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Twisted by Jessica Zafra – Pumping irony since 1994
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Archive for the ‘Traveling’

Two or three things I learned in Czechia

October 23, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Places, Traveling No Comments →

Travel is always an edifying experience. Two things I learned from my recent trip.

First, the poetry you pick up in school is never completely lost. It will pop into your head when you see its real life counterpart (even in a different country). This is The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats.


The Vltava River in Cesky Krumlov

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;


The Vltava River in Prague

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

Second, I learned what money is for. Sure, it’s to pay bills and buy cat food, but there’s more.

Money is so you don’t have to travel coach on long-haul flights when you’re over 40 (my demarcation line between youth and age, long past). Listen to me, kids: You need those wide seats that turn into beds. You need a constant supply of drinks. You need space. When you fly a total of 15 hours, you feel every minute in your bones.

There endeth the lesson.

Public art as a poke in the eye

October 16, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Art, Places, Traveling No Comments →

Our guide the hairless Serb suggested we go to the Zizkov TV tower because “they were taking down the babies”. I had no idea what he was talking about, but this is how he always spoke (Let’s just say he’s seen things you people wouldn’t believe). The babies turned out to be David Cerny sculptures climbing up the tower, and they were being taken down for renovation.

Later that week we saw Cerny’s sculpture of two men peeing into a basin shaped like the Czech Republic. Apparently the pee stream writes quotes from famous Czechs. If you text a certain number, they will render your message in pee.

Cerny also had an installation featuring giant torsos bent from the waist down. You climbed a ladder and stuck your head where the sun don’t shine to view a video of politicians eating slop to the tune of “We Are The Champions”.

The relatively uncontroversial piece above is of a cat burglar at the modern art museum in Olomouc, across from the cathedral where Mozart had played the pipe organ. Every so often the burglar yells out something rude.

If I lived in Prague, this would be my address.

October 12, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Design, Places, Traveling No Comments →

The Imperial Hotel is in a gorgeous Art Deco/Czech Cubist building in Praha 1. It was built on the site of a pub dating back to the 1700s. The hotel opened in 1914, and in recent years it was completely renovated according to its original plans.

This is an elevator.


Going home would be the high point of the day, even if you just went out to the pharmacy.

You would have breakfast every day at the Imperial Cafe.

Look at this staircase, Wes Anderson would plotz. Amazingly, no movies have been filmed at the Imperial, not for lack of interest, but because it is usually full.

And the hotel is pet-friendly, so the cats and I would be very comfortable. My dream house has always been a luxury hotel. Whatever state you leave your rooms in, when you return, everything is orderly and gleaming. There is no need to cook or wash dishes, because there is room service. When you get tired of the decor, you could move to another good hotel. Hey hotels, what about a writer-in-residence program? All my stories would take place at the hotel.

* * * * *

As soon as I wake up I’m going to watch Blade Runner 2049. I just checked the movie schedule and found out that the film adaptation of HHhH is also in local cinemas. It’s called The Man With The Iron Heart, with Jason Clarke as Heydrich and Jacks O’Connell and Reynor as Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis. The dreaded Nazi Butcher of Prague was assassinated by young Czech fighters who parachuted into Prague, leading to a seven-hour standoff between a handful of Czechoslovak fighters and the German Army at the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. One of the most stirring episodes of resistance and courage in World War II–I hope the filmmakers did it justice. And will they render the smartassery of Binet’s novel on film?

Where am I? (Answered)

October 04, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Places, Traveling 5 Comments →

That is the question I asked myself when my eyes flew open at 6am after a very sound sleep brought on by jet lag and a lot of plum liquor. That plum liquor is brilliant stuff—not only did it wipe out the stiffness caused by walking ten kilometers, usually uphill, but there’s no hangover.

Where do you think?

6 October. Yes, I was in Prague, and now going round the Czech Republic to Brno and Czesky Krumlov.

The first photo is of a room in the Kafka Museum, a new (opened 2005, and around here if it’s not 19th century it’s new) tribute to Prague’s most famous writer and neurotic. The museum does a good job of simulating the experience of reading Kafka: this room looks like an archive and a morgue.

The second is of a gargoyle on the facade of St. Vitus Cathedral in the Castle complex. According to the story—I love these stories of ancient and medieval martyrs, they’re so bizarre—Vitus volunteered for the Roman army but converted to Christianity. So the Romans threw him in the lions’ den, but the lions refused to eat him. You’d think he would get a pass after that, but then the Romans doused him in boiling oil. His dying seizures gave the name to St. Vitus’s Dance. Religion is cruel.

Another medieval saint, this one in the Loreto. Uncumber was the daughter of a nobleman who planned to marry her off to another noble family. But she had no intention of marrying, so she prayed to God to prevent it from happening. And God answered her prayer by sending her a full beard. The wedding was off. The furious father had her crucified. You understand my skepticism at these medieval martyr tales.

The Schwarzenberg Palace, also at the Castle complex. It’s now the National Gallery. The Schwarzenbergs were a prominent Catholic family. Prague has a long history of religious bloodshed. The Catholics would kill the Protestants. The Protestants would kill the Catholics. The Catholics would kill the Protestants. The Prostestants would kill the Catholics. Occasionally they would get together and kill the Jews.

Yes, that is the John Lennon Wall. Lennon never gave a concert in Prague, though many had hoped he would. (Their Velvet Revolution of 1989 was not only named after the Velvet Underground, but got the support of bands like the Stones. The Rolling Stones visited Vaclav Havel in his office at the Castle and noted that it had no chandeliers. So they donated chandeliers.) After Lennon’s death in 1980, this wall outside the building of the Knights of Malta became a battleground for free speech. Every night the anti-Communist resistance would come and paint graffiti on the wall. Every day the police would paint over it. Every night the resistance would do the graffiti again. Resistance requires relentless insistence in the face of official absurdity. Never give in.

Tokyo is exquisite and intense.

September 27, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Places, Traveling 3 Comments →

I’ve been in Japan for eight days to attend meetings and do research for the World Domination Project. Having kicked it over in my head for many years and published a magazine about it, the time has come to announce it to the rest of the world. It is certainly much, much saner than anything else that’s going on in the world today.

After the relative quiet of Yokohama, I moved to Tokyo. It was my first time in Tokyo. It’s a shock. Immediately I thought of what the Queen of Hearts said to Alice (in Wonderland): “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” Think of New York or Paris, then ratchet up the intensity.

The mass transit system is impressive: both efficient and mind-boggling. First you have to learn to decipher the train codes. This requires standing in front of the huge announcement boards while the light washes over you and you feel like a complete idiot. The older I get, the more I realize the futility of trying to rationalize everything in real time. These days I just absorb as much information as I can and wait for my brain to put it all together (that’s what sleep is for). At some point something clicks and you go “Aha!” and things make sense, or at least seem less random.

I’d been saving David Mitchell’s novel Number 9 Dream for my first visit to Tokyo. It’s been sitting in my bag, unread, because there is so much to process. I didn’t have to read about the sensory assault of being in Tokyo when I was undergoing that very assault. When I checked out of the hotel in Yokohama I accidentally left the book behind, but this being Japan, I simply emailed the hotel and they forwarded the book to me in Tokyo.

My great achievement on this trip was going to Shinjuku by myself, finding the main store of Kinokuniya Books, and making it back to Shibuya for a meeting. I felt like at any point, I could disappear into a crowd and never be seen again. Entering the Tokyo transit system is like going into the transporter in Star Trek: you dissolve into particles which are transmitted through the vacuum of space and reconstituted on the surface of another world. Only it takes minutes or hours, during which you consider the possibility that you won’t be put back together.

The hotel room is tiny but well-appointed. You have to do a parkour move to get to the window, but there is a bathtub, a fully automated toilet, and a washing machine and dryer. The coffee is excellent everywhere, and the convenience stores are awesome. The food! The clothes! I didn’t have time to visit a cat cafe, but I notice the English daily carries cat adoption notices. A 20 meter-high Unicorn Gundam statue was unveiled on the waterfront. On a Monday at three in the afternoon I watched the Bavarian State Opera do Tannhauser. That is a story for later.

Getting to know Hong Kong all over again and meeting the Empress of Tea

June 01, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Drink, Places, Traveling No Comments →


View from the Hotel Stage, 1 Chi Wo, Jordan

I will always have a special fondness for Hong Kong because it’s the first foreign city I ever visited on my own. (There’s an extremely detailed account of that trip in the first Twisted book.) Since then I’ve been to Hong Kong a few times, but it doesn’t get old. Hong Kong is not just about the spectacular sights and food: there’s something in the air, something thrilling and vaguely chaotic. It’s a sense of possibility that you get in a world city. You know that things are happening that were not stage-managed for promotional purposes.

We spent several days in Hong Kong at the end of May to shoot two episodes for Trippies. We had wonderful meals that we burned off by walking, walking, and walking from markets in Kowloon to hiking trails in the New Territories to Old Town Central where we looked for the locations of Wong Kar Wai movies, to the Film Archive to Sai Ying’s haunted houses to the dojo of one of Ip Man’s students, to new food and drink haunts like May Chow’s Happy Paradise and Victoria Chow’s Kwoon cocktails.

At the end of a long, packed but strangely not exhausting shoot, we met Vivian Mak, whom I hereby dub the Empress of Tea. Vivian is the proprietor and soul of MingCha Tea House, one of the finest tea shops on the planet. She gave us a quick workshop, during which we sampled a variety of teas, each with a distinct flavor and aroma, which is more than I can say for some overpriced tea shops. It’s not cheap, but you get more than what you pay for and leave feeling clean and almost virtuous.

Even the setting is dramatic: MingCha is hidden inside an old factory building.

Now I’m going to re-watch Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, and if anyone borrowed my DVDs and didn’t return them, prepare for pain.

You can watch the previous episodes of Trippies (China, Turkey, Thailand, Korea) here.