Letters

Letters 12-14-2014

Come Together There is a time-honored war strategy known as “divide and conquer,” and never has it been more effective than now. The enemy is using it against us through television, internet and other social media. I opened a Facebook account a couple of years back to gain more entries in local contests. Since then I had fallen under its spell; I rushed into judgment on several social issues based on information found on those pages

Quiet The Phones! This weekend we attended two beautiful Christmas musical events and the enjoyment of both were significantly diminished by self-absorbed boors holding their stupid iPhones high overhead to capture extremely crucial and highly needed photos. We too own iPhones, but during a public concert we possess the decency and manners to leave them turned off and/or at home. Today’s performance, the annual Messiah Sing at Traverse City’s Central Methodist Church, was a new low: we watched as Mr. Self-Absorbed not only took several photos but then afterwards immediately posted them to his Facebook page. We were dumbfounded.

A Torturous Defense In defense of the C.I.A.’s use of torture in a mostly fruitless search for vital information, some suggest that the dire situation facing us after 9-11, justified the use of torture even at the expense of the potential loss of much of our nation’s moral authority.

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The Invaders

Robert Downes - October 25th, 2007
Word has it that less than 20 years ago, the citizens of communist East Europe were still standing in line, waiting for potatoes and beets at truck depots. Maybe that was just Cold War propaganda, but it’s true that the museums here can’t seem to say enough bad things about the bad old days of life under communism.
Today, all that has changed. I walked out of the grungy, grimy train station in Krakow, Poland and through a tunnel into a huge three-story mall as big as the Grand Traverse Mall in TC. It had your typical mall babes walking around in the latest styles and many of the same stores found in the U.S. If it weren’t for the great Polish food and generous beer steins in the food court, you’d swear you were in Grand Rapids.
I’ve spent the past two weeks barnstorming around Central and East Europe on an extended trip around the world. Vienna, Austria. Prague in the Czech Republic. Krakow, Poland. And now, Budapest in Hungary. The streets of each town are filled with invaders -- foreign tourists from all around the world. In Prague, I heard more American voices downtown than those of the Czechs. East Europe is the new ‘in’ place to visit, owing to the (slightly) cheaper prices than France, Britain or Germany.
And if anyone needs a break, it’s these people. The blini-flat plains of Poland
and other countries made them an ideal target for invading armies over the centuries -- the Mongols, Tartars, Crusaders, Turks, Vikings, Swedes, Habsburgs, Napolean, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis and the Communists -- all have taken their bite out of this place. It makes you wonder that there’s one brick lying on top of another after all that bloodshed.
But in fact, there are enough palaces, churches, grand plazas and mad statues of sword-swinging heroes here to pound the most resolute walker into the pavement.
As was the case in Ireland, I see many people seeking their heritage here. They are Jews, eager to wander the old Jewish quarters of Prague, Krakow and Hungary. But theirs is a bittersweet journey due to the horrible events of the Holocaust, not so long ago.
In Krakow, for instance, the Old Jewish Quarter is filled with the city’s finest restaurants and nightspots. In the High Synogogue in town, I see photos of the happy families who once lived here in the 1930s. But the Jews who once lived here are long gone -- 65,000 of them were murdered by the Nazis. Some 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland in the 1930s, but today there are only 200,000.
Southeast of town is Auschwitz, now a museum and major tourist attraction, with dozens of buses making the trip each day. There are one million visitors here each year -- the same number of people who died here. Some say the number was far higher -- nearly four million.
It would take an encyclopedia to describe all the horrors of Auschwitz and the nearby Birkenau concentration camp. Suffice to say, I left feeling sick at the depths of cruelty the human race is capable of. Yet our guide -- who lost three of her own family members here -- said that many Jewish persons tour the camp, and even survivors come for reunions.
Krakow was barely a blip on the tourist map until Stephen Spielberg filmed “Schindler’s List” here in 1992. That, and the fact that Pope John Paul II served as a cardinal here for 14 years and is considered a saint by the locals.

There’s a lot to recommend in East Europe -- the beer is cheap, the food is fattening, and many locals speak English in the tourist zones. Here are some observations from a guy passing through:

• Every hostel room in the world seems to have at least one guest who snores loud enough to blow the roof off a barn. Last night, my dorm of 10 endured a guy who sounded like he was strangling cats at the volume of a jet engine. The only one who slept through it was the other snorer.

• Don’t know why, but the Europeans dig corn on their pizza. They also see nothing odd about having co-ed showers in the hostel in Budapest.

• There’s nothing quite like the sensation of walking bare-assed through the ancient Turkish bath in Budapest. They give you this little white apron to wear on the front, with the idea being to switch it around to the back when you sit in the sauna. Can only imagine the old switcheroo gets pretty interesting on Fridays when both men and women share the baths. I felt more comfortable in another sprawling, Romanesque thermal pool where folks wore their swimsuits under sunny skies.

• My tour guide in Krakow was born in Russia and grew up thinking communism was A-OK. He was a member of the Young Pioneers -- a kind of patriotic Boy Scout group. We shared the propaganda we learned about each others’ countries in junior high school -- enemies then, friends now.

• After Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring uprising in 1968, dissidents started writing protest messages on a wall on a quiet side street. When John Lennon was murdered 30 years ago, someone painted his picture on the wall, which has been known as the John Lennon Wall ever since. Today, his face peers out in bas-relief sculpture on a wall covered with graffiti and peace-ful slogans. It’s a thoughtful, reverential place, and feels holier than any of the gold-plated cathedrals I’ve visited.

With that said, it’s also true that a chill is descending on Europe -- literally. Poland is bracing for the coldest winter in its history, possibly due to global climate changes. So I’m happy to be on a jet tomorrow for a city in a far warmer climate that has been a tourist destination for the past 5,000 years. Will let you know how it goes...

 
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