John of Nepomuk- Patron Saint of…. Love Locks?

Jan_Nepomucky_na_Karlove_moste_detailUnless you’ve been to Prague, you’ve probably never heard of Saint John of Nepomuk (Jan Nepomucký in Czech), a Bohemian saint, who was drowned in the Vltava River in 1393 by order of the King of Bohemia. His offense you ask? According to legend, he defied the King on two occasions. Once by refusing to divulge the secret confessions of the Queen, (as a priest he was her confessor), and then again by refusing to make an ecclesiastical appointment favored by the King. Historians now believe that these were once two separate stories involving two different Johns, but once a story becomes legend, people aren’t too concerned about historical accuracy.

In any event, what remains well documented is that John of Nepomuk was tortured, bound in chains, and thrown over the famous Charles Bridge that crosses the Vltava River in the heart of  Old Town. If you have been to Prague, you will most certainly have walked this bridge and discovered a statue honoring St. John high above you. Erected in 1683, it is easy to spot his statue among the 29 others lining the bridge due to the throngs of tourists around it, and because of the trademark five star halo which he wears. It is said that five stars appeared and hovered over the water the night he was drowned.Czechowicz_St._John_Nepomuk

John of Nepomuk was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1729, and not surprisingly, he became the Patron Saint of confessors, bridges, and waterways. His feast day is May 16th, and during the Baroque era he was quite the celebrity. Pilgrims travelled to Prague from all across Europe for one of the biggest church celebrations of the year, honoring him with music and a fire show.

In subsequent years, his popularity waned, but it now enjoys a resurgence with a modern makeover. On May 15th, the eve of Saint John’s feast day, the city hosts a no holds barred extravaganza. A mass at St. Vitus’s Cathedral is followed by a procession down the Royal Route and then onto the Charles Bridge, stopping at his famous statue. The celebration continues out on the water with a boat regatta, parachutists, swimmers, and a concert performed on a barge. The final spectacle is of course, fireworks over the river illuminating the ancient city.IMG_0135

The event is now so popular with locals and tourists alike that their throngs make the bridge impassable. Perhaps you have experienced a similar phenomena somewhere in your own travels, or maybe even close to home? Destinations clogged with tourists, and public events that have grown in attendance to the point that they are no longer enjoyable. Like a beautiful river until it swells and floods its banks.IMG_0134

Certainly, the world’s population is growing, and the internet, along with modern conveniences, have made travel more accessible. But there also seem to be a lot of hungry people afoot in the world searching for experiences that “mean something.” Experiences that are rooted in history and are rich in tradition. 

Pondering all the hoopla surrounding this little known “martyr of the confessional” reminded me of another legend that has people flocking to bridges these days, eager to make a public confession of their own. In November of 2015, I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City when I noticed an odd assortment of padlocks, in every color, size, and shape hanging from the bridge’s cabling. IMG_2412I learned that these were “love locks,” put there by paramours to symbolize their unbreakable love and as a kind of talisman against the dissolution of their relationships. I later learned that the Brooklyn Bridge locks were part of a love lock epidemic spread across the globe.

According to Wikipedia, the love lock tradition dates back about 100 years to a Serbian love story. A young woman named Nada falls in love with, and becomes engaged to a young man named Relja. But Relja proves unfaithful when he goes off to war, falling in love with another woman. Upon hearing the news, Nada dies of a broken heart. As a protection against a similar fate, young women of the town began writing down their names and those of their lovers’ on padlocks, and then attaching the locks to the bridge where Nada and Relja used to meet. 

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The Original Bridge of Love By AcaSrbin, Panoramio, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

As a final safe guard, they tossed the key into the river where it could not be retrieved.

What began as a quaint and romantic custom, has now become a public nuisance in many major European cities. Just like coping with hordes of tourists, the proliferation of these locks are creating headaches for city leaders. The local citizenry complain that the locks are eyesores that destroy the architectural heritage and beauty of bridges.

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Pont des Arts Bridge covered in love locks By Berlinuno – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

 

Besides the aesthetics issue, there is a threat to the structural integrity of a bridge from the added weight. On May 9, 2014, the weight of padlocks on the Pont des Arts Bridge in Paris caused the collapse of part of the parapet. When officials took down all the locks on the bridge, they weighed in at 45 tons.

Some people blame the current craze on a 2006 Italian book turned popular movie called “I Want You” in which a couple put a love lock on a lamppost on Rome’s 2100 year old Ponte Milvio Bridge. Harmless enough when on person does it, but of course not so harmless when thousands do. The poor lamppost finally gave way from the weight of all this love, prompting officials to start imposing a fine of 50 Euros on anyone caught attaching a love lock to any part of the bridge. Indeed, in more and more cities, the locks are considered vandalism and are regularly removed with bolt cutters and hacksaws.

It will come as no surprise to you that love locks have made their way onto the Charles Bridge in Prague. A large majority of these have been attached to the fence like grille work on the parapet that marks the spot where John of Nepomuk was thrown into the water.

This seems a logical place considering love locks would most certainly fall under his jurisdiction as patron saint of both confessors and bridges. Considering the intersection of these two stories made me wonder what secret confessions he took to his watery grave and what he might think about all of these public confessions of love without repercussion. How times change.

Authorities Remove Love Padlocks From Charles Bridge

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC – 

Of course, city workers regularly come and remove the Charles Bridge love locks, and for all I know, they probably end up in a landfill.  I wonder what that might mean for the durability of the relationships these locks symbolized. Did someone somewhere in the world feel a twinge of misgiving when the bolt cutter callously snapped their lock’s bond?

Authorities Remove Love Padlocks From Charles Bridge

Perhaps it is time for a new tradition that might satisfy everyone: lovers, locals, city governments, and the environment. I propose that sweethearts take a lock of each others hair and intertwine them, offer up a prayer of safekeeping to St. John, and then let their locks float down into the water. Hair is weightless, biodegradable, and requires a sacrifice from both parties. Padlocks are here today, gone tomorrow, but John of Nepomuk has staying power. He is still going strong after 500 years. It might just work.laurent-gence-N46GvUbUhrI-unsplash

Remembering Jan Palach

jan_palach_foto_z_průkazu50 years ago today, on January 16, 1969, Jan Palach, a 20-year-old university student in Prague, set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square. His suicide by self-immolation was not only a protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous summer, but more immediately at the time, it was a cry to awaken the Czech people from their apathy, post invasion. (The Soviet invasion of 1/2 million troops in 1968 was to squelch the “Prague Spring,” a movement that had been growing to secure some freedoms of speech, travel and the media.) Palach believed that the people had become complacent with the occupation and no longer had the will to resist.

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Site in Wenceslas Square that is a memorial

Although Palac was hailed as a hero (some 200,000 people attended his funeral), and his death sparked further protests, the occupation was quite effective at silencing the people. But he was not forgotten, nor was his death in vain. 20 years later, on January 15, 1989, a new protest movement brought demonstrators to Wenceslas Square to commemorate Palach’s sacrifice to the cause of freedom. They came every day for a week, which later became known as “Palach Week.”

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Palach’s funeral march: photo courtesy of Praha T.V. archive

 

If you know your history, you will recall that by the end of that same year, in November 1989, all of the resistance energy that had been building across the country, culminated in a massive occupation of Wenceslas Square, this time by the Czech people themselves. Their Velvet Revolution brought down a Soviet controlled government and ushered in their first democratically elected post-war president.

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Photo courtesy of Prague Daily Monitor

I wish I had been there. I can only imagine the electric thrill of people realizing their freedom for the first time. Oh, if only Jan Palach could have been there to see it!  His sacrifice to sting the conscience of his people, reminded me that our freedoms are not a guarantee. We must be vigilant to protect them. They can be taken away, and they can disappear in the most insidious way possible, chipped away at little by little while we are “asleep.” Usurping of our freedoms cannot be checked or changed if we are apathetic.

Honestly, I cannot begin to imagine doing what Jan Palach did for the sake of my beliefs but history has proven that his actions were instrumental to a greater good than his own. Today all across the Czech Republic he is being honored and remembered through exhibitions, programs and ceremonies and by a candlelight march at 6:00 p.m. from Wenceslas Square to Old Town Square. As Americans who say we value our freedom, we would be good to pause and remember him too.

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Palach’s memorial Wenceslas Square: photo courtesy Praha T.V.

New Beginnings- Taking Chances

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“For our country- we endure to the end”

OCTOBER 18, 1918- OCTOBER 28, 2018

Today marks the 100th birthday of Czechoslovakia. On October 28, 1918, after centuries of oppression under Austro-Hungarian rule, the Czech people realized their dream of freedom and self-governance.  Although other dictatorial rulers tried to squash their independence, (Nazis from 1939-1945 and the Soviets from 1945-1992), the Czech people and their spirit have risen above every obstacle. Centennial celebrations have been occurring throughout the year, culminating in this weekend’s events which include parades, fireworks, and an open air concert by the Czech Philharmonic. IMG_0091

This seems an appropriate moment to share with you, faithful readers, that I too am embarking on a new beginning. The Bohemian Freethinker is making preparations with the hope of moving to Prague, where I will teach English for a year. My anticipated departure is in the summer of 2019, to begin their school term in September.IMG_0089

It is not too common for someone 59 years old to uproot and move to a foreign country, and it will certainly not be a “walk in the park” to do so. But I am going to give it my best shot and I will be journaling my experiences along the route over the next year. My hope is that if there is anyone out there reading this who thinks it is too late to try to make a dream a reality- please, think again. It is never too late to become the person you were meant to be. 

p.s. Dear Readers, what new beginnings have you embarked upon lately? Please share in the comments!

 

Beware The Assassin

Beware the Assassination of Your Dreams!
“Beware the Ides of March” was good advice once, though it fell on the deaf ears of the unsuspecting Julius Caesar that fateful March day in 44 BC. Of course we all know, (either from history books or movies,) what those words were to portend; the assassination of Caesar by members of the Roman Senate. In Caesar’s defense however, the warning he received was from an unreliable source, and was rather vague in detail, and therefore, difficult to act upon.512px-Vincenzo_Camuccini_-_La_morte_di_Cesare

Consider first of all that there was nothing inherently sinister about the Ides of March. The ancient Romans followed a lunar calendar. Like the Nones and the Kalends, the Ides were simply markers in the month that corresponded to phases of the moon. The Ides marked the full moon which fell in the middle of the month, specifically the 15th during the months of March, May, July, and October. The Nones marked the 5th or 7th, and the Kalends the 1st of the following month.

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Photo by Gianni Zanato on Unsplash

Now consider what we know of the source. According to the Greek biographer, Plutarch, (who later became a Roman citizen,) these cryptic words of warning were spoken by a soothsayer whom Caesar passed on his way to the Forum on the Ides of March. The account is recorded in Plutarch’s “Life of Caesar” from his Parallel Lives anthology written sometime in the early 2nd century AD. It must be remembered that in ancient times, factual history was often altered and embellished to suit a writer’s purpose of moralizing, or creating a more engaging story.Brutus_Eid_Mar

Accurate or no, Parallel Lives influenced and informed the writing of numerous authors for centuries to come, perhaps most notably, the writings of William Shakespeare. It is his play, “Julius Caesar,” that immortalized the expression “Beware the Ides of March” and so put it on the lips of people everywhere ever since. It soon fell into the vernacular as a kind of nonspecific ominous warning about an equally nonspecific threat that people still speak today whether they know of its origin or not.

This got me thinking. Is Caesar’s warning good advice today? Might we benefit from the advantage of hindsight that Caesar did not have? Do we have cause to “Beware the Assassin?”

When I think about my own life as a writer and musician, I realize that I sometimes play the role of assassin to my creative ambition. I do this primarily by listening to various lies about my abilities and by comparing myself to others. Nothing kills motivation faster than pondering the mind-boggling number of talented writers and musicians who already exist, and then imagining that I have anything worthwhile to contribute to this cacophony of voices already over-taxing the ears of the world. I mean, honestly, what could I possibly add?

Luckily, before I stab my creativity to death, I usually remember the truth that this kind of thinking is a lie. As a unique individual I have something original to say that only I can say. My job is to be busy about doing the work knowing that with every word written, every note explored, I am strengthening and validating my voice. I am compelled to create regardless of any reward or notoriety for doing so.green-chameleon-21532-unsplash

While it is highly unlikely that anyone reading this will be a target of assassination, it is possible that you yourself are playing the role of assassin to your own dreams.  Listening to lies that you aren’t talented enough or that you are too old to follow your dreams will surely wield the mortal blow to that creative part of your soul. Instead, why not heed the warning that circulates on this day and unlike the hapless Caesar be on the lookout for anyone or anything that is conspiring to destroy what is uniquely you, and go another way.

 

 

When You Have More Skeletons Than You Know What To Do With

 

Dusan in the Sedlec Bone Church

I took these photos when I visited the Bone Church in 2007

It’s a dilemma. What do you do when you are the caretaker of the skeletal remains of between 40,000 and 70,000 people? Such was the legacy and dilemma left to a small chapel, now known as “The Bone Church” in the town of Kutna` Hora in the Czech Republic. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and The Bone Church, is certainly testimony to, (at least one man’s), inventive creativity.Sedlec Bone Church from 14th Century

 

Originally part of the Sedlec Abbey which was founded in 1142, the Bone Church sits atop the site of the Abbey’s old cemetery, a very popular spot in which to be buried in the day. Its popularity was due to the fact that the cemetery was rumored to possess an unusual Holy relic soil from Golgotha, the site of Jesus’s execution.Sedlec Bone Church

After many centuries, including the unprecedented ravages of The Black Death in the mid 14th century, the cemetery became filled to capacity and overflowing. When the present day Bone Church was built around 1400, thousands and thousands of skeletal remains were exhumed and stacked as there was no other place for them.Sedlec Bone Church

The task of bringing order to the “bone yard” fell to a wood-carver named Frantisek Rint, in 1870. Apparently, left unsupervised and to his own devices, Mr. Rint utilized his artistic talents and arranged the bones into the interior decorations and adornments that we see today. 

 

Dear Readers, please share any macabre places you have visited!

Sedlec Bone Church near Kutna Hora

This chandelier contains at least one of every bone found in a human skeleton!

 

 

Why Women March

By now we all know that history was made on January 21, 2017. What an awe-inspiring sight to see millions of women in this country and around the world, marching in unity. Epic in Proportion. Powerful.

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Wilmington’s Women’s March        Photos courtesy of Sandra C.

To my amazement, I read comments on-line and on social media from people who could not understand what the Women’s March on Washington was about. One guy on my Facebook page  pejoratively referred to it as “your so-called” march. When I read that I thought, “there, that is it exactly. That is why women march.” “So-called” is such a put down, such an attempt to belittle and invalidate. Women are sick and tired of having their accomplishments demeaned. Too often our voices, concerns, and issues are ignored or bullied into silence.

To not understand why women marched in solidarity on January 21st is to not understand why Alcoholics Anonymous exists, or other support groups like cancer survivors, veterans, or MADD. There is hope and healing when you discover that you are not alone. Now imagine how it feels when you discover that millions of people around the world feel the same way. The Women’s March on Washington, in all its forms and in all its places, was the tangible reality of that fact. It’s like never having seen the ocean but being told how expansive, powerful, and majestic it is. And then one day you see the ocean for yourself, you witness its grandeur with your own eyes.

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Wilmington March

To be sure, women marched with many agendas and for a wide range of issues that day. Each woman came with a personal life experience or story that motivated them. You cannot have a gathering of that magnitude and not expect that to be the case. After all, each woman is still an individual! The point is that in our current political environment, and around the world, groups of every kind, under the larger umbrella of women’s rights, are being marginalized, ignored, abused, and discriminated against. Thus the mantra, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” and “Human Rights are Women’s Rights.” 

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Great Question!

Finally, we acknowledge all of the men and boys; fathers, partners, brothers, sons and male friends, who marched alongside the women.

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Not just about women

Their presence affirmed that the march was in fact bigger than just about a bunch of bitchy women with an axe to grind. The multitude of voices who used the March for their platform were speaking for the (here-to-fore) silent majority of humanity, not the minority as detractors would like us to believe. It is imperative that we keep raising our voices and remembering that while there are those with money to buy political power, there is another form of political power, Power in Numbers.

Dear Readers, did any of you participate in a March on January 21st, or have a story about someone who did?

 

 

Steinbach Smoking Men From Germany

For me, the Christmas Season begins with the re-emergence of my Steinbach Smoking Men. Out comes “The Real Bavarian,” “The Mushroom Man,” “The Bunny Rancher,” and all the rest. Each adorable folk character is an incense burner. Some are also music boxes playing German folk tunes. img_0225Their bodies come apart in the middle where you place a cone of incense, light it, put them back together, and then watch the smoke spiral up out of their open mouths.img_0243

For thousands of years the burning of incense has been used in religious rituals. The rising smoke is symbolic of offerings and prayers rising up to Heaven. At Christmas time we are reminded of the “three wise men” or Magi, img_0242who brought precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from the Far East. Frankincense and myrrh are both aromatic resins used to make incense and perfumes. They were costly exotic commodities that flowed along trade routes for centuries out of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

But for as many years, incense has been an important part of pagan rituals. It was burned in sacrifices, and used to purify the home and drive out evil spirits, as well as to draw in good luck and good fortune. Long before Christmas, ancient Peoples celebrated the Winter Solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year. rlm4wq96h_0-chuttersnap

Because the Solstice marks the meteorological turning point of that trend, numerous rituals of fire and light became associated with what must have seemed a magical time of the year to ancient agrarian cultures. As most of us know, these pagan rituals eventually merged with many Christian Christmas traditions.candle-light

Christian and Germanic customs together with superstition made people believe that the evil spirits of the “Raunaechte” (longest nights of the year) could be driven away by noise and light. Once the devils and evil spirits had left the house fine incense was burnt to bless hearth and home. Written in chalk over the front door would be the letters C+M+B believed to be a magic spell that would keep evil away throughout the coming year. The letters stood for: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, traditionally the three names given to the Magi.

As medieval piety grew in Germany in the 1600’s, folk artists created new forms to burn incense that were religiously acceptable. In particular, toy makers in the Erzgebirge region, (the Ore Mountains), began to carve wooden folk characters that were also incense burners and thus the “smoking men” were born.

The Steinbach family has been making German folk art for 5 generations. They proudly manufacture these “smokers” in charming detail. Few stores in the U.S. import them but if you visit one of the many European Christmas markets this time of year, you will have many to choose from!

Dear readers, do you have an event or ritual that marks the beginning of the Christmas season for you? Would you care to share it with us?