It was my first trip to the continent, and I shall confess up front that although I saw much, I learned little. There is just too much to see, and after awhile the castles and cathedrals, museums and historic sites all sort of run together. A recurring theme was the Habsburgs, a long-lived dynasty that grew and prospered thanks to strategic intermarriage and eventually dwindled—the result of inbreeding.
Queen bee of the empire was Empress Maria Theresia, seen here sculpted in marzipan. Elsewhere across Europe, the empress is represented in marble and on canvases in huge gilded frames—along with portraits of her vast progeny. The royals dwelt in palatial rooms accessed by carpeted walkways, separated from commoners and tourists by plexiglass barriers and velvet ropes. Smoking and photography were not permitted.
In those days, if you got crosswise with the powers that be, you would be tortured until you confessed to whatever crime you stood accused of, be it treason or witchcraft or sexual consort with the devil. In Prague I toured the Torture Museum and yes, waterboarding is indeed a form of torture, and evidently it works just fine in extracting confessions. So let’s give Mr. Cheney his due, and let’s hear it for the Dark Ages!
What surprised me is how undark Eastern Europe has become since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Budapest, the streets were bustling with attractive, well-dressed, apparently affluent young people. Oh, here and there I spotted a beggar, but even the beggars sported happy meals.
On the outskirts of the city I saw ruined factories and soulless prefab high rise apartment buildings reminiscent of student housing at BYU. Another remnant of the Soviet occupation: the dreariest army camp I’ve ever seen. Oppressors and oppressed alike suffered under communist rule.
In Bratislava I saw more of the same. Attractive young women emerging like spring flowers from between the cracks of a crumbling infrastructure. An ancient artillery emplacement had been turned into a climbing wall. A radio tower from which mothers are permitted to bungee jump for free on Mother’s Day.
Each night we would return to our cruise ship and resume making our way up the Danube. I use the term “cruise ship” only because that’s how our boat was described in the promotional literature. Imagine an EconoLodge with a bow at one end and a propeller at the other and a phone booth-sized wheelhouse on top along with some folding chairs occupied from time to time by sightseers but usually empty. I would have gladly spent the entire time watching the scenery drift by were it not for Andrea, our imperious cruise director. You could run from Andrea but you couldn’t hide, since all cabins on the boat were equipped with loud speakers, over which Andrea barked instructions at hourly intervals.
“Gut morning, ladies unt gentlemen…dinner buffet is now being served on the Mozart deck.”
As if I’m not already fat enough, my daily caloric intake aboard ship was at least ten times that of a lumberjack. To make matters worse, I was sartorially challenged. No one told me that passengers are supposed to dress “smartly” for meals, so there I was in my cargo shorts, T- shirt and flip flops, being ushered to my table by Christopher Plummer in a tuxedo. I felt a lot like steerage trash aboard the Titanic, the main difference being that there was no Kate Winslet to woo—no young women at all, in fact. Under the baleful gaze of a smartly dressed 300-pound Russian matron I would dine hastily, then beat a retreat to my cabin beneath the water line to digest in peace, only to be disturbed immediately by Judit the omnipresent chamber maid, or Andrea the cruise director.
“Gut afternoon, ladies unt gentlemen. Ze bus for Salzberg will be boarding in ten minutes.”
Here is what I learned in Salzberg. It’s a village in Austria where there is a museum in which you can view a lock of Mozart’s hair, and a garden named Mirabell where Julie Andrews tutored the Trapp Family singers. I also learned there are no kangaroos in Austria, nor is “Edelweiss” the national anthem.
Somewhere in the Czech Republic, we toured a brewery that was almost identical to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. I half expected the tasting tour to be interrupted by a cautionary musical number, performed by teetotaling Oompaloompahs:
“What do you get when you drink too much beer? A big bulbous nose and a gut out to here…”
No matter. I drank as much beer as I could lay my hands on, because I knew that before long I would be back in the United States, home of Budweiser Lite. And now that I am home, people have been asking if I took any good pictures (NO) and if I learned anything. (NOT MUCH)
Well, it’s just very hard to learn much about a country and its inhabitants while being frog marched from one tourist attraction or another. Moreover, I have long harbored an aversion to tourist attractions, and main attractions. Ever since I was a little boy people have been criticizing me because I never seem to be looking in the right direction.
“The show’s that way,” I was admonished by the people seated behind me in the Price Theater. Was I the only kid who was more fascinated by the projection booth? I always wanted to see what was going on behind me. As a result, I’ve missed many an important announcement. On the plus side, I’ve never been mugged, nor has my pocket been picked.