- I did not expect to like Vienna so much, but I really did. Apparently I watched too many movies about WWII as a child (this may sound like I'm kidding, but I'm not - my father made us watch a zillion of 'em), so I have this deep-seated, irrational resentment of Germany and Austria. I realize that it's been 60 goddamn years. I realize that there are people from both countries who fought against the Nazis with their last breaths. I realize that I would not want people to judge me by, say, George W. Bush or Rand Paul. And I realize that Hungary's politics are currently WAY scarier than either Germany's or Austria's. I get all this. I realize that it's irrational and that I should grow the hell up and approach Vienna on its own terms. So I did.
And it turns out that ending up in Vienna was a great thing for us, because we both really dug it. It's a beautiful city with a delightfully cranky and effective history of socialism (you go, Red Vienna!), excellent coffee and associated ridiculous coffee beverages, fabulous music and art all over the damn place, wonderful architecture, leafy boulevards... So much to recommend it.
- I wish Google would fuck off and stop "helping" by noticing that I'm online in Austria and Hungary and thus switching its default language to German. FUCK OFF. People travel! Stop helping me!
- Cool, rainy weather feels like heaven after a miserably, punishingly hot, dry Texas summer. Y'all, I wore A SWEATER. Because I was COLD. It was kind of awesome.
- Many men in Vienna and Budapest wear too goddamn much cologne. Dial it down if you're going to take crowded public transportation, people!
- Viennese folk are very, very good at creepy things. I imagine it's a good city to be Goth in. The natural history museum is fabulous in ways that demonstrate this clearly - lots of creepy little tableaux about. There's also a charmingly mordant sense of humor on display - like the butterfly sitting cheekily on the nose of a taxidermied caiman (which is like a wee alligator).
- I stood in front of the Venus of Willendorf and realized how small she is, but how beautifully detailed. Humans could make art with such care and grace 25,000 years ago! Cool.
- I do okay with basic courtesies and stuff in German, but holy craptacular, Hungarian is HARD. I've just had the hardest time wrapping my head around the pronunciation.
- Poor Hungary has pretty much had the shit kicked out of it forever. Part of this is just bad geographical luck - like Poland, it stands between western European powers and Asian ones, and it gets ground like grain between them. But Hungarian leaders also just seem to choose tragically badly, to end up on the wrong side of history.
- Today we went to Terror House
(museum and memorial to those killed by the Nazi occupation and then the Soviet occupation) and the Great Synagogue (second largest in the world, very beautiful, with memorials outside to the Hungarian Jews who died in WWII). The seemingly endless list of names and catalogue of those killed during the occupations covers a staggering amount of wall space at Terror House. The tree of life memorial outside the synagogue, with the name of a Jew who was killed engraved on each leaf, is beautiful and gut-wrenchingly sad. As often happens to me in Europe, I feel like I've spent all day tripping over bones. I'm glad I saw these things. They are heartbreaking, horrifying, and important, especially for people from the US who have not experienced war or occupation on their own soil. It's too easy for us to forget that when we talk about sending troops somewhere, this is what we ultimately mean: homes, bridges, roads, schools, lives, and families destroyed. It's too easy to forget what a country looks like when people are bullied into policing their neighbors and themselves, when the panopticon leaves us hating and fearing any difference or deviation. I left nauseated, tearful, and more committed than ever to fighting my own country's fascist tendencies.
But can I tell y'all something wonderful I learned today? Outside the Great Synagogue, there's also a memorial to Raoul Wallenberg
, a Swedish diplomat who literally, personally saved thousands of Jews. He issued protective passports, as many as his office could churn out, which were totally illegal but which allowed hundreds of people, maybe more, to escape. He organized a group of over 300 folks to help out and raise money to rent buildings (32 in all!!) and he declared those spaces Swedish territory - where he and his allies housed 10,000 people who otherwise would have been tortured and/or killed. Ten. THOUSAND. People.
One of the people Wallenberg saved was Rep. Tom Lantos
(D-CA), who died in 2008, but who was a tireless champion of human rights, co-founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, a fierce progressive (on almost every issue - unsurprisingly, he was more than a bit hawkish on Middle East issues), and a particularly strong environmentalist. Lantos fought in the Hungarian resistance and was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the US Congress. He was not unproblematic, but damn, dude got himself arrested for civil disobedience protesting in front of the Sudanese embassy over Darfur issues when he was 78 years old. I have no doubt that he was treated much more gently by DC cops as a sitting member of Congress than he ever was when detained in his youth, but still. That's pretty hardcore for a man pushing 80 years of age. His grandson, Tomicah Tillemann, is now a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton. His grandaughter, Charity Tilleman-Dick, is an opera singer. And that's just some of the ripple effect from one of the thousands of people Raoul Wallenberg saved.
So that's today's powerful reminder that one person who chooses to be brave and kind can change the world in unimaginably beautiful ways that will echo through time long after xie is gone. Blessings on you, Raoul Wallenberg.