Reading Books In Flight

I was dismayed when I read the revised air travel baggage regulations soon after Christmas and realized that I could take a laptop on board but not a handbag containing my books. I love to read on flights, forsaking the movie, the chatting with my neighbour, or the drinking and eating, just to catch up on my reading. Flights give me overt permission to read, my favourite pastime. I am unable to work, socialize or sleep while flying – so I read.

But now, some incompetent wannabe terrorist, who could not even ignite the bomb he stored inside his pants, has started an unanticipated vendetta against bookworms. For a moment I thought that this was a conspiracy by the e•book publishers who were secretly trying to get us conditioned to reading books off our laptops. Or perhaps it was a plan by those airport bookstores (who were quickly exempted from the book ban within days of the failed Christmas Day bomb scare) wanting to peddle all the New York Times bestsellers to us (that’s all they seem to carry these days, except for perhaps magazines, newspapers and chewing gum).

Then I realized that this dumb•ass terrorist had succeeded after all, by scaring the pants off the rest of us while burning his own. Books, not bombs, lead to enlightenment and peace. Greg Mortenson, the man behind the “The Three Cups of Tea” project, promotes this theory through his singular mission to build schools for children in Pakistan and Afghanistan so that those countries’ future citizens will learn to extend the olive branch and not the Kalashnikov. Bombs only lead to more bombs, lobbed in both directions, until the warring factions are exhausted, their assets destroyed, and fear and suspicion has taken firm root, never to be dislodged for generations.

Therefore, I wondered whether I should write to all the airport security organizations around the world asking them to scrap their plans to buy those intrusive super X ray machines that they are planning to install in airports shortly. Let them give those machines to hospitals and medical clinics instead, so that they can be used to detect hidden tumours and other cancerous foreign bodies growing inside us, and help get us timely remediation. Instead, pass a law that requires every passenger in an aircraft seat to be reading a book while in flight! In fact, add “book tax” to the many taxes on airline tickets these days and give each passenger his pre•ordered book at the departure gate – after all, if advance seat selection is possible, why not advance book selection? It could be all part of your “booking.” Just think of it – the publishing industry would enter a new renaissance. Airplanes would become the universities of the future, forcibly educating the teeming masses hurtling through the skies.

And as for those terrorists – I’d like to see one of those guys, with his face glued to a book in a cramped aircraft seat, try to stuff a bomb up his ass and light the fuse!

Prague – a city of churches, palaces, memories and renewal

A picturesque city teeming with cafes, bars, bookstores, churches, palaces, red haired women and hordes of strolling tourists; a city framed by two majestic citadels – Prague Castle and Vysehrad – between which snakes the Vltava River dividing the Lesser Town (now filled with embassies and lesser nobility) and the old town Stare Mesto, with its shadow, the Jewish quarter Josefov.

A city•state withstanding multiple colonial handovers between various dynasties over the centuries that left its mother country, the Czech Republic, dazed and dissected. Prague has managed to emerge intact as a city with a distinct character and stands as no less a gem compared to its bigger European cousins Paris, Barcelona and Rome.

I was interested in the Jewish quarter, from where 110,000 Jews were displaced, approximately 70,000 dying in ghettos and concentration camps, and a remnant 10,000 returning to Prague at the end of WWII. At first, we had trouble finding the Jewish Quarter; the street signs weren’t very helpful. My wife urged me to walk to the edge of the old town – that is where Jews were normally housed, she educated me. Sure enough, after getting lost a couple of times, we came to a spot where the streets were exceedingly narrow, and the synagogues, within close proximity to each other, began to appear. They were well restored and a museum was housed within the Spanish Synagogue. It was almost a given that every notable artist or intellectual, whose photograph was memorialized within the glass cases, had a life termination date between 1941 and 1945. And yet, ironically, Franz Kafka was the most famous personality in the city, having died unpublished, and before the Holocaust. The cemetery adjoining the museum was a clutter of gravestones hemmed in by high•rise houses and commercial buildings; some of the gravestones went back five hundred years. Visitors placed pebbles or pieces of paper, signifying pledges or requests, on select stones – it was refreshing to note that dreams could be kept alive today, unlike for those poor folk and their mementos residing inside the glass cases in the museum.

The history of the Christian cathedrals and the local saints were no less bloody: St John of Nepomuk, tortured by Wenceslas IV for siding with his mother; St. Wenceslas I (patron saint of Prague, it appeared), murdered by his brother in the cathedral; St. Ludmila, murdered by her nephew the king. St. Vitus’ Cathedral itself (a must•visit for any first timer) is dedicated to a young saint who was boiled in hot oil, fed to the lions and stretched on the rack before they could kill him. Of course, the humorous bit was the story of Dalibork who learned to play the violin while in prison, and to whom is attributed the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”; he kept his captors at bay for almost two years. The poor guy finally copped it when his jailors tired of his fiddling.

I liked the beer, cheese, weather (10•18 degrees Celsius and sunny every day), Moravian wines, coffee, the all•English bookstore we happened upon, the choice of restaurants and the general leisured pace of the city. I was not too enamoured with the native high calorie diet – meat and potatoes. Therefore, the Lebanese restaurant we fell over one day was a welcome find; I literally overdosed on the baba ghanoush, falafel, tabbouleh and hummus. That restaurant even had one menu item of bread and spam – for those nostalgic for a Communist•era dining experience!