Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hamburg, Bergen-Belsen, and Winsen

June 23, 2007--Hamburg

Ilka and Heiko live about 45 minutes out of Hamburg, in a very nice condo. It’s an up and down living space with a more or less circular staircase in the center from which rooms radiate out on each of three floors. The ground floor has a kitchen and living room dining room combination, including a backyard patio where Ilka has planted flowers. The second floor has three bedrooms: the master bedroom, the clothes closet (since, as Ilka says, they have no children!), and Ilka’s office. The third floor, built under the eaves, is Heiko’s office, but since he doesn’t bring much work home, he intends to turn it into a lounge—someday. In the meantime, he explained, Ilka had made him clean it up and it was set up for me, with a comfortable bed in the corner and plenty of space.

I dumped my stuff and experienced the glories of a real shower—the first since I left home (Joseph’s home had a hand shower, but it wasn’t like having hot water pouring down on my head—oh, the joy!). Then lots of good coffee and fresh bread of all kinds, along with various cheeses, meats, jams and more. And Ilka brought out the black bread that she couldn’t find in the US. I think it really was my favorite—dark with sunflower seeds. After breakfast we drove back to Hamburg for the day.

So—driving. In many ways it really reminded me of the US—the roads are relatively wide (at least Chicago-wide, if not California-wide!) and there are several lanes. The cars are smaller than in the US, but not remarkably so—much like the US would look if we removed the SUVs. However—the autobahns are definitely different. Ilka drove at speeds ranging from 100-160 km/hour. And she was not the fastest on the road. I wasn’t afraid at all, but had I been behind the wheel, I would have been terrified.

The scenery again was both familiar and different. Fields of corn, wheat, barley. Cows and a few sheep. Potatoes, which I’ve never seen in bloom, and asparagus. Fields separated by trees and bushes, not fences. Oak trees, lots of oak trees, and some evergreens. It was vaguely Midwestern in feel, with a touch of Washington for good measure. The buildings though—not at all. Those pictures of European farmhouses? Like that. And the new construction (and there is a lot) carries the feel in the peaked roofs and in the kind of brickwork.

Hamburg is a port city with several rivers that feed into the harbor. So there are bridges and ships and buildings overlooking both. It feels a little like Chicago—comfortable with itself, beautiful in places, rough in others. The skyline is like no American city, though. What I noticed about it was the church spires—some new, some old. One was burnt in WWII and the blackened spire, still quite beautiful, remains. But it is the spires, not skyscrapers that define the landscape.

The first thing we did was to buy me some shoes, which turned out to be more difficult than I would have imagined. The “best” shoes were all very expensive, even without the euro-dollar conversion. After looking in four or five stores ranging from discount to the equivalent of Macy’s, I found a pair of comfortable sneakers designed for walking for only three times what I would have paid in the US. They don’t leak and, after several days of actually walking and walking and walking on them, I can attest to their comfort.

The one thing I had mentioned being interesting in seeing was the Jewish community. This turned out to be very difficult and ultimately unsuccessful, at least in actually meeting Jews. We took trains to the area near the university, where a new Talmud Torah had just been built. The old one had been destroyed during Kristallnacht, but remained standing. There was an open space between old and new. Here had stood a synagogue and the bricks of the square outlined where its rooms had been.

The new school was beautiful—new red brick, fresh paint, and a nice locked metal fence. There was a little guard booth with two policemen in it. I asked why—there had not been trouble in Hamburg, but other places, and they were taking no chances on vandalism. The guard told us the synagogue was but ten minutes walk away. Have no idea what stride he uses, but it took us at least twice that—and it began to rain. The synagogue was, again, surrounded by a fence with a bell and there were several guards. We could not get in, although it was clear that people were inside. In some ways it didn’t surprise me—not many Jews and somehow protected. The original guard had given us a phone number, which Heiko called on Monday—it was only possible to see the place on Friday and Saturday and only by pre-arrangement.

I am still thinking about this—the guards, the inaccessibility. In the US, my concern is how we publicize ourselves—that is, how we make ourselves open and welcoming. Yes, I know synagogues are vandalized (TBJ in Redwood City, the synagogue in Sacto a few years back), but these are events that are rare and ultimately the response of both Jewish and non-Jewish communities is to reach out, not to withdraw. In retrospect, it would have been very interesting to talk with the Jews of Hamburg, but I really didn’t set that up with enough care.

We had dinner at a pub, with very good dark German beer. Ilka recommended the matjes (herring) in cream sauce on a baked potato. I have only had herring from jars and found the texture rubbery and taste overly fishy, so I was a bit leery, but figured that a recommendation is a recommendation. What a difference fresh makes! The fish was tender and sweet and went extremely well with the beer, the potato, the sour cream and onions. Stuffed myself without shame!

Then the train to St. Michael’s church. It is a huge Lutheran church—I’ll try to find a picture link, because I can’t do it justice. Its belltower overlooks the whole of Hamburg, so we took the elevator up to the top. But it was coming down that was amazing. There we took the stairs. Coming up I hadn’t appreciated just how high up we had gone. But coming down seemed to go on for a very long time. And as we descended, the sound of bells tolling grew louder and louder. Eventually we passed four enormous bells—each the size of a small car—all tolling. The ringing vibrated the steps, my clothing, my entire body in a way that was both a bit frightening and absolutely encompassing. I really wanted a picture, but I felt too overwhelmed to linger.

From there we went to a prenuptial party—can’t remember the name of the party. The groom was a childhood friend of Heiko’s; the bride a German girl who had grown up in upstate New York. The ritual that was the excuse for the party was the breaking of ceramic (porcelain) plates as a symbol of good luck for bride and groom. (No, I don’t know why. And neither did Ilka or Heiko. Reminded me a bit of the Jewish tradition where the mothers-in-law break a plate between them…) There were salads—with meat and cheese, marinated vegetables, and barbequed sausages and pork cutlets. There was very little that I could eat—however, I really didn’t WANT to eat, still being full of delicious matjes and beer.

June 24—Bergen-Belsen

Bergen-Belsen was burned by the British after the war. It is, therefore, not a camp, but open meadow and trees. You enter through an exhibit that rehearses the history leading up to the Nazis and throughout the war. It was, I thought, a careful and thoroughly done narrative, neither excusing the Germans nor demonizing them, neither focusing exclusively on Jews nor ignoring the millions of others killed as well. The voices in the room were German—I heard no English except from our group. Outside, paths lead through the camp. The history itself was too familiar to move me much, but when I saw the stone memorial with stones from those who had visited heaped on top, I cried. I had no stones—and there were none around, but I felt the absence, as though I couldn’t quite connect, wasn’t quite respectful enough of the dead. The dead were buried in mass graves that are great huge mounds, each labeled: here lies 1000 dead; here lies 2500 dead, and so on. It is a terrible sight in one sense, but in another it feels like the dead are at rest under the trees and grass—that they make that place sacred and blessed. Sounds odd, I suppose—how can people who died in such circumstances bless the place? I don’t know. I think it comes from the effort to connect and to do t’shuvah on the part of the living. When I think of their memories being for a blessing, it is because when we remember and when we truly atone we are blessed by the dead.

June 25—Winsen

I went with Ilka to school in the morning. It was wonderful to see Ilka take charge of these six and seven year old children. Ilka begins the day with having them sit in a circle. They sing Frere Jacques in several languages: German, French, English, Spanish, Turkish. Then she introduces me, has them tell a bit about their weekend. They sit very quietly all through the end—as with any group of kids, some say a lot, some a little; some mumble and are unfocused, some look at the group with clear eyes and comfort.

When Ilka sends them off to work, they sit at desks set up in groups of four or six, similar to American school setup. The kids are remarkably similar and yet different from the kids in the US. Some of it has to do with stuff: The backpacks, for example, are shaped differently. Rather than being soft-sided, they have rounded plastic sides, and a plastic frame. The pencil boxes are different. But the activities and behavior is so very similar. I think they are more controlled, a bit more willing to take direction. It is a hard thing to put my finger on, though—just slight movements? Clothes?

I watched the first and second grade combo, then went to give an English lesson to the four grade students. They were at the “my name is… I am ….years old. I have…brother” stage, so I gave them a geography lesson in English (well, the teacher translated most of it…) Then I got to watch PE with another group of first and second grade kids. They ran most of the time. But most fun was “pulling carrots.” Here the kids lie down on the ground, face-up, in a circle with feet pointing out and head in, tightly holding hands. One kid tries to “pull” a carrot (kid) out of the circle. When you get pulled, you help pull the others and it continues until everyone’s been pulled out of the “ground.”

Finally went to the last lesson, third grade, and a lesson on food, which is where I learned how to say fruit (obst) and vegetables (gemuse). Yes, indeed, keep me in elementary school and I might learn to speak German…

Speaking, by the way, is really interesting. I can’t. I simply have no idea. Sometimes I think I’ve figured out a word, but most of the time I’m wrong. So I rely on the Germans I’m with to speak English to me and mostly they do. The kindness of strangers…

In the afternoon, Heiko’s parents brought me to their home—it’s over a hundred years old. Heiko’s mother’s family has lived in Winsen for several hundred years. It’s a very different mindset—I simply can’t imagine being that attached to a place. Anyway, she very much wanted a chance to practice her English and I was happy to oblige. We sat in her kitchen and I did a little bit here and there to help. It felt so good to be in a kitchen and preparing food. I do so much of it at home and it’s so much a part of what makes me feel competent…And there’s the bonding that happens around small tasks—cooking, cleaning, painting, gardening, physical tasks that engage the body and free the mind.

We had new potatoes, white asparagus, scrambled eggs, and strawberries. Yes, the strawberries are good…and the potatoes are remarkable!

After lunch, we tramped all around Winsen. More beautiful old buildings, including the church where Heiko and Ilka were married. And then, right at the end, she remembered the Jewish cemetery. Somehow I hadn’t thought that any Jews lived in these towns. I just figured they were too small to support a Jewish community. Yet there they were…several sets of gravestones, some dating back several hundred years. The cemetery was overgrown with grass, but the gravestones were upright and in good conditions. The ones from the 1850s had English on one side and Hebrew on the other. There were a few recent ones—that is, from the Shoah—but only a few. Still, under this peaceful village—somehow Jews were taken away. Heiko’s mother said the Jews from Winsen had attended synagogue in Luneberg, some miles away.

Heiko, Ilka, and I had been to Luneberg the previous evening for dinner. It is an old medieval town with beautiful brickwork—kind of braided in texture—and the copper roofs that seem to be everywhere. But I would never have guessed that Jews had lived there. Was there a cemetery, a synagogue, a Jewish quarter? I don’t know.

The whole experience is a bit unsettling. What am I looking for here? I don’t think I came with any real agenda, simply to see the places from which people I cared for and care about live. I want to see what they want to show me. Yet, the Holocaust still underlies the trip. I didn’t want it to, didn’t expect it to. I don’t hear it in the German language anymore, nor see it in the people on the street (except when I see someone who is stereotypically German in features). But there is a question in my mind—where did my people fit into this place? What happened to them? What does it mean to have lived in a city for 400 years as opposed to Jews, who were not secure in Europe?

Being a Jew in America is something I take for granted—I am comfortable with myself as both. I would not be comfortable as a Jew in Europe, I think. This is pretty fragmented, I’m afraid—needs more thought. I’d take comments, though…

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Paris to Hamburg

Written in Gare du Nord and on the train to Hamburg, June 22, 2007
Next installment, the end of June 20:
Left London on the Eurostar. When I entered my car, there was a family with four kids looking for their seats. The parents (Southern US accents) were discussing the fact that they had all the seats surrounding one and were hoping the occupant (me) would make a switch with one of their kids. I had specifically asked for the window seat because I really wanted to…get this, look out the window. So, while I didn’t mind sitting next to one of their kids, I really did mind giving up that window seat. Which I said, very politely. The father didn’t address another word to me. He ended up sitting next to and turned his body away from me the whole trip. The kids listened to ipods, played video games, and whined most of the trip. They did not look out the window. I did. What I saw was most interesting for what was not there—houses, people, animals. It was singularly deserted land, both going through Britain and France. There were trees and green plains that appeared to be fields (though I couldn’t tell what crops were being grown), but no animals, no people, and few buildings. I don’t really understand how this could be. I did doze off here and there, but it seems unlikely that the dozing would have corresponded so precisely to habitation. When I arrived at Gare du Nord, Joseph was there to meet me. He is short and a bit plump and rather difficult to understand. He has definite opinions about everything, starting with the fact (and it WAS a fact) that I should dye my hair so I would look younger than my mother. Otherwise, he said, I looked just like her, so he knew me immediately. He shepherded me through the rather daunting train station, explaining where we were going and cautioning me as we went. I didn’t understand more than a tenth of what he said or what the significance was. Eventually we made it to the suburbs, to his house, where his houseguests, a professor from Tucson and his family had made dinner for us. The professor and his wife are Indian, with their two high school age daughters, and the food was wonderfully spicy (can I describe the spices? Not a chance). However, as a special treat, they had prepared shrimp. Okay, so what do I do? I thought about eating it and just couldn’t do it. I thought about explaining that I don’t eat shrimp, but clearly Joseph was eating it and I didn’t want to embarrass him or get into a religious discussion. So, suddenly, I developed an allergy to shellfish. Not really a lie—I don’t think I could have eaten it—but it preserved everyone’s dignity, I hope.
Throughout the meal, Joseph explained to the girls how they should thank their mother for every single meal she prepares for them, then how they should be looking to get married (at 14 and 16!), then how they should be going into the city without their parents. The girls teased him back comfortably and so the evening ended.

June 21, 2007
Joseph had arranged for me to meet his daughter Laurence on Thursday. She was to take me to the Jewish Museum (never mind if I had intended to go elsewhere!). He put me on the train at 9:30 and headed back to work. I disembarked at Luxembourg, opposite the Gardens and was immediately taken back 19 years when Dave and I had visited Paris. We had stayed very near that station, in a great little hotel that served an amazing breakfast of baguettes, croissants, and cafĂ© au lait every morning. What a way to wake up. And then Dave would head off to his workshop and I would head off to explore the city—and those gardens. Laurence is just a little older than Miranda—she will turn 24 later this year. She is Orthodox—like my cousins came to it as young woman—and is due to have a baby in a few months, so she was pretty unmistakable. She was quite serious the whole day and really pretty clueless about the city. I insisted on buying a map—I don’t mind being lost with a map, but without that…I’m really lost. And it was a good thing. I don’t think she really had a clue about the city. We ended up going the wrong way repeatedly. Eventually, we found the Jewish district and a LOT of kosher restaurants. Oh, and a lot of tourists. (In fact, throughout the time in Paris I think I heard more English—American and British, both—than French. Well, perhaps I exaggerate a touch. But only a touch.) Fantastic spinach quiche for lunch, then Laurence dropped me at the Jewish Museum.
Now, I had intended to go to the Musee d’Orsay and the Rodin Museum, then meet Maja for dinner. But really—what difference did any of it make? Laurence apologized for getting us lost and walking more than we needed to, but it meant I could take in the streets, the people, the buildings. I find describing the place difficult. It was both very much like the US and very different. The kinds of buildings—well, iron railed balconies, ornate windows, construction that is clearly very old simply doesn’t exist in the US. Unlike in London, there were few building cranes and, like part of London, there’s a lot of graffiti. Anywhere there is concrete—walls, pillars, embankments—on the train lines is covered in colorful paint. Much of the graffiti is well done, but the paintings speak to me of poverty and anger. I was trying to figure out why that was the case. Perhaps it is because graffiti is the art form of the underclass, therefore when I see it, I associate it with anger and despair. Or perhaps the artists really feel anger and despair and that comes through in the graffiti. Last year, in soc of culture, Ann showed an interesting documentary on graffiti filmed in NYC. In it, the artists speak about what they do as art, driven by pure love of creation—but implicitly or explicitly, they also speak of getting away with something in a world they perceive as being stacked against them. So perhaps both.
It was also interesting to observe the people. There were the obvious tourists with backpacks, cameras, and maps. Or, lacking any of those accoutrements, they walked in groups of two or three, or as families, looking around with unfamiliarity and interest. I really didn’t see any acting obnoxiously. In some ways, they (and me with them) remind me of babies learning about the world. The problem we have with tourists is that they (and we) don’t look like babies, so we expect adult behavior, meaning knowledge of the cultural rules. But that knowledge can’t come in a day or even a week.
But what I found really surprising, particularly in contrast to my visit years ago, was the change in shape. Like Americans, the French have gotten heavier. Not as heavy as Americans, but heavier in comparison to the past. And, as in America, it appeared that the poor are heavier than the well-to-do.
Oh—Jewish museum, right. It was terrific. Opened just ten years ago. It featured a temporary exhibition of Rembrandt painting, so there were a lot of visitors. What I really appreciated, though, was the permanent collection. It included the history of French Jewry, but also Jews of the Middle East. The curators tied the history and place together through language and ritual objects, showing how the first is used in both sacred and secular way to tie Jews together as a people, while ritual objects tie Jews together as a religion, but also tie them to the surrounding culture, whatever that might be. So the first room opened with six different Hebrew texts, ranging from Torah and Talmud to a modern, secular poet. There was a room of hanukkiahs from many different countries. Each different region had influenced the design—for example, some incorporated symbols of the zodiac; those from Muslim countries shied away from human or animal reproductions. The same was true for the ketubahs, the clothing, and so on.
One of the most interesting bits were sets of etching of different Jewish rituals from different times and places—circumcision and marriage, for example, in several places (including one of the glass being broken). Traveling light, so I didn’t buy a book (and the books didn’t capture the feel of the actual pictures) but I sure wanted some tangible remembrance.
One other thing that was brought out forcefully was how many times thriving Jewish communities throughout Europe have been destroyed. The lines from the Passover Seder about how many times our enemies have risen in the past to destroy us, but God has protected us came back to me as I stood in front of the cases. As a modern, rational American I always gloss over them, knowing the history at a theoretical level, but really not feeling it. In the context of the museum, two feelings—first just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you and then how that line is really a cry of pain and anger mixed with hope for the future.

After I left the museum, I took the train back to Gare du Nord (really a whole city of a train station) and went to get my tickets for the trip to Germany. That accomplished successfully, I promptly got on the train in the wrong direction. This became clear when the city gave way to open spaces and power stations and the people on the train felt a bit…dangerous. I was quite proud of myself—I figured out how to get reoriented and made my way back to Chatelet de Halles to wait for Maja in front of the Pompidou Centre. June 21 was a festival of music, a night where everyone in the city who wanted to make music could. And they did—some really good, some…not. I passed heavy percussion, a dance band from Serbia (and a guy watching tried to pick me up…go figure: first I get called sir, then someone wants to have dinner with me. Strange). The weirdest stuff though was that played by two groups dressed in full American Indian tourist regalia—war bonnet, deerskin jacket, and musical instruments to match. The music was not Indian, but kind of new age with an imagined Indian flavor. I found it offensive, actually, in the way it perpetuates stereotypes while claiming someone else’s culture (okay, so who owns culture?…that’s another question and I’m not going there now).
Maja and I had a dinner of crepes and sat talking under the shadow of Notre Dame until I thought it time to head back. With my unfailing memory and sense of direction, I got on the wrong train again. This one did get me back to Joseph’s house, but in a very circular way. So I was quite a bit later than planned. Nevertheless, he was up and quizzed me about my day—explaining to me how he had told what to look for and if I had only followed his instructions! I explained that I always get lost and so I simply expect that I will. It really does make life simpler—I feel so happy when I do it right the first time!
Then he decided to tell me why the Orthodox life his daughter has chosen is simply wrong because it is intolerant. He doesn’t believe in God and thinks that if God exists, he would kill Him (which seems a bit intolerant to me). Why? Well, he cannot reconcile the existence of evil in the world with God. More specifically, he listens to the stories of the Orthodox rabbis and rejects their interpretation of God—as do I! He told me two stories. The first was in answer to the “why bad things happen to good people” question and Joseph asked it because one of his siblings was born with Down’s syndrome. The rabbi explained this with the following parable: Once there was a farmer who had two donkeys. He let one go free and tethered the other. One day the one which ran free got into the crops and ate them all. The farmer then beat the tethered donkey. Why? If he had been free, he would have done even more damage. By analogy, the child born with Down’s syndrome would have done great damage if he had been born without handicaps. I shudder to think of the twisted mind that came up with this piece of reasoning. I understand the motive, but it is a terrible view of human nature and of God. What is interesting is that Joseph accepted the authority of the rabbis to define God and humanity. His response was to reject this view, but not to replace it.
The second story is of a person who was born comatose, remained comatose until he was twenty. When he was twenty, someone had a question about whether some meat was kosher or not. They brought it to him and asked his judgment, whereupon he woke up, said it was kosher, and promptly died. The explanation? Sometime before he was born, there was a great rabbi. He did all manner of good things and was well-respected. But once, just before Shabbat, an old woman came to ask him if a chicken was kosher. He was tired, it was late, to really look it over would take time, so he just said it wasn’t kosher. As a result, the old woman went hungry. When the rabbi died many years later, the heavenly judges were arguing about whether he was worthy of life in the world to come and the question of the woman and the chicken came up. The judges argued back and forth, then decided to send him back for one more chance, but to keep him “pure” to make him comatose. This time he chose right and died.
Joseph saw this story as being precisely like the other. I think it quite different—rather than explaining something bad, here the comatose man is simply a plot device to present two morals: 1) Even when you are tired, you may not shirk your responsibilities because your actions deeply affect others and 2) it is never too late to make amends, even after death. So I rather like this story and both morals. Joseph, though, saw only the comatose man on the bed, not either moral.
Very interesting conversation, both to understand some of his beliefs about the world and to think about the nature of tolerance. Joseph was angry that his daughter and her husband are not tolerant of others (although Laurence was quite sweet and clearly doing her very best to please her father—I mean, why else would she go out of her way to meet me?). Yet, in his anger, he was quite intolerant. This is the difficulty of pluralism—it requires the acceptance of those who don’t, who can’t accept your ways of doing things, although they might accept you. So my cousins accept and love me and, I think, even respect my Jewish striving. This does not mean that they can come to a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding—to do so would violate their beliefs and practice and it would be wrong of me to be hurt, to feel it as a personal slight.

June 22, 2007
How I got to Hamburg—or a very long journey!
I made it to Gare du Nord 45 minutes before the train to Hamburg was to leave and successfully negotiated my way through up to the Eurorail station in plenty of time—or so I thought. However, that turned out to be quite wrong. I knew that I had to have my Eurorail Pass validated, but could not figure out where to do it, though I searched and asked two people. Finally, about 20 minutes before the train was to leave, a Eurorail employee whose job was clearly to help confused tourists approached me. When I explained what I needed, she pointed to the ticket line. Now I hadn’t needed a ticket, so that hadn’t been where I expected to stand. It was a very long line full of people, you know, buying tickets. My problem was simple—a mere stamp. I asked if there was anyway to get it, as I would clearly miss the train if I really had to stand in the line. No, she explained, I should have arrived earlier (which I had done!). But I have a ticket—what will happen? I asked, near tears. She told me that my ticket would be refunded and I would have to get a ticket for a later train—very sorry, she said, but there is no other way to do it. Of course there were any number of ways to have done, but I was in France, the land of bureaucracy, where treating everyone the same takes precedence over any individual circumstances (for better or worse—in the US, we tend to let individual circumstances rule and that isn’t always for the better), so I got in line and waited. Eventually the train left without me. I told myself that the worst that would happen is that I would lost some time and money and this is what travel is, so deal. And I waited. And waited. I could describe the people standing in line with me—the Americans with their backpacks, the old woman wearing a long black coat, with white hair and flat feet who eventually was pushed to the front of the line where she took a very long time to complete her arrangements, the Egyptian family. And the whole time, I watched my bags because I began to see people who hung around the station, begging—but also, I believe, stealing.
On the trains, they would come in and give a little speech—“help me, I have no mother or father, I’m hungry, please, I’m sorry to bother you, but I need money.” And so on. I don’t know how true it was—by the time I was standing in line, they seemed to be a recognizable group. Joseph said they were gypsies and, indeed, from the young pregnant woman to the boys to the couple men, they had a similar furtive air that set them off from the crowds. In any case, I steered very clear of them. And in the train station, I watched my bags with care.
Eventually, I made my way to the front of the line. I explained the situation with some trepidation—I had already spent a good deal of money on the train and was absolutely convinced I would be spending more. Not the case. The young woman was brusque and clearly considered me to be an idiot, but quick and helpful. The only option was an overnight train to Hamburg, arriving at 7:15 the next morning. Oh, and it was only 19 euros, less than I had paid for the day train. I had no choice—I took it. And that gave me a full day in Paris. Where to go? Musee d’Orsay or Rodin?
When I got to Musee d’Orsay, the lines extended back to the metro station. By now I was quite hungry, it was raining and my poncho was in the bag I’d left in a locker (btw, the locker arrangements include baggage screening), and I was carrying a heavy backpack. But what could I do? Paris is full of restaurants and I began to walk aimlessly away from the museum. After a few blocks of walking in the drizzle, I discovered that my shoes had holes in them. The next restaurant I came to, I sat down, squishy shoes and all. And here I had the most wonderful salad Nicoise it has ever been my pleasure to enjoy. I didn’t even mind the couple sitting next to meet engaging in an animated conversation punctuated with flourishes from their cigarettes.
The rain stopped, I made my way out of the restaurant, and down the street to Rodin. Now this was absolutely wonderful. I just don’t think anyone can capture emotions the way Rodin does—resolution and despair, love, amusement, pain. And contrast between formal busts, the scenes from Greek mythology, the figures that told a story with emotion. I went first to the garden and wandered through the sculptures there. Then, when the rain came down again, I went inside, where there was special exhibit of Japanese prints and Rodin’s connections with Japanese art. I saw his drawings and, while very different from his sculptures, had a similar passionate quality. So, a good time.
I’ll not say much about the train ride—it was long and the train stopped often. I had a couchette, a room with six beds—two sets of three beds each. I had the top bunk, which was a little disturbing looking down. The train took off, stopping often throughout the night and starting again with horrible screeches that, at first, I took for some terrible calamity. By the third start, I was more or less used to it, and slept restlessly until we arrived in Hamburg where Ilka and Heiko met me.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

First day or days--I really can't tell...also the directions come up in French!

June 20, 2007

Jam-packed flight with everyone in a good mood. Lots of different kinds of people traveling—a large group of mostly high school age singers (and their parents) with matching t-shirts going to build good will by singing around Europe (I thought of Beth’s similar experience a few years ago). A less obvious group of Stanford MBA students on the way to celebrate graduating by checking out how the Russians do it. I talked with the spouse of one for a while. It was an interesting conversation. His wife is a pilot and he’s a firefighter. He described being the nurturing parent and how much he loves and misses their daughter (who isn’t along for the ride). I thought—yeah, just wait ‘til she leaves home if you want to experience missing your kids!

I’m realizing that there are a couple of questions that have already come up and will continue to:
One is: Why aren’t you traveling with your husband? This is actually an interesting question because it can mean so many things. It can mean precisely what it says. It can mean “Your marriage much be in trouble or you wouldn’t travel alone.” It can mean either “You should stay home to take care of your husband” or Your husband should come and take care of you.” Point being—it’s an oddity that needs to be explained. When I started planning, though, I didn’t think of what I was doing as unusual, simply pragmatic.
The other question is: Why do you want to learn Hebrew? This is much harder to answer, because I don’t really know why. I just know I want to do it. I want to be competent to speak and to understand—I feel inauthentic without that capability, somehow. I’m not even sure what I mean by inauthentic—as a Jew? As a scholar? I don’t know. And why this area in particular as opposed to intensive Talmud study, say? But “inauthentic” isn’t quite right, because I don’t feel like I’m going out inferiority, but out of love, out of pure love for the language. So I have no reason. It’s enough for me to really want it, without needing to explain it, but I know that we humans like explanations (which are really stories about our life and world) and not having a good “story” is a bit unsatisfying.

Below me are sharp mountain peaks poking out of glacier ice—Greenland. Looking at them, I can see why some have trouble believing that global warming is occurring. There is a serious amount of frozen stuff there—hard for me to look at that and believe it might vanish.
I tried to take a picture, but it didn’t work—I can’t get the flash to turn off. The sun has never set this whole trip. It dips below the horizon and pops back up. I missed all of Canada, sleeping and woke up over the Atlantic, a few minutes before coming up on the coast of Greenland. So the first pictures I took were of sunrise/set and of the islands and coast. And then we moved over land and the glaciers took over. For the last few minutes, we’ve flown over mountains peaking out of ice, and then low clouds, and now higher clouds. Something happened in me when the flight attendant confirmed that it was indeed Greenland. Somehow this great adventure became tangible. And we land in three and half hours…

Somewhat later…

I’m sitting on a bench overlooking the Thames. It’s an odd sight, actually. Tour boats are going up and back and every now and then the voice of a tour guide floats up unintelligibly, but with that edge of authority distinct to tour guides of every kind. The buildings on the other bank are such an odd mixture of new glass, old spires and domes, and everywhere building cranes. The weather’s also about perfect—blue sky with puffy clouds, a nice wind, and a temperature that is fine for either sitting or walking.
This is the “Thames walk,” and boy, people sure do. It’s lunch time and a hell of a lot of them are running past at various speeds. Lots of tourists meandering, and not a few people simply taking a break from work and eating. I walked down the Thames from the Jubilee Bridge to the (new) Globe Theater.
On the way, I stopped at the Tate Museum and took a tour at the Globe. I could do more—I have the time, but need a few minutes to absorb it all.
The Tate—one really interesting exhibit on cities. Nicely done, showing where the urban population comes from, how it’s distributed, how people get around. A 3-D “map” of population density illustrated how dense Mumbai and Cairo were (35,000 people/km2) as compared to LA (900 people/km2). How many people ride public transportation (7% in LA as compared to 70% in Tokyo (I think it was Tokyo)). Interesting stuff.
Then I wandered off to see the art, but what really interested me were the incredible number of school groups touring the museum. We’re not talking bored high school kids. We’re talking six year olds, sitting politely in groups, being made to pay attention (one little girl let her attention stray—she wasn’t doing anything, just not looking at the docent—and her teacher pulled her attention back to the front), but also actually engaged in learning. Older kids (say, ten) observing museum etiquette as they wandered about with sketch pads. And we’re talking boys as well as girls.

Continued down the road to the new Globe, where there were tons of school groups, all in different uniforms and many groups segregated by gender. I decided to go ahead and spring for the tour, largely because they were rehearsing and I wanted the chance to see how they did it. They were rehearsing the end of Merchant of Venice, which was a jolly jig. The guide explained that all of Shakespeare’s plays ended with a jig…there was a lot of competition, so you wanted to send your audience out dancing in the aisles, as it were. Which raises the “Shakespeare in Love” question: what happens when your two protagonists have offed themselves (as in R&J)? Or “that’ll have’em rolling in the aisles.” Well, it turned out that you just manage to dance around the bodies. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, the parents lifted up their dead children, had them join hands, and they participated in the dance. The docent assured us it was very effective performance. Oh, and in the case of Othello, they just pushed the bed with the dead bodies on it to the rear of the stage and danced in front of it. Yeah
Turns out this is the third Globe (the first burned down, the second was torn down by the Puritans). It was made as close to the original as legality allows (as in, the reed roof has been fireproofed!). The joints are held together, not with nails, but with wooden dowels. The walls are plaster and goat hair (go figure).
Othello and Love’s Labour’s Lost are both playing August 19, the one day I’m in London. I might just go…

Oh, and I didn’t really think I looked like a guy. Not once, but twice today I have been addressed as sir. Huh?

I'm posting from a suburb of Paris now, but too tired to fill in those details now.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Leaving for the airport in two hours....

All ready to go. One itinerary, typed out and posted for Dave. One carry-on, complete with enough clothes--I hope!--all packed in neat ziploc bags. Hope that keeps everything together. Miranda sewed hooks onto a wrap-around skirt to make it wind-proof. I went off with her and bought a swimsuit and a few other things. Nice mother-daughter stuff. One backpack, also carefully packed. I talked to Deborah while organizing the various documents and copies into different labelled envelopes. I believe the word anal was mentioned. But I feel pretty calm and confident. Two months. Can't hardly believe it.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Getting ready: here's the plan

Last night I dreamed that I was leaving and my mom took me to the airport to get my flight, but I couldn't find my ticket, then I did, but it was attached to other similar things--they were all like transparent honey packages, but with ticket info on them--and I couldn't figure out which was the right one. When I did, it turned out that I had only a few minutes to get to the gate and, of course, I was a LONG way away and the counter help tried but couldn't, although they thought the plane might be late. Then I realized I'd taken the fob for the car. And I was only half-packed. But, frantic as I was, I realized that I could solve the problems--send the fob back, buy clothes overseas. Then I woke up and thought, "Oh, I'm having a pre-travel anxiety dream right on schedule. How interesting!"

Here's the final plan:
Leave San Francisco on June 19, arrive in London early in the morning of June 20. Hang out in London til afternoon, then take the Chunnel train to Paris, where my parents' friend, Joseph will meet me and take me to dinner. I'll stay with him that night and the next. June 21, I'll hang out in Paris, then meet Maja for dinner. Very early the next morning, I'll take the train for Karlsruhe, Germany, and from there to Hamburg. It's a clunky way to go, but otherwise I have to go through countries for which I have no rail pass. And I don't really mind--I'll be seeing a pretty good chunk of Germany as I go.
I spend the weekend and Monday with Ilka and her new husband Heiko. Tuesday morning, June 26, I go to Bremen, where Miriam picks me up. On Wednesday, I'll observe her leading a meeting for work. Then Thursday morning, we take the train for Berlin, where we'll stay with her godmother until Sunday evening, July 1. Then I take the train to Nuremberg, meeting Maja and her mother. We'll stay there a day or two, then take the train to Munich, where I'll meet her father, as well. On July 4, I'll take the overnight train from Munich to Paris. That afternoon (July 5), back on the Chunnel train to London, where I meet my parents for dinner (my dad has a conference in Wales that ends that same day and they'll be heading through London on the way to visit friends in Scotland) and a few hours of rest before I board the plane for Israel VERY early on July 6.
I'll go directly from Ben Gurion airport to my single dorm room at the University of Haifa. Classes begin on Sunday, July 8, and end on August 2. In addition to the Ulpan (and I'm really looking forward to being immersed in Hebrew), the program includes many side trips--to Jerusalem, to the Galilee and Tzfat, and I can't remember where else. But I haven't made plans for my last couple of weeks because I figure it will be easier to do when I'm there and have talked to people. In the meantime, I've gotten names of friends of friends and family, so we'll see...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Oliver Twist

Last night we went to Oliver Twist at the Berkeley Rep. Very interesting production--reminded me of Nicholas Nickleby in the multiple forms of narrative, the doubling and tripling of characters, and the incorporating of scene changes into the action.
The promo describes the adaptation as:
"Inspired by the vivid world of the Victorian music-hall, Neil Bartlett’s staging of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist uses the original language of Dickens’ novel to dramatize one of the most deeply felt stories ever written about childhood. A cast of unforgettable characters brings the underworld of 19th-century London to thrilling life—a city teeming with danger and fear—all seen through the eyes of an astonished child."
So that Victorian music-hall was represented by a stage that was a wooden box full of things that popped up, doors and trapdoors on all surfaces that opened and closed in multiple ways, signs and banners that hid the stage for just a moment.
One of the actors was a superb violinist who used the violin as his part in the chorus--he was one of Fagin's crew for the most part. But all the actors became a Greek chorus throughout--even singing or chanting Dicken's words when appropriate.
Oliver was portrayed as the "principle of goodness" and I really got that he wasn't a person, simply a principle around which the other characters reacted--Fagin wants to use that goodness to make a profit, Bill simply doesn't care, Nancy wants to save him (and, actually, she is the character that changes the most around that principle), and so on. But the character isn't really a person, just an ideal.
The story was told through reading from the book (the same character who played Artful Dodger did the reading) while the characters acted or posed, through the chorus and pageant, and through acting. And the play progressed and the Artful Dodger became more character and less narrator, the book narration faded out.
Having trouble finding more to say--really should have posted this last night when it was fresher, but so it goes...


This is a test of sorts. Who can read this? And here are a few quotes about travel:

"Unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God."
- Kurt Vonnegut

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes."
- Marcel Proust

"A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it."
- George Moore

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware."
- Martin Buber