It seems that I suddenly have an awful lot of time to work with. Because of the surge of coronavirus cases in Madrid, all schools have been closed, and I’ve been sent home for at least two weeks. On Friday they ordered all the shops and restaurants to be closed. And today was the first day of a nation-wide lockdown. Nobody is allowed on the streets, except to go to work, buy medicine or groceries. I think the Spanish people are mostly taking this well. True, there’s no toilet paper left in any of the shops. But people are keeping their spirits up during this difficult time. Every day, at eight o’clock, people have been gathering on their balconies to cheer the hardworking medical personnel.
It’s a pretty surreal feeling. A few weeks ago, coronavirus was just a thing happening in China. Two weeks ago, it was an Italian problem. Now it’s totally global.
Anyways, so far I am safe and sound. Meanwhile, the city of Madrid looks very, very different. It’s a complete ghost-town now. The precautions necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus go totally against the grain of Spanish culture. As I’ve talked about before, Spanish people love to be outside, to be in public, and to congregate. They greet each other with kisses and have no issues with physical contact. These qualities are—under normal circumstances—what make Spanish cities so great. In fact, I’d say that this is one of the most charming things about visiting Spain: that the city centers are always bustling with life.
A big part of this, I think, has to do with the layout of the cities itself. Every major Spanish city predates the invention of the car by centuries, and so the historical parts of these cities are always easily walkable. Really, the invention of the car was bad for city life. You can see the evidence of this almost anywhere in America, as well as in the parts of cities in Europe that have been built to accommodate car travel. On the outskirts of Madrid you enter into a kind of industrial park, where all the buildings are low-lying and spread out. When you don’t have any motivation to put things closeby, you also don’t have motivation to build up in any one place. The result is very ugly—endless asphalt, shabby buildings, and nobody on the street.
I think you can clearly see the bad effect that the car has had on city planning if you examine a place where I worked for a long time: Rivas-Vaciamadrid. Now, I don’t want to insult Rivas, because the people who live there are really quite lovely. But I think the town itself embodies everything that I dislike about modern cities. The major problem is the zoning. All the parts of Rivas are split up into discrete zones, which contain only one type of building. There are zones for single-residency houses, zones for apartment buildings, and zones for restaurants. Most of the shopping is concentrated in one giant mall. The result is deadening. There is hardly any variation to relieve your eye, since all the houses and buildings look exactly the same.
Even worse, compared to other Spanish cities, there is very little life on the street. I often had to walk from private class to private class, and I wouldn’t see more than three people during the whole time. It’s a place built for cars. There aren’t any good places to gather. True, Rivas has some big parks, but in my experience these were often empty, too. Personally I found it a bit depressing. (Again, this isn’t a reflection on the people of Rivas, who are very nice!) Going from the endlessly similar neighborhoods of the new part of Rivas to the tiny older center was always a relief. There, at least, there are some bars and cafes, and a central square with some benches.
The problem was diagnosed by Jane Jacobs. Cities are vibrant when they are mixed-use. That is, when there are lots of different sorts of things in the same neighborhood, there are that many more reasons for people to be walking on the street. And when people are on the street, the streets become that much more interesting and safe to be in. It naturally reduces the crime rate (at least for violent crime, maybe not pickpocketing), since there are always bystanders, and in general it is one of the chief delights of city life. After all, one of the constant fascinations of living in the city is seeing the human zoo on display.
A high population density can also support a wider variety of businesses, which is another of the great pleasures of city life. First and foremost, there are the cafes, restaurants, and bars. Nowadays they are much emptier than usual, but most of the time they are packed, especially on sunny days like today. I honestly wonder what is the furthest you could go in Spain from an eating establishment. You could be lost in the southern deserts and still be able to order a beer nearby. The omnipresence of restaurants is one of the great joys of Spanish life. If you want a coffee, a glass of wine, or a bite to eat, you can choose from any of the three to six establishments in eyesight. You may think I’m joking, but Spain is the country with the highest density of bars in the world. To give an example, the southern province of the country, Andalucia, has more bars than Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Ireland combined. (And by the way, Andalucia has less than half as many people as these four places.)
Another thing that’s not in short supply in Spain are the supermarkets. My neighborhood is a pretty good example of this. Within a ten minute walk from my front door there are 14 supermarkets. Fourteen! And many of them are quite big. These fourteen supermarkets represent 7 different brands, some of them Spanish, one French (Carrefour), and one German (Lidl). And this is not to mention the many butchers, vegetable shops, and bakery shops nearby. Just the other day I wandered across a very modern-looking butcher shop, which had every kind of meat you could wish for. There, I finally found a type of Spanish sausage I particularly like, called “crioll chorizo” (though the name doesn’t really make sense). My point is that you’re pretty spoiled when it comes to food selection, even if some things that are common in the US are much less common in Spain (like broccoli rabe, which I’ve never seen!).
There are two types of shops common in Spain that are often run by immigrants. One is the humble kebab shop, the most popular fast food option in Europe. I actually live on top of a kebab shop, and the smell of the spiced meats wafts up all day, giving me strange cravings. The other one is called an alimentación, which is sort of a corner shop where you buy snacks, basic amenities, and alcohol. (In Spain you don’t need a liquor license, so everywhere has booze.) Because these sorts of shops are often owned by Chinese people, they are usually called chinos by Spaniards—and I’m kind of unclear whether this is considered, or should be considered, offensive. Chino, by the way, is the standard way to refer to a Chinese person or a Chinese restaurant, of which there are a fair number in Spain.
Speaking of my own neighborhood, what else should I mention? I think by any standard there is an impressive range of businesses. There are several sports stores, for example, and they are not chains. There is a nice little one up the street that has good deals on sweatpants and sweatshirts, and a big one around the corner that has everything from fishing rods to weight lifting machines. Speaking of lifting weights, there’s also a gym—again, not a chain—a few blocks away, where my brother likes to go. And Retiro park is just five minutes up the street, where I like to go running.
Really, the longer I’ve lived in this neighborhood—which is called Pacifico—the more I have come to appreciate it. Though it isn’t a big place to go out at night, it’s a historical neighborhood that is right next to the central train station, Atocha. And I think it embodies a lot of what is good in Spanish cities. The streets are not too big and not too long, which allows for a high density of shops within easy walking distance. As a result, while usually not crowded, there’s hardly a moment when the streets are empty. A few years ago Pacifico was a sleepy part of the city, with lots of older folks. Nowadays the neighborhood seems to be gentrifying (and, no doubt, I am myself contributing to this process). There is an axe-throwing business, where you can take turns hurling a hatchet at a wooden target; there is a fancy dried-goods store, with all these different types of pastas, flours, and exotic spices; and there are lots of bio shops with organic produce and different medicinal herbs. There’s even a big technology store, and a cool book store that also serves coffee, carrot cake, and craft beer. (A specialized craft beer store just moved out of the neighborhood.)
Well, anyway, I think you get my point. There’s a lot of stuff in my neighborhood, and I think this is typical of many neighborhoods in Spain: they are mixed-use, walkable, and well connected with public transportation. In a way they are the antithesis of places that are built around cars. And I think that the result speaks for itself: it is more attractive, more interesting, and all around more livable. There’s another added bonus to living in a Spanish city: the history. Even in my quiet neighborhood, there are some important historical buildings to visit. Quite closeby is the Engine Hall, which is a kind of power station with three massive diesel generators, built for the first generation of the Madrid metro. Nowadays it is a free museum.
Not very far is the Royal Tapestry Factory. This is just one of many royal factories, which were established in the 1700s by the Bourbon monarchs in an effort to emulate the French mercantile model. These are basically state-run organizations that made luxury goods for the royal family. The glass factory, for example, is in the town of La Granja, near one of Spain’s great palaces. The tapestry factory is a brick building with a big smokestack, where some of the finest neoclassical tapestries were made for the Spanish court. No less an artist than Goya made designs for these tapestries, and his original paintings are hanging on the top floor of the Prado. Nowadays, the factory is run by a non-profit, I believe.
Quite close are two more historical landmarks: the Royal Basilica of Our Lady of Atocha, and the Pantheon of Illustrious Men. The first is an important church that is home to one of the many venerated images of the Virgin. The basilica has long been a center of religious and royal life in the city. Bartolomé de las Casas is even buried here—the monk who was one of the first Spaniards to raise awareness about the cruelty of colonization in the Americas. Nextdoor is the Pantheon, which used to be a convent. In the 1800s it was seized from the church and turned into a kind of celebration of civic Spaniards, with elaborate funerary monuments distributed around the old cloister. It’s actually quite a beautiful place, even though I’ve never heard of any of the people buried there.
Hmmm, it seems that I started a podcast about Spanish city planning, and ended up just talking about how much I like my neighborhood. But I do think that my neighborhood illustrates the ways that a city can be a joyous place. And personally I think that it is a much healthier and saner way to live than having everything spread out, like they’re on little islands, making a car necessary. Cars are convenient things, but you can’t have a car community. I think modern city planners should take a look at these historical neighborhoods and do their best to recreate them. Otherwise, we’ll be condemned to a life of seclusion and isolation, cooped up in our homes, driving from place to place—like we all have coronavirus all the time! It’s not a good way to live.
Unfortunately, even the good neighborhoods that exist are in constant risk of being rendered unlivable by rising rents. And this is a consequence of real estate investing and gentrification. Perhaps it is significant that Vienna, which is often considered the most livable city in the world, has extensive public housing projects—for almost half of its population. At the moment, Madrid’s own housing market is pretty unregulated, and I think this can easily lead to a situation of average, everyday people being pushed out of the center into the outskirts. This is a hollowing out that has already affected places like London and New York, since it basically kills the liveliness that makes these places so attractive to begin with—making them neighborhoods of empty homes owned by wealthy people, or else Airbnbs, with small businesses being bought out by big chains. Whatever the government can do to prevent this kind of situation, I’d welcome it.
Well, my podcast this week has been delayed because of a trip. It was my first international trip of the school year, and it was great. My brother and I went to Kraków, Poland—a lovely city, with a well-preserved historical center. Relatively nearby are two major tourist attractions: Auschwitz (very depressing) and the Wieliczka salt mines (very impressive). But maybe the best part of the trip was the food. Every dish was heavy, plentiful, and delicious. Even the coffee and the beer was good. And I was reminded how generally pleasant European travel can be. Arguably, it’s the best part of living here.
Admittedly, it seems like an awkward time to be writing a podcast about traveling, because of the coronavirus outbreak. Just last week, I had a brief layover in Milan, and now Milan is under quarantine, with the rest of Northern Italy. And I just received notice that Madrid will be shutting down schools for the next two weeks. Two weeks! What will I do with myself? Next thing I know, we’ll be under quarantine, too. So I guess it’s not the best time to talk about European travel, now that everyone is cancelling their vacations. However, this crisis will pass, and Europe will once again open its doors to travelers. So here I go!
The major difference between traveling in Europe and in the United States is that Europe is packed with variety. Traveling to another country is like traveling to another state—cheap, easy, and quick. You can get on a plane and, in an hour or two, get out in a place where the people speak an entirely different language, eat different food, where the architecture, music, art, and even the landscape itself is totally different. The whole continent of Europe isn’t bigger than the US. And when you consider that most people travel to Western Europe, you’re talking about an area of land about the size of one American coast.
The main reason why so much cultural variety is packed into such a comparatively small space is, simply, the amount of history that has gone by. America is one big country, and a young country, too; so a lot of the country can seem extremely homogeneous, since it is the result of rapid expansion. And a lot of this expansion happens when means of transport and communication were relatively rapid. Meanwhile, Europe grew out of ancient populations, and virtually every little town and city was relatively isolated for long periods of time. Cultural differences grow and accumulate during all this time; and this is why, in Europe, every region has its own traditional dishes, traditional dances, traditional music, and so on. This is true both within countries and between countries: there is an awful lot of regional variation packed into a relatively small space.
This naturally makes traveling in Europe quite endlessly fascinating. Poland, for example, is not too far away from Spain, but it is absolutely unmistakably distinct. And this goes far deeper than surface features like food and architecture. The two countries have been shaped by quite different historical forces, and so even their cultures have notable contrasts, such as their concepts of personal space and their senses of humor. But I don’t want to overstate my case and argue that they have nothing in common, either. Both Poland and Spain have been heavily influenced by capitalism, for example, and they have both gone through periods of totalitarian rule and repression in the twentieth century.
So the really fascinating thing, then, is seeing Europe as a kind of variation on a theme. Every country has churches, basilicas, and cathedrals, but they all build them somewhat differently. Every country has art museums and monuments to historical events, and these are all intimately interconnected. To give just one example, the beautiful gothic altar in Krakow’s St. Mary’s Basilica was sculpted by a German from Nuremberg, another city that was previously a part of the Habsburg Empire. (The Habsburgs controlled Spain for a while, too, to give you another example of their historical parallels.)
So national borders are real markers of difference, but they’re also fluid. Perhaps the most famous Pole in history, Nicholas Copernicus, studied for a time in Italy, and published his book with the help of German Protestants. Frederic Chopin, born in Poland, spent most of his professional life in French, as did the Spaniard Picasso and the Dutchman Van Gogh. The more you travel around Europe, then, the more you see a rich, interconnected story unfolding across this varied landscape. In short, it’s very cool.
Anyways, even if you don’t care much about history or art, there’s another factor that makes European travel so appealing: it’s cheap. Part of the reason for this cheapness are the low-cost flights. Sometimes you can find good deals are more traditional airlines, like Iberia; and that may be the best option. But often travelers looking to save money fly with EasyJet or Ryanair. I have a lot of experience with Ryanair. I used them for my outbound and inbound flights to Poland. They are far from being my favorite airline, but their prices are pretty irresistible. My flight to Poland, for example, cost me less than 20 euros. And that’s for a three-and-a-half hour flight!
Of course, you get what you pay for. There are no amenities on Ryanair. The seats are uncomfortable, there are no screens to watch movies, no plug to charge your phone, and of course food is not included. Besides this, you need to pay extra if you want to choose your seat or even if you want to take a bag for the overhead compartment. Since I bought the cheapest ticket, I had to fit all of my stuff under the seat in front of me. Worst of all may be the advertising. On every Ryanair flight the airstewarts give long, uninspired, rambling advertisements of various products—food, perfume, lottery tickets, and even model planes —over the plane’s crackling PA system. And they do this in two or three languages, so it takes a long time. I’ve never seen anyone buy any of this junk, so in a way it feels like punishment for paying cheap prices.
As much as I like to rag on Ryanair, the truth is that I wouldn’t have been able to travel so much if it weren’t for this infamous company. There are a couple other companies and services that also help in my eternal quest to save money. A basic one is Skyscanner, a website that reliably tells you the cheapest flights. I also have used Blablacar a lot, which is a ride sharing service. Basically, let’s say I’m planning on driving from Seville to Madrid. I can put up an announcement on Blablacar and charge riders to accompany on this trip. The driver can charge whatever they want, but typically the prices are quite a bit lower than, say, paying for a high-speed train. Of course, I felt a little hesitant at first about the prospect of getting into a car with a stranger. But the website is quite well regulated and I haven’t had any truly bad experiences. It’s also a good way to find people to chat with, if you’re trying to improve your language skills.
There is one more service I use that, I admit, makes me feel a bit guilty: Airbnb. The reason that I have some scruples about Airbnb is that it can have a potentially bad effect on the housing market of wherever you’re visiting. It’s often more profitable for landlords to rent their flats short-term to visitors than long-term to locals, and this limits the supply of available residences and drives prices up. In areas with heavy tourism, this can make it almost unliveably expensive. So there is that downside. On the other hand, hotels and even youth hostels can be much, much more expensive than Airbnbs—prohibitively so, for me. In any case, I hope I am reducing the corrosive effect of Airbnbs by normally renting individual rooms (which couldn’t be rented to locals anyway) rather than whole apartments. In Prague, for example, I stayed in a little room in the apartment of a family, far outside the center. This is not only better for the city, but also in my experience more fun, since the idea is to be with locals anyways.
Well, those are my tips. If you do some searching, you can find ways to travel around Europe on an incredibly short budget. And you get a lot for money, since there are so many things to see and do, all over the place. If you’re young—younger than 26, in most cases—then you can get added discounts on museums and monuments. Added to all this, there is also the convenience of the European Union. Now that I’m being paid in Euros, I don’t have to worry about conversion rates if I go to Italy, Germany, or Ireland. There is also something that’s called the Schengen Zone: a zone of countries where no visa or even passport is needed at the border. Flying from Spain to Italy, then, is legally the same as taking a domestic flight. You just walk right into the country.
Europe’s open borders are something that they should be very proud of, I think. It is a level of international trust and cooperation that is unique in history, I believe. And as a result of this, it is quite common for Europeans to have international experience. Though there is at least one case in which all this may backfire: during an pandemic. Now the virus is in every major European country, with over a thousand cases in Spain. And I’ve just heard that all of Italy is on lock-down. I really hope they don’t lock down Spain…
Anyways, I’m getting a bit off topic. My major point is that Europe is great for travel. There is a lot to see and do, it’s easy and cheap to get around, and borders are almost non-existent. And Europeans themselves take advantage of this. Blessed with lots of vacation time (unlike the United States, where vacation is entirely unregulated), Europeans in general take lots of trips: both within their countries and to neighboring lands. Indeed, one of the big reasons that so many people want to learn English is because of the travel industry. In a continent of so many different nations and languages, English is the only Lengua Franca available.
Now, does all this traveling help to make Europeans wiser, more tolerant, more cosmopolitan? The answer is not immediately clear to me. It’s certainly possible to travel and not learn anything. Go to any touristy area, and you’ll see what I mean. All the food is junk food (a lot of it from America), and everything for sale is junk, too. Many people travel, take a selfie with a famous landmark, stay in a hotel, and then go home. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily. It’s fun. But does it lead to anything more? I think it does, or at least I hope it does. Otherwise, what on earth am I doing? Just having fun?
He had spoken in the tone of talk for talks sake, and yet with an obscure truth lurking in the loose folds…
One would think that, of all the people living on this good green earth, I would be especially prone to loving this particular work of literature. After all, it is about a young American who moved to Europe, fell in love, and then resisted his family’s entreaties to come back and make more money. If you know anything about me, you will know that this has a special resonance. I am also, as it happens, a lover of fancy prose and classic novels. Clearly, in my case, the book’s prospects were extremely favorable.
It is with mild surprise, then, that I report that my feelings are mixed. This is not a novel that one can easily love. It is, rather, a product of James’s infamous late style, which divided critics at the time and has continued to do so ever since. There are many ways to characterize this style—dense, laborious, obscure—but I think that the keynote here is vague. Both in his descriptive passages and his dialogue, James maintains a kind of studious vagueness that can be either delightful or infuriating, depending on your mood and taste. In everything from his sentence structure, to his dialogue, to his descriptions, to his plotting—vagueness reigns.
To indulge in highfalutin terminology, I would say that this is an aesthetic triumph at the expense of humanistic value.
First, the triumph. James, at his best, achieves something like that achieved by the impressionist painters. The strokes of his pen are suggestive rather than illustrative. He asks much of the reader; and this means that the reader becomes an active part of the story. Virtually nothing—not the book’s resolution, nor the personality of the major characters, nor even the meaning of some knotty sentences—is unambiguous, which means that each reader can make the book her own. In other words, James’s late style is quite like the Ostomachion of Archimedes: a set of puzzle pieces that can be assembled in a myriad of ways.
I say that this is an aesthetic triumph because James achieves an effect that is unique, distinctive, novel, and demanding. He creates, in other words, his own aesthetic realm. The cageyness, the uncertainty, the self-referential quirks of this book—we can clearly see, in retrospect, that James was paving the way for literary modernism. And like much of modernism, I think that this aesthetic triumph comes at a great cost to humanistic value.
To simplify matter somewhat, you can describe this loss at the emphasis of form over content. The novels of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Elliot, Tolstoy—say what you will about them, but they have an awful lot of content. Putting aside whatever explicit messages these novels may carry, they introduce us to concrete places, to remarkable individuals, to unforgettable stories. They capture, in other words, a human reality; and in so doing they help us to come to grips with life itself. Now, do not get me wrong: all of these authors also have aesthetic merits. If they did not, they would not be artists at all—merely columnists. My point is that their artistic style was entirely compatible with a definite view of the world, a view that is communicated in their works. This I call their humanistic value.
My main criticism of this book, then, is that James’s remarkable aesthetic sense overpowered whatever message he wished to transmit. Based on a straightforward reading, the intended message is this: American culture is narrow and materialistic, and it leads people to give up enjoyment for superficial, conventional reasons. We are, thus, presented with a cast of characters who embody this difference. Strether and Chad are exquisitely sensitive to the charms of Europe, and improve under its influence; while other Americans, such as Waymarsh, insistently stay within their narrow horizons.
The problem is, again, the vagueness. James is insistently vague on every detail. How exactly is life in Europe more liberating than life in America? And how exactly have Strether or Chad improved? These may seem like superficial questions, but the entire weight of the plot hinges on them. We cannot come to any moral conclusion without knowing the details. Indeed, James is so impressionistic in his portrayal of the main characters that we can hardly come to any conclusions at all. Do we even like these people? Even the ending is veiled in vagueness. Will Chad return to America? And why does Strether decide to return? And is his return a failure, or a success, or what? It is simply impossible to answer these questions.
Perhaps I would have been able to stomach all of these irresolutions if I had absolutely adored James’s style. But I do not. Indeed, I confess to finding James’s prose quite ugly—laborious, convoluted, and dry. There is hardly a passage in this book that one can read aloud without sounding like an alien. The following is entirely typical:
Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then. It has begun in fact already upstairs and before the dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window of his dull bedroom; begun with a sharper survey of the elements of Appearance than he had for a long time been moved to make.
A few sentences of this may be fine; but pages of it are painful. Granted, James is capable of quite lovely writing. I was enchanted, for example, by his description near the end, of Strether’s venture into the French countryside. Yet, all too often, the book is like this passage: opaque. His dialogue is only slightly better—readable, and yet still plagued by the strained and unnatural cadences of James’s prose. Besides this, James’s characters have the same tendency to vagueness as James himself, and never spell out what they mean.
Obviously this will come down to taste. I like things to be clear and unambiguous. That is my taste. James clearly did not agree. That I liked this book in spite of this divergence is a testament to James’s aesthetic power. He was an artist in the highest sense of the word.
I’ve come back to work from a rather pleasant weekend. To celebrate our anniversary, Rebeca and I took a little trip to the Madrid mountains. It’s a beautiful place. The geography is dominated by grey granite formations (a material that also forms many of the local buildings) and the landscape is covered in pine trees. There are endless trails for hiking and lots of cute little villages to visit. The pueblo we happened to be in was populated by a bunch of hippies, eating vegetarian meals and drinking craft beer. It was a nice escape from the city center.
Well, anyways, in this podcast I don’t want to talk about Spain’s many vacation possibilities. Instead, I want to talk about something that is a source of envy for many Americans: public education. Specifically, public higher education. As with the cost of medicine, the cost of university in Europe is strikingly lower than it is in America. To give you an extreme example, going to New York University for one year costs (according to the internet) over $70,000. Now, admittedly NYU is one of the most expensive universities in the world. But even if you want to go to a much more modest college in America, like I did, you can still pay quite a lot. In my case, I went to a public university, Stony Brook, and had to pay well over $20,000 a year.
Meanwhile, my girlfriend went to the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid—one of the best universities in Spain—and paid around 3,000 euros per year. And a chunk of that was covered by a scholarship. Needless to say, she didn’t need to go into debt to get an education. Meanwhile, I graduated with well over $20,000 of debt and I’m still paying it off. So what is the deal with this huge price difference? It’s worth remembering that this wasn’t always the case. Every millenial has heard stories of Baby Boomers working their way through college. Just the other day I heard an economics professor say he paid for college by lifting boxes during the summers. Clearly, that’s impossible nowadays in America, so it’s worth asking what the deal is.
Obviously a big difference is how much the state subsidizes higher education. In Spain, as in many European countries, the government foots the bill. You could make the argument, therefore, that in Europe college isn’t really free after all, since the people pay for it in higher taxes. That’s one side to the story—and, of course, it’s a big one. But I think there is another, less-mentioned aspect to the college cost debate, and that is the culture of college.
In America, going to university is a rite of passage. It has been turned into a basic phase of young adulthood. You live away from your parents for the first time, and you live in a dorm with a bunch of other young people. Suddenly you find yourself in a world of young people with very few responsibilities. It’s a crazy time. People go to parties, fall in love, form close friendships, and very occasionally study. And campuses can be very comfortable places. My campus, for example, had free gyms all over the place, and even a pool to use. I joined an a capella club and volunteered in a local rock venue. The point I’m making is that college consisted of a lot more than just going to classes.
In Spain, college is not nearly such a huge personal step. It’s not mythologized like it is in America. I’ve never met a Spanish person who has a lot of pride for where they went to school, or strong nostalgia for their college days, or who has even really talked about their college experience at all. Meanwhile, I know Americans who dreamed of going to specific schools and whose whole friend group is from their college days. Really, university in Spain—and in much of Europe, I think—is a continuation of high school. It’s going to school. Most students don’t even move out of their parents’ house to get their undergraduate degrees. And if they do, it’s quite rare to move onto a dormitory on a college campus.
So one significant reason that college in America is so expensive, I think, is that it has become so much more than just going to school. Think about college sports. Each university in America has its own mascot, its own spirit band, its own star athletes. This doesn’t exist at all in Europe. My girlfriend doesn’t know her school’s animal. (My school’s animal is entirely fictional: it’s the Seawolf. And we had our own cheer: “What’s a Seawolf? I’m a Seawolf.”) In America, we expect a high profile guest to give a speech at our college graduation, where they praise us for being the best and the brightest the world has ever seen. Leaving college is a major ritual, too, after all. Again, nothing of the sort happens in Spain. There are no viral Spanish graduation speeches.
Since moving to Spain, I’ve come to see the American rituals of college as a bit ridiculous. A lot of it is fueled, I think, by our culture of competition. In the United States there are a handful of extremely prestigious schools with a limited number of spots, and where you go to school is a big determiner of your career. It thus becomes a part of your personal journey (and Americans love talking about their careers as personal journeys) and even your identity. This is partly why we demand so much from our college experiences. We don’t just go for the knowledge, but to take our rightful place in the hierarchy of society. We are supposed to emerge transformed, imbued with the prestige of our institution. If you don’t believe me, just talk to anyone who has gone to an Ivy League school. Either they reject it or it’s a part of who they are.
When universities are responsible for providing such an all-inclusive package—dormitories, food, social life, entertainment, psychological and physical health, and a life-defining education—it is no wonder that they cost a lot. What you are paying for is basically the brand itself. Even public universities in the United States pay huge amounts of money in marketing, in order to bolster the university’s brand. The better the brand, the higher the ranking, the more prestigious the university, and the more money it can charge to bestow its prestige on its clients—I mean students.
I’m getting a bit carried away here, but I hope you see my point. In Spain, you are paying for your classes and little else. You emerge from university with a degree—more knowledgeable, hopefully, but not transformed into a vessel of prestige. To me, I think it’s a healthier system, not least because people don’t drive themselves crazy competing to get into the best university possible. Where you go to school does not determine your social status.
I have a limited experience going to a Spanish university. Last year, I completed a masters at the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, in the Instituto Franklin (which specializes in American studies and courses for Americans abroad). The masters took one year to complete and cost me about $4,000. That’s not a bad deal. As an aside, Alcalá de Henares is worth visiting just to see the historic university buildings, which are quite beautiful. The oldest continuously operating university in the country is in Salamanca, which was founded in the 12th century. If you are in Salamanca—a beautiful city—this is also worth a visit.
Anyways, I didn’t want to talk about higher education the whole time. I also want to mention about the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (the official school of languages). This is an initiative of the Spanish government to subsidize low-cost language classes outside of the university, mainly for adults. This year I began taking classes at one of the official schools in order to revive my atrophying German skills. And it’s been a great experience. I paid a little more than 200 euros for a whole academic year of classes. That works out to—what… about two euros per hour of class? It’s a very, very good deal. And the classes are quality, with properly qualified teachers and a well-established curriculum. I’m learning a lot this year.
There are dozens of official schools in Madrid alone and about half a million students enrolled in Spain. My particular school has a very wide range of languages on offer. Besides German, there are other major European languages like French, Italian, and English. There is Spanish for foreigners—quite useful for immigrants—and there are also the other three official languages of Spain: Basque, Catalan, and Galician. Aside from this, the school offers Dutch, Danish, Arabic, Greek, Gaelic, and Chinese (to give you the short list). If you want to become a polyglot, this is a place to be. And the school’s resources extend beyond the classroom. There are language exchanges, where you can find someone and “trade” languages, and also lots of cultural talks and events. There’s even a choir!
Of course, being run by the government, there are a few things to be desired. The school is in an ugly old building. One of the two elevator’s has been broken for two months, so I have to walk up the five floors to my class. And enrolling is a pain. But for what you pay, it’s really a great deal. In fact, I think that having a public school for language training is a wonderful idea, and one that we should embrace in the States. At the very least, it would be a great resource for immigrants. And it might help us with our famous monolingualism. I’d go even further, and suggest that the model of the Official School should be extended for other sorts of things. Computer coding, for example, or even photography—any kind of skill that adults might need to learn. Even on purely economic terms, investing in education usually pays off. After all, a multilingual workforce can outcompete a monolingual one.
In general, my experiences in Spain have made me a strong believer in public education, as uninspiring and inefficient as it can admittedly be sometimes. I think we lose a lot more than we gain by conceiving of college as a giant competition for limited amounts of prestige and status. Education should be about equalizing opportunities and not exacerbating differences, which it so often does in America.
And needless to say, graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt isn’t ideal. Let me give you a concrete example of the difference that debt makes. A few weeks ago I met a man from Scotland living in Germany. He had begun to study German language and literature, but a few years into his undergraduate he decided he didn’t like it—since he didn’t want to work as a translator or a teacher—and he stopped. Now, in America he would have been deeply in debt and without a college degree to help him get a job to pay for it. He would have to start working like mad to try to pay his loans off, and he’d have a difficult time for sure. (Even the loans we get from the federal government in America can have a high interest rate.) But this guy didn’t have to do that. He didn’t sink under the weight of debt since he didn’t have any. A few years later, he re-enrolled as an undergraduate to study music. And now he’s working his way through college—just like we used to do in America—paying for his living expenses with a part-time job as an audio engineer.
To many millenials in America, stories like that seem too good to be true. But are we willing to give up our mythologized college culture and settle into treating university as just additional schooling?—schooling that isn’t necessarily transformative and which isn’t necessarily the right step for every person? That’s hard to tell.
Happy New Years to all five of my listeners! It feels good to be back.
For this letter, I want to finally talk about something that has been on my mind a long time, and that is the contrast between the American and the European ways of life. I think this is especially relevant now, during our endlessly long election season back in America, because this contrast between America and Europe has actually exerted a strong influence over progressive American politics. You could arguably boil down the progressive platform—championed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—to the following statement: that America should be more like Europe. So what’s Europe like?
One of the most obvious contrasts is healthcare. Spain, like Germany, France, or Denmark, has a nationalized healthcare system. That means that every citizen is automatically covered at all times, free of charge or nearly so (although some people do supplement their public healthcare with private insurance). This is radically different from the United States, where most people have private healthcare, usually tied to one’s job. The difference is profound. In America, people really worry about the cost of healthcare. Even relatively well-off people.
The cost of an ambulance is one example. If you pass out in the street and somebody calls the ambulance for you, you can wake up in debt. There’s a famous story of a woman who fell between the subway car and the platform, who begged people not to call an ambulance because she couldn’t afford it. People go bankrupt in America because of illnesses and injuries—something almost unheard of in Europe. It’s not uncommon in America to see GoFundMe campaigns for people struggling with medical costs. But this isn’t just a question of insurance. It’s also because anything related to healthcare is absurdly expensive in the United States. A hip replacement, for example, is six times more expensive in the US than in Spain. That means you could take a nice long vacation in Spain, and then get your hip replacement, and it would still cost less money. And medication prices are wild in America. Insulin is so expensive that some people try to ration it, and a few have died in the process.
There are lots of reasons for the high cost of healthcare in the USA. One is the bureaucratic complexity needed to deal with all the different private insurers. Some hospitals need just as many administrators as hospital beds to process all the intricacies of insurance claims. Another reason is that, in most countries, medicine is bought in bulk by the government from the drug companies, while in the United States each person buys directly from the drug companies—and there’s no bargaining power in that situation.
Anyways, I don’t want to set myself up as some expert on healthcare, which I’m clearly not. What I can say is that I’ve never heard a Spanish person worry about whether they’ll be able to afford going to a doctor, while in America the financial costs of getting sick are at times even scarier than the actual sickness. On the other hand, I have had a bad experience with a Spanish dentist here. They often try to rip you off. (Though admittedly most dentists are private in Spain.)
Speaking of health, another big difference between America and Europe is our eating habits. We eat a lot in America—a lot of food, and a lot of junk food—and as a consequence obesity rates in America are over twice as high as they are in Europe. This tends to make us sick, which only exacerbates our healthcare problem. One thing that we Americans do have over Spain, at least, is that fewer people smoke in the United States (15%) than in Spain (about 22%). But America definitely loses when it comes to physical activity. Since so much of our country is designed for driving, the average American walks less than 5,000 steps a day, as compared to more than 9,000 for Spain. This, combined with other factors like Spain’s diet, led Bloomberg to proclaim Spain the healthiest country in the world. (The United States ranked 35. In fact, the average life expectancy in America has been falling for the last three years.)
So much for health. But there are still more striking contrast between Spain and the United States. One big one is maternity leave. Every European Union country guarantees at least 14 weeks of maternity leave, and several also give paternity leave. This means that a new mother can take over three months with her new baby, while receiving full pay, and guaranteeing a job when she returns to work. I have no idea why this isn’t a more outrageous issue in the United States, where the government guarantees no days of paid maternity leave—everybody likes mothers, after all. By the way, America is also unique for offering no minimum paid vacation days, and no guaranteed paid holidays. Spain, by contrast, offers a minimum of 22 working days off, plus a mandated 12 paid holidays, and an optional 2 more holidays that local governments can choose.
The last major contrast I’ll mention is university. The cost of going to college in America is incomparably higher than it is in Europe. Even a public university can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year. Student debt has become a way of life in the US, and virtually everyone graduates with at least a few thousand dollars of loans they need to pay off. This has a huge effect, not only on our economy, but in our educational decisions and philosophy. It influences everything from what we study, to grade inflation, to job choices after college. Meanwhile, in Europe, getting a degree is cheap and in some places even free. With a stipend, you may even be paid to attend a university. As you can imagine, this makes a big difference.
There are many other differences, too—the strength of workers’ unions in Europe is a big one—which combine to make Europe substantially more egalitarian than the United States. Here are some figures. From 1970 to the present, the share of total income going to the top 1% in America rose from 8% to 20%. In Europe, it also rose, but from 7.5% to 10%. That is, in America it increased by 150%, while in Europe by about 33%. That’s a big difference. In this same time period, the share of income going to the bottom 50% of the population fell by 7% in America (to 13%), and by only 2% in Europe (to 18%). To sum up, in America the gap between the rich and the poor has grown far wider than in Europe.
And this brings me to a central contrast. In America we talk about the American “dream.” That is, our model is based on the idea of people “making it”—pulling themselves up by their bootstraps into another economic echelon. And of course there are success stories. But this narrative hides the fact that, if you don’t “make it,” then life in America can be rather harsh. Even more importantly, getting to the top is extremely rare. Besides the fact that having a highly unequal society means that there is less room at the top and more room at the bottom, America does not score particularly well on social mobility. According to the World Economic Forum, the United States ranked 27th globally. The top 13 countries, by the way, were all European. And the top five are the Nordic countries, famed for their socialist policies: Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland (in that order).
Admittedly, Spain ranked just below America, at the 28th spot. But the important thing to note is that, in Spain, social mobility is not vitally important to well-being, since a robust social security program guarantees a high minimum standard of life. This is why I refer to the “European Way of Life” rather than the “European Dream.” Because the idea in Europe is that the good life should not be a longshot, rags-to-riches, one-in-a-million dream, but something taken for granted.
My point has not been to convince you with statistics. These issues are extremely complicated, and of course Europe has its own problems. My point is this. When Americans, especially younger Americans, look across the Atlantic and see all of these differences—healthcare, education, maternity leave, vacation—many of them naturally wonder why we cannot do the same thing in our wealthy country. Why is America so exceptional in these rather unfortunate ways? I can’t say I know the answer to this question. But I know that awareness of this discrepancy is growing, and has already had a major effect on our own politics as more and more voters react with outrage. Americans put up with many things that, in Europe, would cause mass protests. But will Americans continue to do so?
The train slowly creaked into motion, taking me away from Amsterdam Centraal. My hand was still a little bloody from cutting it on the bicycle; and my stomach was full of kebab (I haven’t properly visited a city unless I sample the local kebab), which is never an exactly pleasant sensation. Soon we were speeding through the Dutch countryside. What was most striking about the scenery is how amazingly flat it is (being largely recovered marshland); the only thing that broke the skyline were distant church spires.
I was on my way to Belgium. Now, this modest member of the Low Countries has a special significance for me. Growing up, I had a close friend from Belgium. His parents worked for the United Nations and so they ended up living in Sleepy Hollow, New York. I didn’t know anyone else from Europe, so my impression of the continent was shaped by my experience with my Belgian friend and his family.
They were an impressive bunch—tall, blond, active. I remember once witnessing the parents have lunch; to my amazement, they were eating salads! (My friend took every opportunity to eat junk food when he visited my house.) I heard strange stories of tasty waffles and french fries (which, the Belgians reminded me, weren’t really French). Finally, in my last year of high school, my Belgian friend had to move with his family to Tokyo, and I was permanently left with a hazy impression of a far-off land where everyone lived in cozy little houses eating salads and waffles. Now I could finally see Belgium for myself.
My train rolled into Brussels, and I got out to find my Airbnb and to explore the city as best I could in the remaining hours of daylight. Brussels cannot help but be at least a little disappointing to someone who has just finished visiting Amsterdam. While the Dutch city is full of personality, Brussels immediately struck me as bland and anonymous. I felt as if I could be anywhere: Germany, France, Italy, Spain… Was this the place I had been dreaming about all these years?
My impression of the city considerably improved when I found my Airbnb. It was near a street full of attractive restaurants (yes, including kebab), and it was a surprisingly beautiful apartment for the price I had paid. The host, who spoke excellent English, worked in the movie industry; so the flat was decorated with many posters and other movie paraphernalia. This was some real European culture.
I had arrived somewhat late in the afternoon, so I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the city. After checking in I hightailed it to the main attraction of the city: the Manneken Pis. I wonder how the Brusselites feel that the identifying sculptural icon of their city is little peeing boy. Perhaps they have a good sense of humor, as the statue seems to indicate. In any case, I confess that I did not feel the profound sense of awe and wonder that the statue can inspire. But maybe this was because someone had cheekily dressed the statue up for winter, so his impishly naked form was buried under heavy fabrics. (Apparently this is the usual state of affairs. In the post-war European recovery and boom, the relieved and happy Belgians took to dressing their iconic statue in an ever-increasing assortment of traditional costumes. The young urinating rascal apparently has a wardrobe several times bigger than even a dedicated shopaholic.)
Five minutes from the “little pisser” is the central square of the city, the magnificent Grand Place. This expansive plaza contradicted everything that I thought I had observed about the Brussels. For it is not plain, generic, or blandly modern. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful central squares that I have ever seen, comparable to the Marienplatz in Munich and Prague’s Old Town Square. It gives the visitor that unmistakably pleasurable sensation of being, without a doubt, in Europe.
Dominating the Grand Place is the old gothic Town Hall, which looks strikingly similar to the New Town Hall in Munich or the Town Hall in Vienna. And this is no coincidence, since both of those neo-gothic edifices take their inspiration from this genuinely gothic construction. The hall has survived fires and bombardment to serve as an archetype for the secular gothic style. Facing the Town Hall is the King’s House. This building—an administrative building that now houses the city’s museum—gets its name from the King of Spain (specifically, Philip I of Castile, the first Habsburg king in the Iberian peninsula); and thus it serves as a strange reminder of the erstwhile dominance of this Lowlandish nation by the Mediterranean country.* Apart from these two imposing spired structures, the rest of the plaza is dominated by guild houses, which look like ornate apartment buildings. One of these is called Le Roy d’Espagne, and could very well refer to me.
*You might be interested to learn that the word “flamenco” means “Flemish” in Spanish, and in the past was used for anything deemed extravagant. Thus it came to be applied to the genre of music, which of course does not come from Flanders.
My next and last stop (the sun was already setting) was the Cathedral of Brussels—or, more formally, the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. It has only been a proper cathedral for sixty years or so, since Brussels falls within the diocese of Mechelen; and that city already had a cathedral. Oversized church or a properly-sized cathedral, it is an attractive building—made in the formidable French gothic, with its two towers standing like bulwarks over the city. The inside is correspondingly impressive, though little stands out for comment besides a resplendently decorated baroque altar. In sum, it is a worthy cathedral, and its front porch offers an attractive view of the city—especially during sunset. The worst that can be said of the building is that, like so much of Brussels, it blends in with other parts of Europe so seamlessly as to lack character.
My short time in Brussels was spent. The sun had set, and every attraction would be closed. I had decided to spent the next and final day of my trip visiting Bruges, so it seemed unlikely that I would be seeing anymore of the nation’s capital. This meant that I would not see the enormous Atomium, a steel sculpture of a unit of an iron crystal (and not, as some wrongly say, of an iron atom). I would also miss the Museum of Fine Art, which is so good that W. H. Auden dedicated a depressing poem to it. Indeed, I would not see any of Brussels many fine museums—which include those dedicated to trains, musical instruments, and comic strips. I had to choose between all this and Bruges, and I chose Bruges.
I ate dinner in a fish and chips shop (Bia Mara), bought some Belgian beers (Leffe) in supermarket to drink in the Airbnb, and then walked back to drink delicious beer by myself and to post photos (edited for extra saturation) on Instagram. Obviously I was having a great vacation.
But before I leave Brussels, I wanted to share some of what I learned about Belgium during my time there. I found, to my great surprise, that the country is still a monarchy; and the old royal palace (now unused by the royal family) stands in the city center—a palace which, if I can judge from the photos, is as bereft of character as the rest of the city. I also learned that Brussels is the unofficial capital of the European Union, with much of the organization’s offices located here; indeed, sometimes “Brussels” is used as a synecdoche for the EU. The presence of so many thousands of native and foreign bureaucrats in the city has not helped its reputation as a tourist destination. Perhaps this helps explain why the city gives such a strong impression of being anonymously European—it really is at the crossroads of Europe. NATO also has its headquarters here, only adding to the mix.
Yet it is not only Brussels that has something of an identity crisis. The whole country is split strongly and starkly along linguistic lines. In the south there is Wallonia, the French-speaking part of the country; and in the north, the Dutch-speaking Flanders. Brussels straddles these two regions uncomfortably, situated somewhat north of the Wallonian border and yet predominantly French-speaking, although it is nominally bilingual. From what I understand, those in the French part of the country rarely learn Dutch, and vice versa, leading to little intermingling and consequently little feeling of camaraderie between the two regions. The result is a strangely bipartite country, almost as if two smaller countries had been uncomfortably welded together.
This inner division expressed itself in the famous attempt to form a governing coalition that followed elections in 2010. After a record-shattering 589 days without a working government, the Flemish and Wallonian parties—who, you will remember, typically do not speak one another’s languages—finally managed to form a working alliance and elect somebody. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a strong independence movement among the Flemish. Much like Catalonia in Spain, Flanders is the most affluent area of the country; and there are some who think the region would do better if not attached to Wallonia. After all this time, it seems that many Europeans still have not learned to live with one another. Unfortunately, when Europeans do live together, the result can be a city like Brussels.
The train ride to Bruges was, if anything, more flat and watery than the trip from Amsterdam down to Brussels. I had never known why the Netherlands and Brussels were referred to as the “low countries” until this trip. There is hardly a hint of elevation to speak of. To pass the time, I read a selection of the works of John Ruskin, the eccentric Victorian art critic who was obsessed with the Alps; and he even went so far as to suggest that the inhabitants of flat regions have little notion of true grandeur. Clearly he had never been to Bruges.
When the train pulled in to Bruges’s station—taking slightly over an hour, and passing Ghent along the way—I could hardly contain my excitement. Bruges is one place I had never expected to visit. Indeed, even the day before I was unsure whether I should visit Bruges or stay in Brussels. Rewatching a few scenes from Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges convinced me that I should opt for the first option; sassy Irish hitmen seemed a welcome improvement over European bureaucrats.
Bruges is among that small class of cities, such as Venice or Toledo, whose every corner is picturesque. It is an adorable place. The downside of such places, however, is that they quickly become overrun by tourists. Though I was there during the off-season, I did not get a strong sense of local life; there seemed to little more than tourist attractions, gift shops, and overpriced restaurants. Still the city is worth it. I don’t know when exactly humankind lost its ability to make such splendidly pretty places; nowadays we only build such quaint dwellings using CGI.
I was delighted with everything—the narrow cobblestone streets, the brick houses with step-gabled roofs, the canals crossing this way and that. I just wanted to walk into one of the little houses, build a fire, start a family, and spend a happy life eating waffles and drinking beer. But I contented myself with taking lots of mediocre pictures, which is at least less of a commitment.
Why is Bruges so beautiful? The answer, as in so many cases, is money. Bruges spent the late middle ages as a commercial superpower, strategically situated near the English channel between Germany, France, and Spain. Merchants took advantage of a channel which led from the city’s harbor out into the ocean. Yet the good fortune was not destined to last. As with Seville’s equally lucrative river port, Bruges’s channel silted up and commerce, not usually loyal, moved elsewhere. This led to a long, slow, grinding decline, which was only broken centuries later when tourists realized that, as a result of this process, the city’s beautiful building had survived intact. Two World Wars also left the city unscathed, giving the contemporary traveler a time-capsule of a city.
The skyline of Bruges is dominated by three towers. The first I encountered was the city’s cathedral, St. Salvator’s. For such a stately purpose, it is a fairly homely building—at least when compared to such gothic monsters as the cathedral in Brussels. Built of brick and lightly decorated, its inside is restrained and calming. The next tower is that of the Belfry. This enormous protuberance stands proudly over market square, the central plaza, sprouting out of a lower building like an oak from a grassy field. In Bruges featured the tower in a starring role, such as when Colin Farrell tells a group of pudgy Americans that they shouldn’t try to climb to the top, and that he’s “not being funny.” As an out of shape American myself, I took Farrell’s advice and admired the Belfry from the ground.
The last and tallest tower belongs to the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), a mostly gothic church which nevertheless, like the rest of the town, is mostly built of brick. But the church is more famous for what it contains that for its tower. First there are the gilded tombs of Charles the Bold and his daughter, Mary, the Duchess of Burgundy. Charles the Bold was cut down in battle and initially buried nearby; but his great-grandson, Emperor Charles V, had him and his daughter moved to Bruges. Strangely, however, modern researchers have been unable to find Charles’s body—though Mary’s corpse did make it to its intended location. In any case, the tombs are impressively lifelike and appropriately resplendent for noble bodies; and it was gratifying to find the forebears of the family which would one day come to dominate Spain: the Habsburgs.
Yet most people do not pause at the tombs for very long, since in the next room, in the center of an altar, is a work by Michelangelo. Few works by the dour master can be seen outside of Italy, and fewer still in such a small city as Bruges. The subject is simple: The Madonna and Child, with Jesus resting tranquility on the Virgin’s knee, who is looking just as pretty and angelic as she does in the Pietà in St. Peters. If you are familiar with Michelangelo’s work, it is not difficult to spot the master’s touch here. Every element is just so finely executed—the poses, the fabric, the composition—that the statue immediately calls out to the viewer.
It seems strange that this should be so. I have seen hundreds of statues of this same subject, many by masters of their craft. How could Michelangelo take something that so many able men had been trying to do for so long, and do it better? This is the mystery of genius, I suppose. But could he have created such superlative art had not so many artists paved the way before him?
I should mention that this statue has been stolen and replaced twice: first during the Napoleonic invasions, and second during World War II. Luckily, violence and greed have so far left the statue intact, and have restored it to its rightful place.
It is difficult to write adequately about Bruges, I find, since you cannot give an accurate impression of the city by going through its parts, one by one, as a writer must do. So much of the experience of visiting consists in being lost in picturesque streets, surrounded by ever-changing views on all sides. Focusing on individual sights would detract from the impression of the whole. Nevertheless, there are some areas of the city that are worth singling out. One of these is Markt, or Market Square, the center of the city. This is where the famous Belfry can be seen. On one side of the square, the neo-gothic Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Court) rises in brooding majesty; while on the other, a row of pretty, brightly colored apartment buildings lightens the city’s aspect. In the center of the square is a statue of two Flemish heroes, Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who helped lead an (unsuccessful) uprising against the French in the 1300s.
Another important plaza is the Burg Square, where Bruges’s City Hall is located. Compared with that of Brussels, this city hall is rather unprepossessing, though it is yet another excellent example of secular gothic architecture.
Near the city hall is Bruges’s most impressive church: the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Though ornately decorated, the church does not look like very much from the outside; indeed I hardly noticed it at first, since the rest of the city is just as attractive. But what I found up the staircase took me by surprise. This is the Chapel of the Holy Blood, dedicated to a vial of Jesus’s blood-stained cloth—supposedly picked up during the Crusades. If memory serves, there was a line of the faithful waiting to do reverence to this holy relic, and so to obtain divine favor. I didn’t join in. But I did admire the church. A vaulted, wooden ceiling focused all attention on the far wall, which is decorated with a colorful 20th century painting of the bloody scene. The walls on each side, and the ceiling above, are decorated in pleasing geometric patterns; and the stained glass, too, is of high quality, only adding to the swirl of color in the space. It is a rather cheerful place for worshiping blood.
I realize that I have come this far without mentioning the canals. The city is criss-crossed with watery channels, another legacy of its days as an active port; and this has earned the city, like Amsterdam, the nickname “Venice of the north.” As you can imagine, the constant presence of water only adds to the city’s considerable charm. The canals prevent Bruges from feeling constrained and claustrophobic, like so many medieval cities. One of the most photogenic spots in the city is the bridge crossing the Minnewater—a sort of pond that used to serve as a mooring-place for ships. From there I spotted a band of roving Spanish musicians, dressed in capes and strumming guitars. Were they street musicians, or just on vacation?
My last stop for the day—and what turned out to be my best experience in Bruges—was De Halve Maan brewery. (I thought that the name meant “half man,” but it means “half moon,” which I think is somewhat less cool.) This is a historic brewery, going back to the 1850s, right in the center of the city; and they give tours. I signed up for the next English group, waited a bit in the gift shop, and then embarked on a journey of discovery. Photos were not allowed, so I can’t give a detailed account of the tour; however, it was 45 minutes well spent. Our guide, a deadpan Flemish woman, took us from the modern brewing equipment on the ground floor, then up several steep and slender stairwells to rooms displaying antique brewing equipment. (Some of the staircases were so precipitous that my life flashed before my eyes; the tour is not well-suited to those with mobility issues.)
This was my first brewery tour, so I was eager to learn how this marvelous liquid is created. The process of making beer is at once extremely complex and beautifully simple, consisting of four natural ingredients (water, barley, hops, yeast) mixed, strained, heated, cooled, and aged in such a way that the end-result is a fizzy, bitter, refreshing and slightly intoxicating substance. I was certainly inspired to have a drink—and, luckily, the tour comes with a beer at the bar downstairs. As another added bonus, the view of Bruges from the top of the brewery is excellent, and photos are allowed. I left the brewery quite impressed with the company. They still make all their beer on site (though it is pumped through an underground tube several miles away for bottling).
What makes Belgian beer so special? Well, I am not exactly an expert in the subject. But even in my dilettantish tasting of Belgian beer, a definite flavor emerges: rich and sweet, almost like brown sugar. In contrast to many English and American ales, the bitter, floral flavor of hops is never very pronounced. Instead the beer is heavy and scrumptious, like a good dessert. Much of the brewing culture in Belgium dates back to medieval monasteries, a tradition which has led to the country’s beer culture being listed as UNESCO intangible world heritage. Without doubt Belgian beer is one of the treasures and pleasures of Europe.
So ended my day in Bruges. Now it was time to return to Brussels and then to Madrid. Thankfully I took the time to examine my Ryanair boarding pass that night, or else I would not have realized that (of course) Ryanair does not fly out of Brussels’s primary airport, but out of the South Charleroi airport—considerably more difficult to get to. But who could complain about early flights and inconvenient airports when Belgium is the reward?
Finally I have come to the last book in this series. It was four long years ago when I first read The Life of Greece; and these have been the four most educational years of my life, in part thanks to The Story of Civilization. Though I have had some occasions to criticize Durant over the years, the fact that I have dragged myself through ten lengthy volumes of his writing is compliment enough. Now all I need to do is to read the first volume of the series, Our Oriental Heritage, in order to bring my voyage to its end. (I originally skipped it because it struck me as absurd to squeeze all of Asia into one volume and then cover Europe in ten; but for the sake of completion I suppose I will have to read it.)
Durant did not plan to write this volume. His previous book, Rousseau and Revolution, ends with a final bow. But Durant lived longer than he anticipated (he died at 96), so he decided to devote his final years to a bonus book on Napoleon. It is extraordinarily impressive that he and his wife, Ariel, could have maintained the same high standard of writing for so many decades; there is no notable decline in quality in this volume, which makes me think that Durant should have written a book on healthy living, too.
The Age of Napoleon displays all of Durant’s typical merits and faults. The book begins with a bust: Durant rushes through the French Revolution, seeming bored by the whole affair, seeing the grand drama only as a disruptive prelude to Napoleon. This showcases Durant’s inability to write engagingly about processes and events; when there is no central actor on which to focus his attention, the writing becomes colorless and vague. Further, it also shows that Durant, while a strong writer, was a weak historian: he provides very little analysis or commentary on what is one of the most important and influential events in European history.
When Napoleon enters the scene, the book becomes appreciably more lively. For reasons that largely escape me, Durant was an unabashed admirer of the diminutive general, and sees in Napoleon an example of the farthest limits of human ability. Though normally uninterested in the details of battles and campaigns, Durant reveals a heretofore hidden talent for military narration as he covers Napoleon’s military triumphs and defeats. Some parts of the book, particularly near the end, are genuinely thrilling—an adjective that rarely comes to mind with Durant’s staid and steady style. Granted, he had an extraordinary story to tell; Napoleon’s rise, fall, rise again, and fall again are as epic as anything in Plutarch.
But as usual Durant shines most brightly in his sections on artists, poets, and philosophers. The greatest section of this book is that on the Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron. (For some reason, Durant sees fit to exclude Keats, even though the scope of Keats’ life falls entirely within that of Napoleon.) Less engaging, though still worthwhile, was Durant’s section on the German idealist philosophers; and his miniature biography of Beethoven was a stirring tribute. Many writers who properly belong in this volume were, however, paid their respects in the previous, most notably Goya and Goethe, since Durant thought that this volume would never appear.
Though I am happy to reach the end, I am saddened that I cannot continue the story of Europe’s history any further forward with Durant. He is an inspiring guide to the continent’s cultural treasures.
I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room
I must admit immediately that I have never read nor even laid eyes on this book. I’m sure it’s lovely. This review is, rather, about the television series, which I’d wager is twice as lovely.
Civilisation is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Kenneth Clark takes his viewer from the Dark Ages, through romanesque, gothic, the Renaissance, the Reformation, baroque, rococo, neoclassicism, impressionism, through the industrial revolution and the two World Wars, all the way up to when the program was made in the late 1960s. This is a remarkable amount of ground to cover for a show with 13 episodes, each 50 minutes long.
Not only chronologically, but in subject matter, this documentary casts a wide net. Although the show’s primary emphasis is on architecture and art, Clark also dips into literature, poetry, music, engineering, politics, and wider social problems like inequality, poverty, oppression, and war. Of course, for lack of time Clark cannot delve too deeply into any one of these subjects; but because the presentation is so skillful and economical, and the selection of material so tasteful, the viewer is nevertheless satisfied at the end of every episode.
The documentary generally shifts between shots of Clark facing the camera, talking to the viewer, and extended, panoramic shots of churches, monuments, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mountains, while beautiful music plays in the background. Clark himself chose the musical accompaniments to these visuals, and they are uniformly splendid (and this is one reason why I recommend the documentary over the book). More than perhaps anything I’ve seen on a screen, this series is rich, lavish, sumptuous. As the camera pans over the altarpiece of a church, while Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion plays in the background, it’s so lush and gorgeous that it almost gives you a stomach ache.
Aside from these visuals and music, the main attraction of the series is Clark himself. He comes across as refined, cosmopolitan—almost a freak of erudition. But for all that, he is charming and witty, if ultimately a bit cold. One of the strongest impressions I got was that Clark was a man from another time. He looks out of place as he walks through the modern streets, crowded with cars and buzzing with urban life. He has many misgivings about the modern world: he is anti-Marxist, anti-modern art, and certainly didn’t understand the student protests and hippie culture flourishing at the time. In his own words, he was a “stick in the mud,” and I think felt alienated from his time because of his intense appreciation, even worship, of Western art.
This brings me to some of this program’s shortcomings. Most of these are due to the time in which it was made. This is most apparent in the first episode, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” wherein he argues that civilization almost disappeared during the Dark Ages, and comes close to crediting Charlemagne as the savior of all subsequent culture. This requires that he completely discredit both Byzantine and Muslim culture (not to mention Chinese), both of which were doing just fine. He repeats the tired stereotype about Byzantium being a fossilized culture and treats the Muslims as simple destroyers. Later on in the series, he has some uncharitable things to say about the Germans, which I think was a product of growing up during the World War.
A more serious flaw might be that the series bites off more than it can chew. The questions Clark poses to answer are vast. What is civilization? What makes it thrive? What makes it fall apart? Deep questions, but his answers are by comparison shallow. Civilization requires confidence in the future; they cannot be built on fear. Civilization requires rebirth, the constant search for new styles and ideas; but it also requires continuity and tradition, a respect for the past. Civilization is pushed forward by men of genius (and in this series, they’re all men), who enlarge our faculties with their godlike creative powers; men like Michelangelo, Dante, Beethoven, men who are timeless and yet who forever alter the face of culture.
These are interesting answers, but they seem rather superficial to me. They describe, rather than explain, civilization. But of course, this is a documentary, not a monograph. And although Clark asks and tries to answer many questions, I think his primary goal was simply to inspire a sense of the worth, the preciousness, the grandeur of the accomplishments of European civilization. He wants to remind his viewers that our culture is fragile, and that we owe to it not only beautiful paintings and poetry, but also our very ability to see and appreciate the beauty in certain ways, to think about ideas in a certain light, to live not only a happy but a full and rich life.
Maybe this seems pinched and old-fashioned nowadays. Still, I can’t help thinking of all the times that a friend, a fellow student, or even a teacher has made a blanket statement about “Western culture,” “Enlightenment ideas,” “scientific materialism,” or some such thing, while seeming to understand none of it. (I’ve probably done this myself, too.) I’ve been in classes—serious, graduate-level classes—where, amid condemnations of “Western” ideas and gratuitous namedropping of Western philosophers, I realized that I was the only person there, professor included, who actually read some of these authors. I’m not making this up.
I suppose this is just a callow intellectual fashion, and it will eventually pass away. And I also suppose that this might be slightly preferable to the idiotic self-glorification of “European man” that prevailed in earlier times. At present, however, this program is a wonderful corrective to our bad habits of thought. It’s an education, a social critique, and a joy. I hope you get a chance to watch it.
When I arrived in Prague I wasn’t feeling too good. Flights from Madrid to Prague are normally expensive; but I had gotten lucky and had found one for quite cheap. The only problem was that it left Madrid at an inhumane hour in the morning; and since I have trouble sleeping either before or during flights, I was not exactly at my best. Sleep-deprivation, besides making me delirious, also makes me more prone to stress. I feel as though I cannot calm down; every little obstacle provokes a feeling of panic. Keep in mind that, when you buy cheap plane tickets, you pay for the flight in other ways.
Admittedly I did have two additional things to worry about this trip. The first was money. The Czech Republic does not use the euro, but the koruna (or “crown”). This alone produced in my exhausted mind a feeling of disorientation, since now I had to perform a conversion to understand how expensive something was, and my mind was in no condition for arithmetic. More stressing was my new camera. Just days before I had impulsively ordered a Canon 1300D (Rebel T6 in America) and I had hardly any idea how to use it, care for it, or store it. Fresh from the financial sting of purchasing the device, I was terrified of losing, breaking, or having it stolen. This was my state as I entered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
There are many options for getting from the airport to the center of Prague. I took a local bus and transferred to the metro, which took me to Prague’s central train station, Praha hnlavní nádraží, where I deposited my things in a luggage locker. Prague’s metro system is conspicuously attractive and efficient. There are only three metro lines (A, B, and C); but they have been planned so well and go so quickly that I felt that I could zip around the city. Many stations also feature appealing, even futuristic designs. It made a good first impression. Though the city of Prague has only around 1.3 million inhabitants, the metro carries 1.6 million riders a day, which gives you an idea of the level of tourism in the city.
As I emerged into the daylight from the train station—confused, panicked, disoriented—I was at a loss for where to go first. After some aimless wandering I emerged on the Václavské Náměstí (Wenceslas Square), which is more of a long open avenue than a plaza. Its name comes from St. Wenceslas, patron saint of Bohemia; and a monumental equestrian statue of the saint stands at the top of the square. Behind the statue, bookending the space, is the palatial building of the National Museum—which houses a large collection of both natural and cultural history, but which nevertheless is not a popular attraction (I didn’t go).
From there I made my way to the Old Town. (The aforementioned Wenceslas Square is in the New Town, an expansion of the city planned under Charles IV in the 14th century—very new indeed.) This led me through one of the old city gates, the Powder Tower, an attractive gothic edifice built of smoky grey stone and covered with decorative work.
Soon I found myself in the center of the city: Old Town Square. It is a very pretty place, lined with square apartment buildings painted in bright colors. Beyond them is the Church of Our Lady before Týn, whose tall, jagged gothic spires provide one of Prague’s most distinguishing sights. Tycho Brahe, the astronomer who taught Johannes Kepler, is buried here. In the center of the square is a statue of Jan Hus, an important religious reformer and predecessor of the Protestant Reformation, who believed that mass should be given in the vulgar tongue and the Bible translated into Czech—for which he was very reasonably burned as a heretic. This kicked off the Hussite Wars, in which an armed and mobilized Czech population repelled crusade after crusade sent by the Pope to squelch the heresy, an important event in Czech nationalism.
On the other side of the square is St. Nicholas Church, decorated in a pretty Baroque. Yet the most famous landmark is the extraordinary astronomical clock, or Prague orloj, affixed to the Old Town Hall. Unfortunately for me, however, the clock was under restoration when I visited, and was hidden underneath a tarp.
Standing in that expansive square, I was already beginning to see why Norman Davies, who wrote a history of Europe, named Prague the continent’s most beautiful city. But why is one of Europe’s most attractive places and most popular tourist destinations located in the Czech Republic, a country about which most Americans (myself included) know close to nothing?
It goes back to Prague’s previous title as the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia—at first an independent kingdom, and then a central part of the Holy Roman Empire. The kings of Bohemia ruled over a vast land that extended far beyond the borders of the current Czech Republic; and some were even elected to become the Holy Roman Emperor (that is, until the Habsburgs had their way). Indeed, during the high points of the Austrian power Prague played a role nearly as important as Vienna in central Europe. So the city’s great beauty is no coincidence. And luckily the city was not bombed nearly as heavily as other Nazi-controlled cities during the Second World War, so its beauty has survived intact.
My next stop was the city’s Jewish Quarter, located in a corner of the Old Town. My original plan was just to visit one synagogue; but to visit any of the landmarks of this neighborhood one must buy a combination ticket, which is certainly worth it. My first stop was the famous Spanish Synagogue. This is the newest synagogue in the Jewish Quarter; it was completed in 1868, built over what was the oldest synagogue in Prague, which had become too small for the congregation. The synagogue is called “Spanish” because of its Neo-Mudéjar interior decoration, built in imitation of the Moorish-influenced style developed by the Sephardic Jews of Spain. It is beautiful to behold. Every inch of the space is covered in geometric designs painted in a shimmering gold.
Outside the synagogue is a monument to one of Prague’s most famous sons: Franz Kafka. Born to a Jewish family (though not exactly religious himself), Kafka spent most of his unhappy life in Prague. The statue, by Jaroslav Róna, shows the sharp-featured, diminutive writer pointing his finger (at what?) while riding on the back of a faceless and armless man—a fittingly absurd image for the great poet of the absurd. Apparently it is considered good luck to rub Kafka’s feet; but I kept my distance, since luck and Kafka do not go together. There is a Kafka Museum elsewhere in the city, which I have heard is not very impressive. But in front there is a fountain worth seeing, featuring two men urinating into a little pool of water as sections of their bodies spin around. I don’t know if the image is particularly Kafkaesque, but it is memorable.
The next synagogue on my combined ticket was the Pinkas Synagogue. This synagogue is not nearly as visually striking as the Spanish Synagogue; its interest lies, rather, in the memorials within. On the lower level of the synagogue, the name, birthdate, and date of death of every Jewish victim of the Holocaust in the Czech Republic are inscribed on the walls. On the upper floor is an even more moving tribute: drawings made by the children sent to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. These survived because the children’s drawing teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, hid them in Theresienstadt before her deportation to Auschwitz, where she was killed. Most of the children suffered the same fate. The drawings are an extraordinary testimony of the humanity, individuality, and creativity of the children caught up in the catastrophe.
Right next to the Pinkas Synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery. Since Jewish custom forbids removing graves or markers once they are laid down, and since new land was difficult to acquire, the community was forced to put several graves on top of each other. As a result the cemetery is a forest of tombstones, many of them pushed to odd angles or otherwise falling down; and the ground level is higher than the surrounding streets. The graves span from the 14th to the 18th centuries, at which time Josef II (of Austria) decreed that no more burials were to take place within city walls, in order to reduce disease. Most of the markers are tombstones, though some of the more important personages have tumbas, or sarcophagi (though the body is not inside these). In some of these tumbas I observed little pieces of paper, folded up and tucked inside the nooks of the stone; and in front of one tumba—perhaps of rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel—I observed some people praying.
There were still more sites included on my ticket. One was the Ceremonial Hall of the Jewish Burial Society. A burial society (chevra kadisha in Hebrew) is a voluntary organization that helps to prepare the body of a deceased member of the community and prevent desecration. Nowadays the building is an exhibition space, with panels of information about the role of burial societies (of which I was entirely ignorant) as well as some ritual items on display. Nextdoor is the Old-New Synagogue, a gothic building that is the oldest active synagogue in Europe (it became the oldest when the older synagogue was knocked down to make the Spanish Synagogue). A legend tells that a golem—created by none other than the above-mentioned Judah Loew ben Bezalel, to protect the Jews of Prague from antisemites—inhabits the attic of this building. Nowadays the synagogue is filled with symbolic objects on display and explanations of Jewish customs. The last stop on this ticket was the Maisel Synagogue, an attractive neo-gothic building that houses an exposition on the history of the Jews in Prague. All of these spaces are administered by the Jewish Museum.
As all of these monuments demonstrate, Prague has long had a sizable Jewish community, which would seem to indicate that the city was relatively tolerant compared to other major European capitals. This may be true. However, even here the Jews faced serious persecution. In 1389, for example, following an accusation that Jews had desecrated the host—a common anti-semitic accusation during the Middle Ages—the city’s population was incited to fury and massacred almost every Jew in the city. In the previous century, aside from the infamous Nazi persecutions, the Jewish religion was repressed under the communists. It is, therefore, very heartening to see that a sizable community still exists in the city.
Now it was time to visit one of Prague’s most iconic monuments: the Charles Bridge. This medieval bridge is named for Charles IV (1316 – 1376), perhaps the most influential ruler in Czech history. Originally king of Bohemia, he was elected to become Holy Roman Emperor; and during his reign he oversaw several important expansions of the city, such as the aforementioned Wenceslas Square. Charles IV was also responsible for the so-called Golden Bull of 1356, which he proclaimed from the castle in Nuremberg, and which established clear procedures for electing the Holy Roman Emperor. This was important, since it helped to prevent controversies of legitimacy and succession, which threatened the continuance of the empire.
The bridge spans the river Vltava (sometimes called by its German name, the Moldau), the iconic waterway of the Czech Republic. From its opening in 1402 until 1841, the Charles Bridge was the river’s only crossing, connecting the Old City with Prague Castle. In design the bridge is not very different from Roman bridges I have seen: a relatively flat span (2,000 ft. in length) lying close to the water, suspended on a series of stone arches resting on stone foundations. Towers guard both sides of the bridge—an important defensive feature back in those days—which are not only intimidating but pleasing to the eye. The bridge is covered with statues, 30 of them, in a Baroque style depicting religious subjects.
Yet it is difficult to appreciate the statues, the bridge, the water, or the views with the huge crush of people inevitably walking across. Prague is hardly behind Venice as a European tourist destination; and so major attractions, like the bridge, attract suffocating crowds. And where tourists go, so does the rubbish—street performers, sketch artists, souvenir vendors, and all the rest. It is the bane of traveling.
Having squeezed across the bridge, it was time to ascend to Prague Castle. This is a whole building complex rather than a specific edifice. The castle sits atop a hill far above the level of the river, so getting there can be slightly exhausting if you are, like myself, not athletically inclined. The exertion is compensated, however, by lovely views of the river and the city beyond. To get inside the complex one must wait in a line and pass through security. Then one must buy a ticket at the office. There are multiple types of tickets, with different numbers of sites which can be visited, depending on the price. (True to form, I bought the cheapest one.)
Prague castle has been a seat of governance since the 9th century, making it far older than most other European capital buildings. And due to its very long tenure as a seat of power, the castle has an abundance of architectural styles on display. Having served Bohemian Kings and Holy Roman Emperors, the place retains its function as a seat of power, being the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Even the crown jewels are still kept here (though, unlike in Vienna, they cannot be visited). It is, in short, an important spot.
Yet the most famous building inside the castle complex is neither a palace nor a castle, but Prague’s cathedral: St. Vitus. This is one of the finest gothic cathedrals in the world, a blend of typical French gothic and special innovations particular to this church. The original head architect of the cathedral was Matthias of Arras, a Frenchman who designed a building in the prevalent French gothic. But after his death he was succeeded by Peter Parler, one of the great craftsmen of the Middle Ages. A sculptor rather than an architect, a German rather than a Frenchman, Parler introduced several idiosyncratic elements into the design of the cathedral, such as his characteristic net-vaulting, which both improve strength and create an attractive criss-crossing design on the ceiling.
I admit that, when I visited, I was mostly unable to appreciate any of these technical subtleties. Nevertheless I found the building hypnotic. From both without and within, the cathedral is pleasing to the eye—harmonious in its proportions, tasteful in its ornament, and unmistakable for any other cathedral. (It is worth noting, by the way, that Peter Parler was appointed by the unavoidable Charles VI; and it was this same architect who designed the Charles Bridge. In the history of Prague these two are unavoidable.)
The cathedral presents a striking view from every angle—inside or outside, back or front, from up close or far away, and so on. Its beauty consists in the design of the building itself rather (as in Toledo) in the artwork contained within. However, there is one chapel that stands out for special mention: the one dedicated to St. Wenceslas (which you may remember as the patron saint of the Czechs). The visitor cannot enter the room, but must be content with peering in through the doorway. The lower walls are dedicated with semi-precious stones and gothic painting depicting the passion, while the upper portion shows Renaissance-era frescos showing the life of the titular saint.
After I was finished admiring this glorious piece of religious architecture, I visited the Old Royal Palace, which was built in the 12th century. It is most notable for its Vladislav Hall, a massive ceremonial hall with an intricately vaulted ceiling that undulates like an ocean wave. It was also in this palace that the infamous Second Defenestration of Prague took place in 1618, when Czech protestants threw the catholic representatives of the Holy Roman Empire out a window, an event which helped to trigger the horrific Thirty Years’ War. (Somehow the catholics survived the 70-foot drop, which they naturally attributed to angels, and which the protestants attributed to a dunghill underneath them.) Since this event was the only thing I remembered about Prague from my AP European History class, I was elated to find this legendary window.
My next stop in the cathedral complex was the Basilica of St. George, a church with a cheerful Baroque façade that conceals a somber Romanesque interior. It was founded all the way back in 920 and preserves that ancient atmosphere even now. Then I made my way to the Golden Lane, a row of colorfully painted houses, pretty and quaint, that were originally built to house guards, and which later served as a home for goldsmiths (hence its name). Nowadays it is a row of overpriced souvenir shops. And it must be said that this progression, from guards to gold to gimmicks, encapsulates European history quite well.
Right next to Prague Castle is the Petřín Hill, an elevation covered with parks, which rises above the Vltava River. This is one of the loveliest green spaces in Prague and is a welcome respite from the crowded streets. Walking up the hill is not terribly strenuous; for the enemies of inclination, however, there is a funicular available. On top of the hill is the Petřín Lookout Tower, which was made in imitation of the Eiffel Tower. Indeed, it looks as though the top bit of the Parisian edifice had been lopped off and transported here. With the height of the hill (130 meters) added to the height of the tower (64 meters), it still falls short of the Eiffel Tower’s height (300 meters). Even so, it is the highest point for miles around. (I did not go up, since I was not in the mood for climbing stairs.) Also to be seen is the Hunger Wall, a defensive structure built during the reign of (guess who) Charles IV. Its name comes from the myth that the wall’s primary purpose was simply to provide work and food for the poor.
Nearby is the Strahov Monastery. Founded in the 12th century, it is an abbey of the Premonstratensians (the Order of the Prémontré), which means that it is inhabited, not by monks, but by Canons Regular who fulfil priestly duties. The building complex is impressive and lovely, especially the basilica (which, unfortunately, was closed to visitors when I arrived). Most famous are the monastery’s libraries. Visitors cannot enter inside, but must be content with peering in through the doorways. In the hall outside is an old cabinet of curiosities, featuring shimmering seashells, a stuffed alligator, and ancient Persian (?) armor—the sort of exotic mishmash one would expect from a curious European mind of centuries past. The two library rooms are magnificent. The Philosophical Hall is a grandiose neoclassical room filled with wooden shelves. The Theological Hall is perhaps even more impressive, featuring an elaborate stucco ceiling whose designs incorporate religious paintings. I love seeing such care lavished on libraries. Our books deserve it.
I descended from the monastery to the riverside, and found myself in Malá Strana. Literally this name means “Lesser District”—though, as my Airbnb host said, “There’s nothing ‘lesser’ about it.” This is one of the oldest parts of the city, dating back to the Middle Ages; but wars and fires largely destroyed the original town. What stands now mainly owes its origin to the Baroque era. As a result the buildings have a more uniform look, all around the same height with the same orange tiled roofs; and the streets are wider and straighter than in the Old City It is a pleasant place to walk around, if only because it is far less crowded than Prague’s center. There are some notable buildings to be seen, such as the Wallenstein Palace, an extensive mansion originally built for a general, and which now houses the Czech Senate. And there is the monumental St. Nicholas Church, an excellent example of Baroque architecture.
After a stroll through Malá Strana I squeezed over the Charles Bridge back into the Old City. This is what Prague is famous for. I have heard this part of the city described as “Disneyland for adults,” which is not far from the truth. For the Old City is swarming with people and full of restaurants and shops catering to foreign visitors. There is everything on sale between cheap junk and expensive trinkets, everything to eat from take-away pizza to pricey sit-down establishments. All this is crammed into the narrow, winding streets of the medieval city. It would be a beautiful place to walk around in if everyone else didn’t think so, too.
Feeling peckish myself, I ducked into a kebab place, hopeful that it would offer the highest ratio of foot-to-money. But I found, after calculating the conversion (which I unwisely did post-meal), that the kebab was three times more expensive than it would have been in Madrid—and didn’t taste any better. I had a much more positive experience at Naše maso, a butcher and delicatessen with great meat dishes at low prices. I had a meatloaf sandwich that was fantastic.
Next I walked down the river. (Just to be clear, I am putting multiple days together to streamline the narrative. This would be too much for one day.) The area beside the river is picturesque on either side. On the Malá Strana side I found a dock with a series of yellow penguins walking atop it. Nearby are three giant statues of faceless babies by the Czech sculptor David Černý, who was also responsible for the urination fountain outside the Kafka museum. Similar baby statues by Černý can be found crawling up and down Prague’s massive broadcasting tower, the Zikov TV Tower. Incidentally, there is a famous work of Černý’s that I missed on my visit to Vienna: a statue of Freud hanging from a roof. No Michelangelo, perhaps; but his work is memorable.
On the Old City side of the river the walk is just as lovely, taking me on a gentle curving road with the river on my right and a row of pretty, colorful building on my left. Walking along this way, I came upon the famous Dancing House of Prague. This is a modernistic (“deconstructivist,” as the designers call it) building designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić. The name is well-chosen, since the building does give the unmistakable impression of two figures in a waltz. A tower of glass swirls up next to the concrete body of the building, whose form is equally unstable. Irregular concrete panels and pop-out windows give the edifice a funhouse effect, as if it had been squished in a trick mirror. It makes for quite a sight next to the staid forms of the baroque apartments next door. For my part, I think the apartment provides a welcome moment of contrast with the rest of the city.
Nearby is the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, which is the principal Orthodox church in the Czech Republic. The church itself is an attractive place; but its fame does not rest on its architecture, but its history. Now, as you may know, Czechoslovakia, despite possessing formidable defenses, did not get a chance to defend itself from Nazi aggression during the Second World War. This is because Neville Chamberlain, as part of his appeasement strategy, ceded Czechoslovakia (without input from the Czechs) to Hitler in the hopes of satisfying the dictator’s expansionist threats. Thus the country was simply annexed without a fight. After the war broke out the Czechs set up a government-in-exile in England; and to establish its legitimacy and contribute towards the war effort, this government (in participation with England) planned and carried out Operation Anthropoid.
The idea was to kill Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany. A ruthless and vicious man—commander of internal security forces (such as the Gestapo), head of the Final Solution, and administrator of Nazi-controlled Bohemia—Heydrich soon earned the universal hatred he deserved. To be rid of him, seven Czech soldiers were parachuted into the country under cover of darkness on British planes. Two of these soldiers attacked Heydrich’s relatively unprotected car on his commute from his house to his office in Prague Castle. After a submachine gun jammed, the assassins threw a tank grenade which inflicted fatal wounds on the Nazi official. The assassins then made their escape and joined the rest of their team.
After the assassination, the Czech soldiers retreated to the church, a hideout for the resistance. But the betrayal of a Czech resistance fighter, Karel Čurda, led to their discovery. A huge team of SS soldiers descended on the church, determined to take the assassins alive. The soldiers defended themselves with pistols until three were killed, and the rest driven to the church’s basement, where they eventually committed suicide to avoid capture. This was not the end of the grizzly tale. On the very day of the assassination, Hitler ordered reprisals. Over 13,000 Czechs were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where 5,000 of them died. And this isn’t all. Based on false intelligence that the assassins had a connection to the small village of Lice, the Germans sent soldiers to commit a complete massacre. All the men were shot; the women and children were sent to the concentration camps, where most of them were killed. (After the war, Čurda the betrayer was hanged.)
In the basement of this church is now a permanent exposition and memorial to these soldiers. In a large circular room there are artifacts, such as weapons and parachute gear, on display; and panels of information tell the story of Operation Anthropoid. In the crypt—appropriately gloomy and grey—are busts of each of the seven soldiers, with plaques telling of their lives. Operation Anthropoid is a fascinating episode from the Second World War, equal parts uplifting and depressing; and standing before the graves of these young men who shook the world is a moving experience.
My last stop was further south along the river: Vyšehrad. The name literally means “upper castle,” and refers to the hill’s previous use as a fortress. Like Petřín Hill, Vyšehrad is an elevated green space that provides excellent views of the city. Crowning the hill is the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, an imposing neo-gothic structure. I wanted to go inside but, unfortunately, they were having mass. (Isn’t it irritating when people pray in churches?) It was late in the day when I arrived, so the attractive Vyšehrad cemetery was also closed—which is a shame, since Antonín Dvořák, the most famous of Czech composers, is buried here.
The sun was setting. Without anything to do, I walked to the front of the hillside and looked out at Prague—the shimmering blue river, crossed by iron and stone bridges; the orange rooftops and pink façades of the apartments; and in the distance Prague Castle, with the grey towers of its cathedral silhouetted against a rosy sky. I can see why people like this place.
Admittedly, I am not sure if I can concur with Norman Davies in calling Prague the most beautiful city in Europe—though it is certainly in the running. For my part there is too much tourism for it to be entirely comfortable; and it must be said that the city suffers from the lack of a really top-notch museum. Even so, nobody can deny that Prague is one of the jewels of this continent. There is something for everyone here—for the history buffs, for the art-lovers, and, yes, for the aficionados of knick-knacks and beer.
History is a discipline peculiarly impervious to high theoretical speculation: the more Theory intrudes, the father History recedes.
When I was in university, studying anthropology, I always resented the requirement that my essays have thesis statements. Can’t I just collect information and serve it up without taking some ultimate stance? Tony Judt seems to have been of the same mind, since this book is one very large serving of information, absent of any overarching thesis. As he says himself, Judt is rather like the proverbial fox than the hegdehog: he knows many things, and has many valuable observations scattered throughout the text, without any one big idea to tie them together.
There are compelling advantages to this approach. This book is one-stop shopping for many aspects of post-war European life. Economic development, intellectual fashions, architecture, film history, political movements, the Cold War, regionalism, the emergence of the European Union—all this and more is covered in impressive detail. And though multifarious, all of these pieces come together to form an astounding story: a continent nearly destroyed by war, divided by dangerous political tension, slowly emerging from American and Soviet dominance to become the most affluent, most peaceful, and most progressive place in the world.
The main disadvantage of this method is, of course, that this story remains fairly messy and haphazard. Without a thesis to guide him, Judt had to rely on a mixture of interest, instinct, and whim—the latter playing an especially significant role in some sections. What is more, though Judt is an opinionated and assertive guide, the lack of a thesis renders it difficult to point to anything distinctly “Judtean” in his analysis. What ties the narrative together is, rather, a certain mood or sensibility—most notably, Judt’s keen sense of historical irony, which he employs to great effect.
This ironic sensibility is most often directed toward Judt’s political foes. Though he is never explicitly partisan, it is easy to tell where Judt’s sympathies lie: in the center-left, socialist-democratic camp. Thus, depending on where the reader falls on the political spectrum, Judt’s comments will be either gratifying or grating. For me they were usually the former. What irked me, instead, was Judt’s relatively brief treatment of Spain—the Franco era is entirely ignored, and the transition to democracy is covered in just a few pages. But this is admittedly my own prejudice speaking.
If Postwar has one takeaway message, it is this: that Postwar Europe is the anxious construction of a generation wearied and horrified by conflict. After going through the belligerent nationalism of the First World War, the economic depression and intense ideological polarization of the interwar period, the even more gruesome Second World War and the unspeakable Holocaust—all this, coupled with the prolonged armed standoff and Soviet repression of the Cold War—Europeans were intent on creating a world where this could never happen again. Extreme ideological stances fell into disgrace; strong government social safety nets helped to prevent economic crisis and, in so doing, made people less susceptible to demagogues; and governments forged institutional ties with one another, a project that culminated in the European Union.
Without constant reminders of this catastrophe—a European civil war that began in 1914 and whose political aftereffects did not disappear until 1991, if then—we risk falling into the same errors that tore the continent apart one hundred years ago. For this, we need good historians—and Judt is certainly among the best.