Three Years On (and On)

by the Night Writer

(reposted from No Longer I Who Live)

One week ago, the day before Easter, I spoke before our monthly men’s breakfast and told them that there is a difference between facts and truth. “The facts were,” I said, “that Jesus was dead. They took his body down off the cross, wrapped it, and put it in a tomb, rolled the stone across the entrance – and left him for dead. That’s all they knew. The Truth was something much greater and even unimaginable.”

Then I said, “Two years and 51 weeks ago, the doctors at the Mayo Clinic told me that the facts were that I had ALS and I had 3 years to live, and the last year was not going to be a very pleasant one. They said the facts were that my body was going to deteriorate, I was going to be in a wheelchair, and need an oxygen tube and feeding tube until I ultimately wasted away.”

I stepped out from behind the lectern – on my own two feet (no cane, no braces)  – so the men could see me in full, and far from being wasted away. I smiled, inviting them to laugh, and they did, softly at first and then louder as I looked down and regarded myself as well.

“The Truth,” I said, “is something more. God healed me of ALS,” and then they were clapping, cheering and stomping their feet.


Three years ago today, April 22, 2014, my wife and I received that diagnoses, and the apparent death sentence. To say that the rest of that week was the most surreal in my life would not be an exaggeration. Faith and family, as you know, were the key pillars then and going forward, as you can see if you back through this blog. To some extent, a blunt diagnoses such as that can be extremely clarifying. “If the doctors say there is nothing man can do,” I reasoned to myself, “then that only leaves God.” Galatians 2:20 came to me: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” If I was as good as dead, then it truly was “no longer I who lived” and that became both my focus and the name of this blog that I started a few days after the diagnosis.

If you’ve been following along here, you’ll know that 13 months after I was diagnosed I was undiagnosed, also at the Mayo. I still had some symptoms, but I was too healthy. Since then I’ve continued the story here sporadically. There were additional miracles to report (as you can scroll down to read), but also a life to live. My youngest daughter moved to Prague in late 2015 and we flew over there for 9 weeks as she transitioned, and we returned there last fall with our oldest daughter and newest grandchild. These and many other things were blessings we could barely have foreseen while sitting in that doctor’s office 3 years ago.

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There has been great joy in our lives since that sentence was lifted, but I have also known some pain and some sadness. The sadness stems from the fact that ALS still has a spectral hold on me. Several people who I came to know during my time with the disease have since succumbed, and new people have been added. A friend and former co-worker was diagnosed and is fading rapidly. Another man I had met and known when he was the radio voice of the Minnesota Vikings in the 90s died of ALS last month, and I was greatly moved (and saddened) to read recently of the University of Minnesota scheduling a special one-person graduation ceremony in March so a PALS father could watch his son graduate because he was not likely to live long enough for the May ceremony.

These things touch me on a deep and personal level that is hard to explain. It frustrates me to know that others suffer, and more than once in the last year I have asked the question that I never asked  in that first year: “Why me?” I take no pride and put no stock in my own piety as having anything to do with it. There are likely people with more faith than me, and as many (and more) good reasons to live as I have, who have died, or are dying of this brutal disease. It is hard not to dwell on this at times, but I resist trying to “figure it out”. Man trying to “figure out” the ways of God is responsible for a lot of bad doctrine and pop theology out there because we insist that God’s ways make sense to us. I came to the realization that my healing was really not much different from my salvation. In both instances i had done nothing to deserve such boons, yet God had moved on my behalf, even before I knew what I needed or could ask for it. I can only trust and assume that there is a reason for it, and that reason (or reasons) will be evident in time. And, perhaps, it already is.

I mentioned the pain I’ve experienced. I wasn’t referring to emotional pain or spiritual unrest, but severe, even crippling pain like I had never known in my experience of knee surgeries, abdominal surgery and back surgery. Late last year I ended up with a case of severe carpal tunnel in both my right and left hands and wrists. Nobody has ever died of this, but I never felt so much like I wanted to. I couldn’t move my hands or arms without pain, and I couldn’t sleep for more than 20 minutes or so before I had to move my hands again, causing me to wake up. I prayed, I struggled, I ultimately ended up getting a cortisone short in my left wrist and surgery on my right one; the recovery, too, was more painful and longer-lasting than anything I’d previously experienced. I even dipped into the prescription opiods that I’d been able to do without after previous surgeries. I was pretty miserable, and even asked God a couple of times why this was such a challenge after what I’d already received and experienced. No answer was forthcoming, until I went back to the Mayo for a post-op follow-up with my orthopedic surgeon.

The Mayo Clinic is a huge campus; the main exam buildings are 15 stories, and when my wife and I came out of my appointment in the orthopedic section we saw a couple from Iowa in the waiting room that we had met at my son-in-law’s first church out of seminary. They had been real sweethearts to Faith and Ben and the kids, which is how we got to know them. They also knew my testimony, and as we talked to them that day in the waiting room they described the tests the wife had been undergoing for numbness in her feet. The tests and symptoms sounded all-to-familiar to us. My wife said we should pray for them, and they were all in favor of it. Without any self-consciousness, we held hands right there and I prayed. I don’t remember what words I used, but I know I asked God to bring them peace and to do what He had done in my life. As we were praying my wife noticed that a woman sitting in the row in front of us was leaning back toward us to listen, and was crying. When we finished my wife asked that woman if she would like prayer for anything as well.

“Oh, yes,” she said, still in tears. “I was diagnosed this morning with ALS.”

“God healed my husband of ALS,” my wife said. Along with our friends from Iowa, we poured out even more for her right then and there. There was peace in her face when we finished and as we talked more about what she was going through and what I had experienced. Her mother was with her; they had driven up from Arkansas to see the doctors at the Mayo – and just so happened to be sitting in that row, in that waiting room, at that time. We exchanged phone numbers and later that evening she called me to talk some more. She told me that she had just been saved a few weeks prior to coming to the Mayo. I told her that when I was diagnosed I didn’t know  just what God was going to do, but I believed He would do something. “I don’t know exactly what God will do for you, or how,” I said, “but the fact that He could so orchestrate things so that we could meet today, right when you needed to hear this, gives me a lot of hope and confidence.” Since then we have been checking in with each other every 4 to 6 weeks. (Oh, and the first person we prayed for that day ended up getting very good news from her tests: no ALS, just a  neuropathy in her foot that could be treated with therapy.)


I addressed this in similar fashion with the men at the breakfast last week; most of whom are going through life-altering trials and challenges of their own. “I don’t know why I am still here today, but I’m pretty sure that speaking to you is a big part of it.”

– April 22, 2017

One of my favorite songs is “The Sea” by the 80s group, The Waterboys. I listened to this song often in the year after I was diagnosed, and in the time since then. Land-locked all of my life, I have always been mesmerized by the sea whenever I’ve had a chance to look upon it. Similarly, this song always helped calm my mind whenever I tried to get too much into “figure it out” mode during this adventure, and brought me peace. The music critics often describe the song-writer, Mike Scott as a “mystic”, but the meaning of these verses has always been clear to me. This life is the river, and it leads to the sea. All the things I know, or think I know, as I navigate this river pale when I have glimpsed the sea and what awaits.

I am not afraid of the shore. 

Reflections of a latter-day Hussite

by the Night Writer

600 years ago, reformist priest Jan Hus was burned at the stake by the Church.

600 years ago, reformist priest Jan Hus was burned at the stake by the Church. A memorial to he and his followers stands prominently in Prague’s Old Town Square.

One of our first circuits of Prague back in November came from a Hop On/Hop Off tour that took us past several impressive churches and cathedrals. The recorded narration, however, said that despite these impressive edifices, the Czech Republic is currently the most atheistic country in Europe, with just 13% of the population saying they go to church. “Therefore,” the narrator said, “most of these churches now belong, unfortunately, to history.”

Oh, but what a religious history! While Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) was part of the Holy Roman Empire since the early Middle Ages, ruled by kings and emperors appointed or sanctioned by Popes, it was at the forefront of church reform and the Bohemian Reformation, fully 100 years before Luther, Calvin and Zwingli sparked the Protestant Reformation. Czech priest Jan Hus, heavily influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe in England, was a popular and highly respected figure in Prague and he spoke, preached and wrote extensively about reforming the Church by basing doctrine and practice on scripture rather than man-made traditions, and he opposed the ethics of the Church selling indulgences and collecting fees from parishioners for nearly every function related to life and death. Among other things he wrote that the “Body of Christ” consisted of all believers and not, as held by the Church, just the Cardinals. He also preached and wrote his theological essays in the common language, rather than Latin. These and other things didn’t go over well with the Church which systematically tried to burn all of the writings of Wycliffe and Hus that it could get its hands on. When that didn’t settle things, they burned Hus; he was invited to the Council of Constance with the guarantee of safe passage from King Sigismund – and was then arrested, tried and burned at the stake for heresy 600 years ago in 1415. (When Sigismund protested these acts due to his promise of safe passage the  prelates assured him that promises to heretics were non-binding). Hus was given the chance to recant and said he would do so gladly if the Council could only show him where, in scripture, he was wrong.

For political, economic and spiritual reasons however, (and because the followers that became known as the Hussites defeated five consecutive papal military crusades against them on the battlefield), Bohemia for the next 200 years was generally allowed greater freedom in its worship and doctrines (not that there weren’t periodic rounds of more burnings, beheadings, hangings and defenestrations in the name of God). The Church’s determination to rein in these reforms ultimately sparked the beginning of the Thirty Years War, which soon evolved from an authority and doctrine dispute into a geo-political maelstrom that was essentially a “World War” for the time, embroiling most of the continent and laying waste to countries, economies and dynasties. While Bohemia became, nominally, Catholic again the war essentially spelled the end of the Holy Roman Empire.

That’s my 20,000 foot summary of an intense and complex time; you can follow the links to get down to the 10,000 foot level, and spend the rest of your life trying to sort out all the repercussions and implications that continue to this day. I offer these paragraphs merely as a modicum of context for you as I roamed the cities and religious monuments of Central Europe, meditating on the past while the present surges around us in a our own maelstrom.

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Esztergom Basilica pipe organ.

For example, on November 14 I sat inside the Esztergom Basilica in Hungary, looking at the marble floors, ornate walls, detailed paintings and very impressive pipe organ. It was the day after the attacks in Paris and I thought about what ISIS or the Taliban or similar group might do to this edifice if it fell into their hands. A quick historical check, however, showed that the basilica had, in fact, already been sacked by the Turks in its history – and also by other Catholic armies in the many internecine wars that have afflicted this land.

End-times cults are not new, either. The Hussites, for all their military prowess and spiritual focus, fell into internal discord. They criticized the ethics of the Church for being unscripturally focused on wealth and power, and taught that doctrine should be “sola scriptura” (scripture alone). Which lead, inevitably I suppose, to factions arguing over who was most pure. One hard-line group within the Hussites saw their purpose as to hasten the return of Christ, by bloodshed if necessary, and took their name – the Taborites – from Mt. Tabor, described in scripture as the place where Jesus will appear.What we see is that doctrine – Catholic or Protestant – is often an imperfect prism of truth. We may grasp a profound truth that, in the greater scheme of things, is relatively no bigger than the jawbone of an ass, but in our hands becomes a cudgel.

A line from the sacred text comes to mind: “What can man do in the face of such reckless hate?” (That text was from the “The Two Towers”, and yes, I know, that was how it appeared in the screenplay, not the book. No fatwas, please.) The question is valid for at least the last 600 years, and no, I’m not making a moral equivalency argument. There is no such thing as “moral equivalency”: you’ve either taken on the nature of Christ or you haven’t. All other measurements on any scale you (or I) come up with are ultimately meaningless. Still, the idea that people could somehow see God glorified by the heinous death of others is so profoundly twisted that to me it can only be proof of a Devil and not, as the humanists might say, proof that there is no God. What part of the Son of God dying for Man requires making other men die violently for God? What part of being transformed by the renewing of my mind implies forcibly conforming others? I don’t think I could, now, personally take up arms or do violence to others simply because they thought differently or sinned differently from me.

But could I, would I, if the other was trying to harm me? I don’t know. My religious freedom is dear to me – and has cost others dearly. The desire for freedom is strong in humans, as strong as the human desire to dominate others. I know the anger and sorrow that I felt in watching the film clips of the Soviet troops and secret police falling upon the Czech students in 1968. Could I have remained quiet if I had been there in those days? Could I have stilled my heart and thoughts to try and hear from God what He wanted me to do, or would I have rushed forward in righteous outrage, hoping that was the right answer?

I believe that the desire for freedom is something God has placed inside us. Even the Czechs, oppressed in the 20th century first by the Nazis (who offered a twisted God) and then the Communists (who insisted and taught that there isn’t a God), could not have the desire for freedom beat or squeezed out of them. And from a certain perspective, I can understand their supposed atheism today. For all their beautiful churches and illustrious history, they may be justified, after the last 80 years, in being suspicious of anyone or anything that wants to tell them the “right” way to think. After being ignored, then betrayed and then bombed by the Christian West and then oppressed by the God-less, they could wonder why they should think about God when He doesn’t appear to be thinking of them. The beautiful churches must seem like the living room full of nice furniture and precious objects I wasn’t allowed to go into when I was a kid (nor did I deserve to). They desire freedom, and no doubt would like to see what that looks like – how can our lives demonstrate that?

The fact is, however, we all have “reasonable” reasons to doubt God exists, whether we’ve been oppressed by totalitarian regimes or not. Ultimately, it wasn’t theory or doctrine or a church building that proved His existence to me, but seeing His word made true and coming alive through others and in my life. Touring the cathedrals and basilicas I was reminded of a teaching from a few years ago: God moves, and the move becomes a Movement. The Movement becomes a Monument to what God has done, but also an excuse to focus on the monument rather than continuing to stay tuned to the Move. Ultimately, the human result is that the Monument becomes a Mausoleum. The people of the Czech Republic – or our neighbors – aren’t going to know God is real just because of a church building, but by our lives and the way we reflect His love. Ultimately, He’s not looking for a church as much as He is looking for us to be the Church.

To go any further with my reflections and what those meant to me in Prague I’d need to bring things from the 20,000 or 10,000 foot level down to the 100 foot level. I’m not going to do that now, but I will in a later post. (Yes, I believe I’ll keep the doors open here at the blog for at least a little while longer). For now, let me leave you with two things.

First, as we discussed the history of revelation, revolution, oppression, and – hopefully – more revelation, a particular hymn came to mind. Tiger Lilly could also feel it, and agreed to sing the hymn a cappella (which, coincidentally, means “in the manner of the chapel” in Italian) for our church back home and this blog. See the link below.

Finally, it seems appropriate to leave you for now with the words of Jan Hus, inscribed on his monument, and taken from his last letter to his followers:

“Love each other and wish the truth to everyone.”

 

At the Museum of Communism

by the Night Writer

Museum of CommunismI saw this museum advertised the first day we were in Prague and made a note to see it while we were here. I loved the poster, for one thing. It came down to our last weekend and I realized we still needed to go, so we set out. I have to say it is one of the most affecting places I’ve visited over here.

The Czechs are not known for their sense of humor, but it can be found, such as their placing this museum in the same building as a McDonald’s, next to a casino, and across the street from Benetton. There are also some rather rude jokes at the expense of the Russians and Communism in the gift shop, but the museum itself is serious. One might even say, “deadly serious.”

I could write in greater detail about my impressions, but perhaps it’s better to let the people who lived through it do it in their way. I took photos of some of the English-language placards that accompanied the photos and displays. These are also available in French, German, Czech, and several other languages for greater edification. Let’s let them tell the story.

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“…authorized to issue temporary decrees enforcing laws without any approval of the parliament…” hmmm?

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Targeting opponents with heinous accusations and show trials, and extravagant media campaigns.

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A “shock-workers” movement to push laborers to maximum effort, and trade unions declaring that “after the victory of socialism, laborer’s wages would not be important.”

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Supply and Demand? Why, there ought to be a law…

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Those in power always find a way to get their luxury goods. Or their groceries.

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There are no spiritual values, outside the State. There is no beauty, but what serves the State. There is no eternity…but the State. Rape, pillage and pollute the land and consequently the people; it doesn’t matter as long as the State benefits. 

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A well-regulated militia?

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You can’t find a more “well-regulated” militia than that: armed groups established by the government as “the fist of the labor class” to intimidate its enemies, especially the labor class. Of course, they couldn’t be trusted with bullets for their guns.

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To get a better feel for the exhibits, take the virtual tour here.

You wind your way through the rooms of the museum in what was once the Savarin Palace. The exhibits feature authentic memorabilia, though “memorabilia” is such a trifling-sounding word that implies nostalgia, and the memories here are far from fond. The last portion on your way out (before the gift shop, Comrade Lenin) is devoted to a small viewing room that plays a short film in a loop describing Czech life from the Communist takeover to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. It was called the “Velvet” Revolution because shots weren’t fired, but that does not mean it was peaceful or that the history leading up to it wasn’t bloody.

I can remember, as a kid, watching the news in 1969 as the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to crush the “Prague Spring” and any nascent hopes of reform within the Czech Communist Party. This, too, was depicted in the film and on the wall outside the viewing room: riots, beatings, tear-gassing, armed troops and war-machines rolling over the cobblestones of Wenceslas Square that we’d come to know so well, plain-clothes agents in the crowd tackling and kicking protesters, plus accounts of three students who self-immolated in protest against Communist control.Despite the incessant cradle-to-grave indoctrination, propagandizing, intimidation and spying, the Communists couldn’t stamp out hope and a desire for freedom from such a dehumanizing existence.

Communist doctrine often referred to the “inevitability of history” and Communism’s ultimate victory, yet by the 1980s, history was clearly turning against Communism as Poland, Hungary and East Germany shook off the shackles of totalitarianism. Even so, Czechoslovakia’s escape was not a done deal. The first protest drew maybe 10,000 to Wenceslas; as the week went on the numbers grew, until finally 500,000 were crowding in every night to apply pressure and turn the tables of intimidation as they watched their one-time rulers caving in. (Velvet Revolution timeline and summary here).  Blood was still being spilled; certain claws do not release easily, after all. The film ends with a bittersweet poem and images describing how much sweeter survival is after all the bitter pain that preceded it.

As I said, it is very affecting. As we left, I stopped at the desk of the woman who had sold us our tickets. She was about my age, and would have seen 1969 and 1989, and spoke very good English. She was standing, and turned to me. “Thank you,” I said, and she responded with a small, polite smile. “And thank you to people of Prague,” I added, and received a slow, solemn nod.

Crying out, and crying it out

by the Night Writer

20 years ago I started to experience strange stress reactions that hit me like bouts of food poisoning. The first couple of times it happened I thought it was food poisoning. Whenever it hit, I knew I was going to have to stick close to a bathroom for the next 8 to 12 hours. I soon twigged to the stress triggers, though, that were really behind it. My brain would seek to sublimate and compartmentalize things that were going on at work, but my body would only put up with so much of that before it insisted on purging.What I recognized was that there was an area of my life that I hadn’t given the care over to God, and that holding onto this myself was becoming toxic. Once I recognized that, and released these stress factors to Him, the attacks stopped. Even the year that I lived with a death sentence spoken over my life, I never had another attack.

Until yesterday afternoon and throughout the night last night, that is.

When the attack started I again thought it was food poisoning from the slice of pizza I’d had at a corner shop by our apartment. I soon recognized my old, familiar, “friend.” As the waves wracked my body I tried to identify the source, to put my finger on what it was I’d been ignoring. It wasn’t work; I’ve got a great job that lets me “work from home” from anywhere I can cadge WiFi. I “pushed” various buttons to check the response, and knew I had hit the right one when the tears started pouring down my face. Can you guess what it was?

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The Big Mac and Little Mac costs of living in Prague

by the Night Writer

Tiger Lilly’s research into the cost of living in Prague was pretty spot on. You can get by pretty affordably here. But as my new barber friend said the other day, “The cost of living is low, but the cost of goods is high.” That is, his experience is that while food, drink and rent are relatively low, the cost of clothes, tools, equipment, computers, etc. can be very expensive.

The ever-useful Czech Ex-Pat website featured an interesting economic comparison sheet, developed by The Economist website, comparing the relative costs of obtaining a Big Mac in more than 40 countries (the Big Mac was chosen because it is almost universally available and is consistent in size and ingredients across all locations). According to the index, the CR is in the lower third of countries, paying $2.98 for the two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun. The most expensive is Switzerland at $6.44; the least expensive is Venezuela, .66. (You might not be able to find toilet paper in Venezuela, but you can get a Big Mac – and save the wrapper.) The complementary “Little Mac” index compares the price of iPad minis around the globe; the Czech price is about 9% lower than the global average.

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Take-away food from a stall is very reasonable. A large slab of pizza will go for little more than a dollar and change (USD) and a half-liter of beer (and everyone sells beer) goes for about the same, and restaurants typically feature entrees that are less than $10. One of our first nights in Prague we went to an Italian restaurant; I’d had a big lunch but was a little hungry. I saw pizza on the menu for about $8 and assumed that that was probably a small or “personal” pizza, and thought that felt about like what I was looking for.Turns out that pepperoni pizza was 14″ – no way I was going to be able to finish it (and it was very tasty) and we didn’t have a refrigerator in our hotel in order to bring home leftovers. It was such a waste! Bars and restaurants, btw, seem to be the main industry in town. In our neighborhood there are at least 3 on every block, and they offer a lot of variety in cuisine.

Wages are also relatively low, though. The average monthly income in the CR is a little around $1,100 at current exchange rates. I also get the sense from talking to my barber that it’s normal for people to have multiple part-time jobs. Tiger Lilly has been looking for jobs, and there aren’t any full-time ones advertised (the “full-time” work mentioned by the school where she earned her TEFL certification turned out to be 22 hours, and some teacher said they often didn’t get that). She has seen part-time positions suited to her skills and experience that pay about $12/hour before tax. If she lands one of these, she’ll be able to meet her expenses for the most part. She found a large, private room with wonderful views in an apartment near Wenceslas Square for about $350 a month, which is low for the area, so she’s feeling blessed.

Not needing a car is a big cost-savings for most folks. The city is compact enough to be well-served with public transit that gets you close to anywhere you want to go. (A standard 75-minute bus/tram/metro pass costs about a buck; you can get a 24-hour pass for less than $5; a month-long pass runs you $28. When we were in London in 2006, day-long Tube passes for 4 people cost me $40).

Clothing is not as affordable as the food; a pair of jeans can be 30 Euros (the CR currency is the crown, or koruna, but bigger ticket items are often priced in both the euro and the koruna). Second hand clothing shops, called SROs, are very common and import their goods from other western European countries – so don’t expect the Czechs to be cutting edge in fashion.

Actually, living here reminds me a lot of being in college. Food and drink are plentiful and affordable, everyone does a couple of part-time things for work, wears older clothes and few people drive. Tiger Lilly earned her B.A. mostly through self-study via College Plus, with some classes at a local community college. She received a comprehensive education, but not much of the so-called “college experience”. By moving to Prague she’ll get that “experience” – and it won’t cost us over $100,000 to do so!

An American Barber in Prague

by the Night Writer

After nearly 60 days without a haircut I was beginning to look a bit like a shrubbery. I didn’t know if I needed a barber or a topiarist, but I didn’t know how to find either in Prague. Fortunately, at the Men’s Bible Fellowship Saturday morning I was told to call Kraig Casebier, aka, “American Barber in Prague.” Barbering has become a bit of a lost art in Europe, even more so than in America, and Kraig has been busy since he came here five years ago.

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God has opened some amazing doors for Kraig, and he has barbered “heads” of State, well known Czech actors, and international businessmen as well as serving locals and ex-pats here. He’s also the “go-to” stylist for a local movie production company and has been featured in Czech magazines. He’s about to launch a series of YouTube shows of him interviewing well-known and interesting clients as he cuts their hair.

Fortunately I was able to find  an opening in his calendar and I got in to see him today. He’s  just recently moved to a new location – a manly, garden-level, cave in Prague 5. The walls are brick and his chairs are leather, including a 1941 barber chair. He’s in the process of filling the place with Americana, and as we discussed what we were going to do with my mop he cued up some Bob Seger on the mini-Wurlitzer jukebox. He has plans to do whiskey-tastings and to refurbish a room in his new shop to host “guys’ night out” events.

We had a great chat while he cut my hair. He told me about living in Prague as an ex-pat and gave me some useful tips to pass on to my daughter, and we roamed over a number of other topics, finding that we were simpatico on many things (which is the true sign and gift of a great barber). I had an excellent time and hope to follow his barbering adventures on Facebook and YouTube.

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Kraig suggested a closer cut on the sides for me, which was a good modification to my “usual”. (“A little off the top” describes my photo composition skills, not the  haircut I received.)

The new place is still awaiting some American fixtures and comfy touches. Kraig also apologized for dressing informally today; typically he wears a vest and tie (and yes, he did play "Santa" this last Christmas).

The new place is still awaiting some American fixtures and comfy touches. Kraig also apologized for dressing informally today; typically he wears a vest and tie (and yes, he did play “Santa” this last Christmas).

Worldviewing

by the Night Writer

I saw a reference to “the Siege of Turin” the other day and it made me curious so I did a little research. The first challenge I faced was determining just which Siege of Turin I was looking for – the one when the Italians of the Piedmont allied with Spain against the French, or the one when the Italians allied with the Austrians and Prussians against France and Spain? In those moments, all the castles, ruins and battlements I’ve been seeing over the past six weeks, and all the recurring family names – Lombards, Savoys, Medicis, Habsburgs, Bourbons and more – suddenly coalesced into a clearer understanding of Europe for my American brain, an understanding that was obvious enough, but still somewhat elusive.

Fortress

I have been trying to picture myself living in a Europe of past centuries, viewing the artifacts and architecture of nearly incessant hostilities and gamesmanship (driving through Austria there is another fortress on top of a hill every 3-4 kilometers) as power and influence waxed and waned throughout different regions . History and geography are literally stacked in heaps all around me, and in my fresh moment of clarity I began wondering what effect this living history might have on me if I were a European today. What does it do to one’s cultural sensibilities and view of the past and the future when there is a national memory of your neighbors camped outside your city walls, either bombarding you or trying to starve you out? It’s simply not something Americans have had to think about much. True, we had a Civil War, and fought natives for territory, and contended with European armies and navies, but the possibility of England landing a force on our shores and torching Washington, D.C. is almost unimaginable to us now. I wonder just how unimaginable – or imaginable – a similar episode might be for an Italian, a Belgian, a Pole?

For that matter, what connection might you feel to a country or a leader here? When I looked up the history of Trieste during our visit I discovered that the city has, by turns, been French, German, Austro-Hungarian, Slovenian and Italian. In a history of changing alliances, borders and affiliations, would you be loyal to a distant capital or to your region? Would you be an Umbrian or Piedmontese in Italy? Swear allegiance to Galicia or Catalonia rather than to Spain and Madrid?  The “United States” is a something that’s been “normal” for Americans for some 240 years; we don’t think of Ohio invading Pennsylvania for its oil, or Wisconsin conquering Minnesota and making it illegal for anyone to be a Vikings fan. At least we haven’t since 1865, anyway, though there are still family stories of survival in the Civil War handed down in my family.

In Europe you don’t have to go back to the Siege of Turin or the “War of Spanish Succession”; within the last 100 years you’ve seen two world wars in which the Christian nations of the continent were at each other’s throats. In the Czech Republic, there are people alive today who well remember what it was like to live under both the Nazis and the Russian Communists, and who have seen tanks and machine guns in their streets. In Turin and Gratz, ancient tunnels under the city were still used as shelters from Allied bombs in WW2.

Is the EU now a natural and enlightened entity of common purposes across the nearly invisible borders of its member states, embraced by all, or is the connection more superficial? While we have had some conversations with “locals” in our travels, the language barrier challenges both revelation and nuance. Our Hungarian driver and tour guides were adamantly opposed to any possibility of the Communists returning, and nearly as outspoken about the influx of Muslim migrants. Our driver said that their greatest fear, though, is nationalism – more so among their neighbors, but also within their own country. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Oban, has been popular with the citizens for his tough, “strong man” talk, but our driver said there is great concern that he has lately been making overtures toward an apparent alliance with Vladimir Putin. In the Czech Republic I have read similar things about the Czech president, Milos Zeman. Both Oban and Zeman are vocal critics of the EUs embrace of migrants (both countries have all but closed their borders to refugees), and even countries such as Germany and Sweden which have welcomed more than a million refugees are showing strong internal dissent and resistance to the practice.

It can be a slow process of sorting your assumptions from your observations and trying to line up a new working model. We tend to think of Europe as staid and monolithic (at least in its politics). “Old” doesn’t mean “settled” though. The ancient conflicts here drove many emigrants to the United States. I’m not so sure that the underlying dynamics are that far removed. Making assumptions here is kind of like planting a garden here; it can be nice and even lovely – but don’t be surprised if someone comes tramping through it when you least expect.

Trieste and Miramare

by the Night Writer

Our Christmas plans took us to the Gulf of Trieste and the eastern shores of the Adriatic. The warm but foggy weather persisted, making it comfortable for walking around but limiting the views and rendering the scenery a little dull, though you could tell how spectacular it would be in season. It was during our time in Trieste that we drove down to Pula in Croatia. Closer to “home”, however, were the beautiful gardens and castle of Miramare.

Following yonder star... We were blessed with a hazy sunset on Christmas Day in our apartment near Trieste.

Following yonder star…
We were blessed with a hazy sunset on Christmas Day in our apartment overlooking the Adriatic near Trieste.

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We drove to Trieste on Dec. 24 and knew we weren’t likely to find grocery stores or restaurants open on Christmas day so we picked up some food for our Christmas dinner, and the Reverend Mother and Tiger Lilly rolled, sliced and presented our feast: roast beef, salami, brie and Gorgonzola cheese, hummus, pretzel bread, almond toast, apples and kiwi. Just right.

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This village is close to the border of Slovenia and Croatia. We drove through it; most of the streets would barely qualify as driveways but it was interesting to get a glimpse of life here. Old, old stone houses and buildings looming over narrow cobblestone alleys, looking like the 16th century – except for satellite dishes stuck on the sides of some of the buildings. We didn’t see any signs of dragons, or hear any Thu’um, which was kind of disappointing but probably safer.

Dragon signs might be elusive, but it’s easier to find signs of House of Habsburg in the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Spain and even Italy. Emperors, Dukes, Archdukes and countless princes and barons fill the family histories, which no doubt made for interesting Christmas letters: “Greetings, all – it’s been a busy year. Otto annexed Bohemia and little Max had his hands full with the Basques, but we’re all looking forward to the next family reunion so we can arrange a couple more weddings – goodness, the kids grow up so fast!”

One Habsburg, the Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian (younger brother of Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria) came to Trieste, Italy after circumnavigating the globe and being appointed head of the Imperial Navy, and built a beautiful castle overlooking the Adriatic, Castello Miramare. Principally built between 1856 and 1860, the castle still wasn’t completely finished before duty called and Ferdinand accepted Napoloen III’s request to become Emperor of Mexico where he was ultimately captured and executed in the Mexican Revolution by Benito Juarez’s Republican forces, even though Maximillian was a progressive reformer who had instituted many populist policies. (I don’t mean to sound disrespectful to a fascinating man with an interesting life, but there’s so much intertwined history with threads leading in different directions that a slap-dash fly-by is the best I can do for the purposes of keeping this travelogue manageable.) The story of Maximillian and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium, is both romantic and tragic; it appears that constructing Miramare was truly a labor of love, with many features to delight his wife. Maximillian was only in his mid-30s when he died, and his wife – busy on the continent trying to raise funds and troops for his support at the time – suffered a nervous breakdown and lived the rest of her life in seclusion.

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Maximillian loved the sea, so it was fitting that he built his castle on the coast, and ordered exotic plants to be cultivated on the rocky grounds creating a distinctive park and garden.

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Miramare has its own boat landing, viewed here from one of the castle windows.

Miramare has its own boat landing, viewed here from one of the castle windows.

On the misty day that we were there, the landing was reminiscent of Tolkein's "Gray Havens".

On the misty day that we were there, the landing made me think of Tolkein’s “Gray Havens”.

I seem to be collect interesting shots of my wife and daughter near water.

I seem to collect interesting shots of my wife and daughter near water.

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This is more like Maxfield Parrish than Maximillian.

I manage to get into a couple of photos from time to time.

I manage to get into a couple of photos from time to time.

On the town in Turin

by the Night Writer

We didn’t get to see Turin (Torino) at its best as the week we were there it was pretty overcast and drizzly. Still, you can see the “old bones”, so to speak, of the history and culture here. The one-time capital of Italy under the Savoys, Turin is chock-full of churches, towers, museums and galleries, both above and below ground (see the earlier post about the Pietro Micca museum). One of the neatest things, though, is just to get out in the city on a Sunday afternoon where it seems everyone is on the Via Roma, Via Garabaldi and Via Po like middle-aged teens at the (outdoor) Mall.

Turin is also where we stayed in the 3 bedroom penthouse apartment – the nicest of all the places we stayed (and we’ve stayed in some nice ones). The apartment was through the Home-Swap organization we joined prior to the trip, and not an Airbnb location. The woman who owns the apartment is a book translator and in addition to an elevator that came right to the apartment’s foyer, a Nespresso machine, two bathrooms with showers, the place was full of shelves and stacks of books. We never met the owner, but we felt as if we knew her! The master bath also had a balcony that was high enough for us to see multiple fireworks displays across the city on New Years’s Eve.

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This is the Piazza Vittorio at the end of the Via Po, framing the Chiesa Gran Madre di Dio just across the River Po. The Via Po is is one of the four main streets in Turin (Torino) and leads from the Piazza Castello (the central square of Turin) down to the river. The Via Po features covered colonnades on both sides of the street all the way to the Vittorio; shops, restaurants and bookstores line both colonnades.

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The Garden and Fountain of the Angels at the Piazza Solferino in Turin. It wasn’t a particularly good day to stroll in a garden or past fountains.

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Duke Ferdinand of Savoy, in the Piazza Solferino. It’s not the greatest photo or most compelling image, but I liked the way the colors played off of each other.

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Getting below the surface at the Pietro Micca Museum

by the Night Writer

When you’re in a place such as Turin the number of things to see can be overwhelming. I came across this rather quirky sounding attraction, though, and I’m really glad we decided to check it out. It’s the Museum of Pietro Micca, the hero of the 1706 siege of Turin by France.

This isn’t your typical war-story, though. In this case, the most significant fighting took place underground, in the tunnels the French sappers dug to try to go under the Turin citadel, and in the tunnels dug by the Piedmont miners and brick-layers to thwart them. The defenders were also adept at digging out to where the French artillery pieces were set up to bombard the walls. They would dig out to the guns, finding their directions by using pebbles on drum-heads that bounced as the cannons and mortars fired: if the pebbles bounced right, the gun was to your left; if they bounced left, the gun was to your right; if they bounced straight up you tunneled a little closer set a couple of kegs in the ground under the emplacement, partially collapsed the tunnel to direct the blast in the proper direction, lit the fuse – and ran! The ensuing explosion would blow the artillery-men, the cannon, and their own powder sky-high. Besides the damage, it was also a form of psychological warfare because the gunners had no warning that they were about to become human cannonballs themselves. If you didn’t fire your cannon then the defenders couldn’t find you – but then what good is a cannon?

Anyway, lots of tunnels and counter-tunnels were dug by miners and brick-layers. One night, the French infiltrated the main tunnel network and were about to break through into the tunnels that would take them right inside the citadel. Pietro Micca barricaded the tunnel door, and as the French started to break it down, set a short fuse under 30 kegs of powder – killing the French, collapsing the tunnel and, unfortunately, resulting in his own demise. Before the French could recoup, the Piedmont’s Austrian and Prussian allies attacked the French rear and drove them off, a key battle in Italy’s ultimate independence.

What’s neat about the museum is that this isn’t a walk-through of exhibit halls looking at cannons and old uniforms. Instead, you go down into the tunnels themselves (there are approximately 9 kilometers of tunnels in the network, but the tour just takes through a few hundred meters worth). You see the structures, the excavated chamber that Micca blew up, and receive an interesting education from the all-volunteer guides who are dedicated to preserving this site, their history, and the memory of Pietro Micca.

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The ground is very solid in this region, and the tunnels – more than 300 years old, are well preserved. The bricks extending into the tunnels along the sides served two purposes. One was as a support as the tunnel arches were put in; the second was to use as a guide (since there was little illumination) as you made your way around the network.

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The tunnels aren’t as claustrophobic as you might think. My hair only brushed the top of the tunnels on one occasion; so most folks can walk easily along (the floors are also in good shape). The wall lights aren’t original, of course, but most illumination is done with the guide’s big flashlight and the flashlight issued to the volunteer who agrees to bring up the back of the line (which was Tiger Lilly in our group).

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The tours can take about a dozen people at a time. The day we were there was exceptionally busy because most of the other museums in town were closed. There were multiple tours going on simultaneously in different parts of the tunnels and exhibits.