Monday, July 22, 2013

Bratislava, Tuscany and Out of Africa

Driving into Vienna a few weeks ago from a week-long road trip to Tuscany and last week from an excursion to Mauthausen, a Nazi concentration camp, I had the warm sensation of going “home.”  That I could feel so comfortable, especially given the radical distinctions between the two venues, spoke volumes about Year Three of ex-pathood, the year in which the adrenalin rush of the first year and the slight bafflement of the second transformed into the  “ahh” moments of the third.

Ironic, given that just as Vienna has become home, we’re returning to our real home in Virginia in five hectic days. Fortuitous, given that if we were to spend another year here, our roots would burrow more deeply into the soil of this stimulating, contradictory, maddening, extraordinary, graceful and graceless city.

Misti in Pietrasanta
The absence of blogs bespeaks the normalcy of our life here. The year was rife with work – I’ve had students every day of the week, which seriously curtailed our explorations, and Jim, despite being officially on vacation is still editing a researcher’s paper and a massive demography book destined for Oxford Press. And although pangs of loneliness remain a daily reality, especially given the distance we are from our families and friends, we have people in our lives here whom we cherish. And that, more than any familiarity with and adaptation to a foreign culture, is what home is all about.

That mixture of home here and there was sweetly realized in June when Karen and Reuben from Minneapolis, friends of 30 years, visited the week of my 60th birthday. Birthday eve was spent drinking and laughing (and laughing more as we drank more) in a centuries-old wine cellar, where I was serenaded by a violin/accordion duo who had been tipped off as to my birthday. They regaled us with, of course, American tunes, how fitting and how sad. The next morning we headed off in the Kangoo for Bratislava, Slovakia, a town we had visited only once before with Keir.
Michelangelo's House, Tuscany

It was an utterly gorgeous day and we simply wandered through the much smaller city with yet another ancient and tragic history, a ragged town that lacks the veneer of Vienna, which might be why I feel so comfortable there.  As usual, I engaged in conversation with several of the people we met in stores and in restaurants, and in each case, the sense of struggle was pervasive regardless of the age.  At the top of a historic tower, I spoke at length with an expat from England, who has made Bratislava his home and fears that dirty Russian money being laundered through the development of substandard and aesthetically challenged construction is damaging the city irretrievably. The inevitable clash of the old and the new, the innocent and the corrupt.

Misti, Karen, Ruben
Had I spent my birthday only with Jim, it would have been a great day, but sharing it with a woman who saw me through the tumultuous years of becoming a mother, an ex-wife, a new wife, and again, a mother at 40, all while we both struggled to rise from inauspicious beginnings as peons in the hellhole known as a newsroom, added the historical perspective a milestone birthday needs. More than anyone, Karen has seen my personal trajectory, and I’ve watched as she has dealt with the deaths of siblings, maintained an extraordinary marriage with the love of her life, and been subjected to the pathological power of managers far less intelligent, talented and ethical than she.  Throughout it all she has maintained her fundamental decency and her unfettered curiosity. Reading her remarkable master’s synthesis in which she has encapsulated her unique view of houses and homes, literal and figurative, was the best birthday present of all; no one but Karen could have written those pages.
Dancing, Bratislava

Our new Vienna (not necessarily Viennese) friends don’t share such an extensive history, but by existing for us only in the now, they, too, grace our lives.  Here’s Jim on his recent adventure with a man whose presence we will miss, our landlord, Uwe:

We have written in the past about Uwe’s Garden of Wonder, a backyard jungle that is home to turtles, bees, chickens, toads, and goodness knows what else.  Uwe was an adventurer in his youth, cruising through the Sahara and other parts of Africa in a 1970 Land Rover that he bought almost new in Vienna (see top image).  In addition to Africa, he and his wife drove more than a dozen times to Turkey where, in Uwe’s words, “We lived as gypsies, going where we wanted and sleeping in the back (of the Land Rover).”
Imagine the Sahara 

He was touring Morocco with a woman friend from Sweden when he was arrested for carrying a pistol.  He was handcuffed and driven 1,000 km (in the Land Rover, with the Swedish woman) by two Moroccan cops.  When they arrived in Rabat for his trial (before a military tribunal), the woman (not under arrest) quickly called the Austrian ambassador, who showed up for the hearing.

Uwe said they stood him before the tribunal, all men in military uniforms, and demanded to know why he had the pistol. He told them he was driving in Africa with a woman and needed the gun to protect her.

At the Grain Elevator
Almost immediately they agreed that he indeed did need the gun, that protecting the woman was honorable, and let him go.

That large green Land Rover now sits in Uwe’s driveway, looking every bit like a set piece from a Hollywood movie.  Uwe, at 77, is losing his sight and can’t drive it any longer.  “But I can’t let it go,” he said to me a few months ago.

I offered to drive him through the Vienna Woods if he could get the beast legal again.  He smiled and asked if I really thought I could drive it.  No power steering, he noted. No power brakes.  No synchronizer between first and second gear.  I’m an old guy.  My first car was a Hillman Minx.  I thought I could manage.

A year's supply
A month or so ago, Uwe, smile on his face, said he needed to pick up 130 kilos of feed for his chickens.  We could do it in the Land Rover, he said, so we arranged a time – 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning.  I met him in the garden at the appointed time and his first words were, “You still want to do this?  You think you can?”

A small-scale adventure
The Land Rover really is a beast, especially in Vienna traffic.  I was trying to recall how to double clutch as I listened to gears grind with every attempted shift into second.  Again and again.   I stood on the brakes for a pedestrian, then a tram.  This was work, not driving.  “It’s better in the desert,” Uwe said.  “More room.”

We made it out of town and eventually relaxed into tales of Uwe’s adventures.  The Land Rover doesn’t go over 70 km per hour, he said, but I got it up to 80 to pass a truck.  “This is good,” Uwe said.  “It likes you.”

We loaded up the bags of corn and wheat at a grain elevator about 15 km outside of Vienna and made it back home … the return trip smoother than the outgoing one.  It wasn’t Africa, but it was an adventure.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Due Per La Strada

In the early 1980s, a colleague at the Minneapolis Star who was every bit as unusual as his name – Zeke Wigglesworth – announced he was having a party in which the guests were encouraged to put on slide shows of whatever global adventures they had recently experienced.   There was a catch.  Wigglesworth, a fine writer with an off-angle view of the world, said each show was limited to five minutes.

For those of you who don’t remember slides, they were the high rez, well-lit versions of photographs.  A good slide show could be spectacular.  An overly long one could be deadly dull. The key, as Zeke understood, was to keep it moving.  Five minutes forces you to focus on the good stuff.  I showed slides of a trip to England, mostly the Stonehenge part, and I remember someone showed images of camels and pyramids. There was also, as always with Zeke and journalists, lots of drinking and carousing, so I don’t remember much else.

 The party stuck with me as a lesson in how to do travel writing.  Keep the tale moving.  And expect your reader to drink and carouse.   I should note that Zeke used to end his day at the Star by doing loud sheep calls through a long metal tube while standing on his desk in the vast newsroom.  After the Star merged with the Tribune and became less quirky, Zeke announced that he wanted to find a job in which someone would pay him lots of money to travel around the world.  Shortly thereafter, he left the Star and became the travel writer for the San Jose Mercury News.  He and his wife later traveled around the world in 79 days – beating the movie
by a day.

I’m not moving this tale along as quickly as Zeke would require, but one more story about him is needed.  Back in the early 1970s, Zeke and a group of other young Star reporters decided to build a sailboat -- a 38-foot sea-worthy sailboat.  As the story goes, they bought a book on how to build a boat, found some vacant land near the Mississippi River, and started building.   Some months -- or years -- later the boat was finished.  In 1975, the reporter/boat builders actually quit their jobs at the Star, put the boat in the river, and sailed south to the Caribbean.   They had a tropical adventure involving lots of islands, drinking, and carousing, then sold the boat, returned to Minneapolis and were given their jobs back at the newspaper.  Probably wouldn't happen that way today.

My five minutes are already up, but that was the introduction, not the actual travel piece.

Ocean, Ice Cream, Arles
The actual travel story is my recent adventure with Misti.  We recently dumped clothes in a suitcase and a gym bag, threw them into the Kangoo, and headed to Arles, France, where Reeve, Melanie, and grandson Ocean, live in an ancient house.

Our route to Arles was intentionally circuitous, involving several days of driving through Italy, mostly across the green belt that stretches across northern Italy.  Much of it is flat.  It feels like driving through Iowa, except the buildings are much older.  And always, on the horizon, are the mountains – the Alps on to the north and east, the Apennines to the south.  Misti liked the name “Trieste,” and I have an interesting
Trieste Pier
colleague who grew up there, so that city was our first destination.   We arrived at night, driving on tiny, dark winding roads.  We went around a corner and found ourselves looking down – way down – upon the lights of a beautiful city.  We snaked our way down and found the James Joyce Hotel in the city center  (Joyce spent 10 years teaching English in Trieste).
James @ Joyce
In the rain and cold, we wandered to a crowded pizza restaurant, then the grand plaza.  No tourists, and not much going on.  There were lots of berths for yachts, but no actual yachts.  It was just an ancient Italian port city on a gray day.  We wandered into a shop selling pottery and scarves, looking for a remembrance of the city.  The young shopkeeper told us Trieste is struggling economically and only comes to life when the yacht people arrive in the summer.  The very rich discourage development in Trieste, he said, because they treat it like their personal city – small, out of the way, and, unlike many Italian cities, not influenced by the Mafia.

No Mafia?

We wanted to buy some Italian pottery from him, a few bowls or a dish.  He told us the store couldn’t afford to carry real Italian pottery, so he was selling knock-offs from China.  He apologized.  
We wandered to a coffee shop.  Except for the owner, an outgoing Italian woman who spoke little English, we were the only ones there.  On the wall were photographs from the 1950s of people being blown off the streets by a very strong wind.  “The Bora,” she said.  “It was here last Tuesday, when the streets were covered with ice.  It was 70 kilometers per hour.  Very dangerous.”

The Bora 
She didn’t actually say it just like that, but close enough.  The Bora, as it turns out, is like the Mistral wind in Arles, but shorter in duration and more intense. 

We left the coffee shop and ventured to the nearby Castle Miramare, built by Maximilian, emperor of Mexico before he knew where Mexico was.  Okay, he knew where it was, but he’d never been there.  Turns out he was a Hapsburg, born in a palace in Vienna.  He built his unique little castle on the Adriatic, lived there for a few years with his wife Carlota, as the commander of the Austrian navy, then agreed to give up his command and become emperor of Mexico.   Things didn’t go as planned in Mexico and, in 1867, despite pleas from European leaders to spare him, he was executed by firing squad.  Carlota, who was in Europe pleading for help when he was shot, returned to the Trieste castle, then to her native Belgium, where she refused to acknowledge his death and lived in seclusion until her death in 1927.

Misti @ Maximilian's
Looking toward Trieste 
From our brief visit into Maximilian’s world, it seems both he and Carlota were interesting and decent people.  We had no idea. 

On to Udine.  After spending a lot of time discussing how to pronounce “Udine,” Misti and I arrived in the city and stayed at an upscale hotel.  In the hotel restaurant, a place with enough rating
stars that the food came in small, discrete courses, we sat next to an elderly couple.  We soon discovered they were from Australia, and he, in his late 80s, was still charging around Europe by car.   Misti told him she was from South Dakota, and noted that he’d probably never heard of it.
Misti Climbing Udine

“Try me,” the guy said, and then went through his history of dam building in the western U.S., including a dam near where Misti grew up.  Small world.  Great couple.  We told him we were heading east the next day, but didn’t yet know where.
Udine Market
“Cuneo would be good,” he said. So the next morning, after encountering the freshly caught octopi available at the market, we headed across the piedmont and into the mountains.   Once in Cuneo, we landed at the “Royal Superga” hotel.  We were tired, so the best we could do was venture out to an Italian restaurant (they are easy to find in Italy),
and then to a specialty ice cream store, where the woman behind the counter told us about the fun she’d had learning the gourmet ice cream trade . . . in a training school in New York City.   Globalization.

From Cuneo it was a few hours of driving through the snowy Alps down to Nice.  I remember winding through similar mountains and tunnels when my
Driving the Alps
dad was driving through the Alps in our 1959 Pontiac station wagon back in the early 1960s.  It might have been the same road, so I’ll have to compare my dad’s slides to my digital pictures.  His images have better resolution.

We arrived in Arles without realizing that it was bullfight weekend.  Arles has a Roman coliseum that has been in continuous use since 90 AD, and once a year the city holds traditional bullfights, complete with picadors, bullfighters, and large bulls. 
The Picadors

The Bulls
The bulls usually end up dead (Arles is one of the last places in Europe where this is allowed), but on the day we arrived (last day of the bullfights) it was raining.  They ran the bulls down one of the streets, but the bullfight was cancelled – apparently fighting bulls in a wet, slippery arena is too dangerous.

So, just after we arrived, some 50,000 people left this small town.  Which was good.
Out in Arles

House with a View
Just before arriving in Arles, we met up with Reeve and Melanie’s family at her parent’s house in Marseille.  We had the first of what would be several birthday parties for Ocean, who turned three while we were there.  Misti got her annual "French Flip" haircut from Beatrice, and we finally found some nice pottery bowls -- French instead of Italian. 
Ocean & Friend
 Then it was off to Genoa, where Columbus was from.   The drive to Genoa includes driving along the French Riviera – through St. Tropez, Canne, then Monaco.  Along the way you can listen to Riviera Radio (106.5), which has an American-sounding disc jockey playing lots of Phil Collins tunes.  If you check out the radio station’s website, you can click on tabs for things like “top yachts” and Maserati ads.
Click here and if you have iTunes you can stream the radio station.  It is mostly mellow, so you can pretend you’re rich, famous, and naked on a Mediterranean beach as you read the rest of the blog.  

Genoa is just around the coastline from Monaco.  The city is a bit like Trieste, but bigger.  We walked through most of the harbor area, and discovered that there are more than a thousand ships at the bottom
Misti in Genoa
of the harbor – most sunk during WWII.  The history, of course, is deep.  We were struck by the fact that Columbus opened an account at the Bank of St. George in Genoa well before he discovered America.

I’ve always thought of Marseille as looking like a European version of Baltimore, but it turns out I was wrong.  Genoa is actually the sister city to Baltimore, and it looks like it.  Actually, it’s what Baltimore might look like in a thousand years.  Genoa dates back to the 5th or 6th century BC.

The Canal
The Tower
From Genoa it was on to Portogruaro, Italy.  No, we hadn’t heard of it either, but it was about 450 kilometers from Genoa, and that was as far as I wanted to drive.  Turns out it is to Venice as the Hamptons are to New York.  Rich Venetians used to go to Portogruaro, apparently to stand on dry land and shop.  It is small, very old, and has a single, lovely canal. The tall tower in Portogruaro resembles the St. Mark’s tower in Venice, except that it leans like the tower in Pisa.  We wandered the old streets, stunned to see stores that were actually open on a Saturday evening.


That never happens in Vienna.

Then it was home again, just in time to see the first blossoms in Uwe’s garden of wonders. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013


April 15.  9:12 a.m. Vienna. Perfection.

We awake late this morning to an unfamiliar sound.  Groggy on a Monday, I ignore it, get coffee and open the laptop to catch up on news.

Still, the sound of a woman’s voice singing an elegiac melody accompanied only by what sounds like a concertina, doubling her simple line, continues to infiltrate, seeping through the windows and doors still locked against winter’s chill, habit.

Jim looks up, “Is that live?”

The Windows
I open the double windows I so love in this apartment to behold Uwe’s jungle, the barely budding trees and an evergreen obscuring the view from where the voice emanates.  Yes, the voice, amplified and sonorous, caressing the mysterious tonality of the Middle East, is coming from the backyard of the Israelis.

 A few children are laughing.  The two unseen musicians are rehearsing, not performing.

I look down.  At last the turtles are out, atilt with bellies nudging the stone wall to bask in the sunshine that has eluded Vienna and most of Europe for far too many months.  Nefertiti, the impassive cat—gorgeous as her namesake-- has joined the turtles,
The Turtles
nestled in the sunshine.
The Cat 
I listen closely, and the clucks of the hens caged along the back fence provide a natural ostinato.  I strain to hear the buzzing of the bees that have finally staggered, drowsy, from their winter hives, trying to recall what it is they’re supposed to do now.

A ridiculous range of remembered music floods my morning brain: Oliver , “Who Will Buy This Wonderful Morning, “ Mr. Rogers, “It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, “ Vivaldi’s Four  Seasons and the Bach Brandenburg Concerto I heard for the first time  while sitting in a junior high classroom, gazing through tall windows framing the lilacs in bloom, sublime.
The Bees
I’m reminded of the line we discussed in my American Jewish Literature
The Hens & Israelis
class almost 40 years ago: the Jewish people have their feet in the cloaca, their heads in the stars.  I’ve always thought, not just them, all of us who are alive to complexity and contradiction.

9: 37 a.m.

The spell has broken.  The turtles have warmed up enough to feel greedy and territorial, bashing shells, nipping necks reluctant to withdraw into the safety of the shell, clumsily copulating, emitting little turtle moans; Nefertiti has tired of my teasing “Here, kitty, kitty” as if she could simply leap up the 10 feet to the window sill, the soulful Hebrew ballad has been replaced by recorded pop music, the whine and thumps of construction work in the neighborhood cleave the air.

The hubbub in the Israeli backyard has risen to not quite a din. Another instrument – a violin – is tuning.  Now, a clarinet.

As poet Blake wrote, “Kiss the joy as it flies.”

Winter has finally bidden us goodbye, the yin, the yang and whatever exists in the in-between of the human experience will be in fuller view to be savored for a few too-short months.

Close the laptop. Say yes to doors ajar.  Fling wide the windows.

Spring has deigned to grace us once more.