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.

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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

Glimpses of Ginza

I know the world’s a scary place just now and I can hardly put into words my feelings about recent events in Charlottesville, but at the same time, I’m in Japan and I can’t do much about any of it except to light candles at temples and say prayers that sanity and peace return to the parts of the planet that need them most. If the world goes to hell, my current attitude is “Carpe diem and pass the sushi.”

So Wednesday last I left IUJ and traveled to Tokyo to meet up with T and our good friend K for a little fun and frolic and a quick trip to Nagoya to visit with a Japanese pen acquaintance there. On the way, we spent a lovely day or so exploring some interesting corners of the Ginza area of Tokyo, where K has his pen shop. Ginza, as you may know, is home to the “Rodeo Drive” of Tokyo, the biggest baddest department stores you’ve ever seen and remarkably lavish storefronts of nearly all the world’s luxury brands. But as an urban landscape, even at real estate rates of nearly one billion yen per square meter (!!), it doesn’t win any beauty contests with me, at least from the outside:

But this is where it gets interesting. Like much of Japan, the good stuff is hidden, a little off the beaten path, a bit subtle and indirect. K took us to one of those amazing department stores (forgot to ask which one) that has installed a branch of the Tsutaya Book Shop on its upper floor, complete with a very small, very exclusive, very tasteful stationery department. Since all three of us are pen and paper nuts, it was a must-see. On the way up, this cheery summer display:

Up, up and away…

Once inside the “bookstore,” folks can browse the merchandise or just settle in and make the scene in this most attractive cafe:

We, of course, made a beeline for the pens and paper section (all gorgeous and WAY over-priced, particularly for us who have connections and can get this stuff for less), but I loved this scene of one of the uniformed customer service employees helping a couple geisha girls pick out the perfect gift:

“May I take your order, please?”

I was particularly taken with a product I had simply never seen anywhere before – and can’t even say now exactly how it works or who might use it. Solar paper – who knew?

One of our target stops, alas, was closed, but the outdoor signage gave me a chance to snap a shot of T on the left and K on the right, my two Musketeers:

We started looking around for lunch, but this one place seemed to offer menu items that were simply WAY too fresh for my consideration:

…and since life is uncertain at the moment, we decided to ‘eat dessert first.’ Here’s a shot of a place one simply should not miss in this neck of the woods – the Kit Kat flagship store and “Chocolatory.” Now, in the US, Kitkat is just another boring mass-market drug-store brand Nestle milk chocolate square, but in Japan, it’s WHOLE other story. Wiki tells us “There have been more than 300 limited-edition seasonal and regional flavors of Kit Kats produced in Japan since 2000. Nestle, which operates the Kit Kat brand in Japan, reports that the brand overtook Meiji Chocolate as the top-selling confection in Japan from 2012 to 2014….The product’s name as the coincidental cognate Kitto Kattsu (きっと勝つ), translated as “You will surely win” … could be mailed as a good luck charm for students ahead of university exams.”

Here’s a shot of the current limited editions; I am ashamed to admit I tumbled for a small box of the pistachio-grapefruit selection, which was tasty but a bit overpriced:

Searching for luck in all the wrong places…

…and that odd creature in the lower left hand corner is actually a two-foot high caged, er, tower of a number of the different flavors…

Upstairs, there is a charming cafe with some of the most beautiful pastries I have seen in a long time. If you know me at all, you know I’m not much of a foodie, I certainly don’t spend a lot of time photographing my dinners AND I’m not usually seduced by baker’s wares, but that day was an exception and I both documented AND quickly inhaled one of these beauties:

Sic transit gloria mundi

…then off we ran to the train station for a smooth shinkansen (bullet train) ride to Nagoya and thence Kyoto. Stay tuned for more snippets from this trip, unless the Stooge Duo of DT and KJU decided to blow us to Kingdom Come. Trust that I would vaporize with joy in my heart.

Posted in Travel - Japan | Tagged | 3 Comments

IUJ interlude

It’s my last weekend teaching English in the intensive immersion program at the International University of Japan and I’m scrambling to complete my grade reports, finish last-minute shopping, clean my flat, eat my food, wash my clothes, and tender my farewells before another lovely summer term here in the hinterlands of Niigata Prefecture is “in the can,” as I say. But before I head to the next adventure (more about that in a minute), I wanted to share a few pictures about this summer and the wonderful students and fellow faculty who have populated it.

First up is a shot of the bucolic countryside that surrounds our campus. We are near Mt. Hakkai and an associated range of the Japanese “Alps” that even in the heat and humidity always manages to look serene and cool:

The result of all this beautiful nature is….wildlife! While bears and strange blond monkeys are reputed to live high in the hills (and the monkeys apparently enjoy the local hot springs in the winter months), I haven’t seen much besides hawks, crows, little lizards and frogs, and lots and lots of bugs. The cicadas are throbbing as I write this (look away, J), and the campus often yields creature species I simply haven’t ever laid eyes on before. Here’s one critter that greeted me as I headed into the cafeteria for lunch last week:

It’s only about three inches in length (including those “antlers”) but still a bit of a surprise.

In addition to tropical weather, summer in this part of the world is the time for some of Japan’s best…watermelon. These come in two styles. There are Type A melons, absolute geometric perfection, and they go for a king’s ransom (perfection in Japan is a high virtue). And then there are the Type B melons, slightly misshapen, perhaps a microscopic nick or pit here or there. They run for about USD 6-10 a head. And finally, if you happen to walk down the right rutted path at the right time of day and find a friendly farmer, they might be…free. Here are some charming prospects in a local farmer’s market:

Suica…one of my very few Japanese words

…and even more fun, a shot of one of the watermelon feeds that happens intermittently at IUJ when one of the faculty stumbles across a big one at a reasonable price. Chilled and sliced on a steamy afternoon….mmmm…nothing better…

I’ve spoken about this before, but I need to give a shout out to my students this summer and the last two summers, amazing young men and women from developing countries —  many of whom leave jobs and families and even small children — who come to study with us for the summer and then go on to master’s programs at graduate schools in Tokyo. These young professionals are in the banking and financial services sector and are chosen by the International Monetary Fund for mid-career fellowships. As I mentioned when I posted this picture on Facebook, if anyone is going to save the world, it’s going to be these folks, individuals tasked with try to adjust entire sections of a country’s economy in order to create more opportunities for their compatriots And yet, as individuals, they are just wonderful human beings – smart, funny, compassionate, engaged, and basically a teacher’s dream. The group below hails from Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Mongolia, and Myanmar:

Fortunately, life isn’t all teaching…some faculty are generous enough to offer extra activities to get out out and about. For the last three years, I’ve shocked myself by joining a dance empowerment/quasi “Zumba” class offered by a fellow faculty member who is so gifted…she gets me to jump around and sweat in the heat. Here’s a shot of some of the intrepid students and teachers who don’t mind making utter fools of themselves to get the endorphins flowing:

Also on the non-academic side of life, this year I did something new. Normally, the oral communications teachers (I am “Text Skills,” doncha know?) dress in traditional Japanese costumes for one of the summer social events, but this year I was convinced to join in as well (I didn’t think there would be anything…long enough for me). So thanks to a lovely student who loaned some of us her mother and grandmother’s yukatas (summer cotton kimonos), here I am with another faculty member being suited up in full glory:

“Sam and Janet evening”

Together with my fellow faculty colleagues, we make a charming intercultural array. Even the instructors are diverse, hailing from England, the US, Canada, and Australia. One was born in Uganda, another in Spain, and a third has a Filipino background. So we truly are “international.”

But of course we can’t keep this level of control and sobriety…for very long. The venue for this particular even happens to be a brewery…and we were treated well to a lovely buffet and a lavish amount of the local swill. The resulting shot strips away the masks of propriety:

…but at least I managed to avoid the karaoke this year…

I leave here this coming Wednesday and head to Tokyo, where (wonder of wonders) T will join me for a week of excursion around Japan. The goal is to spend some time in with some friends here and there and then enjoy a long weekend in Kyoto, the former capital of Japan and home to Buddhist temples, imperial palaces, and traditional geishas. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and Kampai!

Posted in Teaching in Japan | 4 Comments

Summer Daze update…

It’s been a while since I’ve chimed in, due to a lot of activity but not a lot of stories to tell, per se. It’s been a lovely couple of months in Italy, interspersed with visits from foreign friends, the last two pen shows of the spring in Rome and Torino and other pen-related travel, a busy end to my consulting contract with the English Language Fellow Program, dinners with various friends and relations, some serious spring cleaning, and of course the final bits and pieces of my adventure to get legal status in Italy. The good news: yes, I am in possession of the Permesso! More in a bit. But here are a few shots to share, along with the news that I will be headed back to Japan on Monday the 3rd for my 3rd summer teaching at the International University of Japan.

As general background, here’s a panoramic shot taken from a nearby hill town, the one where T likes to go and shop. T’s house is slightly to the left of the scene, about 10 kilometers away or so.

Absolutely stunning, no question. But if there’s a fly in the ointment (isn’t there always?) it’s that this part of Italy, heck, most of Italy, is pretty darn sunny in the summer *and I am increasingly allergic to lots of sunshine.* I just learned it has a name: photodermatitis (or maybe sun poisoning?). So after some fairly bold adventuring and getting pretty red and itchy, I have had to start staying a bit more in the shade, not the easiest task around here. Fortunately, T had a great little project for me to help him with that didn’t need a lot of sunshine, and that was cleaning up the attic and garage. Here’s a shot of the dumpster we filled to the brim, along with the newly tidied front of the house:

But you know how it is with big clean-up projects – the best of intentions, sudden spurts of Herculean activity, and then the inevitable postprandial letdown:

While the cats are snoozing in the late afternoons, T and I amuse ourselves most days with an adult beverage and a check of the day’s news:

…and, before long, if we’re lucky, a view of one of Italy’s spectacular summer sunsets:

But, as promised above, the big news is the achievement of legal status. Now, while T and I both knew that the ultimate outcome would be favorable and that I, as an American and the wife of an EU citizen, had the process better than *just about anyone else,* it didn’t mean that there wasn’t plenty of pit-of-the-stomach anxiety and nail-biting wait time to go around.  So, in recap, after a dozen or so trips to various municipal offices literally all over the local landscape and lasting nearly 50 days, my quest for legitimacy ended (successfully) here:

The sign on the door basically directs people leftward, to the waiting room, so it wasn’t entirely clear to us that this was the place…that would actually hand me the keys to the kingdom, as it were – permission to live in Italy for five years, then an indefinite extension, assuming I stay out of trouble. I am still (legally) not supposed to spend more than 90 out every 180 days in the rest of Schengen Europe, but… with no border control (aside from airports), it’s going to be hard for me or anyone else for that matter to keep close tabs of my movements. So. Mission accomplished. I’m relieved, happy, and incredibly grateful to the linguistic and cultural skills of my spouse as well as his sheer dogged persistence and unfailing good humor throughout this entire process. Here’s proof positive that they can’t come for me in the middle of the night (it’s the one on the left):

Ta DA!

…and then, being the good little Continentals that we are, we celebrated with a cappuccino and a sweet roll at Caffe Vittorio, just literally around the corner from the nondescript door pictured above:

La dolce vita

So…next step, the long flight back to Tokyo and thence to IUJ. You’ve read about the place a couple summers now, so I may not have a whole lot to add this time, but rest assured I’ll keep you posted on any interesting adventures that might unfold there and then. Be thee well.

Posted in Italy | 9 Comments