Shape my summer

So as this is a worldly group out there in Whatsitland, I want to pick your brains. I’ll be spending June traveling, mostly to places I have been before, and I want to see them through new eyes. YOUR eyes. We’re starting with a few days in London, and at some point over the course of the month will be going back to Mainz where I lived for a year; renting an apartment in Berlin for a week or so and pretending I live there instead; making our way from there to Budapest; and stopping in between in Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Dresden, maybe Krakow, and whatever else you may recommend.

Tell me, readers, what are your greatest hits in these places or even these general areas, your must-not-misses? Hole-in-the-wall dive bars, excellent local food, museums you wouldn’t think would be as great as they are? Towns, even, that I might not otherwise get off the train for?

Alternately, what should I read while I’m there? I’ve been grading nonstop for so long that I haven’t read for pleasure in a while. Because I was so inspired by how many of you smarties read Infinite Jest, I brought it with me on my recent flight to Bogota, thinking that in two 12-hour flights, I should be able to get through it. Of course, I’m only on about page 300, because I forgot about David Foster Wallace’s footnote fetish and I underestimated how much longer it takes to read one of his long meandering perfectly crafted convoluted brilliant sentences than someone else’s. Oh, and also, I think tennis is kind of boring. But after I finish that, assuming it’s not already time for school to start again after (or if) I make it through those 800 more pages, what should I read?

Or if you don’t like that question, what should I load onto my iPod for the plane ride? Having had every TV on the Radio and Dandy Warhols and M.I.A. selection taking up half the space on there for several years now, I think it’s time for a change. Can I top them? Is it possible?

Readers, I’m in your hands. You have good taste and interesting ideas. Shape my summer!

14 responses to “Shape my summer”

  1. Andrew says:

    There’s a great basement jazz bar in Prague called Zoo Bar. But that was ten years ago, so who knows if it’s still there. Otherwise I did a lot of touristy stuff while I was there. It’s all great. What an awesome city. And while you’re in Berlin, I recommend running across where the wall used to be, from East to West, yelling “I’m defecting!!!” It’s positively liberating. And it baffles the locals.

    I have not dug into my Infinite Jest book/paperweight, but was thinking of doing so. Let me know how it goes!

    And the new LCD Soundsystem album is great. Excellent travel music (I’ve been listening on the subway).

  2. Rachel says:

    Haven’t spent any time in eastern Europe. Am so jealous! You will have a ball.

    In packing up my apartment & preparing to move, I discovered a signed first edition of Infinite Jest. It took me the better part of a summer to get through, I recall (vaguely, since I was experimenting with being continually stoned at the time). Quite an experience. Will never part with it (the book, that is).

    Please, please read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. If I’ve already bugged you about this, disregard the evangelizing. It’s that good.

    Caribou is having a serious Arthur Russell moment; I am really enjoying his latest, titled Swim. In keeping with the insufferable animal-related band names, Foals and Bear in Heaven are good. Also, not sure if you listen to the New Pornos, but their new one, Together, is excellent. Lali Puna have that German vibe going on. Finally, have you heard the Dum Dum Girls, Steph? Seems like you would really like them.

    Safe travels!

  3. Dave says:

    iPod fodder: Janelle Monae. (After you watch this, look up her appearance on Letterman.)

    In Vienna, get standing-room tickets to the opera if you can. The house that Wittgenstein designed for his sister is kinda cool if you like high modernist architecture and crazy philosophers.

    Sounds like a great month.

  4. jeremy says:

    You must go to the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest, which might be the single-most-beautiful building I’ve ever been in. Plus, tix will be about $2. Also, I loved the Rudas Baths, which I think are the oldest baths in the city, built in, like, the 16th century or something–by the Turks (since it looks like you’re not gonna make it to Turkey).

    I would recommend the new Morning Benders album, but it might be too Grizzly Bear-ish for you.

  5. swells says:

    You guys are the greatest!! Such good suggestions, in every category, and it’s still morning! Thank you so much. Rachel, I am loving that Caribou too (loving!!) which makes me all the more excited to play all your other suggestions that I have NOT heard (especially Dum Dum Girls–don’t know them and can’t wait!) I did read Cloud Atlas thanks to Tim Wager, who gave it to me for my b-day last year or the year before. I tried to start it and stalled, couldn’t get into it, then picked it up again this past winter in Vermont and dove right deep. Loved it too!

    Andrew & Dave, thanks for these excellent tips too! I have been lukewarm about returning to Vienna but you are making it more appealing (Prague, of course, needs no selling). LCD, Janelle, I’m on your track (have only streamed the LCD once and got frustrated I couldn’t download it–but now it’s there and I’m ready!)

  6. Tim says:

    In the “do” category: in Budapest there is (or was, 12 years ago) the most amazing pastry/coffee shop near (I’m almost positive, looking at a map now) Ferenciek tere Metro stop. Go towards the river on Szabad sajto ut, and it’ll be on the right-hand side. For Hungarians, it’s super-expensive, but in dollars it’s near nothing. Wowee, I’ll never forget the breakfast delights to be had there. The coffee is amazing, served with a dollop of the most delicious whipped cream.

    In the “don’t” category: I’d suggest skipping Bratislava. I found it (again, 12 years ago) incredibly depressing and hostile. Things may have changed drastically, but if you go there I’d advise to commit to only one night in a hotel (definitely go to a hotel; don’t stay with anyone who comes up to you at the train station and offers a place, like you can do nearly anywhere else in Eastern Europe). You might just want to get the hell out after 18 hours.

    More later! Gotta run!

  7. This sounds like a great time. The only places of those I have been to at all are Berlin and Mainz, and both more than twenty years ago so I’m pretty short on recommendations for where to go. I like recommending books though… if you were going to be in southen Europe at all I would be recommending Saramago and Bolaño to you. He does not seem as right for England/Germany/Eastern Europe though. Don’t know that I have any good locale-specific titles for you. I think “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk should be required reading for everybody, and that is what I recommended to a friend recently on a trip to St. Petersburg; he took me up on it and liked the book a lot. If you like that you will probably also like his earlier book “The Black Book” — great but I recommend reading “Snow” first. Also I was just recently thinking about “The Dictionary of the Khazars”, which not a lot of people seem to have read but is totally worth while.

  8. Oh also, Dickens! Bleak House and David Copperfield in particular would make great London reading.

  9. Tim says:

    Okay, so if you’re kicking around for smaller towns and stuff, maybe try going to Cesky Krumlov, which is a fairly short train ride from Prague. It’s a cool little castle town, and the Egon Schiele Centrum is there. I love me some dark and creepy early 20th c. painting.

    Have you been to Krakow? If not, it’s a beautiful little city. There’s great architecture there. It’s the one major-ish city that the Nazis didn’t bomb the living shit out of (or rather, “out of which the Nazis didn’t bomb the living shit”). The cathedral is great, if you’re into that kind of thing, and the central square is cool.

    The thing about going to Krakow, though, is you’ll feel like you sorta have to go to Auschwitz, which is a short day trip away. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for everyone, even though I have no regrets about visiting when I went. It’s just that, well, um, it’s kind of a bummer, you know? Sometimes you might not want to have a bummer on your vacation. Sometimes you might not even want to have to make that kind of decision when you’re only about 20 miles away, and you’re thinking, “Well, when am I ever going to come back here?” So if you don’t want to have to make that kind of decision, Krakow can safely be skipped. Still, you probably will not regret going, but be aware of the gravitational field you’ll be entering.

    Don’t even think about going to Warsaw, though. Wow.

    I think you know Berlin fairly well, but since you were there last I think there are a couple new-ish museums and/or rearrangements of museum collections. Consider the Brohan Museum (yo, brah, it’s Deco), the Museum Berggruen (Picassos and stuff), and the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg (Surrealism – nice cafe, too!) in Charlottenburg. It’s not the hip end of town, but these three museums are clustered together and are entirely do-able in one day (okay, it’s a lot of art, but the first two are small-ish and easily done). It’s a pretty neighborhood, and the schloss is just across the way, if you want to walk around the gardens afterwards to clear your head.

    Okay, gotta go again! Very excited for you!

  10. Stella says:

    When are you in Berlin? I’ll be there August 3rd!

  11. LP says:

    If you want to see something truly wacky, go to Kutna Hora, just outside Prague. There’s an ossuary there – a church decorated entirely with bones, mostly from victims of the plague. it’s not really creepy, just weird and unlike anything you’re ever likely to see elsewhere.

    I remember really liking Salzburg as a kid, especially the tour of the salt mines. Don’t remember much about Vienna except that it was pretty.

    As for books, anything by Milan Kundera is a good bet for Eastern European travel – have you read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting? Or The Joke? Both great reads, and topical for where you’ll be.

  12. swells says:

    Oh. you all are SO GOOD. Trust you all to have already been everywhere and have such great tips! Bone church! Hungarian pastries! Tim, I was especially interested in your Berlin input since you were just there. I have been to Krakow and am a huge fan. And as you say, if you’re in Krakow . . . well, yes, I’ve been to Auschwitz too. You kind of can’t not. Of that I am not a huge fan, but certainly glad I went.

    Stella, we’ll be there the second week of June, so sadly will not overlap. Where can I leave you a hidden message stuck in the crack of some building somewhere? I’ll find someplace!

    I just got back from buying travel books (forgot that those will of course supersede novels for a while). But you are all so excellent. This is WAY more than I had hoped for! Can you please all come too?? Our apartment will hold you all!

  13. Rachel says:

    Ever since reading an article in Saveur about Vienna’s coffeehouse culture, I have dreamed of visiting Demel. Have some cake for me!

  14. J-Man says:

    Don’t forget the Bauhaus museum(s), which, when we were there last year, had been consolidated into one huge building. It was unbelievable and mindblowing, but waaaay too much for an afternoon. Plan to spend your entire day there, but make sure to schedule breaks where you stare at absolutely nothing, or your brain may explode.

    Also, we have a very good friend there (who you might have met at our wedding?), so if you’d like to hang out in a really cool apt. in Charlottenburg, or go to eat some amazing vietnamese food, we’ll pass along her info.