholar this year, so we ended up meeting several times in Cambridge as well.)