Before I moved to Central Europe, I never really thought about the words vacation and Polish border fitting into a sentence together. But in fact, that sentence precisely describes what we’ve been up to for the past five days (and, by extension, why I haven’t posted anything here for several days).
It’s interesting how much moving here has changed my sense of proximity and orientation to this part of the world. When I lived in the U.S. and travelled to Europe from time to time, I used to think of Prague as an exotically eastern location, slightly beyond the outer edge of what’s known and familiar (known and familiar being, I suppose, Western Europe), a gateway to a mysterious land of slavic spires and Orthodox churches. Or something like that. Anyway, now that I’ve lived here for three years, Czech Republic feels overwhelmingly central, for better or for worse– as its best, cozily and conveniently in-the-middle-of-things; at its worst, boringly midwestern. So, within that new framework, driving to Poland spent somewhat like when I was in college in Minnesota and we used to drive to Wisconsin on beer runs. (For more on this European nations = U.S. states analogy, see this post).
Our five days were spent with friends in this renovated old hunting lodge just over the border (the first time, incidentally, that my three month-old son has been abroad), re-christened the Saraswati Hotel by its current owners, Raj and Kamila. Raj is an American of Indian descent; Kamila, Polish– I imagine that this combination must give them a pretty distinct pedigree among hotel proprietors in Poland. Gratifyingly, Raj told me that the lodge had been converted to Communist offices when they bought it, the upstairs subdivided into innumerable dinky offices that were promptly torn down. Leave it to Communism to bureaucratize even the most scenic of places.
Raj has also built a complete recording studio in a nearby farmhouse (shown above). This was visually interesting to me, in part because the structure itself so clearly retains the character of farmhouses found all over Poland and Czech- such that you could almost picture a babushka peeling potatoes in the main room- and yet was filled with state-of-the-art sound boards and pre-amps and general recording gadgetry. Also, there was this incredible-looking harpsichord sitting in one of the main rooms (shown poorly in this photograph, unfortunately):
The event was a week-long get-together among a bunch of musician friends, including a troupe of players from the Warsaw Opera. In fact, everyone there was an accomplished musician except for me and my family, who were egregiously freeloading off the creative vibes. Of course, the great thing about hanging out around musicians is that they’re constantly expressing their enjoyment of things in musical terms, whereas I can only express myself through sarcasm. I particularly enjoyed a surprise midnight baroque extravaganza staged for Kamila’s birthday. The weekend in general reminded me a tad of the Simpsons episode where Homer achieves his dream of working at a bowling alley but then has to quit for financial reasons: as he trudges back towards the power plant, his depressed bowling-addicted co-workers are heard in the background: ‘I’m depressed… What should be do?… I know: let’s bowl!’ followed by happy cheers and sounds of bowling. The vibe with the musician troupe had the same feeling, except with ‘Let’s make music!’ interjected at every opportunity.
Finally, there are a few interesting things to check out on the way:
1. Disused Poland/Czech border checkpoint. I love abandoned checkpoints. This one was fully operational as recently as 18 months ago, creating a thriving and pointless bureaucratic traffic jam. Since Czech and Poland joined the Schengen area (the mass of Western and Central European countries that have open borders) and closed their checkpoints, all that’s missing is some rusting girders and tumbleweeds. It was more romantic and lonely on way up when we passed through this point in the rain; unfortunately, I only got around to taking pictures on the way back when it was sunny… so, I converted them to black-and-white as a compromise:
2. Ještěd. This nutcase sci-fi observatory (pronounced ‘YES-shtead’) sits on one of the highest points in the Czech Republic, just over the border in Liberec. It looks just like something out of one of those 1950s visualizations of the future where everyone takes their own aircraft to work and talks on TV telephones.
Also, some pics of nice countryside on the Czech side of the border (a bit blurry, as they were snapped from a moving car):