Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Small World

There is practically no border between Austria and Slovakia.  Both countries belong to the European Union. There is a building with guardhouses, etc., at the border crossing.   But our bus just drove through it without stopping.    

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is right at the border.  Starting from Vienna in Austria in the morning, we drove to Bratislava in one hour.  We stopped there for lunch and a walk about.  Then drove, for two and a half hours, to Budapest in Hungary for dinner.  In one day, we visited three countries.  Without having to show our travel documents even once. 

In fact, we went from Poland to Germany to Czech to Austria to Slovakia to Hungary.  We had to show our passports only once, to the German police, on the train from Warsaw to Berlin. 

It is an impressive feat.  Particularly considering that in the pass 100 years, these countries have been involved in both World Wars, and the Cold War.  Mostly on opposite sides.   When people are determined, they are capable of living together peacefully.   But hatred and cruelty and evil are not far from the surface.  Just witness what happened at the former Yugoslavia, the Caucasus, and elsewhere. 

Monday, August 30, 2010

Viennese Puppeteer

Watching this young man’s puppet performances was the highlight of my stay in Vienna.  He has an opera singer, a pianist, a saxophone player, and a guitarist.  All with wonderfully matching music.  I made a number of videos of his performances but the files are much too big to upload here. 

The young man is actually a college student from Macedonia.  His father made the puppets and his uncle used to perform with the puppets.  His uncle is getting old, so he is taking his uncle’s place.   In the good summer months, he can earn a fair amount of euros.  When the summer is over, he returns to his engineering studies in Macedonia.  In Vienna, he can earn several times his expected salary in Macedonia.  But he prefers to stay at home. 

Macedonia is, of course, also the home of Alexander the Great, who conquered much of the world (known to Europeans then) from Macedonia.  I would love to visit there.  But there is probably very little trace of him left over there. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Freeze Mimes

Collected from the streets of a number of cities in Europe this and last summer.  They seem to be very popular lately. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bloody Manila

The biggest news in Hong Kong these past 3 days is definitely the hostage crisis in Manila.   It happened far away, yet played out for hours directly in front of us in real time on TV.  It was disturbingly bloody, yet irresistibly captivating.  It was so obviously inept, yet undeniably real.  It unified us HongKongers - a seemingly impossible feat.

Some of us are disturbed by the scenes on TV.  Some are so angry they want to fire their Filipino maids.  Some want to find and punish those who are responsible.  Some are indignant towards those who seem callous towards the victims.  Some want to find ways to prevent such tragedies from repeating.  Some are afraid to go on tour anywhere, not only the Philippines.  Some fear for their own mortality.  Some applaud the heroic.  All lament the mistakes that have been made.

Above all, the top priority must be to help the families of the dead, the wounded and all those otherwise affected.  We pray that no more mistakes be made.  There is much that is not under our control.  But within our abilities, we should try to be kind to each other. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Prague images

Value of Life

My daughter A made an observation on the apparent value Eastern Europeans placed on life as compared to that in our own country.  

One Czechoslovakian student set himself on fire in protest of the crushing of Prague Spring, and his name, Jan Palach, was immortalized.   In Berlin, people set up crosses to remember those who die trying to cross over the Berlin Wall.  Including Chris Geoffrey, the last one to do so before the Wall was torn down.  

Yet, in China, no one knows, let alone remembers the vast number who died trying to escape from or to protest against tyranny and injustice.  I wonder whether the difference in the value placed on individual lives is due to the strong Christian faith in Eastern Europe.  

Here in China, it is so common for us to be urged to accept, ignore and forget the multitude that died, in the name of national security, stability, prosperity, or harmony.    It is bad enough that the perpetuators of the crimes urge us to forget the crimes.  But now many of those trying to stay in power or to curry favour with those in power are chiming in.  And even in Hong Kong, where we are supposed to enjoy a large degree of freedom.

Forget the past and look forward, they say.   And in so doing, we are condemning ourselves to keep on repeating the tragedies of the past.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Wenceslas Square and Prague Spring

Many historical events in Czech occurred at Wenceslas Square in Prague.  The square is more like a broad street than the usual square.  The first photo is looking south-east from the edge of the old town towards the National Museum.  The other is looking in the opposite direction from the steps of the National Museum. 

In 1968, the then Czechoslovakia leadership tried to introduce liberalizing reforms that bring in some degrees of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement.  It was referred to as the Prague Spring.  It was said to be socialism with a human face.

Unfortunately, the then Soviet Union did not approve.  In August 1968, armies of four Warsaw Pact countries, from the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary, invaded Czechoslovakia.  Thus ended the Prague Spring.  On 19 January, 1969, Jan Palach, a student, set himself on fire on Wenceslas Square to protest the invasion. 

The Prague Spring, even though unsuccessful at the time, helped to expose the true nature of Communism.  It has had a heavy influence in the subsequent developments against Communism in Europe and elsewhere.  China Spring.  Croatian Spring.  The song “They can’t stop the spring.”  Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Living.”   The 1989 Velvet Revolution.  The iconic use of the number “68” ...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall started to go up on 13th August 1961, to prevent people in East Berlin escaping into West Berlin.  For decades, it seem impenetrable.  And indestructible.  Over time, 100 - 200 people died trying to escape over the wall.  Then in 1989, after a series of escalating protests by ever increasing numbers of East Germans, the border was opened on 9th November.  A year later, Germany was unified.  It is a rare case of the human spirit overcoming brutal tyranny, largely peacefully.   It also helps to restore our hope in us human beings. 

Today most of the Berlin Wall has been dismantled.  With just a few sections remaining as a memorial.  One the left hand side is the former West Berlin; the right hand side, East Berlin.

Check Point C (Charlie) was the main crossing between East and West Berlin.  Can you tell which photo is looking towards the Charlie Checkpoint from West Berlin, and which is looking towards the East?  Today we walk freely from the west to the east, and then circle back.  Between 1961 and 1989, it would have been unimaginable.  Things can certainly change.  Sometimes it happens rather quickly.  But it can also take a long long time.

Numerous murals have been pointed on a section of the Berlin Wall called the East Side Gallery.  One of them depicts the East German leader Erich Honecker passionately kissing the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.   Another one remembers the Soviet dissident and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov.   Some of them are direct and easy to read.  Others are more subtle. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Pergamon Altar

I have long wanted to see the Pergamon Altar.  So when we went to Berlin this time, we went to the Pergamon Museum.  It is an altar dedicated to the Greek god Zeus, built in the second century BC at the acropolis on a mountain in the ancient city of Pergamon in Asia Minor - today’s Turkey.  In the 19th century AD Germans excavated the acropolis, and brought the fragments to Germany.  They subsequently rebuilt the altar in Berlin, and built a museum around it - the world renowned Pergamon Museum.  The high frieze at the base of the altar depict the battles between the Giants (with snake feet) and the Olympian gods.

A model in the museum shows what the original acropolis looks like - with the altar in the center of the photograph.

Some people believe that this altar is the “throne of Satan” mentioned in the Book of Revelations (chapter 2, verse 12).  I am not so sure. 

But it is certainly an impressive and historical work of art.  In fact, it has been said to be the high point of Hellenistic art, and often compared with the Acropolis in Athens.  And what history is behind it!  It was built by the Greeks and dedicated to their god.  The Romans soon took it over from the Greeks.  Later the Greek-speaking Byzantines inherited it from the Romans.  And the Muslims Turks of the Ottoman Empire took it from the Byzantines around the 15th century AD.  And now it sits in Berlin of the Germans.  Who does it belong to anyway?