Rambles in Ravenna

Dear readers, the muse has been a bit silent of late, certainly not for lack of topics, but rather because I have been sucked up into the sizzling writhing morass that currently passes as politics in my country. Quoting from Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, “He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination  (emphasis mine) – you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.” Anyway. I’ve been glued to MSNBC and basically every other news outlet I can get my electronic fingers on of late, and my writing (to say nothing of my sanity) has suffered a mite.

But time to get back on the horse, as it were, and what better place to start than Ravenna, Italy, where I currently find myself. My goal was to spend some serious time (a month) in a small Italian city where I could get a better sense of the culture and to use it as a base to explore a part of the country I don’t know well. Ravenna is home to about 160,000 gentle souls and lies within shooting distance of Bologna, Venice, Ferrara, Modena, Parma, and a number of other interesting spots in the northern area of the country, plus it is interesting  in its own right. So here I am for a spell, and let me share a bit with you.

Ravenna is best known for its amazing mosaics that are contained in eight early Christian monuments collectively proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 as well as a diverse collection from the Roman era. But what has come to me during my walks over the past week or two is the wistful sadness of a place that was REALLY SOMEWHERE VERY IMPORTANT FOR A LONG TIME but is now a modest one-or-two day flyby on an alumni arts and architecture tour for well-heeled tourists. Odd how one (I) pick up these feelings, but there you are.

But before I completely succumb to the nostalgia of the place, a few pictures. Here’s the view out the window of my lovely little AirBNB flat. I am staying just a block south of the historic city center in a little neighborhood with lots of lovely little shops and businesses:

Where everybody knows your name

A short walk away (everything is a short walk away) is the Museo TAMO, “Tutta l’Avventura del Mosaico,” a good place to start to understand the breadth of the mosaic culture  in Ravenna and indeed all of Italy. Set in a historic building itself, the church of San Nicolò, it is a ode to this beautiful and historic art form:

…and while I really enjoyed this overview and initial insight into the world of mosaics (about which I had known zip nada before this trip), the best part is seeing the work in situ, as it were, integrated into buildings that can take advantage of the size and impact of the materials. Here is one shot of the mosaic decoration on the interior of the Basilica of San Vitale, the most impressive of all the monuments. The building was completed in 547. Let that sink in. 547.

Reminiscent of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

There really aren’t words to describe this. I plan to go back again and again. Because of its date of construction, the building contains Roman elements, Byzantine elements, and some of the earliest examples of flying buttresses which later made their way into Gothic architecture. Google this thing if you don’t believe me, it’s amazing.

Nearby was an intriguing little pool, still inside the building. My pagan impulses immediately thought that this edifice may have been built on the spot of an earlier sacred site, as often happens with Christian encroachment. A more practical idea is that it may have served as a baptismal pool. In any event, here’s someone else puzzling over its function:

Ravenna has a charming center city that mostly consists of a couple piazzas and the streets that connect them to each other and to the monuments. Outside of that carefully preserved historical bubble, it’s a unprepossessing little burb with some truly unhappy architecture from the 1960s and 1970s salted amid the renaissance palaces. But if you stay on the path, it’s nothing but La Dolce Vita. Here’s the Piazza del Popoplo on a mild April day:

Enough culture, where’s the gelato?

A short walk from here (see above on short walks), one finds Dante’s Tomb. Yes, that Dante. In exile from his hometown of Florence, Dante died in Ravenna in 1321. After a couple hundred years when tempers had finally subsided, the pope ordered the bones back to Florence but the wily Ravennians *sent an empty coffin,* Dante’s bones secretly hidden in a monastery for safekeeping. His remains only found the light of day again in 1865 or so during some renovations and now they are peacefully reposing on a quiet back street:

Speaking of tombs, the other biggie in Ravenna is the Mausoleum of Theoderic, located just outside the city. Now here’s an interesting dude that I had never heard of, but yowza talk about someone who lived at the crossroads of history and culture. Born in 454 in what is now eastern Austria near the Hungarian border, Theoderic was, according to Wiki, “king of the Ostrogoths (475–526), ruler of Italy (493–526), regent of the Visigoths (511–526), and a patrius of the Roman Empire.” Now that’s some resume. He died in Ravenna which had been his captial and was buried in the structure he had previously designed, but at some point his actual tomb itself was opened (the bathtub-like object below) and his bones scattered to the winds. Sic transit gloria mundi…

So Ravenna….significant for centuries as the site of a Roman seaport, a center for ecclesiastical Byzantine monuments, the capital of the Lombards, Dante’ home in exile, a province of Venice. Many famous writers have visited the city and fallen under her spell, including Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Lord Byron, Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Hermann Hesse. Yet now she sits as if like Miss Havisham, dressed in the decaying gowns of yesteryear and waiting expectantly for another groom to come. In the meantime, Sister Immaculata prepares her youngsters for their First Holy Communion and the cycle of the year continues…

Vade in Pacem…

Posted in Italy | Tagged | 7 Comments

A Peek at Poznań

It’s been a while since I have headed off to explore a new city so when my dear Polish friend M from Batumi days suggested we meet up for the weekend in Poznań, a city located basically smack dab between Berlin and her current home base of Warsaw, I couldn’t say “nie.” So last Saturday morning I hopped on an express train and soon found myself pulling into the local glowny:

Poznań, like so many sensible European cities, is arranged so that the transportation hub, a huge complex including both train and bus stations as well as a monster mall, is within easy walking or tram distance of most of the central city. I walked to my hotel, found M, and before you could say “Adam Mickiewicz,” (a famous Polish writer and activist), we  were strolling down the long and charming pedestrian shopping street to the Old Town Square. Thankfully we had a little guidance…

Even though she’s Polish, M had never been to Poznań, so that made it even more fun, particularly because she could pronounce (and I could hear) the names of things and places which otherwise look like…a lot of really unrelated consonants. As we entered the square and prepared to circumnavigate it, we were halted in our tracks by the sight of children getting photographed….with goats….

Our initial confusion quickly gave way to a little context. It turns out goats are *a thing* in Poznań. I’m learning about this European city mascot concept. Berlin has bears (I think Bern does as well), Wroclaw has dwarves, Krakow has dragons, and Poznań has….goats. The short version of the long story is that the two original goats escaped the clutches of a chef in the 16th century, scampered up into the town hall tower, and proceeded to duke it out in full view of the surprised diners. These days, during warmer weather, they mark the noon hour with 12 head butts — but in January, it seems, they are enjoying a bit of a rest in the nice warm town hall musem:

Baaaaad behavior…

This town square, like several others in Poland including Wroclaw, Krakow, and Gdansk, is truly beautiful. Yes, it was bombed back to the stone age during WWII, but it’s astonishing how the careful restoration allows one to feel that the place still retains its original charm. Here’s a shot from out of the town hall museum window:

Like a fairy tale

…and here’s an interior glimpse of the main meeting room in the town hall:

These pretty pictures are all well and good but you knew you couldn’t escape the history much longer. Since I’m in a charitable mood today, I’ll keep in short. Among the oldest and largest cities in Poland, Poznań (at 550,000) figures high in Polish “trade, sports, education, technology, and tourism.” The city’s origins are lost in its pagan and preliterate past, but it came into prominence in the 10th century when the cathedral now known as the “SS Peter and Paul Archcathedral Basilica” was established in the Ostrow Tumski area immediately east of the town square, known in English as Cathedral Island. Many of the early rulers of Poland are buried here as well. I captured a shot of the back of the edifice at dusk framed by a walkway from the nearby interpretive center:

Inside the cathedral, a priest ministered to the faithful:

Germans were invited to come to the city as early as the middle of the 13th century, under the Magdeburg Law which granted a measure of autonomy to the local leader to develop his area as he saw fit. As a result of these and other settlers, the city became a major trading center in the region but, like most of Poland, suffered greatly during the 17th and 18th centuries under the onslaught of multiple wars, plagues, and fires. During the 19th and 20th centuries the city was variously under both German and Polish rule, with the expected massive expulsions and relocations resulting from every trade-off.

What I wasn’t expecting was the astonishing collection of Polish art at the National Museum (the MNP), one of the largest museums in Poland. I was ready for the usual array of goodies from the Bronze Age through the military uniforms and swords to the gramophones and typewriters. Instead, M and I were gobsmacked by the size and quality of paintings on display, from the 16th through the 20th century and exhibiting pieces I had never imagined by people I had never heard of. This is in fact a serious crime. The works in this museum should be on multiple international tours, to be shared with a much wider audience. I could do a whole blog on this museum, and maybe I will, but for now I have to content myself by showing you just this one:

This is (English translation) A Hutsul Funeral, painted in 1905 by Wladyslaw Jarocki (1879-1965). The Hutsuls were “highlanders of the Eastern Carpathian,” and this painting is intended to show that death is a part of life for these people, and funerals were a time of communion and cultural solidarity. I just like the way the artist conveyed the folk art in the women’s clothing and accessories. But speaking of crimes, it is important to note here that after the invasion of Poland in 1939 by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it is estimated that a half a million art objects were taken by the occupying powers. A half million pieces. Work is still underway to return as much as possible as it is identified.

So by this point you might be lulled into thinking that all of Poznań is a homage to the past or to a museum celebrating the gods of art. But of course this is not the case. Outside the historic inner city, Poznań is a vibrant metropolis, pulsing with life and commerce. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 160,000 students study here, there are frequent trade shows, and the area sees a good bit of tourism as well. One of the most recent and well-known developments is the Stary Browar (Old Brewery), a huge mall/entertainment/business/art gallery complex built on the site of, you guessed it, an old German brewery. It is jinormous and multi-storied. Here’s a shot of some of  it (I couldn’t fit it all in) from our hotel window, with new(er) Poznań in the background:

Well, after all this dogging around town, you can imagine we were really hungry. M cleverly spotted the Gramofon Cafe and we dug into some really yummy local treats:

Can you say “Naleśniki?”

Sadly, before too long it was time to run for our respective trains and head back to our respective world capitals. I was fortunate that there was room in the club car on my train and I was able to enjoy some additional Polish hospitality with the hope of more to come in the future.

Net-net – Poznań is a place I look forward to seeing again; I feel we barely scratched the surface and that I have not yet begun to understand the stories that so clearly linger here But if you ever get a chance to see this museum – it’s a must do.

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A hint of Hamburg

It’s unfortunate that many of us make our first acquaintance of the word “Hamburg” through the lens of that most American food group, the hamburger. It’s true that there is a kind of flattened meatball from the region known as “frikadelle” (as in Danish) that probably emigrated to the States and was sold by someone from Hamburg (the urban legends vary). But to frivolously dismiss the city because of our culinary connotations would be a serious mistake, as I am now learning, thanks to the fact that I have newly acquired friends and in-laws in the region that invite more frequent visitation.

On my most recent trip there, I had some free time and thus, as often is my want, joined one of the excellent walking tours many cities here offer, locally Robin and the Tour Guides. Here’s a picture taken by our excellent guide Phillip of our valiant troop standing at the alter of St. Michael’s Church at the conclusion of our chilly but most engaging two-hour excursion:

But to get to this point of ecclesiastical rapture, there was a lot of distance to travel and a lot of history to try and absorb. I’ll try and just give you the highlights.

Hamburg, like most major (and minor) cities in Europe has a long and tortured history. Now Germany’s second largest city (and its richest by far), it began as a fort on a high spot in a bog that was repeatedly destroyed by Danes and Obotrites, a fierce Slavic tribe that lived just to the east of Hamburg. After a bit of stabilization, the town was given a charter (now disputed as a fake) by Frederick I, the Holy Roman Emperor that allowed them to become an Imperial Free City and basically make money hand over fist for centuries (and they haven’t stopped yet). In 1241 Hamburg joined with nearby Lübeck to form the core of the Hanseatic League, a powerful trading consortium that functioned along the coast of northern Europe for over three hundred years. Here’s a shot of Fred himself (looking quite imperial) at the top of the shot and Phillip at the bottom:

Ham city father

Combining history, local lore, and a passionate concern for contemporary politics.

Lots of other important things continued to happen (of course) for a few hundred years, but the next major game-changer was the “Great Fire” which blazed for three days in May of 1842 and ravaged over a third of the city at that time. Wiki tells us “It destroyed three churches, the town hall, and countless other buildings. It killed 51 people, and left an estimated 20,000 homeless. Reconstruction took more than 40 years.” Here’s a shot that shows the spot where the fire started. You can see the older buildings on the left and the newer ones on the right. Fire-fighting efforts were not helped by the fact that much of the water in the canals was allegedly mixed with beer and hence helped, not hindered, the flames to grow.

Not a cow in sight (with apologies to Chicago)

One of the buildings destroyed was the old town hall (“Rathaus”), which has been rebuilt but is now re-purposed as a very trendy eating establishment. The new Rathaus is a massive and inspiring neo-Renaissance-style building that took over ten years to build and now consists of nearly 200,000 square feet of space divided into 647 rooms. Here’s a shot of the tower:

Not surprisingly, every statue and every piece of decoration refers to some historic theme, motif, or civic hero, but I’ll just say you need to come and see it for yourself. In the inner courtyard of the Rathaus, there is a lovely statue of Hygieia,the goddess of health and hygiene in Greek mythology. After a terrible cholera epidemic in 1892 that lasted for ten weeks and killed (officially) between eight and nine thousand people, the city fathers made a commitment to clean (er) water. Until then, many people, including children, had drunk beer instead.

Cleanliness IS next to godliness…

Hamburg rebuilt and reorganized after both the fire and the cholera outbreak, and one of the most dramatic civic developments was the “Speicherstadt,” the warehouse district. It was built between 1883 to 1927 to serve as a duty-free zone and is one of the largest warehouse districts in the world, particularly considering that it, like much of the city, is supported by thousands and thousands of oak pilings. It is nearly a mile long and has recently (2015) been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. There is now another warehouse district in the development stage and this one is becoming an amusement and entertainment mecca.

We, however, are NOT amused…

When I said things were bad, indeed they were (from time to time). We got Viking marauders, we got a Great Fire, we got a cholera epidemic, and, of course, we got World War II bombing raids. Wiki tells us “The attack during the last week of July 1943, Operation Gomorrah, created one of the largest firestorms raised by the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces in World War II, killing 42,600 civilians and wounding 37,000 in Hamburg and virtually destroying most of the city…The unusually warm weather and good conditions meant that the bombing was highly concentrated around the intended targets and also created a vortex and whirling updraft of super-heated air which created a 460 meter high tornado of fire.”

One of the victims of those fire tornadoes was St-Nikolai-Kirche, one of the five major Lutheran churches and for a time in the 19th century the tallest building in the world. Like its cousin the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächniskirche in Berlin, it has been left in ruins as a reminder that, basically, war is hell. I wish we didn’t have to keep remembering this.

Old and new

As we ambled towards the end of the tour, we caught a glimpse of the newly opened (2017) Elbphilharmonie Hamburg. Built literally on top of a historically protected warehouse, the “Elphi” as the natives call it, is now one of the largest and most accoustically advanced performance spaces in the world. Opinions vary as to whether the building resembles “a hoisted sail, water wave or quartz crystal,” but it is very distinctive to be sure *and the view from the deck is spectacular.* Happily the view is free since concert ticket prices are pretty spendy, and the building itself went over budget anywhere from three times to ten times, depending who you ask. At nearly 800 million euros, you gotta really hope the place makes things sound great.

Surf’s up

Shortly after this shot, we ended up at St. Michael’s church, the interior shot from the top of the post. I was yet again, as I so often am, enraptured by the centuries of stories and history that are revealed in these civic remains and very much look forward to continuing my exploration of this diverse and fascinating city – even if it means braving the in-laws and some odd little meatballs….

Posted in Germany | Tagged | 5 Comments

Edge Zone Alert: Bolzano (Bolzen)

Those of you who know some of my historic and cultural interests are aware that I am fascinated by “edge zones,” a term originally suggested by YoYo Ma in his Silk Road Project (http://www.silkroad.org/) to describe places where two or more societies collide and intermingle with varying results. It appears in this age of increasing “populism” that some countries are doing everything they can to minimize these contacts, but the fact is that they have been and continue to be sources of inspiration for me as well as many others and include places like Jerusalem and Sarajevo, for example.  I have just had occasion to stumble onto an edge zone new to me, and that is the charming town of Bolzano, tucked up in the Südtirol (South Tyrol), an autonomous province in Northern Italy that runs along the Austrian border.

Like most of Europe, Bolzano and the region has had a long and complicated political history; key for this post is that Bavarians moved into the region when the Romans retreated in the 7th century and the area later entered the Holy Roman Empire. When the HRE dissolved in 1806, the region and its German-speaking population see-sawed back and forth between the Italians and the Austrians until World War I when they were secretly promised to the Italians and an intense campaign of “Italianization” began. It was during this period that the train station was rebuilt, so my first sight in town was this slightly daunting reminder of Mussolini’s attention to architectural detail:

Could discourage travel

A bit foreboding, as if to know that things would not go well for the good South Tyroleans for much of the next few decades. Bolzano was the site of a concentration camp in World War II as well as the center of fierce fighting between the Allied and Axis powers. After the war, Wiki tells us “in the 1960s a series of terrorist attacks and assassinations were carried out by the  South Tyrolean Liberation Committee– a German secessionist movement – against Italian police and electric power structures after which the United Nations intervened to enforce the start of bilateral negotiations between Italy and Austria. After 11 years of mediation and negotiation the two countries reached an agreement that would guarantee self-government to the newly created Autonomous Province of South Tyrol.” I certainly didn’t have this on my radar…did you? Wiki shares with us as well that the Dalai Lama has visited the city on several occasions to study a possible application in Tibet. Officially the region is ~75% Italian speakers, ~24% German speakers, and ~1 percent Ladino speakers (more about that later).

Well. I didn’t know any of this so I just went there because I sat next to someone on a plane once who said it was great, so I had to check it out.

Bolzano looks exactly what my ten-year-old mind had imagined all of Europe to be – winding stone streets with gingerbread buildings, open-air markets, cafes filled with happy people, churches, and castles. I felt like I had stepped into my own fairy tale. Only the African sunglasses salesman in the lower right strikes a slightly incongruous note:

My first day I wandered as if in a dream, pinching myself. I ate roast chestnuts. I walked along a beautiful river park and saw a castle. I decided I must be in heaven.

The next day, I got serious about trying to understand a bit more about the city and its history. First stop was the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology, a place dedicated exclusively to the Bronze-age Ötzi the Iceman who was found in the region in 1991. I remember his discovery well – and the research and information about him has only improved over the past quarter century. He is now believed to have lived 5000 years ago, and only the oddest possible combination of meteorological conditions kept his body as intact as it was when found. Visitors are not allowed to take a picture of his corporeal remains, so I use this book cover to jog your memory:

Besides his age at death (45), his last meal (bread and a kind of elk), and some of his various ailments (osteoarthritis), researchers have discovered that he was murdered. The evidence for this is that there is an arrowhead deeply implanted in his shoulder, possibly the reason for his arm at such an odd angle. His skull also appears to have been hit consistent with blunt force trauma (do I watch too many episodes of Bones?). One of the reasons for his trip into the mountains, it is now speculated, was to evade his ultimate fate. Not to leave you with such a gruesome tale (and picture), here is what his DNA suggests he looked like before the elements turned him into a mummy. Kinda cute…

As I was on my way to the next museum, I passed this sign attached to one of the aforementioned beautiful gingerbread buildings:

And what precisely, you might ask, is Ladina (Ladin)? Not to be confused with Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language used by the Sephardic Jews of the Iberian peninsula, Ladina (Ladin) is a separate Romance language consisting of dialects spoken by people in provinces in the South Tyrol and somewhat related to the Swiss Romansh and Friulian dialects. (I think it’s the first line above.) Although only spoken by 20,000 people or so, it is an officially recognized language in the region, taught in schools, and used in public offices both verbally and in written form. No wonder the Dalai Lama was impressed.

Next stop was the Civic Museum of Bolzano. Now usually these are among my favorites, but this one let me down. The permanent exhibit was just a bunch of wooden religious statues and some nice old frescos, the kind of airless creaky rooms that you walk through just slowly enough to make it appear to the dozing man in the corner that you respect what they are trying to achieve. Then you skedaddle. BUT the temporary exhibit caught my mind and heart. It was a display commemorating “Writers and Artists in the First World War.” As we now know, WWI was nasty for the South Tyrol as well as everywhere else, and I realized looking at the pictures of the artists in their formative years that their wartime experience would naturally shape their subsequent career. Here’s a photo entitled “Artistic action of the Italian prisoners of war in a prison camp:”

From what I saw on the exhibit walls, some painted out their pain and others what they saw around them in nature, or possibly in their mind’s eye. I was struck by a photograph of the writer Robert Musil in uniform; his signature work is “The Man Without Qualities,” set in Vienna just at the outbreak of the war and dealing with the moral and intellectual decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I wondered how his military service in Bolzano may have affected it.

Next I headed to the cathedral where, instead of dazzling you with pictures of its amazing Romanesque and Gothic architecture, I will rather share the list of the priest’s names who are giving services on any given day in October. Take a moment to look at some of those monikers – what amazing combinations of Germanic and Italic influences! I’m not really sure how Fr. Manoz Kumar made it into the mix, though.

Nearby still in the cathedral is a small monument to a local citizen, Josef Mayr-Nusser (1910-1945). The name didn’t ring a bell, but anyone who is memorialized in a cathedral is probably worth finding out about, and so he is. A particularly pious member of the community, Mayr-Nusser served as President of the local Saint Vincent de Paul Conference but was drafted into the SS nevertheless. After his basic training, it is alleged that he said to his commanding officer, “‘Sir Major-General’, he said with a strong voice, ‘I cannot take an oath to Hitler in the name of God. I cannot do it because my faith and conscience do not allow it.'” Not surprisingly, he was jailed, sentenced to death for treason and ordered to be shot by firing squad at Dachau. He died en route to Dachau due to the rigors of dysentery and his remains were returned to Bolzano in 1958; Pope Francis announced his beatification (the level below saint) in 2016 and it was celebrated in Bolzano just this past March 18, 2017.

This is the prayer book that was found with him. And the gray shadow is an unintended selfie.

Well, that was about all the heavy I could take for one day — mummies who get killed, men without qualities, men with so many qualities they get killed for them. Time to lighten up, and speaking of light, today is the last day of European daylight savings, so I decided to celebrate with…a cable car ride up the Renon mountain to the village of Oberbolzen.

Leaving every four minutes with room for 30, the cars appear miracles of modern engineering…so…off we go…

Escaping the summer heat of the valley by traveling into the mountains has been a tradition in Bolzano for a long time, and now it’s happily just a matter of hopping a cable car and taking the 1000 meter (3000 feet) trip up the hill, which takes just under 15 minutes. It is truly spectacular. I took WAY too many pictures and most of them aren’t that dramatic, but boy, what a ride. Once at the top, I hopped into the local two-car train and took it through a few other villages and then back and back down. Speechless.

What a glorious day, what a glorious view.

One last stroll through town before giving my dogs a rest (17,000 steps) and setting down these thoughts before they all blow away. Bolzano has beauty, it has history and culture, it has incredible surroundings, and it also has….shopping. OMG. Just picture the beautiful winding streets and the lovely gingerbread buildings…filled with the most amazing array of stylish and inviting clothing, shoe, and leather shops you have ever seen. It is a.very.good.thing that I am on a budget and I travel with a small backpack, because those were the only thin threads holding me back from having a major retail therapy relapse. So I enjoyed the window shopping and I enjoyed watching the shoppers…and I enjoyed watching the dog watch the shoppers….and here’s a faithful pooch and his bemused holder:

“Mom said she’d only be a minute…”

So there you have it…although you may not have ever heard of it, I hope I’ve convinced you to consider coming for a visit. Truly a beautiful place with a fascinating history and a social experiment still in the making. Thanks for taking the trip with me.

Posted in Italy | Tagged | 1 Comment

Illumination – of lights and language

Berlin is home to many amazing artistic and cultural events throughout the year. One that is particularly engaging for the whole city is the Berlin Festival of Lights, celebrating its tenth anniversary this fall. For ten days in early October, well-known sites around the city become venues of glorious illumination, each transformed into a canvas, as it were, for the product of a single artist or a group that projects its work up onto the building’s facade. Last year, the festival fell during some cold and rainy weather — I and two other intrepid members of my German class braved the clime, but we chose merely to huddle near the Brandenburg Gate and watch the show there rather than navigating more broadly.  This year, due to the fact that the weather has been oddly balmy thanks to an approaching hurricane (!!), I ventured forth last night for a fairly extensive hijira of multiple sites primarily along the Unter den Linden, the main drag in the middle of town and home to9 much of Berlin’s imperial splendor.

My first stop, however, was the nouveau consumer paradise of Potsdamer Platz where the artists had decided to create a carpet of flowers for the eager Snapchatters:

Festival mode was in full swing; folks were biking from site to site; pedicabs were available for the less hardy; but I just merely joined the slow happy chatty snake of folks making their way from one exhibit to the next.

But here’s where it gets interesting from a linguistic point of view. (You noted that bit in the title, right?)  I’ve been here in Berlin for roughly eight months or so over the past three years. I’ve spent now eleven weeks of time (in three chunks) and not insignificant funds in intensive German language training. I’ve been floating through this environment in my happy little mostly-English bubble BUT LAST NIGHT…I realized I could actually eavesdrop on the conversations around me….it wasn’t just German babble that I normally turn out…I could actually understand…a goodly amount of what was being said around me. And that felt….incredible.

Jarring me out of this momentarily “atta girl” realization was the display on the back of the American Embassy, reminding us of a time when not only did our country take care of its own, it actually reached out to others, even former adversaries. May I not sound too cynical if I say that I sincerely hope those days return before too long:

By now we were getting close to the bulk of the exhibits and a short distance away we swung into the Pariser Plaz, the area immediately adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, the front side of the US Embassy, the Hotel Adlon, and several other venerable institutions. Much of the crowd tends to coagulate here, since the exhibits on this site are among the best. I’m choosing to show just one of the myriad images that were flashed during my cruise through the Platz – here the Gate has it’s pride swag on:

…and thankfully friend and former colleague Jenny gave me the translation: “Freedom is being able to walk through Berlin, as a lesbian woman, hand in hand with my partner.” The author is Fabienne Tack. There you go. I’m even more proud.

Speaking of which, I could natter on at great length about my experiences learning German – there are so many interesting factors that have entered into it that I should write an article for a professional journal (and maybe I will).  I’ve studied many languages before and I teach English, fer heaven’s sake, so that all helps because I understand LANGUAGE and I’m a good test taker. So all all to the good. But on the other hand, I’m not a young learner (far from it) and I can tell you quite definitively that my short-term retention sure ain’t what is used to be – some days I feel like my mind is a giant Etch-a-Sketch that takes great pleasure in completely erasing whatever worthy information I have tried to upload that particular day. Oddly my fairly good knowledge of Danish, which began over 30 years ago during my stint in the State Department, has proven to be both a blessing and curse – a blessing because there are many cognates (similar words) between Danish and German, but a curse because in many cases the words *are so similar I continually mix them up,* resulting in a situation where I proudly put together a sentence only to see people stare at me blankly, as happened yesterday when I substituted the Danish “sorte” for the German “schwarze” (black). We in the biz call that “interlanguage interference, and boy is it a PITA.

So, reflecting on language, reflecting on feeling at last able to begin to enter the slipstream of the German language, I kept strolling down the street, jostling between families with children, loads of young people with bottles in their hands laughing and joking, admiring singletons like me, all of us clutching our phones and stopping at highly inconvenient intervals to try and snap the glory unfolding around us. Here’s a shot of Humboldt University, complete with the man himself, a remarkable polyglot if ever there were one, reigning over the passing scene with a slightly bemused air:

and another shot of the uni:

I’ve been trying to think of an analogy of what learning German has been like for me, and these flashing pictures have helped me put it into works. It’s as if when you begin learning a new language, you can see a long story written on a wall but you can’t read a single word. You know it’s meaningful and coherent for someone, it has a title, paragraphs, maybe a picture or some dialogue, but for the life of you, the rest is completely incomprehensible.

Once day a few words start lighting up in green on the wall – the words you have learned either in your class or through your own persistent self efforts. The words might not be anywhere near each other and in their scattered state don’t offer a lot of help except maybe you know that the story is about an elephant or it’s based in Kenya. Over time, more and more of the words turn green, but then some of them turn red, meaning you know you’ve learned them *but you can’t for the life of you remember what the hell they are.*  These words might blink on and off, green and red, for a long time. (I have special markings in my dictionary for words that I look up multiple times, kind of a “Here it is, you idiot, you need it again” system.) You keep staring at the wall, but it’s still not making much sense.

Art, though, always makes some kind of sense, regardless of the language. Here’s s shot of the facade of the Berlin State Opera, where it is proven once again that a picture is always worth a thousand words:

From that wall back to my own…you’re studying those words and trying to bring them to life and then, one day, groups of words start turning green all at the same time – a phrase here and there, maybe even a short sentence. You’re not entirely sure if the elephant killed the man or the man killed the elephant; it might have been a deadly bee or maybe a deadly flower that looks like a bee, but *you are getting the general drift.* You start to get encouraged; you start to want to understand more. It all stops being so much of a pain and starts to become a more interesting puzzle.

Linguistic theory tells us that if students read a passage where they don’t know somewhere between 85-90% of the words *without looking them up*, they will quickly lose interest and not want to continue reading. The challenge for language teachers (any teacher, really) is always trying to find material that has enough to engage, but not too much to disenchant. (It’s not easy and that’s why Vygotsky is famous for I = 1, or the zone of proximal development.)

But before I totally geek out on you about language acquisition, let me return to my Saturday evening walk along the boulevard. Just past the opera the crowds really started getting heavier and I eyed the 100 buses longingly that would carry me back to the relative peace and serenity of the other side of town. I was determined, though, to get to the end of the show, the park (Lustgarten) in front of the base of Der Berliner Dom (the Protestant Cathedral) that anchors the opposite end of the Under den Linden from Der Brandenburger Tor. Through the still leafy trees I could see that wonders awaited me there, so I kept shuffling forward, passing the bratwurst stands and beer sellers, trying not to give flat tires to the charming young ladies in front of my who, I swear, never took their eyes from their phones. At last I made it to the promised land:

…and then I stood there for long minutes, manically snapping away like everyone else, taking deep breaths with tears in my eyes at my good fortune to be living in a place that holds a festival like this just for free, just for everyone to enjoy. Would that more cfolks ould share this with me….and perhaps next year I’ll be able to tell you about it…completely auf Deutsch…

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“Find Your Spot:” Expats and other misfits

Many years ago, my ex-husband and I were trying to decide where to move. The backstory is long and complicated; the essential bits are that we were in possession of money but not jobs and we were trying to recreate our lives after a decade-long series of family health crises and upheavals. I stumbled onto a very helpful website called Find Your Spot (www.findyourspot.com – currently undergoing “long term maintenance” or perhaps sadly no longer in existence). The gist was that you answered a bunch of questions and the site matched you with places in the United States that might be a suitable new home – sort of a match.com but for physical relocation.

The site’s algorithm suggested that Portland, Oregon (among several other places) might be a good spot for us, and indeed we ended up moving there. It proved to be a pleasant but relatively temporary perch for my ex, but I on the other hand ended up staying over a decade in that faire city, igniting a successful new career but not finding enough social and emotional traction to keep me tethered for the long run. As a result, a few years back, I made a new set of plans, heading first to Portland, Maine and thence to various parts of Europe.

So at the moment, as you know if you follow this blog, I am splitting my time between Berlin, Germany, a small village in the rural Italian region of Abruzzo, and (in summers) another small village in Niigata Prefecture, Japan. If I stay out of the US until the end of January 2018, I will officially be designated an expat, which is defined, Wiki tells us, in addition to those who leave their country of origin for a well-paying job, as “a term used for retirees and others who have chosen to live outside their native country. Historically, it has also referred to exiles,” or “strangers in strange lands,” to modify Heinlein’s famous work.

Interestingly though, my expat role and experiences change from country to country. In Japan, my otherness is completely obvious from a physical perspective; I am an old, tall, pale, clumsy and stupid gaijin who is politely tolerated because that’s just what Japanese people do. In Abruzzo I have a defined and protected social role as someone’s wife – but my actual personality (thoughts, feelings) is irrelevant. In Berlin, because I have Northern European features, I am invisible, but totally free and able to conduct my life without constraint. Three countries and three completely different perceptions and experiences of “otherness.”

That being said, I am finding that this expat space of “being-in but not being-of” oddly satisfying.

For almost my entire life I have felt that I didn’t fit in. I was the new student, the weird kid, the tall girl, the clumsy member of the softball team, the bossy sister, the awkward dance partner, the outspoken employee, you get the idea. But *at last as an expat there’s a reason that I am strange* and that is….because I am Not From Here. And, happily in Berlin *there are a lot of other people just like me* and somehow that makes it more than just okay.

Of course, being an expat brings with it many things, good and not so good….language challenges, cultural challenges, huge gaps in understanding, the sense that one sees things others do not see and yet misses the obvious. I was reminded of this the other day when I came upon a perfectly ordinary ATM at the local science museum:

….and what comes to mind almost every time in my puerile my seventh-grade brain..is instant and industrial castration. (Sorry.) I snigger every time I see one of these, not sure others would do this, but it’s the result of the “in-between place” of language and culture in my mind that is the odd privilege of those outside the norm.

Which brings me to the “misfits” issue. Not long ago, dear friend B posted to me on Facebook “I know you love me, but we both know you think I’m weird!” Now, friends, this took me aback. It’s been a long time since I thought anyone else (besides me) was weird, and at the present moment, my definition of weirdness is limited to (short political rant) public servants who have forgotten the meaning of the words “public” and “servant” and who seem to be hell-bent on a kind of national destruction and disintegration that will take decades to repair. Anything else is pure charming eccentricity and barely raises a flicker of notice in my world.

But what this post told me is that B felt weird and that she felt others felt she was weird, and in that moment I had a chance to call her out in a good way. B lives in a small town in red state and she has had more than her share of travail. I thought that I was a good friend; I thought that we were connected in positive ways, but clearly she was feeling…otherwise. So I sent her the best damn TED Talk video I know of that affirms the power of weird, the power of otherness, the power of not doing it like anybody else. I share that with you now below… Lidia Yuknavitch saying “Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful,” she says. “You don’t know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That’s your beauty.”

Now here’s a woman who has embraced her demons and raised them a few farthings. Lidia, I salute you.

Back to me and back to Berlin. Probably the reason I feel so amazingly comfortable here is….it seems to be a home for misfits and expats. It’s a damaged place, a flexible place, a tolerant place, a transformative place. It seems to say to us all, locals and expats alike, “Come, relax, be, find yourself. Just be kind and tolerant to each other. That’s all I ask.” For example, here’s a fellow Berliner finding his spot on a recent warm fall day by a canal:

…and no one does…

…and so we are, Berliners, Americans, everyone, all of us, trying to be, trying to live, trying to find our spots. I am so grateful for this weird spot of Berlin, for the (expat himself) talented and generous man who has chosen to link his life to mine, for this time of watching the world writhe in pain but perhaps also in throes of new creation, for finally being able to affirm my weirdness, your weirdness, all of our weirdnesses, wherever they might find you or bring you. Take a deep breath, friends. We can do this; we have to do this. Shalom.

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Captivating Kyoto

T and I have just returned from our wonderful week traveling in Japan. You may have seen my blog on Ginza, below, and we also spent a bit of time in Nagoya visiting a pen friend and touring Osaka with a delightful former student of mine. My focus for this trip, however, was on the former capital of Japan, Kyoto, a city I have hoped to visit for some time. And like all figments of imagination, my expectations of the place…were way off the mark. It was completely different from what I expected, and yet absolutely wonderful at the same time. Here’s a shot of the happy travelers on the shinkansen (bullet train) starting their way west:

My image of Kyoto was that it would be similar to the kinds of historic cities that dot Italy and much of Europe – fairly smallish with a clearly defined city center in which one finds all the cool stuff within easy walking distance. Hah!  When we reached the city, we discovered that it is a huge sprawling metropolis and that in a manner similar to Los Angeles, anything worth seeing…is some distance from anything else worth seeing (with some exceptions). So we quickly mastered the subway system (two intersecting lines forming a cross in the middle of the city) and got ready to log some serious walking mileage.

August is festival time in much of Japan, and Kyoto is no exception. Thanks to a most informative agent at the train station information booth, we learned that we had arrived on the last night of the Okazaki Promenade, “a feast of sound and stars,” in the words of the tourist brochure. In short, one six-block long stretch on Nijo Street was turned into a nighttime fairyland in honor of Tanabata, or Star Festival, a time when people write wishes and tie them to tree-like objects which are later burned to send the wishes to the heavens. It is, of course, much more interesting and complicated than that  — see Wiki at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanabata — but we just enjoyed being  part of a big beautiful community event with loads of friends and families jostling along an illuminated path on a sultry steamy summer evening. T took this shot of a young attendee meandering just ahead of us on the path:

There was a section with lights overhead that shimmered and shifted to music, a section with trees covered in wishes, and a section with a small water channel containing a gorgeous silk strip of cloth, which was about four feet wide by 20 feet long and rippled over rocks and under water while being illuminated by carefully placed spot lights:

The next day we hit the tourist trail with as much enthusiasm as the humidity would allow. Our focus was the Higashiyama area in the eastern foothills of the city where a number of the city’s treasures are conveniently sprinkled along a walking path. This next shot is at the Yasaka Shrine, originated in the seventh century CE and one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto  where, as T noted, we could actually see people engaged in their spiritual practice (unlike most of the religious sites in Europe where only tourists fill the aisles of churches and cathedrals):

The walking path we planned to follow would have been utterly delightful…had not a few thousand other people decided to walk it at the same time. In fairness, we planned this trip because it followed the end of my teaching contract period, but it managed to overlap the etremely popular Obon Festival in Japan when many people have time off from work and travel to see family for some kind of ancestor worship Most, it appeared, came right here:

Fortunately, the madding crowd (always polite and totally nonthreatening in this part of the world) provided welcome glimpses into the lives and passions of others:

…as well as provided diversions with specific merit-earning recommendations:

Well loved

Not surprisingly the teeming holiday hordes were charming only for so long, and in order to restore some sanity we had the recommendation of my student Dr. I to head off the walking street and visit the Kodai-ji Temple. This turned out to be, for me at least, one of the highlights of the whole visit. Formally known as Kodaijusho-zenji Temple, this quiet piece of landscape was established in 1605 by the noblewoman Kita-no-Mandokoro in honor of her late husband, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan’s second great “unifier” (1536-98). The complex itself is a a Zen temple and hence it is far less decorated than many of the other temples in Kyoto and Japan; the structures are connected by a meandering path and is set in a beautiful park that is scrupulously maintained. The overall impression is of great peace and harmony, giving both T and myself perhaps the most serene moments of the last year or so.

Nearby we stumbled across the Ryozen Kannon, “a monument to the second world war’s unknown soldier erected to the memory of more than forty-eight thousand foreign soldiers who perished on Japanese territory or on territory under Japanese military control.” This complex includes a shrine, a mausoleum, and a Buddhist “Homa” Hall. Looming over all is a 80-foot high concrete statue of the compassionate Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (aka Kannon). This piece in addition specifically commemorates the Japanese “who sacrificed them-selves in the last war and for the establishment of a peaceful Japan.” T and I were touched by the sentiment (particularly at this moment in history) and added our incense and hopeful thoughts to the array:

But by this time, the heat and history had caught up with us and we decided to head back and regroup. Before we could take our leave of this utterly lovely area (far too soon and with far more to be discovered on another trip, hopefully), T caught this view of a little geisha who had decided she also had had enough of being polite and pictured for the day:

You can dress them up but…

…and happily before we melted down completely ourselves, we escaped to the cooling respite of our air-conditioned accommodations for a little hydrated R&R.

Back in Italy now for a bit, then the plan is to Berlin for the fall. Thanks for joining me on these adventures.

Posted in Travel - Japan | Tagged | 3 Comments