Art, Music and a Wandering An American flies off to Eastern Europe

Published 11:59 pm Saturday, May 28, 2011

It was a very telling scene — two Vicksburg men trapsing through some of the major cities of Eastern Europe. The younger of the two, Lane Berg, set a pretty rapid pace, waiting at the end of each block for the older one. And that one, dragging along slowly, was I.

We took a 12-day trip recently visiting the cities of Prague in the Czech Republic, Vienna and Salzburg in Austria, and Budapest in Hungary. It was Lane’s third trip overseas and my first.

I hadn’t flown in over 50 years, since I left Alaska for Seattle. It was so long ago that when I asked about flight insurance, once they quit laughing, the airline agents offered to pray for me and gave me a hymnal. Friends here asked me if I wasn’t afraid to travel in Europe at this time, but I assured them I had nothing to fear because I’ve been to Jackson by myself, even at night! There were no problems with security, other than my artificial knee always sounded the alarm. My ego was wounded a bit when they didn’t even want to take pictures with their all-probing camera.

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Of all of Europe, why did I choose the places I visited? Well, friends here told me Prague was the grandest city they had ever seen. Budapest’s history has always fascinated me, partly because I had Hungarian friends in my college days who had fought the Russians in a failed 12-day revolution in the late ’50s. And when I think of Austria, I think of music — also, it is conveniently located between the other two major cities. And Salzburg is Mozart’s home — how could you leave that out?

Getting around in those cities was easy because of public transits. Buses in Prague and Vienna come along every few minutes, and the subway in Budapest makes every part of the city accessible and affordable. Though I saw on the streets just about every car made, and traffic was heavy, drivers still came to a quick halt to let pedestrians cross. The subway system reminded me of the old Kingston Trio song about the guy who was lost forever on a Boston trolley, because if it hadn’t been for Lane, I might still be in the bowels of Budapest, riding the sub.

The most exciting ride, however, was from Budapest to the airport. If there’s a category for NASCAR drivers in the Olympics, Hungary should sponsor our cabbie.

Every city has its art museums, and our favorites were in Vienna where we saw paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, Klinit, Schellia, Renoir and thousands of others who also painted. So many canvases depicted Madonna and Child I wondered what the subject would have been had Christ never been born.

Many of the artists did self-portraits, but why most wanted to portray themselves as they did is a mystery. I’d certainly want to improve on my looks. I was reminded of Mama Mohammed in Belzoni, a bit on the heavy side, but not in her self-portrait. She explained, “I can be any size I want to be.”

Prague was my favorite architecturally. It’s an ancient city that escaped bombing in World War II. In Old Town, just about every building — and the Charles Bridge — is adorned with statues. There’s a Hooters restaurant in Prague, but a lot more than cleavage was being shown in marble long before the American eatery came on the scene.

Prague is dotted with parks that people constantly enjoy. And so do the pigeons. They are just about everywhere, and nobody seems to mind. Little boys chase them, some people feed them, and I saw a white one eating from a man’s hand.

So much to see in Prague: The Castle relates Czech history, and the trials, triumphs and tribulations of the Jews is told in the old Jewish Quarter. I smiled at signs — one said “No Photos,” and around the corner you could buy a photo permit. In the Jewish cemetery, stones go back into the 1400s, and on many graves were pebbles left by recent visitors.

On one of the squares, crowds begin gathering each hour before the astrological clock, high up on a tower, for when it strikes, doors open and the 12 apostles parade past. They’ve never been late in hundreds of years.

Music! It was everywhere, not just in Prague, but especially in Vienna and Salzsburg where as Julie Andrews sang, “The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music,” and so are the streets and churches. Musicians playing on the streets ranged from residents who make their living that way to college students playing their ways across Europe. Many of the churches have concerts, usually with classical music. Sometimes there are charges, sometimes not. I finally heard some good Gypsy fiddling in Budapest, and I also decided I must absorb some culture, so I should go to an opera. How sad they were sold out; no more tickets — I didn’t get to hear the fat lady sing.

There were reminders of home: Dolly Parton singing “Jolene” on a Budapest radio station, golden arches in just about every city, and there was a guy walking down the street in Budapest wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt.

In Salzburg we were told by the tourist info people about a concert that evening by the nuns at an ancient church that stood precariously on a cliff above the town. We climbed the steps, 175 of them, and then continued an incline to the sanctuary, which was used in the filming of “The Sound of Music” when the nuns sang then, too. What a treat we were expecting; They sang two songs, and that was it; Lane and I got the giggles. We heard later that this particular order is sworn to silence — and they barely broke their vows.

At another concert of Mozart’s music on the harpsichord I surveyed the audience and realized I was the only old man there who wasn’t asleep.

The song that begins “I love to go awandering” could have been our theme. Lane likes to walk four, five and six miles a day. Sometimes I think we were lost, but he displayed an air of confidence. Thoughts of rebellions occasionally flitted through my mind only to be shunted aside by visions of wine and cheese. We always made it back to the point of origin.

And would you believe we were in the Austrian Marathon in Vienna, the biggest such event in that country? Well, actually we were on a tour which crossed the marathon route, but momentarily we were mixed in with the stragglers.

We rode a train from Prague to Vienna and Salzburg then to Budapest, and I made mental comparisons of the countryside. The most beautiful was Austria — not a shack or anything we might deem “just right for restoration.” The farm houses and villages and fields were pristine. It was in stark contrast to Hungary, which struggled under communist rule for 40 years (and that was after having been ruled by the Nazis). The contrast between those who enjoyed liberty, and those who lived under socialism, is stark.

I already knew that Buda and Pest (or Phest, as the Hungarians say it) are two separate cities divided by the Danube which isn’t any more Blue than our Big river is Black. Streets in Budapest and Prague are often tree-lined, and there are flower-laden public gardens in Vienna.

On TV, their commercials are better than most of our programs. The BBC — we saw it occasionally — has breaking news, too, but it isn’t just the latest killing like the Jackson stations report.

Many things have made a lasting impression on me. One was the palace where Emperor Franz Joseph and those before him lived. Such opulence! Silver, gold, porcelain that boggles the mind. Can you imagine complete place settings for 147 guests? There wasn’t anything Roman about the Holy Roman Empire, but there was something in the realm of the Holy that was very moving. Every Easter, 24 peasants — 12 men and 12 women — were brought from the streets, and the emperor and the empress washed their feet as Christ had done for his disciples. Despite their positions, the royals considered themselves the servants of the people.

Among the many must-sees are three in Budapest that shouldn’t be missed: the House of Terror, the Synagogue and the Iron Curtain sculpture.

The House of Terror is a museum in the actual headquarters once occupied by the Nazis and then the Communists, and the story isn’t whitewashed in the telling of how horrible life was under those governments. You are right there where so many Christians and Jews were persecuted. It brought tears to my eyes. My only wonder is why the Gypsies weren’t included, for the Russians made a decided attempt to exterminate them, too.

A few miles away in the courtyard of the Synagogue is a moving and modern sculpture, “The Tree of Life,” where the names of Hungarian Jews who were executed are inscribed on the thousands of metal leaves.

It was an iron curtain, figuratively, that hung across Europe after World War II, and a sculpture on a Budapest boulevard. The question is asked, “Shall we live as slaves or as free men?” and then an inscription tells the story: The iron curtain isolated the East from the West. It split Europe and the rest of the world in two. It took away our freedom. It held us in captivity and fear. It tormented and humiliated us. And finally we tore it down.

Despite all they had endured, I found the people to be friendly and helpful — and thank the Lord many spoke English.

We decided not to take cameras — too many things to photograph, and then what do you do with the pictures? Bore your family and friends, and when you die somebody has to pitch them into the trash.

There were some surprises. Lane couldn’t believe we traveled thousands of miles and I never met a relative or saw anyone I knew.

I’m a cat person, so I was perturbed that I saw only three, two in Prague and one in Buda. I don’t understand the shortage because I didn’t see any tamale huts.

I once had a cat who wandered up to my house and established residence. I called him Zoltan, a good Hungarian name, and as I explained it to Ginger Rosser, “He looked Hungary.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.