Our cruise on the Danube, toilets, facism, and Fred Rogers
by Rob Tiller
We just got back from taking a cruise along the Danube River, Budapest to Passau, five countries in seven days. We saw castles, palaces, and cathedrals, art and technology, and some beautiful countryside. It was stimulating and fun.
Unfortunately, our air conditioner died. When we got back on July 4, it was really hot (in the 90s), and our apartment was stifling. Our cat and plants were still alive, but struggling. Sally got a qualified technician to check it the next day, and he diagnosed a failed motor. He ordered the part, which is expected in tomorrow.
It was pleasantly cool when we were in Europe (high 60s to low 70s), and things looked to be working well. They appeared to be trying to address climate change, as we saw lots of electric trams, solar panels and wind turbines.
But I was particularly impressed with their toilet systems. Unlike in U.S. cities, we found that there were usually clean well-functioning public restrooms conveniently located. They charge for admission (up to one Euro), but it’s totally worth it. As a tourist spending hours poking down their lovely winding streets, I was so grateful.
As we looked at very old cities, I was struck by the multiple levels of culture that existed side by side, like distinct layers in sedimentary rock, or a slice of linzer torte. In places we could see bits of ancient Rome, medieval culture, Renaissance, Baroque, neo-classical, and other influences all in the same church or castle, or street.
The cathedral building efforts involved multiple generations of humans cooperating. Each one is unique, an expression of a specific local culture, and some of them are really beautiful. How did they organize themselves and then keep on going for many decades? The pay can’t have been very good. And they didn’t have any power tools! For all the Church’s problems, I give it credit for animating so much creativity.
Our cruise on the Danube was on the Viking Legend. The Viking staff was friendly and very competent, and organized the trip in a way that made a lot of sense for a first time visitor. We would typically cruise to a new destination in the evening, have breakfast, and then have a guided tour in the morning. We’d then have lunch either in town or on the boat, and explore on our own in the afternoon. Then, back to the boat for a cocktail, dinner, and after dinner entertainment.
The guided tours were by local folks who were knowledgeable and good-humored. We were not especially knowledgeable about the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, and other political history of the area, and got an introduction that made us want to learn more. We got better at distinguishing baroque, rococo, and Neo-classical styles.
It was also interesting to hear personal stories of the guides who’d grown up in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic under the Communist system. Our Czech guide mentioned that after the fall of the Berlin wall, he was the first kid in his school to visit the west and get Legos. Back home, the other kids were wild for those Legos!
There were about 180 guests on our ship. Most of them were “seniors,” though there were a few younger families with kids, and one cute pair of honeymooners. At meal time, most people we shared a table with were pleasant enough to chat with, and there were a few we quite enjoyed.
We had one afternoon of cruising the Danube between Krems and Vienna. The weather was cloudy and threatening to rain, but it was lovely seeing the the mountains and villages shrouded in fog, and the ruins of ancient castles.
As there was so much impressive architecture built over hundreds of years, it took some time to understand how much was pointlessly destroyed by British and U.S. bombing in WWII. While killing more than 400,000 German and Austrian civilians, we all so took a terrible toll on these civilizations’ cultural treasures. There’s a good, though painful, account of this terror bombing in Daniel Ellsberg’s recent book, the Doomsday Machine. But I’m happy to say that the Germans and Austrians we met didn’t seem bitter about this, or to be expecting an apology. They’d rebuilt with loving and obsessive precision some of their most treasured buildings, and moved on.
There were several guides who said interesting things about Hitler. They seemed to view him as evil, but also viewed their forefathers as in part his victims. It’s hard for most of us to understand the appeal of Antisemitism, but there’s no denying it really excited some Europeans. The idea that the Jews were a threat to society was, of course, completely crazy, but having an enemy group gave them a sense of purpose. It brought them a kind of unity and provided a simple (but wrong) way to address their social problems
At any rate, our own recent experience with ascendant racism and xenophobia made me much more understanding and forgiving towards those who supported or failed to stop Hitler. Here, as elsewhere, Trump is teaching us some true but sad lessons. Words that draw us together as a tribe by pretending to racial superiority are extremely appealing to many. At the same time, those same words, dehumanizing those who are physically or culturally different, make some of us fearful and suggestible. And politicians who figure this out can manipulate these excited and fearful people. Those of us who aren’t so fearful can hardly believe it’s happening, or that we have to actively oppose it.
On Saturday we went out to an air-conditioned movie theater (the Rialto) to see the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers. I remember trying to watch his show with my children when they were small, and finding it so slow that it was literally impossible to sit through. But of course, I was not part of the target audience. Rogers took the needs and fears of small children very seriously, and addressed them with uncanny respect and love. The film was really touching, and a welcome reminder that there is goodness in the world.