Prague and London: Part 3

Christmas day!

What a glorious thing to experience in other countries. Prague was hopping on Christmas day. People were on the streets (at least in Old Town) and many more shops and restaurants were open than I was expecting.

Our first stop was the Jewish quarter of Prague since we knew that it would be open. (It was Sunday). We’ve been on every trip but it feels like a necessary part of any trip to Prague. There’s several tours that you can do of the area with one ticket. We opted for the medium sized tour that first took us through the Pinkas Synagogue. The walls of the synagogue list over 77,000 names of Jews from Bohemia and Moravia sent to die in the concentration camp. It is a moving and powerful memorial to intolerance and hate. There’s a wall with many of the concentration camp names on it. We really have to work on making this all a thing of the history. Never again. I hope.

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Upstairs there is a room with drawings by children living in the ghetto during the 1930s. The adults tried to continue classes to give their children a normal life as possible. Some look like drawings that any child could draw, happy, and bright. Others show the repercussions of living in the ghetto amongst so much hate. As a child, I remember breaking down when I saw this room because it really brought home what happened here. Many of the children were my age or younger and they did not survive the camps.

The next part of the tour is the Old Jewish Cemetery. It’s not very big but it is supposed to have 100,000 bodies buried there! The earliest grave is from the 1400s as well! You can only walk the perimeter of it since it is covered in gravestones. Various graves have little stone markers, a sign that someone was there to remember. Just outside the cemetery was the Klausen Synagogue, which houses exhibits on Jewish religious objects.

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Then we caught a cab to take us to Discalced Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious to see the Infant of Prague. Unfortunately, our friendly cab driver tried to charge us 20 euros for a 4 dollar cab ride. Alas.

Outside, there was a pen holding goats and sheep again. We saw these all over the place. We caught the tail end of Christmas mass that was lovely with a choir. The altarpieces throughout this church was magnificent, covered in silver and wood. The Infant was resplendent in white robes on Christmas day. The Infant has created miracles. According to the church website, “During one invasion, all the children of the city were taken to the Church for protection—praying to the Infant, they were all saved.” (https://www.infantprague.org/about-the-infant-jesus-of-prague/)

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We had lunch at a lovely little pub where people wrote messages on coasters that were displayed throughout. It was a nice break from being outside. Prague is a bit damp and cold. It’s not quite like CHicago (or Krakow so we’ve learned) but I did not bring warm enough boots.

After lunch, we found ourselves at one of the towers flanking the Charles Bridge. We are fans of towers. Naturally, we had to go up.  We had a wonderful view of the city and the bridge itself. We then crossed the bridge to find the Museum of Communism!

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On our very first day, I saw a poster for the Museum of Communism that advertised that it was above a McDonald’s. I was intrigued especially since I’m a Cold War junkie. I also learned it would be open Christmas day (though closed on the 24th).

And so we went. It was definitely upstairs of a McDonald’s and on the same floor as a casino. THe museum told the story of Communism in Czech Republic. It became very apparent that they were very anti-communist. Outside there was a damning exhibition on North Korea. It’s not the most sophisticated of museums. Lots of text, a few mannequins. But it was worth the trip. They also had some video of protests over 30-40 years that were very sobering. Police beating people up, ripping banners, people running for their lives.

Afterwards, we discovered the most outrageous postcards in the gift shop. One postcard had a photo from a famous poster of smiling women that was celebrating good workers. The postcard said, “It was a Happy Shiny time. The shiniest were the ones who worked in the Uranium mines.”

Then we topped the night off with a concert at the Spanish Synagogue. In various European cities, churches and other religious venues host concerts on a seemingly regular basis. Usually it’s Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I think it’s a great idea to open up these beautiful spaces to wonderful music. This concert was magnificent. It had  Carl Orff’s O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, which was magnificent. The setlist was a little eclectic; there were tangos, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina and Porgy and Bess. But the singer and ensemble were amazing. The space is astonishing.

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On our way to dinner, we passed through Old Town Square again and there was a truck covered in bells of all sizes. A person was playing the bells like a piano. We got here Carol of the Bells on Bells!

That’s all for now!

Prague and London: Part 2

The day started with a delicious breakfast at the hotel. As regular readers know, I’m not one to talk much about hotel food or breakfasts much but this meal was notable. The seasonal special was poached egg with pumpkin and rye. Very tasty. I ended up having it three out of the four days we stayed in Prague!

Since it was December 24th, our first stop was the Prague Castle. We knew it would be closed Christmas day so we wanted to make sure we stopped by on our trip. We hired a cab that took us to the magnificent entrance/exit. We got there as a changing of the guard was occurring. Less painful than the one in the UK. We took in the amazing view from up there and enjoyed the little Christmas market. Then we got in line to get in. This ended up being a longer wait than we expected. Also, it was a bit colder than I had anticipated. I really wished I had worn boots or thicker socks. Then it began to drizzle, making the wait a bit more excruciating. Eventually, we got through security and entered the castle grounds!

We made a beeline for the St. Vitus Cathedral as the rains began to pour. It had high vaulting ceilings, beautiful carved stone and wood decorations. There was an amazing tomb with silver figures all over it including angels above it. Very impressive. There’s also the beautiful St. Wenceslas  Chapel that you can peer into with semi-precious rocks embedded into the walls and colorful paintings. There was a lovely wooden creche as well.

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After our visit to the cathedral, we wandered a bit more around the castle but it appeared that much was closed for the holiday. However, my feet were causing me some concern with the cold and damp. We found a cafe and went in despite the “Reserved” sign on the wall. A family was using part of a large table and they generously let us sit at the other end. We ordered various warm drinks. I tried out the apple cider, which was not exactly to my tasting. My husband ordered Kahlua infused warm milk, which was amazing. But the warmth. We realized after we got our drinks that we weren’t supposed to be there. The entire cafe was reserved for a tour group. We watched our waitress turn other people away. I think because we were at the table with the other family, we got in under the radar. Whatever the cause, we were grateful.

Soon after, we wandered out of the castle and made our way to the Charles Bridge. On the way, we ran into giant bevy of swans, hanging out on the river. The Charles Bridge is a walking bridge is decorated with intricate sculptures. It was an astonishing view, Two towers flanked both sides of the bridge. It was near the golden hour of the day so the world was bright.

We made our way back to the hotel as we watched Prague close for Christmas. We had a Christmas Eve dinner at a largely forgettable restaurant but it had lovely live music from two guitarists. THere was also a chopped liver mousse that was delicious (sadly, the rest of the food was not). After dinner, we decided to wander a bit more before bed. We ended up at a brewery just off the Old Square talking to a Brazilian who was a businessman for silver jewelry while drinking a Czech eggnog liquor and mead. It was a delightful end to a good day.

That’s all for now!

Prague and London: Part 1

Greetings to you all in this new year! I can’t wait to tell you all about the adventures in Prague and London over the past week and a half. We went to many castles, enjoyed warm mead, and even journeyed to an ancestral town!

We began our trip a few days before Christmas in Prague. We were staying relatively near the Old Town Square. As soon as we recovered slightly from our trans-Atlantic trip, we ventured towards Old Town Square. On the way, we found a glorious puppet shop with many handmade puppets including Krampus with his one cloven foot and a regular human foot, a green man with a fish (clearly a local legend), and even Harry Potter. Next door was a beer spa. Yes, a beer spa. I had only learned that these establishments existed about two days before our trip from a coworker. You can bathe in beer while drinking beer…I am not much of a spa person but I would have liked to have done this. Sadly, it was completely booked.

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We then continued on our way to the Old Town Square. Many parts of Europe have wonderful Christmas markets in their public places. Prague had a glorious market. There was a tall brightly lit Christmas tree that occasionally played William Tell’s Overture with corresponding lights. There were some live animals that you could pet and feed. Food vendors sold sausages, grilled cheese, trdelinik or Chimney cakes, and hot mead. We tried the latter too. Trdeliniks were like a form of fried dough. You can get them with ice cream or nutella.

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The best was the hot mead. It was almond flavored. Warm, sweet and strong. Other vendors sold wood carved items, metal items made from a blacksmith, and much more. It was vibrant and wonderful. We got to see the beautiful Astronomical Clock that puts on a little show on the hour. A window opens and the Apostles stream by, Death rings a bell, and several figures shake their heads as the clock chimes the expected number of hours.

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Buildings in the area were beautifully decorated, some looked almost like Wedgewood. What a beautiful city! We had dinner at a local place with Czech fare. I had my first bowl of goulash. I was initially frightened when I opened the lid on my stew to find the smell of raw onions. Once I removed them, the stew was quite tasty. I had some potato dumplings on the side, which were nice and hearty.

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A great start to our trip! That’s all for now!

Top Plays of 2016

What a year of theater! This year was a lot of Shakespeare due to Shakespeare 400. I should also point out that I have not included Aloft’s El Circo Cheapo in this list or in prior years for a simple reason. El Circo Cheapo is always amazing and was part of my life that it seemed natural to go as it is to go to work. So if and when El Circo Cheapo begins running again, you should go. But make sure that I still get tickets.

  1. An Heir Apparent
    1. This adaptation by David Ives was a treat. It’s a farce about terrible people groveling over inheritance but it was hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing. Also, I have yet to see something that I didn’t love from David Ives.
  2. Satchmo at the Waldorf
    1. One of the best things I saw this year. It was a one man show about Louis Armstrong a few days before his death. It’s a beautiful meditation on race, aging, and music. I loved how Barry Shabaka Henley was able to play three different characters so well. It was astonishing how language use, posture and lighting can really change everything. A tour de force.
  3. Othello
    1. Chicago Shakespeare did a really lovely production of Othello set in the present day in a war zone. Very emotionally charged. Not sure if I liked it more or less than last year’s Backroom Shakespeare version. Honestly, I think both were equally amazing.
  4. Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas
    1. Dido and Aeneas was the first ballet I’d seen in years. This modern ballet was performed really well, telling the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas. It reminded me that I need to see more dance.
  5. I, Malvolio
    1. This was another incredible one man show. This was a visiting show from UK for the Shakespeare 400. Tim Crouch did a bang up job as the title character. It’s not often that you leave the theater feeling sorry for a villain.
  6. Tug of War
    1. While part 1 of Tug of War: Foreign Fire went on a bit, Part 2 Civil Strife was amazing. This six hour play combined Henry VI Part 2 and 3 and Richard III in an incredibly effective way. Wall O’ Blood. Also, it had an incredible surprise adaptation of Jack Kincaid’s character. Too apt. And now even more depressing.
  7. Universoul Circus
    1. This was our second year at the Universoul Circus, the only African American owned circus in the country. It’s a circus dance party and is one of the most fun things we did this year. It’s a combination of traditional circus with acrobats, flying trapeze, and animals but the performers are from all over the world. When I saw it the first time, the stillwalkers’ performance inspired me to learn stilt walking. Because they weren’t walking, they were dancing.
  8. undreamed shore
    1. undreamed shore was a unique theater experience by the same Australian group, one step at a time like this, that put together Since I Suppose in 2014. This time, it was a one person tour of Navy Pier with a smartphone that mapped the location with Shakespearean plays. I was instructed to lie under the ferris wheel or wander on the parking garage overlooking the skyline while listening to pertinent sections. It was magical.
  9. Then She Fell
    1. This play experience was a stroke of madness on our part. We spent a weekend in Philadelphia but did a day trip to Brooklyn to see Then She Fell. It was a site immersive play centering on Alice in Wonderland/Lewis Carroll. Actually, the best way to think of it is as a haunted house with a plot. Only 15 people can go through a time and you go through the rooms in different orders. You may even have a slightly different experience as anyone you go with. It was a magical exploration of unrequited love, age, mental illness, and time.
  10. The Magic Play
    1. This play was another one of the best plays of the year. It’s about trust and love between a magician and a diver. It’s vulnerable and sweet with incredible card magic. It really well integrated the magic with the plot of the play.  I have written in the past about my love for magic. The one thing was that we saw it on Election night and I was really hoping that I could say that I saw a wonderful play about two gay men the night Hillary got elected…but that didn’t quite go as planned.
  11. Charles III
    1. This play begins at the funeral of Elizabeth II where Charles III begins his reign. It’s Shakespearean in scope and was written in blank verse. The play is about a political crisis dealing with issues of honor, duty, meritocracy, and family. It was a hell of play to see after the election.
  12. In the Heights
    1. Lin-Manuel Miranda can do no wrong. I saw Porchlight’s In the Heights and it was amazing. There was controversy over the lead that is complicated but I still wanted to see it. What a play about neighborhood and gentrification! It had me crying in the middle, silently thanking my parents for teaching me Spanish.

That’s all for now!

10th Annual Jane Addams Day!

This past Saturday was the 10th annual Jane Addams Day in Illinois. It was my fourth helping the American Association of University Women Chicago, Inc. celebrate this excellent day. We partner with our Illinois chapter and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association to host an amazing event.

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We started with speaker, Louise Knight, historian and author, who talked about the alliance with Jane Addams and Theodore Roosevelt. He needed her progressive support while she needed his audience in order to help the cause of suffrage. It wasn’t an easy alliance; Theodore Roosevelt was not as fully committed to women’s universal suffrage right then and now. He advocated for the approach of having women decide themselves, which was never going to realistically happen. One thing I learned was that the biggest group against women’s suffrage was the brewers and those involved in the alcohol trade because they feared (rightly) about their influence on anti-alcohol laws. So much of the opposition was funded by them. However, when the 18th Amendment ushering in Prohibition was passed, they gave up. Months later, the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote, was passed. I had no idea about the connection! For more information on Louise Knight and her work on Jane Addams, check out her website: http://www.louisewknight.com/the-author.html

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Our second speaker was Annie Storr, visiting professor from Brandeis. She talked about Ellen Gates Starr and her work in elections. Professor Storr talked about how Ellen Gates Starr ran for alderman and later (i think) trustee for the University of Illinois. She lost both of them by a large margin. However, the next woman to run for trustee won. It was a nice reminder that sometimes you may not get the result you want but it’s an important step in the right direction.

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Our final presenter was singer and songwriter Kristin Lems, who was our featured guest in 2015. She sang two of her songs in her musical about Jane Addams and talked about her own family history intertwined with Hull House. She finished with two feminist songs including “We will Never Give up.” She sang this song while working to get the ERA amendment passed. I think it’s an important message for us all. For more on Kristin Lems and her amazing music: http://www.kristinlems.com/

What a wonderful Jane Addams day!

Best Movies of 2016

Now I’m going to talk about my favorite movies I saw this year. To qualify, the movie must have been seen in a movie theater. So I have also included movies here that are not new but reshown (usually at the Music Box or Gene Siskel)

  1. Peggy Guggenheim Art Addict
    1. This documentary talks about the incredible and amazing Peggy Guggenheim. I’ve been going to her museum for most of my life when I visit Venice. She played a fundamental role in the lives of early 20th century painters. She supported Pollock, made Rothko famous, married Ernst, helped save countless others from the Nazis…A well lived life.
  2. Sanjay’s Super Team (short)
    1. This Pixar short film was nominated for Animated Short Oscar. It’s a sweet film about cultural/generational differences between a young boy and his father.
  3. Bear Story (short)
    1. This animated short won best Oscar. It’s a heartbreaking tale of family and loss but told a bit like a story in a story.
  4. World of Tomorrow (short)
    1. It’s Don Hertzfeldt at his finest. It’s a strange short about time travel and meaninglessness/meaningfulness of human experience.
  5. The First Monday in May
    1. This documentary is about the Fashion Institute’s big show and annual gala at the Metropolitan Museum. It focused on their recent exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass. I’m still sad I did not go and see it so this was an attempt to make up for it. It’s a fascinating behind the scenes look at the Museum, the gala, and the figures behind including the famous Anna Wintour.  
  6. Deadpool
    1. I went in knowing little about Deadpool. I loved it. It’s snarky and funny in ways that I wasn’t expecting.
  7. Ghostbusters
    1. This was a fun film that gave me what I wanted. The four Ghostbusters were funny and sweet. The ghosts were silly (LIKE THEY WERE IN THE ORIGINALS!). My 8 year old self would have fallen in love with them just as I do now.
  8. Miller’s Crossing
    1. We saw this as part of the Film Noir festival at the Music Box. Directed by the Coen Brothers, it really lives up to their reputations and the genre. The main character is an amoral man who you aren’t sure where his motivations are.
  9. Pete’s Dragon
    1. This sweet film about the relationship between a dragon and the boy he cared for was a wonderful exploration about our relationship between animals and our environment. Plus Robert Redford is awesome.
  10. Kubo and the Two Strings
    1. This is a fun imaginative film about a little boy coming to terms with himself and his family. Beautiful animation with origami creatures.
  11. The Secrets in their Eyes
    1. This Argentine film had to be one of the best films I’ve seen all year. It won Best Oscar for Foreign film in 2009. It’s about a detective attempting to solve a case that eluded him and finding that it dregs up a harsh and difficult past during the Argentine dictatorship.
  12. Neruda
    1. Neruda is a strange film that defies categorization. It’s not a biopic nor quite a film noir. One critic said that it’s like a Neruda tale.
  13. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
    1. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. I was really pleased with the film. It captures some of the wonder of the world. Plus many beasties. And I liked how it showed that good and evil aren’t stark contrasts. Darkness can lie in “good.” A movie for our times. I wish there was more diversity in casting however.
  14. Arrival
    1. Favorite new movie of the year. This is about a linguist who is brought in by the government to figure out how to talk to an alien species who has come to earth. It talks about language and love. And the importance of patience and compassion. It had me weeping at the end of it.
  15. Moana
    1. This Disney film is wonderful. It’s a princess movie but where she actually saves herself. Bonus: Fun music by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Top Books of 2016

Every year, I like to come up with a list of the top books I’ve read for the year. Every year, it’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction, recently published books and older works, and comics. I don’t try to limit it to ten books because I may have read many more amazing works. Below I’ll note the best books I’ve read this year. I’m going to exclude anything by JK Rowling since she’s the best.

  1. The Magician King, Lev Grossman
    1. This is last book of the Magicians trilogy. Imagine Hogwarts but with sex, drugs, and teenage angst. I really enjoyed reading the series but the last book was my favorite. Magical worlds, bravery, did I mention teenage angst?
  2. The Underground Abductor, Nathan Hale
    1. This is YA graphic novel is one of many in the Hazardous Tales series. Each book is a story in US history (occasionally European history) that you may not know. It’s clever, informative, and worth checking out. The Underground Abductor is the story of Harriet Tubman. I had learned about her in school but somehow didn’t learn her entire history. Well worth checking out.
  3. The Word Exchange, Alena Graedon
    1. This work was astonishing. Imagine a world where print media is the past (hmm) and smartphone like technology reigns supreme. Editor Doug Johnson is publishing the last edition of the English Dictionary but he goes missing. His daughter Anana has only the word ALICE to uncover the truth. And there’s a word plague.
  4. H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald
    1. This memoir is about Helen MacDonald’s attempt to train a goshawk while dealing with her father’s sudden death. It’s a very heartfelt book about death, our relationship to animals. I saw her speak earlier this year. She’s got an amazing dry wit. I can’t wait to read what she has next.
  5. Unicorn V. Goblins, Dana Simpson
    1. I know I’ve talked about Dana Simpson before. This work is another published comics of Phoebe and Her Unicorn. It’s like a Calvin and Hobbes of today.
  6. Nimona, Noelle Stevenson
    1. The title character decides to become the sidekick of super villain Lord Ballister Blackheart. But good and evil aren’t quite what they seem. Nor is Nimona.
  7. The Unseen City, Nathanael Johnson
    1. This nonfiction book explores the life in the urban world in a clever way. It starts with his baby daughter being fascinated by the world around her. Each chapter looks at a different organism: pigeons, snails, and much more. See amazing things in our own backyard.
  8. Two Years, Eight months and 28 Days, Salman Rushdie
    1. This work is a modern telling of 1001 Arabian nights with a large touch of the apocalypse. It’s got good and evil Djinns, new wondrous and terrifying worlds.
  9. Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, Dianne Hales
    1. This nonfiction work is about Dianne Hales’ working to uncover as much as possible about the woman behind the famous painting. You learn about the status and role of women in Leonardo’s time plus a bit about the famous artist himself.
  10. Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro
    1. It’s scary how this relevant this series is now. Imagine a dystopia where misogyny wins the day. If you are a noncompliant woman, you are sent to a prison floating in space. Very on point series.
  11. Umbrella Academy Volumes 1 and 2, Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá
    1. Holy cow. These graphic novels blew me away. 43 superpowered children are suddenly born to women who weren’t pregnant. Sir Reginald Hargreaves adopts 7 of the surviving children and turns them into a crime fighting superhero team. But it doesn’t go well at all and they all disband.
  12. A Darker Shade of Magic/The Gathering of Shadows, V.E. Schwab
    1. This trilogy (book 3 is coming out in February) centers on Kell, a special magician who can travel between three Londons. Each London has a different relationship with magic. His London “Red London” is full of magic. Grey London has long since forgotten magic. White London is losing magic violently. But there are rumors of fourth London: Black London where magic went untamed and ruined everything.
  13. Ragseed, Margaret Atwood
    1. This is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This time, it centers around a theater director unceremoniously kicked out of his own festival who ends up teaching Shakespeare at a correctional facility.
  14. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Volumes 1-4, Ryan North and Erica Henderson
    1. What a delight! I never thought I’d go for the superhero comics but here we are. Ryan North is one of the writers. Squirrel Girls is hilarious and heartfelt. Pure joy in reading these comics.
  15. March Volume 1, John Lewis
    1. This first in a graphic novel trilogy looks at the history of civil rights in America. It’s thoughtful, informative, and compelling. The critics are likening it to Persepolis. Well worth checking out.