I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Communalism in a Red Bull Europe

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Throughout my travels this summer, I’ve been struck by the different ways societies and great cities handle their challenges. Everyone wants to live well.

Denmark is so expensive, yet so efficient. People live better than their income would suggest — in fact, they seem to live extremely well. I don’t understand the inner-works of a society, but Danish society seems to be a social internal-combustion engine in a glass box. High taxes, all interrelated and connected. It seems Scandinavians have evolved as far as socialism can go without violating the necessary fundamentals of capitalism. Communalism.

What happens when a tune-up is needed? “Who does it?” I ask. My Danish friends say, “The government.” What does government represent in Denmark: corporate or the people’s interest? Clearly the people’s. Danes say, “If our government lets us down, we let ourselves down.”

In a Danish village, you are allowed to pick berries and nuts “no more than would fit in your hat.” I saw Danish communalism in the reaction a friend had in that village when the biggest hotel in town started renting bikes. They don’t need to do that — it is Mrs. Hansen’s (who runs the bike-rental shop next to the gas station) livelihood. Of course there’s no law forbidding it…it was a matter of neighborly decency.

Switzerland has its own approach to persistent social problems. Once someone pointed out Switzerland’s syringe-vending machines, I saw them in every city — big, blocky vending machines which, if you read the paint-overs carefully, originally sold cigarettes, then condoms, and now syringes. The same syringes cost 1 Swiss franc in Bern and 3 in Zürich. I wondered why.

Another little difference I noticed in Swiss cities is their system of garbage collection. People buy bright-blue bags for 2 SF ($1.50) each. Each plastic bag includes pick-up service. They just fill the bags with garbage, put them on the curb, and they’re picked up.

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As I travel, I have picked up these ideas in conversations. They’re not clear to me. Perhaps you can help.

Someone told me that war doesn’t shape history, successful systems and economics do. Maybe it’s roads and free trade — freedom to learn and challenge — that makes history. War powers like Sparta, Prussia, and the Third Reich have left relatively little for today’s sightseers — the warrior cultures ultimately have had little impact. English is spoken because England (and later the USA) had (and have?) the best system. Rome’s impact was thanks to trade and roads–not its centurions.

Societies advance in a Darwinian way. Like Adam Smith’s invisible hand directs the evolution of economies, what makes people happy directs the evolution of social and political systems.

As I headed to the airport earlier this summer in Zagreb, people were running to catch their trams. At the airport coffee shop, a manager had his staff scurrying to provide high-priced drinks to fast-paced, Red Bull-slurping Croats. Above the cash register was a photo of Pope John Paul II smiling on and tenderly touching the flag of a new and free nation — Croatia.

Surrounded by a shiny, new, and affluent Croatia, it was clear to me that when left to grow — nourished by democracy, capitalism, and national pride — the cultural garden of Europe (and lands beyond) can be both diverse and fruitful.

Globalization and Koyaaturismos

Globalization can be seen in European tourism. Europe is hosting more wealthy Indian, Middle Eastern, and Asian travelers than ever.

I got an email recently from a man who said, “Thanks for the TV shows. They will provide a historical documentation of a time when Europe was white and not Muslim. Keep filming your beloved Europe before it’s gone.”

I thought again how feisty fear is these days in the USA. Fear. A fear of African Americans swept the USA in the ‘60s. Jews have been feared throughout European history. Today, Muslims are feared. A Sienese friend told me how his cathedral — with its distinct black and white stripes, mixing both Byzantine arches and French Gothic arches—symbolizes to him how Siena was a power in its day because it welcomed the merging of east and west without fear.

In Austria, I shared a table with a young man from Kobe. I said I was from Seattle. He became all high-fives, since Ichiro (the Mariners baseball superstar) was from Kobe. A single traveler, he was backpacking, but with a big, red, hard-sided suitcase. Surprising me, he asked the waiter if he could park his suitcase inside the restaurant’s door for a couple hours and hiked off to explore the ruined castle overlooking the Danube. It’s great to see Asian travelers gaining the confidence to explore Europe without the crutch of a big bus tour and guide. My Swiss friend, Fritz, earns money on the side by taking travelers tandem parasailing. Fritz says, “There are 20 million Indian millionaires. They know how to be big shots.” He tells of an obese patron he took tandem flying. With a good updraft and a normal-size passenger, you take two steps and you’re flying. On this particular day there was neither. Fritz asked his customer to help by running. His big Indian patron said, “I don’t run. I pay. You run.” It was a memorable flight, perhaps foreshadowing a harsh reality to come for Western cultures — American and European alike.

After a hailstorm in Interlaken that made all the Swiss papers, the National Guard came out with their clean-up gear. A heavy fog bank settled on the vast grazing ground that marks the center of town. The children of Saudi families were running in and out of the fog banks, disappearing and reappearing with glee as their parents photographed them. Fritz said that Arab travelers are also discovering the Alps. They come here for the fog and the rain. They love the rain.

In a strange little mental detour, I considered all the fuss over our visit to the Dordogne foie gras goose farm earlier on our trip, where I was so impressed at how decently the geese were being treated for our TV cameras. Then I wondered if that farm might be the Terezín Concentration Camp of foie gras — just set up for the media.

The discussion on this blog about candor in travel reporting got me thinking about the movie Koyaanisqatsi. There’s not a word in the entire movie until the end, when we see a printed Hopi Indian proverb about “life out of balance.” Half of the movie is insane “techno-fascism” traffic, tension, people embattled by urban sadness, spinning cranes, and ugly graffiti. The other half is soothing vistas of pristine nature as if from the eyes of a soaring eagle.

Standing in the lobby of Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace with piles of fan-waving tourists, it occurred to me that I could produce a TV special called “Koyaaturismos”: first the ugly reality of mass tourism on the road, then a pristine montage of all the glories — no words…just the rewards of exploring the natural and cultural wonders of Europe.

Cleaning Up as I Prepare to Fly Home

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Here are a few random notes from the past few weeks as I near the end of my summer travels:

My Swiss friend, Olle, takes me on my annual walk through the village of Gimmelwald. We see a rack of scythes. He demonstrates how they are sharpened not with a file, but by pounding. A sharp scythe is critical for a farmer — it cuts through hay like butter. Across the way, old boots with studs nailed on them for a grip on the steep slopes are nailed to the wall of a hut with their new use — alpine flower holder. In this case, traditional alpine culture survives…but only on show.

Traveling to the remote Czech backwater of Moravsky Krumlov to see Mucha’s Slavic Epic, it occurred to me that the Czechs keeping this grand series of canvases here is like keeping the Mona Lisain Walla Walla.

I never dreamed of wearing socks more than one day until my cameraman suggested it. After 10 minutes, you don’t notice.

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Copenhagen’s streets were noisy with grads filling decorated trucks, screaming and drinking as they went from family to family for beers at a progressive graduation party hosted by their parents. They can handle the alcohol and have promising futures. Then I saw the Greenlanders. Young people from Greenland with the best prospects often travel to Copenhagen, their colonial capital, for a higher education (there’s none in Greenland). Hoping to build their young lives, they often fail — ending up unable to handle the temptations of Danish life. It’s a sad sight — wasted Greenlanders littering the square.

I didn’t realize that in central Rome, there are no buildings from after 1938. Looking for restaurants, I noticed vines climbing the buildings and it occurred to me that the places I like to recommend have roots. Places whose regulars remember when the place was their father’s favorite. Places named for the man whose faded photo is now on the wall…or who is so old he can only pretend to contribute, and shuffles around grating cheese on the pasta his grandchildren are cooking.

Don’t Call Me Adolf

Traveling through the Czech Republic, you realize how, for Central Europe, the 20th century was a dominated by the battle between far-left and far-right politics — communism and fascism. The communist school system drilled home the evils of fascism. Honza, my Czech friend, said, “Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia, you’d think Nazis killed more communists than Jews.”

I imagine “Adolf” was a popular name once upon a time. I asked Honza about it. He said his grandfather, born in 1905, was an Adolf. He was a soldier in the Czech army. As early as 1934 (just a year after the infamous Adolf came to power, and several years before the rest of Europe realized what was cooking), this Adolf was so disgusted by the fascist German leader that he changed his name to Bob.

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Honza’s father-in-law, on the other hand, was a Czech born in 1942 in the Sudetenland — Czech territory mostly inhabited by ethnic Germans, annexed by Hitler in 1938. To get along better in that German-ruled land, he actually changed his name to Adolf.

As we drove out of the Czech Republic, I could sense we were nearing the border — we seemed to be cheered on by yards full of tacky garden gnomes for sale and topless dance clubs. Suddenly we were showing our passports (which seems so archaic now in Europe). The woman in a crisp Austrian customs uniform greeted us with a terse, “In Austria, you must turn on the car lights at all hours.”

The border surprised us, as we were still hoping to shoot a couple more “drive-bys” for our Czech Republic TV show (that’s a shot of a car driving by a nice bit of local countryside to give the editor a transition between towns in a show). For a moment, we considered cheating — shooting a “drive-by” a few miles over the border in Austria. But it was clearly a different country. When you study the landscape, the visual contrast is night and day from the rustic Czech Republic to pristine and fertile Austria. The soil, roads, buildings, even the color of the grass is all distinctly richer in Austria.

Our first stop in Austria was the concentration camp at Mauthausen. Even after countless visits over the last decades, concentration camp visits are always powerful experiences for me and give me new things to ponder. In the basement next to a shower room where inmates were gassed, I noticed a German family deep in conversation. Standing in front of an exhibit showing a big photograph of a gas canister with its lethal pellets spilling out, the father was patiently explaining things to his wide-eyed children (ages about 9 and 11).

I never considered this parenting chore and responsibility, unique to German moms and dads: to tell your children what your parents did in the Holocaust. As what the USA has termed its “Greatest Generation” passes away, so does Germany’s counterpart.

[I realize this man’s father probably had nothing personally to do with the horrors of Hitler’s gas chambers, but a society must live with (and take responsibility for) what they allow their government to do in its name. I believe that if, for instance, some day history proves that the US was wrong to make war in Iraq that it is not the generals or President Bush who are to blame but the American people. In that sense, I don’t think an electorate can claim to be “innocent civilians.” I believe that as a tax-paying American citizen, every bullet that flies and every bomb that drops–whether right or wrong–has my name on it.]

They Fry Sperm in Trebon

On the main square in the Czech town of Trebon, the bank has a statue of a man holding a big fish over its door. The city is all about fish — farmed here in manmade lakes for centuries.

Another statue honors the town’s 15th-century megalomaniac lake-building hero, Jakub Krcín (now considered a “hero” since his medieval lakes absorbed enough water to save Trebon from the 2002 flood that devastated Prague).

At dinner, my beer glass says, “Bohemia Regent anno 1379.” It occurs to me that I’m consuming exactly what people have been eating and drinking in Trebon for over 600 years: fish from the reservoir just outside the gate and the local brew. And they are good at fish.

Just like the French have words distinguishing triple the kinds of kisses we have in English (can a French-speaker help send in a few examples, please?), the Czechs of Trebon cook fish with both passion and variety.

For maximum experience, we ordered all the appetizers on the menu tapas-style (a good trick when trying to eat your way through another culture): “soused” (must mean “pickled”) herring, fried loach, “stuffed carp willet sailor fashion,” cod liver, pike caviar, and something my Czech friend and guide Honza translated as “fried carp sperm.”

I said, “You can’t fry sperm.” And everyone at my table insisted that, while female fish have a whole trough full of eggs (caviar), the males have a trough full of the male counterpart — and it’s cookable. Fried carp sperm tasted like fried oyster…same texture, too.

For my main course, I had to try the rest of the carp. I thought carp just swam in hotel fountains. It was the cheapest fish for good reason — bottom-end…muddy weed-eater…mucky mucky carp.

Trebon’s other claim to fame is its spa, where people come from near and far to soak in peat. Envisioning the elegance of Germany’s Baden-Baden, I had to give it a whirl. Besides, I thought it would make good TV. Stepping into the huge institution, we checked in. Immersed in a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestambiance, we were ushered through.

My attendant didn’t really understand why I had an entourage (local guide/translator, producer, and cameraman). She just treated my like some deaf-mute she was assigned to bathe and massage. She pointed to room number 8. I stepped in to see a huge naked lady climbing into a stainless-steel tub. She must have meant number 9.

Number 9 was a tiny shared cubicle — someone else’s clothes already hung there — which led to a big steel tub. (I never saw my cubicle mate.) She mimed to take off everything. I kept my military-green swim suit on (afraid of a prankish combination of high-definition footage, my producer Simon’s sense of humor, and YouTube). She snarled.

Camera work is slow. She was anxious. The peat muck only flows at the top of the hour. I climbed into my stainless-steel tub, she pulled a plug, and I quickly disappeared under a rising sea of dark-brown peat broth (like a gurgling sawdust soup).

Then, my tub was full and all was silent. My ten toes looked cute poking out of the hot brown and glassy-still sea. She kept acting like I would overdose if I stayed in too long. But we filmed our sequence (one of the stupidest-looking show opens we’ve ever done — I looked like a naked Al Jolson).

Finally we were done shooting. Standing in the tub, I showered off the sludge. She ushered me into the massage room and laid me face-down. It was like a nurse’s office with a pile of dirty sheets stacked in the corner. Honza translated it in our guidebook as “hand massage.” That sounded redundant at best…vaguely kinky at worst. Honza said that’s literally what massages are called in Czech (rucni masaz).

We just wanted to film my shoulders. But she insisted on ignoring the camera’s needs and giving me a hand massage from my shoulder to just about where I didn’t want the camera to go. When the crew had what they needed, they left. I tried to go, too, but she wouldn’t let me. She had to complete the massage that every patient at the Trebon spa is entitled to. (Most people at the spa were there at their doctor’s orders, with expenses covered by insurance.)

I walked out with a mucky massage cream causing my shirt to stick to me, and without a clue what soaking in that peat soup was supposed to accomplish.