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

Un Bacio di Bari (A Kiss from Bari)

Good friends G and V had been encouraging us to come visit them in Bari, and when M from Poland said she was taking a short vacation there this past weekend, T and I decided we had to dash down for the weekend. And I’m so glad we did. Bari is an example of one of those places that had only ever been at the far end of my radar, solely in connection with a friend from graduate days who had been born there. Now, along with Belfast, Bruges, and Berlin, it has turned into one of the “B” cities that has unexpectedly both delighted and inspired me to return as soon as possible.

Bari, located at the top of the heel of Italy in the region known as Puglia, is a harbor city dating from Greek and Roman times. Although briefly part of an emirate, for most of its history it was the subject of multiple tugs of wars between various Italian factions, Lombards, the Holy Roman Empire, Byzantium, and goodness knows who else. It grew into regional prominence under the unlikely patronage of Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, Prince of Naples, who expanded the city greatly in the 19th century, appending a large rational French urban grid to the small ancient city on the harbor. Mussolini added his own distinctive mark in the early 20th century with a number of oversized structures along the waterfront. Today Bari is a charming, vibrant, and surprisingly un-touristy city with lots of cultural and shopping options.

In Pescara, our closest transportation hub, T and I hopped on the Freccia Bianca, the fast train that flies up and down Italy’s Adriatic coastline. It took us just under three hours to cover the 300+ kilometers and dropped us gently at Bari’s central station, leading me to think I was somewhere in France (probably the influence of Murat):

What we hadn’t factored into our plans – but which managed to work out just fine for us – was that the finance ministers of the G-7 had also planned to be in town the exact same weekend:

It’s easy to spot economists – they all dress in identical versions of navy suits and white or light blue shirts, that weekend  sporting huge yellow badges, and surrounded by various forms of security forces. What was equally easy to spot was the massive official police presence all over town, blocking access to some of the tourist sites (the castle, in particular, where the meetings where held and part of the corniche along the sea.) I have rarely felt so safe…so although I couldn’t get any closer, here’s a shot of the Castello Normanno-Svevo, built around 1132 by the Norman/Sicilian King Roger II, complete with a few dozen of the local constabulary:

Look but don’t touch…

As part of the security measures, a number of the main streets were completely blocked off to vehicular traffic, lending a somewhat carnival air to the proceedings (although the actual number of pedestrians was radically reduced as a consequence). So on these lovely warm spring days and evenings, it felt as if we had the city completely to ourselves. Here is a shot of a main square with decorations from a recent festival celebrating the patron saint of the city, San Nicola, a fourth-century wonder-working churchman who later became transformed into our Santa Claus:

No visit to Bari is complete without a long lovely ramble through Bari Vecchia, the labryrinthian historic center of the ancient city recently rehabilitated from the ravages of urban decay and crime. Our quick visit didn’t allow me one of my favorite pastimes in a new city, that being a visit to the city museum. But as small consolation, I took a shot of its location in the entrance to the old town, with a quick promise to return as soon as possible:

I’ll be back

The genius of these old cities is, of course, that the winding alleys block both the wind and rain of the winter as well as the heat and blazing sun of the summer, particularly in a place like Bari that is plagued by precepitation mixed with dust blown up from the Sahara across the Mediterranean. The buildings remain temperate and protected nearly year-round. One does wonder, however, precisely how, ahem, sanitation was managed in days gone by; happily this is an issue that has been resolved in the here and now. Around a far corner, we stumbled onto…the remains of a Roman temple, today just standing guard over recent sanitation of the laundry variety:

A nearby inscription reads something along the lines of: “Under the patronage of the Comune, these monumental remnants of the ancient Bari buried forgotten for many centuries now again see the light.” October the (chiseled away) 1939 (chiseled away – year 17) of the era (chiseled away – Fascist) of the newborn Roman Empire.” (Language apparently redacted by an anonymous civic volunteer.) And that’s all she wrote.

But lest you think the Bari Vecchia is all work and no play, here’s a shot of a festive residence along the Le Vecchie Mura, the massive and pedestrian wall that separates the old town from the water and harbors on each side of it:

…and a few local ragazzi enjoying the afternoon:

One last view of boats in front of what I think I remember as the customs house, one of the reminders of Uncle Benito’s reign:

As you might imagine, all this hoofing, even without the press of crowds, can bring about a mighty hunger and thirst. One of southern Italy’s unique gastronomic offerings is Taralli, small (savory) or large (sweet) bread circles. They’re made of flour, white wine, olive oil, and salt, but no yeast, and oven baked:

Bet you can’t eat just one…

…and of course we did not. In addition to these nearly addictive munchies, G & V prepared a wonderful lunch for us and some other lucky friends. The meal included a wonderful pasta and some fantastic cheeses, along with the ubiquitous red and white wine but complemented particularly by G’s mother’s amazing Limoncello and some other lethal homemade liquors. Here’s a shot of the table after we had had our fill. T looks particularly satisfied…

…so there you have it…a wonderful get-away that kept me happily distracted for a couple days before our visit to the police the following Monday to submit the paperwork for my Permesso. But I have fallen in love, and T knows he’s in for at least one more visit to Bari before too long….I have to see the castle and the museum and walk again along the long lovely wall along the sea…

Posted in Italy, Uncategorized | Tagged | 5 Comments

Permesso di Soggiorno 2

  • Good News Department: Paperwork submitted. Fingerprints taken, data entered into computer before my eyes. Receipt for paperwork received (proving I am trying to become legal in Italy), which, combined with my passport and copy of our marriage certificate that should probably be adhered to my body, will keep me from being hauled off and placed in detention.
  • Patience Still Required Department: Process to actually *receive* Permesso may take weeks or months. Clarification: I am more or less free to move *around Italy* once T and I go and chat with the local police department and tell them what our plans are. Whew. I was under the impression I would have to stay tethered to four walls. Not true. Happy me.
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Permesso di Soggiorno 1

Now that I have entered into a state of international marital bliss (see previous post), there is, as you might expect, a price to be paid. And that price at the moment is trying to gain legal status to stay with my spouse in Italy and also to be able to travel about the European continent without fearing that I overstep overlapping and/or conflicting immigration regulations with dire consequences. We knew this day was coming; things are probably going as well as possible under the circumstances, but at the same time, I now have a much larger and lived appreciation for the anxiety and downright blood-chilling fear that must haunt the days and nights of millions of otherwise innocent immigrants and refugees who are trying to live a better life in places outside their own borders and must interface, as I am currently doing, with loads of bureaucratic administrative units, usually doing so, as I am currently doing, in a language not their own.

Shortly after our marriage, T called his locale commune (his township or local municipality) to inform them of a change in dependent status and ask for the next steps. In typical charming Italian fashion, he was offered the warmest wishes of congratulations and told it was merely a simple matter of going to the questura (police station) in a nearby town and applying for my permesso di soggiorno, a permission to reside in Italy for a period greater than three months, the renewable document required of all non-EU citizens who wish to live in Italy. I had a hunch that it would be slightly more complicated than that, and indeed it is proving to be so, even though we have not yet gotten any hint that we won’t ultimately be successful, and that marriage is probably the fastest route in any case to obtain this document. But as inspiration for you to read this post and for me to not lose heart, here’s a shot of one of the villages not far from T’s home:

Day 1

  • Travel 45 minutes over twisting and rutted mountain roads. Go to questura. Chat with lovely officer at the counter. Be offered a long photocopied list of 35 requirements. When stomach stops sinking, notice that she has only checked nine of them and written in two additional for us to provide. These include: a copy of T’s permesso; our marriage certificate (translated into Italian; it is mercifully brief); a full copy of my passport; three separate confirmations of our identity and residence; a copy of my Italian tax ID; certification from T’s accountant that he has sufficient sums to provide for me; four photos; and of course an odd amount of tax to be provided in the forms of stamps. None of these things are, of course, available in the questura.
  • Head over to the Palace of Justice, thankfully in the same town. Get lost amid the soothing light blue walls of the building and find a kind security guard who takes us up to where we need to go. Check with the administrative judge and learn that indeed our five-language marriage certificate is not sufficient and that an Italian translation is required. The judge decides T’s language skills are sufficient and immediately deputizes him to do the translation. We take note of the slightly pornographic art on the walls of the judge’s office and beat a hasty departure.

    Justice is served

  • Drive to another village for a copy of T’s permesso. Although he already holds a carta d’identità (which requires the permesso), this is just how it has to be. But not so fast. All of the required offices are open either 8:30-12:30 or 9:30-12:30 and most do not open in the afternoon. Thankfully this one does (two days a week), but we have arrived at 12:15 and are charmingly turned away and asked to return later in the afternoon with the suggestion that we buy some tax stamps in the meantime. We decide to have a long lunch. Then we head to the tobacco shop where the stamps are sold:
  • Not so fast…

  • Ah. By now it’s 3:15 and we’re a little antsy, but clearly there’s nothing to be done until the shop opens at 4:00 pm. A local bistro offers a lovely glass of local white and some nice conversation with the bar keep. At 4:00 we buy our stamps and head back to the office for T’s permesso. Mission accomplished!
  • Head home, fill out the three self-certified identity and address forms, make a pile of photocopies, translate the marriage certificate, and congratulate ourselves on our initial foray.
  • Day 2
  • Head back to the Palace of Justice (again a 45-minute drive along twisty and rutted mountain roads). Return to the office of the administrative judge with the interesting taste in art. With great flourish, he pulls out some forms, fills them out carefully by hand, staples them all together, stamps the margins in about four or different five places, and wishes us well, then pointing us in the direction of the next office where we will be assigned a case number.
  • At the case number office, watch in utter amazement as our certificate is registered by hand with pen in an oversized registry volume that looks a good bit like the ones pictured below:
  • Celebrate this step with a cappuccino next door.
  • Next, off to a different building in the same town for my codice fiscale, my Italian tax ID. At this moment, I’m certainly happy to pay tax to just about any government except my own, so this is fine by me. Here, at least, the 21st century seems to be in evidence:
  • This step was rapido. ‘Nuff said.
  • At this point, since we were nearly finished collecting the paperwork and even though it was Tuesday and we weren’t supposed to turn it in until Friday, we decide to have another chat with the folks at the questura (police station) and check for any necessary invoices or tax stamps.
  • Happy to see us, lovely police officer offers us an appointment for May 22nd (this is May 9th). Seeing the instant dismay on our faces, she revises this suggestion for May 15th.
  • All of a sudden a long conversation breaks in rapid Italian between the female officer, her boss (a male officer) and T, all articulating and gesticulating in a manner and speed far beyond my somewhat anxious nonverbal interpretative abilities at the moment. Several hair-raising moments transpire in which both officers were shaking their heads and waving their index fingers back and forth in a clear “Definitely not!” message. Naturally, assuming the worst, I take this to mean that someone was coming imminently to restrain me and place me in local detention. Fortunately, this is not the case, and T hastens to assure me that the “Definitely not!” was in response to his concern that I would have to leave Italy during the time my permesso was being processed. “But you’re married!”
  • Shaken but not stirred, we leave the questura and head 45 minutes up twisty and rutted mountain roads to T’s shopping village of G and the office of his accountant, fortunately arriving at 11:45 am before the mandatory 12:30 shutdown.
  • Sit patiently and wait 45 minutes for the accountant to write a long and detailed affirmation that the income tax documentation he is providing in support of our application for permesso is indeed valid and current, all the while counting the number of Virgin Marys that adore his office. (As a feminist aside, I am fascinated that no one thinks to ask *me* if I have financial resources for my own support. But this is rural Italy; my ability to generate income is not even considered. The fancy restaurant in town still gives ladies the menu without prices…)
  • Leave accountant’s office famished and flattened…head to lunch, proud as punch that the paperwork is at last completed and make plans to head out of town this weekend because….once we submit the paperwork on Monday, *I am expected to be physically present in T’s home pretty much continuously until the carabinieri make their unannounced visit to confirm my marital status sometime in the next….weeks….*
  • As compensation, though, here’s a view of the landscape around T’s home…even I, non-nature-lover that I am, must admit this is a lovely sight:
  • I will keep you posted on this most interesting chapter of my journey…in the meantime, if you have any suggestions for amusing and time-consuming online games or puzzles, please send them my way. I am sustained by my charming and supportive spouse as well as the hope that I get to see more of the local flora and fauna. Have I told you about the wild boar that infest the neighborhood? Stay tuned.
Posted in Italy, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

My small Danish wedding

Seeing this title you might think that my European peregrinations of the past several years might have had something to do with my personal life, a subject that has been noticeably absent in my blog content. But the fact that I even have a personal life to discuss at this point is actually as a *result* of those travels, a nearly incredible coincidence of timing, opportunity, and a strong personal interest in of all things…fountain pens. And the result is that I have just married an amazing man and we have made this happen in a most amazing way.

T is German, but he lives in Italy. I am, of course, American, currently resident in…Berlin. When we began discussing matrimony, we quickly learned that the bureaucratic requirements in both Italy and Germany were substantial and both countries upped the ante considerably when multiple nationalities were involved. But I’m a pretty clever little monkey when it comes to online research, and during my electronic rambles I stumbled onto a very interesting fact, and that is that Denmark, bless its practical and tolerant little heart, is literally the “Las Vegas” of Europe.

And I’m not talking casinos and pink flamingos here. What I mean is that Denmark makes it easy to “tie the knot” for people from just about anywhere to people from just about anywhere (folks from Laos, I’m told, have had difficulty). You can do it yourself or you can hire the assistance of an agency that specializes in this area; we were fortunate to receive the tender mercies of Samantha at gettingmarriedindenmark.com. In short, all you need to prove is that 1.) you are alive and legal (passport and residency); 2.) you are over 18 (or under with parental consent) and and 3.) your former spouse, if you had one, is either deceased or divorced. That’s it. Full stop. The kicker is, of course, that you have to *go to Denmark* from wherever you are. Once in that happy land, there are several locations one can choose, and for a number of reasons, we picked the little island of Ærø, and it turns out *a lot* of other people do as well.

Ærø is a small island lying between Denmark and Germany, some 20 kilometers long and maybe three wide, with around 6500 souls in residence and three little towns. You can get there by way of three ferries. The village of “Ærøskøbing, with its narrow lanes and picturesque 18th-century houses was historically Ærø’s chief town,” and is currently THE spot for….the nearly 4000 couples (yes, 4000 couples) who will be united in matrimony there this year alone, according to the local authorities.

Picturesque indeed

This is how it works. You arrive on the island on one day, present your papers to the wedding office, and receive a time for the following day when your ceremony will occur. This requires that you spend at least one overnight on the island, with the resulting monies improving the local economy. The concept itself was the brainchild of the current mayor, an outgoing and enterprising soul if ever there were one, who came up with this idea as a way to radically extend the shoulder season of a holiday island that’s really only appealing for six weeks in the summer.

We were slightly dismayed to learn that the municipal office complex was considerably less visually compelling than the rest of the town, but sic transit gloria mundi:

Probably easier to heat

As you walk into the building, you are greeted by the comforting faces of Denmark’s reigning monarch and her consort, Margrete and Henrik, themselves a bi-national couple (Danish and French) and a bit of a scandal in their day:

Best wishes

Once inside, there is a very friendly and efficient office crew that has processed your documents and can affirm all the things that need to be affirmed:

Note signs for essential support services for brides and grooms…WC and WIFI

But here’s where the story gets much, much more interesting. Through those doors and into this office walk some extremely diverse couples and and no doubt equally intriguing stories. Although we were only there a short period of time, we saw…a German woman in hijab marrying a Tunisian man in tuxedo accompanied by her weeping mother; an African woman with her German groom, complete with her two African children and one blended child, all decked out in full white and sparkled splendor; a young Asian woman in a ballet tutu marrying her Anglo groom; a group of Turks from Berlin where it wasn’t at all clear who was marrying whom, and several other less dramatic couples, including ourselves together with three of T’s relatives who were adventurous enough to come along for the ride. The authorities told us they would marry 24 couples in the office that day, with eight other weddings taking place around the island on this chilly rainy April Friday.

Well, this is all well and good, you say, but where’s the story about you, Carla?

After this somewhat common-place waiting room, I was concerned that the service itself would feel like a car wash or an automat, but in this I was delightfully surprised. Once inside the wedding room itself, we were greeted by a lovely judge and two “hostesses” (they doubled as the witnesses) and a gracious interior with rugs and paintings. The judge herself was quite charmingly surprised that she was actually marrying an American…with a strong Danish name and a family history in the area. She offered the ceremony in three languages, and we chose English. The words were few but very thoughtful and sincerely presented (and received). As non-Danes, we weren’t permitted a religious ceremony even if we wanted (which we didn’t), but the judge wore a gold cross, so maybe the big guy was there “in spirit,” as it were. Here’s proof positive that I have been taken off the shelf again (thanks, Wilson), with T’s brother and his wife, left, in attendance. His niece took the shot:

“Med denne ring tigger du dig…”

Still quivering a bit, we were offered a quick toast of wine or lemonade and a warm congratulations from all present. Soon after, wedding certificates in hand, we passed back through the doors and out into our new life:

Since T and I are minimalists when it comes to all this kind of thing, you’ll probably guess that we didn’t hire a photographer but went with the DIY wedding selfie. Here we are in our hotel room with the lovely bouquet that one of T’s customers sent along to us:

And camera makes three

T’s family spent the day with us, enjoying local offerings both inside and out. But we waved them off on the late afternoon ferry and came back for a quiet evening alone, our first in quite a while, thanks to T’s amazing network of friends and family. We were not disappointed in the gustatory offerings of one of Ærø’s charming dinner spots:

Mission accomplished

May I say here and now that I am most grateful for this astonishing period in my life and the opportunity to pursue my lifelong dreams of travel, teaching, and writing overseas. The addition of T is a kind of dream-like miracle, and one from which I hope I never awake. The world may be writhing around me but I have found, in this moment, a very special place. And I plan to make the most of it. Skål!

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Art and Life in Potsdam

There are a lot of really good reasons to visit Potsdam, a city in its own right 24 km/15 miles southwest of Berlin. Designed using Age of Enlightenment ideals, it was intended to convey “a picturesque, pastoral dream” to remind its residents of their relationship with nature and reason. It was a center of immigration during the 17th century due to the Edict of Potsdam; Frederick the Great built his Sanssouci Palace there in the 18th century, playing his flute with other musicians to relieve the pressures of governing. It became a provincial capital of the state of Brandenburg in the 19th century, and in the 20th it hosted the Potsdam conference where the future of Europe was decided, later housing the East German intelligence apparatus and the “Bridge of Spies.”

As with many German cities, Potsdam was heavily bombed during the second World War, and as with many East German cities, the rebuilding was slow and in many cases downright ugly from 1945-1990. But with reunification, as in Dresden and with the new Schloss in Berlin, there is a concerted effort to reconstruct the original appearance of the historic city, as much as possible, public transportation notwithstanding. Here’s a shot of the Old Market Square with the reconstructed St. Nicholas Church (St. Nikolaikirche) on the right, some other recent renovations on the left, and an “Eeewwwwwww!” example of mid-century urban modernity in the middle:

Work in progress

In order to take this shot, I was standing on the upper floor of the Museum Barberini, the reason for my visit that afternoon. Now an art museum, it was rebuilt on the site of the original Barberini Palace which had stood there since 1772, itself built on the model of the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, erected in the 1600s. The modern reconstruction (2016) is the work of Hasso Plattner, founder of the SAP software enterprise, to exhibit his personal collection of art from the former GDR (I didn’t know this at the time) as well as special exhibitions of other works. I was there to see the highly vaunted initial opening exhibition “Impressionism: The Art of Landscape.” Here’s the front of the Museum Barberini, the building in the middle with the dark arches, showing recent and continuing reconstruction around it:

Embarrassing confession. I thought I liked Impressionism. I thought I downright loved it. But, surrounded by *a lot of fuzzy pictures with water and trees and bridges all painted in roughly the same colors, I got downright bored. (Sharing the moment with hundreds of my new best friends all milling around semi-aimlessly shooting pictures with their mobiles in stuffy galleries didn’t help either.) But I had spent a fair sum and come a fair distance. What to do? Here’s a shot of one of the main exhibit halls that afternoon, giving you a sense of the congestion and my dilemma:

Hard to see the forest for the trees

I took another look at my Floor Plan and noticed that there were some non-Impressionist galleries on the ground floor. Relief! Down I went for a little space and air…to discover…

“Hmmmmm,” sez I. “Now *this* looks intriguing….and better yet, NO PEOPLE! Score!

There was no official state art in the former East Germany; rather it was supposed to have a political function, according to the exhibit. But of course, artists, being artists, are usually not the best when it comes following the rules and doing what they are told. And it appears as if the collector recognized that fact and set out deliberately to find the work of those who dared to share their experience and vision through the lens of the time and place. There is going to be a major exhibit of these works in the fall; the rooms I saw were just teasers, and I’ll certainly be back for the main event.

Back story: As I have traveled around Europe and European art museums for the past couple years, I have become increasingly fascinated with how artists responded to the events of the 20th century in their works. A retrospective for the last ~100 years includes the beauty of turn-of-the-century impressionism; the gritty semi-realism of the First World War; the Art Deco optimism of the 20’s; the increasing ominous abstract expressionism  of the 30’s and 40’s; and finally postwar and up through the early 1990s, some very difficult and painful works (not even sure what to call them) trying to make some sense of the destruction, chaos, and oppression that followed 1945. I have seen these themes in art museums in Germany, Hungary, and Lithuania, a strong suggestion that the stress of the times had a direct impact on the artists’ work. Interestingly, those themes (and that pain) are less evident in Scandinavian art; somehow those artists appeared to spend less time in the crucible, as it were. Please don’t take this as gospel; just my observations.

As an example of those conflicting themes, the exhibit features a sculpture so large it has to stay outside. Here is “Century Step” (1984-2006) by Wolfgang Mattheuer (1927-2004):

Mixed messages…

From the accompanying material: “The striding figure features politically conflicting gestures, with the right hand extended in the Hitler salute and the left hand balled in the proletarian fist…..a warning against the seductiveness and conformism in every kind of dictatorship.”

A little less strident in theme and execution but equally intriguing to my eye is entitled “Rainy Day in the Studio” (1987) by Harald Metzkes (1929-2004):

According to the accompanying information, “…the studio is a refuge from the inclemency of the rainy outside world. It therefore becomes a symbolic interior space, a stage for the artist’s inner world.”  A place to dream, to create, to envision new worlds to come?

I failed to get the name of this next work, so charmed was I by the vision of the couple immersed in its dark beauty:

Obviously I really enjoyed this exhibit and it rescued the afternoon and the admission fee for me. But even the most compelling of art can become satiating after a spell, and since it was a sunny afternoon, I headed out of the museum in the direction of the Dutch Quarter of Potsdam, the Holländisches Viertel, a neighborhood built in the 1730s to lure Dutch craftsmen to the city by providing them with housing that looked…just the way things did back in Rotterdam. (There is a Russian colony as well, built to house Russian singers, but it s further out of town.) With its 169 buildings, the Holländisches Viertel is the largest collection of Dutch architecture outside of the Netherlands:

Not a tulip in sight, alas, but plenty of boutiques and cafes

Nearby, plastered on a window on an obviously student-used building, I saw this sign:

How appropriate, I thought, that a city that has been a center of tolerance and diversity for nearly 500 years is still reaching out to those who both need the hand and who will, in time, contribute back to that society as well. Nice to know there’s a place that supports dreamers.

I had been searching in the Holländisches Viertel for a place that served amazing hot chocolate, recommended to me by local friends. Alas, several turns up and down the picturesque streets failed to find it (or if I found it, I didn’t recognize it), but instead I was cheered by this bit of Easter swag, a nearly meter high (one yard) purple bunny that helped get me in the mood for the chickies and duckies arriving this Sunday:

Not Sean Spicer

So on that note, to you my dear readers, let me say “Frohe Ostern!” May your baskets all be full and you eggs all be gaily painted.

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