Friday, July 31, 2009

Monday, 27 July, Wroclaw, Poland

Wroclaw, Poland
Monday, 27 July

We arrived in Poland with some anticipation: for Kevin, he is in the land of his wife’s ancestors; for me, the ancestral land of most of my family before the wars. It is strange to “come back” to a place with such a mixed and difficult history, a country that never gave up the struggle against the Nazis and yet a place where some of the worst atrocities occurred. I feel little connection to this country, though, probably because my grandparents never considered themselves Polish; their identity was strictly Jewish, an attitude common where the Jews were forcibly separated, going back to the middle ages. Despite the anti-Semitism and wartime atrocities, though, my Bubby used to speak positively of her childhood in Bialystok, the youth meetings they had in the forest, and the Polish friends who hid her and her family from the pogroms. When I look into the faces of the old people here, the ones who may have lived through that time, I think of such complexities of history and humanity.

We arrived in the evening and found ourselves comfortably ensconced at the HP Park Plaza Hotel, with casino attached, a lovely place overlooking the river, with its little bridges and islands, and the spires and squares of the old town across the water. In the morning, we met with Marek Oziewicz, who kindly brought with him Majka Tarnogórska, a philologist and expert, of all the most unlikely and ombliferous of things, on Polish literary nonsense for adults. She is currently working on a book about Polish limericks, but her initiation into the Grand Art happened three years ago, when she decided to dedicate her life to scholarship in nonsense. After picking up our collective jaws from the floor, Kevin and I listened intently as Marek and Majka sifted through the nonsense scene of Poland and Wroclaw (pronounced “Vrots-wov,” of course). Majka provided a comprehensive bibliography of many kinds of Polish nonsense, including some of the most exalted Polish poets who also, by no accident, were nonsense writers, including Barańczak, Tuwim, Gałczyński, and Słonimski. We learned that the political situation in Poland, a country that has been under one occupation or another for hundreds of years, necessitated the development of nonsense art, a kind of subversion that is almost impossible to confront or quell. We also learned of the “Orange Alternative” a movement of dwarves against Communism. Yes, that’s right, because people were not allowed to congregate for any kind of organized political activity, members of this group dressed as dwarves, held dwarf meetings and dwarf protests, advocating dwarf rights and the freedom of universal dwarfdom. It was not uncommon in the late 1980s for these dwarves to be seen, pointed hats flopping in the breeze, as they ran away from the police. Today, as one walks the cobbled streets of Wroclaw, the dwarves appear everywhere, as little statues on top of mailboxes, hiding on window ledges, simultaneously pushing and pulling a large metal globe. Here are two particularly disreputable dwarves :

Here, one of the dwarves participates in graffiti subversion.

It is a city steeped in a carnivalesque tradition of nonsense resistance.

One of the new aspects of nonsense that Majka introduced us to was the Polish proliferation of new nonsense genres. That is, many Polish writers were not only creating nonsense, but also inventing new sub-genres. For example, the “Gulliver limerick” is a limerick that deals with only a very small point. She said that once these genres of nonsense were created, other writers of nonsense took them up and wrote within them. Edward Lear, with his nonsense alphabets, recipes, ballads, botany, and limericks, was perhaps the greatest English example of such creation of nonsense types, but it has been extremely rare since then.

After lunch, we went with Majka to several local bookstores, where she helped us buy some of the most important Polish texts. Bookstore browsing is an exhausting and throat-parching activity, so we tipped our elbows at perhaps the oldest restaurant in Europe, in the town square. She was then extremely kind enough to invite us back to her apartment, to see her nonsense library and continue the elbow-tipping on what we were promised was her nonsensical balcony. We walked about 25 minutes, stopping at some shops to pick up food and beer, and landed at her lovely, airy apartment overlooking a courtyard filled with flowers and a small river nearby. We spent the rest of the evening, and into the night, going through her library, talking nonsense in its most sublime and lugumbrious aspects, and writing the following pieces “exquisite corpse”-style, each of us writing alternative lines.

Balcony Types

With sparrows and umbrellas down,
You will attack the nasty town.
They may defend with crows and crabs.
And now, my guys, we stop surprised
At all the weapons n’er surmised:
The blunder-boost! The flinging pies!
The screaming wasps and sacri-flies
Of first-born frogs, flung in abandon
“Be careful, guys, of what you stand in.”
Fastidious maid lies in the sun,
The maid makes lace for battles to come.
With sparrows and umbrellas down,
We stay in the walking gown,
We pace, we splay, we join the fray,
We justify the First of May.

and the following limerick:

There was an old man of Niger
Who encountered a nine-legged spidger.
He told it a story
About an Aunt in the lorry
That loquacious old man of Niger.

Majka is a true kindred nonsense spirit, and our connection will surely continue into the mists of the fuliginous and misty-fisty future.

PS. I wonder if nonsense poetry written by a Pole, a person of Polish ancestry, and a man married to a Pole can be included in the Polish section of the anthology…? Vote on it in the survey, in the left-hand panel!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Prague, July 25-26, 2009, Part II

Prague, Czech Republic, Part II
26 July, 2009

Kevin has given the bulk of our fortuitous Prague adventures, but I wanted to add a few nibs, nabs, and slabs.

First, a prime scenic sweep of the main square in Prague, with a rare sighting of an Officer in Good (and sometimes Wobbly) Standing of the Ministry of Silly Walks.

Next, a bit of nonsense graffiti. A "fourier transform" of a cat?? Remember, click on photos to enlarge them...

Lastly, a menu that was just too good not to capture in its entirely. Click here for the series of shots, and be sure to read closely. Be on the lookout for the Beer Plate (including “drowned man”), “Heel to be,” “Duck Season” (Wabbit season?), and other gems.
Prague Menu 7/25/09

Extra-double lastly, something oddly familiar, found in our last Prague hangout...

Prague, July 25-26, 2009

Prague, Czech Republic
Saturday/Sunday, July 25-26, 2009

Greeting Earthlings,

Kevin here.

When we were planning this trip I kept assuming that we would find an expert in Czech children’s lit in Prague. In the end we did not, but the information Nadezda Sieglova gave us about nonsense in Czech was fresh on our minds, and so as we entered the old capital we immediately ducked into a few bookshops hoping to find a few old classics in the genre. But the publishing situation we found in Brno was the same in Prague. In both places there were only new works available—no reprints of older classics of children’s lit. Truthfully I don’t think we know enough yet to really make the claim that there is a problem in republishing older material in Czech, but we did bat zero trying to find any reprints of several of the best regarded works of nonsense published in the 1960s.

This is not to say, however, that we weren’t lucky in Prague. Indeed, we were. Somewhere, as we ambled through the medieval maze that is Old Town Prague, I stopped Michael and showed him a listing in my guidebook that talked about an unusual theatre production company. The Divaldo Fantiska (or Black Light Theatre) is the brainchild of Jiri Srnec, who uses a variety of special effects, such as black lights, puppetry and shadows in his productions. I just thought it sounded interesting. Several aimless turns left and right later found us completely by accident staring at the outside of this very theatre. And what was playing there? “Aspects of Alice,” a production that uses Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as a jumping off point for an exploration of coming-of-age stories and, simultaneously, the history of Prague. Kind of a wild idea really. As we looked at the poster that advertised the show we learned one other thing. The next show started in ten minutes. No, they did not take credit cards, but after a few minutes we’d found an ATM and were sitting in our seats, just two minutes before the curtain raised.

Although the story was intentionally a bit surreal, one did yet get the impression that the narrative was intended to be more clear. As a professor of nonsense I consider these things with care. Is it just sloppy, or is there an intentional, skillful, push and pull from reality at work in the writing? Czech art and literature is known for its commitment to surrealism, so our hopes were high for this production. In the end, however, I don’t think the play was intentionally very surreal, and I can safely say that there was not much nonsense at all. The connection to Lewis Carroll and his characters/stories was very slight. The visuals were stunning, however, from the black lit images of Prague steeples swimming through the night sky, to the creative use of playful candle flames that seemed to have minds of their own. It really was a memorable thing to watch and if they hadn’t warned us not to in four languages we probably would shot a clip for the blog.

That play will linger in my mind for some while, but, truthfully, like most tourists of Prague, it was the Old Town area that left the deepest impression. As others may have told you, or as you may have seen in your own travels, Prague’s Old Town is just simply beautiful and impressive. At one point we climbed the tower that looks over the Charles Bridge. We took a few photos from there of the Charles Bridge and of Old Town. At the top of the tower there is graffiti on the wall that dates back at least a couple hundred years. I read one carving that was clearly dated 1830. This apparently immortal version of ‘tagging’ immediately brings the present into the past and the past into the present. This graffiti feels strangely modern. As with nonsense, the reader of such a tag is pushed into a continuum, if not an indeterminate space and time. For just like graffiti today--whether it be under a bridge, or on building by a railroad track—such tagging is inspired by the need to leave behind a silent mark that proves you were there, a mark that stays there, and lives there long after you’ve left there. The ritual seems to suggest that existing in our own time and space is simply not enough.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Brno, Czech Republic (Part II); July 24-25

July 24-25, 2009, Brno, Czech Republic

After our meeting with Dr. Nadezda Sieglova (described by Kevin below) we went on another hunt for nonsense within what we were told was a fairly crazy and humorous Czech folksong tradition. Two independent sources from Brno (which, by the way, is pronounced “Burr-no”), sent us to the folk museum in the center of town, where we struggled to communicate with a woman who was trying very hard to help us—in German and Czech. My handy iPhone translator (who dares scoff at its necessity??) gave us a few key words, and she contacted a researcher/worker somewhere in the building, who was very busy but came down to talk to us. Apparently, they didn’t have folk music there (curses to our sources!)—but she gave us an address for the Ethnology Institute a little outside of town. Another cab ride brought us to the doorstep, and we once again were faced with someone trying to help us, but with no English. She was able to find someone in the building to help us, and a few minutes later, a man in his 50s, looking like he just came in from gardening, came barreling down the stairs to meet us, large dirty beaker containing some mysterious clear liquid, in hand. He promptly informed us that we were in the branch of the Institute that dealt with chemistry, and the chances of finding folk music there were slim. However, beaker sloshing, he gleefully led us outside, down a path or two, to another building. Kevin’s curiosity got the better of him, and he had to ask what was in the beaker. Water, of course. He was thirsty. We soon approached a locked door with a panel of buttons. He pressed one, spoke briefly with the woman who answered, and got us buzzed into the building. We all walked up to an office where our friendly beaker man introduced us to Dr. Jana Pospisilova. We struggled with language, but she seemed quite interested in our project, and it quickly became apparent why: we seemed to have found, after two false leads, two inappropriate institutions, and one chemist, a real-live Czech scholar of children’s folk culture. She began to pull books down from her shelves full of folk songs and rhymes, many which we couldn’t read of course, but also some English translations from Finnish that were excellent. We all sat down and talked, as well as we could, about our work, about folk culture, and our great luck at having come together.

Kevin and I left delighted, with quite a few references to pursue in Czech and other languages. On our walk back to the city, we passed by this establishment, which I present here for your perusal.

We celebrated back in the town center, with a couple of pivos and a lovely view of the square.

I shall leave you with two more nonsensical nuggets of the day: a little graffiti as we wandered in Roma neighborhoods looking for a Laundromat.

And lastly, a menu, the last item of which we were not quite brave enough to order.

Brno, Czech Republic (Part I)

Brno, Czech Republic (Part I)
July 24-25, 2009

In making our plans for research in the Czech Republic I was somewhat surprised to learn that the experts on children’s literature are not working from the nation’s capital, Prague, but from Masaryk University in the city of Brno, in Moravia, where the scholarly journal Ladeni, on Czech children’s literature, is published quarterly. The head of the department of Czech Literature there is Dr. Naděžda Sieglová. I knew her name from some articles on Czech children’s literature that were published by the Oxford University Press.

When we met with Dr. Sieglova in her office we were greeted very warmly, and, as if we had come to her home, she offered us an overwhelming plate of homemade Czech desserts, pastries and candies. In order to encourage our appetites Dr. Sieglova pronounced that the desserts “would not last in this weather” so we had to eat them all now. The gesture was very kind, and the desserts were delicious. I had one big chocolate thingy shaped like a steeple from an Orthodox church—with cognac inside. The only problem with the desserts was that I did end up getting chocolate all over my notes and on the handouts she gave us.

Concerning nonsense Dr. Sieglova gave us a thorough history lesson on Czech nonsense, starting with folk material. One thing that struck me as we started to go through the material, was that violins seemed to be a popular recurring motif in Czech nonsense. There were simply a lot of violins, and even a joke about Strativarias. Considering this fact I was then struck by something I'd not seen in any other country; nonsense in Czech often (or nearly always?) comes with sheet music in the back of the book. Nonsense rhymes are supposed to be sung in Czech--simple as that. And even when new nonsense is produced and published the cover will give credit for the author of the text, the illustrator, and the person who wrote the music in the back. Amazing! This surprise led me to think about English nursery and nonsense rhymes. When English Mother Goose poems were first published in book form in c. 1765 the title of the book was not "Mother Goose," but "Mother Goose's Melodies," and the fact was that English nursery and nonsense rhymes nearly always had music that was supposed to accompany them. A few publishers around 1800 tried to publish Mother Goose poems with the sheet music included, but these music books did not catch on, and mostly we of English tradition have forgotten the original melodies that went with our nonsense. Not so in Czech, where it is apparently taken for granted that sheet music must usually accompany nonsense.

When Dr. Sieglova moved on to the 1960s I was of rapt attention. Shea explained that “There was a lot of nonsense in the 1960s.” There was, in fact, a flowering of the genre at that time, as exemplified by the popular nonsense books of Pavel Šrut, Emanuel Frynta and Jiri Žacek. However, when the communists clamped down in 1968 and 1969, books of nonsense were forbidden. Nonsense then remained forbidden until the Revolution of 1989. For me personally this was a riveting piece of history. My dissertation was written directly on this topic. Working from a theory proposed by the Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, I basically proposed the idea that nonsense flourishes during times of social unrest—and that authoritarian movements are led by people who are easily threatened by nonsense. It was satisfying to learn of a concrete historical example that backs up what I’ve been preaching about nonsense for a while now.

Just during and after the Revolution of 1989, nonsense flourished again in Czech. And today, while there are not too many contemporary writers of nonsense in Czech we were introduced to one truly remarkable author, Petr Nikl, whose books are surreal, absurd, nonsensical and extremely well crafted and beautiful. His book, Jelenoviti, is dedicated to Christian Morgenstern, the German nonsense author. Below are a few photos from another of his texts, Za Hadky. The pages in this book actually come sliced, so that the reader can create a myriad of different creatures by flipping the top, middle and bottom panels. Note that in the two photos below the top and bottom panels on each page have not changed, only the middle has: (Click on the photos to enlarge them).

Before we left Dr. Sieglova she was kind enough to allow us to record her reciting a favorite nonsensical rhymes she knew as a child. At first we’d asked her to find one in one of the books she’d copied for us, but in the end she preferred to recite from memory. Her assistant, Tasa, was called in and the two of them worked together to be sure they had the lyrics correct. Dr. Sieglova made one recording, then, enthused, Tasa jumped in as well, recording two rhymes she recalled from her youth in Brno. Click here to hear these Czech nonsense rhymes.

Having finally gobbled up many of the desserts Dr. Sieglova offered us Michael and I were somewhat alarmed toward the end of the conversation when were suddenly handed five sandwiches and told to eat them too. I couldn’t really, so I gave mine to Michael and he ate all five.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bratislava Slovakia (Part II)

Bratislava Slovakia (Part II)
July 22-23, 2009

Michael has described the fab luck we had meeting up with Jana and Hana at the Bibiana library/museum. We owe them a great debt for dropping everything to help us.

As Michael alluded, we went to Bratislava on a couple of fairly flimsy pretenses. The first flimsy pretense was that we might meet a couple experts on children’s literature if we were lucky. We were lucky there. The other flimsy pretense was that I happened to know that there was venue in Bratislava called “The Nonsense Restaurant and Bar.” The mere name of this bar was enough to get us to book tickets to this city. We needed to know why this restaurant had this name, and what kind of nonsensical drinks they might serve us. Obviously then, we were pretty excited to go there--like a couple of dweebs, really.

Anyway we did go this bar. Here is a photo to prove its existence:

However, after following the signs down a back lane we were confronted by a locked door and this sign:

The place was clearly closed, but we couldn’t read the sign, which was frustrating. So I went and got a waiter from a nearby pub and asked him to translate the sign for us. He read it to us: “The Nonsense Bar is closed… due to technical difficulties… and I don’t know.” We thanked him. Disappointed, we wondered what “technical difficulties” a nonsense bar could have? Perhaps they had a problem with their puns? Or perhaps everything in the pub was suddenly working backwards? If only they’d known we were coming. Perhaps we could have helped them with their nonsense problem.

It then occurred to me that perhaps it was a communist plot… that, perhaps, the people from the Bibiana had called the authorities and told them “There are two strange fellows in town and they are gathering our nonsense”—at which point the authorities might have immediately closed all nonsense bars due to ‘technical difficulties… and I don’t know.’

With this paranoid thought we readjusted our focus and picked an appropriate venue to mull the theory over. We went immediately to the “KGB Pub,” which comes complete with posters of Stalin and statue of Lenin. I took this photo of the very ambiguous back wall of this cavern-like drinking hole:

Note that the image of Stalin appears to have been slashed with a knife at one point, while the American flag has cigarette burns in it.

On the way home we were accosted by a thinly disguised con man who wanted some of our money. We did not give him anything, but he persisted in conversation. He wanted to know whether I was a “communist” or a “republican.” He also wanted to know what we thought about socialism and religion. Hoping to get him to go away I explained to him--in no uncertain terms--a few things about my views on these subjects. He listened, aghast, and after a few more steps he pronounced that I was an “abnormal man.” He said so twice. “You are an abnormal man.”

Cheers to that.


Tuesday to Thursday, 21-23 July, 2009 Bratislava, Slovakia

We arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia on the late side, after having made several connections along the way, all of which, amazingly, were on time. We were there not so much for our research, but rather for a meeting of the Ancient and Honourable Society for the Prevention of Sense, to be held at one of Kevin’s most illustrious discoveries: an establishment called the Nonsense Restaurant and Bar. Kevin will discuss this in more detail in his entry to follow. After taking a cab costing approximately three times the appropriate price, we were welcomed to the old town district by a raucous klezmer band (click below for a small video clip).

The old town district of Bratislava is a concentrated hive of the eighteenth century rococo buildings common to these old European districts, with some broader avenues lined with cafes, small medieval alleys snaking off, and hidden courtyards containing venues of uncertain repute. Cilck below for a short tour of the main square.

Our self-serve, Ikea-snapshot apartment was right in the middle of everything.

In the morning, our first task was to visit the Bibiana: International House of Art for Children, which was just a stone’s throw from our apartment. Kevin had had no luck in contacting Slovakian scholars via email, so this would be our last desperate attempt to find nonsense (that is, nonsense not self-generated) while in Slovakia. We first went to the museum part of the Bibiana, and after talking to two people, were led outside and around to another part of the building, to their library, where we were greeted by Jana Michalová and Hana Ondrejičková, who listened to our slightly embarrassed appeal, without any sort of forewarning, for nonsense. I shall summarize it thusly: “Citizens of Slovakia! We bring good tidings! Now, bring us your nonsense!” Jana and Hana seemed a bit overwhelmed by the task, and although Jana immediately lunged for their stacks, a nonsensical spark in her eye and finger to her lip, they decided that it would be better if we came back in a couple of hours. This we did, after having a lovely lunch pilsner. When we returned, we found books spread out over tables and couches; retiring to their library room, we dove in. During our two hour lunch, they had arranged a stunning selection of literary and folk nonsense, which they proceeded to present to us verbally and on photocopies, authors such as Štefan Moravčik (and his Our Dog Has a Chicken’s Head), Daniel Hevier (and his work, “Maoeoeoeuááááá,” which seems to speak for itself), Boris Droppa (Beetroots On a Bicycle) and Milan Ferko (whose work, Šalabingo, sounds promisingly effervescent). They also made phone calls to some experts on Slovakian nonsense, who were not available at the moment, and provided us with some excellent leads on further knowledgeable folk to contact. Lastly, Jana provided us with most excellent performances of nonsensical Slovak folk rhymes. Click here to download the audio file!

One interesting fact mentioned by Jana and Hana, and something that helps to explain not only their easy ability to zero in on nonsense literature, but also the deep Slovak understanding of nonsense, is that apparently in Slovak, the literal word for nonsense, “nezmysel,” is not used for the literary genre. Rather, they use the English, “nonsense,” thereby creating convenient and, importantly, separate categories. Such a distinction is one of the real hurdles to the perception of literary nonsense in English, as most people are not aware of the difference between word and classification of genre, and, understandably, get them mixed up. Such confusion has existed in the English tradition from the seventeenth century at least, but a particularly well-documented moment occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, during the new-found popularity of nonsense in England and the United States sparked by Lear and Carroll. In one of Lord Alfred Douglas’s volumes, many of his texts are merely inconsequential, thereby confusing the dictionary definition with the emerging children’s genre. Of course, he also wrote in the Preface to this volume, “Writing nonsense rhymes has no effect one way or the other on one’s ability or desire to write poetry. It simply has nothing to do with it at all,” so his authority concerning nonsense is dubious at best. This inevitable confusion in English continues, and probably will as long as we use the word “nonsense” as a part of the genre’s name. It is around this very issue that Kevin and I recently wrote an article that will appear in the volume Keywords in Children’s Literature, edited by the gracious and honorable Phil Nel and Lissa Paul, to be published by the New York University Press some time soon.

Incidentally, a couple of days later in Brno, Czech Republic, Kevin and I learned that the distinction made by Slovaks was also true with Czechs. We also wonder if the English word being used betrays some debt to the English tradition of Lear and Carroll that has spread far and wide, or if it might be traced to Christian Morgenstern’s reluctant use of the word. The latter possibility may have even more weight owing to the close connection between this region of Europe and Germany.

Kevin and I were overwhelmed by Jana and Hana’s generosity. We waltzed into their office unannounced, asking for the most unlikely of things, and they proceeded to drop everything and give us far more than we could have asked for. We walked out of their office and Slovakia in amazement, with an armful of potential nonsense, a list of promising contacts, and a most spirited recording. The next morning, I crept out of our apartment early to pick up one orange and one yellow gerbera daisy (the most cheerful of all flowers), which we dropped off for them as we left the old town district.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Monday, July 20, 2009 (Part II)

Monday, July 20, 2009 (Part II)
Ljubljana, Slovenia

Kevin here.

Michael has already described the main focus of the day, which was meeting Barbara Simoniti and learning about her own personal ‘voyages’ in the world of nonsense. So I’ll write about a few other things.

First, some good news for the project; we received an email this morning from Dr. Mavis Reimer, Canada Research Chair in Children’s Culture, and my colleague at the University of Winnipeg. Mavis wrote to inform us that the Center for Young People’s Texts and Culture (CRYTC) at Winnipeg has pledged some financial support for this voyage. Many thanks to Mavis for that. This support along with two other grants from U Winnipeg have helped to make this trip possible.

Moving on to other things—When I’m not making a movie of my eye I try to keep at least one eye open for images of dragons in Eastern Europe. I think I mentioned the dragon that was apparently attacking our train bound from Romania to Bulgaria… Fact is, lots of dragon tales and fairy tales about dragons come from this corner of the world. Dragon lore is all around us on this trip.

According to one legend Ljubljana was protected by a dragon that guarded, in medieval times, what was the one bridge leading into the town. Thus today Ljubljana proudly displays fierce statues on the four corners of what is now known as “Dragon Bridge.” It’s interesting that the legendary dragon of Ljubljana was a protector of its people, and not a tormentor, as is usually the case in European folklore. Normally European dragons are good only to be hunted up and beheaded. Thus we have the legends of St. George and the Dragon in England, and the related tales of St. Patrick and the snakes of Ireland and even St. Columba and the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland. All these stories position dragons as evil, as representatives of the pagan belief system that Christianity was struggling to erase. But in Ljubljana it’s different. Here the dragon protected the people from invasion, like a patron Saint, really. In this way the Ljubljana dragon is a lot more like Asian dragons, who were often wise and served as protectors of the people. Dragon carvings and sculpture were everywhere in Ljubljana. Below are a few examples that I snapped photos of.

Click on the photos to enlarge them:

One of the Four Dragons that sit on the corners of Dragon Bridge

Dragon carrying off sheep (pub sign)

Wrought Iron dragon in the entrance to the castle above town

A poster advertising a play

There are, no doubt, more dragon legends that will come our way. In Brno, in the Czech Republic, there is a story about a giant alligator/crocodile-like-thing that ravaged the town. And I know that once we get to Krakow in Poland, we will see plenty of images of the famous dragon, Krak, for whom the city is named.


Monday, 20 July 2009: Day 2 in Ljubljana, Slovenia

After meeting with an unintentional kielbasa for breakfast, I joined Kevin in front of Stari Tisler, where we met Barbara Simoniti, novelist, translator, poet, and, yes, nonsense scholar. We believe, of all the improbable things, that she is the only scholar of nonsense literature in Slovenia, having written her doctoral dissertation on Slovene translations of Alice in Wonderland, as well as a monograph called simply “Nonsens” that deals with certain astute theoretical issues concerning the mechanics of nonsense brought up in her dissertation, in addition to the manifestations of nonsense in Slovenia, particularly in terms of fool’s tales. We sat down at a table in the back of the open courtyard, ordered coffee and tea, and dove straight into our shared passion. Barbara was boiling over with tales of her entry into the nonsense world, her graduate work and seminal scholarship. We eased into easy shop talk only found with those who Know—with those who have breathed nonsense, and found it Good. She gave us a copy of her book and told us about her further discoveries in, as Wim Tigges puts it, the “anatomy of nonsense,” such as the idea of serial addition, and the constant use of “thing.” Because Slovene translators have not understood some of these (and other) basic components of nonsense, they have failed to produce solid translations. As opposed to many whom we have met who think that nonsense is impossible to translate, Barbara was confident that, with a proper knowledge of how it actually works, particularly in its performative aspects, nonsense translation was quite possible. Music to our ears! We talked about the Slovene fools’ tales, world turned upside-down folktales, and certain jokes without punch lines (like the one I knew as a child: Two polar bears were taking a bath. One said to the other, “Could you please pass the soap.” The other said, “Are you sure you don’t mean the radio?). She thought there might be some nonsensical graffiti in Ljubljana, as well. Lastly, we asked if she might write her own nonsense piece for the anthology, which seemed quite appealing to her. Overall, she seemed delighted to re-immerse herself in this passion that she had let rest for quite a few years, since the publication of her book.

Time passed quickly, and we had to part after a couple of hours, but we planned to meet the next morning to give her all the material we had received from Milena. After going back to our room, however, we thought it would be an Excellent Plan to continue our conversation later that same evening, so we called her and set up a time to meet in a city center bar.

One significant regret that I shall perhaps always have is that I did not make a recording of the band that was playing near the café where we waited. It included, of course, a keyboard’s synthesized drums, a four-piece boyish band that oozed the most insipid ooh-ahh Europop imaginable. The only mercy was that we could not understand the lyrics. Barbara arrived, saving us from the music and weak drinks, and we settled amongst the ice cream eaters in another riverside café, where we continued to talk about how we all came to run with wild nonsense. When the staff seemed willing to close the table umbrellas on our heads, we sloped homewards.

In the morning, as I avoided all giant kielbasas who seemed to have a design on me, we met again briefly with Barbara, when she showed us her doorstop dissertation, an incredibly thorough comparison of Slovene translations of Alice and where they went tragically wrong. We talked about plans to come, received a copy of her book that we will deliver to Wim Tigges, encouraged her yet again to send us her own original nonsense, and said our farewells. Meeting Barbara was, for me, a little like meeting Anushka Ravishankar, at the time the only published writer of nonsense in India, all those years ago: an improbable yet incredibly fortunate nonsense confluence. As we parted, Barbara summed it all up perfectly: “It is a very great occasion to be both stupid and clever.”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sunday, July 19, 2009, Ljubljana, Slovenia (Part II)

Barabara Simonitti told me and Kevin that one possible source of nonsense in Slovenia was in graffiti. The best nonsense graffiti we have seen so far was, hands down, in Bucharest [click here], but here is a sampling of the noteworthy graffiti in Ljubljana. Our slight difficulty with colloquial Slovene puts us at some disadvantage… If we do get any real nonsense graffiti, we’ll be sure to post it!

To enlarge any photo below, just click on it!

The owlery, perhaps a mocking representation of the downfall of the Earl of Gormenghast, in the Tower of Owls. Or perhaps a statement on the mass media, and the capitalist urge for more and ever more owls.

This is the Dreaded Lacrosse Boot of Communism, stepping on the Twisted Tooth of Capitalism. Or perhaps a frog with a mustache.

We think we found one of the graffiti culprits, betraying his surreptitious tale-method of wall painting. He seems to be leaving a tag here…

Surely the bluebird of happiness.

Who dares mock me? I bite my thumb at you, sir. I twist my stache in your general direction.

Next we have series from Zmaug, a pub in the student section of Ljubljana. Some of these are on the outside, while some are framed inside.
Ljubljana Graffiti July 19-21

The perky fellow seems to have had an encounter with a carrot (who looks rather nonplussed).

Okay, so this isn’t exactly graffiti, but it was posted up on the wall in the café at our inn, Stari Tisler. Before we left Ljubljana, were made sure to stock up with a heaping helping of malice, for the low, low price of only 5 Euro.

Note: Kevin, being a Man of International Mystery, has already had the opportunity to eat horse, but for me, this was my first horseburger, at the Hot Horse restaurant. Spicy good!

Nonsense note:

In accordance with Barbara Simoniti’s theory of nonsense devices, that includes the “styleme” of using the word and concept of “thing” repeatedly, we think we have found a stellar example in the Maribor, Slovenia train station. Observe Exhibit D, my receipt from the snack kiosk, where I purchased three different kinds of drink, and two different snacks. The receipt, of course, lists only “Blago,” which we assume means “thing.” And so, I walked away from the kiosk with blago blago blago blago blago.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sunday, July 19, 2009, Ljubljana Slovenia

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ljubljana Slovenia

Kevin here.

Today, after sleeping late and missing breakfast, Michael and I met with the scholar, Milena Mileva Blazic, Professor of Children’s Literature at Ljubljana University. Milena, it turns out, is also a City Councilor and so our first meeting took place in City Hall. Entering City Hall in Ljubljana is like entering an old castle. Marble columns. Red carpets. Brass railings.

Generous does not begin to describe the reception and the information that Milena gave us throughout the day. She had, in preparation, translated something like sixty nonsensical count-out rhymes from Slovene folklore. She also gave us books with English translations of Slovene children’s literature and an anthology of Butalci tales, a type of absurd and sometimes surreal fools tale typical of Slovenia. And then there were the items she had requested from her friend, the folklorist, xxx, who prepared for us fifty or so pages of Slovenian folk tales and other texts. The list goes on and on. We were overwhelmed. If you’d like to hear Milena reading us some nonsensical Slovene count out rhymes, just click here:

Click here, and then click again to download.

While we were unprepared for the lavish resources handed to us today we were yet even more unprepared to encounter--as we had in Bulgaria--an entirely type of nonsense (new to us, that is). This might sound strange, but it is true. In Slovenia it was traditional in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to decorate beehive huts with a certain type of decorative board. Each beehive could be opened like a drawer, and each drawer was about the size of a license plate. On the outside of this piece of wood/drawer end, it was traditional to paint scenes from Slovenian folktales or religious scenes. If a beehive hut had twenty drawers, then there would be twenty tiny scenes depicted, one on each drawer. Often enough the scenes depicted on these drawers were of the above-mentioned absurd fool’s tales--and several of these tales are important in the history of nonsense traditions. One such classic tale, known throughout medieval Europe, is the tale of the World Turned Upside Down, where all order is reversed in the human and animal world, a story that was told and retold in a hundred ways and in a hundred different folk songs. One consistent aspect of the World Turned Upside Down tales is that animals that are usually hunted in real life, such as rabbits, turn the tables on the hunters and it is the rabbits that hunt the men, etc. Slovene beehive artwork has preserved images of several variants of this tale. Below is an example of one such piece of folk art. We purchased this beehive board in the marketplace in the city square in Ljubljana:

Milena’s generosity did not cease with her translations and research. She took us out to a traditional Slovene restaurant where the waiters were dressed in traditional costume. I ate venison and drank a Union. Mike had a large platter of traditional favorites including black sausage and buckwheat-mash. Later in the day Milena energetically led us up the hill to the castle that overlooks the city. From here the view of the city and the Julian Alps at sunset was excellent.

Milena insisted that the party continue from there and she took us to a favorite pub, and would not let us pay for anything. We tried.

Conversation eventually moved from children’s literature and nonsense to politics and history. Milena discussed the ins and outs of communism, and described the time the Yugoslavian army bombed the radio and TV tower behind the castle. She was not nostalgic about communism, but she said that she did miss the free health care and education that came with the socialist system. The move to democracy and capitalism has been natural, and successful, in Slovenia, (Slovenia’s democratic traditions date back about 1300 years) but these changes do not come completely without regrets. A slice of graffiti spoke volumes in this regard. Note below that while the message is sincere, the voice is gently humorous:

One image I will never forget from this night was the genius invention of an open-air concert, performed by a string quartet, playing in the hold of a small boat, as it gently floated down the Ljubljana River in the center of town. The sound of these musicians was amplified majestically by the white stone walls that line the river. Ljubljanians and tourists alike gathered at the stone railings along the river to watch, and kept shifting their locations in order to follow the boat as it drifted aimlessly down river. Thankfully Michael was able to film a short clip of this inspired performance. Click below to have a look:

Late that night, as we said goodnight to Milena, we tried to tell her how overwhelmed we were by her hospitality and generosity. She waved it all away with a parting smile. “It is a Slav tradition,” she said simply. And then she was gone.

We were left with a warm feeling and a pile of nonsense texts that will take us months to catalog and absorb.


Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia (Part II)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Belgrade Serbia, Croatia and Ljubljana Slovenia (Part II)

Greetings. Kevin here.

Mike has already described some of the more colorful and challenging aspects to our epic train journey this day. No one could, however, fully describe the intense heat of our morning train ride out of Belgrade.

While it is true that I eventually made a movie of my eye today, Michael has yet omitted one rather important episode. As Michael described, throughout the early part of our train ride one of the main puzzles we had to solve was which compartment was REALLY first class. After dozens of seats, oceans of sweat, and miles of track at the speed of a butterfly, we finally got it right and found ourselves in a relatively relaxing, breezy compartment, all to ourselves. Having suffered so much in the achieving of this exalted position we espoused pity, but inside regaled, at the worn-out sad faces that would come by and ask if our extra seats were free. With sombre expressions we would explain that the seats were free, but they were “First Class.” We were actually saving these people some hassle as the conductors were regularly expelling people with second-class tickets from first class compartments. We sent away about a dozen large-ish gentlemen this way over several hours. Then suddenly, two maidens appeared, youthful and exuberant--yet pathetic in their searching eyes. They asked us if our extra seats were free and we naturally waved them right in. No sooner had these two attractive young ladies seated themselves across from us, but Michael fell sound asleep. His head tilted back, and after a few minutes, he started snoring, confidently. The maidens were very entertained by this. The scene grew yet more entertaining, however. After snoring for a while Michael’s jaw dropped open a little and he started babbling in his sleep. It sounded a bit like a Hindu prayer: “abah-bah-dida-a-bahbah-diddah-babbah-bah.”

This went on for some great stretch of landscape. Anyway, you still might find it funnier that I eventually made a movie of my eye, but I prefer to think of the eye-film as more like an artistic statement, a cutting edge, avant-garde self examination, not wholly unlike the art films of Andy Warhol (or something).

As we traveled today the landscape and economic-scape, changed, subtly at first as we moved across Croatia (which has become a very hip vacation spot for Hollywood types), and then more dramatically, as we crossed the border from Croatia into Slovenia. In very real ways Michael and I basically crossed a line today that, since Roman times, has divided east and west. Cyrillic gave way to Latin letters, and Greek Orthodox churches gave way to Catholic. As would be no surprise we crossed at this same moment the Serbian/Croatian border, where the struggle between east and west has for so long now been articulated in tensions.

At the end of a very long day--and a total of twenty-four hours traveling--we arrived in Slovenia. It came upon us in the windows of the train in the dying light of day, like a spectacular postcard. The grass turned emerald green, flowerpots overflowed in the cottage windows; the hills drew up around us. And as the train found the Ljubljana River, we snaked along an increasingly enchanted landscape. Mist floated out of high, wooded, steep valleys in such a way that it seemed as if a dragon must lay in wait beneath the trees.

That’s when I filmed my eye.

10:30 on a Saturday night found us gawking at the town square (a circle really) in downtown Ljubljana. Nothing had prepared us for this scene. Sorry to bring up Disney again but the situation was so picture-perfect it felt totally unreal. Two to four-hundred year old, perfectly preserved, colorful buildings from the Austro-Hungarian Empire circled us. And leading into the square were the “Three Bridges,” with their white marble sidewalks and elaborate baroque carved railings. These graceful bridges spanned the lovely, little, Ljubljana River. The river itself was lit from below with green lights. The effect was spectacular, unreal, spellbinding.

This beautiful scene took on a spectral quality when Michael and I realized we were nearly alone. It was 10:30 on a Saturday night and there was no one around and most of the pubs were closed tight. It was a bit like that village in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where children are against the law. Empty. Silent. A stage set.

This mysterious emptiness would be explained the following day. We were told on Sunday night that most Ljubljanians leave town for the weekend and drive up to the nearby Julian Alps. They were all back cavorting by the river on Sunday night.

One of the local beers in Ljubljana is Union. Exhausted from our journey, and gleeful to be in such an interesting and beautiful place, we stubbornly tracked down an open pub, clinked a few mugs of Union, and then headed off for about a ten-hour sleep.


PS. Below is a Picture of the bridges over the Ljubljana River in the city square. It doesn’t come close to doing it justice.

Saturday 18 July, Bulgaria to Serbia to Slovenia

One bright day in the middle of the night, the train into Serbia stopped at one of the border crossing stations, where several backpackers were pulled from the train, taken to the border office and locked in. The train seemed to wait a while, but eventually, with the girls’ faces pressed to the locked glass doors of the office, the train pulled away into Serbia. Around this same time, we were periodically confronted by a hodge-podge parade of customs officers, literally lining up to grill us. One would enter, smile, and ask us what we were carrying—perhaps a little good-time material from Istanbul??—and check our passports, calling in the numbers on radios, and finally moving on, only to be replaced instantly by another officer, asking the same nudge-nudge wink-wink questions, perhaps glancing in one pocket of a backpack, then moving on, to be replaced by a third officer, who would continue in a like manner. These officers were apparently doing this to us out of courtesy for our Nonsense heritage, as anyone who knows about Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, knows the wisdom of the Bellman, that “What I tell you three times is true.” We appreciate such cross-cultural nonsense understanding, although when that above process was then itself repeated three times (or perhaps what seemed to be three more times), we thought they might be taking such graciousness a little too far.

As a result of these delays, we arrived in Belgrade an hour and fifteen minutes late, at around 5:15am—meaning we missed our connecting train to Ljubljana by about fifteen minutes, giving us about a five-hour layover. Blearily, then, we headed into Belgrade, going towards the citadel that rests high atop a bluff, overlooking the confluence of the Danube and the Sava. The moat around it now sports sports courts: tennis and basketball players cavort where the Dreaded Serbian Moat-Alligators once swam. Kevin thought this a symbol of sorts, declaring war no more, although I thought it also might be a way of thumbing their noses at the American Olympic basketball team. My theory has some backing, as in the park’s Military Museum, they proudly display the wreckage of a US stealth bomber shot down in the recent conflict. At the top, we sit on a hill, overlooking the rivers, lounging in what will soon be oppressive heat, listening to the dulcet tones of two loud drunk guys speaking broken English about the crimes of Croatians against Serbians. The Russian guy weaves and stumbles his way over to us, asks for a cigarette, and tells us about his morning’s drinking exploits with his new Serbian friend. As he speaks, he stumbles, wobbles, stumbles, trips, and almost lurches over the edge of the cliff, but instead crumbles to the ground and makes several shuttering, sputtering, splattering attempts to rise, like a giraffe straight out of the birth canal. The Serbian lumbers over to us and starts to tell us the history of the city, the battles of the citadel, the glory of the Serbs, their bravery in battle, their fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds—except when they were retreating “pussies.” Lest you think this was just some drunken babbling, the Serb fellow, as he was about to part with us, told us with as steady an eye as he was able, that when we went back home, we had to spread the word that the Serbians were a good and brave people. They then invited us to join them for a quick 9am round, but we politely declined. We shook hands, and our friends stumbled away, as we also soon did. As we left the park, passing by a trail of blood that led from a broken glass-fronted sign into the bushes, we heard their voices lifted in song.

We walked back down the hill, looking for a bookstore in order to find a Serbian nonsense writer whom Anca Dumitrescu had mentioned. I admit, in my state of fatigue, not having slept the night before, and in the oppressive heat, I was not in a hopeful mood, and I thought our search would not prove fruitful, but the Nonsense Force was strong with Kevin that morning, and he zeroed in on the book by Vladimir Andrich, a volume of poems all written in Serbian, but with whimsical illustrations in the style of Calef Brown. This must be the one. Four hours in Belgrade and we scored a volume of what is most likely Serbian literary nonsense.

Nonsense in hand, we arrived back at the train station, where we began the adventure of finding a compartment. Like being stuck in the shell game, but never finding the nut; or being the nut and never being found in the shell. Or like being the spaces over which shells hover, but never the nutless space under the shell; or like the hovering nut in a spaceless shell…we sought a space. And a nut. The first compartment we entered was first class, so, dragging thousand-pound bags (okay, just mine), we went down to the last car, but this didn’t look like a car in a class to which we are accustomed, so into the next, which was packed with people and bags and smoke. We found a spot and sat for a moment, soaked with sweat by this point in the incredible heat of the morning compounded by people packed into the closed and unventilated spaces of the train. I then looked at our tickets. Our first class tickets. So I went out, asked the trainman and he pointed to the first car that we had initially been in. We schlepped our gear down and up to the first car, where we found a space with some younger traveling-type folk, who helped this old man (meaning myself) with his bag (for my bag contains three drowsing dragons and the complete bound set of Dumas). After a brief discussion, and more sweatful brotherhoodly bonding, we realized that, somehow, even though we were indeed in the car pointed out by the offical, we were still in second class, and that the little numbers on the outside of the compartments were both compartment number, but also little class numbers. So… again, huck down the bags, drag down the hall, to the one compartment that had been locked earlier but now had happy first classers, happily sweating away. We slid ourselves in, but soon the railway fellows came and promptly booted us out—it was the staff compartment, of course, and even though it was the “1” compartment, it lacked the tiny “1” sticker for class designation. Likewise, even though it was in the half of the train car that had all the first class compartments (all three of them, that is), it was not first class. Nonsense trainery? And so… the bag avalanche again and we shift to the next compartment over, which is now full… Everyone was thoroughly sweat-soaked and grumpy, so Kevin and I stood in the passageway, hanging out the window as the train moved out… Back in the sweltering compartment, two men sat next to the window, getting steadily stickier in chocolate cakes, chatting, reading the paper. One of them seemed somewhat perturbed that the wind ruffled his newspaper, so he closed the window halfway, the one meager means of relief in the still-oppressive heat. Dagger-looks shoot around the room, but he happily read away. Apparently, however, the train gods were then satisfied with our train-imposed flagellation, and the family in the next compartment down departed. For some reason, the door was locked, but Kevin bravely asked the fellows if we could move, and they come to unlock it… One last time into the compartment, dear friends, one last time… and so we moved yet again, to this our own compartment, our fifth compartment, where we stretched ourselves out to dry.

The last bit that I should mention, if you will bear with me just a little longer in this very long day (for it was indeed a Very Long Day), was Kevin’s attempt at artful documentary footage. As we moved into the lush mountains near Ljubljana, Kevin was overwhelmed with beauty and seemed to want to film the wisps of dragon-breath that puffed out of the hillside trees. I gave him my iPhone with the camera ready, and, at the precise moment of the most transcendent beauty, a moment that would make Grizzly Adams and Marlin Perkins shake hands firmly and weep a collective tear of joy, Kevin held, not the viewscreen, but the camera lens up to his eye. The film, in full Technicolor and Dolby Sound, thus shows a striking view of his eye. At the last moment, I informed him of his artistic license, and as he flipped the phone this way and that, you’ll be able to see a slight snippet of the actual hills. Click below for this footage—two thumbs up, no doubt.

PS. The photo at the head of this entry is of a fellow we met in the center of Belgrade.

Sofia, Bulgaria, Friday 17 July, Part 2

Kevin has most admirably described our nonsense encounter this fine day. With hearts and parts full of nonsense we tootled off to retrieve the lost glasses, back to the pub with the infamous Toilet Contraption, about which you, our dear audience, have had little to say. We walked to the back patio, a few sheltered tables surrounded by shrubs, falling plaster, and broken bricks. As we sat, our favorite waitress of the gratis oblong meatball fame sailed in holding out Kevin’s glasses. This, not unlike quite a few other momentous incidents on our travels, was an occasion worthy of raising a glass, and so, surrounded by stray kittens and cozy ruin, we drank goodbye to Sofia.

We walked back to the hotel and then the train station, where we hung about, getting meat from the train station meat vendor, an institution Kevin had scorned when we arrived. What “railway meat” is, I won’t say, but even Kevin will now admit it to be railly good.

Sofia, Bulgaria, Friday, July 17

Friday, July 17, 2009
Sofia Bulgaria.

Greetings. Kevin here.

Today we had our second meeting with a scholar. We met Lilia Ratcheva, a native Bulgarian who is a professor at the Institut für Jugendliteratur in Vienna. Lilia came prepared with an armload of possible texts for us to chose from. She had material from folk traditions as well as examples from modern Bulgarian authors. Much to our pleasure Lilia defines “nonsense literature” in a fairly strict manner, and thus her selections were all pretty fascinating and on target. Among the folk material that she presented us with were several nonsensical count out rhymes, similar in style to the “eenie meenie miney moe” variety known in English. With permission we asked her if we could record her reciting a few pieces in Bulgarian. The mic could have been a little closer, but if you’d like to hear a few Bulgarian count-out rhymes, just listen by clicking below. You will perhaps also hear the Bulgarian music that was playing in the background of the café we were in:

Lilia reading: Click here and then click on "download."

Among the modern literary nonsense Lilia presented us with were some of the works of the Bulgarian children’s poet, Janalu Petrov, whose poems were originally published in the 1920s and 1930s. As she showed us the material Michael and I realized that we were seeing something entirely new to us. Petrov occasionaly wrote nonsense in prose paragraphs, but the sentences within the paragraphs were rhymed couplets. We’ve simply never seen this before.

In the afternoon we slogged our way beneath the searing sun to the bookstores and library located at Sofia University. While we came up empty at the bookstores, we did make one curious ‘discovery’ in the library. We came unannounced, and thus we did not simply barge in and demand they bring forth their nonsense. Instead we stealthily asked the research librarian if they had any books on Bulgarian folklore printed in English. This question led this person to ask another, and that person asked another, until we were finally shuffled off to an office where three librarians discussed our request together in Bulgarian, then brought us back to the main reading room, where several more people helped us. They were all most gracious and tried very hard to find what we were looking for. In the end it became clear that Bulgaria—probably for historical and political reasons—does not have many books translated into English. But with no little effort on their part two books were eventually delivered to us. While we didn’t find nonsense, per se, we did locate a discussion of a most curious oral tradition. It seems that in various villages in Bulgaria there is a tradition referred to in the book we were reading as “Unorganized Polyphonic Lamentations.” Unorganized polyphonic lamentations are made by a group of people who all sing the same song, but not in the same key, and not “together” in any way. The quote in the book suggests that while the ‘singers’ are performing the same song they disregard the idea of performing pitch, harmony or melody together in an organized manner. The result would be a kind of collective babble. As the word “lamentations” suggests, this babble is engaged upon in sad situations, most often when someone has died, but Bulgarian soldiers also perform unorganized polyphonic lamentations when they are marching off to war.

While “unorganized polyphonic lamentations” are not literary nonsense, they share a relationships to certain traditions in English and French custom that also involve babbling, and nonsense verses. The English custom, popular in the middle ages and in the Early Modern period, is sometimes referred to as “rough music” (or in French, “charivari”). In these traditions a large group of people (perhaps better described as a mob) would get together and drive someone “evil” out of the village. Usually this evil-doer was a wife-beater, or had committed some other such crime. When this bad person was identified the villagers would gather and march through town babbling, reciting nonsense verses, and clanging pots and pans. They would march up to the house of the accused and keep babbling and singing nonsense and clanging pots and pans until this person gave up and left the village. Apparently it was pretty effective. Would you stay?

The use of nonsense here is interesting. In the English and French customs it seems like nonsense (or babbling) is thought to be imbued with a kind of magical power that can help expel evil, while in the Bulgarian variant the babbling seems similarly intended to purge bad feelings or at least to get the problem out in the open, where it can be dealt with publicly.

In the evening, as the library closed, we entered back into the searing heat of Sofia and made our way toward my lost reading glasses, and then the train station.

One of the last photos I took in Sofia was of this mystical, dark figure who resides high on a soaring pedestal over one of the main squares. I do not know who she is, or what she represents, but it was difficult not to regard this eerie statue with some reverence. The only association I could make with her was of an evil queen from a Disney film.

No doubt, this eminent personality was perched scanning the city of Sofia long before Disney animators brought such caricatures to life via animation.

Next stop: Belgrade Serbia via overnight train.

Kevin Out

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Blarg! Safe in Slovakia!

We've arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia. All is well. Hotel groovy. Internet Not working. Trying to fix... Kevin's glasses broke in two while eating horseburger. Send money. Back to you soon...

slip and slop

Monday, July 20, 2009

Greeting from Slovenia

This is Michael and Kevin writing together in the Zmaug pub in Ljubljana. All is well with us and we have discovered much nonsense in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Slovenia. Nonsense has been flying at us from all directions, and we've not had time to blog. we'll catch up soon... Hang on to your oblong meatballs and look forward to Slovenian National Information About Beehive Nonsense.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Greetings from Sofia Bulgaria. Kevin here.

Yes. It’s true. I left my passport in the bathroom of the train, along with my wallet--for an hour. Whatever. And yes, I’m glad I’m not being held in a cell on the Romanian/Bulgarian border. What Michael didn’t tell you was that I also left my glasses in the pub where we ate dinner tonight.

In the wee hours early this morning, as our train purposely climbed over the Balkans, and the clickity-clack of the tracks dragged on an on, our train car was occasionally ravaged by violent thrashing, crashing and screeching noises. Without evidence that would suggest any other reasonable alternative, and considering the folklore of the area, we naturally assumed that a dragon was assaulting our heroic little train.

Although sleep during dragon-assaults comes only at fits and starts, the creature left off as sunrise approached, and I did sleep a little. I was awakened shortly thereafter by the porter who rapped on our door a couple of times. As I opened the door he leaned in and said in a very ominous Bulgarian accent “Sofia.” I nodded. He paused for effect, then added very dramatically, in a very low tone, “Prepare.” You might want to see a short film Michael made of sunrise from the slow-moving train, taken as we “prepared”:

Today I think I would have to admit I was quite tired, and pretty hot. I never thought I would travel to Bulgaria. Until this week the word “Bulgaria” elicited from me nothing other than romantic notions; I pictured Bulgaria in the Balkan Mountains, snow-capped and deeply forested--filled with villages where dark fairy tales were likely to come true. What we’ve encountered today, however, is the city of Sofia, a cosmopolitan, and one might say, a very civilized urban environment. Compared to Bucharest Sofia is quiet and doesn’t have some of the tough ragged edges that we had seen in Romania.

Although I was impressed with Sofia I would have to say that a few of the building we visited were somewhat glum. Orthodox churches, for example, are very beautiful from the outside with their polished gold domes and sprouting towers, but they are frankly eerie and morose on the inside--caked in hundreds of years of lamp oil and candle residue--dark and foreboding. (Much more lively was the excellent pub Michael found for us later in the day (where I left my glasses). I believe Michael already shared with you an image of the latrine.)

Like Bucharest, one of the most striking elements of Sofia are the traces of Soviet-era influence, in terms of aesthetic design of public spaces. In the days of communism, throughout Eastern Europe, buildings of epic proportions were constructed. The second largest building in the world, in fact, was built by Ceausescu in Bucharest. These buildings and edifices are cavernous, and often “modern” in their post-art deco design. Now, some of these mythic spaces, built to inspire, are left mostly empty and without much function. One such space is the murky and bizarre Palace of Culture in Sofia. It is huge, imposing, and looks like a giant truncated rocket ship. But when you go into this building there is almost no one there, and most of the doors are locked and the empty halls run on and on forever in loopy weirdness, like the architecture from a Dr. Seuss book. Occasionally you catch glimpses of lone security guards, wandering the long halls at a distance--with nothing to do. I won’t soon forget the empty posh restaurant that sits atop this edifice, nor will I forget the hundred set tables draped in red table-cloth, with not one person to sit at them, nor will I forget the long brooding expression of the maitre de, when he realized we had not come in for a meal, but only to snap a photo of the view from the terrace:

Tomorrow it is back to nonsense in earnest, with our second meeting, the scholar Lilia Ratcheva, a native Bulgarian who teaches at the Institute for Children’s Literature and Research in Literacy in Vienna. She will be our guide to Bulgarian (and possibly some Russian) nonsense literature.

Until another time then.