Tag Archives: Czech Republic

Extreme Travel: Gypsies and Rubber Tramps

hippie vanBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

What does a scaler of Everest have in common with a guy sitting on a piece of driftwood on the Oregon shore who hasn’t climbed ten feet above sea level for years? They’re both extreme travelers.

For a lot of people, “extreme” doesn’t necessarily mean going to a remote place, or performing impressive physical deeds, or even seeking a particular kind of thrill. For some, travel is not an occasional luxury, or even a periodic obligation, but a way of life. The “extreme” part is the unending duration of it, and the danger that isn’t sought but that comes anyway.

America has its share of eternally restless wanderers who make their homes in old buses, vans, and even cars. Sooner or later, most of them pass through Venice, California. This piece looks at a few of them, who were featured in Rubber Tramps, a documentary directed by Max Koetter and produced by Kenny Rosen. The film crew started in Venice and worked its way up the California coastline to Oregon, interviewing and immortalizing a fascinating array of road folks such as these:

Ceramic artist Patty has run afoul of the rules governing sales on the boardwalk…During the filming of Rubber Tramps, Patty’s home on wheels was destroyed by fire, and the filmmakers gave her one of their buses. RomTom has spent plenty of time in Venice during his travels, and wrote a good portion of his book Comporting Roadwise in a local cafe.

For a fuller look at the “cast,” the film’s MySpace page shows the whole spectrum: the Vietnam veteran and his son; the Deadhead; the schizophrenic; the Greyhound employee; the aging black bluesman; the various troubadours and philosophers whose words and lives make this such an inspiring chronicle of alternative lifestyles. The film is stitched together with segments of a Ken Kesey interview, as the grand old man tromps around his Oregon farm. It was the last major film project of Kesey’s life. There’s even some antique footage of beat icon Neal Cassady driving the Merry Pranksters’ bus, Furthur.

The ability to be at home anywhere is, nowadays, an extreme life skill. But it used to be the only game in town, back when there was no town. Our roaming hunter-gatherer ancestors knew how to make the whole world their comfort zone. It’s genetic, mostly dormant, but still active in the true Gypsies. The Romany people have been persecuted for centuries, forced into urban ghettos to put an end to their roving, and then persecuted some more. In Europe and the United Kingdom they’re marginalized, and even tolerant Canada is undergoing a wave of Romophobia. In the Czech Republic alone, there have been at least 35 racially motivated murders of Gypsies in the past 20 years. In The Star, Rosie Dimanno, who writes prolifically about the world political scene, provides a summary of the current situation.

At the end of July, 150 Romanian gypsies showed up in Prague because a 17-year-old said to be the “prince” was in the hospital and not expected to live. (It should be noted that one of the gypsy secrets, revealed by a trustworthy source, is that there’s no such thing as Gypsy royalty, it’s just public relations BS to fool the gajos.) They camped someplace, and there were no problems. Then, the public health officials got involved, because to cook out in the open is unsanitary. The Gypsies camped someplace else, but got kicked out of there because it’s a natural heritage site. Then they camped somewhere else…

Well, the young man died. The Gypsies didn’t have enough money to transport the body back to Romania. Not even a third of it. So they hit up the Prague city fathers and the Romanian embassy, which said it would let them know in a couple of weeks. At another campground, the city declined to provide the Gypsies with portable toilets or tanks of drinking water. They might like it too much and decide to stay. They are the archetypal NIMBY triggers. (Somewhat like halfway houses, recycling plants, and various other things that are recognized as good, but to which the average urban dweller is likely to object, saying “not in my back yard.”) Civilized people think the Rom should just get over themselves and settle down. But in some other back yard.

photo courtesy of Dennis Wong , used under this Creative Commons license

Arts, Old and New, in the Czech Republic

hip hip.By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Over in Moscow, graffiti artists had the chance to lay aside their outlaw status for a while, and join with art students and students of all kinds to embellish dozens of heating units throughout Russia’s capitol. Ksenia Galouchko tells us in The Moscow Times:

Heating units can be found in most courtyards and are usually squat, drab, utilitarian buildings with little architectural value. The only people attracted to the buildings seem to be the homeless and graffiti artists whose art work has never, until today, found favor with the energy companies who own the buildings.

This time the spray paint has been deployed with official approval, and each contestant hopes for a very special prize: passage to the Czech Republic, where the team will represent their country at an international music and lifestyle festival. The Czech city of Hradec Kralove is gearing up for the onslaught of thousands of energetic kids for the annual Hip Hop Kemp, scheduled this year for August 20-22, with plenty of allowance on both sides for before-parties and after-parties.

An artist herself, Ksenia Galouchko also writes for The Stanford Daily and is a member of Pi Beta Phi sorority, as well as treasurer and V.P. of Artspan, a program for underprivileged and developmentally challenged children.

But now, to an older art form, in nearby Prague. I found a mystery in The Third Tower Up From the Road. When Kevin Dolgin went to Prague, he saw the Orloj, or astronomical clock, a very fancy timepiece with many moving figures, including the Christian Apostles and a skeleton (representing Death). This incredible piece of technology/art was created back in the year 1410. That’s almost 600 years ago. Anyway, here’s the interesting part. Quoting Kevin,

Legend says that Ruze’s eyes were put out after he finished so that he could never build a clock that would rival it. No one else ever did.

Yikes! However, closer attention reveals that Jan Ruze didn’t build the clock, and nobody put his eyes out. That’s why they call it a legend.

The point is, when I was a little kid, one of the standard family excursions was a trip to the museum in Buffalo, NY, 20 miles away, to see a clock very much like this one. Was there really never another clock like the Prague Orloj? Could it have been sent over to the States on loan? Because, going by the description, this clock sounded a lot like that one.

But no, this is not the same clock at all. A little research shows that the Prague Orloj is outdoors, for heaven’s sake. It’s a permanent installation. And it was attacked by tanks in World War II. And it’s a different shape. (Here’s a cool animated computer model of how the dials move.)Orloj The picture here is of a couple of the figures, and part of the dials.

The astronomical clock in the museum of my youth was housed in a wooden cabinet, like your standard-issue grandfather clock. The apostles were on a circular track and they came out from the interior of the clock’s case, past the figure of Jesus in the middle, which they all bowed to, except one. And Satan popped out like a cuckoo, from a little door. That’s how I remember it, anyway. As it turns out, there is such a clock. Myles Hughes built it, nowhere near 600 years ago.

There’s another Apostle Clock in Oshkosh , Wisconsin, pretty much like the one Hughes spent 35 years building, only this one was built by Mathias Kitz and it only took him six years. And it has an angel instead of the devil. And here it is not Peter who turns away, but Judas, bag of silver coins in hand. In the United States, about 25 of these “monumental clocks” were made altogether.

Also in Prague, the Kafka Musuem has opened, and you might be interested to know that the great author referred to his hometown as “a dear little mother with claws.” Last month, the cinephiles of Prague were delighted to welcome John Malkovich to the 44th International Film Festival where he taught a master class and received a Crystal Globe Award. Another festival, the Prague Biennale, has lost all its funding and the spring 2009 edition was sponsored by artists and curators. On the positive side, amazingly, Bernard’s Summer School of Irish Dancing is enjoying its successful 9th year in Prague.

Hip hop photo courtesy of .:martu:. , used under this Creative Commons license, Figures photo courtesy of Jorge-11, used under this Creative Commons license, Clock face photo courtesy of Jorge-11, used under this Creative Commons license

Prague, Czech Republic Capital, Has It All

Prague Main

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Thanks to The Miami Herald, we learn some of the innermost thoughts of author Lisa Unger. An interview with her is conducted by Andrea Asuaje, who writes on music, fashion, and many other subjects for that paper. Titled “Dark imagination fuels her plots,” this dialogue illuminates Unger’s views. In search of an economical vacation, the author’s family tried out a home exchange, whose success she describes enthusiastically:

In our search for a place to go with our first home exchange, we wound up in Prague. It just turned out to be this amazing experience. I was so inspired by . . . the beauty of it. It’s an amazingly gorgeous place, but one that has a secret heart.

How does this tie in with a column devoted to literary travel? Glad you asked! As a result of that vacation trip, Unger was inspired to set her latest novel, Die For You, in Prague, premier city of the Czech Republic. Not long ago, we noted that this European capitol is one of the Top Ten Party Destinations according to Student Universe. One reason for this popularity is the annual music festival, called Respect, which draws musicians from all over the globe. And of course, as is proper to any old continental urban center, the outlying areas are rife with castles and other scenic delights.

Taking a closer look, we find that it’s also a good place to visit if your major is hospitality, naval technology, or Holocaust reparations. A venerable monastery has just been repurposed into a fine hotel, called the Augustine, in honor of the monks whose former home it was. The US Navy is in negotiations to open a center for technological research in the city, which also recently hosted an international conference devoted to figuring out how to recover Nazi loot and return the stolen property to its rightful owners.

“And,” I hear you ask, “has Kevin Dolgin ever written about Prague?” Of course he has. The travel essay of which we speak is “Kafka’s Erotic Dream: Prague, Czech Republic” and it’s one of the munificent number of similarly captivating pieces found in The Third Tower Up From the Road. He writes about the Charles Bridge (pictured above) and the Sex Machine Museum (not pictured; sorry) and, you’re not going to believe this, but he verifies the impression made by Prague upon suspense novelist Lisa Unger with these shivery words:

It’s a city with a lot of secrets…it’s no wonder Kafka built his tortuous worlds here, and it’s no wonder that the castle of his nightmares bore so many rooms.

Prague Castle

bridge photo courtesy of panorama , used under this Creative Commons license; castle photo courtesy of liber, used under this Creative Commons license