Friday, November 30, 2007

Rainy day blogs, pensiveness, the "Then" and the Nazis

This blogging thing is getting into my blood. It may finally be the way to get Ryan Dobson to write consistently. I wonder why that is? Maybe because I feel like it's journaling, but into a conversation. The assumption being that people are reading this... and you know what they say about assuming...

I love rain - and the typical absence of it in SoCal intensifies that feeling. I was walking back from coffee this morning, listening to Gold from the "Once" soundtrack (P.S. - a GREAT song to listen to if you're walking through the rain, holding a warm cup of coffee and wearing a corduroy sportcoat), wondering, "What is it that about rain that I like so much?"

I think it's like Creation being contemplative. It's nature way of walking into a little hole-in-the-wall gallery, sipping bordeaux from a nearly bowl-sized glass, and listening to neo-folk music on an acoustic guitar... Rain makes me feel like painting even though I'm not a painter. And all this is achieved by the environment's grey brooding...

That's the context in which Sarah and I drove up on Mauthausen Concentration Camp (Mot-house-en) on Sunday, October 28th, 2007. I'm going to tell that story now and I'm going to ask that you try to emulate my context as well as you can. It may not be raining where you are - but you can imitate what rain does: put on that song, turn off the TV, close the shades. Whatever. I suggest "Home" by Foo Fighters... but you do whatever you need to.

So, Mauthausen. It was grey and cold and drizzly and exactly how it should be when you go somewhere like that. Mauthausen sits on a green, Austrian, rolling hillside. Because of the twisting two-lane road, you don't see it until you're there; it's grey stone walls looming at the crest of the knoll. The parking lot sits directly in front and was almost empty, as it was the lull in the tourist season. Next to the parking lot, the respectfully minimalistic ticket office was empty as well... we saw neither lines nor other visitors. After receiving our audio guides, we walked toward the main entrance to the camp.

When you visit a place like Mauthausen now, you anticipate a strange mix of imbued reverence and intrinsic touristy-ness; because it is simultaneously a memorial to the Holocaust and a visitor destination. But that day it was as little a sightseeing memorial as possible - it was a ghost town.

In January 1945, the camps, directed from the central office in Mauthausen, contained roughly 85,000 inmates. The death toll remains unknown, although most sources place it between 122,766 and 320,000 for the entire complex. (source:

We walked through the main gate and the camp was truly empty, the way you feel it should be.

I'm not sure how to describe this... I wrote in my journal that day: "I am a person who will try, but will be fundamentally incapable of understanding the Holocaust." But it was like God was trying to help me conceptualize the gravitas of this place. It was cold - you could see your breath and we kept blowing on our hands to keep them warm.

Originally a prison... [Mauthausen was] converted into a Concentration Camp for the prisoners who were not to be rehabilitated: most died in the Camp. Until death, prisoners were used for backbreaking work in the Stone Quarries... (source:

Outside this barrack window, skeletal, forgotten, tortured people stood in the cold rain for hours on end - typically for no reason other than torture. At one point, not long ago, human beings died, outside this window, because of their race or sexuality or political affiliations.

Facing the barracks were the "medical" buildings, housing the gas chamber and crematoriums.

As we walked around the camp and listened to our audio guides, we heard accounts of women being brought into the camp and raped by the SS officers; about prisoners who were stripped, shaved, disinfected, and made to live outside in "quarantine" for weeks; about people lured outside their barracks on the pretence of having their photo taken, only to be lined up and shot.

It kind of seems like I'm being melodramatic now, but with just a little attempt at empathy, the entire experience is overwhelming. You can feel the weight of the place.

After the gas chambers, the audio guide ends by leading you out through the main gate onto the grassy hill outside. As you walk, it tells you about the camp's liberation:

The camps of Mauthausen-Gusen were the last to be liberated during the World War II. On May 5th, 1945, the camp at Mauthausen was approached by soldiers of the 41st Recon Squad of the US 11th Armored Division, 3rd US Army. (source:

(photo from wikipedia - US tanks entering the camp on May 6th, 1945)

As we listened to the account of the camp's liberation, we walked through the gate pictured above and the most amazing thing happened; the clouds cleared and the sun came out. It was the first time we'd seen the sun since we'd arrived in Europe a week earlier. It was also the first time we'd really seen just how beautiful the surrounding Austrian countryside could be.

The photo above is taken just outside that gate, looking out over the stone quarry where prisoners-made-slaves died by the thousands.

Outside the camp, every nation represented by one of their imprisoned citizens has built a memorial to those who perished inside.

Again, I have to be careful to not over-state this... I'm hyper-sensative to the fact that I'm a well fed, very free, white American male... But walking out of that camp - the desolation and depravity and despair that it represents - and into the vibrantly colorful hillside, was a hallmark experience in my life.

It is remarkably easy for us to see these atrocities as "then", which would never happen in the "now." But those were all just normal people - the Nazis: fundamentalists who were willing to put the importance of an ideology above the value of another person... something we see often today. The Prisoners: Jews, Czechs, Homosexuals, Women and outspoken opponents of the Nazi regime who were victimized by a cycle of violence that cycloned out of control.

And you stand there, where those people stood, you realize how possible it is; how not-so-far-away we are from the "Then."

But then, there's also hope. There's also the sun breaking through the clouds. There's also the other side of the gate, looking out on green fields and farms and autumn colors.

They will beat their swords into plowshares

And their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will not take up sword against nation,

nor will they train for war anymore.

Every man will sit under his own vine

and under his own fig tree,

and no one will make them afraid,

for the LORD Almighty has spoken. (Micah 4:3)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I promised some additional "artsy" photos from Vienna. I'm to tired to type much, so just enjoy these...

early morning from our room.

old time elevator

the market
the market

the market

the market

the market

our bathtub... just kidding. the market.

(but why do I think swimming in those would be fun?)

walking back up to our place.

the opera house

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sunday, October 28th - Wednesday, 31st: Vienna, Austria
Sunday morning we left Hallstatt and drove to Mauthausen Concentration Camp. That experience is something I'm going to write about as it's own blog entry... And I'm not going to do that now. So I'll skip over it and blog it out of order - for those of you who are Type-A personalities, I'm sorry. Also, these are all fun photos... I'll post some artsy ones of Vienna in a day or so.

So after Mauthausen, we drove down the Autobaun into Vienna. At one point, when it wasn't raining, when Sarah was asleep, when it was downhill and the wind was at my back, I opened up our Volkswagon Golf and got it to 180km/hr. Now I can mark "pedal to the metal on the Autobaun" off my list of things to do before I die(even if it was in a Volkswagon Golf).

We arrived in Vienna that evening and it was raning...

We took the subway into the town square and headed to our housing - a sweet little Austrian lady who rented out rooms in her flat. While she was super, super nice... our room was a narrow, long closet. We had separate twin beds (see one in the bottom right corner of this photo) and the room was so narrow that we couldn't put the beds side by side. Also the place smelled like smoke and old coffee... or maybe if you smoked coffee flavored cigarettes... or like if you made coffee from old cigarette butts...

The next morning we started out doing a tour of the city center via tram. We got off at certain stops that looked interesting, like this park with statues of famous musicians.

There were a couple of little old ladies taking photos in front of this statue before us. When I stood in front of it and posed like Straus, they started laughing so hard we got kind of concerned about them. But then, that happens sometimes when I'm around: my comedy genius blows people's minds... especially old people.

That night we dressed up to go to the opera. The Vienna Opera House sells Standing Room Only tickets for only 3 euros! So we got to go see classical opera in Vienna - how cool!

Come to find out, the opera was really long, and in latin, and we were standing, and some of the people.... smelled.

So this is us, leaving the opera, 30 minutes after it started.

We found our way to an Italian restaurant named Danieli and had better Italian food than we've ever had in Italy.

I don't care what anyone says. It is entirely possible to maintain your coolness while wearing a money demonstrated in this photo.

On our way home that night, we walked by this high fashion store and found a mannequin that made us laugh. She's the High Society I-drank-too-much-on-my-way-to-the-opera-and-fell-down model. We named her Tami and we spent the rest of the evening coming up with things that drunk Tami would say like, "who put those stairs there?" and "don't judge me!"

The next morning we headed up bright and early - earlier than Tami would be getting up anyhow. This is the old-school elevator in our building.

We walked down to the farmers market and spent some time perusing. They have the most incredible selection of meats, cheeses, and produce I've ever seen.

We bought some of the freshly prepared food and made a picnic... hummus, cheese filled peppers and olives, and falafel.

Then we were on our way to Schonbrunn Palace - the seat of the Habsburg's empire

Staying hot while staying hydrated...

That afternoon, when we arrived back in the city center, we went to Demel - the Tiffany's of chocolate places in Vienna. Fortunately, I like my sacher torte dry, just like I like my humor.

So we found out that the Opera house was having a ballet (instead of an Opera) that night, and decided to go back for tickets again. This is us sitting in line waiting for tickets.

I have a low tolerance for lines.

This is us waiting for the show to start (the stage curtain is behind us). I took of photo of Sarah and then she took one of me and we photoshoped them together...

It was a beautiful show and we stayed for the whole thing! Then we went to bed.

The next day was our last morning in Vienna. We decided to do a little shopping, and we started at an antique book shop. In Europe, the word "Antiques" mean items much older than in the US. We found some awesome books, but none we could afford.

For lunch we treated ourselves to our favorite Austrian food: The street vendor weinerschnitzel. For those of you who like a great dog... this is the dog to end all dogs. They take a perfect bun and puncture it with a warming rod. While they grill your weiner, the bun warms from the inside out. Then they put your condiments inside, slip the meat into it, and grill the whole thing. Just trust me - it tastes really great.

Our friends Johnny and Brooke, who are missionaries in Slovenia, drove up to Vienna and picked us up to bring us down to their hometown: Ljubljana. On the way, we stopped in a small town known for their restaurants and family owned vineyards, and had a great, traditional Austrian meal.

Our last event in Austria - with Brooke and Johnny! We ate family-style, trying a variety of unknown dishes.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday morning - Hallstatt, Austria

So, needless to say, Austria is beautiful. We spent two nights in a little tiny town in the Alps called Hallstatt. It was born out of the Celtic salt mining industry and now is basically a little tourist spot nestled between the mountains and a lake.

It ended up being a great time to relax because, come to find out, we didn't have much choice. All-Saint's Day and Weekend is a pretty big holiday in Eastern Europe. So everyone in the town had left and almost all the shops were closed. We felt a little duped... see photo.

We stayed at a B&B - no Jana and Jan, but it was nice. We did a lot of relaxing and reading. Plus I did a bunch of photography for a mixed medium series that Laine (my brother) and I are planning. More on that in the future...

This is where the Hallstatt Hobbits live. They are a very cordial, slide loving people.

I've been in CA so long, I'd forgotten what snow looked like.

There were only a few restaurants open (the VERY local ones... where we walked in and everyone turned around and looked at us). At dinner (and lunch) you order beer with your meal... everyone does. You can order water, but it's more expensive! I don't really like beer, so this took some getting used to. But, if you're going to learn to like it, Austria/Czech is a great place to do it! They know their beers... "Dunkel" is dark... that's my fav.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Friday morning, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic and then a drive to Hallstat, Austria.

Oh to wake up to this every morning...

Jana, who I mentioned in my previous entry, is a master hostess. That food is JUST for Sarah and I. We woke up at 7am and I opened our door to pick up the food Jana told us would be waiting. When I saw this, I assumed it was for all the guests they were housing (3 rooms total) and I had to tip toe, in my pajamas, up to the third floor to determine that there was, in fact, two additional breakfast spreads identical to ours in front of the other two rooms. Wow.

I treat Sarah to breakfast in bed like this in LA every day. If she tells you otherwise, it's part of the way she verbally abuses me around other people... but at least she's not hitting me as much.

After breakfast we walked up to Krumlov Castle to sign up for a tour... This is looking out over the town of Krumlov.

And this is me, pretending that I own the place. Apparently royalty walked like this... or at least I imagine that they did.

The Vltava River flows through, or rather, AROUND, Krumlov. Penzionek Olsakovsky is down at the end of that bend on the right side of the river.

Apparently floating the river in an intertube is about the best way to see Krumlov. This would only be feasible in sometime other than November... We were forced to walk.

some shots from around Krumlov...

Jan, Jana's husband, was able to drive down from Prague early that morning - so we were able to meet him and they invited us to go to lunch at one of their favorite spots. This is on our walk to the restaurant: daughter Jarmilka running along on the cobblestones. Effortlessly cute.

The 5 of us at lunch - without question THE highlight of our trip. They were wonderful friends that made it very hard to leave Krumlov.

We tore ourselves away from the Olsakovskys and left Krumlov feeling remarkably ambivalent: On the one hand, seeing a beautiful place like this and meeting wonderful people like those is what makes traveling incredible... but then you don't want to leave. (this is one of my favorite photos from the trip. Click on it to see it larger.)

We drove out of the Czech Republic and into Austria arriving just before dark in a little town called Hallstat. We pulled in just before dark so I don't have many photos... but here's a good one to end on: