Sunday, August 25, 2013

Iceland's penis museum: size does matter





For many people who travel to Iceland, their must-do list probably includes climbing the menacing Hekla or Eyjafjallajokull volcanos, or perhaps swimming in the geo-thermally heated Blue Lagoon, or even a drive to see the geyser at Geysir blast water three metres into the air.

But how many people take photos of themselves on a stop at the bizarre but popular Iceland Phallological Museum in Rejkyavik?

Quite a lot, as I recently discovered on my own visit to the world's largest display of penises and related equipment. In fact, there was a lineup to get in to the museum, on Laugavegeur 116.

Now before you read on, you need to know that while the rest of my family was excited about coming to Iceland to hike and to experience the rugged landscapes under the midnight sun, I was not. Indeed, the only thing that sparked any interest for me in this voyage had been the anticipation of seeing this quirky museum for myself. For weeks before the trip, I told people about my plan, and was greeted with catcalls and eye-rolls from my family.

Our rental flat in Reykjavik was two blocks away from the museum, and I spotted it the first day we arrived. We had to pass it every time we walked into the main shopping area of town. But for the first few days, I couldn't interest anyone to come with me. My two teenaged boys and husband couldn't understand my keen interest in the whole subject.

"Because we have our own," became the standard joke.


Then one rainy morning that week, after we'd done a volcano hike, and the Blue Lagoon, and seen Geysir, my husband agreed to accompany me and we set out to cross the museum off my bucket list.

The museum opens at 10 a.m. and it was already crowded when we got there. We joined the line behind a group of Italian tourists, paid the $10 each in cash, each, turned the corner and came face to face with the biggest penis I had ever seen.

It belongs to a long dead whale, and it demands your attention as it stands there upright in a glass case, in some kind of preservative liquid. As you can see it is way taller then me.

Nearly 300 specimens line the walls and shelves of the four rooms, from whales, polar bears,  seals and smaller land mammals, all collected over the decades by the original founder, SigurĂ°ur Hjartarson. The museum is now curated by his son. 

Seeing such a big specimen came as a shock, and then the visit  just got worse as I passed by each subsequent jar.



My nausea began to grow. I felt cold and clammy. Sure it is supposed be scientific, and there are cards displays and materials explaining each genus and species.

The human penis is on the far right

But there are some humorous artifacts, such as penis-shaped rocks, and sculptures, and toys.

Walk by the case and this toy flashes you
But when I saw the lampshades made out of bulls testicles, I thought I was going to throw up. And by the time I reached the piece de resistance in the last room -- the grayish, hairy specimen floating in a jar donated by a deceased 95 year old Icelander, Pall Arason, I know my face looked just as gray.
Pall Arason's penis
For his part, it appears that my husband was actually enjoying the visit. I, on the other hand, wanted to get out as soon as I could, even though I was the one who had wanted to see the museum in the first place. Strange, no? You would think that a woman who has changed diapers for two sons, three nephews, and has been married for 16 years, might have been more matter-of-fact about seeing a penis or two.

I still don't know why I had such a strong reaction; it might have been the way the penises were ghostly white or cream coloured, or yellowing, just floating there, in their specimen jars. Or it might have been some of the penis-themed products, such as the tie made from scrotum skin of a whale.

Tie and scarf made of animal scrotum skin


 Or maybe it was the life-sized plastic cast which some American man had made of his penis (he calls it ELMO) which he has pledged to donate to the museum when he dies -- the legal documents he signed are on the wall, too.
Life sized casting of American would be donor's penis nicknamed Elmo
I wonder if visitors would have the same reaction in a vagina museum.  But wait. There isn't one. Hmmm.
And would anyone really wear earrings like these?
Penis bone earrings from an Alaskan Marten

Since we have come home, when people ask us how the trip was, my husband raves about his hikes and about how Iceland uses geothermal energy to heat homes and businesses. But my favourite reactions are when I pull out my cell phone and show people the penis museum photos. Like what happened at dinner last night with friends:  one woman who has surely seen more penises then I have, (she is a family doctor) took one look and her eyes nearlly popped out of her head. And she started laughing.

Bottom line: should you go to see the museum if you are in Iceland? Yes. Make sure to take some Gravol with you, just in case.

P.S. I have just learned that two Canadians created a documentary, shown at the 2012 Hot Docs festival in Toronto called "The Final Member", about the museum's quest to obtain a human penis.





Friday, August 16, 2013

Five things Anne Frank taught me in 2013

Ellin at Anne Frank house. Amsterdam, August 2013
   Twenty five years ago, on a brief stopover in Amsterdam, I got to spend all of five minutes at the Anne Frank Museum. Why only five minutes? Well, I had only an hour between planes, so I took a cab from Schipol airport directly to the museum on Prinsengracht and it was 4:55 p.m. when I got there, just five minutes before closing. This was 1988. The guard at the entrance wouldn't let any more visitors in the main door,  so I snuck around to the exit and went inside that way. Nobody stopped me. I pushed myself past people who were leaving, and raced up the steps to see where the Frank family had stayed in hiding for two years before they were arrested and deported in 1944. Those precious five minutes were enough to satisfy me, until now.
   This week, I am back in Amsterdam, after a quarter century. This time, I'm here with my husband and family. We are staying in a canal house apartment just one block from the Anne Frank house.
 



263-267 Prinsengracht in the restored Anne Frank house, her father's jam making warehouse
For 25 years, I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about Anne Frank. And her story. But on this trip, she taught me a lot. I honestly didn't know how close to the museum our flat was going to be when I booked it. The flat is on Leliegracht 34, and the Frank family business, where Otto Frank arranged for them to hide, was on the next canal over, Prinsengracht 263-267. You can see the back of the Frank family's hideout from our flat's windows. And you can hear those same church bells and carillon play from the Westerkirk church steeple:  the same bells that Anne must have heard cooped up in the attic of her father's warehouse.


(I took this video on my cellphone outside our flat August 2013.)

1. Listening to the church bells and hearing the carillion play was oddly comforting, not annoying.

The flat we rented is right on top of a popular pizzeria, called Da Portare Via, and it is also next door to a marijuana "coffee shop" called Cafe Brandon. At night, when the smokers and drinkers were outside enjoying themselves, and eating pizza, standing packed like sardines between the sidewalk and the edge of the canal, until 3:30 in the morning, and the wafts of smoke (of all kinds) drifted up into my windows, along with the noise, I lay awake, feeling alternately furious that the smoke was keeping me up, but also it was the time when I thought of how Anne and her family might have felt.  While the bells of the church sounded the passing of time all through the day and night, the Franks and their guests could not be part of the every day life of the streets; they were hiding from mortal danger while right next door, right down the street, and right across the canal, ordinary Amsterdam people went about their daily lives as best they could during the occupation, not knowing there was someone lying silently above them, listening and watching, and trying to pass the time. And all the while, the bells sounded off the hour, and the quarter hour. The hours actually seemed to pass by more quickly in the dark with the bells sounding, as we got closer to morning, when the smokers will leave, the street will be quiet, and the air will be clean to breathe in my flat. I thought about how Anne might have been listening to these same bells all those years ago, at night, when she and her family were able to move around in their attic hiding place.
Da Portar Via, ground floor, Leliegracht 34, Amsterdam with our flat on second, third and fourth floors. 

2. Anne wanted to be a journalist.

I never knew this. Or at least,  I didn't remember it. For 25 years the fact didn't jump out at me, until after I had visited the museum this time around, properly, slowly, carefully, taking my time to read everything, and watch all the films. I don't remember the museum being as big, or as comprehensive in 1988 when I streaked through it in five minutes. This time, when I discovered her wish to be a writer when she grew up, and to change the world, and maybe be a journalist, a shock went through my body.


“I finally realized that I must do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that’s what I want! I know I can write ..., but it remains to be seen whether I really have talent ... 
Courtesy: Times of Israel

And if I don’t have the talent to write books or newspaper articles, I can always write for myself. But I want to achieve more than that. I can’t imagine living like Mother, Mrs. van Daan and all the women who go about their work and are then forgotten. I need to have something besides a husband and children to devote myself to! ... I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me! When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?"


 I definitely used to identify with Anne Frank when I was her age. I thought we even looked alike. I kept a diary, too. And I wanted to be a writer and eventually, I became a journalist. And I wanted to change the world. I still do. She would have been 84 this summer, had she lived.
Ellin aged 10
3.  Anne died just a few weeks before the British Army liberated her concentration camp in the spring of 1945.

A book by documentary film maker Willy Lindwer, called "The Last Seven Month of Anne Frank" was on display in the gift shop as you made your way out of the Anne Frank museum. I had never known anything about Anne except what I'd read in her diary all those years ago when I was a young girl.  The book that filled in the horrible pieces, came out in 1988, in Dutch, the same year I spent my 5 minutes in the museum. It was translated into English and reissued only this year, in 2013, by Macmillan Childrens Books, in the UK. I bought a copy, and read it all in three days while in the Amsterdam flat. It brought me back nearly seventy years as we walked around the city, and helped me see the stories behind the neighbourhoods and buildings of modern Amsterdam.

The book is a collection of interviews with six women who had known Anne Frank, and pieces together what  happened to her and the Frank family and the women, during the Nazi occupation, and during the last seven months, after the raid on her hiding place. The women say she and her sister Margot died of typhus, in April 1945, in Bergen-Belsen camp. 

4. The Netherlands lost a higher percentage of its Jewish population (75%) then any other European country, except Poland and Greece. 

When they arrested the Franks, the Nazis brought Anne and her family to a famous Jewish theatre in Amsterdam that had been transformed into a holding station for deportees. Called the Hollandsche Schouwburg, it's been a monument since 1962. 
Jeanette Loeb at Hollandsche Schouwburg
We hired a local historian to be our guide today, Jeanette Loeb. She is a daughter of Dutch Holocaust survivors. At the Hollandsche Schowburg, she pulls out a book of names. It lists the 105,000 Dutch Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. Most of the ones from Amsterdam died in Auschwitz or Sobibor. She shows us where her grandfather's name is listed, and as she is telling the story of how some of the orphan children interned in the theatre were eventually saved, I open the book to find Anne Frank's name, although it is listed as Annalise Frank

Newspaper front page day of Nazi occupation, 1940



Jews wearing Yellow Stars
Nearly 75 per cent of the Netherland's Jews were deported and killed. Loeb tells us why it was so easy for the Nazis to find the Jews: Dutch civic records were so efficient before the war, they listed everyone's address and also everyone's religion. Plus, she says, the Nazis forced the Jewish council to identify every street and neighbourhood where Jewish people lived. There is a map of Amsterdam in the theatre, that shows thousands of black dots on it. That's where the council had to pinpoint where to round up Jews. While the Franks actually lived outside the city centre, in an area to the south of the centrum, called the Merewedeplain, Mr. Frank's jam making business was in town on the Prinsengracht. We still don't know who ratted the Franks out to the Nazis. 

During 1945, with most of the city's Jews deported, their homes and stores were torn apart, literally, by the residents of Amsterdam, and used for firewood. But Amsterdam's centuries old Portuguese synagogue was left untouched, and today, is a soaring but eerily shadow filled tourist attraction, since it was once the largest synagogue in Europe, and built in the 1600s as a monument to Dutch tolerance. It now holds services for a community who's official numbers are at only about 350 members, according to Loeb. The sumptuous Torah scroll coverings and ornate fabrics that once were a symbol of the fabulous wealth and stability of the prosperous and established 350 year old Amsterdam Jewish community, are now behind glass, underneath the synagogue, in the newly renovated museum. 
Esnoga (Portuguese) Synagogue Amsterdam 2013

Tourists leaving the courtyard of the Portuguese Synagogue

Torah scroll coverings

Torah Scroll coverings with gold thread

Torah ornaments (rear) 

Bowl and pitcher used for ceremonial occasions

5.  The King of Denmark did not wear a Yellow Star to show solidarity with oppressed Jews during the Second World War. 

While Dutch Jews were forced to buy yellow fabric (and pay for it themselves), cut it into shapes of Jewish stars, and sew them onto all their clothes as of May 1942, according to our guide, Jeanette Loeb, there is no truth to the long standing story that Denmark's King Christian donned a similar yellow star to support his own country's Jews against Hitler. I was shocked to hear this, as was my husband. We have both grown up hearing about the courageous resistance shown by the Danish king. 

A check of Snopes.com confirms what our guide has told us. It is a myth. The King of Denmark never wore the Yellow Star, and Denmark's Jews didn't have to wear them either.

For their part, Dutch citizens did stage a mass protest against the deportation of Amsterdam Jews. It happened in February 1941. The Nazis quickly killed the leaders of the uprising. The protest is commemorated each year near the old Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, in front of a statue of a dock worker, where our tour ended. Just before we parted ways with Jeanette, she pointed out five bronze squares embedded into the sidewalk in front of a house across from the dockworker's statue. They are called Stolperstein, or stumbling blocks, and are among some 40,000 memorials placed so far across Europe by artist Gunter Demnig, who wants to commemorate victims of the Holocaust in the last places they were known to have lived voluntarily (not in Ghettos or other places they were forced to live). Aside from Jewish victims, his Stolperstein also commemorate gay, gypsy and political prisoners between 1933-1945. 

Stolperstein in Amsterdam

Jeanette tells me she commissioned some Stolperstein for her grandparents and invited the Mayor and other dignitaries to the ceremony when they were installed. Then she pedalled off on her bike, with a wave.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What publishing your first story feels like

Saw this great post from Robert Washburn on my Facebook feed today. Do you think it would be a good icebreaker for first day back to school at Centennial Journalism next month?

My first byline was a story I wrote when I interviewed Margaret Trudeau for Carleton University's campus paper, and they spelled my name wrong on the byline!

But I remember what it felt like to see the story in print.