Life & Culture

My Jewish grand tour of Europe

Claire Calman's inter-railing with her husband


Tourists couple on summer holidays visiting ancient stonebuilt archaeological church with arches in Italy

I am inter-railing! My son Leo, now 18, was researching online and foolishly showed me the Interrail website because he was so excited at the prospect of his trip. Even though I am a Jewish mother, I accept that trying to join his trip with his friends would be excessive, so I agreed to travel on different dates and via a different route so that there is no danger of overlap (“Fancy seeing you here! I brought you some factor 50 sunscreen and a hat”).
Given my tendency to get lost, I add ‘Husband’ to my pragmatic packing list. Release me on to a continent-wide rail network and I could well end up in a place from which my grandparents had taken considerable effort to flee.
Although undeniably useful, The Husband is not without his drawbacks. Once he is on holiday, his Jewish identity starts to assert itself with increased zeal.
At home, weeks can go by without his feeling an urgent need to go to shul; send him abroad and before he has reached the bottom of his first thimbleful of espresso, he will pipe up: “Oh, there’s a Jewish museum!”
I always know when he’s googling this sort of thing because he’ll suddenly say: “Did you know that X-thousand Jews were deported and murdered from Y____?”
Sometimes it would be nice to sit and eat an ice cream outside a café and simply enjoy being there rather than being confronted with the fact that the forebears of the people all around me, now laughing and talking and licking their own ice-creams, would happily have killed my ancestors if they’d been given the chance.
After a night in Paris, we head to Germany for a night before going on to Verona in Italy. As the train crosses the border from France to Germany, a tannoy announcement dictates that face masks are now mandatory. Less than ten seconds later, a line of four armed police (the first is carrying an automatic weapon across his body) patrol down the aisle. You have never seen such instant compliance in response to a train announcement.
Heading towards Munich, The Husband pulls out his mobile to check the route that the train is taking. “Look!” He points at the map, sounding almost triumphant that, as he’d thought, everyone wants us dead: “Dachau.”
In Munich, he persists in crossing the road against the lights. When I protest (years ago, I was reprimanded by police in Antwerp for crossing at a red signal in a completely empty street), he points out this is what happens in a country when people obey orders too readily — they stop thinking for themselves. Again and again, we notice people waiting for ages at pedestrian crossings because the light is against them, even though there is no traffic in sight.
In Trieste, he discovers that the old synagogue is unexpectedly still in use. Luckily, there is a guided tour available this very evening and he sensibly thinks to check the dress code.
When we arrive, despite the heat, I arrange my wrap to cover my décolletage at the front of my wrap dress. The tour guide emerges from the shul and politely but firmly eliminates almost all the men from the tour as they are wearing shorts (it’s 28°). One woman has to put on her cardigan. Another ties her large scarf around her legs as a sarong over her shorts.
We are glad we’ve made the effort because, once inside, we see that the shul is exquisite. It’s absolutely beautiful with a cupola lined with tiny gold tesserae and a vast, towering monument containing the Ark, which looks as if it was borrowed from the props department of Anthony and Cleopatra.
The raised mechitza, an ornate, carved wooden screen on stilts, divides the men and women on the ground floor. Formerly, the women sat in the upstairs gallery but now the congregation is so diminished, this is no longer practical.
The screen seems higher than I would expect; perhaps it is only intended to filter out visiting tall WASP women. Once seated, short Jewish women like me would clearly be entirely visible beneath the screen.
Afterwards, in a restaurant, The Husband takes out his phone to check the meaning of a specific word. He starts to type into Google: ITAL... and it immediately offers: ITALY — JEWS as its first suggestion. Non ho niente da aggiungere (I rest my case)...

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