A Tale of 4 Cities

Helga’s Post #46

This will be a short post, if I manage to post it at all. At the moment I am on the Baltic Sea en route to Riga, Latvia. Wi-Fi is in short supply and if available so slow it’s like watching paint dry on the wall.

No matter. I am having a terrific time.

Much of this post is sort of a travelogue, because my writing at the moment is taking a back seat to exploring northern Europe – and Russia in four days. But there is still a strong connection to writing, as I will try to demonstrate.

The first ‘tale of four cities’ is about Vienna, the city of my roots. We spent nine days there during a record heat wave that tipped the barometer at 40 degrees Celsius – for our entire stay.

Surprisingly, I actually had a fantastic time in Vienna. Aside from family stuff, we managed to escape to places where we could enjoy historical and cultural sights without the danger of fainting from the heat – thanks to the odd air-conditioned place. The beauty of the historic buildings dating from the monarchy simply takes one’s breath away. What’s even more interesting is that epoch’s juxtaposition that gave rise to the monarchy’s critics (expressed in the Secession and it’s many artists like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt among others). And then there is the magnificent architecture of ‘Jugendstil’, and the 169 or so museums.

Our outings included an operetta performance at an open-air theatre near the Hungarian border, a mere 90 minute bus ride from Vienna. As serendipity would have it, this was the exact location of my first novel, ‘Closing Time’, where my protagonist Stefan Bartok helps defecting Russian nuclear scientist Dr. Tibor Molnar escape to the West during the Cold War. It was as if time had stood still: the same squat houses with thatched roofs, some with stork nests, just the way they were at the time of my novel in 1958. That trip renewed my commitment to do a serious edit of ‘Closing Time’. I had put the manuscript on the back burner when a bunch of rejection letters from agents made me lose interest and confidence. I will do my best to prove them wrong.

City # 2: Amsterdam. Totally different in every aspect. It’s a city interwoven and connected through countless canals. Transportation is largely on boats or bicycles. Of particular note is the liberal attitude towards recreational drugs and the sex trade. The smell of marijuana wafts through most of the city, indoors and outdoors. Seed shops compete with sex toy shops on every corner of the vast Red Light District. Sex trade workers liberally display their wares behind shop windows, even when we walked by in the early afternoon. There is even a monument honoring prostitutes. Not surprisingly, Amsterdam too is the setting of countless novels, from thrillers to mysteries and more.

On to City # 3, Oslo, Norway. Land of the Vikings, dating back to the 8th Century. Today, Oslo is Europe’s most expensive city. No breaks for tourists, as I learned after visiting the famous Vigeland Sculpture Park, spanning 80 beautifully landscaped acres with over 200 sculptures of intertwined human figures. Awesome doesn’t even begin to describe it. So after hours of wandering and shooting pictures, a visit to the washroom was inevitable. Problem was, an attendant guarded it’s entrance like Cerberus and demanded payment in Norwegian Krone. I had none. I started negotiating, then reasoning, then pleading. The jerk wouldn’t budge. (I am planning a scathing letter to the Norwegian government and the King, as well as a review on tripadvisor.com). Things got more urgent. Suddenly someone behind me held out a hand of coins to the Oslo toilet jerk to pay my admission. I offered to repay him in Euros, but he simply said, “it is my honor to help.”

Wow! My hero for the day. An act of kindness I won’t forget. (I hope he reads this blog)

City # 4: Copenhagen. Another magnificent city with lots of waterways, canals, castles and museums galore. Best of all, the longest pedestrian shopping street in the world! And bicycles everywhere. Millions! They have right of way, and not only to cars, but pedestrians! I nearly got run over by one speedy cyclist who yelled at me in a tone that made me assume it wasn’t a compliment. Luckily, I don’t speak Danish.

And the journey continues. Interestingly, I don’t really feel like a tourist. I look and observe like a voyeur on the prowl. I constantly keep my eyes and mind open to collect material for my writing. And there is so much to gather. Whether it’s setting, or sounds and smell, or food, or people. Especially people. You have no idea.

I hope I can find a hot spot tomorrow to publish this. My next post will be from Russia. With love – if all goes well.

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