Midnight in Savannah’s Garden of Good and Evil

Savannah’s Mercer Williams House, where art and antiques dealer Jim Williams shot a local male prostitute, the story central to John Berendt’s book and Clint Eastwood’s film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Photos from visitsavannah.com
The fountain at the north end of Forsyth Park; the park is the biggest in Savannah’s historic district, covering 30 acres.

Every time someone tells me, “The book is always better than the movie,” I point to two movies: Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Alexander Payne’s Sideways.

No, not always.

I saw the movies first before I read the books — Sideways by Rex Pickett, and Midnight by John Berendt, which was a damn good book — but it was the movies that I fell in love with. Eastwood’s film put Savannah, Georgia on the global tourism map — suddenly everyone wanted to see its garden squares every three blocks, its wooden houses that can only be described as languid, like a woman on a chaise lounge being sketched by an artist and, above all, the Bird Girl statue.

While Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump was also shot there, to my mind the location wasn’t as crucial as it was in Midnight. It didn’t have me putting it on my bucket list, Midnight did. One can argue that central to both movies are quirky characters that made Savannah memorable or that it was only Savannah that has in real life such characters that any other location was impossible.

I flew from Manila almost a decade ago to have a look at the Bird Girl statue, formerly at Bonaventure Cemetery and later transferred to Telfair Museum, because I was so in love with the film version of “Midnight.”

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was written by former Esquire and New York magazine editor John Berendt. Published in 1994, Berendt’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and spent 216 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, a record unbroken to this day.

Midnight also has one of the best book covers ever: a haunting picture of what the world would come to call the Bird Girl, a bronze sculpture of a girl holding bird feeders in both hands. There were four statues made from a cast and one of them ended up in local family plot at Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah. When Random House sent a photographer to shoot the cover for Berendt’s book, the author suggested that he find a subject in the cemetery and the photographer found the statue as the light was fading.

I’m a whodunit kind of girl, I love a murder mystery in any genre and there’s one at the heart of Midnight — the shooting of a local male prostitute (“a good time not yet had by all”) amid a slew of peculiar characters, socialites, old and new money swirling in Southern Gothic atmosphere. It’s Eastwood, but at times it feels like you’re  in the middle of a Robert Altman movie with its not-so-subtle class tension.

What Truman Capote did with In Cold Blood in 1966, what Susan Orlean did with The Orchid Thief in 1998, Berendt did as successfully with Midnight: he wrote news and the subsequent court trial as a novel and rearranged chronological events to fit his purpose. All three were made into movies, but to me only Midnight is a better film than the book, which doesn’t take anything away from the author because Eastwood was essentially handed a ready-made script that he filmed three years after the book’s publication.

The Kehoe House historic bed and breakfast.
Among the many tours is a ghost and haunted house tour which includes haunted hotels like this one.

In the film, Town & Country journalist John Kelso (John Cusack) comes to Savannah on assignment to cover a who’s-who party hosted by the town’s beloved art and antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). At some point in the night, Williams shoots the temperamental male prostitute Danny Hansford (Jude Law) and maintains that he did it in self-defense.

Surrounding this murder are locals that include a man paid to walk an imaginary dog, a drag queen, a lot of drinking and canapés on the crime scene — and voodoo rituals. All for real, including the city’s famous drag queen who portrayed herself in the movie.

It is the American South, after all.

“For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace,” Berendt writes. “The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure that would not have been possible anywhere else in the world.”

Savannah’s City Market includes restaurants and bars and a pedestrian promenades where bands play all day. Photos from City Market/flickr.com

Eastwood portrays all this in a brilliant pace, in scenes that are deeply atmospheric with beautiful shots of the houses, haunting trees dimpling the sunlight and voodoo rituals, contrasting all these against Cusack’s New York ethos.

“This place is fantastic! It’s like Gone with the Wind on mescaline,” Cusack tells his editor. “They walk imaginary pets here, and they’re all armed and drugged. New York is boring.”

* * *

All this was why I wanted to go to Savannah. It wouldn’t be for many, many years since the movie’s release that I’d actually make the trip, still a fave from my solo travels.

By this time, Savannah had become a tourist destination with movie location tours that included Williams’ Mercer House, where the murder took place, and Bonaventure Cemetery, where thousands of tourists would trample on other gravesites to see the Bird Girl.

Then the city said, enough!

Trolley tours in Savannah drop tourists off City Market.
If you want to discover America’s 18th- and 19th-century architecture, head to Savannah, which has preserved and re-purposed many of its houses in the historic district.

When I arrived at my hotel, the receptionist told me the Bird Girl was no longer at Bonaventure Cemetery. My heart literally stopped for a second. I had finally saved enough money for the trip — did I just fly 14,000 kilometers for nothing?

No, they had merely transferred the sculpture, which was donated to the city by the family that owned it, to Telfair Museum in the middle of town. It wasn’t the same as seeing it in a cemetery but it was there.

The museum had the stupid rule of no photography (it’s a statue!) and a burly security guard waved his hands at me in warning.

I quickly realized that in Savannah, gumption and charm go a long way. I told him, “I flew across the Pacific to see this statue and I just want to take a picture of it.”

”In Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’” — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. At the time,a study found that eight percent of Savannah’s adults were known alcoholics.

Not only did I get the guard to let me take a picture of the Bird Girl, he actually took a picture of me with it.

Every travel, in the end, is like a movie script. There is that which you follow, and then there’s improvisation. I improvised in Savannah after I had done what I went there for. I walked its streets, visited its houses, sat on the bench in the square where Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”

Indeed, Forrest, indeed.

But there was something more than that — a city that hummed to its own beat, through the breeze ruffling the Spanish Moss in the squares, something genuine that was becoming obvious to me slowly, sweetly.

”In Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’” — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. At the time,a study found that eight percent of Savannah’s adults were known alcoholics.
Candy store in slow-paced, lovely City Market.

They drank in the morning, they played music in the squares, they played Free Bird continuously, the street band becoming bigger as passersby participated not just took pictures because in 2010, no one cared all that much about Facebook or Instagram.

At the time, the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse said that more than eight percent of Savannah’s adults were “known alcoholics.”

Eastwood captures this throughout the film and in one scene, Cusack is told: “We’re not at all like the rest of Georgia. We have a saying: If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, ‘What’s your business?’ In Macon they ask, ‘Where do you go to church?’ In Augusta they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’”

But Sunday was a different story. I went to the supermarket to buy wine and found the aisles cordoned off. I asked a salesperson why. He said, “Because it’s Sunday.” Again, I asked why. “Because of God,” he said. “It’s the law.”

”In Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’” — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. At the time,a study found that eight percent of Savannah’s adults were known alcoholics.

He began to walk away before I could wrap my head around this and I said, “Hey, wait, out of curiosity, can I buy a gun on a Sunday?” He turned and looked at me as if I had asked the stupidest question in the world and said, “Yes, of course.”

Since we’re on the topic of drinking and movies being better than books, let me say something about Alexander Payne’s Sideways, set in the vineyards and wineries of Sta. Inez Valley.

Failed novelist Miles (Paul Giamatti) is asked by Maya (Virginia Madsen) why he was so into Pinot. He fumbles around and says because it’s a hard grape to grow, “it’s not a survivor like Cabernet.”

Then he asks her why she’s into wine. She says, “I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.”

You can’t buy alcohol in Savannah on a Sunday, but you can buy a gun.

It’s one of the quietest scenes that’s ironically filled with dialogue, and that’s what I love about it. It may also be the one scene that won for both acting awards — the way Sofia Coppola made a star out of Bill Murray again in Lost in Translation. That sadness, that quiet desperation that no one else understands except those that finish a bottle of whiskey and black out after, and in the morning wish they had died instead.

But never mind that. Back to Savannah with its street music and unreasonable Sunday alcohol law…

I was asked by friends later how I liked the place. I told them that through the wind that traveled through its New York-like grid, its voodoo rituals, its historic district, the wooden houses that gossiped about the most scandalous affairs and murders, the movies and books, and my own failings — I told them that of all the cities in the US that I’ve been to, Savannah was the only place I could imagine setting my luggage down for.

Twenty minutes form downtown Savannah is Tybee Island with a historic lighthouse and wooden cottages.

How Shangri-La Istanbul turned a tobacco warehouse into a luxury hotel

Shangri-La Istanbul is located on the banks of the Bosphorus and is only a five-minute walk to the Dolmabahçe Palace, home to Ottoman sultans, and in a lively neighborhood filled with bars and museums. Photos from Shangri-La Istanbul
The Lobby Lounge is a great place for afternoon tea and pastries.

When you talk about Shangri-La Hotels, luxury immediately comes to mind. Plush furnishings, silk tapestries, a great spa, big rooms and fantastic views are just some of the things that one comes to expect of a Shang Hotel.

Having three modern Shangri-Las in Manila and two gorgeous island resorts in Boracay and Cebu, it is a brand that we Filipinos love and are familiar with — down to the scent of its lobby, rooms and spa, and our fave dim sum at its flagship restaurant Shang Palace.

Last year, on a weekend in Istanbul coming from another European city, I experienced how the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Group brought its Asian character across the seas and onto the shores of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait. Shangri-La Istanbul is only the group’s third hotel in Europe, following London’s modern hotel at The Shard and Paris’ former royal palace.

Deluxe room with a view.
The lobby of Shangri-La Istanbul Bosphorus with its plush furnishings and Chinoiserie accessories.

Located in Beşiktaş, near the ferry terminals that bring passengers to Uskudar on the Asian side, Shangri-La lives up to its mythical name — it is a quiet oasis in a very lively neighborhood that’s home to one of Istanbul’s Big Three football teams.

Shangri-La Istanbul is a great example of how an old, decrepit building is repurposed and turned into a modern structure. Looking at it today, you’d hardly believe that this luxury space used to be a tobacco factory and warehouse in the 1930s.

With the architectural firm Piramit Ltd., Shangri-La recreated the façade of the old warehouse since it is protected by the city’s Cultural and Natural Assets Committee. The hotel preserved the historic façade and built only seven stories above ground and seven under (for the function rooms and ballrooms). There must be a height restriction on buildings located on the banks of the Bosphorus because, second to the Dolmabahçe Palace which was home to a handful of Ottoman sultans, it’s the second tallest by the water.

A great breakfast spread at Ist Too restaurant with the freshest produce and cheeses from all over Turkey.
Ist Too restaurant. I was lucky that when I was there the hotel was celebrating the Gaziantep Kitchen.

For its interiors, they referenced the brand’s signature look of quiet opulence and luxury, working around a palette of earth tones with touches of blue and Chinoiserie accents such as the lamps and vases in the lobby.

A stunning four-story artwork called “Garden of Peach Blossom” hangs in the hotel’s atrium, as does a massive crystal chandelier, while the lobby’s furnishings are gold-leafed.

Shangri-La has set the standard for having some of the biggest rooms wherever the location, whether in a dense city like Hong Kong or an island resort like Boracay. Istanbul is no different. There’s generous space for its bathroom, walk-in closet and sitting area apart from a wonderfully comfortable king-sized bed.

The best part of its bedrooms? Most of them have Bosphorus views — and there is no better way to spend time inside than looking out to the Bosphorus Bridge at sunset.

The Turkish identity of Shangri-La Istanbul Hotel’s Chi Spa.
Corridor at Shang’s famous spa brand, The Chi Spa.

The hotel’s Shang Palace serves authentic Cantonese food with dim sum served in the afternoon. A wide selection of tea is served from an elongated pot by a “kung fu tea master.”

I was lucky that on that weekend Shang’s Ist Too restaurant — serving Turkish and Mediterranean cuisines — was having its Gaziantep Kitchen festival, possibly the most renowned Turkish cuisine and where the best baklava comes from. The views from here are of the Bosphorus and you can step out to enjoy a stroll on the quiet street outside.

A kung fu tea master serves tea with a flourish and another checks the wedding banquet arrangements.
Indoor pool and gym
The bedroom of the presidential suite comes with a spacious terrace facing the Bosphorus.

So, where is the Turkish touch of Shangri-La Istanbul? My friend Sena Kahraman, who used to work there and is now brand director at Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort in Oman, showed me the hotel’s Chi Spa.

“This,” she said, “is the Turkish identity of the hotel.” I’ve seen a lot of Turkish baths in Istanbul, Antalya and Bodrum — and combined with the modern Asian feel of Chi Spa, this is definitely the most beautiful.

I’ve always said Turkey feels like a second home to me, and being at Shang just made my home a little closer.

View of the Bosphorus Bridge right outside Shang’s Ist Too restaurant. Photo by Tanya Lara

The subversive art & life of David Cerny

In 2013, just days before the Czech Republic’s general elections, Prague woke up to David Cerny’s “Fuck Him,” a 30-foot purple hand floating on the Vtlava River, giving the finger to where Czech President Milos Zeman lives, the Prague Castle. Photos courtesy of David Cerny

(This story was first published by Esquire in 2015.)

I saw my first David Cerny sculpture on a spring day, a cold Labor Day on the first of May in Prague. I had rented an apartment in Staré Mesto, and every time I’d walk to the Old Town Square, I’d pass by this stainless steel sculpture of a giant woman kneeling on the ground with her legs spread…and people were climbing into her vagina.

Called “In Utero” and installed on Dlouhá St. in 2013, it is one of many  installations around Prague by the controversial artist David Cerny. It is also one of his many artworks in which the viewer completes the experience by inserting himself into the piece’s orifice.

Like his “Brown-noser” which, as the name suggests, is a pair of assholes—five-meter-tall sculptures of a person’s ass and legs bending toward a wall. A ladder leads directly into the anus where you stick your head in to  watch a video of two Czech politicians feeding each other to the music of Queen’s We Are the Champions.

The Czech Republic’s controversial enfant terrible David Cerny. “To be honest I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and just pleasant…but I am unable to see things the way other people do,” he says.

During my stay in Prague, I met a French expat and I asked him about the sculptures. “You don’t know who David Cerny is?” Gautier asked. I said no.

“But you must have heard of his work. He painted the Soviet Tank pink when he was an art student.”

He’s that guy?

In the early years following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, communism neither went quickly nor quietly into the night for many countries in the Eastern Bloc. It was a long process of stripping away the hold of the Soviet Union, often by reluctant governments and an impatient citizenry.

When, in the dead of the night in April 1991, the young Cerny climbed onto the Soviet tank and painted it pink, the most feminine of colors to insult the Kremlin, he was just starting to discover his own sense of irony as an artist.

“The Pink Tank” (or “Monument to Soviet Tank Crews”) got Cerny briefly arrested for civil disobedience. After the Czech government painted it back green, Prague’s citizens painted it pink again, and a tug-of-war ensued.

“Brown-nosers” at Galeria Futura in Smichov is a pair figures leaning towards a wall. The viewer climbs up the anus to watch a movie of politicians feeding each other slop.

It was Cerny’s first subversive art, and by God, it wouldn’t be his last! Today, Prague is culturally richer for it.

In later works, he would embarrass the Czech government, anger the Council of the European Union, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi among other European leaders, make fun of both Saddam Hussein and Damien Hirst in one piece, pull off one of the best hoaxes in the art world by inventing 26 artists for a group installation—and pretty much endear himself to all modern art lovers.

By the time I finished looking at his sculptures online in Gautier’s kitchen, I said, “I would love to meet and interview him!”

“I know him,” he said casually. Gautier is into Prague’s underground culture and clubs; he once took me to a bar that was guarded by Great Danes the size of ponies and, on another trip, he took me to a march to legalize marijuana in the Czech Republic.

But I was leaving Prague in a few days for Austria and Greece. I was on a two-week vacation that started in the UK and would have ended in Amsterdam except I kept cancelling my flights and rerouting my itinerary.

When I returned to Prague in the summer for a road trip to Poland with him, he had arranged for me to meet David Cerny.

This Cerny sculpture is not in Prague but in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Metamorphosis” is a motorized Kafka head that’s segmented in 40 layers that independently rotate 360 degrees.

* * *

The city of Prague has a very efficient public transport system. Like most European capitals, it has a network of subways, trams and buses, a cheap way to get around the city that relies on passengers’ honesty to buy a ticket, and when you’re caught without one  by random checks you’re slapped with a steep fine.

Most tourists get to know all the train lines leading to the historical center in Prague 1—a concentration of beautiful centuries-old buildings, museums, the Jewish Quarter, churches, monuments, Franz Kafka—and Charles Bridge, one that tourists love but locals loathe to cross because of…well, tourists.

David Cerny purposely located his studio away from all this. He wanted to be away “from cops who knock at your door after 10 p.m. and tell you to shut up.” Most importantly, his studio’s location is not only hard find if you’re not into the underground club subculture, but hard to get to as well for tourists.

Walking the distance from the tram stop to his studio called Meet Factory on a sweltering summer day, the weather makes me feel like I had never left Manila.

Meet Factory is a 5,000-square-meter warehouse beside railway tracks, a hybrid space that has a club, several studios for artists-in-residence, a theater, gallery and a music hall.

“Shark” is Cerny’s parody of Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” in which Hirst put a shark in a glass tank containing 4,360 gallons of formaldehyde. Cerny put Saddam Hussein in the tank instead.

The provocateur is dressed in his usual black sleeveless shirt and black pants when he comes to meet us.

He’s had this warehouse for seven years, he says. It’s perfect for him. They can hold parties or concerts here “without any idiot neighbors complaining about the noise” because there are no neighbors.

It is a place for subversives, rebels and artists. Here, Cerny courts his muses—deadline, music and film. Here, he hid the artists that he invented in his head for what he considers his most challenging project.

In 2009, the Czech Republic assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union, a rotating position among the EU countries and traditionally marked by an art installation. The year before, France erected a balloon in the French colors for its presidency.

Now, it was time for the Czech Republic to continue this tradition and Cerny was commissioned to head the project.

“Entropa” may be the art world’s funniest and most offensive hoax. Cerny headed the project to mark the EU Council presidency of the Czech Republic. He invented 26 other artists for a “collaborative” work, depicting countries by their stereotype. Bulgaria is a series of toilets, Italy is a football pitch with players masturbating, etc. For a time it was covered with black cloth.

Called “Entropa,” the project entailed a collaborative work by 27 artists from EU countries including himself. Except Cerny invented the 26 other artists, and with his assistants he wrote biographical notes that they released to media before the unveiling. In short, he created all 27 sculptures by himself to represent EU countries in one massive installation.

Still, that wouldn’t have been so bad, would it? No. But we’re talking about David Cerny here, whose every piece is infused with satire, humor and irony, and always a strong political statement.

The exhibit was formally launched on Jan. 21, 2009, a Wednesday, but it opened to the public the following Monday. To the shock of viewers at the unveiling, what they saw were unflattering stereotypes of each of their country. Italy is depicted as a football pitch with players masturbating; Bulgaria as a series of squat toilets; Romania as a Dracula theme park; Slovakia as a Hungarian sausage; Sweden as an Ikea furniture box; France is draped with a banner marked “Gréve” (strike); the UK, which has been criticized for distancing itself from the EU, is represented as a missing piece on the map; and the Czech Republic is a LED display flashing controversial quotes by then President Vaclav Klaus.

“It was fun doing it but there was pressure every single day. It was one year of hell,” says Cerny. “There was no money in it and the moment of unveiling was really tough.”

As an art student, Cerny painted the Soviet Tank monument pink on April 28, 1991, the army repainted it green on May 1, and people painted it back pink.

Between Wednesday and Monday, angry EU leaders such as Sarkozy and Berlusconi demanded an apology, and EU leaders were hunting down the 26 other artists.

“The Bulgarians were freaking out because their country is depicted as a toilet. When it was formally launched, that’s when we told people that the artists did not exist.”

Cerny likes to spring surprises like this in his own dramatic fashion.

In 2013, four days before the Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections, Prague woke up to a 10-meter purple hand floating on the Vltava River near Charles Bridge with the middle finger pointed at Prague Castle, home to President Milos Zeman.

Having been anti-communism all his life, it was Cerny’s way of saying “fuck you” to the president for supporting the Social Democratic party. You can imagine the flurry of phone calls to take down the sculpture.

“When I exhibited ‘Fuck Him,’ the President asked the city of Prague to remove it but he was told they could not do anything because the barge was privately owned. All the sculptures you see around Prague are mine except for the Peeing Guys in front of the Kafka Museum, which were installed before the museum. The sculptures are not owned by the city. I choose the spaces and most are installed on private properties.”

“In Utero,” located on Dlouhá St. in Prague’s Stare Mesto, is a six-meter stainless-steel sculpture of a kneeling woman. Viewers can climb up inside the statue through her vagina. Photo by Tanya Lara

Cerny’s artworks are either beautiful, bizarre, offensive or all—but whatever the viewer thinks of them, they can never be ignored. They have put Prague, a city that he both loves and hates, on the map of modern art. “It would be nice if my art really did that, but no one cares.”

Not many people these days probably tell Cerny he’s wrong. But he’s wrong to think that no one cares. Every single person who has been to Prague with a little bit of interest in art and contemporary Czech culture cares—they walk away from his work with a smile or an understanding or, better yet, very disturbed.

* * *

Born in Prague to a mother who was an art restorer and a father who was a painter, Cerny failed art school twice before being accepted on his third try as an industrial design student, a course he abandoned after a year to concentrate on art.

His childhood was “nothing exceptional,” and in fact he was very bad at drawing. “I had the lowest grade in drawing in elementary school. If the grading was one to five, and five meant you couldn’t continue, I got a four. ”

“London Booster” was made for the London Olympics in 2012. It’s a double-decker bus doing push-up with humanoid arms and installed outside the Czech House.

He had a lot of problems at school, he says. One of them was for criticizing Lenin when he was six years old and for which his mother was called in. But by his own account, he says it was an ordinary childhood of discovery (he lost his virginity at 15 to his girlfriend, who is now his dentist) and insists he didn’t have groupies even after he became famous.

Various accounts of his painting the Soviet Tank pink when he was 24 put his motivations as wanting to impress a Slovakian girl and a deep resentment towards communism and the Soviet tanks that rolled into the capital to quash the Prague Spring in 1968.

“It was both, of course,” he says now. And in the time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution, it was one big party. “I don’t think I’ve always been politicized. It’s just the nature of things, of me saying things from time to time that might be unpleasant for somebody else.”

St. Wenceslas sits on an upside-down dead horse in Cerny’s “Dead Horse.” One interpretation of this sculpture is the changing values of Czech society and how people can no longer depend on their heroes and legends of past.

Like Franz Kafka, Cerny is influenced by a city that he can’t leave and yet thinks of as a place that’s been left behind.

“I have that sense of irony that is part of the city. Prague is very provincial, it’s Old Europe. If you look at the trajectory of Berlin, you’d think too that Prague has unfortunately been left behind. It’s unrecognized and nobody cares about this city at all except for tourists. But we have to live with it. To be honest, I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and are just pleasant, but sometimes I do things that are political commentary. You cannot avoid that. I am unable to see things the way other people do. If I had a choice, I would do beautiful stuff rather than react to things. But, what can I say, I’m a figurative sculptor.”

* * *

When he was on a yacht the year before, Cerny and his friends decided to rip the doors apart and use them for water skiing. He took a bottle of champagne in one hand and clung to the cables attached to the boat with the other.

A steady figure gliding on unsteady water. I watched this video many times before I met him and wondered how he didn’t get flung in the water or get into an accident.  “Oh, it was just for fun and we were so fucking drunk,” he says.

What else does he do for fun? “You mean besides sex? Yachting, flying, diving, sometimes skiing and snow boarding, listening to music, reading, watching movies.”

But it’s sailing and flying that are his two his biggest passions outside of art. He got his ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot License) in four months of intensive studying (which normally takes two years in a technical school) and for which he refrained from drinking his favorite Czech beer Matuska.

“To be honest, I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and are just pleasant…But I am unable to see things the way other people do.”

What was the appeal of flying for him? “Maybe it could be a new job,” he says, laughing. “Maybe I will get tired of art. Flying is a pleasure for me.”

But there is a more serious side to his flying. He is in a relationship with a doctor and he thinks he can be very useful as a medical pilot, to fly doctors where they are needed. “There are organizations that have flying doctors and they have a Cesna which they fly as an ambulance, so that’s one idea.”

In the summer of 2014, the one thing that Cerny loves and the thing he hates the most collided. Malaysian Airline’s Flight17 was shot down over Ukraine by the Russians, killing 283 passengers and 15 crew members.

He saw the news at 2 in the morning when he turned on his laptop and he seethed with fury. “That Russian asshole Putin should be executed,” he tells me.

It’s a tragic incident that no artwork could alter.

But you can bet David Cerny’s not going to shut up about Putin or the world we live in. After all, this is the artist that painted the Soviet tank pink and flipped his own government purple.

And really,  no one—not even the Czech government or any president—can do anything about it.

“Piss,” located in front of the Kafka Museum in Prague, came before the museum and is not connected with Kafka. Cerny did a piece for inside the museum though — a small model of a torture machine that’s featured in Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony.” The kinetic men “write” sentences with their piss on a basin in the shape of the Czech Republic’s map. Photo by TANYA LARA

Chasing Shakespeare—from Stratford to Verona

Verona is a city that Shakespeare set three plays in. And it hosts a very famous (fictional) house — Casa di Giulietta or Juliet’s House (and balcony). Photo by Tanya Lara

There is a scene I love in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. As the emperor is being stabbed by the senators, he recognizes his friend as one of the assassins and says, “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?” or “Even you, Brutus?” from Latin).

“Stabbed in the back” is such a common euphemism for betrayal, but no matter how apt this Shakespeare scene is in today’s world, it’s probably not the most famous in popular culture. That scene comes from Romeo and Juliet, the story of star-crossed lovers that has spun a million parodies and analogies.

Because between betrayal and tragic love, people seem to prefer the latter, notwithstanding the double suicide that could have been avoided had there just been proper communication about the poison from the apothecary 450 years ago.

The house and famous balcony of Juliet Capulet in Verona.  Photo by Tanya Lara

In the autumn of 2007, I took the train from London to Stratford-Upon-Avon in the UK to see Shakespeare’s houses — where he was born and where he retired and died. Nine years later, in 2016, I would take the train from Venice to Verona in Italy to see the fictional house and balcony of fictional Juliet.

Scholars are divided about whether Shakespeare actually visited Verona in his lifetime, but he set three plays here — The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the first of Shakespeare’s comedies where the heroine dresses as a boy. Rendering gender ambiguous and the resulting complications are themes that would repeat themselves in the Bard’s plays, most notably in Twelfth Night (one of my favorites).

The second Verona play is The Taming of the Shrew, where the headstrong Katherina is “tamed” by her suitor Petruchio until she becomes an obedient bride. (Anyone else remember that Moonlighting episode?)

Juliet’s bed. Not too far from the house is another tourist attraction — Juliet’s Tomb. Also on display are clothing from the Elizabethan period.  Photos by Tanya Lara

The third, of course, is Romeo and Juliet. Of the three plays, Shakespeare wrote this last (1597) with the first two written between 1589 and 1592. Romeo and Juliet is largely believed to be based on the English poet Arthur Brook’s narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, which in turn was translated from an earlier Italian novella by Matteo Bandello, said to be from a French source. The list goes on and on because two lovers from feuding families is a tale as old as time.

But it is Shakespeare’s young, tragic lovers that endure, that have appeared before us on stage, in film, ballet and opera — and in our imaginations.

In Act 2, Juliet comes to the balcony and, no, she is not looking for him, rather she is questioning Romeo being Romeo — a Montague, the sworn enemy of her Capulet family.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Tanya Lara and Juliet’s statue in the courtyard. It’s a tradition to rub Juliet’s right breast if you want to get married. I stayed away from it as far as I could while posing.

So here I am staring at that balcony in Verona, an hour and half by Trenitalia from Venice. Called Casa di Giulietta, the compound dates back to the 8th century and originally belonged to the Capello family in the 13th century. Was it this surname that inspired Shakespeare’s Capulets? Or gave rise to the City of Verona that here, Juliet Capulet could have lived, that she could have stood on this balcony and delivered her soliloquy?

In the courtyard, surrounded by the open-brick exterior of the four-level house, there is a statue of Juliet (there are actually two, one is inside). For some reason, it’s a tradition for women to rub her right breast if they want to get married; men do it, too, but with a smirk befitting Petruchio rather than a lonely bachelor.

I didn’t know you could actually go up to the balcony till my friend Luca messaged me, “Vai su” (go up), and so I did. For 6 euros, you can enter Juliet’s house through the souvenir shop.

Visitors leave notes and letters to Juliet on the wall leading to the house.
The Capulets’ house gets with the program: you can write your letters on a computer (right) or scribble them on paper and drop them in this mailbox (left) on the second floor.

In contrast to the Elizabethan period and artifacts in glass cases around the house, the second floor has several computers where you could write a letter to Juliet. I wrote a short note and pressed “send,” and it’s now floating in some computer server somewhere in Italy.

If you saw the 2010 Amanda Seyfried-movie Letters to Juliet, you know that women really do write to Juliet and the letters are answered by the “Secretaries of Juliet,” composed of the women of Verona.

In reality, the letters are left on the wall leading to the courtyard.

On the third floor is the balcony, from which the architectural term “Juliet’s balcony” comes from to describe a small one just enough to fit one or two people.

The courtyard of Casa di Giulietta. For 6 euros, you can go inside the house and the balcony.
The 2,000-year-old Verona Arena is still used today for opera performances; outside is the Christmas Star sculpture. Photo by Tanya Lara

I’ve come to Verona to see this house, to imagine Shakespeare’s characters, but for some reason I am cranky when I actually peer down from the balcony and see couples posing. I want to yell at the people below, “You fools. Love is not real but tragedy is!!” But why ruin it? So I keep my mouth shut.

I leave the house and walk through the wonderful streets of Verona to find a good restaurant. The open market not far from the house is flanked by ristorantes and tratorrias.

Like everywhere else in Italy, pasta (or a cute Italian guy) always gets you in a better mood.

* * *

William Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon was the biggest house on Henley St. during The Bard’s lifetime. Photo from shakespeare.org.uk

I love trains and what I love more than trains is complaining about them.

My beef with the London Tube is that it is cold. And I have to take several lines and a regional train to get to Shakespeare’s hometown Stratford, nestled on the River Avon.

It’s autumn in 2007 and I’m staying in a hotel just off Gloucester Road. I have to take the Circle Line at Gloucester station, then get off at Edgeware Road station and transfer to Marylebone station and on the Chiltern Railways, then on to Leamington Spa Railways station, take a bus which stops at a McDonald’s, and I’m on my own to find Shakespeare’s houses.

I’m alone in London and I write my friends at the Philippine Consulate that this is where I am going and the next day I’m flying to Italy — just in case I go missing.

Holy Trinity Church and Shakespeare’s final resting place in Stratford. Poto from aboutbritain.com

I had been traveling to Europe for several years by this time, but I look back at this as the year of being young and carefree and really beginning to wander, of being footloose in the world.

I don’t know this yet, but this the beginning of finding my way by getting lost — of literally stepping onto the wrong platform and the wrong train, of being curious about other countries and going there to satisfy that curiosity, of almost crying at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate because there is a Starbucks on the eastern side where they used to shoot and kill people for trying to cross to West Berlin, going to Florence’s Accademia and seeing Michelangelo’s David sculpture for the first time, hearing the church bells ringing at Giotto’s Cathedral in Florence, getting pickpocketed in front of Harrod’s in London and being mugged in Milan.

Anyway, back to Stratford-Upon-Avon… I find the place to buy the two-house ticket to Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the New House where he retired and died. Well, I don’t actually buy the ticket; I show my press ID and they give it to me for free.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace is a Tudor affair, the largest house on Henley St. He was born and grew up here, the third of eight children. He also spent the first years of his marriage to Anne Hathaway in this house. According to the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, “it was because of his father’s status as Mayor that William was privileged enough to have attended the local grammar school to begin his education.”

Tanya Lara in Shakespeare’s Knotted Garden, 2007

The house was later owned by Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susanna and later his granddaughter Elizabeth. When it became for sale in the 1847, the Shakespeare’ Birthplace Trust purchased it.

Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway, whose family cottage at the edge of Stratford is also a museum, moved to New Place in 1597 (where he presumably wrote and finished Romeo and Juliet) and raised their family there. According to the Trust, “When Shakespeare bought New Place he was an established playwright and it is believed that he wrote his later plays there, including The Tempest.”

I don’t remember in which house I am told that it isn’t allowed to take pictures or touch the furniture (of course I do!). I run my hands on his bedposts, on his mantelpiece and desk, stomp my boot heels on the wooden floors and generally touch surfaces and take pictures of everything I could.

Shakespeare’s bedroom in Stratford-Upon-Avon.  Photo by Tanya Lara

This was the Bard’s bedroom, this was his desk! Did he write Twelfth Night with a quill? Were his fingers darkened black by the ink? What the hell am I doing here alone?

You have to understand…I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare my entire life. In my grandfather’s house north of Manila, there was a book titled The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It was printed in 1936.

It’s a hardbound book on thin paper (the kind you see in Bibles) that an uncle — I don’t know which one — stole from a library, and which I stole from my grandfather’s house. I’ve never read it completely, but it’s been with me since I left home as a teenager, through three apartments and two houses.

When I was a journalism student at the University of the Philippines, I fell in love with a classmate (a reject from engineering who thought journalism was easy), who knew Shakespeare like no one I’d met before. He studied at the Jesuit school Ateneo de Manila and took up two Shakespeare plays a year in high school. Two plays a year! This was no Cliff’s Notes, this was no Wikipedia summary; this was early memory embedded in his brain.

Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, where she grew up with her family. Photo from aboutbritain.com

Whenever I forgot a character, it was he that I called. What was Othello’s crazy sister’s name? (Ophelia) Where did he say all lawyers should be killed? (Henry VI) What was the heroine’s name in Twelfth Night? (Viola)

So here I am in Stratford like a giddy fangirl about to meet her idol…except Shakespeare’s been dead for 400 years.

I’ve been given grief for putting the movie Shakespeare in Love on my top five list. To me, this was like seeing Shakespeare as he was struggling and writing in the Elizabethan period, of being poor and drunk and in love. There is Gwyneth as a thinly veiled Viola, my favorite heroine, from Twelfth Night. There is a shipwreck that he will write as they say goodbye, a case of mistaken identity, there is confusion and complication, there is falling in love with a person who pretends to be someone else. What’s not to love about this story?

The Shakespeare Memorial by Lord Ronald Gower, 1888, in Bancroft Gardens. At each corner of the square is a statue of a Shakespearean character to represent his writing versatility — Hamlet (philosophy), Prince Hal (tragedy), Lady Macbeth (history) and Falstaff (comedy). Photo from aboutbritain.com

I sometimes look at the book from my grandfather’s house and turn it my hands the way people do for one last time at things they are about to toss them in a brick oven. I don’t do it, of course.

It will always remain with me. It’s not always the same with people you love, which is the real tragedy. I go like Ophelia sometimes, other times like Juliet, but most of the time like Viola struggling at sea. I try to forget that Julius Caesar’s Brutus will stab you in the back, and he would have done it in the heart if you just turned to look at him. And you did, didn’t you? Even when you were bloody and on the floor, you did turn.

This Shakespeare volume, written 500 years ago and printed 81 years ago, I will take it out of the bookshelf and read all of its verses someday. Because we go from Stratford to Verona in a span of several innocent years and we think that in another life — maybe not this one, but in that tightly constructed stage of a Shakespearean play — love really will endure.

Stratford on the River Avon, about three hours from Central London. Photo from aboutbritain.com

Postcards from Petra

The Treasury, the picture-perfect rose-colored highlight of Petra in Jordan. Photo by Tanya Lara
Author Tanya Lara finds that camels complete the Petra scenery.

There is probably not a more dramatic path leading to an ancient landmark than the canyons leading up to this moment. Throughout two kilometers, they twist and turn, narrow, and then widen for the last time for the big reveal:  The Treasury, the center of Jordan’s Lost City of Stone.

On this trip to the Holy Land with Sar-El Tours and Conferences, our guide Jihann, a theology and history expert, tells us before we reach The Treasury, “Walk to the left side, and wait for it…wait for it…”

The first sighting of The Treasury feels theatrical in its staging after you negotiate the narrow canyon called Al Siq — gasps, eyes widening, jaws dropping.

It is, as every postcard from Petra promises, a spectacular sight of rose-colored cliffs rising to meet the skies, and on the sandstone is carved The Treasury, imposing itself onto your senses at 80 feet wide and 127 feet tall. It is sculpted ornately with mythological figures, its columns bearing traces of Greco-Roman architecture.

I almost cry seeing this.

Even at high noon on this winter day in January — when Petra is as quiet as it can ever get with the clatter of horses’ hooves and Bedouins selling postcards and trinkets — Petra is shrouded in rose color as if the sun is setting. Like life is suddenly softer in this bone-dry Middle East desert. Like everything and everyone is beautiful. Like every picture you snap with your camera aimed anywhere is good enough for every travel gallery on Instagram.

A candle-lit Petra casts a different atmosphere. Photo from wikimedia.com
Bedouin children play with their camels. Photo by Angeli Navarro
Our Sar-El tour group at The Treasury; a kiss from the ancient city; Tanya, Vanche Yongco, Cyndee Wong, Angeli Navarro; with Bedouin girls selling trinkets. Photos by Cristina Javier, Tanya Lara and Angeli Navarro

A masterpiece of design and engineering, Petra during its height was the size of Manhattan. Unlike many of the world’s treasures which were discovered accidentally — like the terra-cotta warriors in Xian, China or the tunnels in the Louvre, France — Petra was a place that people knew existed but very few outsiders could find. Concealed by canyons and the protective nomads for 2,000 years, it wasn’t only until the 1800s when Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt disguised himself as an Arab pilgrim that the Bedouins led him here.

Though you can’t enter through the tall doorway now, just looking at it, the Indiana Jones theme keeps playing in your head and you want to say, “Of course it would be a carpenter’s simple chalice — not gold!”

Scientists have discovered through the years that the Rose City of Petra had aqueducts that let the many civilizations flourish here, an important route in the trade between the Mediterranean and the East. The Nabateans who built the tombs, then the Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders and Muslims controlled this area at different times. The incredible thing is that they believe 85 percent of the ancient city has yet to be excavated.

Gorges narrow and widen for a dramatic reveal of the ancient city of Petra. Photo by Tanya Lara

Partly shaped by earthquakes, erosion, and human hands and sophisticated minds, Petra became a city in what would have been an uninhabitable desert.

Of the ruins, it’s the tombs built into Petra’s cliffs by the Nabateans that are your introduction as you enter the park after the visitors’ center.

There are also tombs with a mix of Nabatean and Greco-Roman design elements called the Royal Tombs across the 6,000-seat Roman Theater. They are so majestic they look like temples. Next to The Treasury is the Street of Façades, Petra’s main necropolis.

And yet it was a city of the living, too, because past this area are what experts believed to be the neighborhoods of Petra, and estimates put the population at 30,000 during its heyday.

Jihann says that Petra at night is an entirely different but no less majestic experience, when the front of The Treasury is surrounded by candles, and tourists sit on the ground just to appreciate the ancient city.

Our tour group organized by Destinations Unlimited Philippines has the Jordanian part of the Holy Land sandwiched between tours of Israel, the first half of which was concentrated in Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, and the second half in the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

The Treasury is carved onto a continuous limestone cliff. Photo by Tanya Lara
A cat cleans itself by The Siq sign or the main entrance to the City of Petra. Photo by Tanya Lara

Our introduction to the Holy Land is through Mt Nebo. Our tour guide James says that God granted Moses a glimpse of the Promised Land and from this mountain he saw it. So near and yet so unreachable because after 40 years of wandering in the desert, he never did make it to the Promised Land.

On a clear day from Mt. Nebo’s summit, you can see parts of the Holy Land and even as far as Jerico in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Alas, we are like Moses on this day — a fog has descended ahead of a brewing rain shower and we don’t see the Promised Land.

Christians believe that Moses was buried on the mountain — or at least in the area. Two Popes have come here as part of their visit to the Holy Land, Pope John Paul II in 2000 and nine years later, Pope Benedict XVI.

Over lunch, Vision Tours owner Albert Hasweh shows us pictures he took on his iPhone. They’re Wadi Rum or the Valley of the Moon. Located in southern Jordan and 60 kilometers from Petra, it is the largest valley in the kingdom.

The picture is of the night sky above the sandstone and granite formations in the valley. It looks like you were looking at the sky with a telescope.  It looks like everyone has shut down their lights from around hundreds of miles. It looks like you can touch the Milky Way from your tent.

On a desert in the Holy Land, everything seems possible — including what science says is not.

Nabatean tombs vary in sizes, from small ones on the cliffs to grand ones the size of temples carved onto the rock. Photo by Angeli Navarro

Searching for Stalin’s Boots in Budapest

Budapest’s Chain Bridge on the Danube River — looking as blue as Strauss’ waltz at twilight — links what used to be two cities, the hilly Buda and the flat Pest. A cruise on the Danube is a great way to see the city.  (Photo from budapest4rent.net)
Unfortunately, this was the weather I arrived to in 2009 — a snowstorm. But still, I went to Statue Park (Memento Park), an hour away from Budapest, to see what I came here for: Stalin’s Boots and other Cold War monuments.

In 1956, about 200,000 Hungarian students and citizens demonstrated in Budapest to sympathize with the Poles, who had just won political reforms from their communist government and the Soviet Union.

The Hungarians wanted reforms, too, and one of their sixteen demands was the dismantling of Joseph Stalin’s monument in a park in Budapest, installed just seven years earlier, ostensibly a gift from the Hungarian people to the Soviet leader.

The statue was eight meters high and stood on a base of four meters tall. Thousands of angry Hungarians chanting “Russia, go home!” toppled the statue, which broke into several sections.

What was left on the limestone base were the boots, over which the revolutionaries draped the Hungarian flag.

Fast forward to fifty-three years later, in 2009, and I was  in search of this remnant of Hungary’s October Revolution, the surviving piece of this sculpture now known as “Stalin’s Boots.”

I couldn’t have picked a worse time to do it.

The boots from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s Monument, which was toppled by Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956. And Vladimir Lenin, one of the dozens of communist monuments at Memento Park or  Statue Park.  (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
A giant replica of Stalin’s Boots in the indoor museum.

People go abroad to shop, to eat, to visit museums and landmarks. I do that, too.

But on two occasions, I’ve traveled abroad primarily to see statues. One was to Savannah, Georgia to look at the Bird Girl statue, which I first saw in the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and which used to be installed on a gravesite in  Bonaventure Cemetery.

And the other time was this — in Budapest for Stalin’s Boots.

My fascination with the Cold War began when I was a kid reading espionage novels. My head was filled with the sufferings of revolutionaries, spies who fall in love, heart-stopping border crossings, and betrayals.

Later, when I was already working and whenever I had saved just enough,  I would go to countries in the former Eastern Bloc. The Berlin Wall came down when I was still in journalism school, and countries that I used to read about in fiction started to open up, and I followed every piece of news about this sea of change sweeping across Eastern Europe.

During the Cold War, there was very little distinction between art and communist propaganda. After the Berlin Wall came down, and communism along with it,  other countries destroyed their monuments. Hungary scooped them all up and put them in an outdoor museum — outside Budapest.

Hungary was one of those countries. The cheapest way to get from Manila to Europe was — and still is — during winter abroad. It’s also the time when the newsroom is quiet after the Christmas rush and it’s easier to take time off from work.

So there I was in Budapest, which was in the middle of an unexpected snowstorm, in February 2009.

More than a decade before I went to Hungary, I saw a show called Lonely Planet. It wasn’t even a channel then, it was just a show (later called Globe Trekkers) on Discovery Channel hosted by a gap-toothed British guy named Ian Wright, who ate yak brains in Mongolia or something gross like that (long before Anthony Bourdain started doing such things).

In his Budapest episode, he went outside the city to Statue Park (or Memento Park), where Hungary put together all its communist-era statuary. Unlike other newly democratized countries that destroyed theirs, Hungary had the good sense to gather them in one park.

Except, even decades later, this outdoor museum was still not as popular as it should have been. Not a lot of tourists knew  about it or cared to visit it.

But I did.

I don’t remember anything else about that episode except for Statue Park. He showed Stalin’s Boots — the actual ones from the statue that was toppled in 1956 — and the giant plaster cast in the dark indoor museum. There were also several statues of Lenin and generic communist propaganda in the park.

How different the world was before communism failed miserably. And so many people suffered and died because of it.

And then Wright made me laugh my ass off. He pointed to a giant statue of a man running and holding a piece of cloth that could have been a flag…or a towel.

Wright said something like this bloke seems to be yelling, “Your towel, your towel! You dropped your towel!”

Budapest had me at towel.

* * *

I arrived in Hungary after a night in Zurich (there were no direct flights from Manila). And in booking this trip I found a secret to traveling between European countries — always take the poorer country’s airline even if they are code-sharing.

Between Swiss Air and Malév, the Hungarian flag carrier was so much cheaper. I would experience this many other times later, like between Dusseldorf and Prague (Czech Airlines — cheaper than Lufthansa!) or Amsterdam and Rome.

The House of  Terror or Terror Museum on Andrassy üt, an avenue that is often compared with Paris’ Champs Elysées, is a repository of how Hungary’s Secret Police terrorized and victimized its own citizens. The tank is both a symbol of the Soviet Union’s power during the Cold War and the Eastern Bloc countries’ suppression of their people’s freedoms — and on the wall are pictures of the dead and disappeared.
Day and night, people come to light candles and lay flowers for the fallen on a narrow ledge outside the Terror Museum.
Teletypes, interrogation rooms, cells and uniforms of the Secret Police are among the mementos in Terror Museum.

There was an unexpected snowstorm in Budapest when I arrived.

My hotel was only three blocks from the Danube River, which was partially frozen, but I persisted on walking to Buda through the beautiful Chain Bridge and then quickly sought shelter in a museum.

So I discovered Budapest through its classical art and contemporary museums.

I went to four of them in the next several days in between hopping on and off the red tourist buses, to places like the Castle District, the gorgeous Parliament House, the Gresham Palace, Vasarcsarnok or the Great Market Hall, St. Rita’s Church and other sights.

But it was the museums that quickly became my shelter from the weather, like the National Gallery located in one section of Buda Castle, the National Museum of Fine Arts on the flat Pest side at Heroes Square, and the Terror Museum, which details the Hungarian people’s suffering in the hands of their Secret Police and the Soviet Union.

Terror Museum is located on Andrassy üt, kind of like Paris’ Champs Elyseés. This comparison carries throughout the two capitals, as Budapest is dubbed “the Paris of the East.” This beautiful avenue is topped by Heroes’ Square with statuary of royals and leaders past, its kings, rulers from its seven ethnic tribes and their horses.

Unlike Champs Elyseés, Andrassy Avenue is not bursting with shops. Instead, you find here private villas, some of them now high-end restaurants and coffee shops.

It seems a sign of how the world has changed drastically post-communism, that on an avenue where there was once a prison and torture chambers for those who opposed the communist ideology and a government largely controlled and influenced by the Soviet Union, there is now a Gloria Jeans coffee shop.

Hungarians still remember those times. Outside the musem, on every freezing night that I walked past it, people were lighting candles and leaving flowers on a narrow ledge for the fallen.

Roof outside the museum; and a section paying tribute to the priests that were persecuted and killed, accused of  inciting the peasants to rebellion.
Heroes Square has statues of the country’s Seven Chieftains of the Magyars (or the Seven Tribes of Hungary), other national leaders and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Photo from all-free-photos.com)
It was colder than it looks, so I said, “Dear Weather, my name is Tanya Lara and I am here for the first time! Please let me enjoy Budapest without a snowstorm!” Behind me, at Heroes Square,  is the National Museum of Fine Arts.

They did it perhaps for family members or friends — or for the unknown people who were murdered and disappeared. It wasn’t only the intellectuals or students that suffered this fate, there were also priests and peasants who spoke out and were accused of treason and sedition.

How could such an ideology founded on equality and love of country be so brutal and inhuman? The answer is simple: the most egregious sin and ultimate failing of communism is that it took out human emotions and needs out of the equation, and then enforced its own beliefs. Just like most religions do today.

Inside the museum, where taking pictures is not allowed (I did manage to snap a few grainy ones), the victims’ pictures are stuck on the wall, from the floor to the ceiling across three or four levels, along with a Soviet tank on the ground floor, uniforms of the Secret Police, teletypes, paintings, mock dossiers and interrogation rooms.

In the basement are the prison cells and some are literally no bigger than a cupboard for solitary confinement. These cold stonewalls tell the story of Hungary’s struggle and heartache, of dissidents and their families who grieved. I walked these halls and rooms, thinking, some of them are still grieving to this day, searching for closure.

Castle Hill on the Buda side of the city. (Photo by Kitsune Misao/wikipedia.com)

* * *

Budapest has one of the most stunning parliament buildings in all of Europe, one of the most beautiful rivers that run through a city, and a bridge that crosses it.

In spring and summer, tourist boats ply the Danube with live music; a marathon starts on the Chain Bridge and goes around both sides of the river, one I had wanted to do before I quit running.

It is a bustling, modern city of cafes, business and commerce that I want to go back to — but not in winter again. I want to see it when it comes to life as any city living in the present and looking at the future.

And yet…all of us are really just drifting on memories — and what is art if not for that?

Thinking about those days in Budapest, I realize that I was fortunate to be forced by the weather to take part in its remembrance of an era thankfully gone.

This painful, Cold War past, not its older, glorious royal past, but the one that still touches personally some of its citizens in their everyday lives. When they pause in the morning while pouring coffee and their hearts stop for a second or two, or when they walk home alone at night, and they are suddenly taken back to the past, by the remembrance of someone who by every right should be there but isn’t.

Budapest’s Great Market Hall or Central Market Hall i the largest and oldest indoor market in the city.

Architecture, love, loss & liberty

WTC, Silverstein Properties, New York
World Trade Center today. “Politically, there might be answers to the terrorist attacks or there could be military answers, but in architecture the answers are always in a positive sense of construction. That’s a healing moment. That’s what architecture can do that no politician or military can,” says WTC master plan architect Daniel Libeskind. (Photos from Studio Libeskind/libeskind.com)
Daniel Libeskind: “Because I grew up in the shadows of the Holocaust, I understood that the most important thing in architecture and in life was liberty, freedom, and to offer that in every way you could as an architect. To emancipate people from just the same formulas is so important.” (Photo by Fernan Nebres/Philippine Star)

(I interviewed World Trade Center/Ground Zero architect Daniel Libeskind for my newspaper when he came to Manila at the end of May 2014. This story first appeared in The Philippine Star on June 7, 2014. All journalists hate transcribing interviews and this may very well be the only one in my 20 years as a writer where I didn’t want transcribing to end.) 

It felt like he was in a movie, says architect Daniel Libeskind on his first sighting of New York, a city that he has called his home since arriving here as a young boy fleeing Europe with his parents and sister in the 1950s. A city that, more than four decades later, would have a huge gaping hole and it would be on his shoulders that the task to fill it with people’s collective memory and hope would fall.

The Libeskinds — Dora and Nachman and their children Daniel and Ania — were, in fact, “among the last waves of immigrants to arrive in the United States by boat,” on the Constitution. Their journey took them from Poland to the Soviet Union, back to Poland, to Israel and finally the United States. Coming into the New York harbor, it also felt to him that they were “Israelites arriving in the Promised Land, but we were also Joseph, leaving it. Our real promised land would be New York City.”

“Reflecting Absence,” the fountains and pools at the 9/11 Memorial are surrounded by the names of all the victims, etched into a bronze parapet, of the 2001 and 1993 attacks.
WTC Site Day, Silverstein Properties, New York, USA
“After Ground Zero, no city planning in the world can ever be the same because now people know it is something important to them,” says Libeskind. “It’s something that cannot be done privately in a boardroom by politicians because it’s going to have a big impact on everybody’s lives.”

In 2001, the Manhattan skyline that he had grown to love would change drastically — as would the rest of the world because the attacks on the World Trade Center assured that nothing would ever be the same after the buildings and the people inside them came crashing down.

Libeskind was in Berlin that day to open the Jewish Museum, which he designed while living there. It wouldn’t open until three days after and by that time he was determined to go back to New York. In 2003, Daniel Libeskind’s firm won the competition to master-plan Ground Zero and a decade later the first structure, the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum, would be completed.

I expected Libeskind to be taller, to have broader shoulders — or at least the kind of physique that would move one to say that, yes, he could carry the weight of all that heartache and sorrow that warranted the construction of the memorials he has designed both in Berlin and New York. But he is neither tall nor big nor does he have a booming voice either. He speaks softly and warmly and with an accent that is distinctly New Yorker and Polish. (At some point during the interview, I even thought he sounded a little like Martin Scorsese.)

His home in New York is a constant reminder of how important memory is — and memory is a theme that finds its way into his architecture and his speech, as if telling us we must always remember and also hope. This is the nature of people. They move on. They rebuild. And one day they are able to look up toward the sky again.

In the mornings, Libeskind wakes up to a view of Ground Zero from his large picture windows in Lower Manhattan, and from his studio the view is also of Ground Zero but from another angle. And from the time he walks out of his front door and returns home at night, the light that drapes Ground Zero changes many times over, because the day progresses, the city is somehow altered, and no one day in New York is, after all, exactly the same as another.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin. Libeskind was here to open it on Sept. 11, 2001. It wouldn’t open until days after the terrorist attacks in New York.

Tell us about your experience in master-planning Ground Zero. You had about 15 to 20 million “judges” during the competition in 2003.

That’s true, maybe more! It was under high scrutiny, the highest level of interest in any project ever built in the world, and the highest level of emotion, too. And I think it was a project that changed the way people saw urban planning.

After Ground Zero, no city planning in the world can ever be the same because now people know it is something important to them. Something that cannot be done privately in a boardroom by politicians because it’s going to have a big impact on everybody’s lives. It was a very meaningful process. It showed how difficult democracy is, how important society is. Everybody has an opinion but also not everybody has to agree with what you do. Initially it was very controversial but now that it’s built, people see the harmonious design and it delivers something very important to the city.

During the construction, when you were seeing everything coming up together slowly, was it an emotional experience for you?

The courtyard of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. (Photo by Bitter Bredt Fotografie/from libeskind.com)

Very emotional. You know, I started when there was just a devastated hole, a void in the center of New York. It was very sad in the beginning, it was like a wound that people wouldn’t even come near it.

Then as I was working on it and my master plan began to take shape, you could see the change not only on the site but in people’s souls. Slowly, people would come to the site in a different way, they could look with their eyes, some of the sadness began to disappear, and something positive began to emerge. And that’s how I always see it.

Politically, there might be answers to the terrorist attacks or there could be military answers, which we have seen in the war, but in architecture the answers are always in a positive sense of construction. That’s a healing moment. That’s what architecture can do that no politician or military can because it can change people’s lives in a positive way.

And as I said, 60,000 people have moved to Lower Manhattan as a result of the construction. It’s a new city. Lower Manhattan was kind of a lost area, it was like Wall Street at night — empty — and suddenly it has become a new center of the city with schools and new families moving in, so it’s been a renaissance, the rebuilding of Ground Zero.

Your book Breaking Ground is a moving tribute not just to Ground Zero but also to your immigrant past. Visiting the Kafka Museum in Prague, I realized how much his being Jewish and being Jewish in that city shaped his literature. How did your experience as a Jewish immigrant in New York City shape your architecture, if it did at all?

Windows at the Jewish Museum in Berlin as part of Star of David matrix (Photo by Michele Nastasi/from libeskind.com)

Oh, definitely! If you don’t come from a privileged background, if you have hardship, it creates a very different sense — it’s not a sense of entitlement, it’s a sense of having to work, of having to do things, often to go against the current. Of course, your family, your circumstances, how you grow up shape who you are in every case.

That kind of influence can be easily discerned in literature, how does it manifest in architecture?

I think because I grew up in a totalitarian country, I grew up in the shadows of the Holocaust, I understood that the most important thing in architecture and in life was liberty,  freedom, and to offer that in every way you could as an architect. To emancipate people from just the same formulas, to extend a little more the imaginative horizon is so important.

The Run Run Shaw Media Center in Hong Kong (Photo by Gollings Photography/from libeskind.com)

Speaking of imagination, the world has seen, especially in China, buildings that are shaped rather absurdly like Rem Koolhaas’ “Underpants” building in Beijing. What do you think of this kind of architecture?

That’s a great question. I think that the computer has led to a kind of absurdity in architecture because with the simple operation of a finger, digitally you can create any shape you want, and you can also construct it because you have the method that the computer provides you, but that doesn’t make for good architecture.

It’s not enough to wave a magic wand and create a nice shape because architecture is not about shapes or about pretty elevations. It’s about the actual space, the atmosphere that the building provides. Atmosphere is not something that is on any calculation sheet, it’s not on any piece of statistic because it’s ineffable, it’s not something you can measure with an instrument, it’s something very human.

When you feel you’re in a beautiful space, in a room that makes you feel good, or you’re in a city that is dignified, those are things that you cannot statistically achieve by a computer or by any operation using just a couple of fingers to create a shape. Of course, there’s been a lot of excessive manipulation on the computer that produces shapes that are interesting for about five seconds and later on you wonder why.

Century Spire in Manila has a top whose shape “unfolds.”

Architecture is not like a piece of fashion that can be thrown away, it’s there for a long time. Architecture a cultural discipline, not a fashion discipline. It’s not just about aesthetics, it’s about culture and culture is deep — it’s about history, memory, ideas that have shaped people’s values. It’s not superficial or about creating novelty.

Did you see the skyline of Manila before agreeing to design a building here?

Sure, I was here many years ago. Today, Manila’s quickly growing, it’s very impressive. But it needs…

It needs architectural icons.

Definitely, a city needs iconic buildings and new ideas. I think this building will transform the skyline, give a sense that there is a future and it’s not just looking at what other cities are doing.

What is your favorite skyline in the world?

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Holocaust Tower in Berlin. (Photo by Bitter Bredt Fotografie/from libeskind.com)

I love the skyline of Manhattan because I live there. It’s a skyline that’s also changing all the time. Look at the skyline of London, just some years ago it was very static, until they allowed London to really develop in unpredictable ways, even the area near St. Paul’s Church. Versus Paris, which is a very set skyline that hasn’t changed.

So in a way you can see how London has outpaced Paris because its skyline has changed it. It has also signaled that London is developing in a much quicker and more diversified way and it’s not in a museum mold. Skylines are important signs of the development of cities.

Why is it that some buildings that are now loved were hated by people at the time they were first completed?  Most often they are ridiculed, such as “The Gherkin” by Norman Foster and yet it’s now one of London’s icons.

Always. Because they’re new and people are set in their ways, they know what they like, they’re habituated. Habit is a shackle for the free.  You know when it’s genuine — not everyone says “great.”

Have you had to battle this kind of attitude with your clients?

Oh sure, every project. Even a small house that I recently completed. In the beginning the Jewish Museum in Berlin was critically attacked by everybody. All the experts said it was terrible, nobody would come, nobody would understand, but they were proven wrong because the public grows to appreciate these things.

Zlota at night in Warsaw, Poland

That’s also the nature of art. Look at all the great paintings that we now see as great. When they were first painted people thought they were horrible — Van Gogh’s paintings were not considered good, the paintings of Picasso were sold for very little for many years, Andy Warhol was considered stupid. But now when you look at art museums, wow, those people that recognized the talent were very few.

There’s a famous quote of Picasso’s conversation with Gertrude Stein on his portrait of her and which is now at the Metropolitan in New York. When he finished painting it, she said to him, “You know, Mr. Picasso, it’s a very nice picture but it doesn’t look at all like me.” And he said, “Don’t worry, it will.” And now that is our vision of Gertrude Stein. That is Gertrude Stein. We don’t have any other Gertrude Stein. So that’s art. People see but art envisions how people will see in the future.

Ko-Bogen in Dusseldorf, Germany. (Photo by Kirscher Fotografie/from libeskind.com)

What are your top three favorite buildings in the world?

That’s very difficult to answer. As I said in my book (Breaking Ground), architecture is like a spectrum, like a rainbow. You don’t choose what color from the rainbow is your favorite, you choose the rainbow. It is the diversity, the whole range that makes the world beautiful.

Tampere Deck and Central Arena in Finland.

I like architecture across time, I like vernacular architecture, local architecture that doesn’t even have a name to call it, I like some of the great masterpieces in Asia, Europe, South America, some of the great wonders of the world that have been destroyed, like the Library of Alexandria, the fantastic Temple at Ephesus. You have to have an imaginative mind to navigate through this beautiful world.

I love that anecdote about Goethe choosing the rainbow that you quote in your book. And yet your designs for the Jewish Museum and Ground Zero show your fascination with light and shadows and time of day. How do you reconcile all this in your design?

We wouldn’t have any light if we didn’t have any shadow. Light and shadow intertwine. Every ray of light produces a shadow. And so we know that shadows are as important as light and we have to take account of that in everything.

Shadows kind of manipulate people’s emotions, don’t they?

Not only are we in the light but we are also in the shadows. You can say that life is a flame but there is also a kind of internal sun inside of us, the soul. Light and shadow are part of the images of the world for all eternity.

At daytime, Zlota in Warsaw,

People have a sense of what life in Manhattan is like from mass media, what is life like for you living there?

It’s fantastic. What I love about Manhattan, about New York is that it’s a macrocosm of the world. The truth is people may not love each other but they all live together very well and that’s the beauty of New York, that it’s a city of tolerance.

You can be from anywhere in the world and nobody sees you as an immigrant, you’re just part of the city. The beauty is not just its nice skyline but the attitude that strangers are welcome and that people of different religions, languages, places and beliefs can live happily with each other. That to me is a good model for the world.

Was there a discernible change in attitude before and after 9/11?

Sure. Before 9/11 people often took for granted what America was. After 9/11, we saw things — not all good things — like tolerance and bigotry but it also taught people what a democracy is, how to move society forward, how to take the memory of what happened and turn it into something positive. That was my plan.

There’s always a danger in such a thing, that you can unbalance a city. It can make a sad place of the city but it can also pay homage to these thousands of people from over 90 different countries that died. You can use that as a hinge to create a beautiful 21st-century New York, to affirm liberty and the beauty of the streets, of walking around the city and being able to be part of it.

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Studio Weil in Mallorca, Spain. (Photo by Bitter Bredt Fotografie/from libeskind.com)

I am reminded of the Cupola by Norman Foster on the Reichstag in Berlin. How do you feel about new architecture being added to centuries-old structures?

That’s a very good building and Norman’s a great architect and he did a fantastic job. I think it’s a creative way to use a traditional device with new technology and a new sense.

Was there resistance from your mother when you wanted to be a designer?

It was the other way around. I wanted to be an artist, she said no, as an artist you will be very poor, you will not even be able to buy a pencil. She said, “Be an architect because you can always be an artist in architecture but you cannot be an architect in art, and in this way you can hook two fish with one hook.” Very wise woman.

Do you still design manually?

Libeskind’s initial sketches for Ground Zero.

Only. I have many computers in my studios but I do design the traditional way. I start with a drawing and I make a small model myself. It’s a very traditional art; of course we have new tools but the  tools  cannot replace tradition in my view.

For instance, I have a drawing app and  I can draw with my fingers on the screen of the iPad and it’s so fantastic. When I travel around the world, I draw and send them to my office. And I can draw in a very primitive way — with my finger. How fantastic! People have not done that in thousands of years — in the sand with their finger and now to create a building or to respond to a shape, what a wonderful world.

* * *

(Link to the original version of this story: http://www.philstar.com/modern-living/2014/06/07/1331804/daniel-libeskind-ground-zero-manila)

A journalist’s Warsaw

The Old Town of Warsaw, Poland. (Photo from bitcoinexaminer.org)
The baroque-classical Fryderyk Chopin Museum (Muzeum Fryderyka Chopina). (Photo from Warsaw Tourism/warsawtour.pl)

I have been in a mall in Warsaw for two hours and I haven’t seen a single Asian, either as a shopper or a sales person, which in itself is incredible. All I see are tall white people who are looking at me like I am a goldfish in a fishbowl and I am having a strange feeling about being here.

Why am I even in Warsaw? Poland is in the middle of a cold snap and it is -12 degrees Celsius — the story hogging international news for this week in February 2012. My taxi driver from the airport says -12 is “swimming pool temperature,” that I should have been here a couple of days ago when it was -25, then I can actually complain about the cold.

I’ve come  from a three-day coverage in Frankfurt where I do interviews on design trends for the year, where I get lost on the train and two elderly teachers hop out with me at the station to show me how to backtrack to the city (the landscape was getting ghetto).

This is the story of my life. I get onto the wrong train and strangers come to my rescue. Either because I look like I can’t read a map or because I look so pathetically lost. I don’t care why, the point is they always do.

The Warsaw Presidential Palace. (Photo from http://www.panoramio.com)

I have never been to Warsaw and I have a journalist friend living here. I cannot think of a better person to show me a city than a journalist because they provide a different perspective — of both the history and the city. I know and feel this of my own, why wouldn’t they of theirs?

On my first day, everything is covered in snow. I arrive early in the afternoon and go to the nearest mall. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction — I have time to kill, I look at my map and the first thing I see a mall.

After Vadim has finished work in his newsroom, we meet up for coffee and cakes and gossip about friends that have stayed being journalists and those who have left the profession. It’s a very tight circle, this group of friends he and I made as journalism fellows five years ago. We laughed and sang through our homesickness in those days of being abroad — he and the others for their families; and me, I couldn’t find a more honest answer than that I missed work, editing and reading other people’s shit and walking up to the news desk to ask what was going to be on the front page the next day.

Inside the Royal Palace in the new Old Town. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
The Royal Palace was rebuilt by the Polish people after they had lost everything.
The Royal Castle during the Cold Snap of 2012.

Years later, Vadim from Gazeta Wyborcza and Yani from Jakarta Post, who by this time are on the management side of their editorial offices, would meet in Moscow for a conference, and Yani would travel to Beijing to see one of our friends, and to Seoul to meet with the kids who were our university guides and were now pursuing their doctorate degrees or doing their own startups in South Korea. Edu’s wedding in Sao Paolo — apart from his transfer to Google Brazil at some point — was the subject of many emails and teasing, but none of us made it to Brazil to see him wed.

* * *

I realize, of course, that Warsaw’s Old Town is actually new. Warsaw was the most bombed city during the Second World War (Manila was second). The war flattened the city and it survived nowhere near the way the Roman ruins did in thousands of years of looting and occupations.

In one world war, Warsaw was decimated, and Poland once again didn’t exist on the map.

And yet today the Royal Castle at the entrance to Warsaw’s Old Town is lovely and grand, largely through people’s memory. It was rebuilt by the Polish who donated the little money and gold they had left after the Nazis took everything away — possessions, artworks, bank accounts, gold teeth and family members. They came together with what they had to rebuild what they had lost — their historical center and their identity.

The author Tanya Lara and fellow journalist Vadim Makarenko having coffee and gossip in Warsaw.
In a Slavic bar, which serves only vodka from Poland neighboring countries, they serve boiled potatoes as bar chow. I don’t even dare entertain the thought of ordering a cocktail or vodka on the rocks — just straight up, neat.

Years before, we talked a lot about national identity. All eight of us journalists were under colonial rule at one time in our countries’ histories (except for the Russian; Poland at one point was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria). We were all coming from long histories of journalism that started as propaganda by the occupiers and despite that — or probably because of that — had developed a strong sense of revolutionary identity right after.

We wondered if the relevance of print journalism would continue or if we were going to be lost in the changing times where the sharing of unvetted stories would be normal. Needless to say, it was the subject of many debates. Half of us said readers would still care where stories were coming from and half of us said they wouldn’t care about good writing anymore. Guess which half prevailed?

And now, Vadim and I are discussing it in a Slavic bar — only vodka is served here made in Poland and its surrounding countries. And once again I am the only Asian, and one of the very few women around.

He orders bar chow and what the waiter brings out is boiled potatoes with white cheese. I begin to laugh. This is what you eat with drinks? Well, yes. I fear what he would think if he goes to Manila and bar food is actually a full dinner of pork knuckles, sisig and caldereta with a beer in a glass filled with ice. (A German friend is fascinated by how we can eat so much while drinking beer.)

In a pizzeria where we have Polish beers, he talks about a road trip he is taking to Ireland in a few months. Just he and his daughter — his wife would remain in Warsaw — and another friend with his daughter. I begin to understand how our cultures have such strong similarities in the way families are so tightly wound. Months later, after his Ireland trip and I am on my own road trip in France, he would say how he missed Ireland, how he felt that it was his spiritual home of sorts — the very same way I feel about France.

* * *

The Warsaw Uprising Museum is housed in a former tram power station.
Journals and letters in the Uprising Museum.

The subject of struggle seems to be the theme on my trip to Warsaw, the thing I am subconsciously choosing to see in my limited time here. I am heading to the Warsaw Uprising Museum instead of a mall or another “happier” museum. Located in a former tram power station, it shows the visitor life in Poland under Nazi Germany, under the Soviet Union, and towards the end a city in ruins after the city’s “liberation” in 1945.

The museum is all about hardship and remembrance, sadness and loss, one Warsaw landmark after another obliterated in an intentional effort to erase a people and their country.

In the afternoon, I am going to visit Vadim’s newsroom Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s leading newspaper. The taxi I am riding has a copy of the newspaper and I see his byline. I don’t understand the business story but it is so good to see it.

The newsroom of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s leading daily newspaper.
Layouts of the daily newspaper.
The radio station of Gazeta Wyborcza.

Gazeta Wyborcza doesn’t look like a newsroom at all; it looks like a swanky but laid-back corporate office with bamboos planted in mini gardens. (“Bamboo is exotic to us,” he says.) How different the two halves of the world live — an their newsrooms.

He gives me a tour around the different sections of the newspaper and the radio station. They even have a proper gym, sauna and a pool (if I remember correctly) and to me, coming from a newsroom without windows or a proper cafeteria (but we have the latest Macs!), this is really cool.

* * *

On the day I am leaving, I have time for one more place to visit. I look at the brochures and see that I can go to Chopin’s House or to the Copernicus Center and Planetarium. I cannot do both; they are far apart.

In my mind, there is no question where I should be heading.

Nicolaus Copernicus formulated a theory of the universe, that the sun was at the center and not the earth. Five hundred years later, Instagram selfies would disprove that — earthlings are the center of their own universe.

It is a weekend and the Copernicus Center is filled with schoolchildren. I am walking outside and looking at the Vistula River and beyond it you can see the National Stadium, which was hosting the UEFA Euro that year along with Ukraine. It looks like a very lonely place outside. Inside, I look at the robots and interactive exhibits waiting for the next planetarium show with my ticket.

Finally I am seated in a chair that tilts and forces me to look up. I adjust the earphones and the English narrative tells me how the universe was born, where I am in this vast world of stars, suns, planets and galaxies. As a kid, I always loved planetariums even if they made me feel small and insignificant. And yet I always thought that surely in this vast world of stars and galaxies, I had my own place.

The Copernicus Science Center on the banks of the Vistula River in Warsaw has over 400 interactive exhibits. Copernicus was never excommunicated by the Catholic Church or declared a heretic as many men in science were.
Between Chopin’s House and the Copernicus Center with its Planetarium, I knew which one I had to visit.

When the show is over, I go outside to find a taxi. There is not a single one in sight. Everybody here has arrived by car or school bus. I begin walking the snow-covered streets with a bit of panic — I have a hotel room to check out of and a plane to catch.

The Copernicus Center is far from the city center and even if I have the energy to walk I don’t know which direction to take, everything is covered in snow and I forgot my map in my hotel. But somehow, I am beginning to calm down about possibly missing my flight and I am starting to enjoy the empty streets.

Finally, I spot an empty cab and I get in. They all whiz past me — the houses, the buildings and streets, the people walking all hunched against the snow. This is Warsaw in my journalist friend’s eyes, someone who loves its history and its present, from the cabbie at the airport days ago that charged me double to the kind people I had asked directions from when I was lost in the Old Town, to even the way it has remained a homogenous society.

Seeing it now for the last time, it has, inevitably, become the Warsaw in my mind as well.

Chasing Kafka in Prague

The Franz Kafka Museum on the Vltava River in Prague, the Czech Republic.  Photos by Tanya Lara
“Piss” by David Cerny in front of the Kafka Museum

I am standing in front of two men literally having a pissing contest and I cannot look away.

By “men,” I mean two sculptures by the Czech Republic’s most famous artist David Cerny. By “pissing contest,” I mean their dicks are spouting water on the ground that is shaped like the map of the Czech Republic. It’s an interactive piece of art.

The statues are moving — or at least their lower bodies are — and they are actually writing with their piss on the fountain.They are writing lines from Franz Kafka’s work or stuff people text to a mobile number…while pissing on the Czech Republic.

It is May 2014, a cold spring day in this old city. It seems the perfect place to hide from new hurts.

On this holiday, I have given myself five days in Prague, which would stretch several more days but I don’t know this yet standing in front of the Franz Kafka Museum.

Kafka Cafe in Prague’s Old Town

For the time I have been here, I’ve been chasing Kafka throughout the city. There is a Kafka Café; there is a hotel whose name sounds like “Metamorphosis” and I text an American friend who is reading him in the original text to ask if guests might feel the urge to feed on garbage when they wake up in the morning; then there is the Kafka statue in the Jewish Quarter by Jaroslav Rona.

It is a strange sculpture. But then Kafka was a strange man — or at least his stories are. The statue is of a headless man dressed in a suit and a smaller figure of Kafka sitting on his shoulders. I suppose this could be interpreted in many ways: Kafka literally sitting on the shoulders of a giant is just another surreal tribute to him; or Kafka looking beyond his own perspective, his Jewishness, for the broad horizon.

Or it could be just how Kafka wrote it.

In an interview with Pavla Horakova in 2004, the sculptor Jaroslav Rona referenced the short story “Description of a Struggle,” where Kafka writes, “And now — with a flourish, as though it were not the first time — I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot. But since he stumped forward rather reluctantly and sometimes even stopped, I kicked him in the belly several times with my boots, to make him more lively. It worked and we came fast enough into the interior of a vast  but as yet unfinished landscape.”

The author Tanya Lara at Jaroslav Rona’s sculpture of Franz Kafka on Dusni Street in the Jewish Quarter.

This “landscape” is Prague, Kafka’s hometown — this city on a piece of land wedged between so many other republics that used to be part of one country. And in the Jewish Quarter, on Dusni Street, Kafka spent most of his time wandering about and presumably getting inspired and writing his stories, too.

He hung out in coffee shops along with other intellectuals. If the walls of Cafe Louvre on Narodni Street had feelings, they’d probably have collapsed during Kafka’s day from the weight of the existential angst being dissected by Prague’s writers and intellectuals.

Most tourists come to the Kafka Museum to see David Cerny’s “Piss” sculpture and spend time walking around the courtyard but don’t go inside the museum. It’s like going to the Louvre and walking around I.M. Pei’s Pyramids without going in to look at the Monalisa or Nike’s Winged Victory.

Okay, maybe not — because inside are mostly just pictures and his journals, not very attractive to people who like taking selfies against a stunning background. Plus, taking pictures inside is not allowed.

The museum is dark, the walls are black, the lighting is subdued. It is full of symbolism, things that Kafka rebelled against in his writing, like bureaucracy. One part of the museum wall is covered with filing cabinets, some of which you can open and take a peek at his writing or quotes from his work. The room feels claustrophobic, like someone is chasing you with a million forms to fill out so you can prove you have the right to live.

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Kafka’s grave at the New Jewish Cemetery (photo by Hynek Moravec); Franz Kafka in 1922. He died in a sanitarium in Vienna at 40; and the Old Jewish Cemetery (photo by @iamtanyalara).
Letters, journals and photographs of Franz Kafka at the Kafka Museum in Prague. (Photo from kafkamuseum.cz)

Kafka died in 1923, in a sanitarium in Vienna at 40, a full 15 years before Kristallnacht or “The Night of the Broken Glass,” when violence against the Jewish people broke out across the Reich, and in just two days 250 synagogues were burned and thousands of Jewish businesses were looted.

So much shattered glass from the store windows owned by Jews — that’s how those two days in Poland and Germany got to be called. Broken. Glass. The rage from both sides. The satisfaction on one side, the anger and helplessness on the other side. It’s not related to the museum, but I am thinking of this moment in history while I am here and I am overcome with sadness. Because Kafka is Prague, and Prague is Kafka, and the thing that shaped his writing strongly was being a Jew — a Jew in Prague.

What if Kafka had lived through that period in his own world, walking through the Jewish Quarter as he did every day? How would his stories, his characters, his real-life nightmares have played out? One of his nightmares, according to the museum, was about “a sinister machinery which subjected his body to interminable torment.” What if he had lived through the gassing of the Jews?

Perhaps what we’d be reading today in his book would be an entirely different kind of metamorphosis. From an entirely different Franz Kafka.

On the other side of Charles Bridge.

How I found my muse in Florence

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Santa Maria del Fiore and Giotto’s bell tower glow in the evening. The entire city of Florence is one giant museum.  (Photos from Firenze Turismo)

For weeks, I had it in my mind that if I went looking for my muse I would find her. It was as though she were a physical thing that I would bump into on the streets or find sitting in a café sipping cappuccino and I would introduce myself and tell her: Will you please help me write?

This restlessness, this search for my muse had its beginnings in a missing flash drive. A layout artist in my newspaper borrowed it to transfer files from one computer to another, and the next day he told me he had lost it. The drive contained the only copy of a novel I had been writing intermittently for six years.

The only copy.

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Detail of the Duomo in Florence.

Somebody had stolen it from his drawer, he said. My mind refused to accept that it was lost; it was just misplaced. Sooner or later, it had to turn up. I didn’t want to think about the missing novel, which I was now itching to continue to write after having ignored it for six years.

But the flash drive remained lost in the black hole that suddenly contained everything I needed in my life. Like a lost love — I suddenly felt its absence.

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Giotto’s Campanile stands adjacent to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, part of the complex of Florence Cathedral at Piazza del Duomo. (Photo by Christopher Patterson/wikipedia)

An officemate, short of calling me an idiot, scolded me: Why do you have it on your flash drive and not on your laptop? Because I had been transferring files from one laptop to another. Why didn’t you print it out? Because it was not finished. I didn’t want to jinx it.

And yet, I’m not superstitious, I don’t even need ambience to write. In the office, we all work amid ringing phones, people dropping by inquiring about this or that press release, on desks that are so messy snakes might as well be hiding beneath the piles of folders. We multi-task — downloading e-mails and photos from columnists, editing, writing, ears half-tuned to the news on TV. If you can write through doomsday-scenario newscast style — you can write in a jackhammer factory.

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The capital of the Tuscan region, Florence was once one of Europe’s wealthiest cities.

But what my flash drive contained was fiction, the roots of my writing career. Six years of my life. Thirteen chapters. One hundred thirty pages. Written under moments of grace that no one can ever bring back.

When it became clear that it really was lost, I couldn’t breathe, my knees buckled. It felt like someone in my family had died.

I told myself: I had to find inspiration.  If I had to go to another country, I would do it. I thought of Italy, where I once spent an entire afternoon wiping pigeon shit off my clothes at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, searching for Harry’s Bar and trying to avoid the floodwaters that besieged the city when it drizzled late in the afternoon.

I thought of Italy and all those art galleries. My editor told me a trip to Florence is a cultural trip. So I went online and booked flights and hotels from London to Florence, then a one-way train ticket to Milan, where I would fly back to London.

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The Medici Park in Pratolino, north of Florence.

In England, I went to Stratford-upon-Avon and visited Shakespeare’s birthplace and his other houses. Maybe my muse would be here, hiding inside the 400-year-old Tudor houses. When the guide wasn’t looking, I ran my hands along the pockmarked and cracked wooden tables, the wooden doors and drawers. I pressed my nose to the Elizabethan furniture pieces and smelled the wood. I jumped up and down on floorboards that creaked. And I took pictures surreptitiously.

But my muse wasn’t in Stratford.

It was fall in Europe, that time of the year when it gets dark early. Shakespeare’s houses close at 4 p.m. the shops at 5, and everyone just wants to get inside and eat soup. It seemed everybody I knew was leaving or was at another place waiting for an epiphany.

Then on the plane to Milan for a layover, I felt the promise of something good. I looked out my window and saw snow-capped mountains, miles and miles of them, and then five minutes later it was farmlands — brown in the fall with patches of black and smoke rising from the dry fields. The Italians were burning their farms!

I changed planes at Malpensa Airport, where I saw Alessi kitchen accessories and debated with myself — a designer pepper mill to bring home or a bottle of expensive sparkling wine to consume alone? I went for the wine.

That night, when I reached Florence, I began writing fiction again.

* * *

Florence07_from_firenze turismo
Uffizi Gallery has over 45 museum halls. Some of the must-sees are works by the masters Caravaggio, Botticelli, Raphael and Titian.
The author Tanya Lara at Uffizi Gallery.

Florence opened up to me like a book waiting to be read. In the galleries, it was a different kind of atmosphere — it was as if you were trapped inside a giant artwork. I looked at the Medici paintings and stood for several minutes in front of “The Agony in Garden” and wondered why nobody looked to be in agony — not even Jesus Christ. He and his apostles just looked very, very tired.

Unlike London, nobody was running in Florence. People were looking at me as if asking themselves: Why is she running when she could very well take the bus?

That’s how I first saw Giotto’s Bell Tower — in the cold, early-morning light of fall, when the street sweepers were preparing for the day’s tourists, and the only sound you would hear on the empty, cobblestone streets is your own shoes. The Duomo stood before me in all its bas-relief glory and beside it the painter Giotto’s campanile.

Of all the stories about painters, this is the one I love best. When Pope Benedict XI wanted to employ artists to work on the frescos of the Duomo he was building, he sent an emissary to get samples of their work. With the messenger in front of him in his workshop, Giotto took a sheet of paper and dipped his brush in red paint, closed his arm to his side and in one sweeping motion he drew a perfect circle freehand — so perfect it looked like it was drawn with a compass.

Florence08_from_uffizi gallery
“The birth of Venus” by Botticelli at Uffizi.

The messenger thought it was a joke: a drawing of a circle to prove his genius. “Is this the only drawing I’m to have?” he asked.

Giotto said: “It’s more than enough. Send it along and you’ll see whether it’s understood.”

The pope understood.

There is a kind of hushed atmosphere in Florence, the kind you see only in museums. And I liked that about the place, plus it’s a small walking city filled with art galleries and palaces and small winding streets. It’s so pretty that there’s even a name for the feeling you get when you’re overwhelmed by it: “Stendhal Syndrome,” a psychosomatic illness that “causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place.”

Michelangelo’s David at Accademia Gallery.

That was the atmosphere at the Uffizi Gallery, where “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli is housed, and at the Galleria dell’Accademia where Michelangelo’s sculpture of David stands.

The lines at the Uffizi were so long, I had to wait for more than an hour just to get inside the building. At Accademia, there were no lines, but there were a lot of students and artists with their sketchpads and backpacks, sitting on benches or on the floor, and drawing in front of Michelangelo’s sculpture.

I wasn’t the only one looking for a muse in Florence.

On the plane leaving Italy, I thought that of all the nine muses, all I really needed was one — just one muse to recover, to rewrite, to reclaim the contents of my missing flash drive.

But really, it was more than that. It was to recover myself.

A girl named Penny in Delphi

Delphi01_by_tanya_t_lara The Temple of Apollo at the most famous of Greece’s sacred sites, the Oracle of Delphi. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
Delphi02_by_tanya_t_lara Delphi tour guide and historian Penny Kolomvotsou.

We have all fallen in love with our local tour guide in Delphi, Greece. Her name is Penny Kolomvotsou; she has curly brown hair and is wearing a beige leather jacket and jeans. Her phone is ringing incessantly and she keeps rejecting the calls and apologizing to us.

“Boyfriend?” I ask. “Go ahead and answer it.”

“I have a husband and two children,” Penny says with a laugh. “I don’t have to pick up my phone.”

But the caller is persistent. Penny finally answers. “It’s Sabrina,” she says, referring to our Insight travel director Sabrina Tsimonidis. “She’s asking where the handbrake is.”

Sabrina drives a manual; Penny drives an automatic. Sabrina is going to pick up some bottles of wine for a picnic in Thermopylae by the statue of King Leonidas of Sparta; Penny is orienting us at the Delphi Museum before we were to go up to the ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, located on Mt. Parnassos, home to the most famous of sacred sites, the Oracle of Delphi.

Sabrina tells us later that not too long ago she was in her living room with the History Channel on her TV when she heard a familiar voice. She looked up and it was Penny, who has been interviewed for several documentaries to talk about Delphi and why it was the center of not just Ancient Greece but the whole known universe.

Delphi03_by_tanya_t_lara The stadium on top of Delphi.

The Oracle of Delphi, Penny explains, refers to the whole complex— the series of terraces in the foothills of Mount Parnassos — and not just the priestess. From the museum we go up the archeological site at Delphi. This site was said to be determined by Zeus himself who wanted to find the center of the Earth or Gaia. Penny says that Zeus sent two eagles flying from opposite directions — one coming from the east and one from the west — and the point where the met was over Delphi, where the “navel” of Gaia was found.

The temple here is dedicated to Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto,  and it is also here where the Pythian Games were held, the precursor to the Ancient Olympics. The games did not have just athletes competing but also musicians, and the victors were presented with laurel crowns because Apollo believed they were sacred.

We climb to the top of the Oracle of Delphi, up to the stadium. It is so quiet here, surrounded by mountains, and it is nearly empty except for us. Below us, what  remains of the Temple of Apollo, where vapors once came out of the cracks in the mountain, which might partly explain the hallucinations of the Pythia, whose answers to questions of people’s future was anything but simple.

Delphi04_by_tanya_t_lara Delphi Archeological Museum.
Delphi05_by_tanya_t_lara Some of the treasures at Delphi were buried and forgotten for thousands of years.

The Oracle of Delphi was, if you will, a great equalizer. The kings sent their trusted people here to ask what they should do to win wars, to protect their thrones, the outcome of battles. The important stuff to important people, in short. But archeologists also found tablets on which ordinary folk wrote their petitions and questions: Is my wife cheating? Will harvest be plentiful? Is this baby mine? The important stuff to ordinary people, as well.

Penny tells us that the site was once occupied by a village until they were relocated and archeologists began a systematic excavation. They had discovered the Roman ruins before and what was under these? The Greek ruins. What a magnificent sight it must have been, you think, as you approach the mountains — 5,000 statues surrounding the Temple of Apollo and 500 bronze statues that were looted by the Romans. “The Oracle at Delphi was not just looted by the Romans and Persians, but also by bad neighbors — by the locals, by neighboring city states,” says Penny. But thankfully, some people had the foresight to bury some of the treasures — forgotten for thousands of years.

“Archeologists always make decisions on which layer to keep and which layer to damage,” says Penny. “When they first came to Delphi and didn’t have the big equipment, they made the wise decision to leave it as it is. In 1939, archeologists had to go back to fix broken stones, which gave them the opportunity to dig and this is what they found accidentally — gold-and-ivory statues of Apollo, his sister Artemis and their mother Leto.”

The ivory part of the statues is now black from the vapors, but the gold (reconstructed as it is — as most of the treasures they excavated) is as awe-inspiring as it must have been then — glittering in a temple dedicated to a beloved god.

It is only in Delphi that we understand what all this means to modern life, how mythology and Greek drama were and are relevant. Penny doesn’t quote Homer or Socrates or Plato. She quotes Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, whom I began reading at university in the early ‘90s, specifically his 1953 novel The Last Temptation of Christ.

“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free,” were Kazantzakis’s most famous words, now immortalized on his tomb as well.

Delphi06_by_tanya_t_lara What a magnificent sight it must have been then — 5,000 statues surrounding the Temple of Apollo and 500 bronze statues. Unfortunately, they were looted by the Romans.

Even when the Pythia at Delphi — presumably high from the vapors and ready to tell fortunes — told the kings and soldiers they would die horrible deaths in battle, they still picked up their armors and swords and went to war.


Penny points out something else. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was where Apollo was worshipped the most (the center of the ancient world, remember?) And yet he shared Delphi with another god — a lesser god no less — Dionysus (or Bacchus in the Roman version). Apollo was the god of music, poetry, catharsis, logic. How is it, in his biggest temple, he shares it with Dionysus, god of wine and merriment?

Penny says that in front of the temple of Apollo, the Ancient Greeks had inscribed two things: “Know thyself” and “Nothing to the extremes.”

Delphi07_by_tanya_t_lara In Delphi the kings consulted the Oracle about wars; the commoners about cheating spouses. Seriously.

“When Achilles was going to war, his mother asked him, ‘What are you going to do? If you go to war, you will die. Stay at home and become a normal person with a family.’ He said, ‘No, my decision is to become mortal and I am going.’ Remember Hector? When he was holding his baby and his wife tells him, ‘There are other brave soldiers who will go out and fight. Stay with us.’ But with his baby, he stood up and said, ‘I’m going because it is my duty.’”

Penny loves telling these stories. And in a few months she will be tour-guiding a group of philosophers from Germany. “They are discussing the European crisis, but not just economics, also principles and values.”

She makes a face and laughs. Thirty philosophers.

Oh joy!